At some point someone—he can't remember who—called him Danny Salerno. These days, though, he just goes by Salerno, whenever, that is, someone thinks to ask, which is rarely. He's sitting slouched low in the corner, one knee wedged up against the board, his head resting on the back of the chair. The producer, Ig, figures he's come in with Brett. Brett thinks he's one of Ig's toys and makes a show of ignoring him. Salerno can feel the slow burn of jealousy under Brett's ribs and makes sure that his other knee is always a bare inch away from Ig's thigh. Ig doesn't notice. His attention is on the disaster playing out in the studio on the other side of the glass where four very, very pretty boys are busy turning a decent cover of Patti Smith's Redondo Beach into a joke and not the good kind. His exasperated "Fuck me sideways," comes out on a plume of smoke.
But it's not all bad. If there's hope, it's on a stool at the back of the studio, wearing a plaid shirt and worn combat boots and a somewhere-else expression. The "somewhere else" is the place where the cover doesn't suck, the place where this guy is pulling riffs together that will probably save the single. When Salerno asks, Ig tells him the guy's name, which ends with "Nobody from Canuckistan. Fucking genius. What a waste." The nobody is the fifth man, a stick for hire who loped in twenty minutes early for the 2 a.m. session drinking coffee and smoking with one hand, a guitar case more-or-less constructed of duct tape in the other. It's him Salerno's come to see, a prick of light in the dull LA landscape that snagged his eye.
It's that rare light that's drawn him, the kind he remembers from way, way, way back at the Beginning. Not first-day or even sixth-day stuff. Salerno's got no interest in that ex nihilo bullshit. This is tenth day creation, the kind that comes after the Gates are closed and the teeth of hunger are gnawing away at sinful guts. The nobody on the stool sits in the middle of the laughable, derivative pretty-boy noise and makes something new from the limited resources of six steel strings and twenty-one frets. That's the kind of creation that comes when the exiled look around at the scraps and debris of an already-created world and have to figure out how to turn flint and sticks and sparks into fire. Salerno watches the Canuck hammer the world into new shapes and knows that the burn he feels under his own ribs isn't Brett's, after all.
Out of some lingering sense of self-preservation, Ig calls a break and the pretty boys file out to do lines on the receptionist's desk in the lobby. Chewing on a finger with a viciously torn nail, the Canuck goes for more coffee. Ig and Brett slide out the back door into the alley for mutual hand-jobs and their weekly refrain of recrimination. Salerno lets himself into the studio and crouches to inspect the guitar on its stand.
It's a Telecaster, not pathetically close to the bottom of the barrel as these things go, middling at best, but it's well-cared-for, well-used. Its caramel finish is polished and the fret board is worn. Dropping one knee to the carpet, Salerno leans low and close. There's blood on the new strings. He can smell it. He closes his eyes and breathes in the scent of it for a moment before his forked tongue darts out to taste. It's familiar. It tastes of need. It tastes of loss. It tastes so God damned sweet.
After that, it's all about the delicate touch. It takes very little to tip the balance of things.
Earl is easy. He never really had more than one foot on the wagon, anyway, and just the sound of a lighter flaring under a spoon is enough to loosen his grip again. The stuff Salerno cooks for him is so pure it practically comes with singing angels, and that's precisely what Earl hears in the siren of the ambulance that carries him to the ER. Salerno sits patiently in the waiting room reading National Geographic while the girls in the band gather in a clutch and pray out loud.
Two days later at The Knit on Hollywood Blvd, he threads his way through the crowd—wild-child has-beens in designer jeans, wild-child wannabes in department store knock-offs, critics and gawkers, the real thing and the faux thing—follows the broad back of Babbi Pincette up to the bar and drops the Canuck's name into the gap between sets on the small stage while Babbi suckles a beer and the ice cubes melt in Salerno's scotch. The name will sediment into Babbi's soft brains along with a hit-and-miss list of ingredients for his sister's killer chilli con carne and the refrain from Lyle Lovett's If I Had a Boat, which will earworm him four days straight. Three weeks later, Babbi'll be sitting at the board waiting for the sound check while Annie B moans about Earl and the Lollapalooza dates and he'll stop picking taco bits out of his beard and tell her he heard about this guy from Canada, s'posed to play a good axe and probably available to fill in, Ścause what guy from Wherethefuck Canada wouldn't screw over his own mother for a chance to play with Jenifur?
The Canuck sits at the bar, heels hooked on the rail, a glass of water and an empty coffee cup beside an overflowing ashtray, and folds and unfolds the contract. Salerno watches him smooth it out on the bar and lift it up again hastily when a ring of condensation darkens the paper. He slides a napkin over and the Canuck takes it with a mumbled thanks and carefully dabs at the print. "Jenifur" is smeared a little, but the rest is readable. Four dates plus rehearsal. The pay is shit, Salerno notes, but the exposure will be worth it. The Canuck's not much for conversation, it seems, or not at first, but Salerno has all night to find the right questions and eventually the Canuck starts talking, a low, steady cadence of observation and aspiration punctuated by the glow of the cigarette pinched between his stained and callused fingers. He talks his way through half a pack and up to last call. He stops talking at his apartment door and says everything else with his hands.
"Billy Tallent," Salerno drawls and pauses to light a cigarette and then another for him. "That's a pretty stupid fucking name."
His arm behind his head and his eyes on the silently shifting images on the TV at the foot of the bed, the Canuck exhales smoke and nods.
"You should change it."
A one-shouldered shrug. "Prob'ly."
Salerno hunkers down lower against the headboard and grins. He knows that the only name that really matters to Billy Tallent is the one that he says as he comes, the one he snarls with the same abrupt vehemence as the curse that follows it. Billy apologizes after, sheepishly, but Salerno tells him it's okay. He's got hundreds of names. One more makes no difference.
Billy falls into sleep like a body off a boat, anchored with concrete and sinking fast into the black, so Salerno doesn't have to wait long before sliding out of the bed and making a circuit of the single room. He wants to touch everything and it doesn't take long; Billy doesn't carry much with him, outside of the stuff in his head: two pairs of boots, shirts, clean but not pressed, lined up in the closet; two guitars, the Telecaster in its battered case and an acoustic leaning on the straight-backed chair in the kitchenette, topped by a red ball cap; in the bathroom, the regular stuff, drug store name brands; in the kitchen cupboards, two mugs, two plates, two bowls, more for switching out than for company, Salerno figures, although maybe there's something hopeful there, too; a new coffee bean grinder on the counter; and in the fridge, a green stick of aged cheddar and a case of bottled water. A humidifier hums in the corner, keeping the room at a steady 55% humidity, just right for the acoustic whose wooden body flexes against the tension of the strings in the dry California air. On the bedside table a notebook lies closed. He thumbs through it. Its empty pages are accusing, crisply brittle with frustration.
Billy Tallent: one room, two guitars, an empty notebook. The whole place is sweet with the taste of him, the smell of his presence and of the absence he can't bring himself to fill. It's this that makes Salerno's nostrils flare like he's scenting the wind. The bitterness of this absence is so sweet, so poignantly warm and sharp and spent, like wine left overnight in a glass, that Salerno feels a little drunk. It will be easy to track.
He dresses without much regard for silence, since Billy is five fathoms deep and tangled in seaweed dreams about his childhood. Before he goes, though, Salerno folds his own camelhair coat over the back of the spring-shot easy chair by the window and slips Billy's leather jacket off of its hanger. At first it's too tight across the shoulders, but a little concentration makes it fit. It smells like Billy, which is all that matters.
By the time Salerno leaves, Billy's dreams have turned darker and he's weeping silently into the crook of his arm.
The Ovaltine on Hastings is the colour of dried blood, smells like gyros and bacon grease, and is crowded pretty much any time of the day. In spite of the full house, the waitress stands hip-shot behind the counter that runs the length of the shop and talks on the phone, raising her voice over the adenoidal gurgle of the coffee maker to tell her kid to put the TV dinner in the microwave by five and lay off the cookies or she'll shine his hide. She looks about nineteen years old. Two booths down from Salerno's a couple of city cops sop up runny eggs with white toast and spin scenarios to explain some locked-door mystery that they're either assigned to or that they watched last night on The X-Files. Out on the sidewalk, not ten feet from the cops on the other side of the plate glass window, a dime bag deal goes down with admirable sleight of hand. The sleeve of Billy's leather jacket sticks to the oilcloth on the table when Salerno lifts his arm to turn the page of his magazine. It's 2:30 in the afternoon, equidistant from lunch and dinner, and the grey Vancouver day feels stagnant like cold coffee in a cup.
There isn't enough sun leaking through the ubiquitous cloud cover to cast Joe's shadow on the table, but even without turning to look Salerno recognizes him right away. He's tasted him on Billy's skin and smelled him in the folds of his clothes and read him on the blank pages of Billy's notebook. He's followed his scent all the way up the west coast. The bear-bell on the door clatters as the wind shoves the door shut, not before gusting the sweet-sharp smoke of a newly lit cigarette into the coffee shop. Salerno waits, his head bowed over his copy of SPIN, the spiky tips of his now-blond hair visible over the back of the booth. He shifts his boot under the table and turns another page. Behind him, Joe's breath catches and is released in a phlegmy cough.
"Hey, asshole, ya think you'd tell me when you came crawling back to—"
Salerno looks up with grey-blue eyes, squinting through the smoke at Joe, whose face is open and worn like an old child's. Joe's staring with his mouth gaping so that the cigarette drops out and he has to juggle it between gloved hands, finally letting it go and stomping it into the tile, saying, "Sorry, man. From behind, you—"
"From behind I what?"
Joe lowers his head like a bull sighting the red cape. "Fuck your mother."
"She likes it like that. That way she can still watch Jeopardy."
Blowing air through his nose in something that might be a laugh, Joe slides into the other side of the booth—appropriating, not joining—and mutters, "sick fuck," not without a slight curl of admiration in his voice. His gaze slides sideways toward Salerno and away again. His nostrils flare. He's a little unstrung by the disappointment of still-born joy, can't get up and leave like he clearly wants to. He covers by patting his coat pockets one after another looking for his smokes. Unsuccessful, he takes one from Salerno's pack and lights it from the book of matches in the ashtray on the table. He sits sideways with his boots on the seat and says nothing, pointedly not noticing Salerno and his jacket and his hair and the calluses on his fingers, until the smouldering cigarette is mostly ash balanced at the moment of crumbling. Salerno flips slowly through his magazine while outside a thin rain smears the window.
The ash rolls across the page and breaks in the spine of the magazine as Joe's hand comes down with a slap on the feature article. With a finger and thumb, he spins the magazine on the table so he can see it right-side-up. His jaw works while he skims the story and his fingers brush across the glossy shot of the band wailing on the big stage at Lollapalooza. He flips the book closed so he can see the cover: Jenifur in arty black and white, Billy Tallent standing in Earl's place, unsmiling and not quite cocky.
He makes it all the way outside with the magazine crushed in his big fist before he loses it. The rolled magazine is too light-weight to make a dent in the newspaper box on the sidewalk, so Joe uses his boot instead, taking a second shot that's meant to but doesn't actually lift the box off of its feet, which have been bolted to the cement in anticipation of this kind of occasion. Salerno cranes his neck over his shoulder and watches him through the rain until he disappears behind a delivery van, then he orders more coffee and leaves the waitress a big tip.
When Salerno turns up backstage after one of Joe's acoustic shows—forty people staring over Joe's head at the television and breaking "Blue Tattoo" in half with cheers when the Canucks score in overtime—Joe backs him up against the palimpsest of band posters on the wall and says, "You stalking me now, or what?" When Salerno tries to introduce himself, Joe cuts him off: "I don't want to know your fucking name, asshole." Salerno smiles the whole way back to Joe's room over the Mystic Pizza in Kits, and there he backs Joe up against the wall and puts his callused fingers just where Billy would, under the greasy mowhawk in the hollow at the base of Joe's skull, and his thumb into the seam where Joe's jaw meets his throat so that Joe breathes, "Jesus fuck. Jesus," with the most satisfying tone of despair and wanting. When Salerno answers, "Not quite," Joe recovers his accustomed bravado to look him right in the eyes and say, "No shit."
After that it's a different game plan. No more direct contact, only inference, suggestion and withholding. While Joe leads the open mike at Benny's on Saturday, Salerno sits at a table by the crazy, wrought-iron art window so that the fading light shines through his spiky hair and turns it to a halo around a featureless face. He wears Billy's jacket and Billy's aftershave and smokes Billy's brand of cigarettes and, on the street, he paces along at Joe's elbow, at the very edge of his peripheral vision. He stands on the slanting roof of the porch outside Joe's window, his shadow falling across Joe's bed while Joe mumbles the broken syllables of Billy's name and comes in his sleep. Joe wakes up tired, and he wakes up tired, and he wakes up tired and he starts doing lines before breakfast so he can make it down the stairs. Finally, Salerno stands in the next booth listening to the dial tone while Joe plugs the pay phone full of quarters, dials Billy's number and leaves a message: "Hey, Benedick Arnold, this is the real world calling, so maybe you can get out of your fucking hot tub or whatever and pick up the phone. Pick up, Bill. Billy. Billiam. Look, something happened to Bucky, serious shit. I mean real serious shit, so call me back, you little prick, I mean it this time. Okay. Call me." Salerno knows that in his room in LA, Billy is sitting in his ratty easy chair listening to Joe's voice crackling over of the answering machine and he's singing under his breath, "I'm tired of waking up tired, waking up tired, waking up tired."
For a lesser being, the rest of it—the Commodore, the reunion tour, the Yeatsian slouching toward the aptly named Deadmonton—would be too easy to be interesting, but Salerno has an aficionado's taste for the Newtonian elegance of the machine, the way that it can be wound up and set on its course, so he follows along.
Still, it's not quite perfect: he has to make a few adjustments, a nudge here, a nip or a tuck there. For instance, he's got to deal with Earl's evangelical aunt, getting her and her inspirational speeches out of the picture so that Earl can do the final downward spiral in peace. That said, she has her uses, since Earl's temporary recovery knocks the last pins out from under Billy's hard-won sobriety, which, if nothing else, is beautiful in the utter commitment Billy demonstrates in his drunken surrender to the tragic mediocrity of the long-in-the-tooth travelling bar band. Salerno watches from the back of the club and even buys a tee-shirt to commemorate the occasion. A phone call to a friend of a friend of a friend of Bucky's does a nice trick and sets Salerno dancing on the shoulder of the Trans-Canada Highway at dawn while Bucky talks in his low, cutting voice and Joe loses his claim on his hero. There's also Bruce, whose dispassionate eye has to be infected a little by a fax from Telefilm Canada telling him they're suspending the funding for his next project pending the investigation of the Commodore benefit. Human nature does the rest, grinding its clockwork gears and propelling the whole thing toward ultimate entropy.
On that last night of the tour, Salerno strolls along the sidewalk outside the club, past Joe on the steps with two glasses—a not-quite empty gesture unacknowledged, anyway—and a half-full bottle of rye. Salerno's a block away before he hears the shot and he smiles because he knows that humans fall by twos and Joe doesn't go down alone. Billy will always have six strings and twenty-one frets, and he'll be gaunt with tenth-day hunger, but he'll never again have tenth-day creation. As the dismayed, panicked shouts ricochet between the dark buildings, Salerno ducks into a bar and toasts himself, because anybody can fuck the world over with hate, but only a true artist can do it with love.
He listens to the wail of sirens and buys another drink. Under his ribs, the old jealousy is still burning, so he closes his eyes and searches the dull landscape for a new prick of light.
Notes: While watching the audio commentary version of the film the other day *waves at Brynn, the source of this joy* I got an explanation of a rather weird appearance in the cast list in the closing credits. Apparently, Danny Salerno was a guy making a documentary about the movie and wanted a walk-on so they put him in. He's the dark-haired guy in the brown leather bomber jacket who passes in front of Joe near the end of the movie when Joe is sitting on the steps outside the club. This Danny Salerno seems to have had an interesting sense of humour, because he wanted this walk-on character to be listed in the credits as "Satan." Well, I could hardly let that go, could I? No, apparently not. For better or, I suspect, for worse. So, thanks to Brynn for the commentary version of the movie and thus the inspiration.
Feedback welcomed at email@example.com.