By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
The three of us are standing on the shoulder of Ortega Highway, the sky bluer than blue, the July sun beating at our heads like a blacksmith's hammer.
Dust whipped up by passing cars on the narrow two-lane road eddies around our feet.
We've just found what we were looking for: a diminutive wooden cross pounded into the roadside berm, a kind of homemade memorial meant to mark a motorist's death. A.Jay Popoff is on his knees, not devotionally, mind you, but in the attitude of a caregiver, digging through the summer-blasted weeds to clear out the skeletal remains of a few potted plants left since his last visit to the spot where his stepdad died and his mother was maimed a year ago. Jeremy Popoff, his brother, indicates dark patches on the roadside; turns out what I'm standing in isn't motor oil but, he figures, his mother's dried blood.
Last June, Kerry and Sheri Suglia were headed via motorcycle to their home in Lake Elsinore—bright cerulean sky, warm breeze in their faces, the early summer sun still an hour away from setting behind them. Two miles from the Riverside County border, where the Ortega makes a sweeping right-hand turn and suddenly offers up a stunning view of Elsinore maybe 2,000 feet below, the Suglias met destiny in the form of an SUV drifting into their lane. Kerry died on impact; from where I'm standing, it looks as if Sheri lost most of her blood before an ambulance could get her to a hospital.
Later, Sheri would tell the boys she never lost consciousness, can remember everything, even things (one imagines) she'd rather forget, including this one salient feature she couldn't quite name: a kind of high-pitched screeching sound.
"I told her, 'That's the sound of terror, Mom,'" A.Jay says.
It was a sound so audible to the band members that, for months, they set aside music, funneling all their energy into saving Mom—and, sure, themselves: "We were in emotional rehab," says A.Jay. He sold his Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic. Jeremy flew to Nashville for a weekend, intending only to add a guitar riff to the NFL's 2005 season theme song; he ended up writing country songs about loss and death and despair, including one he says may end up on the lips of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, "Why'd You Have to be So Good?"
Twenty minutes after we've considered how the death and maiming of loved ones on a state highway can revivify your career and, what's more, your life, there's this ironic twist:
The three of us—two members of the platinum-selling band Lit and a guy they've just met—are driving back to Orange County. Rounding a blind curve on Ortega Highway, one of the state's most dangerous roads, we confront a white industrial dump truck. We are so close that we can see the driver looking down at something on his dashboard—his radio, maybe. We are no more than 20 feet from him when he looks up, startled to realize he's swerved into our lane, and that we're headed for a guardrail on the side of a sheer cliff. He cranks the wheel sharply to his right. I swear I can see individual hairs on his mustache.
* * *
Sometimes, when life is really awful, when your parents have just been run down on a two-lane road on the cusp of their first vacation as a couple—sometimes on these occasions, people who speak aphoristically will tell you that it's always darkest before the dawn. They'll make this astronomical forecast just before it gets darker, and it turns out that previous darknesses were no prelude to anything remotely dawn-like but to a deeper hue of midnight black, the kind you see—is all you see—in your typical cavern.
June 2004 might have seemed the nadir for the guys from Lit. They were five years off "My Own Worst Enemy," a single that stayed in the No. 1 spot for three positively incandescent months and pushed A Place in the Sun, their 1999 album, past gold to platinum—a record-industry designation for sales of 1,000,000 albums or more.
"For a while," says A.Jay, "I lived every young man's dream."
"People tell you you're a rock star, and you want to resist it—'Not me, man,'" says Jeremy. "But then you look at a video, and there you are on stage playing for thousands of fans who are doing this"—making devil horns with their fingers, bobbing their heads—"and singing along with you, and you realize, yeah, you're a rock star."
And then, two years after "My Own Worst Enemy": darkness as dense as the inside of a rock, the world on its head. On Monday, Sept. 10, Lit—the Popoffs, bassist Kevin Baldes and drummer Allen Shellenberger—were in New York City to celebrate Jeremy's Sept. 11 birthday and kick-start a national tour to push their fourth album up the mineralogical chart—beyond platinum, all the way to diamond. New York being New York, the band's road crew, trucks and equipment were waiting in nearby bargain-basement Jersey. In the interest of camaraderie, the band retreated that Monday night to Jersey and awakened the next morning to phone calls: turn on the news and look out the hotel window.