Local Current Blog

Mark Mallman on his neverending tour: ‘To what end?’

Credit: Photos by Mark Mallman

It never snows in Hollywood. The flow of the foam in the ocean’s never frozen. Never is a word only spoken behind closed doors in the land of dreams. It was a mere 45 minutes of sprawl before the desert began to truly manifest its alien ways. Strip malls became country clubs became campgrounds became canyons. Through San Jacinto and Joshua Tree, the tedium of rock and brush took hold.

I reached under the seat for an aspirin bottle. Deeper and deeper into the nothing. My eyes made chatter with green bug splatter and camper trailers dotting the mountain. I started singing Tom Waits, “What’s He Building in There?” Secrets. In a gas station parking lot, sand blowing in my eyes, I pretended the whole desert was snow. I recalled midwest December. Even at 90 degrees, winter loomed inside me. Beyond the far window were mad houses in a white Atlantis. Was I on the road to get ahead or to get away? Reviews were coming in. Double Silhouette was already picking up speed. I toured America so many times, to what end? 

Interstate 10 hugs America’s bottom side and keeps the country from falling into Mexico. It’s a straight shot to Tucson, AZ. A couple of simple directions will get you all the way to steamy Jacksonville. Get on. Head east. Get off. While great minds preach the downsides of Autogeddon, we gypsy tourists shake the grid off our shoulders from Seattle, WA to Memphis, TN in three simple turns: East on I-90. Right on I-29. Left on I-70, and blammo—Memphis in 2400 miles. Ironically, if I want to get to Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown, MN from the Aqua City Motel off Lyndale—which is a distance of eight easy miles—it would take 10 turns. It’s easier to drive to Memphis than Al’s Breakfast. Many are the nights I’ve spent lost in my own town, dripping with wine.

Mr. Lee met us at Club Plush in Tucson. I hadn’t seen him since the Grizzly Bear show in Minneapolis two months earlier. The opener had canceled, so I performed two 45 minute sets that night for free. I warned Mr. Lee, “It isn’t gonna be an early night, my friend.” He waited at the bar. We met at First Avenue in 2003. He’d since bought a house on the side of an Arizona mountain to escape city life. Just before I took the stage, a spectacle to behold as well as to be forgotten, he told me, “Sometimes I spend the whole day on the porch just looking at the desert.” 

We dug deep into the nine-album catalog that night; songs I barely recalled the words to. This ritual madness blends together show by show. We always remember our first kiss, but by 50, 500, 1000, the kisses become droplets in a tide ever rising. Like a cockroach remembers a tenement floor plan, I recall the contours of the audience. I  kiss their crow-footed foreheads. I kiss their rubbery necks. I dance my way inside their identical shoes and whisper “death walks” before dropping the microphone—the gross exaggeration of a teenager in detention. 

I hid my head in a little bottle, my skull fumigating itself in homegrown fears. “I’ll stop drinking tomorrow.” Words stirring about in a broken cup. We loaded the van and followed his truck up the winding side roads. He lived on high. We had to spaghetti through a state park, 2 a.m. headlights on 20-foot Saguaro-cast looming shadows. By 3 a.m. we were all nodding out in front of TMZ. 

I woke up in the guest bed at noon. “Breakfast burritos on the stove,” he said. 

“When did you get up?” I asked. 

 “I’ve been up since seven,” he replied. “Walked the dog, then looked at the mountain.” Mr. Lee had a zen way. Out the kitchen windows, huge cactii reached to the sky like alien beasts. He was right about the mountain. It seemed to move sideways through the heat, hypnotic. It was hard not to avert my gaze. 

“We drive to Albuquerque today. Desert all day. Can I have a second burrito?” 

More driving to meditate before showdown. Seven hours of Blonde Redhead and Interpol. Seven hours of James Brown. Flying Saucers swooped just out of range, I was sure of it. It was Halloween, and anything was possible. Rock musicians are always in costume—avengers of dives and the low-brow. This was my fifth drive around the U.S. in a year’s time. I knew the freeway better than I knew my own bed. I called New York, it was still flooding. Hurricane Sandy was downgraded to a tropical storm but New Mexico was cool and dry. The van headed down Coal Street to the club. Halloween called out all the nut jobs. The crowd was brash, and the room too brassy. I spied a diner across the street, walked over and ordered a 10 p.m. breakfast. Nightly news, burnt bacon, and a North by Northwest screenplay soothed. But my blanket of calm soon enough unfurled. The text message simply read “Mallman.” Aaron meant showtime. “Dammit, man, Im barely into f***ing the bacon.” I crossed the street and couldn’t tell if the guy leaning on the SUV outside was in costume or not—said “nice costume” just in case. By the time I got inside, my piano was already on stage. We Storm Troopered into the set. I put my leg up on the bar at one point, screaming “Knockouuuuuut!” A lady frog danced with a man princess. People were throwing headless Care Bears. I longed for a day when this would be normalcy. 

Thursday would bring another slow aftermath. The desert sun came and dressed my open wounds. Enter the weeping. We got to our $40 motel room in Colorado Springs early, but the details were scattered. The stairs wobbled as we climbed them. 

“Been paying the dues too long, man,” I said. 

As soon as we got in, he flipped on the television. Aaron laughed, “Come onnnn, we’re touring bro! These have been the best weeks of my year!” 

I threw my bags on the bed. The florescent light over the bathroom sink flickered on. “Finally one of my albums is breaking, but so am I.” 

The half operational razor from the vending machine cut my face into little pieces. I pointed at a sign that on the wall that read, “Turning on hair dryer, curling iron, coffee machine, and microwave all at the same time will result in loss of power. Please don’t.”

“Is this it? I mean, is this the arrival? The great rock Valhalla?,” I continued. “I mean, what about the stadiums? Where are the limousines and supermodels? What about the trashed hotels?” I looked around. “Okay, so we got the trashed hotel part… motel part.” 

Aaron didn’t look away from the television. “It’s good times bro. Most bands don’t even get this far. Enjoy something.” He was bodhisattva calm against the tin clatter of cartoon slide whistles. I wiped my cut face with toilet paper.

It’s critical, in this business, that you not become jaded or bitter. It’s easy to do, because of the constant stream of bullsh*t that trickles down on everyone involved. Before we played that night, I walked the cool streets to regain focus. Ghetto cruisers bounced slow, rattling through Taco Bell drive throughs. I bought a banana at 7-11 and watched bums argue in a bank parking lot. A blanket of some type was being thrown back and forth between grunts and stumbles. It was like some prehistoric after dark war. They started walking my way. I rushed back to the into the club for my monkey dance. Each night of tour, a performer gets deeper into his groove. The entire set becomes a mantra, a Hail Mary. Song to song, show to show, the repetition grows a defined map. Not unlike the map of the America that we where twisting about—the route of the root. With every note and vibration, I felt my happiness, my reason. I stood atop the piano, balancing on one leg. Joy zapped out of my body from my leather jacket to the dirty hole in my boot. I fell to the wall, wet with sweat, like I’d walked out of a weird womb.

In rolled up short sleeves, she called me over from the side of the stage, “I want to buy all of your CDs!” I remembered her from a show earlier in the summer, crying in the arms of some punk. I replied, “I only brought the new one.” She handed me money. I didn’t bother to count it. I said what I say whenever my black wings descend, “Let’s take some shots.” Every bar is simply a hospital. 

She kept undercover, the divorce stories of locust storms in desert dust. Her blue tattoos covered veins that hid poisoned corridors. She didn’t hesitate. “Don’t quit. Don’t stop doing what your doing. Nobody is doing this. Please, don’t give up.” 

I said, “It’s my job, so I don’t plan to. Unless you know something that I don’t.” 

She left her shirt open, where love had once fled the flesh. “Oh, I know plenty.” This is selective scheming. We hear only what we want, but understand everything.

Housekeeping knocked softly at 11:30 a.m., then forced herself in. “Oh, sorry,” she said. I had turned completely to stone in the night, I’m surprised she saw me. My body suddenly weighed thousands of pounds. I tried to speak. It was just gravel. “Break…fast.” I rolled over and fell onto the floor. Aaron was outside by the van. Burnt coffee spilled over driveways as we spun out of town. This would be the shortest drive day of the trip. One hour to Denver to meet a promoter at his theater, then up 25 to Fort Collins. I got a speeding ticket, the first one of my life. “Oh, school zone? Officer I didn’t…” A fog coated my eyes as we left town. Regret means you learned something. 

The concert that night was madness. I was completely absorbed in their inebriated gaze.I reached up toward the colored spotlight, like a superhero would harness the power of the sun. “Yeahhhh! I’m gonna lovvvve ya!” It was complete absurdity, but we were all in it together. I jumped off my piano like an olympic swimmer. A chill came over me, like those ghost encounter stories. When music played, happiness seemed forever tangible. I went into “The Man With Music Instead of Blood” with a great confidence. Here, in this tiny bar, in college town Colorado, I felt the core of the earth within me. Was music an act of seduction, like I’d previously believed, or an addiction? An hour later, I was hanging on the bar. “Hey Mallman, we gonna party?” “I don’t use party as a verb.” A kind salamander, who sheds his tale upon request, gets eaten in the bar room jungle. There are nights out there, where language is incapable, and words fail. They’re called weekends.

I woke in the afternoon, dragged over gravel. I scammed a red tuxedo and fedora from Miss K’s costume shop, then drove south to Denver blasting Philip Glass. The burlesque competition I was hosting that night was called, “Carnivale de Sensuale.” They laughed. I did the monkey dance. Show business. Neon Antoinette hula hooped in LED and pink pasties. Surlie Temple unraveled her sweater and threw it across the room in red pasties. Chevrolette La Route greased her hair back on a 1973 Honda motorcycle in black pasties. All the while my upside-down cake brain was still ringing with Philip Glass’s Heroes Symphony. 

Toward the end of the show, Miss Meesha met me backstage. She just finished dangling 30 feet in the air on silks and wires downtown. Part of an actual circus, she was feeding me pro lines to work the crowd. “Yell ‘Rebel without a bra!’” she instructed like a boss. I was just trying to keep the dirty names in order. Afterward, we walked a mutual comedian friend to a Tiki joint, talking about clown school. Nobody at the table ordered any alcohol. “I guess we’re all virgins tonight,” she said. We are all virgins. This is the last thought I had.

I slept in Meesha’s apartment. She went to her boyfriend’s, the fire juggler. The tour was complete. My work was done. I’d entertained the masses, and here I was alone in my ex-girlfriend’s apartment. Yup, circus life indeed. If I were writing a novel, or a screenplay, this is where I’d have put the dream sequence. It would be like Fellini. The bed would take flight high above Denver. Maybe my mother would appear in the clouds, pointing a finger and laughing. Or like Dali’s dream scene in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, all faceless cards and dealers lining up against me. But it wasn’t a dream, it was simply night coming down in the usual awkward angles. If a man snores in his ex-girlfriend’s bed when she is not there to hear it because she is sleeping at her new boyfriend’s place, did he make a sound? 

In the morning I ate a hamburger. There was a drive back to Fort Collins, another Tiki Bar, and another punk bar. There was a 7:30 wake up call, and another 14 hour drive to Minneapolis that Monday. Gas stations repeated amid vast prairie-scapes like cartoon backdrops. There was more Radiohead, Can, Black Lips, and the cliché about the definition of insanity. There was a blotted out sun, and the van under a sky of dirty fables. Soon I would be home to an empty loft, just the way I left things: frayed. Three words hung just behind the sinking cloud line. “To what end?” 

To what end, the tireless roadside? To what end, the tours of 2013, 2020, 2035? To what end, another 10 albums, when this format is dead? To what end, like the thirty-three and a third, the zombie record store? To what end, music? Bagpipes? Funeral Drums? Requiems? This is why I Marathon. This is why I play 52, 78, even 180 hour long songs. Like Indiana Jones, a quest for a music never ending—a vibration ever lasting. To what end? To no end! Into the loop of noise, the black hole, the eye of god! Children play. Music plays. Isn’t it obvious, this operative word: to play? Yet, to what end at 39 and still without love, still not married, still not still? Why come home with no one to come home to? Why exist when existence is only vibrations? 

I longed for true love. There is something beyond the music, a place called Casablanca, a place called Xanadu. Somewhere dead hearts go to while away the years. I’d spent my life selling this snake oil to strangers, climbing back up into my horse and buggy, and clomping off into the haunted forests alone. Do the ghosts in our basements see us as living, or do they only see us as other ghosts? Was Andy Warhol faking it, or did he really not care what Merv Griffin was asking in 1965? Why does Johnny Rotten now wear a watch? Sure, Van Gogh only sold two paintings, but if he wouldn’t have lost his mind, he’d have lived as long as those lesser impressionists and gotten rich. There’s no clear line between one’s true calling and one’s sick obsession. There’s no certain way of knowing you are following your dreams and not your addiction. Faith or blind ignorance, it’s semantics. 

When I was 6 years old, they shut down Dandy Lion Park, the amusement park in our county. Five years later, it was a dead zone still standing. Vandalized. Skeletal. Dad and I drove the huge cracked asphalt acreage. We stepped out. Slow vines wrapped the paralyzed roller coaster. We were visiting a cemetery. Weeds grew tall around flagged off, gates were chained. All things move toward their end, even amusement parks. When I opened the door to my loft that night, nothing had changed. The coffee I didn’t finish was still sitting on the counter. The trash was still full. The strip club light flashed in my window as always, just as it had for whatever sucker lived here before me. I put my bags down and filtered the junk mail from the collection agency threats. My guitars rested up against the wall. It wasn’t a cemetery, like Dandy Lion Park, but it’s stillness resounded. Does silence have an echo? I snapped my fingers, just to break the ice. I snapped about the loft like some clairvoyant washing out ghosts. I snapped like Sharks and Jets, like the jaws of a great Northern Pike biting into the nothing, gasping for last air on a Lake Vermillion dock. Snap. Snap. The snap of a bone breaking. The snap of a light switch or a rimshot. The snaps rang out briefly and were gone, just like songs do. The freeway whirred the same white noise as before I left. I closed my eyes. My ocean in Minneapolis is a highway ramp off Washington Avenue. The sidewalk is the shoreline where bums sleep. I watch them at night from my pretty window. The pink strip club neon hell glowed against my skin. “I will not be here forever.” If a cigarette doesn’t burn out, it’ll start your bed on fire. I put on Let it Be and thought about my mother.