They came from Overland Park, Kansas. Burgs like that swarm with kids with nothing to do but sit around practicing their instruments, playing along to shitty metal records after school and throwing shapes in the mirror till Mom calls them down for Jennie-O turkey loaf, Stove Top stuffing, and apple pie out of the box. VD3 hadn't played more than a handful of shows in Chicago before they had A&R guys sniffing their butts. Justin and Jayson—that's who they wanted. The twins looked like they'd been concocted in some secret lab buried deep in the vanilla heart of America. Threatless rebellion, good teeth, and the promise of heavy petting at the end of the night—the twins were the zeitgeist all right. They were going to move some units.
Marty and Thomas, on the other hand . . . Well, they were nice guys. Marty, at twenty-two, already had a bald spot. He should've been training to sell insurance or maybe vinyl siding door-to-door, not playing bass in a band. Thomas, the drummer, was a shaggy, slope-shouldered oaf. He reminded you of one those big dogs that roll side-to-side when they walk and like to flop down anywhere and fall asleep in the sun, one of those dogs you'd have to put down early, health problems inherent in the breed. You'd feed him cheese, his favorite, and he'd lick your hand while the vet slid the needle in, and afterward you'd all smile bravely and agree you'd done the right thing.
I first met the dead weight in the studio, before I'd even laid eyes on the twins. VD3 had hooked up with the same management company who handled Disturbed, that god-awful "nü-metal" band from the south side that went on to sell six million records. The management was priming VD3 for a deal and wanted them to cut some demos at Rax Trax. After two days, they were telling both Marty and Thomas they needed someone "steadier" to lay down the parts. The job came to me from a buddy who did a lot of studio work but couldn't make the date. Up till then, I'd stayed as far from the industry as I could. I was a little naive myself. I didn't know what I was walking into. These four kids had spent the last seven years holed up in a garage on some leafy side street pounding out these songs, practicing to play basement parties and their high school talent show. I had to go in and lay down Thomas's parts while he stood on the other side of the glass, watching intently, thinking he was going to pick up some tips from a real pro. "Thanks, man," he said when I was done. "I really learned a lot."
Thank God I wasn't there when they told them, when the contract was drawn up without their names on it. (From what I heard, Justin and Jayson weren't there either; they'd handed the hard stuff over to the pros as well.) Six months after they'd come to the big city to try and make it with their band, Marty and Thomas were being sent home to Kansas, enough payoff money in their pockets for a new car or a down payment on a townhouse, enough to keep them from kicking up a fuss about who wrote which songs.
When VD3 signed to Universal, I was sent out to LA to track the album. On "Subliminal Vengeance," "Krazy Girrrl," "Hooded Justice," "Tragedies of the Silent," and "OMG, So N2U," I played almost exactly what Thomas (a pretty good drummer, it turned out) did on their home recordings, and my other parts weren't spectacularly different from the originals either. I played on half the album, and they flew in Josh Freese to do the rest. Afterward, the whole thing was so quantized, compressed, resampled, and chopped up on Pro Tools it hardly seemed to matter who'd actually hit the drums in the first place.
How can I describe this music? It managed to meld everything popular on the radio—metal riffs, skittery electronic beats, melodramatic breakdown sections, white-boy rapping, self-help lyrics, and endless, yelping iterations of the word girl—into one market-conquering protogenre. Thanks to some sophisticated recording software, it sounded glossy and crunchy, slick and jagged, sensitive and angry all at once. The sound track to your next teenage riot, and Grandma could still buy it for you for Christmas.
Over two weeks in LA, I spoke to Justin and Jayson a handful of times, only the occasional "What's up, bro?" and "Sounding good, Tim. Totally ripping on those tracks." They were like Siegfried and Roy's white tigers—beasts of such rarefied breeding you were amazed to see them suffer our harsh climate. As with all identical twins, you secretly tried to spot the minor differences, who got the shorter draw in the genetic lottery. All I could pick out was that Jayson walked with a slight limp (old snowboarding injury), and Justin, the obsessive one, liked to chew on the plastic fob on his keychain.
The twins had just turned twenty-two, but there was already a coldness to them, a lofty distance. They needed that coldness, I guess. Probably someone had explained it to them: how it was painful but inevitable that the original lineup should part ways. This wasn't the garage anymore. This wasn't the talent show.
I came back to Chicago, back to cocktail jobs, straight-ahead gigs at the Mill and the Showcase, and free and out sessions—postbop, skronk, postskronk—in loft spaces and coffeehouses. I socked away my $15,000 and considered my little excursion into mall rock over. Then I got a call from the management company. "Tim," they said, "we want you to do the tour. The concept is: This needs to look like a real band. Four comrades who'll fight to the end and die for each other. Justin and Jayson love your sound and your look, and we need someone who isn't known on the national scene. Who are you working with right now?" I told them I was playing with some of the biggest names in the Chicago jazz community. "Perfect," they said. "No one will ever have heard of you."
They'd lined up another Chicago cat, Paul Patton, to play bass. (I'd heard of Paul—a session guy who kept a low profile, a monster on his instrument—and was even a little flattered to be paired with him.) They had promoters prebooking shows, street teams flyering the clubs, media people blitzing radio and magazines, new media people hanging out in forums and courting the bloggers.
I remember walking out of my apartment and seeing posters plastered all up and down Milwaukee Avenue: "VD3—Pillars of Society" scrawled in a jagged script and the band shot from below to make everyone tough and looming, the black eye shadow, leather bracelets, and dyed, spiked, tipped, and teased hair adding up to a look that seemed equal parts vampire and drug addict but finally, thanks to the weird makeup, suggested something more like "psycho mime." Justin and Jayson stood glowering and airbrush-beautiful in front. In the back, submerged in shadow, was Paul. And next to him, sulking in the same getup, me.
I should explain: My trip has never been about money, though I'm proud to scrape out a living playing music. How many of us can ever hope for an honest shot at transcendence? There had been moments on the bandstand, in the cauldron of group improvisation, when I'd start to have this feeling like I was floating out of myself, when my feet and hands and fingers and mind were working with such simultaneity that there was almost no me left. And on a very few occasions, four or five at most, I'd literally been able to look down upon myself and see all my mistakes and flaws, but also my skill and perfection. In that hard-won, incredibly rare set of moments, I'd known myself with a thoroughness, a detail, that hardly anyone ever even senses. The tour: I was going to use VD3 for the cash, to set myself up for the next year and maybe longer, to keep playing the angry, pure, fire-breathing jazz I loved and couldn't live without.
We did a warm-up show at Metro. Capacity crowd. All ages, of course. Probably half the kids got in free, having worked all weekend flyering the album. We played with spine-thrumming volume. I don't know how those kids could take it. The bass drum echoing off the back wall was like getting shelled in a bunker. Onstage, we had in-ear monitors, the whole thundering mix piped through a tiny pair of isolating headphones. It was strange. I hit the drums as hard as I could—I heard them, but they seemed to produce no sound. The whole instrument disappeared in front of me.
We flew out east and played a string of ten- to fifteen-thousand-seat houses, "sold out" on every marquee. I had to give it to Justin and Jayson. There was no learning curve for them. From the first downbeat, they thrashed around the stage like eels going upstream. Every night on the last song of the set, they'd turn to the drum riser, lean back in the heroic rock straddle, and play their matching SG guitars like it truly, truly mattered, smiling and nodding at me and Paul like we'd all been doing this together for years, like we were really locked in. The first few shows I played with incredible concentration. If there was any nuance in those songs, I was going to wring it out of them. Then I realized the sound guys were gating my drums. No matter how deftly I played, only the loud, basic stuff would come through. It would sound exactly the same every night. So I gave up on all the subtle drags, ghost notes, and over-the-bar fills. I just hit my parts, tried not to fuck up, and let the back of the house worry about the rest.
Not that it mattered much if I fucked up. There was a backing track playing the whole time, the album versions of the songs mixed in with the live sound, just loud enough so the audience wouldn't notice if you dropped a few bars or broke a stick. "Sound reinforcement," they call it. In other words—playing along with the record.
It was written in our contracts that we wouldn't get so drunk or high before or during the show that we'd let all the kids down. I couldn't drink beer behind the drums, just Aquafina brand bottled water. "I thought this was a rock tour," I said to Paul. He did two or three of these seventy-, eighty-night engagements a year. "Where are the coked-up groupies and the hot tubs full of champagne?"
"That's a story from another era. Anyway," he said, shrugging, "we're not the big show. You and me, we're just window dressing."
By the time we hit the hotel bar, Paul was usually in his room playing Xbox or talking on the phone with his wife. Even the twins indulged only as a sort of courtesy, drinking a few beers and exiting the party around one in the morning. They were constantly assaulted by girls, a good number of whom held dubious claims to being twenty-one. But Justin and Jayson were chaste. They both had girlfriends in Chicago who were coming out to join the second half of the tour.
Back then I could still more or less pass for twenty-five, but for the girls at those parties I was a target of secondary importance. Still, there were always a few women—beautiful women, glamorous and bored with their provincial lives—who seemed content to settle for the drummer. (You know what they say about drummers: half the ego, twice the stamina.) They flirted brazenly, made it clear they were here because, tonight, this was the best thing going in Scranton or Raleigh or Virginia Beach, the only party where you might brush up against reckless youth and fame, feel a little of its essence tingling your skin. "So, tell me, honestly," these women said, leaning forward confidentially, expertly, on stiletto heels, "can you really tell the two of them apart?"
"Oh, totally," I said. "After all these years, absolutely." After a couple weeks, and several drinks, I got good at inventing a VD3 history: the first scrappy practices, the basements, the house parties, and then the triumphant battle of the local bands, followed swiftly by the big-city wake-up call, slugging it out in rat-hole clubs, working hard, stitching together a following one fan at a time. . . .
"This must be so huge for you." A strategic touch on my arm transferred a charge so erotic and desperate I shivered all over. "You must be so nervous up there."
"After so much work and effort, it must be nerve-wracking."
"Oh, well, you just kind of roll with it."
At a certain point, we moved the conversation to my hotel room, both of us making it clear we regarded the whole thing from the proper ironic distance. And generally it was as it should be: two adults screwing toward oblivion, then adding each other on MySpace afterward.
We flew out west and picked up a new tour bus. The first thing Paul did was block out the world by taping pictures of his wife, his newborn kid, and their apartment in Roscoe Village to his window. You're crazy, I thought. From my seat, my little area, I liked to take in the scenery, see the amber waves of grain, the filling stations, outlet malls, the purple mountain majesties ticking by. Pretty soon it got depressing. So much of this country feels all but abandoned.
In Seattle, a couple hours before the show, I was in the green room, working rudiments on the practice pad, my strokes sloppy, sticks clacking all over the place. Justin wandered in. I think it was Justin anyway. He was chewing on his keychain fob. White tiger gnawing on a hunk of meat. Several empty beers and a full one sat next to me, and I made an "uh oh" face. He just shrugged.
"Great show last night, man," I said. Around them, I was always aware that I was talking to my boss. Keep the leader happy—first rule of playing music. "Dug your solo on 'Mission Akomplished.' Man, it was so fucking . . . precise."
"Yeah, that show was off the chain. What a rad crowd."
I thought to leave it there, leave it like my other passing encounters with the twins. But he looked so morose. "What's up? Everything okay?"
"Just feeling run-down."
"The road can catch up quicker than you think." I did my best to sound like the experienced veteran proffering hard-won advice. "Make sure to take your vitamins. The food sucks." Actually, the catering beat what I ate at home by a long shot.
"For real. If I even see another crab puff . . . "
"Oh, man, those crab puffs? They're good at first. But they give you wicked gas."
We both laughed. I figured I'd scored a point or two.
"It's just . . . " He stared at his shoes—Vans, they were sponsoring the tour. "I'm just a little lonely is all. There's no one to talk to."
"Lonely? You've got Jayson here. And your girlfriends are coming out in a couple days, right?"
"Yeah, they're gonna meet us at the Shoreline show. But it's . . . tough. It's really tough." He was at a loss. "You know?"
"It can grind you down. But stay strong. Remember who you're doing it for. You're doing it for the kids. For the fans."
"Right," he said, mechanically scuffing the top of one shoe with the other, so they didn't look brand-new. "Because just a few years ago, we were those kids out there watching our heroes onstage. And now we gotta give it back. We gotta show them anything's possible."
"Exactly. That's why you have to stay strong. Anything's possible." I let out a sudden giggle. "And stay away from those crab puffs."
"What?" he said, bewildered, his thoughts still elsewhere. "Oh, right."
That night I rode the sound reinforcement hard, dropped my sticks twice doing some idiot twirling during "Antiseptic Apocalypse." The twins both shot me a look at the same time, and I dug in and finished the set without missing a single hit. That night I discovered another rule of the road: Stop pretending it's art; go on muscle memory.
In LA, we played the Roxy and then a secret show up in the hills. Backstage, there were Hollywood types. In particular, a young actress I couldn't take my eyes off. You'd know her by name. She's in those kinds of movies that, our society being efficient at mass punishment, literally everyone has seen. The ones where the guy never recognizes the girl until she takes off her brunette wig and she's not really the local meteorologist but a big star. Somehow I went up and talked to her. Or she came over and talked to me. Things, especially time, got a little jumbled. We found a room. She gave me a pill.
"What is it?" I asked.
"It doesn't really have a name yet. Everyone's doing them though."
I don't know how to describe what it did to me. It was like I had a head and a body. Understand me? A head. And a body. The only thing connecting me was a long filament down which I'd send signals. It was like those rare, beautiful times on the bandstand when I could look down and see myself—but this came on instantly. Those years of solitude and frustration and endless repetition weren't required after all. I felt a roar of anger welling up inside me. But after a few minutes I didn't care. The filament trailed off so distantly I couldn't feel the end anymore. At this point, the young actress pulled off my jeans and climbed on top of me. We began to fuck, and it was like one glacier colliding with another glacier, an age or two passing while all that slow, awful pressure ground itself down, like the singing of a knife being drawn along a whetstone of unimaginable length.
"What does your name mean?" she said.
"What, Tim? Timothy? Timotheos? It means"—I somehow knew to let a significant pause hang in the air—"It means, 'God's honor.'"
"No, the band name."
"Oh . . . It's just something you come up with when you're fifteen, you know? Something that sounds cool."
"I thought it was, like, the name of a missile. Something subversive. Antiwar."
The only thought I could form: Not one in a million—maybe one in ten million—men would ever find themselves in the position I was in, there underneath that young actress. I'd done it. I'd made the peak. And now I was looking out across all humanity, from such a height that the vast populations spread out around me were faceless, featureless, their heads bobbing and waving in the great winds of time like tassels of corn, ready for the reaping hand. And I thought: What does it matter who remembers us when we die? Who cares what songs we try to play? I still had my shoes on, but I thought, What has happened to my feet?
On the bus, Jayson came hitching his snowboarding-maimed leg down the aisle. I had a wet towel over my face, trying to shut out the world. I'd used up a month's worth of serotonin in one night. Over the next week, we were heading back to the heartland, the desolation of Oklahoma City, Topeka, Des Moines. . . . Chicago was in sight, but it seemed impossible I'd ever get back.
"Have fun last night?" Jayson said, sitting down next to me. This new familiarity pretty well stunned me. Then again, we'd been playing in a band together for the last two and a half months. "Everyone says she loves drummers. She collects them I guess." He leaned over, took an ice pack from the minifridge, wrapped it in a towel.
"So what's wrong with you?" I said. Maybe I didn't really know their tastes after all. Maybe he and Justin were having the real parties back in their room.
"Shit, I'm cool. Just this fucking headache." Now I really was shocked. The twins hardly ever swore. "We're playing KC on Friday night."
"Oh, right, hometown show. Getting psyched?"
"Yeah," he said, wincing at the cold of the ice pack, "it'll rock." Then he looked at me, directly at me, and I felt myself falling into those gray Siberian eyes. "Hey, Tim, how'd you get started in music? Or, I mean, why?"
"Why did I start playing music?" Jesus, it seemed I'd been doing it all my life. "I guess it was just something I was good at. Probably the only thing. I liked performing, wanted to be noticed. Maybe it's coming from a small town. And music seemed really pure. Like all you had to do was learn the song, get it perfect, get it all under your hands, and then you were absolutely free."
Jayson nodded, taking this in. "I think I wanted to get through to people," he said. "You know? Really reach them."
"Oh, sure. That too. Spooky," I said. "That's pretty much what Justin told me, as well." At the sound of his name, his brother came back and joined us. I lost track of who was who. "Do you both get headaches at the same time?" I knew those kinds of questions annoyed them but couldn't help myself. "How does that work anyway?"
"We're not telepathic," one of them said, and they both rolled their eyes.
"But that's how it is with you guys," I insisted. "I mean, spooky, right? Okay, tell me, what am I thinking right now?"
"We can't read your mind."
"Ah ha, so you admit it! You can read each other's thoughts. Okay, both of you think of a number."
"3!" Jayson said. "69!" Justin answered, gnawing happily on his keychain fob.
"What's your brother's favorite color?"
"Pink!" they both called out at the same time. I looked over at Paul, who was leaning over the back of the seat in front of him, smiling and shaking his head at all this nonsense. One of the girlfriends came back, a sweet, very pretty girl studying business at Northwestern who seemed to be, of all things, a true fan of the music. She put her arm around Jayson.
"How do you tell them apart?" I said to her. "Try not to get mixed up!"
"Well," she said, "Jayson is the more sensitive, intellectual type. Justin is brooding and intense." We all laughed. She was quoting a profile that had just run in Seventeen. I'd been wanting to mock it for days and felt a little deflated that someone had beaten me to it.
"But seriously, guys," Justin said, addressing Paul and me, "we just wanted to thank you for making this such a great tour. Our first tour. We couldn't have asked for a steadier rhythm section. You guys have been rock solid. A real pleasure to work with."
Paul gave them a manful nod of recognition. He'd heard this sort of speech before, no doubt. But I couldn't help feeling moved. If the bus burst into flames right then, at least I'd made ten- to fifteen-thousand ticket-holders happy every night for the last three months.
You'd have thought nothing ever happened in Kansas until VD3 came sailing back home. There were spots for the local news. Some old guy with a mustache, a shellacked hairdo, and a buffalo-shaped belt buckle put a microphone in front of me and asked, "Where do you get your inspiration?" I tried to be sincere about it: "My bandmates are great—fine musicians. And the songs, well, they're expertly written."
When I got to the green room, there was a middle-aged couple talking with Justin and Jayson, a large, bearded man in a corduroy sport coat and a broad-shouldered woman wrapped in a peacock shawl: Mom and Dad with their vampire-mime twins, in a quiet moment before the big show. Justin and Jayson called me over. I shook hands, and Dad said, "Now, you're making sure my boys stay out of trouble, aren't you?" And I was about to say, "I wouldn't worry about them, they're pros," when another large, sweaty palm was being thrust in front of me and someone was saying, "Tim, what's up, man? Hey, I saw some video of you guys playing in Denver. Awesome. You're really killing it up there!"
I was already reaching for the Sharpie in my pocket when I realized it was Thomas, the shaggy dog I'd been called in to put down eight months ago. "For fuck's sake, it's been a while, bro!" I even hugged him, so carried away was I by a quicksilver spirit of generosity and reconciliation. "How you been keeping, man?"
He nodded his head abidingly. "Not bad, not bad." He wasn't as tall or as oafish as I remembered. He'd lost some weight. There were dark circles under his eyes.
"Is Marty here too?"
"He couldn't make it tonight."
Brave kid, coming here by himself, coming to wish his former bandmates good luck. Or maybe he just couldn't keep himself away, he had to get one glimpse. I could see him, trying his hardest not to look around the room, trying not to see the spread of gourmet food, the champagne, the nineteen-thousand-dollar Les Paul Custom thrown casually on the couch. From the corridor outside, we could already hear the laughter of the twenty or so girls who'd been given backstage passes.
"You gonna catch the show?" I asked him.
"Oh, yeah. Justin and Jayson hooked me up. Front row center." He smiled; his eyes were bright, fixed on me. Christ, the stoicism of the Plains! I thought of frontier settlers slugging it out through droughts, famines, and killing winters, all for some stony parcel of land. They were used to sacrificing themselves out here. They were used to dying quiet.
The parents had gone off somewhere. Justin and Jayson had moved across the room and were talking with the tour manager. They kept looking over at us nervously. Thomas kept glancing at them. A gulf had opened up, and I could feel the three of them silently straining to reach each other. But there seemed no way now to cross over. Thomas had been fobbed off on me for a little shoptalk, drummer to drummer.
"Cool, man, cool," I said. "So, you been playing? Working on any new projects?"
"Me and Marty have been jamming on some new stuff. It's hard to describe. There are all kinds of elements. Some blues elements, some funk, some rock."
"Sick. Sounds eclectic."
"Yeah, we're drawing on a lot of different influences. I'm doing some singing."
"Exactly. But way different." He gave me a pained, apologetic smile. "We were gonna start playing out, but Marty, he's not doing so good. He moved back in with his mom. It's sort of like, since everything happened . . . "
At that point, the tour manager let the girls outside in the corridor into the room, and suddenly we were drowned out by excited laughter. Now Thomas couldn't keep his eyes from roaming. I watched him taking stock of it all, his face twitching as he looked at the girls. This would be the closest he'd get. Seeing it now, feeling that vicarious rush before the show, it would wither up the rest of his life. Whenever people saw his dusty drum kit stacked up in the basement or garage and asked, Do you still play? he'd have to say, Not in years. He'd have to laugh at himself, his adolescent fantasies, striking poses in the mirror.
"I'd better eat something and start warming up. The catering is pretty awful, way too rich," I added, as if my professional gripes were any consolation to him.
"Right on, man," Thomas said. "Warming up is totally key, right?"
To my dismay, he stayed backstage, talking to the roadies, trying to engage a few nervous-looking girls in conversation as their eyes darted around him, looking for an exit. He caught me again just as I was going onstage.
"Hey, Tim, maybe if I'm ever back in Chicago, I can take a lesson from you."
"You got it." I slapped him on the shoulder. "Anytime, brother."
I counted off the first song. Paul's bass kicked in like a concussion round lobbed over the horizon. Justin and Jayson seemed skittish, but they played with a ferociousness I hadn't seen before. The tempos started to creep up. We were all a few beats ahead of the backing track, and it sounded like a mess. Paul looked over at me, and we tried to lock in. For "Mission Akomplished" and "Hooded Justice," he and I tried to split the difference between what the twins were playing and the recorded track, tried to drag them back into time. I had the click track bing-bonging in my ear the whole time and was doing my best to ignore it. Then one of the guys in the crew ran out between songs and told me they were cutting the sound reinforcement altogether.
From the corner of my eye, I could see Thomas standing in the wings, watching.
"Jesus, all right," I said. "Shit. Let's play some music then." And then I counted off "Krazy Girrrl," and we slammed into the opening chords.
Off the chain. That's what the twins always said. But this really was off the chain, snarling and lunging like some wild beast untethered. After a couple songs, I found myself singing along. They were pop songs, after all. Big and dumb. They even had a sting to them, like sugar hitting a nerve under your gums. We were playing those songs the way they must have sounded when VD3 first wrote them, when they were just four surly, pent-up kids down in the basement, playing for the hell of it, any dreams of stardom so remote and idealized they were just the gauzy prelude to turkey loaf and the first fading of youth.
It started to happen: all thought and conscious effort dropped away. True independence. My two feet operating separately from my two hands, each limb its own perfect machine. I didn't think verse, chorus, fill, bridge, stop-time, fill. I just played. After three more songs, I could feel myself rising. It was real this time, not some chemical. I glanced over at Thomas again. I closed my eyes and fought as hard as I could. It was almost impossible to come back down.
We hit the last chords of "Vengeance." The crowd roared up like a typhoon. Justin was already starting the song with his stuttering rhythm part. I shouted over to the wings, held up my sticks, waved to Thomas to come over to the drums. Come on, get out here. He stood there looking confused, but then a thought dawned on him—this must be part of the act, a surprise reunion for the hometown crowd.
I beckoned to him again, but he just stood there, smiling at me helplessly, too bashful or too goddamn sensible to go out there and hit some drums. The management had been right. You couldn't have gotten him and Marty up in front of twenty thousand people in the first place.
I missed my entrance. The twins turned to the drum riser, a questioning look mirrored on their faces. I put my in-ear monitors back in and picked up the beat in the middle of the verse.
No one seemed to notice the fuck-up. They'd faded the sound reinforcement back in. I played the rest of the song lined up with it perfectly, note for note. We all did. We played perfectly. The fans were not disappointed.