Saturday, November 6, 2010

Lessons Beneath The Surface With Geoff Bartley

I understand why kids flunk out of college.

When you’re eighteen, you know the difference between right and wrong and you think you know independence, but you really don’t know shit.

It’s difficult making the transition without your parents or some authoritative figure present. You get swayed by booze, drugs, and the very idea that you’re in control of your life can be a bit overwhelming if you’re not ready for it.

The notion that you have to get up for an 8:00 am class without the help of a nagging mother to assist takes responsibility. That responsibility also comes into play the night before, when your friends think it would be fun to go out and get drunk. The choice is yours, and there are some students who just don’t get the idea that maybe it’s best to stay home and study, or at the very least, go home early instead of waiting until they’re blotto and the bar tells them to go home after last call.

You want to socialize; it’s a new environment and you don’t have the luxury of your traditional support system present-so you try to build new ones in bars, dorm rooms, and vague parties that you’ve caught wind of from someone you vaguely know.

Do you go to that party, or do you do the right thing and stay home to study?

For those who “get it” and understand the reason why you’re at university in the first place, you stay home. I lost track of the number of people who chose to go out instead, only to find themselves with their funding cut at the end of the semester, or worse, their grades reduced to shit, to the point where they are asked to leave.

We would then hear about their decision to “take a break” from college for a while or how they were going to a community college part time or going back home to work to get a little extra money.

For those that managed to get by, we didn’t press the issue with our defeated counterparts. We accepted their explanation because we understood how easy it was to make the wrong decision and get caught up in this newfound freedom.

On one particular night, I was forced to make a similar decision. Several friends in my residence hall had decided to go out for a weeknight celebration. There was a test that I needed to study for, so I passed on the festivities. My roommate also decided to stay behind, something that he would often do in these situations. His girlfriend from back home also went to the same university, and they would frequently just hang out in our room and watch television.

Because of this distraction, and because I understood the need to leave lovebirds alone, I packed my things and decided to study in the student union.

Of course, the student union provides its own distractions if you allow it. There’s the obligatory fast food options, a couple of rooms with big screen televisions, the continual influx of students and on this particular evening, the sound of a man playing an acoustic guitar.

There was barely an audience, but he was good enough to get my attention. I left my study materials and backpack at my table and went over to the performer, finding a spot in a big cushion chair close by.

The artist was Geoff Bartley.

I don’t suspect that you’ve heard of Geoff Bartley, and there was even less recognition of him back then. He had a self-released album to his repertoire and he was in the midst of what was probably a very lonely and never-ending tour of collegiate one-nighters and public radio appearances.

He was a folk artist who expertly maneuvers around his hollowbody with a lilting, fingerpicking style of playing. He choice of genre meant that he could travel light and could probably book live dates on the fly if needed. I wondered if his Cedar Falls stop was more of an afterthought than a predetermined date given the sparse audience until I noticed a Xerox flier that announced an earlier performance on Live From Studio One, a weekly live show at KUNI.

Evidently, Bartley had walked from the show at the radio station and set up shop for an impromptu performance in the student union. Since very few students actually listen to the folk-heavy Live From Studio One show, there were not very many people (including myself) who even knew that Bartley would be there aside from a couple of student workers who moved a few tables to give the performer some room to work.

It was a soothing, northeastern baritone that drew me closer to the gig, but it was an instrumental piece that had me considering something to take home. I noticed an album, Blues Beneath The Surface, which was available to purchase.

The title track that impressed me the most, that and a gentle folk love song called “Who Should Know.” Both were good enough for me to feel sorry for Bartley, sorry for the fact that his student union performance wasn’t promoted better.

I was also sorry for the fact that only a handful of people were paying attention while a much larger crowd of students continued on with their students, and most of them were too busy socializing rather than truly studying.

Bartley clearly did his own studies and I’d like to think that the evening’s chance encounter made it possible to understand the long-term reward of working hard. I’m sure there were other places that Bartley would have preferred to be at instead of a student union at some Midwestern university filled with spoiled kids, but did his set, endured the indifference of his tiny audience, and quietly packed away his gear in solitude afterwards.

He thought that his performance was one of such anonymity that he was gone after I had gone back to retrieve my backpack and collect my things. I wanted to buy a copy of Blues Beneath The Surface, but it seemed that fate and Bartley’s lesson of hard work would be one that I’d only be able to remember on my own.

I went back to my table by a bank of pay phones and noticed one with an acoustic guitar case leaning against the outside glass. Inside one of them was Bartley talking on the phone to someone, the smoke of his cigarette rising up towards the florescent light at the top of his booth. I waited until he was finished, surprising him with a request to buy his record.

I still have that record, and after playing it recently, I was reminded of this story. A quick search of the internet shows that Bartley continues to perform regularly at a local restaurant and at various coffeehouses around the Massachusetts area.

He doesn’t appear to tour much anymore, so it’s a good bet that I won’t be able to see him live again. But I still appreciate the one, chance moment when I did see him, on a night where I set out to acknowledge my responsibility and invest in my adult independence only to be distracted by music once again.

Nevertheless, Geoff Bartley taught me something that my over-priced textbooks simply couldn’t.

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