381. King of Pain

I’ve gone over that night in my mind hundreds of times. I’ve written songs about it. I have some moments burned into my memory so deeply I see them when I sleep.

And I’m still trying to figure out if it was my fault. I’ll always wonder what I could have done differently.

I will tell you one thing, that opening set we did was better than any sex we’d ever had.

It’s a cliche to say we were on fire. But I’m being hard pressed to come up with a better term. Being really emotionally off balance led to me sprinting full on down the tightrope and me and Zig just hanging onto each other for dear life. Oh it was fun. We played the three songs we had rehearsed the most, each with an anecdotal intro by Ziggy that I would not have thought would usually work, but either these were fans who hung on his every word or the spell was just that strong that night.

We did a couple of the songs we did in Toronto, too, and two of our old songs we hadn’t played in a while, and three pieces that were more or less improvised on the spot. One was some stuff we’d played around with together, one was me entirely solo, and one–the one we ended with–was me playing one of my usual riffs, a blues progression, and he just wrapped something from his lyric sheet around it. I recognized it, but only barely. Songs never seem the same when I look at them on paper versus hearing them sung.

He didn’t stay on his stool all the time. He got up and wandered the edge of the stage, or wandered around me while I stayed put.

I could’ve gone on like that all night. But realistically speaking, we couldn’t. We took bows, and Ziggy assured them we’d be right back as soon as the stage was reset.

I traded the Ovation for a Gatorade from Colin and he set to tuning it for the next set. I looked around. I had lost sight of Ziggy, but just because I felt like it didn’t mean I actually needed to be glued to him right now.

I toweled my face and decided not to change my clothes for the second set. I was wearing the shirt with his hand print on it. Remember that night he couldn’t talk because his throat was swelled up? I remembered I had been wearing it in the bus. I remembered him touching me right here, to the side of the breastbone.

He was probably changing, though, I realized. If we’d let him, I think Ziggy would have built some costume changes into the regular set. (We hadn’t let him.)

I accepted some congratulations from some people I didn’t really know, and some from people I did. Magenta was there, and I had really come to value her opinion. I wondered where Jonathan was. Probably out in the throng, since there wasn’t really a backstage area you could see the stage from.

And then it was time to get the regular set going. The three of us, me, Bart, and Chris, were gathered on the backstage side of the doorway waiting for Ziggy to reappear.

And waiting. And waiting. Colin got on radio. Antonio had seen him leave the dressing room a while ago.

My skin began to prickle. He’d been the absolute consummate professional yesterday. Was it all downhill from there? Did I love him less when he was blowing us off? I know. I can have some pretty fucked up thoughts in the dark chaos of backstage and half the time I don’t take them seriously because they’re nonsense transmissions made up of the scraps of performance and not reality. But I couldn’t really stop myself from thinking. Was he banging some groupie in a bathroom? Getting high? Having a meltdown? Passed out from exhaustion catching up with him suddenly? Should I have kept a closer watch on him? Should I have stuck to him like glue, like I wanted to? I couldn’t make out the exact words through Colin’s radio but gathered that Antonio was on the search.

And then, no explanation, nothing like that, I heard, “He’s coming.” Maybe he’d been in the dressing room all along and Tony had been mistaken. I scolded myself for thinking negative thoughts.

Ziggy wove his way out of the hangers-on in the hall toward us like an angel breezing through sinners, in neck-to-toe white spandex that left little to my imagination, with black leather boots and a black leather jacket. The boots had little wings on them, and he’d painted his eyes in a wing pattern, too, though you couldn’t tell that’s what it was unless you were up close.

He didn’t say anything–it was too loud to really say much anyway–and he more or less just kept on going right to the stage, the rest of us swept up in his wake.

The audience, who had been rapt throughout our whole little set, were pretty much ready to explode by the time all four of us came out together, and we hit them with “Welcome” right off. There was so much energy in that room, even though it was a smaller crowd than at the Garden, they were so densely packed, and so intense, that it was like they might blow us right off the stage if we didn’t come back twice as hard.

It was like rough sex like that. It was. I forgot entirely about being underslept and road weary. I also forgot entirely about how 24 hours before Ziggy had pushed himself to the point of collapse. He seemed fine. He had the audience entirely in the palm of his hand.

After the first song he paused to talk a bit, but instead of his usual stage patter he held up a hand as if to say “stop” to the audience. During the song he’d picked up a couple of stuffed animals and chucked them back into the crowd.

“Hey, hey, I have an idea,” he said to the audience. A pure white follow-spot tracked him across the stage. “You guys listen up.”

And they listened.

“Look, I know a lot of you have brought gifts. Have you got flowers? Stuffed bears? Whatever?”

Loud cheers came back in response to each question.

“Okay, okay, so I have this idea. There’s no way I can throw every single one back into the seats. Even though I wish I could. I get it, you know. They’re love gifts. They’re love, am I right?”

The cheers went up in pitch.

“And you know, what we do up here, we’re loving you back. It’s a feedback loop, right?”

The crowd definitely agreed.

He stalked along the front edge of the stage like a televangelist, talking to them. “So how about this, how about this? Everyone who has a flower or a toy or a necklace or something. You know what I would love? Turn to someone in the audience near you, kiss it and give it to them. It’s a gift from you, but it’s a gift from me–from us–to you. If you’ve got a whole bouquet, split ’em up, share the love. And if there isn’t enough of that to go around, how about hug somebody? Anyone out there need a hug? Throw your arms in the air! Okay, the rest of you? Are you going to let that person be lonely?” His grin was wide and he gestured over the whole crowd. “Are you going to let that person be miserable? I can see I don’t have to tell you what to do. I can see it’s working. That’s the great thing about love. You don’t run out. There’s always more, and the more there is… the more there is!”

The more there is, the more there is. That was a song waiting to be written. Later. We kicked into the next song then, while the love-in out in the audience went on, with people hugging each other all over the place, not necessarily stopping at just one hug. The place was one hug mosh pit of love.

Which suited me just fine. And everything was just fine, until Ziggy’s voice cracked in “Grenadier.”

We were getting toward the end of the song, and it was the part where the chorus repeats, and maybe it was my performance high mixing with the violence inherent in the song, but I swear I could hear his vocal cords shredding. Okay, I know that’s not quite how it works, but at the time I wasn’t really thinking rationally. I was trying to give him a sign to pull back, to stop, to let the instrumental carry it to the end, but he wasn’t paying attention to me. Which was kind of weird in itself, now that I think about it. I stalked him back and forth and glanced back at Bart and tried again. Ziggy was at the very edge of the stage, ignoring me.

Was it painkillers? I wondered. Had he taken some and so he couldn’t feel what he was doing to himself and was too out of it to notice me?

I ended up ringing a chord and then reaching around him with my right, clamping my hand over his mouth and pulling him back from the edge of the stage, out of the spotlight. Bart and Chris had been watching, so as Ziggy fell back against my strings, muffling them, the other two hit a stinger end: BAM. And it made it look like we’d planned that ending all along. Louis was nimble as ever and took the stinger as a cue to go dark, too.

He brought lights up slowly then, as if asking us to transition to something, giving us time for a patter break if that was what we needed.

Ziggy twisted away from me and I couldn’t tell if he was angry or just surprised at what I had done, or if he was in pain. He was waving me away. I was trying to ask if he was okay, but it was clear I wasn’t going to get an answer right then.

It wasn’t unusual for Ziggy to blow me off onstage from time to time. But after we’d been in synch so much in the first set, maybe it should have struck me as weird? It didn’t. I was much more worried about his throat than his state of mind. Maybe he just needed a minute to get himself together.

I know. A show is like a freight train. Very hard to bring to a complete stop. No one wanted to. No one ever wants to. So it felt like a very long pause while Ziggy went and got a drink of water from the bottle at the foot of the drum riser. He gargled it a little. Then he gave me a thumbs up.

Thumbs up, huh? I wasn’t sure I believed it. We had planned a break coming up after the next song, with the idea to come back and finish with Candlelight.

The opening cue was his. He hesitated, which increased my feeling that he was hurting. This time when I went over to him he stayed put and let me talk into his ear.

With the crowd noise and screaming you don’t get to say a whole lot that way.

“You promised,” I said. “Don’t overdo it.”

He nodded.

“Do you want to cut straight to Candlelight and call it a night?”


“Candlelight and then quits?”

He sagged a little. “Yes. Yeah. Have to.”

That meant I had to change guitars. Which was another delay.

I passed the word to Bart while Ziggy got one more drink of water and then said to the audience while I was still getting the Ovation on, “My friends, my lovers, it’s been a magical evening. But I’m sorry to tell you, this will be our last song.” He pressed his hand to his throat as he said “last song” as if to give them a hint of why. “Did you hear me? Last song. I’m so sorry we have to go. I love you.”

He blew kisses to the audience as I started the opening riff.

This song had all the little moments in it like usual. I had the feeling most of the special lights Louis had kept from our regular stage gig were for this one. I was ticking them off in my mind. First chorus, transition to the bridge, key change… Everything was going fine. People were swaying their flashlights and lighters. Ziggy sounded fine, no rasp or break, and I backed off from worrying too much.

Then, as the reprise of the chorus returned, Ziggy started to climb the downstage Marshall stack on my side. The stack was three units high and a few inches from the front edge of the stage, eight or ten feet tall.

I didn’t know what he was thinking. Probably he wasn’t thinking. I do know what I was thinking. I was thinking that was a terrible idea. A terribly unsafe idea. Now, I know it’s not like he’d never done something like this before, but nonetheless, I had the thought he might get hurt. This wasn’t like our arena setup–did this gear belong to the hall? I didn’t recognize the cabinets. I didn’t think they were secured or rigged, just stacked. Shit, I thought, if he fell into the audience he might kill somebody.

Or himself. Yes, of course it occurred to me he might be trying to commit suicide. I also had the thought that we’d already thought of that before and we had decided Ziggy being suicidal was ridiculous. But in the light of that thought suddenly the angel wings seemed ominous, as did half of what he’d said. Those were only a few of the thousand and one thoughts cramming my head while I tried to figure out what the fuck to do. I was searching for Colin, or anyone, venue security, whoever to catch my eye, while I tried to figure out a way to get Ziggy’s attention that didn’t involve trying to climb after him.

He had to be on drugs. He wouldn’t be this reckless, this stupid, without them. Unless he really was trying to kill himself. Or just make us think that he was? I remembered reading once that there was a difference between wanting to try suicide and wanting to actually succeed at it.

He still had the mic in one hand. Then he tucked it between his ear and shoulder, like a phone, so he could use both hands to pull himself up a little more, but he couldn’t quite get all the way on top. Then he sang again, clinging to the side like King Kong on the Empire State Building–Fay Wray as the mic. At the end of the line he stretched his arm out, pointing the mic at the audience and getting a huge cheer in response. Maybe it was my imagination that there was a nervous note in the cheer, though.

I had a sudden flash to that time he’d fallen off the stage in Chicago. Passed out. That’s what he said, that’s what we thought, right? Maybe that had been the first hint of the exhaustion to come? No, wait, hadn’t that been drugs? I couldn’t remember what had happened when and right now, with gallons of adrenaline pumping through me was not the time to try to sort it out. I had a sudden fear that dive into the audience had been intentional. But why would he do something like that? I stood there at the bottom of the tower, looking up, still playing, begging him with my mind to look down at me, to let me know he was … there.

Ziggy, are you in there?

And then time was moving in slow motion. The small cabinet at the top of the stack, the one he was hanging onto, slipped, and as he scrambled to hang on but failed, I let the guitar drop, and I dove.

I wish I could tell you it was a fairy tale moment where everything was timed perfectly, but it was more like an illegal football tackle than a ballet move. I caught him as the amp came down, the two of us went flying in the direction of my dive, while the amp fell into off the stage and into the audience. Then the two of hit the edge of the stage… and then I fell into the audience, too.

It’s a miracle no one was killed. No one. Not him, not me, not an audience member. I did, however, lose consciousness when I hit my head. I am not sure what I hit or when exactly in the fall I took the lump. The main thing I remember about losing consciousness was that it got very instantly quiet. This is the weird thing. Most people describe blacking out as everything getting dark. Well, of course it was dark–I fell into the crowd. But the moment when I lost consciousness the one thing I remember is everything going silent as if a big door had just slammed between me and everyone else.

I’m no expert on states of consciousness, obviously. One time when I was a kid I passed out in school. I was five or six, and we were all bundled up to leave. It was winter. I think I got overheated. We were all lined up waiting for the bell to ring, in our snow suits and jackets and hats, and I slumped over on a little drawing table. At the time I thought it had been my idea, but maybe I just didn’t have a concept that your body could just give out like that when I was that age. My teacher had a flip out and carried me to the nurse’s office where they revived me.

The weird part about that one was that I could still hear everyone. I was there, trying to move, trying to say something, but I couldn’t open my eyes or make my mouth move. But I could still hear everything.

This time, I couldn’t hear anything. But I felt like I was just waiting for someone to open the door again.

Just waiting in the dark.

Maybe it was a good thing I was unconscious. Because if I’d been awake I would have been blaming myself. Was it all my fault? Or was only part of it mine to bear? What could I have done differently?

I would have plenty of time to think about all that later, when the door of darkness cracked open and an EMT was shining a light into my eyes and asking me if I knew what day it was and who was president.

(P.S. It was George Bush. The first one.)


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