A Change of Tune

by | Dec 12, 2023 | Fiction, Issue Thirty-Six

You hear the strings bend, the hammer downs and pull offs, but not in ways that impress your critical ear. Although such musicianship would have been cause for celebration when you played guitar, it’s now a “pedestrian display, dragging the album throughout a rock ‘n’ roll mire.” The band is hot, on the rise. But your publication is an esteemed one, influential. Your words will thwart the band’s ascent. There’s no question about it.

After sending the review off to your editor and shutting down your laptop, you freshen up for the date with the woman you matched with online. You arrive a few minutes early, before she does. The restaurant was your choice—it has a swanky bar up front that serves pristine concoctions. When your date arrives wearing the tan leather jacket as promised, she’s even prettier and younger than you expected from her profile pic, with a cute little birth mark cresting the dimpled wave of her smile.

Unfortunately, there’s a catch. You discover she’s a non-drinker after suggesting cocktails to nurse until your reservation is called. Sitting beside you on a green velvet-cushioned bench in the foyer, she taps her restless foot to the marble floor like a 1940s dancer at the Cotton Club. There’s a pressure to impress her, so when your table is ready you let flow your credentials. You name-drop artists you’ve met. Like Nick Cave, Hope Sandoval, Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, who’ve all expressed an admiration for your work. As you describe these unforgettable encounters, she simply projects a blank, puzzled stare. Soon, the ambient sounds of other conversations, the clinking of glasses, the chime of utensils against plates amplify during an awkward pause when there’s no one else worth mentioning.

Your date takes another sip of the ginger beer she ordered and wets her lips. Have you met Taylor Swift?

Flustered, your mouth opens but no words escape, and you drop your gaze reflexively to the vast whiteness of the tablecloth like a dog scolded for eating scraps fallen from the table. When she asks about Brandi Carlyle you’re rescued from answering as the server arrives with the entrees.

You try finding any sort of connection with her—travel, nightlife, hobbies; you even hint at politics—all to no avail. She peeks at her phone with increasing frequency. Before you can even ask if wants dessert, she apologizes but says she has to go pick up a friend whose car has broken down on the other side of the city. You go through the motions of offering to help, but she politely declines while dropping two twenties down on the table before leaving. Oh well, there’s a few open seats at the bar.

You’re now on your second sidecar and a man with a shaved head and bushy red beard pulls off dark glasses and takes the seat beside you. He’s a bit out of place in this establishment; it’s as if Jesse James has walked into one of Queen Victoria’s tea parties. Well, well, well, he says. If it isn’t the fellow who’s sunk many a musician’s career.

It takes a moment, but you recognize him. It’s Matthew Emmerich, bass player for the now-defunct psych-pop outfit Stargazer, a relatively unknown band in the hallowed hallways of rock history but one that reached the pinnacle of your musical world. You’re flattered he recognizes you and offer to buy him a drink. He says he’d love a beer.

Feeling flush, you can’t remember the last time you’ve been this excited. An easygoing rapport develops. He’s divorced but a family guy, you learn, with a kid in college and another in high school, both of whom he either sees or talks with almost every day. You tell him he’s a lucky man, as you suffered a bitter divorce before ever having kids, and lost many a friend in the process. He tries to pick you up, explaining how you’re a “noted critic,” and when you give an album a favorable review, it really means something.

During the next round you ask the bassist whom he’s waiting for, but he tells you he just stopped in for a beer…well two beers, he laughs. He’s soon heading to practice with a new band he’s put together. Pizza slices straight from the box will be their dinner. That sounds like heaven to your ears, and you mention the fun you had back in the day as a guitarist in garage bands in the cultural hotbed of Winnemucca, Nevada. Trading in a life spent playing guitar and rocking-out for a life spent writing about others doing it is something that haunts you every day. Your eyes get a touch misty; you hope your new friend doesn’t notice but he puts an arm around your shoulders and asks, Why don’t you sit in with us, tonight? We always have several extra guitars lying around…

Two hours later, you’re strumming a Gibson hollow body. Pepperoni and oregano aftertaste lingers on your breath as you sing harmony on Before the Folly, a favorite Stargazer track. Matthew’s long fingers pluck the strings of his electric bass as he catches your eye and offers a knowing smile. Your eyes have gone cloudy again, only this time it’s not from regret. You return his look with a lunatic’s grin and clear your throat in preparation for the next chorus.

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