Emerging from an all-night flight into the sultry mid-morning, Alex and I instruct the cab driver to drive straight to the catacombs from the Rome airport without even checking into our hotel room first. Alex's sudden passion for the catacombs surprises me, and I get another of several recent inklings that I have been too ready to take his dumb rock star persona as the whole show, rather than as what it may be, a playful interpretation. But I should be forgiven for this mistake. Alex seems at times to have no intellectual curiosity. For example, I tried on the plane to get him excited about Keats, explaining that Keats died in Rome, how he died, what he wrote, how much Alex looks like him. Alex just patted me on the leg and ordered another Jack and Coke from the stewardess. But when I told him about Saint Cecelia, patron saint of music, whose statue lies in one of the oldest catacombs outside Rome, he pressed me for details, insisting we "go see that little chick" straightaway. For the remainder of the connecting flight from London, he left his headphones in his lap, the demo track of a song he recorded last week silent, and stared out the window as the plane flew over the Alps.
Now, as we descend the narrow stone steps into the catacombs behind our tour guide, a retired priest who had been restocking the catacombs' refrigerator magnets in the gift shop when we showed up, I find myself wanting to see Alex gripped with awe. He, with no sense of history beyond Led Zeppelin's first album, he, so capable of producing awe in thousands of others with both his voice and his image; I want him to get a sense of perspective on his ephemeral rock-n-roll career. I want him to be dumbstruck by something larger than himself. I don't know if he is. But I am.
The priest narrates as we walk: "We stop in this space, which you will notice is a widening. A place of worship where the early Christians met in secret. In the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Roman soldiers followed to here—on the spot where you stand, young man." The priest points at Alex's chain enwreathed jack boots. "On that spot the third pope was killed, and all of his followers, here in this space, their bodies shoved into empty tombs within the walls."
Alex, who is stooped to avoid hitting his head on the low ceilings, looks down apologetically at the priest. He says, "I'm sorry, man."
He really is sorry, too, and the tour guide can tell. He smiles back at Alex. "It is not your fault." We walk down another passageway, past row after row of empty slots in the stone where bodies once rested, until we round another corner and find in one of those slots on the floor the life-sized, pure-white, prone, marble effigy of Saint Cecilia. Alex yells, "Oh!" and spins around as if to run away. He grabs the leather lapels of his jacket and gasps. "Shit!" He plants one enormous hand on my shoulder and half sobs, "Oh my God, Paula, look at her."
I am looking. She is truly unnerving, a white stone sprawl amidst the brown stone, a permanent rendering of someone long dead, absolutely life-like, her face turned down and away along the line where her neck was severed from her body. "Her coffin was discovered here in 817," the tour guide explains in solemn, accented tones recalling every Italian gangster film I have ever seen. "It was opened in 1599, and her body had been unaffected by time. Perfectly preserved. She looked exactly as she looks here. An artist sketched her before she began to deteriorate once the coffin was opened."
Alex has recovered somewhat and is leaning close to her. "How come she's lying on her side?" he asks, running his hand over her hips and thigh the way he sometimes does mine.
"Don't touch!" hisses the tour guide. "She was buried alive. They could not kill her. They tried to behead her and failed, left her half-beheaded, and she survived for three more days, preaching the gospel and singing."
"With her head half off?" Alex laughs. "Come on, now."
The tour guide looks at him patiently. "She is a saint. It was a miracle."
"Or a really good story," Alex says, assimilating his initial wonder. Despite the tour guide's admonition, he puts his hand in Saint Cecilia's hand, which is folded with three fingers—father, son, holy ghost—making a final defiant gesture, like a kid at a rock concert.
The first time I ever spoke to Alex was five months ago when he telephoned to berate me for my review of his latest CD, Merciless. In a piece for Rolling Stone I had called his band, the Seminal Fluids, "cynical manipulators of noise" and said of their CD, "I would call it form without content, except there's no form either. Only the strange, angelic voice of Alex Glimmer saves this CD from absolute incoherence."
"Is this Paula Stern, the rock critic?"
"You're wrong about the Seminal Fluids. You just don't understand what they're trying to do. They're operating on sound. They're turning it inside out and showing you its guts."
"Who is this?" I asked. I was often accosted by angry fans defending their favorite bands, but this was the first time one of them had obtained my home phone number. I consider myself the uncompromising voice of rock criticism, reminding everybody of the high road. Rock is art. I believe that, and I take pleasure in running off poseurs and dilettantes. Hunter S. Thompson told me once I am what would have happened if Dorothy Parker and Lester Bangs had had a love child. "Listen," I said, about to hang up, "write your own damn column if you don't like what I have to say."
"This is Alex Glimmer."
"Oh, come on. Really?" Really. He insisted we meet for dinner. He wanted to convince me I was wrong about him and his band. "I said you have an angelic voice," I reminded him.
"I'm more than just a pretty voice," he insisted. Yeah, you're a pretty face, too, I thought, and one hell of a body. He asked me to meet him at some hole in the wall pizza parlor in Brooklyn.
I showed up, and he showed up, and now I am involved, deeply involved, with a twenty-five year old rock god who looks in the face astonishingly like John Keats looks in the few extant sketches of him. I know this because before I became a rock critic, I was sort of a Keats groupie. A wannabe. John Keats made me want to be a poet. Beauty is truth, truth beauty. I say that line to myself a lot, even though it never really makes sense to me unless I've read the whole poem first. And even then it only comes clear for a moment, a heartbeat or two, and then I'm past it again and back on the outside. But it was that ability of Keats's to turn things inside out in the flash of a single line—that was what got me. I wanted to do that. And I worked and worked at it, through college, through a Master's Degree and a pile of derivative poems I produced as a thesis. I wanted to be able to come up with a line that would stop people cold.
I haven't done it yet. I don't stop them cold. But I sometimes slow them down. An article I wrote, just for fun, about talking to Kim Gordon all night long on the balcony at a party, caught the attention of a writer at Spin, and my career spun out from there. It's true I've put poetry on the back burner. But not John Keats. That line—beauty is truth, truth beauty. It's my talisman, my compass. Every time I listen to a new band or a new album by an old one, I take that line from poor old Keats, hold it up on a long chain, and watch as it points a direction for the review I'll write. In the presence of art, I've seen it glow. It glowed when I heard Alex Glimmer's voice for the first time.
Our cab driver has brought us from the catacombs outside the city off the Via Appia, to the very heart of Rome where we are staying, at the Hotel Hassler at the top of the Spanish Stairs, just above the house where Keats died. Merciless, despite my review, has become huge among eleven-to-seventeen-year-old boys, the largest music-buying demographic, and the Seminal Fluids begin a world tour next month, so Alex and I thought we'd get away together for a while first. I'm a little nervous about how we're going to do away from all the usual social distractions of New York. We don't have a lot in common, though sometimes I think Alex is having a little fun with me about our cultural discrepancies. For example, the first time I mentioned my interest in poetry, he told me he never reads. He said the last book he opened was Valley of the Dolls, his junior year in high school. "Why Valley of the Dolls?" I asked.
"The dolls," he said, pausing to prepare me for the revelation to follow, "are drugs." He nodded at me as if that explained everything, and then, just as I had concluded Alex really was the big, dumb kid he seemed to be, he winked—or did he? It was so slight, a seemingly thoughtless reflex, but over time I noticed he would sometimes repeat that wink right after he had said something that could have led me down a wrong path in my attempts to get to know him better. I began to wonder if that wink was an invitation for me to look back over our last exchange, to discover what I'd missed in it.
But I may be reading more into him than is there. It does not flatter my sense of self to think I could be so drawn to a simpleton, so maybe I am building him up. There's plenty of evidence Alex is no master ironist, but is in fact the pure rock icon his growing army of young fans think he is. It's true, for example, that just three years ago he was working at a Tyson chicken factory in Fort Smith, Arkansas, disemboweling fowl on an assembly line while he tried to get his band started. Although I now know the whole story, which is he was working at the chicken factory part time while he was a college student, I hate the image of him in a bloody white smock and hair net, thrusting his hands inside plucked body after plucked body as they pass him on the assembly line.
And he told me recently he consciously models his stage persona on some of the personalities of the World Wrestling Federation. "Because they call up archetypal figures of strength and vengeance and potency?" I offered, hoping for a self-conscious or ironic element to his WWF admiration.
He shook his head. "It's cool the way they run around the edge of the ring and roar. The crowd loves it." Then there was that wink, a gesture that seemed to say, don't patronize me, sweetie, of course I'm kidding. But was he? When Alex is giving a concert, he does, indeed, run the perimeter of the stage, roaring and flexing and spinning his head so that his hair whips around like a sword, the very image of strength and vengeance and potency.
Our suite overlooks the Piazza Spagna. The Spanish Stairs unfold from beneath us like rippling fabric, ending before the Barcaccia fountain and a street lined with the storefronts of Prada, Gucci, Bulgari, and Dior. The ceiling of our suite bells like a cathedral, and dancing cherubs the Italians call putti rollick above us with full-grown angels in attendance, playing medieval looking instruments—lute, lyre, harp—against a sapphire blue background. As soon as the bellboy gets the last of our luggage into the room and closes the door, Alex flops onto the bed and becomes transfixed by the celestial concert on our ceiling. After a few minutes, while I'm hanging my clothes in the closet, he says, "The little naked babies are the fans. The angels are the band. I like the one with the horn—he's rocking, you can tell." I think he's dropped acid without telling me.
"What?" I stand over him, with my hands on my hips, then I put my hands down. I feel maternal in that pose, a feeling I try hard to avoid when I'm with him.
He points at the ceiling. "The babies," he says.
I look up. "Oh. They're called putti. You know, those babies are nearly three hundred years old. This hotel used to host all the royalty of Europe. All the glitteratti."
"We're glitteratti," he says, swinging himself upright and heading toward the shower. We are not glitteratti. Alex would be mobbed at most high schools in America, but adults don't know who he is, especially Roman adults. Italians love beauty—they find the harder versions of American rock to be simply ugly. No, we are just tourists.
I've been to Rome before, on a graduate research grant fifteen years ago. I was Alex's age, then. Twenty-five. The age of Keats when he died, just right down the Spanish Stairs. From our window I can see the pink stucco wall of the building where he spent his last feverish, consumptive days, tortured that he would never write all he could, that he would never have the woman he loved.
Standing at the window, I feel a wonderful pain, the pure grief of literature, mixed with something not so wonderful. My own grief. My grief is indeterminate, unresolved and unredeemed. It has never been the impetus for a body of timeless words. It just hurts. My rock criticism, which provides a good living and gives me a certain amount of cultural presence, not to mention drawing to me the cover boy of most rock magazines in the last year, is not really important. Most of the music I write about won't even be remembered five years from now, much less my writing about the music. I save copies of everything I publish, knowing my little archive to be a futile effort, a paper wall against the flood of time. Here in Rome amongst the permanent presence of the past, the insignificance of my work is more galling than ever. I want to place some permanent stamp on my feelings. I crave some epic thrust, if not to be the poet, at least to be the "still unravish'd bride of quietness."
"So, baby," Alex says, bounding out of the bathroom, shirtless, in a towel, his wavy, auburn hair falling down his back. "I heard this is where pizza originated. I'll bet they've got great pie—I mean, shit, they invented it, right? Let's check it out!" He slaps his hands together so the face of the satanic creature tattooed across his pectorals contorts as if it, too, were ravenous for good pie. I've had to make Alex start wearing a shirt when we're having sex so I don't have that evil face moving over me, or under me. I have found myself watching its features for reactions, staring deep into its red eyes, which are in fact Alex's nipples. Very inhibiting, this tattoo, and not what I mean when I say I long for artistic permanence.
Turning from the window, I say, "Okay. Pizza it is. Get dressed." It's hard to square the pizza comment with the part of him that's sharp, a natural businessman, a savvy spin doctor of his own public persona. His band's image is part serial killer, part porn star—I think it's base and unimaginative—but the truth is, Alex Glimmer is positive in an elemental way free of any moral charge. He is up, up, up, and go, go, go, the Horatio Alger story of the twenty-first century, rising from nowhere on force of will, charisma, and one genuine talent—that voice, which can sound like the ethereal sopranos of the castrati in medieval Rome, begotten without the harsh sacrifice of his manhood, I am happy to report. Alex's goals, the terms in which he conceives of his "success," are as conventional as if he were a car salesman and not a sonic metal maniac. Out of context, some of his quotations sound like something out of a Dale Carnegie seminar. "When the world hands you a lemon, make lemonade!" "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!" He says stuff like that, sometimes without the wink.
We hit the streets and have a surprisingly difficult time finding any pizza. Wandering through the maze of narrow alleys teeming with shops surrounding and leading into the Piazza Navona, we finally grab a couple of slices of pizza from a street vendor and keep walking—I am too excited to sit down, and he's ready to do what I want to do. We round a corner, and there, at the confluence of several streets, is the Trevi Fountain. I feel that feeling again—grief, humility in the face of artistic permanence. Everything in Rome reminds me I am going to die. The linear notion of time that keeps everything flowing like a river, in Rome turns in on itself. Here, time is a circle, and the past is with you as you walk by ruins that were ruins when Christ was born, inches away from a balcony where Mussolini spoke, past an obelisk brought from Egypt, a gift from Cleopatra twenty-three centuries ago. Taking the yearnings of my own ego too seriously in this environment is impossible, and maybe that's why I'm so uncomfortable.
Alex grabs my hand and pulls me towards the fountain where pagan Neptune languishes in the sunshine, bare-chested amongst his admirers, cut out of the same white marble as poor, Christian Saint Cecilia in the dark and damp of the catacombs. Alex and I are nearly run over by a scooter, but we make it to the edge. "Throw in some change," he says, digging a handful of coins out of the front pocket of his jeans and handing some to me. He leans back like a pitcher aiming a fastball and hurls a handful of change into the fountain. The change hits the water like a spray of buckshot. A family of Japanese tourists about to have their picture taken all wince as Alex's coins make their hard wishes. They will have to take that picture again. I lean against the rail and laugh as he drives in another handful, in every small action the spirit of rock-n-roll excess. "Did you make a wish?" he asks, throwing an arm around me and holding my hipbone like a rudder he can use to steer me.
"Yes, did you?" He kisses me, as if to say his wish had something to do with me. Maybe it did. Is he in love with me? This thought makes me nervous; it is a power I don't want, don't trust myself with.
My own wish is less concrete, and only indirectly about him. "I wished for a sign, a portent, a guiding star."
"Oh," he says, "Why didn't you say so? Here's your sign." He loosens his belt and turns around, lifting his shirt to show me the small black star, which I have seen plenty of times, that sits on the base of his spine as if marking a terminus. He grins. "Follow this, okay?"
I think about Keats and his notion of negative capability—the place "where an artist must be" comes to me verbatim after all these years: "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." I don't think I have negative capability. But does Alex? I look at him, and I feel myself irritably reaching to know what will happen.
He is smiling like a dangerous rake—it's the look he saves for his fans—and sure enough, I realize we have become surrounded by a small gathering of American teenage boys and girls who are star struck and giddy.
"You're Alex Glimmer, dude. Aren't you?" One skinny fourteen-year old boy steps up and then falls back deferentially like a mean-spirited small dog who suddenly finds himself in the presence of a much calmer, much bigger dog. The whole scenario looks so much like Neptune and his sycophants in the fountain in front of us, I find myself falling in with the teenagers, as if by some aesthetic imperative, looking to Alex to see what he'll say. He doesn't say much, just signs their t-shirts, city guide books, arms, foreheads and backpacks and tells them a thing of beauty is a joy forever. Keats? Where did he get that? They nod their heads, trying to remember it. They will go home and use it to get laid for years to come. Yeah, like Alex Glimmer once told me—yeah, I met him. We hung out in Rome. Cool guy, yeah. Told me a thing of beauty is a joy forever. Looking at you, who can argue? The man's a poet. Alex poses for some pictures, which I take. Standing behind the various cameras the teenagers hand me to snap their pictures with Alex, I look at Alex through their lenses and realize I am standing in the same relation to him as I have always stood, the recording mechanism beholding the worthy object, camera to smiling Alex, critic to artist.
The Protestant Cemetery where Keats is buried stretches out beyond the Aurelian wall, the original wall of the city. It is easy to spot because of an enormous pyramid, the grave of Caius Cestius, built in 12 BC. "He must have thought a lot of himself," Alex says, giving the pyramid a kick as he looks up at it.
"I guess so," I say. "He wasn't really very important, though. Some petty bureaucrat. Unlike Keats, who has turned out to be the real thing, and he's just got this sad little stone. I remember the grave being over here," I say, leading him a short way through the headstones.
Suddenly from behind me he tosses off a line. "He never is crowned with immortality, who fears to follow where airy voices lead: so through the hollow, the silent mysteries of earth, descend!"
I spin around. "You've been reading Keats?"
"I'm following your airy voice through the silent mysteries, baby. Just wanted you to know."
"I thought you were ignoring me when I was trying to get you interested in him."
"Nah. I wanted to check him out—thought maybe it'd give me some ideas for lyrics." He's smiling at me, and there's the wink, the invitation to uncover another layer of irony, another persona, this one constructed for me. To have memorized those lines—not just opening lines, either. Lines twenty or thirty pages into "Endymion."
"Well," I say, stopping in front of Keats's grave, which I find as if I have visited it a thousand times instead of once, "here's a bit more of his writing. His epitaph. It's kind of hard to read, though. You'd think they'd keep this grave a little cleaner."
Alex kneels down and runs his black-polished nails into the grooves of the stone's lettering and reads: "Here Lies One Whose Name was Writ in Water."
"Sad," I say, awash in regret.
"Evaporated," Alex says finally. I hear appreciation in his voice.
"Yes. I'm sure that's what he meant," I say, "Writ in Water—the lack of permanence."
Alex rises to his feet, still looking at the stone. "But also, water never goes away. It is permanent. It just takes different forms at different times. We're drinking the same water today that ol' Keats was drinking, and ol' Caius way before him. It might mean his name won't last, but it might mean he's never gone, just turning from water to vapor to ice and on back, you know."
"Do you think he meant it that way?" I ask. I can't believe I am asking Alex for his insight into Keats, but I'm happy to cede the lonely high ground of knowing what he doesn't for the unexpected pleasure of hearing a true insight.
The sun is going down behind us, silhouetting the traffic circle and the lines of the ancient wall, undulating like an animal curled in sleep. Alex takes giant steps around the graveyard, like a little kid trying not to step on any cracks in the sidewalk. "Sure," he says, "I know I always try to have double meanings in my lyrics."
I have read his lyrics. They're terrible. "What do you mean? I never noticed any double meanings."
"Yeah, well, I try not to be too obvious about it. Like in 'Driving You Home.' I'm talking about actually driving this chick home to her house, but I'm also talking about driving her home, like sexually." He makes a grinding motion with his hips to illustrate his point.
I want to pummel him with rocks. "Oh, well, yeah. I recognized those double meanings."
"Keats was probably trying for something like that when he said his name was written in water. That's all I'm saying."
Suddenly it's not enough for me to believe he means all this jokingly. Before I can stop myself, I say, "We have to break up."
He looks down suddenly, his face blanching. "Really?"
"Well, I don't know. We don't have much in common, you know?"
He stares at me, his huge green eyes holding depths of pain I didn't know were in him. But then I realize it's not entirely my announcement that's causing his expression. "Baby?" he says, wrapping his arms around his middle. "I'm feeling really sick all of a sudden. I'm freezing. Can we go back to the hotel?"
By the time we get back to the Hassler, Alex is hot to the touch. I put my arms around him in the cab, and he is trembling, his teeth chattering, although the temperature outside is in the seventies. In the room, I find myself doing things I didn't know I knew how to do, like shaking down a thermometer room service has brought up, and putting cold, wet towels across his forehead. He lies inside the white sheets, his hair spread over the pillows, looking like the sketch Severin made of Keats on his death bed. I retracted my break up speech in the taxi. What was I thinking? He is the voice of the future, the face of the past, the only man I know who would run his hands down the thighs of Saint Cecilia. What's good enough for Saint Cecilia is good enough for me, right? He watches me as I bustle around the room.
"Paula," he says, motioning me over to the bed. "Sorry I acted like a baby back at the cemetery." He smiles weakly. "I meant to act like a baby earlier."
I pull the towel from his forehead and kiss him between the eyebrows. "That's okay. You can act like a baby now. Just get better, or rock music will never be the same. I don't want to go through the rest of my life looking at your face on T-shirts with your dates of birth and death on them, like tombstones."
He sits up a little. "Do you really think that would happen? Like Kurt Cobain, or Jim Morrison? Or Hendrix?"
I laugh. "I think you've got a couple more albums to go before that happens. You need to get rid of that idiot band you're in and go solo. I hope you feel better in the morning," I say, and turn off the lamp at his side. When I come out of the bathroom in my nightgown a few minutes later, he is asleep. As quietly as I can, I search my carry-on bag for the old Modern Library edition of Keats's collected poems I have had since I was an undergraduate. I take it to bed, turning on the lamp on my end table and throwing a red t-shirt over it to dim the light. I read for about an hour, almost as enthralled by my own earnest marginalia as I am by Keats's words. The girl who scribbled, "love is fatal—he understood that," and "loss of the ego—possible through love or through literature," is a person I dimly recall from those years, like maybe someone I had a class with, but not me, myself. She was a poet, I realize, and she didn't survive. I look at Alex, who looks older and more troubled in sleep than he does awake. Having Alex around these last months has shown me the contrast between my wan, vaporous hopes I might be an artist, and the bright imperative of the real thing. It isn't fair, but it is the truth, and truth is beauty. Somehow. I make note of a few poems to read to Alex in the morning.
When I wake up, he is propped on one elbow, looking at me warily. "Hi," I say, a little disgruntled. I am not used to seeing someone staring at me when I first open my eyes, and I am not too sure I look beautiful when I'm sleeping. "What? You look like you have pressing issues to discuss."
He smiles and sits up, cross-legged. "I'm trying to figure out how to tell you what I have to tell you."
He's leaving, I think. Well, okay. I tried to break up with him; he knows things are shaky, so he's going to get it over with. I shouldn't have taken his temperature—I reminded him of his mother. "Just tell me," I say, sitting up, too. We both lean back against our pillows like John and Yoko, ready for the press.
He begins, "Last night..."
"Are you feeling better?" I interrupt. That horrible, personal grief is creeping into me like a paralysis. I don't have negative capability. I just don't.
"Not really. I still feel like shit. I'm sorry, babe. Sucks to be on vacation with someone sick. We can still get around, though. I'm tough. I remember working twelve-hour shifts at the chicken factory so hungover I was seeing double chickens, but I did it. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, right? I won't let you down."
So, he's not dumping me? "That's okay! You don't have to entertain me," I say, full of relief and gratitude even as I cringe at that hated image of him plunging his hand into the body cavity of naked chickens on a conveyor belt. "What were you saying? About last night?"
"Yeah. Here's the thing. Last night, while you were sleeping, close to a hundred people came through our room."
"What do you mean?"
"I know, I know—crazy. But I swear to you Paula, all these guys came and went. They were very orderly. They lined up, and one by one, came and stood next to the bed and pressed my hand, touched my arm. I couldn't hear anything they said, but they all wanted to warn me about something. It was like I was very important to them all. Men, all of them very pale, very sad—they loved me. I could feel it. It reminded me a little of when kids line up to get my autograph, but much quieter, and much more personal."
"What a weird dream, Alex."
He frowns. "No, it wasn't a dream."
"Of course it was."
"No," he says firmly, "it wasn't. I was wide awake, and you were beside me sleeping the whole time. I was amazed you didn't wake up."
"You see, that should tell you it was a dream. I'm a light sleeper. I think I'd have noticed a hundred people passing through our room. How did they get in? Did they just pass through the walls?"
Alex begins twisting his hair nervously. "Yup."
"They passed through the walls?" He nods. "Well, what were they warning you about, could you tell?"
He stops twisting his hair and looks at me. "I could be wrong. Maybe. But I think they were warning me about, well, about you."
"About me? What about me?" I stand up and put my hands on my hips. I put them down, but they return to my hips like homing pigeons, and I just leave them there.
"I don't know. They definitely wanted me to get away from you, though."
"Fuck them! Fucking ghosts! I think it's them you need to get away from!"
"I thought you didn't believe me."
"I don't. It's ridiculous, Alex. You were running a fever, remember. Fever dreams can be very vivid. What did they do to make you think they didn't like me? Were they pointing at me?"
"There was some pointing."
This dream of his is no good. But my mind switches tracks, recognizing in his dream a familiar narrative, a map I have often traced. "God, Alex, do you know what this reminds me of?" I say, sitting on the edge of the bed and grabbing my copy of Keats from the end table. "'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'—I read it last night."
"Yeah, I read that. It's about this guy who gets captivated by a woman who isn't really a woman—she's a sort of fairie or demon, or something. They spend an amazing day together, then they fall asleep. He has a dream and all these people warn him about her—they warn him she will leave him, and when she does, he'll wither and die from longing. Yeah, that's a lot like what happened last night. What's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' mean?" he asks.
"The beautiful lady without mercy."
He begins whistling lines from the title track of Merciless.
"Uh-huh. Just a minute; I'll find it. It almost seems to describe what eventually happened to Keats—a lot of his friends thought his illness was psychosomatic, because of being separated from Fannie—the woman he was in love with. Here it is. Okay, listen. This is where they warn him: 'I saw pale kings, and princes too, Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; Who cry'd La belle Dame sans merci Hath thee in thrall!'"
"Hey, now! That's you, baby."
"Don't be silly. That woman was a demon." Alex just narrows his eyes at me and doesn't retract his assertion. "But doesn't that sound like your dream," I continue. "The pale men, all different kinds, warning you." I lean over and feel his forehead. He is still burning with fever, his skin waxy, clammy. He may even be worse. I call down to the front desk and quickly explain Alex's condition to the concierge, who promises to send a doctor. While I am on the phone, Alex lifts the book out of my lap and begins reading the poem, rereading it. When I hang up, he looks up from the book. I am looking for that wink, that layer of play I have come to expect from him, but what I see on his face is unvarnished fear, pain, a wild surmise.
I can't stand it. I stand up and start getting dressed. "Alex, why don't you stay in bed today? The doctor will be here soon. I'm just going to sight-see a little. I'll go to the Keats house today—I know you're not really interested in seeing a bunch of old knick-knacks and letters, anyway. I'll check on you at lunch." I bring him a handful of aspirin and a glass of water. He says he's not hungry, and neither am I. I am thinking about his dream, and what he said about water and Keats somehow taking different forms.
One of the things that make me such a good rock critic is my ability to see the future of a band in the seeds of their present. It's easy—I don't understand why everyone can't do it. I can tell by listening to the music, reading the lyrics, talking to the band members, who is genuinely talented, who is just a high school buddy who will be working in a body shop three years on. I can tell when an album is a peak album, like reading a fever. I can tell, most of all, who is the spirit of the band, the one who will go on when this band breaks up and do something better, something permanent. That's Alex. Sometimes I hate this ability. I wish I could be like everyone else and not see what's coming. I feel claustrophobic in this cluttered little museum, and I want to vanish into thin air. I don't want to go back to the hotel room, either. I love Alex, but I will have to go; I am already gone. As I walk along next to the glass cases in the Keats house, looking at his quills, his sketches, his sad little gloves, I am thinking again about negative capability, imagining Alex breaking his fever alone and realizing on his own what I can already see about us.