Friday, January 13, 2012

After The Second Set

January 9, 2012

Essentially, everything in After The Second Set is autobiographical and true but when I wrote the original short story in 1984 (hence the Lloyd Cole & The Commotions reference in paragraph six) I played with the chronology quite a bit. The Christmas album story is basically something that happened to Dave Blackburn and I sometime really early after high school. Dave got kicked out of the session for suggesting that he could, at age 18, arrange and conduct the assembled musicians better than the 30 year old producer who hired us could. And then I got booted for pretty much exactly what I detail in the story. That session took place in the early 1970’s.

"Nicole" is a pseudonym for the girl with whom I broke up my marriage in 1978. We didn’t really meet this way, we met rather more prosaically, definitely less romantically, while working together at a K-Mart store on West Broad Street. I did, however, actually fall in love with her the very first time I laid eyes on her, that part is absolutely, unfortunately, painfully accurate.

I began my solo acoustic rock & roll act in 1990, 12 years after the action in the story, not the six weeks I portray here. Some things just take longer to get over than any one of us ever really wants to admit, or believe.


I have this theory.

I have this theory that God creates new stars in the universe so that babies who die before the age of three months will have something bright, shiny and warm to play with. And while I acknowledge that this theory has precious little to do with currently accepted scientific fact I really don't care, I still believe it. I don't come up with these theories because I want to, it's because I have to. I live in Ohio. I play the guitar. Not because I want to, because I have to. I have to.

I used to be married.

My ex-wife and I go way back. The Velvet Underground was still a functioning rock & roll band when we first met. They'd broken up by the time we got married though, so we couldn't get them to play at our wedding reception. The reason I'm not married anymore is because one time I played loud distorted electric fuzztone guitar on a version of Frosty the Snowman.

Perhaps I should explain.

This one cool September wine bottle kind of day I was sitting in my apartment listening to Lloyd Cole & The Commotions' first album when I got a call from the manager of The Rollercoasters, a band I used to be in, and he wanted to know if I wanted to play a session for a Christmas album. "A Christmas album?" I asked. "A Christmas album." he repeated. Now it's true, I know my way around an electric guitar, I could make some noise, but I didn't see how that qualified me to play on a Christmas album. Extreme volume and the Nativity just don't mix.

I took the gig. I needed the money.
I didn't really need the money, but people always think they need the money, you know how money is. It's like the eternal Biblical prophet Robert Zimmerman once sang, "Money doesn't talk, it swears." On the way to the session I stopped at my buddy Greg's house to pick up my amplifier. Greg was the "road manager" of The Rollercoasters until we broke up. I place quotes around the term road manager in Greg's case because we never actually went on the road and he didn't know anything about changing strings or tuning guitars but he was 6'5", weighed about 280, was a former biker & semi-pro football player and could keep us from getting beat up when we played in bars we shouldn't have, which was often.

I had stored my amp at Greg's house ever since my upstairs neighbor at the apartment building where I lived threatened to, "Make my face look like Hot Ralston the next time I make noises like that." one night when I was writing a song called I Love Distortion. I took said neighbor at his word. He was a large, ugly human being with much hair, some of which was actually on his head.

Greg owned a house because he made relatively good money working at General Motors in the daytime and made great money selling relatively harmless drugs to teenagers at night. It always made me nervous to be at Greg's house for any period of time though, because his living room always resembled a pharmaceutical factory more than it did a living room. There was always somebody kinda slumped over on the couch, there were baggies and scales and different colored capsules strewn around on the coffee table and a fine patina of pot dust all over everything. I don't know if that's how your mom kept house when you were little but mine didn't.  We were Italian.

I grabbed my amp and hit the road quick. I knew the studio address, it was in one of those industrial parks by the outerbelt. It was nicer and more expensive than anyplace I'd ever gotten to record. Not that I'm an audiophile by any means, I'm not one of those artistes that has to have his every shading and nuance captured on tape. Nick Lowe's production credo for the early Elvis Costello & The Attractions records, "Bash it down and we'll tart it up later." is much more my cup of tea, as the English would say.

When I got there I left my amp in the trunk and just took my guitar in with me. I figured if I didn't like the scene I could always tell them that my brother was choking to death on a chicken bone in the car and I had to take him to the emergency room, so I couldn't play the session. But then as I scanned the room where there were 15 or 20 musicians hanging around – horns, keyboards, strings, the whole nine yards – I focused in on the group of singers gathered around one of the vocal mikes. One of them was the loveliest girl I had ever seen in my life. In blue jeans and a Carlene Carter t-shirt this girl portrayed more grace and elegance than an Audrey Hepburn film. This girl was a vision. This girl was a daydream.

She glanced over at me and smiled. I stayed for the session.

While I was setting up my amp and pedals and trying not to stare at the singers every spare moment the engineer for the session came over. "Hey man, weren't you Sean that used to be in The Rollercoasters?" he drawled in a marijuana haze. "Actually I'm still Sean that used to be in The Rollercoasters." I replied, but he didn't laugh. He just nodded blankly, stroking his almost-bearded chin. He stuck out his hand and I tried to shake it but he went into some bizarre Masonic soul-shake and we ended up just kinda bumping hands. I could never keep track of those trendy secret musician handshakes. I guess I'll never be in the club. Or in the union.

"So what year Stratocaster is this," he asked, running his hand over the neck of my guitar, "are these the original pickups?" I groaned quietly. I knew these guys. Just about every engineer and soundman I have ever worked with are people whose mothers were frightened by a Sony Walkman when they were pregnant with them and the poor guys never recovered from the experience. They know everything about cycle & hum & rollover and nothing whatsoever about music. They always want you to come over and see their $8000 stereo DVD/CD 12-disc changer surround sound set-up and when you ask what they have to listen to it's always inevitably something truly horrific like Creed and Radiohead.

The engineer noticed me staring at my daydream girl, stopped asking stupid questions about my guitar and started babbling, "Hey man, that's Nicole, she's a babe and a half, isn't she? She sings great, too. Voice like an angel, pure and clear, I set up a special vocal mike for her. Don't bother talking to her though, man, she's a real cold fish, I tried for her myself, she just cut me off flat." "What'd you do, ask her if she wanted to go out in your van with you and smoke a joint?" I said. His red eyes widened as he replied, "Yeah, man, did she tell you about that? I thought you just got here." I was about two seconds away from smashing my Strat into his temple over and over and over until he looked like something out of a Quentin Tarantino movie for even daring to speak to the woman I loved when I realized that I was contemplating murder, hardcore homicide by deadly weapon/blunt instrument guitar over a girl I had first seen 20 minutes ago, to whom I had yet to speak a word.

It hit me hard. I'd fallen in love. It was just that quick, just that easy.

Have you ever been so miserable in your life that you don't even know you're unhappy? You just go through the motions every day, numb to the possibility or even the existence of joy? I didn't know it yet but a bright light was about to be shone on that shadow world I lived in. My wife was a shy little girl when we got married too young. Now she wanted babies & a house and I wanted dark, loud bars and guitars. I wanted a daydream.

I live in Ohio. I play the guitar. Not because I want to, because I have to. I have to.

The producer walked over and jolted me out of this reverie. He introduced himself and told me, "I've known your manager Grant since we rowed sculls together at Harvard, you come highly recommended to our little project." I would imagine I came highly recommended since the Grant I knew was more apt to be snorting coke off his large oak desk at the law firm where he worked than rowing sculls on some foggy Cambridge morning. Time passes, pastimes change.

The producer was one of those people with time on his hands and money in his pockets who was usually found directing community theater groups out in the suburbs. He was wearing a blazer with a crest, for Chrissake. But apparently the guy had a musical bent as he enthused, "I think the people of our United States here in the new millennium want and need a Christmas album with an up-to-date theme, something that celebrates the proud new financial barons of our proud new age."

I thought he was joking and started to laugh just as the musical director handed me the sheet music to Frosty the Snowman, only "Frosty" was crossed out and "Bill Gates" was filled in. I was going to be playing guitar on a song called Bill Gates the Snowman. I stared at the page in front of me. The original lyrics were all crossed out and new ones about Puget Sound and the Microsoft Corporation were filled in. I knew it was indecent but was this even legal? There are copyright laws in this country. I looked over dumbfounded at the bass player, a big guy I'd seen playing with jazz groups around town, and he read my mind. He laughed ruefully and said, "Yes, believe it, my man, a tune we already cut is now called Donald Trump Is Coming To Town. Only somehow I don't think old Donald would mind replacing Santa Claus. That cat’s got an ego. He'd eat this shit up."

I was about to walk over and introduce myself to Nicole, but I was struck so shy by the sight of her that I couldn't seem to get my legs to move when the session was called to order and I didn't get a chance. My job on this song, as it was explained to me by the producer over the studio PA talkback, was, "To create a fairyland of musical dissonance, a psychedelic overture to Frosty's, I mean Bill's, arrival." In other words they wanted about 30 seconds of distorted drivel at the beginning of this piece of crap. The bass player stifled a laugh as I stared at the producer behind the control room glass.

The next 45 minutes were a nightmare. Every take of a three-minute song was cut off because of something I played: I was too fast, I came in at the wrong place, I played too psychedelic, not psychedelic enough, it was too menacing, not Fantasia enough, the litany went on and on. My personal favorite though, was "You're too loud." I was always too loud. My amp was set on two, I swear to God. I played as softly as I could and I was still too loud. After the twelfth take was cut off with a curt, "It's still too loud." from the producer I lost it and yelled back at him, "I'm mixed below the fucking oboe player and I'm still too loud?" Nicole burst out laughing at this, a fact I was enormously heartened by, but nobody else did. The producer glared from the control room and said in a strangled, fake patient voice, "You have one more chance to record this tune correctly, young man, and then perhaps we'll have to rethink our direction and bring in someone with some musical talent."

No one had actually called me "young man" since the vice principal of my high school each time he suspended me. I didn't like it then and I didn't like it now. Take 13. As the song was counted down and my part came up I leaned back, ran my amplifier up to ten, stomped on my distortion pedal and launched into a free-form solo that was an ear-blasting combination of the Jimi Hendrix version of the Star Spangled Banner, The MC-5's Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa and the more ragged moments of The Patti Smith Group demolishing My Generation in 1976. I mowed down the horn section with a brace of Pete Townshend windmill leaps and took out the strings with a firestorm burst of feedback. My feet got tangled up in my power cord and just at the point where I hurtled into the drum set with a truly inspirational crash of cymbals and hardware somebody pulled the plug on my amp.

As the din died away I looked around. Grown men were actually holding their ears and crying. The oboe player had fainted and was being fanned with sheet music by the music director. They had to physically restrain the producer from getting at me; he was red in the face, screaming, spitting, his blazer was ripped at the shoulder. As I started to untangle myself and my Strat from the drum set a hand came up in my view. I looked up and it was Nicole staring down at me with a look of real concern on her face. "Are you all right?" she said, as our hands touched. "Wanna go out?" I asked, looking up from the floor.

Nicole grinned.

The first time I ever kissed Nicole was on a bridge.

It’s that one by the river student union on campus. I could show you the spot sometime.

If this was a classic novel instead of a rock & roll short story I would go into exacting detail of everything that followed that first kiss. I would tell you how I left my wife and moved in with Jeff, the bass player from Rave-Up, the band I had before The Rollercoasters. I would tell you how Nicole and I found Jake, a hot new drummer, by prowling campus bars like CafĂ© Rock & Roll night after shining night. I would tell you about Niki & The West Side Rockers, the band the four of us had together. I would tell you how we played live like fire. I would tell you about the first songs I wrote for Nicole; That Girl’s A Daydream, I’ve Never Heard A Quiet Girl Sing. I would tell you about the songs Nicole and I wrote together – I’ve Got My Favorite Action, Lonely Lonely Rock & Roll, Rise From The Suburbs – how she wrote the words, played rhythm guitar & sang lead and how I wrote the music and burned Stratocaster contrails on stages all over Ohio & Michigan. One time we opened for Sonic's Rendezvous Band in Ann Arbor. I still have the poster from that show. I could tell you how after the second set we used to leave the equipment breakdown and load-out to Greg & Jeff & Jake and float out of clubs arm in arm, her head on my shoulder, our ears ringing, poetry in our heads and peace in our hearts. I could tell you how we brought a rewritten I Love Distortion back into the set and ended our shows with it while kissing deep and simultaneously rubbing our guitars together at groin level in what one local rag described as, "A crass display of simulated sex." We were so proud of that review we hung it on the fridge.

I suppose I could tell you how soul-deep the actual sex was with Nicole, but I'm not Roman Polanski. I could tell you how her head would toss in the dark and her hair would fall in slow motion short perfect brunette waves over her lovely face. Let's just say that making love with Nicole felt just like Bruce Springsteen’s Candy's Room sounds and leave it at that. I could tell you about hazy summer nights in Yellow Springs. I could tell you about sunny Sundays by the river. I could tell you how I once wished we could be just like Richard & Linda Thompson and how I learned firsthand the lesson of that Chinese proverb, "Be careful what you wish for."

I could tell you how Nicole stayed with me just long enough to finish my marriage but not long enough to postpone her own. I could tell you how she left me without a goodbye, quit the band, married a fireman, moved to the suburbs and became a housewife. I could tell you how she broke my heart, but that wouldn't be strictly true, I broke my own heart on her. I could tell you how I took over center stage and kept the band together as a trio until the songs Nicole and I wrote & sang together began to burn a hole through my guts from the inside.

I could tell you how on the last night of the gigs we had to honor I smashed my Stratocaster to kindling at the end of I Love Distortion. I walked away that night and quit the music business forever.

Six weeks later I bought a black Alvarez acoustic guitar and started playing solo gigs at coffeehouses and bookstores. I live in Ohio. I play the guitar. Not because I want to, because I have to.

I have to.

original short story © 1984 Ric Cacchione

updates & rewrites © 2012 Ricki C.

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