Hillary Susz: Shine on Crazy Diamond
by Hillary Susz
A girl walks into a bar, her lips red as can be, finds the manager and says, “I’m the entertainment tonight.” In Ventura a man cackled while moving his hips as if he were spinning an invisible hula-hoop. He belched, “You going to strip for us tonight?” His teeth matched his tequila. I could feel his eyes looking through my clothes. “Just you wait!” I exclaimed. Times like these I want to go chop wood with my guitar. But that man placed a trembling $100 bill in my tip briefcase after the set. Drama—you just don’t know what’ll happen next.
I traveled 3,000 miles through Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Utah, and Idaho for five weeks; performing 30 shows. I planned this trip with artist and producer Tommy Trzcynski Couling of the band Black Tommy.
I was lighting a congratulatory post-performance cigarette outside the Wild Buffalo the first time Tommy and I met. He told me he wanted to record my songs as his flame flew into the wind, like a sparkler.
This is an example of the image or myth we uphold as musicians—adventurers, guitar smashers, black booted bad assess with Jack Kerouac’s wind floating through our hair. However, when you really push yourself down the highway of your dreams, that myth continues to bloom in complexity, transcending your preconceived notions, creating its own life, and you become a mere detail in that delusional plant. People will casually say that the music business is strange and those people have no idea. The music business is a carnival; every night you fight the lion.
In Eugene, Oregon Tommy looked me in the eye as he improvised lines like the last time I was this desperate I lost everything I had. The road had swallowed him. He was done. Upon this news, I fled the large yellow co-op house where we lodged, walked through a nearby graveyard, and let the spirit of death fill me with failure. But unlike all of those tombstones, I got to walk out of there alive. I had to finish what I started.
I continued driving south alone. Next stop California.
I spent the night with a high school English teacher’s friend from high school. That was a mouthful. His name is RV; it’s not his real name. RV and his girlfriend are editors of a niche magazine called Sac Alternative which covers local medical marijuana production and distribution and is funded by grow operation advertisers. Entering RV’s house, he told me to help myself to his bong. At another time in my life I would have ripped that thing like a crazed saxophonist, but I humbly smiled, “I don’t smoke.”
So people always ask me the same questions—“Where are you going? Where are you from? What is your music like? Who are your influences?” They are loaded questions. I can’t answer honestly. Said strangers then confirm “you’re brave” or “you got gumption.” I bobble my head confidently to those types of plastic euphemisms. Refreshingly, RV didn’t wrap any plastic, didn’t gloss any polish. He told me that I was insane while he laughed maniacally out burps of smoke from another “nail in his coffin,” as he put it.
That night I performed with a wavy California rock band singing songs about bikinis and whisky sun sets. The following afternoon I was scheduled to perform at the downtown Plaza. RV went with me, ready for a bizarre corporate experience. He later wrote an article about how the mall had been cut off from its life support. There was no power source on the stage and every other shop was vacant, out of business. I was so offended by the experience that I left without performing or paying for parking. From the mall I drove straight to my cousin’s house in San Jose.
Along my trip, I visited three members from the Orlich side of my family—my mom’s cousin Lyn, my great Aunt Honnie, and my Grandpa O. The Orlichs emigrated from Yugoslavia via the bottom deck of a steam boat during the early 20th century and are proud to remind you of this. I am the third generation of some very orthodox Serbs.
“This family, Hillary” Lyn paused, blinking hard and serious “is comprised of some very strong women.” She illustrated stories I’ve heard over and over about walking miles to school, slaughtering farm animals, sharing your cot with your sisters, stomping barefoot on cabbage, and canning for the cold winter. Lyn concluded, “What you’re doing, Hillary, is really something. You’re an Orlich, built strong and brave.” This speech was no surprise coming from Lyn, a certified life coach dream team leader. When you ask her what she does for a living she says, “Basically, I help people achieve their dreams.” Lyn is a retired Disney employee.
In San Luis Obispo I snuck into hotel hot tubs with couch surfer captains, two boys and one girl. I’ve forgotten all of their names. The boys were passing a joint and talking about the stars. They weren’t making sense, and as steam and chlorine rose off all our bodies, I wondered what it would feel like to jump out an airplane. Later, driving, I saw a flock of parachuters, each dressed in a different primary color, falling like drops of paint along the highway. Nobody was in the car to hear me say how strange that was.
When you’re by yourself for several weeks, you get desperate, willing to have a conversation with anyone about anything. In Flagstaff, a young man, younger than me, approached me proclaiming how profoundly my performance had impacted him. He huffed, “I really get it, I mean, all the drug descriptions, they were spot on!” In the back of my brain I was beginning to try on costumes. What character will this guy buy something from? My songs are mainly fictional. I’m not out raging, holding adventure at gun point. I spend my time working, reading, and writing. In my free time I catch my girlfriend singing and those are the happiest moments of my life. He went on, “The last time I did acid, I called my mom, and we talked for days! I love talking to my mom on acid. I can tell that she really loves me, you know?”
Well this was a turn of events. I expected him to talk flowers, colors, and clouds like other hallucinogen enthusiasts. I tried not to crunch my forehead in confusion. I pulled out a chair and sat. “I like doing mushrooms and taking my dog on long hikes.” I don’t have a dog. “It makes me feel like I’m nine years old with my best friend, the childlike clarity of not knowing what year it. It’s like I’m out exploring the only afternoon that has ever mattered.”
After Flagstaff I visited the Grand Canyon and Zion. I was disappointed by how I wasn’t infused by that childlike high I made up nights before. Approaching that massive glacially carved wonder didn’t reshape my spirit any. Languages from all around the globe floated past and I moved on.
I drove on through the Grand Canyon, north through red rock Indian land, and when I didn’t pass a sign for 200 miles, I started to panic. Where am I? When I stayed with my Grandfather in Tucson, he told me that he and his mother traveled to Croatia in the 80s to visit the motherland. He described his mother’s sister’s house as “a one room shack with dirt floors lit by one lamp that dangled by a cord”. I was sitting at his grand piano as he told me this, its mahogany cooled by the air conditioning. “The one thing I kick myself for”, my grandpa said, “Is that I was embarrassed to speak Serbian. I refused to. I lost the language completely”. As I drove further into the red mountain, I lost all the words for who I was. I pulled over and rested my forehead on the steering wheel. I felt like I was a ghost on someone else’s land, and this marked the first time I felt what it meant to be American.
Read more at hillarysusz.com.