Remembering Erik Petersen and an ‘artless’ imagination we can all hope to find in ourselves

The Italians have a word that does not have an English counterpart. It is sprezzatura — the art of artlessness. Erik Petersen embodied sprezzatura perfectly.

 Erik Petersen (right) is shown with a broken wrist at a show in Brooklyn, where the author (left) volunteered to play guitar. (Image courtesy of Julian Root)

Erik Petersen (right) is shown with a broken wrist at a show in Brooklyn, where the author (left) volunteered to play guitar. (Image courtesy of Julian Root)

The Italians have a word that does not, to this writer’s knowledge, have an English counterpart. It is sprezzatura — the art of artlessness. We all go for this in one way or another. Some carefully adjust their hair in order to make it appear untouched. Others painstakingly paint to create the illusion of recklessness. Practically all of us have rehearsed lines to deliver to a love interest, hoping they’ll be delivered naturally.

Erik Petersen, one of the most influential and creative songwriters to come out of Philadelphia (or anywhere), embodied sprezzatura perfectly. With Mischief Brew — the name of his music, and later, his band — he did, naturally and seemingly without effort, what countless songwriters try to do.

As I reflect on his life — at least the part that overlapped mine — tragically cut short a year ago, I find myself overwhelmed with memories and emotions. For the bulk of my teenage years and my twenties, life was basically what happened between Mischief Brew shows. There, life was simultaneously magnified and put on hold. His tales of rebellion and of love and of celebration were spun in ways that made these timeless themes seem fresh, like we were the first ones to experience them. He told our own stories back to us, and he made us feel like heroes, if only for the duration of his set. The poetry of his songs was tragic, hilarious, poignant, and bold all at the same time — mirroring many of our young lives. To no small number of us, his music was a sort of religion, an ironic analogy, given his lyricism’s propensity toward atheism and religious skepticism. The songs were the gospel, and the gigs were the services.

At virtually every single show of his I attended, the crowd would crush forward, often engulfing Erik completely, singing along. It was more than singing along. We needed this. Having been to well over 100 of his shows, I can say with authority that this was very much normal for Mischief Brew.

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The storm that he called together each night was bigger than he was, and he knew it. It would have been easy to abuse that power. I don’t think Erik made any conscious decision not to; his nature simply precluded that sort of behavior. He seemed as comfortable playing cobwebbed West Philly basements as he did the storied Electric Factory. One time, a few friends of mine showed up late to one of the gigs, and by the time they arrived, it had sold out. They hung around outside until the show ended. When Erik came out, they told him what had happened, so he pulled out his acoustic guitar and played a few songs for them on the sidewalk.

It didn’t matter what technical problems befell him or the band. Years ago, he broke his wrist after falling off a ladder. He had a gig in an abandoned party supply store the next weekend in Brooklyn. I offered to play guitar for him while he sang (naturally, I had learned virtually all of his songs), and he took me up on it. I seem to remember him rapping a spoon against his cast at some point.

The last time I saw Erik was in Portland, Oregon, in the summer of 2015. I took one of my best friends, Shawn, to see Mischief Brew at the Star Theater, which is comparable to our Trocadero. Shawn had never seen Mischief Brew, though we shared a taste for punk rock, and he was eager to see what I was always raving about. The show was sold out, but thankfully, Erik and his wife Denise had put us on the guest list.

It was amazing how for well over 10 years, Erik was able to keep the interest of “the kids.” So many punk bands — and songwriters in general — seem to lose touch with the youth that spawned their identities. Not Erik. Kids half my age knew all the same songs that I had been singing along to since they were in diapers.

I pushed my way to the front, making sure Shawn was right behind me. The mosh pit heaved and swayed nearby. During a break for the band, Erik brought out his acoustic guitar and launched into “Gimme Coffee or Death.” When his eyes met mine, he invited me with a gesture to join him on stage. Arm in arm, we sang a verse and a chorus, and I dived back into the crowd.

(For the record, Philly fans are much better at catching stage-divers than the Portland folks!)

Later, I thanked him for another fantastic show. He thanked me for being there. We hugged and said our goodbyes. After over 20 years of playing music, Erik seemed to maintain the grace and the charm that compelled so many people to him and his music.

About a year later, I found myself at my hero’s funeral, on my 29th birthday. Everyone seemed lost. There were tattoos, piercings, dreadlocks, and mohawks shadowed by black dress and ribbons of mourning. I sobbed through most of the drive home.

With my hero gone, I’d have to find my own way. When the grooves of his records have worn out, only the old, old ones will be pressed again, and it will be high time to write our own anthems. If artlessness cannot be taught, then it must be inherited or found along the way. The grace and imagination and insight Erik possessed was not his alone. It is up to all of us to find it and to never let it go. I believe he was right when he sang: “the greatest of all historical shams is believing you cannot do something you can.”

The weekend after his death, I did a WXPN Folk Show special to honor Erik’s life. I was already scheduled for the Folk Show to play some traditional Guatemalan folk songs. However, after getting the news about Erik’s death, I felt that it would be an injustice to do anything but honor Erik’s life and body of work. Without his influence on me, it’s doubtful that playing music would be as much a part of my life as it is. Ian Zollitor, the host, was happy to oblige. Erik’s wife, Denise, and his bandmates and a few family members joined me in the studio. We talked about Erik and his music, and I played a few of his songs (including “Old Tyme Mem’ry” and “Kentucky Anarchist,” included above).

Julian Root, 29, was conceived in West Philly, was born in Abington, and grew up between the lines of city, suburb, and pasture. He spent about 10 years as a bicycle messenger and attended Temple University. He now makes his living playing the banjo in La Antigua, Guatemala. His heroes are Dorothy Parker, Groucho Marx, Laura Jane Grace, and Erik Petersen. It was once suggested that he is a 75-year-old man stuck in a 25-year-old’s body. (Add a few years for inflation.)

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