The Clifton was a two-leveled motel that looked like it hadn’t been updated since the 1970’s. It was a white building with turquoise doors and neon-yellow painted trim. The office to this palace looked like a Swiss Chalet with pink painted siding.
A middle-aged man - who looked like he was having a midlife crisis with his long hair, tanned skin, booty-hugger jeans, and snug gym tank, showing off his saggy muscles - looked up as we entered the office.
“Hey guys - what can I do you for?” he asked with no judgment in his voice.
The desk clerk kept eyeing me whenever Frank was distracted with paying or signing a paper. He snuck a wink at me, making me feel uncomfortable. I diverted my gaze from his.
“You have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen, if you don’t mind me saying.” The midlife-crisis guy said this to me without any concern that Frank might be my father and jump the counter to kick his ass.
I looked at the guy thinking he was talking to someone else. But then he turned to Frank and said, “No disrespect, but I’ve gotta pay someone a compliment when they deserve it. That’s how I was raised.” He looked back at me admiringly.
Frank chuckled to himself. “Don’t tell me. Tell her.”
Frank and I agreed to meet after we gathered our bearings.
Who the fuck knows?
I gave up on that thought for the moment.
I felt like I was going insane with this constant uncertainty. Questioning my sanity had become commonplace lately because of my unorthodox life. My childhood was shit complimented with a dash of suck, turning worse when I ran away to New York City and Brad O.D. Maybe I was cursed – having a pestilent alter ego, perhaps?
I lay back on the bed. My eyes drifted closed, falling into a light sleep. It was something I didn’t realize my body needed.
Drifting in and out of consciousness, deep sleep wanted to take over. I resisted. It was meant to be a nap and nothing more.
Voices were mumbling in my thoughts . . . indecipherable, jumbled. Was there someone in my room? My lids wouldn’t open.
My senses were maxed. I heeded intently. Still the sounds were muffled, like being submerged under water. I was dreaming.
I could feel myself slipping back to a waking state. But I forced my mind back in, needing to know what was being said.
The voices split into two. I could almost make out the words. “Yari,” It was faint female voice, sounding sort of familiar. “No hope for the . . .” The last half faded into nothing.
Sitting up, I tried to shake it off.
There was a light knock on my motel door.
I grabbed my room key and we headed out.
Frank asked me if I wanted to drive. Any opportunity I had to get behind the wheel of that baby I jumped at the chance. The black sports-car adorned gold ground-effects and removable T-tops. Its square, double-set front lights, mag tires and fin resembled that of a corvette. Even though Frank was superficial, he wasn’t the type to relish over his things once he bought them. It was like the rush of getting the toys was over once he brought them home.
“The first thing I’m gonna buy for myself if I ever make it big is a brand new Corvette . . . red with a convertible top.” I said, starting the engine.
A baritone chuckle came from his direction.
“What would you buy?” I asked, certain that he was already spending his make-believe money.
“Take a left out of the parking lot,” he said, pointing in the direction of a McDonald’s, “a real studio, one that isn’t in my basement.”
“I figured as much.” I replied with a quick cavalier glance in his direction.
“Take the next right.”
The traffic was increasing – bumper to bumper at times. I stopped at a set of lights, and turned my attention to my left. A neon-blue mustang pulled alongside me with a really cute guy in the driver’s seat. He turned to me and smiled. I returned the favor.
“The light’s green, you flirt.” Frank broke in. “Take this right.” He chuckled.
After another light, two right turns, and dodging some suicidal drivers, I pulled in front of a guitar shop called, Blues, Folk & Rock ‘n Roll Guitars.
When we entered the small retail store an older man emerged from the back. He looked like a retired rocker with his long, salt and pepper ponytail; a short white beard with an earring in his left ear. A fitted vest hung over his stone-washed jeans. The smell of tobacco lingered near when he appeared, like he just finished an unfiltered cigarette.
“How ya doin’ folks?” he said, revealing blackened, gapped teeth.
“Good.” Frank said distracted, looking around at the eclectic varieties jammed into the limited space. “We’re in need of a six-string.”
Guitars were layered on shelves from ceiling to floor. I spotted a beautiful wooden acoustic on the top shelf behind the register. I could see the price tag from where I stood - it was a hundred and ten bucks. Frank and I hadn’t discussed pricing, but I was certain it wouldn’t be in that range. He did mention “used.”
“Who’s the guitar for?” The sales clerk asked.
“Me.” I piped up.
“I’m not a student.” I interrupted him. It was true I hadn’t been playing long, but I picked it up fast and wasn’t too shabby at it. “I’m looking for a used acoustic that still has some life left.” I turned to Frank for confirmation of my request.
Frank nodded, “Something less than fifty dollars.”
“Ah, you’re both in luck. I just bought a Gibson today from a guy who needed money for rent.” He smirked, and walked behind the counter where the register was. “It’s right here.” He pulled out a tattered, wooden acoustic that looked like it had seen better days.
“I just finished tuning it only an hour ago. Its thirty-eight inches, steel strings, and a solid top with laminate. The appearance isn’t the greatest, but I assure you it still purrs like a kitten. Try it out.” He handed me the pale wooded instrument.
I grabbed it by the neck then rotated the guitar to the right-handed position. Being a lefty I never did take to playing south paw. Not under any other circumstance did I do the left-hand switch though.
I freestyled a simple tune. The guitar handled okay. It seemed in decent shape.
“What kind of music do you play?” The sales guy asked me.
Frank looked at the guitar with a scrutinizing eye.
“So you’ll need some picks too then?” The sales guy added.
I nodded yes.
“That’s pretty good.”
“Oh, uh, thanks.”
“Don’t be modest,” Frank interjected. “That was damn good.”
“So, have we got a match?” The intrigued old rocker asked smiling at both Frank and I.
I looked up at Frank. “How much?” he asked.
The sales guy was quiet, looking me and the guitar over, then back at Frank. “I’ll give it to you for forty- five, but you’ve got to come back and visit me when you’re famous,” he said with a sheepish grin.
A coy smile flushed my face. Frank accepted the price.
“My name’s Henry, by the way. I’m the owner of this joint. Are you new in town?” He started back to the register to ring us up.
“Yeah, we just moved here from the east coast.” I offered.
I turned skeptical, unsure if he was mocking me.
“I’m here to show L.A. what they’ve been missing.” I corrected him.
I tried not to sound condescending, but I wanted my confidence to be clear.
Henry laughed and raised his eyebrows. He was taken back by my indignation, but appeared impressed by the cockiness.
“Well, you certainly have more self-confidence than the others that come in here.”
“For good reason,” Frank added, tilting his head toward me, flashing a smug grin.
“What style of rock do you sing?” Henry asked while cashing us out.
He thought for a moment, brow furrowed. “Ok, I think I’ve heard of it. It hasn’t quite hit California yet, but this state is open to anything lately - the 80’s is the era of change.”
Henry gave Frank the receipt then strolled back to the front of the counter. “Do you have a manager?”
I placed the guitar strap over my shoulder, eager to get back into playing.
“He’s my manager.” I pointed beside me. Frank didn’t look up as he put his wallet away in the back pocket of his jeans.
“It’s difficult to get anyone to notice you without a manager.”
I hoped I had the right guy to make them notice.
Frank and I opted for a walk around the block to talk more about the days to come. We left the car in front of the guitar shop.
Adjusting the strap, I could see that Frank was anxious about something. The furrowed brow and tense gaze that he typically festooned looked strained. I waited for him to get it off his chest. Frank was one for speaking his thoughts.
“It’s real important that you keep your head about you.” Frank started. “Don’t get caught up in the L. A. party scene.”
Not sure where he was going with this lurking rhetoric, I waited for him to continue. Frank loved to carry on with monotonous dialogue, so there was no doubt there was more to come.
I said nothing.
“Music is more important to me than partying and guys.”
Frank nodded then diverted the subject. “We should discuss this indie-rock style that you’ve clung to. I know it’s up-and-coming in Massachusetts and Illinois, and a few other places. But it’s not a very common type of rock. We might have to bend a little until we achieve a position where we can be more particular.”
“What are you saying?” Without restraint my face was inflamed with offence. “This music is what I know. It’s me. I can’t play or sing anything else.”
“Don’t be so defensive, kid. Mainstream rock isn’t so terrible.” He rolled his eyes at me.
I stopped in my tracks and turned to face him. “First off, my name isn’t kid, and second, I didn’t come to California to be forced into being something I’m not. When the hell were you gonna tell me that I was just your pawn? You knew who I was and what I wanted before we came here. If you don’t like my music then you shouldn’t have bothered.”
“Calm down,” he said with a patronizing air. “I didn’t say that you had to change. All I meant was your music might have to be slightly more conventional for now.”
“What’s the point? What if that’s what gets me noticed? I want to get a record deal because they like my style.” My blood was boiling. And I wasn’t afraid to show it.
“I’m not a cookie-cutter pop singer, and I don’t sing glam rock. I came to L.A. to be different. Isn’t that what this place is known for – giving the opportunity to be yourself? I’m not going to be your next Lita Ford. I played along with that crap in New York. My style is alternative rock.”
I scowled at him.
Frank went quiet. I could tell he was trying to calm himself before he said anything he’d regret. He had to stop treating me like a fucking child when it came to my music.
Finally he spoke. “You’re a real pain in the ass, you know that? I didn’t realize it until now - you’re moody and mouthy.” He hesitated, catching his breath. “Make sure you save some of that for the arrogant record execs when they try and turn us away.”
“Music is the only thing I’ve got.” I reiterated, turning my attention to the lanky hippy sitting on the bench we were passing.
“Once we pick the band we’ll compromise on a sound, alright?” he negotiated, offering a barmy look. “Let’s try and get along in the meantime. Remember that you’re not the only one that wants to make a name for themselves.”
“Yup,” I was curt.
What I wanted to tell him was that it really came down to only me. I was the forerunner, not him. It was going to be my face that people saw, even if it was a no-name bar. They didn’t care about my manager. I’ll be scrutinized and judged by the audience, not him.
Adamant about making certain that supremacy would not arise in our business arrangement I made certain to keep reminding Frank of my relevancy. His objectives seemed to be trying to take rank.
Feeling the lack of control over the decision making was getting under my skin. Frank was the money, but wasn’t a little credit due to me - a little respect? I was the talent. Not his leverage. It was my music that would make or break us. Insightful enough to offer input into this vision, it was time that he opened up to my ideas.
“There’s a good Mexican place around the corner,” his voice was impartial. “Are you hungry?”
I lost my appetite. But I knew I had to ditch the resentment and be cordial.
“Yeah . . . sure.”
Later that night, Frank and I met up at the motel swimming pool in the courtyard. He insisted on hearing one of my new songs. I was tired. But when it came to my music there was always energy enough for singing.
“In death roses smell sweeter,
This transition haunts my dreams.
I yearn for this land where the clouds aren’t real,
And candy falls into the streams.
A Dreamland in a world of eternal anodyne,
Purple, red, and blue, the funnel of fearlessness
I wish for my world to crash into the sun,
The pain and the tears - the heartache I won’t miss.
My dreamland is the giver of peace.
The road to salvation isn’t easy,
I run to what comforts me most.
Can I reach the border in time to be saved?
I suffer, I yearn,
The father, the son, and the Holy Ghost
The addiction is all that I see,
Creating a dreamland that I know will never be. . .”
I finished the song with a suspended chord on the guitar. Keeping my eyes on the strings, I didn’t encourage a response from Frank.
He sighed in spite of me.
Frank’s disapproval was disrupted by an enthusiastic clap from the bartender.
“What?” I asked Frank with a cold snap.
“You carried the tune perfectly. But this one . . . I feel is too dark.” Frank shifted his weight, readying himself for my chastisement.
My words were flanked with anger. “All my songs are dark.”
I never did take criticism very well. He remained calm even with my petulance.
“That’s the thing – all you’re songs are dark. Why not write a love song about a happy experience. The band can help charge it.” Frank leaned against his hand, rubbing his temple.
“First off, the song writer is ninety percent of a song’s vision. The band will be inspired to play according to my interpretation.” It irritated the hell out of me that Frank didn’t appreciate the methodology of song making. “Writing songs is a way for me to express myself. And for you to define my song as being too dark is like saying everything that happened in my life I need to get over.”
I took a deep breath to calm my nerves. I continued with some self-control. “Second, all of my songs come into the world through acoustic, making them appear darker. But that’s how I give birth to them. When the band is introduced, they’ll help to bring the song to life, but it doesn’t breathe meaning into it.”
Frank couldn’t hold back any longer. “Goddamn it, why do you have to be so friggin’ difficult - so argumentative?”
“Why? Because I don’t want you to tear apart my music, and oh, my look? I’m not a puppet that you can control. Is it too much to ask that you give me a little creative space? I don’t want fame so bad that I have to change who I am. I’m not a fucking one-hit-wonder deal here.” My guitar was on the table at that point. I was leaning across it.
Frank’s attitude turned tetchy. “Who do you think you’re gonna be - the next Janis Joplin?”
“I can see the intelligent part of the night started.” I shifted to leave.
“You know how many new artists want to be the next big thing,” he tried to have the last word; “only to wind-up back at the cesspool of a town where they grew up, serving burgers and fries for a living because they wouldn’t conform? You need to take my fucking advice.”
I stood up, ending the heated debate. “I had no idea that you had the exclusive rights to the title of asshole!” It seemed a moot point to continue this argument – my position wasn’t going to change.
A muffled snort came from behind me. The bartender was enjoying the show.