by David Bassano
I can’t remember the name of that damn club in Wildwood. The front was painted blue and there were no windows, and the blue looked grey in the lamplight. It had a pink neon sign over the door but I can’t remember what it said. I think it just said BAR. The place looked like all the other bars along the boardwalk. If someone pulled the door open in the early evening the music would blast out until the door swung shut with a bang. Every time we left there was no more music or anyone inside to open the door.
The back of the place, which few people ever saw, was bare concrete blocks and broken glass on the boardwalk. I helped the guys carry their gear out the back door of the club. Like most places, it had its own drum kit, so I usually just brought my own snare, cymbals, and sticks. Sometimes I’d just put my sticks in my back pocket and go. And I always kept spare sticks in the car.
That late summer night I came out the back door carrying Ray’s amp head and that sound techie for the club was running his mouth like he always did. So whatcha got at home? he asked. Lemme guess—a double bass. And like a fool I said, single-bass Yamaha. Oh, I figured you’d have a double-bass ’cause you drummers always play too much, he said. Always gotta be movin’. Can’t let the music breathe, know what I mean?
And I asked him for the time and he said It’s three. So I walked out the door with the head and he followed me. Hey, ya don’t like what I said about drummers? I’m just tryin’ ta help ya, he said. I carried the head down the sand-covered steps to Ray’s silver RX-7 in the parking lot behind the place. I never listened to anyone who didn’t play well. And the guys who played well rarely had anything to say.
I put the head in the back of the car and came back up the steps. I figured Ray could carry the rest himself, so I went out front to look for Kyle. He was standing at the boardwalk rail, looking out towards the ocean. There was a very heavy fog over the beach and, in the streetlights, we could only see a few feet out although we could hear the waves breaking in the distance. There was no one on the boardwalk at that hour and all the shops were shuttered. It looked as if you could count the drops in the mist.
So I stood next to Kyle and like I figured he wasn’t feeling so good. He took it hard when a gig didn’t go well. We played fine that night, but we hadn’t had much of an audience. So Kyle was bummed that we’d been up all night for nothing. He was down a lot. Always thinking, frowning to himself. This was back in the days before Prozac and all that, so I guess today they’d just give him a pill. That would’ve screwed up his songwriting, though. And he was a good songwriter, the best I ever met.
Tired? I asked him.
Hell yeah, he said. And I gotta be back at the casino at eight.
You might as well stay here in Wildwood tonight, I told him.
The hotels are too expensive. In the summer, anyway, he said. Then he asked where Ray and Matt were.
I think Ray’s still talking to that chick.
Old Ray. I wanna get going. I’m hungry. Anywhere we can eat around here?
There’s an all-night diner, I said.
We’ll eat, then I’ll sleep in the employee lounge tonight until my shift starts, said Kyle. Not the first time I’ve done it.
Pretty good night, I said.
Yeah, he said in a way that meant no.
Well, I said, it’s hard to get people to come out and hear originals.
I know, he said. People wanna hear cover tunes. They wanna hear stuff they know. Stuff they can dance to. And the club owners like that ’cause then people’ll be thirsty and drink more beer. But what kinda life is that, playin’ other peoples’ stuff? To people who don’t give a shit who you are? That’s no way to get a contract.
There’s that word again, I thought. Can’t have a conversation without that word coming up. The same way the suits always came up. The suits were the bosses at work, landlords, the people who called from the credit card company. We hated the suits the same way we loved the idea of an album contract.
Badmouthing suits was easy enough. Everyone likes to feel superior. And since the musicians thought that the suits thought that they were superior to the musicians, the musicians definitely liked feeling superior to the suits. The suits who came in for the worst of it were record company suits. All they wanted was to make money. They didn’t care about the musicians, or about music or the fans, Kyle said. Kyle also said that’s why you have to watch them so closely, even if they offered you a contract. You had to get a lawyer to go over the contract in case the suits were trying to rip you off; you had to make sure all your music was properly copyrighted so that no one could steal it, and hire an accountant to make sure that the companies weren’t shorting your royalty checks. I wondered how Kyle knew all this since he’d never had a contract. But when he talked he sounded like he knew exactly what he was talking about. It did give you confidence.
But I thought a lot about things like that and how it felt to just play and not think about contracts or anything else. Standing along the rail next to Kyle I could feel the sticks in my back pocket, and I started thinking about the old barn with the sand floor and Wayne’s red Pearl kit. Wayne taught me to play in that barn during jam sessions, with Clint on guitar and Dave with his old clackety Rickenbacker bass. I’d watch Wayne play, which he seemed to do without any effort, the way a bird flies, and then Wayne would hand me the sticks and let me play with the others. I learned from Wayne and from practice itself. The guys would play something simple at first so that I could stay with them. Little by little over a year I learned, my arms and legs learned, and Wayne taught me the formal rudiments and gave me a pair of old heavy sticks, all hacked up from the edges of cymbals, to strengthen my wrists and I bought a practice pad. The barn always smelled of beer; in the summer there was the cool of the damp sand and in the winter the scent of a kerosene heater. The electric wasn’t grounded right, Wayne warned me, and I could talk into a drum mike if I wanted to but should be careful not to touch my lips to it. There was no purpose to any of it and nothing I wanted other than just to play what I heard in my head and feel the sensation of my body playing on its own. I got the calluses on my hands and my wrists burned and I learned to fly in a little barn on the edge of an old farm in South Jersey.
Because I knew what it felt like to play for nothing I could question what Kyle and the guys said about playing for something. They said the suits were whores; but so were we. We wanted the suits to make us rich and famous. We wanted the money and the girls and to be on MTV and the cover of Rolling Stone. And somehow we thought all that would happen by magic. Someone in a company would wave a magic wand and we’d be rock stars. One time, Ray told Kyle that we needed to send more of our demo tapes to companies and get out there and sell ourselves more aggressively, and Kyle told him, “I don’t want it to be like that, man. I want some fat, rich A&R guy with a cigar to come up to us after one of our gigs and say, ‘Ok, boys, here’s your chance.’ I want it to be magic.”
Kyle wasn’t stupid, so I wondered how he thought it could actually be magic. Maybe because it kept him from seeing that he was as much of a whore as the suits. Because if and when ya thought about it, there was no magic and everyone knew it. The way the suits made you famous was by using their money. The advertising and sales departments at the record company, the producers, touring crews, and the money and expertise that the companies had. But if you looked at it that way you might see that you needed the suits and that you were no better than them. You were just another whore.
And there was something else, too, although I couldn’t put it into words at the time. I can now. And that’s that there has to be something in your life that’s not for sale. Something that you do for its own sake, not to get something out of it. It has to be something bigger and more important than you, so that you can feel right giving yourself to it. For me, music became that thing once I started doing it right. But if you don’t have something that’s not for sale, you yourself, your whole life, is just another product with a price tag. See how that feels.
Here they come, said Kyle.
Matt and Ray came up to the rail and Ray had the girl in the bodysuit and tight jeans on his arm with a tight, smug smile. I remember wondering if the suits got as many girls as guitarists. I doubted it.
We drove to the diner and ate. Everyone talked about the music industry, but I wasn’t really listening anymore. I looked around at my friends as if I were seeing them for the last time.
David Bassano is a PhD candidate at the University at Albany in Albany, New York, where he specializes in Human Rights History. His stories often focus on questions of genuineness and honesty, particularly in a moment of a difficult decision.