Gary Benchley, Rock Star

The First Concert

Who has better lyrics, the GOP or New York’s rockers? And can a romantic relationship survive “hug therapy?”

Knowing we would soon play live in front of strangers, Schizopolis became a band with a mission. These were the facts: we were playing a party, the Police State Fair, at the Monotreme Institute for Extraordinary Art in Brooklyn. The party was to take place on August 29th after a huge protest against the Republican National Convention in Manhattan. The plan was for everyone who didn’t get arrested to come back to Brooklyn and go insane, while listening to Schizopolis and three or four other bands.

So we had two weeks—six rehearsals of three hours each. It presented a terrible conundrum: how could we achieve rock greatness in 18 hours? Was it possible? I took Scott aside at work.

Gary: How the hell are we going to do this?
Scott: [laughing] Gary, think of all the shitty bands you’ve ever seen. It’s no big deal, right?
Gary: Yes, but I don’t want to be shitty. I’m looking for triumph.
Scott: It’s a good sign to fear failure.
Gary: Then I am in fine shape.
Scott: Don’t concentrate on being a musical genius. Concentrate on being interesting.

We shared a friendly man-hug. It’s odd, I think, that I can embrace Scott at work, but not Para, though in private with Para it’s all hugs. Perhaps it’s even too much in the way of hugs. This is due to Para’s therapist, Laura, who made a suggestion.

Para: Basically, she said…well, this is kind of weird.
Gary: What?
Para: She wants us to take time every time we see each other, and talk about how we feel. About each other.
Gary: I thought we did a lot of talking already.
Para: And she wants us to hug for at least a minute.
Gary: Do we talk while we hug, or later? Or before?
Para: I don’t know. She didn’t say. Do you think it matters?
Gary: I don’t know.
Para: I don’t think it matters.
Gary: I think we should hug after.
Para: Maybe if we hug before it will make it easier to talk.
Gary: OK.

So we held each other for a full two minutes. I know because I watched the second hand on Para’s wall clock take two full spins.

Para: It feels good just to hold you.
Gary: Always.

After hugging Scott, I returned to my desk and contemplated his comment: what was interesting? G.G. Allin was interesting, but he threw his own feces on the crowd. Wayne Coyne is interesting, but he travels in a giant plastic hamster ball above an audience of 50,000 screaming acolytes. That was off-limits given our current budget of negative many dollars and our current wide exposure to no one. The Arcade Fire is quirky, but are they interesting, or just Canadian?

Rehearsals were suddenly serious. We were focused on learning our parts, all of us worried about screwing up. I had the lyrics down for “Tugboat” and the guitar part for “Galapagos” was in good shape. Another song, “We’re All Annoying Together,” was still a mess. Scott wanted me to drop an octave on the first line, and then go up half an octave on the second, and I kept switching that around.

Gary: So we concentrate on sheer, pure energy. We don’t worry if we’re not perfect musicians. We just keep going.
Scott: Yes, but you should still learn the part.
Gary: Absolutely. But I’m just saying, the show must go on.
Scott: Right. We absolutely never, ever stop playing.

Our indie prog ideals had been dropped due to incompetence, and what we now played was a sort of pop-punk-plus-synth with monster drums. I don’t know how to describe the sound, exactly. When we get an album out, and Pitchfork writes the impossible-to-understand review, maybe then we’ll have a better understanding. Would our sound be called arching? Or sweeping? Grand, small, or both at once? Would we score a 2.0, or a 9.5? Thinking about it, I knew how Olympic gymnasts must feel.

I went over to Para’s that night and bought an orange on the way at a bodega. As I walked towards her building, I wrote a song called “At Frank’s Grocery it is a Dollar for an Orange.” (Originally, that was the first line of the song, but “orange” doesn’t rhyme with much, so I made it the title.) I’d been doing a lot of this, looking around for poetry, trying to make up songs everywhere I went. Para’s neighborhood is kind of low on inspiration, but I did see some barbed wire, stretched along the top of a warehouse wall. It was stretched in such a way that it looked like a sine wave.

I travel through a line of moving caves (note: this is the subway)
And find you near the barbed wire sine waves

I sang this out loud as I walked. A bus drove by and I harmonized with it. Most buses run on B flat, Scott had once said; I didn’t know exactly what to do with that information, but it did make buses more interesting.


* * *

On the 29th Schizopolis marched together in the protest. We had rehearsed just enough to be hopeful. Para was marching elsewhere on the parade route with her designer friends and we were going to catch up afterwards. I’d let her know about the party, but she hadn’t committed to coming. “It’s a Sunday,” she said. “A school night.” Which hurt in a way, coming as it did after one of our long hugging sessions. But I reminded myself that Para’s honesty and clarity were two of the things that I appreciated most about her. I’d hate it if she lied and did something she didn’t want to, just to please me.

The 29th was a blistering day, hot and harsh. “Here,” said Katherine. “Have some water.” She handed each of us a bottle. “Have some sunscreen.” She rubbed it on my face and I was pleased to feel her fingers on my cheeks and forehead. “My mom made us cookies,” she said. I had never seen her so generous before.

“You’re unusually warm and loving this morning,” said Scott.

“My parents were hippies,” said Katherine. Motioning to the wandering protestors with their signs and balloons, she added, “this feels like Thanksgiving to me.”

“It’s our first protest as a band,” said Jacob.

My cookie tasted like a freshly mowed lawn, which was a surprise. We eyed each other, acknowledging the cookie’s specialness, and smiled—and off we went into the sea of hot bodies, under the banners and posters. Shirtless women struck plastic buckets with drumsticks. Tall, formal looking men in their fifties marched along looking uncomfortable and somber. Someone had put a Bush mask on a sex doll.

It took us an hour to move a block and as we waited, sweating, I noticed that I was feeling something much stronger than a pot buzz. Time seemed to be made of plush fabric and the air felt liquid. Scott raised the issue before I could:

Scott: Katherine, what was in those cookies?
Jacob: That is a good question.
Gary: I mean, shit.
Katherine: Well, it’s home grown, from my brother. With the oils extracted to make it more potent.
Scott: That would make it…hash.
Jacob: That clears up a lot of things.
Gary: Did your mother really bake these?
Katherine: Sure.
Gary: And your brother grew the pot?
Katherine: Yeah.
Gary: Holy shit. Can I come to Thanksgiving at your house?
Katherine: I don’t think you’d survive.

We finished the march, taking a moment on the way to scream at Madison Square Garden, which would soon be filled with Republicans like a tick is filled with blood. Afterwards, I couldn’t find Para—her cell wasn’t picking up. I looked around for a few moments, wondering if she might pass by, but of course she was nowhere.

So I went, with the band, back to Brooklyn. All of us were nervous and showed it in our own ways. Katherine, for instance, was flicking Jacob’s ear and giggling. Jacob was pretending she wasn’t doing it. Scott fingered his shirt collar. I mumbled the lyrics to our songs over and over.

The scene at Monotreme was intense. People were applying the last of their protest adrenaline to heavy drinking. A guy at the grill handed me a hamburger, then asked to see my hand stamp. I started to mumble something, but he looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re in the band with Katherine.” He smiled. The hot dog was my reward for being an artist, and I ate it with (emotional) relish. Then I went upstairs to Katherine’s apartment. Scott emerged from the bathroom with his hair slicked back, as shiny as a classic car. “So fancy!” said Katherine. Scott just smiled.

We had each dressed up in our own way. Scott looked crisp, in an oxford shirt, tan slacks, and black shoes, with his hair smooth and shining. Katherine wore a T-shirt that said “NYPD Plumbing Squad” with a picture of a plunger underneath the words (I didn’t get what that was about) and a tight pair of jeans. Jacob wore a simple black polo. I was in jeans and a snug striped shirt, hair tousled, as handsome as I could be.

We had two hours before we had to go on, so I wandered through the party. There was, as had been promised, a man dressed in a donkey outfit, and another guy with a long elephant trunk that shot flames from its nostrils. He kept chasing the donkey, both of them running through the crowd braying and trumpeting. There were two women dressed as cops behind a makeshift bar selling Jell-O shots. They had batons with donuts on them, and you could buy a donut with your Jell-O for a dollar inclusive. They screamed at anyone who came their way, “Filthy longhair! Go back where you came from!” Above us all, someone had hung a banner with a huge eye-in-the-pyramid in the center made out of felt.

Eventually Jacob came up to me and tapped my shoulder. “It’s time for us to go on,” he said. I followed him out to the stage. There were maybe 50 people in the audience, most of them facing away from us with drinks in hand. Someone had put up lights so I couldn’t see much past the stage. I looked around at my bandmates, all assembled and ready to play. I kept waiting for someone to give me permission, for a light to go on, but it appeared to be up to me alone to set things off. This was it, I thought; time for the all-important introductory stage banter.

“Hello,” I said. “We’re a band—”

“No shit,” said an invisible drunk.

You have to start somewhere. “We’re Schizopolis,” I said.

Someone, possibly the drunk, made hooting noises. I turned to Katherine and nodded.

“One, two, three, four,” she said, and her arms went up and down like pistons. I stepped up to the microphone. Our first song, “Tugboat,” doesn’t call for any rhythm guitar, so I left my guitar on its stand.

But before I could sing the first few words, fireworks went off, about a dozen very bright, noisy, whistling rockets. For a moment, in the streaking light, I could see the audience, lots of whom were ducking and hiding their eyes. Most of the rockets went into the air, but one veered left and passed right over Scott’s hair.

Scott waved his hands wildly and people in the crowd screamed. Afterwards, I learned his hair had caught fire, but at the time I was too confused to pay attention. It turns out his citrus-smelling hair product was highly flammable. I remembered Scott’s words: never stop playing.

“My knee hit the trigger,” yelled Katherine. “Sorry.” Though I didn’t understand this at the time, Katherine had rigged up a tom with about a dozen rockets and a complex triggering mechanism. Jacob looked on serenely.

There was a moment of silence and weird yells from the audience. Scott looked singed and hurt, but his fingers were on the keyboard. His high-thread-count oxford shirt had dark handprints—he’d put out his smoking hair with his hands, and then rubbed them on his chest. I turned to the mic and said, “Here we go,” and I looked at Katherine again. She counted off once more, and there were no explosions.

We played our set straight through. I remember only a few things: I was so nervous that my leg was shaking, and I sang the chorus on “Tugboat” twice. The shapes in the audience kept moving, people going to get more beer or see what else was happening at the party. At the end, my throat hurt and my top three shirt buttons were undone although I don’t remember undoing them, and I said, “Thank you, we’re Schizopolis.” The applause was indifferent and quiet; you could hear the individual hands pressing together.

Before we could leave the stage, the next band—three men in their thirties, guitar-bass-drums—began to edge in. I didn’t know what to feel. Right then, an attractive girl was supposed to come over and tell me how great I had done. But the universe gave me none of it. I pulled my guitar and a mic stand through a crowd that had already forgotten I existed.

I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“Dude, that was kind of…an awesome show,” said a short, homely, stout man, a stranger. He was definitely not an attractive, affirming woman. He had a beard with no moustache, like the Amish.

“There was kind of…a fire,” I said.

“That’s what made it great,” he said. “You kept it going. I admired it.”

“Do you have any throat lozenges?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, no,” he said.

I almost told him how it didn’t work out at all, how it had been pretty weak, how I was actually still high and groggy from the morning. But instead I shook his hand, and said, “I wish I had a flyer to give you.” He shook my hand back, hard.

“I wish you did, too. I’d love to see you play again.”

“I’m Gary Benchley,” I said.

“I know,” he said. “You introduced yourself on stage.”

You know how every annoying actor or musician goes on talk shows and says, “It doesn’t matter what people say, it doesn’t matter who comes to the show, because if I reached one person, it was worth it?” I always thought that was self-serving bullshit, but it turns out they’re telling the truth. That shred of validation, the Amish-bearded man who actually cared that I existed, redeemed the evening. I went back to help pack up Katherine’s drums, and scanned the crowd for Para. But, just like earlier, at the protest, she was nowhere to be found.