I was told nothing of the show beforehand. My agent never called. The union didn’t warn me. The coordinator probably never knew I existed . . . From start to finish, I received no more than a fleeting message by way of Jane Doe: “Yes, Mr. Evans–please report to the Balecroft Civic Center this evening at eight o’clock for a suit-and-tie affair . . .”
A “suit-and-tie affair,” she called it. The term induced panic. I spent all afternoon rounding up a tux, feeling more ill equipped than uninformed . . .
Seated on the southbound at twenty past seven. Chain-smoking Merits from station to station. Fiddle in lap. No other passengers. Power lines crossing the wall outside.
At some point, a tramp staggered into the car. He kicked a beer can, fell down flat. The doors hissed shut. The can trickled out. Beer pooled together in the floor-mat grooves.
I watched it slide as the train pulled away, level off even in the blackened express lane, then track forward on deceleration, balling up filth, breaking new ground. I offered myself to its languorous crawl, void in the cease-fire, calm for a moment . . .
Slowly, the events of my week replayed. And a terrible week it had been, at that. From losing/relinquishing/quitting (I’m not sure which) my post at the Philtharmonic, to audits, the flu and receipt of a FINAL eviction notice by mail that morning, the only thing I hadn’t managed to blow was my gig with the musical union.
Indeed, there are seasons and there are seasons . . .
This one made life in a squat seem rational.
–If ever I got out of Philth Town alive, bragging rights were sure to follow–across my chest in block capitals: i survived the port of extremes. You could empty out pool halls in Lisbon on that. Or not. In truth–Christ, what a week–i survived bachelorhood was more like it. And that was still pending . . .
A beat-up Timberland stomped into view. I jolted.
My rivulet died underfoot.
The Timberland shifted, edged into profile. Stricken, I locked to its gravel-torn shank and panned up from there, imploring Jesus–over an ankle chain, stonewashed pant cuffs, a windburned kneecap, a nickel-plated Harley buckle, ring around the armpit, an undersize wife-beater, airbrushed, reading: speak english or die–to a Bryl-maned, acne-pitted, craven-pallored bristle-snout with Ecto-mullet, dagger ring and service-station cap included. From there, back, for the overall picture: Postcard from Honky Town, 1984.
Sneering, he made his way to a seat and flopped down, akimbo–package on parade . . . He sucked down four long gulps of Schlitz, pitched the can and swiveled around–belching through foam-lined catfish lip growth, cussing to himself, glaring at the rail map, lighting a smoke with his butane knuckle bar, scowling at the tramp, plugging one nostril, craning his neck, snapping it, groaning, hawking phlegm, then cussing some more . . .
I gazed in wide wonder the whole way through.
What came next, Krishnas in Kevlar?
Set to write him off as a fluke when the doors slid open and three more appeared. Two males, one otherwise. Slamming a bottle of Old Crow. All a decade out of element–foul, mean, tough and nasty . . .
I shot to attention, concerned by now.
Okay, go easy–no cause for alarm. Hessians in Philth Town. Not unheard of . . .
Yet the next station brought four more of them. Soon to be joined by a pair at Elkins. Then a whole crowd farther on. Inexplicable: Keystone Dutch retrogression en masse. The car began to stink like a tractor pull in a heat wave . . . I kept wondering what kind of hole in time had spat forth on the sly. But more importantly–and this with a growing sense of dread–where these people were going? No one had gotten off the train yet, and there were only five more stops on the line. There was really nothing cooking in this part of town; after a certain point on the southbound, the area was no longer even residential–just storage lots and warehouse facilities. The only public venue was the Civic Center, and that’s where I was going. So where did that leave these freaks? My agent wouldn’t have let this happen. He wouldn’t have dared, not with my record. Surely it had to be something else–some aberrant, regional faction in transit . . .
Even as the train neared the end of the line, I kept thinking: Never–no way in hell . . . But at the station, hope diminished. As we crowded the escalator, fear set in . . . With a host of inebriated longhairs around me and the roar of a mob from the exits above, I realized that, like it or not, our destinations were truly one and the same.
The platform arrived. A guard stood watching. I shimmied through the stiles with everyone else to join West Virginia’s heated response to East St. Louis on a cast of thousands . . . Hessians everywhere . . . Jamming the divider strip. Mobbing the fence. In the middle of the road . . . Smashing bottles. Hanging from light poles. Climbing on car hoods, scrapping by the Port-O-Lets . . . A sprawling throng of Cro-Magnon havoc in every direction, for miles on end . . . Death rockers traipsing across the highway, daring coming traffic to get in the way . . . Vixens in leather, hair teased up to the overhanging heavens, looking for action . . . Carcino-mullets in roving squadrons, gobbing the Red Man, cussing and yelling . . . Catfights raging out of control . . . Cops on horseback, lost in the swirl . . .
I hadn’t known there were still enough Hessians to pack a stable, much less an arena. And this was their target–flocking to Balecroft as ravenous sharks to a capsized freighter.
Getting through was an absolute nightmare.
Picture one Cambodian/Negro fiddle stooge in a shrunken tux on a funky chicken through a mile of white lightning . . . wondering what he’d gotten into . . . hoping and praying there’d been a mistake, that he wasn’t really supposed to be here–the guards would turn him away at the gate, throw him in a taxi or, better yet, escort him home in an armored wagon . . .
And, of course, I was due at the farthest gate–clear across in the opposite lot. Took forever to get there. And not one clue as to what lay in store along the way. It wasn’t until Gate E loomed into view that a banner caught my eye.
THE RETURN OF VOLSTAGG
It hit: a soured relic from adolescence–visions of tour shirts, tank tops, gold chains, feathered hair, cigarettes and beatings at the bus stop . . . And there, in the middle of it all, volstagg: corporate-Satanic Limburger metal, mono-browed Vikings in demon-seed black, traipsing along the edge of a castle with double-edged broadswords, meaner than thou. Avatars of a dead aesthetic, though apparently it, or they, were still alive. In fact, it would seem they hadn’t even cut their hair . . .
This was the band’s “comeback” tour.
I couldn’t remember any of their songs. As far as I knew, they had only one hit. Yet I guess that was all it took for a comeback. And, judging by the horde, they had been missed.
I could not fucking believe the union. Someone (my agent) would pay for this, dearly . . .
Four Sasquatches manning Gate E. I called one over, gave him my line. He asked for ID. I shook my head. Pausing, he thought about it, then gave in–clearly swayed by my suit and complexion. He opened the gate and shoved me in a corner. I stood near the wall as the ranks filed by.
Soon, somebody called me a nigger. Turning, I tried to single him out. But they all looked the same. Lost in Cumberland. How much longer, O Lord, how long?
I went back to watching the Sasquatches confiscate pipe after bundle after Carolina boot knife.
Then, more directly, it happened again: “GET GONE, COON!” –from a grub in fatigues.
And to think there was talk of sterilizing pit bulls . . .
I looked at my watch, thinking, One more minute.
“Pardon,” came a voice. “Are you Charles Evans?”
I turned. He was small, balding, corporate.
“Yeah,” I said. “Get me out of here.”
‘sorry.” He looked off. “Come with me.”
Weaving, I followed his lead through the crowd. He drew a rope at the top of some stairs. We dropped the flight to a stage-room door. A techie opened up. I stepped inside. Three other union gimps were huddled in the corner. None familiar–to me or each other. We were given introductions with a careless nod, then handed our scores and told to prepare.
So, the long and short of it was this: not only were the four of us, as total strangers, expected to play before twenty thousand cases of arrested development off the cuff, we were actually there to play Volstagg’s music–unaccompanied, without the band, as the opening act–” la Johann Sebastian Bach: baroque renditions of shit-awful death epics . . .
I barely had time to rosin my bow. What little I glimpsed of the score was a travesty–incorrect signatures, misplaced codas, whole staff bars missing. Completely illegible. Random improvisation was one thing, but all-out blind maneuvering?
Shit, sight-reading takes a provisional road map . . .
This was simply no damn good.
They drove us onstage at five till eight. We were seated on a platform between two curtains. A techie appeared with our pickup cords. He signaled offstage. A spotlight hit. Someone shouted to move your asses!
We never got a sound check–or a chance to tune.
The curtain went up with no further warning.
A startled surge of applause, more shocked than enthused, washed over the half-empty floor. It quickly died as the stage lights rose . . . Four geeks in tuxedos. Nothing interesting. No VOLSTAGG . . . Everyone returned to the waiting game–catcalling, throwing trash and power-slamming Miller Lite.
A blast of flatulence swept the stage. The cellist’s hair went amok, on end. The other gimps looked like Freedom Rockers. A cone of blistering white enfolded us, down from the skies: You Have Been Chosen . . . I shielded the glare for a look around. But all I could see was a troll in the pit.
With bows drawn and a nod of collective surrender between us, off we went . . .
Our opening effort spluttered and ground to a ten-second death. Which wasn’t bad. The cellist reacted by sustaining our root, allowing us to regroup and proceed at the next measure. But back on track, it happened again. And then a third time. And once more by the end of the page . . . For lack of options, we stuck with the cellist, rolling along until trouble hit, then leveling off to a monotone lull. It sounded like dueling belugas wounded. Which isn’t to say the audience cared. Right from the start, our lot was ignored. We didn’t receive a single clap from a crowd of thousands the whole way through. We could’ve been playing bluegrass standards for all these people cared. No matter. The four of us remained in our own pathetic, miserable, inconsequential world–hacking and chopping through one catastrophe after another to no one’s benefit . . .
Almost at once, a migraine hit. Soon, all four of us hit the boards . . . Nothing was in order. The monitors were shot. The stage lights, blinding–my scalp, half cooked. Someone had tampered with the soundboard, too, and the score just kept getting worse . . .
At one point the bassist went hopelessly astray and simply stopped playing altogether. He leafed through his book in a flustered panic only to find a whole section missing, torn out at the binding. He stormed offstage to demand another, then snarled and lashed at the curtain’s edge. We continued without him, devoid of a low end . . .
Yet still, the crowd remained oblivious. Even as seats started filling to capacity, the only reaction we managed to elicit was a cry of impatience from a goon in the tiers. With whom we agreed. Enough was enough. At least forty minutes had passed by now. I couldn’t imagine why the band was waiting. The stagehands were set. The mob had been ready. The four of us, useless–delay, without point . . .
A power chord blew from the rack overhead . . .
. . . Feeding, it rumbled across the arena: Godzilla rising from Tokyo Bay. The stage lights cut. Torches flared.
The crowd went apeshit, surging uncontrollably.
A carpet of vapors swept the floor.
Then another power chord. Behind us the curtain rose. Turning, I nearly flew off my chair . . . A giant skull with glowing emerald eyes slid forward on a rail track, hissing. A figure appeared between its fangs–Kull the Destroyer in lavender spandex . . . A cordless guitar rode his sagging gut. Several log chains hung from his belt. He jammed another power chord and sneered our way . . . The crowd went into overdrive. Someone threw a chair. The Destroyer kicked one platform boot overhead, spewing for all to assume: Get that pussy-ass classical bullshit outta my face–VOLSTAGG is here! And pretty soon the mob was booing us–throwing garbage, rushing the stage–egging the guards to kill them faggots . . . Another explosion signaled our cue. The four of us scuttled away in defeat–crushed, humiliated, Killed By Death . . .
Roaring, Kull the Destroyer swept our chairs and score stands into the pit, then spread-eagled himself to the horde with an outstretched sign of the beast.
* * *
Six blocks north, I found a bodega. Went in. Grabbed a quart of Mickey’s. Paid in change. Sat on the curb outside, drinking. Dupe in repose.
Minutes later, a squad car appeared. It slowed to a halt. The cop got out . . . I was searched, ordered to dump my bottle, grilled as a vagrant and written a ticket.
My least turbulent moment all day was still a societal crime, somehow.
When it was over, he drove away. I looked at the paper. open container. Casting it into the gutter, along with my fiddle, I walked.
To hell with it all.
Excerpted from Skirt and the Fiddle
©2002 by Tristan Egolf. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.