114. Swingtown

At noon me, Chris, and Bart loaded up our gear and drove the couple of short blocks from the loft to the hall. The Orpheum might have once stood among other buildings of its vintage but now it was hemmed in by the department stores and blocky new office buildings of Downtown Crossing.

We had to pull the van half onto the cobblestone curb to unload. A small army of roadies and techs were there already, some employed by the hall, some by the promoter, and some by the individual bands. The production manager waved a quick hello as if he recognized us and set some guys to carefully sequestering our gear against a wall in a square tape-marked on the floor for us. Chris went to move the van before we got a ticket.

Bart and I looked around backstage. “Hey,” he said, “remember this?”

We put our heads into one of the dark backstage rooms and he flipped the light switch on. Now I recognized the faded couch and the shape of the room from the time Nomad had played here. Carynne and I had sat on that couch and it seemed like a weird In-Search-Of-type coincidence to me that I’d probably see her here tonight. Better call Time Life Books.

“If you’ve got costumes or anything, feel free to leave ’em in any of the rooms,” a production assistant (or someone) said as he breezed by.

We exchanged looks. “Costumes?” Bart raised a eyebrow.

“Me, I’m just surprised no one’s asked to see our passes, yet.”

“Oh come on,” he said. “Everyone knows what we look like. And we don’t even have our passes, yet. Let’s camp out here while we wait for Chris to get back.”

We dumped our coats over the back of the couch. I sat down while he went back to our assigned gear pile and came back with his bass and my guitar. “There’s a sign on the wall with the performance order and the sound check order. We’re near the end of the former and the beginning of the latter. We get fifteen minutes, tops, to check.”

I shrugged. With something like eight bands set to perform tonight, with shared PA and monitors, sound check would have to be quick and dirty. “I just hope the Z-man is here on time.”

For lack of anything better to do, we set about tuning. I’d left the Ovation at home and was playing the Fender because it was easier to slide, but I cursed out loud when I tried to turn the first peg. “Goddammit.” A couple of the machines were sticky and my thumb shot pain into my forearm when the screw refused to turn.

“Ay, que pena,” said Bart with a fake Mexican accent. “Here, let me do it.”

I resisted for a sec, then handed the instrument over to him as he laid the bass against the couch. “Your ears are better than mine anyway,” I said.

“No lie, bwana.” He gleefully struck a beating harmonic.

“Hey neighbors,” said a voice from the doorway–Jimmy Marone, trombone player and singer for Ska Ka Doodle Do, who lived half a block from us in Allston. “Howzit hangin?”

Ska Ka Doodle took up residence in the dressing room with us–tonight they did have costumes: the horn section in lurid green leisure suits and the rest of the band in red. Tony, the lead singer, winked at us as he ran his hands over the polyester. “Hey, for two bucks a pop at the Garment District Halloween sale, we couldn’t resist.”

We were laughing about their outfits until Christian came in with a loud “Ho ho and ho, cats,” in a red, fake fur jacket with white trim, a white goatee, and a red beret with a jingle bell in the center. “Just call me Beat Santa.”

“Hi, Beat Santa,” came a chorus of ska dudes.

Santa had brought gifts, our nicely laminated backstage passes. He gave me Ziggy’s and I took it without protest. I was the boss, after all. Christian started shaking hands with the other guys. I dug my lanyard out of the Fender case and slung it over my head. I clipped the pass among the others already there and went for a walk.

Every corner of the place was busy now, caterers setting up in the hallway outside the dressing rooms, lighting techs on catwalks overhead, and band people and hangers on going back and forth. I recognized a lot of people. Some of the stage hands were guys we knew from other bands, other people I’d never met but had seen pictures of in the local papers. Some of them must have been thinking the same thing about me. Leon, one of the guys who worked for Watt at Charles River gave me a high sign. I saw Joe Perry of Aerosmith talking to someone in a suit, maybe Mike Fink himself. Aerosmith were not on tonight’s bill, but I was starting to get the feeling this was something of the local industry’s holiday party, and anyone who was someone was invited. People were laughing. Lack of sleep crept over my skin with a shiver. I was wishing the night were already over.

Someone’s hand tucked itself into the crook of my elbow and I turned to see Carynne in a pair of red suede boots, a red corduroy skirt and a fuzzy red sweater. Her hair looked forlornly orange in comparison. She tilted her head down and pecked me on the cheek. Was she always taller than me? The boots had flat heels. I guess so. “Hiya.”

“Hiya. How you been?”

“Good.” She waved to someone in the wings, I didn’t see who and they didn’t wave back. “You?”

“Don’t tell anyone, but I sprained my left thumb.”

She gaped at me; I couldn’t tell whether in genuine or mock horror. “What are you going to do?”

“Play slide, mostly. It isn’t really that bad,” I said, as if that would make it true. “Makes me nervous, though.”

“You’ll be fine. Hey, isn’t that the guy from BNC?”

She pointed to two men in suits, the one I was guessing was Mike Fink, and Mills. “Yep.” I supposed I should go and say hello.

“Is he here for you?” she said. I filled her in about how they were pressing us to get them stuff and sign another contract while we walked around to see who else we knew. The first band to check was coming onto the stage and the floor was about to get noisy.

At the back entrance, I caught sight of Ziggy and Digger standing by the desk while an assistant pored over a sheaf of dog-eared lists on a clip board. Carynne waved and Ziggy waved back. When we came a little closer I could hear Digger saying “… every man and his brother. We didn’t even ask for any non-essential personnel.”

The production assistant was nodding his head like he was listening. “Just a moment, please.”

I handed Ziggy his pass and the production assistant waved him in without looking up. “Oh, here you are, Mister Marks. My apologies.” He opened a drawer in the desk and took out another laminate. He handed it to Digger while simultaneously picking up the walkie talkie on the desk which had just squawked. “Go,” he said into the radio, and we were already forgotten.

Carynne elbowed me. “Well, aren’t you going to introduce me?”

I tapped my head. “I keep thinking you know everyone already. This is Ziggy…”

“That’s what I thought,” she said, repeating her little wave.

“and this is…”

“Digger,” Digger finished for me with a silly-looking bow. He was in another one of his very good suits. “At your service.”

“Oho,” Carynne said and shook his hand, then gave me a wild-eyed look like ‘whoa, is this guy for real?’ “Where’s the rest of the crew?”

“In the green room,” I said. “I mean, the one that’s actually green.”

“I know the one,” she said, and led the way for all of us.

Half an hour later we were shuffling around on the stage waiting for the signal to start so the sound guys could set levels. Sometime during my travels Chris and Ska Ka Doodle Do’s drummer decided to share a kit and reduce strike time since we were on back to back. The result was a hybrid of Chris’s white-bodied drums with a bunch of psychedelic swirled ones: at least they weren’t red and green.

“Go ahead and blow the lid off,” the tech at the foot of the stage said.

Christian gave a quick four count and hit the opening fall of The Right Hand. An ironic title, I thought as I swung my hand against the open chord. The chorus of the song was “the right hand never knows where the left hand goes.”

We didn’t get to the chorus before they signaled us to stop and we discussed: bass too muddy, more vocals in the monitors, then another two verses, discuss: everything still too muddy. We changed to the opening of Candlelight to see how the sparer sound would fare, and harmonized a cappella on the chorus. I’m not sure what kind of processing they added to the mics but our vocals sounded great. I almost wished we had done the song that way on the last tour, until I remembered my sore throat which would have ruined it anyway. And then they hustled us off.

Mills and Digger were talking in the wings as we left the stage. Ska Ka Doodle took our places and I went to put the Strat in our room. It was 3:30 in the afternoon and the evening was still hours away.

We had the room to ourselves for a brief time and I felt like I should call a meeting. But what was I going to say anyway? Happy New Year, let’s knock ’em dead? Yeah, something like that. But the moment passed, Ziggy left the room, and I slumped tiredly into the couch. If the urge hit me later, I could do it before we went on.

I went back out to the floor to see if I could find Carynne, and I ended up sitting in an orchestra seat watching Scruffy the Cat do their check. The high volume and chainsaw buzz of the guitars was like sitting in a hot tub and I felt myself falling asleep. I slid down further into the chair, my feet tucked in the crook between the two seats in front of me, and zonked out.


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