Tribute by Sarah Bates

Rath shuffles across the bar’s parquet floor, dragging his drums. The cymbals. The foot pedals. The amps. A Grateful Dead t-shirt grips his chest—bony ridges high above a soft belly like a baby’s—spilling over black jeans. Thatched hair, dry like flakes of mica. A cigarette hangs from thick lips. Drugstore readers perch on his nose. He puts his fists into the small of his narrow back. Arches. Flexes his shoulders. Old, he thinks, too old for this. The odor of spoiled beer. Stale tobacco. Dusty folds of purple velvet pulled tight against the half-moon stage reassures him. The silver fleck of his drum set beckons.

He slams the door to his dressing room, yanks his duffle onto a chair and starts rummaging through. Psychedelic t-shirts fly into the air, studded leather belts tumble out.

“Ah!” he exclaims, pulling a tangle of black leather from the bottom. His jeans fall to the floor, as he kicks and spins around the room, his skinny ass covered in goose bumps.

“Ah, yes!” he yells, wriggling into supple calfskin pants, then turns to check his butt in the splintered mirror on the door. Across one pocket, the precious Bowie signature glimmers in silver ink. His hands tremble, as he palms a cache of Black beauties, gulps them, his mouth pulling at a brown bottle. The taste of flat beer in his throat twists his lips.

“Tonight is mine,” he whispers and feels a jolt of euphoria so sudden and unexpected, his breath catches in his throat.

“Five minutes,” a muffled voice declares behind the door.

Rath preens again. His reflected image wavers and shifts, as his practiced gestures flail, then, glasses torn from his face, he strides toward the stage. Hearing memories. Voices chanting. Hands beating—the metronome of promise. He knows the sound; his heart responds. Gel filters flash rainbows, as he steps behind the drums.

“Can I sit in?” a soft voice calls from the black depths of the room.

A pin spot gleams above his head, turns his knuckles white, his blue eyes milky. He cups a hand over his eyes, peers into the shadows, and sees the glow of the cigarette machine, the neon Michelob sign that blinks Open.

“No amateurs here,” he says. A chair scrapes. He feels a shift.

“I’m good.”

“Heard that before.”

“I’m different.” The voice is soft, musical.

He peers intently into the darkness. Ash from his cigarette drops on the toe of his boot.

“Whadda ya play?” Drops of sweat bead his lip.

“Strings,” the voice says, floating up to him.

“No strings.” Rath turns his back to the darkness, his bony elbows work, as he settles the drums, adjusts their stand. Taps a pedal.

Tat-tat-tat.

From the darkness, he hears a crescendo so sharp, so sweet, his mouth waters.

“That you?” he asks, turning back to the darkness. A wave of hunger rises.

“Yes.”

“What kinda strings?” he asks, feeling a desperate need to hear that swell of music again.

“Harp.”

He laughs, rough. Coughs. Wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

“No harp in rock.” Rath pulls drumsticks from his pocket, flicks the cymbals.

Ting.

The melody swirls from the darkness again, wrapping him—a perfect counterpoint to the sound of the fading cymbals.

“I’m good,” the voice repeats, insistent.

Why not? His wallet’s thin. The take from the set won’t buy gas for his truck.

“All right.” Rath hooks a thumb at the stage. He straightens his back, feels a rush of newness.

Beside his drums on the crescent of wood appears an apparition of such splendor, he stops to stare. A triangle balances on one delicate point, its body woven with golden strands. Poised to stroke its frame, a slender arm outstretches. Rath turns to see a girl, her fragile face uplifted. The muscles of his heart contract, and a surge of lightening flies through his veins, so powerful it arcs from his fingertips, flinging his arms in the air. He looks her way, nods, and with a dazzling flourish of wooden sticks, his hands crash to the snare drum.

Tat-a-tat, Tat-a-tat.

“For you, Charlie Watts!” he yells, ripping into Start Me Up. His head nods. Sees Watts’ alabaster skull, sharp eyes, lips pulled back in concentration.

Up. Down. Up. Down. Tick, tick. Three sticks to the snare. Two to the base.

Beside him, the harp casts notes so pure and bright, he smiles, eyes closed, and smells the audience stir in the darkness. Faces, vague like stones, illuminated by the footlights.

“For you, Baker!”  He slams into Toad, imagining Clapton and Cream and raggedy red hair, now white. Feels the tick-a-tick-a-tick drum solo roll from his hands, the stage and the beat, the beat, the beat, the beat, and the screams from the fans and the strings of the harp throb and sing and pulse then stop, and the darkness of the bar undulates toward him in waves of heat and cigarettes and booze.

From the fingers of the slender arm stretched across the golden expanse, the haunting strains of Pink Floyd begin. Rath’s face sags, his arms go slack.

“Ahh . . . Shine On You Crazy Diamond . . . .” he moans and slumps against his chair. He feels the leaden weight of his life. The bones in his neck chitter, as his chin drops. His sticks caress the cymbals gently, so softly they purr and hum, then break, a cascade of crystal, then crash and crash and crash.

“For you, Nick . . . ,” he whispers keeping time with the harp’s melodic coursing, its riffs, its true joyous notes, as it weaves through the music. As it ends, Rath’s heart thumps, and quiet descends.

“Old man, how ‘bout me? How ‘bout We Won’t Get Fooled Again?” a rasping voice calls from the dark. “You don’t forget The Who?”

“That you, Moon?” Rath asks, hand up over his eyes again, staring into the black past. A gelled red pin spot illuminates a hollow-eyed man, dead orbs peer beneath a shock of black hair. The face hovers, trembles in the abyss of audience.

Tat-a-tat.

“And me, you old fool! You don’ member, me an’ Booker T?” A spot light flickers blue on a black face, a mirage of angles.

Tat-a-tat. Tat-a-tat. Sticks beat out one bar. Time is Tight, then fade.

“Jackson. Them MGs, don’ sound the same without you,” Rath sighs. At that, the strings of the harp sigh, too. Soothing, like drops of honey.

Comes a snare, all rhythm, delicate, a riff, a rap, sticks on hide, dancing taps, evolving. It repeats, repeats.

“It’s the kid,” Al Jackson says.

“The young ‘en,” Keith Moon mutters.

Zeppelin,” says Rath. “Bonham, gone too young. Zeppelin . . . .” he whispers into the silence and feels the pulse of life lost. Nothing but drum beats, sticks from a darkened corner, escalating, rolling, staccato, thudding like his heartbeat. Like his heartbeat.

He rises to his feet, steps onto the apron of the stage, writhing to the beat, and flings his arms wide, as rainbows flash.

“You play too, Moon. Jackson? Bonham?” he says, “Me’n the harp don’t care. Play too!”

He eases onto his stool, closes his eyes, rests the drumsticks on the snare as Bonham’s tempo lifts his wrists. The wood is satin between his fingers. His hands move like butterflies. They blur, they whir, sticks tumble in the air. Touching here, dropping there, the cymbals shudder, the base taps. Boom. Then Moon jumps in, his beats in time, strong in rhyme. Then Jackson, heavy, deep and soulful, and the harp, its music pure, its golden sound weaves through the air. A glittering net that draws them close.

Rath breathes in the sound. Through his brain it flows, his foot stomps the floor, feels its wood beneath his soles. Hears the harp, the snare, the cymbals clash, and crash, smells the audience, their sweat. Drumsticks fly, heads toss, hair snakes into light, flinging diamonds. Pin spots, spotlights, follow spots flash, top hats shudder, as they open and close, spilling red, blue, amber glows. And the rat-a-tat-tat, the boom, and the crash, the chorus of the harp lifts him and Moon and Jackson and Bonham, as the follow spot grows wider, embraces their frenzy, the rush of tapping and thudding rhythm and strings and the murmur of the audience, then gives way to scoops of white blinding light and electricity, crackling off the cigarette machine, smoke flickering from the Michelob sign, and, with a mighty swoop of wind the doors bang open, and the harp’s sweet piercing sound gathers them up. And out. And away.

Outside, a yellowed handbill pulls loose from its stapled corner on the door and flutters into the air. On it, in awkward letters, crudely scratched, the public is invited to a Tribute.

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One thought on “Tribute by Sarah Bates

  1. ericamilesx

    “Tribute” was one of the most exciting descriptions of music I’ve ever read. It was like a translation of music into the written word. Totally mind-boggling and hypnotizing. I’m not even into the kind of music the writer described, but her story totally blew me away!

    Like

    Reply

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