Thursday, June 03, 2004

This just in!... Mark Roebuck (who is featured in the article below) and his band Big Circle have just released a new CD on Not Lame Records. It includes a beautiful version of a song written by Haines Fullerton called "Sister Redemtion."

In the Shadow of a Spiritual Crisis:
Celebrity, Suicide, and the Etiquette of Envy

By Dave McNair

Dave Matthews took a careful sip of his coffee. He’d just been to the dentist and the right side of his face was noticeably swollen. “The guy’s standing there prying open my mouth, scrapping the crap off my teeth and making my gums bleed and telling me about what a fan his daughter is and could I sign a T-shirt for him after my cavity was filled.” Matthews took another sip of coffee and it dribbled down his chin. Behind us the barista girls working the counter at Greenberry's were trying to act like it wasn’t such a big deal to have a rock star in the room.

“Is it bad?” Matthews said, almost sheepishly. “Do I look stupid?”

“You can hardly notice it,” I lied.

Matthews smiled and cocked his eyebrow, a familiar gesture that had become iconic to millions of fans. “You know, I was thinking about Haines the other day. It’s funny you asked me to talk about him.”

“He was a big influence on a lot of people in town. Everyone has a Haines story, a story about how he turned his light on them…I wondered what yours was.”

“He was definitely an influence for awhile.”

Matthews took another careful sip of his coffee.

“You know,” said Matthews, adopting an uncharactoristically serious tone. “I think about suicide a lot.”

We had met to talk about Haines Fullerton, a local musician, bartender and muse who had killed himself in 1996, so it wasn’t completely out of the blue. Still, it wasn’t what I had expected to hear from a man about to make the cover of Rolling Stone for the first time (Rolling Stone, March 15, 2001 ). Or was it?

In 1994, just days after Kurt Cobain had shot himself, writer John Updike was answering questions after a reading he’d given. Someone in the audience asked Updike to comment on the suicide and describe the spiritual crises that successful people, especially rock stars, face. Updike paused for a moment, then he said, "I think all of mankind operates in the shadow of spiritual crisis. The rock stars, in a way, more so than any of us. I don't know quite what led to this man's suicide, nor does every rock star commit suicide, of course. Very many remain quite healthy and survive the terrible blast of celebrity and whatever other temptations befall them. Rock stars? I don't know where they come from, they probably come out of middle-class basements, don't they? Where they have their guitar and their drum sets? They are simply middle-class kids whose dreams have come true too soon and maybe because they're very reckless and self-infatuated, they're trying to become angels. That was certainly the feeling you had in the late 60s and early 70s, when so many of the real stars just went down like rockets: Joplin, Hendrix and others. What their insides, their spiritual state feels like, I don't quite know, but modern man lives under an extra stress than people of the Middle Ages, the more credulous ages, didn't have. You cope with it in varying ways. Some refine their faith; some turn to drink; some ignore the whole problem and some shoot themselves in the head." Apparently, the room went dead silent for a full minute before someone raised their hand and changed the subject.

You think about suicide?” I asked.

Matthews nodded solemnly.

“Of course, I’d never really do it because of how it would affect other people,” Matthews said, abruptly changing gears. “… particularly those I love. I couldn’t do that to them.”

Matthews’ sudden shift seemed to come on the heels of my puzzled look, as if he were suddenly afraid of being a downer, or had revealed too much too fast, or been caught trying to affect a brooding darkness he really didn’t have, or was simply trying to upstage Haines. It was hard to tell where he was coming from.

“This may sound harsh, considering we’re talking about Haines,” Matthews went on. “… but I see it as a selfish thing to do. The thing is, Haines was so unselfish to the point of wanting to kind of erase himself. I remember jamming with him and he’d come up with some chord progression or fragment of a song I liked and he’d say, here, take it, use it, it’s yours. And I was like, no, it’s yours, I’m not going to take it. Later on, when he set up an early recording session for the band in Memphis we could hardly tell he was there in the studio because he was scurrying around, checking sound levels, staying out of the way like he was trying to be invisible.”

I had wanted to talk to Matthews about Haines for some time. I was interested in Fullerton’s own flirtation with rock stardom and the demise of his band The Deal in the mid-to-late 80’s. I’d spoken at length with Deal front man and songwriter Mark Roebuck about Haines and the story of their band, and several times Roebuck had encouraged me to write something about it. Certainly, the story of The Deal had all the elements of a classic rock tragedy, a kind of perfect dark parallel to the success of the DMB. In addition, the two rock narratives were intertwined. Both Roebuck and Haines had songwriting credits on DMB albums. Roebuck for The Song that Jane Likes and Haines for #34. Roebuck and Matthews had also recorded a tape together in 1989, and it was Roebuck who first convinced Matthews to perform at an open mike night at the old Eastern Standard.

For those unfamiliar with The Deal, the story goes like this: The Deal was formed in 1979 in Charlottesville, Virginia by Mark Roebuck, Eric Schwartz, Haines Fullerton, Hugh Patton, and Jim Jones. By 1981 The Deal had a full-page spread in Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, in which they were described as a new group dedicated to "high harmonies and low morals, The East Coast answer to the Beach Boys sound." They were doing live gigs to packed houses all across the east coast and developed a loyal following. Later on, they were dubbed one of the "20 Best Unsigned Bands" in the world by Musician magazine. Eventually, the band attracted the attention of music legend Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s ex-manager and founder of Bearsville Records, who signed the band to a five-record recording contract. But then Grossman’s Bearsville and its parent company Warner Brother had a falling out and there was an intense legal battle. Undeterred, Grossman flew to Europe to find investors to save his label. However, midway through the flight Grossman suffered a fatal heart attack. Haines and Mark made a few more attempts to revive The Deal but by 1987 it was clear to both of them that it was not going to happen.

(To learn more about The Deal or to get their CD God-Bye September log on to

It took Roebuck nearly ten years to recover from the band’s failure, finally deciding to persue a degree in social work. However, according to Roebuck, Haines never completely got over it. It was a struggle Roebuck knew something about. He had remarked a number of times that Matthew’s success was sometimes painful to him, that the green-eyed monster of envy loomed large if he thought about it too much.

Roebuck was one of the last people to see Haines before he shot himself. He and Haines had not spoken in years and Haines wanted to patch things up. By then Haines had a nearly cult-like following of local souls who had been influenced by his spiritual theories of channeling and physical transformation, a situation that had been worrying Roebuck for awhile. As far as he could tell, it had a lot to do with Haines’ interest in A Course in Miracles, a kind of intellectual’s self-help guide, or “thought system” as it is called, to understanding the teachings of Christ. In fact, not long before Haines shot himself he told Roebuck that God was speaking and working through him to bring remarkable changes into the world.

On September 20, 1996, Haines bought a handgun at the old hunting and fishing store that used to be where the Freebridge CVS is now. Then he went to the pool at the Ivy Gardens apartments and shot himself. A security guard found him in the poolhouse later that night.

During an outdoor memorial service for Haines, Roebuck performed an acoustic set, his voice and hands shaking with emotion. It was the first time he'd played in front of people since The Deal broke up. This would mark the second half of his musical life. In the audience, there were two women who had given birth to Haines' children within the past three months.

Sixteen years later, Deal fans still talk about the undiscovered treasure of Roebuck’s music and their affection for Haines in nostalgic terms, as if they were a phenomenon that poignantly maked a certain time, a phenomenon that the broader culture had failed to discover and embrace.


The first time I saw Haines was the first time I'd seen the DMB play at TRAX in 1993. I'd just arrived in Charlottesville and had an apartment within walking distance of the now demolished club where the DMB played their regular Tuesday night gigs. One of my first impressions during that show was how happy everyone was, as if the angst of grunge, the vaudeville and seriousness of 80s pop, the anger of punk, the poetry of 70s folk, and the tired example of the Dead had finally been cast off. At the center of all this bliss was a tall, boyish looking man with a high forehead, short curly blond hair, large sad eyes, and a sweet, angelic grin who wore a tennis shirt, kaki shorts, and white Keds. He stood at the edge of the dance floor moving to the music slightly, looking immensely pleased with what he was hearing and what was going on around him. He looked so openly joyous and confidently unreserved, that I remember it bothered me. No one could really be like that, I thought. Every so often someone would go over to say hello to him, usually a woman, and after a few words they would hug for an unusually long time, the kind of hug people gave each other in airports and train stations, and then Haines would close his eyes, smile, and raise up his head toward the stage lights. Clearly, in hindsight, it’s easy to see that whatever it was about the DMB that people responded to was almost certainly first felt by Haines.

“You know,” Matthews said. “During our tour last summer somebody got a hold of an old video from one of our shows at Miller’s. We stuck it in and for about five minutes it was just a shot of that empty little stage. Then all of a sudden Haines walks across the screen. We all looked at each other and shuddered at the same time.”

“Why do you think that was?”

“He was a powerful personality….he had a knack for believable flattery and at the time I just sucked it up. He also used to tell me how important it was that the band communicate, that we develop a strong way to communicate with each other early on because when we were real big communication would be harder because each of us would have such a large stake in the band. At the time, sitting their playing our little weekly gigs at Eastern, I was like, yeah, sure Haines, when we’re real big. But he was right. I remember one time right before one of our Tuesday night gigs, Carter was pissed about something and tried to walk out before the show started, said he was going to quit, said he was sick of being the drummer for this stupid ass band, and I stopped him at the door and wouldn’t let him leave. We confronted each other, we talked, and we worked it out….”

During a lull in our conversation Matthews and I walked over to CVS to get a pack of cigarettes. On the way back, I spotted one of the barbers at Staples standing nervously outside the shop at the end of a long row of columns along the covered sidewalk. On the bench beside him were a pile of posters. As we passed by he stepped forward and stopped Matthews. I’d taken my son to have his haircut by the guy several times over the years, but at that moment I might as well have been a lampost standing beside “The Dave.” He had a pile of DMB band posters he wanted Matthews to sign, and in his delirium at being in his idol’s presence he was speaking way too fast, too scripted, and clearly embarrassed by this ambush; but he pressed forward anyway, the goal of having those posters signed for his friends and family outweighing any concern for his dignity and leaving him blind to the fact that he had met me at least a half-a-dozen times.

Matthews politely signed each poster to whom the guy requested, and when he was finished the guy quickly retreated into the barber shop with his prize, all eyes inside looking out at Mathews like a crowd gathered around a street performer juggling bowling pins and blowing fire out his mouth.

“Is it always like this?” I asked.

“No, it gets much worse.”


When Matthews and I began talking again, I thought about how easy it was to be charmed into abandoning yourself as you gazed upon celebrity, even if it were only a face on a magazine at the super-market, and how it seemed to operate all around us like a smiling, well-dressed demon seeking to highlight our inadequecies by gossipping within earshot of us about the glamorous lives of others.

Indeed, over the decades we have been exposed to the media machinery of our celebrity culture, we have been conditioned to “know” these people we have never met, to invite them into our inner lives, to carry on an inner dialogue with them. “To a greater or lesser degree,” the author Richard Schickel writes in his book Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity , “we have internalized them, unconsciously made them part of our consciousness.” The problem is that this kind of false intimacy creates unrealistic expectations and makes disappointment and self-loathing all but inevitable because, as Schickel writes, “Another part of the approaching stranger’s mind is, of course, aware that he is totally unknown to the celebrity. And he resents that unyielding fact. A chip grows on his shoulder. An undercurrent of anger is felt.”

The larger danger to society, Schickel warns, is that our obsession with celebrity has given the power of personality authority over the power of ideas, ideologies, and even authentic human connections. As Schickel writes, “We have come a very long way in a very short time to our present isolation, subjectivity, and desperate hope that the cult of personality may substitute for a sense of organization, purpose, and stability in our society.”

For even the most intelligent among us, the connection to celebrities we like or chance to know (even to the ones we hate) is somewhat more charged by this phenomenon than we like to admit. Perhaps we manage it better than the barber at Staples, but it’s still there. Like Roebuck, I have have also felt a powerful awe and envy for Matthew’s life and success, which at times has felt like a quiet and powerful assault on my spirit; and has even found its way into my dreams.


Later that night, Roebuck and I met Matthews for drinks at Court Square. When we arrived, Matthews was still doing his interview with John Colapinto, the writer doing the piece for Rolling Stone, so Roebuck and I waited at the bar.

“You know, there was a time when Haines had such a strong influence on me that my ego and my belief in myself totally depended on him.” Roebuck said. “ He poured himself into me just like he poured himself into Dave. It was like he had a spiritual virus that needed a host to survive. It was like he martyred himself to people, like he sacrificed himself, and yet there was some mean-spirited, angry, egotistical aspect to it. He was a hard person to hate, but I hated him for years.”

“Tell me about the last time you saw him?” I asked.

Roebuck smiled. “He wanted to see me so he could apologize for all that stuff. And he did. Of course, it was said by a man who believed himself to be the son of God at the time, or something like it. Haines always took things to the extreme. You know, he was such a perfectionist, such a purist, that it’s no wonder he felt like he had to be Christ when he found him. It was a big part of why the band failed, I think. Even if Grossman had lived I think we would have burned out. Haines was just too much of a perfectionist to be a success.” Mark laughed. “And all I really thought about was getting laid.”

“So do you think he was crazy?”

“He was bi-polar, for sure. If he were a patient of mine now that’s what I would diagnose him with.”

Mark turned and looked over at Matthews.

What is it?” I asked.

“I’m just thinking about how maybe he was always bi-polar, always crazy, and that all those years I struggled with him, all those years I depended on him, all those years I believed in what he said about me and the future of the band…that all those years I was just dealing with someone who was mentally ill.”


When the interview broke up, Matthews waved us over to the table. For the next few hours we riffed wildly on writing and books, the music business, famous people Dave had run into (Jim Carey, Chelsea Clinton, Mick Jagger, Dylan, Nelson Mandela) women, Tiger Woods, bowel movements, drugs, sex, and a dozen other taboo subjects as we smoked a zillion cigarettes, consumed vast quantities of Knob Creek whiskey and Bass Ale and laughed until our sides ached and our eyes were watering. John Colapinto, the writer doing the Rolling Stone piece, excused himself early, sensing what was coming, I think.

We then headed down to the C&O, grabed the corner table, and settled in for the night. Whenever I looked up from our conversation or returned from the bathroom, I noticed there were more people there and that all the tables and chairs in the room and all the people in them and around them had either turned in our direction or moved slightly closer, as if all the objects and people in the room were in the gravitational pull of planet Dave.

What had started out as a spirited and scatological conversation about the world at Court Square Tavern had in the small, smokey, dimly lit confines of the C&O become an orgy of impulses and broken boundaries. People poured through the space surrounding our table, leaning over us to listen to Matthews or shake his hand, the women putting out everything they had as if to maintain any mystery or dignity might mean they wouldn’t get noticed. (One woman actually sat on my lap for almost an hour and when I met her again at a party a week later she didn’t remember me.)

The whole room seemed to be pulsating wildly with energy, as if everyone were auditioning for a spot in Matthew’s memory. At one point, I had to go out to the parking lot and breathe steadily for I-don’t-know-how-long so that I wouldn’t throw up. When I returned, it was over. The lights were up and the music down, and people were filing out the side door. Two impossibly thin girls sitting on Matthews’s lap were playfully insulting him now, telling him how fat he was getting and that he was losing his hair, to which a loaded and tired Mathews just stared down at the table submissively as he signed the credit card slip for our massive bar tab. “But we still think you’re soooo cute,” one of the girls said, sending them both into a fit of laughter, their hands and mouths and thin legs all over Matthews like giant insects on a corpse.


Later on, we sat in Matthews car in the Wachovia parking lot and listened to a demo of the DMB’s new album Everyday. I sat in the back beside a mountain of mail addressed to Mathews while Roebuck sat up front. It was 3:30 a.m.

Roebuck and Mathews talked music while I listened, just as they had when they were both bartenders on the Downtown Mall. In a perfect world, I imagined, Haines and Mark and Dave and everyone who’d ever dreamed of playing music for a living would all be rock stars. Just giving your life to the vocation was enough.

However, in this world, the songs we were listening to would be on radio stations everywhere in a few months, the videos would come out, the summer tour would get under way, and Matthews would be on the cover of Rolling Stone, and more money and fame would pour down on him like rain. It was the excess that seemed to mark Haines and Matthews, I began to think; that willingness to go to extremes. Haines just went ahead and just believed he was holy, threw himself headlong into his music and into people’s lives, and then went ahead and bought that gun and headed off into oblivion. Likewise, Matthews just went ahead and stepped into the ferocious arena of American popular culture and the terrible responibility of fame. They both had taken bold, self-infatuated leaps; Matthews into the mind of the public, Haines into the hands of God.