Roland Allnach, 2009
Published in Midnight Times, Winter 2009
The critic, he hovered through the sprawling neon night like a dragonfly over a moonlit pond, unseen except for the shimmers he obscured with his outline. It was his way, to move in such a fashion, to be in the midst of the desperate and disparate energy of that place and yet remain untouched by it, the insulation of his apathy the most treasured and most despised aspect of his personality. Yet the critic was well respected: in fact, he knew well enough his unspoken power in that place, the chosen few who caught both his eye and his emotional curiosity he could lift from obscurity to a viable opportunity of success and--more importantly, in his opinion--acclaim. For it was his way as well to redeem his own artistic failure in the praise and success of those he secretly adored, to embody them with the seeming carte blanche of creative license and so live through them. It was a very old formula, he believed, a very old relationship between the critic and the criticized, a very special bond, one he preferred, because he could relish it without having to risk opening his emotional barriers and abandon the reservations he felt restrained and contained the less balanced aspects lurking within his nature.
So it was on one particular night he was scouting in that environment, that tidal pool of maladjusted emotions from the cast-offs of society, what some would call the derelicts, what others would call hedonists or bohemians or simply the artistic fringe. He cared little for the label; to him it was simply the place at the old corner of the city, run down, low rent, allowing the underground bars and clubs to survive and serve as an incubator for whatever creative movement was breeding among the lost, confused, misguided, and yet potentially brilliant youth scratching out their meager existence. He had come that night on the tip of an acquaintance--he was not one to have ‘friends’, after all--an acquaintance that was a local, a man who could have aspired to something greater if his lesser habits had not ruined him.
The critic walked the streets that night until he found one of the seedier clubs that let unknowns take the stage, and being known as the critic, he was allowed in and his usual table in the back of the club cleared. He looked at the tall bar stool behind the table before he settled down, then crossed his arms on his chest and looked to the stage. And there he found her and the moment her eyes caught the light between a break in her dark disheveled hair he was entranced, for he saw a hurt there he had never quite seen before, and his ears perked up at the sound of her voice, a voice rising from deep within her, afloat on emotional wreckage so bare and broken he could hardly believe what he was witnessing, this selfless, humiliating act of emotional disembowelment on that dark little stage in that seedy little club. It struck him the more he listened, as the dregs playing behind her were barely competent with their instruments and her voice was not one he would call rich in talent by any means; rather, it was the cumulative effect of the discordant music, the irregular percussion, the static laden, muddy guitars that nearly droned into one low tidal moan beneath her voice as it rasped, cracked, and undulated in an unearthly dirge.
He found himself motionless as he listened that night. He sat through the rest of the set, which was something he rarely did with unknowns, and he was not to be disappointed. At the last song the lights on the stage went out except for one small, pale bulb before the drum riser. Then there was a glint, the reflective sheen of glass as she hoisted a bottle and began to drink deeply from something so clear he could only guess it was vodka. One of the guitars came in, but it was different now, issuing only intermittent, irregular notes, and then the bass drum, a slow thud that punctuated and reverberated through the guitar’s quiet moments. The bottle glistened several more times as it was hoisted, and he wondered if she would pass out, but then she settled her hands on the microphone and stood before the light to reveal only the black shape of her body. “Gutted,” she said simply, slurring the title of the song, and then her voice came again, and he leaned his elbows on the table, leaned forward as if he could float over the people in the club to get to the stage and study her as she strained to push her voice through a mumbled mess of words he could barely decipher but nevertheless hit him like a stake in his heart.
And then it was over, the lights went out, and she did not wait for any applause, vanishing before the lights came back and the band retreated from the stage, waving off the ragged yelps and calls from the club. He would not let go so easily, though, pursuing her escape as he knew he could: the layout of the club, like so many others, was branded into his subconscious. He found her back by the bathrooms in a barely lit, graffiti laden corridor, her eyes smoldering over the glowing tip of her cigarette. She was smaller than he thought, almost…delicate, although after what he had witnessed on stage that word seemed at once fitting and alienating as a description of her. She looked at him with a street typical get-lost stare, but when he introduced himself she blinked and merely flicked her cigarette to send the ashes cascading to the floor.
“So what do you want?” she demanded.
He shook his head. He was accustomed to the typical stammering welcome he received after dropping his name. It took a moment to find his voice. “Your set was impressive,” he began.
She shrugged it off. “And?”
He blinked. “I’m going to write about you in my next column,” he offered, further confused by her dismissive attitude, as he could see it was not an arrogant charade. It only deepened his fascination, as he could see she genuinely did not care who he was, or what he could do for her, or what a single positive comment from him could do for any aspiring act. “My word carries weight,” he explained. “I only have to give the word, and this could all change, you could be playing in front of thousands instead of a handful. I can break you,” he added, opening his hands.
Her eyes narrowed. “Yeah,” she sighed and slid across the wall to slip into the woman’s bathroom.
He wrote his article despite her flippancy. He went to see her every night he heard that she was going to perform, but despite his efforts to talk to her again, she never failed to avoid him, even as his column did exactly what he had predicted. Within a month crowds filled the club, and her band was handed up the chain to bigger clubs. Other critics took note, but he ignored them, for they did not see what he saw. He watched the full range of her act, watched when she set the stage on fire one night and was taken away by the police amid the chaos of firemen and smoke and large red trucks. Even when he bailed her out of jail she ignored him and refused to see him, so he continued to watch her, amused when she banged her head on the stage until her forehead was a ragged mess during a volcanic drum solo, only to stand and finish her set with her eyes burning through her blood smeared face. It was not the first brush with violence; one night a young man right before her in the crowd screamed out a proposition in the crudest possible language, only for her to take her microphone stand and slam its base into his head, shattering his face and sparking a massive brawl. The critic was shocked when one night she drank so much she vomited a gut full of alcohol beside her microphone, but then he laughed when she tossed a match on the vodka laden mess and set it on fire to unleash a horrid stench. She went into “Gutted,”the closer of the night.
It was the song he felt was the strongest of her material, so hypnotic that only after several shows, frozen in anticipation of hearing it, did he notice that she performed no other material than her own. This as well he wrote into his columns and concert reviews until one of the independent recording labels took note and signed her for an album. He waited eagerly, he tried even harder to get to speak with her, to get an interview, but she quickly garnered a reputation, even in those first waking moments of fame, of being ‘difficult’, of refusing interviews, and on the rare occasion she participated in one, without fail she was viciously drunk with her bottle of vodka in hand, railing with sullen rage against the interviewer to the awkward embarrassment of her band. Certainly it became a show in its own, and the interviews became hit and run affairs in the night, other critics sniping at her when she would depart the stage obviously delirious from exhaustion and drink to goad her into confrontations. They portrayed her as the next hellion, the next wanton child, the next upstart punk, but failed to see what he saw, and that was the sorrow that surrounded her, her impenetrable mask of aggression so like his own mask of apathy, and like his, so transparent, so utterly failing to do the one thing it was intended, to hide the torment within.
Her album was released and it came with rumors of nightmarish recording sessions, violent fights with producers, and conflicts with even the loose tolerance of an independent label. But when it came out, Agony and Adversaries was like a bolt of white lightning, and he felt the vindication of her success even as she continued to act out in more destructive ways. Fights with roadies, an arrest for throwing a toilet seat out of a tour bus, two drunk driving charges and three car wrecks later it seemed the lid had come off the bottle of lightning she had unwittingly captured. Yet he always found a way to help her, whether it was securing legal representation or once again paying her bail, and he never minded the thankless job of cleaning up after her, because he knew it would all afford another opportunity to see her, to watch her perform, to let his innards alternately melt, congeal and spasm as he listened to her wailing torment.
After another brawl with a club bouncer that left her lacerated from being thrown through a plate glass window his inevitable bail payment finally earned a reply. It was not what he expected, but he savored it nonetheless. One of the couriers for the magazine he wrote for brought it to him, a plain looking white envelope with his name scribbled on it--a child’s writing, he thought--that contained her message. It was a piece of toilet paper, the cheap kind found in ratty bathrooms, with a short message scrawled in mascara: Leave me the fuck alone! It stunned him, but he knew, knew in that moment, was as certain of it as he was that the sun was setting on them both, that they were somehow bound together.
The album continued to soar; she was threatening to break into mainstream, and a threat it was, as her reputation for anarchic behavior swelled in the rumor mill to mythic proportion. Yet he saw the genius of it, the hiding in plain sight, the evasion of her hurt before the bright lights. He continued to write about her and her music, defending her as one of those rare personalities that erupts onto the scene, a meteoric talent that defied quantification and ultimately classification to be that rarest of rare finds--the icon. When this profound claim of his hit print she was again in jail, this time waiting to get released on a public profanity complaint after throwing a bag of manure at an abortion protester and cursing out the police who came to break up the ensuing brawl. “Abort me! It’s not too late!” she had screamed as large blue uniformed bodies stuffed her writhing form into the back of a patrol car. No sooner was she out than he got his second reply from her. It was a ragged sketch on paper towel, an unflattering self-portrait that she had done in her cell. A large dark ‘X’ had obscured the portrait; he only needed a faint whiff to realize what she had used to cross out the portrait. That’s my girl, he mused and put it in a zip-lock bag.
He could not, despite his efforts and praise, defend her from everything. Six months after the album’s release talk was already starting about the second album’s prospect. She appeared on a late night talk show, not to perform, not even invited, but she had somehow wound up with a ticket and lounged in a front row seat drinking from a long brown bag until the host called her up to the stage. With clear reluctance she shuffled from her seat and dumped herself next to him. When he asked about her newly found celebrity and the source of her energy and inspiration, and where it might go to make something for a second album, she merely frowned and shook her head. “I never wanted any of this,” she dismissed. “I just want to die in peace.”
To read the rest of "Icon", visit http://www.rolandallnach.com/icon%20story%20page.htm