Life, the Universe, and Kurt Cobain

New York City, New Year’s Day, 2017:

“Life is ephemeral,” I tell Jon, my aforementioned best friend from art college. We’re in a famous gay bar. Gus Van Sant is there. I’m destined to later have unsafe heterosexual sex with a stranger on the concrete stairs leading from the street to the kitchen while Jon lays some beer-fueled 19th century spiritualist shit on a different stranger back in the bar, channeling this dude’s dead friend, fooling even Jon himself, much to his discomfort the next morning. I will wake up with regret as well, specifically fear of herpes because the stairs were dark and while I didn’t feel anything funny with my tongue, I didn’t really give his dick the once over I should have. We, of course, don’t know about these shenanigans yet.

“I mean,” I say, “It happens, then it’s done. It isn’t especially sacred. It just is what it is, and for a short time, I might add.”

“No! We all owe each other. I owe you, you owe me…” By this, I assume he means it is my responsibility to him, and his to me, to continue living for each others mental comfort alone. As a Libertarian and occasional Buddhist, I believe this to be total crap.

“Speaking as a Libertarian, that’s total crap,” I say, more or less. I totally forget about the Buddhist part. I throw no less than twenty dollars worth of David Bowie songs into the jukebox and go outside for a cigarette.

 – – –

Pawtucket, Rhode Island, 2017:

It’s Saturday night. I’m simultaneously watching Primal Fear, testing the boundaries of a cheap portable speaker I bought at Rite Aid for the dual purpose of listening to music in my bedroom and playing DJ as I’ve always dreamed at the unsupervised RISD Open Draw, and working on a new novel.

I’m also poking through The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg, astounded at the author’s faith in the ultimate bullshitter’s insistence that life is grand despite writing song after song claiming it’s actually… whatever, something, some shit happens, then you die.

I wonder for a second why I value life so cheaply. I mean, it’s an awfully brutal view, in a way. I guess I’ve seen more death than Jon – young, tragic, random death at least, given that he is a responsible, productive member of society who socializes with such, and I am a punk rock degenerate. A close friend of mine who moved to New York was murdered for his credit cards. He went M.I.A. on Halloween, surfaced a week before Christmas as a charred corpse in a field in Pennsylvania. I watched footage of his killers using his card to buy smokes, shot from a security camera at a convenience store. Another friend lost his mind and became a murderer, stabbed a girl to death and maimed another for no apparent reason, even to him. To make matters worse, one of my dearest friends was his roommate, and the murderer’s family owned the building. A longtime family friend, he volunteered to scrub the blood from their building’s stairwell.

I can’t count the number of acquaintances who’ve overdosed. I mean, we had some local somebody come around to practice one night, I goofed with him over Joe Jackson, week later, dead. Heroin. Eddie from the Louvers, who couldn’t believe we, Drunk Robb and the Shots, could drink as much as they could without cocaine. Dead, heroin. An ex-girlfriend hung herself from a shower curtain rail, a nineteen year-old coke addict who used to be a precocious, wise beyond her years smart-ass. I still have one of her Bauhaus CDs, In the Flat Field, which I purchased immediately after she sold it for, yes, cocaine. Columbine happened senior year, and another friend was sent to the hospital for a month because the only jacket he owned was a black trench coat, it was raining that day, and the basketball team took issue. A close friend’s boyfriend hung himself off the bridge leading to my neighborhood that same year. They’d fought just before, and she blamed herself. The unofficial memorial was at IHOP.

And those are people who died, died… Those are people who died, died… They were all my friends. They just died.

– – –

Houston, 1994:

I’m twelve years old at a junior high after-school dance. Like, right after school. Like, four in the afternoon or something stupid. I’m dancing to Ace of Base. I don’t like Ace of Base, but that’s the song that’s playing, so, you know, fuck it. When in Rome.

The school has hired some goofy event DJ, poor sod’s probably getting paid seven dollars an hour (it’s 1994), and he’s actually rather chipper for such a pathetic character. After the song about seeing the sign – it’s in my head now, fuck – finishes, he asks, “Any of you kids Niiiiir-vaaana fans?”

My friends and I scream our heads off like Beatles fans at Shea.

“Well, I have some bad news. Lead singer Kurt Cobain was found dead today…”

“He’s making this shit up,” I said to a friend who may be dead now.

“You think?”

“Yeah, man. He’s gotta be fucking with us. Rome all over again, right? Hey, you got any ice left in your cup?”

“Naw.”

“You got popcorn, though,” I say. “Come with me.”

We gather five or six other friends and pelt the DJ with ice and popcorn. We are eventually told to stop by the principal but not asked to apologize.

– – –

The dance ends, and I still don’t believe Kurt Cobain is dead. My mom picks me up, and I flip the dial to the alternative rock station without her permission, like it’s my car and she’s a chauffeur, like I’m an asshole teenager.

As penance, the first words I heard are, “Kurt Cobain was found dead…”

And so it is, real and true. My first rock hero is dead at the ripe age of twenty-seven. Fuck.

We arrive home, and I go straight to my bedroom. I put on Nevermind, the first grunge cassette I owned and also the first item I shoplifted at the age of ten or eleven. I ignore my homework and piano practice, and I’m not hounded by Mom and Dad on either obligation. I will, however, endure countless tirades on “that awful Kurt CO-bain,” but they’ll quickly be eclipsed by my mother angrily shutting off “Cracked Actor” on that same car stereo, muting the volume and ejecting the cassette with anxious, venomous adrenaline, muttering, “I never liked that David Bowie.”

Next week: A look inside the Blue House like never before! Live footage of The Inhumanoids MST3King the original “Star Trek!” The infamous Ed “Kid Bluefoot” Mooney throwing out random nouns to every question on Jeopardy! (Actually, we’ve talked about this, and it might happen. Cheers, folks!)

Story Time!

Rhode Island, 2016:

My co-worker and I are mere hours away from a week off after a hellish month of election apocalypse, looming fascism, state-wide bronchitis, and sleep deprivation. To keep us awake, I start telling stories.

“So, I was watching this documentary on ‘Hunky Dory,’ and they left out the most interesting part…”

“That’s on my turntable right now.”

“The songbook’s sitting next to my melodica. Anyway, I got totally pissed off, because they left out the most interesting part… Uh…”

“Which is?”

“Oh, right. Well, the so-called experts are like, ‘Suddenly there was this twinkling piano,’ as if that was some magical whatever after ‘The Man Who Sold the World,’ which was basically a Sabbath record, but there’s actually a great story behind that.”

“…”

“Okay, so, Elton John totally hated David Bowie. I can’t remember why… Oh, yeah, because Bowie outed him in Melody Maker or some shit, called him ‘the token queen of rock and roll,’ and he wasn’t out, didn’t want to be, so he was totally pissed. Also, he apparently walked in on Bowie and Mick Jagger calling him ‘Fat Reg.’ So, you know, he hated him.”

“Uh huh.”

“So, Elton retaliates, calls Bowie ‘unhinged,’ feigns sympathy for his apparent mental illness, which he knows is a knife in the gut to dear old Dave with his schizophrenic brother and all. Meanwhile, Bowie’s totally jealous because Elton’s completely uninteresting but has managed to gain American appeal while Bowie has one hit single and a British cult following at best. So, he says, ‘Fuck Reg, I can write an album on a piano, too. Fuck that asshole.’ And he did. Sounds nothing like an Elton John record, of course, but it came out great, and that’s why the tinkling piano is there. ‘Hunky Dory’ happened because he was punking Elton John.”

“That’s awesome.”

“Yup. And then, forty-five years later, Bowie dies, and Elton John has got to weigh in, of course. And he’s just as bitchy as he was then – dedicates a song to him, makes all kind of news for it, brags that they used to club together when they were teenagers, calls his death ‘classy,’ whatever that means, and it’s like, ‘You fucking hated this dude. You both hated each other.’ Classy would be keeping your mouth shut.”

“…”

“What’s up?”

“Can I go home now?”

“No.”

Next week: Lord only knows.

A funny thing happened on the way to the GWAR show…

Richmond, Virginia, 2016:

I am at the 7th annual Gwar-BQ, my third in a row. It’s hotter than it’s ever been, and I may be suffering from some combination of mild heatstroke and beer stupids. A friend and I just caught Against Me!’s set, which we both watched out of curiosity and ended up enjoying until the bitter, sun-soaked end. [Note to self: Listen to Against Me!’s studio work and decide if they’re really that good or if I was, in fact, drunk.]

Gwar is going on next on a different stage, and I receive a text that applies to me but not my Against Me! buddy: There’s an area for VIP ticket holders to the right of the stage, meet him there in ten minutes. We go our separate ways, and I shuffle through the dust and bohabs toward a barricade to the right of the stage. A “staph” member is on guard. I hold up my pass and ask, “Is this the VIP area?” He waves me through without a word, barely a tired glance, clearly suffering from some heat-related impairment of his own. I follow the railing to a wooded area behind the stage and start looking for the friend who sent the text. He’s nowhere. I light up a spliff and ask the guy standing next to me if he’s seen a tall dude in a red Paw Sox hat, “It’s got a ‘P’ on it instead of a ‘B,’ but otherwise it looks like a Red Sox hat… uh… about six-one, six-two, he’s got a twelve year-old with him… ahhhh…”

“Sorry.”

“Shit.” I offer the spliff. “You want some of this?”

“Uh, no. Working.”

“Oh? What’re you doing?”

“I’m the photographer.”

“Oh, cool.”

It looks like the show’s starting. I wander up the stairs leading to the stage where a crowd has already gathered. I search for my friend’s red cap, and ask another staph member if he’s seen him. He hasn’t. I shrug and settle in for the show, setting my bag and beer down next to me, backing against the railing to make way for the last stragglers piling in and a few roadies still unloading crates of equipment from the prior set.

Gwar starts. I’m standing right behind the soundboard. I could, but choose not to count the sweat beads rolling off Balsac’s painted-on six-pack. It’s fucking awesome, and I’m visibly psyched. I turn to a different staph member behind me and scream, “This is the best perk you’ve offered with the VIP tickets yet! I had no idea we were going to be this close! This is incredible, best Gwar show ever!”

He’s grinning. “This area’s for the bands.”

My eyes bug. I blush. It all becomes clear – why I can’t find my friend, why this looks suspiciously like, oh, I don’t know, THE BACK OF THE FUCKING STAGE, YOU IDIOT.

“Oh,” I say. “Oh. Well, that makes sense.”

He’s still grinning.

“Well. Thank you for not immediately throwing me out!”

“You made it this far,” he says.

I humbly return to my spot and quickly think up a backstory in case one of the important people asks me who the fuck I am or why I’m back here. I’m a writer. Sure. They don’t have to know I’m a nobody fiction writer and not a rock journalist. Whatever. That’ll work. If they needle further, I’ll just tell them I wrote Bleeding Gut Blues. What? You haven’t heard of it? Well, it has a cult following. They don’t have to know the cult consists of, maybe, five people. It’s not lying.

The set itself you can probably imagine. I watch “Slaughterama” from ten feet away, cheer as the skinhead is decapitated, laugh as blood shoots up like a fountain from an exposed faux esophagus at the top of his suit. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton battle, both mercifully die. A few other random people who aren’t supposed to be there wander up, one hands me a beer. It’s already open, so I make him chug half of it to prove it’s safe. This vaguely annoys him, but not enough to stop chatting.

I tell him, “This is great, but I miss getting soaked with blood! I mean, I understand the soundboard being right there is an impediment, but damn it, I want to get bloody!”

He cheers agreement (“Yeah! Blood! They could find a way!”), and at the start of the next song, bolts in the direction of the red-soaked people pit below.

Occasionally, I glance at the important people. There’s a beautiful woman with dark features hugging the barricade, wearing expensive-looking, demurely revealing clothes, hair and top waving in the breeze, clutching a Dolce and Gabbana handbag. She keeps turning her head and smiling in my direction. I’m momentarily smitten. I finally smile back and almost wave just as the photographer who must have been standing right behind me saddles up next to her. They embrace. From her wild gesticulations and open-mouthed grin, I surmise that she’s never seen Gwar before, and is having a fantastic time. I can’t help but laugh to myself, happy that even the real-life Megan Draper from Mad Men can dig on this crazy shit.

The set ends. After about an hour of playing it semi-cool, I explode with wild excitement at the first friend I see, then the next, then the lot of them. The next morning, as I’m walking the wrong direction on the way to the Gwar Bar, my friend yells, “S! You don’t know the way by now?”

“You know me. I always go the wrong way.”

“And sometimes it gets you into trouble, and sometimes you end up backstage at a Gwar show.” I don’t know, and I’m not looking, but I have a feeling he’s shaking his head.

Next week: Probably nothing. I’m very lazy.

Damn it. I started a blog again.

Rhode Island, 2016:

I am an artist model at my alma mater. It’s the end of the semester, I need lots of hours, extra money, and there isn’t enough of my body type to go around, so those hours are ample. My knees hurt. Actually, both legs hurt, my back, neck is stiff, my brain is fried, and I want nothing more than to smoke myself stupid, drink cold, lime-y gin over ice, and watch General Hospital. However, one thing is nagging me, dragging me into the world of post-work productivity. I started this stupid blog a little while ago, and I haven’t posted in almost a month. Damn it. Damn me, damn you, damn damn damn any artist’s obligation to create anything for anyone other than himself.

After flipping my frozen fish fillet, snubbing my cigarette, and returning to my laptop, I throw a dart at my entire life as it pertains to rock and roll and decide to write about

Um.

Houston, 1998:

I paint every night. I’m more creatively prolific than I will ever be again, at least without alcohol. Like many masters before me, I have one favorite subject to which I return again and again, each time capturing its likeness in a different mood and light. I paint portraits of David Bowie.

I paint so many that they can not be contained in a single manila envelope, not even two. I paint stacks of them on whatever I can find: old gift boxes left over from Christmas, the cardboard inside binders that keeps them not-floppy, anything. At school the next day, I admire the latest acrylic abomination, critiquing, navel-gazing, equal parts.

A year later, I apply to several art colleges, believing the visual arts to be my predestined path. I am forced to draw things that are not Bowie in order to gain admittance, and I do, somewhat reluctantly, but there are portraits of Bowie and other rock stars included in my slide portfolio.

Providence, 2000:

My best friend, Jon, buys a dowel after watching me throw a tantrum because my final project for 3D Design, a life-size Xerox of David Bowie and a few trees meant to lurk among actual trees, will not stand up with fishing line alone.

“Why don’t you get a dowel, S?”

“Where am I going to get a fucking dowel, Jon?” (I have not slept for, spit-balling it here, I’m gonna say three days. Maybe four.)

“At the [RISD] store, S.”

“How am I…? How the… Can’t see it behind your fucking silver taco, anyway!” (His final project was, from my recollection, a giant aluminum taco.) I gesticulate wildly, stumbling in the direction of my dorm room. When I return, after lunch, my stupid wood elf Bowie abortion is standing upright and lovely – with the help of a motherfucking dowel purchased from the RISD store.

That year, partially motivated by a dare from Jon, I will sneak Bowie into at least seventy-five percent of my assignments, often obscured or abstracted, his silhouette as a composition-starter. That figure will only taper off to around fifty-fifty by senior year.

Pawtucket, 2016:

David Bowie has recently died. I’m stoned and suffering a litany of emotions and ideas, some outright pathological, to which I will not subject the audience at this time. During the sentimental maelstrom it occurs to me: That whole art phase was never about art. I just liked painting portraits of rock stars, particularly this pretty dead one. Visual art was simply a productive excuse to stare longingly at David Bowie.

I giggle.

Next week: One of those drunken, salacious gig stories that I always plan to write about before deciding upon something less interesting that doesn’t implicate close friends or potentially horrify my parents. Like that time Ben caught me giving Shane a blowjob in an alley before our last set at the Safari Lounge.

Yeah. That’s what sells these puff pieces. Smut.

Amazons, record execs, and other mythical beasts

Houston, 1998:

My best friend is in a band called Pure Rubbish. Their guitar player is a fifteen year-old Eddie Van Halen without the talent, charm, or endearing alcoholism. He slams a door in my face at some point in the evening. I think he’s the biggest prick I’ve ever met. Their drummer is… well… ten. Their singer is the father of the two naivetes, and my poor friend is the bass player stuck in between.

They play Numbers, a pretty big gig for a family band that relies heavily on AC/DC covers. They open for some touring band called Nashville Pussy. I highly dislike the headliner’s set. I say as much to my friend seconds before he says, “They’re getting signed backstage, and they want us to tour with them.” Without hesitation, I follow him into the green room.

Nashville Pussy’s singer is holding court in a folding chair near the back. The ten year-old from Rubbish is practically sitting on his lap. I stand awkwardly against a counter while the entirety of the Houston rock scene approaches the king one at time over the course of an hour, each with a demo tape in hand, blubbering false praise. I’m utterly disgusted.

Bored, nauseated, my eyes float toward Nashville Pussy’s Amazonian bass player, this absurdly tall and beautiful blond removing her makeup at the mirrored counter opposite my own hiding spot. Some stereotypical dick in a suit is rubbing her shoulders. In the mirror, I catch her flinching, sneering, acquiescing. I feel a mixture of sympathy and abject disappointment. Silently, I vow to devote myself to the visual arts, to leave this rock and roll schmooze show to the apparently spineless, to never, ever engage in an activity that might lead to this level of creative hypocrisy and physical degradation.

Houston, 1999:

I join a rock band.

Rhode Island, 2004:

I join another rock band.

Rhode Island, 2016:

I have now completely abandoned the visual arts and have been in five rock bands.

Next week: I discover a group of musicians who do not schmooze, mostly because they are also incapable of/unwilling to kiss ass. We smoke a shit-ton of weed, never find an audience outside Western Connecticut, Indonesia, and the Mexican cartel, and Jerry Only tries to seduce me. ‘Night, folks!

I was a rock and roll child bride

Pawtucket, Rhode Island, 2011:

I’m 29, sitting on the couch in the apartment in which I still live. It’s dark, only one lamp lit, the whole room tinged red. A naked singer-songwriter, tall and thin like a giraffe and plastered in chicken-scratch tattoos, walks by on his way to the kitchen.

“You’re an asshole,” he says. “You just want someone who isn’t an asshole, but you’re never going to find one. I’m the best asshole you’re gonna get.”

I don’t say anything. He fries up something on the stove. I don’t remember what.

Next week: Whatever I said I’d write about last time. Or not.

Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?

I like to blame my dad for this rock and roll problem that’s plagued my quality of life for the last twenty-two years. It’s not a complaint – quite the opposite, actually. I just like to give my dad a hard time. When I was a kid, I used to make fun of his male pattern baldness. I voted for Dukakis in my first grade mock election because Dad voted for Bush, then proudly announced my choice at the dinner table, gleefully satisfied by his facetious sneer. I’ve always adored him, and this type of bullshit is how I show love. I am an unrepentant smart-ass and have been since birth.

Truthfully, he bequeathed to me a passion that would survive my teen years and irreversibly shape my adulthood. My life’s pretty awesome, and I’m thankful to him. You hear that? Thanks, Dad. It’s still your fault.

___

Houston, 1986:

I’m four years old, and we’re on our way to the zoo. I love the zoo – not because of the animals, they all seem depressed. I’m looking forward to riding the little train that spins around the place at five miles an hour. Damn, that train’s fun. I’m also partial to the gift shop and the prospect of needling my parents into buying me a new stuffed animal. The morning sun’s blasting through the car window, and I’m watching the badlands of Main Street whizz by, utterly content.

My dad is listening to the classic rock station, the only station he ever chooses. A song comes on that I haven’t heard before. The lyrics are a story. An astronaut is about to blast off into space. Ground control wishes him well, and off he goes. The astronaut is psyched. He seems to really dig his cozy space ship and the beautiful view.

He sounds a little off in the second verse. I’ve seen enough adult television to know that, “Tell my wife I love her very much,” generally foreshadows doom. My interest is seriously piqued, and given the astronaut’s pretty, delicate voice, I’m sympathetic and begin to worry for the protagonist. There’s something wrong, they tell him. The circuit’s dead? I’m now anxious as hell.

Suddenly, my lip’s quivering, tears are streaming down my cheeks, and I’m thinking, “Answer them, Major Tom! Answer them!” The planet Earth is still blue, and the song ends without any reassurance from the astronaut. He’s lost in space. I cry silently for a minute or two, wipe my cheeks clean, blow my nose on one of the tissues stashed in my pocket, and my parents never notice.

Next week: The History of Glorious Rock and Roll as told by my dad, usually on the way home from a Mexican restaurant when my mother is not in the car.