Summoning the passion born from sixty-five years of hard living, Jimmy brought
the song—and our first set—to a dramatic close. The audience burst into wild
applause, but I could manage only a feeble smile. “Route 66” had never really
pulled my heartstrings; instead of succumbing to its images of light Cowboy
romanticism, I’d always seen a hot asphalt wasteland splattered with decaying
armadillo roadkill. But it was the byway of choice for overzealous lounge singers
looking to prove they could infuse heavy emotion into the purely mundane. Jimmy
had just done just that; tragically, the audience’s reaction assured him a bigger role
in our next set.
Jimmy’s triumph came on the heels of three songs belted out by the club’s former
waitress, Bobbie, who’d just served a year in jail on a major drug trafficking charge.
Prior to that Louie, Mike and I had slogged through four or five leaden instrumental
A curious cross between Tom Jones and Johnny Mathis, Jimmy was dressed to the
nines, trying to revive a career that had peaked fifteen years ago at the Holiday Inn
Tiki Lounge. Every morning he sang in the shower, closed his eyes, and saw an
adoring public. Too old to make Star Search and too young to warrant a last dying
wish, he’d gradually worked his way down to the Cookin’ Cadenza, where our sorry
fates were now entwined. As leader of the backing trio, I was an accessory to his
criminal lack of self-awareness.
On the positive side, he was eager to please. When I asked if he wouldn’t mind
plugging my new CD during the next set, he was delighted to oblige. “Be glad to,
man,” he said through a gold-capped smile. “Hey, I’m really digging this.”
CLANG! A bell sounded loudly in my head, ringing in the 1,000th time I’d had to
confront this particular moral dilemma. Do I lie and say I’m enjoying it, too? Or do
I ruin his evening by raining negativity from my personal jazz cloud of doom?
“Likewise,” I say, then go have my second beer.
“Over here, man.” It was Louie, central figure in this musical sideshow. He was
sitting on a barstool clutching a glass of scotch, gesturing with his free hand. Over
the last year he’d undergone an astonishing physical transformation, swapping about
forty pounds of fat from his stomach for twenty pounds of muscle in his arms. Only
his scraggly beard and western attire were unaffected. Well into his forties, he was
at last looking like the tough guy he longed to be.
“You know what I want to do, man?” He pointed at a curvy blond in a summer
dress, sitting at one of the room’s twenty tables. I want to #[email protected]* that chick, right
here, right now. She’d dig it too, man, believe me. Ya-a-a-a-a-ah!” The cadence
was Louie’s nervous chainsaw laugh, well-imitated among the room’s instrumental
warriors; the comment was pretty standard barroom chatter from a man who had yet
to embrace a feminist perspective. I nodded ambiguously.
Sometimes, for variety, I’d spend my break outside, leaning back on the club’s
window, looking across the street at the darkened outdoor market that was the hub
of Thomaston’s daytime tourism. Louie would join me and point down the sidewalk
at an approaching couple: “Dig that chick in those shorts, man. Don’t tell me she
doesn’t want me, man, you know? Ya-a-a-a-a-ah!” Or I’d go talk to Mike, the
obsessed bassist who’d inexplicably relocated from Tampa to play out this drama
full-time. Louie would stroll over, put his arms across our shoulders, and ask,
“Think that #[email protected]*! talking to Bobbie wants to #[email protected]*! me? Ya-a-a-a-a-ah!”
Louie owns the room that is Thomaston’s only jazz club, and—insofar as it has a
clientele that doesn’t hate jazz, an owner who tolerates jazz, and an actual
piano—one of the only ones in the South. Consequently there’s a semi-regular
migration of piano players driving hundreds of miles to Louie’s place, which rates
highly on the first two counts and nominally meets the third.
There’s a catch, of course. Louie owns the club and Louie is a drummer. You play
in Louie’s club, you play with Louie. Never mind that he’s about 75% deaf and has
never practiced in his life; you suffer through the gig, vow never to come back, then
give him the benefit of the doubt (“Maybe he’s improved…”) three months later
when he invites you back. Where else are you going to play?
Imagine a treadmill that, due to some peculiar defect, stops or even goes into reverse
every few seconds without warning. Imagine trying to have an extended and
meaningful workout on it. Now imagine an attentive audience scrutinizing your
every move, looking for art. That’s what it’s like to perform with Louie on drums:
the tempo slides about haphazardly, leaving no secure landing place for any soloist
who dares go airborne. There’s a real camaraderie among pianists who have
survived the experience; a game-winning, back-slapping bonding founded on the
belief we’re all somehow stronger for the pain.
But at the same time there’s something magical and utterly unexplainable about
Louie’s club. It’s a fundamental truism in jazz life that most rooms booking
jazz—especially dinner clubs—are really looking for antiseptic background music.
The minute the band starts to play as if it cares, customers complain and/or the
management panics. But where the typical clubowner warns the band in advance to
“keep it down,” Louie will punch his pianists on the shoulder, gleefully exalting,
“Go crazy—you know, fists and elbows, man. Ya-a-a-a-a-ah!”
Louie wants to bash, and he wants the band to bash with him. And for some reason
the clientele—the well-heeled, mainstream American tourists who litter the
otherwise beautiful streets of Thomaston during the day—they love it! Why?
There’s no simple explanation, and visiting performers describe it to their hometown
peers in wonder. There may be no other place in the country where this brand of
clientele responds in this manner to this music—music that is not only undiluted and
unapologetic (the jazz artists’ dream), but also lurchingly horrible (Louie’s personal
Is it the food—a seafood-laden, moderately-priced menu? Hint: the last two
dishwashers became head chefs in short order. The service, maybe—a warm
southern hospitality that smoothes over the other defects? Guess again—the
employees turn over faster than the diners and steal from Louie almost as often as he
Searching for an explanation, frustrated by the sheer illogic of it all, I’ve even—in
my most desperate moments—considered giving credit to Louie himself. Is it
possible, I wonder, that—in spite of his musical and personal shortcomings—he’s a
man of integrity, dedicated to supporting and nurturing an art form that needs his
help? “NO WAY, YOU ASSHOLE,” my sane self replies.
Louie is a thug. He’s left other cities—where he ran other clubs—in the dark of the
night, pistol in hand, creditors in pursuit. He’s stiffed more musicians than could fill
two big bands. I operate under the assumption that the day he knows his creditors
have found him, he’ll invite me down for my longest stay ever—say, two weeks. On
the fourteenth day—payday—I’ll show up to find the furniture on the sidewalk, and
no sign of Louie or his wife, Bonnie, who is the club’s hostess.
I’m thinking about Bonnie as Louie, Mike and I saunter back up to the stage. She’s
an intelligent, pious, and attractive woman whose addiction to Louie ranks among
the gig’s top mysteries. He’s often described to me their between-set physical doings
on his office desk, and in the same breath bragged of his barely disguised
infidelities. The latest chapter is a woman upstate in Douglasville, single mother
and enough of a fate-teaser that she periodically threatens to visit the
club—disguised in a wig—just to push the threshold.
From the bandstand I survey the room. The audience has thinned considerably from
the near-capacity sixty or so of the first set. It’s a weeknight and it’s raining out, so
we’re not likely to get a lot of newcomers. At this point about thirty people remain,
most of them scattered among the small round tables on the main floor. A few are
on the balcony, generally a refuge for those not interested in the music.
Then, with an impending sense of doom, I turn my attention to my nemesis, an
unwieldy colossus known disaffectionately as The Whore. It’s the eighty-eight key
nightmare that’s my appointed vehicle, and I tentatively plunk out a few notes as a
driver might test bad brakes before a long trip. Some keys go down and don’t come
back up, others won’t go down at all, and still others hit two notes at once. All of
these defects, though, pale before the greater Out-Of-Tune condition, which casts
the entire musical experience in a hellish backdrop of throbbing dissonance.
One Atlanta pianist I know expresses his feelings about inferior instruments by
urinating in them at the end of the gig. He played here at the Cookin’ Cadenza
several years ago; in all probability, his sentiments flowed freely afterwards. In The
Whore’s case, it could hardly have made things worse.
I’d done what I could to make it a playable instrument. After the first night, I
warned Louie that if he didn’t have it tuned, I’d commit suicide. The tuner
miraculously showed up the next day despite having been repeatedly stiffed by
Louie. Later, he stopped by the piano, where I was celebrating its brief remission
by playing a sensitive ballad—a sort of bonding ritual between two partners in an
arranged marriage. “You know this is a total piece of shit, right?” he said, pointing
at my bulky bride. “I give it one hour, maybe two.”
Tonight—three days later—it had completely re-established its original horrid
equilibrium. Fortunately, by now I had attained Indifference, a state of mind sought
by all seasoned Cookin’ Cadenza performers. Like other spiritual disciplines, it
required commitment and effort, but in return helped pave the road to inner peace.
With each return visit to the club, I found myself able to reach Indifference more
easily. My mantra was simple—”It doesn’t matter, this isn’t music, it doesn’t matter,
this isn’t music”—and my transition was facilitated by consuming mind-altering
Budweiser in large quantity. Soon I could close my ears to my own ugly sounds,
shut out the overbearing bass, and ignore the hurky-jerky drums, losing myself in
the sheer physicality of it. I’d sweat, drink more beer, shake the cramps out of my
overwrought hands, then do it again. Much later, exhausted, I’d collapse onto the
sagging mattress that was Louie’s guest quarters; half a twin bed occupying three
quarters of a closet-sized room. Seven hours later I’d wake up, inexplicably eager
“I’m Old Fashioned,” I called out to Mike, at once choosing the song and asking if
he knew it. He gave me his usual tortured look, a forlorn shrug of
acknowledgement indicating that, yes, he could play “I’m Old Fashioned” if
absolutely necessary, but, no, it would not be THE ONE he dreamed of night after
night, THE SONG wherein he would finally play THE SOLO. That elusive
improvisation would be a virtuoso bass concerto without compare—heartfelt,
complex, loud, and epic. All mortals present would feel its power, and in the course
of five minutes his twenty years of desperate practicing would at last be justified.
But, no, this would not be that. This would just be him playing a lot of notes at high
volume for a long time, in anxious preparation for that promised mystical moment.
Consequently I would, as ever, be utterly unable to hear myself, an innocent
bystander in the ongoing Bass – Drum war. The combatants were well-matched, and
the result was almost always a draw, with moderate carnage. Mike could play
louder—all he had to do was turn up his amp—but Louie had the advantage of being
deaf. Louie could play worse—it’s all he knew—but Mike was oblivious to
anything except his own sound. Beneath the din, I watched my fingers playing
notes that I hoped were right on an instrument that made them all sound wrong
anyway, and was secretly glad I couldn’t hear myself. It was, after all, a path toward
yet deeper Indifference.
Three minutes into “I’m Old Fashioned,” I had achieved the desired mind-body split.
As my fingers silently and hopelessly improvised, I revisited my earlier train of
thought. Coming up to the bandstand I’d been thinking about something interesting;
what was it…it was…oh yeah, Louie and Bonnie. Louie’s little affair in
Douglasville. He’d pulled me aside on our first break the previous night and filled
“Man, did I ever tell you about the chick I’m #[email protected]*!-ing right now?” He was sitting
on the barstool next to mine, and had hooked his arm around my neck to draw me
closer. My feet didn’t reach the ground and I nearly toppled into his lap; he didn’t
notice. “She’s the reason I quit smoking, man, after twenty-five years, so you know
she ain’t exactly ugly, if you know what I mean. Ya-a-a-a-a-ah!”
WHOOOMMM! A loud, low growl jolted me back to “I’m Old Fashioned.” It was
Mike, using his bass to get my attention. “Excuse me,” it bellowed on his behalf, “I
believe it’s my turn to solo now. I can’t help but notice that you failed to properly
invite me to begin. I’d like to think it’s not because you don’t like my soloing—I
practice six hours a day and have enormous technical facility, as you know. But the
other alternative is that you simply weren’t paying attention, which I find equally
disquieting. If you’re bored working with me, just let me know and I’ll call in a
substitute. Otherwise, I’d very much like to begin my solo now, please, and by way
of preparation I’m turning up quite loud.”
I looked over at him and noted, as usual, that not a hair was out of place. He wore a
tie and vest, and had the controlled elegance of a ballroom dancer. I smiled weakly
and nodded, then began to focus on accompanying him. My task for the next
several minutes would be to stake out a rhythmic compromise between Louie’s
random slippage and the more consistent passage of time that Mike and I both clung
to in our heads. Mike looked at me thankfully, and launched into his customary
series of pyrotechnics. I returned to my reverie.
“So she’s got this kid, right?” Louie continued. “He’s like, maybe, eight or nine, and
she doesn’t want him to know that I’m in her room #[email protected]*!-ing the #[email protected]*! out of her,
right? Ya-a-a-a-a-ah ! You know, I say he’ll be #[email protected]*!-ing his own little schoolmates
soon anyway, and it doesn’t really make a difference anyway. But this is, like,
really important to her, you know? And the only thing that’s going to give it away is
that I’m coughing all the time. So I’m always trying to hold it back, man, but that’s
“And that’s when I decided to quit. You know those couple of heart attacks I had
didn’t do it, man. But this chick’s #[email protected]*! was so fine, I was ready. At the time I was
smoking about five packs a day, and I decided I’d—just for the hell of it—for my
last week I’d just smoke as much as I could. You know, like why not? And what I
found was that I COULDN’T SMOKE MORE, MAN! I mean, I had a cigarette in
my mouth at every waking moment, and I couldn’t smoke more than I was already
doing, just couldn’t do it. Ya-a-a-a-a-ah!” This last point cracked him up. He spun
his stool around and started slapping his knee. I did what he wanted, which was to
ooh and ah in a respectably manly, grunting kind of way.
I wasn’t totally faking it, either. Louie was a cheat, a sneak, and—above all—a
terrible drummer. But he lived his life with a certain intensity and fearlessness that I
admired. I couldn’t help myself, and this was a treason I dared not share with any
other musician or sensitive human being.
“So anyway, man, here’s the part that’s gonna kill you. Every Tuesday, Bonnie and I
drive up to Douglasville. We get a hotel room and everything, you know, and it’s
like a vacation for her. She loves it.”
BAM! I jerked back to attention as Mike, in the heat of his solo, arms flailing,
accidently knocked over a microphone stand. The mike crashed to the floor and
angrily announced its own death over the sound system. Mike shook his head
tragically—once again, the elements had conspired to suppress his genius—and
looked to me for help. I sympathetically bailed him out, coming back in with the
melody, flagrantly disregarding our actual place in the tune.
There was a reason I took quick action: the ever-present threat of a drum solo.
Louie seized any open space to launch an extended sensory assault that was as
animated as it was unmusical. It was also virtually identical every time: his head
would bob up and down furiously, and he’d weave from drum to cymbal to drum
with his entire body. At some supposed pinnacle he’d play on a set of pots and pans
suspended from a nearby rack. Then he’d return to the drumset, settle into some
approximation of a beat, and look our way, eyes filled with terror. No one had ever
told him how to end a solo, and he was temporarily at our mercy, begging us to
rescue him. The audience would read the passion on his face and applaud wildly.
We quickly ended the song, and it was my job to pick our next one. Unknown to
Mike, I had a pretty good sense of which pieces held the potential to spring his
Epiphany, and I made a point of avoiding them. Unfair though it may have been, I
valued my Indifference far too much to let the onstage melodrama get deeper, let
alone transcendent. “Willow Weep for Me,” I called, avoiding his tragic gaze.
Then, just as a reality check, I spent a couple of minutes trying to play well. Every
now and then I’d manage to avoid enough of The Whore’s sore spots to sound like I
was playing a real piano, and occasionally I’d be audible above the onstage and
offstage fray. But it just wasn’t worth it. It entailed enormous effort for minimal
payback, and, certainly, no one in the audience seemed to notice. If anything, my
look of concentration was likely to be mistaken for concern, whereas my Indifferent
smile conveyed that all was well in this unfathomable music we played.
We weren’t far into the next song, “Lover Man,” when Louie started waving one of
his arms frantically. There were potential customers milling around the front door,
and Bonnie was at the bar, trying to fix a problem with the cash register. “Bonnie!”
he yelled, “Bonnie!,” and he angrily pointed at the entrance. I had mixed feelings,
beyond my usual incredulity. On the one hand, Louie’s horrible rhythmic sense got
even worse when he was disrupted like this. On the other hand, with one of his four
limbs otherwise engaged, his din was reduced by a quarter. Bonnie ran to the door,
composed herself, and greeted the customers; the music went on.
Watching her—and feeling sorry for her—took me back to Louie’s story. “When we
get to the hotel we take our time, have a nice meal and everything, and then I ‘go to
the gig,’ right? Because Bonnie believes I have a gig up there, and that’s why we’re
there to begin with. So she waits in the hotel while I go to this gig, which is really
just me #[email protected]*!-ing this chick at her house.
“Now here’s the intense part. I get to this girl’s house at maybe 9:00 or so, and we
go at it hard. You know, like really hard. Ya-a-a-a-a-ah ! And she’s exhausted and
falls asleep, man it’s never failed. Now she wants me to spend the night there—you
know, they always do—but she wants me out before her son wakes up. But I have
to be back at the hotel around 1:00 with Bonnie cause I was supposed to just be at a
“So what I do is, at about midnight I set her clock for six, and I wake her up and say
I gotta leave now. She sees the clock and goes back to sleep. Then I set it back to
midnight, and I get my ass out of there, and I’m back with Bonnie at the hotel.
Everybody’s happy, man, and I’m getting it on both sides. Ya-a-a-a-a-ah! I’ve got it
worked out pretty well.
“I’m actually kind of starting to have a moral problem with it though, man. Shit, I
shouldn’t be telling you that.” It was a tender moment; a sensitive confession
followed by awkward silence. I ordered another Budweiser to break the spell; it was
either that or belch as loud as I could.
“Stompin’ at the Savoy,” I called, trying not to let Mike see the defiant smile I
couldn’t fight back. He sighed loudly, pursed his lips, then tried to exact revenge by
deliberately playing the worst possible notes. AS IF IT WOULD MATTER! Louie
was bashing away, unhearing, and I refused to let on that I heard or cared. After a
minute or so Mike had to give up; sulking, he went back to his accustomed loud and
This was our final trio tune prior to the dreaded vocal numbers, and having
successfully denied Louie a solo thus far, I charitably decided to set him loose. I
looked at Mike and we both dropped out, setting the stage for Louie’s usual
histrionics. But he was oblivious, one hand bashing away to a now imagined band,
the other gesturing into the audience at Frank, a bassist on break from his hotel gig
up the street. As Frank approached the bandstand, I concentrated on reading Louie’s
lips. “Check out that chick by the bar,” he was saying. “Think she wants me to
#[email protected]*! her? Ya-a-a-a-a-ah!”
Frank pointed at Mike and me, and Louie quickly realized he was about to forfeit a
pass at the elusive spotlight. Soon the head was bobbing, the body weaving, and the
din heightened. With small gestures hidden from the audience, Mike and I played
air drums along with Louie’s unimprovised solo, a little piece of choreography we’d
recently begun performing together. We stopped when the bobbing head began to
periodically turn our way, consumed with its usual look of terror. I secretly
cherished this moment, when tough guy Louie became a hooked fish, flailing away
at his drum kit, now and then struggling to meet our gaze, eyes bulging. We
returned his frenzied look blankly at first, playing with him, stretching it out just a
little longer, until finally we took pity on him and finished the tune. The eighteen
people in the audience, sensing that something meaningful had probably just
happened, went wild.
As bandleader, it was my dubious privilege to acknowledge the enthusiastic and
undeserved applause. “How about another hand for Mr. LOUIE JOHNSON ON
THE DRUMS! YEAH! LOUIE JOHNSON! THOMASTON’S OWN LOUIE
JOHNSON! LET’S HEAR IT FOR LOUIE!” Frank smirked from the audience,
having played with Louie often enough to feel my pain.
In a jazz group, the bassist and drummer have a special and essential relationship.
They work cooperatively to lay down the beat, and their success as a team depends
on their ability to adapt to each other’s internal pulse. Making a musical partnership
work with Louie is like making marriage work with an unmedicated psychopath.
Despite generally good intentions, Louie acts at every moment to destroy the
relationship. His time shifts about spasmodically, pushing and pulling his unwitting
partner to, fro, over, under, up, and down with unpredictable force at irregular
It’s a hopeless scenario, and each bassist has his own unique way of coping. Some
play with the utmost simplicity, not wanting to contribute further to the turmoil.
Others try to lock pace with Louie’s stutter-step, much as misguided citizens
throughout history have embraced the notions of deranged but charismatic leaders.
Others play randomly, treating Louie’s arhythmic spewings as a postmodern
backdrop for existential commentary. Mike, of course, turns up as loud as possible,
plays a lot of notes, and curses fate that his gifts might go forever undiscovered.
Frank is one of my favorites; shunning any potential codependency, he ignores
Louie altogether, pretending nothing is wrong. Sometimes, playing with Frank, I’m
shocked to hear something akin to music emanating from the bandstand.
So it’s to Frank that I direct my introduction of Jimmy. I’ve got one eyebrow
inconspicuously raised to signal that he might just want to head on back to his own
gig, an innocuous background music situation that has thus far left his psyche
relatively untraumatized. “How about a big hand for our newest member, vocalist
Jimmy Thomas!” On cue, Jimmy takes a Vegas-like half-trot to the stage, grabs the
mike from me, and launches into the usual irrelevant stage patter. Before counting
off our first song he shadow-boxes a few jabs at an invisible opponent and winks at
two women sitting at the nearest table. All told, there are fourteen people now left
in the audience.
He calls all the masterworks from the timeworn Lounge Lizard songbook. First,
“Kansas City”—the “Route 66” of the Heartland. Same chords, same inane shuffle
beat, same key, and—unfortunately—same crowd reaction. Small but mighty, the
audience expresses its approval with hoots and hollers. The Cookin’ Cadenza’s jazz
mystique has been shattered, and I’m less than pleased. I’ve driven five hours, slept
in subhuman conditions, and joined a team of musical misfits, all for the sake of
what turns out to resemble a bad wedding gig.
Meanwhile, I can see the wheels turning in Jimmy’s head. “They like me, really like
me,” he’s thinking, and visions of his glory days race through his head. The time the
Holiday Inn ran his name and photo in the employee newsletter; the night Henry
Kissinger was in the Tiki Room audience and asked him to sing Happy Birthday for
Mrs. Kissinger; and—his most treasured memory—the night Tiny Tim, in town for
a sixties revival gig, joined him on stage, ukelele in hand. Surely the Cookin’
Cadenza gig, as a steady, would promise no less.
So he sticks with the tired-and-true. Now we’re playing “Stormy Monday,” yet
another take on the same worn out blues-wannabe formula. Mike has exhausted his
usual means of expressing disgust. His normally angry bass has become pathetic,
like a spoiled child sobbing quietly after an ignored temper tantrum. I’m feeling
pretty beat-up myself, wondering whether Louie would stiff me for the entire week
if I were to quit on the spot.
Jimmy’s growing role can only hasten the demise of this one-time jazz mecca—that
much I’m sure of. And the writing, by all appearances, is on the wall: He sang one
tune last set, three already this set…tomorrow we could be wearing matching
polyester suits and doing choreographed dance steps.
“Stormy Monday” comes to a close; same clichéd ending, same ridiculous
emotional posturing. Mike and I turn to Jimmy as one, wondering what other threechord
horrors he might add to the evening’s wretched repertoire. Jimmy smiles at
me, winks, and asks, “Do you know ‘Who Can I Turn To?'” This is a stunning
development; a beautiful ballad that has no more in common with the previous bile
than Louie has with Max Roach. “Well, yeah,” I say. “You don’t … do this as a
shuffle, do you?”
“Of course not, man, come on—it’s a ballad. E flat.”
This is a dangerous situation for me: with my normally protective Indifference
worn threadbare, I involuntarily allow myself to care. Mike, a full-scale casualty by
now, accepts the Jimmy’s musical cease-fire, and when I construct a delicate
introduction he’s right there with me, volume toned down to a level of civility.
Louie comes in, playing lightly with brushes in an apparent effort to exercise taste.
When Jimmy starts singing, he’s crooning instead of shouting, and he sounds pretty
The entire melody proceeds in this most unlikely manner: four musicians on the
Cookin’ Cadenza stage making an earnest effort to create something beautiful.
Jimmy rounds off the final phrase and turns to me, whispering “You got it, man.”
Something inside makes me defer with a nod to Mike, wanting to reward him for his
good behavior, disregarding my fears that this could easily turn out to THE SOLO;
ready, even, to endorse it. But he nods back at me, vaguely smiling, and looks
away, leaving me no choice. I dig deep into The Whore, trying to plumb its
wretched body for whatever sweet spots are to be found.
And even The Whore decides to behave. I concede to myself, unbelievably, that
this is becoming one of my best Cookin’ Cadenza moments ever, right in the midst
of what had appeared to be the Apocalypse. I feel almost giddy, weak from what
I’ve been through, ecstatic about where I am. The audience is listening attentively
and I’m about a minute into my solo when I hear a strangely soothing voice begin to
“Ladies and gentleman,” the voice begins, “I want to share with you a wonderful
experience I had last week.” Something is not quite right: the voice has the
artificial warmth of a television commercial, perhaps for Kodak film, managed
health care, or life insurance. I’m momentarily distracted from my solo by the
image of three golden kids playing with a golden poodle in a golden field, all smiles
and hugs. It is disturbing.
“Last week, ladies and gentleman, I decided to take a journey. I wanted to look at
my life—think about the things that really matter.”
WHAT IS GOING ON?!! My concentration is now defeated and the lofty musical
moment behind me—clearly it’s time to shift gears. Still playing, I look up to
discover that the speaker is Jimmy, holding the microphone close to his chest, head
bowed, eyes closed. I keep soloing, but now it’s just fingers wiggling. I feel
cheapened, my once heartfelt music transformed into a fuzzy underscore. I
desperately need to recapture Indifference.
“I drove for hours into the beautiful countryside: fields, meadows, and not another
human being around. I found a cottage, very plain: no tv or telephone. Just me and
my music.” He sounded as if he might at any moment begin to sob.
“Before I left, ladies and gentleman, I bought a new CD from my dear friend, Phil
Anscull; my good friend who you’re hearing even as I share this with you.” He
stepped toward me and held the mike above the piano for effect, then gathered it
back and pressed it into his chest again. With his free hand, he reached into his
pocket and produced a copy of my CD. He framed it for the audience, in the
manner of detergent and cereal commercials.
And then I understood. He was selling my CD—and selling it hard—because he
thought I could help him get the gig. I was furious, and I had no idea how to cut
him off. Louie and Mike were looking at me quizzically, but we all kept on playing.
Jimmy kept pouring it on extra thick, totally blind to the fact that he was making us
all look like buffoons.
“The music on this CD, ladies and gentlemen, is transforming. I sat in my little
cottage in the woods, closed my eyes, and just listened. It was profound, and it
changed my life.” Jimmy, of course, had never, ever, heard my CD, or for that
matter even met me prior to tonight.
As if things at this point aren’t troubling enough, it suddenly dawns on me that from
Louie’s perspective, the entire scenario probably looks like an orchestrated scam.
During our break I’ve asked the singer to plug my CD, and to do it within the
performance, so a captive audience will have little choice but to listen. The
audience will assume the club is endorsing my product, but I’m the one who will get
the money, and I’ve never asked for permission. I look at Louie; his eyes are now
fixed straight ahead, his face expressionless.
“This CD is art of the highest order. It’s jazz, America’s great indigenous music.
And it’s being played by my great friend, right here, my…”
CRASH! Louie’s cymbal exploded with sound, destroying whatever mercantile
spell Jimmy was casting. All eyes were on Louie, who stood up and shook his fist
at a young couple seated alone in the balcony. Then he threw a shoe at them; they
ducked, laughing, and it bounced off the back wall, landing at their side. The shoe
wasn’t Louie’s; it belonged to the young man. He had apparently dropped it on
Louie’s cymbal as a comment on the ongoing idiocy.
Now none of us knew what to do, and no leadership was emerging. There was an
uncomfortable, frozen moment, then the remaining customers started moving for the
exit, eyes averted. There was no point in our continuing to play, but we quietly
stayed on the bandstand, waiting for a sign. Jimmy moved first, shaken by the
reality of what had happened, his dream of a career comeback shattered. “I was just
trying to help you man, you know that, right?” He desperately grabbed my arm. “I
really want to play here, I just really like it here. You all are so cool, and you play
your butts off. I want to keep working here.” He was pleading with me, tugging on
my sleeve, visibly upset.
I had no immediate response, because looking over his shoulder I could see Louie
heading my way. He was walking quickly and purposefully with a determined
expression on his face. I didn’t expect physical violence, but I knew it was a
possibility. So was gunfire. The frightening reality was that Louie was capable of
doing just about anything, to Jimmy or to me. I hunched defensively as he drew
near, adrenalin flowing.
“Come here, man,” he said, grabbing my arm and pulling me off the stage. “I want
to tell you something.” He reached his arm around my neck, and pulled my head in
toward him. He leaned over to speak directly into my ear, breath smelling of
whiskey. He was red-faced and agitated. I closed my eyes and prepared for the
worst. He spoke in a quiet guttural tone, spitting on me with each consonant.
“Did you see that chick in the balcony, man? She didn’t have nothing on under that
dress, man! I was looking up at her and I was in God’s Country, man, I swear it.
I nearly fell to the floor in relief. For a minute, Louie was my hero. I felt like I
should explain, apologize, be his buddy, punch his arm, make my own comment
about some other chick wearing some other dress somewhere else. But I just didn’t
have it in me; I was too tired and too confused. At the same time, I wasn’t about to
betray the fact that I—despite all my unapologetic football-watching, meat-eating,
and occasional politically incorrect jokes—didn’t find his macho shit all that funny.
Now, more than ever, it just wasn’t worth it. So I got my coat off the piano bench
and headed off to my sleeping quarters.
The rain had stopped, and Thomaston’s deserted streets gleamed with reflected light.
Everything was silent and I walked quickly, past the outdoor market, past all the
bars, past the urine-soaked parking lot where the horse-drawn carriages paused
during the day. I turned onto Louie’s street, where he and Bonnie sublet the back
portion of one of the city’s beautiful old mansions.
Not surprisingly, the iron gate was locked shut. As usual, pulling myself up and
over the top, I nearly lost my manhood on one of the wrought iron spears. I fell to
the ground on the other side, landing in a small puddle, cursing tomorrow’s dry
cleaning bill that would eat away at my minimal wage. The landlord’s dog, small
and loud, woke from its coddled poodle dreams and smelled another of Louie’s jazz
musicians, scourges of the neighborhood. He followed me all the way to Louie’s
door, loudly venting his disapproval.
Inside Louie’s house I slowly climbed the stairs, stopped briefly in the unkempt
bathroom, crossed the hall to my closet-sized bedroom, threw off my clothes, and
sank exhausted into the sagging half-mattress that was my bed. I fell asleep before I
could even relive the evening’s trauma. The next thing I knew it was morning, the
sun shining through the blinds into my eyes, my back aching, my breath rancid with
last night’s beer. And I knew it before I even thought it: for some demented reason,
unfathomable as always, more disturbing than ever, I was eager for more.
Jimmy didn’t get paid but still dreams of returning.
Mike hasn’t taken THE SOLO yet, but continues to desperately prepare for it.
Frank remains safely ensconced in his hotel gig.
The Whore hasn’t been tuned in months and is starting to smell bad.
Louie’s playing hasn’t improved. He still drives with Bonnie to Douglasville every
Tuesday, and has yet to join a sensitivity group.
Bonnie remains a great mystery. She may or may really believe that someone in
Douglasville actually would pay Louie to play drums. She prays a lot.
Copyright 1998, Bill Anschell