Chapter One ONE
The day after I decide I’m Jack Shit, the Banished Earl steals my Fender Jazz Bass.
Dyl Becker at King Snake Guitars wakes me with a phone call before I even know it’s gone.
“Jonathan,” he says.
“I’m Jack now.”
I stir sugar into a cold mug of yesterday’s Bustelo, stare out my smeared kitchen window at the brick facade across the air shaft.
“Jonathan,” Dyl says. “The Earl was just in here with your bass. I could tell it was yours from that little Annihilation of the Soft Left sticker on the headstock. Hey, I thought you weren’t friends with those guys anymore.”
“I’m not,” I say, “but it’s a pain to scrape that thing off. Did you buy the bass from him?”
“He didn’t have the papers. Even if I hadn’t known it was yours, I wouldn’t have bought it. You’ve got to have the papers.”
“He left with it?”
“He’ll just trade it for a measly bag of dope.”
“Hey, it might not be measly. But yeah, that sucks.”
While I hold the phone to my ear, I scan the Rock Rook for any other missing objects. Seems like all the other stuff—not much, admittedly, besides some milk crates full of records and books, ashtrays full of the Earl’s ash, empty forty bottles, a few chipped dishes—is still here. I’ve shared this one bedroom on Avenue B with the Banished Earl for about nine months, though it wasn’t always a one bedroom. It used to be a studio. We threw up a high wedge of plywood to make a little sarcophagus for the Earl. I sleep on a foam mat near the door.
“I told you, I’m Jack now.”
“As in Jack Shit?”
“Exactly,” I say.
“What made you change it?”
“I just like how it sounds.”
“Okay. Later, Dyl.”
“I heard you guys are looking for a new drummer.”
“Preferably a girl drummer,” I say.
“I can be a girl drummer.”
“No, Dyl. You don’t hit hard enough.”
“I hit hard.”
“Not in time.”
“I’m better, Jona— I mean, Jack. I’ve been practicing all month.”
It’s touching how much Dyl dreams of joining the band, but some were meant to lead, others to follow, and still others to hang around, devoted mascots.
“Well, how about a second guitar player?” Dyl says. “Think about it. A fucking sonic curtain, right? And, no offense, but I’ve got better chops than you or Cutwolf.”
“That’s true,” I say. “But the very fact you said chops disqualifies you.”
“What does that mean?”
“Think about it. No offense. I’ve got to find the Earl.”
In our world, you may not say chops or axe or jam. You may say gwee-tar, fish, tubs, bitch out, beat bag, bag fever.
Every subgroup has its own linguistic code.
We’re not even a subgroup. We’re just the Shits, a fast-disintegrating band. We used to have solidarity. We used to have esprit de corps. We used to have, according to Sour Mash magazine, a “scabrous, intermittently witty, post-skronk propulsion not unlike early Anal Gnosis.”
But then bag fever set in.
The Banished Earl is the worst. The abscess in his arm is a black, ragged wormhole. You could swan dive into it, time travel, get shot out into the future, the year 2000 perhaps, or a few hundred years in the past. Picture old France. Picture beauty-marked men who prowl and preen, in tights, in wigs. Their skinny swords serrate the air. It’s sort of like some of the bars we play. It’s sort of like us some nights. The Shits do like to dress up. The Shits are a writhing, shimmering society of the spectacle. The Shits are fierce and noisy and wounded and sad.
The Shits fear not art.
But you may not say art.
But you may certainly say that the new year, at least so far, slurps the sandpapery, drippy johnson of a clapped-out rhino. I’m happy to say it along with you, or even compose a melody, if you think there’s a song there, though such retrograde, faux-transgressive vulgarity is not quite our style, even if we are called the Shits. Point is, it’s only January and I’m almost broke. My girlfriend, Vesna, has ditched me for good and, perhaps most catastrophically, my J-Bass is gone. Point is, I must locate the Banished Earl before he surrenders my fish for a measly, probably half-beat bag of Tango & Cash, which, if word in the bars can be trusted, is the most undiluted dope east of Ludlow Street. Point is, I need my bass and we need the Earl. If the Shits are not utterly atomized, we have a show at Artaud’s Garage a week from this Saturday.
We are guaranteed 13 percent of the door. If twenty-five people come at five bucks a pop that’s… well, you do the theorem.
I don my thermals and various sweaters and shirts—my mother taught me the laws of layering early in life—and step out into the frozen bleakscape. My city is a tundra. The wind whips in off the river like the river is one of those cool dominatrix chicks just doing it to finance her comp lit degree and the wind is, for instance, a whip. Cutwolf’s sister Drusilla was a domme for a time, until she dropped out of the pain game to become a serious cake maker. That’s not even a euphemism. She’s on the American Fondant Team, flies to Antwerp for major competitions.
I’ve never been to Europe. I’ve never been out of the country, unless you count Canada, which I don’t. But a dude in Barcelona has been playing our second seven-inch, “Shits for Real,” on his indie radio show. He sent us a very complimentary postcard. That could lead to something. A few dates in the Gothic Quarter? A European tour? A person can dream. But not without his instrument. No bass, no band. I hold down the bottom.
I also write the songs. I am not exactly music, but I do write the songs. Or at least the tunes to a lot of them, along with Cutwolf and Hera.
The Banished Earl is our front man, our lyricist and lead screamer. His brief includes but is not restricted to howls, whimpers, banshee shrieks, declamations, provocations, semi-ironic rooster struts, blind dives into the mosh pit, simulated or else revocable genital self-mutilation, and, of course, spectacle. Spectacle above all else.
Though now that the Banished Earl is the Vanished Earl, all bets are off until I find him.
But first, sustenance. The pizza joint on Avenue A boasts a permanent special: two slices and a soda for a dollar fifty. Most days, that’s a decent portion of my life savings.
Now I stand at one of the tall, circular Formica tables, shake out some oregano on my oven-blistered slabs. New York pizza is the best pizza, so let’s not have that conversation, but I’m not one of those process fascists when it comes to your eating technique. Fold the fucker, eat it flat, cut it into baby bites with a plastic knife, run it through a blender on frappé at home and chug. It’s a free country, at least when it comes to stuff that doesn’t matter.
Apropos of which, there’s a TV mounted over the counter, and right now it shows a bunch of people in overcoats, a formal procession, almost like a funeral if everybody seemed semisecretly delighted, which I guess is sometimes the case. There is a grinning man with good political hair, a woman in a red plaid coat. Soon the man has his palm on a leather book.
“They all have to drink a pint of pig’s blood before they’re sworn in,” says a gaunt fellow beside me. He’s somewhere between twenty-three and seventy-eight years of age, wears a denim jacket over a torn mesh half-shirt and ragged designer jeans that feature these weird smears and stink like he’s pissed them. It’s a tight look. He plucks a jar of hot pepper flakes off the table, sprinkles some into his mouth.
“Hey!” the counterman yells. “You gotta buy something to use that.”
The fellow shrugs.
“Pig’s blood?” I say.
“Secret ritual. They all do it. Except Jimmy Carter. He refused.”
This neighborhood does crank out the cranks. It’s one of our cultural products, like pocket quarterbacks in western Pennsylvania. But who am I to judge? I’m just a relative newcomer, a callow youth with a degree in modern media, a couple of part-time jobs, and a dream of moderate underground success about to swirl down the crapper. Maybe the Denim Ghoul here knows of what he speaks. Maybe this Bill Clinton guy did knock back a nice warm glass of porcine plasma before he strode out to take his place in history.
The Ghoul taps out more spice flakes onto his tongue.
“This fucker,” he says, flicks his chin at the screen. “He’s from Arkansas. He’ll find brand-new ways to ream us. Be like nineteen eighty-four all over again.”
“The book or the year?” I say.
The Ghoul nods.
The funny thing is, I read 1984 in 1984. Perhaps this makes my perspective unique. I cried when Winston’s mother gave him the lion’s share of the rationed chocolate, kept none for herself and just a sliver for his sister. I realized what an ungrateful prick I’d been to my mother and would have been to my sister, if I’d had one. It was a depressing year, what with the cruelty and tedium of high school in New Jersey and my father running off with a paralegal from his office. I missed him, but I didn’t miss the fights, my mother in tears every night, though in a way it was worse after he left, my mother’s fury on full blast, me the stand-in for millennia of dickwaddery.
“When you grow up,” she said, “just promise me you won’t be one of those men.”
“Which men?” I asked.
“Any of them. All of them.”
My father returned to the farce after six months to reprise the role he’d originated, and they live together in occasionally tender detente to this day, but in the interim I spent a lot of hours brooding in my room. I’d stare at the water stain on the ceiling made by our leaky roof, write bad poems about staring at a water stain, beat off. It wasn’t the most nuanced adolescent experience.
But one day I discovered music. Not the kind on the radio. I knew all about that. Some of it, the older stuff, the records my mother played when she did her calisthenics, I adored. But the newest FM pablum made me gag, this music designed by robots for consumer zombies. It was death by a thousand saccharine-sweet cuts.
This older guy, a neighbor, decided to join some snake-and-drum cult in Florida, had to divest himself of worldly possessions. He gave me a ripped A&P shopping bag full of punk rock records. I brought them home and put them on my turntable, each one a revelation, an orgasmic punch, a shock like I’d licked a terminal on the world’s tallest battery. Ferocious and exquisite sound realms beckoned. I’d found the answer to my anger, my suffering. I got monastic, studious, bought a cheap bass guitar, a Hondo. Four thick, glinting, nickel-wound strings: What could go wrong? I wrote a song called “Stain of Water.” The rest is not yet my place in history.