He wasn’t difficult to find. For a time, in the small little world I inhabit, he was everywhere. These days all you need is six songs and some blog traffic to make people believe you might be a homespun genius, a blessed saint, a prophet of the unconscious. I got his number from his record label — press connections — and called him up.
“Well, fuck me, Walt.” His Midwestern twang was mixed up now with a California drawl. “It’s pretty fantastic to hear from you. I mean, shit, I was just thinking about you the other day. How the hell you doing? You doing good?”
“Not as good as you. You’re blowing up out there, aren’t you?”
“Aw, man, just a run of luck.”
I went on about how great the EP sounded, practiced in my art of inflated praise. He begged off, talked about his collaborators and how the spirit of the old lighthouse they’d recorded vocals in had infused the tracks with something somehow ancient, a kind of lonely vigilance.
“Shit, come on out!” he said when I mentioned I might be heading out west for a few days. To check out the SF scene, I said, maybe write about it for the website. “Stay with me and my girl. We’d love to have you. Man, it’s been too long. I can’t believe it, you and me, making it in the same business! This is cool. This feels really right to me.”
I knew that he was just about to start recording his first full-length album. I said I didn’t want to disturb him during the creative process.
“The first full-length anyone will actually hear,” he said, laughing at his own expense. Meaning all the rest had been ignored, but now that he was trading on his past, his story, he was finally getting some attention. “Nah, Walt, you gotta come stay with me and Vanessa. I’ve told her so much about you.”
Meaning, he’d told her about John.
“I’ll check into a hotel. Don’t want to put you and your girl out.”
But, then, just at the last minute, just as I was getting on my flight at O’Hare, I called him again, asked if I could crash after all. I hadn’t even booked a room, but I lied and said my reservation had gotten lost in the system. Keaton faltered for a moment, then said, “Sure, man, crash with us.”
That’s when I knew it would all go my way.
Keaton Wilding, the County B Submarine EP. On the flight, I listened on repeat, ten times or more. Stereogum: “An astonishing debut. Wilding’s tormented past gives staggering depth to songs that, on first listen, seem like simply more blissed-out California pop.” Popmatters: “Wilding assembles a ramshackle cast of San Francisco musicians to craft a sound that seduces and sucker-punches. If Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett had a love child, he would be named Keaton.” All the most fickle websites and magazines, the “tastemakers,” were falling over each other to herald his arrival. Only the site I wrote for, on which all the reviewers are anonymous, had tried to stem the tide: “Capable, but shallow. The kind of bleary-eyed confession that wears itself out quick.”
We were from the same small town. Keaton was two grades behind me. I’d known him through John; the two of them, along with their friend Mason, were hardly apart. I remembered Keaton playing Snowdaze, our winter talent show. Dressed in Birkenstocks and a ball cap, cradling a Taylor acoustic, he sat at the front of the school cafeteria and covered some god-awful song by Phish or String Cheese Incident or August Rawling Band, one of those jam bands still carrying the sputtering torch of the Dead. Keaton and John were always driving off to Alpine Valley or the World to see those late-night spectacles: thirty thousand people, each in their own private dream, twirling and weaving to twenty-minute guitar solos. It was the drugs, not the music, that snared John. And the drugs came from Keaton.
Keaton hit the last chord of the song; the cafeteria echoed with applause. At the senior table, my friends and I smirked — that bullshit stoner music was laughable to us. Back then I was way ahead of the game. All I listened to was free jazz, Bulgarian women’s choirs, Charles Ives, and the Residents (the early albums).
Keaton and his girl lived in an apartment way out by the beach. “We’ve got the best view in town,” Keaton said as he led me out the bedroom window and up a narrow ladder to the roof. He lit a Parliament, leaned on the railing, and stared out in the direction of the sea. You could only hear the waves. It was too foggy to see anything other than the tops of a few frumpy sand dunes.
“Vanessa apologizes. She’s over in Oakland with the guys from Silent Partner. She’s doing some woodcuts for their album art and a few show posters. You should review them. Their new record is gonna be rad.”
“I heard their last one, Deadly Silent. Reminded me of Secret Machines.” Not intended as praise.
“They’re such sweet guys too,” Keaton went on. “They’ve really helped me out along the way. We’ve played a bunch of shows together.” He ground out his cigarette on the railing and turned to me, and for a brief moment we met eyes and I saw in his a question — What are you doing here?
We went back inside. He got us a couple beers and flopped down on the couch. The sandals and ball cap were gone, replaced by threadbare cords, a faded Members Only jacket, and, the latest in affectations, a pair of boat shoes, no socks. Clothes chosen as a parody of clothes. He still wore his hair long, but sheathed now in a week’s worth of grease. The Taylor was gone from sight; in the living room, the beat-up Fender Jazzmaster pictured on the cover of the EP hung from a peg. The burden he carried was more proudly displayed. It was there in every gesture, the way he narrowed his eyes when he took a drag, sighed when he cracked a beer. No more Keystone Light, the swill he, Mason, and John used to drink driving around in Mason’s Jeep. Out here it was Tecate with a wedge of lime.
“How’s it going with the website?” he asked me. “You digging it?”
“It sure doesn’t pay the bills.”
“You probably get a ton of free music though.”
“Everyone gets free music these days,” I said.
“Don’t I know it. That kind of shit doesn’t bug you until you get a record deal. I quit my day job,” he confessed, seeming embarrassed about it. “It’s cool, we’re more or less getting by. But it kind of puts the pressure on. To, you know, ‘succeed.’”
“The EP is doing great.”
“Yeah.” He laughed. “Man, we didn’t have a fucking clue what we were doing with that one. I mean — ” He hesitated, suddenly unsure of himself in a way that made him almost unrecognizable to me — “I was so fucking fried the whole time. What the hell were we thinking — recording in a lighthouse?” He sighed, popped another Tecate. “So, we’re booked for this session at Hyde Street Studios on Friday. Want to come with?”
Come with. He still had a little of the Midwest in him.
“I wouldn’t want to get in your way.”
“Nope. Come on down. It’d be cool to have you there.”
Maybe he thought I’d write about it for the website, get a little early buzz going. Maybe he wanted me there as a reminder of John.
“I’d be honored,” I said.
We drank beer and listened to records. For all the specialized knowledge we had in common, we ran out of conversation quickly, now that business had been taken care of. I said I was getting sleepy. Jet lag. He made up the couch for me. Just before he turned in, he made himself some peppermint tea. He said it helped keep his vocal cords loose.
I descend the staircase. Stand out in the street, trembling. A finger of fog drifts toward me, passes through my body. Am I alive? The Jeep “submarines” under the truck trailer. We speak, it seems so real. Didn’t I tell you? Don’t go with them. A foghorn sounds, very far away. Then I feel him, I feel him. He’s there, at the corner, waiting where the murk meets darker night. I quicken my pace. He grows more distant, a patch of dark gray against the dark. Headlights brush past me, a wall of air; I brace for the collision. Don’t go. Don’t go. And then the lights come on.