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Turn and Face the Strange by Frank Wu
published in Volume 3, Issue 3 on July 8th, 1996

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.
David Bowie

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 slipped back into the weed-choked waters of Lake Monona, Wisconsin---site of the plane crash that killed him at age 26. 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 inside 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."

"Hey, Johnny---"

"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 Dick's gone," Johnny said. "Next year we give the boot to Jerry 'I pardoned Nixon' 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.

Mollo shrugged.

"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?"

"Well..."

"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.
David Bowie

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.

"Little flies."

"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.
Jeff Beck

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.
David Bowie

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.

Jocelyn winced.

"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.


Dylan, Johnny reminded himself, had repeatedly rearranged his old songs for live performance. He would do the same. For the first time in his career, he felt like an innovator. That was why the Beatles were so great: they were constantly introducing new sound effects, new studio techniques, and new subject matter in their lyrics. George Harrison introduced the sitar to the pop world in "Norwegian Wood" and within a couple years most British acts echoed back with Indian music: not just the Beatles, but also the Stones, Donovan, and even those guitarzans, the Yardbirds.

Maybe in a year every band will have an insect in it, Johnny thought. Heimagined Keith Richards with wings.

But he had to be good tonight. Including Richmond, they had only two concerts before Madison Square. Concerts to learn to play the wings and find his voice.

That night, during "I Can't Get You to Listen to Me," instead of playing power chords on his Gibson SG, Johnny Jewel played continuous warbly notes on his wings. On "Baby Doll," instead of providing counterpoint to Mollo's lead, Johnny clicked, peeped and chirped.

The audience was unenthusiastic.

The crowd did, however, applaud wildly during Tobashi's drum solo and hooted when Mollo stood on his hands. But when Johnny played his wings, they didn't cheer, they didn't boo. They were just silent. More silent even than stones, for sound echoes off stone.

Johnny told himself: What did he care what the crowd thought of his music?


After the gig, he realized he still cared how the band felt. They unanimously agreed that the insect music had been a disaster. The songs hadn't been written for wings, or even strings. Sweet Lester pretended to come at Johnny's wings with garden shears.

Johnny was crushed.

On the tour bus to Atlanta, the last show before Madison Square, Jocelyn told Johnny, "It's obvious that you're looking for a new direction. I've got it here."

She put in an eight track and out came Latino bongos and percussion, followed by a seductive bassline and layers of hi-hats and wah-wah guitar. Strings sugar-coated the arrangement. All of it to an unrelenting beat.

"What is that?" Johnny said, horrified.

"It's the concept for your next album," Jocelyn said.

Johnny said, "But that's... that's... disco!"

"I know it's only a rhythm track, but..." Jocelyn said and started to bounce up and down in her seat.

"You want me to make a disco album?"

"Look what disco has done for the Bee Gees and the Four Seasons!" Jocelyn said. "Neither group has had a hit in years, and suddenly disco's put them back on the map. Think of what it can do for you, who's already on top..."

Johnny walked to the back of the bus.


Pacing back and forth in his Atlanta hotel room, Johnny remembered a conversation he'd had with Sweet Lester.

"You're trying too hard," Les had said. "You're no different than anyone. Just relax and enjoy the ride while it lasts."

He wanted to yell Dylan quotations at him: "He not busy being born is busy dying!" Johnny wanted to shout: "I AM DIFFERENT!"

His eyes filled with tears and drifted out the window to the street corner. Painted on a stop sign were the words: "Stop Disco! Disco sucks!"

One show before Madison Square.

The insect music had to be fierce, driving, and most of all, well integrated with the rock. Or else there would be no insect music at Madison Square and the next album would be disco.

He tried to make his wings sing, but they only spat out awkward drones. Something was missing.

Through the wall he could hear Mollo and the others playing KC and the Sunshine Band. He could see the future a little clearer now. Mollo's one solo album will be disco.

Maybe I should go solo, drop the Johnny Jewel moniker and use my real name, he thought. No, that's not the answer. Jocelyn had told him: "How many albums do you really think a John Henry Miscisin could sell?"

As he placed his Gibson SG down, it hit something hard. Garden shears. Sigh. Trying to make it to the bed, he stumbled on the weird hooks and pads which his feet had become.

Sigh.

Scrambling onto the bed, Johnny closed his eyes and turned the lights off. He needed to enter a musical trance, as he had when he jammed with the spirit of Otis Redding.

Resting his elbows on his knees, he took a deep breath and went into a prayer-like state.

But Johnny wasn't entering into the presence of the Lord. He was entering into the presence of the blues. It wasn't Jesus that appeared to him, but James Brown. Good God, y'all! Wilson Pickett! Aw, hep me! Eddie Floyd. Ow! Fontella Bass, Dusty Springfield, the Staple Singers. Hrrrrrah! Other faces drifted by: Jimmy Page, Eric Burdon, John Lennon, Little Richard. Ooooh!

Now, just a few more years to be peeled back.

The pastel colors in the painting on the hotel wall swirled into a vortex and mist poured out. A black man appeared, his hat tilted down over his bad left eye. He carried a guitar, but his face was so sorrowful Johnny thought he might hang himself with his guitar strap.

He was unmistakably Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers. The man had recorded only twenty-nine songs in 1936 and 1937, but what songs! They were covered by Muddy Waters, Clapton, Zeppelin and the Stones.

Robert sat on the bed next to Johnny, carefully moving the shears. A thousand questions came to Johnny's mind: Had Johnson really been poisoned with strychnine-laced whiskey by a jealous husband? He had only been 27. Johnny felt foolish even asking.

Robert Johnson turned his back to Johnny and faced the wall. Setting his fingers to the fretboard, he made sure Johnny wasn't studying his fingering before he started to play.

Johnny wanted to join in on Robert's playing. That would seem easy, as Robert didn't merely play the melody, but used his guitar to sketch out piano chords, a bass line, a rhythm track. Robert was a one-man band, dashing from instrument to instrument. But just as Johnny was about to step in, Robert suddenly dropped half a bar and threw in off-beat accents. Johnny felt tiny.

Closing his eyes to listen, Johnny heard Robert's voice changing. Now he was a medicine dealer, now an unctuous balladeer, now a sharecropper leading a field holler.

Now he was evil incarnate.

When Johnny opened his eyes, he was not the only one with wings. Leathery, pearlized wings rose up from Robert's back. Not like Johnny's parchment-like wings, but wings nonetheless, bunched up like webbing between fingers. Like a bat.

With his guitar, Johnny knocked off Robert's hat. Underneath were horns.

When Johnny shrieked, Robert looked over his shoulder at Johnny and stopped playing guitar. The wings and horns vanished.

Johnny's wings let out an amazing buzz, full of terror.

Robert turned around again and played frightening, misshapen chords, and Johnny's wings vibrated in fear, making sounds like Hendrix-style feedback. Johnny didn't notice that his wings' clipped squawks perfectly complemented and echoed Robert's guitar playing.

Robert howled like a whipped dog:

"You can bury my body
Down by the highway side."

Then Robert screeched incoherently and his face extended, his teeth jutting out like fangs. He fell off the bed, threw off his guitar and flung his head up. On his hands and knees, he was a mad dog barking at the moon.

Then, reaching for the guitar with a paw, he suddenly turned back into a man and sang without missing a beat,

"You can bury my body Down by the highway side.
So my old evil spirit Can get a Greyhound bus and ride."

As he finished the song, Robert collected his hat and brushed the carpet lint off his knees, in time with the music. Then, without saying goodbye, Robert stood up and walked back into the swirling pastel mists.

"Wait! Can I come with you?" Johnny pleaded, falling on his knees.

A bus door appeared in the mist. Before boarding Robert paused long enough to shake his head. No.

Through the receding mist, Johnny saw the bus drive off, chased by dogs. Hellhounds.

Johnny sat up all that night and, in a fever of activity, rewrote every song played at the previous concert, adding harmonies and segues and parts for the back-up singers. Most of all, he added parts he could play on his wings.

He had found his voice.


"Why do you keep rewriting songs that are already pretty good?" Mollo asked.

"I'm trying to go deeper, become more real with the music..." Johnny said.

"The cricket thing sure seems like a roundabout route," Mollo noted.

"It's just a tool," Johnny explained. "Don't you see how important this is to me? This world is filled with talented people. Jocelyn was one. But she gave in. It's so easy. You just say, Oh, I can't be creative today. I don't feel well. Or I'm too busy working. Or my family doesn't encourage me. Or there's no money in it. The cricket thing's just a way for me to keep struggling, keep growing, not to give in. If you give in, you die."

"Musically, emotionally or physically?" Mollo asked.

"What's the difference?" Johnny said. "Mollo, you've got to give me one more chance tonight. It means everything to me. I'll make you a deal. If the insect music doesn't work, I'll play the old way at Madison Square. But if it does work, I get to do the insect music there."

Mollo convinced the others and Jocelyn that they should give Johnny's bug-eyed soul one last chance.


As the band played Johnny Jewel's insect music that night in Atlanta, the crowd, at first skeptical, slowly grew loud and receptive. Eventually the crowd cheered ecstatically whenever Johnny turned his wings to them. Johnny's wings breathed fresh energy into songs the band had played a hundred times live.

Johnny was overjoyed. The music worked! He'd found a way to integrate his voice with the band. They could play insect music at Madison Square! Yet for some reason he still wasn't happy.

He had reached the top of this mountain, only to view another, higher peak. Johnny had not realized that, even if he integrated the rock and insect styles, his music would still, by definition, not be pure. The insect music was mixed with soul, rock, and blues. Excellent ingredients, but yet he had to promote the joy of the insect music itself, not watered down and converted into pop.

Now he was ready for the next step in being born.


At some time during each show, Johnny played a few songs by himself, alone on the stage except for an acoustic guitar, a stool and a spotlight. Tonight his solo time was during the close of the first set. He brought a guitar with him onstage, but he took a bite out of the head before tossing it into the audience.

Then he turned his back to the crowd and spread his wings. Blood pulsing through them, they glistened iridescently in the spotlight and the fans cheered wildly. But Johnny didn't do it for them.

Still facing away from them, Johnny rubbed his wings against each other, letting out a single perfectly sustained chirp. The only sound in the arena, it rose up through the air like a gentle curlicue of smoke. Johnny didn't sing a note; his wings vibrated so rapidly that they were invisible to the human eye. They snapped and zipped, buzzed and crackled, Johnny making up the melodies and rhythms as he went along.

From then on, Johnny decided, he didn't care what anyone thought about his music. Not the twenty thousand faces, not the band, not Jocelyn. He didn't need their approval. He had finally reached the level he wanted. Goodbye to you all.

He was oblivious to his fans, and Johnny's serenade for wings stretched on and on, matching the length of one of Tobashi's drum solos.

At this point he knew that Mollo and the rest of the band would voice their disapproval, Jocelyn would point out the lack of audience response, and the rest of the show would be played without insect music. Despite his promise, Johnny couldn't go back to that old style. Ever.

When he was satisfied with his solo, Johnny jumped up on his long cricket legs, leaping twenty feet through the air and landed with a smack on a framework holding a half dozen Fresnels. As the spotlight tracked him and the crowd hooted, Johnny climbed the framework until he reached the drop ceiling high above the audience.

He chewed through that ceiling until, disappearing from the view of the fans, he made it onto the catwalk used to access the houselights.

From the catwalk, Johnny Jewel escaped onto the roof and then fled from the screaming thousands into the cool night.

"You better be back before we leave for New York!" Jocelyn shouted, unheard.

It's better to burn out than to fade away.
Neil Young

Johnny rested unseen atop an 18-wheeler full of office furniture, and rode the truck as it snaked its way through Atlanta and then headed north through Georgia.

When the truck stopped at an all-nite diner, Johnny slipped off into the darkness, crossing over fields until he reached an abandoned quarry. He walked over the moonlit cement flowstone, then over the jagged rock, careful not to trip over any remnants of blasting wire. Then he wandered around a conical mound of broken stone waiting to be crushed, until he reached the quarry wall, thirty feet high. Facing a V-shaped hollow in the wall, he started to saw on his wings, the quarry cliff amplifying his sound.

When he turned around, he realized that several tiny real crickets had gathered around him, watching and listening quietly. Smiling at them, he compared their little bodies, less than an inch long, to his own.

A tractor tire was nearby, spilling out stagnant water. He slurped from it, watching the crickets, expecting them to flee.

They stayed and others came.

A cricket chirped.

Johnny lifted his wings to their proper forty-five degree angle and twilled, just one chirp. Some of the crickets, in unison, buzzed in reply. He played for them for a few minutes, repeating some of the more fantastic music he had played in Atlanta earlier than night. Then he listened for their response.

A male cricket, Johnny learned, had only four songs. The first was an everyday song used to attract a passing female. When she arrived, he played a courtship song, accompanied by a jerky dance. Then he played a brief song indicating that he was about to mount, which he did to a "copulation" song. Johnny was amazed to find that all these songs were simple compared to what he was doing. Each song was a single phrase repeated over and over, phrases distinguished only by the number of pulses in each chirp and the length of silence between chirps.

Johnny showed the crickets that music need not be monotonous. They could mix chirps with trills and pauses, injecting clicks and whirrs into the melodies as counterpoints.

When Johnny showed them how to use leaves as amplifiers, several males flew off in search of the biggest leaves.

Johnny felt alive. This was the best night of his life. He had felt a surge of power when he had played his solo that evening, and now he felt a musical communion he had never experienced before. He had found not only his voice, but its echo. He was 27.

As the night wore on and crickets kept singing lullabies to him, Johnny grew weary and cold. He was exhausted.

As he played he thought of the evening walks he had taken as a child, stopping to listen to the crickets, grasshoppers and katydids singing in the fields. The summer after sixth grade. There had been a cacophony of sound, as if his head were a bean inside a maraca. The cicadas sang during the day, the crickets at night. Then, in late July, the crickets fell suddenly silent, but the songs re-emerged in August. Johnny wondered why. He always assumed that it was a second generation rising up that year, but one month seemed like an awfully short life cycle.

As Johnny leaned back against the cold rock and closed his sleepy eyes, he listened to the crickets singing and realized that the one-month gap represented the annual passing of one species of cricket; they had sung their songs, found their loves, consummated their passions, left their eggs in the soil for the next year, and died. The August singers were an entirely different group.

Johnny again thought of the walks as a child. As the days got cooler, the cricket population was decimated, leaving fewer and fewer singers. Finally there was only one lonely cricket left out of the millions, singing sweetly every night for a lover who would never come.

Soon after that, there was only silence.

That night, the killing frost came to the quarry.

Being of the mind of a cricket, Johnny wanted to dig himself a burrow, scraping at the earth with his forelegs and moving dirt clumps with the pincers of his mandibles, excavating to find warmth deep in the soil. As he was in a stone quarry, he could not dig. Although exhausted, he considered jumping away. Then he looked at the crickets around him, moving and singing ever more slowly, the night air wrapped around them like a cold dream. The frost would kill them tonight, and their eggs laid in the ground would hatch in the spring, their children never knowing their parents and never hearing their parents' variations on Johnny's music. After this historic, unrecorded jam session, the crickets would die tonight, along with the music.

Shivering as he played, Johnny gathered the crickets to himself. Forget Jocelyn. Forget the band. Forget the fans. Forget Madison Square.

Everytime he played a note, Johnny felt his blood snake through his wings and his body heat dissipate into the cold air. That night he would stay with the crickets in the quarry. It was an artistic decision.

Two teenager boys, skipping school to shoot beer cans in the quarry, found Johnny Jewel the next morning, curled up among the rocks, covered with the bodies of dozens of dead crickets.


During the next two weeks Johnny recovered from dehydration and hypothermia at Emory Hospital. Jocelyn asked the band if they could play Madison Square with a stand-in for Johnny. "Nobody will see his face if he's wearing the mask," she said. Mollo forced her to cancel the show and refund the tickets.

It was in the hospital that Johnny learned about Dr. Gaudio's deception. Surgeons carefully removed the wings, excised the implants and stripped off the layers of microporous plastic.

When he thought of all the crickets in that quarry, singing with him all night long until they were killed by the cold, he cried. He cried for the music.

When he was wheeled out of the hospital, he was angry at the fans, at the band, at Jocelyn and Dr. Gaudio, but angriest at himself for being fooled. He said goodbye to Mollo, the closest thing he had to a friend, and bought an unassuming cottage in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Meals were delivered by pizza truck. He grew a beard so he wouldn't be recognized.

Somehow Jocelyn found out where he was and for a while had flowers sent to him every week. Was it an act of kindness? An apology? Or simply another sleazy ploy to get back on his good side?

All through that long winter, and through the following spring and summer, Johnny watched television. He had never watched so much before. He watched Bruce Jenner win the decathlon, prior to appearing on Wheaties boxes across the nation. He watched the tall ships at the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July. He watched the election returns that told him a peanut farmer was the new president. He collected bicentennial quarters and Kennedy half dollars. He hardly went outside all year. Mollo came to visit on Johnny's 28th birthday, but Johnny didn't even answer the door. He was playing dead.

Johnny Jewel's guitars sat in a box in a closet. He wrote nothing, sang nothing, played nothing. All he heard on the radio was disco, Elton John and David Bowie. No one played his songs anymore. It was unbearable. One day he opened his door to a new pizza delivery boy, who said, "Hey, man, has anyone ever told you that, without the beard, you'd look just like Johnny Jewel?"

Feigning ignorance, Johnny said, "Who's that?"

"Some whacked out rock star. He thought he was a cockroach or something. What a bozo."

After the kid left, Johnny sat and cried until his pizza was cold, and wished he had died that cold night with the crickets.

In the March of '77, with two hundred dollars in his back pocket, he tossed a box from the closet into the back of his VW Rabbit and headed out onto the New York Interstate. He had wanted to make an enormous mark on music history, but now he was considered a bozo, a whacked out rock star, or else completely forgotten. What did he have to live for?

When the two hundred dollars was all gone, he decided, he'd swerve in front of a tractor trailer and slam on the brakes.

A week of cheap motels, fast food and endless directionless driving later, he was in Oregon and out of cash.

But he couldn't bring himself to commit suicide on the highway. Even at that, he decided, he was a failure.

Stopping at a rest area, he climbed over a chain-link fence and wandered into the nearby woods.

Maybe he could find a sharp stick.

Hunting through the moist underbrush, he came upon a cricket. It chirped. Then it chirped again. Trying to recall the four types of cricket songs, Johnny realized that this song wasn't of any of those types. Odd trills and pauses were mixed into the chirps, with clicks and whirrs injected into the melodies as counterpoints.

This was Johnny's music! Two cricket generations and two and a half thousand miles away from that cold night in Georgia!

How could this be? Had the cricket heard his music on the radio? Impossible! The Madison Square solo had not been recorded. Then he remembered. He had once read (and forgotten) that adult crickets aren't all killed off during the winter in the south. Apparently some of the crickets had survived that night. Maybe some had escaped from the quarry and burrowed into the ground or fled to the nearby all-nite diner and warmed themselves by the truck engines.

In the spring those survivors must have taught his music to their children, and this cricket before him was a grandchild of the crickets Johnny had serenaded.

This was the echo of his voice he had waited years to hear.

He stood in the woods, drowning out the cricket's music with great sobs of joy. All this time he thought his music had been forgotten, when in fact it was being sung by millions.

He rushed back to the car, found an acoustic guitar and ran back into the forest.

By the time he had his guitar tuned he had already composed half a dozen new songs.

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