Ryan and I spent Saturday and most of Sunday giving my new bass amp a good workout. It made a huge difference being able to hear everything I was playing, wrong notes and all. We worked through Ryan's two songs, and then tried two new ones he'd written. The new songs were a lot like the first two: simple, with repetitive changes, and only a few chords per song.
Don't you think it needs something more? I asked after he taught me the first one.
I don't know, I said. More parts or something. It seems short. And kind of the same all the way through.
So, what do you suggest? I didn't reply, which made him angry. Don't just tell me it's no good without some suggestion how to change it, he snapped. You know, give me some more constructive feedback.
I didn't have an answer. He didn't know much about writing songs, but I knew nothing, so I shut my mouth.
On Sunday afternoon, after beating the hell out of all four songs until they sounded decent, Ryan and I tried another jam. It went better than the first time, and we played for almost twenty minutes without interruption. A lot of it was crap, but it was fun. And it felt like I was participating instead of just following instructions.
On the other hand, by the time we finished playing I could barely touch the strings. I plucked with my index finger until a broad, water-filled blister covered the tip, and then switched to my middle finger. Since it had not been toughened up from playing, it blistered up in no time.
By the time we finished both fingertips were throbbing. Damn, I said, looking at the tender pockets of fluid. Should I pop these, or what? They're huge.
No, Ryan said with a tone of authority. Keep playing on them until they get really thick and hard. Just to change the subject, I've been thinking. Do you think we should play out somewhere?
I don't think we're quite ready for the bars.
He rolled his eyes. I know that. But what about somewhere on campus? I was thinking about the causeway between the Science Building and the Classroom Building. There's that little atrium thing. We could set up in the corner and play for a while some afternoon. There's a power outlet. We just bring our gear to school. Then after class we set up and play.
Should we pass a hat?
No, no, dude, he said, shaking his head. We're not busking. It's like, we're just playing in a public space. We could ignore people. Act like we're just practicing. Just run through our songs a couple times.
I looked at my fingertips and thought it over. This week?
He shrugged. Sure, why not? Friday?
Okay, if my fingers are up for it, I said. Yeah, why the hell not?
* * * *
That night Kara (Roommate Number Five for those of you keeping track at home) took a look at my fingers while I was making supper. You've got to pop them, she said. They won't dry out and turn into calluses until you drain the fluid.
That's what I was thinking, I said. Besides, they hurt too much the way they are to even hold a pencil.
Kara found me a sewing needle. I used a cigarette lighter to sterilize it and then punctured each blister. Clear yellowish fluid leaked out of each one. I smoothed the skin out, which hurt like hell, and then tried to forget about them. I ate and then retreated to my closet and read James Joyce.
* * * *
On Monday I caught up with Nick after English class and apologized for acting like such a dick at Shattered on Friday night.
That was really embarrassing, man, he said, as we walked along the hall. I barely know you, but I introduce you to a friend and all you do is insult him. I don't know what your problem is.
Well, like I said, I'm sorry. He rubbed me the wrong way and I suppose I took some shit out on him. I hope no hard feelings, anyway.
He shrugged. We'll see, I guess. I'm going to see him now, anyway. I don't suppose you want to come along and apologize to him as well?
I thought it over. My comments to Jed (including bullshit, poseur, phony and wanker) were out of line, but that didn't mean I actually wanted to be friends with the guy. No, I said. That would probably be awkward. I'll see you around, anyway.
Okay, Eric, he said, sounding like he didn't gave a shit if he ever saw me again. I'll see you around.
From there I went to Ryan's apartment to practice. We got together on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday that week to practice and get ready for our hallway show on Friday afternoon. I could barely play for the most part, since my fingers were so sore. The blisters didn't really dry out; they just became loose flaps of skin, covering an incredibly sensitive second layer of pink skin flesh. Whenever I played, it felt like I was ripping fresh skin off over and over again. I even tried to pluck with my thumb or my ring finger as a way to avoid aggravating my raw fingertips.
Even so, it seemed like we were getting tighter on the four songs we had. We were able to play them from start to finish with a minimum of error or confusion. Ryan was solid anyway, and I was definitely getting better, even though I'd only been playing for a few weeks. But with no girlfriend or social life, I had plenty of time to practice.
The problem, which I had learned not to mention to Ryan too often, was that the material was so weak. Ryan was a cool guy, and he was certainly passionate about music. He talked all the time about bands he liked, and he like a wide variety: The Doors, Cheap Trick, CCR, The Animals, The Kinks, The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Sonic Youth, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, The Dropkick Murphys, Social Distortion, Metallica, Motorhead, Public Enemy, and damn near everything else you could name. He would always be mentioning bands and saying, Do you know (band name)? And I would say, I've heard of them, but I don't really know them...
So he loved music, but he couldn't write very well. His songs were crap. So far, only two of them had words, and the words were stupid: I'm going to write you a love letter/because I want to know you better, and so on. The music was simplistic, the words were dull and sappy, and overall, the whole thing lacked drive. We were both so focused on not making mistakes that we could put no color or flair into what we were doing. Needless to say, I had some trepidation about playing such crappy song in front of other people.
Nonetheless, when Friday arrived I left early with my bass over my shoulder in its new nylon gig bag and walked to Ryan's place to pick him up.
He was up. He let me in and poured me a cup of coffee. A cigarette hung off his bottom lip and it bounced as he spoke. Oh man, I barely slept last night. You know what, man? I am really nervous. I am like, shit, you know I've never played in front of anyone before?
Neither have I, I said. Calm down, okay? We've got hours. We still have class.
We drank the coffee and then walked to the campus, leaving our gear at his place. I had only three classes, but they seemed to take years to pass by. I couldn't keep my mind on what was going on around me. I daydreamed through Film Studies. In German class the instructor called on me several times and each time I hadn't heard the question and couldn't respond properly. It was a rough morning.
Intro to Economics finished at one-twenty, and I met Ryan at the entrance to The Market, the students union lounge. He looked the same as before: twitchy and nervous.
Ready? I said. Should we go get the gear?
Want a beer first? he asked. To take the edge off?
I agreed and we went inside. The Market was a big dive of a place built as a temporary measure in the late seventies and never replaced. It wasn't much more than a long room with a stage at one end and a bar at the other. It was full of long tables and bench seats, with some ratty old couches lining one wall. Near the bar was a coin operated pool table. The walls were painted grey, the ceiling black. It had all the charm of a warehouse. In fact, its only charm came from its total lack of charm.
Despite this, it was busy, even in the early afternoon. Students had books open on the tables and beers in front of them. Some were actually studying, others were getting the weekend started early. Ryan and I got bottles of domestic and sat at one of the benches. Ryan looked up at the empty stage at the far end of the room.
Maybe we could play in here some day.
Sure, I said with a grin. We could open for Green Day when they come back. That was the legend about The Market: Green Day had played there once in the early nineties before anyone cared who they were. No one was able to name another band that had played there and managed to get anywhere. Was it the kiss of death to play The Market? I'd heard the joke that it was.
We drank the beers down and got moving, walking across Anderson Parkway into the student ghetto to Ryan's apartment. We got our gear and walked right back to the university.
When we got back to the campus, Ryan, who was clearly getting more and more nervous, insisted we drop in for another courage beer. So we hit The Market again, slugged down another quick one, and then walked through the halls to the Classroom Building.
Like many Canadian campuses, the buildings at Garrison Valley University were attached so students didn't have to go outside in the winter to walk from class to class. The Classroom Building and the Science Building were linked by a causeway about forty yards long, with windows along the whole stretch. There was a dog-leg halfway along with an open space, and that was where Ryan and I set our gear down, in the corner, just out of the way of walking traffic. We took off our coats and dropped them on the floor behind us.
Ryan had his electric guitar in an old hard-bodied case and his little practice amp, which he set down and plugged into a wall outlet in the corner. I plugged in my amp as well, and we gave each other a nervous look.
I've got butterflies, I admitted.
Yeah, me too, he said. You want to forget it? We don't have to do this.
We're already here, so we might as well. We'll play the four songs and go. I unzipped my gig bag and took out the bass. Ryan hesitated, but then followed me lead and took out his blue electric Les Paul.
I plugged in, flicked on the amp, and then sat down on it. Ryan's amp was too small for him to sit on, so he plugged in and stood near the wall. He touched a string to test the volume level. I did the same. We were ready.
2009 Nolan Whyte