Echoes of TATE in “The Crack”

Posted: June 10, 2014 in A Little Less Profound
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"The Crack," by Mikel JollettBy Glen

Right around the time when The Airborne Toxic Event was preparing to release their maiden album, bandleader and songwriter-in-chief Mikel Jollett published a short story. Titled “The Crack,” the piece was excerpted from a novel he had started but never finished: a project that was pushed to the side when his desire to be a novelist was subsumed by a sudden, urgent need to write songs instead.

Although The New Yorker rejected “The Crack,” McSweeney’s knew a good thing when they saw it. McSweeney’s 27 gave Mikel’s tale a home alongside a Stephen King short, among other submissions. And yet, just as he began to taste some success as a fiction writer, Mikel found himself increasingly drawn to music as his preferred medium of self-expression – even forsaking an invitation to Yaddo, a prestigious writing residency where he’d intended to bring the novel to fruition.

With both TATE’s debut record and this story having emerged from the same rubble – born of a particularly tumultuous period in the writer’s life – it is not surprising in the least to find echoes of TATE in “The Crack.” Indeed, many of the issues with which Mikel wrestled in his music find fuller expression in the story. Or is that the other way around? Either way, it’s clear that both works drew from the same well.

In the concert video Does This Mean You’re Moving On: The Airborne Toxic Event Live at Koko, London, the band kicks things off with “This is Nowhere.” The song is preceded by the barest of explanations: “This is a song about dying young.” Likewise, “The Crack” is a story about dying young.

Both song and story take place in the writer’s home of Los Feliz, in the pouring rain.

We all sit on the curb
And we stare at the rain in our boots
The car, the clouds, the sky (This is Nowhere)

The rain has become a deluge, a tropical downpour. It’s like standing in the shower, only it’s cold and we’re wading through a winter stream that’s running down the right-turn lane of Vermont Avenue as it approaches Hollywood Boulevard. Those Who Are Dry, in their cars, are staring at us. We’re acting as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to be standing out here. After all, we have our orange cone. Though the garbage bags probably undermine our authority. (60)

“The Crack” revolves around a most atypical foursome: a quartet of youngish, unlikely friends bound together by the shared misfortune of terminal illness – each of them living with a painful awareness of their own mortality, and the certain knowledge that their last day is coming sooner than later. “We weren’t any age or nationality at all. We were the walking dead.” (59)

In truth, these characters are no more dying than you and I, the only difference being that they no longer have the luxury of denying it.

And I said “It’ll be okay”
But that’s a lie man I mean, hey
We’re all dying… young (The Winning Side)

This idea of living with an awareness of death is arguably the thematic core of The Airborne Toxic Event’s early work. Those of us who are young and healthy have little trouble keeping morbid thoughts at bay, most of the time. Not so for these unlucky friends. Though they try distracting themselves (“smoking pot at Dig’s place or reciting sonnets on Shakespeare Bridge over in Silver Lake or whatever it was we did to be someone else for a day and forget that we were all dying”), talking tough (“‘I’m going down swinging,’ she said. ‘I’m not scared of dying. It’s inevitable anyway. You want to know what scares me? American Idol.'”), or at least finding some humor in it, reality perpetually lurks just around the corner:

“Who’s the stiff?” she’d said when I first brought him over to Dig’s. It was a code we’d developed. We called ourselves stiffs because it was easier to just be out with it, to joke about it, to approach it the same way we approached everything else. As if it was just torturing us with its utter banality. Which was all bullshit, of course. The truth is it scared us to death. But that was usually nights, when we were alone. In the afternoons, when we were together, we were braver. (64-65)

And these things I say to make myself feel good again
I’ll speak, I’ll write, I’ll laugh, I’ll lie
I can’t bear to sit here and drink myself sick again
Another night

When everything I know was just a lie
And I don’t even know where I’ll sleep tonight (This is Nowhere)

When they are together, a defiant gang, they can almost make themselves forget… almost. But alone, at night, a terrifying darkness sets in. Trapped – like “a boy at the bottom of a well” (a “Wishing Well,” perhaps?)

All along there was the morbid reality of cancer and AIDS and failing organs and poor me and why me? And why her? And why this? And the images we all kept locked in our heads, the funerals, the hospitals, the sobbing parents. The desperate, cloying way in which we secretly wanted, God, another heart, another pancreas, another chance to make different choices, more friends, less loneliness, new drugs, more energy, more time. You sit around with these thoughts and you cry so hard, you wrench and shake and sputter and lie awake trying to think of romantic things for someone to read over your grave—but it’s all so awful and selfish. You get tired of it. (68)

I got nothing to do but stare at these walls
And take some time to screw my head on right
We all ended up alone, wasted here at Silver Lake
We’ll work, we’ll feed, we’ll change, we’ll try
I can’t make any sense of this or you or anything (This is Nowhere)

As the Koko concert winds down, Mikel reminds us that we’re going to be dead for a long time, but right now is the big dance. So live while you have the chance. Because in the end, we all have a choice. We can stubbornly choose life in the face of death, or we can passively succumb to death even before it forces itself upon us once and for all.

In “The Crack,” these options are personified by the General Major and Margaret. The General sides with life:

The General Major has wide eyes, like a child, and a quiet scratchy voice. His interests include everything. I think we all know that in one way or another our excursions are motivated by his boundless curiosity. Margaret, Dig, and I generally go along because we have nothing better to do, because he offers us entertainment and some kind of escape. But the General Major is genuinely excited. When he says he wants to know, in whatever way he can before he dies, where he ends and the world begins, you know he really means it. So then you want to know too. (63)

Conversely, though she tags along on the group’s adventures, Margaret is ultimately unable to let go of her fear and embrace the dance. Reality is just too damn real:

Margaret wrestles free of his grip. “You guys are so full of shit. Do you have any idea how many ways there are to die down here? What if the tunnel caves in? What if somebody cuts the rope? What if we can’t get out and we’re stuck?” She backs up. “What about that?”

“Margy,” Dig says. “Calm down. Everything’s fine. Nothing’s going to happen. Look at this.” He extends his arms in a sweeping motion over the river. “Did you ever think you would see something like this?”

“Everything is not fine!” she screams. Dig, the General Major, and i exchange glances. She’s panting again, running her hands up and down the side of her shirt. “What if we’re just going to be fucking stuck here!? What if there’s nothing we can do about it and we’re just going to die!?” She runs her fingers frantically over her head, pacing. We all watch as a tuft of hair comes out in her hand. We freeze. She looks down at the ball of matted, lifeless, golden locks in her palm. Her lip begins to tremble. “You fucking assholes! Fuck you! Fuck all of you! Fuck this!” (75-76)

The General chooses the better path. It’s not that he’s kidding himself (“Well, I’d say you’re gonna live, but we all know that isn’t true”); it’s more that he realizes that just because you’re dying young doesn’t mean you have to die prematurely. Yeah, you (and I, and all of us) might die tomorrow… but we’re not dead today. So live like it already.

Glen, Fan of The Airborne Toxic Event Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.

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Comments
  1. […] This is Nowhere – “The eponymous first record was almost called This is Nowhere. In fact, that name remains on all of the final mixes before submitting them to iTunes. At the last minute, it was decided that our band name was long enough and we didn’t need any more verbiage crowding the cover. This song is about the characters in the short story The Crack.” […]

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  2. […] at The Fillmore is my all-time live TATE highlight. Digging into the history of the band and understanding its connection to Mikel’s short story “The Crack” has also served to deepen my love for the […]

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  3. […] literary references, Mikel’s own short story “The Crack” is essentially the song “This is Nowhere” in longer form. Or maybe it’s the other way around? Either way, if you’re in the 48% of fans who […]

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