By Tim Smyth.
I blush when I see them: tall and old and grey outside the door to my apartment building. The younger of the two has gotten his thin plait caught between his guitar case and his shoulder. He is trying to extricate the plait without the other guy noticing. The plait has that bad gloss you get when you haven’t undone it for a while. The plait looks like an entrail. The guitar case is covered in jungle camouflage.
I want to let my blush fade before I open the door because otherwise they will either think I am always this red-faced, or else they will see the blush fade. But the key is already turning in the lock and we’re introducing ourselves.
We all have beards. The older man’s beard is long and wide and down to his collarbone. His hair is cropped short and he is deaf in one ear and one eye veers. The older man’s name is Tom. Tom is the drummer, but he hasn’t brought any sticks or a cymbal bag. He is holding a thing that looks like a mandolin case. I ask him where his sticks are. He asks me to repeat myself. Your accent is very hard to understand! It is not. I ask him where his sticks are. He taps the thing that looks like a mandolin case and winks at me.
I am worried. These men are big, and strange, and I am no longer sure that they are musicians. But what do I say? I don’t want to continue with this try-out, because two people is not an established Beatles tribute band like you said it was on Craigslist. You also frighten me, and now you know where I live.
The younger man’s beard is long and thin like the bass player in the metal band I’m in. The younger man’s name is Mike. My name is Tim. Hey, Tom! is how Mike greets me. He doesn’t notice his mistake because he is too excited. It is all of one vowel, anyway.
We talk about our beards. Tom grew his last August for a kids’ play called Wild Joe and the Hairy Man. I ask him if he was Wild Joe. Tom looks confused. No – no, I was the Hairy Man. I grew the beard for the part. Mike tells me he didn’t hit puberty until he was 35 and so he couldn’t grow a beard until then. Mike points to the parts of his face where the hair hasn’t grown.
I tell them that I’ll need to grow a bigger beard to get in the band. I tell them that thing about how the two guys in ZZ Top who had the big beards both had big beards, and that even though the drummer only had a small moustache his name was still Nick Beard. We all laugh.
My apartment is on the fourth floor. There is no lift. I am worried about Tom making all those stairs, because in his other hand he is carrying a large metal box. But he is big and bluff like a lumberjack, and he may have that male pride thing. I don’t offer to carry the large metal box. Mike is sprightly with enthusiasm and springs ahead. Top floor? he shouts down. Mike is at my door before I get there.
In my apartment we all sit. Tom stands up to breathe for a while. I hear the air go in harsh over his glottis. He sits back down. I ask him if he is all right. Just my lungs, he says. We all laugh.
It’s a nice place you’ve got here, says Mike. It is not. But Mike means what he says. You say a lot of musicians live here?
I remind him that yes, a drummer lives across the hall, and a violinist is downstairs. I ask him if I should count the kids downstairs who don’t stop crying unless their mother plays them ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Thriller’ on a paired loop. Tom and Mike both laugh. Mike looks in the probable direction of the drummer’s apartment and squints his eyes and asks if I know him. I tell him not really.
Tom opens his metal box. It contains a Midi interface with line-outs and a set of speakers. Tom opens the thing that looks like a mandolin case. The thing inside is not a mandolin. The thing is made of black plastic. It is shaped like a lute but is twice the size of a lute. It is covered with raised cylinders. Tom kneels to swear at his speakers for a while and then sits back beatific on a kitchen chair. Against one of the raised cylinders he rumbles out a double bass-drum roll with two fingers.
I can do all your metal shit, he says to me. I can do all that shit with one hand!
All day I have been nervous about this try-out. I have my amp and pedals calibrated to a point somewhere between early George Harrison and something more classically fifties. All day I have wanted to tell the guys that I spent a lot of time trying to get the sound so it would cover all elements of the set: Beatles, Roy Orbison, classic blue-eyed soul. All day I have wanted to tell the guys how long it took me to get my pedals right, how there’s a switch on one of them that if you flick it makes gives the tone a wobble like on really old recordings of guitar delay. All day long I have been planning to put my guitar strap up really high for a joke and then also planning to make jokes about us buying matching suits, and another one for the end where I would say I hope we passed the audition! But I am no longer nervous about this try-out, and I no longer want to do any of that other stuff, either.
Tom tells me that the thing he is playing is called a ZenDrum. Tom tells me that he got a real good deal on it off the guy who makes them and that he started to play it after he developed carpal tunnel syndrome in 1997. I had an operation. He shows me the scar’s pale crease down across his palm. The scar cuts clean across the curved lines worked in his palm. It didn’t make any difference, Tom tells me. The scar is as straight as clock-hands pointing to half past midnight. The scar is like a terrible clock.
I admire Mike’s Rickenbacker bass guitar. The body is a faded red. Mercury islands of primer show through in patches. Years of thumb-and-palm action against the back of its neck have worked through the red down to the rough maple. The scratchplate is dinged and scuffed and the metal tray pickups look punched. I ask Mike if he bought it off Paul Simonon from The Clash. Maybe! says Mike, all bright.
I tell him it must sound beautiful. I ask him how old it is.
I got it in 1987, says Tom. The guy said it was a 1978 but I called the company with the serial number and they said they didn’t make them red back then. So they said it was probably a 1983 or a 1984. Or else that it’s not a real Rickenbacker!
Mike laughs. Tom hears him laughing and laughs. I don’t laugh because there are too many years in the air. I want to open a window but I know I can’t do that without looking weird.
The guys have forgotten which four songs they asked me to play. I remind them and they ask me which one I want to start with. I tell them ‘All My Loving’.
The guys smile at one another. Ed Sullivan Show, February 9th, 1964, says Tom. I started playing guitar that weekend.
God damn you’re old! says Mike. I was still shittin’ my drawers when they were playin’ that show!
I was still shittin’ my drawers, too, says Tom. I was just older.
We all laugh. The guys do not normally drop this many terminal ‘g’s. Tom is from Colorado and Mike is from outside Toronto. I am thinking that they swear a lot for people who are from those two countries.
They’re such great songs, says Mike. For me, either you play all classics or all original material. There’s nothing in between.
Mike starts to talk about how much money we could make. All day long my nervousness has kept every note printed clear in my head. If I close my eyes I can see the staves and clef embossed on a clean white nothing in my head. The shine leaves the black print. The lines haze a little around their edges.
They’re such great songs, says Mike again. I mean, we do ‘All My Loving’ to get everyone hopping, and then we can do more loungey, too. So the set’s perfect for a wedding or a quiet restaurant. And, if we wanted, maybe we could do a more rocking set for that blues bar you play in, Tim. You know, play one set, get something to eat on the house, go play another, get paid.
I think we should all go get drunk and start a fight, says Tom.
The guys laugh. My ex used to talk like this. My ex use to sing Edith Piaf songs in a restaurant. About the Edith Piaf songs used to is an exaggeration. Used to means for like months or nearly a year, for like maybe four months minimum. My ex sang Edith Piaf songs in that restaurant twice and then they asked her not to come back again. My ex didn’t call it a restaurant: she called it the bistro. My ex used to do the same detailed financial projections as Mike is doing now. I never played music with my ex except once at a party for a laugh. I remember her worn face under the light that time, wanting what she could only hope to do for a laugh to be her life instead.
I tell Mike he should maybe slow it down a bit. I tell Mike that if it’s that kind of money he wants to make he ought to be thinking more about Playa del Carmen than Mexico City. Mike looks at Tom, who shrugs. Well, says Tom, if the price were right we could look at Playa del Carmen, either.
Amp low, I play the fluttering lead part of ‘All My Loving’ while Mike borrows my tuner to tune up. Mike’s fat strings buzz off the metal fret. One of Mike’s strings doesn’t go straight across the pickups like the others do. Under my fingers the chords of ‘All My Loving’ go up, up, up the way hope does. The chords’ plunge isn’t sad: it tapers to a contour, but never hits a low that feels minor. In my head the chords’ motion is an egret’s dive and veer low over water.
The guys hear me play and hop up out of their chairs two bars in. With their beards and enthusiasm I think of the word hoedown and blush again. I don’t get to my feet with them because I don’t want to see up close what their faces are like, and I don’t want them to see up close what my face is like. But I can’t not hear the voices, I can’t not hear that elephant plod of bass, can’t not hear the shitty tickety-tick out of that drum-thing Tom is holding like it’s an accordion. Their knees buck and jive. I want to move the table out to stop them knocking against it. I want to move the table so that I can stop playing.
Tom leans to breathe at the end of the song. Oww! says Mike and swings his hand back and forth like it’s red hot. The guys laugh. I start to finger out the riff for ‘I Feel Fine’ because that’s the second song on the list, but it is clear from the way Tom and Mike slump in their seats that I won’t be needed for a while. It is also clear that I am being issued with a cue for beverages, so I go make coffee.
Coffee made, I come back to find Mike staring out at the dusk’s chemical tones. Magenta, orange: January tones. The colours open a big yearn in me like the sky’s my diaphragm. Each breath stings with distance. I am very far from home. That fact is always but its feel is only sometimes. When that feel comes it rushes in like it wants to make up for all the seconds since I last felt it. It is hard not to go down under it.
I finger the riff to ‘I Feel Fine’ but it comes out slow and off and sad. Coffee steam frays up in stiff curls and I wish we could just skip the coffee straight to the next song. I ask the guys what brought them to Mexico.
Well, I killed sixteen people and robbed three banks so I had to go on the run! says Mike, but to show it is a joke he immediately goes No no no! Ha ha ha, just kidding! and waves his hands like he’s waving the words away. It is important that he does this.
His face goes sad then. No, I had a separation and moved here. I had a return flight after two weeks from Cancun but I tore it up and decided I’d stay! Stayed for a year then. At that point I was still smoking a lot of pot – you know, beach life. Then I was in Guatemala for eight years, because the grass was cheaper! He stops to laugh but the laugh is only with his mouth and throat.
I want to joke that not even people from Guatemala want to stay in Guatemala for eight years but the way his laugh is only with his mouth and throat makes me think that he probably thinks something like that about Guatemala as well. I don’t make the joke.
In a minute he stops laughing.
It was hell, is what he says then after.
Tom is still laughing. Mike looks as if he will never laugh again.
Then nobody says anything. There is a gap in Mike’s story from Guatemala to Mexico City but his eyes are aimed at the kitchen table in a way that makes me not want to ask about that gap.
Pot and grass are the first words I heard for weed when I was fifteen. The orange-covered Health Ed book had pen drawings of a joint, crumbled weed and blocks of something that looked like the rosin I used to have to rub on my violin bow. There was the word ‘Cannabis’ in bold and then the word ‘Slang words’ and then a colon and then pot, grass, blow, reefer, Mary Jane, wacky backy. I say weed. Someday weed will be added to another list of words nobody says anymore. I don’t like to think about that. I ask Tom why he came to Mexico instead.
Tom shrugs. I retired. Me and my wife, we sold all our shit and moved down here. Tax shit. Way fucken easier.
Nobody says anything. I hear sips. Tom asks me how I pronounce my last name. I tell him Smyth. The guys laugh. I ask why.
Used to play with a guy called Tim Smyth-pronounced-Smith. He was an asshole. Talented, but an asshole, says Tom. Tom strokes his beard like somebody who hasn’t had a beard all that long does.
I ask Tom why.
Ah, we were putting all our money in to our gear and our shows and our transport, and he was chipping in, sure, same as the rest of us, but it turned out that afterwards he hadn’t put it all in after all. He’d been buying government bonds the whole time.
I tell Tom that this is a sensible decision if you are in a band but have not also attended a private school.
They say nothing but I tell them anyway that I have always wanted to live in Mexico because of my interest in Latin American literature and because of my ambition to read my favourite books in Spanish. I tell them that I have decided to stay for a long time because I want to get to know the place very well.
There is a wobble in the air in the middle of my stomach and it quakes my sense of the words I am saying like that switch on my delay pedal makes everything wobble. Nothing that I am saying sounds reasonable to me any longer. I only said what I said to weigh myself back here with something true, but something is wrong with the ground I’m on and so everything shakes.
Nobody says anything. I finger the riff for ‘I Feel Fine’ and the guys hop up out of their chairs two bars in. Their voices are thin and earnest. Their voices go up, up, up like hope does. This is how they sing the bridge an the second verse:
Mike and Tom: I’m so glad
Tom (speaking): That she’s my little girl
Mike and Tom: She’s so glad
Mike: She’s telling all the world
Mike: That her baby buys her things, you know
He buys her diamond rings, you know
She said so
Tom (speaking): She did?
Mike (speaking): Uh huh!
Tom (speaking): Well all right!
Mike and Tom: I’m in love with her and I feel fine!
When Mike and Tom sing harmonies Mike goes up very high and gets lost coming back down. Tom stays where he is and so Mike’s voice makes me think of a very weak wind blowing around a big grey warehouse. When Mike and Tom sing harmonies my guitar-playing stumbles and I forget chords which no guitar-player has ever forgotten. At the end of the song Mike’s elephant bass stomps flat the strong beat and Tom’s drum-thing does its shitty tickety-tick either side of the strong beat and my riff limps home to its resolution and I never want to play any other song ever again.
Mike does that my-hand-is-so-hot! wave thing with his picking hand even though it is not that hard of a song. Tom jokes that that was Fine! and everybody laughs. My laugh is just with my mouth and my throat, and we still have to play three more, and one of them is ‘Pretty Woman’ so I will have to hear one or both of them do that growl not like Roy Orbison does.
Tom asks me how they sound singing together. Do we have all the bases covered? Even his veered eye looks milky with hope. I tell him that they definitely need a third voice and that I am sorry that my voice is too low to do backing vocals. I tell them that they have a good foundation with the two they have together. Only one of these things is true.
Mike is talking about how good of a set it is and Tom is nodding. It’s a good set because if you go on the Metro, those guys selling bootleg CDs with the big loud speakers on their backs, what songs are coming out of those speakers only all of these songs? People love the classics here!
Mike tells me that he’s concerned about how high up Mexico City is. He tells me about how he was at the President Hotel when Aerosmith were there and hung out with Steve Tyler for a whole half hour and how Steve Tyler said he was worried about their show because the altitude made it hard for him to breathe.
Mike is talking about the connections he has to help us down the line. That thing at the President Hotel, that could be good. We should go there soon. We should aim high first and then work down. If you shoot among the stars kind of thing. I know Travis as well. They were here one time. And one time I hung out with Ozzy Osbourne when Black Sabbath were in town. Travis are from Ireland, right?
Tom is nodding even though the question has not been addressed to him, and also even though it is a question.
On the ad Mike put on Craigslist he had down make some $$$ as the last line. At the time I had thought that putting three $$$ was a joke because it is such a saturated market. I replied to the ad because I thought that money-wise at most I might maybe once every month be able to cover a night out. Really I wanted to make some friends while doing something semi-ridiculous but also kind of cool because of its innocence. I also thought that because Mexican weddings are so drunk and horny that I would be able to forget about my most recent girlfriend. I thought this because our happiest day together was at a friend’s drunk and horny Mexican wedding. Replying to the ad I estimated that I would need to go to at least twelve other weddings that are equally drunk and horny and Mexican so as to drown that memory good and proper.
I start to finger the chords for ‘Octopus’ Garden’, which I thought was a choice they had made for fun and then started to like as a choice because it’s a sweet melody. Now I don’t even know anymore. But I am proud to have got that ‘50s crispness in the tone for the verses, and I splay my fingers out one by one against the strings nice and slow so the chord comes out nice and doo-wop. But the guys hop up out of their chairs to do their hoedown buck and jive two bars in and get so busy with the elephant plod of bass and the drum-thing’s shitty tickety-tick that they don’t notice what I’m doing.
When we do ‘Octopus’ Garden’ Mike drops his voice an octave because the song is more like a story that way. Tom does the high parts and it sounds like the sound is coming out of his forehead. I play the worst solo I have ever played and I drop my plectrum and I never want to play a solo ever again. At the end Mike does not do his my-hand-is-so-hot wave. He looks at the kitchen table the way he looked at it when he said that Guatemala was hell. Tom says That was pretty close! to me and leans to breathe.
When we do ‘Pretty Woman’ Mike does the growl and it sounds like maybe he did kill sixteen people and rob six banks and maybe do a sex crime as well. Tom’s harmony is plaintive and it’s not in a good way and I don’t even bother to do the chords for the bridge because I think I have forgotten them.
At the end Mike starts to put his bass back in the case and Tom squints at the dark nothing through my window and realises it’s actually his face who’s looking back and doesn’t look as confused anymore. Then he puts away his drum-thing and swears at the speakers for a while because they don’t disconnect very easily.
Nobody says anything. My chin is resting on my hands. My hands spread a sad paranthesis under my chin. There is nothing written in the parenthesis. My thoughts are a glum nothing.
Tom is afraid that his ZenDrum will be stolen if we get a taxi in the street. I want to tell him that the last thing that happened in my neighbourhood was my apartment’s nightwatchman grew a moustache, in late 1968. I want to tell him that nobody would steal his fucking ZenDrum anyway because it’s shit. I want to tell him that even if my neighbourhood were a dangerous one I don’t care about his ZenDrum because I just want him out, out, out.
I tell him none of these things. I don’t even tell him the taxi number because I suspect he would ask me to dial it for him because his hands are tired after the ZenDrumming. I dial the number myself. When I dial the number the person whose number it is tells me that it will be twenty minutes before they can come do the pickup. When I dial the number a trapdoor opens in the floor of my stomach and a lot of hope falls down out through it.
In my head Sandra’s dancing in her red dress at that drunk and horny Mexican wedding we were so happy at. Sandra’s singing quotes words sung by a band from Argentina who sound like an English band who sound like an American band.
But Sandra is not copying anyone. Sandra is gone in that happy instant like a pure shine all through her.
In my head that shine’s coming back off her smile there dancing with her friends that I never got to know better. In my head is a version of that gone instant and I play it loud and bright and on repeat to fill that quiet gap of dark the moment left behind when it went. I play it loud and bright and on repeat but it’s already crossed with fuzz bars where the tape’s gone worn. I play it loud and bright and on repeat and hope nothing snaps in me to drop that picture forever.
Mike’s bass string is slack and that has our cover versions sounding bad but its lack has my memory’s cover-versions ones flickering and skipping in my head’s tape-reel.
Before they leave Mike gives me a list of six more songs for next week. Tom gives me a YouTube channel where he’s put up videos of himself playing his ZenDrum. Before they leave I stand for a long time at the window. The skyscraper colonnade all down Reforma is high and bright over our low apartments’ thronged oblongs. My eyes are squinched like Tom’s are. In my head is a huzz of bad thoughts like white sparks at the front of my skull. If you were to ask me how the audition went I would tell them It was hell.
Tonight there are no stars because the sky is one orange quilt of light pollution. Tonight there are no stars but their cold fire burns on unfelt miles off, lures us to keep our own hope burn going until it finishes with us.
I feel cold and far. Not far from anything. Just far. I am far, I am far comes the rhythm of each breath: I am spells the two short beats going in, then the long vowel release when I exhale. Far. In my head the sparks burn on in their electricity-colour fog. Whatever it is I want I want it as much as these men want to make money in hotels. Whatever it is you grab at you grab at it like you’ll die if you don’t get it.
The nightwatchman buzzes me to say the taxis’ here and the harsh blurt lightens me more than the up, up, up of any chord progression, of any hope.
The email is there for me in the morning.
It was really good meeting and jamming with you…but we’re going to try it out with another guitarist, thanks!
Good luck with everything! Keep on playing!
And you should stick around in that apartment, it’s a nice place you’ve got there!
- Mike Michaels
I will not. It is not.
A small crush in my chest, then, reading it: small as a lightbulb becoming pale flakes. The sting is small and there too like when you only half-want a girl but she still says No. Whatever it is you grab at you grab it like you’ll die if you don’t get it. I wanted to send them an email with a polite excuse about being committed to the metal band already. I didn’t get it, and now I want to do that even more. That’s why the crush and sting.
I am having breakfast near where Mike lives, in the centre, and I am afraid I will run in to him. I have to write an essay about my friend Keith’s photographs. Because of that I am sitting in the centre where Keith works and I am reading a book about Enrique Metinides, who used to work a lot in the centre like Keith does. The centre is where I went with Sandra on our first date.
Near the café the Torre Latinoamericana lances up, up, up silver forever through 11 a.m. grey. The air is a fog quilt. Across the road is a square with a street market. Red-striped tarps clack in the draught. The market sells Rammstein Live in Belgrade and bootleg Stones sessions for Japanese TV. The market sells Virgin of Guadalupe baseball caps and Real Madrid sweatbands and MayPole cigarettes. MayPole cigarettes come in red and white packaging made to look like the packaging of Marlboro cigarettes.
Between and around the walls of striped red tarp hang curtains of DVDs. A lot of the DVDs are still in the cinema. The square is a maze of striped red tarp, curtains of DVDs. The maze’s walls are squared all over with images of lives we watch to make our lives feel warm. The DVDs are little coals for some hearth of the mind. They make me sad to see them.
Spanish for entertain is entretener and it also means to keep going. French for entertain is entretenir and it also means to sustain. Across the street in the square and its market people keep on going under the grey and take the DVDs out of their sheaths to check they aren’t scratched before they buy them. they hold up their discs of light and they look like priests elevating hosts.
My friend Keith took a picture of a bus-ad for crisps where the woman in the ad held up a bright disc of fried potato. The bus was driving past a church. She looked like a priest elevating a host.
Spanish for cover version is versión. The word versión makes it seem like a cover version is closer to the real thing. Versión is not just wrapped around something like cover version is. Versión is like a shard of some broken whole which could be joined if you were ingenious enough in your copying. Nobody is, and this is why we lose hope: though there are other reasons to lose hope also.
Those shards of something bright and charged take their glow from some far-off hub of worth. Hold up your shard and in your borrowed glow you cast a 60-watt version of the same light of love and money that rich and famous and happy people beam out and draw in. Their shine runs on our hope’s burn.
Enrique Metinides took a lot of pictures of people who died in sad ways. One man is face down in a leather jacket after a robbery that went wrong. His girlfriend is sitting beside him. In a lot of them are car accident victims and people who drowned during floods and people who died in earthquakes. In the background of a lot of them the Torre Latinoamericana lances up, up, up silver forever over the small thronged oblongs where people’s lives happened.
One picture Enrique Metinides took is of a man who wanted to die and then didn’t. Because of that he climbed up very high and went out on to a skeleton frame of a skyscraper which was under construction. Two Red Cross workers went out on the ledge to him and he agreed to come down. When I read that I cried because all of his other photos are so sad.
The man had no work but a lot problems, says Enrique Metinides. I wanted to know what death was like, says Antonio, the man who wanted to die, but then I didn’t really want to know anymore so I wanted to go down.
Whatever you grab at you grab at it like you’ll die if you don’t get it. And then if you get it you’ll just keep on wanting something else instead.
The picture is taken from lower down in the building opposite. The two Red Cross workers are reaching out to the man from either side. The two Red Cross workers are like gymnasts on balance beams.
You cannot see any ground or sky in the picture: there is only the skeleton frame of the tower under construction and light all around. The skeleton frame cuts light in to harsh geometries the three men’s human curves melt across. The two Red Cross workers and the man who wanted to die are all three stooped over bright nowhere like it is beautiful and they want to look at it.
If I hadn’t read Enrique Metinides’ explanation of his picture I would not have known that the man who wanted to die was in the middle and that the two Red Cross workers were the two figures on either side of him. Each one was so still that any one of them could have been the one looking down at what was about to rush up at him.
If I hadn’t read Enrique Metinides’ explanation of his picture I would not have known that anybody in it wanted to die and then didn’t. Up out of the left-hand corner of the picture a ladder shoots up, up, up silver forever. Because you cannot see the top of the ladder the man who wanted to die and the two Red Cross workers looked like are going to climb it in to light, up, up, up like a happy pop chord progression. But more than that they looked like they didn’t want anything except to stare at that bright nowhere.
Someday I will leave here and I will see Sandra come around the corner with a brightness in her of which there is no other version. We will buy DVDs which are still in the cinema and, warmed by the films, we will keep going, keep going.
Someday I will leave my apartment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Smyth is an Irish freelancer. His work appears regularly in Vice News and the Irish Times, among others. He is currently editing a novel called The Destructions. He lives in Mexico City.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 30th, 2014.