Now Harry Hawkes had joined Orson Hannigan, our handsome drummer who’d died romantically at twenty-six, only I and Freddy Oberon, the inaccessible “Beast,” are left—that is, if our old lead singer hasn’t become terminally inaccessible.
“Were you and Harry in touch in recent years?”
“You mean Christmas cards? Birthday greetings?”
“Well, sure—or maybe more than that.”
“We did see each other about three years ago. Mostly, as I remember it, we just nursed our beers and laughed. It was nice.”
“So. . . no thoughts of a reunion concert, or maybe even some new songs, a new album?”
“Why? Because there are people all over the world who love your stuff, think more of it than the flag or their mothers. They’d have paid for a reunion tour. They still haven’t gotten over the breakup.”
“Is that the way you feel?”
“Band of Brothers was more important than your own mother? Really?”
“It sure was back then. I was at the age when it was embarrassing just to have a mother.
Yeah, back then you were that important to me. But look, I’m not here as a fan; I’m a reporter, a sort of involved narrator.”
“And what were you back then, when we were bigger than Mom—thirteen, fourteen?”
“A little older than that. It was like you channeled me, you know?”
“Ever occur to you that it was the other way around?”
After thirteen books of verse, six prizes, a Guggenheim, three honorary degrees, a term as state laureate, five visiting professorships, and a positive profile in The New Yorker, you might think I’d be free of those three years at the start of my twenties. Hardly. It doesn’t matter what I achieve in the way of respectable poetry-writing, of depth or complexity or elegance. I’ll always be the bassist of Band of Brothers, that group of apparently indelible notoriety and fame. My name will always be linked not just to the band’s but also to Harry Hawkes’ (né Halberstein) because both are on the songs, those collaborations that won’t go away, like some hardened sugary residue clogging up a garbage disposal, those songs that I hear played by violins or introduced as classics, those songs people like more than anything I’ve done since or ever will do.
I could have refused the interview but didn’t. I’m not sure why. Maybe I was just sad about Harry, sentimental, recalling a lot of things I really didn’t want to remember.
“Anyway, now that Harry’s gone and Orson too and nobody can find the Beast, maybe you could tell about the breakup.”
“Tell what? We broke up. Went our ways. What’s to tell?”
“Sure, sure. But why. I mean there’s never been anything you could call an official story. It’s like when the doctors give a dozen diagnoses. You must know the rumors.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does to your fans.”
“You mean like you?”
“Yeah, sure. Why not? Like me.”
Male poets have their groupies too, I thought of saying. They come to readings; they don’t toss underwear but their own, intimate verses. They’ll tell you how you inspired, what you’ve meant to them; but what they really want is for you to read their stuff, praise it, and get it published. They’re not numerous or much fun and every one of them writes poems (on the evidence, many write more than they read); whereas the groupies of old hadn’t a thought of going on the stage themselves. They were lost souls and earnest hedonists, collectors who didn’t crave the limelight, only to stand in the shadows just beyond. B of B’s music fueled sex and vice versa; for me, poetry sucks up what’s left of that kind of energy and desire. Celibacy comes easy now. At some point, it became natural.
“Didn’t you—you know?”
“Miss it. The guys, the touring, the girls? Don’t you miss Harry, at least? I mean, what the two of you put out in such a short time, it’s still amazing, like unmatched, so far as I’m concerned.”
“It was a long time ago.”
“Yeah, back in the Renaissance.”
The breakup was one thing but we made it seem like a lot of things. The truth was that we simply didn’t want to do it anymore, none of us. But we couldn’t say it, not just like that. So, we gave other reasons to one another and also to ourselves. Orson whined that he just wasn’t having fun anymore. He had a serious girlfriend, a financial analyst. Our lawyer had introduced them. He said he wanted to marry her and, as he put it, “try the bourgeois thing.” It was our success the Beast said he couldn’t stand, the meaningless adulation; he groused that we’d become mainstream and our fame was as phony as a studio album. And there was something more. At 295 pounds, he needed to lose weight, sleep regularly, get off the road, live healthy and—his doctor warned him—save his life. As for Harry, he blew up and said he’d had it with Freddy’s inauthentic fetishizing of authenticity. He hinted he was ready to go out on his own, that he already had his own agent, a contract under negotiation. Me? I found out I didn’t want to go on being a rock star; I wanted to be just what I’ve become, a thoughtful fellow in a cardigan who tries to write one good poem every week.
“Harry never made it on his own.”
“Not like you.”
“That’s practically a contradiction in terms.”
“If you say so.”
Like a struck bulb or a burning ship
lighting the sea that swallows it up,
we were a hit, a chart-busting blip,
swollen libidos bursting to erupt.
But those incandescent songs weren’t made
between tokes and snorts of coke; I’m afraid
they came from bouts of heavy work between
cigarettes and cheap gin that made us mean.
Now death summons this balding interviewer
who wants to conjure glamour and groupies,
fights, insults, that broken arm, the lost tooth,
those shrieking girls—the whole rock star story—
convinced the songs of our youth
lit the days of his glory.
And that will be this week’s poem. Good? Bad? A matter of opinion. Once upon a time, I’d care what somebody else thought; no longer. Now all I think is that, whether an editor likes it or not, it’s the same words in the same order.
Perhaps I’ve gotten it all wrong about what’s important, what’s lasting. I get a vote on the former, not the latter. People tend to overestimate what they’ve done on their own, make too little of what they do with others—or, in my case, what I did with three other raw youths. Even if anybody reads this poem—another of my weak, weekly efforts—even if they like it, I’m sure they’ll forget it in an hour, while “Purple Cowgirls,” “Sedgwick Street,” and “Beating a Dead Horse” are liable to go on rattling around the memory banks of adolescents on Medicare until the last of the last of them let go their final breath.