—skipping right past high school, past the stupid early bands, I aim the auto-focus of memory dead center at the night I hooked up with Zelda and how we tumbled into our first jam session which quickly accelerated into our first kiss-sex-music-theory-argument-scream-fit-session that included one of us (me) howling “Fuck you, The Smiths were brilliant!” followed almost immediately by second-kiss-sex-etc which led to our first composition at four o’clock in the goddamn morning then climbing up to Zelda’s roof in our underwear and watching the sun come up (yeah, just like John and Yoko, save it, I’ve heard it), then fast forwarding to hiring our first dumbass drummer, firing said dumbass drummer, turning around and hiring Dimitri (mad speed freak from Bosnia, great drummer) then getting Adam on bass (unimaginative but skilled technician and hungry as all hell for success) followed by gig after gig after gig after gig after gig until…
The White Hammer.
The White Hammer is a glorified biker bar slash theater on the south shore. It was three months ago. We were supposed to open for Motörhead. Instead, God got a road manager lost, jammed an ignition cylinder, and turned his radiant smile upon us.
Word of mouth had been good. It didn’t hurt that the local rag Feedback had printed a cheesecake babe-shot of Zelda on their inside front which happened to coincide with the release of our first EP on BombBASTIC that John Pareles of the Times had written half a sentence of nice words about but that night at the White Hammer was a complete flip of reality, a convergence of three harmonious events which unspooled thusly: 1) We plastered the place with blow ups of Zelda’s sexy Feedback pic, exploitive maneuver, I know, but it worked for No Doubt and look at Gwen Stefani now and besides, by the end of the night there was not a single print left on the walls. 2) Motörhead’s bus broke down; it turned out that we, DeathDream9, would be headlining on a Saturday night to five thousand angry Motörhead fans, oh yeah, good luck, like that’s going to happen, they come to see Lemmy and instead they get pink-faced 20-somethings calling themselves DeathDream9? Fucking dream on. When I think about it now I’m amazed we didn’t run for our lives. Instead we said screw it and opened our set with a thunderous cover of God Was Never on Your Side followed immediately by (what else) The Ace of Spades, a smart/dumb gambit; they would either love us or kill us—but our take on both songs was balls-on, and we’re ripping through to the end of Spades with Zelda’s weird-ass vocals leaving the motörheadbangers open mouthed and pretty damn stupefied, and whom do I see in the back of the room? 3) Fucking Chuck Klosterman. And he’s into it.
Then things happened fast. Hyperdrive. “Warp speed, Sulu!” The phone raaaaaaang. “Klosterman’s basing his next big piece on you and that night and he’s using the word transformative a lot.” Video of the White Hammer gig showed up on YouTube and it received twelve-hundred-billion goddamn hits. Would-be new managers materialized out of nowhere, all of them impressive. Our manager with BombBASTIC, Ken, took on a sullen, SOP posture, which sucked and made us feel bad for him; when the big guys come sniffing the small managers always get thrown out the fifth floor window. We had to start turning down gigs. “Did you really crack your Strat over the skull of a drunken motörheadbanger lusting after your vocalist?” Never goddamn happened! Instant band myth! But I told the interviewer “Yes” with a straight face, added that the motörheadbanger in question had called me a “fucking cunt,” then informed the interviewer in no uncertain terms that Zelda was not only my vocalist but my oh so true blue and passionate partner. The interviewer arched an eyebrow and said into her tape recorder, “Nick Gordon, mastermind of DeathDream9, is banging his vocalist but claims it’s love.” She was surprised that I was playing the in-band romance card, an option I always thought was a good one, why? Because by the time it’s time for the crucial third album Zelda and I will have “parted ways” but in the process we will have matured and consequently delivered the career-altering disc and all that, you know, “goodbye innocence, hello heartbreak,” I mean, look at The White Stripes. Brilliantly executed, just fucking brilliant, so much better than Oasis and who’s-mad-at-whom ad nauseum…
Anyway. The phone call came on a Thursday at 5:45. The power meetings were finished and the deals were being dealt. The phone raaaaaaaaang.
“Hi, am I speaking to Nick Gordon?”
I didn’t need a crystal ball to know I was talking to a Long Island-born secretary calling from an office in Manhattan. “Yeah, hi, this is he.”
“Hi, Nick. This is Sandy calling from Sony/BMG. Can you hold for Michael Patterson?” Patterson is a well-known and hungry A&R guy, he signed AYWKUBTTOD in a switch-hit for Interscope.
“Sure,” I told sweet and doubtlessly blonde Sandy, my heart going ba-bang ba-bang and there was the obligatory 15 seconds of Vivaldi, a click, an intake of breath on the other end, and then an urgent affirmative voice:
“I fucking love Last Days Dawning.”
Our big song on the EP. Cost a billion dollars in studio time—at least, it cost all the money we had.
“Hey, thanks very much,” I told Michael Patterson, also immediately known as My New God. “Thank you.”
“Can you record a version of that song a hundred and fifty-five more times?”
“I’m KIDDING. You think Sony wants robots? Well, they do. PS, between you and me, Sony is a robot. But BMG is not. We support and promote the work of artists. The musical breadth across the six songs on your EP is just unbelievable. I played it for my wife and she said, ‘Shit.’ Mindblowing. Soulfreezing. Heartbreaking. Bonechilling. Bloodboiling. I fucking love it. And BMG is interested—very interested—in possibly developing an album-length project and subsequent contract.”
I noted the very as well as the possibly but I said into the phone, “Hey, thanks very much. My mother was a classically trained musician, she taught me middle C when I was six weeks old.” What I didn’t tell My New God was that my father used to be a world-famous writer and philosopher but is now almost universally dismissed and can usually be found drunk at any given hour of the day. I said, “That’s great. Really, thank you very much.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” Michael Patterson said, and all the bullshit went out of his voice.
He said, “I want a remix of Last Days. Cut the run time to five. I want you to lose that intro and shorten the weird jazzy bridge and those drums at the end? Hmm? Yeah? I want them thunderous. Your singer? Distortion. I want her coming from another planet, I want her to sound like she’s chewing on broken glass. Oh, and a backbeat. Subtle. Just have it in there somewhere. It’s the new thing, it’s the new old new thing.”
I swung round. Oh, Zelda. She had been slumped drowsy and barelegged and barefoot on the couch watching some fucking VH1 Top One Hundred Countdown but she had heard me say “Hey, thanks very much,” four times in a fucking row and now she was very intensely aware of the gravity of the situation. She reared like a cobra and watched me with sharp hungry eyes.
I said into the phone, “So you want a radio-friendly version of Sleater Kinney meets Nine Inch Nails after hanging out with Siouxsie and the Banshees for a weekend who happened to have been listening to the Beatles for the last month.”
“YES, exactly, THAT’S IT. Well, hmm, sort of. I don’t want to mess with your instincts, as you are an artist, man. Hmm.”
“We’ll need a studio,” I said.
“Booked,” Michael Patterson said.
My head pounded with too much blood and too much brain. “Producer?”
“Got one. I assume you’ve heard of Flood?”
Jesus. This was going to cost a fortune. We wouldn’t make a goddamn cent till we had earned back the cost of producing the album, and that was the “happy” ending—if we didn’t get a contract out of this (and subsequent tour, albums, etc) we’d just be another band playing the local circuit till we were old and toothless who also happened to owe a major corporation a million goddamn dollars.
“Flood. Hey, that’s great.”
“Hmm. So you’re comfortable with what I’m proposing?” Patterson said, and it hit me like a dump truck dropped by Godzilla—I’d been saying “yes” and “hey, thank you very much” but I was talking to a stranger whom I was calling My New God and MNG was telling me to rip apart my masterpiece.
Last Days’ Dawning was a 16-minute manifesto that contained pretty much everything I knew about music. But it was more than that—as if that that wasn’t enough—it was a song that went back to my mother, no lie. It went back to sitting on my mother’s lap and pounding the keys of her piano, chubby little boy finger pounding a certain white key (G), duuun-duuuun-da-duuuun, and if it’s not an actual memory it’s a pretty damn good mental fabrication because I can smell her, man, white powder and lavender, the sour ghost of wine from the night before. She was smiling, encouraging me, “Go on.” That single key had the reverb of thunder in my chest. I knew even then (I was three? Four?) that there could be an orchestra of sound beneath that one note, the promise of a string section rising unstoppable like the sun, horns dirty and low-throated, guitar wailing like a fist of defiance, and this was all from one note, man, boom boom boom ba-boom. I was four. I was on my mother’s lap and my father stood in the doorway with a glass of gin in his hand, not smiling but not frowning, either. My masterpiece, everything I knew and loved. Rip it apart?
I could have told the stranger on the phone to get, fucking, stuffed. We could do this on our own. We could distribute our own shit and not have to answer to corporate lackeys. But you know what? I wanted a million kids screaming DEATHDREAM9, I wanted Madison Square Garden, I wanted glory. So the decision, like the run time of memory, took like less than a millionth of a second.
“Sure,” I told My New God. “I can make those changes, I can cut it to five minutes. We can throw in a backbeat that’ll bounce off the D-minor progression. But to tell you the truth I think my singer already sounds like she’s coming from another planet.”
“Right now she’s singing from the moon. I want her coming from Gammilon. Get me?”
Zelda can sing. Why bury her with two tons of distortion—
But I swallowed it and said, “Okay.”
I turned, switched the phone from my right to my left, showed Zelda my fist. Her smile split my heart in two. Victory. Sort of. I guess. “Yeah, I can do that,” I told My New God. “I can do this.”
Pause. Sip of breath from a guy who knows he has his boy. “Then let’s make some money,” Patterson said. “I’ll see you in the studio. Stay on the line, Sandy will give you the details. This is where the fun begins. As if.” MmmmQUEEEP! and out.
Text © Simon Drax
Original Illustration by Eliot Min
This post is dedicated to Tom