CRITICAL MASS: SOMEBODY GIVE AARON SARLO A POTATO
by Philip Martin | The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette | March 24, 2019
John Lennon had precisely 10 years to live on Dec. 8, 1970. He was 30 years old. He was over the Beatles. He was with Yoko Ono. He had just finished recording his first solo album and was in New York to shoot some experimental films and to visit friends when he agreed to talk to Rolling Stonemagazine co-founder Jann Wenner.
Part of the famous interview ran as the cover story in Rolling Stone on Jan. 21, 1971. I read it sitting cross-legged on my bed, knees on my elbows, hands cupped over my ears. I remember being disappointed at the contempt John expressed toward Paul McCartney, the way he seemed to dismiss most of his work with the Beatles. But there was a line that stuck, one that I’ve thought about, alluded to and quoted nearly every week for almost 50 years.
“I’m an artist, man, if you give me a potato I’ll make something of it.”
But Lennon didn’t say exactly that. I looked it up because I wanted to get Aaron Sarlo’s reaction to it. Because Sarlo is the sort of person who could probably turn a potato into something. What Lennon actually said was: “I’m an artist, and if you give me a tuba, I’ll bring you something out of it.”
If you gave Sarlo a tuba, he’d play it. He’s got close to perfect pitch.
When he was in third grade in Danforth, Ill., his class was called to the auditorium where the music teacher sat at a piano. He’d play two notes in succession and ask the kids which was higher. Sarlo got every one right. Then the teacher took out an acoustic guitar and played bends to sound quarter-tones and semi-tones.
“He was trying to stump me, but he couldn’t,” Sarlo says.
So they gave Sarlo a French horn. He became a musician. For a few months.
“They taught me how to read sheet music and made me join the band,” he says. “I hated every second of it, never practiced, and after a few months they told me I could stop.”
It would not be the last time Sarlo quit music.
Sarlo is not world famous, although if you go to nightclubs or bars around the South to hear music or jokes (he’s a stand-up comedian too) you likely have seen him.
He has a couple of ongoing bands, Dangerous Idiots and Duckstronaut, and on Valentine’s Day he released his first solo single, a meticulously crafted ribald country ballad (complete with backing vocals by Amy Angel Garland) we’ll call “P.T.” because I warned him we wouldn’t be able to print its title in the newspaper.
He’s a working artist — an example of how to do meaningful creative work without burning out or fading away. Without, as Townes Van Zandt once famously said, “blowing off” all aspects of normality that can lead you to be happy. There are people who don’t like Sarlo much. He rants about things on social media, he expresses vociferous opinions. He is not without his controversies. He does not shrink from them. Check out his Facebook page sometime.
He has a family — a wife and son he loves. He hums with energy, he’s smart and loquacious and quick to draw connections. He presents as the opposite of the brooding artiste; there’s a bonhomie to him. It takes awhile to draw the sadness out.
“When I was very young, I had little interest in music,” he says. “Many musicians cite their father’s dusty old record collection and tell wistful stories about how their dad’s love of The Band, Bob Dylan, whoever, shaped their own love of music. This wasn’t the case for me. My dad … loved Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, and music like that — all of which I loathed. Far as I was concerned, ‘Pac Man Fever’ by Buckner and Garcia was the best music ever.”
“When I turned 14, I wanted a girlfriend,” he says. “Girls liked musicians, so I asked my dad to get me a guitar for Christmas. He got me a cheap blue electric guitar with a teeny little amp. I loved wearing the guitar, thought I looked cool in the mirror, but didn’t practice ever. One afternoon, a friend of my dad’s was over visiting, and he came into my room, saw my guitar, and said, ‘May I?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ and watched this old dude — he was probably in his late 30s — utterly shred on my guitar. He handed it back to me, and said, ‘That’s a nice little guitar.’ After that, I was determined that I would learn how to play my damned guitar so no one would ever again show me up on my own instrument. I bought a chord book and taught myself a whole bunch of Beatles songs … I began to write my own songs. This was around 1987 or 1988. My main influences as a songwriter were R.E.M., R.E.M. and R.E.M.”
He’d was still learning to play when he met Clay Bell.
“We were in ninth grade,” he says. “One day, I brought my acoustic guitar over to his house. He said he didn’t play guitar and he had no interest in learning how … I talked him into learning the chords for The Troggs’ ‘Wild Thing,’ which we would play again and again, giggling at how simple the song was … Not long after, Clay and I began to write songs together. Techno Squid’s ‘Hit by a Honda’ was one of our first songs.”
By 1992, Sarlo was recording at home. With drummer Shayne Gray and bassist Mark Pearrow, they played a show as The Lemmings. Pearrow came up with the name Techno Squid Eats Parliament, a riff on hyperbolic tabloid headlines that also might have been a tongue-in-cheek poke at Little Rock’s serious punk scene.
In 1993, Techno Squid Eats Parliament emerged from a battle of the bands contest sponsored by Spectrum Weekly — a Little Rock alternative newspaper I once executive-edited — to sign with resurrected Memphis-based Ardent Records and tour North America. They were on MTV and MTV Canada and I remember finding their CD in a Virgin Records store in London. Billboard Magazine compared them to XTC.
Like most bands, they didn’t last. In 1995 Sarlo, Bell and Pearrow moved to Boston while Gray stayed behind to star in Ira Sachs’ remarkable film The Delta. TSEP lasted a few more months before petering out. (Bell eventually moved to California, where he still performs and records. Pearrow became a software engineer affiliated with Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)
Through the snowy winter of 1996, Sarlo recorded bedroom demos on his Yahama MT-100 multitrack cassette recorder. With two roommates, he formed the progressive rock band Slept. For five years they played around New England, occasionally venturing into New York.
On Feb. 11, 2000, he woke up on the couch in his apartment. He’d crashed there because he didn’t want to disturb his fiancee, Rachel Dole.
“I usually gave her the bedroom because she was in college and I worked late, so I would let her study with all her books spread out on the bed,” he says. The next morning he found Rachel lying on the floor, propped against the wall in an odd position.
“I remember saying to her, thinking that she was sick, ‘Hey, Rachel, you need to get up and get to class. It’s 10:30.’ When she didn’t respond, I touched her arm. Her skin was cold … I laid her down on the bathroom floor and felt for a pulse. I thought I felt a weak pulse, but I learned later that it was my own pulse. I called 911.”
Paramedics and police arrived. An officer asked Sarlo, “How did you know the deceased?”
Later, at the hospital, he asked a doctor what had happened.
“She said they didn’t know,” he says. “Sometimes a person can catch a simple flu or cold that can short out the patient’s SA node [the heart’s pacemaker] … she was as kind and decent and honest and loving a person as I had ever met. And I was just a loser musician who worked a sh**** job. She was studying to be able to be a teacher of developmentally disabled children.”
That was the second time Sarlo quit music.
“In the summer of 2000, I had a nervous breakdown, and … piled everything I owned into a U-Haul and drove 20 hours straight, back to Little Rock, where I crashed in a friend’s spare bedroom for five months, just staring at the walls, and doing nothing … I walked away from it all. I sold all of my guitars, my amps, all of my gear. I didn’t keep so much as a patch cable or an errant set of guitar strings. I was done with music.”
Then he met Sarah. They married after three months.
Shortly after the wedding, Sarlo’s 16-year-old half-sister was killed when she was hit crossing the street in Laredo, Texas. Sarlo and his new wife moved to Tucson, Ariz., to be with his mother. It was a year before they came back to Little Rock.
“I entered nursing school, which meant I was forced to stop smoking pot or else risk being drug-tested and kicked out of school,” he says. “To help with the stress, I bought a little Ovation ukulele. I spent all of my down time plucking on it … relearning how to write a song. Being forced from six strings down to four teeny strings on a faint, tiny instrument forced me to focus keenly on my vocals. In the Techno Squid days, I sang loud and passionately, with little focus on tone or precision. While writing song bits on a ukulele, that singing style’s inappropriate. I began to toy with falsetto, and altered my style to sing softly, lasering in on exact pitch and tone.”
He says now he was relearning “what a song could be.” His current single “P.T.” was born in that period.
“I wrote it with the idea my parents would love it, that they would hear it, and it would make them laugh,” Sarlo says. “I always wanted my mom’s approval and love, and making her laugh always made me feel like we were connected. I know it’s odd to say that I wrote a lewd and inappropriate song to make my mom laugh, but I did.”
“P.T.” was almost finished on Sept. 18, 2007, when Sarlo’s father pulled up in front of his house.
“He got out of the car, and by the look on his face, I knew Mom had died,” Sarlo says. “He told me she ran in front of a truck and killed herself … The last time I spoke with her, she told me she was high on crack, that I should try crack because I would love it. I sobbed into the phone, and begged her to move to Little Rock … but she said no, and said she just wanted to be high on crack.”
A little while later, Sarlo picked up his ukulele and sang “off the top of my head” a song he’d call “Sad”:
You were real in the clouds, as we sailed through the blue, blue sky
Not as real as the tears on my face when I wake up
That’s just the ordinary state of things
The universe always takes up what it brings
And the only thing
that I control
Is how much to care,
if at all
“I wept uncontrollably,” he says. “And played it immediately for Sarah, and we both cried … After writing ‘Sad’ in two minutes, the next week, “Can I Get A Role Model” poured out of me in three minutes …”
Songs started coming out like water crashing through a dam.
My Labrador retriever Coal was a goof, but could sometimes look very serious. Whenever my wife or I would catch Coalie this way, one of us would invariably say, “Coalie looks sad …” and the other would say, “but he isn’t.” Aaron Sarlo sometimes reminds me of Coal. I don’t know whether he’s sad or isn’t — I just know he loves his family.
And that when he was 13, his father came out as gay.
“I told him he was brave for telling me,” Sarlo says. “He was my dad and I loved him no matter what.” His mother eventually came out as gay too. “My parents had me during a brief stint in their lives when they experimented with heterosexuality. That being said, my mom and my dad loved each other very, very much, and remained best friends …”
In denial of her gayness, Sarlo says his mother remarried, “a decent man whom I really liked,” who died from cancer related to exposure to Agent Orange.
“She taught me, in an indirect way, to use my sense of humor to blunt life’s traumas. She was wickedly funny … we connected through our love of laughing. She taught me about the comedy of George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks. She also was the first person to expose me to some of the best music in this world … Queen, Simon and Garfunkel, and, oddly enough, Devo.”
We have to stop now.
There are other stories, about rock stars like Peter Buck and Billy Gibbons. About Jim Dickinson. And Kevin Bacon. Too many stories. I can’t even get into the electric dulcimer. We ain’t got time for that now.
Just somebody, please, get Aaron Sarlo a potato.