One story I never tell is the one in which I married a stripper in Vegas and moved into an Airstream in Black Canyon City, Arizona, only to break down near Pismo Beach, California after spending a week or 2 on military property, and waking up to the sounds of artillery shells and gunfire from Twentynine Palms Marine Base, on which land we were technically parked, opening our windows and seeing the helicopters flying in the distance, and our crazy junkyard tweeker neighbor coming by at dawn, drunk and wearing only one shoe, before we drove into L.A. to make a radio appearance, only to end up living in a tent on the wild, untamed Central California coast between Morro Bay and Monterey, and alternating between the coast and a literal buzzing demon hive in the miserable wilderness further inland, near Pozo, before getting stuck in a 1950s-style trailer behind a womens' halfway house run by a fake preacher in Oceano, before we moved into a Ford Taurus with our 3 cats in San Francisco, playing in the subway to make money and sleeping in the car, culminating with one night hanging out smoking weed with the homeless people in the park, who were grilling steaks stolen from Safeway, and the flames in the grill 3 feet tall, and not drinking any wine. Though my wife may have, I don't remember. Neither of us, however, partook of any of the methamphetamines proffered to us by the crusty bearded street-elite.
I never tell the story of my 2nd marriage because to do the story justice, each episode would take a year to write, and it hurts too much. The memories are almost entirely painful, and it is the story of probably the greatest regret of my life, and the biggest disgrace. Which, actually, is not to say anything bad about her. She didn't have to say "yes," but I never should have asked her to marry me in the first place. Suffice it to say, I have learned the hard way what it means to be married, and how disposable and cheap the covenant is NOT. Regardless of what anybody says or thinks about anything to do with it. It's a serious thing, not to be taken lightly. I carry the lessons I've learned from that mistake like invisible, invaluable diamonds in a box of scars embedded in my soul. There are things in this world only me and her will ever know.
This article is an early draft of the book I hope never to write. A primitive sketch of a burning Mona Lisa, drawn in chalk on a sidewalk in the rain. The discarded blueprints of a skyscraper that seems to go on forever, but which is in fact only 2 stories tall. A skyscraper 2 stories tall, but with a thousand levels of basement. I hope never to have the time to revisit these events in any detail. Just thinking about them makes me tired.
I would do it for a book. Take the advance and let my hair grow out, move into a fancy neighborhood in Monterrey or Mexico City and walk around buying flowers and olives like someone with a purpose. Tell yr literary agency friends. The New York Times bestseller list doesn't need any more Young Adult Fiction or another exercise in extraconstitutional exegesis, an instantly-dated sexual-political diatribe written on the flammable blunt-wrap of these dumb and dying times. It's gotten so bad, that indeed we need something to wrap our sedatives in. Why not our tiresome, self-important ego manifestos?
Is there anything else to do with them?
The only reason it occurs to me to pull the charred, torn blueprints of this story out of the ashtray at all, is the attention this "Jesus Revolution" movie is getting. I hear the story of this movement, and shudder to remember my own close encounter with the demons and false prophets at the womens' halfway house in Oceano, California, where my wife and I lived with our cats in relative slavery for several weeks. The people in the program itself were actually cool; true believers who needed a place to stay after getting out of jail or prison for drug offenses, mostly. But the guy in charge of the place, man. What a fraud. He made us fill out the "program application form" when we got there, even though they met us at a church while we were trading off between spending the night in the car in the parking lot of the Cookie Crock Warehouse, and the Airstream, which was in storage in an RV park on the coast, and which we weren't supposed to be sleeping in. She'd spend the night in the Airstream with the cats, I'd sleep in the car, and the next night we'd trade. We went to some church in Grover Beach, and met these people, who invited us to crash at their "ministry."
We couldn't turn it down, but it wasn't as great as it could have been. The form asked what our "Drug of Choice" was, and my wife was like, "I don't have a drug of choice; I'm not a junky." Such a consideration wasn't particularly disingenuous for me, but we had to fill the form out anyway. They'd wake us up at dawn to go to the empty chapel and sing praises to God against our will, like the subjects in the Reverend Spellgood scenes from The Mosquito Coast. The faux-holiness was hard to choke down, to the point that we moved to San Francisco to live in a Ford Taurus to get away from it.
So, thanks to this new Jesus Revolution movie about some guy who was probably a false hippie prophet (however unwittingly), I have no choice but to remember my own encounter with that strange contingent, a particular brand of charismatic religious cult that has apparently become indigenous to postmodern California. My wife and I got caught up in it to the point that we seriously considered starting a church of our own when we got to San Francisco, of all places. Where better to start a fake Christian, quasi-spiritual "church" than a town famous for Satanism and weird drug-orgy cults who lure people on the Haight into their midst with stoned acolytes wearing diamond-stud earrings, who bring you back to their apartments full of Alex Grey paintings to smoke you out?
Yes, it really happened to me. In the 90s. In another disgraceful display of inconceivable ignorance, I asked the diamond-studded earring guy if Alex Grey was a Christian, staring at reproductions of the paintings while I toked heavily from his otherworldly bong. He said that Grey was "way beyond all that." Fortunately, my idiocy wasn't as pure as the driven Colombian snow. By the grace of the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning, my now-incomprehensible ignorance was cut with at least a small amount of discernment, and I took my baked and lanky frame back into the streets for to embark upon the long, blissful walk back to Chinatown, and my hotel inside the stars.
So, what were we going to call our church, our unsanctioned cult that we wouldn't even know was a cult, until it was too late? Yep, you guessed it:
The First-Ever Church of Doomsday Life. What else? Both epic and cartoonishly-stupid, the name "First-Ever Church of Doomsday Life" elicits the appropriate amount of hope in a world beset with postmodern, apocalyptic despair, while clearly leaving one foot out the door, should the adherents wish to continue smoking weed, or grilling stolen steaks with their tweeker friends in Golden Gate Park.
By the grace of God, it didn't go anywhere. While my conscience did force me to chastise a pontificating power-broker of faux-holiness at an institutional church somewhere in the city, approaching him after the service for the express purpose of calling him out for the benefit of his congregation, and while we did attend an African Methodist Episcopal church that forced us to our feet so we could join the congregants in praising the Lord to one of the best bands I have ever heard anywhere, church, hell, concert hall, or otherwise, and in which the preacher was an obvious racist who had to pretend to be happy to see us, my wife and I divided most of our San Francisco time between taking surreptitious baths in various libraries, hanging out in Golden Gate Park, and hoping the Powell Street Station was open, which is the best place to busk in San Francisco by a wide, wide margin. Will Smith runs through it in the 1:56-1:57 mark in this video. The reverb and echo are amazing:
She'd sell sketches, and I'd stand there and play "The Times They Are A-Changin'" for 15 minutes at a time, on a loop, since the audience changes every 90 seconds. She sold sketches, because she wasn't really a stripper; she was an artist who chose stripping as a way of not having to get a straight job. Brilliant artist. I copped one of her titles for one of my songs. The painting and relationship are long gone, but the poem and song are here:
Wonderland Covered In Tar is the black-and-white painting propped up in front of the larger red painting in this photo:
There are some angel stories from the San Francisco days. Angels disguised as homeless black guys, which is how most of the angels in my life have appeared to me. One time, a homeless guy asked me for $5 after a particularly hard day in the subway. It was such a rough day, that $5 was half my money. The Holy Spirit convicted my heart to give the guy what he asked for, but it was a lot, percentage-wise, and I said no. But God wouldn't let me go. I knew that He wanted me to give the guy $5. We went to a sitting place in Union Square, repented, and got back on our spirit feet. Within seconds, another homeless black guy came up to us, walking past several well-heeled couples in his dirty, shadowed rags. After passing the obvious money people, the homeless angel stood before us, and stared at me with eyes of perfect, supernatural clarity. It was crazy. There was nothing intimidating or frightening in his eyes, but they were shining with clear, holy power. I mean, you could tell. It was obvious. This guy wasn't crawling around with a cataract and a drug habit; he was obviously on assignment from none other than God Himself. The homeless, clear-eyed angel stood there and asked me pointblank, as though giving me another chance:
"Do you have five dollars?"
Not, "do you have any money," or a cigarette or anything. But rather, exactly, "do you have five dollars?" Are you serious? I just said "Amen" on the repentance prayer 10 seconds ago, and already some guy is soliciting me for exactly the same amount of money I denied the other guy? Already?
YES! I said.... HOWEVER: This isn't my money. It's God's money, and He clearly wants you to have it, so thank Him for it, not me. And I gave him the money.
He took it and left, and we said to ourselves, well, I guess we're eating stale bagels from the day-old pile at Walgreens again, with some peanut butter from the food bank, but at least we were obedient. And we started our trek toward the hill back up toward the car. Grant Street, I think. Right up through the middle of Chinatown, whatever it was.
We were walking back toward the car, and the poor sad cats camping therein, and a couple on a date were walking toward us down the hill. They had a bag of leftovers from one of the Chinese restaurants, and held it out to us as we walked by them. "Are you hungry? Do you want our leftovers?" they asked. Which was strange, because even though we lived in our car, we made every effort to stay clean and look normal. But it wasn't our transient complexion that caused them to offer the food; it was God.
We accepted, of course, and walked back to the car. Upon opening the bag, we were beside ourselves with incredulous happiness. It wasn't some half-eaten egg rolls garnished with sorrow and poverty, or limp onions; it was full-on fancy seafood, and a lot of it. At least $15 worth of food, the best items on the menu. Seafood, huge vegetables, fancy Chinese starch-forms, tons of it. Better than anything we would have eaten if we had kept our money. It was the kind of food we wouldn't have ordered even if we went to the restaurant in person. It would have been too expensive. It was the good stuff.
The lesson was undeniable. Obey, and I'll take care of you.
The first-ever church of doomsday life, indeed. Eat yr heart out, Alex Grey.
Here we are in Austin on re-arrival from the California nightmare, looking profoundly ill-at-ease, threatening to consume the photographer with instincts both sharpened and frayed by circumstance, yet still crazed with laser focus. Look at me like that again. I dare ya.
Obviously not the kind of people who are going to start an apocalyptic Christian cult, or remain tethered to a trailer behind a halfway house, or even stay married longer than absolutely necessary to get out of the burning madhouse alive. Better to bear the curse of this mistake alone.
I haven't been to San Francisco since then. The East Bay, yes, many times. For shows, mostly. But the city itself, no way. The stress and overwhelming circumstantial instability of that season in 2008 ruined San Francisco for me, and even if the city hadn't gone to hell in the years since, I doubt I'd ever want to see it again. It was a harsh, unrelenting season of compromise and stress. At one point I felt my entire being implode, while we were arguing in the parking lot of the Safeway at Ocean Beach. I couldn't move, and the noise and fury of the moment collapsed me, and the driver's seat opened up and swallowed my paralyzed, constricted body like a cough drop. It was a joyless, stressful season. And these are just the blueprints; this is just the sketch. The real story goes a lot deeper. The San Francisco chapter barely scratches the skin, nevermind the harrowing L.A. episode, and the recording of the Slow-Burning Fun album, which extraordinary selfishness on my part went a long way toward destroying the relationship. I learned the hard way that in fact I'm not qualified to be in a relationship; my work has always been more important to me than the girls about whom it is mostly written. If I was rich, any given girl could be the mistress to my one true love, which has always been music. But since I've always been ridiculously, comically broke, in fact I've never had any business in a relationship of any kind.
We recorded "Dirty Magazine" in North Hollywood, while living in a TransVan outside my buddy's place. The lyrics are ridiculously apropos. A domestic argument in song, "Dirty Magazine" was written as a piece of fiction, just for fun, but is a song which couldn't be any more accurate if it was notarized by the drive-thru attendant at a Las Vegas wedding chapel. It was a wild and hopeless season. But I got the album done, whatever that is worth. I'm not going to cite it, while standing at the gates of God, in an attempt to justify my life. Like most work, it will not remain intact when subjected to the relentless gales of eternity. But I wrote it anyway. "The Lady Who Eats Songbirds" who sings on it is my wife. Or was, before I shot the songbird down. Was the songbird singing while she ate it? Was it roasted in the park? Was it Mozart that we heard, at the moment of its death?
Yowzers. I dunno. Maybe it was Mozart, maybe it was the sound of a thousand screaming punk rockers, dying in a mosh chamber. Whatever the case, on the wildly-unlikely chance you're reading this, Dollface, know that I think of and pray for you often. Often. Somehow I know that I will see you in Heaven. We both took the scenic route to wisdom, the long and winding road to everything that isn't destructive or stupid, but at least we made it. Even if I am "the man who ruined your world" like Ryan Bingham sings in "The Weary Kind," I always tell that song, "she knew what she was doing" when that line comes around. Even if you had no idea what you were doing. God knows I didn't.
You are in my heart always.
There's a girl in my head
who dreams that I am dead
everywhere I turn
she's there to watch me burn
she's yearning for the day
when I will finally be destroyed
baby, I will be your greaser boy
We sold our little house
and moved into a mouse
set off across the sea
but it wasn't meant to be
she was a whiny little witch
and I'm an habitual bitch,
I will be your greaser boy
Cruisin' in my car
down Las Vegas Boulevard
you held my hand
and I held all the cards
yeah we're fools
our hearts are made of stolen jewels
that can never be returned
see how easily they burn!
and wouldn't it be nice
to be made of ice
and have no regrets?
so let's please don't fight
it will be alright
in the end
Like a broken bird
baby I been cured
my crown of snakes is caked with dust
and in a crass display of trust
you walk right out of the computer screen
you're the cutest little Judas
I've ever seen
baby I will be your greaser boy
We had it all
my golden go-go doll
but my heart went astray
and I threw it all away
into the bottom of a well
and I would gladly go to hell
why should I be scared?
I'm already halfway there!
Jesus, please have mercy
don't reimburse me
for my sins
won't you take the wheel?
I'm not a whore,
I just feel
a little sick
My heart is soaring
like a brick