big ramrod death


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end of an era.

 

Last night we all ventured back up to one of the old roadhouses to bid farewell to our dear friend Tish, who was going back to Montana to go skiing forever. We drank moonshine in the parking lot while Phil the toothless forklift driver grinded up against his girlfriend. She was wearing an orange shirt. She looked like a hairy-necked traffic cone. She was nice and the night was prosperous.

 


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one year.

It is officially the one year anniversary of my band moving to Nashville. Looking back on it, we spent a lot of time playing and drinking at biker bars, and hanging around the trailer park where we lived. We went to a new roadhouse in our neighborhood last night, and it brought back memories (flashbacks?) of teased-hair leather pants bitches singing “Roadhouse Blues,” and a lot of Bud Light and Valium. Truckers telling us that we’re not worth shit unless we know some Garth Brooks covers. Fights breaking out in the middle of our set. I don’t miss it.

But last night I kind of did. I was sitting underneath the jukebox while some meth-skinny lady from Pocatello served us some beers, and an overweight Susan Boyle type woman in an M&Ms jacket and sweatpants belted out some hit from the 90s. With astounding finesse, I might add. The locals stared at us when we walked in there, as usual. But we didn’t feel threatened. We were old news.


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“Factory Songs”

First appeared in Issue #1 of The Poydras Review, spring 2012. (C) 2012 Casey Stohrer. All rights reserved.

FACTORY SONGS

The morning of my twenty-first birthday was heavy with the buzzing of beer and amphetamines from the night before. It was the end of the year in Minneapolis, and I had just gotten a phone call from Hennepin County Corrections. I had to pick up Johnny from jail again.

I found him by the Methodist church near the prison, on the highway that cut through an endless snowdrift prairie. He was trudging along the side of the road clutching his notebook and pen to his chest, unaffected by the stark Minnesota cold. He had been born within it.

Sean had said to me earlier, “I think going to jail all the time is eventually going to harden him.”

I flinched in my seat as Johnny opened the passenger side door. I would never get used to this. Johnny said, “My Somalian cell mate wanted to trade me a fifi for my pen.”

“What’s a fifi?”

“Apparently it’s a pussy made out of a rubber glove. But I figured I wouldn’t be there long enough to need a fifi, so I still have my pen. By the way, happy birthday. I love you.”

Four months earlier I was sleeping on a futon in Bellevue, Tennessee when the phone started ringing next to my head.

“Trevor OD’ed.”

“Is he OK?”

“No…”

Jenn had discovered Trevor stiff in his room on Washtenaw Street in Chicago. He was twenty-one. She took the last bags of heroin out of sight and called the police.

The nearest morgue was across the street from Sophie’s basement apartment in Logan Square. It was a forgettable one story brick building on the corner across from the laundromat, something that blended in the background of the bustling Hispanic neighborhood. We thought it was some sort of auto body repair shop because it had two garage doors, but then we started to see bodies being rolled in through the back door.

She put out her cigarette and dumped her beer down the stairs. She crossed the street to make sure it really was Trevor.

I had first met Trevor through Sean at art college in Chicago. We all lived in the same dormitory downtown, and Sean met me at my room and led me up the stairs to Trevor’s apartment, where Trevor was sitting on the couch with an acoustic guitar and a strobe light on. He was polite yet distracted, and I was intimidated by him.

I had first seen Sean and Trevor play music together at Gourmand’s Coffee House around the corner. They were both bashful and aloof in personality, much like I was at the time, but their performance was surprisingly obnoxious. Sean’s songs were funny and clever enough, but the songs Trevor was playing were laconic and sincere. Here was this quiet, unpretentious eighteen-year-old kid shooting from the hip. What was wrong with him? He was the kind of person I had wanted to meet for years, but I kept him at arm’s length.

Eventually Sean and Trevor, Trevor’s brother Jase and another friend of ours, Jenn, moved into a loft apartment on the North Side of Chicago by the Western blue line stop. There was the up and coming hip neighborhood on one side, but as soon as you crossed Western Avenue you waved goodbye to the boutiques and coffee shops and said hello to the derelict buildings and drug dealers. A few blocks down the wrong side of Western was the loft.

By the time I regularly started hanging out there Trevor had already been doing heroin. He was the first person I ever knew who shot up heroin. None of our other friends were doing it, so how did he get involved with the shit in the first place? What was the point? I observed him nodding off in his chair, or staring off at the school playground next door from the upstairs balcony. But he was usually holed up in his little room by the balcony, and that’s where he stayed.

On my way back from the funeral service in Iowa to my home in Nashville, I had leaned over to hold down a makeshift window that was falling off. A few days ago while I was staying overnight in Minneapolis, someone had broken into my car. They took my iPod but left me with my pills and the three hundred dollars cash I needed to get home, as well as the sawed-off golf club they had used to break in.

The fake window was fashioned out of a piece of thin acrylic by Sophie’s crafty mother, and affixed with clear packaging tape. The tape was slowly peeling off, and the thought of having to drive hundreds of miles with the wind roaring in my ear was maddening. As I hit the cruise control button and leaned over to hold down the flyaway tape, the wheels snagged a pothole and the car jerked suddenly to the right.

My spirit had left me earlier in the week, if only temporarily, mainly from shock and exhaustion. I had moved through the week like a battleship without knowing what to fight against, ready for action when there was no action to be taken. I was quietly navigating through this strange territory, functioning quite normally and totally unaware of any feelings I had. I was expecting the big bang of grief and loneliness to present itself in a simple fashion. But this was beyond a big bang of any familiar sort. This was a stark, sacred isolation from the heart that I had known before.

So I don’t really know what it was that floated off soundlessly into the atmosphere just in front of my windshield. It was probably nothing, and at that point I could really give a fuck.

The car bounded over rocks and bushes and brush, weaving between tall trees. Why was the car not slowing down? Oh yeah, the fucking cruise control… My foot woke up and found the brake pedal. The car screeched to a halt as the bumper lightly hit the tree that was plotting to kill me. I sat in the driver’s seat, perfectly intact with my hands in my lap, as Beck’s “Hotwax” skipped over and over in my CD player. I thought for a second I was going to die in my new striped pajama pants and moccasins amid fast food garbage and dirty clothes. Then I heard somebody open the driver’s side door to pull me out.

A second later I was on the side of the road, watching with a policeman as my car was towed out of the brush. The exterior was completely crumpled like an old candy wrapper. I was sitting on my knees in the gravelly space between the wavering green grass and the busted pavement. The policeman was shaking his head, talking to himself about luck.

It was an understatement to say that we had “bad luck.” It was more along the lines of the universe saying, “I assure you, in any given situation, like clockwork, you are going to be shit upon.” Paying for unknown sins was a new concept to all of us. Blame it on the stars, as Trevor would have said.

I was still living in Nashville when Sean and Johnny (who later joined the band as a guitar player) first moved into the factory. I got a phone call late one night. It was Sean, and he said in a tiny voice, “Johnny just fell off a cliff.”

I said, “What?”

“Johnny fell off a cliff.”

“Are you on drugs? Is this a metaphor for something?”

“No, he really just fell off a cliff.”

“Where are there cliffs in Minneapolis?”

“I don’t know. By our place.”

“Is he all right?”

“He says his leg hurts.”

“Well, go to the fucking hospital.”

“We can’t, we don’t have insurance. Or money. Anyway, I think he’ll be okay.”

“How far did he fall?”

“Forty feet or something.”

Johnny had a torn MCL and was on house arrest for a variety of small-time offenses. They were still reeling from the loss of Trevor and I wasn’t so sure they could really take care of themselves. Not to mention that nothing was really happening for me in Nashville except that I was screwing around with amphetamines and Thorazine and watching bouncers laugh at my fake ID. So I moved into the factory in Minneapolis.

We lived in a two-story building with the words “Acrylics Fabrication” painted in bold, institutional letters across the top of it. We lived in one of three small offices on the second floor. There was one big room in the middle, and a little room off to the side that we had converted into a kitchen/bedroom. Attached to the other side of the big room was a “recording booth” that Sean had turned into his own bedroom, and you could only access it with a separate key from the outside. The big room was all cement floor and walls soundproofed with egg carton material and memory foam, and we lazily hung up pictures and records of our favorite people in the empty spaces.

The factory was still active, with a crew of five or six workers. They made everyday household items out of plastic. They were friendly blue collar folks who offered to make us customized guitar pickguards and microphone stands, who were forgotten about as soon as they left at five o’clock. Which was fine, because they had just as soon forgotten about us. The heat was turned off at night and on the weekends. We were not supposed to actually be living there, but the landlord had employed a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy concerning our situation. The policy did not include basic amenities.

We began to thrive strictly under blankets and whiskey. We lived our whole lives under blankets; we changed our clothes under them, wrote songs under them. We had love affairs under acres of flannel, ate cheap lo mein and steaks we had stolen from Safeway, occasionally called what was left of our family and secretly cried beneath sleeping bags. There were burn marks all over them from keeping space heaters around them.

We didn’t have a shower so we washed our hair in the sink and snuck into showers at friends’ parties. We didn’t have a kitchen but we ate expensive Italian food from the restaurants the guys worked at. We made tea with a portable propane stove with the looming excitement and fear that we would blow our faces off with it. It was quite a romantic idea, especially while Roy Orbison was singing us to sweetly from the record player in the window.

There was a broken Fender Rhodes piano that made short plunking sounds that sounded like rain drops in the corner of the big room next to a newer digital keyboard. There was a terrible, embarrassing drum set that had been thrown together on the other side of the room next to a mattress. In between were the guitars, bass, mandolins and ukuleles that had infested the factory amid the weird percussion instruments that we would never use. There were bottles and cans and pages from Trevor’s journal strewn around the room. Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, and John and Yoko were watching us from tattered centerfold windows. We were going to record an album.

I had gone home for Christmas the week before. It had been the first time I had gone home in about six months, and in that time I had lived in three different cities and had gone to my first funeral of a friend my own age. Going home was clearly a stupid, useless task. I had gotten on the plane with nothing but the clothes on my back, a wallet, a cell phone and a sketch book. I couldn’t think too deeply about the weird looks and stark bewilderment I got from my friends and family, or the fact that I was becoming more and more irrelevant and detached. I didn’t have the energy and frankly, I was quite fearful of where that irrelevancy would eventually lead. My friends and family back home would try to water me down and keep me there, stagnant, burnt out, and afraid.

My fellow high school graduates and old friends were asking me where I had been, what I was doing, and it was hard to tell them. I thought the key to telling these tales was to tell them bare-boned and bare-assed, with the utmost sincerity at hand, and then get out of there before they inevitably exploded in my face. But after a few odd looks and lukewarm reactions I opted to keep quiet.

One evening in the factory, as Johnny played me some AC/DC songs on ukulele, he said, “Well, if the two main elements of living are truth and passion, then I don’t see how we’re fucking this up.”

One day our neighbors revealed to us a most incredible discovery. There was a side door if you walked all the way around the factory, and if you had a flashlight and a death wish to navigate the corridors, you soon found yourself in a bathroom. And in that bathroom was an actual shower.

The only problem was that we could only access the shower when our neighbors were home having raves. It was a group of three guys in an empty room, with nothing but turntables and some speakers in a corner. They’d each take turns spinning records while the other two would sit in the corner, completely faded, nodding their heads along to the music.

Every once in a while they’d have extremely exclusive parties. Sean and Johnny went over one night to check out the scene, and the ravers eyed them suspiciously. One of the DJs greeted Sean by slapping him in the face and explaining to the others, “Don’t worry, these guys are cool.”

  So when horrific breakbeats would bust through our walls and interrupt our recording sessions, we knew it was time to get clean. The first time I went, I had my friend Sophie come along for protection (because one should always have a bodyguard when bathing in mysterious places). In the bathroom was a toilet filled with shit with an orange traffic cone on top of it that said, “Out of Order (trust us).”

There was no drain, but rather a little hole in the shower area that leaked onto the rest of the bathroom floor. I stood on top of a plank of wood after I had flooded the bathroom in order to put my pants on without getting them wet. It was times like these that I figured I was regal enough to own a bathrobe and avoid the pants situation altogether. 

The shower would have been successful if the water I was bathing in wasn’t dirtier than I was. But the illusion of being clean is almost as good as actually being clean, so I took it in stride.

Besides our raver neighbors, we also shared the factory with a metal band. I met Matty the bassist when I wandered into our communal toilet early one morning. We had a sign on our bathroom door that said, “STOP! Please do not defecate in the restrooms.” Matty was slumped on the toilet breaking the law.

I said, “Hi, I’m your new neighbor. My name’s Casey.”

He said, “I’m Matty. Sorry. I didn’t want to use the other bathroom.”

“It’s okay.”

“It smells really bad in there. I think someone threw up in the sink. Go in there and smell it.”

The next time we saw him, he showed us interesting tour videos of metal girls flashing their clit piercings. They’d share their whiskey with us until Sean took a swig of Bushmills and then immediately lurched forward and vomited right back into the bottle.

On the weekends, the metal band would have an entourage of roadies and girls and friends who would get drunk and wander over to our place. Johnny would have his mandolin out and Sean would be playing something on guitar when a random spiky-haired asshole would crash through our door and say, “Sorry if we interrupted your groove.” They would stand in a stupor in the doorway and watch as the guys played Carter Family and Bob Dylan songs all night, with the faint sounds of sluts and machine gun kick drums in the background.

They had become enemies with the ravers when somebody from the metal entourage took acid one night and went to one of their parties uninvited. He proceeded to take off all his clothes in order to masturbate in the corner. The ravers swarmed him and beat the shit out of him. He came back to our side of the factory naked and bloody, and Sean and Johnny and I sat back in silence and wished for glory.

One of our tasks was to get Trevor’s 16-track recorder from his dad. Johnny and Sean were hellbent on putting some of Trevor’s unfinished songs on the album. Not to mention it was their right to hear every inch of his interrupted imagination, no matter how ugly and honest.

But Marty would not let the recorder go. It was his son’s unfinished work, after all. Most of it had never been heard before, and it became the number-one coveted item in Trevor’s estate. The guys felt guilty trying to sweet-talk Marty into letting them borrow it long enough to retrieve the files, but they had a job to do. The album still needed to get done, more than anything now, considering the circumstances. If the album did not get finished, our livelihoods would cease to exist. The factory would be just a place where poverty and boredom bred, and the music created there would have been in vain. There was no other way we were going to justify living under blankets on top of cold cement floors and without showers, working minimum wage jobs in the dead of a Minnesota winter.

Johnny was permanently fucked from an incident he’d had as a teenager involving fifty hits of acid and an international drug trafficking charge. He suffered from “flashbacks” – what I now know as symptoms of early onset schizophrenia. He wouldn’t get them often, but there were a few nights I’d come home from work and find him in a trance, starting small, somewhat contained fires and making the sign of the cross. At worst he would steal cars just to drive around the block or break into a church just to pray. Most of the time he’d disappear to go to a strip club and count his fingers over and over again. I dreaded these flashbacks because it usually led to a police encounter, and the more he’d drink the more it would trigger them. And the more he thought about Trevor and the future of the band, the more he would drink.

When he wasn’t having flashbacks, he was a strange, tender person who cared seriously about art and music and the well-being of his friends. He had boxes and boxes of old journals and videotapes. He had carried around a camcorder since the age of twelve, so he could record all the important things in his life and then watch them all when he got old. He once got hit by a car when he decided to dance across the street, and told the woman who hit him to drive him to the bar to see his friends’ band instead of the hospital. He did not understand how to deal with the small, everyday inconveniences of modern people and was often out of his element just going to the grocery store or riding the bus.

Sean tried to keep a level head to offset the unpredictability of Johnny, but he wasn’t in his right mind either. His dad would mail him giant bottles of Xanax just to get through the day without having massive panic attacks. He would belittle and antagonize me one minute, and the next he would offer innocent tenderness mixed in with massive lies. He was quite aware of his issues and assumed that medication would take care of everything.

The long nights in the factory were beginning to close in on us, and they were inescapable. The boys would write and record songs for hours and hours, sometimes until four or five in the morning and then get up a few hours later to go to work. We would listen to the Trevor recordings that we had over and over again, to try to understand what it was that he wanted. But the fact that all we had were missing pieces was weighing heavily on us.

I suffered little blackouts and episodes of vertigo every once in awhile from trying to get off pills, knowing that my mind was short circuiting both physically and emotionally. Synapses were being misfired like drunks shooting empty guns in the dark. I was in love with two people, something that I did not know I could experience. The fact that I was isolating myself from the both of them in order to keep secrets was made worse by the fact that we were in isolation from the world itself.

The people downstairs produced benign objects that were comforting and familiar, they had schematics and designs that had existed for years. They did their assembly line work with humble souls and went home at five o’clock every weekday. After the doors locked, the people on the second floor set fire to the stairs in the middle of the night and smashed guitars against the walls. They jumped from the railings and threw their hair clippings all over the floor. They recorded a sweeping, disturbing opus that was lost and re-recorded as a hit pop record complete with handclaps and harmonies. We had no idea what else we could do. We were lost in our own selfishness, and our world was the best world that we could come up with.

The day came when Marty finally gave up the recorder. We drove down to Trevor’s little farm town in northeast Iowa to retrieve it but not without Johnny and I getting stopped by the cops and thrown in jail for the night. A speed trap was what did it, and the gram of pot we had stuck between the seats warranted us a “possession of marijuana” charge. Sean was innocent of the whole mess somehow. I spent the night in a cell at the Winneshiek County jail with back-to-back panic attacks as I hid under the covers and made origami flowers out of toilet paper squares.

There would never be any relief for us, ever. We were the brave, stupid trailblazers of a crumbling future. Isn’t this what we wanted? The lifestyle of the damned… something that we could write about after we survived it with tattered, wise hands, to show that we had experienced something. Was it going to prove something to us, or anybody at all?

The next morning Johnny and I were handcuffed together and taken to court in the back of a cop car. He leaned over with tears in his eyes and kissed my cheek. “Isn’t this romantic?” he joked. I stared down at my black-and-white striped legs and said nothing.

Two days later we were on our way back to Minneapolis with the recorder, and the whole three hour trip back was in total silence. I had gotten off the charge with probation and a slap on the wrist, but we had no idea what was in store for Johnny. It was his third misdemeanor in less than a year. He was looking at a few months of hard time, which meant putting off the album for even longer and spending even more time in the factory. Or perhaps we’d just abandon the project altogether.

We returned to our home defeated but with the recorder in our hands. We had finally scored a victory, and besides the finishing of the album, it would be our last. Eventually I would destroy the whole unit we had been recklessly building between us when Johnny and Sean would finally see what had been going on behind their backs. I had wanted to come help them regain themselves, but in the end I would contribute to the brief destruction of our lives. Being in love with two people was not something that honestly happened in any sort of reality. It was a comforting illusion amid our madness, or just a decoration to our fantastic lives.

After I fled the scene a few weeks later, I would get a call from Sean, who was trying to overdose on painkillers on the beaches of Hawaii. He sobbed quietly into the phone, “I have never wished death for anyone in my whole life until now. You’re the first.”

I would never hear from either of them ever again.

But now here we were, alone with Trevor’s 16-track recorder. We huddled in blankets in the space between downtown Minneapolis and the lonesome industrial district, with a cliff to one side and the highway on the other. The factory had been turned off for the evening and the workers had gone home hours ago, but the lights in our studio had been left on while we were away. We all took swigs from our beer as we stared at the recorder and pressed play.

At that moment I realized that the lost recordings were not going to redeem us or make us feel any better, or more complete. It was not a summation or an excuse for all that we had experienced over the past year. It was just a souvenir, some newfound memories passing quietly through us. It was a vessel used to carry out the project that we came here for, and that was it. It did not cure our young madness, we were supposed to cure that by ourselves over time. We were just being born as dust from an exploding star, naturally unraveling until we each found a space we could recognize as ours, our souls glowing with relief.

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