Set in the Chicago music scene in the early ‘90s, when CDs were king, the Internet was a rumor, and your phone stayed home.
PT. I: ALL THAT’S LEFT IS EVERYTHING
If a growling stomach was grounds for justifiable homicide, Sallee would’ve left a row of dead boyfriends in her wake. You did not obstruct her path when hunger hit, when “starving” was a combination of stark raving, but money on the phone for a freelance writer trumps any situation short of home invasion. Sallee had on her coat and glared at Walt, in his home-only sweatpants, making the thumb-brushing-fingers sign. On the line was the editor of Soundz 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 would be Guns N’ Roses. “Sounds like fun,” Walt said, as Sallee stomped her foot and walked away. As he stepped out of his sweats, Walt discussed fee, deadline and word count with the editor and then, just before he was about to hang up, he remembered something. “Which side do you want me to take?”
Ten minutes later, Sallee Bryant, 23 and gorgeous, and rock critic Walter Carmody, almost 20 years older, entered the Laizy Daizy Diner on Diversey Street to stares. “Long Tall Sallee,” as she was nicknamed as a star volleyball player in high school, was so much better looking than Walt that not only did it seem unlikely that they were a couple, 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.” Sally 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 Daily Angel,” 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 only thing that really bothered Walt about the genetic jackpot at his side was the way she ordered in restaurants. Sallee didn’t have much use for menus. She’d just ask for what she was craving, given the culinary boundaries of each eatery. Oh, she wouldn’t order pad thai at a Greek diner; it was more like this: “Can you poach an egg, with pumpernickel toast and steamed broccoli?” Ninety per cent of the time she’d get what she wanted. On the table and in life.
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. A lot of folks thought Walt’s U2 piece was horseshit, but Sallee took it right to her heart.
She had heard Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ 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 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. But it was hard to walk away from 85K a year.
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 looks-appropriate squareheads, and a long distance romance developed. He had just been fired from RS (wrote a negative review of Yoko) and so he called up an editor he knew at Spin and said he wanted to write a profile of Chicago industrial band Ministry. Warner Brothers flew him from S.F. to O’Hare, but saved money on a hotel.
Sallee met him at the gate and they kissed passionately in the elevator. When the door opened, there was a family with two young kids standing there, horrified. Walt and Sallee laughed and practically skipped to the car. 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 to unravel.
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. The Daily Angel had gone weekly, if that.
After a week w/o sex, Walt 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.
If you got to the bus stop just as your carriage was pulling away, you’d pop into the “quarter sweaters” for a quick toss. At least Walt did as soon as he could pass for 18. He became kind of a tug addict, seeing so much porn before he lost his virginity that when it finally happened, at age 19, the only thing he could think was “Look, it’s me fucking!” He was finally the star of his own loop.
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 feel like eating 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. Sallee tore the whole place apart, heaving the TV set 10 feet. “You might as 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 amid toppled dry petals. 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 does nothing for the dick in your hand.
Sallee never wanted to go out to the clubs, where the shorter girls would complain that they couldn’t see the band over her 6’2” height. 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 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 affected 25-year-old had a different fawn with him every show, but he was 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 Bobby Brown, and Charles Coffey, the respected critic for the Chicago Tribune. Colton’s girlfriend Annika was also a music critic, just starting out. But she wasn’t taken seriously by the others and was usually relegated to hanging out with Ravi’s date when they went to clubs. Coffey always attended to a constant stream of well-wishers and musicians making small talk. Everyone loved the self-deprecating Charles, whose best man was Rick Nielson of Cheap Trick.
One night at the Metro club, the rockcrit entourage was behind Walter in line and there was quite a hold-up because it was a new bouncer who didn’t understand that Walt’s name was always on the list, whether he made arrangements or not. A passing bartender vouched for Walt and he was finally waved in. “I guess I’m just a nobody these days,” he said. “Oh, you’re not a nobody,” Ravi said, just loud enough for Walt to almost hear. “You’re a has been.”
To these critics, Walter Carmody was a relic of first person abuse, who used similes and metaphors to mask a lack of insight. When he took notes at concerts, the trio, always hanging out in the same catty corner of the club, mimicked his style to each other. Example: “I came to realize that drummer Janet Bean is the roux of 11th Dream Day’s musical gumbo.” They sometimes spent as much time watching Walt as the band.
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 the newest record. “Chicago band poised for the big time!” But she just put on her DePaul sweatshirt. “I rented ‘About Last Night’,” she said, as she put on her pajama bottoms. “Again?” he said. Walt could not shake Sallee of those Brat Pack movies. “I haven’t seen it since it came out,” she said.
The three critics had never met Sallee, but they did see her once, without Walt. She was leaving a Jesus Lizard show early (all the cigarette smoke!) just as they were coming in. Ravi and Colton turned around to check out the 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 at a light, the braking made his trophy’s purse go flying to the floor and she bent over to pick it up. “Hey, guys,” Walter said. “I want you to meet…” Sallee’s head 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 the Bob Dylan coaching tree. The corny, bug-eyed country shows were brutal and he couldn’t help himself from calling Brooks & Dunn “Loggins & Oates” or tagging former folkie Mary-Chapin Carpenter “Mary Blatant-Carpetbagger.” Sometimes the bad shows were funner to review.
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 about 15 years earlier. She got Walt to write a 75th birthday tribute to the singer for the Sun-Times, and it was a fabulous piece. Even Sinatra loved it, sending his former adversary 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 both of them 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 called “Mighty Average,” was everything he hated about the new generation of music journalists. 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 she covered. One morning Walt saw her at the Daizy 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 had 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, I should ask: 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. 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.
Beer and masturbation were both something to do when there’s nothing to do. He needed an outside interest to fill those holes, but hobbies didn’t really appeal to Walt. Instead, he 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. When someone gave him a bottle of scotch, the only liquor he couldn’t drink because he got so sick on it the first time, he would unscrew the cap and take a whiff when he felt like getting drunk. That smell would make him feel sick.
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. At least he didn’t day-drink, Walt rationalized. Didn’t crack a beer until three o’clock in the evening. Finally, after about a year of it, Sally put her foot down. “I think you may be an alcoholic,” she said. “I can’t take any more of this.”
Walt promised to quit drinking and didn’t touch booze for a month. Then, the night Los Lobos played the Riviera, he was backstage and the left-handed guitarist with the shades handed him an ice cold Heineken from a glistening ice chest. After the band left, Walt stuffed those green monsters in his jacket and had a private party at home. Next morning: 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 Sally came home from work and Walt was sitting on the couch in his underwear with a spent six-pack 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 me on guitar!” he’d think during the second solo on “Whipping Post.” He was always a lonely kid, having to keep himself entertained. Most of his best times were in his head when he was out of his mind.
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 Elvis Presley. I used to fantasize that I knew Elvis. 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. This isn’t going to be easy. 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 the bottle of Scotch didn’t smell half bad and Walt drank the whole fifth. He was badly hungover the next morning when he woke up to hear Sallee yelling from the kitchen, “Why does the whole place smell like shit?” Through cobwebs he remembered being drunkenly confused using the bathroom. Interrupting the thought, Sally 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.
Walt brought in the mail that day and the newest issue of Elle magazine had arrived. In a moment of weakness he took it into the bathroom and whacked off to it. The subscription card fell into the sink just as he finished, but Walt didn’t think much of it and threw the card into the trash.
When Sally came home and emptied the receptacle, she found the card with the stream of DNA on it and busted Walt. Oh, man, did she let him have it! But instead of throwing things around like the last time, she used words. “You remember that day I picked you up at the airport for the first time? I fucked my aerobics instructor the night before. And I’m going to fuck him again tomorrow!” She crossed a line there and Walt realized they could never go back.
“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 kept making his hand feel like a woman. How pathetic!
It was a lonely first night in his sad apartment, but he had the new Billie Holiday reissue to make his depression feel like a sacrament.
Walt had heard Sinatra sing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” dozens of times, but didn’t know what the song was really about until he heard Billie’s version. When Sinatra performed the Gershwin number it was with the gusty bravado of a man who’ll take his memories to go. But in Holiday’s voice Walt heard an almost obsessive regard for the details of the loss she knows she’ll never get over.
Walt had to smile at the way Sallee imitated Oprah, badly, like Margaret Thatcher. And how she hated scenes where the actors ate Chinese food from cartons. “Not one of them uses a fork!” She’d leave the room until Walt said “It’s over.” What a strange gal. Laying alone in the dark, he could see Sallee better than ever before.
Walt’s landlord was a gay schoolteacher named Jerry, who lived on the first floor with his skeletal boyfriend, Sabir. Walt had signed the lease that morning in Jerry’s living room, which was dominated by an original painting by Keith Haring of a sperm cell with devil horns. Walt said he was very sad when Haring had 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 had also gotten “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 yepped. “Mick or Yoko?” The latter, Walt said, with a laugh. “I gave her a star and they gave me the boot.”
Walt said he’d been doing a lot of work for Spin lately, “plus I’ve got the cover story of the Chicago Reader this week. The one about ticket scalping.” He had reported that scalpers took advantage of the artists’ nature to keep ticket prices reasonable for true fans, by going right to the promoters and paying market value. Then they’d double or triple them for the “Fuck you, I’m rich” crowd. Almost all the prime seats were sold before the tickets went on sale to the public. “Great article,” said Jerry. “It 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 seemed to know everybody who was anybody. 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,” offered 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 scared?” 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 the man’s 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 Lincoln Avenue 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, motioning toward the turntable that was part of the bar’s oldie decor. “It sounds to me like he’s just making it up as he goes along.” It was not the first time Walt made that joke, and Danno just swatted it 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 trace 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 new love had found his title. He walked fast from the train stop. But when he arrived at his building, an ambulance was pulling away.
II. Bigger Than the Both of Us
Lani “Queenie” Wolf, who brought a Janis Joplin-like reputation for boozin’ and ballin’ to mascara metal, climbed onto a stationary bike, in front of a white, erasable board covered in talking points.
“How many phoners today?” she asked as she pedaled. “Just two,” said her publicist, holding a clipboard. “First one is Walter Carmody.”
“Cool,” said Wolf, adjusting her headband. “Rolling Stone.” He’s not with Rolling Stone anymore, the publicist corrected. “He’s doing this for the Illinois Entertainer.”
“This better be a cover story,” Wolf said. “Why are we doing an interview with a fucking rag?”
Queenie used to sell out arenas and Carmody wrote Rolling Stone cover stories. Now they’re working on a story in a free weekly newspaper. The publicist grabbed the wall phone, dialed it and handed it to Queenie, still pedaling. “Rescue me in 15,” the singer said.
“RING!” Walter looked at the phone, and got his notebook in place. “RING!” He turned up the volume on the new Queenie record. “RING!” He picked up the phone. “Sorry, hold on a second. Let me turn down the record.” He let it play for about five seconds more.
“Just getting my ass kicked over here! You guys really brought it on this record.” Turning the album over, he quickly scoured the back. “Producer Jack Novell” it said. “What was it like to work with Jack Novel (that’s how he mispronounces it)?” Lani looked 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.”
When the magazine printing press spit out copies of the Illinois Entertainer a couple weeks later, Smashing Pumpkins were on the cover, with Queenie teased on a ribbon.
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 Koyaanisqatsi. That contentious phone interview was spun into a famous Sinatra cover story in Rolling Stone (“How ’bout I 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 got especially testy when the spaced-out journalist referred to him as “Frank Sinatra, Sr.” But it’s almost impossible to intimidate someone on LSD. Carmody broke down Sinatra and they ended up having an uncharacteristically telling talk.
So his friends started calling him Dock, after Dock Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who notoriously pitched a no-hitter on acid in 1970.
When Walt started over in Chicago in the early ‘90s, nobody knew him as Dock Carmody. He left the mystique in San Francisco and became the most lightly-regarded of writers- the past-prime freelancer.
After Sallee drop-kicked him to his new Lakeview neighborhood (at least a mile from the lake), he started hustling every gig he could. He just couldn’t stand being in that soulless apartment alone, except when he was writing- and 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. Only the super-bitchy sound guy in St. Louis, who treated them like an opening act (technically they were, but still) got the band to throw off their gloves. He backed down, because a soundmen’s only right hook is disrespect. Which is often more painful to a band doing a lousy gig.
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 complained about the noise. “Well, then, here you go,” Walt said, handing him the expensive studio headphones James from Metallica let him “borrow” 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!
He hadn’t heard them laugh like that in years.
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 the evil mind 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 farce. 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 leave the bags with the rest of the items on the kitchen floor for Walt to put away.
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 after they got married. She stopped doing a lot of things when she got to know Walt better.
But 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.
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 big, plate-throwing fight when he was on deadline. The unforgivable sin. You don’t get in a writer’s head when they’re hard at work. The editor complained about the review’s lack of…anything…and Walt stayed at a motel until he found an apartment.
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. It was adorable and the kids were into it. 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 (in the parking lot before 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 had fixed while the bass player drunkenly made out with Walt 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. The guy ahead of him took too long to order and the cashier said, “Let’s go, pretty boy. That’s a menu not a muthafuckin’ mirror.” If your fantasy was to be abused by African-American women, the Weiner Circle was your Scores. But Walt went for the hot dogs and cheese fries. The floor show annoyed him.
Selling CDs made all his meals at Weiner Circle and drinks at the Metro free. But the comp things you never sold were concert tickets. That was just sleazy. Walt broke that rule just once, but he sure paid for it. The night British punk icon Jerry Lee Abbott played the Park West, Walt’s envelope at Will Call had an extra ticket. Since the show was sold out, and Walt didn’t have the money for even three beers, 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. For the article, 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 a Chicago Bulls home game with a nickel in his pocket and go home with $500 at the end of the night. When Walt said he didn’t believe him- how would you get the first ticket?- the kid said watch me, and cocked his ballcap around to its socially-approved 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, as 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 soon, 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 felt 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.” 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, 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 a 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 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 robbery and attempted 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 whereabouts 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 white dude, a reporter,” Tondric said. Then he saw a Chicago Reader on a desk. “He wrote that cover story on ticket scalping.”
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.
“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.”
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 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 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 Reader. “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, whose ducats for this hot show went in about 30 minutes. “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. “All the groups 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 went 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 Beats”) 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, where Walt laid out how Tondric was going to front for him. The proposed split was 75/25, 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 some of Walt’s questions and some of his own, then handed the tape over to Walt, who wrote the feature. Though there was sometimes a call for translation, 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 throw in some phrases to make it sound more street. “If my name’s on it, it’s gotta sound like me.” Walt didn’t know enough about hip-hop to overrule any opinion, plus he was smart enough to learn. Tondric became the teacher and 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 Shock G, one of the backup dancers handed Tondric a cassette of his own material. Tondric really dug it and gave it to Walt, who was also 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, waiting in the lobby for the split. Tondric had an account, yet the big checks always had to be confirmed by the bank manager. Walt had to wait as long as half an hour until Tondric put the “How can a young black man from the South Side make this much money legally?” suspicion to rest by bringing in the national music magazines that had his name on the cover. The black teller became one of his “plus ones.”
Walt wanted to know more of Tondric’s story, so he could better get into his head for first-person possibilities. He loved to play the ponies so they’d often meet at OTB, the most integrated room in Chicago, where Tondric told pieces of his life story between races. He had a son, aged two, but he didn’t have much to do with his upbringing. He tried the straight life, getting a job at McDonald’s, but you can’t raise a family on $112 a week. “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 an old Kiss 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,” she said. “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 success is all about,” Walt said. “How you deal with failure.” But Otis really did suck and when a soft pop-up hit him in the face near second base, Walt realized sports wasn’t his thing. Maybe he’ll find something he that loves enough to get really good at. The father’s prayer.
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. It was not a record. That was Otis playing that guitar. He didn’t play for Walt during the visit because he knew his father would make a big deal about it. And he knew he still had a ways to go.
Walt’s rock critics panel at SXSW, which he dubbed “Ye old white 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.” 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. The previous week he trashed Fillipino gangsta rapper Killah Fum Manillah, whose label Drive-Buy Records was owned by Myron “Big Daddy” Fleck. He looked and acted like a little, old, Jewish accountant, but Fleck had 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 sometimes 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 means “a hole in the head,” but Fleck’s muscle thought it meant to put a bullet in the critic’s brain. They looked at each other, like, pretty harsh, and hoped he’d 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.”
Maybe Walt slammed the Killah LP to get back at the way Drive-Buy’s clueless staff treated him. Objectivity is a cute concept. But it suddenly dawned on him that the vindictive review could put Tondric in danger. This wasn’t like panning a Jackson Browne LP.
Walt wondered if his nasty words were inspired by the expansion of Tondric’s ego. He had sent the review in to Vibe without Tondric’s final glance.
“What did I do?!” Walt kept saying as he tore down the streets of Austin looking for Tondric. Instead he found Fleck’s enforcers. Well, actually they found him.
“You better talk to your boy, Mr. Editor,” said the one who wasn’t pinning Walt to the wall by the neck. “Check out the hospital visiting hours.” The men were poised to pummel, but they saw something next to Walt’s head and tore off in the direction of a recycling center that had been converted to the world’s hippest venue for a few days in March. Walt turned around and saw the poster for a free MTV concert “hosted by Tondric Evans of Vibe Magazine,” and he followed Fleck’s men from a safe distance.
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. He had no idea his health was at risk until he was introducing Dee-Lite and locked eyes with Fleck’s thugs. He knew those dudes.
As Tondric moved to the side of the stage, they made throat-cutting gestures and mimicked punches. He thought they were joking, so he threw back the same signs. Is that muthafucka mocking us? As they stormed through the crowd towards him, Tondric realized Poona and Lil’ Bull weren’t messing around. They wanted to severely fuck him up! What the hell?
The only safe place was onstage, so Tondric went out there, standing with the DJ, who showed irritation at the intrusion. As the set ended, Tondric turned hype man, trying to get an encore from the crowd that just wanted to see Dr. Dre and his protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg. The boys from Drive-Buy were in the wings of the stage when a frantic Walt turned up.
“The kid didn’t do anything,” Walt said to the menacing pair. “I wrote that review.” Nah, nah, Poona said. “Is your name Tondric Willis?” I swear to you, Walt pleaded, Tondric has nothing to do with it!”
Distracted, the muscle let Tondric melt in with the stage crew and slip away. “Let me talk to ‘Big Daddy,’ I’ll tell him the truth.”
The gangsta rap mogul was feeding ducks on the lawn of the Four Seasons when Walt approached. “Listen, Tondric Evans didn’t write that Killah review, I did,” Walt said. “He’s just my front so I could get jobs with the hip hop magazines.”
“This album is so bad it could drive a pimp off a pay phone,” Fleck quoted one of the digs, 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 Walt’s scam. “Got it,” said Walt, who eventually found his shaken partner, whose hiding place was an empty room hosting a panel on how the Internet could change the music business.
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. Every song seemed to be a version of “Is That All There Is?”
But, Tondric just kept dancing. One day, he 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 quite a bit, but the passion ran deep. Tondric had proudly filed his first story without Walt. And it got more positive response than anything “Tondric Willis” wrote before.
A few days later, Tondric was backstage, fistbumping to “You did Poot right” compliments, when a scuffle broke out down the hall. Tondric the reporter sidestepped a stampede and moved closer to see what was going on. Then came six or seven shots. Tondric got hit where the abdomen meets the leg, and he felt as if he was on fire inside. 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. He knew it was Tondric.
It turned out, however, that his byline partner was not the target. The gunfire was in retaliation for the murder of Big Poot 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 risky rap field. “There’s no place for me that ain’t dangerous,” said Tondric, in a room full of flowers. 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 gripped Tondric’s arm 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’d be happy to take Otis for the summer, but she’d have to do without child support during that time. She agreed.
At the airport a few weeks later, Otis walked off the plane with a guitar case and a backpack. They could skip baggage claim, the kid said. He took just what he needed.
First Sunday in Chicago, Walt took Otis to Maxwell Street 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 Lil’ Sam 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.” You know any Jimmy Reed?, the old man asked, and soon they were jamming, and attracting quite a crowd.
Walt wondered what was going on in front of the Cheat You Fair store, and was stunned to see it was Otis and Lil’ Sam, playing hot and deep. He had no idea his son was so good! 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.
III. A TURN TO CRIME
Now that his music journalism career was basically over, there was nothing preventing Walt from entering the true crime non-fiction field, like he’d always been talking about. Actually, there was one stalling point that he became aware of one night when he was tending bar at Mothers, the loud, stupid Rush Street joint featured in About Last Night. Walt got a job there because he was sure no one he knew would ever come in. But then, of course, there was Sallee on the first night with her boss Josh, who was now her boyfriend Josh. 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 him in on it. He laughed. That girl could always crack him up.
Occasionally, Walt served one of the most successful writers of the true crime genre, a handsome, well-dressed man in his forties who came in to pick up tourists and college girls and rarely left alone. One of his books had been turned into a Tom Cruise blockbuster, so he had lotsa Hollywood stories and bought lotsa drinks, though he drank virgin Cape Cods.
One night Walt pumped him for tips on breaking into true crime and the writer gave him the bad news that these days literary/film agents buy the rights to the real life stories of high profile criminals. 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,” the writer said, as he balanced a tray of tequila shots. It sounded like the only way Walt could land such a project was if he committed the murders himself!
What a crazy idea, but Walt became obsessed with it, especially when he ran through his mind the assholes he would kill. He wrote for 10 hours the first night, using a Gatorade bottle as a urinal so he wouldn’t have to take a break.
Number one on his hit parade was that fucked-up bouncer from the Roxy who put out that word that rising hip hop critic Tondric Evans was a front for a middle-aged white guy. That wasn’t even the reason Walt wanted him dead. The bouncer was a bully and a sexual predator who used a closet in the club to feel up and finger underage girls caught using fake I.D.s.
Before long Walt had a list of future victims in his head, and to make long train rides shorter he’d figure out how to kill and not get caught. There was the label A&R guy who screwed over a local hard rock band Walt liked, even though hairspray was their performance enhancing drug. It was the classic sign-and-sit deal. The singer ended up committing suicide when it became apparent they were signed only so they wouldn’t compete with the label’s similar-sounding cash cow. During the four years the band waited for their album to dribble out, hair bands had been replaced on the charts with grunge.
Another person Walt wanted to rub out was the Cubby Bear bartender known for date-raping young women. He’d slip a roofie in their drink just as his shift was about to end, then offer a ride home when they suddenly got very, very drunk. None of his victims came forward to police, but they told their friends and word got out.
Number four would be the big, mob-connected scalper in town, Dom, whose crew beat up Tondric a couple days before that Tribe Called Quest show. Dom, who had threatened Walt about writing the scalping story, had to go.
Did Walt have the stones to pull off the killings played out in his head?
His first murder was the easiest. He stepped out of an alley behind a bar at about 3 a.m., 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.
Next day, Walt had Dom meet him at a train station under the pretense that he had a briefcase full of U2 tickets. When the scalper bent down to pick up the case, Walt stuck a Kung Fu card in his jacket pocket and shoved him in front of the train.
That weekend, 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.
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.
The murder scenarios jacked him up. But it turned out, of course, that Walt didn’t have the stones. It was all in his imagination. Walter Carmody’s “true crime” book Kill Fee was a fiction best-seller, lauded by critics as a great first novel about a hard-drinking vigilante who posed as a music critic to infiltrate a dirty nightclub scene. This “revenge of the music fan” fantasy struck a power chord with the public. It was soon to be a major motion picture, though they were going to change the title to Kung Fu Killer.
Walt had been slowly going insane in his life, but was able to use that crazy juice to his advantage as a writer. A week after Kill Fee was finished he started working on his next crime fiction book. This was the work he was born to do. Why did it take him so long?
The first Chicago book-signing was at Guild Books, with a line of fans down Lincoln Avenue, which made Walt nervous. He was somewhat calmed by his wife Sue Franklin at his side. She had edited not only Kill Fee, but those feelings of inadequacy at Walt’s core. They were a team, and at Guild she wrote down the names of those wanting their books personalized and handed each book and the slip of paper to Walt.
Next in line was a well-dressed black man and when Sue asked his name, he said, “this cracker knows who I am!” It was Tondric, who got a fellowship to go to Northwestern to study journalism. “I taught Tondric, by example, of what not to do,” Walt announced, to big laughs. That ain’t funny, Tondric said, that’s the truth. “He’s in the book, as ‘Chino,'” Walt explained to others in line.
It was quite a booksigning- all 125 sold, with about 23 backorders. “That was fun,” the author said to Sue and rested his head on her shoulder, after they got in the town car provided by his publisher. As they pulled out of the parking lot a man on a ladder was changing the bookstore’s lit-up sign to “Maite Alvarez.” The Sun-Times critic was the author of the new Bon Jovi biography Livin’ On a Prayer. Walt and Sue had a big laugh together, to see how wildly different paths had led to the same marquee.
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 on hand was Sallee, gorgeous as ever, and The Three Critics, checking out the local blues phenom set to go national. “You remember my ex, Sallee, don’t you?” Walt introduced her, knowing damn well the pretentious trio had never met her. Shit, the girlfriend was real!
The band got a standing ovation and came back for an encore, as the crowd packed in front of the stage. “I’d like to introduce a special guest,” Otis said, as his guitar mentor Lil’ Sam strolled out from the wings.
“C’mon, baby don’t you wanna go,” Sam sang and stepped back, confident the grooving crowd would finish the chorus, “from the land of California to Sweet Home Chicago!”
Walt didn’t think the night of his first book signing could get any better! But when it hits you, finally, that feeling of fulfillment, it hits you right on time.
Your life is your story. Try to make it interesting.