Back in the spring, I waded through a writing project I’d worked on prior to my memoir, and I subsequently posted four entries here at The Owl Journal in what I called my Excerpts From The Abandoned Novel series.
I’d hoped to return to that project, feeling strongly that there were some more share-worthy bits, and I’m excited to finally be ready to do so.
In Excerpts From The Abandoned Novel: Vol. 3, we met my alter ego, Steven Goldstein, a musician in a band on the cusp of a big breakthrough, about to sign with a major record label. But, he’s disillusioned with the business side of the music industry, and he’s not interested in stardom. The band falls apart when he refuses to sign the contract, Steven puts on a surprising solo show instead, but, as it turns out, a lot more happened that night!
(Disclaimer: Sadly, I’ve never been to Austin, Texas, where this excerpt and Vol. 3 are set, although I’d always hoped to visit and take in its famous music scene. Therefore, the location details in both excerpts are mostly the product of my imagination.)
Five Years Earlier…
Being in a fledgling rock ‘n’ roll band in a small city, with aims to make a career of music, is a rather Sisyphean experience. The honing of the craft of songwriting and the sharpening of performance, the competing for gigs at the handful of bars in town that offer them, the effort to keep the group together amidst periodic personality conflicts, varying levels of commitment, and that old reliable “artistic differences,” namely, all the blood, sweat, and tears regularly threaten to overshadow the simple joy of making music. And of course there’s the one night when it all feels worth it, the band is cooking, the audience is having a great time, and it’s all Cloud-9 goodness, only to be followed the next night by a mere handful of people in the room, the majority of whom are shooting pool or watching a baseball game on TV.
This past Saturday, it was the former, and after their three hour-long sets, Steven and Marty were breaking down their gear.
“That was brutal, man.”
“Yes, yes it was.”
“At least the Astros won. It was touch and go there in the ninth.”
“Ha! I knew you were watching!”
“It was so bizarre, trying to emote while singing to a nearly empty room. That lasted all of one song, and then there’s the game on the big screen. Hey, remember when you first realized how cool it was that you could do totally different things with each hand at the same time in order to play the guitar, and then you could do that and sing at the same time? Well, turns out you can work your two hands independently, sing, AND watch baseball!”
“Hey, here’s that XLR back,” said Marty, tossing the coiled cable to Steven. “I need to get a few backups.”
“No worries … listen, radical change of subject, I’m going to ask you a question, the answer to which I suspect I already know, and this Q&A may very well depress the shit out of me. You up for that?”
“Ok, so, I’m the lead singer, the frontman, some would call it, in a rock ‘n’ roll band, right?”
“Yes, and an apparent amnesiac.”
“Funny. And, frontmen in rock bands have historically been, um, forgive the crude expression, chick magnets, right?”
“On the whole, yes. Freddie Mercury and Elton John with asterisks.”
“Funny. So, you know I’m NOT into the whole rock star celebrity thing, right?”
“But, I’m a dude, right?”
“Then why is it that never, I mean EVER, um, not ONCE has a girl at one of our shows flashed me those ‘You’re so hot, let’s fuck!’ eyes?”
“Well, answering that awkward question with another awkward question: In your entire post-pubescent life, in or outside of your musical existence, has any girl, anywhere, ever looked at you with even ‘You’re so cute, let’s cuddle!’ eyes?”
“See, I told you it’d be depressing.”
Five Years Later…
Steven was a dozen songs into his first solo set in years when it all caught up to him.
It seemed he’d taken the stage a million times — walking out in front of an audience, strapping on his guitar, and diving into the inviting deep end of his songs. And it was kind of his super power to be able to do so despite anything else that might have been going on in his life, details of which buzzing around in his brain and vying for attention. Steven simply allocated more dedicated system resources for music than everything else combined. It’s how he was wired.
But then, two verses into his next song, two things happened in quick succession that penetrated his concentration:
- As Steven started the chorus, he caught sight of a young woman in the crowd who was singing along, eyes closed, swaying, absorbed in the music. She had straight jet-black hair with Maps-era Karen O bangs, and when she suddenly opened her piercing grey-blue eyes her look seemed to transmit information to Steven in a language he’d never encountered before.
- He reflexively scanned the stage around him, fully expecting to discover that he was not the recipient of this transmission, that she was actually locking eyes with one of his bandmates, only to receive a jolting reminder that his bandmates, his musical brothers, weren’t there, and that the band had acrimoniously fallen apart earlier that evening.
Miraculously, when Steven turned his gaze back toward the audience, his super power fully engaged, he made it through the remainder of the song without a slipup, and the young woman flashed him a smile, seeming to reassure him that he was indeed the object of her attention and — dare he dream?! — apparent attraction.
When Steven let the sustain of the last chord of the last song linger in the ether, rather than fading out into silence, it was taken over by a roar of applause that very nearly, though not entirely, compensated for the guilt. He’d abandoned his band, and yet he quickly confirmed that he could keep his fans, and for the moment it felt rather nice to be appreciated so enthusiastically.
He exited at the back of the stage, dropped off his guitar in the green room, and headed into the still packed club, intending to get a drink, when he was almost immediately face-to-face with her.
“Let’s get out of here!” Steven shouted at her, with wildly uncharacteristic assertiveness.
“Definitely!” she instantly replied.
As they emerged from Emo’s, there was that sudden thud of, well, not silence exactly, this was downtown Austin on a Friday evening, after all, but when you’ve been in a club packed with hundreds of people, amidst the immense din of their voices, the clinking of their glasses, and the loud music, the abrupt drop in volume is dramatic, even arresting, the moment you step out into the night.
“Hey, so, I’m Steven, by the way!” he said, still shouting as if they were still inside.
“I know that, you idiot! I’m Phoebe,” she replied, laughing gently, and extending her hand for a shake to punctuate the silliness. “Let’s get a drink!”
Steven laughed, withdrew his right hand from the handshake, and offered up his left hand, inviting her to walk to their destination hand-in-hand.
Phoebe smiled, and accepted.
Steven guided them past the obvious after-Emo’s options, frequented by most Emo’s goers, knowing that there he’d be spotted and approached by folks who’d been at the show and whom, given the extraordinary nature of the evening’s events, would be bursting with questions that he had no interest in answering.
He and Phoebe instead entered an old dive lounge three blocks away, frequented by a much older crowd, featuring fancy cocktails, extremely dim lighting, two rows of high-backed, red leather booths, and a permanent fragrance hanging in the air, the accumulation of 50 years of liquor and cigarette and cigar smoke, though smoking was no longer allowed. Once settled in, drinks ordered and received, they were both thinking the same thing, though neither stated the obvious: the privacy was perfect.
“So, this is where you bring all of your groupies?” Phoebe teased.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” Steven answered, playing along. “Um, that is if we don’t just head straight to my ranch, out on the outskirts of town.”
“But seriously, I have never, EVER approached a musician after a show like that, so don’t get any ideas,” she clarified, half-jokingly.
“Well, would it help at all if I was to divulge that this is also my very first time?”
“No way! Can’t be!”
“Embarrassingly, can be!”
“And you say ’embarrassingly,’ because everyone knows that 90% of the motivation for boys to become rock musicians is to improve their chances of having sex?”
“Embarrassingly, guilty as charged. But in my case, it was a fool’s adolescent fantasy, partly because I’m pretty shy, and also because I was out of step with popular music by about a decade. The ‘cool’ guys in middle school and high school were all decked out in their Duran Duran hair and clothing and actually enjoyed dancing to Michael Jackson at parties, while I was the guy doodling rock band logos in the margins of his notebooks during class, wearing the concert t-shirt he’d bought at The Who show at Shea Stadium.”
“No way! The Clash opened for The Who at Shea, right?”
She was correct, and he was smitten.
Then, a few minutes later and desperate for a change of subject, Steven asked:
“So, tell me all about you. Everything!”
Two Hours Later…
Once inside Steven’s apartment, both he and Phoebe felt a wave of relief — Phoebe, because, from a woman’s point of view, she rightly found the neighborhood a bit sketchy, and Steven, because they’d encountered none of his neighbors in the building, all of whom knew who he was and many were likely at the show that night.
While not technically a loft, like in some repurposed factory or warehouse, his space had that vibe, with one large main room, tall ceilings, a kitchenette in one corner, a bed in another, a bathroom in the third, and nearly a full music studio in the fourth. Along with an assortment of acoustic and electric guitars, a keyboard, full drum kit, amps, microphones, speakers, and recording equipment, a turntable and massive vinyl record collection rounded out his music geek credentials.
“Let me guess,” Phoebe couldn’t resist the sarcasm. “You’re into music?”
“Ding, ding, ding!”
As Steven conducted the bare minimum of host duties — offering a beverage, a snack, pointing out where the bathroom was — at the first glimpse of his bed he had a kind of Pavlovian response to its puffy down comforter and pillows: his body suddenly heavy with fatigue; his mind spinning with the evening’s rollercoaster of events; his heart locked in a tug-of-war, mourning the end of his band at one end of the rope, his burgeoning feelings for Phoebe at the other; and the whole of these sensations swimming in the dizzy, slightly blurry haze of having consumed more alcohol than was typical for him. Perfect, he thought. I finally meet someone special and I’m about to pass out!
“Ok, Phoebe, off the top of your head, in no particular order, name your Top 5 All-Time Favorite Albums … specifically on vinyl. Go!”
“Oh geeze! Putting me on the spot?! Yikes. Could you at least narrow it down by genre or era or something?”
“Just whatever you think of when you think of vinyl.”
“OK, let’s see, first, probably too obvious, Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon.”
“Obvious? Yes. Absolutely fitting? Also yes.”
“Next, Joni Mitchell, hard to pick just one of hers, but I’ll go with Ladies of the Canyon. The first record I ever stole from my older sister.”
“Third choice, Steely Dan, Aja.”
“The one album extraterrestrials must hear on vinyl in order to convince them not to eradicate humanity.”
“Exactly. Fourth, The Pretenders, their eponymous debut, aka their big ‘Fuck You, We Can Do That Too’ message to The Clash.”
“Perfect. Deliciously feminist.”
“You better believe it!”
“That’s five already?!”
“Top 5 lists are inherently sadistic, you know. I’ve got 20 albums, at least, at the tip of my tongue!”
“All in good time, Phoebe. All in good time.” Steven was now thumbing through his records, his back to Phoebe.
“Alright then, I proceed under protest… Well, you said ‘in no particular order,’ so even though this is the fifth album I’ve named, when I think of vinyl, the record that most often immediately comes to mind is Fleetwood Mac, Rumours.”
After a sizeable pregnant pause, Steven slowly turned around to face Phoebe, holding an album he’d just withdrawn from his massive collection.
“Um, you mean this one?” he replied, lifting Rumours up over his head.
After flipping over Rumours to Side B, Steven returned to the bed next to Phoebe, where they’d been lying, in the fetal position, face-to-face, fully clothed, not touching each other, not having kissed yet, just two music obsessives unapologetically celebrating their obsession, listening to the record as it played, commenting on it as they were moved to do so.
During Side A, Steven had described his love of the album as a guilty pleasure, explaining that he has a deep-seated aversion to hit songs, yet nearly every song on Rumours was a hit, but still he’d fight to the death anyone who argued that, on vinyl, the album wasn’t one of the most beautiful-sounding recordings ever made, a quintessential document of the musical times, a perfect balance of musicianship, instrumentation, and studio technique.
Phoebe found his still slightly drunk faux aggression adorable, like a Panda pretending to be a Grizzly.
With Side B in motion, the first song, The Chain, changed the mood suddenly and dramatically. Just kick drum and guitar, gradually from the background a Hammond B-3 organ emerges, then:
Listen to the wind blow
Watch the sunrise
Running in the shadows
Damn your love, damn your lies
“Oooooh! Spooky!” exclaims Steven, slightly startling Phoebe, until they both erupted in laughter.
Then Phoebe, with a mischievous expression, holds her pointer finger to her lips in the universal signal to stop talking, returning their mutual attention to the song, and she sang along, eyes locked with Steven’s in pretend seriousness:
And if you don’t love me now
You will never love me again
I can still hear you saying
You would never break the chain
“Um, you’re not gonna go all Fatal Attraction on me, are ya Phoebe?”
“Maybe, Steven. Maybe.”
Just then, at about the three minute mark of the song, came the famous abrupt halt, with only John McVie’s signature bass lick returning at first, then the slow crescendo into the repeating call-and-response coda:
Chain keep us together (running in the shadow)
Chain keep us together (running in the shadow)
…at which Steven rolled onto his back with clownish exaggeration and pumped his arms and legs like he was running, feigning terror, jerking his head left then right, looking out for whatever threat was lurking in the shadows, at which point he had Phoebe in tears with uncontrollable laughter.
Through many retellings of the evening’s conclusion, Steven and Phoebe would play up the fact that neither of them could recall precisely when, or during which song, they both fell asleep without having consummated.
But sleep they did, deeply, peacefully, in the cozy awareness that they’d found, at last, each other.