INTERVIEW BY CHRIS FARAONE | EXCERPT BY KEN CAPOBIANCO
Having moved to Boston in the early aughts to grow as a journalist, I can say from firsthand jealousy that Ken Capobianco is someone who a lot of music writers looked up to, including me. Rock stars feel comfortable around him and give up the goods in interviews, while his enthusiasm for and expertise in several genres is as honest as his prose. Always covering emerging musicians with the same dignity that he’s brought into conversations with the biggest stars of the past 20 years, Ken has been a major asset to a few scenes, with Boston being one of his seminal stomping grounds.
As it turns out though, Ken’s time in Massachusetts wasn’t as much of a blissful rock and rap adventure as his readers may have thought. For as he was making rounds to clubs and catching bigs like Wu-Tang Clan and every other influential act you can imagine from the ’90s, he was also suffering from severe anorexia. All these years later, with those hard times behind him, Ken has written his first literary novel, the autobiographical Call Me Anorexic: The Ballad of a Thin Man. We asked him some questions about his exceptionally brave feat, and were also fortunate to get an excerpt from a Boston-rooted chapter to accompany the interview.
Did you find that living in or spending time in different cities impacted you differently, as far as the extent to which you were struggling?
Before living in California, where I recovered, I only lived in New York and Boston. Boston was where my life unraveled and I began hardcore starvation. It had more to do with my life circumstances, though, than the city. I was in a toxic living-together relationship I wanted no part of and felt trapped after getting my master’s from Tufts at 23. I wanted to leave Boston and move on but I was getting so skinny, I didn’t have the strength or courage to break off the relationship and move west. I will say that the cold, snow, and everlasting winters in Boston exacerbated my depression—anorexia and depression go hand in hand. The darkness, cold, and snow create unbearable emotional paralysis, which James Joyce understood in his short story “The Dead.” I cribbed the idea of cold and snow as metaphors for paralysis for my novel. Ultimately in real life, I stayed in Boston for 24 years—now, that’s paralysis.
How about in terms of what you were covering and reporting on? Were some things especially hard to cover in your most difficult times?
I was in clubs or at concerts almost seven nights a week. When I wasn’t at shows, I was at the movies but I never ate or drank water during the day, so by 1 or 2 am I was depleted. I just ignored it and pushed on until my body gave out. Then I’d sit in my car on the street and take deep breaths until I got home and ate a blueberry muffin or two or three cookies and go to sleep.
Sometimes, when I had to do interviews over food, I encountered problems because I’d come up with excuses not to eat. I remember meeting Mary J. Blige at a fried chicken place right around her first album, and I didn’t order. She said, “Your skinny ass is not going to watch me eat and talk. You need to order or there’s no interview, honey.” She was laughing, but she wasn’t kidding. I ate a wing, got the interview—an exclusive—and didn’t stop thinking about that wing for a week.
I interviewed Guru in the restaurant at the Sonesta in Cambridge, and he kept saying “You going to eat?” while he talked. I could see he was beginning to squirm, but I just drank Diet Coke. At the end, he asked one of his crew to order me a huge lunch to go. Guru handed it to me, thanked me for asking him real questions and almost begged me to eat once I got home. I felt guilty for making him uncomfortable.
What was it like consuming so much culture—music, movies, live shows—while dealing with these issues?
It’s a cliché to say the music saved me, but as I write in the acknowledgments of the book, the camaraderie of the music community brought me joy and the music helped me plow through the despair. I can still remember watching Rage Against the Machine at Avalon, and even though I hadn’t eaten and was 90 pounds at most, I felt so alive. All the anger at myself and self-hatred was being purged—that might not be a good word with this subject—but it was so cathartic. And that’s how I felt at Wu-Tang, Springsteen, X, Prince, Burma, Morphine, and Husker Du shows. I just lived for the music. Again, it sounds so goddamn trite, but it really helped me transcend all the pain. It still helps me get through bad times. As for movies, that’s where I got lost and dreamed about different lives.
Who was the first person to notice your problem? And/or the first person who you opened up to? How much of an interference with your life and career had your problem become?
Let’s be clear: Anorexia destroyed my career. It destroyed my love life. It destroyed everything in its path. The first person who identified it was a doctor at Massachusetts General right after I got my master’s, but I knew I had a serious problem when I was 21. I had starved for two days while running miles—I was running eight to ten miles a day—and at a late-night screening of The Kids Are Alright about the Who, I lost all motor control and my body seized up. My girlfriend’s sister drove me to the hospital, and the doctor gave me something to eat when he heard I had starved. He never mentioned anorexia. He just told me to stop dieting and eat if I was going to run. From there on, I lived in denial. My girlfriend knew all along, but she couldn’t do anything.
Over the years, though, I turned down jobs in Chicago, Seattle, and DC because I was afraid the move would kill me, and when I got really skinny, I was afraid to interview because I looked like an Edgar Allan Poe character. Who would hire me? Relationships or dating were impossible because women know immediately something is wrong if you don’t eat on the second date. And holding on to my anorexia was much more important than any woman. Halle Berry couldn’t have gotten me to eat.
How many incidents like the one illustrated in your excerpt, with you having noticeable physical issues, were there through the years? Enough that you could count them?
I never hallucinated from starvation or dehydration, but I passed out at concerts a few times. I recall seeing Jill Scott at Avalon when the room started spinning. The next thing I knew, I was being carried by the bouncer through the back of dancefloor into the lobby. He tossed me on the bench next to the coat check and yelled, “What are you on?” I was totally out of it, so like a fool, I told him “On a diet” because I was afraid he was going to call an ambulance. I explained I was anorexic and hadn’t eaten or had any water. He checked my eyes and walked away after I asked for an orange juice. It rejuvenated me momentarily. I walked down Lansdowne and through the Fenway parking lot onto Beacon Street, where I picked up the T to go home. When I got to my apartment, I flopped onto the bed and my first thought was how many songs did I miss? That’s how fucked up anorexia is. You never think, “Maybe I should eat something.”
I also passed out during a Kathleen Edwards show at T. T. the Bear’s Place. I went to get a Diet Coke and next thing I knew there were dozens of people looking at me as the music played. They wanted to call an ambulance but I just walked to my car, which was covered in snow, and waited until I could think straight and drive home.
How much of a help was it to write the book? Was the process as hard at some points as it was helpful?
I had recovered seven years when I began writing it. I could never have written it while I was living it—and I tried—because I was too close. There was no humor or perspective, just anger and pain then. When I wrote the parts where Michael is in physical pain in chapter 3, or when he has a near breakdown in his psychiatrist’s office, I had to stop and leave my desk. The subconscious is a powerful thing, and I found myself feeling dizzy or feeling aches in my arms like I used to. Once I walked to the beach outside our place or sat in m my car with the music loud, though, I was fine. But let’s just say, it was very, very hard work.
I can’t say writing the book helped me with my anorexia, but it most definitely helped me as a writer. I wanted to write a good literary novel with insight and humor. I think I did, and that makes me happy as a writer—something I rarely experience. I had zero interest in a memoir or a self-help book. Too many unqualified people are giving advice these days. Just because you listened to “I Will Survive” doesn’t mean you can give others advice on how to endure life. I have no advice for people other than to get into therapy and figure out your narrative. Each person with an eating disorder needs to figure out his or her own life to get better.
How are you doing now? Physically, but also creatively? You’ve written so eloquently about so many different things through the years. What’s next?
I’m better physically, scarred but better, as I eat meals and enjoy what I eat. But I’m never going to eat a pint of ice cream or a bag of chips in one sitting. I’m also not from the school of “I love myself and my body.” I still want to look like Michael Fassbender, and I live in what Michael calls comfortable discomfort. I’m happily married, love the beach, writing, music, sports, and most importantly, the depression has lifted.
As a writer, I’m at my best right now. I often wonder how I was so prolific—whether I was good or not is for others to decide—while starving and thinking about food 24 hours a day. When the brain is starved you can’t think straight, but I somehow managed to do it. I’m shocked there weren’t food references in my Jeru the Damaja, Maxwell, or hundreds of other profiles.
I still write about music, and I started my next novel. It will be about identity and how we treat each other these days. I want to explore today’s culture of narcissism, and I think the endless confession and advice on social media are ripe for humor, but that’s easy pickings. Expect something about music, sex, and relationships. It surely won’t take seven years this time, though.
The following passage is excerpted from Call Me Anorexic: The Ballad of a Thin Man (courtesy of Ken Capobianco):
When Michael—still reeling from his girlfriend Jessie leaving him—has a setback with his slow recovery after recalling a traumatic incident with his father, he seeks refuge by disappearing from his Allston apartment and wandering around Boston in 2001. His sister-in-law, Monique, part of his support system, has no idea he’s struggling again while she’s taking care of her skin care company in Manhattan.
The only way I managed to survive each day was to escape the silence of the empty apartment and deadly glare of the computer screen. I ended up strolling aimlessly through malls in Watertown and Chestnut Hill. Almost every night, I headed to the movies. On the days without a doctor’s appointment, I went to the Coolidge Corner Theater or hopped between theaters at the Fenway multiplex.
After sessions, I took the T to the Harvard Film Archive and The Brattle Theater in Harvard Square to see double features. It didn’t matter what movies were playing—I sat through Godard, Fellini, Chaplin, Sturges, Mike Leigh, Chris Marker, Herzog, and Jarmusch.
I drew the line at Bergman. Did I really need to see sad, pale people living through a glass darkly? Bergman understood the world’s pain, but he also fucked Liv Ullman throughout all those years. We should all be so tormented.
If I wasn’t hiding out at the movies, my nights ended alone in the corner of the Middle East Upstairs in Central Square. I’d get drowned in sound by a random noisy, brooding Boston garage band.
At the end of the second week of my mindless wanderings, I happened to stumble into the Brattle’s Monty Python retrospective. It took the silly, Spam-loving Brits to pull me out of my rabid rabbit hole. I laughed like a high teenager throughout The Life of Brian and almost joined the crowd singing along to “Look on the Bright Side of Life” during the crucifixion scene.
A Wile E. Coyote sized keg of TNT detonated in my head during The Meaning of Life. And I never saw it coming. Through the spaces between my fingers covering my eyes, I watched the blimp-shaped Mr. Creosote projectile vomiting and eating to the breaking point before exploding. The scene’s grandiose absurdity and outsized slapstick evoked grimaces of disgust and uproarious laughter from everyone in the theater.
As often happens when sitting anonymously in the dark with strangers, I found myself caught up in the communal hysterics. It brought on a strange, wonderful sense of freedom. On the screen was my worst nightmare—an obscenely fat man bursting open from morbid obesity. For years, I’d imagined my waist rupturing after one too many imaginary donuts.
And goddamn it, there I was, watching someone do just that. And yes, of course, it seemed beyond the boundaries of ridiculousness.
I sat amid everyone in the theater—sallow-skinned skinny women, squinty-eyed, chubby men and popcorn eating, finger-licking teenagers—squirming in fits of laughter. The girl next to me had tears of joy running down her cheeks. They were laughing at my most terrifying fear. I stared at the disgusting, vomit-stained restaurant on the screen and thought perhaps my whole life was just one big, fucking joke. The entire crowd was laughing at me. For the first time I wondered if maybe, just maybe, it was time to just laugh along with them.
I wasn’t going to explode like Mr. Creosote.
No one explodes like Mr. Creosote.
It was comical and ludicrous. And it was my life’s obsession. Perhaps the only way I was going to survive was by acknowledging that my very existence had become a sick, self-indulgent farce. Somewhere in a village in Africa, a mother was telling her son, “An adult in Boston is starving because he’s unhappy. He’s unhappy! Those Americans and their unhappiness.”
I left the Brattle dazed and wandered around Harvard Square with the audience’s delirious laughter still ringing in my head. It was like a beautiful morphine dream. In the Massachusetts Avenue music pit, a saxophonist played a slow, sensual take on “Just Like a Woman” while a bearded man with a long, braided ponytail and an acoustic guitar sang “The Ghost of Tom Joad” in front of Au Bon Pain.
While frantically navigating through the crowd of students, I was sure I saw my dad—the thick tufts of black hair and wounded eyes—tossing money in the guitar case. And, for a quick moment—barely a flash—there was Jessie. Her blonde hair gently flowed in the breeze as she walked past a double-parked Hertz truck on J.F.K. Street.
They were there. I saw them.
When I opened my eyes, a woman with thick glasses kneeled before me while holding my wrist. A small group of stern, concerned men and women stared down at me.
“Do you need the police?” the woman shouted. “He passed out. Call the police.”
I was on my back next to the Out of Town News rack in the heart of the Square. “I didn’t pass out, did I?”
“Yes, dear, I watched you go down. You just collapsed. Are you okay?”
The newspaper vendor rubbing his long beard tied in a knot with a rubberband reached down with a bottle of water. I jumped to my feet. “Easy, easy,” he said. “You took a tumble.”
Dozens of eyes were on me as if viewing an animal in a cage. I waved them away after grasping the bottle. “I’m fine. No worries.” Upon finally regaining my balance, I remembered my knees buckling and the black night spinning.
The woman took my arm again to check my pulse. “Your heartbeat is very slow. You sure you are okay?”
A tall, bald policeman placed his hand on my back. “We need an ambulance here? What’s the situation?”
I brushed the dirt off my sweatshirt and shuffled backwards to the T station. “I’m fine. I don’t know what happened. I’m just probably dehydrated. Going to drink the water and head home. Thank you. I appreciate your concern, but I’m fine.”
The cop gave me the obligatory double-check before moving on as the crowd dispersed. I thanked the woman while heading woozily down the escalator into the bowels of the T station. After downing the bottle of water in two long gulps, I waited for the trolley next a homeless man with the sports section of the Boston Globe sticking out of the waist of his gray, checkerboard pants. The last things I recalled before falling were the sound of laughter and Jessie’s face.
On the long slow, numbing ride home, I knew my movie binge had to come to an end—you can only spend so much time in the dark. I had to get a grip on my life again and eat a sandwich. Maybe two.
When I finally arrived at my place at one a.m., there were two messages on my answering machine. I played back the tape while manically scavenging through the refrigerator. Monique’s voice sounded so intimate and fragile like she was sitting near me.
“Michael, where are you? I know you said you’ve been going to the movies, but this is three days now, and I haven’t heard from you. Call me back when you get in whatever time it is. I don’t care. Call me for Christ’s sake. One day, I understand. Three days, no. Call me. I’ve been having a bad feeling about things. I need to know you are alright.”
I picked up the phone receiver to dial her after biting into the dry chicken sandwich I had slapped together. The next voice I didn’t recognize.
“Hi, Michael, this is Kathy Myers from the Northeastern University English Department. I received your resume from Amanda Crosetti. I’d like to see if you could come in for an interview for a writing instructor position in the department. You can reach me at…”
I stopped the tape to get a pen and paper. After scribbling the number on the back of a yellow pad, I shoved most of the sandwich into my mouth, closed my eyes and sat at the table waiting to explode like Mr. Creosote. After three deep breaths, I dialed Monique. She needed to know what was happening.
When I finished the sandwich, I was still in one piece.