December 27, 2002

A Festering Epidemic of Island Fever

Taking off from San Diego had been a nightmare, but I calmed down a bit once the plane was in the air. I’d done enough flying during this post 9/11 summer to dull my periodic debilitating bouts of acrophobia, and my geographical geek’s interest in seeing the world spread out below me like a giant map was today’s other key to my immediate sanity. The vision of Southern California retreating over the horizon snapped me out of any lingering fear, and I resolved for the moment to get to the bottom of the feud I knew I sensed was going on among my fellow freaked-out passengers.

I hadn’t spoken to Colin Dawson since his patience abruptly dissolved halfway through a particularly awful set by his rock band, the Screaming Mimes, at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood a few days ago. It was supposed to be an industry showcase gig, but the Mimes had been playing terribly for the umpteenth time on this particular tour, and Colin looked like he thought he was the only one who noticed. That sounds ridiculous at first, of course, but no one put it past Colin to be any less self-absorbed than he usually seemed.

I was already worse for wear that night from general exhaustion, not to mention the tequila, so I kept walking and eventually floated away from the rest of the world’s cares. The band could split now, for all I cared- they’d given me zip to work with for most of the stretch on the road. The Mimes had had enough- of touring, or of being ignored, or getting nowhere after all this effort, of all that and then more—and it didn’t take extra-sensory perception to guess that some kind of end was waiting for us after the last two shows in Hawaii. Lately, all of Alan’s escapist notions about Maui started to make sense; the frontmanly singer was the first one on the plane, and he didn’t look back. The plague of emotional cowardice that had festered since Santa Cruz was becoming highly contagious.

The seat-belt sign clicked off and I went in search of the bassist’s unmistakable pate. I passed the unconscious form of his brother Ben, asleep since takeoff, sprawled across two seats and drooling on himself. A cursory peep over the next row of seats found Colin’s head bobbing along under gigantic headphones about four rows up from me, so I stumbled over my girlfriend Simone (who was just falling asleep in the seat next to me) and into the aisle. It took Colin a while to notice me beside him; he seemed to be much more interested in pondering the infinity outside the cabin window. Finally he sighed quickly, with a barely concealed annoyance only just tempered by his natural etiquette.

“So what do you wanna know now, Roy? Some great profundity to cap off your latest spew of epic genius?” The question came as if he dared me to waste a second of his five-hour flight to Paradise, but then he softened a little. “Look-look,” he continued, “I’m sorry about what happened in L.A. I know that I freaked out yet again and it didn’t do anyone any good. I just can’t stand anything about our so-called professional commitments in that city anymore, so I didn’t talk to anyone, not even Ben, from sound check until sometime the next afternoon. I had a convenient little spoiled rock-star tantrum.” I’ll say, I thought to myself—he’d been a total gargoyle for most of the tour.

“Hey, thanks,” I said, caving in fast to honor the urgent need for copy. “Relax, dude- it’s not like you laid waste to all of the greater Los Angeles area that week- or did you? I mean, I don’t even remember the show that night, and later I was too wrapped up in trying to sort things out with my girlfriend to try to make it to the last two gigs or get ahold of any of you guys until the airport.”

I unconsciously ran my fingers through my unwashed hair, only just remembering that His Baldness hated when people did that in front of him. At least my tactless tongue had yet to strike again, but I had the feeling the one question I wanted to ask would make up for any previous restraint. And why not? Being crammed into a jet with these four pricks and their dwindling entourage lent a kind of credibility to feeling fatalistic about the whole endeavor.

“Okay, well anyway,” I began again, clearing the runway. “The whole band, but especially you, Colin, seem to be acting like this is your last tour. I know you like to say ‘every tour is like the last tour’, but now it appears you all just want to pack it in, and no one wants to be the first to say it.” Unlike many other things I’ve said in my life, I didn’t want to take this back, even after he narrowed his eyes to give me a withering, perceptive glare. Calling these fools on their own laziness must be tantamount to grievous personal insult.

His reply was casual enough, though. “I don’t know. Well, maybe—we actually have talked about it a few times, before this tour started, when we got no money from the label and then they dropped us, and everyone took it really bad, but what else could we do? Playing out is therapeutic on some levels, so we just thought we should at least tour the new songs and have some fun with it instead of just sitting back and taking a knife in the eye. We thought it would be a nice send-off for everyone in our organization as well, but it obviously hasn’t happened that way. Zip’s always had one foot out the door, Ben’s pissed cause all of his songs were ignored altogether, and Alan—shit, I don’t know what the hell Alan’s problem is.”

“But it would still be the last, even if the tour went well?” I asked, feigning interest. “Yes, mainly because Alan wants out, for now—he told me so, but not why—and now so do I, simply because all the things I hate about doing this haven’t been equaled by how much fun it is anymore. It’s work, and getting any higher on the totem pole requires that. I’ve said this to you before, haven’t I? I don’t have that maniacal craving for fame that drives the willpower of people who are successful in this business or even in film or TV or the corporate world or whatever, you know? That seems like the ultimate demarcation between the players and the pros.”

He squirms in the cramped seat. “I’m not just talking about ending this band, you know. I’m only twenty-six, but I can see this becoming gradually less important to me, even if the lyrics—which are better than ever right now—keep coming like they have been. I’m not sure I like the idea of being a part of some nobody band when I’m forty, you know, bashing my skull against the blockheaded apathy of some bar manager who just happens to see himself as the last bastion of taste and integrity in the midst of a world of sellouts."

He snorted contemptuously. "These people just really get up my ass sideways, Roy. They’re the kings of their little castles and they act like all-powerful arbiters of cool, but all they really want guys like me to do is be background noise for folks trying to get laid. I don’t need some dipshit stamping me with the “authenticity” tag simply to feel good about themselves, and I especially don’t need to be reminded of this any time I want to get attention for the work I do.”

Colin paused to take a swig of water. Amazingly, he’d stopped drinking alcohol before he got more bent than a crowbar. His discarded headphones now blared muffled dialogue from the in-flight movie. I peered past him as he replaced the plastic cup, but of course I couldn’t see the islands yet; the Pacific’s white-capped waves rolled out on their way to Australia.

“I mean, it’s not like I hate doing this, dude,” he continued. “It’s valid, good work and it’s lots of fun, still, and I’m glad for the experience, but I want something more. I suppose that my luck or skill in avoiding the usual pitfalls of excess of this business like drugs and stuff comes down to never really getting far enough along with success to totally immerse myself in the way some of the more, um, fortunate performers have.”

He grinned, “It’s like, well, sooner or later I want to stop and think about life without feeling crunched for time. I don’t know what’s gonna happen with Sara and I—if we’ll get married or have a family or what—but that’s just one of many things that have got to change. I need to feel progress, and it’s not happening right now. I have no idea how the other three guys truly feel about this, and what sucks about it is that I don’t much care anymore and I’m not sorry about that. Call me selfish, man, but that’s where I’m at, and I intend to change with or without the band.”

This was about all I could take. Colin wasn’t exactly pontificating in his usual earnest, quasi-meaningful way of total disregard for his audience, but he was on a roll, and I could tell he was giving me his recycled lines with some extra goop slathered on there for the sake of killing flight time. If I wasn’t so distracted I’d like to think I’d have called his bluff and said he was full of shit and not to waste my time, but when he said that thing about Sara and marriage all it did was remind me of all I needed to get through with her sister.

Simone had been suddenly clingy of late—I’d had to lift her semi-sleeping head and shoulders off me before I left my seat—and I couldn’t tell if that was a genuine apology for running wild in L.A. and ignoring me or if she really had changed her mind about me or us or anything. I thought it might be that she knew the end was coming too- that Colin told Sara and Simone somehow found out too and that she was totally relieved at the prospect of no longer babysitting her sister’s boyfriend.

“Yeah,” I eventually replied. I snapped out of the thought in order to make my escape. “Well,” I added, “thanks for your generous-as-always opinions, Colin,” to which he nodded briefly before turning to look out the window again. I wheeled around to return to my seat, noticing that Simone was watching me from under her eyelids. The plane bounced over a stray eddy and I staggered like a drunk before crumpling across her lap and knocking my skull against the armrest. “Banner dismount, haole-boy,” she giggled, and suddenly filled my field of vision with her round brown face. I kissed her very softly before settling back into my seat. Paradise could wait, for now—I had a story to wrap up.

I shifted my weight and something cracked. It was the tape recorder with the interview I’d just done with Colin, dropped into my seat as I’d fallen, and I’d sat on it. Extreme fear shattered what was left of my spine. I rushed to turn it right-side-up to play the interview and make sure the tape wasn’t damaged, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The cassette was blank. In my haste to corner the bassist and get the thing over with I apparently hadn’t even bothered to turn the recorder on.

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