Suggested listening while reading this story:
"Respect" Otis Redding
"Changes" David Bowie
"Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" James Brown
"Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" David Bowie
"Too Much Monkey Business" Yardbirds
"Knock on Wood" Eddie Floyd
"Rescue Me" Fontella Bass
"Me and the Devil Blues" Robert Johnson
I packaged a totally credible plastic rock star--- much better than any sort of Monkees fabrication. My plastic rocker was much more plastic than anybody's.
On the Road in 1975
Johnny Jewel's antennae swished through the dressing room like batons conducting imaginary saxes and trumpets. His claws punched the smoky air, rolling against invisible tom-toms. Otis Redding's spirit writhed and twisted beside him.
Bursting in, Jocelyn Blair shouted, "There you are!"
Johnny froze in surprise, his wings parted, his claws and boots in a jumble. Unseen by Jocelyn, Otis frowned.
"What are you doing?" Jocelyn demanded.
"Warming up to 'Respect'," Johnny said. Trying to convince her with his enthusiasm, Johnny squeezed his face and emoted, "Hey! Hey! Hey!"
Feigning boredom, Jocelyn said, "Yeah, yeah."
"Hey! It's the original by Otis!" Johnny shouted, as Redding stomped out a beat. "Not the remake by Aretha---"
"Stop that!" Jocelyn commanded. Johnny and Otis didn't move. "That's enough!"
Redding bowed, then his ghostly image slipped away, back to his plane crash wreckage in the weed-choked waters of Lake Monona, Wisconsin. Jocelyn scolded Johnny. "Why don't you warm up to something more recent? That song's ten years old."
"That's not old," Johnny said.
"Ten years is two and a half generations of high school students," Jocelyn said. She paused to listen to the seven thousand teenagers on the other side of the wall cheering to an interminable drum solo. "Whatever Tobashi's taking is losing its effect. Are you ready to go on?"
"Yeah, yeah," Johnny said. "Let me check my costume." Johnny pulled off the rubber insect face mask, tossing it on the counter. Scraping a fingernail against the cheek, he said, "Paint's peeling."
"It's not the costume I'm worried about. What's going on with you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Johnny, you've got to take this tour seriously. You have no idea how big it's going to be. I want buzz! Johnny Jewel's face on the cover of Rolling Stone! If we keep up the momentum, there's still time to book an arena or two at the end of the tour. Maybe even Madison Square Garden. Can you imagine? From high school dances to stadiums in three years!"
"Is that what it's all about?" Johnny asked. "Madison Square?"
Jocelyn said, "We can as big as Bowie or Elton."
"But I don't..." This was not what she wanted to hear, but what he needed to say. "I don't want to be like Bowie or Elton John. Those buffoons! All they've got is big sets and silly costumes. Electric boots, a mohair suit!"
"But the audience loves it!" Jocelyn said. "It's fun. What's wrong with that?"
"It's dumb and demeaning!" Johnny waved the insect mask through the cloudy air. "I still believe rock 'n' roll can be art, not just a circus. I don't know how you talked me into wearing this insect costume onstage."
"You know what Pete Townshend told me? He said, 'You should keep on playing rock for as long as you have an axe to grind, and if you haven't got an axe to grind, you should go into cabaret." That's what rock music is turning into. Cabaret! No more axes. Viet Nam's over, so we can't sing about that..."
"All right! No more insipid protest songs!" Jocelyn said.
"...Tricky Dicky's gone," Johnny said. "Next year we give the boot to Ford. Townshend's right. Rock doesn't have a focus anymore. So cabaret it is! Alice Cooper! Kiss! Silly makeup, a boa constrictor, a big tongue."
"Kiss has sold millions of albums."
"Yes, but where's the music?" Johnny asked. "Even the production is muddy. It's not a band. It's a marketing ploy. And Bowie? Your hero! Changing makeup every album. Now he's a mod, now a drugged-out space nut, now a pin-up, now a rock star from another planet..."
Jocelyn asked, "You're still going back onstage, aren't you?"
"Yeah, yeah, when Tobashi's done with his drum solo." Checking his watch, he said, "Ten minutes now. Probably another five to go. And I'll wear the insect suit," he conceded.
"What do you want, Johnny?"
After a pause, Johnny said, "Before I die, I want to write songs, real songs."
"And that means blues and soul to you?" Jocelyn asked. "Like Otis Redding?"
"Yeah, stuff like that. I want to write songs that make high schoolers at McDonald's hum to themselves when they're searing burgers. Songs that fathers sing off key to their children. Songs that make people start their own bands."
"Great. OK. You write 'em, our producers will polish 'em and I'll sell 'em to the masses. We all go to Madison Square together. What's the problem?"
"You just don't get it!" Johnny said. "Being great isn't necessarily correlated with having hit singles. 'Stairway to Heaven' was never a 45. And the Carpenters -- bleh! -- have had more Top Tens than us."
"What do you really want?" Jocelyn asked again.
"I know this sounds corny, but I don't want any of this cabaret stuff. I just want to be real." After a pause, he thought, And I don't know how.
"Well, Pinocchio, get ready to go onstage."
The crowd screamed in syncopated adoration as Tobashi Tamaal finished his drum solo with a flourish of cymbal crashes. Total time: 17:20.
The scenery was designed like a non-entomologist's interpretation of a hive, with ten-foot-tall khaki-colored army ants guarding the stage and the amps stacked in honeycombs. High above hung a latex and plywood lobster-scorpion-yellow jacket hybrid with multi-faceted eyes the size of punch bowls. Its wings were six feet across and lined with spikes, like enormous hairy ears.
Pacing backstage, Johnny tugged uncomfortably at his mask.
It was Jocelyn who had convinced Johnny to shed his old band, the Cleft Palates, to accept her line-up of studio musicians. The others--- Tommy Mollo on guitar, Joey Komodo on bass, "Sweet" Lester Jams on synths --- stood a few arm's lengths away in their gold glitter jumpsuits, smoking. Komodo and Sweet had faint blood stains in the crooks of their left elbows. Their rubber insect masks, hand-sculpted at great expense, lay on the gritty stage floor.
What a pack of hacks! Johnny thought. Pretentious, too. Especially Komodo posing with his Alembic bass.
Johnny predicted that they were all soon to fall into obscurity. If Johnny left the band, Mollo alone would probably release a solo disk, but that would go straight from factory to cut-out bin. Not even Jocelyn could rescue their careers. Johnny was surprised how little he felt for his band-mates after three years together.
At Mollo's cue, Johnny Jewel strutted onto the stage in his insect mask and costume, complete with claws, spines and segmented abdomen. Just before the spotlight blinded him, he saw the bottle blondes in the front row, their hair sweat-pasted onto their foreheads. He felt guilty pleasure. As always, Johnny took choreographed steps, pausing on cue to wiggle his hips. Just so. The girls screamed and Jocelyn smiled. Johnny blew them a kiss, as he sighed at the stupidity of it all.
Mollo came onstage walking on his hands. When he stood up, a roadie tossed him a guitar from fifteen feet away.
While Sweet Lester tickled the keys, Johnny sang "Windswept Lady," a Top Ten from two years before. Mollo winked at the crowd and then played a sobbing guitar line on his Fender Strat. Yes, Johnny thought, Clapton could make a guitar weep, Hendrix could make it salute, but only Mollo could make it whine.
During the next few gigs, Johnny felt increasingly frustrated, tired and bored. His singing and guitar playing suffered. He lacked soul. He felt lethargic even when he played the rowdiest cuts off the last album--- a record of which he was honestly proud. Unlike the previous three disks, he had written most of the songs himself, including "Whenever You're Near," now at Number 12.
He loved the the fan mail in bags, the chauffeurs in tuxedos, and the knowledge that he could throw a TV out his hotel window. But he still felt guilty. Was his music that good? His heroes, the soul-blasters and blues-belters of the fifties and sixties, mostly slept on stained sheets in segregated motels with flickering neon and crawling roaches. Why did he deserve better?
Fame was fleeting, and he didn't know where his music was going. In the three months since the last album had debuted, he'd only written one song. And that was only good enough for a B-side or a giveaway for the fan club. Sigh.
It kept coming back to comparisons to the Beatles. The Fab Four averaged an album full of hits and classics two or three times a year for over half a decade. He protested that chart success didn't mean anything to him, but it did, for comparison purposes. From 1964 to 1970, the Beatles owned the Number One spot for 59 weeks with 20 different songs. 59 weeks! So far Johnny had amassed only two Number Ones. For five weeks total. He wanted to compete with the Liverpudlian legacy, but couldn't.
Twitching at the back of the tour bus, Johnny watched the B-B-Q huts and wildlife art galleries roll by.
Today he turned 27. He was already older than Otis Redding had ever been. Mollo presented him with a Gibson Double 12, with a sunburst-colored SG-style body and two humbucking pick-ups for each neck.
Johnny smiled for the first time in weeks. "This is a real remarkable find. You should keep it for yourself."
Shaking his head, Mollo said, "Happy birthday."
"Thanks." As Johnny fingered the guitar's horns, the smile drained away. Mollo said, "What's wrong? Cheer up! You guys are taking yourselves far too seriously."
"Us?" Johnny asked.
"You and Jocelyn," Mollo said. "A band is like a trampoline. It needs tension, pulling it in different directions, to keep it tight. You give us the soul and Jocelyn helps us market it. 'Cos without album sales, we don't have a contract, and without that, we don't have the blues, or anything."
"And what do you do?" Johnny asked.
"I provide the fun. Self-importance will kill you. Makes bands break up." "You think I'm pretentious?" Johnny asked.
"You don't know what's at stake here!" Johnny shouted. "The heart of rock and roll is up for grabs! Rock can be the voice of teenagers too shy to talk in complete sentences. Rock screams out: You offer us a world, but we don't want it! Your phony etiquette, your fashions, your square way of thinking! They're all irrelevant to me! Rock shouts out, I have things inside me, but you'll never hear, because all you see if the length of my hair and the color of my skin and the pattern on my shirt! Rock and roll proclaims, We're building a future that's better than your past. Rock can say all that, and more. But Jocelyn doesn't believe that. Jocelyn thinks rock is merely funny hats and flashing lights. Don't you see?"
"I see a man taking himself and his music far too seriously," Mollo said.
"You just want to have fun," Johnny said. "How can I have fun? I'm twenty seven today. Do you know what that means?"
Mollo shook his head.
Johnny said: "Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix. What do they all have in common?"
"They're all dead?" Mollo said.
"Yeah, that's right," Johnny said. "And they all died at age 27. All the greats, they all made their marks when they were still young."
"But Johnny!" Mollo said. "You've made your mark. You've put out a string of solid albums. You've got an armload of hit singles. What more do you want?"
"I guess I've done OK," Johnny said. "But I haven't done what I really wanted. I want to do something extraordinary in the history of music. Every call needs a response. Every voice, an echo. My music hasn't said what it wants, because I don't hear the echo yet. And I'm running out of time."
Later that day, Jocelyn sat next to Johnny on the tour bus.
"Can you at least pretend to have fun onstage?" she said. "The audience doesn't want a sourpuss."
Johnny said, "If I want to be sour on my birthday, why won't people just let me?"
"I've got some birthday news to cheer you up," Jocelyn said. "I got you guest slots on TV."
"Yowzah, yowzah, yowzah," Johnny said sarcastically. "What shows?"
"The Carol Burnett Show and Happy Days," she said. "Imagine: Johnny Jewel meets the Fonz! And the Captain and Tennille are planning a variety show---"
"The Captain and Tennille!" Johnny said in shock. "Toni Tennille's just another emotionally vacuous female lead singer. You didn't tell them I'd wear the insect suit?"
"What else---?" he asked.
"I don't have Madison Square yet, but we're negotiating." Jocelyn glared at him. "Johnny! I'm tired of working harder on your career than you are! You're the most ungrateful person I've ever met. When I was singing in clubs, I would have killed for a tenth of the support you get from me. What do you want from me?"
"From you?" Johnny threw his hands in the air. "You can't give me..."
"You mean that Pinocchio stuff? What is this being 'real' junk, anyway?"
"Well, for starters, pretending to be an insect when I'm not is just silly and maddening!"
"Would it help if you actually were an insect?" she said, tossing out a random idea.
"Yeah, right," Johnny said. "Yeah, right."
He didn't see the gears starting to whirl in Jocelyn's head.
I'm an instant rock star; just add water and stir.
Frazzled by worry about being real, anxious about his perceived deadline, desperate to make his mark, Johnny agreed to Jocelyn's bizarre plan. Johnny Jewel onstage would not be a man in an insect suit; he would be a real insect.
How? Jocelyn hired Dr. Nicholas Gaudio, then on sabbatical, to travel with the band. Dr. Gaudio introduced himself by making fun of Johnny's hand-sculpted insect mask. "Look at these antennae!" Dr. Gaudio said. "They should be segmented, not straight like wires. When you wear this, can you sense olfactory cues? Sex pheromones? You should be able to sense them through the mouthparts and foreleg tarsi, too. What kind of insect is this supposed to be, anyway?"
Dr. Gaudio wore a polyester suit and carried a battery-operated slide viewer. The slides he showed Johnny were of developmental mutations in flies. One, antennapedia, caused a fly to grow legs where its antennae ought to be. Another mutation, homozygous e-type bithorax, created an extra set of wings.
"Coo-ool," Johnny said.
The metamorphosis protocol Dr. Gaudio outlined was this: insect DNA would be loaded into viruses, which would be mixed into a cream for Johnny to apply to his skin. The viruses would deliver the insect DNA into the nuclei of Johnny's cells. There the insect DNA would be introduced into Johnny's chromosomes through homologous recombination at the homeodomains--- sequences which are highly conserved across species lines.
Johnny didn't really understand what Dr. Gaudio said, but he was desperate enough to try it. If it would change him at the genetic level, then he really would be an insect. Not just a guy in a bug suit.
"So it's just a quick bzz-zzap and I'm an insect?" Johnny asked.
"On, no," Dr. Gaudio said. "Your development will occur in eleven steps called instars. Your transformation will be marked by moltings, initially nine days apart and stretching to eleven. So that's about three and a half months total."
"But what kind of insect will you turn me into?" Johnny asked.
Dr. Gaudio said, "Drosophila genetics are by far the most advanced..."
"What are those?" Johnny asked.
"Does it have to be flies?" Johnny asked. "Flies only buzz. Can't I be some kind of singing insect. Maybe I could do insect music onstage."
"What?" Jocelyn said in shock.
"How about katydids?" Johnny asked.
"Katydids usually stop singing at dusk, so you could only do daylight shows," Dr. Gaudio said. "Personally, I think crickets are the most beautiful insect singers."
Johnny said, "Buddy Holly, eat your heart out!"
When Jocelyn and Dr. Gaudio conferred alone later, Jocelyn said, "You're a good actor. You want a guest slot on TV?"
"He swallowed the whole thing," Dr. Gaudio said. "Every bit of that developmental biologist's wet dream..."
"He definitely wouldn't go for it if he knew we were really using mechanical prostheses," Jocelyn said. "He's got to think he's really being changed. Otherwise, we can just kiss Madison Square and next year's tour goodbye."
Dr. Gaudio said, "OK. I'll finalize the cricket blueprints with our engineer and the surgeon. We can probably start the surgery in two weeks. Is that soon enough to keep Johnny happy?"
Jocelyn smiled at him. "And me."
Two Thursdays later, just before going to bed, Johnny carefully spread over his body an unscented white cream, which was nothing but a placebo.
An hour later, while Johnny slept, Dr. Gaudio's team gassed him with an anesthetic and then applied the first layer of molded microporous plastic parts to Johnny's chest.
Over the course of the first week of nightly applications, Johnny awoke to spreading calluses on his skin, which coalesced into an exoskeleton. His sides were lined with spiracles, the openings for tracheae, his insect breathing tubes.
Dancing and singing "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag", Johnny spent long hours beholding his new, ever-changing visage in the mirror. Embryonic labrum and labium, insect upper and lower jaws, dangled like thumb nails from his lips. Palpi, sense organs, hung like babies' pinkies from the edges of his mouth. Not very impressive compared to the hand-sculpted insect mask, but a start.
Nonetheless, Johnny was proud of his metamorphosis and one day announced to the band that they were going onstage that night without masks, without costumes, without scenery. Only Johnny would have the rudimentary insect mouthparts on his face. Sweet Lester said, "Looks like you got oatmeal dripping from your lips!" Jocelyn was shocked and angry. One roadie objected, citing the union contract specs, but the others shushed him. Mollo, unsure himself, convinced the band to throw in their lot with Johnny.
"What will the audience think?" Jocelyn asked. "Most of the press has centered around the theatrics. Will the fans be content with only music?" "If it's good enough," Johnny argued.
If an alien came down and asked me what rock 'n' roll is, I'd play them 'Hound Dog' or something by Chuck Berry.
In Tucson that night, Johnny Jewel and his band walked out onto the stage without their costumes, and the crowd cheered anyway.
A quick countdown and they were off. Just as he had flipped through the sketchbook of natural history to find himself, Johnny was tabbing through the ancient manuscripts of rock history. He had chosen Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business."
It was a working-class raveup, covered by the Beatles and Yardbirds, the inspiration for Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Mollo threw himself into the rapid-fire guitar part, the chords like wasp stings. Johnny delivered the lyrics at machine-gun speed. It was brash, unruly, intrusive. This was rock and roll!
As "Too Much Monkey Business" crash-landed with flaming power chords and a flourish of cymbals, a guy in a Pink Floyd shirt in the front row started screaming: "Bugface!"
Without a pause, Johnny launched the band into a frantic version of their first gold record, "I Can't Get You to Listen to Me," a teenrage anthem Jocelyn had penned. Johnny was amazed she still hadn't been sued for plagiarism, as it was the yip dog progeny of Edwin Starr's "War" and the Temptations' "I Can't Get Next to You."
For Johnny the music was better than it had been in years, more staccato and angry. He felt alive and real. Mollo was grinding his axe.
But when the song ended, more people in the front few rows were chanting, "Bugface! Bugface!"
Next Johnny led the band through a roller coaster medley of James Brown and Otis Redding song fragments, but the chanting continued.
The shouts of "Bugface!" were not the echo Johnny wanted.
Sweet Lester, staring up from the keyboards, shot Johnny an angry glance. Into his mike Lester announced to the audience: "Johnny's decided that we're not doing the bug show tonight. Sorry."
After those words, Johnny heard a sound he'd never heard before, not even when he tromped from rathskeller to rathskeller, doing poor imitations of his blues heroes on a Gibson semi-solid. The audience was booing him.
Johnny reminded himself of Dylan at the Newport folk festival in '65. The folksinger with the trademark harmonica and acoustic guitar and the voice that came from you and me, Woody Guthrie's heir apparent, Dylan had the audacity to come onstage with an electric guitar. Folk purists were horrified, and they booed. But Dylan grew in leaps and bounds for years afterward. Maybe Johnny could, too.
The crowd kept booing.
At the end of the first set, they played another Top Ten, "Baby Doll." During this song, the crowd usually tossed plastic babies up on the stage. Sweet used to love this part, until a baby came spinning out of the spotlight like a flying saucer and cut him above the eye.
That night, as they sang "Baby Doll," the Pink Floyd fan tossed dolls on the stage, but only after twisting off the arms and legs.
"Have they come to the rock show for the rock or the show?" Johnny asked.
"The show apparently," Sweet Lester responded.
Jocelyn was ecstatic for being proven right. Maybe she could control Johnny now.
The band donned the insect costumes for the second and third sets. Johnny reluctantly slipped his hand-sculpted insect mask over his "real" insect visage. The audience cheered. The smoke and lasers helped, too. People even danced in the aisles and held lighters in the air like they used to.
Johnny wept. Even the best moments of the show for him---the bluesiest, the gutsiest---were built on songs he hadn't written. And his songs? He didn't own them anymore. The costume designers and the light techs did.
Basically rock stardom comes down to the cut of your trousers.
Over the next two instars, during their secret surgery sessions, Dr. Gaudio and his team inserted two pairs of mechanical wings in Johnny's back: the outer pair a covering, the inner pair, folded underneath like a fan, for flying. The wings started as awkward membranous veined ovals, but gradually stiffened and darkened. Blood was even pumped through the wings so they would be body-temperature.
In Memphis, despite Jocelyn's objections, Johnny Jewel did not wear the entire insect suit, but only the mask. His wings were stuck through a hole cut into his leather jacket. He kept turning his back to the audience until Sweet Lester told him, "Stop flashing your pathetic little wing things."
The wings didn't make any music yet; Johnny knew that only mature crickets sing. So he waited. When he could sing like a cricket, he would sing his own songs, in his own way.
His body and face changed, the hair on his head falling out, and reappearing all over his body: a thousand tiny stiff hairs sensing the air. His skin darkened into a chocolate color. A pair of embryonic arms appeared at his waist, and he carefully smeared the white cream on them. He had antennae as long as his body. They were segmented.
The tour continued. "Whenever You're Near" held the No. 1 spot for four weeks, and Jocelyn had a live version of "Windswept Lady", recorded in the Twin Cities, rush-released as a single. Casey Kasem called to get trivia for his Top Forty radio show.
Johnny was exhausted from the traveling, the molting, the lights, the performing, the parade of diamond dogs, and the midnight surgery sessions. But the tour was successful as long as they kept using the costumes and scenery. Johnny's labrum, labium and palpi were more developed now, so Jocelyn had Johnny's new face appear on the cover of several teen mags. Even Rolling Stone. Fans were amazed at how believable the "makeup" looked. As Johnny's fame spread, Jocelyn's joy increased in proportion. Nothing could stop them except Johnny.
The surgery continued. Because crickets can hear through their front legs, tiny microphones were implanted in Johnny's elbows, with wires running to hidden earplugs. The power of cricket jumping legs was simulated by mechanically amplifying Johnny's own muscle strength.
On one special morning late that fall, Dr. Gaudio helped Johnny with his final juvenile molt. Jocelyn held some orange juice for him and smiled secretively.
As Dr. Gaudio pulled away the last shard of old skin, Johnny's wings emerged, larger than ever, wrinkled and folded up. Dr. Gaudio said, "In an hour, the wings will straighten, harden and stiffen into a sounding board. Then you'll be able to sing."
After an impatient hour, Johnny took a deep breath and looked back and forth at Jocelyn and Dr. Gaudio. The movement of his shoulderblades controlled his forewings, and he raised them to a forty-five degree angle to his body and brought them together near the hinge. "Here we go," he said. The comb-like file on one wing touched the thumbnail-like scraper on the other.
As he rubbed the wings together, they made a sputtering, scratching sound, like a trash can lid kicked across pavement.
"Sorry," Johnny said. "Let me try again." His wings moved again, this time so quickly they became a blur. The scraping pulses ran together into a single chirp. He tried again, and it sounded more self-assured.
Closing his eyes, Johnny held out one long clear note, his body, like that of his old Gibson semi-solid, giving the note depth and sustain. Out of a myriad of possible noises, his wings had picked one note astounding in its sweetness, complexity and profundity. Best of all, Johnny knew that he could summon this one note at command!
As the sound evaporated into the air, Johnny smiled and Jocelyn and Dr. Gaudio shouted and hugged each other.
"I've got a surprise for you!" Jocelyn said.
"What is it?" Johnny asked.
"A date at Madison Square!" Jocelyn giggled.
"And you don't mind if I play my wings there?" Johnny asked.
"It's the last show in the tour, so you could play a jug and a washboard, as long as it's after they buy their tickets!"
"All right!" Johnny exclaimed. "I'm going to be a cricket in Madison Square!"
Johnny spent the entire day alone in his hotel room (which he called a burrow) experimenting with his wings. He moderated the number of pulses in a chirp. Rhythms were made by inserting rests between the chirps, and his wings could buzz, trill, twitter, drone or whistle.
How odd, Johnny thought, that insect songs were millions of years old, yet like rock music they were the songs of the young. Crickets are only a year old when they sing their songs of love and passion, loneliness and ecstasy.
That night, in Richmond, Johnny felt ready to play the insect music onstage for the first time.