Eric Victorino wasn't planning to live past Jan. 3.
Near the end of 2011, the singer of South Bay electro-pop band the Limousines made a plan to commit suicide on his 34th birthday. He kept the plan secret from friends, family, and even his wife of seven years. But he would often talk about it with strangers at Limousines shows, who were shocked to find that the jovial, mocking frontman they knew — the guy who sang about jerking off in front of the computer and made sold-out rooms gyrate — wanted desperately to end his own life.
One night last fall, Victorino thought he should go early. He took some pills. Already a lightweight, he drank a few beers. Then he drank more. He went to see a friend's band play, and took whatever anyone offered him at the show. Things became a blur. But Victorino didn't succeed at killing himself that night — and he may have even saved his life.
Most people know the Limousines as one of the Bay Area's most successful independent pop bands — a group that gets airplay on Live 105, plays festivals in Europe, and sells out S.F. venues like the Rickshaw Stop. The buzzy, propulsive synth-pop of songs like "Very Busy People" and "Internet Killed the Video Star" is lightweight, upbeat, and catchy, like the Bay Area's answer to MGMT. It offers no hint that Victorino has struggled with bipolar disorder all his life, that he tried to kill himself last year, and that he still grapples with suicidal thoughts on a regular basis.
That other side of Victorino is now very public, documented with chilling honesty in his new book of poems, Trading Sunshine for Shadows, which Victorino released this month through the small publishing house he runs with his wife. The centerpiece of the book, a long narrative poem titled "Bridges," tells the story of the night Victorino almost didn't survive, and lays out his worst struggle with wanting to end his own life. What the poetry lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in raw feeling: "If the things I made/ And the things I said/ made people like me,/ maybe I could matter so much to so many people/ that eventually/ I might matter to myself," he writes.
"Bridges" reads like one long exhalation, because that's how it was written — in a single, 30-minute session only a few weeks after Victorino was released from the hospital, where he was committed after being declared a danger to himself. He writes about lying to his friends and his wife, about planning to make his death look like an accident, about breaking down when a psychiatrist asked if he felt safe alone. After the rush of getting it all down on paper, Victorino forbade himself from making any changes or edits, not wanting to dull the sharp feelings he'd glossed over in previous poems.
So while Limousines lyrics are smoothly rhymed and exactingly assembled, Victorino's poetry is loose, a little rambling, and almost alarmingly intimate. Yet poetry — not songwriting — is Victorino's preferred medium. "Writing poetry is a relief, and writing songs is like torture," Victorino says, one incongruously sunny day over coffee. "To me, there's more permanence in the book. If you're going to bury your most honest thoughts about yourself or about the world, you put them on a page, rather than in a song. If you're writing negative stuff about yourself in a song, and then you have to sing that song every day ..."
On the afternoon we meet, Victorino is wearing tight red jeans and a loose-fitting flannel, smoking one cigarette after another on the back patio of an S.F. cafe. His short, rakish hair has flecks of gray at some of the roots, and Victorino's eyes turn bloodshot and a bit teary sometimes as he speaks. He seems both relieved and frightened to know that his secret — that the singer of one of the Bay Area's most fun-loving bands is a suicidal manic-depressive — will soon be public. Relieved, because now maybe friends and family will keep an eye on him, and perhaps others will feel more open to talk about their own mental issues. Frightened, because more than anything, Victorino fears being a burden on people, and he's afraid he'll be more of a burden now that others know what he's really thinking.
Publishing a book of feelings this searingly real has already come with a cost. Victorino says he's lost some friends since finishing "Bridges," while gaining a new intimacy with others. A lot of the harder feelings, he says, came because people simply didn't understand mental health maladies like his bipolar disorder. Some thought he was bragging, or that he could just snap out of his misery. "You wouldn't ask someone to snap out of stomach cancer," he says. "It's a real thing. You don't snap out of depression." Others have looked at the Limousines' success — tours, a brief record deal (the band prefers to remain independent), some radio play — and questioned the sincerity of his depression. "I'm sure people look at the Limos and think we're more successful than we are," he says. The band is going out on tour again soon, and making plans for its second album. Victorino, though, is still struggling. "If you can't stand yourself," he says, "it doesn't matter how cool your life is, or how many great opportunities you have."