The basement. That’s where it all happened. Where we came together. Before the gigs. Before the airplay. Before we hit the road.
You’d have laughed. I know I did. We were such a bunch of misfits, dragged down into that dank hellhole by one crazy idea. Dragged back here by … Well, fuck it. I mean, at first, it sounded like fun.
“We’re gonna be a band. The best band in the world.” That was Rot – Rob, still, in those days. Tuesday afternoon, some vocational class in our old school. Mandatory if you wanted to collect but a waste of time for anything else, and Kurt had been drumming on the desktop with his pencils, making the stiffs glare. I remembered him from around and had gone over, scattering the nobodies with a look and squeezing into that little kid desk to sit beside him. Rob had found us there when he came in, late as usual, dragging Karma over, both of them still bleary-eyed from the night before. “Kid here’s got the beat. And you’ve got a bass, right?”
Band? We didn’t even have a place to play. But it wasn’t like any of us had anything else going on, so when Kurt suggested his basement, we all said what the hell. Karma had a car – a cast-off from her ex – and she moved us all over that night, maybe the next. With the snow that winter, the corner was slow. My amp was too heavy to lug around much anyway, and Kurt’s drums were already in the building, up three flights but still. There was a lock on the front door that mostly worked, and the far side looked dry enough. Rob plugged in the first day and shorted something out. Old pipes, a leak, but the other plug worked. And so it began.
Band. What a joke. Only Karma had that voice. You know – the one that stops you cold? In those days, though, she was so shy she couldn’t sing in front of us. We’d all heard her, nights when she was high. That’s why she was there. We’d all seen her, out on the street, too, and figured she’d be game for anything. But singing? Guess we all have a weak spot. Guess I should know.
Her’s almost broke us. Ending us before it began, half a night dragging our shit around town for nothing. Tromping through the ice and the muck. It was Rot who figured it out. Told her to stand in the janitor’s closet, door open for light. He’d been poking around, looking for something to sell. Figured she’d want to get out of there, so full of junk – construction shit, repair shit – there was barely room to stand, even after we ripped the pipes out. Took a while though. She made herself comfortable, lounging on those old sacks of Quikrete like a queen. But we could hear her, even then.
We all had our part. Rot got a real guitar. Copper paid good. Me on my bass, the deep thrum-thrum that kept us steady. God knows, Kurt didn’t. A wild man on the set, he was all power and speed. Unreliable as hell, though, especially when he was high. Tempo going like his heartbeat – faster, faster, fast. Didn’t matter. He was a big guy. Loud, and we needed that. We each had a part to play.
Good times, bashing away, and with Kurt going nuts we kept cranking it up. My old amp heating up so hard the walls were steaming, and Rob windmilling like mad. We were onto something – an energy if not a tune – the beat so loud we couldn’t hear anything else. Didn’t hear the angry dude until he was right in front of us, hands on his hips and a face like he was going to fire us all.
“What the fuck? Didn’t you hear me?” The cold coming in behind him.
“No, man.” Kurt must have known him from the building. He sounded sort of sorry. “We were just practicing.”
“This isn’t a practice space.” He scowled like that was supposed to mean something. “Some of us need to sleep.”
“Sorry.” Kurt put his sticks down and the guy stormed off.
Just in time. My fists still bunched as Karma came out, giggling, eyes wide in the light. “Whoa, what an asshole.” She took in our faces. Mine. “Don’t worry guys. I had my knife.”
Girl talk. We weren’t worried, but we did stick to daytime after that. Most afternoons, when we didn’t have to clock in. Time passed, and we were getting pretty good.
“Hey, man, cut the artsy shit.” I spoke without thinking. Rot – Rob – playing rock star. “You’re ruining the thrust.”
“Thrust is what it’s about.” He lunged with his Strat, but Kurt was with me by then.
“No, he’s right,” he said. “Keep it stripped down. Basic. Real.”
A shrug. I’d won. “We going again?” Karma, calling from the closet.
Kurt grinned. “One-two-three-four!” Another day, another practice. All of us just looking for something to do.
“So, I talked to someone. Jimmy – from the Five Spot?” Karma made everything a question, so I nodded. I’d become the leader by then. I guess the bass always is. Setting the tempo. Keeping everyone in line without even throwing a punch.
“We’re ready.” I looked around. Kurt was Kurt. He didn’t respond, but Rob was into it. “Shit, yeah! Let’s do it!”
Two weeks later, we loaded our gear into Karma’s car. Two sets at the Five Spot. Then a party at the Locals’ loft, and someone had a van that we could use. By July, we were gigging all over. Rob had become Rot, and Kurt had shaved his head.
“It makes me look mean.”
Not that mean. “Play that song again.” Some bratty kid had pushed his way up. “The one that goes pow-pow-pow!”
July, and we had fans. People who showed up at our gigs without knowing us beforehand. I laid down the rules. Buy us beer and you could make a request. That worked out well for the clubs too. Plus, it made me laugh. All our songs were the same, pretty much. Didn’t matter. They didn’t notice, and we all got off on playing. The power, the energy. Rob posing out front, and Kurt bashing away. Besides, Karma’s singing gave us an edge. Set us off from the other thrash bands. I knew it, even if she didn’t, and I wasn’t surprised when the kid from Banger Records started pestering us to go into the studio.
“You paying?” Wiping my bass down. The club was a sweatbox, and I was soaked.
“Not our deal.” Suburban kid, playing at punk. His teeth were too good. “We split the costs. I handle distribution, airplay.”
“We’re getting airplay.” Some college DJ had taped a show. Kurt had wanted to kill him, until that zine writer had shown up. She was cute, and she liked them big. The exposure didn’t hurt either.
“Not like I could get you.” The kid, head tilted to one side like he could play me. “Four track, proper mics. You’d sound huge.”
“Huge, huh?” It was going to cost. I knew that. My unemployment was running out, and the record store wasn’t having me back. Not after the fight, the blood sprayed up high on the wall. Didn’t matter, none of us had money to spare. I saw how Rob was hopping about, pupils like pinballs. Happy, high. But I’d also seen how Karma’s eyes had lit up as the kid talked. She wanted this, so, yeah, I did too.
We called a band meeting, next day in the basement. What got me was how into it even Kurt was. I guess he liked banging away. Maybe it was the girls.
At any rate, I laid out the plan. Every gig, half whatever we got paid would go into the pot. We were playing for the door, most places, so I knew there were workarounds. Rob let his dealer pad the list, and Kurt’s bar tab cut into our take. But it was a plan we could all live with, especially once they agreed I’d keep the money. Keep it safe.
Two nights later, we had a deal. October, we’d go into the studio – some place over in the South End. The kid would front the money for the time, but we had to get our share in before we started. And by the way? We needed songs.
“You’ve got something. I know that.” Those good teeth bared in a smile. “But, come on, two songs? Two that don’t sound exactly like each other? How hard can that be?”
“Fuck you.” Bait and switch. I should have seen it coming. Itched to shove those white teeth into red. The band, though, they’d heard him too.
“We can do that.” Rob, on the rise, pulling me aside. Kurt nodding along. “Come on, man. Let’s get to it. I bet we can write ten songs in a week.”
We started practicing in earnest then. Coming together for more than to bash and laugh. Kurt got discipline, somewhere in there. His rhythm became rock solid. His attitude changed too.
“Stop, stop.” Standing. Sticks pointed at me. “Back at the bridge, you keep fucking it up.”
Any other time, that would have been it. Kurt wasn’t that big. But I held back. It felt good, that summer. Like we were heading somewhere. Had a goal. Practice every day, no excuses. Got to the point I didn’t notice the smell. By then, I’d stopped skimming off our earnings, even when I was short.
Karma had moved into my place, which helped. Still bringing in some money and I didn’t ask. A girl has to eat, right? More to the point, she’d gotten over her shyness. Tough as she was, everyone loved her. And that voice.
She still liked the closet though. “You guys, I can’t hear myself.” She’d shake her head, taking the mike with her, the cord like a rat’s tail over the gritty floor.
She was in there when the guy came down again, the asshole from upstairs. We’d forgotten about him. Forgotten about the daytime rule. Weekends, whatever. We had a mission, and who was he to us?
Angry, that’s what. “What the fuck?” Staring at us like we each had two heads. “I thought I told you jerks to get lost ages ago.”
“Hey, I pay rent here too.” Kurt. I didn’t think he did, but I wasn’t going to interrupt. “Basement’s public.”
“You wanna tell the landlord that?” Leaning forward, like he knew something we didn’t. “You wanna tell the cops?” Kurt starting to stand, when Karma came out.
“Cool it, everybody.” She knew Kurt. Knew me. Stepping forward with that swagger that said so much. “I’m sure we can figure something out, Daddio. Right?”
The asshole looked at her. We all did. Sweaty from the closet, from the summer heat. Her tank top sticking to her like paint. The water dripping from the wall the only sound. My girl. My band. We’d all worked so damned hard. He reached out, a leer spreading across his face. Karma, and I saw red.
Later she told me what she’d meant, wanting to keep me sweet. We were gigging, she said. We could afford a practice space. Use the Five Spot, even, as long as we kept on with Tuesday nights. Dip into the kitty, if we had to. That was all. It was too late by then, of course. We were halfway to Texas before we knew it, calling every college station that had aired our tape. Playing hard and fast and moving on.
“Think we can go back sometime?” Karma and me, sitting on a levee. Cold-enough beer and concrete down into black water. “Say we’ve been on tour?”
“We’ll come back heroes.” I threw my can, waited for the splash.
They caught up to us outside Vicksburg, the heat like a hand pressing down.
“Was I speeding, officer?” Karma, big-eyed, beside me. Rob, or maybe it was Kurt, snoring in the back.
“This isn’t about your driving, son.” The cop looked sad, which threw me. “Why don’t you step out and we’ll have a talk.”
I haven’t seen Karma since then. Rob either, though he calmed down once Kurt was on the ground. A big guy goes down hard. But it doesn’t matter what any of them say. I’ve told you what happened. What I know.
I guess Rob was wrong about the Quikrete. Maybe the mix, the closet just too big. That leak didn’t help things. Even with the mold, a stench you couldn’t ignore.
All I know is, I don’t wanna go down to the basement. Not again, not now. We had some good times, though. Damn.
Clea Simon is a former music critic turned mystery novelist. The Boston scene that she used to cover serves as the setting for her 2017 mystery “World Enough” (Severn House), which was named a Massachusetts Book Awards Must-Read, and also for her upcoming “Hold Me Down” (Polis, Oct. 5, 2021). She also have a bunch of books out featuring cats.