I've been listening to the song "Torn and Frayed" from The Rolling Stones a lot lately. It strikes me as a particularly self-aware recording from Mick and Keith. It was one of these songs off the Exile on Main Street record that's basically a way of fictionalizing their own life. It's like when a novelist writes a book with an author as the protagonist. And maybe the character is a lot like the author. And maybe the plot of the novel is based on events from the author's life. Maybe he's a little more dramatic and cool in the novel version than he is in real life, and the novelist puts the whole thing in the second person, calls it a novel and publishes it. That's what The Rolling Stones are doing in "Torn and Frayed."
"Here's a story about a burnt out guy in a rock and roll band," they're saying. "He's not Keith. He's just some guy that happens to be very similar to Keith. But this is just a story."
It's not like all the rest of the songs that are mock confessionals of fictional characters. Think about "Happy," "Rocks Off," or "Tumbling Dice," or "Loving Cup." These songs sound like little slices of memoir. But "Torn and Frayed" is presented like fiction.
It's all so meta. Exile on Main Street was definitely the album when The Stones went from being Modern to Postmodern. This wasn't just an album by The Rolling Stones. It was an album about being The Rolling Stones. "We're going to fuck off to the South of France and take over an enormous chalet and live like weird princes, and record songs about being from a fictionalized Gothic Southern United States." They wrote songs about actually being there in a hot stinking room recording the album itself. And then they broke down and fucked off to Los Angeles to mix the thing for four weeks.
It was The Rolling Stones' most famous big weird story, and it was their most "Keith" record. The most heroically weird rock and roll celebrity, living a rock and roll lifestyle that stacked against anyone in the genre, and producing brilliant music at the same time. The type of thing that would be the centerpiece moment for a film about the band. And all the best bands have those moments. The Rolling Stones recorded theirs.
It made me think of of Riot Band when I listened to it, and it made me wonder if I was living through the dramatic highpoint of my story with the band. I was unemployed, sleeping at my girlfriend's house and not paying rent. I was occupying myself with nothing but a band that could not possibly earn a living in little Garrison Valley. University or not, it was a very small market. Shit, we were playing for almost nothing, and we had no prospects except trying to pose as a cover band at a road house on the edge of town.
I was feeling torn and frayed myself at the time. I was getting baked with Lise's pot all the time, and basically just lived for the band. I felt like a fraud, because not only was the band not earning, but I wasn't nearly talented enough as a player to take it to the next level. I felt guilty hanging around the house because I wasn't paying to stay there. I didn't have the money. I barely had the money to contribute to the food I was eating.
Time was starting to wear heavily on my hands, and since I was broke, earned almost nothing from the band and would soon have to start paying Smoky rent, I did the only thing I could think of to fill my hours: I started looking for a job.
The first time Riot Band played a Tuesday night at Jake's, we each took home twelve dollars: our cut from the bar sales was sixty dollars, cut five ways between Ryan, Jed, Conrad, Nick and I. Conrad was the most disappointed, since he was really only a notch above homeless, and had no other prospects except pan-handling or busking. It wasn't much better for me, so the next day I got serious about the want ads. And in the afternoon, despite the shitty weather, I spent most of the afternoon walking around the downtown area looking for help wanted signs.
I'd lucked into my job at the convenience store because I happened to know someone who worked there, but I didn't know that many people in the city who could throw me a bone like that. Most of the people I knew didn't even have jobs. They were either students or dilettante musicians like me. Except for the drug dealer, and even he'd picked up a side job with an hourly wage.
It actually took two weeks of me sniffing around every little business in the city before I got anything, and it was at a chain hamburger restaurant. They were paying me almost nothing and I didn't get many hours, but I had to take what I could get and keep looking for something better.
Life was looking a little bit dank.
Our second Tuesday night at Jake's was a lot like our first. We played simplified versions of a bunch of songs, and played them in a fast set to open the show. This time we did a bunch of random Fifties and Sixties shit: Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and because Ryan had always wanted to, a sped-up, thrashed up version of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." He sang through distortion and chorus, and it actually sounded pretty good.
And just to add to the whole sense that we were living some weird band moment, every time we turned around there was Emily with her camera. She was always adding little clips of us up onto the 'net at The Typesetter's web page, but they weren't just clips of our performances. She was putting up all these meaningless conversations too, little snips from band meetings, which for some reason we were allowing her to attend.
Ryan was totally on board with her documenting everything we were doing, arguing that it was free online publicity for the band. Hell, we weren't promoting ourselves at all online. Nick had set up a twitter page for us but wasn't doing much with it. But it seemed clear to everyone except Ryan that she was doing it for herself. She was using us like she was a reality show producer, and we were the idiots on the screen.
As for the crowd, about the same number showed up early at that second gig, but this time none of them left as soon as we started playing. A few others stopped by as we were finishing up, and some even arrived after we were done and the stereo was playing. I wondered if the bar was now becoming a people magnet on its own, where some people came for the band, but other people came because there were people there. Either way, people showed up. Some of them were folks who had seen us a bunch of times, but there were fresh faces too.
That night I chatted with Keith about the bar and how it was doing.
"Thursdays are really kicking ass for us. We're making half our week on Thursday nights. That's why I'm so hopeful about having you guys in here on Tuesdays. If it takes on a life like Thursday did, we'd both be making a lot of extra money, even if you were just getting the bar cut."
"Would that be a lot?" I asked.
"It could be pretty good. The Thursday night bands are splitting the money, and its usually between seven or eight hundred dollars."
"No, split. They each get three-fifty, four hundred dollars. That's pretty good money."
"Sure, but it's split between four or five guys. So they're getting less than a hundred bucks each."
"That's still okay for a night's work," he said. "I've got some plans for the place. I'm going to do some more work on the room. Fix some stuff, clean it up a bit. The bar could have some potential. Ideally, we could turn it into a money-making business. That's hard, especially in this shitty neighborhood."
"When you're making more,will you pay us more?"
"Sure. I could even get touring bands to stop here. You know, become an actual venue, not just a dive bar."
I started thinking about Riot Band's potential. We weren't a great band, but we'd managed to have enough appeal to draw a crowd that would build a profitable music scene where nothing had been before? Sure, we weren't making any money at the moment. We'd self-destructed early and had returned, presumably the stronger for it, but having to start over at the same time.
I knew we were stronger though, especially musically. Our sound was getting rich. Even the old songs that we'd played a hundred times were getting better. We were learning to play them better, and if they didn't seem like good songs compared to more recent material, we dumped them. And we were becoming better musicians. Eight hours of practice every weekend certainly had something to do with it, plus a run-through on Monday night before the Tuesday gig. And what did we do the rest of the week? We played on our own.
That Wednesday night, Lise gave me a message from Nick when I got home from my hamburger job. I called him up and he said that Keith had a sudden opening for the very next night. "Are you free to play? The other guys are able to go."
I had a shift at the hamburger place, but I immediately decided to brush it off. The shift would pay about fifty bucks, but from what Keith had said, I might make eighty or ninety playing the gig. "I'll call in sick," I said, and he called the others to let them know we were all in.
"We're playing tomorrow night," I told Lise. "At Jake's. I'm going to cut work for it, but I should make more at the gig anyway."
"That's cool. I'll come along."
I nodded. "Cool." It had crossed my mind that Lise would not respond well to me playing hooky from my new job in my first week, but that wouldn't have been like Lise. She was as happy as I was to play the rock and roll fantasy.
The next night, the bar was full early. It was the opening band who had backed out, but Keith switched the spots, so the second band would be opening for us. They grumbled to Keith, but they didn't mention it to us when we crossed paths.
"Really talk up Tuesday Night," Keith said when he saw us. "Play as long as you want, and talk up Tuesdays. This is actually a lucky break for us. We can advertise."
"What happened to the other band?" Ryan asked.
"I don't know," Keith said with a sneer, "A lot of the bands who ask to play here, it's their first gig. I think some of them either break up or can't put together enough songs to play. We had one guy apply to play even before he had a band together."
"Did you let him play?"
"Hell no," he laughed. "At this point I'm ready to start asking to hear them before they play. A CD or mp3 or anything, just to prove they actually exist."
"Listen to that, guys," I said. "We have a CD recorded. I guess we can get a gig here."
No one laughed.
The first band played. They were nothing special. They weren't tight at all, and their songs weren't really together. They had a singer and a screamer and a guitarist that had no hooks but plenty of solos. They needed more time to get their sound together, but they were having the time of their lives playing in front of a room with some people in it.
We got our turn later on, and we knocked the doors off the place. We knew we were getting a cut of the bar sales, so we played as long as we could, hoping that people would stay and keep drinking. We played a bunch of our own songs and then ripped the hell out of all our covers. We stopped for a five minute beer, and then got back up and slammed through another hour. The room was full, everybody loved the band, and the bar staff were busy as hell. All good signs.
After we were finished, I was having a drink at a table with Lise and some other friends. Not only was Lise illegally in there, but she was sipping a rye and ginger ale. Keith knew she was underage, but had decided to turn a blind eye.
I looked around at some point and noticed that Emily was nearby, taping us. Just shooting tape of us sitting at a table in the bar. I didn't like the idea of her taping Lise as an underager in the bar, so I got up and walked over.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Just shooting some establishing shots," she said. "These will get edited into the report on the gig."
"Don't tape us without letting us know," I said. "It's not cool."
She shrugged and switched the camera off. "You should be more relaxed about this. These are getting watched by a lot of people. They're getting shared. People are seeing you guys."
"Yeah," I said, "but you're deciding what they're seeing. And I didn't ask for that."
2010, Nolan Whyte