Issue X, Volume IV : June 2013
I love that dichotomy of the absurdity of it all and then the beauty of some. I completely agree with you. Would you tell us some more about the novel? You do give us everything in the novel. We love these characters because they show us how absurd we are and also how precious and sensitive humans can be.
It was an idea I had floating around in my head for a long time. I was in West Texas 15 years ago going through a pretty crappy breakup while a good friend's band was also falling apart, and I thought there were many commonalities in the dissolution of a relationship and of a band. Then other things happened in other cities to crystallize the idea. But you live with each other for so long that you are completely aware of each other's limits and flaws...but also of each other's strengths. And in a lot of ways the dynamic of playing off one another is the same. You have to trust that the next note is going to be there.
More fundamentally, it is crazy to try to make art in this world in the exact same way that it is crazy to let your guard down enough to really love someone. If you ask someone who his favorite artist is, he is more likely to say Justin Bieber than Marina Abramovic or Kurt Vonnegut, and that just breaks my heart in the most self-aware and silly way possible. I mean, I get that it's preposterous to write a poem and even more so to expect anyone to take the time to read it, but shouldn't we make the same demand for honest communication in both cases?
I think you have a lot of people who are reading your novel, read your novel or will be interested in reading your novel after they read your excerpts and watch your video. What are the links to getting a copy of your novel?
Response has been better than I thought it would be. Agents and publishers would often write back to say, "This is really funny, but no one buys rock and roll novels." So I didn't know what would happen when I put it up on amazon. I have been pleasantly surprised. People can buy the book here.
Did you have any literary inspirations while you were writing this novel?
At one point I was concerned that the book had become too political, so I dialed it back and added some noise to bring back the bulk. But it just didn't work. It was so frustrating to be a liberal during that time (during the Bush years, when the Chicago narrative was set) because everything we were doing felt intrinsically wrong to me...but if you spoke out about it you were a terrorist sympathizer or something. I mean, they renamed the french fries in the congressional cafeteria because they were mad at Parisians, and John Ashcroft had a special covering made for the Spirit of Justice statue so he wouldn't have to see her bare breasts. These people were ostensibly adults, but you had to be a 12 year old to take them seriously. The whole thing was absurd, and at the same time, all-pervasive, so it was hard to sit down and write while I felt like my head was going to explode. I guess it was kind of inevitable that some of that stuff would end up in there, but I was worried about the tone. Then Ed Vega's, The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow Into The Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle was published when I was working on Jukebox, and reading that encouraged me to put it all back in.
Ed and I had corresponded, and I was very sad to hear of his death. We had a pretty funny and acerbic relationship. We would go years at a time without writing, and I would just assume he was mad at me. Later I told that to a mutual friend, and she said, “Yeah, he always said the same thing about you.” But that novel made me feel like it was my duty to be obnoxiously political. So blame Ed.
“So Blame Ed.” Great title for your next one. And what was the new name for the frog fries? I love that they felt so repelled by the French that even the fries were demoted to a republican label! Beautiful! What projects are you working on now?
I can’t name it Blame Ed, he might get mad at me.
I knew that Freedom Fries had jumped the shark when I was in a truck stop bathroom in Missouri and saw a vending machine selling Freedom Ticklers. These are awfully troubling times.
Right now I am mostly working on getting ready for my wife to give birth to our second son…which could happen any day now. When I am not obsessing about that, I am starting a business, adding to a slowly growing poetry manuscript, trying to revise a zombie movie script for Driven Entertainment, and being a librarian…a job that seems increasingly important as more and more information sources are co-opted by industry and even “democrats” seem to be increasingly fascistic in their approach to marshaling the workforce.
My mother was a librarian. One of the most important jobs out there. I’m so excited to hear about the poetry manuscript and the children’s book to come and that your screenplay got picked up! Hope you make some big cash with that one and congratulations on the pending new addition to the household!
Hope everyone gets a copy of Todd Heldt’s outstanding novel, “Jukebox Loser: An Owners Manual For Idiot Desires.” Read the excerpt and watch the video with joy. I laughed through the entire reading. So damn great! Thank you so much, Todd, for sharing a few chapters from your amazing novel and taking the time to do this interview, when any day the baby arrives!! WOW!
Memphis: Clip with the King!
Back at the apartment Dave is watching the local television channel. His sleeping patterns are all screwed up because he does not have a job. His parents send him money every month because they ignored him as a child. So he stares at the television like a zombie for hours at a time, existing in a half-world of neither sleep nor wakefulness, the days punctuated by Little Debbie snack cakes and cigarettes. The television tells us of extensive mourning at Graceland. We realize it is the anniversary of Elvis’s death.
“We have to go,” I say.
“No we don’t,” says Stu.
“No. We HAVE to go,” I say.
“It’s starting to rain. It’ll be a madhouse. I hate Elvis.”
“So do I! That is why we have to go!”
“I don’t need to be reminded of bad music, fame, drugs, or dead people,” he pleads.
We have just come back from hearing a prospective drummer’s band. Their drummer was good enough to be the Raspers’ drummer, but not good enough to make the Raspers be anything but the Raspers. I know Stu needs the pick-me-up. “Come on, it will be fun. We can wear togas and tell them to repent because Elvis is coming.”
“I don’t want to.”
“What if Elvis is still alive? What if he shows up, and we aren’t there?”
“He’s dead,” says Stu.
“I’m not taking any chances. If he is still alive, I'm going to hit him with my car.”
I first met Stu in the 8th grade. He had just moved to Texas. You could tell because he did not seem to understand that he was not supposed to wear an Adam Ant t-shirt unless he was gay. I tried to inform him of the proper etiquette: “Adam Ant is a fag,” I said to him between classes.
“You haven’t even heard his music before.”
“I have too.”
“The Adam Ant Is a Fag album,” I say.
“See, you don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
Stu and I did not speak again until we were introduced 3 years later by a mutual friend who would become the keyboardist in “Dangerous,” our high school band. Stu just needed a few years to realize that straight kids in Texas listen to Rush, not Adam Ant.
Rush was also suspect in some quarters. My dad opined that they might be a gay band because he had heard that homosexuals in Canada used the word “rush” to describe a good time. He demonstrated with a lisp and a limp wrist: “Oh, it was a rush.” He looked pretty convincing, and I never thought to ask him how he knew.
There were a lot of homosexual rock bands back then. Rod Stewart was so gay that he drank dog semen and had to go into the hospital to get his stomach pumped. At least, that was the scoop in Texarkana in 1984. We knew Van Halen was straight, except for maybe the fat one. He was fat, so he might be gay, too, just because. We had so many prejudices it became hard to separate them.
We are wearing togas.
“I don’t believe I’m doing this,” says Stu. He goes for a cigarette, but they are all gone. “Where are my cigarettes?”
“Sorry. I smoked some.”
“I thought those were yours.”
“Sorry. We’ll stop and get some more,” I say.
“We’re not stopping until we get there.”
“If you see the Elvis on the road, kill him,” I say. “I’m stopping for smokes.”
“You’re going to get your ass kicked.”
“Nah, I'll just tell them about Jesus.”
“Don’t start with me.”
Stu was the first atheist I ever met, and I wondered if that was because of Adam Ant’s influence. We still share a fun religious antagonism, whereby he will tell me how stupid my religion is, and I will tell him he is going to hell because he does not have enough faith. You can’t argue with hell because if it is real it will suck. Neither one of us believes in hell, so it’s OK.
At the gas station/food mart the good people of Memphis are concerned about my presence. They stare me up and down. I buy a pack of Camel filterless, a chili dog, and a bottle of Wild Irish Rose. It could be a long night, and if I see Elvis I intend to kill him. They seem to suspect this about me and keep their distance.
“How far is it to Graceland,” I ask one of the convenience store denizens. No answer. “Graceland? Anyone?” No answer. Nor will the cashier tell me. “Do you have any matches?” She shoves them under the Plexiglas window without a word.
Parking is miserable, and Stu fights the urge to tell me he told me so. I can tell those words are buried beneath every sigh, every muffled smoker’s hack. He thinks this is a big mistake, but I know we will find Elvis if we look. If he dares show his face, I’ll make him pay.
“Can we go home yet?” asks Stu.
“That’s gonna be a negative, sir. We’re close. So close I can feel it.”
“Why am I friends with you?”
“Because I saved your virgin ass from Adam Ant.”
“All of his songs are about screwing women.”
“I know. I like his older stuff. My first roommate in college was into him.”
“I hate you,” he says. “And we’re going to get towed if we park here.”
“We’ll be fine,” I say. “Look at all the cars. How would they know to tow us instead of anyone else?”
“Like you don’t know what happens when we get together,” he mutters.
The rain falls at a steady clip, and we are stupid so we have no umbrella. My father once said of Stu and me that you could put both our brains in a piss-ant, and it would walk backwards. At the time I thought he was just being a dick, but now I suspect he foresaw this night. The joke is on me, and we stand in awe of the rain and the gruesome miasma of death, which hangs all around us like a be-dazzled black cape sewn on the back of a polyester jumpsuit. I admire the pall and wonder what the tackiest thing in the gift store is.
A woman pulls up next to us, gets out, looks up at the sky and says, “I sure hope the King knows how much we love him.”
“I’m sure he does, ma’am.” Stu says.
“Yeah, sometimes I can just feel him. It's like he’s still right here with us,” she says.
“I felt him once,” I offer. “When I was ten he offered me a deep-fried Twinkie, lured me into his tour bus, and touched my secret places.”
“Screw you!” she says, and walks away.
Stu chews on his thumbnail, then glances absently at the sky. “That was classy,” he says. “Oh, and he died when you were seven, so you might want to change your story for the next mourner.”
“Jesus, you always have to be right about things,” I say.
We sneak away as much as two people in soaking wet togas can sneak. “So now what?” demands Stu when we reach the safety of an awning.
“First I want to go get something tacky from the gift shop, then I want to go tell everyone that Elvis has risen, and then I want to look around in case he’s still alive. I have some words for that fucker.”
“What’s with the obsession?”
“He has had his day.”
The tackiest item I find is a set of Elvis toenail clippers. The package reads, “Clip with the King!” Elvis is painted on the clippers. He swings his hips, and his hand is pointed out to the cosmos. His guitar slides low on his side. I wonder about my desire to rid the world of dying icons. Is it that I want to put ZZTop out of its misery, that I want to spare us from Aerosmith’s death rattles, or is it just that I hate people who still think Ted Nugent has something to offer the world? Maybe I hate the very essence of product and its painful reminder that only the lucky ones will make it onto their own set of toenail clippers.
“The king is coming!” I yell to the throng of fans.
They stare at me with confusion.
“Give your frydaddies to the poor, the king is coming!”
They stare at me with anger.
“The black man is using the Jew as muscle!”
They go back to confusion.
They arrest me under the charge of public intoxication, but further testing reveals that I am not drunk. They let me go with a stern warning and make me promise to go straight home, put decent clothes on, and never return to Graceland.
“I wasn’t going to post bail. You’re lucky.” Stu’s toga is misshapen. The knots are coming undone and the folds of fabric are slipping. It is that kind of entropy that I fear most in life. I do not want to be the undone toga, yesterday’s news, the independent-music guy who started off with a flash of brilliance but succumbed to heroin, AIDS, or a day job. But if Elvis is out there, I will find him somehow, rest assured.
Denton, Texas: The Early Nineties
Poor Tracy. She has been working on me for almost 45 minutes. Her arm must be getting tired. We are holed up in my bedroom, which has no windows and is pitch black. I could live in my little cave forever. My stereo is here, and Tracy is beautiful. But she is a virgin and intends to remain that way. I am not an asshole so I don't push her on that point. She can be a virgin for as long as she likes and allow a far better man than I to dig the deep hole to her heart. For now it is enough to be with her because she is stunning in a way that most women are not stunning. She fits inside herself like caramel filling in a candy bar, and if I were on the radio, I would write the worst love song you have ever heard. It cheapens love to write it in clichés or sing it in a song written in an open tuning. I am thinking all of these things as Tracy hammers down on me.
It remains fruitless, and I think she considers oral sex the same as sex, so that is out of the question, too. In her mind it is all wrapped up in a tight package called virginity and bound by the string of Jesus. I am starting to chafe. The bluish light from my stereo’s digital clock casts a sepulchral pallor on the walls, and for a moment I consider the possibility that I will be doomed to hell when I die, for this and all my other sins, which surely must seem as trivial to God as they do to me. Or at least as boring. I try to focus on the hand job I am getting from this woman I think I am in love with. How did everything get this lame? I think back to when sex was fun, say, before I had ever had it. I am in 6th grade, and Billy Squier sings his song about hand jobs, and I think sex will be so much fun when it happens to me that I will be content for the rest of my life knowing that I’d had it at least once. And now the song playing in my head is at the point where the raunchy chorus chants the name of the game. But then the song morphs without warning into the Def Leppard ditty that commanded me in one breath to rock until I passed out and in the next to rock without cessation for all eternity. It was phrased as an imperative, and now I wonder what they were trying to convey. Was it possible, even in the golden era of my youth, to live in a constant state of rocking? Wouldn't I eventually have to put down the plastic cup of Coors Lite and go home, praying not to get a DUI on the way? And now the chorus mocks me: You, in the back corner, you are doomed to rock FOREVER. Or until you pass out. Whichever comes first.
Come to think of it, those three chords would get pretty old if stretched out for eternity. Meanwhile, Tracy has switched hands. I moan to make it seem like she pursues a worthwhile and attainable end. But she sees through it: "Is there anything that would help? Could we put on some sexy music or something?"
"Like what?" I ask.
"I don't know. You have a lot of CDs. Maybe one will provide a better atmosphere."
"What's wrong with the atmosphere? Nothing's wrong with the atmosphere. You came twice earlier." I regret it the second it leaves my mouth because it makes me seem ungrateful, or it might suggest that she is not holding up her end of the deal. But I love my hole in the world and the thought that its atmosphere is lacking is offensive. Yet, I don't want her to infer from this incident any possible misgivings I might have about my feelings for her. I like her, but I am so lost I am thinking about feelings about feelings, and this hand job is doomed.
She is beautiful in the way that her big brain and big words and big ideas all fit inside of her like water in a glass that threatens to spill over the lip with every drop you add, but which for unknown reasons does not. I saw a demonstration on Mr. Wizard's World when I was in 6th grade that explained the phenomenon of surface tension, but I don't remember it because that brain cell was taken over by Def Leppard lyrics.
"Nothing's wrong with the atmosphere,” she offers. “I just thought you might want to listen to some music."
I hate music because none of it is ever right. It gets into your head and pollutes every discrete moment by dragging in the memory of the first girl you were with when you heard the song. Or it’s the bass-line of that goddamn Sheena Easton song your older sister drove like a stake into your head when you were 11. I don’t want to listen to music. I hate music. The only reason to listen to music is to drown out the song that is already echoing in your head, leaping from synapse to synapse until it runs out of brain, ricochets off your skull and starts all over again.
"Sure, we can listen to some music. Whatever you want," I say. I cave in often because I did not have enough sex in high school and am desperate for everyone's approval.
“You pick something,” she says, pulling the sheet up around her breasts, which are the ideal representation of Bosc pears bobbing in the pestilent swamp of my mind.
I rummage through the CD towers next to the bed, but they all seem wrong for the moment: James Brown, too cocky; Alan Parsons Project, too sentimental; Jane's Addiction, too not right now; Tori Amos, too reminiscent of my ex-ex-girlfriend, who aspired to sparkle snorting and faerie fucking. I sift through a few dozen CDs in my brain's database. Ahh, My Bloody Valentine! Perfect. It is dreamy and free-floating, and ultimately what Smashing Pumpkins could have been were it not for too many unchecked egos. I have a split-second flash of terror that none of my CDs matters to anyone but me, that even if the mood is right for me, it is probably wrong for everyone else. I shake it off and put My Bloody Valentine in the player. As the first song churns through the intro, we observe the sad fact that I have lost my erection.
Poor Tracy. She is in my Senior-level British Literature seminar and is so brilliant that she can understand anything she looks at. There was never invented a math problem that could stump her or a book so dense she could not decipher it while speed-reading. But she is so moral that the world makes no sense to her. We are listening to Suicidal Tendencies as we drive to the mall because I have to pay my phone bill, and irony is not dead. They hate me at the phone company because I have been trying to keep my friend Stu from committing suicide. He lives in Memphis, and his band is failing. Many late night phone calls have led to credit card debt and the kind of payment plan one usually expects of people who live in trailers and drive 1972 Novas. The phone bills are worth it because one of my favorite things about my friends is that they are not dead yet. Besides which, since the calls are made for the love of art, I am confident that the universe will balance its checkbook eventually.
Tracy looks annoyed. I have begun to suspect that she, like the phone company, has no soul. But still, I love her. She stares out the window and tries to ignore me as I play a drum solo on my steering wheel. We enter the mall parking lot, and she says, "I don't like this music."
"What's not to like? I got into these guys when I started skating. They're hysterical. My friend Stu and I sneaked all the way to Shreveport to see them one night, and it’s a great story. See, we--"
"They are funny, but they are also depressing."
"That song was about being institutionalized by your parents because they think you are crazy, even though you went to their churches and their schools."
"You have to look at the big picture,” I explain. “The song is sad and true, but also hilarious and absurd, and we can't do anything about how bad the world is, anyway."
"I don't think the world is that bad," she asserts.
"But it is," I assure her.
She sighs. I am stupid. I play the wrong music, and people I love leave me forever. Rock and Roll is the worst thing ever invented. I hate everyone who has ever been on MTV. Their lyrics have nothing to do with truth and even less to do with beauty. They have destroyed my ability to relate to anyone in a meaningful way, and I want to rip them apart from the inside. I’m serious. Tracy was beautiful. Shut up. All of you must throw your radios and televisions away. Come out of your little holes and live!