June 3, 2018

Perhaps a Rock Opera!


In mid-February, I received a cryptic note from a blind artist and heavy metal front man who lives in Chicago. I’ve known Jack about fifteen years now, we’re in fairly regular contact, and I’ve done a couple of articles about his band. Understanding that he finds typing on his cell phone a pain in the ass, I don’t know why I found the one-line note so ominous, but I did. It simply asked that I give him a call, with no further explanation. It’s easy to read an awful lot into that.

            Later that afternoon I picked up the phone and dialed his number. After getting caught up with the basics—his new album, a few of the dozen or so art projects he had underway, he got down to the crux of the matter.

            See, Jack, much like my blind friend Ryan, has always been an energetic, outgoing type, what you might call a mover and shaker. He was a master when it came to making contacts with people who might help him out and give him work. Jack and I are very different in that way. This is why assorted institutions—blindo and otherwise—were always flying him here and there to do things. When I first met him he was just a blind guy with a metal band. Since then he’s been on NPR, his songs have appeared on TV shows, and he’s become an in-demand public speaker.

            He explained he’d just received a massive new grant from a local university to do some kind of art project. While reading through the stipulations and specifics of the grant, he noted that if he wanted to, he could spend some of the money on a “collaborator or mentor.”

            “So I thought hey, why not fly Knipfel out here to hang out and do something? I’m thinking in May sometime,” he said.

            “Oh,” I said. “Um, alright?” It was certainly flattering he would think of me—maybe only on account of my Mentors t-shirt—but already I was getting a little antsy. Money was what you might call awfully tight at the time, and what’s more Morgan and I were still waiting to hear about her upcoming surgery. That took precedence over everything. Even without the surgery, there was no way I could afford to pay for a plane ticket to Chicago. Plus I’d been hoping to get back to Wisconsin for my mom’s birthday in May, but that was on hold, too, until we got the surgery out of the way.

            But when he told me the grant administrators would buy the plane tickets, and what’s more would toss me a couple of hundred bucks for my troubles, well, that changed things. I could use a couple hundred bucks for my troubles.

            I had no idea what sort of project he had in mind, how any of this would work, or even if it would ever happen at all. I explained the medical situation to him, told him I wouldn’t be able to give him a definitive answer until all that was taken care of, but so long as that was cool with him I tentatively agreed. What the hell, right? Working on something or another with a blind metal singer? It sounded just weird enough to be worthwhile. And if the grant people were buying the plane tickets, maybe I could somehow connect this Chicago thing with a Wisconsin visit. Green Bay was just four hours due north of there, after all. And hey—Grinch is in Chicago, so I’d have a chance to see him, too.

            In the weeks that followed, as Morgan and I continued to wait for news about the surgery, I started hearing from the grant people, who sent me form after form to fill out. If I wanted to be a fucking collaborating mentor, after all, I was going to have to jump through a few hoops and sign a few contracts first. It was all quickly getting to be a bit of a hassle, considering I still had no idea if any of this was even going to happen. Things have a way of falling apart for me, especially lately. I couldn’t even set up a goddamn interview with goddamn Paul Williams without everything going to hell. Still, I kept thinking of that eight hundred bucks they were offering. Eight hundred bucks was sounding pretty good.

            Toward the end of April, with Morgan’s surgery behind us and her recovery coming along better than either of us expected, I was finally in a position to start thinking ahead again. I hadn’t yet forgotten about that promised money, so I gave Jack a call to let him know things were looking good and I was ready to start setting up a schedule for the Chicago trip.

            I half expected him to ask me what the hell I was talking about. “Trip? Mentor? I don’t remember saying anything like that. What the fuck have you been snorting?” That’s happened to me more than once in the past, too, especially when potential money was involved. With Jack always juggling multiple projects at once—from band stuff to other art projects to speaking engagements—I guess I wouldn’t have been so shocked if he’d forgotten about this grant thing.

            “Hey, that’s great,” he said.

            Well that much was a relief. Now, I’d really been given very few details about the bigger picture at this point. I just kept thinking about the check, and let the little things like what exactly I’d have to do to collect that check slide away. “So . . . ”I ventured. “What sort of project did you have in mind?”

            “I dunno,” he answered. “What did you want to do?”

            Yes, well. That wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but in another way I guess it was. We’re talking about a metal band front man here. I mean, he was the one who applied for the damned grant—didn’t he have to lay out in excruciating detail precisely what he planned to do with the money? I seriously doubted anyone would offer him a grant for, “I dunno—hanging out with Knipfel?”

            Nevertheless I came damn close to suggesting we collaborate on a rock opera, but stopped myself. What if I ended up in Chicago actually working on a rock opera?

            “I just thought you could come out here, “ he went on. “Hang out awhile, and we’d figure something out then. And maybe when you were in town you could have a reading or two. Sell a couple books.”

            “Sure,” I said, though I was quietly beginning to wonder what I was getting myself into this time. Was it some kind of insidious trap? Jack’s band did have some serious occult leanings, after all. Was I being lured out there to be some sort of human sacrifice? Was it a performance art thing, where he’d abandon me on the South Side and tell me to get back to his place, following me with a camera all the while?

            “Okay, I ventured further, figuring if I couldn’t get a What out of him, I could at least get a When. “When did you want to do this? Any kind of schedule in mind? Contract says I have until the end of August.”

            “Naah, not really. Sometime in June, I think, I’m being flown out to SETI headquarters outside San Francisco to do an audio project out there. Don’t really know what I’m doing or when that’s happening, but they asked me to come out there.”

            “Wow,” I said. “That’s pretty fucking cool,” not wanting to point out that, being German, I tend to go a little mad if I can’t lay out a structured timetable well in advance.

            “Yeah, so maybe when I get those exact dates, we can start setting something up around them.”

            “Sounds fine,” I said as my stomach clenched tighter. “Any idea how long we’re talking about? That is, how long I’d be in Chicago?”

            “I dunno,” he verbally shrugged again. “However long it takes, I guess. We’ll play it by ear.”

            Oh, these damn metal kids. “Yeah, but the grant lady is gonna be buying the plane ticket, and I was hoping to get up to Green Bay while I was out there, and . . . ” Then I gave up. I was getting a very bad feeling about things, which made me want to go all the more. Funny the voids a desperate man will dive into for eight hundred bucks.


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