396. Putting on the Ritz

I only slept four or five hours, and then I was up prowling the kitchen in the dark and then the studio, too restless to sleep when there was work to be done.

Four days until Ziggy, and one day until I had to turn in roughs.

And a matter of hours before I was going to tape what I had and carry it on a cassette with me to an industry party. And my head was full of music and thoughts and criticisms of my playing and how today it was going to sound better because I’d do a better take. Right?

Why did I take this gig again? I asked myself. I checked my email while waiting for an old tube amp to warm up. There was one from Sarah Rogue saying she’d be at the party, too. Okay, good, that was one person I knew I could talk to without going insane. She’d gotten onto a couple of the email lists that Colin had gotten me into, too, one for “new music” and one for electronic music. Would it be weird to talk about something we’d kind of already “discussed” but in email? I’d find out.

It was a frustrating morning. My playing was, frankly, just not as good as I wanted it to be. I hadn’t been playing acoustic very much, and almost none of the Moondog Three set was finger style, but that’s the sound I wanted for this. I was rusty. My fingernails weren’t grown out. Thank goodness for all those lessons I taught Colin, because that was the only time I had played that style in the past several months.

I finally gave up, took a break from the music I was trying to record, and practiced a couple of my old classical guitar pieces. I didn’t have the sheet music in front of me, but I had large swaths memorized.

Maybe it helped. I at least convinced myself I didn’t completely suck. I ended up re-recording almost everything I’d put in the can the previous day, and a couple more things, and it came out better, sounded better. It still wasn’t as polished as I wanted but that was why they called it roughs, right? So I could still re-do it if they wanted?

Jonathan snuck in sometime in the afternoon and handed me a tuna salad sandwich he must have made himself. After I inhaled it, I looked up and said, “Um, thanks. Why do you look so amused?”

He was standing by the studio door, his back against the wall, his arms and ankles crossed. “Do you always record without pants on?”

“Oh, um, I didn’t want to wake you by banging the dresser drawers this morning,” I said. “So I just wandered straight in here.” I was in my underwear and a T-shirt.

He only looked even more amused. “How’s it going? Or should I not ask?”

“I have no freakin’ idea. How about you?”

“Same.” He stretched and yawned. It didn’t look like he’d showered either, but he at least was wearing clothes. “This thing tonight, would you mind going alone?”

I stood up, intending to go put some shorts on at least. “No. If you need to stay in and work, I’ll be okay.”

“If you’re sure.”

“J. It’s not like we talk to each other much at these things anyway.”

He cocked his head like he hadn’t realized that before. “Huh. I suppose so.”

“You know, we don’t power schmooze each other. Besides, you can talk to me anytime.”

“True.” He stretched and shook himself one more time. “Okay. I’m going to try to push through. If I get a lot done I might come with you after all. What time are you going to go?”

“I should try not to be too fashionably late. I actually want Cadmon to hear what I’ve got and tell me what I’m doing wrong.”

“So, leave by six?”

“Which’ll mean at least an hour in traffic, but so be it.” I could have used that hour in the studio. But that wasn’t how it was going to be.

In the end J. did come along, which made the sitting in traffic a lot more bearable. We handed off the SUV to valet parking at the Bonaventure and headed up to the party. I had a cassette in one pocket and a Walkman in the other.

I don’t remember much of how we got up or in to the party because on the walk to the car I went into nervous obsession mode, thinking: what if what I’ve done is completely wrong? You know I don’t really get nervous about musical things. I had that block going on during the warm-up tour, yeah, but that wasn’t like I was afraid to get on the stage. This, though, my neck was sweating and I wondered: what if he hates it? What if it just sucks?

I was still thinking that, standing by a window, staring but not really seeing the view, when Cadmon came up and clinked my glass with his. I am guessing Jonathan put the glass in my hand. Cadmon was a fairly tall guy, thin mustache and wisps of unruly black hair escaping from under a black hat.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

“You tell me?” I said faintly, putting the drink down and fishing in my pocket for the cassette.

He grinned. “You look green around the gills. Come on.”

We went out into the hallway where it wasn’t as noisy, and I put the tape into the player and handed it to him. “So it starts off with–”

He cut me of with a “stop” gesture of his hand. “Let me listen.” He took off the hat, put on the headphones, and closed his eyes.

So I stood there sweating, with my hands in my pockets. If he hates it, I decided, at least I’ll know not to take a gig like this again. Maybe it’ll be a good lesson.

I have no idea how long he listened. He fast-forwarded at one point. There was about a half hour of music on the tape all total.

When he pulled the headphones off his ears he said, “Chernwick heard this yet?”

I shook my head.

“He’s going to shit his pants.”

“That bad?”

“Fuck no.” He looked around. “I’m half of a mind to just tell you it’s fine, because it is, and quit worrying about it, and I half want to take you somewhere and give you advice until you can’t stand it anymore.”

“Um…”

“Follow me.”

I followed him back into the party, where he got on the phone, and talked animatedly to someone. It sounded kind of like he was telling them off, though he looked pretty happy about it. I had two content-free “hi how are you” kind of non-conversations during the phone call, and then he rescued me. We went into the bathroom then and he shut the door. I was still too paralyzed to make a joke about how compromising that looked.

“Okay, the advice part. Tell me honestly. Is this some of your best stuff? This is all instrumental stuff you’ve been saving up your entire life?”

“Um, a little. I mean, some of those riffs are things I’ve never done anything with before.”

He put the lid down and sat on the toilet. “What I’m saying is, this is way too good to waste on a crappy work-for-hire job your name isn’t even going to be on. And if it’s that you’re just that good, okay fine, but don’t throw away your best stuff on this.”

“I don’t have time to start over,” I pointed out. “But no, this isn’t my best stuff. There’s plenty more where that came from. I improvised half of what you heard, anyway.”

“Good. Perfect. My only question is how closely did you stick to their cues?”

“They didn’t really give me any cues. They gave me some general footage without transitions, and a list of about how many tracks they wanted of about how long each.”

“Are they loopable?”

“Um, I haven’t tried.”

He put the headphones on again, rewound, and listened with his eyes open this time. Then he handed it all back to me. “You’re good. You left them plenty of places where they can fade out, or where they can loop if they decide they need to make it longer. You’d think you were a pro or something.”

“I just gave it my best guess. I listened to a lot of soundtracks when I was a kid.”

“Did you? Like what?”

“Like the John Carpenter/Alan Howarth soundtracks to Escape from New York and The Fog. Giorgio Moroder. Maurice Jarre–”

“Okay, okay. Anyway. You’re golden. I shouldn’ve known–Remo doesn’t throw around the word ‘prodigy’ lightly. Get a check when you deliver the master tape. That’s the only other advice I can think to give you. Now.” He cracked his knuckles. “Everyone thinks we came in here to do a line. You want to?”

I assumed he meant cocaine. “No, thanks, I’m trying to cut down,” I joked, but you know, I’m deadpan, so I think he thought I was serious.

“Good for you. Me too, but, you know.” He shrugged and took a container out of his pocket. It was about the size of a cigarette case but I guess it was some kind of custom-made cocaine dispenser. I didn’t watch, fussing with the headphone cord and tucking it back into my jacket pocket. In LA it seemed like it was always leather jacket weather, at night anyway: low humidity and cool.

He didn’t seem much different when he was done snorting. Maybe a little brighter-eyed, I don’t know. “Chernwick’s on his way, by the way. I told him to get his ass down here to hear this. So don’t leave until after he gets here.”

“Oh, you know him, too?”

He laughed. “Digger, everyone knows everyone in this town.”

“Daron,” I said automatically. “Digger’s my… manager.”

“Right. Sorry. Wow. Both start with a D, you know. Come on.” Okay, maybe he was high. He opened the door and we went back into the schmoozefest.

And then I got a drink I actually wanted and let myself smile a little inside. He liked it. It was good. I did good. I wondered when the last time I felt like I had gotten an “A” was.

I got into a conversation then with a random guy who had been to the Robert Fripp Guitar Craft School in Virginia, and we bonded over how the Ovation semi-acoustics were basically the most perfect guitars ever made. I didn’t get his name, but it was a fun conversation anyway. I got another drink and sat down.

“Hey kiddo, how’s it hangin’?” Digger sat down next to me.

“A little to the left. Where’s Sarah? Didn’t you say she was going to be here?”

“I just saw her. Hang on, I’ll find her.” And he got back up and went away. Huh. If only it was always so easy to get rid of him.

She practically fell onto the leather sectional sofa next to me. “Hey! I was hoping I’d see you.”

“Likewise. Hey, I picked up ‘Eve and the Odds’ the other day.”

“No way! Now I’m embarrassed.”

I pulled her leg. “I didn’t say I listened to it…”

She slapped me on the arm. “Jerk.”

“No, seriously. I liked it. But no way did it belong in the folk section.”

“That’s the section where they always stick any woman singer-songwriter with a political conscience,” she said. She crossed her legs. She was wearing a dress that came to mid-thigh, but she had tights on under it that were patterned to look like blue jeans. She had kicked off her shoes again. I wondered if they were hidden in a potted plant or something. “But, really, you liked it?”

“I did. I don’t think I appreciate the piano as much as I should, you know? I’m crap at playing it so I just don’t think about it.”

“It doesn’t get much respect,” she said. “It’s like you have Jerry Lee Lewis, Elton John, and Billy Joel, and they’re held up as some kind of exception that proves the rule. Everyone else has to be some kind of balladeer or jazz crossover.”

“Heard anything new about how your demo is doing?”

“Latest rumor is that Mills is on his way to L.A. to meet me.”

“That what Digger said?”

“Yeah.”

“Nervous?”

“Yeah. It’d be one thing if I was playing a showcase or something, but I’m not. Sounds like I’m just going to meet him.”

I was a little confused by this. “But how is he going to tell if you’re any good?”

“Well.” She uncrossed and re-crossed her legs. “I am under the impression that what they’re looking for most is a woman with ‘it.'”

“I’ve heard about this ‘it’ before.” From Mills, in fact.

“Yeah, and if you’re you, your it includes what you’re like with a guitar in your hands. I think in my case, being female, they mostly want to see if my tits are big enough.” She shrugged, which emphasized the fact that actually her tits weren’t particularly big, so far as I could tell. I wasn’t really the best judge of that sort of thing.

“Well, good luck with it,” I said, and I meant it.

“Not that I wouldn’t play a cabaret gig for him if he wanted. Girl and a piano, not that hard to set up.” She emptied her glass and set it on the side table. “Though I’m betting the first thing he’ll say is lose the piano. If I’m lucky, in concert they’ll let me stand at a synthesizer for one song.”

“Do you–”

“Oh, who am I kidding. If I even reach that stage I’ll be lucky to begin with.” She patted me on the arm. “But you were saying.”

“Um, I was going to say something about synthesizers. I saw Front 242 last night.”

“No kidding? I’m more of a KMFDM gal myself.”

I must have looked surprised. “You’ve heard KMFDM?”

“Daron. Don’t ruin my impression of you by being sexist. You think a woman can’t like industrial music?”

“Hang on, who said it has anything to do with you being a woman and not with them being an obscure industrial band? Almost no one I know likes industrial, male or female.” Except Colin. “How’d you get into them?”

“Worked for a little while in an indie record store,” she said. “You?”

“Listening to college radio. Then I worked at Tower and discovered the whole Wax Trax catalog.”

“You worked at Tower? Oh wait, I knew that. From the video.” She accepted a glass of champagne from a caterer, and I did, too. I guess the room was about to toast something. I’d already forgotten who or what this party was for. “But anyway, what were you going to say about synthesizers?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Insert the usual gear talk here. I’m partial to the DX7, but that might be it’s what I know best.”

“Korg has the best key feel, but I like some of the other piano patches better. I know, I know, I use the Korg as a MIDI controller for something else, get the best of both worlds, but you know, that’s one more piece of equipment that can break. On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to tour with an actual piano. Can you imagine? Tuning that motherfucker every day? Not until you’re someone like Elton John. Can’t just put it in the back of a van.”

“Kind of tricky to busk with, too.” I said. “What if it rains?”

“A bitch to get down to the subway platform,” she replied. She looked around then. “I’m trying to figure out if we can drink the champagne yet or if we’re supposed to wait.”

“No one else seems to be drinking yet. Oh wait, that guy over there.”

She followed my line of sight to where an older man wearing a T-shirt under his suit jacket was swaying to the music in the background and sipping from his glass.

“He’s in his own world,” Sarah said, and raised her glass in his general direction.

“Hey, you want to come up to the house and jam sometime?” I asked then. “I mean, if you can stand the DX7.”

“Wait, what? What house?”

“I’m house-sitting for Remo Cutler. He’s got a home studio fancier than some of the pro setups I’ve been in. It’s awesome.”

“Huh, cool.”

At that point the music went down and everyone began looking the same direction, and someone whose voice didn’t carry at all made some kind of a speech from the far side of the room. We really couldn’t hear any of it, but when we saw other people raising their glasses we did the same, clinked with each other and drank.

Then Chernwick found me. Sarah moved on with a little wave, and I got an earful from Chernwick about how he got an earful from Cadmon Molina, and where the fuck was this tape he needed to hear so desperately. I handed him the player without saying anything.

“Hang out,” he said, which I took to mean “wait here,” and then he walked away with the player in his hand.

He came back maybe five minutes later and tossed me everything, which I caught. “Good job,” he said. “They’ll love it. Exactly what they wanted.”

“Well, I did do it based on what we talked about in that meeting,” I said.

“Yeah, you might be surprised how many artists don’t absorb anything we say, though.” He was wearing a navy blue blazer over a polo shirt. “And some can’t work to spec no matter what we say. And some don’t have the chops to get it done.”

“What would you have done if what I turned in sucked?”

“Well, they would have paid you anyway.”

“No, I mean as far as music for the documentary?”

“Eh. Might’ve tried to license something from some B film in an emergency. But this is way better. I knew you could do it.”

“Great. Get me more money and more time next time,” I said, as a joke, but just like with Cadmon, he took it as serious.

“You bet. You get a reputation for being good, reliable, and fast, there’ll be no shortage of people who want you.” Then he looked at me. “Of course, you lose people if you’re on tour too much, you fall off their radar. Price of fame, I guess. Do some artsy solo albums.”

I wasn’t sure if that was advice or some kind of given in Chernwick’s world. “Yeah,” I said, figuring I was in general agreement with his sentiment, regardless.

After that, J. and I got ready to leave. I saw Digger on the way out. “Hey, old man, I hear Mills may be coming to town.”

“Yeah, probably day after tomorrow. Don’t get your panties in a bunch. I’ll work him about the next record. So far so good from the docs. So, you know, three days to go, I figure I can talk to him like Z’s as good as back.”

“Yeah. Okay.” Technically I guess it was three days, now, since it was after midnight.

I left then, but the words “Z’s as good as back” rattled around in my head. Say that out loud. It’s got a kind of rhythm to it. I wrote it down when we got in the car. A little piece that could fit in a song somewhere.

“How’d it go?” J. asked, once we were on the road.

“Molina loved it, Chernwick loved it. Let’s celebrate.”

“When we get home, okay?”

“Okayyyy.”

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