Down Payment Blues
by Rich Wilson
This simple little story is dedicated to Tim Bisley, Voodoo Joe, Carnage, TRL, and the man, the myth, Sir Alan Jones. You all offered encouragement in one way or another. Most of all this is for Kate, who still lets me act and write like an idiot from time to time yet for some bizarre reason continues to love me. Thankyou honey.
“Everybody seems to wonder,
What it’s like down here,
I gotta get away from this running around,
Everybody knows this is nowhere…”
The wind crept through the streets, howled
like a wolf in pain and penetrated through to my very soul as it hit me. I felt my exposed fingers tremble around the neck and struggled to hold the shape I was making, felt my voice waver and crack as my teeth tried to clench themselves together. My coat was too thin and provided about as much protection against the chill as a light covering of sunscreen at the surface of the sun. I lowered my head and looked at my scuffed boots while I sang the last couple of lines into my chest, and as soon as I’d knocked out the final chord I slid the copper slide from my index finger and dropped it into the case at my feet before clamping my aching hands together and blowing air into them. That made little difference, and if I didn’t get inside soon I’d be facing frostbite.
I pulled my collar up around my neck even tighter and looked up, watched for a moment as two guys came out of the corner deli both holding sandwiches that steamed with heat and grease. My stomach growled, as much for the warmth as the nourishment, but my pockets barely had enough change for the L, let alone a meal, and the contents of the case near my feet didn’t fare much better. I squatted down and flicked my fingers through the nickels and dimes that were spread thinly over the protective cloth. A dirty and worn dollar bill also lay there, almost apologetic amid the change. I took a quick inventory, but even with the lone buck I was nowhere near what I wanted. When I’d left the house that morning I’d promised Mom that I’d put at least ten dollars in the tin that evening. Yet another promise that it appeared I was going to break.
I straightened up with a sigh as New York City continued to breathe around me. I’d come down to one of my favorite spots, near the corner of 49th and Sixth, and a place where I could usually make some good money, but the Apple wasn’t blessing me with fortune on this freezing Tuesday afternoon in November. I guess I could understand why. If I’d have been passing a lone busker trying to make his voice and guitar heard over the heartbeat of the City I probably wouldn’t have noticed either, and if I had it would have been to cold to even fish coins from my pocket, let alone stop and take in the blues he was singing.
Looking east towards Saint Patrick’s Cathedral I saw the late afternoon congregation leave the house of God, and let my eyes travel upwards towards the illuminated cross that shone brightly against a sky bruised with angry gray cloud and the promise of snow. Folklore stated the blues were steeped in misery and despair, two emotions that I could definitely relate to as I heard the clock tower strike a quarter-to-five. I wanted to pack up for the day, pocket my pick and slide and strike this one from the calendar, but I told myself to give it until five or until I collapsed with exposure, which ever came first.
An overweight man wearing a shiny suit passed me, his breath a fog before his red face as I retuned the E-string on my old Fender. The once-laquered maple had been exposed to all forms of weather in the two years since I’d bought her secondhand from Manny’s down on 42nd Street, and the wood now showed the signs of old age. That was all right though; it fit with the image that I often strived to portray but regularly failed, but even though she was beat-up the sound that came from within was bright and clear. Somedays she could even be heard over the rushhour traffic.
I ignored the biting cold steel on my fingertips and began to play, hitting the strings hard in my heavy style, feeling the vibration through my body and running my slide up the neck into the first stinging chord of Death Letter, a standard originally from the twenties which everyone had covered from time-to-time. It was a favorite of mine from the old blues, a song that bought back memories of my Father playing the original 45 by the great Mississippi singer Leadbelly while I sat on the floor near his feet and listened in awe to that powerful black voice rumbling from the stereo. We’d often listen late into the night, drinking hot chocolate while the music played and Dad told me stories of blues legend, of Mojo and Hellhounds and deals made at crossroads. Those nights had been the good times, before my Father had lost himself to whiskey and gambling, and before life had become complicated.
The city became my accompaniment as I closed my eyes and lost myself in the tune; cabs honked for attention, an ambulance panned past me in stereo from right to left, constant footsteps drummed out a rhythm, and the ever present wind continued to cut like a fresh razor. But just for a moment I’d transported myself far from Manhattan, way back in time and miles to the humid atmosphere of the South, to the Delta where the music I now played had been born among the slaves and chaingangs of the early century. As I sang of a woman who’d broken my heart I could almost feel the sun on neck, and as I raised my voice for the bridge I could virtually smell the cottonfields and the muddy waters of the Levee river. It felt good to escape. I reached the last verse and really started to work on the strings, the copper slide causing the guitar to wail a lament to lost love and make each note cry. I’d played Death Letter hundreds of times and knew it like the back of my hand, and on that cold afternoon I knew I was playing it well. As I struck the final minor chord and let the vibrato rattle and fade, it was a good way to end an otherwise miserable day.
After a moment I opened my eyes and let reality return, saw the cracks in the sidewalk and the guitar case still laying near my feet. Except now something had changed. Among the shrapnel of coins and the disintegrating note lay a fresh ten-dollar bill, the face of Washington in a frozen stare, and I felt my eyebrows raise with surprise. It was then that I noticed the small black boots a few feet infront of me, and I looked up to see who had been watching me play.
That afternoon had comprised of shades of gray; lighter in the sky and darker at street level. The cold had let in very little brightness. Maybe that’s why just for the briefest second my mind told me that an angel was standing before me, and it was only when I saw hair as black as a ravens wing that I actually focused away from the dazzling white that the truly beautiful young woman before me was wearing. A long coat trimmed with fur wrapped itself around her, the wind stirring the hem that was only a few inches above the boots. A white scarf curled around the neck of the coat and competed for attention with that mass of hair which framed a small, delicate face. Her pale skin was dotted with two patches of colour that rose on her cheeks and her lips were the shade of fresh blood. Large, dark eyes, deep and soulful, the kind of eyes that could easily hypnotize a man, blinked back at me. As I stared she brushed the hair from her face with tiny, gloved wrapped fingers and gave me a wry smile that revealed teeth as ice-clean as the rest of her.
‘Nice version,’ she said in a soft voice barely audible above the sounds of the street.
The wind chose that moment to hit hard, assaulting my eyes. I blinked a couple of times and fully expected the beauty before me to be gone when my vision cleared. But she still stood looking at me, pulling the scarf tightly around herself. My hand gripped the neck of the Fender tightly, the slide still sheathed on my little finger.
‘Thankyou,’ I finally replied, and nodded down to the ten-spot in the case. ‘From you?’
She shook her head, eyes not leaving mine. ‘You look like you could use it. And like I said, that was a nice version. I’ve played that tune a few times myself.’
‘Yeah, I know. I saw you do it last year,’ I replied. A sharp blast of horn rang out, loud enough to break windows, but neither of us looked round. Neither did many of the New Yorkers passing us and rushing towards their destinations. Noise was just another aspect of the Apple you accepted, even ignored. ‘Great show,’ I said quickly, and then felt foolish for sounding like a complete fanboy.
She smiled again, and looked almost shy. ‘Oh. You know who I am then?’
Despite the cold I felt heat rising in my cheeks, and I concentrated on pulling the slide from my finger when I spoke. ‘Sure. You guys have taken the music I love and made it fashionable all over again,’ I said, and when I looked up she was still smiling. ‘Thanks to you, I sometimes make a few more bucks.’
‘We just play.’
I already sounded like a fan, which of course I was. Why not confirm the fact? ‘You don’t just play. Both you and Jack have got lightning running through you.’
Now it was her turn to look away, and I was surprised that I’d seemingly embarrassed her. She must have had thousands of compliments paid to her in the last three or so years. ‘My Brother maybe,’ she answered. ‘I just keep time.’
Now we both looked directly at each other, and our expressions spoke. Her deeply dark and beautiful eyes gave away the fact that I understood enough to know how things were in her family, and the recognition in my own bloodshot whites said that I also knew that deceit and folklore were cornerstones of Blues myths. It was one of the reasons that the music had endured for the last eighty years, and one of the reasons why Jack and Meg White were as successful as they were. Aside from great music, The White Stripes were built on legend.
‘What are you doing in the city?’ I said, unbuttoning the strap from the body of the guitar and pulling the instrument away from me. Thanks to Meg, I’d made the cash I needed, and the cold had now overtaken any further desire to play.
‘We’ve got a show tonight,’ she replied, her voice as soft as before. ‘Do you know the Bowery Ballroom?’
I nodded. ‘I know it well. Down on Delancy Street.’ It was a place I’d been to maybe a dozen times in the last couple of years. A roughly thousand capacity venue that used to be a grand-style art-deco palace in the thirties but was now a stopping point for every decent rock band that breezed into town. ‘The first time I went there was to see Jeff Buckley. And I saw The Kills just a couple of weeks ago,’ I said, crouching down and scooping the money from the case before laying the Fender carefully across the worn fur.
‘You seem to know music,’ said Meg, and I looked up as I snapped the buckles home on the case. She was almost in silhouette against the angry sky, and her wind-tossed hair wrapped darkness over her. For a second I wondered if I was really having this conversation. Was I really standing in the middle of Manhattan having a conversation with a beautiful woman who just happened to be one half of roughly the most influential band on the planet right now? It was a miracle these days for me to be talking to a girl, let alone one who was a combination of beauty and fame.
‘Take a look around,’ I said. ‘You see me joining the rest of these suits hailing cabs for the Upper East Side or wearing casual Armani and stepping into any of these chrome and neon bars? I’m lucky if I’ve got change for the subway.’ I paused, stopping myself before I gave her my down-on-his-luck story. ‘You could say music is pretty much all I’ve got.’
Meg returned my smile, but I saw a touch of sadness, maybe even recognition, creep into her face. ‘Living the old blues dream?’
‘Just living. Some days it’s harder than others. But this afternoon just got that little better, thanks to you.’ The traffic roared as we stood looking at each other a moment longer, and it seemed as if the remaining daylight was now slipping even faster, transforming the colours of the city into black and white monochrome. The cathedral started it’s five o’clock chime.
Meg spoke quickly. ‘Look, why don’t you use that money and come down to the Bowery tonight? Have a drink and see the show.’ She stopped and let me see that almost apologetic expression again. ‘Well, you know, that’s if you want to. I can put your name on the guest list.’
At that moment if a camera team had jumped out of the bushes to gauge my reaction and then tell me I’d been set up on one of those dumb reality shows I wouldn’t have been surprised. I almost looked over my shoulder to see if it was actually going to happen. The best offer I usually got in the day was the chance of my Mom’s home cooking, and these days even that happened less and less.
‘Are you serious?’ I said
‘Yes, very. We play at nine.’ She paused and slid the sleeve of her coat back to reveal a pale, delicate wrist topped with a thin silver watch. ‘Look, I have to get going. Are you interested or not?’
I thought for the merest moment, and it wasn’t a difficult decision to make. Up until five minutes ago the prospects that I had for the rest of the day was a difficult journey home followed by my regular evening with books or tinkering around with half-written songs that I maybe hoped would be my ticket out of the rut my life was in. After that I had my usual date with a beer and Letterman. I didn’t need to contemplate for long.
I nodded. ‘Yes, I’d love to come. Thankyou.’
She smiled again, those deep eyes almost glowing in the early evening light, and I felt a rush of heat to my body inspite of the cutting cold. We stood facing each other for a second before I broke our silence and told Meg who I was and thanked her once more, and she promised to add my name to the doorlist and told me where I should go when I arrived. Then she turned from me, and the wind caught her coat and whipped it around her like a shroud, her hair across her face like a veil. She stretched her arm forward for a cab, and it was then that I moved forward, stood next to her and whistled shrilly through two fingers. Moments later one of the old-styled checker cabs, now a rarity downtown, emerged from the sea of traffic and slid into the curb. I took hold of the cold handle and held the door open for Meg.
‘Thankyou Jimmy,’ she almost whispered, nearly inaudible over the street noise. ‘I’ll see you later.’
Before I could reply she was on the backseat and the door had closed, and I stood there with guitar case in hand and watched, almost mesmerized, as the checker eased onto 49th and headed for the black heart of Manhattan. Darkness was approaching fast and the traffic was now using lights, and I watched the deep red rears of the taxi glow like hot coals before they were finally swallowed, then grinned for the first time that day, pulled my coat into my neck and started to walk.
The L was as crowded as always, and I received the usual harsh looks and heard the mutters as I pushed the guitar case through the doors and tried to find a space to stand. Forget sitting. If you can find a more densely populated place on the face of the Earth than a New York Elevated railway in the rush-hour then I’d like to see it. I wedged myself against the doors and watched as Manhattan moved into the distance as we rattled across the engineering expanse of the Brooklyn Bridge, and I looked with envy when we reached the farside of the East River and the wealthy brownstones of The Heights, with it’s mix of professionals and self-made businessmen. Someday, maybe if I dreamed long enough and offered my prayers above then this neighborhood would be my stop. But for now, and the for the foreseeable future, the L dragged me away from it all.
My stop was in Red Hook, an area steeped in the history of the docking industry in which my Father had worked until his early death. The borough homed a collection of Italians and Latinos and Blacks, plus Whites such as myself, and the housing projects and desolation meant that it was an area not common with casual sightseeing. Guiliani had worked hard on improving the Outer Boroughs during his years in office, and progress was being made, but The Hook was still a place where you watched over your shoulder after dark, even as a resident.
As I left the station I stopped at a corner florist and bought a couple of dollars worth of blooms, and hid the waxed paper wrapping inside my jacket as I hurried home. The stairs upto my third floor apartment were dim as two of the sodium lights had failed and were as yet unreplaced, and the wood creaked on every step as I approached by door. The apartment was mostly in shadow when I entered, and I could hear the low sounds from the TV and smell floor polish and the odour of freshly baked bread cooling in the kitchen. I called softly to my Mother but there was no reply, so I laid my guitar down in the hallway and moved into the kitchen, found a brace of small loaves on a wire rack and carved myself a couple of thick slices. In the living room my Mom was asleep in the chair, a position I often found her in these days, and I kissed her lightly on the forehead before roughly arranging the flowers in a vase on the dresser which I hoped she would see when she awoke.
My room had been closed up all day and was stuffy, and I cracked a window and let the fresh November chill in, then lit a couple of candles in addition to the lamp. The room took on a gentle ambiance that softly lit the walls and illuminated the many music posters and framed prints that I had. Immediately my eyes went to an image that I had advertising a White Stripes show. The show was from a couple of years ago in their hometown of Detroit, and as I took my boots off I thought about my meeting with Meg that afternoon, about how sensuous she’d looked in the harsh winter light, and how I still couldn’t really believe that I was going to their gig that evening. I loaded a tape in the deck of my stereo, a self-made compilation of Stevie Ray’s greatest, and kept the volume low as I lay on my bed and let some warmth return to my chilled body. I listened to the entirety of the one side and then stripped, took a shower and shaved, and dressed in black jeans, a white T-shirt and a half-decent jacket that I’d picked up last month for a few bucks from a thrift store. I’d heard that retro was the new chic on the streets of Manhattan, but for me it was more a case of all I could afford, not keeping up with the fashions. Still, if my dressed down style was the current trend, who was I to argue. For a few months perhaps I’d actually fit in for once.
In the living room my Mother was still asleep, her posture unchanged. I looked at her for a moment with both love and a deep fear, and then fished through the money in my pocket and dropped the ten dollars that Meg had given me into the copper tin on the table. I took Moms hand briefly and gave it a gentle squeeze, listened to her shallow breathing, a noise as soft and gentle as the wings of a hummingbird, and then left quickly before my conscience forced me to stop in that dark room with the shadow of an old lady who was rapidly approaching the finale of her life.
I rode the subway back over the river and got off in the Lower East Side at Lafyette Street, then made the short walk to a bar that I played in on Sunday nights, mostly to a small crowd of lost tourists and elderly drunks who watched their reflections all night in the depths of a shot glass. My buddy Joe was tending bar, and I negotiated with him for a sandwich and a beer which he agreed to deduct from my meagre weekend fee. New Yorkers, all heart. We shared small talk but in truth my mind was on the forthcoming gig, and when I checked my watch and saw it was nearing eight I touched knuckles with Joe and left him for the streets once more.
Five minutes later I was in the Bowery, standing on the corner of Delancy Street with the faded majesty of The Ballroom before me. Flurry’s of snow washed through the twin spotlights that were lighting the exterior with its grand pillars and overhanging sandstone cornices, and in the middle of the facing wall was a backlit billboard that advertised, for one night only, direct from the Motor City and sold out, The White Stripes. There was a large crowd forming into rough lines alongside the front of the Ballroom, and two sets of double doors had just opened to let the fans inside. Several heavy-looking guys in identical black jackets checked tickets and kept order, and as I made my way closer I spotted a couple of touts subtly walking the lines offering tickets. No one seemed to be taking them up on the offer. A hotdog vendor was doing brisk business on the sidewalk, and the smell of mustard and fried onion was strong.
Meg had told me to make my way around the back of the building to the stage door and give my name, and as I left the lights and noise of the ticketholders at the front and walked quickly down a stinking side-alley, it occurred to me for the first time that I was probably about to make a huge fool of myself. I’d never been on anyone’s guest list, let alone a blues queen, and why shouldn’t Meg White have forgotten me five minutes after her cab had pulled away from me this afternoon? I hesitated, and almost turned back, but then before I knew it I was standing at the bottom of a small rise of concrete steps. The door at the top of the stairs was open, and another of the black-jacketed boys was leaning against the frame cupping a cigarette in one hand and talking to someone I couldn’t see inside. I coughed, and he looked down at me.
‘You ain’t getting in son. Go back to the front.’ He took a deep hit on the smoke and the fireglow lit his features in dim orange.
‘I’m on the guest list,’ I said, my voice sounding surprisingly firm.
‘That’s what everyone says. Beat it.’
‘My name’s Jimmy Dixon, I was invited by Miss White.’
He glared at me for a second and then reached inside the doorway and produced a clipboard, and I watched his eyes scan down it, and then return to me. His expression had now changed, and he moved away from standing guard at the stairs. ‘I’m sorry Mr. Dixon, I’d didn’t recognize you.’ He beckoned me forth with a wave of the clipboard. ‘Please.’
Holy Christ. I was actually on the guest list. ‘Don’t worry. No one ever does,’ I replied with a grin that I was unable to keep off my face as I climbed the slippery stairs and walked through the shadowed entrance of the doorway. Another, equally large man was leaning against an interior wall, only a shaggy goatee eliminating him from being a clone of the first guy. He nodded to me.
‘Backstage area is just down the way, Mr. Dixon,’ came the voice from behind me, and I muttered my thanks as I walked with some trepidation towards light and voices and the sound of music. The heavy sound of the door closing echoed dully behind me, and it was then that I realized I was in The Bowery, exactly as I’d been told I would be.
The corridor opened out into a fairly large room that was brightly lit and filled with maybe 30 people. A couple of trestle tables had been set up on the rear wall and were loaded with sandwiches and cold cuts, potato salad and greens, and at one end were bottles of liquor and beer. It was to this end that people seemed mostly interested, as I noted that nearly everyone had a beer or glass in their hands. Some stood, other lounged on the worn sofas that randomly adorned the floorspace. The air was heavy with incense that burned in holders, and a light film of smoke circled the ceiling, dust motes floating in the lights. To my left I smelt the unmistakable sweetness of hash.
Now I was here I felt awkward and out of place, and I wandered if I could just find my way to the main auditorium and wait for the show to begin. But then as I stood there for a minute and watched the room, it dawned on me that I was no different from any of these people. Near the drinks table were two guys who were unmistakably journalists, juggling tape recorders and notes while they loaded up on anything that was free. The source of the dope was a guy around my age wearing a dark suit and shades who wouldn’t have looked out of place in Warhol’s Factory circa 1967. When he saw me glance at him he offered me the joint, which I politely refused. I threaded my way towards the beer, past a sofa that held a beautiful young woman who I vaguely recognized as an actress. She leant back against a handsome, Spanish looking guy who grinned up at me as I passed. Either he was genuinely friendly, high, or just unable to believe his luck that such a beauty was with him. I’d have gone for the last option. As I grabbed a bottle of Miller I changed my opinion. Yes, I was different from these people, but tonight it didn’t matter. Everybody was different; I was who I was.
I drank deeply from the bottle and let the beer coat my anxiety, and I relaxed. There was a jukebox at the far end of the room and I went to it, saying my hello’s to a couple of strangers as I moved. The juke was playing Cream’s White Room, and I beat the rhythm against the glass while I checked out what else was available. The machine was on freeplay and a list of tunes was already lined up, but I added some Dylan and Television’s beautiful Call Mr Lee to the mix. I looked for a third song, but before I could choose there was a nudge on my arm, and I looked round straight into the face of Meg White.
‘Hey. I’m glad you could come,’ she said, her voice still as soft as it had been earlier that afternoon out on the street. Her face glowed yellow and red from the light of the juke, and her midnight hair was now parted down the middle and tied into bunches either side of her ears. A white sweater clung to her torso and flowed over her full breasts, and blood-red trousers were slung low on her hips. When I didn’t answer she leaned her face up to mine and kissed me on the cheek. Her lips were warm and she smelled of a light scent. ‘Have you met everyone?’
I shook my head. ‘I’ve only been here a few minutes.’
‘Have you got warmer since before?’
I lifted the bottle. ‘This is helping. Thankyou for inviting me here tonight, Meg.’
She smiled. ‘C’mon, I’d better do the proper thing, and mingle. You can give me some backup.’ She took me by the arm and we started to walk the room, and I was once more amazed with the situation that I found myself in. I kept fairly quiet while Meg exchanged a few words with the journalists, one of whom was from Rolling Stone, a magazine that I had been reading and dreaming about being in my whole life. The Warhol clone turned out to be the band’s road manager, who spent a stressful looking few minutes assuring Meg that the sound levels in the ballroom had been tested and were fine. There were other members of the road crew, an ill-looking female artist who lived in Greenwich whose work Meg loved, and several others who I didn’t know and whose purpose there I never discovered. I discovered that the actress lived in Manhattan and knew Jack from when they had appeared in a film together, Cold Mountain, which I’d never even heard of. As we walked away from her dazzling smile and grinning boyfriend I made a mental note to take more interest in modern media and spend less time lost in blues music. Hearing the actress talk about Jack stirred my own curiosity, and I asked after him.
‘He’s not really into all this kind of thing,’ said Meg, spilling a small measure of vodka into a shot glass. ‘Neither am I, really, but I think this time was my turn to be sociable.’ She took a delicate drink. ‘He’ll be in the dressing room, probably tuning up and getting his head together. You want to meet him.’
I nodded. ‘Very much, but I don’t want to disturb him.’
‘I’m sure we won’t. And we can get out of here as well.’
Meg once more took my hand and led me through the room, and I noticed a couple of people look at us as we left, and I wandered if they’d considered who I was or formed an opinion of me. The few times I’d been introduced Meg had just said that I was a musician, but that title bridged a wide valley of description. It still didn’t explain who I was, and as we left the backstage area together, it occurred to me that the two of us looked very together. It was a feeling I could live with.
We passed a closed green door, and then came to another that was slightly ajar. Meg tapped her knuckles gently and then pushed her head through the gap, and there was a slight pause and the murmur of voices and then the door swung open. The interior was small, lit with soft light, and a table in one corner held some bottles and an overflowing ashtray. Sitting on a hard backed chair, a beaten-up acoustic guitar across his lap and a glass between his feet, was Jack White. He looked up from the strings, and the hat he was wearing cast shadow across his pale features. ‘Hey man.’
‘This is the guy I told you about, from this afternoon,’ said Meg, and her small hand pushed against the base of my spine to encourage me into the room. For the first time I noticed how close she stood near me; close enough so that her left breast was pushing into my arm.
Jack raised his eyebrows. ‘Yeah, that’s right, the bluesman. C’mon in and have a drink with me.’ His voice was heavy with his hometown accent and slightly slurred, as if the glass he was now draining wasn’t his first. I took several steps towards him and held out my hand, which he shook firmly. There was a click behind me and I turned to see the door had closed but that Meg hadn’t joined us in the dressing room. I shrugged and turned my attention back to Jack and introduced myself, tried not to sound nervous. Jack offered me a drink and I accepted, watched him pour two fingers of Scotch into a glass and hand it to me. I drank, felt fire scorch my throat, and instantly felt better.
‘Hope I’m not bothering you, Mr White,’ I said, and instantly felt a fool for addressing him as if he was one of my old teachers from High School. ‘I don’t even really know why I’m here.’
‘I guess you must have caught Meggie’s eye,’ he replied. ‘She said you really made your baby cry this afternoon.’ He paused. ‘And it’s Jack, all right? Have a seat.’
There was another of the stiff chairs near the table and I pulled it forward and sat, my scotch clasped between both hands. Jack started to talk about the gig he was about to perform, and gradually I started to talk back, to actually enjoy the fact that I was in a small room with a rock star. Outside the door I could hear people moving back and forth and muted voices, and beyond that the deep bass throb of a manic New York City crowd desperate to see a band that had regularly been voted the best live act on planet in the last two years. To be in the crowd would have been enough, yet here I sat in the bowels of the Bowery with Jack White himself, me a regular kid from The Hook and he dressed in trademark black, red and white looking every inch the legend he was already well on the way to becoming.
For the next few minutes we talked the Blues, of Robert Johnson and Howling Wolf, of Son House and Blind Boy Fuller, trading song titles and stories while all the time Jack tuned his guitar and tossed out licks from the steel strings. He drank steadily, and I wondered how much he’d consumed. He speech was no more slurred than when I’d entered and his hands were steady, and it was only when he pushed the hat back on his forehead and leant towards me that I saw the mist across his dark eyes.
‘Do you believe?’ He asked in a low voice, his stare locking with my own.
I shook my head. ‘Believe what?’
‘You know what a Terraplane is?’
‘I think so. Isn’t that what the chaingangs in the South used to call their demons?’
He nodded and smiled, but it was an expression devoid of humour. ‘Basically. Demons, or the Devil. A destructive spirit that never left them. El Diablo.’
I frowned. ‘Are you asking me if I believe in that?’
‘I’m asking if you believe a Terraplane is on your trail?’
‘No, of course not.’
He pointed his index finger at me, and I saw that the nail was painted black. ‘But you are a bluesman.’ He continued to look at me in that same, leveled way.
‘Sure, but I don’t believe the Devil is chasing me. Do you?’
He emptied the glass once more and reached again for the malt. ‘Sure I do. And so do you.’
Suddenly the mood in the room had grown serious, and it seemed to me as if all the previous background noise that had accompanied us had disappeared. Now there was just me and Jack, booze and dark thoughts. Did I have a Demon? My life wasn’t complicated. I scratched out a meagre living in bars and on the street, singing songs written long ago by men haunted with the memories of lost love and downbeat times. I played guitar for the memory of a Father who was long dead and my Mother who wouldn’t be far behind. My existence stood for nothing in this world, and my dreams were far from becoming realized. I was running away from everything, from responsibility and most of all from myself. I looked back up into Jack’s eyes and shivered.
‘We’re from very different Worlds, Jack,’ I said, and trembled again. In those eyes I saw myself for the briefest of moments, and I knew that what I’d just said wasn’t entirely true.
‘Are we? We both yearn for something that we can’t have.’
I swallowed hard. ‘And what’s that?’
The word hung in the air alongside the smoke and smell of liquor, and I knew it was true. If not having all the answers, if not realizing the hopes of which I’d set out for myself, if not having love meant that my spirit was destructive, then Jack was right. I did have a Terraplane, and it was chasing me hard. But I had a question of my own.
‘What do you wish for?’ I asked quietly.
Jack leant toward me and opened his mouth, but the answer never came. The door to the dressing room opened, making me jump, and I span around on the chair. Meg stood in the doorway, looking as beautiful as before, a wry smile playing across her small mouth. ‘You okay?’ She asked, and I wasn’t sure who she was directing the question to.
I nodded and looked back at Jack, who was regarding her with an expression I couldn’t read. He blinked twice in rapid succession and as he did so the swirling darkness that I’d seen before disappeared from his eyes. ‘How long we got?’
‘A little time,’ Meg answered, and then looked at me. ‘Do you want to see the stage?’
Jack leant forward and shook my hand once more. ‘Go on, let her take care of you,’ he murmured, and he stood, rested his guitar down on the chair and reached for a packet of Camels on the table.
‘It was good to meet you,’ I said, and then took a step closer towards him, lowered my voice while he pulled deeply on the cigarette and let smoke drift through his nostrils. ‘Are you alright?’
He contemplated me, then cocked his head to one side and smiled, this time with real humour. ‘Yeah, I’m just fuckin’ with you, man. Listen, I hope you enjoy the gig, okay?’ Whatever he’d been about to say to me before was long gone, as was the glimmer of despair that I believed I’d seen. I wished him well and went to follow Meg out into the corridor, but before I closed the door behind me I took a final look inside. His back was to me, black hair brushing the collar of his immaculate red shirt, his black suit as pressed and clean as day-old cotton. His head was down, chin almost touching his chest, and he mumbled words that I couldn’t hear but which might have been a prayer. But as I saw his shaking fingers reach once more for the bottle, I couldn’t help but think that they may have been a curse.
I followed Meg as she walked down the corridor, her hands by her sides framing a behind that was locked tightly into her red trousers. The muted sounds of the audience became stronger, and as we approached the foot of some steps I moved next to her. The staircase was narrow and dark, and at the top was a heavy black curtain which she pulled aside and held so that I could duck through.
‘Is Jack okay?’ I said, as we picked our way over a nest of snaking cables. The crowd noise was getting clearer and louder all the time, and my heart was beating quickly.
‘He’s always quiet before a show,’ she said. ‘I think he just reserves energy.’
I was going to say more about what had happened in the dressing room but before I could we were approached by the road manager who I had seen with the joint earlier. He told Meg that the stage was clear and everything was in order, that they were just waiting on her and Jack’s cue, and she thanked him before he leaped down the staircase. She took my hand once more and led me around a series of huge black flightcases, and we emerged on the stage of The Bowery Ballroom. The audience was now right on top of us, and if the large, heavy stage curtain hadn’t been lowered then I’d probably have been able to see the white of the front row’s eyes. One thing was for certain; if fans had known Meg White was standing only a stones throw from them the roof would have come of the place.
I’d seen this from the opposite angle many times, but now I actually stood on the lacquered wood I was struck with just how small the stage actually was, perhaps no more than thirty feet across. But the size was perfect for the duo attack that was The White Stripes. A set of rugs laid across the stage seemed to make their set-up more intimate. A dual set of vintage Marshalls provided a backwall for Jack’s frenzied blues, and a trio of guitars were propped up on stands before them, including his trademark Mosrite. To the left was a small piano keyboard, and to the right was Meg’s drumkit, angled at forty-five degrees between the Jack and the audience. It was a simple arrangement, but simplicity was the heart of rock ‘n’ roll, and it worked brilliantly.
Meg pulled me towards the drums. ‘This is where I work,’ she said, and I had to smile at the way she said it as if she was a waitress showing me her restaurant. The kit was nothing more than Bass drum, two toms and a couple of cymbals, but I knew that given a set of sticks Meg could make them sound like a twenty-one gun salute. My smile stayed when I spotted her drum stool. The seat was striped in red and white fur, and along the edge ran her name in a flowery script. I turned to comment on it, and when I did she was close to me, so much so that my chest was almost touching her own. Her face was angled up to mine, her mouth slightly parted, lips damp and shining in the house lights. She placed her pale hands upon my biceps and pushed me gently, and I took a step backwards and found myself sitting on the soft, pliable fur of the stool. Now I was looking up at her instead. Her right hand went to my ear and pushed a lock of my hair.
‘What are you doing, Meg?’ I breathed, noting how dry my mouth had gone. The sounds from behind the stage curtain were ringing loudly in my ears. Meg wrapped both arms around my neck and pulled herself forward and down onto my lap, her legs straddling over my thighs.
‘This is what I want to do before I play,’ she said softly, and then leaned her face into my neck and grazed my skin lightly with her lips. I shivered as she hit one of my most sensitive areas, and for the first time I touched her, my hands clasping her thin waist. Her mouth rose to my ear and when she moved her heavy breasts fell against my chest.
‘I want to fuck, Jimmy. I feel so horny tonight.’
Her hips moved against me as she kissed my earlobe, and her hair fell against my face while my hands grasped her more tightly. The smell of her skin was all around me as she moved her lips to mine and we kissed, and I closed my eyes as her tongue slipped into my mouth. Her knees gripped against my torso as our kiss intensified to the point where we were almost grinding our lips together, unable to get any closer and yet somehow needing to. Only when I felt Meg’s fingers at the buttons of my shirt did I stop and pull away, my breath coming fast.
‘What if someone sees us?’ I said, as the first clasp on my shirt popped free.
‘We’re alone,’ she whispered, ‘look around.’ And she was right, we were alone on the stage. But there was getting on for a thousand people packed into the auditorium that was hidden only by the heavy curtain.
‘Or hears us?’ I continued, but even as I said the words I knew I was beyond caring. Meg had now positioned herself so that her butt was pressing painfully into my erection, and the way she was moving meant that my thoughts were now only on one thing.
‘We’ll only hear them,’ said Meg, her nails now running a pattern down the bare skin on my chest. ‘Now just do it. We haven’t got much time.’
She started a rhythmical rubbing against my crotch as I lifted the hem of her thin sweater, nipples already pushing against the white cotton. I swept my hands along her back and over her ribcage, then upwards to encircle her breasts. She lifted the sweater with one hand and let me see what I was touching, flawless pale skin capped with two rose red bumps as stiff as rubber, my fingers pushing her gorgeous cleavage together. Her mouth was in my hair as I pulled her into me, lifting her petite body against me, straining for release and also for balance on the tiny drumstool. There was a new pressure on my jeans which quickly changed into release as Meg pulled my buttons open and exposed my dick, her hand instantly enveloping the shaft and tugging mercilessly.
While the throb of the crowd echoed across the empty stage Meg quickly climbed off me and stood between my spread thighs, a smile on her face as she glanced down at my hard dick while she scrabbled with the zip on her crimson trousers. I felt a bead of sweat slide down my back as I took the opportunity to shove my jeans down to my knees, the fur of the drumstool tickling my ass excitingly when I lowered myself back onto it. In one swift motion Meg tugged her trousers and matching red underwear down her thighs, revealing to me a patch of pubic hair as black as that on her head. Her hips and inner thighs were rounded, smooth, such contrast to the darkness in the centre, and I wanted to kiss my way over her skin and bury my face in that tuft of wet heaven. But this was Meg’s time, she was in control, and before I could move she was back straddled over me, this time with skin on skin, and even before she was on me I could feel the heat coming from her hot sex.
Her fingers gripped my hair, my hands were once more on her tits, and then she dropped onto me hard. There was a pleasure that was nearly painful as my cock buried itself in the depth of her pussy, and the feel of her was unbelievable; hot and wet and achingly tight. No sooner was I in her then she was moving, lifting herself up and down, rocking back and forth, angling her body against mine for maximum pleasure. I locked my mouth to hers and she gasped as I twisted her large nipples, and in return her nails dug into the back of my neck, hard enough to nearly puncture the skin. I cried out, my excitement overwhelming, and my cry was added to the hundreds that I couldn’t see but only hear behind the curtain. The Bowery unaware that I was with the object of their fanatical worship.
Meg’s teeth were now on my neck and she bounced herself on me, and her thighs gripped me as her pelvic muscles held me in a vice. I moved my hands down her back and over the curvature of her ass, filmed with sweat, and thrust her down. My index finger traced the valley of her buttocks and rested on the puckered opening of her anus, and after a moment’s hesitation I hooked the finger into her butt, and I felt her fingers tremble on my skin and her whole body stiffen. Then she was moving again, slamming backward hard enough to slide my finger into the second knuckle, and my own breath became harsh as I realized I could actually feel myself moving in her pussy. I tensed my waist and tried to force myself even deeper in her, the matted fur of the drumstool slipping beneath me, holding Meg up as she rode me. She’d told me she wanted to fuck, and that was exactly what she was doing, pure dirty sex that was nothing more for both of us than a need and a desire. I’d have loved to kissed her body, tasted between her legs, let her suck me, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
Perspiration ran into my eyes like tears, and I might have well been weeping with the whole joyous feeling of her body. My legs were shaking and I knew that I was close, and I pushed my finger back and forth in Meg’s ass with the best rhythm that I could. Her cries were like the faintest call of a bird at dawn, her tongue wet on my neck, and then a fire erupted in the depths of stomach and rushed upwards from my thighs and the pressure broke. I came, the tendons in my back locking as I threw my whole body into my orgasm and ejaculated hot fluid into her. I was vaguely aware of her anus clamping over my finger and her vaginal muscles squeezing against my pulsing shaft, and then Meg threw her head back as she added her sticky juices to mine, her breasts heaving upwards as she rocked with me. Her nails finally punctured my skin, the pain bringing me back into focus, and there was blood on my neck as she hit her climax and called out a name. And it was a name that wasn’t mine.
We both stayed silent while we unwrapped ourselves from each other and fumbled with our clothing, and my hands were shaking as I fastened my jeans. When I stood my legs were aching, and as I buttoned my shirt I took a look at the Meg’s drumstool. There was a wet patch around the size of a silver dollar near the edge of the fur, a mark and reminder of what we’d just done. I turned to Meg and watched as she brushed the hair from her forehead and pulled the wrinkles out of her sweater as she smoothed it down over her chest. Her nipples were still visible as dark shadows against the white. We looked at each other again, and this time I saw not the lust-fuelled woman of the last few minutes but the apologetic sweet angel who’d given me ten dollars on the sidewalk earlier that day. I leant forward and kissed her parted mouth, and we embraced gently. And then there was a whistle, and we both looked around at the road manager who was ascending the back stairs to the stage. He asked Meg if she was ready and she nodded her reply, and then he contemplated me with an almost bemused expression. I still had my arm around Meg as I stared back, but when he threw me a sly wink I looked away, embarrassed. It was a moment that took me a long time to forget.
I could have watched the show from the wings, but after myself and Meg had made our way backstage I found one of the roadcrew and asked him to direct me to the main auditorium. Eventually I found a vantage point at a side balcony which elevated me above the crowd yet still gave me a great view of the stage. Ordinarily I’d have wanted to be pressing forward at the head of the audience, hanging over the barrier and joining the masses in a heaving rush of rock and roll in an attempt to get as close to the band as possible. But on this night I’d been as close as I possibly could have been already, and both my mind and body were tired. The beer in my hand was cold and tasted sweet, and I had a slight headache forming. Next to me were two shaggy-haired guys and a girl who looked sexy and vulnerable in a gypsy dress and faded denim jacket. There were talking excitedly and passing a joint back and forth, and when I caught the eye of one of the guys he grinned and offered me the smoke. This time I didn’t refuse, and I traded the beer with them and let my lungs fill with cheap marijuana that made my heartbeat slow.
The lights fell, the people went insane, a spotlight hit the curtain as it rose steadily, and then I was looking down at the stage that I’d just been on. The spot glinted of the scratchplate of Jack’s Mosrite, swept left across the pair of Marshall and then shone brightly on the drumkit. Meg sat on the stool, her looks immaculate, sticks in hand and head cocked to one side as an almost childish smile lit her face. I heard screams and whistles, and then a roar as Jack walked out with the strut and confidence of a man who knew exactly where he was and what he was about to do. The suit he’d been wearing had been traded for red and black trousers and a tight red T-shirt, and as the lights hit his pale skin he took on the image of a ghost. Then the Mosrite was around his body, a burst of feedback shook the Bowery, and the mysterious duo that comprised Detroit’s finest looked at each other with an expression that could only have been love. Jack blew Meg a kiss, dropped his hand, and then opening chords of Black Math blew a tornado threw New York City…
Much later, in the early hours of the morning, I was back in Red Hook, walking slowly through the streets and eating a bagel that I’d bought from an all-night deli with the last of my money. It had been snowing and the sidewalk was covered in dirty slush that kicked up in brown showers as I walked. On the corner of my street a brazier was still glowing with the remains of a fire, whoever had been standing around it wasting time long since gone. I crossed to it and held my hands over the embers, looked down into the dying coals, and sighed deeply with fatigue.
Nothing had happened after the gig, and I guess I didn’t really think it would have done. Maybe I could have returned backstage and gotten steadily drunk, or wasted, or whatever, but I knew there was really no point. There was no-one who I really knew or who I wanted to talk to, and whatever had been shared between myself and Meg was of the moment; a one-off. I was too jaded and cynical to convince myself that there would be a repeat performance or that we would act like regular people with the exchange of numbers or kind words. The way she’d looked at me after our sex had confirmed that. It hadn’t been revulsion or even regret, but a look that I’d seen many times in my own mirror. That of guilt.
But something else had kept me away. It was something I’d seen during The White Stripes final song of the night, an incredible and scorching version of Elmore James’ old standard Boll Weevil. Like all the best blues legends Jack had adapted the words to suit himself, and beneath a sweat-drenched fringe and with blazing eyes he screamed his warning against the evils of life to a crowd who were emotionally drained and who absorbed every word. He fell to his knees during the solo, the sonics threatening to ignite the amps, while to his left Meg thundered on the drums, hair a nest of snakes whirling around her. Jack’s eyes were closed as his fingers picked the lines, and then there was a pause as he let feedback take over, drawing the crowd to the edge. But before he released them his eyes fluttered open, and I was close enough to see what I had already seen. A man who was genuinely haunted by his emotions and by demons that he’d only hinted at to me. It was hot in the Bowery that night, the smell of sweat and heaving bodies permeated the air, but just for a moment I was shivering just as I had been out on the street that afternoon. When the song came to an end and Meg emerged from behind the drums, stood next to Jack as they took a dual bow, I recalled the name she had spoken when we had been together. They took each others hand and waltzed from the stage to as loud an appreciation as I’d ever heard, and as they did I also recalled what Jack had said to me in that smoky dressing room. Something about Absolution.
The snow had started again, huge powdery flakes that fell from the darkness and brushed against my upturned face. I jumped as a cat howled behind me and I left the warmth of the fire, turned the corner into my street. Once more I stopped, this time with my heart pounding, the blood ringing in my ears. Blue lights bounced their harsh light of my crumbling apartment block, and at the doorway to my stairwell a small crowd was gathered, some I knew and some that I didn’t. Two paramedics moved carefully, the gurney seemingly hovering between them, and even from a distance I could see that the shape they carried was completely covered with a sheet. I heard noise, a pounding that I finally realized was my boots hammering the sidewalk as I ran towards them, and on that freezing New York night the hot breath of the Terraplane was worse than ever against my back.
Hellhounds on my trail, myths and legends, the deal of the Mojo hand. Standing at my crossroads.
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