April 12, 2020: “Spent Saints” by Brian Jabas Smith

Happy Easter, Story366!

Today has been a pretty great holiday. Late last night, Peter Cottontail broke into our house and filled our boys’ Easter “baskets” to the brim:

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Okay, so we sent the younger boy down to the holiday closet to fetch the Easter baskets and he came up with these jack o’lanterns instead. They seemed more festive than our thatched traditionals, so we went with it. This morning, the boys were up by nine to find their bounty, which they immediately started to gorge themselves on. An egg hunt in the back yard followed, then some post-candy crash time when we chilled. We feasted on a giant spiral ham, sweet potatos, fresh baked rolls, deviled eggs, and this sweet bacon green bean concoction that I just invented, which stole the show. We need to make some phone calls to loved ones, especially this year, which will probably take up most of the night. If all this goes down, I’ll call it a successful holiday, especially given the circumstances.

For today’s post, I was trying to find a book with an Easter-themed story, but admittedly, gave up after flipping through zero titles. Then I spotted Brian Jabas Smith‘s collection, the word “Saints” in the title, and made the broad association jump. So, Spent Saints by Brian Jabas Smith, out in 2017 from The Ridgeway Press, it was.

Smith’s life history includes stints in several bands, most notably The Pills, which became Gentlemen Afterdark. He seems to still play sometimes, and write songs, but has also worked as a journalist and now as an author. It’s no surprise that Smith has such a history in rock, the stories in Spent Saints often set in that world, the world of grungy nightclubs, seamy afterparties, and producers’ lush mansions in the Hollywood Hills. Drugs and alchohol run through these stories like nouns and verbs, Smith’s characters often in the business, one way or another, all suffering from its highs and lows.

To note, this book is also a novel-in-stories, which I wondered about—two of the protagonists I came across were named Julian—and that was confirmed when I read some of the press materials. I definitely want to read further into the book to see where Julian’s story goes, to see how these seemingly unrelated stories become a novel.

The book opens with “Lost in the Supermarket” and features a guy named Rowdy, who’s woken up after a night of partying. Not too unusual, only Rowdy’s woken up outdoors, in some neighborhood, hung over and wondering how he got where he’s gotten. A couple of kids on bikes follow and harrass him, and, well, he has a rough morning.

The next story, “The Grand Prix,” is the first story about Julian, who’s a sixteen-year-old biking prodigy, biking as in he’s a road racer, like Lance Armstrong. The story’s set before and during the most competitive race of his career, the Long Beach Grand Prix, which includes some of the best riders in the sport. As Julian races, he thinks about his shitty childhood and how he’s bullied at school, facts that anger him, facts that drive him.

“Spent Saints,” the third story in the book, is also about Julian, now the twenty-something lead singer of the band Spent Saints. Julian seems like the same kid from “The Grand Prix,” only there’s no real mention of biking, what’s happened to that part of his life. He’s a hard-drinking, hard-drugging rock-‘n-roller now, and Spent Saints are getting a lot good publicity. So much so,  one of LA’s top producers, Lick Stubinski, a hit-maker on par with Phil Spector and Berry Gordy, attends one of their shows. After, one of Lick’s assistants floats an invite to Lick’s mansion for a party, which Julian, his guitarist, and the guitarist’s girlfriend attend.

I should note that this story starts a lot like “Lost in the Supermarket,” Julian waking up in the morning, looking for something to ease his hangover. He fills the void by buying crack from a one-legged dealer, who tokes up with him, right on a Hollywood corner. I’m mentioning this now because, well, that’s how the story starts, and I was reminded that this is also how the story ends: Julian, after going to Lick’s, ends up buying crack and smoking it the next morning. Something did not go right, we know, between invite to party and the next day.

Lick’s place is as amazing as you’d expect a luxurious Hollywood mansion to be. There’s food, booze, drugs, women, celebrities, all of them mixing together in an orgy of vice and good times. There’s also distinct music, music that Julian is impressed by, mostly, in his head, noting each track as it plays (fun fact: Smith includes a play list at the end of the book, songs “heard” in the stories, songs that inspired the stories). The party seems to be for Julian and Spent Saints, too, as Lick is all over Julian, almost immediately offering him the chance to become a superstar. Lick wants to produce Spent Saints, refine their sound, and turn them into the next big thing. He’s offering Julian everything.

One hitch: Julian thinks Lick has sold out, the two most evil words in rock ‘n roll. At first, Lick’s clients were talented, raw musicians and Lick captured that, made some of the best music ever recorded. As time went on, Julian thinks he morphed into a pop producer, making music more palatable for the masses than the pure kind of music he’s playing at his party. Adding insult to injury, Lick insults Spent Saints in his pitch, telling Julian that some of their songs sound feminine, even “faggy.” Thus, the burgeoning partnership quickly goes south. After some Hammer of the Gods-like shenanigans, Julian finds himself at the start of the story, looking to score that crack after waking up on the street.

I liked these first three pieces in Spent Saints, Brian Jabas Smith’s novel-in-stories about the leery underbelly of the rock scene. I’m wondering now if Rowdy, the old burnout from “Lost in the Supermarket,” is Julian, his future, a promising career—in cycling and music—pissed away. Since writing most of this post, I read deeper into the book and I’ve seen more of Julian, more drug abuse, more of a tortured artist plummeting toward rock bottom. I want to go further, make my way down with Julian. It’s a heckuva trip, well worth picking up, the multi-talented Smith bringing them to their feet.

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