Anatomy of a Barfly by Anna Marie Laforest (excerpts):
The last time they were here in my bar, the three of them together, it was just before Christmas. They stood around, at closing, not knowing what to say.
Tony had to pack up his keyboard and get going; it was a hundred-mile round trip to pick up his son for the holidays. Jack had to get going too. His wife would be waiting for him, to drive her to her Toronto relatives. He’d stick with them for the weekend, pretending that he was listening to them and not still here at the bar in some sense. Pretending he had no alternate life here, among the high-class lipsticks, the half-smoked menthols, the short tight tunes. Patti had to get going too. She had to get back to her kids and change, before they woke up, out of her glitter-silk blouse that dipped so low it showed the shadow of the lace on her slip.
They hadn’t talked any more but stood in a huddle, a little closer and a little closer, until even hugging wouldn’t have brought their three faces together more. Patti has blue dairy girl eyes that belong in Wisconsin, not here in Buffalo, and even her heavy mascara doesn’t make her look jaded. Jack and Tony’s eyes are deep and interchangeably hazel. Patti said once, “If only I could roll those two guys into one, we’d make the most perfect couple.”
We’ve all met people we wish we could splice or merge. But at this point Patti couldn’t have said exactly what she meant.
There’s been a lot of upstate weather lately. Most nights when Tony plays, people have to shovel their driveways a second time in order to get here. Our coat-check lady doesn’t complain, but I know she doesn’t like the smell of snow-wet wool, or the heaviness of the coats she has to lift onto the hangers.
But it was well before winter that Patti first came into my bar. We were at the tail-end of a blowzy Indian summer, the kind Buffalo always has just before a hard early winter hits. A lot of people still sitting on their stoops of an evening, waiting for the fair weather to grind to a halt.
Crowd’s not bad for a Tuesday. Better’n last night. Darn football games really keep ‘em home on the couch on Mondays. I got to try to get outta here by two tonight, catch me some zzz’s on my own couch, man. My arm’s still killing me from moving Sondra’s stuff Saturday. Could barely toss that football to Jimmy, poor kid. You’re getting’ old, man. You gotta see about that.
All the old softies are here tonight. Half of ‘em already got that wall-eyed look from drinking Millie’s red mix. Most of ‘em older than her too, that’s for sure. Tequila sunrise for the sunset set. Ha. But they’ll be ready to trot it out; I better save a couple slow sets for the end.
“Heeere’s Tammie! And Chuck! All right! Hey, Fred, got your horn tonight, man?” These people, the more you know them, the more you got to love them. I’ll give them some Roy Orbison here. I hope Jack drops by, gotta see if I can borrow his amp for the showcase on Sunday. Is that Doris over there all dolled up? Got her hair piled all high. Looking like she wants her neck kissed. I know who she wants to kiss it, too. “Hey, Mill, give Tom a call to get over here!” Except then I got to play his country faves…
“Paying your bills, Tony?”
“What? Hey! Jack.”
Always rubbing it in that I’m playin’ covers and not my own stuff.
Jack and I go back a long way. Too far maybe. Look at him, the soul-man’s eyebrows are going sprouty. He’s got half a bottle down already, and he’s talking to Millie about whichever galaxy was featured on PBS on Sunday. Fourteen years of playing weddings and sock-hops together is nothing to sneeze at, and I’ve heard him spout it all, from saving the Amazon to exploring Jupiter. The man is articulate when it comes to armchair science.
And he cares about what happens to my tunes. But what about his own music? Where is the soul-man now? How often are we doin’ our real thing together? Chet and Dave say he’s giving up. I don’t believe it. Maybe I can talk him into doing drums to back up the showcase next week.
I’ll tease him into it. “So, folks, how many drummers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Huh, don’t know? None. These days the synthesizer does it. Hah, Jack, you hear that. Yeah, man, later. In the alley!”
“Not in my alley, you tom-cats.”
“Aw, Mill. We’ll let you referee.”
“No thanks. I wouldn’t come between you two boys for nothing.”
Jack has this smile where his eyes roll back like he’s connecting with a previous life. He does it when he gets carried away on the drums too. The girls think it’s cute. His shoulders go up and his rattail hangs down and his eyes roll on back to the sixties when he wore pants made out of the American flag and was still making records with his old acid band, Mr. Wizard.
Jack concentrates, I’ll say that. He looks like my kid when he’s doing his homework and his tongue chews outside his mouth. The man concentrates. Always did. Only difference is he smokes menthols now, tapping and smoking at the same time, using a new-age filter, thinks he’s adding an inch or two on his life.
Lemme get some Motown going, shake this place up a bit. Let’s see, we got two, three, maybe four singers to call up, and grey Sam’s here with his clarinet… Grand Dio, who’s that? Venus herself is smiling at me! Eyes as blue as silk. Skin of Travertine. Who is she? The woman has stepped out of a Botticelli, picked up a Fifth Avenue dress, and come into my piano bar to eat old Doris’ birthday cake, it seems. Buon natale. Is she smilin’ at me or is it Millie made her laugh. I wonder if she sings.
I know, I’ll get Jack up here to sing that steamer and see what she does. I’ll switch keys on him, the old dog, and see what he does. Look at him sitting with the other dogs, talking technique, under that big cloud of smoke.
“We need more dancers, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s have a big round of applause for our hostess Millie – and don’t forget to tip your waitress, folks. What? Oh, yeah, we haven’t sung happy birthday yet – where’s the birthday girl – Doris, come up here, Doris!”
Have I ever done a night without a birthday? They come crawling out of the woodwork, I swear. “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you.” Six nights a week of happy birthday. Jack’s right, we should try for a jazz gig one night a week somewhere. “Happy birthday dear Doris.” Some of that stuff we wrote together at his studio last year sounded all right. It’d probably go over. “Happy birthday to you.” But not here.
Venus is looking at me again. There’s something about her smile. She’s no bar-hopper. Who is she?
He can have his electronics. He can flip his dials, he can play with his toggles, he can screw in my light bulb if he wants to. The synthesizer will never replace the drummer. Did a camera replace Van Gogh?
He can use his drum machine to back him belting out those cover tunes. Everybody here’s too drunk to know the difference. He can scratch out any sound he wants, it’s no skin off my side drum. Jo and Elvin, Max, Kenny, they don’t care a thing about it and neither do I. Percussion is still the only place left for edge. Edge, not electronics. You want a driving rhythm, you still need a driver. You want to improvise, you can’t have it canned. It’s like he’s opening cans.
He’s flipping dials and opening cans up there. And it’s breakin’ his heart. He’s even programmed sounds so high only bats and dogs can hear him.
“Yeah, another, thanks. Same.”
It’s breaking his heart. It’s not that he doesn’t value the drummer. It’s not how my wife doesn’t value the drummer. It’s not like her timing is always right and my timing doesn’t cut it. Timing is a matter of the space between the vibrations.
Sound is physical. Sound is vibration. Vibrations are carried through air. Vibrations are carried through water, through wood. Vibrations are carried through the skull. Her vibrations carry through my skull. She looks at her watch and points to me. But I am the drummer. I don’t wear a watch. My timing is internal. Hers is on the dial. Her timing is on the dial. She wants me to dance on the dial.
“Yeah, another, thanks. Same.”
Sound is a thickening of the air. Sound is three-dimensional, air that moves in 3D. Like the tides move. And the seasons move. And the planets move. Maybe it’s inevitable.
Music is air knocked out of position. When the air is knocked out right, it is beautiful. When it is jumbled, it is noise. Motown is beautiful. Tony is beautiful, but his synthesizer is noise. Watches are noise. My wife was beautiful. Now she is noise.
Now when I look at her face all I see is a dial.