The day that Caleb signed the record contract, the first thing his brother told him was not to fly in planes. Rock stars die in plane crashes, he said. Caleb pointed out the other famous deaths, the ODs, the motorcycle accidents, Lennon getting shot, Harrison's cancer, the mad rumor about McCartney in the Aston-Martin in '66. But they die in planes the most, his brother said, not laughing. Just stay off the planes.
Later, after their CD had made them famous, Trask showed up and offered Caleb's band, Alpha Bravo, a three-night gig for US $1 million a night and Caleb realized that whether or not they took the gig, he, at least, was going to die, probably within two weeks.
The contract Alpha Bravo had signed was with a small label, Obscura Records, and the CD had caught on underground and worked its way up. The majors were on the phone now and Alpha Bravo had had to get a real manager, a woman who told everyone in uninflected and unashamed marketese that Alpha Bravo's guitar-accordion-cello-drum thing cut through the current electronic faux-disco teen crapola nicely and their next record was going to be so huge as to bring back the album format, whatever that meant. Caleb's songwriting, said one review, was like cracking open a door into a sunlit room, and the band's next effort would be like opening that door all the way. It had made his mother cry. Caleb, who had not been unhappy being a local phenomenon, had heard about selling out, something everyone wanted to do while saying that they did not. Until now Caleb had wanted to, as well, but now he wasn't sure. That bothered him and he retreated to his brother's cabin on the reckless Chatooga.
It was there that Trask found him, the rented Land Rover shuddering up the mountain, and laid out the deal, even offering to put down a deposit. Caleb met him on the porch, barefoot, shirtless, in cutoffs and a beer, and recognized Trask's profile instantly, although from where did not occur to him until later that night when the guy was gone. Spooked out of his idle inebriation, Caleb fled back to his folks' place in Athens. It was two a.m. when he let himself into the house and went straight to his dad's momentous vinyl collection, a wall of well-preserved, alphabetized cardboard spines that were dusted weekly. His parents stood blinking over his shoulder while Caleb pulled out a three-album boxed set.
Starry Night, a collection of the recordings of Corlus Johnson's band from 1930 to 1945, had not been played much, a valueless relic. Caleb ran his thumbs over the ugly peeling cover on which a puke-colored clip-art jazzman blew a horn. The set, thrown together in the early 1970s after Johnson's death, was cheap and ragged, and the records themselves were in good condition only because no one ever listened to them. Caleb had memorized the liner notes as a teenager because they told the best and dumbest story he'd ever read at the time. He'd come across it by jaded accident, the old-man bop bullshitting of Corlus Johnson that some harassed record company flunky, lacking any better material, had thrown on the sleeves. The particular paragraph of rambling that had gotten Caleb's attention was buried in an acre of nine-point type, a scat prevarication reeled off to an anonymous interviewer:
I think about what the white girl said, she said, don't go in that car, ok? I said sure honey, now go on. She put half her clothes on and stuck the rest in her handbag, not that she wore much to begin with, and now I'm here at the Shady Pines holding down the porch, ain't that the shit? It was those three nights we played on Beale, or that street that somebody had put a "Beale" sign on. Cat rolled up and said I'll give you and yours three hundred thousand dollars to play my joint. Best of everything. Best food. Best rooms. Cat was blown but man the money. We did the gig and he was correct. The crowd was a bunch of quiet mothers though, into the music but looking at us like they was going to eat us. Small place. I don't know how the cat made his money back unless he was charging a thousand a pop. Not my business nohow. The white chick came on the last night, brought in by the room service cat who knew her. Most the chicks want to sleep over but not this one. As she ran out I asked if she knew that half-bald white boy who owned the club. She said yeah and that he was hard serious about the part of the deal where we don't tell nobody about playing here. I ain't no snitch. I asked her about the street outside. She got this scared look, like, what you doing outside? You ain't supposed to go there. I said a man's got to breathe when he smokes and I stepped out, dig? The street was dead-like. A fake somebody had tried to make look real like some Hollywood movie set. On the corner was the sign "Beale Street." Beale Street my ass. We was nowhere near no Beale. But it was all done up to fool folks who didn't know no better or didn't want to know. Could not figure that place out. Anyways, we played the gig, happified the crowd, and took the cat's money and his ride out of there. We changed trains till we was dizzy and came up in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria. Figure that. A dozen Negroes traipsing across the carpet in high style digging the look on the night man's face. Couple weeks after, I was to go in the car with Floyd and Coop down to see their cousins and I begged off, thinking about the white girl. They ended up under the back wheels of a flatbed truck. The papers said Floyd's head was cut off.
Just the other day that cat Sparro come by to see me and brought his record. He played his cover of "Milky Way" for me, asked me what I thought. Boy can sing sure but it ain't the be-bop that the kids like now is it? He didn't like that but I was burned up. All my life I been looking for that joint where we played and never could find it and there it was, a fuzzy picture on the cover of his record and that cat that hired us leaning on the bar. Same spook-ass crowd. I said where'd you get that? He said his drummer took it on the sly. Cat paid him almost a million dollars for the gig but said don't tell nobody. Sparro says nobody tells me what to do, you can't keep down truth and some other such hippie shit. I asked him, you make a crazy white chick at that place? He said he made all colors there but they didn't say much. A couple weeks later I read in the paper how Sparro snorted too much of something and drowned in his tub. I ain't touched my trumpet in years, can't blow now and I ain't sure that drying up in the old folks' home is a much better thing.
Caleb knew the record that Johnson was talking about. Michael Sparro's third and last album Origami Stone. In the late '60s, Sparro had been a folky four-octave songbird with a cult following, not that any of his albums ever charted. Origami Stone had been a failed experiment, alienating his record company, his fans, and the guys who played with him. The album had disappeared, but death and time brought Sparro the admiration that life could not, and Origami Stone was revived in the early '90s, the more self-indulgent tracks being replaced with songs people actually liked. The cover that had so shaken Johnson was gone as well; gazing from the CD jewel case was nothing more than an innocuous photo of Sparro in his stringy heyday. Caleb had only seen the original cover once, and that was in a locked case in a local used-vinyl dive. The photo had reminded Caleb of the cover of Hotel California, eerie for no good reason. The crowd in the club, while it appeared to be into the show, looked anxious, having a good time that wasn't going to last. Johnson was right about the man leaning against the back bar. It was indeed Trask. Caleb assumed that Johnson had sold his soul and Sparro too, only he got a worse deal than the crafty jazzman.
Caleb's brother: Are you gonna do it? Did you take it to the band? You really think it's the same place?
Maybe, yes, and yes. The band loved the idea. The record was still number one on the alternative and college charts. It was unheard-of. The majors were pissing themselves trying to sign Alpha Bravo. All that and $3 million, are you kidding? For three nights? Caleb couldn't blame them and he wanted to do it too, but he'd met Trask last week at a burrito stand downtown and told him he needed time to think. Trask offered the deposit again but Caleb just let him buy lunch. Trask did not look like the devil, although the devil never did. Still, Caleb was flattered that Ol' Scratch was coming after him. It was like Oz not giving Scarecrow what he already had, but only telling him that he already had it. Satan sold confidence, not talent. That's why it was such a good deal for Satan.
Caleb entertained himself with these thoughts. They would make a good song.
Trask's club was the same place that Johnson and Sparro had played, no doubt. Johnson's liner notes described Sparro telling how his guitarist had gone outside to smoke, to piss, to snort, whatever, and seen pretty much what Johnson had: a fake street and a blank marquee. The guitarist's vocabulary was different than Johnson's. The Hollywood set became Disneyland. The street sign described not Beale Street but Blue Jay Way, more fitting for a crowd coming to see a hippie folk rocker.
Trask called one night wanting an answer.
"One condition," Caleb said. "Corlus Johnson got a warning. I want to know."
Trask was cool. "Corlus Johnson?"
Static and hum in a long space. Caleb imagined also the cries of the damned.
"Johnson was an accident."
Caleb was angry. "What about the others . . ."
". . . at the ends of their careers. It made no difference."
"All right. He was told, but only one guy listened. See? It didn't help."
"I want to know. I have a right." Caleb shivered. He sounded like a spoiled brat. "It made a difference to Johnson."
"Who admitted himself that he might've been better off otherwise."
"Who are you? Where do we get to play? E Street? Main Street? Penny Lane?"
Trask laughed. "Electric Avenue, actually. C'mon, man, we're just people who like music and we got a chance to hear the greats. Wouldn't you take that?"
"That crowd on the Sparro cover didn't look like they were having much fun."
"Ever seen a starving guy eat? He doesn't look like he's having fun either but try and take his cheeseburger away."
"It won't make any difference. You're a special case. You had the last number one. You're a legend. I could tell you how you die and there's not a thing you could do about it."
"Who are you?"
"Just a music lover in a place where there isn't any and hasn't been for a while."
Caleb grunted. "Hell?"
"You could call it that, but it's not the hell you think. My name is Henry Trask. I own a club. I have access to a door. You know who makes the best hell for people? Other people. Keep that in mind when it's all on fire."
Caleb told Trask no. Two weeks later, Caleb's brother showed up and said, Trask's full of shit. You know what? He got Bosemani Rainbow instead. They just got back.
Bosemani Rainbow. From the same neighborhood as Alpha Bravo quite literally, but their record, although terrific, had stayed underground. They only got a million out of Trask and were building a studio with it.
Caleb stood at the window of the cabin, looking over the foothills, the river a hot strand in the summer haze. He had avoided everything for a week. Cars. Swimming. Alcohol. Drugs. Questionable food. He watched his step. Was it something stupid? Did he trip and hit his head? Then, watching CNN one night, he understood. When everything's on fire. Who sets fires? Underground pitchfork fairies or men?
They're calling you Brian Wilson, his brother said, fierce and disgusted. You got a lot more music in you, fuck that Trask dude. Their own studio man. You could of had that.
"What was the gig like?"
His brother blinked. "They won't talk about it."
Caleb smiled. He knew, without a doubt, that there was more music in him but that it would never be heard. Trask didn't say it was his last number one. He said it was the last number one. Ever. By anybody. Alpha Bravo was a legend and a curiosity. It didn't matter if Trask told him when or how.
Henry Trask was a man with a door and he had walked through it to get what his clients were willing to pay for. He was a capitalist. They still had them where Trask came from, in the enclaves dug into the ruins. Bosemani Rainbow would never finish building its new studio.
His brother was laughing. "Rainbow's chick drummer says Trask is the devil."
Caleb watched the river. It would boil and all the songs within him would be as mist. "Don't I wish."
Copyright © 2004 Amy Hembree
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