69/70 JUKE BOX HERO

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JUKE BOX HERO

At the hall I got a change of clothes out of my suitcase and left the rest in the van. John showed us backstage. This place was split up into a lot of small rooms, which was nice, and they weren’t heaped with musty junk, which was nicer. We had a room to ourselves and a table ready to be catered for us. This was probably just a coincidence, but I couldn’t help feeling like we’d risen a notch in someone’s estimation since Portland. The chairs in our room were like the remnants of four or five dining room sets, all carved wood and padded seats but no two alike.

Out in the auditorium, the same video crew who’d been there in Seattle were working with MNB. Right now two of them were circling around the drummer with hand held cams while he drummed in sync to a soundtrack of one of their songs. Tread came up the aisle and we shook hands.

He cocked an eyebrow at me. “Did you get taller?”

“No, I’m standing up a step from you.”

“Aha…” He moved into the row with me and looked back at the crew on the stage. “You know, even I’m getting sick of this song, and I co-wrote it.”

“Long day?”

He nodded. “It’s a four minute song but it takes four days of footage for some reason.”

The sound cut off abruptly. The drummer got up and stretched and the two camera men crouched at the edge of the stage to get instructions from another guy on the floor–the director, I assumed, wondering if I should meet him.

“Do you think this is going to last much longer?” I asked Tread.

He shook his head. “I sure hope to hell not. Looks like they want me next.” He gave a little wave as he bounded down to the stage and hopped up onto it, his pony tail swinging like a, well, like a horse’s tail swishing flies.

I went back to our room and tuned the Ovation, happy to have it back in my hands after the break. Normally, the strings held their tune pretty well from one day to the next, but I’d loosened them for transit and they were way out of whack. I used to hate tuning, I used to hate anything that delayed me from playing when I wanted to or prevented me from sounding as good as I might. Nowadays, I didn’t harbor strong feelings about tuning. Must be getting old.

Without thinking I started picking through the warm up routine I’d always used in high school. Chords, E, A, D, G, C, F, picking through arpeggios, climbing higher and higher, and then letting my fingers slide into a few familiar licks, Jimmy Page, Steve Howe, Alex Lifeson… I was picking my way through the riff from Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” when Christian startled me.

“Isn’t that ‘The Exorcist?’” Christian said as he pulled a chair up next to mine.

“Yeah, it is.” I blushed. I hadn’t done any of those tunes since I’d been at conservatory, except maybe when I’d done that filler job for Tygerz. “I used to know them all, you know.”

“All what?”

“The great guitar solos and riffs.” I whipped off a piece of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” followed by a couple of Jimi Hendrix signature lines. Even on the brittle, clear-toned Ovation they were recognizable. “Didn’t you?”

“For drums, you mean? Of course.” He cracked open the can of soda in his hands and took a swig. “I used to practice in my basement. My parents paneled in one section of it, and put in insulation and stuff, and let me set up my drums and a stereo. I used to crank up Van Halen as loud as possible and try to play along, until I could. And then I moved on to Rush. And then King fucking Crimson.”

“The old Crimson?”

“No, the Bruford/Belew Crimson. I’m not that old. My parents weren’t too happy about it, but they wanted to make me happy. Besides, when they would start screaming and yelling at one another, I could go down there and play so I couldn’t hear it.” He wouldn’t look at me for a second and I had a feeling he’d said more than he intended, even though it wasn’t the first time he’d griped about his parents to me. “And I used to bring girls down there, of course, and turn up the stereo, and then my parents didn’t suspect anything. Well, maybe they did, but they never said anything.”

I started playing again. The kind of Spanish-style solo from an old Van Halen album, one I didn’t even own–I think I’d taped the song off the radio. “My mother wouldn’t let me play in the house.”

“She wouldn’t? So when did you do all that practicing?”

“I used to go over to a friend’s house who had a lot of guitars. Every day after school. And I’d stay there… until he or they made me go home.” Now I felt like I’d said a little too much, so we were even.

“A friend. You mean the guy from Nomad, Remo. He came to that show at the Cellar.”

“That’s right, I forgot you met him. Yeah, it was his house, and his guitars. After I while, I just started thinking of them as my own. But when I was about fifteen, he moved to LA. I knew I had to get an electric guitar of my own. I could practice that at home, after all, since that was something pretty quiet with no amp. But I put a padlock on my door so she wouldn’t get any ideas.”

Chris looked puzzled and it wasn’t that he didn’t recognize I’d switched to “Smoke on the Water.” “How the hell did you get into RIMCon?”

I changed to some old Bach thing I used to know and flubbed it with the steel strings and my short fingernails. “You don’t know this story already?”

He shook his head, overlong hair fluttering. “We’ve only been roommates, what, couple of months? And we’ve only been on the road, what, two weeks? Spill the beans, man.”

“Someone somewhere along the line told me that classical guitar was the most difficult kind to play. So I worked at a car wash for a while to get the money to take classical lessons at one of the local music stores, and had to rent a classical guitar. The guy teaching the lessons was pretty impressed with me. After a few months, he started trading me lessons to do shit work around the store, which was great, since the less time I spent at home the better. That’s how I paid off the electric I bought, too. That went on maybe a year, but then things started to get weird.”

“What do you mean?”

I shrugged, feeling like my memory of it wasn’t very clear. “I think he got mad at me. He started telling me there wasn’t enough work to do, so he couldn’t always trade me and couldn’t always give me a lesson every week. I mean, yeah, a lot of the time he’d let me practice for hours on end. But sometimes when I was practicing he’d tell me I had to leave for no apparent reason.”

“That sounds fucked up.”

“Yeah.” I switched to strumming a soft, rainy blues, Paul Simon “You’re Kind.”

“But that doesn’t explain how you got into RIMCon.”

“Well, I kept going to the music shop, because even if this guy was hostile and antagonistic, he wasn’t half as bad as Digger. I’d practice three, four, five hours a day before he’d toss me out.” I started to wonder how much worse I’d gotten since I didn’t practice alone but maybe three times a week now. “Anyway, one thing the guy did do for me was put me onto a scholarship contest. This one RIMCon alum had been from my town and before he died he set up this grant fund. Basically, you win the contest, you get a chunk of money that’s good for about a year’s tuition, and what is more or less instant acceptance to the conservatory. I think if they wouldn’t take the winner, his estate would have stopped giving the school money or something. I don’t know.”

“And you won the contest.”

“Yeah.” I hadn’t thought about the whole thing in a long time. “I had to practically beg to use the fucking guitar and then I had to promise my mother everything under the sun to get her to drive me to the contest.” No wonder I hadn’t thought about it much.

“You know,” Christian said, standing up and tossing his empty soda can into a barrel, “sounds like you had a sucky adolescence.”

I switched to a freewheeling Love and Rockets riff, open chords ringing like bells. “Yeah, but isn’t that what makes us the fine upstanding Americans we are today?”

“Could be, my friend. Could be.” He yawned. “You know, it’s past five.”

“No shit.” I could still hear the sounds of the video filming muffled through the walls. “Maybe we should do an acoustic run-through?”

He shrugged. “I’m just the drummer, man. I, for one, hope the caterers bring in dinner soon. I’m famished.”

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