Paul Schrader wrote the script to Taxi Driver
while living in a station wagon. Such is the myth of the suffering artist. But beautiful crazy Van Gogh bastard established the archetype. We might stumble onto a kick-ass something in the morning, but by bedtime, the artist suffers by choice.
At 2 p.m. on Friday, I duct-taped a smile on and drove to an on-air performance at "Off the Record." I tried out a version of "Good Cop," a song from the new album, but still wasn't happy with how it came across. The title wasn't right yet. The DJ and I waxed on writing themes to the city you live in. I affirmed that "Minneapolis" was the story of driving 36 hours home from San Diego when I got sick on a summer tour in 2010. It was my twelfth year in a row of doing music or interviews on Radio K.
By sunset, I'd come out of the coma. The band loaded into the 7th St. Entry, and there was a line down the block. This was the same line I'd waited in to see Babes in Toyland as a teenager, now it was mine for the night. It felt good. At least for the moment, there as an exorcism of doubt. My blood was like fire while swinging upside down over my piano from the ceiling. Was that whole West Coast run just a dream? Was I still at some 48 dollar motel just dreaming? I lost my balance on top of the piano coming down. I slipped backward. Nobody noticed. A snake oil salesmen can disguise himself nicely behind a loud rock band in bar. They all probably thought I was kidding 'em, singing bout an inexhaustible capacity to love. It left my body on auto pilot, dancing and singing away. Like my spirit floated outside, somewhere above downtown. I looked down. Couples held hands. Packs of drunk suits and stilettos cheered each other while crossing the street. Cops looked on with the preprogrammed knowing of Friday after midnight. I recalled my father taking me to a poetry reading in a Milwaukee Bar at 14 years old. The poet said, "Even with you, and you, and you in my arms, I am alone." The concert emptied and the band loaded out.
I stepped back into my windowless church basement like returning from the bathroom to a paused video cassette of the real me. I barely slept, but very alone. The recent words of Gospel Gossip bassist Justin Blank stood at the front of my mind. "Time is running out, Mallman," he said in the parking lot of Carlton College the next night. We were looking under the hood of his mid-'70s AMX. Two months earlier my mortality was shaken by a phone call with my father. "What's up Dad? what are you doing?" "I'm waiting." Pause. "Waiting for what, Dad?" "I'm an old man now, Mark. I'm waiting." It was hard to tell where the truth ended and the joke began. Time is running out. When I was 19 I wrote a song with a lyric that went "Waiting, it's the hardest part they said. Like someone hanging a piano over your head." Some lyrics make sense as you get older. That one never did. After the show, we drove home a short hour back to town. I walked into the street from the alley. The skyline was nodding out in the pre dawn muck. Who could possibly be working in a bank skyscraper at four am on a Sunday? I waited in the street as the city shut down. I unscrewed a bottle of cheap merlot from the refrigerator and wondered if the aliens would be more afraid of Thom Yorke than he would be of them. Classic rock hummed out from my radio alarm. "Holding Back the Years" by Carly Simon opened the floodgates. Tour withdrawal held its grip. I wanted to die, but I waited. I waited nonetheless, staring at my ever-broken unringing phone. I watched half of Bonnie and Clyde, then 10 minutes of Apocalypse Now in my too-big bed. These were the days when it was easier to see similarities between things. Fudge Stripes. Windmill Cookies. Armageddon.
Overachievers wake up sore. The next string of days brought two recording sessions, a contract for the winter gig in Hollywood, a football shaped pizza, wet dogs, the perpetual emptiness, a vague gnawing of professional obligation, and a small blessing of cash from the advertising world to float me till California, fudge stripes, and windmill cookies. There was a shortage of pants. I worked quietly, and slept unsoundly. At a poetry reading, a young woman asked how I was feeling. I said, "Dead inside." We laughed grim grins. I meant it to be funny, but I meant it still. The off-tour day to day ritual consisted of business calls where the word "dude" is required, drinking club soda, and pressing the record button every six or seven minutes. In the studio, Peter Anderson and I fashioned an odd drum kit with two kick drums, not side to side, but front to back. The mixing board, which 15 years ago seemed as foreign as a space shuttle control panel, was now easier to operate than a microwave oven. Listening to the tracks come over the studio speakers, it seemed like my darkness was paying off. What was so odd about this crisis was that I was at the top of my career, yet totally alone.
But the work week let me down easy, and by Friday night I was driving to a young photographer's housewarming party. I stood in the kitchen with half a dozen male models. A young newspaper writer said she saw me from across the room and asked, "Who's the grey leather?" After a couple of awkward minutes, she compared our conversation to an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm
. I assumed we were being flirty. She asked me for a cigarette. I told her I quit smoking at 14, and that I had my first beer at 5. She said she hadn't smoked in a month and a half. Then I left the party. My driving glasses were off in the car, because I had been sitting on them the whole way home. Swerving through uptown, pink nightmares spilled from the back hatches of sport utilities as hoodlums screamed out about mp3 players and digital cameras for sale. 3 a.m. doom ever descended. The empty church basement was still, the air tepid. There were zombie movies needing to be watched, two scripts needing to be read, and a full album's worth of drum tracks to edit. All this shit waiting to be done, but without meaning. Had my cold exterior cracked, or was it simply my polyester pants? Was I starved for affection, or just not sleeping with enough blankets? Would I ever get the phone call?
The following afternoon I had lunch in the park with Miss R. While discussing murderous squirrels, I came upon the idea of a lazy serial killer. "Like, he is so lazy that he simply waits a probable number of years, like 50, and then just crosses victims' names off of a list," I said. The lake was still and we compared it to the picture on the front of someone's funeral program. She argued that muscle cars with automatic transmissions have insincere owners. Maniac children assaulted a soccer ball. Wilting lovers held hands. A hunched slob in a hooded sweatshirt yelled, "I just shit my dick." All the while, somewhere across the city, a band was breaking up, a couple was preparing divorce papers, cakes fell. Cars, magnetized, in 5 mph crashes. People went from hospital guest to hospital tenant simply by signing on a line. Justin's words rang in my skull, "Time is running out, Mallman." And true to his words, another week of recording sessions and negotiating the winter job flashed on past.
Halloween was coming up. At a karaoke bar, a giant ear of corn with Frida eyebrows and feather boa was singing "In the Air Tonight," one arm waving. People kept saying, "This is his jam from waaaay back." I skipped the gin, and went with straight tonic. The second hand slowed. I debated with my agent on big-time future touring. He said, "Where there's a will there's a way." I said, "No, where there's a will there's a dead guy." My piano had another broken key. I played in Green Bay, WI on the weekend and drove all night till 7 a.m. I played in Fargo, ND. Drunks walked like zombie extras after bar close. I had breakfast with my agent and postponed a dinner with my lawyer. Jeremy Ylvisaker came over to track guitars in my bedroom. Even though my mind was unraveling, the record was coming together just how I'd envisioned it: The Red Bedroom meets Pulp Fiction. Dark corners always hide the coolest monsters. I went to the casino and lost big at the 15 dollar table. Never, do I lose at the tables. I wrote a song about robbing a liquor store. Dick Valentine called. The Six were playing the Bowery Ballroom in Brooklyn. He said the road wasn't the same without us. That was nice to hear. Yet, still, I avoided mirrors. I regretted things I hadn't done, but nothing I had -- just like the bumper sticker says.
On Halloween night, I danced to Phoenix with a blue Jedi. I was feeling a revived happiness, and the equation was plain as yogurt. Human beings plus music equals universe expanding equals fuzzy feeling inside the body equals winning. As long as the music was within, the struggle could be maintained. My suffering could finally be reduced to an illusion, but would I follow through? When I was 18 years old, and the stadium lights shone bright on my slacker horizon, I thought about starting a book. The idea was, here is the 15-year story of the guy who made it. Instead, I put on trench coats, and slept with the lights on. I was thinking, "I am a human being who has music instead of blood. I am a human being who has music instead of blood."
"I know the reason why you keep your silence up, no you don't fool me
The hurt doesn't show; but the pain still grows
It's no stranger to you or me
And I can feel it coming in the air tonight, Oh Lord
And I can feel it coming in the air tonight, Oh Lord"