For almost two decades the Cheshire Kittens have been at the forefront of the music scene and the Parahuman Rights Movement alike. Now, with their founding drummer walking out and their future in question, veteran journalist Todd Chapman returns to Amplifier in this special double-issue profile. The Cheshire Kittens have survived turmoil, trauma, and travail. Can they still survive each other? Explicit language.
The Kitten House Rules
The Cheshire Kittens have survived turmoil, trauma, and travail. Can they survive each other?
Special to Amplifier Magazine by Todd Chapman
Two hours and nineteen minutes before I was supposed to meet the Cheshire Kittens at the now-legendary Metal Wing Studios in Las Bendiciones, I got a phone call telling me they wouldn’t be there. I can’t pretend I was surprised.
“No offense,” the publicist told me. “There’s a band emergency, so they’re up at Tabby’s estate in Del Miér.” I told her that I understood completely and asked if we should reschedule. I admit I had the nagging feeling this whole thing was going to be cancelled, which would be annoying since I’d rescheduled a number of other commitments to be there. I don’t write about music much these days — my beat’s more on the parahuman side of the street now — so I’d fallen out of the habit of kowtowing to the whims of artistes. This had been an exception.
But, those fears were groundless. “No no,” the publicist told me. “You’re still on. They just want you to go to Del Miér instead.”
Del Miér was significantly farther from my hotel than Metal Wings Studios, so if I were going to be on time I’d have to drive like a maniac and be incredibly lucky to boot — and most people don’t accuse me of having the best luck. Despite that, I made it to the estate and hit the call buzzer at the gate with at least nineteen seconds to spare. If that seems impressive, bear in mind that I usually interview supervillains. You learn to adapt and you learn to not be late if you have any intention of living to retire.
After security passed me through, I was met at the door by Cozy Tight. She was in a good looking grey suit, her naturally unnatural red hair pulled back into a pony tail, an oversized ruby pinned to her lapel. “Glad to see you,” she said. “Fair warning — they’re in a mood.”
Cozy Tight had been the manager and producer of the Cheshire Kittens since before Transparent hit it big. She was born Cosette Wight, and until she was in her early teens her hair was more chestnut. She underwent primary parahuman expression (divine type) while she was in school — her hair turning that almost ruby red at the same time. Her parahuman abilities centered on communication — she could understand language, decode intent, ‘read a room,’ and otherwise innately know or figure out what was being said. Her talent’s been known to work on ancient gods, Ft’arthi invaders from across the galaxy, digital intellects, and every taxi driver she ever met. Like an increasing number of parahumans, Wight hadn’t hidden her talents but also hadn’t entered the superhuman lifestyle. She graduated from high school less than a year after expression, majored in Communications, got a law degree, and ultimately became an agent. Her transition from ‘Cosette Wight, esq.’ to ‘Cozy Tight’ happened after she found an obscure riot grrl band playing a dive bar frequented by gangs like the Meta’d and made friends. Fifteen plus years later, she worked exclusively with parahuman artists, was a contributing partner at Metal Wing Records, and could claim a piece of at least twenty Grammy awards.
Despite all that, if you say Cozy Tight’s name to anyone, their immediate reaction would always be “oh, the Cheshire Kittens’ manager,” and that’s still probably the most accurate job title for her. Cozy Tight had put the Kittens up in her own home back in the day. Even though she was at most two years older than most of them, she was like a fusion of mother, big sister, and the only boss any of them would ever listen to. ‘Cosette Wight’ had been part of the Endeavor Group when she’d signed the Cheshire Kittens. When Cozy Tight and Endeavor had an acrimonious parting of ways, the Kittens had followed her. When Endeavor tried to sue over it, they learned that having a lawyer who understood the actual intent behind any given contract as quickly as she looked at it on their payroll might have been a better advantage than they’d admitted — the suit didn’t simply end with the Kittens free of any ties to Endeavor, it ended with the band getting a significant settlement from their former agency and Cozy Tight bankrupting them.
“It’s par for the course,” Cozy told me as we walked through the mansion. It was an old school mansion all right, though it looked in bad need of renovation or repair. “The more that parahumans join the so-called ‘normal’ workforce, the less the prosahumans who own those businesses want to admit their MBA and old school connections might not trump the metaintellect precognitive who’s telling them they’re wrong about something. I can’t get too upset — the phenomenon made the Cheshire Kittens who they are.” She smiled, easy and comfortable around me. I felt good talking to her — she was a refreshing change from most agents and managers I’d dealt with during my music journalism career.
It didn’t hit me until some weeks later that was literally Cozy Tight’s super power at work. Which makes her point, if you think about it.
¤ ¤ ¤
There’s an interesting paradox at the heart of the Cheshire Kittens. On the one hand, they arguably defined the metapunk genre, all hard-edge and fierce, and full of the anger and frustration that made the Parahuman Rights Movement more than people arguing online and a few news stories about protests each year. They’re down at street level. They’re dirty, uncompromising, and pissed off. Their sexuality is in your face. There’s almost a retro-feel to their visual style. Eighties callbacks. Seventies callbacks. Visual references to the Runaways and the Plasmatics, to Blondie and the Sex Pistols. They’re almost hair metal and death metal by way of Riot Grrl with a side of Gangsta Rap. And if that sounds jumbled or confused, it’s because those things influence them without defining them. Their style is their own, and they only change it if they want to mock or subvert something else.
On the other side of the paradox is the massively successful musical act. Singer Tabitha ‘G-Listening’ Strong, lead guitarist Zephyr Lish, bassist Drillbit P, keyboardist Allon-Zed, and drummer Esther ‘Esther Jowls’ Jaruzelska built up a following among alt-punk and various flavor of metal fans in the years before the Apocalypse Agenda. After the massive destruction and societal trauma inflicted on the Earth by Urizen, alongside the near-destruction of Greystone City by the Jack O’Knaves, the perceived betrayal of Justice Wing by Freya, and the deaths of Paragirl, Shillelagh, Freya, and so many others, the societal backlash went in two directions. For so called ‘normal’ people, be they prosahuman or parahuman, there was a drive to “return to normal life,” which meant the status quo — and a lot of sublimated anger towards ‘super’ society, which mostly manifested as anger towards super villains. This led to a series of laws passed in haste in countries all over the world — security theater, mostly, meant to ‘regulate’ the empowered and ‘ensure the kind of horrifying disaster’ that made up the Apocalypse Agenda could never happen again.
It was a ridiculous notion, of course. Ridiculous and wrong-headed, driven by fear and politics. A lot of it didn’t last, but it still had an impact on the parahuman community — and especially on the Parahuman Rights Movement. Before the Apocalypse Agenda, parahuman rights activists had been swimming against the tide. Despite the obvious divisions that would and did grow between parahumanity and prosahumanity, Justice Wing and heroes like them helped normalize the idea of powers to everyday people. And, arguably, super villains helped focus ‘norm’ fears towards recognizable evil in tights and away from being afraid of their neighbors who could light a barbecue grill with their index finger. The Apocalypse Agenda left that in tatters, and efforts by the governments of the world to regulate expressed parahumanity quickly helped the Parahuman Rights Movement blow up.
And right at the center of that movement? Was a charismatic, passionate, and highly attractive group of female musicians who took the niche musical anger of the street and drove it to the top of the charts. If Justice Wing and villains like Beguile had focused norm society on the supers before the Agenda, the Cheshire Kittens focused both the anger of parahumans and the fear of prosahumans onto them and their music after it. And make no mistake — ‘supers’ and ‘norms’ both bought singles and albums, merch and DVDs, and everything else with the Kittens’ logo on it in droves.
The paradox is maybe best described by “Transparent,” their breakthrough hit and first international best seller. Written by G-Listening and Zephyr Lish, the song tells the story of a teenaged girl with the power to turn invisible. Because her power could let her commit crimes or violate peoples’ privacy with impunity, she is distrusted, persecuted, and forced to account for her movements at all times. She is arrested several times even though she committed no crimes, purely because the police had no other leads. Even when she was ‘free,’ she was marginalized. People only saw her power and never saw the person:
I’ve never fucking lied to you and I never stole a dime
But if somebody’s shit gets jacked I know I’ll do the time!
Because I turn invisible I have to stay where you can see—
But even when I’m visible you look right through me!
The song was raw, based in large part on Tabitha Strong’s life — like the girl in the song, Strong can become invisible to all known spectra, and a number of prosahuman classmates took to blaming her for their own mischief, which gave the young parahuman an undeserved — but recurrent — reputation in her home town of Santa Domingo. To this day several former officers in the Santa Domingo Police Force insist that Strong was a criminal and delinquent despite finding no credible evidence connecting her to anything illegal. Zephyr Lish infused the melody with an intensity largely made possible by her enhanced speed. Zephyr is a speedster whose perceptions match her rate of speed, which lead to the kind of shredding Dick Dale could only dream to match. A known secondary parahuman ability of Zephyr’s is telepathy — and telepaths are subject to some of the harshest persecution, criticism, and legal regulation on record.
“Transparent” and all the Kittens’ further music were born of their pain and anger — no one could deny that. But it’s also undeniable that it’s made them very, very rich. Thanks in no small part to Cozy Tight’s management, the Cheshire Kittens’ international fame catapulted them to the kind of wealth most musicians can only dream about. And no matter how much the Kittens center their music on the plight of parahuman persecution, there’s a lot more prosahumans buying their tracks than parahumans. This hasn’t escaped the notice of other Parahuman Rights Activists, who are divided on what that means for their movement in general.
There’s nothing that prevents musicians from being both crusaders and wealthy, of course. And the struggle of the successful artist to maintain their credibility in the face of tremendous income has dated back to at least the dawn of recorded media. Cozy Tight’s skill at negotiation has given the Kittens almost unprecedented control over their music — not to mention more return from sales than most artists get from their labels — but her sharp eye for merchandizing and ancillary sales fuels accusations that the Kittens have sold out to the norms.
That was the backdrop of the ‘band emergency’ that had me out in Del Miér instead of at Metal Wing Studios. A new album had been delayed over eighteen months, and six weeks before I arrived founding drummer Esther Jowls and the Cheshire Kittens had had a very, very public breakup. A lot of the usual causes fueled that breakup, of course. Creative of direction and control for one — Jowls accused G-Listening and Zephyr Lish of marginalizing the songwriting efforts of the rest of the band. Money was another, which was almost ironic since she also accused them of playing to their norm fans and selling the Parahuman Rights Movement out.
Like I said — that all happened before I was there. Cozy Tight had started negotiating with Amplifier some time before that — they wanted to have a nice mainstream profile in advance of the next album finally coming out. Negotiations had been tight — a sticking point, embarrassingly enough, was me. I haven’t worked for Amplifier for years, but my most successful article became the basis of my book and a lot of my other work, and that was connected to Amplifier. The editors wanted to send someone else they worked with — among other things, I can insist on minimal editing and I’m way too expensive for them these days, and the fact that you’re reading this part of the paragraph means the ‘minimal editing’ part worked — but the Cheshire Kittens were adamant. They wanted me.
Why? Not because of my superior talent. Let’s not kid ourselves. They wanted me because I interviewed a supervillain who looked a bit like them, and then made a career out of interviewing other supervillains. And — more to the point — I generally interviewed lower tier villains. A good number of Parahuman Rights Activists had seized on some of my work as a rallying point. And… I had a reputation of being fair to parahumans, be they hero, villain, or norm. I didn’t whitewash them, but I also didn’t trash them. And, just as icing on the cake, I had a reputation for asking questions no one else would, and they liked that.
It’s worth mentioning? Everyone likes those questions until they have to answer them.
The interview’s terms had been finalized for less than three days when Esther Jowls stormed out of Metal Wings and onto the net, accusing the band of everything from theft to collaboration with the enemy. Zephyr Lish had fired back, and the battle lines had gotten hot right up until both sides shut up entirely. Cozy Tight’s handiwork, of course — but at least part of that handiwork involved amendments to the interview I was doing. No additional restrictions on me, mind… but it was understood that I’d be talking to Esther Jowls too, to make sure her side got told. Not that I should feel any pressure or anything.
That was the circumstance as Cozy Tight brought me into the room where the Cheshire Kittens were in the process of screaming at each other. It was a moderately large room — living room, with television on the wall, speakers everywhere, high end stereo, end tables and coffee tables with a lot of crap on them, lots of worn out couches and loveseats, and five extremely angry women, at least one of whom was literally steaming. G-Listening, Zephyr Lish, Drillbit P, Allon-Zed, and Aileen Pyre — the keyboardist and synth-rocker who joined the Cheshire Kittens when former keyboardist Allon-Zed moved to rhythm guitar on newer music — were all there, and I’m a little surprised no one had been shot.
“Maybe you can explain to me how we’re getting the fucking album out now, thanks to your fucking ego!” Drillbit P was screaming at Zephyr Lish as we walked in. “Even if we released the tracks we’ve got, we have to fucking tour, and you might have noticed this gap in our stage show now! What, do we use a drum machine and hope no one notices!?”
“Esther was the fucking drummer!” Zephyr shouted back. “Who the Hell cares? We could put a blow up doll on stage and wave its arms around for all it matters!”
“Ladies,” Cozy Tight said, raising her voice just a touch but not sounding at all perturbed. “This is Todd Chapman — remember I told you—“
“You!” Zephyr shouted, blurring to me in an eyeblink and poking me in the chest. “What group was even more significant to the sixties than we are to today?”
I blinked. “The Beatles,” I answered. And a bunch of others, admittedly, but this might not have been the time to mention it.
“Exactly! The motherfucking Beatles! Four Liverpudlian douches, Brian Epstein and George Martin changing the world! And the darkest, smartest, most brilliant of them all was their drummer, Pete Best! And then after they recorded one fucking song at Abbey Road they threw him out and replaced him. Did they find some drums prodigy? No! They grabbed Ringo fucking Starr! They probably had to explain the cymbals to him! It didn’t matter because who fucking cares about the drummer?”
“Be as pissed as you want,” Aileen snapped. “But don’t you fucking bag on Ringo Starr, you bitch!”
G-Listening took a long breath, pulling out a medicine bottle. She shook a couple yellow pills into her hand, popped them and dry swallowed. I asked her what they were, and she tossed me the bottle. Temazepam. Brand name Restoril. A benzodiazepine. Prescribed as a sleep aid generally, rather than an anti-anxiety benzo like Ativan. Which I brought up to G-Listening while Zephyr, Drillbit, and Pyre all continued vigorously debating the relative importance of drummers to rock and roll.
“Yeah, well, welcome to parahumanity,” she muttered, clearly looking tired. “Xanax doesn’t touch me. This stuff at least takes off a little edge. Walk with me.”
I followed her out. She looked pretty much like you’d expect. Torn white t-shirt with red paint kanji on it, bike shorts, blond spiky hair, eyes with irises that sparkle like prisms. No makeup, but then she mostly wore elaborate makeup as part of the stage show. As tired as she looked, she also looked good — and still looked under thirty, even though “Transparent” hit less than a year after the Apocalypse Agenda. But then, more than sixty percent of parahumans either age slowly or at least look like they age slowly.
“Call me Tabby,” she said as we walked down a sun-drenched hall towards what I learned was the kitchen. “I’d apologize but I am so fucking sick of apologizing right now.”
“Do you really think the drummer doesn’t matter?” I asked.
“Of course the drummer matters. Esther fucking matters. I won’t pretend we don’t scream at each other for fun, but losing Esther hurts.” She rubbed her temple. “I dunno. Maybe we can’t come out of this one. I probably shouldn’t tell you that but fuck it.” She looked at me. “Do villains swear this much?”
“Depends on the villain. I had to cut a bunch of ‘fucks’ out of the Leather interview, for example. Greyscale, on the other hand? Spoke like Sunday School Teachers pretend they speak.”
“Sounds familiar. I once met Toothy Shock? Legendary rocker. Absolutely freaked if anyone swore around him. You ever meet him?” I had, as it turned out. We talked a little about the Evergreen City punk scene for a while after we got to the kitchen. ‘Call-me-Tabby’ Strong’s knowledge of Punk, Pre-Punk, Post-Punk and its flavors is encyclopedic. She’d actually done a reasonable amount of session work and backup before she and high school friend Zephyr Lish started putting together what would become the Cheshire Kittens.
“It’s never been a garden day for women in Punk,” she told me. “Patti Smith was and is a fucking goddess — did you see “Land” any time last year? Every time she’s done it since ’75 she’s made it fit the world it’s in. But she leaves the room and suddenly we’re back to being the collective reason Sid Vicious died. Do you have any idea how many people think Nancy Spungen killed Sid Vicious? The man fucking stabbed her to death and then OD’d the next year, but oh no. Nancy killed him.” She snorted. “Allegedly. What-the-fuck-ever. The Bags blew everyone out of the water and then all the girls went back to being groupies when the next act went on stage.” She looked out the kitchen window. “Don’t get me wrong. Spungen was clearly fucking nuts. Like, she needed help. Abusive. It’s not a simple situation with a simple solution. Punk fucking rock. You see the Cox film? ‘Gosh, she totally ran into his knife.’ Shit, I’m not making any sense.”
I asked if there was any physical fighting in the Cheshire Kittens. “Fuck no,” she said. “I won’t say I never wanted to slap Zeph, but I never would. Her wife’d kill me if I did anyway. But it doesn’t matter. Way back when we first got traction, Cozy sat us all down and laid it out. If we ever threw a punch at each other? That was it. Either the instigator went or Cozy would. And… I dunno. It just stuck. Drunk, angry, high — whatever. We don’t do that.”
“She’s worried about you guys? Or a pacifist?”
She laughed, almost sardonically. “Oh, she cares about us. Worries. Sure. But that’s not the point. See, Cozy knew from the start that things would just get worse for paras if we didn’t do anything. She saw the signs. Here she was, literally the best person on the planet at cutting through legal bullshit and reaching peoples’ real intent, and she was stalled out at Endeavor. And every excuse they gave she saw through, because they never figured it out. She knew they were scared. She was into our sound, but also our message. She helped us clarify it ‘cause that’s what she does. But she also gets nonverbal messages.” She looked at me with intensity. “The moment we made the news for beating the shit out of each other or anyone else? We lost any chance to speak out about parahuman rights. We can be women. We can be punk. We can be parahuman. We can be violent. If we’re all four, the narrative dies.” She sighed. “And she’s right. Hell, it actually made us legends after Thunderfest.”
Thunderfest was four years after “Transparent” hit. Their first album had gone double platinum, and their followup had been platinum — much better than the one-hit-wonder phenomenon, but they’d hit that plateau between flavor of the day and actual enduring band. They’d been touring steadily, and they’d marched with the Meta’d in Chalfonte. They were increasingly associated with the parahuman street gang — down to wearing the blaze orange and neon green colors the gang identifies with in several of their stage costumes. The Meta’d were in the middle of hostilities with the Vicars, a rival gang with a number of so called TH — ‘True Human’ supremacist sets. Thunderfest was a large scale punk, hip hop and metal festival that — among other things — was supposed to be neutral ground for the national gangs.
During the Cheshire Kittens set, four Vicars who had smuggled weapons into the venue stormed the stage and attacked. The Cheshire Kittens, rather than fighting back, spread their arms and waited for the crowd to take the Vicars down, which happened in short order. G-Listening, Esther Jowls, and Allon-Zed were all injured, but when promoters tried to rush them off-stage to medical attention they refused to go until they finished their set. Six different people in the crowd caught the whole thing on video, and those videos spread like wildfire online. The three Kittens were hospitalized after the show, and Allon-Zed’s blood loss proved to have been life threatening, but three days later the group made their next gig, Allon-Zed being supported by two sessions musicians but just as loud on the choruses as ever.
The punk band on the X-G-F label represented by Endeavor died when the Vicars attacked, and the Cheshire Kittens as we know them today were born. Less than a year later they successfully broke away from Endeavor, and within a year of that they — alongside Compton Nuk’d, Darth Radian, Razor’d Wings, and Morpha-B-L — had founded Metal Wing Records. Cozy Tight managed the Kittens, acted as the agent for most of the new Metal Wing groups, and produced almost all the albums that came out in the first three years Metal Wing existed. Cozy Tight’s communication and translation powers applied to mixing and mastering as much as languages, and Metal Wing started to have a major impact.
“It was fucking insane,” Tabby said to me. “If at any point a fucking bullet enters your body? Stop fucking singing. That’s my advice to the next generation. But in that moment? Right then? It’s like adrenalin and terror and anger fused. I never sang better or played better.” She shook her head. “Nearly fucking killed Zed. We were so stupid. But it made us. The super powered super punk hot chicks who didn’t use their powers to snap those fuckers like twigs and then kept playing until they were done? We were like Teddy Roosevelt but hot.”
“That is… the strangest comparison I ever heard,” I admitted.
“Yeah, I do that.” She shook her head, snorting, her movements a little broader now. I assumed the Restoril was doing its job. “I grew up with Zeph. We’re closer than maybe anyone ‘cept her and her OTP. Bitty-P’d been on the scene forever. Like, forever. But sitting in a semi-private at the hospital like four hours later, wondering if Zed was gonna die? That’s when Zed, Esther and I really connected. And in the background, the whole fucking world was on our side — if the Vicars were trying to rally shitheads behind them? They fucked that up proper.” She breathed out, slowly, rippling slightly, light refracting through her body for a moment, casting rainbows on the wall. “The Cheshire Fucking Kittens.” She snorted. “Zeph got hit too, but she heals hella fast so no one even knew. And now Esther hates my fucking guts and I hate hers and Zeph’s pretending like we don’t even need a drummer or we could grab someone off the street.”
I asked why Esther was so mad. She just looked out the window for a long time. “You’re gonna talk to her too, right?” she asked, and I said I was. “Good. Good. Girl took a bullet for this band. I don’t care if I end up being the bad guy because of it — she needs to be heard.” She looked at me, finally. “Esther’s fucking brilliant. Zeph’s fucking brilliant. I’m fucking brilliant. Zed and Pyre are both fucking brilliant. All of us write music. But a band has a sound, and a vision, and a focus. And for the Cheshire Kittens that’s Zeph and me. It always has been. Eventually that was going to piss her off. Or it was gonna piss off Zed or Pyre, but Esther’s always been the hungriest. The most political.”
“What about Drillbit P?” I asked.
“Bitty-P?” She laughed. “We’ve begged Bitty-P to write something. Anything. She just laughs and says she’s there to play. If we collapsed tomorrow, we’d all start solo projects or duos and shit, but Bitty-P’d probably just start hunting up sessions work. Don’t get me wrong. She gets it. She’s a Cheshire Kitten. But give her complicated sheet music and a few hours and she’ll be in fucking heaven.”
“So you don’t have to be a songwriter to be a Cheshire Kitten?” I asked.
“No. There are four basic requirements. You have to be an expressed parahuman. You have to be a woman. You have to be able to play. And you have to get it. And if you don’t get what I mean by that? There’s no hope for you.”
“So is that why Esther’s gone?” I asked. “Did she stop getting it, so she couldn’t be a Cheshire Kitten any more?”
That made Tabby mad. Full out ‘I’m glad she doesn’t hit people’ mad. “Never fucking say that again,” she shouted at me. “Esther’s a Cheshire Kitten and she always will be! It doesn’t matter what she says, or does, or says about me! She fucking took a bullet in her side and then drummed her ass off for an hour and a half! She never missed a fucking show in her life! She never stopped getting it! Where do you get off!?”
I managed to apologize. And she calmed down. I admit it confused me, though. It was clear Esther Jowls’s leaving had caused an upheaval, and it was just as clear that everyone was angry at her. But the mere implication that her storming off somehow meant she wasn’t ‘one of them’ made G-Listening so angry she could barely see straight.
But then, I clearly didn’t get it.
¤ ¤ ¤
Ruler Slap couldn’t be further away from the Cheshire Kittens in either musicality or target demographic. He’s a prosahuman hardcore rapper. But he has always been an enthusiastic fan of the Kittens and their sound, and he often discusses them in media. “I hear people say shit about the Kittens — they’re selling out. They’re just commercial now. Bullshit. Look at their last four or five albums. Play Denunciation and then play Dire. Do those sound like the same fucking thing? No. But they still sound like the Kittens. Sellouts would give you Denunciation over and over again. Angrier Than Wet and Pedigree don’t sound anything alike, but they both have that fire, you know? And people say ‘well they’re making them more mainstream.’ In any other field, being able to increase your appeal without changing your intent is a sign of improvement. But fucking music fans, man. If it’s not the thing they liked fifteen years ago, then that means the band sucks now. Fuck them.”
¤ ¤ ¤
“Esther? Consider a gigantic zit on the left ass cheek of a beautiful model.” Zephyr Lish strummed a few notes out on a twelve string acoustic guitar while we talked. “It just grows and festers and eventually you squeeze it or it can’t take it any more and it pops, and all the fucking pus comes out, you shower, and three days later you’re naked in magazines and everyone’s happy. I give you Esther Fucking Jowls, may she fucking rot.”
Zephyr Lish is considered one of the best guitarists in history. The oldest of two children, raised by an alcoholic and abusive single mother, Zephyr Lish’s primary parahuman expression had given the young musician a chance to get herself and her sister out of that house. Her super speed and reflexes let her get money fast — specifically as a cat burglar. Even after she was caught — though being tried as a juvenile — she had laundered enough cash to keep her sister safe from her mother. When she got out of Juvie she hooked back up with G-Listening and the two made a go at music.
Zephyr Lish wasn’t the name on her birth certificate, but one of the conditions of the interview was that we wouldn’t print that name. So, she had been a thief, she had done time — albeit not in full adult prison — and she used her professional name exclusively. It was like I was interviewing another supervillain. She’s considered the ‘hottie’ of a group where every member’s hot, with a kind of classical beauty you could just fall in. She compensates for that through vulgarity and rage.
“Did she surprise you when she left?”
“Only that she finally had the balls.” Zephyr’s fingers danced over the strings, creating an intricate classical melody with two synchronized harmony lines — the advantage of her speed. “She’s talked a big game for years. Drove us nuts. Never happy. Kind of pissed we weren’t still scratching for a living on the bar scene and playing Meta’d rallies.” She shook her head. “She had this fucking way about her. A sense of moral superiority that made you want to rip her face off.” She snorted. “She’s lucky Cozy made that a no-go.”
“G-Listening says she’s still a Cheshire Kitten.”
Zephyr looked up at me. “And?”
“I didn’t think you’d agree.”
“That’s not how it works. Of course she’s a fucking Cheshire Kitten. I hate her guts and I’m glad she’s gone, but she’s still a Cheshire Kitten.” Her musical line shifted into more of a Spanish guitar line. “I get pissed at her so easily, and there’s only so many times you can be called a phony or sellout before you want to run someone out of town on a rail, but there’s still history there.”
“Why does she say you’re a sellout?”
“Because I’m not ashamed of the fact that norm boys and girls buy everything we do. I’m proud of it. I’m proud we make a buttload of cash. I’m proud that some trash kid from Santa Domingo ended up on top. I’m proud of my songs. I’m proud to see a girl’s torso sporting my face and a rude lyric. I’m proud to see a guy’s dorm room with our fucking poster on the wall. I don’t think it’s a crime or a betrayal when norms like our songs. Everyone can understand feeling alienated and persecuted. Engaging that sense is the first step in getting the oppressors to stop fucking oppressing. If they want to gun Paragirl Down at top volume out a Frat House window? Good! People will hear it.” She segued into three contralines of surf music as she kept talking. “And I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty that I’m richer than God as a result. I spent a lot of time poor. I like this better.”
“So it’s about the message, but you don’t mind getting paid.”
“‘So it’s about the message,’” she mocked in a high tone. “Don’t be reductionist. It’s about the message, and the music, and the attitude, and the sales, and everything else. It’s never just one thing.” She slipped into a three-part jazz combo jamming on guitar, fingers literally blurring. “Esther’s real problem is she wants it to be simple. She wants norms to be bad guys and parahumans to be good guys. It doesn’t work like that. It can’t work like that. And most of all it doesn’t have to work like that.”
She explained in some detail, her music still building. “TH types love to talk about the natural order and supremacy. Parahuman supremacists are few and far between. Why? Because what’s the point? Look at Cozy in law or management. The moment she cut loose from Endeavor she soared and so did we. Why? Because norms can’t do what she can do. Look at me, playing this sweet, sweet guitar line. The late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan innovated and created and changed the world of guitar and I can’t ever walk in his shoes, but he still couldn’t come close to what I’m doing right now in front of you because prosahumans aren’t fast enough. The great myth is that human exceptionalism will always out… but human exceptionalism is increasingly parahuman exceptionalism. Right now there’s a lot of rules and laws and downright unconstitutional-but-somehow-legal things to keep norms at the top of the heap, but the more parahumans enter the workplace, the more parahumans take over the workplace. Prosahuman scientists may make plenty of breakthroughs moving forward, but parahuman scientists will outthink them and do an order of magnitude more science than they do.” She laughed. “Esther really wants it to be a huge us versus them. And sure, that makes plenty of sense if she wants to go put on spandex and get interviewed by you wearing your other hat, but over here in the real world? The struggle isn’t to overthrow or take out norms. It’s to get them to move just enough to the side so we can slide right past them.” She looked sidelong at me, her guitar still wailing. “You ever read any I.Q. Nu? He says it better. But then, Esther’s a fucking idiot. She took the wrong thing from that, too.
¤ ¤ ¤
I.Q. Nu was the street and performance name for the late former Meta’d gang member and Neo-rap singer Charles Foster Thorpe. Thorpe went from the streets to academia to rap and back again, bringing parahuman activism with him. He was most famous for his so called “Just Clever Enough” speech, which formed the bedrock of modern parahuman rights activism — and a good number of Cheshire Kittens songs.
The basic idea is simple. Despite what Zephyr Lish told me, prosahumans don’t have to outthink parahumans — they have to be, as the phrase says, ‘just clever enough.’ As Thorpe said in his speech:
We threaten norms because we outdo them in every way. The golden trait of humanity over all other species has always been intelligence. They think, they rationalize, they use language, and they conceptualize, and so they can master lions and tigers that are stronger and faster and more physically robust. And now there are parahumans. And one of the four most common parahuman expressions is enhanced intellect. Parahumans think better than norms. Parahumans rationalize with greater facility and sophistication than norms. Parahumans can develop languages and concepts norms cannot begin to keep up with. If intelligence is the great advantage of humanity, then humanity is doomed.
However, the norms have figured out something crucial. While they stand at the top of the heap, they do not need to be smarter than parahumans. They do not need to be more clever than parahumans. They do not need to be better than parahumans. They have to be just clever enough. They have to be just clever enough to pass laws that say we cannot use our powers in the course of human affairs. They have to be just clever enough to lift some of our most powerful up, call them ‘heroes,’ and convince them to act on behalf of norms over parahumans. They have to be just clever enough to consistently act in their own best interest instead of in the interests of a greater justice. They have to be just clever enough to know that if they keep us minimized and disorganized we cannot pose a threat to them no matter how powerful or clever we are.
I have no anger within me when I describe these tactics. Prosahumanity is doing exactly what they must to maintain a status quo that has always benefited them. And, so long as they have parahumans to help reinforce that status quo — like Justice Wing as the most obvious example — then they can keep their lead despite our greater stride.
And so I say we must not strive to outthink them. We must not strive to use brute intelligence or strength against them. Instead, we must come together. We must recognize their tactics. We must understand that if we act as one, with organization and with cunning, we can defeat the impediments they put in our path. We do not need to collectively be more clever than all of them — we need to be just clever enough to act in our own best interest, in exactly the same way they act in their best interest. Once we do that, our natural superiorities will outstrip them, and we will assume our rightful place without any need for violence or pain.
I.Q. Nu’s writing and speeches influenced a lot of the Cheshire Kittens catalogue. The same way that Cozy Tight had told them to keep their conflict verbal and intellectual instead of physical, I.Q. Nu’s advice helped to keep their message focused. Be angry, but be angry together. Don’t attack, compete. And never let the prosahumans forget the struggle was real and had a human face — and if that face was cute and merchandisable? So much the better.
That was at the crux of Esther Jowls’s public attacks on her former bandmates — she might still be a Cheshire Kitten in the eyes of the others, but no one claimed she was still in the band itself. To Esther Jowls, the Cheshire Kittens had stopped working to move the norms out of the way of parahumans, and had settled for and sold out to them — selling them music and merchandise and the vague feeling that by wearing that tee-shirt Zephyr Lish had talked about they were actually doing something without having to actually do anything. Esther Jowls didn’t advocate for war or violence — but she took offense at the Cheshire Kittens living off the fat of the status quo while claiming to challenge it.
It is a position that’s appearing more and more often. Fellow Metal Wings debut band Morpha-B-L recently charted with a single taking a direct shot at their label-mates. “Kitting the Bell” tells the story of a mouser who gets slow and fat off the thick cream and fat the mice keep sliding to it, until finally it sticks its own head in a belled-collar that chokes it to death. Lead singer Shiftiq wasn’t shy about their message.
We all like to get paid. I don’t want to claim otherwise. I have a house in the Hills too. But at what point does a radical act stop being radical? At what point does the revolutionary become a reenactor? I’m not saying anyone — especially anyone I’ve worked closely with in the past — has gone past the point of no return… not yet. But Johnny Rotten still looked like punk rock royalty for years after he married into a gigantic media dynasty, hosted crap reality shows, and parodied himself across the continent, and all those people kept talking about how edgy they were for being his fans. It wasn’t until he shilled butter on television that old school punk figured out they were being played.
When asked about Shiftiq’s comments, Cheshire Kittens rhythm guitarist Allon-Zed laughed. “I have that album,” she said. “I played the veritable fuck out of it. It’s got a hunger to it. Even after all these years, Shiftiq’s still hungry for what we have. I can appreciate that.” She thought for a moment. “And no matter what Shiftiq says, he will never, ever be for his genre what John Lydon was for his, and John Lydon will undoubtedly not give two shits about Shiftiq’s opinion in the matter.”
“Do you think he’s got a point?”
Allon-Zed laughed. “My entire life, someone’s tried to tell me I wasn’t being black enough, or woman enough, or any number of things. Now I am not parahuman enough, either. Well. My heritage is African, my birthplace is America. And, like many African Americans of my generation, I have reaped the benefits of the Civil Rights struggle that began previous to the Civil War in this nation and ultimately became the Civil Rights Movement. And while we have not yet achieved all our goals, we are vastly closer than our grandfathers were. Similarly, my great grandmother was not allowed to vote in this Nation due to her sex. Sexism persists just as racism does, but we are better today than we were a century ago, and to claim otherwise is to ignore the process that is progress. That is Esther’s great problem, and Shiftiq’s too. To them, if it is not entirely done, then it is entirely undone. All that does is move us backwards.”
Allon-Zed speaks with great precision. Like G-Listening and Zephyr Lish, she is an award winning songwriter, poet and composer. Unlike her bandmates, she mostly doesn’t write for the Cheshire Kittens — though their top ten single “Quarterhorse” was one of her’s. She writes for other Metal Wings artists (including, ironically enough, Morpha-B-L) and occasionally for others. When asked to describe her parahuman expression, she simply says “illumination.” She can both manipulate and generate light and illusion, which she uses in Cheshire Kittens stage shows to great effect.
“I excelled academically,” Allon-Zed told me, up in one of G-Listening’s guest suites. The Cheshire Kittens tended to crash at each other’s places more often than most bands I’d interviewed over the years. “I grew up in Vermont and got a scholarship to Grantham University. I wanted what every student wants — a chance to prove myself, to show what I could do. And the university life gave me that chance… to a point.”
Allon-Zed — she legally changed her name before college — discovered there were many pitfalls in the collegiate world. “There were competitions and prizes. Poetry slams. Magazines. Coffeehouses and performances… on the surface, there was so much opportunity to show so many what I could do. But I made what many of my teachers and friends termed a tactical error early on. I made no attempt to hide my parahumanity. Indeed, I was and am proud of all I can do.” Her chuckle turned sardonic. “What I had to learn, not just once but many times, was that the fear of so-called ‘unfair competition’ is ever so much greater than an actual parahuman advantage might be.”
She caused a glittering diamond to assemble out of the light in her hand, sending sparkles through the room. “Illumination gives me many great gifts, but it does not choose my words for me or grant me answers from beyond. And yet, I learned that in many venues — competitive or not — parahumanity was cited as an excuse for exclusion. It wasn’t fair to the prosahumans, you see. When I told them again and again that I had no metacognitive abilities — my abilities are purely photokinetic — they told me they had no way of verifying that as true. When I said they had no way to verify that any of the others were concealing a paraintellect, they told me that innocence had to be presumed. When I asked what made me guilty, they acted as though it were self-evident. I had admitted to parahumanity. Therefore, I was admitting to deception. I literally was tarred a liar and cheat because I refused to lie or bluesuit.”
She smiled warmly. “I am honestly surprised you don’t know the term, given the circles in which you run. Bluesuiting refers back to the old comics. The secret identities. Not, say, Captain Prestige, saying his magical word and letting the comet’s explosion turn him back into Kenny Kirkland. That is transformation. No, this is the concealed identity. The four color god lands on Earth, concealing his spandex suit and bright red cape. He puts on a very conventional blue suit and tie that makes him look stiff and awkward. He combs his hair to look unexceptional. His eyes are much better than human eyes, but he puts on glasses so he looks weak, and frail. He clothes himself not only in mundanity but in incompetence. Around others, he acts the part of the awkward fool, lest one suspect he is no man but a god.”
She chuckled again. “I reject this, Mister Chapman. I reject a blue suit that hides my physique from the world. I reject glasses I do not need to see. I reject the idea that I must not just conform but present as inferior to the prosahumans around me. I am not inferior to you, nor any other prosahuman. If our task is the conjuration of light, I am demonstrably superior to you, since you can’t do it at all. For this pride, I am told I must only compete with other parahumans, regardless of venue and regardless of what my expressed parahumanity might be.” She leaned back. “This remains true for me, and for others like me, just as others of my race get pulled over for ‘routine’ traffic violations half again as often as those of your race get pulled over, according to Stanford University’s statistics. Others of my presented gender make roughly seventy-eight cents in their profession to every dollar one of your presented gender makes.” She cocked her head at me again. “If I remember that interview of yours, you complained to your editor that a female writer made more than you made, despite her apparent greater skill, and then extorted that editor so that you ended up making significantly more than she did before turning your article in. And were quite proud of yourself for it, I would add.”
I admit I didn’t (and don’t) care for the comparison. “I demanded more money because the assignment was both longer and more dangerous than he claimed. It had nothing to do with how much Mary got paid.”
“Was this ‘Mary’ a better writer than you?” I declined to answer that, which seemed to amuse Allon-Zed. “It doesn’t matter, of course. Regardless of the reasons, you were paid significantly more than she had ever been paid. The status quo was restored.”
She looked off to the side. “The Olympics are allegedly competitions to determine the greatest athletes in the world — named for and dedicated to the ancient Gods, amusingly enough. But parahumans are not allowed to compete in the Olympics. They may compete in the separate ‘enhanced division’ if they wish, but almost no one does — it comes across as being paraded like a freak show. In the last Summer Games, the ‘world record’ for the women’s ten thousand meter footrace was set at twenty-nine minutes and seventeen seconds, more or less. Zephyr Lish’s favorite take out restaurant is over eighteen miles away — roughly twenty-nine thousand meters — but when she orders she always picks it up herself. She sticks below the sound barrier for reasons of politeness to her neighbors, so she manages to go from her front door to their front door in about one minute twenty-four seconds. But not only does Zephyr Lish not hold the world record for the ten thousand meter race even though she can go two point nine times the distance in under a twentieth of the time? She isn’t even eligible to try. And even more ridiculously, neither am I, even though my illumination makes me no more fast than it does smart.”
“If we open the Olympics up to parahumans, then prosahumans can’t actually compete in them at all. You don’t see that as a problem?” I felt a bit odd asking the question even as the words came out of my mouth. I wasn’t capable of competing in the Olympics either — should we hobble the athletes to give me a ‘fair chance’ at them? But then, my opinion wasn’t the point here.
“I see it as a resolvable problem. In addition to the Olympics, there are the Paralympics — which does not refer to the Enhanced Division we spoke of before, but instead are games where athletes with disabilities can strive and compete and do their best. They are, if anything, even more inspiring than the Olympics. I would not dream of coopting their name, but I do not need to. Let us have the Paralympics for them… and the Prosalympics for those who lack expressed parahumanity. And let us reserve the name ‘Olympics’ for any and all who wish to compete to prove themselves the best.”
“Meaning humans, Mister Chapman. The best, fastest, strongest humans. That is what the Olympics is meant to be, is it not? Or must one be prosahuman to be human?” She laughed again. “But what do I know? According to Esther and Shiftiq, I’m too busy gorging at the rat’s feast to have opinions on these matters.”
She looked back at me. “I spend a significant amount of my time campaigning for equal rights for women and minorities of all sorts. The Civil Rights Movement is far from complete. And I have studied those that came before me. If we look back to the sixties, we used to hear calls for ‘Black Power.’ I can understand that well enough, but I think it more telling to look at the Black Panthers. Their slogan was ‘all power to the people.’ All people, not just black people or white people, should share in the power. This is the key to the struggle against racism. We do not ask to be made masters in the house where once we were slaves. We demand that the former masters look us in the eye and shake our hands, both sides free and equal in all things.
“But that is not a rallying cry for parahuman rights activists, I’m afraid. Not if they wish to keep a clear conscience. We cannot claim a desire for equality in all things, because that would not be liberation but bondage for parahumanity. If all barriers were stripped away tomorrow, the next day would see the sun setting on norm dominance.” She leaned forward, still looking at me. “Naturally, prosahumans will demand and extort and do what they have to do to retain their dominant position, just like you could demand to be paid more than your female colleague and make it stick. If this Mary really is a better writer than you, then either you have to use every weapon in your arsenal to increase your pay… or you have to accept that she will always be paid more. You tell me it’s not about that, and I believe you. But I tell you it doesn’t matter what it’s about… because in the end, it is what it is.” She smiled once more. “You are currently interviewing a band, not a villain. Just like she does, I assume. This time you are in no danger, and the assignment is no longer than you were told. If this Mary has an article in Amplifier, will she be paid more? Or did you use your manager and agent, fame and name recognition to ensure your check is much higher, even if she is still better than you are?”
Before I could answer, she turned away. “Still… ‘Kitting the Bell’ really is a good song. Morpha-B-L deserves its success. I should get Shiftiq to autograph a CD cover for me the next time I see him at the studio.”
“Is it better than one of your songs?” I asked. “Do they deserve a bigger payday for it?”
She glanced back over her shoulder, and smiled a bit more coyly. “You’re learning,” she said. “That’s always a good sign.”
¤ ¤ ¤
“Part of the issue is their connection to the Parahuman Rights Movement,” journalist and Crown City Chronicle editor Teddy Porter says to me on the phone. “They’ve always maintained a firm commitment to parahuman rights in the workplace, in education, in society in general — the right for parahumans to be themselves, with all their natural advantages. At the same time, it’s like any other group with that kind of message. Their early work comes from their own experiences. ‘Transparent’ is drawn from Tabitha Strong’s own rough experiences with the police. ‘Ditchdigger Supreme’ off their first, limited release album is rough and raw, but it’s also directly speaking to Zephyr Lish’s inability to find a legitimate job that used her speed. ‘Quarterhorse’ is as much Allon-Zed’s losing opportunities to keep things ‘fair’ for everyone but her. There’s always going to be an intensity there that their later work can’t match. By the time they put out Denunciation, these women had comfortable lives and money in the bank. They never lost their empathy or their conviction, but their day to day lives don’t reflect the experience they’re trying to channel.”
¤ ¤ ¤
Four days into my stay, I sat in on and watched a parade of drummers do their best to impress two legends of neo-punk. There had been some studio time and a lot more arguments, but no matter what shape the album was or what guest drummers they could bring in to complete the tracks, the Cheshire Kittens couldn’t hit the road without someone behind them bringing the thunder. Woman after woman showed up, dressed in everything from formal recital clothing to one who wore a leather bikini, studded collar, white fright wig, and seven pounds of makeup.
It would probably have gone better if the two Cheshire Kittens watching the parade liked even one of them.
“This is going well,” Zephyr Lish muttered. “I’m so glad we’re doing this.”
“Shut up,” Tabby fairly groaned. “I’m on ibuprofin and prayer.”
“I suppose you couldn’t expect the next Patti Smith to just walk through the door.”
Tabby looked at me funny. “What?”
“Patti Smith? Like we talked about? The day I got here?”
She blinked. “Oh. I don’t remember that.”
I expressed my surprise, but she shrugged, as though it were no big deal.
“Lemme guess. Did she temazapam up?” Zephyr Lish sounded almost amused. When I confirmed her guess, she nodded. “Yeah, she gapped. She does that.”
“Memory gaps,” Tabby said. “I probably started to babble a bit and jump topics. The temazapam does that, even though my biochemistry purges it out pretty quickly. Sometimes, when things get too rough, it’s just easier to blow past the memory, y’know?”
I didn’t. I was mildly horrified. “You walked off with me. We talked for twenty or thirty minutes!”
“Oh fuck,” Zephyr said, laughing. “Did she hit up her Slits rant? Or Bush Tetras or Vivian Goldman?”
“No. Patti Smith and the Bags. You’re telling me you intentionally roofied yourself and then wandered off with a guy you just met? During a magazine interview?” I was, I admit, upset. It’s not the responsibility of an interviewer to ensure the safety of the interviewee save in extenuating circumstances, and it rankled to have been put in that position. Not having been told it was happening made me full on angry.
Tabby shrugged. “You were recording, right? You were recording, I was recording, Cozy was recording. If there was trouble there was a record. And I couldn’t cope right then. Sometimes I can’t. More these days than not.” She snorted. “Like this is the worst drugs story you’ve seen in rock journalism.”
“What else did she talk about?” Zephyr asked. “The way this is going? I could use the fucking laugh.”
“Toothy Shock. Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Thunderfest.”
“Oh fuck,” Tabby said. “I hate the Spungen rant. And now it’s in going in fucking print. Tell your readers G-Listening says don’t do drugs, or you’ll sound like a fucking tool forever!”
“Toothy Shock’s new,” Zephyr said.
“Yeah,” Tabby threw in. “I’m surprised he came up. You ever meet him? Legendary rocker. Absolutely freaked if anyone swore around him. God, it was weird.”
“I bet,” I said. Was it deja vu if you knew damn well you were in fact having a conversation for a second time? I got us off that topic, until I could process a little more. Tabby was right that I had seen significantly worse drug abuse during my rock journalism days. That was another thing I wasn’t used to any more. Drug abuse is comparatively low among super villains and their henches, and where it exists it’s more on the ‘pot in the evenings’ level. Most villains would fire (or worse) a hench they caught incapable of doing their job at a second’s notice, after all. Still, the idea that G-Listening of the Cheshire Kittens intentionally compromised herself and walked away from her band with a stranger actively bothered me. It still does.
Not wanting to push this any further, I steered the subject into other directions. I asked about the auditions; they seemed rough, especially when we remembered this was for a shot with the Cheshire Kittens. I’d expect only the absolute best be sent over.
“Why aren’t A-listers beating down our door?” Tabby thought the question was a joke. “Because they don’t qualify. To sit on that drum kit, you start by having to be an expressed parahuman and a woman. After that comes ‘can you actually play the drums,’ and ‘can you actually play our music.’ Somewhere in there we also have to throw in their look, their attitude, and whether or not we hate them on sight.” Deja vu again — the four requirements that Tabby clearly didn’t remember she’d already told me. “A-listers have their own thing, their own music. Not to mention that the list of known A-list female drummers with expressed parahuman abilities has Esther’s name on it all by itself. Who the fuck are they going to send us?”
“These idiots are being fronted by agencies and labels,” Zephyr threw in. “We’re signed with Metal Wing and those guys don’t play ball normally. They want an in with us.” She shook her head. “Maybe — maybe we’ll find someone this way, but it’s way more likely we’ll find someone in some dive bar playing her fucking heart out. Clearly we need to go drinking and expense it to Cozy.”
Tabby snorted at the thought, but stayed on topic. “Here’s an example. That one earlier this morning? With the purple hair? Good drummer. Which makes sense because she studied percussion at Julliard. Fucking Julliard. Yeah, she’s an expressed parahuman and yeah she can drum — but she absolutely didn’t have any of the feel for neo-punk or our music. She looked like she was playing dressup, and talking to her I didn’t get any sense we could pull real punk rock out of her soul. And she’s the best prospect we’ve seen.” She looked like she’d swallowed a bug.
“Yeah,” Zephyr said. “She was good. But she wasn’t a Cheshire Kitten and nothing was gonna make her a Cheshire Kitten.”
“Because of Julliard?”
“Fuck you,” Zephyr snapped. “I went to Julliard!” Which took me by surprise, but it was the truth. Even after her time in Juvie Zephyr Lish was good enough to impress one of the best schools of music in the country. Tabby had followed her to Empire City. After a year and a half Zephyr dumped Julliard and they both booked to Grantham. That’s where they met Allon-Zed and Esther Jowls. They picked up Drillbit P at a particularly notable gig at the Rathskeller. Aileen came years later, after Cozy Tight had picked them up and Allon-Zed had gotten tired of keyboards.
Zephyr Lish was still complaining about the purple haired drummer. “You can just see the fucking process at work. I’m sure her agent said it just took a haircut and leather.” She looked at me angrily. “It doesn’t. When Aileen Pyre auditioned for keyboards, she was in a fucking sweater and skirt and looked like she just drove over from Sunday School, but the second she hit the keys we knew she got it.” She shook her head. “God I hate fucking Esther.”
“And you wonder why she quit,” Tabby said, a bit acidly.
“I wonder a lot of things. I don’t wonder that. What the fuck was she thinking? Does she think she’s gonna suddenly explode like… like… what fucking drummers ever went on to be superstars? Buddy fucking Rich?”
“Phil Collins,” I threw in.
“Oh, fuck Genesis,” Zephyr shouted. “I fucking hate Genesis! Fucking Peter Gabriel should have put them out of his misery when he left!”
“She doesn’t care for Genesis,” Tabby said, mildly.
“Fuck you both. Cozy! Send in the next one before we start getting some vestige of hope back!” Cozy Tight had seen all the drummers before now, of course. The other Cheshire Kittens would get a chance to throw in on anyone Tabby and Zephyr thought could make the cut, but neither Allon-Zed nor Aileen Pyre wanted to be part of the this first cut. “There’s no point,” Aileen said. “If Tabby or Zeph don’t want them, that’s the ball game. We’re all Cheshire Kittens, but they’re the soul and we know it.”
“There really is no point to needless argument,” Allon-Zed agreed. “Any who G-Listening and Zephyr Lish think make the cut will be worth hearing. Any they don’t care for will never be chosen so why bother?”
I asked Drillbit P why she didn’t want to sit in on the auditions, but she just laughed. “I don’t care who I play with,” she said. “I just want to play. I’m so fucking sick of waiting.”
But wait she would, along with the rest of the band and their legions of fans who were still waiting for the new album to drop. After hours of auditioning, Tabby and Zephyr decided no one they’d seen that day ‘got it,’ and if they didn’t ‘get it,’ then they couldn’t be Cheshire Kittens. The other band members were disheartened, but seemed to understand.
I looked at Zephyr Lish while we all ate Chinese food in Tabby’s living room that night. “I thought the drummer didn’t matter — anyone could do it. Even a drum machine or a blowup doll could do it. Do you think Esther brought more to the table than you were willing to admit?”
Zephyr looked at me for a long moment. The egg roll I was holding suddenly seemed to vanish with only a rush of wind to mark its passage. “Wiseass reporters don’t get fucking egg rolls,” she snapped, and then ate my eggroll.
¤ ¤ ¤
Esther Jaruzelska is tiny. Maybe five foot two, very thin — she looks like a pixie. That, at least, didn’t fool me. I’d learned not to judge people — especially parahumans — by their size. This was especially true for ‘Esther Jowls.’ The woman had a dragon’s soul in a human body — her name came from her jaw, snout and face swelling into a huge maw when she wailed during a song. If the Cheshire Kittens had been heroes or villains instead of musicians, Esther Jowls would have been their powerhouse. “You should get the omelet,” she said. “Best fucking omelets in Las Bendiciones.”
We were specifically in downtown Las Bendiciones, sitting in an absolute pit. The plaster on the walls was falling off. The vinyl on the booth seats were pitted with cigarette holes. The floor looked like an army had taken up line dancing. The stage still had the remnants of a chicken wire barricade that had clearly been torn off at some point. At night, the club was home to hardcore, metapunk, death metal and the like, and because the Meta’d hung there, the walls were reinforced like a bunker. During the morning? They served breakfast. It reminded me of the Hurricane in Evergreen City.
It was mid-morning — that magical time when punk and thrash clubs go dormant and the few people hanging around look hung over and confused at all the outdoor light coming in through the few windows. Most of the people in there wore bright green bandanas on their upper left arm, with a blaze orange underneath and the two twisted together on the inside. Meta’d. Specifically the South Court Meta’d — this was their territory. Beyond them, a few members of Compton Nuk’d were at another booth, having breakfast. Esther had introduced me around and they’d looked at me with moderate interest before going back to their food.
Esther herself had the bandanas on her arm. She also wore a white tank, black leather skirt and Doc Martins. She had a collar with studs and a charm in front with an etched bell symbol on it. She seemed a little uncomfortable, which was kind of weird to me, given she could tear me limb from limb. But then, Cheshire Kittens didn’t do that.
I wondered if that still applied.
“So are they freaking the fuck out, yet?” I was waiting for my omelet before I was going to start asking questions, but Esther was clearly ready to get this underway. I told her that there was in fact some freaking and it did seem to be ‘the fuck out.’ She smiled at that, though it wasn’t a joyful smile. “No shock. Idiots. Fucking Zeph probably thought she could speed back and forth, drums and guitar. But then Zeph thinks she can do everything and gets pissed when she can’t. G’s probably trying to sit in the corner and pretend it’ll all go away. Aileen’s going fucking nuclear because she never handles change well. Zed’s going all overenunciated ‘I have a fucking BA so love me.’ And Bitty-P doesn’t give a shit — she just wants to play her fucking bass.” She took a cigarette out. It lit itself and she took a pull off it. “Fucking six year olds, all of them.” It’s illegal to smoke in any public place of business in Las Bendiciones, but Esther clearly didn’t care and her’s was hardly the only lit cigarette in the place.
“As opposed to you?”
“Fuck yeah. I’m at least seven. And my tantrums are at an eighth grade level. My parents are so fucking proud.” Esther Jowls was born in Pacis, Massachusetts, north of Grantham. She underwent spontaneous induced parahuman expression when she accidentally interrupted a paradevotional ceremony designed to raise mythical dragons to do the summoners’ bidding. She was rescued by Whippoorwill, but had already been infused with the essence of one of those mythical dragons. Her parents had been devout Christians, and were not able to reconcile what their daughter had become with their beliefs. By seventeen she was staying in a foster home. She was eighteen the night a couple of parahuman rockers had their paid backup bail on them and they needed a drummer to jam with them. Allon-Zed had been there that night, too, and the four began playing dive dates under the name Litterkin. The band name changed the same night at the Rathskeller that they picked up Drillbit P.
“There was this guy,” Esther said. “Some dick. He’d thrown a couple beers — demanded they card us and throw us out. He just fucking hated girls, near as I can tell. And a’course none of us were twenty one but Jesus, we were playing the club, not drinking. It was a big deal too — the Rat meant something — and he was fucking with it. So Tabby goes for the psychout — going all insane grin and then letting her body fade from view all spooky like.” She took a forkful of omelet. “Failed miserably. He laughed at her, comin’ at where she’d been, climbin’ on stage, shouting ‘oh are you all cheshire cat now? You’re no cheshire cat, you’re barely a fucking cheshire kitten!’ And then there was a wind blast and Zeph was there holding her guitar like it was an actual battleaxe and shaking like a leaf, and I was scared as shit but I managed to scale up and grow to like, eight feet — tore my clothes to fucking shreds. And there’s Zed glowing, and when he turned around he was suddenly soaked, and the water became Bitty-P. And he ran like fuck, and we were all what the fuck do we do now, and Zed was all like ‘well, does everyone know ‘Cherry Bomb’ and they all did, and Tabby asked if Bitty P could sing and it sunk in Bitty P was literally carrying a bass guitar around with her. Where she hid the amp I still don’t fucking know. Water elementals, man. So that was our debut — desperately covering a Runaways song in like three keys.” She laughed again. “I didn’t even know it. I just drummed and prayed no one would laugh at me. And we just… went with Cheshire Kittens after that.”
“I never heard that story.”
“Yeah, well — we don… they don’t tell it. Why would they? We got actual national airplay with ‘Transparent,’ and the Cheshire Kittens name works so fucking well with that song that everyone just assumed they were connected. But no, the name came ‘cause some dick wanted to cut Tabby down to size.” She laughed again. “We were fucking kids. Why’d we keep the name? To prove a point to some random dick we literally never saw again. Rock and fucking roll, right?”
My own omelet had arrived, alongside a cup of coffee and a glass of tap water with didn’t bother with the ice. The omelet was a good call. And that, if nothing else, seemed like it would be the best time to get into it. “So. You left the Cheshire Kittens and weren’t shy about it. I’ve heard why they think you left. I’d really love to know your reasons.”
Esther laughed — maybe a little derisively. “You’ve been hanging out with Cozy. That’s some diplomatic shit right there.” She still looked uncomfortable, taking a moment to look out the window at the street in daylight. “It’s not quite ten yet, right? This kinda thing — having omelets in some trashed place? That was kind of a me-and-Zed thing. Sometimes Bitty P. Zephyr wouldn’t be up yet or at least wouldn’t want to be around other Kittens yet. Aileen’s up and if we were on the road she’d be with us but here in the City of Blessings? No fucking way. Tabby used to do breakfast but it was hard for her. You get she’s… you know, freaky anxious, right? Social anxiety most of all. Man, I shouldn’t fucking tell tales, but she sometimes — there are drugs out there… somewhere between sleep aids and date rape drugs. I’ve seen her pop those when it gets bad. They help her get through those situations and they turn off her memory. She carries around, like, recording gear so she can go over them later and know what was said. I don’t think she likes just hanging out in public diners or clubs having breakfast these days. Not with paparazzi and fans and Christ knows what psychos out there.”
I didn’t admit I’d seen the phenomenon. I was surprised to hear it was that common for her. Still, I could understand being anxious in that kind of social situation.
“Yeah,” Esther said. “You can understand it.” She looked back at me. “G can turn invisible. She literally never has to get caught by a stalker or photographer or anything. She could stay completely out of sight until breakfast was served and even then if she had to. So why does she take roofies to avoid panic attacks she literally doesn’t have to have?”
I had no idea.
“Bluesuiting, man. Tabitha Strong’s managed the impossible. She bluesuits herself, but her blue suit is fucking parahuman Tank Girl Punk chic. She won’t go invisible because that’d be taking off the glasses and admitting she’s is a fucking parahuman instead of just playing one on stage.”
“Everyone knows she’s a parahuman.”
“Yeah. But tell that to her subconsciousness. She got arrested twelve times in high school, all for crimes other people committed. The cops in her home town still insist she was a troublemaking bitch who was getting away with Christ knows what. So she feels like she has to be seen, and she panics when she is seen, and when shit goes down and people start screaming — and the Kittens scream at each other a lot — she gets stuck between two different terrors at the same time.” She snorts. “That’s why she’s a fucking genius. That’s why her songs win Grammies and get used in movies.”
“So how does that connect with you—“
“Shut up. I’m getting there. Now take Zeph — fucking Zeph. I hate fucking Zeph. I hate fucking Zeph with her perfect body and her in-your-face attitude that’s a fucking sitcom parody of a real street attitude. And you know what? Good enough. She gets to have that, because she had the worst fucking childhood of any of us. You get that? I was caught in a horrifying ceremony by people who wanted to kill me and who literally poured a magical fucking creature into me and blended the two of us like a mix-master, only to then have my fucking parents decide that made me an unclean Satan worshipper. They used to fucking chain-pray over me so God or who the fuck ever could pull the dragon out of me. And I look at you right now and tell you Zeph and her kid sister had it worse. And her only way out was to use the one thing she had her fucking mother couldn’t take away from her — and the only thing she could do with that was steal from people, and so now she was a supervillain. A fucking supervillain. She’s the best fucking guitarist in the world, and she can take that rage and pain she bleeds all over her Strat and infuse it into the rest of her songs. She’s a genius too. But the only reason she didn’t lose out forever and end up in your fucking book was because the Silver Horseman took the time to find out what happened. That got her to some fucking conservatory out east and G went with her for a new start.”
“You’ve thought a lot about this.”
“Yeah. I have. One of us had to.” She was breathing harder now, which caused bits of smoke to trail from her nostrils — and not from the cigarette, either. “Zed, near as I can tell… she was always one of those fucking perfect students who wrapped herself up in that Liberal Elite Granthamesque ‘I am so fucking clever’ bits, at least until you get her on stage. Zed on stage goes fucking feral, because Zed is the smartest person I ever met, and she worked fucking hard. Writing. Poetry. Songwriting. Classical fucking composition. She wrote a fucking Opera when she was twelve. She sent it in to some prestigious thing. They sent it back ‘cause they had to be fair to the norms. You get that, right? Zed worked her ass off every day to master the things she most wanted out of life, and no one ever thought she had to lift a finger because obviously it was all her fucking powers. She glitters, man. That’s her only power. Even today, she fucking launders half the things she writes through Cozy into convenient cover identities so people will take them seriously. And in everyday life? She overcompensates the Hell out of every conversation trying to prove that no, she really is that good with words and it’s not because some magical fairy gave her poetry radiation shots or something.” She took a pull off her cigarette — a long one. Draconic lung capacity, I suppose. “Bitty-P—“
I broke in to tell her that I hadn’t been able to sit down and talk one-on-one with Drillbit P or Aileen Pyre yet.
“Oh. Fuck. Yeah. Right. Fucking spoilers. My point with those two stands. Aileen Pyre got to have all the fun of being biracial in Middle America, turned up to 11 because one of those two races was native to another fucking star system. And Bitty-P’s clingy — she clings to the Kittens because all she wants — all she wants — is to fucking play music, and for longer than you can fucking imagine anyone who paid her attention didn’t give a shit about her bass.”
“It sounds like you all have plenty of reasons to support Parahuman Rights.”
“Exactly! And that was the thing — standing on the stage of the Rat, we had each other. Okay, not Pyre but Pyre still gets it. We had each other, and we all knew what parahumanity meant to someone who just wanted to play fucking music. And then there was Thunderfest — the great, defining moment. The fucking legend. Did they tell you about Thunderfest? Really tell you about Thunderfest?”
I went over G-Listening’s description and a few things I heard from some of the others. She listened and nodded, smoked and ate. She let me talk about the neutral ground, the Vicars, the videos, the nonviolent response and the hospitalization.
She nodded again when I’d finished. “Yeah. All that’s… that’s the story isn’t it? And I’m not saying it’s a lie. I’d love to but there’s no lie there. But it’s not the truth either.” She stared at me. “Thunderfest was a bog standard fucking summer metalhead gig, Chapman! It was one step up from playing a fucking county fair! It was hair metal and death metal and pop! It wasn’t some gathering of gangs or neutral ground — it was a fucking concert and we were a mid-card act!” She was breathing hard again, her face elongating slightly, a few scales glinting in the sunlight coming through the window. “And then these assholes in fake cossacks rush the stage, and they open fucking fire at us. And everyone knows that I got hit, and Zed got hit, and Tabby got hit.”
“And Zephyr,” I said. “I heard she got hit but heals so fast—“
“Good for you. You’re one of the few. Chapman, we all got hit! Bitty P’s really made of water — the bullet splashed and dropped out of her body because she doesn’t have fucking internal organs! These guys rushed the stage, and shot all five of us. And we stood there and let them because we’re just that fucking pure hearted.” She literally growled. “We were frozen in panic Chapman! If I hadn’t been so fucking scared I’d have taken them all out myself! I think any of us would!” She shuddered in memory. “When I’m not scaly? I’m just me — and I had a fucking bullet in my side and it hurt worse than anything and I was terrified. And Zed was bleeding like a fucking blood faucet, and Zeph was clutching her stomach and not understanding why she couldn’t feel a wound and…” She laughed, a bit hysterically. “If we were anyone else, the second security and the crowd pulled those assholes down we’d have been rushed to the hospital. But we’re parahumans, so when G — when Tabitha fucking panicked because she associated police with being arrested for something she didn’t do, she screamed for them to back off and let us play. And Zed howled at the fucking moon and tore into her keyboards — she might have been delirious. She sure as hell was in shock.”
I asked if she needed a moment, but she powered past my concern. “Zed opened ‘Quarterhorse,’ which makes sense, she wrote it and she starts it. And Zeph just slid into it, and Tabby’s panic found an outlet and she sang and so I just started fucking drumming. And for God knows how long we did our set list. And I remember.” She took another deep breath. “I remember sitting thinking ‘I’m about to die. I am bleeding to death. I am bleeding to death and I am in the worst agony I have ever felt and I am playing the drums for a fucking summer metal concert gig. This is the last thing I will ever do.”
She wrapped her arms around herself, no sign of the inner dragon now. She closed her eyes. “If we’d been anyone else… if we’d been Bikini Kill, or Bratmobile… it would have been a huge scandal. Lawsuits. Public condemnation. People crusading against rock. And we’d have been those poor helpless girls who were almost murdered on stage. But we’re not. We’re the fucking Cheshire Kittens, and we’re openly parahuman, and people caught it on video, and the overwhelming response was that it was awesome. We were fucking metal. We became legends. We were punk fucking rock. And… and you were a music guy before a villain guy, so I’ll ask. Do you know what the fucking irony is? Do you?”
I took a deep breath. “Yeah,” I said. “I do. But it’s not my interview.”
“Yeah. Your story needs me to say it.” She started laughing. “We’re not a punk rock band, Chapman! We’ve never been punk. It must piss so many real punks out there right the fuck off every time we’re held up as the second coming of punk, because we’re not. We’re riot grrl, sure, but even then we’re more on the rock side than the punk side. We shot for Bikini Kill, but the most we ever hit was Slater-Kinney. And Slater-Kinney fucking rocks, but they don’t pretend to be something they’re not!” She was breathing hard again. “So they come up with new labels so the punks don’t go ballistic. We’re neo-punk. We’re meta-punk. We’re post-para-punk. We’re a fucking rock band. Hard rock. Riot grrl. Punk influenced. Sure. Fine. Whatever. But calling us punk is an insult to the Au Pairs or Poly Styrene.”
I let her calm back down, especially since I knew the next question could be explosive. “You said ‘we,’” I said.
She looked up at me. “Force of habit.”
“I figured. The others all say you’re still a Cheshire Kitten, even if you’re not in the band any more.”
“Heh. I’m sure they fucking do.”
She snorted. Fire was involved in that snort. “Sure,” she said. “Why not. Yeah. Yes. I am. I’m a Cheshire Kitten. Fuck, I’m wearing the collar, aren’t I?” She pointed to the studded collar with the edged bell.
“I thought that was a statement. Maybe calling back to ‘Kitting the Bell?’”
“Ki— what, the fucking Morpha-B-L thing?” She rolled her eyes. “Give fucking Shiftiq a chance to make it all about him and he fucking will. No, this isn’t about that.”
“I haven’t seen the others wear those.”
“A promoter once wanted us to put on cat ears and wear fake tails. I literally set them on fire in front of him. We’re not Josie and the Fucking Pussycats.” She took a deep breath. “I wear this because it’s the Cheshire Kittens in a fucking nutshell, and they won’t fucking admit it.”
“Because you’re belled?”
“I’m not belled. This thing doesn’t ring. It’s an adorable little kitty charm don’t you just love it?” Her mouth set. “I’m collared. Because the Cheshire Kittens are domesticated. They’re fucking pets. And that’s what I couldn’t take any more.” She began angrily eating more omelet. “There’s a fine line, Chapman. There’s a fine line between entertainment and ethos. Between being an act and being an activist. And here we were, a midcard Riot Grrls act with an honest to Christ edgy hit. I’ll never fucking bag on ‘Transparent.’ And then we got amazingly, horrifyingly lucky. Maybe once or twice in a decade — or longer — there are moments in rock. Moments where the whole rock universe freezes for a second and then goes in a whole new direction. Hendrix at Woodstock. The Beatles on Sullivan. The Cheshire Kittens at Thunderfest. And the difference there… the difference was we were parahumans. We had a shot. We could make a difference. We could make the world see — make things better.”
She dropped her fork. “And maybe we did. But we also played gigs and did a lot of late night TV. We put out posters and tee shirts and mugs. And there’s Cozy behind it all. And remember, Cozy’s thing — her power — is communication. Everything we did was part of a message. Everything. Parahuman rights were part of that message, but so was ‘look at how hot Zephyr Lish and G-Listening are,’ or ‘don’t you want this Zed poster with the inspirational quote and her aggressive attitude — isn’t that attitude sexy?” She took a deep breath. “One of our album covers had us all soaking wet and glowering next to a pool, because cats hate water and we were pissed off. Get it? I’m in a tee shirt and no pants, and the tee shirt’s plastered to my body and showing my black bra and panties through it to the world, and I’m fucking pouting for the camera.”
Her voice dropped low. “That album’s big hit was God Damn ‘Paragirl Down.’ A song about… about a fucking martyr who saved the whole fucking world and died on national television who used her last fucking breath to tell us not to be afraid, and I’m on the cover of the CD like it’s the Sports Illustrated fucking swimsuit issue.”
“That’s the music industry in a nutshell, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. And musicians never quite get it — industries manufacture things. And we’re not the producers or the owners or the designers. We’re the fucking product. ‘Paragirl Down’ is just one amazing use of the new Ronco Cheshire Kittens CD, but wait, there’s more! Buy now and this dragon souled girl will be half-naked for you while the ex-thief shows off a tiger print bikini top and the genius with the social anxiety complex glistens.” She laughed again, though it sounded like tears. “They sold that as a poster, too. Because of course they did. Posters norm boys put up in their rooms, and not because they want to consider the plight of the parahuman being held back before they drift off to sleep at night.”
“And that’s the problem? That’s how the Cheshire Kittens sold out?”
“Yeah. And no.” She rolled her eyes. “There’s gonna be that shit. I get it. But you reach a tipping point. You reach a tipping point where what you’re doing becomes more about the merch and the look and the brand than about what the songs are saying. And when you hit that point, the songs have to change. You have to get less challenging. Look at early hip hop and gangsta rap, and then look at them again thirty years later. Got to get paid, son! Got to get that fucking house in the Hills so everyone knows you’re legit.” She snorted. “My house in the Hills is up for sale. I don’t need that shit. I don’t want that shit.”
“From what you said before… you blame Cozy Tight for all that?”
She paused, then looked at me. “You know Cozy’s still my manager, right?”
I didn’t know that. It surprised me, even. It seemed like a conflict of interest.
“We exploded all over social media when it finally all broke down — it was the new album. There’s some good stuff there and some absolute dogshit, and I finally ragequit and screamed at them online, and Zeph — oh, fuck Zeph had been waiting years for a chance to rip into me in a public medium, and we so totally went at it, and then Cozy got us all in a room, and she did what she does. She got us to understand each other. We didn’t agree but we understood. And she negotiated hard. She got us a deal we could all live with for ‘amicable separation.’ I still get my royalties and my piece for what we did before. They still get to use the few songs of mine they actually did record.”
“And Cozy gets ten percent.”
“Cozy cut her own commission to the bone. I honestly think she has to pay us for back catalogue sales now.”
That stunned me, and clearly it showed. “Cozy’s… Cozy’s Cozy. You’ll have to talk to her about it. But yeah. She’s my manager. She’s been lining up people for me, so I can put things together. She’s helping me write. Fuck, the night that all this broke down hard and the social media war went nuclear? I slept on her couch and sobbed. She made me tea and let me do it.” She snorted once more, with no fire this time. “Imagine if she’d stayed at Endeavor. Where would she be now? Where would we be? I don’t know. All I do know is Endeavor wouldn’t have been any bigger than they were back then.” She wrapped her arms around her again. “We lucked out by panicking at Thunderfest, in a large part because if we hadn’t, we’d have broken her no-violence rule. Instead, that became part of the fucking brand, like we were extra-sweary versions of Gandhi.”
“And if you’d broken it, even being shot at by the Vicars, people would be scared and you’d just be those violent parahumans?”
“Well, that’s what she always said. But I think that’s how she translated it to us. ‘Cause that’s what she does.”
“What’s the real reason.”
“Remember all those people taking video? If we’d stopped them and knocked them down and used all our powers, the way we did that asshole at the Rat when no one knew who we were? We wouldn’t be musicians, parahuman or not. We’d be supers. Remember. A prosahuman with the skill and the will and the whatever to make it through can become a super. But a parahuman can’t ever, ever use her powers openly to help, protect, defend, attack, or do anything else without being shunted over to ‘super’ for the rest of our lives. Prosahumans can choose to be super. Parahumans have to hobble themselves to avoid it. And if we were a band of supers? No one would give a shit about our songs or our message, and probably a bunch of people in rayon sillier than ours would attack us at every concert. Zephyr was fucking lucky to avoid it. We were all lucky at the Rat. And our total panic at Thunderfest made us legends. Undeserved legends, but whatever. So we bluesuit, like Tabby. Except I don’t actually like the term bluesuit. There’s a better one.”
She looked at me. “The closet. Parahumans can go super and that can be their whole fucking life. Or they can be openly parahuman and spend their life being held back and told anything they do right was because they ‘cheated.’ Or they can be in the fucking closet. And actual super heroes with actual secret identities? Spend half or more of their life in that closet and the other half being marginalized and defined by their capes. Y’know, like your buddy Leather. She got no credit for being a hero and apparently had to scrape together tips to get by, then made being super her career the only way anyone can — by stealing shit. In the super column, villain subgroup. Well, the Kittens can keep on parading around in their glass fucking closets all they like. Me? I’m done. I have something to fucking say. And I’m not going to wear spandex and fight crime because society says that’s what good parahumans do, and I’m not going to pretend I don’t have scales and hide in a closet so people will judge my music instead of my wingspan.”
I turned that over in my head. “The other Kittens… they say that to be a Cheshire Kitten, you have to ‘get it.’”
“Yeah. Yeah, that’s the Kittens, all right.”
“You said you’re still a Kitten. Do you still get it?”
She looked at me, then dropped her cigarette into her water glass. “Yeah, why not. Yeah. Yes. I get it.”
“Can you explain what it is?’
She just looked at me for a long moment.
“So… no, then?”
“If I could explain ‘getting it,’ no one would ever actually get it. That’s self evident, moron.”
¤ ¤ ¤
Drillbit P, called Bitty P by her friends, does nothing but play music. “She sings in the shower,” Zephyr Lish told me. “And not, you know, idle singing. She belts out at performance volume even when the person in the bedroom next to the shower’s trying to fucking sleep. The woman’s made of water. Why does she take showers in the first place!?”
“I have heard her play along with the rainfall on the metal roof of a dive bar,” Allon-Zed told me. “We had finished soundcheck just before a cloudburst, and when she heard the rumble of the water, she began to pluck out notes. It was relaxing and peaceful and lovely, and it would have been touching if I hadn’t been in the next bunk on the tour bus listening to her pluck notes for the twelve hours prior. I sometimes wonder if she has some form of compulsive disorder.”
“My mother passed away suddenly,” Aileen Pyre told me. “It… it was devastating. We were on the road and I just slammed the door of my hotel room and started to cry. And… I gradually realized I could hear a beat, which was playing off my sobs. I’d actually started matching it — rhythmic bawling. The beat was coming from my bathroom. Bitty P was in there, either taking a bath or being the bathwater. She heard me crying, and she certainly felt bad for me, but that didn’t stop her from drumming her hand on the side of the tub in time with my breakdown. I’ve never been so touched and offended at the same time before or since.”
“Everyone has hidden depths,” Esther Jowls told me. “Everyone but Bitty P. She doesn’t fucking care so long as there’s music. So everyone has depth but the actual water-woman. Irony? Or just stupid? Shit, I don’t know.”
“Drillbit P has a house like we all do,” Tabby told me. “But she’s never there. She’s always in one of our places, as near as I can tell. She likes to be near people, playing music. Which is fine. I love her to death, but this one time I was in bed with — well, let’s call it company? I almost never go for that sort of thing and I was feeling pretty self conscious, but I was getting into it… and then realized there was a bassline to my threeway. Not. Helpful.”
“I manage a number of the Kittens’ financial affairs,” Cozy Tight told me. “I made both the Kittens and myself a solemn vow none of them would ever be on a VH1 special about how they had everything but then lost it. Setting aside her house, which I’m not entirely sure she’s ever actually visited, almost the only things Drillbit P spends money on are occasional meals, bass guitar strings, and parts to fix her amp. I have to assume her clothing is the same kind of incarnate water-image that her body is. I’m not sure if that violates public nudity ordinances or not.” She looked rueful. “I actually stopped booking her hotel rooms, since she’d always end up sleeping in some other Kitten’s bathtub anyway.”
“So… you… play the bass,” I asked Drillbit P when we finally sat down together.
“Yeah,” she said. She was plucking out a line as we spoke, but that almost went without saying. “I like playing other shit too, but the bass really speaks to me.”
“Did you go to school for music?”
“No.” She kept playing.
“Oh… okay.” I looked at the amp. “You… do you bring that amp everywhere?”
“Even on stage?”
“Nah. They got stuff. I use those.”
“But you use that bass?”
“Nah. They got me a sweet Fender Precision for the shows. This is a Fender Jazz.”
“Okay then. So… why Drillbit P?”
She cocked her head, looking at me — still playing, of course. “In… an existential sense?”
“No — why that name? Your powers are aquakinetic. Is it a fracking reference, or some kind of—“
“Oh! There was a lot of noise in the Rat when I met G, Zeph, Esther, and Zed. I told them my name and they misheard and called me Drillbit P.” She shrugged. “I like it.”
“…what is your name?”
“Διοπατρη — Diopatrê if that’s easier.” Naturally she kept playing.
“Oh.” I paused. “Um…”
“You can look it up on your phone. I’m in no rush.” So I did. And — after deciding she probably wasn’t a species of worm that lived in tubes at the bottom of the ocean, I found what I was looking for.
“You’re… an ancient Greek goddess?”
She made a face. “Only technically. I’m a Naiad. Specifically one of the Naiads that are the Incarnate Being of the clear spring Sperkheios on Mount Othrys.” She half-closed her eyes, speeding the bassline up. “It’s not that far from Volos. The Titans once held it as their capital, until their kids overthrew them. One of those kids took a liking to me.” She closed her eyes the rest of the way. “He turned all my sisters into poplar trees so he could pitch and make woo with me without interference. We had a couple kids, then he turned my sisters back to normal a few years after the kids left. No harm done. Heh. Every so often, some asshole tries to impress me with his car or something. They have no fucking clue.”
“One of those kids…” I looked at my phone. “You mean… Poseidon?”
She shrugged. “It was cool but no big. Honestly, things were pretty hollow for me for a while, but then this other guy started spending a lot of time up by the spring. Human, not god. He played the lyre, the panpipes… sang… he was… mmm. And that just kind of stuck with me, even years later. Loved music. Loved hearing it, then loved playing it.”
Her jam went more jazz-improv. “A few thousand years go by. I’m asleep for a bunch of those, or hangin’ in the water. But then… mmm… it was a few decades ago, I think. Time’s weird. Anyway, I started hearing new sounds. Things that drew me the way that guy’s flute and lyre drew us all back in the ol’ BCE.”
“Yeah. Amplified guitars. The bass. Electric piano. Vibraphone — did you know Aileen Pyre plays vibraphone? I keep saying we should have vibraphone. Apparently that’s ‘the stupidest fucking idea since Olivia Newton John agreed to do Xanadu,’ which I think is unfair. I liked that movie. It had roller skating, Greek gods, and Gene Kelly.” She kept plucking away. “And it was being sent through the air literally like lightning. Radio is this amazing thing to a Naiad. Anyway. I walked off the mountain to figure out what the Hell, and I was just… it was brutal. So I started following this band —Socrates Drank the Conium? Kind of did the groupie thing. They were fucking mind blowing — progressive blues that smashed into hard rock—“
“Holy shit. You were into Socrates Drank the Conium?”
Her eyes fluttered open. “You know them?”
“I have a disturbingly large collection of progressive LPs. Cream, Hendrix, ELP — Hell yeah I know them. I swear, for years I thought ‘Wild Satisfaction’ off Taste of Conium was the original and the Stones were doing a cover.”
She laughed. “Oh I believe it. Anyway — that’s how I got into bass. And other stuff, but I love bass. And I take so much shit for that. ‘Who cares about bass?’ Shut up, Zeph — join the fucking Doors or something.” She laughed again. “I’d kind of just ended up in the U.S. incognito — this was years before Paragon came out and Justice Wing and all the rest of it. So not counting a few acid trips I kept my water-ways way on the down low. And I started jamming more and more — sitting in, experimenting with other sound. I never needed a lot of money but what I did need I could get from doing sessions and studio work. Fuckton of bands out there rent studio time then realize their bassist sucks and they need someone. Especially if she’s cute and I am. Fan-wise I got into smaller bands. Punk, metal… that’s how I ended up at the Rat the night the Kittens got together.”
“So… is this just a gig?”
“It’s never just a gig. And, y’know. I’m into the whole Parahuman Rights thing. I mean, that’s me too. I just did ‘primary parahuman expression’ three thousand years ago. I’ve seen all sides of this. I’ve seen bad shit.” She slowed her bassline down. “The Apocalypse Agenda scared me. I could feel the strain on reality — we weren’t that far away from the whole thing, but we could have been on the other side of the planet and I’d feel it. And then things got bad and hard, and Cozy had been in mourning and when she came out of it she was on fire. I’m into it. I’m a Cheshire Kitten, all the way.” She paused, then laughed.
“You. It just hit me.” She looked me over. “You found out I had children with the literal God of the Sea, and it kind of surprised you, but you didn’t get impressed until you found out I’d seen Socrates Drank the Conium live.” She laughed. “You’re such a nerd. That’s cool.”
Bitty P seems eternally chill, but she has a temper. When it flares up, it can be intense. Esther leaving had set her on edge. “It’s all fucking stupid. Esther wants to record her stuff her way. Tabby and Zeph want to record their stuff their way. Fine! Let’s put out the next Cheshire Kittens album and then let’s record whatever Esther wants under some other name. Jowlwalking or Ahasuerus’s Staff or something. It doesn’t have to be either-or. But no. They need to have this thing and it means we’re not on stage playing.” She shivered. “I fucking hate that. I’m not here to watch the Kittens have dumbass drama — that’s what the Lifetime channel’s for!”
Her fury seemed out of character given her otherwise legendary chill, but it made sense when you remembered her mythic origins. The story she told about ‘the other guy’ who used to play pipes and lyre and got her interested in music? In mythology, that story is the myth of Kerambos or Cerambus, who was said to be the greatest singer of his era — so good at music that he charmed the nymphs out of the water to favor and perform for him. But his success made him arrogant, and he took to making up disparaging stories about his devoted fans — wanting to keep them all for himself, of course. The Naiads, however, took understandable offense at this human dragging their name through the mud, and did what angry nymphs could do in situations like that. They tore Kerambos limb from limb, making sure his death was horrifying and long, then right at the moment he was about to die, they turned him into a capricorn beetle, forced to survive by knawing at the wood of poplar trees like the ones the Naiads had once become, and forced to watch his cattle — the symbol of wealth — starve and die in the winter without a herdsman to drive them back down the mountain.
I talked to Bitty P about this, wanting to get more of a sense of what really happened. She giggled, and proceeded to describe the process of mutilating Kerambos in shocking detail.
Needless to say, I was hoping the Kittens would find a new drummer soon.
¤ ¤ ¤
Zephyr Lish had been hammering out a piano line for three hours, each time with slight tweaks. It was supposed to be a mournful bridge in a song about innocence being stolen. Tabby Strong was on a couch next to her, scribbling words. The two would sing brief snatches of music to each other, ‘dah dah dah dahing’ and occasionally using words. Aileen Pyre was on hand to play bits and pieces of synth or keyboard sounds, as they tried to get the right feel. Zephyr’s part in the process was usually composition, and she wanted to hear the instruments being played in the moment. At another couch, Allon-Zed had a tablet computer in her hand, and was using a stylus to transcribe different versions into musical notation. Later Zed, Tabby, Zeph, and Cozy would get together with the different versions and synthesize them into a whole.
It wasn’t working that well today.
“I can’t fucking do it!” Zeph shouted, throwing a half-full bottle of Yukon Jack across the room, where it smashed against a wall that — if the stain pattern was any judge — had tasted a lot of liquors in its time. Zeph drank rum and cokes socially. She drank hard liquor when she wrote. It didn’t matter either way, since her body metabolized alcohol so quickly even she didn’t notice the effect. She claimed to like the flavor of rum and cola, and she claimed that she wrote better if her taste buds were being assaulted by potent spirits.
“You have in fact done it before,” Zed said, with the idleness of someone following a well-worn script.
“That was different,” Zeph said. “I can’t fucking hear the drums. Fuck Esther. I don’t know how this will sound!”
Aileen moved her hand over her keyboard, and a dubstep-style drum loop began to hammer out, around 150 BPM.
Zephyr Lish turned to glare at Aileen.
“Anything to help,” Aileen said, affecting innocence.
“I will kill you. It will be slow and painful, but I will kill you.”
The food of the day was Chinese. It often was. On days they craved non-pizza Italian, Zephyr Lish generally cooked it. She a much better cook than people might expect. On writing days, it was takeout. This time, it had been driven over by Zephyr Lish’s wife, who dropped it off and headed out. There were eternally rumors that ‘Mrs. Lish’ didn’t exist — her name wasn’t known, no photographer had ever caught Zephyr Lish canoodling with some unknown woman. Some said she was a legal fiction to tantalize the kind of people who fetishize Lesbians. Some — men, predominantly — claim the whole thing was a beard to hide Zephyr Lish’s preference for men. Beyond that, there were the usual rumors about actors, musicians, sports figures, politicians, super heroes — you name it, really.
Well, another of the conditions of the interview were that neither I nor Amplifier would reveal any details about Zephyr’s wife. I was, however, allowed to state that she existed, and admit that I had seen her. Both these things are true. And I will also state that Zephyr seems a bit less angry when her wife is in the room. Her wife told me that was one reason she didn’t hang around the band when they were trying to write. Zephyr’s muse wasn’t so much Calliope as it was Eris or even Lyssa, personification of rage and rabid frenzy. Zephyr happy was Zephyr unproductive.
The balance was tight, though. Without Esther or a replacement, Zephyr found she couldn’t piece together the song in her head — she would ‘hear’ the different elements come together, normally. She couldn’t do that, now.
“Couldn’t you… just imagine it was Esther playing?” I asked.
This was not a wise question, as it turned out. Zephyr blurred over to me so fast I almost fell backward just from the wind-blast. “No I can’t imagine Esther!” she shrieked at me. “Fuck Esther! We don’t need her! I don’t need that bitch to do me any favors! If I imagine Esther then when someone else does it in the studio it’ll be all fucking wrong and we’ll lose days and the album will suck and I’ll have to fucking pole-dance to survive! Is that what you want, Chapman?!”
“Stop it!” Tabby screamed, hands on either sides of her head and eyes shut. She was rippling in and out of sight again. Her powers affected clothing and other things close to her body, so it looked almost like an old television channel just on the edge of reception. She couldn’t very well take Restoril when they were writing music — a recording wouldn’t do. She’d need to remember all of this, and it was clear she wasn’t coping well at all. “If you don’t shut up I swear to fucking God!”
Whatever I expected to happen next? Aileen turning the drum-loop off and starting to sing a slow, mournful ballad wasn’t it. A ballad I knew, as it worked out. Aileen Pyre is almost never lead vocal on songs, so it was a bit surprising to hear how pure her voice was — sweet, in the mezzo-soprano range. Though it lacked operatic vibrato, I later found out she had studied opera for years before becoming a Cheshire Kitten. This, however, was no aria.
Speed, bonnie boat
like a bird on the wing.
“Onward” the sailors cry — they cry…
Like I said, I knew the song. Skyefall — based on the traditional Skye Boat Song, but rewritten and rearranged by the late Colton Pike. He was entirely not what I thought of when I thought of the Cheshire Kittens — he was ‘gloriously broken,’ in the words of Mary Frazier, critic-at-large and reporter for Amplifer. The very Mary, in fact, that Allon-Zed had grilled me about earlier in the week. The one getting less money than I was right now, even though some people think she’s a better writer. And I admit it. I’m one of those people, too.
Whether or not Colton Pike fit the Cheshire Kittens as I’d always thought of them, Aileen’s song had caused the room to go silent. Then, almost eerily together, as if rehearsed and by cue, Aileen, Zephyr, Tabby, and Zed began to sing a cappella, in four part harmony — no, five part. I realized Cozy Tight was singing too.
Carry the lass
who bears our new spring.
Over the waves to Skye…
In Pike’s version the fleeing Bonnie Prince Charlie’s been tossed out of the song entirely, and instead the Boat bears a figure like Persephone to the northern island of Skye — finally bringing spring to the weather battered Scots island. And somehow, the women were evoking that so much more completely than Pike — and I saw Colton Pike perform this live more than once.
The five then began to hum a complex chord. Drillbit P — who I hadn’t even realized was in the house — sang then, solo… except her voice echoed with the waves of the ocean that the new season was traveling over. Waves that, in one sense, she probably knew by name.
Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun.
All that is good, all that is fair…
Follow now winter’s done.
The six voices blended. Like I said, I’d heard Pike play this live, back before his death. I’d heard others cover it. But I’d never heard it made into something this complex… and yet somehow the result sounding so purely simple. So real. So whole.
Sing me a song of the lasses now gone,
Say, could one of them be I?
Merry of soul they sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.
Zephyr was still standing in front of me, but the tension was out of her shoulders. Her head was down and she was crying. She turned to look at Cozy Tight. “You sang Esther’s part,” she said, very quietly.
“No one but Esther could sing Esther’s part,” Cozy said, softly. “I sang my part. It’s just where Esther’s used to be.”
“…can you play drums?”
“I won’t play drums. But someone will. And it won’t be Esther. But it will be the Cheshire Kittens, Zeph. I promise you it will be.”
Zephyr cried a bit more, nodding.
“This can’t be how other bands handle this shit,” Tabby said, quietly.
“You’d be surprised,” I murmured. That got a smile from Tabby.
“All right then,” Zed said. “I propose a half hour away from this room and this project. This should permit us the opportunity to initiate the process of getting our collective heads back together.”
“Fair,” Tabby said, throwing her notebook to the other side of the couch. She stretched, rippled, and then wasn’t there. “I’m gonna grab a shower.”
“C’mon, Bitty P,” Zephyr said. “Let’s hit the rec room and blast out some Dick Dale an’ shit.”
“Finally,” Bitty P said, as though it were ridiculous they hadn’t already been doing that.
Aileen Pyre glanced in my direction, then glanced away. I tried to figure out if I should approach her — we still hadn’t talked one-on-one — but Cozy Tight noticed, then turned to Zed. “If you don’t have a place to be, could you perhaps see yourself helping me? There’s this bridge that Compton Nuk’d can’t make work and I thought—“
“Ah, remediation and the doctoring of songs. My favorite pastime. Come, Miss Tight, let us to it, lest Rap be forced to fall back on Fab Five Freddy reheated.” I watched the two of them leave, leaving me alone with Aileen Pyre.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hey,” she said. “So… is it weird you intimidate me?”
“No,” I said. “It’s not weird at all. Some people get like that. It’s fine. Is there something I can do to make it easier?”
“Maybe. Nah. I mean. I’ll get through it. I literally forced myself audition for the Cheshire Kittens once. I can be interviewed by a magazine writer.” Her smile grew more relaxed.
“Is there something in particular that makes it worse?”
“Well… kinda?” She bit her lip. “I really loved Low Society. And… the interview before it. With Dynamo Girl.”
“Leather,” I corrected. “She really does go by Leather now.”
“Right! Right. Sorry.” She laughed. “This… was all my idea. Getting you to come profile us. And now you’re here and it’s not at all like I thought it would be.” She stopped laughing, and the smile slipped off her face. “It’s not at all like I thought it would be.”
“Why not?” I admit — in that moment, I was a little stunned.
“Because…” She looked at me. “My name is Aileen Pyre. And I was eleven years old when a magazine hit the newsstand with the picture of a girl in a leather outfit and a shit eating grin on the cover. I grew up in the midwest. My mother was Patricia Bailey, a nurse practitioner. My father was A’riet Pyre, Third Legate of the Pa’lita Ascendency. It’s why my skin seems to… reflect blue, in the light. It’s why I’m so strong, so fast, so agile. Just like that girl in your article.”
It’s rare that it happens, but I literally had nothing to say.
“It’s… it’s hard to grow up slightly blue.” She laughed, almost nervously. “I know that sounds silly, but that’s the point. It sounds silly to someone who isn’t living it. Half-alien. Even in a world where people fly and lycra-clad warriors punch each other for great justice, no one expects a half-alien girl to go to their high school in Missouri. And when she does… they don’t like it. They don’t like it at all.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, quietly.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong. I had friends. There are good people in my hometown. And these days? These days they love me. I mean… I’m not that bluish girl who wasn’t allowed to play field hockey because no one could stop her from scoring goal after goal any more. I’m… I’m Aileen fucking Pyre, and I’m a Cheshire Kitten. The only one to date they took after the fact.” She laughed again. “The only one with no nickname, because everyone thinks ‘Pyre’ is it. They all think I have fire powers or something, but I don’t.”
“But back then?”
“Back then… I was… they didn’t even usually call me parahuman, even though ‘alien’ is one of the four identified classifications of parahuman. For a while they were scared of me, but that didn’t last because I’m not scary. And when you’re that weird and you’re not scary, you’re pretty much wearing a big target. Some people were terrible to me, for no reason at all. Over and over. And I knew there were heroes. I knew people liked them. I even knew there were aliens among those heroes. Hell, Paragon’s at least sort of an alien. But… but I didn’t… I couldn’t see any way that connected to me, Todd.”
“I’ve… I’ve been a reporter for a lot of years now,” I said. “In music, in super-circles, whatever. I think… you’re literally the first person I’ve ever interviewed or profiled or reported on to call me by my first name.”
“Oh! Oh. I’m sorry.”
“No. No, it’s fine. Go on, please.”
“Well. I got that issue of Amplifier. I read your article. And… and suddenly… it’s like I wasn’t alone. It’s like I could see where I connected to the Supers, because here was this girl. And she’d been a hero. A Dynamo Girl. With powers like mine. And they picked on her because she wasn’t a supermodel. So she refused to let them keep doing it. She decided she could be what she wanted, and to Hell with all of them.” She looked at her keyboard. “I love music. I love it so much. My father, before he had to leave… he taught me that music was the one language every sentient species in the known galaxy had in common. It might not always sound like music to each other, but it was there. And with my dexterity… I was good with instruments. And I could sing. That was from my mom. She was such a good singer. And I threw myself into it. Because I didn’t want to be a hero, or a villain. I wanted to be me. And I wanted music.”
“I… think Leather would be really happy to hear that,” I said.
“And then when you put out Low Society, I grabbed that, and I devoured it. All these people, all so far down the chain. All villains, but all human. And I got more and more into parahuman rights — into the causes, into books. I.Q. Nu, and all the rest. And I went to Berklee. And I ran into a lot of the crap Zed did when she was at G.U., but I didn’t care. I studied opera and piano and so much more. I got into electronica and dance and house and dubstep. I did everything. But most of all, I believed that it didn’t matter that my father was from the stars. And the idea that anyone thought it did was wrong.”
She stepped to one of the couches, sinking into it, almost collapsing into herself. “The Cheshire Kittens came through Grantham, and they were having auditions. MTV made a big deal about it. And everyone went. Anyone with the slightest power or the ability to fake it. Suddenly, every musician at Berklee wanted to be parahuman — at least, the girls did. And here I was. And I knew they wanted a keyboardist, and I knew keyboards. So I dressed up in my recital clothes, and I went. And I looked around and it was like I was at Mardi Gras — everyone in outlandish clothes and weird hair and face paint, and me in a tartan skirt, red sweater, and cream blouse. I looked like a librarian. And it was my turn, and I walked out. And I set up — and agility and strength means that was faster than most. And I played and sang for them. And I finished, and I waited… and I heard laughter from the hall. See… I’d done… it was sort of an edge-punk take on Didon’s aria “Pluton semble” from Les Troyens, by Berlioz.” She waited a beat. “In the original French.”
I arched both my eyebrows. “Okay… that’s different.”
She laughed, still nervously. “Yeah. Yeah it was. But see, she commits suicide at the end of that aria, while standing on a pyre — and well, my name. But she also foretells the end of Carthage and the doom of the world as the Carthageans knew it because the people turned away from Didon. And it felt like… like something… right, for the Cheshire Kittens. And every person waiting to audition or hanging around after they did were laughing, because Jesus Christ, look at the loser in her skirt singing opera and trying to make it punk rock. And I looked out, and there were G-Listening and Zephyr Lish of the fucking Cheshire Kittens, and they were just staring at me.”
Aileen closed her eyes. “And I said ‘I can play something else, if you like. Something in English.’ But I didn’t apologize. And they stared a moment longer, and then suddenly Zephyr blurred past me to the hall, where everyone was still having a grand time with my audition, and told them all to go the fuck home because they were done here. And while that sunk in, G-Listening walked up to me and said that they’d have to have me play for Allon-Zed, Drillbit P, and Esther Jowls, and they were all back in Las Bendiciones, but if I could pack stuff up they’d take me out on the private jet that night, and that she was pretty sure I had the job. This had been the first stop on their big old ‘find the new Cheshire Kitten’ thing, with media and all kinds of stuff, and they cancelled the whole thing after they saw me. I was it. I was in.” She opened her eyes. “Because a woman in danskins and leather and a writer who didn’t know how to be Gore Vidal taught me that I wasn’t defined by a blue tint to my skin and the ability to bench two and a half tons.”
“I’m… I’m honestly touched,” I said. “And I’m pretty sure Leather would be too. But it sounded like you did that, not us. So how did that lead to this interview, and why isn’t it going the way you hoped?”
Aileen looked to the side, rubbing her right arm with her left hand. “When your article first came out… everyone had kind of… shoved supers back into their boxes. They’d been trying to put the Apocalypse Agenda behind them and get back to life, pushing back towards ‘heroes good’ and ‘villains bad.’ You… you and Leather reminded them that the super villain was also a person. And… it’s all these years later, and… obviously pressures were getting worse in the band. Things were changing. Esther and Zeph were always at each others’ throats. And music was pushing past us, and that got everyone stressed. Especially Tabby.” She laughed, almost ruefully. “Tabby writes something like ‘Transparent’ and everyone realizes it’s a brilliant song. Tabby looks at ‘Transparent’ and is convinced it’s horrible because it’s not as good as ‘Attitudes’ by the Brat. At least in her head. Things seemed… rougher. And I looked around and it wasn’t just us.”
“We go through these periods,” I said. “We usually come out of them, too.”
“Sure… but I started wondering… what about the next half-alien or demigoddess or other expressed parahuman. Leather’s not revolutionary to the 11 year olds of today — they grew up with her in pop culture. Where were they going to get their reminder about… about parahuman still meant human. And then I thought of you.”
She steepled her hands, still shifting uncomfortably. “I thought… what about us? Right now, everyone sees the Cheshire Kittens as one thing — maybe not all the same thing, but we’re tucked away in pop culture or rock history or whatever. If we’re going to continue to mean something… for parahuman rights or anyone else for that matter… then why not? Why not ‘Interviewing Cheshire Kittens?’ Why not give that eleven year old a chance to see how parahumans who aren’t heroes or villains make it through life. And Cozy liked the idea and sold it to the others, and we insisted it’d be you. For a bunch of reasons.”
“And then… three days… three fucking days later… Esther goes nuclear. Zeph goes mutually assured destruction. The album goes to shit. And I have no idea what happens next. And here you are, and we’re not those pros with real human faces. We’re just another fucking rock and roll trainwreck. And you’re going to tell the world because that’s what you do. It’s what we want you to do. No whitewash. No puff piece.” She looked like she was going to cry.
I looked at her for a long moment. She was a beautiful, talented, almost iconic figure — a part of one of the foundations of modern rock. And she looked so young.
“No puff piece,” I agreed, quietly. “And a rock and roll trainwreck. And thank God for that.”
She blinked and looked at me. “What?”
“Okay — thank you. Aileen… do you remember at the end of that article you liked so much? When Darkhood was asking me what my plans were, and I told him I’d probably do ‘slightly sycophantic’ articles for publicists?”
“And he asked if that’s what I was going to do with ‘Interviewing Leather.’ And I told him no — because it was important. Because we lived with heroes and villains and we had to understand them.” I laughed a bit. “Aileen — if everything was going great, if you were all just telling me your stories? Even if I absolutely told the truth no one would much care. These profiles come out all the time.” I shrugged. “But a band meltdown? Everyone freaking out, even a little?”
“It’s good press?” Aileen asked, softly.
“It’s life,” I answered. “It’s the life you wanted to show people. It’s a reminder that the legendary act is made up of actual human beings with their own fears and angers and conflicts. If you want to give that eleven year old hope? Don’t tell her that gosh, parahumans can do anything. Tell her that you made it here. And that parahumans have the same human problems they do… but they keep going.” I looked around. “Before I started on the villain beat, I interviewed a lot of stars. Including, I’d add, the Cheshire Kittens.”
Aileen blinked. “Wait — you had? Why do… why didn’t… I wouldn’t remember you, obviously. I was still a kid. But why don’t they remember you?”
“Mostly? Because it was press junkets and stuff like that. I was one of a parade of faces. I sure as Hell wouldn’t remember me. But sometimes I got access — chances to talk to people. To see how they live. And that’s carried through to my current career. And time and time again I see stars who’ve lost all sense of reality — who don’t understand how they lost their fortune. They can’t relate to the problems of the people reading the article, so the readers can’t relate to them.”
I got up. “I’m going to tell the truth about you. All of you. About Tabby’s anxieties and frankly scary coping strategies. About Zeph’s near-derailment. About Zed, and Bitty P, and you. And about Esther for that matter. But the people who read about you? They won’t think you’ve lost touch. They know what it’s like to be trying to live up to your heroes, or trying to hold everything together and going a bit nuts when you can’t.” I smiled a bit more. “I’m also going to tell the truth about the keyboardist who got everyone singing ‘Skyefall’ when they looked about ready to snap.”
She flushed — her blue sheen turning a bit purplish. “It just… seemed like a good idea.”
“What’s the story with that, anyway? Why that song — specifically Colton Pike’s version?’”
“We sing that just before we go on stage. It predated my joining, so I don’t know who started it. But it gave us… a chance to synchronize, to connect. To remind us what we were doing — that we were about to take that venue over and drive it where we wanted. And that the moment we walked out there, we were bringing a new season with us, for everyone in that audience.”
“That’s a cool pre-show ritual. And it’s even cooler that you knew to do it.”
She shrugged. “I’d just poured kerosene on the fire with the drum loop. I had to do something when I realized how upset Zeph really was.”
“Agreed.” I paused. “Seriously, you were eleven when ‘Interviewing Leather’ was published?”
Aileen blinked, then grinned. “Yup.”
“I’m… I’m not nearly old enough for that to be true.”
Aileen grinned a bit more wickedly. “Oh, I’m sure, gramps. I’m going to go get some coffee. Want?”
“Cream.” She did a fluid backroll over the back of the couch to standing, then paused. “Todd?”
Aileen threw herself into the air, crossed her legs, and landed on the couch in lotus position in one fluid move.
I blinked, and laughed. “To answer your unspoken question? Yes. Yes, that was one of Leather’s.”
“I practiced for months. I broke my boxspring.” She giggled, then rolled back over and headed back out.
I watched her go. “…eleven years old. Jesus.”
“It came out on my twenty-first birthday. Cozy bought me my first legal drink and we read it together.”
I jumped, looking around.
Tabby slowly reappeared, still standing next to the couch where she’d thrown her notebook. “She has a crush on you, you know,” Tabby said.
I glanced at the door, then back at Tabby. “Yeah, I figured that out. I’d say something about how I don’t date interview subjects, but it almost feels superfluous. I’m thirteen years older than she is. That is not happening.”
“Hey, don’t say no on my account. It’s rock and roll. Creepy old guys bang hot young chicks all the time.”
“Not this creepy old guy. So… you were going to go shower?”
“I still am.” She sighs. “I feel like I should apologize because it’s creepy to eavesdrop, but God damn it, it’s my power and my fucking house.” She took a deep breath. “And you know what? It’s not possible to write something that can compete with ‘Attitudes’ by the Brat. That song is perfection.” She seemed to shudder a little. “I really am just… coming out of this profile the unstable bitch junkie who roofies herself at band meetings ‘cause she can’t cope, aren’t I? I’m the fucking crazy one. Every epic band has a crazy unstable problem bitch and it’s me.”
“You’re the genius. The visionary. You and Zephyr. And something that’s defined your lives is going through upheaval. Tabby… people will understand that.”
“Yeah, well.” She shrugged. “I started on Restoril after Thunderfest. Nightmares. So many fucking nightmares, bleeding into nightmares of people coming for me in the night. Those I’ve had since I was thirteen — about six months after I hit primary parahuman expression. And also, not coincidentally? The first time they came and arrested me in the middle of the night. They probably hoped to ‘scare me straight’ after I so clearly stole fifty bucks from a convenience store. Only there was a DETAILS agent in the precinct — he pretty quickly slaughtered their case against me and embarrassed them. Which is a great story in a movie, but meant those cops and all their friends made the rest of my Santa Domingo days a living nightmare.” She shook her head. “You know how Zeph got arrested for theft? You know how they managed it? They arrested me, and planted evidence so they could put me away, tried as an adult even though there was no justification for it. So Zeph walked in with the stolen goods mid-trial, announced that she did it, and that the cops were lying. And taunted our local hero, the Silver Horseman, into following her so he’d see what was going on. She got Juvie because the DA’s office was so scandalized they wanted to distance themselves and because the Horseman wanted to keep her from becoming a real villain, and those cops got suspended. Not dismissed. Suspended. With pay.”
“Have you ever considered a lawsuit?”
“At the time I couldn’t afford it. These days, it’d be hard to win anything. But every couple of years we play Santa Domingo, and when we do we shuffle the order around — build up to ‘Knock at the Door’ and ‘Transparent,’ with actual redacted records flashing on the show screens, pictures — Zed throws in a few flourishes. Most years we do it, there’s a pretty fun protest that springs up. Zeph and Bitty P play the park…” She shrugs. “I don’t have any family there any more. I shouldn’t still…”
“I… assume it doesn’t help that your breakout hit was about the recurring childhood trauma that made you feel that helpless and scared?”
She looked at me, then snickered. “There is that. Though really… really it helps. It was cathartic and hard to write, but every time I sing it I feel that much more vindicated.” She laughed again, shaking her head. “Aileen’s audition really was something to see. Fucking amazing. She didn’t do it justice. It wasn’t just having the balls to sing Opera at one-fifty beats per minute. It was the intensity. The emotion. Sometimes I worry we’re holding her back.”
“Do you feel that way about the others?”
“Some. Zed… Zed could front any band on the planet, or just be herself on a stage or conducting a symphony. Zeph I don’t have to worry about. She does plenty of guest-on shit. And besides, she’s Zeph. Bitty P… no. No. No I don’t worry about her. She’s absolutely where she wants to be. She has no interest in solo projects.” She walked over to the piano, and plucked a few notes. “I guess I don’t have to worry about Esther any more, huh?”
I looked at her. “But you feel guilty?”
She paused, then slid on the bench and began playing. “Yes. I feel like we should have done more to accomodate her goals. Or set things up. Or supported her.” The music was pretty, wistful… a minor key. “I feel like I should have stood up to Zeph, or else stood by Zeph and made things clear. I worry that I’ve fucked everything up. I worry that inside a year we’ll be on a summer concert tour called something like ‘Monsters of Superhumanity’ following Fishmonger and Razor’d Wings. I worry that something’ll happen to Esther. I worry that we can’t do it without Esther. Remember. Esther was first after me and Zeph. Zed was there the same night that Esther joined up, but she didn’t perform. We’d had our last cash go to a paid drummer, and we were playing a North End dive, and I don’t even know why Esther was there, but when it became clear the drummer had skipped out on us? She was like ‘I’ll drum. Whatever.’ And she just followed our lead.” She laughed. “She had to be the only chick rocker in the entire Grantham area who didn’t know God Damned ‘Cherry Bomb.’” She stopped playing and swiveled on the bench to face me. “So tell me. Why is this whole thing the G-Listening and Zephyr Lish review? When it was just Zeph, me, and rent-a-drumkit, we were Litterkin, and Zed and Esther were both playing with Litterkin the night Bitty P showed up and we become the Cheshire Kittens. Why the fuck wouldn’t she have equal say?”
I looked at her for a long moment. “How many songs has she given you?”
“I don’t know exact numbers. Probably twenty or twenty five?”
“How many made it to Cheshire Kittens albums?”
“Four. One less than Zed, but Zed doesn’t submit nearly as many.”
“And… of the couple dozenish songs of hers that you rejected? Were they all because of their message being wrong? Or the feel? Or were they too political.”
Tabby looked at me, slightly flushed. “That’s… sure. Of course they were.”
I looked at her.
“Tabby, you can tell me anything you want and I’ll put it in the article. But I just told Aileen I was going to tell the truth and nothing but, so it’s gonna be pretty clear that I’m—“
“Fine. Most of them sucked. Okay? Does that make you happy?” She snorted. “She’s an amazing drummer, a great singer, okay with a guitar. But her songs are immature. She keeps thinking she’ll have the next ‘Transparent,’ and the thing’ll be full of her telling the audience that norms don’t give a shit and cops are bad. I mean, literally just telling them that. And I tell her… I say ‘Transparent’ worked because I wasn’t telling the audience what to feel. I was showing them what I felt. She thinks clever and brilliant are synonyms. She thinks shouting is emotion. And she thinks that she can change the world by targeting her songs to the people who already agree with her. The four songs we took, Cozy worked fucking wonders on them. Hell, one of them got a grammy nomination — ‘Eight of Swords,’ off of Angrier Than Wet. And she deserves her pride but that was way more Cozy’s song than her’s by the end.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Angrier Than Wet. The big award winner. Album of the Year, Rock Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Rock Song of the Year, and Rock Performance of the Year. Right?”
“I can’t be surprised you’d have researched that one.”
“Yeah. But maybe not for the reason you think. That was ‘Paragon Down.’ Her one Grammy Nomination you swept the table for a different song on the same album. And it was the same album where the six of you are soaked down next to a pool.”
“Yes it is. She hated that cover… especially because the day we shot it? She was into it. She felt sexy, and that’s not always easy to do with how effortlessly Zephyr takes a room. And then she found out both her big song and ‘Paragirl Down’ were on it…” She shuddered again, rippling out of view. “maybe… if I’d been up front with her about all of her other songs, maybe she’d be — fuck.” She reappeared. “Sorry. Sometimes it’s reflexive. Anyway. I did her no favors. I’m scared to death she’s gonna humiliate herself… or worse, be mediocre. I tell myself Cozy won’t let that happen, but…” She rubbed her forehead. “It’s funny. I’m terrified she’s going to fail miserably without us, and I’m terrified we’re going to fail miserably without her. How does that even work?”
“She gave you something different.” I looked at the still empty door. “What is the deal between Esther and Zephyr.”
“They hate each other. Passionately.” Tabby snorted. “In exactly the way both of them needed to hate someone. But they can’t let themselves admit that. Maybe Esther’s fine with all this, but Zeph… this is like a chunk out of her soul.” She sighed. “She’s gonna mostly recruit among Meta’d if she can. And that’s fine if she can find good musicians. If Cozy helps with the writing and producing and she gets decent backing… fuck, at least she’ll sell something respectable to the gangs. And for the first album or two, barring a massive breakthrough… she’ll tell herself that she’s not trying to get the norm dollars or shit like that… but eventually, unless she blows up way more than I think she will? She’ll never have Cheshire Kittens numbers, and I don’t know if she can handle that. And… I know she’s selling her house, and I know Cozy’s socking her money away… but if she doesn’t take off, she’ll hit a point where her expenses will be being paid by her Cheshire Kittens back catalogue royalties and her own shit will cost more than they bring in. I’ve seen it happen before.”
“Can’t she work with studio musicians?”
“Depends. If she’s going to stick to parahumans that cuts it down. There aren’t that many parahuman professional musicians out there… as we’re finding out in trying to replace her. I don’t know how easily she’ll even cut a demo. And I don’t know how to tell her that we want her to succeed and we don’t hate her.”
I paused. “Is there a rule that says you can’t do studio work?”
Tabby paused. “What?”
“This isn’t my idea, mind. Bitty P wondered why you all couldn’t just do your album and then do her’s under a different name. Don’t even do that. Just… take the gig, let her pay you the cash on the barrelhead, and play on her demo.”
Tabby just stared at me, mouth open. She then shook her head. “What does she say about me, anyway?”
I wasn’t sure she really wanted to know, but she pointed out she was going to read the article when it came out either way. And at some point I had to talk with her about the Cheshire Kittens’s music… and whether or not it was punk rock.
Tabby kind of absorbed Esther’s criticisms, her face falling a bit, before she nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “She’s not wrong. Riot grrl is about right, along with some rock and even pop. I mean, let’s be honest. Most punk doesn’t get the kind of mainstream penetration we do, especially over time. We’ve had twelve albums not counting the box set. From Transparent on they’ve all been at least gold, most platinum or double-platinum.” She sounded almost distant.
“But you’re not satisfied with that?”
She looked at her notebook on the couch. “I told you how many songs Esther submitted? The ones that didn’t make the cut? There’s probably twice as many unrecorded songs in my catalogue. More than half Zeph’s already put to music. Some’ve even had Cozy go through them. Every one of them’s shooting for punk. For real, honest to God, fuck the world punk.”
“And you can’t record them because they wouldn’t be commercial enough?”
“We can’t record them because they’re all total shit.” She looked at me. “All of them. I’ve written some good songs. But I can’t write an honest fucking punk rock song to save my life. I’m a poseur. Everyone says I’m some kind of fucking tortured genius. I keep being terrified I’ll actually meet Patti Smith, and she’ll see right the fuck through me.” She snorted, then sang a couple lines softly. ”I’m transparent! I’m transparent! My power is apparent!” She shook her head. “I’m gonna grab that shower, we have to try and actually write something worth studio time tonight, or Zephyr’s going to fucking explode.”
¤ ¤ ¤
“It’s easiest to see punk as a continuum,” Doctor Jill Sortino, Professor of Music Criticism at the University of California in Las Bendiciones, has spent years developing one of the better bodies of feminist punk criticism and analysis. The Cheshire Kittens and their place in the broader rock universe is a particular interest of hers. “It’s not really fair to say the Cheshire Kittens aren’t punk — but I’d call them as much pop punk as anything else. Riot grrl gets mentioned a lot. I think one of the problems people have — which ironically is also one of the strengths of the Cheshire Kittens — is that the Kittens don’t really feel beholden to just one sound. More Offspring than the Damned, but you see everything from hard rock to J-Pop show up stylistically.”
I mention the dreaded word ‘poseurs,’ but Sortino dismisses it. “Every punk rocker who ever lived’s been called a poseur and a sellout. Read Traber on the subject. I know damn well Esther Jowls calls G-Listening a poseur. I know damn well Zephyr Lish calls Esther Jowls a poseur. But what you see most, especially among certain punk and feminist punk circles, is self-identification as sellout, as poseur. A sense that the rockers are reaching for an ideal they can’t reach. It’s especially pronounced when you get to the fame and success the Cheshire Kittens have hit. Can you be punk when you’re not using a garage as your studio and hacking together your album with third rate gear? Can you have a budget and make bank and still call yourself legitimate?”
She draws comparisons to other broad genres. “If you look at most Rock and Hip Hop, sales and actual cashflow and the signs of those successes are considered the hallmarks of success. Punk success is often seen as failure, and failure as success. If you can barely make your rent, you’re punk rock. If you hit it big, you’ve effectively sold out no matter what your intentions.”
She points to a shelf of CDs, specifically on the Metal Wings label. “If you look at Metal Wings, you see punk, hip hop, rock — a huge cross-section, because the unifying trait is less a sound and more a pro-parahuman rights ethos. There’s no reason Metal Wings couldn’t sign a country act that still fit their ethos. But that means you’re carrying a lot of the baggage from different musical genres into one place. The angry anti-corporate anti-establishment anti-success of punk alongside the conspicuous consumption of certain kinds of metal, for example. The lavish lifestyles of some kinds of rap alongside the almost humble austerity of some alternative or nerdcore.”
She slides Where Have You Been Young Lady — the Kittens’ box set from a few years back — out of the rack. “If you look at what they’re now calling ‘volume one’ of their career? You see the syncopation and almost bare instrumentation of early punk, the lavish feel of prog, the stylized rhythms of new wave, the heavy, brutal sounds of death metal… the Cheshire Kittens never get satisfied with a sound, but push forward. So you hear rap or R&B influences on Denunciation, but it’s still very much a Cheshire Kittens album. Or you look at the almost symphonic Ghosts followed by the nihilistic deathcore on some tracks of Unmarked Grave.”
I ask if that’s the sign of a lack of cohesive sound, but Sortino dismisses that. “There’s continuity through the Cheshire Kittens — what there isn’t is the sameness that plagues a good number of long time groups. The Cheshire Kittens have been on the scene almost two decades. And while it’s fair to say ‘Transparent’ is still the iconic Kittens song, their sound has evolved throughout. They’ve clearly never been satisfied. If anything, Esther Jowls’s acrimonious parting from the group underscores that hunger — that drive to follow the ‘true’ Cheshire Kittens creative impulse. G-Listening and Zephyr Lish experiment constantly. Not all their experiments work, but the sense that they’re still driven artistically is there.”
That opinion isn’t universal. “I don’t think anyone can claim the Kittens aren’t legitimate,” Mary Fraizer says. “But you can see the distinction between universality and accessibility as their career progresses. Some of their early music — ‘Transparent,’ ‘Just a Sling,’ or ‘Firehouse Sale’ — definitely has universal appeal without regard to commercial factors. Other songs of the era — ‘Quarterhorse,’ ‘Queenfisher,’ or even ‘Who Said What?’ — are more challenging and stylistic. ‘Quarterhorse’s’ success is almost anomalous among that group. Looking at their later work — anything off Denunciation or Pedigree lacks that challenge — the songs are good, but they’re also accessible. They’re good jumping on points. Good for casual fans. Is that a bad thing? That depends on who you ask. But it’s harder to make the point that they’re striving for an aesthetic ideal when their songs become easier viral sensations.”
¤ ¤ ¤
If I had to describe Cosette Wight’s office, the first word I’d use is ‘comfortable.’ She has a preference for hardwood and a good eye. Her furniture feels good to sit on. There are pictures on the walls — stars she’s worked with. Friends and neighbors. Pictures of her holding Grammies with different artists.
She wears another grey suit along with the red ruby pin that’s something of her trademark. Many parahumans age slowly or look younger than they are, but ‘Cozy Tight’ looks like she’s in her late thirties. It’s a good look on her, made perhaps a bit more weathered by the signs of fatigue. Cozy Tight works late hours and then starts early days. In her twenties she had been engaged to a reporter named Don Benisch, who died in an earthquake in Africa — his story had taken him to an orphanage, and when the earthquake started he ran into the building to help get the children out. They survived, but he didn’t. Since then, there’s some question if Cozy Tight has even taken time off, much less had a personal life. She seems closest to the artists she manages — her presence at Tabby Strong’s mansion wasn’t an unusual occurrence.
“Would you care for a drink?” she asked, walking to a sideboard and unscrewing a crystal decanter’s lid. Inside was a dark liquid. I agreed, and she poured it over ice in an old fashioned glass and handed it to me, taking one for herself.
I took a sip, which was more than enough to clear my sinuses — almost like dynamite were used to blast them. “Good God,” I said. “What is this?”
“Black codazi,” she said. “It’s actually a Pa’lita whiskey… or something akin to whiskey, anyway. The Pa’lita Guard usually send a couple of guardians down to check on Aileen Pyre once or twice a year. They go to concerts, see what the press says about her… her father’s on a ritual journey that will last decades. The Ascendency manages his household in the meantime. I’ve gotten to know them. They usually bring me a few bottles.” She takes a sip of her own. “So. You’ve had a chance to get to know everyone. I’m sure by now you have some questions for me.”
“One or two,” I admitted. “You seem a lot closer to the Kittens than your other clients — even though you’re generally considered closer to your clients than most managers.”
“I think that’s a fair observation,” she said. “I first got to know them back in Grantham. When I first got a job in the industry — Endeavor, of course — I actually brought them with me. I’d negotiated their record contract with X-F-G almost as a proof of concept.”
“They say that you need four things to be a Cheshire Kitten. You need to be an expressed parahuman. You have to present female. You have to be able to play — their music in particular — and you have to ‘get it.’ Do you get it?”
“Yes,” she said. Matter of factly.
“You’re a parahuman. One capable of translating and communicating in the broadest possible terms. I have to imagine that means you can play just about any instrument.”
“Aileen’s father says music is the one universal language. It’d be sad if I couldn’t speak that of all things.” She smiled a bit more.
“You’re a woman—“
“Good eye.” She grinned.
“—and you get it. Are you a Cheshire Kitten?”
She considered for a second. “Yes,” she said. “I’d say I am. I have the easy job, of course.”
“You seem to work pretty hard.” That just made her smile. “You arranged all this — apparently after Aileen suggested it. Then Esther quit. But you still wanted this profile done — and even arranged for Esther to be part of it.”
“And you’re still managing Esther, and everyone’s fine with that.”
“That’s also right.” She was smiling a bit more.
“You’re the master of language, Miss Wight—“
“Call me Cozy. Essentially everyone does.”
“Okay, Cozy. You’re the master of language. Of media. Of production and legality. Is all is — is everything that’s happened in the last several weeks, to the Kittens and around them… is it all an elaborate statement? Did you know Esther was going to walk?”
She chuckled, sipping more of the potent black liquor. “You make me sound like Svengali. No, Mister Chapman. I didn’t orchestrate all this. That said… I did broker it, as much as I could. We all have our gifts. Mine is understanding and translating. I choose to use that skill to try and find the most equitable circumstances for everyone involved.”
“Esther says you cut your commission almost completely.”
“I’m being adequately compensated for my services.”
“How?” I leaned forward. “Cozy, you’re a constant in all this. You brought the Kittens to national exposure. You helped them dump Endeavor and helped found Metal Wing. You produce their albums and a lot of others. When Zephyr started losing it, you stepped into Esther’s role in a ritual they all understood, then stepped right back out. You say you get everyone to ‘equitable circumstances.’ What about you? What are your equitable circumstances?”
She shrugged. “I have a pretty good life.”
“Most producers and agents at your level live the same kind of high life as their clients — especially with the sheer number of clients you have. I’ve done some digging—“
“Oh, have you?” She was smiling a bit more.
“You live very modestly. No house in the Hills for you. You work seven days a week. You donate most of your income to various charities — most of them parahuman related, plus a children’s fund in your late fiancé’s name.”
“You’re very thorough.”
“So I’ll ask again. What are you getting out of all this. What’s Cozy Tight’s reward?”
She sipped more codazi, then stood up. “You know that the Cheshire Kittens really got going in Grantham, a couple of years before the Apocalypse Agenda, right?” she asked, as she walked back to her desk.
“Have you ever heard of the Justice Wing Institute for Parahuman Studies?” she asked, stepping around the desk and opening her desk drawer.
“Of course. That’s where the former Junior Justice Wingers and sidekicks went — to be trained, to learn, and to recruit the next generation of heroes. And when Justice Wing was trapped in Europe during the Apocalypse Agenda… it was the students of the Institute who were here, able to step up and save… well, the universe.”
“All the universes. And of course you’d know it — Amulet was a student, and you interviewed her for your book, since she crossed the aisle. I believe you also interviewed Truncheon, specifically about her?”
I remembered meeting Freya’s treasonous former sidekick, and meeting the affable, cheerful hero that had been the first ‘Cudgel’ under Nightstick’s tutelage. “That’s right.”
“So much lost that day. Freya died making it possible. The first Beacon. Paragirl, Shillelagh, Ohm… that’s what most people remember of the Institute. Those incredible, horrible sacrifices. And of course, the Institute itself closed afterward.”
“What’s your point?”
She walked back over to me, carrying a folder in her hand. “The Justice Wing Institute was meant to teach the next generation — of heroes, yes. But also the next generation of parahumans. See… the heroes of Justice Wing and the Excelsiors knew that they’d been lucky. Parahumanity was introduced to the world the day Paragon saved the world. And for years, people associated parahumanity with heroes and villains. They didn’t fear their neighbors because it felt like parahumanity was part of this… spectacle. But they knew it couldn’t last. And they knew that some people — like Tabby, or Zeph, Zed or Aileen, even Esther — were suffering while society struggled to catch up with the newly expressed and empowered in their midst.”
She opened the folder, taking out a picture, and setting it on the end table next to me. It was a class photo. The heroes were there — looking so young. So hopeful. The legends, like Paragirl, Shillelagh, Truncheon, and Amulet. The new generation, like Phalanx, Snapshot, and Vortex.
And there… standing next to Vortex… a girl in a grey uniform. The photo was black and white, so her hair didn’t look red, but she was unmistakable — as was the ruby pin over her heart.
I blinked, and looked at Cozy. “You were one of the Institute’s charter class?”
“See — the Institute wanted to do more than train heroes. They wanted to build an infrastructure… a curriculum… for teaching parahumans from all walks of life how to use their abilities… and for modeling to society ways to let parahumans use their abilities. They believed that parahumans and prosahumans could live and work together, without either side having to be privileged over the other — but that it would take work and study to get there. I was part of that. And as part of my studies, I spent a lot of time with parahuman children and young adults in Grantham. And I always liked music. So… one night I walked down to Kenmore to catch a few acts at the Rat. I went with a friend of a friend — Amulet introduced me to this Naiad who was into the music scene…
“Diopatrê,” I murmured. “Of course. Amulet was effectively a Greek spirit the same way Drillbit P is.”
“Exactly. And while I was there, we saw a few kids up on stage. They hadn’t eaten particularly well, lately. And they were playing their hearts out, but they had nothing but raw edge. And when a heckler heckled, they argued. But he wasn’t in the mood, and he started in on them. I was ready to move in — and call Truncheon in — even after the lead singer vanished trying to scare him. And then suddenly Diopatrê had hit him like a rogue wave, and there was a mostly naked dracogirl looming over them… and I watched and waited… and watched these kids start playing the absolute worst cover of ‘Cherry Bomb’ I’ve ever heard in my life. Esther, back to human size and concealing herself more or less behind the drums. Tabby, out front singing her guts out. Zephyr, making up for their lack of connection by shredding. Diopatrê in a bassline trying to hold them together… and I couldn’t even tell you want Zed was playing on the keyboards, but it wasn’t ‘Cherry Bomb,’ even though it had been her idea.”
“So you approached them?”
“So I approached them. Made sure they had a place to stay. And I thought about all of it. And the next day I went to see Truncheon and Agent Tartikoff — the DETAILS liason agent — and told them what I’d seen. Five parahumans who came together, protected each other, and managed to drive off a prosahuman belligerent without doing more than soaking him down, then going right back into what they were there for — playing music. I’d already gotten my J.D. and had passed the bar in Massachusetts. And so I went out, to try and build something with these girls. A band, proudly and openly parahuman, expressing their experiences to the world.”
“That’s a nice dream,” I said.
“It was.” She looked at the picture again. “And if things hadn’t gone the way they had… if the Institute had stayed open and Freya hadn’t been tricked off the path and so much horror hadn’t hit so many… maybe we could have helped America and the world make the transition to a world of one humanity — some prosahuman, some parahuman. Some super, some norm. But instead… we got the Apocalypse Agenda. My classmates from the Institute got thrown into the worst of it. It drove Snapshot nearly mad… killed Ohm, Shillelagh, and Paragirl… and threw everyone into terror. And for a while I wasn’t sure we could keep going. But then…”
“I’d told the girls never to use their powers to hurt anyone. I knew that if they did they’d either end up going down as villains or forced into heroic roles. That’s all that the traumatized populace would allow. I never thought… I never meant for them to get hurt — much less shot without defending themselves.”
“Esther says they panicked.”
“They probably did. But then they kept playing. And yes, I know Esther says it was essentially an accident, and the legend says it was defiant. The truth is… somewhere in between. But either way, we had a moment, and it was on video, and it was all over the net. And I realized that moment… parahumans just wanting to follow a dream even when under attack… that was a message anyone could understand.”
“So the legend of the Cheshire Kittens…”
“Spread on its own at first, but then I leveraged it. Hard. Translated it and repackaged it. They’d already had a hit with ‘Transparent.’ I wanted to push that hard — but X-F-G didn’t want that. They were more up for exploitation angles. Not the message I wanted. Endeavor wasn’t ready to back me over the label, and if I were them I’d have done the same thing. But the girls were on my side, and I told them the kind of risk we were taking… but they were kids. They were up for it. And so we took them on and we won. They got out of their label and their contract with Endeavor and so did I. When Endeavor tried to smear us, I broke them in court. All using just the truth, mind you. I had some old friends who were willing to put up seed money — parahumans I trusted. More than one in that picture on that table. And we found other parahuman artists, and we built Metal Wings.”
“But you also allied yourselves with the Meta’d — street gangs. Criminals.”
“Yes, we did. If we’d been able to follow through on the original plan maybe that would have been different… but we weren’t in a world where parahumans were mostly seen as cops and robbers and nobody else really getting hurt. People were scared and angry, and parahumans were being driven to the fringe. And they were organizing and reacting. We could have created this wonderful fantasy world — the sitcom version of Metal Wings, where norm culture was gosh, just needing a little bit of education through music.” She smiled. “That’s not the world we’re in. We don’t get involved with any actual criminal activity. But if a Meta’d rapper can make a better living through music than through crime, that’s a net gain, isn’t it?”
“Sure. But that seems overly simplistic.”
“Because it is. It’s incredibly complex in places, and I work with a lot of people in ways you wouldn’t expect. But the most important part of all of this are the clients I take on. They’re putting their trust in me. I can’t just use them as part of some grand scheme. They deserve my best put forward on their behalf.” She looked down into her almost empty glass. “And no one means as much to me as the Kittens.” She looked back at me. “So Aileen brings up having a profile done. Not our first profile by a longshot, but she wanted it done by the guy who brought Villain chic forward. And… I could see that. Even as I could see how much strain the Kittens were under.”
“Why were they under that much strain? The last couple of albums did well—“ Pedigree and Dire,were both double-platinum, and before that the box set The Cheshire Kittens Vol I. Where Have You Been Young Lady? went gold — “so why were things at a breaking point?”
“Because the last couple of albums did well. Setting the box set aside — if you look at the last five Cheshire Kittens albums — Angrier than Wet, Denunciation, the Grey album, Pedigree and Dire — all five hit platinum, and all but the Grey album went double. There were a lot Grammy nominations, and they’d won what some argue are more than their fair share.” She chuckled. “Every year? Another letter makes the rounds to the awards committees and academies saying that Metal Wing shouldn’t be considered because my powers make it ‘unfair.’ But that’s as may be.” She walked over to refill her glass. “Another?”
“I don’t think so. The Pa’lita clearly have better tolerance than I do.”
“The worst thing that can happen to a hungry band is success,” Cozy said, pouring the black liquid into her glass. “Especially a band like the Kittens — because they weren’t in it for the money. They like getting paid — even Esther — but they all felt… all feel like they’re reaching for something else. For something more. Money feels hollow when you’re trying to change the world. And over time, resentments build — that need to reach your goals begins to conflict with the others.”
“Exactly like Esther. They were lucky, actually. I’ve been worried it would be Zed or worse — that Tabby and Zeph would go into conflict.” She chuckled again. “The Cheshire Kittens. The scared genius. The angry musical prodigy. The revolutionary. The spurned intellectual. The goddess of performance. And the idealistic next generation.” She drank deep of her codazi. “Aileen hoped you coming here would remind them of why they were doing this, but they never forgot why they were doing this. There was always going to be a point where there’d be a hiatus or a shakeup, or one or more going solo, because they all believe in something more than just getting paid.”
“Even Drillbit P?”
“Especially Bitty P. She doesn’t care if she ever gets paid. She wants to play. With others. For others. And belong while she’s doing it. Tabby desperately wants to finally write that song — the one in her head she can’t get onto the page. Zeph wants the whole world to hear them, to love them, and to believe. Esther wants to fight the good fight — to force prosahumanity to learn their lesson. I’m not positive she knows what that lesson is yet, but she wants to teach it nonetheless. Zed wants recognition — real recognition. Untainted by association with her parahuman talents. And Aileen…” She smiled a bit more. “She wanted music. But what that’s ultimately meant to her is… wanting to be a Cheshire Kitten. Believing in them and their music. And being so proud to be here.”
“So you didn’t think my profile would bring Esther back?”
“Of course not. Esther needs to do this. And maybe she’ll flop. And maybe she’ll soar. But it’ll be on her terms. The Cheshire Kittens will rebalance. They’ll find a drummer just like they found Aileen — possibly in the last place they expect. Over time, they’ll start doing more solo projects. Taking a year or two of ‘hiatus.’ You know how it is. And all the while, they’ll keep reminding people that parahumans are more than their powers, more than heroes, more than villains. They’re people.”
“And that’s what you’re getting out of this?”
Cozy smiled a bit more. “Sometimes, the message takes a while before it’s fully received.” She looked at me. “This profile will help, though. Because… well, I’m sure you’ve read the requisite I.Q. Nu or heard Esther or Zed talking about the natural order of things.”
“The innate, inherent superiority of parahumans and how they’re just going to take over? I can’t say I much like the prospect, even if it is inevitable.”
“It’s not inevitable. It’s as simplistic as the idea that parahumans can be kept under prosahumanity. Yes, parahumans can do what they do in amazing ways. I’m proof of that. But just because I can read The Odyssey in ancient Greek and translate it into English as fast as I can write, that doesn’t mean my translation will be as evocative as Robert Graves’s. Zeph is truly inspired on guitar, and her speed lets her shred faster than any have shredded before, but the next Eric Clapton will still do something no one’s ever heard on the guitar. Temple Electronics remade the modern world under Mason Temple’s parahuman intellect, but new innovations come out of Silicon Valley every day, and one of those will undoubtedly be the next big disruption.” She chuckled. “Right now, the power is in the hands of prosahumanity. So, they’re the ones who need to hear the message the most — the message that parahumans are among them, because parahumans are part of them. Parahumanity and prosahumanity make up humanity.”
“And music’s the universal language to teach people that?”
“Why not?” She grinned. “Music. Art. Literature. Poetry. History. The humanities. They call the humanities that for a reason. It’s the study of humanity. Of the things that makes us unique in the universe — that makes us more than ants or fish or monkeys. That’s my real profession, Mister Chapman. I promote the humanities, on behalf of humanity. And when a song written by a parahuman girl who spent her life being accused of crime unfairly makes a prosahuman cry and — more to the point — care? I get paid pretty well.”
“How long will it take?”
That actually made Cozy laugh. “How long will it take for humanity to come together in peace and harmony? Mister Chapman — do I even need to answer that? You literally interview supervillains for a living. There’s no day when all this will be finished. There’s no day when everyone will be kind and no one will be selfish. We don’t do this because we’re going to finish the work. We do it because the work itself is worth doing.” She looked at me for a long moment. “You know Aileen has something of a crush—“
“Yes. I’ve been informed. You know she’ll read this.”
“Are you kidding, we’re looking forward to catching her on film when she does.” She laughed. “Mister Chapman… you interviewed a criminal for a magazine that sent you there purely because she wore tight leather outfits. And whatever else that interview did? It gave Aileen Pyre hope. She is here today because you got Leather to open up all those years ago. The work goes on, but we have some pretty good days along the way, don’t you think?” She paused. “But you are too old for her.”
“Thank you. That’s what I said!” I looked at my hands. “And… yeah. Hearing her tell me that… it does feel pretty good. Even if the credit really goes to Leather.”
“That’s not how credit works. Now. Are you sure you don’t want another codazi? It’s… actually a really fun way to get stonkered. We can talk about those damn kids some more.”
“Stonkered? What language is stonkered?”
“Scots gaelic influence on English, referring to a game of marbles, then segued into slang for satiation or exhaustion in Britain or blitzed on liquor in Australia. I was using the Australian variant.”
“…right. Pour me another glass.”
¤ ¤ ¤
There are still more questions than answers surrounding the Cheshire Kittens. When profiling a long standing band, usually the issues surrounding them are far less philosophical. There are potential tragedies in the making. There are disputes about money and control and accusations flying. And nothing gets settled and acrimony only grows — sometimes for years. Creative endeavors collect passionate people, and when those passions diverge, friction results.
On the surface, that’s what this looked like too. A huge band, accused of selling out. A founding member breaking away and decrying her bandmates in public. Some of those bandmates firing back. Questions of creative control, control over earlier music and sales, of money in general. The difference this time was the group was able to come to an early accord, and that thanks to a manager who doesn’t play by the usual rulebook — who’d rather make almost nothing than see her clients locked in fruitless war.
But then, that’s the thing. The rules of the Cheshire Kittens — including Esther Jowls and Cozy Tight — aren’t like the rules other bands live by. Almost none of the kittens have long term relationships — Zephyr Lish is the exception, and even then her partner stays out of the way most of the time. On any given night, two to four of the Kittens are crashing in one house — more often than not, Tabby’s. They’re among the top grossing acts in the country and they get a higher piece of their album sales and gate than most acts, but they still live like a college band scraping for rent. I’d noticed Tabby’s house was in some disrepair when I first went in, which seemed strange. But… the Cheshire Kittens aren’t that worried about their surroundings… and besides, repairs means workmen and strangers, and Tabby’s not too big on them.
When I said my goodbyes, there was still a feeling of doom clinging to the Kittens. Cozy Tight seemed confident, but the rest still keenly felt Esther Jowls’s absence and reacted in their usual — sometimes loud — ways.
And yet, life moves on, as Cozy Tight had implied it would. Three and a half weeks after I last spoke to the Kittens, Cozy Tight and the band officially announced the latest addition — 19 year old Tsukiko Maeda of Katano, Osaka Prefecture, Japan. She goes by 雷雲 — romanized Raiun, or “Thundercloud,” in English. She seems to meet all four of the criteria — she certainly presents female, is an expressed parahuman (her powers are sonic wave based), can play in the style of the Kittens (and fit that style), and — I am assured by Aileen Pyre — ‘gets it.’ The timetable for the next album — tentatively renamed Evening Siren — has been adjusted to eight months, but before they get heavily to work they’re running a late summer tour, breaking Raiun in and giving Zephyr Lish a chance to get a feel for the new drummer’s style.
There was outrage from the usual quarters — naturally with an additional racist edge. The usual “selling out” and “J-Pop wannabe” slurs were thrown around. And a small minority of Kittens fans and — more to the point — Esther Jowls fans got very loud on the internet, not to mention the usual pack of horrifying threats sent to everyone involved.
Esther Jowls’s only initial public comment was that Cozy Tight had asked her to both meet with and listen to Raiun, and that she thought the kid would be fine. On their surprise first concert — an unannounced event at the Sit’n’Spin in Evergreen City, where the Kittens substituted for the fake ‘Rat-Girl-Ho’ — Raiun handled herself with decent skill and attitude. Esther Jowls did an entirely unexpected drop in, with what looked like a standoff that turned into ‘drum war’ that then segued into a powerhouse rendition of “Side of the Badge,” one of Esther’s songs off Unmarked Grave with both drummers participating. Esther and Raiun embraced afterward, and Esther Jowls gave the house a howl before sliding out the back. She didn’t return, even for encores. The concert wasn’t officially recorded, but there are surprisingly high quality bootlegs floating around the web, plus video of the drum-duel. Metal Wings and Cozy Tight seem to have not officially noticed the ‘leaked’ material. Message sent, message received.
Esther Jowls herself has produced her first demo — Where Did We Go Reich? — with four songs which are being shopped around to appropriate radio play. She’s signed to Forkfire — a Metal Wings imprint used for developing new talent. The album is sparsely instrumented with a much lighter hand on production — arguably it’s closer to 70s punk and post-punk than anything the Kittens have produced. The demo is all Esther Jowls — who goes by Esther J now — with writing credits all hers. It was produced by Cozy Tight. Looking deep in the liner notes, one does notice the studio musician credits on three of the tracks just say “Rat-Girl-Ho.” The sound on those tracks is all Esther, with no Zephyr Lish flourishes or Allon-Zed harmonies, so who can say? Official social media from Metal Wings, G-Listening, Allon-Zed, and Aileen Pyre all wish her well and talk up the demo. Zephyr Lish’s social media is silent on the subject, which some take as tacit approval.
So how does the future look for the Cheshire Kittens? It’s hard to say. If Evening Siren hits hard and well, then they’ll undoubtedly go on an extended tour — both to get the kinks out of the lineup change and because Drillbit P has been begging for it for some time. It’ll undoubtedly sell out ticketwise. And of course, no matter how the album does it’ll be accused of selling out by any number of people.
Likewise, if Where Did We Go Reich gets decent pickup — and so far it seems like it is — then Esther J will get her shot at a full album and full tour. Her venues will be a lot more downmarket, which is exactly as she wants it. Right now, she’s been hitting clubs all over Las Bendiciones, generally with different lineups backing her. She’s clearly making this a solo run.
There are generally rumors that fly around the scene when Esther J’s playing. Some people have pointed out that Drillbit P is made of water that just looks like a person. She can change that appearance easily enough. Allon-Zed could whip up some kind of holographic disguise and play rhythm. Heck, G-Listening could sing backups and no one would even see her. For the most part, I discount those. (For the most part. I can absolutely believe Bitty P will show up to play bass for Esther J and not let anyone know.)
As far as Cozy Tight and her grand designs? I don’t know. On the one hand, I honestly believe music makes a difference in our world — and the Cheshire Kittens are that rare group in today’s day and age who have a huge following without massive control from a media group controlling a label and overproducing their albums. On the other hand, the gap between parahuman acceptance and prosahuman fear still seems real, and all the more because it’s insidious. Expressed parahumans are often fiercely sought after for their field, while others are seen as threats — every tech company and manufacturer wants a metaintellect ‘uber-tech’ or engineer on their staff. No existing management team wants a metaintellect ‘uber-ceo’ to jump in. Similarly, every company that manages IP, entertainment, or straight up corporate law can see how successful Cosette Wight, esq. has been in her field, and know they want lawyers making it rain for them… but that doesn’t mean they want those lawyers to leapfrog existing juniors and associates to be made partner.
It’s hard to say. I know I’ve had a long talk with Mary Frazier — who was kind enough to lend her insights to this profile — on our professional relationship and respective professional hurdles. And that was without either of us having parahuman abilities to throw in the mix. Which isn’t to say there couldn’t be parahuman writers in the mix. Cozy Tight majored in Communications. She could have as easily gone into journalism instead — and would either Mary or I even been considered to interview Leather if a parahuman who could interpret intent behind music as well as perceived interpretation by a listener was working our beat? Leather specified a male writer — the only reason Mary didn’t go instead of me — but she might have made an exception for a parahuman. I don’t know.
I know any number of sports fans who hate the very idea of parahumans in the ‘real’ leagues. Specialty leagues, sure — but people watch the NBA as much to get that vicarious feeling of living through their teams as anything else. That sense of ‘there but for the grace go I,’ even though most of us aren’t six foot seven and able to rush up and down a court for long stretches without collapsing. They don’t know if they can identify with a man who can jump sixty feet laterally for a jumpball and then nail the basket before he even comes down. And if it were one or two parahumans per game, of course it’d be unbalanced and no fun.
But they once said similar things about black players. Last year, seventy-four percent of all NBA players were identified as black (African-American and from around the world). And yet, every sports bar I go to during Basketball season tends to be packed, with people making a lot of noise at the game. If those players were largely parahuman and balanced out — and admittedly some of the rules, court size or what have you modified — would people stop going? Would they stop caring about the Grantham Nightjars, the Empire City Cavalry, or the Crown City Champions?
Five weeks ago, a supervillain was outed, her identity revealed. She was an Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics… but as far as can be told, all her actual powers are psionic — psychic illusions, minor telepathy, projection. We have no reason to believe any of her routines were illusionary. And yet, the IoC is debating stripping her of her medals because she didn’t compete in the enhanced division. The year she competed, the gymnastics enhanced division had one participant, and no one went to or even covered her events. Where is fair, here?
When I solicited comments about the Cheshire Kittens from Teddy Porter, we got to discussing a lot of the issues. Teddy is, of course, ‘Paragon’s Chum’ — one of the Crown City Chronicle reporters who first gave the world a clear view of who Paragon was and what parahumanity meant to the world. He is, like a lot of guys from Crown City, an avid sports nut. So I wanted to know what he felt was fair.
“Fair’s a weird word,” Teddy told me. “There’s steroids and doping in almost every sport. Prosahumans — we assume — doing everything in their power to get an edge. Sometimes we catch it, sometimes we don’t. And sometimes, everyone knows it’s happening but it makes it more exciting, so it’s ignored. It’s ignored by fans, it’s ignored by officials, it’s ignored by owners. If everyone does it, isn’t it fair?” He shook his head, laughing. “But consider bluesuiting. How do we know if one or more professional athletes are actually superheroes by night? And if their powers don’t directly touch on their sport, is it unfair? And what if it does touch on their sport? Are they cheating? They’re not doping. If anything, they’re holding back to keep under cover. If the game’s still fun to watch, what does it matter?”
“Isn’t it unfair?”
“Is it? What if the other team has a bluesuited hero on their side, too? How do we know? Why should we know? There’s no universal test for parahumanity, and I hope there never is. Right now, basketball and football alike have a ton of rules that regulate what players can do. Players have to dribble. Some football players can’t touch the ball. In one Baseball league a designated hitter bats for the pitcher. In the other, the pitcher has to bat. It’s all artificial. The NBA used to prohibit zone defenses. Why? Because they worked too well. Sports evolve as strategies, players, and skills evolve. So why wouldn’t they evolve again?”
“It seems like too much to me.”
“Does it? Think about this — the NFL is being forced to confront the long term brain injuries that their players sustain. Eventually — by class action lawsuit if nothing else — they’re going to have to outlaw hits. Maybe even go to touch rules. And the game’ll still be good, but a lot of people will be really pissed. But what if you recruit a bunch of linemen who can be knocked over but are invulnerable to injury? Hit’em as hard as you like, no chance of a TBI. What does the football fan want more — action, hits, and sacks? Or prosahumans playing tag?”
The idea that Cozy Tight can’t be allowed to produce albums because they’re too good and other people can’t compete for awards seems stupid. And, when non-Metal Wings acts snag Grammies that seem less about the best music and more about shutting out Cozy Tight, music fans are turned off and sales go down. But, that letter gets sent every year apparently — demanding the redhead with the gift of translation be disqualified. And that’s at the top ranks of a multi-million dollar industry. When Zephyr Lish was in high school, she wasn’t allowed to participate in guitar duels. If a Zephyr Lish fan who happens to be a speedster wants to compete this year? They’ll get the same response. Aileen Pyre offhandedly mentioned she couldn’t play field hockey at her school, because she’d have dominated the game. How can that possibly be fair?
The Cheshire Kittens and Esther J — and other Metal Wings acts — aren’t going to force legislation through anywhere. That much is clear. But if they keep the issue fresh in the minds of each new generation… will that message reach a critical mass? Will the need for a solution become a real priority? And even if it does… what will that solution even look like?
And will the stress of that kind of burden ever finally prove too much for G-Listening, Zephyr Lish, Allon-Zed, Drillbit P, Aileen Pyre, Raiun, and Esther J? Will they keep the faith instead?
Or will they find themselves in their sixties — hosting reality shows, and shilling butter on television?
I guess we’ll find out in due course.
Todd Chapman is the best selling author of Low Society.
He was a reporter and critic-at-large for years here at Amplifier magazine.
Special thanks to Cosette Wight, Theodore Porter, Robot Nun Records, and UCLB.
Zephyr Lish’s guitars courtesy the Mason L. Kramer Group.
Extra Special thanks:
Mason L. Kramer, Greg Fishbone, and Wednesday Burns-White.
If you liked this? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Or? Consider grabbing me a quick cuppa joe! Thanks!
8 thoughts on “⎇001JW: The Kitten House Rules by Todd Chapman”
A few notes, because I feel like it…
Cozy Tight/Cosette Wight started existence as the protagonist of a literal space fantasy — as in, ships of wood traveling the stars driven by magical forces, trading between each other and living their lives out in the void. (All “Citizen of the Galaxy” trader family style, but with more Green Lantern knockoffs.) I’ve tried for years to make the background work as fiction, but even though I love the setting, there’s no story I can really weave out of all of it. Her original name was Cozette D’Whyte. Why has her named changed? Well, it might have something to do with me marrying someone with the surname ‘White’ and taking it on as a hyphenate of my own surname. Cozy isn’t really like Weds even slightly, except in sheer awesomeness, so I didn’t want there to be confusion.
It was actually just chance that Doug Ramsey/Cypher has recently been a thing in Marvel/X-Men stuff again. On the other hand, for decades I’ve heard that Doug Ramsey is a useless character because all he can do is translate things. In an actual world with superpowers, Doug Ramsey is the rare mutant with a power that’s actually useful for something other than punching people. So, if you want to consider Cozy my rebuttal? Go right ahead.
The Parahuman Rights Movement is something that only picks up steam after the Apocalypse Agenda, as the article says. The issues existed before, but people could file them away. At the same time, it hits on a recurring theme in my superhero stuff. Why exactly do super heroes have to pass up on the NBA, or the Olympics, or what have you to be ‘fair’ to non-super heroes? Yeah, Wally West could beat any non-powered sprinter, but so what? Those sprinters can all beat me, right? The issue is only magnified with ‘mutants’ or the like. If someone was born able to power lift the Empire State Building, why shouldn’t they be able to enter a powerlifting competition?
Jack Kirby, it’s worth noting, beat me to all those issues decades ago, when he had Clark Kent interview a heavyweight champion boxer who was suicidally depressed because his title was meaningless. He knew full well he couldn’t beat Superman, so he was just kidding himself about being ‘champion of the world.’ That was decades ago. Jack Kirby was amazing.
There is a significant challenge involved in writing characters who present female when you are a cis male. The same is true for writing People of Color. It’s always a tightrope-walk between lack of diversity and inclusiveness and being appropriative — or worse, patronizing. In the end, you write as well as you can and hope for the best.
I also wanted to present archetypes of the rock world, in all their positive and negative glory. All of the Cheshire Kittens have inherent flaws of character, and all of them have certain elements of nobility. Which all goes back to one of the points I was trying for in “Interviewing Leather” (and in “Diverged in a Wood,” which is a short story in the upcoming print/eBook Interviewing Leather Anthology): ‘super heroes/villains’ and ‘civilians/bystanders’ have inherent differences that don’t have anything to do with being parahuman or prosahuman. The Cheshire Kittens aren’t supers. Cozy worked hard to make sure they stayed out of that lifestyle, in part because none of them have the necessary qualities to be successful in it. None of them could be super heroes, and none of them could be successful super villains (Zephyr’s near miss notwithstanding). In the specific case of the Kittens, each one was based more on musicians and public figures (and people I actually know) than on other source material.
I am absurdly proud of the name “Allon-Zed.”
Cozy’s long lost fiancé is a reference to a character by Greg Fishbone. Zephyr Lish is a composite character developed in collaboration with Mason Kramer.
Over on the Patreon, folks got to see the complete discography (to date) by the Kittens, as well as a backstory post where they talk about their favorite songs from their work. I may stick one or both where they can be seen, publicly. If nothing else? People should get to hear about “The Garfield Conspiracy.”
Another couple of fast notes — originally, the song that Pyre starts singing was “Mutineer” by Zevon. Actually licensing the lyrics for inclusion was cost prohibitive. I could have just described the song and made references to it instead, but I think it works better to have the lyrics. So, I created a Zevon substitute and I swapped in the very, very public domain Skye Boat Song with a new set of lyrics, on the theory that at least people have a decent chance to hear it in their head as it’s being sung.
Some folks who’ve been following me for a while might recognize chunks of the Parahuman Rights Movement theory from other places — Superguy and ‘not’ Superguy. This is where ultimately things like the “Just Clever Enough” speech and the Meta’d fit.
My default answer to the “If you could have any power, what would it be?” has pretty much always (well, since he existed) been Doug Ramsey’s power if I had to keep living in the real world. The flashier powers are more burden than joy if you’re not in a world where superhumans have already become accepted.
There was a villain called Urizen? What was his deal?
The name piques my curiosity.
There was indeed a villain named Urizen, at least as of the Apocalypse Agenda.
As for what his deal was? Well… in William Blake’s poetry he was the embodiment of boundaries and the sense of imposed law, of being bound by the chains of reason and convention.
And, since he first came from Blake’s poetry, I naturally assume his arch enemy must be the Ancient Mariner. Which means that if I have any intention of writing one of their titanic battles, I’ll have to alternate between iambic quatrameter and trochaic septameter…
(Please note, the above is not strictly speaking the villain Urizen’s deal. Or relevant to it. Which is not to say I might not attempt that poem. I once wrote a sestina about a mad scientist in a webcomic on a dare.)
To answer more seriously… “that would be telling, wouldn’t it?”
Though it is worth noting Cozy’s correction of Chapman above:
Since as near as I can tell, we’re somewhere in Ninespace the same way ⎇001JW is… if Cozy’s not being hyperbolic, whatever Urizen’s deal was, those Institute kids saved you and me too…
One other little note I’ll throw in here while I’m revisiting. Chapman claims that Aileen Pyre is the first interviewee he’s had to call him ‘Todd.’ Folks who’re reading Interviewing Trey might notice that Moriarty James calls him Todd.
This isn’t a contradiction. Chapman doesn’t count her, because he knows she’s just a parasite at best and besides, she hijacked a jet to its own destination purely so she could be ‘interviewed’ by Chapman during the flight, whether he wanted to do so or not.
I decided to reread this because ….well, other things you wrote recently touched on it. And I had a couple of random thoughts.
There’s a part of me that comes at this from the other direction, of “why does a speedster who can break the sound barrier want to compete against prosahuman runners?” And, I mean, I get that, on the one hand it’s more about being included/excluded than anything else. Being told “No (whatevers) Allowed” makes you want to push back, even if you *actually* didn’t want to join their stupid club anyway. And being told that “these people are the best athletes ever” when you can do stuff on your worst day that’s more amazing than they’ll ever manage rankles too.
But….well, to my understanding, part of what makes a good athlete is striving and trying to go to the edge and do your best and if whatever sport the parahuman is trying to play is simply too easy for them, I don’t think they’ll really enjoy it. Like Teddy says, you’d have to modify the rules. I dunno, maybe grade how good your connection is to the speed force and adjust the track length so you actually have to strain a bit to hit the right time range. Which might be considered unfair, but you wanted a challenge, right?
The other thought I had was that I started imagining a metahuman fast food place that had a speedster as their delivery person and had a “Your pizza in 30 seconds or less, or it’s free” type deal. Which is actually absurd unless they also got a precog to get the orders down five minutes before they came in (well or keep a bunch of pizzas standing ready to go at all times). And they’d need at least two speedsters, just so that they could each take time off. But, while it would be a nice gimmick, unless speedsters are really common, you wouldn’t be able to franchise it.
But I can imagine a bunch of people looking at that and going “welp, there’s my job gone.” And I think that’s honestly the real problem.
If everyone out there didn’t have to be afraid of not knowing where their next meal comes from, of having to worry about having to choose between going to the doctor and making rent, of losing their only source of income because a parahuman took over the entire job sector, I feel like that would remove one of the biggest sources of friction between different sections of humanity. It would also reduce the numbers of new supervillains out there, I suspect.