A year ago I walked into a mental health conference being held at Temple Israel in Minneapolis to listen to Adam Levy talk about grieving his son Daniel, whom he lost to mental illness and suicide. It left me profoundly moved and led me to ask Adam how Think Piece Publishing could help with the making of his record Naubinway, which comes out Oct. 23. I sat down recently with Adam to talk about Daniel, the album, mental illness, his family, art, life, and the values that hold his life together.
TP: This is such a personal record. Which song did you write first?
AL: The title track, “Naubinway,” which would have been in the spring of 2013, a year and a couple months after Daniel died.
TP: That song is devastating.
AL: That song wrote itself. I had written a blog post about going to Naubinway, which is a town on the Upper Peninsula in Michigan where we laid Daniel’s ashes in the water. The song came from that. I didn’t intend it that way but it was just such a powerful day and I sort of knew immediately it would be something I should write about. It’s a touchy subject, though. I’m talking about holding your child’s ashes in your hands. There’s a certain matter-of-factness about it. There’s certainly no shortage of oddness about your child being reduced to something that is the weight of a quart of milk. But at the end of the day that’s all we are, those ashes. It was an easy song to write actually. In some ways it’s a contemporary “Miriam,” which is a song about my grandmother from earlier in my career.
TP: In that one you talk about the two of you discussing a burning cross.
AL: Her dad took her outside and there’s this smoking cross and he said that’s not just about Jim the barber but for everyone who is different. Very powerful that message.
TP: Your grandmother sounds formidable.
AL: She was. She had a social conscience. She disliked Ronald Reagan with a passion. But when we watched him she would say, Look at what he’s wearing. He’s a wearing a blue coat with brass buttons and gray pants and a blue Oxford and a simple tie. This is what you need to wear if you want to make a difference. See how successful he appears. So when I was in college and had really long hair, she said to start dressing the part because this is how people will take you seriously. She was in a we-have-to-beat-the-machine mindset.
TP: Were your parents activists?
AL: Yes. My mother worked in domestic violence and had very left-leaning politics. My grandparents were connected with a lot of issues. Everything from nuclear disarmament to peace in the Middle East and reparations for the Japanese. They were all over the place and it seemed like every year there was a new batch of issues that would be added.
TP: You formed the Honeydogs with your brother Noah. Is he your only sibling?
AL: We have a middle brother Joshua, who has Down’s syndrome. He grew up outside of the house, in an institutional setting because that’s what people did in the late 1960s. We’d see him every month or so for weekends here and there. He’s in his mid-40s and living in an adult independent living situation, supervised, and works full-time in a hotel, housecleaning and stuff.
TP: When did you decide you wanted to do a solo record?
AL: I knew if I was going to write a record about Daniel it’s going to be a very sparse record that’s going to rely on my voice and guitar playing, since that’s something I really never did before. That appealed to me. How can I tell these stories in a way that wouldn’t rely on a lot of bells and whistles like a lot of the other records I’ve worked on had? How can I just lean on my guitar playing a little bit?
TP: And the songs started coming.
AL: A large part of writing the record is this idea that Daniel’s death has gotten me to rethink a whole series of things about my life in general. We walk through life carrying grudges about people. We can be embittered and feel like we were unfairly treated and dwell on these things to the point where we’re wasting massive amount of energy. For me to turn that energy and just say, I want to think the best of you, in an almost sort of Christian charitable spirit, where we love our enemies and we want to think the best of people. That’s become more of a mantra to me in the wake of Daniel’s death. I just don’t want to go through the rest of my life carrying all this terrible stuff.
TP: Were you angry with Daniel for a while?
AL: Not really. I was more so sorry that Daniel went there and I felt terrible that I didn’t get him through it. I never had the feeling of being pissed off at the psychiatrist or therapist, although I did call a week before and was upset they didn’t have the same type of alarm as I did. Or I could have been pissed at the emergency people who let him out after 72 hours, or the pharmaceutical companies that gave him medication that made him feel terrible. But I just didn’t have that. I don’t know if we have anyone to blame for this. But to be sure, I did feel at some points, Daniel, why did you do this, why didn’t you hang on? But I could never really summon anything visceral because it all made sense to me.
TP: He was suffering.
AL: Yes. He was in a great deal of pain. The only power that I have in reconciling Daniel’s death is somehow his exit and where he might be now is a better place for him. It was a long-time struggle. I remember looking at a photo of Daniel with his sisters, and the girls are smiling and there’s something naïve and open about the girls’ faces, but Daniel’s gaze is a real you-don’t-want-to-know-what’s-in-my-mind-right-now look. I remember thinking that right after I took the photo. It was probably a year before he killed himself. There was a lot of that. You would look at him and see that there was something really wrong here. I wanted to think the best. I wanted to think that he could get better. But there were all of these clues.
TP: Was he with you in Minnesota when he passed?
AL: He lived out east in the end. He came here in the fall of 2008 and went to MCAD for a year and a half before he moved back to New York. It was nice having him here. He was about a mile from me. We had dinner frequently and hung out, and he was with the girls a lot. Then his girlfriend moved here and he and his girlfriend liked hanging out with the girls. So they had a real bond. He moved back to N.Y. because he was getting really down. He didn’t like school and the illness was ramping up. After a year and a half of school he missed his mom, he missed being in Saratoga Springs socially, he didn’t feel like he fit it in at MCAD. Daniel’s struggle was in some ways very early adult in that he was looking for something really authentic, he wanted to be around people who were real, and this college culture is all about creating poses and making yourself to be a bohemian, which just felt fakey to him.
TP: What came after you wrote “Naubinway”?
TP: You have sort of a mission statement in “I Wish You Well,” where you talk about truth, love and beauty. Reminded me of Elvis Costello.
AL: Those are the central things that as humans we’re all concerned about – truth, love and beauty. Using those words made sense to me. You wish happiness and health for people. You want them to spend their time thinking about the important matters because life is a fucking tough sojourn.
TP: Tell us about “Potter’s Field.” That guitar part is so tasty.
AL: I wrote it without a guitar riff or anything. I had the words. I had the phrase, “There’s a crowd of blackbirds, they’re looking for the seeds of autumn on the ground.” I was looking out the window and the sky gets full of those blackbirds at certain points and they move in these bizarre clouds. I was just thinking of them scavenging around. It seemed like a really poetic image to me. To me the song is how it’s hard to keep a hold on what we remember. At the end of the day that’s all I have with Daniel, really.
TP: I was fascinated how you wrote “How I Let You Down.” If I remember correctly you wrote it in one day.
AL: It’s true. I wrote that in two hours. That was another one of those, like “Naubinway,” in that these are things I kept saying. There’s the perpetual weight of feeling like you didn’t do enough. At first, I was able to rationalize that by saying we did do everything we could, that we couldn’t stop him from killing himself. That was the narrative that I had set up. But in the back of my mind I was thinking, Damn, I could have done this, I could have done that. But I just thought to beat myself up in public over that didn’t make sense although I knew in my heart that’s the response that everybody has. I was able to sublimate it a little bit but it just keeps coming back. It haunts you all the time.
TP: You have that amazing line in the song about your brother seeing a vision of Daniel in San Francisco a year after Daniel passed.
AL: Noah, who is not a particularly ritually engaged spiritual guy — I’m more of the guy who explores different religious backgrounds — was walking in San Francisco with his wife. It was a really sunny day and this figure was walking toward them sort of bathed by sunlight so he couldn’t make out facial features. But Noah looks at Judy and said, My god, look at the gait, look at how that boy is walking. It’s Daniel. And they just sort of froze and this boy came closer and closer, bounding and walking, and he gave them a head nod. The aura of Daniel was there. They started crying. He called me right after it and said you’re not going to believe what I just saw. It was a lot for Noah to go to that place.
TP: You must be reminded of Daniel constantly.
AL: There are memory triggers. Things certainly aren’t the same. I knew when he passed that I’m just not going to experience life with the same kind of joy that I had. Building back to that point where I can find joy. There are days where I do get into a dark place about how I’m never going to see him again, he’s never going to have children, he’s never going to experience all of those things that I did. I lost him at a very formative stage in his life. He was still a kid. At this point we can’t say, gosh, if you could have hung on a little longer your life could have worked out. I don’t know. I do feel like he missed a lot of beauty in the world that he just wasn’t capable of seeing.
TP: What were the last weeks like?
AL: There’s a line on the record where I say, “You ventured on to thin ice, we threw you so many lifelines, you burned them to the quick.” When he came back on the holidays in 2011 in December, it was a bitter cold day. It was the second day he was here. His mom was at the end of her rope with him. She said, I want you to have him for the holidays. He is impossible. He had a couple of outbursts where he punched a wall. She was worried about safety. I was totally fine with it. I thought I could cheer him up and make him feel good. He was really quiet and it was hard to get him out. On the second day he was here we took a walk around Lake of the Isles. It was a bitter cold day and he walked out onto the lake. It was in December so it wasn’t completely frozen over. I said Daniel come back, and he just looked at me and kept walking out. There was this moment where I just thought, this is where we are, I can’t control it. I kind of slid out on the ice to be next to him, thinking in the back of my mind he’s going to pop through the ice and I’m going to have to rescue him. It seemed like such a metaphor for what was going on. We sort of danced around on the ice together for 20 minutes in this cold. I grabbed him at one point and the ice cracked and pulled him over and we were just sort of taking ice and smashing it like little boys wordlessly doing something together. That was one of those moments I’ll never forget. It was about three weeks before he died.
TP: It’s been three and a half years now. How present is the grief in your life now?
AL: Losing Daniel made me feel completely vulnerable to the world on many, many levels. Existentially, my purpose in life was all of a sudden thrown in question. I really feel my children are central to everything I do. I feel like there’s a sense of pushing me along when I’m feeling down. I have to be there for my kids. I have to function and give them hope and equip them for all the challenges of life and all of that stuff. When one of your children is taken away from you, you feel alone in the world.
TP: And you have the responsibility of helping your daughters process their loss.
AL: I think about that every day. There’s a part of me that feels as though I have to let go of their pain and not feel as responsible for it. I want to be a little bit of a sherpa to them in this process, to be there to guide them, but not micromanage the process. I don’t want to be breathing down their necks, saying, How are you guys doing? Is everything OK? Let’s talk about this pain. We’ve got therapeutic people we can go to help do that.
I also feel there is an openness in the relationship with the girls that I’ve established in which they feel secure talking to me about their own vulnerabilities. I don’t feel like I need to shelter them from any aspect of it at all. We talk about the good and bad. We spend time reminiscing about the fun stuff as I think it’s important to keep those memories vibrant about what was wonderful about Daniel. But I also don’t think it’s a good idea to shelter them from the struggle. They witnessed it. It wasn’t like he kept it from them. They saw in those final three weeks before he committed suicide. They watched him go to bed at four in the afternoon and come out for dinner and sleep until noon the next day. He didn’t want to wake up. He was so profoundly depressed. Then when he did wake up he just sat there, kind of catatonic. He’d rock in a chair. Maybe a couple times he cracked jokes with the girls, but for the most part he was gone. We were witnessing him checking out, taking inventory on how it was going to happen.
TP: You have this song “Eucatastrophe” that’s all pulled apart and jarring and image-heavy, yet also melodic. I’ve never heard a song like that from you before. How did that come about?
AL: It’s a mood piece. I was feeling vaguely disconnected. There’s a reference in there where I say if you’re looking for oblivion you’ve come to the right place. That’s a reference to Daniel. He was looking for a way to get away from everything. When I was using alcohol that was always what I was seeking: oblivion. Before Daniel died, about six months before he died, I stopped drinking. The hope was that he would see that I was able to make a change and I’m in a better place and I have my head together. I wanted him to know that it seemed like I was a wreck for a while and he had lost me but I made a change. It was like, look what I’ve done, you can do it. So that was resonating with me when I wrote that song.
TP: How did you deal with the loss in the immediate aftermath?
AL: I took a week to be with Daniel’s mother. We got to work quickly on boxing and bagging clothes and going through his art and going to the bank and dealing with accounts and the cremation process and those things. We notified friends and decided what kind of memorial service we wanted to do. I remember one of those days where Jennifer said go do something for yourself. I took a day and went to a spa in Saratoga Springs, this famous old-school spa where you are in these mineral waters. It was kind of a nice day of just trying to relax. And then we invited people to come over and talk about Daniel. Sometimes it was just listening to people talk. Mostly it was time alone with Jennifer and me, where we were more than anything trying to create a narrative of the experience, trying to make sense of it, interpreting the enormity of what happened.
TP: You didn’t write any songs after Daniel passed.
AL: Not for over a year.
TP: But now they’re coming fast and furious. You have this solo record and your Bunny Clogs music with your daughters, and you have another Honeydogs record in the works. Has work helped in the healing? Keeping yourself occupied?
AL: I think so. I feel energized. I like to have a number of things going at once. I like to be as creative as possible and be constantly introducing new things into the world and pushing myself to play differently and improve upon what I’m doing.
TP: It will be hard to improve upon “Naubinway,” believe me.
AL: Thank you.
“Naubinway” will be released Oct. 23 and is available for pre-ordering now. Five percent of first-year sales will go to People Incorporated’s “Artability” program, which supports the artistic output of people with mental illness. Adam will be playing an in-store at the Electric Fetus on Wednesday, Nov. 4, and his record-release show will be Saturday, Nov. 28, at the Cedar Cultural Center. Please join us.