We took the train to Nagoya–not the subway train, the fancy, high speed train. The equipment had all gone ahead of us already days before, so we didn’t have that much to carry. By car it would have been four or five hours–the same distance as going Boston to New York.
By “bullet” train it was 100 minutes. Whoosh.
That left just enough time to get bored enough to read a book, not enough time to get a significant amount of reading done. I don’t remember what I read on that trip. I should tell you I was reading something really deep, so you’ll be impressed. But it was probably a mystery or science fiction. I think that was around the time there was a lot of cyberpunk in the airport bookstores. I remember reading several that were all set in the middle east, in a kind of futuristic “Casbah.” I wasn’t good at keeping track which books in a series I’d already read, though, and I’m pretty sure a few times in those years I bought the same book twice. More importantly that meant I read them twice, and sometimes it wasn’t until halfway through the book that I realized it. Which just goes to show that sometimes books kind of go in one eye and out the other and I don’t retain a lot.
Then again, who said you have to retain a lot to enjoy a book? They were something to keep my brain busy. They succeeded at that.
The hotel in Nagoya was nowhere near as fancy as the place we’d been in Tokyo but I didn’t really mind that. The place in Tokyo had been kind of over the top fancy, actually, and it was kind of a relief to move to a place where I didn’t feel that security guards might, at any moment, ask me to leave. It was a much fancier place than I expected from Remo. I was under the impression that much much more of the details on the tour were handled by people in Japan than by Nomad’s own team. I was still pretty focused on learning the material and figured I’d absorb more details at some point.
I was still having that problem where everything I saw or did, I imagined what Jonathan would think of it. Would he like it? Not like it? Have an opinion about it?
Why the fuck did it matter to me what Jonathan would or wouldn’t think about a guy I saw on the train, or the train itself, or what? I wouldn’t think about him for a while but then something would trigger it, like I’d see someone drinking from a glass and they’d hold the glass the way he held it. That kind of thing.
It was driving me a bit nuts, actually. You’d think that crossing the Pacific would be the perfect “getting away” but it was almost worse. Everything I saw was new or different and I hadn’t realized how often when we were together if I wanted to know something more about something all I had to do was ask him.
That might have been why I spent more time than was healthy grilling Flip about various topics. Martin and I had told him at length about the troop of singing hare krishnas we saw. Okay, actually, I had told him at length about it. Don’t ask me where he got it but the next day, in Nagoya, after soundcheck, he handed me a cassette. I figured it was more Nomad stuff, something else for me to work on, but it was actually a tape of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” You’ve heard the song. Everyone in the world has heard the song. Maybe I’m the only one who never really thought about the fact that the chorus is “hare krishna”? I heard that song hundreds of times when I was a kid. And I never connected what those words meant. Not even after I had sat through the hare krishna meal in Providence. And yes, I knew the Beatles went to India, but somehow I’d always just digested the music without really thinking about where the influences had come from. It hit me particularly hard because of how we’d picked apart “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” a few nights before, and I’d been continuing to pick it apart in my head ever since. How can it be that I know things but I don’t know things?
The place we were playing in Nagoya was a big concrete “gymnasium” building, not that different from the sports arenas I was used to. No super-futuristic architecture this time.
The show went well. I wouldn’t say we were quite working like a well-oiled machine, but the lubrication was at least beginning to seep in. Bunch of professionals, good at what they do. Now that they’d all adjusted to me being the defacto bandleader things clicked pretty well and Remo could just go be the front man.
Flip and I got into a jam session at the hotel that night. It easily went on for two hours. People were in and out of the room but I wasn’t really paying attention to them. They weren’t paying that much attention to us, either. Two guitars in the corner of a room. When I had to stop because my thumb was starting to ache, like it always did when the weather was cold and I played too much, then I went back to grilling him about everything he knew about Indian music.
“Okay so first of all there’s so much to know about Indian music that’s like asking somebody to tell you all about European music,” he said.
“Yeah, but if someone asked me to do that, I could give them the rundown about how church music turned into classical music, the orchestra was developed, Mozart, Beethoven, boom.”
“Okay, and where does rock and roll fit in there?” Flip challenged.
“Seriously? Come on. Bach relied on the same three chords as Elvis. When your music’s built on the twelve-tone scale, that return to the tonic is hardwired. Rock and roll just comes out of the same root, but instead of coming out of the concert halls, it comes out of the back rooms and the bars.”
“Is that divide because of class? Race?”
“Yes, and yes, and the fact that music doesn’t stay in the box you put it in. If you’re going to have music that is defined by the concert hall, by definition you’re going to have music that isn’t defined by it, also. It’s exactly like food, Flip. French cuisine with white table cloths is not the only food there is, and thank goodness for that. Anywhere there are people, there is going to be food. And music.”
“Yeah, okay, I guess if you look at it like that.” He gestured for me to hand him the Ovation and I did. “I guess I hadn’t quite thought of it as a universal human endeavor, but yeah, sure.”
“Right. Honestly, Daron, you’ve picked my brain clean of what I know about Indian music. I can’t tell you what the relationship between Indian classical music and folk music and Bollywood and hare krishna type chanting is.” He pulled a string winder out of his pocket and started taking the strings off. “Other than to say it all is. Have you heard qawwali?”
“Koala-ie?” I imagined koala bears with sitars.
“Qawwali. It’s not Indian, it’s more middle eastern. Or maybe Pakistan? It’s another ecstatic chanting/singing music, using Sufi spiritual texts. It’s sort of like if you take the cross between all the stuff on the Passion soundtrack by Peter Gabriel and the hare krishna stuff you’ve been talking about.” He suddenly stopped winding. “Wait. The guy I’m thinking of actually sings on the Passion album. What the hell is his name? He was a huge hit at WOMAD a couple of years back.”
I hadn’t realized Cray was standing a few feet behind the couch where I was sitting until he spoke up. “You mean Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.”
Flip nearly leaped out of his chair, except then he remembered his ankle was in a cast, and he fell back with the Ovation in his lap. “Yes! That’s who I mean.”
Cray slunk over to us. “Surprised the hick knew something, huh?”
Flip was usually quick with a comeback and was good at smoothing shit like that over, but this time he was caught off guard, and I jumped in with, “Who thinks you’re a hick?”
“Forget it.” He turned to go.
“Cray, get your ass the fuck over here and explain yourself,” Flip said. “Seriously. If you’re going to accuse me of dissing you at least have the balls to look me in the eye.”
Cray came around to my side of the couch, his hands jammed in the pockets of corduroy jeans. He was dressed about like always, flannel shirt over a T-shirt, which he wore usually buttoned up and tucked in. Come to think of it he dressed basically like Remo did.
I should explain stage dress for a band like Nomad. The backup singers and the horn section got dressed up. It was kind of a tradition with them. But the rest of the band usually looked like we could have pulled up in a pickup truck straight from our working class jobs and walked on stage. Getting too fancy was considered not right for the blue-collar image of a band that had so much blues in its DNA. So we didn’t look all that different onstage and off. The main difference was what you sent to laundry and what you didn’t.
Anyway Cray came over and told us off. “You think I don’t see what you’re doing? All your hoity toity music theory talk. You think I can’t keep up.”
Flip blinked, his mouth hanging open slightly. I should mention we had been drinking. Not that much, I thought, and beer only but you know. It’s important to know. He finally got his jaw in gear. “Wait. You think we’ve been talking about what we’ve been talking about specifically to exclude you because we think you’re too stupid to participate?”
Cray just smoldered.
Flip: “Cray, I never thought you were dumb about anything musically, but that is the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
Cray: “Don’t deny it.”
Flip: “Deny what? How about this: not everything is about you.”
Cray: “Something better came along. I see the writing on the wall.”
Flip (exasperated): “You want to come hang out, just sit your ass down! I’m not your babysitter!”
“Hang on, time out.” I twirled my hands like a conductor cutting everyone off. Amazing how well that works with musicians sometimes. “Cray, sit the fuck down.”
Here’s what I said: “Look. I know I’m kind of the new guy here…” at which Flip snorted “…so I don’t know everybody’s history. I didn’t come here to steal your friends or your spotlight. You said you couldn’t care less about my sexual orientation but you seem to have a big chip on your shoulder about me. Now you’re dragging Flip into it and that’s just not cool. You want to hang out with us, just come hang out. You’re the one with the chip, not me. Clear?”
“Besides.” Flip set the unstrung Ovation aside. “If we wanted to keep you out, we’d just go in a room and shut the damn door. You want to come jam? Bring it, man. We know you can.”
Cray’s face looked even more pinched than it had when he sat down. “Seriously?”
“Seriously,” Flip and I said at the same time.
I went on. “Now what was that name you said?”
“Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan,” Cray said. “Blue Licks String Band played the same WOMAD he did.”
“Yeah, I was at that one.” Flip remembered he had a partially drunk beer on the table and sipped cautiously from the bottle–in case it had gone bad, I guess. “I missed Blue Licks, though. Which stage were you guys on?”
“We played two sets actually, one in the daytime that was on the instructional stage, and then a night show on the east stage.” Cray unhunched a little as he talked.
“Cool.” Flip took a more confident swig. “Okay, but seriously, what’s your issue with Daron?”
Cray and I were both goosed by the sudden return to the previous topic. We’d clearly both been lulled into thinking we were letting it blow over.
“Oh, come on, Flip,” he said. “You don’t really believe that he walks on water like the rest of them, do you?”
“Uh, walks on water, no. One of the top six-string players in the world, yes.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I’m quite serious. Have you looked at this guy’s resume? I don’t just mean playing with Nomad as a teenager. RIMCon, two top forty hits before he was barely old enough to drink, soundtracks, made the Guitar Player list two years in a row now. I’m not making this shit up.” He finished the beer and set the empty bottle down. “Which doesn’t mean we should kiss his ass or anything. I’m just saying it’s not like Remo picked him up as a charity case.”
That made me smile inside because of course the last time I had toured with them I had been charity case.
Cray looked straight at me. “Enjoy it while it lasts. You think you’re hot shit now, but see what the world thinks of you when you turn thirty.”
“Aw shit, is that what this is about?” Flip pushed himself into a standing position using his arms, then hopped on one leg over to the fridge to get three more beers. He could carry all three in one hand by hooking the necks in his meaty fingers. He hopped back, handed us each one, and then cracked the top off his own with the string winder. I had previously been unaware that a string winder could be used in that manner. “Happy Birthday, Cray. When did you hit the big three-oh?”
“Last week,” Cray said glumly, and took the winder to pop his own. I followed, and we all clinked bottles.
“Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. So you’re in the dumps because you’re thirty. What else? You’re single…”
“Yeah. My mother is continually trying to fix me up with this girl she wants singing with Blue Licks but it’s like, man, she’s not that good a singer, and if the only reason she’s carrying here is because she wants her for a daughter in law… that’s just a bad scene all around.”
“Yeah, well, you’re with us now. What else. Come on, spill it.”
Cray shook his head. “It’s all right, you guys. I’m over it.”
“Now now, I’m not convinced you are.” Flip waggled his bottle in Cray’s direction.
But Cray had clammed up. “I’m sorry. You guys are all right. I’m not the type to get into a pissing contest, you know? I still don’t really get how you” — meaning me — “magically became band leader, but I guess I should shut up about it since it works.”
Now I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. “Maybe Remo should’ve just said something but I think he didn’t want to put too much pressure on me. But it’s basically two things. One, I’m used to being the band leader, and two, the guitar’s really the lead instrument in these arrangements. So it was kind of inevitable if Remo couldn’t do it. I didn’t intend to grab the reins but when they were flopping around somebody had to.”
Cray thought that over.
“And it had to be somebody who could make eye contact with everyone else on the stage. I’m the only one up there with the mobility to do it. Especially since I’m not singing.”
Cray sighed. “Why didn’t Remo just say so, then?”
Flip was all over that. “He didn’t think he had to. Come on, Cray. Remo’s a laid back dude. You know that. He’s going to let things happen and just see how they come out. That’s his style.”
Cray nodded. “Yep. Yep, that sure is his style.” He drained half the beer then. “This shit tastes like rice.” He got up then and went into the bathroom to pour it out.
When he came out though, instead of sitting back down with us, he slipped out the door. Like we weren’t going to notice?
“He’s a moody one, isn’t he?”
“To put it mildly, yes. I don’t get it. That guy has had everything in the world handed to him and he can’t get along with anyone for more than five minutes. While you, who are on top of the world, are the easiest person to get along with, ever.”
I shrugged. “I wouldn’t say getting sued by my record company puts me on top of the world.”
“Relatively speaking,” Flip said. “But really. You’re so easy-going. You’re like Remo that way. You don’t create problems where they don’t exist.”
“Anymore,” I said. Being out of the closet, at least with this group, helped simplify life a lot. “You ever meet Matthew, Remo’s previous guitar tech?”
“Coupla times, yeah.”
“I went on the road for the warmup tour in 1986. And I was a withdrawn, terrified teenager starved for advice about how to live my life.”
“And did you get that advice from Remo?”
“Hell, no. I got it from Matthew. Thank goodness he was around to keep an eye on me, though. He’s a terrific guy, really. I didn’t appreciate at the time what a little lost lamb I was. I’m better now.”
“I’ll say.” Flip tipped the bottle back until it was empty and then smacked his lips. “I think I like this beer.”
“Me, too. I think I like the rice flavor.”
“Yeah, it’s nice. Crisp.”
I still really didn’t understand Cray better after that night. But at least I felt like Cray had picked up some clues. The next day he was much less of a pill about everything, anyway. Maybe sometimes what a person needs most is to feel like someone listened to them.
(And for those who don’t remember “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison. Yeah, it starts out with “hallelujah” but after the guitar solo at 2:40 it switches to “hare krishna”…)