Essays — October 15, 2014 11:47 — 0 Comments

The Music Book (Chapter 2) – Dave O’Leary

“I didn’t know you were writing tonight.”

“I am.”

“Cool, but the Young Evils hardly need another review right now.” She laughs a little, pours me a Manny’s. It’s Jessie, the owner of the Skylark Café in West Seattle. I settle in at the end of the bar, my usual seat in what has become my preferred pub when out alone because of its proximity to my apartment, but also for the Sunday brunch, the mix of live bands, the local artists on the walls. The staff knows me, and I like the benefits of being a regular. I don’t have to actually order, just catch an eye, and I don’t have to leave my card to run a tab. They know I’m good for it.

“Mackenzie put me on the list.”

“You know you don’t need to do that here. Any time you want, just show up and you’re in.”

“I know, and I do appreciate that, but I like to okay things with bands ahead of time if possible.”

“Well, this won’t be their usual show, but I think you’ll like it.” She walks off, disappears into the kitchen. I turn toward the stage, drink. I can feel the chill of the liquid running down my throat and relaxing everything as it goes. It’s a marvelous thing, that first sip of the night, the look around the bar, the wonder of how we end up where we end up. I played music for years back in Ohio and Michigan, even some overseas, but now I’m here in Seattle at the end of the bar while my bass is nestled in the corner at home wondering whether it will ever see an audience again.

The Skylark is a dark, L-shaped place with the stage at the long end of the L. My seat is where the L makes its turn and a little farther from the taps than I’d like, but it’s the perfect spot to listen to the music and take notes on the shapes of chords and flag down bartenders when the need arises. And I need this spot because I’m writing about the show tonight, and that thought always makes me smile, for I’ve done it. I’ve ended up in a most unexpected place. At forty-two, I’ve turned into that thing I thought I never would be, the thing I mentioned to Katie the other day, a critic.

I’ve been doing this for a few months, but I still ponder the same questions when I get to a bar for a show. How does a musician, a writer, make the switch to critic? And what does that mean? Can the act of writing about the music of others be as artful, as meaningful, as personal, as the music itself? And the larger question, of course, is why even bother? Why do I spend my hours writing, writing, writing? Why did Third Stone spend all those hours jamming, gigging, playing every weekend for a few souls who would graduate college and move on with their lives forgetting those unknown bands in the small campus bars, forgetting us? And what about the Young Evils? I know from all my years playing in bands that often the best music is the local stuff, the bands that can only be heard in the small clubs, the bands desperately trying to make it as I had been with Third Stone, the bands that most likely will soon never be heard again, and so here I am contacting musicians, managers and clubs. They put me on the guest lists, sometimes even give me a permanent spot on such, and with a pen and a notebook I push forward into the unknown, into something I’d never imagined doing, just listening, just being in the audience, taking notes on the sounds of the E chords played by others and passing a kind of judgment on them. It’s an unforeseen turn in this life, but one thing I’ve always known is that the greatest things often come from such, and I wonder in these moments, first beer half finished, if the word that truly applies is serendipity, and if so, what will I find?

“Are you here to see the show?” It’s a woman dressed in blue genie attire. She has a stack of index cards and a few pens in her hand.

“Uh, yeah.”

“I’m Sasha, an usher. Do you know how the show works?”

“Nope. All I know is that it’s called Radio8Ball, and that it’s kind of like that old Magic 8 Ball thingy.”

“That is correct. Radio8Ball is the Pop Oracle. You see, audience members write questions on these cards. If your card is chosen by our host, then you’ll go on stage and the band will play a song to answer your question. Do you have a question?”

“Uh, too many.”

She hands me a card.

“Just wave to me when you’re done, and I’ll take it up to the stage and put it in the basket.” Sasha walks off. Mackenzie, who is also a bartender here, comes over.

“Glad you could make it.” She’s a short woman, easy with a smile, straight shoulder-length brown hair. She’s wearing an Iron Maiden tee shirt, the “Run to the Hills” drawing, got to like a woman who wears such. My very first band played “Run to the Hills,” and the guitar player and I would push the tempo of an already fast song so that by the end the drummer felt as if he’d sprinted a quarter mile. He’d throw his sticks at us—“you fuckers”—but we’d all be laughing, and the singer would invariably say, “Let’s do that again.” And most often we would.

“Thanks for having me. How’d you get hooked up with this Radio8Ball thing? It’s an interesting idea.”

“They heard us on KEXP and contacted Troy. We thought it’d be fun.” That seems reasonable.

Radio play is a large part of the reason Jessie had said they didn’t really need any more reviews at the moment. KEXP is regularly spinning their CD, and that kind of thing will lead to shows and reviews and reviews and more shows and better shows and whimsical shows for fun. I have my doubts though because the other singer, Troy, is a DJ for KEXP, and it seems too convenient. I’ve seen and heard so many great local bands that deserve airplay but are never given so much as a courtesy spin in the dedicated local hour on Sunday nights when only parents and girlfriends, and boyfriends, are listening, bands that faded into nothing, bands that would have killed to have their singer be a DJ. And KEXP is not a student-run college station that gives its fifty listeners a chance to hear the local stuff that won’t be heard anywhere else. It is a juggernaut of independent radio, a force, a stepping stone. They take chances. They play things. Sometimes they play absolute shit, mind you, but they play it, and so I have to wonder as I wait for the show to start if the Young Evils are just that, shit, shit played because of an inside connection, and sadly, sometimes, many times, people like shit.

“That’s cool. I want to make some preliminary notes, but let’s catch up after the show and chat about music for a bit.”

“Will do. Put a few drinks on our tab if you want.”


When the show starts, host Andras Jones steps up to the microphone. “Welcome to Radio8Ball.” He spreads his arms. “We are experimental theater, part rock-and-roll cabaret, part mystic mind-expansion.” There are a few claps in the crowd. “The idea here is that there will inevitably be some kind of answer buried in the song that the Great Spinning Wheel demands the band play, some kind of connection that will relate to the question at hand, because you, the questioner, will spin the wheel and thereby direct the band through your own energy.” He has a table and chair on the right side of the stage in front of the wheel that has numbers one through ten on it. The band is on the left side of the stage, but there are no drums. Troy is in the center with an acoustic guitar and Mackenzie next to him with a microphone. There is another guitar player and a percussionist with an assortment of shakers and a tambourine, no bass player. As I gathered from Mackenzie a few nights ago, they are currently searching for one, and seeing them bassless up there makes me wonder about playing again, stepping up on stage, strapping on the bass, launching into the opening groove of Jane’s Addiction’s “Up the Beach.” Maybe if I like their music, I’ll inquire.

Andras ruffles his hand through the basket and draws a card. “John S., John S., please come up to the stage and ask the band what you will.” John walks up to the stage. He’s a thin guy, short hair, tall, maybe six-five. He leans down into the guest microphone with no greetings, no jokes, no hesitation. “How do we fix the economy?” Then he spins the wheel. It goes around four times with a whirring buzz that slows and stops on three. Some people clap. There’s a list of ten songs on the wall behind the band with titles big enough to see even from my corner of the bar, and we all do the mental count down the list. One, Two, Three. Troy smiles. “ ‘Crazy People’ it is.” He counts off, and the Young Evils play and sing of looking toward the past and trying to discern the meaning, the need to hang in there and the money made never being spent and staying on one’s path. Afterward Troy says, “OK, that’s creepy.” It kind of was. Question answered. Economy fixed.

A few questions later, a guy named Carek steps up to the stage. He’s got an athletic build but a beer gut too, the inevitability of middle age creeping up. I know the feeling. “Have you ever really hummed it in there?” he asks the band. I write in my notebook, “Hummed it in there?” I have no idea what he’s asking, but it seems Andras and the band do as there is some debate on it being an appropriate question since it doesn’t really apply to him or his life specifically. Andras muses that it applies to all of us when its sexual meaning is divulged for those in the crowd who may not know. Humming it in there. Okay. I get it now, though I suppose a woman would have it hummed in there. The discussion continues about the point of the question.

“Yeah, but shouldn’t it be more how you hum it in there rather than simply have you?” Mackenzie asks. This brings laughter.

“Uh,” the percussionist chimes in, “isn’t that a question for Troy, Mackenzie?”

More laughter. Apparently, they’re a couple. I hadn’t known.

“No, Faustine, I’m just saying that I think the how of the question is where the meaning lies, or rather how well. I mean, we’ve all done it.” She looks out to the audience. “There aren’t any nuns here, are there?” Even more laughter, some clapping.

“Yeah, I think the how is where it is,” Carek says.

“Let’s spin the wheel.” Andras gets the show back on track. Seven. “Get Over It.” More laughter.

“Mackenzie, about last night …”

“Get over it, Troy.” There are shouts and claps, and they exchange a brief kiss on stage to whistling and applause. Faustine counts in, and they play the song. Afterward Troy, still grinning, says, “That’s pretty much a song about asking, ‘Am I good enough?’ ”

“See? It’s the how, not the if.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Andras says, “the eternal quest to hum it in there and to hum it well.”

There is a lull, and those in attendance who, like me, are alone look around and wonder whether we’ll get lucky, and when, and yes, how well we’ll do it. It has been almost nine months for me so the odds of quality probably aren’t on my side. These days I guess it’s just a matter of the if. I’ll worry about the how later. “Get over it,” I sing to myself before glancing around to see if anyone heard. I have to admit that after a few songs, I like the band. The music is catchy, poppy, simple rock with jangly, unclean guitar. The kicker, though, is the vocals. Troy and Mackenzie do not harmonize. They simply double the melody in octaves, and that gives them an almost artificial sound, not unpleasant though. It takes some of the musicality away but in doing so opens it up like we’re all just sitting in a living room singing together for the simple joy of it, trying to make it sound good but not too worried because it’s fun. And there’s me, the non-singer, the guy scribbling at the end of the bar who, in spite of himself, sings along to every song.

“Rob. Rob M. Your turn. Come on up and see what the Young Evils have to say.”

That’s me, my question picked from the basket, and the nerves come, and the fears, for if I do it, I will be divulging a secret few people know. I want to ignore it, but Andras is calling my name, “Rob M.? Rob M.?” Mackenzie squints. “He’s over there at the end of the bar.” Heads turn, so what can I do? I walk to the stage and take my card. Andras points to the microphone. I’d thought of many questions earlier. Should I quit my job and just write? What’s the best cure for a hangover? Is it possible for elephants to vanish? Or this slightly more complicated one: The length of the second side of a triangle is four less than three times the length of the first side. The length of the third side is one more than the length of the first side. If the perimeter of the triangle is thirty-seven feet, what is the length of the first side?

They’re all important questions, but not what I really need answers to at the moment. I look out at the audience. The place is silent. The jitters come for I hate speaking. That’s why I write. That’s why I play bass and hide in the groove. The ringing in my ears creeps up in volume for a few seconds and then subsides at the pop of a wine bottle being uncorked. I have a bottle of red at home, William Hill cabernet, think I’ll have a glass or two later. Faustine drops a shaker, picks it up. I eye my question once more, brace myself and think, Fuck it. “Uh,” I look over at the band. “when will my novel be published?”

“Whoa, you wrote a novel?” Andras asks.

“He’s a writer,” Mackenzie says. “He writes for Seattle Subsonic.”

“Thanks for the plug, and yeah, I did.”

“Okay then, so what’s it about?”

I pause. It’s about various things, and many short summaries come to mind, but I still have all that humming on my brain, the memory of that last time with the woman who still dominates my thoughts on some late evenings. I wonder if she thought I did it well. She seemed to think so. “Uh, it’s about orgasms that change lives.” I had orgasms back then, but did she? Or did she pretend? I’m sweating and turned sideways as if I’m thin enough to hide behind the microphone stand. Did she? So many doubts. A lifetime full. My face is flushed, and I just want to get off the stage.

But there’s laughter.

“Don’t they all?”

“Not all of them.”

“Get over it.”

“It’s all in the how,” someone shouts from the audience. Yes, I think, but there’s also the luck of the opportunity, and sometimes that’s all that matters. Good, bad, or otherwise, that’s all there is, the if, the touch of another, hopefully a loved one, the desire, and when that’s gone, one is left to linger with memories, maybe battle with them.

“Okay then, let’s spin the wheel.” He’s a stickler for that spinner so I do. Four. “This Rock and Roll City is Done.” I sit down next to Andras as the Young Evils play. It’s a fun tune. All of theirs are, especially in the acoustic format. They’re deceptive in some ways. The name isn’t a happy one. The titles are not happy, but the vibe is. The tone is. I make a mental note to see them with the full lineup but not to inquire about playing bass. I’m more given to something musically that has a bit of melancholy.

“So, Rob, what’d you think? Did it answer your question?”

I step up to the mic again a little more at ease from the song. “Well, I used to play in bands. My last gig was on this stage even, last year. Now, I just write so in a way it is true. This rock and roll city is done. Maybe that means soon.”

“Yeah, I hope so, Rob, but you have to promise me something,” Troy says. “If … no, when you do publish your book, please do an audio recording because I love that deep baritone of your voice.”

I lean into the microphone, and in the deepest, the baritoniest tone I can muster, I say, “Indeed, I will.” It makes me think about Elvis. There are more laughs and claps and a couple shouts, and I’m no longer on the verge of sadness or doubt or fright. It’s impossible to be so when on stage with people clapping and smiling, so I lean forward and say in my best Elvis voice, “Thank you, thank you very much.”

There are more questions, more songs, more talk of humming it in there. Everything seems to wind its way back to that. We’re human. We have needs. An Asian woman steps up to the stage for the last song and squeaks out, “Have I become a sad robot?” There’s the spin of the wheel, the stop, the glance at the song list. “The Devil’s Barricade.”

Faustine counts, “One, two, three, four.”

It’s their most rocking number with a lengthy guitar solo at the end. I can’t catch the lyrics, so I’m not sure if it answers the question in any way, but afterward there is a shout from a woman in the audience, maybe the same woman who asked the question since she vacated the stage when the song began. “You guys nailed that one!”

Troy smiles, scratches his chin. “Yeah … we hummed it in there.”

There is more laughter, but I look around and being off the stage and back at the corner of the bar, a little sadness does come back, and then a lot, because I know that for me, there will be no humming anytime soon, and so I do what I always do. I close my notebook, put my pen in my pocket, pay my bar tab, and leave alone.



Dave O’Leary is a writer and musician living in Seattle. The Music Book is his second novel (and will be available at Elliot Bay Books). His first novel, Horse Bite, was published in October 2011 (Infinitum), and he has also had work published in The Monarch Review and on

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney