Front Men Are Forever
1. Million Dollar Bash S o without any help from radio or MTV, CANDLEFINGERS went gold, and Rising magazine named it the Breakthrough Album of the Decade, and we recouped our advance and were suddenly seeing royalties, and the label was chomping so hard to get us back into the studio that they agreed to renegotiate our contract. Remember, this was 1998: in rock music, even in our tiny alt-country corner, you could still earn a living making records. We felt like in five years' time we'd be playing on the moon. It was like how we imagined the sixties were, except better—no wars, no assassinations, no hippies.
Laurel and I had been separated for more than a year, and I was living in this extended-stay efficiency, and when I wanted to see the kids I had to go over to the house, which was weird now, just being inside it. So it was my suggestion to the band that we get out of town to write and arrange and start tracking the next record. We rented this busted-up old mansion called Collingwood in southwestern Virginia—heart of the Blue Ridge, total Carter Family country— and leased a bunch of gear. The label paid for all this on top of our advance (recoupable, of course—everything was recoupable), and when it came time to pick a producer, instead of assigning one, our A&R guy Rusty asked us: “Who do you want to work with?” We were giddy. To help with all this label business, our manager drove down for a few days. Wilbur Price was fifty-three and had been some kind of gonzo journalist in the seventies. He wore these leopard-skin sneakers and was balding except for this long braided rat's tail. He stood there in the grand foyer, scowling at the crumbling arches, and he goes, “Rock 'n' roll cliché number one: crass decadence.” He was an LSD refugee but he talked like a movie drill sergeant, and he was jumpy as hell. Since we'd moved in, some mining company had started dynamiting the top off the next mountain over, so every couple hours— BOOM—THE whole house would rattle, and Wilbur would leap out of his skin and shout “Jesus shit!” and falling plaster dust would settle on his pate, and we'd all die laughing. He went on these tirades about strip mining, how shortsighted and ungrateful these miners were, blowing up their own ecosystem. “It's like Fuck you, mountain, here's some C- 4!” He stayed at the Holiday Inn in Roanoke, just refused to sleep in the house, which, by the way, the guy who'd built it—he was some fin de siècle apple baron, no kidding—he died in a shipwreck, not the Titanic but another one, and his wife lost her shit and hanged herself, right there
in the house, their kids locked up in the nursery. Wilbur goes, “Rock 'n' roll cliché number two: the haunted house studio. One of you boys wanna sign up to choke to death on your own vomit?”
So we got one of those oversized tablets they use in office meetings, and we made a list: ROCKNROLL CLICHES. We hung it on the fridge, which was art-deco old and made noises like a car throwing a rod. Clark had this fussy diet, and he brought down these organic plums and a carton of goat's milk, but the milk only kept for like two days in that fridge, and one day Wilbur, thinking it's milk milk, pulls it out and takes a swig, and when it hits his tongue he makes this face like Don Rickles mugging the camera, and he sprays sour goat's milk all over the place. He throws the carton out the back door, and this huge owl flies out of the orchard rows and swoops down onto it. We were all stoned, and it was the strangest, funniest thing we'd ever seen, and Wilbur told us to go fuck ourselves, and Clark scrawled at the bottom of the list: Cliché # 3: Grouchy-ass Manager. And Wilbur snatched the marker and wrote: # 4: Pathetic Idealism. And in the moment, even that seemed hilarious, and hopeful.
2. Ol' Roison the Beau We were a four-piece now, since bringing in Matt the drummer earlier that year. When we amended the contract to give him a share of mechanical royalties, Matt went straight out and got hitched, and he was always saying, “I feel like I won the fucking Powerball,” and we'd all started using the word Powerball to mean excellent, as in, “Have you heard the new Steve Earle? It's fucking Powerball.” Matt was sinewy and brutish, as drummers tend to be. Kevin, on bass, was doughy and sweet natured, went to Mass every Sunday, one of Clark's oldest friends, though not a founding member. Clark makes a big deal in the press about how he and Kevin go way back to Catholic school—they were, no shit, choirboys together—but people don't realize we didn't bring Kevin in until after Steam Million. By the time we nested up in Collingwood, Clark and I were the last founding members still standing. I was the only one who shared publishing royalties with him. We'd been writing together for seven years.
People remember me for my lead guitar work, but I played keys, lap steel, some fiddle, did some BGVS. In the beginning I sang lead on a few tunes at every show, but those days were over. Clark was starting to get a whiff of the clout his role as front man gave him. He played rhythm, some piano, and he could pull off about three cross-harp riffs, and with his hair tousled and his baby fat and patchy scruff, he radiated this aura of the long-suffering nice guy: wholesome and yet tortured, educated but studiously unpretentious, middle class and yet earthy—same persona he's milking now.
I'd assumed we'd write the new material together, since that's how we'd always done it, but Clark brought to Collingwood a CD-R full of demos— fifteen tunes he'd written by himself. One night the two of us sat on the sun porch and he played me his demos on this boom box, which sat on his lap like a cat. The porch screens were shredded, and all these mosquitos kept flying in and
biting the hell out of us, both of us smacking at them. And as I was listening, and smacking, and scratching, I was half-thinking, a little worried, I'll admit, about the Rising feature. I was worried, a little bit, about how I was going to come across. I'd only ever been interviewed with the group, and if you've read those you've seen how you had to wrestle Clark to the ground to get a word in. But this writer Angela and I spent a whole day together, and I said some things to her, about myself and about Clark. True things, but things you could misinterpret if my exact wording wasn't preserved, or if you didn't spend some time thinking about it.
Clark was nodding along with his tunes in the dark—not a worry in the world, that guy, drumming his thighs where he heard fills, and even though it was clear he already had ideas, he said, “These are only sketches, man. Sparkler sketches on the night.” “When did you write these?” I said. “I like them.” “Over the past several months, I guess? I know it's a different direction for us. But that's exciting—to feel yourself stepping into a new river.”
So I might as well be honest. Since he'd written these songs alone, I was wondering how publishing royalties would work. The money was never something I obsessed over, but unlike the other guys, I had child support to pay. “So you were working on these during the tour,” I said.
“No,” he said. “I don't know,” and he stiffened up. Clark was the sort of guy that expected you to be careful what you said to him, which most people went along with. He abhorred conflict. It gave him stomachaches. All you had to do was raise a hint of doubt about his motives, and that famous boyish charm would flake away. He said, “I wrote them at home, mostly.” “I just don't remember hearing any of these,” I said. “Well, yeah.” He scratched at his forearm. “They're new.” The songs were good, even then I could tell. On Candlefingers we'd selfconsciously swum toward an anthemic rock sound, though still marbled through with our signature twang, but what Clark was auditioning for me was straight-up pop. And I don't mean like Céline Dion, or even like Sheryl Crow. I mean like artful pop, pop you could imagine people—and I'm saying people with taste, critics and scholars—still listening to in twenty, thirty years. Unabashedly major key, his rhythm guitar emphasizing the quarter notes, the melody playing across that foundation like a little kid, like when my kids were toddlers playing in the yard, and as I chased after her Lucy would run away, laughing, darting left and right and back into my arms. Where Candlefingers had been very Brian Jones, these songs were more Brian Wilson, with a huge debt of course to the Beatles. And actually I could envision right away the reviews that would call these songs Beatles-influenced or Beatles-derived, and I said so. Clark grimaced and said, “I guess. But what does that mean, exactly?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Just that it's clear in these melodies that the Beatles are a huge influence.” “But is it even possible, post-beatles, to not be influenced by the Beatles?” “It's not an insult, for Chrissake,” I said. “It's just a fact that this is what
listeners, educated listeners, are going to hear. And I think you've done an excellent job getting at the Beatles' thing, the meat of it. Many have tried, and few have succeeded.”
Clark scratched at the back of his neck, something he did even when mosquitoes weren't biting him up—his habitual affect. He goes, “I guess I don't see: one, the good of trying to imagine what critics, of all people, are gonna hear in songs which by the way are still very much in their infancy—and two, your point in bringing it up right here and now.”
“I don't have a point, per se. This is me sharing my thoughts. I thought that was the purpose of the exercise. I guess I'm mistaken.” I'll admit, I was jabbing him a little bit. I'd do that sometimes. Only because, even though he came across to everyone else as infinitely patient and adorable, it was good for him to have his buttons pushed here and again. And good for the music. I was like a brother, in that I was uniquely willing to mash those buttons. But you know, even as I jabbed, I did it with a big smile, to show we were just having a goddamn conversation.
“All right.” He squeezed his eyes shut like he was trying to wish himself onto some tropical island. “Fair enough. I hear you. But for now I just want you to listen through these, once or twice, before we start thinking.” “Sure,” I said. “That's reasonable.” “These tunes are still very much in their infancy. I'm gonna need you to teach them how to walk. How to fly.” Listening to him talking in the dark, and at the same time listening to his singing on the CD, I got this weird impression that two Clarks were speaking to me at once. “Try to hear yourself in these sketches. Listen for where your magic can light up the corners.”
So, I listened, even though several thoughts occurred to me. Like I didn't think it was necessarily a sin to consider the critics, as they'd always been friends to us and comprised, in a sense, our core audience. But also, that last word of Clark's echoed in my mind, and grew, this gathering wave of reverberation, until as I sat there, staring out at the overgrown orchards rolling away over the dark hills, I could barely hear the music beneath that word: corners. It was my suggestion to set up the dining room as a practice space. With the amps all buzzing and my Leslie cab whirring, it felt like this organic nerve center, like a place where dreams are zapped out into the world. Corny, I know, but you had to see it—the cracked oaken wainscoting and the cobwebby molded ceiling tiles way up there, and of course the crystal chandelier, which would end up on the Displacia album cover—shivering, half its crystals gone, the defining image of shabbiness-as-virtue in nineties rock, blah blah blah—hanging over us like this gothic glowing iceberg.
We played through Candlefingers, to limber up and to shine new light on the familiar tunes. One thing critics always loved about us was that our songs didn't die on the CD, but continued to evolve. We'd played a handful of gigs with Matt
the drummer, but stage performance flattens an arrangement, so I was pleased to hear how far afield his imagination took these old tunes. He was sensitive to the oscillations in a song's mood dynamic in a way his predecessor, Sean the drummer, had never been, and he was able to play against those emotional rhythms, to draw out new colors. I'd never played with a drummer like him, and it choked me up to hear our songs given this new lease, so when Clark hit me with his curveball, I reacted more diplomatically than I might have.
He said—and this is after the other night, and the bit about teaching his songs to fly, man—he looked at me and he said, “We didn't get a chance to discuss this, Oliver, but before we start talking producers, I think it would suit the spirit of immediacy in these new tunes if we dived into them, all of us at once, and splashed around.”
It was dirty to raise that in front of the other guys. It reminded me of when Laurel, when she'd want something for the kids she knew we couldn't afford, like a trip to King's Dominion or to her parents' house in Cincinnati, she'd bring it up when we were all in the car, the kids in their car seats. “I was thinking we should go up to Ocean City in June,” she'd say. “The kids have never been to the beach.” And of course the kids would start cheering. But I guess I'd learned something, because all I said to Clark was: “It's worth a try.”
But before we could dive in and splash around in Clark's immediacy, we had to learn his goddamn songs—he handed out CD-RS like a high school geometry teacher handing out homework. Kevin, big lug that he was, had classical training, so he'd chart out the progressions and read them off a music stand until he memorized them. Matt, unburdened by chord and key, had the most room for expression, so he'd listen through each track a few times but mostly wait until practice to wet his feet. My ears nowadays aren't what they were—you see all these song charts tacked up over my mixing board—but back then I had perfect pitch and a kind of photographic memory for structure, meaning I could listen through the CD once and know each song inside out. But that night, as I lay across the brass bed in my room, surrounded by all these big picture frames leaning against the walls and draped in sheets spattered with red paint from when someone had painted over a quarter of the room and then abandoned it, I listened through the demos and found myself already hearing hooks and arabesques and textures that previously would only emerge after hours of arranging sessions with Clark. I didn't listen to the lyrics. I didn't need to. The compositions were so spacious, so inviting. I could hear it right away, and of course I was right: Clark had turned a corner. He'd come a long way from the blocky chords of Steam Million, those structures so dense the other instruments had to line up around the outside of them.
I sat up all night with my antique Stella flat-top and my little Yamaha synth, the CD on repeat, and I jotted down ideas. To be honest, I was a little sad. I missed Clark. Or anyway I missed our process, the way we'd always arranged, the two of us together in our DC practice space. He used to sit in the middle of the room, strumming or banging out block chords on the piano, rolling through the main structure in a loop, and I'd move around him, from guitar
to synth to lap steel, trying out different hooks and textures—and all the while we'd be rolling tape, hours of tape, and later we'd listen back, drinking whiskey and laughing at the bad ideas and noting the best ones, and that'd give rise to more—invariably one of us would grab a guitar, and we'd record the new ideas, and out of this a complete arrangement would emerge. It was this kind of para-verbal rapport we and only we shared, like two magnets held apart and the electrons tingling between them. Even Laurel and I never had anything like that between us. Go listen to the last few albums starting with Displacia, and then go back to Candlefingers or Steam Million, and see if you don't hear the difference. That tension on those early records, that crackling magnetism you hear—that's me and Clark.
But I'm not going to pretend the new process didn't turn out some interesting work, or that it wasn't fun. The next day in the dining room we all entered immediately this elevated stage where the ideas just flowed, weaving into what Clark called this wildly textured aural fabric. And as we played—i think Matt was the first to notice; I remember him pointing his drumstick and all of us looking upward—that crazy, half-bald chandelier started to sway over our heads, rocking and creaking and jingling like in sympathy. We laughed at first. It was just weird, right? We didn't try to make it mean anything. But we kept playing, and now that the thing had our attention, it seemed like the tighter and more intuitive our work became, the more wildly the chandelier would swing, until it was like we were onboard some ship tossing on the stormy seas. So between songs I started fooling around on the Hammond organ, playing “The Storms Are on the Ocean.” Clark was the only one who recognized it, who even knew who the Carter Family were, and he started strumming along, singing, and I sang the tenor part—total country, like we used to do—and the chandelier was swaying and chiming, and I felt good. It reminded me of The Basement Tapes, like we'd tapped into that spirit, like we'd stepped into our place in some ancient line.
But Clark—well, he couldn't help but be Clark. He had to give us this hippie-dippie bullshit about how it was the ghosts, man, of the family, man, who had lived at Collingwood, dancing with us, man, expressing their gratitude and support. So as he was talking I started playing this spooky chromatic Vincent Pricey thing on the organ, poking fun, just trying to lighten the goddamn mood. But he stopped talking and stared at me like a pissed-off middle school teacher. And partly because I was just joking around, and then again partly because it was the truth, I said, “Can it not be cool without being some cosmic ghostly bullshit?”
Clark, with his guitar slung in front of him, was holding this bottle of blue Gatorade. He was always drinking Gatorade, I don't know if he thought he was Michael Jordan or what. Some rats or squirrels or something were scratching around inside the walls behind him.
“Come on,” I said. “We're not really going to argue the plausibility of spectral telekinesis.”
He took a long drink and smacked his lips. He didn't say anything. He took
off his guitar and leaned it against his Silvertone cab and strode out of the dining room, stepping over piles of cable like a man walking in deep snow. Like he was so put upon by the world.
“What was that about?” said Matt the drummer, shirtless and bony behind his kit like a kid in a pillow fort. Being in frequent physical proximity to other males was something about rock-band living I never really got used to, and him so often shirtless like he was, I sort of wondered sometimes if he was conscious of the difference in our builds, how much bulkier I was. I wondered if he automatically saw me as slovenly, because our genes expressed differently.
It had fallen to me to dispel the tension, so I said, “Rock 'n' roll Cliché Number Five: the oversensitive front man.”
“You don't have to an asshole about things,” said Kevin, and laid his double bass down on its side. I admit, I was a little shocked. I'd never heard Kevin say an unkind word to anyone. “Don't tell me you're buying into that spooky Jim Morrison bullshit,” I said. Clark's guitar, a '67 Jazzmaster that cost us eight hundred dollars to have set up to specifications I had helped him determine, slid off his speaker cab and tumbled against a mic stand and hit the floor with a resounding clamor, and the chandelier shook and rattled like someone had whacked it with a rake, and dust and splinters sprinkled down, and Kevin backed out from under it.
“And that, children,” I said, “is why we use our guitar stands.” Clark is from Boston originally (actually Somerville, though he always said Boston), but we first found each other at college, right here in Fairfax. I'd been in a couple of noise bands, trying to be Sonic Youth or the Pixies or what have you, and I'd always been the front man. I was kind of a musician's musician; guys in other bands were always telling me how innovative my stuff was, what a cool, unique voice I had, and they were always wanting to jam—but audiences never caught on. To them, it was a squealing mess. I couldn't even get my girlfriend to come to gigs. If we played a venue that was packed when we got there, people would trickle out during the set or just talk right over me. I got into banjo music originally because it was such an affront to those assholes. This was the heart of the DC suburbs, in 1991 about as anti-twang as you could get, and I was like, fuck you, if you're not gonna love me anyway, I'm going to play the most obnoxious, un-bourgeois instrument I can lay my hands on, and I'll play it in the style that will most grate on your nerves. So: old-time banjo.
Once I started in, though, I truly got to loving that music. Clawhammer, two-finger, Round Peak, Clarence Ashley, Uncle Dave Macon, I just drank it all up. Clark saw me playing at this coffee shop open mic. Nobody else was listening, or if they were listening they were yee-hawing and yelling Deliverance jokes, but he sought me out afterward and said he didn't know anyone else who knew what two-finger up-pick banjo even was, and had I heard of Roscoe Holcomb. It was like meeting your soulmate. I wanted to throw my arms around him.
So we jammed, the two of us. I remember the first song we ever played together was “Long Black Veil,” the old Dill and Wilkin tune, and we discovered our voices made for perfect close harmony, close as brothers, undisentangle-able as the notes of a foghorn or a dial tone. We patched together a rhythm section and a pedal-steel player and called ourselves the Brokedown Engines, before it got shortened to the Brokedowns. We played a sort of punked-up country music, and though we'd read bands like us were out there, the Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo and whatnot, we hadn't heard them. It was that music's time—it was like this archetype rearing in the collective American unconscious: twang. Clark right away had that something people want in a front man. Not his voice—i had as good a voice as he did. He just made the music more palatable somehow. With him in front, people showed up, more and more of them, and they stayed. And once those suburban kids had warmed up to the idea that country doesn't have to mean the Beverly Hillbillies or even Garth Brooks, but is the authentic American sound of loss and longing, a tragic kind of pastoral yearning, they couldn't get enough of it. We used to close our shows with an arrangement of “Alone and Forsaken”—the Hank Williams tune? It would just set those kids on fire. Clark came to my room that night, after the ghost argument. I was lying there strumming my Stella and watching Night Court reruns. He sat on my mattress and said, “I think we owe each other apologies. It was childish of me to storm out, and I'm sorry.”
I was covered up to my chest, with my guitar next to me on the quilt. I felt a bit disadvantaged in that position, like I was laid up with the flu. “Yeah, it's pretty silly to fight over ghosts,” I said.
“To me, in the moment, it seemed like a matter of atmosphere.” He smoothed a patch of my quilt. “We had a good thing going today, and sometimes the negativity—and you know I don't mind getting dark sometimes—but the vibe we're trying to foster here, sometimes I feel like the negativity can be counterproductive. You know?”
“Fair enough,” I said. “Although in the interest of being understood, I should point out I was just trying to be sensitive to Kevin. Catholics take that ghost shit pretty seriously.”
“I don't care about the damn ghosts.” Clark shut his eyes tight, wishing himself to Bermuda again. He got up and paced around, taking deep breaths. He peeked under a sheet at one of the paintings. They were all just pictures of these horses with their jockeys standing beside them, but for some reason his peeking under that sheet made me anxious. He went over to the tall windows that looked out over the orchards, his hands clasped behind him. “Okay. Here's the thing. This Rising piece? When it comes out next week? It's going to change things for us. Like, I think this is as big as getting signed was. We're gonna book bigger venues, we're gonna get more press, the radio is finally going—”
“I know all that,” I said. My stomach was sinking. “No, but listen.” He sat on the bed. “I have this feeling like this is our moment. Like everything right now makes a difference. Like every word we say in this moment is a decision that weighs on the fate of this band. I feel like this moment is where we become what we will be. You see what I mean? You see why I want so bad for the energy here to be the right energy?”
“Sure,” I said. “Yeah.” I guess I could have told him then, tried to prepare him, a little, for the article. Maybe the effort would have changed how things turned out. I don't know.
“Good.” He patted my leg over the covers. He seemed genuinely relieved. “So how are things going? With you and Laurel.”
“Same as they've been,” I said. “Why? Do you know something?” I originally met Laurel through Clark's wife Amy. They were old pals. We used to all go out to dinner and to shows and whatnot together, the original four-piece. Clark and Amy were our witnesses when we eloped—even though, honestly, I never really liked Amy. She was too perfect. Blond, tall, sort of irritatingly confident, a business major—exactly who you'd imagine Clark would end up with. I suspected, even though I had no real proof, that she was partly responsible for Laurel deciding we should separate. At minimum, I knew they talked all the time, which meant Amy had heard the worst shit about me—the things I'd said and done at my lowest. Which of course meant Clark had too.
“I don't know anything,” he said, “except what you told me, way back, about her needing stability. I was thinking, if we play all our cards right? The life we've got ahead of us might start looking pretty good to her again.”
He meant well. I know he did. But it's hard to take advice and encouragement about your wrecked marriage from a guy like Clark, who all the best things have always come easy to. Even his folks were still together, after like thirty-five years, these happy wealthy Boston people. They'd summer down the Cape and all that shit. There was no way he could really get it.
3. Silent Weekend No wives or girlfriends were allowed at Collingwood. But Matt was a newlywed, and he was logging onto the dial up every night to spy on his wife's e-mail—he had her passwords and everything. She was a dental hygienist. He'd read me these messages about ordering scrapers and cotton balls and whatnot, and he'd go, “Does that sound suspicious to you?”
Clark of course was missing Amy, and Kevin had his grandmother to visit, and after two weeks holed up working together I guess we were all ready for a break, so they packed up the van to head back to DC for the weekend. I volunteered to stick around at Collingwood and babysit the gear. Where was I going to go, back to the extended-stay? I had this idea I might try hiking. I thought hanging out in nature might calm me some. The Rising article was due out in the next week, and Clark said we should approach Monday ready to celebrate. I tried to convince myself it would turn out okay. I thought, Rising
loves us; they wouldn't print anything truly destructive. Matt the drummer asked if I was sure I'd be all right. “Don't get eaten by a bear or anything,” he said. When Clark had brought him on earlier in the year, I had thought Matt was kind of prickly, but I was starting to think maybe he was an all-right guy.
I watched out a window as the van disappeared between the apple trees. I took my guitar out on the porch, and sat and listened as the volume of the hills crept up, the lonesome whippoorwills, the cranking of June bugs, mourning doves yodeling in the pines, and once in a while—boom—the goddamn miners would blast a hole through the calm, until reluctantly the sounds of nature faded back in. The sun sank behind the mountain. The apple trees all melted together, the crickets beginning to whir. There was a crackling out in the orchards, some animal sniffing around. I took my guitar and slipped inside. It was dark in the house, and I didn't know why but my heart was racing.
I sat in the parlor and watched this hospital drama from the eighties. The plot involved a kid sick with cancer. It made me miserable, but I couldn't change the channel. I was specifically not thinking about the article. I was also dodging what wanted to occupy my mind all of a sudden, which was that I hadn't seen Sam and Lucy in a month. I tried not to think about them while I was working, because I'd get so caught up in the sadness, I'd go numb. It's true, pain deepens your art, but not until you get clear of it and can see it behind you. Like Townes says, you can't count the miles until you feel them. Pain, while it's got you, numbs you to its own music. So whenever we were writing, or recording, or gigging, I just had to put Laurel and the kids out of my mind—which itself, when you reckon with your decision, to willfully forget your own family, later begets a pain all in its own league. It's a whole sick cycle. But it's what you have to do if you want to accomplish anything. Now that I was alone, though, I couldn't shake the hurt. So what I finally did, I gave Laurel a call. I wanted to talk to the kids, let them hear my voice. She knew my cell number, though, and she didn't answer. She hardly ever answered, and I didn't leave messages.
So I lay on the couch and scrolled through the numbers in my phone, until I got to Angela, who I knew I'd been looking for. I called her up. It was the second time since our interview I'd tried to talk to her, though I'd thought about it pretty often. The first time was a few days after the interview, and she hadn't answered. I had her number in the first place because she'd called me to set it all up. She'd taken the day to hang out with me, the two of us driving around, running errands and whatnot. We hit it off pretty well. I showed her the Jiffy Lube where I worked before we got signed. We got dinner at Strangeways in Clarendon where the Brokedowns played our first gigs. We sat there a long time, Angela and me, chatting and drinking. She was interested in my whole clichéd working-class upbringing, my parents' busted-up marriage, my mom's addiction, all that Buddy Holly Story kind of crap. She stopped taking notes and just talked with me. She sort of rested her chin on her fist with her elbow on the table. She had this cute, skeptical look she kept giving me that would kill me, like she was saying, “Now I know you're messing with me.” Finally I asked her,
“Hey, do you like to get high?”
We took my van and parked outside her hotel, and sat there and smoked a bowl. “I'll be honest with you,” she said. She had her Doc Martens up on my dash. “I know what you mean about everyone going slack-jawed for Clark. But man, I don't get it.” God, it's so obvious now, it's nauseating. She knew exactly where my buttons were, and what order to push them in.
I said, “He's got that voice. That warm rasp, like a wagon wheel rolling through fine grit.” “Sometimes you sound like you're half in love with him.” “Well, listen to him,” I said. “Who wouldn't be charmed? You'd have to be made of stone.”
“I love the music,” she said. “I will grant you that. But he's not especially cute.”
“I mean, all right,” I said. “I will admit, the cult of personality that surrounds Clark baffles me. And from the point of view of an artist who is maybe not as magazine-cover attractive, or who maybe doesn't have the exact correct body type, but who is just as passionate as Clark, and has been called just as brilliant—i don't know, I forget what I was saying.” “No, I get it,” she said. “Keep going,” she said. “Well, just—i'm not saying I'm more talented than Clark. But if I was, would it matter? Since he's more attractive, on someone's `rock star' scale, some arbitrary fucking scale? Doesn't he always win?” I went on like that. God, she let me go on and on. I don't know what I thought I was doing. I don't know if I believed she might actually be into me—this, what, twenty-two-year-old? But man, she was really listening to me. And she had her Docs up on my dashboard. Her legs stretched out in her ripped-up jeans. And whenever I used to talk to Laurel about this stuff, my theories about rock 'n' roll and the injustice of sex appeal versus actual talent, she'd get so impatient. Your insecurity, she told me, is going to drive you insane. And yet I knew she felt inferior to Amy—you could tell, when they were together, how eager she was to agree with Amy, how her voice would take on Amy's irritating pretty-girl lilt.
Angela, though. She was listening to me. She was watching my mouth as I talked. We sat in the van for like two hours. Finally she gave me this big stageyawn—we'd run out of weed and were starting to sober up. She said she had to go. She gave me this long hug, and whispered in my ear, “You deserve good things, Oliver.”
God. Part of me still thinks she meant it when she said it. I mean, it's possible she actually cared, at least in the moment, before she woke up the next day and realized what I'd given her. I don't know. Maybe I'm still a fucking idiot. I couldn't sleep in the bedroom all weekend. The brass bed, the gaslights ensconced on either side, all those horses and their creepy jockeys hiding under those sheets, the windows looking down on the abandoned orchards. I couldn't get out of my mind the lady who'd hanged herself right down the hall, her kids
locked up in the nursery. I didn't even know her name. Our residence, making kitsch of her despair, seemed macabre and callous. So I slept downstairs on the couch. The rats were scraping in the walls, so I didn't turn off the TV all weekend. Then on Sunday night, Wilbur Price called me on my cell, and before I'd said hello, he was screaming: “What in the hell, Oliver? What in the hell is this?” “You're gonna have to be more specific,” I said. Even though I knew. “`I'm baffled by the cult of personality that surrounds Clark,'” he said. “`I may not be as handsome as him, but I'm just as passionate, and just as brilliant.' What the fuck is that? Did we never talk about interviews? Did we not have that conversation? I know we did, because I have that conversation with every—” “Those are misquotes,” I said. “It's in print!” he said. And he dropped, or threw, the receiver, and was screaming at me from across the room. “IT'S IN PRINT!”
My heart was battering me pretty bad, but I waited until I could hear him breathing, and with my voice shaking I said, “That was all off the record.”
He took a breath, and reined in his anger, and said “Rule number one— you're never off the record. I know you know this. And listen, man. I happen to agree with you, okay? Yes, he's a prima donna. Yes, you're the brilliant one. But you can't say that stuff, kid. I can't advocate for you when you're out there handing this shit to teenybopper journalists.”
“What should I do?” I said. “Can you help me?” This all felt so familiar—a sickening echo. Right in front of me I saw Laurel's face, that look she used to give me, all anger and sadness.
“I'm in Chicago working on a new contract,” he said. “I can come down next week, but for now you're gonna have to deal with it. I don't know what else to tell you. He's the front man, kid. Everyone else is replaceable. You know this. Front men are forever.”
4. This Wheel's on Fire On Monday I got up and took my guitar and my coffee out on the porch, and sat there until I heard the van rumbling through the trees. It's funny, but I had this feeling like the house was mine now, like Collingwood and I had bonded. Clark had brought back a couple kegs of craft beer, and a quarter of hash, and all this frou-frou food and drink from his bourgeois enclave in Tyson's Corner. “What have you guys been doing out there?” I said. “Pillaging?” I scrutinized their faces as they piled out of the van, but they all of them had nothing but smiles for me. Matt handed me the magazine, and there we were—the cover of Rising. Stamped across our chests in one of those grungy, stressed-out nineties typefaces: THE BROKEDOWNS ON THE VERGE. It's hard to describe what I felt, holding the thing in my hands. It was like holding Sam when he was born—this combination of infinite possibility and suffocating fear. I said, “So did you all read it?”
Clark clapped me on the back. “We voted to wait until we were all together.”
We dragged their spoils into the dining room and had a feast. Matt set the magazine on his drum throne in the center of the room and set it spinning like those front page transitions in old-time movies, all our faces staring nauseatedly back up at us. We smoked some hash. We drank some beer. I was pretty sure I was about to have a heart attack. I was sitting behind the old Hammond organ like I was at the helm of a ship. Clark cleared his throat, twice, and said, “Wilbur called on Saturday. He said the label wants us to go ahead and decide on a producer.”
“Wilbur,” I said. I was having a hard time comprehending more than a couple words strung together.
“We talked in the van,” said Clark. “We all agreed it would be good for this record if I gave it a shot myself.”
That brought me back. “Gave what a shot?” I said. Both Kevin and Matt were watching Clark, waiting for some cue that would allow them to speak.
Clark said, “I feel like these songs are more personal than anything I've put out before.”
“Well yeah, that's obvious,” I said. “So you all `talked' about it?” I even made air quotes. Clark looked at me sideways, mystified by my derision. “We were in the van,” he said. “We went ahead and took a vote, but we—” “All these van votes. What are you, a traveling congress?” I played a little carnival theme on the organ. “I'm a founding member. Does that not rate anymore?” I actually had a right to take offense, a little. But it's true I was making a bigger deal out of it than I would have under normal circumstances. I used to do this with Laurel when I knew a big fight was coming. I'd find a way to dig my heels in before we even got started.
“Your opinion is worth just as much anyone else's.” Clark was talking like a kindergarten teacher—very deliberately patient. I started messing around with the organ again, and he raised his voice. “Which is why I bring it up now. So you can add your vote.” “All right,” I said. “I vote against Clark as producer.” “Well, you're outvoted,” said Clark. “Three to one.” I turned to Matt the drummer. “You know, as producer he gets an extra 3 percent of gross per unit. He's already elbowed me out of publishing royalties on this record.”
Right then the miners set off a good ONE—BOOM— fuck you, mountain!— and Matt's snare drum hissed and all the guitars chimed in sympathy and the chandelier shuddered and clattered. But Clark was laser-focused. “Hang on,” he said. He sat on the drum throne, set our magazine in his lap, and put his hands up as though he were being robbed at gunpoint. “Where are you getting all this?”
“We talked about royalties in the van,” Matt told me. He had his arms crossed. He wouldn't make eye contact. “Clark wants to split production points and publishing, four ways.”
I turned to Kevin, total last-ditch, but he wasn't listening. He'd backed
against the wall and was staring upward, his mouth hanging open. The chandelier swung like crazy up there, like the house was rocking on the edge of a cliff. I knew I had no ground to stand on. I had nothing. I'd come to this point also with Laurel, this moment when I was finally able to admit that she was right about everything: I had never really put in the effort with her, or with the kids; I had said all I ever wanted was a family with her, when in reality all I'd wanted was to be a rock star. Or not even to be a rock star, but just to be in this band— with your hero Clark, she said. The night before she asked me to leave, I entered that place between the end of the long horrible tension of trying and the beginning of the empty despair of having failed: that moment of serenity, when I could admit to both of us all my shortcomings. This one beautiful moment. I was coming to it again, there in the decrepit dining room. I said, “I think we should take a look at the article.” “I already read it,” said Clark. “Hang on,” said Matt. “I thought we—” “Wilbur gave me a heads up.” Clark's eyes were trained on me, and they were full of something I didn't expect to see. Fucking forgiveness. “And you know, Oliver, at first I was pissed. I really was. I was ready to let you go.” That got Kevin's attention. “Hang on,” he said. “What's this, now?” “But it's been a rough year for you,” said Clark. “There's a lot of pressure on you none of the rest of us have. I know it.” He was practically doe-eyed with magnanimity. It made me sick—to be pardoned by him. He wasn't my father, and he wasn't my kids, and he sure as shit wasn't my boss. He was my best friend—nothing more.
“You know what, Clark?” I said. “I meant it all. I did. Everything Angela put in that article is true. I am the center of talent in this band.”
Clark lowered his eyes. He looked regretful as hell, but I think he kind of knew I was right. The other guys looked away from him. I felt like I was going to puke. But what was I supposed to do—take it all back? It was already in print, and it was the truth. I said, “Angela agreed with me. All that stuff I said, she agreed with it.” “All right,” said Clark. “That's enough.” “Wilbur agrees with me too.” “Enough.” “It's not enough,” I said. Now I was just leaning into the fall. “Not until you admit I'm right. Not until you admit you're only the front man because you're better looking than me. Because your adorable face sells more records.”
He gave me this look of pity. It was too much. I laid both my fists on the organ, put my weight on all the bass keys, and I stomped the expression pedal to full volume, and the bass horn on the Leslie cabinet blurted this huge, guttural roar. The floor quaked and the walls filled with scratching as the rats scrambled away, and over our heads the rotten ceiling buckled and cracked, and the chandelier's chain groaned like a man's voice. Behind me Matt the drummer said, “Look out!” and he dove toward his kit. I looked up in time to see the chain break free of its harness and the chandelier drop into space, slow as a
snowflake. I remember Kevin on my right sitting on the floor and covering his head with his arms. But he was clear. We were all clear except for Clark. Clark sat on the throne, his hands resting on our issue of Rising, our four faces on the cover staring straight up at the iceberg that tumbled toward us in slow motion.
5. Odds and Ends You know the rest. Everyone knows the rest. The rest went platinum. And I can't deny they ultimately made a good album—at moments it's even great, in its way, though the drum sound is a little dated. Musicians coming through the studio here tell me they can hear the ghost of my influence all over that record, but I don't know. I don't really hear it.
I like that Clark and the guys went on from Displacia to explore just a bunch more clichés: the painkiller addiction record, the dissonant detox record, the insufferable new-lease-on-life record. I don't even mean I like it ironically. It's genuinely kind of beautiful to me—one pearly cliché strung up after another. Of course the real Rock 'n' Roll Cliché Number One is the songwriting team of rivals, two geniuses pinging off each other until they can't stand it and one finally makes his coup. The Everlys, the Clash, Floyd, the Eagles, the Smiths, Uncle Tupelo, Oasis, the fucking Beatles. Rock 'n' roll is nothing but a chorus of clichés anyway. You're always just banging out an invocation to that choir of cirrhotic ghosts. Every kid that grows up listening to rock 'n' roll dreams of joining that choir. Well, I joined it, for about a minute. It's true, I traded everything I loved for that minute. But—and you won't believe this—i still think it was worth it.
And even though this probably sounds like sour grapes, the song titles that ended up on Displacia are pretty corny. “Fractures,” “Rise and Fall,” “PostBeatles,” “Porch at Night,” “After Roscoe Holcomb”—we get it, Clark. You're self-mythologizing. You suffered. You were sitting in the wrong throne at the wrong time and a platinum record fell from the sky and landed on your head. People don't realize it's a crypto-concept album too, which only those who were there would pick up on. He knew I hated concept albums. I still hate them. Whenever a band comes in here wanting me to produce their record, if the songs are even faintly redolent of concept, I flat out tell them: Write something else.
I have to say, though, when I finally got around to listening to it, I was kind of surprised how much Track One affected me. Even the title, “Four-piece,” even though it's so unsubtle, it kind of kills me. It's like the Christmas photos of me and Laurel and the kids when they were little, all of us together in front of the tree. Sappy as hell, but it still hurts, a little.
And then Clark closing the album with a solo cover of “Long Black Veil,” supposedly the defining version, which, that song has been done how many times? Lefty Frizzell, anyone? The Band? Johnny goddamn Cash?—so many great versions. I know you're not going to buy this, but I've never, after all these years, gotten around to listening to Clark's version. I don't even know why. It's not like I'm avoiding it. I'm just not interested in hearing it.