You’re Gonna Miss Me
Sometimes people imagine that being in a band is like being in a gang when instead it’s really like having three significant others with emotional issues. Musicians (as well as teenagers) can be prickly, insecure, high-strung, and flaky when they’re not drunk, high, or horny. I’ve often thought there should be therapists who specialize in working with musicians, but of course they’d never get paid.
Pete* stood out for his eccentricity even among this set. I met him through a mutual friend who knew that we both loved garage and punk rock and wanted to play live and soon the two of us were jamming together once a week, trying to get something going. At first, this meant us drunkenly playing Froggie Went a Courtin’ over and over in a grungy practice space in the office park district. Pete introduced me to two other guys and we had a band that for some reason now couldn’t play Froggie Went a Courtin’ but could make it through a cover of You’re Gonna Miss Me by the 13th Floor Elevators and even bang out a handful of originals. We cobbled together a set and started booking shows with no intention other than playing local bars, flirting with girls, drinking free beers, and having a few laughs. Our set was unpolished. The lumps were left in the gravy.
None of us were quite Chamber of Commerce material, but Pete served as the chaotic muse of the band, writing bizarre songs that didn’t seem like they should work but somehow did, getting off on weird tangents in conversation, and generally being the center of attention, for good or ill. I first realized he was a bit strange when the singer of an unrelated local punk band got arrested for her very loose connection to a murder and Pete called me demanding that we issue a press release because the public was going to be “coming down hard” on local punk bands and we would “not be able to leave the house soon!” We had not yet played a show. Pete was serious.
He would often get off on these tangents, following his train of thought off the tracks and into the woods. One night he got upset with us because he thought we were opposed to Coca-Cola using one of our songs in a commercial, an opportunity that somehow never presented itself. On another occasion, he told us that he had dyslexia and throughout the night said things that suggested he didn’t know what it is. “Look, guys, I forgot my picks. I have trouble remembering things because I have dyslexia, okay?” He would come up with nonsensical catch phrases for the band, such as “we are attack fun” and repeat them to everyone he met or insist that we needed to wear long black wizard robes on stage and act out a skit about the birth of rock’n’roll before we played any music. If you knew him online, he would send you tangential poems about seeing a goose or being in a car. His songs were often written the same way; he would come up with a scenario, such as a guy buying a toaster at Wal-Mart, falling in love with the salesgirl, and then fighting zombies, and make up the lyrics, and often the chords as he played. Likewise, he never actually wrote guitar solos, but would hit as many notes as he could as quickly as possible. Somehow, he could take the most chaotic and discordant noise and play crazy pop gems on stage. If he was relatively sober.
I’m still amazed at how long it took me to realize that Pete was an alcoholic. Certainly, I never saw him sober in the entire time I knew him. Not once. He would guzzle down these massive cans of a wretched beer called Steeler and always seemed to be toting two or three. With alcoholics, I find that booze is a bit like the image in Islam- blocked out and hidden and thus ever-present and all powerful. He didn’t acknowledge it. But gradually it sunk in that he wasn’t just intoxicated at practice- he was drunk every day. I recall one occasion in which he had to get some dental work done and he kept being sent home and the appointment rescheduled because he wouldn’t show up for a morning appointment without having a few drinks and they wouldn’t administer anesthesia with alcohol in his system. We later realized that he was terrified of detoxing. At one practice, he had gone a few hours without a beer and we had to drive him to get some because he was turning crimson and shaking so bad we were afraid he would collapse.
Of course, we tried to get Pete help. I arranged for him to be taken to AA meetings with a friend in the program. He was scared to go. I set up a phone conversation with a friend who’d been sober for ten years after years of intense addiction. He didn’t think it would be the same for him. We talked about his problem for long hours and he was impressed that some truly great musicians we knew in town had gotten off alcohol. One summer night, sitting in his driveway at 3 a.m., I asked him why he had to be constantly drunk and he said, sheepishly, “I’m drunk all the time because I hate myself.” I don’t think anyone else ever felt the same way about him. Certainly, we loved him and I told him we wanted the “pure, undiluted Pete”. This made him happy and he talked for a while about becoming a new man. In the end, he did not want help and said he was trying to quit on his own. I think I fell into a familiar pattern for children of alcoholics in trying to manage things by working around his problem. Sure, sometimes Pete fell over during shows or forgot how to work his amp, but he was our brother and he added a lot of character to the band. Sure, he had a tendency to say and do things while drunk that alienated other people, but what would a punk band be if they didn’t support a misfit? Sure, he drove us nuts, but we loved him. Life had placed him in our path and he was now our responsibility.
After a while, his behavior was costing us shows or ruining ones we’d gotten and I kept trying to patch up the leaky ship with duct tape. We told him he couldn’t get drunk until after the set. That he would have to buy a simplified amp that he could use easily. That he needed to just go to one meeting and hear what they had to say. I knew with crystal clarity that his days in the band were numbered though when he started coming to practices excited about the “new song” he had written only to unknowingly play us one of our old songs that we’d been playing twice a week for months. When he finally cost us a show by obliviously creeping out the girl who booked it, I gave up and announced I couldn’t play with him anymore. I think most bands reach the point that they transition from being a bunch of buddies hanging out and playing music to actually taking it seriously and for us kicking him out marked the transition.
Pete was still our friend, even though he never understood why we kicked him out. I told him every time he brought it up that it was because he was an alcoholic and if he could get sobered up we could play with him. He never acknowledged what I was saying. Nevertheless, we still got together and listened to his stories and played shows with his new band where he was the lead singer. He was happy. Pete wanted to be a front man and he did well, although not surprisingly their shows began to end in meltdowns and people walking off the stage. The last time I saw him, he was platonically involved with the drummer in his band and she told us he was going to meetings, although at the time she said this he was standing at the bar.
Pete was 46 years old when he collapsed in his backyard. He’d had a heart attack and went undiscovered for nearly twenty minutes, by which time the severe oxygen deprivation put him into a coma. In a few days, his family will have arrived and visited and the life support machines will be turned off. And then, presumably, Pete will finally be free of all the unspoken horrors that were consuming him.
*Obviously not his real name. He loved the Who though.