SOME FRIENDS OF MINE are in a pop band. When they first started out, their goal was to play a show at the Mutton and Hoover, a club that only booked hip local acts. At the time, their disdain for the Mutt’s hipster quotient was balanced by their awe of it. When they finally took the stage, after six months of playing frat houses and a regular Sunday night gig at the philosophy dorm, it was with a great deal of nervousness and satisfaction.
Now they have one album, two singles, and three national tours behind them. All three national tours were conducted in a customized blue and white Ford Econoline van from the middle of the last decade. They were not the ones who customized the van. And the shows they played took place in dingy bars where the band often outnumbered the audience and received fifty dollars and a fistful of drink tickets for payment.
But they are about to make their fourth trip around the country, this time as the opening act for a famous band from England. The lights will be brighter, the stage broader, and the drinks bestowed not by the ticket but by the case. The crowds will consist of hundreds and even thousands of people, so many that my friends won’t be able to remember a single face at the end of the night.
This is how it’s going to be: Tim driving, Joey shotgun, Cree in the chair in the middle row, her legs draped up on the captain’s table. From the back seat I will look nine feet forward to the windshield and then through it, and I will see America, parts familiar and unfamiliar, moving around me in a pattern that owes its logic to nothing more than the Rand McNally atlas in Joey’s lap. I will arrive in a town and haul amp and cowbell, hawk record and T-shirt, and afterwards, I will drive while they sleep.
The Day Action Band is going on the road. I’m going with them. I’m the roadie, but I prefer you call me “Lou Farren, Tour Manager.”
It is quarter past ten and Cree is not here yet. I have been waiting outside since nine-fifty, nudging my duffel bag back and forth along the pavement with my feet. Several times I have nudged the duffel bag in and out of the way of a group of truculent male college students carrying sofas into my apartment building. On their most recent pass one of these gentlemen nearly lost his footing, not because of anything I had done, and when he glared at me, I thought back at him, “Fuck you, I am about to have an adventure.”
We are traveling today from Newark, Delaware, to Boston, Massachusetts, site of the tour’s first show and also the town of my birth. Cree is picking me up first, Joey next, and Tim last. Tim lives the farthest north but also the farthest from the freeway; I would have designed the pickup differently, but it’s my first day as tour manager and I don’t have the authority to make those kinds of decisions yet.
The van rumbles into view and then out of it, stopping on the other side of the undergraduate moving truck. As I bring my bags around, the van’s sliding door opens from the inside and suddenly there she is. Her hair is short, black with reddish highlights, and comes to rest just above the light brown skin of her neck. She wears an untucked tan shirt with a pattern of intersecting squares and tight dark pants that flare at the ankle. Her toes poke out of a pair of thick-soled sandals, in pitiful rebellion against the coming cold. She says my name and leans down to give me a hug. When she puts her arms around my neck and presses her face against mine, I remember exactly why I have been looking forward to this trip for so long.
The van is packed already, the narrow trunk space piled high with drums and large cardboard boxes. The Day Action Band had a final preparatory practice two nights ago; they must have packed it then. I stuff my bags under the middle seat and take my place next to Cree in front. I have never been able to talk to her very easily, so on the short drive to Joey’s I reach for the neutral topic of my job. I quit it yesterday. It was a dull position involving computers, alumni recordkeeping, and the elaborate ways in which I deceived my superiors into thinking I was a productive employee.
“Yeah, but you’ll work there when you get back,” Cree says.
“No,” I say. “I told them they would never see me on the premises again.” Her eyes widen, and I add, “Well, I left a note to that effect.”
“Then what are you going to do?” she says.
“I haven’t thought about it,” I say. “I don’t want to think about it.”
This is a more emotional response than she was expecting, and I feel a little sorry to have given it. Nervous now, she starts chattering about their roadies from past tours. I’ve met all three at one time or another; like me, they are friends who were judged capable of interacting with the band in closed spaces for a long period of time. Two worked out well. The third, a woman primarily friends with Joey, caused such pervasive tension that actual physical barriers made from towels were erected inside the van.
“We don’t really talk about her anymore,” Cree says.
“After me,” I say, “you won’t be talking about any of them anymore.”
“Is that right?” she says, laughing.
“That is right,” I say. “You will refer to me as ‘The Roadinator,’ or perhaps, ‘Lord Roadinator.’”
Cree laughs harder and reaches out to touch my arm. Only five minutes into this trip and I have already had one of my all-time great conversations with her.
When she has composed herself she sets about putting the roadies in the context of how my experience is going to differ from theirs. On this tour all the shows will be over by eleven. No lingering in dirty, smoky clubs until two-thirty in the morning and then not getting to sleep until four. In fact, no dirty, smoky clubs period. Every venue on this tour has a capacity of at least seven hundred; the largest, Wonderland in L.A., can accommodate close to twenty-five hundred.
“All I can say is,” Cree says, steering the van into Joey’s driveway, “it’s about time.”
Joey lives in the same house he lived in when he was a student, a two-story building a few blocks from the University of Delaware campus. His roommates are the same too; it has been surmised that they won’t move out until he does. The members of the Day Action Band are local celebrities; living with one of them provides a certain notoriety and seems to be considered as good a post-collegiate occupation as anything else.
I am reaching for the latch on the screen door when Joey pushes it open from the inside. “Lou,” he says. “Lou Farren.” We shake hands. He and I are not great friends, but we have a routine in which we conduct our meetings with great formality.
“It’s good to see you, Joey,” I say, looking him in the eye. I have to tilt my chin upward to do this, as he is six feet, three inches tall. This total does not count the four-inch tufted mound of yellow curls that springs from his strangely angled head. If someone recognizes the band in public, it is usually because they have seen Joey. Since the onset of this minor fame, he has worked to accentuate his natural characteristics: the hair teased to its maximum dimension, the clothes selected to elongate and ganglify. In his acceptance of himself as a hopeless visual misfit, he has acquired a kind of crooked splendor.
“I’ve got some more stuff in my room,” Joey says. “You can wait in the kitchen if you want.”
I step inside as he disappears up a staircase to the left. One wall of the living room is dominated by a large poster of an orange car with the numerals “01” decalled on the side—the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard, caught in mid-air, Savannah dust flying. On the other wall someone has spray-painted the lines, “There’s a monster in my pants / And it does a naughty dance.” I hear a guitar skronking and some cymbals whishing beneath the floor, and then I reach the kitchen where two of Joey’s roommates, Levin and Holmes, sit at a faintly listing table, a tall blue water pipe made of glass between them.
We’ve met before; they can’t remember my name, but they’re perfectly friendly. I sit down at the table with them to wait. Normally I’d feel compelled to take part in the conversation, but these guys are so stoned they accept my silence as merely a more subtle means of social interaction. They both work nights at Mendenhall Inn parking cars, as does the third roommate, Mitchell, who presumably is the one making the noise in the basement. Joey used to work there too, but quit a few months ago when Tim said he needed him full-time for recording. The result of this is that no one in the house has a day job and that this scene I’ve walked in on could probably be duplicated any day of the week. “Pardon my rudeness,” Holmes says abruptly, turning from Levin and extending a book of matches. “Can I interest you in smoking some pot?” An image of Cree sitting impatiently in the van flashes through my brain, and I tell him no. I rest my arms on the table, comfortable with my decision. Holmes and Levin resume their discussion, a debate about the restrooms at Mendenhall and which one offers the finest environment in which to take a dump.
Joey walks in, holding a folder and a Magic Marker. He directs a nod to the table, a gesture that somehow acknowledges me at the same time that it expresses disgust with his roommates. I have an impulse to stand up and move away from them, but it fades before I can act on it. Stepping deliberately, Joey opens the refrigerator door and takes out a gallon of milk and a carton of orange juice. He uncaps the Magic Marker and writes a large “J” on the side of each. Then he replaces them in the refrigerator. The milk will have long since expired by the time he returns; this must be some kind of intrahouse power play.
“I thought you guys were going to rock,” Joey says.
“Mitchell and some dude are down there,” Levin says. He points to the floor, where the percussion and guitar noises persist.
“It sounds like that dude plays drums,” Joey says. “Don’t you guys need someone to play drums?”
“I don’t like the way he plays,” Holmes says. “He just sits on that high-hat. He doesn’t groove.”
“He sounds pretty good to me,” Joey says. He motions to me. “Are you ready?”
“I am ready,” I say.
Joey turns to Levin and Holmes and says, “Well, I’m leaving now. I’ll see you in a few weeks. Don’t forget to pay the phone bill if it comes while I’m gone.”
“No problem, dude,” Levin says.
“Have a nice time,” says Holmes. They both behave as if they expect to see him later this evening. Joey snorts and then he and I head out of the kitchen.
As we walk outside Joey tells me that Levin and Holmes have been talking incessantly about starting a band.
“All day, it’s ‘I wanna rock, I wanna rock,’” he says. “Do they write songs? Do they practice?” He scratches hard at a place on the back of his head. “They’ve never even recorded their own voices.”
Joey and Cree greet without much fanfare; the band has been rehearsing a lot lately and there is nothing special about this reunion. Once we are on the road to Tim’s, Cree starts talking again about the particulars of this tour.
“It’ll be so nice to get to bed at a reasonable hour,” she says.
“I see your point.” Joey says. “But really, we should be most grateful for the rider.”
“I forgot about the rider!” Cree says. “Shit!”
“Shit is right,” Joey says. “We’re opening for rock stars now.”
“Yeah, man,” Cree says. “Fuck! What did we ask for?”
“What’s a rider?” I say quickly. If I’m going to do this job right, I’m going to have to speak the language.
“Ah,” Joey says. He reaches to get the wallet out of his back pocket. It’s a difficult maneuver for someone of his height seat-belted in a moving automobile, but what’s in there must be important. He gets the wallet, opens it, and pulls out a crumpled piece of paper.
“We make a list of the things we want,” he says, “and then someone from the club goes out and gets them for us. Here’s our list: water, Coke, beer, sandwich meats and fixins’, bread, candy, mixed nuts, fruit, a regional delicacy, vodka, bourbon, cigars, and two live monkeys.”
He repeats “two live monkeys” because I didn’t laugh the first time.
“Vodka, bourbon, and cigars?” I say.
“We want a reputation as a hard-drinkin’, hard-smokin’ band,” Joey says. “We want people to say, ‘Look out, folks, the Day Action Band’s in town. Lock up your daughters and your silverware.’”
While Cree drives us into the country north and west of Wilmington, Joey roams around the back of the van, organizing all the equipment and personal belongings, talking about what he’s doing as he does it. “The goal is for four people to fit comfortably,” he says. “I will use any and all necessary means to accomplish this.”
“Make sure the back row is clear,” Cree says. “In case I want to take a nap.”
“I’m not sure that’s going to be possible,” Joey says.
“You do what you have to do,” Cree says. “I’ll understand.”
The truth is there is quite a bit of space. Cree’s drum kit is minimalist: snare, floor tom, bass drum, high-hat, and crash cymbal. It fits in the back of the van easily, leaving enough room for Joey’s bass amp, two large boxes of T-shirts—“the merch,” Joey keeps calling it—and then softer items such as pillows and sleeping bags that can be stuffed into nonlinear spaces. The bass and Tim’s two guitars fit partially under the back seat, and Tim’s small amp sits against the wall on the right side of the van, just behind the side door.
By the time we reach the long and winding driveway that leads up to Tim’s, Joey has stowed everything but Cree’s enormous red duffel bag. “I’m going to let you decide what to do with this,” he tells her.
Tim lives in an old barn that was refurbished by a member of the duPont family in the late 1960s. Bay windows burst through the old slats of wood, providing vista upon vista for him to contemplate as he works out the details of his art. The three of us trudge up his steep lawn, swishing through dry leaves and tiny cracking sticks. We reach the porch and ring the bell. A noisy cat meows inside, but no one comes to the door. Finally, Joey gives it a little push and it opens.
The main room of the barn is fifty feet long, thirty feet wide, and has a ceiling twenty feet at its highest. This summer, when the Day Action Band was recording its second album here, this place was a musical wonderland: drums, guitars, amplifiers, keyboards, tables heaped with percussion, dividers used to isolate sound, microphones dangling like vines from the rafters. Tim has since put away these implements, in an effort, perhaps, to restore an aura of domesticity to his home. Somehow from this one room he has created the sensation of several rooms, each with its own specific function and feel. I find myself gravitating toward what must be the “listening zone,” an arrangement of soft couches and chairs angled toward the stereo system, the whole area bathed in a dark red light. I take a step back, knowing our time here is short. The walls are decorated with giant posters of Tim’s idols, Brian Wilson, Sly Stone, Lindsey Buckingham, and Prince. Since my last visit he seems to have derived a motto from their teachings and practices; it is painted in tall white letters on a board high above the fireplace: REMEMBER, IT’S NOT JUST A SONG, IT’S AN EVENT.
The sound of Tim hanging up the phone comes into the room, and then so does Tim. He is an average-looking human being, brown hair, brown eyes, medium height. He wears his standard white T-shirt and blue jeans, which he prefers to the more current rock and roll garb favored by his bandmates. I have wondered if he affects this blandness to offset the attractive force of his personality. He seems at most times to want to blunt his charisma, only letting it act unfettered at distinct moments: onstage, in certain one-on-one situations.
“Howdy,” Tim says. He sets a piece of paper down on the counter beside him. From where I stand, I can make out the heading CAT INSTRUCTIONS.
“What’s happening,” Joey says.
“Yo,” Cree says. I nod and lift my hand slightly in greeting.
“Everybody ready?” Tim says. I can tell he’s excited. He adjusts the cat paper so it’s even with the counter’s edge.
“I think so,” I say.
“Woo woo woo,” Joey says. The closest to the door, he reaches down and grabs Tim’s duffel bag. We stumble down the lawn, the bag bouncing against Joey’s hip. There are no trees by the van so we get a rare glimpse of the glare coming off the downtown Wilmington skyscrapers, over ten miles away. Joey says that for a city of only seventy thousand people, it has an impressive skyline.
“We’re going to make that skyline famous,” Tim says.
“I think your mother already has!” Joey says.
“You fucker,” Tim says. He moves as if to punch Joey and Joey, stepping back, trips over a root, landing on the seat of his pants. Cree doubles over laughing, her arms wrapped around her sides. For a second Joey just sits there, knees bent, looking up at us. He doesn’t seem nearly as tall from this angle. Tim and I reach down to help him up while Cree continues to laugh. Soon the three of us are standing around, waiting for her to finish.
“I’m sorry,” she says finally. “But that was really funny.”
Tim smiles. He looks back once at his barn and then gives the hood of the van a good strong tap. “Okay,” he says. “Let’s tour.”
Just past the Connecticut border, Cree pulls over to switch drivers. There’s no discussion beforehand; she just pulls over and says, “Who’s next?” I volunteer, and everyone executes a perfect clockwise rotation: Cree to the passenger seat, Joey into the middle row, Tim to the back. After I’ve been driving for a few minutes I notice Cree fiddling with what looks like some tinfoil in her backpack.
“What do you have there?” I say.
She takes out a bulky plate covered with foil. She holds the plate at eye level, lifts up the foil, and peers inside. Then she turns it so I can see it. It’s full of Rice Krispies squares.
“Ah,” I say. “You’ve been holding out on us. May I please have one?”
“If I let you have one, then I would have to share with everybody.”
“Why can’t you do that?” I say.
“Because these are for the Radials,” she says. “I want them to know what a real American dessert tastes like.”
“That’s very hospitable of you,” I say. I feel mildly irritated that she didn’t make a few extra treats for Tim, Joey, and me, but I have to admire her design. This gesture could have a nice humanizing effect. Since the tour was arranged, everyone, Tim included, has been conspicuously not mentioning the possibility of intimidation. Whether this is bravado, a conscious effort not to be starstruck, or the true absence of any feeling on the matter whatsoever, I can’t determine. But these treats, they could go a long way toward putting the two bands on a more even footing.
The Radials, though they play arenas in Europe, are not yet famous on this continent. A few years ago they were involved in a highly publicized battle with another of Britain’s leading bands. The battle was over who was going to be Number One in England. The title is more than just a mantelpiece. The Number One Band in England becomes a sort of national commodity. If the band is anywhere from a trio to a five-piece, comparisons are made with the Beatles. In a trio, one member might be expanded to stand for both John and Paul. In a five-piece, two members might be compressed into George. The Radials are a four-piece, so during the time of this great rivalry, the British press was ready and eager to capitalize on the one-to-one relationship. Singer Brant Adman had “the poignant voice and doe-eyes of a young McCartney.” “Pensive” songwriter and guitarist Peter Wren was “an iconoclast in the best spirit of John Lennon.” And so on. But these comparisons never transcended their origins in the media, because the Radials lost the battle. For a band to become the Number One Band in England, they must first make it in the States.
That’s not to say the Radials don’t have a following here. I’ve seen them. They’re Anglophiles, from what I can tell, and they dress mainly in black, not because it’s morbid, but because it’s chic. They seem to disdain the current trends in popular music and American bands in general. There are hints of androgyny and bisexuality floating around their camp. They may be upper middle class. As I said, I’ve only seen these fans. No one I know likes the Radials, but no one I know dislikes them either.
The Day Action Band has been making a concerted effort to turn this nullity into a positive. One of Tim’s first acts upon learning that they were going to be opening for the Radials was to get permission from Joey to use band money to buy all of their albums. Joey not only approved this spending but also devoted several afternoons to researching the history of the band on the Internet; he discovered that Brant was an outstanding cricketeer in the English version of high school and that Peter has a second cousin in the House of Lords.
Cree may be most excited about the circumstances of this tour. A year ago, during a family trip to India, she was holed up in a room somewhere, watching Indian television, when a Radials video came on. The video was full of prominent close-ups of Brant, smiling and pouting, and Cree came back to America raving about this new “cutie.” Even I remember her talking about it. “What was a British band doing on Indian TV?” I asked stupidly, as if I did not believe her story. “Were there subtitles?”
She became maternal. “Lou, Lou,” she said, patting me on the arm, before subjecting me to a lengthy lecture involving imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, and several generations of Gandhis. “I forgot about that stuff,” I kept trying to say, but the lecture persisted.
Lately Cree has been recollecting those halcyon days—“I told you he was a cutie, I told you”—with the addendum of “I hope he’s as cute in real life. I bet he is.”
Tim has told me he supports this affection for Brant. Although the Radials’ singer is probably unattainable, it will be good for Cree to have a diversion during those long drives where boredom and tension often wage war over the human spirit. It will be good for us because she’ll be on her best behavior, knowing that tantrums and bad moods are not likely to win over an older and more worldly gentleman. One thing Tim hasn’t mentioned is that as a former boyfriend who left her heartbroken, he has some interest in seeing proof that her romantic faculties still exist. But I know what kind of person he is and I know that that has to be a reason too.
We come into the Boston area at five o’clock, but there’s not much traffic going into the city. Cree, looking at the gridlock on the other side of the road, says, “I’m glad we’re not going that way.” Our orders are to proceed directly to the Hyatt Regency on Memorial Drive, where Colin More, the Day Action Band’s manager, has set up a mini headquarters for the band. Colin is an Englishman in Los Angeles; his company, appropriately, is known as London West. He is already the manager of two soft rock groups, both with female lead singers, both with album sales in the millions. He drives a Saab with windshield wipers on its headlights.
Colin first heard the Day Action Band when his fifteen-year-old nephew gave him a copy of their first album, That One Five Jive, for his fortieth birthday. He didn’t see any management listed in the CD jacket, so he called Sunday Driver, their record label, and spoke to Will Renshaw, label president and a former high school classmate of Tim’s. He asked who was booking the band’s gigs. “They are,” Will said, and so Colin’s next call was to Tim.
“I don’t know names,” he told Tim, making his pitch. “I know people.”
Tim was too polite to ask him to clarify this statement but says he got this gist from it: I am skeptical of trends, I am unimpressed by fame, and I am in this business for the long haul. Also important, he was willing to work for free until the band was comfortably able to pay him his 20 percent of the gross.
Joey says that Colin is staying in a suite that costs five hundred dollars a night and contains a hot tub. We’ve been invited to sleep on the many couches in the living room. I tell Joey my parents are expecting me. He looks confused and then says, “That’s right—you’re from here.”
I have memories of the Hyatt Regency. I took my junior prom date to the revolving restaurant at the top of the hotel. She was on the math team and calculated that we were rotating at a speed of five feet per minute. The view of downtown lasted twenty minutes, and the view of the bar, the dessert table, and the hallway that led down to the bathrooms lasted fifteen. The rest was just East Cambridge.
Greeting us at the door to his suite, Colin appears recently showered. His very short gray-white hair is still damp, and his shirt is tucked into his pants, but he hasn’t got his belt on yet. He hugs Cree, shakes hands with Tim and Joey, and says, “Well, you must be Mr. Farren. They’ve spoken quite a lot about you.”
“Good to meet you,” I say.
“So, you’re going to be traveling with the band.” Then he actually says, “Jolly good show. I wish I were going with you.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” I say.
“Yes,” he says.
He leads us around on a quick tour of the suite. There’s a big TV, a kitchen, a porch looking out onto the atrium of the hotel, and giant windows with the same view of downtown that I remember from the restaurant. “We’d better be going,” he says. “Soundcheck’s at six-thirty.”
Instinct directs Joey, Cree, and me to the back of the van, even though we reach the vehicle first and have the option to sit anywhere. Tim drives, and Colin sits next to him, and almost immediately, they turn on the radio, the modern rock station, and begin discussing what they hear. And in Tim’s offhand questions—“What do you think of this one?”—and Colin’s scripted responses—“A bit dodgy, isn’t it?”—the implication is clear: that the Day Action Band will shake these foundations until the glass falls out of the windows, and after the glass, the computers that tabulate the Soundscans and tally the playlists, and after the computers, finally, the suits themselves, drab and same-faced, their ties flapping upward toward the escaping morning sun.
At the club Joey hops out, runs inside, and then returns. “We unload through those doors,” he says, pointing. I grab a box of T-shirts and follow Cree, who is carrying the snare. A short, fat man comes charging up. “Couldn’t wait for me, could you?” he says. He goes past us. Colin, who is not carrying anything, shakes his head. We form a small pile of equipment next to the stage near a larger pile that clearly belongs to the Radials. Several men are shifting pieces of gear around on the stage; at this moment I remember that the headlining band always soundchecks first.
The fat man reappears. “As soon as they’re done, get your stuff up there. Doors are at seven,” he says.
“I’ve got some T-shirts,” I say to him. “Who do I see about that?”
He says a woman’s name that I don’t quite catch. “She’s not here yet, but I’ll let you know when she gets here.” The thought of this woman seems to make him feel better.
Tim and Joey come in with the bass amp. It can be carried by one strong person, but they’re not taking any chances. They set the amp down, and Colin says, “I’d like to make some introductions. Come this way.”
“Ooh, hold on,” Cree says. “I have to get something.” Joey gives Tim a look that is supposed to indicate impatience, but Tim doesn’t return it. A minute later Cree walks up smiling with the plate of treats. She has removed the foil. “Okay, I’m ready now,” she says.
“These look wonderful,” Colin says. “May I?”
She extends the plate, and Colin takes one. “Delicious,” he says. “Sweet and chewy.”
We go down a corridor behind the stage. Initially I am right behind Colin, but I allow the other three to slip past me. At the end there are two rooms; the one on the left is small, and I can see the word SUPPORT written on a white piece of paper taped to the open door. Inside is a garish purple couch and a table with a sandwich spread and some sliced vegetables on it. Over the table is a wide mirror on which someone has played several games of tic tac toe in permanent ink.
The other room is much larger and noisy with people. Colin strides confidently into their midst as the band and I stay back near the door. Suddenly all the attention in the room is focused on us. It’s not bawdy British pub attention, however, it’s respectful royal family reserve. I regret that I never learned to curtsy. I am introduced to what seems like two dozen people, all of whose names I forget immediately, except for those I already know from magazines and MTV.
Brant has the face of someone who has spent his life thinking wistful thoughts. With brown doe eyes and tousled, sandy hair, his appeal is obvious. He has no doubt looked like this since he was six years old. Peter is skinnier and darker and edgy in a way that makes it seem as though he’s about to smoke a cigarette. Gemma, the female bass player, has a pretty, round face and long brown hair parted in the middle. I imagine her at a party after a few drinks, playfully suggesting a game of strip poker that she knows no one will actually take her up on. Walter, the drummer, is painfully nondescript, except for his head of short black hair that he probably had spiked for this occasion.
Cree makes the interesting tactical decision of handing the treats over to Gemma. Looking at the plate, the bass player smiles, nods politely, points at her throat and says she’ll have one after the show. Cree says, “Of course, of course, that’s great, you try them later,” and I can tell she feels hurt but isn’t sure exactly why. For a moment she is alone at the center of the room, looking hard for someone she hasn’t met yet.
I’d like to escape before these introductions turn into conversations, but it may be too late. Brant and Peter have converged on Joey, who seems only to be able to smile in return. Walter is shaking his head with too much force at something Tim has said. I’ve actually turned my back on the room, when I feel a hand on my shoulder. “Are you the tour manager?” a high-pitched but male voice says, compressing seven syllables into the space normally occupied by three or four. I face the man, hand extended, as if I hadn’t been about to commit an act of antisocial behavior. “Yes I am,” I say.
“You and I are going to be fighting then,” he says, and laughs nervously. “I’m the Radials’ tour manager.”
I know the situation calls for a laugh, but I can’t produce one. A winning smile will have to do.
“My name’s Edward,” he says, and I tell him mine. He is tall and thin with a long neck and a large Adam’s apple. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and a leather jacket with a Motorhead patch on one of the breasts. None of it seems to go together.
“I’ll have to see you about a photograph,” he says.
“For your security pass. So the clubs will know you’re working with us. I’ll let you know when I’m ready.” He says this and bobs away, to nowhere in particular. I duck out myself, ready to blame my unattended T-shirts, but no one tries to stop me. Loud laughing noise follows me as I walk off down the hall. Aside from Gemma’s lack of interest in the Krispies, this initial meeting with the rock stars seems to have gone quite well.
The first thing I notice during the soundcheck is the size of the stage. Tim and Joey have to stand at least fifteen feet away from Cree and close to thirty feet away from each other. Tim won’t be coming over to sing in Joey’s mic tonight.
“Kick drum, hit your kick drum,” calls out the soundman, and Cree responds with a steady whack-whack-whack. As she hits adjustments are made: the low end is removed and gradually replaced with an open-ended smack that seems to have its origin somewhere in deep space. Colin emerges from behind the stage and comes over to stand next to me with his arms crossed.
“The soundman is a big fan of reverb,” I say.
“I think they’re going to sound great in this room,” Colin says.
“I’d like to hear what he does with the vocals,” I say. “We don’t necessarily want this to be the ‘Magical Mystery Tour.’”
“No, we don’t,” Colin says, although clearly he has no idea what I’m talking about.
I have some experience with sound myself, having worked a handful of open mic nights and blues jams at the Mutt back in Newark. Originally there was talk of my doing the band’s sound on this tour, but Tim and Colin decided that, given the high profile of the Radials and the variety of sound equipment we were likely to come across, it might be better to go with the house professionals.
“We’re doing it this way for technical reasons,” Tim told me. “But I trust your ears. If you hear a problem, you’ve got to let the guy know. Just make sure you’ve introduced yourself, so he doesn’t think you’re cutting in on his turf.”
My only concern is over what level of vigilance to maintain. I did the sound for one Day Action Band show at the Mutt. Afterwards, I came up and apologized to them and many of our mutual friends. The most common reaction was: “What are you talking about? It sounded pretty good to me.” The best option therefore might be to intervene only in the case of overt incompetence—a nonexistent guitar, a domineering cymbal, a too-ghostly harmony section.
The fat man shows up again and directs me over to the bar, where a woman in her mid-thirties wears a tight blue dress and turns the liquor bottles so their labels face outward. “You can set up at the table down there,” she says, pointing to one end of the long room. “Right between the men’s and women’s bathrooms.” She grins. “A lot of traffic over there.”
I thank her and move toward the merch boxes, which are still sitting next to the stage.
“Wait!” she says. “We take fifteen percent of the gross. Get set up, and I’ll be over to count you in.”
I look around for Joey, but, of course, he’s up on stage. Colin wouldn’t know. Is this 15 percent negotiable? Are they trying to con me because I’ve never done this before? What does it mean to be “counted in”?
I carry the boxes over, find the duct tape inside one of them, and commence hanging. The wall between the bathrooms is covered with used pieces of tape and the torn edges of flyers and posters, so I spend the first couple of minutes just standing on a chair and clearing some space. After that, aesthetic issues come to the fore. The shirt that promotes the new album must hang the highest, but not so high that people have to strain their necks to look at it. I decide on a peak height of about nine feet. The shirt is a handsome dark green and says THE DAY ACTION BAND in bold white lettering across the top. Underneath is a white image of the three band members, standing together and pointing at an imaginary but vast audience. And underneath that is the title of the new album, in the same bold white lettering as the band name: you THINK you HEAR. I move back from the wall and admire the shirt and the way it hangs, collar high, sleeves outstretched, wrinkles nonexistent. The other two shirts, cheap, white and light blue, designed and manufactured by the band themselves, will hang slightly lower and to either side.
On the backs of notecards I write the price of each shirt and the sizes that are available. Twelve dollars for the new shirt, seven dollars for the old ones. I also have a box of That One Five Jive CDs—ten dollars each—and “Wrestling” and “Lottery” seven-inches, which will be sold for three dollars, unless no one is buying them, in which case the price will be lowered to two. Fortunately for me, the tour will be over by the time You Think You Hear comes out. I would be worried about keeping track of all these different products, but Joey has designed a spreadsheet with multiple columns for inventory, gross, profit, and a few mystery items whose names have been abbreviated.
“Are you ready, honey?” the woman in the blue dress says. She is standing over me, her hands at her waist, inadvertently pulling the dress to its maximum tightness.
“I’m ready,” I say. I step back from the merchandise and gesture as if presenting it to her. She peers at the assortment of stuff. “Oh Jesus,” she says. Frowning, she removes every single wadded-up T-shirt from both boxes and starts folding them, forming neat piles according to size and style. Then she counts them. “I suggest you try to keep these in order,” she says. “It’ll be easier on the next person that has to do it.” She tells me she’ll be back at the end of the night to count me out, thus deducing how much of each item I sold.
“You’ve probably had some bad luck with the honor system,” I say, but I don’t get a response.
The soundcheck ends with a full-length performance of “Back in the Eighties,” one of the standouts from the new album. I think the song has a real chance to be a hit. It’s the closest thing Tim has ever written to an anthem, and the concept of young love is close at hand. There’s the opening staccato guitar riff, the four dropped-in bass notes, and then the towering tom and snare combination. I have never been so aware of how much actual sound comes out of those huge stacks that flank the stage. The band is enormous. It is hard to believe that this is the work of only three people.
They are still breaking down the equipment when the doors open. A large cluster of youth forms immediately at the front of the stage. Some of the younger ones break off and drift up to my table. When they see I don’t have any Radials merchandise, they depart with distracted looks on their faces.
“Looking good,” Cree says. All three band members stand before me. Tim nods, but Joey has his hand on his chin.
“Maybe the shirts should be a little taller,” he says. “People should be able to see them over the crowd.” I get back up on the chair and move the shirts up six inches. Any higher, and Joey’s going to have to do it himself. I do ask him to hand me some fresh duct tape strips, to replace the ones that come up covered with hair and paint.
“We’re going to have a quick meeting with Colin,” Tim says. “We’ll come back and keep you company after we play.”
I sit alone with my display for the next half hour, waiting for the show to start. As the audience expands, the space in front of me evaporates until I am faced with an approaching wall of black clothing and slightly menacing boots. No one buys anything, but a number of people do turn around to read the lettering on the shirts. “The Day Action Band,” they say to themselves, looking mystified. Then they ask me if I know who the opening act is.
I am seated during their entire set, and with the crowd pushed up against the table, I only catch a couple of glimpses of the top of Joey’s hair. Of course I hear everything. The cheering when they come out is primarily the work of teenage girl voices. These are joined by male voices when Cree sings her first harmony in “Lottery.” After Joey’s lead vocal on “Going Country,” Tim introduces the band: “And from Avondale, Pennsylvania, weighing in at one hundred ten pounds, and making sure the beat never dies, ladies and gentlemen, Cree Wakefield!” From that point on, Tim’s in between song patter is interrupted by shouts of “I love you, Cree!” and “You’re so beautiful!” The one-two-three punch that ends the set—“Wrestling,” “Back in the Eighties,” and “Outside Tokyo”—works so well in combination that I expect my table to be crushed by a slew of souvenir seeking patrons. But it isn’t. There’s a brief rush in which I sell a couple of the cheaper T-shirts, but then it’s over. What does a truly enthusiastic crowd sound like, if not that? I have been to many concerts in venues of all sizes, and I can’t seem to remember.
Twenty minutes pass. There is no sign of the Day Action Band, even though they have long since cleared their equipment from the stage. The Radials are about to go on. I have to ask a female security person to guard my merchandise while I run into the men’s room. “I’ll keep an eye out,” she says, “but I can’t be responsible …”
“I know, I know,” I say, backing away.
I come out of the bathroom and wait ten more minutes. The Radials haven’t gone on yet, but the moment is imminent. Tim walks out of the crowd.
“How did we sound?” he says.
“You can’t leave me here that long,” I say. “I had to piss.”
He is taken aback. “Do you want to go now?” he says.
“I already went. I got her”—I point to the security woman—“to watch the stuff.” Then I say, “You sounded good. There was a lot of reverb, but it was kind of nice to hear you sound so big.”
“Did the crowd seem into it?” he says.
“I heard a few cheers,” I say.
“I saw a lot of crossed arms,” Tim says, “but some of the kids in front were moving.”
The discussion is interrupted by an apocalyptic hush. The front part of the audience detects movement in the shadows behind the stage, and then a mass of noise ripples outward until it fills the room. Peter runs onto the stage, then Gemma, then Walter, and the noise increases, not in fulfillment but in anticipation. Brant is still not out there, and the noise is still increasing, and I realize there is actually quite a bit of drama in this moment. On a hidden cue the drums and bass begin, and although I don’t recognize the pattern, nearly a thousand others do. Brant walks from the side of the stage over to his microphone at the center. He says a word in a low voice that no one can understand but that everyone pretends to. And then the snare hits twice, hard, and Brant jumps and yells a nonsense syllable, and by the time he’s landed, the song is fully underway.
The Radials play for just over an hour. They walk off the stage one by one—Peter leaves his guitar to feed back against an amp, which it does until a guitar tech darts out and steals it away. The break between last song and encore is long, close to five minutes, but the crowd doesn’t become restless, possibly because the house lights haven’t come on, possibly because what kind of headlining band wouldn’t play an encore. When someone does return, it’s Brant, by himself, with an acoustic guitar. I didn’t know he could play. He sings a song that I think must be called “Glorious.” It’s the last word you hear before a very pretty, climbing instrumental melody that functions in place of a chorus. At the end of the song, he holds the final note over the quieting guitar. Then the rest of the band comes in from the wings, and they play one more.
“Did you see Peter clapping?” Tim says later, as he helps me pack the merchandise back into the boxes. I am careful to preserve the shirt management provided by the lady in blue. I tell Tim I missed the clapping.
“It was after the first encore,” he says. “It wasn’t like he was trying to get the audience to clap with him. It was like he was clapping for Brant.”
“That makes sense,” I say. “Brant had just finished performing a song.”
“I know,” he says. “But Peter usually writes all the music. The clapping makes me think Brant wrote that one.”
“Maybe he did,” I say. “It was a nice song.”
“I don’t know,” Tim says. “I just think it’s interesting.”
I look up and observe the departing stream of concert-goers, condensing as they approach the double set of exit doors. A single person detaches from the stream and starts walking toward us. He waves. “Do you know that guy?” Tim says, and, squinting, I realize it’s Derek from high school. I can’t remember his last name, but I am able to tell Tim that he once gifted me with a dime bag of marijuana after I let him cheat off me in chemistry.
Derek seems to still be in close association with the evil weed. Though it has been six years since we last saw each other, he greets me as if we had class together earlier in the day. I can’t say I mind such casual reacquaintanceship. He compliments Tim on a “fantastic” performance and then invites us to a party he knows about in Brookline. I am about to tell him no, that Tim is needed back at Colin’s hotel, that I have a room waiting for me at my parents’ house, but Tim expresses some interest. “We’ll have to check with the rest of the band,” he says, and Derek says, “No problem. I’m in no hurry.” He shuffles off to see if the bar will serve him another beer.
Cree declines immediately. “I’m tired,” she says. “I’m going to fucking bed. But you do what you want to do.” I detect hostility in her tone, but I can’t see any reason for it. Perhaps cowed, Joey opts to join her.
Derek returns, beerless. We say our goodbyes and turn to walk away with him when Cree calls out, “The T stops running in forty-five minutes. How are you going to get home?”
“We’ll just take the … ah, shit,” Tim says. “You need the van, don’t you?”
Cree nods without smiling. Joey says, “Yeah.”
“If you guys need a ride home, I’m your man,” Derek says, stepping forward. In addition to being stoned, he’s also a little drunk; he puts his arm around Tim and says, “Anything for this guy.” He puts his other arm around me and says, “And this guy, too.”
“Okay, bye,” Cree says, flat-voiced. “Have fun.”
Tim answers, “We will,” and we leave the two of them waiting for Colin, who is still backstage, getting in a few last minutes of schmoozing before the night is done.
Using a combination of tact and logic, I convince Derek to let me drive his car to the party. It’s not even a party, more like a small gathering. When we walk in, I half expect Derek to announce something along the lines of “Rock and roll is here!” but he doesn’t; he goes straight to the refrigerator and returns solemn with three beers. Within five minutes Tim is talking to a moderately attractive redhead, who, Derek tells me, is “versed in the equestrian arts.” “And,” he says, “she’s also an accomplished flutist.” Later I am in a room sitting in a circle around which a bong is being passed. The Doors are playing, and after several bong hits, I find myself struggling not to like them. One member of the circle says that the passage we’re hearing now reminds him of the music for his Nintendo game, “Metroid.”
“It’s not just melody and harmony and bass,” he says. “It has levels.”
His apartment is right down the hall, and, he tells us, the game can be hooked up to his stereo speakers. We troop slowly over there to listen, but I am disappointed. There is one nice moment in the music, but it’s not the moment identified by the owner of the system, and one idiot goes so far as to gush, “This is better than Tetris!” Ready to leave, I go back to the first apartment to look for Tim.
I can’t find him right away. At first no one seems to be there at all; then I spot a person passed out and snoring to one side of the couch. Emboldened, I move toward one of the closed bedroom doors. I can hear low voices and classical music inside. I knock. Tim cracks the door. “What’s up?” he says, smiling.
“Do you have something going on in there?” I say.
“We’re listening to Karen’s flute recital,” he says. “If you need to leave, don’t worry about it. I’ll take the T back in the morning.”
“I’m going to take Derek’s car,” I say. I haven’t cleared this with Derek, but he has continued to drink, and I still have his keys. “When I drop the car off, I’ll come get you.”
Tim says, “I really appreciate this,” with the whole of his sincerity and closes the door. As I grab my coat off a chair in the foyer, the classical music gets louder and I hear a girl’s voice say, “Hey! I said not until the scherzo!”
In the morning Tim and I eat a three-dollar breakfast at a place in Washington Square called Family Restaurant. Tim reacquaints me with the myth that women who ride horses can’t have orgasms.
“I spent about four hours last night trying to disprove that myth,” he says.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say.
“That’s okay.” He looks out the window, where two college-age women are jogging away up the street. “I ate some pussy,” he says.
“You listened to some flute,” I say.
“You got me, man,” he says.
YOU THINK YOU HEAR. Copyright © 2001 by Matt O’Keefe. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.