“He’s sitting behind this messy wooden desk, with papers and sheet music piled high. And he starts telling me about his family. Jews in the Ukraine. Lived through pogroms. Then through World War II. Then he says, ‘Everyone has hardship in their life. Everyone has pain. The faculty here will coddle you because of what you went through. I, however, am of the opinion if we do that, that car crash might as well have killed you, too, because we will smother your talent. Do you want us to do that?’
“And, I didn’t know how to respond, so I just stood there. And then he yelled at me: ‘Do you? Do you want us to smother you?’ And I manage to eke out a ‘no.’ And he says, ‘Good.’ Then he picks up his baton and sort of flicks me out with it.”
I can think of places I’d like to stick that guy’s baton. I grab my ball and hurl it down the lane. It hits the pin formation with a satisfying thwack; the pins go flying in every direction, like little humans fleeing Godzilla. When I get back to Mia, I’m calmer.
“Nice one,” she says at the same time I say, “Your professor sounds like a dick!”
“True, he’s not the most socially graced. And I was freaked out at the time, but looking back I think that was one of the most important days of my life. Because he was the first person who didn’t just give me a pass.”
I turn, glad to have a reason to walk away from her so she can’t see the look on my face. I throw her pink ball down the lane, but the torque is off and it veers to the right. I get seven down and the remaining three are split. I only pick off one more on my next go. To even things up, I purposely blow my next frame, knocking down six pins.
“So, a few days later, in orchestra,” Mia continues, “my glissando gets taken apart, and not very kindly.” She grins, awash in happy memories of her humiliation.
“Nothing like a public flogging.”
“Right!? It was great. It was like the best therapy in the world.”
I look at her. “Therapy” was once a forbidden word. Mia had been assigned a grief counselor in the hospital and rehab but had refused to continue seeing anyone once she’d come home, something Kim and I had argued against. But Mia had claimed that talking about her dead family an hour a week wasn’t therapeutic.
“Once that happened, it was like everyone else on the faculty relaxed around me,” she tells me. “Lemsky rode me extra hard. No time off. No life that wasn’t cello. Summers I played festivals. Aspen. Then Marlboro. Then Lemsky and Ernesto both pushed me to audition for the Young Concert Artists program, which was insane. It makes getting into Juilliard look like a cakewalk. But I did it. And I got in. That’s why I was at Carnegie tonight. Twenty-year-olds don’t normally play recitals at Zankel Hall. And that’s just thrown all these doors wide open. I have management now. I have agents interested in me. And that’s why Lemsky pushed for early graduation. He said I was ready to start touring, though I don’t know if he’s right.”
“From what I heard tonight, he’s right.”
Her face is suddenly so eager, so young, it almost hurts. “Do you really think so? I’ve been playing recitals and festivals, but this will be different. This will be me on my own, or soloing for a few nights with an orchestra or a quartet or a chamber music ensemble.” She shakes her head. “Some days I think I should just find a permanent position in an orchestra, have some continuity. Like you have with the band. It has to be such a comfort to always be with Liz, Mike, and Fitzy.” The stage changes, but the players stay the same.
I think of the band, on an airplane as we speak, speeding across the Atlantic—an ocean, the least of the things, dividing us now. And then I think of Mia, of the way she played the Dvo?ák, of what all the people in the theater were saying after she left the stage. “No, you shouldn’t do that. That would be a waste of your talent.”
“Now you sound like Lemsky.”
Mia laughs. “Oh, I know he comes across as such a hard-ass, but I suspect deep down he’s doing this because he thinks by giving me a shot at a career, he’ll help fill some void.”
Mia stops and turns to me, her eyes dead on mine, searching, reaching. “But he doesn’t have to give me the career. That’s not what fills the void. You understand that, right? You always understood that.”
Suddenly, all the shit from the day comes ricocheting back—Vanessa and Bryn and the bump watches and Shuffle and the looming sixty-seven days of separate hotels and awkward silences and playing shows with a band behind me that no longer has my back.
And it’s like, Mia, don’t you get it? The music is the void. And you’re the reason why.
Shooting Star had always been a band with a code—feelings first, business second—so I hadn’t given the band much thought, hadn’t considered their feelings, or their resentments, about my extended leave. I figured they’d get my absence without my having to explain.
After I came out of my haze and wrote those first ten songs, I called Liz, who organized a band dinner/meeting. During dinner, we sat around the Club Table—so named because Liz had taken this fugly 1970s wooden dining table we’d found on the curb and covered it with band flyers and about a thousand layers of lacquer to resemble the inside of a club. First, I apologized for going MIA. Then I pulled out my laptop and played them recordings of the new stuff I’d been writing. Liz’s and Fitzy’s eyes went wide. They dangled vegetable lasagna in front of their mouths as they listened to track after track: “Bridge,” “Dust,” “Stitch,” “Roulette,” “Animate.”
“Dude, we thought you were just packing it in, working some crap-ass job and pining, but you’ve been productive,” Fitzy exclaimed. “This shit rocks.”
Liz nodded. “It does. And it’s beautiful, too. It must have been cathartic,” she said, reaching over to squeeze my hand. “I’d love to read the lyrics. Do you have them on your computer?”
“Scrawled on paper at home. I’ll transcribe them and email them to you.”
“Home? Isn’t this home?” Liz asked. “Your room is an untouched museum. Why don’t you move back?”
“Not much to move. Unless you sold my stuff.”
“We tried. Too dusty. No takers,” Fitzy said. “We’ve been using your bed as a hat rack, though.” Fitzy shot me a wiseass grin. I’d made the mistake of telling him how I’d thought I was turning into my dead grandfather, with all his weird superstitions, like his vehement belief that hats on beds bring bad luck.
“Don’t worry, we’ll burn sage,” Liz said. Clearly Fitzy had alerted the media.
“So, what, that’s it?” Mike said, tapping his nails against my laptop.
“Dude, that’s ten songs,” Fitzy said, a piece of spinach in his giant grin. “Ten insanely good songs. That’s practically an album. We already have enough to go into the studio.”
“Those are just the ones that are done,” I interrupted. “I’ve got at least ten more coming. I don’t know what’s going on, but they’re just kinda flowing out of me right now, like they’re already written and recorded and someone just pressed play. I’m getting it all out as fast I can.”
“Obey the muse,” Liz said. “She’s a fickle mistress.”
“I’m not talking about the songs,” Mike said. “We don’t even know if there will be any album. If any of the labels will still want us. We had all this forward momentum and he basically killed it.”
“He didn’t kill anything,” Liz said. “For one, it’s only been a few months, and second of all, our Smiling Simon album has been ripping up the indie charts, getting tons of play on the college stations. And I’ve been working the college angle pretty well,” Liz continued, “with interviews and all, to keep the embers burning.”
“And dude, ‘Perfect World’ has even crossed over; it’s getting play on satellite radio stations,” Fitzy said. “I’m sure all those A&R guys will be happy to see us, shitting bricks to hear this.”
“You don’t know,” Mike said. “They have their trends. Quotas. The outfits they want. And my point is, he”—he jabbed a finger at me—“ditches the band without a word and just waltzes back like it’s no big deal.”
Mike had a point, but it wasn’t like I held anyone back. “Look, I’m sorry. We all go off the cliff sometimes. But you could’ve replaced me if you’d wanted to. Gotten a new guitar player and your major-label deal.”
By the quick look that passed among the three of them, I could see that this option had been discussed, and likely vetoed by Liz. Shooting Star was a democratic outfit; we’d always made decisions together. But when it came down to it, the band was Liz’s. She started it and recruited me to play guitar after seeing me play around town. Then she’d lassoed Fitzy and Mike, so ultimately a personnel change would’ve been her call. Maybe this was why Mike had started playing gigs with another drummer under the name of Ranch Hand.
“Mike, I don’t get what you want out of this,” Fitzy said. “Do you want a box of chocolates? Do you want Adam to get you a nice bouquet to say sorry?”
“Piss off, Fitz,” Mike said.
“I’ll buy you flowers,” I offered. “Yellow roses. I believe those symbolize friendship. Whatever it takes, I’ll do what I’m told.”
“Will that make it good?” Fitzy continued. “Because what the f**k, man? We have these amazing songs. I wish I’d written those songs. But Adam did. He came through. And we have him back. So maybe now we can get back to making kick-ass music and see where it takes us. And maybe, you know, let our kid get a little joy back in his life. So, dude. Bygones.”
Mike’s worries turned out to be unfounded. Some of the major labels that had been courting us in the fall had cooled on us, but a handful were still interested, and when we sent them the demos of the songs that would become Collateral Damage they went ballistic, and we were signed and in the studio with Gus before we knew it.
And for a while, things were good. Fitzy and Liz were both right. Recording Collateral Damage was cathartic. And there was joy. Working with Gus was intense; he brought out the noise in us, told us not to be scared of our raw power, and we all ran with it. And it was cool being up in Seattle recording and staying in a corporate apartment and feeling like The Shit. Everything seemed good.
Not long after the record came out, the tour started. A five-month slog through North America, Europe, and Asia that, at the outset, seemed like the most exciting thing in the world. And in the beginning, it was. But it was also grueling. And soon I was tired all the time. And lonely. There was a lot of empty time in which to miss her. I kind of holed away in my hotel rooms, the backs of tour buses. I pushed everyone away. Even Liz. Especially Liz. She wasn’t stupid; she knew what was going on—and why. And she wasn’t some fragile flower, either. She kept after me. So I burrowed, until, I guess, she got tired of trying to dig me out.
As the tour went on, the album just started going haywire. Platinum. Then double-platinum. The tour dates sold out, so our promoters added additional ones to meet demand. The merchandising deals were everywhere. Shooting Star T-shirts, caps, posters, stickers, even a special-edition Shooting Star telescope. Suddenly, the press was all over us. Interviews all the time, which was flattering at first. People cared enough about us to read what we had to say.
But a weird thing started to happen in interviews. The reporter would sit the band down together, ask some perfunctory questions to us all, and then turn the microphone or camera on me. And I tried to open it up to the rest of the band. That’s when reporters started requesting interviews with just me, a request I uniformly turned down, until it suddenly became impossible for us to do interviews any other way.