Dancing with Myself
THEY SAY IF YOU HEAR THE BANG, YOU’RE STILL ALIVE
By the morning of February 6, 1990, I’d been living on a fine edge for more than a decade, always courting disaster to experience the biggest high. I’d been living the deranged life. I felt so nihilistic, yet why hadn’t I just tuned in and dropped out? Instead, I followed Jim Morrison’s credo, the credo of Coleridge and, at one point, Wordsworth, the credo of self-discovery through self-destruction I so willfully subscribed to until this moment:
Live every day as if it’s your last, and one day you’re sure to be right.
On this fateful morning, I’m standing wide-awake at dawn in the living room of my house in Hollywood Hills, overlooking the Los Angeles basin that falls and stretches away toward the high-rising pillars of downtown. I haven’t slept, still buzzing from the night’s booze and illicit substances lingering in my bloodstream, staring at the view of the city beginning its early morning grumblings. Daylight unfolds and casts shadows within the elevation, as if God is slowly revealing his colors for the day from his paint box, the hues of brown and green of earth and foliage offset by the bleached white of the protruding rocks that hold my home in place on the hillside.
Standing at my window, I hear sirens blaring in the distance. Someone wasn’t so lucky, I think as I tune in to the rumble of cars ferrying tired and impatient commuters on the 101 freeway that winds through the Cahuenga Pass, the sound of a world slowly getting back in motion. The constant moan of the freeway echoes that of my tired and played-out soul.
Just the night before, after almost two years of work, we put the aptly titled album Charmed Life to bed. I’m feeling some pressure, home early from the de rigueur studio party. I say that as if we threw one party to celebrate the completion of the album, but the truth is that the party went on for two years. Two years of never-ending booze, broads, and bikes, plus a steady diet of pot, cocaine, ecstasy, smack, opium, quaaludes, and reds. I passed out in so many clubs and woke up in the hospital so many times; there were incidents of returning to consciousness to find I was lying on my back, looking at some uniformly drab, gray hospital ceiling, cursing myself and thinking that I was next in line to die outside an L.A. nightclub or on some cold stone floor, surrounded by strangers and paparazzi.
I’ve been taking GHB, a steroid, to help relieve symptoms of the fatigue that has been plaguing me and preventing me from working out and keeping my body in some semblance of good shape. If you take too much GHB, which I’m prone to do, it’s like putting yourself in a temporary coma for three hours; to observers, it appears as if you are gone from this world.
When we began recording in 1988, we promised each other we’d be cool and focused, and not wholly indulge in drugs and debauchery. But as weeks stretched into months, Fridays often finished early with “drop-time”—the moment we all took ecstasy. And then Friday soon became Thursday and so on, until all rules were taboo. We somehow managed to make music through the constant haze. It seemed like every few days I was recovering from yet another wild binge, and it took three days to feel “normal” again. The album proved to be slow going and the only way to feel any kind of relief from the pressure was to get blotto, avoid all human feelings, and reach back into the darkness once again. Somewhere in that darkness, I told myself, there was a secret of the universe or some hidden creative message to be found.
We’d invite girls to come to the studio to listen to the music. Mixing business with pleasure seemed the best way to see if the new songs worked. We’d be snorting lines of cocaine, and then the girls would start dancing. Before long, they’d end up having sex with one or more of us on the studio floor. Once the party was in full swing, we walked around naked but for our biker boots and scarves. Boots and Scarves became the running theme.
The girls loved it and got in on the act. It helped that we recruited them at the local strip bars; they felt comfortable naked. We had full-on orgies in those studios we inhabited for months. It was like a glorified sex club. We were all about instant gratification, lords of the fix.
I’d like to think this was all in the name of song-searching: the sex and drugs amped up the music, the songs arriving in the midst of chaos, cigarettes stubbed out into plates of food, the bathroom floor covered with vomit, sweaty sex going on all over the studio as we tried out our guitar riffs and mixes. The sound of our mixes, turned up loud, drowned out the background noise of sucking and fucking. Songs must be written. The ideas must flow. The flow must go to one’s most base desires. Without constraint.
Now that it’s all said and done, I feel exhausted and shattered. The keyed-up feeling that prevents me from sleeping is the result of the care and concern I put into making a record that will decide the course of my future. That’s the sort of pressure I put on myself every time. Then there’s the fact that the production costs have been astronomical; the need to keep the bandwagon rolling has drained my spirit and sapped my will.
Months later, Charmed Life will go on to sell more than a million copies. The “Cradle of Love” single and video, directed by David Fincher, will both become massive hits. But I don’t know this when I retreat to my home alone at 2 a.m., intending to get some rest after wrapping recording. The breakup of my relationship with my girlfriend, Perri, the mother of my son, Willem, has left me bereft, but finishing the album has been my only priority. “If the thing is pressed . . . Lee will surrender,” Lincoln telegraphed Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox in 1865. And then: “Let the thing be pressed.” That’s a rock ’n’ roll attitude. The difficult has to be faced straight-on and the result forged out of sweat and tears. That’s where I take my inspiration.
The wide-screen version of the last few years’ tumultuous events plays in my subconscious and cannot be ignored. What can I do to keep away these blues that rack my thoughts and creep into my bones? It’s a fine day, warming up, the sun burning off the morning smog. Still, I feel uneasy, dissatisfied in the pit of my stomach. With the album now finished, I’ll have to take stock of life and contemplate the emptiness without Perri and Willem.
The bike will blow away these post-album blues, I think. As I open the garage door, the chrome of my 1984 Harley-Davidson Wide Glide gleams with expectation, beckoning me.
The L.A. traffic is thick and the warmth of the sun is fresh on my face, its glow spreading over my bare head. California has yet to pass legislation making the wearing of helmets compulsory, and I’ve always liked the feel of the wind in my hair. My bike clears its throat with a deep, purring growl. The gleaming black tank and chrome fixtures flash in the sharp, sacrosanct daylight. I’ve opted for all denim to match the blue-sky high.