There’s this drunk who keeps staring at us from some table in the back. I can’t tell what his problem is. At one of the breaks between sets he asked for some god-awful song that some of us didn’t know, and that the rest of us hated. He’s not any different from any other drunk; he’s just the drunk for tonight.
Peter is counting off some song way too fast but it doesn’t really matter. We play it anyway and not a soul knows the difference. I’m thinking I’d like a burger, but this place serves them with potato chips. No fries. I’m not going to waste a fiver on stale potato chips.
Bass players: Always the dumbest. And usually with some kind of ego problem. Something to do with the whole four-string thing. Personally I don’t care what they play or where they stand, as long as they get on the damn root and play eighth notes. Anything other than that is just bullshit.
We finish the set and I go for the burger anyway. Peter tells me that he just bought some new drums but he didn’t bring them. Big deal, I’m thinking. New drums won’t make him play any better. Metronome, I keep thinking. Peter, get a metronome, I keep thinking.
There’s a new guitar guy who is here to watch. He may start playing with us after I fire Daryl. I’m not letting on because Daryl owns the PA. Until I figure out a way to get another PA, Daryl has to be in the band.
“Wanna do Sweet Home in the next set?” Daryl says.
I keep chewing and sorta give him the eye roll that says, “Nah.” Daryl’s an idiot. A great guitar player, but still an idiot. An idiot like ten other idiots. He means well, maybe, no, that’s wrong. He doesn’t mean well. He plays what he wants to play, regardless of the song, regardless of the needs of the song. It is just some stinking bar, but you know, sometimes it’s nice to play the songs well. Daryl is all about pussy and beer and his guitar.
“We should play Sweet Home,” he says, drinking some kind of whiskey that he likes, and then getting up and heading over to one of the many blondes he brings to shows. You should cut your fucking hair, is what I think.
The owner of the club waves over at me like I don’t know what. When I was younger I would have gotten up and gone over there. “So, how are we doing? Could we play something for you? Should we turn down?” Now I just finish my burger, check my watch, and stare at the back of my hands.
Sometime during the last set Daryl breaks a string and laughs it off, strumming away, making awful fucking noise. He could turn down. He could grab another guitar. He could do all of these things. But instead he just slams away, ruining my favorite verse of Brown Eyed Girl.
We pack up the shit at two on the dot. The bar stops serving and we stop playing. Some blonde chats up Daryl which gives me a chance to wrap cable for him. I pack my stuff and get my car loaded first, as always. I’d rather be at home. I’d rather eat poison than stick around after a show. I used to be different, of course. I used to dig the whole thing. The rehearsing, the getting together, the early gigs, the long nights, the camaraderie, even the damn dumb songs. But it’s a different time.
Drummers: Well, you have to know about a hundred of them if you want to play regular. They’re flaky and usually busy. Nobody has anyone any good. They aren’t as dumb as you’d imagine. Some of them even mean well. But drums are an odd instrument. Everyone else is playing the song; they just play some kind of beat. My drummer pals don’t like that explanation, but that’s the truth of the matter.
We’re at a place called Murphy’s way out in the suburbs and my wife has come to the show. She never comes. She hates the band and hates that I play in it. She hates the smoky smell that I have when I come home. She hates me, too, a little, I think. But it wasn’t always this way. I was her hero at one point. I was a little like Keats or at least Byron. I was a poet, a real one. I wrote in a little notebook. I read at coffee shops. She thought I was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. She wrote that to me once in a letter I used to have.
Daryl is setting up with about two minutes to go until we start. I tap my watch at him and he laughs, stopping for a minute to pull on his crotch. I don’t even know what that means, but he gets a big bang out of it.
We start with Take me to the River. This bass player we have tonight doesn’t know the lick and it makes me very unhappy. During the intervals I play it on the guitar, thinking he’ll hear it, pick it up. But he just smokes his cigarette and nods his head like he’s retarded.
As the first set is finishing I see my wife get up and wave and head for the door. That’s long enough, that’s the message there. Forty minutes in and she’s checking out. I can’t see her once she leaves the club but I can imagine it. She gets in her car, points it home, and drives there, not thinking of me at all.
We finish the set and I slam my guitar down, for no reason, and I head over to the bar. The girl there knows me and pours me a vodka and 7.
“You shoulda seen the band here last night,” she says. “The drummer rocked!”
I smile at her and cross my eyes. “That must have ROCKED,” I say, and then laugh. She flips her finger into my drink and spritzes it at me.
Guitar players: Don’t get me wrong. I play guitar. But I’m a bandleader. I play rhythm. I keep it all together. I’m usually the only one who knows the whole set. I have to keep chugging away so that the dead parts of the songs never appear. It’s like this. Too many guys fall in and out of the band. You have to know a bunch of cats to call in. You never have time to rehearse because either everyone is playing or they’re working day gigs. But guitar players, real guitar players – soloists – are all assholes. I could fit in a shoebox all the guitar players with any taste in the whole city. And I never can get them. They have their own gigs to do. But you need someone. Drunks like it. People expect it. All these damn songs have solos in them. You sing a little. You bounce around, and then the guitar guy takes a ride. It never fits the song. It’s always just an endless cavalcade of notes designed for speed and flash. Most guys I work with don’t have the foggiest idea. They don’t listen. They just play for themselves and for the woman they brought to the show, or the one they’ll take home from the show. Necessary evil. That’s what I’m saying. Heavy on the evil.
My wife and I are eating breakfast someplace near where we live. Eggs. I’m hung over and tired and I can’t believe I’m up at 8 am after a gig. Got home at three. Showered. Stuck the forty bucks I made into a can I keep under the sink in the kitchen. When I woke up, my wife was peering down at me in bed, holding the money. Let’s eat. That’s what I understood.
“That three bedroom place has an open house next weekend. I want to go look at it again,” she says.
“Hmmm,” I say. I’m half way into my eggs.
“We have to get out of this neighborhood. Don’t you want to even try to get out of here?”
I look up at her while she sips some coffee and looks out the window into the parking lot. This is a conversation we’ve been having for a long time. I used to make some real money, something other than band money. I would work 30-40 hours a week at a bookstore. I taught lessons at night. I even had a part-time job at a community college.
It was more regular. We had enough to buy a house, to move closer to the neighborhoods where her friends live. Have a baby. That’s the big one.
But now I play every weekend. I haven’t missed a weekend in about three years. I play Thursdays a lot, too. And Wednesdays. I sometimes go sit on Tuesdays with this bad blues band. I’m always playing. The idea of going to a real job at 9 am just isn’t reasonable. I lost my college job when the semester ended and they wanted someone to teach a weekend afternoon class.
And the money now is just band money, and it’s not good.
She knows all of this. All of this stuff in my head is something we talked about last weekend, and maybe the one before. She keeps asking like I’m going to develop a new answer.
Chick singers: Some of my enlightened friends don’t like the term “chick singer,” but that’s what everyone says. There’s one club owner I know who says “female vocalist,” but he’s the same guy who won’t let the band use his bathrooms. He makes us use the Whattaburger across the alley from the club. Anyway, from time to time you need a chick to sing. Some clubs like it. Most clubs pay an extra hundred if you bring in a redhead with a white sweater. I understand the concept and I know lots of great singers. So I bring them in from time to time. I even work up some songs with them especially to fit them. Katherine likes a lot of Aretha. Bettany likes the whole Ani DiFranco deal. But chick singers are trouble. The guys in the band want to sleep with them. While they’re playing back there they’re checking out her ass. That’s all that happens. I wish I could tell you a more empowering, enabling story about this. But guys in the band just want to bang the chick singer.
Some guy answers my ad for a new guitar player. Daryl’s gone. Thank God. But we had to cancel a set of gigs. I hated losing the money. And it looks bad when you have to pull out of a booking at the last minute. But Daryl ruined two more shows last week, getting so incredibly stoned that he couldn’t even tune his guitar. On Saturday he was wrecked again. He nodded off in a chair between the second and third sets and when he came to we were finishing up Crossroad Blues. I played the solo. It sounded great.
This new guy says his name is Wallace and he tells me how he used to know Stevie Ray Vaughn. Every guitar player in Texas knew Stevie. Or they once sat in with Stevie. Or Stevie once spit on them. It’s all Stevie around here. Don’t get me wrong. Stevie was one great scarf-wearing motherfucker. So Wallace comes out to this tiny bar downtown and sits in with us. He’s great. Plays great. Sings backup on a couple of things. He knows the same songs as I do. He listens to what I say. It’s like a miracle. Deus ex guitar. He even asks if he’s too loud, which is a first.
I talk to the drummer and bass player for a bit between sets. They like him, too. I don’t need their vote or permission or anything, but I let them have their say. I tell Wallace that I’ll talk to him after the night about maybe doing some more shows with us. He smokes a Kool, nods, and says, “Whatever.” That makes me feel ugly, but what are you going to do?
We do the third set and Wallace leans over once and says, “Could I sing a tune?”
The bass player looks terrified. We’ve been down this road before. I just call out Burning Love and leave Wallace to figure out that it’s probably his last night with us.