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Concise Prose. Enough Said.
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Live Band Tonight

By Neil Crabtree

We went on break after a forty-minute set, our third night at The Sugar Shack at the Holiday Inn of the Crossroads. The crowd was okay, businessmen in cool-guy shirts and long sideburns, divorcees in mini-skirts, truckers with their rigs out in the parking lot, the locals who came for the two-for-one on call brands and free buffet. They liked the Oldies we played, Twist And Shout, Jailhouse Rock, Good Golly Miss Molly, Devil With a Blue Dress On, anything with a beat they could dance to without being embarrassed. Fine with us, we were a hippie rhythm-and-blues band, shamelessly crazy for the Beatles and the Stones, not really interested in the psychedelic crap lingering like a hangover from the Sixties.

Pip and Levon were guitar maniacs, I sang and played electric piano, and Marty, who’d got us this good-paying gig, filled in on drums while Mojo awaited trial in the county jail on a framed-up Possession charge. Some of our crowd came but not as many as during the week, Friday night at a Holiday Inn being the equivalent of visiting your grandmother at the nursing home, so many out-of-touch old farts sitting around. Katy came, though I had dumped her over a week ago, and sat with Pip’s mother at a table down front drinking White Russians. She came outside into the parking lot arm-in-arm with Marty to where Pip, Levon, and I were passing around a fifth of Tio Pepe Tequila.

“Why are you guys drinking out here?” Marty asked, looking fine in a cashmere overcoat, his mustache trimmed, his long black hair so styled it looked like he went to the salon everyday.

“That asshole Sugar charges us full pop on drinks,” Levon said.

“The way you guys drink, I don’t blame him.”

“Listen to you,” Pip said. “You probably get a cut of the profits.”

“Hey. Ronnie. Sugar wants you to sing a song for him,” Marty said to me.

I tilted the tequila bottle up and chugged. “Fuck Sugar.”

“Come on, now. Sugar’s paying the bills here. We get house band here, we’re making two grand a week. Pay a lot of bills with that money.”

Marty had somehow become our manager. I don’t remember when, though there’s a chance he took over after loaning us five hundred bucks to cover our rent. It was true, this job paid about three times what we were used to, and we owed everybody we knew money. So Pip and Levon and I just went along with what he said, figuring Mojo would straighten things out when he got out of jail. If he got out of jail.

“Anybody holding?” Pip asked. “I need the weed.”

“I’ve got two fat ones rolled and ready,” Katy said. She was the perfect groupie, a loyal fan who loved us every way she could, and always had dope when everyone in town was dry. She’d been in my bed for the last six months but I’d gone crazy last week, done a lot of psych-damage, made her move out of the house the band shared, take her shit and go. We played eye-tag while Marty squeezed her behind. I had the idea she wanted me to stop him, some chick thing like that.

“Let’s go in my car,” Marty said. “Levon drives.” Which was cool; Levon still had a valid license. We piled into Marty’s big Oldsmobile, him and Katy in the back with Pip, and the joints were lit before Levon had us on the highway. I figured we had twenty minutes before Sugar’d come looking for us. No way Marty wanted us standing around blowing dope in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn, with all the straight arrows going in and out. His hand was way up Katy’s leg as he puffed away and passed the joint.

“He wants you to sing Sugar Sugar,” Marty said, his voice chokey from the smoke.

Pip and Levon laughed. “That greaseball.” “Fucking bubblegum music.”

“No way I’m singing Sugar Sugar. Forget about it.”

“He’s the man, Ronnie. You do requests all the time.”

“No I don’t. I sing rock’n’roll, I sing the blues. Not Sugar Sugar.”

Levon held a joint that popped as a seed exploded and sent embers and ash down his shirtfront. He was so focused on driving the new car, both hands on the wheel, he just sat there and I had to pat out the burn spots for him.

“Am I on fire?” he asked.

“I got it,” I told him. “Damn, Katy. What is this stuff?” The car was filled with thick smoke that smelled peppery and dangerous.

“Great big gold buds,” she said. “I can get you guys a bag.” She sat in the middle, leaning against Marty, one of her boot heels pressing into Pip’s thigh as she put a leg under her, and used her hand to unbutton Marty’s coat.

I drank some Tio and passed the bottle back to her. The dope was so good I felt The Voice come into me, take over the controls. It sang from my mouth, Rod Stewart there in the car, the rude part of the Faces song, kicking the girl out before morning, not aiming to start anything but not caring if I did. Pip and Levon joined in, we sang the chorus to Stay With Me, laughing, the guitar maniacs knowing The Voice was in me now, demonic rock possession, strange events to follow. Katy could see it. She knew something had changed, even as she and Marty got more comfortable.

Marty didn’t sing.

He didn’t really get it, didn’t get a lot of things, you could tell from the way he played drums, so careful not to make mistakes. He played with the enthusiasm of a BeatMachine, doing what he was programmed to do and no more. He had money and looks, worked the crowd well. Couldn’t help it he wasn’t a hippie. He thought Sugar was an all right dude.

“So what do I tell him?” Marty asked.

“Tell him I’ll sing Mr. Postman.” And The Voice started singing:

Please Mr. Postman, Look and see
If there's a letter, A letter for me

The Voice was low, a gravelly bass that sounded like it came from a spittoon, but when applied to rock’n’roll songs conveyed the feeling of white boys gone bad. It encouraged the restlessness that made people go to bars and drink while the band played, until they could hear it too, something out of control, emanating from a guy just like them. Marty did not hear The Voice, or acknowledge its presence, like a wavelength beyond his spectrum, a sound heard only by dogs and crazy people.

“Tell me that’s not bubblegum,” he said.

Levon looked at him in the rearview mirror. “That’s John Fucking Lennon, man.”

Guitar boys take their Beatles very seriously.

“Yeah, we know Lennon didn’t write it or do the original. But Lennon applied The Voice to it. Can’t you hear it?” Pip said.

“So apply The Voice to Sugar Sugar,” Marty argued.

“Can’t be done,” Levon said.

“You’re like a long-haired guy who misses his BryllCreem,” Pip said.

“I’ll bet you don’t like John Kennedy either,” Levon said.

“What’s John Kennedy got to do with rock’n’roll?” Marty asked.

“John Kennedy invented dry hair, Marty. If not for John Kennedy, we’d all be wearing Bryllcreem and look like Elvis,” Pip said.

“That’s bullshit.”

“Oh yeah?” I said. “Then why’d they kill him?”

“Who?”

“You ever see a picture of Lee Harvey Oswald, man?” Levon was hot. His eyes stayed off the road for nearly three seconds before he began his robot stare down the highway. “Oswald was the Bryllcreem hitman.”

“Katy,” I said, “shotgun your date before he says anything else to piss off the driver. We could get killed, you get Levon going on the Bryllcreem Conspiracy.” She winked at me, then put the burning end of the joint in her mouth and pressed her mouth on to Marty’s. As she blew smoke out the other end you could see Marty fill up with more smoke than he thought possible, and when she pulled away and he exhaled the front of the car disappeared in its cloud.

The bar we last played at came up suddenly on the right. The Lost Horizon was a mile or so down from the Holiday Inn but seemed farther because the lights of the city began at the crossroads and ended way before you got out here in the woods. The bar was full of bikers and hippies. We saw a circle of freaks outside smoking weed right there in the front, but Marty bitched when I wanted to stop, said we had to get back.

“The joint is jumping tonight,” Levon said.

“Wart and Pigface are here. See the bikes? I heard Sugar wouldn’t let them into the Holiday Inn,” Pip said.

“There’s a dress code,” Marty said. “There’s a sign, that’s all.”

“Man, I’m turning the wheel but it doesn’t feel like the car’s moving,” Levon said.

“You stopped for the stop sign,” I told him. “Just give it a little gas and head back the way we came. Okay?”

“Sure. Just keep talking, okay. I’m really zonked.”

“Just go slow. You want me to drive?”

“Nah. I want to get back and play guitar.”

Katy was bumping the tequila bottle against my arm as Marty leaned into her with a power kiss. I took it and drank, turning away from the backseat. We were so loaded no one said anything for a while. Then the sound of heavy breathing as Marty and Katy made out started to be oppressive. The Voice couldn’t take it. Out came more Mr. Postman, the right way, so you could feel the desperation of waiting for that fucking letter.

Levon and Pip joined in, tapping on the wheel, the seat back, harmonizing, telling the man, deliver de letter, de sooner de better, feeling the weirdness grow as zippers unzipped, buttons unbuttoned, flesh sprang free. The car interior shrank, getting small as a mailbox we were crammed into with a couple sex maniacs. Levon had the wipers on to clear the mist, their mechanical motion in our faces adding to the claustrophobia. We sang until Levon pulled the Olds into the lot and parked in a handicapped spot. By then Katy’s face was down in Marty’s lap, and he was stretched out glassy-eyed as her head bobbed up and down. The rest of us jumped out of the car like we had been marooned in it for days. It was starting to rain, a misty sprinkle that didn’t make me feel wet so much as pissed on from on high.

“I’m heading for the buffet,” Levon said.

“You okay?” Pip asked me.

The lights of the signs seemed much brighter than they’d been before. Sugar Shack was in pink neon against a black background, and seemed as gross as the man himself.

“Ronnie?” Pip said again. “You okay, man?”

“Sure, sure,” I told him. “Go on in. I just want to get some air. Check in with The Voice.”

He smiled. “Katy sure gets some killer dope.”

He headed inside and I stood there. I looked at the Olds but could see no one, just fogged up windows and wet chrome. It was really a nice ride, a dark blue four-door.

Katy could dish it out as well as take it, that much was clear. I knew I probably should yank open the car door and start kicking some ass, but what was the point? Hey. Take your johnson out of my woman. Sure. While I was trying to think of something, I became aware of what The Voice wanted me to do. It was so obvious it made me laugh. I started walking in the rain, heading for the Lost Horizon, to get away from the neon, the marquee with our name under the drink specials. I knew the shit would hit the fan, Sugar would kick the guys out, some crap like that. But The Voice told me it was okay, everything would be all right. If there was a place in the world a man could sing the blues, it was in that gin mill down the road. It was funny though. As I walked, I found myself singing the hook to Sugar Sugar over and over. I couldn’t get the damn thing out of my head.

 

Neil Crabtree lives in Miami, FL, with his wife and children, and his
motivation, granddaughter Aliyah Marie. He is completing a novel, The
Barricades of Heaven
. He can be reached at: neilcrab@hotmail.com.

Neil's last work for VerbSap was The Rebellion of Sisyphus.

 

Photo "Guitarist in Blue" courtesy of Simon Brander.

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