It was raining in Pittsburgh when we arrived and seemed much darker than it should have been for mid-afternoon. There was no thunder, just sheets of rain, the water seemingly warm but the gusts of wind cold. My thumb ached.
The venue was a general-admission type club, but a big one, with a clean dance floor and immense rig for lights. Despite the cleanliness of the place the air was stale with cigarette smoke and spilled beer.
We all helped with load in to speed things up as we were in a No Parking Zone and the sanctioned place to park the truck was two blocks away. I hadn’t realized it before, but the change in venue made the show earlier, as well. The club promoters were going to put us on at six p.m., then clear the place out after we were done and let the disco crowd in. They did the same thing with live shows the Citi Club in Boston and it didn’t really affect me one way or the other. A bigger place was good news, no matter what.
The backstage area was a basic unoccupied office kind of space that was literally behind the stage, a short hallway with one big room on one side, and two small rooms on the other, one of which was also a storeroom for broken, unused, or out-of-fashion lights. We moved ourselves happily into the big room and I once again began to think of my life as a long parade of secondhand couches. These had sheets over them as if they might be too hideous too contemplate. The walls were painted completely black with occasional glittery graffitoes, band names mostly, and some bumper stickers.
A club employee wearing a bunch of laminates around his neck stuck his head in to tell Carynne that someone had dropped the ball on catering and what did we want. She told him to come back in five minutes. There was plenty of stuff around, pizza shops, a pinball arcade, etc. and I suggested they ought to give us all the bottled water and beer we could drink and a hundred extra bucks and we’d fend for ourselves on food. The PA had been rented for the occasion and took longer to debug than usual. Digger stayed with us while Carynne went to the hotel to get our rooms set up. In other words, things were in their usual logistical frenzy of preparation.
And eventually it was time to go on.
I had not forgotten what it was like to play to a dancing, jumping crowd, with people pressed close against the foot of the stage, as much sweat and smoke and heat coming from them as there was from us. The air was humid with rain and the air of people. With my eyes closed I could sense them, and I played notes out into them like a beauty queen throwing kisses. Every now and then Ziggy would catch my eye and kind of do a little shuffle-dance, but I’d look away, into the sea of faces. With the smaller size stage here I spent all my time right up at the front, while Intellibeams pierced fake fog like rays of god light, and police lights twirled above the dance floor. My thumb hurt a little but not enough to do anything about. The crowd was going proverbially wild and I wondered what radio stations here played us. The truce between me and Ziggy held and the show went without major mishap.
When we came off stage, Christian poured half a bottle of spring water over his head and then put his wet hand on my shoulder (which was almost equally wet with sweat), and said “Thank the lord above, praise the lord” in a voice that was supposed to sound Southern preacher but came out a bit like a Richard Nixon impression. Then he added in his own voice, “I knew it wouldn’t last.”
“Knew what wouldn’t last?” As if I didn’t know.
“I think you just needed to get back in touch with the audience, Boss.”
“Yeah, now if only I can get back in touch with you and Bart, we’ll be in business again.”
“Me and Bart can take care of ourselves,” he said and took a series of long gulps from the bottle.
Bart was changing his shirt. “What do I have to take care of now?” he called as his head emerged from the neckhole of the clean shirt.
“Nothin'” Chris replied and left me to do my own changing and such.
Our hotel was nearby, and not long after nine o’clock we were back in the one room with a suite, sitting around telling the same stupid jokes as always. Carynne was checking messages on the phone, Digger and Chris had gotten into a cribbage game. I set about changing my strings even though Colin said he’d do it for me. I just felt better doing it myself somehow. Someday maybe I’d have somebody like Matthew along just to take care of the guitars. But not yet. I got the Ovation strung and would play a little, then have to tighten the strings, then play a little, then tighten again.
Colin, who was sitting next to me as if he might jump in and help if needed (“C’mon man, you’re paying me to do something besides sit with my thumb up my ass…”) finally asked me, “What is that thing you play?”
“This?” I played through a little bit of the riff I was using and laughed. “It’s probably one of the first songs I ever wrote.” It was a lot of open chords and fingerpicking, a kind of Steve Howe sort of thing. It had no words and hence no title in my mind, and it kind of went with the occasional spatter of rain on the window.
“It’s cool,” he said, tapping his fingers on his knees. “Pretty.”
Bart, who’d heard the tune more times than anyone with the exception of myself (and maybe Remo), put in “Yeah, but it’s got no ending.”
I stopped playing and tuned the strings up again. For some reason the G always goes flat faster than any of the others. “What does it need an ending for?”
Colin looked at me askance. “Why doesn’t it have an ending?”
“Because I was like eleven when I wrote it and could never decide where it was supposed to go,” I answered.
“Well, it’s cool anyway,” he said.
I started the tune again. There was a little strangled cry from behind me and Ziggy (it had to be Ziggy) wrapped his hands around my face from behind and tilted my head up so I was looking into his crazed face. “I can’t take it anymore! Play something else, please.”
Bart laughed. “No, c’mon Zig, tell us how you really feel.”
“Alright, jeezus.” I switched to “Here Comes the Sun” which I seemed to be stuck on lately.
“You know hundreds of songs, I’d think a little variety would be a natural thing…” Ziggy was saying from where he stood behind me on the couch.
I started to put the Ovation in its case but Bart motioned for it, so I passed it to him while I started restringing the Strat. He started playing Paul Simon tunes and I kind of sang along while I worked. Ziggy and Kevin got into another round of musician/light bulb jokes. Everything kind of came to a sudden halt when we were trying a rendition of “Me & Julio” and an argument over the lyrics broke out.
Chris: “It’s ‘When the copper found out he began to shout at the start of the investigation.'”
Bart: “No, no, it’s ‘when papa found out he began to shout and he started the investigation.”
Chris: “But that doesn’t make sense. The ‘mama pajama’ ran to the ‘police station,’ hence ‘the copper’ and that makes more sense with ‘investigation.'”
Bart: “You’re wrong. It’s ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa.’ That makes sense.”
I chimed in. “Come on, none of it makes sense. It’s just a fun song. I mean, what about the verse about the radical priest and stuff?”
Digger was shuffling the cards and I was surprised that he jumped into the argument. “I think Christian here has a point. I don’t think that’s the way the song goes, but it might be better that way. Then again I don’t think Paul Simon really wanted people thinking the song was anything but nonsense, given the implications.” He put the deck down on the coffee table. I think my mouth hung open a little–this wasn’t the kind of analysis I expected from Digger.
Chris cut the cards. “What implications?”
“It’s got to be either sex or drugs, don’t you think? I mean, what was it that the mama saw him and Julio doing down there in the schoolyard?” He dealt cards to himself and Chris and then looked up for consensus. “Don’t you think?”
“Drugs, it’s got to be drugs,” Chris said. “I mean, it was the sixties.”
Actually, it was the early seventies, but I didn’t say that.
Digger arranged the cards in his hand. “Yeah, that’s what he assumes you’re going to think. But me, I think Paul Simon’s a faggot anyway.”
OK, so maybe it was what I expected after all. Carynne hung up the phone and glanced at me with a did-I-miss-something? look. I turned my eyes studiously to the tuning machines and said nothing. The moment probably would have just passed if Ziggy hadn’t said “Now hold on, what makes you say that? Isn’t he married?”
“If I remember correctly Carrie Fisher was his second wife,” Carynne said with a wave like hello-I’m-here-too.
“You mean Princess Leia?” Bart said.
Digger just grunted. “Like being married means something. Even having kids, that doesn’t mean a guy don’t bend over in the park. A course, that’s why he got rid of Garfunkle. Because Garfunkle was even faggier.”
Ziggy threw up his hands in resignation and I sat there tuning and tuning and pretending the whole thing never happened. It’s not like it was the first time I’d ever heard Digger say something like that. I’d probably heard the word faggot (or some variation thereof) come out of his mouth more times than I’d heard him say my name. That thought began to depress me and I wished the guitar were strung already so I could play something to change the subject or at least distract myself.
The subject changed anyway, as it always did, though, and people went on to talk about other stuff like nothing had happened. Because nothing did happen. People saying crap like that is normal, right? Especially when Digger is talking. Thing is, it was starting to bother me, and I think it was bothering everyone, but no one really knew what to say about it. Or at least, I didn’t.
A while later I went back to my room, and turned on the TV.
I still got a little rush whenever I turned to MTV and saw us or heard us mentioned. “Why the Sky” had just made their Top 20 video countdown, according to Digger who’d talked to Mills earlier in the day. I had to watch maybe ten minutes before it came on.
They had flown us to Arizona to film it, driven us out into the desert where they could get lots of footage of us miming our parts while standing on top of weird rock formations. In the video they had time lapse segments of the sun setting into the mountains, and of clouds streaming through the sky. It had been hot and dry in the desert, and we’d had to do the main bulk of the filming at the literal crack of dawn before it go too hot each day, but looking at the finished product, I think it was probably worth it. The movement of the clouds was mesmerizing.
I think I was asleep when the knock came on the door.
I was surprised to see Ziggy standing there. He gave one of those feigned nonchalance type shrugs. “You want to get something to eat?”
“I’m thinking wander around and see what’s good here in the city. It’s only like eleven, and you didn’t eat a thing at the club.”
I nodded; he was right.
“Come on,” he said with that shrug again, “we’ve got nothing better to do.”
“Yeah, alright.” I zipped my leather jacket up and followed him.