I mean I can’t be the saint people dream of now. People want a street angel. They want a saint but with a cowboy mouth. Somebody to get off on when they can’t get off on themselves. I think that’s what Mick Jagger is trying to do, what Bob Dylan seemed to be for a while. A sort of God in our image, ya know? Mick Jagger came close but he got too conscious. For a while he gave me hope. I want it to be perfect, ’cause it’s the only religion I got. In the old days people had a Jesus and those people to embrace. They created a God with all their belief energies and when they didn’t dig. But it’s too hard now. We’re earthy people and the old saints just don’t make it, and the old God is just too far away. He don’t represent our pain no more. His words don’t shake through us no more. Any great motherfucker rock ’n roll song can raise me higher than all of Revelations. We created rock ’n roll from our own image, it’s our child.”
I graduated from high school in Providence, Rhode Island in 1996 and went off to college in the South. I spent a semester focusing on brooding in my dorm room, singing and playing derivative on guitar at the campus coffee shop, and taking psychedelics. In those pursuits, I thrived. Unfortunately, that was not a course of study offered by the college. And, since my unsanctioned independent study in being a cliche took up so much of my time and energy, not much remained for classes. So, consequently, I became one of those first semester casualties, receiving a polite letter from an academic dean explaining that I was no longer welcome to take up space at their institution of higher learning.
Upon returning to Providence, I spent some months sleeping days away in my childhood bedroom and working nights at a basement bar and lounge off Thayer Street, on the East Side. The owner was a tall, ginger named James. James was a former Air Force load master, who graduated from Johnson & Wales University with a degree in hospitality. His grandfather had bought the building, a huge, second-empire Victorian house, from a retired doctor back in the nineteen-sixties. The doctor kept his practice on the first floor, his residence on the second floor, and servants’ quarters on the third floor. The surprisingly large basement had been used for medical records and equipment storage. James and his wife, Mona, lived on the second floor and rented the first floor as a small art gallery and events space. When James graduated, his mom loaned him the money to renovate the basement space as a bar and lounge and called it The Downward Spiral.
I was initially hired as manual labor at the Downward Spiral, helping James to finish the basement space. Rather than paying additional employer taxes, or a decent wage, James kept me on “under the table” to tend bar, learning the craft from our main bartender, Mona. Also, I was nineteen and not legally permitted to work behind the bar. As a condition of working in this capacity, he agreed to rent me the third-floor space for $150 per month. If asked, I was to say I was a barback who refilled ice wells and did not handle open containers.
James kept his drum kit in the large liquor and keg storeroom because Mona wouldn’t let him keep them in their apartment. I mean, who could blame her? He was an outstanding drummer and, after locking the bar for the night, we would jam for hours, him on drums and me on guitar. We would figure out how to play cover songs or just make up our own. James was as impressed with my vocals as I was with his percussion. It wasn’t long before we added two more members to the late-night jam sessions. When The Downward Spiral started attracting more of a crowd, James had hired a guy named Dennis to work the door. Dennis had dark skin, and a magnetic smile. Although he was well built and had an intimidating number of visible piercings, he could almost always diffuse any conflict without resorting to aggression. What we didn’t know when James hired him was that Dennis was a classically trained pianist who studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston for a year before he quit because his mother got cancer. He moved his keyboard into the storeroom and joined what the three of us took to calling “music therapy.”
Finally, there was Jenny. A mixed media art student at Rhode Island School of Design, Jenny was pale, with a shaggy bob haircut she chopped and dyed herself with fabric shears and Kool-Aid packets. She would frequent the Spiral with her girlfriend, Haley, shortly before last call, after working late in the studio. Jenny was a bass player who had performed with Haley in a performance-art, cabaret-style duo, a la Dresden Dolls. When Haley and Jenny broke up, Jenny did not take it well and became a perfect candidate for our therapy sessions.
At some point, we realized that we were pretty good, and between cover songs and a few originals, we had enough material for a set. James and Mona set up a corner of the bar as a small stage, hung some secondhand PAR can lights from the low ceiling, and bought a used P.A. system. On a Thursday night, I stepped on stage with my guitar in front of about a dozen people, introduced the band, and James counted the four of us in for our debut gig. We called ourselves Below Me.
Our music was a messy, postmodern collage of influences, ironically dark and humorously vulnerable, all driven by James’ riveting drumbeat. So, it spoke clearly to the spirit of the age. The nineties were a weird time. There existed simultaneously the pull of America’s optimistically myopic past and the push by our collective fear of the millennium, toward which we were inexorably hurtling. The decade revolted against the neon, self-centered, excess of the eighties. This was a time before ubiquitous interconnectivity; before immediate everything, on demand; and, before we all held dopamine hits in our pockets in the form of iPhones loaded with social media. We manipulated our brain chemistry by analogue means: drugs, sex, and loud music. Musically speaking, anything raw and self-aware was cool. Everything overproduced and focus-grouped felt like stepping in bubblegum on the sidewalk: a sickeningly sweet smell followed by a feeling of disappointment, knowing whatever your journey, it was likely ruined by someone else’s sugary mess that was stuck to you for the foreseeable future.
Our first original song was called Shuttlef*cked. The tune fluctuated between Dennis’s elegant and hypnotic piano, and James and Jennys’ pulsing disco-funk, while I strummed full chords on my black Epiphone SG electric guitar, and sang from the perspective of one of Christa McAuliffe’s students as they watched her take off for outer space and then explode in midair. Another original was a pounding, punk rock, power chord banger, called Console, overlaid with a squealing synthesizer keyboard hook, with lyrics comparing the 24-hour CNN coverage of the US military operation in Iraq to playing a video game.
Within three months of our first show, we were turning people away at the door on Thursday nights, and started playing on Friday nights too. James began charging a cover at the door and splitting the gate four ways. He had to hire another bartender to help Mona on the nights when the band played. He had to hire another guy at the door named Dale—a real bouncer—to check I.D.s and control the crowd. We were in the right place at the right time to surf our fifteen-minute success wave.
Thayer Street in the nineties was an island of misfit toys. There were the tour kids, begging for spare change, and perpetually between parking lots on a Grateful Dead or Phish tour. There were the skaters, shirtless and fearless, practicing tricks in the most inconvenient spaces, seemingly oblivious to pedestrians or cars. There were the candy ravers, with phat pants and glitter, too skinny and too pierced, their eyes vacant until the drugs kicked in and the record dropped. And there were the bangers who traveled from other parts of the city to peddle their illicit pharmaceuticals to Brown University students who would pay well above market value for short bags of stomped-on dope in a variety of flavors. Given this segmented supercell of hormone-charged, drug-addled, youth culture, it was inevitable for disagreement to turn violent. Most of the time, the demographics intermingled harmoniously. Every now and then, a quarrel would lead to a brawl, but rarely resulted in more than bruised faces and egos.
So, when the Providence Journal ran an above the fold headline: ‘Severed Hand of Thayer Street Real Estate Mogul Found Nailed to Pole,’ we were all shocked. The article told of the manager of the College Hill Bookstore coming in to open his shop for the day and finding a human hand tacked up among the assortment of stapled flyers on a telephone pole, secured by a pair of ten-penny nails through its palm. The police matched the prints of the disembodied hand to Andrew Dashe, one of two men who owned about ninety-percent of the property on Thayer Street, as well as other, valuable real estate holdings throughout the city. Dashe’s whereabouts were unknown, and police were welcoming any information about his location.
James said he remembered his grandfather mentioning Phillip Dashe, Andrew’s father, who began purchasing buildings on Thayer Street in the early nineteen-seventies. James said his grandfather also talked about a younger man, named Anthony Moltilupi, rushing to outbid Dashe in a real estate war to buy up as much property as each could get their hands on. Over the last decade, James said that other local business owners and residential tenants had complained about rents being increased exorbitantly. Apparently, both Andrew Dashe and Anthony Moltilupi had approached James within the last six months about purchasing the big Victorian that housed the Downward Spiral. James had no interest in selling, and his mother (who technically owned the property) was equally uninterested.
“I never met Andrew Dashe,” said James, “His assistant reached out to me by phone. She was very polite. I did talk to Anthony Moltilupi in person. He was not polite. He walked in here one afternoon, about six months ago, when we were still renovating. He was a bully and talked to me like I should be grateful for his offer to save me from the burden of owning this property. He was a smarmy, entitled asshole. You know, a real pinky ring kind of guy, and he just wouldn’t leave. Finally, I started ripping studs with my circular saw, so it was too loud and dusty for him and his shiny suit. He got the message and left.”
One night, a few weeks later, more violence struck. This time it happened even closer to home, seeping into the Downward Spiral itself. Reexamining that late September night in hindsight, it should have proven a clarifying event that alerted me to the potential consequences of my choices. But I didn’t see it. There was something in the way. Maybe it was the drugs and booze. Maybe it was the adrenaline and angst. For whatever reason, I felt more comfortable leaning into the violence than backing away. I saw it as real. The pool of blood on the dance floor was real. It was an honest and primal alternative to the TGIF sitcom-America, lecturing an unrealistic notion of the values I was expected to embrace, while actually trying to sell me breakfast cereal and batteries. It was the thrill of spitting in a wishing well and it made me feel the primal rush that most people actively avoid. And of course, that was the night I met the girl with the rainbow hair. But I’m getting ahead of myself.