Barry Andrucci, lead guitar player and accompanying vocalist for The Northern Rhythm Band, knew he'd passed everyone too much vodka. It began in the middle of Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again." Electric bass player Tom Kosk, also known as "The Rhythm Wonder," staggered, then spat one too many chewed up gum balls in the direction of Gavin, the group's one-armed drummer. Gavin leapt out of his set and ripped the bass player's shirt with his good hand. "You gob on my clothes, I'll wreck yours!" he yelled. "Remember last year when I had to kick you in the cojones?"
"Hey!" Barry dropped his guitar, lurched over and tried to separate the two. He tripped over the amp and banged his arm on the wall. "Ow!"
Tom's pink shirt buttons flew everywhere, bouncing over the stage. The Rhythm Wonder kept on playing, chewing his remaining gum and staggering round with tiny bearded Gavin on his back. Tom, the most laid-back bass player ever. Maybe the guy missed a beat or two, but not many. His bare chest glistened under the lights. Singer Christine kept warbling under her big blue cowboy hat, whacking the tambourine to fill in for the missing percussion. Barry recovered his balance, watched Christine vocalize. He admired the lady's tenacity. "Wow, she didn't miss a line," he thought.
"Yeah, we're on the road again," Christine finished up, grinned nervously.
Gavin jumped off Tom, and right off the stage. He staggered through the confused dancers and out the Squilax Legion Hall door, throwing his sticks to the night sky. They twirled twenty feet up like batons, then crashed down onto two different truck windshields. A couple of loud cracks sounded. Gavin tore back into the hall, staggered up to the bar and ordered what looked to Barry like a bottle of Jack Daniels.
This alcohol and music trouble had started with Barry's need for a girl singer. Truth was, he needed a girl. He was 24 years old, single and sorry about it, thought the ad would be a good way to meet a like-minded musician lady. He didn't tell Gavin and Tom his romance idea, but they agreed a young female singer would add style to the Northern Rhythm Band. Barry advertised on Craigslist and found Christine Carmi. 21 years old, grapevine skinny with an eagle nose and a crooked tooth smile. Somewhat good looking. Barry had to talk to her parents first, Emile and Marlene.
Christine auditioned in the Carmi's living room, wearing a big cowboy hat, Emile playing the aged family fiddle, and little Marlene clapping and stomping her tiny feet. "Yeah, that Christine, she could be a star, eh?" Emile grinned. "She's got the presence and the talent."
Barry thought Chris might be a little tone deaf. She sang flat sharps and sharp flats. But he felt smitten. The way she stood there trying her best, her cheeks blossoming pink with effort. The black hair bobbing high up round her face, framing petite winsomeness. Neil Young couldn't sing in a conventional way. Yet he became a big star because of his unique expression. So why not this girl?
"You take care of Christine, eh?" said Emile. He laid his big forearms on the table, and leaned right over in Barry's face. "We're making you responsible." Then he leaned further. "I can play a couple of instruments actually."
"Good to know" said Barry, pulling his chair back some. "Maybe you could fill in sometime. Your daughter will be in the best of hands."
"I sing better with a few shots of vodka," Christine said later, as she accompanied him to his truck. "That's my secret confidence weapon." She began talking rapidly about how she never forgot a lyric, how she sang at night to the birds and the stars, how she loved that retro country sound but suffered from stage fright. "My Dad's not too big on drinking, but all I need is a glass or two."
Barry liked to imbibe liquid courage himself. In high school, he kept a bottle of wine in his locker, pulled it out between classes. He knew all about booze and confidence. An entertaining, funny boy got what he wanted. A shy, nervous fellow stayed alone in the shadows.
On the Northern Rhythm's first performance night with Christine, Barry bought a couple bottles of vodka. Gavin and The Rhythm Wonder weren't happy about an untried new singer, but Barry said he'd pay them fifty bucks more, "Just give her a chance." They perked up when he offered them the liquor as well.
"Man, just thirty extra bucks will do," said The Rhythm Wonder after he saw Christine strolling in with her brown cowboy boots and yellow dress. She sang a few impromptu bars of "Cruise" by Florida Georgia Line.
"Don't want to be impolite, but you're totally out of tune." Gavin tapped his snare with his good hand.
Christine put her hands on her hips "You're a cheery fellow!" She kicked out with one long boot. "Just try me tonight. You'll see. I only have to relax." She grabbed the bottle of vodka from Barry "Anyone have a glass and some orange juice?"
"Sure," Barry said. "Why don't we all have a couple of rounds?
People filed into the dance hall, ordering drinks, the place crowded with older folk come to boogie or waltz to the nostalgia country sound, and young hipsters going with the Northern Rhythm's retro trend experience.
"I still say we should have done a practice," said Gavin, fitting his stick between the fingers of his prosthesis. The appendage had a great suspension and socket system, which held everything tight, yet allowed room and looseness for play and pressure. Barry knew a one-armed drummer was novel, it boosted the group's eccentric reputation. Gavin, though, also played well.
All three male band members worked day jobs for the Department of Highways, Tom on the labour crew, while Gavin and Barry drove truck. They spent many hours together, practicing and organizing. Everyone had to compromise, on songs played, how to rehearse them, on where to perform and how much to charge. Over time, the darker sides of their personalities emerged. Barry saw his own shady side, his selfishness, for hiring Christine.
His dark aspect worked itself out through charm, and alcohol confidence. He needed the bottle day by day. His tipsy charm offensive usually worked. He wanted Christine; he talked and hustled the others into letting her stay.
By the third song, and the third shot of vodka and orange juice, Christine sounded much better. She moved less like a stick, and more like a jazz singer. In fact, the whole band seemed tighter. Barry matched Christine glass for glass. They high fived each other by the fifth song, raised a toast to Tom, who quaffed straight from the bottle. He shoved the vodka over to Barry, who gulped, wiped his mouth "argh," and passed it on to Gavin. The audience clapped at each chug-a-lug.
The world tipped round Barry as he played. The lead solos flew off his fingers. The Rhythm Wonder held it all together, strumming and chewing his gum in time. Gavin pushed the beat, Christine vamped and flailed. In the crowd, a thirty-something woman with a pineapple-shaped hairdo kept waving at Barry and yelling "I like the colour of your guitar, sweetie!"
Barry wished Christine would say something like that to him. She kept dancing and moving close to bass flailing Tom. Her wispy vocals turned to howls on old Elvis numbers. The geriatrics in the crowd loved it. Christine really did remember all the lyrics. Some feedback happened, "But that's discord," Barry mused. Sometimes discord's welcome. No one can be totally harmonious.
By the time Gavin ran out of the hall, Tom had fallen against the amp. He kept trying to stand up. Christine reached down, tried to pull him up. "Are you ok big guy?" She tripped over her slightly high heeled cowboy boots. Tom grabbed her arms and hoisted himself level, his bass flopping by his waist. "Wow, you're a strong lady for such a little thing," he said. Christine sat on the floor for a moment, then yanked herself standing, aided by the microphone stand.
"We're having a few technical difficulties," Barry announced.
He noticed big black cowboy-hatted Emile striding towards the stage, Marlene right behind him. Barry guessed they'd come earlier, to see their daughter perform. Emile grabbed the errant drumsticks off the floor.
"What kind of band are you?" he shouted. "You guys are a bunch of drunks!" He pointed at Barry. "You're responsible, mister!"
"I'm having a great time," Christine threw down her cowboy hat. "Hey everyone, put your money in, we need a new drummer!"
"She can really sing, Mr. Carmi!" Barry offered. He used his most mannerly voice, only slightly slurred. "Did you hear her on that last number?"
Emile paused. "Not bad," he said. "I think you've got a problem though, young fella. You're swaying like a willow."
"He's drunk. I'm only slightly inebriated," Christine laughed, punched Tom's shoulder. "It's the music that gives me courage." She put her arm around Tom. "Let's play, guys! Come on, Daddy, let us play!"
Barry looked up. The ceiling swam around. Everyone stood silent for a moment. An old man booed. "That's always a good sign, when an old man boos," Barry yelled into the microphone.
"I'll play drums," said Emile. Marlene handed him the other stick. "I've got the tools" He looked at Barry. "And the skills. I was in jazz bands."
Barry twanged his guitar. "Do you know ... um ... do you know "Jolene?"
"I can pick up the beat to any song," Emile stepped onto the stage, put the snare drum right side up, grabbed Barry's brushes and stroked the skin real slow. He shook his big bony head from side to side, hummed and grinned. After a minute or two, "The Rhythm Wonder" got into it, thumped a bass line. Barry discovered a one chord strum.
Christine began baying the Dolly Parton words nasal style, a Neil Young version. "Has its merits," Barry thought, as he harmonized, call and response, and after a short time, some audience members howled along, "Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene." Other folks dropped coins into Christine's upturned cowboy hat, then a few bills. Christine danced, knocking over the mike again, picked it back up, lurched over, grabbed up her big blue hat and jammed it on her head. Money flew all over, joining Tom's pink buttons on the stage.
Gavin stood at the front of the stage, watching Emile play. His beard bobbed up and down as he shook his head to the rhythm.
Emile stopped with a last flourish. "My first and final song of the night," he said.
Gavin hopped back on stage. "Wow, you can really play!" he said.
Emile took the whiskey glass out of the drummer's hand, and held it up high. "You can too," he said. "You don't need this kind of confidence." He regarded Gavin's prosthetic arm. "You've adapted your skills. That's admirable. It must have been hard."
"Thanks." Gavin righted his other drums. "Keep playing, mister."
"I'm done," said Emile. "You guys are okay. Just need someone to keep you on a sober track. If you need a manager, maybe I'm your man." He grinned. "Won't charge you more than three hundred dollars an hour."
"Right on!" Tom yelled. He sat in an onstage chair, his bass covering his lap.
Barry observed the band members, from behind his shield of drunkenness. He'd always been the organizer, the mediator. Maybe it was time to let someone else figure things out. Some kinda experienced dude like Emile. The whole band culture lent itself to liquor. Playing in bars and dance halls, people buying you drinks, you buying everyone else drinks.
The booze drunk world spun around him. He looked over at Christine, and knew he must get to know her sober, to know everything straight, and make it last. "What we have here," he thought, "Is a problem of confidence."
"For our next number," Barry announced. "We're gonna play a song by Travis Tritt, "The Whiskey Ain't Working."
In the audience, the woman with the pineapple shaped hairdo whooped again, and waved at Barry.
"The whiskey's working for me, sweetie," she yelled, stepping forward, twirling round to show shiny bare shoulders. Her brown skin shone against the dance club lights, as she turned yet again, and merged once more with the crowd.