The drive to Rose Creek is beautiful in the winter, in kind of a stark, all-white, freeze-you-to-death kind of way. I imagine if you flew over the countryside in late December the world would look like a pencil sketch: a flat white sheet of paper with graphite-gray lines marking the roads, houses and bluffs of trees far below. It's peaceful. Snow and ice. Yawn.
The last time I took this bus ride, at the beginning of summer, I was angst-ridden and practically punching myself in the head with misery over a pile of unresolved issues. I had walked out of a violent scene with Jasmine. School had been a mess. I had given a big f--k-you goodbye to my horrible roommates, and the future of Riot Band was up in the air. During the bus ride I had gulped down big mouthfuls of whiskey, trying to prepare for the nightmare scene of reuniting with my parents. I don't know why, but I always felt they still saw me as a f--ked-up, stupid fourteen year old. And being around them stressed me right out.
But this time, as the bus rolled down the gray highway from Garrison Valley north to Rose Creek, I felt surprisingly at peace. I was okay with being finished with Garrison Valley University, for good this time. Riot Band was gone, and although I wasn't happy about it, at least there was a sense of closure. It was finished. And Lise was back there waiting there for me. She wasn't really happy with me, but we were in love, and I would be back at her side in a few weeks.
I felt good. I was more directionless than ever, but I felt at peace. And I felt like I'd learned a lot about myself.
The bus dropped me off on the side of the highway and I walked over to the gas station and called mom to come pick me up. An hour later I was home. And unlike last time, everything was easy and relaxed. It was the slow part of the year for dad, so he was home. We all had lunch together, then spent the afternoon putting up the Christmas decorations. I started to realize all the tension and shittiness I'd felt hanging out with them over the last half-dozen years had probably been coming from me instead of them.
I told them about school, and about the band. They weren't thrilled I wasn't going back to school, but they were genuinely sympathetic that the band hadn't worked out. Not because they had hopes of me becoming a musician, but because they were sad that I'd lost something that meant so much to me. Frankly, they were surprised as hell that we'd done as well as we had.
The next day I took Dad's car and drove the thirty kilometers down the highway to Snow Lake, where Knelson, my former bass teacher lived. He was there in his used-everything store, sitting behind the counter reading a yellow-paged paperback novel. I stepped inside and he looked up at me. A big happy grin crossed his face. "Dude," he simply said.
I approached the counter and we shook hands. "Look, Knelson," I said, "I know we talked it over by email, but I wanted to apologize for getting so hammered the last time I saw you. I really wanted to jam with you and your friends again. Sorry I got so pissed."
"Forget about it, dude," he said with an easy grin. "I'm just sorry you didn't get to score with that chick. What was her name again?"
"Jasmine," I said. "Her name is Jasmine. And it's okay. It was for the best."
"Cool. So what's going on, man? How's it going with your band?"
"We split, man. The other two guys quit. They said I was being an asshole all the time. I guess I killed the fun for them or something. Too bad, too. We had a weekly gig at this little bar. We opened for a pretty big band. And we had a lot of songs. A lot of originals. Good shit, too. Not just three chord stuff."
He ran his hand over his bald head. "That sucks, Eric. That's funny though. They thought you were an asshole, huh? And they even told you that was why they were quitting?"
"Yeah," I said. "I deserved it, I guess. I don't know. I got pretty pissed at a lot of our shows. Not before we played, but I guess I made some questionable decisions."
I shrugged. "I punched a guy out. I actually hit a chick at one of our shows too, but that wasn't my fault. She started that fight. Anyway, I guess Ryan and Jed felt like they were spending too much time putting out fires instead of having a good time."
"Maybe," he said. "But that's life in a band. You wouldn't believe all the shit I've seen over the years. Like my band, Crankshaft. Looks normal to you, right? But it's five people, and every one of us has our little thing, right? You think people would get their act together as they get older, but they don't. They're just as stupid at forty as they are at twenty."
"Yeah? You guys have problems too, huh?"
"Nah, not much," he said, waving the suggestion off. "We get by. That's being in a band, right? If someone's shit is too much to handle, you get rid of him. Otherwise you deal with it and keep going. Crankshaft has been together for six years . We've played about four hundred gigs. But we've had to fire guys twice, because their shit was too much to handle."
"Like what?" I said. "Why did they get fired?"
"Oh, let's see. There was a drummer. His wife had some kind of medical condition. Nothing life threatening, but he was always backing out of gigs because he had to take care of her. You hate to fire a guy because his wife is sick, but if you're going to commit to being in a band, you've got to deal with it, you know? You've got to make arrangements. If you say you can play a gig, you've got to show up."
"Yeah. That sucks for him, but what can you do, right? Did you have to cancel the shows?"
"No. I can play drums, so I would switch, and one of the guitarists would play bass. It hurts the show, but we never missed a gig. The funny thing is," he added with a laugh, "if we'd been a legit business he could have sued us for wrongful dismissal."
"What about the other guy?"
"Aw, he just wasn't professional," Knelson said. "Good player, but he'd break a string in the middle of a set and wouldn't have spares. He was flaky about stuff like that, you know? Always forgetting stuff, getting times wrong, crap like that. We had to cut him loose before someone really lost it on him."
He came out from behind the counter and grabbed his coat off the hook on the wall. "That's the way it goes though, right? Maybe there are some lessons for you to take away this whole thing. It might not make you a better player, but maybe you'll be a better band-mate in the next group you find."
He headed to the back door. I knew this routine. He often went out the back door to smoke a joint. It didn't occur to me he would still be doing it in fifteen below zero weather.
I followed him out the door. "You're going to find something else, right?" he asked as we stepped into the biting prairie wind. "You're not just going to quit?"
"I don't know," I said. "I don't really know other guys around that are looking, you know? I know a few other guys in bands, but I'm not much of a networker."
He pulled the joint out of his inside pocket and lit it up, turning his back away from the wind. He took his first few drags and offered it to me. I waved it off. "Yeah, hunting for a gig sucks." He took another drag. "A lot of guys are trying to use the internet to find players now, but it doesn't work too well for the small town scene, you know? Guys are too far away, or they play the wrong style. I don't know. I always trust word of mouth. You ask around and you can always find someone."
"Yeah," I said. "We were trying that for three months to find a drummer. Didn't work out."
"Drummers are hard," he said. "Guitarists are pretty easy to come by. But a half-decent drummer who owns his own kit and is available to play could find a band in any city in North America inside of a week."
I laughed. "Our guy wanted to switch to keyboards."
"Hah! That sounds about right. Although they usually want to switch to guitar and sing or some shit like that. Not that I'm ripping on Dave Grohl." He smoked the thing down. I felt good the way I was. Besides, I was driving my dad's car.
"We're playing in Sheldon on New Year's Eve," he said. "You should come and play with us. Assuming you don't get all wasted, you could get up and do something with us. Maybe get a half-dozen songs ready. Could be some laughs."
"Why the hell are you playing a shitty little town like Sheldon?" I asked. "That's like, eight hundred people."
"Yeah, but the bar is paying four grand for the night," he said. "You can usually make pretty good money on New Year's Eve. The bars need an act, so there's more competition."
He ground out the stub of the joint and we went back inside. There was all old man poking around through the bins of junk. He was one of the few customers I'd ever seen in the store, but Knelson paid him no attention at all. "What do you say?" he asked. "Do you want to play with us?"
"I'm not sure," I said. "My girlfriend is having a house party that night. Apparently these parties are pretty legendary."
Knelson smiled and shook his head. "You're choosing a house party over a gig," he said. "I see you've already made your decision."
"What do you mean?"
"You're done. You're quitting music."
"No," I said, "I just don't want to piss off my girlfriend. What should I say? I'm skipping our first New Year's together so I can play a couple songs at someone else's gig in a shit-town in the middle of nowhere?"
He thought it over. "Yeah, that would be pretty stupid. Hey, I'll tell you what. Let's just jam up some songs, in case anything happens, okay? Then if you can play with us you'll be all ready."
I shrugged. "What the hell, why not. I wouldn't expect anything, but I'm always up for a jam."
Knelson had all of his gear stored in the back room of his shop, and he brought out a guitar, one of his basses, and I helped him lug out a few amps. "Just like last summer," he said. "Except, you know, it's winter."
He thought about some easy songs he could teach me quickly, and decided he would first try "California Sun." The bass part is a snap, and after talking me through it once, I was able to nail it on our first run-through.
"Shit," he said. "You've been practicing."
"I've played a dozen gigs in the last three months," I said, "and I've written around twenty songs. That one wasn't too hard."
"Oh, yeah," he said. We played through a few more songs. Some of them were things we'd tried during the summer. Songs that had given me trouble didn't seem so bad this time around. It hadn't occurred to me how much my playing had developed.
"Damn," he said. "I don't know about the other two guys in your band," he said. "Maybe you are too much of a drunk and an asshole to be around. But I would say it would be a real damn shame for you to give up now. Dude, with God as my witness, I'm going to help you find a new band."
2010, Nolan Whyte