I, Puscifer

WRITTEN BY
John Mcalley

"Welcome to Arizona." Maynard James Keenan groans it more than speaks it, a strangulated thanksforcomingdude made even less robust by body language: He has his back turned and is rushing ten feet ahead of me through the fertile arbor of the Page Springs Vineyard & Cellars. It's noon and a brainpan-frying 95 degrees here in northern Arizona's Verde Valley -- in Keenan's mind a natural time to have just biked the 15 miles from his home to this verdant wine-making paradise. As he presses on, he clutches a bottle of water in one hand and an iced chai in the other. Both drinks are for him. But what the notoriously reclusive rock star seems incapable of exuding in warmth, he repays in splendor, by leading me onto a deck that suspends, spectacularly, over the languid waters of Oak Creek. A tributary of the Verde River, it does its best to quench the thirsty acreage of Page Springs -- and, most crucially for Keenan, the scattering of nearby lots that make up Merkin Vineyards, the earthy source of his own budding wine business.

"Your shit's all twisted up, bitch!" he says a few minutes later, as he squats to untangle the hose of the power washer one of his Page Springs coworkers has trained on the winemaking area. Yeah, coworker.

At Page Springs, the exalted, occasionally cross-dressed, inherently torqued frontman of not one but two world-beating rock bands, Tool and A Perfect Circle, is more like one of the grunts -- a status that suits his spiritual and working-class sense of discipline just fine. The place is owned by Eric Glomski, a shaggy, sandyhaired mensch who, like Keenan, had the far-fetched dream of turning Arizona's arid high country into a formidable winemaking region. Glomski came along just in time to steer the singer's earnest but undereducated aspirations into something real. With Glomski's guiding hand, Page Springs is where the fruits of Keenan's ten acres of vineyards are transformed into the ruby intoxicants bottled and sold, via the Internet, with Keenan's Caduceus label.

If it weren't for the gothy tattoo that smothers his right calf and the rocker gear (cargo shorts, red knit cap and matching tee, black low-tops), the compact 43-year-old would be unrecognizable as a multiplatinum-selling prog-metal legend. Around here, he's a guy who takes orders.

Arched over a tank holding four and a half tons of recently picked fruit, Keenan is doing a punch-down -- the four-times-daily process of plunging the grapes' floating skins, stems, and seeds back into their fermenting juices. It's delicate and serene work -- or as serene as possible, given the coop of squawking ducks and chickens close by -- but it's ball-busting, too.

"Hey, Maynard, come and get me when you're finished with that," Glomski says, breezing by. "I need you to do a pump-over. You've never done one, and you have to learn it." A few minutes later, Glomski is singing his pupil's praises. "When we first met Maynard, none of us had even heard of him," he says. "We certainly weren't fans of his music. He could have turned out to be a prima donna, but he's been the opposite.

"At this point," he adds with a faint wink, "I think he's more a winemaker than a musician."

Maybe. In between punch-downs, Keenan has been touring incessantly behind Tool's fourth studio album, 10,000 Days -- almost 200 shows since the album's April 2006 release. He's also been revving up yet another music project, one he hopes will -- with the eventual money earned from it and Merkin Vineyards -- help ease the exhausting dance he's been doing between aggro-culture and agriculture. Puscifer, the catchall name for Keenan's entertainment revolution-in-waiting, is part merchandising empire, part DIY recording venture. The man who quotes Einstein and Whitman on his trippy Caduceus website, and who, with his Tool collaborators, has painstakingly woven such heady aesthetic gambits as "sacred geometry" and Fibonacci number schemes into brooding art rock, has titled Puscifer's debut album V Is for Vagina. It's an act of either exquisite insensitivity, devilish button-pushing, entrepreneurial suicide, or all three. A month before the album's October 30 release, he's already getting static from some major retailers.

The Puscifer project dates back to before Keenan put down roots in Arizona, which was in 1995. His friend Tim Alexander, the Primus drummer, turned him on to the place after Keenan told him about a recurring dream he had while battling soul-sapping elements and showbiz "vampires" in Los Angeles. In the dream, Keenan was living in Arizona "in a small village, and I was doing something other than music," he remembers. Alexander took him to the Verde Valley. "I went to the motor vehicle department and turned in my California license that same day," Keenan says.

Within a month, he had relocated, inspired in part by the birth, earlier that year, of his son Devo, whom he was loath to let grow up among the "barnacles" in L.A. At the time, Tool hadn't even finished Ænima, the album that would be their breakthrough and redefine Keenan's life in great and, eventually, nerve-fraying ways.

The Verde Valley is nestled among many mile-high peaks, but it draws much of its energy from two mountain villages. Sedona, a staggeringly beautiful mecca for crystal clutchers and spa devotees, rises in the northeast. Jerome, the dust-choked shambles of a former copper-mining town -- whose population of hippies and artists numbers around 450 -- hovers like a dark spiral in the west. Keenan, of course, suggests that I stay in Jerome -- specifically at the Jerome Grand Hotel, a converted mountaintop hospital with a long history (imagined or real) of hauntings and hideous crimes, à la The Shining's Overlook.

Appropriate, because "all work and no play" well describes the track Keenan has been on for more than a decade. Touring the Verde Valley in his boxy 4x4, he takes in its expanse of farmland and vineyards and dreams of it morphing into a thriving food-and-wine community -- a future Napa Valley. To that end, he's just bought a produce market in nearby Cornville, home to both the Page Springs and Merkin vineyards. Even in this pastoral setting, it doesn't take much to trigger a rant about local developers pushing golf courses ("What stops these people from being assassinated?") or the FDA's rules regarding wine-bottle labeling ("Assholes"). But if Keenan's chi is perpetually cranked to 11, it eases every time he talks about one abiding preoccupation: his goal, in a culture he sees crushed by greed, of building a few modest and self-sustaining businesses. That includes the Puscifer project, which he is wholly financing. These aren't the follies of an empire-building free spender. It's the thinking of someone dug deep into his rural lifestyle and far from certain about his future fronting rock bands. "I'm not," he says, rolling through Cornville's pastures, "going to be making the money I'm making now forever."

Twits with keyboards...the crazies...you know, the fence climbers."

Even in Arizona, Keenan can't escape the loons who've heard secret messages buried deep inside his sometimes emotionally raw, sometimes ridiculously cryptic lyrics. If he's strangely hypersensitive to the Web snipers who love to bash his work, Keenan is positively paranoid about the stalkers who continue to invade his privacy in the Verde Valley. And for good reason.

"He's definitely gotta watch it," says Tim Alexander, still a resident of the valley himself. "We get weirdos up here looking for him, trying to find out where he lives so they can have a séance on his doorstep or something." According to Alexander, Keenan has resorted to chasing off unwanted visitors with a paintball rifle.

But it's not just the head-case trespassers who get under his skin. Fourteen years after Tool released their debut album, Undertow, Keenan can't quite believe the pull the band's anguished material still has on fans who continue to pack venues and keep the group among the industry's richest road warriors. (Their summer U.S. dates grossed $17 million.)

"Get out of the nest, for fuck's sake!" Keenan says, laughing, over a dinner of sliders and salad at the Recovery Room, the only local restaurant that pours his three Caduceus blends. It's not that he's ungrateful for what Tool's success has brought him, but he's tired of being the poet laureate of the arrested-development set. If the music has been so inspirational to his fans, he says, then "what the fuck have you done with it that you need me to keep doing it?"

Besides, what's the fuss? "I don't have any talent," he says. "I'm just a dumbass. I mean, I can put a couple of words together, but I'm not Stephen Hawking; it's not that kind of stuff. But people are treating it like it is."

Keenan plays to a less worshipful crowd on the blog he's been writing for several years for the Wine Spectator website. Part road diary, part chronicle of the start-up trials and tribulations at Merkin, it puts him in touch with a respectful community of supporters. Among the more than 150 reader comments he has inspired, there's only a couple that say "Tool rocks!" In fact, on the blog, Keenan has talked about being rocked -- emotionally, by the winemaking process, to the point of tears. He gestures out the window to a distant peak. "It's like looking at that hill and saying, 'I think there's a little mug of gold coins buried there. I had a dream, and I can see it.' So you make this long trek, and after searching and searching, you find it. Of course you're going to lose it. All the shit you had to go through? It's about embracing your intuition. And being right."

He has fought all his life to learn to trust his intuition. An only child, he was born James Herbert Keenan on April 17, 1964. His parents divorced when he was just three, and his father left their Ohio home and headed to Michigan. Keenan says he saw his dad little more than once a year until he turned 15. His mother, Judith Marie, whom Keenan has written about nakedly and painfully in many Tool and A Perfect Circle songs, remarried. His stepfamily wasn't the Bradys.

"Okay," he says, laughing. "I'll bag on parts of Ohio now."

The pictures he paints are of an intolerant and unworldly household, where a kid with his smarts and urge to be different would suffer -- and did. With his mother's encouragement, he relocated to Michigan and reunited with his dad for his high school years. "It's the best move I ever made," Keenan says now.

Why did she insist on his leaving?

"Ah, because Ohio sucks and I was surrounded by dead people?" His laughter barely disguises the hurt.

He blames Stripes and Bill Murray for inspiring his three-year stint, starting at age 18, in the Army. That, and the GI Bill, which he knew would fund his dream of attending art school. The stimulation he got, in the mid-'80s, at Grand Rapids' Kendall College of Art and Design, and the discipline he learned in the military and at the knee of his teacher-andwrestling- coach dad, sparked his ambitions and set in motion his eventual move to Los Angeles.

The well-documented years -- 1989 to 1995 -- spent in L.A. forming Tool, forging collaborative friendships, and waging war with record companies and other hostile forces (traffic, agents, girlfriends) factor heavily in Keenan's vision of a new kind of music-making experience. He can't remember how the name Puscifer came about -- something more to do with Lucifer than pussy fur, though the latter is closer in pronunciation and echoes Keenan's peculiar fascination with pubic hair. (A merkin is a pubic wig.) It got off the ground in the mid-'90s as an umbrella banner "for all the little projects I was doing," he says. One of the first was a FREE FRANCES BEAN T-shirt -- a dig at eternally derailed single mom Courtney Love. More snarky merch followed, as did guest spots on the comedy series Mr. Show, playing the frontman of the then-fictitious band Puscifer. The first real Puscifer recordings were one-off collaborations with Danny Lohner of Nine Inch Nails and A Perfect Circle for the Saw II and Underworld soundtracks.

Puscifer, circa 2007, is a fully formed music and merchandising website. Oddly, for an aspiring anarchist who, by self-releasing V Is for Vagina, is joining the Web revolutionaries redefining the record business, Keenan wasn't even thinking about V for Vendetta when he named the album.

"No. 'V for victory,' " he says. "You know, Winston Churchill."

Winston Churchill?

He's not joking. Or maybe just a little. He knows the title is provocative. "It's my sense of humor," he says. But he's dead serious, too, and reverent, he says, when it comes to women and the record's "feminine themes."

"The V, in general, is for victory, but also for the [Roman numeral] V, which is the pentagram, the female form -- also the chalice and the phallus," he says.

A more generous interpretation of the album name might be possible had Keenan not already paraded his genitalia fixation and, more recently, teased the arrival of Vagina with the release of a couple of nonalbum tracks: covers of a vintage Tom Morello parody called "Cuntry Boner" and the Circle Jerks' "World up My Ass." This is, after all, the guy who named his band Tool. "The title is total Maynard," Alexander says, howling at the suggestion that he might have been able to talk his friend out of using it.

Alexander is one of the guest musicians on a record almost entirely created and recorded by Keenan and coproducer Mat Mitchell in the past year, on a bus, in hotel rooms, and in a handful of far-flung studios, while touring the States with Tool. Mitchell estimates that 99 percent of Vagina was built on Keenan's Apple laptop. "The foundation of all the tracks," Mitchell says, "were ideas he'd conceived either on acoustic guitar or humming into a Dictaphone or banging on the wall of his hotel room."

Maybe not surprisingly, the result is something neither Keenan, Mitchell, nor Alexander can categorize. It's "trancey and hypnotic," Alexander says. "A total 180 from Tool."

Typical of Keenan's current thinking, his ambitions for Vagina are modest. He'd just like to get the franchise rolling so that, breaking from the tyranny of the major labels, he can release Puscifer music as he makes it -- a few songs at a time, via iTunes and puscifer.com. It's fan-friendly, he thinks. So, too, is Puscifer's lascivious cartoon mascot, a curvaceous beast he describes as a "female-goatram- alien thing."

The rest of Tool might call it a succubus.

Danny Carey, Adam Jones, and Justin Chancellor are names you don't hear mentioned in the same breath as Puscifer. While Tool may be a money-churning machine, Keenan's bandmates have had no choice but to accommodate their frontman's ever more central side projects. The logistics of Tool's global touring, for example, have to be worked around Merkin's harvesting and bottling schedule. Keenan is unapologetic -- about his needs and divergent interests, and about putting Tool on hold. "I just remind them that that's the way it's always been," he says, reaching for one of the many glasses of wine the Recovery Room host brings by for him to sample. "The guys in Tool have had since '99 to figure that one out."

He's referring to the year he teamed with guitarist Billy Howerdel on A Perfect Circle, a diversion that let Keenan romp on a less dark rock landscape and yielded its own financial riches -- low-hanging fruit he's been happy to let wither. Will there ever be another APC album? "Um, no," is his reply. "Maybe, someday, a song on a soundtrack. But an album? No."

The gimme-more fatigue doesn't end with APC. Although he's clear that his commitment to Tool runs deep ("We'll make music together until one of us is dead"), he's in the middle of a crisis with the band. Some of it has to do with the stalkers. Most of it has to do with just singing the songs, which were written at times in Keenan's life when he was raging or wired or FUBAR. It's been ravaging to revisit those emotions night after night. "I don't have the energy to come from those places anymore," he says. "I just can't do it. It's like picking scabs at this point."

That helps explain Tool's current stage setup. Keenan "fronts" the band from the back of the stage, a bent, silhouetted stick figure obliterated by screaming video projections. "I'm not that person anymore," he continues. "I wrote the songs for them to be cathartic. You exorcise the demon... and then you move on. But the way we're doing it, I have to keep bringing it up again. It's destructive -- physically and emotionally destructive."

At 43, the routine of touring, he says, has become grueling. He's reminded of a tenor who certainly never trilled "Stinkfist" or "Prison Sex" but knew what it took to power through soul-lacerating arias. "Pavarotti just died," notes Keenan, "and he used to say that one of the only things that got him through was solid sleep, a familiar bed, and not singing." He catches himself. "Periods of not singing."

Unquestionably, Keenan is in a better place these days than when he penned most of Tool's tortured librettos. Caduceus, which sold its first bottle in 2004, about four years after Keenan planted his first vine, now moves 1,200 cases a year. That's "superlow volume," he says, but at upwards of $95 a bottle, it ain't Ripple, either. And after a few romantic flameouts (most notably with Breña Ferguson, the namesake of his squishiest love song; and Devo's mother, whose name he has never divulged), he's settled into a loving partnership with a woman he's known for years and now lives with in the Verde Valley. "For the first time in my life," he says, "I have someone who's taking care of me, rather than the other way around."

For a time, his dad even traded in Michigan for Arizona. The love affair wasn't mutual. "Arizona hated him," Keenan jokes. "Kicked him out. 'Back to the snow, bitch!' " But 12 years after Keenan saw these plains as the place to raise his kid, Devo still lives in L.A., in large part a function of his father's Tool itinerary. Even regular visits have been difficult. "His mom goes, 'Well, I can bring him out, but where the hell are you?' "

Perhaps most unsettling of all is the still-fresh loss of his mother. If the caterwauling in "Jimmy," "Wings for Marie (Pt 1)," and "10,000 Days (Wings Pt 2)" is to be believed, the paralyzing brain aneurysm she suffered when Keenan was 11 crushed him. After her death in 2003, at age 59, of complications from that aneurysm, he spread her ashes across one of his vineyards and, tenderly, has named one of his wines after her.

I ask him if those songs are the hardest of all to get out. "I'm not talking about that," he says.

By the time this story comes out, Tool will have resumed touring.

All that's left is for me to hear some new Puscifer music, which Keenan has been withholding even from his publicist. Since the money earned from music sales is so crucial to recouping his cash outlay for the project, he can't afford any leaks. The only way to hear it is to go to his house, a prospect that doesn't thrill him, not merely because he's desperate to guard his address, but because it's a mess, he says, and once we get there he knows he'll clam up. "It's my personal space. I'll go into defensive mode. Nothing," he says, staring blankly at me, "will come out."

He picks up the check and races ahead of me into the parking lot. Before I can find the headlights on my rental, he hauls ass. Careening into the street, I practically rupture the engine of the minivan trying to keep pace with his taillights. We climb and climb and eventually hairpin onto an unlit, pothole-filled dirt road.

Keenan dumps his ride into a -- well, there are no spaces -- and charges through a gate and toward the house with zero regard for the person he's left groping in the black night. I stumble to his front door, which posts two warnings: a NO TRESSPASSING sign and a marksman's target in the shape of a human torso.

Once inside, he keeps his word -- that is, to not utter one. He points to a spot on the sofa where he wants me to sit. With its low light, blood-orange walls, and blue wraparound settee, the living room resembles a sky-top hookah lounge. The glinting panoramic view of the valley adds to the effect, as does the riveting canvas by Ramiro Rodriguez that dominates the room. Equal measures calming and unsettling, the 1993 oil painting portrays a naked man serenely -- or maybe not -- submerged in water. A crown of air bubbles rings his head, and the bare legs of a woman wrap around him from behind. Is she propping him up or pulling him under? It's titled Caduceus. He cues up first single "Queen B" without giving me its name and buries his nose in his MacBook Pro. Two more tracks pound out of the speakers, and that's it.

"Ya gotta go, man," he says, approaching the front door. "I've got work to do."

He opens it, and I cross the threshold into the night, turning to say thanks and good-bye. Silently (of course), Keenan half bows, then closes the door, leaving me in the dark.

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