Michael Atchison's novel XL tells the story of David Hankins, whose rock and roll dreams are dashed when his future brother-in-law steals David's band and goes on to global success. This excerpt comes from early in the story, when the band is first formed and before we meet the future brother-in-law. Other excerpts can be found here and here. XL is available in paperback from CreateSpace and Amazon and as an e-book from Smashwords (all major e-readers, including Kindle) and Amazon (Kindle only).
The first several chapters take place at and around the University of Missouri in Columbia. Those familiar with the campus and surrounding haunts will recognize many of the places, though the names have been changed.
That night at the String was the last first date of my life. For the next several Fridays, I reprised my role at the sorority sing-along. The crowds got big, sometimes fifty or more people. Unknown to me, someone set out a tip jar one night, and I netted twenty-seven bucks, which went toward the rental of a tux for my first sorority formal.
We had been together about six weeks when Carrie said "you should start a band."
"Sure. You already play in front of people at the house, but that’s not really the kind of music you want to play, is it?"
"I don’t know. It’s fun."
"Yeah, but you’re different with your guitar in your hands. I hear you picking out melodies. I know you’re writing songs."
"I don’t know about that. More like improvising fragments."
"You string three or four fragments together, put some words on top, and you have a song."
"Putting words on top isn’t that easy."
"‘Tutti Frutti’ was a worldwide smash, champ. It can’t be that hard."
The thought had crossed my mind, but it scared me. Playing piano in a sorority house was one thing, but the idea of putting myself on stage for people to judge produced a twinge of dread. Plus, it would seem to break the implicit promise I made to my parents.
But I thought if I only do it for fun it’s like playing intramural basketball. It’s just supplementing my education, right? Mom didn’t discourage me from playing music; she discouraged me from pursuing music as a career. In fact, she might actually be pleased by it, I thought. Then I thought I could be simultaneously pleasing my girlfriend and my mother, which made me think that my thoughts were turning hopelessly Freudian, especially when it occurred to me that I could see a little of mom around Carrie’s eyes.
"Well," I said, snapping back to reality, "that’s an interesting idea, but I don’t know any musicians."
"Who’s your drummer friend?"
"Do you mean Bobby? He’s barely a friend."
"But he is a drummer, right? That’s the more important part."
"He has sticks. He plays in the marching band. I don’t know if he even has a kit."
"You’d ask that early on."
"Even if he’s interested, I don’t know anyone else. I’d need a bass player and another guitar player."
"Then you ask him if he has any friends who play," she said. "The guy is in a marching band with loads of other musicians. He’s either going to know someone or he’s going to know someone who knows someone."
"So I ask him three questions? First, does he want to form a band? Second, does he have drums? Third, does he know anyone else who might want to join a band?"
"You’re a quick study," said Carrie.
"You really think it’s that easy to form a band?"
"I can’t see why it should be any harder."
♦ ♦ ♦
I approached Bobby cautiously, a little embarrassed by the idea.
"The harmonica jams are cool," I said, "but I’ve been thinking it might be fun to put together a band, maybe play to people. We could knock out some covers, and I’ve been working on a few originals that we could try. Would you be interested in something like that?"
"Like you, me and Tom?"
"I was thinking more like you, me, a bass player and another guitar player."
"Don’t you think we should include Tom?"
"I love Tom, but his sole musical ability is to play ‘Love Me Do’ on the harmonica. I’m sure he’d understand."
"Probably so," Bobby replied. "Maybe he could sit in with us on that one song."
"Sure," I said. "So what do you think?"
"OK, I’m in, I guess. What’s your vision for this thing?"
"Yeah, where do you see this thing going?"
"First, we need to find some other members for the band. Depending on how that goes, I suppose global domination comes next."
"You’ve thought this out," Bobby said.
"Speaking of other members, do you know anyone who can play?"
Bobby crossed his arms and tilted his head back. "Let me think."
"I almost forgot," I said. "Do you have drums?"
♦ ♦ ♦
It turned out that Bobby knew a guy, and that guy knew another guy.
The first person we called was Eric Foster, a friend of Bobby’s from the drum line who also played bass. He occasionally played with a wedding reception band and even filled in once when the bassist from the Sherman Tanx had the flu. I liked Eric immediately. He was a St. Louis kid who loved baseball and rhythm and blues. His musical hero was James Jamerson, bass player in Motown’s house band. "I used to play along to the Four Tops and the Miracles all the time when I was first learning bass. It was way more fun than most of the rock on the radio. I hope you don’t mind a little funkiness."
I told him that I didn’t, though I wondered how that style would fit my songs. Really, I didn’t care that much. I had a rhythm section.
Getting a guitar player involved a little more adventure.
The neighborhood east of campus featured rows of dilapidated houses just a stiff breeze from condemnation, as if the community covenants mandated crooked shutters and leaky roofs. Penurious landlords and transient students combined to ensure a paucity of care and upkeep. When people called this part of town the student slums, they did so without irony. Indoor plumbing and a competent sanitation department were all that stood between the east side and widespread cholera.
Still, there was some collegiate romance about the area. The houses were for students yearning to be free from the strictures of dorm life, the social structure of Greek life, and the rice paper walls that divided apartment units. That made them a haven for artists, musicians, recreational drug users and amateur sociologists. I had ventured over there a couple of times for parties, and they were, without doubt, the best parties I had attended.
Bobby, Eric and I parked on the street. The driveway was a patchwork of asphalt, cracks, gravel and crabgrass that served houses on both sides. As we traversed it, a German shepherd on a chain growled at us from the house on the right. We walked up the front steps of the house on the left, onto a porch surrounded by rusty screens. The front door was open. Scott Hutchinson lay sprawled on a couch that appeared to be as old as the place itself.
"Fellas," he said as we appeared in the doorway, "please come in."
Eric had recommended Scott, or Hutch as everyone called him, for the lead guitar spot. They had met when Eric pinch-hit for a bar band in need of a temporary bassist. Eric said that Hutch possessed serious skills and great gear. The part about the gear was confirmed when we walked into the house to find a glossy black Les Paul and a bright red Gretsch leaning against the wall.
"Wow," I said, "that’s some impressive hardware," I said, gesturing to the guitars.
"Thanks," he said. "I inherited the Gretsch from my dad. He played in bands around Springfield, used to cross paths with the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. When I was about ten, he vanished, but he left the guitar and a couple of amps behind. The Les," he said circumspectly, "I acquired in a business transaction."
Everything about Hutch seemed sketchy. His long wiry hair matched his frame, and his face betrayed either an indifference to shaving or a heartbreaking attempt at growing a beard. He said that he had come to town six years earlier to study horticulture, and though school had held his interest for just a year, he decided to stay. He had worked at a record store and had tended bar a few places. He said that he was trying to develop a business, though he did not specify the kind. He had also played in six or seven bands, sometimes two or three at a time.
"I am currently in between gigs," he said.
When we walked in, Hutch’s face had seemed familiar, but then it hit me. "Didn’t I see you in a band opening for Rufus Spanx once? You guys were really good."
"The Shanks. The leader was a guy named Pete who had actually been in prison, hence the name. He wasn’t a violent type, but he had a thing for opiates. When his parole officer discovered that he was still using, and perhaps selling, he went back to the joint. The band kind of fell apart after that."
I didn’t know what to say to that.
"So you need a guitar player?" he said.
"Lead guitar, specifically" I replied. "I can handle rhythm."
"I can handle lead," he said. "What sort of music are we talking about?"
"I suppose it will depend a little on how we sound together," I said, "but I’m thinking a fairly straightforward, no-frills rock and roll. Stones, punk rock, current indie rock."
"Where I’m from, we’re pretty well-steeped in the southern rock thing. Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker. But I can meet you halfway on the Stones. I’ve played along to a lot of Mick Taylor solos."
"What do we do next?" I asked. "Play together and see how we sound?"
"That’s what I’d recommend," Hutch replied.
"We’re going to need to find a place," I said.
Hutch uncoiled his bony limbs from the couch. "Follow me," he said.
The four of us walked past an incongruously pristine kitchen and through a door that led to Hutch’s basement. It was spacious and well-lit, with a series of bright tubular bulbs hanging from the ceiling. It had the dank smell of most old basements, but somehow earthier, like freshly-tilled soil. An opaque plastic curtain cut the space in half. Hutch didn’t say what was on the other side.
"Bring your gear over and we can play here," he said, motioning to a large open area covered by a rug. "Most of my bands have rehearsed here. Can you come back tomorrow night?"
Bobby, Eric and I looked at each other and nodded. "Sure," I said. "We’ll see you then."
The three of us left Hutch’s place and headed to Domenic’s to discuss what we’d seen.
"I don’t know, guys," I said.
"What do you mean?" Eric asked. "He’s a good player."
"Maybe so," I said, "but he’s also a drug dealer."
"You don’t know that," Eric replied.
"You ever acquire a Les Paul in a business transaction?" I asked. "I usually get paid by check."
"Maybe he prefers the old barter system for tax purposes," Eric responded.
"The guy studied horticulture. He has grow lights in his basement. He was in a band with a guy who is in prison for dealing," I said.
"All circumstantial," Eric replied.
"That’s a lot of circumstance," I said.
"You’re right," Eric said, "but you don’t really know anything. Hutch has skills, gear and rehearsal space that we can use for free. Is it conceivable that we’re going to find anything better than that?"
"It all sounds so good when you divorce it from the drugs."
"Yeah, but like I said, you don’t know anything. You have plausible deniability. Still, assume you’re right, and that he is growing and/or dealing. Do you intend to produce drugs with Hutch?" Eric asked.
"Do you intend to sell drugs with Hutch?"
"Do you intend to buy drugs from Hutch?"
"Do you intend to aid, abet or facilitate a drug operation in any manner or respect?"
"Well, then, I don’t see a problem. It’s not like everyone who consorted with John Wilkes Booth is responsible for what happened to President Lincoln."
"Aren’t you concerned about violence?"
"Hank, he’s a stoner if anything, not a heroin pusher. The only violence being done is to his brain. There’s no harm in going back tomorrow night and playing. If it doesn’t click, or if Scarface breaks out, we can move on."
"What do think, Bobby?" I asked.
"I’m with Eric," he said. "You can’t be in a band without running across some shady characters. It might be useful to have one of our own."
We showed up at Hutch’s house around eight o’clock the next night in two cars. Bobby crammed his drums in one, Eric and I brought guitars and amps in the other. Hutch was sitting on his front steps, barefoot, with a beer in hand when we arrived. He got up and helped Bobby haul his gear to the basement. We set up in a diamond, with me facing Bobby. I brought a folder with copies of a few songs roughly charted, including five originals I had been working on. We huddled together and talked through the changes and tempos. Hutch said to turn up, that his neighbors didn’t mind.
"Do you have a roommate?" I asked.
"I had two," he said, "but they stopped coming home a while back. I guess they moved out. Any of you guys need a place to stay?"
We all indicated that we were set for housing.
Bobby counted us in and we took a swing at "Brown Sugar." It was rough, but we found some chemistry. Bobby and I locked in on the rhythm, and Hutch’s skills were evident. His lines were clean and fluid with a pretty, pure tone. He was a skilled mimic. He even reproduced the sax solo with surprising accuracy. Eric, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as funky as he’d led me to believe. He was more of a plodder, but at least his thud-thud-thud gave the sound some ballast.
We played through all of the songs in the folder, and then we played through them again, and then again, sounding tighter with each try. I had to concentrate to play and sing at the same time, but I put the songs over convincingly enough. Midway through the third take of "Pocketful of Nothing," the best of my originals, Bobby broke into a broad smile and nodded at me.
We had a band.
We did this every night for a week, and it motivated me to write three new songs in rapid succession. The originals didn’t sound as good as the covers, partly because we struggled to come up with our own arrangements at first. We could listen to a record and copy what we heard, but creating songs of our own was harder. Still, the more we worked, the better we sounded. I loved how Bobby played. Most drummers favored flash, but he was economical, serving the song, gently tugging at the rhythm, pushing when necessary and steering the whole thing from behind. Eric remained mechanical, but he was able to at least stay out of the way of the song, and he was a cheerful guy with a great record collection. He brought us ideas for covers, good songs that most people didn’t know and might sound like originals if we didn’t disabuse the audience. We started playing Jim Carroll’s "Wicked Gravity" and the Plimsouls’ "Zero Hour" because of him. Before we had a name, we had a set.
Hutch’s stash of gear included a four-track recorder. We put ten songs on tape over the next couple of weeks. We wanted to have something to use as a business card. And though none of us knew much about recording, we all agreed that we had captured something good. Bobby and Hutch gave my songs structure, and Eric gave them energy with his backing vocals, if not his bass.
I took a cassette home and played it for Carrie, who seemed stunned. "You guys have been together less than a month and you did this?" she said.
"Yeah, it’s pretty good, isn’t it?" I asked, not quite believing it myself.
"My boyfriend is a rock star," said Carrie. "I’m going to have to get some sluttier clothes."
It just keeps getting better, I thought.