by Mark Walters
I joined a rock band to keep me out of the bars. No one had ever explained to me that rock bands usually play in bars. I thought rock bands played in grocery stores. This is because I was raised by a rock band--my mother on vocals, stepfather on guitar, and a drum machine--that performed in the produce section of a grocery store.
As a child, I spent many a lonely night in the warehouse behind the grocery store with only the drum machine, Herb, to keep me company; instead of bedtime stories, I'd fall asleep to Herb's soft, metronomic pulsing in 4/4 time.
In tribute to Herb, I selected the drums as my instrument in the band.
We booked a tour of Northern New York and Western Vermont. Our show in Buffalo was at a bar called The Seventh Circle. All of the bartenders had red faces, crooked tails and sour dispositions--but they could mix up a Tom Collins that would make the rest of your week go right.
After we loaded in, the devils gathered around us and encouraged us to set our instruments on fire during the show. They wanted to try out their new fire extinguishers.
There was a pentagram painted on the floor in front of the toilets, the idea being that while you were taking a leak, you'd become a part of a vast, demonic tradition.
I declined the invitation to join the tradition, and I peed on the pentagram.
Rochester was worse.
In Rochester, after every song, someone yelled out, "You guys are fucking me up." It was hard to tell if this was a compliment or not. A couple of songs later the guy jumped onstage: a dirty man with a half-finished beard and ratty Eric Clapton t-shirt. He stood next to Wyatt, our guitar player, and began to mock him. (It was easy to mock Wyatt: the way he spread his legs so far apart on stage, his 24 hour grimace.)
This Eric Clapton guy played the worst air guitar I've ever seen.
Wyatt pushed him off the stage. The guy kept yelling. I walked up to the microphone and invited Eric Clapton to stick his head in my bass drum. He was drunk and impressionable, and thought it was a great idea. We started a new song. I kicked that bass drum pedal so hard. I kicked it like I was a field goal kicking mule in a Walt Disney movie and the bass drum was a football, and if I kicked hard enough, I'd get a bag of oats as the credits rolled, as my misfit team poured a cooler full of fruit punch on the coach.
Clapton got about halfway through the song before lurching away. He didn't bother us again.
- - -
The band broke up and I moved to a new city populated by hundreds of young writers. Every restaurant, bar or coffee shop in town had readings. You'd be sitting down to a nice meal on a Friday evening and they'd walk in with their pitchers of water and thick chunky glasses, with their streams of consciousness and run-on sentences, with their stories of love and sex and death and elephants. I recall a ribeye steak in a wine reduction sauce with creamed potatoes and roasted asparagus that was ruined by a certain unnamed writers' overzealous use of ten-dollar adjectives and the split infinitive.
My friends and I began to heckle the writers. We'd throw a loaf of bread or ice cubes at them. Instead of "Freebird", we'd yell, "Updike!" We shifted to story titles:
"Everything that Rises Must Converge!"
"The Open Boat!"
Six months later, 93% of the writers in town got book deals. They sequestered themselves in tiny apartments, and the city was quiet again.
- - -
I joined another band in this new city. They had two albums worth of amazing material, but we never played out because the rest of the band was agoraphobic.
Our shows were broadcast over the radio, transmitting from the basement where we practiced. Once a week, we phoned in songs to a Sunday night radio show. Our singer stood on the second basement step, howling into the receiver--placed on the top step just so--while we roared behind him.
The next challenge: a car wash at midnight, out in the suburbs.
We split a six-pack of strawberry soda in the kitchen, my bandmates washing down their medication.
"We're ready," they said.
The car wash stood at the edge of a subdivision. We unplugged the snack machine and plugged our amps in, ready to blast the entire neighborhood awake.
The singer sang through a two-way transistor radio. I forgot to bring my drum stool, so I sat on the backseat of the hatchback. We blazed through our first song. The car bounced up and down with my beats. Windows flew open and people screamed things at us that could never be printed in a family newspaper.
We cut the set short, finished another song, thanked the suburbs, and said Good Night.
About the author:
Mark Walters lives in Bethesda, Maryland. He's working on a novel.