Toxic History, Prelude: The Writer

Posted: October 2, 2014 in Toxic History
Tags: , , , , , ,
Mikel Jollett: The Writer. Photo by Dave MacIntyre, March 4, 2009, The Mod Club, Toronto.

Mikel Jollett: The Writer. Photo by Dave MacIntyre, March 4, 2009, The Mod Club, Toronto.

By Glen and Julie

It started on a mid-seventies California commune: an inauspicious beginning to an unlikely story.

Mikel Jollett’s upbringing was anything but mainstream. One of a pair of sons born to a pair of hippies whose deep-rooted love for their children was chiefly expressed in intangible ways rather than through the material trappings of a suburban middle-class lifestyle,[i] Jollett enjoyed the time and freedom to pursue his own interests – even when those pursuits set him apart from the rest of the family.

“My folks were down with whatever it was I was gonna do,” explains Jollett. “I was definitely into things that not necessarily everyone in my family was into.”[ii]

One of those pastimes was writing, to which a young Jollett took at a very early age. “I come from a family of very poetic people, in their own way, but probably not formal language, that was more my thing. When I was a kid I used to write stories a lot. It was like a thing in my family… my uncle would ask, ‘How’s the writing Mikel?’ when I was like, 8. I would always write short stories, invent characters, and tell stories.”[iii]

That proclivity for storytelling would eventually come to define his life – but not before his path took a few detours along the way.

College – itself an oddity in the Jollett clan (“I come from a long line of mechanics and ex-cons,” he laughs)[iv] – took Mikel to Stanford, where he applied himself to an education not in writing or literature (“I guess I always felt that studying writing is cheating, and that somehow I didn’t want to learn all these tricks so I couldn’t tell the tricks from things I actually thought”)[v], but psychology.[vi] While there, he also starred on the track team, running 12-15 miles per day and earning all-Pac10 in the 10,000 metres.[vii]

As might have been expected given his unorthodox background, Jollett was something of a fish out of water at college. “There was a status orientation at Stanford that I didn’t even know existed,” he recalls with obvious distaste. “I was not good at the game, I was just confused. My brother was in rehab by the time I was 15, my dad was a heroin addict before I was born, and these [Stanford] kids who grew up on golf courses were taking drugs and drinking. And I’m thinking, ‘you’re supposed to be curing cancer, what are you doing?’ I didn’t understand it. To get to Stanford, and meet all these people whose idea of education was that they were kind of over it? I just highly rejected that.”[viii]

After escaping with a degree in 1996,[ix] Jollett once again chose an unexpected road. Setting psychology to the side (at least in any official capacity), he tried his hand at teaching, coaching track and even carpentry,[x] before finally landing in the most unhippie place possible: a corporate office.

“I was 25 years old, working a hundred hours a week in an office,” he says. “I hadn’t really set out for that life, but you know how those things go. You’d trade a kidney for an extra zero at the end of your paycheck, and so on. My days were filled with 5-year plans, capital-amortization reports, key-performance indices – i.e., the tortured lexicon of the modern office.”[xi]

It was in the third year of this job that Jollett came to the first of a couple crossroads that would shape his future. “I would find myself walking the fluorescent-lit corridors of that ungodly building with reams of green-and-white printout paper covered with endless rows of numbers, a big, round gut hanging over the 38-inch waistline of my green slacks, seething about the budget. ‘Have you seen these numbers, people?’ Every now and then I’d catch a glimpse of my reflection in the office glass and wonder who the fat man was.”[xii]

“I just knew I had to get the fuck out of that fluorescent-lit, corporate horseshit,” he explains. “I made the decision that I would rather be homeless than do that anymore.”[xiii]

Looking to recapture his lost sense of possibility, Jollett was attracted to “the idea that you can shake your life up like a soda bottle and smash it against the wall. That whatever prisons we construct in our lives – whether it’s an awful job, a gut, an unhappy marriage, an addiction, the things in life that hem us in, that make us wake up in the morning in a cold sweat and think, How did I get like this? and How can I escape? – all these things are transient. For me, and maybe for anyone, the answer was, just leave. Tear the entire thing down.”[xiv]

And so, naturally, he traded in his business suits for the grubby garb of a ranch hand – and a big pile of books.


At the age of 27, just as many of his peers were starting to settle down, Jollett spat in the face of convention by ditching his office job and relocating to a horse ranch out in the desert. For a year, his world revolved around three things: shoveling horse manure, reading and revisiting his first love: writing.

“I brought with me a ton of books, and sat there for a year and read and wrote, and that’s all I did,” Jollett remembers. “I was like a stable boy where they gave me room and board if I worked for 3 hours a day, shoveling horse manure. So I did that, and just read a bunch of books. I didn’t have a literature background; I was a science person in college, so it was all really new to me. And I just fell in love with it and started writing all the time. I did some music journalism, a lot of personal essays, I also wrote about politics, and during that time, 50,000 words of a novel… I just wrote and wrote and wrote.[xv] I’d be shovelling horse manure all day, and then at night I’d work on my novel – which was, to be honest, another form of shoveling horse manure.”[xvi]

As he sharpened his skills over the next few years, Jollett’s fledgling writing career began to take flight. The credits started piling up: The Los Angeles Times, Filter Magazine, Men’s Health.[xvii] He wrote and recorded essays set to music for National Public Radio,[xviii] which eventually offered him a regular column.[xix] All the while, he was devouring the great writers of our time: Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Philip Roth, among many others.[xx]

Looking back on those days, Jollett is careful to note, “I was never a professional writer about music. I was really, really broke during all that time. I wanted to be a novelist and I liked music a lot. I wrote under a lot of pen names and I made very little money, like less than 20 grand a year. (As Managing Editor of Filter), I worked from home and I never met the people I talked to. Mostly I was a writer and I got a title because I would write under different names. I think it sounds really important but literally, I was here, the same place I am now… I knew I liked music and I knew I wanted to meet David Bowie and Robert Smith. So it was a way of doing that. (My friends and I) were sacrificing so much just so we could write our dumb little pieces about The Cure or David Bowie or Lou Reed. And it was because we were writers and we liked music and wanted to write about music. We weren’t critics, we weren’t paid anything. We literally made it up as we went.”[xxi]

Ultimately, however, being a music journalist – professional or otherwise – was not what drove Jollett. He had something bigger in mind.

“I’ve felt all my life that the smart people in this society were the writers, those were always the people that I respected and admired,” Jollett explains. “So whenever I thought about becoming a writer, I’d get a little tingle in my spine, you know, kind of nervous and excited. Whether I had any proficiency at it is another question. But I certainly was interested in it.”[xxii]

In 2006, having given up journalism to focus on creative writing, Jollett seemed on the verge of a breakthrough. He wrote a story, “The Crack,” which garnered interest at The New Yorker before McSweeney’s (“the gold standard publication for up-and-coming American scribes”[xxiii]) agreed to publish it. His first piece of published fiction, it tells the story of four friends, “who are all dying of various illnesses, walking around in one of those weirdly surreal rainy days in LA. They’re all dying – I tend to write about death a lot – and they’re all dying, but mostly they just smoke a lot of pot, watch movies, hang around Los Feliz, and crack jokes; it’s just about the relationships between these 4 friends.”[xxiv] It’s long for a short story, around 10,000 words, and he was working on turning it into a novel – a project that remains unfinished to this day.

Meanwhile, Jollett had secured an agent for the novel-in-progress, and had been invited to the prestigious Yaddo artist colony in upstate New York, previously attended by such notable scribes as Saul Bellow and William Carlos Williams.[xxv]

Getting into Yaddo was “a huge honor for an unpublished fiction writer,” Jollett admits with just a hint of pride. “So I got in there and I got the prime spot in the summer, they gave me 2 months. I had a really good literary agent I’d landed, and I had a novel that was just about done that he was really excited about.”[xxvi]

Years of struggle, of pursuing a nebulous dream that perpetually seemed just barely out of reach, appeared finally on the verge of a major payoff.

But this is Mikel Jollett, and things are never quite that straightforward.

Next (Chapter 1: The Week from Hell) >

Mikel Jollett Writings:

What I Learned in Mind Control: An open letter to psychology professor Phil Zimbardo – Stanford Magazine – July/August 2001

Tom Waits – On Harry Partch, Charles Bukowski, myths, rap and nerds. SOMA magazine, July, 2002
Such a perfect day – Age, youth, music, death, charm, grace, godlessness, hope and lipstick with David Bowie. Filter magazine, July/August 2003
Dandy Warhols – Filter magazine interview, 2003
Art, Advertising and the Myth of the Underground – The Strokes meet Lou Reed. Filter magazine, February 2004

NPR Music Reviews and other commentary
Identity Crisis – July 15, 2002
Sigur Ros – November 20, 2002
My Dad The Ex-Con – January 6, 2003
Music Review: ‘Sumday’ from Grandaddy – August 22, 2003
The Best Songs of 2003 – December 21, 2003
The Best CDs of 2003 – December 22, 2003
Music Review: ‘Soviet Kitsch’ from Regina Spektor – March 5, 2004
Commentary: Boomers and Hip-Hop – March 11, 2004
Music Review: ‘Franz Ferdinand’ from Franz Ferdinand – March 29, 2004
Review of Modest Mouse “Good News for People who Love Bad News” – May 3, 2004
Morrissey’s back with “You Are the Quarry” – June 7, 2004
CD Review: ‘The Cure’ from The Cure – August 5, 2004
The Best Songs of 2004 – December 27, 2004
The Best CDs of 2004 – December 28, 2004
Brian Eno Albums Remastered for Compact Disc – December 30, 2004
A Look at the Best CDs of the Year (various NPR writers and critics) – December 31, 2004
The Year Ahead: 2005 – January 12, 2005
Devotchka: ‘How It Ends’ – February 17, 2005
A Look at the Coachella Music Festival – May 2, 2005
Moby Checks in with ‘Hotel’ – June 2, 2005
Coldplay Bids for ‘Biggest Band in the World’ – June 6, 2005

Various music reviews written for In Music We Trust

Los Angeles Times Articles
Rumination rock, anyone? – July 10, 2005
Alkaline Trio a little too polished for punk – July 22, 2005
Kings of Leon hold court – July 25, 2005
Warm-up act hot, headliner not – August 1, 2005
A charming twin bill called Tegan and Sara – August 3, 2005
Pulling back from the edge (Jack Johnson) – August 10, 2005
The Cab ride accelerates (Death Cab for Cutie) – August 28, 2005

Men’s Health Articles
The Demons on My Rope Line (High-Altitude Cerebral Edema) – January 31, 2005
Me versus the bully (Tough Guy Father, Nerdy Son) – July 27, 2005
Brad Pitt Whipped Me Into Shape – March 2006
You: Stronger, Faster, Smarter (Bionics Research) – August 8, 2006
The Miracle on Ice – July 29, 2007
Live longer, live better – August 4, 2008

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern – Issue 27, featuring excerpt from “The Crack” – May 28, 2008

The Crack – full story


[i] The Airborne Toxic Event, “A Biography of sorts,”

[ii] Erica Bruce, “Sound and Vision: My Interview with The Airborne Toxic Event,” Between Love and Like (April 2008),

[iii] Bruce.

[iv] Bruce.

[v] Bruce.

[vi] Vanessa Hua, “In Tune with Toxic,” Stanford Alumni (November/December 2009),

[vii] Mikel Jollett, “Brad Pitt Whipped Me Into Shape,” reprinted at Between Love and Like, (April 2008),

[viii] Cornel Bonca, “The Sob in the Spine: Mikel Jollett’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Alchemy,” Los Angeles Review of Books, (Oct. 24, 2014),

[ix] Shay Quillen, “Rising rockers take novel approach,” Mercury News, (Dec. 12, 2008).

[x] Hua.

[xi] Jollett.

[xii] Jollett.

[xiii] TATE, “Biography.”

[xiv] Jollett.

[xv] Bruce.

[xvi] TATE, “Biography.”

[xvii] Jason Lipshutz, “Flying High: Airborne Toxic Event Builds Momentum, World Tour,” Billboard, (June 27, 2009),

[xviii] Hua.

[xix] Lipshutz.

[xx] Hua.

[xxi] Bruce.

[xxii] Bruce.

[xxiii] Cornel Bonca, “Screaming our Secrets: The Airborne Toxic Event makes music for people that need to hear the things they can’t quite reveal,” Las Vegas City Life, (June 9, 2011).

[xxiv] Bruce.

[xxv] Quillen.

[xxvi] Bruce.

JulieAlong with writing regularly for This Is Nowhere, Julie publishes, a music blog with the bipolar personality of wannabe philosopher and charlatan music critic, where she is just as likely to review the audience as she is the band. Her first Airborne show was at a lingerie party hosted by WFNX at an Irish-Mexican bar in Boston’s financial district. She does her best to live by the motto “only one who attempts the absurd can achieve the impossible.”

Glen 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.

  1. Brittany says:

    “No, I will not be doing anything at work today. You can find me in my office, reading every word ever published by Mikel Jollett.”

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I wish I could like this twice.


  3. Susan S. says:

    Wow! What a brilliant undertaking, what a labor or love. Thanks, you two!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Carole Corley says:

    I can’t wait for the next installment! And I second the notion of reading everything ever written by Mikel. I had no idea he is such a good writer.


  5. […] from Concert Addicts, AXS (written by Dave MacIntyre, whose photography has been featured in our Toxic History series and our Fillmore Programme) and The Adventures of an Urban Flower Girl, as well as photos by Amy […]


  6. […] Toxic History, Prelu… on Toxic History: The Story of Th… […]


  7. […] Toxic History: The S… on Toxic History, Prelude: The… […]


  8. […] that ran over 24 minutes. In the course of the conversation, he touched on everything from his days as a freelance writer, the week from hell and the genesis of the band’s name, musical and literary influences, […]


  9. […] For those who are readers (and given the sophistication of the Airborne audience, that’s probably most of us), there is no shortage of TATE-related reading material out there waiting to be explored. You can keep yourself busy for a long time reading through Mikel Jollett’s pre-Airborne writings, starting with his short story “The Crack” and then moving on to his vast collection of music reviews, interviews and general interest magazine articles. Click here for a full list, with links. […]


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