It's shortly after ten o'clock when I get out of the store. With one final tug at the door handle to confirm it's locked, I pocket the keys and began to walk up the street, crossing the unwritten boundary dividing West Hastings from East, Gastown glowing behind me like a nostalgic snapshot. It's still raining; soft drizzle that barely disturbs the puddle surfaces, a welcome change from the afternoon's monsoon. Good thing the bar isn't that far. I haven't walked more than a block when I hear a voice call out in the dark.
Considering the large population gracing this section of the poorest postal code in Canada, I pay no attention and keep walking. Again, the voice cuts through the slumbering dark.
"Hey! Hey, guy!"
Holding my breath, I look over my shoulder, a small part of me expecting to encounter a strung-out junkie extending a filthy hand; a silent request for spare change - or worse. Much as I hate the stereotype, the sight is a common one on the Downtown Eastside and though many of the city's less fortunate are respectful enough, there are the more aggressive ones who won't take no for an answer even if you don't have so much as a penny on you. I don't scare easily but after working at the store for over a year now, encounters with the homeless still put me on edge, especially once the sun goes down and the shadows of the overhead streetlights thread foreboding through the district.
A short and scraggly man smelling of skunk appears on my right. I recognize him right away as the one in the store when I first arrived, silently browsing the vinyl section and offering his opinion on my two bit band before leaving.
"Sorry buddy I don't have any change on me," I say and try to walk away.
"No no, not change," he says, shaking his head, struggling to make eye contact while reaching into his coat.
I feel my heart began to pick up speed. Oh boy, I think. I knew this would happen sooner or later. I'm about to be mugged.
Instead of a gun or a knife as I both expect and fear, the guy removes a thick stack of glossy papers that looked as though they've been run over with truck tires. He pulls one free from the elastic, attempting to smooth it out, make it presentable before handing it over.
"You look like a man who knows his metal."
I blink, finding it a conscious effort to lift my hand up to take the paper. "What?"
"I just figured. You work in a shop where half the racks are metal: death, doom and the like. Only a diehard would work in a place like that."
It turns out to be a handout flyer that he's handed me for the LocalFest that Art had told me about, the text of which declares the upcoming show to be a "can't miss" event.
"COME ON OUT AND RAISE THE HORNS FOR YOUR LOCAL TALENT! FEAUTRING SPECIAL GUEST APPEARANCES!" it enthusiastically encouraged. I mourn the loss of however many trees it took to print this sap, reading over the list of bands on the ticket, none of which I've never heard. I can't help wondering who the unnamed special guests might be. In my experience, over-hyped guest appearances often leave me disappointed in the end. When I get to the fine print at the bottom of the page, I almost drop the paper.
OPENER SLOTS STILL AVAILABLE! CALL NOW FOR DETAILS.
I feel as though I've been transported to a foreign world. My mind is alight with ideas, one after the other like water overflowing in a cup. I force myself to put a lid on them and keep collected, one thing at a time.
"Where did you get these? I was told the ad campaign wasn't starting until tomorrow?"
Stoner Guy fidgets. His blurred, nervous eyes can't - or won't – focus on mine. "I didn't steal 'em. A guy from one of the bands gave 'em to me, told me to spread 'em around the city to guys like..." He pauses, beginning to look more nervous. "Well, guys like you. Metalheads, I mean. No offense."
"None taken. Did he say what band he was from?"
Stoner Guy pauses again. "Uh, why you asking? What's it to you?"
"Curiosity, that's all. I'm in a band too."
"Oh. The guy didn't say. Gave me a hundred bucks to give them away to whoever looked metal enough to handle it."
"Weird guy, too," Stoner Guy keeps talking, "nice, but weird. Funny accent too, sounded like a frog who'd been sucking down too much of the wine, you know?"
It's hard to suppress the chuckle caught in my throat. "What?"
"This dude, he looked like he lives in the gym. He had muscles on top of muscles."
"You don't say. Thanks for the flyer. I'll be sure to check it out." I begin to walk towards the bus stop again when Stoner Guy calls out one more time.
"Hey, you said you're in a band too? What're you called? I'll check you guys out sometime."
I don't even turn my head as I pick up speed, heading towards the bar, dodging other street walkers left and right. "I don't think you'd care for us. We're just a bunch of two bits going nowhere."
Spiteful! I know it's petty, but I can't help myself sometimes.
Funky's, aka Funky Winkerbean's Pub, named after the semi-popular comic strip, is one of the many dive watering holes to grace the lower west-meets-eastside strip of Hastings Street, neighbor to the iconic Save on Meats restaurant and butcher shop. Its beverage offerings are decent, as are the crowds who pack in on a nightly basis for either karaoke nights, concerts or just to drink and escape the horrors of the day. Patronage varies depending on the night. The mess of battle-scarred tables and chairs fool you into thinking it's a smaller joint than it really is, especially on show nights. Off in the far corner of the room is a raised stage for bands to play and wannabe singers to belt out tuneless renditions of "Sweet Child o' Mine" after getting loaded on house lager, conveniently located near the washrooms, either someone's idea of a cruel joke or poor planning on the architect's end. Funky's also serves as a regular hangout place for my bandmates when we're not working or jamming. But then again, isn't jamming just another form of work? Depends who you ask.
I can't really call Dichotomy Of Mind my band since I didn't start it, nor do I front it. I'm the outsider, the guy who came on board when nobody else took up reins on rhythm guitar. We get along pretty good, although there have been a string of tense moments that have begun to give voice to sobering second thoughts, but what band hasn't hit rough patches? I still think the name is a joke. Not that anyone else seems too interested in my opinion.
The ungodly screeching of two stewed prunes butchering The Offspring is the first thing to greet me as I step into the dimly lit bar. Nails on a chalkboard would sound more appealing than what's coming from the stage. I spot my bandmates crowded around a small table against the wall looking eager to strangle the singers if you could call them that. A half-empty pitcher sits between them.
Stephen spots me, waves at me and points to an empty chair beside him, which I take. The other members offer various greetings as I grab an empty glass and fill it from the pitcher.
That's when I notice we're not alone tonight. A short and scraggly kid with spiky hair who looks like he's forgotten to shave looks over at me and nods hello.
"Josh," I introduce myself, holding out a hand. We shake. He says his name's K, as in the letter.
"K? Wow, I bet you love your parents for putting so much thought into that one, huh?" Future attempts to talk to him get little more than closed-lip grunts and nods. He seems more interested in the contents of his glass than in making new friends so I turn to Billy Glass, vocalist extraordinaire, the only original founding member of Dichotomy who stuck around. He's also the oldest, on the north side of forty, streaks of grey running through his dark locks, peppering the stubble on his squared chin. Billy's pressed tight against the banquette running along the wall with Brea who pulls double duty as merch coordinator-slash-fan club, although she's more a fan of Billy than anything else.
Brea's closer to my age, I can't help hearing the world "cradle-robber" whispered in the back of my mind whenever I see her and Billy acting even remotely intimate. A rare sight if ever there was one. She's also our temporary drummer as of four months ago, but the way she and Billy keep acting, it wouldn't surprise me if the "temporary" label was dropped.
A glass is filled from the pitcher and passed over to me. I lift it towards Billy. "What say, big guy?"
Billy winces as the drunks hit a particularly awful high-note. "Jesus Christ, there should be a law against drunken karaoke," he moans. "That's their third go-around if you please."
"Can't say I do," I say from behind my glass. "Hey, where's Curtis?"
"No clue," says Billy, a wry smile on his face. "I think someone forgot to invite him."
I can't say I'm surprised. Our bassist has been falling out of favor with Billy (and the rest of us) pretty much since he came into the picture a few months back. At his first official practice with us he hit on Brea, even after being warned about the dangerous waters in which he waded. Trying to bed the frontman's girlfriend is never a good way to start things off. Billy let him live, much to Brea's annoyance, but now finds himself dividing time between vocals and playing chaperone, always making sure Curtis understands where the lines were drawn. Being six-foot-four and straddling the three-hundred mark on the scale lends your argument certain ammo. I'm not too sorry about Curtis' invitation being "forgotten." I don't hate the guy, and I may be the only member who can say that, he's a hell of a player if he puts his mind to it, the problem being he rarely does unless somebody, namely Billy, screams him stupid.
"So what's new on the storefront?" Stephen asks me, "any new releases worth noting about?"
I'm reminded of the show flyer Stoner Guy handed me a few blocks back and I take it out of my pocket, smooth it out on the table and show it to the guys. "Check it!" I point to the fine print. "They're casting net for bands to join this show coming up in the fall, we should get on board."
Billy gives me a hard look. There goes Mallory, telling us what we want again. "It's a little early to be calling the shots, isn't it?" It's always "Mallory" to Billy. Since my teenage days, more people have called me by my last name. It seems I'm ever only Josh to Annie and Frederick Mallory of Port Hardy. Everyone else calls me Mallory or Jay-Jay. Actually, only Brea seems to call me Jay-Jay. I don't complain either way.
"I'm not," I say. "It's only a suggestion. What else have we got on the horizon after the two shows at the Crow's Nest and here?" Billy likes to take the role of frontman a little too seriously sometimes, walking the thin line between leader and dictator.
"Jay-Jay's got a point," says Brea. "It couldn't hurt to get our name out there." Now who's telling who about what they want?
Billy nods agreement but does not smile. "We'll talk about it later."
K takes the flyer off the table and brings it close to his nose. I don't know whether it's because he's drunk or merely shortsighted. "LocalFest," he reads aloud before tossing it back onto the tabletop. "That's new, haven't seen any posters around town for it."
"That's the beauty of it," I say a little quieter, leaning forward in my seat. The others follow suit, save for K who keeps his chin rested in the flat of his palm, looking sleepy. The squawking songbirds have finished strangling cats and are descending the stairs to marginal applause. "These aren't due to hit the streets until tomorrow, when the official ad campaign begins. So this is really to our advantage."
Billy looks a little more interested. "Really?" he asks. "Where'd you get this from then, heist it from your store?"
Our frontman has such a trusting disposition. "Not even. Some street walker higher than a kite handed one out to me as I was walking over. Said some guy from one of the band paid him to hand 'em out to anyone who quote, 'looked metal enough.'" A series of understandable eye rolls and muttered expletives follow from the others. "Yeah, yeah I know," I say. "It's an idea, anyways."
"Who was it?" asks Stephen.
"I told you, some random dude. He was hanging around the store when I first arrived. Tried to sell him on that demo we recorded over the summer. His review was unflattering."
"Ingrate," Billy says, lifting his glass to his lips.
"No, I meant the band," Stephen says. "Who gave him the slips?"
I lift my shoulders. "Hell if I know. Stoner Guy didn't give a name, only described the guy as a mountain of muscles with a frog voice."
K's ears seem to perk up at this. Lifting his head, he turns to me and asks, "Frog?"
"So he said. I guess he means the guy sounds like Kermit. That or he's just a f--king racist."
His eyebrows tilt at dangerous angles. He doesn't say anything else.
Time passes. Singers with varying degrees of talent ranging from mediocre to abysmal take to the stage. The urge to get up there and show this crowd a thing or two is hard to resist, offset only by the prospect of our future show. Not that anybody seems to know or care who we are.
The rapidly emptying pitcher on our table is replaced twice over the course of the next hour. The second one arrives at our table accompanied by shots of some cherry smelling whiskey bought by Billy. Stephen takes a whiff and surrenders his shot, looking a little sour around the gills. For the first time that night, the inscrutable K shows signs of life, reaching out and snatching up the little glass from under Stephen's nose, swallowing it along with his own, earning him laughs and applause from the table. The liquor seems to loosen his tongue, after a while he opens up enough to ask me what else occupies my time in between my duties in Dichotomy Of Mind. I tell him of my blog and the three to five days a week I spend hocking vinyls, merchandise and tickets over at Cage.
"Blog, huh?" he asks. "Whatcha write about?"
"Music mostly," I tell him, "in between thinly veiled attacks on the corporatized crap of today's quote-unquote 'music scene'."
"Do tell," K says, looking amused at the idea.
I hesitate for a minute and then decide the possibility of being sneered at is no worse than reading another flame comment, God knows I've done that enough times. "Well, I was toying with a new op-ed about the influence of bands like Systex and what impact the band's music has on today's mainstream-focused youth, but I don't know whether to run with it or not."
At the mention of that name, K's face loses any trace sign of amusement. For the briefest moment, he instead looks like he'd just watched me eat a cockroach, before any lingering emotion fades and he reverts to his formerly bored expression. "No kidding."
I can tell right away that he's not impressed and while I don't feel the need to justify my work to anyone, the idea to change the subject strikes me and fast. "Like I said, I dunno. How do you write about such an enigma without knowing all the facts?"
K shrugs and looks away. "That's a question only he could answer," he mutters. "Not that I'd ever expect him to drop a line."
"Nothing," he says. Then he stands up abruptly, almost knocking his chair over behind him, grabs his glass, swallows the remnants in one long gulp, slams the glass back down on the table. The leftover beer in the pitcher swishes and rises up the sides, a lip of foam cresting near the mouth. "I gotta head. See you guys." He leaves without another word.
When he's gone, Stephen looks around at us and says, "Sh-t. What's up with that guy anyways? Where'd he come from?"
Billy shakes his head. "Met him outside when we first got here, asked me for a smoke, saw my shirt and we started talking metal. Next thing you know, he's buying the first pitcher and hanging out with us." He thinks about it for a minute longer then shakes his head again, chuckling. "Never say no to free beer, personally. A penny saved, after all."
"Did he say anything about himself or was he as tight as a clamshell from the get-go?"
"I think he said his name was Kevin, but I dunno. I never thought much of it until now, to be honest. Whatever. Probably won't see him again anyways."
"Such a compassionate soul is our pal Billy."
"Hey Stephen, if I wanna listen to bullsh-t, I'd have invited Curtis along, thank you very much."
Brea looks puzzled as she glances towards the doors. "He looked really pissed about something. What'd you all say to him anyway, Jay-Jay?"
"Nothing," I reply. "He asked me about what I do, told him about my blog and then - well, that happened." I gesture with my thumb. "Guess he's not a Systex fan."
A look of understanding comes over Billy's face and he nods. "Ah, well no wonder. I know what the problem is. You told him you're a Systex fan."
I fill my glass. "You're always a ray of f--king sunshine, Billy, you know that? Hey, write that down, why don't you? It'd make a good song title."
Billy looks at me long and hard with squinted eyes.
The festivities begin dying down around midnight, the same time karaoke is forgotten by most of the patrons. We go our separate ways for the night, me towards a bus stop on Carall Street, the others towards the SkyTrain. Only Stephen bothers to bid me farewell like the good guy he is. He also appears to be the only one capable of walking in a straight line, Billy and Brea using each other for leverage as the three head up the street and disappear around a corner after a block.
Never a dull moment in the life of Dichotomy Of Mind.
I take a seat in the far back of the bus when it arrives, late as usual, public transit in Vancouver isn't known for its punctuality. The exhaustion of the day catches up with me. I can feel energy draining from my body in a drawn-out exhalation, my head resting against the window while the other passengers pretend to be too busy to notice anybody else's existence.
Rolling past Main and out of the downtown core, the Rickshaw sign glows against the backdrop of the night, Chinese characters brilliant in the sky like neon stars. Shadowed figures stand behind a row of velvet ropes in clusters like a murder of ravens, long hair dangling in the wind. The faint aromas of cigarette float through the open window, punctuating the stale air. The smell calls up memories of old and for a moment I am transported to another place, another time.
There is laughter here and there are tears, gossiping whispers among angry screams, the sounds of either are only in the background, serving a supporting role. Taking center stage is the music, as it should. This is where it belongs. As for me, I am nowhere to be found. Where there should be light, there is only darkness.
I blink. The sights and smells are gone, and I am back on the bus. But the music is still playing. As we pass through a flashing green light, my hand moves instinctively towards my neck, feeling for the nicotine patch behind my ear.
By Graham Nichol, aka G.N.