Here at Northwest Music Scene we’re proud to be a part of the publication of Dave O’Leary’s second novel, The Music Book. To help promote the book and the Seattle bands discussed within, we’ll be running a series of excerpts taken from it. The book is a collection of the writings O’Leary has done about Seattle bands for both Northwest Music Scene and the now defunct Seattle Subsonic. It is a fictional narrative wrapped around and within the actual music, a story about live music in Seattle, and more broadly, about the power of music in our lives. And a worthy read.
The Music Book is available at Elliott Bay Book Company in Capital Hill, on Amazon, and on Barnes & Noble. The Music Book CD (a benefit for the Wishlist Foundation). The book will soon be available in Barnes & Noble bookstores.
“You cut your hair,” I say, looking at her exposed neck. She smiles, grabs a bit of it, runs her fingers down its length, twirling it around her thumb. It used to hang just below her shoulders. Now, it hangs not even an inch past her ears, but the effect is good, the neck ready for the nuzzle of a forehead. “I like it.”
“Thanks. Here you go,” she says placing a Manny’s Pale Ale in front of Greg. She pauses, smiles at him, then sets the same in front of me. She pulls a napkin and a pen from her apron and scribbles numbers on one side and then the other while we drink. She looks around the bar to make sure that no other customers need anything and then flips the napkin a few times going over her calculations. “You guys ever use much math these days besides adding and subtracting?”
“Hell no,” Greg says. “Counting coin is about all I ever use it for. Computers do all the tricky stuff.” This is our usual hangout, the Beveridge Place Pub in West Seattle, when we want a few drinks after he gets off work at the bank and before I go to a show. He works as a teller for lack of ambition, says he just counts the money of others. Before that, he was a waiter at a fancy place downtown, which he says is the same except for the additional bit of bringing them food. He’s done construction work too, and some warehouse work, driven a delivery van for a dry cleaner. He’s floundering in his thirties, maybe his whole adulthood, going from job to job, a little aimless at times, very much so at others, but seeming not to worry about it as the years drift along. I’m the worrier in this friendship, or rather this beer-drinking partnership. We first met in this place about six months ago when I was scribbling thoughts in a notebook and sipping a pint of Manny’s. He sat next to me and ordered the same. He took a good long hit from his beer, looked over at me, offered his hand. “I’m Greg.” I figured he would ask about what I was writing, but he didn’t. I liked that. Instead we talked about the beer.
Manny’s is brewed by Georgetown Brewing Company, a Seattle brewery located just south of downtown, and its red and gold label is quite the common sight in the taps of dive bars and high-end joints alike in the Pacific Northwest. It’s something hoppy enough for beer snobs but without the bitterness that turns many away from craft beers. “I read an article about it once,” Greg said. “The guy, Manny, he used to work for Mac and Jac’s when they were just getting started, and he’d drive all over the city convincing bars to put it on tap. Did pretty well, too.”
“I never much liked Mac and Jac’s.”
“Me neither.” He took a sip of his beer. “I had a girlfriend once who thought that if you didn’t like the taste of hops, it meant that your taste buds hadn’t fully developed.”
“I’d have to disagree with that.”
“Yeah, it was a pretty dumb thing to say. Anyway, Manny was upset that they didn’t bring him in to be a partner since he’d done a ton of legwork to get the beer into bars around the city and build up the company, so he quit and traveled a little before coming back to Seattle to take a job he hated.”
“I do understand that bit about having a job you hate.”
“Cheers to that.” We drank. “Then he met this guy named Roger, or wait, I think they were roommates. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. They weren’t happy where their lives were going so every night over beers Roger tried to convince Manny that they should start their own brewing company.”
“And they did. Happy ending.”
“Indeed. Hell, I should probably do something like that. They seem to be doing pretty well for themselves.”
“If you need a partner, let me know.”
When I got home that night, I stood outside and stared long at the stars telling myself to quit my job, that I should just write and play music and see what would come of it. I didn’t, of course. Quitting a job is a scary thing so I had to applaud Manny for his courage and his beer, and thus, as I looked up at the sky, I decided to drink his namesake pale ale whenever it was available on tap.
The bartender this afternoon is Katie. She’s worked here for about half a month, came over from a different bartending job. At one point, she was thinking about going to culinary school, was saving for it, but she gave that up in favor of just living. “I was tired of scrimping and saving all the time. Screw that. The paths we choose and the things we save up for should make us happy.” She was right, of course. Greg and I raised our glasses to her, “To being happy.” If only it were so easy. Joy comes in moments, but it’s a damned hard thing to sustain, something akin to playing the Beethoven sonatas. Few get there, and even fewer truly succeed.
Looking down at her napkin, Katie says, “I’m thinking about buying a car so I’m trying to calculate down payments and interest and how many payments things work out to, but it just isn’t happening. I remember spending hours in high school going through this kind of stuff and never getting it right even then.”
“Fuck that. Use a calculator or a computer,” Greg says. “You can do that stuff online, you know.”
“Yeah, I know, but I’m here.”
“It isn’t that hard on paper. It’s like paint by numbers. Just plug in the right values and you’re fine.”
“Easy for you to say. When’s the last time you ever used a formula for anything?” Funny that she asks, because I’ve lately been running over one on those late nights alone in my apartment when the guitar leans quietly in the corner, or not so quietly on my knee, and I wonder at the title of the song, “2 + 2 = 5.” Is it possible? What do things really add up to? No, that isn’t the question. It’s music. What does music add up to? A life, all the moments we spend alone trying to get something down, a few chords, a few notes, a melody, something magical, a song, a moment that transforms and changes things. It’s temporary, yes, but permanent too. It adds up to something more. 2 + 2 = 5. I won’t mention that now, though. I’ll drop that on them some other time.
“It is true,” I say, “that most people don’t do much beyond the basics of math. It’s all computers.”
“As I just said.”
“But there are practical, everyday uses, stuff besides car loans.”
“Such as?” she asks.
I think for a moment and then begin. “Well, let’s say there’s a party hosted by two people, and one of them made a punch that is 40 percent alcohol and the other made a punch that is 60 percent alcohol. And furthermore, let’s say they decide in their infinite wisdom that the optimal alcohol percentage in their punch should be 52 percent. Now, the question then becomes how many liters of each punch should be mixed to produce 20 liters of a 52 percent alcohol party punch?” They’re listening, but I sense it’s going over their heads, or maybe they just don’t care. “So then, let us assume that we need x liters of the 40 percent punch. The total volume is 20 liters. So if we mix x liters of 40 percent punch, we have to mix 20 – x liters of 60 percent punch to make the total 20 liters.” I grab the napkin from her and write as I continue to speak, “So the equation is 0.4x+0.6(20-x)=20*0.52. Easy, right?” I push the napkin toward Katie. She picks it up, smiles, gives a little laugh.
“The hell with mixing that shit. Just drink the 60 percent and call it good. Or better yet, stick with beer. No percentages or formulas to worry about.” I chug the remainder of my glass. Greg follows suit. “Another?” Katie grabs the glasses and steps over to the taps.
“Well, now,” I continue, “formulas may still help with the beer. If we say that said party will have 25 guests plus the two hosts and one dog, say a black lab named Sparkie with a fondness for beer, and we also surmise that 20 percent of party attendees will drink only punch, 50 percent only beer, and the remaining 30 percent a mixture, how much beer will we need to satisfy the thirst of the party goers given that on average each beer drinker will drink 5.2 beers, with the exception of the dog, of course, who will drink only 1.5?”
“You crack me up. The dog drinks one and a half beers? How’d you calculate that? Next thing, you’ll be making jokes about geometry.”
“Geometry? Well, now …” She leans in to listen. Greg rolls his eyes. “After our party, the hosts line up all the beer and vodka bottles in a triangle with two equal sides and one side with seven more bottles than the other two. Not even they know why they do this given all the punch and beer consumed throughout the evening, but there it is, late night drunken bottle arranging. I think we’ve all done that. So then, if they use 400 bottles, as there were not a few unexpected guests, how many bottles are on the longer side? The sober among us might not care, but such things do in fact take on great cosmic significance in the wee drunken hours.”
She grabs her coffee cup, clinks my beer glass with a laugh. “Cheers, but please tell me you’re not that guy drinking and arranging bottles in the middle of the night.”
“Me? Not at all. After the party, I’d be out at the bar hitting on a woman, trying to get a name and a number.”
“No you wouldn’t,” Greg says. “He’s heartbroken.”
“In a way. I lost someone last year, about eight months ago I guess, and she does still linger in my mind.”
“Ha, more like all the time.”
“No, I wouldn’t say that. It’s mostly when I’m alone and not doing anything. When you lose someone, you eventually get to a point where you’re ready for something new, but in the absence of it, the head and the heart will keep going back. The tricky point, though, is not to obsess.”
“Yeah.” She nods. “I’d agree with that.”
I don’t know if she’s just being nice or if she really does agree, but to me it sounds like a load of crap. Maybe I am bordering on obsession, or wallowing somewhere well past it. I tell myself daily that I’m not, but the true answer won’t reveal itself until I see her, until I run into lost love in some random location like a grocery store or some music club. Katie excuses herself to go clean the table of some customers who just left. Greg watches her for a couple seconds, then we sit there quietly looking into our pint glasses doing that thing all drinkers do. If we had bottles, we’d probably be peeling the labels off. I have old love on my mind, but that’s okay. I probably still will when I find someone new. If it were love, real love, I’ll still go back there sometimes, not to the actual but to the idea, and not because I haven’t found something new, but because that old love moved me, changed my life, made a permanent mark. That’s what love does, but there’s more to it, so when Katie comes back, I feel the need to explain myself.
“The thing is, it’s the same with music. I can put on a CD of an old band of mine and feel a pang, and it’s a kind of loss that tugs at me every bit as much as the loss of a woman, sometimes more to be honest. Maybe it’s just the loss of possibility, and no matter what comes after, we’re always left to wonder about the good times and to imagine what would have happened in our lives if things had worked out differently.”
“You played in bands?” she asks.
“Yeah, is that so surprising?”
“I don’t know. I’ve only seen you drink beer.”
“You got me there, but yes, I played in bands for years. I wish I still did, but now I just write about music.”
“No, he writes about himself.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was a musician for years.” That thought gives me pause. “… But I write stories and other things too, and so last year in the absence of a band or a girlfriend, I started writing about local shows.”
“Music is just so much a part of our lives, more so than any other art form. Hell, it’s even part of other art forms, but it’s more than that. There’s music playing almost everywhere you go, even Muzak, and I’ve always felt that music is a prop for us, a comfort. We sing to our babies. We sing at weddings and religious ceremonies, funerals. We sing when we’re cleaning or just walking down the street. There are commercial jingles and Christmas jingles and TV show intro music, mood music in movies, music to get you in the mood. Even if you go get a massage, they play that kind of soft Zen music mixed with sounds of nature. And it isn’t something like food. It isn’t a physical necessity. If we don’t eat, we’ll die. People can indeed live without music, but the life would be somewhat less fulfilling.”
“Perhaps it would,” Greg says, “but it’d still be life.”
“Yeah, I love music, but I’d wager that plenty of people do just fine without it.”
“What I mean,” I say, “is that, uh, a world without music is a world without sound. Nobody wants that.” I know that many deaf people lead fulfilling lives, happy lives, but it’s a foreign thing to me. How could I possibly imagine such a world? How could I exist in one without going mad? “I mean, nothing captures a moment quite like a song. Nothing. That’s why it’s so entrenched in our lives, in every culture in one form or another.”
“It is everywhere. I’ll give you that.” I appreciate Greg’s willingness to concede that point at least.
“And here too, of course,” I say, and we all pause to listen. The song playing over the bar’s sound system is “Cold Desert” by Kings of Leon. It’s a good tune, mellow groove, cool bass line, but the thing I never understood about this song is the fade out and fade in toward the end. It kills the momentum and the vibe, a cheap studio gimmick that interrupts the music to remind us that it’s a recording, that there’s an engineer turning knobs. It pulls the listener out just when the music should take hold and scream and envelope the head and the heart. I actually had to rip the song from CD and edit that pause out.
“I never liked these guys much,” Greg says.
“They have some good songs.” I decide not to elaborate about the pause since I want to continue on about music. “But anyway, I got to wondering about the desire to play music, to create it, and what that means, what it adds up to, and then I thought I’d write about it, the music of others that is, but not in the context of famous bands. It’s easy to keep doing music when you’re making millions, but I want to write about the local bands and music and the dreams people have while they age and still play for only forty or fifty or even a hundred people in a little hole in the wall selling only a few odd CDs along the way.”
“It’s decent stuff, but he writes about himself and his”—he makes quotes with his fingers—“lost possibility as much as the music.”
“I still don’t get it. What do you mean? You do or don’t write about the music?”
“I found that the only way I could do it was to insert myself into the story. Otherwise, it’d be torture. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t play critic. You could say I write about my experience seeing a band and how their songs affect me and my evening and my mood because we relate everything we do to our own lives. That’s the only context any of us ever has. What experience is there that exists outside your head? So that’s how I write about music.”
“There’s plenty,” Greg says, “going on outside your head.”
“Yeah, but when I see it, it goes though my filters and gets distorted in one way or another.”
“Interesting. Who do you write for? I’d like to read some.”
“Mostly a website called Seattle Subsonic.” I take the pen again and write the website address for her on a napkin.
“Thanks. You don’t play in bands anymore?”
“I do when I can, but my last band broke up about eight months ago.”
“Oh. The same time as …?”
“I sang in a cover band in my early college days,” Greg chimes in. It seems an effort to change the subject, or perhaps to impress, but that’s okay. I’m done talking for the moment. At the reminder of lost band and lost love, it feels more time to drink and listen to the sounds of the bar and the music. I’ve heard Greg sing a few times at a karaoke bar, and he’s pretty good, does a respectable job of Radiohead’s “Creep,” Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” Pink Floyd’s “Nobody Home.”
“I love singing. We should do karaoke sometime.” It makes me wonder what she sings. She has a slight roughness to her voice. I bet she’d do a good Janis Joplin, maybe something like “Move Over.”
They get to talking about their singing preferences, their karaoke preferences, and I zone out of the conversation for a moment. I think about the line near the end of “Nobody Home,” the one that needs force and conviction and volume. I know the feeling. Picking up the phone, looking at a picture, driving by an apartment. Nobody home. Borderline obsession, I suppose, but I was being honest when I said I’m ready for something new. The heart is a strong thing. It wants to heal itself. It wants new love. Who knows? It could be Katie here. Or maybe some random woman I meet at a bus stop. Or nobody. I look around the bar and notice it’s empty now. There are some glasses on a few tables, a book on another with a few crumpled napkins, but no people. It’s one of those moments where everything else falls away. We could be the only three humans on the planet, and the sun shines in the window as if to say it is so. Radiohead comes over the speakers: “Videotape.” Katie puts the napkin in her apron, and heads in back, perhaps to do some stocking up. Greg goes to the bathroom, and I just sit rooted in the slow, mournful pulse of the piano in a song about an old man dying and saying his goodbyes via videotape in reds and blues and greens. I sip my beer, the pulse goes on, steady but tense, seeming to drag a little at times like it might end at any moment, just like the old man’s heart. The voice of the song goes on to say that he shouldn’t be afraid, but I am. A few chords on a piano have made me so, made me afraid of many things, or rather so quickly reminded me of fears I already had, and though I know there’s no answer to anything in my glass, I drain it in one big gulp thinking that maybe one will be there in the refill. The song fades into the ringing silence of my tinnitus, and I grab a napkin and the pen Katie left on the bar and write one line, “This just isn’t working,” and then I stare at my glass until the world and its sounds come back. First, it’s Greg.
“Christ, I know that look.”
“We’re moving on to shots, tequila, Aha Toro.”
Katie smiles, looks around, and in the absence of more customers says, “I think I’ll do one too.”
And so we do a few shots, get a couple refills of beer. Greg and Katie talk, flirt, exchange phone numbers, and although the shots and beers do their thing, although I do get a little drunk, although we do laugh some, I have only one thought in my head, the written thought. It’s under my beer now since I don’t want them to see it, and it sticks to the bottom of my glass when I drink so it’s safe, safe but there, repeating, drowning me more than the booze.
This just isn’t working.
The Prologue was already published on Northwest Music Scene: The Music Book – Prologue
Chapter 2 has already been released online over at the Monarch Review: The Music Book Chapter 2