Billy smiles at me. His hair is tangled and he is wearing a long black wool overcoat that covers him like a cloak. His dark eyes glitter, all pupil and no iris. They seem to have silver stars or points of light in the center that catch the dim lights of the Smart Bar. I know that people’s eyes are not supposed to look like this, but I don’t care.
He grabs my hand like it’s something he does everyday, like it hasn’t been months since he’s last seen me. He holds it for a second as he looks at me, laughing softly and shaking his head like I’m too good to be true. Then he drags me over to where Mike from Lycia is sitting hunched in a vinyl booth by the soundboard looking morose.
“I don’t know why these people follow me around,” says Mike, nodding at a man wearing an actual cloak and an Edwardian hat with a long, feathered plume who is engrossed in conversation with a young girl in a white satin wedding dress. I have seen variations of the wedding dress girl in nearly every club we’ve played on this tour and I always wonder: why? Why only one girl? Why is there never two or three or none? Does every Goth scene in every town have one girl who is the designated wedding dress girl? Or do they take turns, calling each other before each show to plot and plan? Old wedding dresses are certainly easy enough to find, in thrift stores and resale shops, expensive pieces of silk and lace and pearls that are practically worthless by the time the honeymoon is over. All the other girls wear tight black pleather and t-shirts with silver band logos, or black fishnets and tight low-cut dresses that expose their blue white skin. One of them carries a black silk parasol. The boys have long floppy bangs that partially obscure grey complexions or towering mohawks circa London 1977. Nobody radiates health or happiness. Mike is wearing jeans and an old flannel shirt, his normal stage attire. His long thick light brown hair is pulled back into a ponytail but the Goth’s don’t care. They adore him anyway. He continues to stare dejectedly at his fans like he is only dreaming of the evening’s end when he can finally run away from them.
“How many Goth’s does it take to change a light bulb?” I hear laughter behind me and turn to see Aaron, Lycia’s merch guy, who extends a hand for Billy to shake. “None,” he crows before I can even attempt an answer. “They just sit in the dark and cry.” Billy cracks a half smile and I give Aaron a playful shove. Aaron is very slight with huge brown eyes and pale hair that hangs limp on the side of his head that is not shaved. He is only 19 and was very disappointed to find out that I am not as young as I look. I am grateful for this built in fence. The day-to-day world of a touring band is very very small. Billy apologizes to Mike for the fact that he is going to be missing Lycia’s set. I am glad that I am going to be missing Lycia’s noxious smoke machine. Smart bar is not very big. I glance around the small dark room, at the raised DJ booth and the polished red bar. Dim blue light casts shadows on the dancers as they twirl around the floor to the steady thump of 120 bpm. I half listen as Aaron cracks another Goth light bulb joke. The answer to this one involves him turning in slow small circles while he waves his hands in the air.
I am anxious to leave. I see Mike and Aaron every day. Billy, on the other hand is something distant and rare. I am still shy about initiating phone calls and sometimes weeks and months will go by without a word. This rarely bothers me. Time has taken on a very strange shape lately and I never know what day of the week it is. The hours are crowded with sound checks and restaurants and phone calls and decisions. Missing someone is hard.
We are not playing tonight because we have too many instruments for the tiny stage, so the industrial dance music pumping through the speakers is our replacement. I am glad for the break. Our gig last night at the Beachcomber in Columbus is to be our last for three days and we made a B line for Chicago as soon as our set was over, driving late into the night across the flat Midwestern terrain. A sliver of moon graced an indigo sky as I forced myself to stay wake and chatter so that Adam would not fall asleep at the wheel. It was nearly four am when we arrived at the rock and roll Days Inn on Diversey Ave. The night clerk had long red hair and long black fingernails and she immediately gave as the band discount as we straggled up to the check out desk in the lobby. We didn’t even have to ask. This morning after waking and showering and arguing with my manager on the phone, I rode the elevator down to the lobby with most of the members of L7 who were filthy, glamorous and obviously high. I recognized Gail from her days in Boston with Belly. They all wore sunglasses. I nodded hello at them and then stared at the toes of my boots as none of them responded in any way, shape or form.
Now Billy drags me out onto the sidewalk. He flings his arm up as a yellow cab glides up to us and we clamber in to the back seat. I fall against him as the cab takes off and Billy smiles that crooked half smile again. I straighten up immediately. It’s a short distance to his third floor walk-up on Ashland Ave. I follow him up the winding stairs holding onto the crooked wooden handrail.
Given his general air of stylish dishevelment, I am surprised to see that Billy’s apartment is neat as a pin. There is nothing out of place. I turn down his offer of a drink and he lights a joint. Billy doesn’t roll joints like a New Yorker. He rolls a spliff and sits down next to me on the couch. I shake my head as he offers it. I cannot indulge while I am on tour. The only way I can survive touring is with a very strict discipline. No alcohol, no weed, no coffee, god help the person who dares to light a cigarette around me and whoever is driving is not allowed to bitch about the number of pit stops required of person who drinks nearly a gallon of room temperature spring water every day. I will only eat vegetables, fruit, grains and fish and every night Michael will smile disarmingly at the waitress in whatever roadside establishment we find ourselves in and say, “Here’s the million dollar question, do you cook your vegetables on a separate grill from the meat?”
“Where‘s my million dollars?” the waitress would say flirtatiously if the answer was affirmative. Michael’s charm is such that one night in Buffalo, the waitress rushed over to our table just before we were served to confess that she lied. Michael is more than happy to take on this chore. We found out early on that this same request coming from a tall skinny girl who was obviously fronting a band was enough to send your average waitress into a tailspin of fury.
Billy takes a hit off his joint and picks up a remote that is lying on the coffee table. “I have to show you this,” he says excitedly. He flicks on Cibo Matto’s Sugar Water video and I am delighted. I do not own a television so I rarely get to see videos. This one has a split screen and half of it runs in reverse time. Yuka takes a shower as Miho pours a box of sugar over her head. The sugar flies back up into a pink and white box as she places it high on a dull green shelf. Then Yuka slips into a blue t shirt dress and dons a pair of huge sunglasses, the epitome of downtown cool. Billy touches my shoulder very lightly when Miho is discovered lying in the street in a red dress, holding a flyer that spells out “you killed me” in letters that have been cut and pasted from magazines. Yuka looks distraught but happily the video begins to reverse and soon Yuka and Miho are back in their apartments taking sugar water showers again.
“The buildings are turning into coconut trees,” sings Miho as Billy smiles at me like I am something breakable and rare, something to be cherished and protected. His eyes still glitter in that strange silvery way but his movements are precise and his speech is not slurred. Everybody is wrong about him; I think as he rewinds the video for the seventh time.
The next night, Dannie throws a party for us at his penthouse apartment above the label office. Billy shows up wearing a newsboy cap pulled down low over one eye and square black glasses with no lenses. All the members of Sister Machine Gun are there along with Billy’s roommate Pat, who works as a publicist for Lycia’s label. He also plays in a band with Billy and I know that he agreed to give us the opening slot on the Lycia tour at Billy’s urging.
Dannie is the consummate host. There are cold pitchers of margaritas in the kitchen and silver bowls full of foil wrapped chocolates on the coffee table. He has orchestrated the arrival of Indian food from his favorite restaurant on Devon Ave. The CD player thumps out techno and everyone is animated. Jen looks beautiful as she dons a pair of sunglasses that once belonged to Divine. She is wearing tight black pants and a striped green t-shirt and the tungsten light casts a glow on her long red hair as she flicks a leather braided whip that once belonged to Marc Bolan at Adam who is dissolving into a weed assisted fit of giggles on Dannie’s art deco couch. Dannie loves to show off his collection of rare and wondrous objects and he invites me to try on a pair of rhinestone encrusted converse sneakers that once belonged to Sid Vicious. Billy smiles at me like I’m some kind of Cinderella as I lace them up. They fit perfectly.
Billy stays on as Pat and the members of SMG begin to drift away into the night and suddenly Dannie jumps up from the couch. He has something new he wants to show us. He runs downstairs to his office and comes back with a box containing a set of 12 neatly hand lettered homemade cassettes. “These are from The Random Ant,” he says proudly. Billy straightens up on the couch instantly transfixed.
Dannie reads from The Random Ants bio. The Random Ant is 52 years old and lives in South Carolina. He is a direct descendant of Elvis Presley. The set of a cassette tapes are meant to be a clarion call to the ant goddess of his dreams. The Random Ant has done everything in his power to find her. He has even had his mother make him ant costumes that he wears while performing so that the ant goddess might recognize him. Alas this has all come to no avail, and so now The Random Ant is seeking a record deal. Surely with the help of label, the ant goddess will find The Random Ant.
Dannie turns off the CD player and puts in a tape. It’s so maddeningly awful that it slips around the corner into brilliance. The Random Ant calls out to the ant goddess in a thin screeching voice that probably sounds a lot like what an ant would sound like if an ant could sing. He begs and pleads tunelessly over nothing but an acoustic guitar.
Billy is wild with jealousy. He must have a set of these cassettes for his very own. If The Random Ant is looking for a deal then it would stand to reason that there are more tapes and it would stand to reason that there is contact info on the letter that Dannie has been reading.
“Can I see that bio?” he asks innocently.
“Not a chance,” drawls Dannie. He knows Billy well. He takes The Random Ant cassette out of the tape player and soon house music is pounding through the apartment. He carries the box of cassettes back downstairs, but when he comes back upstairs I can see that The Random Ant’s letter is still sticking out of Dannie’s back pocket.
Billy is crafty, he bides his time. Joints continue to circulate and margaritas continue to be replenished and when Dannie gets up at one point to head to the kitchen, Billy is behind him in a flash. He deftly pulls the letter out of Dannie’s back pockets and is dialing the contact number at the bottom almost before Dannie knows that he has it.
“Give that back,” he howls, lunging for Billy, but Dannie is drunk and Billy is quick. He pivots out of reach as Dannie collapses in a fit of laughter on the couch. It is now nearly three am. I am not sure what time it is in South Carolina, but I do know that it is very very late.
“Don’t you dare mention my label!” howls Dannie from the couch. It is one thing to treasure your very own set of The Random Ant tapes, but Dannie has no intention of adding The Random Ant to the motley crew of characters who populate his world on a daily basis. The phone rings and rings and suddenly Billy’s face lights up.
“Yes this is Billy Rabin calling from Wax Trax Records,” he says, his voice suddenly formalistic. I would like to speak to The Random Ant.
“Leave my label out of it!” shouts Dannie, but laughter threatens to drown him out and it is clear that he is not angry ay Billy.
“Yes, I see.” says Billy in a precise and proper tone, covering the mouthpiece with his hand. “The Random Ant just joined the army,” he whispers. “I am talking to his mother.”
“How could The Random Ant have joined the army if he’s 52?” I wonder aloud but no one is listening. All eyes are fixed on Billy.
“We are just so excited by these songs. It is exactly the sort of thing that the label is looking for right now,” he says.” We would like to circulate it among our radio and publicity departments and get their feedback. Would it be possible to get another set of tapes?”
“Stop, oh those poor people,” says Dannie, but his voice is weak with laughter and it is clear that there is no stopping Billy, who is now carefully spelling out his own name and address for The Random Ant’s mother. I inch a little closer to him and I can now hear the voice of a very sleepy older woman who is clearly thrilled that her son is about to become a star, but now very worried that a four-year stint in the army might interfere with his future stardom. Billy smiles and assures her that the label will wait forever before hanging up the phone.