Ragusa drives us over the Brooklyn Bridge while Todd passes around a joint. I take a long hit and suddenly see that we have entered a National Geographic article about life in Beijing. I see red awnings with painted white chinese characters, yellow and blue paper dragons flapping in the wind, a red and orange pagoda over a two-story McDonald's cramped between a vegetable stand and a jewelry store with glittering tiny mirrors pasted like a mosaic into 'DIAMONDS AND GOLD BOUGHT AND SOLD.' The air smells like fish. "Did you hear about this new fucking crime wave in Chinatown?" Ragusa says. "I probably shouldn't even drive through here anymore."
"Yeah, man," Todd says. "Fucking Chinese crime gangs, I hear even the Mafia's scared of them."
"I got stuck behind a Chinese gang funeral the other day," Ragusa says. "Fuck, man, there were like fifty guys in identical black suits with red carnations just walking behind this old black limousine! It was like something from The Godfather!"
It occurs to me that they are babbling because they're nervous. Todd is snapping his little rectangular armrest ashtray open and closed. "Will you fucking cut that out?" Ragusa yells. I look out the window and think: I want to be a Chinese gangster. I want to walk behind a black limousine with a red carnation on my lapel. I want to sit at the back of a restaurant eating a plate of Pork Lo Mein with a shiny silver gun on my lap.
We cross some invisible line that divides Chinatown from Soho, and I forget about being a Chinese gangster and think about being an abstract artist. We reach the intersection of Bleecker and Bowery and I see the decaying silver awning of CBGB's. "Bow before the temple," Ragusa says as we drive past. "One month from now, I want us playing there."
"He always takes the long way so we can drive past CB's," Todd tells me. Ragusa runs a red light by mistake and a flannel- shirted baseball-capped guy bangs our car with his fist. We find a tiny parking space near the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, and go back and forth for five minutes while Ragusa squeezes us in.
The Coffee Grinder turns out to be a cramped little cellar with craggy red brick walls and black wood tables thickly shellacked to an unnatural shine. Jared Kaplan, the big droopy-eyed, black- bearded old man with tattoos on his biceps who owns the Coffee Grinder, tells us to put our instruments in the back room. We carry them back to a dark cement chamber filled with mops and pails and waterlogged cardboard cartons of plastic-wrapped packages of cocktail napkins. "There's gonna be fucking roaches climbing all over my drum set, I know it," Ragusa says.
There's a tight passageway between the back room and the bar, and on the way back we have to stand against the wall to make room for the guys in the band who'll be playing before us. We don't say hello as they squeeze by. We find a table near the front of the bar and order beers. "Look at this shithole," Todd says. "Look at these bricks."
"Looks like somebody's fucking uncle built this place on his day off," Ragusa says. The bricks are laid at uneven angles with glops of cement between them. Todd pulls a crumbly ball of dried cement from between two bricks. I do the same, examining the round little moon-rock before I crush it into gray powder between my fingers. We start flicking the little balls at each other until Jared Kaplan saunters up to us. "Hey, stop taking apart my goddamn walls."
After he walks away, Todd says, "Doesn't Jared Kaplan look like his name should be Snake or something?"
"Yeah," Ragusa says. "He looks like he's about to fucking murder someone." We all stare at Kaplan, who stands with arms folded behind the bar, his big meaty biceps bulging from beneath his black t-shirt.
"Remember the biker named Snake in the Partridge Family?" Todd says. "Remember when he fell in love with Laurie Partridge?"
"No," Ragusa says.
"The guy who was Meathead played Snake," Todd says.
"The guy who was Meathead," Ragusa repeats. "Who the fuck is the guy who was Meathead?"
"Meathead," Todd says. "You know. Meathead."
The first band is on stage tuning up. It's a five-man band with keyboards and two guitars. I wish I was playing in a five-man band tonight. It'd be so much easier to hide. I listen as this band starts their first song, and I'm relieved that they sound fairly wimpy. Jared Kaplan walks over to us and asks us what we think. "They suck," Ragusa tells him.
"Yeah," Todd says. "They kind of remind me of a bunch of musicians with no talent who don't have anything to say."
Jared Kaplan nods as if considering this deeply. It occurs to me that he'll later ask this band what they think of us. I yell "'Scuse me!" to him over the noise. He squints at me and comes over.
I say, "How long have you owned this place?"
"Always," he grunts. "Opened it in 1959."
"Is it true Bob Dylan used to play here?"
"Sure it's true. They all played here. Peter Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, Sonny and Cher."
"Did you meet Dylan?"
"Did I meet him? Yeah, I met everybody. I was the guy who paid them their money, they all made damn sure they met me. Bob Dylan, he looked like a little hillbilly kid who needed a bath. Judy Collins, now there was a beautiful lady."
I want to ask him something else but he's still talking. "Hey, Bill Cosby used to come here all the time. And whats-her-name played here, Melody. You know ... 'I got a brand new roller skate, you got my key.' Johnny Cash used to play here too." He points to a photo hanging over the ancient cash register behind the dark wood bar. I squint to see it and he walks away so quickly I think I did something to make him mad. He yanks the framed photo off the wall and brings it back to me. I see a younger thinner Jared Kaplan, beardless and bespectacled, with his arm around Johnny Cash, both of them smiling broadly for the camera.
After an hour the first band leaves the stage to disinterested polite applause. About forty people are sitting around drinking beer and talking, and maybe ten more are playing darts or pinball. Ragusa climbs onto the stage and starts setting up his drum kit. Todd and I take our time finishing our beers because we have less setting up to do. "Nervous?" I ask Todd.
"Yeah," he says. "What about you?"
"Nah," I lie.
"Hey," he says. "Even if we fuck up, at least I'll have gotten the first one over with. That's the only reason I'm doing this. Next time won't be as bad."
We step up on stage and I plug in my bass and stare into the crowd, trying to remember that I'm a Chinese gangster, that I smoke cigarettes in bus stations. I take a long slug of my Molson Golden but my hand is shaking and the beer spills down my neck and under the collar of my blue and white striped t-shirt. Now my hands are wet and I'm afraid I'll be electrocuted if I touch my bass, and Todd is plucking his low E string and waiting for me to pluck mine so we can tune up. I dry my hands quickly on my jeans and do it, trying not to get Todd more upset. We tune quickly, and Todd tapes a copy of the song list to the floor in front of me. It says:
I tell Todd that I always wanted to have somebody tape a song list to the floor in front of me. He smiles and we look back and Ragusa nods: he's ready. "First one's in A," Todd reminds me, although I know this. Ragusa taps his sticks together to signal 1-2-3-4 and we dig in and a strange rush comes over me as soon as I realize we're making music. Maybe it's because I'm stoned but the moment I hear the noise we're making come blasting out from the amps behind us I feel a great surge of pleasure course through my body. "Fuck!" I say out loud. Todd is playing a grungy lawn-mower-engine rhythm and I'm just booming on the A, hammering from G to start every measure Dee Dee Ramone-style, and it sounds great. I look at Todd and he's leaning into the microphone getting ready to sing and then he bursts out with his screechy vocal, and I look at him and think: this is not the Todd I used to know. Digging at his guitar strings like he's scratching an itch, singing at some pretty girl's face in the middle of the bar, he is doing this for real and the Todd I used to know has been put away somewhere for holidays and family occasions. Ragusa and I are right on the beat, and I feel so good I start playing improvising on the scale just for the fuck of it, and it makes the song sound even sturdier. Todd howls into the mike. I look back and see Ragusa grinning as he bangs away; he's having a good time.
The song ends on a cymbal-crash A-chord and a long pained wail into the microphone from Todd, and we pause for one second, holding the tension, until Todd yells to me "F-sharp!" and we blast right into the next song. I look into the crowd and nobody hates us, even if nobody seems very interested either. Todd's brother Paul is sitting with his girlfriend at a table in the back, and he sees me looking at him and toasts me with his beer mug. Nobody is dancing, but a couple of people are bobbing their heads up and down a little. Todd yells "Get up and dance!" between the third and fourth song, but nobody does. We go through the whole set so fast it seems like five minutes to me. When it's over my ears are ringing and I feel dizzy, and I think Todd is confused that it ended so quickly too, because he gives me a quizzical look and I shrug to show him I know what he's feeling. I flick my amp off and unplug my bass and take a long dramatic swig from my beer bottle, which is now disgustingly warm from sitting on the hot surface of my amp through the set. We look up hopefully when we hear someone yell "Encore!" from the crowd, but it's just Paul at the back table, happily waving his glass mug in the air.
"Were we good?" Todd asks me as we hop off the stage.
"Yeah," I say. "I think we were good."
We help Ragusa carry his drum set to the back room. "We rocked, man," he says. "Hee hee!" He slaps me hard on the back. "You're joining the band. You blow Spencer away."
"Thanks," I say.
"Nah, he's too much of a wimp to join us," Todd tells Ragusa. "He's gotta go back to fucking college." We're in the back room now and it's all over; we're back to our regular selves. The next band is already up on stage setting up their stuff.
We pass Jared Kaplan on the way back into the bar. "What'd you think?" Todd asks him.
Jared Kaplan looks at Todd for a moment as if surprised by the question. He shrugs. "Good sized crowd."
It's three in the morning and the last band of the night is finished. Todd plops a Molson down in front of me and we sit with our feet up on the chairs around us. The guys on stage click their humming amps off, and a pleasurable soothing silence fills the room. The place is empty except for us and three or four stragglers. Todd's brother Paul is with us, though his girlfriend has gone home. "Magic Carpet Ride" by Steppenwolf starts playing on the jukebox, and I hear it through cottony deafened ears. Jared Kaplan sits yawning on a stool by the front door.
Ragusa is falling asleep and wants to leave. About five beers ago he announced there was no way he was driving home in his condition, so we're going to leave the car on Bleecker, hope it doesn't get stolen, and take a cab home with our instruments. "Can we go?" Ragusa says.
"Let us just finish our beers," Todd says.
"Let us diminish our gears," Paul rhymes, drunkenly and sleepily.
I drink again even though I have drunk too much. I guzzle the watery brown liquid feeling like my belly is a tank of gasoline and I'm standing at the pump topping it off to get to an even twenty dollars. The alcohol no longer brings a tingling warmth; I am fully beer-soaked and can saturate no more. I stare at the dark shimmering wood surface of the table. "Bad Reputation" by Joan Jett begins playing on the jukebox.
Paul is nudging me. "Hey," he says. "Want to try something? First take a last hit of this." He is handing me his small brass pipe. He holds his lighter to the bowl and I take a hit. "Okay," he says. "Close your eyes. This is what I always do when I'm here."
I close my eyes. "Okay," Paul says. "Now open them and look at the stage. Don't look at anything else, just look at the stage. Then imagine that the room becomes totally silent and starts filling with a strange, weird fog, and then a single blue spotlight cuts through the fog and points at the middle of the stage. And there's this young guy standing there, he looks like somebody's teenage kid, he's wearing a sloppy corduroy jacket and's got frizzy messy hair and a big nose and you wonder what the hell a kid like that is doing up on stage. Are you with me?"
"Then he starts to play, and the whole room gets quiet, and then he starts to sing and you realize he's singing the most amazing words anybody has ever heard sung. And this kid is standing there with the light shining on him and everybody's listening in total silence ... Ah! Listen to him! It's Dylan! Can you hear him?"
I stare at the stage. Paul and I are both staring like we see a vision there. If anybody was looking at us they would think we were crazy. "I hear him," I tell Paul.
Soon we're out on the street waiting for a cab. The night air feels as fresh and cool and clean as a bowl of vanilla ice cream. A tingly happiness creeps into my legs and arms and fingers and toes. The moonlight shines on the streets and I look up at the darkened windows of the apartments over our heads. Everybody in the Village is asleep. A yellow cab pulls up and we collapse into a pile on the cracked steel-blue leather seats and that's about the last thing I remember from this long great stoned cool Bleecker Street rock and roll Greenwich Village night.