Audiobiography: Amnesiac

As told by Radiohead – “Amnesiac” (2001)

He’d been going through a tough time when he picked me up. It was obvious from the first evening we’d spent together. He brought me home from the record store and carried me up four flights of stairs to his little apartment in Capitol Hill, Seattle. His name was Steven and he wasn’t my first purchaser, but he was definitely the most impressionable.

He was a young man, probably in his early twenties. To me, he looked perfectly capable of moving at a good clip, but I’d never seen anyone walk home so slowly before. It was almost as if he dreaded the thought of returning home. I couldn’t help but wonder why. What was waiting for him? Was he having problems with a spouse? Did he still live with an abusive parent? Did he have annoying and intrusive neighbors? Judging from his slouched posture and the dejected look on his thickly-bearded face, there was no pleasant scene awaiting his return.

It was a gloomy evening outside in the Fall of 2008 when we reached his building. It was around 7 o’clock and just starting to get dark. The air was crisp and the clouds were dark grey as though it could rain at any moment, but for now, the sky held back its tears. Steven lurched up the stairs and fumbled for his keys. Slowly, one by one, he sorted through about 10 keys, finally stopping at the one that would let him in to his apartment. The key to his misery. His frown deepened and his eyes closed softly while he turned the knob to open the door.

Once the door swung open, I looked around for what might be the catalyst to his melancholy. It took me a few minutes before I recognized it, but once I did, I could see that it was everywhere. It enshrouded everything. It was emptiness. It was the most pervasive and enveloping sense of loneliness I’d ever experienced.

Allow me to set the scene. The apartment was a small studio. It was basically a rectangle with another smaller rectangle cut out against the back corner that acted as a bathroom. It had a small counter top wrapped around the opposite corner (close to the door) that housed a few appliances. The floor was a dark hardwood that sprawled throughout the place until it met a white subway tile in the bathroom. In the middle of the floor sat a matching set of black, modern IKEA seating pieces. The couch and armchair faced the long wall opposite the bathroom where a television was mounted. The shorter wall (opposite the door) had a medium sized window right above Steven’s bed. The bed had a white comforter and white pillows and was tucked right into the corner. Against the wall, between the bed and his television, sat his turntable and speakers. They were placed on a small, wooden stand that had an open shelf for about 50-60 records to slide in beneath it’s flat surface. It was nearly full.

All the walls were white and they connected the dark hardwood floor to a white popcorn ceiling. There were only two pictures on one wall. The first was a large, wide, poster-sized depiction of ‘the golden ratio’ that hung above Steven’s bed. The drawing looked like it had been sketched meticulously in pencil on white canvas. The frame was thin and black. The other picture on the wall was a small, 5 X 7, black-and-white photograph. In the photograph were two people I hadn’t yet met. They both looked to be in their twenties and appeared to be very happily in love. He was tall, tan, well-dressed, and had dark hair that looked freshly cut into some kind of preppy, ivy-league ‘high and tight.’ She was classically beautiful; pale as moonlight with long, dark chestnut hair, feminine yet thick eyebrows, and just the most subtle shade of red lipstick that turned her lips slightly lighter than graphite in a black and white photo. He had his chin resting on top of hers and his arms wrapped around her shoulders. They looked at the camera with doe eyes and smiled from ear to ear. They looked happy.

It took me a long time to realize that the man in the picture was Steven without his now scruffy and unkempt beard. With ‘the golden ratio’ above his bed, I thought that maybe this Steven fellow was a photographer, and that the photo of those smitten, happy people was some of his best work. But then I realized every time he walked over to play me or another record on the turntable, he’d stop, look up from his sullen slouch, and stare at that photo. Sometimes for 5-10 minutes. I don’t think he realized how much time would actually pass in those moments. And once in a while, his frown would start to turn into the slightest of smiles, a smirk perhaps, only to quickly fade back to his expression of nothingness.

So this routine went on for a couple weeks after he purchased me. He’d come home in the evenings, make himself some dinner, watch a little TV, roll himself a joint or open up a beer, and put on some music before bed. He listened to me quite often. Usually all the way through, from start to finish. He’d lay there on the couch with his medicine of choice and just close his eyes and listen. He was always alone, so I never really heard Steven speak. I always did all the talking. Until one night.

On a very typical, dreary Seattle evening, Steven came home in his signature mood. Everything seemed normal except he was carrying a small, brown paper bag that was rolled up at the top. I noticed things were strange this time when he didn’t start preparing his meal to eat and he didn’t turn on the TV to watch. He went straight for the flask-sized bottle of whiskey inside the paper bag, took a couple big swigs, and came for his records. The first record he pulled out to play was Slint’s “Spiderland.” It was dark and sad and contained what seemed like mountains of restrained anger and angst. When the first side of the album was over, half of the flask was gone and Steven slowly stumbled over to turn it and reset the needle. His intoxication was getting more and more obvious with the wider and more bloodshot his eyes became. By the end of the album, he was a mess. That’s when he came for me.

After managing to slide the Slint album back into its sleeve, I heard him mutter the words, “One more time,” under his breath. He pulled me out of his collection and set my first record on the platter. But he didn’t turn on the turntable’s motor. Instead, Steven wobbled over to the bathroom, turned on the faucet in the tub, and put the drain plug in place. The tub started to fill with hot water. I could see the steam rising from the bath while he stripped naked. Once he was naked, he walked over to the kitchen and grabbed something out of a drawer that I couldn’t quite make out and placed it in the soap dish on the side of the bathtub.

He then walked over to the turntable, started its rotation, and dropped the needle on me. “Pakt Like Sardines…” came out of me and resonated throughout the apartment. He turned up the volume so that he could hear it better in the bathroom. He left the door open as he turned off the faucet and slowly sunk himself down into the hot water. At first he just sat and closed his eyes. I could still see a little steam coming from below the rim of the tub. But then he started singing along in the saddest, most melancholy plea,

“I’m a reasonable man, get off, get off, get off my case.” 

“I’m a reasonable man, get off my case, get off my case.”

During his singing, I’d hardly noticed the razor blade that Steven came to hold vertically to his right wrist which was set on the rim of the tub closest to me. He started to cry as he sang along and looked down at the razor. Tears dripped onto his already wet skin. He started to apply pressure to the blade so that under it, his skin made a small, perfectly straight valley on his wrist. He felt a small sting of pain from the blade and knew that one more ounce of pressure would have taken him past the breaking point. His skin would have broken and the momentum would have carried the blade through the veins below.

He stayed that way for maybe another 30 seconds, toying with the thought, before “Pyramid Song” started. Those big, rich, piano chords rang out through the apartment and his ears slightly perked up. His gaze focused on the razor blade, but it was obvious that his mind was somewhere else as the vocals consumed him…

“There was nothing to fear, nothing to doubt.”

Just then, strings swept in with the vocals over the piano, followed by the first snare rolls leading into soft cymbals over the kick drum. The driving, oddly-timed beat, the building strings, the flurry of electronics, the blade in Steven’s hand, they all came together to make “Pyramid Song” sound more overwhelming and more beautiful than it ever has before. It all came together like a whirlwind and caused him to sob and weep and cry harder than I’d ever seen him cry before. As the last notes of Pyramid Song rang out, he lay hunched over the side of the tub, arms hanging limp to the ground. He looked up. He’d already thrown the razor clear across the studio. No cuts.

Once “Revolving Doors” started, he got out, dried off, and turned off the turntable. I guess Steven decided he’d heard all he needed to for the night. He put me away and went to bed. He sleep all the way through the night and didn’t stir once. There was nothing to fear, nothing to doubt.

Upon waking, he looked around the apartment. He saw the empty whiskey bottle next to the couch. He saw the razor blade on the floor under the television. He saw me still on the turntable, jacket and sleeves askew. He looked as if he suddenly remembered everything. Though this time, as he stood there, a small smile of relief crept up on his face. That’s when Steven got dressed, made some breakfast, and walked back over to me. “One more time,” I heard him mutter. He lifted the needle back up and started me over from the beginning. He listened to me all the way through as he ate his breakfast. Then he put me back in my sleeve, and set me on the kitchen counter. I thought that was odd.

I saw him pull out a piece of paper and a pen from the drawer below me. On it, he wrote something and put the piece of paper in my sleeve for side A. Then he walked me to a new record store a few blocks down and sold me to the shop owner where I still sit today.

I don’t know much about Steven. I don’t much about the girl in the photograph. I don’t know why he looked so sad when he listened to me the first times. I don’t know why somebody was on his case. And I don’t know why he almost did what he wanted to do. The only thing I do know is that he found peace that night. He found the power of music. And now, as I sit on a shelf inside that record store, I can tell you that he felt the need to share it. I’ve read that note he placed inside my jacket a thousand times.

“This album saved my life. May it find another lost soul. -S”

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