Monday, June 2, 2008

Gimme Fiction: Now Not Just the Name of an Incredible Spoon Album

So a while back I tossed around the idea of putting up another form of music writing on the site. I debated over it, talked it over with Ryan, and ultimately decided, why not? Let's call it an experiment.

Thanks, Josh, for making this graphic it's taken me so long to get around to using.

Enjoy, friends.



By Nicole Pope

They ascended the stairwell he’d only glimpsed through swinging saloon doors all those years. The loft was little larger than his studio apartment. Writing crowded the walls as high as an outstretched arm, or stool, or friendly leg-up could suffice. The multi-apexed ceiling and dim lighting reminded him of the elaborate tents he and his band mates had made as children, just years before they’d started buying this band’s records.

He helped the drunk girl round the corner on her ridiculous wedge heels.

And there they sat like common human beings.

They had spread out the money on ancient twin amps. The expressions on their unshaven faces suggested kidnappers on the wrong side of a foiled ransom collection. In the center of the couch, like the king of thieves, sat their front man. Seeing them he stuffed the crinkled, paperclipped stacks into a bag, knocking half-crushed beer cans in his haste, and smooshed it between the cushions.

His right eye twitched like wings on a preening fly.

“Who are they?”

It made sense he would want to know something about them, as if he already knew this twenty-something in the frayed tweed jacket knew everything about him.

He knew what any real fan would know. The front man was the master-mind of the band: lead singer, guitarist, lyricist. He had a basic American male name nabbed from the Bible or a Beatle. He had been married once in the early ‘90s, which he had spoken about just once in a June ‘92 Spin article, after which he’d stated, “I’ve said what I want to say through my music.” He had never spoken about his bum eye. He had insomnia, which he blamed on constant touring, and when he did sleep he sleepwalked, though he never got far before tripping over a slumbering band mate or bonking his head on the combination microwave/mini stove. He never posed for publicity shots. Promoters were forced to use band photos from fifteen years ago, photos like those squishing in the young man’s pockets as he steadied himself against a pile of dead speakers. It was really him.

“They’re friends,” the drummer lied. He slouched at a lopsided wooden desk posing as their buffet table. “I can make them too, you know.”

His band mates quietly absorbed his petulance, the singer itching at the cap he wore for every show, the one detractors of the band said made him look homeless; his bassist crinkling the mustache he’d worn in the eighties that luckily had become fashionable again. Like aging lions, they were pissy but too tired to attack, tails twitching idly as they eyed their intruders.

Alcohol and a likely sorority background emboldened the drunk girl. She wobbled toward the couch and thrust out a hand marked with a big black X, the flesh still red from all that futile scrubbing. Surely they would remember her from the show even if their drummer hadn’t, the young man thought. The girl whose hairsprayed nest had bobbed wildly as she screamed ironies at her friends like, “Just listen to that subtle guitar work!” The one who’d turned the only song they’d played off their first album into a spoken word piece detailing an inexpensive, low-fat chicken casserole. They would slay her and eviscerate him, the boyfriend who couldn’t keep his dumb drunk girl quiet. Except he wasn’t her boyfriend. He didn’t know her at all.

The band recognized her, all right. To his horror they shook her hand hungrily, like she was the famous one. They thanked her for her energy during the show. Then they invited her to sit. He watched them soak her up: those dull blue eyes, symmetrical face, skin the texture and color of a well-worn drumhead. She was attractive, he supposed, in an obvious way that made her completely unattractive. Still he longed to follow her, delirious for that last spot on the couch, until his fingers became so bathed in sweat he could offer only a feeble wave from across the room. For years he’d dreamt of meeting the band, of telling the singer what their music meant to him, how he’d learned to play guitar because of him and formed a band because of him, and how more than anything he’d made him want to make something beautiful in this ugly world.

“Great show, guys,” was all he could say.

He slumped beside the drummer at the children’s table. His jacket adhered to his chest, suffocating him, like the drunk girl’s coif clinging to his cheek during the show. He could not, would not, remove the jacket and reveal he was wearing the band’s t-shirt. He dug in his pocket for the joint he’d been smoking before the show until that rent-a-cop circled the lot with his accusatory headlights. He knew no better way to relax, or to make friends.

With two fingers he pursed the roach like it was the vermin of the same name and raised it inquiringly. The singer regarded his bassist, his best friend since childhood, identical twin, or lover, depending on which rumor you believed. In the span of that silent second they exchanged two decades’ worth of hard lessons learned.

“Not in here,” the singer said.

“Sorry dude,” his bassist said, as surely as he’d backed him up on stage.

The drunk girl hissed in disapproval.

He couldn’t understand it. He searched the room for confirmation he wasn’t completely out of line. That was when he realized the cans resting in the cooler beside them, lying smashed atop amps, being poured down their throats at that very moment, were non-alcoholic. He returned the dirty, ugly joint to his pocket, being careful not to injure the photos waiting hopefully there, and apologized. It was too late. The singer was glowering at him. The drummer stabbed cheese slices with an intensity that suggested he knew he’d only pretended to own the drunk girl in order to get upstairs. His fear was confirmed when the drummer brought his boot down on his foot like it was one of those old, worn-out drum pedals you really had to punish.

The bassist jolted upright like he was the wounded one.

“Quick snooze,” he said. “Then we gotta ride the dog another fifteen hours.”

They all drooped into their seats like dying party balloons. For a moment they forgot the imposter in exchange for far worse frustrations. There was talk of a haunted light house when they reached the coast, which they wouldn’t have time for, and fresh seafood, which they would make time for. Until then, nothing but cows and windmills and fields.

For some reason he was starting to get defensive.

Kansas isn’t that bad, is it?” he said. “I mean, we’re not all a bunch of hicks.”

They looked at him with genuine pity.

“Don’t get me started on Western Kansas,” the singer said.

“Hours and hours of nothing but fields,” the bassist said. “No offense.”

The two band members arched their bodies toward one another like mirrored f-holes on a violin, and they were lost to the room.

“Is it corn they have here?”


“No, wait. It’s sunflowers.”

“I’m pretty sure sunflowers aren’t…

“Their money crop?”


The fluidity of their dialogue, the way they plucked thoughts from each other’s heads, explained how easily they knew which bass line would answer a fledgling melody, which vocals could use the lift of harmony. The display was so impressive he could almost forgive them for using that crucial interplay to trash his home state. The drunk girl was not impressed. Nor was she used to being ignored. She pressed two beer cans to her chest like some sad take on Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, as if Madonna weren’t already sad enough.

“Not everything’s flat in Kansas,” she said.

Somehow the singer laughed. So hard he choked on his virgin beer, and his bassist had to whack him on the back. When he recovered he said he was going to start calling her Dorothy. “You can be Toto,” she said. He laughed at that, too, and shook his head like a big dumb dog.

So quickly they clung to clichés. He told the band they needed to visit the local record stores before they left town. And eat at a café on Mass Street. And tour one of the mini art galleries. Lawrence wasn’t like the rest of Kansas, he said. It was a tree city. With culture. A liberal college town.

“Are you a student here?” the singer said.

All eyes targeted him. It was that twitching one he worried about, the one that spasmed a Morse code of displeasure whenever he spoke. The one he could peer into but could never be sure was looking back at him.

“No. I mean, I used to be.”

They did not ask him what he had been doing while he should have been in school. They moved on to the drunk girl, who announced she was majoring in journalism because her teachers had always said she used good adjectives.

“Journ-a-lists,” the singer said.

“May they rotteth in hell,” the bassist said. “No offense.”

They spoke of the last interview they’d given, the last the singer said he would ever give, after which the reporter made it sound like the band blamed its lackluster recent album on their long-time friend and producer. They fell silent then, as if newly stunned by the blasphemy. He watched their expressions sour and decided he couldn’t let the conversation die like that. He had to defend them, even if they wouldn’t do it for themselves.

“I knew you never would have said something like that,” he said.

The singer didn’t want to talk about that anymore. He bashed a crushed can against the table, marking out the staccato clang of his anger, and aimed his fluttering eye like a half-cocked weapon.

“How would you know what I would or would not say?”

No one spoke for a while after that. Soon the silence filled with whispers of the Top 40 filth the venue owner played while he closed up for the night. At last the drummer felt sorry for him and forgave the lie their past hour together had been predicated upon. He offered a swig from the bottle of ’87 bourbon he kept in his bag, and showed him the atlas he used to mark their travels. All their travels since 2001, he explained as the young man already knew, because that was when their old drummer had a baby and a religious experience and quit the band.

Kansas isn’t so bad,” he said, completing the constellation from Denver to Lawrence with green highlighter. “I lived in Seattle for years. You have to tour constantly to afford to live there. Of course, when you’re touring you never live anywhere.”

He sensed the drummer was trying to explain something to him. He didn’t want to hear it.

Across the room the singer and his bassist questioned the drunk girl about her thoughts on the media bias. She kept saying “cover age” instead of “coverage.” He wasn’t sure the booze was to blame. While she and the drummer babbled on he closed his eyes and breathed in the wooden rafters above. They seemed to hold the smell of the stage below, of cigarettes and sweat and spotlights so hot they sometimes caught fire. He studied the walls and tried to separate the maxims of musicians from the ramblings of wasted groupies. Above the veggie tray a Spoon quote shone through the tangled mess: “How come I feel so washed up at such a tender age?” Beside it, some sort of retort: “Stay off the sausage.”

Within minutes the drunk girl was passed out on the couch. The bassist might have been asleep, too, though it was hard to tell under those big sunglasses. Stealthily the singer swiped the beer at the girl’s feet. He squirreled it away under his unbuttoned shirt sleeve, obscuring its telltale label, while he guzzled with the voracity and endurance of a master. It worked magic on him. He started chattering about other bands that were touring at the time, and how they all plagiarized Sonic Youth and each other, and how one band, he wouldn’t say which, had made a smart comment to him about fan loyalty that turned into a fight. He chanted a tribal dirge completely uncharacteristic of the band’s style and drummed on the side of the broken amp. To conclude his set he tossed the pen serving as his drumstick into the air. He watched it spiral toward the floor before rescuing it at the last moment.

Perhaps tiring of these antics, the bassist who was very much awake rose to leave. He paused at the top of the stairs and pointed a long, bony finger, the one he sometimes used to dedicate an upcoming solo. “You want me to clear them out?” he said. The singer looked at the girl lightly snoring beside him and, across the room, at his drummer, who’d dozed after first returning the bourbon to his tightly zippered bag. His gaze settled on the young man sitting beside his band mate at the buffet table.

“Leave them,” he said.

After he’d gone the singer began clawing at his cap as if plagued by some invisible pest. With a frustrated shriek he flung his cap on the amps amongst the crushed cans. The young man fought the urge to stare. It was not the singer’s motivations for tossing the cap that bewildered him, but what lay exposed after that simple act. Long gone were the locks that had shielded the singer’s face during those first years on stage, during that first time he’d seen them play, when he’d had to peek between the thick strands, like a peeping tom parting the blinds, to see what mysteries lay there. They’d grown up together in the eighteen years the band had toured the world. Now his idol was an old man.

Watching the singer smooth those willowy wisps he wondered why he hadn’t simply done away with it all like Frank Black. Michael Stipe. Billy Corgan. Perhaps foolish optimism had kept him from wielding the razor. Perhaps pride. When the singer seemed satisfied he’d tamed the mad scientist look he leaned forward and said, “So let me guess. You’re in a band.”

He felt out the statement’s jagged edges and kept quiet.

“What’s the line?” the singer said. “The song might be before your time. It goes, ‘What the world needs now is another folk singer like I need a hole in my head.’”

With those words something boiled over within him.

“We’re not a folk band,” he said. “And I hate that song.”

The singer smiled. “Me too.” He consulted an imaginary watch. He nodded to himself and stood abruptly, as if he’d just come to understand something. As if he knew this kid was waiting for him to say something more, something different, and he just wanted to climb in his van to wait out the night alone. The young man sprung from his chair. Despite his every instinct the photos burned in his pockets, urging him. His mouth opened and the words of a self-doubting school boy tumbled out.

“Do you happen to have a writing utensil?”

Shifting like he’d stepped on something sticky, the singer fished in his pocket for the pen they both knew he had. As the young man accepted it, their fingers nearly touching, he imagined the pen being used not only for impromptu drum solos, but to sign meal receipts. To fill out crosswords with confidence. Maybe even to sculpt the lyrics he would someday use to coax a woman into bed. No sooner had he summoned the courage to ask his next question, the real question, when he saw something that dissolved that impossible request on his tongue.

A subtle but unmistakable smirk was crossing the singer’s lips. A smirk that said, I’ve known what you’ve wanted ever since you slunk into our hideaway. You want me to bleed myself for you. And you made me provide my own dagger. All the young man could see was that smirk, and then, backing away, that torturous eye. So close, so far from the allure of the stage, it looked less magical and more what is was, medical oddity.

He mounted the chair beside the sleeping drummer. On tiptoes he reached a spot just big enough for the signature he’d practiced hundreds of times while listening to this band’s records. His own. When he climbed down the singer pointed to the drunk girl. Her teased bangs rose and fell with her breathing. Her unhinged mouth resembled that of a dead fish. She wouldn’t remember anything that happened that night.

“Will you take care of Dorothy for me?” the singer said.

His eyes were old and worried, like a father’s, even though the young man knew he wasn’t one. They left the drummer in the metal folding chair clutching his bag. “Serves him right for not sharing,” the singer said. Together they walked the drunk girl downstairs with her arms looped round their necks. He carried the heels that thumped along the stairwell, the singer his wimpy money bag. That sticky-sweaty hair smothered them both. When they reached his car the singer slipped something into his pocket. He patted it, cold and hard, against his chest. The pen. Then the singer saluted and, straightening his cap, stumbled toward his trailer.

And it was just him and the girl outside in the breezy night smelling of fermented wheat. She was awake and so much different now, but no less drunk. He piled her into his car. She didn’t know where she lived, so he drove in blind loops until she looked like she was about to pass out from all that booze and the joint they were smoking. He drove past the venue to see if her friends had come back for her. But Mass Street was as dark and quiet as its storefronts. So he pulled over so he could have sex with her in the parking lot behind the venue, the lights out, the lot empty with the exception of the sleeping tour bus, everything silent save the sound of his old car panting, gasping for air.


Hackworth Artifex said...

Fantastic story! And practically universally applicable, I think. We've all met someone we idolized at one point or another and were robbed of our blind adoration.

cole said...

Thanks, Josher.


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backdrifter said...

I loved it
Great job Cole

eglenclub said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
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