I heard a knock on my door just as I was done packing my guitar and winding my cords. I opened it to find Jordan standing outside, with his bass slung across his back. "You ready?"
I didn't answer. I picked up my guitar and amp, locked the door to the apartment, and walked downstairs and out of the building.
I gently put my gear and Jordan's amp in the trunk of my car. He kept his bass in the backseat.
It was Thursday, in the middle of July, and driving downtown had become a weekly affair. We had chosen to jam regularly at Ruben's place, considering how hard it was to lug an entire drum set here and there. His apartment was small and minimally furnished, almost squalid, but it was a great place to jam, since the neighbours weren't dickheads about the noise. Jordan and I had been yelled at quite a few times while playing in the laundry building. We had even been called cocksuckers once, though that's a story for another time.
The apartment itself was decked out in Guns N' Roses and Aerosmith posters, among others, and smelled slightly like cigarettes. An autographed poster of Izzy Stradlin greeted whoever would enter, staring them right in the face from where it hung, directly opposite to the door.
Over the past few weeks, The Euphoria Cartel had had numerous jam sessions, where we played mostly classic covers and tried to write songs. Jordan and Ruben had been trying their best to find us a gig somewhere, but without a singer or a demo, there was nothing we could do. Nevertheless, we kept practicing together, waiting for a stroke of luck.
My guitar playing abilities had steadily grown, and with the band, I had learned more covers in a month than I had learned in three months by myself, namely "Carry on Wayward Son", "Satisfaction", "Don't Cry" and "Walk This Way". My technique had also improved immensely, which I attributed to the hours I had spent trying to play Joe Satriani songs note for note, bend for bend. I still had a long way to go, though, and both Jordan and Ruben agreed that my playing lacked soul, that I was too tense all the time, too bent on getting things right.
"You need to smoke a shit load of pot." Jordan had said once. "It might help you relax a bit."
"Yeah, I think that'd be perfect." Ruben added. "Let loose a bit, man. Nobody's judging you here. It's alright if you screw up here and there, but if you're not feeling what you're playing, it isn't gonna do anybody any good."
My hunger to know more about rock n' roll drove me to read books and Wikipedia articles about the subject. I picked up Eric Clapton's autobiography from the Duke Library, marveling at how he had learnt so much with just a simple record player and a shitty acoustic guitar. As my musical taste expanded, I discovered all sorts of bands I had previously not paid much attention to. I scoured the annals of various torrent sites for discographies and greatest hits albums, guiltlessly, since the artists whose music I wanted were either already dead or too rich or old to care. I discovered the Eagles, The Beatles, the Guess Who, The Rolling Stones, and U2, bands I had heard before, but never delved into. Jordan had a decent knowledge of old time rock n' roll, but he tended to stick to the big names mostly, and didn't get into the minor details of every little band he listened to. He preferred his funk, rap and reggae. Ruben, on the other hand, could talk for hours on rock n' roll history, and I learned some pretty interesting things from him that I wouldn't have found easily on a generic google search. What really amazed me, though, was his belief that Jim Morrison had faked his death and could still be alive.
Somehow, I still managed to keep a tight schedule, studying enough to keep up my decent GPA. I also started going to the gym three days a week, when I realized my jeans had grown tighter than before. For reasons unknown, there was a grand piano right outside the basketball court, but nobody ever played it.
Often, I would bike downtown, to check if Rainn's store was open, but it never was. There were skaters everywhere, and they'd usually be jumping over rails and shit.
I parked my car outside Ruben's building, and we took our gear out of the trunk and proceeded upstairs. "I'm in the mood for some 80s rock today." Jordan said.
"I'd like that too." I agreed. "Let's start with Paradise City."
"Can you play the entire thing?"
"Not the insanely fast shit in the end, but I'll improvise." I rang the doorbell, on the third
Ruben answered it a minute later. "About time you guys got here."
The ashtray on the coffee table was littered with spent cigs. All the shades were pulled aside. Ruben's drumset was kept in a corner of the living room. He went and took his seat behind it. "So, what are we doing today?"
"We're gonna start with Paradise City, and we'll see where that takes us." Jordan said.
Ruben said nothing, but just tossed his hair with a flick of his head and grinned, hitting the snare with his sticks.
Jordan removed a lamp plug from the socket on the other side of the room and plugged his amplifier into it. I did the same with another socket that was charging Ruben's laptop. We spent some time tuning our guitars and performing a general soundcheck. I had bought an Ibanez Tube Screamer pedal after having consulted Bugsy, the guy from the outer banks I had taken a few lessons from, via phone call. I connected it to the amplifier, and connected my guitar to it.
Then, Ruben counted us in, and I started playing the intro to Paradise City. Pretty soon, I had turned the Tube Screamer on, and we were hammering out the main, iconic riff of the song, with Jordan improvising a lot. Ruben's playing was quite unlike what you'd expect from a generic drummer. He wasn't loud and obnoxious. Whatever he played always seemed to be in harmony with what the two of us were playing at any given time. Also, no matter how long we'd play for, he would never get tired. I had never seen him panting or sweating with the effort of constantly banging the toms. It was almost effortless for him. I figured he had probably played millions of small gigs here and there, so he was used to it. Often, he'd have a cigarette in his mouth.
The time came for me to play the solo, and in my mind, I imagined myself wearing a top hat and shades, standing on a cliff. It was easy enough, but I ended up making a minor mistake, which I covered up with an improvised lick. For the outro, I just played a garbled, jumbled lead, trying to come up with a pale imitation of what Slash had done. We ended the song on a long, lingering note, with Ruben banging every single drum in his arsenal. Once it was done, I paused to catch my breath.
"That was pretty good." Jordan said. "We should consider adding it to our set list."
"There's no point in having a set list if you don't have a gig in the bag." I added, grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge. It was a somewhat like a studio apartment, so everything was easily accessible. "Hey Ruben, where do you sleep?" I asked.
"In there." He said, pointing to a door on the side.
"That's a room?" I asked. "I thought it was a closet or something."
"It's almost like a den." He said. "Anyway." He paused. "D'you guys wanna play Sweet Emotion?"
Jordan laughed, picking up his bass and putting it on. "It's been a long time since I last played that one." He played one or two random notes, and then, after two failed tries, started playing the intro to Sweet Emotion flawlessly. "If only we had a talkbox." He said.
I picked up my guitar and started playing the riff, which I knew by heart, since it was one of the first I had ever learned. We played just as loud and hard as before this time, and I didn't make too many noticeable mistakes. However, we had to stop for a few seconds while Jordan tried to figure out the outro bassline. Once he was done, we played for about five or six more minutes, going crazy with our instruments. Instead of just going all out on the fretboard, I tried to find licks that would fit, and repeated some of them over and over, varying them every third time. Finally, we ended the song like we had ended Paradise city: on a long, wavering note.
Ruben then tossed us a beer each and we sat down on the couch. Then, I removed a notebook from the front flap of my gig bag. I opened it, and flipped through it rapidly, finally stopping on the page on which I had written my first song. Lots of lines were scribbled out.
"This is some crap I wrote in the middle of class one day." I said. "We need to turn it into gold."
Ruben picked it up and read out loud.
"The arrows of love are laced with poison,
The hands of love burn like a furnace,
Love's embrace is crushing, its grip as iron,
The voice of love is deceptively sweet."
He grinned. "Bravo, mate. This is some good shit." He continued:
"The cloak of oblivion will let you dodge,
Love's hurtful, resentful gaze,
Keep your eyes closed, at all times,
For the reach of love is far and wide."
"So, what d'you guys think?" I asked, expectantly.
"I like it. We need a chorus, though." Ruben said. "Did a girl ditch you or something? This sounds like something somebody would write if they got friendzoned." He chuckled.
"Wellit was a long time ago." I replied.
"I don't think it needs a chorus." Jordan said. "I think we'll have to dumb it down a bit. It sounds more like a poem than a rock n' roll song. It's like something Jim Morrison would write, if he ever got friendzoned." Ruben and Jordan laughed.
"Yeah yeah, laugh all you wantso, what it needs is a refrain, then. Something catchy, something for the audience to chant." I said, but then sighed. "We need a singer. Singers can figure this shit out."
"Mhm." Jordan grunted, dejectedly. "We're not going anywhere without a singer, guys. We gotta do something. I've been asking around for almost a month, but whenever I find somebody, it turns out they're either already in a band, or they won't join one if there's no money involved. It's f--king annoying." Jordan said.
"I faced the same problems when I asked the people I know. Has anyone seen our Craigslist ad?" Ruben asked.
"Nobody's interested. There was this one guy, but he lives in like, Greensboro or something."
"We could try the local newspaper, and promise dollars. People might show up." Ruben said.
"We can't lie like that, man. We don't have any dollars to promise. Besides, I'm sure none of us should be in this for the money, or the whole purpose of being a band would be f--ked." I said.
He shrugged. "Well, then, let's just wait and see. We'll find an instrumental gig somewhere, or borrow someone from another band. You know, just to get our names out on the circuit. We'll find a vocalist soon enough. Until then, let's just keep jamming and try to get tight on at least an hour's worth of songs. Our chemistry, as a band, needs work, too. There's no point beating on a dead horse."
We spent the next hour and a half trying to turn my poem into a decent song. We came up with more than a dozen different arrangements, but none of them seemed to work. In the end, we gave up, and left, deciding to meet the following Monday again.
I didn't try to write any more songs after that, and nothing special happened on Friday. On Saturday, I biked downtown again, to check if Rainn's shop was open. To my relief, it was.
The fresh smell of wood that always permeated the air in the place was as welcoming as ever, and so were all the guitars hanging on the walls. Rainn himself was busy cleaning an old strat, and didn't notice me entering at first. Then, he looked up. I grinned. He squinted, and then his lips cracked into a thin smile.
"You've changed quite a bit, Rob. There ain't no doubt about that." He said. His southern accent was as thick as ever.
"Your hair's longer, your clothes are differentyou know, the usual signs. I can see you've really been rocking and rolling these past few months. Just how helpful was that box I gave you?"
"Very." I said. "There are records by bands in there I would never have heard of otherwise. Just how the hell did you collect so much good music?"
"20 years of painstaking work, son." He replied. "Let's get to the most important question, then. Are you a Stones person, or a Beatles person now?"
"WellI was a Stones fan at first, but then I really started digging the Beatles, so I guess I'm a Beatles fan now."
"Hmph. I was hoping you'd be a Stones guy, but either way, it doesn't matter. The Beatles were f--kin' amazing too. I got you a gift, by the way." He opened his drawer, and removed a lighter from it. He tossed it to me.
I caught it in my left hand. The metal was badly rusted, but on the front side, the words "Music is your only friend" were engraved. On the other side, it said "Until the end." I recognized the line from the song "When the Music's Over", by the Doors.
"Wow. I don't smoke, but this is pretty cool. Where'd you get it?" I asked.
"Cambodia. And to answer your next question, yup, that's where I was all this time." He laughed. "I've got a few more like the one I just gave you, but I'm gonna give them to other people. Some hawker there had an entire collection. So, what's happened ever since I left?"
"Wait a minute. Cambodia? What the f--k were you doing in Cambodia?"
"Being a tourist. Sheesh. It just felt like a nice place to visit, and I had some cash lying around. I went backpacking with a bunch of other Americans, and visited Angkor Wat and a few other places. "
"Butyou're a store owner, for Christ's sake. How did you afford a vacation to Cambodia?"
"I'm also a known session musician around these parts, man. There's a lot of things you don't know about me yet. I have more than one sources of income. So, tell me. What did I miss?"
I told him about everything that had happened since I had left for the Outer Banks. I told him about the guitar lessons in Ocracoke, the search for a drummer that finally yielded success, what my band members were like, and how I had discovered so much new music in the past few months. He listened with a somewhat bemused expression.
"Hmm, hmm, interestingI was right about you. You really do have the true blood in youtaking guitar lessons on vacationyou even look the part, now, though you could use a haircut. Your head looks much bigger than it actually is, with this hairstyle."
I reached up to feel my bangs, which was a habit I had picked up recently. Rainn remained silent for a while, contemplating what I had just told him. "The Euphoria Cartel, eh? Sounds like a prog rock band. But you're not into prog rock, are you"
I shook my head.
"Good, good. It's creative, I'll give you that. However, something seems to be bothering you. What is it?"
"Well, we don't have a singer, and it's causing real problems. We can't get a gig without a singer."
He nodded slightly. "I'm guessing you've already asked around, tried putting up ads, the usual things?"
"Yup. Nothing worked. They're all either already in bands, or don't want to join ours."
Rainn grinned. "Well, if you can't find a singer, become one!"
My brain didn't register what he was trying to say. "Um, what?"
"How good a singer are you?"
I hesitated. "I dunno, I never tried. I don't think I'm too good. Definitely not frontman material. Besides, it's hard to sing and play lead guitar at the same time, isn't it?"
"Bullshit, lots of lead guitarists have been frontmen." Rainn retorted. "You could try singing."
"I suck, man." I said. "The only time I ever sing is in the shower."
"Become better, then!"
"You can't LEARN how to sing, dude, you gotta be born with it."
"Anthony Kiedis learned how to sing." Rainn said. "He was horrendous before, but he's alright now."
"It took him years, man. I don't have that much time."
He sighed. "Look, every guitarist can sing moderately wellthere's Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, I think even Slash has sung a few times on stage. It's just one of those things, bro. I bet you could sing if you tried. Besides, it really helps with songwriting." He looked pretty damn serious.
I gave him an exasperated look.
"Alright. D'you know anybody who happens to have Guitar Hero, or Rock Band? With the mike, of course"
"You're shitting me." I said. "That's your plan? You want me to get better at singing by playing Guitar Hero?"
He grinned. "Can't hurt to try, can it?" He took a cigarette out of his pocket, and lit it. He took a drag from it, and spoke again. "I'm not saying you should aim to be the frontman of your band. You still gotta know how to sing, bro. It's a skill every musician should have. You'll get better with time. You might never become as good as Freddie f--king Mercury, but you should still be able to like, I dunno, do a solo Beatles cover now and then. Most importantly," he took another drag from his cigarette, "it'll get you laid. Learn some acoustic tunes." He laughed.
I smiled. "Can't argue with that."
"That's my man. Which reminds me, you should buy an acoustic. I don't have anything here you can afford, and the ones at the nearest Guitar Center are shite. My advice would be to order, like, a Takamine or something, online."
I nodded. "Thanks for the advice, man. I gotta go now."
I walked out of the store feeling more optimistic than before. "Guitar Herosheesh." I muttered to myself.