(Fun fact: The single barfight I ever saw was in that room, before the show.)
One night, during a slow number, a sudden pounding came through the wall. Justin finished the song and took a sip of water.
“Whatever malcontent marauder is making that infernal racket needs to SHUT THE FUCK UP,” he hollered. “We’re workin.’”
Another night, people filed in, sat on the sparse benches, and remarked on the room’s vibe. Things looked the same, but for a portrait taped high on the back wall.
Justin walked in, slung on his guitar, and spoke into the mic.
“We have lost a brother,” he said, referring to Chris Feinstein, an 11th Street local and the bass player for Ryan Adams, who’d died at 42. Justin opened a devastatingly perfect show with Can’t Hardly Wait by the Replacements, with the refrain, “Hurry up, hurry up, ain’t you had enough of this stuff?” He’d dedicate the song to Feinstein for years, long after he’d left 11th Street.
Next came Harlem River Blues. A urban folk record that echoed the country-to-New York City flights of Dylan and (Justin preferred) Woody Guthrie. Reviews and sales were good. So were interviews. Shows were bigger and for the first time he appeared with a small band, a bass and fiddle. Alabama’s Billy Reid designed his suits for an upcoming tour, and he wore one on Letterman. It was a dazzling performance of the title track; Paul took an organ solo and Dave said: “Come back often.”
“Slippin’ and Slidin’” was the album’s big single.
The lyrics feel inspired by Little Richard’s track of the same name, but Richard’s song is about a girl. Justin’s song is about addiction. It goes:
I should have learned better, old enough to know,
Slippin and slidin’ feeling low.
It’s a setback at best, ashamed for sure,
Slippin and slidin’, feeling low.
Richard ends the song on a learned note:
Slippin’ and a-slidin’, peepin’ and a-hidin’ . . . I won’t be your fool no more.
Justin gives no such solace, and the song ends where it begins:
Slippin’ and a-slidin’, peepin’ and a-hidin’. . . slippin’ and slidin,’ feeling low.
Fans know what happened next. The album dropped on September 14, 2010, three days before Justin was jailed in Indianapolis, then left the tour to enter treatment for the 13th time. He was 29.
A year later he played a solo show at a New Jersey library, and yo-yo’ed his way back to Carnegie Hall eight months after that, Mom in the audience, up from Nashville. He forgot the lyrics to four of his songs and kept apologizing. With 2012 came Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, a soul record, and his last with Bloodshot. The album cycle included another stop on Letterman and shows in both Australia and Sweden
In 2013 he married Jenn Marie and in 2017 he moved to Oregon and became a father. He’d sign with two more labels and release four more albums that sounded nothing like him live, although live shows had changed too. They cost more and delivered less. Sometimes he’d have a band, sometimes a lone guy on a synthesizer, singing back-up.
His last shows were solo.
In March, the week before Covid hit America, he announced a new tour. Justin played one date, in Delaware, opening (yes, opening) for someone named Brian Fallon. He played five songs, three with no shirt. Any rumors of sobriety were quashed then, but Justin remained a gentleman. After asking for a drink, he stopped mid-song.
“I’m so sorry,” he said pointing. “I didn’t realize there was a child here.”
“It’s OK,” said an older man in the audience.
His final number was Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving,” a track off his first album that he wrote as a teenager. It goes:
I know right now baby,
It might seem wrong,
If you don’t wake up in the morning,
Thanking your heavens I’m gone.
Justin finished the song, thanked everyone, and walked offstage, his guitar on the floor.
Cole Louison is the author of the books The Impossible, Burning Men, and the forthcoming Bigger Short.