Shadow Selves


Can you see the real me?
–The Who, Quadrophenia

We all have secret sides to our personalities that we keep hidden from those around us — thoughts we never share, opinions we never state, fantasies we never reveal. Each individual carries around multiple perspectives inside his or her mind, a unique vision that no one else can imagine or share. Artists tap into this reservoir to bring their views of reality to light, and often, in creating fiction, shine a spotlight on the truth. 

Jack Henry Abbot gained fame in the early 80s when his writing was published with the assistance of Norman Mailer as the bestselling work, In the Belly of the Beast. Critics praised his writing for its raw and powerful depiction of prison life. The recognition led to his being released from prison, and not long afterward, he murdered a man in an altercation outside a restaurant, returning him to prison. One might wonder how such a violent individual could craft words with such intensity. The reality is that Abbot was both a brilliant writer and a hardened criminal. The aspects of his character which made him a violent felon also fueled his more poetic side. The tragedy was that he was never able to find a way to reconcile both sides within himself. He eventually took his own life behind bars.

We’ve all heard stories about people who hid aspects of their characters, the church deacon who was secretly molesting children; the homeless person who was a covert multimillionaire; the shy store clerk who no one knew could sing like an angel. Writers who publish under assumed names are often nothing like the characters they create. For every story of someone whose hidden side was revealed, there are hundreds of others who never reveal who else may be lurking inside their heads. 

The question is, which one is real? Are we the faces we present to the world or the compendium of voices which issue forth from our subconscious minds? We’ve all had moments when our actions astound even us. Confronted with a situation, we can imagine the absolute worst way we could respond, then proceed to do just that without being able to explain why. The question of nature versus nurture also looms large in our experience. Are we the people we imagine we are or those we’ve been conditioned by circumstance to be?

The Internet has given rise to a similar phenomenon, quiet, unassuming people becoming trolls and cyber bullies online. I once knew an individual who inhabited a news group I frequented. In the group, he posted under his actual name with a superior and insulting tone toward those who disagreed with his opinions. Whenever I’d bring up his online endeavors in person, however, he’d become defensive and wouldn’t talk about it. He probably viewed his online persona as detached from his “real life” without recognizing how much a part of his character it was. 

The truth is, we are whoever we define ourselves to be. It’s common to see artists behaving in a manner that seems outside society’s norms, but really, we all have people we’d like to be if certain constraints were removed. How much time and effort do we invest in being who we think others want us to be instead of concentrating on who we’d rather be?

Remains 

Skull photographed at Artisan Resource Center, 24 January 2016, artist unknown.


I’ll state up front, she dies — eventually. I mean, we all do, right? Nothing any of us can do will make much of a difference. I don’t want people getting a false sense of hope that things work out between us in the end because they don’t. They almost never do, really.

I won’t use the name she gave me because that person doesn’t exist, alive or not. She made that as clear as she could, through both her music and things she told me. If she still has a name, I don’t know it. Even if I did, I wouldn’t tell. I owe her that much. The name people knew was Shayna, but that was an illusion she created that has served its purpose. It kept people from asking too many questions. She didn’t like questions and unlike some wasn’t very good at hiding her disdain. 

Perhaps I should start at the beginning, or as close as I can come to the beginning because I sort of came in halfway through her story. Imagine walking into a club and hearing a voice so enticing that it consumes every fabric of one’s being. That was her. She was standing at the mic, holding a guitar and pouring out her soul for the mostly indifferent crowd. Pool players, folks there to watch the game, drinkers, smokers, all contributing to the general din, with no idea what a miracle they were missing. I recognized it and wanted to be as close as possible.

I took a seat near the stage — there were a lot — and I gave her my undivided attention. I think she sensed someone was there to actually listen because her sound brightened a bit. I guess I came in just after she started, because she played for another twenty or thirty minutes. Afterward we talked for a while and I got on her contact list and bought a CD. Many artists sound different in the studio than live but I was pleased to hear as I listened to her CD in the car that recording her voice had not diminished its power. From that point on, I saw her wherever she played locally. On a whim, I once even drove all the way to Birmingham to see her, which surprised her to no end. In fact, it was the Birmingham show where I gained her trust, if not her friendship.

She rode up with some fellow musicians, including the driver who apparently wanted to get to know her on a more intimate level. When she made it clear to him after the show that it wasn’t going to happen, he drove off and left her at the venue. I was the only other person she knew who was headed back to Atlanta, so after several protests about the inconvenience, she agreed. At first, as we rode along, I tried to get some personal info out of her, but my inquiries were met with silence and I knew better than to press. Instead, we started talking about music and that’s where she opened up. She had eclectic influences, Blues, Jazz, sixties Rock, but also she mentioned Broadway musicals that her mother had introduced to her via soundtracks played around the house. We had a good talk, and as I dropped her off she told me to let her know when I was coming to a show so she could put me on “the list”.

Understand, we were never friends, as that would have required a level of openness on her part that she wasn’t willing to give, but after Birmingham she trusted me and her trust was more important than her friendship. Truth be told, she was linked to a lot of people, women, men, the evidence was never definitive on her preference, or if she even had one. She never told me, and I never asked. After she was gone, a number of people claimed to have been with her. I suppose it’s a game. If one can’t be special, then attach oneself to someone who is, regardless of whether it’s true or not. If there were no witnesses, who’s to say after the fact?

She was “successful” I suppose, at least by industry standards. She started selling some records, booking larger venues, touring. She never liked the attention, but she loved the connection, standing in front of the audience, hearing them sing along to one of her songs. She told me once that she missed the intimacy of smaller venues, where she could actually talk to people after shows. She recorded quite a bit and was always in the studio or at a concert. She didn’t quite make it to the status of headliner, during her brief time in the spotlight, but she was always an anticipated opening act, and always a big draw when she played occasional solo shows at favored local spots. 

I asked her about it once and she denied she was successful. She didn’t equate being well-known or selling records with success. “It’s the music,” she told me. “If it doesn’t mean anything, what else matters?” For every song she recorded, there were probably ten others she’d written that the label decided wasn’t commercial. If I had to speculate on what drove her to what she did, I’d have to guess it was the loss of her freedom. It’s what caused her to take a hiatus, just at the point where many felt she was about to have her big breakthrough. She just walked away, put the brakes on and retired to her cabin in the woods, “to reassess”.

No one is certain exactly what happened. The best guess based on the evidence collected is that she simply went for a hike in the woods near her house one day and never came back. There wasn’t anyone checking in on her, so several days passed before anyone even thought to miss her. Her behavior had not seemed out of the ordinary leading up to the last time anyone heard from her and it was normal for her to go several days, weeks even, without any communication as long as she had all her necessities nearby. She often remarked how much she liked getting lost in nature and how convenient it was living near a forest.

When she missed a show at one of her favorite venues the owner went to her place, and called the police when he couldn’t get anyone to come to the door. For several weeks after, there were searches and APBs and her photo was flashed across the country. She became more famous after her disappearance than she’d been before and the record company took full advantage of that by promoting her back catalog. Sales of her music tripled. No one knew her well enough to say what might have been on her mind so no one could speculate on what happened to her.

Some months later a couple of hikers stumbled over what turned out to be a human femur. A search of the area turned up additional bones, including a skull, that were scattered as though predatory animals had gotten at the body. The skull was missing about half its teeth, but enough bones were found to reveal they belonged to a female about her age and height. Nearby were fragments of clothes which matched items she’d typically wear. For most who followed the situation, that was all that was needed to close the books. 

She didn’t leave much behind beyond her household supplies. The most important item was what she called her goodie bag, the knapsack full of personal effects she took the pains to haul around with her everywhere she went. She said it contained her remains. Inside was a high school yearbook, a formal dress, two pairs of well-worn, lace-up checkerboard Vans, a pair of men’s jeans, and an old cigar box that contained these items:

  • Her class ring
  • A photo of her mother
  • A handwritten list of phone numbers most of which go to disconnected lines
  • A couple of napkins bearing the names of local bars, neither of which are there anymore 
  • A sheet containing lyrics to the first song she ever wrote — a note says at age ten
  • An invitation to her high school graduation
  • A flash drive containing her video diary entries, none of which reveal very much
  • An unsigned, undated note on lined paper that reads, “Why, Daddy, why?”

Did these represent the sum total of her life — items she felt she needed with her, right up to the point where she left them behind at the last place she lived? I do believe she deliberately left them there, because I think she knew she wasn’t coming back. 

See, here’s the thing. I saw the skull they found — I was counted as a close acquaintance which gained me access — but I examined it and while there were only a few teeth left in it, two of them had fillings. Authorities anxious to close the case missed that fact — but two teeth had fillings. I know for a fact she had never had any dental work done. She told me that herself, even showed me when I doubted her. So I don’t know who the poor soul was whose skull they found, but it wasn’t her. 

I don’t know why she left her stuff behind. Maybe she thought she wouldn’t need it anymore. Maybe there’s more to be found in the woods, since they cover a lot of acres. Maybe she just needed her disappearance to be convincing. I have it if she ever reappears though I doubt she ever will. Whether she’s alive or dead, she was done with this life. Still, I’ll hang on to it for her, just in case.

When Josie Comes Home

We don’t know who she is. We don’t know where she is, or why. We don’t know when, or if she’s coming back, and we don’t really know how the narrator truly feels about her. Thus, the enduring mystery of Josie, the title character of the final track of Steely Dan’s iconic album Aja. The album, which I’ve recently learned was composed as they returned to their native New York from the West Coast, is all about coming home, and returning to the familiar. How appropriate, then, that it ends with a song foretelling of the return of a mysterious heroine. Initially, it seems, her return will be a joyous occasion, but as is often the case with Steely Dan songs, a nagging sense of disquiet lurks beneath the surface.

The first verse speaks of her acclaim. “She’s the pride of the neighborhood,” we’re told, and the song, at this point, has definite messianic overtones. “She prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire.” The lyrics speak of celebrations, hats and hooters, rallying in the street, completely overturning the established order. “We’re going to park in the streets. Sleep on the beach and make it. Roll down the jam ’til the girls say when. Lay down the law and break it.” The lyrics imply she may have returned before for brief interludes, but the good times will really commence when she comes home to stay.

Other than this, we’re given few details about Josie, other than the implication that she’s the spark that will lift her companions from whatever sordid state they’ve been in. “The raw flame, the live wire.” One cannot tell if she’s been away of her own free will or not, but it is strongly suggested that the neighborhood hasn’t been the same without her. Then, in a telling divergence from the published lyrics, the Dans give us yet another clue to ponder. While the lyric sheet states, “When Josie comes home, so bad. She’s the best friend we ever had,” on the album, Fagen clearly sings, “She’s the best friend we never had.” This implies the person telling the story may not even know Josie, that she’s now the stuff of legend, and it gives her return an ironic sense of foreboding.

The song contains one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in music. At their show in Alpharetta in 2009, Becker segued into it from an improvised jam, and as soon as he hit the first cord, everyone knew what was coming. Here, again, Donald Fagen replaced “ever” with “never” though on live recordings, which may or may have featured Fagen on lead, I’ve heard it done as written. The music moves with a driving quality, which enhances the imagery of motor scooters, vandalism, and sexual impropriety. Once Josie returns, complacency will be a thing of the past. We’re going to take to the streets. Hosanna in the highest! She’ll lead us into a whole new era.

Without a doubt, Aja is my favorite album, quite possibly the greatest album ever recorded. Containing only seven songs, it proves that less is definitely more, and Josie is a fitting end, leaving the listener wondering what could possibly follow it. As it turned out, the follow-up would be the eclectic Gaucho, leading to a maddeningly long hiatus, broken only by the occasional solo album by Fagen or Becker. Still, Aja was the culmination of everything that had come before, pushing the boundaries of what could be accomplished when all the pieces fall into place. I can think of only a few other bands which could reach such heights. Steely Dan created what I consider to be the perfect musical experience. To this day, I rarely listen to individual songs from it, preferring instead to hear the album in its entirety from Black Cow all the way to Josie.

When Josie comes home, so good.