670. Twist of the Knife

I had always attributed the buzz in a room when Ziggy and I walked into a place to the fact that Ziggy is like that. He draws every eye to him like a beacon. I didn’t have to be there for that to happen.

But maybe it was the fact that this was supposed to be my thing, or maybe it was all the incessant digging from the media about whether he and I were getting back together, OR BOTH, but this time it really felt like people reacting to the appearance of both of us. Use whatever cliche you want: a ripple went through the crowd, a murmur, whatever. I had thought a New York crowd of mostly industry people wouldn’t be affected like that.

I was wrong.

Ziggy and I got separated immediately when he stopped to kiss someone on the cheek and I made a bee line for Artie.

He shook my hand and congratulated me on the record being officially out and I was reminded of the way he’d congratulated Remo on being a father. Especially since he brought Remo up, too. “He sends his regrets.”

“What’s he regretting?”

“Not being here to congratulate you himself.”

I snorted. “He’s a goofball. I didn’t expect him to be here. He’s got a bundle of joy he’s been dying to see, after all.”

“Let me introduce you to some folks.”

“Sure.” I let Artie lead me toward the actual bar, tried to remember everyone’s names, failed, and accepted a drink into my hand. The next thing you know I had told the story of Remo singing the National Anthem in St. Louis and made it into a hilarious romp. I was not used to being the life of the party but I guess technically everyone was there to pay attention to me.

Bart was the one who gave me the high sign when it was time to disengage from the constant stream of well wishers (Matthew was there, and Trav, and people I recognized but couldn’t remember, and and and…) and I followed him to the refuge of the stage. That’s what it is, you know, up there on the other side of the fourth wall. A refuge. That’s what it was when I was a kid when the whole rest of my life was a disaster area of misplaced aggression and alienation and that’s what it had been ever since, except maybe for that short period of early 1989 when I had been unable to figure out how to make it work between me and Ziggy during our live show.

I’d been thinking about that on and off a lot during the past couple of months and each time I explained it to myself in a slightly different way. Ultimately this was the point where I decided it had been a kind of growing pains. I hadn’t been afraid of Ziggy or even of being exposed. I’d been afraid of becoming who I was becoming. And what had happened was inhibitions I had offstage were creeping onto the stage where they didn’t belong. So I had to fight them back not only onstage but off. Because if I hadn’t I was going to drown. To suffocate. To die.

My onstage self has always been my best self. Not my “real” self–that puts too many judgments on what’s real and what’s imaginary. Although I suppose it wouldn’t be hard to argue that a lot of my problems are in fact in my head. But anyway. The crowd started quieting immediately even though we were just tuning. I wasn’t expecting that, either. I’d been to industry functions where no one really bothered to stop schmoozing long enough to pay much attention to whoever was at the mic. But I guess there were enough people there who were actually interested in the music that they shut up to listen.

That’s why they did this at a jazz club instead of a rock club, I thought to myself. Now was not the time to be musing about whether my musicianship itself was a crucial part of the marketing of the record or if I merely wished that it was.

Bart was grinning like a fool as he angled his chair slightly toward me. I did the same, adjusting the microphones. The sound guy was right next to the stage, we did a quick–and I do mean quick, like ten or fifteen seconds–check of the monitor levels, and then the stage was all mine.

“Hi. Thanks for coming out.” A few people clapped or hooted in response. “I want to thank the inimitable Bartholomew Cubbins in particular for making it here.” I indicated Bart, who waved his hand in a flourish and nodding bow from his chair, to much louder applause. “So we’re here because I made this album and today’s its birthday party. And we’re going to play some stuff that is kind of related to what we played on the album, but mostly we’re just going to play whatever the hell we want.”

That got a much bigger round of applause, big enough that it was still going on when we launched into the rendition of “From the Summit” that had gone over so well at Tower. It went well here, too. The Ovation sounded crisp and the bottom notes were brought out and enriched by the mix with the cello. Bart was getting really fucking good at the cello.

You have to be kind of fearless to get good at any instrument. It took me a while to figure that out. In music school you’d see students who had excellent technique. They had developed physical skills like dexterity and hand-eye coordination and their ear. They probably started out with strong physical gifts and then they honed them through thousands of hours of practice. But what set the violin soloist apart from the dozens of strings sawing away in the orchestra? I used to think it was just that person had more “talent.” But what the fuck is talent anyway? These skills are learned. So then for a while I thought it was just they worked harder.

And of course in the case of pop music “talent” is such a bludgeon used to put down anyone whose music you don’t like. Anyone who puts Madonna down as a “talentless whore” is an ignorant fuck–or someone whose definition of “talent” is “qualities I approve of in a performer.” Because that’s the thing. What the fuck is talent?

Talent might be simply the ineffable quality that other people respond to. Musical talent might basically just be charisma that expresses itself through playing. If that’s the case then expressiveness is the quality most needed to set a “talented” musician apart from a merely competent one. And the thing that’s needed for expressiveness? Fearlessness. If you only stick to exactly everything you’ve been taught, everything you’ve practiced, if you play like a robot, then you’re holding yourself back.

Trust me, I’ve tried it. I’ve tried being like everyone else. If I was going to do that, I’d have cut my hair and forced myself to give heterosexuality a try and probably not be playing music in the first place. But even within the sphere of music, you have to keep challenging yourself to be fearless. Or at least I do. Because if I don’t, I’m dead.

Anyway. In what should have been the outro to our rendition of “From the Summit” I suddenly hit on a reggae riff and Bart’s eyes lit up and we chased each other down a rabbit hole into completely unknown territory. I could practically see the thoughts going by in his eyes: what the fuck you crazy fuck you’re making me play reggae on a fucking cello!

I’m pretty sure my own expression was: yeah! I know!

The audience felt the spark jump from me to him, people cheered at the surprise of it, the energy of it. I think the jazz club context helped with that, too: live jazz is kinda like a Southern church service in that it’s appropriate to shout out hallelujah when you’re moved to, instead of just sitting there like you do at a classical music concert. Whenever Bart or I passed the solo back to each other they clapped because they could feel it, they could recognize the transitions.

It was fantastic. I couldn’t actually see any of the audience other than a couple of people sitting at the cocktail tables right at the very front of the stage. The lights were bright white, blue, and amber and there was no seeing past the wall of glare they made. But I could hear people clapping and shouting.

They shouted and hooted a bit while I tried to talk a little, but I didn’t really have anything important to say, so I just credited Bart again. I noticed Jordan Travers had slipped into one of the front tables and he toasted with a full glass of something. I had seen the guy sitting with him before, a black guy whose name I had forgotten again–the guy who had kissed him on the cheek way back when one time at Trav’s loft. The time I figured out finally that Trav was gay.

Bart and I transitioned into playing a couple of other pieces we’d worked on and we didn’t fuck around with them quite as much as I had with that first one. I was holding “Why the Sky” for last. I got the feeling that the place was filling up. I couldn’t see very well, but the noise of the crowd was louder.

When it came time to introduce the last song, I said, “Okay, this is our last song, and we decided to make it an oldie but a goodie. Oh, and also, we’ll be sticking around and doing a set with the house band after this. So you guys should stick around, too.” This pronouncement was met with many cheers. Maybe that would make Richie happy. Bart on the other hand mouthed we are? I nodded yes. “I know it doesn’t sound like it, but this one is called ‘Why the Sky.'”

The cello can be a really mournful-sounding instrument, you know? Given that we’d given the vocal line to the cello in that arrangement, it turned an anthem into a really intense mourning song. At least it felt intense to me. I think it probably did to the audience, too, given how quiet they got. We pushed the tempo as we moved out of the bridge into the second chorus, too, taking the song into another gear but staying together, the one section where we were playing pretty much in unison and I heard people actually singing the second chorus. I got goose bumps.

I wondered if Ziggy was one of them.

And then we were done. Shower of applause. I hopped right down off the front of the low stage to accept a handshake and congratulatory cheek-kiss from Trav, shook hands with his…boyfriend? companion? partner?…and then moved on as others crowded in. I remembered Jordan being very sympathetic to the on-again-off-again nature of my relationship with Ziggy, and I also remember him being very single at the time when I lived with him for a while. Maybe he and that guy were on again. I figured if it was my business to know, I’d find out eventually.

Sarah was there. She’d come in just as we’d gotten on the stage apparently. She and Ziggy were side by side at the bar. Ziggy handed me a full glass of ice water as I approached and I realized Carynne had just handed it to him before she went back to the bar for more drinks.

“Thanks.” I took it in one hand and Sarah’s hand in the other and cheek-kissed her. “Well, did it sound like crap back here or what?”

“Shut the fuck up, genius,” she said and thumped me on the chest. “It was brilliant and you know it.”

Bart caught up then just as Carynne returned to the group with two more glasses of ice water. She gave one to him and then looked around at the three of us and sort of blinked.

It wasn’t the first time all three of us had been in a room together since the meeting where we’d decided what to try about some of the lawsuits and then we’d rehearsed. We’d all been at the New Year’s debauchery at Limelight, hadn’t we? Maybe that didn’t count, though. Even Christian had been there.

But from the glances that all went around among us it was obvious it felt significant somehow or maybe just rare to have us talking to one another.

Ziggy gave me a kiss on the cheek, murmured “Nice job” in my ear, and then sailed on to his next conversation. Over Bart’s shoulder I could see him talking to Richie.

I told Sarah about how he’d challenged me to play a set with them in the men’s room earlier. She laughed. “You know he came and recorded a solo for a song that didn’t make it onto the album, right? He’s so funny.”

“No, I had no idea.”

“It’s the B-side to the ‘Blue Skies’ 12-inch,” she said. “Every time he sees Jordan he blames him for it not making it onto the main album and gives him shit. He’s a character.”

“So I gathered.”

“Let’s ask him if I can do a song.”


We followed Ziggy over to where Richie was holding forth. He was all smiles for Sarah until she said something into his ear that the rest of us couldn’t hear over the crowd noise and the music coming over the PA. (Brubeck.)

“What is this, karaoke night?” he complained.

“What, you can’t do it?” Sarah challenged.

“Oh, we can fuckin’ do it,” he assured her. “Bring it on.”

She grinned and clapped her hands together. “Excellent.”

“Okay, what song did you ask for?” I asked her as Richie broke away to look for the other guys.

“It’s one you might know,” she said. She put a hand on my shoulder at that moment. “Don’t turn around. But I want to give you fair warning, Mills is coming this way.”

“Um, thanks. Maybe I should–”

Too late. “Sarah, darling.” John Mills brushed past me to greet her then turned and gave me a perfectly blank, neutral, “Daron. Nice to see you.”

“Mills.” That was all I said. That was all I could say and keep a lid on whatever emotional tumult talking to him might unleash. “Excuse me.”

I escaped right back to the refuge I had just left. The stage. A good place to show that motherfucker what I was made of.

(Video above is me updating my Patreon campaign! Do some of you regular donors realize that you often give me $25 at a time because you feel guilty you haven’t given more often? Several of you do that more than once a year. How about this? Pledge $1 per week through Patreon and you’ll get ALL the perks and bonus scenes for donors, plus free copies of the ebooks and special discounts on the paperbacks, etc. I know this won’t be for everyone: no guilt if you want to just give whenever you’re moved to and no guilt if you want to keep enjoying DGC free. It’s entirely up to you and I highly appreciate all the love and support you guys provide! -ctan)

(This song by the Fabulous Thunderbirds charted in 1991 but it doesn’t look like they made a video for it… -d)


  • cay says:

    Sounds like you were on fire! Don’t let the sharks get you.

  • Alan Katz says:

    One of my favorite Daron chapters ever. I was left breathless.

    For most of my early life I was a musician, a singer, and no one I’ve ever read before captured the nature of “talent”, of the expressiveness that transcends technique and education. It’s that fearlessness, that nakedness that you expose to the audience and know, for a few minutes that they “get you”, that they’ve “been there” that together you have all shared that amazing human experience. It’s a communication that goes beyond words, that connects you soul-to-soul, and when you let it go, fuck rejection, fuck failure, just live in the music for those few minutes with a roomful or (arenaful) of kindred souls, it’s better than sex – it’s somehow deeper, purer and more transcendent.

    And you nailed it all with prose! Beautiful.

    This chapter was a demonstration by a true virtuoso of the keyboard – the one you type, not the one you play. Brava!

  • s says:

    And once again, I wish I was in that audience! I love how Bart just follows you into battle each and every time, no matter what kind of crazy shit you make him do.

    I’ve never thought about ‘talent’ that way before. It’s a term I throw around a lot, but more in the context of athletes. You’re right. Anyone can learn the mechanics of playing the guitar, shooting a jump shot, kicking a football, etc., but not everyone is fearless enough (or talented enough) to make that spectacular play, or make his best friend play reggae on the cello.

    My final thought is why the fuck would Mills show up to your album’s release party? Why? What does he want, or expect to gain? God, he gets my hackles up.

    • daron says:

      Eh, Mills was there because it was an industry thing people in his circles were going to, and possibly to keep an eye on his artists (Ziggy and Sarah) who were obviously going to be there given their connections with me.

      Damn, I totally forgot I should’ve tried to get handsy with Sarah while she was on stage. Oh yeah, my hands were kinda busy.

      I should be thankful every day of my life that Bart was the first person I met at conservatory.

      • s says:

        I get that he’s part of the industry and this wasn’t an invitation-only event but isn’t it kinda like showing up to your ex’s wedding after a nasty divorce and custody battle? Maybe I’m just overprotective of people I care about…and I definitely always think the worst of Mills. He’s like Digger that way.

        • daron says:

          Nah. Even if I hate the guy with the passion of a thousand burning suns, it was perfectly appropriate for him to be there. It’s just business.

  • sanders says:

    I’m with Stef and Alan on all of this.

    Bart has his own brand of fearlessness and bravery, and his trust in you, his faith, seems so absolute when you’re playing. I’ve missed reading that.

    Cecilia, you know you also described writing here, the same risks you take that we’ll follow you down the rabbit hole. Like Bart with Daron, we trust you’ll bring us out the other side of a breathless ride better for having done it.

    This chapter was everything. All of what I love about this strange trip of a story is right here.

    • daron says:

      Bart is a rock. Bart is a stud. I think I learned a lot about how not to fear from him.

    • ctan says:

      Cecilia, you know you also described writing here…

      Hm, yeah, I guess I did.

      To get meta for a second, what’s funny is that my internal censor kind of wanted to shut Daron up, like get on with the story, but Daron wanted to rant a little so I gave him free rein and blam, out comes this screed about what art is. So I had to just let it happen in order to write a rant about how you just have to let it happen in order to shine. Huh.

  • Janie Friedman says:

    What they said. Simply excellent. And D? Show that rat-bastard *all* the awesome.

  • Amber says:

    Love this chapter.

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