By the time all the video bullshit was over with and the roadies began hauling our setup onto the stage it was six. It became clear at that point that this stage was smaller than what they’d anticipated as they looked at our gear piled in the middle of it and MNB’s gear set up around the edges. “What’s the problem, guys?” I said from the bottom of the stage where I was shifting from foot to foot as if it might help them hurry.
The stage manager, who I had learned to identify by his baseball cap with some band’s logo on it, crouched down by me. (I knew neither the name of the band, nor his.) “The original spec called for Hurricane Flats, and well, they got a real minimal set up. We’re going to have to take the keyboard rig off the lower riser to make room for your drum kit.”
I held up my hands. “So do it.”
“I want to clear it with John first.”
John, who was on his way back to the hotel with our junk right now. Ten million and one details. “Look, we want to get some practice time in. I’m sure he’ll say yes. I mean, what else can you do?”
The guy shrugged. “I’m going to page him anyway.”
Fine. The doors were set to open at 7:30. I had too many knots in my stomach to eat. Whatever happens, I thought, good or bad, it’ll all be over by 9pm.
I went back to our backstage room and filled the others in. “We’ll get maybe one song practice in.”
Bart put an arm around my shoulder. “Don’t stress, Daron. We’ll deal. I mean, come on, this is us we’re talking about.”
The other two nodded. So be it. I went back to twiddling old riffs to keep my mind busy.
As it turned out, we got to do about up to the first chorus of “Fire” and about sixteen bars of “Candlelight” before the stagehands shooed us off. I changed the strings on the Ibanez and spent the next hour pacing with it, flipping back through my inventory like a perpetual jukebox, playing bits of one song, then another, then another.
At one point Christian came up to me. “I figured it out,” he said.
I had no idea what he was talking about. “Figured what out?”
“Your guitar teacher. What was his name?”
I didn’t remember his name. Richardson, Robertson, something. Had I done too many drugs or what? “What about him?”
“I figured out why he went weird on you.”
“Because you got better than him, that’s why.”
A roadie slipped between us. “Five minutes guys. Enter from stage left.”
“Right,” I said. “You been listening to Bart? That’s the kind of pop psych thing he’d come up with.” We called them Grand Bart Theories.
“No, man, I think it’s probably true. Stupid fucker’s probably kicking himself now.” Chris had a huge grin on his face.
In five minutes we’d be flying without a net. Then it was four, and then three, and then two, and then we got the signal to go ahead.
As we started in to the first song and I heard Ziggy’s voice mix with the sound of the crowd, and he turned toward me with a feral look, I felt like I was seeing him for the first time all day. I gave him a half smile and he snaked around behind me, his eyes bright. If I normally felt detached from reality during a show, the days of not playing only intensified the distance, but this was one place where I couldn’t let fear rule me. I was flying blind, so nothing could hold me back. Ziggy and I locked eyes and exchanged notes in an upward spiral into the instrumental bridge of “Fire” and with a cymbal wash from Chris it all dissolved into a sweet acoustic rain. By then, I was in the music and there was no room left for worry. Bart was right, this was us we were talking about. I don’t know why I’d worried.
We climbed off the stage sweaty and hungry and I missed the way, with Nomad, we’d gone back for an encore, like getting seconds of dessert. Well, it wouldn’t be long now before we were headlining, I told myself.
Mills was applauding at the bottom of the stairs. There was another guy standing there with him who looked familiar, in sneakers and jeans with overlong hair Claire would have disparagingly described as “dirty dishwater” blond. The Spin reporter. Mills introduced him as Jonathan McCabe, like he knew I’d forgotten his name, which I had.
“Good to see you again,” I said and he shook all our hands like a receiving line. We adjourned to backstage and sat around shooting the shit for a while. Mills circled around us like a host and I forgot to be nervous around him. Until at one point he said “When are we going to have that meeting?”
That contract negotiation meeting.
“I don’t want to wait until we get to New York,” he said. “You’ve slipped to #90 on the chart and we could be losing our momentum…” He trailed off just long enough to imply dire consequences but not long enough to let me interrupt him. “Would tomorrow afternoon at 2 be alright?”
I shrugged. “Sure, as long as we’re not in a tour bus.”
“No problem.” And then he left us alone.
Jonathan turned to me. “Does that mean you’re signing with them?”
“What makes you say that?”
He smirked. “The case of Dom Perignon Mills ordered this afternoon.”
Ziggy voiced my thought: “What a presumptuous asshole,” although I didn’t know whether he meant Jonathan or Mills. I’d meant Mills.
I told Jonathan to ask me again after the meeting. The subject did not come up again that night.
Jonathan had plenty of other things he wanted to ask us about. We’d already told him a lot of the bullshit ancient history stuff when he’d talked to us in LA, how we’d auditioned a couple of pumped up “frontmen” and rejected them all before we found Ziggy in the park, how we’d recorded a four song EP for ourselves before we got picked up by Charles River. Basic stuff. Now, though, he said he wanted to go for a more personal angle. Christian begged off talking to him, seeing as how he might or might not stay with us, and Ziggy was in an elusive mood.
“Let’s go back to the hotel,” I said. “Unless you want to see the rest of MNB’s set.”
Jonathan chuckled a little to himself. “Not particularly. I’ve seen it once already. You, my man, are my priority.” I felt a little surge of excitement when he said that.
So we went back to the hotel bar and he regaled the waiter about their poor selection of Scotch. The waiter tried to talk him into trying something with a French-sounding name from California but he ended up getting an obscure whiskey from Kentucky. I had club soda.
When the waiter put my drink down on a napkin Jonathan said, “So you’re a party animal.”
“Underage,” I reminded him. “Why make trouble?”
“When’s your birthday?”
I shook my head. “You might find out, but I’m not telling. Sometime in the next twelve months I turn twenty one and then hopefully the subject of my age will never come up again.” At the moment I felt too young for any of this. That’s good, though, I tried to tell myself. The day you feel too old for it is the day to quit.
“So tell me about being self-managed,” he began.
“What’s to tell?”
“Well, for starters, why? Couldn’t find one, or basic distrust of industry types?”
“Basic distrust, I guess. The need to know what’s going on, not be insulated from issues that directly affect me, us. This tour’s weird. Sometimes we don’t even know the name of the hotel or which one it is, unless we specifically ask for the information. That bugs me.”
“But you wouldn’t try to be a road manager, too?”
“No. But there’s a basic attitude at work here, that musicians are the bottom of the chain of command. Everyone else is telling you what to do, where to go, when to jump. It should be the other way around. We’re the meal ticket yeah, but that doesn’t make us the bottom of the food chain. I mean, you hire a manager to do things for you, right? But after a while it seems like you’re doing it for them. It makes sense to hire someone to take care of details like how many hours it takes to drive from Chicago to Pittsburgh, but I don’t ever want to pay somebody to make my decisions for me.”
We went on with the management topic for a while–he told me about some other bands that self-managed or who used to, like R.E.M., as well as artists who were practically made by their managers. We argued about whether Joan Jett was one of them or not. “It’s like government,” I concluded. “You elect officials to serve you, the public, and take care of stuff. But in the end they are the ones in charge, making laws to control the populace. The whole thing sucks.”
“You sound almost like you must have soaked up some of that Brown University anti-establishment rhetoric when you were in Providence.”
I shrugged. “I used to walk across the Brown campus a lot. I played the coffeehouse…”
“I know,” he said, and he wouldn’t look at me when he said it. “I was doing grad school there part of the time you were playing.” Now he looked up with a little smile. “The whole reason I got so interested in this story was I thought, jeez, all those little bands you go to see in clubs, how many of them ever make it? Well, up to now, none. Wouldn’t it be kind of cool if someone I saw play the Underground or the coffeehouse made it big? Besides, I’d seen you play once, which made me the instant expert on you in the Spin office.”
Now I was really curious. “You saw us at the Underground?” The Underground wasn’t even properly a nightclub, a cubbyhole of a space tucked next to the student center post office, a student-run space that sold bagels at lunch time and turned their sound system into the adjacent courtyard on warm Thursday nights to make an open air disco. But with university funding they paid decently and all the local bands played there.
“Whatever happened to your old singer? Roger?”
I should have been nervous, wondering what deep dark secret this guy was going to pull out of his hat next, but Jonathan was too likable for me to really get paranoid. “I haven’t the slightest idea what he’s doing now. He stayed at the conservatory when Bart and I lit out for Boston. We had some… stylistic disagreements.”
“I believe the term you’re looking for is ‘creative differences.'”
“Whatever. ‘Irreconcilable Differences.’ Hmm, good name for a band, though.”
“And how do things work differently with Ziggy?”
Indeed. I tried not to dwell on other meanings for that question and spouted out something about how we shared lyric writing duty, how I had to admit that I hadn’t expected Ziggy to do any writing, but he’d turned out to have a bit of a knack. “My weakness is in the chorus, honestly. I write kind of minimalistically. Zig tends to liven stuff up a lot.”
“What do you mean ‘minimalistically?’ You don’t mean minimalist a la Philip Glass.”
“Heck no. I mean the lyrics I come up with tend to be on the spare side. I write a bunch of stuff, and then I look at it or sing it, and anything that makes me cringe, I cut it out. Sometimes that doesn’t leave a lot left.”
Jonathan took a deep whiff of his bourbon while he thought about that. “Is your personal relationship close?”
I held my deadpan, hearing my voice sound interview-ish, my diction careful. “I think we used to be kind of distant and there was some tension as we got to know one another, which actually kind of helped in song writing sometimes. Now we’re getting to know one another onstage better.”
“There seems to be a kind of chemistry between you two on stage. Maybe it’s just Ziggy’s name but it makes me think of David Bowie and Mick Ronson.”
“Before my time.” I’d never come straight out and asked Ziggy where he got his nickname but I guess I’d assumed Bowie was the source.
“Mine too, but I’ve seen a lot of video and footage. They were electric, quite a team. I don’t suppose it’s really fair to compare you to them, though.”
He frowned into his whiskey. “It seems like cheating somehow. Editorially. It’s a cheap hook. I’m sure some hack writer at Musician or Rolling Stone will use it anyway, probably in a record review. Ziggy’s going to get compared to Bowie no matter what, and the fact that he’s got a theatrical stage presence and is prone to doing things like painting his face will only encourage the comparison.”
“You know, I’ve never really thought of him like Bowie at all.”
“Well, I mean Bowie’s stage presence was always very posed, wasn’t it?” I hadn’t seen that much footage, just a little here and there. But that was the impression I had. “The thing I like about Ziggy is his kind of raw, manic energy. But that’s not the big difference. For me the fundamental trait of Bowie is his voice. He’s got that rich bottom range, that’s his signature. Ziggy’s is just much higher, much more…” I couldn’t think of a description that wouldn’t sound negative somehow. “Call me a music geek, but there’s just no comparison.”
“Daron Moondog, Music Geek, Not Another Guitar Hero,” he recited. “Now there’s a cheesy hook for a story.”
“Do you always do this? This kind of discussion of the interview?”
Jonathan smiled. “Yeah, I guess I do. Call it ‘meta-journalism.'” He swirled the whiskey in its glass. “Do you want a taste of this? It’s wonderfully vile, smells like maple syrup and tastes like paint thinner.”
I made a face.
“It might help you relax.”
I forced a smile. “I might be less uptight if people didn’t always pressure me to RELAX,” I joked. “I’m still pretty wired from the show.”
That led us into a long discussion of performance high and the unwinding techniques of the rich and famous. We agreed it’s no wonder that all kinds of strong stimuli go hand in hand with rock and roll, though our theories were a little different. He started out thinking that all the sex and drugs are people’s way of seeking out something of equal intensity to the onstage experience, whereas I thought of it more as an escape from it, from the kind of scary trance thing and the enormity of it all. But by the time we called it a night I was half-convinced he was right and he was half-convinced I was right.
Later that night as I lay in bed, thinking over the things I’d said and trying to come up with better ways to say them to the next reporter down the pike, I decided there was a third possibility, too. Another thing that had a philosophical anti-establishment ring to it. Maybe anyone whose identity or lifestyle puts them outside of normal, mainstream culture will automatically mix in with these other things that are outside of mundane, suburban life. Sex and drugs and rock and roll. But I couldn’t really think of any examples to support that theory other than myself and the musicians I’d known.
Ziggy came in a while later and asked in a whisper if I was awake. When I said I was, he slid into bed with me and we had sex without another word.
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