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Modern rock marketing can be a dicey affair. For the gig at San Francisco’s El Rio, we have to draw a certain number of customers or we end up paying the sound guy out of our own pockets. Pamela’s feeling pretty tense about this, so her final web-post said exactly that: come see us or we have to pay the sound guy.
The layout of the El Rio is an inverted U. The first leg is a standard neighborhood bar. The crossbeam is a large patio, walled off by the backs of adjoining buildings. Thirty feet to the right you find a shotgun band space, high stage at the front, couches at the back, and in between a fifty-foot spread of open floor. Our opening band, Slippery People, is setting up, fine-tuning the feng shui of amps, mics and drums.
I check my gear – stashed behind the couches – and return to the bar. My city pals Joe and Carye have come to see me, despite the fact that they can’t stay for the show. Carye is a cute, radiant blonde who must have been a fairy in a previous existence. I love any excuse to see her. I met Joe when he fell into the web of my shop. He’s a high-tech idea man whose thoughts on the nature of existence are so arcane they make my brain swell. He’s also a gadget freak.
“Okay, so check this out. I go to the site, log in, and report my presence at the El Rio. The site tells me who among my fellow users is also here: in this case, a slim, exotic brunette named Lana. Holy shit.”
He holds his iPhone so the photo of Lana matches up with a woman standing five feet away.
“Oh this is too good.” I don’t know what’s gotten into me (perhaps pre-gig adrenaline). I go up to her and say, “Lana! God! I haven’t seen you in forever.”
Lana greets me with a hug, but, alas, refuses to follow the script.
“I’m sorry, but I really don’t remember you.”
Joe appears over my shoulder with a phony smile. “Lana!” Then takes her off the hook by showing her the iPhone.
We continue to chat and make friends, sounding just like a commercial for the website.
“Hey!” says I. “That guitar-drummer duo in the courtyard. Are they regulars? They seem really popular.”
“Actually,” says Lana, “Dawn used to be the drummer for Four Non-Blondes.”
I don’t know what’s gotten into me (perhaps the pint of Guinness Joe bought me), but I charge to the billiards room, where I find Dawn Richardson herself, toting a pink bass drum.
“Hi Dawn, I’m Paul. I just wanted you to know that ‘Bigger, Better, Faster, More!’ is one of my favorite albums ever, and I love your work on it. I’m a drummer, too, and I steal little bits of it all the time.”
For a rocker, Dawn is surprisingly impish, a combination of short red hair and a round face. She gives an appreciative smile, and sets down the bass to shake my hand. She also looks a little tired, so I give her a couple more compliments and let her go. I look back at the bar to see that Joe and Carye have skedaddled, so I head for the hall, where Smeeed is checking hand-stamps.
“Jesus! We have to be bouncers, too?”
“Yip.” He taps a guy in a top hat. “Can I see your wrist? Cool. Thanks.”
“Hey, I just met the drummer for Four Non-Blondes.”
“Awesome! But not as good as my story.”
“You know how I had to transport nearly every piece of equipment in the studio?”
“So what would you guess would be the one thing I forgot?”
“The bass guitar.”
“Yes. Fortunately, the Baby Seal guy is loaning me his. But how stupid is that?”
“You realize I’m going to tell this story to everyone.”
“Doh! Just for that, it’s your turn to cover the door.”
“Doh! Hi, can I see your wrist? Cool. Thanks.”
The night is like this, a continuing string of mini-adventures. Our actual performance is a blur. We’re so well-rehearsed that conscious thought is not really essential. I try to make my usual smart-ass remarks between songs (this is, in fact, one of my duties). When my hands are on automatic pilot, I check the crowd. Our stalwarts are well-toasted and shaking their parts. I love them all. My only other distraction is Pamela, who dresses pretty casually for rehearsals but shows up at gigs as a hot rocker goddess. Tonight it’s tight chocolate pants and a leather vest that exposes her midriff. She’s like a superhero with a secret identity.
At the end of “Peace Frog,” I throw a stick at my toms and duck as it flies over my head, then I charge offstage to hug all my friends. The celebrity buzz lasts for ten minutes, and I’m quickly demoted to roadie. Pamela reports that we have earned $150 per band, which is like the freakin’ Mother Lode.
I set down my hi-hat and head back to the stage, which now features a bowsprit figurehead all in red: leather pants, cardinal boots, long scarlet cardigan and a cherry satin blouse revealing generous portions of milky cleavage. Her eyes are lost in the spotlight.
“How does it feel?”
She looks down and gives me the quick-trigger smile. “I don’t know. Kiss my foot.”
I take a boot in my hand and give it the full treatment.
“Ah,” she says. “Worship.”
“Come on down and I’ll give you more.”
She kneels and rolls on to her back, dangling her head over the edge of the stage. I cup a hand behind her neck and give her a silent-movie kiss.
“We may be upsetting the regulars. Rumor has it this is a lesbian bar.”
“It’s San Francisco,” she says. “Every bar is a lesbian bar.”
“Did you catch our set?”
“Yes. I came in during the blues song. You guys fucking rock!”
“You say that just like a Californian. Can you help me with my drums?”
She half-closes her eyelids. “You sure know how to talk sexy to a gal.” She swings her legs over the edge and pulls a nifty dismount.
“Hey, you wouldn’t believe who I met tonight! You’ve heard of Four Non-Blondes?”
It’s late and I’m still cranking, propelled by forced absence and the human urge to mythologize. I go to the printer to collect my results, then I head for the moviehouse and a midnight showing of American Beauty. I pay Javid for my ticket and say, “Come by the shop sometime.”
Javid’s playing it cool. “Harold Anslinger?”
I smile. “Yeah. Thanks.”
“Enjoy the show.”
I have learned something new about Jasmina’s smile. When it’s somebody else, her lips are perfect, like a model in a photo shoot. When it’s me, her bottom lip reveals a subtle crease. Because she’s smiling harder.
“Your hugest, butteriest popcorn, young lady.”
“Certainly. Something to drink?”
“A large root beer.”
“Excellent. And where will you be sitting this evening?”
“Ah, dead center, five rows back.”
“If I wanted a small screen, I would stay home.”
“Enjoy the show.”
The boy next door is showing the girl next door his father’s creepy Nazi collection. Jasmina slides next to me and folds her hand into mine. She whispers, “I’m off for the night.” The folks in the fourth row give us dirty looks. I take the papers from my jacket and hand them to her. “For later.” More looks.
Later, as the boy next door shows the girl next door the video with the dancing bag, Jasmina pulls out her phone and punches the keys. The phone in my pocket vibrates. It’s a text.
I took off my bra. The third button of my blouse is undone.
Photo by MJV