Sticks And Strings. Part 11

"Sure there were obstacles to overcome... but aren't there in most dreams? Surely this dream was worth it..."

Ultimate Guitar

People who have ever experienced true success, be it in business, politics, or in any other facet of life always seem to have one thing in common: When asked for the secret of their success, the answers may come out in different words and phrases, but the underlying theme has never seemed to change; the message always remains the same:

I never gave up.

I did whatever it took to get there.

I had a dream.

To be more clich, that famous song from Journey seems to say it best: Don't stop believing.

If Fortune 500 CEO's, self-made multi-millionaires and other successes in the music industry were singing the same tune, why was it failing to strike a chord with a two-bit, local garage metal band? Mountains of money, fleets of Ferraris and miles of mansions weren't the goals anyone had in mind; at least, not the biggest motivator. Saying those kinds of dreams didn't exist at all would be a bit more than what Mark Twain referred to as little white lies. Of course that would all be nice but right now the only thing anyone seemed to care about was where was the next song going to come from, never mind how in God's name the band was going to put together a half-decent set in time for the Thrash for Cash. Actually, if it was as simple as that, the more appropriate question would be why was the band failing to listen? At least one of us seemed to be on board.

I'll give you three guesses who and the first two don't count.

Arriving at school the next morning clutching a copy of the contest announcement, I couldn't wait to share with the others. Jason and Mitchell were the first ones I bumped into, the near inseparable duo sat in one of the many twisting stairwells of Brentwood Central High. It took a moment to recognize Jason leaning against the wall, sporting a new, to me at least, Marine inspired crew-cut. Jason without a hat was a rare sight to behold. While he was no Mister Popular Kid by any stretch, his reasonable outgoingness had the student body often titling him "The Brentwood Cowboy," a term of endearment not particularly amusing to the school's only ex-Arizonian, though he often shrugged it off in good sport.

Appearing lost in their trek of the creative realm, neither noticed me approaching; Jason drumming his fingers against a knee while Mitchell sat two steps down, striking out some chords on his never-go-anywhere-without-it guitar while its case hung on the handrail behind him; black, limp and pathetic looking. With no amp, it was impossible to say for certain what he was producing, but he seemed happy with itnever a bad thing. After getting their attention and exchanging minor pleasantries, Mitchell flashed a slight crooked grin, giving his guitar a hearty pat.

Think we finally have a working build-up to the Rage solo, can't wait to hear this baby hooked up to some power, he said. It was always a challenge not to smile or laugh whenever Mitchell spoke, the thick Quebecois accent spelled out such funny twists on so many words...beh-bee and pow-air...too funny. Of course I can't say I ever laughed being called Ree-churd though.

That's great man, excited to hear it, I said with a thumbs-up.

Oh yeah, just sucks we don't have the full group together till the weekend though.

Say what?

Eh, caught up with Kayla last night after practice, we got to talking. This little bit of news sent my heart rate up in a hurry. Talking? What about? If Kayla could act all buddy-buddy towards me one minute and the next nearly pop my shoulder from its socket like a chicken wing and scream me stupid, who knows what she might do or say with the other guys? Safe to say, I quickly became uneasy, and tried to act casual while Mitchell went on, praying I wasn't looking as nervous as I felt.

Yeah, I mean spring exams, right? Juniors this week, seniors the next, and apparently she's got like three to cram for, you know what I mean? Apparently her parents are coming down on her big time. You fail, you die; that same old song and dance. A more-than-annoyed roll of the eyes followed his explanation. The fact she doesn't go to Central is no help either, he added in a voice thick with exasperation. His eyes never once left mine.

Slowly I began to realize that all hell was not about to break loose and destroy an already fragile interdependency. Either I was becoming a master at disguising my true feelings or Mitchell had just cut me a whole lot of slack. Whatever the reason, I was grateful: Pissed at the growing gap in our already thinly stretched practice schedule, but still grateful. Things looked like they were finally getting back to normal with the group dynamic, no chance I was willing to risk it. Jason followed Mitchell's lead with a yeah right face that quickly got my attention. It took a real effort to make myself ignore it, but I managed to let it go; more important details to attend to. I all but shoved the Thrash for Cash ad at them. The paper changed hands between the two of them, little grunts of curiosity, interest and perhaps excitement coming from them. Jason spent the most time squinting at it before looking at me.

It's not for us, he said, effectively bursting that bubble with a quick wrist flick. The paper arced in the air with as much grace and efficiency as a paper plane with only one wing, one of the corners brushing against my nose before catching, folding and pocketing it. That's it? I thought, feeling my heart turn to stone and plummeting into my knotted and writhing stomach. No pondering, no further inquiries? No way.

What are you talking about? I asked, angry that Jason discarded the ad like it were nothing more than a piece of street trash without giving it another seconds thought. Dude, how often has Murphy'sheck, any placecome up with something like this? This is a killer opportunity!

No doubt, but we're not ready.

It's March! The thing ain't happening till July! That's loads of time, I protested.

To write more than, what is it, two songs? Three, if we're generous. Sure that's possible, but really, Richard, you're not thinking here.

By this point, Mitchell reached a hand out to tap Jason's leg, grunting loud enough for him to hear as if to warn him. I think what he means, he interjected, resting the guitar in the corner of the landing, is that there's more than just songwriting that's going to get us ready for this thing. It's just one of many boulders in the road.

And the smallest, Jason put in. Before anyone had a chance to react, he continued. You tell Adam about this?

Haven't heard word from him since last night and I certainly don't expect to see him here, he's probably still asleep.

Ah, one of the benefits to early graduation, Mitchell mused, an obvious attempt to try and defuse any brooding unpleasantness. I had to give him credit in spite of its abject failure; he didn't appear too comfortable with the situation. When I asked for his insight, all he did was hem and haw, trying to sit on the fence and not risk pissing off whoever he didn't side with. Part of me sympathized with that, no one would want that position; lord knows I'd been there myself a few times in the past. The rest of me was quietly annoyed with his indecision. Perhaps it was a bit selfish and naive to expect overwhelming response to the Thrash, sure there were obstacles to overcome... but aren't there in most dreams? Surely this dream was worth it...

Mitch stood up, dusted his pants, reached for the hanging case. Richard... it's not that this is a bad idea. His meaty fingers finagled with the threaded lace tied to the thin metal zipper, nipping at his upper lip with a pointed fang. Of course it isn't, I thought to myself, but let him go on. I mean, hell the opportunity to open for B.H.L. is fing incredible, I think we'd all agree, eh? Jason remained quiet, though he permitted a nod, nothing more than a small tilt of the head. And he was right. Any small, relatively unknown local group would be propelled to instant fame being part of a tour headlined by a group such as Black Heart Legions, whose popularity was being hyped as, one of the hottest metal acts to come firing full swing out of the West Coast according to the more popular metal zines.

It's not that simple to just sign up, show up and play, Mitchell said while slipping his guitar back into its nylon cocoon until its presence was once more required. A couple of the strings caught the lip of the zipper lining and twanged before he closed it up. I've been in a couple of these battles-of-the-bands before, back in Trois-Rivires, granted not for prizes of that magnitude though, he pointed at my pocket, there are still many details to consider.

Enlighten me.

Well, Jason's got a point about songs. You need to know your set backwards and forwards. Some of these judges are ruthless jackals, you fk up once, you'll hear about it, and it might not be very nice.

Fair. That's what practice is for.

Yeah, but then you have to make sure equipment's in working order and in good stock, it's conceivable there won't be a general set of amps and mikes, or anything for that matter.

Entry fees, Jason chimed in, counting the requirements off on his fingers, cover charges to pay, tickets to sell. Oh! And don't forget the biggest problem of all.

Which is? I asked, my face beginning to burn, out of anger, out of embarrassment at my own stupidity, I didn't know or care why.

It said on the ad NO MINORS,' in bold and black. I don't want to be rude man, but last I checked we weren't all beer-buying age yet. Yes you and Mitchell turn before the contest approaches, and that's great. But there's Kayla to think about, she's practically a kid.

Sad but true, Mitchell said, his brow creasing in disappointment.

Almost seventeen, I muttered, at the hypocrisy of Jason's all but dismissal of Kayla due to age. The gap between all five of us was not that large. In the right eye, we could all be considered kids. Still I knew it was pointless to argue. What else could I say, except: We'll figure it out somehow, there's still time.

Jason looked astonished. Oh perfect. We'll figure it out, he says. What do you suggest we do, make Kayla a fake ID? Smuggle her into Murphy's inside a guitar case so she doesn't get carded?

Hey Jase, that's not fair... Mitchell interrupted. But Jason was not about to be deterred, even by the utterance of the loathed shortening of his name. Let's just say we went ahead and signed up. Richard, dude, understand: She is not getting in there. The only way we could even consider this is if we kicked her out and continued on, just us guys. He must have seen the whites of my eyes cloud over because he quickly raised a hand and said, And I am NOT saying we do that either, let's be clear. That's risking band suicide.

Like your attitude is preventing it, I spat, adjusting my bag across my shoulder and taking to the stairs, all the while struggling against the desire to put my fist through a wall. My breaths sounded like the fiery snorts of a bull staring down a matador's cape, readying his goring charge. I couldn't do or say anything else. So rarely was I ever at a total loss for words or other expressive noises. The door to the second floor barely had time to close before its hinges squeaked and hissed as it was flung open and the sound of stampeding footsteps heading in my direction. Before I had a chance to look back, Jason, looking more stunned than enraged, popped up in front of me and we almost collided.

And just what the hell was that supposed to mean?

Not now Jason, please...

No-no, you don't get to walk away just like that, Richard. You tell me what you meant. Jason stood his ground, folding his arms and staring me down just as Mitchell, sounding a little out of breath, caught up to us, standing just within peripheral vision of me. He was too far back to tell for certain what his expression was, though his slightly labored breaths came in short, harsh bursts, maybe anger as well. Frustration though was probably more accurate.

Your abrupt dismissal pissed me off, I said, doing what I could to avoid sounding more antagonistic. I may have overlooked one or two things Somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind, I heard the little voice scoff. but to me, the reward more than justifies the risk. Is the dream not worth even trying? He didn't move or speak, didn't even blink.

(You're not wrong there, Richard. The dream, that's all it is to you.)

I rubbed my eyes, which were now beginning to feel strained and heavy, and sighed. Okay. Yes. You're right. There's a lot to work towards to pull this off. But whatever we have to do, I will make this work come hell or high water because I have a dream, dammit! I'm just saying. It'd be nice if someone besides me showed a little faith in this. The heavy stone feeling in my chest began to feel lighter, the hurricane in my stomach not as volatile as before. Even Jason's face began to soften, his eyes seemed to grow a little brighter, the anger in his face seemed to soften and his lips began to move.


The tension in the air seemed to snap like a brittle twig. All three of us turned to the source of the sudden noise. Directly beside us stood an unimpressed Mr. Ballard, looking at us the way a parent will look at a pair of squabbling siblingsshut up, eyes forward, stand up straight, no bullshit allowed. Gentlemen! he said with hands on hips. I do hate to interrupt such, ah...spirited debate, but need I remind you three that the warning bell sounded He made a melodramatic movement to look at his watch, then back to us. five minutes ago. I should think we've better places to be than wandering the halls, hmm? Even though I honestly could not remember hearing the bell going, the clock behind Mr. Ballard didn't lie. 8:35 on the dot.


The patriarch of the English department squinted and made a point to look each of us in the eye. No trace of kindly dwarf eyes, definitely no bullshit allowed.

Mitchell volunteered himself as spokesman for the group. Yes sir, Mr. Ballard. We were just going, he said in as polite a tone he could muster. Me-stair Ballard, it came out. I didn't feel like smirking this time.

Whatever this is about, it ends now. Save this discussion for your own time. Get to class now...and we will forget about this little incident. Ballard's obnoxious use of the royal we' came off sounding a lot like Fk you, kid. We split without another word, though our parting glances said it all:

It ends? No sir, Mr. Ballard. This was far from over.

I hardly paid attention to a single thing for the rest of the day. Three o'clock took forever to arrive and announce the end of another day in hell made more agonizing by my desire to lay hands upon an instrument, only to remember that Tuesdays meant no music classes of any kind and no band practice thanks to Mitchell's fascist boss. Attempts to find either him or Jason so we could talk some more were in vain, I didn't know their class schedules off by heart and daring to inquire about them at the head office was met with only a wary look and a quick shooing from the scowling elderly receptionist who didn't look like she even knew what a smile was. Down but not out, I did the only thing I could think of. Fishing a quarter out of my pocket, I went to find a payphone safely out of Mr. Ballard's or any other teacher's hawk-eyed scrutiny. The coin slot greedily swallowed my quarter with a loud ka-ching while I dialed and waited, and waited, my patience slipping bit by bit with every passing ring that went unanswered. When the call did go through after the seventh ring, I was greeted by a voice I wasn't otherwise expecting.

Hello, this is the Merritt household! Adam and Martin are unable to answer right now...

My forehead met the top of the phone box with a thud while I muttered an oath, until Mr. Merritt's cheery voice was interrupted by a shrill beep. I didn't know what to say anymore and wasn't too thrilled at having to play messenger boy with a machine, so I told him everything; the contest details, our bassist's reaction, relaying the message from Mitchell about Kayla's absence from practice and everything else in between. Out of breath, I gave up, slung the receiver back on the hook and headed back to class. I could picture the tightly closed eyes, wrinkled face and gritted teeth Adam was sure to make, whenever he got my long-winded message, standing there with his head likely against the nearest wall, or maybe face down on the little coffee table on which the phone sat.

I wouldn't have blamed him.

As final bell drew closer, the desire to grab any instrument and just have at it was getting worse; bass or guitar, hell even a pair of old drumsticks, I didn't care, and I sucked at drumming to boot. Upon setting foot outside at day's end, Mother Nature greeted the student body with sheets of rain blowing sideways and hailstones that pelted the pavement like thousands of tiny pebbles. My shirt clung to my chest like plastic wrap almost at once, the already heavy bag now felt like a sack of wet sand pulling on my back and the two-kilometre walk seemed to become five. And I'd barely been outside more than ten seconds.

I really hated Tuesdays.


How did that old saying go again, inside every dark cloud, there's a silver lining? While I was never one for cutesy little don't worry, be happy catchphrases even in a good mood, I liked to think myself smart enough to see the saying was not without its merits, just spare me please those stupid posters with cats dangling from clotheslines with the smarmy Hang in there, baby! slogans, music was the only motivation I needed. It was my solace, my other best friend. Put my guitar within reach, slip on a good thrash CD, stretch out those neck muscles and I was in heaven. I wasn't mean or anti-social, au contraire, I honestly liked people. Like others in Brentwood's metal community, I just had a big mouth and a big opinion, something I never denied or apologized for, and very little patience for stupidity. Guess that wasn't a core value others shared.

Everyone else in the Demin house seemed to think me a certifiable screwball by now, God knew I got enough disapproving looks and tut-tut-tuts from Captain Bob. Even the younger siblings didn't seem to like talking to me; the questions about everyone's day and congenial dinner table conversation felt phony, a charade put on for little more than face value, heaven forefend one of the neighbours should happen to peer through their window and not think us a close-knit family.

To hell with them, they didn't want to know what I was about or what I stood for, let them believe their little preconceived fantasies about me. With a hurtful but firm dismissal, my last resentful thought wondered how lonely it was up on that pedestal, and then it was back to the guitar, where my focus belonged.

Even though it was the intention that I only cover the vocals at our performances, (what performances, ha-ha?) I was still jamming and writing guitar parts and the occasional bass line on the sidelines in between practices. No role in any band is minor or unimportant, everyone has something to bring to the table. I wouldn't dare say it out loud, but to my mind, sometimes it felt like I had the easier role in Systex, a stupid thought, I know.

Sometimes words just seemed a dime a dozen to come by, even during temporary bouts of writer's block, but no tunes meant no songs, so no way was I going to be content just practicing my growls and screams and sitting on my butt the rest of the time. I wanted to contribute. Even if none of my parts ended up being used in songs, so what? They were still there, and it kept my focus fresh. The irony that we still had so few songs to our name in spite of this was never lost on me, though I was getting tired of all the bullshit. Sometimes it felt like the only authentic Richard Demin came out in these night-time solo jam sessions.

Luckily, both Adam and Mitchell had called earlier in the evening while my last history paper was being scratched out. No secret I hated wasting my time in school, but I wasn't about to risk not turning in assignments, that would all but guarantee bad suicide if Captain Bob had his way. The overall grade mattered less to me than what was for dinner tomorrow night, long as I got by, good enough for me. Let the father figure stew in his recliner, it was my life after all.

I missed Adam's call but me and Mitchell chatted for a good hour, during which he said Jason hadn't been heard from since that morning, turns out they'd had no classes together and calls to Jason's house went unanswered for both of us. True to his growing role as mediator, one he seemed to be taking over from Adam, he was sure there was a logical reason behind it. I wasn't as sure. Jason and I could disagree on almost anything but it never turned bitter before. I prayed today hadn't changed that, regretting my choice of words. Mitchell didn't think so. He also made it clear he was never mad at me, nor thought the desire to enter Systex into Thrash for Cash stupid; however I did notice he stopped short of endorsing it, suggesting that a band meeting with all five members was in order before any decisions were made and I agreed.

What about Adam? Mitchell asked. You hear back from him yet?

He left a message saying he'd been out running errands, says he has some new stuff to show us next practice, whatever that means. He said call him back when I could.

You think you'll be able to convince him?

Sure! We are best friends after all, I said with a laugh. You just leave that to me.

Now all we had to do was convince the other two members to show up and sit down...wherever they were.

2 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Great to see this back, I'd completely forgotten about it! It's a good story, so keep it up and don't let it fade out like so many others have in the past.