Music and Sex #7: Battles of the Band

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

As 1980 got going, Walter was distracted from Janie’s absence by progress on the band front. Garrick had found an electric guitarist, Tom O’Reilly. Though still lacking bass and drums, they decided to try putting together some new songs and practicing some covers -- because as TomO (as he styled himself) pointed out pragmatically, a good set of rockin’ covers would get them gigs at the frats that lined the south side of 114th St. Over a round of beers at the Marlin, a brightly lit bar that had less visual flair than a high school cafeteria, but the cheapest beer near campus, they decided to take turns suggesting covers.

Walter led off: "For Your Love." He liked it because of its harpsichord riff.

"Fuck that!" blurted TomO. "I was told we'd be covering Nuggets-type songs."

"I love the Yardbirds!" Garrick responded.

"I hate Eric Clapton," TomO explained. "I don't want to have to play his part every night."

"Every night? You're quite the optimist," joked Garrick. "Anyway, Clapton hated that song so much that he left the band, so you should like it."

"Never mind," said Walter. "How about something completely different? A rock version of 'Don't Stop Till You Get Enough'?"

"How about, somebody with better taste than you picks the songs?" TomO sniped.

"How about you go find yourself another band to be a cranky jerk in?" Walter replied venomously, and walked out, leaving his half-drunk beer behind. Garrick, he noted, did not follow him. He waited outside for a minute to make sure, then walked back to Carman. Carlton wasn't around, so Walter turned on his little Carlo Robelli electric piano and tried to work out the chords of "Wuthering Heights," getting the bass first and then laying in the harmonies. After about half an hour, he'd more or less approximated it. An idea was slowly growing in his head -- to find a soprano who could sing rock, so he could go in a different direction from what he and Garrick had been planning. It put him in a better mood.

Later he went to the TV lounge and watched old sitcom re-runs. After an hour, Garrick came in, and looked at Walter sheepishly.

"He's an asshole, I know, but it's not easy to find a guitarist who isn't already in a band."

"So you're choosing him over me?" Walter said, incredulous.

"What, I can't be in two bands?"

Walter hadn't thought of that possibility. "If you've got time, I guess."

There was an awkward silence, broken by Rhoda's laugh.

"Do you want to hear what songs we're doing?"

"Okay." Walter wouldn't admit it, but he had a certain masochistic curiosity about what had happened after he'd left.

"'Just Like Me,' 'Submission,' 'Back Door Man,' '96 Tears,' 'Hang on Sloopy,' 'Grinding Halt,' and 'Heroin.'"

"I'm not sure you can pull off 'Heroin.' You look too healthy," Walter joked. Garrick laughed, maybe a bit too much, but they both smiled.

"What's 'Grinding Halt'"?

"It's on the Cure album. You don't have that? You should tape mine. And I'll do 'For Your Love' with your band," Garrick said.

"Let's get some new songs written, too," Walter responded.

"How do we do that?"

"Just give me your lyrics."

Thus it was that Walter came to set a bunch of agitprop to music. The words begged for punk-rock accompaniment and to be declaimed more than sung, so he kept the chords basic and the melodic range narrow.

When they next got together, Walter discovered that Garrick couldn't read music.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" he said, waving the handwritten sheet music  Walter had just given him. "I thought you'd make a demo tape," he continued, his voice a mix of pleading and disdain.

"I can do that," Walter answered placatingly.

It required a bit of spending, though, as he had to get a microphone. Jimbo advised him to go to 52nd St., which he called "Music Store Row," and look for a used mike. At Manny's, he found a dented Shure for just $30, checked that it worked, and then could not resist wandering over to the keyboard area. He fiddled with some whoppingly expensive synthesizers; looked longingly at a used Fender Rhodes that, even at just $500, was still out of his reach financially; ignored the console organs that were both too pricey and too unportable, and then saw a very small Hammond. Its casing was dinged and its carrying handle was broken, but the price tag read $175. He checked his wallet, glad he hadn't done any record shopping since returning; the Christmas twenties from Granma Dolly, Aunt Shirley, Uncle Al, Uncle Side, Aunt Martha, Great-Aunt Phyllis, and Granpa Willie were still intact, and he had also begged $50 from his mother for "laundry and weekend meals," so he could do this. The salesman half-heartedly tried to talk him into something a little more expensive, but that Hammond -- an X1, he was told, which sounded more like an experimental aircraft -- was the only portable that was used and thus affordable. Walter halted the salesman's advances by saying, "I've only got $190."

"What about that mike, then?"

"I'll put it back."

"Come with me, sir."

It still amused Walter to hear grownups refer to him as "sir." He followed the salesman, wondering what was about to happen, but they just went to the register. Walter noticed that he seemed to be the only customer there; all the rest were in the guitar section, producing a cacophony of riffs and leads. The salesman leaned over the counter and whispered, "one-ninety cash," then looked at Walter expectantly. Hesitantly, he took his $190 out and put it on the counter."

"They're yours, kid. Get them outta here before somebody else wants them, the register guy said, "and tell your friends to come to Manny's."

Slightly mystified by his good fortune, Walter said, "Thanks," put the mike in his coat pocket, and hefted the organ under one arm. With a bit of trepidation -- after all, he had no receipt -- he exited. Nothing happened. He got on the 1 and returned uptown with his booty.

Back in his dorm room, he told Marcus of his good fortune. "Yeah, cash for used, they'll do that. The stuff isn't in inventory, so they don't have to keep a paper trail, and you paid cash and got no receipt, so they can pretend it never happened and not pay taxes on it. They clear more doing like that than if you paid full price and they put it through the register. And you also saved on sales tax. Good deal, Captain! Can I try it out?"

Walter took the cable connecting his piano to his stereo and switched it into his new organ.

"You don't have an amp?"

"I do, but it stopped working in November and I haven't gotten around to fixing it."

"You'll blow your speakers!"

"I keep the volume low."

After the Hammond was plugged in, Marcus played some bluesy chords that sounded familiar.

"What's that?"

"Just a gospel progression. This sounds great. Do you think I could borrow it if I get a gig?"

"Sure."

"Hey, I'm sorry, it's your new toy, you play it."

Walter sat at his desk and played the opening of Bach's  D-minor Toccata & Fugue in the piano version, with the left hand playing the pedal parts, since this organ didn't have pedals.

"Nice, Phantom of the Opera!" Marcus said. And from then on, he sometimes called Walter "Phantom" instead of "Captain."

Walter afterwards took a closer look at his amp and found a connection that needed soldering. Because of the work he'd had to do on his Carlo Robelli electric piano, which had also been used and which was a nightmare of contacts, he'd already invested in a soldering iron and, of course, solder; for this project, though, he needed a third hand. He called Marcus back in, and though it was a little awkward coordinating three hands inside the amp, they did it, and after that Marcus spread the word that Walter could do repairs, which occasionally brought him a little money, usually just $5, but hey, that could be converted into another used LP down in the Village.

Meanwhile, he made the demo tape for Garrick, who had gotten his hands on an alto sax and, despite not being able to read music, had thrown himself into trying to learn to play it. He seemed proud of his progress, but his playing was not ready for public airing -- sometimes he struggled even to get any sounds out, much less accurate notes. He judged himself on his best results, when he managed to get a string of notes out without squeaking; even those duck-toned, out-of-tune efforts pained Walter's ears, and he judged Garrick on the average of his results, which met no standard of musical usefulness. The Portsmouth Sinfonia's cracked rendition of Also Sprach Zarathustra was virtuosic in comparison. And still he hadn't heard Garrick sing -- he was starting to get a bad feeling about this.

There was some band progress, though: Walter convinced one of the drummers in the marching band to play with them, and that guy said he could bring a bassist as well. Still no guitarist, but everything else had fallen into place.

Finally, they resorted to putting an ad in the school paper's classifieds: "Electric guitarist sought for band combining Nuggets and Punk." The first response was from a guy who, it turned out, was planning to learn guitar. On being informed that they wanted somebody who already knew how to play, he snorted, "That's not very fucking punk, then, is it?" At least there was no need to audition him. When a guitarist who said he was in the school jazz band responded, the first-ever meeting of all members of Captain Vinyl and the Disk-ciples was scheduled -- in the school band room, in fact, because they could use the amps and drum set there. Everybody had been told they would work on "For Your Love" and The Jam's "Down in the Tube Station (at Midnight)," with the instrumentalists working them out in the first hour and Garrick joining them after that. It turned out that an hour was more time than they'd needed; they spent the last fifteen minutes in an impromptu jam on Duke Ellington's "Blues in C," though only Walter knew the head -- but they all felt comfortable in a C blues, so that didn't matter.

Garrick arrived while they were jamming; the bassist dropped out to open the door, which was locked.

"We're not a fuckin' blues band," Garrick immediately announced.

"Who's this asshole?" the guitarist asked.

"Ahem. He's our singer," Walter replied.

"Awkward!" joked the drummer.

"Let's start with "For Your Love," Walter said blithely, trying to ignore the tension.

"By the greatest of the British blues bands," interjected the guitarist, pointedly. Walter considered mock-seriously responding, "You mean Fleetwood Mac?" (which, honestly, was who he'd first heard performing it, on the album), but bit his tongue, unsure if that would really relax them.

Garrick pretended not to have heard the jibe, but after the instrumental intro, he snarled the lead vocal with feral intensity as Walter and the bassist -- who, unlike Garrick, had no mikes -- chimed in with the repetitions of the title. Walter had been worried about Garrick's singing, a topic the confrontation with the guitarist had made him painfully aware of again, but now he relaxed. Garrick clearly would never be heard at the Metropolitan Opera, but he was good enough for punk rock. He sounded just as good on the Jam tune, while the backing vocals -- "oh oh oh oh" -- added to its exuberance. The friction with the guitarist had dissipated, and they'd gotten through both songs they'd planned on with no mishaps.

The introductions finally happened at that point. Walter identified himself and Garrick, then Paulie the guitarist and Bill the drummer; Bill did the honors for the bassist, Dave. After that they repaired to the Marlin. It was amazing how often Walter ended up at that place despite not liking it. As, for the first time, Walter was able to speak as a member of a band that had actually played together and could bandy about the details of its recently concluded rehearsal, it suddenly dawned on him why he and his ilk habitually hung out there: not just because it was where musicians went, but why. It wasn't just the cheap beer. It was where one acted the part of a musician in a forum focused on musicians, with no distractions: no women (well, few, and rarely), no TV, no band playing (a bit of a paradox, that last one). There were old men who sat at the bar, and the musicians sat at tables, the two tribes not interested in interacting. Well, a diminutive guitarist dubbed Mex (for reasons unknown to Walter) sometimes sat at the end of the bar, but that seemed based on quickest access to the Rheingolds he drank so prolifically, and he faced away from the bar to interact with the table denizens.

This evening, Walter discovered that he was the sole defender of prog-rock in his band. It happened when they started debating more potential cover repertoire and he suggested "Starship Trooper."

"I knew you were a secret prog lover," said Garrick. No fucking way."

"But you like Kate Bush!" he abjured Garrick.

"She's not prog!"

"Her guitarist is David Gilmour."

"So what?"

"He's in Pink Floyd."

"They're not prog, they're psych."

"Oh, come on. That was true early on, sure, but you can't tell me that Dark Side of the Moon isn't prog."

"A little. But that's just one album."

"Wish You Were Here is prog too. So's Animals. And The Wall, although just for the record, it's crap. I just cited Dark Side because that was the point at which their progginess became undeniable."

"Well, I'm denying it."

"It's trippy, not proggy," Dave chimed in.

"'Money' is in 5/4. Odd meters are a classic prog move," Bill refuted. Then, just as Walter thought he might have an ally, Bill continued, "That's why I hate it. Pretentious bullshit."

"I always light up a fat one to listen to Dark Side," Paulie said, as though that was definitive proof of something.

Walter pounced. "I bet you spark one for your Bob Marley albums too."

"Yeah, so?"

"That doesn't constitute evidence of Bob being psychedelic."

"I think his rhythm section's pretty psychedelic."

"The term doesn't mean anything if you use it that broadly!" Walter protested.

"It's about feeling. That's why I don't like prog. No feeling."

"You're saying Peter Gabriel doesn't lay his feelings and emotions out there all through The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway?"

"I'm talkin' about musical feeling. Floyd and Marley have a loose feeling. Genesis and Yes are tight. Tight sphincters."

Walter gave up. He even announced that, loudly: "I give up," and quickly joked, "So does this mean we will be covering 'Wuthering Heights'?"

Amid the chuckles that elicited, Paulie asked, "Will we be adding a chick singer, or just castrating him?", gesturing at Garrick, who scowled briefly before half-heartedly going "ha ha."

Then they returned to kicking around cover ideas. Garrick suggested all the songs he'd said he'd be playing with TomO, so Walter inferred that that collaboration was dead. After the fourth one, Walter raised his eyebrows, and Garrick bashfully nodded.

Paulie vetoed "Heroin" as "too obvious" and "Grinding Halt" as "Brit bullshit." None of Paulie's suggestions -- all Clapton-related -- were taken seriously, but he didn't care, since he was just yanking Garrick's chain. Fortunately the rhythm section, apparently just happy to be in a band -- or in a bar, or in a band in a bar -- didn't seem to care one way or the other about any of the suggestions. Many beers later, they'd wrapped things up, including scheduling their next rehearsal.

As they were all exiting, Walter saw Martial and Jimbo at another table and paused to say hello. "Sit down, kid," said  Martial, motioning to an empty chair. Walter sat, whereupon Martial then spent a few minutes making small talk about the choir, occasionally looking around until finally leaning in and quietly saying, "Okay, now that they're all gone, I can predict the future of your new band." Walter perked up.

"Yeah, you're all excited and hopeful now," Martial continued. "It's like being in love, except instead of getting laid, you're making music. That's even more exciting for people like us, so I get it. But, just like a crazy girlfriend, Paulie's going to break your heart. You can see he's an asshole, right?"

"Yeah, but --"

"There is no but. I know, he can play pretty good. It doesn't matter. He's not worth the trouble. Don't take just my word for it. Jimbo?"

"Yup. He's a prick. I don't know what his problem is. Every band he's been in, either he quit or got kicked out or it broke up. He's on some weird power trip or something, always arguing, never letting anything go. Fuck him."

"It was hard finding a good guitarist," Walter protested, or explained.

"There's always another guitarist. They're as common as toadstools after it rains," said Martial.

"Thanks for the warning. If I can find another guitarist, we'll use him instead."

No new guitarists having appeared, Paulie retained his slot in the band. Meanwhile, Dave got them a gig at Phi Epsilon, the artiest of the frats. After a hastily arranged run of rehearsals, they could get through all their chosen covers but hadn't had time to work out any originals, so unfortunately they only had a seven-song set that was not as well balanced between '60s and current material because Paulie wouldn't play most of the suggestions, instead repeatedly insisting they should cover "Wuthering Heights." Finally Garrick exploded in frustration, shouting at Paulie, "We've only got a half-hour set because of you. What are we supposed to do, play everything twice?"

"Play every twice as long by making the solos longer."

"We're not that kind of band. And what am I supposed to do while you wank your guitar, play tambourine?"

"God, no, don't bite off more than you can chew."

Walter saw Garrick tense up and realized the singer was clenching his fists. Was their infighting about to turn physical?

"And another thing," Paulie continued. "We need a new name."

"And, I guess, a throne for you, because you think you're the king of this band," Walter riposted tartly.

"Somebody's got to have common sense," Paulie deadpanned.

"Let's have a vote, then. What's your idea for a band name?"

"It's not my band -- it's not my job to name it."

"But you're somehow entitled to unname it? Sorry, if you can't come up with an alternative, it stays what it is." Walter, remembering what Martial and Jimbo had said, felt uninclined to back down to try to keep Paulie happy, figuring that if he did, Paulie would just bitch about something else. "Sorry, if you can't come up with an alternative, it stays what it is."

"It's the stupidest fucking band name ever."

"Why?"

"Because I'm not your disciple. Do you think you're Jesus?"

"You've got no sense of humor."

"You've got no guitarist if you can't think of a better name than Captain Vinyl & the Disk-ciples."

"I was warned about you."

"Yeah? By who?"

"More than one person."

"There are a lot of motherfuckers who are jealous of me."

"Why would anybody be jealous of a guy with your reputation?"

"My reputation is that I'm the best damn guitarist on campus."

"No, it's that you're the biggest troublemaker on campus. And it's true. You're the reason we've got a gig next week but we've only got half a set."

"Fuck you and your half-assed band."

"Fuck you and your bad attitude. You need therapy."

"Bye-bye, losers."

After Paulie had packed up his guitar and left, Walter addressed the remaining band members. "I know we've got a gig but no guitarist, and I admit that's a problem. But does anybody think he was going to work out?"

"You're right. He wanted to quit. It was like he was looking for an excuse," said Garrick.

"Yeah, man, he's a major fuckin' asshole. Nothing else you could do," agreed Dave.

"I'm not saying you're wrong," said Bill after a pause, "but it doesn't look like we're gonna be able to play that gig."

"I'm going to the Marlin and not leaving until I've found a replacement," Walter promised. He was so eager that he left his keyboards in the band room, which he never did. He was a little surprised nobody came with him, but figured that might streamline the decision-making.

It was a Friday night -- that's how dedicated, or desperate, they'd been: they'd sacrificed their Friday night to rehearse -- so the Marlin was packed. It was a less musician-heavy crowd, but Walter saw Martial and Mex at a table near the bar. There were no empty chairs, so he just stood next to Martial and said, "You were right about Paulie. So, so right."

"Sorry, kid. What happened?"

"He was vetoing all our suggestions for expanding our set list and saying we have to change the band name. Then he walked out after I told him to come up with a better name or shut up."

"What is your band's name?"

"Captain Vinyl & the Disk-ciples."

"Well, he's got a point."

"Really?"

"Look, it's kind of clever in a nerdy way, but it's awkward. It sounds like a bad joke."

"Okay, then I need a new guitarist and a new band name. And I need them before our first gig a week from tonight."

"Whoa, you got a gig?"

"Phi Ep."

"Nice. Paying?"

"Free beer."

"I shoulda known. Hey, Mex, wanna help the kid out?

"I'm already in three bands, man."

"So what's another one?"

"What's in your set?" Mex asked.

"'Just Like Me,' 'Submission,' 'Back Door Man,' '96 Tears,' 'Hang on Sloopy,' 'For Your Love,' and 'Down in the Tube Station (at Midnight).' And now that Paulie can't say no to them, maybe 'Grinding Halt' and 'Heroin.'"

"'Heroin'? Isn't that kinda dark for you guys?"

"I guess. The singer wants to do it."

"Tell him he's only allowed to sing it once and he has to shoot up onstage and immediately overdose," Martial joked.  Everybody laughed, and then Mex asked, "Whose song is 'Grinding Halt'"?

"The Cure," Walter answered.

"Even though I don't know it, I think you should do it, because most of those are kinda obvious, except for the Pistols and Jam songs," Mex said. "And maybe I'll cut you some slack on the Yardbirds, I haven't heard anybody around here cover it, at least. Any originals?"

"Not yet. There are a few written, but, um, now that I think about it, I guess we didn't want to give Paulie anything else to whine about. But we've got to have more songs, that's a short set even if we add the two I mentioned."

"Nah, forty-five minutes is enough. Is there another band?"

"Yes. We're opening for Tot Rocket and the Twins."

"Really? You can bet your ass they're not playing for free beer. But that's good, it means your set is already long enough, because you're gonna start ten or fifteen minutes late waiting for an audience, but then stop on time. You're only costing them beer, so they won't complain."

"So would you be able to do it?"

"No, I'm just telling you that you've got enough tunes for that gig."

The disappointment on Walter's face was clear. Martial quickly asked, "Do you really need a guitarist? Try just keyboards! You're good enough."

Walter looked -- and felt -- skeptical, but responded non-commitally. He did think that, though he'd be terrified to be that much of the focus it if was just a trio, this was an excuse to ask Jessica to join, because maybe a two-keyboardist set-up could work. He thanked the guys for their help, such as it was, and headed back to Carman Hall to look for Jessica.

He wasn't sure which was her suite on 11. It was the opposite side from Roland's, one or two doors further back towards the front elevator. Luckily he got it right on the first guess, and even more luckily, she was there on a Friday night, answering the door in shorts and a vee-neck shirt. "How did you know I'd be here?" was in fact the first thing she said.

"I didn't, but if you weren't I'd just leave a message. So, my band's guitarist quit and I figure the hell with guitarists, let's do something different and use two keyboardists. Are you interested?"

"What kind of music?"

"Well, right now it's kind of garage rock and punk, but we just started, and I'd like to eventually get into something more adventurous," he said, hoping to entice her.

"I'm classically trained, I don't want to just pound on a few chords."

"I'm classically trained too," Walter answered truthfully. On a whim, though also with an eye to interesting her, he elaborated, "I want to do what nobody things can be done. I want to have a progressive punk band."

"Really? Tell me more."

"I want the energy and abrasiveness of punk, but in a complex and, uh, more harmonically interesting way." He had never actually thought about that, but as he said it, it resonated with him. That would be super cool.

"The other thing I mean when I say I'm classically trained is, I don't improvise. Can you write out what I'd play?"

"Yeah, sure, no problem." At this point, Walter would have said anything to make her happy.

There was a pause as she seemed to stare into space.

"Now I get it. This was just an excuse for you to stare at my cleavage."

"No, no! I'm serious!"

"You can't deny that you were staring. I'm not blind."

"Um, maybe unconsciously. If I did, I didn't realize I was doing it."

"Riiiiight." She slammed the door.

As Walter turned to take the stairs down to 10, he saw Roland standing inside his doorway, looking silently at Walter. When Roland saw that Walter had seen him, he smirked and closed his door.

[Next chapter here.]

Roman AkLeff says of Music and Sex, his third attempt at a novel: "Lots of the events depicted in this book happened, to varying degrees. Some should have happened but didn't until now. Though it's mostly set in the 20th century, 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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