He’d pissed his pants tracking guitar parts by day two. Day three he threw up for a couple hours then got two songs down before he got the shakes, did a third before he was too drunk to record a fourth. He’d written all the songs, most of the lyrics too. The singer had changed some of them. They were always about drinking. Singer didn’t drink that much. Shouldn’t he relate to what he was singing? He changed stuff around. The drunk songwriter would grow itchy, then insecure, then angry, then beside himself. Since there were so many black and brown spots in his memory, it was handy that he had internalized so much envy, guilt, shame, hate and sadness to propel him in a consistent manner both awake and unawake, drunk and puppeted by his psyche and Tempe cocaine. It was unclear how the songs had come to be at all by this point, like any relationship hurling itself off a cliff, it was hard to tell how it had been good, although it was palpable that it had been, because the loss of goodness hurt still, even though it was so far gone the dust it had kicked up when it left had nearly settled.
The label had heard the songs, and he’d written the songs, but the label wanted him gone, the band did too but he had the songs. The band had a meeting without him. He’d formed the band and named it. He received paper in the mail, legal shit he didn’t understand. He was being asked to sign over half of his songwriting credit. There was no furniture in the house he stayed at, and the lamp flickered as he groped for the bottle and stared at a pen, crying loud enough so the neighbors could hear. Again. It wasn’t as loud as his fights with his ex but it was louder than when he talked to himself, which was constantly. Talking to himself wasn’t so bad, that’s when the songs came. Reverse engineer two Replacement songs add your own thing, throw it all away and then it just comes with the vocal melody and bridge. They never came that way to anyone else, and this was one of the few facts he could hold no matter how wet his brain would get. The thing was that the conversations with himself were getting longer, and the ideas weren’t coming anymore.
The first night he’d heard it at a bar he hadn’t noticed it at first, and in the months after he’d say because it was part of him but he was just so fucking drunk all the time. When the hook came so did a tingling sensation across his face, undoing the safety of a drunken stupor. It was a reverse haunting, floating on a river of 40% ABV. The songs, the band, they continued on without him, and then it got worse when it worked. His song was so persistent on the FM band he’d switched to AM radio, opting for Jesus and sports talk over his own ideas from a few years ago. There was even a band after the band in between the drinks, since the songs came fully formed. But there were the attempts. The craving. The nothingness outweighed all the somethings. You could blame it on the band that got big on your songs but the hole was what you wrote the songs about, and then the performance of them was so without you that the hole only grew, and with their growth you became more hole than person, so the songwriter put a hole in his head.
When his friend found him, nobody was surprised. It was the umpteenth try within a decade. Less than three decades of consciousness and the last 10 years had been intermittently spent trying to cease all consciousness with the stroke of a blade, a gulp of pills, the tightening of rope. Finally and mercifully the bang of the gun. The soul hung above the pathetic corpse, soaking up the smell in the rug that had never come out. The milk his sister had dropped by with bread, eggs, weeks ago sat rotting in the fridge, moving more than the scattered takeout containers that littered the floor, but decomposing slower than the flies darting over the styrofoam cartons from the wing spot the band had always played, next to a gold record he’d smashed to pieces. In the corner the radio played his song again, well on its way to platinum.
Smells began to permeate the hotel rooms of the band members not long after. A month later and it almost was starting to feel like a thing. The blinds at the doubletree in Charlotte were pulled tight so the time of day was irrelevant. It was January of 1994, Dookie would come out in two weeks, but the band didn’t know that their particular melodic antidote to the Nirvana depression sensation was not long for this earth. What all of them agreed upon was that something outside smelling like a mix of Taaka vodka and spoiled milk. It was sunny outside but the air hung like a thrifted sweater, though tornado season was months off. At soundcheck he sat down with a local radio host for an interview. He’d answered the questions about the songwriter. He really had cried that first week or two, sobbing in a mix of shame, fear, guilt, and genuine sadness at the Tempe tragedy that had unwound in the band’s absence. It was not hard to speak in a somber manner about something so sad, but it was hard to talk about it at all. Right as they cut tape the young DJ looked up and him and she asked “Is there a line that I could write that’s sad enough to make you cry?”
“What the fuck would you say that to me for?” he snapped in a way that sounded like he knew he was both handsome and important, or at least more important than the DJ. The young woman looked shocked, confused and a little grossed out. “I’m sorry you manager didn’t say anything about you guys not doing station shout outs.” She had been holding the mic out again. She’d asked him if he’d say “The line’s always hot on rockin’ 105 FM.” He tried not to look too stupid or embarrassed as he dutifully gave the station shout out and apologized for mishearing her. She could not imagine what he thought she had said.
A few days later at family meal post show in Gainesville the guys hit an odd rut in conversation, recalling the gentle nastiness of the songwriter. It was, in retrospect, even sadder that he’d wanted someone to finish the sessions in the moment. They knew he didn’t actually want that and had spent the extra days having him get it done in whatever state he was in, and that’s when the label stepped in. “Were we enablers?” They assured themselves that they were not. The next night they played the song the songwriter wrote about getting drunk and waiting outside his ex girlfriend’s house as he drank out of the bottle and watched her fuck her new guy. They’d played it with him for a couple years before. He’d gripped a thigh or two leaning in describing the woman they all knew independently of him, and how she’d “looked so beautiful, even riding that stupid motherfucker’s cock.” It was hard not to remember him as they’d never seen him, outside her house, writing one of their best songs in his head, drunk driving home to pick up a guitar. He’d fallen down so bad that night he’d cut the bridge of his nose open. Rolling over on the ground with his guitar still awkwardly hanging from his torso he’d wiped the blood and snot on his arm to harden and chisel off in the morning light. Rolling up to sit on his ass, he’d tuned the guitar again.
Now, the band would swear up and down they heard stumbling, pacing and falling in the hallways of the Hilton, the Sheriton, and the Doubletree again. Sometimes the singer swore he could feel someone grip his thigh. And the smells. Their tour manager now kept Downey on the bus. The bathroom hadn’t been pissed in in weeks (you’ve never been allowed to shit on a tour bus). The band regularly would ask him to smell their shirts. He’d started to wonder if his olfactory was fucked up, but the hotel staff could never smell what the band smelled. He’d get their rooms moved so often he’d learned how to ease them into upgrades, only to stop trying when they’d come down in the morning, swearing up and down a pee stain appeared on the ceiling of the penthouse. Nobody told anyone when they’d wake up to an ashtray full of cigarettes they hadn’t smoked, and none of them wanted to pin any reasons to why it smelled like the wing spot.
In the cold light of the 21st century every gig the band played since reforming smelled like corn dogs. Backstage, reunited with peers, however fleshier, the experience was always colored by the smells and noises of the county fair. The bass player looked at the cardboard tray of fried snacks in his hand and dumped them in the trash hoping nobody saw, before putting his large hands under his shirt and pulling at his skin, watching his aged compatriots playing their songs again. The singer had wanted to impress the songwriter so badly, and now the bass player searched and studied someone that was theoretically a friend and a brother to see some of that in his eyes again. Various pillars of smoke climbed to the skies and the smell of meat mercifully clogged the rotting smell that never seemed to leave. You had to be careful not to follow the stacks of smoke back down to the found because he’d land in a memory, in the ashtray of a diner on Mill avenue in Tucson, with a songwriter stamping out cig one thousand, impressing something depressing on an impressionable woman. If she was young and believed him he’d only get sadder, drunker. Someone from the county fair came to fetch them, it was time to play.
Onstage the bass player’s mind would wander into memory, strolling into flashpoints as he tried to roll back the clock ignoring actually young audience members with very little clue as to what they were watching until they played the song, favoring the fans his age. He could see how they could have been young and not at the county fair. They might have met at the bar after the show and fucked and not all the way know what to do because fucking at 24 is great but it’s not fucking at 28 or 32. If he squinted the lead guitar player’s skin would grow unhealthy and pockmarked, and he could almost picture the songwriter, though he could never picture him alive at their age. The a&r had liked them so much after he was gone, even when he was dead. That almost felt like a relief to people that weren’t him.
That night, like every night they took their room keys from the tour manager and settled in at the Radisson near the airport. The noises started when they always did, as he settled into something that might have been a decent nights’ sleep. The shuffling outside his room, the mumbles and ranting, it had followed him since ‘94. On good nights he could use the haphazard knocks on the door to put him to bed instead of making him bolt upright in a pool of sweat the way a healthy man might.
They, the band, had thought of trying a Brian Wilson thing. Bringing the songwriter back, but keeping him at home to keep him alive, but then the news had come. In recent years they’d all met around demo tracks of the singer’s unreleased work, with talks of tribute hanging in the air with the rotting milk and Evan Williams scent, and yet. At night, they all go to bed afraid but accepting, that they might wake up to a ghost, in the corner. He always has the hair, and the bottle, the pockmarks and the hiccup. He never talks, just drinks from the bottle and watches them watch him until he passes out in ethereal sick, drooling on himself, pathetic and stinking. It’s so predictable; the smell comes, then the grip on the thigh, and then they wake up and look over, and there is the feted soul of the songwriter, with a guitar just about ready to fall off a break into dust. And he asks the same question, every single night; “Is there a line I could write that’s sad enough to make you cry?” No matter what he said, they’d be up the next morning to play his songs again, and it made them want to die.