Monday, February 04, 2008

More Jewels

Herewith Chapter Three of Jewel Box (I hate that title). Chapter 1 is here. Chapter 2 is here.
Chapter Three: This Bird Has Flown

The Hammond organ swelled as the band abruptly changed time signature, leaving the bass player feeling the musical equivalent of whiplash. The guitarist unleashed a salvo of obscure power chords, half of which he had made up himself some years earlier, some of them requiring three hands to play, a sound that was difficult to replicate on stage (he tried a variety of prostheses but none seemed to work very well). The keyboardist pivoted around from the Hammond to a synth and ran through a stream of notes with a speed that would almost certainly lead to carpal-tunnel syndrome in a few more years. A brief drum fill sounded like someone upending a box of basketballs at the top of a spiral staircase.

The Broadway Lambs were halfway through their signature song, the 20-minute “Harvester of Tears,” and the lead singer was standing at the side of the stage, resting his vocal cords while the instrumentalists soloed, preparing for the lung-rending climax of the song. (Early in his career, he abandoned the idea of banging a tambourine during the instrumental passages, which seemed more a move of theatrical desperation than musical necessity.) If asked—which he never was—the singer would be at a loss to explain what the song was about, even though he had written its lyrics. Not that it was the result of some manner of chemical-induced inspiration; rather, his method of lyric writing was to stand at the far end of his kitchen and randomly pitch words from a magnetic poetry kit at his refrigerator. Whatever stuck, he wrote down and the rest of the band set to music. The more cryptic the results, the more the band’s hardcore fans assigned deep philosophical meaning to.

The band’s progressive rock recalled the glory days of Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and at times, inexplicably, Seals and Crofts.

On stage, bassist Nat Phillips was having a devil of a time seeing through the mask he and the other bandmembers had grudgingly agreed to wear. Their latest album, Walk the Plankton, was ostensibly a concept album about microorganisms (or at least that’s how the magnetic poetry word toss came out as the vocalist was writing his lyrics) and the band were dressed appropriately. Pete Crane, the drummer, was a paramecium; Roger Howe, the guitarist, was an amoeba; Keith Banks, the keyboardist, was a streptococcus; Peter Dennis Ogden Charles Anderson, the singer, was the titular plankton; Nat got stuck being the Ebola virus.

It was an elaborate stage show, in danger of being taken to Spinal Tap-ian proportions, but limited, thankfully, only by the band’s budget, which was virtually non-existent. The costumes had been made on a shoestring—and using shoestrings, actually—by Anderson’s girlfriend. The venue was also not the most accommodating, being a small dive bar called Westminster Shabbey in the Colden Damp neighborhood of London, located next door to the entrance to a London Underground station. The audience numbered less than 30, half of whom were the band’s core fan base, the other half of whom had wandered into the wrong door looking for the Tube and were too polite to walk out while the band was still playing.

It was shortly after 11 p.m. when the band wrapped up their set to a smattering of applause, and half the crowd darted out to look for the train. The other half stared enraptured as the band left the stage. Those who had brought their own chemical refreshment could still see the band on stage.

Backstage, in a cramped, foul-smelling room whose chief decor was graffiti (some of it dating from the 18th century and written in beautiful script, with illustrations not unlike 12th-century manuscript illuminations), the band removed their costumes and toweled off the gallons of sweat produced therefrom. A cooler was quickly raided for its cans of lager.

“I swear that was our biggest crowd yet,” said Nat. “I tell you, it was genius locating this place next door to the Tube station.”

“Yeah, and I’ll bet Pete’s saying ‘mind the gap’ between the songs probably kept a few of the stragglers from leaving, too,” said Keith.

At that point, the club’s owner poked his head in. “Guys, that was fantastic. We’ll see you tomorrow night, then.”

“Thanks, Clive, you’re a real mate,” said Nat.

Nat grew up, and still lived, in the Colden Damp neighborhood and the club’s owner was an old friend of his family and had been one of The Broadway Lambs’ most ardent supporters.

Nat grabbed a guitar case and walked back out onto the stage. The room was nearly empty, although he could make out a few stragglers propping up the bar at the back. As he began packing up his gear, he thought about the argument he had had with his parents earlier that day. He had made the mistake of stopping by around dinner time. His dad sat at the table looking surly, while his mum poured a small amount of brandy into the baby’s bottle and screwed the lid back on and set little Jacob to nursing. Nat had popped in only for a moment to grab some old guitar leads out of his old room. His one-room flat two streets over only had so much storage space.

“Son,” said his father with concern, “you’re not happy or anything, are you? You seem happy to me.”

Now, it should be pointed out that the Colden Damp neighborhood of London, due to a strange geographic and climatological anomaly, was literally the rainiest place in the entire United Kingdom. Even when the sun was shining elsewhere in London—even as near as two blocks away—it was raining in Colden Damp. As a result, residents of the neighborhood, many of whom were the descendents of families who had lived there for centuries, were among the most congenitally depressed in the world. While longtime residents considered it a badge of honor and were thus suspicious of the cheerful, even other Brits could be put off by the sheet dourness of the locals. Charles Dickens had lived for several months in Wetton Street in The Damp, as it is called, during which time he wrote his “lost” novel, The Tortured Orphan: Being an History of Edgar Mazzletov, His Abuse at the Hands of a Vicious Schoolmaster and the Divers Fluids which Poured from his Body on a Regular Basis, which, upon Dickens’ departing of that neighborhood, was destroyed and its author thus penned the far cheerier Oliver Twist. As Dickens wrote to his friend and future biographer John Forster in 1837, “Bloody hell, it’s good to get out of the Damp. I already feel my spirits returning and have renewed vigor with which to document the atrocities of Yorkshire schools and provincial workhouses.”

Longtime residents of The Damp were not inclined to think anything particularly unusual about their disposition.

Nat just glared at his father.

“I don’t want to hear that you’ve been a shrink or anything,” said his dad.

“Or are on drugs, like those awful antidepressants they have now,” said his mum. “Mrs. Harris’s son was on them and he just kept smiling all the time. How ‘orrible.”

“I promise you I am not seeing a shrink nor am I on drugs,” said Nat, eager to get out of the house as soon as possible. While it was true that he was what you might call “not appreciably miserable,” it was more due to a lot of the things in his life finally coming together: the band was starting to see some success, they were enjoying playing music together, and, of course, there was Shirley.

“Honey,” said his mum, “I do hope you’re drinking enough.”

Parents! “Yes, mum,” said Nat, “at least six pints a day.”

“And whiskey?” asked his dad.

“When it’s not too dear.”

“Good. If you need money, you just let me know.”

“Thanks, dad, but I’m doing OK.”

He supposed he should be happy that they cared as much as they did. Still, he could take care of himself. And so what if he only wanted to have four pints at a sitting? He was over 21.

As he finished packing up his equipment in the main room at Westminster Shabbey, a young woman approached him.

“Nat, you were great,” she said. Nat looked over and smiled.

“Shirley,” he said. “I’m glad you were able to make it. I was hoping you’d come.”

They kissed. They hadn’t been going out for very long, but he had to admit that he was smitten. She had been one of the band’s earliest fans. Extremely shy, despite being an American by birth, she had been buying tickets to the Broadway Lambs’ shows for three months before actually attending one, and attending the shows for six months before she was able to face the stage. But, she soon came out of her shell—and that’s not a metaphor. Watching her from the stage one night gave Peter Anderson the idea for one of their early songs, “Venus Emerges from Her Shell and Stands About Awkwardly” (it took weeks to get the magnetic poetry to come out right). Finally, she was able to come to the shows without her shell, and it wasn’t long before she caught the bass player’s eye (an unfortunate accident involving an errant fishing line). Nat and Shirley had been on one date, part of it even spent in the same room. Nat had high hopes for the future.

“I wouldn’t miss one of your shows for the world” she said.

“If only we could clone you about a million times we’d be on the road to platinum success, Ebola virus costume and all.”

“That’s the sweetest thing anyone has ever said to be.”

He smiled. “Listen, I have a few more things to pack up here and then I want to run home and grab a shower, but if you want to get together later tonight, I’d like that very much.”

“Yes, I think I would, too,” she said.

“Great; Why not meet me at my flat, number 5 Clammie Court, right across Moistleigh Green. Say, about half 12?”

“You mean 6?” she asked.

“No, 12:30.”

“Oh, right, sorry.”

She started to leave. “Oh, wait,” she said. “I have something for you.”

“For me?”

“I was in this shop in Soho the other day and I saw these and thought of you.” She reached into her pocket and took out a small white box and handed it to him.

“You know,” he said sincerely, “I really have been looking for a box like this for quite some time.”

“That’s nice, but there’s actually something inside it.”

“Oh, right.” Yes, they were probably the most awkward couple that ever was. Anyway, he opened the box, and pulled out a set of earrings: each one a metal stud with a tiny Rickenbacker electric bass guitar dangling from it. “Bass guitar earrings,” he said. They’re quite lovely. Thank you, Shirley.” He kissed her again, and she blushed madly.

“I know it’s hard for you to wear earrings while you’re wearing your stage costume, but I figure there are going to be times when you are not dressed as the Ebola virus.”

“You know me so well.”

There then followed an awkward pause. “So, um, I’ll see you at half 12,” she said. “Which is not 6.”

“Right. Yes, see you then.”

She ambled backward unsteadily, unsure at what point she should turn around, the decision rather made for her when she backed into a pole. He had tried to warn her by waving, but she interpreted that as simply waving goodbye and, well, hit the pole. Unhurt, she took that opportunity to turn around and make for the door and the nearest pub.

“You and your wild groupies,” said Roger Howe, the guitar player, who had been watching them from a discreet distance.

“She does seem to be the wildest one yet,” said Nat. He wasn’t being ironic; they were a neo-progressive rock band. ‘Nuff said.

“We’re all going down to the Cheese and Grater after we’re done packing up. Wanna come along?”

“I’d love to but I’ll have to take a sun check. I’m meeting Shirley later on.”

Events in Colden Damp were often postponed on those few occasions when the sun was shining especially hard, as the fair complexions of the locals weren’t always up to severe solar rigor, or at least not until the recent introduction of SPF 1,000 sunblock.

Roger smiled. “It seems to be getting serious, does it?”

“With luck. At the moment, it’s all rather silly.” He help up the earrings. “She gave me these.”

Roger examined them. “Cute. I thought you gave up wearing earrings.”

“I had, but it would be rude to not wear these.”

He looked at them somewhat reluctantly, and put them on. As soon as he had secured them to his earlobes, he felt a strange but slight pulse of energy over his skin that ran from his ears down to his toes.

“Wow—I feel weird.”

“You look weird,” said Roger. “But no weirder than being dressed as the Ebola virus.”

“I’m not sure that’s the fashion statement I want to make, but I’ll take it as a compliment.”

“As well you should. Anyway, if you get the chance later on, stop on by the ‘Grater. We’ll be there till closing time.”

“No offense, but I rather hope I don’t get the chance.”

“Amen to that, brother.”

Nat finished packing up his equipment, grabbed his guitar case, and stepped out of the club. Outside, there was a driving rain, the kind that comes at you from all directions simultaneously. Whoever said “keep the wind at your back” has apparently never lived in Colden Damp, as the wind very rarely comes from any fewer than 50 directions at any given time. Nat buttoned up his mac, turned the collar up, and set off across the street. As he walked briskly across Moistleigh Green, he was lost in thought, thinking of...well, what do you think? Shirley, of course. Had he not been distracted, he probably would have felt the soft pulsing in his earlobes and noticed that not a single drop of rain had touched him.

By 12:15, he had shaved and showered and tidied up his flat. He remembered, almost at the last minute, to put the bass guitar earrings back in. He turned his laptop computer on, plugged in the stereo speakers, and launched iTunes and set it to “random” to play some romantic background music.

The doorbell rang at exactly 12:30. Shirley was at least known for her punctuality. He ran to the door, then stood behind it for several moment not wanting to seem as eager as he actually was. Behind him, he could hear his iTunes playing King Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One.” Perfect, he thought.

He opened the door. “Hi, Nat,” said Shirley, who was dressed casually, but had obviously gone home and spruced up. Her hair and overcoat were, to his eyes, delightfully wind- and rain-tousled.

“Please, entrez-vous,” he said mock gallantly and led her into the living room. Well, actually, the only room. He gestured for her to sit on the couch.

“Can I get you anything to drink?” he asked.

She admitted to herself: she was always uncomfortable and awkward in dating situations, and was trying to think if it was appropriate to drink at this point. “Um, I’ll have a pink squirrel.”

He stopped on his way to the kitchen. “A what?”

“Oh, um...”

“I have no idea what that is. Unfortunately, the potent potables are a tad limited. I have beer, wine, and a bottle of Scotch whisky.”

“I’ll just have a glass of wine,” she said.

“One glass of wine coming right up.” He walked through the open doorway into the small kitchen. He grabbed a bottle of wine from atop the ancient refrigerator and busied himself opening it.

“So you liked the show tonight?” he called out to her.

“Oh, yes, very much so,” she said. “You guys are getting better with every show.”

“That’s what we’re trying to do.”

At that point, the music, which had started off very quietly, suddenly launched into a loud section. It startled Shirley.

“Who is this?” she asked, as Nat walked back into the living room carrying two glasses of red wine.

“King Crimson. One of the albums with John Wetton on bass. He’s always been one of my heroes.” He handed her a glass. “Cheers.”

The toasted each other silently. They sat silently and awkwardly for a moment. The music quieted down a bit, and a solo violin played. She looked over at him.

“You have the earrings on,” she said.

“Yes, I do rather like them. I’ll have to take them off when we’re performing; when I take off my Ebola mask, if I have earrings in they tend to get ripped out of my earlobe.”

“That’s understandable.”

She looked around the flat. It was a small room in a house that was built in the early 20th century. The front door opened directly into the living room. Immediately to the left, underneath a window, was the couch on which they sat. On the wall opposite was a small, ancient-looking TV (it still had antennae) and a larger somewhat more modern stereo set-up comprising a turntable, a CD player, a variety of tape recording equipment, and an amplifier. The set up was bookended by two bookshelf speakers. A computer and speakers—from whence the music—were nestled in another corner. Massive stacks of vinyl records and CDs occupied every available space. The walls were largely decked with concert posters and other music-related imagery. A bass guitar stood in a stand next to a small Fender Champ-esque amplifier.

Shirley took a sip of wine, just as the music surged loudly again, startling her. She did a slight spit take.

“Sorry,’ she said with an awkward laugh.

“It does ebb and surge, doesn’t it?”

The song ended, and the next one came on, also by King Crimson: “In the Wake of Poseidon.”

“Ah, this is the Greg Lake era of King Crimson.”

“It’s quite nice. It sounds like that one song you guys do. Um...” She thought for a moment. “’The Devil’s Eaten All the Chicken.’”

“That’s right; Roger wrote the music for that. He’s a big fan of this album.”

As he had a few more swigs of wine, he decided to nestle his way closer to her.

The music switched to the Yes’s “The Fish (Shindleria Praematurus),” and that always put him in an amorous mood. But then, it should be pointed out that both Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” and John Cage’s “4’33”” have been known to put him in an amorous mood, so perhaps other forces were at work. He put his arm around her. She caught his movement out of the corner of her eye, and seconded the motion. Oddly, he found himself unable to physically touch her. His arm stuck about three inches from her torso. He could move it no closer. She looked at him strangely.

“You’re perfectly welcome to, um, put your arm around me.”

“I’m trying.”

He tried to force his arm closer to her. She, in turn, tried to nestle closer to him, but also could not come within three inches. Attempting to climb onto his lap, both of them were equally surprised to see her hovering several inches above him, until she fell over backward and fell to the floor.

“What the—” he said.

He stood up and attempted to help her to her feet, but as he went to grab her hand, again, flesh could not meet flesh and he grabbed empty air. He lost his balance and fell backward on the couch.

She looked up at him. “Nat, I admit I’ve always been clumsy and awkward in these, um, kinds of situations, but this is ridiculous.”

“I hear you.”

She stood up and then had an idea. She got as close to the TV and stereo and she could so as to get a good running start, then ran at him. She jumped onto his lap but, rather than landing on him, she somehow skidded over his body and went sailing over the back of the couch and through the window with a crash.

Shirley!” he called and pivoted to look out the window. They were only on the second floor, so with luck she was not seriously injured. He bolted out the front door, still not entirely certain what was happening. He also failed to notice the throbbing in his earlobes.

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