With a job and an apartment, New York started to feel like home, a place I could call my own. But as I settled into my job at BrandSolve, I found myself wishing I could get rid of the urge to start a band. Maybe, I thought, I should drop my dreams, go back to school, and get some computer skills. Or I could pick up one of those books in Barnes & Noble: More Exploitable Wage Slavery in 21 Days, or Learn Java and Lose Friends.
When that gloom appeared, like Ian Curtis knocking on the window, I took out my business card and reminded myself that I already have a real job: Gary Benchley, Rock Star. That business card was the mustard seed of faith that could move stadiums filled with fans and laser lights. I only had to believe. Besides, rocking is one thing they can’t outsource to India.
At night, I flopped down on my new futon mattress, notebook and rhyming dictionary in hand, humming improvised melodies to match the words I wrote at cartoon speed. Like Jacob, I wrestled with the angel of rock, refusing to release him until he gave me his blessing. I wrote a song called ‘Abu Ghraib.’
Have you heard
From Abu Ghraib to Williamsburg,
Can you see
That all of us, we must be free.
It’ll be the first thing I record, once I can afford some studio time.
While I wrestled rock angels, my office romance with Para began to take shape. I found myself looking at things in the street—a bakery window, a German shepherd, a half-naked homeless man—and wondering, what would Para think of that? My apartment had seemed like a palace when I moved in, but now it looked pathetic compared to her place with its lampshades, window blinds, and cat. And after a few dates and only a few mouth-pecks to say goodbye, I began to wonder if she was seeing through me: Had she decided I was just a 22-year-old, half-employed rock wannabe? When I came to New York, I was convinced that, as a dashing man of 5’10’ with a fine singing voice and musical ambitions, I could Casanova my way up the East River and down the Hudson. But after the incident with Keith and the utter flop with Alyssa, my optimism regarding my Albany-bred potency had faded.
One slow afternoon at work, I googled Para’s blog, ‘Gowanus Research Society.’ I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be reading or not, but she had been writing about me, and knowledge is power. Apparently the opportunity for love remained:
Coworker Youth & I went out to see Matty Charles and the Valentines in Red Hook. He liked the drummer. Afterwards, there was opportunity for a move to be made, but Youth is…a youth, big-eyed, & a little slow on the draw. (Still, nice that he doesn’t know I’m easy.) So home he went to Youthburg.
Several people had commented on that post. One wrote, ‘Young ones always take a long time, or else they’re quick on the draw, speaking from experience, so be glad you have a slow one.’ Another: ‘Sounds to me like he needs some patient teaching.’ I realized I had much to understand about women in their late 20s and early 30s. Most importantly: They are ready to go.
My college experiences had not prepared me for any of this. When I was a junior, I went out with a sophomore named Kyla. She and I had radio shows in neighboring time slots, mine after hers. She called her show ‘Systers Themselves,’ heavy on Ani and Annie, DiFranco and Lennox. Mine was called ‘Gary Benchley’s Unstoppable Rock Hour Destroys Monsters and Bullies.’
For weeks, we just nodded to each other. Then, one night, when I opened my show with a Breeders song, we chatted about Kim Deal. After that, Kyla would hang out for a few minutes as my show started. She had met Ani DiFranco in Buffalo, and often mentioned how Ani was very cool, and not like a rock star at all. Right before spring break, she stayed though my show, and I walked her back to her dorm. Kyla had very large, full breasts and a little belly, and kept her brown hair cropped to an inch long. We discussed our mutual dislike of the objectifying male gaze.
The relationship progressed to eating together in the cafeteria and going for walks in the woods. We went to an art show in the student gallery, and the next week to a disco party at her friend’s house. After the party, we sat on a bench in the brutal upstate cold, looking at the stream that ran near the art center.
Gary: [Teeth chattering] Are you cold?
Kyla: [Shivering] No, I’m fine.
Gary: [Hands going numb] Are you sure?
Kyla: [Through blue lips] I really like being out here talking with you.
Gary: [Barely able to form words] Me too.
We talked about bands we’d seen and did voices from Are You Being Served, a PBS show that we both liked. Finally, she put her hand on mine, her palm as warm as an oven. The next night she came over and I gave her a massage while we listened to Massive Attack. That night, finally, she said that it would be okay for us to change into sweatpants, get into bed, and hug.
Three weeks later we took off the sweatpants. A month later, she told me she had repeated sex fantasies about African-American pirates. Not long after that, we broke up in tears, and then got back together, and then broke up again a week later. She was a Communications Studies major.
And now, here I was looking at Para, and I’d regressed back to junior year. I was thinking ‘I wonder when she’ll let me give her a massage,’ while she’s waiting for me to ask if she prefers Astroglide or Wet Platinum. For women of her age, there are no sweatpants, and hugging is for the morning. I had to make a move.
Opportunity appeared a few days later. Para’s friend was showing a few digitally manipulated photos as part of a gallery show in Chelsea called ‘Children and Buildings: the New Urban.’ Para invited me to come along. This was my plan: We would go to the show, then I would ask her out for a drink, and I would kiss her. Not at the bar, but right before we went in. I didn’t want her to think I needed a beer to be interested; I wanted her to know I was sincere. As she wrote in her blog:
Youth made his move! We were leaving The Entropic Gallery, where Brian had exhibited yet more remarkable images, & Youth offered me a beer. On our way into Chelsea Social he stops, leans down to kiss me—but he did the open-mouthed thing with his eyes closed, in for the kill. Nice teeth. & I started to giggle, couldn’t help it. He was like a cartoon fish blowing bubbles. He opened his eyes at my giggling & looked like a puppy when you hide a tennis ball behind your back.
I patted his hand & said, ‘Come on, I’ll buy you a drink.’ He fidgeted through two vodka & tonics, poor thing, & I sent him home. Next time I’ll stifle the giggle.
The next time was that weekend, Sunday night. I rang her buzzer at eight. There was no show or art opening, no business card to be created, just us. We went out and drank steadily for three hours. She told me about her ex-boyfriend, Dan:
Para: [Finishing beer no. 6] See, your plans could be real. Maybe you could get a band together. But Dan—here’s a 42-year-old man borrowing money from his mother to make a movie about snakes.
Gary: I guess so.
Para: If you want to be a rock star, right, go for it. It’s not going to work. But seriously, I tried it. I’m glad I did.
Gary: You were in a band? What do you play?
Para: No, but my own dream, I was going to be a photographer, from when I was 15, that’s the big idea. [leaning over, weaving] You have to assist for years before you can even think about getting your own studio. So I did that, followed the rules, and then I had an affair with Jean Arpelle. [pause, waiting for response] Who was maybe 15 years older.
Para: See, you don’t know who he is, and that’s funny because everyone I knew then, it was a big deal. He worked a lot for Elle. I’m what, 22, [laughs] sorry, you’re 22. But here’s a man who knows models, studio in Chelsea, you could drive a truck through it. I’m off the boat from Vermont, a big night is Ben & Jerry’s. Now I’m at parties with Richard Avedon. Who is nice, by the way. So I hitched my wagon to a star. And it just—long story, it ended really badly, I was out of my league. He dumped me and fired me in one phone call, hell of a phone call. And told me he was doing me a favor, because I didn’t have a chance as a photographer.
Gary: [touching her hand] What a dickhead.
Para: I didn’t get out of bed. For months. It made me hate the whole industry. Everyone knew, and told me that they’d known. Afterwards. I was like just another name on a list of assistants. He told me over and over how innocent I made him feel. But even with all that I’m glad I tried.
She was probably right. Starting a band is likely a fantasy, something I needed to work though. Maybe it would be smart to give it up now, and focus my energies on something with a better payoff, see if I could work up the ranks at BrandSolve. Para finished the beer and put it down on the table.
Para: Not that, you know, there’s anything wrong with workplace romance.
Para: There was just something wrong with that one.
We took the short walk back to her apartment, both of us stumbling. Inside her place, we kissed hard, then she walked across the room and sat down hard on a chair. ‘Gary, look out,’ she said, and pulled off her shirt. ‘Wardrobe malfunction.’ Her bra was blue and shiny. She kicked off her shoes, the clunky heels hitting the wooden floor with two huge bangs. Her cat came over and rubbed her bare ankles.
Para: So, is it sexual harassment for us to fool around?
She got into bed and I followed, still dressed, and as you might expect when Benchley gets in bed, I performed a miracle: I removed her bra with one hand, no fumbling. Before me there were: nipples. Nipples! Brown, firm, warm, like the glass eyes on a teddy bear. Para began to arrange the half-dozen pillows on the bed, and then tucked in a sheet corner that had come undone. She reclined. I put my hand on her stomach, palm on her navel. ‘Yes,’ she said. Indeed, I thought.
The Benchley technique is one of small motions and great subtlety, and has shown itself about 75 percent effective in prior studies. I started Sigur Rós slow, then built up to a Joy Division tempo (‘She’s Lost Control’), and on to New Order (from ‘Blue Monday’ through ‘Temptation’), and finally, to ‘She is Beautiful’ by Andrew W.K. Para began to yell out ‘goddamn’ over and over, so I finished the performance with 64 bars at drum & bass speed. Follow me now! She collapsed into the pillows with a whoomph.
I flexed my sore index finger in victory and waited for sweet reciprocation. A minute later, she still hadn’t moved, then another minute. It’s hard to know exactly how long, because in that condition time is on pause, everything is frozen with anticipation. I bumped my hips against hers, softly.
‘Oh, Gary, I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘What about you?’ With sluggish movements she tried to undo my belt. I helped her with the buckle and had my pants off in a snare hit. She found me under the blankets, and a wave of warm relief ran through me. I was a man again, in full contact. Para jerked her wrist a few times and stopped. She let out a long sigh.
Para: In the morning, OK? I’m so sorry. I promise.
Gary: That’s fine.
Para: You’re a gentleman.
Within a moment she began to whistle gently through her nose. I, on the other hand, had plenty of energy and felt wide awake. I listened to buses run up and down the street, one every half hour. Finally, as the sparrows started up outside, I fell asleep.
I woke to hear her say, ‘Jesus!’ She bounded out of bed and I caught a glimpse of naked before she vanished into the bathroom. I got up, wearing only a T-shirt, put on my slacks. I opened the bathroom door with a cautious ‘Hello?’
‘I’m totally late,’ she said from the shower. ‘I didn’t set the alarm.’ Then, ‘Gary, can you feed Butter?’ Para dressed in a hurry, blouse and slacks, and we made our way to the subway platform.
Para: I’m sorry about that, last night, so much to drink—my head.
Gary: [Forlorn] It’s not a problem.
Para: Gary. [Poking my shoulder] Are you coming in today?
Gary: At 12. Your train is coming.
Para: We’ll do this again soon. Well, better than this.
She kissed me, and put her hand on my side, and I put my hand on her back. Then I watched her get on to the F train, pressing into a pile of commuters. The doors closed.
I got into work to find Para on her way out to lunch with some other designers. She smiled at me as we passed. She’d sent me an email.
Last night was GREAT (sorry that it was so one way though). It’s weird to say, but can we keep it out of the office? Just that gossip is bad & I don’t want to deal with noses poking. Not that I wouldn’t just grab you & have my way in the meeting room.
I wrote back one word: ‘Definitely,’ and denied my impulse to wink when she returned from lunch. I read her email over five times, and reminded myself that sex wasn’t always supposed to be about mutual gratification. Then I pulled my business card from my wallet and looked at my name and title. Exactly.
The day went past in phone calls and filing. Scott Spark, director of Interactive Services, asked if I could stay after hours to help him with a project. I like Scott. He’s about 32, with well-tended skin and hair. He wears Oxford shirts with high thread count. Some might call him a metrosexual, but I think he prefers the more traditional ‘homosexual.’
After an hour in a spreadsheet I was done. I watched the clock for another half hour, checking out Para’s blog (no mention of last night), then emailed Scott the file and wandered over to his desk. The office was empty except for the two of us.
Scott: That was fast.
Gary: I was inspired by the title of the program. ‘Excel,’ it said. I said, ‘I will!’
I scoped Scott’s CD pile. It was good stuff. Pixies, TV on the Radio, Aphex Twin, Love, Can. A logically consistent, respectful collection of modern and historical relevance. With one exception.
Scott: That, Gary, is a concept album.
Gary: What does a band called ‘Spock’s Beard’ sounds like?
Scott: Straight up, no-apologies prog rock revival about an albino boy named Snow who may be the messiah.
Gary: I thought so.
Scott is a dedicated prog apologist. He told a story of adolescence in Pennsylvania, playing xylophone in marching band. His descent started with the gateway drugs—Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel. Before long, he was a mainlining triple-disc Emerson, Lake, and Palmer concert recordings. He saw Yes (‘Not Yes, actually, but Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe’) the summer before he started college. At Columbia, he was in two bands: God’s Shadow, and another called Pink Noise with five synth players and a drummer.
Scott: But I drifted away, because all the other prog fans were dirty stoners. But lately I’ve been going back in. You saw the Lou Barlow interview in the Onion?
Gary: I hate Sebadoh. I’d rather hear toddlers hit pans.
Scott: Right, but they asked him, Lou, if you had all this stuff, all this cheap home studio equipment, what would you have done? And he said, ‘If I’d had Pro Tools, I would have made these sprawling masterpieces.’ And that’s prog.
At the beginning of our conversation, I was sure I could refute Scott’s pro-prog bias, but the more he spoke, the more I realized that Scott, 10 years older than I, with his own home studio, knew as much as I did about music—actually, more. Without meaning to, he was telling me that everything I believed in was suspect. When I quoted the prog-mocking magazine Blender, he accused Blender of snobbery, of fear of the old and new, and of ‘suspicion of ambition.’ ‘The only difference between music writers and Star Wars nerds,’ he said, ‘is that you can’t buy Steve Albini dolls on eBay. Everything in their world has to follow the approved storyline, which they get to write.’ He continued:
Scott: See, I just don’t think kids in bands in college are thinking, ‘How can I be more like Mission to Burma and Galaxie 500?’ They’re thinking, ‘How can I plug Fruity Loops into Reason? How should I sample Radiohead? How can I make some orchestral shit?’ Ted Leo and the Pharmacists is music for 35 year olds. Frank Black is just a middle-aged fat guy now. He’s like an indie Stevie Nicks. And Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, together at last? Jack White and Loretta Lynn? It’s like when Elvis sang ‘My Way.’ How can you be the voice of your generation when you dust off someone from the generation before?
Gary: Sid Vicious covered ‘My Way.’
Scott: But with ironic intent. It’s an exception that proves the rule.
Gary: What’s Fruity Loops?
Scott: A sequencer—a drum machine, sort of. So is Reason.
I was overwhelmed, lost in Scott’s vision of a new age of MP3-downloaded neo-prog lo-fi indie bedroom experimental electronic rock. I excused myself to get a drink of water, and came back a few moments later, stumbling with the possibilities.
Scott: Sorry I went on. I’ve got a thing about prog.
Gary: Look, I’ve thought about what you’ve been saying. My decision is clear.
Scott: [Laughing] What’s that?
Gary: We have to start a band.