Black Gang Chine

Excerpt From A Work-In-Progress

Downstairs at the bar in Black Gang Chine, anticipating this meeting with Jack, you light a Gauloise and contemplate how best to explain yourself. Thus far Cult Artist, cliched or not, sounds pretty good–if said fast and with authority, not allowing questions to form, it captures andconveys the essence of what you’re still calling your career.

And yet when you are recognized, it’s most frequently through the writing you’ve done for others, and less–with that one massive exception, of course–for any of the music that you kept for yourself. So there’s a problem of accuracy in this self-labeling: your own songs are appreciated by a small base of fans, but too few for even a cottage patronage of your work. You’ve come to call this Fractal Economicsbecause the alpha’s always the omega–because no matter how small an endeavor is, it’s still all about the fucking numbers.

Black Gang Chine is beneath The Gosford, which in turn is below Frontera, and you’ve arrived a full 30 minutes in advance to compellingly re-edit yourself. The actual bar is slyly Kubrick: an antiseptic light from within the thing diffuses through the translucent counter–it’s like drinking on top of a medical light box that awaits the x-rays of your broken career. And although you’ve no desire to examine that damage, it’s impossible to ignore the florescent glow because the only other light in this subterranean room comes from a few scattered, alcoved candles . . . .

You look out over the glinting sea of lofted, disposable lighters, and then take care of business with the crowd-pleasing anthem about a spectral woman . . . .

No, goddamnit, begin again. The most important thing is you’ve written the best pop songs never heard by a mainstream audience. Best in this case meaning nuanced, uncompromised pieces that only meet the listener half way. You don’t write hits; you pen songs that sometimes are modestly successful for other artists. But, as “Not Really Green Eyes” clearly proves, if called upon, you can construct a monster. These days, however, you have little interest in chart wars and the business end of music: these days there are lines you just won’t cross, no matter how much money stands to be made. Said fast and withresolute authority, not allowing questions to form.

But once again, there’s that matter of accuracy. Because it’s much more than the refusal to cross certain lines: it’s also the fear around three in the morning that you only think you know how to write hit songs. That sitting down and consciously trying to conjure-up one might prove–to yourself and the world–that the one time had been a fluke. And the essence of your career . . . .

In the men’s room, puking in a urinal; haunted by the last thing she had said . . . .

Third try, then. Big, deep breath. You’re the guy who wrote “Not Really Green Eyes.” Yes, that one–the one on the radio; the one inescapable all that summer; the one that was stately and progressive and about the woman you were living with at the time. So obviously you’ve got The Touch, and, well, any label needs artists with that. Which makes the deal you’re discussing now that much more attractive–and also cost-effective because these days there’s just you. Back when the song had topped the charts, there’d been a band–though in truth, Dark Victory’s revolving membership had made it more of a concept than a group. But nevertheless, you’re solo now; like someone militantly single after a bad divorce. And to keep yourself from wincing here, you light another Gauloise.

The exposed-brick walls of Black Gang Chine are those of a 19th century cellar. In contrast, however, the furnishings of the club extend the tone of the luminous bar: you’re seated in the middle of an antique fever-dream of a tomorrow that never happened: where the Ripper’s Whitechapel is collided into Lang’s Metropolis–and this intrusion of each into the other, with no effort made to meld them, produces a temporal yin and yang; an entanglement, but with demarcations.

One more time, but with all the cards on the table–and therefore not for the meeting: you’ve no explanation why “Not Really Green Eyes” climbs to number one. As in not a single clue. As in no-fucking-idea-whatsoever . . . .

She’s just gotten sick, and your concern, while great, is shaped by television narratives: She’s the beloved guest star, so despite test results, it’s bound to be fine in the end. Because that’s always the way these things work out in all the medical dramas–some dodgy touch-and-go in the second act, followed by a cure. Said fast and with nervous authority, without pausing for questions to form.

But make no mistake, in spite of appearances, this is survival, not denial: unavoidably sometimes the informed and the clueless arrive at the same destination. Because yes, you fully comprehend the horrors yet to come, you’re already deep into sleepless nights, but during the day you do your best to cling to hope–it keeps you from drowning in all the bad news.

It’s been a season filled with grim diagnoses: Dark Victory is on life-support and your songwriting’s been  seriously ill–and there the simple prescription is, of course, the bashing-out of better tunes. It’s time to work-up a new collection both you and the public can live with, but the constant worry over Jan and the group and what’s left of your professional future is a less-than-ideal place from which to storm the fortress of popular taste.

But then to your astonishment, you simply manage to succeed–you back into the formidable barriers and, shockingly, they tumble down. It’s like knocking over the most expensive vase on entering a high-end boutique, and then finding that the accident has made you the new owner of the shop. The initial impulse to flee, however, stubbornly remains. And so when people offer congratulations, you learn to give them a knowing smile–as if The Plan is working like a charm; as if everything is Right On Schedule. Signaled slyly and with authority, not allowing questions to form.

Except that there is no plan, and certainly no schedule: Elton John topples from number one, and you’ve no clue how you did it. As in What-the-hell-did-I-just-do? As in no-fucking-idea-whatsoever.

“Not Really Green Eyes” is a story about the various stations of love; a miniature epic moving from doubt to heartfelt certainty. Maybe the self-exposure of the lyric grounds the studio majesty of the cut, the significance of what’s being said equal to the wide-stage, stereo grandeur. Maybe the music buyers like confessional transformations that play-out in six pop-song minutes. Maybe radio programmers think they’ve found “Born To Run,“ finally unburdened by cars. Maybe deep inside you’re certain of what the disease will do to her. Perhaps the song is actually your oblique and ungentle goodnight. Afterwards, when all you have left is time, you’ll endlessly ponder these
things . . . .

One more run at it–there’s just enough time–once again for yourself, and not Jack . . . .

As her health unravels and the band falls apart, the blurring shock begins to fade, and you find yourself finally able to focus on caregiving and careful writing. Both demand putting the needs of others before your own, and you develop a meticulous servility about medications and theoretical hits.

“Not Really Green Eyes” is intended to be just another cautious, machine-tooled lyric, but something unexpected occurs: spontaneity and inspiration connect. The moment is entirely without drama; there’s no enlightened sense of occasion–you’re merely giving yourself a brief holiday by working in the old way again. She’s across the room, napping on the couch; something she’s never done in the past. It’s late October, and the thinning light is as golden and brittle as the leaves. You watch her sleep in the silent apartment, and, to better keep the time, meter each line to the beat of a heart that you’ve always hidden away.

You’ll realize later it’s the last quiet moment before you find a career and lose something precious. Before Death, like a pack rat, leaves something shiny in tragic exchange for her.

The arcing chart-climb of “Not Really Green Eyes” blazes across her final days, descending, then, into the utter desolation that’s left in their wake. The mayfly existence of a hit pop song bookends last-stage illness and burial, which is planned by relatives after private discussions that pointedly don’t include you . . . .

Downstairs at the bar in Black Gang Chine, anticipating this meeting with Jack, you light a Gauloise and contemplate how best to explain yourself.