September 30, 2023

“I wrote a song and called it the love of my life.” –Nana Grizol

For months after Nick died, I couldn’t listen to music. The sorrow and loss were/are so profound that any enhancement of the grief, especially through music, felt unbearable. And for a short time, I could only play Fleet Foxes Winter White Hymnal alone, with the volume turned up, and wail. If I want to bring Nick in front of me, viscerally, I only need to hear Elliott Smith, Fleet Foxes, Courtney Barnett, Modest Mouse, Bob Dylan…the list is actually quite long. Nick is with me every second of every day; he is a persistent melody playing in the background. He’s here playing his guitar, the same riff over and over again, as he learns a new song.

Nick’s playlist truly spans all genres. As I mentioned last year in our memories below, around 11 years old, Nick began organizing his CD’s by producer. He would explain to me why one artist or album had hints of another because of the way they were produced. When he started playing guitar around that same age, he developed a new appreciation for music composition: some artists fell off his rotation for the simplicity of their songs only later to be put back on his playlist as he came to appreciate a solid, 3-chord riff.

This year, for what should be Nick’s 32nd birthday, we’ve each curated our Nick playlist. Nick would cringe at some of the things I included: he can be grateful that I skipped his 8-year old Will Smith and NSYNC era. He no longer listened to Matchbox 20, but I can see his 12-year old self standing on his seat at Sleep Train Amphitheater, screaming the lyrics to 3AM so it made the cut. The Nekromantix did not make my list, even though I vividly remember Ash and Nick talking me into the two of them setting off together to see the band play at a small, all ages club in Portland. Lou Reed is omitted even though Ash, Nick and I would laugh, telling the story of our excitement turned disappointment at Reed’s concert: we left mid-set as the frontman for The Velvet Underground sang a monotone chant–gravity, gravity, gravity, gravity–into the mic for what felt like a very long 4 minutes. But Talking Heads makes an appearance in my playlist: the film Stop Making Sense is on regular rotation at our house, usually as a double-feature during the holidays preceded by A Muppet Christmas Carol. I see Nick’s pre-teen self in the front row of Laxson, singing Once in a Lifetime along with David Byrne, who gave Nick a nod and smile for knowing all the words. My dear friend Suzanne reminded me recently of her memory, taking the teens to see Modest Mouse at the Berkeley High theater, Ash and Nick “jumping alongside each other, bumping into the wooden seats, just grinning and glowing.”

The unintended and beautiful consequence of our shared playlists is that we’ve found ourselves telling each other stories behind the track list. Some of the stories are new. Ashley’s list starts with Hank Williams, and while I knew that Nick loved old country, I did not know about their sibling ritual of listening to old country music in car rides heading out to visit the Penning’s. Ash also introduced me to my new favorite album last week, Nana Grizol’s Ruth, which sounds exactly like the movie soundtrack I would choose to run alongside the film version of my kids. While my music connection to Nick runs deep, for Ash, the connection between music and Nick runs even deeper. I see and hear their shared songs differently now and am grateful for the possibility of new-to-me Nick memories. Thank you Ash for sharing your brother, and just a small slice of your enormous musical library and knowledge, with us.

The playlist I am sharing here includes a sampling of Nick’s recommendations. He texted music recommendations to me regularly. In fact, very few songs in my playlists are my own discoveries. Jeff, Ash, and Nick own my musical taste. I am holding on to memories of the four of us, sitting around a dinner table, sharing and discussing music, books, films, and art. I am grateful that I spent hours in the car with Nick, traveling from Portland or San Francisco on his visits home, sharing music and never, ever running out ideas and stories to share with each other. Thank you Nickolas for providing the soundtrack to my life. Happy birthday my beautiful boy.

Link to Kim’s full playlist for Nick

Link to Ashley’s full playlist for Nick

Link to Jeff’s full playlist for Nick

For Nick from Jeff:

The playlist is a condensed version of my shared music with Nick, just a few songs that remind me of different versions of Nick from our shared experiences, his learning to play guitar, and our inside jokes.

The playlist has to start with Nirvana. I can’t even narrow it down to one song. I remember handing him my old Nevermind CD when he was nine or ten (that he would later explain, very instructively to me, was a rare pressing). I was excited he liked it. Some of my other favorite bands–like Rush–he did not consider cool, so this was a win. But I couldn’t know at the time that Nirvana would become his obsession. So much so that the band would inspire a road trip…and so much so that I don’t even consider them my band anymore: they are his.

So why these songs? Mostly they have to do with this road trip. It was summer 2004. Ashley was 14 and Nick almost 13. The teens did not see eye to eye as to where we should vacation as a family so Kim and I decided what we really needed to do was split them up and spend a little one-on-one time with each of them. Kim and Ashley flew to Chicago (where Kim and I had been earlier in the year and regretted not having Ash with us at the museums) and Nick and I would road trip to Seattle, home of Nirvana and all things grunge. Also near(ish)–turns out Winthrop is not as close as it looks on the map–to the new home of my longtime friend Kevin, who I hadn’t seen for far too long and who I really wanted Nick to meet. Nick was getting pretty good as a beginning guitar student and Kevin was a guitar hoarder, and as it turns out, a pretty patient mentor… but we’ll get to that.

photo of Nick age 11The whole trip up was soundtracked by the grunge I had to get us in the mood. Nirvana yes, but also Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam. Most of those were more my bands than his though. But mostly we listed to comedy album MP3s I had downloaded at work. I don’t remember them all, but there was a lot of George Carlin who he found hilarious. If Spotify had better Carlin I would have started with a track. Our focus on this trip was visiting the Jimi Hendrix Experience Museum, buying whatever rare grunge records we could find, and visiting Kevin.

We got on the road late after I got off work and only made it to Salem, Oregon the first night. With no reservations and no smart phones we found a La Quinta Inn before it got too late and ended up with nothing to do all evening…nothing but become transfixed by an impossibly long documentary about…ants. We must have been staring unblinkingly for an hour before we realized how ridiculously into this we were. It became something we referenced and had inside jokes about forever. So what does that have to do with the playlist? Well nothing. And everything. This trip meant more than I had even hoped. I didn’t meet Nick until he was about 7 and the teenage years were going to be hard. I think this trip defined our relationship and somehow this stupid ant documentary set the tone. The bonding on this road trip got us through a lot that was to come.

So back to the music. We hit Seattle the next day. It’s a really long drive, and I kind of felt like I was losing his enthusiasm, so before we even found the hotel I headed straight to the ‘Udub’ district and pulled up to the curb in front of the best record store… that I had hyped for months. I was hoping it was as good as I remembered. Turns out I wasn’t disappointed and this next part of our story could be from a movie.

We walked up and my legs weren’t even stretched out yet. Huge, old speakers blasted music out to the sidewalk. I don’t remember the name, but the place was huge and kind of weird as it was half record and half used instruments and stereo equipment, all kinds of guitars hanging from the ceiling along aisles of records and CDs. There were more than a few shoppers but it wasn’t crowded. So Nick and I are looking at stuff together at first and then slowly drifted apart as you do at a record store. We were each starting the little stack of records that you move along with you. As was typical, Nick had started a conversation with one of the two workers who were straight out of record store movie central casting. The guy is in Nick’s aisle stocking records as Nick is examining a pretty beaten copy of Dark Side of the Moon. He and Nick are talking about it and somehow the guy at the register a few rows away gets into the conversation and exclaimed that “it’s the best selling record of all time.” Nick glances over at him and holds up two fingers. “Number two,” he said and looks back at the record. “What’s that?” The guy in the aisle quips and perks up. “Number two,” Nick repeats, “Michael Jackson’s Thriller is number one, Dark Side of the Moon is number two.” The record store guys lock eyes and the aisle guy yells “He’s right!” The register guy comes around the counter and now the three are fully into a conversation with Nick. I’m just pretending to browse, close enough to listen in, but not seeming like we’re together. They talk about where he’s from, what he’s into, what he’s looking for, and it comes up that Nick’s learning to play guitar. One guy pulls down a guitar from their wall and hands it to Nick and the other guy shuts off the store music and comes over closer. Nick sits on the floor and starts kind of noodling a bit, feeling out the guitar. He quietly plays a couple short little riffs I’ve heard a million times at home and then there’s a pause. Suddenly, he starts in much louder. Teen Spirit. He nails it. Again the guys are wide eyed and stare at each other. Nick is now fully accepted into their record store nerd gang. If I hadn’t been there, I’m sure he would have been invited to a local party at not quite 13 years old. I couldn’t believe that just happened. We went to buy our stacks of records, and a bootleg DVD of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged concert that I’m amazed exists. When the guy gets to Nick’s $2 copy of Dark Side of the Moon, he sets it aside and with a “shhhh…” grabs a much nicer $50 copy from behind glass and slips it in the bag instead. We walk out of the store and Nick gives a cool, “Thanks, see ya.” When we get back to the truck I said, “Welp, that’s it. That’s the most Seattle thing I’ve ever seen. We’re done, we can go home.”

So for Nick’s playlist, for me, we can only start with “All Apologies” from Unplugged and “About a Girl” from Bleach, which he bought on CD at another store. “In Bloom” just has to be here because Nick used it in several variations for a password from then and into his adult life. I still have the main version of his In Bloom password memorized and have laughed when it worked on several occasions.

The Hendrix Museum was cool and we saw one of Kurt’s smashed guitars. Took an obligatory pic of Nick in front of the Space Needle that we recreated years later. The trip up to Winthrop took forever and had an added hour or two due to a rock slide on a mountain road with nowhere for us to go. We sat in the sun and I used our paper map wedged in Nick’s door to make some shade. I don’t think he ever knew how worried I was that we’d run out of gas.

But it was totally worth it. Kevin was so great with Nick. He talked to him like a grown up and they discussed music and guitars and conspiracy theories about Kurt and Courtney. They played guitar into the night and Kevin taught him a few songs and more importantly how to tune. They played “Wish You Were Here” that Kevin had played for me many times while we were in college. That got Nick into a little Pink Floyd phase. He’d later go with a friend to see Roger Waters and he and I watched the Roger Waters’ Live at the Berlin Wall concert more than a few times.

When we left, Kevin gave Nick his whole stack of Alice in Chains CDs. “If you liked Nirvana you’ll love these guys.” We left at dawn for the 14+hr straight drive home. Nick slept until we were halfway home. In Seattle, I had bought the brand new Beastie Boys CD To the 5 Boroughs. With my co-pilot asleep it was easiest to just play it on repeat, plus it pretty much kicked ass, so I did. After several minor Oregon adventures–that you could only have in the age of paper maps–we made it home.

They rest of the songs are one-offs. Smashing Pumpkins because Nick could nail that song so impressively that we asked him to play it all the time. 

Matchbox Twenty because the joy of little Nick at his first concert, standing on his seat to see, belting this out at the top of his lungs in a rainstorm was just pure joy.

When we saw David Byrne play at an assigned seating show at Laxson Auditorium, I didn’t think Byrne would play more than one or two Talking Heads songs, but I was wrong. Nick, and a few other rule breakers, got up to the edge of the stage and danced. Nick was jumping up and down and belting out this song when I saw David catch him singing every word and chuckled. I will never do anything so cool.

Nick liked to bound down the stairs from his room in a way that could only signal his cadence (we still miss that sound on the stairs). At the bottom of the stairs he would make some declarative statement to try to blow our minds with whatever he was just reading or watching or listening to. One day he said, “The Go-Go’s were more punk rock than ‘The Clash.’” And he blew my mind. Just like the record store, he was right. 

The last track has another short story. I was working in my shop one afternoon and high school Nick wandered in. A different Johnny Cash song was playing on my playlist and he says, “You know that song of his is called ‘A Boy Named Sue,’ not ‘A Boy Named Soup.'” “Yeah, I know,” I say confused by the question. “Goddammit,” he says, “One time I asked you if he was saying ‘A Boy Named Soup’ and you said, ‘Yeah.’ I got in a huge argument with a guy at a party over it.” I had absolutely no recollection of that exchange and yet somehow was 100% sure it was true. I just laughed and said “Uh, sorry?” “Goddammit Jeff” with a trademark Nick smirk was the perfect long-con payoff I didn’t even know I was waiting for.

Happy Birthday Nick. Love you. Miss you.


September 30, 2022

Nickolas made things: art, music, food, friends. Always seeking to understand a moment, he provided the narration to our daily lives. Our beautiful boy died in April. He was 30. Today, September 30, 2022, would have been Nick’s 31st birthday. We’re sharing and celebrating Nick today with the people who loved him and those of you who never had enough time with this funny, beautiful, empathic, full-feeling soul. 

Through years of playing guitar, Nick added the soundtrack to every moment. But Nick didn’t just play music, he devoured music. Around 11, he began organizing his CDs by producer. He curated songs he thought we might enjoy, then sent along in texts, in shared playlists. Our family conversations sound like a Portlandia episode… have you heard this song, have you watched this film, have you read this article. Nick was always listening and creating. 

What’s not captured in the short video are the years he lived outside of the camera’s lens, working as a chef, becoming a graffiti artist, reading voraciously, digging into social justice movements, and seeking to find his place in the world. We can tell you that Nick lived a life completely in the present. He found beauty in a good road trip, in a shared meal, in long conversations about music, books, and art. When Nick’s friends reached out to us after he died, the common thread in their narratives was his kindness: he introduced friends to new food, to books, to podcasts, to films, to artists, to each other. He was charming and curious about people, with the ability to talk to toddlers and great-grandparents, but he sought out friends worthy of his time. He let you know, passionately, if the ideas you had about the world were fucked up. Nick was the champion for anyone pushed to the fringes. 

Nick loved to cook for friends and family and was perhaps most himself with a towel slung over his shoulder as he chopped and prepped a meal. Each place he lived–Chico, San Francisco, Portland, Sacramento–was mapped by the kitchens he cooked in. Nick made us ramen, baklava, sushi. He invited friends to try oysters. He always requested his mom’s apple pie and learned to make it side by side. 

Nick felt the world at a register many people dull in order to get on with things. The world is not an easy place for an empath. Nick lived the hard truths and big questions in his actions. 

We miss your laugh, Nick. We miss your tattered Vans. We miss your guitar strumming. We’ll find you in the kitchen, and in a lifetime of shared memories. We love you Nickel.

 

 

Thank you to our dear friend Sarah Pape for helping us find words.