“[T]he momentum that drives a subculture is more important than any particular band. The momentum is made of all the people who stay interested, and keep their sense of urgency and hope.”
– Jesse Michaels, Energy (1991 reissue) liner notes
I first discovered Jesse Michaels after my middle school’s annual crawfish boil (March, 1995), confetti from cracked eggs plastered to my sweat-streaked face while I browsed records at The Mushroom, a second floor head shop and nominal record store servicing the Conversed, Birkenstocked, and Doc Martensed youth of uptown New Orleans. This is where I spent most Saturdays in the ‘90s; where I haphazardly traded my lawn mowing money for Mudhoney’s My Brother The Cow on vinyl (I didn’t have a record player); for Better than Ezra, because my art teacher’s son was in the band; for a chance to meet Cyprus Hill at a Temples of Boom signing.
Unlike B-Real and DJ Muggs, I didn’t actually meet Jesse – but I did spend a few hours deciding between Operation Ivy’s Energy (the ska-punk pioneer’s only full-length album) and their corresponding shirt, carrying both with me as I flipped through an endless collection of curling black light posters; fingering the dampening bills in my pocket as the Red Hot Chili Peppers crunched through half-blown speakers overhead (“I’m forever near a stereo saying, ‘What the fuck is this garbage?’ And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers.” – Nick Cave).
In Spy Rock Memories (Don Giovanni, 2013), Lookout Records founder Larry Livermore recounts having to “coax the cover art out of Jesse, [Operation Ivy’s] gifted but mercurial singer.” For me, the art came first. That faceless, broad-stroked silhouette of Operation Ivy’s now-iconic mascot breaking through a screen of cryptic, claustrophobically fine line-drawings felt not unlike a split second of clarity; an ineffable something to strive toward. So I bought the shirt in extra large, the only size The Mushroom seemed to stock.
Back in my bedroom – after safety-pinning the rough-cut spoils to my green Army Navy rucksack – I stayed up past midnight, when Tulane’s radio station played by looser rules, and called to request a track. By 1996 – just a year later – I was facing expulsion from a creative writing sleepaway camp to which I’d only brought two cassettes: Energy and one I’d prefer not to mention, a 7th grade misstep. I’d helped a fellow nerd shave his much admired curls into a solid six-inch mohawk. The faculty, shocked, said I could have hit a vein; that I’d shaved too close to his skin.
In a 2006 journal entry, I describe the decade that followed by invoking “the Operation Ivy overdub I carried for six years like a ska-punk pacemaker.” This is only a very slight exaggeration: after the shirt, then the CD, I made a series of tapes – first for a generic Radio Shack cassette player and then, after a particularly gratifying birthday, a much-loved gray and yellow Walkman. A series – not one. I didn’t listen to Energy so much as outlive it.
In short, I got – by chance and by design – “into punk,” my working definition of which was essentially Jesse Michaels, Operation Ivy’s enigmatic lead singer. OpIvy had broken up seven years before I found them, and my information in 1995-96 was primarily based on schoolyard rumor: Jesse was part of the best punk band that ever existed and then dropped out. He’d become a monk in Tibet, or Nicaragua (accounts varied). He, unlike the rest of the leering pantheon, was light-boned and esoteric. Non-threatening. Smart. I’d heard that his dad was a famous writer or something.
The rest of the band – I had it on authority – had gone on to form Rancid without Jesse, who was busy becoming bodhisattva on a mountaintop, so I refused to buy their albums. Coincidentally, my first real fight was around this time with a boy who wore Rancid’s …And Out Come The Wolves shirt most days of the week. As it degenerated into choke holds and tearful purple nurples, it was his shirt I was twisting as much as his chest. A few years later (as a junior in high school), I caught the first half of a Rancid set despite my boycott. Straining to hear them over Sum 41, who were clashing chords on an adjacent stage, I recall feeling thankful that Jesse hadn’t been diminished by the sweltering burlesque of my first and last Warped Tour.
I had an idea that Jesse Michaels was my hero, and – had history progressed a little differently – could have been a friend. This, in psychology, is called a “parasocial interaction,” and – as the internet grew into a constant presence – I realized that I had to take a few precautions to keep my pathology safe. I’d started going to shows pretty regularly and had met other “punk rock elders” – and, as with meeting anyone you admire, walked away feeling disillusioned.
* * *
After a few such run-ins over the next decade of punk rock shows, I’d started making a conscious effort to get into what was then popularly known as Indie rock. The Smoking Popes led to Robert Pollard, then Belle and Sebastian, and then a series of bands best categorized as “adult contemporary”. Somewhere along the way I started buying the CD before the t-shirt, and then – at a certain point – the bands stopped having shirts. I started collecting vinyl.
Later, in graduate school, jazz would start figuring into my daily rotations.
I kept listening to Energy at least once every few months — but it was sepia-toned; something that had once been incredibly important to me. Still, Energy was one of a handful of albums I gave to my now-wife Rachel in 2008 when I was testing the waters. If she could handle “Knowledge,” I knew we could make it. To my actual, non-figurative horror, she already knew all the words from a Green Day cover (1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours); she saved the relationship by preferring Jesse’s version.
A few jobs into my relationship with Rachel – while working for a paperback publishing house in New York – I decided to power through a particularly quiet summer afternoon by listening to Energy on loop. It was in the midst of this office fugue that I finally broke down and googled “Jesse Michaels.” After some furtive digging, mostly through the same schoolyard rumours I was hearing in the ‘90s, I found an mp3 of Jesse reading a short story at Litquake (“San Francisco’s Literary Festival”). The voice was recognizable – barely; he’d been eighteen and shouting in Operation Ivy – but the story: it wasn’t punk at all. The link has slipped back into the ether, but from what I can remember, it was a well-observed send-up of west coast yoga culture.
There may have been a sushi date. It could have been someone else’s story he was reading.
I played it a few times, listening for clues. He didn’t sound particularly monkish, but in the years since Operation Ivy, Jesse and I had both gotten into books. And, amazingly, Literary Jesse was still someone I could respect; a parallel universe friend. The internet hadn’t ruined him for me after all.
In fact, I liked him more.
* * *
The idea of the “literary punk,” while sustaining me through the series of career-based compromises I’d made since graduating from college, was suffering in 2011. The zines of my other high school heroes hadn’t aged well and I’d started wearing blue button down shirts. My job at the time was a far cry from my first bookish job on the extreme fringes of publishing: quality controlling microfilms of Victorian newspapers for my undergraduate library’s preservation department.
I had dyed black liberty spikes then, which I cemented into shape every week or so with Knox gelatin “the consistency of snot” (on the instruction of local crusties). My boss called me tiburón – Spanish for shark – and lent me boxes of Daredevil comic books. The only way I survived my three-hour shifts was with punk rock CDs – Against Me!’s Reinventing Axl Rose came close to eclipsing Energy that year – and the vague idea that this was the closest I’d ever get to “office work”.
It could be demoralizing, recalling those days from the Excel-induced ennui of my nineteenth floor desk… but Jesse – he’d grown up into a literary young man, too, and he was still, in the parlance of my youth, punk as fuck.
Even better, I found out he had a new band, Classics of Love. I’d missed a few of his other bands during the internet blackout between Operation Ivy and Classics (I’d assumed he was building wells in Gambia) – but I wouldn’t have to wait long to catch up. Classics of Love was playing their first East Coast tour in March 2012, and I bought tickets for me and Rachel to see them at our neighborhood sweat lodge, Death by Audio (“This is the shittiest place you’ll ever go to.” – Valerie V., Yelp, 4 Stars).
Expecting Rancid-at-Warped-Tour size crowds, we got to the show a few hours early – so early that it was just us, the bands, and the kids working the show – and I spent the first hour-or-so staring. A lifetime of punk rock hadn’t prepared me for caring about celebrity; the eighteen-year-old scenesters shooting the breeze with him so casually – they didn’t have an appreciation for History. When Rachel, an ex-publicist, pulled me over to make introductions, I literally dragged my heels. There’s a picture of us, me and Jesse, that Rachel took in that moment of introduction. I look crazed: blushing, my mouth just the tiniest bit slack.
The red eye doesn’t help.
“So, you’re a writer,” is what I remember Rachel saying, her voice not cracking like mine had when I’d said hello. Jesse, amazingly, answered that he’d just parted ways with his current literary representation. I was too busy aligning stars to have taken an active role in this conversation, but it ended with Rachel giving Jesse her card and asking him to send her his manuscript. It was going to be the best book, I knew, as Rachel recounted their conversation for me again after the show, and Rachel was going to sell it.
* * *
There were complications, of course.
For starters, Jesse lost Rachel’s card on tour.
We didn’t know that then, though. We also didn’t know that, in the interim, without an agent, Jesse had started thinking about going the DIY route and, like any good punk, publishing it himself. Without knowing this, I was working under the assumption that I’d weirded him out with my awkward, red-eyed energy. In retrospect, this makes my contacting him on Facebook – Jesse Michaels on Facebook! – seem like a strange escalation. But, months after our initial meeting, he was genuinely happy to hear from me. That same day, he emailed Rachel his manuscript; she read in an afternoon, laughing and shouting out lines to me while I sat nervously in another room.
“I’m going to be really mad if I don’t get this,” she finally said, the manuscript strewn sloppily across the living room floor. “You have to read it.”
Even though Jesse’s book had been the leitmotif of a hundred conversations since we’d found out it existed, I couldn’t bring myself to start it. A video had surfaced from the Death by Audio show, and photos. I’d been documented “skanking in the pit” and looked ridiculous – indistinguishable from my thirteen-year-old self: goofy smile, elbows to ears. For all my enthusiasm about Literary Jesse, I wasn’t ready to trade my twenty-year history with Operation Ivy for Whispering Bodies, a novel Rachel didn’t yet represent.
Meanwhile, I started a new job at the venerable publisher of Leonard Michaels, Jesse’s late father. I saw him every day those first weeks, staring down at me from a row of black and white photos lining the walls. “He so much like his dad,” I remember thinking, startled by the intensity of Leonard’s gaze and by the thought itself, which was uncharacteristic; embarrassing. Even though it felt like a sign, I was too close. When I learned about the freight elevator at the back of the building and was able to bypass the elder Michaels, who I decided not to read (despite a row of recently re-released Collected Stories I’d inherited on my office bookshelf), it was a relief.
Rachel continued to be in touch with Jesse, and ultimately, after a series of phone calls – phone calls! – they decided to make their agent/author relationship official. Having stepped purposefully back from the precipice of fandom, I refused to be impressed – but still, there was something literally amazing about my wife shooting the breeze with Jesse like it was no big deal. As in: “overwhelming wonder.” I started taking the front entrance at work again, smiling at Leonard as I passed. But I was still reluctant to read Whispering Bodies.
While I liked Literary Jesse as an idea – a punk-lit security blanket to clutch tightly around my shoulders as my relationship with literature became increasingly professionalized – Debut Author Jesse was less mythologizable, and I wasn’t ready to trade in my revitalized role model for authorial reality. I bought time by telling Rachel I’d read his book in galleys, but as she shopped it around, I knew my days of anxious avoidance were numbered. When Whispering Bodies sold to Berkeley’s Soft Skull Press (an appropriate home for Jesse given his Gilman St. roots), it was time to face the music.
With Rachel’s early agent’s copies of Jesse’s novel, though, came tangible proof of her own heroism – something I hadn’t accounted for in my mytho-anxiety. My pantheon shifted, making room, as I settled into the comfortable end of our scratched yellow couch with Whispering Bodies (where Rachel first read it in manuscript form). It begins with a trolling, so I read hesitantly at first – cautious of the overarching trolling that is Life – but soon started laughing and shouting out lines Rachel said she had forgotten in the months since she’d last read it. Later, she’d tell me that she was as nervous that night as I’d been since the Classics of Love show; the book was so unrelated to the Jesse I’d grown up with that she thought I might not like it.
She was partly right.
Whispering Bodies is not a punk rock book in that the punk rock lifestyle is not one of its concerns. Aaron Cometbus, in other words, it is not. It is a punk book, however, in the same way Donald Antrim is punk – that is, it’s distinctively and unapologetically written from outside, and in opposition to, what the black blockers at Crimethinc. might call “our dominant culture.” Like Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, the overarching theme of Whispering Bodies is the insanity of the lived experience (a recognizably punk sentiment) – but where Antrim skews dark, Jesse finds light. There’s a pleasure to “The Pounding” – protagonist Roy Belkin’s shorthand for the oppressive world at large; a sneering optimism to Antrim’s winking cynicism.
Roy isn’t clever enough to be one of Antrim’s characters, though, and it’s in his shortcomings that he really shines. He has – as his lunatic ontologies are pitted against equally ridiculous external realities – a bit of John Kennedy Toole’s bumbling Ignatius Reilly about him. Which isn’t entirely fair to Roy, a far more likable character. While Ignatius coasts through A Confederacy of Dunces on arcane self-justification and Madame Fortuna’s spinning wheel, chaos in his wake, Roy has chaos imposed on him. His lunacy is in trying to confront it.
This is, as the subtitle states, “A Roy Belkin Disaster.” Whether Roy’s suffering through a self-imposed 24-hour bath with life-or-death stakes (“The Promethius Vow”) or furiously dancing, nude, for a pansexual crime scene photographer, there’s agency here – an attempt to right the sinking ship of a society gone mad. He’s an outsider for outsiders, heroic on the fringes.
As Jesse Michaels has been for me all these years.
Those who feel similarly may find echoes of their own experiences throughout the book, and both fans of both literary fiction and Operation Ivy will certainly recognize this Jesse – Debut Author Jesse – as their own.