The people best suited to tend the light at the end of the tunnel are those who have been burned by its flames.
Burned, but not blinded.
Seattle musician Eric Apoe can seem like a phoenix who's been reborn one too many times. While his wings may have become a bit too charred to allow him the euphoria of flight, they continue to fan the flames, transforming sparks, ashes and smoke into beautiful melodies that both defy and embrace the destructive forces from which they sprang.
Apoe may not be a big celebrity in music circles, but he certainly has moved among them over the years-and left his mark along the way. At 53, he's still writing, recording and performing music, in spite of the fact that he's done more than his share of struggling while attempting to navigate his way through the meat-grinder of the music industry.
"I'm old, man," he says. "I think I'm 53, but I always try to stay a year ahead of myself so I wouldn't get depressed."
Apoe was born and raised in Seattle, and began playing the drums at 13. While attending Roosevelt High School he started picking up other instruments-such as the guitar, piano, bass, flute and harmonica-and learned the fundamentals of classical, jazz and rock 'n' roll. His concentration became the guitar.
"I should've stuck with the piano," he says. "My fingers just aren't right for playing guitar. I sound like a guy with two fingers playing on three strings. It works sometimes."
While in high school, Apoe also began writing his own songs and playing out in Tacoma and Spokane as well as in Seattle. He became a regular at jazz jam sessions hosted by Jerry Heldman at the Llahngaelhyn café on Eastlake, the space now occupied by Romio's Pizza.
The Llahngaelhyn scene was home base for many great local jazz performers of the era, including David Friesen and Gary Peacock, Joe Brazil, and Larry Coryell. Heldman, the mastermind behind the jams, was legendary for his eccentricities as well as his chops.
"Jerry had this thing about the feds shooting low frequency microwaves into the Llahngaelhyn to disrupt our playing," Apoe recalls. "He knew they (the feds) were in touch with what was going down. He slept in a tinfoil helmet and had a tinfoil-lined closet that he'd jump into whenever he thought they were out to get him.
"It's crazy paranoid stuff," he adds, "but at least it's colorful and fun. You've gotta have something to keep you awake. If you've got nothing to get stressed out or worry about, you get boring."
Heldman's paranoia became the inspiration for the song "Tinfoil Mardi Gras" on Book of Puzzles, Apoe's most recent album recorded with his band, Eric Apoe and They. The band has been together, in various incarnations, since 1993, playing in a style that blends elements of European and American roots music.
Book of Puzzles is the fourth album they've released, but Apoe's experience with recorded music extends back well before Songs of Love and Doom, his 1996 debut. His backdoor odyssey through the inner workings of the recording industry acquainted him with the harsh realities of the business.
In the mid '70s, Apoe secured a songwriting deal with Chappell Music, a Warner Brothers subsidiary, and in 1976, he moved down to L.A. to pursue his career. What followed were years of constant songwriting, high hopes and near misses. He toured with the Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw, played drums with the folksinger Tim Harden, and was courted by the acclaimed talent scout John Hammond.
Apoe spent a lot of time hanging out at the Troubadour Club with the likes of musicians Chuck E. Weiss and Tom Waits. Apoe and Weiss watched as Waits' career took off, while they languished on the sidelines.
"You gotta have an agent that's connected, that's all it boils down to," says Apoe. "Tom [Waits] got that after he lucked out with a few cuts on his first record."
One of the songs Apoe penned during that time was "Two Sides to Every Situation." While he was playing it at a session at the Dreamland record label, Mike Chapman, the label owner, overheard it and said that he'd like to get the song recorded by the band Blondie. The Blondie deal ended up falling through, and the song was eventually recorded as a single by Al Kooper.
After years of frustration at seeing his songs courted and eventually dismissed, Apoe threw in the towel and moved back to Seattle in 1992 He just missed the explosion of the early '90s Seattle music scene. To support his wife, Eileen, and young daughter, Ireina, he settled into a job as a locksmith. Free from the politics of the music industry, Apoe poured his creativity into his own projects, writing songs for himself and his band.
"Not making it definitely affects everything," he says. "I used to actively be working on five to 10 tunes at a time, sometimes up to 30-just constantly pumping stuff out. Now the process is much harder."
Harder, but more than worthwhile. Book of Puzzles is a beautiful album, its songs bleak and haunting. The bittersweet perspective of the lyrics speaks to the losses and fleeting joys of a life truly lived. It's a perspective that, unlike many songwriters, Apoe has earned through experience.
It's also a point of view that Apoe is convinced the music industry actively suppresses. Youth and sexuality are what sell records, not talent, experience, wisdom and substance.
"I think it's a weird form of musical censorship," he says of the music being played on mainstream radio. "I don't think they want anyone out there who really has anything to say. The last thing they want is some Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs coming out with something that's going to rile the masses.
"Keep the freakin' mind-control poison going, get the money and run," Apoe adds.
This is not to say that either Apoe's music or his perspective are without hope. He says he's incredibly pleased with his band's efforts on their latest album, and is quick to praise young local artists that have the talent and honesty to express points of view.
Apoe even comes to the defense of the industry that he grew to despise when he was in the thick of it-at least on one issue. He says he's worried about the popularity of digital media distribution and file sharing. At least under the old business model, he says, artists had a chance at being paid.
"Everybody wanted this Web thing to take off so that we could get the money away from the big corporates," he says. "They just didn't understand how the little mafia chain worked. It was a good system. The exposure alone was worth it. You could have a career if you had any brains at all and weren't just sucking dope all day."
His wariness of digital technology extends to home recording as well. He laments the days when an artist would have to save money and put in the time and effort to rent studio space and hire a qualified sound engineer.
Now that anyone with a computer and some time on their hands can make a passable musical recording, he feels that respect for the craft is being lost.
"There're too many people writing songs who really don't know what they're doing," Apoe says. "You could say it's great that everyone's playing music, but I think that the whole process has just been cheapened."
He says that this cheapening of what's important is symptomatic of a society that has lost touch with what it feels like to really be human. We spend so much time on our computers that we only leave our homes to shop, if then, and are quickly losing the ability to deal with each other.
At the heart of it is a political system that Apoe says he sees as being in the business of creating and filling artificial needs and desires, all in an effort to keep people from discovering their true potential.
"People don't even know what they've got or what's going on," he says. "The battle between the [political] left and the right has taken on so much importance that most people can't even see how short-sighted both sides really are. People who're confused are easily used.
"Now we've gotten to the point," Apoe adds, "where kids show up at anti-war protests and sing songs about their girlfriends."
Book of Puzzles and other recordings by Eric Apoe and They can be purchased at www.ericapoe.com or at www.cdbaby.com.[[In-content Ad]]