Storyglossia Issue 36, October 2009.

Juno Broccoli and The Songstealers

by James Warner


As I stumble out of my bedroom, to turn down the volume on the CD player, my daughter Serena calls, "Come on, daddy, let's play Juno Broccoli." It's her name for Junior Monopoly. Serena only has the attention span for grownup Monopoly as long as she's winning, so we got her the faster-moving variant of the game, where you accumulate ticket booths instead of houses or hotels. "Can I be blue, daddy? I want to be blue," Serena demands, twisting to the beat.

"Sure, honey," I say, reducing the decibels, "you can be blue."

It's Saturday morning, and I have time to play a game with my daughter before going to work. Serena likes to start the day with a randomly selected disk, which she always plays far too loud. She gets that from her mother. We misnamed her bigtime.

I'm still trying to place the track that's woken me up, an uptempo number that carries me back to the 1990s . . . Beyond that, I'm drawing a blank. Serena selects CDs by color—more common than you'd imagine, according to our marketing department—and I've thousands of CDs, stacked on the floor, mostly in the wrong cases, many that I've forgotten ever owning.

A song sounds different when you haven't listened to it for a long time. As I reread the instructions about how much money each Junior Monopoly player starts with, the back of my mind recedes through a progression of where-are-they-now artists, trying to recall who I'm listening to, while Serena incants, "I want a six, I want a six," willing the game to go the way she wants, as she jives to an intro that makes me think of listening to LPs in a wintery light, back when music was my life and not just my job . . .

And then YOU start to sing, "I don't think we ever knew," in a voice that bleeds authenticity, just as Serena throws the die and gets a six. And from here on in I have difficulty concentrating on the game. Kids, unaware how much of our minds are occupied rooting around prehistory, always demand our full attention. "Whatever aches, the whirlpool takes," you quaver, dispensing with the rasping attitude and sexy effects that make up half the appeal of today's female vocalists.

Serena draws a Chance card that sends her three quarters of the way around the board, and overall this stands up beside anything by, I don't know, Sarah McLachlan say. Not my sort of music maybe. But you're better than I remembered.

This must be the last disk you burned for us at Demogorgon Records, and it'd be a collectible by now, if things had worked out better for you.

Serena lands on a green square and gets a ticket booth. With my next move, I land there, and have to pay her three dollars. Then Serena lands on the most expensive square, the loop-the-loop, which means she gets to put a ticket booth there too. "Who's winning, daddy, who's winning?" she says.

"You're winning, Serena," I say, remembering the first time I heard you sing, when I offered to have the label record your songs for you on spec. You acted cool, an unsigned vocalist letting a major label A&R guy buy you drinks. You admitted to some curiosity about the process, and I diffidently extricated from my briefcase a letter of intent, or deal memo, for you to sign, effusing about how I could see you opening for Dido or Tori Amos, that we'd respect your "underground ideals" and not dictate your sound, and how you weren't really signing with Demogorgon, you were signing with me . . .

Serena throws one of my ticket booths back in the box when she thinks I'm not looking. I reprove her and put it back. If you're going to cheat, you should be good at it. "Who's winning, dada?" Serena says.

I tell her she is. The great thing about Monopoly, played in a childhood friend's house, long ago, was it's seeming to last forever. But when you're older, you notice how once one player gets a slight edge over another player, the loser gets sucked into a cruel cycle of impoverishment, where every move's a step closer to bankruptcy, the rich get richer, and it all starts seeming too much like real life . . .

"This is a nice catchy song, dada," Serena says, as the drums kick in on that edgy R&B number you denied was about me.

"Screwing a rube, without any lube." I'm glad Serena can't make out the lyrics to this one. There's too much reverb on this track, didn't I warn you? Well, no one wants an A&R guy's creative feedback. Nice turn of phrase, but come on, there was more to what happened than that. First off, I didn't want my then boss to take credit for finding you, as he had for my previous discovery, the Contraindications, Seattle sound trend-followers whose first album went platinum only after I'd lost control of them. I wanted the label to let me start my own imprint, spin off a label within a label, with you as one of the stars. I got so close to negotiating that one . . . or they let me think I was close . . .

In the meantime you were left without a contract to sign. You trusted me enough to turn down another label that came sniffing after you. But you were already beginning to resent me because things weren't moving fast enough. Was it my fault those two labels merged, and the asshole who wound up in charge, post-feeding-frenzy, didn't appreciate you? "That whole chick music thing is so over," Braylen told me. "If I never hear another feminist bare her soul, I'll die a happy bastard."

By which time you were too visible anyway, was the conventional wisdom. Everyone had seen you play, and no-one had signed you yet. Braylen suggested you wear more leather and get some piercings, and your response was professionally inappropriate.

Serena gets another ticket booth. She's so excited she's winning, she runs to the dining room to tell the cat about it. Last week I asked her why she wrote "rock star" under "what I want to be" on the "ALL ABOUT ME" poster her teacher gave her, and she said, "I couldn't think of anything else."

I sit back to enjoy the next song, the one Braylen's pet boy band stole from you. I helped by disguising it just enough that you didn't have a legal case against us. You were evolving musically so fast, you'd practically outgrown the song anyway, I reasoned. The songs you expect to be hits never turn out that way anyhow, and Braylen's boy band crashed and burned before the year was out. I go to the CD player and skip to the next track, turning up the volume a little as Serena runs back into the room.

Infected by the shuffling rhythm, she starts bopping like the natural performer I'm scared she just might turn out to be. "Who's winning?" she shouts.

"You are, sweetie." Now that I'm a father, the twentysomething women I deal with at Demogorgon remind me of kids, their exhibitionism, their emotional volatility, the way they're so at ease with their creativity, and go from loving each other to scratching each other's eyes out in seconds. Assuring everyone they're winning has become habitual.

This number has a great groove, but I skip tracks again, to a live recording from the last night I heard you play, with some of your lame patter on it. "I've been a bit of a gypsy all my life. Anyone else here from Wisconsin?"

"Let's finish the game, daddy."

"Wounds don't heal," you croon a little hesitantly, "when love gets real." Something about this one still gets to me. Didn't we get it onto one of those compilation CDs sold in Starbuck's? You hated Starbuck's.

"Are you playing the game," Serena asks severely, "or are you thinking things in your head again?" Then she starts to sing "Daddy never listens," to a tune of her own composition.

"It's your go, honey," I tell her.

Her next Chance card gives her a ticket booth on the other blue. This is equivalent to owning both Park Place and Boardwalk in regular Monopoly, a virtual guarantee of victory, but Serena can't read, so I tell her the card says she owes me twenty bucks. Maybe I've been in the music business too long.

The tunnel is long, you moan, and there's no light at the end. The sound here's too thick, too dated even for whenever-it-was. Serena's getting fidgety. I can tell she doesn't like this song, and the game's boring her now, it's all about throwing the dice at my ticket booths, knocking them off the squares they're meant to be on. When she gets a Chance card, she's like, "It says mess up the whole board and never play again." Now she's going through the Chance cards, making up what they say. "It says blah blah blah. It says hit daddy on the head."

Listening to this track now, I hear symptoms of clinical depression. All Braylen heard was limited opportunities for airplay, even on college radio.

There's a happier song you sang for me in your hotel room after the show, a song Demogorgon would own the rights to, if I could only remember how it went. But that one you never got around to recording.

What's with this cello solo? Were you trying to piss Braylen off? Serena shuts her eyes and throws the dice across the room, where it disappears behind a precarious stack of CDs. She always sullenly withdraws from the game when she's losing. I wish I could say she got that from her mother.

Soon after I made that drunken pass at you, I dropped my inconvenient habit of supporting you at in-house meetings, and started just letting the cards fall wherever. I doubt that made much of a difference to your career. Braylen was already taking steps to drop you from our roster by the time you went back to Wisconsin for the winter and drove off the road into one of the great lakes. And all these memories are in the music now, like prehistoric creepy-crawlies in amber. Sad music only gets sadder as it ages.

"Here's a world of love, the hawk told the dove." Was it suicide or just intoxication? You told me once you always drank too much in Wisconsin.

"The right career move at the wrong time," Braylen said. "She should have waited a few years longer to do herself in." It's always the sensitive fuckers who get ahead, just as it's always the A&R guy who gets the ax when an artist tanks. I'm beyond all that now. In my current position, I get to assign blame without ever expressing an opinion. The whole industry's going down the tubes anyway, and soon it'll be time to cash in my chips.

"I don't want to play Juno Broccoli any more."

"Want to go watch TV?" I suggest to Serena, looking for an excuse to lose your CD and exorcise your ghost.

"Wounds don't heal," Serena shoots back at me, "when love gets real."

Today needs starting over. I've got to collect myself before driving to work. Once the TV's on, I return to the living room while you sing, "I am the m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m- . . . " Look now, based on how you handled obscurity, do you think you'd have done any better with fame? Dust on your CD's making it stutter in an insane loop, "m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m . . . "

I eject the thing out of the machine, to check the date that Demogorgon actually released this album. Because you did have your chance in the marketplace, better late than never, our attempt to milk the buzz surrounding your early death. Your album was in the stores for a few months, but it didn't sell, and a failed product vanishes from pop consciousness so rapidly, it's as if we never put it out there at all.

People are always talking about timelessness, but isn't it sometimes the most ephemeral music, rediscovered by chance, that really gets to people?

Before I can start feeling too maudlin, I fling your CD down the garbage chute. It clangs melodiously on its way to oblivion.

I pay Serena a quarter to clear away the board, and make my way out of the house. Lot of important meetings today. Driving to work, I turn on the radio and flip channels, like all the people in the cars behind me and in front of me. In my case, I'm trying to find anything that will drive your tunes out of my head. But for some reason I can't find anything I feel like listening to.

Copyright©2009 James Warner

James Warner's fiction has appeared in journals such as Ninth Letter, Agni Online, Night Train and others.

Interview with James Warner