WHY I HATE JANUARY - Part 1: The Accident
I hate January. For years I "went crazy" when it rolled around. Seasonal affective disorder they said. I'm not so sure, but it did - for the most part - go away when I moved to Florida...but that coincided with a number of other life changes as well. Whatever it was, I got very depressed. And I drank to make myself feel better. If I drank enough, the pain went away. Until I woke up in jail. I think today it would be more accurately diagnosed as unprocessed grief. It started when I lost my best friend. Again.
I really don't even want to write about it. 20 years later it's still raw and painful to the touch. I'm going to try and tell some parts of the story I've never told...so bear with me.
We'd been home from several months of nonstop touring for only about 3 weeks. During that time we had laid the groundwork for our next record, including making a downpayment that would literally build the studio where we intended to record it in Milwaukee.
The band had become a full-time job. Almost. At Shane's suggestion, it would now be my only job - with the band covering my share of the rent and providing a modest salary. He would maintain his retail job at the outlet mall for the moment.
I wrote music all day every day for a solid week. I was focused and driven. Our favorite bar was behind the Hellfire House - open all day and just a few quick steps through the hole in the back fence away...but I wasn't going there for "lunch" or even a bit of "liquid inspiration". I was working. And I was writing some great songs.
Shane came home from work and listened to the new music I'd been working on and we were excited. It was going to be an amazing record. We went to the bar behind the house and had a couple drinks. It was boring. It was a weeknight and no one was out. "Wanna try somewhere else?" Shane asked. I told him that what I'd really like to do is go to Chicago.
We lived just under an hour from Chicago - just across the Wisconsin/Illinois border - and we went there a lot. Sometimes when bars closed at 2am in Wisconsin we would drive to Chicago to drink for another hour or two (bars there closed at 4am. 5am on Saturday.) We alternated who drove, but on any one of the these midnight rides neither of us had any business behind the wheel.
There was no buddy system involved - no watching out for the driver, helping keep him awake and alert. Usually whoever wasn't driving would just pass out in the passenger seat and wake up in the driveway. One time we got pulled over and the cops said a trucker had called in a car weaving and brushing a concrete barrier causing sparks to fly everywhere. Shane was driving and denied falling alseep. His old beater car was so banged up it was impossible to tell if there were fresh scrapes.
The cops thought we were hilarious. And they didn't even do a breathalyzer on Shane. I remember the one cop saying "You guys are WASTED! How the Hell did you think you were going to get home?!" We were invincible and episodes like that one only reinforced our complete lack of any sense of consequences. We were foolish and wreckless. We joked about it.
It was snowing. Probably not a good night to go to Chicago. Shane said let's just go for a bit...we can go to Circuits and call it an early night. Circuits was a bar on the north side of Chicago - a punk rock bar that we could be at in about 40 minutes. We played there the night before we'd left on the last tour.
I'd been flirting with the owner for a while, so much so that her boyfriend caught us making out in the walk-in cooler after the show. Before he stormed out, he grabbed my leather biker hat off the stage and claimed he was going to put a curse on me with it. She later got it back and mailed it to me at one of the clubs we played during the tour.
I'd talked to her on the phone a few times early in the trip, but as weeks became months, life was about the road...the next city. The next girl. The next misadventure. I'd stopped calling. It wasn't like we were actually dating. And she knew who I was. It was no coincidence that, at this time, the last seven women I had dated (one of whom I briefly married) were bartenders. My psychology was pretty basic: you feed me alcohol = I "love" you.
She stocked her bar with an ample supply of Bombay Sapphire and Ruby Red Grapefruit specifically for me...and I could hear them calling my name. Circuits seemed like a good option. We got in the car.
But the tire went flat as we rolled out of the driveway. Fuck it. I guess Chicago's out. No, Shane insisted: "I've got a spare. It'll take me five minutes". You sure? "Yeah." It was snowing harder. But five minutes later we were on the road. We were talking about the album. We were having a great time. But sometimes...I think you should listen when the car says "don't go".
When we got to Circuits, I sat at the bar. The owner...I'll call her Greta...was happy to see me and served me a particularly powerful welcome home drink. She told me the saga of the boyfriend moving out...and how they should've broken up two years ago. That I shouldn't feel bad...I had just been the right catalyst for something that needed to happen. That she felt like a huge burden had been lifted.
I said. "I'm good like that. I'm a destroyer." A destroyer? "Yeah. It's not always a bad thing. It's like lightning: sometimes it sets fires...but those fires clear out the deadwood and make room for new growth." She laughed. Yeah. I guess you are a destroyer.
Shane had been dating a girl before we left. And she was there. With a new boyfriend. She'd asked Shane before we left to promise her he wouldn't have sex with any other girls while he was on the road. He told her he couldn't promise that. She told him they were finished then. Because he was honest.
Most guys in bands just lie. Infidelity is an occupational hazard for traveling musicians, and it makes maintaining normal relationships extraordinarily difficult. Opportunity. Temptation. Ego. Alcohol. Man's carnal nature. The Hellfire Club. It wasn't like Shane was drowning in women and holding ritual orgies at Motel 6 every night...I mean, he was the keyboard player, not the singer. Hahaha. He was just being honest about the fact that something might happen on the road. He was honest because he really liked this girl. And here she was. With another guy.
He was bummed out. We sat at the bar together. Drinking. I asked him if he wanted to leave and he said no, he was fine. It was her loss I said. I mean...look at that guy. Yikes. We drank more and laughed. I was pretty drunk. And then we were ready to go. And Greta wanted me to stay.
She offered to drive me home.
I looked at Shane and asked if he was ok with that. He said yes. No problem. You sure? Yes.
I drank more. But suddenly i stood up and said "I have to go". Greta looked at me like I was a lunatic. "I'm driving you home, remember? Shane left almost an hour ago."
I have to go. I HAVE TO GET HOME. I ran out the back door of the bar into the night. I had no idea where I was going or why. I ran. I found an ATM and managed to withdraw $200. I needed a cab to the train. Maybe there was a train still. I needed to get home.
I wandered down Cicero Avenue looking for a cab that would never appear in that neighborhood at that time of night. In the snow. In mid-January. I'm not sure how long or how far I walked. Then a car pulled up next to me. It was Greta.
"Get in the car. I'll take you home."
I don't remember a lot about the drive home. I remember when we finally got to the Hellfire House we went up to my room and passed out. But then the phone rang. And rang. And rang. Who kept calling? It was early...maybe 6am? And the phone was still ringing. The answering machine picked up and I could hear Shane's dad's voice. Shit. He's in trouble.
I went downstairs and played the message. I don't remember exactly what he said but he sounded very upset. He told me Shane had been in an accident and would I please call as soon as I got this message. My mind was spinning. Shane's leg was in a cast from the beating he and I got by off-duty cops at a club in L.A. (another story for another time) - which made driving awkward for him. It sounded like Shane's dad was pissed at me for letting him drive. I hoped he wasn't in the hospital but fuck...this wasn't MY fault?!
Just then the phone rang again. I answered...and it was MY dad. At 6am. "Dad? What..." He was weirdly choked up. "I don't think I've ever been happier to hear your voice." What? What's going on?
Call waiting beeped. I looked at caller ID and it was Shane's father. "Hang on a second I have to answer this".
"Thomas?" Yes. "It's Shane's dad. He's been in an accident..." Yeah I'm sorry I just got your..."and he's dead." And he wept into the phone. My best friend was dead. Dead.
It was like someone simultaneously stopped time and sucked all the oxygen out of the room. The incomparable shock, in tandem with a sense of duty to my fallen friend, instantly built a huge emotional levy that held back the tidal wave of grief. At least for the moment.
I'm not sure what I said to Shane's father, but I know I offered to come to their house. He said yes, please do. The gathering is part of the American way of death. Everyone calls or stops by the family's house. It's exhausting and painful - but I imagine somehow cathartic - for everyone. I knew enough about it to know I was needed there.
I said I would be over as soon as I could.
I clicked back to my father on the other line.
"Yes. He's dead. Shane's parents called us looking for you. They wanted to make sure you heard it from them not on the news. We were afraid you were with him and they hadn't notified us yet. Like I said...I've never been so happy to hear your voice."
"You know what you have to do now."
"Good. Get it together and go over there."
"I'm on my way."
"We love you. We're glad you're still here."
"I love you too Dad."
I called Frost and woke him up. I told him he needed to get dressed and come over. I was already numb and not particularly tactful when he demanded to know why - flinging the announcement of Shane's death like a grenade through the phone. Exploding in silence. "Holy shit."
"Yeah. We need to go to his parents’ house. Get over here as soon as you can."
And we went.