by Ryan Alan Boyle
From Spring 2018
Four years before she disappeared, we tricked Esther Collins into recording one of the greatest albums ever made. She loved performing—the intensity of the present, the tight-rope anxiety of the stage, the power of a song to pull the emotions of an entire crowd with it—but she hated recording. Despised it. A song existed in the air, she said, in the moment it was sung, and she had no patience for the sterility of a studio, for the placement of microphones, for multiple takes and overdubs, for mixing and mastering. So we lied to her.
She had been about 20 years too late, or 15 years early, when she showed up alone in downtown Manhattan in 1982 with an acoustic guitar and a head full of old songs. No one knew where she was from or why she’d come. The city was just past bankruptcy, crime was peaking, heroin and murder on the streets, the Lower East Side a crumbling warzone. The art being made reflected that desolation—graffiti-bombed subway cars, Basquiat’s broken forms, autopsy videos, total screaming dissonance—that was our world.
It was in the humid unfinished basement of a squatter tenement that I first saw Esther Collins play, on a dirt floor under a naked light-bulb. Psychic Sisters, who would go on to fame and fortune in the 1990s, had just finished a set I can only describe as beat poetry over shrieking feedback and I loved it. Esther walked under that lone bulb, her dress rumpled and stained, a missing incisor, long straight black hair, heavy undereye baggage. She sat down in the dirt and started playing her unamplified guitar. At first it was hard to hear over the chattering noise of the crowd, the broken bottles and laughter of spike-haired punks and slumming art students—Grim William, a terror of the scene, stalked the shadowy corners of the basement in spiked hair and a ripped leather jacket looking for a fight—but pretty soon everyone in the place was dead silent and sweating, listening to this woman’s dusty desolate voice, beautiful in its hopelessness, like a memory of Billie Holiday’s final ragged breaths. It was the same at every show—following the punk bands, the noise experimenters, the brutal minimalists, the dissonant funksters, the atonal theorists, even the hellaciously caustic Acrobatics—after a song or two in her weathered, antique voice she would have the cynics in the crowd rapt, all their pain and worry brought right up to the surface and exposed in a room where no one was breathing. I didn’t know she had kids, I didn’t know yet about River.
Me, I worked at a record store in the Village, fresh out of college, and went to every show I could, in basements, on rooftops, in art galleries and bars and storefronts and abandoned buildings—it seemed like the only important thing in the city, in the world, in my life. I was hopelessly untalented, but burned with a desire to be something more than a mere spectator, more than a hanger-on. Honestly, I didn’t have anything better to do than start a record label to try to capture it all. Chromatic Records, I called it. I’d put out some Acrobatics singles and Sex is Perplex (1982), the first Psychic Sisters album, which made me a lot of money a decade later but sold so poorly at the time it nearly bankrupted me.
I wanted Esther. Every time I saw her I asked her to make a record for Chromatic and every time she refused, fed me all that garbage about hating recording, how she’d tried to make a record a dozen times and each time hated it more. So we lied. Her style and repertoire were way out of sync with the times, beautifully so, but she did think one contemporary performer was a genius—Jerry Drover, he of the guitar symphonies. The only time I saw her playing an electric guitar, she was on stage with him, inaudible in the droning orchestral din of a dozen other guitars.
Jerry personally invited her to play on his second album—Harmony for 12 Guitars (1983), on Chromatic, of course. Her admiration for him was greater than her hatred of the studio and she accepted, flattered to be considered. Between takes, we asked her to play some songs for the other musicians and the crew, keep everyone in the room entertained while levels were set and guitars were tuned, no big deal.
The magic was there because she had a crowd, because she didn’t know the tapes were still rolling. Esther sang her quiet heartsick songs one by one, eyes closed and unselfconscious, full of grace and fury, between takes of Jerry’s twelve-guitar drone shrieking out a sustained C#m7sus4 chord. At the end, we played the tapes back for her and she was angry, “betrayed, violated,” she said, and stormed out of the studio. We kept playing them for her over and over again, day after day—“No One Here Loves You Anymore,” “Never Can Tell Who You’re Gonna Lose,” “Can’t See No Future.” Jerry Drover, he told her it was a sound as beautiful and strange as the moon at night, and she nodded. I told her it was a perfect album and she told me to fuck myself, the words floating out nearly silent through her missing tooth.
For the cover, I used an old photo of the building she squatted in, the entire facade, bricks and doors and boarded windows and fire escape and all covered in wild overlapping arcs of looping spray paint—with her, a small human figure in all that messy graffiti, hanging out of the fourth story broken window. Drover and I, we decided it had to be released, it would be a crime not to release it, whether she consented or not. And that was No One Will Ever Love You (1983).
The album didn’t move many units in industry terms, but for me and my little label, it was a blockbuster, selling out the first pressing in four months. People were talking about it as something revelatory, something very different than almost anything else going on in New York—where others were getting louder and more abstract, she had gotten as spare and quiet as possible; instead of throwing out harmony and melody and theory like her contemporaries, she had rediscovered older, nearly ancient, versions. People started coming to the shows to see her, not the headliner. Despite the success, she was suspicious and resentful, decrying the album from the stage night after night, calling it ‘an object,’ ‘a treason,’ ‘a Judas,’ even as I stood at her merch table selling dozens of copies.
The record did well enough that a bigger independent label took notice and gave her a bundle of money to record a follow-up in a pro studio with an electric band—this time Jerry Drover played backup on her record. It may have been she just needed the money, or it might have been to spite me and Chromatic, but she signed their contract, she took the pay-out. In the melange of post-punk noisemakers of the day, the head of her new label had some delusion that Esther Collins had the makings of a pop star; the times were that weird. He pushed her to record some classic covers to include with her more haunting original material, hiring synthesizers and string quartets and a brass band to punch up the arrangements until they sparkled and popped. She threw tantrums in the studio, refused second takes, knocked over microphones, kicked amps, felt pressured by all the money, all the time being wasted, all the instruments behind her so loud that she couldn’t hear herself sing. And it’s true: the spectre of that voice was drowned out in all the extra instrumentation, the dusty and profound emotion it evoked were ill-suited to the major key pleasantness of “Time After Time” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You).” The magic was not there.
Don’t get me wrong, No Time on Earth (1985), her second record, was and is a lovely album, but it didn’t feel like her, not really, and it sure didn’t make her a pop star. Where the recording and minor success of No One Will Ever Love You was an unasked-for surprise, the failure of No Time on Earth, a record she had set out to make, hit her as a personal rejection. The same week that Rolling Stone gave the album two stars, her new label had scheduled her to appear on Late Night, her big television moment. She never showed up. The album was her final recording and the last release of her lifetime, a big money loser. Her shows got fewer and farther between, she got sloppy and temperamental, drinking from a bottle onstage, slurring, losing lines, fumbling chords, walking off mid-set. By ’87, she had disappeared entirely. No one had heard or seen her in months, another ghost in the city.
Psychic Sisters’ “Esther’s Trip” from League of Divinations (1989) was about her absence. They’d recorded it as a tribute, but also as a hope she’d hear it and turn up somewhere. And she did. They said she was in the crowd at a show at the Roxy Theater at the end of their 1990 tour—she waved, called out to them by name. They invited her on stage but, by the end of the song, she was already gone.
That was the last me or anyone else had heard about her. Until she showed up at my door decades later holding a newly issued copy of No One Will Ever Love You: 30th Anniversary Edition (2013)—or what I could have sworn was her.
“Is she alive or dead?” she said, pointing to the tiny figure on the cover. Her tooth was fixed, her hair was short, her eyes were bright, as if a single day hadn’t passed between then and now.
I shook my grey head, wordlessly. “Esther?”
“My mother,” she said.
She had to be in her mid-30s but didn’t look it. Jean jacket, black skirt, plastic bracelets on her arms, hair cut short like a boy, a key dangling from a gold chain around her neck like some grown latch-key kid keeping the habit out of comfort.
She said she was River Collins, “a waitress in Moscow, Idaho,” and her memories of Esther were few and fragmentary—a scent of sandalwood soap, the shining strings of a guitar, the warmth of a maternal hand on the cheek, a voice like Moscow Mountain, primordial, unknowable, distant. Esther left behind a few photographs and nothing else—faded Polaroids of performances, of a happy smiling family, of River in Halloween costumes—before disappearing in 1982. River was only four years old, her sister Rain even younger, when they were left in the care of their soon-to-pass father. Raised by grandparents who told her it was for the best, who told her that Esther was a troubled young mother, delusional, erratic, intoxicated; that she’d left the girls alone in public places, taken them to bars to watch her perform or drink or both, spent the family’s meager earnings on records and booze, thought she was too good for town and destined for better things in bigger places. No one in Moscow knew what had become of Esther, assuming she’d died hitchhiking, or drunk driving, or in some freakish explosive blaze.
“I spent my life imagining that I saw her everywhere,” River said, “in the faces of strangers on the street, photographs in magazines, in the background of movies. At first, I thought the record cover was another trick of my eyes.”
No one in Moscow had heard No One Will Ever Love You and it was only when the 30th Anniversary Edition was released that River even knew it existed at all—catching sight one day of her mother’s name, and her mother’s tiny form, on that graffitied cover resting in the window of a small record store near the University of Idaho, like a waking dream. She bought a copy, brought it home and cried listening to it with her sister, read the liner notes I had written for the rerelease, googled my name until she’d found an address, booked a flight for New York—her first time on the East Coast—which was how she came to be sitting in my kitchen with a glass of tea demanding to know where her mother was. I had nothing better to say than, “We tricked her. We lied to her.”
“It already says that in here,” she said, narrowing her eyes and tapping the record cover. “I want to speak with her.”
“Oh,” I said, breaking eye contact. “We’re not in touch.”
“Can you tell me anything that’s happened to her in the last five years? The last ten?”
I could only shake my head. “But,” I said, “I can take you to one of the last people known to have seen her. Liv James.”
She had a blank look on her face.
“The soon-to-be-former Mrs. Thom Howell. She played bass and sang in Psychic Sisters for 32 years,” I said. “At least, she did until her marriage, and thus the band, fell apart.” I explained that she had realized the folly of making her creative partner a romantic one when Thom finally ran off with a 25-year-old videographer, saying he’d never been so in love.
“Never heard of them,” she shrugged.
As we headed downtown, River was hanging out of the window of a yellow cab, looking at the tall buildings, the gargoyles and steel, the sparkling glass towers in the distance, the same streets her mother used to stumble down drunk evenings with guitar in hand. Pale exhaust and crumbling brick and a catalogue of beauty; she was clearly in awe of her first time in New York.
“Everything’s so ugly here,” she said, pulling herself back inside the cab.
Down in Tribeca, Liv James answered the door. She was in her late 50s, newly single, and looked about as good as she ever had. Even when she was in her 20s, there’d been something that had seemed curiously old about her, some set of the face or feeling in the soul—long eyes like a sleepy cat, veined hands full of heavy rings, a curl to the end of the lips that was never quite a smile, a raspy cigarette-stained voice. Now it simply looked like she’d earned those features, the way people say when awkward-looking children turn out to be nice-looking adults.
Since the divorce, Liv’d sold the house in suburban Connecticut where she and Thom had raised their now-college-aged daughter—always been a strangely bourgeois choice, I thought, for a New York avant-art couple—and moved back to the city alone. She was keeping busy with art, public appearances, and younger men. This place of hers, I recognized as a warehouse where a troupe of HIV-positive artists once illegally held immersive installation art shows, which frequently featured their own infected blood as part of the piece. Most had died by the late ’80s, around the time the building was converted into loft-style condos.
The inside looked different than I remembered—hardwood floors, granite counters, exposed beams and skylights. Surprisingly, there were no souvenirs of Psychic Sisters’ long career, world tours, gold records. Instead, the walls were covered in framed gig posters for her new act, Form/Figure—a savage improvised guitar trio that reminded me of the shrieking chaos of her early days—who were about to release their debut, Final/Forever (2016). Thom, on the other hand, had recently been making disappointingly weepy acoustic guitar music under his own name: love songs, mostly about videographers.
River grimaced as we entered the condo and were met by heinous clanking sounds, like metal scraping on metal, a guttered car engine stalling out. “What is that?” she mumbled to me. “It sounds like a cat caught in a escalator.”
Liv lifted the needle on the turntable and the noise cut out, leaving us in sudden silence. “A test pressing of my new album,” she said.
“Sounds really great,” I said, sitting down.
“You always liked to flatter,” she said with a smirk.
She sat down in front of a battered old VCR set out in front of the flat-screen TV. “You’re lucky I moved this back to New York with me,” she said, pushing a VHS cassette tape into the slot.
Distorted colors and warped lines rolled strangely over the screen for a moment before the image righted itself into a grainy video of Psychic Sisters at the Roxy. There was Liv, young on stage wearing a t-shirt that said ‘EAT ME,’ Thom and the band just behind her as she shredded the bass and rasped out vocals with a high-top ponytail hanging in her face. The sound quality was poor, an annihilating bass-heavy wash, impossible to even tell the song. But someone was waving from the audience. When the song ended, in the cheers of the lanky shaggy-haired crowd of 1989—now probably middle aged or older, parents or grandparents but there on the screen still young and weird and shot through with rock ‘n’ roll—there was someone waving with both arms and shouting Liv’s name.
The young Liv in the video squinted her cat eyes and there was some inaudible dialogue among the band members before she stepped back to the mic. “Esther?” she said. “Esther Collins?” The waver kept waving. “Come on up here. This song’s yours and this crowd deserves to hear you sing it,” she waved. The band kicked into a blaring electric version of “Not So Cruel” from No One Will Ever Love You but no one came on stage as long minutes stretched out. After a lengthy instrumental verse and chorus, Liv finally stepped back to the mic and called out, “Esther? Are you here?” while the band played on.
Here in her living room, Liv pressed pause on the tape and the image hung there in quivering pixels like a pointillist painting. “She was just gone,” Liv said. “We waited after the show, came out and shook hands with the audience until the place was empty, just to see if we could find her.”
“Would your ex know anything else?” River asked, and I winced.
Liv’s eyes narrowed and her lips curled. “He’s probably too busy with his new baby.” She turned to me. “Why don’t you try Jerry Drover?”
“We’re not on the best terms,” I said.
She smiled a little poison and turned back to River. “One thing you should know, she was always trying to reform the men in her life,” she looked at me pointedly, “even if it meant destroying herself in the process. But she was better than they were, always. Your mom was a legend, a tidal wave. I put on her records when Thom left, over and over again. I mean, just obliterating.” Liv leaned forward, a little too close, lowering her voice. “Tell me you sing. Sing for me.”
River seemed to just shrivel up, pulling inside herself, avoiding eye contact, shaking her head slowly. We gathered our things and Liv, a little harshly, dropped the needle with a popping sound back on the test pressing, letting the melting acid screech play us out. She opened the door for us but grabbed River’s elbow. “Don’t hold a grudge. Think about who made the rules of the world and ask yourself, why wouldn’t a woman revolt?”
Outside, River was shaken and green, looking lost among the former factories and present penthouses of Tribeca. I took her by the shoulder, guiding her like a sleepwalker across long avenues toward the old building in the East Village where her mother once lived and scrounged food and sang songs, illegal but free.
“Esther and I,” I said, “in a squalid squat where the gas was off and the water ran brown, we spent hours, days, booking her shows, making fliers, cooking dinners for friends. She watched me gluing together thousands of covers for No One Will Ever Love You by hand to save money, carting them to sell at her shows with sticky fingers,” I said, laughing. “She hated every minute of it.”
But when we rounded the corner on the Bowery, the building was difficult to find, scrubbed of all that spray paint, sold, remade, remodeled, anonymized—a grocery store on the ground floor, a video camera and intercom at the residential entrance, strollers scooting past. I pointed to the fourth floor window where her mother stood on the album cover in a different time, nearly a different place. “You really don’t sing?”
She shook her head and turned away. “You act like things were better back then but it sounds like this place was a hell.”
She stepped forward and hailed a passing cab like she’d been doing it her whole life. “Take me to Jerry Drover,” she told the confused cabbie as we got in. I directed him to take us back to my apartment instead.
“He’s got a performance tomorrow,” I said, as I opened the door. She surveyed the combination living room/kitchen again, its furniture having sat amid piles of records longer than she’d been alive, the smell of moldering cardboard and dusty vinyl.
“I thought you’d live in a nicer place than this,” she said.
“Music industry’s not what it used to be,” I said. “You want a drink?”
“No.” She tightened her lips. “I don’t drink.”
“AA? Good for you.”
“No, too many bad stories about mom. Seemed better not to start.”
She looked over the framed pictures on the walls of me at various ages, various weights, various hairstyles posing alongside Liv James, Jerry Drover, Kurt Cobain, Iggy, her own mother. A picture of me looking thin and tough holding a bass guitar on stage with the Acrobatics, Grim William bleeding from his face.
“So you played too?” she asked, pointing.
“Only briefly. It was a band of nonmusicians, that was the whole idea. They kicked me out for being the most nonmusical in the group.”
“No pictures of family,” she said and I winced. “Were you ever married? Any kids?”
“No,” I said. “Almost once.”
“To which question?”
I set her up on the couch with a pillow and a sheet. “Your mom used to say music was a clock.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I have no idea,” I said and turned out the lights.
Jerry Drover was giving a matinee performance the next afternoon at one of the theaters inside the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the stately old building of stained glass and yellowing brick. It was undoubtedly a big deal for him and he would undoubtedly be less than thrilled for me to crash it.
In transit between islands—River rubbed her ears with the pressure change as the train dove under the East River—I explained the situation to her. When Psychic Sisters hit it big with League of Divinations, their label at the time, Subaltern Records, a larger indie with international distribution, tried to consolidate the band’s back catalogue. They came to me, desperate for Sex Is Perplex and assorted early singles, with a merger offer in exchange for a management stake in their company. By this time, I was considered something of an A&R genius for having “discovered” them, and Subaltern expected that I would find a new generation of megastars. By the late ’90s, Psychic Sisters were international celebrities and signed to a huge major label. They toured the world while Subaltern was in danger of bankruptcy, kept afloat only by back catalogue sales, the new megastars having never arrived. We arranged a partial buy-out deal with the major, again for management stakes and a certain degree of autonomy. That label then merged with an even bigger major in the early aughts post-Napster crash. And that was how all those weird little art records I put out in the ’80s wound up the property of a multinational corporate conglomerate, of which music is probably the least profitable arm. It’s also how I maintained a career in the music industry for all these decades with autonomy intact—they haven’t been able to get rid of me yet, although who knows, probably any day now—and why I busy myself curating my small collection of Chromatic releases, still living off them and overseeing the release of repackaged Expanded Editions, Legacy Editions, or Special Anniversary Editions for albums released decades ago. It’s also why Jerry Drover will never get the rights back to Harmony for 12 Guitars, no matter how much he hates me.
“Why don’t you put out any new music ever?” River asked as we left the subway.
“I think about it. But at shows, I’m always the oldest person in the room. By far.”
We slipped in the theater during the middle of the performance. A dim stately room of red velvet seats and gold balustrades, a far cry from the warped basements and condemned nightclubs where I used to see him play. There were 23 guitar players on stage with two percussionists and Jerry Drover in a white tuxedo, back to the audience, a conductor’s baton in his hand. Unlike the squalling dissonance he conjured from massed guitars in early years, this was a sound like fluttering wings, like dancing violins. The guitars played a collage of harmonized eighth and sixteenth notes at slightly different rhythms, intersecting at strange angles, forming unexpected cloud-like chords that hung in the air changing shape and evaporating like ghosts.
“How long is this gonna be?” River yawned and found an empty seat.
After the performance—really a triumph of minimalism, an odyssey of microtonality—wine and cheese was served in the marble lobby with its vaulted molded ceiling, tile mosaic floors, tasteful lighting. We were severely underdressed for the event: River in her jean jacket and me, stomach bulging in a 30-year-old, unreadably faded Psychic Sisters t-shirt, a couple bums in the midst of finery. The tuxedoed musicians circulated among a crowd of moneyed yuppies to collect praise and congratulations while, at the far end of the lobby, orbited by a constellation of well-wishers and hangers-on, was Jerry Drover bright in his white tux. His hairdo hadn’t changed since ’84, styled into a high-top pompadour that added inches to his height, though the years had turned it from shoeshine black to sugary white.
“Fucker!” he said too loudly, as we made eye contact across the long room.
I smiled and waved, dragging River with me through the well-dressed crowd. “Hiya, Jerry!”
He caught sight of River and the room went quiet. He looked stunned, his eyes wide, pompadour gently quivering as if from an unseen breeze. The crowd of besuited people parted to let us through.
“You look just like her,” he said as we came close. “But you’re somehow prettier.”
“We’re looking for her mom,” I said, hiking a thumb at River.
He ignored me, touching River lightly on the shoulder. “God, you’re beautiful. How old are you?”
She grabbed at the key around her neck, pulling on it. She shook her head and cleared her throat. I glanced sideways at the people standing silently around us, waiting for us to leave so they could have their maestro back.
He looked down at her ring finger, his big pompadour shaking with the movement. “Why did you cut your hair so short? Do you have a boyfriend?”
I cleared my throat. “What happened to Esther after she disappeared?” I said.
“Why are you helping her?” he said, suddenly turning to me. “Some way to cement your legitimacy?” He leaned towards River’s ear, lowering his voice. “They were never as close as he likes to pretend, a puppy dog in love, following her around from gig to gig. What I heard, and this is hearsay, I never saw your mother after ’88, what I heard is she never disappeared at all. She never left.”
“No one knew where she was,” I said. The people around us began to shuffle their feet, looking at phones and wrists.
“That’s different than disappearing,” he said, finally turning to me with a smirk. “Because I heard she was in New York the whole time. She stopped performing, stopped coming to the clubs and shows, stopped talking to everyone she knew, stopped coming below 14th Street. And no one I knew hardly ever went above it.”
“So she’s still here somewhere?” River said, letting go of the key.
“She was just living in Midtown?” I asked.
“For decades,” he said to me. “Just a few miles away but a world apart. You could have found her if you’d cared enough to look.”
“Why would someone disappear like that?” I asked.
“Because you were never really her friend. Just a user. A thief. A jilted guy who got angry and jealous when your affections weren’t returned.” He turned back to River, put his hand on her shoulder. “Esther was busking for money from businessmen and tourists is what I heard. A toothless addict, sleeping on the streets, I heard.”
I looked at River from the corner of my eye. She nodded at Jerry, her face was a mask of neutrality, smooth and calm as the moon, but I noticed her hands beginning to shake.
“I know you’re hurting,” he said. River backed away from his grip forcefully, bumping a woman in a strapless dress and high heels standing behind her. The crowd began awkwardly talking amongst themselves, each waiting for the opportunity to speak to Jerry again but growing impatient.
“Grim William may know more,” he said. “I heard he took care of her.”
He put his hand on River’s shoulder, squeezing this time. “I know this must be difficult for you. You’re welcome at my place tonight if you need somewhere to stay that’s not with a liar.” He looked at me.
I started to pull River away but halfway to the door, Jerry called out and came chasing after us, shouldering people out of his way, strands of long white hair falling into his face, tux tails flapping behind him. “Wait!”
River spun around, her shaky hands were all balled up into fists. Jerry came close to her, taking one hand in both of his, like he was keeping her from escaping. He slipped a piece of paper into her fist. “In case you have more questions. I can tell you stories about your mom.” She looked up at him, as he gently patted her fists. “All I ask is that you sing for me.”
She leaned close to his ear as if to whisper a secret or hum a private song. “You people are just awful,” she said. She brushed off his hands and spun around, headed for the exit, leaving him awkward and blinking amidst the murmur of well-wishers.
We got outside, squinting in the daylight after the dim interior and River started quaking, sitting down hard on the stone steps, her breathing heavy, white-knuckled fingers wrapped around that key. I sat down next to her. She tried to smile a little, one of those tentative sad ones that seemed to be fighting a frown, and looked down at the steps with loud breaths.
“Come on, I’ll take you to Esther’s favorite place,” I said.
We took the subway as far south as it went, a long train trip to the bottom of Brooklyn past Avenues X, Y, and Z. The other riders nodding silently as the train car breached the earth, soaring above the ground on elevated tracks into a suddenly blinding sparkle of late daylight. It was early spring and still too cool out for the crowds to have yet descended on Coney—the beach air too brisk, the boardwalk too empty, the blinking lights and rides spinning for a motley crowd of slightly damaged locals.
At the top of the Wonder Wheel, 150 feet in the air, River screamed and closed her eyes, shivering and clinging to my arm like a frightened child, repeatedly telling me to fuck off. The wheel around us creaked with the effort of a hundred years going round. I told her to look, look, it was her mom’s favorite because outside you can see forever with the sea on one side and all of Brooklyn on the other, spread out in a great crystal of street grids and foot traffic, and beyond to the needlepoints of Manhattan piercing the sky.
She screamed in my ear, “I’m afraid of heights!” but she was laughing when we got to the ground. “She really liked that?”
I nodded. “She liked how far it feels from the city even though it’s part of it.”
“Don’t ever make me go that high again,” she said, wiping the tears from her eyes.
We walked the desolate boardwalk alone, cold grey clouds buffing against the grey shining sea, and ate ice cream, even though she said it was too cold to be doing either. “Esther sat right on this beach as the sun went down,” I said, “and wrote ‘Ain’t High No More.’ Took her 15 minutes, made it up on the spot, and it sounds like a goddamn knife in the heart.”
“Did you fuck my mom?”
I scoffed, made a face, shook my head. “I proposed to her.”
“So you wanted to?”
“Listen,” I said, “I never knew she had kids. This is what Esther told me about her life: she’d grown up with an abusive alcoholic father in a provincial town where she’d spent her whole life feeling like a freak, a place where the only recreation was a bottle in a bar. A creative kid forced to work long hours on the family farm to avoid being belted, who took long walks through fields and mountains singing songs in private, for no one, because no one wanted to listen. Right up until she married an alcoholic husband. Fled the very first time he laid an angry hand on her too because, she said, she saw her whole life laid out ahead of her just like the past. Her life was a wheel with spokes made of old miseries and mistakes that kept turning round and round but went nowhere forever. She stole his money, packed her guitar, hitched a ride to Minneapolis, to Chicago, to Pittsburgh, to New York City. Slept in abandoned buildings and played music on street corners, in parks, in basements and lofts and warehouses.”
“That’s exactly the kind of thing someone in New York would think about Idaho. She told you what you wanted to hear.”
“I proposed. Thought I loved her. Down on one knee and everything.”
“You should have left her alone. She didn’t even want to make that album.”
“I did her a favor. I gave her a career and she blew it.” I kicked at the sand. “In any case, she said no and went off with Drover. She said no and signed with that other label. I warned her about both and she still said no.”
“The more I loved a boy, the more he’d lie to me,” she said. “Declarations of love, devotion, sure disappeared when they got what they wanted. So I treated them the same—not a boyfriend I didn’t deceive and cheat, not one that didn’t deceive and cheat me.”
“Do you think I’m a liar then too?” I asked, licking at the ice cream.
“I don’t know yet. Sometimes I think that’s all there is: sex. That’s all anyone cares about.”
“I mean, it’s what we’re built for,” I said. “Pass the genes along. Animals are happy enough to eat and sleep and fuck. We’re cursed: the only animal smart enough to ask these questions but not smart enough to know the answers.”
“I wish I was dead.” Her eyes went bright red, she wiped their corners and started to laugh ruefully at the ice cream cone in her other hand. “‘Love.’”
The sun was sinking low on the horizon, painting the sky red. “Do you even like music?” I asked.
“Do you like anything else? She loved her music more than her own kids. She had it backwards. People come first, always.” Ice cream dripped over her hand. “I want to see this Grim William person.”
The problem being that Grim William considered me his nemesis, someone who had altered the course of his life for the profoundly worse, a true archenemy haunting his career.
“This seems to happen to you,” she said. I nodded and bit into my cone.
The situation with Jerry Drover was business; this, on the other, was extremely personal. Grim William, known to his dearly departed mom and pop as Billy Grimm, was a violent chaotic misogynist, anarchy in human form, with broken teeth from numerous fights and a head full of spiked hair styled so high and sharp, with egg whites and Elmer’s Glue, that it looked like a hedgehog fucking a cactus. He was a longtime New York punk, a student of free jazz freak-outs, who’d been there to see the New York Dolls, told them they weren’t fast enough; to see the Ramones, told them they weren’t tough enough; to see Suicide, told them they weren’t loud enough. He’d taken those critiques and formed the rather brilliant and aggressively strange Acrobatics. As mentioned, they were a band of barely competent nonmusicians whose aim, he said at every show, was to destroy the bloated corpse of rock ‘n’ roll, with its rock stars and cocaine binges and gold records—burn it to the ground and make room for something new, something young, something true. The world was so complicated and fucked up, he said, that the abstract was the only thing that made sense. Their first and only album was Steal the Acrobatics (1979), and it was filled with a confrontational, primitive mixture of punk, funk, and avant-jazz. Free from any traditional notion of keys, chords, or melody, theirs was a fractured cubist sound, all sharp angles and broken shards yet somehow still something you could dance to, if dancing to songs that compared women to vampires or fascists or automobiles was your thing.
Grim William was a fearsome performer, onstage and off, a star of the scene when Psychic Sisters were an upstart group with an unpromising debut EP. My tenure with the Acrobatics was extremely short and Chromatic had only put out a few of their singles, but William had wanted little to do with me since. He thought I’d somehow promoted Psychic Sisters at his expense, as if that was the crucial difference in career trajectories that had turned them into stars and him into a has-been. Besides, I tried to explain, neither one of them sold anything back then. Personally, I believed it was the extreme confrontation of his performance style that had doomed him to being a cult act—when he felt the audience wasn’t responding, he’d wade into the crowd and start a fistfight, grabbing people by the hair, smacking them with his saxophone, screaming in their faces. It made for a few thrilling shows, him on stage playing sax in a torn suit with blood dripping off his spiked scalp. But after a while nobody wanted to come to a show for fear they’d end up in a brawl like the one he instigated at CBGBs in ’81 when the riot cops showed up and threw everyone in jail. Later, he tried to add high-energy disco beats to the skronky atonal sound in a bid for “commercial success,” but personally undermined that very bid by renaming the band The Homosaxuals and calling their lone record …Play the Human Sexophone (1982).
“Never mind that disco was dying, he blamed me when the record didn’t sell,” I told River. “The last time I saw him, he spit on me, punched me in the gut, and walked away laughing.”
“When was that?”
Grim William had lived in the same rent-controlled apartment in Alphabet City since about 1978 and I warned River that it was likely a hoarder pit inside, all cat hair and mildewed magazines, unwashed dishes and rotting everything. Avenue D must have been the one street in Manhattan that hadn’t changed much—still a safe place for junkies and punks and public housing. It was cleaner maybe, fewer crack pipes and condoms littering dark corners, but no high-rise condos or organic juiceteriums yet. More or less the same people who had lived there back then still wandered the streets: 50-year-olds in combat boots, ripped clothing, greying hair but keeping the dream alive all these decades later.
“Look at these losers,” River said, “playing at being young.”
I positioned her in front of William’s door, hoping the sight would blunt his inevitable rage, maybe even prevent a violent assault. “Relax,” I said, “but be on guard.”
Grim William answered the door, wrapped in an ugly sweater and smiling like he expected us. I barely recognized him, he looked so anonymous—his wild spiked hair was now a smooth dome of scalp skin, his teeth fixed and straight and white as piano keys, his wiry beanpole body gone fleshy and bloated around the middle like a suburban dad.
“I’d say you’re looking good,” he said to me with a chuckle, “but you got real fat.”
Inside, the apartment was all creaky century-old floorboards and drafty casement windows just like in ’78, but it was surprisingly spartan. Nothing but a lonely couch and a single coffee table in the living room, blank walls decorated by cracks in the old paint. He waved River to the couch while he put on a pot of tea in the kitchenette. I remained standing, the better to fight if necessary.
While River explained to him who she was and why we’d come, I could feel my forehead grow hot, my fingers get twitchy, my underarms start sweating. I hoped it wasn’t visible, hoped that giant swamp puddles weren’t soaking through my shirt. He put two steaming mugs down on the table and sat next to her.
“Esther Collins, my best memory of your mom—she was a romantic, the kind of person who thought you had to be broke, starving, suffering, up till dawn every night to call yourself a real artist. I made a big show of being tough, liked to fight. But she got to me. I think that’s why I hated her. I told everyone she was shit, unoriginal, same old folky crap from the ’60s, from the ’30s, who cares. But goddamn, she had a sense of pain, a real sense of wonder. After a show in the ’80s, we went walking up Bowery, up Broadway, the buildings getting taller with every block. She was asking me why I said bad things about her. I told her it wasn’t nothing personal, I just thought the times demanded radical music, whatever stupid crap I used to tell people back then. We found ourselves in Times Square, and let me tell you, back then it was a real shithole. Sex shops and girlie shows, rats and exhaust, junkies and whores. All that neon, like a piece of garbage wrapped up in tinsel and Christmas ornaments. But Esther was amazed. All those bright lights, she said it was the most beautiful thing, if you just stayed there it was like the sun never had to set. Said she was going to live there one day. ‘Look at the seagulls flapping their wings,’ she said, pointing. I looked all around but didn’t see nothing. She pointed again and I realize she’s looking at a bunch of shredded plastic bags caught on barbed wire, fluttering in the breeze. She thought they were alive, thought they could fly. That’s how New York looked to her, a trash-heap of beauty.”
“So what happened?” she asked.
“Well, your mom liked to drink. A lot. Trying to keep up with her finally made me get sober.” He picked up a mug, blew on it again, and took a slow sip. “She was dating this real messed up junkie, that asshole Drover, tried to get him clean. In the process, she wound up trying the stuff herself, to see what the fuss was about. Never looked back. Drover got her messed up pretty bad.” He looked at me, but I shook my head. “Did you not know? I thought you were close.”
“I got angry when she left the label. I cut her off.” I looked at the floor. I could feel River staring at me.
“She could have used more real friends,” William said. “I used to hoof all over the city, wandering for hours. Helped me think. I ran into her off and on over the years. And I guess she was right—by the late ’90s, she was living in Times Square after all, sleeping in alleys and, once they cleaned the place up, asking for change from tourists alongside the costumed cartoon characters and superheroes. There was a smell about her, but even so she was pretty clean, considering. Teeth were a mess though.”
His artificially straightened smile glowed in the lamplight. He placed the mug back on the table and got up abruptly, walking out of the room. I looked at River slowly clenching and unclenching her fists, breathing unnaturally steady, but she didn’t meet my eyes—looked at her hands, looked at her shoes, looked at the walls and out the windows and everywhere but at me. Minutes passed and I could hear Grim William rustling through a closet, opening and closing drawers, dropping handfuls of paper, coughing from unsettled dust. I wondered if that was our signal to leave. I tried to motion for us to go but she wouldn’t look at me. William came back into the room holding a moldy shoebox on the verge of disintegration, handing it to River.
“I took care of her,” he said, sitting down again. “At night she’d pull out a guitar and sing all her old songs. Her voice was even rougher, raspier and more broken. I have to admit she was more talented than I’d ever been. She’d sing those songs like her heart was breaking in my living room. She lived here for months and I made sure she got clean, ate, bathed. I tried to send her to my dentist to fix her teeth, but I didn’t realize—that was how she’d got access to codeine and oxycontin prescriptions, the rotten teeth. She was haggard and slowing, all her life spinning like a top till she fell over, just ran out of energy. Eventually, she let me record her.”
River gingerly lifted the flimsy lid of the shoebox and found black spools of tape sleeping inside like coiled snakes. The tapes were a tangled mess, knotted and torn, but each spool had a date marked on it along with the words Lunar Hymns printed in careful handwriting, black marker on masking tape.
I grabbed the box from her and started laughing, pulling out the knots and winding the tape. It was a whole clutch of unreleased Esther Collins demos, made in her final days right in the very living room where we sat, a last musical testament as she contemplated her own impending death. Undiscovered, nearly lost to time, like some sunken treasure hauled up from the deep after long decades and Grim William handed it over for nothing. I looked up at him wordlessly, shaking my head.
“They’re not for you,” William said with a sneer. “They’re for her.” He turned back to River, put his hand on her knee. “She made the tapes for you. That’s the only reason she let me hit record. So you could have something of her, but she never told me where to send them.”
“Did she ever talk about me?” River asked, running nervous fingers through her short hair, watching the mugs steam on the table.
“Leaving you was a gift,” he said. “Imagine how much worse your life would be. Instead of wondering where she was, what had happened, you’d have been there to see, to watch her disintegrate in front of you, AIDS or liver disease or whatever else, doesn’t matter now. Leaving was the best thing she ever did for you, a mercy.”
“She’s dead then,” River said quietly, “my mother.” Her pupils were huge, nostrils flared, reactions slowed as if she were on some kind of drug.
Grim William looked about to answer but took one glance at her face and shut his mouth. It was several minutes before he mumbled, “She was a kind of prophet. Not just the Times Square thing, she knew her fate. Listen to the song on those tapes, ‘Hart Island.’ She’s there.”
I packed up the box and River seemed catatonic as we made to leave. I thanked William for the tapes, for the help, for letting go of old grudges, while River stared off into space, looking at walls and corners with unfocused eyes, box of tapes under her arm.
“Hey, one more thing,” Grim William said from the doorway. He looked me right in the eye, his mouth twisting down into a familiar scowl, and in a flash I saw the Grim William I remembered, 22 years old with a head full of spikes and a heart full of vinegar standing there like a ghost trapped in the cage of a fatter, older body. “Go fuck yourself,” he said and laughed, slamming the door behind me.
Outside, River looked shaky, like she might collapse onto the curb. Instead she spun on me, her teeth clenched, jaw quivering. “Where’s all the money, the royalties?”
“She spent it on booze,” I said softly. “So I stopped giving it to her.”
“So you cheated her.”
“For her own good.”
“She was a grown woman.”
“She was a grown woman who died in a gutter.” I looked at her hands, at the moldy box clutched in them. “It was too much to see her like that. I’m a good person.”
“Is that why you never bothered to look for her, so you could keep her money guilt-free?”
“Guilt-free,” I scoffed. “It was my fault. I told her she was a genius. I convinced her not to go back home. I introduced her to Drover. I tricked her into recording an album. Guilt-free? I should be so lucky.”
“She could have used that money to get a real apartment. To get into rehab. She could have used that money to bring me and Rain to New York.”
“Oh River,” I said, taking a step towards her. “She wasn’t going to do any of that.”
“You’re not a good person. You’re a fraud.” She stormed alone up Avenue D towards who knows where. I didn’t stop her.
I walked back across the avenues of Manhattan, looking at the faces of the people in the street. Any of them could have been Esther. I wondered how many times I might have walked right by her over the years and held my nose, how many times she had asked me for money and been ignored. My friend: destitute, junk-sick, dying for want of pocket change. Maybe there were only so many faces in the world, like a movie where the same extras keep walking by in the background again and again until everyone in the world looks the same. I checked an alley near Times Square and found grimy pipes, overflowing dumpsters, rats fighting for pizza crusts, a pile of dirty blankets, flattened cardboard someone slept on, human shit smeared on a back wall. I needed to hear those tapes, but worried that River had already thrown them in the garbage, left them on a corner, handed them to a stranger, shipped them to her sister.
Back home, I found her slumped on the stoop to my apartment, staring into space, box of tapes sitting safely next to her.
“Thank god,” I whispered.
“You were worried about me,” she said with a lazy smile. I could smell the alcohol on her breath. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
Inside, I dusted off the old reel-to-reel, hiding in a back closet under junked air-conditioners and old desktop computers, threaded the tapes through the heads. River sat down and stared into nothingness. We listened together to the raw, crackly recordings of her mother’s final songs, possibly her dying breaths as she croaked out half-forgotten lyrics and melodies. Her playing, if anything, had progressed—complicated picking in strange modal tunings, Grim William joining in occasionally on sax, piano, bass guitar, surprisingly light vocal harmony. And Esther’s voice survived, as good as ever, maybe better, ecstatically wide-eyed but ragged, a raspy croon wrapped around a sugary snarl in a bourbon blackened throat. “Pain ain’t killed by no cocaine / No one said I’m better off dead / Don’t you see, no one but me.”
The scratchy low fidelity of the tapes sounded like a private world, a life lived alone. And then the reels rolled onto “Hart Island,” and she sang, “bury me there with the beggar kings / if less is more, is nothing everything?” Overcome, all the things that wouldn’t happen in her lifetime, heart so full of feeling that the melody came out as a bark, a stutter, a broken whisper, notes twisting in midair while her voice cracked. She had a father once, and a mother. She had sisters she watched grow, and daughters she didn’t.
I knew, right then, I wanted to release it as an album. The first new Chromatic release in decades. No more Legacy Editions, no more reissues. The liner notes would be so good, it would involve everything, the whole history, including River showing up at my door, the discovery of the tapes—with the genius opening lines, “Four years before she disappeared, we tricked Esther Collins into recording one of the greatest albums ever made.”
While the tapes spun, spitting out static washes and guitar strums, I googled Hart Island. It was a potter’s field. A former prison camp, rehab clinic, quarantine station, sanatorium, boys’ reformatory. Since the Civil War, the place where New York City buried people too poor for a funeral—a resting place for the homeless, indigent, orphaned, stillborn, undesirable, anonymous. The island was run by the Department of Corrections because the graves were dug by prisoners from Rikers Island.
“We can’t go there. No one’s allowed.” River clutched her key and looked at me with dead eyes while her mother warbled that song of despair from a different apartment in a different time, “no one survives / the dead weight of being alive / ain’t no asylum / here on ol’ Hart Island.”
River was breathing heavily and I didn’t know what else to say to her besides, “We’ll go. Somehow, we’ll find a way and we’ll break in and if she’s there we’ll find her.”
“I’ll take that drink now,” she mumbled.
The next night we took a car uptown—over the Harlem River through Randall’s Island, over the Bronx Kill, past even Pelham Bay Park to City Island, a sleepy clam-digging town once envisioned as a rival to New York’s port but now, in a twist of history, the easternmost tip of the Bronx. For a truly exorbitant price, I’d arranged to have a small motorboat waiting on the beach at a certain hour, no questions asked. Hart Island was less than a mile away.
We sailed out into the black waters of the Sound and found ourselves enveloped by the darkness. There were few landmarks to navigate by until I saw River’s face wreathed in a sickly aurora glow. She was GPS-tracking our location with her phone’s map—a blue dot turning round in an empty field of blue, Hart Island shaped like a scar across the electronic water.
This far out from the city, the sky was more than it’s usual urban blank dome; you could actually see a few stars poking through like pinholes in the haze, far beyond far. In the distance, Manhattan, the ever-present windows of the city glowed like a thousand little suns clustered together without heat, crowned with a glowing halo of pale lunar light.
“For years, she sent letters with no return address,” River said as I rowed. “Saying she missed everyone, saying she’d be home soon. Gave return dates. I was a little girl waiting at the bus station, the airport, for hours, for no one. I got older and put the envelopes in the trash whenever they showed up, before Rain saw. I never heard the record because I never typed her name into a computer. I didn’t want to know. I cut my hair short because everyone told me how much I looked like her, my whole life. Even with email, instant messaging, texting, and still paper letters showing up every few years, going right into the trash. And once they stopped, I wished they were still coming. As long as they came, I knew she was still alive somewhere.”
The island was a blank spot on the horizon, unlit by anything, darkness inside darkness. I only realized we were there when the boat ran aground with a sudden jerk. We pulled it on shore, the bottom scraping against gravel, and stumbled through the shadows, tripping on weeds, and cracked concrete. Lit by the glow of her phone, we realized there were no grave markers except for the children, single white pipes stuck in the ground for however many hundred babies buried in each plot by criminals over the last century and a half. The crumbling red brick of the abandoned prison workhouse full of tangled weeds, barbed wire, trees growing out through the collapsed roof, walls tumbling, windows blown out so long ago even the broken glass was lost. It was an island of mass graves for the unwanted, who knew how many hundreds of thousands of bodies under our feet.
I started to feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Was it my fault for watching Esther? For recording her? For getting a psychic kick out of her turmoil? Was it enabling her illness in some way I didn’t understand? Or did we find comfort together in the exchange? Her on stage in turmoil, me listening in wonder, both of us open-hearted and receiving. Had I only ever cared about her songs, her performance, her voice? If I didn’t know the answer maybe I wasn’t a good person at all.
I spun around in despair, seeing the lights of the city under the horizon like a joke. There was no way to find Esther Collins. I sat down hard on the cold ground and held my face in my hands when I heard a small sad voice singing a familiar song. I lifted my head and found it was River, swaying in the darkness, shyly mumbling one of her mother’s tunes in a shaky, hesitant tempo but gaining volume and confidence with every syllable, the kind of whisper that hits with force, live-wire pulsing in your heart.
Music really is a clock: every click of the high hat, every pluck of the strings, every breath against brass is a ticking off of time in a dance of notes. The very act of deep listening, of paying close attention to something we can’t see or taste or touch, pulls our attention back to the ever-passing moment, to the feeling of being painfully alive in the present—the distance from one note to the next counting the seconds, marking the ordinary passing of time and transforming it into the sublime.
There in the darkness of Hart Island, I heard River Collins sing for the first time. She had the worst voice I’d ever heard, strained and pinched and unfamiliar with any key, and she sang all the way back to shore like a miracle.