Food critics talk about how hard it is to come up with different ways to say “tastes good.” For Dallas music writers, it was coming up with different ways to describe Carter Albrecht. There were only so many times you could say “mega-talented” without sounding like the hack you very well might have been. And how do you describe a guy like Carter, anyway? There was the cigarette dangling from the lips. There were his long, galloping fingers on the keys. The flash of a smile from the stage. The presence. He was the great musician that other great musicians wanted to be. The first time I wrote about Carter’s band, Sorta, I kept trying out different ways to describe him. I called him “six-foot-god-knows-what” and pretty much left it at that.
I should back up. Carter Albrecht was a musician in Dallas. For as long as I knew Dallas music, he was pretty much THE musician in Dallas. He was a songwriter and classically trained pianist who also played guitar. But I loved him best as a frontman, with his big booming voice that reminded me, in all the best ways, of Freddie Mercury. I’m pretty sure Carter disagreed with this, but he was nice about it. Which was the surprising thing about Carter, who should have had an ego bigger than his presence. He was a sweet guy. I once wrote about watching his band play while his father Ken watched in the audience. His dad was so proud. And his father kept lending me his lighter for my smokes, and high-fiving me in between songs. Later, Carter framed that article and gave it to his dad. I’d like to think this had everything to do with what a great writer I am, but I suspect it was also a cheap gift.
A few weeks after we met, Carter called me at the Dallas Observer office. He sounded as though he might have just woken up. It was 2pm, and he probably had. “Hey, what’s the name of that book about emo?” he asked me. “I’m at this Barnes & Noble and I need to buy this book and I thought you might know.” I didn’t, but Google did. “Hey, thanks, man!” he told me. I hung up, beaming that Carter Albrecht had called me from a Barnes & Noble. Me! He called me!
See, that was the strange thing about being a music editor. If you’ve seen Almost Famous, you know where this is headed. I was supposed to maintain a cold, critical distance, but some of these guys–man, I was just glad to know them. Carter was like that, along with all the guys in his bands. Danny and Ward and the two Treys and Chris. We would bullshit in the Barley House till closing time, and then stick around slurry and chainsmoking till 4am, just finishing our conversations. What did we talk about? Stupid stuff, mostly. Rolling Stones versus the Beatles. Rolling Stones versus the Who. We had the same conversations over and over, because no one could remember how the conversations ever turned out.
Around the time I moved to New York, Carter started playing with the New Bohemians. He came up to the city to do some recording with Edie Brickell, and called me one night to hang out. (Me! He called me!) I was at a Rhett Miller show at the Bowery Ballroom, and I didn’t hear the phone ring. But I’ll never forget sitting at the front bar with two girlfriends when the doors bust open and Carter Albrecht walked in, all six-foot-god-knows-what. “I thought I might find you here,” he said.
“Oh my God,” the girls said, practically at once. “Who the hell IS THAT?”
Carter had a way with the ladies. I always felt lucky that, as much as I adored Carter, I was immune to this lust. Lucky because it allowed me to sit back and enjoy the circus–the way girls’ eyes would grow big when they met him, how they’d lean in closer, toss back their hair nervously, hoping to somehow draw in this beautiful, beautiful man. It was so amusing. How you would introduce him to a girl, and a certain amount of time would tick by before they sidled up and asked, casual as can be, “So anyway, umm, does Carter have a girlfriend??”
That night when we met at the Bowery, we hopped in a cab and sped over to some crowded bar on the Lower East Side. It was late, and we were both pretty looped, and also grateful to have a little piece of the Dallas comfort we were both missing in the big city. “Those girls are hot for you!” I whispered when we got in the cab. I was hoping to orchestrate some kind of high drama, another circus I might sit back and enjoy.
Carter smiled, and nodded. “I don’t do that anymore,” he said. “I’m in love.” As much as anything he has ever done–any musical accomplishment, be it singing or writing or playing–Carter seemed so proud of this.
The last time I saw Carter Albrecht was at the Barley House in Christmas of 2005. It was late, near closing time, and it was one of the first times I’d been back since I’d left town. He and I kept hugging each other. I don’t know why. Party because we were bombed. But also because Carter, more than most people I knew, was proud of me for moving to New York. It was something he’d thought about doing, and decided against. He wanted to stay in Dallas, where his friends and his family were, and the only thing that bothered me about that decision was that I worried it meant no one outside Dallas would ever get to know him. In one of my last columns as music editor, I wrote, “Carter Albrecht, get off your barstool and get famous already.” The next time I saw him (at the bar, of course), he pulled me aside. “Hey, I have a problem with what you wrote,” he told me. My stomach dropped, and for a second, I worried I might have offended him. “I never sit on a barstool,” he said with a wink. “Everyone knows I stand.”
I loved Carter Albrecht, and many, many people loved Carter Albrecht. He was shot and killed early Monday morning. I can’t imagine a worse ending to this story than that.