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The Great Big No

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FIRST KNIGHT

By Dax Shantau, staff writer

January 23, 1998

“Hey, I had my first threesome there!” This is the response from a senior editor (who shall remain nameless) when I tell him where I’m meeting Kylo Ren, dark lord of The Knights of Ren. We meet in the fabled West Village apartment of Ren’s parents, Millennium Falcon guitarist Han Solo and folk singer- turned-record-exec Leia Organa six weeks before the band’s sophomore album, Starkiller, is set to drop.   He prefers this to meeting at a bar or restaurant, not for privacy, but because he’s a California kid who “loves this town but hates this fucking weather.” 

He stalks about the apartment barefoot, in black jeans and a grey sweater with thumb holes cut in the sleeves. Tall and dark but not particularly handsome, Ren is the kind of guy you’d think picked up a guitar because it was the only way he could ever meet girls.  Spend a few minutes in his presence, however, and you’ll see that he floats around in a cloud of dark charisma.  Not the kind born from being charming or well-spoken--to be frank, he is neither of those things—but there is a draw, nonetheless, that has attracted scores of girls to his band’s music.

No, ladies, the apartment isn’t in the bell tower of a gothic cathedral, nor is it furnished in black leather and industrial lighting.  Despite the theatricality of the typical Knights of Ren concert, which feature masks and 1980s hair band caliber pyro, Ren’s apartment is almost painfully typical, down to the exposed brick, warehouse windows, and built-in shelving stuffed with books and vinyl.  I even spy a cappuccino machine that looks to have been used a few times.

What’s less typical about the apartment is its pedigree. His parents purchased the top floor of the former boot factory in 1965 and in the years before their son’s birth in 1973, the couple hosted the type of parties that have become legend in downtown lore.  Mention this address to anyone who was any part of the 1960s New York rock scene, and they’ll have a story.   I break the ice by telling him about my editor’s threesome, in the loft’s master bathroom.

“Yeah,” he says.  “People tell me those stories all the time. That or how much they wanted to bang my mom. They forget I was a kid here. That I was her kid.”

I express some surprise that he still has access to the loft.

“It’s in my name. It was an eighteenth birthday present, way before all that went down.”

“All that” is his defection from his mother’s Resistance Records five years ago, halfway through recording The Dagobah System’s first full length album.  Dagobah’s first EP, Bright Blue Glow, had unexpectedly gone platinum on the strength of the jangly alt-country infused “City in the Sky,” and the LP was anticipated to catapult the band and the label to the next level.

After Ren’s abrupt departure, Resistance released the album as an eponymous EP in 1994. It performed phenomenally, but, unable to find a strong new lead singer, the band dissolved in early 1995.  Ren relinquished all royalty rights as part of his settlement and legally changed his name from Ben Organa-Solo to Kylo Ren.

He has never talked about the split, or his current relationship with his parents or his uncle, legendary record producer Luke Skywalker, who retired soon after the EP’s release.  Some speculate that Ren chafed under his uncle’s more structured process.  The band had put Bright Blue Glow together in Ren’s parents’ home studio during their senior year of high school, only going to the label for help with distribution and promotion. Skywalker is known for his tight scheduling and strictly proscribed recording process.

Others will point out that this theory doesn’t make sense, as Ren signed on immediately with First Order Records, run by notorious Svengali Alistair Snoke. The former airline mogul launched the careers of three of bestselling boybands of the 1980s, his success attributed to his absolute control over all aspects of his groups’ personal and professional lives.  As the boyband craze died, Snoke shifted his focus to rock bands and the occasional hip hop artist, eventually transitioning from manager to label runner in 1991. Ren has known Snoke since he was a boy.

When asked how much influence Snoke had on his quitting The Dagobah System, Ren sighs loudly and stares at a distant point past my head. I repeat my question. 

“Is this really what this interview is supposed to be about?”

I move on, asking about the album. Any future questions about Snoke or his old band are met with silence. On my end it feels tense, but he is strangely patient, as though he could wait until doomsday for me to move on.

At press time, Starkiller’s first single, “Darkside Blues,”  is certified platinum, and the video has reached number one on TRL ten times.  Quite a feat when you consider that *NSync and the Backstreet Boys both have singles out.  The album is projected to go gold in its first week.

Ren describes Starkiller as a classic one-producer concept album, dealing with the pitfalls of fame.  He fully recognizes that it’s well-trod territory, and hand waves my concerns about how his fans will relate.

“Okay yeah so I grew up in Pacific Palisades, mostly. My first girlfriend was a super model and I’ve never had a real job. I had my first platinum album when I was nineteen. What else am I supposed to write about? But really, none of that matters because some things are universal.  Loneliness, disappointment, your first fuck?  It’s all universal whether you’re in Beverly Hills or Oklahama.”

Continued on pg 23

Rey closes the magazine and rolls her eyes.  The issue is a year old, but had come into the shop with a box of back issues from the 70s.  She’d been drawn in by the cover photo, a close up black and white shot showcasing every flaw on Kylo Ren’s weird face, but she can’t stomach the “poor little rich boy” bullshit she can see coming around the bend.

The magazines need to catalogued before she can price them. She considers tossing this one into the trash, but figures one of his fans may pay a couple of dollars for it, so she enters it into the spread sheet.  The work is second nature, so her mind drifts.  This is usually when snippets of lyrics or melody will come to her, but she keeps thinking about last July, when she spent two hours in Kylo Ren’s dressing room.

The tickets were a nineteenth birthday present from her boss.  Soshanna had likely traded for the tickets, but Rey didn’t care.  Bartering is a fact of life in her small town’s economy. As Soshanna had no use for them, only caring about music so far as how much its memorabilia will bring in, Rey knew that she likely gave up a more valuable trade in order to secure the gift, and that’s what mattered.

It didn’t even matter that Rey hates The Knights’ music. What she does love is The Dagobah System. They only ever recorded ten songs, and Rey was only twelve when Bright Blue Glow came out, but Rey is pretty sure she wouldn’t have made it through middle school, much less high school, if not for those songs. She saw the concert as an opportunity to see the man who’d written them, and maybe even thank him.

Rey has always been adept at talking her way into places, and being a reasonably attractive, thin young woman with a perfect fake ID is a huge advantage when talking your way back stage at shows.  She doesn’t consider herself to be a groupie, even though several of her online music friends are.  She has two main objectives when going back stage at shows: Get her demo in the hands of whoever is the most receptive, and get her hands on whatever is on the catering table.

Most of the time she achieves at least one of these before someone notices she’s there to network and eat rather than do what groupies do.  Sometimes they let her stay because they just like having pretty girls around. Other times she’s been asked none too nicely to leave. A few times she’s learned that sometimes it’s harder to talk your way out than it is to talk your way in.  But she’s always talked her way out.

Last summer, for the first time, she didn’t have to do any talking at all.  While they were waiting for the band to come back for the encore, one of the security guys had come out to where she stood against the rail, handed her a badge, and told her to come with him.  Kylo wanted to talk to her.

Rey knew what that usually meant but she went anyway, following the guard downstairs, through the green room and down a hallway lined with dressing rooms.  He opened the door to the last one and told her to go inside but not touch anything.  The room was larger than her trailer, and better furnished.  There were vanilla scented candles on every surface and a huge spread of food on a corner table.  She sat down in a big white chair and immediately regretted it, as she sank so deeply into it that it would be difficult to stand up again with any grace.  She considered moving to the sofa but froze when voices started filtering down the hall.  She examined her fingernails, trying to affect an air of nonchalance as Kylo Ren entered the room.

He stopped short when he saw her, as though he’d already forgotten he’d asked for her to be delivered to his dressing room.  Exhausted and sweaty, dark hair plastered to his head, he looked younger than in photos. 

“Oh, um.  I need to shower,” he said and passed through into the adjoining bathroom.

Half an hour later he emerged in a cloud of steam, fully dressed, in a pair of worn Levis and a faded black t shirt. 

“Sorry about that.”  He gestured to the corner table. “Hungry?”

“Starving,” she said. Getting out of the chair was as much of a struggle as she’d expected, but the bounty on the table was worth it.  She piled a plate high with fresh fruit and cheese, grabbed a Corona from an ice bucket and perched on the chair arm. Ren leaned against the door jamb and watched her eat.  This probably would have made other girls self-conscious, but Rey can’t afford to be shy when it comes to food, especially free food.

“When’s the last time you ate?” he asked.

“Last night. Had to save up for gas so I skimped on groceries.”  She popped a cube of cheese in her mouth and instantly regretted it.  It tasted like school paste. 

“Something wrong?” he asked. 

“Nothing,” she murmured. She never complained about free food, or any food for that matter.

“It’s vegan cheese.  Takes some getting used to.”

“Oh, of course,” she said, finally swallowing it.  She took a long pull on the beer bottle.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty three.”

“You look younger.  Do you have your ID?”

“Why do you need my ID?”

“You’re in my dressing room. In some states that alone can bring a statutory rape charge.  And even if you’re over eighteen, you’re drinking.”

“Oh, yeah.”  She fished the ID out of her pocket and handed it over. He studied it for a long time, holding it up to the light and running his fingers over it.

“This is a good one,” he looked at it again.  “Rey.  An actual New Mexico driver’s license, with your picture, just a different birth year. Let me see your real one”

“That is my real one.”

“Somehow I doubt it.”

“Why?”

“Just a feeling.”

She sighed and handed him her real ID. 

“Nineteen, only yesterday.”

“Yes.”

“Well, you can stay, but I’ll take that,” he said, plucking the half-finished beer from her hand and replacing it with a bottle of sparkling apple juice.

“Sorry.”

“Did you come alone?”

“Yeah. I gave my other ticket to someone in the parking lot.”

“Gave?”

“Yeah. They were a gift so it didn’t feel right selling it.”

They fell into silence again as she finished the strawberries on her plate.

“How did you like the show?” he said at the same time she asked if he was vegan.

“Yes. Not for ethical reasons, though. I don’t give a fuck about cows.  How did you like the show?”

“Um.”

“You didn’t like it.”

Rey’s pulse quickened and she looked around.  At some point, the guard had closed the door.  She could hear sounds of a party coming from the green room, down the hall.

“Well, I…you see—“

“You’re a Dagobah fan.”

“Yes,” she sighed.

“One of you pops up in the front row every once in a while.  I’ve learned to recognize that determined, martyred look.”

“I just wanted to—“

“Thank me for helping you get through your parents’ divorce or your sister’s death or a bad breakup. I know.”

Rey threw down her plate, which by then only held a few cubes of the nasty fake cheese, and stalked over to him.

“You don’t know the first goddamned thing about me. How dare you anyway? Mocking the fact that people connected to something you wrote? I’d give anything for that, and you throw it away like it’s annoying, like you—you can’t be bothered?  Why? Because it’s not as cool as what you think you’re doing now is?  Fuck you. Fuck The Knights of Ren. Your music fucking blows.”

He stood there as though he was waiting for more, eyes locked on hers, a muscle working in his jaw. She turned to leave.

“Wait.”

“I’m not going to fuck you. I was never going to fuck you. I’m sure there’s someone down the hall who will.”

“That’s not why I asked you in here.”

“Oh so you just wanted to make fun of me.  That’s great. Guess I should be grateful you didn’t want to fuck me and then make fun of me. Or make fun of me and then fuck me.”

“I wanted to talk.”

“Really?” Rey laughed.

“Yes. Please stay.”

In the end her growling stomach made the decision for her, and for the next hour, she sat eating fruit and cashews while he chain smoked clove cigarettes and talked, mostly about music and his grandfather, an obscure country singer from the 1950s who’d died in a car accident at a young age. About ten minutes in she realized that when he said “talk,” he meant that he would talk and she would listen.  He was the first person she’d ever met who was more obsessed with music than she was, but she couldn’t get a word in. Finally, he went to use the bathroom and she slipped out, shoving the jar of nuts and a box of chocolates in her bag on the way.

She didn’t leave her demo. He was not someone she wanted to feel indebted to.

Soshanna peeks her head in and interrupts Rey’s reverie. 

“Rey, sweetie, come help me lock up.  You can finish those tomorrow.”

Her boss has teased her hair blonde hair to higher levels than normal and touched up her makeup. Another date night. 

“Yes ma’am," Rey says. 

 

Driving home through the sunset, Rey has one of those rare moments where she’s grateful for where she lives.  She’s never really been anywhere, but she’s seen plenty of movies and photos, and a few of the tourists that have come through the shop while in town to visit the hot springs have told her that New Mexico is one of the most beautiful places on earth.  The pink and purple sunset works as a balm against the gritty feeling in her eyes and the tired hungry feeling in her bones. She knows she should move closer to town to save money on gas, but she can’t give these drives up.

In her driveway she turns off the ignition on ser AMC Eagle and the engine rattles to a stop.

“Good girl,” she says, patting the dashboard.  “I’ll do that oil change on Saturday, okay?”

The trailer is cold but Rey pulls on another sweater rather than turning on the heater, then digs around in her meager cupboard. The peanut butter jar has been scraped almost clean and there are some oats left.  If she puts the cooked oatmeal in the jar and stirs it, it’ll just about get it all.  That should do for breakfast in the morning.  It’s quick work to grill a tortilla and melt a slice of cheese over it. She thinks about the grilled cheese sandwiches one of her foster mothers used to make with thick slices of commodity cheese and margarine on the bread.  If she thinks hard enough about it she can almost fool herself into thinking her supper tastes like that, even if she doesn’t have any tomato soup.

She takes her plate and a glass of water into the living room and pulls out one of the mail sorting bins that holds her records.  She hasn’t listened to the Anakin Skywalker album since she first bought it, right after her encounter with Kylo Ren.  When she’d researched Skywalker, she’d been surprised to find out he was one of those artists who, while the general public didn’t necessarily know of him, country aficionados adored him, and pro musicians of all genres would cite him as an influence. His music had a haunting, raw quality that had only exacerbated Rey’s loneliness and she’d only listened to side A.  With the sun gone over the mountains, she feels the need to poke at a bruise, so she slides the LP from its sleeve and sets it on the platter.  She stares at the handsome, sad man on the album cover and pictures a straight line running from this plaintive voice to Leia Organa’s soul infused folk rock melodies, taking a quick detour to pick up Millennium Falcon’s southern rock guitar on the way, then winding its way into the loose crunch of the Dagobah System, and she can’t understand how it terminates at The Knights of Ren, who feature both a scratch DJ and a bagpipe player.

As she licks her plate clean, she thinks about what it must be like to not just have a family, but to have a family whose purpose and legacy is so clear. And as much as she understands that you might want to strike out on your own a little, she thinks about Kylo Ren in his comfortable dressing room, with more food than he can eat, and the fact that he has so much choice in what he eats that he can cut out two entire food groups.  She thinks about the fact that he has a family he chooses not to talk to.  She thinks about all of this and she hates him, even though she hasn’t thought about him much in over six months. And she takes that hatred to bed with her, pretending it supplies a semblance of warmth.