Part one of a story titled “That Other Guy”

Here’s a story I wrote – or at least the first section.  I’ll post the other sections in the course of the next week.

*****

            Reunions are at the heart of a lot of great stories.  Odysseus returns to Penelope after 20 long years at sea, fighting off the tempting sirens and the vengeful Poseidon.  Ebenezer Scrooge does an about face and rejoins the human race, stopping in at his nephew Fred’s house after a long night of eye-opening dreams.  Huck Finn meets up with Jim near the end of the novel to save his friend from the injustice of slavery, after a long circuitous route involving faux kings, an unexplained feud, and more than a couple of fake names.  This is not a reunion story, though.  Not really.

            When we were in high school, it was all about hardcore punk.  Or at least that’s the way people in our circle talked.  Picture it: 1982, Fairfax, Virginia, an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., and kids all over are starting up bands and playing shows in their friends’ basements (and, when things are really going well, the occasional coffeehouse or club).  In some respects, our group was no different from the others.

            Gerry Rittle, the bass player, instigated it all as far back as middle school – we all went to Poe – by singing “Pretty Vacant,” at the top of his lungs in the cafeteria, perched atop the table where we’d been eating our lunch just moments before.

            Xavier Solz, or X, the lead guitarist, was a British music aficionado, having lived there for most of grade school and stocked up on plenty of records along the way.  His hair was a dark black, well before the Goth scene even became a scene stateside.

            Harrison Winfield, our drummer, had traveled the world with his Navy commander dad and claimed major league baseball player Dave Winfield as his uncle.  Harrison had weird gaps in his musical knowledge, due I suppose to his travels as a kid

            That leaves me: Danny Kramer, rhythm guitar and vocals, lifelong resident of the commonwealth of Virginia.

            Now I mentioned that we weren’t that different from the other punk rock groups in the Fairfax scene.  Two guitars, bass, and drums for one, but our appearance gave us away, too: close-cropped hair; white t-shirts and jeans; scruffy sneakers or black boots.  I suppose our music sounded similar to other groups’ in the scene, too, like Random Y, Metric System, The Dangers, or Paula Paula (whose lead singer Leah Andrews was reason enough for me to go to see their shows).  We mixed up our set like they did, scattering cover tunes among our originals.  It wasn’t a rule or anything that you had to do covers, I don’t think, but some groups did them because they figured it was easier to learn someone else’s song than write your own.  Others just really dug a particular tune and wanted to play it.  For us, covers were a constant bone of contention.

            “Why not ‘(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone’?” Gerry asked one afternoon, a few days before our first basement gig.

            “Why not?” X responded, incredulous.  “How about ‘cause everyone does it, maybe?  Like Minor Threat, for one.”  He paused.  “Besides, it’s a Monkees’ tune.”  X always was a bit snobbish about any Brit imitators.

            The mention of the DC hardcore band Minor Threat, already on their way to legendary status, shut Gerry up for a moment, though for complicated reasons.  See, our little Fairfax scene often felt like it was competing with the burgeoning DC scene.  We probably should have known that we had no chance of measuring up with Minor Threat, Bad Brains, or any number of other groups coming out of the nation’s capitol, but merely mentioning one of them by name raised the question: Better to imitate them or do the opposite?  We ended up being confused a lot.

            But back to the covers conversation.

            Harrison, who was stretched out on the floor of X’s basement floor, crossed his arms and looked up at the ceiling as if song titles might magically show up there.  His perspective was unique in more ways than one – living overseas meant he had these odd gaps of knowledge about the bands and songs that the rest of us took for granted, from the popular radio-friendly ones to the less-heralded underground groups.  “How about that song by that band – damn it, what’s their name?  They’re named after a city?”

            “Chicago?” I asked, pretty sure I was dead wrong.

            “No.”

            “Boston?” X offered, looking equally convinced as I had been a moment before.

            “Yeah, yeah,” Harrison said excitedly, tapping out a beat with his hand, then launching into the vocal with a bit of a falsetto: “ ‘More than a feelin’ ”  X, Gerry, and I watched in various stages of amazement and amusement.

            “You’ve got to be kidding,” Gerry said, kicking his bass guitar case pointlessly.

            “What?  It’s a good song,” Harrison protested, now slapping more insistently on the concrete floor.  He looked at me and X, hoping for a different response.  X stared at his feet, but his face gave me the impression that he was working out some complicated math problem without the benefit of pencil and paper.  Before I could say a word, he’d picked up his guitar, turned up the volume on his amp, and played a slightly revved up version of the riff to that Boston song that was still getting requested on Top 40 radio.  He looked over at me finally, still playing, shouting, “Think you can sing it?”

            That moment was typical for us.  At our first show and all the ones that followed we invariably covered songs that struck one of us as interesting or strange – that was the only real criteria, looking back.  Gerry lost out a lot here, because he would recommend Ramones’ songs half the time.

            “ ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’?  Why?” X would ask.

            “ ‘Cause it’s punk rock and it’s a great song – isn’t that obvious?”

            “Yeah, but what are we gonna do with that song?”  Harrison asked, genuinely curious.  But Gerry couldn’t respond; most of the time it seemed like all he wanted to do was offer a Xerox copy of the CBGB’s alums’ classic tunes.  Still, though we vetoed nearly every one of his suggestions, somehow it was Gerry who drove the band.  Without his belting out The Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” in his best punk rock snarl, standing atop the cafeteria table, I think we probably would’ve hung out on occasion, maybe even gone to a few of those basement shows, but that’s about it.  Harrison would’ve played drums in the marching band and jazz ensemble – which he did anyway – and X and I probably would’ve just noodled around on our guitars in front of our ever-captive mirrors.

            It did take us a couple years into high school until most of us had gotten out of a few very lame groups, though.  Our senior year came along, Gerry broke down and bought an imitation Fender bass at a garage sale for $19, and finally we could call ourselves a band.  Before we knew it, we started playing basements all over Fairfax.  Most places started their shows a little after nine and tried to have at least five or six bands on the bill.  We would’ve played all night if we could’ve, but we generally wrapped things up by 1 a.m., because if we didn’t, we risked cops coming and shutting us down, maybe arresting some people, too, if they weren’t careful with the beer and the pills that were becoming more and more common on our scene.

            This arrangement meant having a 40 minute set ready to go.  Early on, we played almost exclusively covers – maybe that was another reason bands played them – some kind of sentimental attachment to the early days? – and then gradually X and I started writing original songs.

            Meanwhile, our cover list became steadily more schizophrenic.  We’d follow “More Than a Feeling” with James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and then segue into The Box Tops’ “The Letter.”  Somehow it worked: we kept getting invited to play again, and each time we played we got paid a little more.  (Let’s not kid ourselves, though: the first show we played for nothing, and by the time we called it quits, I think we were maybe getting $200, split four ways.)

            I probably knew it then, but I certainly know now that one reason we kept getting called back was Harrison.  Damn could that guy play.  I mean professional level when he was 16 or 17.  Flat out the best drummer I’ve ever seen, he made us sound good when my voice was cracking (not uncommon) or Gerry’s bass was out of tune (ditto).  Then there was X, who took to wearing these jet black sunglasses to offset his pale white skin and make himself look even more British than usual.  (Plus, his guitar-playing kept improving, something a lot of people didn’t notice but should have.)  Gerry, snubbed as he often was, deserves his share of the credit, though his contribution was less musical and more theatrical.  As a bassist, he was mildly competent, but his Sid Vicious act always got people going – partly because he often appeared to bait audiences with his sneers and mean-spirited comments, and partly because a lot of people assumed he was just joking around with them.  It was never fully clear which was true, and I think that was just how Gerry liked it.  His sense of presentation carried us some nights, and also tipped the scales when it came to choosing a band name.

            “I hate this,” X said after an hour of mind-numbing possibilities: The Kranx, School Daze, Jars of Piss, and the worst of the lot, Unfair Facts.

            “Well, we need something,” I added lamely.  I had suggested half of the names and felt defeated and defensive.  I kept rubbing my quarter-inch thick red hair, still itchy from a spotty shave job I did myself the night before

            “The Harrison Four,” Harrison suggested, again, and snorted.  He was sitting behind his drum kit and he had just shaved his head bald again, which might have looked imposing on anyone else, but this large black teenager was grinning like a little kid.

            “Nice, Harrison,” X said, and groaned.

            Gerry began pacing, making me nervous.

            “What?” I asked, still edgy.

            “What do people know us for?” he asked.

            “Huh?”

            “What do people remember about us?”

            We paused.  I was afraid he was going to treat us to another one of his piss-offs about our choices of cover songs, but no.  He just waited for us to respond.  Harrison offered his take.  “My sweet rhythms?”

            “Good God,” X said, walking towards the door and pantomiming several headbangs in quick succession.

            “Well, he asked.”
            “We’re kind of . . . different,” I said vaguely, not really sure what I even meant.

            “Uh huh,” Gerry said, apparently agreeing and getting excited.  He looked around at all of us.  “Remember last Saturday night at McCarthy’s place?”  We all nodded, recalling our most recent show.  “I heard one of the guitarists in The Dangers talking to somebody about us.”

            “So?” X asked, looking confused.

            “He kept calling us ‘those other guys’.”  Gerry smiled, more than a little maniacally.

            “So you’re saying . . .” I began.

            “Uh huh.”

            “ ‘Those Other Guys’?” Harrison said, tapping out a reggae beat on the snare and the floor tom.

            “Or maybe ‘That Other Guy’?” X offered.

            And so we had our name, courtesy of Gerry.  None of us ever bothered to check the truth of his story, either; that didn’t seem to matter. 

*******

            It’s been 25 years since That Other Guy – we agreed to leave off  ‘those’ since it just sounded weirder and therefore cooler to us – played its last show.  I’ve been teaching most of that time, high school English, but lost touch with the other guys.  I know that Harrison stuck with music, though: he plays with a ska group, The Taser Lites, which has had a few hits and a huge word-of-mouth following up and down the East coast.  The Grateful Dead of ska, some people call them.  He’s smart, too, though I’ve always known that: I read an article about how he not only plays drums for The Taser Lites but also works as the drum technician for the bands that play with them on their tours, guaranteeing that he’ll be doing just fine even if his own group is having an off year.  He was going to make his living in the music biz, no question about it.  I even tried to get tickets to see his group play one night in D.C., but they sold out too quickly for me.

            X – who had always been X, from middle school when he insisted, quietly and politely, that teachers refer to him as such – followed in his father’s footsteps, doing foreign service work  all over the world.  I lost track of him, too, though I know he spent time in Turkey, Lebanon, Qatar, and Germany.  Supposedly he came back to Fairfax every now and then – his parents stayed in the area, even remaining in the same house – but I either heard about him being in town after the fact, or was out of town myself when he was here.

            As for Gerry – well, damn if I know anything about him after that last show.

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Published in: on September 1, 2010 at 4:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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