Dan Melchior The Backward Path

[Northern Spy; 2012]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: question, answer, question
Others: Calvin Johnson, Jandek, D+, C. Spencer Yeh, Diamond Terrifier

I want to begin by advocating on behalf of Dan and Letha Melchior:

As you probably know, the life of a musician playing independent music is not a lucrative one. So when one hits a snag in life that taps the resources and makes working an outside job impossible, times get really hard. This is where Dan and Letha Melchior find themselves right now. You know Dan as one of the best underground rock & roll songwriters around. He’s released records on labels such as In the Red, Hangman, S.S., Siltbreeze, Daggerman and others, and played with his bands the Broke Review and Das Menace, as well as Billy Childish and Holly Golightly. Letha is a member of Tretetam and Das Menace, a former member of Ruby Falls, and contributes to a lot of Dan’s record jacket art/design, not to mention Dan’s partner.

A few months ago Letha was diagnosed with cancer and since then she’s been in a pretty hard fight, requiring some operations and much treatment. She’s been unable to work. Dan’s role as her caretaker has taken him out of the work force. Letha has basic medical insurance but that really doesn’t mean a whole lot in the USA. Debt is piling up. And the state that they live in, North Carolina, doesn’t offer much in the way of aid. Dan and Letha need our help.

Independent of Dan and Letha, we are asking people to help them out. The Melchior name has given us a whole lot of great music; now it is time to give a little back. We know times are hard for a lot of people, so we are asking that you give what you can afford. Please know that the money donated to Dan and Letha goes directly to them via their paypal account.


If you are looking for tax-deduction, our sister company, the not-for-profit Jump Arts is also taking donations for Letha’s recovery. Make your tax-deductible donation by credit card here or send a check to Jump Arts – 39 Hawthorne Street, Brooklyn, NY 11225. Jump Arts is registered with the Department of Charities and is a 501 (c) 3 tax exempt organization that supports artists in their personal and professional development. All funds collected go directly to Letha or to paying her medical bills.

Northern Spy Records is donating all profits from the sale of the first pressing of the new Dan Melchior album, The Backward Path, to help pay for Letha’s ongoing health care costs and they hope to sell a lot of them. You can help by buying one, right now.

There are roughly 23,000 results on Google for “never complained about her illness.” There are 27,000 results if you replace “his” with “her.” I’m sure other variations yield equally high numbers. In conversation, I hear it all the time. In this culture, silence about illness is a virtue, while providing heath care is robbing the taxpayers and even tantamount to totalitarianism.

I’m finding it difficult to write about Dan Melchior’s The Backward Path. It’s difficult not simply because it addresses something incredibly personal to Dan and Letha Melchior, but because it addresses something that is terrifying to face, in general: that is, illness, and its effects upon the caretaker. In other words, what do you think about when you’re not thinking about being left behind? What do you think while you’re waiting, with the one you love, to hear the results from the most recent treatment? Dan Melchior answers, “not a lot, all the time, but sometimes way too much” (paraphrase). There is another question that underlies The Backward Path, too: what do you think about when you think about her? (She replies, “don’t worry…”) The tension created within the questioning and partial answering and continued questioning makes for a brutally honest and humane album — and frankly, a difficult listen. So I listen, and stare into the dark (insofar as I can) with Melchior. What’s there to even write about?

The songs on The Backward Path move around and back, like hands on a broken clock. They are both blunt and disorienting. The themes throughout lend themselves to such images and thoughts: night and yellow-lit rooms, obnoxious life happening outside, clocks, broken clocks, the old future and the backward path, how it wasn’t what you thought it would be, that the future could’ve been the past but wasn’t, the emptiness of the present, the perpetual presence of emptiness, the temporality of emptiness, nothing, “doing nothing very very well,” “anyone with any brains has already given up hope,” the home full of holes, stuff, shit, stuff, the violent yawn, “everybody’s kind” and “keeping you in mind,” relentless hours days hours weeks, still breathing, buried in dead thoughts, “Waves” carrying all the panic, and the reminder to stop, and the end (no end), “singing there in the dark,” wailing on their knees, no beginning, just the name we give to things, and just what we can bear to feel. If it sounds dark, it’s because it largely is. It has to be. In the album, the light only shows up twice: at night and in the morning, barely framing the (only occasional) relief to feeling at all — that is, sleep (of which, I suspect, there isn’t a lot of in the Melchior household).

While I listen to The Backward Path, I wonder: is there anything more tedious than illness? Everything in the album points, above all, to this question. Even as the brute, boring, natural fact of illness comes to weigh down a life, it’s the tedium, to say nothing of the treatment, that really hurts. The tedium is what opens us up, most of all, to the reality of what the illness is doing — that is, killing, at whatever pace. This is as true for the ill as it is for the caretaker, both adrift in mutual helplessness and total reliance. Treatments work, or they don’t work, or they kind of work; shit, lots of shit, happens, especially for those without access to sufficient care (as, it has been noted, Dan and Letha are). The ill person waits through it, hoping and sometimes no longer hoping, sometimes both. All the caretaker can really do is bear witness to the life in front of them, to listen to and to love them. But in the meantime, the process throughout is a hellish (sometimes panicked, often anticlimactic) tedium for everyone closely involved. The Backward Path bears witness to two lives being sucked out in the midst of that, needlessly, and the small (but huge) attempts made to hold some of the life in, to keep some of it preserved. In that alone (to say nothing of the wonderful, and subtly complex music on the album), for all of us who have cared for the ill, or will, we’re privileged to have Dan Melchior’s witness to the suffering of the love of his life.

Links: Dan Melchior - Northern Spy

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