DUTCH by Roy Christopher


[Note: The following documents were included in the liner notes to Bad Flag’s history-spanning boxset, Dutch, released by Bright Little Light in 2019.]

Fiery Tale: A Brief History of Bad Flag

“A work of art has to exist in a world as an object, as real as the sun, grass, a rock, water, and so on. It must also possess a slight error. In other words, to be right, it has to be a little bit wrong, a tad strange, and thereby, truly real.” — Kharms

“They were literally the best,” says one fan with the measured reverence usually reserved for religious worship. “It’s really too bad more people don’t know about them.”

“No, it’s not,” another counters. “I’m glad no one knows about them. People ruin things.”

The latter fan expresses the prevailing attitude of the underground’s old guard. It’s a mixture of ownership, selfishness, and elitism that says, This is ours, and you can’t have it. You don’t deserve it.

Whether or not you agree, there is a certain cachet that is diminished when something gets too big. When everyone knows about a cultural phenomenon, its allure is lost. Cool doesn’t scale.

Though they were once approached by the A&R of a major label, Bad Flag were never in danger of getting too big.

“I saw them open for someone at the Off Ramp in Seattle in 1994,” Nils Bernstein tells me. “I can’t remember who it was. They were on their way out by then I’ve been told, but you certainly couldn’t tell by the way they played. They erased the headliner from my head!” Bernstein worked in publicity at Sub Pop Records from 1991 to 1997. At the time Sub Pop was expanding rapidly. Flush with Nirvana revenue, they were diversifying their roster and had recently signed a wave of successful indie bands, many at the behest of Bernstein. “On their way out or not, they’re still easily the best live band I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen a lot of bands… The records really don’t capture the lightning of their live show.” He trails off. “Hands down. The best.”

Bad Flag broke up in December of 1994, so Bernstein saw one of their last shows. The records he’s referring to, of which he has two, are a scant series of seven-inch singles the band put out. Depending on who you ask, the sum of the band’s output is either three or five seven inches, one demo cassette, a rehearsal tape, and two live bootlegs. Some say the demo is just a bad copy of their early singles, but no one can explain the extra song that only appears there.

“I picked up the only two records they had with them at that show,” Bernstein continues. He pulls the two records out of a steel box to the side of his racks of vinyl. I try to see what else is in there, but he quickly closes it. He holds out the two pristine artifacts, both sheathed in thick plastic sleeves. “I played them both only once, and then only to record them to tape. I mean, okay, I had to play ‘All the Way Down’ twice because I forgot to unpause the recording, but that’s it.”

“All the Way Down” is the third act, the B-side to the three-song seven inch, “Man Amok” (Bright Little Light, 1995), which marked a conceptual turn in the band’s songwriting. Acts 1 and 2, “Where the Day Goes to Die” and “Good God Gone Bad,” are on the A-side. It’s probably their best-known trilogy of songs. It was their last, and the only recording not released by the band themselves—or without their knowledge. The change is subtle but significant enough to make one wonder what would have come next.

“They didn’t really seem interested in selling them,” adds Bernstein “and when I told them who I was, they packed up and retreated backstage. I didn’t even get a chance to bring them to the attention of the label.”

Waving Radiant: Who is Bad Flag?

If ever there were a band deserving of the designation power trio, it is Bad Flag. Their music is a mathematics, an algorithm. It’s a process in progress that they are neither enjoying nor enduring but exacting, like an angry surgeon. It’s as heady as it is heavy. The three in question are the affable oaf, Dutch McNeal (drums), the cryptic yet quotable Sam Sports (bass, vocals), and the even-keeled Will Wilson, Jr. (guitar, backing vocals).

Don’t let their name and logo (the skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger) fool you, their lyrics are written and sung by a young man worldly beyond his home and wise beyond his home-schooling. In one song, he can go from lines about “the stress-free skin of the unperturbed” to a string of expletives lacking rhyme, rhythm, and reason. One reviewer wrote of their first 7”, “No one should have it, and no one should be without it. That’s how controversial it is.”

Bad Flag was formed in the forges of Chicago during a particularly hot time. “Sam and I have known each other since middle school,” Will tells me over the phone. “We met Dutch in college.” By college, he means the University of Chicago. After forming, dissolving, and playing in several other bands throughout school in the Chicagoland suburbs, Sam and Will moved to Hyde Park together, hell bent on starting something new. Paul Morley’s summation of Joy Division from June of 1980 could just as easily have been written about Bad Flag:

Good rock music—the palatable, topical stuff—is an amusement and an entertainment. But the very best rock music is created by individuals and musicians obsessive and eloquent enough to inspect and judge destinies and systems with artistic totality and sometimes tragic necessity; music with laws of its own, a drama of its own. The face of rock music is changed by those who introduce to the language new tones, new tunes, and new visions.

“We had a vision that never manifested in any of the other bands we’d been in,” says Sam.

“It wasn’t like we were trying to start a revolution,” Will adds, “but we were trying to realize something we hadn’t heard anywhere else, for ourselves.” Their vision included starting with the basics—vocals, guitar, bass, and drums—and building up. “We wanted the constraints of a regular band,” says Will, “but we wanted to push on them as hard as we could.”

And push they did. Dutch seemed the missing piece. His drumming is propulsive, steady yet organic. As precise as he could be, Dutch was not a machine. He was an animal.

Sam’s songwriting might be the thing everyone remembers or writes about, but Will and Dutch are essential. “Bad Flag is the three of us,” Sam insists. “And no one else.”

Bad Flag emerged on the Chicago club scene seemingly fully formed. Their first show, opening on a three-band bill that included their heroes the Jesus Lizard and local powerhouse Tar at the Lounge Ax in 1991, was plagued with sound problems, but they played almost flawlessly. It was a performance that didn’t go unnoticed.

“We weren’t ready for them,” says Tar’s John Mohr. “I thought we were bound by tension! Those guys seem ready to snap the second they plug in.”

“There was a lot of amazing music in our circles at the time,” Steve Albini remembers. “Tortoise, Tar, Naked Raygun, the Jesus Lizard… Brise-Glace, anything with David Grubbs in it, or Jim O’Rourke… It was hard to stand out, but Bad Flag was a revelation.” Albini ended up recording all of their official releases. “I spent every session trying to recapture the magic of that first show,” he claims.

“I think he came pretty close a couple of times,” says Russ Corey, owner of Bright Little Light, who put out the band’s last 7” record. “Even on the later material, which we were over-the-moon to release, where they stretched out more than ever before… What a band…”

Though those few recordings are bought and sold like gold, everyone knows these rare documents don’t capture the caged beast that was Bad Flag live. In between that first Lounge Ax show in 1991 and the posthumous Man Amok 7” in 1995, there were two brief tours in the Anything Grows flower shop van. In 1993, Bad Flag headed east, and in 1994, they headed west.

“The tour in 1993 was mainly to go to DC,” Will tells me. “We felt like, outside of Chicago, Olympia and DC were where our kindred bands lived. So, we booked that tour aiming to spend a couple of days in DC. We’d sent Ian [MacKaye of Fugazi and Dischord Records] our records, and he got us on a show at the 9:30 Club with Jawbox.” They also played with Five-Eight at the 40 Watt in Athens, Mary’s Pet Rock at the Nick in Birmingham, Polvo at the Cat’s Cradle in Carborro, and scattered shows by themselves in between.

Their second tour was the other direction. Setting out for the Cascades, they seem to have found a second family in the Northwest.

“We bonded instantly with a lot of the bands out there,” Will says. “I mean, we have at least as much in common with Hush Harbor and 30.06 as we do with Slint and Gastr del Sol.” It’s true. As much as Bad Flag fit in with the Chicago bands they played with, it’s not difficult to imagine them coming up in Portland, Olympia, or Seattle.

“Some Velvet Sidewalk? Unwound? Lync?” Dutch added. “We could’ve easily been on K Records or Kill Rock Stars and no one would bat an eye.”

The band ended with that tour. They announced their break-up before they got back. The final performance at the Fireside Bowl in Chicago was an emotional affair. Thankfully someone recorded it. Like seemingly every show, they played it like it was their last. This time they were right.

Bad Flag Interview, March 17, 1993:

The following brief interview was conducted shortly after Bad Flag released their third seven-inch record, “Get Off the X” b/w “Dogspine” (Vortex Shedding, 1993), and just before they went on their first tour.

So, are those your real names?

Dutch: “Yep.”

Will: “They’re real enough.”

“Sam Sports,” really? You don’t seem like the sporting type.

Sam: “’Irony’ is my middle name.”

Dutch: “It is!”

Will: “He legally changed it.”

Sports seems like more of a Dutch McNeal thing.

Will: “He played in high school.”

Dutch: “Yep. Linebacker.”

What about the band’s name, “Bad Flag”?

Will: “That was also Sam’s doing.”

Dutch: “Yeah, blame Sam.” [laughs]

Sam: “We were young when we started. I know you can’t hear any Bad Religion, Bad Brains, or Black Flag in our sound, but those were my favorite bands when I first started thinking about making music myself.”

Will: “I remember, you were so excited. You couldn’t believe no one had taken that name!”

Sam: “Yeah, it seems silly now of course, childish even, but the meaning of the name has evolved for me as we’ve gotten older as people and existed and progressed as a band.”

How so?

Sam: “Just the idea of flags in general… crosses, logos, signs… We imbue these things with meaning…”

Will: “…and then the meaning gets lost.”

Sam: “Yeah, so by having a silly name and logo, we kind of avoided that, subverted it somewhat.”

Dutch: “Put it this way: If you’re not familiar with our music, and you see our name on a flier, your impression is probably not going to be accurate, and you’re not going to expect what we do.”

Sam: “By the same token you don’t want to regularly do something that looks like something else. Eventually you’ll be answering to the worst suspicions… Your symbols won’t save you.”

Speaking of signs, do you guys believe in Astrology?

Will: “No.”

Dutch: “Really, Will? You don’t think the stars and planets have any bearing on your life?

Will: “No.”

Dutch: “Then why do you go to sleep when this one is facing away from the sun and wake up when it turns back?”

Will: “Going to bed when it’s nighttime and believing in Astrology are not the same thing.”

Dutch: “Whatever.”

Sam: “No one cops so to their misgivings so easily, but they look good on the side of a bus.”

You’re about to go on your first tour. Tell me about that.

Will: “We’re headed east, to DC, then dipping south to Chapel Hill, Athens…”

Dutch: “Yeah, we’re gonna hit all the hot spots out there, stop off in Alabama to see some friends and visit my family, and then come back home.”

You have a reputation for covering some unlikely and very difficult songs, from other underground bands like Johnboy, Table, Butterfly Train, Lungfish, Scratch Acid, and of course, Big Black. How do you choose the songs you cover?

Dutch: “It’s just what we like. Sometimes it’s someone that influenced us, but it’s always a song by a band that we like.”

Will: “Yeah, especially where our contemporaries are concerned. We try to put our own spin on all of them, but yeah, it’s usually just because we like the song and the band.”

Sam: “Immolation is the sincerest form of flammability.”

A Possible Bad Flag Discography

“Present Tension” b/w “Fragile Fists” (Vortex Shedding, 1991)

“Bury the Butterflies” b/w “Haunted Halo” (Vortex Shedding, 1991)

“Get Off the X” b/w “Dogspine” (Vortex Shedding, 1993)

Born with the Safety Off (Demo Cassette, 1991)


“Present Tension”

“Fragile Fists”

“Bury the Butterflies”

“Haunted Halo”


“Get Off the X”


“Wiser” (Coffin Break)

“Spotlight” (Candy Machine)

Rehearsal Bootleg (Cassette, 1993)


“Get Off the X”

“Present Tension”


“Fiery Tale”

“Fragile Fists”

“Fish Fry” (Big Black)

“Walking the King” (Tar)



“Where the Day Goes to Die”

“Good God Gone Bad”

“All the Way Down”

“Creeping Tender” b/w “Max Perlich” (Vortex Shedding, 1994)

Live from the Near-Death Experience (Last show, Fireside Bowl, 1994)

(Live Bootleg, Cassette, 1995; CDR, 1997)

“Get Off the X”

“Where the Day Goes to Die”

“Managing the Damage”

“Present Tension”


“Weightless Waitlist”

“Max Perlich”

“Bury the Butterflies”

“Gag Box” (Table)

“Fiery Tale”

“Fragile Fists”



“Aluminum Siding” (Crackerbash)

“Bob and Cindy” (Johnboy)

“Feral Future”

Man Amok 7” (Bright Little Light, 1995)

A: “Where the Day Goes to Die,” “Good God Gone Bad”

B: “All the Way Down”

Beating Hearts: Interview with Will Wilson, Jr. and Sam Sports of Bad Flag, 2019

Bad Flag broke up in December of 1994, and they stayed broken up. Not only was a reunion never on the table, now it’s not even possible: Their loud and lovable drummer Dutch McNeal was killed in a mass shooting in his hometown last year.

The last time I interviewed them in 1993, they were still an active and enthusiastic band. Little did any of us know that they’d break up two years later. They flared up and flared out, but they don’t come off as bitter or jaded. If you read that old interview, you may have noticed Sam’s penchant for aphorisms. If he seemed a little too ready with a handy quotation, that hasn’t changed either.

Bright Little Light is hereby releasing a full Bad Flag discography. The 3-CD, 5-LP Dutch includes remastered versions of all of the band’s seven inches, a set of bonus cover versions, and a proper remaster of their last show at the Fireside Bowl in 1994. In Dutch’s honor, I caught up with the remaining members of one of the greatest bands to ever meld minds through music.

Not to start off imprudently, but looking back, some of the quotations in our previous interview seem fake. I’ve even had a few people tell me as much.

Will: “We liked messing with interviewers, especially Sam or where Sam was concerned. He was the lyricist, so people relate to the words and want to know more. We shielded him to protect that, and sometimes it got out of hand.”

Sam: “Yeah, at some point, you’re not a trickster, you’re just a troll.”

That’s a distinction not a lot of people are going to take the time or effort to make.

Will: “Even still, it becomes something else.”

Sam: “Gossips never follow up.”

That’s not exactly fair.

Will: “Well, it cut both ways. There were a lot of misconceptions about us because of the way we dealt with the media, both by being loose and by being closed off. So, we paid for it.”

Sam: “With your walls up, it’s easier for someone to sneak up on you.”

I was sorry to hear about Dutch.

Will: “Thank you. Crazy days.”

Sam: “Yeah, I miss him.”

Will: “We all still talked regularly. It’s a weird world now.”

Really cool of you to name the boxset after him.

Will: “It seemed only right.”

Sam: “As younger men, I was always off in my head, and Will was all about the business.”

Will: “Dutch was the emotional center of the band.”

Sam: “He was the beating heart.”

Will: “He really was.”

Sam: “It’s in tribute to him, of course, but it also has other meanings.”


Sam: “It also means dander or trouble, going it alone… Looking at the world from a tilted perspective.”

Will: “It was also Reagan’s nickname, which I believe is where Dutch’s parents got it.”

Sam: “So, even if you didn’t know Dutch, it still has meaning.”

Speaking of going it alone, tell me about the break-up. You guys planned that ahead of time, right?

Sam: “Yeah, it was the difference between it ending and its having an ending.”

Will: “It was hard, but it had to happen. We were best friends from middle school to college, and it got to the point where we could either be in the band or continue to be best friends, but there was no way we could be both. We chose to stay best friends.”

Sam: “It’s easier meeting people than it is letting them go.”

If you were able to stay together as a band, what do you think about being a band in the current state of the music industry?

Will: “Certain parts of it are great! The ability to distribute your music online is amazing.”

And other things?

Sam: “You mean social media?”


Will: “Ugh. For the bands, it never ends. And as a user, it’s like the food in the refrigerator: You keep looking like you’re expecting something new to be in there, because you’re hungry. That’s what social media is. You keep checking, and it’s still the same leftovers… I’m so glad that stuff wasn’t around when we were a band.”

Sam: “I agree. It seems like a lot to maintain but complaining about how different things are now betrays a profound and malignant kind of stupid.”

Will: “We’d also have to change our name to ‘Dad Flag.’”

On the back of the Man Amok seven inch, it reads “Bad Flag supports the destruction of mankind.” That seems a little extreme, even for you guys.

Will: “That came from when we were recording. We were at Albini’s house.”

Sam: “Yeah, his girlfriend Heather was really into Norwegian Black Metal, and she had procured this Black Metal magazine from Norway called Nordic Vision. In their introduction, it said, ‘Nordic Vision supports the destruction of mankind’. It became a running joke during the sessions. It fits that record thematically as well.”

Will: “But we also just thought it was funny, so we put it on the record.”

And what about all the cover songs in the box? You guys were known for doing covers live, but where did the new recordings come from?

Will: “That was thanks to Steve. We’d always warm up in the studio with cover songs, and he’d always record them. We hadn’t planned on doing anything with them, but then it became a thing. There are even several that survived that we rarely did live.”

Sam: “One might even say a few classics.”

How do you feel about your legacy?

Will: “I feel great about it. We get mentioned in conversations that surprise me, but it’s usually in a positive way.”

Like what?

Will: “Sometimes we’re mentioned in a certain lineage that I’m not sure we were really a part of. It’s something much bigger than we were or were intending to be. A lot of it comes from hindsight and the lack of historical context, but it also comes from an intellectual tradition of taking the wrong things seriously.”

Sam: “And rushing to shelve things in the right category according to questionable or outmoded criteria.”

Will: “Yeah, that too.”

Sam: “They’re using wine theory to analyze grapes.”

Will: “We had ambitions, and a lot of the specific goals we had in mind we achieved. We started playing live sharing the stage with our heroes, and along the way we shared stages with many more of them, from the Jesus Lizard and Tar that first night to Unwound, Hush Harbor, Engine Kid, A Minor Forest, Candy Machine…”

Sam: “Lync, Christopher Robin… We played with them on the same night!”

Will: “Yeah, it was at the Velvet Elvis in Seattle… Wait, wasn’t Candy Machine out there on tour too?”

Sam: “Yeah, it was us, Hush Harbor, Modest Mouse, Christopher Robin… Candy Machine, and Lync. It was Lync’s last show. James Bertram got us on that show.”

Will: “Schneider set his drums on fire.”

Sam: “That’s right… What a night! Shout out to Steve and James and Sam and Peter and all those bands.”

Will: “Remember that place we stayed in Portland the next night?”

Sam: ”With the big, brown stain on the carpet?”

Will: “Yeah, and the—”

Sam: “Our host tried to assuage our concerns by saying that it wasn’t shit, it was blood.”

Will: “So, yeah… We played with our heroes, we put out some records, we recorded with Albini… We thought we might do a record for Touch & Go.”

Sam: “But that was never the point.”

Will: “Well, no…”

Sam: “We learned early on that all we could control was the music we were making.”

Even so, you guys are still revered as a band that maintained the underground ethos when everyone around you was groping for the brass ring.

Will: “We appreciate that, but we don’t really deserve it. I mean, this band did more than we ever expected. The records, the tours, the songs… That’s all we wanted.”

Sam: “It’s easy to maintain your integrity when no one is offering to buy it.”

Will: “Besides, some people still think we were uptight curmudgeons, old men before our time.”

I mean, you guys were straight-edge, vegan teetotalers – still are! What do you say to people who think you’re no fun?

Sam: “They say that you have to know the difference between a party and a problem. We never even had a party.”

Bad Flag Dutch

(boxset, Bright Little Light, 2019)

Disc One: Seven-Inch Discography

“Present Tension”

“Fragile Fists”

“Bury the Butterflies”

“Haunted Halo”

“Get Off the X”


“Creeping Tender”

“Max Perlich”

Man Amok:

“Where the Day Goes to Die”

“Good God Gone Bad”

“All the Way Down”

Disc Two: Covers

“Wiser” (Coffin Break)

“Spotlight” (Candy Machine)

“Aluminum Siding” (Crackerbash)

“Bob and Cindy” (Johnboy)

“Speed for Gavin” (A Minor Forest)

“Good Morning, Captain” (Slint)

“Walking the King” (Tar)

“Darjeeling” (Rodan)

“Natural’s Not in It” (Gang of Four)

“A Farewell to Kings” (Rush)

“Huck” (30.06)

“Friend to Friend in Endtime” (Lungfish)

“Windshield” (Engine Kid)

“Fish Fry” (Big Black)

Disc Three: Last Show Live, Fireside Bowl, 1994

“Get Off the X”

“Where the Day Goes to Die”

“Managing the Damage”

“Present Tension”


“Weightless Waitlist”

“Max Perlich”

“Bury the Butterflies”

“Gag Box” (Table cover)

“Fiery Tale”

“Fragile Fists”



“Aluminum Siding” (Crackerbash cover)

“Bob and Cindy” (Johnboy cover)

“Feral Future”

[This story is dedicated to the memory of Sam Jayne.]

ROY CHRISTOPHER is an aging BMX and skateboarding zine kid. That’s where he learned to turn events and interviews into pages with staples. He has since written about music, media, and culture for everything from books and blogs to national magazines and academic journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. As a child, he solved the Rubik’s Cube competitively.


After last call at The Friendly Beast, Celena Lyon picked up the glasses and swept away the straggler barflies while her boss stayed in the back room with his fingers in his ears so as not to hear himself sing. It was a gimmick bar, one meant to capitalize on a long dead fame. In another time, in another part of America, The Friendly Beast wasn’t a bar at all, but a band, fronted by her boss, Riley Holcomb. Riley bristled at the label “country,” but country claimed him, and for the course of one full moon to the next, the country music machine made him a semi-star. While the band didn’t last, The Friendly Beast translated perfectly to a country-themed bar, even if customers sometimes had to squint to find any theme at all. It fit snugly in the space all music rests when it’s lived in too long—the junction where a song about depression could transform into depression. At the end of the night, someone would inevitably load up the jukebox with his songs, and that set Riley in a rage.

“How did I create a bar for old men?” Riley said, bursting out of the back room when the music stopped. “‘Titans of a new sound.’ Spin said we were ‘titans of a new sound in country music.’ Now I serve these arthritic fossils, fingers as stiff as a fourteen year-old’s dick, lifespans as short and disappointing as a fourteen year-old’s dick.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “And I don’t want to alarm you, but I think I might be bad at metaphors.”

“How drunk are you?” Celena asked. “You’re eyes look as red and swollen with blood as—well, I can’t think of it right now.”

Riley leaned against a counter and opened a Cherry Pepsi. Celena thought about how every detail about Riley felt either too old or too young for his age. He put Bryllcream on his shoes, and his breath smelled like watermelon gum. Tonight, he looked older, which he attributed to lack of sleep. His son had started a fight at breakfast because he was unhappy with his birthday. “He was born June 11th, 2002,” he said. “Exactly nine months after 9/11. Says if we humped while the towers were burning, it means we’re unfeeling.”

“Tell him you were doing research for that country song.” Celena rubbed sanitizer into her hands. “You know, ‘I’ll stick my son in your vag, it’s the American way.’”

“He don’t even like country,” Riley said. “I told him pregnancies don’t last exactly nine months.”

“Well?” she said. “Did you screw his mom on 9/11?”

“Who can remember?” Riley said.

“You approach that day differently than the rest of us.”

This was in Baltimore, neither of their homes. Celena came from West Virginia, and while she never saw Riley on stage in person, skinny as a shadow, singing bitter love songs and sappy vendettas, she remembered listening to his music as a girl, staring at the mountains lining her town, mouthing his lyrics as a way of understanding the dark. In that way, Riley, acted like her busted compass, unreliable but pointing her toward home.

The same song that made The Friendly Beast famous wound up unraveling it. Riley’s single “Seek God In Volume” shot up the country charts. It gained a second life almost immediately when a folk trio from Bend, Oregon covered it, removing Riley’s yowling twang and adding a second part to the harmony. The song was a tribute to Riley’s father, a notorious country crooner himself. “Seek God in volume,” was the last thing he said to fifteen year-old Riley before walking onto a stage in Blacksburg, Virginia and shooting himself in front of a horrified crowd.

“There is a home for little boys who lie each time they pray, the uninitiated call it hell/It’s not as bad as advertised, just very far away/They can only hear you when you yell.” Riley ends with a chorus with his father’s inexplicable advice. “Seek God in volume/Shout at the sky/Whatever the answer, call it goodbye.”

Country fans liked the song, but they loved the story. Knowing the title was advice from a doomed man gave retroactive weight to the words. Even though Riley was thirty when he sang it, people looked at him like the fifteen year-old keener on the side of his stage, watching his world disappear out of the back of his father’s head. It was dark and halfway pretty, and vague enough for everyone to pretend it was their favorite type of love song. “I’ve almost got a second album,” he told a Nashville DJ. “All that’s missing is for Mom to shoot herself in public, so I’ll have material. I think it’ll be relatable.” People even took that seriously, lauding him as a troubled kid of bottomless depths, a broken mirror reflecting hard truths.

He almost rode that image into a noble obscurity, but then came the song’s third life, its dark life. A young couple in Pittsburgh taped themselves singing the song to each other before holding hands and leaping off the Roberto Clemente Bridge. They left their camcorder running, and it was twenty minutes before anyone thought to turn it off. The song played on repeat on a portable CD player in the background, serving as an explanation. Then within a year, the ukulele player of the folk trio was night-swimming while whiskeyed to the gills, and she caught her foot under a stone. Her friends said she didn’t scream for help, just smiled and ducked her head underwater. Two months after that, a Church Camp bus in Athens, Georgia flipped over, killing four and injuring sixteen. A counselor was videotaping the ride, and the campers were singing “Seek God In Volume” when the driver lost control of his vehicle. The students sang the song tunelessly, as if reciting a catechism, and then the screen turned upside down.

“A cursed song?” Riley said at the time. “Thirty people on that bus and twenty-six survive. If God can’t kill better than 13% of them He’s cursed, then, I’m sorry, He’s lost his fastball.”

By then, it was too late. Rumors spread that it was the favorite song of school-shooters and spree-killers. Even the mentally ill aren’t original. The curse became trendy, so people quoted it in their manifestos, their suicide noes, or their demands to the media. Riley wanted out. “When country singers outlive their career, they open a church, a chicken restaurant, or a bar,” he told Celena. “I love drumsticks and gravy and telling people they’ll rot in hell, but one of those three’s cooler with drinking at work.”

Riley didn’t believe in the curse at first. “I left all that in Nashville,” he said, like he believed in ghosts but not ones that could cross the state line. But twenty years of daily shame had weakened his nerves. When “Seek God In Volume” came on at the end of the night, he’d come out of his backroom depressed and paranoid. “It’s coming right?” he said. “They’re going to roast my ass like a hobo roasts a snow tire.”

“Listen to yourself,” Celena said. “Homeless people burn snow tires for heat or as a protest against the snow tire industry. What’s anybody got against you?”

He worked a crick out of his neck. “Someone’s following me,” he said from the side of his mouth, like he didn’t have the heart to fully open his lips. “Mint green Mustang, purple pine tree air freshener. Didn’t get a look at the driver.”

“Then how’d you see the air freshener?”

He took a piece of paper out of his jacket pocket and unfolded it in front of her. “I found this at my door.” The note read, “I Know. You Know. Everyone Knows.” Next to the words was a drawing of a stick-figure in a necktie bleeding profusely from the nose.

“Is that you with the nosebleed?” she asked. “Are they threatening to give you cocaine?”

“I shouldn’t be laying all this on you.” Riley poured them both a glass of pale ale. “I just need to talk. Believe it or not, there are men in the world who just want to talk.”

“Believe it or not, there are women in the world who don’t want to listen.” She raised her glass in cheers. “That which does not kill us makes us linger.”

“I can’t lose my son,” Riley said. “He’s a teenager, I get it, and teenagers are assholes, but he cares about everything, takes it all personal, like he feels too much. He’s like the polar opposite of an asshole.”

Celena leaned forward. “An ass-pile?”

Riley tapped the note. “This is what they can’t forgive. I’ve been a bad husband, a bad friend. I 86’d The Friendly Beast when the rest of the band needed money. For all that, this is what they’ll kill me for. I wrote that song. They won’t be happy until I see Dad’s body each time I close my eyes. Hear the echo of the shot, the way his band kept playing for a split second. That’s the only way I can undo this curse.”

“There are no curses,” Celena said. “There’s only us.” She squeezed the back of his knuckles. It sounded right, but she was lying. Of course he was cursed.

In her home in West Virginia, her parents played music constantly. These were traditional ballads, ones older than America. The meanness of the songs stuck with Celena. Not only did Barbara Allen die of bitterness, but the world saw the thorn growing from her heart. A ghost returns to steal his wife from her house carpenter husband, and only after she agrees, he reveals he’s taking her to hell. A Civil War Captain tells the girl he loves, who hesitates in loving him back, “If ever I return, all your cities I will burn.” In their world, love wasn’t pleasant—it’s what kept the monster chained an inch away from the damsel’s face. Celena didn’t think these songs were cursed as much as they were curses—small hatreds turned beautiful.

“Your songs used to scare me,” she told him. She remembered the fuzzy radio turned low, whispering his voice as she stared out the window, at the moon lighting the mountaintops. “I didn’t know about the bullshit that followed, but hearing you sing in an accent like mine, it made me want to stay inside and turn on all the lights. In the mountain darkness, even the quiet has fangs.”

Riley looked up and past her. “I never wanted anyone to stay inside. No one writes songs where the moral is to stay inside. That’s not how I wanted it to end.”

His lips were stained with red wine and dead skin. Her own voice was still ringing in her skull. Darkness is different in the mountains, she thought. So is silence. It doesn’t feel like a sound or a sight, more like a waiting, like you’ve stepped in the center of an enormous jaw about to snap shut. Maybe that’s what Riley’s father meant by “Seek God In Volume.” Whatever drowns out that endless yawp of the mountains, that constant lip-licking threat, that’s where you’ll find God.

She thought of Riley’s son. He said he didn’t want to lose him, but people are never lost. They’re obliterated, deformed, revealed, abandoned, but never lost. The body leaves ink, and ink turns to evidence.

Celena had no kids of her own, but she’d been pregnant once. During those nights, with one foot in her dream, she’d tell herself, Everything is doubled now. Your body has two hearts, two livers, two bloodstreams, and two brains working at two different purposes. In the fight against extinction, numbers are our only weapon. That’s all Riley was suffering from, a desire for the double-life. One life where his song was forgotten and blameless; one life where his song was powerful enough to crack the sky. One life where he felt everything, like his son, and one life where he felt nothing, like his father.

She remembered her comic books when she was a girl. The traveler to Mars would see two moons, one on either side of the sky. Who wouldn’t want the double-mooned night? One to follow and one to light the path. To always be leaving and always returning. If all we have is life, why not heap it on our plate? God grant us our gluttony.

She felt a distant desire to sing. It didn’t matter which song, just something loud and clear that was impossible to explain there’s only one moral to any song—to survive long enough to be the singer and not the subject. The world will destroy what it can’t quiet, so use a breath to make melody, and the bystanders will mistake it for survival.

WILLIE DAVIS, from Whitesburg, Kentucky, is the winner of The Willesden Herald Short Story Prize, The Katherine Anne Porter Prize, and a fellowship from The Kentucky Arts Council. His fiction has appeared in The Guardian, Salon, The Kenyon Review, and The Berkeley Fiction Review. He is the author of the novel Nightwolf. 




We wanted to go for a swim but the pond was an oval of green slime. A suspicious fog was rolling in but the real problem was the river, which had turned to poison. In a week we would see entire schools of dead fish floating downstream, their white bellies turning in the black water like a line of moons slipping across the sky. But we didn’t know any of that yet. We had our whole lives ahead of us. One by one we stepped through the barbed wire fence and took our places among the cows.

Originally from Michigan, Brad Liening currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’s the author of Deep State Come Shining (PS Hudson).




How to pick a lock, hotwire a car, climb a rope of smoke uncoiling from the muzzle of a gun. How to attend if not conduct an autopsy without throwing up. How to arrange photos of prime suspects in a kind of mosaic on your office or even living room wall. How to take a beating with casual grace, dispose of a corpse so it won’t ever be found. How to evaluate a shipment of heroin just by rubbing a fingertip dipped in the powder on your gums. How to dress for chilly scenes of winter, do good by behaving alarmingly bad, crack wise while actually crying inside. How to function on a regimen of vending machine coffee and no sleep. How to be a closet alcoholic, a recovering alcoholic, a violent alcoholic. How to pursue vengeance with the relentlessness of a cancer cell. How to endure the world reflected in a dead man’s eye.

HOWIE GOOD’S latest poetry collection, Gun Metal Sky, is due in early 2021 from Thirty West Publishing.