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Photo by Jeanne RiceA gaggle of thirtysomethings—well-heeled, Gap-clad, frosted and tipped—sits around two pushed-together tables in the center of Aroma Bistro in Triangle Square. The coffeehouse closed 10 minutes ago, and the employees are wiping down the espresso machines, but these customers have made no move for the exit. With rag in hand, Nate Shaw, singer/guitarist of the Women, approaches the rabble:
"Excuse me, folks," he demurs. "I'm sorry to interrupt. I'm terribly sorry to inconvenience you, but we're closed. We closed 10 minutes ago." A woman, riffing for the group, says they'll clean up after themselves. Shaw tells them that's what he's there for. Banter ensues for a bit, and then the gaggle is gone, gently ushered out by that nice young man—so charming! So polite! What a way with words!
If they truly knew about the nice young man—about his time in jail, his past heroin addiction, the damage shooting up did to his hands, and that he almost had to get his foot amputated from missing his vein too many times—they'd probably be horrified. Shaw's life went down roads they're programmed to avoid. But they don't know this about him, so instead, they are charmed. You get the feeling that Shaw could wrap you around his finger.
In the early '90s, before things got weird, Shaw played with the Women, a Costa Mesa band that included fellow singer/guitarist John Klein, drummer James Fletcher and bassist Brian Claremont. They had known one another forever, since the days Fletcher "carried around a blanket like Linus," when Klein pretended to play guitar by strapping on a tennis racket tied to a shoestring, and when Claremont's father wouldn't let his 6-year-old son go outside and play until he practiced playing bass.
"It was so horrible that I quit playing until I was about 18 and started going to punk shows," Claremont recalls. "People were getting beat-up for being in the crowd, so I decided the safest place to be was onstage."
The Women showed immense potential, played a bunch of shows, experienced popularity on a local level, had a couple of small releases, and then became waylaid by—to use Shaw's euphemism—"personal situations." Fletcher went on to play drums in the now-defunct Filmstar, Claremont was in and out of bands and worked as a tour manager, and Klein (who contributes songwriting and vocals) moved to Oregon, returning to play in the Neil Armstrong Band and Dodge Dart.
Shaw, meanwhile, went to hell and back. But the group stayed in contact and talked about a time when they could finish what they started.
"I went off the deep end," says Shaw. "I took it to a real extreme. It really did get to a point where I was dying."
Shaw sits on a barstool, tugging on the neck of his gray-hooded sweatshirt, fidgeting with the strap on his messenger bag, repeatedly pushing locks of his curly brown hair out of his eyes, and probably wishing he were outside smoking a cigarette instead of recounting something that—no matter how he tries, no matter how many words he keeps adding to it—he just can't get to sound right. He's loathe to talk about it for many reasons.
"I've heard too many of these war stories, and one of the first things that turned me off to the [recovery] program was that everybody's got a story, and they're all horrendous, and it's this sort of one-upsmanship of who got crazier and who was the bigger dirt bag.
"I've never heard anybody say anything on the topic of drugs, especially a situation like heroin. . . ." He stops. "Well, it's just not a situation that can be improved on, no matter what anybody does with their life after that."
Shaw takes a deep breath. "Let's see:I basically destroyed all the personal relationships in my life," he begins. As he tells his story—disinterested, dispassionate, almost in a monotone —he sinks lower and lower into the stool, as if collapsing into himself. The space between his knees and his chest narrows. His body, which he's hiding, stands in direct contrast to his words, which make him naked. In a few minutes, he'll let out a guttural sigh and start to cry just a tiny bit.
"Oh, this is so silly," he'll say, embarrassed. You will shut off the tape recorder and put your hand on his arm. You will both apologize and feel silly and weird. You for being a journalist and he for being a heroin addict.
He's not anymore, mind you. Shaw has pulled his shit together, doesn't want your pity, and doesn't want you to think that he thinks the whole mess was anything other than "embarrassing" and "kind of stupid." Anything you offer on the topic will not sit right with him, nor will anything he offers, which is why he'd generally rather not get into it. In fact, after telling you the story, he will see to it that you hang around for a while, probably because you now hold a piece of him that he's not sure he should have parted with.