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Avatars Descending by Glenn Osborn
published in Volume 9, Issue 2 on April 15th, 2002

When we came into the club that night--the night that Zinc reinvented Avatars Descending--the place was already on fire. The opening band, Timequest, had apparently outdone themselves, and the bubbling buzz as we moved through the crowd with our instruments was not what we were used to--it was warm and musical, but it wasn't about us.

We'd built our rep over five years on the road. We weren't the Rolling Stones, but people in three or four states knew our music. When we walked into a club, people cheered. But not tonight. Tonight people just moved aside and kept talking as we pressed through. People seemed to hardly notice us, in spite of the fact that we were an hour late.

The owner, Frankie, intercepted us about ten feet inside the door and collared Lanny. Over the noise of the crowd I heard him say, "You're the luckiest man on earth tonight." He pointed at the stage, where the first band was almost done knocking down. "They blew this place away, and when you didn't show, they blew it away again. If they didn't have to leave for another gig, you'd be out the door right now, man. Go ahead, you guys. Let's see if you can top that." Then he just walked back behind the bar.

It took us the usual half hour to set up and we could tell something was different. Nobody seemed to care if we were there or not. They were talking and dancing to the jukebox and ordering beers. Usually there's a kind of lull while you're setting up and people seem impatient. Tonight they didn't.

Neither did I. I was the reason we were late. I was the one who had punched Zinc and bloodied his nose and I was the one who refused to play that night until Zinc apologized to me for fucking around with my girl Juice. You can't go fucking around with the chicks of other bandmembers. Zinc knew that as well as anyone.

Well, he wouldn't do it. Wouldn't apologize. But then Juice came into the room and told Zinc to leave, and she didn't say it very nicely. This changed the complexion of things. After he left, Juice told me, Look, honey, he was just flirting, and so was I. We're all friends, and shit happens. You oughta drop it, Marion.

I hated it when she called me by my real name. What I did, though, was pick up the case for the Roland and walk ahead of her out the door, down the hallway of the hotel and out into a cold November night. I decided to deal with the Juice situation later. As soon as I climbed in the back of the van and shut the door, Lanny floored the fucker and set me down hard.

When we were finished setting up, Chip put Frankie on a mic at the mixing board and the guy seemed to have forgotten our tardiness. After he spouted a list of upcoming bands, he said We're very glad tonight to present a band you all know from their CDs on Record Records--and here he started screaming our band name over and over--Elevator Music! Elevator Music! Elevator... He didn't seem to comprehend the irony of the name, which was only to be sneered.

Chris just cut him off with a cymbal crash and we were into the first chorus of our most popular song, Elvira Madigan's Problem. I figured about one percent of the people in the room knew who Elvira Madigan was, but who gave a shit. The song was getting some air play in Dayton, our home town, and East Lansing, Ann Arbor and Detroit. And this was Toledo, gritty gateway to the sea. They knew us here.

But they didn't give a damn. You can tell when you're not going over and that night you could smell it. Some people stood close by the stage and watched--drunks and maybe the local music reporter--but we had none of our usual crowd control.

We finished the song and Lanny plucked a few bottom notes, like he was sending out an SOS. Then he took off the Fender and strapped on the Gibson. It had a raunchier sound that he usually saved for the last couple of songs. I flipped a few switches on the keyboard and bounced out a couple of arpeggios to test the sound of the room. Chris rattled through a series of reggae rim shots. Zinc just stood there, his Stratocaster waving a small arc in time with some beat playing in his mind.

We played dance numbers and we played ballads, and Zinc bled into the mic. I almost felt some sympathy for the bastard. Yeah. The Devil.

When you've got a dead crowd in a club, the best thing to do is to play some covers. You learn that fast on the road. So we hit everybody from Curtis Mayfield to Talking Heads to Warren Zevon. At one point, out of the blue, Chris tapped the first few slow beats and we were into CSNY's Guinevere, for Christ's sake.

Playing three-minute pop songs, you burn through a lot of music real fast. We'd only been on the stage half an hour when Lanny blew into his mic his usual spiel about tipping the waiters and ordering another round and that we'd be back in a few minutes. I watched Chris and could tell he was ready to keep on playing until we had them under our spell. The way it worked pretty much every night, that was what he had in mind. But Lanny unstrapped and walked off the stage. The rest of us followed quickly. The crowd couldn't have cared less.

Chris went to the bar and ordered a margarita. Lanny sulked over a glass of water. Zinc and I walked out the back door and into the blackness, now crossed at a sharp angle with blowing snow. I'd seen Juice in the lobby and just waved. She understood.

Normally, Zinc doesn't say much. He even has a Bob Dylan attitude about his music: It speaks for itself. He doesn't have to explain. Lanny gets us organized, and we recognize him as the leader of the band, but Zinc is our creative genius.

Choosing to speak a few syllables, he said to me, Bounce, stay loose.

That's all he said. Then he took off running across the parking lot. I saw him crouch and slide like a base stealer onto a little drift, then make a snow angel and laugh his ass off. I went back inside and looked for Juice.

She was at the bar with Aim--Amy--Chip the sound man's lady and driver of what we called the Groupie Van, a 1978 Chrysler sedan that looked as if it had been on the set of a Mad Max movie. While Aim drove, Juice kept the books and made arrangements. She decided where we'd stop to eat and the motels we'd stay in. Sometimes they were joined by a genuine groupie, for Zinc or for Chris.

I walked over to Juice and Aim and didn't know what to say. I felt sheepish and guilty but still angry. Just to fill the silence I asked Juice for a cigarette, then went back to the stage and stood behind the Roland, watching the crowd, catching occasional looks and sending back a honky tonk riff in exchange. Chris and Lanny and Zinc ambled on together and I knew they'd come from the van and a line of coke.

Lanny started it off. Pluck, pluck, cluck, cluck. Funky Chicken. We played a couple more covers. Van Morrison, Into the Mystic. Fats Domino, Blueberry Hill. Steely Dan, Haitian Divorce. People began to dance again. They forgot about Timequest and just boogied. That's what they'd come there for and we were louder than the jukebox.

My left hand was sore and swollen. Zinc's nose looked broken and streaks of purple and red were spreading under his eyes, but his hands on the fret board were sure as the feet of a mountain climber, only much faster. After a ballad break for Boz Skags's Pain of Love, from "Slow Dancer," which brought out all the damaged romantics, Chris tapped us into the first bar of our own Avatars Descending. Lanny whomped out enough bass to cover the deficiency I felt in my left hand and we caught each other's eyes and smiled. Zinc strode across the stage like he always does on that song, which made the crowd push toward the stage in mock belligerence.

Then Zinc did something totally out of character. Over Chris and Lanny's continued steady beat and bottom, he stung out the first few notes again of Avatars Descending. But like it was a hymn. Chip picked it up with a snare ruffle and Lanny dropped in with what looked to Chip, at the mixing board, like a boa constrictor undulating on top of a parade of fenceposts.

All of us sing, so all of us had mics. Lanny looked at his as if it were there to interview him. In the one beat he missed, Zinc shouted, "G!" as if pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Avatars Descending is in the key of E minor. It rumbles with blues undertones through a lament about the death of leadership and descends into an anarchic battle, just to prove the point. At the beginning, it always gets people dancing and at the end it always makes them go for another drink.

Before the echo of Zinc's demand had faded, I hit a 10-finger G Major, held down the keys and stabbed the wah-wah peddle with my right foot. Chris hit a couple of triplets and danced off into a ska shuffle that Lanny knew instinctively to lope along on right behind the beat. The moment was like people have reported in auto accidents or tornadoes; time slows down and you can feel nanoseconds, see things happening as if they were, ironically, moving slowly.

I could go on for an hours about those few seconds after Zinc shouted "G!" but what's more interesting started with the smile on Zinc's face the moment he saw what we had collectively done with his command.

Many musicians have said, and I'll confirm it, that music is better than sex. When the band is in the groove, a Ferrari cranking on all twelve cylinders, there is a palpable joy that spreads from player to player and then from one dancer or listener to another and you can literally see a wave of pleasure spread out over the room.

Zinc set off a tsunami that night. Some aural god--Pan, perhaps, or the Pied Piper--spoke directly to his hands and bypassed his brain entirely. From where I stood behind the Roland, I could see him leaning into the crowd like a man trying to find his way in the dark. But what came out of the amps and flowed out through the Marshal's and into the room was like the snap of a whip.

Crack! And you could see every face in the room snap toward the stage. Then Zinc proceeded to deconstruct Avatars Descending, playing it backward and upside down. It was the same song we all knew, same song the crowd knew, but no one had ever heard it before. Not like this.

He played like the avatars the song was about, like a cross between Django Reinhardt and Robert Johnson...

...that crippled gypsy,

your deadly crossroads...

Same song, same lyric, but the burn Zinc put on it that night...it was like a whole new song. Where he came up with switching to the key of G, I don't know, but the effect was like spraying butane onto a campfire. First, a deep, funky mist arose and then a hissing, the vibrato he forced onto the strings of his guitar. Chris switched to brushes and Lanny took a step back, plowing a deep furrow under Zinc's lead. There was a button on the Roland, one of a hundred, right above Calliope and just under Anthem that I couldn't read because of the sweat in my eyes. I'd never hit it before. I thought it said Blood. What the hell.

I played a vamp over the top of Zinc's solo. The synthesizer screamed like a wild animal. Zinc turned only his head at me, his body still leaning into the crowd. I could see in his eyes a question: Are you following me? Will you follow me? I answered with a flattened seventh that overrode his guitar for a moment then sank like a handkerchief thrown onto the crest of a wave. Yes, is what it said.

No one knows, not even Zinc, probably, what he did with his pedals, five or six of them, and his wah-wah bar and the volume controls on his guitar. Blazing notes from outer space burst from the Marshals like a field of asteroids.

Out on the dance floor, couples broke apart and groups of people formed and danced toward the stage. Then the whole dance floor became something like a single couple dancing. They weren't dancing with themselves and they weren't dancing with one other person. They were dancing with each and every person on the dance floor. They were dancing with abandon. Even the shy girls and the nerdy guys came out. It was ecstatic for the crowd and it was ecstatic for the band, co-conspirators in the ecstasy of music.

Lanny was the first to rise above the stage. I watched his feet go limp as if he were swimming, floating a foot or so over the jumble of cables. Then all of us followed, trusting entirely the force that lifted us, father music, mother harmony. Zinc shot forward and drifted like a mad cloud over the dancers, and the whole place pushed beneath him and began to move in synchronicity with our music. The barstools, empty of people, gathered and bent themselves into shapes resembling trophies. I saw Chris and his kit levitate, the drums rising to become vibrating planets. And then the majesty of our music pulled me toward the ceiling, gravity impotent. Looks on the faces of the dancers made me think they might be penitents at a joyous, tearful shrine.

Zinc's final note, an A-flat seventh delivered from on high and processed through his bank of effects, sounded like the scream of a dying bull, an avatar descending. That note granted each of the dancers an extra day of life and provided resolution to their lost demands. It looked to me as if we had just panned a pie plate full of twenty-four-carat gold, which I would gladly have hurled back into the river just to have kept that feeling alive for another five seconds.

That night we treated them the way the wind treats a flag. When we finished, they were spent, cruising numbly past the nirvana they'd come there for, crashing onto the dance floor, smiling.

And when the music actually ended, hours later, I still had the Juice situation to deal with. But on that night, after that delirious magic, that proof that music is better than sex, Zinc could have my girl. Hell, he could fuck my mother and I wouldn't care.

~~~

It was only a few months later, though, that the tensions overwhelmed us all. I told Juice to take a hike and that left Aim alone in the Chrysler, which infuriated Chip, and that, in turn, set up a side-taking battle that left us all bloody. By mutual decision, we called it quits. Another great band joined the parade of broken dreams along the musical highway.

After Elevator Music broke up I used to see Zinc play now and then, standing in for any band that needed a guitar. In fact I saw him only a couple of months ago, outside the Social Security office. Said he was on tour with a warm up band for Phish. I laughed. Phish doesn't do warm up bands, I said. They just get out there and put on a show. What the fuck are you talking about, Zinc?

It was a joke, Bounce. I don't play anymore.

I thought about that night when I punched him. I felt the weight of that in what he had just said, but when he walked off without saying another word, I thought, Jesus, can that be true?

If I'd had a guitar in my hands right then, I'd have thrown it at him and yelled, Play this, you asshole! And it's impossible for me to believe he wouldn't have picked it up the way any guitar addict would and checked out the craftsmanship, the quality of the pegs, the distance of the strings from the fretboard and that he wouldn't have tested it, wouldn't have burst through one of his leads--maybe from Avatars Descending. But I didn't have a guitar to throw and Zinc just kept on walking.

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