Image by Tak Toyoshima
“ALL ACCESS? THEY”RE GIVING those out to the weeklies?” Dickey checks my passes. He wears a nail through his septum and he pulls it out when we amp up for the late shows. Half an hour until doors; bar-backs are slicing limes; roadies are gaff-taping cords to the stage.
“Friend of the band tonight. No, the paper’s sending in some lad for the review. When he shows, shake him down a little. The piece ought to be mine.”
The greenroom is lousy with people. I spot Katy. She runs over, throws her arms around my neck and sizes me up. We haven’t seen each other since last year’s tour. She’s been in Portland with Belle Ripley, the bassist, and I don’t get out to the West Coast much anymore. She’s thinner, the lines around her eyes, deeper.
“Devilish Darwin, real as rain,” a line from a song she made up a long time ago. “No, no, don’t scowl,” she says. “Let’s get a drink in you.”
She grabs a couple of bottles and walks me around, the annual routine, reintroducing me to the band. James, lead vocals and guitar, giving an interview to some kid with a blog. Bob, percussion, fresh from a shower, smearing gel into his black-dyed hair.
Belle Ripley walks in, crosses the room in clear, deep tones. You wonder how so angular a woman can move like fluid. She winds her arms around Katy and sucks on her neck till their knees bend together.
“Glad you could make it, Dar,” she says.
Belle Ripley slaps bass like a storm hits the plains. She thrills Katy like almost no one thrills anybody—you can see it whenever they touch, even after all these years.
“Let’s head out to the bus” Belle winks, and we follow.
She leads us out the front door. There’s a line stretching the block; they recognize her, run up to snap photos. Katy codes the bus door and reaches back for her woman. It takes both of us to pull her in.
Bumleg Dog charted during the big grunge die-off, right around the time I started writing for the paper. They had two top-forty, blues-rock hits that still get airplay, but they built their base through a decade of touring. Their last studio album dropped two years back and they released a live album in the fall. Both went gold, rare cases in the digital age.
And they’re riding a new bus. Single-barrel bourbon, top-shelf vodka and Johnny Walker line a sink full of ice and brown bottles. Everything shines but the buckskin upholstery. Eric, the keyboardist, is kicked back watching PBS on a plasma screen.
“Mammoth, isn’t it? Twelve berths,” Katy says as we walk the aisle. We’re not even using them all. There’s the band and me — that’s five. Mayalee and Stones are on this year – that’s seven. James’s wife went ahead to Atlantic City with the flu. That leaves four open, though half are full of baggage. So, Dar, if you feel like getting out of town…”
“I have a deadline tomorrow afternoon.”
“Write the review from a hotel room,” Belle says, muffled, bent half into a berth. She finds her black wristbands, Katy slaps her ass and we keep walking back.
“I’m not reviewing the Dog show. I have a fucking restaurant piece due. Sonofabitch Lowell, he hired a new kid and he’s giving him some reviews. He gave him this show.”
“We were looking forward to another ode to the virtuous bass work of the incomparably sexy Belle Ripley,” Katy says, popping the caps off three cold ones, dropping one in front of me and crawling up against Belle with the other two.
“Right. And this kid Vikas, if he sees me in there, he’ll probably shadow me. Pretend he’s not here. I know I will.”
But there is no deadline, no restaurant review. I’ve got nothing lately. I plan to write my own piece on Bumleg Dog anyway, prove to Lowell that it was my story, that Vikas is just the blogger du jour.
“Ever done a vaporizer?” Belle asks. She hands me a sort of blown-glass vagina packed with green and connected by tubing to a glass mouthpiece. “We got this shit on the Alaskan cruise from a very happy fan.”
“This tour’s been insane,” Katy says, rubbing Belle’s thigh, the tattoo on her arm – a B and K back-to-back, ornamented – flexing like a butterfly. “You used to get a joint thrown on stage now and then, or some little memento. Now with these cruise packages and signings, it’s anything. Yesterday, a guy bought a t-shirt and handed me a Tootsie Roll of opium. Saying no isn’t exactly an option at that point. I just take what’s handed me and toss it later.”
“Or pass it along to Stones,” Belle says. “Man, you should have seen New Orleans, spring of ’97.”
“Don’t tell me. I don’t want to hear about your bayou whores,” Katy says and kisses her cheek.
The bud smells like skunk piss on a pecan pie. Belle fits the weed-packed vagina onto the hot glass probe. I suck; it doesn’t feel like I’m getting anything, but I exhale a genie. My blood hums. Now the night’s a soul jam.
Click, pop, the bathroom door opens. Out steps a tipsy, twiggy chick in a white denim mini, leather boots laced to the knee. Was she in there the whole time?
“Who’s the boy?” she squeaks.
“My friend Dar. A journalist.” Katy introduces Cherise, a “friend” of Eric.
“Your friend, too, I hope. You can never have too many.” She bends and kisses each of my cheeks, apple-sized breasts brushing against me. She needs an opinion. “Should I go with boots, or these,” she asks, swinging heels from a strap across her finger.
“Boots,” Belle answers, pie-eyed and grinning.
“No seats in there,” I agree. “You’ll be on your feet all night, and they’re just as sexy as the spikes.”
“Thank you, baby. See y’all inside,” she says, and slides up the aisle to Eric who scoops her up onto his back and carries her out.
We follow, re-entering the club through the stage door and up the stairs to the balcony. Music I don’t recognize is playing on the PA and a crowd is amassing. I see Vikas below. He looks up, sees me, closes in.
Vikas is in his office clothes, minus tie. I grab him a beer in the greenroom and now he’s in my hip pocket, begging me to show him to the band. But he finds his balls at the bottom of the bottle and goes off with his digital recorder and his steno pad. He pulls a folding chair over to interview the piano man, completely ignoring Cherise who’s straddling Eric, massaging each of his fingers to the tip.
And Katy hangs on Belle, watching her while I watch them both. There are fans backstage who either paid for VIP passes or won them, and not one is a day under thirty-five. A guy with a tic pats James on the back like they’ve been through some kind of program together. A six-foot tall woman with another half-foot in height of blue-black hair blows air kisses to Katy and Belle, yammers about the Alaskan cruise. She promises she’ll see them again in New York.
“A woman in every port?” I kid Katy.
“She might think so. They get a false sense of intimacy.”
The opener goes on. There’s the heart-call of the bass drum. The VIP’s are leaving. Mayalee starts singing scales, Bob’s twirling sticks and stomping. Stones stubs out a pinner. Katy tells me it’s time for the band’s pre-show meet-up, then leads me, Vikas, Cherise and Big Hair to the balcony over stage left and shuts the door.
“What do you see when you look out there?” Vikas asks.
Men in faded concert tees and men straight from the office, collars open, sleeves rolled up. Bare-shouldered women, tattooed, sun-freckled from the long summer. “Whole lotta white people.”
“It’s an older crowd than I’ve been covering.”
“Closer to my age than yours, champ.” No wonder it feels, for the first time in a long time, like I’m not crashing the party.
People look up at us, envying our vantage. Guys ogle Cherise and Big-Hair. They notice the attention and start sucking face for the cheers. Cherise pulls away and waves to the crowd below. Everyone needs an audience some time.
“How exactly are you involved with Bumleg Dog?” Vikas asks, pen poised.
“Belle Ripley’s partner, Katy, is an old friend. We dated in college.”
“And after you she gave up on men?” he laughs.
“Grow up, Vikas. She didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘Gee, I sure hate fucking you.’ A lot’s changed in ten – hell, twenty – years. Why are you writing this down?”
“Relax, guy. I ask questions. It’s my job, remember?”
“Your job is reporting on music. My relationship with Katy is irrelevant.”
“Belle Ripley is one hot dyke; they both are.” I give him the hard stare. “Hey, I said relax. I’m cool – my sister is gay. So anyway, when did Katy come to be Belle’s full-time groupie?”
“She’s a lawyer, dipshit. They met at a bar. Now can we just watch this show?”
“I’m not reviewing the opener. I mean, it’s bad enough…” He pulls back.
“Wait. You don’t even want this piece?”
“It’s a byline. Of course I want it. This just isn’t my scene or my sound. I hate this arena-wannabe shit.”
“So what’s your scene, Vikas? What’s your sound?”
“Basement bars, seated clubs. Experiment, nuance, classical elements re-imagined. Like, to hear a viola, a real harp even, act as motif in, say, ambient house, that’s what I dig. This album-rock is so forceful, all big gestures and machismo, Belle Ripley not excepted. I find it exhausting. Do you think they do, too? Everyone seemed pretty worn in there, even your friend Katy.”
“You’re an earnest little shit, aren’t you Vik?”
“And you’re lit up like Christmas. Invite a guy next time.”
I can’t help bragging. “I was on the bus with the girls, and it was some cherry shit, boy.”
We can see the whole stage across to the soundboards, the set lists taped to the floor, the guitarists tapping pedals. The opening band sounds like Dick Dale on downers. Dual vocalists split the front of the stage. The hipster, stage-left, plays rhythm, mic on distortion. The dude stage-right’s got a greased-back wave, tuxedo shirt unbuttoned to navel, black jeans, motorcycle boots. He plays left-handed lead, sings like a bull gator in a tunnel. They jack their axes at one another and the kit-man’s like a marching band. I swear to myself that I’ll remember this, that I’ll talk to them after the show, that I’ll write something, anything, in the morning. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re headlining this time next year,” I say to Vikas.
He disagrees, of course. “Can’t have a double lead. Whose band is it?” He points to the hipster, stage left. “I say put skinny in the middle and let the girls get a look at him.” The greenroom door opens. Katy is standing in the shaft of light, calling me in.
“Eureka, Vikas. You write that down.”
“They’re breaking up,” she says. It doesn’t process.
We are alone in the greenroom, Katy and I. The openers are done and Bumleg Dog waits downstairs to take the stage. “It’s over. Listen, Dar, this is confidential. We’ve been talking about it for a few weeks, but the news won’t be released until the tour wraps, four months from now. I had to tell you, but you can’t write –or speak—a word of it.” Deep breath, same old story: disparities in contracts; everybody’s whipped. “Money’s some of it,” she says, “but it’s more a matter of plateau. How hard would it be, at this point, to get to the next level? What does that mean anymore, and is it possible? Does anybody even want to?”
It feels like a doctor has delivered bad news: the mass is malignant. There will be no next year’s show.
“Belle is so against it. She wanted to put out another record. She won’t talk to me about anything beyond the end of the tour. Me, I’ve come around. I mean, we have a house we don’t live in. We have a boat that sits shrink-wrapped in a storage yard. I’m sick of fucking in Holiday Inns.”
How could this be the last time I see a Bumleg Dog show? When will I see Katy and Belle again? The big bus, the groupies, the greenroom – everything’s felt so right all night. “We’ve got to get out there,” I say, seizing her hand.
Bumleg Dog takes the stage and shirts go up in the front row. Security runs over between the stage and the crowd and warns the flashers. The drumsticks clack-a-one-two-three-four and they tear open “Coalblack and Blue,” the first track on what I now know will be their last studio album. James is a giant in a silk shirt, dirty red hair hanging from his Kangol, voice worn deep.
Bob hammers a drum solo to open the second number. I once saw a demonstration of the world’s first telegraph, a monstrous wire and brass thing invented to communicate shore-to-ship messages. When the docent pressed a huge lever to corresponding metal —ZZZAPPP— a massive stentorian spark jolted the room. There is something like that circuit fire in Bob’s snare-pounding, the crowd jumping to his rhythm.
Third song, I turn to see Vikas grilling Katy. Down below, Cherise is rubbing up on Stones at his boards. “Come on Katy,” I say, “let’s go rescue Stones. And you,” to Vikas, “don’t follow us.” We head to the wing where the soundboards are hidden from the audience by amps. I take out the joint I’ve been carrying in my wallet, light it and pass it to Stones. He’s a lifer; he’ll roll on.
“Thanks, pal,” he says, eyeballing me. “I feel like I know you.”
“I come every year, Stones. It’s Darwin.”
“That’s right, that’s right. Well, Darwin, enjoy this one,” he says and passes it back.
Now it’s heavy blues. Eric sits at the B-3 and sustains one wobbling chord before dropping into downboard trills. Mayalee steps out in a black sequined shawl, throws her arms out and wails Baby, baby, baby, baby don’t go. Baby, say it ain’t so.
Cherise has her arms wrapped around herself now. In the yellow light spilling from the stage I see for the first time the dark roots in her cottony hair, the lines around her lips filled with powder. I want to hold her, care for her, settle us both down in a square house with a dogwood tree. Instead, I give her the long roach and say, “Go ahead doll, finish it off.”
I feel the music in my backbone and wish I could fuck my way through the whole crowd. I take Katy’s hand again and walk out from behind the amps, weaving in. We stop dead center and I move Katy in front of me so she can see. The Dog picks up the gait. Belle bombs the amps, resets the beat of every present heart. Katy turns and says, “I’m so wet for her right now. I never watch from the house anymore.”
The song ends; Belle wipes her face on the bandana she dangles from her back pocket. James plucks the unmistakable opening notes of their oldest and biggest hit, and we’re caught in the crush. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first, tenth or hundredth time we’ve seen it, we’re all screaming for our stars.
When the encore begins, we head back upstairs for another cold one. A promoter comes into the greenroom, tells Katy they’d sold out after all. Vikas enters from the balcony and runs his notes by me until the band arrives, silent and sweaty, everyone looking for water and a place to rest.
I offer to get lost for a few minutes. Katy says no, we don’t have to go.
But I remember that I left my jacket out on the bus. Belle volunteers to take me out. She says she wants to change before the post-show signing, that she doesn’t give a shit if she misses it anyway.
So Belle and I head down the back stairs, out the stage door to the bus and we slip in before anyone recognizes her. I walk to the back to grab my jacket and she tosses me a tin of weed. “Load one up,” she says, “I’ll be right out.” I settle at the table, pack the glass vagina and wait.
She comes out of the bathroom and walks to the back of the bus in her towel.
And then she drops it.
“Got it ready?” She bends over me, switches on the vaporizer and fits the bud on the heat. She stands, abs, ribs, meringue-peak breasts all rising as she inhales. When she touches my face, I pull back, putting the table between us.
“Put your towel on, Belle.”
“What, this doesn’t look good to you?” And she laughs.
“Stop it. What would Katy say?”
“She’d tell me that she wanted me. She’d put her hands on me, her mouth…” Holding the vaporizer tube in one hand, the other hand running over her breast.
“Is this a joke?”
“Christ, Dar, forget it,” she says, dropping the tube and picking up the towel, walking over to an open berth, pulling out clothes. She yanks up boxers and baggy, belted jeans. “I was feeling good after the show, and I thought…”
“What did you think?”
“That you’re attracted to us. That we’re all just hanging on here. And I was thinking about Katy,” she says, topless, facing me down. I make a move to get past her and out. She grabs my arm. “Dar, wait. Hear me out.” I go back to the table.
“Look, I’m sorry,” she says. “I wouldn’t do anything to hurt Katy.”
“So what is this?”
“Don’t be naïve. Katy has been here for, shit, fifteen years. She’s here when people throw themselves at us. Sometimes we let them, and she’s here for that, too.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Ask her. She says she’s happy on the road because I’m happy on the road, but I know better. Tonight – not just tonight, the whole day— she knew you’d be here and I saw a change in her. You said you might come up to Atlantic City on the bus with us and I guess I thought…”
“That you’d make her feel better by fucking me?”
“Don’t assume I wanted you to fuck me, Dar. I just wanted you to stay.”
For one quiet moment, I let myself believe it’s true and it’s simple and it’s even partly about me.
“Or maybe screwing around keeps you from thinking about what life will be like four months from now when you’re not in this band anymore.”
“She told you. I figured she would.”
She slouches into the seat across from me, pushes her fingers into her wet hair and pulls it. I reach out and take her hands. I hold them across the table and I tell her she’ll be fine. She’ll find other people to play with, she and Katy will grow closer. She’s still topless, and not to please me. A moment of comfort. There won’t be another tour. There is no next year’s show. This is not a schoolboy fantasy but it is some kind of love. Smokes comes in, tells Belle that about thirty people are still hanging around for her autograph. She pulls on a tank top.
I leave my jacket behind. Boston be damned: I don’t want to wake up alone tomorrow morning.
Roadies are loading out, the bartenders wiping down, staff sweeping up butts and broken glass. Dickey the bouncer’s leaning toward a bottle of Patron. He whistles to me, and I put one finger up so he waits.
Vikas pulls his coat on. He sniffs around me and says, “Don’t you smell mighty kind! Bus again? You could have asked me. Split a cab?”
“No, I think I’ll hang out, throw back a few shots. But Vikas? Have a good time with the review. It’s all yours.”
“You’re getting too old for these late nights and early mornings, guy.”
“True. But I’m going to ride with the band to Atlantic City tonight anyway.”
“Yeah? I never took you for a gambler,” he says. The big overheads are switching off, one by one. The bar-back pockets her tips, runs a rag the length of the bar one last time and leaves Dickey with the bottle of Patron. Katy crosses to the bar and Dickey reaches under for another shot glass. Eric carries Cherise out the stage door on his back again. Bob waves good-bye. Belle freezes in the night’s last flashes.
“I never have been, my friend, so wish me luck. I’m going to need all of it I can get.”