The Next Big Thing – a short story

This is a fictionalized account of a true story, an event that happened in my life that made a huge impression on me. I’ve also written a novelized version (“Bobby and the Bedouins”), a screenplay, a stage play, and several drafts of various accounts, but this is the one that comes closest to the heart of it. I just found this manuscript today while going through some boxes in the garage. I had forgotten all about it. 

The Next Big Thing

by Tom Lichtenberg

I was always looking for the next big thing. After all, it was my job. I was a producer working for Stoplight Records, and it was all about discovering new acts. There was never any end to it. As soon as you found one you had to find another. The public’s appetite for so-called “greatness” is insatiable. I had people all the time telling me about someone, or sending me demos, or leaving messages on the phone I never bothered to answer. It seemed I spent most of my time listening to truly horrible music, which wasn’t exactly what I’d thought I’d signed up for, but that’s just to say that I didn’t know what I was getting into.

In any case, there was this one guy I knew, named Tom something-or-other, I could never remember his last name. He worked over at the Club Zed down by the waterfront, which was a place for artists with seriously low self-esteem. The crowd there famously despised everyone who played, and the more boos you got, the more it felt like success. It was punk but the opposite of punk in some ways, an outlet for people who wanted no outlet. Tom was one of those people leaving messages on my phone, and since he’d made a fine art out of producing artists with no potential whatsoever I ignored and avoided him to the best of my ability.

So I never followed up on any of his tips, never, but one day he came by the office and though I tried to shake him he followed me down the hall and persisted in insisting that this time he had something to say that I would actually want to hear.

“You remember Mario Faraday, right?” he asked. Of course I did. Who didn’t? Well, if you don’t remember the name I’m sure you remember his group – Red Tag. They were the hottest thing for a while, hell, they were huge! World famous, hit after hit, and Mario himself was a major influence on a whole generation of guitarists. But then he disappeared and the word was he’d fried his brains on drugs, and the last anyone had seen of him he was homeless on the streets, no more coherent than a tomato. It’s a sad thing, but I’d seen a lot of it in my time, in my line of work, A lot of those people just miss the turn somewhere and end up a total loss.

So Tom Whatever says old Mario’s turned up again, and has a new band that call themselves Bobby and the Bedouins, and he’d seen them playing in some church somewhere and they just blew his mind. This guy, Tom, he had the kind of mind that is easily blown. Everything he sees is the greatest whatever of all tie, so I didn’t pay much attention. I just blew him off, and forgot all about it. Then about six months later I was at a staff meeting and the topic of conversation was revivals. We’d been seeing a lot of old acts coming around again. It’s not unusual. Every now and then the old trends are trendy again, if only for having been trendy before. Then my boss, Peter Breck, he owns Stoplight, he was making fun of the whole thing and he said,

“Next thing you know it’ll be Red Tag coming back from the dead.”

I remembered about Mario Faraday and mentioned it, as a joke, you know, but Peter gets all serious and tells me why don’t I check it out. I laughed but he wasn’t fooling.

“Hey, if there’s money to be made,” he said, “why shouldn’t it be us doing the making?”

I went over to Club Zed and found Tom, who was so excited to see me it was embarrassing. He couldn’t believe he’d finally struck gold. He gave me the name of the woman he said was the band’s “agent”. Her name was Carol Mars and I could find her downtown at the Church of the Saving Grace. I gave her a call and told her who I was and what I’d heard and she said, well, okay, if I was sure that I wanted to I could stop by any Wednesday afternoon. She didn’t sound like any agent I’d ever dealt with. It was almost like she’d rather I just forgot about the whole thing, and I would have done just that except for my boss.

The Church of the Saving Grace looked more like the Church of the Last Resort. It has hardly more than a storefront in the part of town that never recovered from the last set of riots. One of the front windows was boarded up, and you could still see the smoke and ashes blighting the outer wall. Along the sidewalk there were bums all lined up, and I thought ‘well at least the place is popular’ but it turned out they were all waiting for the methadone clinic next door. I had to step over a couple of bodies to get in the front door but once inside I didn’t see anyone around. There was an old wooden desk with boxes full of yellowed papers on top, and on the walls were lots of crayon drawings haphazardly tacked up. A hallway led back into the building so I went that way and passed by a couple more empty offices.

The place was very dark and very quiet. There was nothing church-like about it that I could see. It seemed more like an abandoned revolutionary outpost. I was conjuring up images of a famous last stand against the forces of evil. I could picture a group of skinhead bandits plotting strategy in the corridor all the while worrying about wiretaps, as if anyone gave a shit about them. I wondered when was the last time anyone took a broom to the place, or were they a cult that worshiped cobwebs.

“This is just great,” I said out loud, thinking, ‘yeah, this is exactly the kind of hole that Tom guy would scrounge around looking for his kind of talent.

Just then Carol emerged from the shadowy hallway. She was perhaps the last thing I expected to see in that place. She was a small, graceful figure with short blond hair and bangs that fell over her glasses. She was wearing a navy blue dress suit and pumps, and really looked like she belonged behind the counter in a bank. She said, in a very soft, still tone,

“Are you Mr. Kandell?”

“That’s me,” I said. “but call me Jonathan,” I added.

“We can speak in my office,” she said as she turned and disappeared back down the hall. I followed the clicking of her heels until we came to a small room that was freshly painted a pale yellow, and was clean and organized and, like its occupant, felt completely out of place. At this point I have to admit I was totally confused and had a million questions I wanted to ask her, like what the hell is this place and who the hell are you and what the hell is going on here, but I didn’t get the chance. She started right in.

“I understand you’re interested in our little musical activities?”

“Well,” I said, sitting up straight and attempting to sound professional, “I’m here to see Mario Faraday and his band. This is where they rehearse, isn’t it? That’s what I was told.”

“Yes,” she replied after a slight hesitation. “We do offer our facilities, but I need to know exactly what your interest is. We don’t usually allow the general public to merely wander about.”

“I represent Stoplight Records,” I explained,”one of the major labels in the music business, and as a producer it’s part of my job to scout out new acts and sign them up if they’re worthy.”

“Worthy,” she repeated. “I see,” and then she paused for several moments, as if carefully considering her words. I couldn’t figure out why she was being so cold. I had the feeling that when I’d come in the front door I’d accidentally entered another universe, where the rules were unfamiliar and strange.

“I should tell you a little about the boys,” she finally spoke up. “You ought to have some background before your encounter with them.”

Terrific, I thought. Now I get to hear the promo. This was something I thought I understood. She would go through some spiel about their specialness, as if I hadn’t seen a million bands, each one so freaking unique that you couldn’t tell them apart with your eyes wide open.

“Mario doesn’t talk much,” she told me, “but don’t get the wrong impression. He’s really very sweet. It’s just that strangers make him nervous. Then Bobby takes a little getting used to as well. He sings and writes most of what they call ‘songs’. He tends to come off a little too strong at times, and he does like to show off.” She smiled at that, and her face lit up like a thousand candles.

“He sure sounds like a lead singer,” I said, chuckling.

“Then there’s Freddy,” she continued. He’s the bass player, quite a special person though I don’t know how he’ll take to you. Sometimes he’s friendly with outsiders, and other times he just clams up. And Joey, he’s the drummer, don’t let him frighten you. He’s not really as dangerous as he seems.”

“They sound like a perfectly wholesome, all-American band to me,” I said. In fact, they sounded like every other bunch of weirdos and losers I’d ever come across in this game, every singly one of them inhabiting a dream world where they are the greatest, and everyone else exists to kiss their scrawny little butts. Amazing, isn’t it? Still, I thanked her for the introduction, but told her I was on a tight schedule and if I could just see the band, please? I put it in nicer terms than that, of course, because I had the art of bullshit down pretty good in those days, and besides, I was starting to feel strangely attracted to this plain-ish, wholesome woman even though all my senses were warning me she must be some kind of super religious nut job. It was, after all, supposedly a church of some sort and I have always been suspicious of people who have any answers to any important questions.

She said she expected them soon, and that in the meantime, I could wait for them “in the back”. I sighed, and at that point I definitely felt I was simply wasting my time. You probably know how it is when you are stuck somewhere you don’t want to be, having to do something you don’t want to do, and then on top of all that, you have to wait. I’ve never been the most patient person in the world, and I found myself alone as Carol vanished to “take care of some business”. She had pointed me in the general direction so I tottered off that way, imagining a future where I would be home on my own couch, minding my own business and doing only what I wanted to be doing.

I would never have guessed from the front just how big that place was, or maybe it was only an illusion of time and space but I felt like I wandered down that hall for hours before I finally reached the back, where at least I thought I was finally in the right place, as there was a drum set in the middle of the last room. There were a few fold-up chairs scattered about, and a couple of small amplifiers in the corners. It was a terrible space for music. The acoustics were awful. The room was too wide and the walls were too hard, the ceiling was very low and made a normal-sized person like me feel like a giant who had to stoop. In one corner there was a ping-pong table turned on its side, and along the wall near that was a blackboard someone had written some indecipherable scribblings on. There were more crayon drawings taped to the walls, and it as hot and stuffy in there. A single, blinking fluorescent light bulb served the whole space, and there were no windows, no openings at all except for the door.

I was just standing there, looking around, bored out of my mind and wondering if I would ever get to leave, when I heard a tiny voice behind me say “hi”. I turned and saw a girl standing before me. At least I thought it was a girl, a girl of maybe ten or twelve at most but as she drew closer she looked older and older until I saw that she was probably more like twenty, but a twenty year old who had been through several apocalypses and a few world wars on top of that until she looked more like she was fifty or even sixty. She was missing several teeth and bore more wrinkles than anyone has a right to. Her hair had never been washed, I would swear to that in a court of law, and she was wearing a flannel shirt that belonged to someone three times her size, and aside from the flip-flops on her feet that over sized shirt was probably the only thing she was wearing. I assumed she’d wandered in from the methadone clinic. I felt a little sorry for her, but mostly I felt the utmost repulsion and disgust. ‘Terrific’, my inner voice whined, ‘another day on Junkie Hill’.

“I’m Alice,” she sweetly said, smiling with her whole face and holding out her hand. I didn’t want to touch her, but I was polite and let our fingers graze.

“Hello Alice,” I said, but I didn’t introduce myself. I was hoping that would be that and she would turn around and glide back to whatever hole she’d popped up from, but instead she said,

“Let me show you what we have in the closet,” and before I could respond she grabbed my hand and led me over to the cabinets beside the door. She pulled one open and stuck her head inside. She looked around in there for a minute, and then emerged bearing an old filthy sneaker.

“We have shoes!” she announced. Just great, I thought. They have shoes.

“You want to see what else?” she asked, and of course she didn’t wait for me to say ‘no thanks’, but stuck her head back inside the cabinet, and this time came out with a coat hanger.

“Lavender plastic!” she said and cackled like a truly old lady. It was all I could do not to run screaming from the room, but I got a hold of myself and lectured myself on the virtues of patience and tolerance and empathy with those less fortunate. A bunch of bullshit, I know, but when you get into a situation like that you find yourself thinking like your grandmother. I don’t know why. How much longer could this go on, I asked myself. There I was, a successful record producer, an important person whose time was money, and what the hell was I doing there in that crazy place with sanctimonious church types and wasted biker chicks? But I couldn’t leave. I had to see Mario Faraday, and I reminded myself that you have to dig through a lot of dirt to find a little gold.

Fortunately, “the boys” arrived before Alice had a chance to show me any more treasures. They came all at once, storming down the hall, the echoes of their voices booming along ahead of them. I could hear laughter, and Carol’s calm, professional voice occasionally arising through the din. At first glance they looked like every other rock band, and I sighed with relief. It was just the setting that was weird The boys were going to be all right.

As they entered the room, one by one they stopped laughing, and I could see the smiles vanish from their faces as they saw me standing there. I wondered which one was Mario. I had seen an old photograph, but that was from more than a decade earlier, and I would have bet real money that none of those guys were that guy. For a moment there was a total and terrible silence and then Carol broke it by saying,

“This is my friend Jonathan. He just happened to stop by to visit me today.” I didn’t have time to wonder why she was lying about me like that, because I quickly encountered Bobby.

“You never said you had a boyfriend,” he shouted out and stepped up to me with his hand held out just as Alice had done.

“I’m Bobby,” he announced, grabbing my hand and squeezing it vigorously. “Carol likes me best of all so you had better watch out. Say, you look pretty rich. Didn’t know she went for money. Huh. Wouldn’t have guessed it neither. Hey, Carol, how come you never told us about your fancy rich boyfriend?”

“Really, Bobby,” she said, “he’s just a friend.”

“Yeah? So that does that make me? Am I your friend too?”

“Of course you are. You know that. You’re all my friends.”

Bobby leaned over to me and said, confidentially,

“I’m just giving her a hard time. It’s so easy to mess with her. She can’t tell when somebody’s joking,” and then he turned around and said, louder,

“So does your friend play? ‘Cause we’re going to play now and anyway he can’t because it’s my band and I say so.”

Meanwhile the other guys had taken up their spots and I was able to sort out which was which. While Bobby was a generic-looking sort of South Bay rocker of the lean, wolfish variety that’s always working on his old car engine and listening to the station that plays too much Led Zeppelin, the others had more distinguishing characteristics. Joey, for example, was slightly overweight. I’m being nice. Actually, his belly stuck out from his shirt and his pants barely stayed on. He had a sweaty, round, fat face and shortish greasy hair that seemed to stick out at right angles all over his skull. Freddy was tall, very tall, and as he stood with his bass it looked like his head might crack the ceiling at any moment. He had a faint mustache, like an adolescent’s, and very dark, very long and straight hair.

Mario had sat down almost the moment when Bobby first opened his mouth and was bent over his guitar, very intent, like he was studying every inch of defects. His hair was thick and wavy and highlighted with random patches of gray and white. I couldn’t see his face, which was turned away from me, and he kept it turned away from me as I shifted my position to get a better look. Bobby had picked up his guitar and was adjusting the mic stand and he was still talking, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying, because Joey started banging on the snare drum, very hard and very loud. Carol called out to him to take it easy but he wasn’t paying any attention to her.

I looked over at Carol and she seemed quite uneasy. She was fiddling with a ring on her finger and pacing back and forth with a worried look on her face. Meanwhile Alice had taken up residence by my side. She grabbed my arm and I was startled for a second but she only wanted me to sit down. Then she pulled a chair up way too close to mine. Leaning over she said,

“They’re really great. Especially Mario. He’s the best He has a gold record, you know?”

Bobby overheard her and piped up.

“I have a gold record too, you know?”
“Really?” I asked, and actually searched my mind for a moment for all the Bobby-singers I’d ever known, but nothing came up.

“Yeah,” he said, “I got it at a yard sale,” and then he started laughing way too loud. Alice and Carol both smiled too deliberately and Bobby thought the joke was too good to end there, so he added,

“Of course it wasn’t gold ’til I took the spray can to it,” and he laughed even harder.

Joey was still banging on the snare drum, and then Freddy got himself plugged in and started tuning his bass. Neither one had said a word, and that went for Mario too, who was now twiddling the controls of his little amp. Then Joey yelled out,’

“Are we gonna play or what?” and Bobby shouted,

“Yeah, yeah, let’s do Wrong Way.”

“You always want to do Wrong Way,” Joey yelled back, “I don’t want to do it. Too fucking slow.”

“What do you mean, too slow?” Bobby countered, “It’s a fucking song. All you want to do is bang the shit out of that snare drum. You’re gonna fucking break it if you don’t cut it out.”

“Fuck you,” Joey said, “We’re doing Lighthouse,” and with that he started on the kick and beat out a pattern, and while Bobby was shouting that he didn’t fucking wanna do fucking Lighthouse, Freddy had already jumped in with the bass line, and then out of the blue came the sound of Mario’s guitar, as savage and brutal and biting as any sound I had ever heard in my life. His head was still bent over his guitar and I still hadn’t had a good look at his face, but he was killing it, I can tell you that.

Oh yeah, the acoustics were horrible, and the mix was no mix at all. Joey’s drumming was way too loud, but it was obvious that no one could get him to attenuate. If Carol couldn’t, no one could, I was certain of that. The bass was thick and muddy but that was just the room and the amp, and then Bobby had to jump in and mess things up. His attempted guitar playing was all wrong, out of key and behind the tempo, and then his vocals destroyed the song entirely. He sang at all the wrong places and it was clearly the wrong tune, if there was even a melody intended. The others didn’t seem to notice. They played like Bobby wasn’t even in the room.

Mario was bent over double and Freddy was stretched from floor to ceiling like a fixture, barely moving, and Joey was smashing and banging and all the while his face was slowly swiveling from one corner of the room to the other, there and back again, over and over with a ferocious fire in his eyes, so fierce that every time he caught my eye I felt genuine fear in my heart. I tried to keep in mind what Carol told me, that he wasn’t as dangerous as he seemed, but still I felt my life was in peril. It kept going through my mind that this mind must have murdered someone somewhere along the line. I just knew it.

I tried to make out what Bobby was singing but the sound was so dense that I couldn’t fit two words together, and it seemed like total nonsense anyway, but they were hot. The band was hot, I had to admit it. And then, only a minute or maybe two minutes into it the whole thing came to an abrupt halt as one of Joey’s drumsticks gave up and shattered into pieces. The moment he stopped playing, Freddy and Mario also stopped, at the very instant. It took Bobby a few more seconds to catch on and tail off. In those moments his sick-cat singing filled the room with nerve-wracking anxiety. It was like torture.

“Oh Joey,” Carol quietly said, going over to pick up the pieces. “I told you not to hit so hard.”

He looked sheepish and muttered some kind of apology, and it seemed he was even on the verge of tears. All at once he’d gone from hunter to hunted in a transformation so swift and severe I doubted my sanity. Carol put a hand on his shoulder and said,

“It’s okay. I think we can tape it up this time.”

“I’ll get the tape,” Alice shouted, jumping up. “I know right where it is!” and she ran out of the room.

“Fucking great!” Bobby yelled. “You always do that! You always hit the thing too hard and break something. Why do you have to do that, huh? Why do you always have to fuck everything up?”

“Why can’t you even play in time?” Joey yelled back, lifting his fat ass off the stool.

“’Cause you’re banging so fucking hard I can’t even hear myself think!”

“Oh, right. Like you even think!” Joey answered, and Carol said,

“Joey? Bobby? Stop it right now. Nobody has to raise their voices. Remember we talked about that? We’re all friends here and we talk like friends to each other, and stop saying that word, please.”

“What fucking word?” Bobby countered.

“You know the one I mean,” she replied. “You just said it again and it isn’t necessary, and anyway, it’s ugly and mean.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw that Mario had been watching me and he seemed to be smiling, but when I turned my head to face him, he quickly looked away and the smile disappeared. Meanwhile Freddy was softly calling Carol’s name. She finally heard him, and asked,

“What is it, Freddy?” but he just jerked his head, motioning for her to come over to him. At first she stood her ground.

“You can tell me from here,”she said, but he shook his head and began to fidget like a little boy who needs to use the restroom, so she relented and went over to him. He whispered to her, but I could make out the words.

“I have to smash the bass now,” he said. Carol shook her head and said,

“Now Freddy, you know you can’t do that. You know we can’t afford another one.”

“But I really have to smash it this time,” he said nervously.

“I know you do,” she replied, “but remember what we talked about? Sure you do. You know you just can’t do that.”

“But Joey gets to smash his sticks,” he whined, and Carol said,

“Well, we can fix those, usually, and anyway they don’t cost too much, whereas your bass cost a lot of money, and we don’t have a lot of money, do we?”

“I’ll bet your boyfriend has a lot of money,” Bobby chimed in. “He could buy retard Freddy a new bass every other day so he could smash it whenever he feels like it.”

“I have to break something,” Freddy pleaded, and Carol said,

“Okay, let’s go outside and see if we can find something you can smash, all right?”

Freddy nodded and Carol led him to the back of the room and through a door I could swear wasn’t even there before. I was losing my mind until I realized that everybody in there had already lost theirs. I finally understood where I was.

Now there was only me and the three guys in the band. I wanted to say something to Mario but Bobby came up to me and said,

“I’ll bet she’s really good in bed, am I right? You can tell me. I’m her friend. She even said so.”

“Well, Bobby,” I began. I wanted to tell him to get lost, that he seemed like the most worthless person I had ever met, that this little hopeless halfway-house band would be a billion times better off without him, that the way he talked he didn’t deserve to be anybody’s friend, especially not someone as obviously compassionate and caring as Carol, but something held me back, something kept me sane, and I realized it was the presence of the maniac Joey, lurking right behind Bobby and staring at my face like it was his next replacement snare drum, and he was just waiting for his turn to bang the hell out of it, and then it was his voice, as hard and cold as mountain rock.

“Her friend!” Joey snorted. “You think that’s what you are? What any of us are? As if you don’t know what she is, what she really is, out there, in their world, what she is to all of us.”

At these words Bobby changed. I can’t described it, but it was like God starting over from scratch in the middle of creation. His face went through a series of expressions, twitching and transmuting from one to another so rapidly, faster than blinking, and then he relaxed and a little smile appeared on his face. He flashed it at Joey, who returned one in kind and nodded in secret agreement. Now they both had that curious Mario look. Mario himself was staring at the wall.

“I’m sorry,” Bobby said, “I just get all worked up sometimes. I really didn’t mean it. Carol’s about the best person who ever lived, and if she likes you, you’re about the luckiest guy on the planet. You won’t tell her what I said, will you?”

“Of course I won’t,” I said, but I couldn’t tell him that I wasn’t her boyfriend, that I’d never even met her until that day, because all of a sudden I found myself wishing I was, and a feeling swept over me that without her my life would be utterly meaningless and empty, that it always and already was, because I didn’t have her and I never would. Bobby turned to Joey and said,

“Sorry I yelled at you, man. You were really cooking there. It sounded great!”

“Nah, you were right,” Joey said, “I was hitting too hard. I just can’t help it sometimes.”

“Yeah, I know,” Bobby said, “Sorry I couldn’t keep up. I was way off this time.”

“Tell you what,” Joey said, “Soon as Alice gets the stick fixed up we’ll do Wrong Way, okay?”

Just then Carol and Freddy came back into the room, both of them smiling and laughing quietly, and from the other door came Alice, proudly bearing the drumstick which she ceremoniously handed over to Joey and then, giggling like a schoolgirl, she jumped up and gave Bobby a big kiss on the cheek.

I couldn’t take anymore. I can’t explain to you the overwhelming feelings of tenderness and joy and sorrow and despair that came over me in that room at that moment. I knew for a fact that as soon as Joey sat down behind the drum set it would begin all over again, the yelling and the swearing and the sheer hostility and rage would build and build until it crashed and broke again just like the stick. I knew it in my hear that this very scene had been repeated and would be repeated over and over again, week after week and month after month and I simply couldn’t bear it. I didn’t have the heart, and I knew that Carol did, and that I could never match the reservoir of compassion she carried around inside her.

I would never get to the bottom of those mysteries. I couldn’t even scratch the surface. What there was in Mario Faraday I would never know. Who they were, who they had been, what brought them together, what they’d been through, each and every one of them including Alice, it would break me to know. I didn’t want to know. I’d seen more than I wanted, more than I could stand. I got up and mumbled my thanks to Carol and Alice and the guys and bolted out of that room like a boy who’d seen a monster under his bed. I don’t know how I made my way back through that long and dismal corridor, and I was in my car and on the freeway long before I knew what I was doing. Even now, so many years later, I get tense and anxious when I think about that day, when I saw the very bloody heart of rock and roll, and it was crazy, man. Crazy.


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