Local Current Blog

Mark Mallman reflects on touring, out-of-body experiences, and finding beauty in darkness

Credit: Photos by Mark Mallman

“Though the proof of life outside our galaxy remains to hold conclusive evidence, it is for certain that millions of years ago, the whole of Earth was intended for one thing only: parking – and maybe a little interstellar tailgating.” 

I had just written this down on the screenplay I was writing, when my own song came on the radio. “I used to be a modern lover, but I ended up a libertine,” sang the voice trebling out from tiny radio speakers. The 2 p.m. traffic whirred up the freeway ramp. The whole mixed-up music business thorned deeper into my side—rather, into my backside. Tour was coming, I heard that movie voice in my mind “Iceberg, straight ahead!” It was time to switch modes to rock and roller.

I walked to the grocery and listened to a podcast about songwriting to get my head right. “What defines a good songwriter? Is it lyrics, melody, image, innovation?” Wrong. It was management and hair. From the Beatles to Adele, it’s been good management and even better hair. I had no management, but I still had my hair—all was not lost. I bought half a cake and looked out across the vast store parking lot from inside. The green hills of Earth, like layers of cake in my little bag, were nothing but frosting on a giant asphalt truck stop. This was the setting for Equator of Ice, one of the three movies I was writing in the free time other people would use to, I don’t know, have a social life maybe. 

My phone rang. Without even saying hello, W asked, “Hey, do you think people would take you seriously if you didn’t do all those crazy things?” It was a 15-year career of it. I replied, “You mean the same trajectory that led Lady Gaga to be one of the most respected pop songwriters in the business? I’m happy with how things have gone, W.” The day before, at lunch, D/R asked me a similar question. He added to it that I am afraid of success. “No,” I said. “No, man, I’m afraid of guys like you running my life.” I ate the half of the cake and slept away the sweet afternoon in a sugar-coma bliss. 

After sunset, I woke up and went to the nightclub for a final huzzah. All the secret cocktails had been sucked down and the dance floor meandered amidst a false wooden tabernacle beat box. It was the last warm night in Minneapolis. I small-talked across a vain universe of Pitchfork reviews and sex gossip. October’s dead leaves clogged the streets. An oddness of the air blew me home. My loft was a silent cage; I obsessed over the action, I poured over the dialogue. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing with my life, as usual. I wrote “inspire those around you” on the back of a lyric sheet and hung it on the wall. Sleep was knocking. I walked to bed naked as gorillas in jungles 5,000 miles away. When I was a boy, I’d sit around wasting days with other boys. Now, I was a man, sitting around just wasting days. I pulled an empty duffel bag over my head. “This is all I need. Push me head first out the window, I’ll probably land somewhere near the van.” Who told us we could have anything in the world and still be happy? 

Sixteen hours later, I landed head first in downtown, Des Moines. Everything was sharp rain and squeaking brakes. Top 40 music spit out from a bum’s wet radio in the tiki bar parking lot. The hole in my left boot let the rain in. A cocktail waitress was recommending swingers clubs. I pretended not to listen, left my half finished beer in the booth, and walked back to the other club. Suspicious dogs made circle-eights with red hooded dealers leaning against the liquor store glass. Over 10 years, this part of town had changed. Most of the kids from the early days had migrated across town or just moved away. I grabbed some black duct tape from our lighting box and bandaged up my boot. If I’d have sold more equipment before we left town, I’d have been able to afford new boots. But I needed my guitars for work, so duct tape would have to fight the bleeding nights on this West Coast run. I also used it on a couple of broken piano keys, which had cut my finger open at the Double Silhouette release show.

Lights! Music! Showtime! It was the first show of the run, and I was more than happy to work the bugs out. The details of the performance got muddy as I became entranced. It’s always been this way for me, sometimes I don’t even remember what songs I played when the whole thing is over. I was channeling somebody, but I’ve never figured out who. Anyways, the show seemed to be over as quickly as it began. The fans were happy and then they went home. The rain was unstoppable at load out. 

“Today I got to see Bruce Springsteen and Mark Mallman in the same day,” said the sound man. 

“I bet I kicked his ass,” I replied. 

He said, “maybe so, but you didn’t play Thunder Road.” 

By 2 a.m., I was with a dozen people in a basement afterparty. There was a drum set in the middle of the room. Busted couches lined the walls. Cats walked out of the wallpaper at will.  We were watching videocassettes and drinking what a townee girl called “mystery beer.” I’m pretty sure “mystery beer” is Four Loko mixed with High Life. This was the career I’d designed for myself? All my choices led up to drunkenly debating the peak of Ford Mustangs with a used car dealer and passing out on a couch between stains? A kitten practiced torture rituals on me all night by lightly tapping my forehead and then running away every time I closed my eyes. I thought about what Peter Anderson used to say before we went out during the Mr. Serious years: “First night of the tour sets the pace, Mallman.” 

The breakfast pizza was mostly still warm. I wrote in my note pad, “Movie parody: Mine Field of Dreams.” We started driving. Under a concrete sky, Guided by Voices played “Alien Lanes.” Headlights on in the middle of the day it was so dark. But when “Motor Away” came on, I felt a new surge of life. Music is a seduction. It lures us in with attitude and haircuts until the plastic car speakers split open from too much bass. “If it’s too loud, you’re too old!” we used to scream over Black Flag cassettes on rural winter highways at 16 years old. Motoring away from adulthood, 99 m.p.h. in a rusted-out ‘78 Mustang, now dead in some Milwaukee junkyard. When you travel, it’s not unusual to see a semi truck with over a million miles on the cab. We were driving to Kansas in the rain, and I drifted away on the overblown mist of my own highway miles. It was well over 30-some tours, at 4,000 to 15,000 miles each. What’s the math on that? What adolescent dream was I still chasing out here? 

We got to Lawrence, Kansas at 7:30 p.m. The bar hadn’t made the rollover from regulars to hipsters yet. Drunks at the bar began humming along to Journey’s “Don Stop Believing” as if commanded by state law. It was 15, maybe 25 years they’d spent living this, but they still couldn’t get the lyrics right. I recalled a poster on the wall of the party house the night before: “Are you making real friends or just drinking buddies?” A pinball machine interrupted the stale silence of alcoholism. A guy in a Coors hat said “Everybody’s teeth look better under a neon bar sign.” I went back into the van and blasted Spaceman 3. The sucking of the kick drum bounced in my blood. I felt 16 again and suddenly was craving a Kool. It was that same sweet buzz of car stereo speakers from high school parking lots and cigarette tongues. The parking lots of high school football games and backseat flesh-on-flesh suburbia. The grassless fields of profanity and resistance that held us past curfew. The seduction of parking lots where all of us useless rockers were once conceived. Conceived if not literally, metaphorically through leather rebellion and smoke. I remembered the shitty parking lots. The waiting in hospital parking lots, afraid to visit the mostly dead grandparents inside. The lots of factories without cafeterias where we all ate hot bag lunches like dogs dying. Police station parking lots. The three-hour silent parking lot break ups, watching her drive away crying. Here I was again in a parking lot, waiting to play another rock and roll roadhouse. The Spaceman 3 album had long since finished. I spent a good 30 minutes listening to the rain on the windshield before going in and screaming, enraged. My performance was out of body as usual, like controlling a drone from some other continent. We encored with a Mad Max version of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” As the bars evacuated onto Massachusetts Ave. the kids all melted together into one drunken blob. That night I slept in a camper in some suburban driveway. A couple fought over a basketball at 4 a.m. I slept till noon then rode nine hours to Denver in my pajamas. 

David Bowie’s “Heroes” played over a circus of black denim patches, dreadlocks, and chains that were already lining the bar at load in. I changed clothes in the basement. In the green room of the Hi Dive club, people have rewritten band names into food puns. There’s food puns of every band you could think of: “Velveeta Underground,” “Dinosaur Jr. Cheeseburger,” even “David Bowheaties.” I wondered what it would be like for Bowie to play here and read that while changing into a feather and sequined body suit, then walking around the bar for three hours during the opening bands. My Ox blood motorcycle jacket was crumpled in the duffel bag. I’d wear this instead of a feathered body suit or meat dress. What would the food pun of my name be someday? 

I ate french fries and talked with my drummer, Aaron, about the coming week out West. Fans started filling the empty real estate in front of the stage. The bartenders were refilling and overfilling. Soon I would be spun among drums and volume. The sweat and the loss of breath increased with my rushing adrenaline. An hour set just barely gets me off. This is touring: you drive and drive and wait and wait, but too soon the show is over. We sailed our gear to a promoters house. I slept on a daybed in a Las Vegas-themed barroom. Aaron slept in a real bed in the pirate themed guest room. During the night I dreamt I was forced to do a solo piano version of “Hero Worship” by the B-52s for a classroom of hardcore rappers.  

10 a.m. I said my goodbyes to the chinchillas in the laundry room and climbed back in the van for a another nine-hour drive. Salt Lake City on a Sunday isn’t an ideal day to play a rock concert, but I was grinning with anticipation to see my good man, Captain Caesar Funtime. Captain Caesar had the night off from working at the ski lodge bar and met up with us just after load in. In the green room, underneath a painting of a giant eyeball, he divulged to me his new money making empire: DNA-reversing anti-aging cream. I forget the details of how it works, but if it actually does, he promised to fund my career for the rest of my life. The altitude was easier on my lungs than the night before, so I didn’t have any heart attacks during this concert. Something ironic happened while playing “The Man With Music Instead of Blood.” The duct tape I had put on my broken keys earlier in the week began to loosen. I was jumping around and sliding my hand down the keyboard as usual, when the broke key sliced across the inside of my pinky finger. Soon, the majority of the left side of my piano was wet with red spray. This was funny to me. After the song, I faced the keys to the audience and said, “Looks like I do have blood. I am going to change the name of the song to ‘The Man with Blood.’” They didn’t laugh.   I cut my fingers on stage all the time, but I forget that it’s a bit of a shock to the audience. Too bad we’d already played “Blood Flow.” I cued Aaron to the next track. 

For breakfast, Caesar bought us fried chicken and steak. He urged me to sit in the corner booth facing the intersection so that I could watch the crackhead wars. “Sitting in this booth right here is better than any TV show you’ll ever see. If only the velvet walls in this restaurant could talk.” Then he went on about the dangerous avalanches up on Snowbird Mountain. Stories of the explosive shells dropped from helicopters, and mangled bodies suffocated 14 feet under. “Snow is like a layer cake. Avalanches are like crushed potato chips on marbles, except they kill people.” For dessert, the Captain ordered spumoni and told us, “The girls in Grand Forks, North Dakota don’t have pockets in the back of their jeans. Go ahead and tell all 99 of them I said that. I don’t care if they get mad.” Snowbird could have erupted and I wouldn’t have even known. The Captain had me in his web. I can’t say I saw anything worth reporting on the crackhead wars from the corner booth. 

We left Salt Lake City with the intent on arriving at a hotel just somewhere in eastern Oregon by 9 p.m. We wouldn’t make it. Just outside the lunar salt flats, we were instructed off the freeway by a serious cop with an orange flare. I-80 had been shut down. For two and a half hours we waited for the cops to move the cones so we could get back on. In that time, Aaron was able to watch Blade Runner on my phone. I got out and talked to a trucker. He said, “It was a truck wreck. Three semis wrecked each other. Did you see the helicopter? I guess the one cab flipped and started on fire.” I looked over his shoulder at the giant snake of pulled over cars behind us. The interstate had become a virtual parking lot. Suddenly, a car passed us. Then another. The cops had opened freeway behind us. I looked at Aaron, he laughed. I started up the van, drove around the easy cones, and left the other suckers in the dust. 

As we passed the twisted scene, I said “Somebody is dead. Three hours ago he was just driving his usual run, now he’s dead.” 

Aaron shook his head, and softly said “Naw, bro.” 

We didn’t have any music on. Just the road whirring beneath us. Two and a half hours of waiting, and this was our payoff: violence and sad cops. For a second, I stopped thinking about alien parking lots. I needed to get present, to see the beauty around me. Night was coming on, but with all the clouds, there wouldn’t be a Nevada sunset. Instead, just a plain darkness slumped over the van. There was a beauty, but it was buried in there. On this run, I would need to face a bleak nothingness, and in that, I hoped to find universes. I put on Radiohead In Rainbows until everything seemed okay again.