7: Rolling Stoned. (Part 2)
I glanced around the bar, and thumbed through my index cards. Why couldn’t I just run off with her? She would call at all hours, with hare-brained plans and adventures that wore me out but were some of the best times I’d ever had. It was the vacation that ended everything. After a date that ended at a party and turned into a three-day adventure with her, Carla got a call with the offer to go to Machu Pichu, essentially at a 75% discount, provided she could leave the following afternoon. High on the lack of sleep, I couldn’t conceive of dropping everything and running off suddenly, no matter how unbelievably fun being with Carla was. She was everything I wasn’t, and was most confident and comfortable when she had no idea what was happening next. I spent too much time in my head, laying out my next move too carefully, and always working toward a smooth and well-planned conclusion. I had a job, and clients, and to just drop everything… what would happen when I returned? Would we return? These were questions I couldn’t answer then, and I can’t answer now.
I looked at Carla, and finished my drink. “Someday, I will come here, and take you on a motorcycle trip through the jungles of Viet Nam.” She raised an eyebrow.
“Don’t get my hopes up.”
I left another $20 for her, and began to wend my way down to the bowels of The Tunnel.
It wasn’t even that late on a random weeknight, but already The Tunnel seemed alive with more action than most places got on a Friday Night during Fleet Week. Delinquents and kids of every denomination hung around at every table and in every corner of the place, sucking down drinks and smokes faster than the three people working the bar here could handle. While there was never any threat of implied violence, or even danger of any kind, there were certainly interesting conversations happening here and there, and all manner of business was being arranged around me. The bar pulsed with TSOL, and I meandered through underage and crusty sailor alike as I kept my eyes out for Sam.
I was a tad late – as I had planned – and I didn’t imagine that she would leave, and finally I caught sight of her playing pool with a pair of duds who looked bewildered. She was clearly running the table and hadn’t spotted me yet, so I negotiated getting a beverage and rolling a smoke, an endeavor that put her well into running the table. She didn’t look too different from her outfit in the Record Store, but her tight jeans and Stooges t-shirt certainly accentuated with more definition what I had already spent all day imagining. Lightly made up, and with slightly more primped and pampered hair and ears, she looked amazing, and I watched as she commanded the pool table the way she dominates customers in the store.
When she had cleaned up the table, she handed the cue back to Dud 1, and picked up the money that has been sitting on the edge of the table. She glanced at her phone, then picked up an errant hoodie. Dud 2 looked at her and said, “C’mon, one more game.”
“Sorry, I’m tired of playing with limp-dicks like you.” She spotted me, so I nodded and motioned with my head a table I was about to clear for us. She glared at me, and made a b-line for the bar. I eyed a pair of dudes in messenger gear in a heated discussion, and leaned over the table.
“You two don’t ride fixed gears, do you?”
The stopped talking and looked at me. “Huh?”
“I just walked in, but I saw two dipshits fucking with a pair of bikes, like they were gonna run off with them. I’ve been trying to find someone to tell.”
The pair looked at each other, and in a fluid movement drained their drinks, grabbed their stuff, and bolted up the stairs. I eyed a bear couple on a date a few tables over, and negotiated a swap with them by using another $20 and an excuse about the lighting, then made myself comfortable at their secluded table. My timing was incredible. Sam emerged from the bar with her drink, only to be bumped by two careless messengers searching for someone in a hat, causing her to spill her shot and beer. After a flurry of heated arguments and gestures toward the bears – who now felt themselves to be targets of hipster closed-mindedness – it wasn’t long before the messengers were ejected too. Sam was given another drink for her trouble, and by the time she joined me I was completely unprepared for the slap she gave me.
“Usually I have to try and kiss someone before I get that kind of treatment.”
“That’s for being late, asshole.”
I took a drag of my cigarette, and said, “You seemed to be having a good time. How can I make it up to you?”
“You already started; I put my drink on your tab.”
“Oh. Is there anything else I’m not aware of getting you, or shall I just be surprised by my bill when I pay for it?”
“I depends on how long we’re here. I haven’t finished convincing you to buy me dinner yet.”
“I suspect that will take a lot of convincing?”
I sipped mine. “Am I catching up, or are you?”
Sam laughed. “I imagine we’re about even, now.”
“Well that’s good. I would hate for one of us to have the advantage over the other.”
“Believe me, that will never happen.”
I sipped my drink reflectively and looked her in the eye. “Well that sure fills me with a heap of confidence.”
She smiled. “Like, I feel really sorry for you.”
I rolled a cigarette. “You’re waiting for me to say something first. To make a mistake so you can use that as leverage against me as we keep talking. It’s a good tactic to use when you’re trying to stay in control.” I looked at her as I put the cigarette in my mouth. “I’ve used it before.”
“I can just walk out of here the moment you start getting creepy and analytical, too, what’s your point?”
“My point is that we’re both smarter than we’re each used to dealing with, and the verbal sparring that we’re both used to is probably only going to make us feel a little awkward, for a while, anyway. You seem to have been pretty forward from the beginning, so let’s drop the bullshit and talk shop.”
Sam cocked one eye and reached for her drink. “It’s true, I don’t meet many like you.”
“I don’t agree with your take on The Gizmos.”
She almost crossed her eyes. “You’re off to a great start. So you’ve been listening.”
I looked up to do the math. “Skimming and scrubbing, so to speak.”
“Well, that’s more than most. I fuckin’ swear, you’d think people listen to two of these at the same time. I can never get anyone to actually talk about the shows.”
“I just think you’re missing a bigger point, a larger clue.”
“You wanna mansplain proto-punk to me, now? Out of anything else in the world we could be talking about? Wow.”
“It’s not like that,” I offered. “I just want to talk about records.” I puffed on my cigarette. I continued, “Look, it’s clear we are birds of a very-different feather. I’m gonna defend The Who and Harry Nilsson, and you’re gonna convince me that Miss Machine is one of the most important albums on the oughts. I’m Oscar, you’re Felix.”
“But, my point is, we both showed up to this.” I held up my drink, and grudgingly she held it up to give me the barest of toasts. “Why am I letting you do some old-boy bullshit here?”
I looked her in the eyes. “Because you like it.”
She bristled. “Strike two. You never get to tell me what I like.”
“Fair enough. Lesson learned.”
She drained her glass. “So, tell me how I’m wrong about everything, Mr. Little.”
“How about I get you another drink, and we have a discussion about music instead?”
“Music is everything, you short sighted prick.”
I raised my air and got the attention of a waitress, who went into the throng to fetch us some drinks. “Have you seen my record collection?”
“You are treading on thin ice, mister. I’ve been around enough piece of shit indie rockers to know that they just can’t imagine a woman knowing as much about records as they do, gosh darn it! You wanna see a group of people with old-timey values and who use coded interactions to devalue the story we have to tell… fuck you!” She flipped me off.
“Perhaps I got off on the wrong foot. I’m not puffing out my chest, or trying to reinforce some bullshit that, I agree, should never have become the way women get treated in the scene. I’m on your side with all of that. But I’m a Gizmos fan, and I just read them a little differently than you. I thought it would be fun to dig in, so I jumped to the offensive. I thought you were giving off a ‘let’s gnash teeth for a bit’ kind of vibe. I didn’t mean to jump the gun.”
As I wrapped up, the waitress arrived with another set of drinks. “Thanks,” I offered, and handed her a $10 for a tip.
Sam sipped her cocktail, a whiskey sour. “So you have a problem with the story of proto-punk as told by Samantha Drake. This I gotta hear.”
“Not a problem, just an observation. I thought your story on Debris was fascinating, and the MX-80 bit was amazing. For someone who couldn’t have seen Suicide in their original incarnation, you have a pretty exhaustive understanding of those early days. I really got the sense that I was at a Rocket From The Toombs practice session, and that was pretty amazing. And your take on The Residents is incredible.”
She smiles. “Mr. Little, I had no idea you were so good at foreplay.”
“You should see me around a turntable.” I puffed on my cigarette. “My point is, I think you do all of them a huge disservice by trying to place them in some sort of archeological context when it comes to the overall narrative arc of… wait for it… Rock and Roll, with capital Rs.”
Sam looked at me quizzically. “Look, I’m flattered that you actually read the blog. If anyone even gives my stuff the time of day, it’s often just the podcast, and then to argue with me about how I’m wrong, or that they think I sound hot from my voice, or whatever creepy thing they’re onto that day. But I can actually say that no one has ever actually wanted to talk to me about the stuff I write in the blog.”
“No, you shouldn’t. It’s just… you just went up slightly in my esteem.”
“Well, I have a lot of ground to cover.”
“So what’s wrong with Rock and Roll?”
“Not what’s wrong with it, but the story that’s told.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“We The People.”
“Okay, I know you’re not talking about the line from the Constitution. Yes, the Florida band?”
I nodded. “Where would you place them in the grand narrative arc of music.”
“They’re a Nuggets group.”
“Because Rhino lumped them into the boxed set with a million other bands.”
“They have a garage sound.”
“Initially. But the end of their run, they were starting to get a little heavy, and a little fast. Not enough to make a difference in their time, but with hindsight, it seems as if they are doing something that is more like Blue Cheer than Bill Haley, dig?”
Sam sighed. “I hate guys who say ‘dig.’”
“But the problem with history after the fact is that is misses the whole point of the Rock & Roll virus. Once the idea is airborn, a linear path of transmission is no longer possible. There isn’t a throughline that goes from Little Richard to Taylor Swift that accounts for all the random permutations and juxtapositions that tweakers in a garage in Bloomington in the ‘70’s.”
Sam took a drink and chewed her lip for a moment. “I don’t think that there’s a throughline, but the thing that unites everyone who picks up a guitar is that they are aware of the fact that Elvis was a very real artist that made music. It’s like that John Flansburgh quote: ‘Once people hear this it’s going to be hard to deny that we are Beatles fans.’ Your influences are unconscious, perhaps, but you can’t just create music in a bubble. The instrument itself carrying a symbol and meaning that you can’t strip from it.”
I nodded. “Yes, everything is intertextual, for sure. Let me put it another way. What do you call Link Wray’s Music?”
“I love Link Wray! I call it Link Wray’s music.”
“But what genre is it?”
She gave me a raspberry, and said, “We both know genre is bullshit.”
I tapped the table. “Exactly! So when five guys get together in a garage and plug their instruments in, you know that the auteur theory of rock and roll is that together they chart a path through the topographical oceans, or whatever bullshit they create for each other. But they don’t sit there and say, ‘let’s invent noise rock, or garage-soul, or whatever.’ They have all been infected by the idea of Rock and Roll, this powerful notion that says, ‘synthesize everything around you and filter it through this simple, three-chord format that allows you to churn out hip-shaking sounds when played just the right way.’”
Sam shook her head, “No, that pre-supposes that rock and rollers are all aware enough to filter their interests into music. You think KISS was self-aware enough to know what they were doing? They wanted girls and coke and handjobs, period. It’s the intertextual nature of the guitar in a rock milieu that created KISS, because glam was the next iteration of this story cycle.”
I shook my head. “I just don’t agree. I don’t see the guys in MX-80 sitting around, intentionally trying to ‘be’ protopunk. I see them all sitting around in a room, getting high, and churning out what they thought were amazing riffs, trying to piece it all together until they felt the song was ready. The weirdness of those songs speaks to a vision not bound by their place in a narrative, but by the whims of some random guys who just so happened to be friends.”
Sam chewed her lip. “So everything is random, chance? There is no meaning or bigger picture, but just pointless acts that exist in a vacuum, isolated from each other?”
“No exactly.” I puffed on my cigarette. “Here’s a long shot: The Flaming Lips.”
Sam did not take her eyes off of my, but took a sip of her drink.
“These guys clearly had the influence of middle American squarely on the tips of their tongues. They are the epitome of DIY. And their mutation of punk was just their cultural melange, the stew they were soaking in. Yes, they are influenced by the sweep of history. A decade earlier or later and they would have been a different band, for sure. But it is their interpretation of the virus that makes them interesting, not their place in the story. They are their own thing. To try and place them in a larger swing or story that involves someone else leading to them, and then to someone else entirely, diminishes the importance of a story like theirs. Without room for them to have grown and created their own mythology, then their place in something bigger becomes meaningless, a footnote.”
I took a sip from my bourbon, and looked back at her. “What do you want for dinner?”
She smiled. “You.”
“I’m a meat-eater. I taste terrible. What about thai?”
“I’m sure we’ll get to thigh soon enough.”
I picked up a menu and said, “I have a feeling they might even have something here we could agree on.”
She nodded and took a drink. “That’s for sure. I have an old VHS player back at my house.”
“And what about a full kitchen where neither of us have to cook?”
“We can order in.”
I sipped my bourbon, and pointed to it with my other hand. “But I just got started.”
She frowned. “I don’t like waiting.”
I handed her a menu across the table. “Look, why don’t we get a bite, have a few more, and then I can feel like I earned going home with you.”
Sam gave me her bedroom eyes again, then glanced down at the menu. “Alright. But I get very unhappy if I don’t get my way.”
“And I have no intention of disappointing you. But not on an empty stomach.”
“Okay,” she said, a little more playfully. I motioned to the waitress and we reviewed the menu together.
“Yes,” she asked?
Sam said, “Gimme another drink, and a BAMF with salad and tots.”
“A Luna, salad and tots on the side, and a double-shot of bourbon.”
I let the silence hang there for a bit as I rolled another cigarette.
“It would be nice to watch that tape with you later,” she finally said.
And that told me everything I needed to know about who had the upper hand now.