I had no mints on my person, so I sprinted back to my house, up to the main floor and brushed my teeth; deciding it was the better option of the two. When I make it back to the waiting car, I shut the door quietly, but let out a heave of breath.
“Outta shape there kid?” teases Benno
I didn’t want to remind him that the Heimlich took quite a bit out of me.
I receive a text from Anne at 10.30 while I’m in the emergency room with Benno and Folk Mass.
“He’s taken a turn for the worse. Not sure if he’s going to make it through the night.”
“I was halfway home an hour ago when I got a text from people who were visiting him, to get back to the hospital as soon as I could”
“Are you ok?”
“Well…. He’s resting, and taking calls from all of his friends.”
Her father certainly had friends. From every facet of his life he had made lifelong friends.
“I’m at Weekapaug, with Benno and Folk Mass. I thought you were watching the game? Frances called me and said Benno was choking to death. We raced over and gave him the Heimlich for a minute, for twenty seconds …. We realized he had a piece of chicken lodged below the windpipe, had to bring him here.”
“Oh my god! Is he alright?”
“We think so, but the piece won’t come up. He may have to go to New London.”
“That’s where I am…”
It was an eerie coincidence. The emergency room closed at midnight, and any inpatients that didn’t have medical clearance by the staff had to be transported to the main hospital in New London. The doctor came into the room one last time, and then, Benno was in the last ambulance to the hospital. Folk Mass had to drive me all the way back to Mystic, in case I needed to be there for Anne, and then drive to New London to help admit Benno; and stay with him through the procedure. I decided to watch the pilot episode of Twin Peaks while exchanging texts with Anne and Folk, trying to let the film’s unbounded intentions fill in the crevices between trains of thought.
“Here with Folk Mass, we found each other getting coffee”
It was 1AM. I responded with what I felt was acceptable credence, but I was exhausted.
“How long are you planning to stay there?”
“At least until Emmitt leaves.”
Emmitt was the youngest of her father’s siblings. A self-made man; he had created a distribution network for computer hardware in the late eighties, and was still in the game as a sole proprietor. His lifestyle was legendary in the family- Emmitt would work 21 days in a row programming code to complete a project, and then fly to Colorado to ski for a day, flying back that night and going to work. The Maddalenas adored him unequivocally. It was reassuring to know he was there in the room with Anne. I felt selfish about the realization that I was home and Emmitt was there. I could understand the definition of her stated intent.
“Ok, I’m here.”
I drift off to sleep and wake up at 3AM. Still no sign of Anne. I head upstairs, make a sandwich, down a pint of water and milk thistle, and head back to bed. I wake up six hours later, and the only person in the room is me. A sudden wave of unease arrives as I awaken. Was Anne here at all last night? I find her downstairs, in the add on room with the TV, and the faux bar. I notice the landline is off the hook.
“He died an hour ago.”
“I’m so sorry babe”
We huddle on the couch, crying for a few hours, not speaking at all. Anne knew I had been in her shoes. My step-father had died at age 41 from melanoma, and the two of us watched as he tested experimental drugs that would become lifesaving medicines a generation later. My father had succumbed to a stroke at age 55. At the time, we had been together for twelve years upon hearing the news.
“Benno fine, procedure worked. That was an unforgettable night, huh?”
I finally hear from Folk Mass at 11AM.
“Yeah. Anne’s father died an hour ago…”
“Oh my lord. Please, condolences from me. I can’t believe we were both at the hospital last night. Surreal”
Tuesday morning. It’s my off day, and I am behind on various PR for the band. We have shows in the works in Brooklyn, Manhattan, New London, and New Haven that I have to finalize or we are going to lose out. I have to check the radio stations that I shipped the CD promo to; gauging if we are garnering any interest. I also have to begin to budget the next single. We were almost at the tipping point where personal investment had to be balanced by band income. This was the one area I had trouble articulating to the kids; the financial reality. I loathed the discussion of money, on any level, and would avoid it at all costs- much to my detriment. Joss owed me $150 in gas money for studio sessions and gigs. And I paid her way into the TAZZIES because she forgot her purse in the car, waiting out the cold interruption of the awards opening. I was able to collect $300 from our last run of shows, and we were still owed for the BaBa’s gig, which would get us to half of the cost of a third single at Stormy Harbor. If the holiday season was as good as predicted, I might be able to parlay a Palace bonus with some savings of my own to schedule the sessions. The financial pressure was getting more evident with the planning of the next single. The fourth single would have to be recorded with band income alone, or investment from a label. Every group that gets this involved reaches the same conclusion. Even still, I was convinced we were going in the right direction. Everything was being realized from the original design. I had to remind myself there was a certain success in simply achieving that; a world created of your own efforts.
Anne’s fathers wake is scheduled for Thursday night, Halloween. Coincidentally, it’s the night of our last practice before the shows in New London and Brooklyn. In addition, the funeral would be Friday morning, and our show at the Well is that night- All Saints Day. I put on my funeral shoes at 6:00 pm Thursday evening, and Anne and I head across town to the wake. On the drive over, I begin to calculate just how many funerals I had been to; how many times I had to stand in the receiving line at a wake, being numbed by the overwhelming response to a family members passing. That was the methodology behind the wake ritual- contain the grief, even if it is only momentarily, with a barrage of hugs, thank yous, and tears. I could only recall eighteen, although I was sure I missed a few. And tonight, as a member of the Maddalena receiving line, I would draw on that experience. No one wanted to see a family fall apart at the wake; that was for the attendees. I was able to add enough levity to play my part, and when the seemingly endless line of people had settled into a final small group later that night, I realized not one of the Piercing members had made it. Even my thought process had been altered by the wave of emotion at the wake; I didn’t even notice until I realized I needed to get back to Centraal in a few minutes for practice. Jeremy would be the only one of them to attend the funeral the following
The general attitude toward Piercing had shifted once we showed the temerity to survive what we had been through the previous six months. There was a sea change in town about what we were doing- no longer were we a threat to anyone, but rather we represented a promise. It was the message we had been dispensing at the Palace to this generation: you have to create your own world; there is no world waiting to validate you. As we drove into NYC for the Sunday gig with Love Me Not, the van is as full as it can be. The light show kids from the Warehouse were thrilled to be asked to do lights for us in Brooklyn. June made her first trip to NYC with us. Anne was in the van, her camera bag full. The Folk Mass was with us. Jeremy’s new girlfriend Amber was with us, which made it nine total, including all of the light show gear. I prayed silently that we wouldn’t be stopped along the route; simply because of the seat belt laws. That was a new wrinkle in the drive to a show.
Our set goes over quite well; the light show is a particular attraction. Someone in the crowd close to my age grabs me after the gear is packed in the van. He has a cell phone video of one of the songs.
“Hey man- can I post this to my YouTube?”
“Yeah, sure man. Thanks for coming out tonight.”
Perhaps we have finally found the formula for our live show- a full mixture of the various elements of Mystic at this time. A totality. June gushes on the ride home about how the new lineup has “So much more fluidity, so much more depth, while retaining all of the aggressiveness that marked the earlier songs.”
“Ohhh, thank you June. I can’t think of anything I would want to hear about the band other than that.” replied Jocelyn. She sounded completely earnest.
“Hey Ian” I shout out over the din of the stuffed van
“Did you have a good time tonight?”
I was beginning to worry about him. Not his musical competency, which was exceptional. I was worried he was beginning to think, or perhaps realize, that he was in way over his head.
December is filled with practices, new songs, and one show in New Haven while we wait for the days to peel away until Todd finishes school on the 23rd. Anne and I hide out on New year’s Eve. Jeremy comes by Centraal on New Year’s Day to track a demo of his latest song. On Thursday the second day of 2013, we have a full band practice at 7.30pm. We have added six new numbers to the set, and I finally feel as if Piercing has every song that it needs at this juncture.
The first thing I need to attend to on Monday morning is emailing Richard at Stormy Harbour to book the session for our next single. We all agreed that ‘Walking the Psychic Vortex’ and ‘Cupid’s Pulse” were the best choices to represent the new lineup and the new sound we were getting. Thinking about the contrast while I stared at the screen awaiting a return email, I began to think that while the visceral edge of the original lineup was no longer as present, we did sound like the same group, and one that had matured. The songwriting did have more depth, the studio was almost routine to us, and we were finally, after nine months of fighting to simply keep the band together- the retrograde was seemingly ending.
“Hey Ellery- we have two dates available for you- weds 15 jan or thurs 30 jan.”
As much as I wanted to get in to the studio as soon as possible, we would have to wait until the 30th. Joss was due to be out of town with Marcus’ family for a winter jaunt to sunny Florida during the week of the 15th. I tell myself every element of delay has eventual worked in our favor, and this would more than likely as well.
“We’ll take the 30th, thanks for getting back to me- you guys are the best! et”
Jocelyn, Ian, and Todd meet me at Centraal at 8.30am so we have enough extra time to pick up Jeremy at Amber’s house in Niantic. He will not participate on the same level as the three of them today; who have to walk through the slushy mush toward my house in the winter that won’t end. We are due to load in at Stormy Harbor by Noon, and I’m hoping January traffic to the city is minimal. After we load the van and head out toward Niantic, Joss guides us through the streets of New London, hoping to buy us some time with a shortcut.
“This is my neighborhood; I didn’t really grow up in Mystic.”
I knew where we going the entire time, but I let her call the shots. I was still trying to get Joss to take a more pro-active role in the direction of the band beyond our image. When we arrive at Amber’s house, Jeremy is waiting, guitar case in hand, on the front porch.
“Jesus, could you guys be any more late? I was freezing my ass off!”
“You think this is late? Hahahahaha” I laugh. “And what, did you get into a fight with Amber and she made you wait outside?”
“Very funny, asshole. “
“But, am I right?”
“Of course you are; asshole. Can we go make a fucking record now, please?”
“Hahahahaha…. We’re on our way.”
We do not have a stop in Brooklyn to pick up Adrian, so I can simply follow my directions right to the studio. As we pull up, and I maneuver the van into a tricky patch of iced over Brooklyn pavement, out onto the street come Richard and Michael; they look genuinely happy to see us. My initial instinct is to chalk that up to the fact that we contributed to another day of the studio’s existence, but the hugs each one of them gave me dispelled any business notion. They were invested in us, as much as we were in them; our relationship with Stormy Harbor had only been strengthened by our return. I could barely hide my anticipation about the impending session to Richard:
“I think this is the best material we have written. I can’t wait to hear what Michael is going to do with it.”
“He really has high hopes for you guys, you can see from the work he puts into your sessions. He’s also noticed all of the press you’ve been getting. ”
“We truly appreciate it; I can’t imagine recording with anyone else. Have we namechecked the studio enough in our PR?”
“Hahah, yeah, you guys are great at that.”
Michael always wanted to get a single take drum track with as many other instruments locked onto that beat. He was masterful at arranging sound baffles, microphones, and the guitar amps so there was very little bleed through on each individual track. But, the tighter we all were, the more detail he could explore during the mix.
“How old are these drum heads, my man?” Michael asked me as I finished setting up my kit.
“I put them on a week ago, tuned them twice, played them once.”
Once I had completely set up, Michael began to tune the drums himself. I was always amazed at how quickly he could bring the whole kit into harmony. I had worked with producers who would take three hours to tune the drums, but those days were thankfully long gone; we would record exclusively at Stormy Harbor for the duration of Piercing- as far as I was concerned. While Michael tuned, I began to help Richard place the mic stands and unravel the corresponding cords over the length of the studio floor. Jeremy and Todd were fine tuning their effect pedals and amp settings; Ian is in the isolation booth warming up by playing scales ridiculously fast. Jocelyn is deeply settled into an old couch backed up against the west wall, and she turns to catch my attention. Joss motions with a nod of her head toward Ian, and mouths
‘Can you believe this kid?’
I nod back, with my arms splayed apart; ‘I know.’
I thought to myself: everything is in place. We are going to get a deal and tour. I almost let myself believe it was a foregone conclusion. And then I remembered 1994. If Thames blew it, we could blow it just as easily. That brief moment where I let my guard down reinforced an inherent
insight about managing the band- never project a possible success.
Jeremy was taking it all in, a subtle sense of awe and arrival detailed his wry smile. He walked through the room, gazing at the collection of guitars, occasionally asking Michael how a certain instrument had found its way into the studio. Todd was sitting cross-legged on the floor; gently strumming his guitar which was not yet plugged in. And then: insight into initiatives. Jeremy asked Jocelyn to go through his vocal warmup with him. He had a background in singing, having been a member of the Chamber Choir in High School all four years he was there. This piqued my interest, because Joss never warmed up before a gig, a practice, or a studio session. She was actually that good; she was rarely hindered by not warming up. I myself had to play drum rudiments for at least ten minutes before gigs and studio work, not quite as much before a practice. Jeremy had been trying for months to get Joss to take warming up seriously, but she always half assed it just to placate him. But, with Richard and Michael in the room, she knew a specific professional aspect was front and center.
“Follow me, just like this… up the scale la la la la LA la la la LA la la la Laaaaah
Jocelyn followed, flawlessly.
“Now, the next note up “
Jocelyn followed, flawlessly.
After the first few takes, Michael asks me to come into the control room.
“I want you to hear this, it’s where were having a problem.”
I carried plenty of anxiety with me when I went behind the drums to track for Michael. It wasn’t an issue of whether I thought I could execute his direction; I simply didn’t want the beginning of the session to be laborious for him. I wanted to nail these tracks on the first take, but I was having trouble during the bridge of ‘Vortex’. Michael leaned over the expansive mixing board, and rewound to the spot he wanted me to hear; the whirring digital code sounding like an impending typhoon. I was nervous.
“Hear how you’re galloping through this bridge transition? You need to slow down there and let the rhythm develop; you’re basically rushing it.”
“Yeah, yeah, I can totally hear it. Ok, let me just do a raw run through with those guys to nail it.”
“Ells, you know I’m going to run tape anyway. Try to nail it out of the box.”
“Ok, man.” I trusted him. As I reached for the door handle to the studio, a sudden realization entered my mind: he trusted me.
“Ok, Twining… can you nail it so we don’t waste the whole day getting drum tracks?” Jeremy judiciously instills a bit of sarcasm. He had a point, and I had to keep up with the kids musically. On the third pass of the song after Michael’s instruction, we lock in to the change effortlessly.
“Great! Great! Ok, Ells, there is one part out of whack toward the end, where you get a little behind, a bit off.”
“Ok, cool, can you cue it up?”
“Coming right up… and here, listen for it.”
The sound comes in at top volume, the way that I like it. After a brief pause where all of the instruments are holding a note in unison, the drum fill that I play out of the dissolving noise brings the whole band back to full throated volume with a concise guitar solo from Jeremy to wrap it up. The drum fill isn’t smooth at all.
“Can you roll back the tape for a second; play it again?”
“Sure thing Ells”
Now I can hear it. There is one solitary snare note that is out of place. It’s not obvious, it’s not glaring, but it is wrong. And Michael heard it; could isolate among all of that sound a single snare beat. It’s a good thing he’s not leading us into war, I think, because I would probably follow him.
“Are we rolling?” I say into the closest microphone, and gaze back at the control booth. I get the thumbs up, and the Michael nod; always reassuring. I reach into a place where I can draw the discipline to make this live edit: there already exists an audience that is going to hear this drum take.
“Got it. Good work, Ells.”
The recording of ‘Cupid’s Pulse’ is the complete opposite from ‘Vortex’. We track a beautiful version of Todd’s haunting epic on the fourth take; perfectly synthesizing the quiet/loud dynamic of the tune.
“Ok, ok. Great work people. Ummm, I need a smoke break, and then we’ll listen together the few spots I need each of you to do a quick fix on. Is that cool?”
“Of course, Michael. Whatever you need.” Jocelyn is the first to respond.
Michael found three distinct notes he wanted Ian to fix. It takes about eight minutes.Jeremy has one section to fix, a guitar solo on ‘Vortex’. One take. Done. He wants Todd to triple layer parts of the guitar solo that ends ‘Cupid’s Pulse’. Four takes.
“Joss! Your turn.” Michael bellows into the room mic. She is in the front room ordering take out for herself, Richard, and Michael. I have the picnic basket packed.
“Be right there.”
Once Joss has soundchecked in the vocal both, I head out back to their open air patio. One of the more interesting elements of Stormy Harbor were the double industrial doors you had to pass through to get outside. They sat only eighteen inches apart, and every time I went out back to partake, I could only think of some musician way past their limit getting wrenched between the two doors, and calling Michael, or Richard for help. I also didn’t want that person to be me, so I never drank in the studio until the mixing session began, among many other reasons.. I had to drive everyone back home from Brooklyn, so it wasn’t a rock life moment for me. More like a Dad moment, because I imagined it would be a great night to get totally loaded and mix new music with Michael. He was a singular human being, and an incredible music maker.
Jocelyn and Todd take a combined twenty five minutes to complete their vocal tracks. Jeremy was up next, and was essentially was recording the last tracks before we could begin mixing. We were way ahead of schedule, so there was no real pressure on Jeremy; he could take a bit of time to find his way into ‘Vortex,’ as he sang half of the main vocal. His first five takes, however, are completely awful; off key and out of rhythm. Joss, Todd, and I share a concerned look, as if to convey- there can’t be a way he’s been actually this off the whole time, can it?”
“Hey” I whisper to the two of them. Ian is on his phone and doesn’t seem to be aware of the tension in the control booth at all.
“Michael will get the performance needed out of him. Let’s be patient.” I offer encouragingly. But I absolutely believe it as well.
“I think that’s a solid.” replies Todd, in his typical unblemished whisper.
“He’ll get it. I know he will. He won’t let me down now.” Jocelyn adds this at a low volume. I can barely make out her words.
Jocelyn speaks these words as if in a trance, as if her exchange of conversation was not for Todd and me, but for some larger, extemporaneous force. Jocelyn’s personal identification toward the importance of the things we cannot see, the things that are hidden from us… asking “how random is random?” were the centrifuge I which I built my belief upon in regard to her talent. It was not simply her voice. Perhaps I was reading too much into it; completely projecting. But that sort of thing happened all of the time in the Mystic valley. There was no way I would not be influenced by her statement.
As we finish packing up the gear, Jeremy brings up the cover art. My first reaction is personal disappointment; hadn’t he been paying attention to Malthus all these years? And the cover art for the previous two singles was scheduled well before their respective recording sessions. This was the first real evidence that at some point, Piercing was going to be too big for a member of the band to manage. That realization was powerful, as it truly indicated our outward growth. But until that time actually arrived, I couldn’t let the proverbial ball to drop.
“How about Todd makes a collage, something based around the American flag?” states Jeremy with confidence
“Ohh, that’s interesting” opines Jocelyn
“The flag? What kind of progressive imaging led you from Joss in a bra to the flag?” I reply, somewhat incredulously. Had Jeremy not been paying attention to the Piercing totality of image? It was in Jocelyn’s hands, and she wanted Pop Art full color, with each of the glamourous, risqué entreats.
“You know- the fucking stars and stripes?”
“Haaha very funny. There is nothing political about our music. But the flag image is making me think about something…. Fabric…”
“And?” asks Jeremy
“Anne wanted to do this fashion shoot years ago, but it never materialized. Her idea was to take large swaths of velvet fabric and wind them between trees in the winter; shooting the models in the bi-chrome effect of the white snow and the heavily contrasted fabric. A ‘Snow White’ kind of thing.”
“That sounds very interesting.” Jocelyn speaks, and everyone else stops talking.
“Are you up for it? I’m sure Anne would love to have you model a shoot again; she always raved about your ability to capture the spirit of the moment.”
“Can you text her about it now?”
Jocelyn asks. I comply.
On the ride back to Mystic, the CDR of the session plays on the van CD player. The is a palpable sense of relief in the van as we pile up the miles on I95- we had survived the near destruction of Piercing only to come out stronger. Ian had been pretty quiet throughout the day, but I suddenly sensed the need to hear what his take on the day’s proceedings were.
“Hey Ian, did you have a good day?” I asked.