Music and Sex #5: Marching, Stealing, Singing, Puking, Spinning


Music and Sex: Scenes from a life - A novel in progress (first chapter here).

Other opportunities to interact with women included the marching band. It wasn't much of a band, but that didn't bother Walter; it meant it didn't take up much of his time. With the occasional exception, the same songs were played at every football game, so one rehearsal per week sufficed. In high school he'd been the third or fourth best trombonist, but here there was just one other trombonist, and they were on par with each other. If Walter felt like skipping rehearsal one week, nobody cared, since the music was easy and he could sight-read it adequately.

Nor did he have to practice marching formations, because they really didn't bother with that. Their formations were a sort of rebellion, illustrations synced to the smart-ass script read by the announcer, and they merely ran around between formations instead of marching. The announcer helpfully said in advance what the formation depicted -- "The band now forms a door and plays 'I Hear You Knocking'" -- serving to remind the band members what came next while also explaining to the bemused audience what the sloppy rectangle on the field represented and what the cacophony was supposed to sound like.

When they played a new song, maybe there would be an arrangement written out in advance, but more often a couple of trumpeters would play the melody in a comfortable key, the two tuba players would play chord roots, and everybody else would fake the harmony -- not only was intending complexity bound to not come out right, there was more than enough accidental complexity under normal circumstances. Sometimes the announcer would declare, "The band will now form an amorphous blob," a bit of snarky irony, but the music was often amorphous as well, though never announced as such. (Now that would have been funny.) In other words, precision was not prized beyond generally keeping together.

However, eventually some of the more senior members realized that Walter had some musical knowledge beyond reading notes, and he was tasked with writing the occasional arrangement -- the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" for a joke about midterms, the Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting for My Man" for a joke paralleling marriage-minded Barnard students and the supposed effeminacy of Princeton men. The scriptwriters were not paragons of taste and sensitivity, to say the least; the band's strange harmonies were unintentional, but its offensiveness was fully aimed at and regularly achieved, one result being that it was no longer allowed at games at West Point because the Army had banned it, which the band flaunted as a point of pride.

The away trips that the band was allowed to make were booze-infused journeys of low-brow humor, can-you-top-this story-telling, and raucous sing-alongs to mostly scatological adaptations of school songs, whether Columbia's own or those of Harvard and Yale -- either their other Ivy League rivals didn't have such a strong song tradition, or nobody cared. What could one say about Brown other than chant "Brown is the color of shit" when their cheerleaders came to the Columbia sideline? Also severely lacking in character was Dartmouth, whose teams were called Big Green. Crimson was a color to inspire fervor, but green? Walter gained kudos when, in response to Dartmouth's cheerleaders chanting "Green is the color of ivy," he bellowed, "Green is the color of snot." Amazingly, nobody seemed to have thought of this before, but it was quickly taken up by the rest of the band and Dartmouth's cheerleaders retreated in dismay.

The only thing that rivaled clever insults of their opponents in band esteem was theft of their property during away trips, and Walter had distinguished himself in that even earlier during the first road trip, to Princeton. As they walked through its campus from where the bus let them off to where the stadium was, he saw a building with a Princeton flag flying on the roof. He walked through the unlocked and unguarded front door, went to the top floor, found stairs to the roof equally unlocked and unguarded, and lowered the flag. Nervous and in a hurry, when he couldn't immediately figure out how to remove the flag neatly, he just pulled out his utility knife and cut the rope. Stashing the flag in his trombone case, he made a hasty exit and caught up with the band before they'd made it into the stadium. When he displayed his prize on the bus on the way home, he was instantly proclaimed a hero and awarded a chug from the bottle of Jack Daniels that the seniors were passing around. He'd never drunk hard liquor before, and gasped after taking his swig, but the band elders slapped him on the back and declared that he was now a man.

Sam, the other trombonist and by far the heaviest imbiber, followed up by asking, "Well, are you a 100% man? Have you lost your virginity?" "I'm working on it," Walter mumbled, blushing even redder than his face had flushed from the whiskey. "If you go after the girls like you went after that flag, you'll get there soon enough," Sam assured him in an avuncular tone, and everybody laughed, including the cheerleaders.

Yes, the cheerleaders. Sometimes they rode the bus with the band. They seemed unattainable at first, not least because there was more competition for their attention. There was more of a sense of familiarity with the female band members, and camaraderie. But Walter felt less comfortable with them, at least in terms of coming on to them, than with strangers in bars, because if he was rejected by a bandie, he'd still see them every week, which would be awkward. Also, he reasoned, if they talked among themselves about it, that would make it even more awkward by, he assumed, giving him a reputation, leading the ones he hadn't hit on to prejudge him and thus diminish the likelihood of success. It seemed wiser, or safer, to learn which ones already had boyfriends. True, some might acquire boyfriends in the interim. It was a complicated business. Finally, neither rehearsals nor the band bus offered much in the way of privacy. When could he even have the opportunity to make a move.

Anyway, the odds were better in the Barnard-Columbia Chorus -- if one went by male-to-female ratio, they were even in his favor, though he never felt that way. And though on the surface the chorus was a more sophisticated group, it too was a hard-partying aggregation, albeit not every week. One Friday in October there was a BCC party in the first-floor lounge of Walter's dorm (a cinderblock monstrosity that at least had the distinction of supposedly having housed Art Garfunkel in the early '60s). Not only was there beer, there was punch, and everybody's inhibitions were soon relaxed. Walter found himself being talked up by a pair of sopranos. Unfortunately he had no idea how to handle the situation so as to split one off from the other; they seemed strongly committed to sticking together as a strategy, in fact. So he just practiced witty repartee and slugged down the punch, along with numerous snacks. Eventually the sopranos left together when the party started winding down.

"Hey, Faber!" Walter turned and saw Martial, an upperclassman bass, standing at the drinks table. "You wanna finish this punch so it doesn't go to waste? You seem to like it."

"Sure." Walter walked over and looked at the punch bowl. There was only about an inch left. He picked up the big, round plastic bowl and raised it to his lips.

"Damn," exclaimed Jimbo, Martial's buddy, "this kid doesn't fuck around!"

However, Walter was discovering that an inch of punch in a bowl with a flat bottom of large circumference was more than he'd guessed. Stubbornly he continued drinking, unwilling to surrender, but finally had to give up.

"Nice try," Martial said with a slightly sinister grin, "you put a good dent in it." Walter smiled, glowing with pride and inebriation.

Then it was time to go back upstairs to his dorm room. He wasn't walking in straight lines, but at least he didn't have far to go. Once he reached the tenth floor, he saw some guys in the TV lounge and heard music. He kept walking, past his room and carefully lowered himself onto the lounge sofa. The Midnight Special was on, with Gary Wright playing “Love Is Alive,” so it was probably a rerun.

Walter was so drunk that he was finding it difficult to focus his vision -- it seemed as though the screen was on a rotating belt, cycling up to the ceiling until he pulled his focus back down; then it would slip back up. Sometimes he closed his eyes, because he was tired, and the image of the looping TV screen repeated in a sort of black-and-white -- more like light and dark -- on his eyelids. Still, he was fascinated and kept watching; Wright had a whole freakin’ keyboard strapped around his neck. That had to be hell on his neck. “Somebody could probably make money with a smaller, lighter keyboard for that kind of thing,” Walter observed. “Yeah, what does he think he is, a keytarist?” joked one of the jocks who lived across the hall.

The weird scrolling effect was nauseating after a while, so Walter gave up and went to his room. Carlton was there, reading in his bed. Walter got in his own bed and, as soon as he was lying down, felt far more nauseated. He hung his head over the edge of the bed. He must have made a retching noise, because Carlton yelled, “No, Walter, no!” But it couldn’t be stopped. “Fucking hell!” Carlton blurted, and then left the room. Soon thereafter, Walter passed out.

When he regained consciousness, sun was streaming in the window and a foul odor was assaulting him. His head was still hanging over the puddle of vomit. Carlton was nowhere to be seen. Walter went to the bathroom, washed his face, brushed his teeth, and felt a little more human.

He attacked the vomit problem with wads of toilet paper, dumping it in the toilet, but that didn’t work very well, so he grabbed his bath towel and used that, then washed it off in the shower, wiped the floor with the wet towel to get the dried bits up, rinsed it again, and finally hung it out the window to dry.

Carlton returned later that morning. “Hey, I’m really, really sorry about the mess last night,” Walter said. “Where’d you go?”

“I went next door and slept in Jimmy’s bed -- he went home to Long Island for the weekend.”

“It won’t happen again. I learned my lesson.”

“So what happened? Big night?”

Walter recounted the post-concert party and Martial’s offer. “Ha! Rookie mistake,” joked Carlton.

That was just another example of Carlton being a pretty great roommate. Marcus, in the other suite, was not quite as great, but on the other hand had a better LP collection and didn’t mind sharing it. While smaller than Walter's, its inclusion of several Funkadelic albums was key. Walter hadn't heard of that band before, but its combination of deeply funky grooves, wild rock guitar, and lyrics by turns hilarious and socio-politically trenchant, and sometimes downright weird, was a revelation, and soon he had acquired his own copies -- they were too heavily played to be worth taping, as Marcus didn't tend to take good care of his LPs, nor anyone else's -- he left Walter's only recently purchased copy of Dylan's Royal Albert Hall bootleg in the sun and returned it warped, promised to buy a replacement, but then said he hadn't been able to find a copy. He also said he'd pay for Walter's copy, but didn't have money then. After a few weeks, Walter gave up asking for his money.

Marcus was from Berkeley, and wore his Bay Area pride on his sleeve, which meant that Walter was also introduced to the music of Tower of Power – "the horniest funk band," Marcus joked, alluding to their top-notch horn section, which Walter soon noticed moonlighting on other people's albums. Walter liked horns as much as the next guy, maybe more being a horn player himself, but for him there were stronger points. For one, vocalist Lenny Williams, who featured on their mid-'70s run of the eponymous LP that featured "What Is Hip," the even funkier Back to Oakland, and his favorite, Urban Renewal, with its sardonic cover photo of a demolished building. Marcus added the tidbit that Williams had to be recruited because the band's previous singer had gone to prison for murder.

There was also ToP's amazing rhythm section, especially keyboardist Chester Thompson. Bassist Rocco Prestia and drummer David Garibaldi were a tight team, and CT locked in perfectly while being looser and more prolix, and Urban Renewal was definitely where they were at their best, especially on "Only So Much Oil in the Ground," the funkiest protest song he'd ever heard; "It Ain't the Crime," which stood out for the meshing of the horn parts with the groove, driven by baritone sax; the even funkier "Maybe It'll Rub Off," and the closing instrumental "Walkin' Up Hip Street," which was written by Thompson and very much featured him, really cookin' during a rousing buildup. For variety, Williams excelled as usual on ballads, his lusciously rich tone making even the mawkiest sentiments soulful.

Marcus was also a big Van Morrison fan, and while Walter already had four of Van's LPs, it was thanks to Marcus that he first heard the double live album It's Too Late to Stop Now, which Marcus proudly pointed out was recorded I the Bay Area and featured audience clap-alongs that, atypically, were not behind the beat. More notably, it had a killer version of "Caravan," even better than in The Last Waltz, and a great selection of blues and R&B covers that found Van the Man able to figuratively stand alongside his idols without embarrassment.

Walter deeply wished to be able to sing like that, with such fluid phrasing and colorful timbre, but he had more of a choirboy voice, careful not to stand out.

[Following chapter here.]

Roman AkLeff says of Music and Sex, his third attempt at a novel: "Lots of the events depicted in this book happened, to varying degrees. Some should have happened but didn't until now. Though it's mostly set in the 20th century, Music and Sex aspires to be a Bildungsroman for 21st century sensibilities, in that the main character doesn't finish coming of age until he is several decades into adulthood."