I woke up with the sunlight streaming into the basement through the tiny window. We were all there, still lying in the clothes we'd fallen asleep in: Jed, Ryan and me, plus our 'manager' Nick, and my girlfriend Lise.
There was a fug of stink in the room. It was stale body odor, faded pot smoke, and a blend of failure and hangovers. Nick was talking. I assumed he was talking to Jed. The two of them were lying on Ryan's thin mattress against the far wall. It felt really late, like we'd used up too much time sleeping and now we didn't possibly have enough time to get our work done. It also felt really early, like I'd only slept for a few hours and would not possibly be able to function like a proper human being.
I checked my watch. Both were true. It was nine-thirty in the morning. That meant I'd had something like four hours of sleep. It also meant we had less than ten usable hours before we had to start playing musical accompaniment to a student film festival, with only a few of the songs written.
Nick and Jed weren't sweating it. They were talking quietly, but it sounded like they were talking about girls they knew. I did a quick finger-count. There would be twelve films in total. Three had other arrangements for sound made, so we were responsible for nine. As far as I could remember, we'd come up with at least something, even if it was just a few chords, for five of them.
Lise was smoldering there on the bed next to me, and by that I mean that she was there, hot and sexy and warm, sleeping a finger's width from me. I wanted to wrap myself up in her, but hell, Ryan was a finger's width from me on the other side. It was all a bit crowded for my taste.
I sat up. "You guys good to go?" I asked. My voice came out as a toad-croak.
Nick sat up. "Hey, Eric's awake. You sound like a zombie, dude. You die last night?"
I coughed. "I'm good." Ryan and Lise both stirred. "Come on, douche-bags. We've got a time crunch."
We straggled up the stairs and wiped out all the breakfast cereal and drank all the milk in the fridge. We made instant coffee and tried to get ourselves going again. It was hell, really, but what else could we do? We laughed at ourselves and the situation we'd made for ourselves.
Ryan and Lise and I went out the front door for a cigarette. "Smooth," Ryan said in a rough voice after his first drag. "like a freshly paved sidewalk."
"Yeah, smooth," I said. "Like a flat-lining heartbeat."
"I'm going to head out," Lise said. "I need to rest up."
"That's cool," I said. "You're coming tonight though, right?"
"Sure," she said. "It'll be nice to see you guys perform from inside the venue. I'll see you there around eight."
We kissed and she headed off down the road, hugging her light army jacket tightly around her against the October morning chill. Ryan sucked on his cigarette and watched her as she walked. I cleared my throat and he looked away.
Cigarettes finished, Ryan and I went back inside the house. The band congregated downstairs and got ready to start again. Jed, who had mucked around on the keyboards and acoustic guitar last night, sat down behind his drums. "You guys want to make a little deal with me?" he asked.
"What?" I sat down on my amp, reached back and switched the unit on.
"It might seem silly to say this at like, ten o'clock in the morning, but let's not start drinking, okay? Let's not get all drunk and high. We seem to get ourselves in trouble sometimes, right? Let's just focus and make some good music for this thing, and then go there tonight and play a tight show."
"Yeah," Ryan said. "Then we can get as wasted as we want afterwards."
Jed shrugged. "Whatever floats your boat," he said. "Eric, you're down with that?"
"Yeah," I said. "Actually, it's kind of a relief. Sometimes it feels like we're trying to tight-rope things, like, see how smashed we can get and still play a good show. Yeah, let's just play it cool."
We played a few of the old songs to warm up, and then started on the short films, beginning with the ones we hadn't watched yet. We hit them full steam and got down to serious work.
"Goddamn it!" came a scream from the top of the basement stairs. It was Bertrand, our stuffy grad student roommate. "You goddamn assholes drank my milk!"
* * * * *
At two we walked to a local spot and ordered big platters of greasy cheeseburgers and fries. We ate, headed back to the house and kept at it. It was great in a way. The songs came, even if they were simplistic. We argued like mad the whole time, but without anger or personal attacks. We argued because we were trying to make the songs work.
At six o'clock Jed left. We all agreed that we'd gotten as close as we could to being ready, and we all needed to get cleaned up and ready to perform. Nick and Ryan and I took turns showering and getting cleaned up.
That night, we got a van cab and loaded up. We took everything with us: the guitars and bass, amps, Jed's acoustic with an amp for it, his keyboard, and a stripped-down drum kit. We sat with gear in our laps as we headed downtown to the art gallery. Jed, since he was coming from another part of town, would meet us there.
The Elastic Space was the name of the gallery. It was on Eleventh Avenue, not far from the park. The building, one in a long strip of storefronts, had housed a comic shop for years until the proprietors auctioned their stock and closed up permanently.
It stood empty for a while until about a year ago when a small group of recent graduates from GVU's Master of Fine Arts program pooled some money, filled out a bunch of government grant applications, and took over the space. The did some renovations, set up the front room as a gallery space, painted the high-ceilinged store room black for a screening room, and opened up. Since then they'd mostly had fund-raisers. Apparently running an art gallery for the university crowd in an economically down-trodden town isn't as lucrative as you might suppose.
Nick had been to the place a few times with his scenester friends, and he directed the cab driver to the back alley so we could load in through the service entrance. Once the gear was all in, there was nothing to do but wait. There were a few of the gallery coordinators there, getting things ready, setting up chairs and prepping the equipment. Nick immediately saw one of his buddies and split off from Ryan and me.
Ryan and I stood around watching them set it all up. "I'm bored," he said at last. "Let's go for a walk or something."
"Do you want to jam or something?"
"There's not much left of my fingers," he said. "After playing all last night and all day today? I think I'll just leave it for a while."
I scratched my thumbnail over my own fingertips. They had callused, blistered, broken, and callused again so many times over the past several months that there was a thick wreckage of hide over the ends of my fingers. "Yeah. Maybe you're right."
We waited. It was killing me because I was so tired. We watched as the coordinators brought in cases of beer through the front door. The place had a temporary license for the night. There would be booze flowing all around us, but we weren't going to have any until afterwards. "This is going to drive me crazy," I growled.
It got dark out and the crowd started arriving, mostly hanging out in the front room. There were paintings displayed in the main gallery room, and the light was better for casual conversations. Nick hung out with his cronies. Jed finally showed and circulated with the hot art chicks. Ryan and I stood apart, feeling like a couple of aliens.
At eight o'clock we set up our gear and did a sound check in the darkened back room. Tyler, one of the gallery coordinators, came around and explained how he expected things to go. It all sounded fine to us. We slipped out front for a last smoke and waited.
Lise arrived while we were standing outside. Ryan saw her first, and his jaw just dropped. I turned to look. She had her army jacket on, but she was wearing a black dress that ended at the very tops of her thighs. She had black boots on, her makeup done, and her hair poofed out. She looked so good I practically threw wood right there.
"Holy shit," Ryan said.
"Take it easy," I said.
We went inside. She took off the jacket. I hadn't seen the dress before. It was a silky-shiny thing that clung tight to her. She looked sexier than hell, but it made me feel very uncomfortable. She was small, and she looked a couple years younger than anyone else there. The crowd was all hipster art-chic. Lise looked great, but somehow it seemed weird to be there with the young girl. I felt like the creepy older guy dating the high school girl. And that's exactly what I would have been if she hadn't dropped out of high school.
The crowd all filtered back into the viewing room. There were chairs set up, but the turnout was good enough that some people had to stand. Tyler gave a little speech. He talked about the gallery and their need for donations. He talked about the film project: a dozen students were given rolls of 16mm film and a camera. These were the films they made, and this is Riot Band, who will be providing the music.
There was some polite applause. Art gallery applause, I guess. Anyway, there was a big white projector screen at one end of the room and an old-timey film projector at the other end. Everyone sat in the dark with their beers (oh! sweet beers!) and the first film started to roll.
It went smoothly. No one was watching us. All we had to do was sit and play, focusing all our energy on making cool sounds. Jed played long, slow chords on the keyboard while Ryan strummed. I hit slow, languorous notes and let them resonate. It was smooth.
For the next film we were light, upbeat, popping along easily, this time with Jed playing a jazzy beat on the snare and high hat. We changed over and over again, changing our shape to meet the needs of the films.
The films went by. I listened to the audience. They laughed during the films or murmured with disquiet. I looked at the faces of the audience. They were watching the films. None of them looked at us. We played well, but we played as unobtrusively. We got out of the way so the films could be the stars of the show.
When it was over, most of the focus remained on the film-makers. The crowd mingled, and somehow we were still outside of the whole thing. But that was okay.
Tyler and Nick came around. "Guys?" Tyler said. "What did you think?"
"Cool," I said. "Really cool. Not what I would want to do all the time, but definitely cool. I feel like I was a small part of something big here."
Lise came over and gave me a hug. "That was awesome," she said. "Those movies were so neat! You can see crazier stuff on youtube anytime you want, but you know, being in the dark with all these people, with you guys playing the music, and watching the movies and knowing the people who made them were right here in the room... It was just... I don't know. I got tingles."
We finally got some beers, and after a little while of milling around with the crowd, Tyler came up to us and asked if we'd want to play some more. We dragged our gear out into the front room to make use of the bigger space and we played a dozen of our usual songs. We were doing it all for free. In fact, we even paid for every beer we drank. But it felt more special than the gigs at Jake's Restaurant. It felt like we were part of the community.
We hauled the stuff back to the house late. Jed split and went off with some other kids, and Lise came back to the house with Ryan, Nick and me. She was going to sleep with me in the basement, but since Ryan was down there too, we needed to figure something out. She was so crazy-sexy and excited by the whole night that we were both dying to hook up.
Ryan got into his own bed, but I wasn't about to try to shag Lise with Ryan sleeping on the other side of the room. "Come on," I whispered in her ear. "We'll go to the living room."
Everyone else in the house seemed to be asleep. Nick, Bertrand, and Jordan all had their rooms on the second floor. Ryan was in the basement. That meant that Lise and I had the first floor to ourselves. We brought up a blanket and spread it out on the living room floor. I stripped down. Lise didn't even bother; she just tugged her tight dress up around her waist and we got to work there on the floor.
I don't want to get too graphic, but I'll just say that she and I were both enjoying the pleasure of each other's company. We were almost ready to bring the evening to a satisfactory conclusion when a light went on at the foot of the stairs leading down from the second floor. And at the worst possible moment we heard the nasal scream of Bertrand, our ever-offended older roommate:
"That's f--king it! I want you goddamn motherf--kers out of my house right now, or I'm going to f--king kill somebody!"
2010, Nolan Whyte