Music and Sex #2 - in which our hero is taken down a peg but his weekend is saved by rock 'n' roll

Music and Sex: Scenes from a life - A novel in progress (first chapter here)

Walter's biggest adjustment to college life was realizing that he wasn't the hot-shit intellectual he'd thought he was. In high school he hadn't been the smartest guy, but he'd felt like he was up there in at least the top five percent. Here he felt like an idiot at times. Senior year in high school he'd officially been the best player on the chess team, and moreover, first board on the first-place team in their league that year. At Columbia, he lost 24 consecutive speed games to one guy and never managed better than a draw with anybody in the chess club before, feeling frustrated and embarrassed, he stopped attending meetings.

He couldn't stop attending classes, though. In the only one he was taking that wasn't just for freshman, Political Theory, he humiliated himself during a discussion of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. He hadn't finished the assigned reading but, buoyed by false confidence born of years of being able to bullshit his way through discussions, debates, and arguments, even with some teachers. So he tried to participate, but was so definitively shown to be not just wrong, but ignorant, that he didn't voluntarily open his mouth in that class again.

Even in music he couldn't always hold his own. One morning as he was leaving the piano practice room he'd signed up for, another student waiting outside it asked him, "Can you improvise a blues?" Walter said he thought he could; the guy asked to hear him do so; and then interrupted before Walter was halfway through his first chorus: "No, I meant a jazz blues."

"What's the difference?" Walter asked naïvely.

"Like this," his antagonist said, taking over the piano bench and zipping through a complex chord progression full of ninth chords that changed much more frequently than the 12-bar blues Walter knew on a rudimentary level. Anticipating Walter's question, or maybe just reacting to the confusion on his face, the guy explained, "Those are chord substitutions. Every jazz player knows them."

Feeling thoroughly worthless, Walter turned and exited without a word. After that, he began to fear humiliation in every interaction.

At least he didn't have to worry too much about it in the only music course he had signed up for. It turned out that Music Humanities was geared towards non-musicians, a sort of combination of music appreciation and the history of Western classical music. Despite – or because – of this, Walter enjoyed it. The professor, a short, wizened man named Christopher Hatch, was funny but astute, playing examples from LPs and pointing out interesting details or cracking little jokes.

Walter and Music Hum intersected again after he answered a listing on the job board and got hired to man the listening library two evenings a week for four-hour shifts. It was the easiest job he'd ever had, because very few students came in to do their listening assignments. It was a s though he were getting paid to do his reading assignments, since that's what he spend most of those eight hours doing. Sometimes a person or two would show up, but once Walter had handed over their request vinyl and they'd put their headphones on, quiet reigned again, except when two guys (it was almost always guys, since it was a class at all-male Columbia College, though students in other undergrad schools at Columbia University – Engineering, Barnard, General Studies – occasionally signed up for it) were studying together, which meant two guys with headphones yelling at each other because they had no idea how loud they were as they talked over the music in their headphones – music which was unheard in the room except for its barely audible presentation directly from the needle to the air. If there were other people in the room aside from the talkers, Walter would have to tape the talkers on the shoulder and let them know to be quieter, though that rarely worked for long. Comical the first time, this situation quickly became the most – well, only – annoying part of the job.

And the money was nice. His parents, especially his mother, had assumed he'd be home on weekends, so he'd been signed up for just the weekday meal plan. Walter, however, had quickly succumbed to the charms of the city. Staying in Manhattan on weekends was certainly more exciting and culturally stimulating than going home to Long Island, but eating on weekends cost money.

He could have eaten just fine on the $45 per week he got from the library job, but he was constantly tempted to spend most of it on music. The weekend of September 21, he stayed on campus to see Lou Reed that Friday night at McMillan Theater and then most of the so-called No Nukes concerts Saturday and Sunday.

Walter had bought his pair of Reed tickets rather late in the game, so he and his high school friend Norman, who came in for the weekend, were seated up in the balcony so far over on the right that much of stage left was blocked from their view. No matter; Lou was front and center almost the entire time, bantering with the audience, throwing mikes and mike stands around with abandon, pretending to shoot heroin during, of course, "Heroin," and letting a young blonde bury her head in his crotch as he sat on the edge of the stage. The band, largely the same as on The Bells, was loose in a good way; they had to vamp a lot while Lou did his jokey shtick. The darkness that dominated The Bell, its sonic murkiness, was greatly lessened in concert, but not so much that Bells songs – only two – didn't have the same effect, though the title track of Street Hassle was pretty different with synthesizer instead of cello – and with the audience clapping along, a little odd given that it's an account of death by overdose.

The classic material – the show started with "Sweet Jane" and ended with "Rock n Roll" (with "You Keep Me Hangin' On" interpolated) and "Heroin" – lacked the power and bombast of the versions on Rock n Roll Animal that, heard on the radio, had introduced Walter to those songs; neither did they have the edgy tension of the original Velvet Underground versions. But that didn't keep the show from being exciting, with a strong communal feeling of musical solidarity. A bunch of songs in the middle were unfamiliar to Walter; Norman said they were mostly from Berlin, which he described as "the most depressing album I've ever heard, but I like it." Walter made a mental note to look for that LP. The closing "Heroin" was very downbeat, and there was no encore.

Next installment here.

Roman AkLeff says of Music and Sex, his third attempt at a novel: "Lots of the events to be depicted in this book happened, to varying degrees. Some of it should have happened but didn't until now. Though it's mostly set in the 20thcentury, Music and Sex aspires to be a Bildungsroman for 21st century sensibilities, in that the main character doesn't finish coming of age until he is several decades into adulthood." 

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