Toxic History, Chapter 1: The Week from Hell

Posted: October 21, 2014 in Toxic History
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event. Photo by Julie, Keswick, PA, Sept. 2010.

Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event. Photo by Julie, Keswick, PA, Sept. 2010.

By Glen and Julie

“My whole life I was invincible like everyone else,” says Mikel Jollett, thoughtfully fingering the patches of his scalp. “You’re the talented one, the smart one, the cute one, and then suddenly it’s like, ‘Hey, you’re gonna lose all your hair and your face is gonna turn white and you’ll die. Oh and so’s your mom.’”[i]

The week that changed everything came at the worst possible time. With Jollett seemingly poised to take his shot at literary greatness, the other shoe didn’t just drop – it kicked him in the head, and then in the balls, on its way down.

Early in 2006, Jollett endured a series of catastrophes unfairly squeezed into a handful of horrific days. It was a week that would irrevocably alter the direction of his life – assuming he survived at all, that is.

The first shot came when Jollett was diagnosed with a genetic autoimmune disorder: a degenerative skin disease. Though not fatal,[ii] it will certainly do a number on whatever vanity to which one might be clinging. “I’m losing all the hair on my head and my face and my body,” he explains matter-of-factly. “And I’m losing all the pigment on my body. I’m going to look like Moby.”[iii]

Stunned by this unexpected turn of events, a reeling Jollett was not even afforded the luxury of time to process the blow before the next one found its mark. The following day, his mother called with news that put his own misfortune in perspective. Cancer.

Though Jollett has never gone on record about the specifics of her diagnosis or the ensuing battle, other than to gratefully report that she was victorious, its lasting effects upon the son are as obvious as they were profound. “My mom getting sick pretty much scared the shit out of me,” he admits.[iv] The fear that was birthed that day would continue to swirl well beyond the duration of the crisis, consuming his thoughts and fueling his future work. “I think I write music because I’m afraid to die,” Jollett states bluntly.[v]

Jollett’s hellacious week was not limited to physical afflictions, either. Misfortune doubled down and invaded the heart when he split from his long-time girlfriend – a break-up that would become part of Airborne Toxic Event lore through its immortalization in the band’s signature song, “Sometime Around Midnight.”

During times of crisis, most people lean harder on their loved ones. Not so Jollett. Although the timing was terrible, the decision to end the relationship was his.[vi] Why he felt the need to distance himself from her, and at that point in time in particular, is unclear. Maybe it had been brewing for some time, and the combined traumas of the week pushed him over the edge. Or, perhaps it betrays a fear of intimacy, of being seen at his most vulnerable. Whatever the reason, it would prove to be anything but a clean break, as the couple would be on again/off again for another year before moving on for good,[vii] while the regrets stemming from that relationship would continue to plague Jollett long after that.

As if to pile on himself, Jollett also picked that moment to quit a two-packs-a-day smoking habit – a resolution which, while necessitated by his newly diagnosed medical condition,[viii] certainly couldn’t have helped with the emotional turmoil.

And still, the universe had one last wicked trick up its sleeve. After several days spent keeping vigil with his mother in the hospital, Jollett came down with pneumonia.

It was the final straw in a week of final straws.

“Something in me snapped,” Jollett says. “Like, I literally just lost my mind and didn’t care about anything.[ix] I spent a month walking around in a daze – hazy, depressed, like I was in diaper.[x] It was like the moment in my life I realized I was going to die.”[xi]

Though the black cloud would dissipate in time, its impact would not. In a very real sense, everything that Jollett would do over the next decade would be part of a protracted attempt to make sense of the events of that week and come to grips with a life that includes disappointment, disease and death.

It’s hardly surprising that the process began with the writer locking himself in an apartment for a month and a half with pen and paper. What was surprising was the form the writing took: not prose, but music.

“I remember it really clearly,” reflects Jollett. “It was January 3 – I came home and picked up the guitar and just started playing for five hours, and the next day, eight. I couldn’t even really sing that well, but I would try to, every single day, just sing and play and write. And ever since then, that’s all I’ve done.”[xii]

Just as he had earlier banished himself to a horse ranch in the middle of nowhere to turn his thoughts into a novel, he now exiled himself to his apartment in a self-inflicted solitary confinement, pouring his pain into poetry. The novel was shelved as the author discovered that some anguish cannot be adequately expressed through words alone; it requires rhymes and melodies.

“All I did was make music. The feeling wasn’t that I had so much more to say but that I had so much less time to say it.[xiii] It was like being bit by a bug or something, I can’t explain it. Suddenly all I wanted to do was play music. I had no ambition before that to do music and had given up music years ago, but I just started writing all these songs and it just started to take over my life. All I ever wanted to do was play music and write songs and sing and sing and sing, like 8 hours a day. It was like having OCD but with a guitar or something.”[xiv]

The resulting songs (and there were hundreds of them) were intensely self-revealing and unflinchingly honest. There was no grand plan to start a band and perform them in front of an audience; just an urgent need to translate into words a life turned upside down. Given the state of affairs at the time, there’s an undeniable darkness to the work.

“I think that you write about what’s around you,” Jollett explains. “I hope it’s not the case that I can only write about devastatingly bad times. I’ve just had some devastatingly bad times. I didn’t choose ‘em, I wouldn’t want ‘em back… You ever have stuff happen to you in your life that just breaks you in half? You never plan for it… Shit happens in your life, use it, make something from it, make some art from it. The things that are terrible in life that happen to you are also beautiful, and you can find the beauty in all that terror.[xv] For me I think a lot of it had to do with sort of wrestling with my demons or devils or whatever it is, and trying to create something out of it, as opposed to it just being a knock on my life. You could just say, ‘That really sucked,’ or you can say, the decision to become an artist was a decision to create something out of that… kind of the raw materials of that experience and that emotion and trying to turn that into something you can share with the rest of the world.”[xvi]

Though Jollett had dabbled in song writing as early as the age of 15, the transition from wordsmithing a novel to penning songs did not come easily. That he would go on to enjoy a measure of success is a testament to the power of relentless commitment and sheer hard work – qualities that Jollett points to as the keys to achieving anything of value in life.

“I mean, you can become the best apple pie baker in the world if you bake an apple pie every day. You know what I mean? Like, you just have to make a decision to do it by whatever means you have. For some people that’s, you know, rehearsing ten hours a day. For some people that’s recording ten hours a day. What I will tell you is it takes a long time to get good at something and people who think you’re born with talent are just wrong… You develop talent. You know, wasted talent’s the most abundant resource in the world… You have to get better. And the only way you get better is by practicing.

I’m serious. Like, sit down tomorrow, decide you want to be a songwriter, and go about acting like your life depended on it. And, you know – It’s really hard. It’s actually, like, really hard… People are always testing to see if they have the talent for something… they’re hoping that through minimal effort they have some innate talent. And it’s true that one in every, like, hundred million people have that. You have a Mozart every now and then, but most of us aren’t Mozart. The other nine hundred ninety-nine million, you have some talent and you have to develop it. Spend a lot of time. Make it your business… I promise you, if you write a thousand songs one of them’s gonna be good.”

Once you make a decision to do something the universe kinda gets on your side about it. But only if you’re serious. It also tests you and asks you if you’re serious. You know, I was flat broke and ruined my credit and living in a tiny little squalor of an apartment and, like, you know, defaulted on every one of my credit cards and was halfway to homeless. And at each one of those things like, life is like, ‘Do you mean it? Do you mean it? Do you really want to do this?’ And if your answer is anything other than 100% yes, you just don’t have a stomach for it, go to fucking law school or something.”[xvii]

Jollett took the leap. There was no Plan B. To the astonishment of his family and friends, he declined the invitation to Yaddo, put the novel on the shelf and – along with new drummer friend Daren Taylor – set out to start a band.[xviii]

Time has given the gift of perspective. “It’s funny because my whole life, I was like the cute boy in high school and college to some extent,” he reminisces. “I started a band not until I was 30-something, and then I got diagnosed with this disease, and it changes the way I look. And suddenly everyone is taking pictures of us, shooting videos of us, and I look at them and go, ‘Wow, you don’t have that much hair,’ or ‘Your skin looks funny,’ and… it’s really nerve-wracking and weird. When it comes to just the art of it, you don’t care, you just want people to care about what you write or what you sing or what your band is doing. But then there’s this real thing about being in front of people, and other people telling you, ‘Hey dude, gosh, you kind of look weird.’ So that line where he says, ‘We’re ugly but we have the music’ (Leonard Cohen in ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’), that really speaks to me. I feel like I didn’t have the music until I became ugly, and that was my trade-off with the world. And so I couldn’t try to be the cute boy who fronts a band or tries to sleep with groupies… I had to write songs I meant, I had to be with bandmates I truly cared about, I had to do things that I really believed in. I wasn’t going to get away with just trying to be cute because I wasn’t gonna be cute anymore… I was going to lose all my hair and my skin pigment and look like Moby.

“The songs are all real; everything in there is true, everything really happened. Like in the case of ‘Innocence,’ I just wanted the entire world to see this horrible event for what it was. Or a song like ‘Midnight,’ you write that sitting alone in your apartment, and like with all writers, you want to be able to tell the entire world that THIS happened to me and I want others to know about it because it was so overwhelming to me that it happened.

“My best moments are always those moments where you come back and this thing was written, and really, truly it’s not like you wrote it, it’s like you wrote it down. You’re just this desperate, pathetic, fucking, mongroling little thing who just wanted this one moment to be right. And you don’t care what you’re accused of, you don’t care how you look the next morning, you don’t care what sort of person you come off being, you don’t care what judgments other people are gonna make about you… you just put yourself out there because you believe that people are gonna get it.”[xix]

< Previous (Prelude: The Writer)

Notes:

[i] “McMenamins & 94.7 present, ‘December to Remember,’” (Oct. 29, 2008), http://www.mcmenamins.com.

[ii] Joe Fielder, “Mini-Interview: Airborne Toxic Event,” (Oct. 27, 2006), http://radiofreesilverlake.blogspot.ca/2006_10_01_archive.html.

[iii] Erica Bruce, “Sound and Vision: My Interview with The Airborne Toxic Event,” Between Love and Like (April 2008), http://betweenloveandlike.blogspot.ca/2008/04/sound-and-vision-my-interview-with.html.

[iv] Travis Woods, “The Airborne Toxic Event Interview: ‘We’re All Gonna Die, So Let’s Get Drunk and Dance,’” Prefix Magazine, (Jan. 11, 2008).

[v] Fielder.

[vi] Ammar Belal, “The Airborne Toxic Event – Interview for City Fm89 Radio Pakistan,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIHnGCua98E (see the discussion beginning at 23:10).

[vii] Belal.

[viii] Fielder.

[ix] “The Airborne Toxic Event Biography,” Artist Direct, http://www.artistdirect.com/artist/bio/airborne-toxic-event/4207575.

[x] Fielder.

[xi] Kevin Bronson, “Toxic Avengers,” Buzz Bands, (February 1, 2007), http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/cl-wk-bands1feb01-story.html.

[xii] Woods.

[xiii] McMenamins.

[xiv] Bruce.

[xv] Bruce.

[xvi] Belal.

[xvii] Nils Kolonko, Bandologie Interview, (February 1, 2011), http://www.bandologie.com/the_airborne_toxic_event_interview_transcript.php.

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

[xix] Bruce.

JulieAlong with writing regularly for This Is Nowhere, Julie publishes musingsfromboston.com, 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.

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Comments
  1. Jerri says:

    When I can find the words, I’m coming back with my comment. For now though, I’m just very moved. I feel like I just read about myself, & what I HV been going through the past year & a half since I sat with my mom while she passed. Will stop here. Too many tears to see to write. Thnx fr sharing MJ. I feel lk I found a long lost brother.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Toxic History, Chapter 1: The Week from Hell […]

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  3. Angela Fuller says:

    This was so beautiful. When I met Mikel for the first time, I was going through chemotherapy, had no hair, and looked “sick” basically. I thought he was a bit standoffish when we met in person, and chalked it up to him being the shy rock star. Now reading this, I think maybe seeing me in that state was hard for him because it brought back what his mom went through and his own diminishing beauty. I shoved mortality in his face without even knowing it. The next few times I met him, he was as gracious as could be and we had some really deep talks over drinks. I’ve always felt an innate connection with Mikel, and I’m so proud and glad to call him a friend.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Josie says:

    I do believe those emotions regarding death and loss are what drew me to Airborne.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Kris says:

    Outstanding story. Nicely done.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. treendabean says:

    Great work on this compilation Glen & Julie. I appreciate the effort it’s taking to put this history together, especially with the glut of sources and media that occasionally have conflicting narratives like this Guardian article offers a slightly different version of that fateful week (she broke up with him) http://www.theguardian.com/music/2009/jan/23/mikel-jollett-airborne-toxic-event. When it’s something not directly out of the subject’s mouth how do you decide what is genuine and what is journalistic speculation?

    It was always my impression that Midnight girl was someone different from the Missy/Papillion/Georgia/LittleMissCatherine person, that it was written post the first writing frenzy that created those songs, after the band had formed and first girl was long gone.

    If I actually had a pursuit that I was passionate enough about I suspect I’d probably get hitched by the nagging feeling that despite my best efforts I’d ultimately end up like Maugham’s Fanny Price. I do wonder if artists suffer from that fear and go ahead anyways, or is the pursuit so consuming that failure isn’t even a consideration, or is failure not even as issue as creation is its own reward.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Yeah, it’s been tricky to discern the real story at times due to conflicting sources. Generally we go with the evidence that seems most abundant or convincing. In the case of the break up, Mikel really opened up about it in that Pakistan radio interview and it seemed authentic. See here: http://thisisnowhere.com/2013/09/13/mythology-around-midnight/ (jump to the 23-minute mark).

      We’re always open to correction and will update the posts as we go if we have reason to. The goal is to be as accurate as possible, so by all means let us know when you have better information. Thanks!

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      • treendabean says:

        While the Pakistan interview makes it clear that he broke up with Midnight girl and got back together with her later, it doesn’t make a clear connection between Midnight girl and the girl from the breakup that started this whole odyssey. The interview also mentions that there are three other women who are subjects of the songs in that interview so I remain unconvinced. For now. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Ahhh, yes… you make a very good point! Damn, I want to get this right!

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  8. pugsma says:

    Good stuff Glen and Julie. Really looking forward to reading all of this background info on TATE.

    The Oct 18th show at the The Vic Theater in Chicago was awesome. I took my 18 year old son, who is just as big of a TATE fans as his 48 year old father. It’s rare that a band can bridge that large of an age gap, but Mikel’s lyrics do the trick. I grew in the 80’s listening to bands like The Smiths, R.E.M., Talking Heads, The Psychedelic Furs, The Violent Femmes and The Cure. Even before I knew anything about Mikel’s musical influences I knew TATE’s music was in the same vein.

    Keep up the excellent work on this blog. It’s become a must read for me. Thanks. -PUG

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  9. […] Toxic History, Chapter 1: The Week from Hell […]

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  10. […] < Previous (Chapter 1: The Week from Hell) […]

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  11. […] 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, through to the writing […]

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  12. […] carefully researched biography of the band that traces the origins of The Airborne Toxic Event from those first dark days in Mikel Jollett’s apartment right up to the present day. We’re just over halfway done, and it’s already […]

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