In three days we were opening for the Crothers Scatmen. There was even a website for the venue, a bar called Red Light Brooklyn, in Red Hook, with our name on it: “SAT OCT 9 MATCHSTICK SHOWCASE Crothers Scatmen (11PM) w/Schizopolis (10PM) $10,” it said.
“You coming up for Thanksgiving?” my mother asked over the phone. I hadn’t even considered it. My thoughts were on the next 72 hours, not two months away. “Or are you going to your father’s?”
Dad always invites me, but it’s generally a half-invitation, usually issued the week before, something like, “You’re always welcome, you know.” I’d done it once, but I had felt out of place at his house, holding hands with my stepsister Kris and his wife Pat. Before dinner, we took pads of paper and made lists of the things for which we were thankful, then we’d read them, going around the table, surrounded by the best things Williams Sonoma could offer.
Thanksgiving with Mom and Jad is always far more half-assed, the gravy served straight from the stove in a pot—not a tureen—and the cranberry sauce out of a can instead of diced in with oranges. There are no pads of paper—we just wing our grateful appreciation for our lives, invoke God, and eat, and then Jad and my sister and I toss around a football in the backyard, and eat some pie.
“You can take the train,” my mother said, “but you should get your tickets now. That’s why I’m asking.”
“That sounds fine,” I said.
“You should bring Para.”
“I’ll ask her,” I said. “But she’s probably going up to Vermont.”
Even while I spoke to my mother, I only thought about the show. Scott had recorded a rehearsal session on his MiniDisc, and burned it to a CD for me, so I was listening to that on my headphones on the train, or in my room, humming along, alternating it with a Long Winters CD. I made constant mental checklists, in a perpetual state of flipout.
- Decrescendo on “Cobble Hill.”
- Face the audience.
- Look for cue from Scott on “August.”
- Don’t suck.
I sat on my bed, imagining the stage. I made a limp devil sign into the dirty glass of my window, frowning. It was getting dark early. I truly, deeply did not want to fail again, and that desire made me nervous. But in the back of my thoughts I felt a certain faith emerging, a mustard seed of faith, the sort of faith Bono has. Everything is going to be all right, I told myself. Find the flow with which to go, and go with it.
New York is almost pleasant in the fall. The smell of urine fades as the days grow colder. Para and I went for long walks, joking and laughing. She seemed to be cheered up by the fall, talking about work and wondering whether she should quit BrandSolve and go work for a magazine instead. She wanted to be an art director. “You have to follow the dream, man,” I’d say, and she’d kiss me, encouraged by my optimism.
I still thought of Katherine too often. I thought of the way her eyes scrunch when she smiles, and the way she laughs, and the story she told about drilling a hole through concrete using an industrial-strength laser for a college art project. When I wrote emails to the band, I edited them compulsively as I imagined Katherine reading them, trying to impress her with my succinct wit and proper punctuation. Then, as I noticed myself doing this, I’d repeat the words “bandmate, not girlfriend” over and over, and that seemed to help.
We arrived at nine, to an empty room. The main act wasn’t there yet, and rock-club protocol says they soundcheck first. So we sat around, not talking, opening our instrument cases and then shutting them. Finally the Crothers Scatmen arrived, shook our hands, slapped Jacob on the back, and went deep into engineering talk with the sound guy who wore a bandanna. They were calm and cool-looking; the lead singer was a bald man in his early 30s, and the bassist and drummer were normal-looking, hairy, white, indie rock guys. Surprisingly, a trumpet player and a cello player were on stage as well. I watched them without hearing what they were saying, and my hands shook.
After the Scatmen were finished, the man in the bandanna came over and introduced himself. “I’m Steve,” he said. We each shook his hand and said our names. “So what we got?”
“Nothing surprising,” I said.
“Synth, bass, drums, vocal, and acoustic,” said Scott.
“What’s coming out of the synth?” Steve asked.
“A maple syrup G-98 grounded camisole,” said Scott. Or something like that; I had no idea what he was talking about. Steve watched and listened as we pointed to Jacob’s amp and Katherine’s drums, and then they got to me, and my acoustic-electric Fender guitar.
“You have a direct box?” asked Steve, and his words magically transported me back to my apartment in Williamsburg, where my bright red direct box, which amplifies an electric-acoustic guitar so that it can go straight into the soundboard, was resting peacefully on “Gustav,” my plywood-laminated, Ikea-brand, three-drawer dresser. Forty-five minutes of travel spanned the distance between the club and my apartment. The direct box might as well have been at the bottom of the sea.
“Oh, shit,” I said.
“We might have another one,” he said. He walked across the room and opened a closet, and emerged a few moments later.
“No luck,” he said.
“Where could I get one?” I asked. (They’re not expensive.)
He gave a whistle. “Not much open at 9:30. We’ve got our spare on the back line—the one I was thinking of is on the cello.”
As my world melted, my bandmates watched to see how I’d react. I called my home number, hoping that David might be there—wondering if I could ask him for a favor. But nothing. I was screwed.
“You know,” said Jacob, “my friend Bee is coming tonight. He plays the fiddle in Crabwalk. I’m sure he’s got one.”
“Oh, shit,” I said. “You think?” I watched Jacob dial a number on his cell, and I began to sweat. He spoke into the phone for an eternal minute, and then hung up.
“We’re good,” he said. “His regular box is over at his friend’s, but he’s got a spare.”
“And he can make it?”
“I told him you’d buy him a beer if he got here in the next hour.”
“I’ll buy him, like, 60 beers.”
So we took the stage, and Steve called out to us as we sculpted our sound, the unique, simple, evocative, electric-guitar-free indie-pop (with prog leanings) sound of Schizopolis. It was powerful to hear myself sing in the monitors, speakers at my feet giving me my voice back to myself. Our first show had been random speakers and a Radio Shack mixing board, but this was for real.
We ran through “August,” a few people already filing in—girlfriends of the Scatmen, as far as I could work out—and stepped off the stage with little to do for the next hour. I stared at the clock on my cell phone every 10 seconds, until finally a lanky guy in jeans and a T-shirt, under a Carhartt jacket, came up to shake Jacob’s hand.
“Here you go,” he said. “I brought you some cable, too.”
“God bless you,” I said and bought Bee a beer, and one for myself, then another a few minutes later until I stopped myself, remembering my recent episode on the floor of the Magical Donut. As time passed the knot in my stomach unwound. Katherine came up behind me and rubbed my shoulders, and for a moment I froze, wondering if Para had arrived yet, but she hadn’t.
“You got your box,” Katherine said.
“It’s all good.”
“Thank God. There, see, it all worked out. It’s all fine.”
I leaned back into her fingers. “Yes,” I said.
Scott came over and announced, “There is nothing more disgusting than watching people give massage.” Katherine responded by rubbing his shoulders for a moment, which he accepted gladly, and I closed my eyes and exhaled for a long moment, opening them to see Para walking across the room. I was worried she’d seen Katherine giving the massage, but even if she had, she’d moved directly over to Scott, so I was in the clear—
“You ready?” said Para.
“I’m ready!” I kissed her, and embraced her, to see, over Para’s shoulder, Katherine mouthing the words, “Is that her?” to Scott.
“Ten minutes,” said Jacob, smiling hugely, shaking Para’s hand. I introduced her to Katherine.
“He talks about you always,” she said to Para.
“All good, right?” said Para, punching my side.
There were at least 50 people in the club. A minute later I took the stage with the rest of Schizopolis. I plugged the cord coming out of the direct box into my guitar, and a huge humming, like a plague of locusts, filled the room.
I strummed a bit, hoping to tune, but the sound was buried in the humming. Finally the humming faded, but when I strummed, there was nothing, no sound at all from the guitar.
“Your DB doesn’t have ground lifting,” yelled Steve from across the room. “The lights are on the same circuit.” I nodded, and looked at my bandmates. Scott was nodding. To him those words—”ground lifting” and “lights on the same circuit”—made sense.
“I guess it’s just vocals,” said Jacob.
“Gary, who cares?” yelled Katherine. “Fuck it!”
“OK,” I said. “Works for me.” It was me and a microphone. I put down the acoustic and felt exposed and cold. The lights were up and everyone in front of the stage was a silhouette, a shape. I had one hour to earn the love of these ghosts.
“Hello,” I said, “we’re Schizopolis. This song is called ‘Jesus was a Union Man.’”
Applause, real, and someone shouting “Schizopolis!” And then the lights came back up, and we were done. I was exhausted, half-aware of my surroundings. I smiled to the room, faces suddenly apparent. The group had grown over the set to about 250, here for the main event.
We’d done it right, this time. I’d gone wild on stage, yelling, tearing up my voice as if I had a few dozen voices in store. Scott had played with crisp precision, Jacob with steady intensity, and Katherine had once again proven herself some kind of primitive goddess, thrashing away on her toms. But protocol again dictated we remove ourselves from the stage in an efficient, polite manner, making way for the main act. I packed up my dead guitar and wrapped Bee’s DB in its cable, and then went to help Katherine with her drums.
“Pretty cool,” she said to me, quietly, as I lifted a cymbal.
“I know, right?”
We were the opening band. There was no poster to commemorate the event, just a line on a website, and that line would soon be deleted. Two hundred of the 250 people now crowding the venue were here to see someone else. But as Para embraced me, and a random stranger shook my hand, I felt as if I had climbed a ladder through the clouds and touched the sun.
The random stranger was a man in his early 40s, tall, thin, wearing black denim and a sweater. He had a ponytail, and a tribal tattoo poked out from under his right shirt cuff, around his wrist. “I’m Lou Tremolo,” he said. “I liked your set.”
Liked, I thought. Liked is not loved. “It’s a cool place,” I said.
“I’m the manager for the Scatmen,” he said.
“They’re great,” I said, not sure if I felt that way at all.
“Is Schizopolis under management?”
“No,” I said. I paused, and introduced him to Para; they shook hands. “I mean, we’ve spoken with a few people, but nothing has really gelled,” I lied.
“Well, if you want to talk—”
“Sure, but let me bring everyone over.”
Scott: He wants to manage us?
Gary: No, he wants to talk.
Jacob: And he manages these guys? [pointing to the stage]
Gary: Unless he was lying.
Katherine: Did he say, “I want to manage you”?
Gary: He said, “I would like to talk to you about your management.”
Jacob: Meaning that it could go either way.
Gary: There are definitely many ways it could go.
Scott: It could mean nothing.
Gary: That is one distinct possibility. My suggestion is that we all go over and say hello to him.
Katherine: What does a manager do?
Scott: He manages—
Katherine: Jesus Christ, Scott. For God’s sake.
Scott: I’m trying to say, he builds relationships for the band.
Gary: I think that’s right.
Jacob: A manager makes the phone calls.
Scott: I thought that was a publicist.
Jacob: It can also be a booking agent.
Katherine: Do we need a manager?
Gary: I would say, yes, because if we knew what managers did, then we’d be doing it, and as we’re not, we should probably have one.
Katherine: Does Fugazi have a manager?
Scott: Why Fugazi?
Katherine: Because they do everything themselves.
Scott: Then probably not.
Gary: U2 has a manager.
Jacob: So we’re like U2?
Gary: The Beatles had a manager.
Katherine: He killed himself.
Jacob: But he was homosexual.
Scott: I am homosexual, and I have yet to kill myself.
Gary: This guy is not homosexual.
Scott: How do you know that?
Gary: See his ponytail?
So we introduced ourselves.
“You’ve got a good presence,” he said. “Do you have a demo yet?”
“We’re working on a demo,” said Scott. I waited for someone to blurt, “We are?” But no one did.
The Scatmen tore into something extremely angry and loud, and we all began to yell above them.
“Well, look, I think I have a guy who would want to talk to you. He runs a label called Parakeet Records. In Soho.” He paused. “I hate yelling. Let’s go out this week and get a beer. Do you all live in Brooklyn?”
“In Williamsburg,” Scott shouted.
“Fine, wherever. Send me an email. You have email?”
“We definitely have email,” I yelled.
“You’d be surprised who doesn’t have email,” he said.
He opened his wallet, and handed out four cards. Lou Tremolo, Artist Management. “I have a card, too,” I said, and pulled out my wallet. Gary Benchley, Rock Star. Address and cell. He took it and read it, and laughed. “Para made that,” I said into his ear, pointing to her.
“Looks good,” he said. We all shook hands, and Scott suggested Wednesday for a meeting. Then we drifted into the crowd to watch the Scatmen play, loud power-pop, and Para stood in front of me, bobbing up and down, finally leaning back into me as people stood around us, bathed in bass and noise.
Para and I went home together afterward, and fooled around once I had showered. I pushed my thoughts of Katherine away. Para breathed loudly next to me, in her slightly drunken sleep. “OK,” I said out loud, but quietly. “OK. This is what you do.” And then I started in on my list.
You create your demo. You sign with a manager. You talk to a label, and they give you some money. You record an album. Then you tour. The label gives you tour support. You get in a van. Scott, and Jacob, and you, and Katherine. You drive across the country, usually in support of another band. That is your foundation. You build on that. You quit your job. You play Valentine’s in Albany, and everyone says, Gary Benchley, no way, Gary Benchley from Delmar is on tour in a multicultural, multi-racial, multi-gender New York City band. He has done something with his life at the age of 23. Go, Benchley, go.