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How Soon Is Never?: A Novel

How Soon Is Never?: A Novel

by Marc Spitz

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There is a light and it never goes out . . . or is there?

Welcome to the big Reagan ’80s, where ketchup is a vegetable and the Cold War looms large and chilly. If like Joe Green you were coming of age during this boom era, your main concerns include one or more of the following: a rainbow assortment of Polo shirts worn with the collar flipped up, K-Swiss


There is a light and it never goes out . . . or is there?

Welcome to the big Reagan ’80s, where ketchup is a vegetable and the Cold War looms large and chilly. If like Joe Green you were coming of age during this boom era, your main concerns include one or more of the following: a rainbow assortment of Polo shirts worn with the collar flipped up, K-Swiss tennis shoes, a new cable channel called MTV, and Top 40 radio. Stuck in the suburban haze of Long Island, New York, Joe Green knows there has got to be more to life.

However, salvation is on the way, in the form of a quiffed-up quartet from Manchester, England, who take over the airways of a local radio station. Hearing the Smiths for the first time jerks Joe awake: Morrissey’s wry and witty lyrics speak to him, and Johnny Marr’s driven guitar chords get under his skin. He destroys his Phil Collins cassettes, pomades his hair into New Wave submission, studies up on his Oscar Wilde, and falls in love. He even shows up for dinner on time. That is, until his favorite band breaks up and then breaks his heart.

Fast-forward some fifteen years. Joe Green is making a living as a rock journalist, still recovering from a wicked post-college smack addiction and slumming with youngsters who ironically “appreciate” the seminal ’80s music that once gave his life meaning. It’s too late to go home, or is it?

What if Joe Green can get the Smiths back together? What if reuniting the long-broken-up band can reverse the passage of time and bring back the magic of youth? What if it helps him win the heart of the woman he loves?

How Soon Is Never? is an acerbic, ingenious look at Reagan-era adolescence, the power of hearing a record that changes your life, and the dangers of nostalgia.

Be prepared to see a bit of yourself in Joe Green.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Read an Excerpt

hello, I am the ghost of troubled joe

My name is Joseph Green. I don't like the name Joseph. Prefer Joe, but that comes with some heavy pop cultural baggage. If you don't know already, I'll get it over with . . .

From 1969 to 1981, 6'4", 280-pound Mean Joe Greene (number 75) was the fearsome defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

My legacy: not much, really.

His legacy:

Team MVP in 1970.

NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 1974.

Four Super Bowl championships.

One award-winning 1980 Coca-Cola commercial ("Hey, kid . . . catch!").

Inducted into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, 1987.

I think he also played Sasquatch on The Six Million Dollar Man.

And then, although few pro-ball enthusiasts point this one out: there's his unchallenged, three-decade run as an unholy source of my profound social awkwardness and tandem substance abuses. Yeah, to this day, even though I'm skinny, 30, Caucasian, and pretty even-tempered when sober, the utterance of my name to new acquaintances, bank tellers, hotel front desk clerks, and, worst of all, eligible women between the ages of 27 and 40 provokes the question:

"Mean Joe Greene?"

Each one acts as if I've never heard it before. It's made me pretty fucking mean.

This is one of the reasons why I tend to hang out with 22-year-olds lately. My new social circle consists of kids just out of college. They're members of Generation Y to my arrested X. That eight-to-ten-year age difference can catch you on a mean snag if you're not careful. And it's caught me. Since Miki, I haven't even tried to pursue a steady girlfriend my own age. One of those wife-and-mother-of-your-baby candidates. I don't have any pets. I can't even keep a plant alive. A cactus died on me.

I go out every night with party-crazed kids who don't have the same level of internal decay that I do. They can drink and snort and pop prescription drugs till five in the morning every night, then hop out of bed and do it again the next day. In an effort to keep up with them, I sometimes subject myself to daylong morning-afters that might only be cured by Keith Richards-in-Switzerland-style total blood transfusions. Twelve hours of smoking and moaning, prayer and guzzling gallon jugs of Ocean Spray cranberry juice cocktail also works and is much more affordable. Most of the time, I'm grateful that the new breed has accepted me as one of their own. When I'm feeling mean and spiteful and jealous of their youth, I fuck with them. After a dozen years of partying, my tolerance has become a brutal thing, and since I'm trying to be more honest than usual here, I'll tell you that it does fill me with pride whenever I drink a 21-year-old down to the puke-slimy tiles and walk away.

Occasionally one of these young girls with their fine skin and goofy wide eyes will go home with me. They're good-looking and hungry for experience. I tell myself that they like me, they're not just "experiencing" me. I do my 10,000th line of blow with them while they're all excited about snorting up their first. After last call, I travel home to the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, loft they share with four other recent college grads. I ride with them on the L train. I'm so wired and paranoid that I'm convinced everyone is staring at me like I'm some child molester who looks a lot like the guy on the cover of Jethro Tull's Aqualung album. I wonder if the roommates are laughing at me while I try to fuck their friend in the next bed but can't get a hard-on. Sometimes the girl rides home with me and I hear 15-year-old R.E.M. and U2 songs on classic rock radio in the back of taxicabs while I reach under their T-shirts to squeeze their impossibly smooth tits. Those tits by the way are heaving things that feel like they've never, ever been touched by anybody else before but that doesn't make me feel very special somehow. It makes me feel dirty. So when we get to my place, I drink away the rest of my chances of getting anything resembling an erection. Instead, I put on an LP. They ask, "Is this Dinosaur Junior?" I tell them that it's actually Sonic Youth and smile even as I notice that they're wearing a Sonic Youth T-shirt. This makes me drink even more. These girls get out of my bed the next day and bound into the street to take over the fucking city with their ridiculous energy. I get out of bed two and a half hours later and sit in my shower trying to steam the toxins out of my pores because I read somewhere that Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack used to do that after a night of ring-a-ding-dingin' with the Jack Daniel's. In addition to the cranberry juice, which I also heard somewhere is a boon to organ rejuvenation, I buy Fleet enemas along with my Camel Lights at the Rite-Aid pharmacy on Hudson Street because I pray it will purge the remaining poisons out of my ass. I'll do anything to feel clean and reverse what I did to myself the night before. What I did to them too. And while everyone else my age is at work or with their wives or their kids, I find myself in the tiny bathroom of my overpriced apartment in Manhattan's West Village. The bowl is full of cigarette butts. The floor is full of old copies of New Musical Express and porn. The television is playing continuous reruns of The Golden Girls but I've had the sound muted for about two years. Unless there's a plane crash or some other manner of "special report" heralding the end of the world, the old gals' wisecracks remain muted through the night and day. The TV light keeps the roaches away. Sometimes, I cry. Most of the time, I ignore my editor's e-mails and phone calls, demanding the 300 words that I have to file on bands like Interpol. Their lead singer is also ten years younger than me. He has a record deal and lank blond hair and unlined eyes, and he says things like: "I don't really feel comfortable in most social situations. With this music, I'd really like to destroy society as we know it." I interviewed him over sushi and martinis at the Tribeca Grand Hotel. I was too intimidated by his youth to grab his skinny little neck and snap his head off. Instead, I nodded and said, "Yes. I understand." Then he asked me if I had any pot because he was heading off to England in a few hours and didn't have time to make a call.

Some days, I go back to the house I grew up in and root through the cardboard box of my stuff that my mother keeps in the attic . . . like the mementos of the dead. The stored black-and-white marble journals that meant so much to me in high school are now no different from the plaster handprint of my little monkey-sized paw from a kindergarten art class in 1973 or the broken ventriloquist's dummy clown that I used to play with. I look for meaning but everything I find just makes me feel older and sadder. Still, I snatch some artifacts and bring them back to the city, hoping they'll ward off some demons. But soon, there are more bad-sex stains on the only pair of sheets I've ever owned, and the next little girl has gone again, and instead of porn or expensive English music magazines, I read my high school yearbook wistfully on the toilet. As painful as high school was, I've reached the place in life where I'd happily saw off my nuts to go back for just an hour so that I could be that person with untouched flesh and easily filtered pores and a virgin liver, wondering what my first fuck or my first line of coke or the first time I hear a song that changes my life is going be like. I'm not sure if I have to shit or puke but I opt for puking cause there's a plastic enema bottle up my ass.

Yes, I am vain. Yes, I am immature. Yes, I enjoy complaining. But before you assign me general admission seating in that especially torturous place in hell reserved for 30-year-old guys who still hang around their old college town, let me clarify something here: I work in rock 'n' roll.

I don't sing or play guitar, drums, or organ. I couldn't even shake a tambourine with conviction. But my job, writing about rock 'n' roll for Headphones magazine, makes this generation slumming and the blow jobs from women who still remember what was on their college lit reading list a lot less damnable than they might be. Naturally, this is the first job I've held for more than six months. I get paid to write about pop music. I don't like to say that aloud for fear that someone will find me out as an unqualified sham (but really, who is qualified to write about rock 'n' roll besides the kids who have no interest in writing about it because they're too busy really connecting with its energy?) Still, for four years now, I have been exchanging my thoughts on rock for actual U.S. currency . . . and health insurance. I suspect such arrangements drove rock critic legends like Lester Bangs and Nick Kent to their fatal and near-fatal abuses, respectively. Even if you're good at what you do, and some say that I am, you're still writing about rock 'n' roll. If I could identify a blues scale, it might make sense that a large corporate magazine pays me money to listen to records and go see bands but I doubt it. I don't want to end up like Lester Bangs, dead at 33. Hence the enemas (which was going to be the alternative title for this book). I want a wife and a child and a beige four-door Volvo and a house in the country. Or at least I tell myself I do in the morning when it feels like a pig has shit in my head. But, to paraphrase Jim Morrison, no one here gets the Volvo.

They sell a T-shirt in the tourist shops on St. Mark's Place in the East Village that says Rehab Is for Quitters. Every time I pass it, hanging in the window, it makes me shudder. I may be a lot of things but I ain't no quitter. I understand the pride, pathetic as it is, therein. I'd never wear something as goofy as a pop slogan across my chest. T-shirts are for the band merchandise table, unless you happen to be 22. Then they're designed to ironically promote companies you've never worked or varsity sports teams you've never played for, like Peachtree Tractor Repair or Davenport High School Wrestling Squad (preferably, these are well worn with a hole or two on the neck or under the arm). There's a popular saying in rehab that there are three outcomes if you keep getting high and living irresponsibly: jails, institutions, and death. That's your destiny.




What they don't tell you, and they really fucking should, is that there's a fourth destiny (call it a hidden track).

Number four: Working for a major rock 'n' roll magazine.

Let's put aside death here, cause even if you don't drink and smoke and do drugs and blast Metallica's "Master of Puppets" at four in the morning, you're gonna die like everybody else one day, right? So then there's jail. I've spent a night in jail, after a bar fight. They let me out in the morning. I've been institutionalized. Rehab. Where I heard the fucking saying in the first place. Got out. Signed some papers and walked away. The fourth outcome, that's the trap. It doesn't look like a trap. It looks like salvation. It looks like a dream job. It looks like something that might enable us to thumb a nose at convention forever. But after a few years, we can't stay in either. Not without the fear. Rock writers don't mature, we just get older. We get ever-deepening lines around our eyes. Our hair starts to gray and thin. We "ache in the places that we used to play," as Leonard Cohen once sang. We become ugly vampires. Not the suave, cocksure Anne Rice vampires, but cool-thirsty desperadoes trying to grab and stick the greased pig of cultural relevance, then drink deeply. We are aging on the outside but emotionally retarded for eternity.

Stay cool.

Stay hip.

Sell ads.

Sell magazines.

Suck blood.

Give the kids what they wanna read. In order to really do that well, we have to think like a kid. In order to think like a kid, we have to travel with the kids. In order to travel with the kids, we have to act like they do. We are pop narcs and New York's Lower East Side is our beat. Or rather, it used to be our beat. It's their beat now, we just haunt it. The better we can pull this off, the greater the reward. I've been promoted. My salary has nearly doubled. My byline has gotten more prominent. Publicists and doormen and even rock stars have started to recognize me. I've already mentioned the little girls' form of endorsement. I should also mention the free promotional CDs. They come in the mail daily, are essentially free money to further subsidize the expensive freezing process if you've got some truck with the buy/sell/trade guys. Free money! Still, there's no amount of compensation for what this life does to your soul if you let it. What good is any of it if I can't listen to a record just to listen to it? Why go to a show if I can't just be at a show? When I can't make eye contact with the young lead singer of a band I admire like the Strokes without putting $150 worth of vodka down my throat because he's the real thing and I'm just wearing the same clothes. He's Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back and I'm that hack dictating in the phone box. Describing the authenticity of the new youthquakers with their "eyeshadow and undertaker makeup . . . they are there . . . they are with it. I remember when I was with it. Now, I've just had it--mod trousers and collarless leather coat or no . . . But still, when it comes time to put them on the cover, I get the job because nobody else at the office who is experienced enough to handle a cover story looks remotely like a 22-year-old hipster. I'm akin to a professional athlete and drinking and smoking and playing air guitar are my training. If you're a good player, nobody will stop you and say, "This is not how a thirty-year-old person behaves." Nobody will say, "Get a life or a wife already. You're an adult." Nobody will even say, "Why are you wearing that stupid fucking leather jacket?" They're just glad you're successful at second-guessing the new fave raves. I can truly say from experience that snorting one line of smack is less soul-destroying than sitting in a huddle in a corporate conference room, wondering if the tattooed assholes from that crap band Crazytown are worthy of a feature profile.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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