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.
There was an A chord and then silence.
And then applause.
I looked up from the stage at the sixty or so people in the South Heidelberg, a little underground place in the neighborhood of Ohio State University. It was dungeon-like down there. The walls were mostly uneven white stone dirtied with the grime and haze and graffiti of being a campus-area bar for forty years or more. The few lights were dim, even by dive bar standards, the ceilings low, the pool table never functional. The stage was actually a step down from the audience, which could make one feel small on crowded nights. It wasn’t the most popular music club in town, not by a long shot, but we gigged there often because they let us play from ten until two with no opening band, no quickie forty-five minute sets, no triple bills. The nights were all ours, and we’d let passages and solos and rhythms go and see where they wound up. Time and space were filled with music. I grabbed one of the two Rolling Rocks on my amp, took a swig, let out a sigh, felt the nerves ratchet up like they always did between songs. There was a shout from the crowd.
The next song was a cover, Pink Floyd’s “Pigs (Three Different Ones).” It had a little bass intro over some chords on the keyboard so there would be no guitars or drums for fifteen or twenty seconds. That meant the focus would be on me, and that was a scary thought. I was a musician, but I’d never been comfortable in the spotlight for it brought a kind of nakedness, a fear of being seen, of making a mistake, so I looked down at my Fender Jazz bass. It had a wood grain finish, black pickups, black inlays on the neck. My left arm tightened up a little, and I had the thought, Shit. I’m going to fuck it up.
When the place was absolutely quiet, Stephanie started the song. I looked over as she eased into the keyboard, repeated chords, brought the volume up. I was mesmerized. I wanted to be out there in the audience. I wanted just to listen to her roll along those keys. Right in front of the stage there was a woman with black curly hair. She had her head tilted back and her eyes half open like she was trying to read the notes on the ceiling. She was swaying, and I just watched her for a few measures before remembering I had a responsibility. I knew the keyboard intro couldn’t go on forever, that the bass was supposed to come in high up on the neck. I steadied myself, readied my fingers, played a few notes, the wrong few notes. I felt a sense of panic as I suddenly didn’t know what key I was in or even which one I was supposed to be in. I swayed a little, took a step forward and probably looked drunk. My mind went blank, my face red, but I tried again, played the wrong few notes again. The neck of the instrument suddenly didn’t make any sense to me. It was just a piece of wood with some metal strips on top, a few dots on the side, four pieces of wire running the length of it. It was a bass guitar, but really, what was this thing in my hands, and what the hell was I supposed to do with it? The keys continued, but all eyes in the audience were on me, wondering what I was doing, waiting for something to happen. I knew how to play, really, but in the moment it seemed I’d forgotten. I swayed a little more and took two steps forward, nearly falling down.
Stephanie’s boyfriend, Deon, was working the door, and he just stared in disbelief at my little dance, figured I was drunk and might pass out, that the show would be over right then and there with no Pink Floyd cover to end it all in grand fashion but rather with a headline in the Columbus Dispatch the following morning: “Bass Player Passes Out, Bumps Head, Show Ends, Future of Band Uncertain.” I steadied myself and looked over at Stephanie. She was still playing those chords, grooving in her own way to the music she was making, head down, brown straight hair hanging over a white shirt. She seemed unconcerned with my two fuckups. She had confidence in the music, that I would get it right because I always had before.
I stepped over to my amp and turned the volume up just the slightest bit. The crowd was still hushed, and then finally Stephanie’s chords enveloped me, soothed me, did their thing, said to me in their own strange language, “It’s all right.” The redness left my face, and I took a swig of beer and felt like I was drinking the music. Maybe John Lennon was wrong, I thought, maybe this is all you need. I smiled. Music. Maybe the intro could go on forever, and we could all groove and listen with our eyes half-closed and let the chords take us places.
A few more measures went by, and with my eyes on Stephanie rather than my bass, I tried it again, and this time, I nailed it, played a few high notes, added a little vibrato, sustained one for half a measure, and then descended down to an E on the seventh fret of the A string as the guitars came in, Kevin chunking a low E on his SG, Matt letting his Les Paul ring out a little higher, and the cymbals crashed and everything descended to a B a couple times around and then the singing about those different kinds of pigs. There were cheers, cheers that meant there would be no headlines in the morning, just another small band playing in a small bar. We were jamming, rocking, moving bodies and souls, but it was only for sixty people. Maybe I should have passed out, taken a tumble for the band, a cut above the right eye, a bloody nose. Maybe the world would have taken notice.
We finished the song to much applause and more shouts, “Third Stone … Third Stone!” Deon came up to me. “That rocked, man. Glad you didn’t pass out.” What could I say to him about what really happened? Instead I just smiled, “Thanks,” and there were post-gig beers and after-hours shots and handshakes and hugs. No one in the audience mentioned those awful notes or my awkward steps, but of course the band would tease me for years to come. Even long after we broke up, there were references to it. “Man, I thought you were going to do a face plant right there, or maybe that you’d do another twist and fall into my drums,” Frank would laugh when we met for beers or the odd solo recording project. It seemed everyone just thought I was drunk that night, so I let them, and though I should have, I never told the guys in the band the truth, never told them that I was often filled with doubt, that I sometimes wondered if I was somehow not qualified to step on a stage. It happened during every show, those moments when something unwanted crept in, a kind of uncertainty, a hesitation that meant a few wrong notes from time to time, or a few panic moments when I suddenly felt flushed and nearly fingered the wrong note or hit the chord change a little off time. And it wasn’t because I couldn’t play, but just because I worried about it, so in the middle of a song, in the middle of a measure, the question would come, “What’s the next chord? E? A? Shit!” I feared it. Stepping on stage was a scary thing, so I froze sometimes, and swayed and lurched forward and had to hold the bass steady and ask, “Why do I put myself through this?”
But over the years, I always thought that, fuckups or not, at least I wasn’t a critic. That seemed the worst of all things, worse than any embarrassment a few bad notes might bring. The Critic. I had my fears, but it was not for me to be stuck only commenting on the creative endeavors of others, to wait and wait while artists and musicians did their bits, good or bad, in confidence or in fear, to change the world, and then only to react, never to put forth one’s own voice in the effort to create something new.
That gig was in 1995 when I was finishing a degree in English literature. It was an easy major. I read books and wrote a few short stories, a few essays, had enough extra hours after classes to pursue music. I wanted to get my own thing down in my own voice with a pen or a bass or a guitar, and even though I was in Columbus, Ohio, it was one of the greatest times of my life, even when the music was off by a few notes because that woman who was grooving and looking at the ceiling hung around after the show, walked up to me with a couple shots in hand even though the bar was closed. The Southberg was like that, another reason we played there often. She handed me a shot of cheap tequila. “That was cool. I’ve never seen anyone play that song before.” It struck me then that she hadn’t realized I’d fucked up, that maybe it was something known only to the musicians in the audience. “Thanks. Cheers.” We did the shots, and I knew already that she would go home with me. It was the music, “Roadhouse Blues” or maybe “White Rabbit” or our Pink Floyd closer, or the grooves and the lengthy improvised jams of our original songs working their way though her body. If she’d simply seen me at some random bar, she would not have done that, the grooving and gazing, the shots and the sex. She was moved before we ever said so much as hello. It was the rhythms, the riffs, the art of it all, and all of it in the moment, for live was the thing since it brought the possibility of all else.
The following morning at my place I woke to find her leafing through some of my journals and stories. She was flipping pages, pausing to read a few sentences, then flipping some more. “Sorry. I just saw these here and was only glancing through. You didn’t tell me you’re a writer too.”
“Yeah, I am,” but it wasn’t really true. I didn’t want to call myself a writer until I’d published something, and I somehow knew that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. I did consider myself an artist though, and there was, of course, a certain amount of ego that went into that, even with all my panic in some moments, so let’s say I was the doubtful artist, fearful but plagued with a belief in the self, a belief that one’s own voice, one’s own perspective, is important, is valid, is able to change the mindset of others, to encourage reactions and beliefs and feelings that will be remembered or that will help us forget, that will lift, destroy, resurrect, even damn.
“I’d like to read one of these some time,” she said. “What do you write about?”
She smiled. “Interesting.” She put the journal down, and neither of us said anything more about it. Instead, we went out to McDonald’s for breakfast and talked of other things. Afterward, in front of the trashcans, I asked for her phone number. We’d both just thrown our wrappers away, and she was wiping ketchup from her hand—she was a ketchup-with-scrambled-eggs kind of person—“Can I have your phone number?” I’d thought she was expecting the question, maybe hoping for it, but she said, “I’ll call you. What’s yours?” So I gave her mine. She memorized it and promised to call that night, and we hugged before going our separate ways. At home, I played guitar all day while waiting for the phone to ring. I’d play a song and pause, play a song, pause, play a song. The phone never rang. I never heard from her again. I kept on playing guitar and pausing, but she didn’t come to any future Third Stone shows. She didn’t knock on my door at 1:00 a.m. with a six-pack and a smile. Nothing. And it was like it had always been. Music filled up the space in my life.
It still does.
And these days, there are the moments like this one where I pause at three in the morning to pick up my blue Fender Stratocaster and pluck the entirety of Radiohead’s “2 + 2 = 5,” and the song, the notes, my fingers on the strings and the pick in my hand stir up the matter in my life. There’s recording too, and listening, and yes, writing about music, capturing the feeling when the sound has diminished, trying to remember the meaning of the moment. There is also tinnitus, which means my ears ring all the time. I’m not sure when it started, can’t remember if it was gradual or if it was just there one day. Maybe I’m just use to it. It makes me afraid though, never having complete quiet, and so the great worry is that the ringing will increase and increase until it ceases, until I go deaf, because that will mean not being able to hear a D chord cranked to eleven. I’d still be able to feel the vibrations, but I’d have to imagine the sound, recall some past chord from memory, never knowing for sure if I have the right one, if whatever is in my head isn’t a D at all but maybe a G or an A. I have my doubts even now when I can still hear, and so I question, sometimes, my ability to play, to make music. Maybe when I place my fingers just so on the neck and strum, it is a D, but not a D as big and bold and awesome as it could be. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe all the Ds in the world are different, mine somehow less. And so I worry, and I wonder, and I lie awake at night counting down the days and hours until the volume is cut. I shouldn’t because I know the sound, I feel it in my bones as they say, but I fear the loss that would mean 0db, and I fear it in the same way I fear waking up alone, or the same way I fear that I might eventually die that way, alone, maybe a quiet heart attack in my sleep after a night of beers and notes and song titles that defy logic, for the loss of hearing is a kind of death, a shutting out of the world, and that’s why I see so many bands now. I’m stocking up, preparing for the possible silent emergency, anticipating the memory of sound, trying to fill the empty space.