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.
Across the Hudson, Rome was burning. Their new album, due out in just three weeks, suddenly sounded prescient: it was called Atomic.
* * *
There's a wonderful quote about rock & roll stardom, usually attributed to Deborah Harry of Blondie, but which actually came from the mouth of her near-anonymous husband, Blondie guitarist, Chris Stein:
"Here's the band. They starve. You have no money. You sign bad deals, sign your life away. You spend all your time and unearned money getting out of the bad deals. Then all the people you respect turn around and say, 'You sold out. You suck.' Well, fuck you."
The Lit variant goes like this: while the members of Lit worked in small clubs that smelled of barf, spilled beer and sweat for a decade, they were hometown heroes. They weren't playing ska (like No Doubt, with whom they'd later tour) or punk (like the Offspring, with whom ditto), but a kind of clean, pure pop driven by riffs like something out of the Stones' "Satisfaction"—when you heard it, their biological father, DJ Alan Popoff, told them, you knew they were working on their own sound.
But when "My Own Worst Enemy" erupted—when the band was on a major label, touring every major city in America, their single lodged at No. 1 for 90 days, and young women were trying to set up camp in A.Jay's trousers—Jeremy says the Orange County press turned on Lit. "We were out there representing OC all over the world"—never mind a merely national tour, RCA flew Lit to Japan, Europe and Canada—"really waving the OC flag, heroes everywhere but our hometown," he says. Back home, "they were saying we sold out. But let me tell you, man: behind that platinum album, we worked our asses off. We probably signed every one of those records."
Here's the labor history: in 1990, still students at Savannah High School in Anaheim, the future members of Lit formed Razzle, a hair-metal band that played LA clubs—Gazarri's (now the Key Club), the Whiskey, the Troubador and the Roxy.
"We almost got signed," says Jeremy. "Fortunately, we didn't."
"Success would have destroyed us," he says. "We were too young. We didn't know what we were doing."
Older, wiser—still only in their mid-20s—they became Stain, their "musical bridge," they call it, between big-hair Razzle and power-pop Lit. And then the work began, work no different, certainly no easier, than the work of the neighbors in their Fullerton neighborhood—"electricians and contractors," for example—"just different," says Jeremy. He remembers nights, post-show, sitting in the Lit tour bus, raucous fans pounding on the windows, 20th-century sirens calling him to party, his hand flying over paychecks, maps, hotel reservations, contracts. Work: a 4 a.m. bedtime followed too quickly by 7 a.m. radio interviews characterized by a mind-numbing familiarity ("People always ask us how the songs come—the lyrics first or the music?—and I tell them sometimes music first, sometimes lyrics."), afternoon in-store performances, signing band photos for an hour or more—J-squiggle-P-squiggle-LIT and the year ('99, '00, '01, '02, '03, '04)—and dogging the record label to make sure that it's handling every arcane factor in the production, distribution, promotion and sale of music.
"Being a rock star leaves little time for partying like one," my colleague Alison Rosen observed when she traveled to Vegas with Lit for the Weekly in 1999.
Whether you like Lit's music—or the product (and it is a product) of any other famous or even semi-famous musician—you must admire their business acumen. Lit has mastered an industrial technique every bit as rigorous as the production of computer parts, homes, toys or televisions. It's about profit and loss. Anyone who escapes gravity to succeed in music has confronted the ruthless logic of capitalism, has surfed the intersecting waves of supply and demand.
Lit won with "My Own Worst Enemy" and then struggled. Weeks after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of Sept. 11, the band's label, RCA, (I almost feel the need to say, "in an unrelated move") cleaned house.
"We used to come into their offices in New York City high-fiving people and just enjoying the energy of the place," says Jeremy. After the October 2001 release of Atomic, RCA changed. In the face of the Internet challenge, the mammoth company shed staffers like old skin. Lit says Atomicnever had a chance; you could see that inside company headquarters: "You'd see these cubicles, all the posters off the walls, all their office stuff stacked in boxes, and all the offices where our friends had worked—people who knew us and who we knew—closed and locked."
"It was like starting over," says A.Jay.
* * *
In order to avoid surplus production, the head-on collision of weak consumer demand and rising product supply—of music, televisions, computers, butter or whatever—capitalism is always at war with itself, destroying old industries to create new ones, to reshape the seemingly fixed and frozen tastes of entire markets into new tastes, new desires, new appetites. Lit survived the decline of hair metal, entered power pop during the reign of rap, rode to platinum glory, and fell into a deep hole covered with leaves and branches: the Internet revolution and the re-creation of the music industry.
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 Caf 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.
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