Once upon a time there was going to be a Beatles album called Get Back. They tried to record it in January of 1969, first at Twickenham Film Studios, then in the basement of Apple Corps at 3 Savile Row. Their own overpriced 24-track dream studio wasn't finished and they had to bring in a mobile unit. So there they were, under bright lights, using rented gear, with cameras filming every move they made.
Paul had this idea he could turn things around. He wanted to get back to the kind of material the band did in '61 and '62, at the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg and the Cavern Club in Liverpool. It must have seemed like another century to them, looking back. They tried to warm up with Chuck Berry standards and "One After 909," something of John's from when he was 17. But it was winter and snowy and cold. The sound stage echoed and the basement was cramped. It just wasn't happening.
That summer they would try again, and this time it would work, and they would come away with Abbey Road. The tapes from the other sessions would end up with Phil Spector, who would overproduce the living Jesus out of them trying to make them sound alive and finally they would come out as Let It Be.
The new title pretty much says it all. Between winter and summer everything changed. Paul married Linda, John married Yoko, and Allen Klien took over Apple. By then it was too late to get back, ever again.
My father died not quite two weeks ago. I can say the words but they don't seem to mean anything or even matter much. When I try to think about it, my mind goes blank. So I think about other things. I put Let It Be on the stereo and wonder what it would sound like if things had been different.
Music is easy. It isn't even that important what the words say. The real meaning is in the guitars and drums, the way a record sounds. It's a feeling that's bigger than words could ever be. A guy named Paul Williams said that, or something close to it, and I believe it's true.
I've been in Dallas with my mother, straightening out the VA insurance, helping her write a form letter to send out instead of a Christmas card, answering the phone, getting Dad's name off the bank account, a million little things that can bleed you dry. Now I'm home again in Austin trying to make sense of it.
It's November of 1988. The old man died right before Thanksgiving, a hell of a thing. He was scuba diving in Cozumel, which he was too old to be doing, with my mother along for the ride. He used to teach anthropology at SMU but since he retired all he wanted to do was dive. My wife and I flew up to Dallas to meet my mother's plane as she came back alone, looking about a hundred years old. She had him burned down there in Mexico, brought a handful of ashes with her in a ziplock bag. Elizabeth came home that weekend but I stayed up there ten days, all I could stand. Then I drove back here in his white GMC pickup truck, my inheritance. The inside still smells like him, sweat and polyester and old Fritos.
Anyway, it's 1988 and it was just last year that they finally released all the Beatles' albums on CD, making a big deal out of how it was the 20th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper. It was like everybody had forgotten about the sixties until we had this nationwide fit of nostalgia. Suddenly every station on the radio has gone to some kind of Oldies format, and they're playing the same stuff over and over again that you haven't heard in 20 years, and now you're sick to death of "Spirit in the Sky" and "The Year 2525" all over again. Paisley makes a brief comeback and bands that should never have been together in the first place have reunion tours and everybody shakes their heads over how dumb and idealistic they used to be.
I run a little stereo repair business out of the house. Most of the upstairs is my shop. The north wall is my workbench, covered with tools, an oscilloscope and a digital multimeter, a couple of my clients' boxes with their insides spread out. The wall above it is cork and there are a million pieces of junk pinned to it: circuit diagrams, pictures of me and Elizabeth and the cat, phone messages, business cards from my parts people, a big black-and-white poster of Jimi Hendrix that I've had since college. The west wall is windows, partly covered by the corn plants, palms, and deiffenbachia that Elizabeth has fixed me up with, all rugged stuff that even I haven't been able to kill. The south side is shelves, over and under a counter top. That's where I keep the boxes I'm not currently working on, as well as my own system. Harmon Kardon amp, Nakamichi Dragon cassette deck, four Boston Acoustics A70 speakers, linear tracking turntable, CD player, graphic equalizer, monster cables all around. There's something almost spiritual about it, all that matte black, with graphs and numbers glowing cool yellow and white and green, like a quiet voice telling you everything is going according to plan. It's just hardware, metal and silicon and plastic, but at the same time it has the power to turn empty air into music. That never ceases to amaze me.
I only have Let It Be on vinyl, I'm not crazy enough about it as an album that I have to have it on CD. The second side was playing, halfway in, and "The Long and Winding Road" came on, full of crackles and pops. I was running on automatic, my hair tied back, houseshoes on, resoldering a couple of cold joints. The song is just Paul on the piano, a McCartney solo track really, with a huge orchestra and chorus that Phil Spector dubbed on afterwards. A decent tune, though, even John admitted that.
I don't remember the first time I heard it, but I remember the one that stuck. It takes me back to Nashville, early June of 1970. I remember it was a Sunday. I heard this announcement on the radio that my band, the Duotones, was supposed to be playing that afternoon in Centennial Park. It was news to me. I showed up and sure enough, there they were, sounding a little hollow and tinny inside the big concrete bandshell, and there in the middle was their new drummer. Scott, the lead player, came out in the audience during the break and said, "We were going to tell you. That promoter we hooked up with, he had his own drummer."
I remember being able to see the individual little pebbles in the pinkish concrete under the bench. The bench, I think, was green. I had my arms up on the back of it on either side of me. There wasn't a lot for me to say. My bridges were burned. I'd spent the last month flunking out of Vanderbilt, too busy practicing with the band or protesting the shootings at Kent and Jackson State to go to class. I hadn't managed to stop the war, and now I didn't have a band either.
I hung around until they closed my dorm and then I hit the road. I'd already told my parents I wasn't coming home for the summer so I just drove on through Dallas, headed for Austin, where Alex was. She wasn't my girlfriend anymore. We'd broken up the fall before. But then we'd broken up a million times and if I was there, staying at her house, maybe she would change her mind.
I only had AM radio in my car and it seemed like they just played two songs that whole trip, over and over. One was Joe Cocker's cover of "The Letter," with Leon Russell's piano sharp as an icepick, making me push the gas to the floor and feel the hot wind through the open windows. The other was "The Long and Winding Road," and it felt like I was hearing it for the first time. It had been a pretty long road for me and Alex. I'd known her since sophomore year in high school, since we were all in drama club together. I'd seen her long hair go from red to brown to black, listened to her rave about everything from astrology to Bob Dylan to BMW motorcycles. I'd spent the last half of my senior year and the summer after helplessly in love with her. It was my first real love affair, full of jealousy and tears, the unendurable pain of an unanswered phone, long drives back from her mother's apartment at two in the morning, fighting to stay awake. But mostly it was making love, in the car, on the floor of her mother's den, at friend's houses, in my bed with my parents watching TV in the next room.
The Beatles didn't get it together for Get Back and Alex and I didn't get it together in the summer of 1970. I moved off her couch after a week or so and rented a room up on Castle Hill. Right before I left I got this letter, care of her, from my father. It was always my mother who wrote me, I guess that's true in most families. But this time it was him, on a sheet of yellow legal paper, printed in block capitals. "GO AHEAD AND PLAY IN THE TRAFFIC," it said. Then, at the bottom, "ONE THING YOU FORGOT: LOVE." I can't remember him ever using the word before. It looked like a lie. He signed it "DAD." I didn't tear it up, bad as I wanted to. Maybe I just wanted to keep hating him the way I did right that minute.
During those long summer days in Austin I looked for work. Everything turned out to be door-to-door sales. At night I tried to put a band together with a guy who was just learning to play guitar and an organist who'd done nothing but classical. The bass player disappeared one day, driving his ice cream truck between Austin and Houston, and that was the last straw. I ended up back in Dallas in spite of myself, getting a degree in electrical engineering from DeVry Institute. That got me my first decent job, doing printed circuit design for the late lamented Warrex Computer Corporation.
There's magic, see, and there's science. Science is what I learned at DeVry and it bought me this nice two story house off 290 in East Austin. Magic says if maybe the Beatles could have hacked it then maybe Alex and me could have hacked it.
If the Beatles had hacked it, "The Long and Winding Road" would have sounded a lot different. Paul always hated what Spector did to it, wanted it to be a simple piano ballad. John might have written a new middle eight for it, something with an edge to cut the syrupy romanticism. George could have played some of the string parts on the guitar, and Ringo could have punched the thing up, given it just a little more of a push.
It could have happened. Say Paul had realized the movie was a stupid idea. Say they'd given up on recording at Apple and gone back to Abbey Road, let George Martin actually produce instead of sitting around listening to them bicker. I'd seen enough pictures of the studio. I could see it in my head.
Here's George Martin, tall, craggy-looking, big forehead, easy smile. Light-brown hair slicked back tight. He's got on his usual white dress shirt and tie, sitting near the window of the control room which looks down on Studio 2. Studio 2 is the size of a warehouse, thirty foot ceiling, quilted moving blankets thrown over everything, microphones of every shape and size, from the slim German condensers to the old-fashioned oblong ribbon types, miles of cable, music stands like small metal trees. Here's John, his beard just starting to come in, hair down to here, Yoko growing out of his armpit. Paul's beard is already there, George Harrison and Ringo have mustaches. Paul is in a longsleeved shirt and sleeveless sweater, John and Yoko are in matching black turtlenecks, George has a bandanna tied cowboy style around his neck. The tape is on a quarter-inch reel, not the inch wide-stuff they use now. It's been less than twenty years, after all, since the studio stopped recording directly onto wax discs. Everything about the mixers and faders is oversized, big ceramic handles, big needles on the VU meters, everything painted battleship gray. The air smells of hair oil and cigarette smoke. Everyone is bumming Everest cigarettes off of Geoff Emerick, who is wearing a white lab coat, like all the other EMI engineers.
They're listening to the playback. Here's Ringo's deadened toms, four quick chord changes on John's sunburst Strat at the end of each line...
And there it was. Coming out of the speakers in my workshop. For half a minute it didn't even seem weird. I put down my soldering gun and listened, feeling all the emotion that had been buried under the strings rise to the surface.
Then it hit me, really hit me, what I was listening to. As soon as it did the music slowed and went back to the way it always has been.
I was lightheaded and there was a sound like tape hiss in my ears. I cut the stereo off and sat on the old brown leather couch by the windows, thinking, what the hell just happened? The cat, who is this big black-and-gray tabby named Dude, jumped up in my lap like he always does when I sit on his couch. I started to pet him and then the fatigue just washed up over me. I let myself doze off for a few minutes and when I woke up my head was going like a bass drum.
It was three o'clock. Elizabeth would be home any minute. I went down to the kitchen and ate a couple of cookies to get my blood sugar back up. I felt weird, tapped out, like I'd just come down with something. I wondered if maybe I had. Maybe I'd hallucinated the whole thing.
I heard Elizabeth's car in the driveway. I never know what kind of mood she's going to be in. Sometimes it's been kids yelling at her all day and she just wants silence or the TV. I put the cookies away and rinsed out my milk glass. The door opened with a kind of squeak and pop. I heard her toss her purse on the table by the door, walk into the living room and collapse on the couch. "Any mail?" she said.
I came out of the kitchen, drying my hands on a dishtowel. I could only see her blonde hair hanging over the back of the couch, all those different shades, gold and light brown and honey and yellow and white. "Not yet."
I thought, if she asks how my day went, I'll say something. She picked up the remote control and turned the TV on to CNN. Somebody was talking about President-Elect Bush and the anti-drug hysteria the whole campaign had caused.
"What a day," she said. "This one kid, Mikey?"
I walked over and sat on the stairs. "You told me about Mikey before."
"Yeah. Well, today he herded about six of the girls under the slide and was charging the boys a quarter apiece to go under there with them. Of course his father's the stockbroker, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised that it breeds true."
I was too woozy to manage a laugh. "You want a drink?"
"Not right now. I need a new job, is what I need." She'd been talking about quitting since her first year in the school system and I didn't take her seriously anymore. I went back to the kitchen and cracked myself a Bud, my first of the day. It didn't do much for the headache right away, but these things take time.
That night I had another nightmare about my father. I go to this huge shed to rent scuba gear for him. The floor is like the deck of a ship, rolling under my weight. I don't see anything but these weird, bell-shaped tanks and I tell the guy I need the big aluminum ones. I'm pleased with myself for not getting taken in by these obviously bogus tanks. He's going to get the right kind and I follow. The floor starts to really roll and then sinks. The suction of the sinking floor pulls me under. My shoes and wet clothes are too heavy. I can't get back to the surface and I'm starting to panic. I know that I know how to swim and this should all be okay, only it isn't. I start yelling.
I was still yelling when Elizabeth managed to wake me up. She made sure I was okay and then she turned over and went back to sleep. It's a talent she has. I myself lay there for a long time, trying to clear all the shit and nonsense out of my head. It's like the zen business where you're supposed to not think about a white horse, only it's impossible, you can't not think about something. My father used to tell me that story, now it's my father I can't get rid of. He's right there, floating face down in the blue-green water, the regulator hanging out of his mouth and leaking a thin stream of bubbles.
I tried to think about the thing that happened with the Beatles song, but that was just as scary. So I finally pictured a wiring diagram for an amplifier and made myself an electron, and I followed my way through the gates and resistors and capacitors like I was walking a garden maze and that finally did the trick.
The last time I talked to my father we got in an argument over cameras. You'd think after thirty some-odd years I would have learned to keep it from happening. Not a chance. He could always find some way, if he kept at me long enough, to get me to fight back. It was my mom that called, of course, but at the end she made him get on the phone with me, and somehow he ended up trying to tell me that no camera in the world had an F-stop larger than f/4. "I'm looking at my camera right here," I said. "I have it in my hands. It goes f/4, then f/2.8, then f/1.8."
"It must be some kind of Russian camera."
"Dad, it's a fucking Nikon."
"Well, it's the only one like it ever made."
By that point even I could see that it was time to check out and cut my losses. Like the guy that goes to the doctor and says, "It hurts when I bend over," and the doctor says, "Don't bend over." Suddenly I saw that my old man was never going to change.
Elizabeth has this friend named Sandra that we see at parties. She's in AlAnon, for people with alcoholic parents. The whole co-dependent 12-step thing. They tell her you have to quit trying to change them. It's not your fault. Change yourself to where you can get clear of it.
So that was what I did. I said, "Yeah, Dad, right Dad, goodbye Dad." That was in August, the last words I ever said to him, and in November he was dead.
It was hard walking away from an argument with him, not trying to win it. Sometimes not doing something is the hardest thing there is. Not thinking about that damned white horse. Not taking that one last drink that you know will make you throw up. Not making a pass at the divorcee with the antique 8-track who would happily pay with something other than cash.
So when I got this letter from my mother in October, telling me how disappointed she was that I wouldn't talk to my father, that I wouldn't even apologize, I lost my temper. I couldn't even see, I was so mad. I sat down and wrote her back, told her everything I could remember that he'd done to piss me off or fuck me up. I didn't hold back on the cheap shots or the whining or the guilt.
Elizabeth came home while I was reading it over and for some reason I handed her my mother's letter, and then mine. I told her, "I'm not going to send it, of course."
She read both of them and said, "No, you're right. You shouldn't send this." I felt weirdly let down for about half a second, then she said, "You should make it stronger."
"Go ahead and tell her. She said she doesn't feel welcome in our house. Tell her the truth. Tell her she's welcome, but he's not. Tell her he doesn't know how to behave around decent people. Tell her the way he treats you. Go ahead and tell her."
"I always thought you blamed me. For the way things are between us. That you wanted me to somehow make up with him."
"I never said that. I didn't say anything like that. What I wanted was for you to write a letter like this, but I didn't want to push." She was standing there with her arms folded, cool as an iceberg. I liked having that chill directed at somebody else for a change.
So I wrote the letter. I told my mother how, when he played games with me as a kid, he would tear up the cards if I started to win. How whenever Elizabeth or I cooked for him, he would look at the plate and say, "What is this shit?" like it was supposed to be funny. How when I was in high school and he couldn't find anything to punish me for, he would ground me for my "attitude." The letter was about four pages. Elizabeth liked it and I went ahead and sent it.
I got this apologetic letter back from my mother. Later, on the phone, she said she talked to my father about some of the things in the letter and he'd said, "He'll get over it." That was the week before they went to Cozumel.
So my father is dead, and Alex is married with two kids somewhere here in Austin. But there is this other lost thing, this Beatles song, and maybe I can have that back.
Elizabeth was off to work by 7:30 the next morning. I did the breakfast dishes and went upstairs. I had a couple of easy jobs I was supposed to get out by lunch time—new belts on a turntable, an amp with a short in the power supply. I couldn't make myself look at them. Instead I got out a new Maxell XLII 60 and put it in the Nakamichi. I powered it up and fast-forwarded the tape all the way through, then rewound it to get the tension right. I cued it up past the leader. Then I sat down on the couch with remote.
I laid it all out in my head like before. The control booth, the four Beatles, the sound stage outside the window. George Martin with his chin in his hand, Geoff Emerick rewinding the tape. Martin nods to Emerick. I turned on the Nakamichi.
The song played right through to the final "yeah yeah yeah yeah." After that was the squeak of the piano stool, the click of the intercom, and Martin's voice from the tape saying, "Come on up, fellows, let's listen to that one." Then silence.
My hands and my forehead were sweating. I pried my eyes open. November sunshine, digital readouts on the stereo, the spools of the cassette still turning. I rewound the tape and dropped the remote on the couch next to me.
I was exhausted. I went downstairs and washed my face, poured a fresh cup of coffee. Either there was something on the tape or there wasn't. Either way I didn't know what to do about it.
I fought my way through the two repair jobs and called the customers. Then I took a nap for an hour. I was still tired when I woke up, but my nerves wouldn't let me sleep any longer. I went upstairs and played the tape.
I was waiting for Elizabeth when she got home. She stopped in her tracks when she saw me and said, "What's wrong?"
I said, "I want you to come upstairs and listen to something."
"I think so, yeah."
She dumped her purse and her books and sighed theatrically as she climbed the stairs. She sat on the couch and listened to the tape all the way through. "The Beatles, right?"
"Did you notice anything different about it?"
"I guess. It sounded faster maybe."
"It's a totally different version."
"One of those bootlegs or something?"
"Unh uh. It's not like that at all." I got up and went over to the deck and shut it down. "I made it," I said.
"I don't understand."
"I don't either." I turned around and faced her, leaning back against the counter top. "I know this sounds completely crazy. I was trying to imagine the song, I mean the Beatles playing it this way, and it started coming out of the speakers. So I, like, did it again, with the recorder on, and I got a tape of it."
Elizabeth sat there for a long time, just looking at me. The sun was behind her making her a little hard to see. She was perched on the very edge of the sofa, like she didn't mean to stay. There was a half-smile on her face that came and went, like a rheostat making the overhead light just a little brighter and dimmer. Finally she said, "This is some kind of joke, right?"
"It's not a joke."
"I don't understand. What is it you want me to say?"
"You heard the tape. It is something different, right?"
"I can't authenticate a Beatles recording for you. I mean, come on. I can tell you that yes, you sound pretty crazy."
"I can do it again."
"Ray, listen to yourself. Do you really expect me to believe there's some kind of occult shit going on here? I'm worried about you. I know this business with your father has been hard for you. You're not sleeping, you're having all these nightmares. Maybe you ought to get some help."
"I can do it again. I'll show you." I was dead tired, and it was hard to concentrate with her in the room. But I did it, and a few seconds of music came out of the speakers.
Elizabeth stood up. "It's not funny, Ray. If you want to tell me what's really going on, fine, I'll be downstairs. I can't handle this right now. I need a hot shower and a little peace and quiet."
She went downstairs. I lay down on the couch in a band of warm sunlight and went to sleep.
That night I had another dream. My father is kneeling in front of me. He says something, daring me, I think, and I start to hit him in the face. I hit him until my arms get tired and then I realize out of nowhere that I might be hurting him. I start to put my arms around him, to apologize. He takes it the same way he took the beating, deadpan, no emotion, doesn't say a word.
When I woke up I wondered if Elizabeth was right. Maybe I was playing tricks on myself, maybe I was worse off than I realized. The house was cool and I felt like I was a million miles away from anybody. Elizabeth slept on the far side of the queen-size bed, her back to me, a mound of covers over her and Dude on top of the covers, staring at me with eyes that glowed like LEDs.
Elizabeth is thirty-one to my thirty-seven, six years younger than me. We met when she was waitressing, before she went back to school and got her teaching certificate. Fall of 1978. I'd gone into the Lemmon Avenue Bar and Grill on crutches, ankle sprained from Sunday's full-contact racketball game. I used to hang out there a lot because there was a sort of house policy where the waitresses would sit across from you and talk to you when they took your order. The food was good too. I didn't remember seeing Elizabeth before that night: medium height, slightly on the heavy side of average, that multicolored golden hair, a smile that made me wish she'd let me in on the joke. She made me put my sunglasses on before she would show me my prime rib, which she thought was too rare. She brought me a second beer without me asking and forgot to charge me for it. When I pointed it out she looked at me like I was a complete idiot, which I guess I was.
I didn't ask her out for another two weeks. By then I was eating there almost every night and always asking for her station. When I finally did she said, "I was wondering when you'd get around to it." It took me years to realize that there was big difference between expecting it and actually looking forward to it.
The thing I liked best was the way I was around her. I always wore a sport coat when I went over to her place, always brought a bottle of wine or some flowers. We went to plays and French movies with subtitles and museums. It was romantic. I was playing way over my head. She had a roommate who thought I was terrific and said so to Elizabeth all the time. Maybe too much. It made Elizabeth dig her heels in, refuse to be impressed by me.
Still she must have felt something, even from the first. The first time I asked her name she said "Elizabeth" right off, though I found out later she'd always gone by Beth up till then. It was what her roommate and all her friends still called her. I think both of us had the idea we could pull ourselves by our bootstraps into a Hollywood love affair, with violins in the sex scenes.
Instead it was an uphill fight. She was so young, only 20 when we started dating. She was nervous about sex, putting me off for weeks. We kissed some, but that was awkward too. She finally admitted she'd never been crazy about kissing. I still can't believe I married a woman who doesn't like to kiss. When she finally gave in and went to bed with me I was all over her, waking her up in the night for more.
I think about that more than anything. That first couple of months, walking around with the smell of sex ground permanently into your hands and crotch and face. But it never lasts. Why is that? The times I've come close to having an affair, that was what I thought about, how it would be to feel that way again, even if it was only for a while.
I ask myself why we're still together, and I never get a good answer. She can always make me laugh if she wants to. This August, right before school started, we spent the weekend at my friend Pete's lake house and it had started off like a second honeymoon, making love twice the first day, holding hands in the restaurant, walking by the lake that night. I went to sleep thinking, this is the reason, I made a stand to keep my marriage together, and now it's working again. But by Sunday afternoon she was reading magazines and watching TV and I was icing down another six pack.
We came home and now there are entire months again where we don't make love at all, days where we don't even talk except the menial household minimum, times when I know she's ready to kill me and I'm ready to kill her and we sit and suffer in separate rooms so we don't have to look at each other.
Pete's my best friend, and the weird part is he's Elizabeth's best friend too. I met him the first year I was in Austin, at a record collector's show. I was impressed with the great stuff he had at his table, which turned out to be duplicates from when he and his wife put their collections together.
He works for the University of Texas doing data entry. It makes him enough money to get by, has great benefits, and lets him listen to music all day. He calls pretty much every afternoon.
I was downstairs making a sandwich when the phone rang. When I picked it up I saw Elizabeth had stuck a green "RIPE" sticker from an avocado onto the receiver. It was goofy enough to make me smile, to keep me willing to stay married one more day. "Afternoon," Pete said. "What's going on?"
"You doing okay? I mean...you know."
It's like men and women have their own languages. There are some of the same words in both of them, but they still come out differently. Some things men don't really have words for. I know Pete's worried about me, and I even know why. He knows how it was between my father and me, and he knows I should be feeling something about it. Only he doesn't have the words to ask and I don't have the words to answer.
"Sure. I'm just, you know, catching up on some work. I mean, not right this minute. Right this minute I'm making a sandwich."
"Right this minute you're on the phone with me." Some people work crosswords. Pete likes to quibble. Actually, he does crosswords too. Christ, now he's got me quibbling.
"I'm making a sandwich with my other hand."
"So are we on for dinner this weekend?"
"I think Beth is going to have a headache."
"Picking up psychic vibrations?"
"Something like that."
"She's a complicated person. But then we're all complicated people."
"What do you see in her, anyway?"
"You're asking me?"
"You're her best friend," I said.
"Well, she has a lot of good qualities. She's smart, she's funny, she's attractive..."
"...and underneath that icy exterior I think there's a genuinely caring and concerned human being who's simply scared out of her mind."
"By life, old buddy. By you."
"Look at you. Not even forty, and you retired to start your own business. And you made it work from day one. You drink all the time, and yet I've never seen you drunk. You just handle it. Shit happens, and you handle it. Your father dies, and what happened?"
"I handled it."
"You handled it. Don't you think that's a little scary?"
"I'd think it would be comforting."
"Then you don't know women very well."
"Hey, fuck you."
"Don't get me wrong. I'm no expert."
"That's the damned truth. Don't make me hurt your feelings." There was a silence, then I said, "Listen. Are you doing anything tonight?"
"Nothing special. There's no basketball till next week." Pete lives for UT basketball. The season is just starting and he isn't thinking about much else.
"I've got a tape I want to bring by."
"Sure," he said. "Bring it on."
I got to his place around seven. He lives by the airport in a two-bedroom stucco place, which he and Cindy make just enough to pay for. Cindy was out somewhere, probably at her mother's, who needs more attention than any other two or three people I know. I put the tape on and Pete, at least, knew right away that it wasn't anything he'd ever heard before. I even managed the trick of making it come out of the speakers while Pete held the cassette in his hand.
When I was done Pete went into the dining room and got a fifth of Jack Black out of the antique secretary. He put a couple ounces in a glass and drank it back. "You want something?"
"Beer, if you got it," I said.
We sat down in the living room. "There's an explanation for this," Pete said. "A totally reasonable explanation." He's an inch or two taller than me, skinny, with straight brown hair to his collar. "I just don't know what the hell it is."
He drained his glass and went after another refill. When he came back he said, "What's the scariest thing you can think of?"
I shook my head. "President Dan Quayle. I don't know. We've played this game before. Your greatest fear is going to prison for a crime you didn't commit."
"That's just one aspect of it. The larger..." he waved his hand in a circle. "Whatever. Is that one day the world just stops making sense. Everything you know is wrong. Your friends aren't your friends, your wife is some guy that had a sex change as a teenager, the guy down the street is from Mars. You know what I'm saying? This is like that. And I can't handle it. I just can't deal with it."
He tossed me the tape. "You could maybe see somebody at UT about it. Do they have a parapsychologist? I don't know, whoever does this kind of Uri Geller stuff. If you can do it at will, you can get to be some kind of travelling freak show. But I don't think you want that. I think you should forget this ever happened. Or maybe see a shrink about it."
"I'm not crazy."
"Everybody's crazy," Pete said, quibbling again. "But this is weird. Can we talk about something else?"
I thought about it on the drive home. The thing is, if there's something wrong with me, I'm not sure I want it to get better.
Pete's right about my handling things. Back in 1979, when I was burned out on Dallas and Elizabeth wanted to go to UT for her teacher's certificate, I made sure I had a design job in Austin before I quit Warrex. And I kept that job even after I started the repair business, working nights until I was sure I could make a go of it full time.
Elizabeth calls me "Captain Sensible." Which is really the name of the bass player from the Damned, but she doesn't care about that. She says it in a way that is supposed to make me understand that she kind of admires it and even counts on it, but that it pisses her off a little too.
When I got home it was almost nine. Elizabeth and Dude were watching Dynasty. I went upstairs and thought about how I was maybe a little tired of being Captain Sensible myself. That if I didn't want to let go of this Beatles tape, then I had to keep going.
I called Southwest Airlines, who said they could put me on a plane to LA the next day, round trip, for $198. Then I called a woman named Peggy that I used to work with at Warrex. She quit the same time as me, moved to New York and went to work for Marvel Comics. I knew she sent comics to Graham Hudson at Carnival Dog Records and he sent her CDs. Hudson is the guy that does their remastering, the brains behind those sixties compilations, Glimpses. I had all three volumes in the series, these great lost and overlooked cuts by major bands, by national acts that died on the vine, by local acts that never made it big. "Desiree" by the Left Banke, "William Jr." by the Novas, "Go Back" by Crabby Appleton, "Think About It" by the Yardbirds.
Peggy said she'd call him for me and get me an appointment. It was only seven o'clock on the west coast. She wanted to know what this was all about and I told her she wouldn't believe me.
"Did you start another band or something? Didn't you use to play drums?"
"Not for a long time," I said.
I sat by the phone for half an hour, beginning to think that nothing was going to happen. I had myself halfway believing that Pete was right, that I should wipe the tape and forget all about it. Then Peggy called back and said Hudson would see me at three p.m. Friday afternoon, the day after tomorrow.
They say bees can't see the color red. It was that way when I told Elizabeth I was flying to Los Angeles. It seemed to roll right off her, like she couldn't believe it was really happening. When she asked me why, I told her it was because of the tape. She couldn't quite see the tape either.
"Can we afford this?" she asked.
"VISA's clear. I can charge everything."
After a second or two she said, "Do I get any say in this?"
"Sure. If you don't want me to go, I won't."
I thought that was what she wanted to hear but I could see I had only succeeded in pissing her off. It went straight up her spine. She turned back to the TV set in terribly final kind of way. "In that case, by all means, go ahead, go."
"Look," I said. "I'm sorry. It's just something I have to do."
She held up her left hand, palm toward me, and cocked it in a short wave. I understood it to mean, "Right, fine, conversation over." The odds were she would say goodbye to me at the airport, but nothing else until I was safely out of town.
I went upstairs and called Pete to tell him. He said, "I don't suppose you're seeing a shrink out there? Or the Amazing Randi or somebody?"
"The Amazing Who?"
"He's a professional debunker. Ex-magician. Checks out a lot of psychics."
"No. A record company guy."
"This isn't like you. To just up and fly to LA. It's so..."
"Yeah. How's Beth taking it?"
"We don't seem to be talking."
"You probably scared the shit out of her. The only thing scarier than Captain Sensible is when Captain Sensible goes off the rails."
"I guess I hadn't thought about it that way."
"I'm not trying to beat you up or anything. Beth's first reaction to anything is to clam up."
It's true. If she's in a good mood she's full of jokes and small talk, but even then she doesn't talk about stuff like, say, feelings or anything.
"Listen," Pete said. "Take some advice. Try to have fun out there. And if some little beach bunny wants to fuck your brains out, don't let your conscience stand in your way. Wear a rubber, but don't hesitate."
"I don't think I'm the beach bunny type."
"All I'm saying is, keep an open mind. And tell me everything when you get home."
After that I called my mother. I call every two or three days because I know it means a lot to her. I still dread it every time. I see her rattling around in that big house by herself, either in her robe or the jogging suits she's started wearing in the last few years. Her hair is dyed this sandy color that is nothing like the brown it used to be. She's medium height, her posture's still okay, but she has this little pot belly that no amount of sit-ups can get rid of. I don't have anything to say to her, and all she has to tell me are the tiniest details of her of her life—what was in the salad she had for lunch, the few percentile points she gains in interest by moving her savings around from bank to bank. This time she replayed her conversation with an American Airlines ticket clerk, word for word, about getting the refund on my father's return ticket from Mexico. She corrected herself every time she got a detail out of place, finally giving up when she couldn't remember the last two digits of the amount, whether it was 83 cents or 38, and breaking down in tears.
I thought about a lot of things that night. One of them was Peggy, and her asking about my starting a band again. I haven't played drums in almost 20 years, since I left Austin with my tail between my legs and went to DeVry. But I still dream about it, usually one of those frustration dreams where you can't ever get where you need to be. I have a gig with, like, the Jefferson Airplane, only the drums never show up. Or I can't get past the guards to the stage. Or we get set up and there are these endless delays that keep me from getting to play until I wake up.
I never wanted to play drums in the first place. I wanted to be a guitarist. I got a gut-string Silvertone acoustic guitar for Christmas of my sophomore year, and I practiced all the time, with that hormone-fueled obsessiveness that is the only card you really have to play when you're 15. Then that summer, working in this high-school theater company, I ran my left hand into a skill saw. After they finished putting me back together, I couldn't unbend my index finger any more. It meant learning to play all over again on a left-handed guitar, or taking up something else. My best friends all played guitar and they needed a drummer, so I volunteered, just to be able to play something, to be part of it.
I don't remember ever saying anything to Peggy about my playing drums, though obviously I must have. It must be more on my mind than I give it credit for.
I'd never been to LA before. The plane flies over the middle of Palm Springs and right away you start to see the swimming pools, little spots of blue in the endless tan of the desert. Then you cross the San Bernardino Mountains into LA itself and the air turns darker and the horizon disappears in brownish-yellow haze.
I rented a Pontiac Sunbird at the airport. It was the first time I ever had to rent a car and I felt like an idiot having to have everything spelled out for me while guys in suits shifted their weight impatiently behind me. It didn't have a tape deck so I got my little hand-held cassette player and some tapes out of my suitcase. By the time I got onto the street it was almost dark. I was afraid of the expressways so I took Lincoln Boulevard all the way north to Santa Monica, looking for a cheap motel.
Things in LA are smaller and older than I thought they'd be, lots of low Spanish buildings from the forties and fifties, nothing much over two stories unless you get right downtown. I kept the windows open for a while, but without the sun the air got cool and I rolled them back up. I saw people on roller skates and skateboards everywhere, lots of convertibles, kids in leather and spiked hairdos. There were a few token Christmas decorations that couldn't quite compete with the neon pinks and greens and yellows that everybody was wearing. There was music everywhere, mostly rap, played at unbelievable volume. It was like being in high school with my parents out of town, and me with the car all weekend. Everything was new and exciting and at the same time I felt more grown up and on my own than I had in years.
I turned right on Colorado Avenue and drove past Carnival Dog records, so I could be sure to find it in the morning. It's just a two-story box, next to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Once I'd seen it I headed north again, toward San Vicente Boulevard.
My parents lived here from the summer of 1946 to the fall of 1949, in half of a four-bedroom house on 16th Street. It's still there, tan stucco, red tile roof, palm trees and porticoes, only a few blocks from the beach. My father's aunt owned it and rented out the other half. My father had come here in the summers before the war, before he married, and he used to talk about those years as the best of his life, dancing on the pier every night, playing tennis every day. There were tennis courts down the street and he said that for the rest of his life just the sound of tennis, that distant clop of a well-hit ball, filled him with unbearable longing. The pier was different then, he said, all elegance and romance. When he talked I saw this long California sunset out over the water, heard a big band play "Moonlight Serenade," heavy on the clarinets. The air was clean and smelled of orange blossoms and the railings were lined with beautiful women in dresses that came just past their knees, their long hair piled high with silver combs.
I drove back to the pier and parked above it on Ocean Avenue. The wind was cold and I zipped up my jacket and stuck my hands in my pockets. Fourth Street goes straight out onto the pier, arching out over the Pacific Coast Highway below. There's a big curved sign that says, "SANTA MONICA YACHT HARBOR * SPORT FISHING * BOATING * CAFES." At the closest end of the pier is the Carousel, enclosed in a reconstructed Victorian-looking building. To the left some steps lead down into the sand where there's playground stuff for kids.
I went into the Carousel building and watched the crowds lined up to ride. There are three concentric rows of horses, all brightly painted, with lots of silver and gold. Along the walls are antique-type vending machines, including a fortune teller called "Estrella's Prophecies." I bought my fortune, which turned out to be a small black-and-white card with some old-fashioned clip art on it.
"Yes my friend your greatest fault is that you talk too much. Learn to keep a secret." Did she mean the "Long and Winding Road" tape? "However your other golden qualities make up for your talkativeness. Your anxiety to help others, and your consideration of other people's wishes has earned you many friends.
"A friend will urge you to take a trip. Don't do it. Your best interest lies in remaining at home. I'm depending on your good sense to lead you on the right path." For another coin, she promised to tell more. Thanks, Estrella.
Outside, all I could see of the water was the white of the waves as they broke. I pushed through the crowds and got out onto the pier proper, which is a long line of T-shirt shops and fast food franchises: the Crown and Anchor, Seaview Seafood. People line up on both sides of the pier fishing, mostly oriental and chicano. Signs say, "No comer los 'white croakers.'" At the far end there are bumper cars, flashing blue sparks from the grid of wires overhead.
Whatever my father loved here is long gone. But then he'd told me that. I bought myself a Venice Beach T-shirt and a pretzel and a beer and watched the waves roll in.
In the morning I cruised through Hollywood and saw the sign on the hill and Graumann's Chinese. A few blocks in any direction from the Walk of Fame and things get very gray and businesslike. The sun was out but the smog was heavy enough to wash out all the colors. I looked up at the Griffith Park Observatory from ground level and saw UCLA and had a hamburger there just off Sunset Boulevard. A little before three o'clock I was in the waiting room at Carnival Dog Records.
The place is done up in African kitsch. There's a thatched straw roof over the receptionist's desk, hard wooden chairs painted purple with yellow polka dots, zebra stripes on the walls and on the steel-and-concrete staircase that goes up to the second floor. There were a few copies of the latest LA Weekly stacked by the front door. There are these dog heads—framed prints and paintings, plaster casts, wooden carvings—all over the place.
The receptionist had short dark hair and lots of eyeliner. She wore a T-shirt with neon colors and a black vinyl miniskirt. She had a buzzer that unlocked the doors on either side of her desk. While I sat there she buzzed a long stream of people through: a tall, skinny guy in a Twilight Zone black satin tour jacket, a heavyset guy with a black beard and a Hawaiian shirt, a woman in a short red dress and fishnet hose. I was wearing my good corduroy pants and a checked shirt with a knit tie. I'd even put aside my Converse All-Stars for hard shoes. The idea was to look like somebody Hudson could take seriously, and I was starting to think I'd gone the wrong way.
A little after three her intercom buzzed and she curled a finger at me and smiled. She led me up the stairs and down a gray-carpeted hallway, past a second receptionist. In one corner was a plastic statue of the RCA dog, Nipper, that they'd dressed up in sunglasses, a Hawaiian shirt, and a conical party hat. She knocked on an office door, then opened it for me and stepped aside.
A voice said, "Come on in." It was deep, a little hoarse, and had a bit of a Southern accent. A man behind a desk was stretching his hand out toward me. "Pardon me if I don't get up."
I saw that he was in a wheelchair. "Ray Shackleford," I said. I shook his hand and sat down across from him. The office has shelves on all four walls that only go shoulder-high. From there to ceiling there are framed certificates and album covers and gold records and a pennant for the Arkansas Razorbacks. The shelves are so full of albums and and books and magazines, stacks of greenbar paper and unlabeled cassettes, that the leftovers are stacked on the floor. There's just enough room between the stacks for a clear plastic runner over the carpet, the width of Hudson's wheels. In one corner a miniature basketball hoop is nailed to the shelves above a wastebasket. There wasn't much on the desk. A phone, a single Regal-Tip drumstick, a stack of paper, a few wooden pencils.
Hudson himself looks to be not much older than me. His hair is whitish blond, stiff, and combed ineffectively to one side. It looks like the exhaust from a rocket. He was wearing an LA Lakers T-shirt and a pair of checked K-Mart pants with the left leg folded under, just behind where the knee would have been.
"So," he said. "You're a friend of Peggy's. Is she as cute in person as she sounds on the phone?"
I was shaky, but he had a quality that kept me from going over the edge into panic. "She was last time I saw her. Of course that was before she started dating this huge Italian guy. After which time it ceased to matter to anybody else whether she was cute or not."
Hudson laughed. "What can I do for you, Ray?"
"I guess you hear this all the time. But it's not what it sounds like. I want you—I want you to listen to a tape."
"We don't really do new artists on Carnival Dog. We're strictly reissue."
"I know all that. Give me ten seconds. It'll be a lot easier than trying to explain."
Hudson shrugged and smiled and held out his hand. I gave him the tape, wondering if I should offer to cue it up for him. He rolled himself back from the desk with a quick spin of the wheel rim and then shot himself over to an expensive boom box half-buried on one of the shelves. He put the tape in and started it. I didn't know what would happen next. Maybe I was crazy. Maybe I'd unconsciously taped some bootleg cut that Pete hadn't heard but Hudson would recognize immediately.
The volume was up high enough to hear some hiss on the beginning of the tape. Then McCartney's voice, the acappella first line of the song. Hudson turned to look at me, obviously wondering what the hell. Then Ringo and George came in and his head jerked back to the machine. He turned up the volume and watched the little wheels turn inside the cassette.
"Holy shit," he said.
He didn't say anything else until the song was over, and the intercom dialog. Then he said, "Is that it?"
"Where in hell did it come from?"
"I can't tell you that. Not right now. I want to know what you heard."
"Something that can't exist. I've read all the books, I know they never—" He went back to the machine, rewound it part way, listened again, his left ear right up against one speaker and then the other. There was an equalizer built into the box and he isolated the tom-toms, then the guitar. He shook his head. "If this is a fake, it's the best I've ever heard."
I felt the muscles across my chest relax. "It's not a fake."
"Is there more?"
"But there could be?"
"I think so."
"All Beatles stuff?"
"I don't know."
His intercom buzzed. "Howard Kaylan on line one for you," the receptionist said.
"Never mind," Hudson said. I understood suddenly that there wasn't really a call, it was just an excuse for him to get me out of the office if he needed to. "Hold my calls, okay?"
Hudson looked at me. "You've got my attention. You brought this here for some reason. Let's hear it."
"I'll tell you," I said, "but you won't believe it."
"After hearing that tape...I'd believe anything."
So I told him. About my father, about the repair business, about how I made the tape. I watched his face while I told him, waiting for his eyes to glaze or his shoulders to pull back. What I saw was intent interest.
"So you're saying you could do it again," he said when I was finished. "Like maybe on a digital master tape."
"I could try."
"Then hey, let's do it."
"Right now?" It felt like my heart turned upside down.
"I'm game if you are."
I let him lead, uncertain if I should offer to push. We went back out to the upstairs reception area where it turned out there was a small elevator. It let us out into a big room partitioned into cubicles. There were little pieces of paper pinned up everywhere: Postit notes, dummy artwork for CD longboxes, computer printouts. Beyond that was a long hallway, at the end of which was a door with a red light above it. The light was not on. Hudson opened the door and I realized I was looking at the lab where he does all the Carnival Dog digital transfers.
Hudson wheeled in and started turning things on. I mostly stood there with my tongue hanging out. It didn't look much like the control room at Abbey Road. For one thing it faces a curtained wall instead of a studio. The floor is parquet and there's a beat up office chair with duct tape holding one of the rollers on. As you face the curtain there's an Ampex 1/4" open reel deck on the left, then a big two-track mixing console with digital readouts in the middle, then a Studer 1/4" deck. Next to it is the Sony 1630, which I knew about from trade magazines. It looks like an entire rack mount stereo system. It turns an analog signal into two tracks of digital and puts it on 3/4" JVC format videotape. I would love to take it apart, but it was not the time to ask.
To the left is a rack with a turntable on top and a couple of Tascam cassette decks. On another rack are Mitsubishi amps and preamps, the big kind with the vertical handles mounted on the face. There are three-foot JBL speakers mounted above the curtains and, above the mixing deck, a pair of Aurotone sound cubes, which I'd heard about but never seen before. They are supposed to emulate car speakers, so you can check what your mix would sound like coming over the radio. Hudson put a fresh videocassette into the 1630 and said, "Okay. Tell me what you need."
"Monitors," I said, "so I can hear it. And a couple seconds to like calm down and everything."
"Nod when you're ready."
I settled in the office chair and closed my eyes. The air was cool and the only sounds were the hum of the air conditioner and a faint preamp hiss in the speakers. In the back of my head I knew I had to pull this off. I wasn't worried. I was in love with all the hardware in that room and I wanted to hear it perform. I knew the 1630 could pick up nuances that my Nakamichi never could, the scrape of the guitar pick on the strings, the tiniest variation in the cymbal strokes, the whisper of the pedals on the piano. I was up for it.
I got all the pieces together in my head. I could see Paul's face, hear John nervously tapping one booted foot. Ringo putting out a cigarette and laughing at something. It was all there. I nodded and Hudson started the tape. I closed my eyes. Geoff Emerick said, "Long and Winding Road. Take four." I heard Hudson shift in his chair, like I'd scared him. Then Paul started singing.
I opened my eyes. The needles on the mixing board VU meters were moving. Hudson stared at them but didn't touch any of the controls. He never looked at me. The song went right on through to the end, and there was a bit more after that I hadn't heard before. Ringo stamping on the bass drum, a woman's voice that must have been Yoko. Then nothing. "That's all," I said.
Hudson rewound it in silence, except for the faint him of the transport mechanism. He stopped it in the middle and listened. I could hear the space between the musicians, hear each note decay separately. I wasn't as tired as I had been before. Finding it, I guess, is the really hard part.
Hudson stopped the tape in the middle of a verse.
"Well?" I said.
He still wouldn't look at me.
"Give me a minute," he said. "I don't think I can talk right now."
He rewound the tape then took his time about writing my name and the date on the label. We took it to the room next door, a fireproof vault about the size of a small closet. It had a lock on the door and steel shelves inside. He locked the tape inside and said, "How about a beer?"
"I would deeply appreciate that."
We went out to the parking lot and he said, "We can take my car." He wheeled himself up to a maroon Volvo and opened the door.
"Uh, listen, can I help?"
"It's no problem," he said. "You get used to it."
He parked the chair parallel to the open door and lifted his right leg into the car with both hands. Then he put one hand on the seat and the other on the door and hoisted himself inside. He folded the chair and then scooted to his right until he could pull the driver's seat forward and stash the chair behind it. Then he unlocked the passenger door and I got in. "Are you hungry at all?" he said.
"I could eat."
"We're going to have to talk about this. We can talk about it in some noisy bar, or we can just go back to my house. You don't have to be nervous, I'm not gay or anything. It's just I've got a case of Raffo in the icebox, and...you ever had Raffo?"
"Yeah. It's good beer."
We headed back down Lincoln toward Venice.
"You know there's nothing we can legally do with a tape like that," Hudson said. I felt myself sink a little. "I believe what I saw today. Capitol Records would never believe it. They would tie you up in lawsuits until you couldn't take a leak without a court order."
"But the music..."
"We're talking record executives here. If they cared about music, they wouldn't be in that end of the business. You know what they used to call the Capitol Executives? The Coors Club. Because at five p.m. sharp, they had a little icebox there in the office, at five o'clock everything stops and whoosh, it's pop top time. No matter who's there to see them, no matter what band is hung up somewhere needing help."
We turned uphill into a neighborhood of one-story stucco houses and small lawns. "So what are you saying?"
He pulled into one of the driveways and turned the car off. "I'm saying we can't do anything legally. But this still needs to get out there."
"You're talking bootleg?"
"I'm just talking, you understand. But it could be done. If you had forty-five minutes to an hour's worth of material, high quality CD, full-color booklet, distributed through a network of collectors with the right connections. If it was something people really wanted, you could name your own price. A hundred dollars a unit wouldn't be out of line."
We sat there a minute or two in silence. It was late afternoon, warm enough that I could feel the sunlight on my right arm. The wind rustled palm trees next door and I could smell cut grass and flowers.
"Something to think about," Hudson said, and opened his door.
The inside of his house is open and low, Navajo rugs on flagstone floors, rough plaster walls, lots of plants. There are skylights in the roof and shelves full of stacked-up magazines. There's a wicker couch and one other chair, a coffee table, and lots of space to maneuver around them.
Hudson pointed me toward the couch and wheeled off into the kitchen. He brought back two bottles of beer and drank his off in one long swallow. Then he sighed, eyes closed, head leaning back. It looked like he and I would get along.
I said, "What would people really want?"
"What sort of thing would be worth a hundred dollars a shot?"
"Well, that's the question, isn't it? There's Beatle boots out there now, those Ultra Rare Trax? So the Beatles might not be the best place to start. There's a million lost albums that collectors have talked about for years. The second Derek and the Dominoes, Smile, the Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash album. There's the Buffalo Springfield's Stampede. Lee Perry was supposed to do a Wailers album for Island in the mid-seventies...I need to think about this."
"While you're thinking, is there a phone I could use?"
He pointed. "In the hall there. Just dial 1 for long distance."
"I've got a card..."
"Hey. You're in music business now. You're tax deductible. Get used to it."
Elizabeth was home. She sounded tired. "I'm okay," she said. "I miss you. The house is all empty and echoing. Dude keeps walking around crying. Hey, Dude, c'mere, it's your Dad on the phone."
"It looks like I'm going to be out here another day or two."
"I played the tape for this record guy and it really shook him up."
"The one you played for me?"
There was a long silence. I could hear her think about asking again where the tape came from, hear her decide she didn't want to know. "Where are you staying?" she finally said.
I gave her the number of the motel.
"Is it nice?"
"It's seedy, but seedy in a nice kind of way."
"I love you," Elizabeth said. "I wish you were here."
"I love you too. I'll call you tomorrow."
After I put the phone down I stood in the hallway for a minute. When I'm actually in Austin she can't say the things she does on the phone, the simple intimacies, the unforced affection. It leaves me hung up in this never-never land, wanting to be home in a place that doesn't really exist.
I went back into the living room. Graham Hudson had a big smile all over his face. "The Doors," he said. "Celebration of the Lizard."
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