[Non-Fiction] The Bones-Butter Rhythm Section

2:12:00 PM

 It's strange that I wouldn't even remember his name anymore. We were good buddies, after all. I remember him as this wiry, meek looking little guy with a boyish enthusiasm and an immense talent for drumming and music. He was at once down to Earth and totally eccentric. He was a responsible man — a married man — a homeowner, but he had not lost the disposition to entertain me with a sort of refined version of show-and-tell when I would come over to his house.

He had majored in music while in college, specializing in steel-drums. He worked on a cruise ship's cabaret. He was paid to make calypso sounds for the passengers embarking through the gangplank towards registration at the Port of Miami. I remember a lot about him — even the way he looked and dressed — Hawaiian prints and with thinning, wispy hair; protruding adam's apple; lanky … I even remember when he showed me the keyboard he had plugged into his computer since he had been commissioned to compose the MIDI score for a theatrical production. But, his name … gone.

I had met him through his wife, Sarah. That I remember. She was this unbelievably exotic specimen of a woman. Brown, but with sharp, European features. Jet black, wavy hair. Curvaceous, and with an indefinable accent to her English that was neither Indian nor Pakistani nor really, truly from England. Turns out, her accent, apparently, was "Persian." She made it a point to be recognized as Persian and not Iranian. I had never met a “Persian” before outside of a ragged secondary school textbook in ancient history; she was a stunning woman, and she was dumb. She met her husband on the cruise ship they both worked on. She was a fitness instructor who guided the passengers through some synchronized movements at the shallow end of the cruise ship's pool. Some woman, Sarah.

She had begun to be a regular at the open mic nights — one of my regular shifts — at the Cool Beans Cafe. The place had already become, oddly enough, a major locus of performance for the artistic subculture of the entire county of Dade. It was no more than 300 square feet; it was established in one of the middle units of an aging strip mall in the most unsavory part of Biscayne Boulevard. It was known to run out of coffee, spoons, mugs and so on, from time-to-time, but it's open mics and its “stage” had become legendary, occasionally featuring emerging, unknown acts that, Behold!, were on MTV a few months after passing through the joint. Even the emcee for the open mic - a guy who dressed up like a wizard and maintained a long, white beard and told tales while striking a kind of tambourine with a lamb’s thigh bone — had become iconic.

Sarah wrote her name down on the sign-in sheet every single week to perform the two or three songs she knew on her guitar. She was new to the instrument. She was new even to the idea of making her mark as a performer. By God, she was awful, and in a way that no amount of dedication, practice or instruction would correct. But she was lovely; delicious. Even the emcee, Nicholas the Storyteller, who had been dubbed "Syphilis" by the high-school punks that were often in the audience, swooned and bangged the bone on his large, Celtic drum a little more vigorously when announcing her act.

Her act wasn't her music, it was getting to watch this fox make a complete fool of herself in front of an audience and imagine ... imagine ... like, imagine that in another era her act would have landed her an infamous role in Frank Zappa's orchestra (or at least a place on their studio's couch). Or, that David Bowie might might have morphed this “Persian” into the Babylonian uplink for Ziggy Stardust, bedecking his treasured background vocalist with silky golden robes, a jeweled headdress … white mascara and a tambourine.

To her credit, she had composed the two or three songs she performed. She claimed they were the product of the deep stirrings of her soul, but in retrospect the guitar arrangement was probably her husband's doing since she fumbled through getting her fingers in the right place to make the chords. The lyrics were likely lifted out of some very beautiful journal of hers which only contained ornate penmanship. The lyrics weren't all that deep and she sung them out of tune.

However, since I played electric bass; and, since, by then, Sarah had come to know me as someone who plays bass; and, since I had expressed, one of those nights she had performed, an eagerness to help take her act from a solo gig to full instrumentation (before I had known she was married); and, since I had come to find out her husband was a drummer, it wasn't long before I was invited over to their cottage-style home on A1A, in the oceanfront village of Surfside for our first “rehearsal.”

That night, I brought my small practice amp, a patch cord, and my black, Fender bass guitar which had been dubbed "Butter" years before by someone who had watched me perform and was strung out on cocaine. The name stuck, and as I walked up to the front door laden with my gear, I suppose I had also brought with me the expectation that, by some stroke of fate, this would all end, sooner or later, in an orgy (or something like that) — involving some nakedness … I imagined this band we were forming to be the music or the sex or both.

So when Sarah’s husband turned out to be this cool cat — someone I soon began to admire, I was somewhat disappointed, knowing that she was probably happy with him. He wasn’t the usual insensitive pretty-boy or outright derelict dope-head that I had presumed women like Sarah tend to glom on to. But, who knows how this would play out, I thought.

Her husband turned out to be a musician of the first order. There's always this sublime satisfaction when you have a chance to jam with someone who is either at the same or at a better caliber than you. You get this sense that the psychics were right all along in saying that all humans were endowed with ESP but had lost it shortly before the dawn of history.

Sarah's husband was a much, much better musician than me. Even though he specialized in bucolic instruments, especially the steel drums, he was deft with his jazz-style, powder blue drum kit and well-versed in the 26 Rudiments of Drumming.

After I had set up my rig and he had unpacked and assembled his kit from the closet; and, while Sarah was in the kitchen making herself a cup of tea before the first rehearsal of our power trio, her husband and I got acquainted — not through conversation, but by improvising on the blues in the key of E.

When Sarah came into the room, her husband and I were already deep into the bridge in what had started to sound like a Led Zeppelin tune. She watched us while sipping on her mug with a strained smile. We hastened to do one round of the head before our fortisimo finale — presumably for her, our audience. Aplauso, aplauso, she said, clapping mildly.

After her husband and I stopped laughing from all that shit-talking and the dirty jokes musicians are wont to trade when they talk through their instruments, we wondered aloud to Sarah why she hadn't brought out her guitar and begun setting up.

What could she do? She was out-classed, and so she did the only thing she could do — she got pissy at her husband for humiliating her. I mean, she didn't say anything out-right, but she balked at getting her guitar from the bedroom. She made a few crude remarks to him as she begrudgingly retrieved it and brought it into the study where we had set up. She snapped the latches to the case open, and she sneered at her husband while both he and I tried to explain how to improvise a blues in E — just a warm up, you know. You can't get it wrong, we said. It doesn't even matter if you're in the key of E or not, we'll follow you.

Well, before we all hit our first note together, she quit the band. She huffed and puffed back to her bedroom with her guitar back in its hard-shell case, and with my dreams of a the drug and drink-induced, careless threesomes shattered; and, with Sarah's husband facing a very long night after our rehearsal, we packed up our rigs, chatted over a few beers for about an hour while Sarah calmed down, and that was that.

Wasn’t she was the one wanting to be a musician? Wasn’t this all to fulfill the expression of her deepest passions? It was her dream, right? How else was this supposed to end, after all? Making music is a sloppy affair, and any band worth a squat is bound to be inbred and feckless with their organs and orifices while remaining true to the heartache and disastrous choices that drives it. Some musician she was, that Sarah.

So, as the weeks went on, Sarah sort of fell by the wayside while my friendship with her husband blossomed. We would meet at a cafe in Surfside’s small commercial strip for its weekly gathering of jazzy-types and jazzy-wannabes.

Its decor and ambiance distinguished itself by being truly the product of decades of geegaws being glued to the walls by any number of different temperments of the countless employees to had served there. The usual fare in those days were geegaws glued to the wall in the exact, same way as every other cafe or restaurant bearing the same name throughout America. This cafe displaced one’s customary, well-groomed and market-tested experience of a dusty floor littered with peanut shells and drinks prepared by trained “mixologists” for the momentary illusion of having stumbled into a run-down dive in Paris’ Latin Quarter. And, true to the atmosphere, it drew from a surrounding community built on retirees who could recollect the glory days of Jackie Gleason’s Miami. Sarah’s husband and I joined a uniquely eclectic club whose ranks were filled up by aging failures or former aspirants to the Blue Note or the Green Mill’s stage.

We watched lackluster performances of scat vocals. We sat in for the jams, adding our shared penchant for classic rock and ‘70s R&B overtones to Take the A Train. We tried to recreate, if only in our hearts and subconscious, the moment that Joni Mitchel and Jacco Pastorious probably waltzed in here for cocktails after a long day with the tourists at the Marco Polo Hotel on the other side of the causeway.

Oddly, it was kind of a sad scene. An oasis of the Roaring Twenties at the height of an era where Matchbox Twenty, Blind Melon and the like were saturating the radio waves. We were experimenting with and rehearsing a forgotten cannon of music while the vital subculture was coordinating with the “real” nightclubs in South Beach to establish Miami as the capital of hip-hop, electronica, techno and, generally, beat-oriented music. They succeeded in that enterprise not long before this curious little place and its antiquarian club wordlessly disappeared as if it was washed away by natural beach erosion.

I suppose that Sarah had that sixth-sense to know it was a sad scene unlike the Cool Beans Cafe's very much alive and acclaimed open mic nights because, while her husband and I snapped our fingers to recognize virtuosity, she never, not once, ever joined us or played there. At The Cool Beans, however, her regular, weekly performances were paying off by getting a small but dedicated following to listen to the same two or three songs — again.

But, as it goes, my friendship with her husband had matured into an outright “bro-mance,” and I’d often be at his place talking music and MIDI with him while Sarah was pulling late hours. I had spoken it over with The Cool Beans’ owner, and she granted us the stage when we decided to forego convincing Sarah to add guitar and vocals.

We were a duet, The Bones-Butter Rhythm Section, and the act consisted of completely unrehearsed, stream-of-conscious grooves, and our song titles were often called Five Minutes, or Ten Minutes. If we wanted to spread the sauce thick, we’d title it all fancy, like, Three Minute Groove in C sharp minor 7, Adagio.

Our performances were very well attended, and we continued to spread the values of our antiquarian club-mates by wearing either barrettes or turtlenecks or both to our performances. Turtlenecks in Miami, ladies and gentleman! We were praised for being, I don’t know, avant-garde in a city desperate to be counted as a cultural epicenter like New York or London, but really we were just show-offs and our grooves weren’t all that good or entertaining. I got bored by them while I played them on the small coffeehouse stage. Before half the set was finished, I would get weed-induced panic attacks knowing it would be another twenty minutes before I could get another complimentary beer. But, our audience —  mostly older bourgeois and North Miami professionals — ate it up, excepting, of course, Sarah who never — ever —  not once, attended a performance of ours.

I can’t even remember her husband's name, but I can understand when I think of it, that we must have been a bit cruel to Sarah. Here she was hustling to be a singer/songwriter while me and her hubby undercut her gusto by not only playing several gigs, but also packing the house with our cheap warez … no deep stirrings of our soul were ever put into the music, and there she was cut out of the band that she formed …  still struggling to get through the F minor bar chord in one of her songs.

But, for my part, there was no awareness at the time of how my presence in Sarah’s life must have been affecting her matrimony. Only, one day towards the end of my bro-mance with her husband, the three of us were casually sipping beers and chatting amicably, and I could sense the envy and jealousy between them. Or more precisely, I could sense the envy and jealousy Sarah had for her husband, and I could sense his frustration in what I could only imagine were more frequent quarrels over nothing at all.

During one of the last times I was over at their home, I was leaning against the door jamb of a threshold between the kitchen and the dining room. I was gabbing with Sarah who was preparing her Chamomile tea on the stove. Her husband, on the other side of the wall, sat at the dining table.

 Absent-mindedly, I began thumbing through a stack of papers on the china cabinet spanning the wall between the dining room and the kitchen. My fidgeting caught hold of a colorful piece of heavy-stock paper. I slid it out from under the stack of bills and paperwork. I thought nothing of it. It was just an odd sensation that demanded investigation. For a split second, though, I held a glossy eight-by-ten in my hands. It was Sarah’s breasts — naked and with a look on her face that expressed both agony and rapture simultaneously. They were voluptuous — the puffy white clouds in the background of the image. They crowned her while the tops of tropical palm trees thrust her exposed figure into the foreground.

I knew immediately her husband was the cameraman, lying under her in the sand of a Bahamian beach. He must’ve snapped the picture while their ship had dropped anchor for few hours or for a day. Sarah stared at me in her obvious rapture; her husband stared back at her with an expensive camera lense pressed to his face; it so happens that the camera was on the same china cabinet that night, just further down on another stack of papers.

It was only a brief second before I had realized the error of my curiosity. Both Sarah and her husband —  each with a clear line of sight to me holding up the photo print, chest-high but without a line of sight to each other — went into high alert, both reflexively lurching towards me with wordless, throaty urgency.

I quickly re-filed the photo before they reached me, and we all awkwardly came to the agreement that nothing whatsoever had just happened. On the other hand, something did happen. We drifted apart, or at the very least, I was either distracted by something else and had stopped coming around, or maybe her husband stopped calling me to come over. I don't remember, exactly.

I still get, to this day, a bit hot and bothered by the memory of that image. Our band ended up in a threesome … sort of. Sarah, in hindsight, was a musician after all, and our band did, in fact, cut the muster. I was wrong; wrong about her. The whole affair was probably what led to the addition of another off-tune, mournful vocal melody in Sarah’s repertoire at The Cool Bean’s open mic. This, she confessed nervously into the microphone, was the first time she would be performing the tune. She was still grappling with shaping her fingers onto the strings of her guitar, but this song was … real; it truly was written by her, and I could tell because It was mostly rhythmic — one minor chord played with varying syncopated strumming patterns. It was thin on a clear melody. It had a verse, chorus, verse progression, but no bridge. Yeah.

She did a few takes before gaining enough momentum to break the orbit of her stage fright, and continue through to the last bar of the song. It wasn’t half bad. Not great; not inspired, but it was still, despite the critique one could levy on it, leaps and bounds better than the other two or three songs I had listened to a dozen times by now.

Her husband wasn’t in the audience that night. That wasn’t odd, though. He had never been there. Some marriage, those two.

Months later I had forgotten about them except on the rare occasion that I found myself driving through Surfside and passed by their home. As a matter of fact, the last time I saw Sarah, I was en route to, literally, the end of civilization: to Chrome Avenue — a two-lane highway which had a levee running along one shoulder keeping the swamp — The Everglades — damned up on the other side.


I was driving that night to set of warehouses near Tamiami Airport to meet-up with my band-mates of the last few months — another power trio, but this time, the fox was the bassist, I was the drummer, and Stan was the singer/songwriter. I had thought that if I switched to an instrument I only had passable proficiency in, some of the band tensions I had just stepped out of wouldn't arise. The fox was new to her instrument, and she, unlike Sarah, was not new to the aspiration to be a musician or to those disastrous choices and heartache that one feeds off of as a musician.

Plus, those two were both loose and having sex in the up-stairs loft Stan had constructed for himself in his makeshift live/work warehouse in the middle of nowhere. They had shacked up long before I joined their ensemble. Stan’s songs were about cat neutering and about the trials of constipation. He sold me weed but offered it freely to the bassist.

I was on my way there, passing through Surfside, not only for our regular band practice, but also to deliver my trumpet which I had picked up from the Miami Shores Community Band rehearsal space that afternoon.

That week, I had been feverishly ferrying all of my musical equipment that I had gotten hold of over the years to Stan’s place. I had already taken a PA system, a performance-grade bass amp, a four-track, and a drum machine, not to mention the broken drum kit I had fished out of a dusty garage, refurbished with house paint and set up permanently in Stan’s warehouse since the first rehearsal. I was in the process of trading it and everything — all of my gear except for my axe, Butter, and a small practice amp —  for a derelict 1970-something Nissan Z car he wanted out. I even threw in the cardioid microphone that had been dangling by its patch cord like a noose from a rafter of Stan’s low-hanging deck. I was giving it all away, or rather making an even exchange, for the fixer-upper which had thick, haunted house-style cobwebs in its cabin from being under a tarp for so long.

I was fully aware that it was destined to spend several years on blocks, but I needed a new past-time. I was over being a musician in bands with all its drama and heartache. I never seemed to be the one getting laid, and it always seemed like being in a band inevitably devolved into petty bickering like that of an old, married couple ... with all of your band mates; petty arguments with three or four contentious, massive egos that comes standard-issue for musicians — especially the ones without any talent.

At any rate, the trumpet was the last of it, and I was on my way to deliver it. I was driving really slow through Surfside because I had learned the hard way after a late night frisking from one of the patrol officers of the village that those signs posted along the three-quarter mile stretch of A1A saying, “Don’t even THINK about speeding” were no joke.

A few hundred yards into the neighborhood, I saw just beyond my headlights Sarah’s rump bouncing stunningly in Lycra while she was finishing her evening jog. I don’t know what got into my head. Whatever it was that possessed me, I now mourn that I lost somewhere along the way — a sort of explosive impulse to improvisation. I probably lost it the day Butter was stolen from the trunk of my SUV in New York City while on my way to the town of Woodstock some years later. All that was left now of my musical muse was a pile of shattered automotive glass — translucent and strewn like gravel on Perry Street.

It had been months since Sarah and I had spoken, but so far as I knew, she and I (and her husband) were still on good terms. And so, on impulse I began unlatching the case of my trumpet in the passenger seat with my free hand. By the time I was rolling up to her, the mouthpiece was in place and the passenger-side window was down. I kept pace with her for a few seconds, observing her jogging with a kind of blank awe of a stranger who knew nothing about her. And then, I put the trumpet to my lips, pointed it at her and let out a blast that those who had been commanded to topple the walls of Jericho would have been proud of.

She jumped, startled and insensate at what had just happened. I began laughing maniacally, sensing that she couldn’t figure out where the noise had come from. It was a couple of miles later before the tears of laughter that had been streaming down my face dried up. Some jerk, I was.

I don't think I laugh like that anymore. It's more of a mischievous grunting these days — the kind you can type out like this

ha, ha, ha

All the heartache and poor choices didn't stop, though. It never does. What did stop was the willingness to improvise on it; what stopped — or rather was forgotten —  was the laughter; how to laugh, like, really, really hard. It's strange to think one could forget a thing like that, but there it is —  stuck in the deep well of time with Sarah's husband's name.

I never managed to get that Z-car back to a lot I could access since the tow truck driver that night needed its missing deed and non-existent registration to get started with the tow. But, it didn't matter. I never played with any serious intentions in a band again. Not ever. Instead, I managed to score a few months later, or more precisely, borrow without much intention of returning, an acoustic guitar. I resolved to write the crappiest country-western songs I could possibly compose. They ended up being very campy. They also ended up being very catchy. And, one night, I decided to perform them at The Cool Beans Cafe open mic which Sarah had abandoned long ago. The songs were received well and the suggestion came more than once that I ought to record them and capitalize on them. But, I didn’t. I couldn’t anymore. Really, I just couldn’t.

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