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If you thought the only thing Ellison writes is speculative fiction, craziness about giant cockroaches that attack Detroit, or invaders from space who look like pink eggplant and smell like chicken soup, this dynamite novel of the emergent days of rock and roll will turn you around at least three times. No spaceships, no robots, just a nice kid from Louisville named Stag Preston with a voice like an angel, seductive moves like the devil, and an invisible monkey named Success ...
If you thought the only thing Ellison writes is speculative fiction, craziness about giant cockroaches that attack Detroit, or invaders from space who look like pink eggplant and smell like chicken soup, this dynamite novel of the emergent days of rock and roll will turn you around at least three times. No spaceships, no robots, just a nice kid from Louisville named Stag Preston with a voice like an angel, seductive moves like the devil, and an invisible monkey named Success riding him straight to hell . . .
First there was only the empty golden circle of the hot spot, blazing against the silk curtains. That, and in another vein, the animal murmuring of the audience, mostly teenage girls with tight sweaters and mouths open-crammed by gum. For what seemed the longest time that was the portrait: cut from primordial materials in an expectant arena. There was a tension so intense it could be felt as warmth on the neck, uncontrollable twitches in the lips and eyes, the nervous shifting of small hands from nowhere to nowhere.
The curtains gave a vagrant rustle and from three parts of the orchestra and four parts of the balcony came piercing, wind-up-a-chimney shrieks of pleasure and torment. Behind the velvet ropes, overflow crowds pressed body on body to get a neck-straining view of the stage. Just those purple and yellow draperies, the golden coin of the spotlight beam. The scene was laid with a simple, but forceful, altogether impressive sense of dramatics.
In the pit, the orchestra began warming its sounds, and the jungle murmur of the anxious crowd rose a decibel. There would be no Master of Ceremonies to start festivities, no prefatory acts—the Tumbling Turellos; Wally French & Sadie, the educated dachshund; Ivor Harrig with mime and merriment; The DeLaney Sisters—there would only be that golden spotlight, a blast of sound, and the curtains would part. This was one man's show, as it had been one man's show for two weeks. This was The Palace, and it had been invaded.
Two weeks before they had made The Palace alter all its precedents. The screaming, feral teenage girls with their eyes like wine-soaked jewels, their mouths hungry, their adolescent bodies rigged and trussed erotically. They had booed and hissed the other acts from the stage before they could gain a hearing. They had stamped and clamored so outrageously, the booker and stage manager had decided—in the absence of the manager—to cut straight through to the feature attraction, the draw-card that had brought an audience rivaled only by the gates of Garland, Belafonte and in days past, Martin & Lewis.
They had set the other acts aside, hoping this demonstration was only an opening day phenomenon. But it had been two weeks, with SRO at every performance, and the other acts had been paid off, told a profusion of sorrys, and the headliner had lengthened his stint to fill the space. He seemed, in fact, suffused with an inner electricity that allowed him to perform for hours without fatigue. The Palace had regretfully acquiesced ... they had been conquered, and knew it.
Now, as the golden moon-face contracted, centering at the overlapping folds of the curtains, the orchestra burst into song. A peculiar song; as though barely adaptable to full brass and strings, it was a repetitive melody, underslung with a constant mechanical piano-drum beat, simple and even nagging. Immature but demanding, infectious.
The audience exploded.
Screams burst from every corner of the theatre, and in the first twenty-seven rows of the orchestra, girls leaped from seats as though spastic, lanceted with emotional fire. A senseless, building fury consumed The Palace and beat at the walls, reverberated out onto Seventh Avenue. The love affair was about to be consummated—again.
The curtains withdrew smoothly, the golden circle of light fell liquidly to the stage, hung in the black mouth of no scenery, no cyclorama, nothing, and the orchestra beat to a crescendoing final riff.
The hushed intake of a thousand, three thousand, too many thousand breaths ...
The muscle-straining expectancy as bodies pressed upward toward the empty space soon to be filled ...
The spotlight snapped off ...
Then back to life and he was there!
If the insanity that had ruled seventy-six seconds before was great, what was now loosed could only be called Armageddon. Seats clanged up against the backs of chairs, a Perdition's chorus of screams, wails, shrieks, moans and obscenities crashed and thundered like the waves on the Cliff at Entretat. Hands reached fervently, feverishly, beseechingly upward. Girls bit their fists as their eyes started from their heads. Girls spread their hands against their breasts and clutched them with terrible hunger. Girls fell back into their seats, reduced to tears, reduced to jelly, reduced to emotional orgasms of terrifying intensity.
While he stood quietly, almost humbly, watching.
His name was intoned, extolled, cast out, drawn in, repeated, repeated repeated repeated till it became a chant of such erotic power it seemed to draw all light and sound to it. A vortex of emotionalism. With him at its center, both exploding and imploding waves of animal hunger.
He was of them, yet not of them. With them, yet above them.
He stood tall and slim, his legs apart, accentuating the narrowness of his hips, his broad shoulders, the lean desperation of his face, the auburn shock of hair, so meticulously combed with its cavalier forelock drooping onto his forehead.
A guardian of unnamed treasures.
Then he began to play. His hands moved over the frets of the guitar slung across his chest, and a guttural, sensuous syncopation fought with the noise of the crowd ... fought ... lost momentarily ... lost again ... crowd swell ... then began to mount in insistence ... till the crowd went under slowly slowly ... till he was singing high and loud and with a mounting joy that caught even the self-drugged adolescents who had not come to listen, merely to worship.
His song was a pointless thing; filled with pastel inanities; don't ever leave me because I've got a sad dog heart that'll follow you where'er you go, no, don't leave me 'cause my sad dog heart cries just for you for you, ju-ust fo-o-o-or you ...
But there was a subtext to the song. Something dark and roiling, an oil stain on a wet street, a rainbow of dark colors that moved almost as though alive, verging into colors that had no names, disturbing colors for which there were only psychiatric parallels. Green is the dead baby image ...
The running line of what could be sensed but not heard was ominous, threatening, sensuously compelling in ways that spoke to skin and nerve-ends. It was like the moment one receives the biopsy report. It was like the feeble sound an unwatered plant makes in the instant before all reserve moisture dries from the tap root and the green turns to brown. It was like the sigh of anguish from the victim of voodoo at the instant the final pin is jammed into the ju-ju doll half a continent away. It was like the cry of a mother brought to see the tiny, crushed form lying beneath the blanket on a busy intersection. It was like the kiss of a spider.
And the great animal that was his audience, his vacuous, demanding, insensate, vicious audience, purred. Ripples of contentment washed the crowd. Almost mystically the surface of mass hysteria was smoothed, quieted, molded by his singing into a glossy plane of attention and silence. Girls who had been facially and bodily contorted by his appearance, who had thrown themselves forward in a spasm of adoration, now settled back demurely, seated and attentive.
He went on, singing, gently strumming the guitar, making idle movements of foot and hip and head—yet nothing overly suggestive, nothing that would rouse the sleeping beast out there. His movements, his voice, the chords he chose to pull from his guitar—all combined to lull the herd. His performance was as much a casting of hypnotic trances as it was a demonstration of musical ability. Like some advanced breed of snake charmer he piped at them, and their eyes became glassy, their limbs limp; they stared and absorbed and wanted, but were silent, all waiting.
And he could sing. Granted his material was that semi-obscene and witless conglomerate of rhythmics known as rockabilly—half thump-thump of rock'n'roll, half twang and formalized beat of hillbilly—he moved his people with it. His voice was low and strong, sure on the subterranean notes that bespoke passion, winging on the sharp, high notes demanding gentleness. His was a good voice, free from affectation, based solidly in the sounds of the delta, the back hills, the wanderlusts of the people.
It came through. And they listened.
Until he was sure he had wrung everything from the song; then he finished. A soft rise to a lingering C-sharp, held till it was flensed clean, and a final chord. Then silence. A quick-phrased reporter from Time had once compared the hushed silence following the song to the silence when Lincoln completed his Gettysburg Address. Compared it and found it wanting, diseased, laughable, sexually stimulating, dangerous. Nonetheless, there it was. A long instant without time or tempo. Deepest silence. The silence of a limestone cave, the silence of deafness, the silence of the floor of the Maracot Deep. No one spoke, no one screamed, and if there was a girl in that audience who breathed—she did it self-consciously, inadvertently, quietly.
It lasted a score of heartbeats, while he stood in the spotlight, head down, wasted, empty, humble.
Then the holocaust broke once more.
The realization that they had actually felt honest emotion burst upon the constantly self-conscious teen-agers, and they quickly covered their embarrassment with the protective cloak of crowd behavior. They screamed.
The sound rose up again, a cyclonic twisting outward, reaching even those beyond the sight of the stage (where the most demonstrative always clustered), sweeping all sanity before it. Carrying its incoherent message of attack and depravity with it like a crimson banner.
The noise lasted only until he struck the first four notes of the next song.
Then ... the somnambulistic state once more.
Sang for the better part of an hour and a half, ranging widely in interpretation, though restricted by arrangement and subject matter and the idiom of his music. His songs were the tormented and feeble pleadings of the confused teen-ager for understanding in a time when understanding is the one commodity that cannot be found pre-packed in aluminum foil. His songs were not honest, nor were they particularly meaningful, but they mirrored the frustrations of that alien community known as the teens.
There was identification, if nothing else.
The lean boy with the auburn hair, gently moving his hips in rhythm to his own music, unaided by the full string orchestra in the pit, unaided by the lush trappings of The Palace, was spellbinding the third largest audience in the theatre's history.
Here he was, a twenty-two-year-old singer with a faint Kentucky accent, dictator of emotions to a horde of worshipful post-adolescents. Humble, handsome, heroic in fact. He did nothing but sing, step about the stage with little relation to terpsichory, and strum a Gibson guitar with steel strings.
Yet he ruled. Unquestionably, his was a magnetism not easily denied. His singing was clear and strong, and he reached. He held them. Tightly, passionately, expertly.
Stag Preston was doing the one thing in this world he could do in public.
From the wings he was being watched by a pair of dark eyes. The man slouched against the flats, a cigarette dangling from a corner of his mouth, burning but forgotten. He was easily as slim as the singer, but there was lacking the wiry command inherent in every line and muscle of Stag Preston's body. Rather, this man was quick-looking. Almost feral. His eyes were set back under thin but dark eyebrows, and he watched the entire scene. He was shorter than Preston, no more than five feet seven, and his clothes hung on him with good style, unlike the clinging form of Preston's flamboyantly fitted garb.
Sheldon Morgenstern, publicity man, ace flak-merchant of the Stem, bodyguard and handmaiden to the hottest talent in the game, inveterate chainsmoker and decrier of the human soul, stood silently watching his meal ticket.
There was a singular lack of expression on his tanned, planed face. But his eyes, though dark, were a-swim with flickers of emotion.
The ash lengthened on his cigarette, as he drew deeply, split among its gray folds and dropped, dusting his jacket front. He swiped at the debris absently. The cigarette burned on, unnoticed. Sing, kid, he thought. Yeah, sing.
Behind him, the many nameless busymen who always infest backstages stood silently, listening to Stag Preston. Though their expressions were not those of the girls out front, still they were being reached, they were being held by this boy in his modern jester's motley. It was that way with anyone who listened to Stag Preston.
He was that peculiar phenomenon, the natural talent. He was uniquely Stag Preston, with no touches of Sinatra or Presley or Darin in him. He was an electric thing on a stage, a commanding personality that instantly communicated itself.
That was one-tenth the reason he had become the most valuable musical property in the business, inside four years. Just one-tenth.
Shelly Morgenstern lipped the butt from his mouth and ground it underheel, shaking another from the pack without conscious effort. He lit it and the brief lighter flame made the stage manager wince: smoking was prohibited in the wings, so close to the highly flammable scenery. But this was his PR man, and godlings could ignore mere mortal rules.
Shelly Morgenstern stared at the tilted, arched body as it made a one-step, two-step in slightest beat to the guitar's music. Stag Preston had it, all right. There was no question about it. He was Destiny's Tot. Up from nowhere, with a handful of doubloons. Nothing to sell save that which no one else had to sell. A voice, a manner, a look, a pair of hands that could innocently warp forth innocuous backgrounds to subtle oral pornography. That was all he had, yet when those components were joined and bathed by a spotlight, or trapped and grooved on an LP ... he was more. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec had once said, "One should never meet the artist; the work is always so much better than the creator." That, Shelly Morgenstern mused, was more true of Stag Preston than it had ever been of anyone.
Shelly Morgenstern watched as Stag Preston finished his final number. There would be no curtain call. Stag would announce a "little private show" around back in the alley under his dressing room window, and the stampede would start out of the theatre. That, they had found, was the only way to cleanse the theatre of its prepared-to-stay-an-eternity-with-peanut-butter-sandwiches horde. The turnover had been slow till they had employed the old Martin-Lewis dodge to empty the theatre. How they followed him; how they loved him; how they ached to touch his lean, hardrock body. It was sick, Shelly was certain of that, all arguments about Vallee and Sinatra and Valentino be damned. It was sick, and four years before, he had been steering for a poker game. Just that long ago he had been a hungry kid with too much moxie, too much hair, and no place to go.
Shelly Morgenstern corrected himself. That wasn't so, no place to go. The kid would have made it somehow; he had been too hungry, too anxious, too much on the grab to ever settle for a fink's life in Louisville. If it hadn't been Colonel Jack Freeport and Shelly Morgenstern, he would have done it another way. Yet it was phenomenal the way he had clawed his way up; even Jack Freeport—a tooth and nail career money-maker—had been amazed at the drive and verve with which the kid had pushed himself in so short a time. Amazed, a little frightened, but altogether impressed.
Shelly Morgenstern stared at the advancing face of Stag Preston as it came offstage. One of the "gopher" flunkies waited with outstretched arm, presenting the ceremonial towel. The towel into which Stag Preston would wipe all that semi-holy Stag Preston sweat ... which could easily be sold for twenty dollars to any of the screeching, drunk-with-adoration infants now jamming into the alley. The god sweated, yeah, it was true. But all the better. Don't put him completely out of reach. Put him just a handhold away, with the characteristic humbleness of all the new teen-aged idols. A god, yet a man.
Stag Preston stopped directly in front of Shelly Morgenstern, his face buried in the towel. When he pulled it away the dark, penetrating eyes stared directly into the shorter man's face. It was a good face, Stag Preston's face, though in the eyes and in the cruel set of mouth, the stygian darknesses under the cheeks, there was the hint of something too mature, too desperate.
Excerpted from Spider Kiss by Harlan Ellison. Copyright © 2003 The Kilimanjaro Corporation. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted August 24, 2014
Posted August 24, 2014