Once we had merged onto I94 and the clean, sensible skyline of Minneapolis was receding in the rearview mirror, I popped in the CD. "Should we find out what these nice, young boys sound like?"
"Yes, let's," Leo said, sounding surprisingly eager.
But of course, they sounded like any band of teenagers whose parents had paid for expensive equipment and music lessons and time in a professional studio and a slickly-packaged CD would sound. The music wasn't offensive, necessarily; it was just kind of like having a pitcher of tepid water poured all through your body and over your soul.
About a minute into the third track, I turned the volume way down. "Well, have we heard enough?"
"Nah . . . there's only two songs left; we might as well hear them out," Leo said. His tone evinced a weighty, world-weary disappointment that nurtured, nonetheless, a stubborn seed of hope. He sounded like any typical parent. He inspected the back of the CD case. "Hmmm . . . some real clever song titles. Track five: 'Things I Learned While Drunk in Vail, Colorado' . . . I learned Mommy does things to the ski instructor I've only seen the doggy do . . ."
"Does anybody want to smoke some weed?" Dante offered from the back seat.
We'd had ourselves a strange time in the purple city, alright. This hopeful digital offering from Chad Chesterfield & the Rad Intentions, as they called themselves, was just the capper. We came by it quite by accident. We were hanging out after our set, doing that old, familiar creeper-dance, the steps to which are standing around stinking of fresh sweat, talking in very parochial tones only to each other and responding with a measured "thanks" to those who tell you, "great set, man", because you don't know if they're being sarcastic or patronizing or what, while your brain is buzzing nervously inside your skull, like it just survived a prolonged bombing. I was drinking a pomegranate-flavored sparkling water. I'd recently quit drinking alcohol, you see and, yeah, it’s about as much fun as it sounds.
The venue was an old storefront, unmarked on the outside – real underground. The place must have been a restaurant at one point, 'cause there was a lunch counter behind which a makeshift bar was set up and a couple booths remained against one wall. Bands played in the basement. We'd set our merch out at the booth closest to the bar and Leo and I were lingering around nearby - just in case. This was one of the most awkward steps in the dance. At some point a group of kids commandeered the booth. I kept a pretty nervous eye on them, young and squirrely as they were. For all I knew they might start throwing our records around like frisbees – I had no idea what kids in Minnesota did for fun, or, for that matter, what they might be hopped up on! What's more, I had a couple copies of my precious novel laid out as well and I sure as hell wasn't about to trust these brats around my life's work, the very written record of my soul, for chrissake! Then – wouldn’t you know it – one of them, a mousey little girl, picks up a book and starts flipping though it! Then the whole group puts their heads together, reading and giggling.
I nudged Leo. "Hey, are you seeing this?"
"Oh yeah," Leopold took on an interested tone. “The blonde one approached me when we came up from the basement. She liked our set!” Leo’s eyes bulged. “Of course I’m just pouring off stink, fucking mumbling . . . terrible. Fucking adroit conversationalist I am. I finally just bailed. ‘I’ve got to get a beer’, I said. Jesus.” I had to give the girl credit just for approaching Leo, who was a giant of a man, with a prodigious beard and besides that, buzzing with beer and hopped up on rock n’ roll.
Leo wandered away, but I was compelled. Perhaps seeing my purple, prose baby in those eager, delicate, little hands was just too much. I moved in.
The little brunette – she looked the most bookish – jumped up as soon as I approached. “Who wrote this book?”
“That’s so cool!”
Then the blonde one pushed in front of her. “You guys sounded great. It was so raw and . . . awesome. How do you say your name?”
“Slim Sugarman’s Maudlin Majestic.”
“That’s soooo cool!”
This girl was a quite different animal from her friend. She reeked of impatience and willfully bad decisions. She had that lanky, long-boned physicality that made her youth a race toward oblivion – a breathing, ticking time bomb. Like her big bones were full of the fatal knowledge of her species, and it would soon start to seep out, filling her with unstoppable poison. She leaned in and talked fast, as if the particular content of her speech didn’t matter in the least. Everything was forward momentum. A true Lolita.
“How do I buy this book?” her friend said, the brunette.
“Well, you just pay me $10”
She conferred with a big-eyed boy, shorter than she was, who had been standing there watching, wearing a dopey grin. “We only have $8.”
I almost said, ‘just take it’, but something stopped me – convoluted pride, or paranoia, I guess. “It’s on Amazon, like everything else. You can order it,” I said.
“I’ll take a picture of it. I’m going to buy it right when I get home.”
Yeah you’re not, I thought.
“I think it’s so cool you wrote a book,” the blonde said, leaning in to me.
“This is really a cock tease,” I said, blowing out air. “You tell me you want to buy my book but you just don’t have any money; it’s the oldest trick in the book.” I was compelled to say this by some weird, newfound force of honesty, I think. Anyway, the kids were unfazed. It seemed that they were prepared for anything, that that was the number one rule of their Brave New Game. They just kept laying on the adulation, all bright eyes and determination.
They raved about how ‘cool’ this whole experience was. They were ecstatic. “Yeah, Minneapolis is a cool city,” I said. “In fact, my wife and I are encouraging our daughter to think about going to school here . . . reciprocity and all. She’s probably about your age.” This strange, new compulsion towards a forthright line . . . I couldn’t help thinking how differently this scene would play out if I was still on the sauce.
“That’s so sweet,” the blonde cooed. “Congratulations. Congratulations on your family!” Whatever that meant.
After a while it became clear the girls were going to have to leave. Rapping out fast text messages, stealing frequent glances at the door, conferring, hard lingering.
“Well, it was nice meeting all of you. I should give you a hug,” I said, giving the blonde a healthy squeeze, hands dutifully above board. I felt like such an adult. I wondered if I should hug the brunette, but she seemed to be satisfied with vicarious transmission. It really warmed my heart. Who knows, she might end up being a writer someday.
“It was so awesome to meet you guys. Good luck with your tour and your book and your family and everything.” Yes. And good luck to you young people. Godspeed.
Before they departed, a carefully groomed, somewhat mod-looking boy whom I hadn’t noticed standing at the fringes of the group, handed me a CD. “Here, just take it. It’s the only one we have left.” This had the feel of a meaningful overture.
“Thanks,” I said.
What made this whole exchange with Chad Chesterfield and his fresh-faced harem especially surreal was how the show had gone.
The first act was something called Fast Gay Frank. We were to play second. Frank basically performed a highly stylized karaoke show. He sang emo-ish anthems over new wavey loops programmed into his synthesizer. He had a projector set up throwing some arty video against one wall. The whole thing was saturated in reverb. The kids loved it. The whole basement was packed and they cheered every song. Strong sense of irony, had these young Minnesotans. The fellas and I exchanged hopeful glances; it looked like we were going to have a good crowd, anyway.
Well, not so fast, buckaroo.
When we were set up and ready to play, only about the half the crowd that had taken in Fast Frank’s act had made their way back down to the basement. After two songs there were about as many people watching the band as there were playing in it. Slim Sugarman still knew how to clear a room, if nothing else.
I didn’t quite get it. The skinny jeans and denim jacket crowd that filled the venue looked like the same people that had dug us in the past. I guess sometimes the world just moves on. I, for one, wasn’t about to take responsibility for anybody’s poor fucking taste, that’s for sure! And then it did turn out that we’d ‘touched’ a few folks after all.
I’d had a book reading earlier in the day, at a place called Eat My Words. That went pretty well. There was a decent crowd of very nice, smart folks – owing mostly to the very good and kind local author I read with. After the reading when everyone had left and we’d packed up all our stuff, I had a look around the store. I picked up a couple of titles by Nabokov I hadn’t seen before.
“Ah, some Nabokov,” said the old grey-beard behind the counter. He said it in a way that made me think he’d probably been through Vlad’s whole canon. I’d get there. I’d already read the big ones. Starting with Lolita, of course.