I’m starting here because I have to start telling my story somewhere, and that night is as good as any.
Actually, better than most.
The year was 1986. The place, Providence, Rhode Island. Have guitar, will travel.
* * * *
After soundcheck me and Tollman and Doug smoked a little weed in the back room. That is, they smoked and I faked it. Tollman handed me the joint, and I cupped it and did what I thought was a pretty convincing inhaling act. Tollman wasted his toke talking mile-a-minute like always, but that was Tollman for you.
“… should be a hoppin’ crowd tonight, boy, you see all them hogs out there?” he said. His stringy blond bangs hung over his eyes and you could never tell where he was looking. Tollman was a head case. He grew up in Providence, went to the Quaker prep school over the hill, did maybe a couple of years of college. Now, Mr. Alexander Tollman did everything anti-preppie, like calling motorcycles “hogs” and singing in a metal band. “They all out there with them hogbitch girlfriends on the back,” he was saying. Jeez.
Doug took a deep drag and nodded while he held his smoke. I pretended to.
“You ready?” Tollman said, pointing at me with the joint before pinching it up to his lips.
I nodded some more. As long as I kept thinking I was relaxed and that everything was going smoothly, then it probably was. Not like this was a difficult gig, two twelve-song sets of cover songs and some originals that sounded just like them. One night only, cash under the table. I’d told them I’d do it this afternoon when Tollman had stopped by the Aquarium to pick up some demo tapes.
That’s why I wasn’t toking with the guys. Weed sometimes flips me into this kind of paranoid nothing-is-right headspace. And that was something I didn’t want tonight, easy gig or no.
I passed the roach to Doug, slid off the stack of beer cases I was sitting on, and my feet hit the ground kind of hard.
“Hey, where you going?” Tollman.
I made a tuning peg twist with my empty fingers.
“We got to get you dressed, cowboy.” With his eyes curtained behind his hair, his smile was wicked.
“Come on.” He looked me up and down. I was in my usual clothes—blue jeans and a plain black T-shirt. My denim jacket was tied by the arms around my waist.
Tollman looked at the canvas hi-tops on my feet. “What size feet ya got?”
“Nine?” I hedged.
“Doug, you a nine?”
Doug, who was considerably taller and heftier than either Tollman or me, held up his hands and laughed. “Try eleven and a half.”
“Shit. Here, try these on.” Tollman dug a pair of short, flat-heeled black boots out of his gym bag and held them out to me. I took them. Up close, Tollman had wrinkles around his mouth and eyes. He acted twenty five, but I was pretty sure we were talking more like forty. Scary, to think that he was twice my age and still playing Van Halen and AC/DC covers in places like this. The other reason I thought him older was his wife picked him up at the Aquarium the other day in a stationwagon–two almost-teen type kids in the backseat. Okay, he could be like thirty two, if he’d spawned when he was like twenty. I didn’t know and I didn’t want to know.
I put the boots on. They fit, and didn’t even look that bad.
“Dunno, Alex. Kinda new wave-y,” Doug said, his face tilted like he was trying to look at the boots without actually looking at them.
“They’re better than what he had on,” Tollman put in. “And what’s new wave-y about them?”
“Aren’t those the boots you used to wear in–”
“What else do you think he needs?” Tollman tapped his own booted foot on the floor and talked extra loud in an obvious attempt to change the subject. He’d gotten dressed before sound check and was already in skin tight spandex with a leopard print vest. “The jeans and shirt are kinda dumpy.”
“Jeans look okay tucked into the boots,” Doug said, “even if the boots are a little… Huey Lewis & the News.”
“Look,” Tollman said to me. “Just keep the boots. I never wear ’em anymore.” He had buckskin color suede ones on now, with a pointy toe and a bit of a heel that clicked when he walked. “Take off your shirt.” He rummaged in the bag and pulled out something that looked like a loose butterfly net.
I hadn’t moved.
“Go on, try it.”
I pulled my shirt off and accepted the net. When I held it up I could make out arm holes. It was some kind of string vest and when it was drawn tight it made me look like I’d played cat’s cradle in a tornado.
“Jeez, Tollman, he’s as skinny as you.”
“Well, he’ll fit right in.”
I hoped the dim backroom bulb hid my blushing. There was, shall we say, something intensely uncomfortable about about standing there with them staring at me.
“I still say the jeans are faggy,” Tollman said and I felt a lump in my throat. What was I going to say?
Doug snorted. “You gonna lend him some spandex, too? Or maybe just a sock?”
We all laughed at that–if it hadn’t been about me I might have even thought it was funny. Somewhere in my brain I was trying to come up a witty comeback but all I could really think was: jeezus but heavy metal guys have the weirdest sense of what’s “faggy” and what’s not.
Tollman had his hand on his chin, like that helped him think. Then his hand migrated up his face and held his hair on the top of his head, which probably did help him see. “I don’t know.”
Doug yawned. “Jeezus, Tollman, it’s just for one night. You won’t even see half of him behind the guitar.”
“All right. Fine.” He rummaged in his bag again. “Now for makeup.” He held up a handful of round plastic tubes.
Doug gave me a slap on the back with his meaty bass-player hand. I must have looked sort of ill because he said, “Don’t worry, it don’t hurt.”
There was a mirror in the men’s room and they marched me to it like I was going to the gallows.
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