Before I took my writing seriously I was a musician, a guitarist/singer/songwriter. I played in dozens of rock/metal/grunge bands, traveling around the United States in old, dilapidated vehicles that had seen better days when Carter was president. I took my music VERY seriously, actually thought I could become a professional if I stuck with it. I’ll be honest right here simply because it feels good to do so: yes, I could have been a professional in a niche band, something along the lines of The Melvins, Mudhoney, or the Supersuckers (okay, I wasn’t that bad) but I wasn’t, like, the next Kurt Cobain. I didn’t know that then, of course, otherwise I probably would have given up and gone back to writing. ‘The Gyre Mission: Journey to the *sshole of the World’ is my official coming out party as a serious writer, having written a lot of crap before it but, like with my music, I thought the other novels and stories were good at the time.
Anyhow, seeing America via the poverty route is truly something. You meet a lot of strange people, stay in a lot of even stranger places and have to get very creative about how you go about eating every day (if indeed you are able to procure a daily meal). I’ve lived in warehouses, lumberyards, state parks and, once, in a beat-up ’81 Ford Escort station wagon for about a month. I’ve also worked just about every crappy job there is, having gotten stranded in many towns when there was no money for gas (or I got kicked out of a band for being a derelict and subsequently left behind to fend for myself). In 1994 I found myself in Atlanta, Georgia, having lost my job as lead singer of a grunge band in Raleigh, North Carolina because during a show (while on LSD) I picked up the rythem guitarist and threw him into the crowd. Needless to say, they didn’t catch him. Anyhow, I was staying in a trashy motel on Ponce De Leon in Little Five Points, the cultural epicenter of the ‘hip’ scene in Atlanta. Musicians, artists, actors, writers…they all congregated there to get their fledgling careers jump-started. As I sat in the shitty room, contemplating my fate as well as mourning the loss of Kurt Cobain, an idealistic-turned-bitter-icon, I became aware of the sound of someone being choked, coming through the a.c. vent. Their breathing was tortured, panting and grunting, and every so often it was punctuated by the soft ‘thud’ of what could only be a fist striking human flesh. I became deadly certain that someone was being murdered, so I called down to the front desk, explaining to them the situation. My account was met with a blasé silence, no assurance that it would be looked into. In fact, the desk clerk hung up on me. So I sat there and listened, and eventually the noise subsided. I was sure that whatever was going on up there I’d be reading about the next day in the paper, but that never happened. In retrospect I’m sure it was a sex game involving asphyxiation and S&M type torture. I forget the name of the motel, but it had a strip club in the basement featuring some of the most bruised (yet hot) chicks I’d ever seen. Atlanta is very big on strip clubs and the laws very lax. Full nudity was the norm in most joints.
There was a club I hung out at (yet another forgotten name but I think it was called something like The Warehouse; it was a converted factory turned music/dance/S&M club) and it had three levels: the first floor was Hell (a leather/bondage club) the middle floor was Purgatory (a dance club) and the third Heaven (a live music venue). I’d be there to see cutting edge bands and folks in full body leather bondage suits with their slaves on a collar and leash (on all fours) would wander up from the first floor. I never quite knew what to make of them, these leather-clad freaks, and I almost never looked them in the eye.
I worked as a telemarketer for a while in Conyers, a tiny town thirty miles south of Atlanta. The place was insane, populated by misfits and miscreants of every kind. The owner kept loaded automatic weapons in his office and snorted cocaine off his desktop. In the heat of an especially brutal summer when the a.c. went out he bought us whiskey, beer and blow to keep us at our desks working. I blacked out at one point and have no recollection of driving back to Atlanta. All I do remember is that I didn’t go home; instead I went to a warehouse I’d recently vacated (I’d left amidst a chaotic backdrop of acrimony and moved into a lumberyard with a marijuana activist group) and got into a fistfight with a drug dealer and his buddy/body guard. I call it a ‘fistfight’ but actually I did most of the damage to myself; while they held me down on a concrete floor I flailed and thrashed and battered my own face on the cement. The moral of that story: make sure the a.c. doesn’t go out in August in Atlanta; you never know what is going to happen.
I worked in a restaurant as a line cook for a while after that, a trendy place where Michael Stipe (singer of REM) ate all the time. I did terrible things to his food because I didn’t like his band (don’t tell him, he might get pissed). Henry Rollins ate there once and I wanted to meet him. I rushed out into the dining room preparing to approach him and declare: “Dude, you are, like, the true embodiment of punk rock!” and when I got within five feet of the table he fixed me with such an icy, homicidal glare I stopped dead in my tracks, frozen. I was wearing jeans that needed to be washed three months ago, ripped t-shirt in the same shape, and a filthy apron stained with humus, salad dressing, human blood (my own) and so on. My hair was wild and crazy, my face that of a rabid, sycophantic fan. As he glowered I quickly realized he probably didn’t want to be bothered and I fled. To this day I still think that was the right move.
A few weeks later I decided to get out of Atlanta; the drug dealer I’d had the skirmish with wanted me dead and several members of the marijuana activist group were arrested for possession of narcotics and unregistered firearms. The only reason I wasn’t in jail with them was because I’d scraped up enough cash to go to the movies; when the DEA raided the place I wasn’t home.
And then I was in Chicago, staying in a closet-sized room infested with so many roaches they fell off the ceiling onto my head at night. Three months later I was in Milwaukee, playing in a post-grunge band called Gasoline Heart. If that name sounds familiar it isn’t because you heard MY music; Paul Westerburg of ‘The Replacements’ has a band by that name presently. I failed to trademark the name so it was up for grabs. I’m sure he thinks he came up with it. Whatever…