It takes a long time to wedge all of the gear into the van. With two drum kits taking up all the space at the back, we end up putting the guitars in the foot space of the second row. Luckily we have several hours reprieve before we need to actually climb into the over-stuffed contraption, since it's a unanimous decision that we wait until evening and get the money we're owed by the bar manager. We're making lousy enough dough on this trip that the idea of driving off and leaving a wad of it behind is repulsive.
We head inside The Inn-Towner's bar. It's a different place than it was last night, with the rowdy crowds and blood-thirsty thugs. There's sunlight coming in through a bank of windows and the patrons are freeze-dried looking old men in Freightliner trucker caps and plaid jackets sipping coffee or early beers. We get a table and eat greasy breakfasts, paying with band money and harassing the waitress for continual coffee refills.
The old men in the bar are watching horse-racing on the big-screen. Matt and Mark are bonding by comparing favorite drummers, but Gina, Jason and I sit there doing nothing. I get up and approach the bar.
The same bartender that I spoke to before is standing behind the till. He's a big, heavily muscled goon with a goatee. He's probably training for a career as a professional wrestler on days when he isn't tapping kegs. I pour on the charm and manage to convince him to let us set up on the stage to practice. He wouldn't even have to turn down the races, I tell him, and after some wrangling he lets us go ahead.
Matt pries his kit out of the van and Gina gets her guitar. I grab my bass and my acoustic guitar as well, anticipating a long afternoon of trying to learn Machine Within A Machine's songs so I can back them up for the rest of the tour.
"I don't know any of the bass parts to these songs," Gina tells me while we get in tune, "So you're just going to have to improvise from what I'm playing, okay?"
"Not a problem." We pull a couple of chairs off the floor and sit on stage facing each other, while Matt sits with a stripped down kit. We start the first song, Gina playing softly and slowly to let me pick of the rhythm and find what notes to play. It's a simple, repetitive song and I pick it up quickly. I remember hearing them play it full blast and it was a fierce rocker, but defanged I'm surprised at its simplicity.
We play, and I appreciate sitting so close to Gina. She looks me in the eye when she explains how changes are supposed to go. Her eyes are very clear. Very blue.
"Are you going to sing while we go through these?" I ask her, writing down some changes in a notebook. "It would probably be a good idea for you. Get back into the swing of it."
"Yeah, I guess." We start the next song. She and Matt play through it and I watch and listen, and they lead me through it again, breaking down the parts: intro, verse, chorus, repeat, repeat, middle eight, verse chorus, outro. Simple. We play it through and Gina sings. She sings softly, without much breath behind the words.
"Have you sung much before?" I ask here after we finish a third song. "You seem a little tentative."
"It's been a while," she says. We go through a fourth song, with me watching, listening, copying down some riffs and changes, and cringing as I listen to Gina try to sing.
Do you remember the first Police Academy movie? Probably not, since it was a pretty long time ago and not an especially high quality movie, although it was popular enough to spawn like, ten low-budget sequels and a television series. Anyway, there was the one police recruit who spoke in nothing but the quietest whisper through the whole movie. Then in the very last minute she catches the bad guy and screams out loud, "Don't move, dirt bag!" and everyone in the audience cheers because she finally said something out loud. And then Steve Guttenberg and Kim Cattrall make out.
Anyway, listening to Gina sing is a lot like listening to that one cop-in-training: she's so quiet that she drives you nuts, and the whole time you're waiting for her to just break through and blast it out. It's funny, because when she's speaking Gina has a clear, confident voice.
"Um, maybe we should get a beer," I suggest. "Loosen up a bit."
"Yeah," Gina says, looking a bit embarrassed about her singing. "Maybe that's a good idea."
We order a couple of pitchers at the bar and join Jason and Mark at the table. They look stone cold bored. Mark is reading a three day old newspaper he found lying around. Jason is watching horse-racing.
"Thank God someone finally suggested beer," Jason says as I set a pitcher down in front of him. "It's all I've been thinking about, but I didn't want you guys to think I'm a lush."
"Now I can't imagine your fine mother would raise a lush," I say, grinning at Mark.
"Why not? She put whiskey in my baby bottle and Schnapps on my breakfast cereal. Hell, I didn't know what milk was until I got pissed one night and woke up in the barn of a dairy farm."
"Will you listen to this guy?" I laugh. "Get him hung over enough and he turns into Rodney Dangerfield."
"I don't get no respect," Jason mutters, adjusting an imaginary tie.
"So Gina," I say, filling a glass for her, "do you think you'll be able to sing in front of an audience tomorrow night? I mean, no offence, but you seem a little rusty."
"Yeah, I'm wondering about that myself." She takes a drink and ponders the problem. "Maybe it would sound better with some effects. You know, add a bunch of distortion and chorus to the vocals. That would make it more the sound I want anyway. Faster, heavier, harder. Wayne was the one who wanted us to sound all 'alternative rock,' which these days actually means mainstream and boring."
"I can't disagree with you there," I say, passing a full glass to Matt. "But I don't think it's a good idea to try and cover up shaky vocals with effects. It's just a bit cheap, you know? Like a bad guitar player covering up deficiencies by using a pile of effects. You can still hear the problems."
She shrugs. "What do you suggest?"
"Why don't we try playing a few shows as instrumentals while you get ready to sing?"
Matt jumps in. "We can't do that. Nobody wants to sit through a band with no singer."
Mark looks up from his paper. "Better no singer than a bad singer," he says. "It's like bad karaoke. Who wants to hear someone sing if they're shite?"
"And I'm not saying you're shit," I say to Gina. "All I'm saying is that we shouldn't rush it. Sing in practice and when you've got your confidence back, and then sing on stage."
"That's what I had to do," Jason says.
"Okay," Gina says. "But how boring will it be for people to watch a band with no singer? I don't want to put on a boring show."
"Would you rather put on a shitty show?" asks Mark.
"Look, it's all presentation," I say. "I used to play rhythm guitar for a band that had no singer. They made that their gimmick. They called themselves Heavy Metal Mime School and didn't say a word. They just dressed all in black, got up on stage and just played this super-heavy set, no vocals, not a word to the audience, and got off the stage. They had a bit of a following too. They had the presentation and the stage presence. They turned not having vocals into an advantage."
Jason laughs. "Damn Terry, how many bands have you been in?"
"I've been in a lot of bands. I got fired that one because eventually they decided we all had to wear white face paint like real mimes, and I wouldn't do it."
"Let's just keep going today," Gina says. She looks irritated. "We'll just play though the rest of the songs and we'll make a decision later, okay?"
"Okay, okay. It's your band, your decision."
We get back on stage and over the next few hours we work through the nine songs that Gina and Matt have decided to keep. We take a crack at running through the whole bunch of them one after another but it seems a little too much and we take a break.
I head to the bathroom for a piss, and when I come back out, Jason, Gina and Matt are up on the stage. Jason has Gina's guitar strapped on.
"What's going on?" I ask.
"We're going to try some confidence-building exercises," Jason says. He fumbles with his fingering for a moment and then starts to play. Matt picks up the rhythm and starts banging along with him. What's the song? I recognize it when Gina starts to sing. It's Roadhouse Blues by The Doors.
They play through it, and although Gina doesn't know all the words, she certainly sings the ones she knows with a lot more power than the Machine Within A Machine songs she was singing only a few minutes ago. They let it go on and on, repeating verses, Jason sometimes singing along.
"That's better, aye Taz?" Mark asks, watching them.
"Yeah. Good idea. I should have thought of that."
"No big deal," Mark says. "I think Jason's been itching to play along."
"You guys must be pretty bored."
Mark grins up at me like he knows something I don't.
The late afternoon turns into a jamming free-for-all, with the five of us rotating on and off the stage, playing all sorts of different songs. We eventually knock it off at six o'clock when the big muscle-head bartender asks us to knock it off for the dinner rush.
"If you want, you can play again in a couple hours," he says. "But give it a rest for now."
"You guys don't have any bands scheduled tonight?" I ask him.
"No. But that doesn't mean you're getting paid to play. As far as I'm concerned, we're doing you a favor."
When no one is paying attention, I grab Matt and ask him to step outside with me. We slip out into the parking lot. To my surprise, he pulls out a half-smoked roach and lights it up. "What's up, man?" he asks, holding the smoke in and passing me the joint.
I smoke it and pass it back to him. "I just wanted to see what you thought," I tell him. "We've been playing all afternoon. Do you think we can pull this off?"
He nods and takes a drag. "I think so. You're picking it up." He blows out. "As for vocals, I don't know. There doesn't seem to be a safe route here. Okay, granted, I hadn't heard Gina sing before. I thought she would be better. But either way, if we have her sing or if we have no singer, we're taking a pretty big risk. I think we should let her try."
"The show next month is the big thing for us, really," he says. "The opening spot for El Grande Floyd Ciccone. I mean for us, this is all a build-up to that. And we've got to use these shows to find out if we can pull that off. Before, with Wayne and Dave, it would have been no problem. But now, shit. Who knows?"
He allows me another hit and then finishes the roach, flicking the miniscule stub away into the gravel. We head back inside and join the others to eat dinner, and wait.
At eight o'clock I see Jeff stump in through the door. "Punctual bastard," I think as I get up. I go to the bar, where he's talking with the bartender. I call his name. He looks over at me and scowls.
"Is that your shit on my stage?" he asks, coming over.
"Yeah," I tell him. "We needed something to do all afternoon, didn't we? It seems you forgot to pass along the message about our money to the hotel desk. We weren't about to just leave."
He folds his arms across his chest. "All right," he says. "How much do I owe you?"
"You know how much you owe me." He tries to look pissed off, but I see a hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth.
"Okay," he says and heads to his office. About five minutes later he comes back out with an envelope. I count out the money and put the envelope in my pocket.
"You'll stick around, won't you?" he says with a grin.
"Well, as far as I can tell, you and all your buddies have been drinking. So I can't in good conscience let you drive away from here tonight. And your shit is on my stage. You might as well play tonight."
"I don't know," I say. "The money isn't very good here."
"Oh, I'm not going to pay you," he says with a smile. "But since you're stuck here anyway, I think I could swing a room for you."
"A free room for a show? That's not a deal."
"If you try and drive away from here, I'll have to call the cops. Drinking and driving is a serious offence. And," he says, leaning forward and sniffing at me, "cops around here don't care too much for pot-heads."
I think it over for a minute. "Cover our bar tab and you've got a deal."
"Steve," he says, calling to the bartender. "What's this guy's tab at?"
Steve checks. "Hundred and twenty-four fifty."
Jeff laughs. "Shit! You guys aren't cheap dates, are you?"
"Well, there are five of us."
"Okay. I'll even throw in another two free pitchers." I agree and we shake on it.
2007 Nolan Whyte