Monday, September 27, 2010

We can figure this out

Damn, he thinks, what a firetrap this place is. They must have paid somebody off for sure to let this club open at all, a flight of narrow iron stairs below street level with a crowded restaurant above. He's sitting in a corridor offstage, leaning his back against a stack of wooden crates full of empty, sour-smelling bottles of beer, waiting to go on, trying to keep his feet and his guitar case out of the way of the waitresses who have to step past him on their way back and forth from the kitchen. He's keeping half an eye on the emergency exit at the end of the hall, wondering if he could make it out in time if a pot on the stove suddenly went up in flames. The floor, which isn't level to begin with, is covered in some kind of sticky black rubberized mat, specked with cigarette ash and smears of food and beer and ripped to shreds in a couple of places, so the waitresses have to step carefully to avoid tripping as they pass by heaving trays. He comforts himself with the thought that if he got to his feet quickly at least he'd have one good shot at the door before the panicked crowd tried to rush through to safety.

The act he opened for is back for the last night of a three-night stand. He knows them by now, a little; they gave him a nice shout-out when he finished his set, an obligatory courtesy for musicians to be sure but appreciated all the same, better than he deserved, really, but what the heck. They're a real band, with tour support from an actual label and reviews in the Village Voice, not just some guy with a few songs and a crap guitar with pickups. They have cassettes laid out on the table by the door, they've been driving up and down the east coast for two months in a van parked around the corner. Right now they've paused for a minute, they're adjusting mics and retuning while the leader banters with the crowd a bit to gain time. He'll go back on later, to give them a break, then he'll hang around and just listen for a while, maybe make it home by one. They'll slide him a beer or two on the house at the bar, and if the guy who owns the club is in a good mood he'll slip him a couple of bills on the way out, a little grocery money for the week ahead, better than nothing.

One of the waitresses comes by and gives him a quick smile as he catches her eye. She's pretty -- he thinks she must be a student, about his age, maybe a year or two less -- short dark hair, dark eyes, she's got a trace of an accent, maybe, like she's from Eastern Europe but maybe not, he hasn't really heard her say that much but she seems friendly enough. She's been working there for a few weeks; he heard them call her name once -- Laura or Lori or maybe it was Lauren, he's not sure. He wonders if she's got a boyfriend, and decides she probably does. He thinks maybe he ought to hang around a bit later and start a conversation, nothing to lose, right?, but on the other hand lurking around a club in the small hours when nobody gives a damn that you're there can get old pretty fast and a good night's sleep would do him good, though it'll be lucky if he can fall asleep at all with the sound of the band still ringing in his brain.

They're starting up now, the music reverberating through the concrete wall between him and the stage. What they're doing is so simple, why can't I do it?, he wonders. It's just one guitar lick, repeated hypnotically for a few bars, then the singer jumps in with some lyrics that are rudimentary but at the same time dead-on perfect. A verse or two, no solos, no real chorus even, just a one-line refrain, then it circles back to the same lick, the percussion pounds and the singer chants

We can figure this out
We can figure this out

but he can't figure it out, no matter how he tries. It isn't craft, exactly, though clearly these guys are pros; he doesn't know where it comes from. You either have it or you don't and he knows he doesn't, won't ever have it, not that he doesn't maybe have something of his own, some little fleck of a gift maybe, but still, not this, this he doesn't have and he never will. He'll have to find something else -- but he has no idea what that something else will be or how to find it. Anyhow he's definitely not going to find it tonight. The band on the other side of the wall is playing a song in the real world, but somehow where he is, just a few feet away, is someplace else entirely, though he's not sure exactly where it is or even if it's a real place at all.

The song throbs to a close. The dark-eyed girl steps in from the crowd. She stands in the opening for a minute and looks back inside, wiping the sweat off her hands on her apron, peering through the cigarette haze and the dust and the glare of the spotlights. Bottles are clinking around the tables but everyone's set for the moment, nobody tries to catch her eye, they're clapping and laughing and talking loudly as the guitarist and the bass player fuss with the tuning yet again. A couple more songs and he'll unpack his own instrument and step outside, away from the noise, to tune it up the best he can. As he's thinking to himself that probably nobody will notice in any case even if he's not in tune he notices that the girl is standing next to him, and when he looks up she smiles and leans down in her white blouse and asks him if he wants a beer and he says sure, that'd be great, thanks.

(Apologies to the Vulgar Boatmen.)

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