Friday, October 19, 2007

Bluebird (Part III)

(Please read Parts I and II first, posted below this.)
Nick met Alex on the patio of a small apartment complex which he discerned was really a halfway house. Alex sat waiting in a small green painted chair next to a green painted table which held a glass of ice water with a slice of lemon in it, and a glossy magazine folded inside out. Alex Skarski was paler and thinner than ever. Large sunglasses sheltered her eyes. Her long legs stretching out from a dark blue skirt momentarily vibrated. Otherwise she was as unmoving as the concrete patio. Her face was expressionless.

"You look fantastic," Nick lied. To himself he thought she looked dead. "How ya doing?"

"Tremendous," she told him with no enthusiasm. "I've been reading about the happy couple. Melissa and Brent."

"Melissa and Brent!" Nick said, with a ring of hilarity in his voice. "Well matched. Brent's an accomplished artist-- started at the top. His work is interesting. Borderline genius or borderline retarded. I attended one of his openings. People asked me what I thought and all I could do was beam at one of the paintings and smile and sip from my drink and say, 'Yes, well, it's certainly, well, yes!'"

He laughed at his political skills. Alex looked blank.

"The happy couple," Nick went on more seriously, performing a monologue before his challenging audience; challenging because he'd always been a bit intimidated by-- or attracted to-- Alex Skarski. "Melissa needs the stability. Brent: a preening wooden-headed mannequin who believes he's as talented as art-world sycophants say he is."

Alex didn't respond to this. She stared toward the ice water in the glass. "Why are you here?" she asked.

"I need you back in the band. Melissa needs you back."

Alex looked at him through the sunglasses-- glared at him, he believed. She was "cured" of drugs and alcohol-- Nick needed to know if after the cure there was anything left of her.

"Can you still play?" he asked.

"Yes," she said. "Better than ever."

She spoke the words with pronounced throatiness, hinting of buried wells of energy and passion. Nick nodded his head, satisfied.

Rehearsals began at an estate outside Los Angeles, down the road from a modest several-million dollar "cottage" Melissa had bought for herself and Brent. She'd written several new songs. As the band practiced them in the mansion's sun room, Brent observed dispassionately, there to offer moral support to his girlfriend. His Significant Other. His Life's Mate. I'd like to say, "his wife," but Brent had no intention of marrying Melissa Bluebird.

The band was rounded out by two new members, replacements for the two originals who'd tired of being pop stars and gone on with their lives. The newbies were marginally competent mercenaries. One had been a failed teen model, the other a failed child actress. Despite their premature jadedness, they looked the part of Bluebirds. They were young and knew how to smile.

During a break Alex sat in a large and sunny living room with one of the new girls-- the other'd jumped into a car and sped off "for something to eat." Melissa was upstairs making phone calls, or napping, or taking a bath. Brent took a seat in the living room, a bottle of beer in his hand. The three strangers immersed themselves in the laziness of California sunshine.

"Good to see you," Brent said to Alex. "You being back is the one fresh aspect of this project."

"How are you?" Alex asked him.

"Bored," he said. "Totally absolutely eternally metaphysically bored."

A couple afternoons later when everyone had sped off in their cars on personal errands, Melissa included, Brent Botherwell lounged in the pool outside. Very white Alex in a dowdy one-piece swimsuit joined him. To his surprise she swam laps, her wide shoulders propelling her powerfully through the water. Brent watched, smirking, by the side of the shocking blue pool, impressed, trying to think of a bon mot.

"I don't do laps," he told her when she finally stopped.

"What do you do?" she asked, mocking him, but he didn't notice.

He blinked for a moment.

"Let's go upstairs and find out," he said.

Alex pretended to be shocked. "Oh! One of the lovebirds," she said, in teacher-like disapproval which made Brent think he'd like to be disapproved by her, up close. "What would Melissa think? Aren't you in love with Melissa?"

"Melissa is Melissa," he said.

"Miss Perfect. Don't you enjoy Miss Perfect?"

He answered for the moment. "No."

Alex tsked him for this. Then her eyes opened wide in feigned realization.

"Maybe Miss Perfect isn't so perfect after all." At the same time she thought Brent was a metaphysical asshole. Still, she'd seldom had a man this good-looking interested in her. To her memory, never. When Brent Botherwell rose from the pool and walked into the house she followed him.

Alex put her reawakened anger into the upstairs encounter, as if she were competing with, or screwing, Miss Perfect herself.

The new tour's first stop was Detroit. Dennis Deniczek, enlisted on board at the last minute, had scheduled it. The thinking was that only the capital of rock grittiness would properly fit the band's gritty new image.

The band flew in on a Thursday, one day before the concert. The limousine from the airport drove them past the venue, the famously gigantic Fox Theater on Woodward Avenue, a fully restored Gothic-style movie palace which now hosted live shows.

The white limo halted in front and Melissa leapt out, quickly joined by the others.

"There it is, kids," Dennis exclaimed. "In lights!"

Above the marquee: the "Fox" sign which at night could be seen for miles. On the marquee itself, two words: "MELISSA BLUEBIRD."

Unselfconsciously Melissa frolicked and basked in her name on the sign above. Her three bandmates watched in genuine admiration. A photographer who worked for Nick snapped photographs.

"Now, a few together," he said.

The four girls scrunched close, Alex and Melissa with arms around each other at the center with only a trace of awkwardness.

"Wow," Alex said when they parted. "This is fun. Or I forgot it could be fun."

"You were electric," the photographer gushed. "I could feel the electricity. I took some great shots."

The limo drove around the seedier edges of downtown; among the ruins.

The photographer took several photos of Melissa standing with legs spread and hands on her hips, her three bandmates set several yards behind her looking grim, the city's cavernous shell of a train station behind them.

Their hotel was the old Leland, several blocks from the theater. It also was a ruin of sorts, but one which remained open. The two men and the driver carried the heavier bags across an enormous lobby hung with large chandeliers, up a wide blue carpeted staircase to the desk.

"Once, this town was rich," Dennis commented.

"Long ago," Alex said. "I used to live in Detroit you know. Not far from here."

"I need to take a bath," Melissa commanded.

As the hotel was much less than half booked, the band and its entourage had an entire floor to itself, for a modest price.

"Going in style," Dennis said when he kicked open the door to Melissa's expansive suite.

Outside the window lay miles of desolate bleakness; deserted streets and shuttered buildings covered by layers of shabbiness. Occasional beaten-down people could be seen walking slowly upon uneven sidewalks.

"Where's the theater?" Melissa asked.

Dennis pointed.

"Oh! There it is."

The sign, marking a glamorous corner of renaissance, stood above the surrounding structures.

Melissa had a full-enough schedule before the concert, including an interview on an afternoon radio show. Also, a journalist doing a feature article about her for a Manhattan-based fashion magazine was in town. She was to meet him for dinner.

The radio show was a waste, the smug host full of himself. The enounter with the magazine writer held more promise.

They met at an elegant, almost empty restaurant in "Foxtown," the area around the theater.

"I made reservations," the reporter, a Brit, said. "I scarcely needed to."

"It's creepy, isn't it," Melissa answered.

"I think it's fascinating," he said as he looked at her blue eyes, searching for opinion behind them.

He told her he'd been Editor-in-Chief of a now defunct N.Y. glossy-- "One goes under every day and a new one pops up to take its place"-- was the son of an Earl and other than his writing and the brief swipe at editing "which put an established magazine under and its entire staff in the unemployment line," he'd never worked a day in his life.

"I'm a fop, as some would say, and proud of the fact."

"I think that's awful," Melissa told him. "I love to work."

"What's awful is that your aristocracy here doesn't know how to be an aristocracy. You're embarrassed at money and privilege and run away from it. You pretend to run away from it."

Melissa didn't agree with him but didn't know what to say.

"I use my money for good things," she finally mentioned. "Good causes, I mean."

"Order well. Remember, I'm on an expense account," the writer said.

After dinner they asked the waiter for a livelier place to drink. He pointed them to a roomy hotel bar nearby called the Town Pump Tavern. The Town Pump was a classy old place in a dilapidated once-nice hotel which now served as a rooming house for vagabond punks and poor people. The wood-panelled barroom itself was immaculate, from another era.

"Quite a fascinating city, really," the writer said as he drank a glass of imported ale. "Darkness and character."

The Britsh writer was generically handsome, so generic as to be quickly forgotten. He counted on his wit to make an impression, but his personality was lost amid the chairs and bottles of the darkly-lit room.

"Will this be a positive article?" Melissa asked him.

"Yes. I'm afraid so. It'll be bloody terrible."

The next day clouds of dark blue gathered in the Detroit sky. Rain clouds, stretching over the gray city and far beyond it with no end in sight. The band observed this from high-up windows in high-ceilinged oversized rooms, before they made their way through the silent mausoleum of a hotel, through oversized hallways to gather downstairs in the lobby.

They ate a late breakfast at Luci and Ethel's coffeeshop on the ground floor. Then the group arrived at the theater for an afternoon soundcheck, entering a guarded Receiving door at the front and walking down narrow corridors to the performance area.

A huge curtain stood in front of them as they unpacked. Gone were the trademark blue costumes and instruments. Melissa's three bandmates wore black leather outfits, sleeveless and short. Hers was the same except its color was white. They'd worn them to see how their new guises would appear on stage.

The many-piece drumset already there was also white. It shimmered in the light. Using the foot-pedal, the drummer hit the bass drum, then did a riff with her sticks on a snare. The short-haired keyboardist professionally smiled. Her keyboard was deep orange. A few carny notes from that.

Melissa and Alex removed their "axes" from their cases. Both guitars were glossy new, special-ordered by the record company. Alex's was gold, with black patterns; Melissa's bright red. They gazed with wonder at what they held, as if magic were embodied in the primitive-looking devices.

Alex let her guitar's lacquered face play with the overhead lights. One saw the world in the guitar. It dazzled like a gleaming shield.

The two women plugged in and touched the electric strings. Sound jumped from them. Lightning bolts were at their fingertips. The fragile humans were transformed by the sudden power available to them. Their eyes widened.

The curtain lifted. The band felt momentarily dwarfed by the immensity of the great hall. Before them swept rising rows of red seats; golden columns above them on all sides. The ceiling was an expression of the heavens, with a giant hyperbolic chandelier placed like a sun at the center of it. The entire gothic plaster cathedral of American pop culture was hyperbolic.

Without warning the drummer pounded a beat and the band exploded loudly into a fast-paced song, a release of pent-up energy created by the practicing, the traveling, the waiting; the hiatus; by the sheer anticipation of taking the stage. With their new instruments of laser-beam sound Alex and Melissa kicked it into high gear-- deep notes prodding higher ones-- on the chorus joining voices, "La, la, la la la," their inspired performance matching the fiery-colored hall. For a moment the two women played side-by-side, bumping hips. Then the wash of music was over as quickly as it'd started. The four players caught their breaths, sweating happily.

"We should've got that on tape," Dennis shouted from somewhere within the empty auditorium. "It's the best thing you've ever done."

Shortly after, the band returned to the hotel to nap.

Alex nervously drank coffee and destroyed a pack of cigarettes in the diner downstairs while the others relaxed. Eventually she made her way back to the elevators. She wore a beat-up leather jacket over her costume, which she'd been too lazy to change.

Futilely she searched in her room for more cigarettes. "Fuck!" Should she shower? Not until after, she decided, but took off the jacket.

Alex fingered a plastic pass card, which she used to enter Melissa's suite. The high-up floor seemed unsteady under her feet. Melissa had asked her to drop by to keep her company.

Darkness fell early upon the city outside the hotel room: a moody October night. Melissa stretched on one of the beds in her stage outfit, bolstered by golden-yellow pillows. Rain scattered against a window. The glow of an art deco lamp next to the bed made the corner of the room appear to be the only secure spot in a world of dread.

Melissa held the room's white phone receiver in her hand, on a call with Brent Botherwell in Los Angeles. Eyes flashed within a stage-ready face. It sounded like an intense call. Alex went into the bathroom-- a mile away on the other side of the suite. She looked at her face in the mirror then splashed water onto it. A hideous face. The bathroom light exposed every failing in it, every secret.

She turned off the light, stepped out and listened. Melissa was off the phone.

A few blocks away, colorful neon letters crept up a building and displayed themselves high on a sign into the darkness. "FOX." Concert goers were arriving, congregating with tickets in a line upon the brightly illuminated sidewalk.

Alex walked slowly and faced Melissa, who still sprawled upon the bed; faced her as would an obedient dog. Melissa stared back at her with piercing blue eyes, scrutinizing her up and down.

"That was Brent," Melissa said. "He told me everything. He always eventually tells me everything. So he told me about you and him."

Brent the narcissistic coward, confessing all with dramatic bathos, purging his sin when it could do the most harm in order to raise his importance.

Melissa Bluebird waited, as if expecting Alex to confess, to explain or apologize, but to Alex there was nothing to say because it hadn't meant anything except at the time.

"I'm sorry," she eventually said.

"You're fired, of course," Melissa told her. "I can't work with someone like you. I don't want to work with anyone like you."

"Fired?" Alex asked. "What about Dennis, or Nick. Shouldn't they have a say in it?"

"They work for me," Melissa said. "I bring in the money. They do what I tell them."

Alex couldn't help but grin at what she saw as bluff.

"So, what, you go out and perform on your own?"

"Why not?" Melissa immediately answered. "Why not?"

"To a Detroit crowd? A tough Detroit crowd who want their music to rock? This isn't La-La Land, little girl."

To this Melissa stared at Alex as would a five year-old. Few people had talked back to her before. Alex had never talked back. Melissa was stunned at their break-up, for which she wasn't to blame; there was trepidation at what Alex would say but there was also a thrill that the bad girl would now finally be saying it to her. To Melissa. Melissa feared the blast but wanted it. Her heart raced. It pounded.

"I'M the star," Melissa pre-emptively said. "I created the act and the music. You're a hired hand. I need the freedom to run it my way. I've done it my way from the beginning."

Alex snorted in amazement. "Freedom? YOU have freedom? The freedom of a trained pet. Your cage gives you your freedom, to sing and fly around in the cage within its narrow fucking little limits. Do you know what it's like to be free for real? How tough it is?"

"Those are my songs we play, Alex. MY songs. My creations. I created Melissa and the Bluebirds from the ground up. You were added. Don't try to tell me about DIY."

Alex moved dangerously close. Melissa's blue eyes looked away; she clutched an imaginary stuffed animal. Melissa felt surrounded. Trapped, on the bed, on which she was too frozen to move. She should be able to call someone but didn't want to call anyone. Alex peered down at her as she'd peered down at her the first time they'd met, only now with no hesitation or respect.

"You're able to create because you're supported by people like me," Alex said. "By a whole industry of people like me. What do you know about Do-It-Yourself? When have you done anything without tons of people propping you up and smoothing the path and opening doors for you?

"Do you know there are rock bands in this city; THIS city; struggling bands; 'garage' bands who play in local dives, which are better than you or me or the best the Bluebirds have ever been? Yet have never seen a big-money recording contract and never will see one because the way is clogged by the likes of you and me? I could've been one of them, one of the free ones, the authentic ones, but I wasn't good enough for them, but maybe now that I've tasted the world I'll go back to them, to the music and the joy of playing, really playing. REALLY playing. The music-- that's what counts. There are still a few bands who kick ass; still a few raw singers and guitarists who truly know how to rock. You're not one of them, oh pretty one; sad, sad pretty one. Not you. Not you!"

Alex was crying.

"I hope that's not too terrible a thing to say but it's the truth. You'll always have your support system anyway; your family; your Brent! Your Brents and all the rest of your perfect friends; your ridiculously perfect bullshit life."

Melissa had stopped replying. She was thinking that Alex had abandoned her, that was what this was about. Concert? Tonight was a concert. Weirdly enough. She heard Dennis Deniczek knocking on the hotel room door, far away. The car outside would be waiting. Her fans. . . . How could she go through with it?

"Anyway," Alex said, calmer, resigned, but with outraged pride. "Fire me if you want, or I quit. It doesn't matter. Nick thought I needed the money but I don't need money. That's not what I was after; not why I joined."

Alex stepped away. At the theater, fans took their seats. The magazine journalist waited expectantly in the wings. The opening act began to play. Feet were stamping, the huge theater beginning to shake, to rock. . . .

The spectre of Alex stood in a costume that would not be worn on stage by her tonight or anywhere again.

"I just want to be what I was meant to be," the spectre said in a resonant voice. "A girl who knew how to rock."

She was gone.

The hotel room was empty-- the large, celebratory suite. Melissa Bluebird was alone. Though she'd fired Alex Skarski, she felt deserted by her. Only now did she realize how much she needed Alex's strength.

She recited a melody from one of the new songs, "La, la. la la la," while in her head she walked through an endless forest. She noticed she was shaking.

Well, she could be a tough girl also. She'd prove Alex wrong. She'd perform the concert. If she fell on her face, so be it. And why should she? The audience would love her. After all, she was Melissa Bluebird. Melissa Bluebird! Her entire life she'd been only loved.

"Go," Melissa said to a person who wasn't there. "You're dismissed."

The FOX sign glowed bleeding red into the night, changing to purple, then blue. Rain fell from a purple sky upon Alex Skarski, who sat on a stone bench below an old green statue in a park across the street and two blocks down from the theater, the columned palace where Melissa performed inside. Alex imagined she heard the applause. Echoes of it carried through the rolling mists.

Alex was damp and numb. She sipped from a hastily purchased bottle of cheap whiskey. She was back at her origins, wondering in her human ignorance about the nature of art, career, success. As her mind wandered into more painful territory Alex wondered about personality and about love.

Rain washed through her eyes. To give a lingering final chord to her thoughts she glanced once more at the lighted marquee down the street which held the two names:

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Bluebird (Part II)

Nick Stompanatas understood people; he played them as if he were a musician. Like an instinctive animal he sensed their fears and wants and acted on them.

He knew Alex Skarski was afraid of failure and success both.

He'd been there. . . . Fear of failure was mostly fear of the proverbial wolf at the door; those moments of real hunger when you're completely broke.

Success, for those who've never seen or experienced it in their families or their world, could be more daunting. The thoughts: "How do I not blow this?"; "What do I do now?"-- the sudden responsibilty of new choices; the racing heartbeat in the middle of night as your head plays your options back over and over. Sometimes better to lose all-- the endless thinking is done.

He knew Alex Skarski and knew her background. He offered her a way to submerge herself into Melissa's dawning success; her ride to the top.

Alex had the talent to stand alone but not the stomach for it.

She met the other Bluebirds at Melissa's San Francisco condo. Chic white buildings could be seen outside a large window framed by giant green rubber plants. The living room was comfortable. To Alex, used to cubbyhole rooms in low rent hotels, it was huge. Rich girl, Alex thought to herself.

The two Bluebirds sat reverently on the shag-carpeted floor in front of the plants. Alex was expected to join them. She did, then Melissa played a few songs for her, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, her fingers accurately moving back and forth among the frets. Her pretty voice was so quiet, Alex had to move closer to hear it. She stood up and bent down to listen. They were pretty songs. Amplified on a stage, or more, in a studio, it would be an effective voice. Alex noted the girl's total belief in herself.

The Alex Skarski difference was evident at their first practice session together. Alex played bass guitar, which took immediate control of the pace of each song. Her driving bass line turned what might've slipped into easy listening pap into a facsimile of rock n roll. Alex's playing put backbone behind Melissa Bluebird's ethereal musings. The combination worked.

In one of their first performances, at a sparsely attended open-air concert for office workers sponsored by a bank in Chicago, the sound system went out for several minutes. Speakers arrayed around the space between business towers went silent. Melissa could scarcely be heard at all.

The four-member group suddenly looked small and vulnerable beneath the bank's intruding banner. People snickered in the audience. A businesswoman in front laughed. The keyboardist and drummer Bluebirds looked concerned. Alex Skarski stepped forward and shouted the words until the problem was solved, in accompaniment to Melissa, who continued playing and singing as usual, oblivious. Melissa appreciated that Alex knew the words to the song.

Melissa inspired the need to protect her, or follow her. She came off as an otherworldly creature who may well be a rare and precious bird. She carried the atmosphere of airy Renaissance; a young woman from a Botticelli painting, lost among the flowers.

Alex was happy enough to be an unobtrusive sidekick, a uniformed nonentity like the generic back-up musicians in an Elvis movie. Melissa Bluebird was the star; Alex Skarski's job was to make her look good. Strangely enough, Alex wanted to do this.

There were rock precedents. Think of James Burton's work with Ricky Nelson. Or if you can, try to catch film footage of Gary Lewis and the Playboys, one of the best pop-rock bands of the 1960's when rock was approaching its zenith. Watch for the amazing licks of the guitarist, the forever-unknown musician hired to support the limited talents of the famous comedian's son.

At the end of a successful song, in the pleasant afterglow of reverberations as their hearing and minds recovered, Alex would glance at the ever-confident Miss Bluebird.

"The Bluebird goddess," Alex would say in a mocking yet admiring tone.

If Melissa heard such expressions she never gave notice, beyond a quick smile as she prepared to begin the next tune. "One, two, three, go."

Not that all was sunshine and lollipops. The three original Bluebirds had to adjust to the occasionally explosive Alex; her sudden rants; after concerts, her frightening, inexplicable drunks. What demons from her past Alex contended with at those moments were beyond their knowing.

"Aren't you happy?" Melissa would ask.

Alex went obediently silent in the presence of Melissa.

When the band performed in New York at a fundraiser for a fashionable charity, Uncle George brought journalist friends by to say hello. The other members of the band had never heard of these strange men; Melissa doted on them. They were important editors and journalists; for all their gaping self-satisfaction and shallow remarks, lauded as the best writers around.

Shortly thereafter articles began to appear in the lower level New York newspapers and glossies about the exciting new band. Not by the famous journalists themselves, not yet, but word had been passed to their followers.
The girl-group ethos, dating back even to the chauvinistic Phil Spector-dominated Crystals and Berry Gordy-created Supremes of the 1960's, has always been about feminist freedom. In Cyndi Lauper's classic words, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."

Freedom, feminism, and fun are the point about singer Melissa Bluebird and her band, the Bluebirds, who make their Philadelphia debut at the Penn rock club The Underground this Saturday. A DIY icon, college dropout Melissa proclaims her style of independence with a series of catchy pop tunes set to infectious music played by herself on lead guitar and her three nerdy-but-cool looking bandmates, all of them in short skirt baby blue outfits.

Melissa herself is a pretty picture with the stance of feminist strength as she cavorts with her friends on stage. No Berry Gordy around here, thank you-- the girl herself is in charge. Ironically, the Bluebirds cover of "These Boots Are Made for Walking" owes more to the Supremes go-go recording than to the more stripped-down Nancy Sinatra first version. The rest of the songs are Melissa Bluebird-penned originals.

Sixties girl pop with a late Seventies punk edge. These women are going places. Check it out.
That the band was a combination of contradictions, as evidenced by this review, added to its appeal.

As this and other laudatory pieces were being written, Nick had already assigned Dennis Deniczek to manage and produce their first album. Deniczek was an alcoholic ex-rock musician and songwriter who'd fight to give them an edge. If some of Dennis's own crustiness rubbed off on them it could only help.

Deniczek turned out to be a control freak semi-burnout authoritarian who threw chairs around either because he hated chairs or for effect. The band formed a collective hatred of him.

Periodic conflicts arose while recording the album.

Melissa described how she wanted the recording produced, the mix of sounds matching what she envisioned in her head.

"That's the problem!" Dennis yelled in exasperation. "Produced. Produced! Rock n' roll wasn't meant to be produced. It just IS. It's meant to BE. You play the damn song with as much emotion as you can put into it and turn on the fucking microphone."

"We're crafting art," Melissa patiently explained to him.

"You don't 'craft' anything. Art is genuineness; it's . . . truth. What do you think punk was about? You parade yourself as some kind of punk princess but you don't know anything about it. Put your SOUL into the music, if you have one, and then you might create something great. This isn't paint-by-numbers. It's not connect-the-dots. It's not reading sheet music and playing the fucking notes. It's putting forth from your heels and your bowels and your heart everything you've got. Everything! Ask Alex. SHE knows."

Yet Alex's eyes lit up with anger at Dennis.

"Don't-involve-me-in-your-stupid-nonsense," she sneered, then punched him twice, hard, in the chest. Dennis punched her back. Alex swung a fist into the side of his face and he staggered.

"Enough of this!" Melissa screamed.

In embarrassment and disgust, Dennis stalked out, one side of his face red. "Tell Nick Asshole I quit," was his parting comment.

Dennis walked to the closest bar to get drunk. Alex was in the same bar shortly thereafter with the same purpose. They sat at opposite ends of the bar and glared at each other while knocking down shots. The next day Dennis un-quit. The album was soon enough finished.

Whether because of Dennis, Melissa, Alex, or accidental luck-- the blessings of the music gods above-- the finished cd sounded good. That it'd been recorded in a small urban studio with a uniquely raw sound helped. That Melissa's simple songs had been transformed into tight explosions-- mini-explosions, mind you; firecrackers more than bombs-- amazed more than alarmed her.

With ample behind-the-scenes aid, including an extensive marketing campaign with a lavish ad budget, the cd climbed up the charts. Major articles appeared in major magazines about the new star.

With the cd's release: the predictable tour.

Too many stories have been told about too many rock tours to go into much detail here. One could say the tour "bonded" the group or one could say it made them overly-familiar with one another.

Dennis booked them first at legendary CBGB's on the Bowery in New York. From there they headed west by bus, exhilarated at the start by the freedom of the open road. After several weeks of stifling travel the exhilaration had gone.

At the start was the adventure of getting to know one another-- long conversations as the bus rolled along. Who was the dominant personality, Melissa or Alex? Both had their influence on the others, who began unconsciously copying Alex's unique facial gestures: the sneer; the tilted-down head when glaring at someone. The sudden earthy outbursts so opposite to Melissa's effect. They even tried appearing tough-- until Alex with hands on her hips and a mocking smile told them, in Melissa's presence, "You can't live another person's life." They went back to being Bluebirds.

Melissa herself, though, thought she could borrow from Alex's life: her rock authority; her hard-earned street cred. For Melissa, appropriation was appropriate. Her life was built on the assumption that she could do anything she wanted. Freedom meant owning the world: that was her feminist ideal.

She was too much a planet unto herself to be overawed by anyone, but Melissa found herself impressed with Alex's strength and her craziness. She was fascinated by Alex's oft-stated hunger for stability-- "I'm not going to blow this gig, Melissa; I'm a hungry mouse ready to leap on any crumb"-- and by Alex's impulsive recklessness; her lesbian affairs and druggie boyfriends.

After shows Alex devoured groupies; male and female alike. Melissa indulged also, but not always, and was selective about which boy she relaxed with. He had to be cute! She also had a boyfriend in San Francisco to worry about.

Alex's behavior was out-of-her-mind, bang-your-head-against-a-wall carnivorous lust.

Melissa Bluebird, angel of music but also sex-- the number of fans in love with her exponentially growing-- briefly wondered why Alex never hit on her. Everyone else-- but not her. In fact Alex Skarski had a mad, terrifying crush on Melissa Bluebird which she kept to herself.

The best part of the tour were the concerts. The four Bluebirds gained a joyful high being on stage. Melissa fed on an audience, found energy, identity, purpose. Alex enjoyed herself while out there but had to undergo certain preparations first, such as consuming ecstasy, or vomiting.

The best part for Alex was performing her role in support of the star of the group. She loved this. The loyal soldier, upright and steadfast on bass guitar. Sometimes Melissa allowed Alex to play lead-- Melissa had pride in her own playing but realized Alex was very good; unusually good.

After the song Alex would be only too eager to return to her usual part.

One night, a particularly good show: Alex and Melissa chugging beers backstage to come down. The room was small, with sunken sofas and sallow green walls. Alex had a boy waiting.

"Why him?" Melissa asked. "He seems awful."

"That's not who I want to go to bed with," Alex rumbled.

Melissa was drunk. She pouted: "Ask him if he has a friend."

They fucked together, each with her own partner, in the same room, but their looks and thoughts were on each other.

With the release of a second cd a year later the Melissa Bluebird hype machine crescendoed. This album had been produced by Melissa herself, who announced at the outset while standing in the state-of-the-art studio provided by the record company-- key component of a gigantic media conglomerate-- that she had the final say on every aspect of the product. Including the cd's artwork and liner notes.

"I want this to go triple platinum," she buoyantly proclaimed.

It didn't. Bigger sales came from related Melissa Bluebird products. The Bluebird name appeared on t-shirts and key chains; on colorful pen markers and children's make-up. There were Melissa Bluebird lunch boxes, coloring books, and dress-up dolls. Briefly, a Melissa Bluebird comic strip. Her smiling image was displayed on the back of cereal cartons; thousands and thousands of them produced from a factory then packed into larger cartons and shipped throughout the country.

She wasn't big enough for McDonald's, not yet, but Nick cut a deal with a low-rent hamburger chain in Ohio-- "Simpy's" or some such-- to promote the product. Small Melissa Bluebird dolls came free with soggy hamburger and fries. On the drawing board: a Melissa Bluebird cartoon TV show planned for Saturday mornings: Melissa and her companions solving mysteries, saving the planet and battling crime.

Needless to say, there were scores of Melissa Bluebird fan clubs and web sites, not all of them created by the record company. There was even a Bluebird daily diary on-line which fans could read to find out Melissa's most personal thoughts and activities-- "Tonight I got to perform in Kansas City. It was so cool! I met so many amazing way cool people!" A writer was employed full-time crafting and posting the vacuous gushings.

Soon, most of Melissa's time went to appearing as a guest on daytime children's TV shows-- engaging in serious conversations with big plush pink or blue furry creatures: "Yes, Moppy, we have to stay away from drugs of all kinds!"; or as a presenter on any number of TV awards shows.

Maids, schedules, drivers, and various other flunkies became part of her daily life. She traveled in cars and planes within a cocoon of planning. Upon any momentary delay people cringed to her: "Sorry; sorry." Melissa Bluebird was no longer a person, had become a star; a creature apart from normal criteria.

The band itself was on hiatus. One evening Alex Skarski fell down a flight of stairs and broke her arm-- the guitar playing one. This made the gossip columns for one day. Nick sent her flowers and signed Melissa's name. Alex went into detox and was out of the band indefinitely. Melissa didn't learn about the incident herself until weeks later.

Meanwhile Melissa had a new boyfriend, and up-and-coming young artist named Brent Botherwell she'd first met a year ago at a party. Melissa was in love! "I feel like I'm dating myself," she confessed to a magazine. "We're so much alike."

Brent was the offspring of a brief marriage between a Canadian TV game-show personality who wore corsages on his wide lapels and an award-winning university professor novelist who wrote books about the trauma of being female in contemporary Toronto society. Brent had lived most of his life in L.A., to which his mother retired from the rigors of academia and the weather of Ontario at the age of forty.

Like Melissa, Brent was considered talented at everything-- he wrote, composed, shot video-- but had settled on painting, for which he'd received from the art world official acclaim. To top it off he was photogenically handsome; his head looked like it'd been crafted in a woodworking studio and varnished. He was not tall-- appeared to be when seated in a restaurant with his large head until he stepped up-- or down, in some cases-- from the table-- but Melissa, though nearly his height, was petite, so they appeared well-mated. In appearance if not ability they both could have stepped from a Renaissance-era time machine.

Brent was the contemporary bourgeois male: hollow to the core; with style and manners but no integrity or will. A collection of attributes. His ethos was self and the moment's expediency.
From an Interview with TEEN POP BEAT MAGAZINE:

TPB: "Will you collaborate with Brent? Your collaborations like with the Bluebirds have worked very well for you."
MB: "Oh, I think collaborations are for collaborationists. I've always even from the start totally wanted to follow my own muse. Totally. Creativity is so cool, so liberating. I have to have freedom. So I started the Bluebirds. The rest is so, you know, history. Rock history. I mean, things went well."
TPB: "You enjoy overcoming limitations."
MB: "Yeah! Because that's so creative. Give me a paintbox with one color. You know? We weren't this big orchestra but that's the way I felt. But I've always had to feel in control. The conductor. That's so profound to say that but I really think creating art is so important. Whatever you do."
TPB: "What's your next project?"
MB: "Just to go beyond everything I've done. But I don't have this, like, schedule. I just do it. I'm eclectic that way, you know? One day I could be painting my walls just to do it then the next day I say, hey, there's the car, you know? Let's paint that! Art is so doing whatever you want whenever you want to. As long as you're fulfilling yourself. I mean, there's the audience, sure; I love my audience, but my own muse comes first. So when I do something it's so totally right. It's so DIY because I'm doing it."
One afternoon lying on her sofa after a busy week, Melissa daydreamed of the forest, its dark and restless beauty, dangers lurking outside. She felt the comfort of the cool and lush forest. Within she was safe. Above, through the columns of trees appeared the moving planets shuffling about in madness; red, blue, yellow, bouncing around the sky in a carnival dance-- then suddenly the glowing moon, gigantic, impelling itself into her mind. She sat up in fright, exhausted and shaking.

She'd fallen asleep; it was twilight. A full moon burned outside the window amid the arriving stars of night.

Beach folics and trips to Europe with Brent. To free herself from artistic stagnation Melissa began work on a solo album, what she'd always wanted to do anyway.

Listening to the finished product by herself on her stereo, Melissa was satisfied. The music fit her inner vision.

She promoted the cd's release with a select number of personal appearances in intimate settings. Reviews in the usual mainstream publications were kind. This was a more individual, introspective Bluebird. Some called it art. They could've called it solipsistic baby-talk: her guitar and an orchestra string section backing a small voice overladened with sincerity; tame playing with sudden two-second bursts of life at the end. Possibly not art. Definitely arty.

The last song finished. In the room: silence.

Nick Stompanatas noted the mild sales, a drop-off from the second album, which had been a decline from the first.

Because of continued fan clubs and articles, Melissa still believed she was a star-- and she was-- but Nick knew she could quickly enough drop off a cliff into the oblivion of a has-been.

The cultural universe was in constant flux. It was continually expanding. An act had to expand with it just to keep up. To remain static was to fall behind.

He'd noticed recent articles in obscure fanzines and music journals crediting Alex Skarski for much of the group's success. Her reputation among critics and cultists as a guitarist and performer had grown.

Nick looked around himself. He sniffed the air. He had to remain adaptable, malleable, if he were to survive as well. Was there change in the air? Had a subtle shift occurred in the Universe? How should he react? What should he do?

For two more weeks he studied sales figures before deciding his move.

(To Be Continued.)

Friday, October 5, 2007

Bluebird (Part I)

by King Wenclas

THERE EXISTS a photograph of Melissa Habermyer's parents from the late 1960's showing them as anti-establishment warriors. That they were both from wealth and met at ultra-elite Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, made no difference. Like others of their social class (Garry Trudeau for instance) they were leaders in the enormous youth rebellion then taking place in this country. They didn't wish to tear down society, not really. The war, despite the noise they made about it, was an irrelevancy to them and their kind; neither they nor anyone they knew would have to go to it. For their type the 60's rebellion, when all was said and done, was about them having fun. More than this it was an expression of their youth; of their energy, their privilege and gloriously innate power.

In the photograph the couple is eternally youthful and very beautiful-- as beautiful a couple as ever was-- wearing expressions of security and confidence in themselves; a confidence no American generation before or since has worn; given the faultlines and disharmonies of the civilization now, an arrogant smugness that will likely never be worn again.

Melissa's grandfather on her father's side owned a company manufacturing trucks in grimy Midwestern cities like Toledo, Ohio. Like all such industries, the company manufactured its share of tanks and other war material via lucrative government contracts. Melissa's uncle, her father's older brother, Frank Habermyer, would eventually take over the business.

Melissa's mother was from WASP old money, the kind handed down through holding company stocks and blind trusts over the years and years so that whatever actions, achievements, or misdeeds had acquired the wealth centuries ago in the first place were far removed and utterly forgotten by the time Melissa was born. The greatest presence from this side of the family was Uncle George; good old swanky bon-vivant Brahmin Uncle George!-- who'd skippered a PT boat during Korea and served a few mysterious years with the CIA in Switzerland and played semi-pro baseball for a summer, among other legendary and basically insubstantial accomplishments, the most substantial of which was founding a small press-- a very small press-- publishing George's trust fund buddies and marketing them as avant-garde outsiders. Despite the small size of the press, the books received an inordinate amount of media attention in the isolated island of New York, one of them winning a National Book Award, for whatever that's worth.

Melissa's parents were artists-- artists of life, you could say, living a thoroughly counter-culture flowers-and-beads existence in which they roamed from state to state, east coast to west coast, living in a commune, teaching at small colleges, opening their own art gallery in a gazebo-like building in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.

Into this paradise in the mid-70's was Melissa Habermyer born. Her eyes were so blue, so strikingly hugely amazingly blue from birth she was called Bluebird. A more fitting name was never chosen as this child of nature ran with the birds and the squirrels amid the dwindling remains of a lush forest. Creativity was the order of the day from her folks, who raised her on Picasso and Mozart; who beneficently watched as their three year-old Bluebird conducted her own symphony orchestra consisting of a few dozen of her favorite stuffed animals.

At four Melissa attended the most exclusive private pre-school on the west coast (her parents bought a condo in San Francisco for the purpose), and attended private kindergarten and grammar schools and prep schools throughout the area to give her the best individualized instruction possible. Her teachers were geniuses; not just those employed by the schools-- every one entranced by the child's blue eyes-- but also genius engineers who worked for Uncle Frank and genius writer friends of Uncle George and genius artists who displayed their works in her parents gazebo-like store.

For all the daily influence of "Culture," of art classes and ballet lessons and piano instruction and the highest-tech multi-media computer equipment to play on, young Bluebird never faced that which might be thought most necessary for the development of talent: a challenge. All was adulation and reward. The brutal traumas of life, the realities of the world, lay outside her cocoon-like barriers. Oh, she knew they were out there-- she read about them and worried over them, had an abstract commitment to the underdog; in the laissez-faire laid back nature of her life identified with such; was firmly against Evil-- or at least bad manners-- and on the side of Good, whatever that was.

When Melissa was eighteen, Uncle George threw for her upon the occasion of her graduation a lavish party at the largest ballroom of the largest hotel at which strutted and posed, for enormous fees, several famous classic rock bands. Melissa's preferred avocation among the many was music. Meeting the mummified rock legends up close, who retained somehow in their withered forms their legendary glamor, decided Melissa upon a music career, though at the moment she didn't know it.

The summer after graduation was the worst period of her life, at least until years afterward. One summer day, a surreally bright summer day, something troubling clicked inside Melissa's head and she began shaking through her entire body. For days she remained like this, frozen, barely eating or moving, her friends puzzled until her parents and uncles were called and Melissa quietly spent several weeks in a private sanitarium where, thanks to the proper amount of indulgent therapy and astutely prescribed pharmaceuticals, she fully recovered.

College was anti-climactic, though she attended the most progressive open-format school money could afford. She'd been through it all before. Though she lived off-campus in a small apartment at the center of the local city's modest downtown, with a boyfriend-- slumming it-- Melissa Habermyer was thoroughly bored.

After two years Melissa Habermyer changed her name to Melissa Bluebird and quit college to form a girl rock band with two friends of hers. They named themselves Melissa and the Bluebirds. They'd been practicing together for months.

Their first real gig was playing at a private party during the Super Bowl. This was arranged by Uncle Frank, whose company was one of the largest corporate sponsors of the football game. One of Melissa's favorite classic bands was the half-time show for the game. She thought it fitting to play, in some small way, in proximity to her idols. The more modest circumstances of her own performance didn't bother her.

The performance itself? In its earnest pop amateurishness it was at least fun. The jaded corporate execs, journalists, coaches, and hangers-on present found the band of pretty young women pleasant to look at. The mild harmony of the band's chords and weak voices antagonized no one. Melissa Bluebird had written the songs, was lead singer and accompanied herself on lead guitar. The rest of the band consisted of drummer and keyboardist: Melissa Bluebird-wannabe-likes who sang backup. Melissa wore a bright multi-colored outfit loaded with scarves, which matched her blue eyes and downy blonde hair. Her voice was pleasant to hear, if one could hear it, and carried a delicate tune, though there was little propulsion behind it. At one point in the modest concert, Melissa "got down" and moved across the glossy black stage at the front of the room in a series of steps. Belching old-bull men clutching drinks in her vicinity applauded.

"Yeah!" Melissa said as the chords of her electric guitar reverberated, swinging her arm around Peter Townshend-style. "Wow! Thank you."

Present in the room as Super Bowl guests of Frank Habermyer were a billionaire record producer from Los Angeles along with an always grinning publicist, Nick Stomponatas.

"Not bad," the producer, blasted on cocaine and cocktails, remarked. "Not bad at all. Whaddya think?" he asked his more sober compatriot.

Thirty-two year-old Nick Stomponatas was a notorious gun-for-hire with extreme smarts and a necessary cynical outlook. He was little-known by the public but respected by anyone in the industry with sense. If you wanted someone made-- or destroyed-- Nick was the guy to go to.

Nick saw something in the girl. Beyond the dollars in Frank Habermyer's bank account, which Nick was well aware of, he saw something for real in the strutting self-important rich girl. Maybe the blue eyes, or the name, or the naive self-importance itself held appeal.

"Give them an edge and they could be huge," Nick Stomponatas said.

There, at the Super Bowl party, he was given the job to create them.

The "edge" he gave the Bluebirds was in the person of Alex Skarski, notorious bad-girl guitarist from the gutters of Cass Corridor Detroit; a music school dropout-- or rather, had been kicked out for telling off her professors. She'd kept her record perfect by being kicked out of band after band-- this though she played the most rockin' power chords heard since Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Alex Skarski WAS rock n' roll, or maybe a caricature of it as she'd absorbed every self-destructive rock myth into her own personality.

Bizarrely, perversely, Nick believed Alex would be a great fit with Melissa and cohorts. He'd seen a soft spot beneath Alex's loud exterior; a hidden vulnerability-- hidden by layers of tough-girl defenses-- that would be dazzled by Melissa's blue eyes and by the sincerity of her modest talent.

They met in a hotel room. Alex was late, had barely made her plane flight-- barely made it through security-- then had vomited for twenty minutes in an airport john after the plane landed. She arrived in the hotel room weak, hungover, red-eyed, tottering, smelling-- despite a layer of perfume-- of sweat, vomit, and urine. Her short dress was so flimsy you could see through it. She wore nothing beneath, and had forgotten to shave her armpits. Or, for that matter, her legs.

Tall, pale, and strikingly thin, with large shoulders and bangs of jet-black hair, she peered at her prospective new bandmate, Melissa Bluebird, recipient already of a million-dollar recording contract. Melissa leaned casually against a divan with the unblemished bearing and confidence of her class. Though Alex was several years older, to study the way each woman approached the other you'd peg Melissa as the elder.

"Uh, hi," the supposed tough girl squeaked with pronounced meekness.

"Hello," Melissa Bluebird said, holding out her hand. "Welcome aboard."

As Nick Stomponatas beamed the two women shook hands on Alex Skarski's arrival into the group.

(To Be Continued.)