The next night the stakes went up. It was the first of three nights in a row at Budokan.
You might as well have told me we were playing the White House, Buckingham Palace, and god’s own amphitheater all at once so far as the mythic-and-important factor went. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you probably never heard the Cheap Trick album “Cheap Trick at Budokan,” which was one of the best selling albums of the 1970s, or any number of other major live shows that were recorded there. The phrase “live at Budokan” entered the rock and roll vocabulary in the seventies and never left. Even Bob Dylan did a “Live at Budokan” record.
Remo was obviously hurting, there was no way I was going to ask him to play any more than he had to, and I didn’t even want to ask for a long soundcheck. But he was the band leader and I felt any request like that had to come from him. If it had been just me and the guys I wouldn’t have hesitated, but it was the expanded band. They were a blessing and a curse. A blessing because with all those horns and voices and sounds if I got lost and didn’t play for a couple of bars–like I had at the Swimming Pool– there was so much going on it wasn’t as glaringly obvious as it might have been. But a curse because it was a lot more people to coordinate.
I told Remo in the morning. He was sitting on the couch, nursing a pot of coffee. “I need to work on Sonny’s Song. I’m faking my way through Pull. And–”
“I got you,” he said, giving me a sharp wave of his casted hand, while he held a cup of coffee in the other, cutting me off before I could even bring up the subject of the two songs I hadn’t even started on yet. “Can you and Alan and Alex work something out, though?”
“Well, we can’t get at the keyboards until we get to the venue, and even when we do…”
“Fuck a duck, you’re right. Everything here’s so strict.” He sighed. “We don’t have the free run of the place the way we would in the States.”
“I’ve got four hours right now. I can practice with the tape. But it’s not the same as the big-band arrangement and that fucked me up last night. And I’m stepping all over Cray.”
“Don’t you worry about Cray. Tonight you drop out on Sonny and let him carry it.”
Flip came crutching into the suite then.
I looked at Remo. He looked like he hadn’t slept well. So much for whiskey. “I want you to drop out on everything, Reem. Just sing.”
“I’ll get through tonight. By tomorrow you’ll have it all down cold.”
“I don’t know, Reem. Last night wasn’t pretty. Even I’ve got some limits.”
Flip looked up from where he was pouring himself a cup of coffee. “Hey, would reading the horn charts help you at all?”
“You bet it would! Why didn’t you tell me it was written down?”
“Nobody asked me. Come on, I know where there’s a set of them.”
The horn section had long since memorized their parts, but Flip had kept a set of the pages because he was kind of a pack rat. I guess years on the road will make a guy like that. Flip had the most impressive guitar tech setup I’d ever seen. Lots of guys had a tool box and supplies. Flip had a whole road case, six feet wide, four feet high, that opened up to become a velvet-lined workbench, with drawers and tools and everything built into it. The only drawback to it right now was that he had to stand up to use the work surface, and that meant standing on his one good foot.
Flip was one of those guys who had started to go bald young and grew a mustache to compensate for it. He was still young, maybe thirty, but because of the receding hairline he could pass for a fit forty. Especially when he wore a polo shirt instead of a T-shirt. We went back to his room and he dug the charts out of a bag.
I scanned them. The chord progression was written right on top of the staff. Yes. “You wouldn’t think a little thing like that would be so helpful… but it is.” It was like any input I could get would help me memorize more, faster.
I buried myself in those for a couple of hours, and then Alan borrowed a spare Takamine from Remo’s room and we worked together on a couple of songs even though Alan technically didn’t even play the guitar. It’d be like me faking my way through something on the piano. The thing is, he didn’t have to be technically perfect at all, since he was just trying to get me through the changes while I figured out my part.
Crunch crunch crunch. Remo dragged out the soundcheck as long as he could. When it was over, we sat in a backstage room and had something to eat. Me and the sax player got into a thing, talking back and forth, singing back and forth, “You know what would be cool? Where you have that fill that goes ba-dana-nuh-nuh? What if I echo it back to you?” “That would be cool! “Ba-nanah, ba-nahah…” “Even better, yeah, like that.”
It would be cool. But I caught the look on Cray’s face before he looked away. It was one of those tongue-clucking, eye-rolling expressions.
Okay, fine. He didn’t like the idea or he didn’t like me. I ignored it.
I reached the point where I had to let my thumb rest or I wouldn’t be able to play that night either. I made Flip tell me more about Guitar Craft.
“I bet you’d have a different experience there than I did,” he said. “You’re a much better player than I am. And I had all kinds of bad habits to unlearn. I’d never played sitting down with my foot on a stand before.”
“That’s a really standard classical guitar thing. When I was in school I had a little folding footrest and everything.” I wondered where that footrest was now. I had kept it but I hadn’t used it in a long time. The last time I practiced classic style I just propped my foot on whatever was around. “The thing is to reduce the stress of curving your wrist and your arms so you can get more directly at playing the strings.”
“Fripp’s whole trip is about you being more free to make the sounds you want instead of the sounds the guitar wants,” Flip said. “I mean, so much of the standard way guitars sound, even in classical music but especially in rock and roll, is based on the chords that are easiest to play, that sound the best. So with the new tuning it doesn’t fall into those patterns and with the better posture you don’t get stuck in the guitar player ruts, either.”
“In other words, he makes the guitar into a fretted piano.” Something clicked in my head. I’d always been all about getting as good as I could, as technically perfect as I could, so that I could play as freely as possible, so I could play anything I could imagine without me being the thing constraining what my solo sounded like or what my songs sounded like. But to actually do it as a kind of… spiritual practice, like yoga, or maybe more like a martial art… Every note equal. And equally available, like on the piano.
I wondered if I’d be struggling to memorize these songs if I played like that. For a brief moment I entertained the fantasy that if I only followed the Fripp way I could become a guitar superhero and conquer anything. But then reality set in. These songs, this sound… I had everything in my hands already to make them happen. But there was no shortcut. I had to put in the time, practice the songs, memorize them, learn them, so I could make myself part of the soundscape that Nomad needed. They didn’t need a shaolin monk with six strings. They needed Remo. They settled for me.
“Don’t even tune his guitar tonight,” I told Flip. “Strap his arm to his body. I want him to get better so someday we can play these damn songs the way they’re supposed to sound, when both of us can play.”
I buried my head in the charts until a half hour before show time, like I was cramming for an exam. When there were thirty minutes left, though, I put them away and got the Ovation, and then closed my eyes and sat with it. I didn’t think of any specific song. I just took deep breaths and imagined that everything flowed. Everything flows. Breath, sound, anything that comes in waves. Sound is waves. Radio is waves.
Love is waves? Okay not sure about that one but that’s what happens when my mind blanks out.
Flip tapped me on the shoulder when it was time to go on.
“Did you give him a guitar?” I asked.
I never got an explanation for why we played two different venues in the city of Tokyo. Three nights at Budokan. Had they sold out and couldn’t add one more because of other things being scheduled at the venue, so then they added a show at the Olympic pool? Or was it something else entirely? Two different promoters? I don’t know. If I hadn’t been so focused on trying to learn so much music in so short a time I probably would have asked all kinds of questions. But I didn’t.
At any rate, the Budokan crowd was louder. The cheers when we came onto the stage were forceful. People were really excited. Good.
This time when they shut up to listen to the opening number it didn’t stress me out. And without Remo even trying to strum rhythm everything actually went better. I worried about him less and probably so did everyone else.
In the second song I laid down a very nice solo which recalled the album but wasn’t the same, and I turned to the band to signal I was ending it, and I think that was when it happened. It’s hard to remember exactly because afterward my time sense of what happened when is often wrong. But I think that was when everyone started following me. I hadn’t intended to turn myself into the defacto band leader, but that’s what happened, the horns and the singers’ eyes tracking me across the stage, and you know, it made sense, because in Nomad the guitar was always the lead instrument.
I didn’t plan it that way, that’s just how it happened. And it worked. I couldn’t get lost when I was in the lead, I guess, and I was keeping track of the songs more like a conductor than like a backing musician. I was used to leading Moondog Three on the stage, and I guess that instinct kicked in.
I’ll give you one guess who didn’t hop right into the program, though. Cray. But after one or two more songs he settled in, too, because I would hand the lick around.
This description probably makes no sense if you haven’t played that style. I’ve said before that a lot of Nomad songs are blues-based. Remember when I was teaching Colin how to improvise on top of a blues progression? You can have as many go-rounds of the progression as you want, and in a traditional performance each instrument would get a go-round to solo for themselves. We weren’t there to play a jazz show, of course, but there was a lot of room for the backing instruments to trade off the lead, even during the lyrics.
So in a way, I took over as the band leader but that meant I actually gave more people the spotlight. It threw the idea that we were recreating the album sound out the window, but so what. I should’ve thrown that out to begin with. If they wanted the album sound they wouldn’t have added the full backing band anyway. I don’t know where my head was.
It worked. When music works, it’s like everyone’s telepathic. It didn’t matter that there were still parts of the songs I didn’t know because the group as a whole knew them. It was kind of magic that way.
Afterward, Remo caught me in a hug at the bottom of the stairs from the stage. “You’re fucking brilliant. All that from reading the horn charts?”
“No. It just… sank in,” I said. I didn’t say I thought it helped he didn’t have a guitar. Everyone’s ears had turned to me. “Thank the band. They’re the ones who locked onto me and didn’t let me go.”
“Top notch, baby!” Martin enthused and high-fived me. “Top notch all the way.”
Everyone was in a much better mood for hanging out after that show than the previous night, and we ended up back at the hotel in the bar. Not only had the show gone better, everyone was less jet-lagged. Remo was the first to say goodnight.
I wanted to check with Martin, but I couldn’t come up with a diplomatic way to ask him, hey, is Cray a dickhead or is it me? And then Martin got very snuggly cute with a woman and I wasn’t about to interrupt him.
So when Cray went to the men’s room, I followed him. I didn’t follow him in, because that can freak a guy out, you know, so instead I hung around outside the door, where there was a small lobby and two payphones.
When he came out, I had psyched myself up to be really direct. But at the last second I decided to try casual. I pretended I was on the phone, hung up when he came out, and then walked with him back toward the bar.
“I thought that went better tonight,” I said, like I was talking about the weather.
“Course you do,” he said, and shook his head.
So much for casual. I stopped him in his tracks. “Cray, if you have a problem with me, I want to know what it is.”
“What’s this, the third degree?” He shrugged. “What I think doesn’t matter. Leave it.”
“Sorry, not happening.” I tried to keep my hands relaxed, not ball them up. “Last time I let something go on too long on a tour, I nearly lost an eye and my singer lost a chunk of his arm. Not doing that again.” Haha, it only just occurred to me you could say the Megaton bomb blew up in my face. I wasn’t laughing, though.
Cray had an opinion of that, though. “Yeah, I heard you were such prima donnas you threw a band off your tour.”
I was too taken by surprise by Cray’s obviously misinformed take on the events to react for a second. “What?”
“I heard you crying to Cutler the other night about how your record company doesn’t know how to categorize you. What the fuck do you think they’re going to do, asshole, when you replace a metal band with god-squadders and then boot them and replace ’em with goths?”
I should have just walked away right then because he clearly had some pretty messed up ideas and while I was having the urge to pound his face wasn’t the best time to try to straighten him out. But I took a breath and tried to remind myself violence wasn’t an answer. And this guy wasn’t important enough to get that upset over.
“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
“Sure I don’t.” He shrugged and shook his head, like he was pretty sure he was looking at the sorriest excuse for a human being in the world: me. Then he started to walk away.
I couldn’t. I couldn’t just let him go. “Hey. I’m not done talking to you.”
“Too bad. I’m done with you.” He was sauntering away.
The thing about that cool saunter, though, it’s slow as shit. I slipped in front of him. “I’m serious, Cray. This isn’t some fucking summer camp ego trip.”
“Sure it is. It’s all about you. Little Lord Fauntleroy. You think you’re hot shit and you want everyone to know it. That’s fine. No skin off my nose. When you get to my age maybe you’ll calm down.”
Okay, that definitely wasn’t what I was expecting to hear. Then again what was I expecting? I guess I was expecting the usual: homophobia. But this was starting to sound like something else. “How old are you?”
“None of your fucking business,” he said, and this time when he walked away, he stalked more quickly and angrily. Yeah right, no skin off your nose, Mr. Cynic.