The first few times we practiced with Push, his voice sounded reedy, as if he was holding back. It was like he didn't like the sound of his own voice when it was amplified through a microphone. Ruben had a knack for poetry so he sat with him to help him write the vocal parts for the original song that we intended to play for the Spinning Tomatoes gig. We had already managed to create a skeleton, with the verse, chorus, bridge, and outro riffs. We had started off with simple chord progressions, but Ruben suggested altering the time signature to make it sound more off-beat, and that had stuck. We christened it "Wild and Beautiful," and it gave me great pride to realize that I had actually contributed to writing a full song. At the time, I thought it must be what be-coming a father feels like.
Even after the vocals had been confirmed, Push kept tweaking them. Often, he'd stop us mid-song, because he was unhappy with how he sounded with the rest of the instruments, even after we had done a trial run with just my guitar before beginning the take. We had to dedicate an entire weekend to practicing just the original song, before he was somewhat satisfied with his performance.
The other song we had chosen for our set was "The Ocean," by Led Zeppelin. Ruben, Jordan and I loved it to bits, and we had been playing it for quite a while before we met Push. It was simple, catchy, elegant, and had a funky odd time riff that always got us going and had a lot of room for embellishments. However, we had to do it in a different key, because Push couldn't sing it in the one Robert Plant had used. We became tight on it in the span of only a few sessions, and took to practicing it to take a break from the ordeal that "Wild and Beautiful" was.
Push's perfectionism was compounded by Jordan's restlessness. I started dreading his calls, because he took on the responsibility of reminding the rest us to come for practice. We'd meet for practice at 9 p.m. on weekdays, because Ruben's job and our classes kept us busy all day. It was the only way we could all practice consistently, because all of us had classes or work during the day. Sessions were usually around 2 hours long, but would usually stretch by an hour or a half-hour, because Jordan kept us there until we couldn't play anymore. They were quite tiring, and I had stopped trying to stay awake in my morning classes.
I had a guitar solo in the song, which was only around 20 seconds long, but it gave me a lot of grief because I was almost never satisfied with how it would sound. This came to a head during our Friday rehearsal, the weekend before the gig. As I played the solo, Jordan suddenly slapped a nonsensical and jarring series of notes on his bass, which was what he did when he wanted to take a time-out and change something. We all stopped playing and looked at him.
He sighed. "Robb, you've got to fix your solo."
I felt my gut sink. "Fix it how?" I asked.
"You always improvise it, and that's why you're inconsistent. You play off-notes, and it sounds weak sometimes. This solo's supposed to be powerful, it's supposed to mark the transition into the bridge," he said. "You need to nail it down."
"How about you think of a couple of different things to play, and show them to us?" Ruben said. "We'll choose the best of the options, then."
"Yeah, I guess I should do that," I said, with a sick feeling in my chest, as if it was hollow. "You're right."
"Let's just do 'The Ocean' for now," Push said. "The outro still doesn't sound as tight to me as it should. We can always figure out the solo later. Still got a week."
Jordan's words kept echoing in my head for the rest of the session, but I was doubly careful about getting "Ocean" right, because I couldn't afford to hold back both songs. I took my gear home, but I spent most of the evening simply watching live videos of Led Zeppelin and Red Hot Chili Peppers for inspiration. While this was going on, Ruben sent me a text telling me not to worry about the solo, and offering to sit with me to figure it out. I agreed, and he came to my apartment the next day.
"Funny, I've never been here before," he said, as he walked in. "Cozy. Well lit. Nice futon."
"Got it for free," I said. "Some grad students left it by the laundry building. They like to dump their furniture there when they move out."
"Really? Need some furniture myself. But f--k that. Let's get to work." He saw my guitar lying on the mattress by the wall. "I see you're already plugged in," he said, pointing to my guitar, which was lying on the mattress. He pulled up a chair from the kitchen, and sat opposite the mattress. "We're going to sit down together, and we're going to make sure we've got something good by the end of the day."
He took his phone out. "I've got a recording of the background riff. I'll play it, and you ... do whatever it is that you do."
"We should probably record this stuff," I said, and took my own phone out. "That way, we can sift through each try, see what we like and don't like."
We spent the next two hours recording my improvised solos over and over again. After each take, Ruben would either nod and keep the recording, or delete it, before asking me to try again. Slowly, each recording began to sound more and more like the one that came before it, as we found parts we liked enough to keep: a bend here, a double stop there, and so on.
"That should be enough," I said. "We can figure out the rest tomorrow."
"Yeah. I'm tired, too and this sounds reasonably good. Gotta get a smoke," Ruben said.
"I'll come with you," I said, and we went downstairs and out the backdoor of the building, to sit on the steps. Ruben took out a Marlboro Red, and lit it. I stared at him. With his deep blue eyes, raven hair, and imposing stature, Ruben was the sort of guy most smokers wished they'd look like when they smoked.
"Aren't Reds terrible for you?" I asked. "Worse than normal cigarettes?"
"I can smoke whatever cigarettes I want," he said, flatly. "And I like Reds. They don't make me feel dizzy. But f--k that. I was right, wasn't I?"
"About the solo," he grinned. "Told you not to worry about it. Told you it wasn't a big deal."
"I wasn't worried about it," I said.
"Really?" He took a puff of the cigarette. "You should've seen the look on your face when Jordan said it sucked."
"He didn't say it sucked," I said, more defensively than I'd have liked. "Well. It did suck."
"It didn't suck," Ruben said. "It just wasn't as good as it's going to be, now that we're done with it."
"Thanks, man," I said. "For helping me out with this. I know it sounds like the sort of thing people just spit out when they're grateful, but it really means a lot."
"You're making it awkward, now," he said, and laughed. "Have you ever been told you think too much about stuff? That you need to take it easy?"
"More times than I can count," I said. "You do it too. Analyze stuff. Like the time you explained to me how GNR breaking up wasn't Axl's fault."
"Let's be clear. That wasn't me explaining stuff to you. That was a shouting match," he laughed.
"And you changed my mind. I don't think Axl's as much of a douchebag as I used to. Next time someone says Axl caused GNR's breakup, I'll know what to say to them. Looking at every angle is a good thing."
"Not all the time, man," he said. "You've got to learn not to sweat the small stuff."
The next day, Jordan called us for another rehearsal. My solo was ready by then, and the first thing we did was play "Wild and Beautiful." I played it as close to the recording we had made as I could. After the song was done, I looked at Jordan and Push expectantly.
"Well, I guess that problem's taken care of," Jordan said. "Push, what d'you think?"
"I think it's good," Push said. "Needs a little polish though."
"You've gotta play this on stage, Rob. This exact solo," Jordan said. "You can't improvise while we're up there. We're not that good yet. Nice work, though."
I nodded, feeling a weight lift off my shoulders. I looked at Ruben over at the drums, and he smiled approvingly.
The rest of the week passed without incident, and we continued to rehearse every day. Two days before the gig, I went down to Jordan's place at 9. We'd left all our instruments there for convenience, so I brought nothing with me. It was a short walk away. I found the door open, and all the instruments connected and in their places. I heard voices from the kitchen, where the door to the backyard was.
Ruben, Jordan and Push were sitting on the back porch steps. Each of them had a bottle of Miller High Life in their hands.
"Get one for yourself from the fridge," Jordan said.
"What about practice?" I asked, surprised.
"We'll start in a while," Ruben said.
I shrugged and went to go get myself a beer. When I returned, I sat down next to Ruben near the bottom of the steps.
"Your dreadlocks are really long. And like, awesome." Push said to Jordan. "How long have you had them?"
"It's been five years I think," Jordan said. "I've been thinking of cutting 'em off."
"What? Why would you do that?" I asked. "That's five years of hard work! And they look totally bada-s."
"It's just hair, man, it'll grow back." he said. "Dreads as long as mine are high maintenance, especially in the summer, and people constantly ask me if they can touch 'em. Gets annoying after a while. I have to keep them tied all the time, too."
"Then why don't you just, like, trim them a bit?" Push asked. "To half their size maybe?"
"I'm tired of looking like a rasta, man," Jordan said. "Not that there's anything wrong with looking like one, but I'd like to change things up a bit. It's gotten old."
"Rob's grown a lot of hair," Ruben said. "First time I met him, you could still see his ears."
"Your head looks like a football, dude," Jordan said. "Go to the barber. Get that sh-t shorn off."
"But I want to look like Jesus," I said. "You know, like John Frusciante."
"Then you should get your hair layered and thinned out," Ruben said. "Don't just go to any barber. Find a good one. If you get a 10$ haircut, it'll look like a 10$ haircut, and it'll be a waste after all the time you spent growing it out."
"Does the price really even make a difference?" I asked, absentmindedly reaching up to feel my hair. I had been thinking of cutting it, but it had taken really long for it to grow to its current size. I was sure my mom would probably get a heart attack if she ever saw it, which was why I needed to get it done before my next home visit, in any case.
"It's your hair, man. It's serious business, and you should only let someone handle it if you're sure they know what they're doing," Ruben said. "I can take you to my guy, if you want."
"Anything should look better than this," Jordan said, and grinned. "I'm kidding man. It's not so bad. But I'd suggest getting it done before the gig."
"Hmmm. What d'you think the crowd's going to be like?" I asked.
"Ali's expecting around sixty odd people to show up," Push said. "Venue's small, so it'll probably look like the room's full."
"Been there before?" I asked.
"Once," he said. "It was alright. They've got this Americana vibe, interior's all western and stuff. Odd choice for a gig like this. I'd expect Lynyrd Skynyrd cover bands to play there."
"What about the other bands?" I asked. "Do you know who else will be playing?"
"Just a few others from around the city. Not sure what their names are," Push said.
"Wait a minute," I said. "Ali said Jordan's old band might show up."
"Oh yeah, that's right. What're they called? Alien Cake?" Ruben asked.
"Alien Pudding," Jordan said, with a sigh.
"What happened? You still in touch with those guys? Had a falling out?" Ruben asked.
"Did you get kicked out, or did you quit? Ali said 'as if you had a choice, after what you did'. What did you do?" I asked.
"Take it easy with the questions, alright? I mostly quit. It's complicated."
"Was it about a girl?" Push asked. "Man, it's always about a girl."
Jordan looked faintly amused. "Actually, it was about a girl. Probably not in the way you're imagining it, though" Jordan said. "I don't know. If they show up tomorrow, you guys will get it."
"How's your replacement?" Push asked. "The permanent one, I mean. Ali was a temp, right? If they're still playing, they've gotta have a bass player."
"He's alright," Jordan said. "Not as good as me though. They don't make 'em like me anymore."
"Look at you, all humble and sh-t," Ruben grinned.
"It ain't braggin' if it's true, nigga," Jordan said, with a shrug. "Finish your beers. We've gotta get back to work." He got up and walked back inside. Half of his own beer was still left.
Ruben and I exchanged a look. He shrugged, finished the rest of his beer, got up, and walked back insides. I turned to Push. He was blankly staring at the sky.
"Man. I could pass out right here, on these stairs. I can't remember the last time I got a decent amount of sleep in one go."
"Morning classes?" I asked.
"Mixed slots," he said.
"Ouch," I said, and couldn't help but yawn. I got up. "Come, it'll be over soon. Two days."
"That's not a comforting thought," Push said, with a hollow laugh. "Don't know what's worse, the risk of making an a-s out of myself in front of sixty people, or persistent sleep deprivation."
"You can't afford to think like that, man," I said. "We've been practicing like crazy. It'll be fine."
"Aren't you nervous?"
"Not particularly," I lied. I had decided that faking it was probably the best thing I could do, for myself and for the band. I was actually terrified.
Jordan came out of the back door. "Yo! Get inside, before I ghetto stomp your faces!"
The next day, I took the bus downtown to visit Rainn's store, before heading to Jordan's again for one last practice session.
"Ah, it's you. Tonight's the eve of your first gig, ain't it?" he asked, as I walked in. "Think you're ready? Feeling nervous?"
"Not really," I lied again. "Way I see it, it has to happen eventually. Better get it over with, so I won't be nervous next time. My singer's scared sh-tless, though."
"Your frontman's got stage fright?" He asked, eyebrows raised. "That's not a good sign."
"Terrible case of it, too," I said. "We had some trouble getting him to open up at first, but he's comfortable with the band now. Before he met us, he'd only sing in front of other people if he was drunk," I said.
"That sounds hilarious," Rainn said. "And scary. Don't let him drink. How good is he though?"
"He's really good, man. He plays piano pretty well, too."
"Well, chill the f--k out! Once you get him on stage, I'm sure he'll be fine."
"I hope you're right," I said. "Anyway, I came to show you the recording. We're performing an original song, and a covering 'The Ocean.'"
"An original, huh? This soon? I'm impressed," he said. "But I'll pass. The first time I hear it will be when you play it live."
"Fair enough," I said. "Can I at least tell you what it's called?"
"I suppose that would be alright," he said. "What's it called?"
"'Wild and Beautiful.'"
"'Wild and Beautiful.' Interesting. What's it about? Girls?"
"Yeah. It's about girls. My bandmates wrote it," I said.
"You should write your own lyrics," he said.
"I've tried. I keep this notebook with me that I carry everywhere I go."
"Written much of anything?" He asked.
"A little bit, yeah," I said.
"What d'you write about?" he asked.
I thought for a moment. "Life. Girls. That's the problem, though. I don't want to write about chicks," I said. "I'd rather write about other stuff. Like politics, or the meaning of life."
Rainn looked disappointed. "What's wrong with writing about chicks?"
I hesitated. "Everyone writes about chicks," I said. "Or if they're chicks themselves, they'll write about dudes. Or if they're gay they'll..."
"I get the point," he said. "But a lot of the best songs ever written are about love, and there's a reason for that. Love is f--kin' universal, and..."
"I know, I know," I said. "Everyone's felt it in some way or the other, everyone wants it, it's the easiest thing to relate to, yeah, I get all that. But I want to write lyrics that'll inspire people, change things. Make this world a better place and stuff."
"So say that. Don't give me the standard hipster 'love songs are too mainstream' bullsh-t," he said. "I hate hipsters. They're everywhere these days. With their indie rock and their Radiohead. This social media sh-t is the bane of your generation, son. Get off it while you can."
"I'll try," I said. "Anyway, I've got to go. Tonight's our final rehearsal before the gig. Jordan will kill me if I'm late."
"That you bass player, right? F--k it, I've gotta lock this place up and head home, too," he said. "Wait outside, I'll get my keys."
"How's business these days?" I asked, as he locked up the store.
"Picking up, actually. People seem to be really interested in accessories and old records these days. Things are alright."
I thought it was funny how Rainn hated hipsters, considering they were his primary source of income, but I kept quiet.
"Your gig's at Spinning Tomatoes, right?" he asked. "What time was it again?"
"I'll be there. Good luck and don't sh-t your pants."
"Hmmmm, yeah. About that..." I hesitated.
He stared at me as I tried to find words for what I was about to ask him.
"You're sh-tting your pants, aren't you."
"Yeah," I said. "Yeah. I tried faking it, because I heard that works, but it's not. I've got this feeling of... F--kin' dread or something, man."
Rainn took a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. "What's scaring you?"
"Well, for starters, what if I f--k up?" I asked. "I only get everything right, like, 3 times out of 10, and that's not even an exaggeration. My heart beats faster everytime I have to play the solo, even during practice."
Rainn took another drag of his cigarette. "So?"
"So what if I fail these guys? Play the wrong chords, or forget a transition, or don't tune my guitar properly, or like, I don't know, turn it all to sh-t somehow? What if a blank out?"
He sighed. "Look. You've been at this for weeks, right?"
"Well then, you've got two options. You can tell your bandmates you ain't ready, and disappoint the shit out of them, or you can go up on that stage and play, whether you f--k it up or not."
I was at a loss for words. "I was hoping you'd tell me how not to f--k up," he said. "How to get over this sick feeling inside."
"You already know how not to f--k up, genius," he said. "Just try to play everything like you practiced, and look at it as just another jam session with your buddies. And I already answered your second question. Fear's never gonna go away, man. You've just gotta say f--k it, and do what you were going to do, regardless." He put the hand that didn't have a cigarette in it on my shoulder, and smiled. "Go. Iron out any kinks with your band. Get a good night's sleep, and own that sh-t tomorrow."
I nodded. "See you there."
He turned and walked away. I took a deep breath, and made my way to the bus stop.