Mark Koltko-Rivera

Mark Koltko-Rivera has lived and worked for significant periods of time in Hiroshima, Japan, Haverford, Pennsylvania, and Winter Park, Florida, but the village that raised him was Greenwich Village. His fiction has recently been published in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and is forthcoming in The Fear of Monkeys. His nonfiction book, 666: The Biography of a Beastly Number, should appear late in 2011 from Tarcher/Penguin.


The Death of Mozart (November 20, 2010. Issue 22.)

After she died, her obituaries appeared in all the New York City papers. All of them mentioned her time on the Lower East Side; none of them happened to mention her specific former address on Seventh Street. On the day her obituaries appeared, I walked down to that address, just west of First Avenue, a couple of doors from the bar called Bar. I saw that the current occupants of my old ground-floor studio favored wind chimes between the blinds and the glass on the interior of the window; I guess they opened the window sometimes, or maybe it was just a useless accessory.

There no mourners gathered in front of the place, of course. If any there would be, they would be outside her place in L.A. But the mourning of aging rock stars is a New York thing; in L.A., she’d become a stop on the Dead Stars guided bus tour, so instead of mourners she’d have gawkers. There were none of those on Seventh Street, either, and no crepe hanging from the second floor window where she had one of the apartments in the front. The occupants there probably didn’t even know she had lived there, might not even recognize her name. I had called that name out, some nights, long ago, right up in that second-floor apartment.

In seventy-nine I had moved back to the Lower East Side from Jersey after my first marriage broke up. The studio was shaped like a short bowling alley, but it was mine.

Two months and another tenant’s heart attack later, I saw someone moving into the second-floor east apartment. She was tall and painfully thin, possessed of an energy just this side of manic, and, perpetually, a pack of Marlboro’s, as well as short spiky hair obviously bleached blonde. Her voice said she was from somewhere down South, but she was always vague about her origins. Her mom was in one place, dad was in some other, and sisters and brothers of various degrees of consanguinity were sprinkled from Charlottesville to Miami, New Orleans to Savannah, in a crooked sign of the cross over the Southeast. It was a little weird hearing her call me “honey” when we’d just met—“honey, pass me that box cutter, would you please, darlin’?”—but I recognized this as a Southern thing.

She was the lead singer of a band called The Wrath. She and her band mates had pooled cash, liquidated inheritances, and cleared out a minor trust fund to move to New York to try to make it on the still relatively new punk rock scene. They rented rehearsal space by the hour in the unused space of a warehouse on Thompson, and played clubs all over the Village.

Their music was—dare I say it?—vicious, kinetic, and very loud. “Hunt His Sorry Ass Down” was a crowd pleaser, especially among the ladies. “Beat That Bastard’s Head In with a Stave” was more of a favorite with the men.

She was the center of it all. It is not just that she wrote most of the songs herself. Onstage she was a gasoline fire in black leather, not just singing words, but declaring them in screams with the voice, and staring with the eyes, of a mad goddess, or the head priestess on a very dark night of the soul. When she said the bell was tolling, you knew it was tolling for thee. I came out of The Wrath’s first New York show, a gig at the old St. Mark’s Bar and Grill, feeling that I’d witnessed the birth of a new breed of demon.

That first night, after the last set, most of the band had to start a late drive to Georgia. Somebody’s uncle had just died I a knife fight at the Klan picnic or something like that, and they were off to the funeral. She wasn’t going because she’d had some kind of unfortunate “experience” with the newly knifed man. I volunteered to help lug things to the truck so they could get an earlier start, and then I walked her home and up to her apartment.

The next morning at breakfast, she seemed a very different person from her onstage persona. This was at the old Kiev on Second Avenue and Seventh Street, a 24-hour place that could feed an entire Polish shtetl and still have room for a bus of old beatniks, and feed them all what they wanted to eat. I was doing a plate of cheese blintzes, and she—who knew?—strawberry pancakes.

She talked about punk rock as an instrument of liberation; The Pedagogy of the Oppressed; the commoditization of revolution into t-shirts and cartoons, versus the grounds of real change. I’m originally a Village kid, so I was eating this up along with a side order of potato kluski, but I was surprised to be hearing this from a bleached blonde from ‘Bama, or wherever she was really from.

She talked about her fractured family. I recall a string of houses, other people’s kids as her “new brothers and sisters,” with her ending up in a trailer park before she headed out for “State,” although she never did say which one. She talked of classes in sociology and philosophy. I didn’t hear anything about graduation. I heard a lot about her music, her art, and her wanting to “make a statement.” I told her that if her gig the night before was any indication, the statements she’d be making would rank up there with the opening of the Seven Seals. That stunned her wordless. Then she leaned across the table and gave me a full-on kiss right there in Kiev to a few tables of applause.

* * *

The Wrath started playing more and more dates. At CBGB, The Wrath started off playing sets early in the evening, and over the course of a few months they slowly crept into the later (drunker and higher) time slots. The Wrath also started to get press in the music pages. Music journalism on the Village beat came mostly in two flavors (then as now), cultist-like adulation and wiseass hatchets from hell. Among critics, The Wrath developed a cult that worshipped, not just at The Wrath’s grotto, but at the altar of their lead singer, the writers using terms usually reserved for apocalyptic vision. “She is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega,” started one review in Alphabet City Weekly. The critic at the Village Scream wrote one week:

Some bands want you to sell your soul to rock and roll. Others grab you by the throat, kick you in the ’nads, and demand that you pay for your sins with blood: that is The Wrath. Their high priestess waits for you at the altar, her knife raised high against a sky filled with the smoke of sacrifice.

Offstage, she was puzzled by this sort of language. She did not understand why all this religious and ritual imagery kept showing up in the reviews. The Wrath had no stage act, no special costumes, no ritual bitings-off of rats’ heads. This was a band; they played music, she sang the songs. We took our egg creams from Gem Spa and walked over to a late breakfast at Veselka, she and I kicking around our takes on the psyche of the music critic.

“What I think it comes down to is this,” I said. “They feel something from you that they don’t know what to do with. You put something out there that they’ve never really seen before. For them, it’s beyond merely human; it’s like something from a dark divinity. So they write about it in terms of a grim theology: blood sacrifices to a dark goddess. I think the real question is this: Where does this come from in you?”

We talked about the pain of her upbringing in a dozen bitter towns in the South. We talked about her rapes by cousins, and eight and again at sixteen. We also talked about how she had always brought a power to captivate to anything she did. She scared the living shit out of the other kids when her Language Arts teachers led her fifth-grade class in a production of Snow White, with her playing the Witch Queen. She was denied the female lead in The Boyfriend in tenth grade because her audition was “too adult,” but her performance as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker in twelfth grade increased donations to the local charities for the blind by fifty percent, for a year. She was an emotional maestro, with a talent for conveying and evoking emotions that few people could bring to any stage.

“What I want to do is rip the whole goddamn thing down,” she said, after the wait staff at Veselka took our order.

“Which ‘goddamn thing’?” I asked.

“The system. The rules that say it’s okay to rape little girls, live like we were still the Confederacy, taking the money from farmers out in the sticks and putting it in the pockets of the bankers in town. Rip down the system that keeps kids stupid and sick if your poor. Rip the whole thing down and burn it down to ashes.”

“They what do you put up?”

“Damn,” she said with a smile, “but you want me to think of everything, don’t you?”

* * *

The attention that The Wrath got at gigs attracted a manager to them, a decent guy who kept them booked and got them paid on time. The Wrath signed with a small indie label and started production on their first collection. I heard a lot of these cuts in the studio; they were harsh, brilliant send-ups of life in America, from the farms to the ghettos to the mansions and everything between. As their reputation grew, The Wrath got invited to other, more established band’s gigs, as well as their after-parties.

She and I and The Wrath were visiting a party in a suite of rooms at an old hotel in the West Twenties. Two bands staying on the same floor had decided to put on a big blast to celebrate the end of their respective gigs at different clubs. The party was loud, of course, and entertained a rough crowd—lines on the coffee table, needles on the bathroom sink—but that was fairly normal for the scene; she found out early on that few of her colleagues shared her taste for Paolo Freire or Frantz Fanon. We didn’t partake; me, because poli sci doctoral students can’t afford to get wasted too often, and she, for whatever reason, perhaps to keep me company in my abstinence.

There is a point at every raucous party when it simply slows down, the flame burnt out. Sometimes people start to leave then; at some parties, though, many of the revelers are too exhausted to leave, and this party was one of those. People did not calm down so much as they collapsed, some into a state resembling coma, others into a languid torpor, from which they engaged other flagging souls in disjointed conversation.

“You know, baby,” said one of the male members of the other bands to her, “you are really the top.” He was sitting on the floor, propped up against a couch, cradling in his lap the head of one of the women laying on the floor. From this vantage point, that woman opened and closed her eyes as she slipped between worlds. “When you sing,” the band member continued, “the crowd latches onto you like you are giving them the Word of God.”

“Yeah,” the woman in his lap said. “And I really gotta tell ya, I just hate your bloody guts.” The man cradling her head started snickering.

“How come?” my singer said.

“Because you are just such a damn goody,” said Lap Woman. “You grab the crowd by the balls and yank them the way no one else can. And you want to do something with them. You want to fix the world. We just want to drive them crazy.”

“Yeah,” the man cradling her head said, now giggling, “knee ’em in the nuts and leave ’em to bleed in the aisles.”

“You said it, baby,” said Lap Woman. She turned her head towards his crotch and bit down hard into his parts. He howled, and she just bit in harder. He cursed and tried to push her head away, but he seemed to realize in the mist of this effort that this would separate him from his member. He finally caught her in between clenches of her teeth, and shoved her head away. Other members of his band held her shoulders down to the cheap carpet while she laughed until she passed out. I called an ambulance and we left once the medics came.

* * *

Not long after that party, following a gig, I noticed that she was withdrawn, not wanting to say much. We were at the Kiev with the late after-the-shows crowd, and I asked her what was wrong.

“I’m wondering what good this all is,” she said. “Everybody says I’ve got a special hold on the crowd, and maybe I do—but what good is it?”

At the next table over, two people who’d been at somebody’s theatre after-party were talking about Mozart. He sounds like some kind of music history major—Kiev was on the borders of NYU and Cooper Union territory, with New School not far away—and his date had her chin in her hands, her blue eyes just soaking him all in.

“There are many theories as to why Mozart died,” this guy said. “There are those who think it was atypical organ failure. Some think it was an infection passing through the area. But it is still a mystery, why one of the most famous men in the society of his time succumbed to illness at such an early age.” He leaned into her. “So that’s why some people think he was poisoned!”

My singer continued. “I mean, what do I actually get done? People dance around and scream to my music, but no one changes anything. This is not changing the world.”

It being four in the morning, I reached for the nearest cliché. “There’s only so much one person can do,” I said.

“What a pile of crap!” she answered. “One person can invent something that changes the world. A doctor can create an operation or discover a medicine that saves thousands of lives. And who are you to say something like that anyway? You’re a freaking political science student. Why the hell would you even want to do that if you didn’t want to change the world? Or are you too busy writing your dissertation to look at how fouled up the world you’re in really is? And you of all people know lots of situations where one person has made a difference. One person can write a book that starts a revolution.”

“I guess I just don’t know of anyone who’s sung a song that started a revolution,” I said. It was one of those things that, once you say it, you know you should have just shut up. But I had said it.

She didn’t have an answer for this. We finished our pierogi. and went back to our building in silence, going to our separate apartments. She left early in the afternoon for a tour of dives in Jersey and Philly; I was off teaching undergrad Poli Sci 101 when she left. I didn’t know where she could be reached, and she never called. She got back while I was at a conference in Orlando, and when I returned she had already cleared out her apartment. Her note said she was getting a place with “some people” in Brooklyn. And that was that.

About two years later I saw her in a show at Max’s II, the summer before it closed. We hadn’t talked since that night in the Kiev. She had a bunch of new songs, and had the same hold over the crowd, but it seemed to me that there was a difference in her attitude. To me it looked like she alternated between a frantic wish to get something through to the audience, and a resignation to the idea that she never would. At the end of her last set, someone in the audience shouted something at her like “we love you”; she answered with her last words over the mic, “Yeah. Thanks.” I left without going backstage.

* * *

And now, years on, she’s dead. They’re talking about some kind of catastrophic reaction to a flu infection. There will be a tribute collection. Being the dinosaur that my snide students say I am, I’ll get it and refer to it as an “album.”

I know how Mozart died. Sure, what the coroners call the proximate cause might have been an assassin’s poison, or funky organ failure, or some bug sweeping through Vienna or Prague. But that was just the final step, the burglar that crept through the open window and stole his life. But how was the window left open?

I think that at some point Mozart looked ahead and saw his likely futures. He was already the man that so many lesser composers wanted dead, and that would not change. The worst thing, though, was that he was, in his time, one of the very few people who “got” his music. He wrote about the virtues of the Enlightenment and Masonic wisdom in The Magic Flute, but hardly anyone thinks Mozart really furthered the Enlightenment. His patrons were largely philistines who went to the opera to make the scene, not revolution. A giant in a world of ants, Mozart must have been lonely beyond comprehension. No one can live like that for too long; one way or the other, some part of his soul would seek escape, and whether the means of his escape came in a poisoner’s potion or an infection or some wasting syndrome, that part of him would accept his end, even embrace it.

As did she, I think. And as will I, someday.