By Scott Thomas Smith
© 2004-2007 Scott Thomas Smith, All Rights Reserved
This is a work of fiction. All characters, places, and incidents are fictitious and are not meant to represent any people, places or incidents from real life. Any resemblance to real incidents is coincidental even if it happened exactly the same way, like the fire thing.
Intro: Setting the Needle Spinning
Chapter 1: An Upstanding Learning Environment
Chapter 2: A New Religion is Kneaded
Chapter 3: The Triumvirate
Chapter 4: The Super Secret Experiment Lab
Chapter 5: Leaving Division
Chapter 6: Smoke and Mirrors
Chapter 7 : ARCADIA
Chapter 8: Wheels and Gizmos
Chapter 9: A Run for the Border
Chapter 10: Secret Organization
Chapter 11: Fire Proof
Chapter 12: Song Fu
Chapter 13: Welcome Back to School
Chapter 14: Gerunding Fun
Chapter 15: Mid March: An Ode
Chapter 16: The Else
Chapter 17: Variations on a Theme
Chapter 18: Waytressing
Chapter 19: Mystery and Wisdom Traditions
Chapter 20: Swim
Chapter 21: The Bridge
Chapter 22: The Love Song of T. Jeremy Davis
Chapter 23: Conga-Rats
Chapter 24: Shaking Hands with the Medicine
Chapter 25: Good as New, Like Old Times
Chapter 26: For the Record
Chapter 27: Untitled Track
* * *
Dedicated to whoever loved me when I was dead.
And to the Grim Reaper.
Thanks for the hot dogs and the coffee,
it really got me through.
They say you are what you do,
but we know what else they say.
* * *
“You say there’s nothing you can do
Well we all know you’re lying.”
- Kind of Like Spitting
And if you gaze for long enough into the abyss…
You just might stare it down.
“Only youth survives.”
Intro - Setting the Needle Spinning
The night of the show I’m as nervous as a child about to be born. I know it’s coming, I’ve been preparing for it, but there’s also a whole lot about the situation that I don’t know. Who will be there when I come out? What will they think of me? Will they buy my demo CD?
We’re all nervous, the four of us sitting there hours before, unable to stop thinking. All the things we might mess up. Say something wrong, play something wrong, make everything turn into just a show.
We have on our favorite shirts.
We expect an enormous crowd, an instant cult following of hundreds, thousands, people bootlegging our shows across the country, following us in droves to say: “I was there. I saw them play and for that one moment my life had meaning.” Sitting there we’re excitedly eating our Taco Bell and devouring conversation about our immersion in master plans… anything but the present stage.
We have five songs.
The moment we found out about the show we had flyers ready, up all over the city, in the hands of strangers, falling from the sky. We called every person we’d ever known, met, or heard of, any person who had an ear we could line.
We are musical gods. We are warrior poets.
I forgot to bring picks.
We finally know how it feels to kick back behind the stage, waiting to usher our adoring fans to their ultimate destiny,
“It feels like… it feels like, I have to pee, inside my stomach,” Sidney tells us.
“I won’t have that kind of talk in this band, son. Fear is contagious,” I say mock-war-movie.
“Yeah,” Mark adds. “You shut your stomach’s pee-hole or I’ll shut it for you.”
But that’s it. The seal’s been broken.
The eternal seventeen year old question arises:
“Oh man! What are we going to do!?”
“We’re going to do what we always do,” Mark says.
“What?” I ask curiously.
Sidney asks. “Say fuck it?”
“Kick ass and chew bubblegum?” Lane tries.
““Emit howling cries of fermentation and lather?” I suggest.
“Yes, gentlemen,” he says. “We‘re going to Rock.”
CHAPTER 1: An Upstanding Learning Environment
We take the stage, wearing our instruments like armor and artillery all in the same breath. My eyes peer around the room, a rectangular cave, the dim lights in the outer world of the audience transforming the gymnasium into a theater not half-badly. The stage is surprisingly adorned with multifaceted lights and large, high-tech sound equipment. There’s unconscious confusion over the fact that the whole set-up platform is only three feet off the ground. We look down on the little people, so far below us. We are titans of youth. We are guitar heroes. You will want to eat us up and we will bleed gold for you. We are infinite.
Feedback rises up and moans hard then slices back and rings high and silent. I grasp the neck of my guitar like a lover’s wrist with my left hand and reach to adjust the microphone with my right in one motion. Wuun-Cuchickclunk-uuuun-DUnkThub-n-.
Someone coughs in the back and I squint into the spotlights.
“Uh... hey. We’re gonna play some songs.”
There are maybe twenty-five people there; a spattering of folded arms, waiting or wandering eyes, an extended leg or two. If any of those strangers have shown up, we don’t recognize them. Still, some of our closest friends are standing in the front. They’re there as friends, and because they’re interested. They want to see us play.
It’s just as well that we’re subjecting so few people to our first show, since we aren’t really prepared. Plus there’s the issue of the band that‘s following us.
The band after us is some Christian pop outfit, which was not by choice. Maybe you’re asking yourself, why? I was asking Sidney the same question when I first found out he had gotten us the show.
“It’s at my youth group.”.
The venue is a church gym, one of the only places we could get a show at while we didn‘t have any recording. We would play anywhere, at this point, at any point. Sidney, our bassist and my best friend, attended the church youth group regularly and he got us on the bill. It was a place to play, and that’s what mattered, but still…
He actually got me to go to the group one time, telling me I should at least “see what it was like.” So I went, but felt skeptical as hell. There were a lot of kids my age there, around fifteen or sixteen, so it was kind of cool, just sitting around and talking to them for a while. I mean, they all seemed nice at least. The place was swanky, too, but in a good way. They had video games and couches and everything, in this little loungish room apart from the gym. We went into the gym area and sat around the stage at tables, listening to this guy, “Pastor John”, sporting a Jesus beard, doing his preaching thing. He started out nice enough, welcoming all the new people and everything, but I was still listening to everything with barbed ears.
“And the truth seekers and the so called mystics… where do they expect to find God? If you were God, would you hide your light from the world? Or would you make it to shine on a clear path?
“The Bible tells us there is only one way to heaven, friends. And that way is through Jesus Christ. He is the way. You don’t need to find a way to get there because Jesus is the way.
“We are here to rejoice in our salvation and await the return of the Lord. God gives us our purpose, don’t let anyone tell you you don’t have a purpose. It is the love of God. All we have to do is to follow him, and he will bring us life.”
I looked around at the faces around me.
“Life, boys and girls.” A pause. “The greatest blessing,” he said, clasping it in his hands. “Everlasting life is yours to be had, if you follow the path of our Lord Jesus Christ. He made it simple for us. He laid down the guidelines in this book,” he said, thumping the Bible against the meat of his palm. “Now, how are you going to lead that life?”
There are some murmuring cries from the audiences.
“What’s that?” John asked.
“In Jesus’ name!” someone says.
“Are you going to waste away in sin? Or are you going to live for the light?”
“The light!” people yell.
“That’s right. Get greedy for the light. God’s not gonna punish you for that. As long as you love God, and you live right, you have nothing to fear. Now, let’s have a song to give praise to our God.”
The youth group band started playing a gospel-ish type rock song about crossing a river and ‘finding my home.’
Soon enough he got into everyone going to hell. Gays were going to hell, kids who have sex before marriage were going to hell, and I, one who had not yet accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior, was going to hell. I mean, I was very impressionable and open at that point in my life, and Sidney was too, obviously. But I knew bullshit when I heard it.
“Do you really believe everything that guy was saying?” I asked Sidney that night on the ride home. He could drive before me; I was always the youngest one.
“Well, sort of. Yeah, I guess.” Sidney was very innocent looking, mussing his sandy blonde hair as he thought about my questions.
“So, am I going to hell, then?” I asked him, the anger tucked in my throat.
“Well. I hope not. No, no. Well, it depends. I hope not.”
I was something akin to offended. It was just so ridiculous. Sidney and I had a really good friendship besides the eternal damnation issue, and like I said, I hoped, and predicted, that the youth group phase wouldn’t last. Which is not to say religion isn’t worthwhile. It’s perfectly fine for some people. Real religion I mean. But it’s not for me. I’ve just never really been interested. I mean, I believe in God and all. I think. He should exist, anyway, if he doesn’t. I just don’t know if he’s the type of guy to take an interest in my life, or anything. Maybe he does. Who knows? God’s certainly a useful idea though.
Anyways, our first show. It’s great. Hopefully for other people too. We’re so drunk with the idea of being onstage that the strange pride somehow calms our nerves enough to actually let us play the songs. We miss changes, slow down or speed up by accident or lack of practice one or two times, but we manage to sound decent. And what we may lack in preparedness or talent we make up for in self-deprecating humor.
“So how bout those, uh… Dolphins?”
“Yeah, what’s the deal with foosball? Am I right?”
“It’s for foos.”
The drum-joke-punch-line-thing: “Ba-dum… ching!”
“We’ll be here all thirty minutes. After that we’ll be playing ‘Area 51‘.”
The band is unreal for all of us. The way we got together is proof of the genius of the universe, either insanely random or genuinely devised, I don’t know which. Sometimes certain things just make you wonder at the invention behind all this shit that’s going on, though.
Sidney and I met in school, St. Louis High, a ‘good’ school, the kind where kids drive to school in BMW’s that their parents just bought them on their sixteenth birthday. My family wasn’t like that; we were the financial aid, work-study type, and sometimes I felt like I didn’t belong there. It really is a good school, and I was lucky to go there, but the summer after my sophomore year, (it being a 7th through 12th grade school), I was genuinely sick of it. It embarrassed me, made me feel guilty, walking through those big officious looking wooden doors in the morning, thinking of the kids who went there, how privileged and uncaring they were. I hated it. And it was even worse because I could have just as easily been one of these kids. I understood it. I was bored with it. It was an all guys’ school, which wasn’t helping. And I had decided, “All of the kids there are the same.” At least that’s what I told my mom. I want to get out, I said. Transfer to someplace that actually feels real, hopefully somewhere without a Future Business Leaders of America chapter announcing their awards in the mornings before the prayer. I need to meet new people, I told her, try a different environment. And being as impulsive as I was, I decided to go with it. My mom reluctantly agreed. She knew when I made up my mind about something I would not change it until I had explored all possibilities.
I thought I wanted to go to a public school, to see how it was different, and to meet people who might be a little more interesting. Basically, I was looking for a school where not everyone was a rich white kid. I wanted to go to this school called Metro, because it was supposed to be amazing, a “gifted” type school, but I had to get on a waiting list sorted by a lottery just to see if I could be considered. Fate decided it wasn’t to be, but I still had a chance to pursue my destiny, so I decided to check out my second choice, Division South. I wasn’t as excited about going there, but I had to go somewhere.
On my first day I was scared shitless. I had been expecting a different crowd, sure, but this was ridiculous. There were some pretty big badasses: sixteen year olds with tattoos, guys in “wife-beaters” who could actually call their arms “guns” all while you kept a straight face. And even though I kept telling myself “I am not a racist,” my brain was trying to start a conversation with itself about it. I had grown up in a practically all white neighborhood and gone to practically all white schools my entire life, so I had just never gotten the chance to get to know any black kids. I wanted to change that. I didn’t want it to be an issue. But what if I said something wrong? What if I said something stupid and offensive?
The school itself wasn’t in great condition. To the best of my knowledge, (actually to the best of some kid at lunch’s knowledge) the school used to be a factory that made cleaning supplies, which was ironically believable. From the outside it just looked like a giant cardboard box with windows. My dad would drive me in the mornings, and drop me off in the back, where all the kids went in, because the back of the school had the long stairs, the giant metal doors, and the long corridor, which was needed so that the lines could form. Yes, we lined up each morning to enter the school, in order to get through the metal detectors quicker and have our bags checked at the tables.
There were guards patrolling the lines, opening our bags, shifting our books, looking for any weapons, drugs, or anything suspicious. Then the bags went past on the table while you walked through the metal detectors. Then the kids took off to their myriad destinations and fly-betweens.
Lunch was where the real education was. I sat by myself usually, but there wasn’t always room to sit at a table alone. Even though I was near other people, I was still technically sitting by myself. I would listen to people’s conversations, hearing about how some kid nicknamed Lucky had gotten a girl pregnant, or about how parties had come off, parties to which I was not invited. One day some girl came up to me and told me her friend liked me, but nothing became of it.
Every day at lunch, without fail, they rapped. Sometimes songs I had heard, or other people’s songs, but some kids there flowed, too. When they free styled, it was incredible. I listened from afar most days, not about to go join the table where it took place. They were always in the back corner of the cafeteria, and it started each day at different times, at the drop of a beat. One guy would start a thump with one fist on the table, the other hand holding a pen or pencil. The pen or pencil acted as a sort of snare to the fist’s bass, with a special method of holding the instrument in hand. The beat would run for a few measures, and then one of the other guys at the table started rapping. I didn’t catch much of it, but it sounded good. It sounded like some of them knew exactly where they were coming from.
I rode the bus home after school, being dropped off nearly a mile from my house. I didn’t really mind walking, but the bus itself sucked. Most of the kids I didn’t exactly view as potential friends. I was sort of afraid that I wouldn’t find any friends at all at Division. I really worried about it for a while, but then things started to change a few weeks into school.
There were these two girls in my math class, obviously best friends, constantly together, and I sat next to them, in my assigned seat. The teacher was busy with whatever she was doing, while we were “preparing a report.” I attempted talking to them, and they turned out to be really friendly.
“Hi, I’m Tim.”
“Hey, nice to meet you.”
“You’re the new kid, huh? How do you like Division?”
“Um. It’s alright.”
“You hate it, don’t you?”
“No, not really.”
“Yes you do.”
“Well, a little.”
“Yeah. We hate it a lot.”
I was instantly attached to them, started talking to them outside of class, considering them my first friends at this school. They had a different lunch period than I did, most days, except when we had math right before. So we sat together those days, none of us eating the cafeteria food, laughing about something new every day. It was great. Monica was sort of the leader of the pair, more outgoing and talkative. She had short brown hair and usually wore jeans and a thrifted polo shirt. I thought she was cute. Laura was taller, blonde, and dressed sort of preppy. She didn’t really talk to me that much; I think she just pretended to like me because Monica liked me. I gathered Monica liked me, anyway, by the way she talked and smiled when she saw me. Maybe I was just imagining it. I thought I really liked her too, so I flirted with her. But I guess I like most girls that are friendly with me.
My least favorite class was Chemistry, mainly because Mrs. Chambers, the teacher, was an idiot. She knew absolutely nothing, especially about chemistry. I knew more about it than she did, just from taking an Earth Science class back at Lindbergh. I corrected her on something one day and man, did she get pissed. After that I just sat and tried to think about something else, or read.
That’s where I met Lane, in Chemistry. I went up to him because he was wearing a ‘Jawbreaker’ T-shirt one day, and I just started talking to him. He was really sort of quiet, so it took me a few tries to get him to talk to me, and we found out we had pretty similar tastes. Sort of. I mean, we both liked a few rock and punk bands and some indie, but he listened to a lot of classic rock stuff I had never heard. His favorite band was Led Zeppelin. I had never listened to them, but of course had heard of them, and he made me a tape, which I listened to and liked. It was pretty straight up rocking, which I could dig. I was surprised; it was pretty different than most of the stuff I liked, but I could see why he called them his favorite. I recognized the song ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ because my dad always sang the opening part, but I hadn’t known it was Led Zeppelin.
Lane and I started sitting together at lunch, on the days I wasn’t in Monica and Laura’s class that period. We mainly talked about music and books, or school. I found one of the common elements between me and my new friends was a scathing hatred for the school, and I could see why. The teachers were morons, the inside of the building looked like it was soaked in urine, and the student life was found wanting. I was beginning to regret transferring. I wished I had gotten into Metro, or anywhere other than Division South, because it was proving to be pretty shitty. I was realizing how good St. Louis High had been, even if everyone there was the same. Maybe I just hadn’t gotten to know people well enough. If they were all the same, it was only on a certain level, because they had to have their own depth, somewhere. Didn’t they? At least at Louh they tried to teach you how to think, even if somewhat narrowly. At Division there was no stimulation, no attempt to make the students feel empowered. It was really depressing, and made me wish I could change it.
“I’m glad there’s finally someone here I can talk to,” Lane told me one day.
“You know, since I got here freshman year I’ve had about zero real friends. That’s why I keep to myself so much, there’s just no one.”
“Well, at least it’s an upstanding learning environment.”
A New Religion is Kneaded
“I was born again the moment I realized everything’s in the delivery”
- Down With Strangers, ‘Born Again’
Lane was over, for the first time, spending the night. He was sort of weird about it though, insisting on bringing his own pillow and blanket. Anyway, once he got there we just started talking and listening to music, so even though we didn’t know each other that well, it wasn’t awkward. He was a lot more talkative by himself than he was at school. He did more talking than I did actually, telling me all sorts of things about himself and what he did in his free time. We had never really talked about anything other than what we liked, so we still had to get to know each other. I mean, you can learn a lot about someone based on similarities in taste of books and such, but if you really want to get to know someone, you have to learn about what they do, and believe. All the things they choose.
Apparently, his favorite thing to do was to go to the movies by himself, fairly often. Not just any movie though, and not just any theater. He would either go to the really big movies that everyone went to see, and he’d go to a certain theater where he said people laughed loudly or even said things back to the screen. Or he’d go to this small theater that played the independent movies, movies that were only at that one theater. Those were usually his favorites.
“What’s your favorite movie, then?” I asked him, after a brief silence.
“What’s with you and superlatives?”
“Oh, superlatives are my favorite.”
“I don’t know,” he said, “That’s such a loaded question. Your favorite movie is like… or it can be like, your working picture of the world, or how you view yourself, or your view in general. I mean, it doesn’t necessarily have to be, but if you pick it a certain way…”
“I’ve never thought about it like that before.”
“Well, art is a representation of life, and if you deem to choose art that you feel is representative of you, you’re choosing a part of life that you feel is you. Your life.”
“You could almost pick like, five movies that are truly your favorite and base like a religion on them,” I said. “Like existentially, finding meaning in the art.”
“One of mine would have to be ‘Cinema Paradiso.’
‘Hmm… I think I’d pick ‘The Princess Bride’ to be on my list. It’s great if only for the reason that it can speak convincingly of true love and in the same breath have a person wake up in someone’s arms and the first words out of his mouth are ‘Who are you? Are we enemies?”
“Geez, Tim. What’s your major malfunction?”
“’Full Metal Jacket.‘ Another great movie.”
“What’d you name your rifle?” I asked.
“Have you seen ‘Any Given Sunday’?” I asked. “I just watched that last night. That movie made me want to play football.”
“That movie makes you want to do anything.
“Hand me the guitar,” he said. I picked it off its stand and craned it over the bed.
Lane played guitar. I found that out the good way. If fact, he was so good it was a spectacle watching him play. He played this thing and I asked what song it was from, because it had to be something, but he said he just made it up, just then. So I was impressed. I mean, I could play guitar pretty well, and I took lessons and everything, but he could really play.
“Do you ever write songs?” I asked.
“I write music. But I can’t write words worth a shit.”
I told him that I was sort of the opposite. I have notebooks full of lyrics that are just aching to be songs, but I can’t really write songs on guitar. I can only come up with short parts that I like. It’s hard for me to make them into anything. But I was working on it.
“How do you do it?” he asked. “How do you actually write lyrics?”
“Well, I can’t just create something good at any moment, like some people. I have to work at it, or be in a specific mood. But I know what’s good when I see it.”
“Want to start playing together, or something? I mean, we could try to get a band started,” I said.
“Sure. We should definitely do that. Have you ever been in a band before?”
“I used to play with my dad. He plays drums and guitar, and he taught me how to play. So we jam sometimes. And my friend Sidney and I— Hey, Sidney plays bass.”
“My friend. From my old school.” I said. “He’s pretty good, really creative and everything. He can come up with a good bass line for whatever part you write. We’ve played together a few times but never got too serious about being a band, but now I think we could really do it.”
“Awesome. What about a drummer?”
“Yeah, that’s true. Drummers are really hard to find. We’ll just start out with just us and then hopefully find one.”
We stayed up through most of the night talking. About music, as we usually did, but now our own music, and what we wanted to sound like. We’d both wanted to be in a band ever since we had started seriously listening to music, so we were excited to have finally found someone to play with. We talked about music as if it was an entire world we had both separately discovered and explored, and we were eager to share notes.
CHAPTER 3: The Triumvirate
Monica had a car. She and Laura were a year ahead of me, in the senior class. I know I said they were in my math class, but I was a year ahead in math, because I had already taken certain classes at St. Louis High. So, having a car, being driven by the elemental forces of youth, Monica offered to drive me home.
“Oh, but I love riding the bus!”
“Get in the car.”
“Alright let’s do it.”
She had a small Toyota four door with big purple fuzzy dice on the rear view and about a thousand band stickers on the back. She drove fast, too.
One day we got out early, a half-day, and we decided to go to a Chinese restaurant near my house for lunch. We were still giddy with the newness that surrounded our friendship, laughing about how we knew nothing about each other, but wanted to.
“So what do you do?” she asked.
“Me?” Of course you, you idiot. “Oh, um. I mainly just hang out with friends, go to movies and shows sometimes.”
“Yeah, we do that stuff, too. But what do you do?”
For a minute I thought they meant drugs or something.
“Do you mean drugs?” I asked.
“No! No. I mean like, do you make art? Or write? Or music or something?”
“Oh. That kind of do. Yeah, I play guitar, and sing.”
“Have you written any songs?”
“Are you in a band?”
“No. But I want to be in a band, I’m supposed to start one with this guy Lane, from school. Do you know Lane?”
“Is he a junior?”
“Yeah. He’s kind of quiet, a little scrawny. Dresses kind of plain. He‘s cool.”
“Yeah, I think I saw him with you.”
“He plays guitar, and my other friend plays bass, but we’re still looking for a drummer.”
“There’s this guy Mark, who plays drums. At Division. He talks to us sometimes, but he’s kind of strange. We don’t really hang out with him.”
“Is he any good?”
“I don’t really know. I only know he’s supposed to play drums.”
The Chinese restaurant had murals on the walls, which had somehow gotten dirty, with large brown splotches. I stood looking at them as we waited in line.
“I’ve gotta pee.”
When Laura went to the bathroom, Monica sat next to me, in the booth. She was sitting on top of me practically. “What are you doing this weekend?” she asked me.
“Uh, I don’t know. Why?”
“I was hoping you might want to go somewhere with me. Out to dinner or something.”
“Like a date?” I asked. I was a little intimidated by her approach, but I liked her.
“Yeah, like a date. Just you and me.”
“Yeah, sure. We could do that.”
Laura came back, but Monica stayed where she was.
The next week at school was horrible. I had only been there for a few months, but I was now certain of my regret of leaving St. Louis‘. I called up Sidney one night that week after I got home from school and he came over and picked me up.
In his car I asked him about S.L.H., if everyone was still in mourning
over me having left. He
“I’m thinking about coming back.”
“What? How can you come back? You just left. I mean, I want you to come back, but they filled in the class this year, I don’t even know if they have openings. What are you going to do?”
“I’ve already talked to my mom, and she called the admissions office. They’re considering it. They’re going to have a board meeting and everything, just to see if they should readmit me. They’re going to vote. Isn’t that ridiculous? I mean, I realize now I made a mistake by leaving. It is a good school. But I think they were upset when I left, they don’t like to lose kids, you know? And now it seems like they’re rubbing it in my face. It’s not like I got kicked out or anything. I just left.”
I told Sidney about Lane, and the possibility about starting a band.
“How is he at guitar?”
“He’s better than me,” I admitted. “And he listens to good stuff, so he should be able to write what we’re looking for.”
“Awesome, we should meet.”
“I’ll arrange it, soon.”
“What about this Friday?” he asked.
“I have a date Friday.”
“Oh yeah? Who with?”
“This girl Monica from Division.”
Monica came over to pick me up, to the basement door like I asked, where my room was.
“Where do you want to go?” she asked.
“How about Vietnamese?”
“I love Vietnamese! I know the perfect place.”
In the car we were rocking out to Weezer’s Blue Album, the touchstone of that periods’ music’s criterion collection.
We spiral straight out as the world turns… The playing out of youth’s thirsty metapatterns, all bright and dark-winged.
Music is what held us together in those days; …It still is.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “Why do you ask?”
“I just like to ask people that.”
“I don’t really like it when people ask me that. It’s not fair.”
“Why isn’t it fair?”
“Because I can’t control my thoughts. That’s why I go through them and pick out what I’m going to say. I don’t say everything I’m thinking.”
“Well, are there things you think about that you can’t say? I mean, about me or something?” I thought that was pretty self-centered and paranoid of her to ask, but I usually like self-centered people.
“No, not really. But I don’t like to say everything anyway. Sometimes my thoughts are private. A lot of times in fact.”
We got to the restaurant and walked in, continuing our conversation.
“Uh, two please.”
“Smoking,” says Monica.
“Well, do you have thoughts you’re embarrassed about?” she said, flirting I think.
“No. Not usually. Sometimes I try to spare people from my thought processes.”
“Do you think mean things?”
“Sometimes. Not if I can help it.”
“Everybody thinks mean things. I want to know what you think that it’s so hard for you to talk about.” She lit a cigarette, cupping her hand like she was doing a ventriloquist birdcall.
“I guess I think a lot of vain thoughts. Self-conscious things. I really just think too much. Things about whatever situation I’m in, and strange connections between things.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Like, when I see something, and it reminds me of something else. And I
can’t control the connections I make…” She looked interested, but not
understanding. “Like this spoon,” I said, picking it up. “This spoon could
mean so many things. Like the movie the Matrix, ‘There is no spoon,’ or
that ‘Saves the Day’ song about digging someone’s eyes out with a spoon,
or something. I don’t know, it could mean so many
“Not every time. But I do that a lot, with a ton of things. And sometimes
it gets so bad I can’t function, I’m paralyzed with thoughts. So many
references to everything. It's like there's this entertainment magazine in
my head. (I'm speaking in mixed metaphor.) Like a print magazine and also
like a gun. And I have to recock the gun so that it's not in the
entertainment mode. So I'm settled back to where it's not all part of 'the
show' as David Foster Wallace might call
“No, you can. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you."
I liked Monica, and it was a good time. At the end of the night, I leaned in to kiss her.
We kissed for a few minutes, parked outside my house, and I felt a desire to do more, but then she made a move that was a little too far for that particular moment, and I sort of backed off.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Um, nothing. I just don’t know if I want to do that right now. We don’t really know each other, that well. So, I don’t want to…Uh.”
“It’s better that we don’t know each other,” she said. “It makes it more fun, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I mean, it’s good. I don’t know. Maybe some other time.”
“OK, that’s fine. I’m sorry.”
She made me feel like I was being a prude or something, and maybe I was. I guess the main reason I stopped her was because I had this quote drifting through my head: “I don’t think you should kiss anyone you don’t love.” Well, I had already kissed her, and in a way you could say I loved her. I mean, I love a lot of people, people I don’t even know. But the quote made me think about any type of sex as something more than just a physical act, so I was reluctant, at least just then. I’m not trying to be self-righteous about it or anything, and I explained that to her. I just didn’t feel like it, and I normally go by my feelings.
She was obviously a little affronted, because of what she said after a moment of silence.
“I’m not a slut or something.”
“I know. I didn’t say you were.”
“Maybe I just like you a lot. I just do this thing where I think I like someone so much, even if I don’t have anything real to base it on. I just fall in love, with the idea of someone. Like whenever I first meet someone, I think they’re perfect, the next big thing in my life, and, I don’t know, I just felt like it…”
Now she was making me regret stopping her.
“No, I do the same thing,” I said. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m sorry. I like you too.”
There was a brief silence.
“I guess I just didn’t want to ruin anything,” I said. “I’m not good at loving people, I don’t think. It’s hard for me to. I just end up thinking about everything so much and I can’t do anything right, without thinking about it. I’m sorry. I like you.”
“Can I kiss you?” she asked me.
I looked at her, then kissed her.
I invited Sidney to meet Lane and I at a coffee shop, and he showed up right on time.
“Lane, Sidney. Sidney, Lane.”
“Hey, nice to meet you.”
“Well, my friends. Shall we get down to it?” I said, acting official.
“Yes, let’s,” Lane agreed.
We discussed our possibilities, our schedules, and potential practice spaces. We agreed to meet once a week to play, for now at my house, just because my parents were the only ones who were willing to stand the noise.
“What kind of music do you like?” Sidney asked Lane.
“Um, anything brilliant basically.” He laughed. “I mean, I like anything as long as it’s distinct. It has to be intelligent.”
“Good answer,” I said.
That night we went back to my house to play. Eventually we would nail carpet to the ceiling of the basement, which was my room, to dampen the sound. But that first night we just kept it down.
The basement was my bed, entertainment center, books, and a sofa. It was the perfect practice space, having tons of room for the amps and moving around. There were a lot of band posters and pictures on the wood finish walls, ones I had taken. The floor was linoleum, but I had a light beige carpet that I had gotten from my friend Katie, whose parents had just redone their basement. It was sort of old and dusty, but I didn’t mind. We hung a blanket on the large window on the east wall to try to prevent any neighbor cop calls.
We played a few covers first, just to get comfortable with each other, but then Lane started playing this riff that instantly caught Sidney and I’s attention. It was this slow, picked out progression that was both catchy and obscure enough to work as a song, and Sidney added a part while I just played a few chords over the rest of it. A drum part would have made it complete, but we were taking what we could get. In the middle of playing it I brought out a notebook with some lyrics in it and propped them up on my amp. My parents had bought me the guitar and amp for Christmas when I was fifteen. It was a pretty nice amp, too. My parents were cool like that. I was looking over the lyrics and I picked out a part and then started singing over the music, and it was really working. I mean, they couldn’t really hear me, but I knew what they heard they liked, because they were looking at me like I had just cemented the fact that yes, we are going to be a band.
After that first practice, I was looking forward to the next all week. I spent the time in between rewriting old lyrics, playing guitar, and thinking about a name. We practiced each week for about a month, still unable to find a drummer. We didn’t focus on that though. We were trying to build a unique sound, but were also taking influence from some of our favorites. We were working on band logos before we even had a definite name.
One day Lane and I were talking outside a class, in between periods, watching people flow down the hallways, dancing out of each other’s way. Laura and Monica came up and started talking to me. I introduced them to Lane.
“Hey that Mark guy should be around in a second. We just saw him.”
I noticed this kid was walking towards us and I recognized him from the hallways. He had a cool style of dressing, sort of hippie-ish, but not like the prototypical hippie.
“Hey Mark,” Monica said. “Come here.”
She had to sort of beckon him.
He had black dreadlocked hair, a Rickie Lee Jones (whom I had never heard of) t-shirt, and baggy pajama type pants. He wore glasses, and looked intelligent. I hadn’t spoken to him before, mainly because he was older and might think he was too cool for me. I thought that pretty often in Division’s environment. Then he spoke to me.
“Nice shirt, man.”
“Thanks,” I said, looking down at my Violent Femmes t-shirt, not entirely sure he wasn’t mocking me.
“Meet Mark,” Laura told me.
“You guys were talking about me?”
We sort of ignored the question.
“Who else do you listen to?” he asked.
“Gotta go, boys,” Monica called to us over her shoulder. I waved.
Coming back to Mark’s question, Lane and I listed off some of our favorites. Then Mark started talking about what he listened to and we had a few bands in common, but more than that was communicated by the way we were talking and acting. You could tell we were of a type, or at least we could tell, anyways, and we suddenly had a mutual respect between us.
We talked about music for a while and then he asked us if we played any instruments. We told him about the band.
“Shit, man. I can play.”
“So we’ve heard.”
“Yeah, I’ve been playing since I was twelve.”
I began to picture him in the band.
“We should get together,” he said. “Get together and play, practice,
“Yeah, we can play at my house. When were you thinking?”
‘We usually practice Wednesday nights.”
“That works. Here, let me give you directions.” He wrote on a piece of notebook paper from his bag, tore out the sheet, and handed it to me.
“Well, I’m going to get going, but it was cool talking to you guys. See you Wednesday.” He held out his hand.
Lane and I realized we hadn’t introduced
“Rock n’ roll. Well, Lane and Tim, see you Wednesday.”
CHAPTER 4: The Super Secret Experiment Lab
Now, as far as what took place on that now infamous night when the four members met for the first time, now chronicled in many music critics’ memoirs and every single music history book written after that date: We were talking about the possibility of our first show. The possibility of being huge, traveling through time in a phone booth and meeting our future us-es, and rock journalists writing articles with, instead of “The war is over, we won“ as an opening line, they write, “it‘s not about winning or losing, it‘s all about the music.” Listen, we were dreaming, writ large, and it felt right. We were wide awake, maybe a little caffeine catalyzed, and our feet were on the ground, tapping out the beat. Historians will note, this was the “Pre-Tim’s Van Period.” Sidney and Lane were getting to know each other, a meeting of elements like silly putty and a pencil sharpener. We were trying to think of a name, and there were some pretty bad ones thrown out. We wanted to avoid being the “something something ‘project,’” or the “something something ‘theory,’” or anything like that. In the car that night, I came up with “Section Eight,” the military code for being unfit for duty. We sort of liked that name, but kept searching.
“How about… ‘The Super Secret Experiment Lab?’” Sidney proffered.
We laughed a little.
“We could have shirts and stickers that say “I was spied on by the Super Secret Experiment Lab.“ and dress up like Devo.
I turned back to him laughing and almost crashed the car. Sometimes I wondered about Sidney.
“We can’t be named ‘I was… whatever you said’ if we want people to take us seriously,” I said.
“Well why not? We can be serious but just have a ridiculous name,” Lane said.
“Are we not men?” Sidney cried plaintively.
“I think we’re there.”
We couldn’t immediately find the place. We knew we were on the right street, but I couldn’t read the address that Mark had written down. So we just sort of walked up and down the street for a while before we called him and he came outside and ushered us in. He helped carry Sidney’s giant bass amp and Lane and I both lugged our cabs in, the plastic or rubber wheels audibly wearing away on the sidewalk.
His house passed our assessment; it was cool. He still lived with his parents, as we all did, but his parents weren’t home. Apparently they were out, at some kind of dinner party. We trailed through the living room to the basement steps, and we were all looking around at the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, and then rounding the corner and heading downstairs. His kit was set up in the corner of the finished basement, and I don’t know how many pieces it had but it looked like enough. It was bright red, but not the glossy or sparkly kind like some sets.
He sat down and started messing around, filling space with sound. We set up pretty quickly, mainly because we don’t have too many pedals or anything to worry about. Lane used a few extra effects besides distortion, but hadn’t brought the pedals. So we were ready to play and Mark said, “Let’s hear what you’ve got.”
Lane played the intro to the first song we had written. It starts out with just guitar and then the bass and second guitar come in after four measures, the drums also, presumably, and then it hits pretty hard and goes from there. After we played through it for a while, Mark came in. It changed everything. We now had a rhythm to base the sound around. He was playing a simple, crisp rock beat. I was singing the lyrics loudly, and still I could barely hear them, but the music sounded good. The sound wasn’t too dense, even though we had four instruments going. The sound was still distinct, which was good. I looked at Mark and told him when the rhythm changed, and he switched to a different beat, the chorus. Here the two guitars drop out and it’s just bass, drums, and vocals. It sounded really damn cool; Mark played this part on the toms, with a steady thump from the bass drum on each beat. I was singing my head off. When we finished that song, we were all smiling. We had something.
We practiced for a long time, but it went by quickly. We got three songs pretty well finished. We didn’t want to quit playing, but Mark’s parents came home, and the three of us packed up and then turned back to Mark to say our goodbyes.
“We have to do this again soon,” he said, and we agreed.
CHAPTER 5: Leaving Division
Monica and I were hanging out in her room, and I told her I was probably leaving Division.
“When?” she asked.
“The end of the semester, most likely.”
“Man, that sucks.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s good. It’s good that you’re not stuck there, like me,” she said with a sad laugh. “We can still hang out though. I mean, it’s not like you’re leaving the state. You live pretty close to me. We can still go out.”
“I also wanted to talk to you about that.”
She looked at me anxiously.
“I feel like I shouldn’t lead you on, because there’s someone else that I’m interested in.”
“Why oh why did you ever kiss me, Tim?” she said like she was singing a song.
“No, listen. I’m just trying to prevent a bad situation. I’m not seeing someone else. There’s just this girl that I’ve liked for a really long time, and I feel like I shouldn’t do anything with other people. I don’t know if she likes me, in that way, but we‘ve been talking recently and I don‘t want to be with anyone right now until I figure things out. I just feel… unresolved.”
“OK. I understand.”
“Yeah, it’s fine.”
“Well that was easy.”
“Well I’m easy,” she said, and then laughed. “No, no, I didn’t mean to say that.” I was laughing then, too. “I didn’t mean to say that,” she said, hitting me.
“So, can we still be friends?” I asked, holding her arms in front of me to keep her from punching me.
“Awesome.” I let her arms drop around me and we fell into a hug.
After we finished practice the next week we went out to eat. We practiced on Saturday night, so we could stay out as late as we liked. We went to the diner by my house, Courtesy Diner, open twenty-four hours as far as I know. They had damn good pancakes. Buttermilk; like, the real deal.
“I’ve never been here before,” Lane said. “This place is cool.”
“We should put something on the jukebox.”
Sidney and Lane, who were quickly becoming friends, went over with some quarters for the machine. Mark and I were left sitting across from each other.
“It was a good practice tonight,” I said.
“Yeah, I really think we could get pretty good, if we keep playing it like this.”
“Well, I think we’re all into it enough to practice regularly.” I took a drink, broke some ice with my teeth. “I’m curious; what do you want out of the band? I mean it’s no big deal that you’re older than us, but I want to know what you want us to sound like or be about. You’ve probably got some ideas for the band, right?”
Sidney and Lane came back to the table, smiling, as “99 red balloons” came on.
“Too bad they don’t have the Goldfinger version.” said Sidney, climbing over the back of the booth.
“Well, I’ve always wanted to just be in a band. I never really thought about what I wanted a band to ‘be about.’ I guess I just want to connect with people. Music has like, supernatural powers for connection. You know how people always go up and talk to guys in bands after a show, at least at smaller shows, and say things like, ‘that song was really good’ or if they know the song from a recording, to say that a song has “gotten to them” or expressed something they had felt, or helped them through things. I think that’s incredible, and I suppose that’s what I want.” We were all listening to him intently for a moment as he expressed something we all felt in essence and we all realized it suddenly. “Hey, but what does it matter what I think? I’m just the drummer.”
“No, I agree with you,” I said. “I’ve always wanted to write songs that speak to people or even change them. Inspire them. So I know exactly what you mean.”
Sidney picked up his fork and began interviewing the table. “As of right now, we have no name. If we were a dog and we got lost we‘d be in trouble. Any thoughts on that?”
I began to try to wrestle the fork away from him. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” I said. “And I think I’ve got something. But we’ve all got to decide together if we like it.”
“What is it?”
“OK, I have to explain it before I just say it… I was making collages a few days ago, and I found the phrase “Down With” in a magazine, and cut it out, and then I found the word “Strangers” in the next magazine. So, I glued them down together over a background so that it said “Down With Strangers.” So, it came about randomly, but I think has meaning.”
“Well, see, you can take it as like saying ‘I’m ‘Down with Strangers,’ meaning you’re cool with people you don’t know. Or, it could also be like a battle cry; ‘Down With Strangers!’ meaning you don’t want people to be isolated, or lonely, or alienated. I mean, I like it a lot, and I think it goes well with what we’re trying to do with the music.”
“Hmm…” Mark said.
“So, ‘Down With Strangers’?”
“Yeah. But it’s just an idea.”
“It’s good,” Lane said. “It’s fitting. And it actually means something. So, I like it. I would listen to a band called ‘Down With Strangers.’”
“Yeah, it’s good. We should call ourselves that, at least until someone comes up with something better.”
“But doesn’t it also mean, like, down with strangers! Like in a bad way? Like, down with them?’ Sidney asked.
“Well, if they’re strangers, you don’t know them, so why would you have a reason to say down with them? I guess it sort of means like, trust life. And the whole sound of the name has a sort of attitude about it, that makes it more than just naiveté. I guess.”
“What about you, Mark?” I asked.
“You know, I like it. I really do. I think it does fit the music and it’s also like a battle cry, like you said. And I guess we want to give people something to get behind with the music. I mean, it’s not like we’re writing anything revolutionary or anything...”
“Aren’t we?” I blurted out. They looked at me expectantly. “…I guess I see the name as a warning, against losing our humanity. It’s a call to fight against that.” I was taking a leap of faith that the band shared some of my views on things: politics, life, whatever you want to call it.
“Yeah, it is like that.”
“I mean, I want to be about something, as a band. Music is universal, and it’s a great way to reach people, so we might as well be about something positive.”
“Sure, why not?” Sidney says.
“Alright, so we’re ‘Down With Strangers.’ That’s it then.”
Like I said, we only practiced together four times before this first show. If we were patient, we would have waited at least another month, practicing each week, before we made our debut. But we weren’t patient, and in fact we were so excited that it would have been impossible for us to wait without at least one of us exploding, so we set up the show, through Sidney, at the church gym.
Anyway, that’s the path that led us here, to our first show.
We play our four original songs, and one cover, our version of a ’Braid’ song we all like. It’s a lot of nervous fun. Some people seem to like us, including our friends. At least they’re not walking away while we play, but that may say more about the quality of our friends than the quality of our playing. Mark’s girlfriend Charlin is there, and we met her before the show. She seems really cool, tall and beautiful and also with dreadlocks, really friendly and funny. She and Mark are a good couple, too. They play off of each other when they talk and it’s just amazing to watch. They’re really good together.
We‘re selling copies of a recording we made in the basement, and we have a mailing list, and five people actually sign up. Those people will never end up getting any emails, though, on account of me losing the paper their names were written on, but at least we interested them.
I’m sixteen, this night. Almost seventeen, like the other guys. Except Mark, who’s eighteen. We’re all young, though, and feel like it.
We open with the song “Collapse,” the first song we practiced together as a full band. It’s a good beginning song because it is energetic and sort of catchy, and we like it the best of the songs we have written so far, so it sort of relaxes us and makes us excited at the same time. There’s a pretty good response, too. People clap and yell and all of that. I’m mainly watching our friends in the front row. Laura and Monica are there, standing at the side, together. Avery is there, too, right in front of me, and in the second song I look at her a lot. It’s a love song, I guess. Avery is a really good friend of mine.. The song is called “The Open Window Campaign,” and it’s about picking someone up after they get off work and it’s raining and they’re happy to see you and you have no idea what you’re going to do next but you know you can do anything. Or something like that.
Avery and I met almost a year ago, through a friend. She’s probably one of the smartest people I know, and we always have good conversations. She is sort of small in stature, and cute, but gorgeous also. She has medium length brown hair that drapes over her eyes and blocks your view of her face, and you miss her face when you can’t see it. But don’t get me wrong, you wouldn’t wish away this hair. She is undeniably beautiful. We are “just friends,” but we’re close enough to joke about being in love with each other. Because we sort of are.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce the band,” I say. “This here is Mark Creasey on drums.” I point back at him. He does a frantic drum solo and hits the cymbals. “Lane McCarthy on lead guitar.” His fingers rip out a short vignette. “Sidney West on bass,” who is playing the opening to some video game theme song. “And I’m Tim Davis. We’re called ‘Down With Strangers.’”
I start getting a little ridiculous. I’m just so happy. Nervous, too, but I am trying not to think about that. In an instrumental part of one song, I don’t really have to play so I walk forward and Avery plays my guitar, while it’s still around my neck. She reaches up and strums it with her hand. Someone is giving me the punk rock sign or the metal sign or whatever you call it and I’m pretending to be a total rock star and it’s great.
We play through three more songs, then finish our set with our newest, ‘My Favorite Appeal.’ (That’s the name of the song.) It goes like this:
“We never know what to talk about
But it always ends up coming out alright
our tongues are tied, up-with / things inside
with our hearts always ringside
lookin' for the prize
We always seem to feel
Like we’re falling apart at the seams
And if we could hold together
Any pieces of piecemeal dreams
We’d find in the end we’re not so different, I mean
We just want to hold on as hard as we can
To this feeling that keeps slipping through our hands
We just want to hold on as much as we can
To this feeling that keeps slipping through our hands
I blame the ever shifting moment
That keeps me on my toes
But I wouldn't have it any other way,
So it goes
I break free of the past
and put my face up to the glass
and look at all the pretty things inside
I hold on to my heart
When the whole world falls apart
And I think back to you and me that night
I heart the telescoping catylst
Of the heart of every idealist
Met with critical thought's readiness
To make of all life such a mess
Yeah we know that nothing's perfect yet
It's just she looks perfect in that dress
And I've never felt as good as this
So all I wanna say is
"FUCK YOU ABYSS!"
Against the hardest of rains
Dressed in dialogue and dreams
And the cleverest of pains.
We just want that belonging
That's so sweet to feel,
The loneliness that brings us together,
My favorite appeal
I just want to hold on as much as i can
To this feeling that keeps slipping through my hands
I just want to hold on as long as i can
To this feeling that keeps slipping through my hands”
After the show, a few people come up and tell us they liked us. They want to know when we’re playing again, etc. Charlin is talking to Mark and they’re laughing about how he messed up on the first song. I hadn’t noticed; I was so worried about my part and remembering the words. Avery comes up to me.
“Tim, that was really good,” she says over my shoulder, hugging me. “I mean it. You guys were really good.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“So who’s the next band, anyway?”
“You know, I don’t even know their name? Yeah, I have no idea. ‘Something something and then a number.’ Sidney never really gave us the details of the show, just when we were supposed to be here.”
“Are you sticking around for them?”
“Yeah, I sort of feel like I should. I mean, they were here for us. At least, I think they were. Ha. I don’t even know.”
“Well, I’m going to go. But you guys were really good. Really.”
“Thanks, A. Thanks for coming.”
I’m talking to Laura and Monica, when Charlin approaches from my left.
“Hey, I know I’m supposed to be the drummer’s girlfriend and all, but I thought I should tell you that all the girls were looking at you through your whole set.”
I blush. “Oh, really? That’s funny.” Laura and Monica are grinning at me.
“Yeah, you looked pretty sexy up there singing. So, just watch out, there’s gonna be a lot of girls after you as long as you’re in this band. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Thanks. I’ll be careful.”
I’m sweating a little bit from the show and I sit down on a sofa against the wall. I just sort of watch everyone walking around, waiting for the next band, talking and laughing. I feel like I have landed, after jumping out of a plane as we took the stage. I feel good.
6: Smoke and Mirrors
One night Charlin goes outside to smoke a cigarette and I follow her, because I feel like smoking. Suddenly we are outside alone.
“Can I bum a cigarette?” I ask her. She hands one up to me, a Parliament. I take it and light it with her lighter. “Thanks,” I say, after that prolonged first drag, smoke emerging as I speak, then jetting out. Sitting on the curb next to her, beneath the streetlight I look out at the night, not really looking at this night but looking at all nights. I return her lighter. “So, what do you think of the band?” I ask.
“You’ve got potential, kid.”
She calls me kid, even though she is only a year older than I am. She thinks since Mark has some seniority over the rest of the band because of his age, she has some, too. But I like it.
“I can see you guys playing bigger shows than that church thing, definitely. But you’ve got a lot of work to do first.”
“I know. We do.”
“You know? I wonder.”
She points up at the moon like she‘s laughing at a friend doing a trick. It’s surprisingly large and almost bright red, deep red.
“There are so many bands out there. And they all think they’re worth listening to. But they’re not. At least most of them aren’t. There are so many unremarkable bands. Most of them you’ll never hear anyway. But, I see what you’re trying to do here. I can tell what you want, the way you think. To quote a great band… ‘You want everything all of the time.’”
“Don’t be idio-teque,“ I say. I sit there, not sure what to say. Feeling like she has me pegged, and since I am pegged, the life in me involuntarily wriggles around it. The Radiohead song she mentioned plays in my head. “I don’t want everything all of the time. I just want something always.”
Her eyes trail away, but not to nowhere. “Yeah. I know what you mean.
“I believe you guys could be one of the great ones,” she says.
“That’s the only thing I know how to aim for,” I confess.
“You need to know what you want to do. If it’s what you even want, you have to consider your… I hate to say this word, but I have to: You have to consider your marketability. I mean, that’s just the truth. You have to be able to sell yourselves to people, and then popularity won’t be a problem. If you’re willing to work for it. If that’s what you even want.”
I’m sitting there on the curb, elbows on my knees. I take a long drag, then shoot the smoke upward. I turn to face her.
“I’m willing,” I say. “And I agree with what you’re saying. But I don’t want to limit this band by being concerned with whether we can sell it or not. I’m more concerned with actually being about something real than being about something that’s saleable. I guess I’m being idealistic, and I know you don’t mean we should ‘sell out’ or anything, but sometimes the way things are really piss me off, and I don’t even want to be a part of that. The whole music as a business thing… it’s so similar to other things, and… I just wish we could bypass all of that. Even though, I am a really good businessman. I always win at Monopoly.”
We both smile and her head falls between her knees, laughing with a hint of delerium.
“ I just want, you know,
to transcend the bullshit. To just have every concert be us and new
friends. Stay true. Can I say
She stubs out her cigarette on the concrete and then gets up and goes back inside. I look down at my hand and watch my cigarette smoke itself.
CHAPTER 7: ARCADIA
There’s too many records in the world. I want them all. Even if they’re crap… I’m sure there’s something good about them. It’s like the movie ‘the Dreamers’… not letting the movies rot in some archive… but showing the movies, any movie. Just to let them live.
I have a little extra cash, so that means one thing: time to buy some records. Literally records, too, since I just got a turntable about a week ago from this local store that refurbishes and sells them at minimum cost. They know and I now know that there’s something different about holding the physical album in your hands, putting it on the turntable, setting it spinning, and lowering that needle into a groove… Even the static sounds pure.
I hop in the car and head over to Arcadia, the main independent record store in town. I walk through the open door and the smell of that perfectly familiar obscure Shrinivas Sugandhalaya incense hits me like sweetly threatened innocence. They’re playing the ‘Propellerheads’ album ‘Decksandrumsandrockandroll’ over the store’s speakers overhead.
The record store is a mythical land. It is a street market in the Nexus. You’re in Proffesor X’s Cerebro and all the mutants in the world are at your brain’s fingertips.
Look at these… the album art… it’s genius. Someone is a… these people are geniuses. Put this on. Here, put this on, we’ve gotta hear this. How much for the store?
What the hell is this?
Have you ever looked at the artwork for an album…? Any really good album? Why aren’t these in museums? Why aren’t these learned about in high schools? La Curriculum vitae. And people think digital music is… what? That you don’t lose anything? Hey, go burn down a library and post the pictures online.
I want to be one of these images. I want to be a true legend. What could possibly compare to that image of the Replacements sitting on top of the roof on the cover of ’Let it Be’, the girl in the glass bubble on the cover of ’Soul Coughing’s ’Ruby Vroom’, or the sweet quivering colors of ’Irresistible Bliss’?
Do you believe in rock and roll? Can music save your mortal soul?
Can you teach me how to dance real slow?
True dreams… It’s sublime.
You stand there, not really tensed, wondering at the ‘Stone Roses’ album ‘Second Coming’, thinking, the power of art such as this… it should be enough. Enough to make… you know. If there was a war outside, someone tried to drop a bomb on this town, this album should be able to rise up and just say, like Neo to the bullets, “No.” And they’d stop there. The bomb would be rendered powerless. Because this art is more.
It’s… hell, it’s more useful. It’s more important. And damnsure more real. Don’t even mention beauty.
They push that button. The ones who make that call. The ones behind that button…
They’ll never know…
This whole world they’ll never see. Unless… All the worlds they’ll never see.
All the worlds I won’t see-- any of us, won’t see, won’t live,
I pick up the new ‘Bright Eyes’ ep, and an old Dylan lp I don’t have.
I head to the counter.
“Hey man. Oh, this is a good one.”
He hands me my change.
“Thanks a lot,” I say.
“Peace.” says the clerk after handing me my cd. I turn back to him, ambling out the door. “Yeah.
Chapter 8: Wheels and Gizmos
‘Down With Strangers’ switches off each week, between my basement and Mark’s, so we don’t get bored with the practice space. One of the best things about having friends is just having somewhere to go. Practicing at my house is more convenient, because I don’t have to move my equipment, but mostly I like it better because it seems more like a real practice space. I mean, we have plenty of room, and it has more personality, with posters and writing all over the walls.
We don’t have any shows set up after our church basement experience, but that’s OK because we want to get more songs written and develop our sound before we start playing out for real. I write a lot of lyrics on my own, but we all go over them together and the guys suggest changes or ways to sing them. Most of the music just sort of comes out, without much planning, but the words are more crafted. I’ve always believed that the words make or break a band.
I had never realized how good Sidney is at bass until he started writing parts in a full band setting. He is really creative and free with his bass lines, wrapping them around the guitar parts and creating motion, somewhere for the song to go. Lane is also a really good musician, more technical than the rest of us, and we need someone like that. Mark is good too, solid and steady, the foundation we need in a drummer. He holds his own well. And I think I’m getting better at guitar every time I play.
We write a song that I call “Tribution.” It’s sort of a Velvet Underground rip-off, musically, and I’m sure someone has already written similar lyrics, but they’re new to me. They are pretty dark, but vague enough to be open to interpretation. It’s about how everything decays over time, sort of, entropy basically, but also about something that shines through the decay, like an eternal or immortal essence. And that’s stronger than the decay. There’s even a little bit about Platonic ideals thrown in. But it’s sort of ‘Replacements’-esque lyrically, so it’s totally cool. When I write it I’m trying to remember to be more subtle in my lyrics and also learning how to sing in such a way that conveys more than just the words, flat; in other words, with emotion.
I turn seventeen and my parents buy me a P.A. for my birthday. So now we have microphones to sing into and will be able to actually hear the vocals over the amps. My dad tells me they want me to use this for good purposes, like it’s magic powers or something. My mom then says to me that she has another present, but I have to share it.
“What is it?” I ask, holding a cup of mountain dew with ice.
“Look out in the driveway,” she says proudly.
“Did you buy me that Gremlin I always wanted?” I kid. I crush some ice with my teeth.
“Just look.” I’m already walking to the window.
“Holy crap, Momb! You
bought a fufking van!” I say, pieces
of ice falling from my smiling mouth and falling into my hand trying to
catch them against my chest.
“Sorry. But you bought a damn van! It’s huge!”
“Well, we needed a new vehicle, and I know you can make use of it with your band. So, we got it today. I didn’t know what color you wanted, so I got black. I think it looks regal, don’t you? That‘s what the dealer said at least.” Now she’s kidding around. “I don‘t think he knew what it meant.”
“It looks badass!” I say, turning around and hugging her. “Thanks Mom.”
“And of course it has a CD player.”
Chapter 9: A Run for the Border
“I quit the youth group,” Sidney tells me, sounding excited but also sad about it.
“Oh. Good for you,” I say, teasing him.
“I guess,” he says. “I’ve just been thinking a lot about it, and then last night I didn’t go. I told my mom I was, but instead I went to the park. I sat there on the swings thinking about my idea of God and why religion exists, and people in general. And by the time I went home, I realized I had had a more important experience in that park than I ever had at the youth group. So, I’m just not going to go anymore. I told my mom today.”
“How did she feel about it?” I ask him, secretly happy that he has stopped going.
“She was disappointed, but she took it pretty well.”
“That’s good. Hey man, if you ever want to talk about any of that kind of stuff, I’d like to. I mean, so we could get to know what we think about certain things, become better friends.”
“I actually had this idea last night,” I tell him. “About starting this group. Some kind of group for us and our friends, people our age in general, to get together and I guess talk about things like that, or do other things. I haven’t really worked it all out in my mind, but I got the idea from the ‘Word of the Day’ on Dictionary.com yesterday.”
“What was the word?”
“Well, besides being the
name of the room that cardinals use to vote for the new pope, it also
means a secret
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. And I thought we could just call it ‘The Conclave.’ Keep it simple, you know?”
“Well, what would we do, and who would be in it?”
“Everything and anyone. I mean, what would you do with a fucking secret organization? We could do whatever we wanted.”
“Well, how would we decide what to do and who to invite? Who’s in charge?”
“We can work all that out, but I was thinking no one would be in charge, not really. We would just reach agreements with a general consensus of the members involved. And you don’t have to go to every meeting or event, of course.”
“What kind of events?”
“Anything people want to do as a group… Concerts, plays, movies, reading... We could have a reading group! That would be awesome.”
“Yeah, that would be cool. Well, we should start it. We need to have a meeting, invite people over to your place or something. Who, though?”
“All the guys in the band for sure, Avery, Charlin, Monica, Laura, and anyone else we think of.”
We really have our shit together sometimes, with the band. I mean, sometimes we all get to practice early, when we plan it out, and we play songs on the stereo for each other. Songs we want to take an influence from, or at least inspiration. So we all sit on the floor next to the CD player, and take turns putting on a song, and listening. And we really listen, too, really hear the music. It’s great. It feels like we’re doing something important.
I play a song by one of my favorite bands ever called ‘The Weakerthans.’ The song is called ‘Greatest Hits Collection.‘ The lyrics and music are perfect. It’s hard to describe the Weakerthans to someone who’s never heard them. It’s like never having seen a certain color. I just want them to hear this song… to listen to how powerful and amazing songwriting can be, and we sit there after listening to it. It ends, and the guitar fades out, and no one says anything for a few seconds, until I ask them what they think.
“Incredible,” Mark says.
Lane plays the Ben Folds Five song “Evaporated,” and it has a similar effect. Even though we all know the song, we are actually sitting there listening to it together, and it nearly kills me. “I poured my heart out,” he sings, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.
“That’s what we have to capture,” I say. “Like that Emily Dickenson quote, ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’ That’s it, there.”
Mark busts out a Grateful Dead song. “Ripple.” I have never heard it before, and I love it. It is so pure and clear, and makes me happy just listening to it.
Sidney won’t show us the CD before putting it in the player. He puts his hand over it, skipping the track and then hitting play. We wait about three seconds, having no idea what we are about to hear. And then it comes on. The opening chord, then the bass drum pounding. Leave it to Sidney to pick this song.
The song is T.N.T. by AC/DC. We all look at Sidney and he’s smiling like his head is going to explode.
I get up, laughing, and simply walk out of the room. But I come right back in. I’m just kidding with him. He has made his point, that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. He says to us, over the music, “We must not be afraid to rock, boys.” We agree.
We absorb the songs and they become a part of us, and somehow we a part of them.
That night we write a song called “This Poor City.” I write the lyrics first, in a fury, sitting there on the carpet, trying to pull an unnamable feeling out of me and into my words. Then we write the music, together, and the sound evokes, in me at least, an image of kids driving around at night. The vocals are simple and powerful, but the words, I think, are sensitive and poetic. So it all comes together and makes the song. It goes like this:
“Looking for something bigger than myself /
Or maybe just looking for a party /
I put the CD in and forgive the world for everything /
So don’t worry about saying sorry /
What should I say here? /
It’s silence that I fear
Taking it all in while my car eats the miles /
I’ve spread myself too thin /
So won’t you let me in? /
We’re the adherents of a brand new religion /
We tend to the streetlights in the sky,
spot me a slurpee from 7-11 /
Let’s not waste this /
This poor city needs us now /
I could love you, like you want me to /
You’ve just gotta tell me how /
So here we go again /
Where do we begin? /
Let’s not talk about that now /
It’s hard for me to face /
Staying in one place /
When will it ever seem like now? /
So the past is gone /
And tomorrow may never come /
We didn’t need it anyhow /
And it’ll never feel like now /
There would be a bridge right here /
If I hadn’t burned it down /
And who says restlessness is bad? /
Maybe wanting more is all we ever had /
We’ve got a brand new religion /
The perfect music
it’s like choreography the way we improvise heaven /
Let’s not waste it /
This poor city needs us now /
I could love you, if you want me to /
You’ve just gotta tell me now /
Tell me now…
Tell me now…
Tell me now…
Tell me now…
It’s so beautiful and rocking when you hear it with the music. I wish you could see us this night, playing it through for the first time. I’m buzzing inside the entire time, electricity running straight down my neck and back. It stays there till I finish holding the last note, the only sound at the end the clear tone of my voice.
We have just finished and we’re all standing there silent when Charlin comes in.
“Uh, hey guys. I brought tacos.”
We all crack up, can’t help it. It’s just so random and absurd after such a moment.
I attack Sidney, incoherently yelling something about tacos as we carouse our way from practice.
Chapter 10: Secret Organization
“The future isn’t now.
See my button? Ask me how.”
- Down With Strangers, ‘Seedy’
The first meeting of the Conclave is in my room, all of us sitting around my coffee table, sitting on the floor, the sofa, incense burning and music playing quietly in the background, something heavy that we’re not really listening to.
“What is this bullshit anyway, Tim?” Mark asks. “I’m a busy man, I can’t have you wasting my time with thi—“
“Shut up, Mark,” Lane says. “This is a good idea.”
“So what’s the idea?”
I’m sitting on the sofa, in the middle, leaning forward. I take a long look around the room at everyone, letting them know I’m joking, and serious. “Welcome to the first meeting of ‘The Conclave,’” I say. “A secret organization for the pursuance of certain goals, namely experiencing the best our culture has to offer, while we can.” There’s a whisper of a cringe from the lack of quotes placed around culture. “We’re talking musical performances, artistic exhibits, theater, film, fine dining, and special events. We’re talking reading groups, activist groups, writing groups. We’re talking us, here, now, spearheading a cultural revolution.” I’m trying to sound inspiring, giving an epic speech about what we could do, what we have to do because of who we are, where we are in space and time, and what we’re capable of doing.
“The six of us. Plus Monica and Laura. For
“We’re going to need more people,” Charlin says.
“Yeah, probably,” I say. “But we can start with just us.”
“What’s our goal?” Mark asks. I start to say something and he cuts me off, with a wave of his hand, “Besides a complete cultural revolution?”
“To have fun, of course,” I explain.
“I’m down,” says Sidney.
This night we plan our first outing, attending a play being held at a local community center. College kids putting on “The Iceman Cometh,” by Eugene O’Neill.
“Oh, and we have to dress up.”
“What do you mean, we have to?”
“Um, I think we should wear suits and ties, and dresses…” They just stare at me. “To make it more fun? Come on!”
“I’m not dressing up.”
“Oh come on!”
We are standing in the lobby, waiting to go into the auditorium, looking good. Lane is wearing a grey suit, a black tie. I have blue work pants on, with my favorite tie, large diagonal stripes in a color scheme like an eighties couch, and a favorite dark blue work jacket that works with it. Mark and Sidney look classic. A couple of kids out of a teenage Quentin Tarantino movie. Charlin and Avery are both wearing dresses, and are stunning. Charlin has on a green cocktail dress, a white design at the shoulders, complimenting her auburn hair. She has rhinestone glasses, completing the outfit. Monica and Laura wear thrift store dresses at their finest. And Avery is all black and white, beautiful as hell. She’s got a Chinese to-go box for a purse.
I know nothing about the play, “The Iceman Cometh.” None of us really do, but it’s supposed to be good. So we’re going. The theatre is cold, the seats comfortable and a little worn in. We sit there talking in the theater, waiting for it to start.
The play surprises me, having some overtly political speech, talk about the “movement.” It was published in 1940 and first produced on Broadway in 1946, and I guess takes place around the same time. Anyway, all of the scenes are set in a bar or the bar’s back room in a run-down hotel, owned by Harry Hope. The main characters are all drunks, ex-soldiers or anarchists, now disillusioned and bored with life. One character speaks of his looking forward to death, because it would be a relief from any more of this life. They don’t ask much from the world, anymore, just wanting to drink all day and night, to forget and to pass out, escaping their lives.
Every year, a salesman by the name of Hickman, whom they call Hickey, comes to the bar and pays for a week of drinking for everyone, spending the money he’s earned from his sales. The drunks spend the first act in anticipation of his arrival. When Hickey arrives, though, he says he will do no drinking. He “doesn’t need it” anymore, he says. He’ll still pay for everyone else’s drinking though, and he does, but his abstention puts a damper on everyone’s spirits. He tries to explain to them his new take on life, his newfound self-knowledge. He gets pretty preachy in fact, and it’s off-putting to the crowd of drunks. Still, his speeches rouse the crowd, and they all start to buy into his idea of giving up pipe dreams and facing reality. They get the message that they should not invest energy in tomorrows, but instead live today, even if it means to live with no hope. Because hope is misleading, false, he says.
Eventually you find out that his “peace,” was ill gotten. Hickey had killed his wife, while she was sleeping, so she wouldn’t have to find out he had gotten drunk and cheated again. He says she looked peaceful, there, dreaming, and he didn’t want her to have to live with the truth. So he shot her. In the end of the play, detectives come and take him away, but not until he explains why he did it. The drunks start to take his side in saying that he was insane when he did it, and they would testify so, so he could get off. Then the play ends, and nothing is really resolved, but it has been an experience. We get out of the theatre and start talking about the play on the way to the car.
“So, his name was Hickey? Like the thing you get on your neck?” Sidney asks.
“What exactly was his ‘self-discovery,’ anyway?” Lane asks.
“He was trying to get them to give up illusions and just live, even if it meant there was no hope.”
“Why is there no hope?” Sidney asks.
We reach the van, me unlocking all three doors in less than three seconds. They get in, and I start driving back to my house.
“I don’t know. I think there is hope. I almost believe in hope as a natural resource, something that comes from the world itself.”
“I think Hickey was saying, dreams are just dreams, and the only hope we have is the hope we create and feel within ourselves. Or something,” Avery says.
“It’s the existential dilemma,” I say in a mock esoteric voice. “Man is only what he makes of himself.”
“What’s so desirable about peace of mind, anyway?” Charlin asks. “I kind of prefer drama.”
“Yeah, well. I don’t know what most people want, but I like some sort of peace. Like, a place inside my head where I can be OK when things get bad and I can still feel stability. In my mind there are definitely parts that I can take shelter in, or take strength from. But I like adventure most of the time. So, I think there’s something to be said for finding peace, but also courting instability. So you can feel secure even when you’re engulfed in chaos.”
“If you’ll remember how messed up in truth Hickey was… and then think about his message of giving up pipe dreams, giving up hope… and then realize that the bartenders name was Hope…”
“What I think O’Neill was saying is that dreams, the future, hope, can be a type of intoxication, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you’re also realistic, and… well…”
“I liked the part,” Mark says, “when the guy said he is condemned to see all sides of the problem, all the time, and so he can never act. And if you want to do anything, especially stage a revolution, you have to have blinders on to the rest of the world”
“Yeah, that came up a couple of times. That was interesting.”
“Revolutions happen everyday,” I say. “What do you call the sunrise? What do you call your shirt turning inside out when you change clothes? What do you call a record spinning out music?”
“Yeah, but… OK, a cultural revolution then…”
“I disagree with that thing about not being able to act if you see different sides of the problem, though,” Avery puts in. “I think, at least nowadays, if you want to create any kind of real change in the world, you have to see all sides of the problem, and still act. Somehow.”
“Didn’t he say that when you see all sides of the problem,” Charlin says, “that all you end up with are questions and no answers?”
“Now you’re getting into postmodernism,” I throw out. “There is no one answer to any question. Because there are just too many points of view, that no one answer can work for everyone. So you get fragmentation of culture, and thought, and action.”
“Well, what can you do about that? That seems like it just causes nothing to be decided, then. Like you’re saying the problem is hopeless.”
“Well in a way it is. You can’t unify all people under one banner. But why is that desirable? Isn’t difference what makes life interesting? Who wants to have a world where everything is decided?”
“So you’re saying the answer is to let everyone have their own questions and answers?” Mark says.
“Something like that, I guess. I’m just saying you shouldn’t be going for unity. Unity is conformity. Instead, we should be fighting to keep differences happening. To fight for individual cultures and points of view, even if they’re different than our own. You can try and make people more informed, and increase their awareness, but you shouldn’t try to tell them what to believe in. You have to let people find their own beliefs. You can influence others, and let them develop, but you can’t just come out and say “this is the truth.” Share information and create open debate, with understanding as a goal, instead of pre-set agendas and dominating mindsets.”
“It’s kind of like the Prime Directive in Star Trek,” Sidney says. “They can’t interfere with a society that’s developing, until they’ve achieved space travel and want to enter the Federation.”
“Yeah, sort of.” I say to Sidney.
“So many people are idiots, though,” Lane says. “What about ideas and points of view that are obviously wrong? Are you supporting relativism of all values? Do you think there’s such a thing as good or bad?”
We get to my house, and go inside. Mark and I are smoking cigarettes in the doorway. I’ve got a pack of cloves I just bought. We’re leaning into the room for the conversation. I try to form an answer to Lane’s question. Like I do so often, I reply with a reference to something else. It says something for my own nature, gathering ideas from wherever I can find them, and then applying them to other things; I like that about myself. “Have you ever read the book ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’?
“Yes,” Lane says.
“OK, good. I only needed one. Do you remember the part about ‘Quality’?”
“Yeah.” He thinks for a second. After a moment he says, “I see what you’re getting at.” He starts to explain to the others. “In the book, the main character had this concept of ‘Quality,’ which he believed everyone shared, at least in some way. Basically, it means that humans have a subconscious understanding of what is good, and can recognize things as good or bad. The example in the book was, since the main character was a teacher, he read aloud certain essays and had the class rank them. There was a definite decision on which was best, which was second best, and so on. It may seem kind of obvious, but he said that people somehow intrinsically know what is good. And so, that can be carried over into morals. Man often knows what is good. Regardless of whether he acts on that feeling, he somehow knows.”
“That’s just because they were raised to see a certain way,” Lane says. “We’re conditioned to hold certain values.”
“But there’s also a part of us that knows.”
“The Godhead,” Mark says.
“The Godhead… um, Hinduism. Hindus believe that we’re all just part of this giant system of souls, and the center is Brahma. Each of us has the ‘Atman,’ in us, which is the essence of the universe, and that comes from Brahma. It’s a part of us that knows everything, just as the Godhead does. It’s like we’re all just wearing these bodies as garments over the light of God, shining from within.”
“I like that.”
“I’m kind of skeptical,” Lane says.
“I’m finding I’m more of a Mulder man myself,” I say. “I try to follow all religions to some degree. Scully is superhot, by the way. I’m sorry, what are we talking about?” I throw a grin with the pin pulled into the room.
Charlin says, “Well, still, a lot people are idiots, like Lane said before. Some people you just need to ignore or even defend against.”
“Maybe, but I would like to think that by informing people and having open discussions, people could learn from each other.”
“Do you ever wish someone would come along, like Hickey did, and just tell people the ‘way to salvation’? The way things should be I mean,” Avery says, sitting on the sofa.
I lean in to see her. “I think there are plenty of people doing just that,” I say. “Every time someone writes a certain type of book, or makes a certain type of film or song or anything. They’re trying to inform people of their way of looking at the world and how they live. You can take what they give and consider it a version of the path to a type of salvation. Didn’t someone once say that the whole function of life and reality is propaganda? Everything’s propaganda in some way. Because it’s necessarily subjective, so it has to have a certain slant. Even if you’re trying to write objectively, you’re still writing from a single consciousness. So, in that light, everything you do and say is also a political action. You are making a stand every time you say or do something, no matter what it is. And also, most things are open to interpretation.”
“You guys try to do that in the band I guess. Right?”
“I’ve thought about it like that before. So, yeah,” I say.
“You should write a book, Tim. About your point of view and about the band. I think you’ve got a lot of ideas people could relate to and maybe even incorporate into their beliefs.”
“I would read a book with me in it,” Sidney says.
“I think that quote about propaganda is from Ayn Rand,” Lane says. “I know I’ve heard it before.”
“I think you’re right. It’s true.”
“Ayn Rand is a fool,” Mark says.
“Whoa, Mark. Careful there. I like Ayn Rand,” A says.
“Don’t make fun of Ayn Rand,” Sidney says. “Ayn Rand is my mom.” Then he turns to me and whispers, in a voice everyone can obviously hear: “Who’s Ayn Rand?”
In an official, ‘listing-off type voice, Avery says, “Sidney, you’re done. Mark, Ayn Rand is cool. Tim, write a book.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know how to tell people what‘s inside me. It‘s so hard to really connect, just in real life; I don‘t know if it‘s any easier or if it‘s harder in book form when it‘s like one on one, person alone with organized thought. I mean, I want to make a difference. I try. But I don’t know what to say exactly. I’ve had to live through a lot of things to arrive at my point of view; we’ve had to live through a lot of things to get to this point where we can understand each other tonight so easily. Like, it might be hard for someone reading a book to understand that certain way we feel special and together right now, all dressed up and, like, you know, really together. See, I fall into those sure-fire words of youth, “like“, “you know“… because here, now, we really like, know. And that’s everything. And you can’t just give someone your experiences, and make them instantly understand. People have to share their lives with people in order to reach the same conclusions about reality. So really, I need to listen to my own advice and try and live my ideas. If you can actually talk to people, and really try to understand, you can overcome the alienation certain things cause, and change things.”
“Down with strangers!” Sidney shouts to the ceiling, making fun of me good-naturedly.
“Shut up,” I say, laughing.
Chapter 11. Fire Proof
Once we have ten songs down, we reach a consensus that we want to get another show. A real show, in a real club. And in order to do that, we need to cut a demo; some simple recording to give as a sample of our sound to a club. We had the demo we recorded in my basement, on a tape deck, but it was all static and bass. I can’t believe we actually sold it at our first show.
We go to our friend Chris, who has some decent recording equipment in his basement, which he calls the “Rock and Roll Studio of Destiny.” And he’s a good enough friend to be willing to do it all for free.
We decide to record five songs, and record them well, using the equipment and editing software Chris has. But it is proving difficult. None of us has any experience with this sort of thing except Mark, who has recorded once with a church group when he was like twelve. So basically, we have no idea what we are doing. But we do have an idea of what we want to do.
It takes forever just to get one track down. We start with ‘Collapse‘, because we know that one best and think we can get it right. Only, we all get nervous when Chris tells us the tape is rolling. We get through the first verse OK, but then Mark drops a stick. So we have to stop and start over. Then my voice messes up on the chorus, and we stop. The third time through we get it right, but when we listen to it something sounds off. It has taken us almost half an hour to get the first track, so we decide we’ll move on and then come back to it at the end, maybe. We never do.
It’s a cramped and tense environment, low ceilings, lots of crap and Star Wars toys all over the place, so after getting the first two songs finished we take a long break, standing out on Chris’s back porch, drinking sodas and smoking. It feels so good to get out of the basement.
We go back in and try to continue, but then Sidney breaks a string. A bass string. We think we will have to stop and go buy a new string, so we’re all pissed off for a second, until Chris says we can use his friend’s bass. His band practices at his house and leaves their equipment sometimes, so it just happens to be there. Sidney adjusts his amp to try and get a better sound out of it, but the bass is pretty crappy. Sidney’s bass is an Ernie Ball Music Man, which is pretty much the best bass for our sound, but this replacement one isn’t so great. It has a flat tone, and sounds bad, but we play with it, and finally get the rest of the songs done.
It takes us three and a half hours to record five songs. By the end of it we all hate each other and never want to play again. It wears off, thankfully.
We call the demo CD “The Will to power,” just because we had a weird conversation about Nietzsche a few days before, and it’s a running joke at the time. It comes out better than we thought. Fifteen copies of the CD are made and we give some to our close friends. Charlin and A both get copies, and the four of us do too, of course.
The next day Sidney and I go to a few clubs to try and get shows. The only places that we can get the CDs to are ’the Pit’ and ‘the Holy Ceiling.’ The guy from the Pit says he’ll listen to it within a week and then call us, but some girl at the Holy Ceiling puts it in as we’re standing there. She listens to about thirty seconds of the first song and then stops the CD, takes it out. We are prepared for anything, and she does not let us down.
“It’s good. It sounds good.” She says it hurriedly, so I don’t know if she means it, but then she says: “Listen, some band was supposed to play tomorrow night, but had to cancel cause their van broke down. So we’re looking for a band to fill in. Are you interested?”
“Hell yes,” I say.
“Ok, well, get here by seven and bring your equipment up the back steps. Just tell this guy Dan, big fat guy with a Mohawk, that you talked to me. I’m Marla. And I’ll tell him to expect, uh…” She looked at the CD. “Down With Strangers. What the fuck does that mean? Anyway, tell Dan you’re Down With Strangers. Think you can do that?”
“We’ll be there.”
“We are the luckiest band in history,” I say to Sidney in the car. “Can you believe that shit? Some band can’t make it so we get main billing at the Holy Ceiling? That’s unbelievable. That stuff doesn’t just happen.” The Holy Ceiling is a medium sized club, with a pretty good standing. Not the biggest club in St. Louis by any means, but one of our favorites.
“Do you think we’re ready for it?”
“Sure, we can do it. We’ve been practicing in our little basements for two months now, and we’ve got ten songs pretty much down. So I think we can do it. The only problem is getting people to come to a show with one day’s notice.”
“We’ve got to mobilize the troops.” And we do. We call up everyone we know, which is a lot of people, and tell them they have to come to this show, or we will kill them. And we mean it. It’s our big debut, they have to come.
And we want to do something crazy.
We have a big surprise for the show, and we’re not even about to ask permission to do it because we know it would be denied. We don’t think about the fact that they might kick us out or at least not let us play there again, but we are living in the moment and are thusly lacking in foresight. We like to call it not worrying. We buy rubber cement and two of those giant lighters you light grills and fireplaces with, and then test out our plan the night before.
We take the stage at around nine p.m. and welcome everyone, everyone, to the show. There are close to fifty people there and we know maybe two thirds of them. The rest are either there for the other bands or were for some reason compelled to go to a show, any show, this night.
Lane starts the song “Collapse” and we are all looking over our shoulders at the drums, awaiting the inevitable. When the drums come in, the big cymbal crash, the lighters connect with the rubber cement that is smeared all over the cymbals, and ignites. The cymbals are fucking on fire. It is incredible. Fucking pyrotechnics at the Holy Ceiling tonight, folks. Everyone screams. No one had known it was coming except for the four of us onstage. Mark drops the lighters and picks up the sticks, and when he hits the cymbals again, the fire is out. They were only aflame for a few seconds, but the moment has burned itself into each person’s head that has witnessed it. We run through collapse, never breaking a sweat. I’m singing:
“The ceiling of your car is collapsing down on us,
But we’ve got tacks and safety pins to help keep it up,
And I don’t care where we go so you should just keep driving,
Got the music playing loud and we just don’t give a shit.
So tell me something new,
It’s been so long since I’ve seen you.
So tell me how you’ve been,
And when can I see you again.
When it’s spring I miss the winter, and when it’s winter I miss you,
I can’t wait until this summer when we’ll have so much to do,
We can drive around for hours, we can make a night of it,
Stalk the people that we love, all the rest we can forget.
Caffeine coursing through our veins,
We might never sleep again,
Doesn’t matter who or where,
How and why is all we care.
We’ve got no place to go. We’re never going home.
I miss everyone tonight, but as long as you’re with me I’ll be all right.
We proceed to play our ten songs the best we have ever played them. We began to loosen up by the third song, realizing it’s going well, and start moving around a little bit. We’re not the type of guys to go crazy onstage, but we are putting on a pretty good show. Charlin is actually singing along with me during some songs, having heard them so many times in practice. Avery is there, too, and she knows some words. I can’t believe how amazing the feeling is when I see someone singing along to our song, my words. It blows me away. I know that this is what I want, forever. It’s like a holy moment, a sacrament, and by the end of the show I am trying not to collapse from joy.
Everyone who sees us for the first time says we are great, and everyone who had seen us before says we are better. The show is definitely a success. Marla is there, behind the bar, and she says next time we can play even if another band doesn’t cancel, just no more fire.
We all go to Courtesy Diner, and we nearly fill the entire restaurant. I ask the woman working there if I can go behind the counter to take a picture of everyone, and she lets me. I still can’t fit everyone in though, so I have to take two. Then I walk back around and sit next to Sidney. It strikes me, right at that moment, that Mark, Lane, Sidney and I are more than just band mates. We are now actual, good friends. And it makes me happy to think of us having adventures together, maybe even going on tour or something someday. But I am happy for the moment just to sit here surrounded by friends.
We really couldn’t have asked for a better set up. From this one show at the Holy Ceiling we get enough exposure to actually start building a real fan base. In other words, people will start spreading our name around the city and kids will come see us just because they hear something through a friend or acquaintance. We got twenty-seven people to sign up for the mailing list that night, and this time I didn’t lose the sheet.
Three days after the show we’re back in my basement practicing, writing new stuff. We don’t want to go too fast with the songwriting and get careless or apathetic about the quality, but we’re in a creative mood, so we are messing around, jamming. Mark is playing this beat that he has been working on that is pretty hard to play, apparently, because he was having trouble with it. It sounds really cool, sort of dancy, and Sidney is playing a cool ass bass line. I’m just sort of standing there with my guitar and listening for a minute. Then Lane and I join the noise, playing complimentary guitar parts, I play rhythm and he plays octaves. I’m focusing on my part so I’m not trying to sing anything, but I don’t even think a vocal part would work over this song, it’s complex enough alone. After we jam with the song for a while, we pause, and I suggest we make it an instrumental piece.
“Or maybe we can have like a yelling part,” Mark says, “Away from the microphones, just all of us yelling random things.”
“I think another band has done that.”
“Who cares? We haven’t done it. Let’s at least play through it once with yelling and we’ll see what happens.”
We play the song and at the fast chorus-like part I start yelling in the background, “I don’t love you.” And Sidney starts yelling the same thing, echoing me. Then Lane walks up to the microphone and starts talking into it. Lane doesn’t really talk all that much, but when he does add something, it’s usually good. After each time Sidney or I say, “I don’t love you,” Lane is now singing in a simple melody, “But I remember when I did.” The music is chaotic, but the fashionable kind of chaos. The vocals keep repeating, drilling itself into any listeners head, and we have our first “different” song.
We call it ‘Ever Again,’ and decide we will end our next show with it. I admit I’m a little surprised that it actually comes off. I’m still working on having faith in our creativity as a group and in taking chances in general. Being in a band is so liberating for me, because I have always had all of these ideas floating through my head, never letting up, and I finally have somewhere to put them all, get them out of me and let them take root, in the band. We are all putting ourselves into the music, and that’s what makes it work so well. Each of us is unique, and has something to offer.
Chapter 12: Song Fu
“I still say subdued stances are the best. Where you’re like… you appear to be relaxed and like, just cool as hell, but from that stance you really have like all the energy in the world. Where you’re like, holding yourself like a weapon.”
“It’s all like a defensive posture. You can take the energy from your opponents’ blows.”
“Yeah, that’s the martial arts thing. And there‘s also like a generative spirit in the holding. You‘ve got the chi‘ flow.”
“Legs apart, guitar kind of low. The power stance or whatever.”
“Rock and roll will never die,” Lane decrees.
“Cause it’ll kick your ass.”
“While maintaining its cool exterior,” Mark of courses.
“Playing music is a martial art,” I say.
“Definitely,” Sidney says from the seat next to me in the van, acting like he’s holding a guitar and doing the thing we do where you point the head of the guitar at people like it’s a gun and then pluck a string like you’re pulling the trigger, at the other kids in the back seat.
The four of us, Mark, Lane, Sidney, and I are driving to a bookstore, and traffic is moving slowly. Rush hour. We’re just hanging out, as a band. On the CD player is a recording we made of our latest practice, during which we were discussing appropriate and inappropriate rock stances, poses, faces…
The CD playing in the car sounds like it was recorded in an underground construction site.
“You can’t have choreography. That’s just in bad taste,” Mark says on the burned CD.
“But we’re total dorks. How else could we like, show off our dance skills? We can’t just start dancing onstage.”
“I’m not taking part in any choreography.” There are random guitar noises. People are trying to play parts of songs they don’t know.
“You don’t respect me as a dancer,” my voice says.
“I respect you as an idiot, and that’s what matters.”
“Hell, I can dance with the best of them. I’m a natural dancer. You’re just not used to my type of flow. It’s alien to you. I’m f-ing out - of - this - world,” I say exaggeratedly on the tape, and we all laugh remembering my dancing as I said that during the practice.
“Let’s play through ‘Happiness is a Warm Bum’ again,” Lane says, trying to wrangle us in.
“Cool,” Sidney says, and you can hear him jump down from off of his guitar cab.
“What was the backup vocal about the newspapers?”
We start playing the song.
“We fucking rock, dude,” Lane says.
“I agree,” I say. I am the traffic. I am a million dollar man. I can definitely afford to pay no mind.
I think to myself, it’s like time doesn’t exist whenever I’m with you. My friends. I’m just here. Like I’m hitting the ground running all the time. Just… free.
It’s like in the movie ‘Full Metal Jacket.’ When they’re talking about how field Marines, when they’ve been in the shit for too long, they get ‘the thousand yard stare‘… They see too much. It’s like the inverse… it’s the same thing in a good way. “Where you’re really seeing beyond. All field Marines got it. And you’ll have it too.”
I sort of wake up in myself while I’m saying this to myself in my mind… like the camera focuses on me and I’m in slow motion while everything else is still going on regularly around me.
And some familiar phrase directed at you pulls you back into yourself.
“Are you gonna eat that?”
“The air freshener on the rear view. The foot shaped thing.” He’s pulling on it and smelling it now. “Lane just bet you five bucks you wouldn’t eat a piece of it.”
“Oh, yeah, sure.” I pull it off and start gnawing on it.
I start thinking.
“Do you guys ever think about this? I mean, us, here? In the band now? This whole time in our lives?”
“What do you mean?” Mark asks, kind of saying that he does, but not wanting to be the one to say how.
“I guess just… that we feel like we could do anything… and maybe we really could. And how there’s just this whole thing hanging over us that says we can’t stay this way… but… it’s just this thing, and we’re this whole other, better thing… And it’d be bullshit to give into it just because we can’t stay here… Because what if we could?”
“Wow… I kno- I don’t know… I think you’re right about…” Mark says.
We hear ourselves playing music from the CD player, our melodies, our rhythms.
“But what?” I ask.
“But… really I don’t know but what. So…”
“Yeah…” Sidney says. “I agree. But what?
“I think maybe thinking about all of this stuff is part of what leads you out of it… in, in a dumb way…”
I look at him, kind of happy and dumb and a little bit scared and wondering.
“We could stay here…” Lane says. “I don’t think there’s any reason we couldn’t. Just… hold on to this moment.”
“Maybe the secret to eternal youth is to never get old,” Sidney says.
“Or maybe it’s to be… If the world is broken… maybe you have to be… have to realize that the world is broken… and then do everything you can to fix it,” I say.
“That makes sense,” Mark says.
“We should keep talking about this,” I say.
We go into the bookshop, huge, with giant stacks of books, grouped in general categories. You have to search for anything you are looking for and if you aren’t looking for anything specific, there is plenty to find too.
“I love this place,” I say. “I could spend hours in here.”
“Do they have an area where you can just sit and read?” Lane asks me.
“Yeah, this place is connected to the coffee shop next door. And there are chairs around, in the back and upstairs.”
“Is there a music section?”
“Yeah, it’s over here.” We walk past Religion, Philosophy, and stop short of fiction.
“Shit. They’ve got a ton.”
“Yeah, and they get pretty good turnover here, there’s new stuff all the time.”
“Oh man, have you read this?” He picks up a copy of the book ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life,’ and hands it to me.
“No,” I say, taking the book. “What is it?” I flip it over, start to read the back.
“It’s stories about a bunch of indie bands. How they got started, and stories about their tours, or whatever. All really good bands.”
“I see ‘The Replacements.’ That alone would make it worth reading.”
“Yeah, you should get it.”
I check the price.
“It’s cheap enough. I’ll get it. Do you think it has anything that could be applied to our band?”
“Maybe. It’s got some good information about record labels and getting signed, and what that can do to a band.”
“What does it say?” I ask.
“Well, I’m sure you’ve heard that sometimes when bands get signed to a major they either fall apart or turn to shit, or something otherwise bad. I don’t know if that’s always true, but it happens to a couple of the bands in the book.”
“I’ll read it,” I say.
Chapter 13: Welcome Back to School
The principle’s council had the meeting at St. Louis High to decide whether I would be able to return. The decision was in my favor, but only by one vote. I want to know who voted for or against me, I say jokingly, but no one will tell me. Anyways, I’m going back to STLH, right at the beginning of the second semester, and they decided that they would just take the grades from Division South and somehow convert them. I basically got all A’s, despite not doing any work. I feel hard-pressed to answer when people ask me why I even left in the first place. I try to explain that I had felt restless and needed a change, something that happens to me a lot, and I made the decision to seek out a different type of experience. It hadn’t worked out, but by going to Division South I met Lane, and Mark, and so if I hadn’t left maybe I would never have been in a band at all.
My first morning back at Louh is ridiculous. Everyone is acting like I have just gotten out of a long hospital stay or come back from some war or something. They all want to know about it. They can’t believe how negative my description is, the squalor I had seen. It’s as if they aren’t aware that they go to a much better school than most people get the chance to, which is exactly what I have learned by leaving and then coming back. It took the actual experience for me to understand the type of “education” some people are forced into. I feel like I have been some sort of spy and it had been my job to infiltrate this public school and then report back to the kids at St. Louis High. “Yes, there were more black kids than white kids. Yes, there were metal detectors. No, the lunches were not edible.”
In the morning announcements, before the prayer, the assistant principle makes an announcement: “We’d like to welcome Tim Davis back to school. Glad to have you back, Tim.” They might have been just trying to make me feel welcome, but at the time I wonder if he is trying to rub it in my face some more, or if he’s using me as pro-Louh propaganda. Like, “Let that be a lesson to the rest of you kids.” That pretty much shows you what kind of school it is. The kind of school that routinely refers to itself as a “family.” Which is somewhat true, I’m not going to say it isn’t. But it feels like a lie, sometimes. Like when they disallow certain style haircuts, “unbecoming” hair colors, or tennis shoes at the dances. Little things like that really add up, and make the school seem a little lifeless. But it’s not a bad school.
My first day back is fun, because I find out all of my classes and
teachers, but it requires a major transition because all of my classes
have already had one semester and I am going to have to catch up. Some
teachers just tell me to sit down in any available chair and to try and
follow along, but others have detailed guides for what I should study to
catch up. It seems they know their curriculum is a just a little
different than a public school’s. I am somewhat overwhelmed, but happy to
“I meant, moving back to class, Kevin.”
It’s great. Stuff like that happens every day. Sometimes we’d throw food, but not like an actual food fight, because we’d never get away with that. But sometimes someone would launch, like, one French fry at a time all the way across the cafeteria, off of a spoon or fork. And we’d watch it hit some kid in the face and then he’d look around and they’d almost never find out who did it.
So this first day back, I’m sort of just watching. Sidney is sitting next to me and we are talking about our next practice and new ideas.
“You know,” I say. “I feel sorry for Lane. Because there’s really hardly anybody to hang out with at Division. We were together all the time, and that was the only thing keeping him from going crazy. At least that’s what he said. And now it’s just him and Mark, but they don’t even have the same lunch. I feel bad about leaving him, but I know I had to. I was literally learning nothing at that school.”
I realized I was watching Mike Daley perform sexual positions with the salt and pepper shakers.
“Well, I’m glad you’re back here. You can still hang out with Lane outside of school. He’s a tough kid, I’m sure he’ll cope.”
“Yeah, but he’s expected to ‘cope’ a lot. He’s got it pretty hard. His parents could never afford a school like St. Louis High, so he just gets shafted. It’s not right; he’s a smart kid. He deserves to be here more than some of these kids.” I sort of look around the room, like I’m looking for kids to replace with Lane.
“Well, what about Mark? He seems to be doing OK. And he’s been going to that school for four years.”
“Mark I’m not worried about. He’s almost out of there. Lane’s still got another year to get through.”
As far as I know, and I’m pretty sure, our activities here are illegal, but it’s for a good cause… it’s like stealing manna from God to feed the desert. We go out and buy hundreds of blank CDs, organized the convergence of seven computers at a space where there is a strong wireless internet signal, and we start downloading music and culture from earlier ages… Late fifties Beat Generation jams, Sixties cultural rarities and streaming counterculture, the whole spectrum that flowed through the blood of the streets like burst rainbow bullets, Seventies collars on the night and revolution postponed to a little later in the evening, shifting on their feet... And anything else we ever wanted to miss. The real music… not just the stuff that gets played on mainstream radio… just like the real music in any time.
I was a little skeptical that we’d be able to deskepticize ourselves enough to open ourselves to this barrage of innocence relative, but this stuff made us smile, it made us weak in the knees, it made us blush. We found new homes we never knew we’d lost.
We went home with shoeboxes of dreamlife swag, fuel for fuel drunks, and a new bond that transcended time. Plus a lot to talk about.
All it takes for the world to live is for good things to happen. And all it takes for good things to happen is for good people to live.
What does that mean?
Chapter 14. Gerunding Fun
We practice every Wednesday, or sometimes on a weekend, but always at least once a week. And that’s not including the times just a pair of us get together to work out some ideas, or refine certain parts. We spend so much of our creative energy on the band that we often just drift through school days, doing enough to get by, paying attention to what we want to learn, or what we think is important, or what we feel we can use… and taking the rest catch as catch catches on.
I do start getting more involved in the classes I like, though, like English. It has always my favorite subject, and I have had some really good teachers over the years, like Mrs. Kerry, this old woman obsessed with Jack London, and Robert Frost, forcing us to memorize her favorite poems, kicking stupid kids out, banishing them to the hallways to roam for the rest of the hour. Or Mr. Jones, the obsessive-compulsive grammar teacher, (he had to be, I mean, consider the way he was always erasing the chalkboards, every thirty, forty seconds, chewing on pens, taking more bathroom breaks than all the kids in his class combined), who it seemed would never rest until every fucking kid in the world knows what a gerund is.
Mr. Sanders is my current teacher, and I have no problem getting caught up in his class, mainly because the first book they read was Hamlet, which I have read at least three times on my own. Then they read “All the Pretty Horses,” by Cormac McCarthy. I had never read that one, but I wanted to, so I picked it up and got through it within the first couple of weeks back at Louh, and then wrote a paper on it for Mr. Sanders. One of the topics he gave us to choose from was the death of the frontier in America, and it really interested me, so I did a lot of research and wrote a pretty damn good paper. He took me aside after class one day and handed it back to me, with a lot of corrections on it. I was dismayed, but then he explained that he had judged me harshly because he had heard from one of my previous English teachers, Mr. Truman, that I showed excellent writing skills and was a “very good reader” as well. So the criticism of the paper was more abstract, and stylistic. That pleased me to no end, Mr. Truman saying that I was a good reader. He and I had never gotten along in class, I found him to be too hypocritical. See, he told me he wanted me to be able to learn at my own pace; he was obsessed with alternative teaching methods. So, he said I could read in his class, whatever I wanted, if I was bored with the material we were covering. Well one day I pulled a book out of my bag, set it on my desk, and started reading. And he called me out on it, saying, “Mr. Davis, I’d like you to join the rest of the class.” I didn’t argue with him, but after class when he asked me where I ‘got the nerve,’ I started to tell him, “From you, you bastard,’ but I didn’t. I just said, “I thought you wouldn’t mind,” and he said, “Of course I would mind. Do you think I’m up there lecturing every day to my students for kicks?” That’s the reason I would teach a class, I thought.
Still, telling someone that they’re a good reader, that’s such a great compliment if you think about it. Anyway, Mr. Sanders says to me, he would like to see more writing “of this caliber” on the upcoming assignments as well.
I started a journal outside of class, to start recording some things I’ve been thinking about, too. When Avery told me to write a book I guess it got me started to thinking about writing more than just music. I start to try to write some things that I guess are short fiction pieces, just kind of patches of things I think are interesting or beautiful. I get some books out of the library on writing, most notably this book called ‘The Art of Fiction’ by John Gardner. There’s a lot to it.
We’re hanging out more and more as a band, or as the Conclave. The two are so intermeshed that it doesn’t matter who officially is doing what. Anyway, one day we go to hang out with our friend Mike at his house, because his parents are out of town. So we get a big tub of guacamole and some chips, and sodas, and rent some movie, but we aren’t watching it.
We are drinking Mountain Dew, sitting in his living room.
“Where’s your dog, Mike?”
“Outside. In the yard.”
“I love your dog. How’s Beezer doing?”
“Let’s go play with him.”
I feel a little drunk, though I haven’t been drinking. It’s like I am suddenly stuffed with cotton. Beezer is at the edge of the driveway, barking at a jogger.
“Why doesn’t he go after him? Your dog could rip him apart,” I say, trying to be funny. Beezer is tiny; it is absurd watching him get excited.
“He can’t leave the yard.”
“What do you mean, he can’t? Did you train him or something?”
“See that thing around his neck?” I look. “We just got that. It’s called the Invisible Fence. There’s a line buried around the yard, and if he goes outside that area, he get shocked by his collar.”
“That’s awful!” I say, a little too loudly.
Mark is laughing about it.
“C’mere Beezer,” Mike calls.
The dog trots towards us.
I am in line for the interception. “Here comes my baby,” I say to the dog, scruffing his head with my fingers.
“How hard does it shock him?“ Lane asks.
“I don’t know. But it has more than one setting. Why is it awful, Tim?”
“It just is! It’s inhumane!”
“Well, how humane is it to let your dog run away, or get hit by a car?” Sidney asks me.
“Exactly,” says Mike.
“Well. You don’t have to shock hi- I mean, what setting do you have it on? Has he figured it out yet, or does he still get shocked?”
“It’s on the second to lowest setting. And it beeps whenever he gets close, so he has some warning.”
“Let’s test it,” Mark suggests.
“How do you mean? Throw the dog into the neighbors’ yard or something?”
“No, on one of us. One of us has to see how bad the shock is.”
“I’m not going to do it. I don’t want to be electrocuted.”
“I’ll do it,” I say. “I’m the one who said it was wrong, so I might as well be the one to get shocked.”
“OK then. Mike, give him the collar.”
I have it strapped to my leg, and I hear the staccato beeping as I approach the end of the driveway.
I am nervous, having never felt electrocution, but also curious.
I walk across the invisible fence, and it immediately feels like my bones are being microwaved. There is a strange popping sensation in my knee joint. There is some pain, but it is more of a, well, shock. It definitely isn’t pleasant though, and I quickly return to the yard.
“How was it?”
“Not so good,” I say, shaking the collar off my leg. “If I were your dog, I would not be leaving the yard. So, I guess it serves its purpose.”
“Right on. Well, Beezer’s learned. He knows his boundaries.”
“Lucky for him.”
We are lolling around in Mike’s backyard when his neighbor gets home, and walks out back.
“Hey Mike,” she calls. “If you and your friends want to, you can use the fire pit. I’ve got plenty of wood,” she says, pointing.
She has a large concrete slab in her backyard, with a metal fire pit. We pick out some wood, getting newspaper from Mike’s house. None of us had been boy scouts for very long, so we don’t know what we are doing, but we’re not dumb. We light the paper, and watch it catch. It seems to be working.
“Hey, get some more sodas,” we say to Mike as he disappears inside. They come cold, straight from the refrigerator.
We all feel spontaneous, talking about anything that comes up.
“Do you guys like camping?” Mike asks.
“Sort of,” Sidney says. “I used to go all the time with my dad, when I was really little.”
We all know that Sidney’s dad died when he was fourteen, in a car accident, so we’re silent for a while. Then Mark tries to bring us back.
“Look at that fire. We did a pretty good job.”
“I’m going to add another piece of wood,” Mike says.
“It’s fine how it is.”
“I want to add another piece,” he says, obviously going to do it regardless of what we tell him.
Mike stands there, looking into the fire.
“I’ve stopped watching TV entirely,” he says.
“Awesome,” I say.
“I’m experimenting. First to see if I can do it, at least for a month. And second, to see how it affects my brain, or my thinking.”
“I haven’t watched TV, except for movies and shows on DVD, in over a year,” I say. “Unless I’m forced to, like in a social situation.”
“Really? What did it do
“Why’d you stop?”
“Because. Well. I used to be really depressed, and I would watch TV so I wouldn’t have to think and feel depressed, but it turned into a downward spiral where the more I watched TV the more I would be truly depressed, because I knew I was wasting my time and not doing anything with my life. So, once I realized why I was becoming more depressed, I just quit TV, and tried to find better things to do with my time.”
“Like what?” he asks.
“That’s when I started to play guitar. And writing more lyrics or poetry. And taking walks and stuff. Once you stop watching TV, the world starts to feel real again. Take a walk and the world screams at you for your having ignored it for so long. Read a book and you get more of an experience where you actually aren‘t braindead.”
“I’m hoping something like that will happen to me,” Mike says.
“I’m glad you’re doing it. I mean, the main thing is the commercials. Like I said I still watch TV shows on DVD. It’s the whole mind numbing passive just watching something and then in the cracks between you’re being injected with advertisements… it’s totally f’ed. I think having that much more time to actually live makes your life much more interesting. Just think of what people could do if they didn’t watch TV all the time.”
“Well, do you think everyone could do it?”
“I don‘t know... That’s a big question. You can’t just cut TV from everyone’s life. Most of them don’t have to think about anything, really. They get their—have you seen that shirt with the people in front of the TV and it says ‘Why do you think they call it programming?’”
“They get their programming and all things they need to know and say from TV. So if they were suddenly forced to try to live without it, they’d probably experience withdrawal symptoms, like from a drug.”
“Yesterday was my first day without TV and I felt sort of lonely, and I wanted to give in and watch TV, but I didn’t.”
“See, people get like emotionally attached to it. It’s a powerful thing. And it’s not inherently bad or anything, it’s just used poorly. Like any tool, it can be used for good or bad. I don’t know. I just stay away from it. Watching TV actually makes me feel ill, now, like I‘m on bad sedatives with a story to tell. It just disgusts me, the way people are told to view the world. I mean, I like films a lot, but TV can take over your life and become your world if you don’t have self-control. When you give in to TV, you’re giving in to the media’s purchase on your mind. Just think of the commercials alone. There’s some quote like, ‘It’s hard to fight an enemy with an outpost in your head.’ Well, that’s true. So, by giving up TV, you’re taking back some of the autonomy you’ve lost to our ‘culture.’”
“Yeah, well. I’m trying.”
“Yeah, that’s really cool that you’re doing that. I guarantee you you’ll be glad you did if you keep with it and use your time for something better, like developing a skill or something. And if you ever get bored you can always call me up and we can go do something real. Something fun.”
“I love TV,” Sidney says. “How else would I know what’s funny?”
“The whole problem with it is just the passivity element,” Lane says. “That’s the only real problem. If you watched it but were still thinking, it wouldn’t be so bad.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“But mostly it doesn’t really interest me anymore. It’s just mindless entertainment most of the time, not anything real. It‘s like a utility. There’s a whole world that we could…” I get quiet and sit wondering, about to say something but not. My lips look like they’re reluctantly receiving a kiss.
“I don’t know…” I sigh, shutting my eyes and turning my face to the side and looking out, then rubbing my whole forehead with open thumb and palm like I‘m adjusting its fittings. “I don’t know yet.”
Chapter 15: Mid March, an Ode
Some band called “The Crushing Heart” calls Mark, who is friends, or acquainted at least, with the bassist. They are looking for another band for a show at the YMCA. Like I said, we would play anywhere, so we accept the offer. It’s a good opportunity to play for people who have never heard us, for there’s sure to be a variety of people at such a show. I had gone to shows at other YMCA’s and they’re usually full of younger kids, pop-punk kids, radio kids. They’re a lot of fun.
I’m wandering the crowd before we’re to go on, sometimes watching the band, mostly watching the people. I’m excited and nervous, that unique mixture of anxious pleasure. But it isn’t hitting me too hard; I’m dazed for some reason, floating. We are waiting for the first two bands to finish before we’re on, and then ‘The Crushing Heart’ will go on after us. The first band is called “The Third Bullet.” They’re sort of street punk, I guess, or gutter punk; a little of both. Whatever they are, they’re good. They have a female bass player, and she is attractive, I think more so because she is playing an instrument.
I go up to talk to her, but not just because she’s the only girl. She just
looks the most
“Oh. OK.” She talks to me while she’s plugging in her guitar chords and setting the levels on her guitar amp. “We watch a lot of movies, and we’ve noticed this thing in like, gangster movies or horror movies or,” I’m struggling to hear her over the house music. (The YMCA house music mind you. I think they actually play the song ‘YMCA.’) “recurring thing that when a bad guy wants to kill someone, if they’re a real badass, they’ll shoot them once to sort of incapacitate them, then again to cause pain, and then when they finally want to kill them, they use ‘The Third Bullet.’”
“Right, gotcha, thanks.” I like it.
The second band is awful, some pop-punk disaster. Their singer sounds exactly like every other pop-punk vocalist I’ve ever heard, and they‘re nowhere near classic, so I walk out of the crowd into the improvised “back stage” area, which is actually a weight room. I see Sidney attempting to lift about five hundred pounds on the bench press, as a joke.
“Hey, quit messing with that equipment!” I say in a fake adult voice. He visibly jumps, and I laugh.
“Hey, let’s have a band meeting,” Mark suggests. “Over here.”
We walk into the corner, the free weight area, and sit around each other.
“What kind of band meeting?” Lane asks, tiredly. He seems to be a little out of it.
“We need to do something different this show. There are a lot of kids out there, and they are expecting a good show, and I’ve been thinking. I think we should try to move around more onstage, have more energy, you know?”
“You can’t force that though, it has to just happen,” I say.
“Well, we can try to let it just happen then. You can do that, can’t you?”
“I suppose,” I say. I’m a little afraid at this point. I’m still pretty nervous every time I get up on stage, and the thought of moving, and especially dancing is pretty unnerving. I’m still getting comfortable with my powers as frontman. But I agree to try. “Power stances, right?” I say, hoping to sound enthused.
“Exactly,” Mark says.
Finally we go on and I walk up to the mic.
“Hello. We are Down With Strangers. And we’re going to rock your asses off.” The bass line follows my voice instantly, and then there is a drum roll build up. We are playing a faster song called ‘Distillation’ as the opener this time, trying to play to the crowd. We have written the coolest dance song in history. Allow me to present the chorus:
‘Everybody Move like it was going out of style/
Throw up your hands like they was putting you on trial/
I swear you look so good when you cut loose/
Shake your ass off baby derail that caboose.’
The crowd is rough and rowdy. I guess I forgot to mention that the four of us are dressed like we‘re making a jazzercise video. We decided, it’s the YMCA, let’s show ‘em what we’ve got. Playing this song, loudly, really gets to me and I begin to rock out a little bit.
Our set seems to go by very quickly, but I have some time to look around at the audience. I look back and notice Mark has taken off his shirt and is making some great faces behind the drum set. He is almost ripped and looks good playing like that, but I’m surprised he has taken it off. I guess he just did it on a whim. Sidney is moving around a lot, more than I am. My excuse is that I can’t get too far away from the microphone because I have to sing, but he’s dancing like he doesn’t need an excuse. Lane isn’t though. Lane seems more reserved than usual, almost at the very back of the stage area. There is no real stage, we are just in the Y’s gym, but he is all the way back by the amps. He has his head down and he is playing his parts well, but seems to have totally rebelled against Mark’s suggestion that we should be more energetic.
We finish with “Bridges” and at the end of the song everyone is clapping and shouting, and I thank everyone, tell them to stick around for “The Crushing Heart.”
I walk up to Lane.
“Man, you’ve seemed out of it all night. Is everything OK?”
“Yeah, thanks, I’m fine.”
“Really? Because you can tell me if something’s going on. You don’t look so fine.”
“Well, I guess I’m not then. I don’t know. Just leave me alone and I’ll be alright.” He doesn’t say it in a mean way, “just leave me alone.” So I can tell he isn’t angry with me or someone in the band. I don’t press, and we pack up and load the van.
“How’s that for more energy?” I say to Mark. “Hey, look, we got like fifteen more people to sign the mailing list. People were asking if we had shirts or anything. I think they really liked us.”
“Yeah, we should get some merchandise. I know a guy who makes shirts for pretty cheap. We should work out a design and then I can ask him about it.”
We stand as a band and listen to “The Crushing Heart,” and they are pretty good. They had watched our band and then complimented us when we finished, so we think we should return the favor. We also just wanted to see them. Their style is a little similar to ours, but they have two vocalists and do a lot of really low melodies. They are interesting, and I sign up for their mailing list. We say that we should try to play shows together in the future, and try to build the scene, connect our fans, and they agree.
While we are helping clean up the gym afterwards, the woman in charge of the event comes up to me and hands me fifty dollars.
“You’re the singer from Down With Strangers, right?”
We had made some money, at the Holy Ceiling show, pretty much actually, but standing here with this money in my hand I realize that we actually have to start managing our funds. I walk over to the guys to talk about this, and just then Avery walks in the side door. She looks around and sees people cleaning and putting things away.
“Crap,” she says, and then thinks to joke, “ So when do you guys go on?”
“Uh, you missed it.”
“Yeah, I knew I would. I just got off work.”
“Well, we’re still going out to eat. You should come.”
“Yeah, we’ll be leaving in a few minutes. See you there?”
When we get to Courtesy, Avery is sitting at a table alone. There are four other people we know in a booth behind her, and she is sort of turned sideways talking to them. I slide in next to her, elbow her and say, “Eh? Eh? Pretty good show, eh?”
“I didn’t even get to see you guys,” she says, sounding disappointed.
“Oh yeah,” I say.
I think about A, and feel good sitting next to her. I’m not sure what our relationship is, at this point. We are good friends, and we hang out often, but I want to be more. I want to be her boyfriend, and do boyfriend things. And I think she wants to go out, also, but we know each other too well for there to be any mystery, so we are just casual about the whole thing, and neither one of us makes the first move
“Hey, can I write a song about you?” I ask her suddenly.
“Of course! Sure. I was wondering when you were going to ask me that.”
“Well, I’ll work on it, and then play it for you sometime. I’ll let you know. It might take a while.”
Mark, Lane, and Sidney have just walked in. Lane sits in the booth with us and Mark and Sidney sit down at the counter turned around to face the booths, the restaurant being shaped like a long rectangle there.
I stub out my clove in the ashtray.
“God damn it! Look at that waste!” Mark says, gesturing towards the ashtray.
“What are you talking about?”
“I hate it when people don’t finish their fucking cigarettes.”
“Yeah, if you’re going to kill yourself, don’t be half-assed about it,” Sidney says sarcastically.
“I was finished with it.”
“There were at least three more drags left in that cigarette. I don’t understand why people do that. Why do you smoke if you’re not even going to finish your cigarettes?”
“I already had a buzz. I like to just smoke a little, or at least slowly.”
“Oh, don’t give me that.” He’s serious, but I’m just kidding around. “I don’t want to be addicted.”
“So how much do you smoke anyway?”
“Only when I feel like it.”
“I’m totally against smoking, at all,” Sidney says. “I started when I was like twelve, and smoked for a while before I vowed never to do it again.”
“It’s such a stupid habit. Just look at the facts--”
Mark breaks in laughing. “I love it when people who used to be smokers become anti-smokers, not just non-smokers. Or like, how anti-smokers are always secretly people who wish they could smoke, deep down inside.”
“Yeah, it’s fun,” I say.
“Geez Mark, I had no idea,” Avery says. “You guys could become famous as a band for your views on smoking.”
“I prefer to blow bubbles,” Sidney says. “Does any-- do they sell bubbles at the gas station?”
I get to work on that song for Avery. By now, I have a plethora of ideas for how to go about writing a song, having actually read books on the subject. One way I try is to come up with a concept or a title, and then take a walk, listening to music, and think about that one idea. Then I write whatever comes to me in a little pocket notebook and try to fill in the spaces when I got home. Another way is I look through books and try to pick out a good line, and then rearrange the idea so it becomes something original. When I write the song for A I just think about the two of us for a while, staring at the page, and it just comes out.
I bring it to practice and show it to the guys, and they agree to let me play it acoustically, without any backing, but then I suggest that at the very end of the song, the band comes in, and then we segue into the next song. “Avery‘s Song” happens to be in the same key as “Quarter Tank” so we decide to merge the two. We try that, and it works.
I tell Avery about the song over the phone, and tell her it’s basically a love song, and she enjoys that. I explain the basic idea behind it, but don’t tell her the lyrics. I’m saving that for a time when she can actually hear the whole song.
“It’s not really about you, it’s for you. You were my muse.”
We sit in a quiet that is asking me to ask a question.
“How come we never got together?”
“How come we’re so close but have never dated or anything?”
“I’m not really good at serious relationships,” she says. “I need to feel close to more than one person, everybody even, so normally one on one things don’t work out. But I’ve always liked you, from the day we met. Do you remember that day?”
“Of course I do.”
“It was at that record store, when I was with Charlie, and you knew him but I didn’t know you. He didn’t even introduce us, I had to ask you your name.” Charlie is an old friend that I don’t see much of anymore, this was over a year ago. “I also remember I almost used my favorite word on you.”
“What’s your favorite word?”
“Prepossessing. I wanted to call you prepossessing, because you were.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means that even though I had only just met you, you already possessed me just because of the way you looked and dressed and talked. I was already yours.”
She doesn’t say anything, but I know she’s happy.
“Why don’t we try it? Why don’t we try going out? I mean, how can it hurt?”
“Well, it could ruin our relationship. We have a good thing going, and it would get more complicated if we actually call ourselves a couple. I almost prefer to just be your friend. But I am attracted to you.”
“And I’m attracted to you. So, I think we should try it.”
“Well, I warned you that it might not work out, just remember that.”
“We’ll see. We’ll just try it.”
We say goodnight, eventually.
Even though the song is acoustic, it still kicks ass. It rocks, but isn‘t too rocking. It suit’s the words well. Avery is standing in the front looking up at me. I dedicate it to her.
“You and I are like a couple of kids sneaking into a movie
And every part I see is so beautiful to me
All I wanna do is hold hands with you and jump into the screen
And take the show everywhere we wanna go
and steal every scene
And it’ll never have to end
Cause love has a way
Of lasting forever
As long as it’s true
We’ll find something to do
I’m down for whatever
Me and you are like partners in crime,
And sometimes we go through hard times
But you always know that I’m yours, and I know you’re mine
So I think we’ll be fine, don’t you?
Of course I’m the world’s biggest dope
As long as there’s hope
And there always is
Until there’s not (There’s not) a chance in the world
Of us getting caught
Cause you know how it is,
Me, All I ever wanted
Was someone to take care of
All I ever wanted,
Was someone to take care of
And be free”
It feels good to kiss Avery. It’s something I have wanted to do for so long, and it is better than I had thought it would be. Kissing always is. She is an artist, biting my lip, kissing my forehead, my neck. I can’t believe we had gone so long without doing anything more than hugging. We are sitting in my basement, and there is a movie on, but we aren’t watching. Then she stops kissing, and looks up at me.
“We should have done this a long time ago.”
“I know,” I say.
“OK. More,” she says, smiling. We start kissing again.
Louh is fairly difficult. There is more homework than I care to do, but at least the subjects are somewhat interesting. I am fascinated with my Sociology class, and we have a “lifetime sports” class where we go bowling, or play raquetteball, or golfing. I’m really good at bowling, and besides, whenever we do poorly we just pretend like we got a strike anyway and hi-five each other and yell our team name: “Strike Zone!” But still, I’m most interested in the Literature class, with Mr. Sanders. He and I are becoming almost like friends, and he often asks me what I’m reading, and tells me about new books I might enjoy. I’m in the middle of re-reading ‘1984’ and we have a long discussion about it, how accurate some of its' predictions were in weird ways, elements of the book we see in our actual culture. We were chatting like old friends, two kindred minds who had somehow found each other in a crazy world.
“Orwell wasn’t too far off. Censorship is very much alive in our culture, even if it’s done differently than in the book. For example, the news you watch on television, if you watch television…” He looks at me.
“Oh, good. Well, the media is owned by such corporations that are not about to report on the negative aspects of capitalism or the crimes of said corporations. So certain news actually gets repressed, or censored entirely. Then, what is presented as news becomes a sort of entertainment, sensationalized to the extreme.”
“But there’s more to censorship than that. I mean, there’s an unconscious censorship too. People don’t explore certain ideas on their own even. Because the culture says that certain ideas are outdated. Or, like, certain ideas are masked over with irony, or are made to seem stupid by being portrayed by the idiocy sects that are sitcoms. There’s like, a line in the sand that gets sand kicked in its face all the time. And, everything artists “draw” are lines in that same sand.
“Why do you think that the censorship you’re talking about exists? I mean, why is the news the way you described it? Why is the focus on like, murders, and school shootings, and disasters, and the symptoms of social dis-ease, and all these… I don’t know.. Why do you think that is?”
“Because that’s what’s going on in the world. That’s what “sells”, like they say. That’s the cold reality people expect to see, and so when they see it they understand it. You couldn‘t give them the root of problems because, then the people in power would be exposing themselves.”
“Because then we’d all be exposed.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Well, I think that maybe censorship is an attempt for certain people to stay in power, and to make sure that that power structure doesn’t go anywhere. It’s almost like censorship is society's lack of confidence in itself. As if mainstream society doesn’t believe it has any real foundation and is afraid of ideas because they could bring change. I don’t think it’s true that most people fear change. I think a lot of people actually love it, and want more change in their lives, but the few people in charge are paranoid of losing what they have, wealth, power, etc. so they have to do things like censorship.”
“Well, what kind of
change do you want? Who would you have be in
“That’s a noble goal.”
“I think so. ‘It would take so little for man to be free.’ I mean, some people feel free already, people who live a certain way, like they are in charge of their life. I think I’m like that. But it’s hard to live that way and feel free, because there are still so many problems in the world. Like that quote, ‘No one is free when others are oppressed.’ Anyway, it’s almost like people are mad at the world for some reason. When in fact the world does very little to man, it’s the power structures that man has created, and the fact that so many live at the expense of others.”
“But what other kind of structure could there be?”
“It’s hard to picture it, because for so long people have lived under this system, or systems like this. I’m not saying that systems are bad and structure should be torn down. We need structure to be the framework for us to build our lives in. Some structures allow people to build better lives than others. I don’t know if there is one structure that will work for all people. I almost hope there’s not just one, because how would that be good for anyone? I would rather see a world where people can invent and share their lives and their structures. It would be nice, at least. And of course I understand that when people get together and do something, there’s always compromise, because people have to change to be part of a shared structure, but if they have a true foundation for their individual life, they can take on other structures without losing their identity. They can live together, while retaining their individuality, and be strong enough to not just follow someone else’s structure blindly. You have to sacrifice part of yourself to be with anyone. But it’s like a problem and its cure in the same instance, because though you lose something, you also get joy from the other person, if they are joyful. It can’t always be good though, certain times will be times of transition and difficulty. It’s like trying to talk to people who have no concept of the real world, how power is used and misused. If you are suddenly thrown into another culture… Say you're a stereotypical jock college guy from the United States and you're suddenly dropped off in Ghana. You are going to be different. You’re going to act differently, you’re going to feel differently about yourself. You are going to take something from their culture if you are in it long enough, even if you're entirely opposed to it. You will change, and maybe learn to see differently, or at least be more aware of how you see things. This is a kind of incongruity like a conscious person trying to live in the power structure that exists, set up by major corporations, the government, whoever. The system is constantly trying to make them be certain ways, just by the sheer power of being a certain way and putting that way out on all signals. What they feel about themselves, their lives, their ideas. So if they are trying to maintain their individuality, they are constantly in a battle. But you could also see the example of the jock in Ghana as a normal person being introduced to subcultures and countercultures. If they see enough of it, they are going to be changed by it. If you want to give people another world, you have to show them.”
“Well someone could say that you’re just being idealistic and that a new world would never happen. I mean, you can talk about an ideal world, but in the meantime people don’t know what to do. People are busy living within this structure, and can’t imagine anything different.”
“Different doesn’t have to mean different. If there’s anything we’ve learned about revolutions it’s that they often turn the whole world around to come back to the same thing. Like, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” So, maybe it could also be true, that the more things stay the same, the more room we have for change. That’s why we have to be more open to sharing. I mean, people can’t make a transition to freedom easily. Freedom is hard to come by. Freedom, salvation, enlightenment, whatever you want to call it, comes from you. No one can save you; you undertake your own salvation. It’s like, your God is only the image of God you hold in your mind. The way you live reflects how you feel about your relationship to God, the world, other people. If you have a slave mentality, as so many people do now, then it’s going to be hard for you to feel free. Within our culture, people are conditioned to the slave mentality, and can only have a feeling of power when they’re buying something or exerting power over someone else. And whenever someone purchases something with money they have traded for their time and energy, they might as well be saying: ‘This is what my labor is worth. This is what my life is worth.’ It’s really sad to see what it is actually that so many people are giving their lives away for. I saw a sign the other day in a parking lot, a bank’s parking lot. Someone at that bank thought up the idea for this sign and had it made. It said, “Employee parking only. Is it really worth the $50 fine?” And I thought, of people who work jobs they hate. Is it really worth the paycheck? Is it really worth swimming after a dollar on a hook (–I had to use the Nirvana reference—) for our entire lives and missing what’s really important? We’re all trained to be competitive and individualistic, and these things aren’t bad normally, but when they’re taken to the extremes our very lives fall apart. People pride themselves on success so much, but they have taken on someone else’s image of success and have never really known or been free to chase their own dreams.”
He looked at me and I continued. “Still, I mean, it’s complicated. If people don’t have a good job, they don’t have the things they need. Productivity has to come from somewhere. You can’t just tell people to walk away from it all, you have to show them a different way of living. The world is not perfect, and a transition to a better world would be hard, but if we want a better world as much as so many of us claim to, we should be willing to put our passion into something real, not a knee-jerk reaction like taking an axe to the power systems and just tearing them down. I mean, you could argue that that would be cathartic for people, even fun. It’s so easy to tear something down. What’s hard is being constructive in the face of such destructive impulses, including self-destruction, which are so embedded in our culture. Sometimes we hate ourselves, and what we’ve made of the world, and what that world has made of us. So, it’s hard to stay positive, optimistic, even sincere. But we have to try.”
He sat down at his desk. “But some of what you’re talking about Tim just isn’t feasible. In the fifties the Beat’s rejected the consumerist lifestyle, quitting their jobs as you say, at the cost of food and security, to roam the country, be wanderers, and they could do that for a while, but the problem is they had to sacrifice material goods to live how they wanted. To live free, how you’re talking about. Then in the sixties with the war, when it went political, there was a huge clash and I guess you could say we’re living in the aftermath of that clash… Not sure what to do about either side of the issue.”
“What about technology? Why couldn’t we work towards a society where we get the goods we need through nanotechnology, through devices like the replicators on Star Trek? And use more environmentally friendly technology to get the energy? Get the material for the replicators from space travel? Haven’t you ever wanted to explore strange new worlds? To seek out new life and new civilizations?”
He laughs a little. “That’d be something.
“But back to censorship. Ideas like that don’t reach people.”
“Yeah, but why not?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we’re not ready for them. The media’s reality is self-sustaining, and it feeds off of any attempt at change. Like, I watched the 60’s taken up by the media and suddenly these new revolutionary ideas were visible, for a moment. The media never wanted to give coverage to real change, and once it got a hold of itself, after the shock of so many anxious youths, it had a real simple way to nip those revolutionary ideas in the bud.”
“It simply repackaged them. And then sold our revolutionary spirit back to us. Made it a commodity. Pretty soon you could buy a peace button in major stores. You didn’t have to make your own style of living anymore, it was sold to you.”
“But this is different. This would be like discovering a new frontier in so many ways.”
“Yes, I imagine it would.”
“It would have to be coherent, organized, but not dominated or oppressive.”
“Well, when you think of the media, and the companies that have commercials in the media, they’re doing the same thing with ideas and beliefs. It’s awful sometimes when you can actually see the true intent of some of these corporations, how they use people’s deepest impulses for community, and love, to turn it all around just to sell them something and make a profit.”
“Holy shit! I just realized that you could even say that reality television is so popular because people don’t feel any true sense of reality. They’re being sold reality, emotions, suspense, expectations, hope, the very things that should be the fabric of our lives. How awful! If only we could get people to live... To be alive… like something depended on it.”
“Television programs are designed to keep people happy, in some way. Which just distracts people from real issues, which are totally ignored. Television is just as pervasive in our lives as it is in 1984. Only, we do it by choice. They had to watch the screen every day, but we don’t. People choose to have that control over them.”
“Don’t you think, though,” I say, “that there are at least some people that are actively rebelling against the dominant culture, like there are in 1984? I mean, they still found ways to live, even if it was hard.”
“I guess, well sometimes I think that we don’t feel like we have control over our lives, and it’s because we’ve been so separated from the real parts of living, like growing food and building communities, living together and being a part of the culture, making music, creating stories, making art… So people get lazy about the rest of their lives, too. They’re being entertained to death, watching TV and going to the movies and never learning to stimulate themselves in real ways like sharing experiences, bike rides, cooking, dancing, music, art, love. Reading a book. It seems most people feel like the world is something you just watch go by, and they just want to buy something to fix their problems rather than actually working through them. We could stand up and live our lives, actually decide what happens to us, as people. We can plan gatherings and create together and do beautiful things, if we’d just do them. And I’m not saying this doesn’t happen to some degree now. Still, I think people feel powerless in their government, but if we got together and organized, we could affect or create real change. So many people turn nihilistic and say the world is ending when really we’re at a time when anything is truly possible, if we just did it. Anyway, we have freedoms that weren’t possible in the book. That’s what I’m trying to say.”
“We do have freedoms, but so few people use them. We’re so proud of how free we are, but really it takes an independently thinking mind to be free, or at least freer than people that just go along with the herd their entire lives. It’s more complicated to be free, it takes more work. So most people just don’t care. In the book there were thought police, but in the real world, nearly everyone is a volunteer, undercover member of the thought police. Also, you have to consider the media and how it controls people’s ideas about the world. Consider the textbooks you use in this school. The history books especially are often biased to whichever social class or culture you are approaching it from. That’s just like in 1984 when the ruling class altered the history constantly to fit whatever they wanted people to believe.”
“Well, Mr. Michaels uses some different books than you might expect. In fact we just read a piece about Vietnam out of Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States.’ I’ve read the whole thing, which was no easy task, but it was a really amazing experience. So it’s good that he’s teaching from differing viewpoints.”
“Yeah, this school is sometimes pretty good about things like that. Mr. Michaels especially. But you have to remember most public schools are basically geared towards indoctrinization. Consider the fact that public education was started in this country to create ‘informed’ voters. In fact, it creates drones, people who don’t question the system in any major way.”
“I know, believe me. I know.”
We talk often about things like this, and sometimes he actually lectures me. I think he enjoys having someone to tell all of these things to, since he has no children and if he went on like this in class parents would be calling the school. I agree with a lot of the things he says, but sometimes I call him out on things. He looks at things in black and white occasionally, and I like to keep him on his toes. And he does the same for me. I tell him about some of my theories, too, about how our culture wants to keep us feeling alone so that our feelings of loneliness cause us to buy more things and worry about what we own rather than worrying about real friendships and connections we have.
“I have this theory I’ve been working on,” I tell him one day. “I call it ‘the invisible fence.’ See, my friend Mike has a dog, and there is this thing called ‘the invisible fence’ which is a line that you bury around the perimeter of your yard, and it comes with a collar you attach to your dog. So, when the dog tries to leave the yard, as he approaches the fence there is a warning beep. And then if he ignores this, as he crosses the buried line, he gets an electric shock.”
“That’s awful,” he says, shaking his head.
“Well, I don’t know about the ethical dilemma inherent in the device itself, I mean, you don’t want your dog to run away. But when I encountered it I began to develop a metaphor in my mind. Like, there is an Invisible Fence that is imbedded in all of us, by society, that dictates how we act and gives us boundaries that we are told not to cross.”
“Like the thought police.”
“Yeah, it’s like society keeps us in one frame of mind all the time, usually one rooted in consumerism, and if you try to break out of that, society comes along and tries to put you in your place. If you try to break free of the system and exist on your own, say in a real self-sustaining community or eco-village, or another alternative lifestyle, the system rejects you. You get the shock of non-acceptance by the mainstream. Alternative ways of living are becoming more and more marginalized, stratified?, so that it’s difficult to do anything but conform. It’s not just when you try to live differently in major ways, either. People are attacked when they just try to fight loneliness and alienation in our culture. Like in trying to get people from in front of their televisions and into an actual shared experience, you’d probably be arrested for ‘disturbing the peace,’ or something… It’s like people are afraid of connecting with others because they feel like they don’t have anything to give.
“I’m in this band, and when we perform, we try to break out of this feeling of isolation, and try to make people share an actual experience with us. We’re called, ‘Down With Strangers,’ in fact, and we sort of have a philosophy, as a band, a political slant almost, but not overtly political. More like that phrase, ‘the personal as political.’ And my idea of the Invisible Fence fits in with what we try to do with our music. We want to try to get to the core of the power we have as individuals, and our actual freedom, to actually change something in the world, breaking free of the Invisible Fence that keeps us ‘under control.’ I guess we hope for a world where eventually people can live with self-control.’”
“That’s very interesting. I didn’t know you had a band. I would like to see you play sometime, if it’s ever possible. Let me know if you’re playing at a bar or someplace where I could be inconspicuous. Not the only old guy in the place, you know?”
I let out a little laugh. “Yeah, I’ll let you know.”
“Have a good weekend, Tim. You’ve given me something to think about, certainly.”
Oh shit, I think. It’s the weekend!
I bolt down the stairs,
flying. English is my last class on Friday, and I know that means Sidney
is just getting out of Math. So I meet him outside in the hallway and then
we head for the parking
“I don’t know yet. What are you doing?”
“I think we should have a party or something. At Mark’s house. He’s got a fucking awesome house for parties.”
“Well, let’s go to your house and call him, and then call everyone else once we get the OK.”
We get in the car and roll down the windows. The day is spring incarnate. We put on The Cure singles album and I change the track to “In Between Days,” and turn it up. There is a long line out of the parking lot, so we start honking and yelling at people, mock obscenities.
We get about ten million people to come to Mark’s house. It’s a “Conclave” event, the first official one we have for people, with very little planning. Sometimes it’s best to just take an idea and go with it. We think it would be cool to get together, everyone, for a big dinner type party, and share the cooking and everything too.
Even though Mark has the perfect house for a party, we’re all in the backyard. See, we improvise this giant barbeque, setting up tables and folding chairs and buying tons of food. Mark brings out a CD player to put on his deck. He even has some Tiki torches.
We are all sitting around eating, and we decide to call the event the Inaugural “Meat Fire Music Festival.” It’s really a lot of fun. The whole band is there, plus Charlin and A, and like I said, 9,999,994 more. I don’t even know all of these people. We have connections to tons of other groups apparently. Mike is there, of course, and some of Mark’s friends that we don’t yet know. Some kids are drinking, offering to buy beer for us. I am sitting across from Avery, telling her about Mr. Sanders. She says she has a teacher like that; one she can actually talk to.
“We’re so lucky,” I say, “that people like that actually exist, and they’re not just in books and movies. Everyone should have teachers like that.”
We start talking about books, and then the larger conversation seems to merge with Avery and I and then everyone is talking about books. “What’s your favorite book?” and all that. “Who are your favorite authors?”
“I used to like science fiction mostly,” says Charlin, which is perfect. “All of the classic science fiction. Like Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke. But now I read everything.”
“Have you ever read William Gibson?” Lane asks her.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Read ‘Neuromancer.’ ”
“I used to read science fiction a lot more,” I say. “But now I’m trying to read more of all types of genres.”
“What’s your favorite book?”
“I’ll say 1984. Just because I just reread it. And no one claims it as their favorite. So, just to be different, 1984. What’s yours?” I’m looking at Lane, who had asked me.
Charlin interrupts, “How can 1984 be your favorite book? It’s so depressing.”
“Yeah, it’s depressing.” I pause. “But I take from it what I can. I take the philosophy of the main characters, the human spirit fighting for life, trying to live free, to love... even if they fail.”
“It’s still depressing.”
“Anyway, Lane, what’s your favorite?”
“Anything by Kerouac. I just read Lonesome Traveler, and it was excellent.”
“If you like science fiction you should read ‘Snow Crash’ by Neal Stephenson. It’s brilliant,” Sidney says. “That’s my favorite as of right now. It‘s more cyberpunk actually.”
Someone’s called my cell phone to ask for directions.
“Tim’s a cyberpunk,“ Charlin says, referring to my phone.
I shrug, like, whaddya want?
Avery comes over and sits closer to us, getting into the conversation.
“Someone once told me,” she says,” that whatever someone’s favorite fictional book is, it’s like the equivalent of the Bible to them. Their holy book. I tend to agree with that.”
“So what’s your favorite?”
‘The Sun Also Rises’ by Hemingway. Yeah, I’ll call that my favorite.”
“I’ve tried to read that,” I say. “Maybe I’ll try again since it’s your favorite.
“What’s your favorite Charlin?”
“Definitely ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’, by Douglas Coupland. I just... love that book.”
“What’s Mark’s favorite?” I ask her.
“Ask him. Hey Mark!”
“What?” he yells.
“What’s your favorite book?”
“Um, Oh. It‘s not a book, it’s Watchmen.” he says.
“Your favorite thing isn’t a book, it’s to watch men?” Charlin asks.
We all laugh.
“I think he means that graphic novel, ‘Watchmen,’” Lane says.
“Either that or something by Vonnegut.”
We talk about all the things we love and share; books, then movies and music. It’s pretty late when we clean up the backyard and go inside. Some people are pretty drunk by that time, so Mark suggests people stay over, rather than drive home.
“We should have a sleepover!” I exclaim.
“Uh. Yeah, we could do that.”
“Everybody should sleep here! We could camp out in your basement, with sleeping bags.”
“Let me ask if it’s OK with my parents.”
He comes back downstairs, giving us the affirmative.
“Can you stay?” I ask A.
“I’ll have to make something up. Lie to my Mom.”
“Tell her I’ve kidnapped you.”
We raid Mark’s closets and basement for blankets and pillows and sleeping bags. Apparently Mark’s parents are willing to spend their money on nice things, so it’s strange that he doesn’t go to a better school.
Kids are having a miniature dance party in his basement; some kid DJing. It feels good to move to the music and sing along to songs we all know.
We all have our bedding set up, but we’re not about to go to sleep. A few of Mark’s friends are passed out on the giant L-shaped sofa, in front of the TV. Some kids sit around and talk, some play pool. I’m trying to make Avery arm-wrestle me. When she refuses I attack her. We are rolling around all over the place, and I’m tickling her. I get sort of turned on by it, and I think she does, too. We both have had a few beers. Our sleeping bags are set up together, both unzipped, one to make a bed and then the other one as a cover.
It takes forever for everyone to fall asleep.
We start making out, and it is great. I mean, first of all she is wearing pajama pants and a tank top, so there isn’t really anything preventing me from going for whatever I want to go for. She doesn’t seem to mind, not at all. In fact she’s being more aggressive than I am. We have been going out for a while now, and I think we both want to take it further.
My hand makes its way down her pants, and she isn’t trying to stop me. The opposite in fact. I know she’s had sex before, because we have talked about it. I have had sex before, a few times, but only with one person. I take it pretty seriously; I’m not the kind of guy to just have sex with anyone. Sometimes I wish I were, though. I don’t know. Anyway, if there is anyone at this moment I would have sex with, and really mean it, it is definitely her. We know each other so well, and it almost seems like the world wants us to be together. We met randomly so long ago, and most people just meet each other like that and never do anything about it, but we both wanted to keep in touch after just meeting each other that once. That night we met, I had found out she was in a band, actually sang for a group, and they had a show coming up. So I went, and she was brilliant, such a beautiful voice. My eyes were fixed on her the entire show. Every once in a while she would yell, or play with her hair. The band was pretty good, I guess, but I was more interested in her, and her singing.
Somehow, in this room full of passed out sleeping friends, unbeknownst (hopefully) to any of them, we have removed any clothing that is slowing us down. I have a condom right next to me, in my bag. I’m always prepared for something like this, because you really never know, right? So this night we do it, and it is brilliant. We are afraid someone might wake up, so we have to be careful not to make too much noise, or bump into anyone next to us, so our motions are subdued, which prolongs the experience, makes it better. I feel my love for her pulsing in me, in her. We are kissing each other after, and I look into her eyes, a few beads of sweat on my forehead. “I love you,” I say. And she smiles up at me.
I don’t even think until after the fact that maybe we shouldn’t have been doing that in the middle of a room full of our friends. I don’t think it was wrong, though. Sometimes you have to do things, even if in your head you think someone may disapprove. If it feels right, normally it is right, I have found. That is, if you have built up your own values, instead of taking on someone else’s directly. If you learn to trust yourself. I feel a tinge of guilt, but no harm was done, so I don’t linger on it. Besides, it was brilliant. We fall asleep like a couple of ex- Siamese twins.
Spring goes by as quickly as it always does, and before we know it we are out of school, for the summer. After that night at Mark’s house, Lane gave me a list of essentials Jack Kerouac wrote you should have for writing which he called ’Belief and Technique for Modern Prose.’ Reading it is like being drenched in Holy Water, and I still feel it wet on my skin and in my mind through all these days after, as well as other things. On the last day of school I go by Mr. Sanders’ room and tell him about a show, at a bar as he suggested, where he can come and see us play. We are playing at The Side Bar, downtown, and we’re considering it a kickoff to the summer. A jumpstart. We try not to take ourselves too seriously onstage; try to make it fun. So, about a week before the show, I go with Sidney to his uncle’s house, and his uncle helps us build the contraption we have dreamed up.
It is a long, rectangular box, with slots in it big enough to hold cans of Silly String, and a hinged lid that will allow one of us to step on it, applying pressure to the tops of the canisters, launching Silly String through the holes in the front of the device, which is long enough to hold six cans. It sets us back about $25, for wood and then the Silly String, cause that shit is expensive. But we feel it is worth it. And besides, we are using money we have earned by playing out, so we feel as if we are ‘giving back’ to the audience. Giving back faces full of Silly String.
We get to the Side Bar early, to ask if we can use the Silly String Launcher on stage, get all that business worked out. They say it’s fine as long as we clean it up afterwards. We keep it behind Sidney’s bass amp before the proper time.
The club is sort of small, and very smoky. There are band stickers and posters for upcoming shows everywhere. I’ve been to this place a few times, to see bands I really like, so it is cool to actually be playing here.
About halfway through the set, we bring the Silly String launcher out, and set it up at the front of the stage. The stage is high enough to reach about chest height on the average audience member, which is perfect. We don’t want to put anyone’s eye out with it or anything. I am the one to do the honors, the first shot. We had tested it out at Sidney’s uncle’s house, and it worked like a charm then, but for some reason now, I can’t get it to work. It doesn’t spray out on the loud-music part like we had wanted, and as I try to push down harder with my foot, it slides out from under me, and falls into the crowd. We aren’t exactly professional carpenters or experienced birdhouse makers or any of that, so it is pretty shoddily made. Thusly, it basically explodes as it hits the ground, and the Silly String cans fall out and roll off in all directions, hitting people’s feet. Those in the front of the audience figure out what had happened, and what had actually been intended, and then decide to take off with it. People pick up the cans. They start spraying each other, shooting it up into the air, and spraying us onstage. It is chaotic. Avery gets a hold of a can, and sprays it right in my face while I am singing. Pink Silly String is hanging out of my mouth, and it tastes horrible, but I keep singing. Mark is laughing so hard behind me I can hear him over the music, and Lane smiles for what seems like the first time in a week. It is the most fun I’ve ever had playing live. So far at least.
I had totally forgotten that Mr. Sanders was going to be there until after the show when I see him sitting at the bar. I walk over to him, wiping my face on a towel, and sit down. He looks very happy. He holds out his hand and I shake it, and he simply says, “Good work, Tim.” I thank him for coming, and ask him what he thought.
“The music was good, but I was listening for the words. It was a little hard to understand, but what I heard sounded wonderful. Well done.”
He reaches inside his jacket, and pulls out an envelope.
“I’ve written a little something, for you. I was thinking about what you said the other day, and I felt the best way to get my thoughts out was to write a letter. Here’s the result. I hope you’ll find time to write me back, and keep in touch. My address is on the envelope, there.”
“Thanks, Mr. Sanders.”
“Have a good summer, Tim.”
“Thanks. You too.”
Chapter 16: The Else
We pack up everything and we are loading the van, out back. Mark and I put our amps in the back, light cigarettes, and lean against the van.
“Good show,” I say.
“Yeah, good show. I think this is going to be a really big summer for the D.W.S.”
Sidney walks out the back door, rolling his bass amp.
Charlin comes over and hugs Mark. They start a private conversation. I watch them for a second, and then turn back to Sidney and Lane. I am feeling good, satisfied.
“What are we going to do with ourselves for the next three months?”
“Practice, play out, and have fun. What else is there?”
“Uh, what else is there? Let’s see… girls… Uh, films.”
“Music… I mean, other than ours.”
We’re all laughing by this point.
“Watching Sidney try to draw band logos.”
“Hey it looks like it’s going to rain, we should head out.”
“Rain,” Sidney says, still listing.
“Agreed. Meet you at
Courtesy?” Mark had driven his car this
“Yeah, OK. See you.”
We drive through the half dead city night, seeing the decay contrasting the new growth, the city seeming confused about what is being done to it, but not thinking of it for more than a moment. More concerned with how the ideas in the music we listen to acts as a panacea for all the problems the world could ever imagine. The rain is going, painting the windshield clear, and we’re breathing it in. Singing along maybe, sure. But more being the music, floating like liquid breaking the rules, or flowing like air trapped too long in a room when the door is finally opened and it knows, knows, now it can go anywhere.
Courtesy Diner this night is quiet, even with the jukebox too loud. We are all seemingly in contemplative moods, thinking about the show, the possibilities of the summer, the freedom we face. We are all excited, but it is the self-containing type of excitement that can last as long as you’re willing to sit with it, coddle it. And we are in no hurry to get away from this feeling.
“Sidney, did you see Mr. Sanders?”
“At the show.”
“He was there?”
“Yeah, I sort of invited him. Only I forgot about it until tonight, when I saw him. He was sitting at the bar.”
“Awesome.” Sidney had him for class, too. A different period than I did, though.
“Yeah, he said he liked us. But he said you were awful. He said,” I mock Mr. Sanders voice, “’Kick that Sidney fellow out, and then maybe you’ll get somewhere.’”
They laugh and I join them.
“Hey, we need to do something for the Conclave. I had an idea tonight.”
“We need to start chalking the city.”
“Yeah. Like, sidewalks, buildings, streets… Like, our favorite quotes in random places where people will see them. Or like secret messages or something.”
“What kind of quotes?”
“I don’t know, something to make people think, or feel good for a second.”
“OK. I’m free tomorrow, we’ll do it up.”
I am sitting at home after I get back from Courtesy Diner that night, and I pull Mr. Sanders’ letter out of my bag. It’s a really good letter. I sit there smoking a clove, reading it to myself, like one of Salinger’s children. I have never really gotten a letter like this before, so I read it over a few times, savoring it. It reads:
Dear Mr. Davis,
I’m old, Tim. (Great way to start a letter, huh?) I have always enjoyed my job, always enjoyed teaching my students and learning from them, too. But it’s been a long time since I’ve changed my mind in a major way, or thought something new that made me feel as young as I once felt. But you have made me feel new again and have challenged me so much in our time together. Both in class and outside. You are a good student, the best kind in fact, because you are more concerned with your own education than you are with pleasing teachers or getting good grades. I have heard stories in the teacher’s lounge of Tim Davis reading the Beats in his math class or Henry Miller in Religion. Don’t think I don’t know you, Tim. I used to be the same way. But I don’t claim to understand you. I don’t think it would be fair to your complexity to say that I did. And I know there is far too much that has changed in the world since I was your age. But I believe we share something that has deeper roots than the surface issues of the day. I believe you and I are kindred spirits in the quest for knowledge, the quest for truth, and the desire for real life, whatever that may be.
I was thinking about what you said about the invisible fence, and how we are controlled and repressed in ways that we can’t fully understand. I believe you are right about that much, but I think the problem is such that it is hard to pinpoint the exact core of it. Let me try and explain to you what I believe we are discussing here with an image, something I observed the other night.
I was out walking, as I usually do after dinner, enjoying the weather and some quiet, simple exercise. I was looking at the houses I passed, breathing deeply and intentionally, and then I saw something that, although it was nothing entirely unusual, stuck out to me because of my mindset.
I saw in one house there was a person sitting in the dark in front of a television. This, to be sure, is nothing out of the ordinary. But in another room in that same house there was another person sitting in the dark in front of a television, I’m assuming the husband or wife of the first person. I just stood there for a minute watching the flickering light, thinking and feeling, everything there was to feel, including fear. It was such a simple image, but caused me severe distress. It hit me in the same way your words hit me that day after school. Two people, receiving their “entertainment” for the evening, alone. Cut off from each other as much as two people drifting in separate seas.
You are right, Tim. Something is wrong in the world and it needs to be corrected if we are to continue existing, especially in any meaningful way. However, the problem is so subtle that it is not even apparent to most people. You may try and tell them about this image and most people would see nothing wrong with it, or wouldn’t even want to think about it, which is even more distressing. People don’t want to think. And I can’t say I blame them, because, as I’ve learned from studying artists and their creations, and my own life, thinking too much can lead to unhappiness and even insanity. But if you don’t think at all, you are led to a different and, I believe, worse kind of unhappiness and insanity.
I suppose some of them are happy, in some way. It’s hard to say. How would you define happiness? Some would say happiness is comfort. I would disagree, strongly. I would say happiness is knowing the world as it really is, and still loving it.
So what are we to do? Tim, I can’t tell you what the solution to this problem is, because I don’t know it. But I believe you are in a position to do something about it. You are young, and very intelligent, and creative. You have resources I never had at your age. And you have the insight that I feel is needed to combat such a complex and pervasive problem. You are a part of the experiment, as Kurt Vonnegut Jr. called it, “…The Great American Experiment, which is an experiment not only with liberty but with rootlessness, mobility, and impossibly tough-minded loneliness.” It is up to you, and other people who are not afraid to think, where this experiment takes us all. Live well, Tim.
I wish I could say that I kept in touch with Mr. Sanders over the summer, went to dinner at his house, talked about books and all that, but I never got around to writing him, never went to his home. The fact that I didn’t write reflects how I am feeling these days. I am almost afraid for myself. Mr. Sanders says it’s up to me to do something, but I don’t know what to do. I am just as lost and confused as anyone else. I’m just a kid, excited about summer, and the band, and Avery. I want to keep in touch with him, but I can’t for some reason. So I just don’t respond, shirking another feeling of responsibility I guess, and the letter ends up in my box in the closet, with other things I cherish but have forgotten in some way.
The next day, Sidney, Lane, and I carry out the plan for the Conclave. We buy a pack of chalk, the good shit, too, and go out chalking. I draw a TV and write on the screen, “Find something better to do.” I like that one a lot. And then we do our favorite quotes and such. I chalk a quote on a wall, from the introduction to the Hobbit, which says: “We have been raised to honor all the wrong explorers; Thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.”
Sidney writes, “Don’t read this.”
Mark does “If there’s something inside that you wanna say, you can say it out loud it’ll be OK,” from the Beta band song, Dry the Rain.
We spend the whole day chalking and talking to people, explaining what it is “for” when they ask. To make people happy, we say. To make people think. To make people feel.
My mom tells me I have to get a job, but I don’t want to get a job.
“You have to get a job,” she says.
“But I don’t want to get a job,” I say.
“Tim, I need you to get a job so you can help pay for the insurance on the van. You use that van more than I do so it’s only fair that you pay insurance.”
“OK. I’ll join Starfleet.”
“How come our society still uses money? I’ll be right back, I’m gonna go get some earl grey tea our of the food replicator. Hot.”
If I am going to have to be employed, I am going to find some place good. I instantly think of all the coffee shops, music stores, and cool restaurants in the area. I try a few, but have a better idea suddenly. I remember a long time ago I had thought of a cool job that it would be easy for me to get and would be enriching even. I used to take classes at the Art Museum, when I was younger, and there were always teacher’s assistants. I know it would be interesting, because most of the classes you get to walk around the Art Museum and look at galleries, and then go back to the classrooms with your sketches, and do some kind of project. They always have great teachers, really creative and everything. So I go over there and fill out an application. They call me within the week and I am officially employed.
Over the summer, Mark, Lane, Sidney and I hang out almost every night. There are a lot of times we go out as a group, as The Conclave, and we usually go to eat at a new restaurant, then go to some kind of happening or event, sometimes a jazz concert, or a film, or a play. It’s all more fun when we do it as a group.
This summer especially, I’m barely sleeping. I often stay up through the night writing lyrics or just exploring the world, in my room. And I drink like a fish; A coffee fish.
Any time I’m not with the band, or alone, is spent with Avery. She and I do the coolest things as a couple: go to the History Museum, make collages, paint, take pictures. She is always inspiring me and making me think in new ways. It’s like they say, you have to surround yourself with people who challenge you, and that’s exactly what she does.
A few weeks into the summer, I go to see her band play again. I have only seen them twice, mainly because she tells me not to come. She doesn’t really like the band that much, and is thinking of quitting. But I go, and the night I am there to see them they aren’t so good. The guitarist keeps soloing at inappropriate times, the drummer is trying for fills that he just can’t pull off, and A looks bored with the whole thing.
There is actually such a long solo in one of the songs that she sits on the ground in front of the microphone stand and puts her head in her hands. This causes some trouble, and they start saying things to each other in the middle of the show. Avery and the guitarist, I don’t know his name, are arguing, but they are talking under their breath mostly, the audience in the dark.
“Why don’t you just go, then?” I hear the guitarist say.
And she does. She puts the microphone in its stand and walks offstage.
I follow her outside, and she is pretty pissed off, saying she’s done with the band, sick of the people in it. I try to comfort her, but I think she just wants to be angry for a while, so I let her.
“I can’t do this anymore. I don’t even like the music. I like the guys fine, but I can’t be connected with them musically. Does that make me a snob?”
“I don’t think so. No.”
“I just don’t want to waste anymore time with things I don’t want to do. I’m wasting myself.”
She ends up quitting the band, that night, and everyone involved is a little sore about it. But Avery gets over things like that quickly, so she is feeling fine practically the next day. We are sitting in a coffee shop.
“I still want to do music, in some way.”
“You should. You’re lyrics are great and your voice is amazing. You could start another band, I’m sure.”
“Actually, I’m thinking of doing some acoustic stuff, just me.”
I know she plays guitar, and have heard her a few times, and she is decent. Creative.
“That would be great,” I say. “I would go see you, and I’m sure other people would too. Are you going to start writing songs on your own?”
She gives me a sly smile.
“I already have. I have about seven songs finished, all new material.”
“Really? Why didn’t you tell me you were working on that?”
“I wanted it to be a secret for some reason. I wasn’t sure if I was going to let anyone hear them. But now that I’m not in a band, I want to start performing on my own.”
“I’m excited to hear your songs,” I say. And I am.
“I feel like I have to create music, in order to exist. It’s so much a part of me; I can’t imagine life without music. And not just listening to it, either. I mean, personally contributing something, creating art, filling a hole or a niche. And filling a hole in myself. I need to play music. I need to.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” I say. And I do.
Chapter 17: Variations on a Theme
“My parents are getting divorced,” Lane tells us at the beginning of practice. “They had a huge fight… They’ve been fighting forever, but they’re finally going to do something about it.”
“That sucks, man. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. My dad’s moving out, and I guess I’m staying with my mom. They’re going through the court ordeal, and I don’t know how the custody is going to be decided. My dad’s an ass, so I want to stay with my mom.” Lane has never really talked about his family life and we never asked because we perceived the problems, just knew things, and so didn’t have to ask.
“Is there anything we can do?”
“Well. I feel like shit, and I need to feel like I have friends. Things have been going downhill for me since the beginning of this year. I know it wasn’t a big deal for you, Tim, but when you left Division South I felt like I was being abandoned by my best friend. And now my family’s falling apart, which I guess may be for the best, but it still seems that everyone… no one gives a shit about me. Or anything.” It is probably the most Lane has said to the whole band, ever.
“Lane, I knew my leaving Division would be no good for you, but I had to. It wasn’t because I didn’t value your friendship. I do. You know that. You were my favorite part of that school! But I just had to get out. I wish you could have come with me. I know how unfair it is. But I care about you. We all care about you.”
“Yeah, man. We‘d be lost without you. We wouldn‘t know which Lane to turn to.”
“Yeah, thanks Sidney.”
“We’d be on the wrong street.”
“I get it.”
“Cause your name is Lane.”
“Thanks. I guess you guys want to practice now. Sorry, I just needed to say something.”
“It’s perfectly fine. You should always feel like you can say anything to us.”
We turn to our instruments.
“Are you utterly incapable of being serious, Sidney?”
Practice goes fine but we don’t get much done. There are no shows coming up so we are just having fun, playing our favorite songs and moving around a lot. We move around more at live shows, because we can feed off the energy of the crowd, but we still get into it in my basement sometimes. Moving around usually depends on how you’re feeling, anyway. Some songs we just have to play more than once, and rock out to them. The noise echoes in the basement and falls back down on us, filling our heads. Charlin is at practice, and she keeps making us play a newer song called “Dischargeable Honor,” which has simple but very cool music. The bass comes in with a slide and lands on a low low note that shakes your insides, especially if you are standing in front of the amp in an enclosed space. I have started wearing earplugs at shows and even at practice most of the time, to protect my hearing, but the vibrations still affect you in strange ways. Not unpleasant ways, though, most of the time.
My goal is to write songs that won’t get old. I don’t even know if that’s possible. To attempt this I have to ask myself, what makes songs get old? Is it simply from listening to them too often? Or does it have to do with when the effect on you wears off, when a song has no more to offer you? I think the best songs can always hold new meanings, for as long as you listen to them. I try writing complex songs, to see if that would help the songs last forever. Try to create new and still newer beginnings in each song itself. However, I also think my favorite songs are often very simple, and can get to me each time in a new way through an old pathway. So I try writing simple songs. I don’t really stick with any method of writing songs, music or lyrics. I figure the way to keep things from getting old is for me myself to continue to change, to reinvent myself over time, and to just stay fresh, and so I consciously, continually, do just that.
I go for walks at night with a pocket notebook, a pen, and some music, looking for inspiration in the city, or people, or the sidewalk. I think about everything I can, because I want to experience as much as I can, and I know I’m only able to weigh my experiences on the scale of my conceptions about them. My reality is constantly being defined by what I think about, and I want to think about poetry, words, music, and real life. And so I do.
At a secret meeting of the Conclave, Sidney and I hand out manila envelopes, which we have made up together, filled with ‘Homework Assignments.’ We rip the idea off of Fight Club, but it’s new, the way we do it. We’re not starting fights with strangers, but trying to get strangers to join the fight. Inside the envelopes are pieces of paper, which we have collaged words onto, and they hold messages for the person receiving them. Some of them are general advice, almost like fortune cookies, but others have specific instructions, telling people what they are to do. I can’t tell you exactly what they all say, because if you ever wanted to do something like this, you should have to think about it for yourself, but I can tell you a little bit. Sidney made my envelope and I made his, and ours are direct challenges to each other. He tells me to approach at least five people who I would never usually talk to, and try to get into a serious discussion with them about religion, or politics, or culture, and to try and really listen, learning the other person’s opinion, rather than dominating the conversation or leading it in such a way that would cause me to “win” an argument. The idea is to find understanding. Something core.
My challenge for Sidney is to create a ritual or experience for him or a group, which could be considered sacred in some way. I also challenge him to not listen to the Beatles for a month, or at least a week, and try to “find some new fucking music, asshole.”
I want to follow through on Sidney’s challenge, to speak to people I normally wouldn’t, but it is hard for me. See, I normally wouldn’t speak to just about everybody. I’m really a little arrogant sometimes, and I can’t help but think I’m better than some people. It’s a virtue and a flaw, because it gives me such self-confidence, but also causes me to alienate a lot of people. Besides that, I‘m shy in a certain way. So I have to build up the courage to talk to someone.
I see an elderly black man sitting down on the sidewalk, in a nice area where I go to get coffee sometimes, and he looks friendly, has a brown hat on, glasses. I sit next to him.
“Hi,” I say, a little too softly.
“Hi,” he says.
“How’s it going?”
I am not sure of what to say to him, to anyone.
“Oh, I’m doing alright,” he says. “How are you?”
“I’m fine. Nice night out, don’t you think?”
“Beautiful. Great night to be out.”
“You like to watch the girls, too?” he asks me.
I look forward, realize
we are across the street from a popular bar, a lot of people, girls, going
in and out, sitting at tables
“Some of them are dressed a little, uh…”
“Hoochie?” he says.
“I was going to say sleazy, I think.”
“Well, either way, they dress it.”
I laugh some more, starting to like this guy, feeling glad I sat down.
“This is my entertainment for the evening,” he tells me. “I come down here and watch the girls, the drunks. It beats TV.”
“What’s your name?”
“Daryl. Daryl Jones. What’s yours?”
“Nice to meet you.”
“You too… So, why do you think these people come out all dressed up like this?”
“That’s easy,” he tells me, laughing. “They want sex!”
I laugh at that for a minute, and he laughs alongside.
“Really, that’s why they do it! That’s why they do everything! These guys work at their jobs and the girls go to the gym and they buy nice clothes and nice cars, so they can come here, get nice and oiled up, and then go home and fuck!”
I’m still laughing when I say, “That’s pretty insightful.”
“Insightful, hell. It’s the truth.”
We both watch a young girl walk out, in a tube top and a short skirt, with a group of men.
“I think you’re right. But there’s got to be more to people than that.”
“Not too much.”
“Well, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I think they could be magnificent people in the right situation.” I say it with a hint of irony, but I mean it.
“Maybe, sure. But they can’t control themselves. They just don’t get it. Do you get it?” He asks, slapping my leg.
“I guess,” I say, with a smile.
“What about you? You got a girl?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I do.”
“You treat her right? That’s the one way to judge a man. How he treats his girl.”
“That’s good. Do you love her?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Then what are you doing out here looking at these hoochies?”
I’m laughing pretty hard. “Hey, you’re the one looking at the hoochies,” I say. “I was just walking along. You started it.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I’m incorrigible.”
We sit silently for a moment, together.
“I should get going,” he says. “I’ve had enough entertainment for the night.”
“Good to know you.”
“You too,” he tells me, walking away.
Chapter 18: Waytressing
I’m working at the Art Museum, playing with the kids, and it’s about time for lunch, time for the morning class to end. The parents begin to arrive, standing outside the doorway, waiting to receive their children with their new art pieces to hang in their rooms or on refrigerators, and among the mothers and fathers I see Avery. I’m only the teacher’s assistant, so the parents are talking to Annette, the actual teacher, and I am free to clean and set up for the next class. I look up at Avery and smile, a little kid climbing up onto my back. She laughs. I make a weird face and turn to the kid on my back kind of shirking him off a little, not in any way unplayfully. I ask him to go show his art project to his mother, and I get up and walk over to my girlfriend.
“Hey A.” I say, wiping paint off of my hands onto a paper towel.
“Hey Tim. I brought us a picnic. Can you eat outside?”
“Yeah, sure. Of course. Give me a second to clean up.”
We walk towards the exit; I wave to the security guard.
“This seems like a cool job,” she says. “You have fun with the kids?”
“Yeah, they’re great. We do a lot of cool projects. Today we went to look at the mummy, and then made our own little mummies with this clay type stuff, and painted them.”
“You didn’t work today?”
“No, I had off.”
We set the blanket on the ground and she takes some sandwiches out of her bag. We sit down.
“How is your job, anyway? You never really talk about it.”
“Oh, it’s OK. Not too much to it, you know. Talking to people, bringing them food. It’s nothing too exciting.”
“I don’t know how you can do that. I normally can’t stand talking to people in a business type environment, especially a restaurant. It seems like when people are spending money they feel like they have the right to be asses about it. I bet you see a lot of jerks. I can’t deal with people like that.”
“It‘s not that bad. I mean, it’s a pretty cool restaurant. I would eat there.”
I tell her the sandwiches are really good. I have peanut butter and jelly.
“Thanks. You know, I would think you would like talking to people like I have to at work. You’re always talking about ‘saving’ people, this ‘mass of humanity.’ Is that all just talk?” She’s kidding with me, but I feel I have to defend myself.
“I don’t talk about ‘saving people’. Do I?”
“Yeah, well. I mean, not in that environment. It just seems like people are pretty stupid most of the time, and so it’s hard to actually reach out to people in any way, when they’re like that. I prefer to do it differently.”
“Like, by being in a band. By reaching people at shows, with music. Then you can really talk to them, with the lyrics. And then they can’t be jerks back to you,” I point out self-sarcastically.
“That’s a copout. I like talking to strangers at work. A lot of times they’re nice, and I joke with them. It’s fun.”
“I don’t like to deal with people like that directly. I just can’t see most people as real people. I just see this dumb herd. Just another member of the crowd.”
“Well maybe you need to start looking at people differently. Each person as an individual, you know? People are all still human. The only difference between them and you is genes and upbringing. They’re still people, even when they’re in consumer mode, like at a restaurant. And one by one, you can reach them, by living what you preach. You were talking about that the other day. You forget too easily.”
“I guess I have to work on my consistency. Anyway, I like to feel like I’m changing the world by writing songs. Reaching people one by one that way, the people I want to reach.”
“You can’t just be concerned with the people you think are worthy or something. You have to consider everyone.”
“You’re right. I know you’re right. But some people are simply gone, I mean, idiots or bigots or whatever. Some people it’s too late for.”
“It’s not too late for
We are hanging out around my basement door, no practice tonight, just chilling. Sidney has been quiet since he came over, but then he breaks in during a silence.
“Hey, Lane. You know how your parents are getting divorced? Well guess what! My mom has breast cancer. Top that.”
“Sidney, that’s not funny.”
“Yeah, I know it’s not. It’s true.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah, I am,” he says, obviously unsteady. He is usually the most buoyant of us, but this, I can already tell, has unbalanced him. Everything suddenly changes, like someone has broken out a window in an airplane. He is telling the truth. “She found out today. It’s invasive, whatever that means, but hasn’t yet spread to the lymph nodes. But it could. Still, she has a chance of fighting it off.”
“Oh, man. I’m sorry… Your mom can hack it. Your mom’s tough.”
“Yeah Sidney, don’t worry about it, she’ll be OK” I say, sincerely. But how can I be sincere if I don’t know she’ll be OK? I don’t really know anything, but what can you tell your best friend when he finds out his mom could die?
“She starts chemotherapy this week. So I guess there’s nothing I can do. I feel powerless, I need to do something. Can we go somewhere? Tonight? I have this place I want to go to.”
“Sure man. Who’s driving?”
Sidney drives us to a park that I have never seen before, on top of a large hill next to a highway. There is a playground with a set of swings, which we walk towards. Sidney grabs the middle one on the left side. We swing in silence for a while, watching the cars and trucks fly by like blood flowing to and from a heart that’s somewhere, pumping, invisible or unseen.
“Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” Lane asks.
“I wonder, Jack” I say. “I wonder if any of them even know.”
“Do you think you’re any better?” Sidney asks.
“I didn’t say--”
“I was just observing,” I say.
“But are you in a position to judge?”
“Well right now we’re in a position to see… Everyone has to make judgments, I mean you have to put what you see some--.”
“So you’re also judging yourself, since you‘re the same way. You’re the same as them...” He says.
“Sidney, I know you’re pissed off right now. You have every right to be. But-“
“But what? I’m just judging what I see from here, buddy. I’m seeing things a little differently right now, and I wish you down there could see what I see… I see a bunch of scared kids who think they’re going to save the world by being cool. By playing music for kids who only give a shit about how they’re perceived, not by who or what they actually are. And I’m sick of viewing so much of the world as the enemy. My mom has a job, a real job, which she probably does not like all of the time. But she does it. And her political views are less than hip. She’s never heard of your favorite bands. But she’s going to fucking die. And so are all of you. So from where I’m sitting, you’re all a little bit closer to the same than you were yesterday.”
I don’t know what to say.
“What are we doing here anyways?” He says, getting up off the swing. “What is the point of anything we’re doing? So we think we’re fucking artists. Well maybe we are. Maybe we’re even good at what we do. But why? Why the fuck do we do it?” His face gains purpose in an instant. He is interrogating us. “Lane, why do you play music?”
He responds almost immediately.
“Because I can control it. It helps me organize the rest of what I see.”
“What about you Mark? Di’jou start playing drums to impress somebody? Or is there a reason?”
“I just like playing.”
“And then of course our fearless leader, who always knows what to say, Tim. What do you have to say?”
“Why do I play? Why do I sing?”
“That’s the question.”
“Because I take art more seriously than anything else in the world.”
“Yeah, we know. But why?”
“Because Sidney, I have to. If I didn’t have words and music, I wouldn’t have anything. You know that. And I know the same is true for you. Do you remember back during freshman year when we’d go to your house, play video games, and then pound out a few Dead Kennedy’s songs, just the two of us? We thought then that we were saving the world with our music, just by playing it in your basement for no one but you and me. Do you remember how much power those songs had over us? And what we felt by being able to play them? That’s why, Sidney. Music, Sidney.”
“But what does that mean?”
I look at the ground, then -- meet his eyes and smile a little smile, with sadness in my eyes, in all seriousness.
I try not to sound clever. “You might as well ask a dictionary what it’s talking about.”
His eyes. “You know what each song means to you,” I say. “What music is. What it can do. Think about what playing music means to you.”
I watch him for a minute.
“You know it’s true,” I say.
“Yeah. You’re right. But…
“It needs to be said that we are just the same as everyone else. We’re no better than anyone. And we can’t let ourselves forget what we’re really doing. We have to be honest.”
His screen blanks and then comes back online. He says it like he can’t find his shoes, “Can we go get sushi?” He was always unpredictable, actions and emotions. Still, I’m worried about him. His mom’s illness is messing with him in strange ways, the thought boiling inside of him, and I know we should be careful. I just want him to be OK. Sidney’s older brother had gone crazy, diagnosed schizophrenic two years before, and he and his mom are still dealing with that. Plus, Sidney and his brother had very similar personalities, and I worried about the possibility that he might… I don’t know. I know schizophrenia’s not necessarily hereditary, but it still gives me something to be concerned about, in addition to his mom.
I’m thinking now that nothing bad has ever really happened to me, or my family. I am an only child, so I don’t have siblings to watch out for, and my parent’s lives have been relatively uneventful. Good health, good jobs, and good parenting for the most part.
I could go into Sidney’s Mom having breast cancer, and how death stalks us all, and about youth and everything… how youth, what youth really is… when everything works and you’re in it… I mean…. these things I’ve been thinking about… this… substance, of… well, I guess I’ll just say it’s really what life is all about, but if I could get it all down right it would be naming the unnamable, thus killing it. You can’t say… like, “who can say?” I don’t know. That’s what happens. If you name the unnamable, you kill it. But you can still think it. And you can still be it. Like our song lyrics go… “There are some things we should never mention.” but like our other song lyrics go… “As long as you’re with me I’ll be alright.” I feel sorry for his Mom. I wish I could ‘save’ her.
As I watch my friends’ lives going to hell around me, I reflect on the safety, the predictability of my own childhood and teenage years. Also, I’m pretty well off monetarily, so I
don’t really want for anything. I used to feel guilty, and ashamed. But now I just know that because of my privilege I have a responsibility. Because I can do anything, I must do everything.
Chapter 19: Mystery & Wisdom Traditions
It is the summer before senior year, nearly over, which means my Mom is trying to get me to go look at colleges. She wants me to stay in St. Louis, but that doesn’t seem appealing to me. I need to move. So I miss band practice, and take a week to go New York and then Chicago. Those are the only two places I can see myself going to college; it has to be a big city. I just can’t function in a small town, I need places to go, places to be surrounded by people. Besides, both cities have pretty many good schools. We fly up to New York first, just my mom and I. Fucking travel!
We rent a car and drive around looking for our hotel. We are supposed to be staying near Times Square, which should be easy to find, but we are looking around so much we’re missing street signs and turns, left and right. Eventually we arrive, unpack, and look for somewhere to eat dinner. My mom is the type of person who saves up money for months, working, sacrificing, in order to spend large amounts in small periods of time. Like on a “vacation” like this one. So we go out to semi-nice restaurants all week.
One of the schools we tour is on Long Island, which means a few hours in the car, and the school is not worth it. My mom likes it, I don’t. The main reason I don’t is because the tour guide keeps making jokes about how he bets I don’t play sports, and then telling my Mom about the sports programs anyway. And how prestigious their business education department is.
Another school, actually in New York, looks awesome. We take a group tour, so it’s a little different, but I like it because I can just blend in, as well as I can, and listen. It seems like a good school, as far as teachers and actual learning and everything, but more importantly it seems like the type of school that attracts cooler people. The people who are taking the tour look like the type I would want to be stuck in dorms with. And they have a good music and a good English department. I’m still not sure what I want to study.
The New York night is seductive. I tell my mom I’m going to wander around for a while, and she lets me go. I start walking in the direction that seems most appealing, and then walk until I find a better direction. There are a lot of cool shops, and I go into a few. There is one place that sells swords, real ones, too, and I consider forgetting about the band, ditching my mom, and becoming a homeless ninja in New York. But my sensibility wins again.
There are way too many generic tourist shops, selling little models of the Statue of Liberty and “I <3 New York” shirts. Plus all the cheap electronics places. I avoid most of these places, looking for something else.
I find an amazing used clothing store. I am there for about five minutes and find this incredible jacket, zip up, thin, olive green. Not regular olive green though, a little dark, with texture thanks to the stitching. It is eight dollars, and I buy it, put it on immediately. It’s a little cold out anyways.
As I walk, my thoughts focus on the city itself. It is beautiful, and I keep thinking, we built this place. So many people have put work into this place, their very lives, and now it’s like an entity itself. A thought comes shooting up from the past, and overtakes my mind. Back at Louh I first encountered the Transcendentalists, the movement where writers like Thoreau and Emerson describe how nature makes them, and us, feel a sense of wonder and, well, transcendence. And that’s what the city makes me feel. I look straight up to reach the top of a building, and stand firmly planted below, not feeling insignificant, but feeling as if I had built this building myself, with my own hands. After all, it was the same enthusiasm for life, the same drive in me that existed in the men and women who designed and built this structure. I like nature perfectly well, but the city is an entirely different source of beauty. It’s as alive as any forest.
I feel like a hypocrite because I’m praising the glory of man’s creations, his cities, while at the same time this kind of growth is what is destroying the world. This McDonald’s on every other corner is contributing to rainforest depletion. This chain coffee store is driving smaller, independent coffee shops out of business, homogenizing cultures around the world. This office building houses some random corporation that exploits its workers or harms the environment for the sake of profit. I think, I am seeing the city as a thing of beauty because that’s what it could be. What it should be. If we changed the way we looked at things and reevaluated our priorities on a large scale, we could make ourselves something great. This city could be a monument to human greatness as much as you could say now that it is a monument to human greed. Because greed is merely a misdirection. Every man wants more than he has, we are all greedy. But if humanity could understand why, and what the greed really means: that we desire more of life, more real emotions and sensations. More real life, not necessarily more more. We are fundamentally insatiable, constantly changing, and should rejoice in this fact… then we could literally do anything. It is this impulse which drives us, whether it drives us to own a company or to plant a garden; most of us are looking for more, even when more means less. And as I look around this city, it is not hard to realize that there is more, for the taking. But we must change the way we view the world before the world can change.
I think about the guys in the band; where we fit into the world, what we could do with ourselves, make of our lives. We can all create something that matters and actually be something, at least to each other. Because isn’t that all we can hope to do while we’re here? To look before we go and say, yes, these people mattered to me and I mattered to them. Or better yet, to look around and stay.
After being in New York, Chicago seems the perfect size. It suits me, feels more hospitable in a way, and the schools there are most likely what I am going to be considering when it comes time to make the decision. Sidney will probably go to some school in Chicago, which also influences my decision. It would be fun to go to the same school as him, but if that becomes the case, I still plan on staying with someone new in the dorm. I have just heard too many people say, when you live with someone, especially your friend, you end up hating them, and I don’t want that to happen. Besides that, I want to branch out and meet some new people.
I don’t look around Chicago the same way I had New York. Honestly, I’m sick of not being home. I’m usually excited to go to new places, but I feel disconnected from myself here. I have too much of a strong connection with Avery and the band, and I feel lovesick actually. I miss them, but I don’t want to feel dependent on them this much, so I try to overcome the feeling, because I know I will definitely have to change when I actually move to a college, in a new city. I won’t be able to keep these friends forever. I hadn’t thought about leaving the band, for college. I mean, we never said we’d stay together forever, but we’ve only got another year together if we’re all going off to different colleges. It seems like a long time, and also no time at all. Not enough anyway.
When I get home it feels like the summer is already gone. There are about three weeks before school starts again, but we all feel the inevitability, so things start winding down. We have an impromptu Conclave meeting at the park, on the swings.
“Man, we need to do something. While we can.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “This is the last real high school summer.” Mark clears his throat and lets it rumble.
“For most of us. And we need to use the time that we have. We need to do something real. Something that that makes us feel like we’re still fucking young, because we’re supposed to be, right?” I cry to the sky, half joking: “What the fuck is there to do in this town?”
“We could paint each others naked bodies,” Mark says. “I’ve always wanted to do that.”
“There’s always videogames. You know, edutainment.”
“Or we could skydive,” Lane says, in a serious voice. “I’ve always wanted to skydive.”
“We’re not going to skydive.”
“Just. Think of something else.”
“We don’t always have to do something, you know. We could just hang out and be together,” Lane proffers.
“Amen,” Mark pronounced.
I look at them, realizing they’re right.
“Seriously, Tim, we’re like O.D.ing on cool stuff,” Mark says. “We’re losing our thrill thresh-hold. Let’s just chill.”
“We could watch a movie and have dinner together at somebody’s house,” Lane says. “I just bought this really cool documentary on the Beat Generation called ‘The Source’ that I think you guys would love.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“We could watch it in my room,” I say. “I just cleaned the basement. It’s pha-nominal.”
It’s just up the street, too.
We walk to the van together like there’s a chip implanted in all of our brains. Invisible badass music plays.
The movie is the best thing ever. I mean, well, besides actually being there for every moment. Which would really be the best thing ever. Us watching it is the best thing ever, too.
We make fettuccini alfredo and garlic bread and are all sitting around the basement watching and listening to ‘The Source.’
If you don’t know anything about the Beat Generation… there’s something wrong with you. I’m just kidding. No, not really. The Beat Generation was basically a group of writers and artists who got started around the late nineteen-fifties when Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs met in New York. Those three formed the epicenter of a new counterculture wave that Kerouac named ’The Beat Generation.’ They were non-conformists, they were wild at heart, they were alive at all good costs… if you wanna know where hippies got the idea, or where the roots… are the greenest… to me at least. My closest to home home.
“We are the source,” William S. Burroughs says at the end. We are the source.
The Beats perfected being a celebrity in your own, everyday life. They just happened to also be something of national celebrities when they did it, too. If there’s anything I learn from these guys it’s… you can always turn it up, or back up, or on more, or back on, or get back in there. Infinite degrees. Every moment is a chance to be something real.
And the only way to climb, is to open…
But you gotta hold on…
Hold on, man…
We’re nothing without eachother.
The way they say Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ like, defined his generation. That’s really… I mean, I can see how the book was like the great statement of the subgeist of that time. And how it helped people to make sense of their place in the world. But really, that book is timeless. Because life is ‘On the Road.’ That’s what living is.
The only ones for me are the mad ones… we’re all feeding off of each other all the time. Life is like a friendly vampire feast, if it’s done right. We may not know where we came from, or, exactly what to do all the time… but we can at least look at the ones we call friends, which is hopefully many, and say… we know who we are.
“God, I feel like having band practice right now,” I say.
“Or just like, going out and playing in the street.”
“Let’s go get ice cream,” Avery suggests.
We pile into the party van.
I ask if anyone is excited about going back to school.
“I’m definitely not,” says Lane.
“I am,” Sidney
“Are you joking me? You can’t drop out! You’re a ‘good kid.’” Mark says.
“I hate Division. You guys don’t know how bad it is.”
“Oh, we don’t know how bad it is? I graduated from it. I know how bad it is.”
“Well, you’re done with it.”
“Lane, you can’t drop out. That’d be a big mistake.”
“I’m going to get my G.E.D. It’s not like I’m just giving up on my life.”
“Still. My mom would never let me drop out. Have you talked to your parents? They’ll shit a brick.”
“Well, it’s not exactly up to them. I’m eighteen; I can do what I want. But I have mentioned it, and my mom’s still getting used to the idea. I can get my G.E.D. and then take a few semesters at a community college, then transfer.”
“Are you going to get a job?” Mark asks.
“I just got hired at a pizza place, delivering. It should be pretty much
money, if I work
“Yeah, sure. We might just have to work around it a little bit. I think I work some Wednesday nights, but we can set up a new day. I don’t know. My mom said I had to get a job if I was going to drop out, so I did. I had to.”
“Fine.” I say, a little irritated. “I thought we were making the band a priority.”
“It can’t be everything, Tim. I have my own
I’m not really angry with Lane. I just think he’s making a mistake, and in his decision I see my own decision to leave Lindbergh to go to Division the year before. I knew I should have stayed at Lindbergh then, just like Lane probably knows he shouldn’t drop out, but I had done it anyway. And I don’t really regret it. So, Lane has every right to make a mistake, as big a mistake as he wants to. As long as he understands he has to deal with the consequences.
Chapter 20: Swim
Summer ends, and Sidney and I go back to St. Louis High, for our senior year. The first day back, I go up to Mr. Sanders’ classroom, just to say hi.
“Tim! Hi. Good to see you.” He’s smiling, surprised. “How was your summer?”
“Really good,” I say, my thumbs behind my book bag’s straps. “The band had a lot of good shows. Yeah, I got really caught up in it, sorry I never wrote you back. The truth is I was a little scared. I didn’t know what to say.”
“You were scared?”
He sees I’m not going to say more.
“Well, that’s OK. Don’t worry about it.” He doesn’t seem disappointed, but he may be.
“How was your summer?” I ask.
“Good, good. My wife and I went to France for a few weeks in July. We had a marvelous time. It’s such a beautiful country.”
“That’s cool,” I say. “Read anything good while you were there?”
“Of course, I read so many good things over the summer. I hope the same is true of you,” he says, curling up the words at the end of the sentence.
“Yeah, I read some good books. I finally read Ulysses. Can’t say I understood it all, but I read it.”
“Ah, Joyce. A master. And he looks good in that eye-patch, don’t you think?”
We both laugh at that.
“You know I have a tattoo,” he says.
“You do? Of what?”
“Words. The perfect words.”
“What do you mean? Where?” I started searching the skin I could see.
“I’ll show it to you, but first I want to tell you about it.”
I agree to this arrangement.
“When I was a young man, I knew I wanted to get a tattoo of the perfect sentence. So I searched through all the literature I read, looking for the words that defined my view of the world so perfectly, that I would set them to myself forever. And when I read Ulysses when I was twenty-three, I found them. Do you remember the conversation, right near the beginning, between Mr. Deasy and Stephen Dedalus? It’s—oh I’ll just tell you the quote. Show you the quote I mean.” He untucks his shirt and turns away from me. He lifts the shirt up and I see on his back, a single large page, weather worn and with the appearance of being tacked to his skin. I begin to read his back, which says on it, legibly, in a simple typewritten font:
—History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am
trying to awake.
From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring
whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?
—The ways of the creator are not our ways, Mr. Deasy said.
All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation
Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:
—That is God.
Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!
—What? Mr Deasy asked.
—A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his
“A shout in the street,” I say. “That’s awesome!”
“It’s my favorite passage… so far.”
“It’s beautiful: ‘That is God.’ Yeah, I remember I wrote that part down when I read it. In fact I got a tattoo of the same—“ I turned around to raise my shirt, then stopped. “I’m just kidding. But I really loved that book. It made me more aware to live for today… instead of for “one great goal.” But also to have great goals. I’ve never felt so inside someone else’s mind.” I looked at the digital clock on the wall. “Oh, crap. I have to go. Class,” I explain.
“Come by and see me anytime, Tim. I’m glad you made it through the summer in one piece.”
Sidney and I start carpooling, to save gas, and just because it’s more fun. So every morning and afternoon we have the opportunity to rock out in the car to whatever music we want. The first two ‘Get Up Kids’ albums we play a lot. We put on ‘Something to Write Home About,’ and blare the first track for the entire world to hear. Ben Folds is never too far out of reach either. We listen to a lot of upbeat stuff, mainly to get our minds out of the dull ruts that school forces them into. But sometimes in the mornings we put on something like ‘Badly Drawn Boy’ - ‘The Hour of the Bewilderbeast’ and just sort of sink into it while the sun is coming up over the highway. It all depends on the feel of the day.
Sidney’s mom is doing better. She is being treated and it looks to the doctors like the cancer is going into remission. Sidney’s doing a lot of work around the house and taking care of his mom. She is hardly ever mentioned though, so we have to ask, or infer. He has never talked about his dad much, either, but you can tell he thinks about it sometimes when he is in the car. He constantly checks his seatbelt, his hands unconscious. He is fine when he’s driving. When he feels like he’s in control. But today I’m driving.
“This year’s going to be awesome,” he says. “We’re basically in charge of the school now, as seniors.”
“We rule the school.”
“I know that song.”
“Hey, did you ever talk to that guy about recording? That Justin guy?”
“Yeah, he said we just have to decide when we want to do it and let him know. It’s pretty expensive, like fifty an hour. But we’ve got a lot saved up, don’t we? From all the shows?”
“We’ve got over six hundred dollars. So far.”
“Awesome. We have to decide if we want analog or digital recording.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Well, it’s not that big of a difference. Some people think analog is more ‘pure,’ because it’s all physically recorded, onto an actual tape. Digital, it’s all done on a computer. And you edit with this program called ProTools. Some people will tell you analog sounds ‘warmer,’ and if you press it on vinyl, it never has to go to digital. Still, it doesn’t really matter.”
“Which is cheaper?”
“Not much difference. You have to pay for the tape for analog.”
“Let’s do analog, and then, I guess you have to copy it digitally to make CDs.”
“Yeah. That sounds good. We could even press some vinyl.”
“We should do it over Christmas break. That way we’ll have time to actually prepare. I want this recording to be good. Definitive. We have to get our songs down so we can actually get our sound out to more people. Our live show is good, and some bands are just good live, but their recordings suck. I want to do both well.”
“OK, Christmas break. That gives us plenty of time. How many tracks are you hoping for?”
“How many songs do we have now?”
“About fifteen, or seventeen.”
“I think we should try for about fifteen good songs. Just kind of perfect what we have.”
We arrive at school.
“Alright. We’ll start working on new stuff, but we have to keep the old stuff fresh, too.”
We start walking from the parking lot to the building. The sun is low and hot, and we move with our backs to it.
“Oh shit. What are we going to call this album? We need a good name.”
“How about ‘House Tree Person.’?”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“You know, I have no idea.”
“I think that’s about the smartest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
“My dad always said you could either be the smartest guy in the room or the happiest.”
“He… did he really?” I ask.
“I don’t know, it just seems… like a hard statement, to deal with.”
“That’s the smartest thing I’ve ever heard you say,” he says.
“Well, anyway, we’ll have to decide as a band.”
School is unmentionable. Senior year for Sidney and I means more having fun while we can than learning anything. I have a few good classes: World Religions, AP English, and Sociology. But most of my thought is going into the band, and Avery.
Avery and I don’t talk on the phone very often. Mainly because we both dislike the whole phone thing in real relationships, so we try to be actually together as often as possible. We’re learning about each other’s childhoods, beliefs, and history in general. She grew up here too, though she had a very different childhood, being the middle child of five rather than an only child. Her family is close, closer than mine I guess, and I almost envy her for having so many brothers and sisters. I have always wanted a brother, or even a sister, to share things with, just to see what it was like. Particularly an older sibling, someone to have influenced me as I was growing up, maybe teaching me about things. I just feel like I had to do so much growing up on my own, without any kind of guidance. My parents never really talked to me about drugs, or sex, or any of those things. They just avoided the subjects, but I learned quickly. I guess you could say I grew up fast, due to hanging out with older kids all the time. St. Louis High is more than a high school, it starts with seventh and eighth grade, and I have gone there all these years. There were always upperclassmen that talked to me and my friends, just because they thought we were cool, or wanted to make us their little projects or something. So a few made me mix tapes, or drove me to concerts when I was younger. This one guy, Joe, was friends with me the summer after freshman year, and we hung out nearly everyday, with Sidney, too. That’s when I started smoking, thanks to Joe. If you were my mom, you would call him a bad influence, but he taught me so much about myself and the world. I tell Avery all of this, and she listens, interested. But I only tell her these things because she makes me talk about them. I could listen to her talk about herself and her life all night, and do sometimes, but I don’t really talk about my past with anyone, so she has to work to get it out of me. I guess you would say I’m introverted, but that’s not entirely true. See, I’m really outgoing in the band and everything, I just keep to myself a lot, too. It’s hard for me to be open… Maybe it’s that whole guy thing. I can’t really explain it.
Avery grew up Catholic, I learn. Sometimes we talk about our beliefs and God and things like that. She believes in God, she says, but isn’t into religion. She was forced to go to church until she was fifteen, and then she got in a huge fight with her parents. She won, but her mom has never treated her the same way since. Her mom always seemed disappointed in her after that. Her older brother and sister both still went to church, so she was the only one who didn’t. She said it was tough, but she couldn’t make herself go. Things got better when she started going to a youth group, when she was sixteen. She tells me it was the only kind of church that she felt good about, could actually understand the point of and enjoy. I ask her about it, afraid it would be like the one Sidney made me go to that once. But apparently, this one is much more open and accepting. It sounds pretty cool, actually. She says I should go sometime, and I say I might, if I ever feel like it. I just don’t know about that type of stuff. I guess I’m just so individualistic that I have a hard time joining any type of group, I tell her, and she understands.
I tell her I love her, often, but not every night. I always wonder if she will say it first, each night, so I can say it back. The fact that she doesn’t say it all the time makes it better when she does say it. I say it this night.
We get into the studio finally over Christmas break, ready to spend as much money as it takes to get a good quality album out. It is exciting to call the studio up and then set the dates, but we don’t really know what we are getting into. None of us have ever recorded in an actual studio. Mike comes in with us, and is using Mark’s video camera, documenting the experience.
The “graveyard shift,” from about midnight to six A.M. is cheaper than the normal rate, so we opt for that. We are still looking at around thirty-five bucks an hour, and none of us know if we are getting ripped off or not. It is obviously an indie type studio; you can tell by the atmosphere, the style, the way the people treat us. They are professional, definitely, but also cool about things, ready to help us out wherever they can. So I don’t think they are going to rip us off.
We bring in all of our equipment, and have everything set up pretty swiftly. That much is no problem. Then they have to explain the process to us, all our options. The method we choose is to track everything live, drums and all, but not vocals. Sidney, Lane, and I are all in soundproof booths with headphones, which play all the tracks simultaneously for us. On top of that, they give mark a click track, a metronome shot straight into his headphones, so he will be able to stay on the beat, no problem. The band is used to hearing all the parts at once, so we don’t want to try to separate all the instruments and record alone, one by one. By playing everything at once, we think we can get a better sound.
We are all worried about messing up each time, but we do better than the last time we attempted to record. I have heard a lot of bad stories about people recording; they find out in the studio that the drummer uses the same beat for every song, or the vocalist can’t carry a tune in a bucket, and it just seemed like he could, live. But we sound good. We have the music pretty much down from all the practicing we have done as preparation. Mike is filming us too, making us feel like rock stars, which is cool.
Over two nearly all night sessions, we get down all of the instrumental parts. I go in during the day to do the vocals. It doesn’t cost as much to do just vocals during the day, since I am only using one room. Sidney comes with me.
I have a good voice. I’m not bragging either, a lot of people have told me that my voice is great, very expressive, all that. And my range is large, too. I can make the transition to falsetto like nobody’s business, though I don’t that often. The fact that I smoke also gives my voice a little grit, gravel. Not quite Johnny Cash gravel, but a little tinge of it. Sidney is listening to my part in a spare set of headphones, telling me which parts I should do over, where I should enunciate a little better.
There is one bridge, on this song called “How to Build Mystery,” where Sidney stops me and tells me to sing it differently.
“On the part where you stop and do the steps, you have to sound more serious. Because right before that you say, ‘I’m a man of mystery,’ and you’re obviously joking. But then the steps are serious. So sing like this: ‘Step one, come undone. Never get close to anyone. And never say what you’re thinking.’”
“Didn’t I just sing it like that?”
“Yeah. But not right. You have to change the tone.”
“Well you sounded the same way I did. Listen to the tape.” I run it into his headphones.
He listens and then says, “No, no. You sound like a smartass. Make it serious, so it’s more effective. Like satire, with music.”
I sing it again, but he stops me. He sings it.
“That’s what I’m doing,” I say.
“No, you’re not.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever had someone trying to make you sing a certain way, actually hear something a certain way, but it’s pretty hard to communicate. Words don’t work when you try to describe music. It’s like when you understand something and need to tell someone, but can’t get them to understand as well. Communication fails, and we are both frustrated. He keeps trying, and then he records himself singing it.
“Do you hear it now?”
“Um, not really.”
“Well shit, man. Forget it. Sing it how you want.”
“Or we could keep your vocals for that part. Like, switch off or something. That would surprise people.”
“Me on the CD?
I shake my head in affirmation.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, you’ve got a good voice.”
We go back through the songs, listening for parts where Sidney might be able to sing a backup part or something. We add a few harmonies.
After we finish recording everything we still have to do the mixing, and mastering. They use ProTools, which we are told was the recording software, and “everyone uses it.” The guy working with us is named John, and he is a pretty cool guy. He has produced a few other local bands’ records, and they sound good, from what we have heard, so we are glad he agreed to help us. We tell him what we are going for.
“Have you heard, The Get Up Kids, Four Minute Mile?” I ask him.
“Yeah, yeah. Of course.”
“We want something like that, I think. Right?”
“How about the Pixies,” Mark asks John. “Have you heard the drum sound on Doolittle?”
“Yeah. Gil Norton.”
“I want something like that for the drums.”
We spend nearly the entire day changing levels on tracks, changing the instrument sounds individually, and working on balance. We also have a little fun with it. On the song “How to Build Mystery,” we add a clapping track, which sounds good. A little funny, but good.
We have to wait a few weeks for the CDs to arrive in the mail. Some place out in California copies the disc and makes the liner notes for us. We do it all through the mail and their website. In the meantime, we have nothing to do but wait. I get on the computer and send out a mass email.
Dearest Fan and Friend,
I bet you were wondering what ‘Down With Strangers’ was so busy with that they could not send out any emails for so long. Well, we have finally done it. We have just finished recording our first full-length album (this one sounds just a little better than that five song demo some of you may have heard.). We have titled it, “Sink or Swim.” We hope you like it as much as we do. It will be available at our shows of from any member of the band for the price of $10, which gets you fifteen tracks. We are having an official CD release party February 11th, at the Sane Asylum. Doors are at 8PM and admission is $8. Opening bands TBA (To Be Awesome). See you there. And come talk to us after the show. (Don’t be a stranger.)
Your Favorite Band,
Down With Strangers
P.S.: Bring Cookies
Chapter 21: The Bridge
Avery has her first acoustic set at an open mic night, and I of course am there. It’s at the coffee shop / community center where her youth group meetings are held. I find it easily, luckily, because it is a small place around the back corner of a strip mall. It’s cold out, and I wrap my green jacket tighter as I read the door:
OPEN MIC NIGHT
They used to charge for it, I was told, but then no one came.
There is a little counter behind which they sell coffee and baked goods, run by a friendly older woman. She smiles at me and asks how I heard about the event.
“My friend Avery is playing here tonight. She invited me.”
“Oh yes, Avery. She’s a good one.”
It is a large space, sort
of reminding me of the atrium at St. Louis High. There is an impressive
stage area. I wander over to a sofa and sit down. In front of me is a
glass coffee table with a plastic cup full of stick pretzels. I pretend
it’s a cigar, for my own amusement, or for anyone watching me. I look
around and see a guy about my age sitting behind a computer, which is
hooked up to a projector, shooting movies onto a screen in the front
corner of the room. I recognize it almost immediately as “Karate Kid.”
Needless to say, I am
“Hi. I’m Tim. Nice to meet you.”
“I was told you are Avery’s friend.”
“She’s really great. Ever since she started coming to the youth group, it’s been really a lot of fun.”
“Yeah, she’s so funny. She and I have become really good friends.”
We talk for a little while, and I am slightly uncomfortable. She is very cheerful and friendly, but I’m in a weird mood. I don’t want to give her the wrong impression. I decide to cover safe ground.
“Have you heard Avery play?” I ask.
“Um, Just in praise and worship.”
“Praise and Worship?”
“Oh. OK.” I infer ‘Praise and Worship’ is a part of the youth group.
Avery walks in the door, takes off her hat. She is wearing a black turtleneck and jeans, has her glasses on, as opposed to contacts. She is beautiful.
She talks to a few people before she strolls over to me. I am jealous almost, that all these people knew things about Avery that I don’t, a whole part of her that I’m missing out on. As she approaches she acts like we are being reunited after years apart, holding her arms out and whisper-screaming “Tim!”
We hug. Tight. She asks me how it’s going and I tell her how nice everyone seems. “A little too nice,” I joke. Then I whisper, “These people are freaks.”
“Oh, be nice, Tim.” She slaps my chest. “They’re good people.”
“So, are you the main act for tonight?”
“Not exactly. I’m on second as of right now. You sign up as you get here.”
“Oh.” I think for a second. “So basically, whoever is late gets a better spot.”
“It’s not like a competition. It doesn’t mean anything to play later than someone else. This isn’t the Sidebar.”
She goes on after some guy who plays covers on piano. He is good, but tries to play parts that are slightly beyond his skill, so he messes up often. I am half listening, watching A tune her guitar quietly in the corner.
I have heard her play a few times, sitting in my room. But she hasn’t played all of her songs for me. I really like what I have heard, but she kept some of them from me.
This night at the open mic she plays a few songs I recognize, and as I listen and actually heard the words, I realize a lot of them are religious, or spiritual, or whatever you want to call it. One sticks out, something about looking for the “Root of all roots.” Then another about faith, I think. Anyway, I know she is worrying about what I’ll think of her after I actually hear the songs, but I like them, really. And I understand where she’s coming from with the spiritual aspect. Even if I don’t understand the whole thing, I respect it in her.
After the show, we go to a coffee shop, and the conversation drifts through her show, eventually getting to the lyrics.
“You’re a really good songwriter,” I say.
“Thanks. So are you.”
“What do you normally write about?” I take a drink. “I mean, I could hear some of the lyrics, but I’m curious.”
“Well…” She says. “I write about whatever I’m thinking about. Usually people, and how they act. Sometimes about whatever I believe or am struggling with. Sometimes about God, and what I think God’s like.”
“What do you think God’s like?”
“Well. I don’t know. I don’t like to pin God down in any way. I just think God is bigger than we can think, and creative, and good. Definitely good.”
“Yeah. I tend to agree. How good, though? I mean, if God is good, then why does suffering exist?”
“Because, it has to. We have to suffer, in order to know life.”
“I know,” I say, dropping the words. “But that’s why a lot of people say God can’t be all loving and all of that, because people suffer and die needlessly.”
She looks at me, trying to see through what I was saying into what I actually believed.
“Well, you can’t justify it. I mean, not everything is just, I don’t think. The world can’t be perfect. I mean, what is perfect anyway? We could make the world more just if we worked for it. So, in a way, it’s our fault the world isn’t better. People just want to say God made things a certain way, and blame all the problems on God, but really humans decide what the world looks like. At least the human part of it anyway.”
“Right. I agree. But what about religion? Religion has done a lot of good for some people, but has caused a lot of really horrible things as well. I have a problem with it, because different people see God in different ways, and just because a lot of people subscribe to one belief doesn’t mean it’s more valid than a minority view. No one has the authority on God or ‘Truth.’ I mean, there are similarities in many people’s beliefs because there is some kind of objective truth, or reality, and we all base our beliefs on impressions of that, but no one individual knows everything that is happening, so they can’t know reality or the truth. Maybe God, but I don’t know if anyone would really want to know everything.”
“Religion is just one way of finding God, or something to believe in.”
“Right. I mean, I think I’m pretty spiritual in some ways, and I feel a sense of connection with the world, or God, or whatever, but I just can’t do religion…”
“My view of religion is like this,” she says. “Say there was a car accident, three cars with one or two people in each, and a few bystanders. If you ask them what happened in the accident, every single one of those people will have a different story. Each story would be true for the person telling it, their side. That’s like what they believe in. Subjective viewpoints. They can state things they hold as facts, and they may or may not be objective facts, so you have to interpret them from your viewpoint and then decide if you also believe they are true. If there were a camera recording when the accident happened, then you could go ahead and say, ‘this is what actually happened.’ And that can give you facts, but it can’t tell you a story. Some people, when they believe they know the ‘Truth,’ they no longer keep an open mind, and lose something. Instead of being a living, thinking human being, all they are is another camera, totally set in their viewpoint, believing they know. That’s when things get dangerous, because they relate everything to themselves and their point of view instead of growing as a person. It’s like when people are in a conversation and the only thing they’re thinking about the entire time they’re ‘listening’ is what they’re going to say next, so they don’t really hear anything.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. What were you saying? I was thinking about myself.”
She laughs and I smile.
“No, that’s true,” I say. “I do that sometimes. It’s hard not to.”
“Yeah, it is. Anyway, I believe God is the objective camera, but God is also above the entire scene, and in the minds of the people. So God knows the facts, and the stories.”
“Interesting. Yeah, it seems like you’ve got a good view. It’s just when people get organized around a belief, they all start to think they’re cameras… and it’s hard to think for yourself when you think you’re an object that can’t think.” I sigh. “Yeah.”
“I know. I know you feel that way. But what I do isn’t like that. I’m in this youth group, but it’s in no way like an organized religion. It’s just like a meeting place, where people can get together and have discussions, just like we’re having now. We don’t really subscribe to one belief, and in fact there are people that go to the group from all kinds of backgrounds.”
“That’s good. I mean, I didn’t think you would be a part of something that was bad, or exclusionary or something. I trust you.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m just telling you, if you ever want to talk about this stuff, you can tell me or ask me anything. I think I’ve found something in this group, and I want to share it with you. That’s why I invited you tonight, to at least see the place that I disappear to every Monday night.”
“You were really good tonight,” I tell her again.
“Hey, I got your email last night. About the CD and the show. That’s exciting. What are you guys gonna do for this show?”
22: The Love Song of T. Jeremy Davis
“We don’t play wrong notes,
Because we’re plugged in to our hearts.”
- Down With Strangers, ‘The Exact Importance of Being Accurate Precisely’
“OK guys, what are we gonna do for this show?”
“We have to make this the big one. Pull out all the stops.”
“Well, I know. But how?” I am thinking, but nothing is popping into my mind.
“I have a batman costume,” Sidney comments. “We could do something with that.”
“We could all wear costumes! I mean, all be superheroes, or something. That would be funny.
“I call Superman,” I say.
“The Flash,” says Mark.
“What am I going to be?” Lane wonders aloud.
“Well, there‘s a bunch of other superheroes, but--.”
“You have to be Catwoman!” I say, and we all laugh a little, but we also know it is going to happen. I begin picturing Lane, his scrawny pale boy body in Catwoman’s black tights, complete with fake breasts.
“We have to write a new song, then,” Mark says. “To go with the costumes.”
“How about ‘No Kind of Superheroes.’ Since that’s what we are, anyways.”
“We should write it together, too. I don’t want to get stuck writing another song that no one likes but me,” I say.
“OK. Let’s write it right now.”
We are all visibly thinking, looking up, stroking our chins, whatever.
“Something about a kid thinking he’s Superman, and jumping off of his roof.”
We all laugh at that image for a while, then I say: “When I was just a kid, I thought that I was Superman. I jumped up off my roof, and landed on my face, and… and…”
“I’d still keep jumping off that roof if I thought that I could save this place.”
“That works, I guess.” We all laugh at ourselves. The song is obviously going to be really… young.
We have the words done in maybe ten minutes, but they are good. I love it. The first song we all write together.
We practice a few times
before the show, actually have a dress rehearsal two nights before, where
we go over our set, in front of Avery and Charlin, and improvise some
talking between the songs. We want this show to go off
February 11th comes and we are on our way to the show, in the party van. It is the most nervous I have ever felt before anything. It is terrible, but exciting. We get there all right, and unload our equipment. It is our second time playing the Sane Asylum, our first being a local battle of the bands, which we lost to some generic rock group with absolutely no personality. But it’s our first time headlining at such a large club, and we are pumped.
My parents are coming, Mark’s dad, Lane’s parents, everyone’s friends, enemies, bands we’ve played with, siblings, my guitar teacher, Avery’s parents, Charlin’s mom, and some homeless guy we got in for free.
The opening band is called, “U. R. Sleeping,” which is a reference to a sample of a woman speaking at the end of the Smith’s song, “Rubber Ring.” They are pretty good, a Smiths rip-off, but that’s a hard sound to rip-off, so they are impressive. Their lead singer has a huge fro, which is fun to watch bobbing up and down. We stand off to the side, again as a band, and watch their set. They thank “everyone for coming out,” and then thank “Down With Strangers, for being such awesome guys, and for getting us on the bill.” When they say they have just two more songs left, we all disappear to the backstage, and change into our costumes. I feel like Clark Kent in a phone booth, only my phone booth is a dirty bathroom stall. The wall tells me, “There is no normal.”
We take the stage.
Sidney walks on first, playing the melody of the Superman theme song, the one from all the movies, on the two higher strings on the bass. He is wearing a very impressive Batman suit, complete with mask and abs. I walk on as he plays, followed by Lane. Everyone busts out laughing. I stand in front of the mic, and Lane and I start playing along with Sidney. It took us a little while to figure the song out in practice, but it was worth it. Mark literally leaps onto the stage, dressed as the flash, turning swiftly towards the audience, and then runs to the drums. He sits down just as we are finishing the song and he hits the drums and cymbals on the ending “DUN DUN DUN DUN.” We go straight into “No Kind of Superheroes,” figuring we should start out with the new song, considering we all look ridiculous in our costumes. We owe them some kind of explanation.
My voice cuts through the loudness of the band, and I can actually hear myself in the monitors. They have really good sound guys and everything, and get it all set up before the show in the sound check. I look out over the crowd, recognizing nearly everyone looking up at us. I’m smiling like a fool.
Sidney and I sing the opening together on and off:
The guardians of the universe
They called us up
And we were chilling in the batcave
They woke us up
All the stars have fallen down again
And we were wondering if your spider sense was
Cause we could use some help out here
Everything is drawing near the end
And we sure could use a friend
I’ll be there
And we’ll be dressed like superheroes
All red and blue
and if you need help facing supervillians
or if you need help just chillin’
consider me your superman
baby where’d the time go
when we were sidekicks or just training to be
everything that we could be
baby how come I don’t know
the antidote for you not loving me
I miss the days we spent in the park
Staying out till it got dark
Flying around this town and
turning all the bullshit upside down
I believe in second chances
And I have hope for every hopeless romance
And if you know anything about comic books at all
You know that every hero takes a fall
But they rise again
And we will sing our heads off
And we will tie the ends off
And I will still be superman
Yeah I will still be superman
Yeah I will be your
The audience eats it up. We finish the first song and the audience breaks into applause and cheering. It is certainly obvious, with this show, that we have a real fan base. People come to our shows because they want to see us, not just because they’re friends and feel like they have to. More than half the people here this time we don’t know. Sure, all our friends and families are in the front, but the crowd extends back from there until it reaches the wall. The place is packed, I keep thinking. We packed the Sane Asylum.
The show goes very well, and we even bust out some choreography at one point. We made up a dance for a new instrumental song, (really instrumental this time, no yelling) which we think is hilarious. It’s probably only funny to us, but we’re doing it anyway. We set ourselves up on stage so Lane and Sidney face the center, and I’m there in the middle, facing forward. Then we open our legs on the first beat of the measure, close them on the third beat, jump into the new position, then do that thing where you swing your guitar out in front of you, at a right angle, like a total rock star.
We always try to get people to have a good time, and most of our songs are happy or at least optimistic. We want people to listen to the lyrics and get something out of it, in addition to enjoying the music, so before some of the songs I explain what the songs are about, where the ideas came from, how we wrote it, things like that. I don’t want to create a barrier between the band and the audience; I want everyone to feel like they are a part of the show.
There is a fundamental problem of people not being able to ‘share’ an experience, because we all have our separate thoughts, and all come from different places into this one moment. But we are here, now. And that’s something. We don’t know where we’ll be tomorrow. But we can look around right now, and say we are together. Shows always make it seem like the world is perfect, at least for the length of time between entering the club and slowly walking back out into the world, amazed that it’s still there, sometimes, that it didn’t stop while you were away, dreaming of it.
We sell thirty-seven CDs this night, and plenty of other people promise to contact us when they have money. It’s really a lot more than we expected, and we are all ecstatic. Besides that, it was probably our best show to date, and all the work we put into it showed.
Outside afterwards everyone is taking pictures of each other with the band. My mom tells us to get together so she can take a picture of us, in our costumes. We all climb up on top of the van and do our best superhero poses.
After the show, we are pretty much established as a major band in St. Louis. The weekly music magazine about the local scene does an article on us, interviewing us one night at our practice space and taking pictures. I tell them all the stuff I believe, how music should bring people together, allow people to share their talents, and say something meaningful, or at least fun.
We are on the cover that week, with a photo of us posing in a booth at Courtesy Diner. “’Down With Strangers,’ No One’s a Stranger Here,” it says. We are all really excited, and get a bunch of copies. It’s free, after all. I keep about five of them in a dresser drawer.
Shows are very easy to get after that, anywhere we want to play practically, but we try to limit ourselves to about two shows a month maximum, just so we kept people interested and don’t get played out. Our CD is selling well at shows, and we also get the local record store, Vintage Vinyl, to sell copies for us. We make shirts. Some pretty cool designs, too. My favorite has an image of two men with brief cases shaking hands, just white on black, or brown, or green, with the band name above it. The other one was a big white arrow pointing down, which had “With Strangers” written inside the arrow. They also sell well. People even start to recognize us on the streets, and we hear stories from friends who actually know us about people who don’t know us saying how they do. It’s a lot of fun.
We think about getting on a label, to get distribution for our CD. But we want to make sure we keep it on a personal level, where we are accessible and actually close to our fan base. We’re not sure of how to go about getting on a label, and we can never decide what we’re going to do in the long run with the band. It looks like we’re all going to be going to college the next fall, and we know the band probably won’t survive that. We discuss trying to get signed often, and we usually pass it by. We think it‘s a good idea and want to try it, it seems like, every time, but we never go for it. We don’t know if labels actually come up and approach bands… like, if it happens that way, but, it’s not like any have expressed interest… yet. We subconsciously resist thinking about it for the most part, just like we never discuss the band’s mortality. But we know it’s an issue. We’re pretty good at the music business part ourselves, and so we just hang on to our CD.
We send copies of our CD to some zines, for reviews, and most of them really like it. People email us from other states sometimes, to get a copy. We do local distribution ourselves, and more and more people come to our shows.
We make enough money to cover the cost of the CDs, and still have about fifty copies left. Back in the positive, money wise, we start making plans for the summer ahead. It’s still a while off, but we’re thinking big. We’re thinking of a small tour. If we are going to spread our band’s name, we are going to do it ourselves, so we start calling friends, talking to club owners about possible connections, looking for clubs in neighboring cities online. It’s really a lot easier than we thought it would be. We don’t want to do any kind of extensive touring, just about five shows throughout the Midwest, in Kansas City and Chicago definitely, and a few smaller towns. All we have to pay for is gas money, some new t-shirts, and a few more copies of the CD. Our plan is to find places to stay while we are actually on the road, asking people we meet, or announcing that we are searching for a place to crash while onstage. And if we can’t make arrangements that way, well, we’ll just sleep in the van. That’s still months away, though, and in the meantime, we have to think about the battle of the bands, at Louh.
There are five bands competing in the battle of the bands this year, as there are every year. All bands to be considered must submit a recording, of any quality, and then the kids in charge narrow it down to five bands. We are among those five. Mike is one of the guys in charge of the event, and he votes for us, but we would have been in it regardless. We have a studio produced recording, and we have been playing for over a year. And we don’t suck. So we are there, with the prime spot of second to last, and we are ready to start a fucking riot at our school with our visionary rock superpowers. But first we have to sit through the other bands.
We aren’t even there for the first band, and so don’t learn their name. We are eating pizza at my house, loading everything into the van at the last minute. For some reason, we are taking it easy for this show, something about it being Sidney’s and my school. But we still want to win.
The second band is a few freshmen and sophomores, all really excellent musicians, a generic jam band. They’re called “The Businessman’s Trip,” which is an obviously cool name. They get everybody dancing, including the four of us, and we are all excellent dancers, doing the thing where you point your fingers out and shake them, while twisting your ass. Or just nodding and bending our knees in time with the music, hands in pockets (that’s my favorite). Their bassist, this kid Tyler I know a little, is fucking incredible. He’s my hero. He can play slap, funk, jazz, anything, and he isn’t too modest on stage, he’s got long-ass solos where he stands at the front of the stage, head bowed and shaking. They play for their allotted half-hour, and then The Dissidentists are up.
The Dissidentists are a punk band, only they are absolutely horrible. I don’t know how they got through the screening process. Who did the screen—
“Who decided these guys could play?” I ask Sidney.
“Maybe… Oh, I get it. They’re supposed to sound bad. Cause they’re punk, right?”
“Oh, it all makes sense now,” I say.
We’re being asses, but I’m still listening to them. I realize my first judgment was a little harsh. I start to actually like them, in a way. They’re raw, and that’s something at least. But I can’t listen long, because we’re on next and we have to get ready, go “backstage,” which looks suspiciously similar to the visiting team’s locker room.
We set up and are waiting behind the velvet curtain, listening to Mike announcing us.
“This next band needs no introduction…” A few seconds pause. “Thank you.”
The curtains open and we are hit instantly with the theater spotlights, the lights above us coming on, bright as hell. We are not fazed. I walk up to the microphone, comfortable, on my home turf.
“Hello St. Louis High!” I say in my best rock star voice. “How’s everybody feel?”
I am screaming like an idiot.
I switch to my normal voice, a hint of apology in it for being a jackass. Time to take over the school.
“We’re ‘Down With Strangers.’ Alright, let’s go.”
We blaze through the first fifteen minutes, not a single mistake. Everyone is dancing, some people are singing along.
“Ok, Ok, Ok, hold up… let’s slow it down,” I say. “We’ve got a new song. A little different, just a little different from our usual stuff.”
Someone “boos” in good humor.
“Just a little--”
“We fear change,” Sidney says.
“OK, so if it’s just a little different, that means it’s a lot the same, right?” Mark asks. We always make a point of giving Mark a mic.
“Yeah. True. This is our rock and roll song. This is our pure, open-road, true classic rock and roll song.” I take a drink of a bottled water. “Complete with sha-na-nana’s.”
“Fucking play it!” someone yells.
I clear my throat. “Mmhgcmm. Yeah. ”
“You know, if you never take time, how can you ever have time?” Lane asks, quoting the ‘Matrix: Reloaded’ I guess.
“Alright, here we go.”
It’s what they refer to in the movies as a dry opening.
”Saw a homeless man
By the freeway today
With dirty clothes
And a sign that says
Will work for beauty
Will work for a dream
Will work for a place
Where I can be me
I was driving down the road
not sure of where I was going
And I saw some kid hitchin’ by the side
Just looking for a ride
And I stopped to see
Where he was headed
Asked his destination
Said he wanted
To go where there’s sunny days
And maybe occasionally a rain to wash away the pain
And maybe some space to make some songs,
Paint some pictures
Chase a scene
That I used to always see
In my starling early daydreams
It was like a summer song
That we would sing all day long
And it went
Sha na na na na na-na
Where we headed we don’t care
Doesn’t matter where we going
Cause we’re already there
Sha na na na na na-na
I believe in my lover
I love what she believes
Don’t believe she’ll ever really go away
Cause she’s the leaves on the tree
She said she’d meet me out in Cali
So I guess that’s where I’ll go
It’s somewhere you can really know
But then again I’ve barely been
I’m just trying something new
We’re all just on a road
We’re building as we go
But you know I think that’s fine
I encourage the audience to sing along to the sha-na-na’s
Sha na na na na na-na
Where we headed we don’t care
Doesn’t matter where we going
Cause we already there
Sha na na na na na-na
I believe in my lover
I love what she believes
Don’t believe she’ll ever really go away
Cause she’s the leaves on the tree
We get off the stage with the crowd still screaming. I want to play longer, but we have to clear off for the next band. We were told they are good.
And they are pretty good. They’re a ska band with a ton of energy.
We load the equipment into the van .
After the last band finishes, everyone waits around to see who the winner is. We think we already know. I know it’s cocky, but it’s a high school battle of the bands. And we’ve been playing in real clubs for a while now. So has the ska band, so, we’re still waiting, wondering.
“Down With Strangers,” Mike says, announcing the winner. $150. We accept graciously, thank everyone involved, and then get off stage.
We stick around for a while, to talk to friends, the other bands, and to sell CDs...
“Hey Mike, you guys need any help cleaning up?”
“You want to sweep the gym?”
“Do I?” I say, taking the broom.
“What are you gonna use the money for?” He asks the band, standing around.
“Gas money, travel expenses.”
“Oh that’s right, you’re going to Chicago.”
“Bet your ass.”
Chapter 23: Conga-rats
Sidney and I are set to graduate. He struggles to pass a Spanish class, I am doing fine, and we are both thinking about colleges. I am probably going to go somewhere up in Chicago, just to get to a bigger town, a better scene. Sidney expresses an interest in going wherever I’m going, and I think that’s fine, we’ll still be friends, of course. But I also just want to start over, somewhere new.
I am thinking about going to school for journalism, and maybe a minor in music. I think about the possibility of getting a job with a music magazine. And maybe actually going on to be in another band. Anyway, something with music, definitely. Sidney is going to study History. It’s always been his favorite subject, and he says he wants to “learn something that he can use.” And sociology, maybe, too. The counselor suggests anthropology, so he’s looking into that. He is interested in doing something unique with whatever he learns, anyway. Something real.
I read this book once, called the “Teenage Liberation Handbook,” and it was about getting out of school entirely to learn more on your own. When I first encountered the book I was so impressionable I almost wanted to drop out, and be “liberated” from school, but I hadn’t. Now, however, I was thinking maybe I should go without college. I mean, it’s just more school, right? All throughout high school I was learning more on my own than I ever was in school. So maybe I can do something original, on my own, without college. I’m thinking about it anyway, all the while looking at college brochures trying to decide on one. They all look the same. Of course they aren’t, there are plenty of really good schools, but it’s the end of senior year, and I have no energy for anything to do with school. I am already finished with it all in my head, so I can’t force myself to care about the decision. I figure I’ll end up at the right school somehow, by dumb luck. My mom is doing more research than I am, showing me booklets from schools she thinks I would like.
I narrow it down to two schools in Chicago, and then choose one over the other, based on my remembrance of the tours we did while we were up there. Sidney, of course, chooses the same school, consulting me.
Graduation is a big deal at Louh; they have a huge ceremony that lasts for about five hours. As I sit there, when I’m not sleeping or looking at Avery in the bleachers, I think about Lane and Mark. Mark had given up on school like I had thought to, only in a different way. He had more given in than given up. He went to a shitty high school and then a shitty community college. And not even because he can’t afford private schools, just because he never thought any other school would be for him. He thought if he was going to have to waste his time in a classroom, it might as well be a cheap, or even a free, and easy one. He is a very intelligent guy, he reads like mad, and has an educated opinion on just about everything; he just doesn’t care about school. I envy him, but also worry about him, and his future. He is one of those guys I can see getting married and living in an apartment somewhere, maybe in a shitty job, just reading and going to that drum circle he always goes to, never really doing much, considering his potential. But if that’s what he wants to do, I can’t say anything against it, so. Anyways.
Lane is different. Lane had dropped out of school to get away from the hellhole known as Division South. He has a plan at least: to get his G.E.D., spend a year at a community college, and then transfer to someplace better. He knows what he wants, and it’s apparent in everything he does. In the way he speaks, even in the way he acts when we go get free pizza at his work. He’s a real dedicated guy, even noble in a way. I know Lane will be all right.
“Sidney West,” they call, and I watch him strut across the stage in the graduation robe, or whatever they call it. He looks good in that get up, no kidding. But you can almost see the doubt in his face. I’ve made it this far, it says, now what? That I can’t tell you, my friend. His mom is still in remission, and goes to the doctor regularly to keep watch. I really hope it doesn’t come back. For her sake, and Sidney’s.
Our album has been well received by all of the people we most care about, and we feel we have accomplished something. We have a sense of completion, and sort of feel we’re winding down. But we still have a few shows set up for early summer and are really excited to be going on tour. We get one show in Chicago, at a club called the Saturnine Lounge, and another one right outside Chicago at a skate park. Kansas City’s looking good, too. We have six shows altogether spread out through a period of two weeks. That’s a long time to go without bathing or washing our clothes, so we set aside some money for a few nights in hotels or at least use of a Laundromat, still hoping to find people to stay with as we go.
Avery and I go to a show, ‘The Dandy Warhols‘, playing at the Firehouse, a local club that I’d only been to once. It had actually been converted from an old firehouse, hence the name. They ripped the floor out of the second story, raising the ceiling basically, and added a stage, and bathrooms in the back. The place is a good size, holds plenty of people, and specializes in bands that draw an older crowd. Some shows there are twenty-one and over, but this one isn’t. The opening band is really amazing; some new band that is really Rock and Roll. Or Rock and Roll revivalist, if you want to get technical, considering they have a song called “Whatever happened to my Rock and Roll?” When they finish playing, the crowd shifts, reforming with Avery and I in the center left, about four people deep from the stage.
The Dandy Warhols come on and it’s surreal. They are so fucking cool, and they know it. The lead singer is actually named Courtney, which I can’t get over, I love it so much. If you’ve never heard them they’re sort of tripped-out, sort of poppy, sometimes like a wall of sound coming at you. The lighting is flawless and the sound is perfect. Everything is great, if you don’t mention the drunk guy standing next to me. But unfortunately, I feel I have to mention him.
There is a drunk guy standing in the crowd yelling stuff, totally killing the mood, right next to A and I.
He is saying the stupidest shit, and people are yelling things back at him without turning, trying to get him to shut up. The band is ignoring him, which is the method I am employing, but I can’t for long. See, Avery is standing in front of me, and he is to the left, right there. And he starts doing this clapping thing where he swings his arms real wide until he is actually hitting Avery with his arms. I sort of push him off a little bit, like a boat from shore. You know, basic concert etiquette, trying to give him a hint.
He keeps doing it. I have to ask him to stop. He is the dumb mass of humanity and for some reason it falls to me to say:
“Could you not do that?”
“You got a fucking problem, man?” he responds. He looks at A, who is facing him. “This your girlfriend?” He touches her hair between fingers making the money sign. It’s then that I know I am going to have to drop him.
But I don’t want to jump the gun.
“Don’t touch her,” I say, pushing him a little. “You’re bothering everyone. Just quit being an ass and it’s cool.”
“Oh, I’m an ass, huh? I think you’re the ass, man.”
He pulls his arm back and I know he is about to punch me, but his movement is slow thanks to his inebriation and I am on top of him before he can hit me. I jump up on him, and he is a tall guy, huge in fact. I get him in a headlock from the front, while putting my right leg behind his right leg. I use my leg as a fulcrum, pulling his head down with my weight and the strength of my leg and arm. He falls backward, hard.
The band stops playing, and calls the bouncer over. The bouncer is fast, obviously a professional, and knows what has happened, has been watching.
“Shit, man. You fucking broke my glasses,” I hear from underneath me. I am afraid he is going to get up and kick my ass, but the bouncer is there, and takes control, another one on his way over.
They drag him by the arms towards the
I don’t want to get fucked up, so when a bouncer comes back over to me, I express my concern for my safety, and Avery’s safety, after the show.
“Is there any way you can make sure he doesn’t attack me after the show? I’m kind of worried that—“
“The cops have been called. They’re coming to get him.”
“Oh, alright. Thanks.”
When I walk back over to the crowd I am still pumped from the adrenaline rush. People around me start patting me on the back, clapping. Avery looks up at me and then kisses me.
One night, the idea comes to me to have a Conclave meeting, spontaneously, and I call everyone to come over.
“Bring poetry,” I say. “Your own, or someone else’s.”
There’s a thunderstorm warning, and in some places it’s already raining hard. The rain hasn’t hit my house yet, but I’m hoping it will soon.
“Come in, come in,” I tell them as they arrive. I have candles laid out on the coffee table, incense burning, the band ‘Godspeed You Black Emperor!’ playing over the P.A. It’s the perfect atmosphere. Everyone is there, finally, and I am telling them why I called them.
“I know you’ve all seen ‘Dead Poets Society.’ I know you have. So I don’t want to hear anyone compare this to that movie. I know it’s hard to be original with anything now, but we still have to try to find things that are real and true even if they’ve been done before. I know you know that, too. So, I am proposing we all read our favorite poems to each other, in the dark, by candlelight, while the storm lasts.”
I walk over, open the curtains, and throw open the windows. My basement is only underground on one half, the other side overlooking a hill, and through the enormous window you can see the hill and the street beyond. The rain is heavy but not too loud, and we can still hear each other over the pouring and the thunder. There is lightning.
“I know we haven’t done as much with the Conclave this year, but I still thought we could get together tonight. So, if you want to read, we can start.”
We’re not exactly poetry experts, but dilettantes, and so we read the poems we know. Someone reads, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and certain lines catch me, in a way they never have before. When he says he has rolled the universe into a ball, and then comes back to tell everyone about it, and “one, settling a pillow by her head,” says
“That is not what I meant at all.
it makes me wonder about saying anything, especially in art. How can we pin down the world, and claim to know what it means? It is far too complex and mysterious for anyone to really know it. But still we try. And I wonder if someone is somewhere, looking at the world we’ve made, not us specifically, but us, humanity, saying, “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.” I really don’t know. If anyone is watching our friends in particular, I hope they are as excited about what we’re doing as we are.
Someone reads Emily Dickenson. Avery has brought Elliot Smith lyrics, and reads those. I have a small copy of “Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg, and we decide to read it in its entirety, taking turns. It is long, and takes a while to read, but it’s more than worth it. It’s indescribable. I feel like I’m… seeing a whole world. Howling. Like I’m back crossing that invisible fence... God it makes me want. The thunder is perfect, playing along, and we finish, each of us having read something.
It is still raining hard, and we say, fuck it, let’s get wet, and run outside. We dance in the street, catching the rain with our hands reaching up, into the sky.
Avery and I stand outside my door, soaking wet, and we hug each other, start to kiss.
“This was a good idea,” she says to me.
“Yeah, it was fun.”
She addresses the sky, “What am I going to do in college, when I don’t have Tim around?”
“I don’t know…”
“When the band gets rich I’ll come bail you out.”
Avery starts to cry a little.
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s a girl thing I guess.”
“Cheer up,” I say, holding her and looking up. “We‘ll always have ‘An
We’re both looking into the sky now, tasting the salt of the earth, noticing a full moon peeking through the distant clouds.
“Want some wine to go with that cheese?” she asks.
“I’ll miss you.”
Water is falling from the sky. Our lips meet.
It’s hard falling asleep this night, feeling a sense of urgency come to my body, the good version of the feeling I get when I’ve had too many cups of coffee. I’m too excited to sleep. Some days I just have the feeling that I have to do something, everything, now. So I stay up writing in my journal; lyrics, poetry, whatever comes out. I feel satisfied, truly, when I finally fall asleep. I sleep well, and wake up to a new world, as I do every day. Only this day I know it.
The night before we are to leave for Chicago, we invite all of our friends over to my house for a show, just friends. But still, that’s a lot of people. It is more a party than a show, but we are playing. It gets pretty crazy. Avery is there, and she makes out with me in the middle of a song. I just watch it happen, my eyes open, surprised.
It’s like a going away party for the whole band in a way. I think people sense that the band isn’t going to be around much longer. It’s the last summer for a lot of things, really. There is a certain feeling in me, nostalgic, and I know nothing could ever match the feeling of our first show, or the superhero costumes, or anything really. Charlin shows up, a little late. She has just gotten off work and looks a little worn out. We play a few songs acoustically, and everyone is singing along. We are really singing them, too, loud as hell.
Everyone’s there, talking about old times, mostly. About our favorite moments, with the band, as friends. Mike is there too. I haven’t been seeing him much since school let out. He’s going to school in Miami in the fall, so I probably won’t be seeing him much in the future, either.
I’m standing there, holding the microphone, and someone yells, “speech!” So I sort of give one. I’m the type of guy that will do just about anything a friend yells for me to do. So I say something about dedicating the song, “Bridges,” to “everybody that’s here, in this basement, right now. Because you’re all as much a part of this thing as any of us are.” Everyone brightens, and the room feels light and alive, and we play the song.
My throat is hurting pretty badly by the end of the night. It must be tired; I’ve been singing really hard. It’ll probably be fine by tomorrow, I think. I smoke a clove cigarette, against my better judgment. My nose is running like hell, so I keep blowing it.
It’s getting late, and Charlin wants to go home. She asks Mark to walk her to the car. As he gets up to leave I watch them, up the steps, her hand leading him. Charlin doesn’t even say goodbye to anyone. I watch A smoking a cigarette, beautiful, and laughing at Sidney telling a story into the camera. He is telling of the time when he first met Mark and he thought he was a jerk, cause he acted like he was cooler than everybody. He does a good impression of the faces Mark makes when he plays drums, too.
Mark comes back in and everyone is laughing, but I can sense something is wrong. Mark looks bad, smaller somehow. He asks me to go outside, so we go out the basement door and sit there, on the steps.
“Charlin just dumped me,” he says.
“Oh man. I’m sorry.”
“She gave me that, ‘I need to be alone for a while’ crap. Like it was something she had to work through, without me. And I felt like, I can’t argue with that!” He laughs, desperate. Then he looks serious, and it seems like he might cry. “It wasn’t really open to discussion, the way she said it.”
“How long did you guys go out for, anyway?” I probably shouldn’t have asked that, I think instantly, but I already had.
“Almost two years. Forever.”
“That sucks. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“So, I guess you probably don’t feel like going to Chicago.”
“No, no. I’ll still—“
“You don’t have to you know. We can cancel.”
“No, no. I want to do it. We have to do this. I’m not going to let this stop the band from playing Chicago.”
“If you’re sure...”
“Yeah, it will help take my mind off of it, anyway.”
“OK. Just let me know if I can do anything. Ever.”
Around two, everyone has gone home except the band members. They’re all sleeping over at my place, so we can leave early in the morning. We pack the van that night, and everything is ready. Mark has told Lane and Sidney, and we are discussing it, scattered around my room. Lane is strumming my acoustic guitar, Sidney and Mark are sitting on the sofa, and I’m lying on the floor.
“Sometimes you have to just be alone for a while, man. Just like you sometimes have to listen to ‘The Bends’ by Radiohead. It’s just a fact.” Sidney’s trying to lighten the mood a little bit.
“She just didn’t give me any warning. And she wouldn’t explain it to me. She said she felt like she needed to start a ‘new chapter’ in her life, but that doesn’t tell me anything. I mean, was she just trying to get rid of me? Or do you think it was really something with her.”
“You guys were good together,” I say. “I don’t think she would lie to you about something like that. Like Sidney says, but put a little differently, sometimes, you just have to have a change. Things can’t stay the same forever.”
“I guess you’re right. She wouldn’t lie to me. I just wish she would have stayed a little longer tonight, or kissed me one last time, or, I don’t know, something.”
We talk for a while, but
we are all pretty exhausted and are getting up at six A.M. to leave, so we
bed down and dream.
Chapter 24: Shaking Hands with the Medicine
In the morning, we get up, take showers (cold after the first one and a half of us is through) and load our “carry-on” luggage.
“Shit man, you got a
ticket on your own street,” Sidney says, pointing to the
I pull up two white envelopes from under the windshield wiper. One says “To Mark, From Charlin,” the other “To Tim, From Charlin.” They both say, “Open in private” underneath the names.
I get back in the van and hand Mark his letter.
“Well, I guess this means she wasn’t just trying to get rid of you, huh?”
“Hey where are our letters?” Sidney asks for Lane and himself, feigning being hurt.
I pull out and the four of us drive into the sunrise. I think of my paper for Mr. Sanders’ class over a year before, how it had said the end of the American west was the end of all frontiers, how there is no more opportunity for adventure. As I get us onto the highway, headed for Chicago, I realize how wrong I had been.
We stop for coffee early on, to wake us up. We are drinking, not saying much. The last row of seats has been replaced by our amps and instruments, and the drums. We are old pros at packing the van by now, so we have plenty of room. Lane sits in the middle row, stage left, leaning his head against the glass, trying not to focus on the road going by, it being too fast for him even if he were to try. Mark and I are talking about something, I don‘t know what, him up front with me. Sidney is reading “Stranger in a Strange Land,” by Robert A. Heinlein. We are listening to the American Analog Set album “Know By Heart,” and I keep repeating track four, a song called “The Postman.” It’s the perfect song for the road, even a million times. No one is complaining.
Mark cheats and opens his letter. He reads it, while I drive, and he starts crying. I feel like I should do something, but nothing comes out. He seems like he’s happy, in some way, at least, so I stare ahead into the road. Then he wipes his eyes and folds the envelope with the letter inside, and puts it in his chest pocket. His window is down and he leans out to feel the wind on his face.
We get there eventually, a small town outside Chicago, arriving too early to go to the skate park, so we kill time in a little mom and pop restaurant. They let us sit there after we eat, drinking coffee for a long while, and then we walk around the downtown area. It’s a pretty typical Midwestern town, but apparently there are a lot of punks and indie kids there, because there’s more than one independent record shop. We loiter and wander until it’s time to get ready for the show.
The skate park is actually really cool. I love the name, too; it’s called “Robots Only Skate Park.” They have a nice little stage, and the guy who runs the place is friendly, telling us how glad he is that we could come up, hope we had a nice trip, all that. We unpack the van, and get everything set up. There are only about fifteen kids there in the audience, and some more kids skating. Most of them are younger, it looks like, maybe sixteen, seventeen tops, some of them really hardcore punk looking kids. We start to play, a usual set, nothing too special or out of the ordinary. We try to get the crowd into it by asking them what they do in this town for fun.
“Beat each other up,” some kid yells, joking with us.
“Beat up rednecks,” another kid says. Mark does the classic drum thing you do after a joke, the buh dum… ching! thing. I laugh about that for a while, and then we play the next song. My throat is burning and my eyes start to water, but I sing anyway.
A few songs into it, some kids decide we’re not worth their attention. They start walking away, more after each song. It’s like the opposite of bugs being attracted to light, I think. By the end of the show, there are about five people left. A few, two farther away, still listening.
“Thanks for listening,” I say. “We’re ‘Down With Strangers.’ We have merchandise over in the van, if you’re interested.”
We get offstage, and the two people in the back come over.
“Hey, you guys were really good. I mean it, I don’t know why all those kids left.” He looks at Mark, carrying the kick drum towards the van, “Hey man, good show.”
“Thanks a lot,” Mark huffs.
“Want to buy a CD?” I ask him. His girlfriend lingers in the background. “They’re only ten bucks.”
“Oh man, I would, you know? But I’m broke right now. So, maybe next time. OK? You were really good, though.”
I think about it for less than a second.
“Here man. You can just take it. We probably won’t sell it anyway. This is one of our last shows, and we’ve got a ton left. So, here.” I hand him the CD.
“You serious?” he says, acting surprised. “Oh, awesome, man. Thanks a lot. I’ll definitely listen to this.”
“Sure. No problem.”
We sleep in the van, in a grocery store parking lot. We stay up for a while talking, about the guy at the show, how the kids just left, what we hope for the show in Chicago. I don’t say much, thinking a lot, I don’t even know what about.
When the rest of the guys are asleep, I pull Charlin’s letter out. It is written in her perfect handwriting, in blue ink, on ruled notebook paper, folded in thirds. I look at it for a long time before starting it.
I feel like I’ve gotten to know you more than anyone else in the band. Except for Mark of course. Anyway, I really liked all the time I got to spend with you through the band. I know I’ve told you this before, but you’re a really talented kid. You’re a great songwriter, and a good guy. I’ll never forget that night when you let me crash at your place after I got wasted, when you slept on the couch and let me have the bed. It’s little things like that that make a difference. So, thanks.
I wonder if I’ll see you again. I mean, maybe at shows when you’re home for the summer or something, but probably not too often. I’ll still be here, in good old St. Louis. I don’t know if I’ll ever get out of this place, but I’m not so worried about that now. I’m kind of settled in, you know? I am worried about you, though. What are you going to do with yourself up in Chicago? You’ll be able to do anything you want. You have such great potential, and I can’t wait to see what you do with it. But in case I don’t see you, I have some advice for you. Something I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time.
You can’t save the world all by yourself. I know you feel some calling or something. I see the way you look when you talk about your ideas, your big plans for everyone. I see the way you go after new people all the time and try to get to know everyone, and always be what they want you to be, and then you end up not being able to follow through, disappointing them and hurting them or hurting yourself. You spread yourself too thin and lose yourself. I’ve seen you do it. I’m not a psychologist or anything, but I understand some of what drives you. You’re out to save everyone all the time, and you keep thinking about some distant future where everything will be perfect, but in the meantime you’re missing everyone and everything that’s right in front of you. I’ve known guys like you before, and if you keep going like this, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. The world will never be perfect. It just won’t be, it’s impossible. But you can change some things. And you can find happiness in your own way, create a place for you to be who you are, and find ways to help other people do the same. So don’t quit dreaming, but don’t lose sight of yourself, and your own life.
Take care of yourself, and take care of Mark for me.
I recline the driver’s seat and close my eyes, listening to nothing.
The next day we get up early, thanks to a little travel alarm that is surprisingly loud. My throat has gotten worse overnight, and I can’t swallow without pain. I let Mark drive, and we aren’t far out of Chicago at all. It’s only about an hour drive, but there’s some traffic on the way in. We have to find the place where we’re playing, and then have to convince the guy that yes, we can park there. We lock the van and walk around the city. We are downtown, in the loop, right near the school I’m supposed to be going to. We’re all really thirsty for some reason, and I know it’s going to hurt my throat, but I have to get something in me, so we go into a little convenience store. I get a PowerAde, and walk up to the counter, waiting in line to pay. I’m sort of grumpy, partly because I didn’t get enough good sleep. The women on the magazine covers at the counter look up at me invitingly, but I resist. Some days I pick them up, out of curiosity, but today I don’t want to. I feel a little disgusted at them actually. I mean, I’m as human as the next guy, and I like attractive women, fine. But I’m not in the mood for something as fake as a magazine cover, the doctored images inside. Really, I miss Avery a lot, and hold her image in my head for a second, until the woman behind the register asks, “Is that it?”
“Yeah“, I say. “That’s it.”
We walk around, having nothing to do, and we’re talking a little bit, but mostly just looking around. I notice the familiarity of most of the business names around the city, which sort of depresses me. Angers me, actually. There used to be local businesses here, I think. People used to own and work at them, with a sense of pride and true ownership, of something original. But that has been sacrificed to efficiency and corporate imperialism, the profit system. These same corporations are everywhere now. Reproducing like a goddamn virus until you can’t turn your head without seeing some name you know, some name you have begun to feel contempt for just for being in your face. But what they haven’t found is a way to mass-produce the spirit of the independents. They lack true originality, the things that make them individual. They lack a certain quality. And with the spread of businesses like this, everything mass-produced, and the spread of mass entertainment, people are becoming the same way. Mass-produced minds. Reflections of the society that they now exist in... I’m dismayed and sort of feel hopelessness for a second. Sometimes it’s just hard to care and think all the time. I catch myself… And all of this is happening so fast that it’s hard to stop it, because it’s already taken over almost everything. The real battle in the future will be to change people individually. No, not the future, I think. Now. The battle for now is to change people individually. And the job of doing that of course falls to individuals themselves. People who find a way out of the trap, the old patterns of consumerism and self-destruction, and see the world as it really is. And then, hopefully, individuals can change things on a level where everyone can share in the change, one by one, without adding yet another system of hierarchy or creating another form of bureaucracy. Because with bureaucracy, people may admit things are bad, but still say to themselves: Things are bad, sure. But I’m not to blame. I didn’t do this, so I don’t have to fix it. I can just step back and let someone else clean up this mess. The fucked up world we live in is someone else’s fault. Right? Only you can’t do that. You can’t say the world’s problems aren’t your own. You are as much in charge of the world as any other single soul. And so it is up to us, each of us, to help, to do the work. Cause if we don’t do it, the whole fucking world is going to look this way. This dead, this living-deadness that pervades everything and gets in your head like an image you can’t shake. Something that physically disgusts you on a gut level.
I decided a long time ago that I’m going to do the best I can in this life. By fighting any worthwhile battle that comes my way, big or small, and always working for the powers of good. Every day there is an opportunity to talk to someone, or support a cause, or a group of people. And that’s where a lot of our power lies, in our day to day action. But we still have to hope for larger change, which comes when more people change their actions, and start living for their own causes.
We hang out at the train station for about an hour, just watching people. I’m still in a bad mood. Normally my mood changes very often, but I can’t get away from a feeling of frustration.
“Do you ever wish you were one of them?” I ask Mark, quietly.
“One of whom?”
“Normal people. One of them.”
“I don’t believe in normal people.”
I’m not really in the mood for cleverness, so I drop the conversation.
I’m despondent, and just want to get the show over with. I suggest we head towards the club.
The club is pretty fucking swanky. In a bad way, of course. Why can’t our big Chicago show be at a good club for Christ’s sake? The fucking Saturnine Lounge. What kind of name is that? We set up nearly two hours before the doors even open, the guy letting us in only because I practically knock the door off its hinges.
“You guys the band from St. Louis? The Strangers?”
“Down With Strangers,” Mark says. “Yeah, that’s us.”
“OK. We’ll do a quick sound check then, when you’re ready.”
We do the sound check, but I don’t sing. I realize that something is seriously the matter with my throat, it’s hurting too bad to be nothing. So I think I’ll save it for the show, and just strum my guitar listlessly while the sound guy adjusts levels and does whatever sound guys do.
We sit on an old, beat-up black leather couch backstage, waiting for people to show up. We have friends up here, in Chicago, and we tried to let as many of them as possible know we’re playing. I don’t even remember who we invited, so I was surprised to see some of them walking through the door. Pretty happy to see some of them, too. Laura and Monica are there, which surprises the hell out of me. I haven’t seen them for too long, but Lane had gotten a hold of them somehow, and here they are.
“Hey Tim!” Monica says, running up to me.
“Hey,” I whispered.
“What’s wrong, can’t talk?”
“My throat,” I say, pointing and rolling my eyes.
“Oh. Well, you’re going to sing, right?”
“Yeah, of course.” I’m trying to keep from cringing from the pain when I talk. I want to talk to them, though, so I ask, “How’s School? Where are you guys at now?”
“We’re both at Columbia. We room together and everything. It’s pretty great.”
“Study?” I say.
“What do we study? I study film.”
“I study Art History,” Laura tells me.
I give them a thumbs up.
“Hey Tim, we’re on,” Sidney comes over to tell me.
When we get on stage, I see a lot of familiar faces in the audience. People I haven’t seen in ages. And some new people too.
“Hey everybody,” I croak.
“Whoa, what’s the matter with your voice?” Sidney asks me, alarmed.
“Nothing, I’m fine. It’s just a little sore.” I say, trying to make it sound OK.
“You sure you can sing?”
“I have to, don’t I?”
“Fine. Just don’t overdo it.”
Just don’t overdo it, he says. Just like Charlin told me, don’t try to change the world. Just like my mom was telling me practically every day when I tell her I don’t want to go to college, don’t want to do what everybody does. Work, Consume, Die. Just don’t over do it, I hear, from all sides. Fuck them, I think. I’ll do whatever I want.
Mark clicks the drumsticks four times, high above his head, and we launch into the first song. It’s one of the first songs we wrote, back when we were all listening to punk all the time, and has a fast beat and violent music. I start screaming the lyrics, playing my guitar part. I’m strumming really hard and fast, which causes my guitar strap to break. I don’t try to put it back on; I just drop my guitar back behind the drums. I guess I’m just singing this time. It’s not like my guitar part is really important or anything.
We play a lot of old stuff, playing to the crowd. Some of these people, man, they were there from the beginning. Back when we were playing in people’s basements, and at that church group. These people really know us. Know what we‘re about. I’m giving them the best performance I can, feeling like someone has poured Draino down my throat. Every song we play is suddenly too slow, and I rip the mic off the stand, head back to Mark on drums, telling him to speed it up. “It’s got to be faster!” I yell. “Speed up!”
I’m singing as hard as I can, but it’s not working. My voice is gone. About the fourth song in, I can’t do it anymore. I cough and blood comes out, which really scares me. I look at the red drops on the ground and motion for them to quit playing.
“My throat,” I say, near whisper, kneeling on the ground.
They take me to the hospital; Mark drives the van to some random Chicago emergency room, bright and clean. We get into a room fairly quickly, and a doctor comes to look at me. Dr. Lamb, his shirt says. He asks me what the problem is, where it hurts, in effect. I don’t say anything.
“Um, his throat. He coughed blood,” Mark says.
“Alright, let’s take a look,” he says. He turns on his little light and waits for me to open my mouth. It hurts to move anything remotely near my throat, but I open.
He looks inside. “Holy shit,” says Doctor Lamb, real professional like.
Sidney starts laughing like a loon. I flip him off.
“Son, what have you done to yourself?”
“He’s our lead singer. We’re a band,” Mark says.
“You let him sing like this?”
“We didn’t know. He never said anything.”
“Tim, is it?” He looks at his chart. “Tim, it looks to me like you have Laryngitis, which is bad enough, but on top of that, you sang while you were infected which has caused major inflammation and irritation to your throat. I would tell you singing with your throat in this condition was a stupid thing to do, but I’m sure you already knew that. You’ll be lucky if there is no permanent damage.”
“So, what can you do for him?”
“I’m going to call his parents, first of
“He said ‘Holy Shit’! Did you hear him when he said that? That was classic!”
“Shut up Sidney.” Mark says, and then looks at me. “Tim, what the fuck were you thinking? Why did you try to sing?”
Because I had to, I want to say. Because they were all there, and I wanted this to be our big Chicago show. Because I wanted to prove that things were the same… or, different. I can’t say any of this of course. I just sit there on the white disposable paper, my eyes locked with Mark’s. I’m trying to communicate to him what I feel through my eyes into his. I try to prevent myself from crying, but a single tear drips from my left eye anyway.
“For fuck’s sake, Tim. You could’ve lost your voice forever, or something, man. You’re an idiot. It was a stupid thing to do, you know. The Doctor’s right.”
Dr. Lamb pulls the curtain back and walks into the room.
“I’m going to give you a shot of antibiotics and some throat spray. And something for the pain. You are to get home as quickly as possible, your mother says. She didn’t sound too happy either. And do yourself a favor. Don’t talk until a Doctor tells you to, OK?”
25. Good as New, Like Old Times
“She wrote me a letter, The return address said ‘the only spring’
‘Keep this enveloped in your mind: Love is the reason anyone does anything.’”
-Down With Strangers, ‘Priorities’
The ride home is mostly spent in silence. No one feels like listening to music. I think everyone’s a little disappointed that we had to cut the tour short. I sit in the front seat, with Mark driving, staring off into the distance. I’m still in a lot of pain, but I’m numb to it now. I just want to get home, or get somewhere, I don’t know where. I want to see Avery, do something stupid like ask her to marry me. Something desperate. But in a good way.
The truth is I have no idea what I’m doing, I feel lost. I don’t want to see my Mom because I know she’ll just yell at me. And I’m not even sure I want to see any of my friends anymore. Mark pisses me off, the way he acts so cool all the time, a real stoic. And Lane never really does anything that tells anyone a thing. He’s all locked up inside himself, and I don’t think he has any idea what he’s about. Sidney really gets on my nerves. Is everything fucking funny to that kid? Well some things just aren’t funny. You would think his mom getting cancer would wake him up, make him serious about something. Fuck, though, maybe I’m just jealous of these guys. They may be losers as much as I am, but at least they seem to know what they’re doing. They don’t have to think about everything all the time, like I do. Or do they? They have it easy, I think. The world doesn’t expect anything from them, really. But I feel like it expects something from me. I feel the weight of some burden on my shoulders, always. Anywhere I go won’t change that. It’s going to be the same story in Chicago, just a change of scenery.
Fuck man, what am I going to do?
The doctor said I’d be as good as new after about a fucking month of not talking. I think about the phrase, ’good as new,’ and wish it could be true.
The chances of any permanent damage are low, as long as I don’t sing, scream, or even talk for a while. Too long. That’s good news, I suppose, but just the thought of not being able to sing again really gets to me. I hope that that would never happen to anyone, but I know it will. Stupid shit like that happens all the time.
I stay in my room for a long time, just listening to our CD and staring at the ceiling. I haven’t had a cigarette in ages, but I don’t want to start smoking again. I’m not really addicted or anything, I just like the feel of it. So I don’t really need to smoke, I think. I need to be healthier.
When I lay there, so many things go through my head I think that I’m going crazy. I can see myself, sort of really see myself, like I was someone else. I detach from everything and just float above. I think back to our first show and how happy I was then. I wish we would have done more, now, and I think it would have been fun to get really popular, have our music reach a ton of people, I don’t know. In our own way, though. I’m confused about that, not sure what I want. I don’t want to be like other people and just start taking everything for granted.
Looking through all my old pictures makes me happy and sad. It’s like I’m torturing myself by looking back, purposefully feeling an aching nostalgia. I hold a picture of the four of us dressed up as nerds, posing, being goofy. We had it all, man: Pocket protectors, taped glasses, suspenders. We look so young. There’s a picture of me stuffed in a trashcan head-first, and it makes me laugh through the tears. I want to be back there, back then. There was just something in us, in our blood, in our hearts, I don’t know. Somewhere. A picture of A at Courtesy Diner with a spoon on her nose, eyes wide, like the whole world is swirling around her. She’s wearing my jacket. I don’t even know what happened to that jacket.
Avery comes over to visit me, and I listen to her. She’s really a comfort to me sometimes. As I lay there, she just holds me. I feel good for a while after that. She sort of brings me out of it, and I start thinking about real things again, like college coming up. I’m still reluctant to go.
I feel like I’m coming out the other side of a tunnel, seeing light for the first time since I went under. After a while in my room, I feel like seeing people again. It’s like I’m coming back from the dead. I don’t know how to hold on to these moments. My throat is still bad, but it’s improving, slowly. I picture actual scabs in my throat. That’s the way it feels anyway.
We decide, (it’s Sidney’s idea), that we should all go to Courtesy Diner one last time, together, before we’re all off to college. I’m leaving this weekend, and I’m already mostly ready, expectant, my whole life thus far safely packed away in boxes and a suitcase. I write down in a little notepad I have, “Can I bring Avery?”, and they say of course, fine. Everyone’s pretty over-accommodating with me for the moment. It’s kind of nice, I guess. Anyway, I still can’t talk, so I just sit listening to the conversation. They’re talking about their roommates for college. We have all gotten mail telling us who our roommates will be, with their email addresses and phone numbers so we can get in contact with them, decide who brings what, all that stuff. My guy is named Emmanuel, which is sort of off-putting to me, but I think, I’ll just deal with it. He may be an OK guy.
Avery is sitting next to me, speaking. I’m holding her hand under the table.
“I’m rooming with this girl named Jen. She seemed cool at first, but then I asked her what music she listened to, and she just named like three radio bands. So it’ll probably be a pretty long year with her.”
“Where are you going again?”
“Like the X-Men guy. The school for “gifted” children.”
The waitress comes over with our water. “You guys ready to order?”
A and Lane order, then the waitress looks at me.
“Hey Tim, if you want pancakes blink once, omelet blink twice,” Sidney says.
I give him the finger. I’m growing pretty fond of giving people the finger. I point to my choice on the menu, a chocolate milkshake.
Once we get our food, the conversation slows down but doesn’t completely stop.
“So what are you guys going to do, now that the band is no more?” A asks. “I mean, I know you never really broke up, but you guys are like, splitting in half. How do you feel about that?”
Mark answers her first, after a moment’s pause. “I think it’s good that we never officially broke up. I don’t think something like this band should have a definite ending. That way we never have to really say it’s over.”
“Yeah, I feel the same way. But I’m definitely going to miss practice every week.”
“Me too,” says Sidney, serious.
“I’m not going,” I say.
“What?” Mark asks, surprised.
Avery puts her hand to my chest. “Oh Tim, don’t talk.”
“I’m fine. I’m fine.”
She gives me a hard look. “You do too much,” she says.
“I’m not going,” I continue, still talking slowly and quietly. “To college, I mean. I’m not going to go. I’m staying.”
“But you have to go.”
“No, I really don’t. I mean, I want to go to college, so I’ll probably end up going somewhere in St. Louis. But I’m not leaving this band. I can’t. I’m staying. Why can’t we keep playing, even if we’re going to school, or have jobs? This is what I love, and I’m not going to run away from it... I always think that if I just keep going, keep changing and meeting new people and expanding forever then it will solve something. But I’m realizing that it doesn’t really change anything. I’m still the same person, I’m just spread so thin that… I don’t know. It doesn’t make me happy. I mean, it’s exciting, and I don’t think I’ll ever quit it entirely, but I want to build up what I have, right here in front of me. And this band is the most important thing I’ve ever been a part of. It means more to me now, I realize, than I ever knew. Now that I’ve been faced with losing it, I know I’ll never be able to live without it.”
“If you’re staying,” Sidney says, “I’m staying.”
“What about you guys?” I ask Mark and Lane. “Are you up for another round?”
“Hell yes. I never wanted to quit. I just thought it was inevitable…” Mark says.
“’Everything’s eventual,’” Lane says, “but you can always fight anyways.”
“That’s it, right there,” I say.
“If I can play harmonica, or tambourine or something, I’ll stay, too,” Avery says with a laugh. Her eyes say something else, though. She knows she’s leaving.
“Avery, you can come see us when you’re home, or maybe if we ever go on a full scale tour.”
“I know. I’ll miss you guys.”
“I’ll miss you more than you would believe,” I tell her.
“We have to still be friends. Real friends,” she says to me. “As Ani would say, don’t ever treat me like I’m ‘something that happened to you.’ Then I’d have to kick your ass.”
“Man, this is great,” Mark says.
“So, ‘Down With Strangers’ didn’t get down for nothing,” Sidney says.
“I guess not,” I say.
“We can make a comeback.”
“I’m just glad we can make music,” I say. “But a comeback would be nice, too.
CHAPTER 26: For the Record
An attractive indie rock guy with black hair, about ten years older than us walks up to us after a show. He tells us he loved the show, has been following us for a while.
“Following us?” we ask. It sounds good to our ears.
“Yeah, I’m an…
A&R rep from a major label. Oh shit, we think. Now we’ve done it.
“So I came to a show after hearing about you and I’ve been checking…”
“Um, could you hold on for just a second?” I ask him.
“OK. I just gotta…
I head back toward our gear, rummaging through my backpack.
“Just let me handle this,” I say. “Trust me. I won’t say no or yes today.”
We walk back over to the side of the merch booth, where Mike Constance, A&R, is standing.
“Do you think we‘re really R_______ material?” I ask.
“Oh, Definitely. We could get you great representation and really move this stuff. You guys have great appeal, as I’m sure you know. You’ve got a totally youthful image that is just what we‘ve been looking for. It’s so… just right. You’re like a dream come true.”
“Like how many units are we talking? Cause we’ve got an album. We recorded a full length--”
“That would have to be totally rerecorded, in one of our studios, with one of our producers. We would digitally master it, and we could do extensive backing and push it for radio play. I hear a few singles in your repertoire actually.”
“But, like, what kind of potential sales do you see for our record, once, you know, we get it all “mastered”?
“I mean, there are no guarantees with this kind of thing. First thing we have to do is get you guys a contract and go through the whole legal thing.“
“But just a guess, I mean.“
“I think it could easily go gold, even platinum, with the right kind of campaign. This is totally hot shit.”
“Well, thank you.”
“So, should we talk about signing?”
I turn a hundred and sixty-five degrees to my left, then another forty, the guys backing up, I look at the other guys in the band, and I wink at Mark, which they all see.
Return to Noon.
“We’ll have to discuss it.”
“Of course, of course. Sure. Well, I’ll just leave my card with you and you can give me a call anytime and we can go from there.”
“Alright, thanks a lot.“
We watch him walk away, and I swirl around grinning like I just invented punk rock, and Lane’s face bobs and looks like he’s eating something sour and the space of time is like a bic lighter igniting powerfully, suddenly. Flllliifffffft- The gas swoops. The air is fuel. He speaks:
“What the fuck just happened?”
“I fucking recorded him!” I say.
“Everything he said! I got it on tape! Mark’s stupid fucking minicassette!”
“Oh my God.”
“He’s going on about how we’re gonna go gold or platinum, we just gotta sign on to their corporate cluster-you-know-what.”
“Now let’s think about this,” Lane says.
“OK. Fine. Let’s think about it,” I say, still dancing like I have to pee. “But let’s not forget we could add this little gem to our next album. Hell, we can start our own label. We could learn how to do it.”
“He’s right you know,” Mark says.
“Aye, he is right,” Sidney chirrups.
Lane’s still looking like he’s looking for something.
“Come on, let’s go to Courtesy and talk some more on the way.”
“The way I see it… just… I mean, just the way he was talking. You’re not a person anymore, you’re a product. The music is a product. It’s deadened. And… too much of the feel of money slathered all over the surface of the music.
“The only time that much money should touch us and our music is when it’s at the most honest… when there’s a dare involved… music written with… crowbars prying open eyelids. Fuck. Wider, deeper… pure eye juices. I don’t know. Not, more more.”
“I think I see your point,” Lane says.
“So, let’s talk about starting our own label.”
We can’t sign with a clear conscience. It goes against what we are trying to build up, a sense of community and commitment to each other and the spirit of the independent. We don’t want to have to worry about artistic constraints, or trying to appeal to a larger audience. We don’t want people to like us because they see our new single’s video on some fucking T.V., but rather because they hear about us from a friend or a show or a compilation. Because they see us and talk to us, try to get to know us. We don’t want to build strangers, or people that follow us without really having a sense of who we are and what we’re about. We want to share meals with these fucking people, smoke cigarettes and laugh with these people, hug and make contact.
That’s exactly why the book ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life’ said that the bands who signed to the major labels fell apart… because they lost the connection to their fan base.
Something about being on a major label creates an image of what you’re supposed to be, what your goals are supposed to be, where you’re supposed to be going with this whole music thing. I mean, the way I think of it is this: It’s like name brand clothing versus thrifted clothing. Do not thrifted clothes, both when you purchase them and wear them, feel better? You can feel good about a shirt that’s thrifted, because ‘cool’ does exist. Cool is tangible, it has taste and depth and a feeling unique to the experience. There are other reasons of course, like the price of clothing in a name brand store versus an independent store, the atmosphere of the store, even the way the employees speak to you. Buying name brand clothes is like paying someone to mark their territory on you. Maybe just so you can say at least you have marked territory. But it all comes back to the fact that there’s just something about independence (the independents), something about la’ differance, something about a little fucking variety in life.
I heard a theory once, about back in the day when a bunch of punk bands started signing to major labels. If they had just kept working hard on their own, doing music independently, then the underground would have grown enough that eventually people would have an alternative to the mainstream. We’d have more choices and more people would find different ways of doing things. We’d have the fucking airwaves. Everything could change.
“It sure is something that they asked, though,” Lane says. “I mean, did you get that feeling when he asked? Like we should go out of our minds that he even approached us? Like it was the big chance we’d been waiting for.”
Sidney says, “I think we should’ve done it. I think it would be fun.”
“What’s the cost of that ‘fun,’ though? Some board of executives deciding our fate while we watch, helpless? Some uncreative person telling us how to fabricate an image that will sell? I can’t believe we actually considered it a while back when we put out our first album. That would have been a story I’ve heard before: Some new band starts up and gets their big break, then falls apart for lack of any real foundation, artistic or otherwise.”
“I’ll go to the library tomorrow to get out some books on how to run a record label.”
Mark gets up from the table quickly, walking towards the door. I’m about to ask what’s wrong, but I see him talking to someone, a friend.
Mark brings him over to the table. “Hey guys! Remember when we played with that band, ‘The Crushing Heart’? This is my friend Jake, remember? The bass player?”
“Oh yeah. Hey, how’ve you been?”
“I’m good. Been good. What going on?”
I light a clove cigarette.
“We’ve just been approached by a major label,” Mark says.
“Oh man, that’s great. What’d you
“I knew it! Well it’s cool that they asked, right?”
“At least someone thinks we’re good,” Sidney says, sarcastically.
“Well what are you guys going to do for distribution? I mean you have that CD to get to people, you need to do something.”
“We were just talking about starting our own label,” I say, in a puff of smoke.
“You have to be kidding me,” Jake says.
“No, we mean it.”
“No, I mean you have to be kidding because I was just talking to someone about that today. Matt, from the band. We want to start a record label, and put out local bands.”
“Holy shit! That’s awesome. We should join forces.”
“Yeah, definitely. Let’s do it.”
“What should we call it?” Lane asks.
“How about ‘Personal Records’? Sidney asks.
We all -- “You know, like, your personal best. Or whatever.”
“That’s not bad.”
We all like it.
We talk on into the night, sharing our knowledge of music business and our dreams of building the scene in St. Louis. We discuss how we want to do things, designing our version of a corporation, and we fall in love with the idea of creating music and sharing it with the city, the country, anyone interested anywhere. We talk about having a website.
I say, “I think it’s fine if we have a website, but I want to put something on it. A disclaimer, because, well, I’m sort of—“
“He’s anti-internet,” Sidney says.
“I’m not anti-internet. I’m pro-the-real-world. I want the website to say something, like, ‘The internet is a tool, a way to access information and share ideas. But the world itself is also there for us, giving us stimulation and ideas all it’s own. Use one, use both, it’s your choice. But do not forget the world. Take a walk after you’re finished sitting on your ass in front of a computer screen.’ Something like that.”
“Yeah, we can do
“Maybe so,” I say.
An idea comes to Mark. “We have to find some hippie bands for this label. Start finding people who make real music,” Mark says. We look at him. “Not that ‘Down With Strangers’ isn’t real music. Heh. Shutup.”
We laugh, and then dream up benefit shows and side projects and (Holy Shit!) 7” records, compilations, our next and next and next full albums. We feel like we can do anything
we want, because we’re doing it for ourselves.
Chapter 27: Untitled Track
“Don’t Look Back”
- Like Dylan in the Movies
We have a show, at ‘the Pit,’ probably the most dingy club in the city. It’s a very small club, and we fill the place. We are headlining, a few new local bands on first. They sound good from the back room. We watch for a while, sit and talk for a while, watch some more. It’s our first show since we started the label, which we have been having fun working on. Six local bands so far on the label, and we’ve figured out how to do distribution around the country in certain stores. We send out the CDs to magazines to get reviewed. We strive to do it all the best we can, and it’s like a family to us. We always, our band and the bands on our label, strive for honesty and truth, for something that makes life have more life. The way we all work together on everything and how things seem to come together out of all the chaos is sort of… miraculous. It’s great to be connected to such a caring group of people, working on something we all love and can share… something we can be proud of. We have taped little notes onto our CDs, giving the website of ‘Personal Records,’ and ask people to spread the word.
The stage is small, smaller than every other club’s we’ve played on, including the youth group’s, but we are comfortable there, tuning our instruments, checking the mics, waving to friends. The sound isn’t always great at this place, but we try.
I say, “Hey everybody. We’re going to do a quick sound check, so you can tell us how the sound is.”
We start playing a cover we have worked out, “Pocketful of Miracles.” I don’t know who originally did the song, but I’m familiar with the Sinatra version. I convinced the guys to learn the song, and once we figured it out they liked it. It’s a pretty goofy, but good, song, and I’m giving my best Sinatra-like voice to the audience.
“Pee-racticality, Dee-oesn’t interest me. Love the life that I lead,” I sing.
I actually think my voice is stronger now, after being lost for a while.
It’s not just any other show for us. It’s different, somehow. The four of us on stage are in good moods, glad to be playing this show, this night, this crowd. The audience seems cheerful and excited, loved the first two bands and ready to love us too.
“I’ve got pocketful of miracles…
And with a pocketful of miracles
One little miracle a day is all I need.”
They tell us it sounds good.
We go into a song we wrote about a month and a half ago, a song which we’re planning on putting on our upcoming album, called “’Dang‘, or, Let Us.” I got the first line from a Ginsberg poem, and took off with it. The vocals are simple and kind of slow, but not downbeat, the music simple open chords with a subtle bass line.
“Let us be the angels of the world's desire
Let us cut a path on which to tread
Let us consume our illusions in the fire
Let us do it all, before we're dead”
We’ve made it. Have we made it? We’ve made it. We’re still standing, still making music, and that’s something. But we’re more than just standing, we’re still fighting peacefully, still dancing. We’re more awake now than we’ve ever been, and we’re still trying to save the world. I don’t think we’ll ever not be. But I’ve also learned it’s not just about saving the world. It’s about living. Being alive and being able to love. So, I guess, sort of saving yourself. The Conclave is still going strong, but it’s not the same without Avery. We’ve invited more people to join, and try to think up things for people to get together and do. I can’t wait until I hear about other people starting similar groups, all the possibilities for real experiences and change.
“Let us pick the bones clean from ideas
And take in as much until we're full
Let us never back off or concede
Resisting gravities and the inevitable”
I remember when Sidney asked what does music mean… what does it really do? I know making music, writing, singing, talking, even if it doesn’t really “do anything,” it still gives us a place to live in the world, a place to build our lives, a place that‘s truly real, and… there is no word for it. It does do something. It is life. And wherever we want to take it…
“Let us make homes within books and concepts
But never be afraid to move
Let us make haste to make our marks and
Watch them as they change and improve”
Does anyone sit around with friends, or go do something, listening to our CD? Our music? Have we made one person laugh with the shit we pull on stage? Given them something to remember? Have we made our marks? Come one step closer to expressing something real, something we can share?
“Let us sing the songs from the past
Let us write a few of our own
Let us sing our songs when we're together
And remember how that felt when we're alone”
I want to stay here, always, at the beginning of the adventure. I want the weight of hope pushing me forward, not regret tugging on my sleeve, making me turn back. Most of all, I want to keep this feeling of being a part of something that people can support with their individual energies. I want so much from life, and it is there, ready to give, ready to give everything, whispering secrets in my ear. I want to live in the music, be a part of the song.
“Let me be the one that you can run to
I know that you'd do the same for me
Let us not forget we have each other
To help remind ourselves that we are free
We are free.”
I repeat the words “We are free” four times, and most people are singing along. This many voices, that many meanings behind the words. As the music fades out I look out into the audience. I see all kinds of people, all kinds of strange individuals expressing themselves just being alive, and it’s one of those moments to me that’s like no other moment; it’s completely itself, and you’re in the moment and you can see clearly anything your mind wants to believe. And you’re not old, and you’re not young… You’re timeless. And you see a person in the front row, their eyes meeting yours, and God damn its almost too true to stand. And you look out at the whole crowd and you see everyone, and you don’t feel a normal emotion… you could say you’re happy, but it’s not just like that…; you feel the emotion of the world. Like everything… it’s all… don’t laugh, don’t say it’s bullshit cause then you’ll never feel it… it’s like everything is made of love, and you’re in it.
We’ll always be different, every one of us. But some part of us, the same, in each of us. All part of this, this life.
Yes, we’ll always be strange. But we’ll never be strangers.
 Reference to ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ and ‘Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey’