Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Call Me Pigtail 1/20

Hi kids -- I decided to start posting the actual mostly-true story of the NDI here on my blog, to see if anyone likes it. So let me know what you think please!

Call Me Pigtail
(part 1 of 20)

Spring, 1989:
I wake up on a nasty unknown couch and say it out loud: "The New Duncan Imperials." My two best friends and most dedicated enemies are still asleep on another couch in this horribly sunny living room, someone's apartment in Louisville, so they don't hear me at first. I say it again. "The New Duncan Imperials. Like the yoyo. Wake up, fuckers." John and Kenn, who are about to lose their names and most of their identities, move a little bit. Someone is up in the kitchen, making noise, but I can't remember who led us here or who lives here, girl or boy, so forget it. "Hey Skipper." That's funny to me now but soon it will be normal -- "Hey Skipper. You're no longer Kenn, mediocre keyboardist in a mediocre band playing mediocre gigs. You are now a cartoon, a parade balloon, a fucking hillbilly. Also, you now play bass." Forget that Kenn has never played bass, ever, and that his first instrument will be fretless, and covered in plaid contact paper. These are details.
It is time to wake up. We have been living in a dream, a dangerous, repetitive, romantic, stupid dream, in which young men with a little talent and a gigantic, permanent sense of alienation can drop out of college together, buy a van that wants only to die, and set off to play songs they wrote in front of strangers in strange towns. Phoenix! Youngstown! Reno! Louisville! A lot of shows in Louisville. And we have to admit it: the dream is over. We tried, godDAMMIT we tried, but it's time to wake up.
Wake up, fuckers. I feel around on the floor for something to throw at my friends on the couch, a lighter will do, hits one of them, and John wakes up a little. Last night before we passed out he suggested we call our new band The Manures, "because we get plowed every night." Funny maybe once and true enough, but, you know, if we're really starting over we need a name that sounds new. Right? So let's just put that word in the title. The New somethings. And also something that sounds fucking royal, something to contend with, something that rules. So Imperials. The New Imperials? Sounds like a fucking 1990's iteration of a 50's doo-wop band, like you see on public television, right? So fuck that. Free association, hungover and thirsty and demoralized and broke, nothing to lose, leads us to the yo-yo aisle. The New Duncan Imperials. Perfect. Hopefully we'll get sued.
So I say it again, out loud, and John and Kenn, soon to be Goodtime Dammit and Skipper Zwakinov, sorry but yes we don't care, these fine gentlemen hear me finally and maybe make a noise. Not much. But it has started. The sick seed of our glory and our downfall has found a purchase in our irresponsible brains.
More noise in the kitchen, and now someone is coming -- a girl, yes, full-faced, earnest, walking through the room, eating a bowl of cereal. I wave and she smiles and calls me by my name, but it's not my name, it's whatever comical pseudonym I came up with last night. We're knee-deep in comical pseudonyms. I'm Ricoh-Sid-Lawrencio, and soon enough, Pigtail Dick, my New Duncan Imperials name that will eventually be shortened to just Pig, and I'll wear it proudly. The other couch boys are stirring, sitting up, hair pushed sideways, meeting my eyes. "New Duncan Imperials," I say again, trying it out, feeling for strength, durability. "Like the yo-yo." Goodtime smiles, he loves a pun, god bless him. Skipper loves irony, in flavors both icy and absurd. They are both ready for a change.
The girl sits on the floor in her torn jeans and superhero t-shirt, slurps her cereal. She's a little big but interesting-looking. What is her life like here? Why would she let four broke-ass dudes from a band that didn't even draw crash in her apartment. Well -- four. Where's Jeremy? Right. Jeremy scores again. Except that Jeremy has also lost, because he's not going to be an Imperial. He's not going to get a funny fake name, get semi-famous, or get pets named after him. He's getting none of this because he's the main reason The Imperials are necessary in the first place. We fucking hate Jeremy. We will break up the band before we take another step with his self-pitying, shower-hogging, ankle-spraining ass.
Plus he got laid again. Motherfucker.
There's a moment, there on our saggy couches, still sunk in wake-up misery, when our eyes meet, me and Skipper and GT, and we experience a tiny little magic electrical zing. I feel it, and I know they do. Things Are Changing. The Jeremy thing is over. Our future, which, if I am allowed to paraphrase the poet Matthew Arnold, had lately promised neither certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain, was now somehow a thing of interest, if not optimism. Here was this new thing, and we were so eager and ready to just fuck the old thing. Speaking of which, here he comes, old Jeremy, lovely hair, skin like milk. Lips like sugar. Once I woke up with him in some too-hot Motel 6 room, on the box-spring with him curled up away from me, and his beautiful blonde hair flowed around his slim shoulders, that soft white skin with a constellation of coffee-brown moles high up near his long neck, and I thought, "God-damn. How did I get a girl like this?" Jeremy gets laid so much because he's beautiful. If any of these pretty little things actually spent an entire day with him, they would hand him a fake phone number and go home to take a shower.
Cock-bite strolls into the room, absently scratching his flat stomach. "Awesome," he says, to no-one.

One more show to go, one more night in Purgatory, literally, Purgatory Ohio, down where it's basically West Virginia except it's dry, motherfuckers, and you have to either drive 40 minutes each way over a bridge to buy a bottle of genuine 80-proof generic vodka or walk down the street to the strange alcohol-only shop and spend half as much money on a bottle with half as much power, 35-proof vodka, jesus fuck, whose idea was that? The bottle drinks you -- you wind up weaker than when you started, half-full, wondering when the good feeling will start, only it never does. The club, JB's Basement Bar, is in Purgatory but the whole area is actually part of some state college scene connected to a real town called Portsmouth. One last show. The death rattle for this two-week jaunt through the Near South, St Louis-Memphis-Nashville and then a few cheap-ass weeknight gigs in college towns like this one, and then the weekend again, Lexington-Huntington-Cincinnati, and then here. We are going in circles but that is all we could get. We are half-sick and touchy, fighting like children. Filthy clothes crowd our travel bags and the small cash reserves we each started with is gone. We smoke generic cigarettes, steal bottles of trucker speed from gas stations. We will drink anything, even 35-proof vodka. We drive to the club and load in and hang around and get up on the stage and sing songs about -- about what? No one is sure, but some of them are serious and catchy, just enough to keep us going. A curse, really. If we had no redeeming qualities this slow death would have been a quick dismissal. We are just good enough to make the suffering worthwhile.
So these towns, oh Lord these towns and clubs, we come back and we come back and some nights people come and most nights they don't, and we play our rough and ready little songs to little knots of people hiding in the shadows off the dance floor, and we try to get drunk and we try to make friends, but let's admit it: it's not working. We Are Not Going To Make It. We're not even sad about it, because we're not surprised.
But, but, but. Here at the end of the line we do have a surprise waiting. We have stumbled onto the spark of an idea, and somehow, I don't know how, we know what to do. We pass each other coming in and out of the door loading our hopeless amps and drums into JB's Basement Bar, and our eyes meet, me and Kenn/Skip and John/GT, we catch each other's eyes and that little electric jangle is still there. The idea is still alive.
What is the idea? It's so simple, but so not-obvious: stop trying. Stop writing songs like it matters. Stop working on arrangements and sounds like anyone gives a fuck. Stop taking rock music seriously. Sacrilege! Realize and accept the inverse of everything that we had assumed was true and real. Immediately we had a slogan: It Don't Matter. Over time we adapted it, in true dada fashion, to our band initials: NDI. N -- It. D -- Don't. I -- Matter. It Don't Matter. The enormity of the idea will take days and weeks to fully settle in, but in that first blush at JB's Basement Bar I swear we are feeling the earth move. The old routine -- walking the gear into the club, setting up, running through sound-check, leaving to eat cheap at the taco hole down the street, coming back to a dead room, climbing on stage, blasting the back walls with our art -- it is hurting less tonight. And it is hurting less because we have new armor.

Back home, we fire Jeremy practically before he is out of the van. Take your shit and go, motherfucker. We have work to do. First of all: get Skipper a bass. He can use his keyboard amp for now. Second of all: get ourselves new identities. We wear hats over our eyes because we don't want anyone to know it's us (as if anyone would care at all); we know it's a dumb and ineffective disguise, but, repeat after me, It Don't Matter. We are now Skipper, Goodtime, and Pigtail, and we know NOTHING. We are dumb, snide hillbillies from a non-existent town in Tennessee called Bucksnort, and we have never heard of our old band or the losers in it. We are sui generis, and we will slap down with sarcasm and fake accents anyone who suggests otherwise. It's the beginning of a long and consistent bit of improv, funny to us, and if anyone doesn't get it or won't play along then guess what, yes, fuck them, because, guess what, yes, It Don't Matter.
A bass for Skipper, check. Fake names, check. Now we need songs.
In the basement of GT's apartment building, where we pay $50 a month for the privilege of storing our gear and practicing in a half-crouch under the five-foot ceiling, we meet for our first try at not trying.
The first rule is in place: we're using code names. Always. After being his best friend for more than ten years, I will never call Kenn anything but Skipper from now on.
So here we go. Skipper plugs in his bass and starts playing through a noxious hum of unshielded wires and clanking strings. Two notes on the heaviest string, back and forth. He uses one finger on each hand, kind of like you play Chopsticks, but this thing he's creating is primordial, eons before Chopsticks, a slimy, swamp-dwelling mess. Skipper's riff has primitive gills. Goodtime is setting up his drums while Skipper plays his first ever notes on his new instrument, and then, while I watch, he starts taking his drums down. What the fuck? Is he quitting already? I really can't blame him, given the noise Skipper's making. Oh well. Fun while it lasted. Down come the nice wooden tom-toms, down come the splash and crash and ride cymbals. The big fat floor tom -- trucked off to a dark corner of the basement. GT returns, and then instead of walking out forever he sits down at the set. The set! It's now a kick drum, a snare, and a hi-hat. That's it. And then he starts playing it. Playing the holy bejeezus fuck out of it. Putting his weight into it, his solid bones, heavy legs, strong back, pouring it on, smacking the shit out of it, rolling the hi hat, now making it crash, rim-shots, brutal bass hits. Years of held-in power, anger, release, smashed down on this poor little collection of innocent targets. A fucking air-raid. I'm standing there like a goddamn zombie, not sure what to do, and now somehow GT and Skipper are playing the same thing, kind of, the master and the moron
meeting in the middle. The riff is still two notes, as simple and as stupid as any music I have ever heard, a violation, an anti-song. What had just happened to our last ten years of song craft and aestheticism? It was not only gone, it was negated, contradicted, reversed. It was over.
The mess blasts on, and I plug in my guitar, but not my nice real band one -- I choose a back-up piece of shit hollowbody with a tree-trunk neck, a Japan-made knock-off I got at a garage sale for $25, the strings corroded and stiff, basically unplayable, and turn every knob on my amp in the opposite direction, a random, senseless configuration of tonal control. I look at Skipper's two fingers, get the idea, and join in the cathartic noise. We play the same two notes for fifteen minutes, until we're sure the old sound, the old band, the old music, is dead and gone. And just like that, it is. The revolution is complete.


  1. This is great, I love reading these decadent road stories.

  2. Hell yes. Thank you, Sir! May I have another??

  3. This is brilliant! Keep writing. IT DON'T MATTER has been my philosophy for most of my life. I think you should have IT DON'T MATTER as part of the title of the book. I'd buy it. Also, thanks for all of the good times we had when you used to play down here in Broadripple. The Patio is gone but The Alley Cat bar is still here and it misses you guys. :)


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