If I’m going to pay tribute to the past I might as well go all the way back, to a bright sunny day on the steppes of Ethiopia about one-and-a-half million years ago, where an uncle of mine was smashing skulls and leg bones from some long picked over animal, sucking out the fatty marrow and scooping out brains with a clavicle spoon. I can imagine tall blonde stalks of pampas grass and the worried bobbing of a lookout’s head. There’s a heat storm twenty miles away on the flat horizon, and the rolling thunder plays bass to this percussive beating and breaking of bones, this butchery. We were being made, you and me, by the leftover amino acids and peptides and rich fats. Being made by the first drummer.
The brain didn’t hold any Kuru-inducing superstition or cultural or scientific necessity yet, and the drummer didn’t know he was writing a song either. It was the sound of need, the food of invention left by the lazy, privileged, and unimaginative cousins that would cease to evolve. Rest assured, though, that as a time came when our aunts stopped having to look over their shoulders and our uncles came to own the entire body of his prey, that sound now rendered unnecessary, that rhythm of butchery, still rang true to the people of the world and would be repeated for sole celebration. Instead of calling out to signal the approaching enemy they would hoot and howl in remembrance, in song.
All the spiritual beliefs I’ve held true tell me how wrong it is that I’ve stepped out of that elephant grass to a low white ranch outbuilding, all Tennessee green lawn and Kilz white. He’s just 22, with his Army hair, fielding question after question, looped and looped from a rescued 60’s tube TV, and the past is just a ghost and the future is just a guess but he’s taking each question as it comes, leaning into the mic and smiling and I think about whispering and asking to the black and white vision “do you know how hard you’re gonna die?” but something primal hits me in the chest and think oh he lived so hard too and the drums kick in and everyone is screaming and he grips the mic stand like the femur of a chrome mastodon, brings it to his lips…
I don’t talk about the first time I had sex with a guy, but I will say that it involved From The Mighty Banks Of The Wishkah. I had never even listened to it until about a week ago.
History, if we allow the past to have an opinion, makes From The Mighty Banks... seem superfluous. By the time of its release, early October of 1996, Kurt Cobain had been dead for two years. There were two Foo Fighters albums. It did debut on the Billboard charts at #1, but only for one week, replaced by the album it supplanted: Celine Dion’s fallacy of shmaltz, Falling Into You. The Nirvana bootleg universe was already vibrant and hearty; the Outcesticide series alone was collapsing in on itself with its success and popularity, making the beautifully incestuous bootleg versions of the Outsecticide albums, themselves being bootlegs. Most of the music on From The Mighty Banks… wasn’t Beat The Boots material in quality or rarity.
My life has afforded me the opportunity to see and hear things again for the first time, and I was afraid hearing this album would just dull me with wont and nostalgia until “Aneurysm” finally settled into its steadier, slower tempo and Cobain, with a lyrical delivery as identically harsh and strangled and heroin-rounded as a pissed off Steve Earle, plain old mocks my depression with his lyrics.
Hearing the music was like never hearing it before; cuing the song up, burning a candle and switching off the ceiling fan lights, relaxing with my index fingers touching just at the tips, letting my breath sync going both in and out of my mouth and nostrils, taking fifty breaths in, taking fifty breaths out, pressing play. And as the tempo tried to settle and as the guitar went from dirty to clean channels I suddenly got caught up in the toms and the ultra-clean chords pushing to the words and when they hit–
“Come on over and do The Twist
Overdo it and have a fit
Love you so much it makes me sick
Come on over and do The Twist”
— it’s all my insecurities filling the room like a ghost, making me get up and switch the lights on, the wind from the fan beating the flame around in it’s little green jar, the hoarse refrain “beat me out of me” still yelling out of the headphones I had tossed to the rug. My leg’s cramping. The door’s shut, and I’m balancing on the knob. The picture I had bought for our anniversary, the serene seashore landscape, looks more like a piece of paper than it ever has, so much that I turn my back to it to see pictures of us on the bookshelf and the black and white visage of a young Elvis Presley looking up at me, lonesome.
This is a story about the time I disappeared and came back. It is a time that you do not even know as the past because, by design, I existed to no one but me, save maybe probably Tim, and it is a story about him, too, in the same way it is a story about you just more so.
This is a story about a trip having a destination that you leave to and return from, about the past and the future and the present. This is a story about a left-handed Gibson SG forcing your comfort zone away and making each sound coming out of the thing so honest you’re embarrassed and naked from it. I’m making a decision at the same age that Elvis is smoothing his papers on the deeds to a seventeen-year-old farmhouse mansion, deciding in a mindfull decision to be alone. This is a story about a pendulum dead center, not a breath into the next second or the last. It’s 1976, it’s 1977, it’s a party like it’s 1999, wouldn’t you believe it it’s just my luck.
I had a check for Tim in my pocket, and I was going to take it to him on the way for whatever ended up consuming me. Instead he came to me, by luck or fate. He was with some others, and they all looked at me like a sick animal. It’s 2002. Earlier in the year I had had my mind crushed, quit smoking out of anger, dropped thirty pounds. I was three years into the relationship I’m in now and I still can’t remember why I didn’t just go anyway but I didn’t.
There was a page I had bookmarked, and I read it over and over when I got home, over and over and again until the paper became soft with sweat, until the Irish curve of my neck and hump of my spine seem fused, until I shrank in place, disappeared standing still.
“As you currently are your bravery is not based on compassion, nor your wealth based on conservation, nor is your vanguard at your rear, and this is death.”
It’s 2013. Tim has asked me to go to Graceland, and I’ve said yes.
Elvis was in his dressing room, finished with a scene from veteran actor Barbara Stanwyck on the set of Roustabout, when he realized his life was a sham. It’s 1964.
His balancing of his traditional and honest love of Priscilla and his kinship of lust with Ann-Margret was taxing, his trust in the Colonel’s business practice was waning, and his dependence on the daily cocktail of uppers and downers was growing. None of those things touched on the exposed nerve of his insecurity though, and when that nerve was struck by the mounting evidence that no one would ever grant him the merit as an actor that he had been striving for Elvis couldn’t give a shit about anything: drugs, girls, and movies included.
Larry Geller gave Elvis an opportunity to care about himself shortly after. Geller, a hairdresser who took advantage of a fluked, spontaneous opportunity to work for Elvis, would join his working entourage up to the time of Elvis’ doomed wedding. What Geller did for Elvis, which the other members of Elvis’ group(Priscilla included) considered pure poison, was give him a taste of religion.
Thirty-two years later I wrote Tim a letter in my developing style, the first line commanding him to tell the voice speaking my words out to him in his head to shut up and watch. I had almost been bitten by a snake half-bailed in a square of hay earlier, and the sun and lactic acid buildup and adrenaline forced me to reach out to him in my figurative script. It was kooky and semi-conscience writing,and I figured he needed to know my brain worked like that, like showing someone how you seizure or slip into Pentacost tongues. I had shared my music tastes with my new friends, but not this. To my surprise he seemed not just receptive of my letter but excited about it, and that moment is the true start of this story.
We shared publicly our semi-secret writings to each other, in a near twin-speak, once; poor Mook just wanted to be a rock star but he was a real boy, too, and his attempts to become more unreal became more disastrous until he finally died from them. They were fantastic poems written with little or no editing, and were, with some poetic licensing, sheer-veiled figurative statements about our personal lives.
To that I mean that I was not molested in the little Church of Christ that I attended as a kid; just poor, confused, fictitious Mook. But the sentiment was real, about a world full of people keeping their secrets from each other. Eventually I would learn that secrets are a backdraft working against mindfullness, are emotional cash sinks, but I never learned this from that little church. Mook died from secrets. I know; once when it was my turn to write back I killed him, boldly turning the proper “Mook” to the common “every Mook” in the end. I killed everyone that had a secret. Just writing that out I can imagine the scratchy butterscotch fabric of the pews, some elder walking me out to the parking lot to let me kick gravel as they tell my crying mom God hates her for getting divorced.
I never talk about religion to my friends, but Tim seems to know where I stand, or that I do in fact have a stand. And much like Mook paying his debt to heaven, Tim knows all of my secrets. He’s seen my crazy up close.
In some writing I had done for Tim recently I had asked him a question I never expected him to answer: who am I? Who does he see me as? It’s unfair to ask anyone that, but he would have the best guess. This was writing that was full of embarrassingly personal stuff, like I was challenging him to say, “I see you as a nutcase.” I have learned that you are only who you are now, but I feel more like a totem, a stack of faces and hats and headdresses, all exposed at once; the music face watching for clues, the writer peering up at a reverie, the nutcase with comic tears.
Elvis was looking for the answer to the same question in his spiritual quest Geller sent him on. None of his Christian upbringing prepared him for any existential answers. Elvis, in the manner in which he was able, alienated his entire support group to understand the self, pouring himself into books, visiting Yogit institutes, searching for the face of God in clouds.
I had already been studying Buddhism and Taoism before my birthday in 2002, but I had only really been practicing mindfullness meditation, not the finer points of either discipline’s spiritual demands. I had yet to understand how to appreciate your total existence when my partner did nothing for my birthday; no presents, no cards, nothing. I had yet to understand conservation of emotion when I decided to drive to Oklahoma to see if my friends were around, only to discover that they were all there without me. All the friends I had allow myself to really have at the moment, all in one room, perfectly content without even calling me up.
There is no good reason as to why I didn’t die on my way back home, distracted by my nervous breakdown speeding down Highway 412. The only reason is dumb luck and that I have no desire to die; I’ve been strangely blessed with opportunities and had either not taken them or fought like Hell to survive. I got home and laid on the couch and shook and shook and trembled, then went into the office where my dog-eared copy of the Tao Te Ching was and looked for an answer for why I was crazy until I thought I had found one.
Kurt Cobain is readying himself for an exit from the music business, figuring out the logistics of firing a long-barreled rifle into his own head. It’s 1994, a little bit before I graduate from high school.
Cobain wore his death-wishing on his sleeve, a big nihilistic broach pinned to his chest and a heroin habit bigger than his body could shoulder. Unlike our man Mook and our king Elvis, people tried to save Cobain’s life proper, but it didn’t take.
The bullet killed Cobain, but the drugs loaded the gun. Suicide’s sudden ending did its job of adding mythos to already transparently depressive and hopeless music. Poor Elvis, no less killing himself with drugs, no less making an open secret of his insecurities and addictions, dying in the bathroom next to his racquetball court, seems more tragic than mysterious, more like a blunder than a cry for help unheard.
Still, there he was, straining against his own body, too high to see death coming the summer I was one year old, the summer of The Son of Sam.
And here was Cobain in his little death kitchen as I was writing a prayer from Lamentations to deliver to my high school assembly, flipping the grip of the shotgun around.
And here I am in my own little room, in a bathroom stall of the Fine Arts Concert Hall, pulling out the Swiss Army knife from my pocket, taking a deep breath, getting ready to cut myself up. It’s 1997.