October 14, 2015
They were the type of band, over time, that could play just about any kind of gig you could imagine: wedding, supper club, football stadium, birthday party, Christmas morning brunch, open-air pavilion, museum, right down to the back seat of a car. Not that there wasn’t some controversy in coming up with a name that stuck.
“For the last time, we’re going with Char Paper Blues Band. I appreciate the sentiment of the Dissolution Unit, and the Demolition Unit has a similar feel, but again: they’re both misleading. We’re not doing the dissolving or the demolitioning, are we?”
Silence. Initially. Stafford was used to it. The harmonica player would probably grumble for a few days over having failed, yet again, to rename them.
Stafford didn’t mind the silence; it was frequently remarked, by Stafford, anyway, that silence was central to their sound. Or ambient noise, at least. The rush of wind in the trees, the blur of cars passing by a house—the dull rattle of a soda can rolling across pavement, the scratchy scudding of a wad of sandwich wrapper passing down an alley. For that was how the band traveled, undetected. This was regretful, because what does a true artist want more than recognition?
“Impact,” Stafford would say, when the harmonica player, who was known as HP—the Char Paper Blues Band being a most hip outfit—bemoaned the band’s lack of national, or even regional, acclaim. But there were all sorts of bands in the world, and some bands had to be the kind that went undetected, with a cumulative ego so small, despite HP’s ambition, that you couldn’t see the band at all, even if you wanted to, even if they were on a top label that spared no expense in marketing.
There were other bands that made their way from gig to gig on the back of the wind or a clump of newspaper—more bands, Stafford reckoned, than anyone knew. His father had been a stave, and he was proud of his lineage, and proud, too, of his name, even when his bandmates razzed him a bit the day they made their way to the latest gig atop the mud flaps of a flatbed truck that was, in fact, a Chevy and not a Ford, although the point of the joke was still understood. Camaraderie was useful, in their line of work. Stafford’s chief responsibility, besides being the group’s leader, and, he felt, its conscience, was in marshaling everyone into playing their parts, difficult as they often were.
HP, it must be said, was a virtuoso. His sound was crucial to anything the band undertook, and his talents were so extreme that Stafford, when the situations in which they performed became oppressively bleak, would allow his star musician to extemporize rather than stick to the planned charts and arrangements. The piano player—the steady P Squared—the bassist extraordinaire—who went by BE, which doubled as a command and his chief directive for anyone who asked him the key to life—and the master drummer—who was originally MD, but became, as one would expect, Doc—could blow up a storm. And they had plenty of reason to when they finally got their gig as the busiest of house bands.
For years, they struggled, waiting for the call. The day jobs were a grind. Stafford hired himself out on fishing boats, doing his part to create the sound of stray waves making louder reverberations against the boat. He had a miniature piano for that. And if he was small, the piano was ridiculously so. Occasionally, a mackerel—but only the tiniest of mackerels—would make its way up to the surface to have a look at the boat’s motor, where Stafford generally did his work, but if the mackerels ever saw him, none had any interest in doing him harm. Perhaps that was because he frequently gigged, during these downtimes, with HP, and HP did mackerel sounds better than mackerels themselves, so when they heard how pleasing they were, a degree of ego entered the equation, and life became more about wondering if a calling had somehow been missed and whether it was too late to do something about it. Those were nice bonding moments for Stafford and HP, who would share a laugh that sounded like a motor cutting out and men on a fishing charter swearing.
Like any band of their ilk, they knew to whom they’d been assigned. Every band that was larger than a soloist or a duo went to two people. Only two. There were no exceptions. The two people were together, and you were together with them. Now, should something happen to the two people, matters could get dicey. You had a few options, but it’s not like you became a free agent, so to speak. It was considered bad form to even think about trying to shoehorn other musicians out of their established gigs, and as for bartering and trading places: pairing people—as a duo—with a new ensemble just like that, was asking for formlessness and despair. And with formlessness and despair, there’d be a lot of bands without their proper gigs, and there were only so many motors in the world for a fellow to pick up part-time work on, and only so many mackerel, presumably, that you could hoodwink with an ace harmonica player.
They got their initial booking in March. This was not the most typical month. The summer season was more common. The people who were together in March tended to have been together before that. There were statistical studies done by some members of the band’s union. But one took work—and you were only getting that single chance—where you could get it. The couple seemed nice enough. Nice couples, though, meant standard sets. You could never get too “out there,” as some of the more experienced bands put it, when everything was mild and docile and peaceful.
To offset this, and alleviate your boredom as a musician, and the most subtle kind at that, certain promises were made: like the right to pick out a copse of one’s choosing, after both members of the couple had departed the earth, to live out one’s day, making the music that marked a given copse—in sound, anyway—as different from any other. So even if you had to adhere to a familiar set list as you soundtracked the latest romantic evening—and how beneath him HP thought it was to play notes suggestive of crackling hearth fires or people applauding at a wedding, or the sounds that came with flesh entering flesh—you would have your opportunity for individuality, eventually.
There was little set list variation for the first six months. Still, the hours weren’t long, and with the bump in pay from finally landing a regular gig, the members of the band were able to indulge themselves. There was no more need to reside in gutters, drains, or the crooks of trees, as in the lean years. BE took up residence in a sprawling, abandoned beehive, where raucous parties were held, which had the effect of producing a loud buzzing sound, so loud that duos—couples, that is—out on long nature walks with their own bands in tow kept a wide berth, and the saturnalia raged on.
It wasn’t until half a year passed that the band was able to let rip and get creative. There were glasses that their woman wore. They knew her as Mounts, because they never could get quite close enough, with their size and all, to hear her name properly, and Mounts seemed pretty close, near as they could tell, plus she was awfully tall. The man they knew as Tuck. BE had attempted to remark that the man liked to talk tough, but no one could ever understand what BE said, especially after all of the parties back at the hive, which seemed to have done something to his mouth. So Tuck it was.
They rocked out behind him in the rain in the town where Mounts lived. The door was locked, and Tuck was going anywhere but inside, it seemed. As his anguish deepened, Stafford commanded his band mates—with a vigorous series of waves—to play harder, and so the rain came down louder, and Tuck’s hair began to look like it was dripping into his face. Eventually, Mounts appeared, Tuck went inside, and the band picked up their instruments and proceeded to try and gauge the mood as they played on the stairs, where Mounts and Tuck were sitting, the latter gesturing dramatically as Stafford gave the cue to P Squared to play a riff like the sound of baseboard heaters groaning, a flare of unease, but a lazy, idle unease, probably not an unease to be overly concerned about.
“That was some fucking gig,” HP declared afterward as they rode atop the empty soda can that doubled as the tour bus. “Finally. We got to cut loose a bit.”
This kind of attitude concerned Stafford. Sure, he enjoyed a musical challenge as much as anyone—and you want your band to stay tight, which requires the occasional challenge—but you didn’t want to have to go all out every night, as a performing unit, to say nothing of having to give multiple gigs in a single day.
There were assorted tales of groups who became burnt out, players who lost their chops because they never got any down time and it was one intense concert after another with few or no breaks in between, so that life became one long, ever-extending gig.
When that happened, your options were limited. You could quit the racket, but what, really, were you going to do? You could team up with the dust and be someone who blankets a portion of something, or you could get work, probably, as a rubbish router, standing on the ends of streets, telling a given napkin to go east or west or ordering a ketchup packet, stuck to the bottom of a car tire, to come down from the rubber and spend some time on the asphalt, which was more natural and would allow a child to come along and put his or her foot atop the packet, as this, in large part, was what packets were for, after they had been mostly used up and cast outside. Not especially rewarding work.
Matters, on the duo front, were peaceable for a while after that night on the stairs. The band held a meeting to come up with their first official name. HP, being something of a rebel, suggested the Gleaming Blades, but no one else thought it wise to have a name so at odds with their prevailing musical style.
“Whatever. It’s bound to get intense again,” he argued. “Don’t you think?”
Stafford wasn’t sure. He hoped not. It had long been a dream of his to retire to a copse of his own, preferably one by the sea, as he found that salt air helped his sound, and he was certain that in a remote, coastal copse with a high saline content he’d be able to make music that someone happening through, with the proper equipment, might feel fit to record, and he’d have a record of his own after a fashion. Who else had he ever known who could say as much?
“I think we’ll go with the Makewells for now,” he overruled.
“The Makewells? Are you fucking shitting me?”
P Squared laughed. You could usually count on him encouraging HP, along with Doc, who loved nothing more than rascally behavior, while BE simply sat and was.
When their duo was finally married, after a year of peaceable gigs for the most part, Stafford figured he was well on his way to that copse. The band harmonized with some confetti at the ceremony, and the latter was pleased to have its sound bolstered, as normally confetti could not be heard particularly well.
But a week later everything changed. They all took to the road, to the home of Tuck’s parents. None of the Makewells had ever been so far from home. But it was in that new place where their longstanding name was retired and they rechristened themselves the Char Paper Blues Band, as Stafford always believed that your name could not be at odds with your sound. The latter was fiery, every night and through large chunks of the day, and instantly hot, as though they were the musical equivalent of a match brought to char paper. HP blew one molten lick after another as they all watched what Tuck did. He broke a pair of Mounts’ eyeglasses on the first night, and BE was roused to activity for once when he had to dive out of the way of the falling glass, and was luckily hit only by a tear instead.
They covered up the sounds as best they could. In the basement, as Tuck was once again starting to yell, HP, ever-versatile, uncorked a solo akin to a washing machine making more noise than normal, while P Squared comped beneath him and Stafford implored the band on, despairing that he’d never get his copse.
Back home, in their normal portion of the country, they were summoned again and again to the home that Mounts and Tuck now shared together. How each of them came to dread the feeling of a hand on the shoulder, and that voice—“Come on, get up. We have to go. The soda can is waiting. We’re going on again.”
On and on they went. In the bathroom at the house of someone else’s duo—and this was a most embarrassing thing for a band to have to endure with another so close by—at a birthday party, a scavenger hunt in the city, a swank restaurant, a Greyhound bus, the front seat of a car, the back seat of a car, several elevators, a tub, a kitchen table, a pier watching Santa Claus float into the town on the back of a lobster boat at the next Christmastime.
“This isn’t working for me,” HP announced as Santa chuckled and waved.
“What do you mean this isn’t working for you?” demanded Stafford as he raced around the band, helping P Squared with his piano parts and standing in for an exhausted BE as they jammed, frantically, with some chiming bells and carolers, thus making something more musical of their duo’s latest heated exchange. “You’re playing brilliantly, mate, really. No one has ever played like you’re playing. You must know that, right?”
“Of course I know it. But this isn’t what I want. This sucks.”
“It could change back. Of course it could. And then we’ll all be blessed for having seen both sides of the ledger, and no one will complain if we end up as the Makewells again and play out the rest of our career nice and easy so we all get our copses, and we’ll all keep in touch through various pieces of litter thanks to the ease of the postal system. What do you say, lads? Why, if Tuck would simply do away with the yelling—it’s becoming easier, as we’ve all agreed, to make out what he’s saying, despite our small stature—and the breaking of Mounts’ assorted possessions, we’d be on our way back to the good old days. And better days. Hear, hear.”
HP shook his head and blew the loudest, longest solo of his career to date, which had the effect of inspiring BE to flail away at his bass harder than ever before as the Christmas bells did a double-take in the center of town, trying to determine what manner of band had tripled the effect of their sound.
In the morning, Stafford got up to rouse his bandmates. They had another gig. By then, they were all living in their duo’s mailbox, given the frequency with which they had to perform. There was no sense having a lengthy commute. They were all ready to go when BE shrugged his shoulders, an indication that, for the first time, HP was not standing amongst them.
“Maybe he’s inside already,” Stafford said to no one in particular.
He was not, but there was a note from him, on a tiny corner of Kleenex—which is to say, for them, a huge piece of letter board—outside the master bedroom door that read, “You don’t get it. Good luck with the band. Yours, HP (Harmonica Player).”
An argument had just gotten underway on the other side of the door.
Stafford thought about making a joke about how the show has to go on, but instead he simply walked under the door, hoping the others would follow—which they did—and commence the latest concert, which sounded a lot like a showerhead emitting more water than ever, and skin slapping against skin for about five minutes. Most of the arguments were not resolved in this manner, but at least it took less time, and the band repaired back to the mailbox to get some sleep.
That was the pattern—minus the flesh-on-flesh parts—for the remainder of the band’s time with their duo. When it was clear that a split was inevitable, the Char Paper Blues Band began to play slower. Not with less urgency, but with less freneticism, one might say. They had some choices to make: to give up the musical life, or to remain loyal to one—but not both—of the members of their crumbling duo. Perhaps not surprisingly, they opted for Mounts, and eventually matters went well enough with her—after two more Tucks—that they were able to bill themselves, at last, as the Makewells, playing to an advanced age.
When it came time for Stafford to take up residency in what he figured was his very own copse, and a copse by the water at that, where he could make a unique strain of music, hoping it would someday end up on a real record, he heard a sound somewhat reminiscent of one from a long time ago, but a sound that felt new as well, like it’d just been invented seconds before he happened along.
“What’s up, Stafford?” HP began, emerging from behind a blade of grass.
“Relax. No point arguing about it. There are all kinds of ways to have need for the kind of band we were. At our most technically accomplished. Yelling so loud that we can almost make out what is being said is just one of them. Did you really never ask yourself what else might have been going on?”
Stafford felt ashamed. He always knew. But how he wanted that copse all for himself, even though one of their ilk had never come by a private copse through pretending they didn’t know what kind of audience they were playing for.
“Side Tucks. So now we go halfsies. That’s what happens when a band doesn’t stay together for the right reasons.”
This did not displease Stafford entirely. He always knew, underneath everything, that HP was the caring sort, and now that they were united in this way they might inspire others to make their own music. Who knew how these matters really worked?
“Do you think we have a band that plays for us, somewhere nearby?” Stafford asked, starting to feel himself perk up.
“Probably. So let’s not be dicks to each other, all right?”
The both listened as the sound of the waves in the not-so-far-off distance became quieter, leaving only the low chirp of the crickets of the copse, who were exactly as loud as they usually were.
COLIN FLEMING writes for The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, The Boston Globe, The New Criterion, and Sports Illustrated, and publishes fiction with VQR, Black Clock, Boulevard, Post Road, and The Iowa Review. He’s also a regular contributor to Ireland’s Newstalk Tom Dunne Show, and NPR’s Weekend Edition.
Excerpt from The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe by Colin Fleming. Reprinted with permission from Dzanc Books.