Local Current Blog

Mark Mallman contemplates Johnny Rotten, the death of Kurt Cobain, and more from the road

Credit: Photos by Mark Mallman

The word “dammit” rang out across America. I wasn’t thinking about directions until an hour after we’d missed our exit. 

“Ever played Reno, Mallman?” said Aaron. “You know, I was just in Reno last month. Reno is a blast. Wait…” 

I took the next exit, bought a Chick-o-Stick at the gas station, and turned back. We didn’t say a word about the wrong direction.  After waiting for the semi-tractor accident to clear, this made a total of four and a half hours of drive time lost. That night we got as far as the Boise, ID Howard Johnson’s. It was snowing when I checked in. Sometimes a seemingly unlucky today ends up preventing an even unluckier tomorrow. The snow hadn’t fully melted by morning. We were muscling the van into the mountain ranges of the Columbia Plateau. The rain got thick. As we drove higher, the muck became wet piles of bastard snow. Tire tracks from the night before went into the trees. This was the wicked aftermath of the night before. It wasn’t long before we were passing snow-covered abandoned cars. The van slid up the frosted summit. My knuckles were little whitecaps as well. It narrowed to one lane as a tow truck pulled an entire tractor-trailer rig from a deep hill, jerking and twisting in the snow. 

“Guess we lucked out by making that wrong turn last night.” It was one of those situations where suddenly you grateful beyond words for small misfortunes. I like to call that “proper chaos.” Without proper chaos we’d all be boring. Miles away came Snoqualmie pass, nothing but a national geographic special with a road swirling through into Seattle. Easy.

The doorman at the Sunset Tavern told me that when Grimes played there, she got her shoes stolen. I assured him that I only performed barefoot at private parties. In 1996, I lived blocks from here. I wrote half of the material for my first album in that gray duplex. It was all-nighters of OK Computer on compact disc and Roman Polanski on VHS. Dinosaur tugboat horns echoed from the lochs at night. Poetry slams bordering on stand up comedy helped with the rent. Now, the restaurants had all changed names. Back in ‘96, the difference between a hippie and a grunge kid was that the grunge kid had a very slight nihilist vortex. 

Aaron Lemay and I were listening to In Utero but I turned it off halfway through. “I don’t know what we were so mad about in the ‘90s,” I said. “We dressed like woodsmen, but we were still as pissed as Johnny Rotten. I think the real anger stemmed from an inner knowing we were being fed a prepackaged, market-researched, full-blown trend. Grunge wasn’t a sound, it was a brand; a massive advertising campaign cashing in on a generation of dissolution. Sure, Kurt Cobain was a bad ass, but now he is dead.”

The video store was gone. The landscape had morphed, but the cold mist 16 years later felt the same. It hadn’t stopped raining for thousands of miles. 

Seattle washed into Wednesday. Wednesday bled into Portland. By 2012 the hippies of Northwest America had been assimilated and spit out with bawdy tattoos, white glasses, and blue hair. A line from Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land came to mind: “There was so much to grok, so little to grok from.” I had three glasses of my favorite type of wine—grape. Across the parking lot, a shiny black tour bus was parked. Crystal Castles were playing at the neighboring theater. I stood out in the rain to catch Alice Glass step off briskly through the wet night. I melted. Part of me wanted to kiss her. Part of me wanted to be her. The middle slot band ended. I heard Aaron Lemay call from inside, “Mallman, get your pants on!” I morphed back into my human form and jumped on the tiny stage inside. 

Afterward came house party events of great secrecy. I was once told, “It’s better we never know what actually happened.” A speedy blur wrapped my field of vision and morning’s grand anvil planted on my face. For the first time, no rain. A cruel, sarcastic sun speared our eyeballs. How many repetitions of this ceremony were left? How many licks does it take? Where would the spider wash away down the sink of our meanderings? Another 10-hour-drive to what end?  There is no proper destination for an artist. It is a constant suspension in the now until you die, literally or spiritually. 

Deep in the core of America’s most dangerous city was a music venue with more positivity than any bar or nightclub I’d played since seeing Brother Ali at First Avenue 10 shows earlier. We arrived at The Plea for Peace center during the opening act. Stockton, CA was named the most foreclosed-upon city in the world a week earlier. 

I joined a conversation where two fans discussed the homicide rate around a hot dog cart. “59 was last week. That was before the marriage counselor shot his wife, her sister, her mother, then himself. It’s 63 now.” 

Soon, more kids gathered in. Burt, who runs the hot dog cart said, “Guys, here’s what I’ve seen from the cart: A person is approached and asked for change. If they say no, usually five or 10 minutes later they get jumped. It’s the opposite of good… what is that, good…?” 

A kid spoke up. “Karma? Good karma?” 

“Will,” Burt replied. “It’s not good will, but the opposite. It’s bad will.” 

We all nodded, choreographed in some bible school recital. 

“If a homeless comes up and asks for a hot dog, I don’t yell ‘no’ and shoo ‘em off. I give ‘em a free dog,” Burt continued. “I don’t do it so that nobody gets me, but nobody gets me because I do it.” 

Under his breath, the punk whispered, “That’s karma, dude.” 

Shortly after, we got on stage. I climbed on my keyboard and screamed through. Tiny reflections off chains and piercings were all I could make through the silhouettes in the crowd. “I’m so inspired by Middagh and my new friends tonight,” I said in between songs, “that I’m selling my CD for whatever you can afford to pay. Anything from $1 to $100 gets you a copy of Double Silhouette. Anything over $100 gets you two. This is a song called ‘Sixteen Animals,’ it’s about predators that kill.” I became someone I’ve never become on stage before, some evil rapping Golem. I was on my knees, pounding the plywood stage screaming, “A man ain’t nothing but a feeling!” The last song ended, and I fell in a heap, too exhausted to play anything more. Outside, the city air slipped away into a heartless night. An old woman approached making soft grunts. She was making cigarette motions toward her face. As she got closer, I realized she couldn’t speak. Downtown felt like a movie set of zombie apocalypse, only instead of zombies it was the poor huddled masses—like a fish tank filled with bums. Tom Waits could have rewritten his entire catalog based on this one night alone. 

While settling up with Middagh, I asked, “One quick question. The Red Roof Inn, off the 5, is that safe?” 

He said, “You should be fine, you’re by the water. Just don’t come into town for anything.”

It was a quick transaction at the Red Roof front desk. A Mad Dog 20/20 version of Phyllis Diller stormed in the lobby door and announced to the world, “Fuck! I need something on the bottom floor.” Dude shook his head, handing me a key card. As we drove behind the hotel, other transactions were taking place. I backed into the only available spot. “It’s sketch out here,” Aaron said. There was a man reclined in the white Civic next to us, window down. He glanced at us under his hat. The Stockton Red Roof Inn, brought to you by Craigslist. I dead-bolted the door. “Shit, I left my green glasses in the van.” I climbed into stiff covers, and watched cartoons in my sunglasses. That night, I dreamed that Dessa and I went to see my friend Stephani Germanotta perform a new wave opera about alien assimilation. 

On Friday, Highway 5 swallowed us into the belly of Ocean Beach. A costume party was already in full swing on the porch as we walked up. Before I even set down my duffel bag, a man dressed like Hank Williams, Jr. began pulling at my clothes. “Here, put this zebra hat on. That black jacket goes well with a shiny red scarf. You can be a ninja.” I looked as much like a ninja as a banana looks like a ninja. He handed me a shot of Fireball. “Now drink this whiskey, Ninja.” I didn’t even know this man’s name. The night disintegrated from there. It’s the natural progression of Friday to descend into some sort of a low-brow dance party. It’s the order of the universe, the way of the road. My head fell off my body with the sunrise. I tossed restlessly in a bed with a passed-out drag queen and a dog. White light cut my brain into many thin slices, which slithered out of my ear next to a pile of laundry. The last thing I remember was the chem trails in the skylight.

Saturday sunset I walked the beach. Surfers scattered the bay. The water washed over my feet. I buried them and became a fixture. The waves were a gansfeld of tinnitus, a My Bloody Valentine concert. If one was to assemble 1,000 speakers and play the entire Billboard Top 1,000 simultaneously on the beach, it would make the same sound as the rips and the curls and the pining tide. All the colors in the spectrum become white, and all the sounds together become white noise. White noise, like the white knives that stabbed from the sun into my skull at 6 a.m. The Pacific roar was wider than Simon and Garfunkel at Central Park. I squinted out into the orange. The surfers were gliding along on a monstrous oceanic applause. I spoke out. “Thank you, you’ve been a wonderful audience!” An electric guitar has the ocean within it’s raw distortion. A scream has white noise upon it’s desperate swell. A freeway has the entire Beatles catalog singing simultaneously as it stretches passed you from the flower garden on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. In the bent cigarette afterglow of making love, our heavy breathing is a tide rolling out, an audience in awe, all music. When a baby cries, the “Shhhhh” we whisper softly is an ocean pouring from our lips. All sound comes together in each exhale. The ocean is a mighty healer, but so is an audience. If you cant draw an audience, you can always sing on the beach. The sun reclined. 

I called my dad from the parking lot of the club. The next day we were going to see PiL at the Nokia theater in Los Angeles. “Hey Dad, I’m seeing Johnny Rotten tomorrow. He’s like Elvis, but for punk.” He said, “Like Elvis?” I replied, “Yup, but for punk. He was the first musician to say ‘f***ing bullocks’ on TV.” My father’s silence indicated that Johnny Rotten was not, in fact, like Elvis. 

Our show was wall-to-wall costumes. People were falling over, not because of the music, but because they were drunk. During a solo drum section, I jumped onto the floor yelling “Make a circle.” I pulled a woman dressed as Labyrinth-era David Bowie and spun her around me, dancing. She was tiny, so I picked her up then dipped her through my legs. With a swift pull, she was upright, stunned. “Bring it on!” I jumped back on stage in time to finish out “Dirty Dishes.” I stood on top the keyboard, sweat running into my eyes. The concert fully immersed me. This is how birds must feel.  

We said our goodbyes in a sports bar at noon the following day. I was talking about mind control music devices, but the only person paying attention was a dog in a football Jersey. We drove north to Los Angeles. My nephew jumped up and down when we pulled in. He loves rock and roll but still has trouble spelling it. He’s only three. “What’s the first letter in rock and roll?” “R!” “Great, now what’s the second letter?” “N!” I tried to convince my brother to bring him to see Johnny Rotten with earplugs. He said we’d take video instead and show the kid what happened in the morning. 

“His last name is Rotten? Why is he Rotten?” asked the kid. 

“Cause Johnny Fresh would be a rap name,” I answered. 

My brother works for the Nokia Theater, so we got the special treatment. It was the first concert my brother and I ever attended together. Ever. There was no opening act. In the business, that’s billed as “An evening with…” You wouldn’t know it from my records, but Lydon is one of the most influential people on my music. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone under 30 in the room. When Johnny stepped on stage, I cocked my head like the dog from The Little Rascals—Lydon had gotten into the donuts. He was bigger than Robert Smith on a bender, and dressed in some clowny pirate shirt. Could it be my great angry idol had become—god forbid—happy? Here was the one time ringmaster of rebellion and rage, 56 and smiling. 

I fought it. I did not dance, or so much as tap a finger. But song five was “Disappointed” and all of our fists went into the air uncontrollable. I started singing along. In the middle of the tune, during a quiet turn around, Johnny said a line that isn’t in the recorded version. He said, “Friendship is about forgiveness!” It suddenly dawned on me that my hero hadn’t faded, he had evolved. In the song “Hero Worship,” Cindy Wilson sings, “Heroes fall to the ground, like hell’s magnet pulls me down.” But when heroes evolve, the magnet pulls us up. This was one of the weirdest concerts I’d ever seen. A post-punk disco show with banjo and upright bass? On stage in front of me was a man who’d walked through fire. Johnny had fucking evolved, man. Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain, and Ian Curtis had all been on the receiving end of anger. They are all dead. Johnny Rotten evolved into Johnny Lydon, who in turn evolved into this happy Johnny. As PiL encored with “Rise” we all were cheering and dancing. Johnny sang “Anger is an energy.” But there wasn’t a shred of anger in the Nokia by the end of the show. Sid vicious was dead at 21. He missed out on Sonic Youth. He missed out on Public Enemy. He missed out on Frank Ocean. Johnny survived, and whether or not he was truly happy inside, he took a room of aging punks and brought them to a white noise joy. An ocean. Aaron Lemay, my brother, Johnny Rotten/Lydon, and myself were all together smiling, the four corners of my own perfect Sunday night. 

Music is an act of seduction. Those moments when it is not, I question the integrity behind it. Everyday, we must find the lightning within and strike it against the world.