Saturday Afternoon, Scene 1: I Was In

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Up and down the hallway, half-closed doors revealed small, messy make-up rooms and bursting costume closets. Peeking instead of watching, I stumbled forward through an open doorway into the theatre, directly in front of the stage.

Trix perched on the fourth rung of a ladder downstage left. She wore garish lime-and-black-striped skinny-jeans; from below her legs looked impossibly long. A worn-thin AC/DC t-shirt rode up as she reached, playing peek-a-boo with her belly button. From my angle below, I saw more than that. Her outfit either cried out I’m a total dork or I’m too cool to care; her presence left no doubt which was true. A huge smile broke out as she saw me standing there.

“You’re here!” she exclaimed, her voice full of excitement. She leaped to the stage floor like a panther, landing in a crouch. “You’re late,” she clipped, standing, with a bite of command. “Where’s your guitar?”

“Um, I’m between guitars at the moment.” She grimaced at me, frowned. Re-evaluating?

“And you’re okay with that? A little break from playing, maybe?”

I didn’t appreciate her scrutiny. It hadn’t been that long – my digits weren’t soft. I felt myself disengaging from the conversation. She noticed, and switched tacks.

“But you’re here! So use that one over there, for now. Let’s play!”

Trix headed centre-stageward, calling, “Back at it, people!” over her shoulder. A wave of her hand brought two boys running to remove the ladder she’d been climbing.

I stepped back to take a good look around. A well-used building, Timeless seemed to be a former theatre, converted for movies then back again, with a massive stage fronting the retracted screen. The theatre walls ascended surprising heights, ornamented with unapologetically ostentatious plaster sculpting. A large empty space surrounded the curve of the stage, seven remnant rows of theatre seating encasing the back like leftover piecrust. Two spacious aisles sliced through the seating at ten and two o’clock, slanting upward to wide, arched doorways, beyond which I noted the low-ceilinged lounge, complete with martini bar and sparkly chandelier. Four perfect, gilded balconies overlooked it all.

I turned around to face the stage, and walked backwards until I bumped into the leftover line of theatre chairs. I used my bum to lower a creaky seat and sat in the front row, acutely aware that I was not doing as I was told. The level of activity in the room surprised me – based on my band’s experience, I had expected maybe 4 or 5 people plus a sound tech, if we were lucky. Here, I saw maybe a dozen musicians picking up instruments, and twice that many people doing repairs or working on sets around the room. This band had at least two guitarists already. Everyone moved to a corner of the stage, leaving the centre quite open, as if they didn’t want to take up space. At a walking pace, Trix turned herself around and around the circle they left,  arms wide-spread. She stopped at perfect downstage centre, pinning me with her eyes; squinted, then settled her face into a mask.

“Alright, ONE TWO THREE” she called, and the music started.

I needed half a minute to wrap my head around the sound. Bash’s bass line carried me along a heavy cross-rhythm, with occasional curves like the ends of a moustachio. One bare chested percussionist produced deceptively subtle, intricate electronic beats, offsetting the drummer’s heavier hand. Keyboard filled in and punctuated without over-synthesizing the sound (mostly). Dance-fast but lacking the light banter of dance music; hard-edged but not always; some country twangs but mostly rock…no, pop…but not really. This music defied simple definition. I loved it.

Trix stood still while they played. I felt her watching my reactions. I closed my eyes against her watching.

I could imagine this music pumping an audience, especially with the right lighting and atmosphere. I felt myself moving, carried forward in my seat. But I also gradually noticed that something felt off in the guitar. The lead guy definitely had experience, his beat-up vintage Stratocaster intoning what could have been a companion piece to the rest of the band. Interesting, evocative, his interpretation almost worked but it wanted to take over the song, and no one was going there with him. Beside him a younger guy, maybe sixteen, just couldn’t keep up. I felt schadenfreudely satisfied by his lack of skill.

After another minute, Trix signalled a stop. I opened my eyes to see her pivot slowly and deliberately towards Mr. Strat.

“What song are we playing?” she asked him, almost mildly.

“Universe Now,” he answered. His demeanour didn’t shift at all. He was older than I’d originally thought from his tight, fit little body – probably over forty. Maybe even fifty.

“You are playing Universe Yesterday. Or possibly Universe An Hour from Now? It’s not working. Try something else.”

Mr. Strat didn’t acknowledge the reprimand, but Trix nodded and turned on her heel as though he’d agreed. She could have been parodying a drill sergeant but she seemed to mean it.

“Alright, little girl,” she called to me. “You didn’t pay admission for this show. Get up here and play with us. Are you a musician?”

The challenge bugged me, but I did feel like playing. I had been semi-consciously imagining myself playing the whole time I listened, which was why the guitar started jarring me in the first place. I itched for it in spite of myself. Walking towards that stage felt a little unnerving, and also comfortable, like home. Maybe like going home when you’re not sure who lives there anymore.

I climbed up to the stage.

The teenage guitarist eyed me uncertainly, making as if to hand me his guitar while watching Trix for instruction. His face knew how to laugh, but just then appeared a bit crestfallen. Trix noticed and shook her head once to the side.

“No, she can use that one.” She waved at a guitar, plugged and ready, lying on a stool. The boy’s eyes widened visibly, his mouth rounded into an unconscious oh, like a comic book character who just can’t believe it. I could see why. This was a nice guitar. More than nice – a cherry Gibson SG, well loved. The spotlight shone down on her glossy exterior like a heavenly blessing. I stroked the wood gently, as one strokes a horse’s muzzle to say, hello. I thought I heard a collective intake of breath, and I felt every eye in the place on me and that guitar.

“Oh, relax, people! It’s mine,” she confirmed to me. “They think I’m a bit possessive.”

Trix turned around in a wide circle, her arms spread in supplication as she called out.

“See? See! I don’t even know her and what’s mine is hers.” She leaned in my direction stage whispered, “But I do know you, don’t I?” I rolled my eyes at her. I caught Trace and Bash exchanging a glance and wondered what that meant.

I felt self conscious. My face warmed as I picked up the guitar. It’s weight felt strange to me, the neck just a little too long, but my hands came alive touching it. I picked a little at the chords, getting the feel.

Absently, I strummed out the first bars of my favourite song. To my surprise, Mr. Strat repeated the response back to me. I caught his eye, and we smiled at each other. We played together and he surprised me again –  he sang. His voice sounded gravelly, but pretty too. I couldn’t believe he knew the words*.

Like the pine trees lining the winding road

I got a name, I got a name

Like the singing bird and the croaking toad

I got a name, I got a name

 

As I joined him, so did Trix, suddenly behind me where I couldn’t see her face. Her lovely deep voice made me a bit ashamed of my own, but I’d started and I continued.

 

And I carry it with me like my daddy did

But I’m living the dream that he kept hid

Moving me down the highway, rolling me down the highway

Moving ahead so life won’t pass me by

 

Bash joined unobtrusively with his bass, filling out the sound, adding something a little sharper-edged to the longing ache this song already held for me. Several voices that came in at the chorus stayed to hum when they lost the words.

 

Like the north wind whistlin’ down the sky

I’ve got a song, I’ve got a song

Like the whippoorwill and the baby’s cry

I’ve got a song, I’ve got a song

And I carry it with me and I sing it loud

If it gets me nowhere, I’ll go there proud

Moving me down the highway, rolling me down the highway

Moving ahead so life won’t pass me by

 

So many voices joined now that I couldn’t see where they were all coming from:

 

And I’m gonna go there free

 

Then suddenly just me. Did Trix give a signal I missed? I almost stumbled, but kept going. I closed my eyes.

 

Like the fool I am and I’ll always be

I’ve got a dream, I’ve got a dream

They can change their minds but they can’t change me

I’ve got a dream, I’ve got a dream

Oh, I know I could share it if you’d want me to

If you’re goin’ my way, I’ll go with you

 

The chorus rejoined me for the finale:

 

Movin’ me down the highway, rollin’ me down the highway

Movin’ ahead so life won’t pass me by

Movin’ me down the highway, rollin’ me down the highway

Movin’ ahead so life won’t pass me by

 

Clapping and hollering, and I heard a couple of whistles. I hadn’t realized how many people were there, working in the wings, hanging things in the rafters. I felt embarrassed. I felt welcomed. It could have been a contrived scene from a movie, but it didn’t feel that way to me. I felt like I’d come home for the first time. These people knew my secret favourite song well enough to play it, sing it, hum the tune. That sing-along is one of the happiest memories of my life. I put it in an impenetrable bubble in my heart where none of the rest of what happened can touch it.

Trix waved everyone back to work distractedly, caught in thought before abruptly snapping to.

“Okay, people, now that our new Mouse feels more at home, let’s get back to it. Are you ready?” she called, and anyone not at their instrument scrambled.

“Let’s try it again – Universe Now – one, two, THREE!”

The band started playing. I stood there like an idiot. The same song sounded different on the stage. Guitar limp in my hands, I closed my eyes to listen. I still hadn’t heard Trix sing, and I worried she was watching me. Still, I didn’t open my eyes. Fast and heavy with a strong, dance-able beat, Universe Now offered multiple paths for entry. I let my thinking fall aside, feeling out the music for my personal call.

Trix started a low, keening sound. The music tugged at her voice, drawing it open to increasing volume and fullness. I felt enlisted, a gravitational pull to play into the tornado in which her voice rose and rose, until it filled the theatre and there was nothing left but to finally break in anguish. A natural beat of silence, then the walls echoed with Trix’s deep, elongated and finally distorted laugh. We dropped fast into a strong, repetitive grindy beat.

And I was in.

I’ve always loved jamming with other musicians and seeing what comes out. I listened for where they were going, especially Mr. Strat and the drums. I blended in my own unique colours, and fed off the others to add to the experience. I felt shy to meet their eyes, but pleased that they were looking for me.

As she started into lyrics, I found Trix’s acidy vocals and Mr. Strat’s slight whine made for a vaguely unpleasant blend. He definitely had his own, strong style, and he played a little more bluesy, a little less edgy than she sang. I felt tension between them, each wanting to lead the direction. I recognized the feeling from when my parents fought over what was best for me. Without my really noticing, my own playing began drawing in elements of each. It felt like holding a balancing pole with one at either end. Exhausting, but I triumphed in the accomplishment.

I missed a few cues but no one minded. Not having responsibility for the core elements of the song felt freeing. I was left to become part of the music, enveloped with the band in a way I had not expected. When I heard someone throw in a playful few notes, or turn down an unexpected track, I felt deep appreciation for the essence they infused into our shared space. I felt myself feeding into and from an unfamiliar energy flow, finding its rhythm.

As we neared the end of the bridge, I leaned heavily on distortion and vibrated slowly down the scale behind the music, stopping just short of a full complement to pause at the natural pause, then filled that void with the guitar’s low but rising groan, grind, wail, screech, scream, pitching higher until it disappeared into silence. A guitar impersonation of Trix’s opening wail.

Trix’s deep laugh broke the silence just as drums and bass crashed into that space together like a tidal wave. As I jumped in the current I opened my eyes to see Trix actually surfing the wave in perfect parody, her face tight with concentration as she executed impressive spins and jumps. I could almost see a surfboard beneath her feet. Our eyes locked and I was playing only for her, playing to keep her moving. Finally, she rode into shore as we eased ourselves to an end.

My hands tingled electrical short-out; my fingers felt tender. My heart raced. I deliberately slowed my breathing, and almost immediately remembered to feel a little shocked with myself. That wailing stunt could have been really cool or really, really stupid, and I hadn’t even weighed the chances before launching in. I felt my colour rise as I considered my narrowly-missed embarrassment, even while I relished the pleasant rush of unexpected daring.

I watched Trix grab a towel and sponge off her forehead and arm pits showing no modesty. Without further delay, she counted us into the next song.

“Anti-flow. Ready? One, two, three!”

This piece played slower and simpler, so less room to move – I felt sorely tempted to sit it out. Self-consciousness had crept in, but I stayed put and played in a simple background loop. A young guy joined the stage on trumpet, punctuating the early stanzas with a sad, elongated sound, then breaking into a compelling solo. I would have bet against a trumpet working, but this one had style.

A young rapper strode boldly on stage, talking fast over Trix’s relaxed vocalizations. Their vocals blended and separated over the lyrics and his improvisations; his spoken word and her slow, languid croon. As the verse closed, Trix skipped back and gave over the stage, letting him show his stuff. As he finished, each instrument stopped in turn until only a single drum beat out the windup. Throughout the theatre, people clapped and hooted – the boy had fans.

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*I’ve Got a Name was recorded by Jim Croce (it was reportedly the last song he sang before his death). It was written by Norman Gimbel (lyricist) and Charles Fox.

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