Tombstone Blues

Tombstone Blues

I got it but my sister did not. Did something konk out from a fever I got? I’ve never known for sure, just that one day when I was eight and my grandparents and cousins were all over to our house for my uncle’s famous Taco Nights I got really really thirsty, I even thought it was funny, joking to my dad about how the water was so good I needed more, more. And more. And how everyone else thought it was funny until it was odd. My mom took me to the doctor the next day, just in case, and next thing I knew she was driving fast to a hospital and not smiling—she stopped smiling for months—and I stayed there three nights, scared, with strangers poking me with needles, though I liked being the center of attention and having a fun bed that I could raise and lower with a remote control. Until I realized I would be getting shots, “pokes,” every day. Four times a day. For the rest of my life. No matter how loud I screamed, —It isn’t fair!

After what happened in Portland I wasn’t ever going to do another concert. I couldn’t play music, period. I have always made performing at the Type 1 Concert a priority every year for the last thirteen years. It’s mostly country music because Jared Tyson started it and that’s who he knows around him but he invited me after the first year when he read about me in an interview and I’ve been the semi-less-famous female alt-country punk-bluegrass americana counterpart mostly, depending on which act or singer he can get to come and my status and billing have varied and lessened as my record sales have varied and lessened. The concert helps raise money and awareness for type 1 diabetes with tables out front next to the t-shirts where people can donate towards both a cure and even finding out what really causes it.

After what happened in Portland, Jared called me himself to ask me to play again, which was sweet, and said maybe it might help, and that’d he’d play mandolin with me. But I knew if I played again that it would happen again and that it would be my fault. Again. I was scared and thought—believed—that I did not deserve anything. I had retreated to my casita in Santa Fe and basically sobbed all the time, sobs so powerful my ribs ached. In fact, at one point early on I had stopped doing my pokes, stopped eating anything, just laying on my futon in a half-not-sleep and had gone into a coma by the time my sister flew in from Phoenix to check on me because I wasn’t answering my phone. I could have died. I felt—sometimes now even still feel—that I should have.


Punk rock has always saved me. When I was a carefree middle-class white teenager in Ann Arbor I had a carefree middleclass white guitar player boyfriend who I worshipped and thought would be famous. I was always over at his house—his mom loved me—listening to his CDs and giving him blowjobs and watching him tinker on his Telecaster making weird noises with his effects pedals. His favorite band was Sonic Youth, known sort-of as a ‘noise band.’ I’d gone with him to see them live at St. Andrews Hall in Detroit. Up until then I thought playing music was for dudes and that I would be the loyal groupie-girlfriend. But then I saw Kim Gordon, their bass player. So when Boyfriend started a new band and they needed a bass player, I said, I’ll do it. And my beloved boyfriend, because his favorite band had a girl bass player, and because he actually liked me maybe, said ok. Fortunately, since they were a noise band too, being ‘good’ wasn’t a prerequisite. All I really had to do—all I did that first practice—was thump-thump-thump on the open A string along with the drummer while the two guitar players made weird spacey noises using their effects pedals and feedback from their amps. For twenty minutes. And then we did it in E slightly faster and that was another song.

Eventually two things happened: One, I got bored thump-thump-thumping and started diddling around, playing different notes and rhythms and became a (little bit) better bass player. Two, the two guitar player dudes brought in really bad lyrics and sang really badly. Which made me think, hm, I could do that. Kim Gordon sang songs too (all of Sonic Youth’s best one’s). They couldn’t really say no.

Boyfriend got us a gig at the Blind Pig, where we’d seen and heard actual bands with actual records on actual tour, as well as lots of bad, though sometimes good, local acts. The bad ones were the best inspiration because even though I was scared to get on stage, I knew if those bad bands could do it I at least couldn’t be as bad as them. And we did alright. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the people standing in front of the stage so either stared at the floor (I was the original shoe-gazer) or I stared out over them into the dark.

And it was good. The rest of high school, two years, we played a gig every month or two, at The Blind Pig, or The Heidelberg, or over in Detroit. Even St. Andrew’s. I was no longer the nerdy comic book girl with the weird diabetes thing. I was a rock star. Sometimes even the cool girls talked to me. We recorded our own tape, an EP, with three songs. The one in A, the one in E, and my song.

In the meantime, between blowjobs, I got Boyfriend to teach me guitar. Like, chords. Open chords and power chords. And I dug out my dad’s old Martin acoustic which he never played. My mom was so happy she signed me up for lessons, but I didn’t like how the instructor-dude talked down to me and stared at my tits. I lasted a month, but got some basics about measures and rhythms. The thump-thumps were eighth notes.

Senior year the band imploded. Boyfriend fucked a skanky ho from Ypsilanti who dyed her hair black and wore fishnets all the time. I actually thought she was hot which made it worse. Years later he said that I gave way better blowjobs than her which took me years, decades, to stop taking pride in. We were going to different colleges anyway, all four of us, but especially me and Boyfriend. None of us got into U of M, we weren’t that smart. He went to Eastern and I ended up at MSU. We had talked about keeping the band together, playing weekends or something. But no. He fucked the skank.

And so when I went off to East Lansing I took not my bass, which was actually his all along, but Martin, my acoustic guitar. Acoustic is not punk, but I thought I was over punk. I still loved Patti Smith—always will—and I still loved loud music—always will—but I was a girl and would never get in another band unless I had another boyfriend who was in a band. I knew that and I wasn’t going to do some Go-Gos thing. But all summer of swooning in sadness for not-wonderful Boyfriend caused me to write some swooning sad lyrics about being swooning sad and that was what I was going to do: write songs. I was going to be a poet and a singer like Patti Smith. So I became an english major and took french so I could eventually read Rimbaud in his original language.

Fortunately there was nothing better to do in East Lansing. I obviously wasn’t the sorority type, and I didn’t want to go to frat parties and I didn’t like sports. I took one music theory class. Otherwise I read a lot of poetry, since I figured that song lyrics were poetry. And I bought a Beatles songbook because who would be the best songwriter that I could learn from? I mean, yeah, Patti Smith, but like, who would be the acknowledged songwriters that everyone goes, oh yeah, them. Well, the Beatles. Unfortunately, I soon learned that Beatles songs were pretty complicated, lots of chords, especially barre chords, which my left hand wasn’t strong enough to play all the time yet. But I sang along to all the Beatles albums. My roommate Kelly and I, that’s all we would do, play Beatles and sing, trying to do the harmonies. She was great until she found out I liked girls.

But who else was considered a great songwriter? Well, Bob Dylan. My mom even had some old LPs of his, which I listened to while back on Thanksgiving break. I’d heard his stuff on the radio sometimes, Everybody must get stoned!, and always thought he had a terrible voice—still do kinda—but I sat down with my Dylan songbook and listened to Highway 61 Revisited, reading along with the lyrics and watching the chord changes. Some of the songs were actually punk as fuck, like “Tombstone Blues,” all minimal chords and fast and sloppy. And that harmonica was noise, an obnoxious fuck-you to anybody getting too sentimental about an acoustic guitar. I tried the chords and I could play them, and if it was sloppy so what so were the songs. First along with the record, over and over, then on my own. Sorry Patti, Bob’s the one who taught me guitar.

From Bob it was on to Johnny, and from Johnny back to the Carter Family where I learned acoustic music can be dark. And my first girlfriend, She of the Golden Dreadlocks, turned me on to beloved Janis Joplin, and The Grateful Dead. My second girlfriend, Tragic Goth, got me tragically into The Smiths.

Meanwhile I was crashing and burning in my classes. I liked reading. I just never figured out how to write about what I was reading. I didn’t realize you were supposed to regurgitate what the professor said. Reading a poem made me want to write a poem. The only thing I did decently in was French, so I switched to a French major, which wasn’t any better since I still had to take literature classes, so I dropped out and moved to Louisville, Kentucky. Because why not. Because I heard singer-songwriters were there. That there might be an americana-ish music scene there.


What happened in Portland was I was playing a concert at a place called the Crystal Ballroom. No seats, you stand and watch the band and there’s a bar in back by the main stairs coming up and there was a young woman there named Corrine celebrating finally breaking up with her abusive boyfriend, who had beaten and stalked her and threatened to kill her and himself many times and had made her quit college to be with him. He came to the show with a Glock and two extra clips.

We were in the middle of “Take My Whiskey”. I heard what I thought was drums, a snare drum, and thought at first the drummer from the opening band was out there banging on it, which annoyed the fuck out of me, but people at the back of the scrum moved oddly and people in front were turning around. Crouching. Running. I stopped playing, we all stopped playing except for Pete our drummer who couldn’t hear or see at first and Kayleigh our fiddler yelled, —Run!

I froze. Staring out into the dark shadows and bodies moving. Bursts of light. I couldn’t connect. People screaming. Chris, my guitar player, hooked me by one arm pulling left towards the stage stairs, but both our guitars still connected to our amps, which jerked us down on our sides, me right on my guitar. Chris got up and pulled Martin off and carried me behind the PA speakers. The hall had a second back entrance near the stage which everyone was trying to get out of. Right before that was the backstage door and Chris headed through it. I followed and other people followed us in. I knew I was going to die. Trapped back in there. The green room lounge wasn’t that big. I ran down the back hall to one of the bathrooms. Other people followed, kept coming in, begging whoever not to shut the door. I went into the stall and put myself in the farthest corner behind the toilet. The stall filled. We twitched and jerked with each shot and a teenage girl held herself against me saying over and over ohmygodohmygod. People with phones called 911 or family. Whispered I-love-you-s on phones. One guy yelling above everybody, —We’re in back! We’re trapped!

The shots stopped. Which I knew meant the shooter was coming into the lounge.

There had already been some police outside the club because of the concert and all the people on the sidewalk. Once they saw people running out, even before they got the call from 911, two pushed up the stairs through people flooding down three minutes after the first shot. The shooter had enough time to reload twice. He was in the middle of the room shooting people trying to make it out the back door when the two officers entered and yelled for him to put the gun down. He turned, smiling is what people said, aimed at them and they shot.

He went down, dropped his gun, grabbed it again and as the officers ran up to him he put the gun to his head and fired his last shot.

He killed eight people. Wounded twelve. Another eighteen suffered injuries from falling or being stepped on trying to get out. When police finally led us from the back room they tried to block our view. But I saw. Bodies on the floor.


A bunch of wonderful people, starting with my sister, brought me back to Santa Fe. She set me up with a therapist in town, Marsha. I couldn’t have afforded it—I’ve never made that much money ever, though blessed enough to eek a living from my songs (I’ve made more money from other people doing my songs than from my own albums) and Marsha ended up giving me a discount. She got me on anti-depressants and helped me off them when I didn’t want to feel like a zombie anymore. And she got me to try meditation up the canyon at Upaya Zen Center. For about a year all I did was get up early (which I’d never done before in my life, voluntarily), sit quietly in the dark with them, then work in their garden all day, or cut vegetables or mop the floor. Anything to keep busy with my hands and not my mind and not having to talk much, or at all. Then I’d sit in the evening and walk home and collapse in sleep. I was still a zombie. Living dead girl.

But punk rock saved me in the form of Derrick, an old Santa Fe musician friend, who’d been in an actual punk band, The Black Holes, back in the 90s. After they broke up he reinvented himself as a bluegrass-americana guitarist, though he could play anything from blues to funk, and had. He’d been my guitar player on a couple tours. Great musician. Great guy. He showed up to my casita one evening, waiting for me when I walked back from the zen center. We hugged. I apologized for not calling him. Not calling anybody. I invited him in for cinnamon tea.

The Black Holes, or the two surviving members, were getting together for a small reunion tour and the bass player they’d lined up had had to cancel at the last minute. He said he needed me. Someone he could count on. And trust. He used all the right words. If he had just asked I would have said no. He knew that. And he didn’t give me time to think about it, since the tour started in a week.

I said yes. Smiling and crying. I said I didn’t want my name listed, or mentioned. Which worked out fine since the Holes all used the last name Hole for stage names, like the Ramones. That’s the first time I remember laughing in while, telling my sister I now was just a Hole.

Derrick loaned me his Precision bass, Red Sonja, and when I put her on for our first and only rehearsal she felt good, heavy, slung way down to my knees. I didn’t have to worry about chords or singing, just thump-thump-thump to drums and noise and loudness and energy. Exactly what I needed. Good ole sloppy feedback and sweat.

Our first gig down in Albuquerque only had about forty people, a mix of grey-haired former punks and some younger ones. Scared, my heart slamming in my chest when we went on, I stayed back by my amp and stared at the door in back, expecting it. But our drummer Geoff tapped out the 1-2-3-4 and I couldn’t let the music down, so I lowered my head and played.

And it was good. Real good.

Halfway through the month-long tour of the west coast and Japan, where The Black Holes had been huge, word got out that I was on it, and I was being recognized. I started to look up while playing, and stepped up to the mic to yell back-up on the choruses. For the last couple of shows in Japan, at Derrick’s smiling suggestion, I even sang the encore, our punk version of “The Tombstone Blues.”


After the tour, back at my casita, the first song eventually, slowly, manifested. Corrine’s. For her. From her. I had read everything, every article about her, watched her parents interviewed. I listened to her. I said I was sorry, over and over. I wanted to give her a gift but she gave one to me. Which destroyed me. Over again.

Eight songs is a usual number of songs for an album, and at some point I became aware that I would sing all of their songs. Of the dead. I couldn’t do everyone who had been touched, scarred, but the eight needed to be sung. I knew nothing about them. I went back to Portland, a friend let me catsit for a month, and found families and friends. I didn’t record them or take notes or even talk too much except to ask questions like, What were they like? It was painful. But no one said no.

I even went back to the Crystal Ballroom. The manager let me in during the day—just gave me the key and said to stay as long as I needed. I walked up those stairs and through the front door and stood in that large dark room. It had of course been cleaned and fixed though, I felt, not sanctified. I sat in the shadows with the ghosts and cried and screamed all over again. I went into the bathroom, that stall, on my knees, and puked until only green foam came out. I flushed, and cleaned up my mess. I didn’t want anyone to have to deal with that. Then I cleaned myself and looked in the mirror. I looked like a skeleton.

The other songs came. The other voices. I was afraid they would all sound the same, be the same story, I was a good person, then I was murdered. But no. Some came in first person, in their voices. Some came in third person, stories. Not even about them being killed, not all of them. Some came in bits, or a rushes of words and chords. Echoes. They spoke to me and I am so grateful.

I denied for the whole time the idea that had come to me almost from the beginning, that nine songs would go on an album too, and that there had been a ninth person who died that night, and that his story, his song had to be sung. I did not want to, because I hated him and was scared of him and didn’t want him to haunt me anymore. But his song was part of the larger song.

His parents wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t talk to anyone as far as I could figure out. I don’t blame them. For that. I found his Facebook page, found his friends, or people he had friended, because I’m not sure he had friends, and read what they were saying to each other about what happened. Reached out, wrote on his wall, asking for anything that would help me understand. People responded, but I never did. Understand. Not completely. I opened myself up to his voice, trying to find something human in him. That was not pleasant. There were bits. But I’m not sure he was a whole human.

I got a lot of criticism for including his song on the album. People were angry and hurt all over again. Said I had betrayed the others by doing it. That I was glorifying him and what he’d done. But I think his voice should not be forgotten. That there might be something there. To learn from. I’m not saying he was misunderstood. He was obviously mentally not there. But to try and understand that mindset, and what I could have done differently to save everyone. Because deep inside I felt the whole incident was my fault. I wanted to understand that. I spent weeks going back to Carter Family records to try and find some way to write him. From them, like in their “Banks of the Ohio,” I realized that I shouldn’t try to find any explanation, but to just have him describe what he did. Which I did. And I still don’t understand it. I will never sing him live, or ever again, though. A Swedish death metal band, Black Blood, did a cover of the song. That’s fine. Let them invoke the ghost. The demon.

I called my good friend David, another local musician, who has a home studio in his house out in Madrid, a small town near Santa Fe, out past the prison. I needed to get all the songs down, to hear the recorded versions, just me and Martin, to see how they might come together around a band. David, bless him, opened his place to me when I wanted and overdubbed some mandolin and fiddle parts when I asked. His wife Karen fed me on breaks and kept a pot of green tea ready at all times.

I sent copies of the demo to my management and to John the owner of Nowhere Records who put out my last three records. He called the day after he got it and said he wanted to put it out, as is, to keep the starkness of the songs. And that became Songs of the Dead, my most popular album ever.

I could never have taken the money. I already had the guilt that my previous albums had a bump in sales after what happened. I, and John did too, put all the money earned from Songs of the Dead into a fund set up for the victims and survivors of the Crystal Ballroom shooting. Which was not, could never be, enough. And was forgotten after the next shooting. And the next.

I was not sure I was ever going to perform, solo, again. I was forty-six, I told myself, time to retire, even though playing live is how I’ve managed to keep earning a living now that people just listen to stuff for free online. I was scared. And guilty. I knew it would happen again. Because I felt the shooting had been my fault. And I knew that I would die the next time. That there would be a next time. And people would hate me. Did hate me. That I could never look at an audience again without sobbing.

But when Jared called again to invite me to play the Type I Concert again, I said yes. I would try it. I got together a new band, and Jared would come out to play mandolin for the last two songs, but first I had to go out there alone. Just me and my guitar to play some of those people’s songs. I asked Jared not to introduce me. I just walked out in the Phoenix sun, still expecting to get shot. Or booed. Or for people to say nothing. To leave. Turn their backs. Instead, they stood and clapped and cheered. I leaned into the microphone and said, —Hello. This one is from Corrine.


About the Author

Born in Puerto Rico, John Yohe lives in Colorado. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, wilderness ranger and fire lookout. Former Fiction Editor for Deep Wild: Writing from the Backcountry.


Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash