Confessions of The Lovestruck
by Leland Cheuk
China launched an unmanned spacecraft named Shenzhou 2. Apple debuted iTunes. And Carrie Kahl auditioned for The Lovestrikes. I remember it better than the day we heard “Blood Hunger” went platinum. She had jet-black hair, blue eyes under thick mascara and eye shadow, and lipstick the color of pork’s blood. She wore denim shorts cut off at the knees and a tank top made out of an XL t-shirt with the sleeves removed so you could see her black bra underneath. Her upper arms were dark with tattoos of knife-wielding skeletons with long hair. Warren, Census, and I had been looking for a lead singer for months. We hadn’t really been looking for a woman, certainly not one as beautiful as Carrie. Even though her makeup made her look like a cross between a vamp and a clown, she couldn’t hide how beautiful she was.
Carrie plugged in her guitar and began strumming an A-minor chord and a C with a scratch rhythm. And then she began to sing. I heard Chrissy Hynde. I heard P.J. Harvey. I heard Courtney Love. I heard my heart in my gullet. I don’t remember what words she sang. But my God, her voice.
All eyes were on her when we played live. The rest of us were on the All-Ugly Team. Warren was a skinny white dude with muddy, moppish hair, and he made ugly O-faces when he drummed. Census had this orange half-fro, and he was always slackjawed. His real name was Bob. We nicknamed him Census because he kept claiming to be one-eighth black. I was going bald but my hair was long, so it came down in five long straps over the front of my face when I played. My nickname was Black Flag because the hair around my bald swathe dropped in black flags over my ears. Better than being called Grasshopper or Kung Fu Master, I guess.
I couldn’t stop thinking about her. She’d come to my place with her lyrics, and I’d play her guitar parts while she tried different ways to sing our songs. Those were the best times. Just the two of us.
My name is Carrie / I come from Brooklyn, where everybody’s loyal
I grew up on Flatbush Ave / They call it Crown Heights, but nobody’s royal
My dad hit my mom and got arrested / He got no jail but still protested
He didn’t come home, so I was / raised by a single mom who wished I was better
She did her best, but / I wish I never met her
“Do you really wish that you never met your mom?” I asked.
“Why do you think I’m here?” she said. “I ran away.”
When I didn’t say anything, she laughed at my characteristic reticence, her eyes red from getting high in the morning. She smelled of vanilla mist. “That’s what I love about you, BF,” she said. “You never know what to say, so you don’t say anything at all.”
I loved it when she called me BF. To me, it stood for Boy Friend and Best Friend.
We started playing Saturday afternoons in clubs in The City. I drove the band up in a GMC Yukon SUV hand-me-down from my parents. I’d plug my iPod into the cigarette lighter, and it was filled with songs by Black Flag, The Stooges, Discharge, Flipper, and Social D.
Carrie and I sang along all the way up the highway long after Warren and Census became tired of hearing our voices.
Carrie’s songs were good, but they were always about men who left her. I quietly suggested tweaking her lyrics to make them less cliché.
On “My Gallows” from our debut EP, Carrie wrote this verse: “Gonna swing from the gallows / watch the guillotine spark from on high / the blood will drip from the lids of my eyes when they close for the last time.”
Was she getting hanged or beheaded?
I changed it to: “Gonna swing from the gallows / and see your horror from on high / and remember when you told me my eyes were forever when they close for the last time.”
The little rooms we played in went nuts when we played that song.
It was only a matter of time before I was basically writing all of Carrie’s lyrics.
Carrie was dating the lead singer from another punk band. He was cheating on her. They were always arguing. She would come to practice in tears. She was losing weight. Census said he saw her shooting up in her car. Warren stopped bringing around his girlfriend and kids. We had a show in Durwood Docks. It was the first time we got booked in a big club. Carrie was a no-show. I knew all the songs, but I was a terrible singer. We played, but my vocals sounded horrible. I had no swagger, no beauty, no style. The crowd was barely listening, talking amongst themselves. They wouldn’t even look at me. I might as well have been practicing in my apartment.
“Dude, I don’t know if I can do this anymore,” Census said. “This is a waste of fucking time.”
“Nobody is going to sign us without her,” Warren said, our de facto manager and promoter.
“We have to help her,” I said.
Census threw a beer bottle at me that I dodged, and it shattered against the wall.
“What the fuck?!” I shouted.
“You’re so far up her ass, it’s embarrassing.” Census stood and leered over me as I continued to sit on an amp, guitar in hand.
Warren came between us. “He saved our asses tonight.”
“We can find another girl!” Census yelled at Warren. To me, he said, “Fall in love with someone else.”
Once Census stormed out, Warren side-eyed me and said, “Why don’t you stand up for yourself?”
“He’s not wrong,” I monotoned.
We got signed by Cat’s Ass Records. Our album “Blood Hunger” was on every indie pub’s best-of-the-year lists. Our biggest hit “Can’t Have” got up to number seven on the Billboard Alternative/Modern Rock charts. The chorus was:
The pain from you who I can’t have
Opens my eyes and burns with bliss
You so close I can smell but can’t have
Opens my lungs from the scent of vanilla mist
Who do you think wrote that one?
We performed at pretty much every big music festival in North America and Europe. The high point was the Reading Festival in the UK. We played the main stage in front of a hundred thousand people. We sounded great and a lot of our hardcore fans were mouthing my words. I was always amazed when we’d run into people who barely spoke English but knew every lyric from our songs.
After our last show, Warren left early with his family. I don’t know where Census disappeared to. But Carrie and I went out on the town with some superfans and did Karaoke with them. Yes, we were all very inebriated. I rapped “Bombs Over Baghdad” while Carrie did the backbeat woofing. One of the fans, a dark-haired, green-eyed beauty from Helsinki, was on my arm. She was willing to go wherever I wanted. But Carrie was there, looking so goddessesque. I still think about the tank she wore that night, the camo shorts, the shin-high Doc Martens. I remember how she looked at me when she saw the Finnish girl on my arm. For once she was looking at me like I looked at her. The Finnish girl, even as drunk as she was, could see it.
Carrie and I end up stumbling back to our hotel and into my room. She collapsed face-first on my bed, groaning. I wondered if she’d puke.
“Come over here,” she said.
I lay beside her. My drunk was starting to wear off. I was nervous, being so close to her, in my bed. She laced her fingers within mine.
“I love you,” Carrie said.
My heart was racing. I could make my move. Then she began softly snoring. I pretended to fall asleep as well. Carrie woke in the middle of the night and realized where she was and beside whom she was sleeping. And she got up and left.
Warren called to tell me a major record label had asked Carrie to make an album with Pharrell as producer. I was hurt Carrie didn’t call me to celebrate the news.
“They just want her,” Warren said.
I wasn’t entirely surprised. She was Joan Jett. She was Gwen Stefani. She was Florence Welch.
Warren was ready to spend more time with his family. His kids were starting middle school. Census had just quit and we had played with three or four drummers that year. I was the last of the original All-Ugly Team. All I had was the band.
“It was a good run,” I said.
“I have to say, when I first saw her back in oh-one, I knew.”
“Me too,” I said.
Carrie opened for the L.A. rock band The Spoils, who were way bigger than The Lovestrikes ever were. Her songs with Pharrell were predictably poppy. Her hair was blond now and her corporate masters had her wearing short baby doll dresses. I mourned the death of her black pants, military boots, and ripped tanks with the faces of punk gods like Sid Vicious and Jello Biafra silkscreened on them. The only single they released was “Sex Bitch,” which was a dud.
I moved into The City so I could get steady gigs as a studio musician. Even though I was busy with my own thing, not a day went by without me hoping Carrie would call. And she did every few months to see how her BF was doing. But she never asked me to play with her. I didn’t see her all year. I’d like to think she was ashamed at what the machine was turning her into. But I don’t think she was.
Carrie married Dutch Jonne, the lead singer of The Spoils. By the end of the year, she was pregnant.
Carrie released her second solo album and again toured with The Spoils. She made her national television debut on Letterman. She had gained a lot of baby weight and the stylists dressed her like she was Ann Wilson. She was wearing a bad dark bob wig and was covered head to toe in loose dark clothing. Her voice had become deeper since the baby and the songs were less playful, more mordant and downtempo. Maybe she was trying to go mod. I wished she would have asked me for some songwriting help.
A fancy stylist cut my hair short. No one called me Black Flag anymore. When I played live, I wore blazers, designer tees, and tight jeans. Music had become as much about the clothes as the songs. I met Sara that year, and we had a girl named Angelique. Sometimes Sara slept with other people. Sometimes I did too.
I thought about that night in 2007 a lot.
In an interview with Pitchfork, Carrie was asked why she still played so many songs from The Lovestrikes in her sets. She always played “Can’t Have.” She said: “It’s for the fans, but it’s also because I realize I have a pretty large catalogue. They’re my songs.”
Carrie had her second child, another boy. She again toured with The Spoils and occasionally played a song or two with them. The Spoils would even cover some of our hits. Dutch Jonne would play my rhythm parts and do my backing vocals.
Carrie had become a sober vegan and was looking svelte and muscular. Her hair was short and blond now, and she had gone back to wearing those ripped-up tanks with the punk god faces on them. I saw The Spoils live at Coachella. My heart pounded again like it did back in 2001. She did an acoustic version of our old song, “Stuck.” There was this refrain: “I haven’t been able to undo you.” That was wholly her lyric. But it spoke so truly to me. I had to catch my breath when she sang it.
I rarely played live anymore. I focused on studio work, did some songwriting for a few artists, including some young pop princesses who wanted to be part of the machine. None of them knew who Carrie Kahl was.
I texted her afterward to tell her I’d seen her live. She asked why I didn’t come backstage and say hi. I said I didn’t want to bother her. To which she had replied, “Oh, BF, you haven’t changed.”
“What are you up to these days?” she asked.
I was still doing studio work and teaching music at Angelique’s school.
“What do you think about getting the band back together?”
“Warren would never say yes.”
“I’m not asking Warren,” she said. “I’m asking you.”
Carrie and I are backstage, and we’re about to open for The Spoils. Dutch is pointing at the waiting sellout crowd of eighteen thousand, wowing his and Carrie’s kids. We’re going to be on tour for the next nine months, all around the world. The Lovestrikes are back with their first new album in twelve years. Carrie’s been telling the music press that this is the last rodeo for her. She’s going to concentrate on motherhood after this.
I’ve been writing these confessions to explain why I had to leave Angelique and Sara. Every fiber of the man I’d grown up to be told me to stay with them, but when Carrie called, I was that twenty-three year-old kid again, watching the girl of his dreams grab the mic and start singing.
Carrie walks back into the green room while I’m relaxing on the couch with some seltzer water. She sits beside me, puts her arm on the back of the couch, and I can smell her vanilla mist. She’s chewing gum, peppermint.
“You ready, BF?”
She takes out her gum, sticks it on an end table, and begins singing the opening verse of “Can’t Have.”
My god, goosebumps rise on my arms, as it always has, when Carrie looks at me and sings my chorus.
A MacDowell Colony fellow, Leland Cheuk authored THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG(CCLaP, 2015), a novel, and LETTERS FROM DINOSAURS (Thought Catalog, 2016), stories. His next book, NO GOOD VERY BAD ASIAN, a novel, is forthcoming in 2019 from C&R Press. His work has been covered in VICE, Electric Literature, The Millions, and The Rumpus, and appears or is forthcoming in Salon, Catapult, Joyland Magazine, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He is the fiction editor at Newfound Journal and the founder of the indie press 7.13 Books. He lives in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter @lcheuk.