Karl Wallinger and Our Midwest Tour

posted March 29, 2024
Karl Wallinger

When I learned of the death of Karl Wallinger, best known as the auteur behind the band World Party, I felt as though a part of me, too, had died. And a part of me was born again.

My first husband David introduced me to “Ship of Fools” while we were dating. We saw World Party on Saturday Night Live in 1990. I was taken with Wallinger’s look––a cross between John Lennon and Bob Dylan––and also his sound––McCartney’s melodic and harmonic genius, with a hefty dose of Motown, early ’70s Rolling Stones, and Prince.

We bought the first three albums, Private Revolution, Goodbye Jumbo, Bang!. When I texted him, David couldn’t remember if he took them in the divorce–they would have been the discs we fought over for sure. I do know I once owned Bang! because when I scrounged around the basement and then the attic to locate all my banished CDs, I found the cover. But no disc.

Does it matter? All the music is on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube.

Yes. Yes it matters. I ordered the entire catalogue on CD and (in the case of Jumbo) vinyl. I need to hold these artifacts. I need to read every line of liner notes. I need to make collages and paste them into my journals.

But none of this really explains my reaction. When I learned of Karl’s passing, I burst into tears, felt as though a shard of his soul had pierced my skin and entered my body. I Googled everything I could learn of him. I wept for his beautiful wife, a sculptor, and his adult children and baby grandchildren. It’s as though I’ve lost the barrier of my skin, that everything touches me and brings me to tears. This is ongoing, after almost three weeks.

This didn’t happen when David Bowie died, nor Tom Petty, though arguably either of them was a greater influence on me. But this, which feels a bit like metamorphosis, is exactly what happened when John Lennon died, an event which spun me around like the arrow on a child’s board game until it pointed me straight to my true north. In the months (really, years) that followed Lennon’s death, I conducted an all-out deep dive into his life, his music, his spirituality. I communed with him in meditation. Most significantly, I started writing songs.

Soon after Karl’s death, Katryna and I went to Chicago and Ann Arbor to perform for our audiences in the midwest. We hadn’t been to these cities in years (eight for Chicago, twenty for Ann Arbor). Though I’ve had negative experiences flying ever since the pandemic, this time was different. I listened to World Party as I collected my luggage, felt myself in a weird state of bliss and surrender as I gave in to the physical needs of a middle-aged body traveling through space, schlepping guitars and merchandise through airports, finding decent coffee and meals, trying to be a proper houseguest, safeguarding precious energy for the shows.

No cause of death was initially given for Karl. Knowing nothing, I feared the worst. Life is hard on musicians. Not only the physical demands which I’ve mostly avoided by limiting our touring to a two-hundred mile radius of where we live, but the psychic ones. World Party was one of those bands who seemed poised to make it big. They were on SNL, Letterman, on Chrysalis/Ensign (EMI) and shared management with Prince and Sinead O’Connor. But when I looked up Karl’s recent activities, I found out he suffered a brain aneurysm in 2001 which derailed his career to say the least. He lost the ability to speak for five years and also––permanently––the peripheral vision in both eyes, which made it difficult to play guitar and piano. When he finally did return to touring, he could mostly only afford to play with one other musician.

What would that do to me? Could I withstand such losses, not to mention the accompanying loss of a fanbase who, not seeing your updates, not seeing your band’s name playing in any of the clubs or festivals, would naturally drift away? Oh, wait. I did.

I had this all on my mind as I performed with my one (adorable) bandmate. Our numbers have of course dwindled too. It didn’t matter. I felt nothing but joy as I was again allowed the privilege of making music, of performing, of seeing that our songs, our harmonies, our connection still matters. We were both blown away by the quality of our audiences in Chicago and Ann Arbor. People drove from as far as three-and-a-half hours to get to the shows. DJs attended, requesting hard copies of our albums. In Chicago, a fan I’d never met said he’d bought one of our CDs at a used record store, and then invested in our full catalogue. In Ann Arbor, we hung around talking to groups of fans, took photos, got reacquainted with folks who used to follow our van around for entire tours. They pointed out that our photo still hangs on the Ark’s walls of fame.

Put the message in the box. Put the box into the car. Drive the car around the world till you get heard.

Music has a power that I don’t understand. I feel it sometimes when I experience the loyalty of our own following. But it took Karl’s death for me to remember its sway on me. Lately, I’ve avoided listening to music. Why? Music makes me feel. I can’t have it playing in the background. It’s distracting––not so much to my mind but to my heart. Listening to music, I become a sea creature, at the mercy of the waves. When I get fearful, I pull myself out of the water and sit on a rock, my knees to my chest, glowering at the fickle ocean.

So much love poured out to Karl Wallinger after he died. So many tributes, so many heartfelt messages on social media. I wanted to tell him, “See see see! It’s OK! You were always loved!”

But I was talking to myself––the me who was sitting on the rock in the middle of the ocean. It turned out, Karl died of a stroke. His family let the world know this a fortnight after his death. He didn’t suffer from depression. He was a human being in a human body that failed. His time had come. He was grateful for his career, his fans, the music that was his divine gift.

This was a person whose entire catalogue was a love letter to the natural world, a warning to humanity that we “will pay tomorrow.” He was decades ahead of his time. Watch his videos. There’s no greater service than to make beauty out of hard truth.

When I got home, I conducted a thorough search of the CD shelves. Having un-banished everything I lay the CDs in piles to re-alphabetize them all. There, among the “M’s” was Goodbye, Jumbo, with the CD of Bang! nestled next to it in the plastic case. I found the chords to his songs online and started learning “Put the Message in a Box,” and “Is It Like Today?” on guitar. I contacted my piano teacher to start up lessons again so that I can improve my version of “She’s the One,” and “Sweet Soul Dream.”

I’m writing songs again. I am shadowing his songwriting process, just as he shadowed Lennon, McCartney and Dylan. I’m learning from the lessons of his career and life, his passion for the planet and humanity. May I be a worthy student, and may I always be grateful for exactly the size of career I have.

The Comments

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  1. I still remember being in the back seat of my parents’ car on my way to a doctor’s appointment, hearing news on the radio that Karen Carpenter had died, and feeling shocked and saddened by the news. She was thirty-two and I was fifteen. I didn’t know she suffered from anorexia.

    It doesn’t sound like you were ever lucky enough to meet Karl, but it still makes total sense that you could be shocked and saddened, partly because you loved his music, and partly because he seems to be linked to other memories that you have.

    I think music also has an immortality to it. You can always listen to your favorite music, and the connection you feel based on the honesty of the lyrics and/ or the beauty of the instrumental music never goes away.

    You can also read your favorite books, and watch your favorite television shows or movies and feel like the authors and actors who have passed away will live on forever.

    Still, I think music is the most powerful. The Beatles still have a loyal following, and to go back even further there are people who still love classical music like Beethoven and Bach.

    I’m glad that you found your cds❤️

  2. This is a powerful tribute to 1)Karl Wallenger and his work, 2) the way music leaks into the deepest part of us and transforms us forever, and 3) you, who were ready to meet his gifts, and carry them forward in your beautiful way. Thank you, Nerissa.

  3. Lovely remembrance. I see a little younger Robbie Robertson too in that top picture. I always enjoyed The Ark and I say y’all twice there. Come to Seattle or Portland sometime! Carry on.

  4. Nerissa Thank you for this beautiful essay. I am so grateful for your articulate observations and your honesty. So much of this essay speaks to me and my experience; thank you for all the effort you put into it, and into all your art.

  5. Thank you Nerissa for this wonderful essay. I am grateful for your articulate observations and your brave honest reflections. This piece speaks to me and my experience; thank you for the effort and time I am sure you put into it. Cosy. ( I wrote this twice – it seemed to be erased so I wrote it again – I hope you don’t end up with 2 copies …)

  6. Thank you for sharing these thoughts about life, music and the state of the world. You are a beautiful, insightful writer. Songs can put into words the thoughts and feelings we sometimes can’t express on our own. PS: Loved seeing you in Tampa years ago.

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