By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
In 1996, a year after Lit formed, the federal government lifted the cap on radio station ownership from 40 to limitless; thank the GOP Congress and a president eager to appease the right.
"I think it's difficult to measure exactly what the effect on playlists has been," Los Angeles Timesreporter Jeff Leeds told the PBS program Frontline. "But I think there's statistics that show at least at the top of the playlist, there are fewer new songs that are getting the heaviest rotations. So what you're seeing is essentially a trend where, in most radio formats, there's a small number of songs that get played over and over and over again. And the number of songs that get that opportunity has definitely shrunk."
Simultaneously, record labels married, married again, and then yet again—a kind of industrial polygamy leading to fewer labels and fewer acts.
Thus, the Internet—iPods, Napster, iTunes, MySpace, Soulseek: capitalism destroying an industry that had become an obstacle to its own growth, resolving what Marx called an internal contradiction, this time via the Internet.
Following the transformation of RCA, Lit split—saw Atomic's sagging revenue as a presentiment of the End Times, a signpost pointing to Find a New Deal. The band signed with a small label called DRT on limited terms: if Lit's next album, the self-titled Lit, sold less than 100,000 copies in a year, Lit was free to move on.
One year and about 70,000 units later, Lit moved again.
That was June 2005.
Cue: a happy couple, mid-50s, on a single motorcycle, their future as bright as an early evening in June on the edge of the Cleveland forest, a winding two-lane road, wind in their faces, sun at their backs, the mirrored surface of Lake Elsinore just around the next turn, and beyond that, home.
* * *
Their stepdad died on Ortega Highway; though she never lost consciousness, their mother didn't know that for three days. At a nearby hospital, doctors emerged periodically from surgery to tell the family, "It doesn't look good."
"All they could say was that they couldn't stop the bleeding," Jeremy recalls.
As the brothers describe the days that followed, there's a hallucinogenic quality to the tale: crying in the hospital parking lot; their mother swaddled in tubes and tape; the hospital's well-meaning grief counselors swarming them; Mom's leg amputated to staunch the blood; wondering about the point at which knowing she was a widow wouldn't send Sheri into a death spiral; long drives from Fullerton to the hospital in Temecula providing the only opportunity to hear music.
"Was it just two weeks?" A.Jay asks his brother today. "It seems a lot longer."
"When you feel that numb," A.Jay says, "music doesn't seem like an option."
* * *
To recover their parents' things, the brothers drove to the wrecking yard, into and then beyond Temecula, and then on and on for miles. They found the bike mangled.
"It was covered in blood and just a mess," says Jeremy. They looked at the thing, puzzled, disgusted, and then, fighting every human impulse to hurl, "we just manned up," he says. They slipped on latex gloves "and scooped their stuff out of the saddle bags."
* * *
Rock stars get to live life—take out their trash, discipline their children, go to work, experience disappointment, bury their fathers, live in a community, attend to their newly widowed mothers, cook, clean and build up hope like a muscle. About three months after the accident, in the fall of 2005, Jeremy turned to country music—he jokes that he smokes and drinks whiskey to polish his voice to a mahogany finish—and A.Jay began thinking about new songs for Lit.
"Everyone pulled back for a while," he says.
"When something like that happens, you ask yourself what you're singing and whom you're singing it for," says Jeremy.
Jeremy is singing for himself right now. His country song, the one inspired by his time in Nashville immediately after the accident, was "written from the perspective of my mom," he says, but its universal lyrics, its Truth with a capital T, gets at the cost of real intimacy, the price you pay when you really fall in love: "If it wasn't for all we had/It might not hurt so bad/Why'd you have to be so good?"
With Sean Francis, a partner in the wildly successful Continental, Jeremy and A.Jay have just opened Slidebar Café in downtown Fullerton. As a kind of Lit Inc., the band members diversify—they invest in real estate, for example. One of the guys has opened a boxing gym in Phoenix; another is manufacturing custom road cases for band equipment.
And the music has come back. The band's first return gig took place in Bakersfield in the fall of 2005, fittingly as the wrap-up for a motorcycle ride. Since then, they've performed in Germany for the men and women returning from Iraq. "They're so stoked to be there, and we're stoked to be there, it's just . . . " He struggles for a word of emotional depth and settles on "cool." Label-free, they've made enough money on one-off shows in Clearwater, Raleigh, Baltimore, Rochester, Vegas and Phoenix, in towns like ours where fans still come by the thousands to celebrate a band whose music makes them, for a moment, forget mortality.
I offer that maybe—despite their humility, their suggestion that it's just rock & roll, that they're not rock stars or any more important than you and me—that that's what art might be for—for forgetting and, sure, maybe remembering we're going to die.