Let It All Burn – an excerpt from The Approximate Distance To Limbo

I Will Never Forget
Randy turned the key in the lock and entered the apartment quietly, like he was entering a crypt. Sacred ground. Please Do Not Disturb.

The sun was streaming through the bay windows as he entered, and everything was where it had been the last time he was here, so many months ago. He’d almost expected to see that the place had been ripped off or something. And what was he doing that was so different? Well, for one thing, he wasn’t really stealing; he was here to deface a Van Gogh. Or more accurately, perhaps, he was here to ruin his best friend’s finest unfinished work. That’s how it felt. But it had been eating at him for months and months. The album wasn’t finished, and writing new songs to replace them with had tasted like bitter ashes.

He and Drake had written enough songs for two albums, and they were pretty good. Rich had reawakened their ability to jam. Reg had offered to come back and help, but he’d been so busy that Randy and Drake had done most of the work themselves, with Reg dropping in now and then to patch up any parts that Randy hadn’t really gotten down pat. Drake was just happy to have his old friends back making music with him, but Randy was already considering the unthinkable; hiring a guitarist to take over while he got to grips with the bass parts.

He suspected it would be better if he stuck with guitar, but he was starting to discover that, with Distance music, the pulse was controlled by the bass, and that needed to be shepherded by the songwriter. Rich had figured that out a long time ago, he suspected, which was probably why he’d switched from keys to bass when Reg left the first time. It wasn’t that Rich had seen himself as another Geddy Lee, as Randy had quietly suspected. It was just a determination to get that internal clock to beat a little faster and brighter. Drake and Reg had always been a sort of tour de force of sound, with him and Rich sort of sprinkling frosting sugar over the top. He and Rich had written most of the melodies, but underneath it all was Reg pushing and pulling and locking Drake to the wheel.

Perhaps that was the real reason Reg had left the way he had. Maybe he didn’t enjoy the responsibility of being the man at the tiller. Maybe being the quietest member of the band had been the role he’d sought, and he’d had trouble accepting that, as The Distance found its feet, it relied on him to blaze ahead and write parts that were every bit as musical and powerful as Randy and Rich’s parts. Maybe it had worried him too much. Or maybe it really was just a God thing. It was hard to tell. But Randy could see the importance of the role now, and was determined to come to grips with it, even if it meant hanging up his guitar.

Of course, knowing Rich, he’d probably have just bought a bigger guitar that had a bass neck or one of those stick bass things with the huge fretboards, just so he could play both parts. Rich was always a bit of a control freak. Maybe that was why he’d cracked up. Randy hoped he wasn’t next.

The equipment was a little dusty, so he went to the kitchen to see if Rich had kept any cleaning implements, and found one of those Swiffer Duster things, and set about cleaning down the guitars and multi-track. The keyboard needed a bit of love, too. Randy supposed he’d have to start writing keyboard parts too. Yup, definitely going to crack up. He wondered if he could call ahead to reserve a room next to Rich’s. He didn’t suppose the hospital would let them share a room.

Heh. Him and Rich, finally living together. Not quite as romantic as it ought to be. He wondered if Rich ever thought about him. He wondered how Rich was doing, or if he was so far gone, he couldn’t really remember any of them clearly. Randy remembered the mother of a friend of his from Woodstock, who had gone a little crazy and started accusing everyone of taking things from her. She’d been all paranoid and delirious for months before anyone figured out what was wrong, and had fought like a wild cat when they’d had her committed.

Not Rich, though. He’d just called Randy one morning and asked to be driven to the hospital, like it was the only thing left to do. The album unfinished. His agent had complained that Rich’s novel still needed to be revised, but Randy had no idea how to do any of that. He’d gone through Rich’s list of writer friends and asked them if they would take on the job of revising A.D. Infinitum, the name Rich had settled on when he had discovered some author had already used the title he’d been using. Turns out that guy had been a bit mad, too, and had ended up killing himself. But not before writing Infinite Jest, so Rich was out of luck.

Maybe it was that title. Rich had told him it was a line from Hamlet, the Shakespeare play with the guy who goes around talking to himself and shouting at everyone else. Randy had promised Rich they’d sit and watch the movie together some day, but when Rich had received his copy of the movie, it was something like four hours long, and Randy had been in the middle of an ugly divorce from Jamie. He hadn’t had enough time to himself to work on music, let alone spend four hours watching a movie he wouldn’t understand because of Shakespearean English, and anyway, Jamie had suspected he was in love with Rich, and it would have been just one more thing to argue about. Ah, those were the days. He wouldn’t trade them for a rectal exam. Well, maybe he would.

Fire It Up
Randy was getting a bit maudlin. He put the duster down and walked over to the guitar rack. Rich had two six-string acoustics (the Epiphone was brighter-sounding than the Yamaha; both were electric acoustic), Randy’s 12-string Washburn acoustic and his mandolin, a cheap knock-off Strat, and two basses; Reg’s old Yamaha BB300, and Rich’s baby, the Jay Turser white violin bass, which he’d said was light enough to sing with. Randy unhooked it from the rack and slung it over his shoulder. He had to adjust the fucking strap, because Rich always kept everything strapped fucking high on his chest like fucking Robert Fripp from fucking King fucking Crimson, CHRIST how the hell did he play like that!? Randy liked guitars slung higher than most guitarists, but not like Rich. That guy would probably have strung the bass around his throat if he could have gotten the mic close enough to his mouth. Asshole.

Wiping a tear away, he finished adjusting the strap on the bass, and started running through some of the bass patterns Reg showed him. Reg’s lines were heavy and solid. Reg had rarely overplayed his parts, because he had such a great natural tone; he’d just wrap his hands around the fretboard and could hold chords and basic runs that sounded so clean and strong, he rarely needed to retake a part. Steadiest bass player Randy had ever known.

By comparison, Rich’s playing had been more like one of those spiders who had been dosed with pot smoke, trying to make a web and getting it all wrong, but it still sounded like something funky and cool, so he got away with it, most times. Rich had to retake his bass parts a lot, though. Randy had listened to the various takes, and noted that it took Rich several takes before he’d settle on one bass part; listening to the previous takes was like watching the evolution of mankind from a fish; by the time he was done, you couldn’t believe it was the same song.

Randy’s bass playing was always pretty straight and clean, unlike Rich’s, which was usually pretty sloppy by everyone’s account. Randy tried to find that magic spot between Reg’s ice-cold grooves coupled with Rich’s fiery hooks. What he wound up with often felt like slush. He could play the parts cleaner than Rich, but they lacked something, and he couldn’t get Reg’s monster tone to compensate.

Today, he was going to find his own sound, if it killed him. He turned on the multi-track, slipped the headphones on, and plugged the violin bass into the old Zoom effects unit. He started punching buttons and plucking gamely at the strings, searching for a sound that wasn’t like either of them. It took some time, but he eventually heard something in a sound that had a bit of flange, a fair bit of chorus, and a lot of compression. The effect was called Fat Horsie.

He started tweaking it until it sounded right to him, scooping out the mids and boosting the treble and bass until it had the right amount of slap and bottom end. He looked at the time; only took him two fucking hours. He saved the sound, and then started searching for a track to try it out on. He settled on an old Distance track Rich had been remixing for a bonus disc to go with the concept album he’d been planning. Randy didn’t feel ready to take on any of Rich’s unfinished pieces yet, but perhaps if he played along to some of Reg’s old tracks, he might get up the nerve.

Reg’s bass line on No Matter What was deceptively tricky; it followed all the changes pretty closely, but Reg had a knack for throwing in the odd blue note that didn’t sound right until he changed it, and then it made sense. Controlled Dissonance, Rich used to it. Randy just thought it was freaky how Reg played it wrong and it still sounded right. It was a song Randy had started writing using a lyric penned by Drake, and then Rich had written some parts for it and it turned into this mini-prog piece that they’d all had to struggle with a bit to get down, but it had really rocked. Listening to it now, in the cleaned up form Rich had gotten it to, it sounded pretty fantastic, but it was lacking a little something. Perfect track for Randy to try to spruce up.

He rehearsed the part a few times, until he was pretty happy with the line, and then jabbed at a few buttons until everything lit up properly. Randy had his own multi-track at home these days, but Rich’s had more bells and whistles. The drum machine sounded a little synthetic, but Rich had showed him that the sound could be beefed up in the mixing stage on the computer, so that it sounded like a real drum kit, or close enough that only a professional would know the difference. He supposed he’d have to figure that trick out soon, too. First things first, though.

I Get Up, I Get Down
Randy started recording, maneuvering his way through the bass parts as best he could, but he started to flounder and had to stop. Something wasn’t right. He was playing the part cleanly enough. The effect fit with the rest of the track. But something was missing. Heh. Rich was always talking like that. It probably sounded just fine, then. He rewound the track, turned on the stereo, switched it to auxiliary, and listened to it through Rich’s speakers. He really needed to upgrade those speakers. He sat down on Rich’s sofa and listened carefully, eyes closed. There were some notes that needed to be tweaked. The bass line wasn’t as easy as playing one riff per chord progression. Reg had changed things up on alternating lines, and of course made it sound easy.

Reg had always seemed to him to be such a simple guy, but he had a way of making things just complicated enough to keep himself interested, which turned out to be just a little trickier than it sounded, and a real pain when you actually landed on one of Reg’s grooves. You’d be grooving along, getting deep in the pocket, and suddenly he’d throw you a perfectly-formed wrench and yank you right out of your groove and into his. Randy started to think about how Rich played, and how unhinged he always sounded, but how it worked in a different way than Reg’s steady, self-assured playing style. There was something they had in common, but Randy had trouble putting his finger on it. They both had very individual styles that came through in their playing, and they both made Drake play in certain ways, like Drake was just there to add volume to their rhythms. That seemed unfair, because Drake was a decent drummer when he kept in practice. He just needed something to lock into, and kept getting lumbered with bassists who lead the rhythm by sheer force. Randy wondered which way he would go; would he let Drake lead, or would he take charge, the way Reg or Rich did?

The track ended, and Randy realized he’d kind of flaked out at the end, not really paying attention to his playing, thinking too much about how Rich would do it. He supposed he was listening to how Rich would do it, since he was pretty sure Reg hadn’t played on this particular recording; this had been done after Reg had left again. Funny how Rich made it sound almost like Reg’s playing. Randy wondered what went through Rich’s head when he tried playing like Reg. How did he mask his own style and sound like Reg, when his own style was nothing like that?

Randy also wondered if that was what he was supposed to be doing with the track, or if he was free to put his own spin on it. Was that what he was trying to do? Make it his own? Or was he supposed to just imitate Reg, the way Rich had? Somehow, that didn’t seem right. He wondered why Rich had even bothered, when it occurred to him: because he and Drake had made Rich play it like Reg.

Of course they had. They’d both been trying to get Reg to rejoin when Rich first offered to take over on bass, back when they had first been talking about restarting the band. Neither of them had had much faith in Rich’s playing up to that point. So, when Rich took over the job, he’d made a conscious decision not to rewrite Reg’s parts, and to try to approximate Reg’s sound where possible.

Now that it was just him and Drake, and Drake had learned to play against both sounds… hell, all three if you counted Rich playing almost like Reg… he supposed Drake could handle him doing things his own way. He resolved that he would consciously change the parts to suit his style. He figured Reg would want it that way, because he never played anything the way Rich wrote it for him either.

Then he thought, what if Reg did come back? Then everything he wrote would get rewritten by Reg. He supposed that was poetic justice or something like that. Ironic wasn’t just a word in an Alanis Morrisette tune, after all.

He was getting distracted. He needed to loosen up and stop worrying. He wondered if Rich had any booze left in the apartment.

Getting up, he padded around to the bar, slid open the cupboard, and lo and behold, a bottle of scotch was all he found. Still more than half a bottle full. Randy grabbed a tumbler and poured himself a bit, sniffed it, curled his lip fiercely, and drank it anyway. Fuck, how did Rich drink this stuff!? He read the label: Talisker. He’d remember that name… whenever he thought too fondly of his first ex-wife.

Pouring himself another, he returned to the multi-track and got ready to play the track over again when a knock came at the door.

Entre Henri
Randy wondered if he should be bothering to answer the door, but then it occurred to him that someone may have heard the sound coming from the stereo, and might be a little curious as to whether Rich was back yet or not. He crossed the room and checked the spyhole. It was Rich’s landlady.

“I can see you’re in there, honey. Open up, we have to talk,” she said through the door.

Randy opened the door and smiled weakly. “Hello, Ms. Gilbert.”

“Oh, it’s not Richard. I think I remember you from moving day. Does this mean Richard’s moving out?”

“No, his agent tells me his rent is covered for a while longer while he finishes getting rest at the hospital. I’m just taking care of a little work that he hadn’t finished before… well, before he checked in.”

“Oh, are you a writer, too?” she asked conversationally.

“No, Ma’am. I’m Rich’s guitarist. We’re in a band called The Distance. Rich was working on the demos for the next album when he got sick, and had to leave it unfinished. Drake and I are planning on taking the demos into the studio soon, so I figured I’d come over and see what parts still needed to be written, and to see if I could fill in the gaps here myself. It’s cheaper to demo everything at home, rather than jam it in a rented studio, you see?”

“Yes, I’ve dealt with a few musicians in my time. Mind if I come in and have a look around?”

“Sure, I don’t think Rich would mind. He had nothing but nice things to say about you.”

“That’s sweet of you, dear. The problem is, I haven’t heard from Richard or his agent or anyone else for months. I keep thinking I should be putting this place back up on the market, but the money orders keep coming in on time, so I can’t rightly complain. It IS time for Richard to sign the new lease, however. Do you think he’ll be up to that, or will it have to be handled by someone with power of attorney?”

Randy thought a moment. “I think I’ll have to make some phone calls to see what can be arranged. Not sure what state Rich is in at the moment, but if he’s not able to sign, I’m sure there’s somebody who he left in place who can.”

“Thanks, darling. I have to say, I don’t mind waiting for the boy to get well and come home. He’s been missed something awful around here. The residents are always asking after him, as if I know anything. It’s been months, and you’d think he was famous or something.”

“Well, he sort of is,” Randy replied, but Henri interrupted him.

“I know that, sweetie. I was just teasing you. Of course I know who you boys are. I made sure to get a copy of The Bridge as soon as it came out. Lovely album. Is the new album going to be a sequel?”

“Actually, Rich came up with a whole new story for this album, but I’m pretty sure he hasn’t finished with Stewart. He’ll probably have a whole new album in his head by the time he gets out. Then we’ll have to learn how to play it, which is always loads of fun.”

“Keeps you on your toes, does he?”

“Oh yes. He plays too many instruments, and then expects us to learn how to play all the parts on stage, without stopping. Come to think of it, I’m not sure why we didn’t have him committed ourselves.”

“You would do that to your friend?”

“No, not really,” he admitted. “Drake would probably just brain Rich with a drumstick to get him to slow down.”

“With friends like you two, it’s no wonder he checked into a clinic. Poor boy. I should make him some soup.”

“You cook?” He teased.

“Cheek!” she huffed. “I’ll have you know I’m an excellent cook, amongst other domestic achievements. You haven’t lived until you’ve had my blueberry waffles.”

“I’ll bet. I suppose I’ll have to get an invitation to breakfast some time.”

“Try getting invited to dinner first, and we’ll see how you do,” she grinned, and headed for the door. “Be sure to turn off the lights before you leave.”

“Absolutely.”

As he watched her famous backside vanish around the closing door, he concluded that he had no idea what Rich saw in her. None whatsoever.

Back To Front
Randy walked back to the multi-track, but noticed he was feeling a tiny bit woozy. Probably the scotch catching up to him. He wondered if there was anything to eat in the cupboards. Slipping out to the kitchen, he started pulling open cupboard doors until he spied the cans of soup he knew would be there. On a hunch, he opened the freezer and discovered several boxes of frozen Indian food, and one portion of frozen lasagna. He wondered if it had been in there all this time, and figured he would be doing Rich a favour if he heated it up and ate it for him.

This he proceeded to do, after cleaning the microwave from the slight explosion of sauce and beef, after he’d cooked the lasagna from frozen and a bit too long afterwards. When it had cooled and his mouth had stopped hurting from the slight searing it received from the first mouthful, he finished the rest, cleaned the plate and container, and returned to work.

Randy donned the earphones once more, reset the track, and proceeded to run through after run through, until the track was as polished as he could get it. His fingers were sore, his hand cramping, but he got a take he could live with. Looking at the clock, he discovered it had taken him another hour and a half. Rich would be proud. He tried to decide if he was going to leave it at that or move on to the keyboard part, which Rich had sketched in with a digital piano sound he had used for at least half of the tracks on the last two albums. Randy was thinking it might sound cooler with a Fender Rhodes sound, and was eager to give it a try.

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers:

%d bloggers like this: