A million questions have gone through Gay Cameron’s mind in the past two weeks. On this weekday afternoon, as she faces the task of composing her son’s obituary, there is one that will not give her peace.
On a muggy late-summer night two weeks before, Nashville musician Max Vague, 44, drove to the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge, a formidable and dizzying span of concrete high above a valley in Williamson County. This much is known, or can be surmised. He parked near milepost 238 on the bridge, where the arched span produces an eerie sense of weightlessness. Sometime near midnight, he stepped off the bridge into the darkness. The last thing he would have heard, above this desolate stretch of Highway 96, is the car stereo he had turned up.
His mother would just like to know what it was playing.
“Music meant everything to him,” Cameron explains. She speaks with great effort, and soon she can’t talk at all. Everywhere she looks, she says, she’s reminded of him. There’s a long silence, and then she says, “I just want to...understand.”
But the car was impounded after his body was discovered Aug. 13, and what played on its stereo is now another unresolved issue—one of many, as the late musician’s friends and family try to make sense of his unexplained death. As his friend and bandmate Ross Smith says, “You always hear this is such a selfish act, and he was not a selfish man.”
His suicide doesn’t square with the person they remember—a quick wit with a penchant for mimicry and Monty Python routines, a driven musician who loved the stage, an animal lover who felt tenderness toward any kind of pet, especially birds. He had a new fiancée, Daniella Dalla Lana, with whom he planned to move to Australia. He had a new apartment overlooking the river; he had met Dalla Lana, a tall Aussie blonde, in April when she showed it to him. He had a new album, his seventh, that he believed would make things happen not just for him but also for his family and band members.
“I got a call saying come down here, everything we ever wanted and dreamed about was going to come true,” says Smith, who lives in Wisconsin. That was on a Thursday. A day later, Smith made a frantic late-night drive to Nashville. A friend had heard a police call go out that Vague’s body had been found.
At the memorial service held for Vague last Sunday at his favorite local venue, The Basement, friends and family shared memories of a bright, intense, creative person who managed to mask the true depths of his depression.
Born William Thomas Hearn in Richmond, Va., he began playing music, starting with the flute, during his family’s 18 years in Monterey, Calif. He became a British Invasion fanatic. He wore eyeliner for a year to high school, Cameron remembers with a laugh, and he had the other kids convinced he was some sort of European Ziggy Stardust.
“He was one of the funniest and wittiest people I ever met,” said Laura Vague, his ex-wife and close friend for 27 years. On the night of their first date, when she was 15, a horse knocked out her front teeth. Some date. Instead of canceling, he arrived with flowers and goofy Python shtick to cheer her up.
He moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, where he changed his name to Max Vague and supported himself with graphic design work while he formed bands. He composed music for an obscure Adam Ant movie called Trust Me in 1989. “He got screwed,” says Dalla Lana, with the kind of laugh that suggests it wasn’t the last time.
It wasn’t until he moved to Nashville in 1992, following his mother and his musician brother, that he released his first solo record. Entitled Love in a Thousand Faces, its Lennon-esque pop got airplay on Radio Lightning and drew Vague plum gigs at the Hard Rock Cafe and Dancin’ in the District. A few years later, he got national attention when Michael Baker, captain of the NASA space shuttle, carried his CDs into space. For the flight’s duration, his music was literally out of this world.
But stardom never materialized. Despite fervent support from writers like the Rev. Keith A. Gordon—a longtime chronicler of the local music scene whose tribute can be read at mondogordo.com—he felt snubbed by the city. When his unreleased record comes out, Cameron hopes one of the messages people will take away is “Eff you, Nashville!”
“So many people get rejected and crushed here,” she says, her eyes burning. “He was always looking for that magical combination that would get people to listen.”
Even so, friends say his struggles couldn’t be explained away completely by the city’s fickle musical tastes. He had dark spells, failed relationships; he had mentioned suicide sometimes to friends, who never thought he would act on it. He had been to the bridge on the Natchez Trace Parkway many times. New records surfaced every few years, from full-band albums to self-produced and self-performed projects; when they were done, he would withdraw for a year as if hibernating.
“That was a big part of why he wasn’t more successful than he was,” said Bonepony guitarist Kenny Wright, a good friend who played almost 10 years with Vague. But Cameron says her son would declare his career over, only to rebound time and time again. Recently, Wright had been working on Vague’s new album Drive. The last track, “Desire,” was to be completed Monday, Aug. 16.
For Vague, that Monday never came. Wright remembers being concerned that Vague seemed “not himself” the previous Friday—a little too manic about the record and the good times ahead. But the singer got his hair cut that morning, and for the first time he let it go its natural gray. He stopped by his mother’s store, Flashback Vintage, and told her how much he loved the vibrant colors and vibe she brought to it.
That night, Dalla Lana returned to find the apartment empty. Just after 10:30 p.m., the phone rang. It was Vague, she remembers, and his voice had a disquieting calm. “I can’t hold on anymore,” he told her. “Please tell the world I was a good man. I have to do this to save the world.” Shortly afterward, she noticed his iPod, wallet and other items lined up in a row, too neatly. Twelve hours later, the police arrived.
Since then, the survivors have racked their brains for some inkling. “If Max was lost,” Ross Smith says, “maybe we have the clues and the map to find him.” Dalla Lana was left with conversations that Vague had taped “to document our flight to stardom.” She has listened to them since his death. Asked if any significant details stand out, she nods and doesn’t elaborate.
So desperate are his loved ones for some understanding that they’ve made the traumatic pilgrimage to that fateful bridge. “It’s a vortex,” Dalla Lana says with a shudder, and Gay Cameron adds, “I hate this bridge.” But Dalla Lana says she found two signals that were clearly from Max: the initials “MV” scratched in a wall, and a penny left face up. “It was a message between us,” she explains. “To say that you’re on the right path.”
Kenny Wright says he hopes someday his friend will be discovered “like Nick Drake, somebody who never got a fair shake in life.” Sadly, his last act may overshadow any other attribute in his work. According to his survivors, Vague loved for people to approach his music like a treasure hunt, looking for clues and hidden messages. His music is now a puzzle with one glaring solution, and Wright notes grimly that some of the songs on Drive refer directly to the bridge where he took his life. Smith tries to avoid “the ‘tortured artist’ cliche” in discussing his late friend, but Vague’s suicide makes possible the reduction of a complex human being to a stereotype.
In what now seems like a cruel bit of foreshadowing, Vague’s last public performance was at a tribute for Elliott Smith, the gifted singer-songwriter whose 2003 suicide slammed the coffin lid on a vital talent. He sang Smith’s song “Oh Well, Okay,” which he had recorded for a Smith tribute CD. It contains these lines: “If you get a feeling the next time you see me / do me a favor and let me know.” Not long before his death, he told his fiancee that he couldn’t wait to grow old and see what they would do next.
“And now we’ll never know,” Cameron says. Two balled-up Kleenexes lie on the counter, and she reaches for one. “I hope he’s in peace now,” she says, “playing music for someone who will listen.”