By Michael Corcoran
Set in the Chicago music scene in the early ‘90s, when CDs were king, the Internet was a rumor, and your phone stayed home.
I: ALL THAT’S LEFT IS EVERYTHING
Sallee is hungry, but money’s on the phone with Walt. She’s at the doorway of his home office wearing a coat, while he’s still in his pajama bottoms. On the line is the editor of Sounds magazine, telling Walt about a new feature, called “Underrated/Overrated,” where two critics take a side on the merits of the featured artist. The first one is Neil Young. “Sounds like fun,” Walt says, making the thumb-brushing-fingers sign at Sallee, who stomps a foot and walks away. She’s fucking starving. Walt and the editor discuss fee, deadline, word count and then, just before he’s about to hang up, Walt asks, “Which side do you want me to take- overrated or underrated?”
Ten minutes later, Sallee Bryant, 23 and gorgeous, and rock critic Walter Carmody, almost 20 years older, enter the Laizy Dazy Diner on Diversey St. to stares. “Long Tall Sallee,” as she was nicknamed in high school, was so much better looking than Walt that not only did it seem unlikely that they were seeing each other, but that she could be his daughter. She had the bone structure of a fashion model and his goatee gave him a chin. The gazes of astonishment never got old to Walt, who didn’t really know what this gorgeous creature saw in him either.
They could make each other laugh. That was the main thing. One night she was talking about joining a gym and maybe Walt should, too, hint hint. “What do I care if I’m a little chubby?” he said. “I don’t have to fuck me.” Sallee thought that was hilarious and then finally said, “I don’t have to fuck you either!” But they ended up having sex.
He lasered her with attention, “publishing” a one-page handwritten newspaper called “The Angel-Times,” and showed her all the cool things in music, books and film. In their six months together, she’d come a long way from “What is the Velvet Underground, a band or a club?”
The way they hooked up was that he wrote something that convinced her they were soulmates. It was a profile of U2 that ran in Rolling Stone magazine. Well, actually it was a profile of Walter Carmody, with some quotes from Bono and the Edge. Sallee read it on a cold night, this tale of a writer lost in Dublin, lost in life, and wrote a letter to Walter Carmody c/o Rolling Stone. He wrote back.
She sent a photo. He booked a flight.
In the piece, lapsed-Catholic Carmody goes the long way around to the realization that music is the answer to the God Riddle: “All-knowing and all-powerful, He’s inside all of us, always was and always will be.” What power is higher than a song that comes at the perfect time? Walt played “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” over and over, rewinding the cassette in his Walkman, as he waited for the band in a pub. “They speak of my drinking, but never my thirst” was a sign behind the bar.
Sallee had heard Paul Simon’s “Slip Sliding Away”one day and decided to quit her good-paying, deadly-boring job as a secretary for a law firm. She found new employment, at about half the salary, as a screener/researcher for “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” In Chicago, tagged to the end of each “Oprah” episode, was a message about what the next day’s topic would be, with a phone number on the screen to call if you had a story to tell along that theme. Sallee was one of two assistants who’d answer the phone and determine which callers would be the best “randoms,” the audience members Oprah could call on. She also read books written by the main guests and typed up the highlights for O’s producer, a handsome young man named Josh who was smitten with her. The hours were long- 8 a.m. until about 6 p.m. and sometimes later- but Sallee loved the job because the stories, the people were different every day. She beamed when one of her callers ended up becoming an integral part of the show. Oprah called her “My Gal Sal.”
When she read Walt’s article, she knew why she made the decision to quit the law firm job. It all made sense to her now. “The nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away.” It was just like Walt said, the radio knows. After receiving her first letter, Walt was so touched he sent her back eight handwritten pages that emptied his mind of such seemingly mundane topics as why he would never buy a lottery ticket. “If you truly believe that you’re the lucky one in a million who hits all the right numbers to be paid like an NBA point guard for the next 20 years, then you also have to believe that you could end up as that poor guy who spends his last hours of life locked in the trunk of a car. I’m fine with being in the middle.”
Walt’s offbeat insight intrigued Sallee, who’d been going out with jocks, and a long distance romance developed. He had just been fired from RS, so he called up an editor he knew at Spin and said he wanted to write a profile of Chicago glam-rock band Enuff Z’Nuff, who were like Cheap Trick dressing as the New York Dolls for Halloween. Atlantic Records flew him from S.F. to O’Hare, but saved money on a hotel.
Sallee met him at the gate and they kissed passionately. They held onto each other all the way to the parking garage and continued making out in the elevator. When the door opened, there was a family with two young kids standing there. Walt and Sally laughed and practically skipped to the car, as the parents looked at each other in horror. (Those two?) There’s just nothing like the feeling of fresh love. Walt had won the lottery without even buying a ticket.
The couple started living together immediately and at first the sex was fast and furious- at least once a day. But Sallee started losing interest as the romantic fantasy began unraveling.
Walt was a slob and he drank too much. To contain all that, Sallee gave him a small room in her apartment where he could work and be as messy as he wanted. To Sallee, that room no longer existed, except when she was hungry and the occupant wasn’t getting ready fast enough. The rest of the apartment was Sallee’s to girlie-up as much as she wanted. There was potpourri and framed art posters and a basket that had peacock feathers poking out. Walt never noticed any of that shit.
They were on different schedules, with Sallee waking at 6 a.m., a couple hours after Walt would sometimes come home from the clubs, smelling of grunge.
Walt sometimes took care of his needs at the porno arcade near the apartment. He grew up in Honolulu, where his mother worked at the Pearl Harbor officer’s club, and got his first dose of hardcore sex at about age 10 while looking out the window of a city bus traveling down Hotel Street. In its cluelessness, the city put the main bus transfer point right in the middle of Honolulu’s red light district, when just a block over the view was Chinatown fish markets and lei stands.
To transfer for the Waikiki bus, you had to get off at “Shit Street,” which, after Walt turned 18 meant more that stepping onto the street. Just two blocks away were the “quarter sweaters,” the porno arcades where you’d make like a clumsy parrot. Walt got kind of addicted and had spilled so much seed to porn before he lost his virginity that when it finally happened, at age 19, the thought that went through his mind was how weird it was to watch himself fucking.
The porno arcade near Walt and Sallee’s apartment in Chicago was a gay cruising spot, not unusual, so there were always a few guys hanging out in the hallway, looking to suckle some strange. But Walt made it clear from the first encounter that, in no way, was he interested in their services. That was also the last time he wore his Revolting Cocks t-shirt to the come closets.
On seeing him grow from shadow to solid down the dark hallway, the gay guys would groan or say something like “Why do I suddenly want to eat pussy?”
Walt gave it right back. When he was done masturbating, he came out of the booth and taunted the hallway availables by saying something like “Soup’s on!” or “Gentlemen, the floor is yours.”
Walt was concerned about Sallee’s back burner approach to sex and he thought that if he told her he had to jerk off, she might take a hint and get back on the clock. Big mistake.
One day Sallee apologized for the lack of action in the bedroom and Walt said that it was OK, he’d actually tossed off to porn that day. “WHAT?!” she said, whirling around with eyes on fire. Walt was unprepared for the intensity of the blow-up that followed. Furniture was flung for emphasis. “You might as have well have fucked somebody behind my back!” To her, cheating is cheating. She wanted to kick his ass, and started a punch, which made Walt flinch. Then Sallee just stormed out of the apartment and slammed the door.
Walt just sat there, with the framed copy of his U2 article, smashed at his feet. What the hell just happened? The angel’s a psycho!
The next day, a contrite Sallee handed Walt a VHS tape. “If you’re going to do that, use this,” she said. After she left, Walt played the tape, which consisted of a nude Sallee in sexual poses, talking dirty and writhing in orgasm. But Walt just sat there eating his sandwich. The scenario is the turn on. Reality isn’t sexy.
Sallee never wanted to go out to the clubs, where the shorter girls would complain that they couldn’t see the band over her head. Then there were all the guys sizing her up. It just wasn’t her scene, which frustrated shallow Walt. He wanted to show off his hot girlfriend, especially in front of the three younger (and currently more successful) critics who were at every cool show together. The ringleader was Ravi Green, of ambiguous racial makeup, known as the most intellectual of the new rock critics. Courted by big magazines, the effeminate 25-year-old has a different cute girl with him every time, but he’s really with the two other critics: Colton Slattery, also a hot young critic, known for long, ironic articles on pop stars like Britney Spears and MC Hammer, and Charles Coffey, the respected critic for the Chicago Tribune. Colton’s girlfriend Annika is also a music critic, just starting out. But she’s not taken seriously by the others and is usually relegated to hanging out with Ravi’s date when they go to clubs. Coffey always attends to a constant stream of well-wishers and musicians making small talk. Everyone loves Coffey, whose best man at his wedding was Rick Nielson of Cheap Trick.
To these critics, Walter Carmody is a bit of a has-been, a casualty of the first person right, who uses similes and metaphors to mask his lack of depth. When he steps away from the trio to get a better sightline and sound point, they mimic what he’s writing in his notebook. “I came to realize that drummer Janet Bean is the roux of 11th Dream Day’s musical gumbo,” is delivered with a self-satisfied tone.
The night of the Urge Overkill show at the Metro, Walt put on the hard-sell for Sallee. “You know these guys,” he said, as he played “Sister Havana,” the radio hit. “Chicago band poised for the big time!” But she just put on her Loyola sweatshirt and said she rented “About Last Night” at Blockbuster. “Again?” he said. Walt could not shake Sallee of those Brat Pack movies. “I haven’t seen it since it came out,” she said, as the sweatpants went on.
The three critics had never met Sallee, but they did see her once- not with Walt. She was leaving a Jesus Lizard show early (all the cigarette smoke!) just as the crit trio was coming in. Ravi and Colton turned around to check out the smokin’ hot chick, while Charles fielded a compliment from the doorman about a recent Liz Phair profile.
One night when Walter and Sallee were out driving, he saw a car with the three critics inside. They were finally going to see that, not only was Sallee real, but she’s gorgeous! There was much stop-and-start maneuvering in Walt’s driving to get next to the other car, making Sallee wonder what was up. Just as Walt got next to the critics’ car at a light, the braking made Sallee’s purse go flying to the floor and she bent over to pick it up. “Hey, guys,” Walter said. “I want you to meet…” Sally was still down. “They’ll think I was blowing you,” she said, refusing to lift her head. Walter continued to talk to this person who couldn’t be seen and the other critics drove away laughing.
They always asked Walt where his girlfriend was when he showed up by himself. This was not just to spoof Walt’s secret girlfriend, but to give a little pre-review of that night’s show. “Not a fan of pretentious coalminer music, is she?” Ravi said at an Uncle Tupelo show at Lounge Ax.
After moving to Chicago, Walt tried hard to get the vacant pop music critic job at the Sun-Times; a good-paying union gig that would pull him out of the freelance uncertainty. His ally was features editor Sue Franklin, who advised him to broaden his coverage if he wanted to get the job. So Walt started reviewing country concerts, house music, hip hop, etc., in addition to his favored acts from Bob Dylan’s coaching tree. The corny, bug-eyed country shows were brutal.
In her early ’40s, Sue was all about Frank Sinatra, so there was a bond with the critic who penned an infamous Sinatra cover story for Rolling Stone a few years earlier. She got Walt to write a 75th birthday tribute to Sinatra for the Sun-Times, and it was a fabulous piece. Even Sinatra’s people loved it, sending Walt a nice flower arrangement via the Sun-Times. Walt gave the flowers to Sue and she took him to Nissei, a Japanese bar near Wrigley field, for a drink to celebrate. As “Sukiyaki” played on the jukebox there was a flicker of attraction that made them both uncomfortable.
Walt’s rival for the Sun-Times job was Maite Alvarez, a young, attractive woman of color (1/4 Puerto Rican) who was injured a few months earlier in a stampede while covering Rage Against the Machine for the newspaper. Her removable wrist casts became outfit-matching accessories that she kept wearing long after she had healed.
The vapid Ms. Alvarez, whom Walt calls “Mighty Average,” was everything he hated about young music critics. She echoed the popular opinion, responded to fame instead of artistry and strived to be well-loved and well-compensated. Plus, she was a groupie, always hanging around with the bands. One morning Walt saw her at the Laizy Dazy in her nightclub clothes with the singer from the Meat Dolls.
The Three Critics were complimentary to Ms. Alvarez to her face, but when she wasn’t around they were vicious. Even worse than they were with Walt. Colton made a version of Maite’s rating system for reviews, but instead of five stars as the highest rank, it was a drawing of a blowjob. The lowest rating was an arm with a decorative cast giving the finger. Walt laughed his ass off when he saw that. When he walked away, Ravi said Colton should do one for Walt, with the top rating being Walt blowing Bruce Springsteen. “That would be his four-star,” Colton said. “Walt’s five-star is him blowing himself.”
When Maite applied for the Sun-Times job, Walt told Sallee he was going to tell Sue that she slept with one of the Meat Dolls on a night she reviewed their show. But Sallee advised against that, saying, “She’ll just deny it and you’ll look desperate.”
What Walt didn’t know was that Alvarez has been tattling on his drinking, which love didn’t slow. “I’m always amazed by his reviews on deadline,” Maite told the Sun-Times features editor. “That’s talent. If I drank as much as he does I couldn’t write a sentence. That reminds me: Does the paper have a policy against accepting free drinks?”
It’s strange that Sallee would get so livid over the masturbation. Walt’s biggest problem, his alcoholism, was kind of ignored early on. He had Sallee pull over in sketchy neighborhoods so he could buy beer at a liquor store for the ride home- and she just continued the conversation where she left off when he got back in the car with a 40. They were a couple in denial.
Walt tried everything to limit his drinking. He bought 8-ounce beers, thinking that it would slow him down, but he just got 3 or 4 every time he went to the refrigerator, cradling them in his arms. He sought the advice of a club soundman, sober 7 years. “Do you still enjoy drinking?” Yeah, Walt said. “Then you’re not ready. You’ve gotta drink when you hate it. That’s when you’ve hit bottom.”
Cool, Walt thought, then got hammered. Finally, after about a year of it, Sallee put her foot down. “I think you may be an alcoholic,” she said.
Walt promised to quit drinking and didn’t touch booze for a month. Then, one night Los Lobos played the Riviera and he was backstage and the left-handed guitarist with the shades handed him an ice cold Heinekin from a glistening ice chest. After the band left, Walt stuffed those green monsters in his jacket. Next morning at home: darts! But Walt came up with a new qualifier. He would not drink unless it was part of an experience, like a member of a favorite band handing him a beer backstage. Other examples: visiting New Orleans or an Iggy concert. Walt wouldn’t drink as habit anymore, but, you know, there’s nothing wrong with an occasional exemption to heighten an adventure.
So, the next day Sallee came home from work and Walt was sitting on the couch in his underwear with a spent six-pack of beer on the coffee table. “Oh, my gosh! What an experience!” she mocked. “The lights! The colors!”
The reason Walt got high, well, the one that doesn’t come out in therapy, was because he had a rock star fantasy, kept alive since he was 9 years old, that was greatly enhanced by drugs and alcohol. That’s him on guitar! He was always a lonely kid, having to keep himself entertained while his mom worked or dated. Most of his best times were in his head when he was out of his mind. Sometimes he preferred masturbation to the real thing.
One day, Walt came by the Sun-Times to drop off a story and pick up CDs. “Let’s go to the Billy Goat,” Sue said. She had to talk to him.
At the bar was the column legend Mike Royko. “Do you see who’s here?” Walt said, sitting down. “He’s always here,” said Sue. “To write like he does,” Walt said. “To have the whole city by the balls. Meanwhile, I’m reviewing Boyz II Men records.”
Sue asked Walt why he decided to become a music critic.
“I guess I knew as early as fourth grade,” he said. “All my friends used to pretend they were the Beatles. I used to fantasize that I knew the Beatles. Ah, but really, it was the only way to get published when I was starting out. You had to have a degree to write for a newspaper, but there were all these counter-culture rags out there on the top of the cigarette machines. I wrote for every fucking one of them.”
“I imagine you’re getting paid better now,” Sue said, putting pickles on her cheeseburger.
Walt was deep in thought for a long three seconds. “Yeah, but to be 19 again and feel like you’re gonna do this better than anyone. Delusion is great fuel when you’re young. Pathetic when you’re not.”
Sue fidgeted in her seat. “Well, listen, Walt. They’re gonna give that idiot Maite the job.” Walt showed no emotion, like a killer sentenced to death. “She just really knows how to kiss ass, plus, you know, we’ve only had white males in that job. I guess they think they’re getting a different voice.”
“Oh, they’re getting the same voice,” Walt shot back. “Critical correctness. I can’t stand a critic who’s afraid to break from the pack. There’s no right or wrong opinion. There’s only boring and interesting.”
Sue said Walt was still welcome to freelance for the Sun-Times, but not the record review column. That, and all the free CDs, would now go to Maite. “You’re too good a writer for that job anyway,” Sue said. “You should write books, not reviews.”
Walt looked entirely defeated. “I’m sorry, Sue, but I’m done writing for the Sun-Times. I do have a little bit of pride left.” That night was a blur.
The next morning, Walt woke up, very hungover, to hear Sallee yelling from the kitchen, “Why does the whole place smell like shit?” It startled a memory from Walt about the night before. He had been partying with a Scandanavian band, the Sandmen, whose members poured vodka into their beer. Walt got very drunk, very fast. He remembered coming home in a semi-blackout state and going to use the bathroom. Interrupting the thought, Sallee came in and said she was running late- could Walt check with the landlord about the plumbing, ‘cause something’s definitely backed up? After she left, he got up and took out a white kitchen trash bag, empty except for a small clump at the bottom.
They had a fight that night that crossed lines that became walls. Doesn’t matter how it started. Here’s how it ended: “You remember that day I picked you up at the airport for the first time?,” Sally said. “I fucked my aerobics instructor the night before. And I’m going to fuck him again tomorrow!”
“You know who you’ve been fucking the past year and a half?” Walt said, not backing down for once. “A guy who shit in your kitchen last night!” That’s all he had.
Walt moved out and got his own apartment, with his anger and justification over the split with Sallee slowly giving into devastating heartsickness. The breakup, he finally realized, was all his fault. He lost the love of his life because he couldn’t keep his hand off his dick. How pathetic!
His new landlord was a gay schoolteacher named Jerry, who lived on the first floor with his skeletal boyfriend, Sabir. Walt signed the lease in Jerry’s living room, which was dominated by an original Keith Haring painting of a sperm cell with devil horns. Jerry knew the artist through gay activist circles. Walt said he was very sad when Haring died of AIDS a few months earlier. “He brought a lot of awareness to the epidemic,” Walt said.
His eyes met Sabir’s and that was when Walt realized the gaunt man in a white kaftan was dying of AIDS.
“Last year,” said Sabir, who was resting on a daybed. “That’s when I got the package.” Jerry was looking over the lease to make sure he got all the signatures and said, “Now I know how I’ve heard your name. You’re THE Walter Carmody from Rolling Stone!”
“Well, I don’t write for them anymore,” Walt said. “I broke rule number one.”
“Gave a bad review to one of Jann’s friends?” Jerry asked and Walt nodded. “Mick Jagger solo record.” Jerry cringed. “I gave it a star and they gave me the boot.”
“I’ve been doing a lot of work for Spin lately,” Walt said. “Plus I’ve got the cover story of the Chicago Reader this week.”
“The one about ticket scalping?,” asked Jerry, and Walt said yeah. He had reported that scalpers often got their prime tickets from the promoters themselves, at high markup prices. “That article was like picking up a piece of linoleum and watching all the bugs scatter. Fortunately, we never have any trouble getting tickets. My cousin is the A in JAM Productions.” Even though he was a fourth grade teacher at a private school, Jerry was an A-grade namedropper, who seemed to know everybody. Or at least someone they were related to.
Jerry motioned for Walt to follow him to the next room. On a table was a phone/copier hybrid that made Walt’s eyes widen. “If you ever need to fax in a story, don’t hesitate to ask,” said Jerry. As most copy shops charged $3-$5 a page for faxes, this was a stroke of great luck. Also, it was cold as fuck outside.
A couple days later, Walt knocked on Jerry’s door with a manuscript in hand. Sabir, weak and in bedclothes, took forever to answer the door. Which made Walt uneasy. “Um, Jerry said I could use the fax machine.” Yeah, I was there, said Sabir.
“How many pages do you have?” Sabir asked. About 20, said Walt. “Feed the machine one page at a time.” Sabir started him off, then sat on the couch. After he caught his breath, Sabir asked Walt what magazine the story was for.
“It’s for Spin, but it’ll never run,” Walt said. “It’s a piece of shit I just finished for the kill fee.” Sabir gave a quizzical look. “A kill fee is what they pay you when the story is rejected. It’s usually 25%,” Walt said. “I pitched a story on Garth Brooks and the new country music boom, but then when I started writing it I realized the subject bored the hell out of me. But the kill fee is $1,250, so I just have to turn in 5,000 words. I just pulled most of it out of my ass.”
Sabir wondered if Walt was worried about his reputation being hurt by turning in inferior work. “Why take the short money when so much of your career is ahead of you?”
Over the next couple weeks, the two became more conversational. Walt even came down once with nothing to fax. “What’s it like to be dying?” Walt asked, using a lot more words, and Sabir responded, “You tell me.” Living in fear is letting death run your life. And that’s the same as dying, Sabir said. “You think I’m living in fear?” Walt asked. Sabir gave him a look that said nothing could be more obvious.
Sabir said he recently wrote a play about overcoming fear and moving on from tragedy. The young Turk from Virginia came to Chicago to act, he said, but the roles weren’t happening so he wrote a part perfect for himself, then built a plot around it. It was about a Palestinian doctor overwhelmed with grief after the bombing deaths of his wife and young son. He decides to start over in America and buys a convenience store on the South Side of Chicago. The kids in the neighborhood taunt him and try to make his life miserable, but at least he’s not back in Palestine. One day he saves the life of a black woman who collapsed in his store, reviving her while her 7-year old daughter watched. He ends up falling in love with the woman and being like a father to the girl. But he’s still haunted.
Walt asked if he could read it. “It’s not quite finished,” Sabir said. “I’m still waiting for the perfect title to find me. And I’m not sure I like the ending.”
Walt was reading Sabir’s play on the train when Sue Franklin, his former Sun-Times editor, got on at the Belmont stop. They were happy to see each other and she sat next to him and put her head on his shoulder.
“She’s worse than you can imagine,” Sue said. “I need a drink.”
As they were talking, Walt missed his stop, but he didn’t say anything and just kept riding with Sue. “Let’s get that drink,” he said. They got off the train at Cicero and Belmont and walked to the Bucket O’ Suds. Joe Danno, the wired, elderly owner, was playing some esoteric jazz and expounding on the merits of Eric Dolphy to a bar lined with Bucketeers, which is how Joe dubbed his regulars. “I don’t know, Joe,” Walt said. “It sounds to me like he’s just making it up as he goes along.” Danno just waved his joking attempt away and asked them what they wanted. Walt ordered a club soda and cranberry and Sue, cocking her head and looking surprised, ordered the same. “She’ll have an Elixir of Lucifer,” Walt said, referring to Sue’s favorite Danno concoction (he had a hundred). “You can drink in front of me,” he said as they walked to a table. “Now, let’s hear about your new music critic.” Sue laughed. “Mighty Average would be a big step up! I think she’s just rewriting press releases to make them more positive.” The pair ended up talking and laughing and crying for three hours. Walt eventually switched to beer. Walt and Sue kissed each other goodbye, with a slight brush of tongue.
At the train station, Walt pulled Sabir’s play out of his bag and continued reading it on the long ride home. Occasionally, he’d look out the window and smile like he hadn’t in months. Right before he got to his stop at Roscoe Street, he wrote “All That’s Left Is Everything” on the blank title page. Still giddy from his encounter with Sue, he was excited to tell Sabir that he’d found his title. He walked fast from the train stop. But when he arrived at his apartment, an ambulance was pulling away and Jerry was outside in the cold, crying.
II: BIGGER THAN THE BOTH OF US
Loud, metal music is playing as a woman in a white headband works out in a home gym. Cut to a cramped office full of books and albums, from where this woman’s music is coming. Walter Carmody, middle-aged rock critic, is cramming for an interview. He takes notes and slides papers around, as he smokes a joint and drinks coffee.
Lani “Queenie” Wolf, who brought a Janis Joplin-like reputation for boozin’ and ballin’ to mascara metal, climbs onto a stationary bike, in front of a white, erasable board covered in talking points.
“How many today?” a weary Wolf asks as she pedals. “Just two,” says her publicist, holding a clipboard. “First one is Walter Carmody.”
“Cool,” says Wolf. “Rolling Stone.” The publicist corrects her. “He’s not with Rolling Stone anymore. He’s doing this for the Illinois Entertainer.”
Wolf: “Illinois Entertainer? This better be a cover story.” Long pause. “Why are we doing an interview with a fucking rag?”
Publicist: Your show in Chicago isn’t sold out. We need the help.
Wolf: “I thought I had two shows.”
Publicist: “Well, ya know.” She grabs the wall phone, dials it and hands it to Queenie, still pedaling. “Rescue me in 15,” the singer says.
“RING!” Walter looks at the phone, gets his notebook in place. There’s a framed photo of his girlfriend on his desk. “RING!” He’s in boxer shorts and a dirty white t-shirt. He turns up the volume on the Queenie record. “RING!” He picks up the phone. “Sorry, hold on a second. Let me turn down the record.”
Hello, this is Lani Wolf. Is this Walter Carmody? “Yes,” he says. “Just getting my ass kicked over here! You guys really brought it on this record.” He turns it over and quickly scours the back. “Producer Jack Novell” it says. “What was it like to work with Jack Novel (that’s how he mispronounces it)?” Lani looks at her white board. First word is “Postcard.” Next word is “Seattle.”
“We’ve worked with Mr. Novell (she corrects him) on the last two albums and what he’s always been able to do is help us create an audio postcard of where our heads are at musically at the time. We recorded it in Seattle and just marinated in the vibe of that city.”
Lani answers each question by expanding on one of her one-word talking points, whether or not it fits the question. She’s just plowing through this shit.
Meanwhile, Walt is equally disinterested, mindlessly scribbling away. Lani’s talking so fast he’s only getting down the first couple words per sentence. His notes read like “I just” and “In ‘84” without any words after them.
Publicist breaks in. “Thank you, Walter. Fifteen minutes is up and we have some other interviews to get to.”
Walter: “Well, this is a cover story. Can I have a little more time.”
Pub: “Cover story? Well, I’ll give you another 10 minutes.”
Lani gets back on the phone. “Did Jack Novell change his process at all from the previous album to this one?” Walt asks, stammering a bit.
Lani answers with another postcard analogy, as if she’s doing the next interview.
When the magazine printing press spits out copies of the Illinois Entertainer, a couple weeks later, Smashing Pumpkins are on the cover, with Queenie teased on a ribbon. Walt Carmody used to write cover stories for Rolling Stone.
Carmody got the nickname “Dock” in the ‘80s, after he interviewed Frank Sinatra while tripping on LSD. Sinatra’s people got the date mixed up and called on a day that Walt had reserved to watch Pink Floyd’s The Wall. That contentious phone interview was spun into a famous Sinatra cover story in Rolling Stone (“I Should Punch You in the Nose,” May 1983). A bootleg cassette of that hilarious interview, pairing Ol’ Blue Eyes and Ol’ Dilated Pupils, was a favorite of indie rock bands on tour. (Sinatra: “Do you even know who Sammy Cahn is?” Carmody: “Was he in ‘The Godfather?’”) The icon gets especially testy when the spaced-out journalist refers to him as “Frank Sinatra, Sr.” But it’s almost impossible to intimidate someone on LSD.
So his friends started calling him Dock, after Dock Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who notoriously pitched a no-hitter on acid in 1970.
He always kept his byline as ‘Walter Carmody,’ and was known for lengthy profiles of prestige artists. When he started over in Chicago in the early ‘90s, nobody knew him as Dock Carmody. He moved there for Sallee and after she kicked him to the curb, he started hustling every freelance gig he could. He just couldn’t stand being in that soulless apartment alone, except when he was writing- then it was perfect. “Do you know anything about fly fishing?” one editor asked Walt, when the Brad Pitt movie A River Runs Through It was the hot flick. “My dad used to take me fly fishing every year,” Walt replied. Actually, Walt’s father ran off when he was six, and wouldn’t have taken him fishing anyway. But you say what will get you the job, then learn what you don’t know.
The story that had Walt wearing chest-high waders ran in a Toronto magazine that then assigned him to go on out with the top Canadian rock band, Nautical, making their first U.S. tour. Though the Stonesian rockers played 18,000-seaters in Canada, the U.S. tour consisted of 300-capacity clubs.
When Walt saw the itinerary, his eyes perked up. After Chicago and St. Louis was Kansas City. His 13-year-old son Otis lived in KC with his mom. That’s as far as Walt would go with the band, then he’d hang out with his son as long as he could and fly back to Chicago. Walt was psyched!
The three shows he witnessed were pretty depressing for the Canuck rock stars, who dubbed it the “Chateaus to Shitholes Tour.” They showed up in a half-million-dollar tour bus and played to about 120 people a night- almost all displaced Canadians. But the band could not have been more considerate and courteous to all around. Walt’s sarcasm, dismissing hockey as “soccer on ice,” for instance, brought smiles, not debate. Even the bitchy sound guy in St. Louis (where they opened for a local band) couldn’t get a rise out of them. They beat him with kindness and made him break down in a confessional cry. Then they kicked ass live.
Nautical was constantly writing songs on the bus, making the best of a bad situation. This disappointing U.S. tour was a traveling woodshed, which was great for Walt’s story. He rarely saw musicians create from air. One song being written had a line that especially struck Walt: “With illusions of someday castin’ a golden light/No dress rehearsal, this is our life.”
After the Kansas City show, the tour bus dropped Walt off at the Motel 6, waiting until he was checked in before driving away.
The next day, Walt just sat in his motel room waiting for Otis. At about 6 p.m., there was a quiet knock at the door. It was the kid, whose mother was parked outside the motel room. “Mom said we have to keep the door open,” Otis said, when Walt started to close it. When Walt called him by name, the kid said he’s not Otis anymore.
“You were named after Otis Redding, the great soul singer,” Walt said.
“I don’t even know who that is,” the kid countered. “I was always getting teased about it, so when we moved to Kansas City I changed it to Robert.”
“Robert Johnson,” weighed Walt. “That’ll work.”
The father asked his son if he’s been playing the guitar Walt gave him for his birthday. Yeah, he said, but he can’t really play it much because the neighbors complain about the noise. “Well, then, here you go,” Walt handed him the expensive studio headphones James from Metallica gave him after an interview. “Plug these into your amp.” Walt’s ex-wife Candace eventually got out of the car. “Sorry we were late. We went to the wrong Motel 6.” Walt asked, “Did you go to the one in St. Louis?”
There was a greasy spoon in walking distance, so Otis and his parents went there for an uneasy dinner. Walt and Candace, who always spoke at each other through clenched teeth and sarcasm, were not ready to make up after the custody thing.
The plates arrived and Otis got an old-fashioned cheeseburger and fries, then the waitress put Candace’s club sandwich in front of her. Walt had ordered an open-faced turkey sandwich, listed as “Sandy’s Treat” on the menu. He looked down at that mess, which, seriously, looked like the cook dropped in on the floor and put it back on a new plate, and called back the waitress. Candace and Otis looked at each other like they were going to burst into laughter, but they were able to suppress. “Excuse me, Ma’am,” Walt said. “I ordered ‘Sandy’s Treat’ and I think you brought me Sandy’s feet.” Oh, God, Candace and Otis just lost it!
FLASHBACK: Walt and Candace got married just five days after they met. Their first date was at a Bob Marley and the Wailers concert and that night they had sex from the beginning until the end of Babylon By Bus, which is a double album, so Walt had to keep getting up to turn it over. But it was also like playing four quarters of a game, and Walt had never been as athletic as that night. Two days later, after Walt’s Marley review was done, they drove to Las Vegas to get married. On the highway, Walt talked about how he did the music critic thing for the gig and the freebies, but what he really wanted to do was become a true crime author. He’s always been fascinated by evil minds and thinks he’d be a natural literary detective. “Who would you rather read about, a serial killer or the fucking Doobie Brothers?”
They turned out to have nothing in common and the marriage was a disaster. But Candace got pregnant, so Walt couldn’t break up until the kid was about 3. With the birth of his son, Walt stopped reading crime stories. He became a compulsive worrier and overplanner. Like, he devised a “zone defense” system of watching Otis when he and Candace took him to gatherings. “This is my area,” Walt said, making an imaginary line in the center of the room, “and that’s your area.” But when the kid went into C’s side, she just stayed in whatever conversation she was in, so Walt had to chase Otis around in that zone as well. This was just one of the many little things that gnawed at Walt daily. He hated the way she would come home from the grocery store and put the perishables in the refrigerator and then plop the bags with the rest of the items on the kitchen floor.
Candace found Walt boring- his stories were too long and didn’t really go anywhere. All the name-dropping anecdotes she loved early in their relationship now made her want to vomit. Plus, he was completely self-absorbed. Let’s flip the order there. 1. Self-absorbed 2. Boring stories.
Candace loved Walt’s writing at first but stopped reading him about a month into the marriage.
Walt took a lot of crazy, abusive shit from Candace, who struggled in her career as a painter, as Walt flourished in his, but the last straw was when she started a fight when he was on deadline. The unforgivable sin. He was literally typing while she was bopping him on the head and screaming. He stayed at a motel until he found an apartment.
What may have seemed like narcissism was really part of Walt’s all-consuming writing process. To put yourself out there as honestly as Walt did required courage based in ego. That was his defense.
When Otis started getting older, more perceptive, his divorced parents discontinued their tone war in favor of a ritualized détente, putting on a happy face and pushing all the hurtful feelings down. But many times the smiles were real. “He’s bigger than the both of us,” Walt said, hugging Candace the night of Otis’s 6th birthday. It was her idea to do a “Saturday Night Fever”-themed party, with first graders in disco wear. Walt was the DJ and everybody danced. Only a parent can know such satisfaction.
They both lived in the Bay Area when they got divorced in 1982, but Candace got a great job offer running an art gallery in another state and wanted to move with Otis. Walt blocked her, using terms from the divorce decree.
But when Walt got busted for smoking pot (at a New Kids On the Block show), Candace alerted Child Protective Services. During an unannounced visit to Walt’s apartment, CPS found an all-girl punk band sprawled out in the living room. (Walt met them at Mabuhay Gardens in S.F. and when he found out they had no money for a hotel, he let them crash with him.) There was a syringe in clear view, as the band members shot up while the bass player gave Walt a blowjob in the other room. After that debauched scene, Walt could no longer have unsupervised visits with Otis. Also, Candace was free to move wherever she wanted with the kid.
Walt was thinking about all this on the El train ride back from O’Hare, after the awkward Kansas City visit with Otis. There was a three-second snippet of a smile and a wave from his son that he replayed in his mind.
Walt’s first stop after getting off the train near Lincoln Park, even before he went home, was the used record store where his packages were forwarded while he was out of town. The clerk gave him $60 and returned the vinyl LPs, saying “we’re only buying CDs and cassettes these days.” Walt then went across the street to Weiner Circle, the home of char dogs and black sass from the female workers. One guy took too long to order and the cashier said, “Let’s go, Pretty Boy. That’s a menu not a mirror.”
One of the main reasons Walt had zero interest in profiling Garth Brooks for Spin was that the “thumb in a cowboy hat” had started a high profile campaign against record stores that sold used CDs. You don’t fuck with Walt’s personal ATM machines. Brooks complained that, since this indestructible format contained superior digital sound that could be resold forever, at no loss of fidelity, musicians stood to lose a lot of royalty money over time.
If Garth won, and the selling of used CDs was prohibited, Walt would lose a lot of weight and have to cut down on his drinking. But he was addicted to the runnin’-around money that his promos gave him. It was like all the food and drinks were free.
The comp things you never sold were concert tickets. That was just sleazy. But Walt was flat broke the night British punk icon Jerry Lee Abbott played the Park West. His envelope at Will Call had two tickets and since Walt was by himself and the show was sold out, it would sure be a waste to not get something out of it.
Walt saw a young black man outside the venue and recognized him as Tondric, one of the main subjects of his Chicago Reader cover story on ticket scalping. Tondric showed him how a scalper played “the walk” outside concert and sports arenas.
Walt flashed back to the day the kid bragged to him that he could show up at at a Chicago Bulls home game with a nickel in his pocket and go home with $2,000 at the end of the night. When Walt he didn’t believe him- how would you get the first ticket?- the kid said watch me, and cocked his ballcap around to its standard position.
There were about 10 people in the ticket line outside Chicago Stadium (actually an arena), with a couple and their friend at the end. Tondric was almost next to the trio when he whirled around. “Excuse me, Mister,” he said to a trailing Walt. “I’ve never been inside to see my hero Michael, but if you take a picture I can show my Momma. It’ll look like I was at the game and she’ll be so happy.” Tondric handed over the disposable camera, which didn’t have any shots left, so Walt pretended to take a picture of him, with the marquee as a backdrop. “Thank you, sir!” said the kid, suddenly more Irkel than Ice Cube, as Walt walked away, shaking his head.
After a few minutes the couple and their friend approached Tondric with a ticket in hand. “We were going to sell it, but it would be cooler to get a true fan into the game,” the single man said. The three had broad smiles. Tondric clasped his hands as if in prayer. “You are so kind.” As they walked away, the kid smiled at Walt, who was 20 yards away, trying to interview another scalper. “I’ll be in in a minute, gotta find my little brother,” the kid said to the three Samaritans. “You wouldn’t happen to have another one, would you?”
The scalper Walt was talking to yelled out, “Hey, Tondric, we need one over here!” and the kid spun around and brought the ticket. They were dealing with a big man with a wad of cash. Minutes later, beer and bratwurst in hand, that man came down the aisle and sat with the three who gave Tondric their extra ticket. The look they gave each other!
Outside, Tondric was making something very clear to Walt. “I know you heard my name, but if you use it, I’ll find you,” he said, pounding his fist. “That’s a promise.”
“Hey, Chino, remember me?” Walt said, outside the Park West three weeks later, using the alias he gave Tondric in the article. “Mister reporter,” the kid said with a smile.
“Are you buying tickets?” Walt asked, “because I’ve got an extra.” Nah, man, Tondric said. The show feels like a dog. “Are you kidding?” Walt said. “Jerry Lee Abbott is a legend. And he almost never plays clubs anymore.”
“There sure are a lot of people been tryna unload their tickets all day for such a legend,” Tondric said. “Give me $20- it’s a $35 ticket and the show’s sold out,” offered Walt. “I guarantee you’ll make money off this ticket.” Tondric swiveled his head in doubt and gave him a $20. “We’ll see.”
What Walt didn’t know was that Abbott had been on WXRT radio that day, telling fans that he’d only be performing new material that night at the Park West, so please don’t yell out requests. “It startles the cello player,” he said. Once a sardonic rocker, Abbott had started delving into cocktail jazz and classical music- to massive yawns from even diehards.
The show had little demand for Tondric’s supply, but rather than eat Walt’s ticket, Tondric used it to go inside and get his $20 back. Walt was sitting with The Three Critics when the sight of Tondric inside the somewhat posh venue startled them. A black man from the street at a Jerry Lee Abbott show was jarring enough, but then Tondric pointed right at Walt and motioned for him to come over. Ravi and Colton looked at each other like “what the hell?,” as Walt ambled over to Tondric. “Hey, man, that ticket was bullshit,” an agitated Tondric said. “Don’t nobody want to hear new shit from this cat. Give me my money back. You guaranteed, man.” As his friends watched, Walt acted like he and Tondric were buddies. Tondric threatened to beat his ass right there in front of everybody and Walt threw his head back in a big fake laugh. “I already spent half of it,” Walt said under his breath. He slid a 10 in a handshake to Tondric who said “you better have that other 10 next time I see you.”
“Well, that was uncomfortable,” Walt said, returning to the table. “What was that all about?” Colton asked. Walt reached into his pocket and, under the table, showed a small bag of biege heroin that he’d actually bought earlier in the day. That’s why he was broke. “Who wants sma-a-a-ck?” Walt sing-songed, like a mother with brownies.
“What is this, the ’50s?” said Colton. “Get with the times, old man. Crack, not smack.”
Though a veteran druggie, Walt had never done heroin. Too many overdose deaths in his field. But when he was enlisted to give a ride to a friend to score some H, Walt asked, “What’s the minimum buy-in?” When the guy told him, Walt gave him his last twenty. This would be interesting.
Walt felt a little high just with that packet of powder in his pocket. Shit, man he wanted to hear some jazz, so he borrowed 10 dollars from Coffey (showing him an uncashed check from Spin for $1,250 for reasurrance) and took the train from Park West to the Green Mill Lounge in the Uptown neighborhood.
“Hey, man, buy me a beer and I’ll share some skag,” Walt said to a guy in his 30s he saw at all the shows. “Not for me, man. Those days are long gone,” the guy said, obviously puffing up a past where he might have seen heroin once. “But I’ll buy you a beer.”
There was a woman Walt liked at the club, so he asked her if she wanted to do some heroin. She said no, but gave back a look of respect he hadn’t seen from her before. Next to the n-word and the c-word, Walt realized, “heroin” is the most powerful word in the English language. “It’s “hero” and “in,” two things everyone wants to be.
Finally, Walt ran into the old trumpet player Kid Napoleon, who toured with Sonny Rollins in the ’60s, in the men’s room. “You don’t still do H, do ya, Kid, sir?” Let me see what you got, the old man said, and after Walt showed him, he laughed. “That ain’t enough to make a duck walk funny!” A man at the sink/mirror heard this exchange in the bathroom stall and got the wrong idea.
Later that night, Tondric got arrested on rape charges. He fit the description (black male, tattooed, which was rare) and was picked out of a lineup by the victim. Tondric said he was at the Park West scalping tickets at the time of the incident. Asked if there was someone who could vouch for his presence from 8- 10 p.m. he said there was a writer who sold him a ticket and then saw him inside at around 9. “An old dude who was a music critic, because someone was giving him shit about a review he had written,” Tondric said. Cop: “Was it an Urge Overkill review?” Tondric said that sounded familiar. Then he saw a Chicago Reader on a desk. “He wrote the cover story,” T said, pointing. “Oh, yeah, Walter Carmody,” the cop said, reading the byline. “In the same issue he said the Urge Overkill show was ‘loud enough to drive a pimp off a pay phone three blocks away.’”
Police went to Walt’s apartment at about 1 a.m. and he corroborated Tondric’s alibi. “Could you come down to the station in the morning and make a statement?” No, said Walt, I’ll come down now. The cops gave him a ride downtown.
Walt waited for Tondric to get cut loose, then they walked out of the police station together. “That’s what it’s like to be a black man in Chicago,” Tondric said. “Yeah, well my life isn’t so great either,” said Walt.
Walking to the train station, the middle-aged music critic and the 23-year-old hustler had a long conversation about what it’s like to be each other. But first T wanted to know why Walt chose the name “Chino” for the article. “I ain’t Chinese,” he said. Walt got a smile from Tondric when he said that he took it from the name of a state prison in California.
“There’s a lot of stuff white folks just can’t relate to. Like watching TV shows like ‘The Brady Bunch’ when you’re living in the ghetto. Muthafuckas like to rub our faces in it. It’s just constant, man.”
Walt had to laugh because family sitcoms were also surreal to his own upbringing. “I never really knew my father,” said Walt. “It was just me and my Mom and we never had any money. Always lived in these tiny furnished apartments. ‘The Brady Bunch’ just made me sad.”
The greatest story ever told is the history of African Americans, said Walt, a black history buff. “Just what blacks went through to get where they are today is pretty amazing. You’re a part of that, man.”
Tondric just shook his head. “It must’ve been pretty amazing to be a slave,” he said.
Walt had another example of why he envied blacks growing up. “I had to change schools all the time and everybody would stare at me as the alien new kid. I just wanted to disappear. But, then, when there was a new black student, all the other black kids would throw out the welcome mat. Save them a place at lunch. There’s a family closeness, that white people don’t have.”
“There are also a lot of dangerous people running around who don’t give a shit about your life,” Tondric said. “You have no idea what’s it’s like to have to worry about getting your ass beat every day at school, every day at home. It’s survival of the fittest, man. If you ain’t a brawler, you better be a baller. You gotta hustle or you’re gonna get killed.”
“Oh, you think you have it bad?,” Walt said. “We had only two TV channels when I was growing up!” Tondric just shook his head and said “You a goofy mofo.” And then he thanked Walt for coming down to the station in the middle of the night. “You didn’t have to do that, but I’m glad you did,” Tondric said. “But I still want my ten bucks.”
They split when Tondric followed the sign at the train station that said “South” and Walt went the other way, then turned back to say something. “Empathy for others, education for all!” Walt shouted at Tondric. “That’s the only answer, man.”
“Watch out for Greg Brady,” Tondric said to a couple passing him.
Hip-hop was becoming more mainstream in the ‘90s- and also more creative- and Walt was a bit left out. “I liked when they rapped on the beat,” he said, preferring Run-DMC, NWA and, especially the Geto Boys to newer, jazzier, quirkier outfits like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Stetasonic.
But all the magazines were hiring younger writers who lived the current hip hop culture- or at least understood it. Walt had to get with it.
Ravi and Colton took jobs with the New Yorker and Details, respectively. Meanwhile, Walt couldn’t get his phone calls returned. “Don’t nobody want to hire a 50-year-old white dude in a Mott the Hoople t-shirt,” Ravi said to Colton, when Walt walked away after asking about a rumored job.
That night, Walt ran into a freshly beaten up Tondric outside the Riviera, where Walt was to review A Tribe Called Quest for the Illinois Entertainer. “Wow, what happened, man?” Walt asked. “Oh, you know. It was a business disagreement and I was outnumbered.” Walt said it looked to be four against one and Tondric said that’s about right.
“Hey, I got an extra ticket- and you can have it for the ten bucks I owe ya,” Walt said. “Deal,” said Tondric. “I’ll tell you what,” Walt added. “I’ll give you that ten dollars, but you’ve gotta work for it.” They went in together and during the show, Tondric barked song titles at Walt, who scribbled whatever Tondric said in his notebook. Walt knew all the samples, while Tondric knew everything else.
Afterwards, they had a pizza together and talked about A Tribe Called Quest. “They’re part of that Native Tongues clique out of New York City,” Tondric said. “They all bring something different to the table. Tribe brings the jazz element, Jungle Brothers funk it up, and De La Soul is more pop. It ain’t all competitive like West Coast. They all share with each other and pass it around. It’s cool, man. Afrocentric, a new language of beats.”
Walt said they were better than he thought they’d be, but there was too much sampling. Where’s the musicianship in that? “All your rock bands steal riffs,” Tondric said. “At least in hip hop the originators get paid.”
“I hope Lou Reed cashed a big check, because that song ‘Can I Kick It?’ that everyone wents nuts over tonight is just ‘Walk On the Wild Side’ with rap lyrics,” said Walt.
Who’s Lou Reed?
“He had a band in Manhattan that was the original gangstas of rock. The Velvet Underground broke so many taboos, with songs about heroin, prostitution and sexual perversity. I love gangsta rap and that whole thing about holding up a mirror to reality, but Lou Reed and John Cale were talking about the dirty, mean, dangerous inner city streets in the ’60s.” As if on cue, the pizza parlor played “Sunday Morning” off the first Velvets album and Tondric winced, as Walt pointed at the speakers in wagging approval. “That’s Lou Reed,” Walt said. “White people think rap isn’t music but they’ll listen to this guy?” was Tondric’s response. “Whoever told this dude he could sing should be locked up for impersonating taste.”
Everybody really liked Walt’s Tribe Called Quest review (“New Language of Afrocentricity”) and he realized it was because Tondric was with him to “drop science” and fill in the blanks. He started thinking about them becoming a team. Tondric would be the face and the byline of this fresh new force in music journalism and Walt would do the writing, without credit. They met again outside the Chicago Theater, which was next to the Off Track Betting parlor where Tondric hung out.
Walt laid out how Tondric was going to front for him, and proposed a 75/25 split, plus Tondric could keep all the free CDs, concert tickets and junkets he could wrangle. “You should get more than 25% if you’re doing all the writing,” Tondric said. He was joking, but after some haggling he was able to get it to 65/35 in Walt’s favor.
The way it worked was that Tondric did the interviews, using Walt’s questions and his own, then handed the tape over to Walt, who wrote the feature. The interviews were better than if Walt did them because there was a real connection with the subjects. They gave Tondric a lot more. On record and concert reviews, Walt read the first draft to Tondric, who would “nah” out the corny sentences and threw in some phrases to make it sound more street. If Tondric loved an album it got a good review. Walt didn’t know enough about modern hip-hop to overrule. Tondric became the teacher and was so helpful, Walt voluntarily made the split 50/50. This street hustler was pretty sharp.
Tondric was assigned to write a feature about Digital Underground and after the interview with the main guy, one of the backup dancers handed Tondric a cassette of his own material. Tondric dug it and gave it to Walt, who was blown away. The young rapping dancer was Tupac Shakur. Walt’s article, under Tondric’s byline, put him on the rap map.
It also established “Tondric Evans” as the hot new name in music journalism. Nobody had ever read a hip hop critic who was so streetwise, yet eloquent. The p.o. box Walt rented for Tondric was stuffed daily with not only CDs and press releases, but offers from editors and publishers. And nice checks made out to Tondric Evans. Walt had the only key to the p.o. box and he’d go with Tondric to the bank when they had a check to cash.
Walt wanted to know more of Tondric’s story, so he could better get into his head for first-person possibilities. He also loved to wager on horse races so they’d often meet at OTB, the most integrated room in Chicago, where Tondric told pieces of his life story between races. He’s got a son, aged two, but he doesn’t have much to do with his upbringing. “Me and his Mama don’t get along,” Tondric said. “She’s got a new man and it gets a little tense when I come around.”
The first time Walt wrote a first person story as Tondric, his front was having none of that. “How you gonna put stuff about my daddy beatin’ up my mom in the muthafuckin’ magazine?” Walt pointed out that putting some of his real life into articles can make them richer, more interesting, but Tondric made him take it out before he faxed it in. Another time, Tondric sent a piece back for a rewrite, saying, “I’m not putting my name on this bullshit.”
Tondric was becoming a big star and yet he had to give Walt half the money, so there was some grumbling. “I’m not your manager,” Walt said, when Tondric asked for a bigger share. “I’m your fucking brain!”
When Tupac Shakur was charged with shooting two off-duty cops in Georgia in 1993, Vibe called Tondric and asked him for a quick turnaround on a story. Since he discovered Shakur, he probably had good contacts. But the only number Tondric kept calling, over and over, was Walt’s apartment. Tondric even called Lounge Ax, Walt’s favorite music dive, and Ear Wax Records. The writer was nowhere to be found, so Tondric had to write the story himself and he couldn’t. Especially in his apartment crowded with kids, where yelling echoed in the hallways like a prison. He tried and tried and then called the magazine back and said his grandma died. He was too distraught. They understood and gave the assignment to another writer.
So, he did need Walt. But Walt needed him, too. And though they fought, there was a growing closeness between the two. Tondric came to Walt’s defense when an irate fan started yelling at him at a club over a caustic review. (When the street kid from the South Side stepped up to the man harranging Walt, the guy almost wet his pants.) And Walt was always looking after Tondric when he stepped into the “white world,” like the Cubby Bear nightclub. Everybody in the place would stare when they walked in together and drunks would sometimes ask Tondric if he was a rapper.
Tondric would sometimes sit on a bench in the park and watch little Ike on the playground 100 yards away. One time, Ike’s mother LaNeisha saw him and waved him over. “Daddy!” the little boy exclaimed, running over to give Tondric a hug. “You look good,” he said to LaNeisha. “Been off the rock for two months. Man, I musta been crazy to let that shit control me.” Ike saw a little boy get off a tricycle and went over for his turn, but the boy screamed “mine!” Tondric peeled off about six 20’s and gave the money to LaNeisha. “Bout time Little Man had his own bike,” he said, giving Ike a kiss before walking away.
Tondric and Walt both were invited to SXSW in March ’93, to be on different panels. Walt drove down to Austin so he could see Otis on the way there and back, while Tondric flew first class and stayed at the Four Seasons, at MTV’s expense. All he had to do was host a big outdoor concert on Sixth Street.
Candace was extremely nice to Walt when he visited in KC, so he knew something was up. She told him she had a new boyfriend, a college art professor, and he wanted to take her to Europe for the summer. Could Walt take Otis for a couple months, maybe three? Walt was torn. Of course, he wanted Otis to stay with him, but he felt so used and abused by Candace in the custody thing, he didn’t want to do her a solid. “I can’t,” Walt said. “I have a book deadline. It wouldn’t be fair to Otis.”
“Oh, the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon,” Candace sang like Harry Chapin.
Walt was deep into a flashback of talking to Otis about quitting his Little League team. “I suck,” Otis said. “I’ll never be good.” He tried to teach his son to not be afraid of being bad at something when you’re just starting out. You can’t give up. “That’s what life is all about,” Walt said. “Dealing with failure.”
As Walt drove out of KC, Otis/Robert sat in his room with headphones on. Scorching guitar seeped out of the Sennheisers and Otis, now 15, looked completely blissful. As the visual expanded, it revealed that Otis was playing that guitar. He was ripping on it! He didn’t play for Walt during the visit. He knew his father would make a big deal about it.
Walt’s panel at SXSW, which he dubbed “the old white guy rock critic’s roundtable,” drew about 27 people. Afterwards, Walt tried to get into an exclusive party thrown by Spin, but he didn’t have the right credentials. He tried to talk his way in, but the burly doorman never heard of Walter Carmody. On the outs with Spin after that horrid Garth Brooks feature, he couldn’t ask for an editor or publisher to get him in. But here came Tondric, flanked by a pair of fine women, and the doorman opened the velvet rope to let them through. “This one, too,” T said, pointing at Walt. “Put him on my tab.” Tondric stuck out his fist and told the confused doorman to make one, too, then bumped it. When Walt entered the party, Tondric whispered, “Just try not to embarrass me, man.”
Tondric was the star writer on hand, that’s for sure, as folks at the party repeated lines from Tondric’s reviews, and he talked about what inspired those words. An overhearing Walt seethed, but he couldn’t say a thing. And Tondric knew it. “Man, I don’t know. Sometimes it feels like I’m not even writing. That the words are coming to me from the man upstairs.” Tondric also butchered meanings and intentions, sometimes intentionally, which made Walt beside himself.
Tondric’s panel, “The Future of Music,” was held in the packed main ballroom the next day. The moderator read something from Tondric’s review of new band Naughty By Nature and asked him to elaborate on a certain point. Tondric just talked in circles at first, but backed into a corner, recreated the lecture Walt gave him about the Velvet Underground, contrasting that with Naughty By Nature’s view of New York City. “Lou Reed was the real O.G.! He was down with D.O.P.E. and everybody acts like there weren’t problems until black people started gangs.” It was mostly gibberish, but the crowd ate it up. Walt smiled.
But one of Walt’s reviews, under Tondric’s byline, caused a controversy during the conference. He trashed Fillipino gangsta rapper Killah Fum Manila, whose label Drive-Buy Records was owned by Myron “Big Daddy” Fleck. He looks and acts like a little, old, Jewish accountant, but Fleck has the rep of a cold-blooded killer after the word got out that he ordered the hit on his own artist, Murder Dawg, who posthumously grew in popularity. The rumor was started by a rival NYC rap label, who wanted new artists to think twice about signing with Drive-Buy, so they propped up Big Daddy like a scarecrow.
Fleck really was nebbish to the core, but his henchmen confused his Yiddish phrases with code to commit violence against enemies real or convenient. Reading the Killah pan, he referred to the writer as Schmendrick Evans and tossed the magazine across the room. “This I need like a lock in kop,” he said, pointing to his temple. Lock in kop is “a hole in the head,” but Fleck’s muscle think it means to put a bullet in the critic’s head, They look at each other, like, pretty harsh, Big Daddy, and hope he’ll cool off- and call off.
Drive-Buy was staffed, almost exclusively, by gorgeous women Fleck’s right hand man Dobie G.O. met at a club. None seem to have any previous experience in the music biz, as Walt found out when he, identified as Tondric’s editor, called and asked for an overnight delivery of the Killah album. “Now, let me get this straight,” the label’s new head of publicity said on the phone. “You want me to give you a free CD, AND send it Fed-Ex? I don’t think so.”
Walt maybe used his Killah slam as a way to get back at Drive-Buy’s clueless staff- objectivity in music criticism is not a given- but now he realized that he’d put Tondric in danger. Feeling very guilty, Walt told Sue Franklin, now his girlfriend, that he may have also written such a nasty review because Tondric was getting too big of a head. Jeezuz, what did he do! Walt tore out into downtown Austin, looking for his front, who had no idea Fleck’s gangstas were after him. They saw a poster for the MTV concert “Hosted by Tondric Evans of Vibe Magazine” and set off in that direction.
Tondric’s beeper was blowing up, but it was just Walt so he wasn’t in any hurry. Besides, all the pay phones had lines.
Tondric was on the side of the stage while Dee-Lite performed, when he locked eyes with Fleck’s thugs. The made throat-cutting gestures and mimicked punches and Tondric thought they were joking, so he threw back the same signs, inadvertently mocking these dangerous men. As they stormed through the crowd towards him, Tondric realized they weren’t messing around. They wanted to severely fuck him up! The only safe place was onstage, so Tondric went out there, standing with the irritated DJ. As the set ended, Tondric tried to get an uninterested crowd to call for an encore. The bad guys stayed in the wings, waiting for Tondric, just as Walt arrived. “The kid didn’t do anything,” Walt said to the menacing crew. “I wrote that review.” Nah, nah, the head of security said, pulling the review out of his pocket. As he showed Walt the byline, Tondric melted in with the stage crew and slipped away. Seeing T was safe, and with the muscle now surrounding him, Walt said “You’re right. Tondric Evans. I thought maybe the Spin Doctors had sent you. Man, I tore them a new one!”
Walt had the men take him to Fleck, where he told the rap mogul the whole story. Tondric was just a front. The words of the review were Walt’s. Fleck repeated some of the lines and laughed. Knowing this middle-aged white guy wrote it was now funny. So, the thugs were called off, but Fleck made it understood with Walt that Drive-Buy artists would get a great ride in the press from him- or else Fleck would expose the Tondric/Walt scam. Walt eventually found his shaken partner hiding in a room hosting a panel on CD-ROMs.
Back in Chicago after SXSW, a bouncer who was Walt’s nemesis, was also coming on to the ruse. The two didn’t like each other because Walt expected to skip the line at the Roxy and be waved on through, and that shit lasted only one time. “Not on the list!” the bouncer barked. “Walt Carmody?” Not on the list the bouncer repeated. When Walt pointed to his name, the bouncer said ‘You said Walt and that says Walter.” Just a dick. Walt reported him to the owner, who chewed out the bouncer. Revenge had been on the beefy skinhead’s mind ever since.
The doorman was a racist thug, who looked for any excuse to use- or brag about- his martial arts skills. He once dropped the n-word on Tondric, who punched him in the face, which had Tondric 86ed from the club forever. So the bouncer knew that when Monie Love was reviewed at the club in Vibe (framed at the club’s entrance), under Tondric’s byline, there was something fishy. He checked the guest list for that show and saw Walt’s name and figured it out. “I know what’s going on with you and that shine,” the bouncer told Walt next time he saw him. “You’re writing those reviews. He’s not smart enough.”
Walt was having a hard time mentally. The deception was wearing him down and the walls were closing in. Song lyrics all seem to ask him what the hell happened to his life. Meanwhile, Tondric Evans was having quite a time on Walt’s mind.
One day, Tondric was interviewing his heroes Public Enemy when he received word that influential rap pioneer Big Poot had been murdered. Vibe assigned him to write an appreciation of the fallen rapper on deadline and, since he had the well-spoken Chuck D right there with him, he got great quotes. Other rappers on that night’s bill, including Ice Cube, came by to say a few words in Tondric’s tape recorder. Walt was MIA, again, so Tondric had to write the piece, but Chuck D and the others kinda wrote it for him. The editor at Vibe had to clean it up a bit, but Tondric had proudly filed his first story without Walt.
After the show in Chicago Tondric was backstage when a scuffle broke out, followed by eight or nine gunshots. Tondric got hit in the abdomen, where the stomach meets the leg, and his innards were on fire. Holy shit, this is what it feels like to be shot! Rushed to the hospital, he told the EMS guy that he had a little boy named Isaac, then he passed out.
Walt heard on the radio that a music journalist was shot at a rap concert and started putting on his jacket, even before they named the victim. He knew it was Tondric and again started feeling very guilty. He went straight to the hospital.
It turned out, however, that Tondric was not the target. The gunfire was in retaliation for the murder of Big Poot, carried out by one of the bodyguards backstage. Tondric was just in the wrong place.
At the hospital, Walter apologized to Tondric for getting him involved in the increasingly dangerous rap field. “There ain’t no place for me that ain’t dangerous,” said Tondric. He’d also been troubled by putting his name on another man’s work and he told Walt that he wanted out of the deal. He was going to start taking writing classes. He said he might have a knack for that kind of work.
A relieved Walt hugged Tondric and thanked him. “No, man, thank YOU,” said Tondric. “You made some good things in my life.”
At home, Walt called Candace and said he’ll be happy to take Otis for the summer, but she’d have to do without child support during that time. She agreed.
Walt wanted to show his son something in Chicago that was really cool, so he took Otis to Maxwell Street one Sunday to hear the authentic blues musicians who played for tips in the garment district. While Walt walked around, Otis was watching one old black guitarist intently. He played electric guitar with a pick on his thumb and got a stinging, slivering “black snake” tone that gave Otis chills. When Lil’ Sam Johnson, who recorded a couple of sides for Chess in the ’60s, took a break, Otis asked him about his unique style. Johnson showed him how he did it, then offered Otis his guitar and a thumb pick. “Just remember kid, it ain’t always what you play. It’s also what you don’t play.
It took Otis a few minutes to figure out the pick, then he started playing a Stevie Ray Vaughan riff, his attention split between the guitar and the old man. Let it breathe, son.”
Otis told Mr. Johnson that he’d been playing for a couple years- “every day, all day”- and played a few gigs in Kansas City. “But today was the first time I’d heard someone play the blues like that.” Walt came by as Otis played and was stunned. He had no idea Otis was such a good guitar player. He only played with headphones in the apartment they shared in the Lakeview neighborhood, which was a mile from Lake Michigan.
Otis began taking the train to Maxwell Street every Sunday, bringing his guitar. There was so much to learn, but he was there for it. All of it.
One day, Otis came to his father with a question about chord progressions. “Oh, I don’t know anything about that technical stuff,” Walt said. “And you’re a music critic?” said Otis.
Used to be, said Walt.
VII: A TURN TO CRIME
Now that his music journalism career was basically over, at least Walt now had time to write a true crime bestseller, like he’s always been talking. He got a job tending bar at Mothers, the loud, stupid Rush Street joint featured in About Last Night, because he was sure no one he knew would ever come in. But then, of course, Sallee came in on the first night with her boss Josh, now her boyfriend. She was embarrassed for Walt, but he talked about how happy he was because Otis was living with him. “I just started hating being a music critic,” he said. “Just a ridiculous job. Even I didn’t care what I thought.” It took him awhile to catch up to the rest of us, Sallee joked, patting Walt’s hand to make sure he knew. He laughed. That girl could always crack him up.
Occasionally, Walt served one of the most successful writers of the true crime genre, a man in his forties who came in to pick up college girls and usually did. One of his books had been turned into a Tom Cruise blockbuster and the writer had lotsa stories. He bought a lot of drinks, though he drank virgin Cape Cods.
One night Walt pumped him for tips on breaking into true crime and the writer broke the bad news that these days literary/film agents buy the rights to the real life stories. It’s almost impossible for a freelancer without financial backing to write a hit serial killer book. “You’d have to be intimately involved yourself. Or get there before the ambulance.”
Walt was deflated, but he had a crazy idea. What if Walt committed the murders himself and planted evidence on that asshole bouncer from the Roxy? He was desperate. So he made a list of all the people he would kill. There was the label A&R man who screwed over a band Walt was friends with. The singer ended up committing suicide. Another victim would be the Roxy bartender known for date-raping young women with roofies. The guy who sold fake weed to Walt outside the reggae bar, then sucker-punched him when Walt came back for his money, also made the list.
There was also the big, mob-connected scalper in town, Dom, who had threatened to break Walt’s kneecaps when the writer called for comment on his Chicago Reader expose. It was also Dom’s crew that beat up Tondric a couple days before that Tribe Called Quest show.
While Walt typed, he recalled the first murder in his head. He stepped out of an alley behind a bar, said “this will knock you out,” and shot the rapist bartender. He placed a Kung Fu collector card on the body and coolly walked away.
Walt was so jacked after the murder he wrote all night. This was the work he was born to do.
Next day, Walt had Dom meet him at a train station under the pretense that he had a briefcase full of prime U2 tickets. When the scalper bent down to pick up the case, Walt stuck a Kung Fu card in his back pocket and shoved him in front of the train.
In the alley behind the reggae bar he saw the drug ripoff guy being pummeled by three beefy guys who smashed his head in with pool cues. Walt walked over and dropped a Kung Fu card on the body, taking the credit.
The next day, Walt ran into the A&R weasel backstage and asked him if he wanted to do a bump. They found an empty room and Walt laid out a long line. “This doesn’t taste like coke,” the guy said, then collapsed. A Kung Fu card for him, too.
The newspapers had a name for Chicago’s new serial murderer: The Kung Fu Killer. Walt’s last victims were the two gang members who killed Tondric in a robbery the previous week. Walt was devastated when he heard the news on MTV. Tondric’s former scalping partner Tony saw the whole thing, but was vague to police because he ain’t no snitch. But he told Walt who it was because he knew they were tight.
Walt shot one of Tondric’s killers, a drug dealer, when he came over to the car to make a sale, and hit the other as he was reaching for his gun. Walt started to throw some cards on the bodies, but stopped himself. That was for Tondric.
On the way out of the Roxy one night, Walt placed the rest of the Kung Fu deck at the evil bouncer’s station, then went into the phone booth and called the police. He said he witnessed the bartender getting shot in the alley. It was that skinhead bouncer from the Roxy who did it.
Newspaper headlines showed that the suspected serial killer, a nightclub bouncer, was also the leader of a neo-Nazi group. He was found guilty, another headline said, and sent to prison for life.
Walt wrote the book and it became a best-seller. In fiction. The killing spree and subsequent framing didn’t happen in real life, but in the pages of the novel Walter Carmody spent two years writing when he wasn’t tending bar. The book was about a hard-drinking vigilante who posed as a music critic to infiltrate a dirty nightclub scene. Walt had been slowly going insane in his life, but he was able to use that mental upheaval as motivation to tell an intriguing, though twisted, story.
The Chicago book-signing had a line around the block. Walt signed books, which Sue handed to him, with a slip of paper with the buyer’s name. After small talk and signing Walt closed the book to reveal the title Kill Fee.
A well-dressed young black man was next in line and when Sue asked him his name, he said, “this cracker knows who I am!” It was Tondric, who said he just got a fellowship to go to college and study journalism.
As the town car exited the parking lot, the sign was being changed for the next book signing, “Maite Alvarez.” The Sun-Times critic was the author of the new Bon Jovi biography Livin’ On a Prayer. Wildly different paths to the same marquee.
Walt was exhausted from signing nearly 140 books, but there was one stop before home: a small blues club downtown. He and Sue paid the cover and sat down to watch the 18-year-old blues guitar sensation “Otis Carr,” who left “Robert” in Kansas City. Also there was ex-wife Candace, who looked great, with her new husband, the professor now teaching at Northwestern. The new Chicagoans raised their glasses to Walt and Sue, who returned the silent toast from across the bar.
Also there was Sallee Brooks, with a new guy, and The Three Critics, checking out the rising star on the blues scene. But first they gazed at the gorgeous woman talking to Walt. “You remember my ex Sallee, don’t you?” Walt said, knowing damn well The Three Critics had never met her before. Shit, the girlfriend was real!
The band was cooking, especially the young guitarist, who tore off one great solo after the next. Tondric arrived and joined the others on the dancefloor in front of the band. At the side of the stage, waiting to come out to jam, was Otis’ guitar mentor Lil’ Sam.
The crowd was electric! Together, they all shouted back the song’s chorus, as Otis backed away from the mic with a smile. “C’mon, baby don’t you want to go/ From the land of California to Sweet Home Chicago.”