by Christopher Bacas
The month ended anticlimactically. We’d done shitty business for the hotel and, due to some nastiness caused by remnants of our ship crew, hadn’t endeared ourselves to staff. Heading inland, the rhythm section came unmoored. Bass and drums baited each other; refusing to listen and digging in hard. Their beat was a floor covered in marbles: balance gone, you ducked low and grabbed the sides to stay upright. On a tiny stage in Salt Lake City, we closed with A’s original theme; a bizarre dirge with tribal drums, cantorial clarinet and peppery brass commentary. When we cutoff the last note, the curtain was closed. I heard angry words behind, then turned to see T down his bass and walk straight into the trap set, fists raised. Jack hastily de-throned himself and threw his arms forward. Cymbals and drums toppled. Manager waded in and got between them.
T’s lip quivered as he paced the stage between rounds. Jack motor-mouthed himself to the dressing room, leaving his gear in a heap. This wasn’t going to be resolved anytime soon. A divine intervention followed. T caught a bad cold; pneumonia, really. He couldn’t sleep at night and the bus became a torture chamber. He writhed, shivering and hacking, voice a sandpaper squawk, refusing any help. Soloist suggested T check-in to a hospital for a few days. Guitar could play T’s instrument. In Boston, Guitar often gigged on bass. He sounded great and it was a simple way to make money. Those gigs destroyed his hands, so Guitar didn’t relish playing bass in a big band, but he’d do it to help out. Sitting behind the driver, unshaven, eyes cratered, T hated the idea.
He croaked from his diesel deathbed.
“You’re not gonna take my gig!”
“I don’t WANT your gig. I don’t like playing bass. Take a couple days off, man”
“Chrissakes, T, let him play!”
“No fuckin’ way. He wants to steal my gig!”
In a reversal, Guitar was frustrated by someone else’s paranoia.
Next stop: Valentine’s Day at Ft Leonard Wood, Missouri. A swing-band in the NCO club on the Western World’s date night. There was no stage in the cavernous room. I couldn’t see past the first rank of tables, but it was packed with a restless, hostile crowd. After twenty minutes, the din completely swallowed our band. Soloist knew we were fucked. He deployed a secret weapon. P, one of our trumpeters, did a sterling Louis Armstrong; singing and playing with mastery and infectious joy. He walked to the mic and started “Hello Dolly”. Pops’ sound opened every heart. The threat didn’t retreat as much as recalibrate. They were still angry, but not at us. The end of the night came without incident. Twenty years after his death, the spiritual father of our music protected us. Blessedly, that night, T made a doctor visit, then rested in the hotel. He might have collapsed in the menacing, smoky club.
As the bus rolled north, then east, I caught some version of T’s plague. My usual strategy, to fast when ill, crushed me. Deep in fever, February winds slamming the bus, driving across the Continental Divide was a hallucination. After a bizarre concert in Cheyenne, where a cowpoke fan and black-eyed, scabby companion chatted amiably wth us, we made it to Chicago. Starving and weak, I needed high-quality, easily digestible food to break the fast. Too cheap to get a cab, I mapped a route to a nearby health-food store, bundled up and headed out. Woozy from unseasonable temperatures, the sidewalks rose in violent waves against my feet. After buying a few bottles of amazake, a pablum-like fermented rice drink, I squatted on the sidewalk outside the store and took gulps, steadying my pulsing legs against a standpipe. A couple days of food and rest restored me.Youth helped, too.
T had gone and his replacement, an erudite guy, couldn’t have been more different. The rhythm section jelled and work became play again. I needed to move on,soon. Meeting the band had a familiar chug. I travelled to the hollowed-out New England town where Soloist lived. On the other side of town, along a street cut through a swamp, my grandparents’ house; its smell of baking pies, dogs and musty basements, holy in my blood. Gramma made me anything I wanted for breakfast. She’d grill salmon steak, steam kale and have oatmeal bubbling. At the table, Bill, my Grandfather, (mock) complained:
“Gee-sus Kuh-rist, Madelyn. You make him anything he wants. You’d think I was nothin’.”
“Oh Billy, he’s only here a couple days a year. We never got to see him or his brother much. You know that.”
“I LIVE here, you know”
“Don’t listen to him, Christo-fa. He’s a bad, mean old man. Don’t think anything of it.”
Bill rattled his Boston Globe.
“Anything he wants….Anything. Gee-sus kuh-rist”
I’d visit family, sleep over, then drive with my Grandfather to Soloist’s place and wait for the bus. Bill liked Country Squire station wagons; his lawnmowers in back, windows always down to vent choking oil/gas fumes. We waited together until the bus pulled up, said our goodbyes and I hefted my stuff on board. Setup guys put the band fronts and music in the bays. Soloist brought his luggage out last and we rolled. Ten blocks away, the bus slowed and stopped. Soloist’s mistress got out of her car, loaded her stuff in, greeted us and settled in with him for the ride. Variations on this repeated throughout my tenure. Soloist leaning into a pay phone, casually and immaculately dressed, crooning over the receiver:
“I love you, Baby. I miss you so much…”
I wondered who he was talking to.
Once, a beautiful woman, in his generation, cozied up to him after a gig. The next day, someone poked him about the woman.
“No, guys. Nothing happened they-ah. Really”
“What? Come on!”
“Guys, I wouldn’t cheat on my mistress”
He meant it, too.
Bill’s lungs failed after a million-and-a-half Camels. Madelyn lived on broken hearted, passing just short of 99. Their little swamp house remains in the family. Bari man died in his early thirties. His loss devastated a clan of accomplished musicians and sobered many more. Lead Alto worked for and received a Ph.D. in music. Whitey is gone, leaving the family he loved. Some of the Twin Cities cats went to work for a local named Prince. Bud, Jack and T stayed employed. I do gigs occasionally with guys from the first edition of the band; staying busy, their stories remain unwritten. Soloist passed, making way for the next instrumentalist nervy enough to take the gig.
I wouldn’t meet A again, nor witness his withering impatience with mortals. He lived longer, prospered, battled his biographers, authorized and otherwise, and left great work in multiple disciplines. The Divine Mother, Kali, shows up in Hindu temple art as a beautiful young woman with a chaste smile. She marshals all the pitiless, cataclysmic forces of Mother Earth. A’s powers, like her necklace of skulls, still bless and devour each of us.