A millionaire friend once told me, "Mallman, you have two options in this world: crazy busy or dead poor." I corrected him: "Try the music business, you'll be both."
I slept for 13 hours; I dreamed up my own San Francisco, Chinatown 2098. Just before I hit the concrete, my eyelids snapped open. The digital alarm flashed 12:00. Housekeeping shared a lighter. A fat Ghostbuster wandered in and out of open rooms spraying for roaches. Walking into a drug store, an old woman, possibly a one time prostitute, said to me "Hey, you're beautiful. Get over here." She was midnight drunk at mid-afternoon, hunched on a strip mall bench. At the hotel, I worked on lyrics by the pool. Though it was the day of our last show, work was hardly finished. I had two concerts in Minnesota the coming weekend, and on Tuesday I would begin tracking drums for the next record. Then there was research and draft scoring for the feature I was to start in Hollywood in December. Back at room 205, Aaron was watching a baseball game. I came in just in time to see someone in the stands get hit in the face with a flying bat. On that note, we split to club Plush.
The final night of a tour feels like pouring dirt on a coffin, but all the while wondering if the person inside might still be alive. Electric Six was already mid-soundcheck as we carried the drums in. The merchandise table was in front of a 30-foot mural of a naked guy shooting lasers at a naked woman with a flying V guitar. When I brought in my CDs and shirts, Emily said, "We're going to miss you, don't go." Wouldn't it be great if certain days could be looped? We could exhaust ourselves in the good times until the security of the knowing became monotony. The 15 of us had become a family in three short weeks. It's bittersweet to say goodbye.
Randy, the manager of Plush, gave me a stack of "drunk tickets." Show time fogged the room, and I added some additional words to "You're Never Alone in New York" about some Roman Polanski naughtiness. Before we went into "Blood Flow" I yelled like Mickey Rourke in Barfly
, "To all my frieeeennnds!" But they were all a bunch of grifters in there. It was the final swing of my blue jean jacket over my head, the last high kick, the last joke about "call me any time, but text only after 2 a.m." We went to the green room and toasted tequila shots in plastic cups just like we did in Milwaukee with all the mayhem and gas stations ahead of us. I went out into the crowd with a recently divorced fan. Dick thanked us from the stage for opening this West Coast run. Then went into the favorite, "I buy the drugs." Aaron Lemay and I laughed. I thought about that scene in Back to the Future
where Michael J. Fox is fading to a ghost in a Polaroid.
At bar close we made plans with Dick and the band to meet up for breakfast. Aaron drove back to the hotel. I stayed and hung late with a tattooed bartender. We staggered kiddy corner and discussed hydroponic gardening, of which I know nothing. I then proclaimed my disdain for shrimp, who are hydroponic in their own way. I hailed a cab. My shady cabbie grew up in Chicago, and said he knew all about snow and wanted nothing to do with it. I really couldn't tell if he was talking about weather or cocaine. The TV was on when I got back to the room. I sat upright in my bed and stared beyond it. I stared through the screen, past the circuitry, and into the wall of the room next door. My father worked at a General Electric plant fixing everything from X-Ray machines in a radiation coat, to giant air conditioning systems in oil-stained overalls. He said to me once, "When a machine is broken, I picture myself in the center of the engine, then I look outward to find the problem." If my life had a check engine light, would it have been flashing? Am I a screw up, Dad? I hoped not. The Middle School teachers said I would be someday. I hoped they were wrong. Is anybody really right about the future? Expectations always let you down. It's why you always see couples fighting in the street on Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve.
The wake-up call came at 9:45. We met the band at Club Congress, an historic Tucson hotel where John Dillinger once stayed. This was our farewell meal of the tour. We all agreed that should we tour again, on Thursdays we would only speak in the third person. "Mark Mallman will have the monkey meat and a Tom Collins." Then Dick pointed out that the sleeping dog on the patio was a female. I said, "That says more about you than it does the dog, doesn't it, Dick?" After seven slow goodbyes, we were back out on the air conditioning-less road. Through the desert. Windows down. Eyes watering. Las Cruces. The border patrol station German Shepherd chased a newspaper into lunar New Mexico. No religious billboards questioned my lifestyle; just yellow highway signs saying, "Zero Visibility Possible." If it were the Deep South, someone may have spray painted "Without God" after it.
The sun was down by the time we got to Santa Fe. I opened my email to find that the church in which I rent the basement had been sold. It was on the market since July. I had a month to clear out my studio. I would be in Louisville, KY by that time mixing my record. So here I was, coming home just to move away. Driving back to a bed that had become much too big in recent months. The leaves would already have changed to brown upon my return the following night, and the days would be getting shorter. The next episode or the next epicenter? I didn't want to let go of Minneapolis, even if just for the winter. Tom Waits was singing "Tango Till They're Sore" as we roller-coastered the blind mountains into Denver at 3:30 a.m. Aaron and I would sleep for four hours, and then roll onward. I focused on the positives of snow birding in Hollywood. Like, being a very small fish, and also escaping the vampire gossip mills that had turned my social life into a dart board that summer. Waits sang, "I tell you all my secrets, but I lie about my past." This 28-hour drive was giving me clarity. The emptiness hadn't stopped me from killing it on stage each night, and I wasn't about to let it kill my last 20 days in Minneapolis till spring. I played Scrabble on my phone and waited for the freeway reflectors to give way to a mile high Oz beyond the mountains.
A four-hour nap, and back on the interstate by 8 o'clock. Hours swept under the wheels. We crossed into the central time zone and I quoted my own song in my head. I'd written "Minneapolis" originally to say "Back to the city before I die" but had changed it this fall to "back to life." On that same stretch of road, two years earlier, I was driving straight home from San Diego so I could get to a doctor. I'd gotten sick on the road. When I came home, I wrote the chorus. It means quite literally, "get me back to Minneapolis, so I don't feel like shit anymore." So now here we were, almost vindicating the past, fresh off a really fun tour with some great new friends. A gas station light board read, "Stop Now 4 Best Looking Cashiers." A picture of Jesus on the cross stood opposite the sign for "Beaver Crossing." The air smelled like Christmas and propane, as another assembly line sunset broke the night. At Wings America, plaid truckers huddled over a winning scratch-off to the smell of heat lamp hamburgers. The wind nearly blew the pictures off our driver's licenses.
If a rock writer was to ask me, "What did you learn from your fall tour? How did you grow?" The answer would be simple. I'd glare at him/her/genderless deeply with my one good eye, cigar ashes falling out of my mouth, and say, "America has too many pants. I went three weeks on two pair. I learned that if we really want to save the whales or the rainforests or whatever, we should have more underwear and less pants." I would say this not only because I wholeheartedly believe it's true, but because they call me Mr. Serious. It would go against my ethic to speak of emptiness or lost love. It's up to the novelists to tell the stories, and the poets and songwriters to tell what's between the lines. I also believe that our economic recession would disappear if everybody lost 15 pounds.
We came into Minneapolis just after 10:30 p.m. Even though I'd lost my rented church basement, it still gave me a warm feeling. In my head, I'd already begun packing things into boxes. Aaron Lemay's sweet girlfriend had a cheesecake waiting for him. I'd been hearing it all day. Cheesecake is Aaron's favorite food. But my homecoming would be met with silence. The darkened studio was the same as I'd left it, a tangle of guitar cables, ripped envelopes, and wine bottles. I thew my duffel bag on the bed. In the center of the room was a black pillar. When my mother went into the hospital four years earlier, it was this pillar that I held onto and cried. Then I took the light rail alone to the airport, and a jet to Milwaukee. When nobody is around to hold us, we learn to make do. I've had bands with big hopes of massive success, even record deals, but they always eventually broke up. This is how I became a solo artist. The silence was broken by heat turning on through the air ducts. I was humming a Built to Spill lyric from the van ride, "God damn, things fall apart." After my 31st trip to the moon, I'd come home, not just a solo artist, but a solo human. Would my new home even have a pillar to cling onto should the shit go down? Without that pillar, I'd have just fallen on the floor in a lump.
If I was a writer, and I asked what someone might have learned on the road, I think I'd dread a snarky response such as the one offered above. I'd secretly be hoping for an answer I'd felt before but never been able to put into words. Maybe something like, "We can handle the bad times on our own, but the good ones should be shared. I made great new friends, visited old friends, and most importantly I danced and sang every night in rooms full of people out to have a good time. I expanded the universe with the power of rock. The fucking power of rock, dude." That would be a perfect response, I think. But no one good would ever say that in an interview because it's simply not bad ass. Ian Curtis never said anything that cornball. And certainly not someone like Thom Yorke or Lemmy. I texted Emily, "Home safe," 'cause I promised. I texted Dick, "Aaron and I decided to quit piano rock and get married in New York City. We are honeymooning tonight in Chelsea like a couple of Chelsea Girls." When Valentine and I were climbing up that littered Hollywood hill, we both knew that what is understood need not be spoken. This is the reason rock musicians hang from rafters. The truth exists, so why acknowledge its existence? Let's party. It's also the reason people pay money to see us do it. Music isn't an escape from reality, it's an escape into one's own blood flow, one's own being. Music's purposelessness is it's purpose. I took my boots off and sat on the empty unmade bed. Another tour down, and a mad flurry of music business to catch up on. I overheard a homeless guy one time saying, "If I had a house, we could go there." If I'd had a bedpost, I'd have put a notch in it.