“I’m Old Fashioned,” I called out to Mike, at once choosing the song and asking if he knew it. He gave me his usual tortured look, a forlorn shrug of acknowledgement indicating that, yes, he could play “I’m Old Fashioned” if absolutely necessary, but, no, it would not be THE ONE he dreamed of night after night, THE SONG wherein he would finally play THE SOLO. That elusive improvisation would be a virtuoso bass concerto without compare—heartfelt, complex, loud, and epic. All mortals present would feel its power, and in the course of five minutes his twenty years of desperate practicing would at last be justified.
But, no, this would not be that. This would just be him playing a lot of notes at high volume for a long time, in anxious preparation for that promised mystical moment. Consequently I would, as ever, be utterly unable to hear myself, an innocent bystander in the ongoing Bass - Drum war. The combatants were well-matched, and the result was almost always a draw, with moderate carnage. Mike could play louder—all he had to do was turn up his amp—but Louie had the advantage of being deaf. Louie could play worse—it’s all he knew—but Mike was oblivious to anything except his own sound. Beneath the din, I watched my fingers playing notes that I hoped were right on an instrument that made them all sound wrong anyway, and was secretly glad I couldn’t hear myself. It was, after all, a path toward yet deeper Indifference.
Three minutes into “I’m Old Fashioned,” I had achieved the desired mind-body split. As my fingers silently and hopelessly improvised, I revisited my earlier train of thought. Coming up to the bandstand I’d been thinking about something interesting; what was it...it was...oh yeah, Louie and Bonnie. Louie’s little affair in Columbia. He’d pulled me aside on our first break the previous night and filled me in.
“Man, did I ever tell you about the chick I’m #!@*!-ing right now?” He was sitting on the barstool next to mine, and had hooked his arm around my neck to draw me closer. My feet didn’t reach the ground and I nearly toppled into his lap; he didn’t notice. “She’s the reason I quit smoking, man, after twenty-five years, so you know she ain’t exactly ugly, if you know what I mean. Yah-he-yah-he-yah-he-he.”
WHOOOMMM! A loud, low growl jolted me back to “I’m Old Fashioned.” It was Mike, using his bass to get my attention. “Excuse me,” it bellowed on his behalf, “I believe it’s my turn to solo now. I can’t help but notice that you failed to properly invite me to begin. I’d like to think it’s not because you don’t like my soloing—I practice six hours a day and have enormous technical facility, as you know. But the other alternative is that you simply weren’t paying attention, which I find equally disquieting. If you’re bored working with me, just let me know and I’ll call in a substitute. Otherwise, I’d very much like to begin my solo now, please, and by way of preparation I’m turning up quite loud.”
I looked over at him and noted, as usual, that not a hair was out of place. He wore a tie and vest, and had the controlled elegance of a ballroom dancer. I smiled weakly and nodded, then began to focus on accompanying him. My task for the next several minutes would be to stake out a rhythmic compromise between Louie’s random slippage and the more consistent passage of time that Mike and I both clung to in our heads. Mike looked at me thankfully, and launched into his customary series of pyrotechnics. I returned to my reverie.
“So she’s got this kid, right?” Louie continued. “He’s like, maybe, eight or nine, and she doesn’t want him to know that I’m in her room #!@*!-ing the #!@*! out of her, right? Yah-he-yah-he-yah-he-he. You know, I say he’ll be #!@*!-ing his own little schoolmates soon anyway, and it doesn’t really make a difference anyway. But this is, like, really important to her, you know? And the only thing that’s going to give it away is that I’m coughing all the time. So I’m always trying to hold it back, man, but that’s impossible.
“And that’s when I decided to quit. You know those couple of heart attacks I had didn’t do it, man. But this chick’s #!@*! was so fine, I was ready. At the time I was smoking about five packs a day, and I decided I’d—just for the hell of it—for my last week I’d just smoke as much as I could. You know, like why not? And what I found was that I COULDN’T SMOKE MORE, MAN! I mean, I had a cigarette in my mouth at every waking moment, and I couldn’t smoke more than I was already doing, just couldn’t do it. Yah-he-yah-he-yah-he-he.” This last point cracked him up. He spun his stool around and started slapping his knee. I did what he wanted, which was to ooh and ah—in a respectably manly, grunting kind of way.
I wasn’t totally faking it, either. Louie was a cheat, a sneak, and—above all—a terrible drummer. But he lived his life with a certain intensity and fearlessness that I admired. I couldn’t help myself, and this was a treason I dared not share with any other musician or sensitive human being.
“So anyway, man, here’s the part that’s gonna kill you. Every Tuesday, Bonnie and I drive up to Columbia. We get a hotel room and everything, you know, and it’s like a vacation for her. She loves it.”
BAM! I jerked to back to attention as Mike, in the heat of his solo, arms flailing, accidently knocked over a microphone stand. The mike crashed to the floor and angrily announced its own death over the sound system. Mike shook his head tragically—once again, the elements had conspired to suppress his genius—and looked to me for help. I sympathetically bailed him out, coming back in with the melody, flagrantly disregarding our actual place in the tune.
There was a reason I took quick action: the ever-present threat of a drum solo. Louie seized any open space to launch an extended sensory assault that was as animated as it was unmusical. It was also virtually identical every time: his head would bob up and down furiously, and he’d weave from drum to cymbal to drum with his entire body. At some supposed pinnacle he’d play on a set of pots and pans suspended from a nearby rack. Then he’d return to the drumset, settle into some approximation of a beat, and look our way, eyes filled with terror. No one had ever told him how to end a solo, and he was temporarily at our mercy, begging us to rescue him. The audience would read the passion on his face and applaud wildly.
We quickly ended the song, and it was my job to pick our next one. Unknown to Mike, I had a pretty good sense of which pieces held the potential to spring his Epiphany, and I made a point of avoiding them. Unfair though it may have been, I valued my Indifference far too much to let the onstage melodrama get deeper, let alone transcendent. “Willow Weep for Me,” I called, avoiding his tragic gaze.
Then, just as a reality check, I spent a couple of minutes trying to play well. Every now and then I’d manage to avoid enough of The Whore’s sore spots to sound like I was playing a real piano, and occasionally I’d be audible above the onstage and offstage fray. But it just wasn’t worth it. It entailed enormous effort for minimal payback, and, certainly, no one in the audience seemed to notice. If anything, my look of concentration was likely to be mistaken for concern, whereas my Indifferent smile conveyed that all was well in this unfathomable music we played.
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