Front Men Are For­ever

New England Review - - Table of Contents - Bren­dan Mckennedy

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.

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