The Paranoia Hour: Mike Skinner and The Streets Take on America

In no time, Skinner was teased up on cheap hooch, and he gripped the bottle all night like it was his boarding pass to the first moonshot. He had the wrath up at full blast. "I never liked you," he hissed at some poor unfortunate who got too close to the center. “I never liked you.”

THE CALL WENT out. “Oooo wants a graaam?” It was early days yet and Mike Skinner was already slashing his tongue around. Could have been that Birmingham accent of ‘is that made him sound half gone. It was hard to know, and the razor blade hanging around his neck kept catching the light like a headshrinker’s watch. “Time to get your snow shoes on, boys.”

This wasn’t the paranoia hour. That’d come later. For now, everyone was settling into a rehearsal room upstairs from the gig in Greenpoint. It was an old Polish social club called Warsaw, and it was shellacked with Brooklyn’s professionally unimpressed, all come to fold their arms over this kid the Brits were praising as some idiot-savant.

On the way to the stage, Skinner and his crew, The Streets, sorted through a full frown of waxen hair and ironic t-shirts that wheezed ingestible layers of ancient cigarette smoke. Skinner did not stand out. He was getting “lairy,” as his record proclaimed, and he was doing it with “Mahr-lawn.” As in Brando. As in brandy. As in cognac.

As in Hennessy. Skinner had a handle of the stuff jammed into his fist, and he used it as a baton to part the crowd on his way to the stage.

THE NIGHT HAD begun with vodka. In the van making fast from the licorice marquee of the GE Building in midtown Manhattan. The Streets played a taping of Last Call, NBC’s late-night test market, and they needed a few snorts to put the shambles behind them.

The vodka bottle circulated around the van, and the van meandered through Manhattan traffic, which was bloated with blueshirts in the day of another Code Orange. The van kept braking, lurching forward, then halting again, crystallizing the pathos of touring for a period of time well beyond comfort.

Skinner’s manager, Tim Vigon, was feeling it, and his chest heaved with choked air. He looked through the window at a few huffy fat girls in red overcoats shuffling out of the W Hotel and toward some sherry-soaked dinner party. He gasped, “Ah, Miami….”

South Beach was the ultimate destination of this U.S. tour in support of Original Pirate Material. Tomorrow it was off to Boston, where Queen Amidala was scheduled to come front and center. Then the Streets were flying to Miami for the Ultra Music Festival, an all-day DJ slog through pills and plastic surgery, terrycloth mini-Sisqos announcing themselves like popping corn.

South Beach would be crawling with beasts and lunatics, Biblical monstrosities. It was important to be mentally prepared. Sorted with the proper gear. “Hey Mike,” someone shouted from the back of the van. “What’s the weather forecast for Miami?” Skinner’s head arose as if from a blackened sea. “A storm front’s coming through,” he answered. “Get your boots on. We’re going hiking.”

Skinner cackled and his lips parted to expose a curious set of teeth. There were bent nails, China doll miniatures, one or two browned-out heroin jobs, and random gaps all the way around. The boys called him Jaws, and his teeth were the capper to an oddball appearance. Jumbo lollygag eggs for eyes. A stork’s head that stooped forward under the gale-force winds of this newfound recognition. His surname described a body that must have weighed 110 pounds.

Let’s be fair. It was known among his inner circle that Skinner had been having a rough time keeping his nutrients down. On a recent trip to Dublin, a van rental company made a grand show out of lending The Streets its souped-up deluxe cruiser. That evening, Skinner made an even grander show of disgorging himself on the van’s back sofa. In its own little way, his body was trying to say that he’d better stop drinking brandy.

BUT WHO’S LISTENING? After the Brooklyn gig, it was back upstairs for the continuation of an endless multi-part serial. Skinner and his band were spent on booze and beers, getting diesel off some homegrown. He corralled a friend and jutted a finger toward the toot aligned on a chipped school desk. “Right,” Skinner barked like an upperclassman. “Clean that up.”

The room had begun to go bulbous with shouts and strangers. Impertinent questions cluttered the air, the kinds of things uttered during chance encounters and grabs for cash. “Do you have any coke?” They were two girls, and minutes before they had been outside wandering the cold corners for an alleyway to relieve themselves. One girl tugged at the buttons of her jean jacket. Her red t-shirt was a Coca-Cola mockup, the lettering altered so slightly and splashed in bright guilty white. One friend tossed her head toward the other. “Give us cocaine,” she said, “and I’ll let you make out with Laura.” They said they were 18.

Too bad for Skinner he had a girlfriend. You could see him in the corner talking on a cellular, cupping it to his fangs. Meantime, the darlings on charley and everybody else blew down to a bar around the corner, where all the white people were dressed in black. Johnny Jenkins, Skinner’s drummer, brushed burnished apple cheeks with the girls and set them enough at ease. It was on to the hotel much later, until the lamps went redundant against an unsolicited sun.

By this point, a daytrip to Boston had tumbled off the list of hopes and dreams. But duty couldn’t be subdued, so the band made it to LaGuardia, where everyone holed up in the food court and overslept their flight.

While the boys were curled up in ripped jackets and reeking jeans, the band’s road manager was getting the good cop/bad cop routine in a windowless room off the airport terminal. He was a cheerless thug with a dirty-blonde pompadour; name: Trigger. Security kept finding bundles of cash stashed all over his body. It came to something like $10,000. This was for touring, but with bombs shocking and awing Baghdad, Bad Cop asked: “Does bin Laden write checks?” Threats of deportation issued forth, but a few hours later, Trigger was wandering bewildered among the gates, stroking his pompadour, making sure his head was still there.

TRIGGER MADE IT to Boston just before the show, at a club called Paradise, stationed far from rapture in a soul-draining drizzle. The dressing room was all tension and exhaustion, black leather and mirrors, which buzzed with the bass of an opening act. The crowd was all college kids. On the other side of the wall, the actress Natalie Portman had a balcony to herself and a handful of Harvard friends, each of them dressed in strange hats, a fedora here, a newsboy cap there.

Johnny the drummer was picking at the rider tray of cold cuts, looking like a bit of meat himself. On his neck, something like deep-purple B-movie makeup published the conquest of last night’s 18-year-olds. Or one of them at least. “Yeah,” said Johnny, grinning with conceit that passed for chagrin. “The fat one.”

Skinner’s unpeeled eyes darted all over the room, unable to focus on anything as the crowd noise hummed in anticipation of get-off time. “Something about this isn’t right,” he said. Everyone piled into the firetrap hallway that led to the stage. Electrical wires dangled from the low ceiling. Nowhere was comfortable. Skinner hopped from one foot to the other, and a wire scraped against his neck. He zapped off the ground. This was nerves, not electricity. Hardened by the day’s events, Trigger placed his hands on Skinner’s shoulders. “Dig deep,” he said.

The music kicked in up on stage, strings tugging over syncopation and synth. The song was “Turn the Page,” Pirate’s first track, and in that Boston club, it transported Skinner to some knowledge that he was greater than the sum of his parts. “That’s it,” he spit into the microphone that he held to his mouth, hidden from the college kids. “Turn the page on the day walk away. ’Cause they’re sensing what I say. I’m 45th-generation Roman….”

This was a big-needle injection. Skinner’s back went from hunched to a proper height. His eyes tightened and finally focused. He turned and bounced onto the stage, while evidence of the crowd’s approval squeezed tight and spiraled down the vacant hallway like a June wind.

Forty-five minutes later, Skinner blew into the dressing room in a cloak of moisture, yanking a plug out of his ear. “So glad it’s over. There then. That’s it? Bed. Miami.” But first it was an audience with the queen. Portman and her posse infiltrated the green room. She was tiny, reductive, with soapy skin and the cloak of an unexceptional Psych major. There proved no purpose or rapport in this social call, and Portman was gone after 10 banal minutes of talk about foul weather and lousy transportation and “I really love the record.”

Skinner had his manners in place. For all the loud chatter in his rhymes, he was playing the part of well-behaved lad, one with predictable and forgivable predilections. He had made his record in his bedroom, with his mother fixing eggs down the hall. Now that he’d been thrust before all the geezers and gazers, he was having trouble assuming The Role, or even understanding what that role allotted him.

But there existed a consistent promise of Miami. At mention of the town, Skinner became consumed with explaining a certain strategy. “The rails, that’s for later. When I put my ice skating boots on—that’s a register for disaster.” He had a bottle of brandy in his hand, and he tucked it in the crook of his arm, adopting a pedagogue’s pose, eager at the eyebrows. “Here’s how it works: I get lairy on beer. Keep it as late as I can. Then hit the rails about 1 o’clock. That’s sensible inn’t? That way, you keep the paranoia down as late as you can. You know the paranoia hour. You want it when the sun comes up, so you can say, ‘A’ight, let’s go to bed.’”

A sky-high redhead slithered onto the leather couch beside Skinner. She had a monumental chest, and it was barely restrained by a turquoise hammock. This was another in the long line of Skinner’s moments of temptation, to which he claimed he had never succumbed. Tonight he was beyond fatigue, and that made this girl, Jill, try harder and harder still. “When are you coming back to Boston?” Jill cooed, as she pulled her endless skirted legs up underneath herself. “Coming back to me.” Skinner flicked a fly off his cheek.

The band and Jill cruised for sushi to a dive down the street, where they belted out a karaoke version of Enrique Iglesias’s “Hero” against a video backdrop of a yellowed beach. Not long after, Jill balanced gymnastically on her shoulder blades at the hotel, dehammocked and rendered otherwise limitless. All parties eventually passed out. Jill slipped from the suite in the gray-blue, leaving a note scrawled in purple lipstick and Boston particular: “I’m wicked sorry.”

ALL THAT MESS quickly and gratefully got behind them, and the record heat of a Miami evening poured over like the penultimate reprieve. Skinner was heading down Collins Ave. in a cab, piles of pros walking jauntily down the road on glassy stilettos, tugging at their micro-minis every few steps. The scars grew fewer, the features more symmetrical the closer the cab got to the Delano. A guy with Al Sharpton hair rolled down the blacked-out window of his Cadillac and yelled toward a group of women shuffling up the sidewalk. “Yo,” he said, “Gigi want his money.”

Skinner didn’t register the comment. He had just come from a party where the med unit removed a convulsing body on a stretcher. (“Let it be a warning,” intoned Morgan Nicholls, Skinner’s 32-year-old bass player.) The Streets caravan rolled up to the Soho Club at 4-something, and Skinner skyrocketed up to the penthouse, priced at $6,000 a night.

It was an Art Deco palace overlooking the shapeless, ebony Atlantic and the glowing emerald swimming pools dealt out on the sand. Fat Boy Slim perched behind the decks, playing records for a few intimates. Everyone showed the whites of their eyes, and Skinner swung to the sound under a three-story stucco roof that gelled pink and purple orbs. There were aqua gems and naked nymphs. A wind whistled past, someone nearly toppled into the reflecting pool, and an immense platter made an appearance. There were 50 lines delicately diced, befitting the silver service, and everyone bent at the waist, twirled tender connecting them to a few hours more.

That about cashed it, and the sun chased The Streets before the eyes could melt down and go roll back for a while. The sun was aimed straight in their eyes, this the late-noon reward for playing an electro-festival with Paul Oakenfold and Underworld, the headliners that the trance heads were coming to see.

Skinner was all knees and elbows on stage, a white t-shirt grabbing his ribs, his kid-sized plaid Izod shorts weighed down by a remote battery pack. He pranced around with a head shaved on the number one setting, his limbs showing bony like a 14-year-old in a growth spurt. He lifted his eyes toward the stone-slab amphitheater laid out before him and saw jetliners downshifting across the sky through big blasts of cloud. Hanging speaker sets and parapets of white tents swayed in a merciful breeze.

Everyone was wet and sweaty. There were fields of super-fuzzy Kangol hats pulled low over eyebrows. String bikinis promised to snap at any equation of conjunctions. Zapped-brown skin tensed under the inflexibility of daily weight work and nighttime posing. Skinner had never seen so many fit girls, stalking around the lot of them in silver sunglasses with clear lenses that encased their eyes in something like lip gloss. These were spoo guards, and in Miami even the men were wearing them, along with deep orange clam-diggers and sleeveless high-performance wear. Up by the drink stands that were doing wild business in water and juice, people passed each other wordlessly, trading silent backward longhorn fingers.

“Is anybody on pills?” Skinner shouted at the crowd. He tilted his head back and stuck two fingers into his mouth. (“They liked that,” he said later. “Any drug reference in America….”) A girl in ketchup-red hair laid down her glow sticks in favor of the hip-hop flat hand, bouncing it to Skinner’s beats.

The Streets retired to a mobile home backstage, where they would pass the remainder of the date in a scene of steadily degrading human manners. The tour was finished, and there was nothing more to worry over, except taking Miami for what it was worth. And on this night of lunatics and livestock, it was worth a good deal.

In no time, Skinner was teased up on cheap hooch—E+J brandy—and he gripped the bottle all night like it was his boarding pass to the first moonshot. He had the wrath up at full blast. “I never liked you,” he hissed at some poor unfortunate who got too close to the center. “I never liked you.” He kept saying this, on and on. Usually it was followed by an apology of some utterance. As the night drew on, the words came scattered and adhered to a fading logic.

A grainy crew swirled outside through the mobile home window, fortifying itself on free drinks. A muscle-bound Puerto Rican from the South Bronx burst into the trailer in a black biker shirt. He was serious, and he set down to rolling the bluntest blunt these English kids had ever encountered. Soon the trailer was awash in textured exhalations and unlatched admissions.

Everyone was having trouble with their balance as it was, and it didn’t help matters that the trailer sat on a slope, leaning to the passenger side. “Look at ‘dis,” Skinner whaled, lassoing his visitor with a ropey arm. “A real live Hispanic New York man. We can ‘awl learn a very lot from ‘im.” Skinner’s backup singer, Kevin Mark Trail, sucked on the last of the smoke and blew immense rings into the air while squinting at his image in a wall-length mirror, running a palm over his braids.

It was well dark outside, and Skinner’s unbalanced face was by now sown in quivering beads of sweat. He was E’d, jacked up, and blazed out. And he was looking for trouble. “Cunty!” He started yelling that, over and over to anyone standing near him. “Cunty! Cunteeeee!” He was overcome with phantom rage, and he burst out of the trailer, bounding down the thin metal stairs a wobbly two at a time in search of a target.

The air was heavy with a monotonous hum, and Skinner lost himself in a crowd of swillers on a march toward the music. He waved his access pass at the appropriates and found himself standing stage left in a nest of industry types watching Paul Oakenfold dictate the motions of the crowd. The slope was jammed with maniacal faces, the stage lights twisting over them in a coquette’s fan of mellow gold. His hair extended into a modest tower, Oakenfold danced on the balls of his feet between his two record players, and he shoved an index finger toward the great expanse.

“Oakenfold’s a cunt,” Skinner growled into a nearby ear. “Why the fuck’s he pointing?” Skinner and Oakenfold had a running feud, which appeared to be particularly hurtful to Skinner, since he had paid homage to Oakenfold on one of Pirate’s well-played tracks. You could tell Skinner didn’t want the feud. But like a proper Brummy, he wasn’t about to back down, especially not to a guy who wore formfitting t-shirts. “He walked out of my gig and said, ‘That’s not garage,’” Skinner yelled over the thwaps and the sizzles. “Well, he doesn’t know what trance is.”

With such tormenting proximity—only 20 feet from the occupied jockey—Skinner got it in his head to rush Oakenfold in full view of the acolytes assembled on the rise. “Let’s take him out,” he sputtered. “Let’s go. Fuck him. We’ll take him out right in front of everyone.”

Skinner made a move toward the amps that surrounded “Oakie,” as he called him, but several brutal bouncers stepped in the way. Skinner was trying to push things forward, but the security guards had their eyes on him, their tensed fingers waiting for an easy excuse for a mismatch. Skinner wasn’t that far gone yet.

But he still needed to act out. He furiously shook a can of Coke, then opened it to a spray on everyone surrounding him. Someone returned the favor, pouring soda on Skinner’s head, which only enraged him further. All Skinner had left was his dear bottle of E+J brandy, and he hucked what was left of the booze into the crowd around him. The alcohol streamed over several ducking heads and splashed directly into the eyes of a guy who was wiping his Coke-glazed spoo guards on his shirt.

The man bellowed as though burning shrapnel had ripped through his sockets, and he scratched wickedly at his eyeballs with his fingernails. The bouncers handled Skinner by the scruff of his neck. He didn’t feel a thing, and he reappeared in the band’s trailer with his shirt stained as though from a car wreck, his eyeballs halfway out of his head, his incisors bared and gnashing.

Skinner grabbed the nearest bottle of anything and began baptizing everyone in the trailer, indiscriminately pouring great flowing quantities of liquor down throats and shirtfronts. His breath shot short and hard. The last two hours he lost.

Women were coming and going, mostly going. “Maybe the people who run the world should be smoking Els,” said a girl wearing a silver serviette as a shirt. “Aw, ith alright,” said some teenager, spraying the air with an unredeemable lisp. “Long ath you buy me thumb Hennethy.” A delicate Russian girl found her way onto the trailer, stepping regally on pricey heels. She would go on to spend the night in a pile of powder, eventually urinating a half moon into her jeans while wide awake and mouthing foreign sounds.

Out the door and down the street. Ghostly pink-aqua Miami neon pierced the darkness, and the air womped with concert music 10, 20 blocks away. Stragglers and demons roamed the parking lots, their tongues licking their lips in manic effort. There was growling. Skinner roved from one foot to another, eventually finding his way to a penthouse in an illumined hotel at the brim of the water.

He was surrounded by DJs and DJ promoters who had lost the light from their eyes some years ago. They were sitting motionless, as though in a doctor’s office, waiting for the mound of pharmaceuticals they had ordered from the hotel bellman in the starched Nehru.

Skinner was sandwiched between two zoned-out Miami girls on the couch. “I haven’t slept in two days,” garbled the one in the gingham halter-top. She had a long neck, and she could barely hold her chin off her chest. The other woman had spent the day backstage at the festival talking on her hands-free, typing on her two-way, and flashing her better parts at the closest shooting star.

Someone handed Skinner a small baggie. “It’s pure MDMA,” whispered a voice. With a face twisted into a look of obligation, Skinner opened the package and looked down to find the faintest coating of powder. It was clear by his silent look of concern that he had arrived at the paranoia hour. And right on schedule, with the sun creeping up the window over his shoulder. This is what it all came down to.

Skinner swiveled his head at his manager, then at the girls. Pomegranate described his eyes, which sagged toward his waist. He was just trying to stay positive. He ripped the plastic bag along its edge, and lifted it toward his face in a desperate throw. It landed at his nostrils, his eyes went dark, and a great big sucking sound dropped the curtain on the evening.