“I’m nice to all the ladies,” Lester told her but she was already occupied on a phone call.
Lester gently touched my shoulder like his contact would set me off, and steered me around the corner of the desk and cloudy, plastic partition until I was in an open-planned office. It was like a small city, with cluttered desks lining the outskirts and narrow corridors between them. Papers were flying everywhere, caught in a dirty breeze that rolled in from an open window, a breeze that did nothing to clear the thick haze of tobacco and pot smoke that hung in the air like a mass of thunderheads. The office was pretty much empty except for a man and woman who wrote side by side in the back of the room, she on the phone taking notes, he clacking up a storm on his Underwood typewriter. The walls were dotted with Robert Crumb cartoons, signed records, concert photographs, and magazine covers. It was chaos and heaven all at once.
“Barry’s in here,” Lester said, taking me to a closed office and rapping on the door.
“Just a minute,” said a voice from inside. Lester looked at me and smiled, all puffed cheeks. For such an abrasive and iconic writer, he looked like nothing more than a giant child.
“Have you ever spent months, years, looking for a certain record?” he asked me in a lowered voice, looking like he was confessing a delicious secret. “You know, the b-sides and the shit you can’t find anywhere?”
I nodded and didn’t have to think long. “Yup. The UK version of Let it Bleed. Finally found it in a secondhand store in Olympia.”
He smiled even wider, then tried to look serious. Lester’s face didn’t do serious. “You’ll do all right here, kid.”
Then he left me, moseying back to his place at whatever desk was his, while the door to the office opened and Barry poked his head out, eying me warily. Bowie’s “Width of a Circle” drifted out from a giant record player sitting on his bookcase.
“Dawn Emerson?” he asked. “Come in.”
I gave him a quick smile and stepped into his office, taking a seat across from his desk. He came around and flopped casually down in his chair with a sigh.
“So you’re Dawn…or is it Rusty now?”
Barry wasn’t exactly like I pictured. I would have thought he’d have long straggly hair and a rampant beard, but he was clean-shaven and wearing a button-up shirt. He was older than I assumed too, maybe in his mid-thirties.
“Just Dawn,” I told him, silently cursing whoever had come up with that nickname. Jacob, probably.
“So, Dawn…tell me how it is.”
I launched into a short recap of the last few days on the road, made easier since I just had to recite it all for Mel in the letter. I tried to keep out the boys’ bad behavior but Barry was smarter than that and wanted to hear everything. I told him about the backstage blow job antics and Robbie on ludes. I left out the part about me being high and fooling around with him, and for that I felt like a bit of a traitor.
Barry didn’t seem too surprised at any of it and leaned back in his chair thoughtfully. “So are they treating you right?”
“Oh yeah, everything is fine. They’ve all been lovely. Of course, well, not Graham as you know. But most of them.”
“He’s an odd one,” Barry remarked. “But every band has its dillhole and that’s Hybrid’s. It could be worse.”
“I guess so,” I said with a shrug, hoping I seemed cooler about it than I was.
“So that’s it.” He got up and went to the record player, flipping the LP over. “Nothing else really going on?”
My eyes followed him, confused. The acoustic jangle of “Running Gun Blues” began to play; I count the corpses on my left, I find I’m not so tidy.
“I’m not sure what you mean?”
“Oh, I guess you don’t. It doesn’t matter. You have a few more weeks.”
I pursed my lips in puzzlement.
He noticed and continued. “The Cobb…I mean, Jacob, he had told me that this tour was going to go down in history and that’s why you needed to be there to record it.”
I snorted. “I don’t know why Jacob would tell you that. Granted, I’m not queen of the road, or even the highway, but…I really don’t see anything historic about it. What else did he tell you?”
He sighed and flapped his hands and came back to his seat. “That was it, really. He sounded so sure of himself, I guess he thought he needed to sell the band to me. But, who cares man, we would have loved to run a piece on Hybrid anyway. Jacob’s got a reputation for stretching the truth.”
“And breaking people’s noses,” I added.
“That too. Well, that settles that. Just keep doing what you’re doing, Dawn. Keep organized, keep your eyes open.”
I got the impression he wanted me to leave and started to get out of the hard chair. “Do you need me to mail you some of the pieces I’ve written so far?”
I don’t know why I asked because I really didn’t have much to send. I hoped he wouldn’t call my bluff.
He didn’t. “I trust you, Dawn. We’ll get it all sorted out afterward. After all, the band is paying for you to be there, not us. So, you know, do what the fuck you like!”
It probably would have made me feel better if Barry had told me to work hard and turn in some glorious piece of writing, but it seemed that the editor of Creem didn’t really have the highest of hopes for me or for this so-called tour that was going to go down in history. What a crock of shit.
I gave him a grateful smile and said those famous of famous words, “You won’t regret this.” Then I stepped out of his office and into the bullpen. The two writers in the corner were laughing with each other and smoking, paying no attention to me. Lester Bangs was nowhere to be seen, like I had only dreamed him up.
I went back to Maureen and got her to ring a cab for me. I asked her about some of the writers like Patti Smith, who had gone on to form a band, and Mike Saunders, who coined the phrase “heavy metal” a few years before, and she was a little more enthusiastic about my time with Hybrid, confessing that she had a crush on Mickey.
“Don’t tell Noelle that,” she added before snatching up the ringing phone. “We need more women in rock.”
If you asked me, sometimes there were too many women in rock. And I didn’t mean Noelle, who was an anomaly in her own right, or the female music critics like Lisa Robinson (whom I wished I had seen at Creem). I mean the groupies.
And in particular, the GTFOs.
After I caught a cab from Creem’s office back to the venue, I was immediately thrust into the show with a new determination. Even though the tour wasn’t shaping up to be uniquely memorable in anyone’s eyes aside from my own, and definitely wasn’t going to go down in history, I wanted to do the best job I could. So, as I did in St.Paul, I went back into the crowd and tried to capture the show from the view of the fans. The longer I was on the road with the guys, the less I felt like a fan and the more I felt like one of them. A jaded Dawn was the wrong Dawn.
By this time, after several shows in a row, I was getting a bit used to their sets, and knew exactly what numbers were coming next and found it easy to organize my show thoughts. I used most of my time to watch the band from different areas of the venue and tried to pick up the flavor of the crowds. The Detroit crowd was absolutely nuts and the hardest and toughest group I’d seen so far on tour. Drinks were spilled, people were crowd-surfing, stomping on each other, pushing and shoving. It was an angry bunch, but the kind of anger that gets fueled by beer and hard times. Rock and roll was Detroit’s outlet and I finally understood why Creem chose the motor city as its headquarters.
But in all of this musical chaos, there was a glowing constant. The tall white body of Sonja, who stood right before the stage, dressed in a long white cloak that never seemed to get an ounce of dirt, sweat, or cigarette burns on it. In fact, the men and few women around her seemed to keep their distance as much as they could, despite the squeezing and crowding of everyone else on the floor.
I was on the floor too, to the side where the ground sloped up a bit, and I watched her closely. She was swaying slightly with the music, her pale thin hands grasping the rail in front of her, her vibrant eyes focused right on Noelle. She watched her like she was trying to bore a laser through her head.
Hybrid began to play their sludgier cover of Sabbath’s epic “Children of the Grave” and it opened with only Noelle’s plucky bassline. It was at that moment that she decided to look up, perhaps feeling Sonja’s intense, heat-filled stare, and she looked absolutely startled, her eyes shining with surprise beneath her heavily shadowed lids. Noelle’s surprise continued to her fingers, where she messed up a few lines and was unable to get back into it until Graham came down with the drums and Sage and Mickey launched into the famous riff.
It was one of those screw-ups that was unfortunately noticeable, but no one in the audience cared after a few beats as the driving sound caused the human waves to crash against each other.
Noelle noticed though, and Noelle cared. After the show, she went straight for the bottle of Smirnoff in the backstage lounge and started gulping it down like water.
“Hey, leave some for us,” I said jokingly, putting my hand on top of it and bringing it away from her mouth.
She shot me the nastiest look, the kind that usually preceded a few tears.
“Stay out of it, Red,” she snapped, so I let her guzzle it down until she had a coughing fit and started leaning against the wall for support.
I looked around the backstage area. The guys were heading into their dressing room and laughing with each other, followed by some Detroit-based groupies whom I hoped were normal. Mickey didn’t even pay me and Noelle any attention, nor offer his girlfriend any words of consolation, which I thought was a total dick move. Only Sage, the patriarch, came over.
“Everything all right here, Noe?” he asked in a low, smooth voice. His eyes darted to mine for a second, then returned to her scrunched up face. This was the closest I’d been to him since the whole ludes fiasco, when I was so fucked up I imagined a monster was on the bus.
“I don’t want to be here anymore,” Noe said, spitting out her words. “I’m sick of this, I’m sick of everyone!”
“Okay,” I placated her, trying to smile and calm her down. “Where do you want to go?”
She took another swig of the vodka before Sage expertly plucked it out of her hands.
“Hey,” she protested, reaching for it.
Sage placed his hand on her shoulder and firmly held her in place. “You can have this back, but you have to share it with us. You can go wherever you want tonight, but Dawn and I are coming with you.”
I raised my brows at him. We are?
He ignored me and leaned closer to Noelle, tipping up her chin that ran wet with a few tears until she was meeting his eyes. It was amazing how much power he had over them all. Then I caught the softening of Noelle’s expression and a subtle parting of her full lips, and I realized maybe he had more power over Noelle than I thought. She had transformed into an embarrassed, shamed rock star into…well…she kind of looked like a girl in love.
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