My first taste of all the Dallas music I had missed in the eight years I was away from Texas came in the form of Carter Albrecht's piano playing.
Girl on Top's Andrea Grimes was kind enough when I moved back to Dallas almost a year ago to make me a mix CD of several important bands I should know about. Albrecht's band, Sorta, wasn't the first band on the disc, but I had turned the stereo down as soon as I had inserted the disc because my phone rang. I turned it back up just in time to hear the intro to "85 Feet," from the group's last release, Strange and Sad but True.
You know how it goes: The piano comes in after a couple of light drum beats—two measures, only four notes apiece, played with such a deft touch, laconically, but not lazily, as if the player is so confident, he can wait until the last second before touching the keyboard. It's a moment of subtle genius, wherein the player's skill is so natural you are fooled into thinking it's easy, like when an outfielder waits for the last instant to open his glove to catch a routine fly ball.
It is Albrecht, of course, manning that piano, and upon hearing that song, it doesn't take long to realize Albrecht's gift was anything but routine, everyday or normal. In other hands, the opening eight notes would have been pretty, catchy and suitable but not special. But in his exceptional hands, those notes become extraordinary. Those notes butt up against that infinitesimally microscopic border between artfully timed and dragging behind the beat. Those notes provide the musical narrative of the song. Those notes are beautiful.
"85 Feet" is a sadly fitting place to start when one tries to make sense of Albrecht's horrifyingly sad, surreal death (it's also fitting many people consider the song to be Sorta's best, their masterpiece). According to police reports, the events preceding Albrecht's death were not pretty: It was the wee hours of the morning of Monday, September 3. Albrecht was wasted. He had beaten up his girlfriend, badly. He had sliced open his hand after slamming a glass down. And, finally, we all know the last bit—he had freaked out his neighbor by beating and kicking on the man's door in a crazy rage, and the neighbor, frightened (so he claims), shot him in the head, killing him. The neighbor also claims this was an accident, a warning shot that he thought would go over Albrecht's head, but, as one friend noted with a bitter laugh, "he was so fucking tall." "85 Feet" tells the tale of another bizarre and tragic Dallas death with some eerie parallels. The story told in that song is about a local woman killed by her boyfriend. He threw her off the High Five bridge, an unspeakably violent act, wrapped up in a love affair and strange behavior. As one character in the song says, "I'm destined one day/To commit a regretful action." It sounds like a lot of people committed such actions on the night of Albrecht's death. It also sounds like, according to his close friends, Albrecht getting drunk was not unusual, but his aggressive conduct was. (At press time, Albrecht's girlfriend had posted a MySpace bulletin saying he had never been abusive to her in the past.)
At the impromptu memorial gathering that took place on Labor Day evening at the Barley House, friends, acquaintances and fans of Albrecht appeared stunned not just by his sudden violent death, but with his alleged violent, out-of-control behavior. People were trying to make sense of it; rumors of the true nature of the musician's relationship with his neighbor, Albrecht's relationship with his girlfriend and his relationship with booze swirled around. These speculations were not gratuitous or gossip-y; rather, they were grasping, desperate attempts to reconcile the sweet-natured, enthusiastic semi-genius they knew with the person Albrecht was at 4 a.m. on a certain September night. The thing is, if the grand jury indicts the neighbor for homicide or manslaughter or nothing, if the police investigate further and find out exactly what the circumstances were, if the toxicology report indicates Albrecht's drink might have been secretly dosed, if bandmate Danny Balis' theory—shared by Albrecht's girlfriend— that Albrecht's smoking-cessation medication caused some sort of synaptic blowout proves possible—if any or all of these things help piece together the puzzle, we still will not know everything. It will still be a mystery. It's the same as the lyric in "85 Feet": "As with any story/Many sides will be forgotten."
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I'm not bringing up the difficult-to-swallow facts of Albrecht's behavior that night to be sensationalistic or to ratchet up the drama. I mention them because, for one, there is something about the violence of what occurred that entire night that speaks to where we are culturally, existentially, legally or however. But I mention them mainly because they illustrate a real, live human being, with many beautiful sides and with faults like anyone else. If Albrecht was a closet abuser, that is an amazingly hard thing to come to terms with, and it's by no means something anybody should excuse or endorse, but it makes him no less a human being, nor does it make his loss less of a tragic waste. If, as many of his friends believe, he simply snapped because of medication, or some other anomalous factor, that's the best we can hope for. But either way, the tale of his final evening is so...human, and it's the exact kind of delicate humanity that flowed through his body, out his fingers and into—not onto, but really into—his keyboard and his guitar strings.
Albrecht's enthusiasm for music spilled out and over into other people as well as instruments. There was a microphone set up onstage at the gathering, and more than one person noted that Albrecht had pulled them aside and complimented their work, or told them to keep it up, or begged to play piano on a band's project. More than one person tried to convey just how deeply his pure talent went, and what it meant to work with him. "Carter was the guy," said Chris Mayes of Pleasant Grove, "who, if he said you were doing something good, you knew you really had something."
I'm not going to pretend I knew Carter Albrecht well—I met him once in passing. But I knew his work, and it was amazing, and judging from his memorial, every musician in Dallas thought so too. As the Drams' Keith Killoren said, "He was too true. He was the great piano player." Just as important, the distinctive quality of the people who came to mourn him at the very crowded Barley House the other night proves just how much he was a magnet for good people, smart and creative and funny and sensitive people. If you can judge a man by what he leaves behind, then Albrecht was a stunning human being, because he left behind a bar full of people who for one night didn't give a shit about band politics or the darker parts of the Dallas music scene, a bar full of folks who said "I love you" to each other all night, and who treated each other with a soft touch and with respect. And he also left behind eight perfect notes after only 34 years on this earth, which is more than most people do in twice as much time.
Merritt Martin and Jim Schutze contributed reporting to this column.