This Town We’re Going to Has Its Own Birthday Song
by Kenneth Calhoun
W E make songs.
We made songs, rather. Back when we fit in our ass-pants.
A hundred or so of these songs were launched into the air, powered by a solid four-four count, verses, choruses and bridges arranged in the right way. Seven albums, one EP. The whole catalog was like the fuzzy head of a dandelion and the label, for a time, huffed-and-puffed as promised, sending the spores flying. Most lighted upon rock and withered in the white heat of the sun, but one is still in orbit, visiting us at odd ellipticals. We see the smear of light in the sky. The icy mist of meager royalties cools the deepest corners of our pockets. Sometimes the song is used to sell lawnmowers or bug spray, or it’s strung up like a sonic party streamer behind a car chase in a movie. Sometimes someone who first got laid when our song was flapping its papery wings in his ear will hire us to play a gig for his birthday.
When this happens, we go.
T H E R E used to be five of us. Only one departed, yanked suddenly out of his skin, but that was enough to make us nothing; yes, five minus one can equal zero in the voodoo math of the music business. Turns out he was the one who made the songs. He was the songwriter. We just hung ornaments.
Everyone who once loved us has stopped, but they still love him.
Some say he was a poet, our songwriter.
He was mysterious, even to us. We never knew where he came from, his family, nothing. He approached us one night when we were the bar band at a place by the flood channel. His suit, his hair, his socks and shoes—everything was ginger. His face was like that of an almost pretty girl. The cheekbones and lips. The first thing he said was, “I dare you cats to smell my fingers.”
We took a whiff, expecting the worse.
His hand smelled like a regular human hand, nothing special or funky. Maybe the lingering odor of a wet wool pocket. Moth balls, very faintly, maybe? We shrugged.
“No ass, right?” he said. “Not a whiff of ass. That’s what I can promise you.”
Like we said: Poet.
W E once had our own pilot who worked for blow. He’d throw our heads back with his thrust, blur the earth and make things little, put the plane on autopilot and come back for the party. There was always a pulsing pile of bodies, a big fleshy, hairy spider with hot wet holes, writhing in the cabin. You just had to pull apart some ankles and plug in.
We loved our pilot, a man we called Captain Napalm. He was the only father figure we had hanging around. He made a name for himself deep-frying the people of Japan from eight miles up and now hated flying into Tokyo without the rush of a decent flak attack. He wanted to live in the sky, to never come down, claiming that he was a tire swing in his last life.
Once he came back and told us that he had fallen asleep at the wheel and we have to land on the moon to refuel. We were pooped and goofy from blowjobs and acid, susceptible. We landed and got out. The moon was ugly, mostly small concrete buildings and lots full of weeds. Nobody there knew us, though our song had been covered by a local act. They did a countrified version. Not bad, but everyone there thought it was the local act that had written the song, not us.
Years later, when we stood around his deathbed wringing our hands, we said, “We’ll always have the moon, eh, Captain?”
“What moon?” he hissed with his tissue thin voice.
“That time we landed there, Captain.”
“That was Bakersfield, you jackoffs.”
N O W we’re flying to a surprise gig in coach, not even sitting together. Our elbows touch the elbows of others. Our knees rub against other people’s knees. Our atrophied trouser slugs touch nothing but the socks we’ve stuffed in the ever-increasing groin void.
No one recognizes us, even with the leather pants, the wigs. Even though it’s only been a week since we were featured on a cable TV retro music show.
The stewardesses, old and bloated, walrus-headed like us, hand out pretzels. We have to pick up our own lunch from a cart on the way in. The lunch is in a bag: a sandwich wrapped in plastic; some applesauce or yogurt; a fruit. We’re thankful: “Not a bad sandwich really.”
“That Dijon mustard’s okay stuff.”
Quietly we’re concerned that we did not get enough fiber.
W H E N we hit the hub, we’re greeted by an attractive woman whose age we cannot guess. She is all smiles; a weird, fitness species of heat emanates from her head. Smooth skin and white teeth, but eyes that have seen some serious doo-doo—wars, dead kids, a bonfire of cows, maybe.
“Is she old?” we quietly ask each other. No one can say, but we’re all in agreement that we wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating foods high in starch and/or cholesterol.
She tells us the birthday gig is at a secret location and that she must put us on a charter plane. We like this, but why all the secrecy? She says, “The town we’re going to has its own birthday song.”
T H E ageless woman sits with us on the plane. There may be others, but we don’t know because we are blindfolded. There’s a rip and roar, the apocalypse of freshly opened flight, pasting our loose chins to our necks. The tilt levels. Weird when you’re blinded. We tug at our wigs, wondering if they are on straight.
From somewhere in the darkness, she says, “Tell me your story.”
We gloss through the early years, the club gigs, touring in the van, groupies, heroin, all that. Soon enough we’re on to the first hit, the one people still remember, want, “God Box Locks”. We sing a snippet or two, harmonizing a bit. Our voices, like our hair, have thinned with age. Still she seems to remember it. It’s the one her brother, the birthday guy, wants us to sing at the party. Just that one song. We want to sing some others on the plane.
“Get us our guitars,” we say, “and we’ll do you a good gig right now. God knows we need the practice.”
We can hear that she does not move from her seat.
To fill the silence, which is a sound we hate, we tell her about our songwriter dying, the crash in the canyon over twenty years ago. His head got snagged by the cracked steering column and his meat went on without him, slapping through the trees, painting the branches with blood and bone. The car exploded, carrying our songwriter’s pretty head into oblivion.
The press called it an accident, but we secretly think it was suicide. We know how unhappy he was at that time. Two things seemed to have conspired to harsh his mellow: our entire song catalog, our entire publishing company, was purchased by a pharmaceutical outfit and a wrinkle had appeared at the left corner of his mouth.
We can’t help then recalling with great fondness the first time we went over to his pad to talk about working together. He lived in a woodsy part of town, up in the hills, we explain. In his backyard, he had a workshop that looked like a sketch of a workshop, if you know what we mean. He took us inside and showed us about fifty whimsical birdhouses he had made from every possible material you can imagine.
“I want to do these in a rock-and-roll mode,” he told us.
“But these are crazy birdhouses,” we said.
“Each one is a song. Can’t you see the melodies that will roost here, build nests, lay eggs, wait out the storms?”
“Groovy,” we said. “We dig. We dig big.”
Our first album was called Birdhouse, Not Pie.
We sit in the darkness of our blindfolds, thinking about him. The plane punches through the sky.
“Nobody owns ecstasy,” we say slowly in unison, recalling the last truth he shared with us.
O N the tarmac, we smell some kind of flower. The air is warm, balmy. Mosquitoes buzz threatening secrets into our ears, things that we’d pay women money to say over the phone. We don’t know if we’re in the tropics of the Deep South or the Mongol Empire.
We’re loaded into a bus and driven to a large hall. Inside, we’re allowed to take off our blindfolds. We’re backstage of what appears to be a community center or lodge. The stage curtain is drawn so we can’t see out into the room. There are people there; we can hear the murmur of them. Laughter flares up every now and then, hot enough to singe hair. The sound of forks scraping at plates is complicated and, if you focus on it, highly musical. Listening to it, we start to become convinced that it’s orchestrated fork-scraping, that some kind of performance is taking place. We ask the ageless lady, who is backstage with us.
She says, “Many of the people here are related.”
“Ah,” we say. We’re getting used to her.
“We have a little surprise for you,” she tells us with a smile.
She shines a flashlight on the equipment they have provided for us. We’re astonished to see that it’s all our old gear. Stuff we used the year we broke through with our first hit, the one that everyone remembers. It’s either the actual stuff or amazing replicas. The drums are clear Plexiglas, a four-piece with just hi-hats, one ride and crash—a back to basics kit. There’s a Telecaster for the lead, a Les Paul for rhythm and a cherry vintage Rickenbacker bass, just like the one we broke on the cover of our live album—same starburst pattern, same white pick guard. Someone is really into us, we think. Someone’s a fan.
“Sweet setup,” we say, surprised.
“So you’ll use this stuff,” she instructs, “not your gear.”
We nod, slap some high fives all around. “It’ll be far out playing that old shit!”
B E F O R E long we are asked to take our positions on stage. We have some trouble squeezing into the spaces they have provided. We almost knock down some cymbal stands and the guitar straps have to be readjusted. No biggie. We click on the amps and spin up the knobs so that the stage starts to hum with amp crackle and some wispy threads of feedback. An electric anemone of sound starts to bloom.
Since this is a one-song gig, there are no set lists to consult, no plotting or reshuffling in response to the room. Besides, we have yet to see the room.
When the curtains are finally pulled back, the room remains a mystery. The stage lights are so bright, we can’t see into the crowd. We can hear them. They cheer with surprising enthusiasm. We had thought they would continue to eat and chatter, as is usually the case these days.
Encouraged, we click off the tune: one, two, three, four. The excitement of having a captive audience injects us with a bit of adrenaline; consequently, we come out of the gate a couple BPM’s ahead of ourselves. The song has a challenging intro of synchronized guitar parts, which proves tricky at this pace, especially since our fingers and feet bloated up during the flight and have yet to decompress. So the intro is rough. Ideally, we could stop and start it again, keeping it real, but there is an overwhelming sense of showcase formality, what with us being flown in to play one song, the vintage equipment, the stage curtain being drawn back so dramatically, not to mention the invisibility of the audience. And so there is no turning back.
We stumble through the first verse and try to reign in the tempo during the chorus, over a few measures, so as not to be noticed. It proves to be a sloppy shift but by the second verse we can at least keep up with the chord changes. This is a good thing, since the bridge is a bit tricky. A few years back we tried to simplify it but the audience violently protested our tinkering with what, to them, had become gospel.
The solo is more or less a disaster. We can only blame the bloated fingers and the general rustiness and the need for more fiber at lunch.
The breakdown lives up to its name as we fall completely apart at the rhythm level since the bass, at such a low register, cannot be heard through the monitors by our enfeebled, hair-filled ears.
Yet we rally for the end, galloping through the final verse and repeating choruses. The recorded version of the song fades out, but we have always played it live with a big rock-and-roll ending. We do so now and feel somewhat redeemed by our volume and the nice, cooperative flourish of feedback that we coax from the old, tube-filled amps.
We’re so compelled to stick the ending, we make a silent agreement to do some rock leaps at the end, punctuating the final four notes. Cartilage is nearly blown, wigs are displaced. Our breath seems to abandon us, escaping out our asses as we fart with each bounce. Fortunately, the flatulence corresponds with the musical punches.
W E hope the curtains will fall immediately upon completing of the song; upon the fulfillment of our contract. Instead they stay open and the lights seem to come up. We are there, bent over with exhaustion, guitars pinned in the doughy folds of our torsos.
There is no applause. The insulting silence seems to pour in around us. We are drowning in it. We look at each other, desperately, like people do in that slow-motion century preceding a car crash: wide-eyed, waiting for the impending impact to arrive and bang out a new reality.
Something ugly—we’re sure it’s coming.
A song comes instead.
T H E audience, sitting in the dark, begins to sing: “Hail, hail, hail, through a fissure in the veil comes light.” It quickly becomes apparent that this song is the town’s very own birthday song. We shield our eyes with our hands and try to see past the stage lights, but can only make out shadowy figures on the other side of the stage. We look at each other, think about running, just hitting the fucking road, but the song reaches out to us. It’s a song like nothing we’ve heard before. Like all songs, it communicates through a variety of means: melody, harmony, rhythm, repetition. But it does a mind-blowing job of underscoring or highlighting aspects of the lyric with a shifting under-painting, if you will, of chords, colorings, voicings, shadings.
Sometimes the lyrics don’t bother to rhyme.
We slowly bring ourselves to stand, abandoning our unintentional bow, as the story of the song unravels before us. In listening, we learn that the town’s own birthday song is an antidote to the birthday song everyone else sings, “Happy Birthday to You”. That song, the verses tell us, was written by two sisters who cynically copyrighted the tune. It is the most profitable piece of intellectual property in the history of the world, the town’s own birthday song tells us. If the laws were upheld, say retroactively, the lyrics explain, the song would be the most profitable piece of property, period. But, the singers sing to us, “Happy Birthday to You” is actually a death chant, a spell of mortality that is renewed each year, whenever the song is sung in someone’s name. With its morbid use of mindless repetition and its fill-in-the-blank customization, “Happy Birthday to You” is a “perverse application of mass production mechanics” at the very heart of a person’s “most individualized moment”: his birthday. It’s a paean to foolish living, the embarrassing gait we adopt in our efforts to sidestep death—the seeds of self-fulfilling prophecy. Ultimately, the lyrics tell us that “Happy Birthday to You” is an “erasing agent, a fear-instilling sonic contaminant” devised to routinely reinforce the suggestion of mortality, which is after all but a suggestion. That’s how the town’s own birthday song concludes, with the repetition of the line, “to end, after all, is but a cynical suggestion, but a cynical suggestion, but a cynical suggestion.”
On the last note, they hold a long drone, to which every member of the audience seems to contribute an octave note. The chord is like an ocean liner: bottom heavy, very fat, with a curling ribbon of smoke trailing the stacks. They hold it and hold it so that it rushes around us, now like the ocean itself. They do not breathe for minutes, yet it’s us who are gasping for air by the time they let go. We tumble in the current of the voices. It is a truly a birthday song; it’s the bloodiest song we’ve ever heard, nourishing like a raw slab of meat or umbilical ooze. We claw at our throats and tear off our wigs, loosen our pants and pull the socks from our crotches. Then we collide, the four of us, brothers, reaching out for each other like desperate drowning men. What was happening to us? We do not know. We only know that we have suddenly ceased to age; we can feel that. We know only that, when the lights come on, we’ll see our songwriter at the center of the audience looking exactly as he did when he left us twenty years ago. We know only that we are brothers and that, as the last note of the song fades into silence, the band has finally called it quits.
Kenneth Calhoun has published fiction in Fence, Pindeldyboz, 3rd Bed, Quick Fiction, Fiction International and elsewhere. Earlier this year, his story "Voice on a Spool" won the Italo Calvino Prize.
Archived at http://lit.konundrum.com/prose/calhounk_town.htm