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I am on a mission. When I step through the doorway of the Edge Bar, and see the Friday night crowd in full party mode--not unexpected for a New York night out--I'm glad I've brought moral support.
My curly-headed, heartbreaking sister, Thalia, steps up to my left, and my pigtailed waif of a best friend, Alicia, f lanks my right. I, unfortunately, am the bland, brown-haired, bighipped meat in a siren sandwich. But this is still my gig, and for the immediate future, anyway, I'm the boss.
"If I'm not back in fifteen minutes," I coach, tugging my shirt down to cover the strip of skin that pouches out from the top of these pants, "come in and find me."
Thalia rolls her eyes, Alicia nods affirmatively, and I compulsively check the time on my watch before we break. Alicia heads to the bar, and Thalia sashays her way over to the jukebox, oozing femininity and drawing at least one open-mouthed stare as she goes.
Me, I walk determinedly to the back of the bar, passing tourists (identifiable by their pastel-colored sweaters, baseball caps and cameras) and twentysomething concert-goers (betrayed by their Butter Flies T-shirts, their arms slung around each other's shoulders and their loud, off-tune sing-alongs). I push through crowds making toasts to an assortment of accomplishments: to beer, to rock and roll, to Jack Mantis, all the while searching for the entrance to the VIP room, where, if my informant is worth her weight in gold, the crowd's idol should be sitting in front of three shots of Johnny Walker Red, compulsively releasing and rebinding his white-blond hair into a ponytail.
I check my watch again before elbowing past three skater-looking dudes,then pull up the waistband on Thalia's leather pants and adjust the straps of her pink tank top. My borrowed outfit isn't the warmest, especially for a colder-than-usual early September night, and it's certainly not as comfortable as my standard uniform of cargo pants and earth-toned T-shirts. But when one is about to cavort with the hottest rock-and-roll god in the United States, one must look the part, and so I've resorted to raiding my sister's closet.
One of the best-kept secrets in New York is the Edge Bar's hidden room, a secret VIP bar where performers about to play Madison Square Garden can engage in a little pre-concert warm-up. My boyfriend, Matt, also a musician, once asked me to meet him there, but I couldn't for some reason or other. Now I realize I should have asked him for directions, because, as you might expect, a top-secret room isn't exactly easy to spot. I get turned around a couple of times, finding myself back at the jukebox and Thalia's quizzical glances twice before finally catching sight of a thick red curtain along the back wall, hidden behind a waitress's station. A big, fat, bald-headed Mr. Clean-looking guy, who slumps on a stool and none-too-casually stares at a blond waitress's assets, is the last tip-off I need. I look at my watch again--I've lost some time here, but I'm good.
"Hi," I say to the bald guard, pulling him from his voyeuristic pastime.
Mr. Clean adjusts his weight and looks me up and down, obviously annoyed that he has to do his job. His silence speaks volumes.
"I'm here for the, uh, room." I point as emphatically as I can at the curtain, to cover for my stumbling speech.
"You on the list?" His eyes have become captivated by my midsection. I swallow the instinct to once again pull down my tank (my father's former housekeeper and current fiancée, Helen, says my hips are good for making babies). This is hardly the time to cater to my body issues. Does Christiane Amanpour think about her waistline when she's about to meet Vladimir Putin? Actually, I don't know the answer to that, but I'm going to go with no.
"I'm on the list." I pray that my voice sounds strong and wholly believable.
Mr. Clean pulls a chart out from under his armpit and I search desperately for a name that hasn't been checked off. Not being the best upside-down reader, my nerves vibrate like a bass guitar. But then, I see my shot--and oh, how delicious it is, too! I plunk my finger onto the name. "There I am."
"That's me!" There's a double meaning in the smile that appears on my face. Of course, I want to be charming. But also, when Alex gets here and sees his name crossed off, he's going to be so pissed, and that will be one huge cherry on top of a very delicious sundae.
Mr. Clean peels himself off the stool, and pulls the red curtain away from the door. Before I slink inside, I turn back to the main bar, and give an exuberant okay sign to Alicia, who raises a drink and a fist of solidarity in response. Mr. Clean notes my geeky enthusiasm and scowls. Thalia, already surrounded by a gaggle of men and holding court--she's in the middle of her "naked f lute player" story; I can tell from her hand motions--doesn't pay me any mind.
The VIP curtain f lutters behind me. I find myself in a small, square, black-lit room that's awash in spinning patches of light, courtesy of the dozens of crystal light-catchers and pumpkin-size disco balls hanging from the ceiling. I've read about this room in Rolling Stone and Disc; heard music insiders speak about it reverently, their voices lowered in awed whispers; dreamt of a time when I'd be a regular visitor to its sacred space. But this is the first I've been here, and I have to say that I'm more than a little proud that I made it in on my own, and not as "the girlfriend."
I scan the layout of the room quickly, keeping an eye open for the reason I'm here. There are three black couches arranged in a triangle just in front of me, populated with several skin-and-bone models sporting severe haircuts and razor-sharp cheekbones, and regular guys in jeans and T-shirts. The guys I recognize. They're all members of the Butter Flies, the hottest band in the western hemisphere, and tonight's main event at Madison Square Garden, just across the street. Their leader is not among them, so I keep looking.
I finally spot him, his back to me, sitting at the bar that stretches along the back wall. I run my fingers through my hair and think that this is just how real reporters get their stories. They maximize their connections. I'm lucky to be so close to Annie Lee, the punk icon herself, and I'm lucky that she's in my corner. She knows Alex Paxton and I are both trying to get to Jack (he's been "choosing" the reporter who will do his first major interview as a superstar for months now, and it's a big deal, because Disc is holding their prestigious January cover for him), and though she was honor-bound to let us both know Jack's location tonight, she gave me an hour's jump on good ole' A.P. It's up to me not to blow it.
My watch ticks off the minutes, reminding me that there are other places I have to be tonight, too. I take a deep fortifying breath and make my approach. The expanse of Jack's back is covered in black leather. A ponytail hangs down to his collar and his hands reach up to release his hair. He snaps the rubber band around his wrist as I slip onto the stool next to him. I can barely breathe. For a moment, I can't figure out how to start a conversation, but then the bartender catches my eye and I get an idea.
"Can I have some whiskey?" I imitate the sound of my sister's voice here, molding it into the breathy, throaty, coquettish sound Thalia uses on potential dates. Then I look over to my neighbor, smile and point to the collection of empty shot glasses in front of him. "And another round for him?"
Jack Mantis, lead singer and rhythm guitarist of the Butter Flies, looks over at me with eyes so pale it's as if God forgot to color them in. He looks just the same as he always did. But things have changed since I last saw him play at Annie Lee's two years ago. In the time it's taken me to accumulate enough writing experience to even think about approaching a nationally known musician for a story, Jack and the Butter Flies have enjoyed the kind of meteoric rise that musicians hope for.
Of course, meteoric rises in the world of rock and roll aren't all that unheard of. But for every one Beatle you have ten Hooties and thirty Blowfish (or one of my boyfriend, Matt Hanley), and it's my intention to find out whether or not Jack and the Butter Flies have staying power. Jack's charisma is undeniable. He's kind of a tortured, sad angel, with his pale skin (last week Star magazine reported that he was the child of an albino,) his aquamarine eyes, that square jaw that saves his face from looking completely girlish, and his too-skinny physique that's just androgynous enough to be devastatingly sexy. Not to mention that hair. Blond and thick and lush.
He is now binding said hair back into a ponytail. I'm guessing that fame and fortune have only upped the ante on his personal quirks, of which he notoriously has many. I should make a mental note of how many times he rebinds his hair tonight.
"Who are you?"
I smile at him. "Echo," I say and turn to watch the bartender pour our drinks.
"That's a musical name," Jack says, reaching green fingers for one of the three shots of whiskey that have been placed in front of him.
"My dad's doing, I'm afraid. He's a Classics professor. He named me for a nymph who made the Queen of the Goddesses angry and was punished by only ever being able to repeat what was said to her."
"That sucks." His voice sounds just like it does on the Butter Flies' recordings. Gravelly and low-pitched, betraying a hint of world weariness that makes you just want to chuck your life and follow him around, like a Deadhead or a Phish-head.
"Eh, it could be worse. I could be named Medusa." He looks at me funny. Probably because we've had this conversation before, in Boston, when I was a college student and hanger-on at every club within a twenty-mile radius of my campus, and he was a struggling musician. But Jack's a rock star now. He certainly shouldn't be expected to remember every time a young music fan talked to him after a show.
"Medusa," I repeat. Jack doesn't take his blue-white eyes off me while he sips from one of the shot glasses of whiskey.
"She had snakes for hair."
"You're right. That would be worse." He nods and we clink glasses before drinking to my funny name. I check my watch.
"So, it's time to come clean." I turn so that my whole body faces his.
Jack pulls his hair out of his ponytail holder, snaps the band onto his wrist, and then proceeds to run the fingers of his left hand up and down the underside of his right arm. This motion is hypnotic, and I lose my train of thought for a moment before recovering.
"I know Disc magazine's talking about doing their big New Year's cover story on you and the Flies."
His eyes go wide, and for a minute I think he might get up and leave me sitting alone at the bar. But he doesn't. He continues running his fingers up and down the milky white underbelly of his arm, and tilts his chin toward the ceiling, which I take as a sign to keep talking.
"I want to write it."
His responding silence crashes over my head like an ocean wave. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to track him here, and just lay my cards on the table like this. Maybe I should've gone with Thalia's plan: sneak into Jack's downtown apartment, corner him in his bedroom, and throw myself at him, until he was so overcome by my feminine wiles that he gave me what I wanted.
But I'm not so comfortable with Thalia's way, nor could I guarantee that her way would work for me--remember? Bland? Big-hipped? Besides, I do have some moral fiber, and if I ever want to work for Rolling Stone or Disc magazine, I can't possibly expect to get all my stories by seduction.
"And why should I talk to you?" Jack finally asks, a dark look clouding his crystalline eyes.
"Because--" I reach into the bag that hangs on my shoulder "--nobody knows you the way I do."
And I pull out my ace in the hole. Articles on the Butter Flies that go back years, to when they were just a beer band. Reviews of their CDs, even the ones they burned and sold themselves, back when they played small clubs and rooms that only sat thirty or so people. I pull out about a dozen issues of the Brooklyn Art & Times, my current employer, and spread them out in front of us.
"I've been following you guys since you started in Boston and then when you started playing all those New York clubs, I just--I paid attention, I guess. I understand the following you have in the Northeast, and actually, you and I met a couple of times--I think you know my boyfriend, Matt Hanley?"
Jack's eyebrows do this funny wriggle. "Matt Hanley?" He starts laughing into his shot glass, and my ire starts to rise. "We played in Germany together. How's his new album coming?"
"Uh, it's coming. They're just finishing it up now," I answer, feeling my jaw clench.
He purses his lips and shakes his head before again smirking into his whiskey glass. He obviously knows how much I'm stretching the truth on that count. Nobody who knows anything about Matt would believe that his album is anywhere close to being finished.