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Local lit: beyond the black cloud

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Paul McComas founded Rock Against Depression in 1995, hoping "to both honor the work and legacy of Kurt Cobain and educate his young fans about how to avoid his outcome." A writer, performance artist, and musician, McComas and his band--which had until then specialized in punk originals and covers of old X songs--learned a bunch of Nirvana tunes, rechristened themselves "Lithium," and booked a midwest tour of community centers and other all-ages venues at which McComas planned to talk to the crowd about depression and suicide in between their renditions of "Rape Me" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit." That spring McComas, then 33, was poised to hit the road when he was himself overwhelmed by despair.

"I knew the warning signs pretty well," says McComas, who studied literature and psychology in college and says depression runs in his family. His months-long struggle with the illness--which he now calls "an utterly transforming experience that forced me out of some bad patterns"--was triggered by problems at work and a friendship that was on the rocks. "It's a small miracle I didn't collapse sooner," says McComas, who quickly got help, recovered--with the aid of Prozac--and started the tour as planned.

Two years later he was heading down Lake Shore Drive when he came up with the idea for his new novel, Unplugged, which tells the story of a young bisexual rock star who's flattened by depression. It was the third anniversary of Cobain's suicide, and "WXRT was playing a radio broadcast of the news three years ago, followed by the song 'All Apologies,'" McComas recalls. "Tears started running down my cheeks and I had to pull over. I sat on the side of the road, asking myself, 'Why is this so powerful to me, and what can I do about it?'

"I decided to write about a musician, in some ways not unlike Kurt, who's given a second chance."

After 27-year-old Dayna Clay, his burned-out protagonist, cuts out at the end of her successful American tour, flies home, and tries to asphyxiate herself in her Bucktown garage, she starts driving west, winding up in the Badlands of South Dakota. There, with the help of antidepressants, solo climbs through the rugged landscape, and the love of a good woman, she rebuilds her identity.

McComas, who has a master's degree in film from Northwestern and currently teaches fiction writing in NU's nondegree adult education program as well as at his Evanston home, says he'd love to see the book made into a movie--maybe with Ani DiFranco as the lead. Several years ago he sent former X front man John Doe a story from his 1998 collection Twenty Questions. Doe appears in the story as a minor character, and, says McComas, "I thought I could run it by him for his approval and perhaps meet him. The next thing I know, there's his voice on my answering machine." Since then McComas and his wife, Chris, have struck up a friendship with Doe, who's an actor as well as a musician. When McComas met him for drinks in LA last spring he gave him a copy of Unplugged, and says Doe was enthusiastic. "He asked me who I saw in the roles and I said I saw Sam Shepard as Drake [the father of Clay's love interest]," recalls McComas. "He kind of looked at me and said, 'If Shepard takes a pass, you have my number.'"

RAD fell apart in 1999--"We were reaching the stage where our target audience of teenagers was starting to ask, 'Kurt who?'" says McComas. But Lithium lives on as the Dayna Clay Band, which plays songs performed in the book and appears on a CD McComas is selling separately. The band will play and McComas will read from Unplugged on Friday, October 18, at Gescheidle, 300 W. Superior (312-654-0600), and Saturday, October 19, at Studio 1123, 1123 Florence in Evanston (847-475-5159). Both events start at 7 PM; for more information see www.paulmccomas.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.

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