Down Payment Blues

byCactus Jack 01©

Five minutes later I was in the Bowery, standing on the corner of Delancy Street with the faded majesty of The Ballroom before me. Flurry's of snow washed through the twin spotlights that were lighting the exterior with its grand pillars and overhanging sandstone cornices, and in the middle of the facing wall was a backlit billboard that advertised, for one night only, direct from the Motor City and sold out, The White Stripes. There was a large crowd forming into rough lines alongside the front of the Ballroom, and two sets of double doors had just opened to let the fans inside. Several heavy-looking guys in identical black jackets checked tickets and kept order, and as I made my way closer I spotted a couple of touts subtly walking the lines offering tickets. No one seemed to be taking them up on the offer. A hotdog vendor was doing brisk business on the sidewalk, and the smell of mustard and fried onion was strong.

Meg had told me to make my way around the back of the building to the stage door and give my name, and as I left the lights and noise of the ticketholders at the front and walked quickly down a stinking side-alley, it occurred to me for the first time that I was probably about to make a huge fool of myself. I'd never been on anyone's guest list, let alone a blues queen, and why shouldn't Meg White have forgotten me five minutes after her cab had pulled away from me this afternoon? I hesitated, and almost turned back, but then before I knew it I was standing at the bottom of a small rise of concrete steps. The door at the top of the stairs was open, and another of the black-jacketed boys was leaning against the frame cupping a cigarette in one hand and talking to someone I couldn't see inside. I coughed, and he looked down at me.

'You ain't getting in son. Go back to the front.' He took a deep hit on the smoke and the fireglow lit his features in dim orange.

'I'm on the guest list,' I said, my voice sounding surprisingly firm.

'That's what everyone says. Beat it.'

'My name's Jimmy Dixon, I was invited by Miss White.'

He glared at me for a second and then reached inside the doorway and produced a clipboard, and I watched his eyes scan down it, and then return to me. His expression had now changed, and he moved away from standing guard at the stairs. 'I'm sorry Mr. Dixon, I'd didn't recognize you.' He beckoned me forth with a wave of the clipboard. 'Please.'

Holy Christ. I was actually on the guest list. 'Don't worry. No one ever does,' I replied with a grin that I was unable to keep off my face as I climbed the slippery stairs and walked through the shadowed entrance of the doorway. Another, equally large man was leaning against an interior wall, only a shaggy goatee eliminating him from being a clone of the first guy. He nodded to me.

'Backstage area is just down the way, Mr. Dixon,' came the voice from behind me, and I muttered my thanks as I walked with some trepidation towards light and voices and the sound of music. The heavy sound of the door closing echoed dully behind me, and it was then that I realized I was in The Bowery, exactly as I'd been told I would be.

The corridor opened out into a fairly large room that was brightly lit and filled with maybe 30 people. A couple of trestle tables had been set up on the rear wall and were loaded with sandwiches and cold cuts, potato salad and greens, and at one end were bottles of liquor and beer. It was to this end that people seemed mostly interested, as I noted that nearly everyone had a beer or glass in their hands. Some stood, other lounged on the worn sofas that randomly adorned the floorspace. The air was heavy with incense that burned in holders, and a light film of smoke circled the ceiling, dust motes floating in the lights. To my left I smelt the unmistakable sweetness of hash.

Now I was here I felt awkward and out of place, and I wandered if I could just find my way to the main auditorium and wait for the show to begin. But then as I stood there for a minute and watched the room, it dawned on me that I was no different from any of these people. Near the drinks table were two guys who were unmistakably journalists, juggling tape recorders and notes while they loaded up on anything that was free. The source of the dope was a guy around my age wearing a dark suit and shades who wouldn't have looked out of place in Warhol's Factory circa 1967. When he saw me glance at him he offered me the joint, which I politely refused. I threaded my way towards the beer, past a sofa that held a beautiful young woman who I vaguely recognized as an actress. She leant back against a handsome, Spanish looking guy who grinned up at me as I passed. Either he was genuinely friendly, high, or just unable to believe his luck that such a beauty was with him. I'd have gone for the last option. As I grabbed a bottle of Miller I changed my opinion. Yes, I was different from these people, but tonight it didn't matter. Everybody was different; I was who I was.

I drank deeply from the bottle and let the beer coat my anxiety, and I relaxed. There was a jukebox at the far end of the room and I went to it, saying my hello's to a couple of strangers as I moved. The juke was playing Cream's White Room, and I beat the rhythm against the glass while I checked out what else was available. The machine was on freeplay and a list of tunes was already lined up, but I added some Dylan and Television's beautiful Call Mr Lee to the mix. I looked for a third song, but before I could choose there was a nudge on my arm, and I looked round straight into the face of Meg White.

'Hey. I'm glad you could come,' she said, her voice still as soft as it had been earlier that afternoon out on the street. Her face glowed yellow and red from the light of the juke, and her midnight hair was now parted down the middle and tied into bunches either side of her ears. A white sweater clung to her torso and flowed over her full breasts, and blood-red trousers were slung low on her hips. When I didn't answer she leaned her face up to mine and kissed me on the cheek. Her lips were warm and she smelled of a light scent. 'Have you met everyone?'

I shook my head. 'I've only been here a few minutes.'

'Have you got warmer since before?'

I lifted the bottle. 'This is helping. Thankyou for inviting me here tonight, Meg.'

She smiled. 'C'mon, I'd better do the proper thing, and mingle. You can give me some backup.' She took me by the arm and we started to walk the room, and I was once more amazed with the situation that I found myself in. I kept fairly quiet while Meg exchanged a few words with the journalists, one of whom was from Rolling Stone, a magazine that I had been reading and dreaming about being in my whole life. The Warhol clone turned out to be the band's road manager, who spent a stressful looking few minutes assuring Meg that the sound levels in the ballroom had been tested and were fine. There were other members of the road crew, an ill-looking female artist who lived in Greenwich whose work Meg loved, and several others who I didn't know and whose purpose there I never discovered. I discovered that the actress lived in Manhattan and knew Jack from when they had appeared in a film together, Cold Mountain, which I'd never even heard of. As we walked away from her dazzling smile and grinning boyfriend I made a mental note to take more interest in modern media and spend less time lost in blues music. Hearing the actress talk about Jack stirred my own curiosity, and I asked after him.

'He's not really into all this kind of thing,' said Meg, spilling a small measure of vodka into a shot glass. 'Neither am I, really, but I think this time was my turn to be sociable.' She took a delicate drink. 'He'll be in the dressing room, probably tuning up and getting his head together. You want to meet him.'

I nodded. 'Very much, but I don't want to disturb him.'

'I'm sure we won't. And we can get out of here as well.'

Meg once more took my hand and led me through the room, and I noticed a couple of people look at us as we left, and I wandered if they'd considered who I was or formed an opinion of me. The few times I'd been introduced Meg had just said that I was a musician, but that title bridged a wide valley of description. It still didn't explain who I was, and as we left the backstage area together, it occurred to me that the two of us looked very together. It was a feeling I could live with.

We passed a closed green door, and then came to another that was slightly ajar. Meg tapped her knuckles gently and then pushed her head through the gap, and there was a slight pause and the murmur of voices and then the door swung open. The interior was small, lit with soft light, and a table in one corner held some bottles and an overflowing ashtray. Sitting on a hard backed chair, a beaten-up acoustic guitar across his lap and a glass between his feet, was Jack White. He looked up from the strings, and the hat he was wearing cast shadow across his pale features. 'Hey man.'

'This is the guy I told you about, from this afternoon,' said Meg, and her small hand pushed against the base of my spine to encourage me into the room. For the first time I noticed how close she stood near me; close enough so that her left breast was pushing into my arm.

Jack raised his eyebrows. 'Yeah, that's right, the bluesman. C'mon in and have a drink with me.' His voice was heavy with his hometown accent and slightly slurred, as if the glass he was now draining wasn't his first. I took several steps towards him and held out my hand, which he shook firmly. There was a click behind me and I turned to see the door had closed but that Meg hadn't joined us in the dressing room. I shrugged and turned my attention back to Jack and introduced myself, tried not to sound nervous. Jack offered me a drink and I accepted, watched him pour two fingers of Scotch into a glass and hand it to me. I drank, felt fire scorch my throat, and instantly felt better.

'Hope I'm not bothering you, Mr White,' I said, and instantly felt a fool for addressing him as if he was one of my old teachers from High School. 'I don't even really know why I'm here.'

'I guess you must have caught Meggie's eye,' he replied. 'She said you really made your baby cry this afternoon.' He paused. 'And it's Jack, all right? Have a seat.'

There was another of the stiff chairs near the table and I pulled it forward and sat, my scotch clasped between both hands. Jack started to talk about the gig he was about to perform, and gradually I started to talk back, to actually enjoy the fact that I was in a small room with a rock star. Outside the door I could hear people moving back and forth and muted voices, and beyond that the deep bass throb of a manic New York City crowd desperate to see a band that had regularly been voted the best live act on planet in the last two years. To be in the crowd would have been enough, yet here I sat in the bowels of the Bowery with Jack White himself, me a regular kid from The Hook and he dressed in trademark black, red and white looking every inch the legend he was already well on the way to becoming.

For the next few minutes we talked the Blues, of Robert Johnson and Howling Wolf, of Son House and Blind Boy Fuller, trading song titles and stories while all the time Jack tuned his guitar and tossed out licks from the steel strings. He drank steadily, and I wondered how much he'd consumed. He speech was no more slurred than when I'd entered and his hands were steady, and it was only when he pushed the hat back on his forehead and leant towards me that I saw the mist across his dark eyes.

'Do you believe?' He asked in a low voice, his stare locking with my own.

I shook my head. 'Believe what?'

'You know what a Terraplane is?'

'I think so. Isn't that what the chaingangs in the South used to call their demons?'

He nodded and smiled, but it was an expression devoid of humour. 'Basically. Demons, or the Devil. A destructive spirit that never left them. El Diablo.'

I frowned. 'Are you asking me if I believe in that?'

'I'm asking if you believe a Terraplane is on your trail?'

'No, of course not.'

He pointed his index finger at me, and I saw that the nail was painted black. 'But you are a bluesman.' He continued to look at me in that same, leveled way.

'Sure, but I don't believe the Devil is chasing me. Do you?'

He emptied the glass once more and reached again for the malt. 'Sure I do. And so do you.'

Suddenly the mood in the room had grown serious, and it seemed to me as if all the previous background noise that had accompanied us had disappeared. Now there was just me and Jack, booze and dark thoughts. Did I have a Demon? My life wasn't complicated. I scratched out a meagre living in bars and on the street, singing songs written long ago by men haunted with the memories of lost love and downbeat times. I played guitar for the memory of a Father who was long dead and my Mother who wouldn't be far behind. My existence stood for nothing in this world, and my dreams were far from becoming realized. I was running away from everything, from responsibility and most of all from myself. I looked back up into Jack's eyes and shivered.

'We're from very different Worlds, Jack,' I said, and trembled again. In those eyes I saw myself for the briefest of moments, and I knew that what I'd just said wasn't entirely true.

'Are we? We both yearn for something that we can't have.'

I swallowed hard. 'And what's that?'

'Absolution.'

The word hung in the air alongside the smoke and smell of liquor, and I knew it was true. If not having all the answers, if not realizing the hopes of which I'd set out for myself, if not having love meant that my spirit was destructive, then Jack was right. I did have a Terraplane, and it was chasing me hard. But I had a question of my own.

'What do you wish for?' I asked quietly.

Jack leant toward me and opened his mouth, but the answer never came. The door to the dressing room opened, making me jump, and I span around on the chair. Meg stood in the doorway, looking as beautiful as before, a wry smile playing across her small mouth. 'You okay?' She asked, and I wasn't sure who she was directing the question to.

I nodded and looked back at Jack, who was regarding her with an expression I couldn't read. He blinked twice in rapid succession and as he did so the swirling darkness that I'd seen before disappeared from his eyes. 'How long we got?'

'A little time,' Meg answered, and then looked at me. 'Do you want to see the stage?'

Jack leant forward and shook my hand once more. 'Go on, let her take care of you,' he murmured, and he stood, rested his guitar down on the chair and reached for a packet of Camels on the table.

'It was good to meet you,' I said, and then took a step closer towards him, lowered my voice while he pulled deeply on the cigarette and let smoke drift through his nostrils. 'Are you alright?'

He contemplated me, then cocked his head to one side and smiled, this time with real humour. 'Yeah, I'm just fuckin' with you, man. Listen, I hope you enjoy the gig, okay?' Whatever he'd been about to say to me before was long gone, as was the glimmer of despair that I believed I'd seen. I wished him well and went to follow Meg out into the corridor, but before I closed the door behind me I took a final look inside. His back was to me, black hair brushing the collar of his immaculate red shirt, his black suit as pressed and clean as day-old cotton. His head was down, chin almost touching his chest, and he mumbled words that I couldn't hear but which might have been a prayer. But as I saw his shaking fingers reach once more for the bottle, I couldn't help but think that they may have been a curse.

I followed Meg as she walked down the corridor, her hands by her sides framing a behind that was locked tightly into her red trousers. The muted sounds of the audience became stronger, and as we approached the foot of some steps I moved next to her. The staircase was narrow and dark, and at the top was a heavy black curtain which she pulled aside and held so that I could duck through.

'Is Jack okay?' I said, as we picked our way over a nest of snaking cables. The crowd noise was getting clearer and louder all the time, and my heart was beating quickly.

'He's always quiet before a show,' she said. 'I think he just reserves energy.'

I was going to say more about what had happened in the dressing room but before I could we were approached by the road manager who I had seen with the joint earlier. He told Meg that the stage was clear and everything was in order, that they were just waiting on her and Jack's cue, and she thanked him before he leaped down the staircase. She took my hand once more and led me around a series of huge black flightcases, and we emerged on the stage of The Bowery Ballroom. The audience was now right on top of us, and if the large, heavy stage curtain hadn't been lowered then I'd probably have been able to see the white of the front row's eyes. One thing was for certain; if fans had known Meg White was standing only a stones throw from them the roof would have come of the place.

I'd seen this from the opposite angle many times, but now I actually stood on the lacquered wood I was struck with just how small the stage actually was, perhaps no more than thirty feet across. But the size was perfect for the duo attack that was The White Stripes. A set of rugs laid across the stage seemed to make their set-up more intimate. A dual set of vintage Marshalls provided a backwall for Jack's frenzied blues, and a trio of guitars were propped up on stands before them, including his trademark Mosrite. To the left was a small piano keyboard, and to the right was Meg's drumkit, angled at forty-five degrees between the Jack and the audience. It was a simple arrangement, but simplicity was the heart of rock 'n' roll, and it worked brilliantly.

Meg pulled me towards the drums. 'This is where I work,' she said, and I had to smile at the way she said it as if she was a waitress showing me her restaurant. The kit was nothing more than Bass drum, two toms and a couple of cymbals, but I knew that given a set of sticks Meg could make them sound like a twenty-one gun salute. My smile stayed when I spotted her drum stool. The seat was striped in red and white fur, and along the edge ran her name in a flowery script. I turned to comment on it, and when I did she was close to me, so much so that my chest was almost touching her own. Her face was angled up to mine, her mouth slightly parted, lips damp and shining in the house lights. She placed her pale hands upon my biceps and pushed me gently, and I took a step backwards and found myself sitting on the soft, pliable fur of the stool. Now I was looking up at her instead. Her right hand went to my ear and pushed a lock of my hair.

'What are you doing, Meg?' I breathed, noting how dry my mouth had gone. The sounds from behind the stage curtain were ringing loudly in my ears. Meg wrapped both arms around my neck and pulled herself forward and down onto my lap, her legs straddling over my thighs.

'This is what I want to do before I play,' she said softly, and then leaned her face into my neck and grazed my skin lightly with her lips. I shivered as she hit one of my most sensitive areas, and for the first time I touched her, my hands clasping her thin waist. Her mouth rose to my ear and when she moved her heavy breasts fell against my chest.

'I want to fuck, Jimmy. I feel so horny tonight.'

Her hips moved against me as she kissed my earlobe, and her hair fell against my face while my hands grasped her more tightly. The smell of her skin was all around me as she moved her lips to mine and we kissed, and I closed my eyes as her tongue slipped into my mouth. Her knees gripped against my torso as our kiss intensified to the point where we were almost grinding our lips together, unable to get any closer and yet somehow needing to. Only when I felt Meg's fingers at the buttons of my shirt did I stop and pull away, my breath coming fast.

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