After Monday's classes I went over to The Bean Machine to meet up with Ryan. I was in a bad mood, on account of seeing by my ex-girlfriend in the hallway at the university. Sash smiled and gave me a little hand wave as we passed each other. I didn't know how to respond, so I just gave her a little nod, but what the hell, right? I didn't know what to do. When we had our breakup fight she said she wanted to still be friends, but I figured that was just talk. I didn't expect her to actually play friendly, and I sure as hell didn't feel like seeing her every day around the campus.
The trouble was, seeing her everywhere was almost a sure thing. Garrison Valley was a small city, and it only had so many bars, coffee shops and places for young people to go. And Garrison Valley University had a very small campus. I could count on seeing her all the time.
At least she wasn't with that handlebar moustache guy. That would have been the worst. What a piece of human shit.
To get back to the story, I had a lot on my mind when I showed up at The Bean Machine. Ryan was already sitting at a table with a cup of coffee and a book open in front of him. He spotted me coming in. I gave him a wave and went to get a cup of my own.
I set my coffee down on the table and slung my jacket and knapsack over the back of a chair. Ryan had his hat pulled down low, but I could see he had a puffy, bruised cheekbone from a punch the other night.
How's it going? I asked as I dropped onto the seat.
My ass still hurts, he said. Thanks for showing up today. I figured you might forget, or you know, just decide the whole thing had been drunk-talk.
I shrugged. No harm in showing up, right? I figured I might as well see what you had to say. Besides, I usually come here after class to read. Homework and stuff.
Sure, that's cool. He took a sip of coffee and closed the book he was reading. He seemed very serious, like this was a real business meeting. Look, this is simple the way I see it. I've been writing songs. I've got like, ten pretty good songs written, and I can play them on the guitar and the bass. They're pretty simple. Like I told you the other night, I'm just learning to play myself, but I think they're pretty good rock songs. I can teach you to play them.
Okay, I said. That sounds simple enough. But I thought you were going to teach me songs like Wild Thing.' I mean, not exactly like Wild Thing.' I'm not some crazy Wild Thing' fan, but you know, I thought we were going to play songs everybody knows. That's what I'm used to seeing in bars.
He leaned back. What, like a cover band? Where are you from, dude?
Ryan laughs. Where the f--k is that?
Nowhere. It's a tiny little shit town, so don't worry about it.
Look Eric, he said, cover bands are good for playing the bars in little towns, or if you just want to play for old people. If you want to really do something and make people notice you, then you have to play your own stuff. You don't want to just be a jukebox and play other people's stuff, do you?
I guess not, but what is it that you want to do? You sound like you have some big goals in mind. You don't think you're going to be some big rock star or something, do you?
No. He looked around at the other people coming and going in the coffee shop. I just want to play some shows, and get out there, you know? Be part of the crowd, meet some people. I'm from out of town too. I'm from Winnipeg. I've got some friends here, but I still feel like an outsider in this city.
I laughed. If you're from Winnipeg, why are you going to school in this place?
Grades, man, he said with a grin. They'll take anybody with a pulse here. Anyway, I can teach you to play some songs, and then we'll pick up a drummer and play some shows around the university. It could be a good time. Maybe meet some girls. Make you forget about that one at the bar the other night.
Right. I sat back and had a look around, thinking it over. Then I saw her, over at the counter buying a takeout drink. God. Damn. It.
I kind of melted into myself sitting there, slouching down into my chair, hunched over my cup. I guess the instant shittiness of my mood was plain on my face, because Ryan asked what was wrong.
That's her, I said. At the counter.
He looked over. There was Sash, in a kitschy-retro fake-fur jacket, jean skirt and tight leggings, with her knee-high leather boots. She had her long black hair tied back in pigtails, just the way I liked it. She looked... Well, she looked good enough to punch your mom for.
Damn, Ryan said. Well, she's pretty good looking. How come you guys broke up?
She thinks I'm a loser, I said, suddenly feeling like one. And I live in a closet.
She paid for her coffee and started to leave, but she saw me sitting there all hunched up and came over to our table.
Hey Eric, she said, all smiley and friendly. How are you?
Not bad, I said. My voice sounded like a croak.
I saw you at Gooch's the other night. How come you didn't say hi?
I shrugged. You were busy with some dude. I didn't want to interrupt.
Oh. She looked at Ryan, and since I didn't introduce them, she took the initiative and offered her hand. Hi. I'm Sash. I'm a friend of Eric's.
Ryan. He shook her hand. Your boy and I are forming a band.
I glared at him and started making throat-cutting gestures, but scratched my jaw nonchalantly when Sash looked at me. I didn't know you played an instrument, she said with a surprised smile.
Um, yeah. I play bass.
That's so cool, she cooed, and then she did a little half-turn. Let me know how it goes, okay? I'll talk to you later. And then she was gone.
You know, Ryan said as he watched her leave, just thinking about fashion, I think we're pretty lucky right now. Sometimes fashion sucks and chicks look really dumb, but right now it's all about super-tight pants and tall boots. Damn, she looks good.
She's so f--king fake, I said, still all hunched up, feeling like shit. Did you hear that? She was all like, Hi Eric, I just came over to see if you're okay because I know I just dumped you.' And then it's like, Oh, you're in a band? How cute! ' That was so condescending. She makes me sick.
I don't know. She seemed nice. He looked at me. You okay? You're not all crazy over this chick or something, are you?
No, I'm cool. Forget it. I straightened up and tried to focus my self-pity into a more constructive emotion, like anger. You're right, dude. Let's learn some songs and get out there. I could stand to meet some new chicks.
* * * *
We picked up our bags and went back to his place, which was only a short walk away. We set up in the living room again with him on the chair, while I sat on the couch with the bass in my lap. This time Ryan plugged the electric guitar into a small amplifier. I'm going to use this thing, but I'll turn it down real low so you can still hear yourself. Sorry I don't have an amp for the bass.
Okay, I said, turning the bass over to look at the hole where a cord was supposed to go. So how are we supposed to perform if you have an amp and I don't?
Cart before the horse, my friend, he said. We can't perform until we learn some songs. Plus, I couldn't perform with this thing. It's just a practice amp. If we have to play a show anywhere we would either have to buy, rent or borrow proper amps. You'll probably have to get something to practice with sooner or later though.
Great. How much does that cost?
Let's not worry about that until later. Look on the bright side: at least you don't have to buy a bass. Okay, hold it like this.
Ryan started taking me through the basics: the parts of the instrument, how to tune it, how to hold it so I wouldn't get sore wrists or tendonitis, and all that stuff. He said it was magnets in the pickups that amplified the sound of the strings vibrating. I asked him how that works, but he got huffy. It doesn't matter, he said. It just works. Ask an engineering student.
Then I sat and watched while he played through one of his songs. It was short, probably less than three minutes long. Ryan played in a jerky manner, looking at the strings and singing in an unsure voice.
How come you sing like that? I asked when he finished.
I mimed strumming the guitar and spoke in the rhythm he had been singing: You-sing-each-word-ex-act-ly-at-the-speed-you-strum-the-gui-tar.
He looked mad. I'm still learning to sing and play at the same time, all right? It's not easy.
I did it again and continued strumming: Do-you-sing-ev-e-ry-song-like-that?
Cut it out. No. Some songs I put the words in spots where there's no guitar.
So the music just stops, you sing, and then we start playing again?
No, I stop but you keep playing. Anyway, never mind that shit right now. Hold your bass the way I showed you. You have to count in fours, all right? It's all fours. You go here, and he pointed to the fret where he wanted me to press down, and you go one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two three-four, one-two-three-four, and then you're going to change and go here...
So I play sixteen times here?
Yeah, and then you go here... He pointed to another spot on the neck of the bass.
So why not just say sixteen instead of four, four times?
Trust me dude, he said, it's easier to count in fours, because you're going to be counting in all these other places in fours.
Multiples of four?
Yes, multiples of four.
So why don't I just remember sixteen times here, eight times here, twelve times here, and so on?
Ryan dug his pack out and put a cigarette between his lips. Look Eric, he said, looking in his pockets for a lighter, I can show you what to play. I'm not a professional teacher, and I'm not going to give you a bunch of music theory bullshit on why you should count in fours. I'm just going to show you what to play, and you play it how you want. This kind of rhythm, or time signature, ' if you will, is called four/four time, and it's based on fours. If you'd rather count to sixteen, follow your f--king heart. He found his lighter and sparked his smoke.
Okay, don't get upset, I said, quietly amused at his frustration. I play four times four here. Then what?
He led me through some lines, which then repeated over and over to make up the song. It was simplistic, but when we tried to play it through I got lost. He was patient about trying it over and over again until we got it right, although we never quite got it exactly right. There was progress though. With practice it would be a song I could play.
When we completed a half-decent run through, I leaned back on the couch. Jeez, my arm is tired, I said, opening and closing the hand I'd been using to pluck the strings. Shouldn't I be using a pick too? Don't bass players use picks?
The one in my other band didn't, he said. Do you want to try another song?
I looked at my watch. No, I'd better go home and eat. When should we do this again?
I don't know. Wednesday?
Sure. I got up and leaned the bass against the couch. Same time at the coffee shop?
He got up. I guess. Do you want to take the bass with you? To practice at home?
I looked at it. How do you know I wouldn't take it straight to a pawn shop?
Because I'd destroy you with kung fu?
I grinned. I towered over him and probably outweighed him by sixty pounds, and had already helped him once when he was being beaten up. He wasn't a very threatening figure. You're very scary, I said, but I think I'll just leave it here. I wouldn't know how to practice with it anyway.
All right, he said. You'll take it later. You'll have to practice. I think this is really going to work, man. This is going to kick ass, I can tell already.
2009 Nolan Whyte