The Wonderful Life

It’s possible if not likely you’ve found us while searching for “The Gloss,” the new, demographically targeted blog “launched” by Elizabeth Spiers in March. And that’s fine, but it’s not the big thing from the beginning of March I’ve been putting off coming back here to write about. That would be Sparklehorse.

I didn’t discover Sparklehorse until late, but I discovered it hard. It was New Year’s Eve weekend of 2001, the farewell to my first year living in New York City. I remember the mood back then as a wartime giddy, or at least our mood, still living through the trauma of the World Trade Center attacks but with the inchoate sense that the blow to our national psyche might free us to create a something new, something that transcended the materialistic late-nineties mediocrity that passed for culture. Sort of, and I admit it’s a grasping comparison but back then it seemed possible, the way the Swiss reacted to World War I by inventing Dada. Part of it was events, and part of it was just being in our mid-twenties in a city undergoing rapid change. Now that the Zeros are over, it’s painful and obvious how romantic and deluded we were to hope that we could emerge from 2001 into anything marginally better than what came before, nevermind a glorious new era. But it’s true that those years would bring the end to quite a lot in our culture, just not the parts we expected.

We spent New Years at a compound in one of the nearer Hamptons. We had been invited two days before by an almost complete stranger, a slightly older girl in some offshoot of the fashion industry who we’d met once before and would never, after this weekend, see again. As exciting to us as the spontaneity of the trip was the fact that one of the guests had orchestrated a progression of hard drugs for us to follow for the three days leading up to the New Year. It was to be a spiritual journey to exorcise the demons of 2001 through physical oblivion.

Our first night was for ecstasy. We took it upon arrival and waited for the drug to take hold in an outdoor hot tub. A girl I’d met moments before, a friend of our host’s, went around lifting her arm up out of the warm water and letting droplets trickle down from her fingertips to land and freeze on each of our backs in turn. It was one of those drug experiences where you catch someone’s eye and you both laugh at your good fortune to be there at that moment, sharing the same feeling. Upon asking I was told the music we were listening to on the outdoor speakers was Sparklehorse. It was one of only two albums we had in the house for the entire stay, and Sparklehorse quickly snuggled down around me as the perfect accompaniment to sitting in a hot tub in the winter, staring up at mist as it dissolved into the stars, rolling on ecstasy.

Not that much later into the evening Jessica, our new friend with the icicles on her fingertips, announced she was going to bed, and lured me into going along with her. This was more forward than I was used to. Even in those days I was only between long term relationships for as long as most people are between jobs. But I went along with her, and as soon as we got into bed she told me she was too nauseous to do anything but sleep. She always felt this way when she did ecstasy, she said by way of explanation. So I stayed there with her, not out of any sympathy but just because this was the choice I had made, and in my mind in those days I stuck by principles. I drifted in and out of dreamless sleep and each time I woke I heard my friends outside still wrinkling in the hot tub, listening to Sparklehorse over and over, well past dawn, and I wished I was out there.

Next morning I sat cradling a coffee and studying the cover of the Sparklehorse album. A guy named Brian was sitting across from me rolling a joint. Brian, who I had also just met for the first time, was a self-proclaimed drug dealer from Colorado, so self-proclaimed and so willing to announce this fact to anyone who asked what he did that I would not have believed him, had he not just smuggled a heck of a lot of pot here on a plane considering it was just three months after 9/11. Even though nothing was playing on the stereo, Brian kept singing the chorus to ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ over and over, slower and more menacing each time he sang it. I was still not familiar enough with the song to know how much he was butchering it. His rendition sounded like something the devil in a bad movie sang as he wandered through a small town at night, hunting for children.

December 30, our first full day out the island, was our mushroom day. We started promising, and I had a nice late morning commune with nature while touring the grounds of the property of the complete stranger who hosted us. It was the kind of property you couldn’t call anything other than grounds. It abutted the ocean, but we never found it, just wandered around through endless reeds trying not to lose sight of the house.

At some point that afternoon, I found myself staring at my reflection in a bathroom mirror. Nothing intentionally profound, I just caught my own eye while splashing water on my face. It was one of those cheap moments when you study your face and everything looks strange and fascinating, and then everything went black. I woke up laying in the tub, wrapped in the shower curtain, the back of my skull throbbing from full-on impact with the tiles.

I left the bathroom and crawled directly into bed. It took the rest of the party two hours to notice I was missing, but once they did they all came into the bedroom at once at piled on the bed with me. We lay in a mass on the bed watching MTV2’s end of year countdown and the video for At the Drive In’s “One Armed Scissor” came on. It just melted our brains: the technical proficiency and quick cuts and tight editing and the perfect match of the visuals to the music. We felt admiration for and oneness with the director of the video and all decided that this video was the Decisive Moment of the day’s hallucinogenic trip.

I was calm and relaxed in the bed now, not having anything to worry about or stop avoiding or get myself out of bed for, forgetting that I had just fainted and possibly suffered a concussion. For the rest of them, they had grown bored with shrooms in the hours while I was in here recovering. They had moved onto the cocaine, the drug that we were supposed to have been saving for New Years Eve proper.

And that was a fact that struck some foreboding into me. If we were going to be responsible drug users on a casual bender of a New Years Eve at the dawn of our professional lives, then we at least needed to keep to a fucking schedule. I looked around at this group of friends and strangers I was bonding with in this outpost at the tip of the New World and, in my hazy newly re-paranoid mid-twenties mind, got the sudden fear I was surrounded by drug fiends. I saw people with problems. Two problems. First, the question of self-control: if you can’t wait 36 hours until a New Years Eve party to snort your cocaine like a normal person—that normal person, of course, being me—then your drug use flirted with becoming a drug problem. Second, there was the logistical problem. The fact that our supply was going to run out. That here, at a deserted summer resort in the middle of winter, we needed to find cocaine from god knows who with no notice on New Years Eve.

The fact that we were able to score it, and swiftly, is an accomplishment that in a better world would go first under the ‘Skills’ sections of our resumes. And so we welcomed in the New Year with an appropriately chemically induced festivity.

That fraternal concern I felt was overblown. Most of the people I shared that house with that weekend I never saw again. The ones I’ve kept in touch with, the same ones who I thought in that paranoid moment had such a problem showing any self-restraint when there was coke in the house—they’ve ended up faring better than I have in the ensuing decade.

It was one of those weekends that accomplished everything you wanted drug weekends to do when you started taking drugs in the first place. You wake up at the end feeling exhausted but also as refreshed and rested mentally as if you’d been at a silent yoga meditation retreat with enema. But something died that weekend too. I can’t say why except that we were getting older, but the first boundaries were set up around potentials that had until then still seemed infinite. We were beginning to see what we could not do.

**

It’s not connected by anything except my own mind, but around that time I walked out of my job in Soho at lunch one day to see George Plimpton standing on the corner wearing a sandwich board covered in witty descriptions comparing the Paris Review to greasy-spoon menu items.  He was being photographed for an ad that I later saw in print but that, at time of this posting, I cannot find replicated online.

It was one of those moments that made my appallingly salaried non-profit job bearable, a brief street encounter that reassured me for moving to New York and suffering through the privations of a job on the margins of the city’s creative culture. And it ranked high among rewarding sights—the literary lion in his natural habitat. I witnessed the professional amateur on one of his larks.

At the time the stunt struck me as echt Plimpton, but through the years I’ve recalled it as sadder and sadder. I knew this chance encounter with literary New York was just going to be the first of many, but I was wrong. Not because I haven’t been in the right places, but because that New York was already dead. George Plimpton standing on that corner, the year before Elizabeth Spiers started Gawker, with print and journalism in their senectitude, when the city was changing from a publishing town to a media town, the thinking class’s essays shrinking into blog posts shrinking into status updates, the book already an antiquarian diversion or just plum forgotten, here on that corner was not the emeritus patrician of Literature but an old man holding onto a world that had already passed into irrelevance. I was looking at a shade.

**

In my epic procrastination over the past month I’ve lost exactly what it was that connected all this in my mind with Mark Linkous and his death. But I cannot help but think that this paradigm technological shift the 2000s have brought us has had something to do with the epidemic of big-name suicides since Bush’s reelection. God though, the death of print (and kind of similarly, music) itself might be the least significant change in an overall shitty decade, one in which we’ve accepted the previously unthinkable (torture, perpetual war, perpetual unemployment, bankrupt governments) as given.

Maybe it’s that Sparklehorse has kept me company now through a decade of adulthood disappointment. Mark Linkous took things harder than most of us. He was a man who reacted to his first taste of professional success by overdosing. He was a man who had already been dead once before.

I keep thinking about William S. Burroughs’s essay on Hemingway and the Snows of Kilimanjaro, how Hemingway wrote about death and planes and Africa two decades before he himself got in two plane crashes in Africa.

He who writes death as the pilot of a small plane in Africa should beware of small planes in Africa, especially in the vicinity of Kilimanjaro. But it was written, and he stepped right into his own writing. The brain damage he sustained butting his way out of the burning plane led to a hopeless depression and eventually to his suicide. He put both barrels of a 12-gauge shotgun, no. 6 heavy duck load, against his forehead and tripped both triggers. Fix yourself on that: “White white white as far as the eye can see ahead . . . the snows of Kilimanjaro.”
And unlike the French detective writer, Hemingway wasn’t cheating by the act of suicide. He was dead already.

We’re different levels of dead, a lot of us, and we’ve been dead for a long long time.

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