It was the last morning he would shower, dress, eat breakfast, and ride in his limousine to the airport. It was the last morning he would fly to whatever town he was scheduled for that night, whatever event, whatever spectacle. It was also the last day he would need to wear his makeup, have his hair treated, look like the person the public had come to both love and despise. It was the last day he would need an afternoon nap waiting for the stage crew to set up the sound system and balance the acoustics.
This was the day he had been planning since they explained what was possible. Nearly twenty years of preparation. The makeup, the outfits, the hair, the cosmetic surgery, even the bizarre behavior – it had all been part of the plan.
Dealing with the secrecy hadn't been easy. He had regrets about the pain his behavior had caused his family over the years. There was no question that the alienation had been too much for anyone to deserve–even with all the glamour and hype and money. But it would all be gone by 11:30 that night.
He'd learned about the word icon the hard way. The jokes, the stories in the tabloids, the cynicism of all the people around him–people he had made rich and who detested him because of their dependence on him–they would all be gone. Being an icon meant giving up being a person. But, then, he had never really been a person, had he? He had been a performer.
He was going to do it all in a way that would knock them dead. They would never forget him. But it meant turning the tables forever on the icon he had become.
Physical expression, representation of ideas, body language–he embodied, simply, the gentle, the boyish, the almost feminine. But the plan was for him to go out as the inexplicable, the dark prince, the crazy shadow puppet. It would be the best practical joke of his life...and the last. To commit suicide on stage in front of thousands of screaming teenagers would be the first time in his life that he performed only for himself. They would, finally, be out of his head.
They had told him about the risks of messing with history. The choice of public suicide was the most dangerous way to accomplish the goal. None of them had ever tried it. Most of them had simply gone quietly and privately. It had been easy. Of course, there had been several murders as well, but those had all used props for the most part -- and perfect timing.
Meditation was required throughout the whole exercise. Great care was essential. If he chose the wrong moment, the technique would fail. The powder would do its job on his body, but there was no way that his mind could sustain what might be up to two weeks of dormancy.
In the end it was decided that a note would create too much closure, or would become too much of an icon in and of itself–even if they made it obtuse and open-ended. Giving any kind of meaning, making any attempt at clarification, regardless of how vague, would keep people questioning what really happened for years to come. The object was to get out of the way, to leave the public’s consciousness, become myth -- and so, to leave the world behind.
The trick, of course, was to work the show up to the level of energy he needed while simultaneously bringing his mind to the right center point. If he didn’t grab the energy from the audience as his mind moved toward nothingness, he really could kill himself. This was the last private thought he would have until he came out of the trance and had made it to the other side. He would go from the frenzied, electronic beat, and sparkling clear auditory sound he had grown to love (possibly the only thing he loved anymore) to silence, and then out the other side. Then back again.
If he was lucky, and all went according to plan, he would be free for the first time in his life to be the artist he had dreamed of becoming with just a few scars in the back of his head where the bullet had passed.
Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?
-Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”
It’s late on a hot June night and Frank Harris has been following gravel roads for over half an hour. With the humidity, the air is lit to a near fog and filled with flying creatures churning in the sudden promise of his rental’s high beams.
Just a quick side trip before checking into his motel – that’s what he’d thought anyway. Although he comes from Philadelphia and has spent most of his life on the East Coast, the Missouri River has always had special significance for him. In fact, it’s the only thing he’s looked forward to since flying out of PHL. It's one thing to make up stories in the conference room, it's another to actually be assigned field work in the middle of America in this day and age.
Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Harris had read stories of Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, and Jesse James traveling through the frontier, moving west using the Missouri as their guide. He’d also read biographies of Mark Twain and his many escapades as a youth on the tributaries to this river. The Missouri was known as the little sibling of the Mississippi. It was a ribbon of water winding through America’s middle, arriving on the eastern edge of its namesake state at Twain’s Big Muddy just outside of St. Louis in St. Charles. Twain had written of the Mississippi as the “gentle sister.” The Missouri, on the other hand, he described as a “savage river descending from its mad career through a vast unknown of barbarism, pouring its turbid floods in the bosom of its gentle sister.” The chaos and violence had always appealed to Harris. He had imagined pirates and brothels in little coves of the Missouri and strange secrets at certain bends and bows where the water flowed calm and deep.
Traveling in his rental car across this rich bottomland, tunneling into the black summer darkness and wondering what exactly he thinks he might find in this lack of light, Harris listens to the local rock station. It is the twenty-first century and they are still playing ‘70s tunes here: old Joe Walsh, Eagles, electric Neil Young, and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
After a while, the Allman Brothers’ Hot ‘Lanta comes on, beginning with Gregg's organ intro and the slow build of Berry's bass along the twin percussion machine of Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johanson. Then the storied dueling guitars of Dickey and Duane take over: the opening reverse dissonant blues run of Dickey’s, and the melodic, background riff-to-chord-to-riff of Duane using his muffled slide. All the while the rat-a-tat percussion of Butch and Jaimoe keeping time and moving the best blues ever played forward down the countless roads of their listeners. For more than forty years, every time Harris hears The Allman Brothers Band it is like he’s never heard them before.
He hears the gravel crunching under the music even in the air-conditioning, until, finally, the quick drum solo, the rhythm of his mind driving down a road in the darkness, understanding there is, somewhere, probably a river to the right, watching the parched ivory, stone-festooned road pour into existence, smoke-hot air, the slowing band playing as one, pounding timpani, the pause, and then the full crescendo ending – kettle drums pounding out a message, perhaps a reminder that not everything is as clear as the listener wants to think it is.
Harris’s memory searches for the next song on the album – Whipping Post – but the female announcer comes on instead saying: “That was the Allman Brothers, recorded live at the Fillmore East in New York in 1971. It's 10:57, hot and sticky – as usual. I'm Sara Hartwood and this is KFRU radio. The news will be coming up right after these announcements. I've got some vintage Woodstock cuts you haven’t heard in years and then we’ll dip into Eric Clapton and Cream. It’s all coming up on the other side of the hour.”
He passes a car parked in the woods, noting three silhouettes and a foggy windshield which makes him think of marijuana smoke and quiet conversation. He'd stopped smoking pot when he graduated from college. Alcohol was more effective. Done in the proper dose, booze actually turned off the mind and gave him snatches of time where his thoughts could almost stop. “
At the top of the hour, officials continue to prepare for what Chief of Administration Robert Wilson of the Columbia Police Department terms – in such a serious tone of authority and I quote: ‘any eventuality.’ With this weird influx of visitors to the region and an invasion of the international media all looking for Mr. Presley himself, hotels and motels throughout central Missouri have actually turned on the NO on their vacancy signs. Booneville and Rocheport-area motor lodges are full for the first time in history. Columbia is about like it would be if both Nebraska and Kansas came to play football against the Tigers on the same weekend.
“We don't know what to make of it here at the station.Wilson and the CPD certainly have their hands full. Personally, I’m getting a little intrigued. This summer marks something like the forty-eighth year since The King died. Maybe the forty-ninth, I don’t know. The latest rumor has it that he was actually at Altamont and caused the whole melee there. I’ve got the tape to prove it. Maybe I’ll play it for you all after midnight. Right now we gotta take a break and earn our keep. Don’t go away. Classic rock heading back atcha in 90 seconds.”
Harris turns the radio off, glad that his boss, Aaron Treestat, has pulled strings and booked him a room in a Columbia motor lodge. The tone in the DJ's voice is interesting, he thinks. No question, there is a strong sense of mockery already at play here. How can anyone in media believe something so cliché and fantastic? And what does it say about this part of the country when Elvis sightings take on the same significance as miraculous healing statues of the Virgin Mary or paintings of Jesus that bleed tears?
Still, if the announcer is playing to listeners with such a tone, it’s likely that those in other parts of the country – readers of his own publication – will pay attention long enough for his work to be somewhat worthwhile. There's still nothing like being a tabloid journalist, using unknowns and half-truths as hooks. In one way it is the lowest form of writing imaginable. Readers don’t care how he reports things, they just want to be titillated a bit – a nice vacation from their mundane, waiting-for-something-big lives. But in another way, Harris feels that his writing is almost poetry because he takes the fantastic and bizarre, the virtually impossible, and makes it real, makes it, in fact, simple and obvious: devil worshipping actors; starlets on eating binges because their famous husbands are having affairs with the equally famous neighbor’s seventeen-year-old au pair; a TV comedian’s love child turning up years later as a closing pitcher for the losing team in the World Series; love letters from JFK unearthed after the death of a mob mistress. It is Harris’s job to make the improbable not only believable but downright commonplace. It's not fake news, it's nighttime reading for people after they've had five beers and masturbated twice, but still can't fall asleep.
Several more cars hulk together at the edge of the umbra of his headlights. Half a mile later, he notes the shadow of trees on the right side of the road has given way to a gaping blackness. He knows without doubt that he is close to the water. He stops, turns off the engine and the lights, and gets out.
Three things make the darkness seem alive: the electronic pulse of insects everywhere; the deep sound of water rolling by with unlimited power; and, finally, the heavy scent of that water in the stale, windless air. It smells like centuries and decay carried by gravity and natural purpose, traveling sediment, catfish, floating trash, human excrement, pesticide runoff, diesel slicks, and the thickness of death.
In the darkness, it all comes to him as a faint taste in the back of the throat, the flavor of emptiness and heat, but also a sweet wholesomeness, like bread only tangy, with a slight aftertaste of sulfur and ammonia.
His vision hovers above the moving water, seeking its dull, inevitable flow. He hears the scree and click of cicadas, grasshoppers, crickets, and locusts. Lighting a cigarette and thinking about the bottle of scotch in his luggage, he feels first drops of sweat trickle down his back. He wonders if he still has what it takes to concoct a story about a place like this. He is certainly out of his element, wandering the night gloom of river bottom country. The Missouri River is indeed a cosmic animal moving into worlds he can only guess at. In the darkness, the river is everything he’s imagined it would be.