THE SUICIDE SONG

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Singer-songwriter Beth Remington was having a bad day.  Her Facebook comment that morning read: “Just got my period and the car needs fixing.”

Actually, the car was still running, but it was due for the state emissions test, and performance had fallen way below Beth’s demands.  She dropped off the car at a local service station called Auto Specialists.  They were expensive:  Their labor charge was $125 per hour, and they inflated their parts costs—“It’s difficult to get parts for these old cars, and you have a lot of custom parts,” they explained.  But they did good work, and they knew how to hot-rod cars. In fact, they had upgraded Beth’s vintage Firebird.

Beth lived alone, except for occasional overnight stays by lovers.  Some of those lovers were men, some were women.  Beth summarized her lifestyle in one of her many Facebook messages:  “I let the love boat sail on by years ago, so I could ride the sexy train for the rest of my days.” Her ballsy singing style and physical appearance reminded older fans of Janis Joplin.  But she had a stronger voice and a more soulful style than Joplin.  Beth didn’t have a manager.  She booked and promoted her own gigs, and did much of her own studio work.  For recording, mixing and editing, she used a software package called Audacity.  It wasn’t the best music software available, but it was free—and she liked the name.

After she returned home, Beth decided to finish a song she’d been writing. The first line of the song was: “Lately I’ve been feeling, what’s the use.”  The official title would probably be “What’s the Use?” But Beth thought of it as “The Suicide Song.”  She wasn’t feeling suicidal, but she knew that suicide songs were becoming increasingly popular with teenagers. By the time she had finished paying “those greedy mechanics,” she would sorely need another hit song.  Beth recorded a demo—playing her own keyboard accompaniment.  Then she emailed the finished demo and lead sheet to her publisher in New York.

Next day, Beth picked up the Firebird at Auto Specialists, and gave “the crooks” a check for $932. Then she rolled onto the highway to check out the car. Almost immediately, a Mustang drew alongside and gave the well-known “VROOM…VROOM” invitation to drag-race.  The driver looked barely old enough to drive.  Normally, Beth would have told him to get lost.  But this time, she thought it might be interesting to check out her re-tuned car under actual racing conditions. “The chick is gonna whip your sorry ass,” she hollered. Then she floored it.

At around 95 mph, she was surprised to see the Mustang still alongside. “It’s been souped up,” she figured.  With closely matched vehicles, the race would go to the boldest driver. The two cars were approaching a curve, and would be forced to slow down. Beth decided to push her car towards the rival car thus forcing it to slow down first. Unfortunately, Kurt in the Mustang had decided to use the same strategy!

<KERBAM—SCREECH—BAM—CRUNCH—SCREECH>

The Mustang slammed headlong into a tree.  Beth’s car slid along on its crushed roof.  The Firebird was soon wrapped in flames.

A paramedic pulled a blanket over Beth’s unrecognizable face. “She’s gone!” The cop shook his head. “What about the kid?” he asked. “He should survive, but will probably lose that leg”.

The music publishing company saw they had a potential blockbuster with the suicide song. So they slanted the press release and biography accordingly.  A tabloid headline read: “Suicidal Rock Star Dies in Fiery Crash.”

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BLIND

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After a couple of successful high-tech startups in Silicon Valley, Bob Abrams had become a multi-millionaire. Unlike most other entrepreneurs, he cashed in his chips and didn’t try to pyramid his millions into billions. Instead, he returned to his first love—jazz. He decided to launch a record company to preserve the work of aging jazz musicians.

He lived in San Jose, but most of the musicians he wanted to record were on the East Coast. So he called some New York contacts to locate active musicians. One contact was Mike Baker, a former classmate at NYU, who now lived in New Haven, Connecticut. Mike pointed out that Connecticut also boasted some great jazz musicians, including Bob’s favorite sax player, Sam Wilson.

After a few days in New York, Bob visited New Haven to check out a recording studio Mike recommended, and to listen to some of the local jazz talent. Mike suggested they have dinner at a club called ‘The Ninth Note’, which featured a weekly jam session.

The session started with just the rhythm section led by multi-talented Nick Biello playing organ. When Sam Wilson arrived, he was wearing shades. Bob hoped that didn’t mean he’d become a junkie. The group launched into a slow blues, and Sam played beautiful long flowing melodic lines—unlike the choppy riffs of less talented musicians. Then they switched to a ballad, ‘The Nearness of You’. On this one, Sam demonstrated his versatility by tearing into a fierce double-tempo solo.

Bob was impressed. When the musicians took a break, he walked over to Sam and explained how he was lining up musicians for recording sessions. He handed Sam a sheet of music and said he’d like Sam to solo on the song (a slow blues head arrangement) for one of the recordings.

“Okay. Give it to Nick, and have him play it on keyboard so I can learn it.”

“But I thought you could read music.”

“I could read music, but I can’t see it anymore. I’m blind.”

“What happened? Did you have some sort of accident?”

“No. My eyesight just slowly got worse from year to year.”

“What did your eye doctor say? Is it cataracts, retinal damage or what?

“I can’t afford health insurance.”

Bob, a liberal among entrepreneurs, went into an extended rant about how the US should have single-payer universal health care like civilized countries. He finished with, “There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.” When he calmed down, he decided to deal with the problem.

“Mike, do you know any good eye doctors here?”

“My guy is an excellent surgeon. He did my cataract surgery and checks regularly for retinal damage. But he doesn’t take Medicaid. He came here from Canada because he couldn’t make enough money there. “

“Okay, take Sam to see your guy. I’ll give you a check for $3000 as an advance. If he needs any more, just call me.”

***

Sam had cataract surgery for both eyes. A few months later, he was back at the Ninth Note. Bob grabbed a front row seat for that. But Sam’s playing style was completely different and it sounded terrible. Instead of flowing lines, he played short, hesitant, phrases that didn’t seem to fit together. Also, his intonation sounded harsh. At intermission time, Bob asked Sam why his playing style had changed. Sam felt terrible, because Bob had paid for his surgery, but now he couldn’t deliver on his side of the transaction.

“When I was blind, I would get into a trance-like groove while I was playing. My solos seemed effortless. But when I got my sight back, there were too many distractions. I wanted to watch movies and read books, so I wasn’t getting enough practice on the horn. And when I’m playing, I’m distracted by anything that moves. Now I understand why Sonny Rollins got into yoga.“

“Apparently, what’s good for the musician is bad for the music,” Bob groaned.

A Little Memoir

Though I’ve concentrated on fiction since retiring from a career in technical and business journalism, not all of my Writers Hangout stories have been fictional. The following story, written last year, is a personal memoir and tribute to Dominic Behan–Irish troubadour and younger brother of playwright Brendan Behan. The required theme for Writers Hangout was “fountain.” In my story, Dominic wrestled with the cops under a Trafalgar Square fountain, and was a fountain of creativity (with around 450 songs to his credit).

FOUNTAIN

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When I first met Dominic Behan, he was singing on Eel Pie Island. The last time I saw him, he was wrestling with police in the moat under one of the two fountains in Trafalgar Square.

Eel Pie Island sits in the middle of the Thames, connected to Twickenham via a narrow footbridge. Apart from a hotel and boathouse, most of the island was a bird sanctuary. I lived in the hotel, a former whorehouse for American airmen during WWII. According to the guide on a passing tourist boat, “Charles Dickens lived here on Eel Pie Island while he was writing the Pickwick Papers.” The tour guide did not explain whether the hotel was already a whorehouse when Dickens resided there.

Every Saturday evening, the bird sanctuary was disrupted by loud music from the hotel ballroom, mostly traditional jazz, with occasional folk music. Arthur Chisnall, owner and operator of the club, had recruited me as his doorman.

Dominic Behan was a fountain of creativity. Like his older brother, Brendan, he wrote plays, novels, short stories, poems and biographies. But unlike his brother, he also composed about 450 songs. In his Eel Pie Island concert, Dominic put on a one-man show, playing all of his most popular songs.

Arthur usually invited performers to dinner after their show. He must have had a premonition that ‘dinner’ with Behan would turn into an extended pub crawl–he gave me a handful of ten-pound notes and asked me to entertain the performer. I figured unless Dominic was a gourmet, I would come out ahead on that deal. I think I had a meat pie and a bag of potato crisps at the first pub, while Dominic ate nothing. He drank a lot of black-and-tans with Irish whiskey chasers, while I drank a lot of lager.

At closing time, I figured I was finally off the hook.

“Dominic, I’m going to head over to the Nucleus—a coffee shop where they have all-night jam sessions.”

“You do what you have to do. But you can drink round the clock in London. You drink with the newspaper men on Fleet Street, and then you hang out with the porters in Covent Garden. I usually drink until the coppers arrest me. “

“I’m ready to quit, but if you want to keep going, here’s some more of Arthur’s money.”

“Okay, it’s been a lot of fun. You’ll live longer than me, because you’re not such a wild child. Be sure to come see my play at the Irish Theatre, two weeks from now. Here’s a ticket for opening night, paid for with Arthur’s money. Tell all your friends about it. “

***

The Irish Theatre had a long bar inside the auditorium. It was probably a mistake to stage Dominic’s play in a theatre that allowed uninterrupted drinking.

His play, ‘Posterity Be Damned’, was a one-man show. Billed as a study of republican activity after the Irish civil war, it seemed more like a systematic attack on various political and religious groups. Progressively more violent audience reactions culminated in a brawl. The play ran for just a week—not because of a limited audience, but because each performance ended in a costly riot.

***

Every year on Guy Fawkes Night we went to Trafalgar Square to watch college students fight the police. The object of the game was to knock cop helmets into the fountain moats. The police were usually good-natured about the event.

That year, Dominic Behan was the star. He laid claim to three of a total of seven helmets under the fountain. Unfortunately, the police had started to become paranoid about IRA terrorism, so they brought in a riot squad. They arrested Dominic and hit him with some heavy charges—inciting a riot, assaulting police officers, resisting arrest, etc. So Dominic had to serve some real jail time instead of just sleeping overnight in a holding cell.

***

Dominic subsequently moved to Glasgow. His forecast that I would outlive him proved accurate. He died in 1989 at the age of 60, while in 2014 I’m still alive and kicking.