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Gary Benchley, Rock Star

Naming the Band

What name is good enough for a band meant to rock the world, and must it reference Elvis Costello somehow?

At the exact end of July, with three songs written, and a concept album in the works, we named our band and booked our first gig. And New York stank terribly. In Williamsburg, I would wake up, not sure I’d even slept, covered in a foul-smelling grime that blew through the chuffing, useless fan propped in my window. The hallways of my apartment building smelled of fish, and the streets smelled like opening a broken refrigerator. The subway tunnels were dank and hot, and it was plain that the MTA had stopped cleaning them with soap, and started using warm urine instead.

Scott: I don’t even notice the smell any more.
Gary: How do people live here?
Scott: True story—
Gary: I actually prefer fiction. Can you fictionalize it?
Scott: [rolls eyes] I had the flu, and suddenly I could smell everything. My brain was so used to blocking the stink, and suddenly, I’m sick, I’m on Zithromax, and something changed with my nervous system, and I could smell the city. I’d been blocking it out for years, and now here it was, as if it was the first time I’d ever been here.
Gary: It’s never as good as the first time.

Despite the heat and funk, rehearsals had been going well, and Para and I were in a gentle place, talking a lot about nothing, going for walks, and watching TV. I was in a place of peace, feeling optimistic.

Scott: You know, this isn’t even a bad summer. This is a nice summer.

I wanted an air conditioner, but times were tighter than a Bootsie Collins bassline, and my credit card squeaked in my wallet. My money was already spent on a guitar, on rent, and on snacks. So I slept with the fan on high, and regarded my roommates, both asleep in air-conditioned rooms, with raw jealousy.

The air-conditioning habits of Charles, the master of Yogic Drumming™, chafed me. One night, Charles opened his door as I was getting home. I caught a glimpse of batik wall hangings, and felt a blast of cold air strong enough to maintain a glacier, accompanied by the smell of burning incense. Charles would share his sexual energy with the rest of the world, but not his Freon.

My roommate David was much more generous. He would come home to find me sitting on the couch in our living room, and after a few moments of chatting, he’d say, “For Christ’s sake, come to my room where it isn’t a barbecue.” Then we’d talk: about his mother; about my sister, who’d been up to visit and stayed the night; about the president.

David: These guys at work feel that re-electing him will make things so bad that the world will have to get better. That’s their rationale.
Gary: That’s Machiavelli on crack. That doesn’t make sense.
David: My friend Jake, middle school friend, he’s over there, in the army. He’s into weird stuff, like swimming from Korea to Iraq on the back of a computerized dolphin with microfilm up his ass.
Gary: No shit.
David: So I wrote him an email, “what’s up, don’t let any camels hump you late at night.” And he writes back, he’s just totally disgusted, he’s like, you have no idea how stupid this thing is, this is bullshit A-to-Z, vote Kerry. Your brother’s in the Navy, right?
Gary: U.S.S. Ronald Reagan.
David: Shit, Reagan got a boat already?
Gary: A carrier. They’re in San Diego, right now.
David: Damn. I bet Nancy set that up. I bet Nancy was giving it out to every sailor she could find to get that boat set up. There were a lot of grinning admirals at Reagan’s funeral, I bet you.
Gary: There’s that possibility, absolutely.
David: I think Nancy Reagan was giving out pussy like candy corn.
Gary: [nodding]
David: And they let women on boats, now, right?
Gary: Yeah.
David: Then I want to be on the U.S.S. Bill Clinton. Would that be a carrier? That would be a rowboat. So is your brother, like, greasing his mizzlemast, or whatever?
Gary: He’s got a girlfriend on shore. I haven’t met her. She manages a bookstore.
David: And your sister, she’s in Pittsburgh?
Gary: Almost graduated.
David: Twenty-one?
Gary: Twenty. She’s graduating early.
David: I can’t believe she’s a geek.

Since the night a few weeks ago when my sister had crashed on our couch, David had been gathering intelligence. She’d appeared in a black tank top with blue fringes in her hair, full of winks for David and jumping into conversation, asking him about the Linux networks at his job, touching his shoulder. Now he keeps working her into conversation, in order to learn where she lives (she goes to school at CMU, and has an internship at the school), what she was like growing up (a whiner), if she has any pets (no), and what she does (she is a computer geek).

Gary: She’s a total geek. She wrote her own Nintendo game when she was 12.
David: What was it called?
Gary: “Savage Garden.”
David: Like the band?
Gary: Yeah, she had a big crush on Savage Garden.
David: So what kind of game?
Gary: You moved the guys from Savage Garden around and they picked up bunches of bananas and shit, and then they could trade them for plane tickets, and then they could afford plane tickets to get to their concert.
David: Wow. That sounds like the most boring game imaginable.
Gary: Yeah, but I mean, she was 12. I had to play-test it like 9,000 times. And I was like, why the bananas? And she never had an answer.
David: I know why the bananas, man.
Gary: That’s my sister, David.
David: I got nothing but respect, believe me.

My sister had been in town for a hacker conference where she could build networks and talk about our robot overlords or whatever. She was excited because Jello Biafra, the singer for the Dead Kennedys, was speaking. We’d barely had a conversation, and hadn’t even gone out for a drink.

It was strange to see her walk through the door, confident, hair smooth and straight, stomach flat, with the traditional Benchley bosom. My sister had been a sullen girl, always chatting on AOL—someone my friends and I passed by on the way to my room to play Sim City. Now she was much, much cooler than I. After the conference, she left on the midnight bus to Pittsburgh, promising to visit again before long.

David and I finished our beer. It was time for me to return to the thick warmth of my room, smelling of kielbasa from the sausage factory around the corner.

David: You know, I’d let you sleep here.
Gary: Nah.
David: But it’d be kind of super gay.
Gary: I understand. My fan’s doing the job.

I settled back into my hot pillow, trying to tune out the street noise, the buses going by. I had a Bonnie “Prince” Billy song in my head, about being a cinematographer, and I kept thinking about the draft, since they’re supposed to bring it back in 2005. I don’t know if Baghdad is as humid as New York, or if it’s a dry heat, like Arizona. But I don’t want to go in any case.

I guess I should feel some patriotism, some desire to help. My father, the state assemblyman, used to give me lectures about public service, usually when my grades slipped down to B’s, and at one point he offered to pass my name up the ranks in case I wanted the Governor’s recommendation for the Naval Academy (I did not). But I just want to do my crappy job and play a few gigs. I want my sister to come to a show, to see me sing. And I want our album to be released on Sub Pop, and given an 8.9 or better by Pitchfork.

I fell asleep, and dreamt I was back in high school. Someone had brought in a giant aquarium and put it in the center of the classroom. The aquarium had a single huge fish in it, so big its tail was bent back, and its eyes pressed against the glass. We were all laughing at the fish, and I felt terrible, even as I laughed.


* * *

The band is making progress. We have three songs, and as I said, a name, and an album concept. It all came about because Katherine invited Scott, Jacob, and me to a party at the Monotreme Institute for Extraordinary Art. We combined it with a practice in Katherine’s huge bedroom room, above Monotreme. She had carved out a space, 10 by 10, on the floor. Around us was a chaos of dirty clothes and weird metal sculptures, but our practice space was tidy and pleasant, an island of sound.

Originally we’d started with the idea we would be indie-prog, taking the most advanced music of the 1970’s and the most progressive of today, and combining them into a compelling sonic stew. But it’s come out that we don’t sound much like Rush or Yes, or Spock’s Beard. We sound like the Pixies crossed with the Flaming Lips, run through an IDM blender thanks to Scott’s synth chops.

Our songs are about walking across the Brooklyn Bridge (“Tugboat”), living in Williamsburg (“Galapagos”), and coffee shops (“We’re All Annoying Together”). Jacob helps with the lyrics, taking my ideas and helping me make them “less annoying,” in his words. He’s taught me that I can be a bit pretentious if I’m not careful.

After a good rehearsal, one in which my voice did not split into 10,000 pieces during the performance of “Tugboat,” we went downstairs to the party. It was just beginning. The guy who runs Monotreme, who wears leather pants and likes to weld, was setting up a keg. I don’t know his real name; everyone calls him Squid.

Squid: Katherine! Hey! Will this band be ready to play in late August?

Jacob: No way.
Scott: Not really.
Gary: Absolutely.

Squid: Because maybe for the convention party.
Gary: What party?
Squid: We’re doing a three-day party for the convention.
Katherine: The theme is “Police State Fair.”
Squid: Like a police state, but a fair.
Jacob: Yeah, I put that together.
Katherine: We have a donkey.
Jacob: A real donkey?
Katherine: No, a guy dressed as a donkey. It’s no fun to nail the tail on a real donkey.
Scott: Nail?
Squid: And lots of rides. But we definitely need music.
Gary: We’ll do it. We’ll be ready.
Squid: Katherine tells me you rock.
Gary: We rock.
Scott: Katherine rocks. We are in the process of rocking.
Jacob: It is feasible that one day we’ll rock in unison.
Squid: You know, the Bush regime was supposed to be the catalyst for music not to suck again. And that hasn’t happened. At all. Instead, we have Pink.
Scott: I like Pink.
Jacob: So do I. She’s Missundaztood.
Katherine: So what happened to the future of punk rock?
Gary: Electroclash.
Jacob: Blogging.

Everyone laughed. At first I thought they were laughing at me, and I felt kind of cool. But they were laughing at the word blogging.

Gary: Come on. My girlfriend’s a blogger.

I said this expecting them to tease me, but instead they all smiled and looked away, as if they knew something I did not. Squid walked off.

Jacob: We should probably have a name if we’re going to play a live show.

Names were thrown out, adding to the monster list we’d already accumulated: “The Fishes,” “Red Wagon,” “Life Train for Ugly,” “Stevie Wondermints,” and from Katherine, “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, part 2: the Awakening.” Which left us all a little baffled. We tabled the discussion. The party got underway, and for some reason—perhaps because of that awkward silence after I mentioned Para’s blogging, or because I drink too much—I drank too much. I also smoked some marijuana. They have a beer vending machine at Monotreme—50 cents per can. And a change machine.

A while into the party, I was talking to a woman in open-toed sandals with high breasts. She smelled like a waterfall. As I was talking, I thought how lucky I was to have a committed relationship so I wouldn’t have to fall in love with this woman, and rub her toes for hours using expensive lotion. Feeling confident and open, I told her exactly what I was thinking. She walked away. Scott came up and pulled me out to the backyard.

Someone had set up a large screen and a video projector, and a number of benches, chairs, and large stones had turned the small, concrete rectangle into a post-apocalyptic cineplex. The rest of the band was there, beers in hand. “Check it out,” said Scott. “They’re showing Schizopolis. This is my favorite movie.” On the screen, a man dressed as an exterminator said “Nose army.” A woman replied, “Beef diaper.”

“Let’s call the band Nose Army,” I said to the air. Then a man who looked like Bert from Sesame Street masturbated in the bathroom of his office. I have asked Scott if my memory of this film is accurate, and he tells me I remember it correctly, and that the masturbating man was Steven Soderbergh. I do not think the film featured naked white men with dreadlocks, in some gigantic, flat desert place, setting a huge wooden octopus on fire. I think that was Burning Man footage. Because later, someone with a competing video projector projected another film on top of Schizopolis, and I have no idea which movie was which. I simply know it was the best film I had ever seen.

When the movie ended, I urgently needed to tell Scott what an amazing person he was.

Gary: Dude, you are like a total genius star awesome genius.
Scott: Thanks, Gary.
Gary: No, you are like, what chord goes here, and then you have the chord, and wow.
Scott: It’s just theory.
Gary: No, like, you know where the bridge goes.
Scott: Sure.
Gary: Like, if it was a real bridge, instead of a musical bridge, like the Williamsburg Bridge, I’d put it in Queens. I’d put it in the Atlantic Ocean. That’s where I’d put the bridge. [weaving in his chair] Whoa.
Scott: [embarrassed] A bridge connects the verse and the chorus.
Gary: So Brooklyn is the chorus and Manhattan is the verse.
Scott: Yep.
Jacob: Gary, you’re making music out of architecture. It’s almost as good as dancing about architecture. Elvis Costello would be proud.
Gary: Tell Elvis Costello to shave my ass!
Jacob: You don’t like Elvis Costello?
Gary: I fucking love Elvis Costello. I just have a temporary drinking problem. Who’s Elvis Costello?

Jacob and Scott exchanged one of their glances.

Gary: Assholes! I know who Elvis Costello is! Why does Elvis Costello care about my drinking?
Jacob: Elvis Costello said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
Gary: No one dances about architecture.
Jacob: You were talking about music as if it was architecture.
Gary: Swan Lake is not man-made! Wait! Wait! Oh my God!

Everyone waited.

Gary: The name of our band is Schizopolis.
Jacob: Just like that?
Gary: And the title of our first album is “Dancing About Architecture.” It’s a concept album about life in New York.

There was a moment of quiet.

Scott: OK.
Jacob: Huh.
Katherine: [nods]
Gary: Exactly.

No one said anything for a minute. The party was winding down around us, the music low.

Jacob: What about copyright?
Scott: [shrugs] Titles of works can’t be copyrighted.
Gary: See!
Jacob: There’s some other band called Schizopolis. I think.
Scott: We can search.
Katherine: Right now?
Scott: Yeah.

We ran upstairs, excited, and waited for the modem to complete its mating cry. Before anyone else could sit down Scott was tapping in search terms, annotating them with special squiggles and quotes in order to achieve the highest level of exactitude, visiting the government’s trademark database, all of us nervous, knowing that at any moment the idea could vanish.

But there was nothing, no list of matches, no other band popping up with the same name. There was likely another album called “Dancing About Architecture,” but titles can’t be copyrighted. It didn’t matter. A few minutes earlier, I was Gary Benchley. Now I was Gary Benchley, lead singer and rhythm guitarist for Schizopolis, maybe you’ve heard of us, I’d love to do an interview with the New York Times, thanks, let me fit you in!

We scheduled intensive rehearsals over the next two weeks. It was only to be a party in Monotreme’s back yard, but it was also a real gig, with strangers in attendance. We had to accentuate the rock, and mitigate the suck.

Gary: We’re going to go right out on the tightrope. We’re not going to fuck this up.
Scott: [deep breath] Yeah.
Jacob: [nodding] I need to practice.

We turned to Katherine, who had a thoughtful, distant look on her face, biting her lower lip, off visiting her own planet. She said nothing for a long moment. Then she said, “I want to use fireworks.”