And here we have the winner, Dave Reidy's "The Regular." Apologies in advance for any formatting issues. If you want to read it in hard copy, it will be published in the next issue of The Frostproof Review, along with Charles D'Ambrosio's comments about it. I'd go order a copy now - I can promise you there are other great pieces in that issue!
Around eight each weeknight, I left work and took the El north to Whirly Gigs, a small rock club known for giving indie bands with promise their first Chicago appearance. My messenger bag, two-toned cotton sweater, jeans, and brown plastic-framed glasses identified me as a member of the creative proletariat coming straight from work. While roadies or band members wrangled cords and tuned guitars on Whirly Gigs’ tiny elevated stage, I sat at the narrow end of the bar against the matte-black wall. My stool was the furthest one from the stage, and blasé, aging indie kids ordering drinks sometimes blocked my view, but I didn’t care. I could hear everything I needed to see.
Julian held court each night in the booth closest to the stage—his booth. Guys who barely knew him approached and extended their hands for a hipster’s handshake, a curled-finger lock, tug, and release. Julian obliged each one coolly. The girls sitting with him communicated interest, excitement, or jaded lust with their eyes. Julian absorbed their attention without courting it. He was younger than I was, maybe twenty-four, out of school long enough to know the scene and young enough to be its poster boy. If my look identified me as someone with a job, Julian’s sloppy hair, denim jacket, and tub-soaked tight jeans put him outside the workaday world. What Julian looked like didn’t matter much to me. I cared more about what he could see.
When the first act took the stage, Julian would leave the adoring courtiers and his stage-side seat for the stool next to mine. One night I asked him why no one ever tried to drag him back to his booth, or pull him into the crowd to dance. He shrugged, and sipped his bourbon. “I put the word out,” he said, his eyes on the stage. “During the shows, I listen to the music, and I talk only to you.”
I’d been a regular at Whirly Gigs since moving back home from college in 1996. Julian arrived five years later. I noticed him right away, but never spoke to him—I spoke only to the bartender, Casey, and once he knew enough to give me a bourbon when I sat down, we didn’t talk much. But one night, on his way back from the bathroom, Julian stood next to my stool during the opening act of a three-act bill. The band was aping The Stooges without the punk pioneers’ energy or talent, but energy and talent wouldn’t have made them sound any better. Not to my ears.
Distaste was surely visible on my face, but Julian never looked at me. “The snare is peaking too high,” he said.
The analysis was that of an audiophile, one who lived for sound and executed unconsciously and crudely what a sophisticated computer program could do electronically and exactly. Julian heard instrument and microphone inputs as visible tracks—jagged peaks above deep, repeating fissures—stacked like a dense, multicolored polygraph display. I could hear the same images in my own head.
For the next three years, Julian and I analyzed every live set at Whirly Gigs as if it were being recorded. We spoke of sound in terms of two-dimensional images: distorted guitars crying out for compression, backing vocals that needed gating. We weren’t friends. We were something less. I’d never seen Julian outside of Whirly Gigs, never spoken to him on the phone, and it seemed, beyond our nightly meeting place, that seeing sound was all we had in common. But that was enough to make sitting alongside Julian the high point of my day.
When the headliners, whoever they were, had played their final encore, Julian would clap me on the back and head back to his booth. I would pay my tab and head for the El. As I walked to the Belmont station, I would pass a karaoke club called Starmaker’s. Because of its stock in trade, Starmaker’s—the name alone—was an insult commonly overheard at Whirly Gigs. If a singer’s performance was overly earnest or overwrought, one regular might shout “Starmaker’s” into the ear of another before heading for the bar. To associate an act with karaoke was worse than calling its sound dated, or derivative, or even boring. At Whirly Gigs, Starmaker’s was the atom bomb of on-the-spot reviewing.
Despite the hipsters’ disdain, Starmaker’s was usually packed with corporate types drinking cocktails, even when I walked past the plate-glass façade each night around midnight. Sleeves were rolled up and collars unbuttoned. Skirts were twisted from repeated shimmies across vinyl benches to visit the bathroom and the bar. In my head, I kept a rough tally of the songs I heard. “I Will Survive” and “Like A Prayer” were favorites, and bachelorette parties often tackled “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” en masse. But the real treats were the choices that confounded me for weeks on end, like the warbling older woman who performed Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” as if it were a Presbyterian hymn, and the guy who gave a pitch-perfect rendering of Michael McDonald’s supporting vocals on “This Is It”—a 1979 duet with Kenny Loggins—but declined to sing Loggins’ parts, reducing the song’s verses to underfed synthesized instrumental breaks. Once I heard—but didn’t see—a man singing Captain and Tenille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.” What sort of guy, I wondered, would select that song from a binder full of more appropriate choices? Would I have been able to guess his story by the way he dressed or held the microphone or carried himself? I promised myself that if ever again I heard a man singing that song, I would get a good look at him, and buy him a round. He would deserve it, somehow.
I got off the El just near my office, just north of Downtown. In ten years at Fahrenheit Graphic Design, I had risen from the rank of junior designer to senior art director, a position I’d held for almost four years. The creative-director position had opened twice in that time. My bosses had never considered me. I had never complained.
I walked to the open-air lot where I’d parked seventeen hours before, and drove home to the edge of the city, one of only a handful of Chicago neighborhoods with a zip code that did not begin with 606. Mine was 60707, and when I looked out the windshield at the ample street parking, and the soccer fields that separated my apartment from the car dealerships and day-care centers on Fullerton Avenue, the 607 seemed about right.
My apartment was in the basement of my parents’ house, a duplex with a door in the gangway that enabled me to come and go as I pleased without waking them. The apartment had three rooms: a bedroom just big enough for a twin bed and a dresser, a bathroom with a shower but no tub, and a main room with a kitchenette on one wall. The main room was dominated by my home studio: sound-absorbing cotton panels on the walls and ceiling, four top-shelf microphones, and a Mac G5. A band looking to cut a good demo on the cheap would have killed for my setup. I sometimes wondered if failing to give musicians access to my studio was a sin on par with hoarding grain while people starved.
Though I didn’t record my own music, I put the studio to good use. When I arrived home from Whirly Gigs, usually around one or so, I scoured file-sharing networks for individual tracks of multi-track pop recordings. I imported each song piece by piece—the drums isolated from the bass, the backing vocals separated from the lead—and investigated every hiss or fumble or bleed that caught my eye. I once spent two weeks of late nights with The Clash’s “Clampdown,” searching for the reasons Joe Strummer’s guitar had been buried in the final mix and deciding for myself whether or not Topper Headon deserved his “Human Drum Machine” moniker. (To my eye, he did.) When I’d seen all there was to see in a given song, I returned to the networks, poached another masterpiece, and started breaking it down. By the time I fell into bed, it was usually around three. I caught up on sleep on the weekends.
This was my life. It was static, and less than I wanted. But with my studio, Whirly Gigs, and Julian, my life was just enough to live on.
That night, a Monday, I stayed an extra hour at work pushing pixels for a client and arrived at Whirly Gigs twenty minutes after nine. Julian was not in his booth. He was standing next to my stool, staring at the stage. By now it was usually cluttered with drums, cymbals, a dozen amps, and a slithering mass of black cords. Tonight, a darkened portable projection screen occupied the drum kit’s position. Two elevated portable speakers stood guard at its left and right. To the left of one of the speakers, a laptop and two microphones had been placed on a folding table. The front of the stage was barren but for a monitor mounted on a spindly metal tripod and an empty microphone stand.
“Are they doing an open mike night?” I asked, hoping it wasn’t so.
A woman at the bar ordered a dirty martini. The platinum band of her engagement ring was milky in the stage light. Her silk blouse was tight at the waist and laid neatly on the curve of her left hip. Over her shoulder, two men wearing khakis and golf shirts emblazoned with corporate logos were chatting up two women sitting across from them. The woman closer to the bar wore nylons, black high-heeled pumps, and a gray jacket-and-skirt set. After the guy across from her dribbled beer foam on his shirt, both women erupted in nearly identical cackles.
Then it hit me. They were sitting in Julian’s booth. I scanned the club from front to back. I recognized no one but Julian.
“Who’s playing tonight, Brian,” he demanded.
Before I could say I didn’t know, Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” blasted over the portable speakers and the projection screen ignited with quick-cut images of Asian men and women riding bicycles, slurping noodle soup, and pruning topiary menageries. A slightly overweight young man wearing a white short-sleeve button-down, blue jeans, and ear-covering headphones was now standing behind the folding table. A wireless mike, protected by black foam shaped like a wrecking ball, was held in front of his mouth by a plastic arm connected to the headphones. He looked like the pilot of a traffic helicopter.
“Welcome back,” he announced, “to Karaoke Monday at Whirly Gigs.”
Casey put my drink in front of me and I asked him what was going on. He told me it had been in the works for a while, and that management had ordered the staff to keep it quiet. Management was a rotating cast of shadowy Serbians, a pair of whom who showed up at least once a week in loose, open-collared black shirts and tailored black slacks to let the bartenders and the bouncers know they were watching everything. According to Casey, the Serbians had been running an ad for Karaoke Monday in the Tribune for two weeks, and had stopped booking Mondays four months ago.
“What about the other nights?” I asked.
“Bands, just like before. But with this . . . .” Casey turned to the stage and his voice trailed off.
“The regulars won’t ever come back,” I said.
In the five years since they’d taken over the club, the Serbians had threatened many times to convert Whirly Gigs into a hookah lounge. Twice they’d even announced the club’s closure. In each instance, a week-long, sold-out residency of local boys made good—The Smashing Pumpkins the first time, Wilco the second—had put enough money in the Serbians’ pockets to stay the club’s execution. Maybe the Serbians saw karaoke as an opportunity to take back the club from its regulars, whose disposable cash was limited and whose exclusive, self-conscious sense of cool kept more people out than it brought in. Maybe they wanted to turn Whirly Gigs into Starmaker’s.
When I turned to commiserate with Julian, he was gone.
I grabbed my bag and hurried to the street. Julian was already a half-block away. I jogged after him, coins and keys jangling noisily in my pockets, and slowed to a walk as I fell in alongside him.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” Julian’s clenched jaw and flattened eyebrows were probably supposed to make him look angry, but his wet eyes gave him away. He looked even younger than he was.
As we walked in silence, my stomach felt sour. Whirly Gigs was dying; in a sense, it was already dead. I could find another place to see sound—this was Chicago, after all—but would Julian follow me there? Would sound look the same if he didn’t?
Julian’s loss was greater than my own—he’d had more to lose. He was a king without a country, his throne occupied by consultants who saw it merely as a place to sit while they waited their turn at the karaoke mike. Even if Julian decided to find another club and make it his own, for some time, he would be just another good-looking hipster.
Suddenly my mind flashed to the only place that could return to me—and to Julian—something of what we’d lost. Without thinking I grabbed Julian’s elbow to stop his directionless retreat. “Last night I found the individual tracks of Cheap Trick’s At Budokan.”
Julian looked at me as if he hadn’t understood. I don’t think he had. “What?”
“I found the individual recording tracks of Cheap Trick’s At Budokan.”
“You mean each song.”
“No. Each track of each song.”
Julian stared at me. “Where did you find them?”
“File sharing,” I said. “I’ve got them all loaded into my computer. Come over to my place. We’ll give them a look.”
Julian lowered his eyes to my hand, which still held his elbow. I let go, and replayed the previous ten seconds in my head. My mouth went dry as I realized that my proposal had sounded something like a proposition, the audiophile’s equivalent of the bachelor’s ruse in which he tells a potential conquest that she must see the breathtaking view from his apartment.
Julian began to nod, almost imperceptibly at first. “All right,” he said. “Let’s go.”
As we walked toward the Belmont El station, I assured myself that Julian had understood I’d meant nothing untoward, and that if any doubt lingered, I’d prove it at my apartment by delivering what I’d promised and nothing more. And just when I’d managed to put my mind at ease, I realized that my invitation had left me vulnerable in a way I’d failed to anticipate. The chances were now quite good that some time tonight Julian would learn I lived with my parents.
I led Julian around the side of the house, down the three concrete steps, and inside. I turned on the lamp near the door—the only one in the room—but the dim yellow light failed to brighten it. I experienced the space as Julian might have: the trapped aromas of mildew and microwaved meals, the oak footboard of my twin bed detailed with carvings of dogs and cats, bundled cords emerging from the back of my recording console, untreated wooden stairs leading to the floor above. I took off my coat, laid it over the footboard, and kept my head down as I looked for the bottle of bourbon I’d started last night. I wished Julian would say something.
“Nice place,” he said finally.
“Thanks,” I said.
I poured two bourbons into mugs and put them on coasters in front of two rolling chairs. I sat in the better chair, not wanting to make things more awkward by deferring overly, and immediately called up the At Budokan tracks. Then I double clicked on the lead-guitar track of “Hello There” and watched the thin, vertical black line move from left to right over the visual representation of the music we heard in the speakers.
“Wow,” Julian whispered, his eyes glued to the monitor.
We took three hours to analyze each track of the album’s first two songs, finishing more than half a bottle of bourbon between us. As the backing vocals of “Come On, Come On” melted into the noise of 14,000 cheering Japanese, Julian said, “Let’s stop there. I could look at tracks all night, but I don’t want to use them all up, you know?”
My first thought was that Julian was making the excuse he needed to leave, but he poured himself another drink and sat back in his chair to sip it. It occurred to me then that in stopping our analysis after only two songs, Julian might have been creating a reason to come back.
“There’s no reason to stop if you don’t want to,” I said. “I’ve got other albums.”
“Track by track?” Julian asked.
“Can I see?” Julian said, leaning forward toward the console.
“Sure.” I let go of the mouse and Julian took it with his right hand. As I emptied the bottle of bourbon into my mug, I took stock of the situation: Julian was in my house, on my studio computer, relishing the audio I’d collected, showing no signs of leaving and every indication he intended to return. I’d lost Whirly Gigs tonight, but I’d gained something more of Julian. For the first time I could remember, I felt like my life could do more than keep me going: it could fill me up.
Julian scrolled through all the tracks I’d downloaded, which were organized by artist. His heavy-lidded eyes glowed green in the monitor light. “The Clash,” he said with an approving nod. “Blur. Pavement. Nirvana’s In Utero sessions?”
“The original Albini sessions?”
I nodded again.
“Not sure how you found those,” Julian said. “Don’t want to know.”
I sipped my bourbon. Even if Julian had wanted to know how I got the In Utero sessions, I wouldn’t have told him.
“Journey?” Julian asked. It looked like he was trying not to sneer.
I felt blood flooding the vessels in my face. I could have played off having Journey in my collection as a hipster’s slumming lark, or cited the difficulty of finding any track-by-track recordings on the web, a sort of beggars-can’t-be-choosers defense. But the truth was that finding Journey’s “Faithfully” had been the culmination of a yearlong search. By coincidences of vocal quality and range, I could imitate Journey’s lead singer, Steve Perry, like no one else I’d ever heard. I’d long dreamed of finding the “Faithfully” tracks, studying the recorded vocals, and recording my own. Then, and only then, would I know just how good my Steve Perry impression really was.
Last week, in the privacy of my studio, with my eyes closed and the mike in both hands, I’d belted out “Faithfully” with the full band (minus Perry) playing in my headphones. Then I’d moved my own vocal track, a horizontal, hot pink image of intermittent sound, just below Steve Perry’s neon green original and magnified both 100 times. At that size, a vocalist’s performance looks like impossibly steep summits and unfathomable glacial crevasses between flatlands of silence. I spent an hour comparing the visual representations of the two vocal tracks, noting tiny discrepancies and savoring the fine details of each similarity.
In another situation, it might have made for a funny story. But given the abomination we’d witnessed at Whirly Gigs just a few hours before, I had no intention of appearing somehow in league with karaoke nation. Not in front of Julian.
“Journey are people, too,” I said, trying to laugh off Julian’s question. I sipped my drink. When I saw he was still waiting for an explanation, I said, “I was desperate for some new tracks, so I took them. I checked out the drum track and the lead guitar track and called it quits.”
Julian opened his mouth with apparent surprise. The saliva on his tongue reflected the monitor light. “You downloaded ‘Faithfully’ and didn’t even give Steve Perry a look?”
As Julian turned back to the monitor with the mouse in his hand, I said, “No! Don’t!”
He must have thought I was putting him on, because he smiled and kept going. When he started playback, the neon green vocal track was still silenced. The hot pink vocal track was not.
My voice sounded like Perry’s but, unmixed and unmastered, the vocal was obviously not the original. Julian looked confused at first, but when the furrows on his brow began to flatten out, I couldn’t look at him anymore. I covered my eyes with my left hand and swiveled my seated body toward the stairs. The idea of singing in front of people made my hands shake, but I would have rather performed at a packed Carnegie Hall than witness my recorded voice being absorbed by this audience of one.
When Julian stopped playback in the middle of the second verse, I heard him picking up the mouse and putting it down over and over again like a bull pawing the dirt. He was scrolling through my library of tracks, looking for something. I turned as he stopped scrolling and began clicking. He wasn’t smiling, but at least he hadn’t walked out without a word.
For a long time, I believed that Julian did what he did next in solidarity, so I’d have company in being embarrassed. I think now that he probably did it to one-up me, to show that if there was a performer in the room, someone with talent and charisma, it was him, not me. He opened the individual tracks of “Do You Feel Like We Do?” from Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive! Then he put on the headphones, picked up the microphone, and held it at his side.
I wheeled over and checked the computer monitor as the song began. “Julian, you’ve got Frampton’s vocals set to play back in your headset.”
“I know,” Julian said.
I figured Julian was using Frampton’s original vocals as a crutch, either to help him remember the words or hit the right notes. But when the thin black line swept over the image of Frampton’s lead vocal, Julian didn’t sing. I looked at him, then scrolled through the two-dozen tracks. When I got to the lead-guitar track, I saw what Julian had in mind. I just didn’t believe he could do it.
Julian kept the mike at his side for the song’s first six minutes, including an introduction, three verses, four times through the chorus, a short guitar solo and a keyboard solo. Only he could hear the music. I watched it all on the monitor.
Then, with uncanny precision, Julian began to imitate the sounds of Frampton’s most famous guitar solo. I was confident a skilled amateur with the right equipment could play it note for note on the guitar. But Julian was playing it with his voice. With each passing second, Julian’s blue vocal track mirrored the size, shape and pattern of Frampton’s silenced red guitar track, like a string of genetic material being gradually cloned.
For the second movement of his solo, Frampton had employed a talkbox, which takes notes from an electric guitar, compresses them, and sends them as vibrations through a piece of plastic tubing taped to the lead-vocal microphone. By taking the tubing in his mouth and shaping the sound, Frampton created the aural illusion that his guitar was singing to the live audience. Julian created the same effect without a talkbox, and without a guitar.
Then Julian dove into the fiery concluding movement, bending the notes through mouth shapes that ranged from the oval to the trapezoidal. His Adam’s apple pulled almost out of sight on the high notes, and descended into view when Julian approached the depths of his range. Another man, as he gave voice to Frampton’s notes with a series of “no,” “nare,” and “wah” sounds, might also have aped the sort of histrionics that traditionally accompany guitar heroics. Surely Julian felt the urge. I felt it sitting in my chair. But Julian kept his eyes open, his hands on the mike, and his performance free of air guitar.
At the end of the song, Julian tore off the headphones and leaned in toward the monitor. “Let’s give it a look,” he said.
The discrepancies between Julian’s vocals and Frampton’s guitar were greater than those between my vocals and Steve Perry’s, but smaller than they might have been had Julian played Frampton’s solo on an instrument, perhaps even an electric guitar inferior to Frampton’s Les Paul. Julian had performed the entire “Do You Feel Like We Do?” guitar solo with precision, and with his voice.
When we’d analyzed the visuals, Julian got up to leave. I didn’t want him to.
“Wait,” I said. “You should do that next week.”
Julian looked at me and sat back down. “What?” he asked.
“Sing the guitar part of some song at Whirly Gigs’ Karaoke Monday.”
He laughed through his nose, shook his head and stood up again. “I don’t think so.”
I stood up with him, wobbling a bit. “Just think about what a great last stand it would be! A karaoke crowd wouldn’t know what to do with a performance like that.”
Julian looked at me as if I were losing my mind or, at the very least, too drunk to drive him to the El. I bent over the console, took the mouse in my hand, clicked once, twice, then double clicked. Cued to its final minute, “Do You Feel Like We Do?” erupted through the speakers with Julian’s track in place of Frampton’s. As accurate as they were, Julian’s unmixed notes sounded ridiculous backed by the instruments recorded live at San Francisco’s Winterland in 1975. Julian smiled and we both laughed out loud, though our laughter was nearly drowned out by the playback. He put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed, and I wrapped my left arm around his waist and pulled him toward me. Then the basement door opened.
Julian and I pulled apart immediately. I said nothing.
“Brian, it’s three in the morning,” my mother said. “Can you keep it down?”
“All right,” I said.
As I turned the volume down, my face flushed. I hadn’t called her Mom, and she hadn’t called me Son, but there could have been little doubt in Julian’s mind to whom that voice belonged. Her tone and our dynamic said it all. By then I did want Julian to leave, not because of anything he’d said or done, but because he had seen me as I was.
For the first two miles of the drive to the nearest station on Julian’s El line, neither Julian nor I said a word.
“It’s not a big deal, you know,” Julian said eventually. “Living with your parents, I mean. A lot of people I know do it. And you’ve got such a great setup down there! I wouldn’t ever want to move—”
“Thanks, but can you just—?” I tried to smile through my shame at being reassured by someone six years my junior, but came up short. I did manage to exhale and start over. “Thanks.”
The incident with my mother wasn’t even my largest source of embarrassment. I could still feel my hand on Julian’s belt, grabbing it and pulling him toward me. At the thought of Julian replaying the corresponding sensation in his own head, I wanted to make a deep, exhausted, guttural sound that would have forced my tongue out of my mouth. But I had to swallow that urge for another mile or so.
I rolled to a stop in front of the station stairs, put the car in park, and kept my eyes straight ahead. I was aware that this would probably be the last time I saw Julian, but I didn’t want to look at him. I wanted him to get out of the car before I could shame myself any further.
“I’ll be over tomorrow,” Julian said. “Around eight. We’ve only got a week to put this thing together.”
It took me a moment to realize that Julian was talking about performing at Whirly Gigs.
“They’re going to hate us,” Julian said, smiling. Then he clapped me on the shoulder blade with his left hand, got out of the car, and closed the door behind him.
The next night, we found a song worthy of Julian’s talent. We imported the tracks of Cream’s “White Room” and studied them. Then, over the next five nights, we put Julian’s rehearsals up against the original guitar track, noted each difference, and honed his rendition into a precise sonic imitation. On Thursday, after rehearsing until almost four in the morning, I asked Julian if he wanted to crash at my place instead of starting home how. He declined. I offered to drive him home or to the El. He said he had money for a cab, clapped me on the back, and left.
In spare moments at work, I laid out a graphic treatment to accompany Julian’s performance. When I’d leaded and kerned the type to my satisfaction and synchronized text to sound, I burned the finished product to a DVD. If Julian’s voice-guitar would be the blow to the gut of karaoke nation, I imagined my graphics would dig the knuckles deeper.
That following Monday, we walked north from the Belmont station toward Whirly Gigs. When we passed Starmaker’s, I looked away, and so did Julian. But there was no way to avert our ears. A woman half in the bag and half a measure behind the accompaniment was singing Billy Joel’s “Only The Good Die Young.” She didn’t sound young, but she was certainly dying up there.
A few paces after the woman fell out of earshot, I voiced the question that had been on my mind the whole trip up here.
“What are we doing?” I asked.
Julian stopped and squinted at me. “What do you mean?”
“If you go up there and do this tonight, are we any different than that woman in there? I mean, really? Sure, you’re doing the guitar, not the vocals, and you’re better than she is, but what we’re doing is still karaoke—at a karaoke night, on a karaoke stage. Hell,” I said. I lifted my palms and smiled hysterically. “I might as well get up there and sing ‘Faithfully.’ Would it be any different?”
Julian nodded, turned, and resumed his march toward Whirly Gigs without a word.
“Julian,” I said, walking after him. I put my hand on his shoulder and he whirled, knocking it off with a windmill-swing of his right arm. I flinched and gave a shallow, startled gasp. I recognized the look in his eyes, having seen him give it to bands with no talent, women who couldn’t dress, and men who wouldn’t leave him alone. It was disgust. He took a breath and ran his fingers through his hair, seeming suddenly aware that he was in public.
“Look,” Julian said. “You helped me find my mistakes and fix them, and you did the graphics,” he said. “But I do the performing. So I guess I don’t need you anymore.”
He said the words matter-of-factly with only the barest hint of malice, but they struck a heavy blow, and pulverized the notion that Julian and I were somehow in league together.
When I made no reply, Julian started walking. I let him get a half-block ahead, then followed him. The moment wasn’t mine anymore, but it was still Julian’s, and I could not bring myself to miss it. Besides, except for home, I had nowhere else to go.
I took my usual seat at the bar. Casey arched one eyebrow, poured me a bourbon, and handed it to me without a word. Julian was talking to the karaoke DJ, punctuating the rhythms of his speech with small movements of the DVD case he held in his hand. The DJ nodded his assent to whatever Julian was saying, took the DVD, and went backstage. Julian sat on the stool closest to the stage and turned his back on it.
Julian’s booth was occupied by two Korean couples, laughing loudly and speaking in their native language. The rest of the seating was dominated by the casualties of what appeared to be a sizable after-work happy hour that had migrated north from Downtown. A man from the happy-hour crowd guided an unsteady woman by the elbow to a spot a few feet away from my stool and proposed, in a whisper he probably thought was discreet, that she leave her husband for him. She demurred, citing the man’s “sexual problem.” I cleared my throat a few times to get them to move away, but they didn’t.
To kick off Karaoke Monday at Whirly Gigs, one of the Korean women performed a stunning rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” without so much as glancing at the words. The happy-hour crowd ate it up. Then one of their own, a man I’d seen standing alongside a booth listening to conversations in which he was never directly addressed, took the stage and sang Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” His rendition was competent but boring, and the Koreans joined his coworkers in ignoring him.
When the man had placed the microphone in its stand, the DJ said, “All right. Please welcome Julian to the Karaoke Monday stage. Julian, are you here?”
Julian drained his bourbon, swiveled on his stool, and walked calmly and coolly to the stage. By the time he’d mounted it, the perfunctory applause had extinguished. He pulled the microphone from the stand and stood with his arms at his side.
The screen behind him changed from green to a rich black. In silence, 84-point white Futura type appeared against the black background. The type read, “White Room.” The type faded to black, and was replaced by the words “As Performed by Cream.” Then the first haunting bars of the song rang out. The timpani thumped, and Eric Clapton’s guitar wailed like a banshee.
When the introduction ended, Jack Bruce’s original first-verse vocals played loud and clear over the portable sound system. Julian kept his mouth shut, and no images appeared on the field of black behind him. We had supposed that this close-mouthed protest would raise the ire of the karaoke fans. But as I looked around the room, the Koreans were laughing at a private joke. Over my right shoulder, a woman was in the midst of another refusal to leave her husband for her lover. This time I actually heard her say “erectile dysfunction.”
A happy-hour man with a red necktie loosened beneath his collar cupped his hand around the right side of his mouth and yelled, “Hey buddy! If you’re going to lip synch, move your lips!”
I exhaled. Finally, Julian was getting some fraction of the hatred he had hoped for. He seemed to be resisting the urge to smile.
Casey put another bourbon down for me. “What’s he doing?” he asked, his eyes on Julian.
“He’s about to start,” I said.
“Singing the guitar parts.”
He turned to me. “Singing the guitar parts?”
The song entered verse two and I realized that, in a few seconds, no explanation would be necessary.
“You said no strings,” sang Jack Bruce, “could secure you at the station.”
Then Julian flawlessly rendered Clapton’s wah-wah notes with his voice. The moment the first sound left his mouth, white text exploded on the black screen. It read, “Bow, wha goo wow ooh wow wow wow owe owe owe own.” The combination of text and sound won the Koreans’ attention.
“Platform ticket, restless diesels, goodbye windows.”
Julian hit Clapton’s howling, bending notes: “Whoa ooo-wow-ooo-wow-ooo-wow, ooo wow ah-ooo-whan wow.” As I witnessed my bold graphic mockery of karaoke convention, I flushed with pride and excitement. But both pride and excitement cooled when I remembered that Julian had claimed my work—and this moment—for himself.
By the end of verse two, the Koreans had returned to their conversation, the happy-hour crowd seemed more bored than annoyed, and Casey had turned his back on the stage to mix a martini. Even the DJ had his head down, cueing up the next song. I was the only one watching Julian now. We might as well have been in my parents’ basement.
As verse three began, Julian seemed to notice the indifference. He began pounding his heel in rhythm with the drums. His diaphragm clenched visibly beneath his tight black t-shirt, and his mouth and throat performed the complicated contortions required to imitate the open-door-closed-door effect of the wah pedal. Hitting even the high notes cleanly, he screeched and squealed and roared with confidence.
And still they ignored him.
The final solo began, and Julian slammed the mike into its stand. He braced his right wrist against his pelvic bone, pinned his left elbow against his ribs, and held his left hand in the air with its back to the audience. Julian recreated the sound of Clapton’s solo with staggering fidelity, capturing the energy and emotion of the playing in his voice. All the while, he picked and fingered an imaginary guitar.
Feeling sick to my stomach, I put my elbow on the bar and shielded my eyes with my hand.
“Is this part of the act?” Casey asked.
I didn’t answer. Finally, mercifully, the song faded out and Julian returned his arms to his side.
“Let’s hear it for Julian,” the DJ said.
The audience offered a few whoops and a short round of applause. Julian walked off the stage with his hands in his pockets and his head down. I mustered my resources, got off my stool, and walked out to the main floor to meet him. He passed me without so much as a glance. I stood there facing the stage, feeling exposed on all sides. I touched my jeans, somehow needing to assure myself I wasn’t naked, and made once again for the receding comforts of my stool.
Having sung a guitar solo, played the air guitar, and pandered to an audience he knew to be beneath him, Julian would never allow himself to walk through these doors again. The performance had been a clean break with Whirly Gigs, and a clean break with me. Whatever it was we had been must have mattered to Julian at least as much as Whirly Gigs had; he’d put the torch to both. And I’d helped him gather the tinder.
“All right,” the DJ said. “Let’s get our next performer up here. Give it up for Tommy, everybody.”
Tommy, the alleged sufferer of erectile dysfunction, staggered to the front of the stage. The top three buttons of his Oxford had come undone, revealing a v-neck undershirt and a thin patch of long, scraggly black hairs. Tommy’s coworkers cheered and the Koreans clapped politely.
“This is for you, Lisa,” Tommy yelled, causing the speakers to screech earsplitting feedback. I recognized the backing track immediately. Then Tommy, his brow furrowed in earnest emotion, began to sing.
“Love. Love will keep us together. Think of me babe whenever, some sweet talking girl . . . .”
Tommy was sharp on every note. I wondered if he could hear himself, and if he knew that the song’s sentiment—that couples should stay together despite temptation—was all wrong for his play for a married coworker. Lisa, clearly mortified, put her drink on a table and hurried to the ladies’ room. Several of their colleagues could not help but laugh at the spectacle. Others put their heads down or covered their eyes. But I kept my eyes on Tommy, and applauded politely when he finished. Then I got Casey’s attention, pointed at my credit card by the register, and pointed at the stage. Tommy’s next drink was on me, and his song choice was only part of my reason for buying it.
While one of the Koreans tackled Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” I sat on my stool, sipped my bourbon, and listened. Karaoke, it turned out, presented some interesting audio conundrums, like the variable volume levels of the backing tracks, and a performer’s struggle to determine the appropriate distance between his mouth and the microphone. They were sonic images simple enough for me to envision on my own, without Julian, and whether the hipsters would have admitted it or not, these performers were no worse than some of the opening acts we’d seen over the years.
And as I sat on foam padding compressed into a mold of my buttocks, I wanted a clean break, too—from the old Whirly Gigs, and the absence pulsing from the empty stool beside me. I looked around at the Koreans, and at Tommy leaning over the drink I’d bought him. I realized then that I could make my clean break right where Julian had made his, and that I could do it my way, without torching anything or hurting anyone. My path was laid out straight: four minutes of hot pink peaks, valleys and flatlands magnified 100 times.
At the thought of taking the stage, I started to sweat, and saliva thickened in my throat. Keep your eyes closed, I told myself, and all you’ll see is sound.
I wiped my forehead with my hand and scanned the tables for a thick black binder. Then I walked with my arms stiff at my sides toward a booth occupied by Lisa, whose chin was bobbing with half-sleep, and two of her female coworkers. With the club’s north wall, they formed a perimeter around Lisa, probably to protect her from Tommy’s drunken advances. As I approached, the guards stiffened.
“Excuse me,” I said, pointing at the binder on the table. “Can I borrow that?”
“Suit yourself,” the woman next to Lisa said.
I picked up the binder and a stubby half-pencil and brought them to a table near the stage. I flipped to the Fs, found “Faithfully,” and jotted its alphanumeric code on a white slip of paper. Then I mounted the stage steps, handed the paper to the DJ, and waited my turn in the wings.