J-Way

We descend into blackness. You cannot see the moon or a single star. The trees form a tight laced canopy overhead and although I can hear cars rushing by on the highway alongside the bike path, their headlights cannot cut through this tunnel of 3 am. I rest my feet on the pedals of my trek hybrid and fly through the dark speeding downhill faster and faster. I cannot see Lamar in front of me but I am sure that he has his hands in the air. “Working with you is like falling down into the deepest pits of hell,” he had snarled earlier in the evening as we began to wrangle over my guitar parts on particular song. But all of that is forgotten as moon and headlights burst through the dark to illuminate a path that glows with an almost supernatural light. I coast up to where Lamar is idling. “What’s the point of racing ahead if you just have to slow down and wait for me?”
“Girls just don’t have that jump up and hit the awning thing.” There is a hint of exasperation mixed with the affection in his voice, but he laughs as he takes off again and it’s clear that this post midnight bike ride has soothed him like a heroin honeymoon. He has left those contentious guitar parts behind somewhere and I know that tonight’s musical controversy will not surface again. We wind around and around the path until we are spit out onto empty streets. There are no UPS trucks to dodge, no honking drivers angered by our relative youth and agility. We can ride wherever we want to. The city belongs to us.

We have moved from Q Division back to the yellow clapboard house that’s sits on the edge of the ghetto in Jamaica plain. Squid Hell is owned by a lanky Kentuckian named Dicky Spears who has long brown hair and the charm of a true southern gentleman. He runs point on Lamar’s 10% days and he can calm a fevered room just by walking through the door. He has removed various walls and ceilings in his house to create a towering drum pit and he has hired a legendary audio genius to turn what once a living room into a control room. He lives upstairs.

There is an abandoned lot full of tall grassy weeds across the street and just half a block away there is a tiny run down store full of little Debbie chocolate cakes and fried snacks of lurid hue. Lamar goes there to buy cigarettes and plastic bottles of blue sugar water. He smokes the cigarettes but he just lines the little bottles up on the windowsills and the lip of the console. “Blue drink!” He will shout at times as if the very mention of this bright sugar water is enough to shake the musical cobwebs from his brain. I find blue drink depressing but I don’t question Lamar’s obsession with it, just like he doesn’t question my pockets full of sea glass or my inability to cut vocals when my favorite X-Girl t-shirt is in the wash. It is summer, an endless summer of nothing but bicycles and song, squalling guitars resonating up through the drum pit, yellow legal pads full of scribbled lyrics scattered amidst the total absence of the mundane everyday. Squid Hell shelters us from bills and bars and gossip girls in a way that Q Division could not. We are always surprised and pleased to find the sweet sun bathing the front porch when we venture outside to take a break, eyes blinking into yellow light and tight limbs uncurling to stretch into warmth.

But Lamar has not forgotten how to rumble and I cannot control the demon of insecurity that only sleeps peacefully in the sea of my psyche on alternate afternoons when the moon is not full. “These vocal suck,” I exclaim on a Thursday evening as Lamar pulls the faders up. We are edging closer to mix down time, a time when this summer idyll will end and I will be left with a product that cannot be altered on a daily basis.

“You’re nuts,” says Lamar. “You were perfectly fine with these yesterday.” It is true but the air sounds different today. The tiny buzzes and hums of traffic and sirens and air conditioning units are slightly different than they were yesterday and they form a backdrop, a base pitch that makes the vocal sound slightly askew. I do not for a minute believe that Lamar cannot hear this. My mood turns darker as I realize that I will have no control over anyone’s listening experience. They might not hear what I want them to hear. There will be other cars and appliances and heating systems, ambulances and crickets and cicadas, crying babies and laughing children – everything with its own pitch and resonance. The horror of this hits me hard. What is the point, whatever is the point of this if things can’t be perfectly in tune? And what if all the sounds of anyone’s particular world make my voice sound whiny sharp and thin?

“You obviously don’t give a fuck.” I raise my voice as the interns freeze and shoot each other significant glances. “You just want to rush through this so you can run off to Australia as soon as you can.”

Lamar lights a cigarette and looks at me with disdain. He shoves the crumpled cellophane pack back into the pocket of his khaki cargo shorts and scoots the wheeled studio chair to the back of the room so that smoke will not hover over the console. “These were fine yesterday,” he says, his measured voice as calm and still as the sky before the sirens start to wail. The interns develop a sudden insatiable craving for pad thai and they are out the back door in a flash.

“Fine? You think they‘re fine? I don’t want to make a record that’s fine. I do not want to sound fine.” I felt like I might burst into tears but I know from experience that this will be an unpopular move. How did I get here with a real deal and a real budget when I suck so hard? I am making a record that will be proof positive of my inherent inferiority forever and ever amen. I cannot control the tornado of rage and despair that twists through me like a funnel cloud. “These vocal tracks suck!” I shriek at Lamar. “And if you don’t think they suck, then you suck too. I can’t work with you anymore. You’re just humoring me so you can get out of here!”

Lamar stays silent and I can see that I have gone too far. He puts out his cigarette and begins to strike the board as the back door slams. Lamar’s wife Terri hesitates in the archway. The vibe in the air is as thick as smoke from 1000 cigarettes.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she says tentatively, “but I had a huge fight with Radio and now I’ve got an extra ticket to see Hole at the Orpheum tonight.”

“You’re not interrupting anything,” says Lamar, his drawl now as icy as the New England winters he is so desperate to escape from, “because we are done. Go see Courtney.” He shakes his head and laughs to himself at the perfect symmetry of this. One bitch to another. Humorless sea hags united.

“I’m sorry,” says Terri as we climb into the car. I know what a hard-ass he can be. Terri and Lamar have not been getting along, and the fact that he is leaving the country while she has a 19 year old boyfriend pretty much sums up the state of their affairs. Terri checks her reflection in the mirror and runs her hand through her long light brown curls. She attempts a reassuring smile. Mascara fringes her sea green eyes and her honey color skin glows in the circle of light cast by the street lamp as she twists the key in the ignition. In a state of high agitation, I recount the evening’s argument.

“Um, so you’re mad at Lamar because he doesn’t think you suck?” She says carefully as she eases onto the J-Way. I deflate suddenly. The fact that Lamar’s devastated soon to be ex-wife is taking his side stops me in my tracks. “You just need a break,” says Terri. This will be the perfect thing, try to get away from it for a while.

I slump into my seat. She‘s right. It isn’t even Lamar, music has turned on me .It has happened before and it will happen again. Something wondrous and magical has been trampled into dust by an air conditioner’s hum and there is nothing I can do about it. At a certain point we will run out of money and the will to fight and the record will be done by default, the final mixes the product of spent financial and emotional resources. Right now, at this very instant, I do not see how I am going to be able to live with this, but maybe Terri is right. Maybe I just need a break.

We pull into the parking lot behind the Orpheum. Terri has backstage passes. Someone always has backstage passes. I am still feeling bad as we descend the stairs.

“Fuck Lamar,” says Terri cheerfully as she spots Drew Barrymore over by the buffet table. Her incandescent beauty lights up the room, bright red sloppy ponytail, ringer T shirt, an A-line mini skirt and clunky cork platforms. The band is nowhere to be found. Terri is cheered by the backstage scene, by all the beautiful people in pretty clothes.
“You know if you couldn’t sing, if you really couldn’t sing,” she says with an air of practicality as she pulls a bottle of beer from a bucket of ice, “you probably wouldn’t have gotten a record deal.”

I stare at Terri as she raises the bottle of beer to lips that have been outlined in Mac lip liner. It’s a color called Spice that we are all awfully fond of at the moment. I have the identical color in my bag somewhere though at present my own mouth is devoid of color. “So you’re saying I’m not pretty enough to be the kind of girl who gets a deal even though she can’t sing.”

“Wow!” says Terri. “You’re good. That is so messed up.” She burst into laughter. “Let’s go find our seats.” She links her arm through mine and the spell is broken. I have been acting like a perfect fool.

Courtney is resplendent, incendiary and as soon as she opens her mouth I forgive Lamar. It is not his fault that the air makes noise and sending me here with Terri was the right thing to do, even if he did it for the wrong reasons.

She is on fire, stunningly beautiful, howling in a white silk slip as she clings to a black Rickenbacker guitar. As she plants her Mary Jane on top of the monitor speaker and shakes her platinum hair out of her eyes, I am amazed that I almost missed this in order to stay at Squid Hell and scream at Lamar. Cause Courtney is screaming for all of us. Courtney is screaming at the Sky. She rolls around on her back as plays guitar and suggests to some front row fans who bring up his name that Trent should think of changing the name of his band to 3 Inch Nails. Rumor has it they’ve been having an affair. She is in her glory, of the moment, screaming for all the little girls who were dragged down the garden path or who dove into mosh pits only to have their dreams of flight shattered by groping hands. She screams for the girls who will come to find out the hard way that Law and Order SVU is only a TV show and that Ice-T is never gonna be there when they really need him.

In or out of tune isn’t an issue for Courtney. She obviously doesn’t give a fuck. I know I could never be like her, that I will never be able to alter the compulsions that rule my life. But after the show I feel like I can maybe learn to live with them.

“He won’t remember any of tonight tomorrow,” says Terri as we wait patiently in line with throngs of exhilarated girls in babydoll dresses and little plastic barrettes to exit the theater. I smile at her, relaxed and drained. It’s true, as good as Lamar can be at malice and mockery; he isn’t very good at holding a grudge. Tomorrow is another day and the air will be resonating at a different frequency. Maybe it will be one that matches up with my own.