DIARY OF A FADING ROCKSTAR PART VI

Long Gone Lonesome Blues

Written By: Erik Rader

“Sometimes, you don’t know what you have until you walk away from it.”
____________________

The number of projects – musical, literary or otherwise – that I’ve embarked upon with an initial burst of intense energy, which have subsequently flopped, fizzled, faded, been f***ed up or fumbled, is rather large. I would say that the number of bands I’ve tried to start is only matched by the number of jobs I’ve had or careers I’ve tried to launch and the number of novels I’ve never finished (I could probably fill a library with those). Usually these projects are preceded by periods of deep depression and malaise, followed by a sudden plunge into a pit of despair and anxiety – just as suddenly followed by a soaring feeling of elation, an explosion of fully-formed complex ideas and concepts for new work, and even concrete beginnings. Rather than actually end, these bursts of energy have arcs that peak and then plummet with a noticeable rhythm. Goethe adjured us to just begin, and claimed that magic would ensue. I’ve had lots of magical beginnings. My problem is finishing. Maybe it’s a fear of endings as a metaphor for death, who knows. To the artist, nothing is ever really finished, at least not satisfactorily – rather, the process is interrupted by choice. So how do we choose when to fade out?

My friends with a mental health background will point out this emotional see-saw has a resemblance to bipolar manic depression, but every professional psychiatric screen I’ve been given over the years points to major depression instead, which is not as sexy a disorder, is somewhat rarer and less understood. Basically, the kind of depression I am under treatment for is the kind you have your whole life and just find ways to work around. I honestly am not aware of having delusions of grandeur, other than the one I had as a teenager that I was going to be the next Bono or Peter Gabriel and that soon hundreds of thousands would look upon me as a channel to the Next Higher Level of Consciousness or whatever.

Okay, that was pretty f***in’ grandiose! But it was just a feeling. I didn’t believe any untrue facts, such as believing that Michael Stipe and I were long lost brothers or that Natalie Merchant lived in my basement or that the ghost of Jimi Hendrix was teaching me how to play guitar. I didn’t change my name to Stingo or Jalapeno or Rapier or Space Robot 666. I didn’t buy an expensive motorcycle and drive it off a cliff. I didn’t get my picture in the paper frolicking with drag queens. I just tried to do my job as best I could – my job being to remain inspired, keep up my chops, and stay focused. When those things more or less stopped happening, I made an executive decision – and probably my first adult one – to pack up, leave town, and try to achieve those things again somewhere else. I’m told that alcoholics in recovery refer to this as “pulling a geographic”, and it is usually seen as a way of avoiding the problem.

I broke up with a fantastic girlfriend who really dug me, dumped my best friend on a Post-It, got rid of almost everything I owned (which wasn’t much), and rode off into the sunset on the Green Tortoise hippie bus. My plan was to head on up to my favorite aunt and uncle’s farm in southwestern Washington, where they offered to have me stay with them a few weeks to detox from my crazy social life back home and come up with a plan for my next move. During my stay, I took long walks on roads miles from any lamp post, under a clear sky crowded with stars the likes of which it is impossible to see with today’s air pollution and light pollution. It was a little bit like floating in a sensory deprivation tank or doing a spacewalk, with my cassette Walkman playing Incredible String Band, Van Morrison, Yes, Television, Ralph Vaughn-Williams, R.E.M., Lightnin’ Hopkins, Tom Waits and Hank Williams. Needless to say I tripped hard on those walks. I got so far out of my head I actually thought the lyrics in all the songs were secret coded messages intended especially for me. After about a month of this I decided I had spent enough time in my hermitage and was ready to rejoin the human race, if they’d have me. I rode Amtrak across the midwest and down the Mississippi.

In New Orleans, I didn’t get a damn thing done except drink, eat, work as a bus boy, watch the cockroaches and rats rule their kingdoms, and sit at the feet of people who fancied themselves the next William Faulkner or Brian Eno. I did managed to throw up on some of their living room floors. That was fun. When the winter holiday season came around, and the canned music at the restaurant started to include Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here”, I got nostalgic for a place that might be more…christmasy. I thought about it in that non-factual, illogical, emotionally-driven way that sensitive poet types in their early 20’s are given to. I thought about the part of the country where I was born – New England – and the fact that I hadn’t been back since being born there, and maybe it was time to check in. See some snow, smell scented candles in the stores, drink some hot cider and sing carols.

I don’t know why it seemed as if New England would be more ‘Christmasy’ than the South, but as I said I wasn’t applying logic to the equation. All I knew was, I had a nice pawnshop Gibson acoustic with a narrow electric-style neck but nobody to play with. I got on Amtrak and headed East. My first stop was Boston, the place where I was conceived.

The Winter of 1986 was one of the coldest on record up until that point. I kept hearing about homeless people freezing to death in doorways, and was glad that the guy in charge of the International Youth Hostel was breaking the rules by letting me and a few other guys stay there longer than three days in exchange for janitorial labor. During the day I would busk down on the MBTA underground platform playing a couple of psychedelic pop songs I’d written that had no more than 3 chords, sometimes just 3 augmentations of the same chord; and whatever song I remembered at least half the words to that I could actually play, like “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young.

Because I was a Berkeley High School alumnus, I naturally had several classmates of the brainiac variety who’d been admitted to various ivy league universities in the area. I slept on some of their couches for a few weeks for as long as I could push my luck before wearing out my welcome. I briefly worked at a delicatessen not far from the State House, but couldn’t quite hack the abrasive personalities of my middle-aged, thickly accented co-workers. Finally I got a job as a temp with Kelly Services, working as an office assistant for a well-known and respected public figure who happened to be an administrator at Boston University. I was a stand-in for the Admin Assistant who had slipped on an icy driveway and broken her leg. I wrote a lot of letters to friends and slept next to the phone for most of that job. When the AA came back, I got moved to another placement at Northeastern University as the supply cabinet guy for the English Department. By this point I’d got an apartment with some MIT geeks in Somerville, and was actually saving some money.

Around about this time I met some guys who answered an ad I had put up in a guitar shop. I basically wrote down all the punk, post-punk, prog, avant-garde and assorted other types of bands I was into, and said “I’d like to sing for a band with these same influences.” A couple of guys who were the mid-80’s equivalent of indy rock hipsters – at that time it was pea coats and Doc Martens – answered my ad and invited me over to their rehearsal space. For a lot of the audition we shouted out the names of bands we were into and wrote them down on the white erasable marker board.

Pretty soon there were more than a hundred band names scrawled up there. Then we tried to lurch through “I Found That Essence Rare” by Gang of Four. We had all the cool ideas, all the conceivable “right influences” and more, we had a couple of not so bad looking young dudes, some obvious talent in the room. There was also zero magic. We all felt it, we all knew it, even though we wouldn’t say it out loud. There was an awkward “We’ll call you” moment; the guitar player had some Doc Martens he didn’t want any more, and he gave them to me. So at least I got some boots out of it.

I found out my mom’s cousin lived in a nearby suburb, and I went to visit her family. She had a husband who was a sarcastic and condescending old-school conservative dude who worked as some sort of executive in public transportation (he died of cancer not long ago, so I’ll try not to speak ill of the dead). He had a depressed son who lived in his basement and worked at a chain restaurant. I guess I looked at the son and had a “Holy s**t there but for the grace of God go I” moment. While I was staying with them they also drove me out to the town in which I was born, a small, somewhat remote and economically depressed New England backwater that resembled nothing so much as a setting for an H. P. Lovecraft story about frog-like worshippers of the Great Old Ones performing human sacrifices in the swamp. I decided it was a good thing my parents didn’t stay there.

I had a good job, a place to live, and was saving some money – and I was also drinking alone a lot. As in, drinking a lot, usually alone. For various reasons I won’t go into here, I got it in mind that a change of scenery was called for. So, I pulled another geographic and got back on the train – this time to Providence, to stay with the friend of a friend who was a Brown student. I got a Kelly job there, and kept my head above water, but I got no work done, in terms of The Work. My stay in Providence was even shorter. I moved again, this time to West Philadelphia, where I crashed on the floor of a spare room in a house full of other friends of the same friend, some of whom were musicians. One of the people who hung out a lot at the house had a viola, and liked Metallica. We jammed out on a chord change I was working on, which eventually became the song “Weather.” She was also kind of hot, but as per usual, I did not pursue any assignation with her, as she was available, while the in-my-mind perfect and inaccessible object of my affections was safely not.

I got a chance to see a show in Philly that was one of those shows you remember the rest of your life – Wire, in some club that could accommodate maybe a couple hundred people on the dance floor, shouting out “Map Reference!” and “12XU!” Instead what they got was “The Queen of Ur and the King of Um,” the poor bastards. But the real milestone was not the band, but the fact that my legs suddenly gave out under me and I collapsed. Thinking I was drunk, the bouncers almost ejected me, but I pleaded with them not to, saying I had the flu. They grudgingly allowed me to go to the john to compose myself. It turns out that what was wrong with me was that I had spent innumerable hours in the kitchen of those friends-of-a-friend, sitting in a chair, smoking cadged Merits, alternating between tea and cheap bottles of National Bohemian, and staring off into space. My blood pressure was dangerously low, and I had some sort of sciatica-like situation going on with my back and legs.

Shortly afterwards – possibly even that week, I’m not sure – I found myself sitting in that same kitchen one night in the dark, drinking tea and smoking and listening to “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” from R.E.M.’s second full album ‘Reckoning’. Suddenly I started to bawl like a baby. I can’t explain why the confluence of these factors led to this emotional breakdown, but perhaps you can get a vague sense of it. The next day I called up my parents and begged them for money for a plane ticket back home.

While staying with my parents after my failed attempt at reliving Kerouac’s “On The Road,” I went mildly insane (mildly for me anyway – maybe not for others). I proceeded to look up every female friend who wouldn’t hang up on me when I called, and hit on every one of them. The last one of these attempts got me a date at a pretentious jazz bistro, too much chartreuse (which is the lame-ass’s excuse for absinthe), a drunken kiss goodnight (the closest thing to scoring I’d experienced in over a year), and a staggering walk home listening to Charles Mingus’ “Mingus Ah Um” on my Sony Walkman before being half-brained with baseball bats by young thugs being initiated into a gang. Five stitches and a mild concussion later, I decided to shave my head.

A few days later, walking up Cedar Street in a daze, I was mugged again – this time by my erstwhile band mates. Screeching to a halt and bundling out of their beat-up economy car, they half tackled me on the sidewalk with boyish enthusiasm almost as if the ugly break-up had never happened, and invited me to do a walk-on cameo appearance during one of their encores at their next gig, some time around Halloween. I allowed myself to be sold on the idea, possibly because of the concussion. I played a demo of my new song for them and received a lukewarm response – I’m sure it was nothing personal, just indicative of how far in different directions we’d traveled in such a short period of time. What the hell, I thought – I’d been all around the country, seen and done a fair amount of things, been hit over the head in my own home town – why not let bygones be bygones, get up and do my thing?

I had major second thoughts about it after I’d committed myself. On the blessed day I met my future wife (which is a whole other story unto itself), I mentioned that I was doing the gig, but didn’t give her any details because quite frankly I didn’t want her to see me in that context. When the night of the gig finally arrived, it was really weird, like a surreal dream (and resembling many dreams I had for years afterward). They asked me to get up on stage and sing one of our “hits” from the one record we made. I got up there, the eight piece band with horns sprung into action, and I………forgot the words. The words I had written and sung hundreds of times in front of thousands of people. I winged it as best I could, but it was basically – to put it kindly as possible – a fucking disaster. Later, a review of the show in the local paper raved about how great the band was, and then made a brief throwaway comment in passing about “some guy who looked like Uncle Fester” appearing briefly onstage for no apparent reason. Thus did I cement my legacy for posterity.

After all of my clumsiness with women that year I had decided to swear off relationships forever, and it was exactly then that I fell in love with this wonderful, beautiful girl who would one day consent to marry me. The universe always seems to have other plans that supersede mine. She was so adorable I didn’t want to leave her side for an instant. Of course, me being the person that I was, I therefore logically decided to stick to my plan to leave town as soon as possible with my brother and try to start a new band on the East Coast. I am hoping that an emergent pattern is evident here.

I didn’t get a damn thing done this time either, as far as starting a band is concerned. My brother and I got bogged down in stupid depressing day jobs, and whenever we got together with his guitar and my lyrics, we just sort of sat there staring at each other waiting for something to happen. Now my brother and I really do have musical magic together; as a producer no one has understood my musical ideas better than he does. I can say to him something like “I want this section to have a certain sort of, I don’t know, Pete Townshend meets Roger McGuinn meets George Harrison feel to it, but with a little Pete Shelly meets Neil Young on the distortion,” and he will not only know exactly what I meant, he will get it to sound exactly right. But that winter, it seemed like some sort of pall had settled over us, stifling our Lennon-McCartney vibe. Perhaps it was simply due to the fact that we unconsciously realized what a dumb move we had made going out there.

Something did come of our trip to the East Coast though. I finally finished something, something memorable. I finished drinking. I finished the casually cruel behaviors I indulged in while drunk, the blackouts, the lapses of responsibility (okay, maybe not, but two out of three ain’t bad). I also finally wrote some lyrics to that song I had started in Philadelphia. It was a love song about only realizing someone was your home after you had left. As I mentioned in the last chapter, it was a little oblique and took some explaining. But it was a finished piece of work – my first that year. Having got those two little details out of the way, we decided we were finished with the East Coast. It was time to go home.

View Erik’s Past Articles:
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

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