When I was 18, I decided to postpone college in favor of saving up money and taking a train trip across the country. In May of 1997, I boarded the Carolinian in Charlotte, switched over to the Capitol Limited at Union Station in DC, and disembarked in Chicago, a city I’d only been to once before.
Chicago was the adopted hometown of a boy named Mike Smith that I’d met briefly when I was 15 and fancied myself to be in love with. He met me at the station wearing a pair of Henry Kissinger-style nerd glasses with heavy black frames and the lenses tinted golden yellow. We went back to his apartment in Wicker Park and I met his friends: Jeremy, Pierre and Rollo. Jeremy was obsessed with Ralph Waldo Emerson and writing a novel. Pierre was French and rich and had an Italian girlfriend. Rollo wore hats trimmed with fraying bits of grosgrain ribbon and seemed to exist in permanent halftone. I remember that we stayed up all night, smoking more than half the carton of cigarettes I’d brought from NC and watching Chungking Express. Everything seemed magical and infused with importance; each conversation was revelatory; every moment felt as if it had been meticulously crafted in advance to elicit the greatest amount of effervescence and spontaneity and memorable qualities.
It was the early, early morning and we were listening to Tom Petty’s Wildflowers and contemplating breakfast. Mike Smith was lazily thumbing through the liner notes.
“I have this theory,” he said. “See this?” He motioned towards the text. “It lists all the players on the album—like here, ‘Drums: Ringo Starr’—but at the very end it says ‘Nothing at all: George Drakoulias.’”
We all shrugged.
“He’s in a Beastie Boys song too. They rhyme his name with Orange Julius. Maybe he's like, a spy or something. Or a drug dealer.”
We all agreed that it was pretty weird that the Beastie Boys and Tom Petty would be involved with the same dude. In my sleep deprived state, I became convinced that we were onto something. George Drakoulias was some kind of elaborate mystery person, some kind of inside joke! And only Mike Smith had been smart enough notice.
I discussed the mystery of George Drakoulias as I traveled back and forth across the United States, in the smoking car of the Empire Builder on the way to Seattle, over strawberry wine in an ancient RV, with a trucker from Fargo who later admitted to me that he had an embarrassing foot fetish and that the sight of my naked toenails was starting to get to him.
Just thinking the word “Drakoulias” instantly transported me back to that beautiful night in Chicago. “Drakoulias” conjured up that nervy intent synonymous with being young and aimless and filled with a love that needs only a focus in order to declare itself to world that is, as if for the first time, wide open and completely unknowable. Each new fact about George Drakoulias was another piece in an existential puzzle.
Even after I discovered, several years later, that Mike Smith the person was infinitely inferior to Mike Smith the fantasy, George Drakoulias lived on. Billy Bob Thornton gave him a face, playing a character known as “Big Bad George Drakoulias” in the movie Dead Man. Such discoveries, I felt, made him more uniquely mine. Occasionally I would dangle him in front of others, a pithy anecdote brought out at parties.
And then, inevitably—“Why don’t you just google his name?”
So I did.
Turns out that George Drakoulias is a record producer who also happens to be friends with Rick Rubin. Big fucking deal.
Recently I was spying on an old acquaintance of mine—we’re friends on Facebook but that’s about it—who had filled out one of those “stuff about me” memes that having been popping up everywhere lately. While reading her list of 25 random facts about herself, one statement caught me by surprise: “I remain unconvinced that my life is at all improved by the internet.”
I agreed with her, though it felt like blasphemy. Wasn’t the internet responsible for my first published critical essay, not to mention an unending flood of reunions with long-forgotten friends? Wasn’t the internet responsible for the immediacy of email, for long-distance digital phone conversations, for the illegal music downloads of which I am so fond?
What I began to focus on was this—that beyond the free indie rock and ease of communication, there are hours of time, wasted. There is my increasing narcissism. There is the access to wads of information about people I used to be friends with and wanted to remember in a particular way and now can’t, because my curiosity got the better of me. I have been robbed of all the things I didn’t know.
In a culture that places so much value on knowing, the value of not-knowing can be hard to fathom. But between knowing and not-knowing there is a void, a tension, like the curved dome of a raindrop balanced on the single point of a prickly bush. The sensation of reading a letter, or a book, or listening to an entire album depends entirely on this tension and the slow dawning of knowledge that it imparts. And, most importantly, there are those things that, by not-knowing them, become a million times more interesting than they ever were in real life. George Drakoulias, for me, was so much more than a record producer. He was the riddle of my world, a talisman to hold close and to explain those moments in life when everything is connected, yet the thread is invisible.
And then I googled him. And now he’s just some dude I looked up on Wikipedia.