It didn't work. We all knew it after fiddling around with it for a few hours. Like the bumblebees in Korsakov's interlude, the creative spark behind the instrumental concept had taken flight, never to return. Talent and ability weren't the problem. It boiled down to little more than trying to finish a jigsaw puzzle with one piece missing from the original package. You can try to imagine the finished product, attempt to replicate the original all you want, the necessary component will still be missing no matter what. Everyone looked quietly relieved when the decision was made to abandon ship, even though we were all still impressed by Kayla's rendition of "Bumblebee" (as Mitchell called it) and didn't want to send such talent out to pasture.
It took some more tweaks and tightening before the answer came from that mysterious place where the muses live and work their magic. When in the closing measures of Rage
, the guitars and bass would stretch the last chords out longer than expected while Adam
rode his crash cymbal. The crowd would hopefully feed off this expected climax while Kayla
would slowly intro the opening bars to "Bumblebee
" before jumping headfirst into a solo that would lead us into Deaf Ears
and on from there. We liked that idea a lot more, spending the next two practices getting the transition down pat. At work the following Monday, Adam
and me discussed the progress while nailing what was to become the south facing wall for one of the townhouses to be. It had been pouring earlier that morning and we were still in our rain gear.
"It's coming together pretty good, don't you think?" Adam asked from atop a ladder, lining up a nail gun. It let off a loud gasp and fired a nail into one of the studs while I stood by the ladder, watching him. Other crew members around us busied themselves with whatever tasks.
"It is," I agreed while drops rolled off my coat onto the temporary floor below. "If we pull it off at the Thrash like we did yesterday, it'll throw the crowd completely off guard. ‘Surprise, motherf--kers, we're not finished yet!" The gun barked again before Adam set it aside and descended the ladder. The breast of his coat was covered in a thin pulpy film, sawdust mixing with raindrops. He wiped it off with a gloved hand. "Man, I don't know why they still use wood to frame these bugger things," I said. "I thought buildings used that metal stuff you can just drywall over afterwards."
"No clue. Leave that to the architects. We just assemble them." He found a water bottle and swallowed half its contents in two large gulps. Somewhere in the site, a voice called for a time check. Adam lifted his glove up and peeked at his watch. "Two ten. Less than an hour till quitting time!" Shouts of approval echoed around us. He turned to me and said, "Hopefully an idea for another song will come to one of us before then."
"That'd be fine by me," I said. "So far we've barely got eight minutes covered."
Adam nodded. "Speaking of covered, it's your turn to climb up there. I got your back." My heart sank while I took to the ladder, telling Adam I'd be glad when payday finally made its way around.
Much as it is with writers crafting their next page-turning bestseller, I'd come to believe that inspiration for musicians hammering out riffs and lyrics tends to come from out of nowhere. Not all the time, I'm sure, but it probably happens more than most people might imagine. The idea of approaching the blank page with confidence and declaring to the world, "Today, I am going to write a song about (alienation, doomed romances, death, whatever), and it is going to sound like this," never worked for me; just like how forcing certain riffs and drumbeats together was a recipe for failure whenever we tried it at practice. Maybe it was due to the lack of life experience, I was only two weeks shy of my nineteenth birthday after all, but that excuse didn't sit well either. It could be any number of reasons; did it really matter in the end? Yes and no. We still had the contest to worry about. But we were metalheads first, dammit! Friends united by the love of loud riffs and double-bass licks, music that spoke to a disheartened and disconnected generation, music that told you it didn't matter if the world saw you as little more than scum of the earth, you still meant something. You weren't f--ked up, the world was! Nobody cared where you came from or what your story was, in the moshpits, you were ay-f--king-okay. Period. As long as the five of us kept that in mind, we'd make it.
Just before practice that afternoon, I was staring in the bathroom mirror. A chubby giant stared back at me, sporting a thin carpet of dark hairs sprouting across a tired young face, curling underneath the chin. "Never thought I'd see you with a beard," I told the mirror. "Of course I never thought I'd be a lumber mule either, so there you go." Then a thought came to me, almost by accident at first it seemed. Why, when I talked to myself, could I never make eye contact with the mirror? No problem looking the other Systex members in the eye, what made my own reflection different? It was one I was the most used to. I saw it every day. Consciously, I looked my mirrored self in the eye. Excitement coupled with exhaustion and… something else too, something I couldn't put my finger on. Worry, unhappiness? That last one striking a pang of uncomfortable truth in the pit of my stomach.
"Why?" I asked out loud. "What have I got to be unhappy about?"
The mirror offered no suggestions, only acknowledgement. No fooling the evidence laid out right before my eyes. It wasn't denial I was fighting, more like frightened contemplation. "Gosh, the stories this face could tell in five years time." I left the bathroom with that last thought, reaching behind me for the light switch. The bright fluorescence snapped off behind me.
That's when the inspiration struck. First there was nothing. Then - POW! - There was. I went out to The Garage, glowing with determination. Adam, having opened The Garage door to air the place out, it tended to develop a rather stale smell after a heavy rain, was standing in front of his kit, tightening the screws on one of his cymbals. He tapped it with his knuckle after each twist until he was satisfied, with what I'd no clue. Drummers tend to have odd obsessions with their kits sometimes, and Adam couldn't explain the purpose for such behavior beyond a simple "Just because, I guess." It was enough to satisfy my curiosity. When the door closed behind me, he looked over at me, a sly smirk stretching from ear to ear as I took the now-famous notebook from my bag on the couch, plucking the pen from its resting place among the thin, twisted coils and began to write.
"Uh oh," said Adam, "I know that look. He's using his brain."
"Shush." I waved my pen hand at him without looking up. It was getting to be a favorite word of the band, varying in degrees of volume and severity, depending on the situation. The wrinkled empty page began to fill up with lines of black ink chicken scratch, refusing to stay within the boundaries of the thin blue lines. A creative spark has the ability to capture your attention for long periods, drowning out the sights and sounds of life happening around you while you're caught in such stasis. Time passes by quicker, too. Much more than if you were just sitting around doing nothing. I was reminded of how powerful a grip this can be when I looked up again, and the whole band was staring at me, their instruments set up and ready to go. The old white clock on the wall confirmed that a good twenty minutes had passed since first beginning to write.
"Welcome back," Kayla said, looking amused. Her bright hair was pulled back in a ponytail, the first time I'd ever seen one on her. "Where'd you get off to?"
"La-la-land, judging by that look," Mitchell said.
"You could say that." I stood up and stretched, my legs tingling with pins and needles. "The old creative spark, you know how it goes."
"And here I was thinking you'd decided to start ignoring us."
"Nah, sorry Mitch, you're not that much of an ass." Everyone else laughed.
"Yeah, very funny," he said. "So what is it, anyways? New song?"
"I don't know," I said. It was the truth. When working with the other two songs, I'd always had some sort of musical backbone to the words. It helped with constructing the beat. This was the first complete set I'd ever written without any tune in mind, as complete as I could get in one sitting, that was.
"You don't know." It was the first thing Jason had said since my coming back to reality. He sounded doubtful.
"Nope," I said. "It just came to me."
"May I?" Jason pointed to my book. I tossed it to him, the pages fluttering through the air, almost clipping Kayla's elbow. She looked a little upset I hadn't given it to her first. I told Jason to pass the book around to the others when he was finished, going to the fridge and collecting a round of waters for the group before hooking the microphone up, testing the volume with a couple of growls. Nobody paid any attention.
Reflections gazing brightly
Revealing hidden traits unsightly
A passing glance, a stare so hard
Remembering times that feel so far
These memories that served me well
Speak stories no one wants to sell
The mirror cannot hide this hell
Like it or not – The truth it tells
The happiness of whence - rejoice
Parade of hope, no sins, no vice
Warm glance within, or look of ice
Depending on how one partakes
The mirror - With it, no hope for fakes
Mitchell was the last one to receive the book. He held it close to his face, eyes crawling across the half-page of scribbles. If this was the seedling from which our next song would sprout, I would be happy. If not, that was fine. I knew it wasn't the greatest idea ever to come to mind. Like unearthing a precious gem, the process from initial idea to final cut would be a slow, arduous process; lots of polishing along the way. But they came just the same, and I was glad to have them, if only for a little while.
"I don't get it." Mitchell closed the notebook, handing it back to me.
"I know," I said with a smile, setting the book on top of his amp. "I don't think I get it either. Like I said, they just came to me. Ain't creativity weird like that?"
"Sure, let's go with that." Hesitation dragged in his voice. "This is why I'm glad to be just a guitarist."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Oh nothing bad," he explained, "I just never had to worry about working on lyrics before. Don't have a clue where I'd start." He began fiddling a pick between his fingers.
I was surprised. "What, are you saying that somehow lyrics are only a vocalist's responsibility? A lot of guitarists act as frontman too, you know. And I've only been writing stuff because nobody else seems to come up with anything."
Jason looked offended by that. "Oh thanks Richard, we're only standing right here."
"You know I was talking about lyrics."
"Fine, but you needn't act like you're shouldering all the weight here. Nobody chained you to a boulder and bestowed upon you the title of lyricist and washed their hands of it."
Strange metaphor, I thought. If it was supposed to make a point, it was lost on me. "I'm well aware of that, Jason," I said, putting the microphone down on top of my notebook and folded my arms.
"Are you? It seems like it's always about what you've written, not anyone else." Jason's bass hung from his shoulder strap while he talked, his hands waving about as though he were performing some bizarre sign language. "I think you forget sometimes there are others in this band."
At hearing that, Mitchell's let out a whisper of French. Glancing over my shoulder, I watched his face disappear behind his open palm, muttering another string of Quebecois cuss, perhaps regretting ever opening his mouth. Adam's own palm hid his eyes, his forehead a wrinkled knot. I watched his lips form an English translation of Mitchell's swear. Kayla just sat herself down on the ground and began picking away on her guitar, the strings making that tinny twanging sound. She didn't seem the least concerned about the unfolding argument, daring to allow herself a small smile.
Back to Jason I turned. The sight of his squinting eyes, the glint of indictment triggered a hot flush in my face. "How f--king dare you accuse me of ego-tripping, dude! Where have I ever gone on record calling Systex "my band" or undeservedly taken credit? If anyone ever came up with their own words, I'd be down to hear them, but so far - nothing."
Jason was belligerent. "Maybe you've never bothered to ask."
"There you go again," I said. "If I'm not Mr. Lyric Nazi, why should I have to ask others if they've anything to contribute? Nothing to stop them from holding up their own notebook and saying ‘Hey guys, check this out!' is there?"
"Well, I suppose not, but -"
"And since you brought all this up, have you any lyrics to share?" I held out my hands. "Because if you do, let's hear ‘em!" It didn't occur to me that this may have sounded snotty to the others until well after the fact, but it was a serious question.
Silence from everyone else. When Jason didn't move, I pressed him again and he admitted he had none, though he tried to cop out by insisting that wasn't the point. "Then what is the point?" I almost shouted. I paced The Garage for a minute, thinking, wondering how we'd gotten into yet another standoff and why to what purpose. "Man, Jason, what's up your a-s anyways?"
(You might ask yourself that same question, Richard.)
From the corner of my eye, I watched Adam mouth another obscenity skyward and reach for his water bottle. Behind me, Mitchell seemed to have given up on Systex actually doing any sort of practicing today and had retreated into his own little world, a realm to which many turn for many reasons; a realm where the individual is both king and guardian of his or her own domain, membership at the sole discretion of the individual. He sat on the couch, his eyes and ears locked on Kayla still plucking away on her cherry axe, oblivious or indifferent to her being watched. He seemed to be listening, trying to identify to the chord progression she was playing with. Then he nodded and began following her lead.
Jason's answer to my question was as short as it was venomous. "This." He waved a big hand around The Garage.
I had to think about that. "What, this argument? Yeah, I'm not exactly enjoying it myself."
Now Jason looked exasperated. "Not just the argument, Richard. It's everything else, too: Wasting practices on crap songs while arguing about something as irrelevant as whether a cover song - one lousy cover song - in a setlist that doesn't even exist for a contest we're nowhere near ready for and acting like we've already won the damn thing! To say nothing of all the stupid bullshit we went through just trying to fit a guitarist in." Both Mitchell and Kayla looked annoyed by that last remark. Neither said anything, although Kayla gave Jason a long hellcat glare without stopping playing, her lips drawn together in a tight line. Jason spotted this but didn't call her on it. Wait your turn, his own frown seemed to say before he refocused his sights on me and readied his final blow: "Perhaps we should finish learning to walk before reinventing the wheel and just - I dunno, play? You said it yourself once. Back before this all got out of hand."
My legs suddenly felt weak. I reached for the closest wall, worried I was in imminent danger of dropping onto concrete ass-first for the second time in as many days. This isn't happening, I thought, untamed strands of hair brushing against my face as I hung my head and tried to make sense of - well, whatever this was. This was worse than anything before. Jason had never been like this before, so hostile and full of poison. Something was wrong; there could be no other explanation, something... What did he mean, "acting like we've already won the damn thing?"
I pushed away from the wall. "So that's what this is all about. You still don't want to do this. Weeks later and you're still dragging your heels. That's petty, dude."
Jason gave me an expression as though he had just been shown a highly complex math equation. "You've lost me," he said.
"The Thrash," I answered. "You were opposed to it right from the get-go. I thought we'd agreed about all this."
Bingo balls continued to bounce around the cage while Jason tried to understand. Then he seemed to get my point, a mental light bulb snapping on. It was brief. Soon his eyes grew as wide as saucers before rolling them, his lips twitching, trying to search for the appropriate word. I made a conscious glance towards Adam. He was crouched on the stool; hands folded tight, head down, looking like a man deep in prayer. My own beliefs aside, I was convinced prayer would do very little to help solve this mess.
Jason finally chose his response, rolling his eyes again. "Unbelievable." He removed his bass and rested it atop his case, running a hand across his head. The crew cut looked thicker than the last time he'd come to practice hatless. "I give up. There's no point in trying this anymore, nothing gets through to you."
Things no longer felt real. Reality disconnect in progress, my turn to enter the realm of the solitary, my own little escape to a world within the world; where thoughts seem louder, clearer than out there. Bright blue lit up inside my head, bold words crawled against the color. FATAL EXCEPTION OCCURRED. THE CURRENT APPLICATION WILL BE TERMINATED. PRESS ANY KEY. Words took care of themselves. "You know where the door is then, if that's how you feel," I said. "You're not the only one here who can handle a bass."
That was the moment where the world outside snapped back into focus, a crystal clear snapshot. Mitchell and Kayla looking at me with stunned disbelief, Adam's clenched fist pressing against his forehead, rippling the skin, stringing more silent swears.
Jason, eyes vacant and brow sloped, locked onto mine. No delayed response this time. "Well alright then, be my guest." He removed his bass and laid it in the case, bringing the lid down hard with the toe of his sneaker. In a series of swift, flowing movements, he unplugged his amp, coiled the cord around his arm, snatching both case and amp off the ground. "Call me when the air up there gets too thin to breathe and you decide to return to Earth." He walked down the slanted driveway.
"Whoa! Jason, wait, where are you going?" asked Adam, who was on his feet now, holding his arms out as if to ask "what the f—k?"
Jason responded without looking back. "Don't know. Home, Tom Lee, it doesn't matter where. All's I know is I ain't sticking around here. Ain't enough room in The Garage for both music and bullsh-t." He started to shove his equipment into his car's backseat, his voice punctuated with notes of southwestern drawl. Apparently the human male's ability to exercise good grammar goes out the window in moments of blistering anger.
Adam popped up from the stool, looking anxious to try and reason with Jason, his mouth forming words but no sound coming out. Before he could find his voice, another snappy remark flew out of mine. Self control seemed to have joined grammar on the injured reserve list. "Oh so you're ditching the band?"
"Oh, shut up!" The yell rang out from all directions, yet I was only staring at Jason. Looking behind me, things once again felt unreal as I saw, to my surprise, Adam focused on me.
"Dammit Richard, this is enough! Today's already gone to hell; don't widen the chasm any further."
"Dude, I don't think it's as bad as that. I don't know what's up his a-s today but he'll get over it. Don't suppose you know, Mitch? You guys hang out a lot."
"Don't." Adam came around his kit, a worn stick in his fist pointing accusingly at me. "Don't do that."
"That. Shrugging it off like nothing's wrong. Far as I'm concerned, you're both at fault here." Before I could reply to that, Mitchell jumped in and told me to leave him out of this, that it was nothing to do with him. Adam didn't allow me to get in a word edgewise after that. "Now I can agree, something was off about him today, I'm not blind. But you seriously blew it out of proportion, sounding off the way you did."
"He called me an ego tripper, in so many words. What was I supposed to do, walk away from that?"
"Yes." I was too shocked to answer that. "If you were as serious about the band as you say you are, then you would've shut up and talked to him about it later instead of throwing another tire on the fire - and I mean talk, not yell. Save the latter for our songs. Now we've got no bass to bounce riffs and beats off of, and the whole point is lost."
He was quiet after that, and I seized the opportunity. "Now that just hurts, Adam. You, of all people know I'm serious about the band, you know it's been at the front of my mind for months now. It's about the only thing I ever talk about in our spare moments."
"Yeah well, how about more walk then?" Adam cut in. He seemed to grapple with multiple emotions, unsure what to express or how. Finally, he sighed and tossed the beaten stick onto the workbench. It clattered against a few paint cans before rolling to a stop. When he spoke, his voice was quiet but tense. "I don't want to be rude, Richard, but I'd take a closer look at those new lyrics if I were you. Hopefully you'll actually learn something this time." He disappeared into the house after that, the door slamming shut behind him. I didn't say anything. What else is there to say after such a heavy exchange? The little voice came through on that end, just like always.
(You never learn, do you? And you call yourself a serious musician. Rock star? Try ridiculous.)
Mitchell rested his guitar on the couch and got up, taking a cigarette pack from his jacket pocket. As he walked past me, putting one of the speckled yellow filters between his lips, one of his big hands reached out and planted on my shoulder, giving a firm squeeze. I looked at him. He looked at me. Neither of us said a word. Then he nodded at me, a single brief tilt of the head, took his hand away, held the pack out in front of my face. I shook my head, and he nodded again before stepping outside.
Kayla stopped playing and looked up at me, a pick resting between two strings. "You still have yours," she said. "And I'm not going anywhere."
"Your guitar," she pointed towards it.
"What about it?"
She looked harder at me. "Plug in and play, genius. Why the hell wouldn't you? It's still a practice day. If others wanna go lick their wounds instead, they got no business being in a band."
I couldn't come up with anything to say. So I swapped out the mike for my GIO and sat down next to her. She didn't wait for me to get in tune before flicking the amp's power switch to on and taking off on another pattern. I watched her play alone for a couple minutes, forgetting about my own instrument as I sat and allowed myself to just be with the music, in the moment, wondering all the while if the conscious act of ignorance really was bliss. She made it seem like it was so. Mitchell came back a few minutes later, the stale, acrid aroma of smoke surrounding him in a noxious aura, and joined in. No further cue needed. As my hands moved across the strings, rising and falling like the tides, it was a passage from "The Mirror" that weighed heavily on my mind:
The mirror cannot hide this hell
Like it or not – The truth it tells
It was a long time before Adam came back. Hopefully, Jason would too...