'Never the Same Again'
Jesse Sublett's 'Rock 'n' Roll Gothic': An Excerpt
[Ed. note: Jesse Sublett is a contributing writer for and a friend of The Austin Chronicle; Lois Richwine, his wife, is a senior advertising account executive here. This is Sublett's eighth book.]
November 17, 1997
1. WHITE ROOM
I'm lying inside a CAT scan tube in a bright white room at a radiological lab in Austin, Texas. It's night outside, about 10:30 p.m. Time seems to stand still in here, even when you have to hold your breath. It's not especially uncomfortable, except when my thoughts race ahead to why I'm here and the isolation starts to bug me. I remember hearing my mother tell people how I was always happy playing alone. Later, on the road with the band, I loved driving all night, the other guys sleeping or lost in their private reveries. Just me and my thoughts, and the gray twilight world caught in the low glare of my headlights.
They've got me trussed up tight so I won't move and spoil the pictures one giant elastic band around my ankles and another pulling my shoulders down, masking tape holding my head in position. Maybe this is what a caterpillar feels like inside its cocoon.
I've been playing songs in my head. "White Room" by Cream is good, the wah-wah guitar sounding no less exotically weird than it did thirty years ago, blasting out of the dashboard radio. Segue to "Frankenstein" by the New York Dolls, which helped me get through the ugly parts of the seventies. In the eighties, nothing was nearly as fine as "Avalon" by Roxy Music, coasting through the ether like a cloud-surfing limousine. Wish I could ride it out of here.
The machine starts whirring again, spinning like a roulette wheel as its trio of electromagnetic eyes slice through me from teeth to throat, then down through chest and abdomen. Someday they'll have a scanner so powerful it searches through every cell and fiber of your body to reveal your past and all your secrets. Its report will be the ultimate home video, complete with a forensic diagnostic critique that enumerates the crucial mistakes you made in life, especially the ones that trapped you inside the future equivalent of this white cocoon. We're all prisoners of our past.
When I first walked in, the technician said I looked familiar.
"I used to have a band called the Skunks," I said. "Maybe that's it."
"Oh yeah," he said, grinning. "I used to see you guys in high school. You were great."
"Thanks," I said.
People here seem pretty cool at least, they do until the weirdness starts to sink in. Like when the tech took a closer look at my file and his grin disappeared. What did that mean? Try not to think about it.
"You guys stay open pretty late," I said.
"It's convenient for people who can't get off work during the day."
Since I'm my own boss, I could've come down here anytime, but my doctor said it would be a good idea to get this done right away. "Maybe you could go tonight," she said. So here I am.
Once in a while the tech says, "How you doing in there?" or gives me an update on how much longer it's going to take.
"I'm fine," I tell him. Which is only half true. Outwardly, I'm calm, but as I stare fish-eyed at the whiteness in front of my nose, I'm mentally screening a film noir called The Big C, starring yours truly. He's got nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, because the enemy is right where it's always been inside him and the only thing taller than the odds stacked against him is his own sense of guilt. Because of his own foolish past, he knows he's got it coming.
Reminds me of my favorite line in Unforgiven: We've all got it comin', kid.
"Excuse me?" says the tech. "You OK?"
"Nothing. I'm fine."
I'm not supposed to talk, or move, or even breathe while the machine is scanning me. I give a Clint Eastwood squint anyway. I'm a hunk of heavy metal destiny inside a gunfighter's bullet. We've all got it comin'.
I've got a lump in my throat about the size of a .45 caliber slug, tucked just beneath my lower right jaw. By now it seems familiar, almost like an old friend. I had another one very much like it, in exactly the same place, when we lived in Los Angeles. In January 1994, the lump was surgically removed by Dr. Nixon, a specialist in otolaryngology, what they used to call ENT, for ear, nose and throat.
"Don't worry about it," Dr. Nixon told me after the surgery. "It was really ugly, and it turned out to be bigger than I thought it was, but it wasn't cancer."
Talk about relief! Happy new year, 1994. Lois gave me a kiss so big it penetrated my Demerol haze. Besides our love affair and partnership of sixteen years (nine as husband and wife), we had a four-month-old boy Dashiell, named after the great American writer Dashiell Hammett. The idea of checking out on them, Dashiell growing up without any memory of his father, was severely depressing.
Over the months, before the first surgery, Dr. Nixon had repeatedly assured me that the lump was probably benign. He said it before and after the X rays, the blood tests, the CAT scan, the biopsy. Despite the negative test results, despite Dr. Nixon's assurances, despite the air of steely confidence and casual unconcern I carefully maintained, every passing week marked a growing conviction that the lump in my throat really was cancer. That it would be terminal. I didn't envision a debilitating battle for survival against the exquisite tortures of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. All I saw was death.
Mostly, I forced myself not to think about it. That's how I made it through the months between that first appointment with Dr. Nixon in August 1993 and the surgery the following January. In between came the drama and celebrations of Dashiell's birth, Thanksgiving and Christmas. All that time I held my fear like a scream in my fist. I swaggered with phony courage and confidence. It's probably nothing. Sometimes I even believed myself.
But now it appeared that I was only being paranoid. "It wasn't cancer," he said. "Nothing to worry about." No shit? I'd been reprieved! Why the hell had I been so scared? Of course it wasn't cancer. Not me, cancer is something other people get.
Skies were blue again. Lois was overjoyed, her face flushed with relief, her big brown eyes full of light. My heart thumped the bass line to "Love and Happiness."
Three days later they sent me home. In the wee hours of the morning of the fifth day, the Northridge earthquake threw us out of bed, the bedrock below growling the end of the world, our apartment creaking, things crashing to the floor. It seemed like the punch line of a very strange joke.
But our apartment building did not do a pancake collapse, unlike many in adjacent neighborhoods, and after the rumbling stopped, Dashiell was still asleep. Lois was seriously rattled, and she had a big bruise where she'd been knocked into the wall by the dancing floor. The cats were seriously rattled. More of our belongings would've been damaged, but most were already packed in boxes for our move back to Austin. I loved L.A., but our families were in Texas, and Lois, an air force brat whose father was transferred to a different base often, in a new part of the world every three years, strongly felt that it was time for a change. If nothing else, Austin would be a safer place to raise our son. Now she pointed out that this earthquake might be a sign, just in case we were having second thoughts about leaving. Maybe it was just that, a kick in the ass on our way out of town.
I still didn't want to leave, but Lois was usually right about these things, so off we went. After all, it was her idea to move to L.A. in the first place.
I'm not sure when the lump came back, but it's definitely there now, in the same place as the first one. There are several smaller lumps, too, about the size of BBs, near the front of my throat. The back of my neck feels hard and knotty. I asked my new otolaryngologist if this might have anything to do with all those years of hard singing. After a beat of silence, she shook her head and said no, it wouldn't. I didn't think so, I said, but my mother wanted to know.
Finally the tech says, "We're done."
He presses a button and a motor conveys me back into the bright room. Another button lowers me. The tech unfastens all those ridiculous straps, then offers to help me up. I decline. Whatever it is I've got, I'm not that far gone yet.
The tech is avoiding eye contact. Maybe he's just bored. I gather my keys and wallet and stand there. He still won't look at me.
The door is open. I walk out.
"Good luck," he calls. To my back.
The waiting room is empty. On the other side of the sign-in window is the girl who was so friendly when I came in to fill out my forms. She doesn't seem to notice me. I watch her carry some files into the next room. The only light comes from the big monitor screens displaying black and white images. Another tech is staring at one of the monitors. The Skunks fan is looking over his shoulder. No one speaks. The girl puts the files down and stands next to them. The monitor paints their faces an eerie grayish blue. If you wanted to convey foreboding and dread in a low-budget science fiction movie, this scene would do the trick.
It's chilly outside. My Karmann Ghia looks lonely in the empty parking lot. Moths and bats swirl around the lights in tight orbits, reminding me of the atomic energy icon. I suppose those were my images on those monitors.
I don't like the way the guy said "Good luck." It didn't sound right.
They were all so friendly at first. But a freak accident seems to have occurred while I was under the machine's electromagnetic gaze. It must've altered my molecular structure and made me invisible. I've disappeared.
Yes, it feels a little like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling died of cancer, didn't he?
A few days later my otolaryngologist, Dr. Melba Lewis, tells me I have a type of head and neck cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. She says it's a life-threatening situation, that I need major surgery, maybe radiation and chemotherapy. And she can't say it, but the truth behind the maybe part of the scenario is this: The cancer is so advanced and aggressive, there's a good chance I'll die no matter what last-ditch slash-and-burn-and-poison they attack it with. Thank you and goodnight, ladies and gentlemen. Your favorite bass player is about to leave the building.
What scares me more than death is the possibility that I'll lose the ability to speak. That they might have to cut out my tongue or voice box or that I'll be disfigured in some other way too grotesque to imagine. That I'll live out my life as the ugly secret behind the curtains at the Sublett house. A real Frankenstein rocker. Lois will never confess that she finds my appearance repulsive, although nothing she can say will convince me otherwise. Dashiell won't be able to lie as well as his mom, and how could I even expect him to try? His friends at school will tease him cruelly, the kid with the monster dad.
Maybe I'll die and maybe I won't, but it's for real this time. Unlike four years ago, I force myself to contemplate Lois and Dashiell without me.
And what about the big record deal I never got? The novels that didn't hit the bestseller list, the ones I abandoned, the screenplays that didn't get made? I've had some good luck in my forty-three years on the planet, just not enough of it.
I'm staring death in the face, and I probably was in 1994, too. Then there was the time way before that, when I was a hot-shit twenty-something rocker all set to take over the world and boom, I had a head-on collision at the crossroads. Bad as this is, that time was worse. Back then I wasn't afraid to die. I felt dead already. What scared me was the idea that I might go on living.
Her name was Dianne Roberts. She was a long-legged brunette, just a few inches shorter than me, and I'm six-foot-three. Her eyes were big, brown and dreamy, her hair luxuriously long, swaying with the rest of her when she walked. A pretty and sophisticated girl from Houston, an art major and rock 'n' roller who had me spellbound from the moment I laid eyes on her in the fall of 1972, our first semester in college in San Marcos, Texas.
I was a longhair in Levi bellbottoms and boots, an English major working hard at being a hipster. I was from Johnson City, Texas, a town with fewer people than Dianne's senior class. English major, poet, Rolling Stones fanatic on an Alice Cooper kick.
I was shy with girls, and even though I felt sure the attraction was mutual, I let her get away the first time. After being in agony for several days, I chased after her and caught her and didn't let go. And then finally, one night after a rock concert, on the heels of twelve straight nights of making out, with me too afraid to go further, with Led Zeppelin on the radio, we consummated our love in the front seat of my '64 Mercury Comet.
We were inseparable after that, like two mice in a sock. Necks perpetually splattered with vampire bites. Having her as my girlfriend boosted my confidence and broadened my experience. She made me feel gallant just for who I was, and for whatever I might aspire to be.
Dianne's artistic impulses, plus our constant immersion in music, stoked my ambition to play rock 'n' roll for real, not just in shitty garage bands with my friends. After two years together, we bailed out of college and moved to Austin so I could start a band there. I was gonna be a rock star, no doubt about it. It might take a year or two, three at the outside. Dianne got a job at a credit bureau, I worked in a mailroom, crummy jobs to subsidize a rock 'n' roll life. We were happy. We assumed we'd be together forever. Everyone else thought so, too.
I can see her now, on the dance floor, tall and sexy, grooving and toasting the flash debut of our hot new band, cheering us on. After a gig, she's waiting in the wings to give me a sweaty hug and a big kiss. She's dressed to the nines in a shiny blouse, bangle bracelets, feather boa. A girl out of a T Rex song.
Except it's just an illusion, a dream. She wasn't there. Not at our debut or any gig I played from then on. Not in the flesh, anyway. She wasn't there because one night she was murdered by a savage monster who broke into our house and left her there for me to find when I came home.
The world came skidding to a stop. I thought I would die, but didn't. Wanted to die, but didn't. Tried to forget that last sight of her, but never will.
Twenty-one years ago.
I had a music career. Played and recorded my songs, had lots of fun, saw my name in the headlines and strutted in the spotlights, put a million miles on the road in smelly band vans, saw America one Motel 6 at a time. Musicians have thanked me for inspiring them to start their own bands. Regular people tell me they met their spouse at one of my gigs.
I owe a lot of people for helping me along the way, particularly Lois, who pulled me back from the darkness and pushed me in new directions and who continues to do so. But none of it would've happened the way it did without Dianne.
Except for my rock 'n' roll dreams, she was everything to me. I might've curled up in a dark closet or a ditch and cried myself to death, or floated away on a sea of booze and pills, or slashed my wrists in a hot bath, but there were gigs to play, rehearsals, other band business. Rock 'n' roll juiced my pulse, my bass guitar became my heartbeat, and every hour onstage was one I didn't spend wrestling with the horror of what had happened. Rock 'n' roll saved my life, Dianne remained in my heart. And that's how, one gig at a time, one virtual snakeskin boot in front of the other, life went on.
So did the nightmares and flashbacks. Today they just got a lot bigger.
From Never the Same Again: A Rock 'n' Roll Gothic by Jesse Sublett, published by Boaz Publishing Company, distributed by Ten Speed Press. (ISBN 1-58008-598-9, $24). Copyright © 2004 by Jesse Sublett. All rights reserved; used with permission.