UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION

JOE CLIFFORD

Rock n Roll Suicide

         We were recording a couple tracks at Hyde St. Studios. Huge framed posters of Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane, Santana and

the Dead lined the studio’s hallways, the drugged-out San Francisco rock ’n’ roll legends who’d come before us. I’d booked a session, midnight to eight a.m., which came at a discounted rate. This was the spring of 1997. Or maybe the fall of ’96. I know my wife, Hadley, was with me and that we still had our place on 23rd and Bryant, so it would’ve been around the time of the Health Inspector and Freemasons, right before our trip to the Caymans, before she’d be placed in a Minnesota sanitarium for a while.

         We were the Wandering Jews. It wasn’t a band, really, as much as it was whoever had some drugs and a place. I was pushing my rock ’n’ roll dreams pretty hard back then. I’d gotten Kelpbed to agree to play drums, even if he wasn’t thrilled with my music, which was a little too earnest and Springsteen for his taste, and Gluehead said he’d play keyboards. I had guitarists and bassists from earlier San Francisco bands laying down tracks, too. Dan and I had broken up the Creeping Charlies, but he still agreed to help me put the record together, playing some guitar but mostly producing it. Dan was a terrific producer. He’d played guitar in a band called the Himalayans before we met. Before he found heroin. The Himalayans was Adam Duritz’s band before he formed the Counting Crows. Dan helped write “Round Here,” so he was collecting royalties. But Dan wasn’t paying for the record. Obviously, neither was I.

         Big Tom was footing the bill.

         I’d met Big Tom through Brian Fast a few years earlier, but only briefly, back when I had first started hanging around with Brian, back when Big Tom still had hair. Big Tom was renting a room in the apartment Brian shared with his wife.

         Then Big Tom disappeared. People were always coming and going with our group, and sometimes you didn’t even realize they were gone until they came back. When Big Tom returned he brought with him a backpack stuffed with $100 bills, all from 1977. Nobody knew where he’d gotten the money. There were rumors—he’d robbed a bank, a dealer, was heir to a steel industry fortune, had broken into the family safe, rumors. You’d think someone would’ve asked him where the money came from, but no one ever did. What did we care where the money came from?

         Big Tom played bass. He was good, too. We weren’t particularly close friends, but for whatever reason, he agreed to pay for the studio time. I think he might’ve been blindsided that I’d even ask. It wasn’t cheap. We’re talking at least 10K. It was a big backpack.

         We’d call the record Clean Living.

         Quarter until midnight, while engineers Little Tom and Dave 2 were setting up microphones on the drums and amps, Dan and I were downstairs playing pool. It was a really nice set-up at Hyde Street and you couldn’t help but feel like a rock ’n’ roll star. I don’t remember who was recording what that night, or what particular tracks for what particular songs were being laid down. I’m pretty sure we were working on a song that I’d written for Hadley called “Welcome to Another Misunderstanding.” Hadley wasn’t happy about being at the studio that night. She didn’t speak much whenever she left the apartment. She’d stick close to my side, like a shy kid, but I still knew when she was mad. She wasn’t on her medication but I’d been doing my best to keep her away from the speed. My friends were all scared of her.

         I went to the bathroom to do more speed and when I came back I was feeling OK, ready to rock. Dan racked the table. I grabbed a cue. Then I wasn’t feeling so OK.

         I woke up at 7 a.m. and they told me I’d gone out, I had turned white. I still had a pulse, but it was weak, and nothing they did could wake me up. They tried everything. They decided against calling an ambulance because they thought I would’ve been mad. I would’ve been.

         My wife wasn’t in the room and when I asked where she was, they told me they had her locked upstairs in the TV lounge. She was flipping out. Must’ve gotten her hands on some speed, which wouldn’t have been hard to do since everybody in that studio was holding. I went to the stairs and could hear her screaming, caterwauling like a stuck banshee, pounding on the walls and door, shrieking about the imminent apocalypse we were inviting and the Freemasons who were coming to steal all our souls.

         The session had been pre-paid. There was an hour left. I had to be a professional.

         I strapped on my sunburst Rickenbacker and walked into the recording studio.

         I left her screaming.

         Afterward, nobody volunteered to give Hadley and me a ride home. As soon as we stepped outside, the light of the living assaulted us. This was always the worst moment of the day, the morning, which only served to remind us we were vampires, the walking dead. The overdose had left me pretty out of it. Cars bloomed into giants, swerving and veering, sidewalks melting like elongated sheets of ice cream cake left in the sun, buildings leaning at impossible angles, before deflating like Salvador Dali paintings of melting clocks.

         I was furious at Hadley. I couldn’t understand how she let herself be so gullible. Near perfect SATs but as soon as she sniffed even a line of meth, she started seeing ghouls and goblins. She had embarrassed me back there.

         I walked ahead of her. Hadley hated walking. There had been many nights where, if I’d wanted to go to Glue’s shack, I’d end up pushing her in a shopping cart. I made her walk the whole fifty blocks to our apartment.

         Hadley never forgave me for abandoning her that day. She brought it up many times. But what she never knew was I never let her out of my sight. Every time I got to a corner or went around a stoop or landing, I’d peek back to make sure she was still there. I never let myself get too far ahead or let her fall too far behind, like Holden guarding Phoebe.

* * * *

        Rock ’n’ roll is all attitude and sneer. Nothing beats being onstage, cigarette burning, beer warming, set list scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin, tubes crackling with overdrive. Yet it isn’t the shows I miss. Though there were plenty, some great, like the ones with my first band, Redheaded Stepchild, at the Cool Moose Café in Hartford and what’s-her-name giving me head in-between sets in the men’s room stall. Some were disasters, like the Creeping Charlies’ gig at Brave New World, where I discovered the difference between 80 proof and 101 proof and the danger of trying to tune your own guitar.

         No, what I miss are the shows no one ever saw, the songs no one ever heard, those three-day-long, middle of the night, drug-fueled clusterfucks, where nothing mattered but the music. I miss my friends.

         Gluehead. And Kelpbed. And Junkie Jason and Johnny Crites, Dan Jewett, Big Tom and Pete French. I even miss Brian Fast.

* * * *

        Somewhere between late night and early morning, Downtown Studios, off Third Street, nestled in the ghetto that is Hunter’s Point, San Francisco, we’ve been jamming nonstop for days. There is talk of a possible gig in the not-too-distant future. A cookout at Thrasher magazine, somebody’s wedding, a gay bar in the Tenderloin, we’re going back into the studio. We don’t need a reason. All our gear is out of hock. Nobody is locked up in jail. Everyone is here.

         A few girls lounge around the perimeter, a stripper named Bubbles and maybe even my wife, the one I still love. Girls are always hanging around, waiting for handouts from Gluehead. We hit the Hostess truck again. Our studio is filled with Ding-Dongs and Ho-Hos.

         Kelpbed has hauled his motorcycle up the freight elevator, stowing it next to the washtub of tools, WD 40, assorted wrenches and greasy rags. He’s taken a break from behind the kit to smoke crank out of a light bulb head and tinker with the bike’s exhaust.

         Pete French has taken over backbeat.

         Former Sea Hag Ronnie Yoakum says that everyone wants to believe there is some big reason people get high, “but it ain’t like that, man, some people just like to get high.” Pete French says, “That’s so rock ’n’ roll.”

         Pete French is amazing. Not as a human being, mind you. As a human being, he’s somewhat deplorable, but as a drummer he is a god. The first time I met Pete French he’d been speeding in the Natoma Street Studio for days. Decked out in terry cloth hot pants and shirtless, perched on a stool in total darkness, save for the blinking red light from an amplifier humming white noise, Pete was pounding the drums so unbelievably fast that he was creating a vacuum of sound, “ghost” notes that you’d swear you heard but that were not actually there. It was mesmerizing. The guy could fucking play the drums.

         Gluehead is behind his ironworks pulpit, three-tiered keyboard system stacked high, internal mechanisms splayed open, exposed wires and circuits, fuses on operating table display. Every day Glue’s hair is dyed a new fluorescent color. Today it is tangerine.

         Big Tom is on bass. We call him Big Tom because he is very tall. And according to the ladies, hung like a steer. Big Tom can be an asshole at times but he has money. He keeps his backpack stuffed with hundred dollar bills, all from 1977, close to his side.

         Tonight, we are well medicated.

         There are lots of guitarists to choose from. Johnny Crites has figured out the chords to a speed metal rendition of “Rocket Man.”

         This is before he will swing from the ceiling at the Balboa Hotel.

         Junkie Jason scorches a blistering lead. He lives in another studio down the hall and was always coming around bumming smokes, so we put him to work.

         This is before he puts the end of a shotgun in his mouth and pulls the trigger.

         I’ve returned from the can, untied the belt from my biceps, and grabbed somebody’s Gibson. I dial in my sound. I’ve adopted Brian Fast’s approach, all mid-range, no reverb, distortion only on special occasions. Drives Kelpbed nuts. Brian Fast has been exiled from the group for sleeping with Glue’s psychotic girlfriend, Sparkle Plenty.

         Tonight, we play my songs.

         The four-track is rigged together with solder and Duct Tape. We will record this session for posterity. Dan Jewett is engineer. Unfortunately, the record will be lost when Skipper Nick’s crazy Indian girlfriend steals all my tapes one night at Hepatitis Heights.

         But it does not matter.

         Outside these windows, other men sleep, go to jobs; they ask for days off and wait for raises and anniversary blowjobs from their wives. In a life filled with disappointment, we ask for nothing, and so we cannot be let down. You cannot fail if you do not try.

         Tonight, this morning, is why we do what we do. Because sometimes the music comes together like it does right now. Effortless and hypnotizing. Pete is pounding his drums, a seductive looped groove, steadier than a metronome. With his left hand, Gluehead hammers out classic rock, Hammond melodies, while with his right he swirls the gamut of frequencies on the synthesizer. Big Tom locks in with Pete, chubby notes rolling sweet like clumps of melted sugar. Guitars crunch dirty and staccato. Junkie Jason is the best guitarist I’ve ever played with. Dan’s true talent resides in his ability to decipher the subtleties of sound.

         I know I have never played or sang better. I’m hitting otherworldly notes, floating high outside my body, looking down at this wreck of a man, who, for one brief moment, shines.

         This is how I will always think of San Francisco, the music and being young, how I will think of everyone, the ones who make it out and the ones who don’t, the ones who get sent away and the ones who find sobriety and new lives.

         This is John and Jason, who will decide that this place isn’t fun anymore.

         This is Gluehead, stuck for another two years in a Wisconsin prison, where he cannot smoke cigarettes, which as he tells me in a recent letter, “entirely ruins the prison experience.”

         This is Pete, Kelp, and Dan.

         This is losing on your own terms and never growing old.

Rock n Roll Suicide is a selection from Joe Clifford's memoir, Junkie Love, which is represented by MDM Management, New York. His work has appeared in Big Bridge, Bryant Literary Review, the Connecticut Review, Dark Sky, Fringe, Hobart, Opium, Thuglit, and Word Riot, among others. Most recently he served as editor of Gulf Streammagazine, and is currently the producer of Lip Service West, a reading series in Oakland, CA. His stories and poetry be found at www.joeclifford.com







© 2004-2010 Underground Voices