The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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The Sippie Sippie Shake

It was shading to night before the band took a break. As little use as Lloyd had for the whole hippie thing, he admired how the musicians played in the moment, feeding off the dancers feeding off the band. It wasn’t a nightclub, wasn’t a party. It just was.

There were things in his world that if you wanted, they could only be had furtively, and usually for an exchange of money, to make those desires American. Here, people passed marijuana cigarettes openly, with nearly everyone putting lips to them. A couple of girls even stood near the band, like human microphone stands, holding the joints up so members could drag on them without missing a beat.

And some of the women: As absorbed as he was with Audrey, he couldn’t help noticing how free they were with their bodies, shameless as children. One flaxen haired young woman danced on a divan in a Girl Scout dress. She dipped and swayed, and clearly had a wonderful lot of nothing on underneath.

Cochise and his young beauty necked as they danced. The girl stood tiptoes on his feet for her mouth to reach his, and his tree limb legs effortlessly frugged for the both of them.

Aside from a core of two guitars, bass and drums, Lloyd counted eight other players fluidly dropping in and out of the lineup. Percussionists, would-be percussionists banging on kitchenware; a fabulous black sax player, who sounded like he dug both Cannonball and Coltrane; there was even a set of vibes against one wall, with someone sometimes at the mallets, unheard amid the ganga din except for when Audrey and Lloyd drifted near. He wondered if that’s why he loved her so: that she was hearing the same small brushstrokes in music that moved him.

The front man’s brushstrokes could have painted a garage door magenta. He had a Jesusy beard and a chameleonic voice, ranging from Rudy Vallee to Muddy Waters. As unfamiliar as Lloyd was with most of the music, he could tell the singer was making up new lyrics as he went along. He moved so frenetically—telegraphing his moves to the last row of the Hollywood Bowl instead of a living room—that even Cochise avoided his swath. Sometimes, he’d strap a guitar on to play noisy, jumbled solos. Lloyd pictured him with a word balloon over his head saying, “I’m really expressing myself, man!” For all that, there was still something magnetic about the jerk.

Even on the fast songs, Audrey pressed herself to him. He thought he saw the singer and lead guitarist exchange words over that. So what? They could be dancing in front of the nation on American Bandstand for all he cared right now. Whatever tomorrow might bring, he and Audrey belonged to each other.

The group segued into a smoldering “Harlem Shuffle”—the horn player was all over that one—then lurched to a halt and took a break just as Lloyd was feeling his pelvis had become permanently affixed to Audrey’s. Lloyd had no idea how long they’d been dancing, but it was wholly dark outside now, and the lights of LA twinkled below. Now that there wasn’t noise to contain, people opened doors and windows and Lloyd could finally smell the promised barbecue.

Cochise and his new friend came up, the girl still perched on the Indian’s shoes, and beaming like she’d just won a pony.

“Hi, I’m Blue.”

“You look pretty chipper to me.”

“That’s her name, Lloyd,” Audrey told him. He forgot she knew everybody under 30. “Blue, Lloyd Sippie, private eye. Lloyd, Blue Jensen. She’s a photographer for the KRLA Beat.”

Lloyd extended his hand. “Your pictures must be pretty special, if they can put them on the radio.”

“It’s a music paper; it helps promote the station.” Audrey again, always bemused by what he didn’t know.

“I photograph the bands, what’s happening on the Strip, things like that,” the girl said. “If you ever need it, I’m sure I could photograph adulterers, too.”

Like the couple you’re talking to? Lloyd wondered, though the girl seemed guileless, probably just looking for extra work.

“I’ll bear that in mind next time I’m peeping through someone’s curtains. I see you’ve met my associate.”

“Associate? I was bucking for sidekick,” Cochise said. Lloyd had been keeping one eye on the big man’s intake, which included several beers and enough marijuana to feed a horse. Cochise seemed largely unaffected so far, but he wondered if they’d see him pass the tipping point tonight. There was sure a lot of glass around waiting to be broken.

“Don’t you love the dreamy sound they make?” Blue meant the band. “It’s like tripping though the universe and eating your favorite cereal at the same time.”

As they spoke, they were all drifting toward the side yard where the barbecue smoke was coming from. Blue gushed about how the group amused itself by using a different name every time they performed, leaving it to their fans to guess it was them behind the increasingly ridiculous names. She and Audrey began rattling them off like they were giddy bobbysoxers: The Sensual Intelligence Agency, the Gospel Praylines, the Preposterous Lengths, the Gypsy Meatballs, German Sneeze Blessing, Shards of Narsil, the Curt Rejoinders.

“You forgot Ass Liquor.” It was the band’s lead singer, who had joined them with the lead guitarist, both smelling of sweat and marijuana.

“He wanted to permanently name the band Satan Himself,” the guitarist said, nodding towards the singer. “He thought that would look good on the marquee at the Whisky.”

“Hi, guys. This is Lloyd. I’ve told you about him. This is Glen. He’s helping Lloyd look for Artie. This is Elliot,” Audrey motioned toward the guitarist, and to the singer she asked, “What are you calling yourself this week?”

“Efrem Nihilist, Jr., at your cervix.”

Lloyd held out a hand for him to shake and the singer just stared at it, before asking, “Are you a narc? If not, you missed your calling, because you are the narciest guy I’ve ever seen.”

“No, I am not a narc.”

“Well, it doesn’t hurt to ask.”

“It does if you’re asking for a punch in the nose.”

“Ooooh, ex-police brutality!” The singer made a show of shielding his face with his arms.

“Don’t mind him,” the guitarist said. “We don’t. He’s so in love with himself, it doesn’t leave room for anyone else to.”

“You’re just jealous. Audrey, let me show you my latest tool towards godhood.”

The singer led her back inside and Lloyd followed. Near his mic stand, he pointed to a grey metal discus on the floor with coiled guitar cords plugged into it.

“It’s a Fuzz Face,” he said, proudly. “A friend brought it back from England for me. I had to pay $50 for it, but I bet it’s the only one in the United States.”

“Very nice,” Audrey said, feigning interest. “I thought the reason you had to have this colossal Super Beatle amp was because it already had fuzz built-in.”

“This is better. The thing sounds like a buzz saw.”

Since Audrey put up with the guy, Lloyd felt he should at least try. “I suppose you’re going to the Beatles show tomorrow?”

Lloyd was treated to a vision of what a sneering Jesus would have looked like. “Are you kidding? That commercial teenybopper fodder?”

“Come on, Lloyd. Let’s get a burger before they’re gone.”

She stopped at a stereo console on the way out and picked up a white-labeled record. “Bill—that’s Efrem’s real name—does have his enthusiasms. This is an acetate from what was going to be the New Sweaty Minstrels’ second album, until the record label rejected it. It’s from his ‘Larry’ phase.”

Lloyd perused the label. The album was titled Larry’s Jubilee, and the songs all had a particular twist: “Larry Sings the Blues,” “Larry Cross the Mersey,” “Jacks Off to Larry” …

“When they rejected it, he tried to convince the band to record new songs he wrote with titles like “Night on Fucked Mountain,” “Fuck the Bismarck” and so on. He’s almost more trouble than he’s worth.”

“What’s he worth?”

“About $3 million when his father dies. In the meantime, they’re not speaking. And I meant what his talent is worth. He’s got something special.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

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They burgered up outside. Along with mustard and ketchup, he noted that Audrey put potato chips on her patty. Cochise and Blue wandered up. They’d evidently found a bottle of sake. “We’ve been hitting the sayonara sauce,” Blue giggled. They sat the bottle on the barbecue grill to warm it.

Bill/Efrem joined the circle near the grill and looked as if he was ready to begin needling Lloyd again when Cochise grabbed his attention, saying, “You intrigue me. You sing like a hyena. In my tribe, only women can do that.”

The singer didn’t seem to know whether to take that as an insult or a compliment. Audrey used the silence to wander away, ending up on the balcony overlooking the city. Then she suddenly excused herself, Lloyd assumed for the bathroom.

Now the band’s guitarist, Elliot, joined him at the rail. Beneath all his hair, he looked like a simpatico guy.

“I hope Bill didn’t wear out our welcome on you. Audrey’s been a good friend to us, so if you matter to her, you’re in the club. I think Bill just feels to need to let her know that the money she’s given us didn’t buy him?”

“Money?”

“How do you think we got those Vox amps? They’re over a grand apiece.”

A part of himself that he wasn’t proud of wondered how many months he’d have to spend scouring through the dregs of Los Angeles and sifting through sputum-soaked wastebaskets to earn what just one of those amplifiers on their shiny chrome stands cost.

“And Artie doesn’t mind her being so free with his money?”

“Man, she hasn’t told you? You haven’t met Artie. He never gave too much thought to business, and got rooked a lot. The residuals he gets barely pay their property tax. Audrey’s been supporting them for years with her song and jingle royalties.”

That took Lloyd aback. Why hadn’t she told him? To protect Artie’s pride? To protect her money from low-rent detectives? His respect for her increased, and his wariness just a bit.

Inside the house, the drummer tatted out a military beat.

“Whoops, that’s the call to get back in harness. Be seeing you.”

He went back in and strapped on a red guitar with pointy horns. Now Bill/Efrem was up there, giving directions. The band launched into a frenetic teenaged 1950s-sounding riff. The singer stepped up to his microphone, shouted, “Hey Narc!” and began singing,

For goodness sakes, she’s got the Sippie Sippie shakes,

You know he can’t sit still, ’til they’re reading Artie’s will

They’re shaking to the left, left …

Lloyd saw Audrey enter the room from the hall, looking stricken. Without a thought, he strode inside and headed straight for Efrem, who stepped back. Lloyd bent, picked up his precious fuzzbox—bought with Audrey’s money, too?—and hurled it Frisbee–like out the open plate glass door to the dark ravine below. The cords stretched to their utmost, then the plugs pulled from their jack. An ear-rending buzzing erupted from the singer’s amp. It sounded just like a night going bad.

The band came to a sudden halt. Lloyd reached in his pants pocket, peeled $50 from his scant bankroll, and dropped it at Efrem’s feet. “Here, buy yourself a new Fuck Face. But by the time you get it, it won’t be cool anymore, will it?”

From the corner of his eye, Lloyd saw that Cochise, anticipating a fight, prudently clocked a hippie standing near him, who crumpled unnoticed onto a couch.

Closer at hand, the singer was regarding Lloyd with a new look in his eyes. Lloyd liked to think it was respect.

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Jim Washburn has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, various MSN sites and just about anybody else willing to trade a paycheck for a pulse.
jim@fourstory.org

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