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Gary Benchley, Rock Star

Getting the Band Together, Part III

Trying to complete his indie-prog band as a model of diversity, Benchley runs into trouble when racial profiling turns out to be a less-than-sensitive method for recruiting a bass player.

In our quest to build the most diverse indie prog band in Williamsburg, we’d scored a white male vocalist/rhythm guitarist (myself), a gay synth player (Scott), and a chick drummer (Katherine) who, while not hot, was burning. We needed only a cool, black bass player, and a lead guitarist of indeterminate ethnicity and gender.


Scott and I went to lunch. Scott asked me how my search for a bassist was going, and I told him it was fine. He probed my methods, but I maintained a diligent silence. Finally, he gave up asking, and we began to talk about guitarists.

Scott: Are we sure we need a lead guitarist?
Gary: You mean fill out the middle with keys?
Scott: [shrugs]
Gary: And we’d be, like, the only band without a guitarist. It would be groundbreaking.
Scott: Actually, Keane doesn’t have a guitarist.
Gary: So we’re riding the new no-guitar wave. Even better.
Scott: The Crazy World of Arthur Brown didn’t have one either, and they were in the late ‘60s.
Gary: Who?
Scott: You ever heard a sample, goes, [low voice] ‘Fire, I bring you fire.’
Gary: I love that sample!
Scott: That’s them.
Gary: So we’re maintaining a proud no-guitar tradition. Perfect.
Scott: I’m just thinking, if we’re trying to break the indie mold, and really focus on a new sound, why not get rid of the guitar? It just makes sense.
Gary: It’s true, I’ve heard enough gay-ass guitar solos to last me a lifetime.

Scott frowned. My use of the word ‘gay’ was a direct hit to sore spot.

Scott: It’s really excellent to have my sexual identity associated with all things that suck.
Gary: Dude, everyone says ‘gay.’
Scott: I don’t say ‘gay.’
Gary: Yeah, but everyone else does. It’s not even offensive.
Scott: Gary, not everyone thinks it’s OK to call something that blows ‘gay.’
Gary: But there’s gay, like, I have sex with men, and then there’s gay, like, I like Phish and juggle. There’s a clear distinction.
Scott: You sound like those phobes who get upset because they can’t use the word ‘gay’ anymore.
Gary: Scott, I’m not a phobe.
Scott: I’m just saying, Gary.

There was a pause as we looked at one another.

Gary: How about if I use the word ‘phobe’? Instead of ‘gay?’
Scott: It’s an improvement, but—
Gary: So, I’m like, ‘Dude is totally phobe.’
Scott: Not good enough. You won’t stick to it.
Gary: Then…how about ‘creed’? ‘Dude is creed?’ I can make that happen. ‘I’ve heard way too many creed guitar solos.’ It works on multiple levels.
Scott: That’s better.

Safely out of the linguistic thicket, we talked about our newly guitar-free future. Personally, it was a relief. I thought back to my trip to Guitar Center and remembered the look of yearning on all the guitarists, the fractured egos hoping to be made whole by playing four-minute solos on stage. If we didn’t have a lead guitar, we wouldn’t have a lead guitarist. It only had upside. Scott had once again proved himself a genius.

After lunch, we went back to work, and I idled away the phone-answering hours. Para came by my desk. Our relationship is kind of an open secret in the office now—we talk, but don’t touch. We were supposed to go out that night, but she canceled our date. She’d forgotten she had knitting club; she’s knitting a black hoodie for her friend’s soon-to-be-born baby.

Para: You should see the yarn I got. It’ll be perfect.
Gary: I should see that yarn, definitely.
Para: This thing is going to be adorable.
Gary: I can’t wait to see it.

She and her friends are still trying to name the knitting club. They didn’t just want to call themselves “Stitch ‘n’ Bitch” like all the other knitting clubs, because they had a different philosophy of knitting. “Because despite what they say, they reek of post-feminism, and we’re not post-feminist,” she’d said a few days ago, while we were sitting in bed. “We’re feminists who knit.” Some of the names she’d come up with were “Needle,” “Slip Knot,” and “Purlwise.”

These were, I thought, totally creed names. I suggested they call the group “Slits that Knit,” but she didn’t find that funny, and called me sexist. I explained that I was just being ironic, but she just turned over in bed until I rubbed her back and apologized.

Para has been generally mopey lately, and there has been a lot of turning of backs and narrowed eyes. Last week, we’d gone to see Fahrenheit 9/11, but it was sold out, so we went back to her place. I was nursing a headache, and Para directed me to the medicine cabinet for aspirin. On the inside of the cabinet there was a sign:

P: DO NOT FORGET TO TAKE YOUR MEDICATION

It was laser-printed in a nice font, with a black border around it, and put up with clear tape. I picked up one of the orange bottles: Paxil.

It made sense. I knew there was more to Para than fonts and blogging, and here it was: She was depressed. In a weird way, it was kind of a turn-on, because looking at that orange bottle, I could feel her her specialness. I wanted to know more about her, wanted to be even closer, now that I’d learned she had a brain imbalance. Unfortunately, my desire to uncover her psychic wounds and salve them came at a time when there was a very low rate of HBA—Hot Benchley Action—in the relationship. She’d also stopped updating her blog.

With Para busy knitting, I had no excuse but to start my quest for a bassist. For three hours, I strolled around Williamsburg, trying to work up my nerve. Finally, I stopped in at Mugs and had three $2 pints, then went back out to the street and walked up to the first cool-looking black guy I saw.

Gary: [nervous] Excuse me, I’m sorry—do you play bass guitar?
Cool-looking black guy: [looking worn out and annoyed] Uh, no.
Gary: Thank you.

I repeated this up and down Bedford. Most people just shook their heads, expecting me to ask them for money, or said, ‘No, I don’t play bass guitar.’ A few of the people I stopped were hostile.

Gary: ….bass guitar?
Guy: What the fuck is that supposed to mean?
Gary: I just was wondering.
Guy: Fuck you, man.

I found a guy, cool-looking with dreadlocks, who said that yes, he played bass, and also trumpet. My heart began to pound, but then he said he was already in a band, and gave me a flyer.

I went out again the next night. This time, I was even more anxious. I have a bad memory for faces, and I was worried I would ask the same guy twice, and he would think I was one of those white people who can’t tell black people apart.

Before I left work, I told Scott how my search was going.

Scott: Oh my God. Tell me that you are not doing that.
Gary: Why? I’m committed to diversity.
Scott: It’s racial profiling.
Gary: It’s affirmative rock action.
Scott: It’s tokenism.
Gary: You weren’t freaked when it was a token hot chick drummer.
Scott: OK. We live in a society that accepts sexism more than racism. But neither one is appropriate.
Gary: Come on. It’s like we’re casting a play. We’re creating a band that everyone can relate to.
Scott: What about musical ability?
Gary: You’re like a broken record. You have to trust me, Scott. We asked the universe for a hot chick drummer—
Scott: Actually, we asked Craigslist.
Gary: And Bedford Avenue. And it provided.

Nineteen cool-looking black guys in their 20s later, outside of North Six, I met Jacob. He was standing alone, and had an excellent cool-nerd look, wearing an untucked striped shirt and a pair of geek slacks. He was a little overweight, and all of it was topped off with a bushy goatee and thick black glasses. His hair came out six inches from his head.

Jacob: [surprised] Yeah, I play bass guitar.
Gary: I knew you did.
Jacob: You did?
Gary: Absolutely. You have bass player all over you. The beard, the hair, the jacket.
Jacob: [a little confused] So, uh…
Gary: Do you want to be in a band?
Jacob: [laughs] Who doesn’t want to be in a band?

After a little coaxing, he let me buy him a beer. And, miraculously, when he heard the words ‘indie prog,’ and my recounting of Scott’s philosophy of music, he did not recoil in horror.

Jacob: That’s actually not totally wrong.
Gary: I’m telling you. The prog aesthetic, the indie vibe.
Jacob: But look. I’ve only been playing on and off for like two years. I’m not that good.
Gary: Don’t worry. We have effects processors. We’re not even going to have a guitarist.

We kept drinking. He was a very attentive guy, and at first he mostly listened. I told him about my road to Williamsburg, my struggle to get a band together, describing Scott and Katherine. In exchange, he gave me his story: He was 27, and wrote for Matchstick, a magazine I knew and loved, a cooler version of Blender that reviewed not just music but graphic novels and anime, and documentaries.

Gary: Dude! Matchstick.
Jacob: Yeah.
Gary: That is like the best magazine. It was all I read in college.
Jacob: I’m kind of sorry to hear that.
Gary: What’s it like? I mean, do you guys just get any CD you want?
Jacob: Mostly.
Gary: And you’re all just listening to music, all the time?
Jacob: [nods] It’s not that big a deal.
Gary: You’re like, defining the musical consciousness of the entire country, man. It’s a huge responsibility.
Jacob: Are you taking the piss?
Gary: Huh?

The sound of jangly guitars and a marching band came out of the jukebox. Jacob changed the subject:

Jacob: Jeff Mangum is a genius.
Gary: This is him?
Jacob: Neutral Milk Hotel. I mean, it has this sort of off-kilter quality, right?
Gary: It’s all over the place.
Jacob: The only thing that compares is Astral Weeks.
Gary: I’ve heard of that.

Jacob told me about Van Morrison, using terms like ‘planned serendipity,’ ‘innate vagueness,’ and ‘zone of jazz-improvised chaos.’

Jacob: …And Van records it when he was 22.
Gary: Same age as me.
Jacob: Uh…yeah, I guess so.
Gary: Wait…I have to ask you.
Jacob: Yes?
Gary: Do you have a favorite Beatle?
Jacob: No.
Gary: Oh.
Jacob: It’s like asking, do you have a favorite wheel on a car? Take one off and it’s not really a car anymore. One wheel is John screaming in the basement. The other wheel is Wings. You can’t split them up. They’re indivisible, like a Greek atom.

It was a good point. We talked about the Beatles for a few minutes, and I asked Jacob how he’d come to playing bass. He told me he’d lived in New York for the last four years. Before, that, he’d traveled around a lot, lived all over the place, London for six months, Seattle for a summer.

Jacob: I should put my money where my mouth is, right? So my roommate sold me his bass.
Gary: Awesome. But you’re not in a band or anything now.
Jacob: No, I kept trying to get something together. But I’m either too serious for people, or not good enough yet if they’re serious.

I felt a wave of happiness rush over me and took a long drink. It was our fourth round, and we were talking 100 bands a minute. Jacob suggested a game, making a list of all the groups that were named after animals. I had Cat Power, Counting Crows, and the Beastie Boys. He had Snoop Dogg, Super Furry Animals, Henry Cow, Le Tigre, the Jesus Lizard, Danger Mouse, Modest Mouse, Mouse on Mars, and 16 Horsepower. I gave him the last one after much debate. He also told me about Hatebeak, a metal band with a parrot on vocals, and Caninus, a grindcore band with pit bulls for singers, both honorable mentions.

Jacob: Enough animals—tell me about your guilty pleasures.
Gary: Like, um, spanking to porn?
Jacob: [laughs] No, dude. Musically.
Gary: I don’t know.
Jacob: Like, what music is embarrassing to you? I mean, I love Steve Winwood, Back in the High Life.”
Gary: Don’t know that one.
Jacob: Or that Christina Aguilera song, the one—
Gary: Fuck no.
Jacob: Not even Alanis?
Gary: [shakes head]
Jacob: I guess I don’t even need to ask you about Michael, then.
Gary: Which Michael?

It turned out he meant Michael Jackson. I had sudden concerns about someone joining my band who liked to listen to alleged pedophiles. Although honestly it wasn’t the pedophilia that bothered me as much as the overproduction. But Scott was into prog, and that was turning out to be an asset. Maybe Jacob would bring a pop sensibility into the group. He had the look, and the attitude, and the knowledge of music. I made another pitch, hoping to seal the deal.

Gary: Man, you have got to get involved with us. We’re all in the same place. You’d be perfect.
Jacob: What’s the name of the band?
Gary: We’re still working that out.

He definitely looked interested, and said he was probably up for a practice session, to see if it worked out. I couldn’t ask for more.

Jacob: This is hilarious. Someone just picks me up off the street as a bass player. I have to do it.
Gary: It’ll work. I can tell.
Jacob: Come on. How did you know I played bass?

Confident in our growing relationship, I explained my method, and our goals for a diverse band. When I was finished, he stared at me for a long moment.

Jacob: So you racially profiled me as a bass player?
Gary: [nods, smiling]
Jacob: You accused me of Playing Bass While Black.
Gary: Kind of.
Jacob: [quietly] That is some shit right there.
Gary: You just looked like a bass player.
Jacob: Like a black bass player.
Gary: Um…

Jacob’s face had changed. A moment before, he was an enthusiastic fellow indie rock aficionado, an animated and interested music nerd like me. Now he looked worn out, like a tired public school teacher facing a class of very slow-witted kids. He let out a long sigh that would have put Scott to shame.

Jacob: I am the most profiled man in the world.
Gary: This has happened before?
Jacob: Well, not with bass playing.
Gary: So, like, you get pulled over a lot when you’re driving?
Jacob: What, in a Cavalier?

It turned out that his life had been filled with profiling, not only by police, but by everyone. People always wanted to include him in things. In high school, he said, “They were doing Othello, and they asked me to try out. So I auditioned for Iago. You could see them losing their minds.” He was always asked to be in brochures, to contribute editorials to school papers, to speak at Student Diversity Day. Apparently he’d done really well on his SATs, and Harvard called him six times, and arranged two personal visits. It turned out that being black in America put a lot of weird pressure on a person.

Gary: So you went to Harvard?
Jacob: Fuck that. You ever meet any Harvard grads?
Gary: No.
Jacob: They’re all over Matchstick.
Gary: Pretty annoying?
Jacob: Take one douchebag and shake hard.

Instead of Harvard, he’d gone to Bennington. I thought of Para, who’d grown up in Vermont. And thinking of her, I realized that in the space of one week, I’d managed to say something sexist to Para, offend Scott by using ‘gay’ the wrong way, and racially profile Jacob. I’d always considered myself a white liberal, but maybe I wasn’t liberal enough.

Gary: So you’re kind of caught between being black and being, uh—
Jacob: [holds up palm] No, dude, I’m black. I’m not caught between anything on that front.
Gary: [looks lost]
Jacob: OK. When you saw me, the first thing you said was ‘black guy,’ right?
Gary: Not just that—
Jacob: Just fess up. It’s OK.
Gary: Yes. I thought, there’s a cool-looking black guy, I wonder if he plays bass.
Jacob: So maybe I’d love to play bass in your band, but now it’s totally tied up in my skin color, and you’re commoditizing my negritude.
Gary: What exactly am I doing?
Jacob: You’re affirmatively activating me, but I’m already fully activated. I’m ready to go, no approval necessary.

I thought back to my conversation with Scott, when I’d proclaimed my dedication to ‘affirmative rock action.’

Gary: So you’re against affirmative action?
Jacob: No, I am for affirmative action.
Gary: I guess I’m a little confused.
Jacob: You’re 22, right?
Gary: Yes.
Jacob: OK. [very serious, like a doctor] See, what you have, Gary, is a condition that is very common among white males between the age of 16 and 40. It’s called eye-cob.
Gary: Eye-cob?
Jacob: E.I.C.O.B. Entertainment-influenced Concept of Blackness.
Gary: [nervous laugh]
Jacob: [holding up hands] Now watch. Over on this left hand you have famous black people. P. Diddy, right? Missy Elliott, Oprah, uh, Damon Dash running Roc-a-Fella with Jay-Z. And Denzel. That’s E.I.B., Entertainment-influenced Blackness. Now, on the right hand here you have Jacob. And Jacob is playing bass and trying to get a novel together. He’s writing for Matchstick. He hangs out with his friends, and he has to go to a family reunion next month in piss-hot Georgia, and meet up with the same cousins who used to beat him up when he was 12. That’s J.P.B., Jacob’s Personal Blackness.
Gary: My cousins beat the crap out of me.
Jacob: My cousins are knuckleheads. [taking a drink] All right. [raising left hand, then right] You’ve got big wide-world MTV blackness, and little old Jacob blackness. And the problem—are you ready for the problem?
Gary: I am ready.
Jacob: The problem is that when white people walk down the street, and you see black people, you’re seeing the left hand of blackness. You’re seeing blackness in culture, this big crazy blackness with Jesse Jackson on one side and, like, Chingy on the other. But when you see white people, you don’t think, there’s a white man just like that Ted Koppel on TV. You don’t even see their skin, right?
Gary: Nope.
Jacob: You don’t watch The Apprentice and say, Donald Trump has taught me something about the white experience. Donald Trump is just an individual with fucked-up hair. Do you know what I mean?
Gary: [shifts in seat]
Jacob: So, you’re a sensitive guy. And you’re like, let me go out and get a cool black bass player, and be diverse, let me get some of that P-Funk vibe, some Bootsie cool. I’m going to do some good. But when you ask a man to play bass because he’s black, it’s not all that different than coming up and offering me a big ol’ tas’ey watermelon. You’re looking for left-hand blackness, but Jacob’s only got right-hand, one man blackness on tap. And when you expect my right hand and left hand to be the same thing, Gary, is when you commoditize my negritude.
Gary: [takes a long drink of beer] I’m sorry.
Jacob: All right. And because it’s obviously heartfelt, I accept that apology.
Gary: Thank you.
Jacob: You shouldn’t feel too bad. Even Bill Cosby is confused on these issues.
Gary: But if it makes any difference, that’s how we’re building a band. I put up a poster on Bedford looking for a hot chick drummer.
Jacob: You did that? I saw one of those—all right, that was hilarious. We were cracking up.
Gary: And that’s what I’m doing with you. Like, Scott has, uh, homotude. And Katherine has chickitude. And you’ve got, uh, negritude.
Jacob: What do you have?
Gary: Garytude.
Jacob: Don’t think I haven’t noticed that the lead singer is a white male.
Gary: OK, ideally I would not be in front. But I’m not that good a guitarist, and there’s no way I should play drums.
Jacob: So the straight white man, because he can’t do anything else, is put in charge?
Gary: I guess that’s me.

He shook his head, laughing at me, but not smiling. Then he made a show of looking at his watch and saying he needed to get home. I knew I’d blown my chances, but I decided to give it one last try.

Gary: I still think you’re perfect. Just bring your bass by this weekend.
Jacob: You haven’t heard me play.
Gary: Just forget that I’m a racial profiler. Trust me, it’ll work.
Jacob: [with some remorse] Yeah, I’ll think about it.

That was a lie. He shook my hand firmly and told me that it had been interesting, shaking his head a little. I tried to apologize again, but he cut me off and turned to leave. I watched him go, and sat for a moment at the bar, the noise of Williamsburg around me.

I was relieved that Jacob was gone, because he’d started to make me feel like a racist. And I didn’t like to think of myself that way, not even a little. Rather than getting Jacob completely enthused, sharing the vision, I’d pissed him off, made him defensive. I’d been acting from instinct, from the heart, and it felt weird to think that my heart could have weird ideas about black people. I had been totally creed.

But I still wanted him to meet Scott and Katherine. He had the right vibe, the right sense of what mattered in music. He wrote for the best music magazine in the world. Even if he hadn’t been cool and black, he was exactly what we needed.

I went home and turned on my creaking laptop, and googled ‘jacob matchstick’ to see if I could find out his last name. There it was: a story he’d written comparing Kid Koala to Terminator X, with his email address at the bottom. With some drunken bravado, and without waiting for doubt to take over, I wrote him an email.

To: Jacob.Clinton@matchstickmagazine.com
From: garybenchleyrockstar@yahoo.com
Subject: Friendly neighborhood profiler

It’s Gary. Dude, first, apologies. Second, I want you to give us a try. I don’t care if you’re black or white or puce. You have the vibe. Come over on Saturday. You can be whatever you want. If you want to bring your negritude, that will work, but we can just tell everyone that you’re just really tan, or Canadian. What I really want is your Jacobtude.

I could hear Scott screaming at me: “We don’t even know if he can play bass.” But that wasn’t what I cared about. It was like Jacob’s vision of the Beatles: He would make us whole. A few minutes later, as I was about to sign off and go to bed, his response popped into my inbox.

Gary Benchley, you are a persistent profiling white man. That said, you actually listened when I schooled you on modern race relations. This is, sadly, a rare quality in a person. Also, I want to be in a band. So let us go forward in the spirit of brotherhood.

Read some Cornel West before rehearsal, and I’ll bring my bass and my Jacobtude.

JC

I gave a quiet cheer, trying not to wake up my roommates, and googled Cornel West, who turns out to be a Christianity-influenced Marxist transcendentalist pragmatist, as well as a hip-hop musician. I wrote another email to Scott, Katherine, and Jacob, introducing Jacob around, and set our first practice for Saturday afternoon, at Katherine’s place.

Emotions I couldn’t quite name swam through my body, a huge tension pouring out. I saw a crowd, thousands of heads and bodies, and a huge, mystical voice recited the lineup. “Mr. Scott Spark on keyboards,” it said. “Ms. Katherine Passerine on drums. Mr. Jacob Clinton on bass.” Then the roar of the thousands went up as the voice said, “And Mr. Gary Benchley on rhythm guitars and vocals.” The applause was so loud it was static. It went on for a full minute, until the scene dissolved, and I was back at my desk, in a room lit ghost-blue by the computer screen.

Nothing had changed in the world. The moon was half-full, and the buses were running outside the window. I still had my job, my girlfriend, my apartment. But even if you couldn’t see it, something was different. The beginning was at hand. The hard work had just started. And where before there was nothing, there was now a band.