Monday, May 2, 2016

Red Ticket: Faith No More

There comes a moment in every person’s life when they realize that their only recourse is to stow away on the tour bus of a moderately famous thrash-rock/hip hop band and see what happens next.

For me, that moment came weeks after I’d been let go from the Guardian and was at the leading edge of what would turn out to be one of the darkest periods of my life. Looking back on it now, with a better understanding of the unreliable chemistry that governs my moods and impulses, I realize that the lethargy and creeping hopelessness I was starting to feel are the classic heralds of depression. But back then, I thought that the problem was simply that I was out of a job. I was still writing and intended to keep writing. But to whom? That was the problem.

Our plan to start our own magazine had met with some initial success. It looked like Margot Kidder, who had come to Russia to film an adaptation of Crime and Punishment, would turn out to be our superwoman. Our intern at the Guardian had interviewed her about the movie, and the word on the street was that Kidder was interested in helping us fund a new literary venture. For a while the staff chattered to each other about our new patron and all the things we’d do once we relaunched the magazine, but soon Kidder stopped returning our calls and it was obvious that the idea was going nowhere. I assumed that as a famous person Margot had a lot on her plate and was simply too busy to help, but Jason set me straight. “She went crazy and had to go home,” he said to me one night as we walked around the city. “She came to Russia and it drove her crazy.”

This kind of thing was typical, and did not surprise me at all. It was never a question of whether one would go crazy in Moscow – it was really the only sane response – merely of how long it would take. I was sorry for Ms. Kidder and sad that our magazine would remain just a pipe dream, but I understood. I stopped hoping that someone would swoop in to save us all, but I could not quite face the reality that I’d have to find something else to do.

But then suddenly there I was, standing in some mid-sized arena in the suburbs of the city, waiting with Betsy and Stu for Faith No More to start playing. I’m not sure why I, or any of us, were there. It wasn’t that I disliked Faith No More, exactly; they just weren’t a band I would normally go see. But then, these were not normal times. Now that I was no longer employed, I spent most of my time lying on the couch drinking vodka and reading and re-reading the spiral notebooks I’d filled since coming to Russia, and I recognized that I was becoming unhealthily isolated. Maybe, I decided as I stumbled into the bathroom to splash my face with freezing water and eat some toothpaste, it would do me good to get out and have some fun for an evening. And there was also the fact that it was very unusual for any foreign band to play in Russia in 1993. Regardless of how I felt about the music I knew that this would be a big event in the city, and at this point I was still motivated enough to want to see what would happen.

I slumped in between Stu and Betsy and resumed my running conversation, the only one I was capable of these days. “I don’t know what to do, Betsy,” I snuffled, “I just wanna write.”

Poor Betsy, since the collapse of the Guardian she had spent many, many hours sitting next to me at various bars, listening to me as I cried and drank and cried some more. “Betsy,” I’d slur, sloshing the Bittburger she’d purchased for me all over her and resting my forehead on the bar, “What am I gonna do? I just wanna write!” She put up with all of this with her typically steady patience, but even she was getting fed up with my tormented, drunken artist shtick. Now, as I started up again, Betsy had an idea.

“Robin,” she said, shaking me gently by the shoulder, “Get a grip on yourself. Look, you want to write something? Write about this!”


“About this? Whaddya mean?”

“Write an article about Faith No More playing in Moscow! You could interview some of the fans, ask them about why they’re here. You could even interview the band. You could write about the blossoming of western music in post-Communist Russia! That would be so interesting!”

I squinted at Betsy. “That would be sorta interesting.”

“I bet you could even get it published in Rolling Stone.”

“You think?” My brain began clicking to life, considering the possibilities. In my fuzzy, disordered state of mind, the gulf between Betsy’s idle suggestion and a monthly “Rock in Russia” column for me at Rolling Stone was easily bridgeable. The more I thought about it the more I warmed to the idea. Holy cow, I realized, feeling vaguely energetic for the first time in weeks, Betsy was right! I’d interview Faith No More that very night and they would be so shocked to see me, a fellow American, asking them questions that they’d have no choice but to take me under their wing. They’d call the editors of all the music magazines back home and say “You won’t believe who we met here in Moscow! And best of all, she needs a job!” This was it, I decided, the transition I was looking for that would help dig me out of the hole I was in. The opportunity had taken its time in coming, but now that it was here, I was ready for it.

Strange as it may sound, my sudden, utter conviction that rock and roll would save my life had some basis in reality. Growing up in North Florida, there were few examples of how I might build a reasonably happy life for myself. The basic values that my mother taught me, such as working hard, were good ones, but they never seemed like ends in and of themselves. We were all supposed to work hard so we could …what? Get up every day and sit at a cubicle at the insurance call center? Get our ears pierced at the mall? Sit in silence in our dens and watch Laverne and Shirley? Even as a kid I’d realized that I could do all of these things without working very hard at all.

Most of the people I went to school with were no help, either. Examining them closely for clues about how to navigate teenagerdom, I realized that my obvious choices were pretty much limited to four. I could be a football player or a Christian (these two groups sometimes overlapped), or a Future Farmer of America or a heavy metal fan (these two groups never did). As a pudgy agnostic with no interest in agriculture, by default I found myself hanging out in the Burger King parking lot listening to Motley Crue.

Some of the kids in that parking lot were interesting, though. They had older brothers and sisters who had gone somewhere else once and brought some stuff back. Record albums. My friends and I would sneak into their bedrooms and listen. This was not anything like the music we heard on Rock 105, but it was not the music that caught my attention. It was the lyrics. Suddenly here was someone saying out loud "This is not my beautiful house, dammit." Here's somebody saying "Though we keep piling up the building blocks, the structure never seems to get any higher. Because we keep kicking out the foundations and stand useless while our lives fall down." And perhaps most concisely, here’s someone saying “Feel it closing in, day in, day out, day in, day out, day in, day out, day in, day out.”

Whenever I looked around my grungy, ugly town and thought about how I was trapped, how things would never change, how this was it and even if I'd never feel glad about it I'd have to at least learn to accept it somehow -- whenever I thought like this, I'd listen to these people, to this music. There were other people out there who were clearly paying attention. I might never find them, but if I held on maybe I could at least go where they went. Maybe there'd be some kind of different perspective, some different way of living, in London, or New York, or Manchester. I drew a mental map of these places and carried it around with me like a talisman.

Much to my surprise, it seemed as though the gods of the universe noticed my fervent worship at the altar of the LP and decided to reward my devotion. I would attend shows that came to my town and would end up having odd and totally random experiences with various band members. My peers noticed that often when I went to see a show I would come to school the next day with some strange story, and began to ask me to accompany them to see bands they liked. My powers reached their apex when one of the most popular girls in school approached me at PE one day and told me she’d pay for me to go see 38 Special if I would go with her.

The experiences I had with the people I admired the most – the writers of the lyrics and music that gave my life color – left me with a sort of Pavlovian sense that the closer I got to music the more interesting and meaningful my life would be. And so it really wasn’t a surprise when I drunkenly stood up in the stadium bleachers and declared, “I’ll do it, Betsy. I’ll go interview Faith No More RIGHT NOW.”

I pushed my way through hundreds of acid-washed-denim-clad Muscovites to the soundboard, which was in the middle of the arena and was surrounded by a 6-foot-tall chain-link fence. Not stopping to wonder what might happen, not wavering one bit from the task that lay before me, I hooked my fingers and the tips of my shoes in the fence and climbed over it, dropping to the ground next to the surprised Russian soundman. “I’m a journalist,” I said in an official-sounding voice, adjusting my sweater, “I’m here to interview Faith No More.”

“Their bus is out back,” said the man, pointing to a door at the back of the large room.

I was momentarily surprised. Wasn’t I supposed to have credentials, or something? Wasn’t I supposed to have my people call their people? But the soundman was not calling security or radioing for help; instead, he was opening the gate in the fence for me and instructing me to “go through that door and down the hall, and there you’ll find their bus.”

I followed his instructions and sure enough, there sat the tour bus, engine idling. Even though I’d met lots of musicians through strange coincidences, I was not a groupie, so I had never been on a tour bus before and was not sure what would happen. I was certain I would need some kind of laminated pass, or that the driver sitting there smoking and reading would want to look for my name on a clipboard. But no. The Russian driver welcomed me onto the bus and motioned for me to sit down, then proceeded to talk at length with me about his family and grandchildren. This was way too easy, I thought. Clearly, this was meant to be. I had gotten this far – onto the bus! – and now all I’d have to do would be to interview the band as we drove to the hotel. I excused myself to the driver and went to the very back of the bus, where I busied myself trying to think of questions to ask.

After several hours, people began to trickle onto the bus. Russian-looking people and American-looking people, music-looking people and business-looking people; all of them saw me sitting back there and either smiled and nodded or ignored me completely as they took their seats. I began to relax. I was in. Finally, a group of very hairy, tired-looking men boarded the bus. Not being a fan of Faith No More, I didn’t recognize them, but as they walked towards me I could see from the other passengers’ reactions that this must be them. They looked friendly enough. Best of all, they were heading right towards me! I clutched the small notebook I always carried with me, ready to go.

“Excuse me,” said one of them politely, “Who are you?”

“I’m Robin!” I said, “I am an American journalist living in Moscow!”

“Well, you’ll have to get off this bus now.”

“No. What? Noooo. Really? I have to get off the bus? But…why?”

“Because we have to leave,” said the man, reasonably.

“Awww, man…really? But, but, wouldn’t you like to be interviewed by an American journalist living in Moscow?” These people didn’t seem to find my presence in this country or on this bus nearly as novel as I did.

“No,” said the man, gesturing to the bus’ door.

“OK, but, don’t you need help getting around Moscow? Finding your hotel? Wouldn’t you like a guide?”

“We have a bus,” said the man, “which you need to get off of right now.”

The entire busload of passengers was turned around watching us, their faces hovering moon-like over the backs of their seats. Still sitting down, I looked up pleadingly at the band as they waited for me to get out of their seats and off their bus. Silent seconds ticked by as I waited for what always happened in movies and what should be happening right now to, in fact, go on and happen. One of them would take pity on me and say, “Oh, for God’s sake, just let her ride to the hotel.” Or one of the passengers would recognize me and stand up and say “Wait! I know her! Really, she’s cool.”

But of course none of this happened. The band stood there, exhausted after their show and annoyed by – face it, there was no one else to blame – ME, and the man who had spoken to me pointed again at the door. Shamefaced, not even bothering to work up some kind of huff, I hung my head and walked towards the door. The actual cool people – the people waiting for me to leave so they could ride with the band to the afterparty at the hotel – those people snickered and tisked as I passed them.

I stood in the back of the now-empty arena and watched the bus puff away into the darkness. When I came to Moscow I’d believed that with enough willpower, personality, and good fortune, I could do anything. I’d believed that the beads that would make up my life were sitting there sparkling in a little satin box, waiting to be strung. Now I was not at all sure what to believe, or how to fill up the dead space that this vanished certainty had left.

**

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Faith No More
A Simple Outing Goes Terribly Awry
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