I am now writing under weird pressure and there are days I really hate
it. Expectations, according to my rodent rodeo observations, often =
disappointments. Or else maybe one ends up writing simply to meet a
deadline. Imposed by--you name it. Editors. Agents. Bill collectors. So I
am trying not to fall into that abyss of second novelisms. . . or
I hear it gets worse.
I loved writing my first novel Dogeaters because nobody gave a
shit. There was so much reckless freedom in that feeling. To write when you
have absolutely nothing to lose is to gain everything that matters as an
artist. The willingness to take risks with content and language. And to
write as if one were racing alone, racing alone with only one's self,
against one's self, is an absolute thrill. And to know that one cannot
afford to stop and look back--delicious.
HERE'S WHAT I WANT TO SAY. Right before I gave up music, I was full of
myself. The happiest I've ever been. Terrifying and permanently etched in
my mind, those final concerts will always seem bigger than life. You
slinking through the audience, decked out in emerald green lipstick and
embroidered Turkish fez. Waving goodbye to us at the airport, as the band
boards the jet that takes us on. . . a dream. Our first and last
international tour. Straight to hell. My band as opening act for Sister
Mercy's No Bullshit Satin Soul Revue. She is a living legend--a survivor of
the chitlin' circuit--authentic, gritty, magnificent, temperamental. She
calls her classic songs "ugly music," she calls herself "Godmother to James
Brown." Hers is a fourteen-piece orchestra, complete with Sammy Davis, Jr.
lookalike emcee and topless backup singers who call themselves "The
Hoodoos." She only talks to the men in my band and marches past me as if I
am invisible. I eat shit, I grovel like a white boy--I am so grateful to be
on the same bill with her.
This tour is so nasty, you have to pay your own way. 120 degree heat and
humidity. No shade. Parasites in the water. Boiled English food the only
thing available. Where are we? I cry every day I'm there. "B. Goode! How
could you be so bad?" Elvis and the boys needle our manager Brian
mercilessly, in the last-ditch effort to keep our spirits up. I want to
kill B. Goode, who responds by giving us daily pep talks on the importance
of working, on work as an end in itself, and the prestige of opening for
the legendary Sister Mercy, rumored to be the protege and only female
ex-lover of Little Richard. "Think of what you'll learn! Think of the riffs
you can steal from the horn section!" Brian is hysterical and dehydrated,
his pale face swollen with insect bites.
"Brian, what kind of shit have you got us into?" I wail in disgust.
"They got bugs here so vicious they can bite your dick off!"
"Sister Mercy just as bad," Jamal says. Brian shrugs, helpless. We try
to stay high enough so nothing matters. Ray shows up late for everything.
Sometimes he doesn't show up at all. Elvis wanders off into the bush,
looking for Ray. And you in the dream, slinking down the Nile in your
papyrus canoe. Walking a tightrope in your embroidered fez and gauze veil,
the lipstick slash across your mouth a deliberately nasty, supernatural
green. "I'll save you," you promise me, perfectly balanced and confident on
your perch above the ravine. Nasty nasty nasty neon green.
And the only boa I ever wear is a constrictor around my neck, while Jamal
whispers in panic, "Does the Congo still exist?" And Elvis responds with a
sneer, "I can't keep up with history."
I am pregnant. I moonwalk and shuffle across the creaking, makeshift stage
of the outdoor jungle arena. Searchlights blind my eyes. My mother suddenly
appears, pushing my father onstage in his wheelchair. His hands are clasped
in prayer, his tongue stuck out, ready for Holy Communion. We are in the
Africa or Asia of my imagination; I'm ashamed I can't tell the difference.
The foliage is familiar, it's easy to be fooled. My band is a flop. The
natives are simply not interested in colored rock 'n' roll. A powerless
concept to most of them.
They clamor for Madonna. They invoke Billy Idol. Something exotic, without
gravity. They throw overripe bananas at me, and screeching spider monkeys
at Sister Mercy, who stops in the middle of her fabulous rendition of "It's
a Man's World" and stomps offstage. She returns a few seconds later,
brandishing an Uzi. We aren't sure if it's a toy or for real, but no one
wants to find out. You don't fuck with Sister Mercy; even this tough
audience gets the message and simmers down.
I am pregnant. I wear a black Maidenform corset, gasping for breath. A lace
boa constrictor is wrapped around my neck. To appease the restless crowd,
sleazy B. Goode introduces me, with apparent desperation, as Madonna
Demivida. "Straight from Motor City! You remember Motor City, don't you?"
He's delirious with malaria, drunk from too much quinine. I stumble out, my
hair hidden by a cheap blond wig from 14th Street. The booing begins all
over again. Where are you? Where is Sister Mercy? Sister Mercy isn't there
to protect me. She's backstage, fuming in the shadows. She wants no part of
my sorry show. The mob curses us in English, threatening to throw us into
the crocodile-infested river then laughing because it is all a joke. A
village matriarch leaps up in my face. "You are not worth killing," she
announces. She cracks a perfect brown egg on my forehead in a gesture of. .
. blessing? Contempt? Again I am not sure. Government troops are forced to
intervene. We are tried without a jury, dismissed and deported as
SECOND-RATE WESTERN IMPERIALIST SO-CALLED ARTISTS before being shoved into
a Russian army plane along with members of Sister Mercy's Satin Soul
We are flown out of the jungle in the middle of the night, back to the
safety of Motown memory.