In 1997 I was living in one of the richest parts of Paris, next door to the Hermes showroom on the rue du faubourg saint honoré. Sounds posh, right? But I was working illegally for this rageaholic Japanese woman who ran an audio-visual import company and, since I was living in the company’s $3500/month corporate apartment, she could pay me whatever she wanted. Which basically I meant I worked all the time and then had to walk a couple miles to a neighboring arrondissement to buy my wine and groceries. Oh, and I was also a pretty bad drunk.
“I feel for you and everybody
Dreaming in your beds
I’m feeling lost, there is nothing
Nothing more than this
Gone the dream, it’s all faded now”
– Ash, “Gone the Dream” from the album 1977.
[This is Part 2 in my series on the making of the album Ten Year Bender. [Read Part 1: Bringing a ‘Lost Record’ Back from the Dead.]
During this period, I was spending most of my free time alone. This was partly because my best French friends, Leon and Wolfie, lived across the Seine in the 7th arrondissement – not far at all as the crow flies, but a long drunken stagger home on foot or a long, roundabout subway trip on the Metro. And partly because, though I didn’t know it at the time, I was in the throes of a major psychological death-and-rebirth moment and I was dealing by going into full-on hermit mode.
I used to get so drunk on the weekends in that apartment. (I got drunk a lot in general in my twenties, but I went some truly epic benders in Paris.) I remember tripping so hard on vodka to the Church’s priest = aura and R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi that I felt like I was floating a few feet off the bright green astro-turf that carpeted the room. I mean, getting so drunk, you’re pretty certain there’s no way back to Earth. And I remember being so broke at Christmas that Wolfie and Leon, sensing the shape I was in, showed up one night with two armfuls of groceries, plus beer, wine and cigarettes. “Each man deserves to be able to have his food and beer, Dee,” Wolfie explained. “No matter what you are punishing yourself for, it is not so bad that you deserve to starve.”
“Or to have thirst!” chimed in Leon. J’ai soif – “I’m thirsty” – was Leon’s mantra. As a latter-day descendant of the infamous Hydropathes, a circle of French writers founded in 1878 who professed the belief that drinking water made them ill and that one should imbibe only alcoholic beverages if one wished to remain healthy.
I was 27 years old when I moved to Paris for the second time. My given reason for moving to France was that I was co-writing a screenplay with my friend Robbie, a talented writer/actor whom I had met in Paris in a moment of extreme synchronicity several years before. Although we were polar opposites in many ways (me: hard drinking, chain-smoking, Midwestern omnivore; Robbie: vegetarian, abstaining, clean-living Jewish boy from the East Coast) we had a history of being able to get along together in extreme circumstances. Shortly after that first fated meeting, we had spent three weeks in Romania working on a magazine article I was writing on the AIDS-infected orphanages of Bucharest. This was less than two years after the fall of the Ceausescu regime; we were both down to our last couple hundred dollars or so, and Bucharest was like the wild, wild, west at that time. I figured if we could do that, we could easily write a screenplay that would – at least eventually – make us both rich and famous.
Little did I suspect at the time that I was heading straight into the heart of my first Saturn return. This period, which happens to everyone somewhere between the ages of 27-30, tends to be rather challenging. Astrologically, the Saturn return operates somewhat like a rite of passage, marking the transition from callow youth to mature adulthood. Saturn is the archetype of authority and structure and at the Saturn return, he demands that we separate from the beliefs and values of the cultural-family system in which we were raised and begin to formulate our own individual rules for living.
As much as I had rebelled against the fear-based beliefs of my fundamentalist Baptist upbringing, they were still very much present in my psyche. Although I couldn’t have continued to live within that system, I believed myself to be damned and yet hoped that somehow, some way, some higher power would have mercy on me and grant me redemption. I was hopelessly caught between two worlds and the outward manifestation of my inner schism was a penchant for self-destructive behavior.
Robbie had met this suave Greek producer named Harris and had entered into a rather vague production deal with the Japanese company, where Harris was the house producer. Living on (meager) savings, trying to churn out a commercially-viable yet artistic script, and under mounting pressure from the head of the company – who saw Harris’s deal with us as an indulgence she couldn’t afford, Robbie and I reached a point of creative impasse. Which is, of course, when our personal differences suddenly went from manageable to completely intolerable.
That chapter of the story ended with Robbie taking his project and disappearing into the night while I stayed on as Harris’ Boy Friday with the import company.
Shortly after arriving in Paris, I had developed a hacking, asthmatic cough that lasted until I moved back to the States nearly a year later. I was still years away from even hearing about Louise Hay or taking seriously the notion that the soul often demands our attention by creating dis-ease in the body. Harris tried to tell me this, but I wasn’t ready – or able – to hear it.
“Sweetie,” he would say, “T’as une maladie affective! A soul-sickness. You are sad inside, and this is why you don’t stop coughing.”(1) Then he’d usually pause, and – partly because he was convinced it was true, I think, and partly to lighten the mood, he’d throw in a suggestion along the lines of: “Your problem is you are gay but you don’t know it. You should really go to dinner with Jean-Paul on Thursday. He is very rich! And if he bring his business here, well, you know, that is very good for all of us.”
By the time the summer rolled around, I desperately wanted to go home. I was heartsick, broke, physically depleted, in a word: beaten.
But I’d already spent time living in my mom’s basement after college – remember, the early 90s were the pre-Internet slacker era – and moving in with my parents again would amount to admitting that my move to Europe to pursue a career as an expatriate writer had turned out a monumental failure.
I used to get my revenge on my boss by hanging out in the company offices on weekends, once I was sure everyone had left for good. I’d make phone calls back to the States and then I’d hang out watching the company’s movie collection. I got introduced to some great Japanese anime that way. I also watched every second of all three Ali-Frazier fights – still in my mind the most intense rivalry in boxing history.
One Saturday night I happened to get hold of my old friend Matt Brady, who told me he had just moved to Winder, Georgia to play in his brother Jim’s band The Earth Gods.
Matt and I met at conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan. We used to jam every Wednesday night at the TKE House, with real-life cowboy Ryan Copithorne on guitar and math genius/scary big bearded dude Mike McGirr on the drums. Ryan is still one of my all-time favorite guitar players. Matt had this genius for writing hooky, melodic basslines, and McGirr could pound the skins like he was possessed by the ghost of Bonham. (Many of the students thought he actually was possessed by some dark entity.)
Shortly before I graduated, we decided to form a ‘real band’. We wrote a handful of songs and played a couple of shows and people really liked us. But then I went off to grad school in Cincinnati, Ryan went back to cowboying, Matt went to New York, and that seemed to be that.
A Glimmer of Hope
Sometimes all you need is just a glimmer of hope to get you unstuck. When Matt told me his band was looking for a singer, that was the spark I needed. I borrowed the money for a plane ticket home, told my boss I would be back in three weeks – this woman, who stood about four and half feet tall, legitimately scared the piss out of me – and….and moved back into my mom’s basement. (Thanks, mom!)
And for six weeks or so, things looked just about as bleak as they had looked on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. But then, as tends to happen when you finally get the courage to take a step in the direction of your dreams, things changed. My brother, who was a heroin addict for several years, finally got clean and cashed in on a promise I had made him one night after a party in Detroit. “If you ever get clean and want to change your life,” I told him, “I’ll honor that pact we made when were still teenagers living in Flint. I’ll drop whatever I’m doing and we’ll move to the South together.”
We piled all our stuff into the back of Dave’s Chevy S-10 pickup and drove to Marietta, Georgia, where we crashed for a couple months with Jeff Lupo, another friend from the TKE House jam scene.
The Internet Boom was in full swing now and Dave taught me the basics of HTML coding and helped me get my first technical writing job. After never having made more than $8.50 an hour since graduating with a Master’s degree, I was suddenly making $25/hour. By the fall of 1997 Dave and I were living in what we would later discover was Ru Paul’s old apartment, a walk-up in Midtown Atlanta, just two blocks from Piedmont Park.
My tryout for The Earth Gods was unsuccessful. But one evening Lupo, Matt and I got together for some beers and decided we should start our own band. Lupo and I didn’t know each other that well in college. He was really into Van Halen while I was more into early Will Oldham / Palace Brothers type stuff. But he was a bad-ass guitar player with a van and gear and the desire to rock. And so, Mystery Train was born.
Matt found our permanent drummer, Ivan, at a Guitar Center Drum-Off contest in 1998. We made a record, built a rabid local following, and had a good three-year run playing shows in Atlanta and throughout the Southeast. We had big dreams. For a while, it was pretty freakin’ awesome.
And then it wasn’t. I used to tell people, “being in a band is like being married – to three other dudes.” Getting divorced from three friends you built a dream with – and watching the dream itself go up in smoke….well, it hurt like hell.
1 In the spring of 1997 I got some unexpected money and finally went to see a French doctor about my cough. “Zere is nussing wrong wif you,” she said. “You are in good ‘ealth.” But Madame, I protested, I can’t get rid of this coughing. “Perhaps you are allergique to la France,” she said. She sized me up with that head to toe gaze that Parisian women can pull off like no others, an appraisal that is utterly devoid of sympathy. Then she gave me her prescription. “I think you should go home, back to America,” she said.