1042. Rock Bottom

Up to that point I had not spent much time alone with Barrett. I felt we knew each other pretty well–or at least that he knew me pretty well–by osmosis, through Ziggy. He’d been there through a lot of my ups and downs–mostly downs. I think we were often somewhat careful around each other, though. We needed to get along with each other and if keeping a little distance was conducive to that then so be it.

But that meant it was a bit weird when it was just the two of us in a car for an hour. Especially when there were a couple of big topics we were avoiding. He really didn’t want to make me talk about my mother’s terminal illness and I really didn’t want to bring up anything like, oh, Ziggy’s pending tour of Japan.

So we made somewhat awkward small talk for about half the ride which, as you can imagine, was excruciating. Then we got onto a topic that was at least a little bit safe: Lollapalooza, which was in its second year.

Have I talked about Lollapalooza before? It was a touring alternative music festival cooked up by Perry Farrell, the lead singer of Jane’s Addiction. Jane’s had headlined the first year, along with Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nine Inch Nails, Butthole Surfers, Fishbone… a real who’s who in “alternative” at that time, clustered heavily around the nexus I think of as the punk, which crosses over to ska and goth. It was one of the only bright spots in the otherwise mediocre ticket sales for most live shows in ’91.

By year two, Jane’s had broken up and the Lollapalooza nexus had moved to grunge.

“Did you see who’s headlining this year?” Barrett asked. He was still wearing the suit he had slept in on the plane. I was taking him to a hotel on the far side of Nashville from the airport.

“Red Hot Chili Peppers, but I didn’t pay attention to the rest of the list,” I said. I’d had other things on my mind.

“Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden. I mean, yeah, there’s still Ministry and Luscious Jackson but they are all-in on grunge. As you’d expect.”

“Isn’t the whole industry all-in on grunge?”

“You’d be surprised. Some think it’s a fad like the Watusi or something.”

“Isn’t the Watusi a dance move? I confess I don’t know which one.”

“Yes, and that’s exactly the point. But the people who think grunge is going to just be a blip on the radar are wrong. These are the same people who don’t stock enough copies of the Nirvana album and then are pissed off when they can’t get more from their warehouse because the demand is so high everywhere.”

I kept my eyes on the road but I wanted to roll them. “Sounds a little bit familiar.”

“Doesn’t it? I kind of wonder if Moondog 3 isn’t the only band whose sales were suppressed by a mismatch between retailer expectations and consumer desires. I think it was the whole quote-unquote alternative genre, and now they’re finally waking up to realize oh wait, the so-called alternative is actually the center, not the fringe, of where rock music is right now.”

“You know this all makes me think M3 was just a year or two too early.”

“I know.” Barrett yawned and shook himself like a dog. “The bands playing the side stage at Lolla are really fascinating. Tool, have you heard Tool?”

“No, tell me about them?”

“More polyrhythmic than Led Zeppelin, full of suspended chords. The anger in their presentation gets them lumped with metal but you could really almost call it prog rock.”

“That sounds kind of familiar, too.”

“I know. I tried to sign them but they already have representation.” Barrett cracked his knuckles.

“Is Luscious Jackson male or female?”

“Female: they’re a group of women.”

“And here I was thinking there was another Jackson family member I didn’t know.”

“I think you’d like them. They’re from New York, doing a kind of alternative rap thing? Like if the Beastie Boys were classy females instead.”

That description made no sense to me until I eventually heard Luscious Jackson and then I understood.

We arrived at the hotel. As we pulled into the curved driveway where I planned to drop him off, he turned to me and said, “You want to grab some breakfast? Let me buy you breakfast. To thank you for the ride.”

I was about to turn him down with a “you don’t have to do that” when I remembered something Remo told me. (Or maybe it was Digger, but I prefer to think good advice came from Remo.) Never turn down a free meal. The implication isn’t just that as a starving artist you need the food, but that having a meal with someone is always a kind of invitation or opportunity. If you don’t take it, you miss the opportunity.

“Sure, I could use something to eat,” I said.

“Great. Let me check in and dump my suitcase, and then we can go find a Denny’s or Waffle House or something.”

When he came back out a few minutes later, he’d changed into a short-sleeve shirt and I took us back to a Denny’s we’d passed earlier.

Somehow the change of scenery re-set the conversation so we had to feel our way through a couple more minutes of awkward small talk. But after we had ordered and were waiting for our food, he came out with what he’d been waiting to ask me:

“How would you feel if there were a chance to make another Moondog Three record?”

I startled so hard I spilled my coffee and we both had to move fast to avoid getting it in our laps.

After the waitress had moved us to the next booth over and settled us down again with fresh coffee, he said, “That bad, huh?”

“What? No. Don’t get the idea that I don’t want to or that I wouldn’t, but just… why would you ask me that?”

He was seated across from me, with his hands wrapped around his coffee mug but looking right at me. “You know I play a long game. I’m always thinking ten, twenty moves ahead, preparing for every eventuality. Changes in the market. Changes in popular taste. New media. Et cetera.”

“Yeah, and?”

“And that means gauging the feasibility of a lot of options.”

“But a new Moondog Three record isn’t feasible.”

“Why? Tell me why. Pretend I know nothing about it.”

“Okay, well, let’s start with the fact that the band as we know it is in hock to our record company by a large amount and has been eighty-sixed. We can’t record for anyone else and they won’t support us doing another one. There’s also the issue of the lawsuits. If the band gets back together do we owe Digger a cut? Is it going to complicate our court case? Then there’s the fact that Ziggy’s got other priorities. I don’t see him taking a half a year off to go into the studio right now.” I held up my scarred hand. “And there’s this.”

“How is it?”

“It’s getting better,” I said, but I was aware that although that was what my doctors said, it felt like a lie when I said it. “But I’m not at my best.” That was as close to admitting I was having the worst creative block of my entire life. The truth was I hadn’t written a song in so many months I’d forgotten what it felt like. Had it been a year? It had been most of a year by then, if not a whole year. There had been only one or two fleeting moments where an idea had bubbled up in all that time.

Barrett took a sip of his coffee and then settled down to look at me again. “Okay, but theoretically, after the lawsuits are done and all that’s out of the way. If Megastar came to you, say, and offered to support a new album, what would you say?”

“And presumably you and Ziggy approved of the idea.”

“Forget about me and Ziggy for a second. I’m asking how you would feel about it.”

I felt like my heart was beating so hard I might pass out the second it slowed down. My palms were instantly sweating. “That might depend.”

“Let me put it another way. If everything went the way you wanted, would you want another M3 album to happen?”

“Yes, of course.” I didn’t dare take a gulp of my coffee because I might spill it again.

“‘Of course?’ You seem really upset.”

“Of course I’m upset. This is like you just asked me if I could have everything I wanted, would I bring Jordan Travers back from the dead.”

Barrett closed his eyes like that hurt. Maybe it did. I know it hurt me, anyway. “Okay. Maybe it was too soon to ask.”

“I mean, you’re asking theoretically, right? Not like there’s any chance of that happening, ever.”

“Let’s put it this way.” He hadn’t moved other than to open his eyes again. “If you want me to incresae the chance of it ever being able to happen, I need to know you want it to happen.”

“You’re not even my manager, Barrett.”

“I know. But I’m your grandmanager,” by which he meant my manager’s manager, “and your life partner and creative partner’s manager, and I’m just trying to keep all bases covered.”

What I wanted to say to him was: shit, if you’d asked me this question a year ago I would have said yes, yes, yes, and sold my soul to make it happen. But now, it would be just my luck that my fondest wish, my deepest ambition, could come true just when I was at a point when I would be utterly unable to fulfill it. When I couldn’t play, couldn’t write, and had nothing in the tank.

But what I actually said was, “Okay. ”

He seemed to sense that was all he was going to get out of me. He sat back and looked away, took a fresh sip of coffee, and then changed the subject.

I don’t remember what we talked about after that. I don’t remember what I ate. I don’t remember the drive back to the bungalow.

I do remember the feeling of successively heavier and heavier rocks in the palm of my hand, the sound of the splash as they would hit the water and sink. I remember the heat of the sun and the flit of dragonflies fleeing from me. I remember the scent of the mud and the sound of my grunts/screams being swallowed up by the flat water every time I threw one of those rocks.

I remember heaving rocks into the lake as hard as I could until my arm hurt and I could barely move and Remo found me sitting on the outcropping, crying my eyes out.


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