EDITOR’S NOTE by Benjamin Samuel
Many of you may remember Carson Mell from his story “The West,” which we published back in Electric Literature no. 5. Right before publication, Carson came to our office and handed us a copy of Saguaro, his self-published novel about Bobby Bird, a degenerate rock legend seeking redemption. That lone paperback circulated among our staff. We praised it, we fought over it, and eventually we lost track of it. Now we know we’re not the only ones trying to get our hands on a copy. The book became almost as mythical and elusive as its protagonist: Carson sold-out a 1,000-copy print run on his own, and for a while the only place you could find Saguaro was on eBay (for sixty bucks a pop). Until now.
On October 8, Electric Literature will release Carson Mell’s Saguaro as an eBook. And since the epic of Bobby Bird cannot be contained in print alone, the digital edition of Saguaro will include illustrations and animations also created by Carson Mell. We’re throwing a release party on October 10, with animations and a live performance by the author. You’re invited.
In this excerpt from Saguaro, you’ll be introduced to Bobby Bird, both the man and the legend. Life in the spotlight can take you to some dark places, and Saguaro explores the depths of depravity, narcissism, and even Satanism. Here we see Bobby’s rise to fame; he becomes a legend adored by millions, only to become repulsed by himself.
Bobby Bird may be many things — a legend in pink cotton, a living history in tattoos, the very embodiment of rock and roll — but he isn’t a bad man. At least not all the time. He made his name as a crooner, revered as a singer with soul, a soul he quickly sold without ever considering the implications.
Like Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and Keith Richards’ Life, Saguaro allows us to look behind the curtain of celebrity. Because it’s an American tradition to carefully observe the legends of our time, to live vicariously through the adventures of our heroes. Just like the paths of all those who live fast and hard, Bobby’s path is one better experienced second-hand, beset, as it is, on all sides by drugs, dangerous women, and fisticuffs. Now if Bobby teaches us one thing, it’s that we can learn from our mistakes, and fortunately he’s made enough to fill a textbook.
Co-Editor, Electric Literature
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CHAPTER THREE — FAME
This part. This is a story I’m not too inclined to tell unless you are particularly interested in tales of full-grown men turning into worthless assholes. I’d rather not linger. Right now, where we’re at, I’m only nineteen. In less than ten pages I’ll be forty-eight.
When I got back to Arizona, Mom was living with a macho goober named Chris who sweat like a hog and ate like one too. I stared him straight in the eyes when we met, put a little extra into the handshake, and he gave a look back like, You stay out of my way and I’ll stay out of yours. Fine by me. I fixed up an old bike I found in the back of his garage and spent a lot of time riding it around, dropping all that coleslaw fat. It felt good. Mom saw the infected gashes in my belly and sent me back to the same doctor who’d delivered me. He gave me some antibiotics and I was better in less than a week.
Even though I’d failed in New York, was back amongst the lazy cacti and willow wrens, I knew it wasn’t over. I was practicing guitar and singing every day for hours on end. I spent so long on my songs that I started to go crazy, started thinking that when I played them no one would hear them. That they’d be invisible to the ears.
Eventually I had to prop a two-by-four against the door to keep Mom and Chris out. Otherwise, they’d be in there every five minutes, “Get a job, Bobby,” “Pitch in around here now and then why don’t you?” No thanks. I had bigger plans. Ten or so damn hours a day, alone with a six-string and my thoughts. I had the passion of a priest — had to. That’s the way it happens. That way and no other, unless you want to be The Monkees. And if you do, then fuck you.
The clubs in Arizona weren’t like the ones in New York, but they might as well have been. They were letting me play, but nobody was listening. Back there in shadows and leather I was nothing but music to drink by. I may as well have been a juke with all its lights burnt out. I was going to have to do something to get these people’s attention.
One day after a particularly sad show, I walked in on Chris sitting on the couch drinking lemonade in his underwear. I looked him over real casual and said, “Boy, you sure is ugly.” He was covering up quick with a dusty old afghan from the back of the couch, and he said back at me, “Why don’t you look at yourself, Bobby.”
And that’s just what I did. I went to the bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror. My long black hair was hanging down in my face like a veil. I looked like one big ornery Indian, and I asked myself, “What you hiding back there, Chief?”
Then I pulled back the veil, saw my face. I didn’t like it any better than I had before, but I decided, fuck it, it’s time to show the world. I went to the kitchen, right past Chris, got myself a bottle of olive oil and poured some into my palms. Smoothed my hair back with an unbreakable comb. Slick.
Then I figured, looking at that face, I’m showing the world this monster, may as well show them the rest of me. I went to the store the next day and bought some pink polo shirts. Three of them.
I looked at the world of Rock and Roll and said, “Fuck you.” Fuck your black, fuck your leather. It’s time for Bobby Bird, my friend. It’s time for pink cotton.
And I swear to Christ that the next time I went out to sing, people were watching. The troll was gone, and there was something alluring about this new ugly, so bold and clean as it were — a pockmarked mask floating above the pink canvas of my chest. That was a place where the women could project their fantasies, the men themselves. Shit, I don’t know, something just worked. I was up there smelling like a strawberry and screaming like my soul was on fire. I was actually performing for a change, and it felt different. It felt like it did in the Jamaican’s backyard. At the end of the night the club owner invited me back to play again, slipped me an extra ten.
It went on and on like that, eventually filling good-sized clubs, getting enough money so that I could stock the cupboard with canned chili and cereal, keep Mom and Chris content. And then came that mythic figure that pops up sooner or later in every one of these tales of talent gone awry — the Record Man. Mine was named Pat Hui-hui (Hooey-hooey) and he was a big fat Hawaiian. The first time I saw him he was way back in the deep of the club wearing a suit too nice for the joint. He smoked a long black cigar, the tip of it smoldering in the shadows like the devil’s dick.
When he called me over for a drink I noticed that his tie was printed with flowers and palm fronds — he was working the Hawaiian angle. Probably wore a lei to board meetings. Anyhow, this big man orders a round, then tells me he’s driven his Cadillac all the way from Los Angeles just to sit here in this shitty little club, baiting me to ask him why.
“Why?” I ask.
“To see you,” he says, putting a finger smack dab in the middle of my chest. And that was the Midas touch. It wouldn’t be too long after that that I turned to gold. Gold that turned to shit just as quick.
I hate to say it, but I lived in fame’s dark palaces for a good three decades. There’s about a thousand pictures to back it up, a dozen or so tacky little albums. If you’re a big Bobby Bird fan, to be totally honest, I wouldn’t trust your taste. My first album was a very good thing, the last the same, but everything in between is just awful. Those albums weren’t about music, but about meeting contract requirements and proliferating the decadence. Man, those pictures. Trendy hats and handmade overcoats, lounging poolside beside some milk-fed model with a blasé expression. I’ve got boxes of this shit up in the attic. I can spend hours up there like some goddamn archeologist. But the archeologist’s got the easier job: the cavemen made more sense than I ever did. I look at those pictures and I don’t know who the fuck that little guy is.
My memories from back then are like lily pads. I can hop from one to the other, but there’s nothing in between but brackish water. Maybe some guy’s face, blue and half-composed, floats up from the depths from time to time, maybe a baked potato and an unloaded handgun bob beside him, but the pieces don’t fit together. So I keep on hopping amongst the few solid things that’ve survived what I put my mind through, what I put my body through.
The things I do remember are often random and unimportant: a fried steak in Berkeley, a conversation outside a filling station in North Dakota. And there’s a whole lot of worthless trippy shit mixed in for good measure — memories of trips gone bad. One time dropping acid with these three girls I barely know. They’re all laughing girls, laughing so loud that their jaws stretch to the floor, melt into the shag carpeting. And I look down and see an ant working his way through the tread of my boot having a pint-sized adventure. I bring the boot up to my waist to look for him, and he’s gone. I start screaming. I was sure that little ant was headed for one place: my urethra. I knew if we didn’t find him he was going to find his way right into me, maybe start a colony in my ball sack. Night ends with me, weeping, face and belly mashed into the shag as these sweet tripping girls pick over me like chimpanzees, petting my back and assuring me that they’re going to find him. Like three good moms.
As much as I can’t stand looking at the stuff up in the attic, back then I was loving myself. After every show some girl who didn’t know any better would come back to my room and look at me all night long with an expression I didn’t deserve. But I saw myself in those big, fawning eyes, started to believe that I was whatever they were seeing. Like I said, I was an asshole. Listen to what I once said in an interview:
ROLLING STONE: Bird is an interesting last name, is that your real name?
BOBBY BIRD: Real as my first.
RS: Do you have any Indian blood?
BB: Only on my hands.
See, man? Anything to be snide. Anything at all. I love Indians, every last tribe. Even Apaches.
And on top of being a prick, I started getting snobbish. I wanted my beers from foreign lands, or at the very least Colorado. There better be a pyramid or a dragon on that label, my friend, the old blue ribbon just ain’t going to cut it anymore. Where’s the wine list?
And my women, too, I preferred from far away places. When they march the groupies back you’ve had so much sex with so many beautiful women that it doesn’t even matter anymore. You have to get creative. I want one that’s black with blue eyes, one that’s tall and Chinese, how ‘bout Chinese and black. It just goes on and on.
Every place you go people have trays of fancy food laid out for you, olives and beef, so inevitably you start to get fat. And then you start to get mean too, waking up every morning to some fat bastard staring back at you from the cold mirror. Once they put me in a suite with a mirror above the bed, and if I looked ugly before, I didn’t look any better beside that beautiful girl they’d brought in for me. We looked like two different kinds of animals.
Groupies aren’t as great as you’ve imagined them to be, either. It’s like Mick Jagger said to me once, “Every last one a’ these girls comes t’ me expecting an unforgettable night with Mick the sex-god, Mick the god a’ rock and roll. Sometimes you just want t’ cry t’ somebody ‘bout your mum.”
See, I’m telling you all this not as an excuse, but as a warning. You think you’re above becoming an asshole? Then you’re the same kind of guy who thinks he can smoke without becoming addicted, and you’re the most prone to become an addict. Take this bit of advice: don’t forget who your friends are. The more you take good things for granted, the faster they go away.
I wish I’d have taken some advice back then. I remember one time running into John Lennon. I grabbed him by his white lapels and said, “What’s your secret, man?” And he said to me, in that funny voice of his, “My advice, get married and stay married.” I think he thought I was going to punch him. Must’ve talked to Bob. Truly, those Beatles were funny guys. Every last one of them.
Well, I took half of John’s advice. In the middle of all this madness one of our tours wound up in sunny Pasadena, California. A cute and quiet blond named Nancy Sue Redmond came back to my room with me, left her diamond earrings with her sister before she ducked into my limo.
Back in the room, all full of Jack, I was all over her like a zombie. She kicked me in the balls and ran away crying. Coughing there on the carpet, it was the first time I’d been rejected since meeting big fat Hui-hui.
I was a nomad at the time, had a bunch of apartments in posh neighborhoods, so I didn’t have any place to be getting back to. I just stayed right there in the Marriott. And Bobby goes a-courtin’.
I had a private eye find her parents’ house, started sending fruit baskets with cute letters written by a young and serious screenwriter named Jonnie who would later go on to write the movie The Last Starfighter. Eventually she agreed to meet me at a coffee shop called Conrad’s. We had a nice talk, and even though she accepted my apology she wouldn’t let me pay for her sandwich.
We started dating. I was on a lot of downers at the time, and I’d just sleep with those thick hotel curtains shut tight. Hibernating. Getting up just to go on the dates, paying the bellboy twenty dollars to literally pull me out of bed and throw buckets of ice water at my chest until my gluey eyes peeled open.
After six months of mellow courtship, we got married. She got pregnant. Aiming to be responsible, I got off all the Quaaludes I was taking. And ironically enough, once clear-headed, I realized that this was not where I wanted to be. As the months ticked by, as I watched Nancy swell like a calzone in an Italian’s oven, a mighty wanderlust grew in me faster than the baby in her. Tot just couldn’t keep up. So I got back on the road, stayed there. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say I didn’t raise that boy.
I don’t think I’m a bad man, but during those days I may have been. I was a weak-ass man for sure. The only thing I can say in defense of myself is that all of that shit — the excess — didn’t feel like me. It was a suit that didn’t quite fit. But something pretty big was going to have to happen before I’d go ahead and get it tailored. And then it did.
One midnight we were driving through Arizona when out my window I spotted a great big blue bull a story tall before a dinky hardware store. Babe the Blue Ox. I remembered this from when I was a kid, remembered it being much bigger. Now it looked like something I could tango with. I’m Paul Bunyan, motherfucker, I thought. Then I shouted it out, “Motherfuckers, I’m Paul Bunyan, stop this fucking bus!”
And, of course, they did just as I said.
Outside, stars twinkling, I stumbled drunk and breathing steam to Babe and looked him in the face. I slapped his hollow chest, and the sound inside of him said back to me, “Hello, brother. Hello, father.” I fell forward, caught myself against him, and rested my forehead against his smooth fiberglass hide. Planted a couple of kisses.
The drummer, a shaggy kid named Ralph Peralta who loved to roll, stepped out into the gravel and walked up behind me. He loved the highway is what I mean, loved watching the trees blur past. He kept a dime store notebook in his denim jacket where he wrote down poems full of heartache that he was going to set to music and record with his cousins in Nashville. Once when he was asleep I flipped through it and saw right away that this kid knew what he was talking about. Knew more than I ever would. It would have made a beautiful album.
“Bobby,” Ralph says, “What the fuck are we doing?”
I turn to him, slap Babe again. “I want this.”
“What?” he says, says it sharp, and he’s looking at me like I’m a fucking idiot. This was an expression I well-deserved, but I didn’t see myself in it. What the fuck did that kid know?
So I shout past him to our manager, “Seth, I want this thing.”
Serious Seth comes stumbling off the bus with his sleeping blindfold up on his forehead. “Okay, Bobby,” he says, quite like a mother. Shrewd son of a bitch knew how to pick his battles.
And then everyone gets to work for me. The other musicians are asleep with hats over their eyes, some passed out, but Ralph stays outside and watches the whole thing. We were going to be late for our show in Tucson, but I didn’t care. I wanted old Babe, needed my compadre by my side.
I tore the plastic off a fresh bottle of rye and watched my man-machine work for me. Somebody called the sheriff, he called the owner of the hardware store, somebody rented us a trailer. And when the sun started rising, painting my world colors of orange, a couple of kids paid in cash were roping Babe into the trailer, rolling him up behind the bus. I had no idea what I was going to do with this fucking thing, but I was happy to have it.
As things were winding up a small crowd gathered. High school kids in coats and hats, wanting to see Bobby Bird, wanting to get all the details of this story so they could tell their friends the next day. Little did they know, with their thermoses and plastic cameras, that they were seeing Bobby Bird on his last day as a practicing musician.
Just as everything was wrapping up I moseyed over to Ralph who was chewing a toothpick and shivering in the cold. “What do you think Ralph?” I said. I really didn’t know; that’s how subjective my experience had become.
“I think,” he said, and took out his toothpick, “that someday I’m going to be a big musician, maybe even bigger than you, and I think it’s important that I remember all of this,” and he stabbed the scene with his toothpick, turned and looked me in the eyes, “because I never, ever, want to get like this.”
I stared at him for a minute, stared at him like I was his boss, but his gaze didn’t break. Then I turned and got up onto the bus. I settled deep into my chair and smelled my whiskey. Fuck that kid.
Minutes later we were back on the highway, Babe a caboose. I glanced back at him from time to time — his saucer eyes dead and staring — to remind myself that I was Paul Bunyan.
Then, going down through the canyon past Bumble Bee, the trailer kinked on a tight turn and flipped the bus. Screaming metal, sparks, Babe flying to pieces. The smell of burning oil.
I woke up sometime later in the hospital, doped up as some young nurse was pulling plastic ribbons out of my shins. I watched her work for a minute, finding the pain curious. She thought I was still passed out and I didn’t make a noise to let her know I wasn’t. Then a few gurneys rolled past. My band. Steve Bridges, piano, was screaming and grabbing his shins. Ben Ten, bass, was huffing and puffing, changing colors before my very eyes. Rich Sends, slide guitar, was laughing like a maniac. And poor Ralph Peralta, drums, I had to recognize by his denim jacket. His head was torn clean off. And no one ever found it.