On Thursday night we hauled our gear onto the little stage at Jake's Restaurant for our weekly gig. It was six o'clock, and as usual, none of the night crowd had arrived yet. It was still just the old farts drinking at the bar, same as it is every other night of the week.
Ryan was hauling his amp in the front door. "Look at this dump," he said over his shoulder. "Can you believe Keith is telling bands they can't play here? It's like he wants to go out of business."
I was bringing stuff in behind Ryan. "I know. Don't worry, man. We'll sort him out."
"Don't get me wrong," Ryan said as we moved along the narrow room to the stage at the back, "I'm grateful he lets us play here at all. Like it's our private club or something."
"Yeah, but I really wonder how long we're going to keep drawing any kind of crowd," I said. "We get some return business every week and a few new faces, but we're not getting bigger, you know? Sooner or later the scene will get stale and we'll start losing people."
We set our gear down and headed back toward the entrance for another load. Keith was conspicuously absent behind the bar. One of his extra Thursday night servers was behind the bar. She smiled and we both nodded in greeting as we passed.
Outside, Jed had loaded our remaining gear and his drum kit onto the sidewalk. As usual, one of Jed's pals had driven for us, and as usual, we would have to give him twenty bucks out of our gig money. His pal was just climbing into his truck to leave. "Come on," Jed said. "Let's get this crap in. I'm freezing."
When everything was in, we set ourselves up at the bar. The waitress poured coffee and we asked her to find Keith for us. She disappeared into the back room, and a moment later Keith came emerged. "Hey boys," he said. "All set for another awesome night?"
"Sure," I said. "Got a minute? Look, have any other bands asked about playing here?"
He shrugged. "Yeah. A few."
"And what did you tell them?"
He grabbed a glass from below the bar, took a bottle from the shelf behind him, and poured himself a finger of scotch. "I wasn't sure what to tell them," he said. "When we arranged your weekly show we talked about adding other bands later on, but things are going really well the way they are. I didn't know if I want to rock the boat, you know?"
"Okay," I said. "But, um...what did you actually tell the other bands?"
He took a sip of his scotch, swirled it in his mouth for a moment, and swallowed. "I told them that you guys were the only band playing here for now."
"Keith, man," Jed said, rubbing his eyes. "You screwed us."
"The other bands in town all hate us now," Ryan said. "They think we're hogging the place."
"Well, nobody was playing here at all before," he said. "So nothing's really changed for any other bands."
"Right," I said. "But other guys won't see it that way. We're not that great a band, but we're totally monopolizing this place, and they'll think it's unfair. And shit, man," I said, waving an arm around the dead room, "why wouldn't you want more action in this place? All you had going on before was the all-day breakfast. Now at least you've got a full bar one night a week. Why wouldn't you try for more?"
"That's one way to look at it," Keith said. "But I'm doing pretty well off the one night so far. We've already paid for the investment we made on equipment. I'd be satisfied with slow, controlled growth."
"Sure, but look at it from our point of view," I said. "Not only do we have other bands pissed at us, we also have to keep carrying this place on our own. We could use some back-up, you know?"
He sipped his drink and mulled it over. "If I book other bands, it could end up costing you money. What if it eats into your audience?"
"Well, our agreement is two hundred guaranteed, remember?" I said. "We've been getting between three and four hundred each week as a percentage of bar sales. I can't imagine we're going to fall far below that. And if we had another band in here to play with us, you'd be doing even better. People would come earlier and stay later."
"Yeah," Keith said. "But you'd be splitting your money."
"You don't have to do that," I said. "Look, pay two bands, make more money. Keep giving us the percentage. Give an opening act a hundred. If it doesn't pay, change it. And start having bands on other nights."
"People wouldn't know to come on a different night."
"Come on, Keith," Jed said. "You're being really timid about this. It would be really easy to take this bar to the next level. Just replicate what worked. We had to do our own promotion. Book bands. Say they get paid a percentage of bar sales, and that it's up to them to bring people in. It's no risk for you. All you have to do is have a second server on."
He kept sipping scotch. "Yeah, I guess," he said. He grinned. "I guess I'm just worried about things getting complicated. It's all pretty simple when it's just you guys."
"Yeah, well," I said. "You've seen that it can work. There's the opportunity to make money here. And even if you don't make much, at least you'd be helping out some local artists."
Keith snorted and laughed. "Yeah, that's my priority," he said. "Okay. You've convinced me. If bands ask, I'll set them up." He finished his drink and put the glass down into the sink behind the bar. "I'm busy," he said. "I'll catch you boys later." And then he disappeared back into his little office.
Jed leaned against the back of his stool. "There," he said, "is a man of small dreams."
"What do you expect?" Ryan said. "He's running this dump. He just wants to live out his little rock and roll bar manager fantasy by having us play here. He's... what's the word? Not debutante."
"Dilettante," Jed said. "He's a dilettante."
We had a long wait before it was time to play. With the cold weather no one wanted to go anywhere, so we stayed in the bar sipping coffee. Jed brought out a fat novel he was reading for a class. Ryan had some schoolwork of his own, but instead he played darts on the worn-out old board near the back.
I had some homework, but I didn't really give a shit about it. I was barely above water with the two classes I had, but I couldn't seem to motivate myself to care. Instead of reading, I called Lise on the bar phone.
Lise, being only seventeen, wasn't allowed in Jake's, so she wasn't coming that night. She was at home, not doing much of anything. On the warm fall nights it was good enough for her to drop down to the neighborhood and hang out in the street outside the bar, smoking pot and listening to the music coming out the front door. But the temperature was below freezing after the sun went down, so she was staying home.
"Hey," she said when she picked up the phone. "You at Jake's?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Any sign of James and his psychobitch?"
"Not yet," I said. "I don't expect them. I doubt Meghan would let him come after what happened. And James says we're cool, but I think he's still pissed off. I can't blame him."
"Well, she deserved what she got," Lise said. "Are you feeling better?"
I had been down with a cold most of the week. "Yeah, mostly fine."
There was so much I wanted to say to her... I wanted to ask her about why she asked Jed for drum lessons, and why she tried to keep it a secret from me. I wanted to get the story about feeling up Taylor from The Pop Rocks off my chest, but somehow we were caught up in this "how's the weather" type of bullshit.
I guess I was quiet for a moment, because she started asking, "Eric, hello? You there?"
"Hmm? Yeah. Um, did you want me to come over after the show tonight?"
"I would be after midnight, right? Let's skip it. I'll see you tomorrow at work."
I said goodbye and we hung up. I felt really mixed up. It was funny. I got little zings of excitement every time I saw or talked to Lise, even though we'd been going out for months. And I was constantly torturing myself about my feelings, and whether or not I was treating her right, or doing enough. Sometimes I was definitely not doing enough, but I was always wondering. I hadn't felt that way about Sash or Jasmine, or any of the girls I'd fooled around with in high school. I guess it was true. I did love her.
I drifted back to where Ryan was throwing darts at the worn cork board. "Deep in thought?" he asked when he saw my scowl.
"I'm cool," I said. "I've got some melancholy or something, I guess. Maybe ennui."
"Yeah, you're Hamlet, all right. Hey, do you think Emily will come tonight?"
"I don't know," I said. "I was more wondering if James will show up."
"Yeah, right. Hoping to slug his girl again, right? No, I'm kidding." He threw a dart. "Hey, I was thinking that we should get his band to open for us. It was be a nice reversal of fortune, you know, because they once tried to not let us open for them? Remember that shit at Nick's place?"
"Sure," I said. "But that was mostly the one guy, Doug. And he's long gone."
"Right. But they were super-tight. Here's what I think we should do: we get them to play, but then poison all of them except for James and their drummer. We make it look like the Taliban did it, and we scoop the drummer for ourselves."
"Good plan. Except why would the Taliban start targeting small town rap-rock acts?"
"Shit, who cares? Let the government worry about that stuff."
"I see some flaws in your plan," I said. "But yeah, maybe we should get The Urges to play. That would probably smooth things between James and me, anyway."
The bar filled up the same way it had the last few weeks: slowly, with the older crowd arriving first, and then the university crowd arriving in a big burst shortly before it was time to play. We got the stage ready and then schmoozed with the familiar faces that we were used to seeing each week.
When the time came, Jed got up on the stage. We left the house lights and music up, and he started playing some droning keyboard parts. Ryan and I played it cool. We'd cued this up very carefully with the server before the crowd came in, and she was timing it all perfectly.
After two minutes of droning and a few chord parts, the house music dropped. People turned to look up at Jed. He had his aviator shades hiding his eyes, with his 'hawk spiked up. I grinned. As much as I hated posing and dressing up, I had to admit he looked pretty cool up there.
A minute later the server cut the house lights, plunging the room into semi darkness. A cheer of anticipation went up from the kids in the room and a tingle went up my spine. Ryan and I started to move, and by the time the stage lights went up one minute later, he and I were on stage with our instruments on and ready to go.
Jed's droning gained a rhythm and Ryan and I joined in, hitting the slow, plodding, distortion-filled beat. It had a slow groove to it, a sway, and we had the crowd watching. Ryan was punctuating riffs with hard, reverberating strikes across the strings of his blue Les Paul, while Jed and I moved rhythmically to the pulse.
My throat didn't hurt as much as it had earlier in the week, but I was going to try to take it easy. I had my effects box maxed out with reverb to cover any vocal deficiencies I would have, and as we started to bring the tempo up, gradually building, I stepped up to the microphone and started to sing:
"There are chambers locked inside your mind, That you're never supposed to see, But all the pain that hides inside, It comes out when you dream... It comes out when you dream..."
We cut in heavier and rumbled along, gaining force. The song was still half finished. There was no second verse, so we jammed it for a while, riding it harder and harder. I repeated the first verse, and we peaked, then brought it to a close. There was a cheer and we nodded to each other in satisfaction. Jed moved over to the drums. We started 'No Destination,' and started working through our list of solid numbers.
The set went great. Every time we played at Jake's I expected there to be some sort of lull, when the crowd would lose interest, but every week we managed to bring just a little more: new songs, new energy, different attitudes, improved play, tighter sound. The keyboard was a new jump. We used it three more times after the opening, with Jed hopping over to add an opening or a middle part to a song. It was especially effective on 'Heroin,' where we had the space to jam and jam, try different things, and then move back to the riffs. I could tell having the keyboard would be great, if we could ever find a drummer to take over for Jed.
When the set was over, I headed to the bar for a glass of soda. I saw James down the bar buying a beer, and I moved down to talk to him, with a plan of inviting his band to be our new opening act.
2010, Nolan Whyte