Nick Jaina is not famous. Far from it, really. But the question of what it means to be an artist—and how much pain you're willing to endure to pursue your art in the quest for something greater, career be damned—is at the center of Get It While You Can (Perfect Day Publishing, 208 pages, $10), his wonderful, timely debut memoir.
The Portland musician, a staple of the fertile folk-rock scene here, has long been known as one of the most literate songwriters in town (full disclosure: He wrote a semi-regular column for this newspaper for a year, which I occasionally edited), but Get It While You Can is so much more than a slight book by a guy who loses his guitar. Part memoir, part music criticism, part cathartic exorcism, it's a meditation on suffering and the things we put ourselves through in the name of discovering the best version of ourselves.
For Jaina, that means attending a 10-day meditation retreat in rural Washington. Stuck inside his own head, he's left grappling with failed relationships, lost jobs, iconic musicians and, in one of my favorite sections, trying to recite the entire track list of the Beatles' "White Album" from memory. Though the book is broken up into small, bite-sized morsels—including a series of unsent love letters—a silent retreat ultimately frames the story.
Along the way, we visit hallowed locations, including New Orleans (and the idealized New Orleans he imagined before moving there) and Folsom State Prison, where Jaina and his band spend a few days playing songs to prisoners as his hero Johnny Cash did. When Jaina writes about Nina Simone at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival, frolicking around the stage in a sleek black dress and maybe or maybe not addled by the kiss of cocaine, you can't help but queue up YouTube and see what all the commotion is about. Jaina's writing is rich and vivid, swimming in detail and moments when he says that thing you've been trying to articulate but couldn't find the words for. His prose is never showy but still achingly beautiful, full of spot-on metaphors and heartbroken laments.
It's also the prose of experience, from the hand of a man who has traveled the country with just a beat-up guitar and a few songs about girls you've probably seen at New Seasons Market. In "Battleground," one of the finer tracks from his 2008 album, A Narrow Way, Jaina wonders: "Does the life of a poet/ Does it have to be sad?" Well, not sad, necessarily, but always questioning. Jaina is many things—a wandering musician, a truth-seeker, a lover and a skeptic. Get It While You Can positions him as something more concrete: one of the brightest young writers in this city.