Two weeks ago, my pal Leah and I were sitting on her couch. It was 11p.m. and we’d been drinking, steadily, for three hours, preparing for a night out. I was visiting San Diego from New Mexico. The songs from Father John Misty’s second album floated out of the record player’s speakers and filled the air. Leah was in a tizzy because she was going to see him a few nights later in Santa Ana. In the past twelve months she had already travelled to Las Vegas, Santa Barbara and Phoenix to catch his concerts. With a straight face she insisted she would make him leave his wife for her.
After having stepped away from playing or even actively listening to music for nearly half a decade, I’d recently experienced a musical renaissance. In part, I credit Father John Misty. His was the first new music that had sparked any interest in me in years. In the days after having had his first album forced upon me by an ex, I sat down and started writing new tunes. Shortly after, I brought them to my old producer, Kamoo. He took an instant liking to the sound, and we started a new recording project called Bang Bang Jet Away. Earlier in the day, Kamoo and I had finished a new album titled Forget the Sunshine.
Feeling positively triumphant about my accomplishment and wanting to celebrate in proper-fashion, I decided I’d join Leah at the Father John Misty concert. However, when I got online to purchase tickets, every show in the country was sold-out except one, Kansas City. Without further consideration, I purchased two tickets for the show, just eight days later.
Not having realized it at the time, my subconscious’ grand scheme in purchasing an extra ticket was to invite Rachel, a three-day fling I’d had the summer before in San Francisco that had cost me my friendship with a girl named Jenny. Despite not having seen Rachel for the past nine months, and having only exchanged a small number of phone calls and texts since, my affection for her had only grown.
The next day, I called to invite Rachel on this tremendous adventure. I assured her I’d take care of everything: the concert ticket, her airfare, lodging, etc. She sounded thrilled at the invitation but she didn’t provide me with a firm yes. Two days later we swapped texts. I told her I needed to make the proper arrangements if she was going to attend. Again, she was completely non-committal. Another two days passed, and I reached out to make a final attempt, to persuade her to join me. She didn’t answer or return my call.
At that point, I did what any modern man would do in my position. I signed up for Tinder, paid the small fee to be able to search in distant cities, and sought out a date. My initial observation flipping through the profiles was a keen awareness of just how sporty the women of Kansas City are. Nearly every potential match had a picture of herself in attendance at either a Chiefs’ or Royals’ game, dressed top-to-toe in the team’s attire. I left-swiped until my thumb grew tired, then took a small break before pushing forward with the hunt. Finally, I stumbled across Madeline. She had neon blue eyes, fair skin, and blond hair worn in a short asymmetrical cut. Her photos demonstrated a keen artistic sensibility. I right-swiped and hoped for the best. Two minutes later, I received notification that we were a match.
How to proceed, I wondered. Do I try to craft a clever and charming message, one full of wit and style, to break the ice, do I simply say “hello”, or do I go in strong with a proposal? I carefully considered my options. Finally, I typed out: “Do you like FJM?” Thirty seconds later, I received a response: “What the hell does that mean?” I wrote back: “Do you like Father John Misty?” Nearly instantly, she replied: “duh”. Sensing I was in a strong position, I typed: “You can be my date for the show on Tuesday.” This perhaps came across as a bit too forward, but within the span of a few more messages, I had recovered well and managed to procure myself a date.
I arrived in Kansas City the day before the show. I knew no one in town and had done absolutely zero research about what else might be worth doing. The only thing I had in the periphery of my memory was some semblance of a recollection that Kansas City is known for its BBQ. I immediately took to the internet for guidance. Into my Facebook status, I typed, “Sometimes I drink and then I find myself in Kansas City. Any tips on what to do?” Instantly, I received a string of replies, most of them nonsensical and entirely unhelpful, others suggested museums or restaurants. My initial reaction was sheer and utter disappointment. Then my phone rang. The caller I.D. displayed a name that hadn’t flashed across my screen in years: Johnny Howls.
“Matty, long time, buddy! Are you really in K.C.?”
“Sure am, pal.”
“What the hell brings you way out here?”
“I came to see the Father John Misty show.”
“No way, I’m his guitar tech. What are you doing right now? You want to meet up and get drinks?”
I hopped in an Uber and within five minutes I found myself at the Intercontinental Hotel. Just as I walked into the lobby, John texted me, saying the guys were hanging out on the buses. He was in the red bus, not the black one. Climbing aboard, I was met by a rag-tag group of long-haired musician-types, sitting along the red vinyl benches that line the front half of the bus. The band’s lead guitar player, Dave, and his girlfriend, Tess, were regaling the assorted listeners with a tale of their visit to the Cheesecake Factory. Neither had ever been before that afternoon. They were awed by the menu, which was, in Dave’s words, as “endless as the stars in the night sky”. To them, the Cheesecake Factory exuded an essence as exotic as Bangladesh or Kathmandu might seem to an insurance salesman or dentist.
A finely-rolled joint as thick as a grown man’s thumb was passed around. Having recently concluded that I abhor marijuana, I skipped it when it got to me. When pressed about my abstention, I insisted that when I smoke I can hardly remember my own name. Instead, I was offered a beer, which I gladly took. Outside the window, I spotted a tall, gangly man, with long dark hair, cloaked in a black robe and dark sunglasses, pacing the sidewalk, taking heavy drags off a cigarette.
The front door of the bus opened, and FJM came lumbering up the stairs. When he reached the top, he looked out across the bus, surveying all of us with shrewd, leery eyes. Everyone stopped what they were doing and waited patiently for him to say something.
“I think I’m on the wrong bus,” he finally said. “I want to watch The West Wing.”
“You’re on the red bus,” someone said.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“I’m going to go watch The West Wing, now,” he said, leaving without so much as a goodbye or a passing glance of acknowledgement.
Back out on the sidewalk, he lit up another cigarette and then pointed up to the sky and started mouthing numbers, as if he were counting the clouds. When he finished taking inventory, he slid his feet out of his slippers, bent over to pick them up, and sauntered over to the other bus.
John started questioning me about how I ended up in Kansas City. I told him I’d gotten drunk in California and bought tickets and then invited my San Francisco love interest who had flaked on me, and that I now had a Tinder date instead. He asked to see the Tinder girl, and I pulled out the phone and everyone on the bus took turns assessing her pics. Everyone agreed she was extremely attractive, but Tess pointed out that my date contorted her face into the same unnatural pursed-lip-sneer in every picture.
John suggested I invite her to meet us for drinks. I texted her and she replied immediately, insisting we come pick her up. She said she’d just gotten back from the gym, but only needed twenty minutes to get ready. When I shared this information with the others on the bus, the consensus was that a beautiful woman who’s also low-maintenance is a rare and wonderful thing. This logic made sense but I was still skeptical. Part of the allure of the exquisite woman is her elusiveness.
We mixed whiskey and cokes for the road. The Uber driver hammered us with questions. I took off on a rambling soliloquy about how we were visiting Kansas City for a software convention. John corrected me, stating that it was a software and hardware convention.
“I’m in software,” I said. “He does hardware.”
In the rearview mirror, I saw the driver nodding his head with interest. This inspired me to continue.
“We’re here on behalf of a Chinese company. We’re supposed to be gathering intel on new innovations in the U.S. tech market, but I’m feeding them bullshit. I’m not going to sell out my compatriots.”
The driver turned to look over his shoulder and gave me a wide, approving grin. “Good for you, young man,” he said. “Fuck the Chinese! That’s why I’m voting for Trump.”
“Me, too,” John said, holding up his whiskey and coke in a mock salute. “Trump in 2016! Make America great again, or something like that!”
Madeline’s neighborhood was completely serene: mid century architecture; manicured gardens; bright green grass; tall, leafy oak trees. We pulled up to the house—a two story, red brick colonial with large bay windows and a fountain out front. Madeline was sitting on a bench, on her porch, sipping wine. I got out of the car and made my approach. Instead of making eye contact and smiling, she stared down into her purse and started rummaging through it. She came up with lipstick and applied a touch-up.
I held out my hand. “Hi, Madeline. I’m Matt. Nice to meet you.”
She shook my hand vigorously. “Took you guys long enough,” she replied. “I’ve been waiting forever.”
“We didn’t want to rush you,” I said, forcing a smile.
I walked behind her as we moved toward the car. Both John and the driver were staring in anxious anticipation. I twisted my face into a grimace, held my arms up in the air, and shrugged.
Once inside, Madeline immediately made her presence felt. “You’ve driven me before, haven’t you?” she said to the Uber driver.
“Not sure,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a while now. I’ve driven a lot of folks.”
“I remember, you drove me to Westport last week. You ran a light and almost got us in a wreck. I wanted to kill you.”
“I don’t think so, Ms.,” the driver said.
Madeline dismissed the man entirely and started talking about him as if he weren’t there. “This guy is a shitty driver. I’m telling you, he nearly caused a wreck last week. And, he was a total asshole about it, too.”
“He seems all right to us,” John said.
A severe tension swept through the car. The driver stared straight out into the road ahead. John and I took quiet sips from our drinks, and Madeline punched out text after text on her phone. When we arrived at our destination, John and I took turns thanking the driver. Madeline whispered “dick” under her breath, as she exited the vehicle.
“You guys play pool?” she asked.
“If you want,” I said.
“You any good?” she replied.” Because I’m really good.”
“Modest, too,” John said.
“People see a hot, young, blond chick and they think I must suck. But I’ve taken money off Chads in bars all over the world.”
“Chads?” I asked.
“Yeah, Chads. You know what I mean, right?”
I thought to myself that I did know what she meant, but I didn’t like the way it sounded.
We entered a brightly lit sports bar, with flat-screen televisions lining every inch of wall-space. A Rhianna song blasted from the bar’s speakers. Most of the tables were occupied by chubby, blond women and men in baseball caps. They were all stuffing their faces with nachos, chicken wings, and pitchers of cheap bear. The bartender was well-muscled in a tight black t-shirt, exposing dozens of ill-themed tattoos. John ordered a whiskey. I took a Budweiser. Madeline asked to see a wine list. When it came, she perused it, making commentary on every vintage. After posing a series of questions only a proper connoisseur could answer, she got frustrated with the bartender, and reverted to ordering a glass of the bar’s most expensive pinot noir.
We situated ourselves at a table in the back. Madeline pulled a number of pool sticks off the rack and rolled them across the felt table, studying their trajectories, looking for the truest. Finally she made her selection. I picked out one of the discarded sticks and placed the rest back. John disappeared to the bathroom. Madeline told me I needed to break, and I did so, scattering the balls across the table, sinking two solids and a stripe. I strung together two more good shots, burying a couple more solids. Madeline missed an easy shot and cursed loudly. Within a couple minutes, I roundly defeated her. John laughed loudly, and Madeline rattled off a number of preposterous excuses for her poor performance.
We sat down and ordered appetizers and a second round of drinks. John asked Madeline what she did for work. She explained at great length that at twenty-six, she was already a well-seasoned entrepreneur.
“In 2012, I dropped out of college and began a clothing company. My line is carried in thirteen boutiques across Kansas, Missouri, and Colorado. But I’m over all that now, because I’m focused on other ventures. Real Estate’s my thing. That’s where the real money is. I’ve got my own company. The house you picked me up at is an investment property. I buy, fix up and flip, at least three properties a year. Also, I’m day trading. I’m really bullish on Water Futures.”
“That’s interesting,” John said. “Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out.”
“I’m a hustler,” she said, sincerely.
She excused herself and disappeared into the bathroom.
“We have to get the fuck away from this girl,” John said.
I agreed completely and told him I’d deal with it. When Madeline returned, I explained that John had an emergency situation that needed handling. She asked if I would be leaving too, and I told her it was an “imperative”. Before we could say goodbye, she made a phone call and walked away from the table. I paid the tab with the waiter, and we left.
We went to a punk rock club called Blind Tiger. It was still early, so the place was nearly empty. Three barstools away, a crazy, fat man shouted incoherent reproaches at himself. In front of him, he had three bags of potato chips, all of a different variety. Bits of crumbs fell from his mouth. The bartender treated him very kindly, this was obviously a daily ritual for them. After a short chat, the bartender poured two shots and he and the crazy man clinked glasses and took them down.
John was many drinks deep now, and he started getting nostalgic and sentimental. Years ago, we had both come up in the same San Diego music scene. Our bands played countless shows together. Both were local favorites, always on the cusp of breaking out. John’s music had an optimism and an earnestness I admired. My own music probably seemed too gloomy and joyless for him to fully embrace. That said—we both wholly respected each other’s work.
Whereas I had given up on my rock-star dream, John had spent the years since I’d last seen him completely committed to the pursuit. He’d gone through many bands. Some better than others. All of them sharing a working-man, Americana-pop aesthetic. There had been flirtations with success. He’d toured opening for Switchfoot and Delta Spirit. A song of his had been prominently featured in a major movie. But here he was now, tending to the needs of someone who had accomplished exactly what he’d set out to do himself, but in the end hadn’t.
There’s no way I could stomach it. Even now, years removed from playing live shows, it pains me just to know that someone like FJM exists. Someone who embodies everything I once aspired to be. To have to witness the spectacle that is FJM’s magic on a daily basis would drive me to the brink of suicide. Even just a single day spent living in his world had made me question my self-worth. Forever, my one true aim has always been to only suffer regrets I could be proud of. Yet, I’m currently working a normal day job like everyone else in America. I’m a goddamn salesman, of all things. Even worse, I get paid handsomely for it. The self-loathing knows no bounds.
After a few more drinks, I finally asked John how he copes living as an outsider looking in, relegated to the periphery. What he said surprised me entirely.
“Listen, man, it’s not easy. Of course, I want it to be me out there. How could I not? But I have to believe that my time is coming. This just isn’t it. Right now, it’s FJM’s time, and it’s my job to do everything I can to help him. You understand?”
It became instantly clear to me that John and I aren’t made of the same stuff. He’s entirely better than me. Whereas I’m petty, jealous, and small, John is a beacon of shining light in this vast chasm of humanity.
Two members of the band arrived, a group of art-school girls in tow. The bartender took their orders. The musicians drank tequila and the girls drank heavy craft beer. What happened to women drinking vodka with soda water and chasing it down with gum and cigarettes, I wondered. John and the band members started talking shop. I listened, disinterestedly. FJM had broken fifteen microphone stands in the last five shows. They needed to place an order for forty more. Also, the rhythm guitar player needed a new delay pedal. His current one had been damaged the night before when FJM had leapt off the drummer’s kick drum and fell onto his pedal board, sending all his electronics flying.
A girl with short bleached bangs and a septum piercing asked if I played in the band, her face turning from hopeful to disappointed when I told her I didn’t. “So what do you do?” she asked in a sour tone. “I’m a writer,” I said, weakly. She smiled, broadly, and leaned in closer. I said that I had a novel coming out a few weeks later. Placing her hand on my forearm, she asked if I wanted to do shots, insisting on something called a “Washington Apple”. We did a round, and five minutes later we did another. She informed me that she was a fine arts major, a painter and a sculptor, but was now writing poetry. She started reciting her verses from memory. I quickly lost interest and excused myself and went to the bathroom. When I came back, one of the band members had his arm around her waist, and she was giggling and smiling brightly.
The sound of discordant guitars came blasting up from the club’s basement. I ordered another whiskey and went downstairs. A three piece band of heavily bearded men, dressed in all black, pounded away at their instruments. The singer shouted an impossible-to-decipher chant into the microphone. Droplets of spit spewed from his mouth. The bass player’s head swiveled up and down, sending reams of sweat flying into the crowd. The drummer banged out a savage, tom-tom beat. Fifteen people or so stood around, listening intently, transfixed by the spectacle. A mosh pit broke out and I stepped aside to avoid it. A very heavyset girl dressed in torn fishnets and a denim jacket got mixed up in the chaos, tripped, lost her balance and stumbled toward me. I reached out and broke her fall, securing her in my arms, nearly tumbling over in the process. Her long red hair brushed against my face, intoxicating me with its aromatic blend of coconut shampoo and cigarette smoke. She put one hand on my waist and another on my shoulder to help regain her balance. Upright again, she leaned in and cupped one hand over my ear, so I could hear her over the music, and whispered her gratitude. For the next three songs, we stood next to each other. The room filling up with people, we kept getting closer and closer until we were touching. When the set ended, I invited her upstairs for a drink.
Turns out, she was friends with the girls hanging out with the Father John Misty crew. She quickly got engulfed into their fold. John told me he was heading back to the bus to get some sleep. I bought myself a drink and sat at the bar, looking up at the television screen, reading the captions of the day’s news. After a few minutes, the heavyset girl came and joined me. In the light, I could see she had a dusting of freckles over her nose and cheeks. Her black mascara was smudged. She took off her jacket and put it on the back of her chair. She had a tattoo of Alice in Wonderland on her arm. Her thin, low-cut white t-shirt barely contained her tits. I made every effort not to stare. I paid for her drink. She gushed with enthusiasm over meeting the guys from the band. She said they were her favorite. I expressed my admiration, as well. We talked for several minutes about how she couldn’t wait to graduate so she could leave Kansas City behind. The conversation shifted to painting, then philosophy, and finally politics. She was entirely charming and had the best laugh. When she smiled, her two front top teeth angled inward just the slightest amount. It somehow only accentuated her full lips, making the terrible struggle to keep myself from reaching out and taking her face in my hands and kissing her that much harder. “I want to leave,” I blurted, “and I want you to come with me,” a strong desire to be alive and courage welling up in me.
“I don’t get it,” she said, shocked. “Why do you want to take me home? There are lots of really pretty girls here.”
She glanced over at her friends by the bar.
“You’re wonderful,” I said.
She blushed and bowed her head, avoiding eye contact. “I came here with my friends. I don’t think I can just leave them.”
I looked back over at her friends again. One of them was making out with the rhythm guitarist.
“Please,” I said, smiling.
“Is this, like, a joke to you? Something you’ll look back on and laugh with your friends about—the time you fucked a fat girl!”
“What the hell are you talking about? No!”
She stood up, suddenly angry. “I don’t believe you.”
I reached for her arm, and she shrugged me off. “I don’t understand what just happened,” I said. “If you don’t want to come home with me, that’s fine, but please don’t misunderstand my intentions. I really like you.”
“I’m going to go back to my friends now,” she said, turning and walking away.
I had never experienced a situation turn like that. Something so good, so visceral and real, a true connection, disintegrating into thin air. Hanging my head low, so as not to make any eye contact with her or the Father John Misty crew, I traipsed out of the bar.
Outside, I ordered an Uber to take me home. The pretty art school girl with the septum piercing, who’d earlier imposed her poetry on me, sat on a bench on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette. She had a drunken, wild look in her eyes.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Going home,” I said. “What are you doing?”
“I’m bored,” she replied.
My Uber pulled up to the curb.
“I hope your night picks up,” I said.
“It might,” she replied, smiling coyly. “Can I come with you?”