My eyes took a while to absorb the words on the back of the record cover, maybe because of the low light level, which remember Jordan had done supposedly for the good of my concussion. (Maybe it had worked, too, because I felt fine, if tired.) The single in my hands, I learned once the words sank in, was a fundraiser for an AIDS awareness group. The song and the musical group were both called “Positive Thinking.” There was a blurb about the importance of non-discrimination of HIV status right under the photo of my old roommate Roger and four other men I can only describe as flagrantly flaming. All looked healthy but the implication was that they were all HIV positive.
The tips of my fingers felt numb.
The flock of singers had moved toward the kitchen where the food was, leaving me and Jordan standing by ourselves. I handed the record back to him, trying to think of what the normal thing to say would be. I was pretty sure hey I slept with one of these guys back in the day was not it. I settled on “Is it any good?”
Jordan, never one to emote big, gave me the smallest little twitch of his face but the message was loud and clear: not really. What he said aloud was, “It’s in the Bronski Beat vein.”
I used to yell at Roger not to fall into a fake British accent while singing, and I used to try to convince him not to use his falsetto so much. But I didn’t tell Jordan that. I wasn’t ready to deal with him knowing that Roger and I knew each other, especially if Roger had intentionally kept it a secret. Instead I said, “Oh. That’s kind of what it looks like, too.”
“Sometimes it’s good to give people what they expect in music, D.” Jordan put a warm hand on my shoulder, moving like he was going to walk away, to add the vinyl to his brag shelf of projects he’d produced. (It was a very large shelf.)
I followed him. “Okay, sure, but there are plenty of people who will do that. It doesn’t have to be me.”
He looked back at me.
“Does it? What do people expect from me, anyway, Trav?”
He slid the record into the shelf and then looked at me thoughtfully. “You’ve asked me that before.”
“And I’m asking again, I guess.”
He held his chin in his fingers like a big volume knob. “You’re asking me what your brand is, essentially. I.e. what do people think of when they think ‘Daron Marks.'”
“Okay, but you are the one who has to be able to answer that question for yourself. What do you want people to think of when they hear your name? What do you want them to be looking for when they go to the record store looking for the divider with your name on it?”
Something good. Those were the first words that came into my head. So I said them aloud. “Something good.”
“Yeah, but. Everyone’s got their own definition of good. And that’s like saying you want something good to eat but you know that’s not how people pick a restaurant or grocery shop. They know what they like and they buy it again and again. What are you trying to do with your music? Besides make a living, I mean.”
“I want to move them,” I said, before I could stop myself. “I want to grab them by the guitar strings deep down where they won’t even know why they’re feeling the way they feel. Yeah, lyrics are part of that but I want to be able to do it with the music itself, with the notes, with the playing, with the way it goes.”
“That’s not a brand.”
“I didn’t say it was. You asked me what I’m trying to do. That. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
He mulled that over for a long second. “You want the truth about what I think your image is right now?”
“The industry, the press, the people out there, I think they all have a similar view of you.” He closed one eye as if he were fitting the idea to me like a tailor with a jacket. “You’re the last of the Guitar Gods, the god that came along after the gods were dead.”
I didn’t say anything for a bit. I felt a little like he’d just hit me in the head with a two-by-four.
“You asked,” he said.
“But why are the gods dead?”
“Because the people don’t worship them anymore.”
“Look at who’s on the cover of Guitar Player these days. It’s the same old guys again and again. The Edge is maybe the last legit one before you and you almost never see him. You and he have a lot in common actually, in the whole low-key unique approach without the egocentrism.”
“Because he and I don’t play asshole bullshit guitar solos?”
“Neither did Fripp or Andy Summers.”
“True. They both established their godhood through the musicality of prog and jazz. And by virtue of being British where musicality will get you a lot farther than it does here. But it’s like I told you a while ago, as far as the industry is concerned, guitar-driven rock is dying out like the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs are Clapton and other ancient fossils. And the new breed? Think about who dominated the new wave, even among the guitar-driven bands.”
“U2, REM, INXS, The Police…”
“Do you think most people in this country could even name the guitar players for INXS or REM? Or recognize Andy Summers or The Edge if they saw them shopping in A&P?”
“I’m not sure I’d recognize Eric Clapton if I met him in the produce aisle, Trav.”
“But do you see what I’m saying? Sticking with Americans, there is no new Eddie Van Halen. Except maybe you. But people have moved on from that.”
“Or the pop music industry has.”
“Chicken and egg.”
“Yeah, okay.” But just because the industry moved in one direction didn’t mean I had to, did it? “But you asked what I want, and what I want doesn’t change just because the industry is chasing synth pop or whatever’s next.”
“Exactly right. Just remember the industry doesn’t owe any of us a living, though.”
“Right. Point taken.” I reminded myself how lucky I was to be making a living with a guitar in my hands instead of flipping burgers. “I think Zig and I better take off shortly. I’m trying not to overdo it.”
Jordan caught me in a half-hug, which was the first time I really got the feeling he’d been worried about me. “Get some rest.”
I made the rounds saying good night to folks until Tony and Ziggy caught up with me and out the door we went.
We’d maybe gotten two blocks away–Tony driving, me and Ziggy in the back–when Ziggy snuggled up to me. “Something’s bothering you.”
“Besides a concussion and a shishkabobbed hand, you mean?”
“You tell me.”
But the last thing I wanted to do was get into a touchy discussion of my career direction. No, wait, that was the second to last thing. The last thing I wanted to do was bring up Roger. What I really wanted to do was forget Roger existed. There were too many ways thinking about him led to examining the ugly parallels between my past and present. “It’s nothing.”
I think Ziggy knew it wasn’t nothing. He knew I was holding back. He knew I was pulling into my shell.
He knew one surefire way to get through my armor. He popped the button on my jeans with his teeth. I took a moment to consider really seriously whether I wanted this or if I was letting it happen to my own detriment. My cock rose into his welcoming mouth without waiting for me to decide. My fingers slipped into his gelled hair.
Oh fuck yes.
And then I remembered waking up with Tread’s mouth in the same position and a wave of dizzying nausea came over me. Was that because of how I felt or because of my bruised brain? I don’t know. “Oh fuck,” I whispered.
Ziggy lifted his head for a moment, stroking me with his fist. “How long has it been?”
I couldn’t answer that with anything but a grunt.
“You haven’t been taking care of yourself, dear one,” he said, licking a wet stripe across the sensitive head. “You know that’s never healthy.”
I whimpered, needy but feeling a tinge of motion-sickness at the same time.
He resumed sucking me then, the focused, intense kind of blow job that could normally make me come within minutes. And it did, but when I came it felt like a sledgehammer hitting me in the back of the head over and over, like very heartbeat was another blow. The sound I made wasn’t a good one and my fingers were buried in my own hair then and Ziggy’s voice asking me what was wrong–while he cradled my softening dick in his palm–sounded like it was coming from inside a coffee can.
The pain receded gradually and when it was gone I felt like crying with relief, except that crying might make the headache come back. So I settled for panting exhaustedly.
And then I said, “I don’t remember the doctor saying anything about orgasm being a headache trigger.”
Ziggy clucked his tongue. “Doctors never tell you what you really need to know.”