If you’re ever thinking of losing your mind, try to avoid Seattle. I had a nervous breakdown there once upon a time, and I can tell you the Emerald City, while beautiful from a certain vantage, left me wishing I could click my shoes together and go home. Luckily, I went to Vancouver instead. I bring this up because I can’t think about Destroyer’s Rubies without vividly recalling the wonderful, weird solo trip I made by train through the Pacific Northwest two years ago. Maybe I’m forcing the allusion to the Wizard of Oz, but to me it sure was a journey like no other, one where emeralds and rubies collided with other ephemeral treasures and nightmares along a golden road.
I had been a fan of Dan Bejar and his musical alter ego, Destroyer, for some time when Rubies first sparkled to me. (Destroyer is like Jethro Tull, a proper name that’s technically a band, but in truth a single mad genius.) It was the Spring of 2007, during a clove of time I had correctly judged to be a major turning point in my life. Not the moment when I became “a man,” as they say (whatever that means, it happened when my father died), but rather, when it seemed to me I was just on the verge of my raw, true self, alive and tingling in my own zesty skin; in all my dreams and fears, virtues and vices, commitments and contradictions, a creative angel newly ready to spread his limitless wings wide. When I examine that time, I see I wasn’t wrong. I was perched at a definitive crossroads in my creative life. I just didn’t notice the roadsigns were gibberish and pointing akimbo.
Newly single for the first time in six years, flush with cash from a project I’d spent the last three years nurturing, filled with wild visions of the success that was destined to follow, I spent the late winter of that Spring rising at a comfortable hour, whiling the morning hours over coffee and new stories (one of which is the project I’m working on now), walking the pleasant streets of Hancock Park at dusk with the scent of fragrant roses in my nose, and spending my nights chasing tail and Cadillac margaritas from Echo Park to Marina Del Rey. All this time, I was waiting for our story sessions to start, to begin the process of writing the first screenplay I had ever been paid on the dotted line to pen. Rubies, a giddy poetic euphoria of tumbling piano chords, swirling guitars, unhinged choruses and poignant, hysterical rhymes, provided the soundtrack to this brief, sweet, introspective idyll. I’d all but memorized the album. But after Carolina’s abrupt exit from the Elite Eight, I suddenly realized the day was soon coming when my uncommitted paradise would transform into a grueling reckoning.
I decided to give myself a final adventure. Paris was my first choice, but it was a screenplay job I’d been paid for after all. So I came with a novel alternative. After flying to Portland, I would hop Amtrak for a ride up the coast to Washington, spend Easter weekend in Seattle, then ride the rails again into British Columbia, visit Vancouver, and return home. It would allow me to see a part of the U.S. I’d never visited and let me travel the way I liked best—by train. I made the plans in no time and even convinced my old friend Mike to join me for three days in Portland. That first leg comprised one long uninterrupted run of food, wine, music and friends old and new. Mike hadn’t let himself loose in some time, and he was determined to give it his best effort. We stayed at the Jupiter hotel—Portland’s version of L.A.’s the Standard—and it was attached to the Doug Fir, one of that city’s premier spots for live music. It also had the city’s liveliest bar, best draft Porter, and most extensive, longest-lasting, mind-bogglingly cheap happy hour menu. We lived like pigs in shit for three straight days in one long debauch that took us from a wild night out with our dinner waitress, to a dive-bar with a purple roof that sold jello shots by the cup, to a roving party bus that shuttled back and forth across the Willamette river. We reconnected with a bunch of old friends who lived there, Mike fell in love, and my last memory was smoking weed we’d bought from our hotel clerk in the wee hours from a Granny Smith apple.
Needless to say, we started strong, and I arrived in Seattle on Good Friday a little banged up. I had chosen my hotel for one reason only: its proximity to the famous library Rem Koolhaas had built. In fact, it was directly across the street. I’d had to pay for all four nights in advance, but as soon as I saw my room, something about it didn’t feel right. It was too small, too claustrophobic. Downtown Seattle itself felt as though it were caving in on me. The buildings were too tall and gray, the city streets too narrow. I should’ve asked for a refund and changed hotels on the spot. Instead, I made the best of it. I went to the Library, climbing all the way to the glass pyramid roof, where I watched the rosy sun set behind spitting rain. Then I went to the Brooklyn and ate two dozen oysters.
That’s when the trouble started. I met a couple, innocent enough. We started talking and they wanted to show me around. A few drinks later we sat in a garish bar with clown paintings on the bright blue walls drinking jager shots. A few drinks after that they took me to one of Capitol Hill’s seediest gay karaoke bars, where a pathetic man who worked in a bathhouse hit on me ad nauseum and my only escape was to sing “Sundown” while drinking a Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boy. A few drinks after that we’d wound our way to their sad apartment, where they were plying me with all number of depressing tales of what passed for amusement between them. As my host applied mauve lipstick, he told me horrifying stories of his abused childhood, tempting me all the while with passing references to his cherubic girlfriend’s liberal-minded attractions and enticements, concocting in his brain who knows what dark arrangements.
And I realized, quite suddenly and painfully, it had all gone wrong. I had gotten carried away and it had left me in a place I didn’t want to be. What had seemed so easy and carefree and enlivening in Portland had, in less than a full day’s time, now reflected back awfully in the funny side of the mirror. I had no choice but to wait them out, sitting with a pasted smirk on their puke green velour sofa. Once I went outside and texted a close friend. “Seattle has a darkness,” I wrote. A few minutes later I wrote back again. “No, the darkness is in me.” Finally my chaperones went to bed and I took off gladly, walking as fast as I could through a damp drizzle, past a pigeon shit statue of Jimi Hendrix, until at last I found a taxi cab that would take me back to my tiny hotel room.
I awoke the next morning sick and sicker at heart. My lungs were full of crud and I felt like shit warmed over. It was the beginning of a very bad couple of days. I now feared meeting strangers, of extending my easy way too easily. I didn’t trust the people I might meet and more than that, I didn’t trust myself. That night, I took a bus to Chinatown and ate noodles alone in a plain bright room lit by fluorescent bulbs, its walls covered iwith pages of menu items in handwritten Chinese. I walked home and it began to rain. I had to run to a bus stop, and the driver admonished me for missing my stop. I felt like an absolute stranger in a land of dubious patrons. I dreaded going back to my room, the only place I had to go to. I was lonely, and I was alone. When I got inside, I knew it was going to be a long, touchy night. It didn’t help that the only thing on TV worth watching was a long documentary on the origins of Jesus.
The next day would be Easter Sunday, my dead father’s favorite holiday. I was a long way from all that. A long way from my family. A seabird fluttered between the iron gray buildings through a haze of thin rain. I watched it like a sign through the close frame of my one window. It felt like I was at the end of creation, the literal end of the world. Why, I asked myself, had I traveled such a godforsaken distance from everything that loved me and was dear to me? Why had I needed to be in such extremes of isolation and despair? Why had I needed to turn myself so far inside out? Why had everything suddenly felt so sad? It was clear to me I was having a very scary panic attack. For the first time in a long, long time, I was scared and I wanted to go home.
I hardly slept that night. After the Jesus doc, I tried to relax by watching Planet of the Apes, all the way through, and after that its sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. When the earth finally blew up from a nuclear bomb, I figured it was time to get some sleep. I’d made a reservation for myself for Easter brunch, a fancy place right on the water of Edward’s Bay. But I couldn’t eat a bite but soup. I wandered the city alone, slowly bringing myself round. It was a movie that got me out of the worst of it, an old movie at a revival house near U of W. The Fallen Idol, starring Ralph Richardson. I stopped feeling sorry for myself for a second and just watched how magnificent he was. How perfectly, unbearably human. After that I realized I was hungry. Sat at the bar at The Dahlia Café by myself, and flirted with the bartender over a three-course meal. I think she would’ve come back with me if I’d stuck around, but I was just happy to get a good night sleep. That room wasn't big enough for two.
The next day the sun came out. I took a ferry ride to Barrington Island and visited Pike’s Place Market. In a little record shop I found an original copy of David Axelrod’s Songs of Innocence and I bought it. I took it as a sign things were looking up.
The next morning, bright and early, I left Seattle for Vancouver, the train traveling one of the prettiest courses I’ve ever seen in my life, four hours of nearly uninterrupted Pacific coastline, the sun shining blessedly on us all the way. I checked into the Sylvia Hotel, into a funny little old-fashioned room with a big key attached to an even bigger plate. From the minute I arrived Vancouver seemed to smile on me, and I returned the affection. Everywhere I went down Robson street I sensed that the city and its charms put their faith in me and had looked forward to my arrival as a long-expected guest. Museums that usually closed early had magically extended their hours. Bars that normally were business as usual suddenly had four-band bills. Bartenders at restaurants decided to tell me their favorite out of the way haunts. The Canucks hosted their first playoff game in four years and it seemed like everyone on the street was an old friend. And I walked through Stanley Park in the windy sun, stopping to watch raccoon play at a peaceful hidden lake, looking at the snow-peaked crags just beyond on the far side of the water, finally emerging back into the city under a shower of pink cherry blossoms. I stopped at a wooden bench at the edge of the park that looked out onto Robson Street. It was inscribed with a dedication:
To Marie B, Enjoy the trees, the city, the sea. Love, Captain Bill
There was, of course, one thing I had to do. I took a local bus to the famed Zulu Records looking for whatever old Destroyer records I could find. There, a pretty clerk informed me that the lead guitarist on Rubies, Nicolas Bragg, was hanging out in the store. I nervously approached him and we had a long, pleasant chat about the album, about Dan, and about performing in Los Angeles. Dan, he told me, liked Spaceland and Silverlake Lounge. I told him they should try to book the Wiltern sometime. I told him I would look out for them next time they played, and he said they were recording just then in Vancouver. Then we shook hands, and I bought the vinyl copy of Rubies we’re reviewing today.
I’ve never written a review like this before and I probably never will again. Perhaps thankfully so. It doesn’t say anything about the record, but to me, I guess, it kind of says everything. For sure it says enough. There is something in that spectacular confusion of sounds and words, ideas that start and stop and reconfigure and continue, piling up on top of one another in a glorious heap, that feels like that time of treacherous wonder and infinite potential; of enthusiasm, foolishness and quiet, deluding pain. Nicolas Bragg’s guitar line fluttering smoothly like that sea gull I watched in Seattle, glimmering in the rain. It makes you think that after all, there is something courageous in following your bliss. Something transformative and potent. About one year afterwards, I took Sara to see Destroyer tour their newest album, Trouble in Dreams. The show was at the Troubadour. She loved it.