When he got the e-mail, sitting behind the reception desk of a firm that hadn’t received a visitor in weeks, Johnson stood with his hands raised over his head in victory. It was a single line from the manager of his new favorite band, a band that he would sometimes listen to at work, holed up in a bathroom stall with his earbuds for a four-and-a-half-minute fix. “My boys are in,” the e-mail read. “I’ll be in touch.”
The floor was quiet, as usual. He could hear the distant warble of a phone ringing in a glassed-in office, the muted sounds of typing. It was probably safe to make a call.
The number for the club dumped him to a recording where he was given the upcoming schedule by a man who sounded bored as he read a list of bands that were all on Johnson’s iPod, bands that, even though he knew it was juvenile, gave him a flutter of excitement when he heard their names. Had this guy never heard these bands before? He must have been older, the kind of stage tech with fading tattoos who only got excited when someone played a Stooges cover. The recording clicked off mid-sentence.
“I’m looking for Denny?”
“Speaking.” It was an impatient version of the man on the recording. Johnson could hear the rushed drag of a cigarette.
“This is Johnson Simms, we spoke a few weeks ago about booking the club on the twentieth next month?”
There was a long silence.
“I—I got this amazing band Duck Hunt to agree to play.”
Johnson waited for some sort of recognition.
“Do you know Duck Hunt?”
“Do I know Duck Hunt? Listen, if you want your show here, all I got is the eighteenth, and since we don’t really know you, I’ll need the full deposit. Fifteen hundred. End of the week.”
“Fifteen hundred, yeah, okay.”
“And do me a favor. Tell their manager, Marcy, that she’s full of shit, would you? Tell her Denny said it.”
“Yeah, okay, cool,” said Johnson, though he was pretty sure he wouldn’t. Before he knew it Denny had hung up and he was alone in the office with its hushed chorus of whirring machines and three days to come up with $1,500.
At the bar of a new Italian restaurant on 72nd Street, where he was meeting his girlfriend’s family for their weekly dinner together, Johnson ordered a whiskey. The restaurant had arched stone ceilings and bottles of fine olive oil on the tables. The best part about his temp gig, besides the $24 an hour, was that he would show up for these gatherings in his suit straight from work. At these moments, he could appear, in that glimpse, to be a man. As the bartender slid him the whiskey, Johnson realized he didn’t have any cash on him.
“I can add it to your bill when you sit down,” said the bartender, a man who looked around forty-five, with soap-star hair and an apologetic face that seemed to admit he was too old to be tending even this bar. But Johnson never paid for his dinner, and at times didn’t even have enough on him to cover the tip, so the thought of adding another drink to the tab was enough to make him cover his glass with a napkin and ask for directions to an ATM.
He didn’t make it much farther than the door before he saw the fur collar on Mrs. Silver’s coat, followed by the rest of the family. Shannon had a tight little frown on her face that Johnson knew too well. There had been a fight, probably over one of them making the others late.
“Hi, Johnson,” said Mrs. Silver, pressing her cheek to his for a kiss. “Are they ready for us?” She pulled on the restaurant’s heavy door and led the charge to the host’s station. When they were seated, the bartender brought over Johnson’s whiskey, and they sat for a few silent moments behind their menus. Jimmy, Shannon’s younger brother, ordered a Shirley Temple and stabbed the cherries with his cocktail straw. “This looks delicious,” said Mrs. Silver. She had gulped half of her Manhattan and with it the squabble that had hung over the rest of the table.
“Johnson. Let’s talk about your day,” she said, swirling her glass from the stem.
“It actually was pretty good,” he said.
The Silvers nodded. He always had the feeling when he spoke to them about his crappy job that neither of them had ever worked one. They were far too sensible to end up in a situation like his—uninsured, living month-to-month with only a vague plan of how to rescue himself, with impractical passions and impractical ambitions. But their daughter loved him, and they loved their daughter, and so he was invited to dinner and asked to their country home during long summer weekends.
“Johnson has some big news,” said Shannon, gripping his hand under the table.
“It’s not that big.”
Mr. Silver tilted his head up from the menu for the first time since they sat down. “Is sea bass served as a whole fish?” he asked.
“No, honey,” said his wife without looking at him. “So what’s the news?”
“It’s really not—It’s just a band agreed to come and play my show.”
“His favorite band,” Shannon said. “They’re one of the most hyped bands in the country right now. For a certain kind of person.”
“What show?” said Mr. Silver, whose gaze had gone back to his menu.
“I’m promoting a show. My first.”
“Dad, I told you about this.”
“You mean the concert. Right, good.”
“It’s 2005,” Shannon said. “Do we have to call it a ‘concert’?”
“Well I think this is terrific news!” said Mrs. Silver, raising her glass for a toast. “To Johnson and his—I’m sorry, what’re they called?”
“To Johnson and his Duck Hunt concert. May it be a huge success.” They drank to it, Jimmy slurping the last of his grenadine beneath melting ice.
“So promoting a show. What does that mean exactly?” asked Mr. Silver, whose fingers were interlaced on his lap. He was a small man, an ex–distance runner who wore bespoke suits, wingtips, and rimless glasses. When the Yankees were playing they had something to fill the air in the few minutes when Shannon would leave them to use the restroom. And there was the record player at their country home in Connecticut in the corner of their formal Victorian living room, next to the stacked crates of Mr. Silver’s albums, albums he had bought as a young, single man—Van Morrison, Dylan, the Stones, Nina Simone at Town Hall—albums that must have once been the most important thing he owned.
It was during those long summer evenings that Johnson would sit with him on that stiff furniture, wine in hand, and listen to those records in the warmth of hi-fi. Without speaking, they would lean back and take in the magnificent warble of Nina Simone, or the pleading horns of a Stones chorus, and by dinner, they would have communicated more than all of the weekend’s polite chitchat combined.
“Promoting means I put on the show.”
“So you pay for it.”
“Yeah, that’s part of it.”
“Then you take a percentage?”
“Yeah, but I’m not out to screw anyone. I’d just love to see these bands succeed, so I take a lower percentage and leave more to them.”
“It’s sort of a ‘support young artists’ kind of thing.”
Mr. Silver nodded, but was again absorbed in his menu. Johnson wanted to say that his idea wasn’t altruistic, that he believed if he treated the artists better financially and as human beings he would set himself apart from the major promoters, which would be great for business. Why would anyone go with one of those huge companies when they’ll make more money with him? And with the proliferation of blogs and plummeting record sales, the only source of revenue in the industry would soon be live shows. In his least-modest moments he saw himself doing ten shows a week, maybe fifteen, all over town, in good venues, quality shows that made people happy and bands a little richer, and allowed him to make a good life for himself, a life where he could take the Silvers out to dinner, and where he was thanked in the liner notes of nearly every significant album, and, maybe a little childishly, where he could go to as many shows as he wanted. But the waiter was at their table reciting the day’s specials, and Johnson’s chance to talk about his imaginary business had passed.
After the appetizers, he excused himself to the restroom. The hand towels were lettered with the restaurant’s name, and looked as though they were flown in from Italy. The foamy soap left his hands scented with earth, which he was still whiffing when Shannon cornered him outside the restroom. Hands on her hips, she smiled with one side of her mouth.
“He’s interested,” she said. “My dad. In your company. You should talk to him about it some more.”
“That seemed more like politeness.”
“I know my dad, and that was him interested.” She smiled and draped her arms around Johnson’s neck. “You may have found your first investor.”
“Did he say that?”
“Talk to him. Explain your business model the way you explained it to me—that’s what he understands. Then ask him for the amount that you need. Just ask. He respects directness.”
“Just ask in front of Jimmy and everyone?”
Shannon shrugged and smiled again. “Why not? He’ll pay attention.” She moved her arms around his hips and rested her ear against his chest. “I’m proud of you,” she said.
Their entrees came on large plates drizzled with colorful sauces. “Oh, how beautiful!” said Mrs. Silver when her plate landed in front of her. Their wine glasses were refilled by the waitstaff with such vigilance that Johnson was sure they’d been through at least two bottles.
Johnson put it in context: Mr. Silver invested the wealth of the world’s super-rich, at one point managing the Rockefeller family’s money full-time. “The money that some of my clients have could make you sick, physically sick,” was the only thing Mr. Silver had ever really said to him about his job. This was on New Year’s Eve, after a banquet of prosecco, when Johnson found him slumped on the sofa in front of CNN. He had said it unbidden. “No one should have that kind of money. At some point it’ll take you over. At some point it’s all you have.”
Johnson wasn’t asking for much, and it would be an investment. This meal alone would probably cost nearly half of it.
“Mr. Silver,” said Johnson abruptly. They were finishing their entrees and Mr. Silver had a mouth full of striped bass. He looked at Johnson as he calmly chewed his food. When he swallowed, he said, “Yes?”
“The news I got today has put me in a position where I’m able to start a business, something modest that I can grow, and I was wondering, sir, if you would be interested in being my first investor.”
He said it all at once so he wouldn’t second- guess it, and so that maybe he would sound as confident as when he pitched it to Shannon late at night when it was just the two of them in bed, their mouths still cold from the toothpaste: how he knew he could promote shows better than the people who were doing it now; how those few ecstatic moments at concerts—the first time he saw Duck Hunt in the back room of a Chinatown club, their instruments too loud and their faces shrouded in shadow, that loud bass drum and the chaos of those guitars, the lead singer banging chimes that hung from his mic stand and swung and clattered as though they were caught in a hurricane, and all of it combined to create something much larger than anyone in the room—how those moments, more than books or films or certainly anything in the sad soulless trudge of the working world, had taught him what it meant to be alive.
“It was more than music,” he had said. “It felt like the world was changing. Like everyone there had been let in on a secret but soon everyone would know because we were coming—this youthful, new, more-alive world.”
Mr. Silver glanced around the table, then back at Johnson. “What kind of investment?”
“You know, financial.”
“Yes, but how much? What are your terms?”
“Fifteen to start. After the first show you’ll get that back plus 40 percent of my net.” Johnson made up the percentage. It sounded reasonable.
“If that’s okay. Could be less.”
“No, that sounds fine,” he said, and took a checkbook out of his breast pocket, scribbled something on it, and handed it to Johnson. Johnson folded it and put it in his jacket pocket. He could feel his cheeks flush as Shannon squeezed his hand nearly purple under the table.
The check was for $15,000. He stared at it during his lunch break in a midtown deli and wondered if he should call attention to the extra zero he’d been given. Fifteen thousand dollars was more than enough to put on a show. Fifteen thousand dollars was enough to buy a low-mileage Honda. It was also enough to start a business, albeit a modest one, which might have been Mr. Silver’s intention—get the boy on his feet, see if he can stand. In that case, it would be a disappointment if he called back and told Mr. Silver there’d been a mistake. He munched on his panini and stared at the scribble: “Fifteen thou and no” with a line that ran all the way through the “dollars” at the other end of the check. More than half his annual income and Mr. Silver hadn’t even bothered to finish the word.
This was exactly the sort of thing his own father would have wished he could have given him—a little cash to get him started in the big city. His father had been a technician for the gas utility in Lansing. He’d never finished college, a source of shame for him through the end, especially in a university town where even the cashiers had advanced degrees (and where Johnson’s mother had left him for a tenured professor of economics). His dad wasn’t an angry man, though, or even all that disappointed, a fact that had always baffled Johnson. Hadn’t he wanted more? His father had helped him move to New York, driving him east, going with him to buy an Ikea mattress and hauling it with him up to his bedroom. As they’d eaten Subway sandwiches cross-legged beside the mattress, Johnson had caught his father staring at him with admiration that embarrassed him. “What?” Johnson said.
“You’re doing it,” his father said.
Eleven months later his father collapsed while performing a lock-up test in, of all places, a building at the university. Johnson flew home, held his mother as she surprised him (and his stepfather) by weeping at the funeral, and, alone in a canoe, sprinkled his father’s remains into the depths of Lake Michigan. Then he returned to New York and to a car service sent by Shannon’s family, which gathered him at Newark and delivered him to their five-bedroom on Riverside Drive. Mrs. Silver had saved a plate for him covered in foil, which she reheated and served him at the kitchen table while Shannon sat beside him and watched him eat. For the next week they insisted he stay there—with Shannon, in her room, where she ran her fingers through his hair at night and watched him as though expecting him to fall apart.
In fact, the only person who hadn’t looked at him with pained sympathy was Mr. Silver, who one night crashed into Shannon’s room wearing Johnson’s shoes, a pair of admittedly flashy brogues that he’d bought for work. “Ooh,” he’d said. “Look at me! I’m downtown, man. I’m in the know!” He was grinning as he said this, the shoes unlaced and flopping off his heels. He seemed to assume this would make them both laugh, though Johnson was mostly confused, trying to determine who exactly the joke was making fun of.
“What’re you doing?” Shannon had said, squinting at her father in disbelief. Mr. Silver stopped and his smile fell away.
He slid the shoes off and placed them neatly against the wall. “Just picking up,” he said. Then he went over to Shannon and kissed her on the forehead and told her to sleep tight, a nightly ritual that Johnson witnessed from the other side of the bed while wishing himself invisible.
“I’m sorry about that,” Shannon had said when her father left.
“It’s fine,” he said, grateful he wasn’t being treated like a Fabergé egg. Shannon clicked off the light and draped an arm across his chest.
“Don’t take it personally,” she said. “He can be like that.”
“Oblivious, I guess.” She shook her head. “Or I don’t know. Like a man.”
Her guys needed flights, the e-mail said, and was he cool with their hotel? He wasn’t cool with their hotel, the Gramercy, whose cheapest room was currently $745 a night, especially since they’d need two nights, five of them, as well as the documentarian who was following them from Montreal, and of course Marcy herself, who had decided to come at the last minute, wasn’t that awesome?
He was sorry, he wrote, but he couldn’t agree to any of it, not with a show that would only sell 550 tickets, and he was hoping, he wrote, to keep the ticket prices down because he wasn’t out to screw the fans, who he knew from firsthand experience didn’t have much money.
He thought it was an honest thing to say—he wasn’t above admitting he was a fan, if it wasn’t obvious already—and though he couldn’t remember who’d said it, somebody had once told him honesty in business was, in the long run, how you ended up ahead.
But not five minutes after he’d sent it he got a call on his cell from Dante Dymnicki himself, the band’s front man, whose voice had just been blaring from Johnson’s earbuds on his way into work.
“This an okay time?” he said. There was a hidden track at the end of the album that was just the band messing around in the studio, and though it was incredibly annoying even the first time you heard it, Johnson often just let it play and closed his eyes, feeling for a moment like he was in the room, laughing along with their inside jokes.
“Yeah, sure,” he said.
“Cool. So Marcy wanted me to call and just kind of level with you about what’s going on.”
“Okay,” said Johnson. He looked over his shoulder at the bank of glassed-in offices. Most were empty.
“So this is a big, big secret. Like no one knows, so I just want to say that. And also it’s not completely confirmed.”
“Okay,” said Johnson, waiting. He could hear a voice behind Dante.
“Sorry, actually, can you hold on a second?” he said and then clicked off. Johnson bounced his knee, drew loops on a Post-it. “Okay,” Dante said when he came back a moment later. “I guess it actually is confirmed. David Bowie is going to play with us at the show.”
“Yeah man, can you believe that? I guess he’s a fan.”
Johnson had never gotten into Bowie, with his weird space anthems and his glittery costumes, but he knew he was a big deal, and Dante’s bored voice was suddenly so filled with excitement that Johnson found it hard not to be lifted with it.
“Yeah, I know. So it’s not our typical show, you know? We want to record it, first of all, so that’s why we need to travel with Jacques, who’s making this film about us?”
“Yeah, I heard about that.”
“So is that cool?”
Johnson said he could look into it.
“Awesome man, that’s awesome. And we’ll need a piano, if that’s cool.”
“A piano? I mean, how big?”
“Like—grand, if you can. Yeah, grand would be best.” There was a voice next to him again. Johnson had seen pictures of Dante with Drew Barrymore and for a moment he pictured her standing in the front row. “So we’re cool on all that?”
“I think so,” said Johnson, as he wrote in his notebook: Piano??
“Nice,” said Dante. “Oh, and those hotel rooms?”
“Um,” said Johnson. “I told Marcy that I’d love to, but, you know, we don’t have the budget for that hotel.”
“Yeah, see, that’s the thing. We just got home from touring in a Ryder van and a bunch of Days Inns, and the band is getting to the point where we just can’t do that anymore.”
“It would be a huge personal favor to me.” His voice became soft, almost whispery. “You know this could be a huge night for us, a real turning point.”
“I guess I might be able to swing one night,” said Johnson. This was how you forged relationships, he thought, this was how you built a business.
“That would be amazing, man. Amazing.”
Johnson thought of a sofa backstage. He put David Bowie on it in his sparkly makeup and unitard. Then he added cute Drew Barrymore. Dante was there, too, singing in his gravelly baritone and Bowie was hitting the high notes, while he and Drew clapped and laughed. She was in Donnie Darko and he sang “Changes” and Dante’s messy clanging chaos could bring about a damn revolution.
He refreshed his browser. The rates at the Gramercy had changed. They were now an even $800.
The kids played “Joy to the World,” they played “Sleigh Ride” with its clip-clopping percussion, they played a medley of Hanukkah music in a minor key that ended with all of them, Jimmy included, holding electric candles in front of their sweaters as the stage lights dimmed off. The parents applauded noisily, and as they all filed into the lobby, the ushers handed out candy canes and said, “Happy holidays.”
It felt important that Johnson had been invited, as if being included on a family vacation, even though, standing with his rolled program against a trophy case in the lobby, he wondered if there was something he should be doing. Mr. Silver came over and sighed and leaned against the case next to him.
“Jimmy was great,” said Johnson.
Mr. Silver leaned toward Johnson’s ear and mumbled, “Couldn’t even hear him.”
Johnson smiled. It was true, you could barely even see Jimmy, whose trombone was lost in the back among a clump of horns.
“They make him play an instrument,” Mr. Silver continued. “Poor kid just wants to play baseball.” They watched the mingling conversations around them, parents clutching their overcoats and twiddling their car fobs. Shannon was talking to her old dean, nodding emphatically at something. Johnson felt the weight of silence.
“Shannon tells me the show sold out.”
“Almost,” said Johnson, flushing. He had told her that, a few days ago, over Chinese take-out. He had really just wanted to see how it sounded, to report some exciting news after an entire day of aimless clicking on the internet. But she had looked so proud when he’d said it, impressed even, that he couldn’t take it back.
“I hope we can still get tickets,” said Mr. Silver. “We’d like to bring some friends.”
“Of course,” said Johnson.
“I feel very hip telling people at the office I’ve funded a Duck Hunt concert. No one over twenty-five knows what I’m talking about, but the interns are impressed.”
Johnson laughed politely, but was thinking about ticket sales. Last he checked they had sold less than half the room. But there was buzz building online, which had to mean something.
“The deal with the concert business,” Denny had told him when he last called to check on sales, “is that some shows, against all logic, just won’t sell. It’s just one of those things, you can’t ever predict it.”
“So then what do you do?” Johnson had said.
“Promote more than one show.”
Johnson leaned his head back against the trophy case. He had visions of a half-full room and a show that loses money. When he’d first met Shannon at college orientation, a backpacking trip in the New England wilderness, she was clad head to toe in new gear, and it was this hyper-preparedness more than anything that gave her away as a city kid. It poured most of the trip, and Johnson helped her dress her blisters after a day of hiking in boots that had just been taken out of the tissue paper. He showed her how to cut the sterile pads into an O to give the blister a chance to breathe, then cover that in moleskin, and spread Vaseline on the outside. Blisters are created by friction, he told her, they’re actually burns, so it’s best to tie your boots loosely. His father had taught him this, and he’d never considered someone might find it attractive until he noticed the way she was looking at him. It was a look of admiration, as though he was able to take care of just about anything. Context, of course, was everything.
“I’m not supposed to tell anyone,” he said to Mr. Silver now. “But it looks like David Bowie is going to play at the show.”
Mr. Silver leaned forward and faced him. “Really?”
“I guess he’s a Duck Hunt fan.”
“Huh,” said Mr. Silver, and then, in something Johnson had never seen, he seemed to get excited. “Look, realistically how many tickets do you think I can get?”
Johnson thought about Dante’s voice making him promise to keep it a secret, and then Marcy’s assurance that he was taking part in history—a meeting of worlds, past and present, over a grand piano—which was why they needed the grand, and nothing less, even though she knew it was really, awfully expensive.
Mr. Silver was smiling. “I got my MBA with this guy who loved Bowie. I bet he’d come in from London for it.” He took his Blackberry from his breast pocket, ran his thumb along its scroll button, then began typing. “He’s gonna freak,” he said.
The room had emptied to a few lingerers, kids with hard instrument cases and mammoth book bags. “Could you swing ten tickets?” said Mr. Silver, glancing up from his Blackberry. “I just thought of another guy.”
“Yeah, sure, ten.”
“You sure about that?” said Mr. Silver. “I don’t want to cut too much into your bottom line.”
“I mean, it’s also your bottom line.”
“That it is,” said Mr. Silver, nodding. Then he met Johnson’s eye and said, “This is great. I really didn’t think this would work out so well.”
The grand piano was delivered from 23rd Street, wrapped in padded cloth, and stationed on the left of the venue’s creaking, sticky stage. Johnson was alone in the room and it felt remarkably small. Sure, there was a balcony, two bars, a good-size stage with an actual proscenium, but standing in the middle of the floor, listening to the piano tuner hammer away, he was struck by how un-legendary the place felt when he was the only one there.
The band would arrive any minute for sound check, which was where he hoped the day would start going as he had imagined it would. Up until then it had just been an endless string of logistics—meeting deliveries, watching stagehands clock in and out, and at one point, when there was no one from the club around to help him, unclogging the backstage toilet.
When Dante strolled in, half an hour after sound check was scheduled, wearing the hood of his pink sweatshirt peaked over his head and calf-strangling jeans that seemed to match the ones on the two tiny girls who had come in with him, the lead singer didn’t seem to know where he was.
“Dante, hey, it’s great to finally meet you,” Johnson said, extending his hand. Dante’s grip was loose, and Johnson felt as though he might shake his limp arm clean off.
“You guys have any food?” he said, looking around the empty room.
“All kinds of sandwiches backstage.” Johnson had lugged the trays from Balducci’s himself.
“I’m going to need, like, Chinese or something. Or, what was that stuff we had in Seattle?” he said to one of the girls. She had dyed black hair and short, wide bangs.
“Cambodian,” she said, looking up from her phone.
“Yeah, Cambodian. Can I get Cambodian food?” he said.
“Is that like Thai food?” said Johnson.
“Yeah, but Cambodian.”
“I’m sure there’s something around.”
“Mott Street,” said the girl. She held up her phone. “And we’ll need enough for the band. And something sweet, rice pudding or something. They like that before they play.”
The girl, it turned out, was Marcy. She didn’t seem to be old enough to manage a Sam Goody, but her handshake was startlingly firm, and though she rarely seemed to look up from her phone, she responded to everything as though you were talking to her.
“I’m waking them up,” she said when Johnson asked Dante about the rest of the band. “Sid, this is Marcy, you better be on your way to the venue or I swear to God.”
The restaurant didn’t deliver and so Johnson had to call Shannon and ask her to pick up their food on her way. “And can you find somewhere that has rice pudding?”
“Yeah, the band likes it before they play.”
“Like, any rice pudding?”
“They said they prefer something called ‘Cheesecake Rice Pudding.’”
“They said they had it last time they were here.”
“I’m about to get on a bus, Johnson, to go to the east side to get your Cambodian.”
“All right, all right, I can run out.”
She sighed. “I’ll figure it out.”
Dante and the girls draped themselves on the frayed couch backstage, and when Johnson walked in they quieted down as though a parent had entered the party.
“Food’s on its way,” he said.
Dante sucked on a beer bottle, and then held up a sandwich. “This is really good,” he said and took a bite. Johnson took a beer from the cooler.
“NME wants to do an interview,” Marcy said.
“Dickwads pan the album and now they want an interview?”
“I already said yes so don’t even start.”
“Marcy, what the fuck?”
“It sells records.”
“No one buys records. My mom didn’t even buy our record.”
“Seventeen thousand people bought the record.”
“I bought the record,” said Johnson. They looked at him.
“He bought the record,” she said.
“I’m not doing the interview.”
“Dante, you ever want to quit your day job?”
“I know the video store needs you.” The other girl laughed.
“Seriously, I haven’t worked there for eight months.”
“Until you need to pay rent again,” said Marcy.
“Lou Reed worked as a typist,” said Johnson. “And that was even after the Velvet Underground.” They looked at him again.
“Listen to the man.”
“You’re doing the interview, tomorrow, 11 a.m.”
“Damnit,” said Dante.
“You love me. You know you do.”
Johnson smiled and drank his beer. This was good. This felt good.
“I make you money,” said Marcy. “Don’t deny it. Look where we are. Making 70 percent at the Bowery.”
Dante unzipped his guitar bag with a pick between his lips and began tuning. Little pinging sounds came from each string.
“That’s just because you took advantage of some kid,” he said. “I wouldn’t be so proud of that.”
Marcy looked up from her phone.
“What?” He pinged his high E, twisted the knob. “Him?” Dante muted his strings. “Jesus, when you said ‘little rich kid’ I was picturing a kid. Like at a bar mitzvah or something.”
“You’re such a dipshit, I swear to God.”
The room went quiet again and though he tried his hardest to stop it, Johnson felt his cheeks begin to flush.
“That’s cool,” he said finally. “I mean, one of my goals is to help artists.”
“Absolutely,” said Marcy, nodding. “And you are.”
They all nodded at Johnson, who peeled the label on his Dos Equis.
“All right, put the blow away, the owner’s here,” said Denny, striding into the room. “How’s everybody doing?”
“Excellent,” said Marcy. Denny looked down at Johnson.
“Brewskies with the band, huh? Good times. Well, I’ve got a whole crew of guys out there who’ve been sitting on their asses for nearly an hour now. They don’t care, don’t get me wrong, they’re making money, but I thought I’d check to see if there is a sound check anytime in the near future.”
“The band will be here any second,” said Marcy.
“You mean those four Canadians wandering around the stage followed by a kid with a camcorder?” he said.
“Thank God.” Marcy leapt up and headed for the stage, and the rest followed, including Johnson, until Denny grabbed his shirtsleeve.
“Hang on, tiger.”
“Couple of things. First of all, my security staff is here, so we have to open doors in thirty minutes.”
Johnson glanced at his clipboard. “Yeah, okay.”
“Second thing. You got a cameraman out there. We didn’t talk about that. There’s a club policy that we worked out with the unions that says we gotta pay them a thousand bucks for each camera.”
“Whatever you want to do. It’s up to you, but I think it’s fair that I mention it.”
Denny smiled at him. “No problem.”
Johnson could hear some thumping on the drums, a few chords ringing from a guitar, and could feel the beer he nearly chugged now sloshing in his belly as he made his way toward the stage.
“Oh hey,” he heard from behind him. Denny had his hands in his pockets and was rocking heel to toe. “Come here for a second.”
“Check check check, fuck fuck fuck,” said someone into a microphone. He could hear laughing from the stage, and then, “We should make a song. Here, seriously.” It was Dante, his voice booming through the building. “Let’s rock this out.” The band kicked in, somehow following his chord changes, and then a tuneless voice yelled overtop of it, “Check check check, fuck fuck fuck!” Something about it was catchy. It always amazed Johnson that some people could toss off a melody the way the rest of the world tossed off an e-mail.
“Whose piano is that?” said Denny.
“Rented,” said Johnson. “They need it.”
Denny whistled. “Pricey.”
“Is there a fee for that, too?”
“No, no, no,” said Denny. He took off his Yankees hat, smoothed his thinning hair. “Tell me, though, they didn’t pull the Bowie thing on you, did they?”
“What do you mean?” said Johnson, but he knew exactly what Denny meant. “Bowie’s confirmed. He’s coming.”
Denny shook his head, exhaled. “They really are snakes.” He put his hands on Johnson’s shoulders, and looked, like a Little League coach, into his eyes. “That’s an old gag that’s been going around the industry since, God, since the seventies. If you want to get someone to spend unnecessary money, you say, ‘But David Bowie’s coming.’”
Johnson closed his eyes.
“I mean, sometimes it’s Dylan or Elton John or whoever, but it’s pretty much the same old scam.” His eyes dropped to the floor, then came back to Johnson. “Look. Live and learn. You’ll get it.” He put a cigarette between his lips and punched out of the emergency door to the alley.
The band was still banging away at their new song, changing keys and slopping around with tuneless guitar solos. It suddenly sounded juvenile. Johnson had the urge to run out there himself and tell them to take something seriously for once, to tell them that their tattoos would look stupid in ten years, that their trendy hair would fall out, and that this whole racket was a game of youth and the next kids that came along were going to be younger and newer and more of-the-moment, and what are you gonna do then? He wanted to tell them to grow up.
Instead, he found a Coors in the green room and killed it in three gulps. He felt fine, he really did. The beer stung a little going down, made him burp. He cracked another one. He could feel himself calming. He slumped on the sofa. Maybe Denny was full of shit. They were all snakes, every one of them, the bartenders, the ticketing agencies, the bouncers, the unions—God, the unions!—they were going to take even the truest fan and squeeze him and squeeze him until they’d drained him of everything and he was just as jaded and empty as they were.
He had things to do. It said so on his clipboard: “Greet the Silvers.” He took a slice of cheese, killed the second Coors, and headed up the back stairs.
“There’s the man!” he heard from over his shoulder. Mr. and Mrs. Silver, wearing jeans and sweatshirts, tennis shoes, both of them, came at him, grinning. He hadn’t seen them dressed this way since he’d helped them paint over Shannon’s pink walls.
“You should see it out there,” said Mr. Silver, shaking his hand firmly. “It’s mobbed. I think that line might go all the way up to the Chrysler Building.”
“You should’ve seen the looks those people in line were giving us, like ‘How the hell did you hear about this?’” Mrs. Silver laughed, then looked over the balcony. “Look at all those kids!”
Johnson smiled as Mrs. Silver grabbed his face and kissed both cheeks. “I am so impressed!”
He looked away. On the floor, up by the stage, he could see Marcy. She was hugging people, bringing them backstage. The truth was he’d gotten lucky. The Pitchfork review of the record had finally dropped that week and it was a rave. The show sold out twelve hours later. He hadn’t done a thing.
The floor was starting to pack in and was roaring with voices.
“So,” said Mrs. Silver, rubbing his arm. “How does it feel?” They were both beaming at him, as though all these people were here to see him.
“Show’s not over yet,” he said, shrugging.
“Honey, it’s going to be wonderful,” said Mrs. Silver. “And it has to be better than that opening act. That poor girl was dreadful.”
That poor girl was actually a guy, but Johnson didn’t want to split hairs.
“And even if it’s not,” said Mr. Silver. “You’ve got their money.”
Johnson smiled, though again he couldn’t tell who the butt of the joke was meant to be.
“I also have yours,” he said, and Mr. Silver laughed in a way that would have normally made Johnson tense, but he found himself unable to care anymore.
“Oh,” said Mr. Silver. “Do you think we could get backstage after to meet you-know-who?”
Johnson’s head hurt and his stomach felt both full and empty at the same time, as if filled with foam. “Of course,” he said. “Of course.”
On the side of the stage the band was sucking down shots of a tar-like substance and hooting.
“Oh hey,” said Dante. “Where’d that intern go?”
“The cute one who brought us the Chinese and rice pudding.”
“She’s not an intern,” he said as the lights went down and the audience roared.
“Tell her to bring the tequila on stage,” he said. “We’ll need it.”
“She’s not an intern,” Johnson said again, but Dante was already on stage, and then there was a heavy kick drum, sloppy and drunken and a little out of control, followed by a fierce noise, louder than anything Johnson had heard during sound check, as the guitars and keyboards blared and Dante slammed the chimes with a drum stick, sent them swinging, as though that hurricane wind had burst in from the wings.
It was everything he remembered and he could see the front three rows as rapt as he had been that first time he’d seen them. One kid was already jumping around with his arms up, which was exactly what he wanted to do from the wings, jump and punch the air and high five whoever was near him. They were as good as he remembered. There was nothing more personal than music. Everyone talked about it in terms of listening, but he knew it was closer to touch—a hug, a shake, a smack.
“You know them?” said the sound man beside him, pulling down his headset.
“I’m the promoter!” A flash of pride shot through him.
He leaned over the board, turning knobs. “I turn it down, they turn it back up,” he yelled, rubbing his forehead. “No one can hear anything!” He continued turning knobs as the band blared on, into the final chorus of their opening song, its pause for handclaps, its relentless building to a climax.
“What do you mean?”
“Go out in the club. It’s too loud, you can’t hear!”
Johnson squinted past the first few rows and could see people with pained looks on their faces, some already heading back downstairs to the bar.
“Someone’s gotta tell them—nothing I can do!”
“Tell them how? Like actually go out there?”
“Fucking tackle one of them for all I care!”
Johnson tried to squint up to the balcony, to see if the Silvers’ section was holding their ears, or if they were even still there. There were just dark shapes, still as posts, looking down on the stage. When the song ended, the band broke into another before he could gauge applause.
“I’m not kidding,” said the monitor man, “they could ruin this whole system.”
It was only ten steps to Dante, if that, but as he made his way across the stage, Johnson couldn’t see anything but a thicket of cables and blinking pedals he had to tiptoe over. Dante was singing with his guitar slung across his back, his head wobbling at the microphone, as though at any moment it might pop off his skinny neck. It was a bad time to interrupt, so Johnson waited, standing at center stage, unsure suddenly of what to do with his body. He could feel the mess of eyes on him, out there in the darkness beyond those bright bright lights, and his clothes felt as though they were suddenly translucent in the beams and the whole room could see right through to his pale and scrawny torso. He wished he worked out. He wished he’d worn different jeans. There was nothing that could ever convince him to put on a show like this again.
Dante ended his verse and turned around to find Johnson there, an intruder on his stage. He leaned over and said, “Tequila?”
“You have to turn it down! It’s just noise!”
“People are leaving.” But as he said this he caught sight of the front rows, kids with their cameraphones, still rapt.
“Fuck ’em,” said Dante and raised his eyebrows, grinning. “We’re not James Taylor.”
Dante turned back to the microphone and let loose a gravelly wail, a wail that wasn’t on the album, a wail that must’ve been deafening for whoever was left in the roped-off section of the balcony, a wail that reached down to something inside of Johnson that he didn’t know he had and made him want to start stepping on pedals and yanking out cords to silence it, made him want to grab the pink hood on Dante’s ridiculous sweatshirt and pull him right off his feet. But it was followed by a cheer from the audience, a roar that startled Johnson, and turned frantic. People liked this. People were enjoying themselves, he thought, relieved, as he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see an older gentleman in a gray suit with a silk kerchief in his pocket make his way past him, across the stage, then sit down at the piano, waving.
Bowie asked the sound man to turn it down. Then they played a Duck Hunt song, then they played “Changes,” and by the time it was nearly over, when there had been a stomping ovation and they were on their second encore, Johnson left the wings and curled up on the backstage couch alone. It was his own father, he realized, a man who had never paid much attention to music, who had actually liked David Bowie. Somehow, he remembered him turning it up on the radio, attracted, Johnson guessed, by its strange space references, its spooky reverb. His dad would have been impressed that he’d met someone so famous, that he’d pulled something like this off at all. And it was true: He’d actually done it. He ached with loss.
A song he recognized started then from the stage, and Bowie’s voice came shining overtop of it, so clear and true he had to sit up. Johnson closed his eyes and could hear it coming through the old radio in their van. It was the lake, Wisconsin, summer. An open window and the cool air on his elbow. There were lyrics about protein pills, lyrics about capsules, and there was his father enjoying it, feeling it, tapping the steering wheel as though he knew the song, as though it meant something to him, something perhaps from the wonder of his youth, when astronauts sang and men soared in tin cans across the sky.