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Nothing Matters: My Year in Music During the Pandemic

Clay Rose (left) of Gasoline Lollipops playing a livestream show with Adam Perry earlier this year.EXPAND
Clay Rose (left) of Gasoline Lollipops playing a livestream show with Adam Perry earlier this year.
Mikayla Sanford
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Since my daughter’s birth eleven years ago, music has always been one foot in, one foot out for me. Leading up to the pandemic, I regularly played local shows, booked and promoted concerts for numerous Colorado bands, interviewed notable touring musicians from David Crosby to Anderson .Paak, and covered the Denver and Boulder scenes for Westword, going to as many exciting shows with my girlfriend as possible. But I wasn’t willing to leave my daughter to hit the road hard.

Holding down a nine-to-five paralegal gig in veterans’ disability law and being the best dad I can prevented me from diving into life as a full-time drummer, a longtime dream I’ve given up twice. The first time was when I quit the Yawpers in May 2012, just a year after we’d debuted for maybe ten people as an acoustic trio at the No Name Bar in Boulder before quickly signing a record deal and beginning to tour frequently. The second was when I left Gasoline Lollipops in May 2018, after a sold-out farewell show at the Bluebird Theater, transitioning from serving as the GasPops’ full-time drummer, booking agent and publicist to working behind the scenes and enjoying chances to fill in at great venues like the Gothic Theatre when talented young Kevin Matthews, the group’s new drummer, wasn’t available.

It was a happy balance. I had the time and resources to be with my wonderful daughter every week and also maintain a romantic partnership I treasure while participating in Colorado music, an outlet I consider as important as oxygen. The pandemic took that balance away...and fast. Not only was the therapeutic aspect of playing live shows gone, along with the priceless (and nearly ceaseless) social connections that come with being part of a music scene, but I also lost a major portion of my income.

However, my longtime friend and collaborator Clay Rose, Gasoline Lollipops' frontman, suddenly lost all of his income. And he’s got two kids. In March, just after COVID-related restrictions canceled the GasPops’ winter and spring touring schedule, I persuaded some of my favorite mountain-town venues, including the historic Gold Hill Inn and Jamestown Mercantile, to open their doors so that Clay and I could perform live-to-the-Internet, all-request shows as a duo.

It seemed like a palliative for me, Clay and the online audience. As Clay says, “There is something really innocent about it, like we just show up because we like to play music, and there’s no ulterior motive.”

For numerous Sunday livestreams since the pandemic began, Clay and I have had thousands of viewers and comments, as well as raised money to help Clay support his family. GasPops fans send us videos of themselves dancing in their living rooms, donate money online and request songs, sometimes calling in to talk with Clay live on the air. They often say how it’s helped them get through the lockdown and the general maelstrom of the pandemic to watch some of their favorite musicians play in some of their favorite (now empty) venues.

“There are people there in the chat, and they’re there to support us, and that’s very heartwarming,” Clay says. “It’s like looking at them through a mile of bulletproof glass. I can’t see them, I can’t touch them, but I know they’re there. It’s like I’m in solitary confinement.”

For me, playing livestreams with Clay (whom I met in a Naropa University music class over a decade ago) feels like my life in music has come full circle. With Gasoline Lollipops, Clay and I went from dive bars to the Billboard charts together and played storied Colorado venues like Red Rocks; many times we’ve oversold the beautiful, creaky hundred-year-old Gold Hill Inn to the point that people who couldn’t get in danced on the dirt road outside or tapped on my shoulder through the window while I was drumming, begging me to let them in.

Just after the first shutdown in March, we returned to Gold Hill to play to Clay’s iPhone, propped up on a chair in the empty Inn. He has a philosophical, even existential, response to our livestreams at empty venues we used to pack.

“What it really feels like is that we’ve died and we’re in a bardo,” the Boulder-bred dharma brat says. “It really feels like we’re haunting these places. We’re just ghosts, and we’ve come back to haunt these venues that we love because our souls are attached to them, but we’ve come back after hours, after the place has closed.”

When people call in with requests and comments on the venues’ landlines, our livestreams also have a hilarious, old-school, late-night-TV vibe.

“Yeah, it’s like Wayne’s World,” Clay jokes. “We’re Wayne and Garth now.”

We’ve improved the sound and video since those first DIY streams. But not everyone has been happy with our livestreams from venues.

“Time to shut it down,” someone commented during our late-March stream from the Gold Hill Inn, unhappy that Clay and I would put ourselves — and in turn, our families and communities — in danger of catching or spreading COVID.

“I don’t see why you’re so cavalier,” a Boulder friend messaged me before a Sunday performance with Clay that we did from the fabled Ward church, which we literally had to shovel our way into after an April snowstorm. “You are showing a serious cognitive bias. Stay the fuck home.”

But I couldn’t.

Not only were we bringing the balance back into my life every time I got behind the drums and bringing joy to people at home (watching from Colorado, all over America, and in places around the globe Clay and I have toured together, such as Belize and Belgium), but we were raising money for Clay’s family to cover rent and food.

We also performed two memorable outdoor, socially distanced shows over the summer with Gregory Alan Isakov’s superb fiddle player, Jeb Bows, in Gold Hill and Jamestown. Those gigs helped me make sense of life when the panic and depression of the pandemic and Trump's reign felt soul-crushing.

By the time we performed a fireside holiday livestream from way up in the Rocky Mountains (at the Gold Hill Inn) earlier this month, with Clay in a full Santa suit, the pandemic’s quashing of in-person concerts had affected my own finances so much that I stopped giving all the online donations to Clay. Along with his regular Sunday night Facebook Live streams — usually solo at home, sometimes with me at empty venues — Clay is doing handiwork on local houses. He and Gasoline Lollipops also released an incredible new album, All the Misery Money Can Buy, in September at a socially distanced Red Rocks gig — one of the first concerts there since the pandemic began. Now Clay is giving back.

Every Tuesday afternoon, Clay is performing his earnest, gritty alt-country at the Boulder Bandshell, an area now cluttered with the chronically homeless, who are using Central Park as a camp.

Clay Rose of Gasoline Lollipops performing a benefit for the homeless as part of his Tuesday series at the Boulder Bandshell.EXPAND
Clay Rose of Gasoline Lollipops performing a benefit for the homeless as part of his Tuesday series at the Boulder Bandshell.
Backstage Flash

“I’m realizing there’s a huge spectrum of suffering here, and I’m pretty fucking lucky,” says Clay, who is using the Tuesday afternoon shows to raise awareness about the local homeless population and encourage people to donate what they can. A friend showed up to the first gig in the series — which Clay is calling "Harvest for the Homeless" — with boxes of new socks, and the idea of charity activism caught on.

“My garage is now full of stuff that people have donated,” beams Clay, who lived on the streets of Boulder as a teenager for a stretch. “I’ve driven all the way to Parker before these shows to pick up stuff people are donating. We can’t depend on our government to help them, so we all need to step up.”

Three years ago, on stage at a Gasoline Lollipops gig in Belgium, during a tour when my musicianship imploded from the stressful anxiety of trying to balance parenthood, my day job back home and full-time drumming, Clay leaned into me before counting off the first song and said, “Nothing matters.” I played all right that night, feeling a calm sense of impermanence, and during our livestreams, I can’t help but embrace that inevitable, beautiful emptiness as well.

“In a sense, it’s extremely liberating,” says Clay. “It was stressful worrying about how a record is going to be received, whether we get national acclaim...and all of a sudden, it was taken out of my control. A lot of my attachment to outcomes has dissolved. Now I know what it feels like to have the rug pulled out from under you, and life goes on. The thing I fear the most has already happened, and I’ve survived it, so there is less fear involved and hopefully more of what you and I have been talking about: the pure love of music. Hopefully that will be what drives me once everything opens up again.”

Clay Rose of Gasoline Lollipops, with Adam Perry, 1 p.m. Sunday, January 10, Number Thirty Eight, 3560 Chestnut Place. For more information, go to numberthirtyeight.com.

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