Background & Philosophy

The Absolution Train leapt into my head, one night, as I was driving back down to Virginia on a road trip I had taken up the east coast to visit friends in Boston, Massachusetts. As I remember it, I had just turned twenty years old; it was around Thanksgiving; I was working as a dock builder and had returned from living in Nashville, Tennessee that August, where I’d been playing guitar in my older brother Wes’s band. I had no idea who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, or where I wanted to go with my life.

     I believe I was coming down through Pennsylvania. It was cold and dark. I was aiming to reach some friends and crash for the night before it got too late. I was blasting music. I had the heat on. And it just seemed to find me, as realizations come to the mind: The Absolution Train. I did not know what that meant. The term came to me as a whole – as though transmitted, telepathically, from somewhere else. Whatever it was, I felt it was me, somehow, and also something higher than me.

     I returned to my job in Virginia. I allowed the moment to digest into my subconscious.

     At the dawn of 2007, I took a room in a house in Williamsburg, Virginia and entered a semester of college. I wasn’t sure what else to do. But this was not right. My soul was unsettled. I could not concentrate, could not care about my classes or my studies. I realized, in a memorable moment, that something profound was trying to reach me… A professor had told me that I would fail her course if I missed one more class. Inspiration had found me that afternoon on my guitar. I remember looking at the clock, knowing I needed to get to her class… and I just could not abandon what was happening between the guitar and me at that moment. It meant too much to me. So, I failed the class. But that was a moment of choice – a deed – that would become integral to my personal understanding of what was to follow. It was my walking through an open door.

     Not long after that, I awoke, one morning, with my mind ablaze. A whole reality, complete with a plan of action, had opened up in front of me. I would go to Austin, Texas (no idea why Austin, specifically; it was certainly not a thought-out, weighed decision; it just came to me) and apply myself to generating my own music. And I wanted to include my musically inclined friends. What would I call this – whatever it was – band? project? experiment? adventure? journey? And that’s when The Absolution Train asserted itself onto that blank name tag in my consciousness, as though it had known all along.

     I wrote a letter to my friends. Unfortunately, I haven’t kept a copy. I think, now that we have matured, it might read like the rants of a crazy person. But, at the time, I guess it did the trick. It was handwritten. I made the photocopies at the public library. And I mailed a copy to my friend Clay, who was in college in Vermont; my friend Tom, who was working and living in New Jersey; and my friend Jimi Dean, who was working and living in North Carolina. To my surprise, they were all on board.

     I began to cultivate the project. What was it? What would it be? I composed music and wrote songs that spring. School had ceased to matter to me. This was more important. This was – for the first time in so long – a life that truly felt like my life.

     I found a guy on Austin’s Craigslist who offered to let us stay in his trailer for the summer for $700 up front. After discussing this with the guys, we found we could come up with it. And that’s all we really set up, in the way of preparations.

     Clay and Tom came to Virginia. And the three of us left in May of 2007. We picked up Jimi at his dad’s apartment in Montgomery, Alabama. Then, we came to Austin.

     Much could be written about those days. For purposes of this letter, I will try to keep things moving along. We played on the streets as a street band and as individuals. We met a new and enduring friend, Virginia, who played washboard for us and helped sing harmonies. We recorded demos on my 8-track in the trailer. We were broke pretty much all the time and had one hell of a year. After the trailer, Jimi moved into the woods and lived in a tent with his dog, Buddy, while also crashing at Virginia’s house. Clay and I moved out to the country for a month, and then I moved back to the city for the rest of the year. I met a producer who liked our demos, and we did some recording in his studio. Due to artistic differences, we parted ways with him, but he let me hang onto a copy of the original rough mixes from those sessions. These, along with some 8-track recordings – captured spontaneously and casually – comprise the first Atrain album: Texas, 2008. Yes, the year of the recordings was, in fact, 2007. Maybe that should've been the title year. But, at any rate, it was 2008 by the time I got out of Texas and back to Virginia with the rough mixes on a CD and realized I actually had an album (though it would take me another twelve years to get my shit together enough to officially release it).

     I had a vision one day in Austin. I’ve had instincts, intuitions, gut feelings, notions, and thoughts throughout my life… but seldom visions. Actually, this is one of only two that come to mind (for the other, see the "Uganda & The Circle of Peace" journal entry).

     I was on the Congress Avenue Bridge, hanging my legs over the edge and dangling them at sunset as the bats were erupting out from underneath, and in the sky I saw an otherworldly, luminous clear light. And I had the deep, effortless understanding that this light was me, and in fact was everybody. And there were what I call “layers” (blocks of some kind) lifting off of it, uncovering it. As by magic, they were being lifted off of this light.

     After we left Texas, we decided that it was a hell of an adventure, and that now we would get on with our individual lives. Jimi stayed in Alabama and got married. Clay finished college in Vermont. Tom went back to New Jersey and back to school. And I went back to school and finished in Virginia. The Absolution Train seemed of a time and place – a memory, now.

     For the next several years, I worked jobs, played music in two rock bands (Potlikkor and Toano), and applied myself to creative writing. This was the primary driving force in my personality for these years, and I had no idea why. I just knew that it was the truth. I had to figure out how to write creatively in a way that felt acceptable to me. I wasn’t aware that what had originated as The Absolution Train was more than just the odyssey out to Texas and back. And it was far from over.

     The name began to haunt me. I sensed that it knew something I didn’t, and that it wanted me to learn what this was. The vision of the light with the layers lifting off of it has never left me; and I felt that these musical / literary transmissions – from wherever they were coming from – were of a piece.

     I read and studied philosophies, religions, and spiritual traditions throughout these developmental years in my twenties. I was astonished to find similar imagery and ideas – as I had no previous awareness of things such as “the clear light of the void” in Tibetan Buddhism, or the “release” and “liberation” of Moksha in the Hindu tradition; the “light” spoken of so often by and about Jesus Christ; the uncontrived action of the Taoists – the holding to the center or “root”… it just went on and on. Zarathustra’s (or Zoroaster) thought in particular resonated with me: the suggestion that human souls have free will to choose, in each moment, between the Truth of that moment or the Lie… This “truth” is also sometimes translated as “integrity” or “the good.” However you choose to conceive of it, the choice between “that” and any degree of “not that” seemed profound to me and would not leave me. I found my life, each moment to moment, dominated by an awareness of this idea. As Satan is referred to by Jesus in the gospels as “the father of lies,” what would become of someone who habitually chose the false, or the lie? I could go into all of this much more, but my aim in this letter is to give a background and philosophy behind The Absolution Train. Ultimately, I came to understand that the “lie” rather than the “integrity” of each entity’s unique moment was, in my opinion, the essence of “sin.” This instinct was validated for me when I looked up the word “sin” and learned that the Greek word for it – hamartia – is an archery term that refers to “missing the mark.” As hamartia altered my understanding of “sin” as a non-theological concept, I began to examine “absolution.” As I found I could now truly understand "sin" – from a place of personal comprehension and conviction – I could now also understand what "absolution" meant to me: a state of liberation from missing the mark. And the mark was the personal integrity of each moment, its truth. I believe this integrity and truth to be there in each fresh moment, revealed through a personal unconcealment (props to Heidegger for giving me this word), to every existent and personal entity – even if the integrity of that truth happens to be one of momentary confusion or blankness. And the choices made by each entity between choosing “that” and “not that” are the deeds that, as lived, create the movement from each moment to each new moment that is the wheel that is time and its effects. The word “train,” I believe, was given to me to underline the significance of movement/motion to this experience; i.e. the word suggests a train of thought or stream of experience. Absolution is not something you reach, or arrive at: it is something you do. I can take this personal philosophy no further, for now.

     Having connected these dots into a constellation that suddenly made overwhelming sense to me, I set about renovating and relaunching this project. There is not much of an agenda. It is what and as it is. I would love to make enough money from it to live. To have the Atrain incarnate into a live band again would also be cool. Its current insistence and focus on writing the lyric novels and (primarily) recording the book albums is interesting and welcome. The only true aim of this project has always been and will always be to cease missing the mark of expressing its truth, as and how its integrity unconceals itself to me: an experience which I cannot help but feel is my umbilical cord to the beyond.     


Connor Charlton

March, 2020

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