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Brendan Fitzgerald | Longreads | March 2020 | 47 minutes (12,973 words)
I had seen Paul Curreri a few times around Charlottesville — pushing a cart around the local Wegmans grocery, drinking seltzer at the brewery, holding his young daughter and wearing a brace on one hand — before I worked up the nerve to write to him.
“I’m not sure if you know I’ve been fairly sidelined for the past five years via hand and vocal problems,” he wrote back. “I shouldn’t necessarily assume you know that. Perhaps you just thought I’ve been lazy as shit.” I told him I didn’t want much of his time; I had kids of my own now, too. “Truly,” he wrote back, “there is always time.”
Over a decade, Curreri had released a body of music that should have made him one of America’s most esteemed songwriters. “Paul Curreri gives what few songwriters can,” Matt Dellinger wrote in The New Yorker in 2002. “It hits you soon and hard that you’re hearing something exquisite.” His first albums, built on country blues foundations, shook with dexterous picking and a voice that keened and yipped and roared. A few early songs functioned like artist statements, little revelations of ethos bound up in the tension between the limits of Curreri’s body and the demands of his music. “If your work is shouting, deep-breasted, from sun-up to sundown, take care,” he sang on 2003’s Songs for Devon Sproule, named for the musician he’d marry a few years later. “In time, a shouter you’ll become.”
There had been a half dozen studio albums between 2002 and 2012, along with The Greenhorns, a soundtrack for a feature-length documentary about young farmers, and a live record, Are You Going to Paul Curreri? There were hundreds of tour dates throughout the U.S. and Europe — the crowds were usually better overseas — and dozens of sets in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Curreri and Sproule had settled. For a few years, on Valentine’s Day, the couple painstakingly arranged a dozen covers that wrestled with some notion of love — songs by Waylon Jennings and Ann Peebles and local friends who played the same small clubs. Curreri recorded the covers they worked up in the couple’s spare-bedroom studio; each year his productions took on new depth and scope, got more complicated without getting too messy.
I’d met Curreri in 2007, around the time he released The Velvet Rut, the first album he’d fully produced and engineered himself. The press materials were boastful and self-effacing: Curreri “played every note on every instrument,” and the result was “certainly unruly.” They included a brief biographical sketch of Curreri, one I suspect he wrote himself, that introduced his ambitions as though they were accidents. After a musical childhood, he “ended up” at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he studied video art and managed to write 200 songs. “And,” he told me later, “they all sucked.”
A five-star review of the album in MOJO, the British music magazine, made the usual points: Here was a successor to the likes of John Fahey and Dave Van Ronk, his voice and lyrics “unaffected and romantic,” his execution transcendent. “Why Paul Curreri is not better known is a mystery,” reads the review. “But if it is this fifth album that brings him the attention he deserves, that’s no bad thing.”
In 2008, Curreri’s body began to mutiny. A vocal hemorrhage canceled a tour; another silenced him for more than a year. He self-produced two more studio albums, then he and his wife left Charlottesville. They tried Berlin, and then Austin, Texas. In 2012, while working on demos for a new album, Curreri injured his voice a third time, after which his body seemed all at once to come undone. A twinge in his fretting hand appeared overnight and did not resolve; a doctor told him the pain would not improve. Both arms became inflamed and ached in such a way that, for a time, Curreri found it hard to turn a doorknob or hold a fork. He shelved the new songs and moved with Sproule back to Charlottesville.
Curreri’s appeal, for me, had always lived in his brazen standoffs with limitation, failure, and dissolution. “Beauty fades — it goes a-crackin’ and a-juttin’,” he sang on 2004’s The Spirit of the Staircase. “Some folks go slow, some all of a sudden.” For years, Curreri’s work had shouted, and so he became a shouter of singular beauty. Then, he went quiet — slowly, at first, then all of a sudden.
For years, Curreri kept a biographical timeline on his website, with a sentence or two for each year. “1976: Born Michael Paul Curreri, Jr., in Seattle, Washington.” “1978: Still no talking. Only said the sound merdaloy.” “1980: Stare at the cover of Santana’s Greatest Hits.” Music enters around age 10, towing with it a reckless sort of desire: “Begin playing cello because Mrs. Edwards says, ‘Too small for string bass.’ Desperately collect string bracelets from the girls, but forget to be in love with them.”
The year Curreri turned 13, his father, a U.S. Naval Academy alum, moved the family to the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. His mother, now an elementary school teacher, played piano and gently encouraged her children’s musical pursuits. “Neither of us took up classical piano very well,” said his brother, Matt, a musician in his own right. “At the house I would hear him playing these thick-chord piano pieces.” Curreri, something of a restless artist, also drew and painted from an early age. “I can remember, as a kid, drawing pictures of pianists,” he said. In those pictures, the pianist’s shoulders are contorted, hunched in effort, art sublimating pain.
Curreri moved to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1995 to study painting at RISD. During orientation, he met Andy Friedman, an artist who had dropped out of the Pratt Institute the previous year and, as a transfer student, had to live in the freshman dorms. “We were both using the umbrella of art school to learn and act out creatively,” said Friedman. Curreri switched from painting to filmmaking, then ignored his coursework in favor of writing songs. He and Friedman got into country blues originators and inventors, from Mississippi John Hurt to John Hartford; Friedman claims he gave Curreri his first taste of whiskey. Their relationship felt brotherly, says Friedman, who embraced his elder-sibling role. “I liked that I pointed him the way of the country blues and drinking,” he said. “All the good stuff, you know?”
The two moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, after graduation. New York, said Curreri, “was a very dark year.” He and Friedman lived in a lopsided apartment with mice and layers of peeling linoleum. They each got mailroom jobs — Friedman at The New Yorker, to which he’d later contribute illustrations. Curreri’s parents had gifted him a Martin guitar, and he’d take it with him to open mic nights, where he’d draw a number then finally play, often around 2 a.m.
“Maybe you’re drunk, maybe not,” Curreri said. “Maybe you’re a featured artist. Next thing you know, you’re drawing a number again.” He made little money and was often hungry; his weight dropped to 115 pounds. After a year, he left the city. “Remember what Levon Helm said in Scorsese’s Last Waltz?” he wrote once. “Something about New York kicking your ass in Round One?” He moved with a girlfriend to Knoxville, where he burned through a dozen jobs — a gig at a steakhouse when he was a vegetarian, another at a bank that concluded when he refused to shave his mustache. When the relationship ended, Curreri moved back to Richmond, then on to Charlottesville.
He took catering gigs and got a job writing children’s poems for a testing company — find the simile in stanza three. One night when he was 24, Curreri went to Trax, a now-defunct nightclub, where he saw an 18-year-old Sproule sing Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone.” Drunk, Curreri got onstage and told Sproule he was going to sing with her.
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“I was like, ‘What is this?’” said Sproule, who told him that night to sing on the chorus. Curreri struck her as “intriguing, but also a little out of control” — an impression that lasted for years, she said, until he stopped drinking.
Not long after, Sproule took Curreri to a house party for Danny Schmidt, a friend and fellow musician from the Twin Oaks commune where Sproule grew up. Some of the partygoers ended up drunk on a bed in a circle, their heads together, bodies stretched out like spokes, a guitar making its way around. “We already liked him,” said Schmidt, whose 10 studio albums have since won him a slew of praise. “Then we heard what he had musically and artistically and were kinda blown away by that.” Curreri added the year to his timeline:
Jump on Devon Sproule’s stage, sing Johnny Cash backing vocals with her. Later shake hands and seek forgiveness. Decide to sit when playing, like Danny Schmidt. Write “Senseless as a Cuckoo” and love myself.
In Charlottesville, Curreri says, the guitar opened up “very wide, very quickly.” He began to fingerpick after watching Schmidt play, and recorded the second of two buzzy four-track demos, each of which contained a dozen or so songs. (“They were almost problematically great,” Schmidt said of the demos.) Curreri recorded each song as soon as it was written, so the demos are raw and a bit unsteady, propelled by the force that birthed them. But they’re also meticulous, each song mapping the edges of country blues, finding ways to slip the genre’s grasp, courting perfection and failing with grace. “A trestle bridge slid through the treeline with a velocity like rust,” he sings on one of those early songs. “I collapsed at the wheel of my automobile at all the beauty I could never touch.”
Curreri was gunning hard for people to listen to him, Sproule says: “It made him very attractive, that he was so confident in his music and his wooing.” At parties, Curreri approached strangers and insisted on playing them a song. Greg Kelly, a Charlottesville artist and mutual friend, recalled Curreri cornering him during a party at a country house, sharing a cigarette then asking to play Kelly a song. “I was like, Oh, God, sure, I guess,” Kelly said. “But it was Paul.” Curreri left cassettes at Sproule’s doorstep and, once, on her windshield.
“He was on the make in more ways than one, for sure,” Sproule said. “I think he sort of was in love with all of us, whoever would listen to him or go with him.”
Curreri released his first album, From Long Gones to Hawkmoth, in 2002, on a record label Friedman created. The album features little besides Curreri’s guitar and voice. It needs little else; throughout, his playing is richly textured, his singing rhapsodic. Lyrically, many songs find Curreri at some existential juncture — a choice, as he puts it in “Blame Love,” between “quiet valley or arduous highway.” In others, he’s audacious:
I say we set this record straight.
I say we say what we want, what do ya say?
Who me? What do I want?
I want all y’all lookin at me just this way.
Especially you, my sweetheart.
Curreri released the album in Charlottesville with a sold-out show at Starr Hill, a big brick music hall. Sproule and Schmidt opened for him, and Friedman came down from New York for the show. “He was really the darling of a scene in Charlottesville at the time,” Friedman recalled. Curreri took the stage before an audience he’d courted for months — the largest crowd he’d ever had — and forgot his lyrics. “People left,” Curreri later told a local paper, “and even my mother asked me if I was on drugs.” He added the show to his timeline: “Over-pressured, completely blow sold-out hometown release concert, two people write asking for money back.”
Songs for Devon Sproule followed the next year, then The Spirit of the Staircase. Each won rave reviews from local publications — Keith Morris wrote for C-VILLE Weekly that Curreri’s songs were “frozen moments from the hazardous pursuit of a true life” — and acclaim from music magazines that appreciate technical proficiency but lack a mainstream audience: Relix, American Guitar, Vintage Guitar. Curreri was a musician’s musician; Chuck Brodsky, a recording artist for the venerated Red House Records, said at the time, “There’s a shitload of people making a living who don’t have half the talent Paul Curreri does.” Reviews and featurettes made similar arguments. A review of Staircase in Vintage Guitar concluded: “Paul’s a unique talent who deserves more attention.”
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If Curreri felt wounded — by a small crowd, or by the success of a lesser artist — then it didn’t show in his work. Such slights had little bearing on his creative confidence, what he felt sure his music would grant him. By The Spirit of the Staircase, he’d moved on from reworked demo songs and put together a studio band that could corner as tight as he could. And still the brilliance of his songs shone best when it was just Curreri and his guitar, his hands and his voice moving with an ease that he’d come to identify with himself. “My guitar — I’ll do it,” he sings in that album’s final lines. “Play this song, and you will look at me.” A threat and a promise, a tried-and-true formula. The cover of that album shows Curreri in the house where he met Schmidt and Sproule and the rest of the musicians whose admiration he’d fought to win. Curreri looks at the camera indirectly, through a mirror. His eyes are bleary; a blurred clock raises its hands toward midnight.
“Paul had a sense that you could transcend the circumstances by being transcendentally good,” Schmidt said. “I just don’t think that’s true. I’ve seen transcendentally great people struggle to get the recognition that they ought to have.”
Curreri and Sproule live with their daughter and their dog on a dead-end street in Charlottesville. Their house is a little stucco bungalow on a big lot that slopes down to the Norfolk-Southern railroad line. A realtor had gouged the couple on the price, charging them double what he’d paid three months earlier; not long after they took the keys, the septic system failed. Still, Curreri loved the yard, which was dotted with evergreens and shrubs, and made himself a modest basement studio that he stocked with synthesizers.
On the January morning when I first visited, a glassy layer of ice covered the couple’s driveway. “Treacherous,” Curreri texted me. “Please be careful — or maybe walk across the grass!” I decided to try the driveway, slipped and caught myself. Curreri met me at the door in flannel and loose-fitting jeans, his long hair parted by his hands, his thick beard cut close to his jaw. He’s not short, exactly, though he thinks of himself as small. (“I could fit into tiny places,” as he once put it.) He has deep-set dark eyes and thick eyebrows, a combination that can make him look worried or distracted, which he often seems to be.
Inside, Sproule nursed the couple’s daughter, Ray, on the living room sofa. There was a boxy old Baldwin Fun Machine organ in the dining room, next to a few kid toys. The organ worked, Curreri said, but a technician told him not to leave it plugged in and unattended. In the kitchen, Curreri warmed coffee in the microwave. Then he handed me a mug, and I followed him over a baby gate and downstairs to the basement.
A computer monitor on Curreri’s desk showed a YouTube video called “Calming Seas No. 1,” an 11-hour cycle of artificial wave sounds. He had put the video on early that morning and sat with the noise for 10 minutes in a good-faith effort at meditation. The monitor still showed a stock image of surf and rocks, an imagined shoreline for the canned wave sounds.
Next to a mixing board was a small straw, a souvenir from a vocal therapist who made Curreri hum scales while he blew into a cup of water. That session cost him $160 for a half-hour visit, one in a costly series of consultations with medical specialists. He brought the straw to his lips and made a sound for me like a didgeridoo. “I do it for a while.” he said. “Then I lose interest.”
The pains in Curreri’s body, and the limits they place on his music, persist. He’s seen numerous otolaryngologists over the years, but so far none have found a root cause of the problem. One told him his vocal cords looked like a teenager’s, which surprised Curreri; he’d smoked for decades. There were MRIs, X-rays, and, according to Curreri, “an absolute fortune on bloodwork.” His wrists have improved, and Curreri stretches them deliberately, though holding a pick in his right hand will still summon an ache within minutes. His arthritis-like symptoms have worsened. “The middle finger on my left hand is just shot, as far as playing guitar,” he told me. “When I press down, it really hurts immediately. That kinda puts a lot of chords out of reach.”
The studio walls are lined with synthesizers — Moogs and Nords, Rolands and Yamahas, stacked like little pyramids. The synths accommodate his new physical limitations: Most are monophonic, which means Curreri can only play one key at a time, and few are velocity-sensitive, which means they won’t get any louder, no matter how hard his fingers hit them. He’s an unintentional collector, but the collection changes often. “I know I’m looking for something with them,” he told me. The older synthesizers have too much air. “There’s too much space surrounding the sound when it comes out,” he said. The younger ones “are just a pure, pure signal. And I don’t like that either.” There’s also a three-piece drum kit with a Boston Red Sox sticker on the kick, and a parlor-size Fender with nylon strings — the only guitar in the room. Sproule came downstairs when Ray was asleep, retrieved the guitar, and took it away with her.
Curreri attributes some of his physical problems — his faltering voice, his treasonous hands — to anxiety, stress, or some other internal imbalance. He traces their threads back through his life; at times, he seems to fault them all. “I think I just hold a lot of tension,” he said. He held his breath and clenched his throat when he sang, and he says he played guitar “with a tension.”
“I’ve often wondered, if I had not had that tension, what the guitar playing would’ve sounded like,” he said. “I assume it would’ve been different. Regardless, theoretically, I might still be playing today. I don’t know.”
Much of Curreri’s studio work is for other musicians. “Spicing up their tracks,” he said. “Adding things, chopping bits sometimes.” As a producer, he often sends songs back to their authors with his own ideas scribbled into their margins. “It’s easier to get into it if the person lets me play, too,” he said. “And I mean that in the most basic sense of the word.”
He searched his computer for a song by a recent client, but the file wouldn’t open. He tussled with it for a few minutes.
“This is kind of the bane of my existence sometimes,” he said. “It’s the shit like this that people don’t know how long things take, you know?” We kept talking, but he was distracted. He apologized a few times, restarted his computer, tried again. At one point, he groaned, “I don’t even remember what I was talking about.”
Maybe it was the malfunctioning file, the unruly song resisting him, but our conversation turned back toward his body. “I was never like the absolute bull’s-eye guitarist, but I always felt like I was good enough to make the sounds that I heard in my head,” he said. “It was an express route from my brain and my body to playing. It was just not a problem. It was just the thing I did. And it was endless, because it could always be better.” When the first doctor told him his fretting hand would not improve, Curreri decided he’d never made an album he liked.
“Just chasing a sound I had in my head at any given moment was how I identified myself as who I was,” he said. “I had a vehicle to do it that moved at the correct speed — just a little bit slower than the sound was moving. And that was perfect, that it always stayed out of reach.” When that vehicle finally failed him, Curreri said, “it was like, ‘What’s the point of chasing? I’m not doing the same thing anymore.’”
After half an hour, the computer finally cooperated, and the song opened. Curreri skipped through it, isolating certain tracks as he went, less enchanted with the song than with his own additions to it: a saxophone solo he’d solicited from a local player, scraps of a guitar solo he’d taken apart and reassembled. Near the end, there was an organ track from Curreri himself. “I can tell I was getting into that,” he said. Sproule’s voice appeared and then, improbably, so did his own. “Oh, yeah,” he said, as though he’d forgotten how he could sound. “There I am.”
We talked about a few more clients. During a pause, something in Curreri turned again. “We all gravitate perpetually toward things that sort of justify us,” he said. Artists encounter their limitations, real or perceived, then scale back their ambitions; shitty guitarists start to surround themselves with other shitty guitarists. “So you’re sort of narrowing your heroes,” he said. “Oh lord, where did this start?”
He had felt attracted to hapless talents, kinship with those musicians whose luck trounced their skill. “To certain people who were losing,” he said, “who were trying really hard but weren’t winning yet, and maybe never would, but had a sort of clear vision about what they wanted.” That kinship reassured Curreri and validated his work. Since his injuries, reassurance and validation have been harder to come by.
“I was connected to something — these people, the chase of trying to find something artistically, the beauty of wine,” he said. “So even though it’s not a healthy club to be a part of, there’s a missing component. I don’t feel I’m in that club anymore. I feel a connection —”
“I don’t feel a connection to a whole lot, honestly. So.”
He excused himself then, and went upstairs to the bathroom. I reached for one of the synthesizers and pressed a key; it clicked, noteless. Shortly after Curreri came downstairs, we wrapped up.
A few days later, he sent me a note.
“I hope our chat last week wasn’t too negative,” he wrote. “I’ve spent little time discussing much of that, and I’m afraid my emotional landmarks aren’t clearly marked, much less my sound bites politely polished.” If I wanted to continue to talk, that was fine with him. If not, that would be fine, too.
I met Curreri and Sproule in 2007, after I’d stumbled into one of their Valentine’s Day sets and then stumbled out, dazzled — by their beauty and their magnetism, Sproule’s controlled elegance and Curreri’s unruliness. We had coffee together, though “together” is maybe a stretch; Sproule talked about their new albums while Curreri kept relatively quiet.
The songs on Keep Your Silver Shined, according to Sproule, were about “being in love with Paul Curreri, in love with Virginia, deciding to settle down with both and figuring out how to make it all work.” Sproule had invited friends and neighbors to play on the album and chosen for the cover a picture from their wedding day.
Curreri, meanwhile, had gone inward on The Velvet Rut, taking control of every aspect of its production. His emotional range on the record is huge; he is willful, embittered, humbled, contrite. Alcohol surfaces as a subject in several songs, including two instrumentals — “Intermission for Beer,” and a guitar rag called “Don’t Drink.” He’s maudlin on the final song, an eight-minute improvised letter to Sproule, recorded by Curreri in Charlottesville while his wife was on tour in England. “I ain’t doing drugs,” he sings to her. “But I’m drinking Bud Light at home, and you are overseas.” He thanked Sproule in the liner notes for her “endless patience and give-a-shit.”
Before they left the coffee shop, Curreri put his right hand on the table between us — the thumbnail he used for a pick was long and sharp — and spoke to me. “Have you listened to our other records?” he wanted to know. I hadn’t. A day later, Sproule brought them all to me in a paper bag — five CDs, four of them her husband’s.
I saw the couple play around Charlottesville, together and apart, more than a dozen times over the next few years — at the basement folk club, the grand old renovated theater, the ramshackle bookstore outside the city. They never overplayed their hometown, and so every set felt like a major event. In the dark lap of the Shenandoah Valley, a community theater hosted Curreri for a night, and named a cocktail for him, which you could order with either bourbon or tequila. One winter, a storm dropped four feet of snow on Charlottesville, not so much a blanket as a thick quilt. I dragged a friend through the worst of it to see Curreri and Sproule, who performed for an audience that numbered in the single digits.
Live, Curreri was intemperate. His left leg pistoned violently beneath the neck of his Martin; the band of his wedding ring buzzed against its strings. He sat during solo shows, but had a habit of rocking onto the back legs of whatever seat held him. His sets were tense, shaped by his own stormy internal weather system. “Any time I’d see him, I had no fucking clue what was going to happen,” said Kelly. “I knew what he was gonna deliver, but I didn’t know what he was gonna say, how far back on the chair he was gonna lean.”
I saw that tension snap once, on a summer night in 2008. Curreri had been writing the songs that would become California, his fifth proper album. Gone were the country blues, replaced by wilder tunings and unhindered picking. He’d tried to quit smoking and had softened his delivery for some songs — there were gentle entreaties alongside the real barkers — though their stakes seemed sharper: tensions around the idea of parenthood, the monotony of routine, the body’s inevitable arc. “What do you do,” he pleaded softly on one song, over a strummed waltz, “when what you do don’t do it anymore?”
He had been booked to play the final night at the Satellite Ballroom, a small venue behind the local record store, which was being turned into a pharmacy. The venue was across the street from the local university, and a few drunk young men had come in by the time Curreri took the stage. Curreri wore torn jeans and a Western shirt, which was unbuttoned to the middle of his chest. A few songs into his set, he went into “California,” hammering out synchronized notes and gently asking for grace as the volume in the room rose:
Too few folks know how fun it is
To believe in invisible stuff like this.
I’ma drink wine til I can see
The great beyond in the room with me.
The drunks were a few feet to my right. One jeered, “That’s my favorite song!” Another took it up. Curreri smirked at first and kept playing. The smirk soon vanished, and he stared, stone-faced, at the back of the room. One of the drunks taunted him again, and then things happened very fast. Curreri pushed his Martin from his lap, as though it were a cat that had swiped at him. The guitar smacked the stage, the impact resonating through its hollow body. Curreri stood over it.
“Shut the fuck up, man,” he shouted. He was red-faced, shaking with adrenaline; he looked as though he’d just walked away from a car accident. He stepped off the stage and blindly pushed his way through the audience, intent on finding his heckler. He was still shouting, though the roar of the room had overtaken his voice. I reached him and pushed a hand against his chest, to press him back toward the stage. Sweat soaked his shirt. He turned away and left the room. Someone onstage said into a microphone, “Ladies and gentlemen, Fightin’ Paul Curreri.”
Not long after, Curreri had his first vocal hemorrhage. When he quit smoking, his voice had lost some of its characteristic grit, which he tried to recover. “I had a hometown show, which are the only ones that make me remotely nervous,” he told a local DJ. “And so I spent the whole day singing this very loud song to, quote, rough up my voice. The show went fine, but then I couldn’t talk for a month and a half after that.” He postponed a U.S. tour a few times, then, after a second injury, didn’t perform for a year.
I ran into him during the hiatus, at a wedding on a farm outside of Charlottesville. The guest list was heavy on musicians, who took turns playing sets beneath a white tent. He and Sproule watched from a blanket nearby, and I sat near them. We didn’t say much; I was deep in my reverence then and figured I would only be pestering them. Their mere proximity thrilled me. When Sproule got up to take her turn onstage, I watched Curreri light a surreptitious cigarette.
“My voice feels wobbly, tough to control, lacking a certain improvisational umph,” he wrote me a few months after. “It doesn’t corner well.” One of his vocal cords was swollen — often a product of abuse, whether from smoking or shouting. Despite it all, he seemed somewhat relieved. He had bought a used motorcycle, he told me, and put 6,000 miles on it. “This year,” he wrote, “was sitting in a boat versus worrying about a fish quota.”
If he found real relief in his silence, then Curreri let it pass. A few weeks shy of his 34th birthday, he drove west on I-64, across Afton Mountain and down into the Shenandoah Valley. He’d booked a set at the Mockingbird, a big black box with a high ceiling, a soundproof hollow hidden in the low green land. Before the set, the club owner told the audience — maybe 100 people, seated in rows of metal chairs or else gathered around a few circular tables — that Curreri had not played a solo set in the U.S. for the better part of two years. “We’ll see if there are some butterflies in those fingers tonight,” he said.
Curreri came onstage in jeans and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, his beard short and his dark hair mussed. Someone had put pink and purple gels over the stage lights, and so the wall behind him resembled a bruise. He placed his lyrics on a stool, then rolled the sleeve of his shirt away from his picking hand.
“Oh, yeah, there are definitely a few butterflies.” He cracked his knuckles — first lacing his fingers and bending his palms, then using one hand to wring the other, producing a succession of quick pops that caught the microphone and riffled through the room. By the second song, Curreri’s knee was pumping. He pitched violently in his chair and hollered, caught himself then rocked back again.
The set moved backward through his catalogue until, a few songs deep, Curreri wound up for “Blame Love.” The song was a live favorite, a quick-footed country blues he’d often embellish onstage. He began a harmony-laced rag, resolved a line. Then he stopped, less than a minute in.
“No, that’s not right.”
He held his fretting hand to his mouth, muttered and sang to himself for a few seconds before starting up again. Bass notes snapped violently beneath flickering jazz chords. The tempo fluctuated. It felt as though Curreri was weighing his obligations to his fragile body and to his song, deciding which to favor, whether he might strike a balance. He pushed the alternating bass line up to speed, narrowed his melody, and let his voice coast through the early verses, his lyrics more spoken than sung.
Mockingbird sings ’cause he wants to,
he don’t need no echoing canyon.
Good Book salesman sells ’cause he’s supposed to,
I’m trying to figure which I am.
But there was no such decision for Curreri to make. His body had always borne his virtuosity, and so he had become accustomed to demanding it from himself. Even as his voice balked, he made the same demands of it, shouting through a body of songs because the songs required that he shout. The noise Curreri made affirmed him; it was an identity as well as an obligation. He could only play his songs as he’d always heard them in his head. How else would he have recognized them, or himself?
He accelerated past the song’s end, bending his B string, goading himself, trying to spark some reaction. The performance felt violent, and that violence seemed directed inward, Curreri pushing his body to keep up with the needs of the song. He kicked back in his chair once, twice, then slapped his guitar and shouted his way, a capella, through a few old blues standards — “Diving Duck” and “Death Letter” — tweaking words as he went. “You better decide right now,” he growled, “which way you’re going to head.”
Nearly seven minutes into the medley, Curreri steered himself back to a delicate place. His thumb — that sharp nail — softened its picking, and the bass line quieted. He made his way through “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which he sang in a hushed voice. He slowed, mushed the penultimate chord, stuck the last one. He doubled over his guitar to put his face in his hands for a moment. When he finally rose, he cracked his knuckles again.
“Thanks,” he said. “Might be getting a little too old for that.” He flexed his right hand, looked at it, smiled, and said, “Ow.”
There was a final album, but no resolution — no concluding statement, no parting shots. In 2011, Curreri released The Big Shitty, which he recorded in Berlin, then tinkered with back in Virginia. He worked with a bassist and drummer, and brought in some clarinet from Sproule. Otherwise, the music was his alone. The arrangements are dynamic, nimble, and assured — more so than on any of his previous records. Curreri and Sproule had spent time in Nairobi, collaborating with Kenyan musicians, and a few songs are flecked with West African rhythms and burbling bass lines.
Lyrically, the songs on The Big Shitty are fevered. They grapple with routine, repetition, stasis. Every track courts a glimmering hope; some turn from impatience into rage or weariness, but a few come close enough to grant a bit of relief. “If I can make myself dance just a little bit, the day might well be worth it,” he sings early on in “Juju.” A few verses later, he concludes:
How many nights have come before
Where I’ve written just the same
But woke to find my eye swelled shut
And a broken guitar string?
That’s true — and it might be true again
But what do you want me to do?
Alone, at home, I just got my dance on
And I might tomorrow too.
Curreri takes care to direct attention away from himself; still, his writing implicates him. “On the surface, this batch of songs seems less immediately autobiographical, more character-driven, more fantastical,” an announcement from his label read. “Still, one can’t help but be aware of the occasional parallels between these scenarios and Curreri’s personal life.”
Around the time of that record, Curreri and Sproule left Virginia. Their earnings from CD sales had declined and their careers seemed to increasingly depend on European gigs. Most shows were in England, where their label was based, but Berlin was cheaper. They moved in the fall, bringing just their clothes and guitars and their cat. By the winter, the cat had died, the cold had come, everyone had gone indoors. The couple traveled to England for Christmas and ended up staying for three months. In the spring, Danny Schmidt called and invited the couple to live with him in Austin, Texas. They went back to Berlin, cleaned out their apartment, then flew back across the Atlantic.
Sproule and Curreri moved into a cottage in Schmidt’s yard, to which Schmidt had also added a recording shack and an old Airstream trailer. There was a welcome concert at the Cactus Café, with opening sets by Schmidt and his wife and their friends, and headlining spots reserved for the new arrivals. After that, Sproule went back on tour — two weeks in Canada, two months in the U.K. In the winter, she and Curreri left Austin together for an artists’ residency on Fishers Island, a few miles off the Connecticut coast.
Curreri had found a little light in Austin, and the residency gave him space and time to chase it. “I found myself on a roll,” Curreri later wrote, “with maybe 15 songs coming reasonably into focus in the first two weeks. These were simple songs — strummed mostly, sung evenly without shouting — but they felt lean and mean, like their backs were straight against the wall.” In one, “Flies in the Texas Grotto,” a character swats at the titular pests with a rolled-up issue of MOJO, the British music magazine that had championed Curreri’s albums. The song, which was shaped in part by Austin and Schmidt, is a tribute to camaraderie and art and wine, though it also bears the usual warnings about the unanticipated brinks and unmarked pitfalls, warnings Curreri aimed at himself. “Destroying sounds good, if you clip the ending,” Curreri chants on the chorus. “But there’s fly guts on a young Public Enemy.”
Curreri was in his studio on a December night in 2012 when he suffered his third vocal hemorrhage. “I immediately understood what it meant, and how long it meant it for — at least a year,” he wrote. He spent another month on the island in relative silence, then traveled with Sproule back to Austin. A few weeks later, he woke up with a pain in his left hand, in the knuckle of his middle finger. He went to a doctor, who diagnosed osteoarthritis; there was no cartilage left in the joint. Given time, Curreri’s voice had always recovered. His hand, the doctor said, would not.
Curreri developed tendinitis-like pain soon after. His wrists throbbed in time with his heart and kept him awake at night. He saw more doctors. There were MRIs, X-rays, all that costly bloodwork. Curreri quit smoking again. He quit drinking. He cut gluten from his diet. More than once, he got tested for Lyme. Playing chords on the piano became painful; playing anything on the guitar felt worse.
The couple stayed in Austin for two more years. For Curreri, however, touring was out of the question. He found work teaching painting classes and worked as a producer for other musicians, whose work he recorded in the shack in Schmidt’s yard. The songs from Fishers Island went unfinished.
Destroying sounds good, if you clip the ending. Which is to say, there’s awe to be found in destruction, in its power and its totality, but only if you can spare yourself. Even faced with our own dissolution — even as we succumb — what might we salvage?
I visited Curreri at his home a few more times, always in the morning, when Sproule was with their daughter. Each visit, he’d reheat coffee and lead me down to the basement, where we’d talk for an hour or so, surrounded by his synthesizer collection. Over time, we spoke less about the music he had once made and more about the work he did now. Along with producing albums and directing the occasional music video, Curreri ran sound at a local church and taught classes at a paint-and-sip franchise, where people pay $35 to recreate someone else’s painting and drink as much as they please. “I newly have realized that I’m OK doing work that isn’t the most inspiring work, if it pays well and I don’t feel it’s a waste of time,” he said once. “I didn’t know I’d be OK with that.”
Curreri began painting classes in Austin after his hands and voice gave out. He’d auditioned for a franchise owner there, and the painting had gone off without a hitch. Then, minutes into the formal job interview, he had a panic attack. Sweat ran into his eyes and soaked his shirt. At the end of the interview, he left without shaking the owner’s hand. When he got home, he emailed her to explain that had never happened to him before and that he really wanted the job, which she offered him. It took a few years to get the execution down, he says — to connect with the room, to land each painting at exactly two hours. Now, he says, “there’s just something really nice about doing stuff you can do well.”
It took a while before I could attend one of Curreri’s classes. An ice storm forced him to cancel a class; another attracted too few students, so Curreri had to nix that one, too — which meant he didn’t get paid. “No sign-ups, no class, no money, no status in society,” he wrote to me. “Sad face.” I found a Saturday night class with an image of a potted cactus — a flowering prickly pear with fruits the color of raw tuna. Someone had titled the class “Spike Up Your Life.” Curreri offered to let me paint for free, but I paid the $35 to reserve my spot, worried another class would fall through.
The class is a bring-your-own affair; for a while, the studio shared a wall with a pub called the Tin Whistle, which was handy in case anyone ran dry. When I visited, two rows of folding tables spanned the room, flanked by stools and topped with wood easels. Clusters of truly vacuous paintings — a cattle skull with a garland of pink flowers, a unicorn silhouette filled with stars — crowded the walls.
Curreri had prepared four easels and sketched the lines of the cactus on each canvas. A small stereo played reggae. Curreri stood at one end of the room near his own easel, which held a finished version of the cactus painting. The wall behind him had a few signs printed with motivational quotes; each sign made to look as though it had been splashed with wine. One, from Bob Ross, read, There are no mistakes, only happy little accidents. Curreri wore a long-sleeved burgundy shirt and a headset with a microphone attached to the end, so he wouldn’t have to speak loudly.
“Hang your coat up there” — Curreri pointed to a row of hooks along a wall — “and take an apron.”
Other students arrived, each with a moderate amount of alcohol: a couple Michelob Ultras, a small bottle of Sutter Home rosé. Each of us had a few small brushes, a paper plate spotted with acrylics, and a large, paint-stained Mason jar full of water. Keep your brushes in your water, another sign warned, not your wine.
Curreri reached for the stereo. The reggae stopped, replaced by the Kinks’ “A Well-Respected Man.” And he’s oh so healthy in his body and his mind. The song felt a bit too on-the-nose, though Curreri said it was a coincidence, just a Pandora station. He opened a can of sparkling water, and the other students opened their drinks. “Let’s get it started,” he said.
The background in the finished painting had traces of canary and rose, colors you imagine inside a Southwestern home. Curreri instructed everyone to take a glob of white paint, along with a little red and a little yellow. “I would say the goal is to try to have little events,” he said, then added that acrylics are forgiving. “If you make a mistake, hang loose.” Throughout the class, Curreri seemed to enjoy himself. He blends colors too much, he told the class, then made a joke about being conflict averse.
While we worked — I’m not making this up — the stereo played “It’s My Life,” by the Animals, “Draggin’ the Line,” by Tommy James, and “Goin’ Out of My Head,” by Little Anthony and the Imperials. It was a surreal playlist, as though a receiver were catching snippets of Curreri’s psyche. The only song he skipped was “Comfortably Numb.” Once, while he was out of the room, a student whispered to her friend, “I love this music.”
Curreri refilled his empty seltzer can at the water cooler. He got sober in 2013, though he doesn’t put it in programmatic terms. He doesn’t go to meetings; someone gave him a copy of the big book and he used it to steady a dresser. “For better and worse, alcohol fit into my worldview,” he wrote after he hit his five-year mark. (For a while, he and Sproule kept a New Yorker cartoon on their fridge: “Susan, this might be the wine talking, but I think I want to order more wine.”) Drinking fueled late-night recording sessions and blunted physical pain, subdued his anxiety, obscured the signals his body sent him as his voice and hands began to fail him. Sproule, who calls her husband a charismatic introvert, had mentioned Curreri’s casual search for something to help him better settle into himself — something he’d alluded to, as well. (“I’m still looking,” he told me once, “for some way to kind of get high.”) The water cooler gurgled, and I thought of his meditation efforts — those artificial waves, a fake tide working against what ebbed and swelled inside him.
After an hour, my cactus resembled a fat green hand, the pot a big blue smudge. Each brush stroke felt unnatural, graceless. I assumed the other painters in the room felt the same about their work. Yet here we were, our bodies newly strange to us, hushed in effort, slopping our canvases in earnest with spines and blossoms. The Pandora station conjured the Velvet Underground, the song where Lou Reed charts the distance between a thought and its expression. Curreri murmured along quietly into his microphone, a quiet tuh tuh tuh.
With a few minutes left, Curreri did a lap around the room, offering gentle praise and last-minute assistance. Did we need anything? More white paint? “Nice, Brendan,” he said when he reached me. “Those are huge brush strokes.” It didn’t sound like praise, exactly; then again, why had I wanted that? The finished product was clumsy, but unmistakably a cactus. I didn’t want anyone to see it, but looking at it gave me an expansive feeling, and I realized that it had been years since I’d tried something at which I was a beginner. Curreri gathered us for a group picture, then it was time to go. Though I later hid the painting on top of a tall shelf, I carried it with care as I walked home, so as not to smudge a single stroke.
A few weeks later, I walked with Sproule from her house to a nearby coffee shop, around the corner from Charlottesville’s best-known fried chicken spot. The edges of the city smelled like wet earth and fresh powder; the dogwoods were in bloom. Curreri stayed back with Ray, who was asleep. At the shop, Sproule paid for my coffee and ordered some for herself, but told me she would likely drink very little.
Sproule is waifish, slightly avian, with an intense gaze; she resembles a young Jodie Foster. She grew up on Twin Oaks, a decades-old intentional community built on 400-plus acres in nearby Louisa, and first made a name for herself as a Charlottesville musician by busking on the city’s pedestrian mall, covering music from the Lilith Fair songbook. By the time Curreri drunkenly intruded on her set — a story that doubtless has grown glossier with time and retelling, into a sort of “Dancing in the Dark” moment — Sproule had a few full-length albums to her credit and had toured with the Dave Matthews Band, playing on a smaller stage for the people in line for beer and merch. When she was 21, Rolling Stone championed her third album, Upstate Songs, as one of the year’s best.
Early on, Sproule had felt intimidated by Curreri’s musicianship. (“My songwriting was still in its sort of adolescent phase, trying to figure out what was my voice and what was Liz Phair’s voice.”) She felt greater confidence in their courtship — perhaps more than Curreri had. “I think my wild card had more to do with romance than music,” she said. At the time, she wasn’t sold on monogamy, while Curreri clearly was. “He was so serious and confident. ‘You should come live with me!’ Not hard to get at all.”
As Curreri’s career as a solo musician fell apart, Sproule’s own career continued its ascent. In 2008, before Curreri first injured his voice, the couple traveled together to England, where Sproule had been invited to perform on Jools Holland’s longtime BBC music show, on an episode that also featured Vampire Weekend. The crowd for that taping was larger than any I’d ever seen the couple get in Charlottesville. Holland introduced Sproule, who wore a red shirt-dress and a big Gibson, and who strummed through two jazz songs, tapping a foot, moving her head back and forth, laughing and relishing a few low notes. Curreri accompanied her, though it’s not clear whether anyone other than Sproule knew who he was.
Her songs, like Curreri’s, are conspicuously intimate, though in many ways they’re more direct, less glancing. “If or when it gets tricky again / If the pain stays or gets worse in your hand,” she sings on “More Together,” written during the couple’s time in Austin. A few songs track their conversations about having a child, Sproule’s measured consideration and Curreri’s reluctance. (“I love you, but some mornings feel bad,” he sang on California. “If you want to have a kid, we can talk about that.”)
Both Curreri and Sproule have felt competitive with their closest musician friends, and with each other. Over time, Sproule said, that feeling has diminished. She feels less envious of those friends who tour more, who get bigger shows. The couple’s U.K. label still releases new music from Sproule, who’s put out two albums since Curreri stopped performing. She teaches songwriting at a local music-education nonprofit; her bio identifies Curreri as a “producer/videographer.”
“Being married,” Sproule said, “at some point, you realize that you can really take credit for being a team, and so being competitive feels less necessary.” However, she added, “there’s another aspect of that, which is that it’s easy to feel not threatened by someone who can’t play anymore.”
“He’s just a testament to the complexity of body and mind,” Sproule said. “I don’t know if he’s, like, the luckiest or least lucky I know. It’s hard for me to say, being so close. He’s so good at stuff. He’s such an amazing husband and dad. And yet he’s been cursed with a body that has failed him in a lot of ways and a mind that — I guess it’s not that abnormal for someone who’s really creative and original to also suffer from the dark side of that.”
Curreri courted his musical ambitions with characteristic abandon. While the scale of those dreams may have seemed unrealistic, Sproule said, his talent and skill made them impossible to rule out. “He was so good at so many elements of it,” she said. “The performing. Not necessarily the self-management, but hopping onstage with people. Being confident in his musicianship in the same way he was when we met.” His art was inarguable, uncontestable in its power.
Still, what interest Curreri attracted never yielded much in the way of broader industry recognition or sustainable income. (“We never really made any money, but we made enough,” Curreri once told a local paper. “And I was like, ‘I guess that’s just being an artist.”) Most artists navigate those gnarlier parts of the music industry on their own. “Whether or not he has been thwarted by them, he has felt thwarted by them, over and over again,” Sproule said. “Losing his hands and his voice was like the ultimate punch in the gut, as far as feeling like really shat on, you know?”
We returned our mugs, Sproule’s still sloshing with coffee. On the walk home, I asked her what should become of the music Curreri can’t play anymore. Curreri’s website, once a portal for his music, had been down for years at the time. Sproule told me she’d sold spare copies of his albums at her own gigs; sometimes she’d just given them away. “Maybe someday he’ll rerelease it, or somebody will,” she said. Meanwhile, Curreri had quietly begun releasing new music to a small and steady audience on Patreon. Because of that, she said, “it probably will be a while before he or anyone else wants to reprint the ones that have run out.”
A week later, Sproule performed at her neighborhood venue, an old private swimming club tucked away in a clutch of evergreens. She split the bill with Danny Schmidt, who was in town with his wife and daughter, all of them staying down the road with Curreri and Sproule, their small house full. The venue was dark save for a few strands of lights, and many of the acoustic ceiling tiles were warped with damp. Curreri was there, too, seated at a card table in the middle of a grid of folding chairs, his water bottle in front of him, running sound.
The audience at Sproule’s local gigs hadn’t changed much in the past decade. It’s a small solar system of musicians and their friends, all of them orbiting the luminous hub of Curreri and Sproule and their work. Many of those musicians have won some amount of local or regional acclaim. Several of them, like Curreri, no longer play. I spoke with the literature instructor who’s struggled to regain motor function after a neurological disorder. I saw Curreri’s former producer, another formidable guitarist, who said he’d had problems with both his wrists.
I sat in Curreri’s row, a few seats away from him. Schmidt’s performance was enchanting, soothing, his picking deceptive in its ease, his songs striking a sort of Leonard Cohen–esque balance of elements. Mid-set, he pointed out Curreri and called him “the most overqualified sound guy in history.” It’s hard to say whether Curreri appreciated the joke.
Sproule is a winning performer, something I used to silently fault her for when I first saw her play. Her levity used to strike me as put-on, rather than courageous; her enthusiasm seemed to me to be too much, especially placed alongside Curreri’s darkness, his penchant for self-destruction. For years, stories about Sproule routinely cited her youth and her relationship with Curreri — that fateful drunken evening. Those stories diminished her the same way I had — made her a passive object of desire, a virginal artist pursued by a reckless master, a mere muse. “My life is a little more balanced,” she told The Guardian in 2007, about her relationship with Curreri. “He’ll walk around the house playing guitar for six hours a day while I’m busy calculating what’s the cheapest way to get health insurance for two self-employed people.” That scene had repeated itself quite literally during one of my meetings with Curreri: I’d spent an hour with him in the basement, my enthusiasm for his work brimming, while Sproule was upstairs, nursing Ray with a phone on her shoulder, on hold with an insurance representative, trying to add their daughter to their health plan.
Near the show’s end, Sproule played Lucinda Williams’s “Passionate Kisses.” A few of the broken musicians in the audience — friends of the couple, artists forced in one way or another to scale back their own ambitions — mouthed the words as Sproule sang. The worn-out venue filled up with their meager requests. Shouldn’t we have this? Is it too much to ask? I looked down the aisle to Curreri, who a decade earlier would have taken the stage with his wife. He held his face in his hands and watched her, transfixed.
Each month, Curreri and Sproule post two songs to a Patreon page, where supporters contribute a combined $400 or so for each new track. Curreri arranges most of the compositions and produces all of them. “I do about 80 percent, 90 percent,” he says. “Devon comes down, sings really well, totally takes it to a place that I can’t take it without her. Then I finish it up.” Some are covers. Curreri cooked up a version of Nirvana’s “Polly” that owes a bit to “Iko Iko” and “Bo Diddley,” and expanded, he wrote, “because I was so goddamned happy to be working on something.” There are a few demos from the record Curreri began on Fishers Island then shelved; one, “Louise,” he remixed with Sproule, who sings over an organ drone while a few spectral harmonics wash in and out like waves.
Louise, by Paul Curreri
“It’s like he’s been slowly finding a way not just to make music physically, but emotionally to have a reason to do it, a reason to share it,” Sproule told me. “I don’t pretend to understand how he’s been able to do that, or why he wants to again, or if he’s enjoying it.”
There are new Curreri songs, too. They bear little resemblance to his guitar music; Curreri’s throat still aches after singing and, as his first doctor predicted, his fretting hand has not improved. Most of the new songs are synth-heavy, though to wildly different ends. Some call to mind synth-pop groups like Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark; others, the Nigerian funk prodigy William Onyeabor, whose self-released albums Curreri gravitated to for a while. “There’s something really ‘mad man in the basement’ about him that is so attractive,” Curreri told me one morning.
Most of those songs arrive with confessional notes from Curreri, the best of which are as revelatory as any of his music. He revisits his injuries then cycles through the stages of grief, nearing acceptance but never quite arriving there. He describes himself as a musical invalid, then presents new music. “Even though I still can’t sing,” he says, “it’s been great to make our little Patreon releases, really nice for me to have something to do again.” A few weeks later, there’s another song, featuring Curreri’s voice and — rarer still — some guitar. “It was so unbelievably exciting, and felt so empowering,” he wrote in the accompanying note. “And yeah, I’ve had a terribly sore throat for three days since, but it was well worth it.” Then he swings back again.
Friedman, Curreri’s friend from college, once described for me his own artistic collapse — a combination of drinking, carpal tunnel, and weeks-long stretches with his own band, playing shows in which he’d bang his hand on his guitar until it bled. The whole experience, he told me, had forced him to change his mindset, which involved confronting the roles that anxiety and stress played in his physical injuries. When Curreri stopped playing guitar, Friedman suggested the same might apply to him. Perhaps anxiety played more of a role than Curreri could admit; perhaps some of what had curtailed his playing was psychosomatic. “I became a pretty preachy best friend,” Friedman said. “That preachiness, I think — I know — really came between us.”
He brought up Curreri’s first album and the disastrous show, the forgotten lyrics and walkouts. “When the spotlight was the brightest on him, that’s when he’d get a cold or a sore throat, something to fuck it up,” Friedman told me. “I’m being very honest here. I don’t know what he’d think of me saying these things. You can ask him. But I don’t think he can dispute that fact.”
I doubt he would. In most of his Patreon letters, Curreri returns to his anxiety, his medical misfortune, the things he’s lost. Each note brought new music and ideas, but towed a hefty amount of sadness. “On the days when I’m sideswiped by who-knows-what, no matter what I’m doing, it’s not what I want to be doing,” he wrote in one. The specter of success that broke him had also fortified him, committed him to his unsustainable path.
“I perpetually worry I’m doing it all wrong,” he wrote. “Living, I mean. I miss the spirituality of wine. … I miss my body when it was ferocious.”
On Sunday mornings, Curreri runs sound at First Presbyterian Church, a tall brick building on Park Street, outfitted with white columns and a green steeple. “I’m not religious,” he told me. “But I’m doing a good job, it pays well, and I’m helping people have their show or vision or whatever, so it feels right. Oh, and it’s part-time.” A few months into our talks, I texted to ask him if I could watch him work.
“Ha. Oh man. If you would really like to,” he wrote back. “It would seriously be like watching paint dry. But if you wanna.”
First Presbyterian holds two masses; the first features the Praise Team, the church’s in-house band, and starts at 8:55 a.m. I showed up at the church around 7:30 and texted Curreri. “Whoa, dude. Early show,” he wrote back. “I’m upstairs in the balcony.”
The church was long and narrow, with wine-colored carpets and a ceiling with an arch like a coffin lid. Behind the altar was the largest organ I’d ever seen — 3,300 pipes divided into 59 ranks, including a few salvaged from the church’s first instrument. I followed a small staircase to the balcony, where I found Curreri seated at a small desk, dressed in a dark plaid shirt and black jeans, his hair to his shoulders. The desk supported a soundboard, computer monitors, and a pen-filled mug that read Worship through music — proof, I was sure, that it didn’t belong to Curreri.
There was not much to do yet, so we went downstairs to the fellowship hall, a big banquet room with a flat-screen TV and an industrial-size coffee urn. While he waited for coffee to brew, Curreri fiddled with the TV remote, then with his right hand, squeezing the wad of muscle between his thumb and forefinger.
Mugs filled, we headed back to the balcony. On the way, we passed an older man in a blue jacket and red tie, who offered a curt greeting: “Hello, Paul.” The man used to rag on him each week, Curreri said, telling him, “Get to work.” One week, Curreri finally shot back, “This is my work. I’m here every week. I’m not sure if you think you can say this to me because you’re older than me. But if you want to say hello, you can just say, ‘Hello, Paul.’” The man made a point of it now.
The job makes little use of Curreri’s skills as a musician and producer. Often, Curreri says, someone in the balcony leans over during the peace offering to ask, “Still here, huh?” No one in the church — or in the painting class, for that matter — suggested any awareness that Curreri was even a musician. The music director, who had been at the church since 5 a.m. playing the massive organ, asked Curreri in front of me, “Where’d you learn to do all this?” Curreri replied that he’s been doing it for years.
By the time we returned to the soundboard, the Praise Team had assembled to the left of the altar. The guitarist, maybe the youngest member of the group, looked like he came straight from a rehearsal with his metal band; he wore his hair in a long ponytail and held a big bright sunburst Les Paul. He had a distortion pedal with him, and he’d poorly calibrated his levels, so each hymn had an unfortunate “Monsters of Rock” feel. Curreri pressed a button, and two large screens unscrolled, one on either side of the altar. From his desk, Curreri could select one of 924 hymns and its lyrics would appear on the screens.
“Pretty much only the singers are miked,” he said, “so there’s really not much I can do.”
The service started at 8:55 a.m. Curreri pressed a keyboard button and the lyrics on the screen advanced. There was one other person in the balcony with us, a man with short graying hair, so we spoke quietly when we spoke at all. When the Praise Team guitarist stepped on his distortion pedal, Curreri flashed the metal horns, and I laughed. The man in the balcony shot us a look.
Curreri nudged me and handed me his old iPhone, wrapped in a peeling purple cover. It was open to an email he had received that morning. A fan had written to him about a backyard show Curreri played in northern Virginia 15 years earlier. The fan, who lives in Charlottesville, described his efforts to reverse-engineer Curreri’s songs and said he sometimes saw Curreri walking around his neighborhood, pushing Ray in a stroller. The facts of Curreri’s life — parenthood, stroller ownership, a life outside of music — “never occurred to me,” the fan wrote, “as you’ve taken on mythological status in my life for so many years.” The letter — the sort I’ve often written in my head — also said Curreri’s music “ministered to me through some tough times over the years, and I’m so grateful for it.”
I asked Curreri how often he gets fan letters.
“Once a month or so,” he said. “Less and less.” He reads them now, but for a few years he avoided them. Each letter turned his gaze back, forced him to confront his losses, something he’d struggled enough to do on his own. “Nostalgia,” he said, “makes me kinda glum.”
Summer came on, a sultry breath on the city’s collar. Toward the end of May, a few dozen people gathered at the Woolen Mills Chapel, a tiny two-room church at the edge of the city’s old textiles district. Wes Swing, whose last record Curreri produced, had organized a group of local musicians for a night of Townes Van Zandt songs. There were programs printed for the occasion, with Van Zandt’s face on the front. Inside, Swing wrote that the show was “as much a tribute as an exorcism.” The back of the program named a half-dozen performers, Curreri among them. A friend of Curreri’s had caught my arm a few days before the show and told me, “I think you’ll want to be there.”
The day’s heat had worked with the Rivanna River to thicken the air, and the chapel was muggy. I sat in the front row on a red-cushioned pew. Schoolhouse lights hung overhead. Sproule entered, followed by Curreri. I shook his right hand, which was wrapped in a black brace; when he turned away from me, I winced, belatedly worried about injuring him. Sproule stopped to talk for a minute and asked about my kids; we compared our shifting schedules, when we woke and worked and slept. Meanwhile, Curreri moved about the space, opened a window, set up a fan to push air around. They sat together in a pew across the aisle; I turned to my neighbors and quietly asked them whether they knew Curreri’s music. They did not.
Swing, a handsome red-bearded man in a blue floral shirt, began the night with “Flyin’ Shoes” and “Rex’s Blues.” His clear tenor sanctified the songs, gave them a bit of distance from their author. Van Zandt had been another poet of dissolution, a musician whose recklessness owed much to addiction, and whose death had cinched his notoriety. “I don’t think he was actually good at sticking around,” Sproule said, before her own solo run through “Turnstyled, Junkpiled,” in which Van Zandt lays out his commitment to a partner: I ain’t got no plan but to be your man / and to love you ’til I die. She threw her body into the alternating bass line, and took obvious pleasure in Van Zandt’s chorus. She’d learned the song a decade earlier, she told the crowd. “I had nimble fingers back then.”
After Sproule finished her song, Curreri stepped onstage then, and sat before a small organ. He looked back over his shoulder at Sproule, and they began “When Your Dream Lovers Die,” a song that refutes idealized notions of love for its truer forms. When your sweet words begin to turn black on the vines, and they bear their fruit no longer / Lay down your love songs and leave them behind / I’ll show you something stronger. Sproule took a break before the last verse, and Curreri played a solo — learned but casual, gentle above all else. The room was quiet; I could hear his left foot tapping the carpet. After the applause, Sproule took her seat. Curreri stayed put at the organ.
I knew without being told that he would play “The Rake.” The song is Van Zandt’s most devastating account of debauchery and downfall. Its narrator proudly recounts his appetites and his rage. It’s an accounting and also a succumbing; something is owed for pleasure, and so something is taken. “I used to wake and run with the moon,” the titular narrator sings. “I lived like a rake and a young man.” Pleasures and self-destructive habits take their toll, consume the man who defined himself by them and whose final act is the telling of his own cautionary tale. No musician who knew Curreri would have dared challenge him for the song.
One of Curreri’s hands summoned a drone, accordion-like. The other trembled a few keys, then introduced chords; the organ was breathy, but not overly so, a harrowing combination of signal and air. The tempo shifted organically. Curreri sang his first lines with a sort of weary reminiscence. Then he reached the word “rake” and practically bit through it.
The room felt grave, funereal. Curreri ended his early verses with a surprising lilt, which gave depth to his wistfulness. “I’d welcome the stars with wine and guitars / Full of fire and forgetful,” he sang. “My body was sharp, the dark air clean / and outrage my joyful companion.” His grief vivified each line; it was as though he were an orator at his own wake.
He missed a line in the second verse, but recovered, and seemed to feel no real distress over it. He had recurring dreams, Curreri told me once, of being onstage again, of finding himself before an audience and discovering his injuries anew. “I don’t know any of the words to my songs,” he had said. “I could barely remember the words back then. I could never do it now, and I don’t know them on the guitar anymore. It’s always very scary dreams.”
At one moment in the song, the rake confronts his critics, interprets their judgement. Does he want us to believe these ravings and lies? They’re just tricks that his brain’s been a-playin’. Curreri would have rehearsed this line dozens of times — summoning a drone from one of his imperfect keyboards, worrying over how to land each word just so, wondering just how much he could ask of himself. It reminded me, too, of something Sproule had said about Curreri’s voice, and his last trip to a doctor. “He had a lot of pain, but there was nothing there except for proof of past trauma,” she said. “It was weird to have pain and not have anything be there.”
Curreri rounded the song’s final corner and dispensed with melody for a moment. His voice leveled off, ominous. The performance was heartrending; it seemed almost cruel. Yet even as Curreri’s fate aligned with that of the song’s subject — even as he faced off with the pain in his body for the sake of the song — I didn’t want him to stop. Destroying sounds good, if you clip the ending, Curreri sang, on a song he may never finish to his own satisfaction, a song whose lack of resolution may be resolution enough.
The final seconds of organ were quiet enough that I could hear the keys land with a bony click. The instrument’s breath gave out suddenly. Applause rushed in to fill the silence. Curreri left the stage and went back to his pew to take his seat next to Sproule. Swing returned to the stage and told the audience how fortunate they were to hear his voice.
Later, Curreri texted Sproule about the night, and told her he hadn’t felt anxious. “The whole thing jumped the rail of a regular night — it was so out of time,” he wrote. “So many people in that old chapel with no AC, the songs not selling anything, desk fan from home, drapes covering the cross, just the summer.”
An epiphany, perhaps, but those recede. For days after the set, Curreri’s throat ached. In the months that followed, he quit drinking coffee and seltzer, still hopeful he might isolate what aggravated his voice. He considered acid-reflux surgery, though his symptoms are mild. There was another MRI for his hand pain, but all it turned up was a bill for $3,000. He left his job at the paint-and-sip franchise; he gathered new instruments and sold off others. “The problem with synths,” he once told me, “is there’s often only one kind of voice they can make.”
Recently, Curreri played another show — his first since “The Rake,” and his first set made up exclusively of his Patreon releases with Sproule. They worked up live renditions of the songs Curreri had assembled in his basement and performed them in a small art gallery, within shouting distance of Charlottesville’s big outdoor amphitheater. Curreri brought three synthesizers and a drum machine, which he used to sample pieces from the studio recordings. He wore a T-shirt that read, Don’t touch my lovely body. The setlist included “Louise,” one of the songs Curreri recorded as a demo on Fishers Island. Throughout the set, Curreri looked only at Sproule or at his own hands.
“Something has just changed within me,” he told me after. “You probably recall in the old days, I’d talk a lot. Now I just can’t even look at the audience. I haven’t said a word into a microphone in forever. I don’t know if it’s just that I’m out of game, or if wine offered some bravery boost I no longer have anymore — if being stone-cold sober up there doesn’t give me imaginary pedestal to step up on, to feel worthy of folks looking at me. I always just feel kind of shy and elusive up there.” He had more than enough of an excuse to be looking down, he told me. “But one can always say that.”
A few days later, two new songs arrived in my inbox, along with the monthly letter from Curreri to his little group of supporters. I once told Curreri that reading those letters was difficult for me. “Is it?” he’d replied — sharply, I thought, though I’d deserved that. In many of those letters, Curreri measures himself against what he’s certain he once was. I miss my body when it was ferocious.
I’m guilty of that last part, too, I suppose. But I’m less certain now that Curreri has lost something essential. He never made easy art, never clutched at comfort at the expense of real, sober reckoning, even when he wasn’t sober. His body is no longer ferocious, but that comes for us all. The perfection he courted might have robbed him of that ferocity. Would it have spared him his grief? Maybe we treat acceptance as a destination rather when we should treat it as a practice. Maybe grief never really leaves the room. What then? “The idea that he can never play guitar again is tragic, to me and everybody else who’s ever heard him play,” Friedman told me. “But if it should be that he can never play guitar again like that, the idea that he wouldn’t venture into some other form of expression is even more tragic. And I think right now he’s going through, hopefully, a metamorphosis.”
After “The Rake,” I’d left the chapel and gone to my car. The streets were dark, and the air was thick with humidity. I drove home past the little house where Curreri and Sproule lived after they got married. Outside my own house, I dug in my pocket for my phone, then pulled up the recording I’d made of Curreri’s performance. The windows of my house were lit; I could see my wife and children inside. I stayed in the car, enveloped by night and the dark, and played Curreri’s voice back again and again, watching what small scrap of light was mine and pleading that it last.
Brendan Fitzgerald is senior editor at Columbia Journalism Review. His writing has appeared at Literary Hub, The Believer, Logger, Montana Public Radio, and The Morning News, where he wrote the “Press Pause” column. He spent six years as an editor at C-VILLE Weekly in Charlottesville, Virginia. He received his MFA in nonfiction from the University of Montana, where he was a Bertha Morton Scholar, co-curator of the Second Wind Reading Series, and online content editor for CutBank.
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