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The Point Man
By Steve Englehart, James Frenkel
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1981 Stephen Englehart
All rights reserved.
DECEMBER 26 7:30 P.M.
Barnaby Wilde was not his name.
BARNABY WILDE was what it said in block letters, in neon, above the plate window which held him.
He danced, his eyes tight shut, a faraway look in them, listening to Janis Joplin as she tore her heart out in passion and drugs. He was dancing in the window of the KQBU street studio under the eyes of an admiring crowd, but he was not a dancer. He was the disc jockey.
"Get down!" came from the multitude.
"Sucker's all right."
He danced in the studio window, and he danced in the darkness of his mind, staring back down into Janis's eyes, as hazy as the room. She was riding the biggest wave in rock and everybody in the room knew it, most of them better than she did. He'd heard her do "Piece o' My Heart" at Wesleyan tonight, and he'd known she was unstoppable.
He was thinking about majoring in journalism, but only because he'd had to make some sort of choice and had no real direction. What he really was, he had learned since then, was a disc jockey. He'd sought out a show as a freshman for the same reason he'd sought out a poker game, used skis, and Marvel Comics: you came north to college to diversify. WESU had offered a folk show, Thursdays, 1 to 3. What did he know about folk? But he took it.
He became Barnaby Wilde, Rock 'n' Roll Requests, Fridays 8 to midnight. It played hell with his social life, but he didn't mind. The phones never stopped ringing. The February ratings had listed WESU for the first time ever; a college station was challenging both Hartford and New Haven. Barnaby Wilde was a Name in central Connecticut. And so he was invited to Columbia Records' party on the Wharf. And so, the moment came when he danced with Janis Joplin.
But don't get it wrong. When the dance was over, she giggled throatily and wandered off to find the bar. He went back to Nancy and they talked about the game against Amherst on Monday.
Still, it's memories that make the man.
Now, whenever Barnaby Wilde of KQBU San Francisco, weekdays 4 to 8, played a Janis cut for an oldie, he remembered her glazed eyes, and how her red hair flew in the green light. And, almost always, he danced ... even if he did it in a street-front studio.
Some of the crowd on the sidewalk danced with him. Three guys in identical down vests did the Latin hustle. Two girls, not together, pressed against the glass like bookends, tits flattened, feet doing all the good moves. Barnaby's head was thrown back, his hips bobbed and wove with the horns. Janis started to scream in earnest, her voice out on the edge between artistry and hysteria. The drums were deafening, the sax afire. She rose, and she flew ... and then she brought them all back home. A final four bars and the storm was past, leaving them all in the wake.
Barnaby brought his mike up as the echo died. "Janis Joplin, as if anybody needed to be told," he said, his tone warm and his words crisp, if slightly breathless. "The one and only-ever J.J.!" He punched the prime cartridge. "K-Q-B-U," sang the chorus, "thirteen ninety!" "Did you like that?" he called out to the crowd, opening the street mike for their "Yeahhhh!" "I mean J.J., not the jingle," he taunted, screwing up his face at them. They laughed. He punched up the next song. "I knew that you would! Hey, how was your Christmas? All right?" "Yeahh!" "All right! And the year-end Golden Greats keep on a-comin', with Barnaby Wilde on the Barbary Coast!" A lion roared: his trademark. The song's intro ended, and Hot Chocolate sang.
He flipped switches without benefit of glance; music swamped the small studio as his mike cut out. His hands moved across his control board like Elton John's on keys. Now they shifted his earphones to his neck, where they hung like a horse collar, and he swiveled toward the bright white box of cartridges Dymo'd "1966." The voice of his engineer rumbled in through his collarbones. "The Madwoman just called down."
Earl's voice was carefully neutral; he, too, was in the fishbowl. Earl had been an engineer since an engineer was somebody. It was he who had set up mikes for concert remotes from Chicago's Avalon, he who had invented the right mix to give the Lone Ranger's desert chases that windswept ambience. Up until the mid-60s, he had played the announcers' records for them. But now he sat on Sutter Street and made sure Barnaby Wilde kept to the schedule. He was way past his prime, and he hated his job, but he liked Barnaby Wilde, and he liked earning a living.
They both disliked the Madwoman.
Barnaby found his next cart and swiveled toward the side window, through which Earl was peering nearsightedly. He flipped his mike switch to "2." "What'd she want?"
"Didn't say. Just wants to talk to you when you're off."
Barnaby glanced at the clock: 7:38. "She's coming down?"
"No. You go up."
"Okay. At least it's not another memo." Both men laughed. "How was your Christmas, Earl?"
Earl lifted his skinny shoulders. "Ehh. Easier in some ways, with the kids all gone. But emptier, too. Less giving, and laughing, and mess." He shook his balding head. "Cost just as much, though. That didn't help. Somehow, with all the money I take out of this station, we're still on the edge of bankruptcy."
"I hear ya, big fella. Don't you wish somebody could explain — really explain — why money just ain't worth shit anymore?"
"Well, if they do, it'll be this week, when nobody's listening. This time between Christmas and New Year's is just dead air, as far as the world's concerned."
"A good time for coming around to fix my amp, though."
"I'll fix your amp, you poor doomed soul — if you're still working here after to night. Hey, don't forget the McDonald's spot."
"No, I got it."
Barnaby stuffed a red-and-yellow cart, fresh from the agency, into his second player. Hot Chocolate was fading. Was Earl right? he wondered. Ohh, mama, can this really be the end at QBU? He took three deep breaths, fast, to shoot oxygen into his brain. Hell, no! Fuckin' A! He flipped his mike switch back to "1," reopening it to the world.
"Hot Chocolate — and gimme a hit o' brown sugar to go, too, m'man!" Dirty chuckle. "O' course, if you're one of those people who wants something a little more substantial in your mouth — something like two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, and a sesame-street bun — well then, listen very closely! Girls —?"
The girls began to sing, in their red-and-yellow voices. He noted the time, 7:40, in the log, and found the tag line in the black book for when they finished. "Remember, there's a McDonald's near you in Oakland, at 6623 San Pablo, and another in The City at 2801 Mission, especially for all you low riders — and don't forget to ask 'em for the brown sugar! Tell 'em Barnaby sent you!" The lion's roar. The Bee Gees broke into a croon.
Barnaby stood up and leaned forward, resting his palms on the console, looking out over the crowd. Earl, watching him, was reminded of a king surveying his realm ... and Earl knew, as far as radio went, it was true. Barnaby Wilde was the AM King of San Francisco. With a high forehead fading into the first signs of a widow's peak, high cheekbones, large eyes which missed little, and the full mouth of a born talker, he looked the part almost too well. Earl had known a lot of kings since Chicago — most of them very short-lived. This one wasn't.
The telephone rang in Earl's studio, and he answered it. Listened. Held it up to attract Barnaby's attention. He could have cut back in on the earphones, but then his sardonic grin might have been missed. Barnaby knew what that grin meant. He didn't usually accept calls during a show, but Earl always put this one through. Fuck! he thought wryly. He made a great show of reluctance as he picked up his own receiver. The crowd wondered. Earl patched in on earphones.
"Barnaby? Hi. This is Suzanna." Her voice managed to be low, husky, and tentative all at the same time. She had told him once she was sixteen; he thought it was more like fourteen. "I heard what you said about brown sugar...."
"Could you turn down your radio, Suzanna?"
"Oh, sure." The crispness of his tone didn't seem to have registered. Or maybe, by now, she thought it was his normal manner of speech. The Brothers Gibb stopped overloading the line.
"Listen, Barnaby," she said, "I heard what you said about brown sugar, and, I'm not brown, except, you know, my hair, down there, but I'm having a party at my place tonight, an after-Christmas party, and I was hoping you could come. You know?"
"Come. Uh-huh." She was spaced, for sure; her voice wandered right behind her train of thought. With his free hand, he reached out for a Carly Simon cart.
"I had a dream about you last night," she went on, softly. "It gave me the idea, see? The earthquake came, right? The big one? It knocked down all the houses on my street. I sleep next to a window, so when everything fell, I was thrown clear, out the window, but the glass tore off my negilzhay. Actually," she tittered — there was no other word — "actually, I don't wear a negilzhay, but this was a dream. I was wandering through the streets with nothing on, and then I saw you. You came rushing over to me, and just then a great big crevasse opened up and we both fell in. You fell on top of me, Barnaby."
"That's amazing, Suzanna." Earl was rolling side to side in his chair, tears streaming. Some people on the sidewalk were pointing at the crazy old man.
"Well," the girl said, breathless at the memory, "the shock ripped all your clothes off, too —"
"— and you were just lying there, dazed. I tried to see if you were hurt, but I couldn't move either ... and then, you started to move, just your hand. Down between my legs. Just so slow ..."
"Just a minute, Suzanna."
Barnaby punched the continuous cart again for the call letters, and opened the mike. "Don't forget: KQBU, in association with Bill Graham, presents Valerie Drake at the Cow Palace, 8:30 P.M. sharp on January 1st. Tickets are 10.50, 9.50, 8.50 and 7 bucks, and you'd better believe they're goin' like lifeboats in a monsoon. So get 'em soon, mon, at the Cow Palace box office, or by calling TELETIX. That's 415, T-E-L-E-T-I-X. Valerie Drake, one night only, New Year's Day — you figure it out. And here's some figuring music for you. Or music about figures. Carly Simon —!"
He picked up the phone. Maybe I should play "Misty" for her, he thought. But he said, "Listen, Suzanna, I've got to go." Earl signaled him: no! no!
"Wait!" she protested. "I haven't told you everything!"
"I know. But duty calls."
"But what about my party? My parents are gone till after New Year's, and we've got all the booze in the world. My dad will never miss it."
Despite himself, knowing he was nuts to give her any encouragement at all, he couldn't resist one question. "How many people will be at this blast, Suzanna?"
"Just us, baby," she answered, sounding suddenly more like twenty-six than sweet sixteen. "Just you and me, you know?"
"I know. Believe me, I know. But I can't do it, Suzanna."
"I'll come see you, then."
"I'm here every afternoon. Just be sure to keep your clothes on, so my boss doesn't raise a ruckus."
"Oh, you!" she pouted, and hung up.
Looking out at the crowd, Barnaby wondered how many heroic fantasies would shatter if they knew what he was really doing in here.
And how many more would be born?
He didn't know why he bothered to talk to her at all.
... Well ... yes he did. As far from his plans as a date with horny jailbait was, those calls were still a mark of his success. The girl had never met him, but his voice alone, and the things he did with it, could get to her. Like every performer, he needed his audience, needed that response. The ratings told him he had it, but numbers were no substitute for live fans. Even spacy ones.
Or were there any other kind?
He hyperventilated for a full twenty seconds before going back on the air. The rest of his show went by like a dream, and then he was finished for another day. The crowd waved and broke up, scattering in all directions.
He picked up the program log with weary fingers and signed out. He had to think for a moment, his face slack, before he filled in the final line.
"Max August," he wrote.
Barnaby Wilde, you may remember, was not his name.CHAPTER 2
DECEMBER 26 8:05 P.M.
Conscious of the sweat-stink under his arms, Max August went to see the Madwoman. Her real name was Madeleine Riggs, one of the new breed of broadcasters who had never been on the air. She had majored and Mastered in Business, and meant it; her official title was Corporate Liaison. Nobody had known what that meant when she'd arrived on her Fact-Finding Tour two weeks before, and nobody knew now, but she wore her authority with even more style than her Eastern fashions. She represented the owners, North-cliff, and she smiled all the time. Maybe there was a connection.
Nabbing a dry doughnut on his way through the remains of the Christmas party, he walked up one flight and knocked at the office she'd commandeered. He found her sipping a cup of coffee, seated behind the desk of the station's pre-Northcliff owner, who was now in Palm Springs playing golf.
Madeleine Riggs was a natural redhead, with blue-black eyes and a no-nonsense mouth, dressed in shades of green: herring-bone jacket, tweed calf-length skirt, satiny blouse, cashmere scarf. The fedora that went with all that was carefully set on the windowsill. She could have been a knockout, Max decided, but the final effect was too studied. She looked like a mannequin, or a topflight hooker. Of course, he never had liked her.
As he appraised her from the doorway, Madeleine was returning his gaze from behind her coffee's steam. She knew, in her crystal way, that this would be her toughest hour in San Francisco, despite the outward informality of it. She'd planned this meeting in every detail, right down to the after-hours time; it would be her own fault if she fucked up now. Fortunately, she never fucked up.
"Barnaby! Max! Nice to see you!" She smiled brightly, rising to shake his hand. She seemed to notice his stance for the first time. "Tired?"
"A little. You have something strenuous in mind, Madeleine?"
Her smile remained in place, but everything in it died. Turning her head away, she smoothed her skirt across her hips as if wiping her hands on it, and Max wondered if all his years as Barnaby Wilde had loaded his voice with more innuendo than he knew. But the replay in his head convinced him it was all in her head. So, he thought. It figures.
She sat down again, motioning for him to do the same. "Max," she said, "why did you play Janis Joplin tonight?"
"I wanted to. Is that why you wanted to see me?"
"The Joplin girl is dead, you know."
Long hours in the fishbowl were all that kept his face straight. Not that he was a Janis groupie, whether he'd danced with her or not, but he'd never in his life heard anyone refer to her with such cheerful unconcern, either. How in touch with their music was this Corporate Liaison? A premonition touched him.
"She's a San Francisco tradition," he said. "Maybe a legend."
"There's no tradition in contemporary music, Max — just oldies, which this station has been playing all day. But I believe KQBU should be a Today operation. And that's what I wanted to talk to you about." She leaned back in her chair, her unbound breasts rising smoothly under the satin, her nipples tracing tracks he silently noted, waiting.
"Max, I was sent here from Northcliff to see what I could do to improve KQBU's earnings. I haven't passed the word before this because I didn't want to make anybody nervous; nervous people put on an act. I wanted to simply observe — the station's style, its competition, its managerial structure. And the types of people who listen to it. People are very important to me.
"Now I feel I've found the answer."
Her smile was back in sync, and Max felt his resentment beginning to grow. As the top-rated jock in the Nine Counties, he felt he'd found the answer already. It was an ego thing on his part, but that didn't bother him a bit, since egos are what make performers. What bothered him was the ignorance which must have shaped her "answer," and how it would clash with his ego. He was the one who'd be left to sell whatever idea she'd pulled out of her fancy hat.
Excerpted from The Point Man by Steve Englehart, James Frenkel. Copyright © 1981 Stephen Englehart. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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