In exchange for all of the world’s knowledge — accessible, searchable, and instantly shareable from your bedroom, subway car, and toilet seat — we will come in contact with millions of people of different backgrounds, some of whom, under the veil of anonymity, will treat us as subhuman. To live in the future, is to sometimes feel like little more than Proterozoic sludge.
I felt like sludge the second half of 2014. In that window, I wrote about gender and sexuality and the right to not have one’s life threatened online. In exchange, every social media node connecting me to the rest of the world was bombarded by threats from strangers.
maybe the internet's a bum deal
By Christmas Eve 2014, when I discovered a fake Twitter account claiming to be me, spamming my colleagues with vulgar messages about child abuse, I wondered if all the world’s knowledge was a fair trade for unrelenting attacks. It was a rough evening: despite multiple attempts, I failed to get the support from Twitter’s Support Team — who I imagined were enjoying peaceful eggnog with their families. If you’d asked me whether it was worth it right then, I would have said no, we got the raw side of a bum deal. But on New Year’s Day 2015, while gathered with my closest friends, I was reminded of Blake Carlile: a cool stream of kindness running just beneath the internet’s crust.
The Carlile Story begins in January 2010 with a late night search on YouTube for Far Side videos, and ends three years later with a birthday cake skinny-dipping in the Great Lakes.
John Skidmore and Matt Patches — my friends — had already lost a night to scanning YouTube for the beloved comic strip when they discovered a review of the Far Side Galleries by user BlakeCarlileITM. In the video, the camera paces back and forth across the comic compendiums, while BlakeCarlileITM, off screen, provides commentary, as blunt as it is sincere.
"Well, I got all five Far Side Galleries," the video begins. "They were on sale at a Barnes and Noble. I didn’t have any of them. There was a bargain table, and they were all on there for a pretty low price. Pretty soon I went a little nuts, I wanted to get them, I couldn’t decide which to get, so I decided to get all of them."
Carlile continues for a total of six minutes and 41 seconds, working through a series of windy anecdotes about the series creator Gary Larson, before ending abruptly with 10 seconds of silence. Skidmore and Patches watched the entire video, and then they watched it again. After that, they proceeded through the complete works of Blake Carlile, dating back to April 2008. Information about Carlile the person was sparse, but context clues hinted at a quiet life in Chicago.
Carlile existed as the antithesis of celebrity. Carlile was earnest, he was free of affectation, he was nothing like the typical YouTube user, let alone Grammy winning pop star. Watching his videos was like spending time with your kooky uncle, the one who plays difficult-to-pronounce instruments and knows about obscure independent horror films. Carlile’s life was ordinary. He sang about a "proper cup of coffee from a proper copper coffee pot," edited tributes to his favorite cult television show actresses, and, in his fourth video, filmed himself waiting for the plumber.
Naturally, his original masterpiece should be unabashedly pedestrian.
The standout of Carlile’s catalog was, in 2010, "I Found a $30 Quarter at a 7-11 store," a biographical music video about, as the title claims, finding a rare coin at a convenience store. A parody of the 1931 hit "I Found a Million Dollar Baby," Carlile’s recording is a plucky earworm both magical and mundane. "It was a lovely August shower," goes the song. "It was a close convenience door / I found a 30-dollar quarter / In a 7-11 store."
Not long after the discovery of Blake Carlile’s page, "$30 Quarter" and a handful of other videos became the favorite background music for our group of friends. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day: whenever our group got together, we played Carlile’s songs. We sang them ad nauseum — once his tune and lyrics stuck in your brain, it was near impossible to get them unstuck. I’ve often wondered if there was an irony in our fandom. If so, it evaporated immediately, and what remained was a deep appreciation of this rare thing that only we had. Imagine the catchiest pop song, but no one’s heard of it but your closest friends. "$30 Quarter" was our anthem.
I asked my friend Skip Bronkie, who’s now the Creative Manager of Product Marketing at Pinterest, why he thought we glommed onto Carlile:
"I suppose it was how sincere he was," says Bronkie. "Everything I normally see on YouTube in this homemade style is about irony and parody and sarcasm." Bronkie pointed me to a New York Times article about this approach: artists and creatives who purposefully design things poorly and ironically in order to skirt criticism by being self-aware of their own crumminess. This video is bad — goes this logic — because it’s bad on purpose.
"But Blake wasn't being ironic with his 30-dollar quarter or coffee pot video," says Bronkie. "He made a fun, catchy song that wasn't poking fun at anyone else or himself, and had no fear sharing that with the world. That's what I liked about his videos."
In March of 2011, one of us, John Pels, contacted Carlile through YouTube, inquiring if the amateur musician would make a video for Bronkie’s 24th birthday. On April 8th, 2011, Carlile delivered. The video begins simply enough: a static photo of a birthday cake mixed with Carlile performing a difficult-to-place song. In the YouTube description, Carlile writes, "After being asked if I could make a birthday video, I wasn't sure what to do for a while. Then I realized I could work with what I had — specifically, a rough recording I had made of ‘Candle on the Water’ that I hoped to use in another video. That might not be for awhile though, and I figured that 'Candle' would lend itself well to a birthday song."
The video’s production values expand. First, in yellow text, the message,"Happy Birthday Skip." Then, footage of Carlile in a dark kitchen, singing into a microphone. On the table sits a birthday cake and a two-liter of Schweppes Ginger Ale. The candles flicker on Carlile’s large, round glasses frames which keep looking down at lyrics written by hand on a small sheet of paper. As Carlile blows out the candles, another Carlile appears picture-in-picture, playing an iPhone Ocarina app. And then, one last static image: that same birthday cake, now half-eaten, and the words "I already celebrated."
Skip cried. I don’t remember how everybody else reacted, but I do remember Skip quietly letting a couple tears roll down his cheek, before giving all of us our own hugs. It was nice, but Carlile deserved much of the credit. The video became part of our Carlile canon, which continued to be unfurled at each holiday, birthday party, or general get-together, though less and less as time went on. And after another six months, that seemed to be that.
While we may have forgotten Blake Carlile, he did not forget us. In April 2012, Carlile published a second music video, this time celebrating Skip’s 25th birthday. Set to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s "Someday You’ll Be Sorry," this video was more elaborate than its predecessor. Opening on a packaged red velvet cake on a grocery store shelf, we watch the dessert from Carlile’s point of view as it's carried outside and across the parking lot. At a traffic stop, the cake waits and looks both ways, before continuing down the sidewalk.
"Today it’s your birthday," goes the song. "And I hope on your birthday you have fun / With friends like Matt and John / to take you out on the town / your friends didn’t need to ask me to sing another birthday song / So good luck may be with you / And may it follow you through the years / I am yet another / to treat you like a brother / so I say happy birthday to you."
"I am yet another to treat you like a brother."
By this time, the cake has made its way into a home, when abruptly the video cuts to Carlile blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. He’s in the same kitchen, this time better lit. Under what sounds like a mandolin solo, Carlile carves a piece of cake, pulls out a pre-poured cup of milk from outside of the frame, and enjoys the treat. The song continues:
"So good luck may be with you / And may it follow you through the years / I am yet another / To treat you like a brother / so I say happy birthday to you." At the end of the video, Carlile lifts a chalkboard, in rainbow colors are the words:
"HAPPY BIRTHDAY SKIP (and many more :) )"
In April 2013, it happened again: a video celebrating Skip’s 26th birthday. Again, unexpected. The final installments in trilogies have a bad reputation — the third Alien, the third Godfather, Return of the Jedi — but "Beyond the Blue Horizon of Skip’s Birthday" is easily the best film in the Carlile birthday collection, maybe in the entire Carlile oeuvre. It’s concise, sentimental, catchy; it’s a comedy on a production scale without precedent; and it’s truly unforgettable in its hallucinatory strangeness.
In "Blue Horizon," the familiar cake is given life, like Pinocchio if the role of Geppetto was played by the clerk at Carvel. At first, the joke seems to be that the slice of cake is just a slice of cake. When Carlile and the dessert play catch, the ball rolls past it. When they play board games, it’s less clear if the slice of cake is participating, or just being positioned like a dummy in a window display. Then, the slice of cake comes alive. The three-inch-tall, carefully iced cooked dough drinks a two-liter of grape soda, squirts Carlile with silly string, blows out the candle on a cupcake, and takes a midnight skinny dip in the Great Lakes — all without the benefit of appendages. In the morning, as the sun rises, we see the slice back on the beach, but now restored with the rest of the cake.
Over black, the credits roll:
"Happy… Birthday… Skip!"
"From: Blake and the Cake"
Carlile published one more video on his channel after "Blue Horzion," a lyric-less performance of "Savoy Truffle," a song George Harrison wrote about Eric Clapton’s chocolate addiction. For the act, rather than singing the lyrics, Carlile eats M&Ms, stopping here and there to shovel another scoop into his mouth.
It’s New Year’s 2015 again, and I must have watched "Blue Horizon," "$30 Quarter," and that early, pre-Carlile trilogy song about a "proper cup of coffee pot" a dozen times each. In these videos, I find a timeless reminder of what’s beautiful about the internet: how it connects us, inspires us, and allows us to share ourselves with the world. I also learn a lot about coffee pots, particularly the proper copper coffee pot. The internet, I understand, isn’t just all the information in the world. More and more, it’s all the people. And while some of those people can be cruel and hurtful and frightening, others can be caring and loving and, with the slightest nudge, will change your life for the better.
The past few months I’ve been trying to contact Carlile. His YouTube page had become a dead end, just like his LinkedIn and Facebook profiles. Last month, though, a Google Search for Blake Carlile returned a link to a Twitter account with an avatar sharing Carlile’s familiar face. I shot him a DM — he’d been following me all along.
Blake Carlile is married now, something he’d mentioned in his third-to-final video in 2013, a cover of "Adelaide’s Lament" from Guys and Dolls. Something he hadn’t mentioned: Blake and his wife have a child, a six-month-old boy. The family lives in the suburbs of Chicago, where Blake helps build websites for a small development shop.
Carlile tells me the YouTube videos were part of a more ambitious project he’d had with his friend. They had a podcast and Twitter accounts, in those weird early days when no one but media reporters and Mad Men fan-fic writers had Twitter accounts. The YouTube channel happened to be the thing the two enjoyed the most, and so it pressed on, while the other projects fell off.
Carlile isn’t sure why they invested so much time into YouTube, just like he isn’t sure why he stopped. We talk about the platform (he liked how it used to have more of a community), commenters (they were kinder more often than not), and the one other person who contacted him (a young woman who asked him to record the backing to Charlotte’s Web, which he did, and which she later sang over in her own YouTube video). "Then you guys wrote," says Carlile, "and it was very…" He pauses, searching for the words. "It almost kind of takes it back. You feel kind of out in the open. Even though you’re making YouTubes, you feel kind of anonymous. Then to have someone write and say they appreciate my videos and ask me to make another one […] That was a very nice year, and I was eager to do it."
I ask why he kept making the videos, long after we’d lost contact.
"I don’t know. I just thought you guys would — whatever drew you guys to my videos in the first place — I thought you’d appreciate if all of a sudden a new video showed up. And obviously I had fun making them. And this isn’t so selfless, but to know I had a captive audience was exciting in its own right."
We’re such a small audience, I say.
"You guys were my fans though. It’s like Flight of the Conchords, they had that one fan. I had like four."
I ask Carlile if he'll be recording more music for his small, but loyal fan base. He takes a moment. "I mean, I don’t want to say my whole YouTube experience is behind me, but I did it for years. I put out a lot of videos, and I’ve obviously slowed down. Even before you guys came along, just having a creative outlet was enough. As a personal pride thing… It was nice to have these small projects… Then, because it’s YouTube, it doesn’t have to be 100 percent perfect or anything. It’s easier to say cut, print. And put it up there.
"Having you guys, that was such an additional thrill. I don’t know how I saw this, but I did see you tweeted about, I think you called it the Blake trilogy a couple years ago, and it was great, it was wonderful just seeing someone else write about that. And then someone else happened to put it all on one webpage."
Carlile laughs, but I still feel bad. Of course this isn’t a sad story, at least I hope it isn’t. Because here, right now, I’m doing something I should have done years ago. Blake Carlile is one of my favorite artists on the internet. He’s talented. He’s generous. And he’s kind. Year after year, he gave his time and his energy to make a group of strangers, hundreds of miles away, happy.
On the internet, it takes seconds to spread misery with a cruelly crafted tweet, but those missives are forgettable, generic, and uninspired. What Carlile did took years, and I — along with my friends — will never forget him.
I recently returned to the last song Carlile uploaded, "Savoy Truffle." It’s a peculiar choice, the lyrics a patronizing warning against indulging in pleasure. "You know that what you eat, you are," shouts George Harrison. "But what is sweet now, turns so sour. We all know Ob-La-Di-Bla-Da, but can you show me, where you are?"
Of course Carlile never says those words aloud; he waves, scoops a mouthful of M&Ms into his mouth, plays guitar, and before he’s finished chewing his treat, reaches past the camera and clicks it off.