Friday, December 4, 2015

RIP Scott Weiland: or, STP, my brother Pat, and me

Scott Weiland died yesterday. He was forty-eight. Too young. Too close to home. 

I just turned forty-five on November 22nd. Around my birthday, I suddenly had a resurgence of my long-standing obsession with the band Queen, and I started playing their songs over and over whenever I was home. I thought I was just having fun, nostalgic thoughts since I grew up in the 70s with my mom blasting her A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races 8-track tapes while she shimmed around, cleaning the house. It was her "get up and get energized" music. She thought lead singer Freddy Mercury was a woman, having only heard the band on the radio and on her eight-track tapes. I have fond memories dancing around the empty dining room table, singing at the top of my lungs along to "Somebody to Love" while Mom was in the living room tidying up and my siblings and Dad were at school and at work. The music made me feel safe and free.

Then I realized my sudden, resurging obsession with Queen had, sure, a little to do with those fun memories, but it probably also had to do with the headlines bombarding my newsfeed about it being the anniversary of lead singer Freddy Mercury's death on November 24.

Holy shit. I guess I never realized Freddy Mercury was only forty-five when he died. Too young. Too close to home. My age.

My husband Will, our friend Sarah, and I joked around as we toasted to my forty-five years on this planet that I was now "Freddy Mercury's Death Age". It's kind of creepy when you reach the age of your idols when they died. Music fandom is personal. When you listen to a good song it feels like the singer is speaking directly to you. Sometimes directly through you. You and the singer become one. When they go and die on you, it kind of ruins the mood. Especially if their death is tragic. Too young. Avoidable. From an STI to suicide, from drug overdose to liver failure.

My first thought when I read the headline announcing Weiland's death was, "I thought he was already dead. Oh, no, that's Layne Staley. Oh, shit. Pat would be so disappointed in me."

My brother Pat died a few years ago at the age of forty-nine. Too young. Avoidable. Liver failure. He only managed to surpass Freddy Mercury's Death Age by four years. I hate to feel in competition with my brother over something so morbid, but I hope I can beat his score by at least another forty years. Give or take. I don't want to live hard and die young like a rock star. I want to live. Like a mom. Like a wife. Like a librarian. Like me. Period. Not that death scares me, per se. I don't believe in hell, and even if I did, I'm a pretty nice person if that gets you any free passes to the pearly gates. But I don't have time to die right now. There's still shit to do. I feel like Jimmy Carter, my favorite president, the man who was the leader of our country when I was a kid, during the most peaceful time in our nation. I feel like how Carter must have felt like when his doctor told him he has cancer.

Fuck, I can't die. I've got shit to do. People to house. People to love. World to peace. I think I'm more useful on earth than I am in heaven.

Hahaha. Pat would have liked that one. He loved word play. He's the one who introduced me to Tom Robbins and Still Life with Woodpecker and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. It's a rare, beautiful bird who can appreciate a book that takes place on a pack of Camel cigarettes and another book about a cowgirl who was born to hitchhike with an oversized thumb. My brother was that rare bird.

It wasn't just books. While Pat was alive, we bonded over music. We had similar taste. Basically, anything hard or heavy or sharp--especially if it's difficult, moody and complex. Some say you are what you eat. I say you are what music you listen to. When I first heard R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction back when I was in junior high, I walked to the record store and bought the cassette tape with my babysitting money. It was in the "college radio" section of Peaches, a record store that used to sit at the corner of 75th and Metcalf, but which long ago went out of business. I still have one of their old Peaches crates which are just the right size for storing LPs. 

There's now a 24-Hour Fitness and a Dunkin' Donuts in the parking lot where Peaches used to be. I know, right? I wish I could say I'm kidding, Pat. I tell ya. Sometimes life in the suburbs is a joke that writes itself.

During a visit home when I was in junior high, Pat saw my Fables tape in the cassette player and got excited.

"You like R.E.M., Beck?"

"Yeah. They're my new favorite band."

"Mine, too," my big brother Pat said.

He looked proud. That made me feel proud. Somebody gets me. Mom and Dad don't get me. Kids at school don't get me. My big brother Pat gets me.

It should come as no surprise. He molded my music interests. Pat was always playing music when I was a kid. Either himself, on the guitar he taught himself how to play. Or his favorite albums on his turntable. Led Zeppelin. The Who. Joni Mitchell. Pat had bought me my very first album, when I was in first grade. Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul, and Mary. Kinda a little Milquetoast for Pat's taste, but I guess he figured it was a kid-friendly album that would turn me onto other good folk and rock music. Not this Disco Duck shit that was playing on my friends' record players. (Shh! Don't tell Pat, but I actually owned Disco Duck too. It was a Christmas gift from Santa. And I secretly loved it. I was seven. Come on.)

Pat's opinion of my music taste was always important to me. It's a big brother/little sister thing, I'm sure. Pat was nine when I was born. When he was fifteen, our family moved from St. Joseph MO to Kansas City MO. Pat stayed behind and lived briefly with our grandfather, a bachelor who let my brother smoke cigarettes and oversleep rather than going to school. Pat soon moved out and by the age of sixteen he was on his own. It was a hard life. He sold pot at first to pay the rent, but soon he started drinking beer, at first just to be social, but later because it numbed the pain better than pot did. He enjoyed pot, but beer made him bolder. Angrier, yes. But also assertive. Self-confident. The boss of himself. Important things to a young man whose family left him to fend for himself at the age of sixteen.

Pat moved around a lot in the early years, from friends' to friends' couches. Sometimes he was homeless. When he was older and more settled, once he'd met the love of his life, Sharon, who he lived with for the last decade of his life, he'd often bring home homeless people he'd met and let them stay in their basement til they got back on their feet. He said he did this because he knew what it felt like to not have a home. Sometimes, if he'd had too much beer, or if he'd been taking shots of Peach Schnapps or Hot Damn with it, Pat would become angry when someone who'd been in his basement for a month suddenly brings home a dog. Pat would fly into a rage and kick the guy out. He'd keep the dog. He'd just kick out the irresponsible man who had no money to buy food for himself who goes and buys a dog he'll have to somehow find a way to feed, too. Keep the dog, kick out the dude. Pat wasn't a monster. True story.

Pat made his way to New York to live with a friend for a couple of years, then he hitchhiked across the country to Southern California and lived there for a few more years. He finally settled down back in Kansas City, which is where he died. Sharon, the love of his life, had just died of liver failure. He decided to join her. He died three months after she did. Also of liver failure. Pat's last words were, "I'm trying," which he said in response to our brother whispering into his ear, "Go to Sharon."

By the time I was in junior high I saw Pat once every couple of years when he'd hop a train or hitchhike his way back home for a quick visit until he was off on his next adventure. That's what Mom called them. His adventures. Our Mom grew up in the era of "Que Sera, Sera". Mom makes Pollyannas look like a bunch of Debbie Downers.

Pat and I were both terrific music snobs, too. We used to make fun of Mom. "Her music taste is so shallow!" Pat used to joke about pop singers who had Bee Gee's disease, that high-pitched banal sound emanates too often from top-40 stars' mouths. Not the amazing sonic experience that is the voice of singers such as Freddy Mercury, Thom Yorke, Jeff Buckley. Singing at a high pitch isn't what sucks about someone with Bee Gee's disease. Singing with no soul is what sucks. Just singing the same-ole, same ole with dollar signs in your eyes--that's what pissed Pat and me off. Music is art, not a commodity. Music is important. People who treat it as a way to make a fortune are contemptible, Pat and I thought. Pat and I were alternative before alternative was cool.

So naturally, when grunge became a thing in the early 90s, Pat and I felt a bit vindicated in our opinions that music needed more than a good beat, a catchy hook, and a generous sprinkling of cliches. When bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains and Stone Temple Pilots started releasing albums, we bought them and played them and talked about them whenever we got together.

Which wasn't often. I avoided Pat for much of my early adulthood.

Which is too bad, because now he's gone. I wish I'd had the courage to talk to him about deeper subjects than what do you think is the meaning behind the lyric "when the dogs begin to smell her" in STP's "Plush." I wish I'd had the courage to ask him, "Why did you and your friend sexually abuse me when I was five?"

But it never came up. We'd talk about how shallow everyone else in the world was but us, and yet we couldn't bring ourselves to discuss the putrid memories, stagnant between us.

Since Pat died, I can't listen to Stone Temple Pilots without thinking of him. Partly because we were both fans of their music. But so were lots of people. As I grew up I discovered that there were lots of emotionally wrecked people to bond with, to form foundations of support for when it's our turn to crack a little.

One thing I need to put out there. Anniversary dates and memory triggers are inevitable things I have to live with as a person who was sexually abused as a young child. As someone who lives daily with post-traumatic stress disorder. I realize now another connection.

The reason I can't think of Stone Temple Pilots without also thinking of my brother Pat is because of the initials STP. You see, STP is one of my triggers. I remember vividly the clock radio my brother Pat had at his bedside table. The one that was playing songs non-stop. It had an STP sticker on it. An STP sticker like this one: 

I don't recall Pat being a big fan of muscle cars, but for some reason he had this racing sticker on his clock radio. I'd stare at it and it would help focus my attention away from the pain, if only briefly.

Since Pat died, I can't listen to Stone Temple Pilots without thinking of him. Partly because we bonded over their music. Partly because of horrible memories of sexual abuse he inflicted on me.

Since Pat died, I can't listen to Stone Temple Pilots without thinking of him. It's not entirely a bad thing. I love my brother. My brother hurt me. That's the truth and I can live with it. Hopefully for a long, long time.

Since Pat died, I can't listen to Stone Temple Pilots without thinking of him. So today when I read that Scott Weiland died, it made me feel sad. The same sad I felt the day that Pat died.

It helps to not ignore the pain, but to find the source and confront it. It's hard. But I'm trying.