Sunday, March 30, 2003

A NIGHT ON THE TOWN. We have a "Summer of Sam" dog in our little corner of Williamsburg. (I refer to the dog whose ceaseless barking helped drive David Berkowitz to serial murder, at least in the Spike Lee movie.) At odd times of day or night this animal delivers a series of short, outraged barks that can go on for hours without variation in pitch or volume. The other night he went at it for some time till something went off that sounded like a BB-gun shot and he fell silent. I wondered if maybe that was the end of him.

The dog was still quiet late Saturday night when I went to play bass with the band at some new club in Manhattan. I had to take an amp -- a Randall Jaguar, borrowed months ago when my own rig began to blow farts and I couldn't pay to fix it (still can't) -- and, being hobbled by a sinus infection, eschewed the subway and hauled it in a livery car. I knew, by an instinct honed over long years of rock experience, that my pay from the show wouldn't cover the cost of the ride. It made me think of Chuck Berry in "American Hot Wax," when Alan Freed told him that the payroll for the performance he was about to give had vanished. "Well, rock 'n' roll's been good to me," said Berry, "I guess I'll do this one for rock 'n' roll!" (In reality, of course, Berry always counted out his bread, and probably checked each bill under a blacklight, before setting foot on stage.)

As I walked into the club, a gaggle of young women in downtown nightwear (all accessorized with noteworthy handbags) marched out of it, one of them announcing, "It's just too early! We can come back later!" The place turned out to be a former restaurant, gutted but not appreciably refurbished save for a lacquered little bar. Track lights were screwed into a scarred grey ceiling, and the bands set up at the far end of the filthy, checkered linoleum floor. A handful of people disconsolately wandered the darkened space. Punk and garage tunes played on the crummy sound system. It was like some of the old places I'd played, except the beers cost six dollars and no one seemed happy to be there.

We bashed out a set. I couldn't use my compressor because there weren't enough electrical outlets. I cranked my amp and made do. The bass drum of the small, borrowed kit Billy was beating was inaudible. There were no stage monitors. Lach's guitar sounded like a mandolin run through a boombox. We played, as had the Pinball Wizard, by sense of smell. Nonetheless we found a few grooves and I was drenched in sweat halfway through. But my mind wandered: Too much treble? Somebody's trying to dance, maybe I should push the beat -- too late, they stopped. I wish I'd taken a longer nap. Is this the thousandth show of my "career" yet? Will balloons fall from the ceiling if it is?

The club didn't pay us. Lach tried to slip me a few bucks, but I demurred. In these situations the high road is the only path that bypasses self-disgust.

Just as we were leaving a very tall woman took the dancefloor and jacked her body to "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place." She wore black hightops, black jeans, black t-shirt and black leather jacket; her hair was dyed black and matted and her pale face was kind and tired. Her jeans rode down on her ample hips a bit, displaying a gentle roll of fat. She reminded me of a girl I used to play music with years and years ago. She lived at Westbeth with her father. She was poetic and punkrock and every time I left her place after rehearsal I kissed her goodnight and she was always reclining and soft-featured when I did, but I only kissed her and took off, except for one time at a party, and I didn't see after that except one time years later, when we ran into each other in the waiting room of a discount psychotherapy place where we were both seeing shrinks, and she had several thin scars across both her arms.

I could easily have crashed when I got back home but I had a promise to keep. Earlier that evening I'd run into an old friend at the laundromat, and he'd told me that tonight was the last night of the Right Bank, a venerable bar at which I'd played back in the day. He'd said I should drop by, however late -- and do you know, as old as the claim of the place was on me, I felt it still. So I washed my face and wandered out.

The Right Bank was emptying out when I got there. Those who remained were of a familiar sort -- young hipsters in rockstar jerseys and flared denim jeans, older demimonders in eccentric hats, a cute and popular bartender in a short, polka-dotted vintage dress and dreadlocks and tattoos who was cheerful and theatrical with everyone and was like that all the time, I guessed, except for the hours and days when she could do nothing but cry and take drugs. The few people I knew talked to me about the things they were doing these days. One was doing campy plays in outlying districts of Los Angeles and working her connections to get an advice column in one of the New York papers -- "because the younger people don't know how to be fabulous," she told me as her boyfriend, an apparently recent college grad, buried his face in her neck. "Like for example, they don't know how that you should wear a big hat. There's a new editor at the New York Press, they were snarky for a while. I want to write about how young people try to take over your personality, like in 'All About Eve,' except for real. Do you know what I mean?" That was the only time she, or anyone else there, asked for my response to anything. The room was like a hangar in which small, brightly-colored egoes hovered.

When I got back to my apartment that dog was barking again.

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