Saturday, May 6, 2017 — 7:45 AM
It’s a cold, misty morning, unseasonable for May. I am driving my little Honda — its brakes finally mended — down back roads past white-fenced horse farms, paddocks rolling away across the hills to vanish in the fog.
I’m dressed for the weather, and it’s a new mode for me. I’ve long affected the look of a suburban gentleman farmer, but since November’s election I’ve been thinking about a more aggressive personal style. The ugly political climate makes me feel I’ve been drafted into some notional maquisard force; military surplus gear just feels right. I’ve taken to wearing a black Ranger beret and an M65 infantry jacket purchased by mail order, still musty from long-term warehouse storage and now festooned with safety pins and badges — a blood-spattered Watchmen smiley, my Pogues pin, an ancient Socialist Party button.
I drive on past the chain-link and double rows of razor wire that mark the perimeter of Industry; the low brick dormitories and yellow-painted chapel look almost picturesque in the mist and rain. I am bound for Mendon, New York — for the Cottage Hotel, which despite its name is neither, but rather a corner bar and restaurant. Roscoe’s Basement is booked for a show tonight, and we’re coming out now to set up and soundcheck before the place opens for lunch.
I pull up to the venue just as a chartered party bus is pulling away for a wine country tour. The passengers will return to the Cottage for supper, which should be ending right around the time we start playing. This bodes well; if the place is full of customers, we can surely convert some of them to an audience.
Tom and Deanna are already on the scene when I arrive — first in, as usual, setting up the PA and the drums. I manage to be of some use. I’m still getting my arm stretched and twisted once a week at physical therapy, but most of my carrying capacity has come back, and the new-grown bone is getting stronger.
The stage is none too large, and bounded by a low wooden railing, so we need to place ourselves wisely; drums in the stage left back corner, with Craig’s bass in front of Tom. Deanna’s at far right, within reach of the mixing board. I’m front and center, with the guitars filling out the back line. It’s snug, but not uncomfortably so.
The vibe is easy as the others roll in one by one. The room is deep, and comfortably shabby. Popcult bric-a-brac decorates the walls. It’s the very picture of a neighborhood roadhouse, and in that sense we are probably the ideal band for the place.
We go about our business — haul gear and tape down cables, tune and tweak and joke around. Chuck has brought his little daughter Alyssa along, and she’s standing watch over a big box of doughnuts, which means she is suddenly everyone’s bestest friend.
But all the while, there’s a little ache of sadness giving these mundane actions a poignancy. It comes from knowing that tonight is the end of something. After this show, we will lose one of our own. Tonight’s gig will be Michael Mann’s last show with Roscoe’s Basement.
Mike has always been one to keep his own counsel, and when he broke the news a few weeks previously, we were all blindsided. I had wondered if something was up when he joined a second band, but his involvement with them had not compromised his work with Roscoe’s Basement. In talking to him about it — and if he seemed hesitant to speak about it, I wrote it up to Mike’s typical hesitance to speak, full stop — I gathered they were an all-original outfit, their style heavier and more technical than ours, but not yet a gigging proposition. At the time, it seemed like a good way for Mike to exercise a different side of his talent.
It was hard for him to talk about his departure; I could sense that. It would have been easier for him to simply ghost. Maybe he was tempted to. I don’t know. But he took the time to explain it to us, even though it obviously made him uncomfortable. I respected that. He was at pains to let us know he wasn’t throwing us over for the other band — that in fact he was quitting both. He had simply taken on a massive workload, exacerbated by his perfectionist tendencies, and it was just no fun for him anymore. And because he is an all-or-nothing kind of person, the only way he could restore some balance to his life was to make a clean break.
I knew him well enough, I thought, to let his decision stand. Some guitar players love stirring up drama so they can get their egos stroked, but that’s not Mike. He wasn’t looking for us to beg him to stay; his mind was made up. Deanna and Tom sounded him out a little, floating the idea of cutting rehearsals back to twice a month, but it felt even at the time like a token gesture. We all loved Mike — loved him enough to want what was good for him, even if it meant the band would take a hit — and we trusted him to know for himself what he needed. Of course there were no hard feelings. How could there be?
Me being me, I cast my mind back, looking for the moment I’d fucked it all up, trying to figure out precisely what I should regret — any unkind word or gesture, any imposition, any time I’d been a tyrant or a jerk. But in the end, I thought I understood. I cannot presume to speak for Mike, but I remembered how I had walked away from something big and vital, something that felt like a calling; something that I found immensely gratifying, but which at the same time threatened to consume my life; something that had me snared like a fox in a trap, which to save its life will gnaw off its own limb — as I, and maybe Mike, felt the need to amputate one part of myself in order to save the rest.
Anyway, the decision was made. And Mike had very cannily taken steps to ensure that his resolve would not fail him. He committed to stay with Roscoe’s Basement until our show in May — and the next day, the day after the show, he and Debbie would fly off to Europe for a month. That’s a clean break. I admired him for it almost in spite of myself.
May 6, 2017 — 8:45 PM
After setup, I spend the rest of the day mooching around the house and trying not to drive my wife and son crazy with my nervous energy. I noodle at the guitar; take a couple of showers; practice my stage patter in my head, and in whispers; take the dog for more long walks than she actually needs. When the hour comes at last, I get into my commando drag and head back to Mendon.
To my delight, the joint is packed. Dinner service is just winding down. The party bus has returned, and the room rings with boozy good humor. Indeed, there seem to be three or four parties going on simultaneously, spilling into one another. I see cakes, and cocktail shrimp, and people, so many of them, fogging the windows with the steam of their breath.
The atmosphere is electric before we play a single note. But when we do — my God, when we do . . .
It’s a haze. It is madness. It is glorious. There must be bum notes and missed cues and sloppy endings — there always are — but not a one can I recall. In my recollection, we play with power and grace and swagger, and everything is good and nothing hurts. It’s only between sets when I feel my human frailty upon me, as I step out the back door into the cold in my sweaty T-shirt, stretching to keep limber like a long-distance runner, pacing the dark alley with nerves. But when I’m up on the filthy stage carpet, it all fades away.
We go down a storm. This is, without a doubt, the most enthusiastic crowd we’ve ever entertained. I want it to last forever. But the hours wear on, their passage marked by the gradual dwindling of the crowd. The cooks and the dishwasher appear from the kitchen, roaring their approval. But at last, it is midnight, and we have to stop.
There’s a giant TV by the stage playing Saturday Night Live with the sound turned down. I glance over occasionally as we tear down. LCD Soundsystem are the musical guests. “Call the Police” is brand new. James Murphy is about my age, I think — I’ve got a couple of years on him, but around the half-century mark that’s not enough to make much difference — and we’ve got a similar blocky physicality. The band is killing it, I reckon. The TV makes no sound. They look like they’re having a good time, anyway.
I allow myself a post-show beer and collect our pay. We divvy up the cash. Of one accord, we set aside a little something extra for Mike. Send a postcard; buy yourself something nice.
It’s awkward. It was always going to be awkward. I’m making a conscious effort to give Mike and Deb the space they need, and the strain shows. I ask Mike if I can keep him on the email list for the Song o’ the Week Club; this seems terribly important to me in the moment. He says okay, and even assents to a hug.
And then — well, Mike and Deb have an early flight, and I’ve got a long ride home, and nothing lasts forever.
Sunday, May 7, 2017 — 1:45 AM
The ride home is dark. Many of these back roads have no street lights, and I don’t think I see another car the whole way. All things pass. I am six months younger than Jeff Buckley would have been, four days younger than Kurt Cobain. I survived my thirties, and thrived — well, sort of — and found my way back to the music. And tonight I suffered a loss, and also played a great show, maybe my best ever. Funny how things work out.
It’s the small hours before I get home. The house is dark and quiet. And as I walk in from playing the greatest show of my life, I am greeted with the sight of a huge pile of cold dogshit in the middle of the living room carpet.
Yeah, funny how things work out.
Ha fuckin’ ha.
Next: Bring ‘em All In