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New York, New York

Demonstrating Value

When you know your band is the greatest that’s ever rocked, how do you convince the rest of the world? Are nine songs enough to change nine billion minds?

The demo was done by the first week of December. There were nine songs, three newly added by Jacob. After what felt like far too much time, everything was wrapped up and placed on cheap, shiny CDs burned straight from Scott’s computer. And it sounded great, 20 minutes and 32 seconds of clean sound. It rocked out, as it should have. It was an essential part of the plan. Of course, there was still some reverb, and Scott had sequenced a drum track on “Times Square,” but effects were judiciously used.


Live, I could get through most of the songs pretty well, but it turned out that I was often a half-step flat, and so I learned to thank God, in the guise of Scott, for Auto-Tune. If we went on tour, I decided, I’d find a way to buy an outboard Auto-Tune box for live performance.

We sent out the demo, we gave it to friends, and we put up MP3s in a password-protected directory. Absolutely nothing came of this. I sent a copy to Lou Tremolo, and received no response. Jacob gave it to his music-writer friends, and reported back that they were suitably impressed. Not enough to write about it—after all, it was just a demo. But the word was good.

And we began to get more gigs. They came through word of mouth, from people who knew people, not as a result of the demo. We played Fishkill in Brooklyn, and the Mighty Caw in Manhattan. We played McMallister’s Pub in Queens one Friday, and Tom’s Deli in Brooklyn the next night. For that last event we had a listing in the Onion’s events section, which felt like a true victory. I cut out the listing and taped it to my wall, next to my picture of Wayne Coyne being carried across a crowd inside a giant plastic bubble.

It was only a matter of time before we’d be interviewed, so I got back on the wagon and started practicing my interview technique again. “Well, we started out with a prog feeling,” I planned to say, “but then we decided to get back to something simpler, but now we’re definitely picking that up again. We want to bring that sense of musical creativity back to the scene.” At my words, the attractive reporter from the New York Times would nod and write on a steno pad. “That’s exactly what I’m looking for,” she’d say.

“Now, Gary, do you mind being a sex symbol, or is it a burden?”

“It has its ups and downs,” I’d say.

 

* * *


Tom, the big boss at BrandSolve, called me in to his office. This is it, I thought. I’m getting fired.

“Just wanted to take a moment and catch up,” he said.

“It’s good,” I said. “The phones are ringing.”

“And you’re answering them!” he said, smiling. Tom was a nice guy, mostly, although he could get very pissed off when someone missed a deadline, stomping through the office. That rarely came down on me, though. He was maybe 36, and had decorated the wall by his chair with photos of his two children and prints of paintings of sailboats. He saw me looking at the pictures.

“No boat yet,” he said. “Someday.”

“Definitely,” I said. “Who doesn’t love a nice yacht?”

He smiled; praising yachts had scored a point. “What I want to talk to you about is, you’ve really made a place for yourself here, at BrandSolve—”

I told him I was glad to hear that.

“—No, everyone thinks very well of you. Working is a lot more than just answering the phone and dealing with spreadsheets. There’s a lot of personal give and take, a lot of interaction. A lot of synergy.”

“I’m a big fan of synergy.”

“So I wanted to know what your plans were. What comes next?”

“My plans?”

“For a career, for life, anything. I mean, it’s clear you’re not going to answer phones forever.”

“Well, I’ve got this music thing I do in my spare time,” I said.

“With Scott,” he said. “I’ve heard it. It’s great. I don’t have any musical knowledge, I mean, I don’t even listen to the radio anymore. But real energy.”

“You’ve heard it?”

“Totally. Scott gave me the demo. I respect it.”

“Well, thank you,” I said.

“I used to play trombone in high school, and I know how hard it is to do what you’ve done. But I guess what I’m asking is, what else do you want to do?”

“I’m just really seeing where that leads,” I said. “You know?”

“What I want to say here is that if you’d like some new skills—I saw you with Scott doing HTML, and if you’d like to talk about some other work you could do, and think about full-time, we could do that.”

It finally made sense what he was talking about, the reason he’d called me into the office: full time! Full time with benefits! Benefits! The only thing that rocks more than rock is health care. I could hear the call to my father, telling him how I was on a career track. I could see money, money piling up in my bank account, and never again thinking the word “overdraft.” I could buy Para a meal at a restaurant that fused French, Spanish, and Chinese cuisines. And with these visions came a sudden change in perceptions. I suddenly saw Schizopolis in a completely different light: as a millstone, a huge weight holding me back from a career. I could be middle-class, if I didn’t want to rock.

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” said Tom. “But I want to extend that opportunity to you.”

I thanked him sincerely, and we shook hands like true office-working men, men who believe in the goodness of capitalism. I headed back to my desk to answer the phones and make thousands of tiny changes to websites. After a while, I got up and told Scott about the conversation.

“What are you going to do?” he asked.

“Did you talk to him?” I asked.

“No, not a word. I figured you wanted to stay part-time.”

“It would be a real job,” I said. “I’ve never had a real job before.”

“Did he say what you’d be doing?”

“Maybe some HTML? Then I might work for you. You could never ask me to take my pants off again.”

“No,” said Scott. “I couldn’t. But he wasn’t more specific?”

“He said I had shown myself to be very capable, and that I should consider my options.”

“You should,” said Scott. “I’ve been here six years. It’s not a bad gig.”

“I know,” I said. “It’s a pretty easy road, actually.”

Scott went on to tell me how he’d started at BrandSolve. He’d worked as a programmer for a few years for Bloomberg, a big finance and computer company. He quit with a few spare dollars, and decided to volunteer to work at a men’s health clinic, which was also where his boyfriend at the time worked. He did that for about three months, and saw every single thing that could go wrong with a man’s genitals and/or rectum. “This was in the West Village,” he said. “With regards to the sad consequences of overeager ass play,” Scott said, “I worked at ground zero.”

“So you quit and came to work here?”

“I’m not really the men’s health clinic type, it turned out. Also, I broke up with my boyfriend.”

“So BrandSolve was better than dealing with grossly infected penises?”

“Yes,” said Scott.

“Sounds like a dream job,” I said.

But still, Scott had enjoyed six years of pure stability. I didn’t know I’d wanted that. I didn’t know exactly where Tom had gotten the idea that I was a good worker, but if he thought I could add value to the enterprise, why question it? Then again, we had a demo, and a good one. We should be pushing that hard. And if I took a full-time job, I’d be in the same place as my bandmates, trying to balance work and art. I mean, I doubt that I spent more time working on the band than Scott did. But I had more time to think about things, to sing in the shower, to figure my life out.

I also felt a tiny bit hypocritical, because I’d looked down on Scott for the past year, as I worked at BrandSolve, seeing him as complacent, working for the man. Today, the man had asked me to step onboard his boat and set sail for the magical country of Careeristan, and I was ready to raise the mast. I’d seen myself as outside of the status quo, following my dream. But I’d also been jealous of people with careers and four-digit bank accounts, if I admitted the truth. I thought of my sprained ankle, about the amazing luxury of visiting the doctor whenever I wanted. Should I sell out so cheaply?

I decided to call Lou Tremolo, and see if he’d heard the copy of the demo I’d sent him, see if there were any possibilities there. I’d kept his card in my wallet, looking at it from time to time to remind myself that people wanted us to succeed, and I pulled it out, the edges softened by wear.

“Oh, hey,” he said. “I saw you guys at Brownie’s.”

“Red Light,” I said. “I sent you a demo?”

“Oh,” he said. “I moved offices. Send it over.”

“Sure,” I said. “It’s online if you want it.”

“No,” said Lou. “Mail it.”

The next day I dropped it in the mail, priority, in bubble wrap. Scott advised me not to get my hopes up, and began to research other managers. But within 72 hours—well, business hours; there was a weekend in there, too—Lou called back.

“Let’s get a burger,” he said.

Schizopolis gathered at Muggs, in Williamsburg, on a Monday night. Lou was already there, and he squinted when he saw us enter, probably trying to remember what we looked like. We sat down, and at his prompting, ordered hamburgers and beer.

“No vegetarians, huh?” Lou asked.

“I used to be a vegetarian,” Jacob said. “I gave it up.”

“I love meat,” said Lou, tearing off a chunk of his hamburger, like a lion digging into a Christian. “All right,” he said. “I liked what I heard. I liked ‘Hoyt-Schemerhorn.’”

“Those are Gary’s lyrics,” Scott said.

“And Jacob’s,” I said.

“It’s not an earthshaker, but it’s solid. There’s some stuff in there.”

When he spoke, Lou’s neck moved faster than his head. I felt a deep and sudden love for him, ear hair and all. This was not a random human being, someone off the street, but a representative of that massive glowing orb known as the music industry. Bands were like sperm, trillions of them hurtling towards some half-imagined goal, and the music industry was the egg, refusing access to all but the fewest. And it was also like the vagina, filled with acids that killed the weakest bands. Here we were at Muggs, in Williamsburg, meeting a man with a ponytail who could guide us through the vaginal canal. I looked over at Katherine, who was smiling and nodding.

“So originally you were talking about Parakeet Records,” I said. “But then…”

“Ha,” he said. “They’re assholes. Look,” he said, chewing. “I just set up a relationship with a guy downtown. I’m advising him. I think he might bite.”

“That sounds perfect,” I said. What could be more perfect than a manager who was working directly with a label? That was like an EZPass; you didn’t stop and pay the toll, but just drove right through.

“What label is it?” asked Scott.

“Original Syn Records,” he said, “with a Y. You’ve heard of Slake?”

“Oh, I know Slake,” Jacob said.

“They just signed with him. I helped him bring in Slake. Took some work.”

“You’re Slake’s manager?” Jacob asked.

“I helped him bring Slake in,” Lou said, whatever that meant. “You know jam bands? OK, so he’s got a Christian jam band, the Disciples of Sound. For money. He tells me he wants to get something else in like Slake, round things out.”

Lou went on to promise that he’d hand-deliver the demo to Chris Neffly, head of Original Syn, and see what happened.

“Do we need to sign anything with you?” Scott asked Lou.

“Never sign anything,” Lou said.

“OK,” Scott said. “But—”

“Basically, look, you guys have a good package—”

“I have a fantastic package,” I said.

Lou took another bite, ignoring me. “If this works out, we’ll talk. I got things up my ass right now. I don’t want to screw around with paperwork.”

“So we’re dating,” Katherine said. “We’re just out for dinner to see if we like each other.”

“Yes,” Lou said. “You don’t buy a ring just yet.”

I admired him for trusting us, for wanting to take a risk on us, when there were so many bands out there. “Sounds fair,” I said.

Lou went on to describe his background, which was varied. He’d managed Satisfaction, a group of Rolling Stones impersonators, along with a number of disco and funk groups, the names of which rang no bells. He’d been responsible for the sudden rise of Slicker Than Grace, a techno act that dimly registered in my memory.

“Kind of a big change from the Stones to Slicker Than Grace,” Scott said.

In response, Lou told a story about Slicker Than Grace. They had, apparently, fired him when he was only able to get them $50,000 for a video. “They wanted to be on MTV,” said Lou, “and they blamed me for that. And I was like, stop gashing holes in your face on stage, and fucking 13-year-old girls, and then I can help you get a video.”

“Well, we’ve got much more modest goals,” I said. “We’d settle for VH1.”

“Forget it,” said Lou. “Don’t even think about videos at this stage. Total waste of money.”

I nodded, grateful for the advice, and crossed out the line in my plan that read “Make a video.”

Lou paid for the hamburgers and beer, which felt good, and we saw him off in his deep orange 1985 Lincoln Town Car.

“Do you trust him?” asked Jacob. “I mean, managers usually don’t work directly with the label.”

“But that’s always really inefficient,” I said. “There’s all this waiting.”

“I don’t know,” said Scott. “He seems a little sleazy.”

“He’s a pig,” said Katherine. “He ate the hamburger like a jackal.”

“Two hamburgers,” said Jacob.

“Well,” I said, “we can see where this leads, or we can go looking for another manager. I want to see where it leads.”

My bandmates agreed that this was a sensible approach, and Katherine descended into the train station, looking back to wave, and we all went our separate ways toward our own apartments.

Back at my place, David was sitting on the couch with a girl on his lap. “This is Trina,” he said, introducing me. She was wearing so much jewelry, she looked like a disco ball.

“Hey, Trina,” I said. “How you guys doing?”

“Great,” she slurred, “I’m so great.”

“Glad to hear that,” I said, heading into my own room, where I called Para. She was watching The Daily Show, and not far from bed.

“I’m so glad to hear your voice,” she said. “It always cheers me up.”

I told her about Lou. “That is so excellent,” she said. “I’m dating a genuine rock star.” I remembered all the months when she’d sneered a little at Schizopolis, and felt truly gratified. I’d earned her approval. I lit up a cigarette, and looked through some of the magazines I’d bought the day prior. One was called Internet Architect, and the other was Advertising Report. Granted, the meeting with Lou had gone well, but if I did decide to work for the man, I wanted to understand what he was saying. Except both of the magazines were filled with extraterrestrial marking and language; the advertisers were worried about CPMs and demographic analysis, and the Internet people were on about Java and web services. None of it made any sense. Maybe, after all, it would make more sense to stick to the rock.