Sticks And Strings. Part 33

Fear not; idiocy's never stood in the way of friendship for long.

Ultimate Guitar

When I brought Mitchell up to speed on the idea, his initial reaction was one of comic dismissal; oh that silly Richard, what will he think of next? Once he realized I wasn't joking around, the magnanimity began to sink in, and the only sound to come through the phone was the rhythmic in-out, in-out of his breathing. "Man, that's a ballsy move," he said after a while. "When you said concert, I'm thinking awesome, a chance to shake off the outside world for a while and just rock. I can respect your thinking outside the box, but this..." I could picture him waving his meaty hand in the air, searching for the appropriate word.

"Stranger things have happened," I said.

"Yeah sure, no doubt, but this probably tops the list."

"It's not that insane." I tried not to sound too defensive.

"Richard. Buddy. As a pal, I have to tell you it's crazy. How does this even start to work out in our favor?"

"How does it not?"

"Think! You're talking about going to a concert with a plan to steal the headliner's bassist for your own band."

"Not steal - Recruit. Stealing implies malice."

"Yeah, and a rose by any other name..."

"Hey, the girls said they're having issues. Call it crazy if you want, I call it opportunity. There's no harm in at least talking to her, whoever she is."

He didn't sound the least bit convinced. "What does Kayla think? She's friends with them, right?"

"She's tight with the singer, for sure. I don't know about the others. I haven't quite told her yet." This brought out the start of an angry rumbling. "Relax, I'm going to. Today, after practice, so we don't waste any playing time." The little voice zeroed in on my not sharing about Kayla's whispered pleas for me to drop it and began beating the hypocrisy drum again.

"What about Adam?"

"Adam too, it'll be full disclosure."

"So why tell me beforehand?" he asked. It was, in all sense, a fair question. "It's like you're trying to keep secrets again."

"F--k that. I've learned my lesson." And I meant it. "I asked you because you've been at this longer than any of us."

"Stealing band members?"

"No! Being in real bands, you told me you played in other bands back home."

"Yeah, a couple but those were garage bands too man, nothing different than what we've got now. No demos, no recordings, or anything. I don't know how you decided I'm an expert all of a sudden." He made it sound as though I'd just told him I was going to rob the bank and asked to borrow his gun for the deed. I don't know why I'd even bothered to call. This idea was beginning to feel like nothing more than a powder keg ready to explode in my face, yet again.

"I don't know either," I blurted out, feeling a sudden desire to throw the phone at the wall. "We're already down one member, I just thought maybe if this time I made sure you knew first, that -" That what? That maybe he wouldn't think me any less of an asshole than I already was? That doing so might prevent him from deciding not to put up with this crap anymore and walk away?

"That you'd be right, that it wouldn't be too late to save the band."

Mitchell paused for a while. When he spoke again, his voice was gentler. "Well I appreciate it. Don't think this makes everything all better, though. I'm still p-ssed."

"I know you are."

"I also know this is no time to start screaming each other stupid and blaming the other person. And I tell you, Jason better not start thinking he can wash his hands of this. Even if he's out, he doesn't get off scot-free. I'll be having a frank talk with him at some point." Fine with me, I thought, long as I don't have to be there. Changing the subject, Mitchell asked if I'd made any attempt on trying to locate a bass so we could at least have some kind of support during practice, until we made other arrangements.

"No, nothing so far," I said, which wasn't an outright lie. My 'attempts' had been little more than studying the For Sale section of a week's worth of classifieds with Kayla, reading every boxed ad with laser precision while waiting for him to call me back. Our efforts hadn't gone unrewarded as we yielded a modest share of used basses for sale at reasonable prices, albeit most were sub-par models that would embarrass a cash-strapped high school band teacher. The only ad that got my attention was for a 'like new' Gibson EB-3 with case and practice amp for two hundred fifty dollars, a price so appealing that it screamed buyer beware as well as "Buy me!" Even at a negotiated price for the instrument and case alone, (we already had the amp after all,) one simply didn't offer a setup that cheap without strings attached, no pun intended.

"Alright," said Mitchell, his tone reverting to the normal happy go lucky mode, perhaps deciding Systex had endured enough doom and gloom for one day. "Then I'd better hurry up and get over there so you can thank me."

This caught me well off guard. "Thank you for what?"

"See you soon!" And then he hung up. You could hear the grin in his voice. Puzzled, I put the phone in the charger and went back to The Garage, thinking with all that it'd been though since its inception, if Systex could somehow be anthropomorphized, it'd closely resemble the manic part of a manic-depressive - you could never predict what would happen next.

Adam arrived home before Mitchell got there. Once he'd unloaded his work gear, I cornered him in the hallway and told him everything, about the chance meeting with the Brides maids, the idea I'd shared with Mitchell - everything. He seemed to struggle with coming to a decision about how he felt which did little to improve my mood.

"That's ballsy," he said, just like Mitchell, "and it's inviting trouble, if you ask me."

"Aw man, not you too! Seriously, what's the f--king harm in just talking to her? You make it sound like I'm some evil genius plotting destruction, rubbing my hands and cackling with delight."

"That's exactly what you're doing, minus the theatrics. This has disaster written all over it. What if it doesn't work? What if she, whoever she is, tells you off and word somehow works its way back to Kayla, you think that's going to bode well for us? She could walk."

"She won't."

"You don't know that."

"Yes I do, she told me not even two hours ago."

"Because," Adam raised his voice along with a stiff index finger pointed right at me, "she has no clue what you're planning and far as I'm concerned, she can stay that way, because this is a stupid idea. And forget about us for a second, do you think the other Brides members are going to just sit on their hands and let you split their band up?" He shook his head. "Bad move, Richard, just cover the bass for now." He started to turn and walk towards The Garage.

"Oh, f--k the other members," I snapped. "Their problems aren't our concern. Even Kayla's said so, remember? And if you think this is such a bullshit idea, let's see you come up with a better one in time for the Thrash."

Adam stood there, hand wrapped around the knob, back stiffening, the door not even halfway open. His free hand clenched into a fist, relaxed, clenched again. "You know what?" he said, barely looking over his shoulder. "Screw the Thrash. The way things have been going, maybe Jason was right all along. We're not ready." He walked through the gap with that, descending the stone steps into The Garage, the door swinging shut behind him. That hurt more than any backhand slap Captain Bob ever could have given, because I knew what he'd really meant by that - I'm the one who's not ready... to accept reality, or limitations. I wanted to chase after him, call him a traitor, a coward with no dream, anything but stand there in silence and brood. Thankfully, I knew better. Why should reality pose such a roadblock? I asked myself, following him into The Garage. What's the point in doing anything if there's no dream behind it?


When Mitchell arrived, why he'd sounded so happy became apparent almost at once. He stood by his rig setup, holding a large guitar case. Inside the clear window slot was a white card that read BRENTWOOD CENTRAL HIGH MUSIC DEPT. "It may be your birthday next week, but I'd say you're the one owing me a beer for this," he said. "I had to call in quite a few favors to get my hands on this until we get our own." He unzipped the case and produced a familiar looking, Arctic White Fender Precision Plus, holding it out towards me.

Kayla whistled. "Sweet mother!"

I didn't say anything, dumbstruck by the sight of it. I took it from him, slipping on and adjusting the shoulder strap. "I'll say you did," I managed, once the ability to form words returned. "I can't imagine what it must have taken to get Walden to let you even take it out of the band room." Mr. Brian Walden, Central High's talented (and arrogant) band teacher and resident masters in composition, was known to be as possessive and anal about the school's in house instruments the same way a homeless person is of their bag of empty cans and bottles.

Mitchell was beaming. "I managed to convince him it was being used strictly for, how you say, 'independent study', part of composition class," he said, making quotation fingers. "He was stubborn, but saw sense when I told him I had the other parts written but no bass to back up the recording," adding a wink for good measure.

Kayla looked up. "Recording?" she asked, looking excited.

"No not really," said Mitchell. "That was my little white lie. Sorry."

"Oh." She looked disappointed. "It'd be nice to."

"We've only got two solid songs written," I said. "What kind of demo would that be?" She scowled at me, hey what's the big deal? I thought you were on my side. "I didn't say it's a bad idea."

"She's right though," Mitchell added. "It'd be nice to get a demo together sooner rather than later. If you ask me, we got three songs in our little catalog," (Very little, indeed,) "with a little more polishing, 'Mirror''s as good as done. I like the sing-and-growl combo you threw down with the lyrics, good call cutting the shrieking."

"Thanks. I don't think we'll be held up for long, the bass parts aren't impossible. Even that multi-chord lead-in to the bridge won't take long to memorize if we focus on that today."

"True. Simple but dedicated to perfection is our pal Jason." I wanted to snort at that. "By the by, I guess you won't be too surprised to hear he passed on coming to the show next week."

Hark, do I detect a bit of salt being rubbed in the wound? "How'd he know about the show?" I asked.

"Talked to him before coming here, trying to keep some fences mended, but he was unflinching."

"Ah. Don't harass the guy any further," I said to Mitchell. "If he's busy, he's busy. Frankly, I don't want him to be there if he'll just stare daggers at me anyways. Let him slink off back to Phoenix. Props to you for trying to maintain good relations, but maybe some time away is what we really need."

Kayla let out a frustrated noise that brought attention to her the way a single firework in the night sky draws a crowd. It was as if she was trying to scream with a throat packed with quick drying cement. "Enough about Jason f--king Melendez already!" she moaned. "He's not part of the band anymore and we don't need him to be. F--k him! Let him run away like a bitch, it's no loss to me." It took a conscious effort not to break out in a wide grin. Mitchell seemed unsure whether or not he should be offended. It was a challenge, hiding that silent burn in his eyes.

"Is this the part where I admit to never having seen Festering Brides before?" said Adam, sounding too eager to change the subject. Somewhere, off in the distance, I could hear the sound of Brentwood's more diehard metalheads shooting themselves in the head.

"Aw man, you should come," said Mitchell. "They're an interesting sight, if nothing else. Besides," he clamped down on my shoulder, "we gotta welcome this guy to the legal world." Apparently, Mitchell had appointed himself chairman of the Get Richard Drunk committee. I'd have to keep my eye out for this guy. Maybe that would be the culmination of his anger: give Mister Loud Mouth the hangover from hell, that'll learn him. Yeah, and pigs would fly.

"Of course I'll come." Adam said it without smiling or enthusiasm, no surprises there. The two of us had known each other long enough for me to understand the real meaning of that tone of voice. Yeah, you're a real a-s sometimes Richard, best to let this anger burn itself out like a tire fire but fear not; idiocy's never stood in the way of our friendship for long. "Though I must say, I'm surprised that you don't have some kind of family thing planned."


"For your birthday next week," he said, before apologizing and withdrawing that remark when he caught the look I gave him.

"You know quite well I could care less about anything involving those people. Captain Bob preferred to celebrate achievements. Falling out of a birth canal with no clothes on wasn't viewed as one in that house."

"Eww," Kayla said, wrinkling her nose. "That's not the sort of thing you should talk about when a lady's present."

"Sorry, I keep forgetting." She flipped me off, but she did it with an adorable smile at the same time.

Adam didn't detract. "I know. They're still your family, though." Cue another glare from me, a sterner one than before. "Just food for thought, that's the last thing I'll say."

"Chewed, swallowed, and spat out. Now let's hook this bad boy up and see if it can keep up with us." I fiddled with the patch cord, frowning over a fresh hole exposing bare wires near the plug. "Well, that's discouraging. You'd think Walden would pay more attention to this kind of stuff."

Mitchell scoffed. "Yeah, I think he's a little too busy reading his own press clippings to notice such things, probably expects one of the seniors to patch it up." I shared in the mocking "Ha!" as I fetched a roll of duct tape from the workbench drawer and wrapped a long, speckled silver strip around the exposed wiring. It worked, no major effect on the output, thumping a few notes on each of the four strings. Satisfied, I looked around The Garage and grinned.

"Well, I'm warmed up. Anyone else want to play a little music today?"

As it is with any other activity in life, from tying our shoes to riding a bike, there is a learning process that must take place in order to accomplish said task. One should also know better than to expect success right out of the gate without practice. This lesson hit its point home with me throughout that afternoon, juggling both vocals and bass. One was always off pitch or out of sync. I couldn't help thinking the fates must have been reveling in the schadenfreude. It seems the ability to play and sing comes easier to some musicians than it does for others, which may have explained the growing number of vocals-only frontmen in many of the local bands. I took it all in good stride until Mitchell suggested, with tongue in cheek, that it was a vocalist Systex should consider auditioning instead. Even though I laughed it off, I made sure to give his beer a good shake during the break. Things did improve of course. By the day's end, I was able to keep steady through most of the songs; slipups (if there were any) became too minor to notice.

"You alright?" Kayla asked. She was looking at me with her head sharply tilted to the side, "you look ready to drop on the spot."

"Yeah, I'll live," I said, wiping my brow with my sleeve. "It's the whole getting used to it. Of course, the challenge now is resisting the urge to jump around and really let loose with the headbanging." Light as the bass was, I wasn't used to carrying around the extra weight.

Mitchell smirked and poked Kayla's arm. "I give him a week until he gives in and goes balls to the wall."

"Oh thanks."

"Aw come on, Mitchy, that's not nice," Kayla said. It's hard to say whether it was her nickname or his bug-eyed reaction that triggered the laugh that exploded out of me, I just remember holding onto the workbench, the bass swaying to and fro, bumping against my stomach. "Give him a little more credit. I say it'll only take two days." As though someone had flipped a switch, laughter ceased coming from me while Mitchell started sprouting a sinister looking grin behind his beer can as he took a large swig. I love my friends. Good to know I can always count on them.

Seeming oblivious to the minor festivities playing out around him, Adam had gotten up from his kit and was looking at my bag with some interest. I watched him reach a hand out, stop, draw it back, then reach out again. "Can I help you there, Adam?"

"Huh?" He looked at me with surprise, as if he'd forgotten anyone else was in The Garage. "Oh! I was just curious. You said you got a flyer for the concert from the girls in Festering Brides, wanted to check it out. May I?" He pointed at it again, as if afraid of offending me.

"Be my guest? It's not like I've got any secrets in there or anything."

He found the flyer, looked it over, eyebrows rising and falling like the tide. He didn't seem to appreciate the advertiser's use of smarmy language, either. "Bloodwood?" he asked, the question repeated by Mitchell, since he hadn't yet seen the flyer. Adam passed it to him.

"No idea," I said. "Must be new, I never heard of them before." Deep down, I began to feel a hot, jealous anger, sharing the same wish as Kayla - that it was our name on the flyer, not some other unknown. In my mind, the idea of debating over covers or no covers seemed a moot point; three originals and a cover should be enough for a meager opening slot at any dive bar this side of Vancouver.

('Some other unknown?' Why Richard, how modest of you. How uncharacteristic.)

In telling the little voice to shut up, I missed hearing what Mitchell said, picking up only a muddled, accent heavy echo as though he were speaking through the hollow end of a pipe. "Say that again?"

"I say I've heard of the name Bloodwood before."

I blinked. "What?"

Mitchell frowned and rolled his eyes, sighing, "For God's sake, I said -"

"I heard that. I meant, how did you know them?"

"Well, unless I got the wrong idea and it's just coincidence, they're a local, all right - local to Trois Rivires." He tossed the flyer aside.

Kayla, who'd up until then been reclined on the couch, looking ready to curl up and nap, sat up straight and leaned forward, her mouth forming a tight O. "Are you for real? You know them?"

"I should," Mitchell said, looking more than a little sheepish. "I helped found it back home." The Garage grew silent. Everyone stared at him. "Man, you're creeping me out, quit it."

"No offense buddy, but it's a little hard to just quit looking so astonished when you drop a bombshell like that. This is one hell of an eerie coincidence, like something out of the 'Twilight Zone'. How long ago was this?"

"A couple of years ago," he said, reminiscing. "I'd have been in grade ten when we started writing stuff. We'd have probably recorded a demo by now if -"

"Whoa! Back up," I said. "You're telling me you had all this material written? And a demo ready to record with these guys?" He nodded, and I threw my arms out in exasperation, the bass bouncing up and down like a mammoth yo-yo, its weak strap the only roadblock between it and the concrete below. "And we're wasting time debating about f--king cover songs? Goddammit..." I laughed. It came out as a single, nasal bark robbed of any cheer. "Why the f--k didn't you share any of this until now? Think of all the songs we might have been able to write."

Adam's face fell. He went back behind the drums and began rubbing his eyes. It wasn't so big a leap to assume what caused this sudden, apparent headache.

Mitchell looked offended and pointed at me. "Hey, you make me sound like I'm some kind of Judas hell bent on ruining the band. What am I, on trial for having more experience than you? I'm as surprised as you guys are about this."

"Man, I'm not trying to crucify you. It's just..." I set down the bass and went to take a beer for myself out of the fridge. "You told me on the phone that you never recorded anything."

"I haven't! I bailed just before moving out here because I was convinced the band wasn't going to survive, the relationship dynamics were haywire. We -" he gestured to mean Systex as a whole, his face screwing up into a tight mask, "We're like little kids in the sandbox compared to some of the spats. You think this is bad, dude?" He spat on the floor to emphasize his point. I could envision the disgust written across Adam's face. "This is nothing! At least we haven't started throwing fists at each other." Again, silence settled in The Garage and I felt ashamed right away. I glanced at the cold can in my hand, losing any interest it may have held.

Mitchell's arm fell to his side. The silence seemed to soften his temper. "Richard, the past is not important to me. That goes for music as well. Whatever I may have written with those guys is neither here nor there, that's a lifetime ago. That's their material now, and welcome. I don't think of myself as Mitchell, the ex-founder of Bloodwood: I'm Mitchell Guerin of motherf--king Systex and that's that. What I write, I write for us, and us alone. You get me?"

"Yeah," my head gave the faintest tilt of understanding, "yeah I guess I do." I started to extend my hand, quickly realizing it was still holding the beer I no longer wanted. "Oh. I forgot I was still holding this," I lied.

"That big mouth of yours belies your passion. Just keep it in front of that mike and we'll be fine." I deserved that. "Besides, it'll be interesting to see how many of the original members are left, if any." Then he took the beer from my hand, cracked it and took a long swallow, wiping dots of foam from the corner of his mouth. "Apology accepted," he said, raising the can and smirking.

Kayla gushed, "Aww, it's all one big happy family!"

The two of us rolled our eyes and I said to Mitchell, "I wonder: Is there ever a suitable time one may flip off one's girlfriend, albeit in good humor?"

He laughed long and loud. "Not if one places any value on one's life what'soever, one doesn't."

"Okay, okay, enough of the royal 'one', dammit," Kayla cut in, lowering her head as if that was going to hide the crimson flush filling her cheeks. "Let's just play." Her small eyes found mine, conveying more emotion than I suspect she was ever capable of expressing with words.

(You said girlfriend.)

Yes I did. It was my silent response to both. I grabbed the bass and readied myself. "What say, Systex? Deaf Ears on four?" Looking over my shoulder in Adam's direction, "One for free?"

He rolled his eyes again but allowed me an understanding half-smile and took his sticks in hand. Kayla and Mitchell gripped their respective picks and waited while Adam tapped a snare and counted us in. The low, rhythmic grooves of the opening chords brought forth a wave of goose flesh, little pebbled spots of flesh rushing up my arms and neck and igniting a passionate fuel that warmed my heart pure elation.

Sometimes the trials and tribulations we experience in life are not accidents. Rather, they're the moments where the music isn't playing, where instruments remain silent, yet standing at attention, ready to resume at a moment's notice; the multi-measure rest between movements on the sheet music of life, awaiting the anacrusis to bring forth the next downbeat. Yet even in the moments where the music is loudest, and there is nothing else in my world at that moment where music and spirit become one - I couldn't help wishing my life didn't have so many accidentals marring what might otherwise be a grand symphony.

(Dream of happy endings all you want. You're only asking for trouble, going along with this plan.)

My hand moved to the fourth fret, pinning the lower strings and listening for the double bass lick to cue my part, ready to focus on the music and leave all other thoughts behind. So what if it doesn't work? They won't have to know. It's still worth a try. Friendships aside, at the end of the day, nobody stands in the way of my dream.


4 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Hmmm.... Well written, as always, but I'm not sure I like where Richard's going. Of course that may be exactly the point, he's consistently been something of an anti-hero so maybe his implied 'dark side' is going to become a little more obvious. Of course if that does happen, Kayla can just kick his ass into line...she's been cutting him a lot of slack lately.
    Good chapter. I think it's a bad idea to steal the bassist, if he's been warned that she's a hothead, it's really not going to fit in with Rich's temper... Out of interest, I notice you use "I could care less". I've seen this in a few other people's writing. Is this an Americanism? Personally, I would use "couldn't care less", because it means that you're at the minimum point of caring. With "could", you are implying that there is a way to care less than you do. It's like saying "I do give a damn" instead of "I don't give a damn".
    Nice catch on the 'could' v. "couldn't", it's a common mistake both spoken and written.
    Interesting point. I believe it is a North American thing, I have friends who say either/or, and while I'm sure that isn't grammatically correct, it's never been raised before until now. Duly noted for the future, thanks for the keen eye!