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Jason Thornberry  


Red-Stained Surrender


Returning from London to Southern California, I wanted to reset my life. After I unpacked and cleared the cobwebs of jetlag, I reevaluated my goals. As a musician, I desperately needed to find a band—my kind of band—so I’d gone to the UK. Back home, my local music scene in San Bernardino seemed uniquely inhospitable, like everglades of muddy quicksand that also happened to be on fire—and covered in exploding ice. Finding musicians who wanted to play the same music I did felt impossible. Impossible. But I knew there had to be someone like me somewhere, so, after my failure in London, I traveled everywhere with leaflets, posting them on bulletin boards at the local community college, record shops, music stores and placing little ads in free publications:


Drummer available for melodic post-punk band.

Influences: The Smiths, Sonic Youth, Joy Division, etc.

Free rehearsal space. Call Jason, 909…

The phone rang all day—and I know good drummers are hard to find—but the responses came from musicians who saw only the words Drummer available before dialing my number. A crescendo of crunching potato chips in my ear was the first indication a pothole-riddled road awaited me; the caller’s musical influences—Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Pantera—were the second. “The Smiths?” the dude on the other end (and they were always dudes) always said, “Nah, man, never heard of ‘em—they got short hair?” So, I bit my lip and took anything I could get.

Working in an office every day, I auditioned every night. Band after band, nothing stuck. It felt like a compromise beyond measure—giving in, playing for the sake of playing, and lying to myself that I wasn’t barreling off a musical cliff. I played with anyone. I played with everyone. I rehearsed with a gothic metal quartet called The Lords of Death; I briefly joined an industrial-pop trio called Molotov Solvent Bomb; I performed for a single night with Justice, a cover band comprised of attorneys in a bar full of attorneys. I rehearsed with a half dozen hair-metal bands. For a few weeks, I drummed for a band called Plural, who sounded like The Smiths—finally—albeit a cluttered, shambolic translation. Like polishing a greasy window, I knew we could rehearse our way to clarity and maybe a few good songs. I was excited—I’d found my people! Plural fired me when I wouldn’t rehearse Christmas Eve.

Then, one cold January evening, I arrived early at a restaurant bar in Riverside to perform with my latest band, Rocket to Uranus. I was dragging my drums from the back of my big brown van when the bass drum slipped from its case. I caught it just before it landed in a puddle. But the aluminum tuning lug carved a bloody ravine into my left palm. Outside a local pharmacy, I poured a bottle of peroxide into the wound and returned to the club in time to witness my bandmates’ entrance.

Our gangling guitarist tottered across the twinkling glass-strewn parking lot in high heels, his white protruding kneecaps housed in a dark leather miniskirt. His black blouse was fashioned from fishing nets, while his pink tresses were moussed into a glistening pile above his head, like hair pudding. Behind him came the bassist, whose hairstyle was algae green, worn in egg yolk combat spikes. He was shirtless, wearing goosebumps, a scarf, black toreador pants, and pointy green shoes. Mascara crumbled from his eyes. Trailing the bassist, our singer modeled a skin-tight child’s skeleton outfit with gloves, possibly left over from Halloween. He’d woven lavender streaks through his long black hair, painting his face cadaver white. I wore a plaid button-up shirt, Levis, and black sneakers—a dripping bandage and the occasional grimace were my aesthetic contributions.

Onstage, we played Misfits, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie songs, each beginning with a measure of promise, avalanching without warning into frothing seas of feedback and false notes. I kept it simple, and on time like the hired drummer I was, ignoring my throbbing left hand. Tremors rocked the rickety stage as our singer lurched, stomped, and crouched, moaning with his blackened lips covering the microphone. Halfway through our last song, he leapt onto our guitarist’s back who collapsed to his knobby knees. Mouth twisted, he grabbed a fistful of our singer’s hair as the pair writhed in unison. The bassist and I played on as barbed-wire squalls from the discarded guitar and microphone echoed into the overtaxed P.A. system. When the soundman pulled the plug, our meager audience removed their hands from their ears, staring. Someone cleared their throat.

“I guess you didn’t know we were glam punk,” the singer said to me. I smiled, hauling my gear out the side door, returning to my van, loading the gear, and driving away, my left hand held up in red-stained surrender to the night.

Jason M. Thornberry’s writing appears in JMWW, North Dakota Quarterly, Harbor Review, South Florida Poetry Journal, Afterimages, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Assaulted by strangers, he suffered a traumatic brain injury in his native Southern California. Relearning to walk and speak—and navigating post-traumatic epilepsy—Jason earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University. He lives in Seattle with his wife and dog and is seeking a home for his first novel.

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