We’re super excited to see our friend Steve Durham’s essay “Human out of Me” listed as a notable essay in 2017’s Leslie Jamison-edited Best American Essays! To celebrate, we’re posting his essay, from our Fall 2016 issue, here in full. It’s the right time of year for it – these short, cold, dark days. Steve’s essay emerges from the darkest night of his life and traces his course back to the light, back to his humanity. His companions on this journey are members of the band Silkworm, who were also broken by tragedy and found rebirth as a new band, Bottomless Pit. We’ve curated this Silkworm and Bottomless Pit Spotify Playlist for musical accompaniment. A gift of hope for the New Year!
HUMAN out of ME
by Steve Durham
I remember the night as a wash of sour beer and a low-hung bank of cigarette smoke. A bass amp thumped inside my ribs and the pulse of red, green, and blue spotlights surged with my blood. Silkworm could fill a club in other cities but as usual, their ancestral home, Missoula, Mont., greeted them with indifference; they played to a dozen of us not counting the sound guy, the bartender, a passed-out cowboy, and the blotto blond who made out with a mullet.
I was a 27-year-old writer with a day job in a food warehouse. My paycheck, along with the produce and canned goods that fell from the semis I unloaded all day, kept me and my wife afloat while she earned a law degree. She had been top of her class at the University of Chicago where we met, a darling of the Classics Department who could quote Catullus and James Hetfield in the same sentence. In those days, I saw the JD she worked for as a form of patronage I was richly due. I had elbowed my way onto the periphery of Missoula’s legendary writing scene and into workshops at the university. My friends and fellow writers believed in me and pushed me forward. I was invincible and believed myself an important young writer. The city itself thrummed with a creative energy that carried me through ten-hour shifts spent lumping heavy sacks of flour and potatoes followed by writing sessions that took me deep into the night.
I was with my friend John at that particular Silkworm show. He recorded it and later copied it onto a Maxell tape for me. The bootleg started with his Appalachian twang asking the sound man’s permission.
“Do you mind if I record this?” he asked. We were late and had just raced the steep stairs to Jay’s Upstairs, a long-gone Missoula institution, and because of our sprint, John’s voice was breathless on the tape.
The sound man was indifferent. “Nah. Go for it,” he said.
The band was already into their first song, playing from a setlist drawn heavily from a new album called Blueblood. They were a three piece by that point and the bassist and guitar player receded during some of the new songs like Eff and Ritz Dance. That’s because the drummer, Michael Dahlquist, was absolutely on; his thundering drums projected a sonic power that commanded my full attention. That night, he played harder than anybody I had ever seen. He was a shirtless, grinning force behind the drum kit, sweat-slick under the lights, beating his sticks to splinters. I promised myself to write with his force, to hold nothing back. That was the last time I saw Silkworm play and it was the last time I saw Dahlquist alive.
Soon after that show, my wife and I packed the sum total of our belongings into two cars and moved out of the ring of green mountains around the Missoula Valley to a brown patch of shortgrass prairie in the middle of the state. Our new home was a place called Great Falls, a retrograde Air Force town on the windswept east slope of the Rocky Mountains, a place whose very name foreshadowed what awaited us.
At first, our future was rosy. My wife started her career as an associate at a well-respected law firm and I lived my fantasy life as writer and house husband. After we shared breakfast and after she had fixed a courtroom game face on her way out the door, I sat myself down before a rapidly expanding novel, but only after first plugging into that bootleg tape and letting the beat of Dahlquist’s drums carry me deep into a fiction. That tape played constantly in my writing room and became a lifeline as I made my uncertain way deep into a book about a brutal father figure and his two sons set against the drug trade along the Canadian border. I played that tape over and over and over, rising every 45 minutes to rewind because the other side was blank. That collection of Silkworm songs became as central to my writing as a mantra is to meditation.
The Mylar tape also became a thin but constant tether connecting me back to those Missoula days when I discovered mainlines of inspiration and confidence in my friends, in shows at Jay’s, at readings, and in workshops. But if I listened closely to Ritz Dance, I also heard a line that made me think leaving Missoula was a terrible mistake:
Now the greatest times are gone.
I finished the novel late in 2002 and just as American troops were massing on the Iraqi border ahead of the ground war, I was busily dispatching my own expeditionary force of query letters. Around the same time, I also landed my first short story in a trendy Chicago literary magazine. I positively swaggered in those days, sure an agent or editor would be calling me any day with an offer to take on my manuscript. I already knew who would write my back cover blurbs and I envisioned phrases comparing me to Russell Banks and Robert Stone.
My hubris blinded me to the illness growing in my wife. Depression had crept in around the edges, wearing her down slowly and relentlessly in the way wave action erodes whole continents. At first, Paxil and then Zoloft worked their leavening magic on my wife and allowed my illusions and dreams to continue uninterrupted. But as years went by, her depression deepened. She grew tired of the chorus of coworkers, friends, and family asking her what was wrong? and did she feel okay? She slept through whole weekends and burned through her sick time and vacation days.
We sat on the couch one day watching a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode on VHS. A gag line came and went but my wife kept laughing after my chuckle had died. The sound of it rose, became a hysterical keening before it turned to tears that didn’t stop.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said, defiant, angry.
Later, another associate at the firm would tell me my wife had been heard sobbing behind her locked office door. The partners at the firm would point to plummeting billable hours and a certain shoddiness in her work when they showed her the door.
By the latter half of the oughts, she had spent almost 100 nights on a psych unit’s rubber-coated mattress two states away. Her doctors administered candy-colored combinations of mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and sedatives in their pursuit of elusive relief. Every Friday for two years, we drove 420 miles to Spokane, Wash., leaving shortly after midnight to arrive just as the rising sun turned the city’s towering pines to gold, just in time for her shock therapy appointments. Depression and its cures pillaged her intellect, memory and wit. By the end, her eyes were fixed in a thousand yard stare and I lost hope she would ever come back.
There had been no movement whatsoever on my novel beyond a slow trickle of curt rejection letters. I had started a second book, a conspiracy-minded, plot-driven attempt at commercial success, but it foundered early. My wife’s medical bills compounded into a guilt-inducing pile of debt on our dining room table and I had to trade in my leisurely writing life for a hard hat, Redwing boots, and 50-hour work weeks. At day’s end, I was simply too tired to write anything more ambitious than bitter journal entries. The energy and vitality that had carried me through my Missoula days had long since ebbed and now my brain, stressed-out by a years-long suicide watch, was brimful with cortisol and I was barely able to grasp genre fiction, televised sports, and internet porn. I started to believe this was how a writing career ended.
On the worst days, I began to consider whether illness had changed our love forever. I entertained dark fantasies that saw me pulling a ripcord, leaving the marriage, and saving myself. A new Silkworm line resonated with me. It came from the opening to That’s Entertainment and I heard there a cautionary, if cynical, tale that kept me on the straight and narrow:
The affair was good but it wasn’t worth the money…
And then, my Silkworm bootleg broke. The Mylar, strained by thousands of rewinds, snapped cleanly in two and now its loose end flailed around on one of the spools inside the smoky gray plastic case. When the tape finally went, it felt like my mooring line let loose, a ragged end of rope smacking me on the snout as it recoiled, and then, as I held the limp end of all that remained, I knew I was adrift, knew I was forever cut off.
My friend John who had recorded that bootleg called one day. He’d been trying to reach me for a long time but whenever his name popped up on caller ID, I hid from the ringing phone. I believed at the time nobody wanted to hear about our nightmare and besides, I didn’t think I could explain to him or anyone else what was going on. But this time I picked up. He caught me up on his life and I tried to listen but I was checked out, too lost in my own mire to care.
At some point he said that Silkworm was done, that they had disbanded because drummer Michael Dahlquist was dead. The way John was talking, it sounded like the death was recent.
“When did it happen?” I asked.
“2005,” he said. “I been calling you for four years to tell you.”
I knew he was joking. But there was truth there. I was pulled back, too depressed to take phone calls, too depressed to go buy some new music.
After I hung up, I sat at my desk and listened to the last Silkworm song left in the house. It was called Roots and it was buried in a mix tape. The song’s present is set in an unnamed city but it is also laced with glimpses into a past life spent in Missoula. The last lines rang with a haunting refrain:
There’s a Puerto Rican in this bar
She’s thinking about San Juan
If I could, you know, I’d wave a wand and send her home
But first, you know, I’d send myself back where the river flows
But I can’t even see that road,
“When” is a secret, and that means nobody knows.
I listened to the instrumentation closely and heard for the first time the silence behind the bass, the vocals, and the guitar. For the first time I noticed there are no drums on the song and no Dahlquist either.
On a May night in 2009, the endless wheat fields all around Great Falls surged with the emerald green of new growth. Downslope winds off the Rocky Mountain Front swirled, eddied, and rippled across knee-high grasses. The sweet perfume of those greening fields drifted through our open windows along with neighborhood sounds of birdsong, a burring lawnmower, and a basketball’s beat beneath a driveway hoop. The soundscape matters because there was a missing track that night, a thing I should have heard right away.
I was home after a bruising week spent in a trench burying power lines between muddy, slumping walls. It was a Friday night and I was exhausted. My wife had greeted me curtly, avoided my eyes, staring instead over my shoulder at a far horizon. She was in that spooky place where she couldn’t cry anymore, a place where a new calm took over. I only wanted to rest and shrugged off the warning signs, wolfed down my dinner, and turned on the TV news. My eyelids were heavy and I was nodding off, only vaguely aware that she had been in the bathroom for a long time before shutting the bedroom door without a word. My brain fought to add it up but I was tired and powerless to fight the sleep that took me.
I woke with a jolt in a silent house. That’s when I could name the missing thing, this unsettling silence. There was no fan noise, none of that soft clatter of plastic blades beating the sweet spring air, no softly whirring electric motor. Fan noise was a constant thing, my wife unable to sleep without an open window and a box fan cranked to 11 every spring, summer, and fall. That’s when I knew something was wrong; she never went to sleep without a fan.
The hallway was a panicky rush, the clap of my feet on old oak floors distant, the sound of some desperate person, it couldn’t have been me, rushing towards something. I was on the bed beside her, shaking her, pushing her limp body harder and harder. Panic drew the moments out, distorted sound and narrowed the margins of sight. I watched as someone, it can’t have been me, some frantic man shot through with fear and adrenalin rocked a woman’s limp body until the bed, the floor, and the walls shook with a madman’s exertions. She moved. I hustled her upright. She was heavy and floppy, a water-logged futon.
“What did you do?” I asked. I had her by the waist and slung one of her arms over my shoulders and dragged her to her feet.
There was no answer.
“What did you take?” I was shouting now, screaming in her face.
Finally she spoke. “All of them,” she said. I flashed to the rows of orange prescription pill bottles in our medicine cabinet. There were gigantic bottles of sleeping pills and sedatives in the mix. I asked her again what she took.
“All of them.” Her speech was a slurred whisper. As I wrestled her through a hallway, the back door, and finally, the garage, I understood the term dead weight. I pushed her into the passenger seat of our car, swung legs and feet inside, belted her in, and raced down our tree-lined street at negligent speeds – 85 miles per hour on the long straights past houses, past neighbors walking dogs, and through school zones. As the car jolted and caught air over potholes and frost heaves, my stomach rose and fluttered.
I muttered a spooked and pathetic mantra – please don’t die – and I made desperate oaths and sad appeals to a deity I don’t believe in to give me just one more day with her. I had no idea how long it would be before the double-handful of pills started to shut her down, no idea which organ would fail first – her heart, her liver, her kidneys. It scared me out of my mind to watch her dying, to glance into a void, a brink crumbling underfoot.
I kept one hand on the wheel and the other twisted tightly in her sweatshirt to hold her upright even as her head rolled on limp neck muscles and bonked off window glass. And in that moment, I hated her too, hated that she could hurt me with a power that felt godlike. A new notion formed during the rush to the ER doors: I never wanted to hurt like this again. On that night, I hardened myself against my greatest vulnerability: my love for my wife.
Three months later, I crawled on my belly, face down in the dirt when my hand bumped into something furry. Some primal part of my brain knew I had just grazed the dead and I jerked my hand back. In the beam of my headlamp was the carcass of a cat, flesh and fur gone tight on the bone. I pushed it aside with the head of my hammer and kept belly-crawling to the back of an ancient crawlspace. Near where I was pulling in fresh wire, there was a pile of trash. The layers told a story of contraband through the ages – at bottom, half-pint whiskey bottles and church key beer cans, atop that, an old bong, green glass caked black with resin and finally, atop all that and spilling down the sides and into the dirt, a lattice work of used hypodermics. A circle of light spilled down into the crawlspace through a knothole in the floor above. It was an opening just big enough to secret the evidence of vice away from the prying eyes of a spouse or probation officer.
I was working on a remodel in a shitty neighborhood up in the northeast part of Spokane called Hillyard. It was terrible work but we were getting by in our new town. And yes, I said we. We had made it to the ER in time that night and thanks to a fast-acting medical staff, my wife survived. In the months after, I tapped into the rare courage that rushes in after a moment of near death and organized our move to a place with real psychiatric services. We stripped our lives to the bone and shed weight as refugees must. We sold off many of our belongings along with our house on a tree-lined boulevard in Great Falls and moved to a rental in a Spokane neighborhood full of sprawling families, front yard pitbulls, and ‘70s sedans with primer paint jobs.
In our new town, my wife devoted herself full time to healing through Pilates, dog walks, and intensive work with psychiatrists, therapists, and a weekly group from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Her ECT sessions were soon down to once a month and slowly her humor and her classicist’s brain started to return. But even as she rose from her own ashes, I was stuck in time, stuck on a spring night in 2009, stuck on that night of her attempt.
After that one sharp glimpse into what it was to lose her, I flinched from her and the pain she could inflict. Even as she needed me in her recovery, I was pulled back, waiting for the next attempt. I locked her scripts in a gun safe and doled them out so she could never rebuild a lethal stash. I hounded her daily with a question, one bred not from love but from a sick hyper-vigilance and from the belief that I could control anything at all: Are you feeling suicidal today? I would ask.
Even as she filled our house with the scents of her cooking and the seeds and starts for spring’s gardens, my mind turned in catastrophic gyres, leading always back to the late-stage illness, back to my reckless run to the ER with her dying beside me. I felt incapable of loving her again and refused to believe in her recovery. I couldn’t read. I hadn’t written in a year. I was high all the time and prone to non-stop weeping. My wife pleaded with me to sit my ass down on a shrink’s couch.
I figured my first session with a therapist would be an easy one where I chatted about my parents and laid out my CV. Instead, his very first question, some variation on “Why are you here?” launched me into a crying fit that lasted most of the hour. At the end, the best answer I could muster was to tell him, “I feel like I’ve lost my humanity.”
The line rang of cheap melodrama but I didn’t have any other way to voice the dark thoughts that had overrun my gentler self in the wake of my wife’s suicide attempt. She had recovered in a hospital bed in the days after and I had barely been able to bring myself to visit. Instead, I harbored regret for ever bum-rushing our bedroom door and interrupting her attempt. I had carried this knowledge like a secret in the years after. How could I tell my wife there were a few weeks when I wished she had died? What kind of caregiver or spouse, what kind of a man, thinks these things?
Over the following weeks, my therapist dug deeper into my depression and asked me to think about any link between it and that May night. At one point he read to me from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual entry concerning Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I scoffed openly as soon as he threw its acronym – PTSD – out there. My fly-fishing mentor had been a decorated combat medic in Viet Nam who repeatedly rushed into enemy fire to patch up his buddies during the fighting at Hamburger Hill. Decades later whenever it rained and his own shrapnel wounds started to throb, he slipped time and entered a fugue state, his body just a shell in the present day while his mind still raced up a muddy slope high above the A Shau Valley. His PTSD made sense to me. He had earned it. I refused to believe that the little psychodrama between me and my wife rose to that level.
And then my therapist read the DSM’s chief criterion back to me: exposure to threatened or actual death. While I gnawed my thumbnail back to the quick, he continued reading the diagnostic criteria: The disturbance, regardless of its trigger, causes clinically significant distress or impairment in the individual’s social interactions, capacity to work or other important areas of functioning.
My therapist said there was a path to healing if I was willing to revisit that suicide night repeatedly. He wanted to expose me to the details over and over until I could encounter the narrative without feeling the fear, anxiety and anger that had colonized my brain that night and had never really left in the years since. In that way, we would strip that night of its power and free me of memory’s physical effects.
My homework assignment was to write up a narrative of that night. It was the first bit of prose work I had done in a while and it meant I had to raid a stash of primary source material to refresh my memory. That material resided in a Ziploc bag, a sort of time capsule stuffed with the evidence of that suicide try. The bag was sealed tight and plump with air. I liked to think it held the very air of that night, the soft, warm air of a spring evening in Montana and the scent of greening wheat. I opened it and breathed deeply but smelled only stale plastic.
Inside the bag were the pill bottles, transparent orange cylinders, empty, of course; I had fished them out of a garbage can the morning after and now they were like sacred objects representing the mercy my wife sought from her torments, the last expressions of her will, the almost-end of her life, our love, and my world. The bag also held some notes I had made on hospital scratch paper. I had recorded the ghastly hue of her teeth and lips, black-stained from a charcoal solution, the names of machines tracking her lazy pulse and weak blood pressure, the chatter among nurses, a doctor’s orders, and a cop’s questions. I took all this and I plumbed my memory and I turned it into the three pages my therapist asked for.
On my next appointment, he read it back to me, stopping along the way to ask how I was feeling. At first, I couldn’t take it. I was transported from my therapist’s couch in an office on Spokane’s north side back to the wheel of the car, or back to the hard plastic hospital chair where I held vigil as a blur of nurses and doctors worked on my wife. Against the soft ticking of my therapist’s clock, my heart hammered in my chest and my breathing changed, went shallow and fast. He held me out over an abyss and dangled me there by just one ankle until, finally, I called uncle.
We repeated this exercise weekly, him reading my own words back to me. With each pass, I made it a little further and with each pass, my heart rate and my breathing ceased to resemble those of a man sprinting for his life. Over the course of a slow year, our work started to uncouple that traumatic episode from the amygdala, an atavistic, drug-addled almond in the brain that trucks in fight or flight responses, and into the quieter halls of the higher brain where histories and understanding are written. In time he helped me to place that May night in a newly-minted past, helped me move those events from the visceral to the cerebral. He helped me to place my most savage thought – that I wished she had died – into the context of those fraught days. Slowly I began to identify and attach myself to the love I felt in the car, the desperate love I felt when I thought my wife was as good as dead. Slowly I came to forgive myself.
With my therapist’s help, I was starting to see that even in the middle of that most horrible moment, there were gifts, things blossoming all around. I was starting to learn that on that suicide night, our love was reborn. That night had also given me the courage to make the move out of Great Falls and to Spokane where our true healing could begin. And as I listened to him read my prose back to me, I started to realize I was hearing the earliest draft of a new voice.
Over dinner one night, a writer friend pointed out that my years with mental illness had given me an abundance of raw material. He encouraged me to see the dark insights and rare access I was granted as a gift. I knew he was right, knew I probably had all the fuel I needed for several novels. I had weathered acute depressive episodes, seen psych wards, and lived the dark stuff of family secrets. On his advice, I raided my hard drives and transcribed napkin and sticky note scribblings to bring rough order to a decade’s worth of notes. When I was done, I had a chronicle of events and a collection of sense details spanning hundreds of pages. It was a travelogue about the insides of hospitals, an extended rant about our misfortunes, and a dense catalog of my fears. But I couldn’t see a novel there yet, couldn’t sense a narrative force or hear a voice.
Increasingly, my time with those pages paralyzed me. They had become daunting and I was so close to the material that I felt like I was looking up at Ben Hur in CinemaScope from the front row. I finally walked away for most of a spring and summer and lost myself in rock climbing and fly-fishing, quiet places where the conscious brain must recede, places where body and instinct reign, powerful places where ideas flicker at the edges of sight.
In the body-sore quiet after a day on the rock or lost in the metronome of the fly fisherman’s cast, in moments when I wasn’t thinking about writing at all, a whisper began to rise, one that suggested it was time to abandon the idea of fiction writing altogether. This whisper grew in volume and stridency and asserted with a patient certainty that my material was best handled directly, as a work of non-fiction. The only obstacle was my ego, my own stunted belief that fiction writing alone was the highest literary endeavor, that memoir never quite rose to the same standard. And yet as I considered why my first novel had failed, I began to see my dishonesty in telling that story, in writing about themes of family loyalty and bad fathers all the while protecting my tender bits behind the shield of third person singular.
It was growing clear: only the guilty and terrifying I would do for this project. And then, rather than a liberation, I felt a still deeper paralysis. To write this as memoir would be to out my wife for her illness, to unmask my asshole self, and to relive and reexamine years of pain.
Late on a winter night, still frozen before my notes, I turned for distraction to a CD that had shown up in the day’s mail, a gift from my friend John. It was by a band named Bottomless Pit, the follow-on act to Silkworm after Michael Dahlquist’s death. The album’s name was Hammer of the Gods and the first track, called The Cardinal Movements, arrested me, forced me from the computer, and commanded I listen again and again. It described something like my crisis following that suicide night, the years I spent depressed and drugged and afraid to love my wife again, and the song hinted at my slow recovery, too:
When you know they won’t show up
When you think it might rain
When you get it in your mind to live again
You got no tolerance for nonsense
You just get tired of pain
When you get it in your mind to live again.
In the song I also found reminders that the darkness of that May night will never go away. Finding my wife passed out on our bed, the half-drag, half-carry to the car, that panicky drive: these will always be haunting things, the nightmares that find me on random nights, grim anniversaries, and memories I wince from. But the song also reminded me that time spawns perspective and in the chorus, it dropped a piece of brotherly advice that would eventually embolden me to move on the memoir:
Those dreams are never ending
I know it’s always hard to hear
Sometimes they’re good
Sometimes they’re bad
We always want some better way to say it
Sometimes it’s best just to lay it bare.
Throughout the song, there is a gravitas, a sense of grief and pain relieved only slightly by the song’s themes of moving on. Never mentioned is the source of grief, the spring of those bad dreams. Nor does the song ever name the spirit that haunts it. Songwriter Tim Midyett, a founding member of Silkworm, is too deft for that but it is obvious that he is singing about Dahlquist, his death, the end of Silkworm, and life without a drummer, a friend, and a brother. In the waning seconds of The Cardinal Movements, I heard a briefly pounding beat and in that beat, I heard a thundering reminder of Dahlquist’s powerful style. The sound of it took me back to Jay’s Upstairs where I still see the pale blur of drumsticks above a stripped-down kit.
But this was neither Silkworm nor Dahlquist. This was a new drummer and a new band. The song’s title was, after all, a metaphor: cardinal movements describe the positions of the fetus during the birth process. Even as the song mourns Dahlquist and fixes the tragedy of his death as the album’s central theme, the song also signals a new creation, a second life for Silkworm’s surviving members Midyett and Andy Cohen.
When I was done listening, that single line – sometimes it’s best just to lay it bare – stayed with me and worked on me. It summed up Cohen’s and Midyett’s solemn task of moving on after Dahlquist’s death, the bold embrace of pain, and the reward – no less than a creative rebirth, a second act for Silkworm’s survivors. This song reached me when nothing else had. Nothing – no book, no music, no guilt-tripping friend – had yet goaded me into starting the memoir. But in the days after, I attacked my notes with vigor, finding my voice, discovering within my notes the moments that would dramatize depression’s grinding advance through our lives.
I was not sure at first why this particular statement about pain and creative rebirth reached me. Part of it had to be the role Silkworm played in my writing for all those years. That long-gone bootleg tape had carried me all the way through the agony of my first novel. But as I dug into Dahlquist’s death, Silkworm’s end, and Bottomless Pit’s rise, I began to realize why I identified with this new act. What I started to uncover was a compelling parallel in the suicide story behind Dahlquist’s death at a Skokie, Ill., red light on July 14, 2005.
It was the noon hour and Dahlquist was waiting for the light to change. He was with two other musicians, John Glick and Doug Meis. The trio were friends and coworkers at an audio equipment manufacturer and they were headed to lunch at a favorite Middle Eastern restaurant. A washed-up trade-show model and sometime stripper, Jeanette Sliwinski, was on a suicide run and rammed her car into Dahlquist’s Honda Civic at 70 mph. The 23-year-old told investigators after the crash she wanted to end it all when she climbed into her red Ford Mustang and left her mother’s house.
The force of the crash launched both cars through the air; the Honda landed 47 feet away. Dahlquist died instantly. Glick was thrown from the back seat and through the front windshield. He landed in the street where a stranger held him as he died. Meis died at the hospital. Jeanette Sliwinski broke her ankle in the wreck and served just months of her sentence despite an initial triple-murder charge. Her family would refute the claim that Sliwinski had attempted suicide but investigators pointed to the gas pedal in her car as proof of suicidal intent; it had wrapped around her foot at impact, metal bent to bone as proof that she had commanded her Mustang to go faster, that she had mashed the throttle, not the brake, and held it to the floor even as she sped into Dahlquist’s car.
I interviewed Midyett recently and he said, “It was blatantly obvious when we heard what had happened. There was no discussion of ‘what are we going to do with the band?’ It was just done.” And yet, Cohen and Midyett did not stop playing. They found new members for the band that would become Bottomless Pit and 18 months later, they turned out Hammer of the Gods.
I settled into the rest of the album over the course of a winter and wrote alongside it. It is an austere thing and largely lacks the classic rock fire burning in Silkworm’s heart. Midyett’s and Cohen’s lyrics are frank and heartbreaking this time around:
Do you ever feel like you’re going crazy from the inside?
I lie in the street
The cars run over me
I wanted to die
But I’m a tough piece of meat.
Midyett’s new guitar, a gleaming baritone, fills the album with the force of an ancient siege engine, something built to breach dark walls of memory and grief. The vocal ranges are bolder, too, often rising into a discomfiting falsetto. Hammer of the Gods is an artistic statement like Silkworm never made, one rooted in the power of vulnerability. They were teaching me a lesson about pain as generative force.
I can’t overlook the suicide attempt that serves as the tragic pivot point between Silkworm and Bottomless Pit. Through Jeanette Sliwinski, Michael Dahlquist died, and with him, Silkworm. Through the knowledge and wisdom granted by his death, Bottomless Pit arose. And in turn, a Bottomless Pit song found me and lit my path into a new work, the beating heart of which is another suicide attempt. It is a moment of apparent coincidence that shakes my nihilistic tendencies and asks me to think of a benevolent universe. In that way, this single song gave me just enough faith to start writing again.
In these kinder moments, I consider briefly whether I should cultivate a sort of gratitude to Sliwinski for setting in place whole chains of artistic dormancy and rebirth. And in those moments I also feel for her family because I know small bits of their pain. And I think of my own wife and the loose parallels with Sliwinski: the gauntlet of pills, hospitals, and therapists, the thousand-yard stare in the days before the attempt, and I think of myself at the wheel, gunning our car down tree-lined streets at the same speeds that killed Dahlquist. But I let the parallels unravel. Bottomless Pit’s first album is a memento mori. The Cardinal Movements was a gift to me but I never forget its price.