• jaltosmith

Stacey Caplan

My life began and ended with Stacey Caplan. I was a zealot in a lifelong search for God's next gift to music, and as far as I was concerned, Stacey was the long awaited Messiah. I was a heated critic of the music industry throughout my career. The "hothead of the Rolling Stone," my boss affectionately called me. The truth was the industry took a nosedive half way through my two decades with the magazine, and when Stacey arrived, we'd gone ten years without a singer-songwriter worth writing about. I blamed this on the government's new "quality standards." With the bureau in charge, it was a miracle that Stacey was even let on stage.

That's one of the things that made her arrival so strange. The bureau of music management had been in power for a full decade before she made it. About eight years into my career with Rolling Stone the government seized direct management of the music industry. With the support of corporate big wigs and lobbyists, they determined that the world of music needed a guiding hand. They preached that there were too many morally antiquated ideas being communicated through songs. The only socially responsible thing to do was to manage production. A decade earlier, they used this same logic to take over news and social media groups. I was a young man at the time and applauded the move. God knows we needed someone protecting the public from the media's subterfuge. But I was less welcoming to the announcement of the music bureau.

I feared that it would limit talent. Sure, a lot of bad ideas were propagated through music, but that’s a risk I could take. I was a lot more concerned for the art than some kids thinking drugs were cool because of a rap song. Sad to say, my fears were confirmed. Changes weren’t drastic to start. A lot of the old hits were taken from the radio, but this was insignificant since the radio was all but extinct then. The real change took a couple of years. It began with some of the popular artists of the day beginning to disappear. Not all at once, just gradually, so that one day you'd look through your list of next year's concerts and notice that so and so who topped the billboards 12 months ago had half the stops as last year. And then a year later, none at all.

The most disconcerting thing was that there was no apparent rhyme or reason for who got zapped and who was made the next big star. No common traits, whether in style, genre, or lyrical content, indicated the bureau's criteria for judgment. A few years of this and the industry was boiling over in chaos and anxiety. The quality of content plunged as artists' spent all their creative energies trying to discern the bureau's tastes. Going to bed every night knowing they might get the black mark in the morning was an impossible condition in which to create. A few years into this and many of the singer-songwriters and bands I had spent my career following were quietly swept out of the industry, never to be heard from again.

Writing during these years was terrible. Of course there was plenty of news to tell, but with all the unpredictability we journalists were like cats chasing after a laser on a wall controlled by an invisible hand. Months on end of this was exhausting. And the devastation of losing many of our favorite artists or watching their work decline into mediocrity was too much for many journalists to handle. Eventually, I lost the will to write and decided to resign from Rolling Stone. And that's when Stacey showed up.

She was filmed street performing one night on Redondo Beach pier. The video got through the community safe guards on social media and went viral. It was like a light from heaven broke into a screaming music industry. After watching Stacey's video for the sixth time, I got on my laptop and wrote the first article I cared about in ten years. I'm no sentimentalist, but I still tear up every time I think of that night.

I wasn't the only one to feel this way. The video topped viewing records, and Stacey became the greatest social media phenom in history. Rather than be left behind on the craze, the music bureau contacted her directly offering a contract. Rumor has it, she balked at the offer. But with the encouragement of her family and friends, and no alternatives, she accepted. And thus the start of her career.

It feels wrong saying this as a man who was once married, but Stacey Caplan gave me the best years of my life. She showed no regard for the music bureau. She was in the highest echelon of poets and was hell-bent on digging the soul out of the lifeless bromide the industry had become. She wrote prodigiously, releasing new albums and singles at a higher rate than any other artist. And oh God, I loved her for it.

The day I met her was the most memorable of my life. I was the only journalist she ever interviewed with. She evaded our kind completely for two years. I could only guess it was because of her drug problem. Within a few months of her debut on social media, someone leaked a story about her taking amphetamines before performances. Shortly after that came the story about her ongoing relationship with opioids and alcohol. I could only guess this was the reason for her excessive privacy.

Whatever the reason for her reticence, I made it my part time job to get an audience with her. I left countless voicemails with her manager, sent him eighty-six consecutive, weekly emails, and attended all her concerts I could to try and catch her backstage. She's seen me and knows who I am, I knew that for sure. People usually remember me, because I bear an unfortunate resemblance to George Costanza from Seinfeld. I'm two inches taller than he was, but no one notices that. Short is short, I guess. And my Brooklyn accent doesn't help my cause. Tragic as that is, I do have the good fortune of being memorable. So at long last, I got an email response from Stacey's manager. She would like to meet me.

I was in Poughkeepsie at the time for my son, Bruce's, thirteenth birthday party. He had just finished telling me that he wanted to become a tech lawyer like his stepdad and I'd gone outside for some fresh air when I saw the message. I left in a hurry and flew to Chicago where Stacey was on tour. I was nervous. More nervous than I had ever been interviewing in 20 years. I paced back and forth in the Palmer House hotel lobby waiting for Stacey to come down from her room. The click of my shoes on the reflective marble floors filled the room. The stone walls glowed with candle light and the ceiling art bore the mark of Michelangelo. I noticed none of this. I was transfixed by the stone staircase leading to the elevators where pedestrians flowed back and forth. Couples dressed for the theatre, tourists with fanny packs strapped over their shoulders in the modern style, businessmen strutting from the bar - I dreaded them seeing her when she came. Dreaded the thought of them squealing and shrieking at her sight.

I knocked against a coffee table and apologized to the man sitting next to it in the arm chair. When I looked up I saw two large men in identical suits and ear pieces appear from the hall to the elevators. Body guards. My breath caught, I blinked, and there she was. Stacey Caplan was at the top of the steps. She stopped momentarily to survey the lobby. She was tall and thin, dressed in jeans that disappeared into tall, black boots, and a white tank top that contrasted her dark features. Born of a Jewish father and Dominican mother, her hair, eyes, eyebrows and lashes were all dark brown. She was bold and striking. Her hair was robust and long, and her large eyes appeared somewhat slanted by eyeliner that streaked to her temples. She gave off the impression of being one of the boys. Like the kind of girl you'd see her playing billiards in a dive bar.

She broke into a smile when she found me, raising one of her bare, long arms in a wave, and started walking down the steps to me. Some passers-by stopped, dumbfounded at the sight of her, and an excited clamor began to fill the lobby. It was then I broke into action. In two paces we met, and I, taking her hand and speaking into her ear, said "Come with me - we'll go straight to the conference room and save formalities for then." She nodded, looking down at me with the same smile from the steps. It was warm and trusting, and I felt boyish as hell fancying myself as her knight in shining armor there to escort her through the writhing mob.

When we made it to the room and closed the door, it was Stacey who spoke first.

"What a riot. I can tell paparazzi isn't your scene, huh Craig?”

I laughed. “No, I can’t say it is.”

“Well you handled yourself pretty good for a guy who writes for a living. Maybe we could get you on board with my boys there" - she gestured to her bodyguards stationed outside the door - "What do you say, Craig? A little change of pace suit you?"

"For an inside look at the life of Stacey Caplan, you bet I would. I couldn’t promise your safety though. I know these look like arms of steel but under this shirt they're all jello."

"Well, now that you mention it you wouldn't be the tallest bodyguard I've had. You actually remind me of someone. Ok, don't take this the wrong way, but has anyone ever told you that you look like George Costanza?"

"Ahhh here it goes again. Yes, yes Stacey. That, you see, is my cross to bear. Looking like George Costanza."

"Oh, I'm so sorry. I should never have brought that up - I"

"Oh no, don't mention it. It's given me tough skin. I'm like the boy named Sue. It's all for the best."

"I really didn't mean it in like a bad way, not at all. You make George look good, Craig." And then she laughed despite herself.

"Yeah, yeah, laugh about it. I'll take the complement and count it as a win. But that's enough about me, at least all I can take. Let's talk about you, Stacey."

By this time, we had sat down in padded, blue armchairs at either side of a coffee table. The bodyguards all went outside at Stacey's request, so we were left alone.

"Now, Stacey, for the last two years, I have centered my entire career around you, to mixed success. It has been a thrill to cover your music but very difficult to become acquainted with your life. You’ve been exceptionally private so much of it is shrouded in mystery and hearsay. With your help, I'd like to set the record straight and give the world a whole, accurate understanding of who you are and the life you've lived, as you see it. So how about we start at the beginning, which, if I am not mistaken, was a record store, is that right?"

"Yeah, yeah the Redondo Records Supply. My father opened it when I was little - I grew up in that place. It was the dream, I mean, all the greatest music at my fingertips, listening to it all day. I get sort of tingly every time I think of it. Like a dream. Totally unreal."

"You’re not kidding. Certainly would have been my dream. Who were some of the artists you grew up on? Your greatest inspirations?"

"Well shit, where do I begin? I mean, I had it all there, Craig, I listened to everything and like I’m a west coast girl, you know, and even as a little girl I was listening to Tupac, Ice-T, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg. Of course, I listened to tons of music besides hip-hop, but that gives you the idea, you know, of how much, or wide the music variety it was I listened to."

"Did your parents know you were listening to the N.W.A?"

"Well, sort of. I would help my dad out in the shop after school, stocking records, running the cash register, that kind of thing, and we had records playing non-stop. I never wanted to leave when my dad would send me home, so eventually he had me sit in the back office to do my homework and pack a dinner to eat there. And I’d be sneaking N.W.A records and other crazy shit like that to listen to back where I was alone and had privacy. But yeah, my dad came in on me listening to that and pretending to do homework and he acted all strict at first telling me I shouldn’t listen to that stuff at my age, but I kept sneaking it back and he seemed to stop caring."

"Well, I have to admit as an East coaster I'm a little jealous of the West's hip hop scene. You had a good run of it for a while. But obviously you aren’t a rap artist, so where else did you find your inspiration?"

"Yeah, for sure. I drew a lot from the classics like Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald. Some of my more contemporary girls like Lauryn Hill, Beyonce, Whitney Houston, of course. Bob Dylan really inspired me as a songwriter. You know, I felt kind of simple, like just not that special or brilliant or anything, kind of a screw-up sometimes, you know. And Bob Dylan, he taught me that really anyone can be brilliant. I mean, not that I’m like Bob Dylan or anywhere brilliant like he was, but that there could be some brilliance in the simple screw ups. And you didn’t have to look a part I guess. But I also loved and was so affected by Bjork. She was a wild girl, like a truly crazy person, but with so much talent, I mean so damned talented, just a genius. And she did things her own way. Like on her own terms completely, and was so fun. She just did exactly what she wanted and that freed me to do something that only I would think of doing, not having to follow a pattern, but just to create my own thing. I guess I learned from her to define myself as an artist, not to look to others to do that for me. I owe a lot to Bjork for that."

"Many artists do. I've always referred to her as a landmarker artist, one of the great game changers. But tell me, Stacey, when did you start making music? How did you begin?"

"So, I think I was around nine, maybe ten and we’d had the shop about five years at that point. There was a regular that came in all the time, at least twice a week to grab a record and just hang out and talk with my dad, and he took a liking to me. He’d see me there at the shop helping out and would talk music with me and one day he shows up with a guitar, and is standing at the register talking with my dad a little while as I'm sorting some records over in classic rock. Then he leaves my dad and walks straight over to me and says “Hello, miss Stacey! Look what I have for you here." Then he hands me a guitar in its case and I just stare at it a minute, just dumbfounded that it's a guitar. Then he's like "It’s all yours. I’ve already talked it over with your father and you will be taking lessons from a friend of mine. Would you like that?” Well I was on fuckin’ cloud nine, I’ll tell you man, I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to play so bad, and here was a guitar all mine, and lessons every week. I could hardly speak to the man after that, I just blushed a lot and looked down and said thank you. Then I took the guitar and he had me sit down and showed me how to hold it, where to place my hands on the frets, you know. It was pretty big for me, but he said not to worry about it, that I would get the hang of it over time. That was the start of it."

"Sounds like a dream."

"Yeah, yeah it really was."

I was sitting there grinning at Stacey, reveling in her story of a golden childhood when I suddenly felt like a fool. Her demeanor had changed. She turned downwards, within herself, somber. There I was gloating and grinning. So I asked her,

"Is there anything wrong, Stacey?"

"Oh, no. No, nothing, just hadn't gone back there in a while, back to the good days, the days that glow is what I call them. But I don't think about them a lot now."

"When did they end?"

"Um...when I was thirteen. Classic, you know, middle school comes and it's all downhill from there. No one likes middle school." She forced a laugh. "It's a real shit show, huh Craig?"

"Yeah, don't remind me of mine. It wasn’t pretty. But for you, did something change in your family? In your father's record store?"

Stacey turned to look at the wall, the carpet, the door, and finally, back to me. Her head tilted slightly downward and to the side, as if succumbing to an ever present weight I hadn't noticed. It ran down her face and rose up in her eyes. And her eyes looked afraid of what she was about to say.

"No. No, Craig, nothing changed in the store exactly, but… in a way, everything changed. It all changed. When you're a teenager, a girl in her early teens, you have a naive sort of hopefulness that you carry with you all the time. It picks you up and keeps you going even when things don't go right, when the boy doesn't like you, or your parents fight, or you flunk your biology test, there's just this hope for life that you don't lose. And I think, it's my sort of theory that I have, that this hope comes from innocence. When you really feel innocent and know you're that innocent child and that the world ought to be good to you and beautiful, that you belong to it…well you just feel right about it all. You feel you're going to be somebody someday. That you're one of the special ones. That's how innocence felt to me. And when that innocence is taken away, it just...all that hope can disappear in a moment. Life is beautiful one day and then you lose your own beauty and it's's just all lost. Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, you're dirty. You're just too damned dirty to deserve to be there, and who knows you won't be smothered and choked to death by the next person you meet because you know they can see it all over you, the dirtiness that you really are. I don't think there's any pain worse than that loss. To be a precious child one day and then the next...just...just nothing."

I brushed a drop of perspiration from my forehead. I’ve never been comfortable with people getting vulnerable with me. That’s something my boss would always say held me back, not entering into the vulnerable places of artists’ lives. It's not that I don’t care. It just unsettles me. Makes me feel helpless. But sitting there in front of Stacey, I felt moved to take her in my arms and tell her I was sorry and that it would be okay. I could feel her hot tears against my shoulder as I sat there looking at her. But at the same time, I was repulsed. I wanted to run out of the room and escape what she just told me. Instead of doing either of these things, I asked the only question I could think of:

"And is that why you write music? To express this...this loss of innocence?"

"Well...yes. At least, that was definitely a big inspiration to me starting to write my own music. I couldn't perform like I did before, not for a while. Before, you'd see me all the time playing my guitar at the record store, a lot of the old regulars passing me by with a smile and nod, or stopping to listen a bit and tell me how good I was. It didn't feel the same after and so I'd do a lot of writing but I wouldn't perform like that. The most public I'd get is to play in the back office. My dad didn't understand me, didn't understand why I wouldn't go back to the guitar teacher I had for over three years. He could just tell there wasn't any way in hell I was going back,” she said laughing.

It was a grimacing laugh that faltered into silence. She was sprawled in her chair with hunched shoulders and long legs splayed in front of her in that same boyish manor that she always carried herself. But her eyes were nervous, her neck and shoulders were tense, her breathing heavy. I took another brush at my forehead and said,

“Stacey, you know if there’s anything you need, or want, to tell me, this doesn’t all have to be on record. I can cut anything you want from the story.”

She stared at me, eyes vacant. After several moments I was growing desperate to break the silence when she said,

“Well, you know, some guitar teachers do more with their hands than play guitar. I guess I was unlucky to have one for myself.”

“And you never told your father?”

“No,” she said looking down and shaking her head.

"I'm sorry, Stacey. No child should have to tell her dad something like that. Still, I think he would have believed you."

Her eyes were full of tears now. Unable to look at me directly, but casting quick and fervent glances, she said,

"Maybe you’re right. Maybe it would have been better if I had told him. But it is what it is. I can’t change how I handled it then. I just try to look at the situation from how it's made me a better artist. I mean it seems like all the great artists created from pain. They write from pain, paint from pain, dance out of pain...well maybe not all. Maybe they don't all do that. Maybe the dancer dances because she sees something beautiful and feels like she can get inside of it. But a lot of songwriters, they write from pain. But...oh hell, the days we live in most people you hear on the radio are writing to be on the radio. And that's a nightmare now, more than it ever was. But the true writer will always write from something deeper. And I guess it doesn't always have to be pain, or only pain, but that's how it started for me.”

I hesitated, unsure if I should ask what was on my mind. But we had come a long way and would have to address it eventually. So I took the plunge.

"You know, a lot of artists with that sort of experience would pair their emotional pain with drugs. They say they find inspiration by using. Is that part of your own experience with drug use? Do you find inspiration through it?”

"That's a complicated question. I mean that there's no straightforward answer that I can give. Like it's just not a simple issue. I don't think I need the drugs and stuff to make great art, but they are sort of like a doorway I can choose to get there. Not totally necessary but there. But then art isn't the only reason I use, there's lots. It's like I said, it's just not that simple."

"Would you say you could stop using if you chose to?"

"Yeah, yeah of course I could. The reason I don't go check myself into rehab isn't because I don't have the ability to choose anymore. I choose all the time, and using is what I want to do."

"To use as a doorway to art?"

"That's not the only thing, okay. It's part, yeah, but let me tell you something important. Art, it doesn't come from somewhere outside you or something like a drug, my art comes from within me. And not like my consciousness. I mean, I don't even know if it's really me that writes the songs. Yeah, I’m typing the keys and noting the chords and putting it all on paper, but it’s like the ideas, the actual words, come from some tunnel inside of me that goes to another world. Someplace where you live and breathe inspiration like oxygen and everything is knowledge and gold and music and it all finds its way into my brain, and I feel it like liquid going down through my whole body and out comes something on paper. And this terrifies me. I have this recurring dream where I'm standing outside a door into this magical place where all the inspiration is, the other end of the tunnel, you know, and I get locked out, left banging on the door. I wake up from these dreams in a cold sweat and dread writing the next day. I’ve learned not to wait till the next day, though. After these dreams, I get a pen and paper and start writing right away. Until I write something, I’m terrified I won’t be able to write anything ever again, and sometimes I freeze when I start and really can’t write anything at all. I don’t have a single thought in my head except, oh shit, this is it. I’m all used up. Then I cry. I just cry and start scribbling lines on the paper, not like words or anything that means something, I just scribble and eventually a word comes into my mind - it’s like the sun coming out in my head - and I write it, and then other words come, and I write and write, sometimes all the way till morning. I’ve written a lot of songs that way. And that’s all I can give the world, Craig. For as long as it lasts, that’s all I’ve got to give."

"Wow. Wow, okay, but...but why the drugs then?"

"Do you have a problem with me using, Craig? Would you prefer me sober? Well maybe I'm not the answer to all your fucking hopes and dreams. I see the headlines, you know. All that "Stacey Caplan: A Breath of Life to a Dying Industry" bullshit that's covered the Stone and the Times the last two years. You think I make music to save society? To be a role model? I make music because I've got to. Because it's in me and has to get out. And I'm the farthest thing from being anyone's savior, anyone's fucking role model. I'm better off being a screw-up who can't stay sober for two seconds. When you're just a crazy bitch to people they learn they can't control you or expect you to be something that you're not. I can't carry on this facade of being the person someone wants their little daughter to become one day. If people really knew me they would know better than to ever want that. But they don't care. They just make you out to be what they want you to be. Whether that's good or bad, they just turn you into whatever they want. And I'm not going to let them do that with me. I'm not good, Craig. So I'm not going to pretend like it to the world. I'm going to be known on my terms, as much as that's even possible, it will be on my terms."

I looked down, unable to keep eye contact with Stacey, because I knew she was being honest, but not all the way. She was like an animal in a cage to which she held the key. Self-aware, thoughtful, brilliant, but trapped by a web of self-hatred and doubt. But what could I say? Suddenly, I imagined Bruce, my son. He didn't need me anymore. He was finding his way without me, with a new dad. The thought of this made me sad as hell. And I knew there was so much I could have done, could have said to him that might have made things different than they were. And then I remembered Stacey.

"Stacey, I get it if you don't want my opinion on this, but I think maybe you should get some help. I don't mean rehab if that's not what you want. But maybe a counselor, or even spiritual help, like a priest. I think...I think you're worth it. Not because of your talent or anything you can give people, but because you're Stacey. And matter. Just because you are."

Her eyes shone as she looked at me. When she spoke, it felt as if each word were being squeezed out of her.

"Craig, you know that magical door in my dreams I told you about? How it gets locked and I go to pieces thinking I'll never be let in again? Well I have this feeling that one day I'm going to go in there and the door's going to shut and lock behind me. When that happens, I want you to remember that I always came back when I could. But also know that I am ready. I'm not asking for it, but I'm ready."

Dropping into silence, her eyes seemed to be physically reaching out to me, beseeching me to help, to hold her, to give a reason for it all. Then she let go with a glance away, and called out huskily,

"Boys! You can come in now."

An hour after it was all over and Stacy had left in a ring of bodyguards, I sat sunken in my chair. I hadn’t moved since she left, hadn’t even picked up my pen to make a note. My phone rang three times, twice from my editor, probably anxious to hear how it went. I had no idea what I would write. And I didn’t care. I kept seeing her eyes reaching for me, reliving the moment she let go.

A gnawing fear settled itself in my stomach as I stared into the chair where Stacey had sat. The fear greeted me with a chill when I woke the next morning and hung over me for the entirety of the following year. Three hundred and seventy days of continued foreboding followed. And then it happened. I was in my editor’s office pitching a story when the door slammed open to the face of the secretary. Through streaming tears she sobbed, “Stacey Caplan is dead!”

My editor wanted me to write the story on Stacey’s death, but I resigned instead. I moved out of the city to a lake in Connecticut where I have lived ever since. It’s been fifteen years, and I don’t know anything about the industry today and don’t want to. I have a collection of my favorite records I listen to. I have Stacey’s, but most days I can’t bring myself to play them. The old foreboding left when she passed. Now I don’t feel much at all. I walk and think and write. Mostly about life around the lake, the ospreys and hawks and falcons. On land, grey and red foxes dodge bobcats and black bears.

It wasn't easy adjusting to life in the wild. I nearly died my first winter. I spent the summer weaning myself off dependence on grocery stores. I was becoming quite the hunter, but I had underestimated how much supplies I would need to get through the season and overestimated my access to the city. There was a blizzard in late January that holed me up for seventeen days. A lot of the fire wood I had cut over Summer and Fall got soaked by snow melting through seams in the tarp and were no longer good for burning. I spent five days in a freezing house with little food.

A veteran now, I am prepared for all seasons of life in the woods. And life has grown uneventful but for the goings on of the animals and plants about me, the cyclical coming and going of the bees from hive to flowers, of birds south in Winter and back in Spring, of trees withering to grey and barren branches, then blooming again with the birds' return. Fifteen times, I've watched this happen, each complete cycle a countdown to something I feel rising before me, glowing beyond the horizon.

I sometimes dream of the door to Stacey’s fairytale land, the place where her inspiration came from. It’s always closed, and I never go inside. I walk around the door, circling it again and again, but it never opens. I just keep looking at it and walking, and eventually, I wake up.

Whenever I have that dream, I go out to the lake the next morning and paddle my canoe out a ways till I’m far from any shore. I set my paddle down and sit for a while, just looking at the water, the trees, the sky. I smell the breeze, watch the birds, feel the sun. And I wait.

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