I sat watching the clips over and over again. They were short, with jumpy pictures and badly distorted sound. But the band on the stage was definitely Riot Band, with Ryan, Jed and I standing on the stage at Jake's Restaurant. Usually only the top of Jed's head was visible behind the drums, with his little flop-hawk haircut standing up over the ride cymbal.
Ryan looked okay. He had his guitar slung in front of his belt, in an easy, natural position. I always found it really distracting when guitarists have their guitars hiked way up, like the guy from Rage Against The Machine. He stood, banging his head along with the beat, but watching his fret hand. He was almost always watching that fret hand, even when he stepped up to the microphone to sing. Even when he looked out to the audience it would be a quick look, and then his eyes would dart back to the frets.
I was worse. I was probably just being overly critical of myself, but everything I did on stage looked wrong. I looked at my fret-hand all the time. I bit my lower lip and made a goofy snarl face when I was trying to rock real hard. When I tried to shout or scream into the mike my face would turn red. And, despite playing a rhythm instrument, I appeared to have no rhythm at all.
I watched the videos on Nick's computer in the afternoon when everyone else was out of the house. After repeating the clearer videos about a dozen times each, I'd completely convinced myself that I looked like a complete ref--k on stage. Too tall, goofy-looking, skinny, hunched-over, and sin of sins, dorky. Dorky is fine for the guys in Weezer. It's their angle. But Riot Band is supposed to be hard-assed. Dorky doesn't work.
This was something I would need to work on. As much as I had improved as a player over the year, I was still at the very earliest stages of learning how to perform. And it seemed like a wanky thing to do, but I decided to try practicing in front of a mirror. Just to see what it looked like.
The only mirror in the house was in the bathroom upstairs, so I grabbed my bass and went in, locking the door behind me. I was the only one home, but I didn't want anyone coming in and catching me. Somehow, singing and playing bass in front of the bathroom mirror would be more embarrassing than getting caught with my dick in my hand, whacking off to the Sears catalogue.
I had to stand with the bass angled slightly forward so the head wouldn't scratch the wall. I tried to look at ease, look natural, and look myself in the eye. I figured I would try to play "Breaking Myself Down." It was a song I wrote with Ryan over the summer, and it was one where I had a fairly simple bass line. I could focus on how I looked while I played and sang.
"Ahem." The acoustics in the bathroom made my voice seem loud. I felt like an idiot. I looked at the finger of my left hand to place them on the strings, and then realized I wasn't supposed to look at my fret hand. With my fingers in the starting position on the strings, I looked at my eyes in the mirror. "One, two, three, four."
Thum-thum-thum-thum, thum-thum-thum-thum, tib-tib-tib... Playing without looking at my fingers lasted exactly eight seconds. When I had to change finger positions I went off the fret and started making a dead sound. I stopped, looked at my hand, corrected position and started again. On the second try I lasted twelve seconds.
It took a while, but eventually I got into a rhythm. All it took was for me to start looking at my fret hand every few seconds. Improvement? Maybe a little. At least now I wasn't looking at them the whole time. It worked okay until I had to start singing too.
Thum-thum-thum-thum, tib-tib-tib... "Aw, shit."
Okay, so how much can the human mind process at one time? Playing bass? Yes. Playing bass without looking at the fret hand? Um, kind of. Singing? Yes. Singing and playing bass? Yes. Not brilliantly, but yes. Sing and playing bass without looking at the fret hand? No. Not even for a second. Okay. This was going to take some work.
I was in there for probably half an hour before I managed to sing and play all the way through that one damn song. The best I could do was to sing and play while occasionally NOT looking at my fret hand. Maybe I went from 100% looking at the hand to 85% looking at the hand. That's progress, I suppose.
There was a knock on the door and my heart jumped in surprise. I hadn't heard anyone come into the house. I peaked out the bathroom door. Bertrand, our stuck-up grad student roommate, was standing there.
He peaked in suspiciously. "What are you doing in there?"
"Taking a shit. What's it look like?"
"I don't know what it looks like," he said, "but it sounds like you're practicing for your band in the bathroom instead of the basement."
I stepped out into the hall. "Yeah? So? What's wrong with that?"
"Bloody hell," he said, "can I take a piss please?" He stepped around me and into the can. He paused. "You guys are moving out at the end of the month, right?"
"That's still up in the air," I said, and stamped down the stairs to my basement lair.
* * * * *
That Thursday we had our regular gig at Jake's Restaurant lined up. I cut class in the morning and went to Lise's place instead and nailed her on the floor in the middle of the basement, then again a little later in the shower. We fooled around for a while more back in her bedroom, but nothing much came of it. But then we worked it up again and banged on the basement couches a little later. I think we were in kind of a honeymoon stage of our relationship.
"Eric," she said, sitting next to me on the couch. She was naked, rolling a joint. "Do you think you could get me in to watch you guys tonight? It seems kind of stupid that I have to hang around outside when you guys are in the bar playing, you know?"
"Yeah, I know," I said. "I'll talk to Keith. Maybe he won't care. I'll tell him you won't drink. Maybe he'll let it slide."
"That would be nice," she said. "I was wondering about something else, too."
I was lying on my back, the top of my head against her thigh. "What's that?"
"Well, you know that girl you were going out with before."
"Yeah, her. You don't think she's going to keep showing up at these, do you?"
"What do you mean? I didn't see her last week."
Lise licked the edge of the rolling paper. "She was there. I guess you didn't notice her. You barely even noticed that I was there."
"I was trying to keep everything drama-free. That's why I didn't hang out with you. Sorry."
"That's fine. I know you had a show to play. But she was there. And she was looking at me with those f--king crazy knife eyes of hers. I don't want to have to worry about shit like that, you know?"
I looked up at her as she held the joint to her lips. Even naked, she still wore her leather bracelet. She lit the joint with a disposable lighter and slid back into the soft old couch. "She just weirds me out."
"Yeah," I said. "I know. She hit me in the face with a beer bottle, you know."
She took a long drag and passed me the joint. "Yeah, you told me," she said. "And shit like that scares me. I don't want to have to fight some bitch just because we're going out."
"Don't worry about it," I said.
Yeah, don't worry about, I said, and four hours later, while Jed, Ryan and I were loading our gear into the bar, all I could do was worry about it. Hell, now I not only had to watch out for myself, but I had to watch out for Lise, too. I figured Lise was tough. I mean, she'd seen it all, but she was pretty small. I didn't want her to get hurt. And I certainly didn't want to try and pull apart a girl-fight.
I told Ryan about my predicament, and he found the whole situation hilarious. "Dude," he said as we were lugging our amps inside, "you've got to get this crap under control. I mean, it's funny and all, but seriously, enough is enough. Think about it: is this our future? Getting chased around at all our gigs by your back catalogue of insane sluts? That's not the life I want to lead, man. I don't want to have to show up at the morgue and identify your corpse the night before we're supposed to leave on our greatest hits tour. I've got a solid gold boat to pay off, and you're lying there all full of stab wounds from crazy bitch ex-girlfriend number fifty."
My amp made a thump as I set it down on the stage. "Man, can you ever talk," I said. "You need to write this shit down while you're talking, man. Write a freakin' novel or something."
"You know what we really need to cut down on?" Jed said, as he carried in the bass drum. "Expenses. We're taking cabs to haul the gear back and forth every week, and we're drinking up a good portion of our pay. We're making like, ten bucks each doing this."
"Think big picture, man!" Ryan shouted. "You'll never get rich off the weekly gig! The weekly gig is not about the little bit of money. It's about working out the act. Am I right, Eric? It's about getting your material down. Working on your style. Because you'll never make a living just doing this crap. You do this to prepare yourself for bigger and better things."
Jed set the drum in place and stared at Ryan. "Yeah? So when is the payoff?"
"Yeah, smartass," Jed said. "We work on our act here while we slowly starve to death. When is the bigger and better thing that makes this all worth while? When do we get paid?"
"What's this shit about starving to death?" I asked. "Aren't you on student loans?"
"Sure," Jed said. "I'm speaking in general. We're supposed to hump this gear back and forth every week, kill ourselves trying to write new songs and rehearse and all that, just so we can come here and play a couple of sets, and then take home a whopping fifteen dollars to make it worth while. And why? Because your delusional guitar player thinks that if you do it long enough for free, eventually someone will come along and pay you a mountain of money to do it. It's stupid, dude. It's outmoded thinking."
"No, no!" Ryan shouted. He wasn't getting angry, just excited. "You don't get it. It's like, we're doing this and it's like rehearsing how to be a band, how to perform. This is where we find our sound, you know? This is where we figure out what kind of band we are. We can't figure out our sound in the basement, or dicking around with effects on your computer. And we can't learn how to perform looking at ourselves in a mirror, or some shit like that."
I froze. I probably turned completely white. But Ryan hadn't looked at me when he made his remark. If Bertrand had said something, or if word got around the house about what I'd done, then Ryan wasn't giving it away that he knew. It was possible his comment had been coincidental, but I felt like an idiot anyway.
"Look, never mind guys," I said. "It's not about money, is it? Shit, I thought we were here for the fun, right? Girls? Pussy? No? How about drugs? I'm just here for the coke. You guys see Walk Hard? I want that shit, the pot, the coke, acid, PCP, the whole bit."
The stupid comments seemed to work, because Ryan turned around with another bit of wisdom. "You know what I thought when I watched that movie?" he asked. "I thought that it was probably a good thing that Hendrix died when he did. Because wouldn't it have sucked ass if he lived, and went all funk, then disco, then shitty nostalgia trip and through all those crap styles, like Dewey Cox did? Man, that would have sucked. But he died before he started to suck, so we were only left with the good stuff."
"Not everybody starts to suck," Jed said, heading towards the door to bring in more gear.
"Sure they do," Ryan said, following him. "Look at the Stones. Would you give a shit if they had all died in the mid-seventies? What would we be losing there? Just shit, if you ask me."
The two of them wandered out the door. Keith, the manager of the bar, was reading the paper at his usual spot next to the cash register. I walked over.
"Hey Keith," I said.
"You guys can't have any more money," he said, without taking his eyes from the paper.
"Damn," I said. "That wasn't what I was going to say. Look, I've got a problem I thought you could help me with."
He put the paper down. "What is it?"
"No big deal," I said. "I'm going out with this chick now, but the thing is she hasn't hit her nineteenth birthday yet. She wants to come and see us play, but she worries it wouldn't be cool to show up here in the bar. She's thinks she'd get hassled, you know?"
"Fine," he said.
"Yeah, fine," he said. "As in, five thousand dollar fine for serving a minor if a cop comes in."
"You wouldn't have to serve her."
He snorted. "Right. All she wants to do is sit quietly at a table out of the way and listen to the band. Only it's a full house, so there are a few other guys sitting at the same table. And they've got drinks. So when the cop comes around he can't quite tell whose drink is whose, and he's not one to split hairs, so he writes the ticket. And then your little money concerns seem kind of petty when I have to shut the doors on the place. Am I right?"
"Um...right. I won't mention it again."
He gave me a hard stare. "Good. Don't."
2010, Nolan Whyte