I got Ray a can of Coke and a Gatorade for myself and we sat down in the green room. He was being so shy at first I was a little at a loss, but it was easy enough to peck away at him with questions. What did he play? How long? What did he like to listen to? Musician talk is the easiest in the world because there are a ton of things you can ask like that.
Pretty soon he was getting animated about some subjects and the shyness fell away. We got talking about Vernon Reid.
“Drives me crazy,” Ray said, his voice still soft, but his gestures full of vehemence. “I think Reid, when you strip away the color of his skin, beats the pants off a lot of these other guys. But he’s known for being ‘the black hard rock guitar player.'”
“Has that really hurt him, though?” I mused. “I mean, he kind of played that card on purpose. Naming a band ‘Living Colour’ isn’t exactly side-stepping the issue.”
“That’s the thing, I mean, I think he had no choice but to make that part of his image. But you know, music isn’t about what you look like, it’s about what you sound like.”
“True. I’m with you there. But fame is about what you look like, too.”
“Ahhhh.” He nodded his head. “Ah, gotcha, yeah. I guess what I’m saying is I wish it could be a more pure musical thing.”
“I think we,” and I waved my hand to mean everyone in the backstage area, band, crew, professionals, “would all like it to be about the music. But out there?” I pointed vaguely in the direction of the auditorium. “It’s beyond music. It’s style, it’s fashion, it’s lifestyle, it’s… it’s practically a religion. Which is scary, because I don’t know shit about anything except music.”
We laughed at that, the way you sometimes laugh at serious things.
“Okay, so tell me, what’s your image going to be when you’re trying to make it?” I asked.
“I don’t want to go through jazz. I mean, sure, there’s the Branford Marsalises of the world. But am I wrong for wanting people to see the musician first and my ethnic background second?”
“No, you’re not wrong. And if you’re already thinking about it, you won’t get blindsided by it. The business is very… rigid. It’s crazy, actually. They are constantly looking for the next big thing, the thing that is hot, new and different, and the first thing they want to do is make it exactly like the old thing, because that’s what they know. It makes no sense, but that’s how they do it. So it’s not just your skin, it your style of music, they want you to fit into a box they’ve already got.”
“Shoot. You’re depressing me.” He slumped.
“Okay, if you’re going to be a professional musician, first of all, you have to use real swear words.”
“Come on, Ray, say ‘shit’ if you mean ‘shit.'” I swigged my Gatorade.
“Aw, now you’re going to get me in trouble.”
“With Tony? He swears all the time.”
“No, with my folks. If I start swearing with you, it’s going to be hard to stop when I go home.”
“I gotcha. Hey, you want to play a little? Or are you too nervous?”
“Aw, see, first you make me feel like a sissy for not using bad words, now I got no choice but to show you what I got.” He tried to sit up straight and puff out his chest, but he was laughing a little bit, too.
“Amps are on the stage. Come on and play the Strat.”
So we went out to the stage and plugged in the Stratocaster. You know how I was playing with the lights? That’s how Ray was at first with the Strat. Then he settled down and played me something he wrote. He was pretty good. Raw, and young, but you know the old saying about how to get to Carnegie Hall, right?
Then it was time for soundcheck and I took the Strat back. Ziggy came walking up to me and pointed to his eyes.
“Are they dilated yet?” he asked.
“Do the lights look all starry and like a special effect?” I asked back.
He looked out at the arena. “Yeah. But I thought that was just the drugs.”
“It’s your eyes,” I told him. “And therefore the drugs. Isn’t that what you’re asking me? Are you feeling all right?”
“Getting there,” he said and took a deep breath. “You know what I like best about these painkillers?”
“They kill the pain?”
“They make me feel… beautiful.”
You are beautiful, I wanted to tell him. You are the most gorgeous creature who ever crawled out of the black pit of despair. But I felt weird saying that with Ray standing right there in the wings and Chris looking down on us from the drum riser.
I’d write a fucking song about it. Right?