Adventures With Tommy and KVK (excerpt of novel Near- Do- Well)

taiwan macquacs

The show is to be at the Grotto in New Haven—a good ninety minute drive. The fellow running the club wrote us a very odd, but entirely encouraging little fan letter referring to us as “moody reptiles”. He’d heard a dirt cheap recording we’d created with a friend’s Tascam four-track cassette deck and a handful of microphones. It’s pretty much just a live in-basement recording of us running through our dozen or so originals along with doors slamming, us talking between songs, and dogs barking.

Moshe had taken it upon himself to produce tapes for review. He’s the only one with the artist’s patience to do this, and this is the first we’ve heard back from any of the target clubs. We take it seriously.

After we’d loaded the gear in the van, we had a band meeting on the front porch of my parent’s house. We checked each other for affectation. Our ideal was that we were taking exactly what we do in the basement and putting it on the stage. No frills, no phoniness, no fake personalities, no stage antics, we were not actors. We were not performers. We convinced one another that we didn’t respect performance, that we were absolutely not entertainers. This was of the utmost importance.

We did not produce our music for the edification of shallow party-goers. We were not producing our art to merely entertain. It was serious business. We made music to elevate the soul, and I didn’t mean some ephemeral, post-humus aspect of ourselves, but the very quality of our very being.

We did not produce our music for the edification of shallow party-goers. We were not producing our art to merely entertain. It was serious business. We made music to elevate the soul, and I didn’t mean some ephemeral, post-humus aspect of ourselves, but the very quality of our very being. Or, saving that, some other spiritual equivalent, to bring people toward outer space, or, I didn’t know how else to put it, reaching out to the kindred spirits who needed us, heightening the quality of our selves, and, possibly—I have entertained this paltry little fantasy too often—there’s a girl who I’m speaking to through this medium. She’s depressed, possibly suicidal, and then she hears us, and the power of our expression, like a moonrise low over a fantastical forested glade, inspires her. She’s overcome with our transcendent message, a kind of appeal to life and beauty, a reason to carry on! And she looks like, at least this time, and this is altogether very important—a cross between a sexually charged curvaceous goddess, and a pixie-like, sparkly-eyed, waifish, pale doll-like creature who is both a perfectly beautiful and gracious pet for me to practically own, but also, charged with appreciation for my brand of tortured, suburban survival. This fantasy girl is both powerful muse and devoted lover. The scene is of Penny Priddy where a sensitive lead guitarist, Buckaroo Bonzai, has noticed her weeping in the rock-show crowd.

All of this is guiltily wrapped up in this: half-assed, Coventry, Row-die-lan, parent’s basement established, loaded to the hilt with poetic/romantic fantasies, directionless, musical near-do-well, passionately twisted up—like mating rattlesnakes—with a desire to emulate second British invasion heroes. . . . It’s important to note that while we are quite able to self-deprecate, it’s of a fashion, it’s Johnny Ramone telling you the Ramones “stink”. It is a pure aspect of our punk culture. And we never need to discuss it.

And so, keeping all this in mind, we’ve even dressed down a bit more than normal. We disallow one another sunglasses—especially nothing as cool as Wayfarers, which are exactly the glasses we all covet, and only Ty actually owns a pair of. And, of course, our uniform, as militarily strict as anything Johnny Ramone enforced while croaking about integrity: jeans, blank t-shirts, suburban flannel, cheap sneakers.

“You know, Ted, Ian danced,” Vinny pointed out.

“He wasn’t dancing, he was, . . . incapable of controlling that,” I react with a sort of pained dismissal, “epilepsy.”

“Oh, c’mon, you really think he wasn’t enjoying himself?” Vinny pushed.

I’d seen the video. Ian’s painfully spastic, seizure-like, ropy arm swinging, . . . “I mean, if that’s dancing— . . . ” but I have no place to go with this argument. Ian was doing something like dancing, he was doing what he did to the music, he was performing.

“Mark E. Smith does not dance.”

No one disagreed with this, and since the mighty Fall trump all on the horizon of our musical interests the discussion was over.

Finally, we drove out to the gig, feeling very like a real rock band. But what was our name? What had Moshe called us on the tape? He had simply written Kurt Vonnegut’s Kids. After a joke I had made about the Boston hardcore band Jerry’s Kids, itself a joke about the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy foundation. So we were KVK and this suited me just fine.

We weren’t going on first, and the club, which sported walls that looked like the insides of a cave, was nearly empty. There were stalagmites of sprayed granite. The walls were even decorated with Lascaux style cave art. Before us was a band fronted by a very cute woman in purple eye-shadow and a short skirt, looking for all the world like Torah Wilcox. Her boyfriend with a set of overtly clownish facial expressions was warming up on a key-tar slung round his neck.

“Will you be our audience?” he grinned at us.

We did our best. The music was a mix of pop and funk. They were called Hardly Serious and were entirely unmemorable, more like a study in becoming a pop band—having the requisite set of love, dance, spelling, and whatever audience participation songs. We moseyed around the floor not dancing, of course not, KVK does not dance, we were not, despite Ian Curtis’s epileptic arm-flailing, enjoying music that way.

“Hey everyone! This is dance music!” the key-tar guy whined at us between songs. He reflected a Saturday Night Live Charles Rocket.

Then it was our turn. We took the stage for the first time. I settled in behind my ugly gray drum kit. Moshe faced Tommy, who mounted the stage with a bottled beer, claiming it helped him relax. Vinny bravely took the microphone. I counted off our starting number, snapping the sticks in classic fashion, snap snap snap snap, kick-crack, and we were off, not bad, we got it together. The hardest part was stopping together. We’d been working on it. Our throbbing music filled the quirky club, maybe we were more apparently appropriate to a cave, we moody reptiles.

“Poisonous insects batter against the windows, . . . I wipe away perspiration on an already damp sleeve, . . . another piece of information, . . . where do I store it all, . . . I file it in the trash with a flick of my wrist, . . .” Vinny, when he sang, described small circles, like a dog looking for a place to lay down. Not my wrist, dammit, a wristflick of the wrist. Why must I be forced to fight for every last syllable?

Tommy’s guitar was nothing but a giant slab of indistinguishable, distorted flange. There was an element (an element, mind you) of west coast rockers Flipper in the noise, but Tommy is no Ted Falconi. There were no perceived chordal pluckings, no discernible notes. Tommy sipped at his beer, leaving it perched on his Marshall. He’d had a few already, and I was really extra sensitive about it. A drunk excuse would have been just his sort of modus operandi. We were doing a show, it was exciting. But Tommy’s playing was . . . infuriating.

I wondered now, right onstage, how much we should tolerate,  how far he should have been allowed to disturb the wa. Wasn’t it clear that having hired on a guitar player we’d actually not gotten one? Instead we had an unhinged noise generator. Making matters worse was that Moshe’s beginner bass skills relied a bit on being able to follow the rhythm and Tommy had entirely opted out of being a reliable rhythm, hell, he was doing nothing even resembling rhythm anymore. He could have just leaned the guitar against the amp and gone and joined the audience at this stage of the game. His equipment could handle what he was processing in terms of musicianship on its own.

When we finished the number there were a few new people in the crowd, some light, polite applause. There was some dude with a freaking cowboy hat on and another guy screaming at us to “Turn everything up to ten!” Well how about that, funny stuff that, but I didn’t see my fantasy muse out there.

A few more of these bass driven guitar-noise lyrical rants, and it was OK, I wasn’t feeling terrible about this. My drumming was quite rudimentary but many drummers respect rudimentary. You could seem like you had your chops together when you didn’t show off. It was the old adage about keeping your mouth shut to seem smart at the interview.

In the end, Moshe dedicated our last song to the guy in the cowboy hat, and we were done! We cleared off and made way for Cobalt Can Cat.

Cobalt Can Cat blew us out of the water. The front-man, a lean handsome black man, played the funkiest bass you’d ever seen, fingers flying. Moshe turned pale. They played a wild mix of funk and wail, it was damned near Gang of Four, but possibly even more skillful, and I was feeling red-faced and entirely impotent. Who the fuck were we? We don’t deserve to even share the stage—good lord!

My biggest contribution to the music we produced was to avoid playing I-IV-V variations. I wanted to lift us a little bit away from the psychedelic blues based rock so prevalent, and at least in some quarters, argued to be the only music that really sounded good.

However, just pressing away the simplest combos from the circle-of-fifths didn’t necessarily mean you make interesting music. It was sort of like attempting to become a unique master chef of Asian cuisine by avoiding rice. The Neil Young style of instant song writing—basically a C chord with a walking bass-line down to an A-minor—does indeed sound very compelling, but relative minors, I have decided, are cliche, bourgeois even. I had heard that the great Captain Beefheart didn’t even want to do four beats a measure, claimed it was too hypnotic or something. I wasn’t ready to throw away the momma’s heartbeat rhythm. I couldn’t bring myself to understand anything more complicated, honestly, my reach was still for power chords and a search for a less used progression. One day I even reinvented the Bo Diddley and didn’t realize it until way too late. What the hell, I’m not Robert Fripp. I’d never done anything as amazing as “Red”, but I kept quiet about that. I felt like we were always on the verge of finding our “Lust For Life”, or “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” or, screw it, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.

When Cobalt Can Cat came back to the dressing room, Moshe, Ty, Vin and I assailed them with praise.

“Holy shit, you guys are great!”

They mostly deflected and gave aw-shucks smiles. They’d played the new-talent night at least a dozen times, we were told, and this stunned us.

Tommy was making faces, seemed utterly offended, and piped up, “When we say, ‘we like you’, it really means something, we hate most bands.”

The bass-man from Cobalt Can Cat just smiled and said, “Hate’s a pretty strong word.”

This reminded me of that time Tommy said that we could presume ourselves doing something worthwhile, because he wouldn’t waste his time with us unless we were doing something worthwhile. He had meant this self-aggrandizing statement to ease our worries about validity, but, as usual, it only succeeded in producing one more chit of Tommy’s brand of insufferable pomposity.

And now, this arrogant speaking for the band, promoting his rancor . . .

Once Tommy was out of earshot, Vinny came over to tell me about a little exchange they had at a graffiti covered wall in the men’s room.

“I just—it’s stupid, I know, . . . but, I wrote ‘Kurt Vonnegut’s Kids’ on the wall with a marker I robbed off the bar coming in, there’s a ton of graffiti there, you know, the typical band shit,” Vinny looked over his shoulder to make sure Tommy was occupied, talking to Moshe. “Tommy sees me, grabs the marker out of my hand and adds ‘remember Belsen’ and hands the marker back to me, and walks out.” Vinny shook his head and mimed licking his fingers and rubbing out Tommy’s addition.

“Are you fucking kidding?” I said, knowing damned well he wasn’t kidding.

Vinny kept shaking his head in a mournful manner, “Mo says it’s insecurity, but, fuckin’ hell, did you hear what he said to those guys?”

“Yeah.” Shit. Shit. Shit.

Moshe went off for the money, a whopping twenty-five bucks, and we retreated from New Haven. “The guy kept disappearing down these winding corridors, apologizing over his shoulder, and I felt like I was some kind of thug after his money!” Moshe joked. We all got a laugh out of this.

This was our first, if we flopped we flopped out of town. But now we were a little more brave, having successfully gotten through a gig, we lined up a few more. We befriended another local band—headed up by an obscure-music aficionado guitarist by the name of Ricky Streaker—called Sirens of Titan, they also on their own understandable Kurt Vonnegut trip.

Ricky, for some reason, was entirely smitten with us, thought we were the right kind of weirdos. He laughingly told us we were playing Vonnegut’s “So it goes”, something he respected and wanted his band to do more of. I wished Ricky were in our band.

Ricky asked us to open a show for them at the Living Room, which was to be an all-ages show for their upcoming single release. We enthusiastically agreed. A release party! We were joining the world of release parties at nightclubs.

But before we managed to get to the gig for Sirens of Titan, things disintegrated further, like a nasal infection turning south into bronchitis. Tommy’s contribution to the band was no longer of just questionable value. We were of a combined opinion that he’d entirely become an annoyance we sorely tolerated for the the use of a P.A. system.

Moshe showed up to wake me for band practice, which happened every Friday, it being the start of my weekend from third shift at the lace mill (I napped on my folks’ couch to be ready for band in the basement). I ambled down the basement stairs, trying to warm up, dreading the arrival of our burden. Moshe was excited about the Sirens of Titan gig, and so was I for once. This was a gig with a purpose. Vinny, Ty and Tommy arrived nearly simultaneously, trotting down the raw wood cellar stairs followed by my dad’s hunting spaniels which Ty, laying on the floor, pulled onto his lap. And everyone turned their gear on. Even when Tommy wasn’t playing you could hear his amp’s electric hum being compressed and flanged by the MXR Omni.

“OK, what are we doing?” Tommy said with a bit of a swagger, that lovely Les Paul—a guitar he did not deserve—slung round his stack-of-dimes neck, run through a cheese-ifying device to hide his ineptness. I was sick of his little imp sneer, his entirely phoney I-was-punk-before-you-were-punk bullshit and his absolute need to have the last word, to even have the last sound when we rehearsed—always one more skronking noise he produced to finish the song as if it were a competition. We were all tired of his rudeness toward Moshe (thingy!), and his endless apocryphal stories all improvised to provide beef to his image. Who had image?

I was as uncomfortable and disappointed as a mugging victim, being told by the mugger that I should relax and enjoy it. I was weary of holding back the response. I wanted to respond to this carelessness about our music, about our sound. This carelessness Tommy believed was somehow an admirable distinction—a punk rock asset.

He even said to me one day: “A lot of people say ‘I don’t care’ but I really don’t! Har har har!”

“I don’t care,” I said, looking down at the sticks.

“See, this is what I’m talking about,” Tommy toggled his Marshall half-stack off (I can’t even calculate the months of work I would have to accumulate to afford it), “this is the shit I’m talking about,” he swaggered some more, he unslung the Les Paul. We were silent. His packing routine took a little too long for a storm out. He wrapped a pillowcase around the Les Paul, laid it carefully in its case.

“If you guys wanna talk to me, you know how to find me!”

He closed the lid softly and began snapping the clasps shut and then, maintaining, in our silence, his mask of preserved frustration, mounted the stairs, up, up, we still said nothing, barely even breathing.

“You want a hand with the amp?” I offered cheekily, but he said nothing. After all, it’s hard to storm out with a hefty amplifier in your arms.

He’d directed that last bit, interestingly, that you-know-where-to-find-me bit at Vinny and Moshe. We heard him cross the house above our heads, we heard the front door open and close—Tommy has left the building.

Moshe started laughing, actually doubled over with the effort, hanging on to his bass, “He thinks we’re going with him, he thinks we want to be with him!”

“Ted, he pulled us aside and said he’s had it with you, . . . thinks we should ditch you!” Vinny was grinning, “now, maybe, we can just lose him, we can get rid of him, finally!”

“Ted, we met a drummer,” Moshe told me excitedly, “you can go back to guitar!”

“This could be the best thing ever, we just gotta, . . . we gotta make sure he doesn’t come back, . . . ” Vinny’s face suddenly got serious, his fingers went to his chin as he was thinking, “how do we keep him from coming back?”

Ty was sitting bolt upright his eyes wide.

I was still reeling from Tommy’s attempted usurping of my band, there I was tolerating him. . . .

“He’s been complaining about you to us,” Moshe was recovering from his convulsive laughter. “He started trying to pressure us to ditch you after the New Haven gig!”

“I’ve got so many ideas, . . . so much I want to do, but I’m just not getting it done,” I waved at his former position on the floor, “he’s such a pain in the ass!”

“He’s out, we’re bringing in Rod, we met this drummer at the Barn-spider (Barnsider: a restaurant the fellows worked at in Providence), a good drummer, a real drummer, sorry, but, you know what I mean,” Vinny said, shifting his weight a little uncomfortably.

“Yeah, man, no worries, I want to play guitar, I’m not a drummer.” It too slowly occurred to me that this was really the end, that we were really going to sever our relationship with Tommy.

Back upstairs around my parents’ dinner table we pulled out paper and pen. And that was when it hit me in full. We tried to decide what to say as a finale for Tommy, something strongly worded, something that would leave no uncertain, . . . well, it was a break-up after all, and there’s only one good way to ditch the party, firmly, resolutely, not necessarily angrily, but squarely and without doubt, especially in this case. Tommy was so capable of manipulation, so full of his own special version of reality.

Tommy, we are sick of your goddamned lies! I wrote boldly on a sheet of legal pad paper. I wanted, really, to strike him, to feel him break.

Moshe and Vinny decided to meet Tommy, and tell him he was out, that we were continuing without him. I had written something else. And we are sick of putting up with your asinine bullshit.

The letter was taking on the feel of a fantasy confrontation, too often rehearsed and never unleashed. All those responses I’d held inside so that we could be a band, now coming forth in the exuberance new freedom inspired.

I was actually thinking Moshe and Vinny were going to bring this letter and unleash it on Tommy, somehow I’d be able to watch on a closed-circuit television or something, . . . slowly I got it, always a step or two behind the others, the letter wasn’t happening. The letter wasn’t necessary. Moshe and Vinny would see Tommy, and they’d end things, gently, smartly. And you are not a guitarist!

“He’s got our records.” I suddenly squawked.

“Yeah, we gotta get over there and get the shit back, drop off his amp. We’ll bring his gear to him, and get the records,” Moshe nodded.

My hands shook with the excitement of this divorce.

“Shit, what about the P.A.?” the hinging factor, the thing that made Tommy indispensable.

“Rod has a P.A.” Moshe grinned, “and if it’s no good, we’ll get a P.A.”

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