by Brian Howlett
Monday May 22, 1989
One song at a time. One fragile, familiar verse building upon another. That’s how you make it through your set list. Your life. Most people that James called friends entertained a longer view of things, but he was content to put his head down and locate the next chord coming to life in his fingertips. That was enough. The burnished wood and swelling curves of Mr. Les Paul and the sharp touch of the metal strings always provided cover.
So when the fight broke out steps from his tiny slanted stage, something he had seen coming two rounds of drinks back, James was already safe inside the song. Even as, just before he closed his eyes to the lyric, he saw blood spurting from above the Aussie’s meaty eye. He backed up his stool and adjusted the mike stand without tripping on a chord.
Who said what first, he thought as he played. Who took offense to whom? Would more of the soldiers circling the two like kids around a chocolate cake join in? No matter. It wasn’t his battle. If there was an injustice beyond mere alcohol and culture, he couldn’t right it. He was just a singer.
Well there’s a young man in a t-shirt
Listenin’ to a rockin’ rollin’ station…
He journeyed into the second verse of “Little Pink Houses”. He hadn’t completely warmed up yet, his voice still a bit thin for the John Cougar hit. The manager had asked him to play a matinee because of the storm.
“The lads will be drinking early,” Lars said in the empty bar a few hours ago as he replaced Heinkens from the fridge with more Carlsbergs. “No camera shopping today. No lookie-lookie on the sidewalks for fake Rolexes.”
He caught James’ questioning look.
“They’ll be drinking even more in this weather, right,” he explained. “So they won’t be ordering the expensive stuff. Carlsberg’s as good as it gets for them today.”
Three o’clock. The somber British soldiers lined one half of the small battle-worn bar, pockets bulging. Three thirty. The high-spirited Aussies came in and lined the other half, equally flush with the promise of payday. It’s the young man’s blessing to feel like a rich man with nothing more than a few hundred dollars to your name. It’s the soldier’s curse to want to drink the light from the sun. Rounds were bought. Glasses raised. Bulldogs grew louder, damper, warmer, and Tennessee James, the shortest man in the bar, turned his speakers up to seven, even though Lars explained he was only here for background. Background. That’s what four years at the Middle Tennessee State music program gets you. James wondered at the song he was singing, as he often did. Why couldn’t he write something like that? Was it just luck and melody? And a chorus. James dug into it, raising the stakes on the song, trying to find his voice for the evening.
Ain’t that America for you and me
Ain’t that America home of the free, yeah…
But he couldn’t compete with the fight. Both soldiers were bleeding now. Neither giving an inch. The waitresses were screaming in delight, like groupies at a concert. The bouncer finally weighed in as James continued, singing louder to be heard over the growing anger and laughter as the fight was threatening to come to a premature stop.
Little Pink Houses for you and me.
“Let them at it!”
”Hong Kong sucks!”
“China fucking sucks!”
“You suck you fucking wanker!”
The bouncer glared around the room as he head-locked the Brit and kicked the Aussie back down to the carpet, bringing half the room back to full cheer.
Bulldogs was built for fighting. The quarters were close. The chairs were solid oak. The faded red carpet was damp with memories of beer and blood and even if it could be further damaged no one would notice. The only pictures on the wall were curling 1970s posters advertising Carlsberg and Heineken. Just paper stuck to the wall, not even framed. The only thing that could be broken here was glass and bone.
There were frighteningly few women. Normally James would find that one he could start a musical courtship with while he played. Girls loved his size. Leprechaun. Keebler elf. He had heard them all, uttered with affection and interest. They wanted to wrap him up like a teddy bear. He had actually played with that stage name. Teddy Bear Jim. But it was too obvious. His father had always said the name of a band has to come from the music, not the player.
Cougar was coming to an end. James looked up. The fight was already forgotten. The waitresses were slinging. And the bouncer was back outside; screening more drunks to replace the ones he had just kicked out. Lars was behind the bar, and James caught his glance. Pick this place up. Make people happy.
James scanned the set list he had put together earlier. Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”. This was definitely not a crowd given to dreaming, unlike the ones he had played to on the beaches. U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” had the right energy, but James sometimes had difficulty with it, and his voice was still warming up. Maybe he would return to that a few songs later?
A set list is a delicate bit of choreography. Something they don’t teach you in music school. You start with contemporary songs. The ones the still sober patrons think they want to hear. Then as the beers progress, the songs digress. People want to sing notes from their past. You reel them back in time, and they’re closing their eyes, pumping their fists, and singing in unison.
“You going to play something, midget?” He didn’t look up. He kept his own temper in check, and smiled, nodding back to the room at large. He didn’t mind the odd fight, but he was being paid to play. He tapped the microphone twice, to let them know he was alive. He went back to his list. The murmurs in a crowd that are a solo player’s worst enemy were multiplying. Lars headed over.
Screw the list. Maggie May. That was always a safe fall back. Everyone loves it. James hit the first chords before Lars made it to the stage and the crowd settled. You might take issue with Rod Stewart’s choice in wardrobe, but this song worked on everyone. Brits. Aussies. Even the few Americans soldiers the bouncer was letting in. It was the one song he and his dad could agree on, too.
He closed his eyes. This was the best part, the start of a song. When the words and notes might surprise, no matter how many times you’ve played it.
As he worked his way through “Maggie May” he went through his set list mentally. “Tangled Up in Blue.” That’s what this room needed next. Not Dylan necessarily. But harmonica. The easiest instrument in the world to learn, but it always got people’s attention in a way that lyrics and guitar don’t.
Bulldog’s was paying enough to cover his next two nights at the Y. His travels were about to end, and James was determined not to wire home for any more loans. He had been asking for money ever since he started school and his father held each request over him like a hammer. He always came through but every ask poured another bucket into the lake of shame and told-you-sos about getting a music degree
When he first told him he was going to major in music, his father simply said “I see” and left the room, his shoulders sagging in the way that would infuriate James. Fight, old man, he wanted to say. He got the same reaction when he told him about his plans to explore Asia. “I see.” But this time he turned around at the door before leaving. His dad was a player in his own right and had written a minor hit song in the early 70’s. “Look at me now” his dad’s eyes seemed to say. “It’ll just cheat you in the end. Keep your world small.” Nashville was being taken over by the likes of Kenny Rogers and Barbara Mandrell. And Dolly Parton, for Christ’s sake. Not a Hank Williams or Waylon Jennings among them. The charts had no interest in that kind of truth.
“Maggie May” turned into Bob Dylan without pause. It was the right choice after the energy of the Rod Stewart song, allowing the room to enjoy a collective break and catch up on their next beers. As he leaned into the harmonica it gave him a chance to scan the room and enjoy his handiwork. The Brits and Aussies were intermingling again, invading each other’s turf along the bar without provocation. No longer you against me. But us.
A tall almost Albino man was leaning into Lars across the bar. Definitely not a soldier. He was wearing a long white overcoat and his bright white hair overwhelmed everything else. The man stopped talking at the sound of James’ harmonica, and he turned to watch with interest. It was five songs in, and James was finding his groove. The harmonica became a second voice.
It struck him as he played that he hadn’t missed Tennessee for even a single moment. Unlike so many of the other backpackers, he hadn’t tried to locate a McDonald’s or a KFC for a taste of home. He ate whatever he found along the way, without hesitation. Street chicken. Alleyway noodles. Beach prawn. Mekong whiskey.
But in a weird way he felt he was only going through the motions. That he was simply doing what an American college grad was supposed to be doing. Riding the rails, making new friends and seeing the world. His fellow revellers were drinking everything in. He was jealous of their enthusiasm, their wide eyes and their delighted squeals of discovery.
We drove that car as fast as we could
Abandoned it out west
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
Fuck. He had climbed up on an elephant’s back to trek into northern Thailand, deep into the thickest jungle he had ever seen. A fucking elephant! Watching it eat entire tree branches as it tramped up the mountain. He had laid down on the floor of a hut as the guest of a remote hill tribe to enjoy an opium pipe with an old man who spoke no English. He had watched cormorant fishermen in the muddy rivers yanking on the ropes around their birds’ neck and pulling fish from their throat. He had spent two silent days in a Buddhist monastery. And just last night, he had stepped off the tram in Hong Kong to take in a rain-soaked view of the famous harbor from atop Victoria Peak.
She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
The soldiers cheered at the lyric but James didn’t hear them. Why wasn’t he inspired to write post cards home and revel in the sights and sometime putrid, sometimes fragrant smells?
Nothing was sticking. All he had was his music But not in any meaningful way. Going home was going to force a discussion with himself. What was he going to do with the next twenty years? Where was he even going to live? He pushed more urgently into the tiny openings of his mouth organ, like a drowning man desperate to come up for air. He left the harmonica, the last note done. He took a deep breath. He was sweating. The crowd had grown silent, watching him as if for the first time.
The Albino was watching, too. James ignored his set list now. He moved instinctively into a song he had never played in public, but one that always brought him joy while playing.
I’m on my way (I’m on my way)
And I won’t turn back! (and I won’t turn back!)
James had taken a course in in his second year and it had opened up a new world of music: Folk in the 1940s: songs about the planet and the working man that instantly put the lie to anything being written by his generation.
But the room again grew unsettled. Lars came around from behind the bar, but the Albino whispered something, and instead, with a goofy, uncomfortable grin, Lars rang the bell. “A round on the house,” he screamed, not looking too happy about it. That wasn’t James’ problem. He returned to the verse, leaning into Guthrie’s passion.
I’m on my way to Freedom Land.
I’m on my way, great God.
But he couldn’t find the song inside and the room was fighting him. So he stopped the song at the second verse. As soon as he did, “Hear and Now” by Billy Squier came screaming through the speakers and the bar erupted.
Fuck ‘em, thought James, stepping off the stage. Lars had opened a beer for him at the side of the bar and motioned him over. The Albino raised his drink to him.
“Not exactly a Folk crowd.”
“Thanks for giving me an audience tonight,” James replied.
“I was expecting to hear Harry Buckingham,” he said. “But apparently he got it into his head to check out Tiananmen Square. Stupid bugger. Just like that.”
James looked at the black and white handbill that Harry had photocopied and hung up on his own. We musicians are such a pathetic lot, he thought. Begging anyone to listen. For a penny or a dollar.
“Lars had told me he could play Dylan,” he continued. “I’m happy to hear you do, too. You’re good, especially that last song.” He extended his hand. “My name’s Nelson.”
“Nice to meet you,” returned James, sipping on his warm Carlsberg. The soldiers had already gone through the cold ones in the fridge.
“He’s a big TV star around here,” Lars nodded to Nelson, leaning in between them. “Not that that’s saying much.”
“I have a TV show, James. I do Variety stuff and Comedy. Lately my audience has gotten into Folk music. Just like that. Thing is, no one around here can play it.”
“You mean protest songs,” James said. He had heard a bit of that himself on the streets these past few days.
“Would you be interested in playing that last song on my show?”
“You mean Dylan?”
“No,” Nelson said. “Everyone is playing Dylan. That last one was different. It’s yours, am I right? I’ve got a nose for this stuff.”
“He’ll pay you more than me,” Lars said with a laugh. “He’s got four million people watching him.”
“TV,” said James. Holy shit.
“Tomorrow night, in fact. You can rehearse tomorrow in the studio. Take as much time as you need. I can have a driver pick you up. Just like that.”
Lars rolled his eyes. “It’s his catch-phrase. Annoying as fuck, right?”
“Just like that!” said Nelson brightly, raising his glass.
“Go for it, kid,” said Lars. “If you mess up, who’s going to know? You’re halfway around the world. Like all of us.”
“What’s your song called, anyway?” Nelson asked.
“I’m On My Way.”
Brian Howlett’s fiction has appeared in Limestone, Crack the Spine, Queen’s Quarterly, Sou’wester, Whistling Shade, Serving House Journal, Forge, Penmen Review, the Alembic and the Adirondack Review, and accepted by Willow Review, Slippery Elm, Tincture Journal and Clare. His columns have appeared in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. His latest story, “The Folk Hero” is inspired by his experience living in Hong Kong during the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989.