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 third.
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 Revue.
We are flown out of the jungle in the middle of the night, back to the safety of Motown memory.