Last One Down is one of my most epic rock “anthems.” Written shortly after I moved to Austin, Texas to chase my dream of being a career musician, the original demo sounded completely different than the final song. It even contained much different lyrics, but if you put the two versions together, you can see a more clear picture of my rock ‘n roll adventure.
Below you can hear the original demo of Last One Down, recorded in my small rental house in Austin, Texas with my friend Luke McClurg who is an excellent guitarist. Luke adds his signature finger-picking acoustic style while I added vocals and the acoustic guitar solo.
Luke and I were on similar journeys when I wrote this song. We both moved to Austin alone in search of a music career. We both showed up in Austin with no job and no idea how we would survive. Sharing a mix of excitement over the possibilities and the stress of making ends meet, we were both desperately searching to find a way to keep our musical dreams alive.
While Luke and I were only able to jam together for a short period of time, those few months were a non-stop barrage of excitement and hilarious memories. I met Luke through Craigslist where I had posted a call-out looking for musicians to form a rock band. I took a risk and invited a couple strangers who responded to my home for a jam session, one of which was Luke. I remember when he stepped out of his old Toyota in my driveway with hair down to his waist. I thought, “now THIS guy is rock ‘n roll!” Luke had attended Berklee School of Music in Los Angeles before arriving in Austin, and it showed. His guitar skills were incredibly smooth from countless hours of practice.
A drummer showed up that day who also had incredible skill. I won’t tell you his name because this article is going to get kind of bizarre, but he was a cool dude. His style reminded me of Taylor Hawkins from Foo Fighters on steroids. He could play slick machine-gun drum fills and incorporate counter-rhythms to keep things interesting somewhat similar to the drummer from Dave Matthews Band. Our first jam session showed incredible promise and we formed a short-lived band called Echo9. You can see the artwork for our original demo above.
One of the most memorable memories of jamming together occurred when my neighbor, who lived in a trailer in his ex-wife’s front yard, barged into my living room in the middle of practice. This guy was somewhat of a con-artist and would occasionally drink too much and get dangerous. When I first met him, I was moving into my house and opened up my garage door for the very first time to find some old worn-out tires. My neighbor spotted them from across the yard and asked if he could have them. I looked them over and saw that they were useless, so I gave them to him. 5 minutes later he had set up a booth on the sidewalk to try to sell the tires to some poor gullible soul. It didn’t take long before a police officer showed up and told him that he needed a permit to sell there. I could tell from their brief interaction that the police were very familiar with my neighbor. So this interesting character waltzes into my house in the middle of band practice with a tiny Peavey practice amp. As Luke and I stood there in front of our massive Marshall and Mesa guitar amps, my neighbor tried to convince us to buy his tiny guitar amp for a price that was outrageous. We politely declined to buy the guitar amp several times but he continued to try to convince us that we “needed” his little amp. He did not want to leave until we bought it. For us mild-mannered musicians, it felt like a hostage situation! Luckily though, he finally left, annoyed and dissatisfied. I would learn to keep my door locked after that incident!
Fast-forward a couple weeks. One day after jamming, our drummer invited Luke and I to some kind of party downtown for “beautiful and attractive people.” Luke and I didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. We hesitated to go but ultimately our drummer was able to convince us to go after he told us that single women would be there. I had just gotten dumped a few days before on Halloween so I was totally in! As we arrived at the slick downtown club where the party was being held, we noticed a number of things that made Luke and I feel like we might be in the wrong place. First of all, everyone looked like models. It seemed to be some kind of social mixer for single people but the party was thrown by some unknown organization who had set up a photo room. They would take pictures of people who just met and we did not know what they were for or where they would end up. We couldn’t even figure out who the hosting organization was. It was all very “hush hush.” I felt like this was a secret party that we had stumbled upon but weren’t supposed to be at!
Look, Luke and I are rock ‘n rollers. We didn’t fit in with these movie-star-type of people, but there we were, so we might as well talk to some women, right? I grabbed myself a beer and found a couple of blonde girls to talk to. It didn’t go so well for us though. As much as we tried to be fun and interesting, all of the girls we talked to would quickly find a way to exit the conversation in search of other guys who looked more like professional models. It was a humbling experience, and it pretty much sucked. After awhile, Luke and I gave up on women knowing that we were clearly in the wrong place. We spent the rest of the night enjoying our beer and talking about rock ‘n roll. Our drummer on the other hand had a blast! He had the ability to walk in both of those worlds, but that night confirmed to us that Luke and I were both social outcasts. In the rock world though, it’s good to be an underdog.
A couple weeks later Luke and I ventured to a different kind of party; an Austin house party! Now THIS was an environment that better-suited us. Our luck didn’t change much that night but at least women didn’t run screaming when they saw us! My wildest memory from that night is discovering that there was a snake in the living room couch. I remember whenever someone would try to sit on it, the host would yell “don’t sit on the snake!” Someone’s pet snake had slithered into the couch and wrapped itself around the springs. Nobody could get it out! We all sat around the couch waiting for the snake to escape. But where was our drummer during all of this fun? We weren’t sure…
Several weeks went by without hearing from our drummer. The three of us had been becoming good friends so we were somewhat alarmed and confused. Where could he have gone? Why wouldn’t he text us back? Did he go to one of those top-secret parties and never come back?? Luke and I didn’t know what to do, but we had to move forward with music. Our bank accounts were dwindling. If we didn’t start making some money as a band, we were totally screwed. We decided to start playing acoustic shows until we heard from him.
It didn’t take long for us to get our very first paid gig. I had wandered to a few open mics downtown to perform and one of them invited me to play a 90-minute paid set during the week. I was PUMPED! My FIRST paid gig in Austin! The place was B.D. Riley’s Irish Pub right smack in the center of downtown Austin on the infamous 6th Street. I invited Luke to perform with me and Echo9 had their first show. We played a number of original songs that would later be released on my album Vandarth: The Essentials along with some cover songs.
It was also during this time that Luke and I decided to record an acoustic demo. Since we were playing acoustic shows, it made sense that we would need to have an acoustic demo to send to venues in order to book more shows. And thus, the original version of “Last One Down” was born; a song that told the story of our Austin adventure so far. It chronicled the relationships and careers we had sacrificed to move to Austin as well as what we hoped to gain and the thrill of chasing our dreams. I had no idea what I was about to endure though, and much more would be added to the story when I finally rewrote Last One Down a year later for the final version.
Our drummer was still mysteriously nowhere to be found, so Luke and I decided to hit as may open-mics as we could as a way to strategically meet other musicians in town. We met a number of interesting people including our new friend Brian. He looked like he was about my age and joined our open-mic entourage. Strangely though, I noticed over time that Brian always borrowed someone else’s guitar before he played at the open-mics. He also wore the same clothes to every open-mic. They were nice clothes, but I started to wonder what his story was. One day I asked him about it. He told me that he came to Austin to see a concert and loved the city so much that he decided to stay. And I mean like, abandon the apartment he was leasing in Dallas and intentionally become homeless in Austin. It all made sense… sort of! He went on to share that he had been sleeping on the concrete steps of the downtown Austin library, but was scared because other homeless people had tried to sexually assault him. Brian joined us for two more open mics but after that he would mysteriously disappear.
Finally, at yet another open mic night, Luke and I met a guy named Vijay. He had dreamed of touring the country as a solo acoustic artist so he bought train tickets from California to every major U.S. city in search of open mics. It was an exhilarating idea and his stories were fascinating. He had one story in particular that I didn’t know what to make of; he told me that he had been reincarnated. He said that he had memories from other lifetimes including memories of hanging out with Jesus himself 2000 years ago. That’s not something you hear everyday for sure. I could never figure out how to reconcile that, but he was a fun guy and very intelligent. He invited us to an expensive sushi restaurant where he bought a plate of EVERY SINGLE DISH and paid for ALL of it for us. The bill was close to $200 for three of us. The restaurant thanked him by giving us a couple bonus dishes. After meeting Vijay, we decided to team up and hit every open-mic in the city for a week.
That week was an absolute blast; we played gigs every night for five nights straight. Unfortunately for me though, it would be the end of music for awhile. I didn’t have the best technique as a singer. Having grown up on Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam, my approach was to belt my lungs out until I lost my voice rather than use finesse and skill. On that fifth and final night of gigging, I felt a scratchy pain in my throat… my high notes were gone. I knew something was wrong. As Vijay moved on to the next city on his list, I was concerned about my voice. Luke was scared too, as he was almost out of money to live on. We needed to get more paid gigs immediately.
A week later, I made an appointment with a voice specialist in Austin. I had lost over an octave of my vocal range and was scared to death. The doctor put a camera up my nose that would bend and travel down the back of my throat. It’s an uncomfortable experience that I have been through at least 10 times now. Their tiny camera was able to see some vocal cord damage but couldn’t get a good look. The doctor referred me to a famous voice specialist in Houston, Texas. When I arrived in the doctor’s office in Houston, I saw photos of other famous patients who had been treated there. On the wall hung photos of Whitney Houston, Bill Clinton and other celebrities. For a moment I felt hope.
Then I mysteriously failed a breathing test several times. I never quite figured out why. Following that, the doctor stuck that same camera down my nose with an additional and much larger camera down my throat. It wasn’t much fun, but what he saw was much more disturbing. My right vocal cord was paralyzed.
When the doctor told me what he saw that day, what I heard was “it’s all over. You’re done.” I could see my dreams fading before my eyes. That’s not exactly what he said though. Just like the previous doctors I had seen, the voice specialist in Houston was also unable to find a direct cause of my condition. I was told that the vocal cord paralysis might resolve itself but they did not know when. Even worse, there was a chance that the paralysis was permanent. I was stuck in limbo. Feeling incredibly depressed, I drove down to Galveston to camp by the ocean and think. The wind was violent and I nearly blew away in my tent. At 5:00 AM the next morning, I finally gave up trying to sleep. I packed up my tent and drove back to Austin to face an uncertain future.
The vocal cord paralysis felt like a death sentence. It meant much more than just an end to my music career. I took a vow of silence for almost a month hoping my voice would heal. When I finally spoke again, I felt like my voice had actually gotten worse. Over the following months I would be unable to talk with friends over the background noise in a restaurant. Answering the phone would be painful. I missed numerous social events. Worst of all, I desperately needed a job but if my voice were to heal, I was limited to jobs with minimal speaking. I needed to find a way to make a living quickly or I would be forced to leave Austin. Meanwhile, Luke could see that our musical journey together had stalled. Since I was unable to sing, we wouldn’t be able to book any more gigs in the immediate future. He began playing with another group on the side hoping to generate some income.
As a last-ditch effort to make a living, I decided to try my hand at trading stocks. I borrowed some money from friends and family and put all of my savings into an ETRADE account. I came up with a way to trade stocks based on news reports. After a few test runs it seemed to be working so I put ALL OF MY MONEY into the stock market one morning. I held my breath… the market went down for awhile, scaring me half to death. I couldn’t take it so I went in the other room to play drums for awhile. When I came back I had a $2,000 profit so I cashed out. Trading in this way would become a daily thing. I made it through January with a profit of over $7000. The universe was saved!!! Unfortunately it wouldn’t last. I took a loss in February and March. The stress was immense and it was an unsustainable way to live. I slowly began to come to terms with the realization that I may have to leave Austin for awhile to recover physically, financially and spiritually. Luke had come to the same realization in his own life. We sat down one last time as he told me that he’d decided to go back to school and finish his degree at Berklee in L.A. He would go on to become an excellent musician. and we still keep in touch occasionally.
I would hold on in Austin for a few more months before retreating to Wichita, Kansas on my 26th birthday. My college roommate was living there on Air Force duty and it seemed like reliving some of the best days of our lives might help me during the healing process. Slowly I began singing again. It would take nearly a year before I was able to make it through a full song.
Once my voice started to regain some strength, I rewrote Last One Down and recorded it in our old rental house near Lawrence Dumont Stadium in Wichita, KS. During that time of rebuilding, it was difficult to see the dreams that I once left for Austin in search of. Even though I felt defeated, I wanted to recover and make one final push with music. The words to the final bridge were added to describe what I felt during this time: “And then the dream started to disappear and we fought back fears of losing all those years. But I think I’ve got one final trick up my sleeve, ’cause you know I’ll never fold, I’m just planning something bold…”
Last One Down represents never giving up. Even though I would retreat for awhile, I vowed to pick myself up again and not let my dreams die in Austin. I would return to music but it would be 6 long years before I would officially release music again and return to the stage. My first gig back would be at the Elbow Room in 2019 thanks to Dusty Grant, another local artist who was willing to book me as an opening act. Will Wichita become what I hoped Austin would be for me? Maybe. We’ll find out.
Speaking of returning to music… whatever happened to my old drummer from Austin? Around the time that I was recording the final version of Last One Down, I finally heard from him. As it turned out, he had abruptly moved to Dallas just a week or two after we attended that top secret party in downtown Austin. You’re not going to believe this. He told me that he had been kidnapped by people he knew and trusted but was able to escape! He fled back to his apartment, packed a bag and took off for Dallas. What in the world was that about?? Your guess is as good as mine. The big city can be a crazy place. It reminds me that pursuing your dreams can be dangerous and risky or offer the opportunity of a lifetime. You never know what you’re going to get until you step out into the unknown.
As I finished recording the final version of the song and uncovered the mystery of the missing drummer, the story of Last One Down came to a close. But my story isn’t over yet… thanks for reading!
Nathan (aka Vandarth)
A sneak peek at the final version of Last One Down: