James Barbour has published several other stories with Weber Studies. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University in 1989, where he taught for several years. His stories have appeared in Cimarron Review, Atlanta Review, Puerto Del Sol, American Literary Review, and others. He currently works as a fencing instructor in Phoenix. See other work by James Barbour published in Weber Studies: Vol. 13.2, Vol. 15.2, and Vol. 17.1.
My ears are ringing and damp from the fluid my latest doctor had dripped into them, as I make that long curve on Sunset, swing-ing by the Capitol Records building, before the road drops down among the aggressive architecture of newer buildings on the Strip. Sunset had been the main artery of my ambitions when I first tried to find work among the recording studios that used to be landmarks here. There are fewer of them now; it's a Darwinian struggle for space among the stripper bars, boutique restaurants, tattoo parlors and cell-phone stores. I find most of my work in industrial parks off the freeways, north and south of Hollywood.
I delivered my latest adventure in technical writing in Culver City, then confused another ear specialist for an hour. It's too late for lunch and too early to go home. I had RRB playing, and was enjoying the sparse traffic when I got the call. At first I thought it was my ears still buzzing from the audiometers and tuning forks, but I pulled into a strip mall parking lot and unfolded my phone. Driving under the influence of a cell phone isn't yet a crime, but it's just too LA to take a call in traffic.
Took me a minute to recognize the voice: Milt Jackman, from Redux Records. I'd finished a re-write for him six months before.
"We need you again," he says, static crackling on the line like old AM radio.
Bad ears and all, I could tell he was worried, and in a hurry, or some of both. I wonder if there was trouble with the liner notes I'd re-written for a rap group called "Ded II Lif." They were a bunch of Stanford econ majors, who didn't need spread sheets to tell them that the salaries of market analysts and "gangstas" didn't merit comparison, and since the Street wasn't hiring anyway, they'd become recording artists. Their live performances sold well, but the recordings hadn't taken off in a way that the money-crunchers at Redux wanted, so they brought me to rewrite the lyrics. I got rid of half of the punctuation and figurative language, as references to Keats and Yeats just aren't "hood" enough. They were now booming and thumping their way up Billboard's charts.
Milt met me in the lobby, indicating he really is worried about something. He escorts me past all the leather and denim in the reception area, then takes me in the private elevator to the suits on the upper floors, where all the real work gets done. He's talking my ear off through the whole perambulation, how I'd done a bang-up job with the "boyz," though I doubt he intended the pun, etcetera, etcetera.
"…Looked you up because we've got something that has to be kept very quiet, but I think it's a job that would be perfect for you."
OK: quiet and perfect, I think, as he opens a conference room door. Looking past Milt's shoulder, I see a charcoal-suited shadow with matching tinted glasses and a suntan, in a volleyball T-shirt. Then with a jolt I realize it's Lee Baines reaching for a chocolate-covered donut, and Todd Hitchman saying in his bored voice, "When the hell do we get our cappuccinos?"
Lee Baines. Todd Hitchman. And sitting across the table like a bag full of wet hay in an RRB concert T-shirt was Randy Markey—it was Riverside Rhythm and Blues. My band! They were the overture of my adolescence and mostly misspent adulthood. RRB are my Beatles.
I didn't start breathing again until the coffee arrived. Milt settled himself into a leather chair with a middle-aged sigh, though he is, at a stretch, twenty-nine. Then each of the band members shake my hand, while I stand there, timid as Moses introducing himself on Mount Sinai.
"Bill, we think this one's right up your alley," Milt says, pivoting his chair about like a kid until it suited him. "We've just finished remastering RRB's `Best Of' album, and want to issue it with accompanying lyrics in the CD jewel box, but there's a problem…"
The pause function on a CD player doesn't break or stretch the tape, because there isn't one, and it doesn't drop any notes when the reels re-engage. You can stop for hours, days even, and then push the button, and the song starts up at exactly the spot you'd stopped. Time does this sometimes too, as it did when I saw Randy reach for the last donut. Just before I slid into a chair, something in my mind hit the pause button.
I grew up in Riverside County, so Riverside Rhythm and Blues was my local sound, the background music of my life, which spoke of the desert light and the ugly yellow-brown hills where I grew up. Looking up from the sprawling cul-de-sacs, where no houses were yet built, I remember seeing the ridges scarred with gypsum mines, and roads to even newer developments among the serried ranks of hills backing up into the mountains that separated us from the beach towns, where none of our parents made enough to live.
RRB put the South in Southern California. Their parents and our parents moved from Jefferson County, Georgia, or Seminole County in Oklahoma to work in the airplane plants, or be carpenters in the ranch-style, tract developments. The Beachboy culture, from over west, in Orange County or LA, thought we were hicks because a lot of us still had the twang. We didn't say "dude," much less surf. Our hair was funny, and nobody drove a convertible.
We always wanted to get out to the beach, cruise the freeways, but our cars weren't trustworthy, and our working tans gave us away every time. RRB spoke to my estrangements, helped me endure my parents, Reagan, and glamor rock. They were the garage band of my spirit, that last kick of real rock-n-roll, parent-worrying rebellion before graduation came and was followed by mortgages and retirement—we saw them that way, at least. They had got out of Riverside County, had their six years of videos, concert tours, those five albums that I knew by heart. They made it, even with their bad hair, and they sang songs that made us believe we could make it, too.
My wife Jenny and I got away. Now we live in bohemian North Hollywood, where our yuppie neighbors would scarcely guess we grew up east of Ontario. We've missed the divorce disease, which affects most everyone in LA, and even broke up our band years back. But RRB is playing at the high school reunions, where we see the people we used to know, and count all the busted marriages.
Somebody has hit the "play" button. I am shaking hands with Riverside Rhythm and Blues, which I hadn't expected to do this side of a "Cool Day in Palm Desert." And it happens the way it does dozens of times a day, one of their lyrics popping into my head and out of my mouth, often as not, their songs providing me the vocabulary for my toiling writer's mind.
"—Who's the new voice?" There was a speaker connected to the phone on the table.
"Bill Jamison. He's the writer," Milt says into the receiver.
"Hi," I offer.
"How you?" it squawks. I recognize the voice of Donny Chase, the lead vocalist for RRB, who'd been doing his second stretch in prison for abusing every drug known to man.
"Donny's release has been moved up."
"—One month and I'm gone!"
"His sentence was reduced to six years, time served," Milt explains.
"—Gotta go. Roll call."
"Later, kid," Milt says, punching a lighted button on his phone bank. And I wonder what grade Milt was in the year RRB brought out their first single. We all hear a dial tone; then Milt hangs up and an awkward silence grows as Randy finishes his donut, Lee stares a hole in the table, and Todd slurps and blows on his coffee.
"The problem…," Milt says, clearing his throat, "in this remastered version, we're leading the play list with `The Vibe.'"
"It's a classic," I say.
"There's already been a lot of internet buzz about the lyrics. And that's the trouble."
"None of us remember the words," Lee cut in.
For a moment I thought my ears were tricking me. Todd folds his arms and says, "This will never work," and Randy tosses his long, blue-streaked hair back, and murmurs, "I've got a gig in an hour." Moving fast for such a big man, he bounces out of his chair, swings the door open, and leaves the meeting.
"Don't mind him; he's shy," Todd says.
"Just don't mind him," Lee added.
"We have about a month before the text has to be ready for the printer," Milt says, massaging his temples. "I know you are a big fan."
"The biggest in the world," I say with no exaggeration. "I have all your concert T-shirts."
Todd and Lee exchange a look and a smile. Then Todd slides a manilla folder across the table to me.
"This is the music, as much as I can remember. Maybe it will help."
"Can you read music?" Lee asks.
"A little," I say.
"Don't know if this will work," Todd says, "I mean, I think you had to be there."
"We never put it on our concert program," Lee explains, pushing back his charcoal-tinted glasses. "It was always a spirit-of-the moment sort of thing, like `American Woman' at Woodstock. That's why none of us wrote it down."
"The recordings won't help," Todd says, slurping his coffee. "The reverb, mike interference, sound bleed. Man, it was rough back in the earlies."
"Your guess is as good as ours," Lee sums up.
"Better even, `cause we don't remember a lot of things from then," Todd says, his famous smile a sudden brightness above the coffee cup. "Me, anyway."
"Whatever you write here, Bill," Milt says, "you're going to be a legend-killer."
I sure am. I see it there before me: "The Vibe," one of the great unknowns of rock-trivia, would have to fall at my hand. That song had fueled more half-way stoned after-dinner arguments than any other I could remember. My wife and I still talk about it, sleepless nights in bed. My hands start to shake. I clamp down on my pen.
"Would Donny know more about this?" I ask. "I mean, he was the lead vocalist, he might have helped write it."
They were laughing before I finished, Lee laughing particularly hard. "Donny single-handedly invented the word `whatever'," he says, wiping tears and nostalgia from his eyes. "I don't know who wrote the song, but it wasn't him."
"Me either," Todd says.
"So that's the job," Milt says, concluding the meeting with incubating hand shakes all around; then he backs out of our presence, a shortish, nervous man in a loud suit. I know he doesn't really appreciate exactly who RRB had been, but his antennae were in touch with the awe wave. Writing the checks will do that for you; cashing them will do it even more.
Lee pauses near the door. "Need a ride?" he asks me.
We ride south on the PCH in Lee's jet black stretch limousine, which is nearly as long as my house, and better decorated. It is miles out of my way, but I don't care. The moon-roof casts a harsh light across Lee's eroded face. He'd lost his wife a year before to cancer, and lines, which his tinted glasses only partly conceal, scrawl across his face twenty years ahead of their time. Back in the heyday of the group, Lee picked up groupies the way a salesman eats peanuts on a commuter jet. He joined the beautiful people by marriage, but the wedding to his wife Laura had been a love match, and one that lasted, a rarity in the rock world that all us out in fan-land observed carefully, his faithfulness a wonder that became a surrogate obsession after the demise of RRB. Living without his wife left Lee a stark man.
"So tell me true," I ask, "did you write it?"
Lee smiles with half his face. "No way, man." He opens the score, spreading the sheets of music across the seat. "See the chords?" he asks.
"Pounding, driven chords." Lee mimes playing them on a piano, his fingers spread wide. "Those are guitar chords, awkward to play on a piano. I did all my composing on the eighty-eight."
"Whoever wrote the song played guitar," I say. Meaning that it had to be Donny, Randy or Todd.
"I may have helped with the arrangement," Lee says, pointing to a measure here and there on the staff. "Bridges were my specialty. But `Vibe' doesn't sound like us."
"What do you mean?"
"Look, a rock-n-roll song is two lyrics, a bridge, and chorus—simple, like a cookie cutter pattern. There's some real music here. Our `thang' was teenage hearts in torment. This was written by somebody who still had ambition to play like a grown-up. Early days, those were," he says with his half smile. He'd stopped sounding smart and started to look bitter; then he shook his head.
"Wish you'd played it more," I say.
"Yeah, well, keeping Donny away from his drug-du-jour was full-time employment. He had to stay awake to come in for the vocal reprise near the end. Then there are those long solos, where the guit-tar moves the song's story forward."
"Has a jazz flavor."
"There you go: Todd and Randy both played in the jazz band at school." Lee looks out the tinted window. "This do you?" he asks, opening the door.
Interview over. I get out. He closes the door, and the window rolls down with a smooth electric hum. Lee hands me the score.
"You married?" he asks.
An SUV careens past us, shaking the firmament with a rap song, amplified to concussive strength. Deep inside I begged forgiveness for contributing to the problem, by ghost writing for Ded II Lif. We can't hear anything until the SUV is a quarter mile away.
"…Bass speakers, death knell of the melody," Lee says.
"Yeah, I'm married," I say, my ears buzzing. "Gal from San Berdoo."
"Good," he says, sounding pleased, "keep her happy." It is strange, but with those three words, I sense the coda to his own lost symphony. Then the window smoothly divides us. My reflection vanishes as the limo pulls away, leaving me standing in a suspect neighborhood, smelling the exhaust fumes, and Korean spices, trying not to notice the traces of yellow outline paint on the pavement. I hike across the intersection to a convenience market, and call a cab to make the trek back to my car at the wrong time of day, going against traffic all the way.
I get home as the freeways are quieting, driving through the warm, syrupy dark of LA's nightfall. Our house is set back from the street, with no garage, space for only one car to park, and too much yard. Two years out of college, we moved in—and lived here ever since. Young and married with two sheepskins, a bed, and second-hand refrigerator. Ten years now. Somewhere in there, Jenny and I stopped feeling like we were pretend-married. The actors and painters who used to live next to us have moved out, replaced by the gentrifying "faux-hemians," those yuppie princelings of the Valley, who spend more on hair care products and self-improvement than taxes every year. We dodge their sub-contractors most mornings.
Married. Every once and a while I get astonished by the fact: married! It has become a normal thing somehow, but then Jenny will do something, and I feel like a teenager making out after a dance. Just yesterday, she stormed out of the shower, her black hair up in a towel and not a stitch else, to tell off a phone service salesman, looking like a pissed-off Winged Victory. And I stood there with a stupefied expression, until she hung up and noticed me breathing like an asthmatic.
"What are you looking at?" she asked.
Damn, and I had to get to work.
Jenny is doing the dishes when I come in. She lifts a hand to the back of my head as I kiss her neck, cool wet fingers curling behind my ear.
"The day I've had," she says, her hands returning to the plates.
I feel the aerobic flat of her stomach. "Tell me about it." I look at a bumper sticker that's helping hold our antique Frigidaire together: Mondegreeners for Whirled Peas.
"Parent conferences," she groans, "then budgeting, then a class about disabled student training. Oh, what did the doctor tell you?"
"Referred me to a psychologist." She's rubbing her rear against my thigh. I have a school teacher wife with a stripper's soul.
"I married a nut case. My husband hears things strangely." Her hip found the sweet spot, and I was pushing back. "Hey, I heard a good one today. You know that Beatles' song `Michelle Ma Belle'?"
"`Sont les mots…' etcetera?"
"…Sunday monkey play piano song," she sings.
"That's a beauty," I laugh. "I got a new job today, too. I'll be writing lyrics for Riverside Rhythm and Blues."
A cowgirl whoop, and she spins, pinning me with bottomless green eyes, her wet hands on my shoulders.
"You are so going to get it from me."
Afterwards, late night, I begin to work, playing the three known recordings of "the Vibe" as loud as I can stand in the earphones. Next morning I'm back at it, kneeling in front of the speakers in my bathrobe, pressing close to try and untangle the sounds, link myself by the ear to the song.
Jenny is standing in the door looking down at me, her schoolteacher's briefcase full of bureaucracy and papers marked with happy faces. I thought she'd left for the day.
"Is this a phase you're entering? Should I be worried?"
"An understanding wife," Todd Hitchman says, "you're a lucky sombitch. `Mondegreen'? That what those things are called?"
"Yup, mis-heard lyrics," I say.
We walk a quarter mile of Malibu's beach while Todd ticks off properties he'd bought, sold, and might buy again. Todd walks barefoot, nodding to the joggers and the regulars, his neighbors and any young women passing by.
"…There's that Credence Clearwater one: …`there's a bathroom on the right,'" he says.
"I always liked Jimi's `…excuse me, while I kiss this guy'—Jimi was gay?"
"And Billy Idol's `Eyes Without a Face.' I always thought he was singing `How's about a date?'" Todd smiles, and when he smiles, everyone else smiles back, people who don't recognize in his round face the lean, killer looks of the guitarist he'd been years before.
"Better song, my way," he resumes. "My mom wanted me to get a degree in business, sell real estate. Music was for me, I don't know, a sideline `til I was ready to hit the books. Years on, no degree yet, but I'm sellin'."
"I was wondering if I could tell you my ideas about the song, and you tell me if I'm off base."
"Shoot. Best I can, I'll help you."
"`Vibe' starts by talking about Riverside, `…Long to be in your canyons.'"
"I've heard it, `…Love to be in your cousin,' but OK."
"Then it seems to start talking about home, or a girl."
Todd shrugs. "We were on the road a lot."
"It sounds like lost love, or homesickness."
We both stop walking. A team of beach volleyball players passes, calling his name; he is still a semi-celebrity as well as a landlord.
"Smell that?" he asks. "Sea? Ocean beaches? We would come here back then, knowing we didn't belong."
"Yeah, I get that."
"I own a lot of these places now," he says, gesturing at houses above the highwater mark. "But then, that song made me feel entitled. Like it was a lease. How are you going to explain something like that?" Todd's famous smile reawakens, as out of the corner of his eye he catches the first service of the three on three volleyball game that is just getting underway: four girls, two guys.
"I hope you can," he says, looking back to me. "There's one of those mondegreens like that: Huey Lewis' `I Want a New Drug.' I forever thought the words were `I Want a New Truck,' and it bugged me, `cause how can a truck make you feel nervous, or big, or small. Then I went and asked Huey, and found out—oh, `drug.'"
"The big uh-huh."
Todd's eyes follow the serve, watched one of the girls go up for the spike.
"Why do you sing `Stop that'?" I ask.
"Old Randy has perfect pitch with his Stratocaster, but not so his singing voice. He kept running flat in the backup vocals, didn't even know he was singing sometimes. So I was telling him to knock it off. Made it into the recording, so we kept it."
"Randy didn't usually sing?"
"Didn't even give him a hot mike, most the time. And he didn't want to, `fact, it was funny to watch him try and back into the darkest part of the stage. Helluva musician with a guitar. Twelve string, bass, rhythm, acoustic, didn't matter."
Todd zeroes in on the girl who is serving, a red bikini top and bouncing brunette pony-tail. As if in telepathic response to both our requests, she grounds the ball and shimmies out of her white tennis shorts.
"Have mercy," Todd whispers, then shrugs
"She is something," I say, nodding at the brunette.
"Careful now, son," Todd says, his smile bright but rueful. "That's my daughter you're lookin' at." He enjoys my discomfiture a moment, laughing quietly. "Yup, product of marriage number two. Looks like she's got a friend worth watchin'. Tell you what, I'm going to go introduce myself to the future fourth Mrs. Hitchman, but if you nail this sucker down, call me."
The dissonance of time. I can feel its stupid passage like the sand running between my toes. "How did you hang on to so much beach front after three exs?" I ask, trying to recover as he turns away.
"Old rockers' secret—water tight pre-nup. Call me, hear?" he yells over his shoulder.
I watch him sell the Hitchman snake oil, the doting father and pick-up musician rolled into one. The man could have given lessons to Morrison. Then I drive home, trying to catch Randy Markey in any of the half dozen recording studios where he works as a session musician. Randy is the only one of Riverside Rhythm and Blues who still performs regularly, although he now is strictly a studio musician. While I'm on the phone, a special delivery envelope arrives from Redux, containing a fat file with all the old press photos and clippings from the glory days of the band. Right on top of the pile is a black and white five by seven glossy, clearly showing Randy not only miked, but singing.
Two days, and I thought I had just about wrapped my head around the song; then, another hearing would convince me it was about something else: a person, a feeling, a place. You are in a bad way when a visit to a psychologist is pleasant relief.
I return, my thoughts picked, no work done, my answering machine buzzing with requests, pleading, and three alternative theories of the mystery song. At least Milt tells me where to catch Randy between sessions, and he makes an appointment for me to see Donny, visiting hours at Folsom Prison being between 1:00 and 3:00 on Thursdays. The diffuse light of LA's afternoon casts obtuse angles of bright and dark through my window. The front door bangs.
"Making any progress?" Jenny asks, as she breezes in.
"I'm all over it," I mumble. I'm beginning to wonder if I am the right guy for the job. Two days of work, and nothing to show for it except a beach sunburned nose. Jenny's hands begin to work the muscles in my neck.
"Liar, liar, pencil fire."
"No fire. Not even smoke."
"What did the doctor say?" she asks, ruffling my hair.
"Asked impertinent questions about our love life. Questions about you, Mrs. Jamison," I say, giving her full marital honors.
"`I'd like to know a little bit about your far-off isles…'" she sings in my ear.
"Don't. I'm already Garfunkeled up."
Somebody's finger is on the pause button again.
My writer's sense tells me not to force it, let the events carry me to the answer. Which is fine advice, unless you're trying to get to sleep through the multitudes of possible variations on two lyrics, a bridge, and a chorus—all of which run through your mind with the buzz and staticky blur of pre-digital radio broadcasts—until that, too, leaves and you toss in a mocking and restless sleep which not even your wife's arms can still. Bobby Sherman was right: writing songs is hell.
Recording studios don't look like much inside. The corridors may have awards or cover art on the walls, but where the music is made, the studio, is a cell covered in sound-proof material. There are music stands and stools, cables crossing the floors, microphones on stands and booms protected by foam wind guards. During a session the musicians don't move, and they don't look like they're having much fun. The technicians in the sound booth are also business-like, their eyes on the dials which monitor the hundred plus tracks. When RRB first started, they recorded on eight, and eventually moved up to forty tracks. Ancient days indeed.
I watch Randy play through two songs, about five takes for each, until the chief sound engineer is satisfied. The session ends, and Randy unplugs his instrument, trying to move as unobtrusively as a very big man can in a tiny space. He puts away his famous Stratocaster, which we all knew from the album covers, and then two other guitars he had on stands next to his stool, snapping each into its velvet-lined case. There is a leggy number in blue jeans and biker leather standing next to me in the booth, a pretty girl with snaky hair, of the sort who collect around musicians. She never takes her eyes off Randy.
The engineer says it is all right for me to go in. Randy pulls a six-pack out of a bag, places it on the stage, twists a cap off one bottle and hands it to me, then another for his friend.
"We went to the same high school," I say as introduction. He grunts. "You were five years ahead of me."
"I played tuba in the marching band. French horn in the orchestra. Guitar in the jazz band," Randy says, brushing back his long hair, a gray hair or two appearing near his purple racing stripe. He takes a sip of his beer, breathing audibly through his mouth. "I never finished."
"I want to know if you can remember the words to `Vibe' or can help me anyway."
"Yeah," he says, slurping his beer. He peers at me over his John Lennon glasses, as if I were some senior interrogator in high school, and he again a new freshman. I can imagine him so easily back then: an overweight kid, a walking invitation for any bully and the whole gamut of adolescent torturing; a kid who took shelter in the band room during lunch, who made music his private preserve, safe from invitations to play touch football, safe from snapping towels, safe from talking to girls.
"What can you tell me about `Vibe?'" I repeat.
"I love both the guitar solos in it," he says. "Would you take the guitars out to the car, hon?" he asks his companion. "Not that one, the acoustic and the bass?"
"What we were about, back then, was loud, obnoxious rock-n-roll. Those guitar licks took me hours to learn. My fingers bled for that song," and he holds up his huge picking hand, prehensile fingers spread, each ending in a long, black-painted fingernail. "I didn't care though, `cause it was sweet pain. Taught me a lot. And, hell, I was doing what I wanted to do. Playing music is all I ever wanted to do."
"Who wrote it?"
"Does it matter? Put some words down. Donny will sing them, when he gets out, and then people will quit talking about it and listen."
"Don't you want the words to be right?" I ask carefully, the beer cold in one hand, my pen tight in the other. My sense of the moment is slowing down, and I'm noting details, inflections.
"I'm about now," Randy says, and stands up, finishing his
beer in a gulp, his great bulk encased in a size XXXL Megadeath T-shirt. He
picks up the Stratocaster's case. "Look," he says, "I don't want
to think about then. For me, money is no problem, and how many musicians
can say that? Work's good. It's
better than when we were on tour."
His companion appears in the door, one of her four-inch stiletto boots poised on the threshold. Randy hefts his case, as she hooks her fingers in his back pocket. He turns to me just before leaving.
"That song came out before all this," and his eyes, suddenly blue, revealed by his glasses, scan the empty studio. "Why would I want to look back?"
"…Prison was the best thing that could have happened to me," Donny Chase tells me the next week. "Seriously, man," he adds when I laugh.
We're sitting in the reception area for prisoners who are soon to be released, but you have only to glance up at one of the barred windows, see the dreary landscape of razor wire, which is Folsom at its essence, to laugh yourself. A six hour drive from home and a million miles away. But Donny looks good. His blue cotton work shirt is open, showing his tan. His eyes are clear, his reddish beard, now yellowing a little with age, neatly trimmed. He is in shape, attentive, and calm, and those three factors hadn't coincided in twenty years.
"There are a couple of `have mercy's in the chorus."
"Tell me about that, how they got in."
"We were channeling a little of the universal Elvis, I think," he says. "It was early in my druggin' days, and my mom listened to Elvis a lot, the spirituals, you know? `Have mercy!'"
"Hallelujah," a voice says from one of the nearby cells.
"—Amen, bro'," Donny answers. "Yeah, we copped that. You hear it on `A Whole Lot of No Fun,' and `Vibe.' Mom got a little e-van-gelical back then. Worryin' about me. She's gone Buddhist since."
"That's almost Elvis," Donny says, a flicker showing of that stage ease he used to have. Fronting for the band, he used to transmute between the audience and the other musicians in the band like a medium. "Yeah, Elvis died just `bout the time we were getting together. First Randy and me, then Lee, and Todd, yeah, ancient history. We had Billy Joel to remind us how much we didn't want to live in New York. Just at the tail end of the big Southern Rock thing, you know, started out East, out to Mussel Shoals and Doraville, then finished with us. Then came those big production bands, with big lights, `hair spray poseurs' Randy called `em. And don't even ask me about Grunge."
"Wait a minute," I say, digesting his words. "Randy and you were together before the others?"
"No question. I remember everything from before, and most from after, perfectly clear. It's during I have trouble with. Randy came to play guitar at the church where I sang—I was in the choir, and we connected right away. Had quite a few songs before Lee took over the arrangements."
"`Vibe' might be one of those?"
"Ask old Randy. Do your homework, boy!" Donny leans back in his chair, smiling like a kid and looking younger than any of his album photos. "It's not so you'd notice it, talking to him, but Randy's good with words. Back then he had all kinds of songs stuffed in his guitar case."
"Think you might get back together?" I ask, the thought of it igniting my excitement. "All of you?"
"Lookin' forward to it. Old Rand's been after me to since my first parole hearing. And Lee's gotta have something to do with his time. Todd, too, I mean, how much sand can you own? So, first thing you do when you get out a' here is—call Rolling Stone!" and Donny laughs again, setting his chair down on all four of its legs. "And, I could use the money," he adds.
He looks deep into the distance for a moment, the easy smile on his face drying up serious, and you could see the lines then, from his druggin' time.
"There's another reason. Singing kept me alive in here. Not that it just gave me somethin' to do, but it kept me from gettin' killed. Since I sang, I got left alone. And I found my voice again." He taps his chest, just below the sternum's notch. "It's deeper and sweeter than it used to be, now that I'm not doing things to it all the time. So, have mercy, I got a mission!"
"Testify to it," the voice calls from the cell.
"Sing it with me, bro'," Donny says, standing up, "Hallelujah."
Doors clang. It is time to go.
It's a six hour drive back home, then more time spent in front of the terminal, questing through the myriad meanings of words, just two verses and a chorus, watching as they weave and dance before my eyes like Greatful Dead teddy bears, and, not for the last time, I wonder if a Mondegreener like me is the right person for this job. Finally, and at last, I'm in bed beside Jenny. It's worth twelve hours of driving in a hot car to hear her whisper in the soft voice of sleep "my old bump-head," feel her fingers cup the dome of my battered noggin, her gentle breath across my chest. But through the leftovers of the night, my mind continues to scan and sample the words to that damn song. And I can't stay still.
"Where are you going?" she asks, as, reluctant as birth, I pull out of the covers.
"Uh, work," I mumble.
Jenny makes an animal growl deep in her throat. "I'm getting to hate `The Vibe,'" she says, throwing my pillow off the bed, her body an X across the sheets.
Or it might be, "I'm glad you're making it mine."
At this point I don't know anymore, and that writer part of me, the backseat driver of my awareness, is saying in his cool and detached way that this is what they mean when they talk about having a crisis.
The nights don't cool in LA as they do in the desert. From the porch I can hear the hum of traffic coursing beyond our street and punching through the dark, those outriders of soullessness, bass speakers pounding like muted kettle drums. Bad music coming my way. Then I'm driving among them, their electronic drumbeats mocking the sleep of the surrounding neighborhoods with mortar-like explosions of rap.
I'm driving fast, and badly, faces in SUVs turning toward me in nighted alarm. The psychologist, in my mind, points a finger of accusation at me, a thing he did not do in our calm talking sessions, but true or not, it's as painful as the broken ear drums I'd suffered years before.
"…Tell me about that night, the one where you and Jenny drove into the hills," he'd asked during my second or third appointment.
"It was a dress-up date. We both wore new blue jeans. Drove out to the edge of things, for privacy and to talk. College was coming."
I'd borrowed my dad's car, that monster Plymouth Fury III, with a back seat like a parade ground, which was already old—and he'd drive it another eight years. And we lived that senior summer cliche of making love in the back seat, frightened about everything that was coming in our direction—new friends and moving away, but eager for it too, and wondering about each other.
We had the radio playing, the signal moving in and out, until it finally came in clear, mingling with our own giggles, and passion's earnest and breathy endearments. That car's seat was so big, enough to tumble across. I had rolled atop Jenny, her legs locked tight around me, and without thinking about it arched my back straight. Then, we heard an announcement: RRB, Riverside Rhythm and Blues was splitting up. In the surprise and shock of the moment, I smacked my head against the roof. That was a solid car, made from real metal, and I knocked myself silly. Blood came from my ears, there was a knot on my head, and my hearing was gone except for the pounding report of my pulse, like a hundred books snapping shut, hammering on the nerve endings in my broken ear drums.
"…She drove me to the hospital," I'd told the shrink, in pain at the recollection. "She damn near attacked the doctors to get them to examine me, then sat with me in the emergency room all night through waiting for x-rays and an ear specialist." And I remembered thinking at the time, this was a woman I needed to stick with, whether I could hear again, or not.
That was not sweet pain, but pathos, and recognition, and I remember it, that awful soundless pain, when peoples' mouths moved, saying nothing, and everything seemed to be falling apart. Even if I couldn't hear Jenny's words, I would still have her cool touch, and that seemed all right to me, calming even. She and I became a we in that damned emergency room. But I don't feel music the same way I used to. Low frequencies bother me still.
Milt had given me the address, a cantilevered glass box poised above a slope, the glitzy lights of Beverly Hills burning at my feet, and his own door light blazing. It was after three, but working musicians keep vampire hours. I could see Randy inside, wearing a purple kimono as he sat at a piano shinier than a ninja motorcycle.
"You talked to Donny," Randy says as he opens the door.
I feel like a nemesis, bursting out of morning's dark hours, hunting for words. Randy isn't wearing his glasses, so his face has a young, naked look to it. He backs away from me, the sweet and shy boy inside him reacting as he had to high school bullies, not recognizing the man-avalanche he has become. And I feel so sorry for him.
"…Now you're back for this," Randy says. He stumps across the polished hardwood floor, lifts the piano bench, removing sheets of music manuscript.
"You don't keep it in the guitar case?"
"Not any more," he says, spreading out the music. Then he walks me through it: the opening lead taken by the keyboards, the one lyric I got right. Then, the punching counterpoint of the bass guitar. I see where my words have come close to the originals, and how far off I'd been in the second verse as the electric guitar solo takes the center of the song. The keyboards bridge to the reprise of the second verse, where the bass and electric guitars rub against each other in a fuming serenade. I smile, remembering the performance I'd seen fifteen years before, Todd strutting his stuff, while, upstage, Randy unleashed some of the choicest guitar licks of that or any other decade, how they vied with each other for the heart of the heart of the song.
"That is the good part," Randy says, tapping the notes with his finger.
"What's this in the chorus? `Da dum, dum da, da dee da'?"
"It's a dummy line, place holder until we got a better one. I tried to tell you before—we never finished it."
Remembering the hundreds of times I had heard the chorus in the past days, it did sound like they were singing blanks. "Why not?" I ask.
"When we first started, we played anything to fill out a set," Randy says, raking his hair back. He looks like he's ready to cry.
"Why didn't you finish it?"
"Because I would have had to front it for the band," he says, his voice pleading. "`Take it,' Todd kept yelling at me, not `stop that,' like everyone thinks. I'm not a front musician."
"You could finish it now," I say as gentle as I know how.
"Not me," Randy says. "You finish it. It's yours, man." He hands me the music and stalks off to his bed.
It's only an hour or two to morning when I get back. I sit at the table, unshaven, a cold cup of coffee in one hand, the lyrics in the other. A Carly Simon moment, with no happy ending to the quest which this song has presented me, its mystery as unsolvable as before.
I hear the pipes working, and soon Jenny comes downstairs, dressed for work.
"What do you want for breakfast?" I ask.
"You cost me a night's sleep, Bill," she says.
It's in her tone. I know this is going to be bad.
"I can't function if you're going to keep me up `til all hours with your latest project," Jenny says, stepping close to me, combing her fingers into my tangled hair. Her eyes have taken me prisoner, but I see the dark rings which surround them, lines that weren't there a year ago. She runs one finger down the side of my stubbled face; I know she hates it when I don't shave. Her finger pushes just a little into the muscle of my jaw, her fingernail a tickling scrape on my skin.
"I need to know you have a plan. I'm not twenty-two anymore, and neither are you. Five years from now, I don't want you to be burning up our HMO credits and bouncing from job to job."
She has a name for this: "Wedding Bill Blues," which used to be a joke, her mock theme song, another Mondegreen, but I'm not laughing. Jenny pushes her finger into my skin just a little for emphasis, then quickly removes it, and her eyes release me as she turns to the door.
I couldn't jump more if she'd slapped me. She's told me with one finger what it would be like to be without her. I'm not hearing the Fifth Dimension, but the empty vacuum of what that life would be. I cannot live without Jenny's touch, and well she knows it.
The door clacks shut. I gather my bathrobe around me, but I am too late to catch her as she starts her car and drives off.
Standing on our porch, I see the yellow grass of our lawn in the bright of an Angelino morning. Also the cracks in the plaster, and chipping paint from our last amateurish attempt to touch it up. I haven't noticed this before, how these faults are in stark contrast to the gleaming cars, renovations, flowers, and baby strollers of our neighbors, see them as she must every day at school—yuppie parents driving up in bright cars filled with children. No jokes to find there, no Mondegreened words to hide behind.
I had always considered myself a dark horse, long-shot bet in life's race. With Jenny I won the most unlikely of trifectas, a real love, which you can't buy with a two dollar ticket at any track window in the world. But I haven't dreamed far enough, at least not as far as she has, or in the same directions. It's time to face the reality of the everyday, which is where Jenny's life is, trace it as steadily as she did with one finger along the side of my face.
"Be good to her," Lee told me, and I glance again at the cracking paint on our house. She wants love's hard copy, and that is something I can do. I slam through the door and turn into the office, punch buttons, muttering "C'mon, c'mon" like Morrison as I wait for the computer to boot up.
The screen flickers, and I click until I work myself to the place where the song is suspended in cyberspace. The mouse is old, so my eye is dragged down to see my finger on its button. I think immediately of her, Jenny's light touch against my face. The inspiration of a touch, nothing like it for a man clinging to his wife's love. Randy's words come into my mind: "You finish it. It's yours." And I know that's wrong, that it is now, and always has been, Jenny's song. And this is the fusion point when I finally know what "Vibe" is all about.
It's the work of only a few moments to make the song hers.
Limousines and vans park along the curbs of empty streets where the cul-de-sacs of tract homes which haven't been built stretch into the hills and desert, future Mac-palaces for two-hour commuters. We are at the edge of things, where everything began.
Jenny and I walk up the street, past the barricades, as mobile television units expand their telescoping antennas for a live media feed. People have come out of nowhere. Technicians swarm over the framing of what will soon be a house. Speakers rear like megalithic standing stones in the twilight. The sound is checked. "Testing, testing, one, two, three" echoes through the emptiness around us. Down the hill, the police let a limo drive through, then block off the street. I see the band members decamp to a table, where they sit to autograph complimentary CDs for the crowd. Soon they are out, and the marketers twist off plastic wrap from CDs intended for music stores later tonight.
Milt sees me and takes my arm.
"Those lines, a truly authentic note," he says, slapping me on the back.
"It went down OK?"
"They're going to give you a credit," Milt says, then seems to notice Jenny for the first time. She's exhumed some old club wear, dumping the teacher-lady threads for the night, and looks like a long-haired, latter-day Benatar. Lee appears and makes a courtly hello. He's a lonely widower longing for the feminine, of which Jenny has her full measure. Soon they are laughing together like classmates at a reunion. She keeps a finger hooked through one of my belt loops, tightening into a clutch as Todd zooms into the picture with his too-easy charm.
Milt steps onto the concrete foundation of the partly framed house. Cameras flash as he introduces the band: Lee Baines, keyboards; Donny Chase, lead vocalist; Randy Markey, electric guitar; Todd Hitchman, bass guitar.
A crowd of people, at least several hundred, grows in the black-top circle in front of the band. I see a pony-tail bobbling among the nodding heads, and realize that Todd's daughter will keep him in line for the time being.
We listen as the band opens up, hear their familiar licks and harmonies, but the sound is different, the clarity of modern music technology perceptible even in this echoing venue. Donny's voice is deeper and more mellow than any of the recordings, and he's singing our songs in a way we like to hear them. The whole band segues into "The Vibe." We hear them articulating the words with painful clarity, looking in Jenny's direction and nodding. Even Randy is smiling. A slow smile of recognition grows on her face. There is breath in my ear, words that I can't hear but know are "Thank you."
We wait to hear two more songs in the set, then Jenny tugs me away to the car we've rented for the occasion. It is a venerable American road boat, of roughly our vintage, convertible to avoid the injuries of my past. We drive and find a road cut into the side of an ochre-colored hill. Awkward squeaks and rumbles from the music carry across the brush and hills to us. We turn the car to the west and park, and recreate that night from long ago.
I lie in Jenny's arms, her hand brushing the top of my head, and consider the Mondegreen versions of our dreams of now and years before. Looking across the dashboard we see the distant lights of where we now live, numinous in the haze at the limit of our sight, so far in time and distance from where we and our band began.