You’ve heard the Blood Orphans’ story before, right? The band broke big out of Silver Lake a few years back, thrilling the hipsters at Spaceland with their high-energy sweat-stained shows. That fast-talking bartendress with the Mohawk became their manager. Warner shelled out $2 million to sign them. (Two mil, for a joke-metal band!)
They were so over-the-top. I mean, “Landing Strip Blues”? And that song about making love to an amputee, “Hella-Prosthetica” — it was funny the first few times. They opened for Mötley Crüe, then, poof, Spin crucified them and said they were a bunch of racists. The label, predictably, went nuts, recalled the album and cut out some of the dicey stuff.
The big news is that the Blood Orphans are back together. They just came through town and not a single blog covered it. Then again, the best show the Blood Orphans could get was a golf shop in Santa Monica. A couple days after that, the lead singer broke his leg playing a gig at the Twisted Vine Wine Bar in San Luis Obispo.
None of this ringing a bell?
That’s because the Blood Orphans exist only in the pages of the debut novel by Michael Shilling, Rock Bottom — and in the very convincing Web site the author launched to chronicle the quartet’s “reunion tour,” www.bloodorphans.com. Shilling, the former drummer with the Long Winters and a few other Seattle indie bands, has crafted a black comedy that wears the artifice of rock & roll like a studded belt. Published last month, Rock Bottom traipses through one tumultuous day in Amsterdam as the Blood Orphans witness their fading star obliterated in a cloud of sex, booze, blood and coke. Not that they weren’t predisposed to being anesthetized.
“Being in a rock band is kind of a nucleus-free emotional reality to begin with,” Shilling says from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he is a lecturer at the University of Michigan. “Things happen and you don’t know why. Things don’t happen and you don’t know why.”
Shilling’s outrageous characters are immersed in varying degrees of clueless. Lead singer Shane is a born-again Christian turned Buddhist who preaches from the stage; drummer Darlo is the sex-addicted son of a porn king; guitarist Adam is a shredder whose talents are buried behind his meekness; and bassist Bobby is a bumbler with a disgusting skin problem. Their manager, Joey — the kind of woman so in love with the spectacle that she made a practice of introducing the band’s sets in carnival-barker fashion — has problems of her own, starting with what goes up her nose.
Shilling dances the difficult jig of rotating the narrative between the five principals. “I don’t think any of these characters are fundamentally likable enough to spend 300 pages with,” he says. “Besides, rock musicians are very unreliable narrators. By telling it from many different perspectives, they keep each other in check.”
In their micro-universe, the onetime phenoms of Spaceland (Shilling says he toured there enough to imagine this scenario) wear their desperation like skintight jeans. They have braved bad reviews and worse crowds, jail time in Omaha, a riot in Stockholm, bad business decisions, financial disasters and enough infighting to start a civil war. Their mammoth debut album sold 3,451 copies. But as the end nears, delusion gives way to resignation that gives way to realization.
“I wanted to take the subject and make it not about the subject,” Shilling says. “I would love an 80-year-old woman from Minnesota to pick up Rock Bottom thinking it’s a novel about self-redemption and end up feeling, ‘Hey, that was OK.’” Not that she might become a fan of the blog the author has spun off the book. “I really miss these guys, and it’s really fun for me to pretend I’m them,” Shilling says. “I can smell the dirty leather pants. . Plus, it allows me to pretend I have a full head of black hair.”
On bloodorphans.com, where the author is not-so-affectionately known as “The Douchebag,” Shilling’s characters weigh in from the road, right down to the go-cart track they played at Redding. The gag is perpetuated by four “covers” of Blood Orphans songs — music contributed by some of Shilling’s friends from Seattle. Like the Blood Orphans, and their mythos and pathos, “some of it is really good,” Shilling says, “and some of it is really disturbing.”