"Ian's Maddening" by William Harmer
He caught her staring at him out of the corner of his eye as he tore down his equipment after the show. Between the tangle of cords, amps, and Vox guitars, he had hoped she would bring him a cold beer. When it was obvious that she wanted something more, he jumped off the stage to get his own and nearly ran right into her.
“They don’t care too much for 80s retro rock in this town, do they,” she observed. “They expect every other band to sound like the White Stripes’s rundown of the Stooges, not Echo & the Bunnymen.”
She’s much too gorgeous to have this much insight about the local scene, he thought. She was wearing an over-priced Made in Detroit jersey shirt. He used to be good friends with the guy who designs them. They went to high school together. Now the sellout was making a killing selling inner city street clothes to trendy white kids in the suburbs. Typical. He looked past this stunning, yet seemingly typical, young groupie and headed toward the bar.
“Yo, Ian,” she shouted after him, “you’ll never make it in this town dressed like a hippie and playing 80s psychedelic rock.”
“Look,” he said. “My name isn’t Ian, its Bobby. And my band isn’t any retrofit. We play atmospheric folk with a wide variety of instruments. And if that isn’t good enough for you, then tough shit, I’ve got better things to do.”
Bobby sauntered away, past the empty beer bottles scattered over the main floor, down to the tiny bar on the opposite side of the stage. He was surprised not to see the rest of his band hovering around trying to cage drinks or pick up any stray young girls. They must all be back stage finishing up the beer or getting high on the bag his bass player scored before the show. Bobby pulled out his wallet, spotted a five-dollar bill, and ordered a Bud. “Not the best turn out in the world tonight,” he said to the bartender, a metrosexual who looked out of place in the grimy setting.
The bartender shrugged. “It’s a Wednesday and people have to work or go to classes in the morning I guess.”
It was their second gig at St. Andrews, so it was too early to tell whether the band would find an audience or not. Although Bobby was only 20 years old, he had never held down a job in his life. All he ever wanted was to write songs and play them in front of an audience. These gigs didn’t pay the band much, but he was extremely confident of his own talent and abilities and never let money or the lack of it bother him. As long as he could afford ramen noodles and beer, he'd cope. So he drank.
He nearly ran into her, again, when he turned to finish packing his equipment. “Mind if I make a snap judgment about you?” Without waiting for an answer she said, “You’re a trust fund baby, right? Instead of going to college, you decided to blow your daddy’s money on a chance at rock n roll stardom.”
“Nice try,” Bobby said. “Mind if I make a snap judgment about you?”
“You are the daughter of a wealthy automobile executive from Birmingham. You went to private schools all of your life, went on vacation with your family every other month to places like Rome or Paris or Bangkok, your daddy bought you a Volkswagen Jetta for your 16th birthday, and instead of going off to an Ivy League school to pursue law like everyone wanted you to, you managed to convince your parents to allow you to blow their trust fund to pursue a long shot as an artist at the Center for Creative Studies.” Bobby stopped long enough to take a swig of his beer. “Close?”
“Close,” she minced haughtily. “But it wasn’t a Jetta, it was a Mustang.”
They both stood silent for a moment. Bobby lit a cigarette.
“Where are you from really?” she asked.
“Port Huron? That's a nothing town.”
“Port Huron is the home of Thomas Edison, the Students for a Democratic Society, and one of the highest suicide rates in the country.”
She smirked. “Well that explains why your music is so introspective.”
“I write love songs. There’s nothing particularly deep or mysterious about that,” Bobby said. “I’m pretty much obsessed with love, lost or gained, but not enough to kill myself over it. Not like my father anyway.”
“What happened to your father?”
“He killed himself.”
“No,” she said, “I mean why?”
“Because drugs were more important to him than me, my mom, his music or anything else. Drugs were his first love.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Depends on the question,” he sighed.
“What’s your name?”
“Oh my god,” she said. “Then I was right. Your dad was Joey Butler of the Thrills.”
“The one and only.”
“I’m so sorry. Is it true that he committed suicide on your birthday?”
“That must have been awful.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, suddenly uncomfortable. “Listen, do you want to go and hang out in my van for awhile?”
“Sure,” she said.
He took her back to his Chevy work van. In the shadows, her face seemed nearly featureless. Bobby could see her flesh glowing faintly, like a ghost. His hands moved over her thigh to make sure she was real.
She kept still, trying to form a picture of him in the shadows, but she couldn’t. Away from the stage lights, he looked younger, just like the kid he was, barely out of high school, his complexion more pale, his hair darker and more coarse. He looked like a young Ian McCullough.
He was starting to lose his nerve.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, motioning to sit up, but he stopped her, firmly holding her head in his hands.
Bobby was puzzled. She was beautiful. Dazzling, alabaster skin along her neck, long and expressive eyelids with eyes of profound ambiguity, absorbing everything with cool abandon and heightening the weight of Bobby’s desire. She was more attractive than he was used to, a daughter of private schools and community activists, of fund raisers and expense accounts, of parents who read Morningstar and don’t have a need for the public library.
“Pretty girls make graves,” he said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she flinched.
“Nothing. Something Kerouac said, I think.”
“What’s that's supposed to mean?” she wanted to know.
“Isn’t that the name of a band?”
“He’s a writer,” he said.
“No, I mean 'pretty girls make graves?'”
Slowly he said, “I think it has something to do with obsession, which is the result of desire, which usually leads to pain and anguish, which can eventually cause premature death.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“No. I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t come out here because I’m some groupie you know. I came out here because I find you intriguing …even mysterious.”
“I stopped kissing you because I couldn’t help myself,” he said, his eyes unable to face hers any longer.
“Maybe you were expecting me to be a groupie.”
“I don’t have groupies,” he spat with disdain. “I barely have a band.”
“If you kiss me now, I promise to be your groupie.
“I don’t want that,” he said.
“Of course you do,” she insisted. “I’ll be your Marianne Faithful, your Courtney Love ... I’ll be the groupie who makes you famous.” She imagined Bobby writing love songs about her. She imagined standing in the audience surrounded by her giddy friends and dancing to the music Bobby wrote especially for her. She visualized him bent over his vintage black Rickenbacker in an almost sacrificial pose beneath the warm spotlights. She envisioned the crowds growing larger and more dynamic with each gig. She imagined he was Ian McCulloch.
Quickly Bobby got up, pulled on his pants, buttoned his denim cowboy shirt, stepped into his boots, and fumbled around the front seat of the van for his pack of cigarettes. “I loathe people who want to be famous,” he said stepping out. “I don’t want people going around trying to dress like me or wanting to fuck me like they do Jessica Simpson, so you’ve got the wrong guy.”
Standing outside the van in the dark, Bobby lit a cigarette and watched the last of the bar rats stumble out to their vehicles along Woodward Avenue. He watched the traffic lights turn from green to red a couple of times. For a moment, he wished he was Ian McCulloch.
* * *
William Harmer, the evil genius behind "The First-Ever Rock n' Roll Library Tour," is going to be interviewed on This American Life in the coming weeks. Stay tuned here at Sleepwalkers' Glory for details and links to the archived interview.