"The most poignant use of 'Mad World' I've seen." That's how Curt Smith reacted to seeing Boulder attorney Mark Changaris playing the Tears for Fears song on a piano last week in his flood-ravaged home. The song is already imbued with a distinctive sense of melancholy on its own, but in this context, it's especially chilling. We spoke with Changaris about the harrowing events of the past week, as well as why he chose that particular song to play and what's happening with the piano.
If you haven't seen it, the now viral video features Changaris playing "Mad World" on a grand piano that's immersed in at least an inch of sludge. The clip was captured on Saturday afternoon by Changaris's roommate, Merin Keeley, who happened to be out of town a few nights earlier when a mudslide sent a rush of water streaming through the house she shares with Changaris and Stephen Smith, first filling her basement bedroom with water to the windows, and then ultimately forcing everyone to evacuate.
"The water went everywhere," Changaris says, recounting the terrifying experience, the footage of which is also posted on YouTube. "Water is pervasive. It has an immense amount of power. Seeing the water work through the house, you get an appreciation for how the Grand Canyon was formed. It's an immense force. It found it's way into every crack, every cranny, and destroyed a lot of stuff -- but it's just stuff, you know."
On Saturday after spending the better part of the day moving everything that could be salvaged into storage, Changaris took a break and sat down at the piano and started playing, just like he had done countless times before to while away the time, as he puts it. Changaris has a level-headed perspective, which is quite surprising given what he's been through. Here's what he had to say about the events of the past week.
Westword: So your house is near Flagstaff?
Mark Changaris: Yeah, it kind of backs up to Sixth and Baseline, and yeah, essentially it backs up to Flagstaff.
So what was the water source? Are you guys near a river or creek?
The water was funneling down Flagstaff Mountain. The rain caused the mudslide. Essentially it was rain that saturated the earth into the ground and broke loose and just tumbled down.
I watched the video of the water rushing through the house. It seems like a completely harrowing experience.
It was terrifying actually. Stephen had just gotten back from essentially rescuing his sister from Lyons. You know, Lyons was cut off at the time, and his sister has an eight month old baby. So he had to go through some road blocks and do some crisscrossing on back roads to get within a couple miles of walking distance.
Then his sister and her partner and their eight month old walked through a flooded irrigation ditch to meet Stephen, and he was able to drive them back to our house. They came and got showered, and we were making tea for them. I was outback filling sand bags about a half an hour after they'd gotten there because we could see the water level was rising. Then I just heard Stephen screaming and the slide hit pretty hard.
We tried to close the doors against it and hold it shut, but then we quickly realized the futility of that, and we were terrified that a bigger slide was coming. And so we just kind of looked at each other and let the door slam open. At that point, it was kind of sheer terror moving as quick as we could to get as many things to safety and then get out.
Stephen's sister just obviously ran with the baby and didn't even look back. That was motherly instincts kicking in. And we just tried to pack up as much as we could, as quick as we could, and get to safety, and our neighbors took us in.
That does sound terrifying.
It was intense. The thought that I had was unprecedented flooding. What if the rest of the mountain broke away. You look at it, and it really could've been so much worse. We're so fortunate that no one was hurt. A big portion of the mountain could've slid. It's settled since then, and we think that it's safe, now that it's dry. It really could've been a bigger slide, and someone could've gotten hurt. So we're really fortunate in that regard.
That's crazy. I imagine when you got the house, this is something you never even considered a possibility of happening?
No, it really didn't. It's such an idyllic spot, you don't think of that happening. In fact, I thought it would be one of the safer places to be if there were a flood because it's so high up there.
So when was that first video shot?
The flood hit in two stages. The first night was Wednesday, and nothing really happened that night, except a large amount of water build up. The slide hit on Thursday. It was shot a few minutes after the slide. My girlfriend Kirsten shot that.
Was that right before you left to the neighbors?
Yeah, that was essentially grabbing what we could and then getting out.
So in essence that captured what you were experiencing at that moment?
It doesn't capture the first impact of the slide and the size of it when it hit. But our floor is so large that when it hit that it spread out very quickly, but yeah, it covers essentially what we were experiencing. That sound is kind of haunting. It still brings back memories of what happened anytime I hear running water.
Were you in the house, or were you still in the back filling up sandbags when it happened?
I was on the back deck. Our house is kind of...on the ground level, there's a deck and then a living room and then another deck. I ran into the living room and was there when it hit. So I was in the house when it hit.
When it hit, was it really thunderous?
It was. Just the sheer force of it. Throughout the whole ordeal, we had this running water sound. We had just an immense amount of water. Our storm drain, which is around four foot in diameter and two or three feet deep, was completely full of sediment from Wednesday night. So we had had just an enormous river running through the side of the house, and going around and down our driveway. But the force of the slide was staggering. And something that really put it in perspective that this is not something you can fight against. This is beyond your power. It's nature coming in.
Now on Wednesday, it was coming down pretty good, but it wasn't actually in the house at that point, right?
Wednesday it was. I was actually at a show. A friend of mine was doing some type of dance fusion show at Chautauqua, and I got a text from Stephen. He said, "You know, I need help." So I left the show half way through and booked back on my bike just through a torrent. It was a terrible downpour at that point. And the storm drain had filled, and it had about a foot of sediment in it, and so I hopped in and was trying to dig it out. We needed to keep the water flowing. There's some pictures of me up to my neck in storm water that night.
But at that point, just given the sheer force, we fought it until one or two in the morning. At that point, you could just see the water was carrying too much sediment, and there was no way to clear it. So we just got out -- my fear was the drain, if it collapsed, it would suck you in; it's a four foot diameter thing and could easily swallow a person.
So we got out and the water was essentially flowing down the house, down around and down our driveway. Stephen has a pretty good video of it that he edited on Thursday before the slide hit of just the water flow. So since the water built up at that point, the downstairs bedroom essentially had filled up with water that was leaking in. It looked kind of like an aquarium from the outside looking in. The water was about three quarters of the way up the window dripping down.
So we put a lot of buckets down and moved as much of her stuff as we could out and got it up the second floor, thinking it would be safe there. And then the slide hit the next day and it was a futile effort, but we tried to keep as much dry as we could.
What was conversation like on Wednesday night? Were you like, "Okay, we may have to take off here at some point?"
No. My main concern was the windows downstairs breaking from the force. So my main concern was getting as much out of that bedroom as possible. I didn't envision at all that we would have a slide hit. I thought that we would have water issues and be able to cope with those by putting sand bags down, which is what I was trying to do on Thursday. I thought the worst was over on Wednesday. I really did.
Whose bedroom is that in the basement?
That's Meren's bedroom.
Was she completely aghast with the idea of having so much water in her room?
She was out of town actually. So we were moving all of her stuff just to keep it safe for her. So she really came into town not knowing. We had told her but not seeing what had happened and being able to comprehend what happened. It was kind of a smack in the face. She handled it really well, and at the end of the day, she said, "It's just stuff," and she's thankful that nobody was hurt.
What was her reaction to seeing the video of the water rushing through the house?
I think it was shock. She couldn't believe it. And I think that was her reaction to seeing the house. The house was shocking. It was something that was so utterly transformed in an incredibly brief moment. It was shocking. I think her quick reaction was just being thankful that nobody had been hurt. It really could've been a lot worse.
Was there any structural damage?
The house didn't shift, which is good. I was a little concerned that with the weight of the water the second floor might buckle at the time. But it seemed secure enough, and we opened the front door, so the water wouldn't build up in the downstairs area, so the force wouldn't continue to build up. And then I went down and turned off the circuit breakers, just standing in essentially ten inches of water trying not to electrocute myself. I didn't want an electrical fire to break out. It was surreal.
I can't even begin to imagine. So it was Saturday when you went back in?
Friday was a big push. I called around and was able to get a U-Haul. My main concern was the mold issue, and I thought if we're going to get anything out, we need to do it as soon as possible. I was also concerned about a potential, additional slide that could take the rest of the house away.
So with a couple of friends, we just got as much stuff out as we could on Friday. It was a really long day of moving, but we carted it all, boxed off as much stuff as we could, and got a lot of it done. Saturday we still had to go back because there was a lot of stuff left to take out.
So on Saturday you were finishing up getting everything out of there. Take me to the moment when you stepped behind the piano. I'm sure it was completely on a whim. So, what prompted you to step behind the piano, and why'd you pick that song?
It was after a long day of moving, actually. Stephen had taken his stuff off to his storage place, and we had gotten most of the major stuff done, and we were just kind of tooling down. You know, the piano was there, and we were both exhausted, Merin and I, and the thought occurred just to sit down and play. It's one of those things that, you know, I'd done that so often, that piano's the type of thing you can sit down and play at during the day on any occasion. I would play it a couple times a day just to while away the time.
Sitting in the mud with all the destruction around it...it's one of those things where you can't let the disaster really overcome your ability to survive and push onward. At the same time, it was entirely a selfish thing because it felt good to play. It felt good to shut off the world and just play, to just be in the moment and not think about all the moving and the storage and all the uncertainty and just let the music run out, and that felt really good. I think it was soothing in a sense.
Was it a conscious choice to play that song, or is that one that you enjoy playing and it just came out?
It's one I enjoy playing, but it did seem to kind of capture the moment for sure. I mean, you listen to the lyrics and you get the flow of the music. It does fit the situation fairly well. It's almost eerie.
Were you aware of the poignancy of playing that particular song at that moment? Did it dawn on you while you were playing it?
No. I guess what I felt with it is just a connection to the song because it kind of encapsulated how I was feeling at the time. I really wasn't conscious of the irony. It was just the fact that it kind of expressed some of the sadness and some of the emotions that I was going through, that we were all going through at the time at the time, as a community, as a whole.
What made Merin decide to videotape it?
I think she wanted something to show her friends. What I thought she'd do with at some point it just reflect back and use it as a way to remember the feeling of being in that moment. Any moment is fleeting in time, and I think she was wanting to capture that this is a momentous in life, and I want to be able to look back and capture that emotion and that feeling and make it real again. I think that's probably why she did it, and just to have something to relate it to her family and friends.
Did you have any sense that the video was going to attract this sort of attention?
No, I really didn't. I thought, if anything, the flood footage in the house would possibly be of interest with people just wanting to see the house. I didn't understand the meaning that it would have to a lot of people, or even anticipate how people would react to it. In hindsight, I think it makes a lot of sense.
It's kind of beautiful. A lot of the disaster coverage we've seen has been destruction and pain and loss. I think it lets people see that even in the midst of all the suffering we're all going through that the disaster can't crush us, and we can endure. Even those who've suffered grave and serious losses that can't even be described can push through and persevere. The human spirit is stronger. That's what kind of resonates with me about it.
Did you see that Curt Smith himself commented on the video?
I did. That was very neat. I kind of got a kick out of it. That means a lot. It's pretty incredible that he said that's the most [poignant] use of the song.
So what's the plan from here? Have you found other living arrangements?
I'm living with my girlfriend, just kind of crashing. I think most everyone else is with friends and significant others and family. I think we're just trying to figure out if we need to find something more permanent or just be more temporary while they're fixing up the house.
Just kind of waiting it out?
I think we'll probably be looking for something more permanent. For now, we're well taken care of, and relatively speaking, better off than a lot of people. My whole thing is if this helps raise awareness for people who are suffering a whole lot worse than us, than this is a great thing. That's our goal. At the end of the day, we're very fortunate. There are people who have lost a lot more than us and suffered a lot more than us. So anything we can do to help raise awareness or help those people is what we're willing to do.
Did you guys have renters insurance?
Yes, but unfortunately, it doesn't cover flood or mudslide.
So you guys are going to have to come out of pocket for this stuff? Did you lose a great deal of personal belongings?
There's just a lot of stuff. I haven't sat down and taken an inventory. I don't even know if that would be necessary or productive. On a personal note, it would kind of be salt in the wound and spilt milk. But it's a lot of stuff. The water went everywhere.
Water is pervasive. It has an immense amount of power. Seeing the water work through the house, you get an appreciation for how the Grand Canyon was formed. It's an immense force. It found it's way into every crack, every cranny, and destroyed a lot of stuff -- but it's just stuff, you know.
What's going to happen to the piano? Is it destroyed?
The piano, I think right now, is going to be salvageable. The pedals are going to need some work. The humidity level in the house has come down a lot, and the interior of the piano, luckily, was not touched by any of the water. So I think -- crossing our fingers -- it's going to be salvageable.
So, are you a musician, Mark, or what's your background?
My background, I was actually a molecular biology major. I got into piano in undergrad because I enjoyed sitting in front of the piano. And so I started taking lessons from this really nice older woman in town. I took lessons from her for about a year and a half and then life kind of took off, and I've been playing off and on since then. I haven't been classically trained at all, but I like to play on occasion.