Authors: Chris Nickson
First published in 2013
By Creative Content Ltd, Roxburghe House,
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Copyright Â© 2013 Creative Content Ltd
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everyone involved with
one of the great music papers
As Gary Heffern once told me, “Out on the streets junk is still king.”
Seattle was like every city. It had those cool areas where people wanted to live. In 1988 it was Capitol Hill, Belltown, or lower Queen Anne â anywhere close enough to stagger home from downtown when the music ended and the bars closed.
But West Seattle definitely wasn't cool. It was the kind of place where people went when they couldn't afford anything better.
I was sitting out on the deck, drinking coffee, reading the newspaper and enjoying the morning sun, a rare surprise in May. Down below, Lake Union was sparkling in the light, and the towers of the downtown skyline glittered in the distance.
The building I lived in had been put up quickly for the World's Fair back in 1962, and it looked like a cheap California motel, ugly pebble stucco and concrete, but the apartments were spacious and clean and it was affordable. It was just up the street from Tower Records, close enough to walk downtown. If I craned hard over the balcony I could even see the tip of the Space Needle.
It was a small item on page three. I'd have missed it if it wasn't for the name.
“Come and take a look at this,” I called to Steve.
“What is it?” he asked as he came out, fresh from the shower and running a hand through his wet hair. He grabbed my coffee and took a sip.
“Hey,” I said and took the cup back. “Have you seen this? Craig Adler's dead.”
“What? Are you serious, Laura?” His voice rose in astonishment.
“Here.” I pushed the newspaper at him. He scanned the brief article, eyes widening.
“Jesus.” He looked at me in amazement. “Heroin?”
“That's what it says. Seems weird to me. But...”
“Yeah, me too.” He settled in the other chair and read it through again, puzzlement on his face. “And West Seattle?” He shook his head. “That's strange. I figured he had a place on the Hill. I know he used to.”
“I guess he moved. You know what's really bizarre? I heard his band was about to sign with a major.” That had been the rumor â Snakeblood had a deal with ARP Records and big money was involved. Why would someone overdose on the verge of that?
He frowned, trying to hide a small pang of musician's jealousy. Steve had his own band, Gideon's Wound, that was desperately trying to make it. A local label had put out a single of theirs in January, two songs, both under three minutes long. They'd had good reviews all over, even one in
in England. But apart from a couple more gigs and brief trips to Portland and Boise, nothing had really happened. No record companies were calling him with a contract offer. He was still washing dishes.
The groundswell that was rising in Seattle music was passing him by, and I knew he resented it, even though he didn't say anything. For the last few years there had been an underground scene, raucous, unruly groups playing the little clubs that sprang up every few months around the city, and now it was beginning to come of age. Record label scouts were sniffing around, hunting the next big thing and sensing it would be here. Craig had been the first choice. Except now he was dead.
“Had you heard anything about him doing heroin?” he asked. I shook my head. It wasn't the drug of choice for most of the musicians I knew; they preferred to drink beer and smoke plenty of weed. But I was just a music journalist; how much did I understand anyway?
“Nothing,” Steve glanced at his watched and stood up. “I got to jet,” he said, and a few seconds later I heard the apartment door close loudly and smiled; one thing about Steve, he was like most men I'd known, unable to do anything quietly. Looking down I could see him heading for the bus stop, joining the pack of humanity heading downtown, wearing a faded denim jacket on top of a plaid shirt and t-shirt, old, battered jeans and Doc Martens. Good thrift shop Seattle wear. He'd change into his whites in the restaurant at the Bon Marche, where he worked piling up the dirty plates and cups in the dishwasher then emptying it again, time after time in the steamy heat. It was fair money, not the worst job he'd ever had, but it wasn't music, and I knew that rankled with him every single day.
Steve had moved in with me six months before when the lease on his old place was up. By then we'd been dating almost a year. He was twenty-four, seven years younger than me, but most of the time there didn't seem to be an age difference between us. From the moment we met, standing at the bar in the Central both trying to order beers over the music, we'd just clicked. It
startled people. I noticed the looks people gave us when we were out and heard a few of the comments. They couldn't understand why someone young and good looking would be with someone like me. I'm no model, I don't ooze sex appeal. I'm average and completely happy with who I am. Steve loved me and I loved him. If anyone didn't like it, fuck them. We were happy.
He was one of those guys who kept so many things inside, working out his feelings and his problems in his head. He could be intense at times, and that made the sex amazing, but often he was happy to just be quiet. That was fine, but I'd learned that if I wanted to know what he was thinking and what was in his heart I had to sit him down and make him talk about it. At first it had been almost impossible. He was still reluctant, but things were slowly improving.
Steve had left the Midwest looking for something new, some hope at the edge of America; I'd lived here my whole life with no desire to go anywhere else. Other places had their charms, but for all its ups and downs, Seattle was the place I loved.
Back when I was in elementary school everyone thought the city was dying on its feet. All around the city billboards went up reading,
Will the last person leaving Seattle â Turn out the lights
, as if the place might just crumble to nothing. It had made me laugh then, but my dad hated it. And now times had turned upside down. Every month the glossy magazines competed in their superlatives for the place, as if it was Paradise. People were flocking here, real estate prices were going crazy, newcomers pricing natives out of the place. Sometimes, seeing the license plates clogging up the freeway, it seemed as if we were becoming a California suburb. We'd been discovered, the hidden gem tucked away at the top left hand corner of the map of America. Even the earthquake fault line and the Mount St Helens eruption hadn't put people off.
A little after ten, I called the news editor at Rolling Stone to try to sell him a short item on Craig. I knew it was ghoulish, but it was money, the lifeblood of a freelancer without a regular salary. He turned me down; who cared about a local casualty? If Snakeblood had already signed their deal it would have been different. I sighed, shucked on my jacket and began to walk down the hill and past Seattle Center.
I was old enough to remember all the excitement of the world's fair there in 1962. Century 21, they called it, a vision of the science fiction future that lay ahead for us all. My folks took me three times over the summer; I was six and I couldn't get enough of the place. We rode the monorail and wandered around, then went up the Space Needle, looking down on Seattle like we were in heaven. Now it was all memories, and the bright, sleek time it promised hadn't happened yet. All I had left were three glasses with the logos and illustrations. They were good for soda and laughs.
I crossed Denny Way where downtown began, and followed Fifth Avenue. At the corner of Lenora I pushed open the double doors of the brick building and climbed the stairs to the offices of The Rocket.
The paper was the Northwest music bible and it had earned its reputation. For almost ten years it had covered it all â who was playing where, what record had just come out, interviews, reviews, and it did a good job, out every two weeks and free. The standard of writing was high and the pay was fair; it was my main source of income.
My parents hadn't really understood me. I hadn't wanted to go to college or settle down. They hoped I'd end up married with a family or, failing that, have a career that would bring in some money. Instead I was happy working crappy jobs and spending my money on music. Girls just didn't do that. They'd never been able to see the way music hit me. Even my girlfriends thought I was weird and we gradually parted ways. They'd go to the malls and I'd head out to see a band or hang out at record stores. If I'd had even an ounce of talent I'd have learned an instrument and joined a band. But eventually I discovered I could write about music. I liked trying to describe it to people, to make them feel what I felt. I had a few reviews published in fanzines here and there, and four years ago The Rocket started paying me for my opinions. The first time I'd seen the name Laura Benton in there had been one of the best moments of my life. Out of the blue, and out of my passion, I had a living of sorts. It still wasn't easy. Music was a guy thing, and many people didn't want to take a woman too seriously â they felt that without a penis you could never get to the soul of music, never really feel what was behind it. That was bullshit and I was determined to change it. I'd never been a big fan, but I'd cheered Heart when they broke out of Washington and became major stars. Two women kicking some major ass.
Monday was production day for the next issue of the magazine; everyone was bent over their desks with a Babel of music from different boom boxes cranked high, working with concentrated frenzy. I checked my pigeonhole,
picking out a mix of singles, LPs and a few CDs that had been left for me along with a couple of phone messages from publicists, then walked through to the cluttered, dark space that Rob used as his office, a converted closet that was hidden away from most of the noise. He'd been the editor for over a year now, slowly steering coverage away from the metal that used to fill page after page of the magazine and teasing the new Seattle sound out into the light. He liked my writing; since he took over I'd been doing more and more.
“Hey,” he said.
“You heard about Craig?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said with a sigh. “Bad shit. I just had to write his obit.” He rocked back in his chair. He was close to my age, his hair straggly and surfer boy blonde. In his t-shirt and baggy shorts he looked as if he'd be happier out on a beach, but he'd come up through daily papers, making deadlines, putting his feet on the ground and reporting. “You know what I can't figure out?” he asked.
“What's that?” I leaned against the door frame and waited.
“Did you ever hear that Craig had a heroin habit for a while last year?” he began.
“No,” I answered in surprise. “I didn't. I guess that changes things.”
“According to the people I talked to this morning, it started back in the summer and he kicked it before Christmas. He'd been clean for months; that's what everyone says, anyway.” Rob gave a look of frustration. “They all seemed surprised he'd ODed. What do you make of that?” He pulled out a pack of cigarettes, opened it, then put it away again, a little ritual he'd developed, as if handling a smoke would stop him actually lighting it.
“Maybe he just started using again,” I suggested. “I mean, how many
people really stay off heroin, anyway? But what was he doing out in West Seattle? That doesn't seem like his kind of place.”
“Now that one I can explain,” he told me with a satisfied grin. “He got himself a music publishing deal a year or so back and used the money to buy a house. Property's still cheap over there.”
“Even so...” I began. He shrugged. “You know,” I said thoughtfully, “I wonder if there's a story in all this somewhere.”
Rob gave me a sharp glance. “Yeah? What kind of story would you make out of that?”
“I'm not sure. What made him start using again when he was going to sign his big deal? That kind of thing.”
He rested his elbows on the desk and put his chin on his hands. “Go on,” he said encouragingly. “What's your angle?”
“I don't know,” I answered, thinking fast and taken by surprise at his interest. This could be a good story, a human story. “Peeking behind the veil, something like that. Find out what was going on in his head and in his life. There must have been something serious.”
He weighed the idea, chewing on his lower lip. “I tell you what,” he said after a while. “Look into it first and see if there's anything there. If you find something, write it up. I'll publish it.”
“Okay,” I agreed, and drew in a long breath. I'd suggested it, now I had to do it. All I'd ever written about was music, listening to artists discuss their lives and their latest albums. I'd never gone through a police report, never had to ask questions of people who were grieving. It was going to be a challenge.
Rob grinned at me. “Just take your time and do it right,” he advised.
“Check things out thoroughly. It'll still be a story when you're ready.”
“Laura,” he told me, seeing my hesitation, “you're a good writer. I wouldn't have said yes to this if you weren't. I think it'll do you good to test yourself a bit.”
“Yeah, maybe you're right.” I said slowly and pushed myself upright. “I'll see you later.”
I stuffed all the music into my backpack and headed back into the spring sunshine. On the walk home I stopped at Tower Records and glanced through the import section to see if there was anything new. Mostly, though, I wanted to talk to Carla. She owned the espresso cart outside the store and had an agreement with the staff â free coffee in exchange for no rent. And these days, coffee was the new currency in Seattle. We mainlined the stuff. Starbucks and Seattle's Best had their places at the market, CafÃ© Allegro was a hub in the U-District. Every restaurant offered espresso, and there were carts selling it all over the city.
Carla started grinding beans for my latte before I even opened my mouth. Like so many others in town she was a musician too, playing in a band that thought vocal harmonies mixed with overdriven guitar with feedback was the way to go. I'd written a short piece about them once; she had it laminated and taped to the front of the cart for everyone to read. Carla kept her boom box plugged in all day, blasting out a constant diet of AC/DC, MotÃ¶rhead and Black Sabbath across the parking lot. Once in a long while she'd add some Sonics as a sop to the locals.
“Hey, Laura,” she said, pushing long blonde hair behind her ear. “The usual?”
“Yeah, thanks. You heard?”
“Craig, you mean?”
She frowned and shook her head. “I saw it in the newspaper. Doesn't make any fucking sense, if you ask me.”
She started to steam the milk, holding the jug carefully and keeping an eye on the thermometer. Being a barista was a Seattle art, making a beautiful taste and presentation out of coffee and milk, an alchemy of taste.
“No, I mean it really doesn't make sense. I went through school with Craig in Winslow.”
“You grew up on Bainbridge Island? I didn't know that.” I'd always pictured Carla as a city girl, not from an island in Puget Sound.
She laughed. “Oh fuck yeah, honey, don't you know I'm just a redneck chick at heart?” She stuck out one leg with a heavy boot on the foot. “Even got the shitkickers.” Tenderly she decanted the milk onto the coffee and sprinkled powdered chocolate on top. “Craig wouldn't have taken heroin. He liked to get wasted, but not that.”
“He was using last year,” I said.
She stopped what she was doing. “Bullshit! Are you for real?”
“That's what I was told. But he'd quit.”
She shook her head again. “I don't believe that crap.” Her denial was furious, her face set hard. “Look, I knew the guy, anything with needles seriously freaked him. One time, I guess we were in our senior year, we were down at this house in Aberdeen and some guy got ready to shoot up. Craig
had to walk out. He was shaking so bad I thought he was going to faint or throw up.”
“People change, Carla,” I said softly.
She leaned against the cart, under the shade cast by the large umbrella that stood over it. “Bullshit,” she said again, and stared at me. “Look, this guy was my friend just about my whole life.”
“Had you seen him much in the last few years?”
“No,” she admitted. “But we still ran into each other, and no way was that guy shooting up. For Christ's sake, Laura, I've known junkies. Craig wasn't one.” She ran a hand across her eyes to brush away the tears that were starting to form. “Sorry,” she muttered, “but it's all wrong.”
I gave her a gentle hug then walked slowly back up the hill sipping on the coffee and thinking. I'd known a few people who were clean one day and junkies three months later. Craig could easily have started using again; so many did. I sighed. This was going to be very different from anything I'd done before. I was going to have to work my ass off.
At home I dug out the records that would be Craig's legacy, two singles and an LP. Snakeblood was emblazoned in blood red on the front of the album, with fangs on either end of the S. I put the record on the turntable and lowered the needle. The sound was a touch of glam, a touch of metal, lots of melody and that voice. It was arrogant, it was knowing and seductive, it grabbed the attention and wouldn't let it go. They could have been huge. Everyone in town had been saying so for a year or more. And now the voice had been silenced.