Four Electric Ladies ... Contents
Copyright Ben Goertzel 1996 -- All Rights Reserved
We went on the road the next morning. There was a gig in Milwaukee. Traveling with the band was all right. Harry, the drummer, was a moron; Julie, the bass player, was pretty quiet. Sophia and I talked a lot. She couldn't have cared less about physics, but she was interested to hear my general slant on the world. I quizzed her relentlessly about her music.
We made love every night, always wildly. She was by far the craziest lover I'd ever had. As would be expected from her stage antics. It was a great feeling standing out there in the audience, looking at her go through her act, watching all the guys drool at her, and knowing I'd be the one fucking her after the show! She was alive, she was a genius, brilliant, tremendous!
Sitting in bed with her listening to her play acoustic or steel guitar to herself -- that was bliss. She ran through the most beautiful melodies, off-the-cuff pillowcase sonatas for my ears alone. It was an awfully sweet privilege. Once, just for novelty, I ate her out while she made music. I could feel the melody speed up when I circled her clitoris faster; calm down when I settled down into long, broad licks. It was incredible. I was part of this spectacular music machine. I was inside her cunt and inside her mind.
"I've got to ask you, Vic. Why are you doing this?"
"Following us. Following me."
I shrugged my shoulders. "Nothing else to do with my summer."
She looked at me, unsatisfied.
"Fuck. Nothing else to do with my life."
"That's the thing, Vic. It isn't true. You do have something else to do with the rest of your life."
I laughed bitterly. "Sweet of you to say so."
Julie lit up a joint. Harry was driving. He liked to drive a lot. He drove very fast. The four of us passed the joint around.
"You know, Vic, you don't realize what a special case you are," said Julie, after the joint had gone around a few times. "We've been on tour three times and we've never taken anyone on the road with us before. Sophia wouldn't stand for it."
"That's a load of shit," said Sophia. "It just never came up, that's all."
"She likes you," said Julie. "That's what I'm trying to say. Usually she just fucks 'em and dumps 'em."
Sophia smiled at her and gave her the finger. "Thanks a fucking lot. If I weren't so stoned I'd get up and smack your ugly face."
Julie laughed. "You're just embarrassed."
Sophia blushed. It seemed very unlike her. "You know, she's right, Vic. I really do like you. You're different than anyone I've ever known. I mean, you're going through a bad time now, on account of your wife having died. But you're really together, you know? All the other guys I know have been so fucked up."
I laughed. I didn't feel that way at all. I found it hard to believe that there was anyone in the world less fucked up than me.
"No, I mean, you know what I mean. Shit, Vic...." The pot took over for a moment. She was having trouble finding her words. "You have ... you have a job that pays decent money and you like to do it. You...."
"My job is shit," I cut in. "It pays shit. From teaching and my post-doctoral fellowship together I get about thirty grand a year. Big hooptie-fucking-doo."
"Big hooptie-fucking-doo," mimicked Julie.
"Thirty grand a year," repeated Sophia. "Shit. Thirty grand a year. And you get fucking summers off. Shit, all three of us in this band don't make thirty grand a year put together, you know that, Vic?"
"Cause you just work off and on."
"You own your apartment, you've got a nice car...."
"What kind of car do you have?" asked Harry.
I shrugged. "Mazda 323."
"Shit. Nice car."
"It's all right."
"And the thing is," continued Sophia, lighting up another joint, "you're still a reasonably nice guy. You can sit here ... aw well, I dunno.... Fuck. And you're not bad in bed either." She grinned. "Really, Julie. You should try him sometime."
Now it was Julie's turn to blush. I put my arm around Sophia and studied her face. The pot made me focus on one feature at a time. She admired me, she looked up to me; I guessed it was a good thing. But what she admired me for were all the things I hated. All the things that seemed utterly worthless to me. The job was crap, it had no soul. The apartment and cars were for Diane, and she was dead now. It was all just empty junk. I knew it only impressed Sophia because she'd never had it. But then, how could I tell her it was worthless. I'd just be acting like a jerk. Spoiled middle-class brat tells young go-getter out of the slums that money isn't worth struggling for....
"You know, Sophia," I said. "The truth is, having a good job and a car and an apartment doesn't mean shit to me. The thing is, I was just raised that way. Everyone in my family goes to college and gets a decent job. It's understood, y'know? I couldn't have done anything else even if I had wanted to. It doesn't mean sheep shit."
We sat there quietly for a while. I took some really big puffs on the joint; held the smoke in as long as I could, longer than I'd ever done before. My mind filled up with thoughts; I had to let them out. I reached inside my mind, tried to find a proper tone of voice. "Did you ever think, Sophia, that humanity is a psychopathic race?"
She giggled. "Sure. All the time?"
"I mean, really." The words just rolled out. I wasn't thinking at all. "That we're intrinsically fucked up. There's just something wrong with us."
"That's what the apes said," chipped in Julie. "In The Planet of the Apes."
"Great movie," said Harry. "Pass the joint up here."
The Planet of the Apes. I remembered the movie from when I'd been the Devil, in that crazy dream.
Sophia had never seen the movie. I explained it to her. "In the movie, humans destroyed half the earth by nuclear war, and their evolutionary niche was taken over by mutant intelligent chimps, gorillas and orangutangs. The remaining humans were mute and were considered lower animals. Only the high priests of ape society knew that humans had once ruled the earth. It was written in their sacred scrolls. Man is evil. He kills other men for sport, for lust, for power. Man must be kept down; he brings destruction, to himself and to the world.... What I'm saying is, the high priests of the Planet of the Apes were right. The only way I can see for humans to be truly happy is through virtual reality. What I envision is a community of brains in a vat, each living in its own deluded fantasy world.... But there's a catch even there. The lack of challenge and pain would probably cause our minds to dissipate. Our brains would become uncreative, dull, and homogeneous in structure. It would require very clever programming to overcome this difficulty. You'd have to get the human brain to drive a non-human simulated being, interacting in a simulated society consisting of other non-human simulated beings. The key point would be to make the simulated beings less fucked up than humans. More like the super-chimps in The Planet of the Apes. See?"
"Do you really think people were always fucked up?" asked Sophia, seriously. "Maybe it's just us. Just our generation, I mean. Maybe it's a new thing."
"Yeah right. Are your parents any less fucked up than you?"
"I don't mean just one generation back. I mean... I don't know. I remember my grandpa talking about the Depression. How the whole family pulled together, helped each other out, you know. Everyone worked long hours in the family parking lot...."
I cut her off. "I know, I know -- everyone's grandpa has a story like that. A single potato made soup for six. Onions were a nickel, but no one had a nickel...." I paused to think for a moment. Everything was swirling and twirling. But her face was perfect, beautiful. "Really, though, you wouldn't want to go back to the 20's and 30's, would you? Things still basically sucked back then. I think if you wanted to find something really different, you'd have to go back a lot further. I mean, like fifty thousand years or so."
"Fifty thousand years? Were there people back then?"
"Sure there were. Cavemen. And cavewomen. Think about it -- things must have been glorious back in those days. Everything was vibrant, vivid, alive. So fucking alive, man! Think about it! You were part of a unified whole. Dancing around the fire to the beat of the drum! Returning to your personal corner of the cave, with your beautiful cavewoman. Or women ... shit. If you were strong enough. Making love without a thought in your mind. Setting out the next day to hunt mammoth ... just like a child playing games. That's the thing, man! Everything was simple then. Our downfall was technology. Not the apple after all. Whoever wrote the Bible, the fucking expert committee, they got this one badly wrong. We've got particle accelerators and radio telescopes, and Theories of Everything, we've got civilization, but there's something rotten in it, rotten down at the core."
Julie smiled. "I don't feel rotten, baby."
"Think about it. Fuck. We cured diseases, wiped out starvation -- well, at least in certain parts of the world. We made televisions, computers, automobiles, X-rays. With all this stuff we were only trying to change our circumstances, our surroundings -- but we wound up changing ourselves. We wound up changing ourselves, man! Think about it. We created a world at a distance. A world to be manipulated rather than empathized with. A cold world. This world is out there, man! And so the world grows more and more and more distant, every year, every day, every century. Every seventeen minutes! Millenia. Decades.
"And see, that's where our generation comes in! The natural consequence of the world at a distance finally unfolds itself! Alienation no longer the province of the loner, the deviant, the freak -- but rather a social norm. A society consisting of individuals alienated by that society. Shooting each other at random. Not even seeing each other as people. Fuck. Just so many robots, killing other robots, following their mechanical programs. It's the way of the world, man! It's the way of the fucking world!"
"Fuck," said Harry. "You are stoned, man. You are so fucking stoned."
"I like you like this," said Sophia. "You sound like a professor should."
"Give me a break. What the hell would you know about what a professor's supposed to sound like? How many professors have you actually known?"
"Hey! We're crossing over into Illinois!"
"Cool! Let's drink a fucking toast to the state of Illinois!"
"We don't have anything to drink."
"Well fuck it. We can drink the fucking air." Sophia raised up an imaginary glass and drank from it. She burped dramatically. We all followed suit. "Come on, Vic, tell me about yourself. What was the -- what's the phrase we heard in that movie? -- the concatenation of circumstances that came about to produce you."
"It's pure random chance, I think. No one's to blame...."
"Come on, seriously...."
I shrugged. She looked at me strangely.
"Really ... there's nothing much to tell. My parents were borderline hippies -- deep into the civil rights movement and peace movement stuff. My mom was deep in the women's movement too. They were both pretty straight-laced. Neither of them ever dropped acid or anything. Ummm.... My dad's a biology professor, an evolution theorist. My mom didn't start working till I was seven; now she runs an elementary school. An expensive private one, sort of progressive. Child-centered education. Did I tell you I was born in Africa? Upper Volta. We moved away when I was little though. I hardly remember it."
"So you're an African-American."
I laughed. It was a familiar joke but I always enjoyed it. "Right."
"Where did you grow up? After Africa, I mean"
"When I was really little -- out in California. It was pretty wild, I guess. Everyone looking like freaks, living out in the park, you know, the whole bit. People smoking joints and singing folk music, hair all over the place. Everyone wearing tie-dye, long skirts, sandals.... Marching against the war, boycotting grapes and Gallo wine. Picketing the grocery store every weekend.... Shit. I remember seeing all these pictures of Vietnamese in funny hats getting blown into smithereens. Maps of the war action on TV every night. The first run of Star Trek....
"Yeah, you know, when I think about it, it was kind of weird. Everyone was totally freaked out around me. No one wanted to life a normal life. I remember their discussions. It was my first education. They really thought all the normal roles meant nothing -- employee, employer, wife, husband, homeowner, you know, whatever.... But it didn't work out at all. I guess they got tired of denying their own ingrained thought-patterns, so they settled down to work and raise kids anyway. Bought homes out in the suburbs. You know how it goes."
"They just got old, I guess," said Julie. "You get older, you stop wanting to rebel. You just want to fit in."
"Kind of getting ready to settle into the grave," said Sophia.
"What about your family?" I asked her.
"I never knew my dad. My mom was a strip dancer till she got old; now she's a waitress. I remember hanging around the back of strip clubs when I was little."
"That's where she got the ideas for her stage show," said Julie.
"She might have been a prostitute," said Sophia. "I don't really know. I saw a lot of weird shit hanging out in the strip clubs. A lot of guys she brought home with her. She was Estonian. She was always bringing home dark-skinned guys. Eastern Europeans. Reminded her of family I guess.
"So you see, my mom was a freak, really. The family didn't want anything to do with her on account of the work she did. It's no wonder I'm such a freak myself."
I smiled weakly. Sophia sounded almost depressed. The pot was wearing off. No one was lighting up another. The words were starting to die down. Julie was looking down at her feet. She'd talked a lot, for her. That was the most she ever spoke to me, until a certain situation in Las Vegas. Usually she was as silent as the walls. She seemed like a nice, normal girl. I was starting to come to my senses. And ravenously hungry. Fuck. Fortunately Sophia was getting out some chocolates. "Hey, I'm a freak too," I said. "I don't think I'll ever fit in. Not now anyway. I was almost settled down with Diane. But not quite. I don't have the right kind of mind." I felt the energy surge through me again. The pot again. One big, final burst. My voice sounded like poetry. I was literally in love with the sound. "You know, you try to conform. You try to fit in. You try to do what you're told. Maybe you even do it very, very well. Or maybe you do it badly, just going through the motions. But there's something inside -- man! Something inside struggling! Something that wants to get out! Something that wants to rebel but is held back, too aware of the futility. That's what's fucked up, man. Outer conformity, inner rebellion. Or inner conformity, outer rebellion. Did you ever read Freud? He was a pretty bright guy, actually. He said, society only exists by suppressing the desires of the individual. This is the logic of civilization. But we can't exist without society, man! Mind is social, not just individual. We're just rebelling against ourselves!"
"Man, you've got to shut him up," said Harry. "I can't take any more of this nonsense. I'm going to dump him off at the next truck stop."
"Stop it Harry," said Julie.
"No, I'm serious. I can't taken any more of this."
"I'm fucking serious, man! I'm gonna kick his ass!" Harry was incredibly stoned; there's no way he should have been driving. He got up from the driver's seat and came back to punch me. He didn't know what he was doing. The van started careening around. Suddenly I realized no one was driving it. We were going off the road. I evaded Harry and grabbed the steering wheel. We were drifting off the edge of the shoulder.
"Fuck, Harry," said Sophia. "What the fuck are you doing?"
He was passed out.
"What a fucking asshole," she continued. "Let's dump him by the side of the road. What a goddamned son of a bitch."
"It's hard to find a good drummer," pointed out Julie.
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
The whole thing struck me as incredibly funny. I laughed for about forty seconds. As often, it was contagious; Sophia and Julie joined in. We just drove down the highway cracking up like a bunch of maniacs.
When we stopped laughing, though, something occurred to me. "I'll stop, I'll stop," I said. "I promise. The pot's wearing off anyway. I just want to say one more thing.
Did you ever read Crime and Punishment? By Dostoesvksy?"
"Are you crazy?"
"Just a little.... No, seriously. There's a quote in there that I like." I was whizzing in the wrong lane, passing a long row of cars. "'If I am talking nonsense, I am exercising man's one privilege over all creation! I would rather go wrong in my own way than right in someone else's!'" I steadied myself against the side of the van. "Rather wrong in my own way than right in someone else's.... That's Razumihin, Raskolnikov's buddy.... You know, Raskolnikov, the murderer. Raskolnikov the rascal...."
Harry was reviving, or dreaming. He was mumbling to himself.
I said, "Around the rough and rugged rock the ragged rascal ran."
Sophia looked at Julie knowingly, and giggled. "You know what this calls for?"
Julie nodded. She dug up a steel guitar from the back of the van and handed Sophia her acoustic, and they plowed straight through the Sex Pistols version of My Way. Sophia sung it with irony and feeling, just like Sinatra, just like Johnny Rotten. "But more - - oh so much more -- I did it myyyyyy way...." I lay back, closed my eyes, and listened. The van went straight as an arrow. I peeked out through my eyelashes to be sure there was nothing in the way. There were little grey spirals in my head. I thought of Diane for a moment, but she just floated away. I was there. She was there. They were there. The music was there. Fuck. Everything was peachy keen. All the nonsense thoughts melted away.
She told me how she got started in music. An old guitar, found in the closet. She'd made up her own chords, her own fingerings, her own melodies. She'd fiddled around for hours in the dressing rooms of strip bars where her mom worked. All the weird stuff she played that sounded Chinese or Middle-Eastern, it didn't actually come from any foreign genre. It was just Sophia-music, stuff she'd made up on her own. She'd had an immediate and obvious knack for composition. She'd made up rock songs, jazz, sonatas, everything. All based on her own chords. This was a particular point of pride of hers. I think I understood it. The notes are individuals, the chords are unities. Every note in a chord subsumes every other note in the chord. It's like a bunch of mirrors facing each other. Each one reflects the others, which reflect the others, which reflect the others.... The unity of a chord is like a state of mind, all kinds of disparate feelings bunched up together. She made up her own chords to express her own feelings. The basic emotions are the same for everyone, but different people combine them different ways. Using the same chords as everyone else, you just get across stock emotions. Using your own chords, you get across your own unique soul. And the same goes for scales, of course. The chords and the scales go together. The scales constrain your expression; and without constraint you can't have feeling. Pushing against the constraints of the scale, violating it a little, then moving on back -- this is the feeling of music. This is why something in the chromatic scale, Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue for example, of which Sophia played a wonderful version, is so free and romantic. The only way Bach could sound romantic was to play in the chromatic scale. The chromatic scale is all the notes; there's no dynamic of restraint and violation. It's all just free flow. Of course there are constraints implied in the melody, but these are less severe, more dynamic. She made up her own scales representing the constraints that she felt. The chords, her emotions, expressed contraints on her behavior, the scales. You can't act how you don't feel. The scales were her body moving up and down, wriggling its way through the world.
Eventually her mom sensed her ability and hired her a teacher. Around the same time, her little sister was learning to play the piano. Her sister was something of a classical whiz. At the age of fourteen, with her little sister's help, Sophia learned to play other people's music. She was amazingly dextrous. Her fingers picked up the chords and scales like nothing. But she always went back to her own music, the stuff she'd made up as a child. There was always an edge to her music, a funny twist that made some people uncomfortable, but, to me, was what made her truly great. This edge was her funny chords and scales creeping in. She would mutate a chord, step by step, until it changed from an G7 to something without a name, something with which she had the most intimate familiarity. You could see it in her body when she switched back to her own chords and scales. Her hips would sway differently; more free and less tense. It was the dialectic of self versus society. She was willing to move in the direction of normalcy, to play something people could understand. But only for a little bit. After she had them hooked, she'd move away again. She'd lead them off into her own world, and by the time they realized it, it was too late.
She always composed in the basic blues-rock framework. There were a few flirtations with classical, but she didn't have the theory background to write really good classical music. She'd never learned to read music adequately. I knew how to sight- read, I offered to teach her, but she was repelled by the idea. Her little sister Jenny, she told me, had done the whole piano- lesson thing, but it didn't seem to have done her any good. It just made you into a musical automaton; sapped all your creativity. She was glad not to have any education. She spoke of her little sister with a kind of excessive diffidence that seemed to veil hostility. I didn't pursue the point. Clearly, she was afraid music theory would fuck her up somehow. And maybe she was right, I don't know. The thing is, she understood composition in a way you can't learn in school. She had all the subtle points down with unearthly precision. She made up bass lines that moved from one riff to another in tiny steps, so small you never noticed you were moving; you just started out with one tune and ended up with another. Her solos wove together all the different rhythms from different parts of the song. No one noticed all this subtlety, of course. Not even the other two in the band, let alone the kids in the mosh pit. Julie was competent enough to play the bass parts Sophia showed her, but she didn't add much of her own. Harry didn't get all the rhythmic subtlety of her solos, like a really good drummer would have; he just hit everything in sight, Keith Moon style. As in The Who, it was up to the bass to keep time. And Julie was good at that; that was her strong point. She wasn't inventive, but she was steady. The band was a coherent unit. They all worked together like a single musical mind.
Standing there watching Sophia play -- backstage, if there was a backstage; or else just up front by the stage, avoiding the hardcore moshers -- my mind raced through all kinds of things. I never tired of watching her move her body -- her luscious, supermodel-quality body, whose sight was for everyone, but whose sight was mine, mine, mine alone! The notes she played fell down in my head like conscious, wildly accelerating and decelerating drops of rain. I put them in the framework of my octonionic physics theory. The harmonic scale, I observed, is a seven-tone structure lying inside a twelve-tone structure. The inverse of the harmonic scale is the five-tone, pentatonic scale, used in Chinese music. Sophia relied heavily on the five-tone scale, which is what gave her music such an exotic feel. She was spinning out the otherness, the hidden world, the underside of logical Western reality. The seven elements of the harmonic scale are the seven elements of the octonion algebra, from my physics theory. They are the seven elements we can hold in consciousness at any given moment. The harmonic scale fills up the awareness; the pentatonic scale does not. The pentatonic scale leaves room in consciousness for mind itself. It leaves space for reflection.
The octave is not a symmetric projection onto the twelve-tone scale. The distance between white keys, on the piano, can be one semitone, or two. We can split the octave into chunks: CDE, with two black keys between them; and FGAB, with three black notes between them. The pairs EF and BC are separated by only one semitone. The octave has a 3+4 substructure. Just like the octonion algebra, which decomposes into a three-element associative ring, isomorphic to the quaternions, and a four- element remainder.
A seven-element scale, decomposable into three plus four, embedded in a twelve-element scale. In my physics theory, on the other hand, we have a seven-element algebra, decomposable into three plus four, expandable into a twenty-four element algebra, a twenty-four dimensional space. Twelve, or twenty-four?
Music, physics, consciousness. The numerical correspondences were too vivid to be delusory. But yet too shaky to be definite. This was the Logos game. The patterns were there, but they were mellifluous, shifting. You could see the structure of reality, but not clearly. The mind was a magnifying lense, but it was never quite powerful enough.
There's not much to say about life on the road. It's all been written before. Lots of sitting in the van staring at the highway. Plenty of hot-looking bimbos for Harry, and me too, if I had wanted them. I had Sophia. Julie didn't seem to fool around at all. All in all it wasn't a bad way to live. Especially for me, as I had never done it before. It had the virtue of novelty. I was seeing the country as I never had done before. My parents had taken me all over the world, to Africa, China, Russia, Europe, but the only part of the Midwest I'd ever seen was Chicago. It was a very educational thing. Everyplace looked the same: fields of wheat and corn, pastures, stores, restaurants, roads, hotels. A good, solid, wasteland. Christ. No wonder the kids were so crazy to see Sophia. A bit of sex and excitement in their absurd, boring lives. Ecstatic pathogens, indeed. Implanting in them some kind of spark, something to make them hate their stupid surroundings even more. Her magic nipples, her twisted screeching melodies -- something to dream about at night. Something to run off to the big city for -- in hope of meeting her on the street, going back to her apartment with her, taking her nipples in their gaping Midwestern mouths.... They didn't have to know she was a junk fiend. Anyway she was off that now....
The kids were the same in every town. Not that much younger than me, but they did seem like juveniles. A different generation. All of a sudden I felt ancient. They were there in their jeans, in their T-shirts or flannels, sucking down beer, smoking joints, jumping around like psychos, lusting after Sophia. And I was rotting, crying, spiraling, like a corpse and a newborn baby. These people barely existed. They were like a human movie screen, shifting from one minute to the next. I wasn't a scientist, studying them. I was just fixed in a daze.
I was a roadie, for a band that wasn't nearly big enough to deserve one. I helped them set up and pack away the gear. I also dealt with what little management there was: called up clubs to be sure gigs were still on, collected money, negotiated free drinks, and so on. I was good at that. The club owners weren't used to dealing with someone as intelligent and articulate as me. Think about it: I probably have double the I.Q. of the average rock roadie.
Sophia was always worn out after a gig; she wasn't much good for anything. She often walked around while the rest of us packed things up. One night, it was in Pierre, South Dakota, I was packing away the cables and I heard Sophia scream. I didn't know where it was coming from. I ran outside the back door of the club and two guys had her pinned up against the wall. They were trying to rape her. They might have succeeded already, I couldn't really tell. "Get the fuck off her!!" I yelled. "Fucking...! Julie! Harry! Harry!"
No one was coming. I had to do something. I'd never beat up anyone in my life. But fuck, it was Sophia. I picked up an old piece of metal off the ground, a rusted old fencepost, and yelled "Get the fuck off her!" I jumped on top of them like a madman, bashing the fencepost into their heads, kicking them, scratching their eyes. I didn't know how to fight; I attacked them like an animal. They dropped her and turned on me but I was all over the place. My hands and feet in all directions. They were drunk anyway. I was dead sober, and out of my mind. They were bleeding all over the place. They took off in a hurry. I dropped the fencepost and led her back in the club. She clung to me like a baby. "Shit, Sophia.... The fucking bastards...."
"Thank god you heard me."
"Good thing you screamed.... Fuck."
"You really beat the shit out of them. I thought you were gonna kill them."
"I've never hurt anyone before in my life."
"You're a regular Chuck Norris. Shit."
In my more sober moments, I felt kind of stupid as a roadie. They could pack up their own equipment anyway. I was a useless appendage. So on the tenth gig of the tour, in Butte, Montana, I offered to play on stage with the band.
There had always been a handful of keyboard passages. Sophia had an old Roland; and when the situation called for it Julie would put down her bass to play it. I offered to take over at the keyboards for her so they could have bass and keyboards at the same time. Due to five years of piano lessons, I was a much better keyboard player than Julie, though no better than Sophia, and certainly no virtuoso. We made up keyboard passages for more songs, till there were only three or four songs I had to sit out. I was a Death Puppy. Why not? I even learned to imitate Sophia's style, so we could mingle our solos, in the manner of John McLaughlin and Jan Hammer, or Yngwie Malmsteen and that Swedish keyboardist, whatever his name is.
It was good. At least I was contributing something, instead of just following her around. I was in there playing with her, exchanging ideas and feelings with her, communing with her wonderful musical mind. Plus, I got part of the proceeds of the tour now. So I wasn't running down my bank account anymore.
Sophia and I were getting comfortable together, feeling like a couple. We didn't talk so much as we had in the first few days - - the novelty of my bizarre philosophical observations had worn off on her; and she didn't have much to say. She was totally wrapped up in her music, and flattered by my appreciation of it. We made love obsessively. Her incredible physical beauty never really wore off on me. Every time we made love I was thrilled just to watch her. Her curves and acrobatic contortions, her perfectly shaped breasts, her slender, flawless legs and ass had me in a semi-permanent hypnotic trance.
Living on the road was becoming a habit; my body got used to driving through the night. It all was going swimmingly well. Julie and Harry were starting to hang with each other more. But they didn't even seem to resent my joining the band, despite the fact that it decreased their share of the money. Everyone seemed to realize the band was better with a keyboardist. The rhythm section had never really been strong enough to carry the band as a trio. Our gigs were starting to attract bigger audiences. The clubs were always full. A lot of good reviews in local papers. I started to think I might have a career as a musician. The hell with superconductivity anyway. It was all the same thing. Manifestations of the Logos.
Then, inevitably, something bad happened. We got into Vegas about three o'clock; we had a gig there at nine. We checked into a cheap motel downtown, then Sophia and I took off and wandered around Fremont street for a while, playing the nickel slots and drinking the free booze the change girls bring around. But at eight when we were supposed to meet in the hotel room, Julie wasn't there. We went out to the van and found her lying in the back, passed out. We couldn't wake her up. Her pupils were incredibly dilated. Obviously she'd taken something.
I realized I knew nothing about Julie. I'd assumed she was straight, because of her quiet personality, and because I never saw her doing any drugs, outside of the occasional joint. But what the fuck did I know?
We shook her, showered her, tried to rouse her in every way we could think of, but it didn't work. Finally we had to call the hospital. According to the doctors, she'd had an allergic reaction to some custom-made hallucinogen. A variant of ecstasy. No wonder she was always so quiet, I thought to myself. She was spacing out in her own private world. Fucking son of a bitch. I thought someone should stay in the hospital with her. Sophia didn't want to; she said she couldn't stand hospitals. Harry was out of the question. They let me sleep in the room, in an old armchair next to the bed. Only one person was allowed to sleep there. Sophia mostly stayed with me, but she kept disappearing for hours on end. I didn't question her about it. It was all a kind of daze. Harry was off God knows where -- drinking and gambling, I guess. I hadn't seen anything of Vegas; I hadn't even been to Las Vegas Boulevard. It was all too surreal. I'd just checked in at the motel, walked up and down Fremont street, played a few nickel slots, and then off to the hospital. White corridors and doctors in a hurry. It was a self-contained universe. It was Las Vegas, but it might as well have been the middle of Georgia or Indiana. Harry called it "butt-fuck Egypt." The same phrase he used for the middle of nowhere when we were out on the highway. I never quite understood what he meant. But I think he was onto something, in his stupid way. The rhythm of time was different in the hospital. Just like the rhythm of time was different in the middle of a Kansas wheatfield. Some hours were stretched out to infinity, others were compressed to nothing. It was a methodical rhythm, in the hospital. Totally out of synch with the rhythm of the body, the sun, the moon; the outside world. Doctors rounds in the morning. Nurses at mealtime and bedtime. Crying families periodically pacing the halls. Everything humming, buzzing, moaning, like an insane machine.
After a couple days, Julie spoke. But she was still pretty spaced out, and the doctors said they wanted to keep her under observation for a week or two. No one knew quite what was the matter with her. It was an unusual situation. Her vital signs were dangerously fluctuating. Being the most educated and mentally together of the three of us, I was the one who dealt with the doctors; and it was apparent to me that they didn't know what the fuck was going on.
Julie and I had never felt much for each other, one way or the other. She had never had much to say. Compared to Sophia, she was a big female nothing. I had too much to say for her taste, I'm sure. I intimidated her. But still, when she was lying there sick, I felt this powerful sympathy for her. I couldn't seem to peel away.
I also felt rather judgemental of Sophia for not staying at the hospital more. For some reason it seemed Sophia was always making excuses to leave the hospital and go back to the hotel. But I couldn't do that. Julie was sick, she was maybe dying; she needed somebody. I had to stay. Jesus, someone had to stay with her! Where the fuck was her family? I'd called them. They said they were coming.
A woman was ailing, quite possibly dying, and everyone had more important things to do.
Eventually it started to wear on me though. Just seeing the doctors and nurses run back and forth, and looking at the other patients, some of them really in the throes of death. There was this one man, in the room next door to her, who just lay there with his mouth open and his head leaning back, all day and all night long. Every now and then he would start convulsing and croaking and groaning, and the nurses would rush in and do something to him. The noises he made were really frightening; like nothing you've ever heard. I should have recorded them. Anyway, the fourth day Julie was in the hospital, I decided to take a long break, and I walked back to the hotel myself. It was only a few miles. Sophia had left a couple hours before, in the van. When I got back to the hotel room, I found Sophia screwing some strange guy in our bed. She was on top, apparently having a great time. When I walked in, instead of pulling off him, she turned around to face me, and gave a weird, aggressive look. I turned around and left; they kept on fucking, I guess. We talked about it later. "We never had any kind of committment," she pointed out. "This is the way I am. I'm a slutty girl. I see something I want, and I take it. Hell, I fucked you, and I hardly even knew you...."
"True enough," I said. "I still don't like it." I wasn't as upset as I could have been. Julie's situation, the guy in the room next door, made Sophia seem a little less serious. I saw the old guy in my mind's eye, with his head leaned back, moaning ohhh ohhhhhh ohhhhhh.... "Fuck, though. Come on, Sophia! Shit...." All of a sudden it was starting to get to me. What a callous bitch she was! "It's not like we're just dating or something. We're around each other all the time. It would be one thing if I didn't have to see it...."
She looked down at the ground, clearly feeling bad. Which was exactly what I wanted. At least a shred of remorse. "I didn't think you'd see it, Vic. You were at the hospital. I took the car...."
"I thought I'd come back and see you."
Her voice got sharper. "Well, that was mighty nice of you. You should have thought of that a little sooner. You haven't fucked me in four days you know. Since she went in the hospital. What the hell do you expect me to do?"
I shook my head and sighed. Four days. Her bass player was dying and she couldn't do without sex for four days. It was ridiculous. I wanted out of the conversation. There was no point to it anymore.
It was all a stupid piece of shit.
With effort I squeezed out some words. "What I expect and what I want are two different things, Sophia."
She took a deep breath and tried to be calm. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. You know you're special to me. But I'm a free spirit ... y'know ...."
At this point I noticed there was something funny in the sound of her voice. She seemed a little shaky somehow. In a flash I realized what it was. "You're shooting up again, aren't you?"
I went back to the hospital. Julie was surprised to see me. The doctor was worried. She'd taken a turn for the worse. But yet she was lucid, more lucid than I'd ever seen her, I mean even before she'd gotten sick.
She looked at me strangely. "You don't have to stay here all the time."
"I don't mind. I've got nothing else to do."
"This is Vegas, man. I'm sure you could find something...."
We were quiet for a while.
"Do I bother you?"
"No, no. Not at all, Vic. Honestly. It's just ... I don't know. It feels weird, that's all." She started laughing.
"What's so funny."
"I'm sorry.... I don't know.... I have no idea. You're being kind to me, I shouldn't laugh at you for it."
"It's okay, laugh if you want. It doesn't matter."
A confused but somehow comfortable silence. I put my hand on hers. "Hey, Julie. I'm worried about you, that's all. You nearly died, I mean. It's heavy shit."
"You're a nice guy."
"I like to think so."
She laughed again -- a silly laugh, a sort of giggle superimposed on a breath.
"You can't stop laughing at me!"
"You're a funny guy."
"You know, Vic.... I did almost die.... I know it."
"No, I mean ... I saw a light. It wasn't a white light, like they say you see. It was more a kind of purple light. Purple with red in the middle and on the outside -- like a kind of giant tit."
Now it was my turn to laugh at her.
"It was really weird, man. I looked at the light, and the middle was in the outside, and the outside was in the middle, and it all just sort of spun around. And everything was in there, man! Everything I ever saw. Everything you ever saw. It was really incredible. Everything in the world was there. Fuck. I knew everything would be all right. It was just the most special thing. And then it was gone, though. Everything went to shit again. I thought, fuck. There you had it. Everything was perfect. Now it's back to the world again. Stupid fool."
She smiled faintly. "What's the matter. You look sort of sad. It isn't me, is it? Don't be upset because of me."
I looked her in the eye. My attention had been drifting. "Actually, it isn't you. I just caught Sophia in bed with some other guy. That's why I came back here now."
She wrinkled up her weary-looking eyes. "You weren't surprised, were you?"
We just looked at each other a while, again.
"You know, I thought she was going to be the one to kill herself with drugs. Not you."
"It's a one in a million thing, being allergic to ecstasy. That's what the doctors say. Almost nobody is. I've taken acid lots of times before and this never happened."
"It's a different chemical."
"It wasn't ecstasy you took anyway. It was something else. Some homebrew thing."
"I didn't know what it was."
I just sat there, holding her arm for a while. She was soft, passive, relaxed. Finally I spoke again.
"I guess it must be really lonely for you, traveling around like this."
"Why do you say that?"
"Well, Harry's not much good for conversation. And Sophia's always off in her own world. Her music world. Now she's hanging out with me all the time. You're really just on your own, except for when the band's playing, I mean. It's no wonder you want to trip all the time."
"I don't trip all the time."
"I didn't mean...."
A pause. "Yeah. I know what you mean. You're right, Vic. I mean... But that's bein' on the road, man. It's like that for everyone...."
"Maybe it is. I've never done it before."
"I know. You had a real job."
"Yeah. I still do, actually, if I want it. Work starts again in a few weeks. This is my summer vacation."
"It's not bad."
I squeezed her arm. She closed her eyes and drifted off. I stayed there and watched her. In a few more minutes, she was dead. I ran down the hall in a frantic tizzy, trying to find a doctor. I rang the nurse's bell. But I knew they couldn't do anything. It was all much too inevitable. My touch of death had worked again.
Of course, I was wrong again. She wasn't dead after all. I guess I was a little paranoid about women dying. She had just slipped into a coma. They had no idea when or if she might come out. I phoned up her parents in Hoboken again, and told them the new situation. They said they'd borrow some money and fly out immediately. So this was why they hadn't come out earlier. No money for plane tickets, hotels.... I hadn't thought of that. In my family everyone always had money to fly around the country. We weren't rich, but hell, how much were we talking about? You could fly round-trip New York to Vegas for three hundred bucks. Five hundred on short notice. And the hotels were cheap as anything. I offered to lend them the money myself. They said they could get it from Julie's grandparents.
When her parents got there, I felt discharged of my responsibility to stay by her. She was comatose anyway, right? Of course, it was possible that she was aware of what was going on around her. Weren't there stories of comatose people who came to and remembered everything that had been said in their vicinity, over periods of years and years? But it didn't seem likely. I assumed she was off in another world. Off with the purple tit.
I tried to soothe her parents as best I could. "I've been with her for five days. She was very peaceful. She wasn't in pain."
Her father was angry; pounding his fist on the side of her bed. "Damn it! If I'd have known she was taking drugs, I would have grabbed her out of your fucking band as quick as...."
"That's ridiculous," I pointed out. "She's an adult, you don't have control over her. Besides, none of us knew she was taking drugs anyway. I always thought she was perfectly straight."
He didn't know what to say to that.
"Don't yell at him," said Julie's mother. "He had nothing to do with it. He's just been sitting here with her for five days while we've been at home. It's not his band, either. He's only been with them a few weeks. He's a physicist, you know. He's got a Ph.D. in physics. He works at Columbia."
Her father gave me a strange look. All of a sudden he felt nervous around me. His mother had gotten this information about me over the phone, but apparently had not passed it on. "You're right, you're right.... I'm sorry, Vic."
"It's all right. I understand."
"She's our little girl, you know...." Her mother was crying now. It was getting overwhelming. "Our little girl...."
Now it was my turn to crack up. I couldn't hold back the tears. I just sat there in the armchair I'd been sleeping in, crying into my collar and cursing under my breath. "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck...." Julie's mother put her hand on my shoulder. "It's all right. It's all right. It must have been hard for you here, all alone. We can take care of her now...."
I gathered myself together. I was acting like an idiot. "It's not that.... It's just, I lost my wife three months ago. Car crash." I took a deep breath. "But there's no need to think like that. There's still hope for Julie. She might come to at any moment. Just last night she couldn't stop talking."
"I'm sorry," she said.
"Death seems to follow me around. Good god. It's horrible."
"Were you ... involved with Julie?"
"No. With Sophia."
"I would have thought she'd be the one staying here, not you. You haven't known Julie for long, have you?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "It's hard to take, all this sickness and dying. You'll see for yourselves...." There was nothing more to say to them. It would have been better not to have said anything in the first place. I didn't know the right things to say. i was in no position to be soothing. The tears started to come again. "Look, I'm gonna go now. I'll check back in tomorrow or the day after."
The three of us remaining Death Puppies had a management decision to make. What to do now that our bass player was out of it for an indefinite period of time. There were four possibilities. We could sit there in Vegas and wait. But that would get expensive. Eventually, if she didn't come out, she'd have to be shipped back to New York. And of course she might die. Or if she did come to she might not be in any condition to play. Or she might not want to play anymore. Her parents might prevail on her.
Or, we could dissolve the band altogether, out of sheer despondency. That seemed like a viable alternative. I wasn't really a musician anyway. Harry was an OK drummer, but he didn't seem to give a shit. Sophia could always form another band.
We could continue as a threesome, having me play keyboard bass, like Ray Manzarek in the Doors. That was sort of attractive to me. Felt good for my ego. But I didn't know if I could handle it.
Or, finally, we could recruit another bass player.
I had an urge to dump the van, which was pretty worthless anyway, and just fly back East. But the others didn't have the money for plane tickets, and I didn't particularly want to give it to them, as my account was running low. It would have seemed nasty to fly back and leave the two of them to drive. So that wasn't feasible.
Sophia and I made love that night, for the first time in Vegas. It was quite different than ever before. Slowly, softly, quietly. The way Diane and I had used to do it, on tired cozy evenings. It was really nice. She played sad, Chinese-sounding music on into the early morning. Pentatonic scales, trills melting into each other. Music of otherness; unconscious harmonies. It was amazing; I wish I'd gotten it down on tape.
In the morning, when I woke up, Sophia was still soundly sleeping. I got up and decided to see a little of Vegas. Or rather, I told myself I wanted to see a little of Vegas. I knew, in the back of my mind, what I really wanted to do. I'd never taken acid, or ecstasy, or anything like that before. But I wanted to find that purple tit. The one Julie had seen. It wasn't a standard near-death experience she'd been talking about -- it was something to do with the drug. I thought if I took the drug too I could contact it -- touch her experience. I felt an incredible warmth for her somehow, although in two months of touring we'd never had a meaningful conversation. We'd never really related at all, except musically, up till a few minutes before she'd slipped into the coma.
It was to do with Diane's death, of course. Some bit of my pain for Diane had rubbed off on Julie. That's why I'd kept hanging around the hospital. But Sophia and Harry seemed pleased that I'd been watching over Julie. Since they had basically abandoned her. At least she hadn't died alone. What was I thinking? She wasn't dead. She was only comatose. She might come out any minute.
And shit, what did I care anyway? What did I have to do with Julie?
In my mind, Julie was dead. The coma didn't mean anything. It was only ean early stage of death. But it didn't feel that bad to me. I wasn't nearly so depressed about Julie's death as I had been, for example, about Sophia's apparent death, two months earlier. Let alone Diane's death, of course. I guess because I wasn't in love with Julie. Or even infatuated. God knows I could have held myself responsible for Julie's death -- after all, she probably hadn't been so lonely before I'd joined the band and started taking up all Sophia's time. Maybe the two of them had been buddy-buddy before I'd come along. God knows the trouble I'd wrought -- driving her to drugs.... But I didn't feel responsible this time. Not at all. Only for a few minutes after she actually died, perhaps. I felt something strange, something different. I felt almost attuned to her, as though I had died too, and somehow come out alive.
She wasn't dead. Only comatose. Go to Next ChapterBen Goertzel (email@example.com)