The Swarm

June 15, 2011

Excerpted: The First Chapter of Bob Mould's Autobiography, 'See A Little Light'...

TDS Editors


“You see this button? If I push this button, you’ll be blacklisted from every clothing-​optional resort in Palm Springs!”

I’m not one for vacations. The idea of setting up camp in an idyllic but remote parcel of land – think western Costa Rica or a bay-​view motel in central Florida – doesn’t do it for me. I’m a people watcher. Most days I sit alone or with a companion, the parade of humanity tumbling and unraveling in front of me. I love pedestrian cities with mass transit, town squares for shopping and dining, and coffee shops with free Wi‑Fi. I love the measured and gently oscillating pace of socially progressive, medium-​scale world cities – Amsterdam, San Francisco, Berlin.

Give me a leisurely late morning walk to the Bloemenmarkt for an apple pancake washed down with a double espresso, tempered by a few hits of weed, and I’m on vacation. Give me a seat in the Castro plaza watching the late afternoon fog roll eastward from the Pacific Ocean, over Twin Peaks and into Eureka Valley, and I’m on vacation. Give me a crisp evening stroll down Motzstrase for a takeaway schnitzel, a scoop of ice cream, and an hour of fun at a neighborhood bar, and I’m on vacation.

Since 2005, the Coachella music festival has become one of my annual vacations. Sure, it’s a busman’s holiday, but over the course of thirty years in the music business, I’ve earned not only my keep, but the perennial all-​access wristband and Lot A artist parking that make everything a whole lot easier. The three-​day festival takes place in mid-​April at the polo grounds in Indio, a town twenty-​five miles southeast of Palm Springs, California. In 2009 I was finally playing at Coachella – Saturday, 2:30 pm, Gobi stage. It’s not the main stage, or even the second stage, but the time slot was good – early enough to make a strong impression before people began suffering from sun and/or alcohol poisoning.

Friday morning, Micheal and I flew from Dulles to LAX, rented a car, and drove east on I‑10 to Highway 111, which cuts south to the desert valley. Once in Palm Springs, we stopped at Koffi, a midcentury-​style coffee shop, then at a drugstore for sunscreen, snacks, and a case of bottled water, before finally arriving at our accommodations – a clothing-​optional resort strictly for men. I’d stayed here many times over the years, the most memorable being in 2007 when the local police were called to apprehend a whacked-​out guest who’d destroyed one of the suites. After an evening of hearing this guy yelling and throwing furniture, I woke on Saturday morning to the sight of two Palm Springs Police officers in the courtyard interrogating the guest, who stood naked except for a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses and a poolside chaise recliner cushion he’d fashioned around his torso like a sarong. The police seemed equally perplexed by the fourteen-​inch-​high by twelve-​inch-​round black rubber dildo sitting in the middle of his decimated room like a forlorn fire hydrant.
But I digress. After checking into the resort, we grabbed some fast food and drove to the festival site. Friday’s highlights included Morrissey (cutting his set short due to the smell of grilled sausage wafting from the food tent to the main stage), Leonard Cohen, and the master of the big stage, Paul McCartney. We left before the end of Macca’s set, avoiding the crush of outbound traffic.

From years of loud noise at work, I have tinnitus. In order to sleep, I need a low-​level masking sound – typically the television. Our suite had two televisions, each with a unique remote that required a four-​digit security code in order to work. The bedroom remote wasn’t functioning, so we went to the front desk for assistance. None of the codes they gave us worked, so the TV couldn’t be adjusted by remote. We asked a second time, and nothing they told us helped. It was becoming a hassle.

The next morning we woke up at eight – too early for the free continental buffet staged in the porn library room overlooking the main pool area. We headed to Koffi for a quick jolt, then to Sherman’s Delicatessen for breakfast. Around ten we returned to the resort, where people were beginning to stir – the usual assortment of nude sunbathers, early-​bird day-​pass sex cruisers from LA, and older gentlemen with their (much) younger weekend escorts. I wanted to catch a nap before heading to the festival, but I still couldn’t adjust the volume of the TV from the bed. Micheal went to ask for help at the front desk one more time, at which point I quickly dozed off.

Minutes later I was woken by the sound of Micheal slamming the door to the room and then locking it with both deadbolt and chain. Visibly shaken, he said, “That man out there is crazy. He’s threatening me!” I opened the door to find a wild-​eyed troll yelling, “I’m the manager, and your friend called me an asshole. You’re both out of here in ten minutes or I’m calling the police to have you escorted off my property.” My instinct was to grab him in a front face lock until he was unconscious, but the fact that I had to be onstage in four hours saved his scrawny ass. Rather than argue or reason, we began packing up our stuff. The walk of shame took us from our poolside room, case of water and luggage in tow, past the smirking sunbathers and bagel-​nuzzling septuagenarians, and to the front desk. The young employee who handled the cancellation of the remaining two nights’ room charges had a puzzled and somewhat sad look on his face, as if to say: Yes, he’s out of his mind. But he’s my boss and I need this depressing job, so I can’t help you either.

Once the charges had been removed, I looked at the manager and said, “You know, you’re out of your fucking mind. You see this wristband? This wristband says I’m standing in front of tens of thousands of people today, and you’re stuck here with your drugs and delusions and dog shit by the pool.” The manager rushed to a hockey puck- size object on the desk, raised his hand, and replied, “You see this button? If I push this button, you’ll be blacklisted from every clothing-​optional resort in Palm Springs!” I chortled and spat, “Save it for someone who cares,” then sauntered away with my partner, my dignity, and our case of bottled water.

We checked into a nearby “clothing required” hotel before heading to the festival. Within a few hours of being thrown out of the clothing-​optional resort, I was, in fact, onstage in front of tens of thousands of music fans, blazing through a thirteen-​song, forty-​five-​minute set that encompassed stories from my thirty years of adult life. Not only was I was having a great time entertaining the crowd, but I was also having a hearty internal howl over what had just happened – and the thought of how people would have reacted had I told this particular story onstage.

It was a moment, one of several in the last few years, that showed me how integrated my personal and professional lives had finally become. Clearly, that sunny afternoon on the Coachella stage wasn’t the right time or place to tell that anecdote. But the journey that led me to that place – and to self-​acceptance, wholeness, and freedom – was ripe for the telling. New Day Rising indeed.

As a child, music was my escape. It was my fantasy world. Once I understood the value and meaning of music, I began composing. When I’m creating a new piece of music, I float unconsciously for hours, days, weeks at a time. The words and melodies flow through my brain, body, and soul. Imagine stand‑ ing under the most beautiful waterfall, or in a wonderfully appointed shower, the perfect-​temperature water pouring down over you. The infinite loops of history and harmony blend seamlessly into each other and wash my pain away.

But unlike the escapism of composing music, writing this book was an emotionally taxing process. Even though my life and work have been on public display for many years, I have always been a very private person. My desire for privacy has often bordered on secrecy. The thought of revealing certain aspects of my personal life was hard to reconcile. As time progressed, I found myself losing track of certain memories. It felt like it was time to assemble the key pieces into a narrative. Instead of telling individual anecdotes (the typical memoir), I’m telling my story in order – and by doing so, I can see the patterns. In a way, I’m finally making sense of my life.

When I signed on for this project, I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into. Once the rush from the flattery and vanity of the book deal subsided, I was left with three years of gathering, recounting, examining, reexamining, questioning, and, ultimately, letting go of the past. It wasn’t a jovial journey through my musical history. It’s not a book filled with self-​congratulation, glowing reviews, or tales of high and mighty triumph. It’s my life story, as best I can remember.

Trying to pull memories from the infinite void has not been an easy feat. In looking back at the first fifty years of my life, I was sometimes appalled by my faults. Be it my uncanny ability to cut off friendships and relationships without explanation, my inability to properly process criticism, or my love/hate relationship with blind rage – in writing this book, my flaws became all too clear.

I’ve lost chunks of my life floating in limbo, riddled with anxieties and guilt. On my good days, I am a well-​meaning person. I am generous, supportive, and a good listener. On my bad days, I exhibit the symptoms of someone afflicted with compensatory narcissistic personality disorder. To use a musical metaphor, I don’t understand how I can have perfect pitch but sometimes be so out of tune with my emotions and the world around me.

I tried not to upset or bring shame upon anyone else in writing this book, but there’s no way of telling my story – or of anyone telling their story, for that matter – without running that risk. I would like to apologize in advance to anyone who feels hurt by any part of what I’m about to tell. It is not my intent to make anyone look or feel bad.

There’s no way I can take back the things I’ve done, the life I’ve led. All I can do is take ownership of my failings, ask forgiveness from those I may have hurt through the years, and hope for understanding.

See A Little Light is available now from Little, Brown.


The Most Salacious Revelations from Bob Mould’s New Autobiography, ‘See A Little Light’...

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