Hallelujah Ch. 04bySirThopas©
Part Two: The Major Lift
The phone quits on the fourth ring.
Whoever's been trying so hard to get ahold of me these last two weeks (and I'm pretty sure that it is the repeated attempts of just one person) has long since ascertained just when the machine is going to pick up. Since they aren't inclined to leave messages, at least not with me, they've begun circumventing the device. Instead they simply hang up one ring early, pause, and dial again.
So as the last high-pitched tone drops out, making the apartment seem emptily quiet with its absence, I start counting down from ten. Sure enough, before I hit three, it's ringing again. He'll try three more times before giving up to try again later. Yeah, he. I'm putting my money on the idea that the caller is a man by the name of Eric Greenwood. He's not calling because he's a huge fan of my work, believe me. You would think pounding the living shit out of me would be considered a sufficient communication of his feelings towards me, but the twin phone calls that I stupidly answered a few weeks back assured me that he still has a little bile left in him.
He's lucky he's not in jail. Shit.
I roll over to check the alarm clock, knowing full well from the amount of sunlight battling its way past the flimsy defensive line of my curtains and spilling into the room that I should have been out of bed hours ago. Sigh. I throw the covers off and roll over into a sitting position on the side of the bed. I wince as my right side slides over the mattress, but it's just habit. After six weeks, my ribs are pretty much healed. Two cracks, no breaks, not even enough damage to get the doctor to prescribe anything stronger than your run-of-the-mill ibuprofen. Here I thought I was dying or something.
The phone cuts out on the fourth ring again, then starts over. The fucker is getting more and more persistent. I wonder how long it'll be before he shows up at my door. I stumble to the bathroom and piss in the sink, looking at myself in the mirror as I do so. My face still sort of looks like my face. The only change is the beard I've been farming, initially because I was too much of a pussy to run the razor over my bruised and cut right cheek but now simply because I like the way it looks. The longer it gets, the less I'm me.
A hot shower, some clothes, and a bowl of cereal later, I notice the phone isn't ringing. I couldn't tell you when it stopped. The sound of it is becoming such a part of my life that I don't always even really hear it. Huh.
Take that, Eric Greenwood. I don't even fucking hear you.
I step outside onto the shared patio, and there waiting for me is Buck Nelson. He looks up at me as I come out, then turns back to staring at the parking lot. He's already drinking.
Look, I feel terrible how it turned out for the guy, but you've got to know he's my hero. If he hadn't swooped in like some sort of avenging vino angel, I probably would have ended up in far worse condition than I did. He really may have saved my life, who knows. So while I'm packed full of guilt for how it all played out, I can't say I would take his game-changing sudden appearance back for anything. I can't afford to.
Buck spent two nights in jail for his part in our little party, which he claims was not a big deal. He hasn't told me much about it, but what he has said makes it sound like it was just boring. What was a big deal to him...to all of us...was that we ended up getting plastered all over the local news channels. Apparently, Nashville didn't have enough going on that week to keep a love-triangle parking lot brawl with two hospitalized combatants off the telly. Things got a little chilly around the office for Buck after that. Two weeks later, his position was downsized. Blame it on the economy, they said. Right.
My manager, on the other hand, was nothing but excited. I guess, unlike Buck's coworkers, he didn't know me well enough to be disappointed. Or it could just be his disposition. He made me retell the story almost every day for a week when I came back to work. And I can't emphasize this enough: he looooved it. The fat man's eyes lit up like Christmas every time. Once, he even punched the air menacingly several times as I talked. In front of a customer. Who was there with her toddler. And who immediately left the store.
Yeah, I know.
But the guy loves pro wrestling, too, so what can you do? Mostly, he's a good guy. And, when he heard that the hero of my story was now unemployed, he offered him a job post haste.
Yeah, it's a pretty big drop in pay, but Buck doesn't seem to mind most of the time. He can still afford his apartment, his car, food and all that. He just can't buy grapes anymore.
That's right. I have single-handedly taken Buck Nelson out of the wine making game.
Oh, he could afford the kits like I'm using, or the concentrated juice. But buying grapes by the crateful from California? Not anymore. His friend the dentist can't make up the difference either...it'd put him in too much trouble with the wife. So the batches they're currently aging are likely to be the end of their journey. Just like I lost the music, Buck is losing the bottle.
And the way we're working through the remnants his collection, he's going to have to find a plan B pretty quick.
I run in and grab a red plastic cup, and he pours me a glass without speaking. I sit down, and we stare at nothing for a while. It's been...awkward...lately. There's a sort of male bonding thing of having gone through this together, but we've both lost some of the skip in our respective steps.
I'm trying to think of something lighthearted to say, but coming up painfully short, when a voice calls to us from the parking lot.
"Hey! Are either of you Jacob Wright?" I look down at the figure, squinting in the hot daylight. The voice is familiar, and not in an 'oh, shit' sort of way. It belongs to a fairly heavyset man who looks to be in his late twenties.
Buck turns to me, face stone-cold serious, and says, "If you're fucking his girl, too, please leave me out of it."
I return the stoney look, and he cracks a smile.
"Well?" calls the man.
And then it hits me. "Paul?" I call back. "Paul Spears?"
I can see him smile, as he starts making his way up the steps towards us. "You're a hard man to reach, Jake," he says. "They finally had to send me out like a fucking errand boy to find you."
I shake my head. "They never respect the drummers."
By now he's at the top of the steps. He turns to Buck. "Hi," he says. "I'm Paul."
"Paul is the drummer for the group that got my ass fired," I explain. Buck's uncertainty melts into amusement.
"Well, hell," he says, shaking Paul's hand. "It couldn't have happened to a better guy."
"Yeah," Paul says, "I don't watch the news, but sometimes the better stories get round to me anyway." He and Buck share a grin, but I'm not amused.
"So what brings you around?" I ask.
"Are you kidding? We've been on the road, but our manager has been trying to call you for weeks now. He wanted to give up, but Teddy wouldn't have none of it. Finally, we had a few weeks in town and we drew straws on who would go and see if you hadn't killed yerself or what."
"Still living and breathing. What's up."
He raises an eyebrow. "You really don't know, do you?"
"I would have thought you would at least..." he trails off. Buck and I share a look.
"Nothing's wrong. We're on the radio! As Long as I'm Here is getting played!"
I blink. "Shut up."
"Yeah! I mean, not a lot or anything. I don't really know much about that stuff. But it's getting played here and there, which is a lot more than we've ever had before. And it's selling, too...online, mostly. Long story short, Teddy wants you to produce his next record. If you're willing."
I don't know what to say to all of this, so I take a sip of my wine. After everything, it seems a little too good to be true.
After evaluating the circumstances and collecting my thoughts, I smile up at the big man. "I don't believe you," I tell him.
So Buck gets his laptop and we go online. Sure enough, As Long as I'm Here is number seventeen on the Triple A charts. Triple A is a relatively small format. It has nothing to do with the people who help you out when your car dies; it stands for Adult Alternative...something or other. I forget. Mostly, it serves as a home to acts that are too adult to be rock and too artsy or have too much vitality to fit on adult radio. It also tends to have a spattering of the more universal hits from both those other two formats. And, like I said, it's a pretty small part of the pie. Being number seventeen means that our song is getting on the order of about 250 plays a week, total. Not a lot, especially considering that a nationwide number one hit single might receive in excess of 20,000 plays in a single week, but it means we're on the map.
This gets me thinking. I've watched these things happen from the outside often enough to know what happens when an eccentric underground artist has a minor pop breakthrough. It's usually music geek utopia.
"Google Teddy Fields for me," I tell Buck. Sure enough, our little search reveals that a lot of the internet's critical hot spots are falling over themselves to praise the song. Pitchfork is swooning, All Music Guide calls it a masterpiece on an otherwise forgettable soundtrack album. NPR and Rolling Stone talk it up. Jesus Christ.
My mouth is dry. "So is the soundtrack out? Commercially?"
"Yeah. We were actually something of a last-minute addition, so it was mostly ready by the time our song was requested. Lucky us, though, eh?"
"Do you know how well it's selling?" I ask.
"I guess physical copies, almost nothing. The soundtrack isn't selling hardly at all. But a guy from the label told us that we had six thousand purchased downloads on iTunes just last week. I don't know any more than that."
I look up at him. Six thousand in a week. Radio adds at Triple A radio. Mass critical drum beating. I wonder if Paul Spears realizes that his song is almost certainly going to top seventy thousand in sales, and could potentially double that if the movie it was recorded for is successful, too.
"Well?" he asks. "Come on, Jake. Help us make a record! I know you've got to be looking for a way back in, and how much better could it be than this?"
"Help you make a record?"
"It's you or it's nobody." He sounds dead serious, and that's sweet of him. I don't buy for a minute that this band would risk losing their one big break for me, but I appreciate the sentiment.
How much better could it be than this? That's a good question, Paul.
Still, I bite my tongue for a minute. Produce a record. Follow-up a successful single. Step up to the big plate. In almost every way, this is exactly the forward career momentum that I've been lacking. But I guess I've spent the last few months sitting on the edge of the decision to give this dream up. I was just getting to where I could accept that. Now we're talking about recommitting to it in a big way. It's big, too. Like giving someone you love a second chance after they purposefully threw you away. Painful, scary stuff.
Am I going to do it? Oh, fuck yes.
But I keep seeing that number seventeen at Triple A, and I can't help but think that I've got a little bargaining power here. If I'm going to do this, what do I want to ask for?
"Paul," I say, "do me a favor. Don't tell your manager about this conversation until tomorrow. But when you do, tell him that he can call me and I will absolutely be picking up the phone. Okay?"
He wrinkles his brow. "So...you're doing it?"
"Just have him call me. Okay?"
"Uh, yeah. If that's what you want."
"Thanks. You want to share a little celebratory wine before you go?" I ask.
He does. So we do.
The moon has a lot more patience than I do. Swollen and yellow, it takes a lazy, arcing route over the city of Nashville. It doesn't much enjoy my suspense as sneer at it. It knows what it will be doing tomorrow. It couldn't care less.
Neither of us are getting any sleep.
I can't be mad. For me, tomorrow will mean the beginning of the biggest adventure of my life. For my lunar friend, it will just mean more of the same. Oh, I imagine there will be tiny changes. Shifts in speed, or arc, that are so unbelievably tiny as to be unimportant to the likes of me. But when I look up at the moon I am impressed; I don't think the feeling is returned.
I spend half the night pacing, listening to my headphones. Seeking out ideas. If I help make a Teddy Fields record, what do I think I can bring to the table? What ideas, what suggestions, what experiments will I carry with me?
I look to the Rolling Stones, and get I Just Want to See His Face. More than the churchy mess of it, or even the great keyboard sound, the rhythm on that track is something I think might be interesting under Fields's broken-hearted yelp. The shuffling gospel feel mixed with a hypnotic, grooving-yet understated bassline.The messiness of the recording...the background singers and some hand claps are about the only thing that sound professionally mic'd and mixed here...is also of interest. Some of the legends that came out of the Exile sessions claim that this song was an almost complete accident, a stuttering jam that happened to get recorded. I'm pretty sure that at least some of the instrumentation was overdubbed later on, but that spontaneity is something that I think would work well for Fields. It certainly did for the Stones.
I seek out Roy Orbison, and get Running Scared. They way it builds up, layering tensions before offering a final, almost silent form of release makes me think of the similar, more subtle build we put into As Long As I'm Here. I wonder if we can't do something a little more pronounced. I figure I'll keep it in mind as a possibility when I hear the other songs he's got written.
I remember that guy on the corner playing Sam Cooke's Summertime, and I play that. I find myself focusing on the haunting, dreamscapey backing vocals that color the song and redefine it. I wonder about whether Fields's lap steel playing could be used to evoke the same silvered effect. I also realize that this song is a fine example of how restrained, open-spaced playing can lead to a very fleshed-out sounding track. There's not a lot of playing going on, but you wouldn't know it unless you listened carefully. I decide to keep that in mind. I read a book on Sam once. When he recorded Summertime he changed the chord progression to the song around, effectively making the Gershwin standard his own. When he corrected his guitar player on what order to play the chords in, the guy shot back with "I don't PLAY no wrong chords," but eventually he came around to what Sam was doing. I'll remember that, I think. If a song isn't working, it could be innovative to reverse the structure.
Sometime after midnight as my ears begin to tire from listening, Califone's Michigan Girls convinces me that we ought to cut the whole thing as live as possible and avoid overdubs if we can. I don't know shit about how Califone recorded that song, but it sure sounds like a band sitting together in a room playing their track, making mistakes, sterilizing nothing, creating something beautiful. Even Neil Young would be jealous of how jaggedly gorgeous it is.
Later, as the sun finally starts to reclaim lost territory and the moon grudgingly lets me have my little victory, I'm pacing on the deck with pen and paper strategizing how to get what I want out of this contract...or the closest thing to it. I can't afford to fuck this thing up.
Fuck, though, I really should have given Paul a time for his manager to call. As it is, I'm showered and ready by four in the morning, but by eleven nothing has happened. I can't very well leave, but spending seven hours hovering over the phone waiting for your life to begin is a surprisingly unpleasant experience. Funny, to think that just recently the sound of that phone was a thorn in my side.
I've got my speech all mapped out. I know what I want, I know what I'll say, and I even know what extras I'll put in so that they can 'talk me down' to just the bits that really matter. My metabolism is spiked with anticipation; I don't need any coffee today. I'm already wired.
So I make myself a pot of coffee.
Look, I don't know how you deal with your bad habits, but my nerves are getting tickled raw and I'm either going to start drinking wine or coffee while I wait. It's just going to happen. A full pot of dark roast will at least save me from negotiating drunk.
Half the pot later, the phone is still silent. I'm too tired to keep pacing, I'm too wired to sit down. I notice that I'm picking at my fingernails, scratching my beard, and clicking my tongue. What an idiot.
And speaking of, anybody with half a brain would not be striking any sort of deal without an appropriately-skilled lawyer to help them out. I probably got boned on the contract for the song. No. I did get boned. I got almost nothing aside from a producer's credit to put on my resume. But nobody figured on the song making any money, did they? I sure didn't.
There will be a lot more weight resting on this next deal, and one thing is for sure: Teddy Fields, his manager, and his record label will not be looking out for ol' Jake. Nor should they. They have their own concerns. And all my planning and strategizing is one thing, but the sound of that phone will mean that the battle is joined by big and clever people. Once that happens, I'm outnumbered and outgunned. The anticipation is killing me; I wonder if they're counting on that and waiting on purpose.
It's one-thirty. I'm pouring the last cup of coffee, and realizing I haven't eaten since supper. In fact, I am suddenly aware that I'm fucking starving. And that's when the phone rings.
I jump to answer it and spill hot dark liquid all over my hand. For a second I try to cure the burn by waving my hand in the air and yelling "fuck," which doesn't work real well, and then I take a breath and pick up the receiver.
"Hello?" I try to sound casual. I'm not sure how well 'over caffeinated, exhausted burn victim' translates into casual, but I try.
"H...hello?" a female voice responds. "Is this Jake Currie?"
I know that voice. My mouth goes dry and my heart gets loud. It can't be. "Jasmine?"
A pause. "Jake. Hi. I...I just wanted to say...hi, I guess." Another pause. "I saw you on the news."
I flinch. Shit. Even though our little battle royal had made local news, I had really counted on the idea that Jasmine would probably never know what a sorry low I'd reached.
"Uh, yeah," I offer lamely. "That wasn't really my finest hour."
"I'm just about all healed up."
"Oh. That's good." More silence. "Listen, Jake. I...I need to ask you something. It's ridiculous, but I just need to be sure."
"Were you...I mean...God, this sounds ridiculous, but you weren't spying on me, were you?"
I can't help it. I laugh. She thought I was stalking her? When she saw me that night at the restaurant, THAT was her first reaction? "Are you kidding me?" I chuckle. "I was out for a walk. That's all. Believe me, when I moved back you were the last person I hoped to run into."
"Oh." She sounds hurt, and gives me more silence. I guess that was kind of a dick thing to say.
"I didn't mean that I wouldn't want to see you. I just meant...."
"I know. How are you, Jake? Besides the thing on the news, I mean."
Well, that sure is a loaded question, with an answer that is best left to a professional shrink to untangle. "I don't know," I answer honestly. "I hope to be real good, I just need to get there. What about you?"