Welcome To The Jungle, Part 1

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Axl Rose changed the course of my life. Actually, it wouldn’t be going out on a limb to say that he did that in several different ways, but the one that always meant the most to me occurred in 1988, when I was 26 years old.

My early-to-mid twenties were a dark time. On the surface, it didn’t make sense. I loved New York; I had a great job at Rolling Stone right in the middle of the action, where I had always wanted to be, and I was surrounded by interesting and inspiring people. I should have been itemizing my blessings and congratulating myself on how lucky I was, but instead, I’d felt unstable and unsettled for several years. I couldn’t sleep. My behavior was often combative and I found myself grappling with serious anger issues. Social anxiety was beginning to plague me in certain situations, and while I’d always been an enthusiastic drinker, now I had developed the habit of knocking back a few shots before I would leave my house for a social event. Worst of all were the deep blues, baffling periods of despondency that sapped my energy, derailed my productivity and were wreaking havoc on my work and relationships.

When Appetite for Destruction was released, I was still an editorial assistant at the magazine, and in the fall of 1988 when writer Rob Tannenbaum did our first cover story on Guns n’ Roses, I happened to be the underling who was elected to transcribe Tannenbaum’s interview tapes. During those interviews, Axl Rose spoke about his already notorious mood swings; he had recently been diagnosed with bipolar illness, but displayed a healthy skepticism about the diagnosis and whether the prescribed lithium treatment was actually helping him. I remember him saying that the main benefit of the drug seemed to be that because the people around him knew he was taking it, they stayed off his ass. He was struggling to balance his artistic vision and the demands of the band’s skyrocketing popularity with his emotional highs and lows.

Axl was about my age, but on those tapes he sounded defeated and almost resigned, like he’d been fighting tiny battles against the rest of the world for many years. At one point, he asked Tannenbaum if he’d seen Frances, the film about Seattle actress Frances Farmer, whose emotional outbursts and rebellion against the Hollywood studio system in the Thirties ultimately caused her to be involuntarily committed and, the film alleged, lobotomized. Clearly, Axl identified with Farmer, who had always insisted that just wanting to be left alone to live life on her own terms didn’t make her crazy. “I always wonder if somebody’s gonna slide the knife underneath my eye and give me the lobotomy,” Axl said. “I think about that a lot.”

His remarks during that conversation resonated with me deeply. During a telephone conversation with my mother around that time, I mentioned the tapes I had been transcribing at work. “I feel sorry for this guy,” she says I told her. When she asked why, I said, “because he’s the only person I’ve ever heard who sounds like he feels exactly the same way I do.”

My mother filed that comment away mentally. In November 1988 when Tannenbaum’s cover story on Guns n’ Roses was published, she read the article — not, she says, because she was interested in the band, but because she was hoping to find out more about what was going on with me. When she got to the mention of Axl’s bipolar diagnosis and remembered my earlier remark about how much I identified with what he had to say, a bell went off in her head and she called me.

“There might not be anything to this,” she said, “but I think your grandfather was diagnosed manic depressive not long ago.” She went on to tell me that the disorder was hereditary and often skipped generations, and that she thought I should talk to my grandfather and also consider getting a professional evaluation.

I had never gotten to know my maternal grandfather. I was still a toddler the only time I had ever met him, and during my upbringing he was absent. Something of a hellraiser, he was always off on some adventure or other. A handsome, gregarious World War II Army veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, Grandpa Fats was at the center of a number of colorful stories that were passed around my family over the years. Comically often during his military service, he earned stripes for bravery in battle only to be stripped of them again for some infraction the very next time he took a weekend pass. In his postwar years he was said to have been in and out of trouble, involving himself in a number of shady moneymaking ventures — gun-running in Northern Ireland, trafficking in stolen paintings, a bootleg record operation in South Africa.

My grandfather, Paul Barclay, poses on a downed American plane in France during WWII.
My grandfather, Paul Barclay (left), posing on a downed American plane in France during WWII.

During a brief stretch in the early Eighties when he had not yet found his way to diagnosis or treatment, he was homeless, living on Skid Row in Los Angeles. Family members eventually found him there and took him to the VA hospital, where he finally got some help and was able to begin rebuilding his fractured home life. He had been stable for a number of years by the time my mother put me in touch with him in November 1988.

That first phone conversation with my grandfather was a mindblower. I had always felt a little like an alien in my family; no other family member had ever shared my impulsiveness and love of risk-taking, my bluster, my rebelliousness, my affection for the fighters, lost souls and rabblerousers of the world. Grandpa did. We recognized each other as kindred spirits right away, and it was incredibly validating to know, finally, where I had come from. He gave me as much detail as he could about the symptoms of depression he had experienced and I was able to compare them with my own. Before we hung up, Grandpa gave me the name of the drug that had helped him turn things around, and I promised him I would see a doctor as soon as I could manage it.

Within a few weeks, I had been evaluated and diagnosed with chronic depression. Not long after that, I began therapy with trazodone — the same drug that had helped my grandfather — and by the time a month had passed, there was a new lightness to the way I carried myself and the way I viewed the world. My insomnia had vanished. I was enjoying a clarity of thought that I had not experienced in years. I was no longer given to fits of unreasonable anger over minor setbacks or annoyances. I was still me and I could still feel — but the black cloud and the inexplicable feelings of hopelessness that had been following me around since my early twenties were gone. To me, it felt like a miracle.

I had come very close to losing a job that meant everything to me. I’d never made it a secret during my tenure as an editorial assistant that I longed to write for the magazine, but less than a year earlier, during a come-to-Jesus talk about my chronic tardiness and the large chip that was often visible on my shoulder, my supervisor, Mary MacDonald, had told me that I would never write for Rolling Stone — I was support staff, period, and I needed to pare down my unrealistic ambitions and focus on the job I already had.

Now that I was a bit more pleasant to be around, though, I found that my co-workers were forgiving of my past moodiness and happy to help me work toward my dreams. The extracurricular writing I had been doing for local music newspapers prompted the editors at Rolling Stone to offer me a few assignments for record reviews and small feature articles, and as 1988 faded into 1989, I was promoted by the magazine to a full-time writing position.

I didn’t know it at the time, but some of the best writing I would do would be about Axl.

 

It’s Time.

All I ever wanted to do was write, and between 1984 and 1999 I realized that dream in a big way, first as a staffer at Rolling Stone magazine in New York City and later writing Five Against One, a 1998 biography on Pearl Jam.

Those experiences were mostly exhilarating, but my last few years in New York were traumatic enough to leave some scars. By the time I finished Five Against One, I had managed to convince myself that I neither wanted nor deserved to write about music anymore.

In 1999, thoroughly disillusioned and feeling like my life’s purpose had rejected me, I walked away from all of it, moving back home to Louisiana to hide out with family and lick my wounds.

I’ve been “regrouping” for 17 years. I parlayed an interest in glassblowing into an art glass business and it thrived, until the financial markets crashed in 2007 and my clients no longer had the disposable income to buy my work. I took a day job as a real estate leasing agent to make ends meet, and realized before a year was out that I possessed neither the patience nor the ass-kissing skills required for a successful sales career. In August 2014 I was offered a gig at a local scientific glass company, and it was a good fit. I’m still there.

While all the job-shuffling was going on, there were other complications. My romantic life took a nosedive as soon as I stepped onto Louisiana soil, because complicated, artistic bad boys are in very short supply here in the land of hey-darlin’-let’s-go-muddin’. There’ve been long bouts with depression. Around 2005 I had some dental work done and got hooked on opiates in the process, a vicious monkey it would take several years and a solid program of recovery to shake off my back. (On July 15, 2016, I celebrated nine years clean.) My finances are a snarled and unruly mess, mostly due to my lifelong ineptitude when it comes to managing my money but also because one fine day some years back, I decided to check out one of the local riverboat casinos, promptly won $1500 on a slot machine, and developed a raging gambling addiction on the spot. These days I know enough to stay away from the one-armed bandits, but my brief stint as a degenerate gambler did some serious damage to my, uh, portfolio.

Basically? I’m a mess. I’ve built a new life for myself here. I have solid, loving support from my family and an amazing network of true-blue friends. But I’ve been struggling for quite some time with the realization that it’s just not enough. Somewhere along the way, I lost my sense of purpose, the passion that made me want to get up in the morning and that made life seem like more than just an endless stretch of boredom and toil.

Back in 2010, my flameworker friend Lydia asked me if she could do my astrological chart as part of a research project she was working on. Lydia didn’t know much about my former life as a journalist, and when she wrote back to me with her findings, I was not a little blown away. She said that because Jupiter fell in my third house, the expressions of writing and art were a great source of self confidence for me. “Since Chiron is in this house as well,” she went on to say, “it tells me that while writing is your strongest talent, it’s also the place where you may have suffered a terrible wound.”

A few weeks ago, I thought about Lydia’s reading and had something of an epiphany. I’ve squandered 17 years here waiting to feel unstuck — professionally, emotionally, romantically, spiritually. No matter what I’ve done or how well I’ve done it since I moved back to Louisiana, it’s always felt as though something vital was missing.

I believe I know now exactly when it was that I took the wrong turn. I believe that the one pursuit I’ve stubbornly avoided since 1999 is probably the one thing I should have been doing all along to help me make sense of this whole mess. I believe I’ve maneuvered myself into a stagnant and smothering life-corner that I will only escape if I write myself out of it.

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to write. And this is where I’m going to do it. It’s time.