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Whisper to Scream

From punk to folk, poetry to prose, Patrick Porter is a voice of unease.

There are people who walk through a door and on pops the spotlight -- heads turn, glances flash, and the air crackles with the presence of an electric personality. And then there's Patrick Porter. He sort of ducks into rooms, squirming around people's stares as if they were security-system laser beams. If he could choose one super power, it would no doubt be invisibility. Accordingly, Porter is almost colorless. Everything -- his pants, his shirt, his hair, his skin -- all dissolve into a faded yellow-beige that would be camouflaged well on a plate of fish sticks and macaroni and cheese.

"I got real drunk the other day and cut my hair into a Mohawk," he says, fingers fidgeting across his wheat-straw buzz cut, "but after a couple days, I realized how dumb it looked and shaved it off." He pauses sagely. "It was crooked, anyway."

Porter is the kind of guy the term "renaissance man" was coined for. Just 25, he is an aspiring novelist as well as a published poet; his third book of verse, Tender Sociology, is due out by the end of the year. He is also a singer-songwriter with two full-length albums under his belt: Reconsider, with his defunct outfit Phineas Gage, and Reverb Saved My Life, a solo effort on which he wrote, sang and played each instrument. Though released in May of this year, Reverb was actually a half-forgotten project recorded when Porter was seventeen. Both albums were released by the prominent Australian psyche/space-rock label Camera Obscura, and fittingly so: Porter's music is a splashing cascade of folk-rock arpeggios and psychedelic swirl, full of bitter melody and veiled anguish. With handfuls of indie-press accolades now stuffed in his pocket, he is putting the finishing touches on a new solo album that promises to be even more fragile and entrancing.

"The wussy stuff? I don't know how I got into playing that," he says with a shrug, his voice wavering between bashful drawl and syllable-jumbled angst. "Half the time when I was younger, I listened to a lot of punk rock and stuff: the Crucifucks and F.Y.P. and Millions of Dead Cops. But Nirvana is my favorite band ever. I used to feel embarrassed that Nirvana was what got me into punk, but now I feel fiercely non-embarrassed about it."

Growing up in the backwoods mountain town of Bailey, Colorado, is enough of an excuse for not being on the main pipeline to the rock underground. "Bailey is really isolated, which is good and bad. It forces you to have your own mind-set about things. It was a lonely place to be. Living up in that tiny cowboy town, you would never hear about punk rock...or anything," Porter says. "I totally remember the first time I heard Nirvana, like when your parents say, 'I remember the first time I ever heard the Beatles.' I was twelve, and I was stuck in Evergreen. It was during a total blizzard. I was trying to cross a river on foot, but I fell in. I was freezing in the car on the ride home, and 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' came on the radio. It just freaked me out."

For Porter, growing up in Bailey provided the backdrop upon which he scrawled a singularly weird adolescence. Porter was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; he and his family moved to Pine Junction when he was four and then to Bailey when he was ten, after his parents' divorce. "My dad was a disc jockey at KBPI back then. That's where I get my music stuff from," says Porter. "I used to go with him to his night shift at the station and sit in these rooms full of records and just listen to them all night, all this classic rock. I loved the Who and stuff like that. That old music has this heartbrokenness to it, even though it's poppy and happy. That's how I got my musical education."

In the late '80s, KBPI was, of course, the Queen City bastion of butt rock. "I remember meeting a bunch of these crappy rock bands at the station when I was a kid," Porter says. "The guitarist of REO Speedwagon, the singer of Cinderella. My dad would take Mötley Crüe to Shotgun Willie's. I just remember, at the age of ten, looking at these guys and thinking they were total dipshits. Immediately I hated rock stars, even before I got into punk rock. I wanted to be whatever the opposite of a rock star was.

"I got my first guitar, this crummy guitar, as a present on my thirteenth birthday," Porter recalls. "I started my first band that day. I didn't know any chords yet, but we wrote and recorded our first official album that night. We were called Freezerburn, after the Jawbox song. We were together for about a week, then we broke up 'cause I got in a fight with one of the other guys and punched him."

Temper, explains Porter, is a commodity he has always had in short supply: "I was always getting into trouble, always getting into fights. I was a real little asshole. By the end of sixth grade, I had already been expelled from school once."

And what does a sixth-grader do to get expelled?

"Throwing a chair at the principal. I forget why, but I'm sure it was something pretty stupid."

As Porter entered high school, the first glimmer of his literary brilliance was already manifesting itself in the name of his second band: Neglected Lawn. "Neglected Lawn was my first real band. It was just me and this kid Luke. We were more notorious for destruction than music. We were just kind of dicks."

In the true spirit of retro-Reagan-era hardcore, Neglected Lawn chose a distinctly post-Cold War HQ. "Luke lived on a ranch with a bomb shelter, so that's where we practiced," Porter says. "That's where he lived too, in the bomb shelter. We'd just go in there and freeze and play. It was really cool. We built a chimney that went up through the ceiling, though, so it probably wouldn't work as a bomb shelter anymore."

Neglected Lawn took the idea of rock performance to a new level. "Once, me and Luke made this album called 'Live at Texaco,'" Porter says with a straight face. "We went over to the Texaco in Pine Junction; there were these electrical outlets right outside the gas station. We set up an amp and a snare drum and played for all the people going in and out of Texaco," Porter remembers. "It was really loud, us playing these horrible songs. The lady at the counter came out and told us she was going to call the cops, but we were taping the show, so we kept on playing. Finally she really did call the cops, so we grabbed our equipment and ran like hell to the other side of the highway, where there's this old restaurant. We put our stuff down in the parking lot to rest for a minute when this guy walked out, this big, burly cowboy guy. He comes up to me and says, 'I want to shake your hand!' So I put my hand out, and he takes it and starts crushing my hand! He was grinding it and wouldn't let go, and he said, 'I just want to shake the hand of the little motherfucker that's been messing up the house I'm trying to build!' I had a Neglected Lawn sticker on my guitar case, and we'd been writing 'Neglected Lawn' in this guy's cement every night for weeks. He would go back over it and erase it, then we'd sneak back and write it again: 'Neglected Lawn Rulez,' with a 'z.'"

Eventually, Porter's delinquency caught up with him. "I got sent to detention school when I was fifteen. It was for all the bad kids, all the gangsta kids. The gangsta kids in Bailey, Colorado. They'd, like, spray-paint trees."

After he was promoted to an accelerated school and graduated early, at age sixteen, Porter's punk-rock patois began to expand. "Probably my biggest influence at the time was all the Brit pop and shoegazer stuff: the Boo Radleys, Slowdive, Spacemen 3, Radiohead. My grandpa also got me into jazz, especially guitarists like Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass. I also really loved the Felt Pilotes," says Porter, referring to the wistful Denver indie-pop band of the mid-'90s. "I was never able to write real punk songs anyway. When I try to write punk-rock stuff, it comes out of me like a screwed-up Play-Doh Fun Factory. It just comes out all sideways."

Porter, then seventeen, decided to try his hand at something more downcast and ethereal. The result was Reverb Saved My Life, an album that wouldn't see the light of release until this year. Recorded over the course of six months in a tiny basement studio, Reverb's songs are startlingly lethargic and subtle. Eraser-smudged guitars and bleary vocals seep into minor-key melodies; the delicate ennui of Spiritualized or Galaxie 500 enfolds a progressive folk-pop sensibility that recalls Dinosaur Jr, even the Meat Puppets.

"I recorded in this guy's basement, right next to his bedroom," Porter explains. "From midnight to six was when the studio time was cheapest. That's why it sounds so hushed. Even though I played everything on that album myself, I still wanted to do this type of music with a band. It gets lonely making these sad songs by yourself all the time."

Porter soon hooked up with Josh Wambeke, a fellow Bailey-dweller then playing in a band whose name Porter can't remember: "They were these yuppie-ish, good-looking guys playing shit like Creed. They asked me to join the band; they wanted me to be the weird guy in the corner playing the fucked-up stuff." Instead, Porter lured Wambeke away to form Phineas Gage.

"We recorded our first album, Reconsidered, and somehow Camera Obscura got a hold of one of our shitty dubbed tapes of it. They signed us to a three-record deal," says Porter. "Josh and I actually recorded a second Phineas Gage album, but we couldn't fucking stand to be around each other long enough to finish it. We got into fistfights all the time. We had a show at Cricket on the Hill once, and Josh was tuned a whole half-step down from me. The song sounded horrible. We got in a fight right there on stage. Deep down, we're both just these Baileyite rednecks. It was like Ike and Tina, man. That was Phineas Gage."

During this time, Porter was also concentrating on his poetry. "Songs and poetry are pretty much the same to me. This may sound really fucking melodramatic, but a song is like a shard, you know what I mean? Like this shard of consciousness. That sounds really stupid, but that's how I think of them." His first book of poems, The Intrusive Ache of Morning, was published in 2000 by Chicago's Press of the Third Mind. "It took like three days to write. I just wanted a book of my own, to be able to hold this tangible manuscript and say that I wrote it. The publisher paid me with 500 copies of it, and I remember when I got that box in the mail. I remember thinking, 'This is what I want to do with my life. I've been fired from every job I've ever had: delivery driver, meatpacker, dishwasher. I consider myself almost totally unemployable.' So I packed up a big duffel bag full of my books and took the bus to San Francisco, without any money, just naively thinking that I could sell them out there."

Porter soon found, however, that San Francisco's modern poetry scene was a far howl from Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg's romanticized Beat era. "I went to these open-mike poetry readings to try to sell some of my books," he says. "I fucking hate reading my poetry. I hate poetry. I hate poets. It was horrible. I would sleep at night on Fisherman's Wharf or on the beach, then walk all the way across San Francisco with this huge bag of books, trying to find the fucking place where this poetry reading was at. I'd get five minutes to read a couple poems, then some lady would come up with a guitar and sing some song about strawberries or something. I was sitting at this coffeehouse, totally starving, with everyone around me eating pastries and drinking coffee, and some lady is up there singing, 'My love is like strawberries.' I wanted to fucking kill myself."

Porter's second book of poetry, Nervous Halo, was published in 2001 by Pueblo's Academic & Arts Press, run by the late Paul Dilsaver. At the time, Porter was also polishing up a quarter-of-a-million-word novel, Kristallnacht.

"I've been trying to write novels since I was thirteen, but I'd never finish them. Where most kids that age would keep a journal, I'd write a novel. I just wanted to write this big Dostoyevskian book about the meaning of life or something," Porter recalls. "When I finally finished Kristallnacht, I took a bus out to New York and went to the offices of Random House. I was totally stupid. I just walked right into some woman's office and bugged her with this 450-page manuscript under my arm. I thought people would be instantly like, 'Wow, this guy's a genius. Let's publish this right now!' That lady actually did read it, though, and we started communicating through e-mail. She read my last draft, too, and she told me I was getting closer to what Random House is looking for. It's really encouraging."

As for his music, Porter has decided to remain solo; the heat of the spotlight still seems to make him a bit squeamish. "It's totally not egotistical or anything. It's not that I don't really like people; it's just that I don't work incredibly well with them," he explains. "It's almost like a Neil Young sort of thing, where he'll have different bands but it's still his name on the album. I'll call it Patrick Porter and the News or something."

Besides his usual depressive influences, Porter has been spreading his net wider in search of musical inspiration. "I'm trying to strip my stuff way down live -- just my voice and an acoustic guitar. Nick Drake has had a lot of influence on me lately. Dylan -- anything that's just really stripped down to a good song. John Fahey, too; I love that guy. As for blues, I was always into Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Boy Williamson...anything with feeling, anything seductive. There has to be some kind of seductive element to it. That's what I want to make: Marvin Gaye-ish type music, except played by a skinny white guy who can't sing."

Music isn't the only part of his life Porter hopes to simplify. "I don't think I'll ever have a regular job again," he says, "but if I don't write, like, 5,000 words a day, I feel like shit. I don't want to be seen as someone who's like a bum or something, someone who doesn't work. I totally want to be married and have kids and live on a ranch and just be this dork that writes books and milks cows all day."

Porter, perpetually uneasy in the Denver music scene, is also contemplating a move to New York in the near future. "I don't think anyone cares about my kind of music out here," he says. "I always end up playing shows for like one guy throwing spit wads at me. I don't even want to play in any venues besides little coffeehouses and stuff like that. I just don't like these big gigs, all these people looking at you. It feels like I'm filling out a job application or something."

"Besides, it's just too loud at big clubs," says the eardrum-hardened veteran of Freezerburn and Neglected Lawn. "I always feel so out of place at them. It's like I come out of my cave and there's all these guys with floppy hairdos and tattoos, thinking they look cool. And you can't hear anything! I want people to actually hear the words and the music. I'm like the anti-rock and roll."

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