While waiting for the 72 bus to take me to the University District, out to my job at Easy Loan, this guy, a few years younger than me and all decked out in leather jacket and jeans, said, "Hey, man. Nice day, huh? Where you headed?" I could have said Easy Loan, but then it dawned on me that the day was not so nice. Rain was falling on us in the usual Seattle-lullaby rhythm. Comforting weather, warm, friendly maybe, but not nice. Besides, what is there to say about Easy Loan?
So I told him about the year and a half I spent on the road with Edensound, about our song "Can't Walk Away" and how we made it to 42 on Billboard's Top 100. As soon as I mentioned the band, this guy's eyebrows lifted, his face brightened, as if being so close to the nearly famous could somehow give life meaning, and then, the same question that always follows—"So what was it like?" Which is really to say "How many drugs did you do?" or "How many hotels did you trash?" or "How much money did you make?" When I offered the guy what I knew of life on the road—truck stop layovers, interstates for days at a time, and too many McDonald's—the face went blank, regret rising for having met someone like me, life's promise and its reality all rolled into one person. There are times, though, when this has happened and someone actually remembers our song. The face blank, the mind recalling melody and lyric, and then: "That was you?" I smile, nod my head, and leave, a gesture too often mistaken for humility, when I mean it only as an acknowledgment of a time I can explain with so little certainty. Still, I feel compelled to talk and talk and talk.
I'm 30 now and work as a data entry "specialist" for the aforementioned Easy Loan, a high-interest financing firm on 45th Street in Seattle's University District. "When you've got nowhere else to turn, try Easy Loan!" I've got an apartment downtown, a one-bedroom studio next to a Metro station, which is nice because I don't own a car. Across the street, there is a bookstore with an adequate selection of used books. The bookstore is my wind-down place after a day of typing in loan amounts and interest rates. There are about six cats who roam the store—we are becoming the best of friends—and the owner Samantha rewards my patronage with bottomless cups of Seattle's Best. I find it hard to sleep sometimes. Maybe the coffee, or all the memories, I can't sort out which, and I wish I could just be happy for the life I've been allowed. I'm a shell-shocked musician, a man who has been to war and regrets it, a recovering rock star for whom fame was more damaging than any drug or drink.
There was a night when I tried to say this to Samantha. I asked her if she wanted to hear a road story. I didn't have a particular story in mind (I'm lying, of course I had a story in mind) when she said, "Yeah, tell me, so what it was like?" She said it with so little expression, I couldn't be sure if she meant what all the rest do. Before I could "humbly" bow out, she lifted her arms into the air and said, "Gather in, everybody. Travis wants to tell us about the glory days." She looked at me, and the bookstore regulars did too, all with those wide eyes of expectation. "I don't know how much glory is involved," I said. "We were driving through Kansas..."
We were shooting bottle rockets at passing cars from inside the bus. It wasn't a bus, exactly, more like a Winnebago. A Ford Holiday Rambler we called "the bus." King was driving while Myron the frontman was taking his turn at lighting a bottle rocket off a pipe Tad the drummer held out an open window. King was an overweight black man from Minnesota whom none of us knew by his real name. All we knew was he had been a guitar tech for Prince back in the mid 80s when it was "Prince and the Revolution." He had been fired for selling Prince's used guitar picks and strings to adoring fans backstage. He took the name King in protest after leaving the Prince gig, and now, he drove the bus for us.
The object of this bottle rocket game was to hit a passing vehicle's passenger-side window. Points were assessed based on how close you came to the window, getting progressively less as you moved out from there. Window, 50 points; rear tire, 5 points. Myron loved this game. He also hated to lose. Music, sports—it didn't matter—he was obsessed with being the best. But he was equally as complex. He was the kind of guy who could play you this beautiful song about love and faithfulness, a "Never Leave You, Baby" kind of thing, and afterwards turn on you as if taking his next breath. He was happy, then, when his shot hit the passenger-side door of a passing pickup truck just below the handle, earning him 45 points.
"Beat that," he said, handing me a bottle rocket.
I was traveling with the band only because I loved music and was good with numbers. I setup the merchandise table and handled sales every night. This was Spring, maybe April or May, after I had turned nineteen.
I ended up with the band by accident, really, after following them from show to show and finding no reason to go home. When the band couldn't figure out how to get me home, they decided to put me to use. Home was Birmingham, Alabama where my dad was a Vice-President in Charge of Finance for a textile factory, my mom a bank president. Money handling, it would seem, was my inheritance. In school, I took up music as an outlet for my teen-years angst, thinking that a drummer's abilities would ensure me an existence separate from that of my parents. I wanted a life not built on the skills my parents valued. Although, today, I take a certain pleasure in the thought that those hours of my childhood lost to parental lectures on supply and demand were the very thing that made my escape from home possible.
Tad the drummer placed the pipe on the edge of the window. "Show him what you got, kid." They all called me kid, even though I was only two years younger than the oldest in the group.
I slid the bottle rocket into place and held my lighter near the fuse. The trick was in timing the lighting of the fuse. The pipe never moved, Tad held it solid. The bus and the other cars were always moving.
"Here comes a compact. Looks like a Toyota of some kind," said Myron.
"I can see it," I said.
I had been watching the car, trying to pick up on how fast it was moving. It's harder than it sounds. The bus was like an ocean liner, rolling over every bump and dip in the highway as if they were waves. Lonny Adams, the guitar player, sometimes took Dramamine before long road trips.
King hollered from the front, "Don't you guys start no trouble. I ain't going to jail for you."
"You wouldn't have to," said Myron. "You'd go to jail for yourself. You're the one driving."
King mumbled to himself and gave the image of Myron reflecting off the front window of the bus a "go-to-hell!" look. I caught this from the corner of my eye as I was thinking through my shot.
"Now," I said, and lit the fuse.
The thing started fizzling like a stick of dynamite does in the movies. Tad closed his eyes. He did this so he wouldn't flinch and jerk the pipe. The bottle rocket hissed and whistled as it shot out of the pipe. The Toyota came into perfect alignment with our bus, the convergence of compact, Winnebago, and chance.
The bottle rocket hit the window and exploded, old-lady passenger covered her ears, and I took 50 points.
"You cheated," said Myron. He was such a terrible loser. "King slowed the bus for you. You were all in on this together."
King gave Myron's reflection an "are-you-a-dumbass?" look. Tad said, "Now how could we really do that, Myron?"
"I don't know, but you did. Travis never wins." Myron picked up a roman candle that was in the sack of bottle rockets. Him calling me Travis instead of kid felt like my parents calling me by my full name when I did something wrong. When I heard "Travis Melville Jones," I knew I had better run and hide. Myron lifted the roman candle to his chest and flicked the flint of his lighter.
"Don't do nuthin' stupid, big shot," said King.
"You shut up," said Myron and lit the roman candle's fuse. "You're the one started this."
King didn't even look at Myron's reflection. He stared straight ahead, eyes steady on the road. Tad and I dove under the mini-table that jutted from the wall.
"You shoot at me an' I'm takin' you down," said King.
"We'll see," said Myron.
Then the roman candle fired. Myron held his ground and held the roman candle like it was a shotgun. King never flinched. The colored balls of light were streaming into the front of the bus. Orange, yellow, green, color after color. When the last one fired, a red ball that seemed brighter than all the rest, King jerked the wheel hard and swerved off the road and onto an embankment. The bus tilted off its driver-side wheels. I grabbed the table leg, Tad grabbed me, and we watched as Myron was thrown into the air and against the wall next to us. He slid to the floor, the bus suspended above a ditch, all of us leaning and ready to fall.
King threw open the door and jumped from the Winnebago. "Drive yourself," he said.
Myron was yelling and trying to stand. The throw didn't hurt him; he just couldn't get his balance with the bus leaning so sharply. Lonny the guitarist and Pike Nolan, the bass player, straggled out from the sleeper cabin where they had been napping. They found Myron half-standing, half-kneeling, with a spent roman candle in his hand. King was already walking up the highway. I heard Lonny say "Now, how are we getting to the gig?" with all the bright colors still flashing like stars in my eyes.
The bookstore crowd seemed to like the story, judging by the round of golf-clap applause. I felt a strange mix of pride and despair. Telling the story initially offered me the same rush of good feeling you get just after a headache mysteriously disappears. The crowd was looking at me and smiling as if I were on stage with the rest of the band, the lighting warming my skin with approval. But then I felt bad for validating my life at someone else's expense.
I didn't tell them that King walked ten miles to the nearest bus station, caught a ride back to Minnesota, and never worked for a band again. After a year of wandering from job to job, he drove his car into the parking lot behind the club where he had first met Prince, put a gun to his mouth, and ended his life. There is something that seems noble about wandering the world for one's art, no matter where you fall in the hierarchy of artists and roadies. The same can't be said about leaving a janitor's job at Rare Jewel's Trophy and Ribbon for a custodian's position at Mawmac Middle School, even when the kids admire you for having known The-Artist-Formerly-Known-As-Prince.
I found out about all of this a month after King died when his mom called asking for help in deciphering his suicide note. King had handwritten the note, and all it said was "Nobility is a lie. Love, King." When King's mom called, I was still with Edensound, still touring with the band, and had no idea what the note meant. Standing in the bookstore, with all those people smiling and clapping for the person they thought I was, I knew exactly what King's note meant, though it was too late to explain it to his mom.
Samantha offered a round of mochas on the house and called for another story. I acted like I didn't hear her. I went back to my apartment and passed out on the bed. The strange thing was, I slept better than I had in a long time.
That Spring that was my first tour with Edensound was during what, at the time, I referred to as my "hiatus." I had been to college for one quarter, was no longer doing so, and was avoiding finding a job until I knew what it was I wanted from myself and life. My parents were not happy, thinking I might find this comfortable and permanent, and were telling me as much every day. My first road trip was born out of a desire to get some distance between myself and my parents. I got in my car, drove to Atlanta, and spent the night moving from club to club watching bands. Finding Edensound at a dump of a bar called the Promise Land, I knew I had discovered that missing part of myself. The group's performance was more than rock-n-roll. I could tell the four of them played music to sustain themselves. I snuck onto the bus after the last set and made friends with everyone. When the bus rolled out of town at some time after three in the morning, I saw no reason to get off.
The guys played in Athens, Nashville, Winston-Salem, and Cleveland before I started to wonder how, and if, I would ever get home. I had called home in Nashville to tell my parents I left my car parked at the Promise Land. Except for the awkward silence, my dad was reasonably understanding. He did, however, make it clear that I was "from this point forward" on my own. I really couldn't call back and say, "You know, I'd like to come home now." I have since come to understand that independence is a one-way street. You can go forward but never back. If I had known I would not see my parents for ten years—in fact, we still only talk occasionally—I might have done things differently. Or maybe not. Maybe I would have done the same thing, but it would have been nice to have known what I was doing. In Cleveland, the band decided to get familial on me, too, and said I should start earning my own way.
Putting up a merchandise table was my idea and CD sales tripled. People generally feel more comfortable buying music from a well-designed display rather than out of the back of a Winnebago everybody is calling a bus. With the money we made on CDs, we added t-shirts, bumper stickers, souvenir backstage laminates, and 8x10 glossies, the latter of which you could buy for as little as one dollar. Myron had reservations about this "marketing" of art, but I never saw it so cheaply as that. I was doing my part, doing what I could to make the world better. I believed in the band and believed in our music. We even sold decals that said "Resist Oppression!" and "Corporate Rock Sucks!" Selling CDs and trinkets was never meant to be a get-rich-quick scheme. But we did we make a lot of money, and quickly too.
Myron lost his idealism when I started negotiations with Indy-Pop, an independent record distributor that was promising to put our CD in every record store in America. They delivered on that promise. We couldn't do all the gigs we were offered just from people buying our CD and wanting to book us. These were good times in which everyone prospered. Pike the bass player was even talking about getting married, and Myron lost his rocker's angst when "Can't Walk Away" started up the charts. We all believed we were in position for our lives to really matter. I had, however, forgotten to mention to the guys one aspect of their contract with Indy-Pop.
I had setup the deal so I would earn 20% of all sales generated from radio promotion. Add to that the 45% Indy-Pop took for covering the bills, and the band only had 35 cents of every dollar earned, which then had to be split four ways. No one was happy about their first Indy-Pop paychecks, and everyone looked to me for an explanation.
I tried to make them understand. The truth, I said, was that we should all be paid according to our worth. I had created the plan the put us in touch with Indy-Pop, and therefore, should earn a greater share of the profits. The band was not persuaded. The real truth was that when I talked to the owners of Indy-Pop I had a sudden vision of myself as a famous manager whose touch turns every no-name garage band into superstars. I knew if I was to use Edensound as the basis for my career in rock management, I would need more money. The good intentions played like a skipping record in the echoes of my mind, but really, I had bought into the lie that every moment has to be bigger and better than the one before. The band kept me around only long enough to hire a lawyer and seize possession of my checking account. At a gig in Seattle, in a new bus that was actually a bus, Edensound pulled out of town without me. "Can't Walk Away" was at 42 on Billboard. The song started falling the next day. I was not comforted.
After all that, I couldn't bring myself to move again. I found my first real-world job at a used record store in the Capital Hill area of Seattle. I know it was still a music job in a sense, but some habits can't be kicked cold turkey. I found an apartment, the one I'm in now, and "settled down" as my parents would say. I don't know if I'm settled on anything, but I do like Seattle. The city matches my mood. I find nine months of rain somehow comforting. There is an honesty in a rainy day. Back in Alabama, the sun shines nearly year round. Everyday you wake up wanting to go outside, but once you get outside, the humidity is overpowering. In less than a minute, you're sweating and panting and wanting to get out of the heat. The sun deceives you that way. I'll take rain any day over sun.
Two weeks after my story night in the book store, this man came into Easy Loan looking to borrow $20,000. He was a short, bald man with a ring of hair that gave him that business-man-wants-to-be-Caesar look. He wanted to open a movie theater that would specialize in nothing but B movies. He had been having trouble securing financing. I overhead all this from the break room across from the loan officer cubicles where I was getting myself some coffee.
The Caesar-haired man was trying to explain that an all-B movie theater was not as crazy an idea as it sounded. The most important aspect of any business, he was saying, is to stand out from the competition, be something unique and original. Product is not nearly as important as positioning. The loan office was not buying the guy's argument, but I thought the man knew what he was talking about. I sort of felt sorry for this un-hip looking little man. All he wanted was his moment in the sun, and without financing, he was doomed to be just another office worker, another waiter, another heating and air conditioning man, or whatever it was he did that made him feel as if his life was borrowed from someone else. Nowadays, the worst thing you could be in America is unoriginal. But that little bald man and I are the same, the same as every other man or woman, in Seattle or in Alabama, it makes no difference. Watching this man plead his case in Easy Loan, I realized I could no longer allow myself aspirations of any kind if I was ever going to move past having once been involved with Edensound.
I went to Samantha's bookstore as soon as I got off work. Thankfully, she didn't ask me to tell her another road story. I think she sensed I was upset after the last one. I had never been two weeks without stopping by. She kept me in coffee and told me about some good books I should try. I was enjoying the company, even the cats were being friendly.
When the store was empty of any other customers and Samantha was ready to close, I told her what being in a band was really like. I told her about the money, bad contracts, and cheating my friends. I told her that I missed Tad, Lonny, and Pike. And Myron, too. I told her I missed seeing my folks. I told her the truth about King. Samantha didn't say anything. She just looked at me, a kind of warm and sympathetic look. I think she understood. She had to understand, because like me, she couldn't find the words to say how she felt about it all. The cats were walking in and out of my feet, going between my legs and hers, the two of us standing and saying nothing.