I stood beside my car in the parking lot of The Bustop, a strip club of somewhat legendary seediness that sat nestled among the foothills of the Flatirons, waiting for a group of zombies to meet me for an interview. It was early in the evening—not long past seven—but even so, there were plenty of men in suits and women in tight dresses giving me the eye, some of their glances communicating a sense of amusement, others wanting to ask if I was lost.
I whipped around to see a very tall, very thin, very dead man in a top hat and waistcoat riding a blue Japanese motorcycle my way. As he purred closer on the shiny bike, I noticed the fresh blood dripping from his lips and clinging like crimson dew to the hairs of his goatee.
Good, I thought, relieved. He's already eaten tonight.
The creature used to be a man by the name of Mortimer Leech. He currently appears around town as the lead singer of The Widow's Bane, a local band comprised of undead musicians who have been murdered by their lovers and resurrected by the Dark Lord himself in order to sing and play forevermore about their woes—as well as the woes of humankind as a whole. I didn't anticipate jaunting across Boulder to a nudie bar for the honor of speaking with them, but after I suggested we all meet at a local coffee spot, Rutherford Belleview, the band's accordion, musical saw, and glockenspiel player sent this correspondence:
I'm afraid we cannot meet at the location you suggested for a couple of reasons; the biggest is a long story that I cannot go at lengths about here, but to put it plainly—we are not welcome there anymore.
Also, although I may have failed to mention when I originally agreed to the interview, we already have a venue in mind, but unfortunately we cannot disclose it to you yet. We of course will provide a meet-up point a few days prior to the date, after which you must travel with us, unknowing of your final destination.
Sincerely, Mr. Belleview
The Bustop was the specified meet-up; I was indeed unsure where we would end up that evening. I knew that for their interview in the Boulder Daily Camera, they'd taken the reporter to a graveyard and had a nice afternoon tea, so I wasn't too alarmed. Not yet, at any rate. The night was still young.
Before moving to landlocked Colorado, The Widow's Bane (Mortimer Leech, lead singer and guitarist; Rutherford Belleview, accordion and sundry weirdness; Bartholomew "Bat" Catacombs, upright bass; Franklin McKane, banjo and drums; Rictus Corpum, fiddle) served as the house band on board a demonic schooner that sailed the seven seas for three hundred years in search of souls, until the angel Gabriel sunk it off the coast of Alaska. That day, though a substantial defeat for Mephisto, has proved nothing but a blessing for the Denver-Boulder music scene, where I first heard their lilting, haunting music—out of towners must make due with their self-titled CD, available via iTunes, CDbaby, and their MySpace.
The members of The Widow's Bane, despite being several hundred years out of the grave, are no stranger to technology and social networking—their Facebook fan page lists their interests a "klezmer, murder ballads, sea shanties, field hollers, and eating people," and their influences as "pain, heartache, torture, suffering, agony, debauchery, the seven seas, and Barry Manilow." Their album reflects all this—well, maybe not the Barry Manilow. It's thematically tight, most of the songs reflecting sorrow and anguish of various sorts. Some tracks relate the grisly ends of this group of murder victims, others tell less intimate tales of woe.
During their shows, the band often shares the stories behind their tracks' compositions. Before my first live (so to speak) encounter with The Widow's Bane, I'd not realized that, for example, "Wormwood Waltz in C Minor," an instrumental featuring Mr. Belleview's wheezing demon-carnival accordion, Mr. Corpum's sinister fiddling, and occasional grotesque moaning, was Mr. Belleview's personal expression of post-murder grief. The lack of vocals in the track made quite a lot of sense when Mr. Leech mentioned that Mr. Belleview had been strung up with piano wire, forever damaging his vocal cords. I also learned that "Sick to Me Gullet," a harsher, choppier, kick-up-your-heels sort of death ballad, was the tale of Mr. Leech's poisoning at the hands of his scheming wife. "The Devil's Son" and "For Sentimental Reasons" were penned by Mr. Catacombs and Mr. Corpum about their respective demises.
Other songs are more generally mournful, like "The Pledge," which tells the tale of a poor soul by the name of Johnny and demonstrates Mr. Leech's amazing vocal range, both his operatic mortician's lower register and his high tenor that can be meltingly sweet or agonizingly strained. "Haul Away, Boys!" a rollicking sea shanty, highlights Mr. McKane's chops on the banjo and Mr. Corpum's fiddling prowess, and chronicles the exploits of the band on board their former ship. Seeing and hearing zombies sing about death and misfortune is an awesome prospect, of course—but zombies this talented up the ante of the experience significantly.
"Hop on," said Mr. Leech, gesturing at his motorcycle.
"Will they tow me?" I asked, eyeing the strip club.
"These sleazy bastards?" sighed Mr. Leech. "Probably. Well, follow me, then."
So I jumped back in my car and tailed Mr. Leech back to The Widow's Bane's practice space, where the rest of the band awaited me. I shook hands with the grave-rumpled, bloody-mawed, bewaistcoated group, and they seemed polite and pleasant enough for both the undead and musicians. Then Mr. Catacombs said sweetly,
"Well, shall we get going? We'll need to take two cars, I think. . . ."
"Yes," answered Mr. Leech, turning to me. I noticed he had a length of filthy black cloth clutched in his white-knuckled hands. "We're sorry about this, but . . . we're going to have to blindfold you."
I must've looked alarmed—Mr. Leech's onstage manner is somewhere between the Crypt Keeper and Beetlejuice, after all, and I wasn't sure if I trusted him to blindfold me and take me places—but Mr. Corpum took my hand, patted it gently, and said,
"It's simply a precaution." I relaxed slightly.
"Yeah—we can't have you telling the police where we took you," said Mr. Leech's voice from behind me and about a foot and a half above my ears, and suddenly everything went dark. The blindfold stank of grave rot and cigarette smoke, and after it was firmly in place, Mr. Corpum took me by the hand and urged me to take a step forward.
"This way, ma'am," he said, his slight southern drawl oddly reassuring. "We'll get you in the car safely, don't you worry."
"Where are you taking—where are we going?" I asked with what I hoped sounded like nonchalant disinterest as I slid down into what I assumed was the back seat of a sports car.
"The most terrifying, soul-shattering location imaginable," said Mr. Leech. Mr. Corpum laughed. The ignition clicked, the engine roared, and we were away.
It was a disconcerting feeling, being blind in a car with Mr. Leech at the wheel, and, from the sound of his voice when he spoke, Mr. Corpum looking at me from around the front passenger's side seat. I smiled despite my sightlessness; made small talk.
"Did you all know one another before you died?"
"Oh, no," said Mr. Leech. "We all died at different times—got to know one another after death. I've been around the longest—the eldest, you might say. Not emotionally or mentally, but physically. On the other two counts I'm quite the opposite."
"The Dark Lord introduced us," said Mr. Corpum.
"What's he like?"
There was a pregnant pause. Mr. Corpum coughed.
"I'd rather not say," he said.
"He's a perfect gentleman," said Mr. Leech. "He blesses us all, in his own way. If you follow the rules, and you're good, eventually he releases you from torment."
"It's every zombie's dream to cross the River Styx into the Promised Land," said Mr. Leech.
It was surprising information—strange insights into the real day-to-day of being a zombie I'd never really considered before. That said, my surprise was nothing compared to my alarm when Mr. Leech turned off the engine and announced "We're here!" with a brightness somewhat startling in the undead.
"Let her out," he added.
The door beside me opened, Mr. Corpum took my hand and, with a mother hen's clucking care, helped me out. Then there were fingers behind my head, a whoosh of fabric, and I was confronted with the sort of unspeakable horror one usually associates with being confronted with an army of shoggoths, or realizing that, indeed, the phone calls are coming from inside the house.
We were going minigolfing.
"Are—are we going to play?" I stuttered, flustered.
"Of course," said Mr. Leech, ushering me to where Mr. Belleview, Mr. Catacombs, and Mr. McKane lounged on the hood of the car they'd taken, looking even more ghoulish among the minivans and garish painted colors of the windmills and fiberglass King Kongs that are the hallmarks of such establishments. "And if you lose, we'll eat your brains."
I was distracted from my own unease by a child's frightened scream—a father and his daughter of perhaps seven years had passed by our little group, and she was clearly discomfited by our presence. It was understandable—Mr. Belleview had a cigarette dangling from his cracked lips, and the halo of smoke did not obscure the thin rivulet of a final nosebleed that trickled from his left nostril down over his mouth and onto his chin; Mr. Corpum was dressed as he usually was, in a bloody shirt and had an inverted cross drawn upon his pale forehead. Mr. Leech, eerily tall by nature, eerily thin from years of decay, had doffed his signature top hat, adding another ten or so inches of height to his frame. The most outgoing of the group, he immediately strode over to reassure the family that they were in no danger.
"It's just face paint," I heard the father say, cooing to his child.
"No, no, it's not," said Mr. Leech, in sincere, comforting tones. "We'd never put on face paint just to scare children at the minigolf course. We're zombies, you see, it's—oh."
The father had ushered the child away quickly, and Mr. Leech looked rather unhappy as he headed back toward us.
"People are so rude these days," lamented Mr. Leech, and opened the door of the clubhouse. "Shall we play, then? You first, Ms. Tanzer."
All the members of The Widow's Bane were just as well-mannered. They opened doors for me, called me ma'am, and never did I detect a sense of affected chivalry. This was ingrained behavior, and bespoke their origins in another time.
"Is this typically what you do on a Saturday night?" I asked Mr. Catacombs, as I chose my ball from among the available colors.
"No," he replied. "We mostly do this sort of thing on Sundays."
"You'd never guess it, but minigolfing on a Sunday is a sin in most states," said Mr. Leech. "Why, is this typical for you?"
"Not really," I replied.
"Which," asked Mr. McKane. "The minigolfing part, or the zombie part?"
Such banter defined our conversation that evening; the undead are quick witted and garrulous, as it turns out—very different from the shambling, unnnghhhh-ing sorts depicted in films. I asked Mr. Catacombs about the disparity, and he shrugged noncommittally. I could tell he felt ill-represented by most representations of his ilk.
"Most zombie movies have a stupid gimmick like a virus. It's silly—it's just fiction. Ridiculous is what it is. Not feasible."
"It's true," said Mr. Leech, distracted from keeping score by our conversation. "We're not contagious at all. I could eat your hand, and you'd just be handless."
"And we only like the taste of flesh because it's evil," Mr. Catacombs explained. "We don't really 'feed' on it."
"We don't need to eat at all," said Mr. Leech. "Zombies don't have to eat. We just choose to, when somebody pisses us off."
This made me nervous, as I knew myself to be such apocalyptically poor minigolfer that I was sure I would irritate my undead compatriots—thankfully, they were understanding of my mortal fears.
"Don't worry about it," said Mr. Leech, as I set up for my fifth shot on a par two. "We've been playing a lot longer than you, after all."
"Since the game was invented, I suppose," I said, biting my lip as I attempted to aim.
"No, only about three months," said Mr. Catacombs. "We used to bowl."
"You're holding your own though," lied Mr. Leech.
"Thanks. I'm a little nervous," I admitted. "No offense, but I'd rather you not eat my brain."
"You're playing it like a pro," said Mr. Leech. "Don't worry about your brain. Just—yeah, just put a little more stank on the ball."
Mishearing him, I responded,
"I'll try this time. . . for more stink."
Mr. Leech looked appalled. "Stank," he said.
"Who wants to put stink on a ball?" asked Mr. Catacombs, wrinkling his nose. "That's disgusting."
But after a while, we fell into a routine of playing, and I gathered my wits enough to ask a few pertinent questions.
"So are you all zombies, then?"
"In the band, yes," said Mr. Leech. "On board The Widow's Bane, in the good old days, we had all sorts—ghasts, ghouls, demons. But only zombies are allowed in the band."
"Vampires are just so needy," explained Mr. Catacombs.
"So tell me more about—if it's not indelicate—how you died?" I asked.
"I was buried alive," said Mr. Catacombs eagerly. "Most of my song, "The Devil's Son," I wrote on the inside of my coffin before I died. I used my own blood."
"Me wife poisoned me," said Mr. Leech, and his Irish brogue, tamed into submission by years of death and life in the Americas, suddenly resurfaced as he became more agitated. "For the money, of course. What else? That's what all women want."
"You do talk about visiting prostitutes and other such things in your song," I said. "Do you think you bear any of the responsibility for your death?"
A chorus of nos filled the air of the putt-putt course.
"Absolutely not," said Mr. Leech. "Women are to blame, on every count."
"When I went out gambling on my wedding night, my bride realized I loved banjo playing and cards more than her," said Mr. McKane. "She shot me dead. How is that my fault?"
"And you, Mr. Corpum?" I asked, turning to The Widow's Bane's fiddle-player.
"It's all there in my song," said Mr. Corpum. "My wife had an affair, and after I'd earned enough with my farm to keep her comfortable, she and her lover came at me with a scythe, ran me through. But I got my revenge."
"When you rose from the grave and killed them?" I asked.
"That, and the Dark Lord turned my wife into my violin, so I could play her instead of the other way around," he said, a harder expression flitting across his affable face.
"Did you play the violin before the incident?" I asked, trying to dispel the momentary pall.
"Oh, yes, ma'am," he said. "I was classically trained."
"See?" said Mr. Leech. "It's not a waste, since he's with us now, but you can see why we're suspicious of women."
"But you play weddings," I said, confused.
"We look at it as paying our last respects to the groom," said Mr. Leech.
"And you were strung up with piano wire?" I asked, turning to Mr. Belleview.
Mr. Belleview nodded sadly. I turned to Mr. Leech.
"Do you know anything more about the incident?" I asked.
"No," he said. "Rutherford was a silent bastard when we met, and he's never changed—hey! What are you doing?"
Mr. Belleview looked baffled as he held a match to the tip of a lumpy, handrolled cigarette. He pantomimed inhaling.
"You're setting a bad example for the children," said Mr. Leech, chagrined.
"Rutherford's away, anyhow," said Mr. McKane, and Mr. Belleview trotted off to putt.
"I offered my coffee spot as a meet-up point," I said to Mr. Catacombs, as Mr. Belleview left. "I heard you're not welcome there?"
"Who told you that?" asked Mr. Leech, suddenly beside us.
"You know as well as I that we can't go there any more," said Mr. Catacombs. "The incident? With Rutherford?"
"Oh, right," said Mr. Leech. "Don't tell her about that . . . delicate feminine sensibilities and all."
"What happened?" I whispered to Mr. Catacombs. "You can tell me."
"He—Rutherford—he likes to take goats . . . out for coffee," said Mr. Catacombs, glancing over at Mr. Leech, who was inattentive, having just scored a hole in one. "But the thing is, he's not—not interested in conversation. There was this time they had to clean the bathroom. It was pretty obvious. He was covered in blood, and it wasn't easy for him to run away."
"Especially with that goat attached to him," added Mr. McKane, overhearing our angle.
"So what's unlife like, for a zombie musician?" I asked, quickly moving on.
"We don't have much joy, that's for sure," said Mr. McKane.
"As terrible as a game of putt-putt might be, it's nothing compared to our average day," said Mr. Rictus, which was remarkable, as he had just lost his ball in the rough.
"Most of the time we just try to find gigs, and get laughed at," said Mr. Catacombs. "Rutherford tried exotic dancing to bring in some extra cash . . . but mostly we just practice. If we don't, you know, rigor mortis sets in pretty quickly. So we practice . . . that and pilates and yoga. But no hot yoga. Elderly and children's classes, mostly . . . you know, keep it simple. And gentle. You can only sew on so many limbs before you get tired of it, and we're terrible seamstresses, too."
"That's too bad," I said.
"The problem is, people don't know good music anymore," lamented Mr. Leech. "Pretty much every other band playing today, except for The Widow's Bane, sucks. And most of them have ripped us off."
I had heard this sentiment expressed by Mr. Leech at several of the shows I'd seen—several traditionals such as "Sixteen Tons", were initially composed by The Widow's Bane, and that a few famous artists, such Tom Waits and Johnny Cash, had crossed paths with The Widow's Bane and stolen their material, unfairly alleging their renditions were the originals. Not only that, I learned that The Widow's Bane wrote the theme song for a certain famous Boulder-area sitcom back in the seventies, as well.
"Django Reinhardt ripped us off, too," sighed Mr. Catacombs. "But we got our revenge, didn't we? Took his fingers for that. The paralyzed ones—those were fakes."
"We gnawed them off," said Mr. Leech.
"Really good marrow," added Mr. Catacombs.
"Did you keep the bones?" I asked, curious.
"Nah," said Mr. Leech. "I didn't know they'd ever be worth a damn thing . . . just chucked them out with the garbage. If I'd known how popular his cover of our song was gonna become, you know. . . ."
"When will your new album be out?" I asked, as the subject of their many lost royalty checks seemed to disturb the band.
"Hopefully by Christmas," said Mr. Leech. "It'll make a lovely gift."
This news was welcome to me, as The Widow's Bane is already playing a few of their new songs at gigs, including the rollicking, jolting "Boni", the high-spirited, soaring tune "The Wedding Song", and the bizarre "A Mortimer in Love", an Elvis-style doo-wop ballad about Mr. Leech masturbating outside a high school girl's window at night—which, given the frequency of famous people ripping off The Widow's Bane, I can only assume was the inspiration for the Twilight saga.
Alas, we had reached the end of the course—it was time for me to find out if I would escape the interview with my brain. Thankfully, due to Mr. Rictus losing his ball, and Mr. Catacombs paying far more attention to answering my questions than his own game, I had not lost. I was safe—at least, I assumed so, but then Mr. Leech was called away by a few curious putt-putters. When he returned, his face was as stormy as the seas The Widow's Bane had once terrorized.
"What's wrong?" I asked, nervous again.
"Nothing—they were just douchebags," answered Mr. Leech. "Kept asking me about my 'facepaint' over and over again. I mean, I understand the initial reaction, but once I told him I was a zombie, what else was there to explain?"
"Maybe he was just trying to figure out what kind of zombie you were," I suggested. "You know, like bio zombies, or radiation zombies."
"Just goes to show you that nobody really knows what a zombie is anymore," said Mr. Leech, shaking his head sadly.
"So what is a zombie?" I asked.
Mr. Leech looked me straight in the eye.
"A zombie is just an undead gentleman with a chip on his shoulder. But to think that we're illiterate, or can't walk faster than one mile an hour . . . it's ridiculous. We're quite articulate. We mind our manners. And we prefer fois gras to brains."