How indie rocker Mikel Jollett overcame the toxic events in his life
Mikel Jollett, frontman for the Airborne Toxic Event, isn’t playing much music these days. That’s partly because of the pandemic and partly because he has a new memoir out, “Hollywood Park.” But it’s also because the 45-year-old and his wife, Lizette, have a 3-year-old son and a 3-month-old daughter.
“She’s a chunker, she’s so beautiful,” he tells me via phone from his basement studio/office in Silver Lake. He says that having children has introduced him to the kind of joy he never experienced himself as a child, because he was brought up in the children’s quarters at Synanon.
Until writing this memoir, Jollett was best known for his aughts indie rock band (whose name astute readers will recognize as a tribute to Don DeLillo’s “White Noise”). In songs like “Numb” and in interviews, some fans have heard of darkness in his past — including his childhood at Synanon, the infamous organization that flourished from 1958 to 1991, until charges of attempted murder and terrorism led to its shutdown.
Angelenos of a certain age will remember the Synanon building that predated the pier in Santa Monica; the cult, which began as a rehabilitation program for addicts, also had a location in Venice. Children of members were taken from their parents at the age of 6 months and sent to live in communal quarters. In the first chapter of “Hollywood Park,” Mikel, 5, and his brother Tony, 7, are settled down for the night when their mother wakes them and drives them to her parents’ house up the coast. Thus begins a lifetime struggle to heal from the disastrous fallout of a decision his parents made before he was born.
“We were just kids and we were not told any truth, at all,” Jollett says. “We were told we were in a ‘school’ — lie. We were told we had good lives — lie. We were told our parents loved us, and that may have been true, but the person for whom I felt the most love was Bonnie, one of the designated caregivers who raised me.”
In a twist that even a novelist might reject as implausible, when Mikel is a little older, he and Tony show up at their father’s house and find Bonnie there. The couple maintain a relationship that becomes one of the most stable in young Mikel’s life. “Mom — Bonnie, the woman I call Mom,” he says, “is absolutely wonderful. I don’t know where I’d be without her.”
The bubble Jollett grew up in was truly airtight. Not only did he not know what a cheeseburger was — or a restaurant, for that matter — Jollett says he wasn’t really sure what a family was. “All this time, I’ve been trying to figure out what makes a family, because when I was with my biological mother and her husbands” — she would marry again, three times — “it didn’t seem like we were a family. What were we? What was the thing that made up the families I saw around me?”
His mother’s first long-term partner, Paul, loved Mikel and Tony, but lacked resources both financial and internal. In their damp Oregon house, they took to raising rabbits in the backyard for food. “Eight years old in the back yard with a hunting knife and a young rabbit bleeding on a tree,” he says, “and I discovered this ache [that] was not only that of a kid who didn’t want to have to kill his dinner, but also that of someone who identified with that bunny.”
Mikel’s mother told him “weekly,” he says, that he was destined for great things. “I was told I was going to save the world, I was going to be president, I was going to be the next Martin Luther King Jr., and so on. When you grow up hearing that so often, you slide into a role as the superchild, the achiever child. What was left for my brother? He became the scapegoat, the one who messed up.”
Tony went through years of addiction and mental-health struggles (today he is sober and stable). “He was angry, and why shouldn’t he have been?” says Jollett. But Mikel couldn’t be angry. “I was too invested in being the child who took care of things.”
There’s a remarkable moment in the memoir, in which Jollett tells his high-school girlfriend that boys are born to take care of their mothers. “You know that’s not true, right?” she replies. Jollett laughs now, recognizing how outlandish that must sound. But it was important for him to render that naiveté on the page.
“One of the things I wanted to do with form in this book was to keep the younger voices in the first three sections in dialogue with the 40-year-old man who was writing a memoir,” he says. “I wanted readers to experience the 5-year-old’s voice, the adolescent’s voice and so forth, with immediacy, but also with the increasing knowledge that the older version of me has about events.”
That makes sense for a man whose favorite books are “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien and “The Liar’s Club” by Mary Karr, literature that investigates a younger self as it processes trauma into the beginnings of artistic creation. At one point, when Mikel is working as a journalist, he has the opportunity to interview his teen idol, Robert Smith of the Cure, whose rasp of “Why be normal?” leads Jollett to consider how artists can make pain useful — “just broken enough to see beauty.”
Through studious years in high school, a scholarship at Stanford and on to rock fame, Jollett worked with his pain. But he says two other family members pushed him to work toward something even better than success.
“My father always maintained that Synanon saved his life, got him off heroin,” says Jollett. “And I think that’s true, that it did save a lot of addicts’ lives. Unfortunately, it also ruined the lives of many others.” The book’s title, “Hollywood Park,” refers to the horse track where their father would take Mikel and Tony for father-son outings.
“What that track meant to me was a lesson in how to be a man,” says Jollett. “We didn’t have many examples of how to live in a world with men, so we really treasured those afternoons with our Dad.”
The other, perhaps most important influence was his maternal grandfather, the Dutchman who welcomed his daughter and her two small sons back into his home after they fled the commune. “My grandfather taught me that love, not pain, is the most useful thing,” Jollett says. “I could take my pain and make it useful, but it wasn’t until I could turn it into love that it would become transformative.” In late 2019, the Airborne Toxic Event announced it would be recording a new album named “Hollywood Park,” to coordinate with Jollett’s book release.
As the interview ends, Jollett promises to email a photo of his little girl. “I have everything now,” he says. “A family. A career as a writer. I don’t really feel the need to perform anymore. That’s about wearing a mask. All my masks are off.”
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
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