Sticks And Strings. Part 2

Arguments over the costly ad cause tensions between band members, until a possible solution comes to light...

Ultimate Guitar

Weather in Vancouver is fickle. The aptly-nicknamed Rain City sees more of the wet stuff than anything else half the year; even summertime is no guarantee the sun will come out tomorrow. Such was the case here, torrential sheets trapping us inside Adam's garage when we could have been out on the patio enjoying a fine July day, where I would finally be able to satisfy part of my daily nicotine requirement, albeit at the unspoken disdain of the guys, Jason more so than Adam. The habit was just one of the many hot-button issues between us.

On one end of the spectrum stood Jason; clean-cut, kind-faced and smoke-free who didn't care if you lit up, long as you were a fair distance upwind. I was the exact opposite; unshaven and poker-faced, fueled by a steady diet of coffee, metal and tobacco and often subdued by grass. If beer wasn't so expensive, I'd probably be fueled by that too. You could find Adam walking the middle ground, if there really was such a thing. His nickname should have been Moderation Merritt,' no cigarettes for him though he wasn't averse to sharing the rare blunt with me or splitting a six-pack of Kokanee over a weekend whenever either luxury was available. Sometimes it seemed the only thing we three shared was Motor-mouth Syndrome, which could be our strongestor weakest, depending on one's point of viewquality. Put us together and there was sure to be some rather...spirited discussion. Today was certainly no exception.

I paced the garage floor, crossing in front of the small window with pendulum-like rhythm for what seemed like the millionth time. "Alright, maybe we've had some flops," I said. "I think it's to be expected, yeah? That's no reason to dismiss the ad's necessity out of hand. It's only been two weeks after all." One of the many downsides to cigarettes, a lack thereof in stressful times can turn you into a real short-tempered bugger.

"Exactly," Jason said, setting his bass into the stand. He leaned forward, bracing his hands on his knees as though about to divulge a great secret to which only we were privy. "Two whole weeks, that's how long it's been since anyone's come up with an original idea around here, not that I'm naming names. Yes, we need a guitarist, I agree, no reason we can't play, the three of us anyway. There's making preparations and then there's being lazy."

I resented Jason's thinly veiled jab at me and spoke a little sharper. "You know what happens when I play and sing, one or the other falls behind tempo. Do you want us to always be playing out of time?"

"Perhaps you should focus more on playing then."

"Hey now, that's not fair," Adam interjected. "Not every musician can multitask; sometimes it's one or the other with people."

Jason let loose a sarcastic chuckle. "Well perhaps some people shouldn't put themselves on so high a pedestal."

That hurt. I forced myself to swallow the words I wanted to hurl at Jason. There are things one shouldn't ever say out of anger, lest they cause irreparable damage. The last thing we needed was to pull each others strings to breaking point, but I still wasn't going to let him get away scot-free, not that easily. "Look, you're as frustrated as I am," I said. "I get it. Shit sucks. That's no reason to take it out on me. I didn't bust your chops when you flopped that part during the chorus with the last guy. That was a dumb mistake and you know it"

"Richard..." Adam warned. A lot of good self-restraint had done me.

"At least I was respectful enough not to call you on it," I finished. Jason had no response to that, other than to tilt his hat forward and look away. The wide brim of his hat didn't do as good a job hiding the redness in his face as he would have liked. Adam sighed and stood up, his turn to pace the floor, toothpick in hand while Jason kept his gaze fixed on the wall. I sighed and took a seat by the steps. Awkwardness lingered in the garage like a dense fog. It was a long time before the silence was broken by the snap of the lone light bulb hanging from a cord in the ceiling going out, leaving darkness behind like the suitable metaphor from the Bible, "for the wise can see where they are going, but fools walk in the dark." While it had little use in my life, that quote from Ecclesiastes seemed to hit the nail on the head.

Adam swore and excused himself. Against the dim backing light from the rainstorm, I watched his silhouette walk across the garage, up the concrete steps where it merged with the large shadows along the wall, followed by the sound of the door open and close, leaving just me and Jasonand more awkward silence. What a sorry state we are, I thought, a complete about-face from the first time the three of us first came together to form the early stages of Systex. Those guys hadn't been concerned with who played what songs or how good they were, it was all about getting it out there in the heat of the moment. A few weeks of me and Adam jamming together after school was taking our growth only so far, both of us knew we could carry on only so far before we needed to seek out other like-minded individuals.

* * *

It happened one afternoon in early spring in the middle of a day where it seemed time wasn't moving at all, a kind of day where the phrase "I'm bored" could have made a pitch as candidate for understatement of the century. I was home alone, late enough in the day nobody would have caught me ditching biology. The dissection of a cow's eyeball appealed to me about as much as a root canal. Fed up with lounging about the Demin residence off old Maple Crescent, trying to think of some way to kill a Wednesday afternoonand not feeling particularly musically inclined at that momentI settled on hitting up the local billiards cafe and was getting my stuff together when there was a heavy knock at the door. I froze, obviously not expecting visitors of any kind. Getting busted was never a pleasant experience, especially knowing my father's temper. Even if it was just the UPS delivery guy, he was sure to have questions about my not being in school, questions I'd have soon rather not answered, despite the evident age-fooling day growth of facial hair my eighteen-year old testosterone was too content to pump out.

The knocking continued. Whoever it was must have had fists of iron or a writhing fury. Fearing that perhaps the school really did have truant officers on the payroll, I peeked over the ledge of my bedroom window. My fear disappeared the minute I saw the familiar gangly figure standing there, peering through the window, looking impatient. I was at the door two seconds later.

"Adam, how the hell did you know I was here?"

"It's a Wednesday," Adam said, point-blank, "fourth period biology. It was a safe bet you weren't to be found there; especially seeing it's Dissection Day." Damn, he really knew me well.

"You weren't at Cage or The Hall either, so the only other logical place seemed to be home."

"Good call. But what's with the frantic knocking? Jesus, I thought you were a T.O."

"Get your guitar quick, there's something I want to show you."

"What is it?"

"Just grab it and come on!" he said, jerking his head towards his idling, rust-splotched pickup. "You'll thank me later. Now hurry!" Adam was never secretive like this, which made me confused and a little suspicious. I could only wonder what he had up his sleeve as I raced upstairs, grabbed my guitar case and keys and went out the door, pausing long enough to make sure the door was locked before climbing into the open passenger door. My seat belt was barely buckled when we sped off down the street without another word. If I wasn't suspicious before, I sure as hell was now.

Adam chauffeured us to his place at a speed normally reserved for NASCAR drivers during the last leg of the Daytona 500, refusing to give any hints about where we were going and why the urgency, saying only, "it's worth it. Trust me." And I had to be content with that. We pulled into his driveway less than five minutes after leaving my house. I stepped out of the truck, noticing a blue compact parked by the curb that hadn't been there before. Now, more than a little puzzled, I asked Adam again what the big secret was while he got ahead of me, grabbing hold of a length of rope tied to one of the garage door's steel handles. From behind the grey steel door came a sound like Adam had left his ghetto-blaster playing a song I couldn't identify. It sounded kind of bluesy, yet heavy and uneven, like somebody playing a Miles Davis record through a foghorn.

"Adam, what the f"

"Richard," he cut me off, making no effort to hide the toothy grin slowly growing on his face, "say hello to our new bassist." He pulled the door up with a single, steady jerk.

I was blown away by what I saw. That was no ghetto-blaster I'd heard. A well-toned kid in a cowboy hat and grease-stained jeans stood in front of Adam's kit, his fingers sliding up and down the neck of a sticker-speckled bass while a smooth line jumped out from the small amp. The heavy boost made the paint cans on the shelves rattle and clank like spoons. He seemed particularly focused on the groove he'd found for himself and didn't notice us right away. When he looked up at us for the first time, I recognized him as Jason M. from music appreciation class. He'd written a complex jazz-metal fusion inspired solo for his end-of-semester project called "Cliff & Jaco", homage to his idols.

"Hey, what's up?" he said, nodding at me. "You the guy Adam told me about?"

"I hope so," I replied, dropping my case against the wall. It never occurred to me that Adam, or anyone else might actually talk about me or our aspiring band-to-be. "Richard Demin," I introduced myself, extending a hand.

"Jason. Jason Melendez." His grip was solid. "Adam told me you guys needed a bass player." I didn't remember phrasing it to Adam quite like that though I was too impressed with what I'd already seen to discourage the thought, so I bluffed.

"Yeah, that's right." I saw Adam's grateful smile out of the corner of my eye. "So, uh, tell me, do you know much metal?"

"Mostly Metallica, Iron Maiden, bit of Black Sabbath, stuff like that. To be honest, I'm not real familiar with more recent sub-genres. "

"Shouldn't be a problem," I said, moving to retrieve my guitar. "Early metal has a lot of blues influences; think it'll be neat to see if we can put that to good use."

Jason agreed, then he said, "Hey, don't take this the wrong way, but how skilled of a player are you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well I assume you know how to play more than just power chords. Only I've auditioned for bands' in the past, and the guitarists didn't know anything apart from your basic chords and scales." I assured him there wouldn't be any power chords if I could help it. While I had nothing against the technique, I always preferred stuff with more of a technical flair, not always easy to play but worth the challenge. He seemed satisfied with that answer. We took a minute to set up and once everything was tuned and ready to go, we began jamming.

Adam took to his drums with an aggressive beat, attacking toms with a speed to match the machine-gun licks from the double basses with splices from his ride cymbal while I played a thrash-inspired riff I'd been toying with the past week. Jason watched us play for a few measures before joining in with the same blues line he'd been playing when we first arrived, fitting in the final piece of the puzzleour first fully rounded melody. The drop tuning made an amazing counterpart to the higher octave pitch from my guitar. We went on playing for a few minutes just repeating that melody, getting the feel for it and settling comfortably. At one point, Adam's eyes met with mine. We didn't have to say a word; we both knew what the other was thinking.

This guy is in.

We pitched the offer to Jason after another half-hour of jamming and a quickie cover of the first verses of Metallica's Orion. I was so sure he'd accept that when I heard the words "I'll think about it" came from his mouth, mine fell open in silent shock. What was there to think about? He was the perfect backbone to our weak little skeleton. There wasn't much else we could say about it other than "Okay" and "Thanks for coming by." He thanked us, packed up his equipment and drove off in the blue compact.

"I'll think about it?'" I said to Adam once the car was out of sight. "That guy's a natural, man, one of the best I've ever seen. Who else do you know who can play likethat?" I asked, making in awkward gesture towards the street. The suitable words weren't coming to me. Adam did no better, his only response was to shrug his shoulders and shake his head. He looked almost as let down as I felt, perhaps even worse. His ferret-like enthusiasm disappeared quicker than an ice cube on a radiator, and why shouldn't it have? Jason was his discovery; it was his idea to bring him by. He probably felt this was somehow his fault that Jason didn't say yes right away, which I didn't think was true. Finally, he found his voice. "Maybe he's less a metal guy than we thought."

"That can't be it," I said. "You saw how much he was getting into it when we started playing Orion. You could see the passion burning through him when he tried to match Cliff Burton's solo." I thought for a minute. "Maybe it was me, coming on too strong."

"Don't be silly, it wasn't you. It was me rushing him into all this."

"Now who's being silly? That wasn't rushing, that was excitement. Something you can never have too much of if you ask me."

Adam agreed, though he didn't look too convinced. That made two of us. Maybe we were only fooling ourselves, I thought, believing we have potential to be something more than just a couple of guys with a few sticks and strings and dreams larger than life.

When I got home later that night, the answering machine on the hall table was flashing a big red 01 at me. Drawn to it like a moth to light, I let my guitar down by my door and hit the Playback button. The machine beeped and clicked as the tape rewound then began to play.

"Hey uh, Richard, this is Jason. You know, Jason Melendez, from school andwell, practice earlier." There was a pause in the recording, followed by unnerving silence and then a heavy clunk sounded, as though the phone on the other end had been dropped or hit something heavy. I stood hovering by the machine. How did Jason get my number? More importantly, what was he calling about?

"So, I've been thinking since I got home, about your guys' offer," Jason's voice said. "I just called Adam a few minutes ago, and wanted to tell you that uh"

Please. Please say yes.

"Well. I'll tell you what I told Adam. I don't know very much about metal bass apart from what I've seen with Maiden and Metallica. Jazz, blues, that's where my backing is." I cursed inside my head. No crystal ball was needed to see where this one-man conversation was going, but I kept listening.

"However, I like you guys. You care more about the music above all else. I got a feeling this could work. I'm in."

I don't remember anything else he said in the message. The minute I heard the words "I'm in," time seemed to stop as I jumped in ecstasy. Systex was officially a trio.

* * *

That was in more optimistic times. We didn't look like much of a band right now, just a couple of guys with bad attitudes, bereft of passion and lacking motivation, squabbling over stupid trivial things. I wondered if all bands started out this way before they got their big break. I didn't know the answer to that, all I knew was that if things didn't improve soon, Systex would get a break all right, just not the kind anyone wanted. Minutes ticked away in the dark hole the garage had become since the light bulb went out.

"Where'd Adam get off to?" I asked aloud. "We've blown light bulbs before. He should know where the spares are."

"Hmm, you'd think."

I leaned my head against the wall, trying to let Jason's euphemism for "bite me" roll off my back. The thick concrete did a good job insulating sound, the best I could make out was a faint muffling of Adamat least I thought it was his voicetalking out loud. "Must be on the phone, I guess," I mused.


"Hey. Jason."


"I didn't mean to call you out like that," I said. Those words were a lot harder to say aloud than I would have liked to admit. They had to be said though. Things couldn't keep up like this.

"I know." He paused for a few seconds before adding, "Shit gets said in the heat of the moment. I'm probably guilty of it too." He snorted a laugh. "Probably, my ass, I know I am."

I smiled a little in the darkness. "Well it's been a trying couple weeks for everyone. I guess we can't blame anyone for that." Before Jason could say anything, we heard the door scrape open and heavy footsteps descend into the garage. Another silhouette crossed in front of me, dragging something heavy and metala ladder I assumedacross the garage floor.

"Hold tight guys," Adam's voice called out. "We'll have this fixed sooner than you think." I watched the ladder rise up from the shadows like a mountain peak with Adam's figure shimmying up the side like a skinny Sherpa. Light came back soon after, sending my eyes into temporary shock, having since adjusted to the darkness.

"Voila!" Adam climbed back down, looking pleased.

"Much better," I said once my eyes re-adjusted to the light. "What took so long, you run out of light bulbs?"

"Oh no, no reason," he said. What a terrible liar. He did a poor job hiding that sly smirk. "You guys feel like jamming?"

Jason pushed his hat back, eying Adam. "Alright Adam, what are you up to?" he asked.

Adam just laughed. "Am I that bad?" He seemed to get the point when he looked to us for an answer and getting only a pair of blank stares. "Alright, you caught me," he said. "We got another call about the ad. In fact, they were hoping to audition with us right now, just waiting out in the hall."

Hearing this news was like taking a hammer to a mirror. In a split second, our previous dour, heavy atmosphere was shattered, giving way to unfamiliar invigoration. "No fooling!" Jason said, already reaching for his bass. It was the most excited I'd seen him all day. "Hell yeah, I'm game. Richard?"

"You have to ask?" I said, standing up and dusting off my pants. "Absolutely, let's do it! Don't leave him standing, bring him through."

Adam chuckled while he put the ladder away and returned to his kit, planting himself on the stool. "We're out here," he said, pulling a pair of sticks from his drum bag. "Come on through, Kayla."

"Kayla?" both Jason and I said in unison surprise.

From inside the house came a girl's voice, "That's me." A short and slender girl with bleached hair stood in the doorway, a large case clutched in her hand. "Kayla Morton. You must be the other guys."

3 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I'm gonna guess that Richard is going to get with that Kayla girl in the next few chapters.....