We didn’t leave Jordan’s until brunch time the next day, when Sarah insisted on showing Magenta the best breakfast spot in the city, which was a diner in Hell’s Kitchen. It didn’t strike me as all that different from a hundred other diners in Manhattan but Sarah had settled on this one as her favorite so we were happy to go along with that. From there we kidnapped Magenta to Sarah’s apartment in a cab.
“Isn’t it a work day for you lot?” Magenta said from the front seat, meaning you Americans. “It’s a Friday.”
“It’s the day after Thanksgiving,” Ziggy said in return, from the middle of the back seat. “The whole point of putting it on a Thursday is you get a four-day weekend.”
“Unless yer a waitress or a cabbie.” Madge gave us a wry smile. The cab driver didn’t seem to notice he’d been mentioned.
I looked out the window at where we were and remembered Sarah had moved from the place she’d been in when she first came to the city. That had been a sublet, but I still remembered the place fondly, with its old piano and Einstein shower curtain. I knew she’d moved to a place of her own, but right then I couldn’t remember anything about it.
As soon as we walked in the door, though, I remembered it was the place where she’d had that Christmas party where Remo found out Melissa was pregnant. I was finding it hard to remember whether that had been while Ziggy and I were together or apart.
Priss had been there, though. I remembered as soon as I saw Sarah’s practice piano, and a stab of guilt got me right in the heart over the fact that I hadn’t done my exercises–any of them–in over 24 hours. More like 48, actually, given the time of day. (“Brunch” had happened in the early afternoon.)
Sarah had amassed a giant closet full of interesting thrift store finds. She could have outfitted an entire cast of a film that was a cross between Fame and Mad Max. I fell asleep on the bed while watching her, Ziggy, and Magenta try things on. You’d think a person wouldn’t be able to sleep through all the giggling and exclamations of wonder but I did.
When I woke up, all three of them were crashed out. Sarah was actually next to me with her head on a pillow; Ziggy was stretched out across the foot of the bed like a cat, and Madge was curled up in a pile of crinolines. I crept into the bathroom and took a shower. After I got out I put my jeans back on without underwear and then went into the kitchen to look for a rubber band. I eventually found a bunch of them around a doorknob. I started some coffee brewing in the coffee maker and then sat down in a stool at the kitchen counter to do my finger exercises.
This rubber band was thicker than the one I’d been using, and I told myself that was why my muscles got fatigued faster than usual, not that I’d skipped for a day or two (or was it three…?). The steam heat in the building was hissing and the apartment was warm enough I didn’t feel the need to put on a shirt right away. The only other sound was distant traffic noise–we were on a side street fairly high up–and a rhythmic sound from the apartment right above me that had to be a dishwasher running.
I really couldn’t do my vocal exercises without waking everyone up. I went barefoot over to the piano anyway. The notebook of staff paper sitting there seemed to stare at me, which is impressive since it didn’t have eyes.
Yeah, write a song, uh huh, that’s what I should do right now. That was the thought that went through my head, but that was all. No actual song ideas came up. What’s different now? I thought. Why can’t I write anything?
When I was a kid I had once seen Marvin Hamlisch do a presentation–he apparently did it at schools all over–where he’d have the audience give him song titles or ideas and he’d write them live on stage, more or less instantaneously. I was young enough at the time that I had been impressed by it before I had really understood what he was doing. You know, one kid wrote down “I love chocolate chip cookies,” and Hamlisch whipped out a kind of 1950’s style doo-wop. He had mastery of so many different cliches and forms and genres of music that it seemed impressive. Well, like any magic trick done on stage, the actual trick is not magic but skill. As I got older I was no longer in awe of what seemed like spontaneous genius and in better understanding of what skills he applied to create that effect.
Because the thing is, with music, there is spontaneous genius. But what allows for the spontaneity is that it’s built on a structure. I was too harsh when I decided Hamlisch was a fraud–the genius that is improvisation is always built on a structure and Hamlisch’s mastery of so many different possible structures is actually quite impressive.
But what does all this have to do with me? I’d sort of decided that I was better than him because I could do it–write a fresh song on any topic you could think of–without relying on the really tired, played out musical cliches of doo-wop or the Broadway musical or whatever. I could write original music that wasn’t like the rock and roll or pop that came before it in any overly obvious way.
Or at least I used to think that I could. Now I wasn’t sure I could write a song about anything.
I sat down at the piano–Sarah had a cushy piano performance stool instead of a bench–and opened the book of staff paper. It was spiral bound with a pencil in the wire and the pages blank inside.
Hey, I thought. How about writing a song about… not being able to write a song? That’s a great topic for a song.
I wrote: I don’t know what this song’s supposed to say / I don’t know what these words are supposed to do.
A little light went on somewhere inside my brain. The song can be metaphor for a relationship where you can’t communicate.
I wrote another line that I liked the rhythm of:
I’ve got these feelings that don’t fit on the page
And then as I often did I wrote some potential rhymes in the margin:
The work didn’t get beyond brainstorming some more possible lyrics, a couple of stanzas, because of course nothing really gets set until you can figure out the music around it, the melody and the riffs and the rhythm. Sometimes the “right” syllable count doesn’t matter if the line doesn’t flow.
Ziggy came in wearing an oversize T-shirt of Sarah’s and kissed me on the cheek. “The gals are starting to stir. I think we should keep Madge overnight. She needs a break.”
“What’s she in New York to do, exactly?”
He spewed buzzwords: “Working with some insane postmodernist Swedish performance art guy on a project transforming sacred music into the profane and vice versa. But like I said, she needed a break. Did I mention the guy’s insane?”
Ziggy ran his fingers along my bare shoulders. “Why aren’t you wearing a shirt? Never mind. I like you like this. You know what Madge has never done? She’s never seen Rocky Horror.”
I spun to face him on the stool. “What? Isn’t that, like, part of the required initiation ritual for goths?”
“She’s old enough that she pre-dates it, maybe,” Ziggy said, a small frown between his eyebrows as he tried to work out the math. Then he focused on me. “You’ve done it?”
“Yeah. When I was still in high school.” One of those nights I’d escaped into the city and didn’t sleep until after I snuck back into my bedroom in New Jersey.
“By yourself?” Ziggy asked.
“Me, too. I had to sneak away from the gang I was running with because they would’ve gone apeshit if I got caught doing something so… you know.”
“I was going to use a dirty word for it, but yeah.” He raked his hand through his hair and it stood up. “Anyway, since we’re all playing hooky this is perfect. We get dressed up–made up, I mean–and then no one will recognize us.”
“Like we did for Pride.”
“Yeah, except I’m not going to call Bernard on such short notice.” He bit his lip. “Come on. It’ll be fun.”
I kissed that lip and felt the edge of his teeth. “I’m not wearing a shirt because I don’t have a clean one. And you don’t have to try to convince me to go out.”
I wrapped my legs around his. “You don’t. But I do think we should tell Tony where we’re going.”
“He can’t come with us. He’s too conspicuous and any fan worth her salt knows he works for me.”
“I didn’t say come with us, just tell him where we’re going.”
Ziggy thought for a moment. “I’ll tell him to pick us up at the theater and take us clubbing after.”
So it was that our plans for the next ten or twelve hours were set.