I know Brian Jabas Smith from his time as the lead singer of the Beat Angels. The Beat Angels started playing gigs in Phoenix, Arizona around 1994, roughly the same time my band the Refreshments started to do the same in the close Phoenix suburb of Tempe. Tempe's music scene had given birth to the Gin Blossoms, whose single “Hey Jealousy” was being played nationally on the radio. At the time, there was talk about which Valley band would become the “next Gin Blossoms.” I believed in my band, but then there were the Beat Angels, whose differences from us made me take pause. They were punk in a classic sense, wearing black jackets, scarves, boots, and motorcycle sunglasses. They had unkempt hair that reminded me of Mötley Crüe but that I would soon learn was more reminiscent the New York Dolls. My band wore Bermuda shorts, flip-flops, Hawaiian shirts, cowboy hats. In short, the Beat Angels were visibly a part of some darker aspect of rock and roll that my band appeared only to be marginally a part of. I doubt any Refreshment could've hummed a New York Dolls song.
In the over 20 years since Smith and I frequented the Tempe music scene, I've read and written a great deal about rock musicians, which means I've read and written a great deal about addicts. Smith's first collection of short stories Spent Saints spans the adolescence and adulthood of one such addict, Julian, who while traversing various interests and professions is also in constant search of his next high.
An addictive personality settles in during Julian's teen years, when he competitively races street bicycles and learns to love the rush. In “Grand Prix,” Julian aspires to rise to the top of the field, hoping such an ascension removes some of the barriers he senses in life but can't quite identify. Smith writes during Julian's trip to Los Angeles for a race:
The Pacific Ocean was a few blocks west and visible over barricades, and its cool brackish breeze only reinforced his unease that Southern California was wholly disinviting in its beauty and impossible to roll into and take part of. Nothing about the coastline calmed.
The best Julian can hope for from the race is victory, which only leads to another race. His quest to find solace becomes the far more difficult task.
Unfortunately for Julian, he's not naturally drawn to activities with more accessible paths to inner peace, preferring those with high ceilings for glory. From this angle, rock and roll soon proves irresistible, and it also serves as a handy replacement for the adrenaline of racing. Smith writes in the collection's title story:
The biggest self-centered pieces of shit are always found in the arts, especially in the performance kind. But all of that wanes when everything is on, and in that extraordinary instance, fronting a great rock & roll band is better than anything. Makes living the day-to-day pretty damn hard.
Julian is learning why they call it a high, and the drugs and alcohol that come part and parcel with band life offer new, easier ways to escape, not to mention something to do when no crowd is watching.
It isn't long before Julian needs his chemical bump more than anything else. While working as a journalist in Phoenix, he finds himself on the front line of a daily battle to get straight, which leads to alternating additions to alcohol and meth. Smith offers the reader a visceral peek into Julian's speed freak experiences in “The Delivery Man”:
Each snorted line seers the thin skin and cartilage of your nasal septum and you instantly taste the slag and toilet cleaner, or whatever it is, drip down in your throat, but it's somehow less noxious than with a pipe or a needle, so you actually feel like you'll live a little longer, even though you don't want to.
The contradiction of wanting to die while also sensing his capacity for redemption is central to Julian's angst, each trip into the drug underworld both necessary and repellent, boxing him further into his loneliness.
It isn't until Julian settles into a writing job in Detroit that he finds a way out, but even journeys to sobriety come with their demons. Smith writes of Julian's withdrawal symptoms in “The Old Ladies in Church Hats”:
By midnight it felt as though I'd been trapped in the precise moment when two cars collide, and the moment repeated over and over. That's the best way to describe it. All skidding tires, screams, shattering glass and burning bodies and it's never going to end. Somehow I understood on a distant intellectual level that I was actually in a bed in Detroit kicking booze, but the terror of that interior loop- of-death was absolutely real.
The horrors gang up on Julian, but soon he starts hearing other voices that don't lead to some new form of hell.
Smith and I have corresponded a few times and have met once since 1994. We always talk about writing, which vexes us both. Smith wrote in one exchange, “Sometimes it feels like this fiction stuff I'm doing is going to kill me.” I've dedicated much of my post-rock life to writing novels, but the process—maddening as it is—never feels like it's going to kill me. Sometimes I feel like I've escaped what Julian goes through in Spent Saints only by the skin of my teeth. Other times I feel like I was never close. As evidenced in Smith's stories, which sparkle with frankness and hard-won beauty, there's no doubt which of us has been there and back.
Spent Saints. Written by Brian Jabas Smith. Roseville, MI: Ridgeway Press, August, 2017. 241 pp. $15.95. ISBN-13: 978-1-56439-008-0.
Lee Allen Hill is just a leftover hippie with a penchant for word-slinging.