The rain beat down on Swainia, torrential sky-spit pounding thick upon landmarks state and local. The insect dead in their floating graves mostly found relief too little and late from the chlorine that had done them in slowly, while others fragmented upon droplet impact; the private asphalt strips that cut a motorway arterial through the estate flushed a bolder shade of black; the trampoline where Pete had earlier that week almost-cracked his ribs, before moaning prostrate by its side strumming a body he could plug in but couldn’t play, sweat through its fibrous skin; the lake and trees drank greedily from the dirty cotton balls above, deep drafts swelling nearly to their mud and barken brims.
So I observed through the many open windows of the royal garage annex where we practiced, sharper and more spirited than ever before. Even though Lupin wasn’t there – he had not yet departed to the warmer climes of Florida, but even in the final week he could practice with us before the show he had missed crucial shed time for things like haircuts and moonbounces – the spirit behind his restless maxim (“we need to get fucking tight”) was in one way or another on all our minds. Just the three of us: me the bass, Dilan drums,1 Jack on chords power and barre. The rhythm section. And as the crisp gales circulated from window to window, they replenished us like they did the other green world outside. Playing garage (annex) rock reheats of “SexyBack” and solo Stefani could scarcely feel fresher.
It reminds me, now, of a thing I had written a couple years earlier. It was about one of the few perfect moments I enjoyed in tenth grade, a moment during which my boatmate and I, in a two-man shell, rowed our way down the vapors of a freshly rained river. Other boats among our team fleeted in and out of vision, the mechanical hum of our coach’s instruction melting into the ambient fog around us. Ben’s back before me, I turned around to glimpse past my shoulder the Girard Avenue Bridge, a skyscraping monolith with railroad for roof, as its stone arches peaked through low-floating clouds like an ink mountain on ancient Chinese silk. At a time when I had little enthusiasm for rowing, those enchanted few minutes helped me to realize why I ever bothered with it in the first place.
Like rowing, music needed a vital reminder every now and then. And like rowing, music entailed discipline2 and commitment, tough decisions like pushing a close friend out of the mix for the better of the band or boat, and a willingness to work endlessly for a brief and immensely high-pressure gasket blast of glory or shame (so close to one another in elemental quality that one often can’t tell them apart til it’s over). Lupin’s Floridian holiday, just days away now, would certainly raise the stakes for the possibly-gigantic debut show we were to play in less than two weeks, and its nearing deadline helped raise the intensity of that dialectic compound of total loss/victory. Focused, detail-oriented practices like this one seemed essential to the show’s success – looming ever closer – but even if we were starting to sound pretty good, the amount of work left to do felt daunting.
For starters, we…needed a rapper. Lupin was first mortified by the prospect of reciting rhymes in front of a potentially large crowd, then excited, and finally mortified or excited depending on the rhyme in question3 – in any event, somebody would have to fill in some blanks. And we needed a female voice to replace the long-hanging void left by Marie’s half-reluctant departure: we knew that she wouldn’t do, but had no idea who would. And by God, we needed Pete to learn his keyboard parts – and Pete, even more pressingly, needed a keyboard on which to learn them.4
Thankfully, Lupin would now add to his resumé of band contributions5 an invaluable connection. He’d sung with a girl named Summer at a local music camp the year previous, and per his recommendation, somehow or another she came whisking silently through Dilan’s garage one fine June morning.
Her bright, gold-flecked skin endowed her a radiance from beneath the redder crown of hair that flowed down her back like some layered veil. The effect, combined with the sharp features of her visage and a height that’d be unusual for a girl of any age, made her seem older-souled than most kids her year. Without noticing it, this quiet maturity reminded me of myself at her age, whatever it was – which I would learn later that day, to my disbelief, was a mere fourteen. She had just turned fourteen.
What had nothing to do with me at any age, though, was her voice. Lupin told her to sing, and so she sang a song she knew and liked (something by the Format), and it was so good that the depth of its good passed me by. Hers was a beautiful instrument, as rich and ready for jazz standards as it was for a reading of Rihanna, and its arrival into our world was so sudden and simple that I could only yet comprehend it as good enough to recruit on the spot. I’m sure someone explained to her the vague heights of our ambition and raison d’etre as a band, but if it was me I’ve long forgotten the conversation. In my memory, Summer simply appeared, sang, and stayed.
Her voice was even better than Lupin’s Beach Boys pipes, but the best part was that it went with his like honey into tea. The way they blended reminded me of one of my favorite bands, Calamine, whose Dan and Julie worked better together than happy marriage.6 With next to no effort, our sound improved tremendously.
If we found Summer in the morning, then hopefully we could find a rapper by mid-afternoon. Assembled semi-circle on couch and floor, the lot of us racked our cellphones for inspiration. But before we could even get to our “address books” deep within the clunky chassis of our pre-smart SIM cards, a bid for power came from an unlikely corner.
“I’ll do it.” Pete, from the couch.
“Really?” Skepticism on the floor. Pete can rap?
“Yeah, why not,” he said, shrugging slightly in the leather but slouching neither less nor more. “It’s not like I’m doing anything else in this band.”
True enough. Still no keyboard.
Pete, rapping the second verse, which was not even a part of our set: “Cause I’m young and I’m black FUCK it I can’t do it,” lyric sheets scattering on “FUCK” with a defeated whip of the wrist. For Pete’s budding career as a young rhymesayer, it was a bold and valiant death.
“You’re not gonna believe this, man,” said Jack, next to Pete on the couch and back to his cellphone. “But Ace raps.”
Ace. The blond-haired, hazel-eyed poster child for the suburb-American ideal. Met Jack in childhood when he was rambling through their neighborhood, miniature football in hand and asking the fellow young’un if he wanted to play (did, but I’m not sure if either of them have – together or separate – since). Went to the Mainline’s slightly weirder, kinda artsier private school for kids who probably wouldn’t quite fit in at the other ones (except Lupin’s), but probably didn’t quite fit in because he didn’t do much art, never hair-dyed his introversion a compensatory purple or pink, couldn’t play the guitar quite well enough to comfortably answer “hey man wanna jam after fifth period?” to the affirmative. He had come over to Jack’s house one recent night, though, and handled Jack’s (otherwise unused) drumkit well enough, til he broke the snare with grinning mid-teen gusto (as it happened often, Jack told me). And now Jack was telling me that on one such night, Ace and Jack and little Jack brother Ian attempted to improvise some demos (Bisy Backsons was the band name), broke most of their gear along the way, and concluded with a scratchy little thing featuring just Ian on the kickdrum, Jack on the harmonica (B. Dylan crush), and Ace freestyling some “poesy to the Mainline” – not unconvincingly for a white, prepubescent eighth grader, said Jack. I saw no reason not to get him over and give it a shot.
As it would happen, his beginnings in the group were somewhat less auspicious than those of our new, amber-tressed chanteuse. I can’t even remember exactly how it went, to be honest. We probably plugged in, ran through a number or two with him relieving Lupin of the raps, had a “hey, nice” moment, and ticked another check on our mental clipboards.
What I do remember came later that afternoon, once we had returned to our rugged semi-circle and airing out me and Jack’s latest ideas on the acoustic guitars. Something in particular must have sounded especially good, because soon everyone was exclaiming their praises. Ace, caught up in the spirit of the moment, bolted right up off his chair, seesawing back and forth on rubber heel, shouting a barefaced lie:
“I’m from New Yawk!! I’m from New Yawk!!”
The ridicule with which the room received this gesture was sitcomesque, ostensibly scripted in its fervor and unison. Even Summer, who’d never met Ace before and had scarcely been in the band for 90 minutes, was vocal in her disapproval. It wasn’t until some 12 hours later, reflecting on the day from the couch in Jack’s back room – a frequent sleep haunt of mine in those days – that I realized how amazing Ace had been in that moment. The only person in the room he knew was Jack (I had met him maybe twice before, and only briefly), and yet he didn’t hesitate a moment or hold back a single joule in gratifying his strange and sudden impulse. It was definitively unreasonable; I decided I loved him for it.
In truth, it had not been Ace shamelessly a-shimmy at Dilan’s that afternoon, but rather his alter ego. I was soon to find Ace had at least three personalities: the first, Ace himself, being the all-American suburbanite of means modest and manners mild; the one Jack had met years ago over Nerf. Then there was A-Town, the schizoid, racially recombinant rap bastard who lived off pure thrill, freestyle verse logic, and the physics of whatever big budget music video he had most recently seen. This, of course, was the loudmouth from “New Yawk” – a spiritual descendent of Flava Flav, and an illegitimate forefather of Major Lazer’s trademark hypeman, Skerrit Bwoy. And then there was a third, long elusive to taxonomy, who was Ace when trying to act like A-Town. People tended to like Ace, love A-Town unconditionally, and resent this third fellow – we’ll call him Fake-Town – in equal measure. All three were our rapper, at various intervals – which one he’d be with us when his turn on the mic was to come at Milkboy, no one could be quite sure.
One of my all-time favorite A-Town memories – the type that could steel your faith in him to rock any performance, if not anything and everything – would actually transpire many moons after the fact, on a night when Jack, Summer, Ace and I all went out for a rare group dinner. Ace was in his mood au naturel as we downed NY egg creams and bacon sides at Minella’s (the 24/7 diner in Wayne, and the only place on the Mainline to eat past 11pm), no hint of anything extraordinary in his table manner. Summer hitched a ride back with him, while I went with Jack. When the two of us returned to Jack’s driveway, we were shocked to discover Summer standing there alone in the dark – especially since she and Ace had left Minella’s a bit after us.
When we asked her what was up, she said Ace had lost control on the drive back, doubling the speed limit whilst sitting ass-out upon the driver side window, steering with his kneecaps. (How he managed to keep the car accelerating under such constraints, we could not be sure.) Jack and I were plenty familiar with A-Town by this point, but even then had to doubt he was capable of something so far beyond – but sure enough, not long after the words had left Summer’s lips, A-Town came screaming back round the bend well out of his window and coming off an incredible surge – how could his foot still be reaching the pedal? or the brake? – as he burnt rubber heel to a halt some ten yards ahead of us. He turned around, shouted some hoodrat hex like a shaman channeling the onomatopoetic consensus of a million hack rapper adlibs, then slipped back into the cockpit and somehow whipped his baby-blue Honda Civic onto an adjacent street at Ferrari speeds, jack-knifing back in reverse with comparable momentum a moment later, the three of us wounded with laughter. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen another human-being do.
- The practice space was his, you will recall; Swainia was what he and his family called their giant residential compound. [↩]
- Tellingly enough, Sun Ra was so obsessed with the virtuous behavior that he named several albums and compositions after it. No doubt it was essential to his music, as it often required dozens of tack-sharp musicians to play. [↩]
- What’s less embarrassing about rapping a MIMS verse than a Jay-Z one, I don’t know. Perhaps the same reason a band would find covering the Monkees preferable to the Beatles… [↩]
- Hilariously, Dilan had a fairly generic but nevertheless 88-key Yamaha in the practice room: Pete could have easily gotten a start using that one, but we’d be damned if we allowed even our rehearsals to be fouled by its cheap plastic tones. We must have thought that if it wasn’t good enough for the show (the rationales on these matters tended to be implicit, unspoken), then fuck it for practice, too. And so our keyboardist continued to show up simply to disembowel tambourines and jump up and down to the beat, a concern about how “we really should get a keyboard soon” voiced occasionally. [↩]
- As has been previously noted, the young lad’s beyond-his-years guitar and singing skills had already proven a gamechanger. [↩]
- Musically only, sadly, and for just six recorded songs. Get the EP. [↩]
- Which, incredibly, had included the song’s fan commentary in the document. Our favorite voice at the roundtable went as follows: “I am from a white suburban neighborhood and the pigs are just as big a dicks. However, if you have some cash and you CAN fight the case then you shut the fuck up when talking to the pigs and call your lawyer (#1 in my speed dial) otherwise, if you are too poor to have a lawyer available, you are fucked because the pigs will do whatever the fuck they feel like to you like search you shit or haul you in for a talk. 2.25 million in jail in the US – 1 out of every 8 black men between ages 25 and 29 – yea, I say fuck the police and fuck your dickhead dad for spending 25 years harassing people in jail for victimless crimes. Dan kilo dot com” [↩]
- YouTube! in 2007! [↩]