A waiter comes to take our order. Vanessa orders a salad; I order a beer. Vanessa flips through a Moleskine notebook. “I know we’re supposed to be talking about BloodSuckerSunshine . . .” she begins.
Immediately, I frown. That’s exactly what we’re supposed to be talking about. That’s why I’m here. Not to be friends. Not to swap secrets, but because it’s part of my job to promote Shooting Star’s albums.
Vanessa turns on her siren. “I’ve been listening to it for weeks, and I’m a fickle, hard-to-please girl.” She laughs. In the distance, I hear Aldous clear his throat. I look at him. He’s wearing a giant fake smile and giving me a thumbs-up. He looks ludicrous. I turn to Vanessa and force myself to smile back. “But now that your second major-label album is out and your harder sound is, I think we can all agree, established, I’m wanting to write a definitive survey. To chart your evolution from emocore band to the scions of agita-rock.”
Scions of agita-rock? This self-important wankjob deconstructionist crap was something that really threw me in the beginning. As far as I was concerned, I wrote songs: chords and beats and lyrics, verses and bridges and hooks. But then, as we got bigger, people began to dissect the songs, like a frog from biology class until there was nothing left but guts—tiny parts, so much less than the sum.
I roll my eyes slightly, but Vanessa’s focused on her notes. “I was listening to some bootlegs of your really early stuff. It’s so poppy, almost sweet comparatively. And I’ve been reading everything ever written about you guys, every blog post, every ’zine article. And almost everyone refers to this so-called Shooting Star “black hole,” but no one really ever penetrates it. You have your little indie release; it does well; you were poised for the big leagues, but then this lag. Rumors were that you’d broken up. And then comes Collateral Damage. And pow.” Vanessa mimes an explosion coming out of her closed fists.
It’s a dramatic gesture, but not entirely off base. Collateral Damage came out two years ago, and within a month of its release, the single “Animate” had broken onto the national charts and gone viral. We used to joke you couldn’t listen to the radio for longer than an hour without hearing it. Then “Bridge” catapulted onto the charts, and soon after the entire album was climbing to the number-one album slot on iTunes, which in turn made every Walmart in the country stock it, and soon it was bumping Lady Gaga off the number-one spot on the Billboard charts. For a while it seemed like the album was loaded onto the iPod of every person between the ages of twelve and twenty-four. Within a matter of months, our half-forgotten Oregon band was on the cover of Time magazine being touted as “The Millennials’ Nirvana.”
But none of this is news. It had all been documented, over and over again, ad nauseam, including in Shuffle. I’m not sure where Vanessa is going with it.
“You know, everyone seems to attribute the harder sound to the fact that Gus Allen produced Collateral Damage.”
“Right,” I say. “Gus likes to rock.”
Vanessa takes a sip of water. I can hear her tongue ring click. “But Gus didn’t write those lyrics, which are the foundation for all that oomph. You did. All that raw power and emotion. It’s like Collateral Damage is the angriest album of the decade.”
“And to think, we were going for the happiest.”
Vanessa looks up at me, narrows her eyes. “I meant it as a compliment. It was very cathartic for a lot of people, myself included. And that’s my point. Everyone knows something went down during your ‘black hole.’ It’s going to come out eventually, so why not control the message? Who does the ‘collateral damage’ refer to?” she asks, making air quotes. “What happened with you guys? With you?”
Our waiter delivers Vanessa’s salad. I order a second beer and don’t answer her question. I don’t say anything, just keep my eyes cast downward. Because Vanessa’s right about one thing. We do control the message. In the early days, we got asked this question all the time, but we just kept the answers vague: took a while to find our sound, to write our songs. But now the band’s big enough that our publicists issue a list of no-go topics to reporters: Liz and Sarah’s relationship, mine and Bryn’s, Mike’s former drug problems—and the Shooting Star’s “black hole.” But Vanessa apparently didn’t get the memo. I glance over at Aldous for some help, but he’s in deep conversation with the bartender. So much for backup.
“The title refers to war,” I say. “We’ve explained that before.”
“Right,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Because your lyrics are so political.”
Vanessa stares at me with those big baby blues. This is a reporter’s technique: create an awkward silence and wait for your subject to fill it in with babble. It won’t work with me, though. I can outstare anyone.
Vanessa’s eyes suddenly go cold and hard. She abruptly puts her breezy, flirty personality on the back burner and stares at me with hard ambition. She looks hungry, but it’s an improvement because at least she’s being herself. “What happened, Adam? I know there’s a story there, the story of Shooting Star, and I’m going to be the one to tell it. What turned this indie-pop band into a primal rock phenomenon?”
I feel a cold hard fist in my stomach. “Life happened. And it took us a while to write the new stuff—”
“Took you a while,” Vanessa interrupts. “You wrote both the recent albums.”
I just shrug.
“Come on, Adam! Collateral Damage is your record. It’s a masterpiece. You should be proud of it. And I just know the story behind it, behind your band, is your story, too. A huge shift like this, from collaborative indie quartet to star-driven emotional punk powerhouse—it’s all on you. I mean you alone were the one up at the Grammys accepting the award for Best Song. What did that feel like?”
Like shit. “In case you forgot, the whole band won Best New Artist. And that was more than a year ago.”
She nods. “Look, I’m not trying to diss anybody or reopen wounds. I’m just trying to understand the shift. In sound. In lyrics. In band dynamics.” She gives me a knowing look. “All signs point to you being the catalyst.”
“There’s no catalyst. We just tinkered with our sound. Happens all the time. Like Dylan going electric. Like Liz Phair going commercial. But people tend to freak out when something diverges from their expectations.”
“I just know there’s something more to it,” Vanessa continues, pushing forward against the table so hard that it shoves into my gut and I have to physically push it back.
“Well, you’ve obviously got your theory, so don’t let the truth get in the way.”
Her eyes flash for a quick second and I think I’ve pissed her off, but then she puts her hands up. Her nails are bitten down. “Actually, you want to know my theory?” she drawls.
Not particularly. “Lay it on me.”
“I talked to some people you went to high school with.”
I feel my entire body freeze up, soft matter hardening into lead. It takes extreme concentration to lift the glass to my lips and pretend to take a sip.
“I didn’t realize that you went to the same high school as Mia Hall,” she says lightly. “You know her? The cellist? She’s starting to get a lot of buzz in that world. Or whatever the equivalent of buzz is in classical music. Perhaps hum.”
The glass shakes in my hand. I have to use my other hand to help lower it to the table to keep from spilling all over myself. All the people who really know what actually had happened back then aren’t talking, I remind myself. Rumors, even true ones, are like flames: Stifle the oxygen and they sputter and die.
“Our high school had a good arts program. It was kind of a breeding ground for musicians,” I explain.
“That makes sense,” Vanessa says, nodding. “There’s a vague rumor that you and Mia were a couple in high school. Which was funny because I’d never read about it anywhere and it certainly seems noteworthy.”
An image of Mia flashes before my eyes. Seventeen years old, those dark eyes full of love, intensity, fear, music, sex, magic, grief. Her freezing hands. My own freezing hands, now still grasping the glass of ice water.
“It would be noteworthy if it were true,” I say, forcing my voice into an even tone. I take another gulp of water and signal the waiter for another beer. It’s my third, the dessert course of my liquid lunch.
“So it’s not?” She sounds skeptical.
“Wishful thinking,” I reply. “We knew each other casually from school.”
“Yeah, I couldn’t get anyone who really knew either of you to corroborate it. But then I got a hold of an old yearbook and there’s a sweet shot of the two of you. You look pretty coupley. The thing is, there’s no name with the photo, just a caption. So unless you know what Mia looks like, you might miss it.”
Thank you, Kim Schein: Mia’s best friend, yearbook queen, paparazzo. We hadn’t wanted that picture used, but Kim had snuck it in by not listing our names with it, just that stupid nickname.
“Groovy and the Geek?” Vanessa asks. “You guys even had a handle.”
“You’re using high school yearbooks as your source? What next? Wikipedia?”
“You’re hardly a reliable source. You said you knew each other ‘casually.’”
“Look, the truth is we maybe hooked up for a few weeks, right when those pictures got taken. But, hey, I dated a lot of girls in high school.” I give her my best playboy smirk.
“So you haven’t seen her since school then?”
“Not since she left for college,” I say. That part, at least, is true.
“So how come when I interviewed the rest of your bandmates, they went all no comment when I asked about her?” she asks, eyeing me hard.
Because whatever else has gone wrong with us, we’re still loyal. About that. I force myself to speak out loud: “Because there’s nothing to tell. I think people like you like the sitcom aspect of, you know, two well-known musicians from the same high school being a couple.”
“People like me?” Vanessa asks.
Vultures. Bloodsuckers. Soul-stealers. “Reporters,” I say. “You’re fond of fairy tales.”
“Well, who isn’t?” Vanessa says. “Although that woman’s life has been anything but a fairy tale. She lost her whole family in a car crash.”
Vanessa mock shudders the way you do when you talk about someone’s misfortunes that have nothing to do with you, that don’t touch you, and never will. I’ve never hit a woman in my life, but for one minute I want to punch her in the face, give her a taste of the pain she’s so casually describing. But I hold it together and she carries on, clueless. “Speaking of fairy tales, are you and Bryn Shraeder having a baby? I keep seeing her in all the tabloids’ bump watches.”
“No,” I reply. “Not that I know of.” I’m damn sure Vanessa knows that Bryn is off-limits, but if talking about Bryn’s supposed pregnancy will distract her, then I’ll do it.
“Not that you know of? You’re still together, right?”
God, the hunger in her eyes. For all her talk of writing definitive surveys, for all her investigative skills, she’s no different from all the other hack journalists and stalker photographers, dying to be the first to deliver a big scoop, either on a birth: Is It Twins for Adam and Bryn? Or a death: Bryn Tells Her Wilde Man: “It’s Quits!” Neither story is true, but some weeks I see both of them on the covers of different gossip rags at the same time.
I think of the house in L.A. that Bryn and I share. Or coinhabit. I can’t remember the last time the two of us were there together at the same time for more than a week. She makes two, three films a year, and she just started her own production company. So between shooting and promoting her films and chasing down properties to produce, and me being in the studio and on tour, we seem to be on opposing schedules.
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