Ten Merciless Minutes

Our big debut, our very first concert was fast approaching. I was terrified. So, I quickly purchased another second-hand bargain basement drum set from back of a newspaper. And I connected it to the smaller piece of junk that I already played, to form a black and blue, mutant double-bass kit no serious musician could ever sit behind. My four cymbals were acoustically evocative of trashcan lids; the six tom toms were out of tune together and separately; the muffled thump of my two untuned bass drums were inaudible and my snare might as well have had a stuffed monkey attached to it.

The band was supposed to go on in the living room of Pastor Greg’s house, in front of a sliding glass door that beheld a swimming pool dominating the backyard. Greg played in a gospel rock combo and he ran a youth group that the rest of the band belonged to. Apart from my best friend Steve, who I forced to come along, I didn’t know a soul.

It was there on the little back patio next to a pair of chlorine-bleached, sun-blanched swimming trunks that my hands trembled while I assembled my pathetic gear. There were perhaps as many as seventeen people observing the spectacle, but it was seventeen more than I was used to playing for. The lighthearted, silly songs we’d once written were substituted now by a lengthy number concerning the Orwellian persecution of Christians set deep in the future. I had nothing to do with writing it or any of the other new material—I was such a terrible drummer that I was genuinely surprised the rest of the band showed up to take me and Steve to Pastor Greg’s.

Steve watched from across the room, trying to be supportive, in spite of getting pushed out of the band, a few months ago.

Gingerly I brushed a cymbal with a broken drumstick wrapped in duct tape. Somebody screamed in response. I was petrified and pulled back, afraid to go any further. I could let my enormous drum set work out the songs on its own, just like the player piano did at the mall. I knew if I tried to play a beat now everything would fall apart. Then someone else screamed, or did I imagine it? I had completely forgotten how to function—this I knew for certain.

Pat and Chad stood on either side of Neil, adjusting their amplifiers, tuning their guitars, being nervous too. Neil finally approached the microphone, his green bass guitar over his shoulder, left hand cupping the strings, anxiously:

“Hello. Uh, we’re called Lunacy.”

Someone videotaped it all, giving the eleven and twelve-year-old girls who crouched at our feet an excuse to behave as though we were The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Their mayhem, several times louder than our amplifiers, grew with every passing second as each girl attempted to out-scream her neighbor, making the performance bear a sonic resemblance to a series of car accidents. As each of our clumsy, cheesy little anthems stuttered to a halt, the explosive shrieking increased. And in the millimeters of silence you could hear a little glass bulb behind your eyeballs detonize with a muted, fizzling pop, as the will to live tendered its resignation. Like the crucifixion of a multitude of chimpanzees, I’ve still never heard such frenzied caterwauling, and I couldn’t count the number of mistakes I made, those ten merciless minutes.

Free Beer

I began keeping a journal of my exploits, December 31, 1989, writing in it compulsively as I sought answers. Music became a bigger part of my life as days passed, and my diary, like a map, would show me where I was going by noting where I had been. New Year’s Eve was also the night that I had my first and my last show with the worst band on the planet at an empty bar in Forest Falls, California.

My father’s eccentric high school buddy Dave asked me and my buddy Art to join his Sixties-rock revival combo. Dave raved about how earth-shattering our principal concert would be: his 25-year high school reunion:

“Lights and smoke machines and tons of people…it’s gonna be incredible!”

The rhythm section of the new band would consist of Art and myself. The heavily bearded Bob would play guitar—Bob was another high school friend of my dad’s. Bob’s daughter Beth would handle keyboards, while our leader and his girlfriend Debbie would take care of the vocals.

It was a curious assortment—Bob being the only one who really knew what he was doing. Art, Beth and I were still beginners. And while we could cheat our way around a song, feeling the nuances like Braille, our singers belonged to the zip code of another dimension. Like a duet during a double root canal, their technique was the embodiment of catastrophe. At best, one could re-imagine a version of Sonny & Cher as devout noise terrorists. At worst, Dave and Debbie inhabited the vocal cords of the damned, drowning each other out in a cascade of lamentations. Sackcloth and ashes was all that kept them from becoming a Monty Python sketch. Me and Art, we couldn’t afford so much as a glance at one another while we played.

Dave named us: Free Beer.

“Wherever you see that name written it’ll cause a stampede,” he boasted, waving on a herd of buffalo. This was precisely the guy my father claimed came up with the word zit when they were young. Why not? I guess I didn’t have anything better to do when I wasn’t sitting in a classroom. Art lived around the corner. And we both needed the practice. Then my father (who’d never sang outside the shower) joined as a third vocalist. Free Beer practiced late into the night, the commotion reverberating between our house and that of Steve-Next-Door. I’ll bet poor Steve was late to work a lot back then.

Practice sessions consisted of Art and myself waiting (at minimum) an hour for the rest of them to turn up. Dave and his girlfriend had a ritual, whereby they would rumble in, talking loudly about nothing. And they wore black leather rocker outfits: shiny rawhide trousers that laced up at the crotch and leather jackets with long tassels. Where in our Podunk sprawl could they have found such gear? At least this way, while our singer was getting gas for his caved-in El Camino in Fontana, passersby could assume that his Jaguar was at the shop in Bel Aire.

Just as we were ready to begin, Dave fired up a joint the size of a Belicoso cigar, bragging as he passed it along to his wife, Cheech & Chong style. They analyzed the philosophy of rock and roll with rasping ‘I’m holding the smoke in’ cadences. The soggy doobie was passed to my father, who sucked at it as the garage was saturated. Art sat next to me, waiting to play. It’s widely known that after William Shatner crooned “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” the planet gave a collective sob. Dave burgled Shatner’s crown with a singing voice not dissimilar to that of a broken saxophone. A lopsided Buster Brown haircut and vibrant armpit stains merely added to his charms.

We rehearsed for more than a month before the man decided that his band was ready to try their second number. And even though he’d chosen a batch of exceptionally easy cover tunes, he wanted them p-e-r-f-e-k-t. The rehearsals dragged on, and a waft of Dave’s left armpit was borne on a gust of wind from the amps as he faced me while we played “Baby It’s You” for the eleventeenth time. Art fell asleep on a stool, cradling his bass, midway through another round. The chorus still drags me right back to that infected garage whenever it comes on the radio.

“I don’t want nobody…nobody! Cuz baby, it’s you…sha-la-la-la-la-la-laaa…”

If those were the days of Don Quixote, our singer might have found himself among the non sancta, with a chain around his neck, led to the galleys by mounted guards for his confession-under-torture vocal style.

In his regular life, Dave was a mechanic. He spent years working for a premier engine builder, Dyno-tuning the engines of Sprint cars and other high-performance vehicles. This involved subjecting himself to an unthinkable deluge of metal-on-metal turmoil and sonic upheaval—for extended periods of time. By the time he told my father about Free Beer, Dave was officially tone-deaf.

What had been intended as a warm-up concert for Free Beer might have been a dress rehearsal for a little known theatrical production, given the amount of people it attracted. But to one man, truth mattered not. Like Elvis during the ‘68 Comeback Special, or Mad Max, our lead vocalist was head to toe in heavy leather S&M gear. We plugged in our amplifiers, the lights went up, and Dave rocked the empty room, tongue at the roof of his mouth, eyes pinched shut, groaning and now wailing like a mongoose in labor, raining down buckets of acrid sweat that clung to everything like spatters of green paint. As the last chord rang out, the tavern was transformed into the locker room that deodorant forgot. And I half expected Dave’s girlfriend to come throw a cape over his shoulders as he knelt at the foot of the stage, basking in applause. But the silence was total. It was louder than us.

I wonder what Samuel Beckett would have made of Diaphoretic Dave. “When body odour and volubility meet,” the author, playwright and poet once noted, “then there is no remedy.” As our lead vocalist possessed both in spades, the only option available to Art and me was to resign poste-haste.

The Pig Fest

After six months and dozens of concerts, my band arrived at the Pig Fest in Chino, California. It was a musical celebration with the current names in what was then considered “punk rock”; and, inexplicably, the promoters decided to hold it in the most malodorous municipality in the state of California. It was so bad that I speculated what Chino might actually be Spanish for.

Loading my gear in at the back of the place, I was directed to Stage #2, where our we would be performing. With our band scheduled to go on hours after I got there, I guarded my drums and read a book. It was a warm day with scores of young music fans leaning everywhere. The ubiquitous mud, several hectares of which had been generously donated from a nearby swamp, blended with the oat reek of cattle manure to create an ambrosia of stink. Driving past on the freeway, I had once noted that this particular municipality had the mephitis touch.

I’ve been a people watcher as long as I can remember, and with little else to do I put my book down, carefully removed my gasmask, and observed the tougher new arrivals as they circulated with their chests out. It was amusing, but only until they had become the numerically dominant group present. Within an hour, a large portion of the crowd was too busy glaring at one another to take notice of the music they had paid to experience. I’ve never seen so many bare-chested, macho specimens in my life. With their shaved heads and matching monster tattoos it looked more like a prison yard than a concert.

Looking over at a winding queue, I noticed that the beer concessions were open, which meant that anyone with a few dollars could have as much as they needed and it didn’t matter how old you were. A cluster of fourteen-year-olds stood panhandling in front.

Everyone onstage made the best of the acoustics, and several performances were abbreviated by a faulty fuse box that made the p.a. system cut out intermittently. The spectators became restless and took to hurling half-empty beer cans. The musicians weren’t sure what to do, despite the fact that many looked as rugged as their fans.

Our turn came, but with a tattoo contest happening simultaneously a few yards away, we had to work harder to keep everyone’s attention; and since we were among the very tiny percentage of people there who didn’t have even one permanent ink stain, I wondered if we wouldn’t be better off at a coffee shop, playing for people who wouldn’t disfigure us for not keeping their attention. But at least we weren’t being torpedoed. In the middle of our third song, a fight broke out by the beer stand, and every inquisitive valedictorian in the place ran over to watch from up close. When one of the combatants—a security guard who had been attacked by three valorous and plucky Nazi skinheads—emptied his pistol into the air, the herd changed its minds and decided that we were worth watching after all.

We finished in one piece, and as my friends unplugged their guitars, I broke my drum set down. Backward we went, hauling our gear from the stage after our last song. I could tell that the fighting wasn’t even close to over. Our bassist Randy agreed, and together we went looking for the least intimidating people to add to our mailing list.

The ozonosphere of rancor that gathered and maturated all day long finally shifted its emphasis to a pair of sizable groups: Nazis and Mexican punk rockers. As a band called Face to Face were onstage and between songs, the leaders of the factions were nose-to-nose, swallowing each other’s muffled threats, looking as though the vivacity of their shared animus could at any moment spill over into passionate lovemaking. A wave of shut up reigned. The crowd was motionless, straining unconsciously with their heads to hear what the men, circling one another like roosters, said. The stage was quiet. No one touched a string or a cymbal.

I turned and followed Randy—and as he stepped into one of the portable toilets, I glanced toward Stage #1 in time to see a stampede coming right at me. I sprinted to the the entrance. A guard twiddled his thumbs there, as the remainder of the security detail—a handful of disgruntled rent-a-cops—huddled around him affecting postures of world-weariness. When I casually mentioned that a hundred people were maiming a hundred other people a short distance away, they radioed for backup.

Working my way around the side of the venue, I climbed through a hole in the fence, and when I got to the platform on which we had had performed, someone was lying face down in front of it. He’d been stabbed in the side of the neck. Kids alternated between bickering and trying to smother him. Others got hold of the microphones on both stages and were howling obscenities at the groups of people fighting below. Despite the Chino mud, tidal waves of dust obscured the meadow, giving it the appearance of the Battle of Marathon as fought in the Gobi Desert. A girl leaned next to me, horror-struck, crying and wiping the snot from her face. She claimed that a boy was on the cement by the other stage, his head smashed into the concrete. “You can see his brains!” A few others were reportedly stabbed and at least twenty-five additional people were injured. Nazis, who thought our friend Vince was Mexican, kicked him in the face with combat boots, crushing his cheekbone. As the brawling continued, people were dragged away and thrown into the backs of cars and trucks by their friends. A helicopter buzzed overhead. It felt like war.

As the mess was clearing, we moved our trucks in and loaded our gear out as quickly as possible. Pulling onto a main dirt road, the bouquet of animal dung made a satisfying return as fire trucks, ambulances and a fleet of squad cars encircled the area. It was dark by then and a helicopter hovered, flashing its spotlight.

In the aftermath, the only coverage was a very short piece in The Daily Bulletin, an area newspaper: “Rock Concert Turns Into Riot”. It was missing any details about corpses or broken bones. It didn’t refer to the staples that Vince got in his head, nor did it mention the knife wounds, the brains, the viscous fluids clotting in the sun, or the lack of organization and widespread underage drinking that led to it.

The House Meeting

I rented a room in the home of an Asian elementary school teacher in the suburbs of Alta Loma. Resting on a cul-de-sac, the house that she had once shared with her son and former husband felt weirdly unoccupied with the new tenants in their separate rooms and their separate lives. My new landlady had a habit of saying everything at least twice. A teacher’s mannerism? Fifty or so, May had a head of frizzy hair and an equally frizzy Chihuahua called Foxy, her best friend. They had both been flying kites in thunderstorms. Just down the hall was John, our roommate and the archetype of a future presidential assassin. He was forty and short, with a ponytail, glasses and a handful of Asian ex-wives. But my roomies were never an item as far as I could tell. Perhaps John was too sober for May and May too distracted for John. An ex-military man, he rehearsed the things that he said to others in the upstairs bathroom mirror, articulating without emotion for effect like Dirty Harry.

Not long after my arrival John announced a “House Meeting.” I sat with May at the kitchen/dining room table, while John stood across from us breathing slowly, hands on his hips, with a furrowed brow. This can’t be about me, I thought, I’m never home. The twilight on the other side of the windows above the kitchen sink seemed to fade, and I waited some more, sniffing the air, wondering if I should be nervous that I was living with someone who had spent the previous Saturday watching a back-to-back Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris ejaculation of guts and gristle on television. Headed to the front door in the morning, I heard machine guns spraying the living room as the Italian Stallion bellowed and mowed down a swarm of movie extras in black. Coming home that evening from my errands, the battles continued to rage. Though he’d never seen real combat (too young for Vietnam, too old for Iraq) the fires of John’s imagination were stoked by a surplus of war movies on network television, ready for a vicarious voyage through a world in which the underdog in each of us could have a smoldering chunk of glory, a bit of carefully revised history all to ourselves. But where he was once absorbed with the flickering screen, now he simply looked agitated and impotent. Perhaps my troubled roommate was thinking of the right way of asking permission to dress the place up a bit for the next gore-a-thon? A few tiki torches, some heads on sticks and curling black smoke from behind the couch to set the mood? Imported beetles? John took a few breaths as though he was plucking up the nerve to jump out of an airplane with a parachute over Kampuchea. He was getting in character. Then again, he might have been calming the chorus of voices in his head. This must be serious, I thought. In the back of my own mind was a little man with a snare, a roll slowly building. John was slouched over as he carried the weight of what he had to impart. It was crushing, this leviathan truth. As the sustained drum roll faded, he opened his eyes:

Jason isn’t cleaning the bathroom properly.

My failure to scrub around the toilet was a crisis of global proportions. It was worthy of a summit. It was worthy of a moment of silence, like that of a number of films he’d seen where very important people paused to look at very important issues and make tough decisions. Sometimes-painful decisions. Decisions that sooner or later added crease marks between the eyes, but in the end managed to ingrain in one a sense of purpose, a willingness to pursue what was right no matter the cost. Times like this called for men like John. And John wanted me to keep an extra towel as well so he would know I was washing my hands. The others crowding the racks and overlapping one another weren’t sufficient. My roommate was exhausted but pleased to have gotten it off his chest. He could stand up straight now. I pictured him holding up a thumb to the mirror. As the owner of the house, May piped in, looking at my face for an instant. “Yeah, it’s just because hygiene is so important…hygiene.” Her eyes returned to the placemat, “We wanna make sure you’re washing your hands, don’t wanna have any germs. Yeah, hygiene.” John fed off of her energy supply and they carried on, mumbling. I excused myself before I could be pounded notch by notch into the floor by blunt instruments of boredom.

Shirtless Mike

A row of brown trash cans saluted from the sidewalk. Colin picked up his suitcase and put one foot forward, when a truck the color of sour milk appeared, every crease in its enormous frame filled in somehow with compacted crust and flattened filth. A decade of rust. Even the windows were dirty. Widening scuff marks ran up one side of its hull and coagulated reddish fluids dried on their way down the other, a cloud of invisible stink accompanying the garbage truck as it wobbled between parked cars on either side of the street, idling, rolling, reversing. It was an albino cockroach on wheels, a rancid beast exorcising malformed rage through a series of knife-like beeps. A brave soul in guano-colored overalls hung from the back of the beast with the bravado of a bull rider. He studied the pickings from above. First, he pulled one, then another of the trash barrels up and into the back of the vehicle, tipping the contents of the barrel, as the exposed guts of the vehicle churned and processed flotsam to liquefaction. Catching Colin’s eye was a rectangle of imitation wood with a skinny black tail that moments before had leapt from the top of an overstuffed can. Colin’s clock—the one that sat on his dresser—looked just like it. The squeal of the garbage truck and the sight of the clock reminded him of the morning he flew home to Seattle.

His alarm clock had wrenched him from sleep: motionlessness shattered, as the ivy atop his bookshelf pulled its shadows from the wall. Like a goldfish vacuumed from the warmth of its transparent domain, Colin was evicted without ceremony into the day. The alarm, a rheumatized, mechanized, asthmatic parakeet called out in unison with a telephone. And it might have occurred to him the two were competing for his attention, a notion that jamming his toe into the corner of the bed sufficiently discouraged him from investigating. He tried to say something into the telephone before he tripped over his suitcase and landed back into bed.

Colin opened the front door. Dennis stood on the other side, massaging the lenses of his glasses with the hem of a wrinkled blue button-up dress shirt. He said something as he was yawning. Yawning back, Colin retrieved his suitcase and they followed one another down a winding concrete path, past the concrete staircase leading to Shirtless Mike’s apartment. Posies in orange clay pots stood at the corner of every other stair.
Appointed with the task of collecting the rents and keeping track of the tenants, in addition to his old job of watering plants, trimming things and mowing the lawn, Shirtless Mike had lived in this two-storey Spanish-style apartment complex for a few years now, and his graduation from groundskeeper to property manager and groundskeeper, along with the hours he put in at his own landscaping business ensured Mike that he seldom had a day to himself. As a boy, he cared for his sisters from the time he came home from school to whenever his parents—both working two jobs—made it home themselves. He never complained if a neighbor asked how he managed to work so much. And though most were inclined to doubt he harbored any great powers of judgment, Colin admired him. This was despite the fact Shirtless Mike addressed everyone as Bro, and in spite of the fact that the empty truck he drove was bigger than his apartment. In the time that Colin had known Mike, he had seen the short, round man fully clothed on two occasions: in line at the grocery store with a jacket and shorts, a setting in which his tanned pectoral muscles, luxuriant chest hair, and patchwork of blurry tattoos could have spelled disaster for the appetites of anyone bumping carts with him in the aisle where quantities of bologna and other processed meats were kept; and at Easter, when Mike returned from church in a huge white t-shirt that read Got Jesus? in black letters.

Unaccustomed to passengers, Dennis’s library was situated on the floor of his black PT Cruiser; and when Colin attempted to move enough of the books to sit down, he realized how many more were behind him. Instead he lay on top of them without a seat belt, his suitcase in the hatchback, somewhere between Harlan Ellison and the complete works of Balzac.

The Regulars

They sat on the front patio of Charley John’s. They met there every day, discussing their backs and their wives and the minutiae of their lives. One old man had a poodle the color of wet cement. It sat on his lap. The old man who hated dogs sat on the other side of the table, lest this superficially passive beast foam at the mouth or show its jagged yellow teeth. There were stories; the old man who hated dogs heard them all the time. Anyway, he knew the cement colored dog didn’t like him, so the man wore sunglasses—so he wouldn’t have to make any sort of contact with it. His name was Edgar. Seated next to Edgar was a man who always brought the subject of war into their conversations. His name was George. As far as George was concerned, a war parable was as good a lesson as he knew for life’s bigger questions. Your back hurts? He could tell you a good story about swimming to shore after a torpedo strike in the Korean war. George pulled an unconscious captain ashore, and his back never felt the same. He took hot showers—as hot as he could stand—every morning, which helped sometimes. The showers reminded him of a story his son-in-law told him about suicide showers in Vietnam. George had a theory about the Civil War, but Edgar and the man with the poodle were both sick of hearing it. Jim was his name (the man, not the poodle). And seated next to George was Garrett. Garrett swore that the new president was going to take their guns. Soon. Jim didn’t have a gun, and he didn’t care. If Garrett told Jim that Obama was going to take his poodle Charlie away, then he might have been interested. Garrett promised the United States was on a path to socialism. The new president was crafting regulations that were going to make it illegal to believe in God. He heard about it on the radio. This reminded Garrett of a story…

The Penguin’s Office

That enclosed recess next to the staff break room turned out to be a yellow cubicle with an armless yellow chair on wheels crammed as far as it could go under a crowded desk. To the cockroach looking up, or to a parachuting mouse, the teetering piles of files on the desk resembled skyscrapers: towers of information looming and soaring beneath a flickering white sun. A pyramid of paper-clipped paperwork—some of it intended to augment these files—was leaning against another, taller stack. A young man sat there awaiting the arrival of the Penguin. It occurred to him, as he listened to a cheap clock hiccupping on the east wall, that if he were to blow softly the top third of the files would slide forward, detaching themselves, one chasing the other chasing the other chasing the other chasing the other into a wastebasket positioned (probably) for this purpose. He could make out a conversation now from the break room, and he recognized the voices, but he was afraid to call out to them. So, he sat. Realizing how long he’d been sitting, he desperately wished that he had the nerve to leave the Penguin’s office and open his locker. Instead, he looked around for something to read that wasn’t business related. The clock ticked, and he waited, until, abandoning his concern to the dustbin at his feet, he found a yellow notepad and a pen and he began to write.