So Long, Whale Bum
To give you some idea how seriously I took it, that’s what I called my first solo album.
The public, if such a noble beast still exists, agreed with my low opinion of myself-as-a-musical-entity. If we’re counting individuals, there are only three-hundred-and-three of them to blame for my desire to record a follow-up.
This time I would do it right. No more computers. Proper songs with proper sadness in them, or improper sadness – which was what Syph had always done.
His deep regret at not having been unfaithful more often: great song.
His huge self-disgust after a sudden moment of innocence: great song.
Loath as I was to admit this, and sloth as I was to dial his number, eventually I had to say the words, ‘Can we meet?’
After Syph had said, ‘Who are you again?’ about five times more than was funny, he said sure why not old times partner saddle cowboy gold yee-hah four o’clock coffee bar 1965 you’re paying remember.
I said, ‘Thank you.’
I was fifty years-old – I said Thank you a lot. Gratitude was the presiding emotion at the feast of my survival. Thank you, maple tree. Thank you, news anchor. Thank you, twitter followers.
And more than thank you to wife and children. Praises of self-abasement from a point down in the weave of the lowest rug. I am a worm of perpetual naughtiness, and ye are my gods of Balance and Checks. Ye determine my Wakings and control my Late Afternoons. Without ye, I would be three hundred words of querulous obituary, some ashes in a cookie jar and about a quarter of a million Canadian dollars of second-hand studio equipment.
Syph was there early, so I assumed – rightly – he was clean.
‘You look,’ he said, ‘like you always did.’
‘You look like shit,’ I said, knowing he’d appreciate an honest expression of jealousy.
It had taken me years to become accustomed to his teeth. Although he’d explained that ‘normal teeth just don’t look normal on a cinema screen – they look like a gothic castle seen from below’ I always took more than two glances at them.
Syph’s Hollywood entré hadn’t led to a substantial main course. He was a reliable psychopathic villain in a horror movie franchise that had its up-till-now-final outing three years previously.
The teeth had glowed out in warehouses where water dripped and splashed, chains clinked and clanked, and unexplained BOOMs took place every time the viewer near-relaxed.
‘I like to eat,’ was his character’s catchphrase. ‘You hungry?’
And I hated to think new listeners would drag that voice back to our recorded output as okay. We had been about more than schlock, or I hoped we had. Tenderness was, at many points, attempted if not achieved.
‘I’ll have two double espressos,’ said Syph.
I ordered them, and one for me.
‘And something sweet.’
I knew I’d get the wrong thing, as I surveyed the organic pastries and artisanal biscuits and oh-fuck-it cakes.
The coffee bar was called 1965 and every picture on the wall was of Miles Davis, in that year. The music was period.
‘What would you recommend?’ I asked the female barista, pale-faced, black-haired. I could tell she’d recognized Syph. ‘For him,’ I said.
‘I’d recommend her ass,’ said the male barista.
‘Sorry about that,’ said the female barista. ‘But, yes, I’d recommend my ass.’
‘I’ll have the croissant,’ I said, half-Frenchly. ‘And a chocolate brownie.’
‘Were those double entendres?’ said the male barista. ‘Because, if they were, they were un peu lame.’
‘They were a food order, sir,’ I said, unsure why I was calling him sir, as if I was Frasier.
‘I’ll bring them over,’ said the female.
‘No, please, let me,’ said the male.
‘I’ll wait,’ I said. ‘I don’t trust you bitches.’
‘Oh, now he’s getting it,’ said the male.
‘It just takes a while to access to my inner Bear, these days.’
As they made the coffee, I looked at the tattoos of the baristas. Hers were of minor characters from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, his were of crossed blunderbusses firing sperm.
The espressos were poured.
‘And this is my phone number,’ said the female. ‘If you don’t give it to him, you are insecure in a fundamental way.’
‘Because I am, and not because I’m not,’ I said, ‘I will.’ (Even I was confused by that.)
And I did.
Syph looked at it as if it were a new movie script with his catchphrase in, hashtag resignation.
‘She isn’t even cute,’ he said.
‘I heard that,’ the female said.
‘Knew you were listening,’ said Syph.
‘Show some respect,’ said the male.
‘You make a pass, you take your chance,’ said Syph, as if it actually rhymed and was a thing people said to other people. Young people, male and female.
‘It wasn’t a pass,’ wailed the girl. I guessed it was fake wailing. I guessed she was faking crying to cover over real hurt. I’d seen this in both my sons. ‘It wasn’t a pass, you asshole – it was my grandmother’s number.’
‘It was,’ said Syph, Mr Disbelief.
Need I say, everyone in the place was now listening? The bearded guys and bangled girls. Some were, I later confirmed, status updating and tweeting.
‘Okay, then,’ said Syph, picking his phone up from the flyers on the table. I saw the face of Charles Mingus, revealed. ‘Let’s just check if your grandmother’s home.’
He dialled, as the female said. ‘No! No! Don’t.’ And he smirked as the phone in her back pocket began to chirrup whip-poor-will noises.
‘You bastard,’ the female said.
‘I’ll pick you up at seven thirty on Friday,’ said Syph. ‘Of course you’re cute – I just wanted to see if you had passion, too.’
‘Fuck you,’ she said, smiling.
‘And wear a miniskirt,’ said Syph, looking around at his audience.
‘Where we going then?’ she asked.
‘To jail,’ I said, attempting to break the mood. If I wasn’t careful, the audience would start applauding as if they’d just witnessed an interactive po-mo rom-com shot reality TV stylee. Unfriends.
‘We’ll go and visit my grandmother,’ said Syph.
‘All hail!’ cried the male barista. ‘That was a double entendre, if I ever heard one.’
‘I wish I was in Japan,’ I said. ‘You’d never get this shit from a sushi chef – or a geisha.’
‘We should’ve met in Japan,’ Syph said, his voice halfway between room and table level. ‘How is Esther?’
‘She’s fine,’ I said. ‘Seen Mono?’
‘Last week,’ said Syph. ‘Or do I mean year?’
‘Drink up. I want to go somewhere we’re not the center of attention.’
‘How about Madison Square Gardens?’ asked Syph. ‘I seem to remember we were pretty much ignored last time we played there.’
‘We did suck,’ I said.
‘In an interesting way.’
‘In a self-indulgent and you-insisting-on-us-only-playing-the-new-album way.’
‘Hey!’ said Syph, ‘“I am the man, I suffered, I was there.”’
‘Whitman,’ said the male barista.
‘Now really fuck off,’ I said.
‘You forgot your food,’ the female said, as she put two plates on our table.
‘“I feel hungry,”’ quoted Syph, and looked at her.
‘It’s the first three albums,’ she said, ‘not that awful Hollywood shit.’
‘You wooon’d me, my dee-yah,’ said Syph, the old fake Brit accent in which he always referred to his acting. Half James Mason, half Hugh Grant apologizing for the Divine Brown incident.
‘And she wants to see your torture room,’ shouted the male barista.
People laughed. People tweeted. One young guy, already bald, spat cappuccino on his chinos.
‘Don’t make jokes about his torture room,’ I said. ‘He’s very insecure about it.’
No-one laughed. People tweeted. The bald guy began to mop up.
The female barista whispered something in Syph’s ear, and he nodded, twice, three times.
‘I meant it the second time,’ he said quietly. ‘You are sweetly beautiful, m’darlin.’’
‘Thank you,’ she said, and walked away.
Miniskirt are go.
I sipped my espresso. Syph knocked his two back in two.
‘So, what did you want to talk about?’
‘Elsewhere,’ I said.
‘Are we reforming again?’
‘Probably,’ I said, but only to fuck with the twittersphere.
Syph wanted to drive and I wanted to walk.
We drove to the shore, then sat in his car. It was a make so expensive I didn’t recognize the logo in the middle of the steering wheel. It may have been bespoke.
‘It’s about songwriting,’ I said, before he asked a second time what? ‘How do you do it?’
‘All these years,’ Syph said. ‘And you finally come to ask the Master?’
‘I’m just curious.’
‘You’re desperate,’ he said. ‘You stink of curiosity.’
‘I need to know – how does it happen, when it happens?’
Syph leaned across. A woman walking a poodle went from left to right behind him. The water behind her was an imported-from-Greece blue. ‘Here’s the secret,’ he said. ‘No-one has a fucking clue.’
‘That’s not good enough,’ I said. ‘I need this.’
‘A good start,’ Syph said. Close up, he was getting that Mick Jagger pixie-testicle look.
‘Need,’ he cried. ‘Let your need out, rhythmically, melodically. Say what you gotta say.’
‘But – ’
‘“A Man Needs a Maid,”’ Syph cooed – ‘how embarrassing for Neil to have to write that. Imagine him sitting alone on his ranch, faced with that shit as the next line to put on top of C, F and G. But it couldn’t be denied. “Don’t be Denied.” It’s all there in his great works. “Helpless”, like the rest of us, before the sounds.’
‘Is this from an interview?’ I asked. ‘You’ve said this before – I’ve read it somewhere.’
‘Don’t be so cynical,’ he said. ‘This is the truth. You don’t just go up to the universe, tap it on the shoulder and say, “Give me a song.” Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve climbed mountains just to beg from the highest point. Doesn’t work. If you don’t have something it will kill you not to say, nothing’s happening.’
‘What do I need to say?’ I asked the question before he did.
‘Do you need to say anything? You never used to.’
‘I think I do.’
‘Think means you don’t.’
‘I want to write one good song.’
‘The worst songs in the history of the world, my friend, have been scientifically proved to be songs about wanting to write songs. See Van Morrison’s “Bang Sessions” for a takedown of that shit. You need to need your need. If you’re too Zen’d out with contentment, then the Muse will not descend.’
‘You’ve seen the Muse?’ I asked, after a pause to show him I was serious.
‘She takes many forms, some inhuman.’
‘She was the girl in the coffee bar?’
‘Oh no,’ said Syph. ‘You never see her face, at first – she’s always looking the opposite direction.’
‘You never – ’
‘You sing to get her attention because you know she’s the most beautiful thing ever. Even more beautiful than the last most beautiful thing. But she never turns until the last verse.’
‘And what does she look like?’
‘Different every time,’ said Syph. ‘More beautiful every time.’
‘This is so unfair,’ I said. ‘You’re telling me something I absolutely can’t believe.’
‘Robert Graves was no faker,’ Syph replied. ‘He knew his shit.’
‘You know Robert Graves?’
‘Practically by heart.’
‘The White Goddess or a poem.’
‘Oh, fuck it. I believe you.’
‘The Muse is never the wife,’ Syph said. ‘Structurally, it just isn’t possible. Apologies to Esther.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m not going there again.’
‘It was you she wanted, really,’ said Syph. ‘That was obvious. I can give you her number, or you could turn up on Friday, instead of me.’
‘I do not need to fuck a waitress to write a song.’
‘You do,’ said Syph. ‘Or you need to fuck something. Or something needs to fuck you. No fucking, no needing; no needing, no song.’
‘Is that a syllogism?’
‘It’s all you’re getting,’ said Syph. ‘The rest you’ll have to work out for yourself.’
He motioned to the passenger door.
‘What?’ I said.
‘You wanted to walk,’ he said. ‘Walk.’
To my wife. And children.
Song-less, song-less, song-less.
Friday night, seven twenty, sitting opposite the 1965 in my family Sedan.
The female barista stood there ten minutes, looking at her phone, looking gorgeous, before I crossed to her.
‘He couldn’t make it,’ I said. ‘He’s really sorry,’ I said.
‘I saw you parked,’ she said. ‘Don’t try to be nice.’
‘He’s always like this,’ I said.
‘I knew he wouldn’t come. But being stood up by him was at least a story.’
A guy I recognized walked up to us.
‘No show?’ he asked.
He was one of the people from the other tables, the tweeters – following up the hashtag. It was mouth-frappuccino, the already-bald guy.
‘If you do not leave,’ I said, ‘I will kill you, you lowlife fucker.’
‘Can I quote you on that, O Boddhisatva,’ he said.
‘You can quote my lawyer,’ I said.
‘That’s Rex,’ said the female, after Rex took his dark jacket and dry-cleaned chinos round the corner. ‘He asks me out once a full moon.’
‘I am sorry for my colleague,’ I said. ‘I mean, for Syph. He’s the world’s biggest asshole.’
‘But the songs,’ she said.
‘That’s too neat,’ I said, to the universe. ‘I refuse to have you make it that fucking neat.’
‘What?’ she asked.
‘I need a drink,’ I said. ‘Know anywhere?’
We started to walk.
‘You note,’ she said. ‘I am not – I repeat not – wearing a miniskirt.’
‘I don’t have a torture room,’ I said.
‘Of course you do,’ she said.
She was right, I just call it my mind.
An hour later, because I was a nice guy (she said), the female barista told me Syph had given her $20 – before I arrived in 1965 – to pretend to beg me to give Syph her number.
We were back on the street, outside the bar full of people her age.
‘So that was a set-up? You don’t really fancy him?’
‘Oh, I’ve slept with him already,’ she said. ‘No exchange of phone numbers took place.’
‘I see,’ I said. ‘Then why the $20?’
‘I think he wanted to be certain. I’m a little random, otherwise.’
I began to understand.
‘And you’re here tonight because.’
‘I thought he might show. Got nowhere else to be.’
‘Turn away from me,’ I said. ‘I’d like to see the back of your head.’
She showed me it.
‘Hmm,’ I said, getting nothing, getting nowhere.
‘You guys are weird,’ she said. ‘He wanted me to do that, too.’
‘Give me your phone,’ I said, and – after some fumbling with my own phone – dialled Syph’s number.
He did pick up, which surprised me.
‘You fucker,’ I said. ‘You told me the truth.’
‘Who is this?’ he said over and over, until it became funny.