We got better. Never great, but better. And never good enough to play anything but house parties. Then Jonah went off to college, and Nate and I were left without a drummer, and that was the end of Infinity 89.
Thus began my brief stint as a lone singer-songwriter about town, playing in coffeehouses, mostly. Doing the café circuit was marginally better than the house parties. With just me and a guitar, I didn’t need to up the volume that much, and people in the audience were mostly respectful. But as I played, I was still distracted by the sounds of things other than the music: the hiss of the cappuccino maker, the intellectual college students’ hushed conversations about Important Things, the giggles of girls. After the show, the giggles grew louder as the girls came up to me to talk, to ask me about my inspiration, to offer me mix CDs they’d made, and sometimes to offer other things.
One girl was different. She had ropy muscled arms and a fierce look in her eyes. The first time she spoke to me she said only: “You’re wasted.”
“Nope. Sober as a stone,” I replied.
“Not that kind of wasted,” she said, arching her pierced eyebrow. “You’re wasted on acoustic. I saw you play before in that terrible band of yours, but you were really good, even for a child such as yourself.”
“Thanks. I think.”
“You’re welcome. I’m not here for flattery. I’m here for recruitment.”
“Sorry. I’m a pacifist.”
“Funny! I’m a dyke, one who likes to ask and tell, so I’m also ill-suited for the military. No, I’m putting together a band. I think you’re an outrageously talented guitar player so I’m here to rob the cradle, artistically speaking.”
I was barely sixteen years old and a little bit intimidated by this ballsy chick, but I’d said why not. “Who else is in the band?”
“Me on drums. You on guitar.”
“Those are the most important parts, don’t you think? Fantastic drummers and singing guitar players don’t grow on trees, not even in Oregon. Don’t worry, I’ll fill in the blanks. I’m Liz by the way.” She stuck out her hand. It was crusted with calluses, always a good sign on a drummer.
Within a month, Liz had drafted Fitzy and Mike, and we’d christened ourselves Shooting Star and started writing songs together. A month after that, we had our first gig. It was another house party, but nothing like the ones I’d played with Infinity 89. Right from the get-go, something was different. When I slashed out my first chord, it was like turning off a light. Everything just fell silent. We had people’s attention and we kept it. In the empty space between songs, people cheered and then got quiet, anticipating our next song. Over time, they’d start shouting requests. After a while, they got to know our lyrics so well that they’d sing along, which was handy when I spaced a lyric.
Pretty soon, we moved on to playing in bigger clubs. I could sometimes make out bar sounds in the background—the clink of glasses, the shouts of orders to a bartender. I also started to hear people scream my name for the first time. “Adam!” “Over here!” A lot of those voices belonged to girls.
The girls I mostly ignored. At this point, I’d started obsessing about a girl who never came to our shows but who I’d seen playing cello at school. And when Mia had become my girlfriend, and then started coming to my shows—and to my surprise, seemed to actually enjoy, if not the gigs, then at least our music—I sometimes listened for her. I wanted to hear her voice calling out my name, even though I knew that was something she’d never do. She was a reluctant plus-one. She tended to hang backstage and watch me with a solemn intensity. Even when she loosened up enough to sometimes watch the show like a normal person, from the audience, she remained pretty reserved. But still, I listened for the sound of her voice. It never seemed to matter that I didn’t hear it. Listening for her was half the fun.
As the band got bigger and the shows got bigger, the cheers just grew louder. And then for a while, it all went quiet. There was no music. No band. No fans. No Mia.
When it came back—the music, the gigs, the crowds—it all sounded different. Even during that two-week tour right on the heels of Collateral Damage’s release, I could tell how much had changed just by how different everything sounded. The wall of sound as we played enveloped the band, almost as if we were playing in a bubble made of nothing other than our own noise. And in between the songs, there was this screaming and shrieking. Soon, much sooner than I ever could’ve imagined, we were playing these enormous venues: arenas and stadiums, to more than fifteen thousand fans.
At these venues, there are just so many people, and so much sound, that it’s almost impossible to differentiate a specific voice. All I hear, aside from our own instruments now blaring out of the most powerful speakers available, is that wild scream from the crowd when we’re backstage and the lights go down right before we go out. And once we’re onstage, the constant shrieking of the crowd melds so it sounds like the furious howl of a hurricane; some nights I swear I can feel the breath of those fifteen thousand screams.
I don’t like this sound. I find the monolithic nature of it disorienting. For a few gigs, we traded our wedge monitors for in-ear pieces. It was perfect sound, as though we were in the studio, the roar of the crowd blocked off. But that was even worse in a way. I feel so disconnected from the crowds as it is, by the distance between them and us, a distance separated by a vast expanse of stage and an army of security keeping fans from bounding up to touch us or stage-dive the way they used to. But more than that, I don’t like that it’s so hard to hear any one single voice break through. I dunno. Maybe I’m still listening for that one voice.
Every so often during a show, though, as me or Mike pause to retune our guitars or someone takes a swig from a bottle of water, I’ll pause and strain to pick out a voice from the crowd. And every so often, I can. Can hear someone shouting for a specific song or screaming I love you! Or chanting my name.
As I stand here on the Brooklyn Bridge I’m thinking about those stadium shows, of their hurricane wail of white noise. Because all I can hear now is a roaring in my head, a wordless howl as Mia disappears and I try to let her.
But there’s something else, too. A small voice trying to break through, to puncture the roar of nothingness. And the voice grows stronger and stronger, and it’s my voice this time and it’s asking a question: How does she know?
Are you happy in your misery?
Resting peaceful in desolation?
It’s the final tie that binds us
The sole source of my consolation
COLLATERAL DAMAGE, TRACK 6
The bridge looks like a ghost ship from another time even as it fills up with the most twenty-first-century kind of people, early-morning joggers.
And me, alone again.
But I’m still standing. I’m still breathing. And somehow, I’m okay.
But still the question is gaining momentum and volume: How does she know? Because I never told anyone what I asked of her. Not the nurses. Not the grandparents. Not Kim. And not Mia. So how does she know?
If you stay, I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll quit the band, go with you to New York. But if you need me to go away, I’ll do that, too. Maybe coming back to your old life would just be too painful, maybe it’d be easier for you to erase us. And that would suck, but I’d do it. I can lose you like that if I don’t lose you today. I’ll let you go. If you stay.
That was my vow. And it’s been my secret. My burden. My shame. That I asked her to stay. That she listened. Because after I promised her what I promised her, and played her a Yo-Yo Ma cello piece, it had seemed as if she had heard. She’d squeezed my hand and I’d thought it was going to be like in the movies, but all she’d done was squeeze. And stayed unconscious. But that squeeze had turned out to be her first voluntary muscle movement; it was followed by more squeezes, then by her eyes opening for a flutter or two, and then longer. One of the nurses had explained that Mia’s brain was like a baby bird, trying to poke its way out of an eggshell, and that squeeze was the beginning of an emergence that went on for a few days until she woke up and asked for water.
Whenever she talked about the accident, Mia said the entire week was a blur. She didn’t remember a thing. And I wasn’t about to tell her about the promise I’d made. A promise that in the end, I was forced to keep.
But she knew.
No wonder she hates me.
In a weird way, it’s a relief. I’m so tired of carrying this secret around. I’m so tired of feeling bad for making her live and feeling angry at her for living without me and feeling like a hypocrite for the whole mess.
I stand there on the bridge for a while, letting her get away, and then I walk the remaining few hundred feet to the ramp down. I’ve seen dozens of taxis pass by on the roadway below, so even though I have no clue where I am, I’m pretty sure I’ll find a cab to bring me back to my hotel. But when I get down the ramp, I’m in a plaza area, not where the car traffic lets out. I flag down a jogger, a middle-aged guy chugging off the bridge, and ask where I can get a taxi, and he points me toward a bunch of buildings. “There’s usually a queue on weekdays. I don’t know about weekends, but I’m sure you’ll find a cab somewhere.”
He’s wearing an iPod and has pulled out the earbuds to talk to me, but the music is still playing. And it’s Fugazi. The guy is running to Fugazi, the very tail end of “Smallpox Champion.” Then the song clicks over and it’s “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones. And the music, it’s like, I dunno, fresh bread on an empty stomach or a woodstove on a frigid day. It’s reaching out of the earbuds and beckoning me.
The guy keeps looking at me. “Are you Adam Wilde? From Shooting Star?” he asks. Not at all fanlike, just curious.
It takes a lot of effort to stop listening to the music and give him my attention. “Yeah.” I reach out my hand.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” he says after we shake, “but what are you doing walking around Brooklyn at six thirty on a Saturday morning? Are you lost or something?”
“No, I’m not lost. Not anymore anyway.”
Mick Jagger is crooning away and I practically have to bite my lip to keep from singing along. It used to be I never went anywhere without my tunes. And then it was like everything else, take it or leave it. But now I’ll take it. Now I need it. “Can I ask you for an insanely huge and just plain insane favor?” I ask.
“Can I borrow your iPod? Just for the day? If you give me your name and address, I’ll have it messengered over to you. I promise you’ll have it back by tomorrow’s run.”
He shakes his head, laughs. “One butt-crack-of-dawn run a weekend is enough for me, but yeah, you can borrow it. The buzzer on my building doesn’t work, so just deliver it to Nick at the Southside Café on Sixth Avenue in Brooklyn. I’m in there every morning.”
“Nick. Southside Café. Sixth Avenue. Brooklyn. I won’t forget. I promise.”
“I believe you,” he says, spooling the wires. “I’m afraid you won’t find any Shooting Star on there.”
“Better yet. I’ll have this back to you by tonight.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Battery was fully charged when I left so you should be good for at least . . . an hour. The thing’s a dinosaur.” He chuckles softly. Then he takes off running, tossing a wave at me without looking back.
I plug myself into the iPod; it’s truly battered. I make a note to get him a new one when I return this one. I scroll through his collection—everything from Charlie Parker to Minutemen to Yo La Tengo. He’s got all these playlists. I choose one titled Good Songs. And when the piano riff at the start of the New Pornographers’ “Challengers” kicks in, I know I’ve put myself in good hands. Next up is some Andrew Bird, followed by a kick-ass Billy Bragg and Wilco song I haven’t heard in years and then Sufjan Stevens’s “Chicago,” which is a song I used to love but had to stop listening to because it always made me feel too stirred up. But now it’s just right. It’s like a cool bath after a fever sweat, helping to soothe the itch of all those unanswerable questions I just can’t be tormenting myself with anymore.