From The Tragicall History

For a couple of years, I was the president of a fan club on a proto-internet online service, called Club Cruehead, a board for devotees of the dinglewood hard rock band MÖTLEY CRÜE. The service, Prodigy, limited users to thirty posts and thirty private messages a month. This policy encouraged a scarcity economy, each post scented with relatively pricey stakes. Not one could be wasted on shallow affirmation or extracurricular trolling. There were flurries at the beginning of the month, like the penny slots at the casino on the 1st and 15th, and then careful moderation for the remainder.

I started the group out of my obsession with the Crüe and my sheer loneliness in that affinity. I wasn’t alone online. Dozens, then over a hundred, users “joined” the club, some with recklessly expensive frequency. The group quickly evolved into a social scene only barely tethered to love of the band. Club Cruehead ostensibly convened to acknowledge, celebrate, and collectively praise the work of MÖTLEY CRÜE. Indeed, some threads ranked Mick Mars’s guitar solos and stuff like that. But it quickly became, among other things, a flirty scene for tweens to simulate adult relationships online.

I was in a “lustship” with Dani, a woman a couple years older than me who lived in Columbus, Ohio. When we signed our measured posts on the board each month, we’d remind the group and each other of this reciprocal feeling. Like instead of signing off how I do now (“xoxobb”) I’d write, “BB, lusting after Dani.”

Things progressed rapidly in our fake relationship. And while Dani and I never met, or even saw reliable pictures of each other, or went on dates to the movies, or met each other’s families, or thought about how the other would age, what kind of parent they might be, still we decided to get “married.” We were married online by Shaun, a queer punk teenager in Berkeley who called himself Ping Pong.

I used Prodigy primarily to administer Club Cruehead, publicize my lust for Dani, visit astral projection boards, and try to have “sex,” more or less in that order.

Dani and I talked on the phone on the weekends. She’d tell me about her week. We’d talk about our families and friends, offering each other mythical iterations of our real lives. We gossiped about what we had in common, of course–the cast of Club Cruehead. Who we thought was smart or funny or being too aggressive or being kind of an asshole on the board but maybe they were nice in real life it was really hard to tell. Which Crueheads we thought might be on the verge of lusting, or whose lust felt forced. Our talks ended in expressions of mutual yearning, wishing we were more than voices and typed messages to each other. This is normal for me now, writing distant strangers in the intimate language of close friendship, but unprecedented then. We said “I love you” to each other before we hung up. We never talked about MÖTLEY CRÜE.

I felt something for Dani, something I’m not sure was lust exactly, even though we proclaimed this lust passionately and sincerely. I mean, I never saw a picture of her, the classic pathway to erotic feeling for a person via image. And I never sent her one of me, although she asked me for one many times. I’m guessing much of what we talked on the phone about was true, but I told her a number of extravagant lies. She probably did too I guess? The biggest lie, the most indefensible and yet the most developed and baroque, was that I was the singer in a heavy metal band called LIVING HELL.

My favorite MÖTLEY CRÜE record was Shout at the Devil. The cover shows each unholy member in their own square, like a wildly coiffed and glammed up four-person Brady Bunch. In the top left, bass player Nikki Sixx sports a sort-of devil sign. Sixx looks demonic enough. He’s white, and reinforces that fact by pasting his face with white makeup. He’s wearing ripped leather and wears black eyepaint under his eyes like a cornerback on a sunny gameday. His mouth is open, presumably in the midst of a Satanic yawp. But he’s got the devil sign wrong. His middle finger is bent at the metacarpophalangeal instead of the properly evil carpometacarpal. His thumb is sticking way out from the clenched hand instead of being tucked in front of the folded fingers. Some weird hybrid of Satan and ASL for “I love you.” It’s odd that this typo survived the design process for Shout at the Devil. I mean, the album is called Shout at the Devil.

The title of the record was genius of course. It titillated defiant youth and doubled down on the obscenity by freaking the fuck out of their parents. A search for proper Satanic feeling on the album would be a waste of time. The hits were “Looks That Kill,” a song vaguely about a woman so good looking that her love is fatal and “Too Young to Fall In Love,” an age-based defense of promiscuity. There is a song called “God Bless The Children of the Beast,” but it’s an instrumental written by Mars. Even the title track merely praises the subversive power of hard rock, loosely personified as a creepy half-animal howling outside.

Ping Pong was the first person to tell me about 924 Gilman Street. From where I lived, in a tiny town in rural Missouri, where I could leverage none of the inflated social prestige I earned as president of Club Cruehead, his description of the place seemed purely mythical. A place where kids could go and hear music that wasn’t made by coked-up millionaire fools like the dudes in MÖTLEY CRÜE, making their own lives with each other, collectively manufacturing minor, fragile utopias, putting their bodies together in heat and caffeinated volume. I’d daydream so much about that place, for years, those numbers and the name “Gilman,” as if they had some talismanic meaning. It might as well have been Jupiter.

Of course 924 Gilman is not a heaven and never was.

Later almost all of the places I went to be a punk or a poet became hells too.

Ping Pong and I finally met in person. Shaun works in the city, but was in Berkeley for some meetings and we made plans to have coffee during my lunchbreak at the café in the Berkeley Art Museum. I was nervous. I noticed my finger quiver as I depressed the soft plastic button in the museum’s elevator. When the doors opened, I didn’t know what to expect. It felt like part Tinder date, part confrontation with my entire childhood. I had stalked him online, of course, and knew that he wore his hair short and perpetually had, in pictures anyway, an enviable five o’clock shadow. He spotted me before I saw him. “Prez,” he said, not asking. I turned around and faced him–we both immediately fell into laughter and an embrace.

The hour I spent with him was oddly normal, as if we really were old friends who had been through heaven and hell together, but then one of us moved away, but we kept in touch, and despite the distance we knew each other’s lives, in contour and shape at least. So reuniting takes no effort. Once we’re in each other’s presence there’s an ethereal click and the conversation resumes as if space and time were practical fictions. It was a little like that, just much vaster stretches of time to summarize and no actual physical experience with each other prior.

In fifty minutes, we dispensed with high school, college, graduate school, apartments in San Francisco, parties in Oakland, parties in Berkeley, the job market for graphic designers (pretty good), the job market for poets (lol.) I was in a long relationship, and so was he, now, with an older guy who used to do a queer punk zine I read religiously as a teenager. Of course we reflected on our common past affiliation. We both decided that MÖTLEY CRÜE hadn’t aged well. I didn’t talk to anyone from Club Cruehead anymore, not even my wife. Neither did he. I reiterated my thanks to him for turning me on to so much crucial punk rock when we were kids. We asked each other if we still went to punk shows and said yes sometimes, not as often as I’d like, not as much as I used to. But yes, sometimes. And they ruled.
As we were nearly finished with our time together, he asked me, so what are you listening to these days. Honestly, I said, I have listened to one song on repeat for like three months, “No Tears Left To Cry” by Ariana Grande. He choked on his tea.

“Dude.”

Shaun’s face contorted somewhere between a laugh and a look of sheer shock. I asked him if he was okay. He nodded, his face crimsoning. “Dude,” he said again. “I have the craziest fucking story to tell you.”

This is the story. A few months before, Shaun went to Boca Raton, Florida for a graphic design conference at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. After spending all day fighting the onslaught of ennui, doodling his teenage nickname “Ping Pong” in various scripts and forms of cursive in the flimsy cheap notebooks provided by the conference organizers as a gesture towards swag, Shaun was stir crazy. His coworker Gary turned to him and said, “Hey, some of the other designers are going to this wine bar in a strip mall down the street. Could be good to get fucked up.” Shaun agreed, but demurred, having something else in mind. “I think I’m just gonna hit the sack.” Gary gave him a weird look. It was 4:30 in the afternoon.

Shaun went back up to his room, showered, and put on more comfortable clothes. Sexy cloth shorts that hugged the bottom of his balls and wore the outline of his cock like a caterpillar in a sack. Mesh yellow tank-top, sunglasses. This outfit confirmed for him that he was no longer at work, like smoking a bowl in the late morning. He googled “best gay clubs Boca Raton,” and finally landed on a bar called “Johnson’s.” Ten minutes later, he was outside of the hotel, giddy and ready for the unknown, hoping he wouldn’t run into boring ass Gary and his friends on their way to the wine bar. After what felt like an eternity on the shores of Gehenna—he was in Florida after all—his Lyft came.

Johnson’s was what you would expect, he reflected. Big pink inflated flamingos flanked the bar, the festivity of its décor contrasting with the dim look of the bartender, whose face was a bronzed prune, sunbaked into a burnished tangle of wrinkled skin and breathing holes for his eyes and lips. Shaun ordered a gin and tonic and eased into the bar, scrolling Grindr. A cute guy came in and sat down. Shaun clocked him as maybe five years younger than himself, mid 30s. He noticed that his facial hair was perfectly manicured in posh contrast to the feral carpet covering his own neck and chin. The guy was on the phone. No, he was saying sternly, trying to shout quietly, fuck YOU Sheila.

When he hung up, the handsome stranger turned to Shaun. “My assistant,” he said, knocking back a tequila and gesturing for another in the same movement, “is such a Libra.” Shaun, a Bay Area native, was no stranger to a conversation that started with astrology. They started to talk and the stranger, who finally introduced himself as Frankie (“Frankie? What are you, 9 years old?” Shaun had flirted in response), got progressively drunk and charming. “Boca Raton sucks shit,” he said, “but my condo is nice.” They paid the raisin behind the bar and called a fresh Lyft.

Later, lounging post-coital in Frankie’s king size bed, they chatted. Shaun told Frankie about growing up in Berkeley seeing punk shows. Frankie said “I love punk rock” in a suspiciously hollow monotone. Shaun didn’t think Frankie really looked like someone who loved punk rock but ok. Suddenly Frankie bounced up on the bed, pivoting on his pelvis to look at Shaun’s smooth body. “I may as well tell you, my sister is a famous pop singer.” So far Boca Raton had been fully weird, Shaun told me, laughing again. He wasn’t that surprised. But of course he couldn’t resist asking who it was.

The question led to shame however, when Shaun had to reluctantly admit that he had never heard Ariana Grande’s music. “She’s an amazing singer,” he said, sincerely, “but she is a fucking freak.” Frankie’s choice of word piqued Shaun’s interest. He had the vague recollection of seeing Grande on posters at the BART station, and suddenly recalled a conversation with Michelle where she told him that this little diva doll singer called Ariana Grande had a thing where she would only allow one side of her face to be photographed. Shaun bit his tongue, trying to not ask Frankie to confirm or deny that rumor. Still, what made her a freak, he asked Frankie, looking hard into his eyes.

“She’s a Cancer,” he said, laughing. “She feels everything.” Shaun had met Cancers before, and while he understood the depth of feeling, the stubborn petty vengefulness for acts long past, and the notoriously good cooking Cancers are infamous for, he wanted to hear more. When he suggested to Frankie, an Aquarius, that being a Cancer by itself wasn’t enough to justify the sacred term “freak,” Frankie laughed. “You can’t tell anyone, ok?” “K.” “Okay, you promise?” Frankie squealed, playfully tugging on Shaun’s scrotum, not hard enough to hurt. “I promise!”

Our conversation in the art museum café was the emblem of this promise’s dissolution.

Frankie leapt up, his ample dick leading his momentum to the corner of the bedroom. He brought over a well-kept banker’s box full of papers. “These are some of Ari’s things,” he said. “Just look for yourself.” Having delivered Shaun this box of ephemera, Frankie suddenly announced he was tired. “Babe, it was nice to meet you, but I’m going to take a shower and an Ambien and get some z’s. Stay for a while if you want.” He gave Shaun a tender kiss on the back of the head and staggered off into the spacious bathroom. “I take long showers,” his voice trailed behind him.

Shaun heard water increase in volume from the other room. He wasn’t sure what to do. He had been invited to look, so it wasn’t exactly snooping. But would it be weird if Frankie came back and Shaun was just sitting there, naked, engrossed in a box full of his sister’s things? Maybe I’ll just take a little peek, he thought. Opening the box, Shaun was startled to find a bunch of books, jewelry, incense, a couple of tarot decks. Hippie new age paraphernalia wasn’t new to Shaun, but this was an impressive collection for a teenager from Boca Raton who had become hugely famous so young. The materials absorbed him, so much he didn’t hear the water shut down in the other room or hear Frankie come back in the room. He flinched at his touch while stroking through a copy of Paul Huson’s classic Mastering Witchcraft.

“Oh that,” Frankie said, the Ambien already layering a thin gauze over his enunciation. “That’s Ari’s favorite book.” Shaun told me he leafed through it a little and found her marginalia, written in a hand he could instantly tell was pretty young. After all, Shaun had extensively studied fonts and scripts, both artificial and manual, in his training as a graphic designer. He noted with amusement that Grande dotted her minuscule “i”s with a little heart. When Frankie went back to the bathroom for final ablutions, Shaun snapped a quick picture with his phone, which he texted me later. It showed a page of Huson’s book about conjuring assistants from the etheric worlds. Ariana had written “the devil” with floating hearts and a wavy underline beneath the two sigils for Flauros and Horus.

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Brandon Brown

Brandon Brown’s most recent book is The Four Seasons (Wonder). He is a regular contributor to Art in America, and work has appeared recently in Open Space, Frieze, New American Writing, and Berkeley Poetry Review. He is an editor at Krupskaya and publishes a zine called PANDAS FRIEND. He lives in El Cerrito, California.