My wife and I spent most of lockdown with a rock star in our basement.
In March 2020, Andrew Berkeley Martin arrived in a vintage Mercedes convertible—a tall, white guy in his early thirties who looked like something out of the ’80s: skintight pants; hair so messy, so moussed, he might have towel-dried it that morning with mayonnaise.
Our house sits on a quiet street in Beachwood Canyon, below the Hollywood Sign. Andrew moved in, and soon we heard him through the floorboards playing Jimi Hendrix solos. I’d see him when he set out for a jog—tiny shorts, glamour sunglasses, enormous hair—a brunette Rod Stewart impersonator flashing the canyon with his hamstrings.
Eventually, we got to know him. He’d had his own bands and been a guitarist for hire. He told wild stories about what it was like performing for thousands of screaming fans (so amazing), and what it’s like to audition for David Lee Roth (not so amazing). Andrew’s life, it seemed, was “so beautiful” or “so insane”—when he was excited, his vocabulary sounded borrowed from an acid dealer’s inspiration calendar. Not that we cared. At the height of pandemic fear, amid the daily death counts, it felt like we’d taken in the most colorful, life-filled human in the world.
Then abruptly our rock star was dying, too.
The last two years have been a haunting. Many lost friends and family members; everybody lost time. Society was divided into those who were desperately needed for the sake of humanity, and those for whom humanity had little need at all.
Touring musicians like Andrew were definitely not needed. In 2020, with arenas and clubs closed, the live-music industry lost more than $30 billion. In the UK, one in three music industry workers lost jobs. A drummer friend became a teacher; a singer-songwriter friend became a manager at Dodger Stadium, when it was the city’s largest COVID-19 testing site. In the streaming era, with shavings of pennies paid for a song, live performances had become a working musician’s most reliable source of income. Suddenly, those were canceled for two years, with some fearing three.
Electric guitars simply don’t influence the culture like they once did. The industry turned years ago to rap, pop, and EDM to make its profits. And yet, Los Angeles remains, at least in part, a rock town. L.A. gave the world hair metal and hard-core punk. The Byrds and the Beach Boys. The Go-Go’s and Guns N’ Roses. Rock and roll may not be Los Angeles the way Hollywood is Los Angeles or how Motown is Detroit and country is Nashville, but it’s close.
Our house was long ago divided into two apartments. My wife, Rachel, and I rent the top half. The downstairs has long been home to a rotating cast of musicians. Singer-songwriter Alexandra Savior. Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa. The composer-producer Drew Erickson, who sometimes played Bach in the middle of the afternoon. One night, pre-pandemic, I went down for a party, and every room throbbed. When I went to use the bathroom, out came The Weeknd.
Upstairs, perhaps the best feature is a large terrace. Soon after Andrew arrived, we started inviting him up for socially distanced cocktails. (Our first interaction did not go great.
He was playing guitar one morning, and I texted him, asking if he could turn it down. “You were like, ‘Hey, it’s a little loud,’ he recalled. “I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ ”)
We learned that Andrew played lead guitar in the biggest emo band we’d never heard of: Palaye Royale, a family act of three brothers, formed when the guys were teenagers. Andrew joined in 2018. The group was touring Europe for its 2020 album, The Bastards, when the lockdown struck.
Andrew seemed an unlikely fit, as though My Chemical Romance had hired a young Keith Richards. His previous band had seemed much more his style: Moon Honey, a psychedelic-rock group formed in his home state of Louisiana. Moon Honey was the reason Andrew moved to Los Angeles in the first place. They’d had a record deal, raves in the New York Times and on NPR, then it all fell apart unexpectedly, including his relationship with the lead singer, his girlfriend of nine years.
The disappointment was crushing, Andrew said—and that’s when he decided to become a guitarist for hire. (He received a gold record for his contributions to The Bastards.) “I started to realize that writing for someone else is the highest form of songwriting—you have to get inside of someone else, make them feel safe with your creation.”
As Lockdown Spring became Lockdown Summer, Andrew started visiting more regularly. He’d climb the stairs in full glam-daddy attire: see-through blouse and a white suit, maybe a fake-fur coat and any number of scarves. Was it all an act? Flamboyance in the face of mask mandates? One rock star cliché Andrew didn’t fulfill, we learned, was cocaine. He’d never tried it, he said, mainly because his father was a rock-and-roll Beetlejuice, a man in his seventies who’d appear at his son’s concerts then attempt to climb onstage and sing “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” Andrew showed us an Airbnb review where the owners explained why they wouldn’t rent to his dad again—citing a baggie of white powder, drops of blood on the toilet, and a pair of men’s underwear discarded near the Jacuzzi. “He’s the ultimate party man. But he’s also the person who took me to see The Who when I was ten. He put music in my life, and that’s a gift I can never repay.” Though maybe Andrew’s disinterest in hard drugs, I wondered, was a healthy middle finger to the previous generation.
As the lockdown ground on, Andrew visited regularly, dressed in full glam-daddy: white suit, fur coat, any number of scarves.
But Andrew wasn’t healthy. Six months after he arrived, he’d lost weight—a lot of it. Cocktail hour, autumn in Los Angeles, he’d shiver by our fireplace wrapped in a faux-fur blanket. Friends told him they were worried. (Naturally, a few others from the scene also told him how fabulous his cheekbones looked.)
The Saturday after Thanksgiving, Rachel staged an intervention. Andrew was open to it and saw several doctors. Diagnoses were scattered: maybe cancer, maybe an eating disorder, maybe something else. What Andrew learned was that his pituitary gland had essentially shut down. “The endocrinologist said it was extreme adrenal fatigue. Being in a different country every day, not sleeping,” he said. Basically, Andrew had been on the road for too long. Forced to stop, he’d become unhinged.
“The issue is you don’t know your mental health is suffering,” Andrew later told me. “You’re being praised all the time. Posting on Instagram, and everyone tells you how great you are. You have to have a really deep sense of self to take on people’s love for you.” I asked him what he’d thought his underlying problem was. “I think there was a loneliness, a major sadness,” he said. “A loss of what I was.”
After the intervention, Andrew disappeared. Born in New Orleans, he’d grown up mostly in the Cayman Islands, and that’s where he flew to convalesce. People asked after him—if he’d said anything about when he was coming back. We didn’t have an answer. Our rock star was gone.
One thing I didn’t see coming, late-pandemic, was the return of rock, but here it comes: Look at Machine Gun Kelly, now a rocker, not a rapper. Look at Olivia Rodrigo and “good 4 u,” the first rock track to top the Billboard Hot 100 in maybe a decade. Avril Lavigne has a new album out and will be one of the top acts in October’s emo-driven When We Were Young festival in Las Vegas, alongside Paramore, My Chemical Romance, Dashboard Confessional—and Palaye Royale.
Why is emo popular again? Maybe after lockdown, there’s a longing to be narcissists in real life, not just on Twitter. When We Were Young sold out almost immediately, as if a collective yearning had seized on an opportunity to gather in the name of excess, pageantry, and some Cure-lite wailing.
Our rock star stayed in the islands for five months. He cooked meals, saw doctors, took long walks. “One day, they’re talking about kidney disease or if it was cancer,” he recalled. “I was terrified. I didn’t know if I had another chance at life.”
And then, April 2021, Andrew returned to Los Angeles, and to the terrace. As the sun set behind him, he looked exactly the same—Beatle boots, big hair—yet also different. His cheeks and chest and arms had filled out; his skin had a glow that was more radiant, less vampiric. He’d found an apartment in Echo Park, he said, and was embracing a new chapter; he’d experienced what he
called a “psychedelic ego death.”
And now he’s rocking. Andrew left at the end of January for a year of concerts across the States, the UK, the festival circuit. In the weeks prior to his departure, the hair became bigger, the scarves ever more plentiful. Even his ego seemed amplified: one of his last nights in L.A., he summoned friends to a bar to say goodbye, then disappeared just when people arrived. It wasn’t atypical behavior for him, frankly, but did he need to post footage later on social media of him partying elsewhere, with a more select crew? But maybe that’s what he needed to do to cut strings. A vintage rock star who’s polite and reliable would be a pretty strange rock star.
But then, he called me from the road, literally on the night before this article was due. It was the guy I remembered from when we first met: vulnerable, thoughtful, inquiring. The tour was going well, he said, but one night he’d slipped and fallen off the stage. He asked after Rachel, wished me sweet dreams.
The past always plagues the present. Maybe the pandemic isn’t done with us, but I’m tired of feeling haunted. Who doesn’t want to be reborn and climb out of the debris? I know our basement is a lot quieter now, and I don’t necessarily prefer it that way.
This story is featured in the June 2022 issue of Los Angeles.
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