Known and Unknown Records of Kip Winger

Those who remember Kip Winger believe him dead or, at best, managing a fast food franchise in rural California. He spins and gyrates in their memories as the handsome lead singer and bassist of the hair metal band which bore his last name. Over the past thirty years, however, he has led a surprising variety of musical projects—almost none of which required him to bare his chest, perm his hair, fit into spandex, and make sex moves and eyes for a camera.

Bergen rarely thought of Kip until his father sent him five e-mails, Talmudic-style interpretations of Kip’s life and discography. The following sample, from the first e-mail, regarded Winger’s eponymous debut (Atlantic Records, 1987): We learn from these riffs and strums the truth of Winger. He came like an angel, knowing we would be jealous of him. So he sang and played. That he never played the bass in a video does not mean he could not play. Believe he played. Believe he has always played better than Cobain sucked. His father hated Nirvana. His father said grunge bands killed true love.

Bergen’s wife Eva sang censored versions of the e-mails to their toddler son. She said the prose had a lilting quality. Bergen said that everything lilts when you sing that way. They both knew what the e-mails meant. His father had returned to town for hugs and forgiveness, Bergen had denied him both, and now the chance had been lost. His wife broke several dishes because of his hard heart.

She may have been looking for an excuse. Her patience had dripped away since the bauble’s loss. Two years prior, she had gone with her college girls to Mardi Gras and drank and probably flashed her way through New Orleans. She said she caught the bauble at the Zulu parade. That story to his mind had always been open to question. The bauble held such merit in her heart. She called it an emerald though anyone could see its glass shell had been injected with green dye.

She also hated the sheaves of paper which for weeks had been growing atop their tables, under chairs and sofas, behind toilets, in mop buckets. The paper clogged drains and air vents throughout the house. It came in all sizes and shapes up to and including centagons. It grew from either lightbulbs or air ducts, though neither Bergen nor Eva had actually witnessed a sheet’s generation. Eva threatened a bonfire in the backyard but Bergen was not overly troubled by the accumulation. Sometimes he pulled the handle on his recliner, eased back, and imagined the way two sheets might make love and spawn in the air duct. They would scratch at each other till a baby sheet peeled from its mother. The image made him happily vague and elsewhere.

Other times, he would read a line or two of philosophy. One evening he came upon a line that led him to believe that Aristotle had predicted his father: “The musical is an accident of man.” The Big Greek Mind had scribbled that idea two thousand years ago. A toilet musing, Bergen thought. He pictured the BGM on the ancient bucket, distinguishing between essential legs and inessential loves, finding a hint of Bergen’s father in his morning stink. The BGM would then write a penetrating truth about the smell. Bergen set down his book and wrote “stale loaf” on a piece of blue construction paper. Daytime TV suggested that loafers like his father were widespread, that his bread had no special grain. He crumpled the paper and threw it atop the pile at his feet. He wondered if the BGM had foreseen hair metal. If he had anticipated a band like Winger, had he realized that music might be less an accident of man and more one of his time? How much had he guessed of our time? How often had his wipes been tainted by despair?

Like any parent, Bergen had felt wet earth in his baby’s diaper. He had been so careless at some wipings that he later found cold brown shavings in his arm hair. He had failed to pass them off as unwashed paint. Once, when Joel was newly born and soiling himself every third hour, he poked and dabbed at the baby’s waste, let its scentless death chill get under his nails. He learned too much thereby.

His father claimed, in his second e-mail, to have drunk Coronas with Kip and guitarist Paul Taylor on Jacksonville Beach in 1985. There he had described to them a quandary in which a woman was curved and willing but not a woman in the legal sense. His father attached to the e-mail to Bergen photographs of three drawings. In the first, a smiling unbearded father held hands with a buxom girl wearing no more than leg warmers. In the second, Kip, identified by shoulder-length hair and a midriff shirt, entered the room. In the third, Kip and the girl were fallen stick figures with a giant phallus between them. Bergen’s father cried bubbly tears in the background.

Waves came tenderly on that beach. The sun made the men wet and golden. Each of them bought a round. At least one of them did not think a theft was imminent. Six years later his father left Bergen for Oakland, California. Bergen was glad to learn, a quarter century later, that his father had not grown happy out west. He liked to picture his father wasting hours at an efficiency apartment’s counter with an unsipped mug of coffee before him, bitterly mouthing the lyrics to “Seventeen.”

That evening, after Bergen tossed the blue construction paper “stale loaf” to the floor, Eva sat on the sofa and stretched her legs before him. He admired them and her exposed, glittered chest. The butterfly tattoo on her left breast had a tongue of glitter. She asked him why he bothered about the old man or Winger anymore. That was over. Why not bother her? Her legs extended silky and modelesque from a purple skirt that was too short and out of place in a family home. He imagined them grooving on a pole in a smoky room or emerging from a rich man’s limousine. Her feet were bare. Her toes had been polished a deep and inviting shade of red. And, of course, she was topless and glittered. He said he was very bothered.

“Bother me,” she said.

But Joel stomped in with his red truck, cleared paper until there was an oval of play space available, and wheeled the truck in red crescents over the rug. Beyond the acting arm the boy sat like a Buddha. He wore footie pajamas with a monkey on the butt, made of soothing material Bergen could not name.

Eva folded her arms over her chest. “You’re no fun,” she said.

He shrugged. “What do you want me to do?”

“Be fun.”

“We aren’t in college anymore.”

“I know.”

She wasn’t happy to know it. She sent someone, maybe her lush sister, a text.

Soon she put on a t-shirt, carried Joel upstairs to the nursery, and sang him the censored e-mail lullaby. The boy rarely slept to her song. Sometimes he slept in his crib but more often with either parent on the carpet. Bergen and his wife once spent a night with the child coughing on the floor between them. More than once Bergen walked four-plus miles worth of house with the child slung unhappily over his shoulder. He and Eva never considered taking the child into their bed.

Joel shrieked through fifteen minutes of singing before Bergen relieved his wife. He touched her arm. She did not wish him luck. Bergen spread on the carpet a blanket emblazoned with Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s racing number three, a gift from the lush sister. Then he approached the crib. “Calm,” Bergen whispered. He took up his son. “Calm, calm, calm.” He carried Joel into the hall and whispered and felt his power begin to work on the boy. Eva did not share this power. It scared Bergen as much as it hurt her because he was not sure how much he loved this child. He thought Joel’s face might one day freeze in a pout. Even when pleased with a turkey dinner the kid had a little grimace to him. Strangers called him cute but Bergen found it hard to muster great hope for the boy’s dating and career prospects.

Three rooms down Eva was probably drawing back the bedsheets. Bergen envied how easily she could sleep without him. In her dreams she was both herself and either Norma Talmadge or Lillian Gish, and almost always she was lost in a maze of steel bushes, hearing a man sing and being unable to sing in reply. Her dreams bored him. He suspected they bored her as well but they had little else to discuss at breakfast. Perhaps he should have interrupted her that morning with news of his eggs. He had smelled his future in them. It was a familiar smell though no less fearful. More, actually, because he knew he would be left with the kid.

The third e-mail developed a flattering contrast between the guitar solos of Reb Beach and Eddie Van Halen. In the fourth were short biographies of Winger video models. It included the successful transition of the Mediterranean beauty who closed the “Can’t Get Enough” video from professional model to assistant manager of a sleepy Bank of America on Jacksonville’s south side. From that branch Bergen had recently acquired a loan application and a handshake promise of the lowest interest rates in town, as well as a profile shot of her which, as a result of his having to aim and fire his phone’s camera without alarming her, her co-workers, the security guard, and the customer with the pedophiliac look, included the shadow of his left forefinger on her neck. Her body was hidden behind the counter, but one could nonetheless make out the high cheekbones and sex bomb eyes that once made her a fine subject for adolescent thought.

Bergen carried Joel down the mercifully unpapered stairs. He treaded lightly over the construction paper and brown grocery bags mounded everywhere on the first floor, taking his son through the living room, dining room, and kitchen, then down the hall, past the half-bathroom, utility closet, and laundry room. Upstairs he had to plant his feet with every step so as not to slip on unspooled toilet paper. He took his son to the closed door of the master bathroom and past the office, from which memo pad paper spilled under the door, before returning to the nursery. He whispered, “Calm, calm, calm” throughout their journey. The power did not rest in the word but in his patient repetition of it. He laid his son on top of the blanket and snuggled him there.

The fifth e-mail sketched Kip’s own biography, including the surprising fact that Kip spent several years as a widower. Bergen did not worry about either the wife Beatrice’s death or Kip’s broken heart. He wondered more how any shift of circumstances might have altered minor musical history. Suppose, for example, that Beatrice had not died in a car crash in 1996. Would Kip have reformed his band that year to play a more progressive brand of chicken soup rock? Suppose he had married Beatrice in 1985 rather than 1991. Would he have turned out the second-rate schlock for which he was most famous? Would he agree with Bergen’s judgment that it was second rate even for hair metal? Suppose Beatrice had grown pregnant before the band completed its debut album. Would Kip have been so ready to market the pilfered “Seventeen,” particularly if he knew his child was going to be a daughter, or would he have cashed in anyhow? Would he have been wise enough to invest the money earned from that single in a college fund for the girl, or were college funds not yet an option for parents, or would his hairspray have had a pernicious effect on his brain which inhibited any mature decision-making on his part? Would he have heard the loving uuuggghhh of stationery in the wall behind the watercolor painting of boats above Joel’s crib? Did Kip offer a bauble to either his first or second or Bergen’s own wife as a closing seduction move? Suppose Beatrice and the supposed unborn child died in a car crash in Spring 1987. Would the tragedy have compelled him to drop hair metal for classical composing or would he have gone ahead with the album, perhaps only improving the lyrics to “Headed for a Heartbreak”? Would that question be too cheap to pose to Kip, a revelation of Bergen’s low wit at a late hour, when he found himself wide awake and dumb?

Joel turned and faced him. The boy was Bergen in miniature and, too, the darkest mass in the dark room. Bergen was expected, come daylight, to resume filling the boy with facts, to show him that this was a truck and it was red and it had wheels and the wheels could be counted and so forth. Bergen was duty-bound to pile fact upon fact year upon year until the boy had enough of them to graduate with a practical degree, hold a meaningful job with a high salary and generous benefits, win the esteem of his peers, love without reservation a well-suited partner of his choosing, and treat him, Bergen, with respect. Bergen wasn’t sure either he or the boy wanted to do any of that.

And he did not know how much he could teach beyond the basic characteristics of a toy truck. He suspected more than understood the world. He doubted, for instance, the existence of any one BGM, suspecting rather a composite build-up of toilet musings written by a host of dead Greeks, maybe as part of a long con or joke extending from Attica to the heavenly sphere. Bergen might tell his son that, in the afterlife, Greeks hang out in a dim buffet room and wait for the philosophically inclined newly dead to turn up the light so they can laugh and laugh. Then they offer the newbies fried fish and green beans. Bergen would have to explain how an afterlife might work and how green beans could get to heaven while starches could not and how a dead man could eat fried fish even though his beaten body had been left for real fish to eat under lapping waves.

Joel moaned, pulled Bergen’s lip, and screamed. “Calm,” Bergen said. “Calm, calm.” He stood and carried his son into the upstairs bathroom and turned on the faucet and said, “Calm.” The water flow sound helped on some hard nights. But the tub was full of origami paper folded into cranes, so that night the water sounded like rain falling on rocks and through the gaps between them. Joel cried until the paper went soft and pasty in the dark, and they both heard the old strike of water on tub. Soon they were calm enough to return to the number three blanket.

The year his father drank with half the band, Bergen’s mother left and he, Bergen, wore Skywalker Underoos. Then Laura’s smoke breath settled into their furniture. The rest of her dominated the TV and ice cream. She and his father played air guitar to music videos till she rambled on for good. Bergen’s father rambled west shortly thereafter. But when things were still hot between them Bergen would come in from school and his father would say, “Hang with us.” Bergen always declined. Laura’s love sounds ran nightly through the walls. She wore purple pants tight and diaphanous as Saran-Wrap. Bergen stole them from the wash and kept them under the mattress.

In 2000, Kip released Songs from the Ocean Floor (Meadowlark Music), a solo album dedicated to his lost Beatrice. It had lighter sounds, more counterpoints, even clarinets. He sang that he had “crossed a sea of crippling pain,” but loss had not sucked him down black holes or overmuch into Jesus. He became a more sincere-sounding heartthrob. Last week Bergen’s father signed a lease for an efficiency apartment somewhere—maybe he returned to Oakland or migrated to Israel—and affected a Rabbi’s beard and learning. I study Winger more deeply and extensively than anyone else. I try to stay humble among its tunes, for Winger is endless, for Winger is Wisdom. Its Wisdom is the fragrance of a lemon. The lemon loses nothing at your sniffing. Or is lemonade drawn from other citrus somehow? He saw his father rocking out on the Dead Sea’s beach, headphones on, a private ecstasy whirling in him, strangers floating atop the dense saltwater, a poodle advancing on him from the left.

The entire month before, his father had slept on a trundle bed in the family’s office, and three of the home’s four residents enjoyed their time together. Joel giggled at his grandfather’s beeping nose game, and he loved tugging the old man’s stringy gray hair. Eva appreciated the new source of rock knowledge, and the two of them shared concert legends. Bergen during those weeks had been merely a presence at the table or, once, at a neighborhood dive so low a cat slept on the bar top and its fleas jumped from it to Berman’s hand and back again. There his father spoke to the bottles lined behind the bar. He said Eva was more lover than mom. Her wondrous legs were meant for leaving.

Bergen slapped at the fleas. Then he too addressed the liquor. He said that it was difficult to enjoy Merlot in a hole like this.

His father said, “You’re not supposed to drink Merlot in here. I told you that from the start.”

They finished their drinks, but not before Bergen suffered a black waking dream in which a shirtless Kip Winger photographed his wife’s breasts, handed her the bauble, and hummed a line which moved her from the bar to his convertible.

Now Bergen imagined her not asleep but crumpling paper on their bedroom floor, hurt over the bauble and tired of his brain, as was he. Then on the bed and touching herself with Kip in mind. Then calmly pressing buttons on her phone which would transfer a sum of money from their joint savings account into a private one whose existence he guessed only now. Then reading a text of her lush sister’s dating advice. Bergen wanted his son to be awake and wheeling that red truck and in that right mindfulness. He wanted to ask, “Will you love me enough to drain a colostomy bag?”

Kip stunned anyone paying attention with his symphony Ghosts (2010). It was performed as a ballet in San Francisco and elsewhere. Bergen’s father may have seen the show or waited behind the theatre, hoping to stab the thief in the offending eye. Bergen had streamed this record several times in leaden moods with a mostly unmoved chest. Yet its adagio sometimes recurred to him when he showered. He even hummed a lathering bar or two, which he never did in response to Kip’s bubblegum hits. This music almost wiped clean the hurt of Kip’s pretty face and kitsch harmonies.

One morning, he imagined, after honey cakes and wine, the BGM went to his bucket. Too close by, he found a doomed mutt with worms moving in its torn leg. It prematurely stank the ground. The BGM knew that leaving begat leaving. He lifted his toga, sat, and heard Kip’s adagio in the poor dog’s wound. Sonic mountains and seas! Arranged to the last alien note! Bright future! Lemon thoughts helped him through the next ten minutes.

Joel made a kind of whistle, then swelled, then stiffened. In such moments when Bergen knew his son wouldn’t dream much longer no matter how much Bergen whispered “Calm” because in the boy’s diaper grew a brown pancake that no one could abide—in such moments Bergen wanted to know anything else. He left his son to dig around the office for the bauble. His desk and bookshelves had gone under a chaos of paper: long ribbons of parchment, balls of onionskin, rectangles of both standard and corrugated cardboard, assorted grades of sandpaper, some of which had been used and left him lightly sawdusted, mulberry paper with a sickly sweet almost pine scent, poster board cut into stars and various phase-shapes of the moon, sheets of cardstock heavy as dictionaries, and innumerable confetti, every dot of which bore his father’s first initial. When Laura left, the old man stayed on the carpet and watched Dial MTV and mouthed insults at bands he loathed. When Winger came on, his mouth grew wet. His eyes flickered. Bergen interrupted him one afternoon. His father patted the ground. “Hang with me,” he said. Bergen did. They baked frozen pizzas and washed them down with soda and played air guitar long into the night. His father hugged him. Two days later his father wrote him a short letter and left for Oakland.

In the second month of his wife’s pregnancy, Bergen came home early from work with a bouquet of yellow carnations. She napped on the couch with an open mouth and, around her neck, a gold chain with the bauble attached. Her hands rested beneath a bedsheet. His chest moved. A movie him might have strewn the petals over her dreaming body or burned them in the backyard and let their foodie neighbors smell his cooking heart. But he clipped the flowers and set them in a vase and drove alone through their neighborhood, tapping his steering wheel to the beat of radio songs. He had seen a similar bauble around the neck of the ex-starlet branch manager, though his finger had smudged the evidence.

The office had so thickened with scrap he could not reach the carpet to feel around. He got paper cuts up and down his arms. Twice he confused the edge of a book for the bauble. Meanwhile, his father stood on the Dead Sea’s beach and enjoyed the way the morning sun broke on the water. Meanwhile, Kip played bass alone in his private studio, the same notes he had played Beatrice, the same notes he had hummed in Eva’s ear.

Perhaps Eva too, down the hall, under the sheets, once again heard those lilting notes. Perhaps she was sprinkling herself with fresh glitter or putting on diaphanous pants and a top that showed a wing of the butterfly tattoo but not the tongue of glitter. Perhaps she was steeling herself to climb out the window. Bergen would have liked to stop her before she got too far down the oak tree. He would have liked to present the bauble and win back her love. He would have liked to bother her very much. Failing that, he would have liked there to be a last straw, but last straws, he knew, were for more dramatic men. He had maintained steady employment with one firm for nearly ten years and, no matter how hard his day had been at the office, had never gotten ripped after work and slapped his wife around. He never, in fact, drank more than his doctor recommended. His wife’s lush sister drank too much on a particular Thanksgiving, pulled him into her parents’ bathroom, tugged the waistband of her thong above her jeans, and asked if he appreciated its redness, and he declined to answer. Bergen wished he could at least hurt his wife before she left. Bergen wished he had committed a series of escalating offenses which culminated that night in a last straw which she would feel compelled eventually to share with some Fallen Pretty Boy because, in Bergen’s wish, she would never again hook up with Kip. She and this FPB would be wobbly on neighboring barstools in a dive in a state like Arkansas. She would describe the straw with a hundred tears rather than a shrug.

She did leave, not that night but another, the night on which Joel at last slept well in his crib and the home was clean of paper and Bergen learned of the help Alan Parsons and Alice Cooper had given to Kip’s career in the mid-eighties. Or maybe she left the night Bergen listened to the Winger reunion albums back to back to back. He had his headphones turned up, he was tapping his foot, and he confessed to himself that he enjoyed this music while Eva dragged a suitcase down the stairs. Or maybe she left on a bright afternoon, and he discovered the house empty of her and glitter when he brought Joel home from daycare. He ordered a pizza and while waiting for it to arrive he answered his son’s barrage of questions with a barrage of words. Dinner itself was a quiet gorging respite. Joel did not, however, want to watch cartoons afterward. He said, “Mama, Mama, Mama.” Bergen whispered, “Calm, Calm, Calm” and carried him up and down the stairs until the child slept. After full dark, Bergen hunted the house for a letter that did not exist.

He saw each of these futures, and others, while rummaging through the office. He understood that Eva would leave no matter how many baubles he found, but that understanding did not stop him in his search. Nor did he quit when he heard Joel cry out, when he knew his son needed him to change the diaper and whisper, “Calm,” when he knew that only his son could calm him. Paper moaned in the walls. A sheet of it snaked from the air vent. It was signed, “Dad.” Then he remembered his father’s short, useless letter: I have done what I have done. All the rest is commentary.  

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