By Ken O'Steen
Sometimes, I can only go to sleep at night if I imagine myself being decapitated, my brain on a high boil full of regret and shame for how often and how badly I’ve disappointed people. Blade comes down and whop, I’m oblivious. Otherwise, my head feels hot in the flames of the kind of coal furnace on an old steamship, melting with the futility of my many attempts and failures at the things most important to me. But I’m not on the spectrum or anything, it’s a perfectly normal and universal kind of despondency and self-loathing.
My brother, on the other hand, sings and plays guitar. He’s right out there in front of people, like a stand-up comedian is, except that when people laugh, there isn’t any room for interpretation that it’s a positive thing. He threatened to kill himself on a regular basis, morbidly obsessed about it, actually, and until recently, kept a stockpile of Seconal and other bad stuff in his bathroom, though to make it user friendly, he ground up the pills and put them into a plastic bag, which he kept in his dresser drawer, ready for use.
He came home that night from a gig—we share a house—and immediately started wailing about the night he’d had. He’d broken two guitar strings, and then somebody in the bar actually vomited while he was singing—not because of him, but it didn’t help the vibe. During his break, a person at the bar, not recognizing him at all apparently, complained to him how the music really sucked that night.
“What did that fucker know?” my brother rightly pointed out, his voice cracking. “I could tell he’s not a musician or any kind of music person.”
“Ordinary people, God, I hate ‘em,” I said, reciting our favorite line from “Repo Man.”
But I could tell when he stomped off into his room that this just might be the night. Seconal powder night, or whatever the combo was.
Later, he came roaring into my bedroom to raise hell about my music; he hated, hated Captain Beefheart, which wasn’t at all unusual, except I knew he thought that when I played it I was actually taunting him because, deep down, he believed I regarded his own music as conventional and rather mediocre.
He was already three sheets to a tropical depression on booze, but he told me, as he sailed out the door again, “Fuck it, I’m going to party.”
In the aftermath, we figured out what had happened. He pulled out his plastic bag of poison, and then was interrupted by Captain Beefheart, and by the time he returned to his bedroom, ready in his mind to party, he’d picked up the plastic bag of suicide powder under the impression it was the bag of coke he kept for bacchanals. Sloppy organizational skills, yes, but this is what artists are like.
He generously shared his dope at another club with a fellow musician, an A&R guy from a local record company always around, and a good-looking woman who was with the other two. The three ended up in the emergency room, sick as rats on a moldy pizza, but still alive. He was a lousy chemist, too, it appeared, though I never told him that because I didn’t want to rub it in.
In the end, it was decided the culprit was bad drugs from a bad dealer or dubious supplier. The twist was that the A&R guy from the record company was a prick widely reviled by everyone in the LA music scene, and the story got around that my brother had sent him to the hospital. It was a sort of fish story with the guppy turning into a Marlin, but it turned my brother into a local legend. He was the toast of “hipdom,” and his performances began to pack them in.
This was hardly salutary for me, however. While he was riding high, I was still flopping around like a beached flounder, all the more excruciating, my consistently underwhelming life. Now, I did sometimes play “Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop” from “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” just to slightly piss him off.
But he hadn’t done anything, I knew that. It was me. I was the one who made my parents feel like I was a waste of their loins with my constant mediocrity, let my girlfriends down in every possible way, and tried and failed and tried and failed at everything.
I lay in bed dreaming of machetes coming at me, anything to make it stop, the hot, salty tears burning the open wounds festering in my soul. My kingdom for a guillotine or the whirling blade of an Apache helicopter.