The singer had presence. She wasn't a beauty, and her pitch was imperfect, but she had presence. Tabachnik watched her. Lord, the girl could yell. From time to time he surveyed the young faces in the crowd. The way the kids stared at her--the ones in back jumping up and down to get a better look--confirmed his instinct. The girl was a piggy bank waiting to be busted open.
Tabachnik and a foul-smelling Australian stood by the side of the stage, in front of a door marked REDRüM STAFF ONLY! Most of the kids in Redrüm were there to see the headliners, Postfunk Jemimah, but the opening act, the Stains, was threatening to steal the show. There was no slam-dancing or crowd-surfing or stage-diving--everybody bobbed their heads in time with the drummer's beat and watched the singer. She prowled the stage in a bottle-green metallic mesh minidress so short that Tabachnik kept dipping his knees and tilting his head to see if he could spot her underwear. He could not spot her underwear.
When the band finished the song Tabachnik turned to the Australian and asked, "What's that one called?"
The Australian had recently started an independent label called Loving Cup Records. The Stains were the first band he signed. His head was shaved and his black track suit stank of sweat and cigarette smoke.
"It's good, huh? 'The Ballad of SadJoe.' SadJoe's the drummer. He started the band."
"Who writes the songs?"
"Molly," said the Australian, pointing at the lead singer. "Molly Minx."
She didn't look like a Molly Minx. Tabachnik wasn't sure what a Molly Minx should look like, but not this. He guessed that she was Thai. Her hair was cropped close to the scalp and bleached blonde. A tattooed black dragon curled around her wrist.
"The story is," continued the Australian, "she has a big crush on SadJoe, and she writes this song, and one night she sings it to him. Right on the street, a serenade. So, you know, love. Boom. And he asks her to join the band."
Tabachnik had never heard of the Australian before tonight, which meant that the Australian did not matter in the music business. Whatever contract Loving Cup Records had with the band would be a mess, whipped up one night by a cocaine-addled lawyer who passed the bar on his third try. That was Tabachnik's guess, anyway, and he was generally right in these matters.
After the Stains finished their set Tabachnik retreated to the VIP room with the Australian. He expected the man to light a joint and offer him a hit; when it happened Tabachnik shook his head and took another sip of mineral water.
"I got you," said the Australian, leaning back in the overstuffed sofa. He sucked on the joint and kept the smoke in his lungs for so long that it seemed as if he had forgotten about the exhale part. Finally he released the smoke through his nostrils, two plumes curling toward the ceiling. It was an impressive gesture and Tabachnik appreciated it--Australians were always doing shit like this--but it was meaningless. He wasn't going to deal with Loving Cup unless it was necessary, and at this point he doubted it would be.
"I got you," repeated the Australian. "You want to keep a cool head for the negotiations."
The Australian smiled craftily, inspecting the ash at the tip of his joint. He had told Tabachnik his name. Tabachnik never forgot names, but in his mind the Australian was simply "the Australian." He was sure that he was simply "major label" in the Australian's mind, but eventually he would be "that fuck Tabachnik."
"Okay," said the Australian. "Let's just talk then."
"What should we talk about?"
"Come on, come on. Let's quit the gaming. You're here for the band."
"I don't understand something. You've signed Postfunk Jemimah?"
The Australian squinted through the haze of smoke. "The Stains."
"So what are we talking about? I'm here for Postfunk Jemimah."
"You like the Stains," the Australian said, wagging his finger as if Tabachnik were a naughty child. "I saw you checking on the crowd. Well, you want them?"
Tabachnik smiled his version of a smile: lips together, left cheek creased with a crescent-shaped dimple. "We're having a conversation here, but we're not communicating. I came to see Postfunk Jemimah."
"Too late, man. They signed a six plus one with Sphere."
"Right," said Tabachnik, rattling the ice cubes in his glass. "And we're buying Sphere."
The Australian opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again. "You're buying Sphere? I just saw Greenberg two nights ago at VelVet. He didn't say a word."
The Australian laughed. "The president of Sphere."
"Greenspon. And he's required by law to keep silent about it. I'm breaking the law telling you, but," Tabachnik indicated the empty room with his free hand, "I know I can trust you."
The Australian nodded solemnly and took another deep hit. Tabachnik figured he would need forty-eight hours to get the girl. The last thing he wanted was for this pissant label to sniff out his interest and put the chains on her, rework her contracts. If that happened he would have to buy out Loving Cup, and Tabachnik hated paying off middlemen. In the grand scheme of things, the musicians made the music and the consumers bought the music, and anybody in the middle, including Tabachnik, was a middleman. But Tabachnik did not believe in the grand scheme of things. There were little schemes and there were big schemes, but there was no grand scheme.
"I can introduce you to Heaney," said the Australian, desperate for an angle. "He manages Postfunk Jemimah."
"Yeah, we went out for dinner last night. But thanks." Tabachnik gave another tight-lipped smile. All of his smiles were tight-lipped because Tabachnik had worn braces until a few months ago. He wore the braces for two years because his teeth had gotten so crooked that he would bloody the insides of his lips and cheeks every time he chewed dinner. The teeth were straight now, the braces gone, but he had trained himself to smile and laugh with a closed mouth.
He was supposed to get braces when he was fourteen, like a normal American, but his mother and father, who had split up the year before, kept bitching about who ought to pay for it. "Your only son is going to look like an English bookie," his mother would say into the telephone, smoking a cigarette and waving at Tabachnik when she saw that he was listening. "Excuse me, excuse me, I would have a job except you know why I don't? You know who's been raising our son for the last fourteen years?"
So when the money for the orthodontia finally came, Tabachnik told his mother he didn't want it. "Sweetheart," she said, "you want to be a snaggletooth all your life?"
Tabachnik found the negotiations over his teeth so humiliating that he refused to have them fixed. He never again wanted to depend on another man's money. He worked his way through college in New Hampshire, copying and filing in the alumni office until he figured out better ways to get paid. He convinced the owner of the local Chinese restaurant to let him begin a delivery service in exchange for twenty percent of the proceeds; he hired other students to work for tips and free dinners and to distribute menus around town. Tabachnik made out well until the restaurant owner realized he no longer needed Tabachnik. That incident impressed Tabachnik with the importance of a good contract.
He managed a band called the Johns, a group of local kids who worked as custodians and security guards at the college. The Johns always sold out when they played the town bars, and Tabachnik took them to a Battle of the Bands in Burlington, Vermont, where they came in second to a group called Young Törless. Young Törless became Beating the Johns and had a hit single remaking an old Zombies song. Tabachnik was reading Variety by this point, and he saw how much money Beating the Johns made for their label, and he thought, Jesus, they're not even good. And he realized that good doesn't matter, and once you realize that, the world is yours. When Postfunk Jemimah began to play, Tabachnik and the Australian went to listen, and afterward joined them, their manager, Heaney, and the Stains for a post-gig smoke session in the club owner's private room. The VVIP room. Tabachnik had been places with four progressively more exclusive areas, where the herds were thinned at each door by goons with clipboards, turning away the lame. Some of these rooms were so hard to get into that a full night would pass without anyone gaining entrance. People who had never been turned away before, people unused to rejection, seven-foot-tall basketball players and lingerie models with bosomy attitude, would snipe at the bouncer and declare their lifelong friendship with the owner, and the bouncer would nod and say, "No." Tabachnik wasn't a VVVVIP, but he didn't care. He suspected that if you ever got into the fourth room you would find another closed door, leading to an even smaller room with even fewer people, and if you could somehow convince the bouncer to let you pass, you would enter a still-smaller room, on and on, until finally you would find yourself in a room so cramped only you could fit inside, and the last bouncer, the biggest, meanest one of all, would grin at you before slamming the pine door and lowering you into the ground.
Tabachnik asked Heaney to speak with him in the other room for a minute; they huddled in a corner of the single-V VIP room and ignored the wanna-bes who stared at them and wondered who they were.
"Congratulations," said Tabachnik. "I hear you signed with Sphere."
"Yeah, they own us forever, but we're good with it."
"I need to ask you a favor..."
When they returned to the VVIP room, the Australian stared at them unhappily. Heaney gathered his band and they went off, in high spirits, to eat pierogies at Kiev. Tabachnik stayed, as did the Stains and the Australian, who slouched with the discontent of the small-time.
"Well," said the Australian, passing a joint to SadJoe, "next year in Budokan."
There were no chairs or sofas in the room, only giant pink pillows. Everyone sprawled in a loose circle and Tabachnik felt like an adult crashing a slumber party. Only Molly Minx sat with her back straight, very erect and proper. Her legs were propped up on a pillow and Tabachnik studied them: they were tapered like chicken drumsticks, thick with muscle at the thighs, slender at the ankles. She wore anklets strung with violet beads and black slippers like the ones Bruce Lee wore in his movies. Her hands were clasped together in the taut lap of her green dress; her face was broad and serene below her bleached, spiked hair. Thai or Filipino? She smiled at Tabachnik and he smiled back, thinking that a good photographer could make her look beautiful.
The guitarist began to snore. The bassist was crafting little soldiers from paper matches; he had a pile of Redrüm matchbooks beside him and he arrayed his army on the gray carpeting. They were very well made, with miniature spears and a general on a matchbook horse, and Tabachnik watched, wondering when the war would begin.
SadJoe was shirtless. His black mohawk was spotted with large flakes of dandruff. A rottweiler's head was crudely tattooed on his neck, the name Candy inked in green script below the dog's spiked collar. The air was rich with marijuana smoke and body odor. SadJoe puffed on the joint contentedly until Molly elbowed him.
"It's a communal thing, lover."
He grunted and passed her the joint; she smoked and passed it to Tabachnik; Tabachnik took a hit, let the smoke sit in his mouth for a moment, and breathed out. He passed the joint to the bassist and asked the drummer, "How'd you get the name SadJoe?"
SadJoe made a gun with his thumb and index finger and shoved it into his mouth. Molly said, "He's sick of telling the story."
If you're going to call yourself SadJoe, thought Tabachnik, you ought to expect a little curiosity.
"I'll tell it," said the Australian. The whites of his eyes were now mostly red. A strand of mucus was creeping out of one of his nostrils and Tabachnik started to say something but then decided not to.
"SadJoe grew up in New Jersey," the Australian began. "What town?"
"Near Elizabeth," said SadJoe.
"Near Elizabeth. And the street he lived on, I guess this was a quiet town, all the kiddies played together. Football and so forth."
"Street hockey," said SadJoe. "Street hockey was the big game. I was always goalie. Goalie's the best athlete on the team." He nudged Molly Minx and she smiled at him.
"So they all played street hockey together. This was before SadJoe became SadJoe. He was just Joe."
"Some people called me Joey."
"All right. And along comes a new family, with a little boy. This boy, unfortunately, was born a little off. Special, you call it?"
"He was a mongoloid," said SadJoe. Molly shot him a nasty look and SadJoe shrugged. "What's the nice word for mongoloid?"
Everyone looked at Tabachnik. There was something about his face that made people suspect he knew things that nobody else would bother to know.
He said, "A kid with Down's syndrome, I guess."
"Mon-go-loid," said SadJoe, chanting the syllables into Molly's ear. "Mon-go-loid."
"But a sweet boy," continued the Australian. "Always smiling, always laughing."
"He used to kiss me on the lips sometimes," said SadJoe, scratching his armpit. "But I don't think he was gay. Sometimes retards don't know the difference between right and wrong."
"Jesus," said Molly.
"Well," said the Australian, "the boy's name was Joe. But the kids couldn't call him Joe, because our friend here already had the name. So they started calling him Happy Joe."
"He was a good kid," said SadJoe.
"And eventually," concluded the Australian, "if there's one Joe called Happy Joe, then the other will become Sad Joe."
"Ta-da," said Molly, lighting a new joint.
"And they all lived happily ever after," said the Australian, gazing hungrily at the fresh weed.
"Not really," said SadJoe. "Happy Joe got run over by a UPS truck."
Everybody stared at him. He sighed and rubbed the palm of his hand over the stiff ridge of his mohawk. "First dead body I ever saw."
"You never told me that part," said Molly, frowning.
"Death makes me glum, baby."
The club closed down at four in the morning but Tabachnik and the Stains stayed until five, when the manager came to say they were locking the doors. They shuffled outside and shivered on the street corner.
"You know what we should do," said SadJoe. "The fish market opens up in a few minutes, down on Fulton Street. We should go down there."
"Why?" asked Molly. She was wearing an old fur coat. One of the sleeves was torn, but it looked like real fur.
"That's when the fish is freshest," SadJoe explained.
The Australian and the bassist and the guitarist murmured stoned goodbyes, hailed a cab, and headed for Brooklyn. Finally, thought Tabachnik.
"If you two want to grab some coffee, there are things I'd like to talk about."
"Nah, I guess I'll go home," said SadJoe. "First train will be running pretty soon."
Molly stared at Tabachnik and then at SadJoe. "Maybe we should get some coffee."
"Not for me, pretty. It's fish or nothing." He extended a hand to Tabachnik and they shook. The drummer had a firm grip. "Later, pilgrim."
"Why don't you invite him to the party," said Molly, still staring at SadJoe purposefully.
SadJoe looked at her, raised his eyebrows, and then shrugged. "I'm having a party tomorrow afternoon. In Jersey."
"We can go together," Molly told Tabachnik. "His place is hard to find."
Tabachnik gave her a card from the hotel where he was staying, his room number already written on top in neat, square digits. "Give me a call. I'd love to go."
SadJoe watched this exchange in silence, chewing his lip. Finally he said, "Tell me your name again, man."
"Yeah, all right. We'll see you."
SadJoe and Molly Minx walked away and Tabachnik watched them go, SadJoe's heavy black boots clomping on the pavement, the back of his old army jacket scrawled with faded words in black Magic Marker.
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