I was born in a small midwestern town. My earliest memory is the sight of my father – dressed in full camo fatigues complete with face paint – firing a tranquilizer dart from the roof of our barn into the neck of the UPS man. I’ve been told that this was merely an isolated volley in an ongoing war that Dad had been waging, and steadily escalating, with all postal enterprise, but this was the first time he would be arrested and briefly jailed for his efforts. My sisters didn’t even look up from their washing work in the metal tubs all around the front lawn, so accustomed were they to these outbursts of guerilla warfare. My second memory is of a song – “Stars And Stripes Of Corruption” by the Dead Kennedys – playing from the radio in our living room. We used to all gather around the radio every Sunday evening for Punk Rock Hour sponsored by Ovaltine, with Mom doing her knitting as she would hum and nod along with Black Flag, Dad smoking his pipe as he cleaned his rifles and rocket launcher, the rest of us scattered around the living room, on chairs, couches, window ledges.
I’m one of nearly twenty children, and by nearly I mean thirteen. The oldest is McDonald, named not after the fast food chain but singer Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers, and the youngest is Lizzie, named after the infamous axe murderer. All of us worked on the farm, either in the fields or the slaughterhouse. When I was a toddler, I would play around in the area just underneath the sluice drain, affecting my own little space or fantasy dramas with pieces of the entrails. Sometimes my brother Cetera would find me and start hollering, but I could usually sneak out of there before he could catch me. We were a happy clan for the most part, though prone to our troubles like any other family – one of my brothers ended up robbing a convenience store, while another got himself elected to Congress. Disgraces sure, but still loved by the rest of us.
I left home at age eight, hitchhiking out west. I ended up in Vegas, where I found work as a human sign. I would wander up and down the strip wearing a bulky contraption with phrases like “All You Can Eat Seafood Buffet” and “Puppet Show and The Ringo Starr All-Starr Band.” I enjoyed the job, learning all the tricks and cons of the street. I got involved with a charitable group of professional ex-thieves, who would break into the houses of disadvantaged familes to surrepticiously deliver money or jewels or other donations. I was the youngest and smallest so I was often selected for the most dangerous jobs, and I can recall repelling down through the skylight of a trailer home, carefully dodging the criscrossing security laser beams, in order to sneak an EBT card under a stained coffee mug. The job didn’t pay much though and didn’t offer health care, so I put in my two weeks notice, but not before collecting some references and delivering an emotional retirement speech to my fellow thieves that was bookended by quotes from Mencken; the text of the famous speech can be found in my archives located at Ocean County College in Toms River, New Jersey. I was nearly ten, and I felt like I had to move on, to find my place in the world.
I’ll never forget the moment – and I’m sure I’m not alone – that I heard the death metal band Maggot Crisis’s expletive laden cover version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Rainy Day People.” It reminded me of home. Our electricity at the farm had been powered by a clumsily rigged contraption that spun about during rain storms, so those were the only times we could get on the web or watch TV. Oh how thankful we would be for a storm during an episode of The Donny and Marie Show or Sha Na Na or The Wire, though there were crushing weeks of clear evenings spent in darkened solitude, listening only to Mom’s banjo playing. Mom used to play a note for note rendition of Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption,” tapping her way along the frets of her banjo that she’d painted with colorful stabs of reds and blacks in tribute to her favorite guitarist. It got tiresome though, because that’s the only song she knew how to play. But still I missed those sounds, those evenings with the family, as I wandered from town to town, sleeping outside of convenience stores, subsisting on stale hot dog rolls and warm slurpees. I missed home, the farm, the slaughterhouse. I felt lost.
I ended up living for a time in the Salt Lake City Mall. It wasn’t a bad place to stay, and I was able to sleep in a different store each night, though the massaging reclining chairs at Brookstone were preferable to a pile of DVDs on the floor of Sam Goody. I fell in love with a beautiful Orange Julius barista named Sherilyn, and would watch her work at her work from afar, the way she would play the expanse of her blenders like a concert pianist, taking some cash here, dispensing a straw there. I used to write her love poems, though I never had the courage to deliver them. One of them went: “Stars, crepuscular, across the expanse of desert sky/A single light shines from the prison watchtower/O who will sing the song of the ravenous honey badger?/Not the guards, not the gods/Fifty kilos of my raw uncut love/Found in the trunk/Of an abandoned Chrysler/For you.” I spent my afternoons wandering from store to store, feeling dispirited due to my unrequited love and the bad music on the PA. One day though I heard a muzak version of Sonic Youth’s “Kill Yr Idols,” which of course begins with the line, “I don’t know why you wanna impress Christgau,” referring to the urbane rock critic Robert Christgau from the Village Voice. This reminded me of home. Christgau was a family friend, and Dad, before the senility took hold, would have him over to our farm for weekends of hunting, fishing, and listening to Velvet Underground records. Something about Lou Reed’s voice would attract elk like nothing else, so Dad and Mr Christgau always came home with fresh carcass over their shoulders as they whistled “Sunday Morning.” Dad used to make elk pizzas, in which every ingredient was made from elk: the “dough” was made from the stomach lining that had been pounded and stretched, and often in jovial moods Dad would toss it up into the air to the delight of the children; the “cheese” was made from fatty tripe stretched across the top, while choicer cuts of meat would then be sprinkled over that. You bake it in the oven at 375 degrees for about ten minutes, as you don’t want the crust to get too crunchy.
So I decided to go back to home. I caught a ride in the straw matted back of a pickup truck with a group of illegal Canadian immigrants. They were migrant workers, hardened and dangerous, and since I didn’t speak Canadian all of their incomprehensible jabbering made me fearful and paranoid. Still my heart fluttered with joy as we neared the exit of my hometown and I finally leaped from the moving car onto the grassy field just across from our farm. I felt then a sudden shock – of displacement, of utter despair. Our farmhouse was gone, replaced with a Bob Evans restaurant. I stumbled inside, weary and puzzled. Grabbed a mint from the dispenser. It was good, not one of those thin chocolate wafers but one of those crunchy white things wrapped in plastic. The only member of family remaining was my brother Oates, who was an assistant manager. He offered me a job as dishwasher for six dollars an hour, plus benefits. It sounded fair, all things considered, but I couldn’t accept. I stepped back out into the harsh sunlight, putting my hand to brow as I examined the outlines of the horizon, the endless cornfields, the unknown future. I am a lost soul, I thought, a penniless vagabond, without a home, without a love of my own. So I decided to start learning to play guitar.