The Edge of the Known – Book One
Here are Brandon Chane’s humble beginnings, as he nurses the wounds of a troubled childhood and adolescence in a musty basement room and tries to transform his pain into hope and empowerment through the magic alchemy of music.
He is a misfit, outcast and doomed visionary – or at least he believes himself to be these things. Perhaps in time his mentor, Saul Mason, can teach Brandon how to see through his old limiting beliefs and embrace a much wider vision of himself.
In the meantime, he is lost and suffering – and scarcely able to even conceive of how far-reaching his impact may someday prove to be…
Chapter One: The Edge of the Precipice
I suppose you could compare it to driving on a high mountain road. You don’t realize how close you are to free-fall, or how sheer and far is the plunge, until you go around a bend where one side is exposed to open air and then there it is: The Abyss.
There’s this edge that you can come to – I imagine it’s a different place for each of us – and you just know that once you get swept over it you won’t be coming back. By the time you’re close enough to see it it may already be too late. You could find yourself teetering, suddenly hearing the warnings that life had been giving you all along, knowing that it’s become impossible to step back; because by that time, those other forces – the ones pounding like the rapids at your back, always trying to push you towards that edge and then over it – have grown too strong.
Tommy and I first talked about forming a band together before either of us had learned to play an instrument. We both perceived music – particularly, its heavy, extreme underside – as the ideal vehicle for our personal salvation. The first guitar that I purchased, a Fender Telecaster that I immediately spray painted black to my father’s horror, became my refuge. It was my best friend and confidante. It gave me a convenient excuse to avoid social situations that, more often than not, would only remind me of how far off the beaten path I really was – and, oftentimes, land me in one merciless scrap or another. Instead, I could just sit in my basement room for hours, listening to my various hardcore underground cassettes while trying to trace the riffs I was hearing along the frets of my charcoal-colored axe.
That’s how I learned to play so well within just a handful of years. I gave up on the romanticized notion of a normal social life and focused on practicing and creating. Tommy, meanwhile, had picked up the bass. Somewhere along the line we discovered that we each had halfway-decent singing voices as well, at least for the kind of abrasive music we were writing.
Tommy came from a predominantly Sicilian family. He was so thin that his face looked chiseled. This, coupled with the way he talked – dropping his words like they were bricks – helped him to project an air of authority even in situations where he might have been completely out of his depth. I still got fooled by that posture, even after being his best friend for years. But it wasn’t completely empty bravado. He was lethally intelligent. You’d never want to argue with him on any topic that he’d made a study of. Tommy’s the only person I know who devoured Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in High School. He’d absorb a particular passage and then ten minutes later pontificate like he wrote it. You might find this tendency obnoxious until he stayed up half the night researching something that was of great importance to you. Then you’d realize that his loyalty ran as deep as his intellect did.
Even back in school, he wore his trench coat and black leather cap nearly every day, regardless of the season. He could look imposing in such an outfit. Consider that he was over six feet tall by the time he was a sophomore. Oftentimes he’d tie his long brown hair back. He didn’t advertise his metal-head status as blatantly as I did. Me, I’d deliberately rummage through my dresser to find the t-shirt that was bound to offend the most people that day. Oh, the debates I had with teachers regarding what, exactly, constituted “obscenity”! It’s a fine line, I reckon, and one that I was always testing the boundaries of.
When we’d walk side by side through the halls in High School I felt like I was traveling with a bodyguard. The psychological dimensions of that grew to be even more significant for me than the physical. Tommy understood my volatility. He intuitively knew (most of the time) when confrontation was needed and when it was best to give me wide berth. My perception of the world is unlike that of anyone else I’ve ever known; and even if Tommy didn’t necessarily share my penchant for seeing and feeling dream phantasms intruding upon the realm of the “real”, still he had decided, apparently, to interpret this faculty as a gift rather than a symptom of insanity.
Once we started playing he continually encouraged me to channel my peculiar perceptions into the music. This wasn’t easy for me to do at first. I’d trained myself to disguise, as best I could, those characteristics that would instantly mark me as aberrant, as an outsider, for fear that exposing myself as I really was would set me on the path to prison or a locked psycho ward. Tommy was the first person to ever challenge this belief in me, and he’d earned my lifelong loyalty for doing it. I doubt that I ever would have become a musician – or even a relatively stable human being – if not for his intervention.
“I think I found us a drummer,” he announced one afternoon in May, shortly after my nineteenth birthday. “And a place to rehearse, too.”
We’d spent some time downtown, then had taken the bus up Turnpike Ave. and walked to St. Stephen’s Bridge together. Tommy lived to the south of the Matterpike River, and my house was tucked into a cul-de-sac to the north of it, so the bridge had often served as our meeting place.
“He hits the skins hard and keeps good time,” he added. “What else do we need?”
Freedom and power: Those were my twin obsessions back then. Freedom meant that my horizon was not limited by anyone else’s fear. Power meant that I could deal with the consequences of stepping over the lines. So far, Tommy was the only person I’d ever met who understood this about me, and that made me hesitant around bringing anyone else into the fold, even though we obviously needed more musicians in order to make our vision for our band a reality.
“Well, it’d be nice if it was actually someone we could get along with, too,” I said, meaning, someone who gets us. “Who is it?”
“Tim Peralta. You know him from Life Sports last year.”
I did know Tim. He was heavy-set, laid back and affable. He always kept his hair in an Indian braid the length of my arm and sauntered along as if he had all the time in the world to get wherever he was going. And he seemed an odd choice for our brand of brutal metal.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Tommy said. “It’s easier to picture him playing with the Grateful Dead than with us. But Tim loves to jam. He’s got tons of energy. He’s enthusiastic. And I’ve told him about us and what we’re doing, the kind of music we like, and he’s into it.”
So our rehearsals with Tim began that summer, going into our second year out of High School, with the garage door up so that the rest of his neighborhood could hear our sometimes aborted efforts to weave our dark and forbidden dreams and fantasies into the music. Tim’s mother, a petite Mexican woman with a warm and ready smile, would bring us coffee and delicious Spanish rice, bean and pork burritos whenever the task of wood-shedding new songs led us to neglect lunch or dinner. I’d lost my mom just as I’d entered my teen years, which I suppose is why those memories of Mrs. Peralta stick out in my memory so much now.
Over the next several weeks our distinctive sound began to crystallize. Tim’s timing was impeccable. He possessed an unerring ear for what the songs needed, for where he should add dramatic punctuation and where he should hold back. But he probably would have been just as content if we’d played Reggae or Blues. Tim just enjoyed hitting the skins like a runner enjoys feeling his or her cleats hitting the track. Our repertoire didn’t provide for him the same catharsis that it did for Tommy and I, probably because he didn’t need it as badly.
Tommy had his own personal ideology with regards to the band, and he tried to impress it upon us during nearly every practice session. He was steeped in all kinds of psychological concepts from reading Carl Jung, R.D. Laing and other writers like that. He’d come to perceive the band as a vehicle through which we could let our shadow selves be expressed without inhibition. Although I thought we were growing tighter by the day, I could tell that we weren’t quite mining the gold that he was after.
His frustration finally spilled over one night while we were taking a cigarette break. Mrs. Peralta – man, she was a gracious woman! – She never minded that, even though her own son didn’t smoke. Anyway, I knew that the storm clouds were about to burst from the way that Tommy paced, scowled and refused to make eye contact with either of us.
I was hoping to head off the first thunderclap. “Look, let’s just be patient and give it time to come together,” I offered.
“Who cares if it does come together, Brandon, if all it means is that we just end up sounding like everyone else?”
We were both obsessed with the idea of creating music the likes of which the world had never heard before, so this particular argument was nothing new.
Tommy looked stricken by something nagging at the edges of his mind. He drew a slow breath.
“I’m carrying around some damage, man: Really heavy shit. And I know that you’re carrying it, too, Brandon. Your old man has been hitting the booze for so long now that he hardly remembers your name, much less when your birthday is. He left you to basically raise yourself and Rachel. That’s why you can’t leave home and get on with your life; and I know that all the frustration you have around that makes you practically psycho at times. And yet… when you try and write lyrics you end up with some cartoon Satanism or clichés about corrupt politicians or doomsday.”
Now that he was airing his real discontent he was able to drop his passive-aggressive stance and face me squarely. He grabbed me by the shoulders.
“Man, you gotta get down to what hits home for you. Right where it hurts. Let your damage out!”
Well, I thought he was a self-righteous bastard in that moment. And I felt my face flush; was it fury, shame? I had it in my mind to tell him off. But as the first words were forming on my lips he raised a hand and forestalled me.
“Don’t tell me. That won’t rid you of it. Put it through your goddamn guitar. Abuse the hell out of that thing if you have to. Find the place inside where something’s eating you alive and then make that your music.”
I was too shook up to even respond; but I’ll be damned if what he said didn’t make sense. I saw the opportunity for liberation and took it. Suddenly my hands were itching to play. I strapped on my guitar, flipped the power on my amp and began hammering on a single power chord. I slid my left hand up a few frets, then a couple more; then I returned to my starting place. After a few minutes of this I settled into a riff.
It was mean and primitive; and it succinctly echoed the collective mood in the garage that night. I could tell that the other guys felt it too. Music and dreams can really tear away the fabric that seems to partition off the other worlds from our view. Certain poems and great paintings can do that for me too. And I’ve always got at least one foot in the other world as it is. Sometimes I can just be looking at a landscape, or playing with Rachel, and I’ll feel that the surface veneer just rolls back to expose the life force, naked to my senses. I’ll never be able to describe it to my satisfaction. Language isn’t built to hold it. When you feel this sensation you know, and then there’s no need for words. Those who don’t know aren’t going to feel it no matter how well you convey it anyhow. Music, for me, was the surest vehicle. It united the physical and the intangible in a way that cast them both in sharp relief. Then everything else in my world made sense.
There were maybe two or three dozen songs in all Creation that could work that alchemy for me; and I held them sacred. Tommy and I could neither write nor perform on a level that would bring us to that state yet – and neither of us would be satisfied with ourselves or our band until we did. If we failed to break through the veil and expose the magic that underlies everything then there was no point in even making music. We never perceived ourselves as mere entertainers. There was plenty of that in the world already. And the world was no better off for it, in my opinion.
Tommy sang some snatches of tune over my chord progression. But I was hearing a different melody, one that kept rolling around inside my head as we drove back from the rehearsal. I felt a premonition of words coming to join with the music and I hoped I’d find some privacy to set them down.
I preferred to be asleep before my father got too heavily into the rum, because then he usually left me alone. As I came in the door and passed by the kitchen, though, I saw that I’d missed my opportunity.
Dad was in his mid-forties by this time. He was an erratic drunk, meaning that he could veer from gregarious and sentimental to vicious and sneering within two or three drinks. Somehow he’d never learned that when you cross that threshold it isn’t artificial bliss anymore. But then, that’s the advantage of being the one who is three sheets to the wind: Your memories are never clear enough to serve you up the consequences of what you said or did. I was willing to make myself the target of his abuse if it would deflect it away from Rachel – or if it meant that I’d be around to steer her out of the room when his rants got off-color and frightening.
I’d tried, countless times, to unearth the reasons behind his quest for oblivion. But the thing is, once you’ve decided to walk that path you always find a reason. You drink to celebrate every one of life’s victories and to numb yourself to all of its pains and disappointments. No doubt this struggle of Dad’s got markedly worse after Mom’s death. But I can’t say for sure that it wouldn’t have progressed that way anyway. Ultimately, my old man wanted to live in a numb and insulated space where there was room for just one person: Himself.
Until recently, he hadn’t carried much evidence of his self-abuse. His physique had been muscular and toned; his posture had been good; only the faint suggestion of a paunch showed over his belt. But he softened quickly after a construction accident ruined his back and relegated him, for the most part, to a recliner. That’s when he grew more vindictive, too. When a man doesn’t feel useful then he’s liable to turn to spite.
That night, luckily, he wasn’t in the mood to fight. He was already too far gone. I heard him mumble something about “Devil’s music” when he glanced at the t-shirt I was wearing. Then he mustered himself for one coherent half-sentence: “If you’d spent half as much time studying as you did daydreaming about being a goddamn rock star…”
Normally I would have sucked it up and kept walking. If I’d bothered to bleed every time my father’s words cut me I would’ve died a long time ago. But the rehearsal had opened me up to such an extent that I couldn’t contain my reaction.
“Someday I’ll be something, Dad, while you’re turning yourself into less and less every day.”
When I think back on that moment I realize that I was merely reacting, that my insult had no underlying heat. It would have been more honest for me to hug him and tell him that I missed Mom too, very much; that it was tying my emotions in knots, watching him slowly kill himself like this. But I didn’t recognize those deeper impulses or the wisdom that spurred them. You have to understand that the ambiance was sunnier inside a morgue than it was in any room occupied by the two of us, alone, back then.
On most other nights, my retort would have at least earned me a few cuffs. But like I said, Dad was already detached from the immediate. He scowled at me for a moment and muttered, “Devil’s music” once more. Then he glanced about the kitchen as if he’d lost something. He certainly had. Disgusted, I turned and stalked down the basement stairs.
It always smelled like mildew in my room; it was bred into the hard green carpet; and the rectangular space was as dim as a dungeon even with both lamps turned on. All of this suited me fine, as it meant that I was the only one who ever enjoyed being down there.
I retrieved a battered notebook that had originally been intended for homework and began scrawling lyrics as they came to me. The melody was still humming inside my head. It sounded more poignant now, but I shoved that feeling aside and tried to focus on my anger. I started writing about the Tyrant, about seeing him pulled down from his throne. At first I thought I was evoking my father – that seemed obvious enough – but as I persisted I began to wonder whether I was actually addressing something inside of me. I felt a malignant presence that wanted to hold me back, keep me from becoming the man that I was desperately fighting to be. Sure, it resembled my dad in some ways, but it also spoke in the voices of teachers, authority figures, television personalities and politicians from all throughout my life. Anyone who’d tried to tell me what life was all about instead of letting me figure it out for myself. I hated that Voice, and I set about crucifying it in my new song.
At some point during my creative struggle I heard the carpet rustle and looked up to see Rachel standing maybe ten feet in front of me. She was barely six years old at the time. Her hair was still reddish, and curled, and she had dozens of cinnamon freckles. She was wearing her favorite yellow pajamas, embroidered with a design of two elephants passing a beach ball back and forth with their trunks. I don’t know how long she’d been watching me.
“What are you doing up? It’s late.”
This was more chiding than reprimanding. Rachel received the softest side of me, always. She shrugged – a touch dramatically. “I couldn’t sleep. I saw the lights on down here.”
“Did Dad see you?”
Somehow Rachel already understood that our father was not someone who she could go to, that he was not really available. She always came to me.
She gripped her pajamas and began twisting from side to side like a little gymnast warming up. “What are you doing?” she asked.
I waved the lyric sheet that I’d torn out of my notebook. “Writing a song.”
She stopped and straightened, smiling impishly. “Does it go like this?” – And then proceeded with a string of coughing and growling sounds, ending with a high-pitched squeal of delight.
I laughed too. I may be biased, but she was without a doubt the most adorable – and precocious – little girl on Earth. And she’d obviously heard me playing my records a few times…
“Something like that. And you sing it better than I do, so maybe I’ll have to take you out on the road with me. But right now you should get to bed. It’s a school night you know. Come on – I’ll walk you up and tuck you in.”
Roles can thrust upon us by the society in which we live, but the choice to either accept them or reject them lies with us. Within our band, we were trying to reject it all, everything that had been instilled in us, so that we could expose our real selves to the world – even the dark, ugly aspects that most people don’t want to admit to the existence of. This had become a more vehement ambition for me by the day.
The music produced in our rehearsals grew more and more congruent with the sounds that Tommy and I were hearing in our heads. I gave myself over to the voices inside that were clamoring for release. As I relinquished control I felt that I was claiming ownership of a fuller and wider estate. As if foreshadowing these internal changes, my body had sprouted over the last several months that I’d been in High School, until I stood at eye level with peers who I’d been obliged to stare up at the previous year. Now I decided to capitalize on Mother Nature’s gift by getting a gym membership. Weights and shakes and long jam sessions became my life for a while.
In April, about a week after I turned twenty, the three of us pooled our money and secured ten hours of recording time at Ambergris Studios. We were able to commit all of our songs to a master with almost an hour to spare, so tight and exuberant had we become by that point. Tim was doing odd landscaping jobs, Tommy delivered pizza and I bussed tables at a restaurant called Jaspar’s. But we all devoted what time we could spare to shopping our demo around town. By the end of the month we’d landed our first gig.
Tommy won over the owner of The Samurai, a tavern near the wharves on the south end. Because we were all still a year under the legal drinking age the only performance spot we could land was an all-ages show in the warehouse adjacent to it. Two other acts were on the bill, but the owner had been impressed enough by our demo to offer us the coveted closing spot. He was a metal-head from way back.
“It’s time we unleashed it,” Tommy told Tim and I. “Make ‘em exhilarated. Make ‘em scared. They might not know why they like us. They may even think that they hate us. But they’ll be confronted by something within themselves when they hear our performance. These deeper forces, the stuff that people usually tamp down on… when they’re given an outlet then everyone recognizes it in their gut. They see their own reflection swirling around in the dark epicenter of the music. All of the truly great performers have tapped into that. But I think we’re taking it farther than anyone’s dared to go before.”
If you befriend Tommy then you must grow accustomed to such speeches. But at the time, I shared his belief. We’d conjured up some primal and powerful forces within our songs. They were shocking, confrontational, rebellious, frightening… and yet poignant, for all that.
And they had altered us, in ways that we were just beginning to understand.
My father caught wind of our upcoming gig and used it as a fresh excuse to revile me about my choices, my goals and my whole path in life – which, to him, was no path at all. He smacked me around a few times when he was drunk and apologized for it later when he was sober, if he remembered. One time this happened right in front of Rachel, who was just trying to eat her cereal, and that messed me up more than any of his physical blows ever could have.
For a long time, I tried to convince myself that I didn’t love him. It seemed less painful that way. But see, the pain doesn’t go away just because you overlay it with a story. Sure, I could pretend to be jaded… until I found myself smashing my stereo to bits with a hammer and having no idea why I was doing it other than that it felt good. Maybe you can understand now why I so badly needed the outlet that music provided. I’d just hold on to all that frustration, rage and confusion and then scream it out through my Telecaster at our next rehearsal.
My father sat in a place along the garden path that was always crowded with barbs and briars for me. But I’d risk those lacerations again and again in order to walk down that way, because it seemed that I just didn’t have it in me to give up on him entirely.
The night before our performance, I fell into another one of the black moods that had been hounding me for years. Of course, these nihilistic spells had only grown worse since Mom died. It’s hard to explain what comes over me. My world is painted black; my entire inner landscape is barren. All the roads in my head lead to horrific ends. At the bleakest margins of this particular attack, I didn’t even care about the gig. I wanted nothing but oblivion. When Tommy came to pick me up the following afternoon, in the gray van that the three of us had chipped in to buy together, I packed my gear into the back without saying a word.
Rachel watched from the window. Sensing her presence just made the emptiness inside me gape even wider.
We’d grown attached to our own equipment and therefore didn’t care to use the venue’s PA. It takes time to learn how to coax the precise sounds that you want out of the gear you’ve got, and you don’t want to be starting that process from scratch while you’re onstage and the audience is watching. We left everything in the van and waited for our hour to come. Our nerves were tuned to a high pitch.
The warehouse was the size of an average school gymnasium; and the sound system couldn’t quite fill the space. I doubted that our setup would do much better. There were about thirty people milling about when we arrived – and that number probably doubled by nightfall. Heavy metal kids, punks, middle-aged guys who looked like they’d been frequenting shows since before I was born… we didn’t mingle, and I didn’t care for either of the bands that went on before us. The derivative sound reminded me of how hard we’d worked to create something uniquely our own, so I resented how the audience just ate up these pallid imitations.
Disgusted, I went outside to smoke. There were people all around, leaning against their cars, passing around beers and joints… I had to walk for a while to get away from the laughter and the chatter. The moon over the river was no doubt beautiful; but the sight of it didn’t touch me. I ambled towards the water anyway. Then something collided with my side, almost knocking me off balance.
He’d crashed right into me. Whether it’d been deliberate, or whether he’d just been too far gone to notice me coming, I don’t know. I’d been more captivated by the dark landscapes yawning hungrily in my head than I had been by my surroundings.
“Watch it, huh!”
He shoved me with both hands; and this time I did go down, my ass kissing gravel and sand. I glared up at him. He was a thin, wiry guy no taller than me, though he was probably twice as old. He was dressed in boots, tight and faded jeans, checkered flannel and a cowboy hat. He muttered some ugly, derisive remark and started stumbling away, lost in a world of his own drunken making. But I didn’t let him go.
Throughout the last couple years of growing, of packing on muscle and giving voice to my pent-up frustrations through the music, I’d had few opportunities to test my newly-burgeoning strength. So it amazed me how easily I took him down. He just crumbled like a wilted flower when I laid hands on him. Miraculously, his hat stayed on his head and his bottle of beer remained in his hand. He stared up, not so much at me but more towards the sky. He just looked dimly surprised to find himself on the ground with someone hovering over him.
That’s when the madness took hold of me: Madness and exhilaration, indistinguishable. I’d been powerless my whole life. Everything was always spinning beyond my control. But not now! I had this bastard in my hands and there wasn’t a goddamn thing he could do about it. I landed a few punches to his face, heard him grunt like he had hollow lungs, but that didn’t satisfy me. I wanted to wreak my vengeance upon the whole world. I wrested the beer bottle from his grip and broke it over a rock that lay near where we were struggling.
It came back mean, jagged and dripping, a v-shaped gash the size of my thumb lending it an evil crown. Drunk as he was, this man knew his peril now. He started panting. His fear must have sapped the last vestiges of strength from his muscles, though, because I was able to pin his arms together at the wrists with my left hand. Then I pressed the twin points of the broken bottle against the soft of his neck.
I’ll never know how far I planned to go. Had I just intended to scare him, or had I really meant to bring my life’s long despair to its logical culmination?
Tommy’s voice reached me as if from another world.
“Whoa, Brandon. Hey…easy. Put it down, man.”
Tommy, the one guy who could reach me: He was hovering off somewhere to my right. He and the man beneath me, they both scarcely existed.
“This isn’t what it’s about. It’s having power over your own life. Not throwing it away – or taking it from somebody else.”
I’d begun to shake. I was close to weeping.
“Let him go, Brandon. He ain’t the Tyrant.”
That word brought me back to my surroundings. At the same time, it led my memory back to that night months before, when I’d written my first proper song and Rachel had dropped in on me unexpectedly. She’d made me laugh as if nothing else in the world even mattered. I’d experienced so many moments like that with her, and it was as if I was remembering them all for the first time.
I relinquished my grip, flung the bottle and stood up. The world lurched sideways like a ship about to capsize. “I’m gonna be sick, man!”
I ran to the water’s edge and knelt just in time to empty my stomach. The water was a piece of reality I could trust, as was the acrid sting in my throat. I spat several times, reaching for purgation.
Sometime later, I felt Tommy’s hand on my shoulder.
“Where is he?” I managed.
“He stumbled off somewheres. My guess is he’ll be passed out real quick. He ain’t gonna remember. Hell, he hardly seemed to realize what was happening as it was.”
He’d said enough; but maybe he felt obliged to add more when I didn’t reply.
“Look, we both know it wouldn’t have gone any farther. You ain’t a killer. No one else was close enough to see what went down. And you know nobody’s gonna hear anything from me.”
I stood up, but had to brace myself with my hands on my knees. I was shaking all over. “I still want to play,” I finally muttered.
The way Tommy hesitated let me know that he harbored serious doubts. But I knew that this was the best thing for me to do: keep moving.
“Well, we’re on in half an hour or so. We’ll have to get set up. Dream Screamers are playing now. They sound like watered-down Makoshark.”
I grinned for the first time in days. “Good. Maybe people will be ready for something different by the time we get up on that stage.”