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Liminal Space 7
A personal tale about Dax Riggs, followed by some recommended reads
Welcome to Liminal Spaces, a place for me to put my brief and scattered thoughts (and invite you to share yours) between essays.
Thoughts and Recommendations
Yesterday, I read something that led me back to the music of Dax Riggs. I’m always hesitant to write about music. Because while it tends to move each of us in similar and mystical ways, different things do it differently for different people. Language that describes music that does not affect the listener as described by another’s language will always fall flat.
Still, one can talk about music without describing it. So I’m going to attempt to do that briefly now, via a story that is more parts historical and sacramental than musical, although the lines between all those -al-suffixed words are not very clear to me these days.
I’ve been listening to Dax Riggs since around the late 90s or early aughts, when I first heard him sing in the band Acid Bath. After Acid Bath disbanded, Dax formed a group called Agents of Oblivion that I grew very fond of in my early 20s. I remember listening to their one and only album at an absurdly crunchy volume while driving a carful of friends to another friend’s wake and funeral. It was sunny and cold and the start of a new year, and I can still feel all of that exactly when I hear those songs now.
After Agents of Oblivion came the first incarnation of Deadboy & the Elephantmen. The second incarnation of Deadboy came a few years later, in 2006, with the release of We Are Night Sky. I first saw Dax live, at Schubas in Chicago, while Deadboy was on tour for this record. I walked alone to the show during a light and beautiful snow that is to this day one of my favorite memories of Chicago. After that, I saw Dax many more times in Chicago, a few times in Austin, once in Houston, twice in Dallas, a couple times in New Orleans, and once in Baton Rouge.
While waiting for the bus from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, after a mildly strange night of couchsurfing, I met a man with wet and clammy palms who introduced himself as Michael Jackson. He was very nice to me and never explicitly claimed to be the singer Michael Jackson. But it was pretty clear to me that he thought he was, and also that he wasn’t.
At the show in New Orleans I met a sweet young woman from Hattiesburg, Mississippi who shot videos of the show and later put them up on YouTube. They’re still there, and I can hear myself talking in one of them, and it makes me fucking sick.
At one of the shows I went to in Texas, I met two sisters who ended up sleeping in my hotel room at the dreary highway-side La Quinta Inn that night. Nothing happened. But one of the sisters was so drunk that she thought something did the next morning. She was devastated. What would her boyfriend think? she asked the cab driver that took her home and me to the airport. At the time, I just thought she meant: What will my boyfriend think if he learns that I slept in this dude’s hotel room last night? rather than What will my boyfriend think if he learns that I slept with this dude last night?—so I didn’t correct her. It’s not fair. But what can I say or do about it now? Life is unfair and people are fallible and memories are fictions. And who knows if even my memory serves?
At another show in Texas, I interviewed Dax for Paste Magazine. He was very kind and generous with his time, as were all the other members of the band he was touring with at the time.
During the interview, I told Dax about an earlier show I’d seen him at in Chicago. He remembered the show, because the other half of the two-piece he was playing with then got incredibly drunk after getting spooked by their drive into the city during a blizzard, drunk enough that he fell from his drum kit multiple times and was in shambles for much of the set. That wasn’t my reason for bringing that earlier show up, though. I brought it up for what happened after.
The drummer was passed out on the stage, if I remember correctly, and I was talking to Dax by the merch table and mentioned how much I liked his cover of Lee Hazlewood’s “No Train to Stockholm.” (As well as his originals, Dax has always played quite a few cover songs in his live shows.) I’d seen a video of him playing it from an earlier show in the tour and said I’d love to hear him do it next time. He told me he’d do it “right now.” He then brought me (along with his wife) to the little backstage room downstairs at the Double Door. And then he did what he said he would do. And I’ve still never heard anything as powerful and resonant as Dax’s voice in that little room. We pretend we’re all equal. But we’re not. We all have things that others don’t. And we all lack things that others have. And almost all of the best things that we have start from the things that we lack. That’s life. For all of us. We are all but one in the conjoined series of comedies, tragedies, and poems happening here now.
The last time I saw Dax play live was at another show in Chicago, this one at the Empty Bottle, I believe. That night, I was the one who’d had too much to drink. My inebriation combined with my past encounters with Dax and his bandmates gave me a false confidence that led me to walk directly into their dressing room after the show. To their credit, they suffered me well, even though I could see in their faces and eyes their irritation with my gall. Despite that, Dax talked to me and another fan late into the night, and hugged us both in the night’s bitter cold before climbing into the van to move on to sleep or the next town or wherever he went next.
One night after that, I was in New York City with a ticket to see Dax play again. I walked a long way to the venue, put my hand on the door, then pulled it back and kept walking. I don’t know why. But I also kind of do. I think it had something to do with overstepping boundaries at that Empty Bottle show. I still felt bad about that. Also, I wasn’t drinking anymore at the time, and I knew if I went into the venue, I probably would. And I didn’t want to deal with what I knew that would do to me the next day, when I was due to fly back to Chicago. I knew my thoughts would already be in a bad place, because the trip would be over, and the day would be Sunday, and the next day would be nothing more than going back to work.
That was either 2010 or 2011. In August 2011, my international travels began. And I eventually landed here, in Thailand, in 2017. Dax fell off the face of the earth after around 2015 or so. The only thing new I’ve seen or heard from him in years is this Instagram account, where photos of old album covers, but nothing else, appear from time to time. I’m not on Instagram, but I’ll go to Dax’s page sometimes to see what’s been posted since my last visit. I’m not even sure if he’s the one posting. But I’ll occasionally listen to the albums in the photos, and I can often hear their apparent influence on Dax’s music.
I would love to see him return with new music and live shows someday. But either way, I’m grateful for all that I’ve already received from him, the whole of which the words and sentences above can only barely hint at.
You’ll notice that I didn’t link to any of Dax’s music here. That was intentional. If you want to hear it, I encourage you to seek out his ghost, which is scattered all across the internet by his relatively small but very devoted following.
I won’t leave you with absolutely nothing, though. So … Personally, I have a particular fondness for his live, solo, acoustic performances. So here are a couple of those. The first one is a cover of Ronnie Lane's "Done This One Before," recorded by that woman from Hattiesburg that I met in New Orleans. The second is a typically warped and frayed video of Dax singing his song “Waking up Insane” from somewhere in the before time.
And because I’m an insufferable and indecisive person, beneath those you’ll find my favorite three studio recordings from my favorite Dax record, We Are Night Sky.
(And beneath all of that, you’ll find a few recommended reads. And one of these days, you’ll find a new essay here. Thanks for humoring me in the meantime.)
Clicks of Desire: How the Internet Obeys You by Tara Isabella Burton
What Comes After Liberalism by John Gray
Cannibalism and Burial in the Late Upper Palaeolithic: Combining Archaeological and Genetic Evidence by William A Marsh and Silvia Bello
Trauma Is Indeed like a Car Crash: In That Most People Get Over It by Freddie deBoer
From Many to (N)One: Meditation and the Plasticity of the Predictive Mind by Ruben E. Laukkonen and Helen A. Slagter