From Aural Innovations #24 (July 2003)
Sometimes things are not always what they seem. The night can drop its black velvet curtain down over your eyes suddenly and without warning. Or its descent can creep slowly and steadily - in a tame and docile manner - lulling you into a safe and sound sleep.
This wasn't one of those kind of nights.
It was the kind of night that could have been ladled out of a big, black, cast-iron cauldron. It was deep, dark, and full of tantalizing esoteric treasures. A rich swirling stew of rising stars, heavenly bodies, and the divine intoxicating voices of the celestial sirens. The music of the spheres.
It was a night unlike any other.
It was the night of the divas.
Inside the advertisement, a white stag leapt from the words "Made in Oregon". It soared into the evening sky, flying out of the billboard's northern border. It was apparently fleeing Oregon for the safety of the North Star. Or the sublime solitude of the Big Dipper. And judging from the stag's glowing red nose - it'd spent a great deal of its time bar-hopping around Old Town.
I hung a right at Northwest Fourth Avenue and sped through the fiery-red Chinatown Gate. I passed two huge bronze lions and sixty-four golden dragons before making several quick right-hand turns. A couple of innocent bystanders scattered as I aimed my heap in the direction that the white stag had bolted from.
I had a pretty good idea what I'd find at the end of this frenzied trail - canaries. A conjunction of three wild and untamed canaries. And in Cascadian slots, a payoff like that amounted to one thing - THE BIG FIX.
I ditched my wheels at a nondescript location and took to the street on foot. I weaved a zigzag path through the homeless, the hustlers, the pushers, the junkies, and the thrillseekers littering the steppes of the city. It wasn't long before I spotted the distinctive Mid-Twentieth Century, Broadway-style marquee perched above the corner of Southwest Third and Ankeny. Small, white, electric lights flashed and raced around the pale-blue neon borders surrounding the establishment's name. "Berbati's" floated in small, bright, flaming-orange neon letters above a larger more mythical name - PAN. Beneath it a drawing of a woman and a pipe-playing satyr danced inside the pale-blue light of a neon moon.
A single conga line of electric lights split off from the marquee between the first and second floors. They flashed and raced down the narrow alley, darting around the corner of the building, and vanished into Second Avenue.
Across the street, on the south side of Ankeny, the Purgatory "fetish" Boutique and Papillon Fine Lingerie shops had closed for the night. A large solitary swallowtail butterfly, mounted inside Papillon's window, flickered a deep-purple and Bay-City-blue in the dark, desolate alley. Only Dan & Louis Oyster Bar showed any potent signs of life.
I continued east down Ankeny, following the flashing lights, and peered in Berbati's window as I headed toward the end of the block. I could only see security personal lingering inside at the entrance. The window flowed into dark-brown bricks laced with bright white mortar. Then flowed back into another window. I saw figures standing on a stage, gathered around racks of musical and electronic equipment. The window flowed into wood. Then back into window. I saw three pool tables. There were people gathered around the middle table concentrating hard on the balls migrating inside its red felt borders. A juke-box lurked in the wings. It looked like a hybrid of a Vegas slot machine and a colourful dream genie summoned up from a rock'n fifties diner. Granting wishes at the drop of a Sex Pistol.
This image flowed into another room separated by a wall and another pane of glass. It was restaurant glass with a view of couples huddled intimately at tables. There was a dark-brown stand-up piano sandwiched between two faux Grecian columns located against the back wall.
This image soon passed, flowing back once again to brick. But this brick was a much lighter shade of brown with matching brown mortar. And this puzzled me. Why the sudden change in construction?
I followed the flow around the corner, and slipped in through the first door I came to. The room was dark. I blinked and its starkness came into muddy existence. The only lighting in the room came from plain, white, Chinese paper lanterns hanging over the tables and a few burning wicks floating in red tinted oil goblets sitting on the tables. I blinked a few more times and a few patrons came into fuzzy focus. They blinked back at me. They were probably wondering what I was doing just standing there staring at them in disbelief. I was wondering exactly the same thing. What was going on here? This wasn't Berbati's Restaurant. Where the hell was I?
I stepped back outside and watched the door shut behind me. It had "SHANGHAI TUNNEL" written all over it.
I shook my head. True, I was near the waterfront. But was this really one of the entry points to the secret tunnels crawling beneath the surface of Old Town? This wasn't something I wanted to explore. To risk waking up and finding myself living a new life - lost at sea - lost when the trapdoor beneath my feet gives way, after the Mickey kicks in.
I shuffled up the pavement two doors and stepped back inside the building. I found myself standing in a restaurant. A Greek restaurant. This time it was the right place. It was also the back entrance into the nightclub, if one knew the correct path to follow.
I veered to the left around the bar in front of me and dodged the tables speckled with patrons eating, drinking, and chattering. The walls were decorated with gaudy modern art paintings. The dinning area extended into the next section - the game room.
When I hit the pool tables, I caromed off to the right. This sent me sailing into the north corner of the room. I sped toward the pinball machines and bumpered off in a westerly direction. Then vanished into the side pocket - a dark passage through the wall - straight into Berbati's Pan.
A huge black curtain hung from the ceiling, shrouding the back of the stage. I walked around the curtain and past the north end of the bar facing the side of the stage.
Easy Tiger was finishing their soundcheck. A sheet of paper rested on the edge of the stage. It looked like a schedule with band names and times listed on it. I spun the sheet around and read the names. EASY TIGER. STORM AND THE BALLS. DAHLIA.
Yeah, it was The Big Fix, alright. The ultimate hat trick - three charismatic canaries, all on the same bill!
I drifted over to the pay station next to the hatcheck room at the Ankeny Street exit. I lifted the receiver, dropped two coins down the coin slot, and listened to them chime as they fell. Then I punched in Greg Stoker's number. The phone rang several times before his voice crept in with a cautious greeting.
"Lookin' for a little ACTION tonight?"
"You need backup, again?"
"What's the game this time?"
"Who's running... and what are the odds?"
"They ain't runnin'. They're shooting from the hip... and singin' to beat the band. All of 'em odds on favourites."
"Hmm, sounds Interesting. Who's the favourite to Win, Place, and Show?"
"How does Jennifer [Stroker] Folker, Storm Large, and Krys No grab ya?"
A wolf-whistle parted his lips and tickled the line.
"When can I expect ya, fly-boy?"
"When you hear the bulls closing in."
"So they're runnin', too, eh? Better cool yer heels and take yer time, Valentino. No need risking the pokey."
"Okey-doke." He laughed.
The line went dead. So I hung up.
Greg was a square egg. An excellent observer. And a sound pair of Harpo eyes. He was the perfect plant to have in a crowd. A one man intelligence organization. A human fly on the wall taking it all in like a visceral sponge. And best of all, he was very discreet.
I bellied up to the bar and ordered a pint of Budweiser. Forked over three paper Elvis'. Took a long, deep sip and pocketed my change - two silver Sex Pistols. Then plodded a slow course across dance floor. I passed under the mirrorball, and took up a position at the centre edge of the stage. I sat my glass down beside a monitor, removed a notepad from my trench coat and jotted down the pertinent facts as they revealed themselves to me.
Dave was the name of the house mixman. He was middle-aged. Had a horseshoe-shaped hairline and resembled Hunter S. Thompson. He was at the back of the club peering over the top of the raised mixing desk, towering over the back of the dance floor like a judge holding court over the nightclub. A cigarillo dangled from his lip - glowing like a smouldering one-eyed demon. Tendrils of ashen smoke leaked from his flared nostrils. They drifted lazily toward the ceiling, performing slow, deliberate Tai Chi motions. Then they dissipated into nothingness like empty promises brought to light.
Reed was set up beside the north end of the mixing desk. He was operating projectors aimed at a white sheet hanging over the black curtain behind the band. He was wearing an earthy coloured knit cap. His long, stringy, light-brown hair flowed out from under it like straw leaking out of a scarecrow. He was thin and gaunt with a wispy goatee at the end of his chin. One would suspect that he also had cloven hooves and a set of panpipes. If nothing else, he was the wizard of awes and Visualeyes.
Krys No stepped down from the stage and smiled. She was wearing a colourful tiddlywink miniskirt and one of those big, floppy, Andy Capp burglar caps that all the trendy mod birds like Twiggy used to wear in the mid-sixties.
"Got a set list?"
"You might try Niall, I think he's got one."
"That'd be handy."
She tilted her head slightly and arched an eyebrow.
"Thought I'd check things out." I glanced back at the projectors. "I wasn't expecting to see Reed here, but I did happen to pack a little colour."
"I wouldn't be too surprised if there was a plant in the audience tonight. A fresh perspective on things is always very enlightening, if ya catch my drift."
I chuckled. "Keeps people on their toes."
A stocky silhouette crossed the dance floor. It was Jay Bozich, Dahlia's mixman and clandestine third band member.
"Excuse me, I need to corner Jay."
"Okay, see you later."
I rushed across the room and apprehended Jay as he approached the mixing desk.
"Hey, Jay, ya gonna be on stage?"
"Yeah. My equipment's over there." He pointed to the south corner of the stage.
"Good, I'm armed! I'll shoot ya, during the set."
"It's about time."
"If ya didn't hide in the shadows at the opposite end of the action all the time--"
"I'll be right there. You've got no excuse tonight. He started off, "Ah, look, I've got to take care of some stuff...."
Jay taxied over to the bar. Waited patiently. Then took flight with a mandarin-red cocktail.
Someone brushed past me. I felt something slide into the palm of my hand. It was a piece of paper. Someone had just slipped me a note - and quickly vanished. It had a short collection of words written on it in bold, black biro or perhaps it was written with a Sharpie. Whatever they had used, it didn't make the message any clearer to grasp. It was as clear and as concrete as octopus ink.
"TOO EASY, YOU, HELLO CRAZY, LET IT GO, WITHOUT YOU, READY 2 BEGIN, SOLID, I KNOW YOU, ANDOVER.
I folded the note, stuffed it into the inside pocket of my trench coat, backed up to the mixing desk, and leaned against it. Maybe the message was in code. Or maybe it was an urgent warning from a beatnik. It'd require some serious thought, if I hoped to crack its code.
The mirrorball sprinkled a random pattern of slippery spots. They rolled and beaded as they spiralled around the dance floor searching for a drain. All the while, the PA released a toxic stratus cloud of canned instrumental muzak.
I sipped my drink and eyed everyone as they passed in front of me. Some more than others. A tempting young Art Nouveau calendar girl wandering over. She stopped right in front of me, crouched down low to the floor and gazed up at me. She had a beautiful, cute face. Raven hair. And was dressed all in black. She could have been a renaissance Goth girl rendered by Alphonse Muncha while he was slumming at the Paris Theatre, next door. She was a refreshing change from Sarah Bernhardt.
She greeted me with a high, sweet voice as she swayed like a cobra beneath my pint glass.
"How are you?"
"I'm okay." I raised my glass, tilting it slightly to give her a better view. I was hoping I could coach her to rise. Use it to manipulate her movements in much the same way that a puppet master's horizontal "airplane" controllers dictated a marionette's movements - just by tugging on its strings.
I was mistaken. The controls were reversed. It was her smile that pulled the strings, not my glass. She used it to maintain control over her customers. She was using it now. I leaned against the counter that ran around the front of the mixing desk, melting against it. I was wishing my glass was empty so I could order another. Just so that I could watch her walk away and return. Instead, I watched her prowl the boards. She was a graceful shadow dancer. A living doll and a real hep kitten.
I drew my Canon from my shoulder holster and loaded it with the twenty-four shot, colour clip. I was going tiger hunting. I was going to bag a few more souls.
I advanced toward the stage. Niall Davids and his bass were partially hidden behind his rack of electronic equipment. His hair was sandy and medium length. He was clean shaven except for a soul patch growing beneath his lip. Brent williams was standing mid-stage. His hair was dark and also medium in length. He was clearly visible as he moved back and forth between a shorter rack of equipment and his guitar stand. Krys No was moving fluidly, prowling back and forth in front of Niall and Brent. She was catching a steady groove, dancing as the crowd gathered around the stage. Then she started to sing. If this was just a taste of what was yet to come, by the end of the night, there wouldn't be a dry set of smalls in the house.
I crouched low to the floor and skirted around the monitors lining the centre edge of the stage. The stage transformed before my eyes as Reed fired up his projectors. A whole new dimension manifested itself. Bright images splashed against the band and onto the screen. Sometimes the band appeared in lightning flashes. Sometimes they were drenched in Martian and Jovian atmospheres. Colourful gas clouds washed over them in a fractal duststorm of psychedelic splendour - shifting and flowing with the music.
My pupils oscillated, adjusting to the alternating levels of light, as I focused on the exposed targets - Krys and Brent. It was "TOO EASY". They moved slowly in time. Slowly in rhythm. Merging with the music and flowing along with it. The song wrapped itself around me slowly and tightened its coils. Leaving me slightly breathless with awe.
Easy Tiger was three fifths of Headscope with the same twist - but a slightly different focus. They were hard to pin down. Their music wasn't limited to just one style or genre. It was a melange of many farflung and uniquely diverse elements. Elements that easily combined together to conjure up a sound that was its own entity. An entity that was entirely fresh, haunting, sultry, spirited, and decisively sexy. It was experimental and electronic. A cool groove tinged in jazz. It was a fusion of trippy ingredients released in an alchemy of pure soul.
A faster melody with a haunting instrumental hook swirled from the stage and trolled the sea of dancers. It had a steady cool groove with a wild electronic sci-fi sound effect flirting with the song's main rhythm. The audience picked up their pace. It was starting to get very crowded, especially down front - where the Action was.
A gentleman walked into the club. He had short dark hair. Was wearing a dark suit and tie. A white shirt. And black-rimmed Clark Kent glasses. It could only be one person - Victor Santiago. I drifted over to see what he was up to.
"Fancy meeting you here, Victor."
He glanced at my Canon, gave me a warm smile, and thrust his right hand out toward me. "So, you're shooting tonight."
I pumped his hand a few times, inflating his smile further. Then jerked my head toward the stage. "I wasn't expecting a light show, but I happened to pack a colour clip."
Victor's eyes glazed over. He looked like someone that had just been diagnosed as a diabetic and suddenly found himself trapped in a confectioner's shop - watching the sweets dancing in front of his eyes. Or maybe like a kid that had just spent the last thin dime of his allowance. He could only dream, drool, and wish that fate had dealt him a different hand.
"I didn't bring... my camera... with me."
"Tough break, kid."
"Are you planning to shoot Dahlia?"
I nodded. "I'm gonna shoot the whole lot of 'em. But I only have two clips. Colour and noir. So I'll have to restrain myself. Try not to get too trigger happy."
"Yes, yes. You must pace yourself. You must get photos of Dahlia!"
I chuckled. "Yeah. My thought exactly."
"Darn." He shook his head, "Wish I would have brought my little friend with me..."
His little friend was an Auto Focus. A dapper little derringer with built-in flash and obsolescence. Something you'd half expect Bat Mastodon to draw from his sleeve during a brutal round of jiggery-pokery at La Brea's Tar Pit, before making his move to get outta Dodge - with his booty still intact. He was a livid legend in the wild and woolly West Country.
I started off toward the stage, "See ya around, kid. I've still got some shots with Easy Tiger's name written all over 'em."
Victor voiced his enthusiasm. It trailed behind me, swallowed up by the madding crowd, as I weaved a crooked path through the drinkers, dancers, lovelies, and lookeloos littering the dance floor.
Krys moved across the stage, dipping and bobbing in front of Brent and Niall. She stopped at the mic stand, stood erect next to it swaying gently with a slow Little Egypt motion. Her left arm gliding snakelike, crawling gracefully down her side. Down her hip and hugging the side of her leg. Her eyes piercing the audience with a hungry, sultry stare. The audience swayed like a charmed snakes entranced by the spirited electronic sounds Easy Tiger had released from the depths of Pandora's box.
I raised the camera's viewfinder to my left eye, skirted around the curves, adjusted the rangefinder, focused, took aim, and fired off several shots in rapid succession with the trigger finger of my right hand. Yeah, the left and the right brains were clearly working in concert tonight.
Brent started speaking, interleaving vocals with krys. His voice was lower, almost like a whisper, talking in a cool, lazy, beatnik style. They were singing about animals. Conjuring up idyllic images of Eden and of animals roaming free. Or of a floating zoo sailing the dark uncharted waters of space to a brave new world of harmony. Brent cupped a harmonica in his hands, leaning into his mic, and breathing bluesy wisps of coffee house soul into the mix.
I prowled the stage, hunting for additional images.
The music slowed and Krys let it go. She leaned in toward the audience slightly, placing her left hand over her chest. It fluttered like a butterfly in a holding pattern waiting to come in for a landing as she sang. The music shifted and mutated. Sometimes speeding up. Sometimes slowing down. Only to return later in another incarnation - stronger and more powerful than the last.
Krys' voice was sometimes tinged in jazz. Sometimes in honey. Sometimes singing in skat. Sometimes clear and sunny. But always with great spirit and emotional feeling. Always from the heart.
Colourful waves of vibrant light washed over Easy Tiger and the screen behind them. They were ready to begin a heavy assault - just like in the spy movies - it was a momentary silence before the storm. The clock was counting down to zero.
A pulse-pounding rhythm exploded and echoed throughout the club. The dancers were silhouetted against the flashing projections, moving like human dominos in stop motion. Spinning and dodging the sparkling shards of light fired from the SPECTRE of a mirrorball circling above. It had all the trappings of one of Sean Connery's casual clandestine observations - a view of Kim Basinger dancing through a maze of two-way fun house mirrors. It was poetry set in motion. It was hip. It was cool. It was all that jazz-- ad infinitum.
I glanced over at the Ankeny Street windows. Greg Stoker was walking from left to right, from frame to frame, heading toward Berbati's entrance. Silently, under the cover of darkness, my special agent had arrived.
Krys struck a sultry pose, turning slowly, scanning the horizon. Niall and Brent unleashed a highly infectious groove as I worked my way back to the club entrance.
The words "Everyone knows you" cycled over and over inside my head. A thought that had taken root and grown stronger and stronger the longer it lingered. It was all the more reason to have someone planted in the audience - working undercover.
She strutted onto the stage wearing a long platinum-blonde wig and form hugging clothes that failed to hide many secrets from the audience. She was an extrovert that revelled in shock and awe. Her previous bands had performed down around Frisco, in the Bay Area of North California, under the telling monikers - Storm and her dirty mouth, and Storm Inc. Now she played every Wednesday night In Portland at Dante's with the Balls. Rumour had it that Storm would be releasing a CD titled "Hanging With The Balls" in a few weeks. Colour her uninhibited.
Davey Nipples was perched on a stool over on the left-hand side of the stage where a couple of steps led up from the dance floor next to a black wooden rail, a cloaked equipment storage area, and the entrances to the public restrooms. He had a thick thatch of black collar-length hair. His sideburns were long wedges, tapering down to fine sharp points that hung unsheathed along his jawline - aimed directly at his exposed chin like a pair of matched chivs thrusting and jabbing during a San Quentin jailbreak.
He was of average height, but was bent over his bass in a strangely awkward and distorted stance. He was almost as contorted as a Monterey cypress struggling against the strong coastal winds at twilight - morphing into an eerie ghost. Or a spectral Oxfordshire Whispering Knight. He was the silent type. The type that your parole officer had warned you about. Had warned you to stay away from. He was also a former member of the Sweaty Nipples and had toured with Everclear from 1999 through 2001. Colour him dangerous.
Brian Parnell was sunk behind his drum kit at the rear of the stage. His slightly receding dark hair was cut short. He was thin and of average height. He was shifty and constantly on the move. Colour him hyperkinetic and wiry.
James Beaton was standing at his keyboard over on the right-hand side of the stage, near the bar. He was short, thin, and sported a dome as bald as a flesh covered cueball. His eyes were shielded behind a pair of hip, stylish shades. He looked a bit like Paul Shaffer from the Late Show with David Letterman. James had also toured with Everclear from 1999 through 2001. Colour him like crazy, daddy-o.
Backed by The Balls, Storm's musical style leaned toward punk-lounge cabaret with just a hint of burlesque and a dash of bawdy sexual/political humour. She was like a fiery torch singer from the Giant Redwood Forest belting out covers and mash-ups (combination songs created by superimposing lyrics from one song over the music of another) of pop standards, butt rock, heavy metal favourites and punk classics. If she ever added four more guys to this lineup, she could easily rename the band Storm Large and the Seven Jazzy Hep Dwarves.
Storm was standing in profile, hugging herself. She was swaying slowly. Her hips swivelling - gyrating.
I didn't recognize all the elements of the song Storm was singing. But that didn't prevent me from enjoying her performance. I was just going with the flow and capturing as much of it as I could. Sometimes there were glaring juxtapositions of lyrics to music. It was disorientating, and somewhat confusing hearing lyrics from one song being sung to the music of another. Until I stopped struggling to separate them. And suddenly it all clicked. Then I realized that this really does work. Works extremely well. It gave an old song an entirely new and fresh spin.
Storm was singing the words from a Van Morrison song, "Moondance", I think, but the music was totally different. It sounded Goth. It sounded like Ministry's "Stigmata". My mind juggled the incongruent parts and then assimilated them into a new version both haunting familiar and disturbingly elusive.
Storm announced: "We are now at - TANGERINE ALERT. We must all get laid immediately!" This being a political commentary about the current state of affairs in the country next to Cascadia. The United States had just increased their security level to Orange. Motorhead had announced another USA tour and the Americans weren't taking any chances.
Storm stood stationary at the mic, surveying the faces in front of her.
"Well, are you tired of looking at this thing, yet?"
She yanked the platinum-blonde wig from her head. Her dirty-blonde hair tumbled down her neck, coming to rest on her shoulders and back. The wig dangled from her hand as helpless and as lifeless as a Tinseltown shrunken head. She tossed it over her shoulder with a bored Marlene Dietrich expression.
The Balls sat idle while Storm sang a Monty Python song a cappella in a faux German accent. "Sit on my face and tell me that you love me. I'll sit on your face and tell you I love you too--"
I continued hunting for images to shoot as Storm and the Balls went into "White Wedding".
Storm straddled the mic stand like a hobby horse. She was running her hand slowly up and down the shaft. Stroking it gently. The music accompanying her sounded almost the same as Billy Idol's version, and yet there was something oddly different about it. Maybe it was the dramatic power chords that seemed to have materialized from some other dimension. I puzzled over this but couldn't quite place them. There was no sense scrying over spilt chords, so I just let 'em fall where they may.
Storm and the balls had attracted a cult following of women. They cheered enthusiastically, shouting amusing comments. They were interspersed throughout the audience like competing factions of Ladies Night groups holding mini impromptu conventions in Babylon. Or maybe they were frequent flier Storm clouds waiting to touch down. Some danced together. Some made cat calls. A few pawed each other. The one next to me pulled the top of her flimsy T-shirt down below her breasts - aerating her areolas while she glanced at the people gathered around her - smiling.
There was a sudden stiffness retarding my advance lever. Damn, it could only mean one thing - Storm had totally exhausted my film.
I rewound the film, removed it from the camera, and stuffed the expended clip in my pocket. I squeezed slowly around Miss Modesty and worked my way through the other wanton women maintaining a stranglehold on the audience down front. They were too busy dancing to notice that I'd managed to wean myself from the crowd. I pulled over to the bar and had the bartender check my coolant level. I was a pint low, so I topped myself off with another Budweiser. I sipped it as I meandered around a blind spot that had queued up at the bar, brushing past an exotic dish loitering nearby. She looked sorta Eurasian. Shapely. Dressed all in black from head to foot. Except for a silver mirror belt wrapped around her slender waist. It glittered as she turned and caught my eye.
It was Karyn LeSuer. She was wearing one of those sleeveless asymmetrical Grecian-style tunics. It cut a mighty interesting diagonal across her upper torso. One shoulder was covered. The other was totally bare.
I drew my lips back from my teeth and grinned wolfishly.
Her eyes narrowed to sly slits. She returned my grin and closed the distance between us, threading her arms around me as she drew near. We hugged. Her silky raven-black hair curtained my ear and blanketed my shoulder.
"How are you?" she whispered in a British accent.
"Just for now."
"So how's later doing?"
"I'm glad to hear that. Care to share?"
"I hear Lemmy's returning to Portland."
"Well, I've heard it takes two to tangle."
"Sometimes. But the more the merrier, I think. Just ask Robin Hood."
"You're up to something."
"What gave ya that idea?"
"Call it a feeling."
She laughed. "You know, you really should holster that lens before you hug someone."
"Sorry. Didn't mean to rub ya the wrong way."
"Maybe I don't have any ribs to spare."
"Maybe you've got some company. Neither does Adam."
"Maybe we're colleagues."
"I doubt it. I don't think you've informally met. He was the original ladies' man - the template in Paradise. Yeah, it was the classic double cross. He was setup to take the fall. Six, two, and even, that's where his maker souled him out."
"Sounds dull. Sounds like sour grapes."
"Little green apples, actually. but Yeah, ya got the lowdown, alright. Personally, I preferred the snake. At least it had some character." I tried to glance at her slats, but they were too well covered. So I peered into her eyes, instead. Into her soul. What I saw wasn't half-empty. Wasn't half-full. It was just about right.
"Feathers still ruffled, angel?"
"I'll live. Just fill me in on the details."
"Gee, all these lovely canaries. All gathered together in one nice big cosy nest." I pressed one finger at a time against the small of her back, gently running down her spine, as I counted them off, "Easy Tiger, Storm, and Dahlia. Kinda makes for a pretty picture, don't it?"
"Uh-huh. But I'm sure there's more to it than that."
"I hope not. I'm starting to run outta fingers."
"Take your time. I'm sure, you'll think of something."
Just my luck, a dame that came fully equipped. Deep soulful eyes, soft shoulders, sharp curves, great gams, devilish smile, and a keen intellect. Yeah, a quantum motherboard complete with double glazing and central heating!
"Well, let's just say, I'm keepin' the third eye on 'em, see."
"That's great! Did you get their EP?"
"Oh. Oh, yeah. I got it. Might come in handy when I sort things out."
"I can't wait. Keep me informed."
"I'll let ya know all about it, when the case is closed. Tonight I'm just seeing what I can dig up."
I winked. "See ya around, angel."
We unhugged. Parted. Departed. And went our separate ways. I came to rest next to Greg Stoker and asked him what he had noticed so far.
"I see the Dragon Lady showed up."
"Oh, you remember her?"
"How could I forget, she left quite a visual impression in that silky-red china dress she showcased her curves in at Dahlia's CD release party. So what'd she want?"
"To check my pulse."
"Yeah, I managed to squeak by."
"It looked more like you were running for public office."
"Maybe I cracked under pressure."
"Maybe you're human after all. Who wouldn't crack under that kind of pressure?"
"Okay, so what else did ya notice, besides my ad hoc schmoozing?"
"Storm has an original way of covering songs. Is that an oxymoron?"
"Not in her case."
"I think a lot of the things we're looking for were missed by the greater audience because they may not be aware."
"Probably not. I didn't place an ad in the paper--"
"Her stage persona as a new age torch singer works great, but there are times when she appears to look lost--"
"But then again, she did admit to being high on TheraFlu and suffering from a cold."
I stared at him in amazement. Now WHO was running for public office?
"The keyboardist has a great jazzy sound. I'd like to hear more of his playing. He should play a solo or two during the set."
"That cover everything?"
"No. Not quite. Storm was definitely hypnotising the audience."
"With her hips. But it was only working on the men."
"Are ya sure about this?"
"Hmm, and some of the women, perhaps."
"Ah, so she's an equal opportunity mover and a shaker."
"Yes, most definitely!"
"Looks like I owe ya one." I handed him my empty glass, and winked. "Later."
Greg stared at the glass in disbelief, shaking his head. I turned on my heels and headed back toward the stage, drew my camera, and reloaded.
I chuckled as I worked my way through the crowd. I was on a zigzag recognisance blitz. Popping up in any crack or crevice I could find in the audience. I was down front next to the stage. Hazarding the flailing limbs and provocative twisting torsos of the dance floor divas. I was shooting and capturing Storm's image and persona from every imaginable angle. And even some new ones that I'd managed to cook up on the fly with my multi-image filter.
Storm was dividing and splitting off into twins in my viewfinder. Singing what sounded like an old classic Black Sabbath song transformed into a sizzling rumbafied love ballad.
She turned her back to the audience, bent over, reached for something, and waited for her Balls to kick in. When she turned toward the audience she was armed with a lovely matched pair of pearl-handled maracas - and she knew how to use them!
She leaped to the mic, shaking her booty and snapping her fingers to the wildest salsa-lounge cover ever performed this side of the Rio Grande. Motorhead's "Ace of Spades" - the Cascadian National Anthem.
I dropped back and watched.
Storm was a temptress in a teapot. Commanding and compelling. Wild and wily. Carefree and yet cagey. Your eyes never left her once she got on a roll. And her audience was certainly captivated. Hanging on every word she uttered and every provocative move she made.
"Can Your Pussy Do The Dog?" was an interesting question the Cramps had posed years ago and the next song that Storm sang. It led to further spirited speculation and contorted candour as she moved in mysterious ways. She spread her legs wide and slid slowly down to the stage floor - going down - into the splits. She flexed her legs, bouncing up and down several times against the stage. Then she bent forward. Lying down, writhing on the stage - panting. If poetry was motion - Storm was a living limerick from Nantucket.
Storm told the tale of a love gone wrong. Of lovers parting and meeting later in life. Expecting her former lover to feel as bad as she did, only to find out, he was doing just fine. This discovery got under her skin. It got her to reevaluate her feelings concerning his welfare. And what she really wanted so desperately now more than anything else in the world. She wanted him to suffer. She wanted him to die!
Storm bowed her head as she grasped the mic stand with one hand and raised the other high in the air. Flipping the bird in defiance as her last parting shot at her former lover.
I listened carefully as Storm and the Balls performed the remaining songs of their set. I heard a Pat Benatar and a Soft Cell song before they ended with a song that had Iron Butterfly's distinctively heavy, hard rock, classic rhythm.
Victor Santiago walked up to me smiling. "Anybody that can sing 'Take A Chance On Me' to 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' has got to be good!"
I nodded in agreement.
He glanced at my camera. "How many shots do you have left?"
I reached into my trench coat, pulled out a penlight, and illuminated the exposure dial on my camera. "Hmm, nineteen outta thirty-six. Looks like I've got seventeen left."
"ONLY SEVENTEEN! You only have seventeen shots left? I thought you said you were going to pace yourself."
I shrugged. "Guess I got carried away." I'll just have to make every shot count, here on out."
"Yes. Yes. You must make them count. You Must capture Dahlia!"
"Don't worry, I will."
Victor shook his head, "I Wish I had my camera with me." he sipped his cocktail, attempting to chill.
"Excuse me, I better go dig myself in down front while I still can." I left him to drain his drink in solitude and homed in on the edge of the stage, Just left of centre.
There was a piece of paper resting on the stage next to the base of Storm's mic stand. I reached in and snatched it. It was Storm and the Balls' set list. It was minimalistic. It was cryptic. It read: "BIG GUN. STIGMATA. WHITE WED. PUSHERMAN. NIB. ACE. BELA. SHE-BOP. PUSSY. WANT U 2 DIE. HEARTBREAKER. TAINTED. SHOOK. ABBA."
I stuffed it into the inside pocket of my trench coat, filing it away with the other note for safe keeping and future reference.
Storm returned to the mic. "Don't go away, were going to hold a kissing contest. I'd like three couples to come up here on stage. Jennifer and I will judge the contestants."
Jennifer Stroker was standing on the left side of the stage wearing a long, white fur coat. Storm joined her as three couples bravely climbed up on stage and took their positions. A guy with long brown hair stood with his female companion on the left side of the stage. This was couple number one.
Couple number two were both female. One of them was dressed in black short-shorts which displayed her stunning pair of shapely gams to full eyepopping effect. She wore a white sleeveless blouse. And topped off her swashbuckling ensemble with a bold statement - a black tricorn pirate hat with white trim. She was obviously the proud captain of her own vassal.
Couple number three were also both female, but much more casually dressed than the second couple.
Storm informed the audience that the couples would start kissing when she gave them the order to start. When time was up, the audience would vote for their favourite couple by cheering when their number was called out. The couple with the loudest response would be the winner.
Storm screamed, "START" and the contestants locked lips.
Couple number one started out smoothly.
Couple number two was just getting warmed up. Coming up the middle.
Couple number three was coming up on the outside stretch.
Couple number one stumbled. The Loan Ranger's jaw went slack and his eyes were popping out of their sockets. Maybe his jockey was sucking the life outta him.
Couple number two fired a volley of broadsides. The spirited crew lifted their shirts, flashed the audience and jumped up and down with total abandon. This wasn't cricket, so it was totally acceptable to the audience and the judges.
I was momentarily distracted and lost track of Couple number three.
Couple number one was falling back from the pack. Apparently a bird in the hand wasn't worth two in the bush.
Couple number two spotted my camera. The crew was cupping their breasts, leaning forward, and threatening to unleash their majestic vistas in CinemaScope. If this turned out to be a photo finish, they were ready, willing, and able.
"TIMES UP!" Storm squalled.
Jennifer called out the couples' numbers and the audience cheered appropriately. Couple number two was in a dead heat with couple number three. But couple number two's quick resourceful thinking had clinched their position by a nipple.
Couple number two were proclaimed the hottest kissers in the club. The audience got to watch. And all three couples got free drinks and vouchers for a dinner. Everyone was a winner. The crew from couple number two bent forward into my camera lens, giggling as she cupped her breasts - jiggling them in triumph. Yeah, everyone was a winner. Some more so than others.
It would take time for Dahlia to set up and for me to wipe the smile off my face. So I wandered off. I pulled over to the bar and rechecked my coolant level. I must have been running hot. I was a pint low again. So I topped myself off and sidled over to Greg stoker to hear his take on things.
"So what's been brewing?"
Greg made a slight jerking motion with his head toward someone standing at the fringe of the crowd.
"Who's the suit?"
"What do you know about him?"
"How little?" "He's not a boxer. Nor a baseball player, Nor a rapper named Noriaga. Nor Ernest Hemingway's Old Man And The Sea--"
"Okay. Okay. So you know who he isn't. But what do you actually know about him?"
"He turns up occasionally at a few shows. Say, King Black Acid, The Out Crowd, and Dahlia."
"So he's here for Dahlia."
I chuckled. "I think ya can bank on that."
"What else do you know about him?"
"He crops up in the 'X-ray Visions' documentary and also in the King Black Acid 'Soul Systems Burn' music video directed by Justin Lowe."
"Interesting. So he's well connected."
"I wouldn't know, I'm not his physician."
Greg glanced at me, frowned, and chewed on his lower lip. He was holding something back. "Ah, what about this Justin Lowe character?"
"About yer height. Twenty-something." I eyed Greg's girth. "Ah, thinish. Short to medium length hair - brown. Looks sorta like Hugh Laurie. He's a bit hyper. A human pinball."
"Would you say that Victor is a bit like Stephan Fry?"
I shook my head. "No. I don't think so. A gentleman's gentleman? Here?" I glance over at Victor then back to Greg. "Hey, wait a sec." I snapped my fingers. "He does dress immaculately!"
Greg nodded in agreement.
I tugged at my earlobe. "Maybe he's compensating for something."
Greg smiled smugly. "I have a hunch it isn't just a random roll of the dice. He could be working for someone."
"I don't know, it's still a crapshoot. He could be just an ordinary, average Joe, out on the town."
"I think not. What else do you know about our mysterious Mr. Santiago?"
"Other than what I've just told ya - not much. Only what he's told me."
"You mean, only what he wants you to know."
"He says he's a writer."
"A writer? He could be a freelance writer, an author, a journalist - or even a newspaper reporter!"
"What does he write?"
I shrugged. "Haven't a clue. Haven't pinned that down yet."
"What have you pinned down?"
"He'd never be caught dead wearing beige."
"How about plaid?"
I shrugged. "Didn't bother to ask."
"He's Cuban. Not Scottish. Nor Irish--"
"Alright. Alright, already. Now here's something you can add to Mr. Santiago's dossier. Odd behaviour. And he always repeats everything twice."
"What do ya base this one? Speculation or observation?"
"Neither. It was a stroke of dumb luck." Greg laid his index finger alongside his nose. "He mistook me for someone he claims he knows." Greg glanced around the room. "See anyone that looks like me in here?"
"No. No one."
"Very curious, don't you think? Then he apologized. Twice!"
"It's an honest mistake. He's just very polite."
"Honest? Mistakes are rarely honest. They're ill-conceived and shoddy. Mark my word, there's much more at stake here than just a casual mistake. I've been fingered!"
"So read him his Carmen Miranda rights, send him a fruit basket, and book 'em."
"Damn it, Action, I'm a special agent not a talent scout!"
I shook my head, "Sidekicks."
"Oh? And what about them?"
"Nigel Bruce for example. He was a bumbling sidekick."
"Dr. Watson was a cleaver man. Not a bumbler. He was grossly miscast by Universal Pictures."
"If you recall, you called me. I didn't call you...."
I had a funny feeling. A feeling deep inside. A faint voice was leaking into my consciousness. A woman's voice. I tried to tap into it, but I couldn't. So I gazed off in the direction that the voice felt the strongest and noticed something very interesting. Or rather, someone very interesting.
Krys No was standing nearby, staring directly at us.
Greg was right on the money. He'd been fingered.
Jay Bozich was over on the right hand side of the stage, in the dark corner, way at the back, next to the screen. Normally he was hidden behind the mixing desk at the back of the dance floor, when Dahlia played at their weekly shows at Ohm. Tonight would be a rare opportunity to watch him at work during the set. His equipment blinking and flashing as his hands skilfully manipulated Dahlia's distinctive sound. He was King Fader - the master of the mix.
Keith pulled the wig off of his head and draped it over a peg on the top of his equipment rack. It hung there just like a harem graduation tassel hangs from the rearview mirror of a belly dancing troop's delivery van.
Jennifer Stroker rushed over to Keith carrying four bottles of Crystal Geyser natural alpine spring water. She spoke with him briefly before removing her long white fur coat. Revealing a tight white dress underneath. She turned and started stretching her limbs. Preparing herself for the ordeal she'd undergo while singing and dancing during the set.
I took up a position just to the right of the monitors at the centre edge of the stage. There was a nice little cove there where the amps met with the stage. You could safely moor, take photos, and wait out the swift currents generated by the hard-core Dahlia fans dancing to the side.
Venturing away from this gentle tide pool was to risk the riptide and the undertow that would surely drag you out into the treacherous seething sea. Where the Dahlia divas spin and churn lesser mortals into bubbling pools of molten butter. Or dash them against the clamouring costal rockettes and their faithful fissures of men lining the edge of the stage.
A slow, mellow song started the set. Gentle movement stirred across the waters of the dance floor answering the siren's call.
I wasn't expecting Reed to provide projections for Dahlia's set. So I was surprised and pleased when his projectors flashed to life. Colourful wave patterns rippling across the screen. This was the best lighting I had ever seen for Dahlia at Berbati's Pan. It was ideal for colour photography. A shame I only had this noir clip left.
Keith's hands glided over the keys, steadying the course of the music, as Jennifer's voice sailed on to Avalon. The audience flittered and fluttered in response to the music. Weaving their arms slowly through the air around their bodies like serpents rising from the depths. Sprouting wings. Taking flight. And then drifting back into dreams.
I was crouched next to a mother-goddess sitting lotus style on the edge of the stage. She was off to my right, in semi-profile, facing the band, rocking gently back and forth to the music, in a trance. She was about five-foot-five. Had dark, raven-hair cut in a shag. She was slim to average. Wearing a blouse with a plunging neckline that hung freely open midway down the front - exposing what looked like a vast Celtic contour map or a labyrinth tattooed on her chest. Thick, bold, black borders spiralled around the wondrous Paps of Anu. They were as hypnotic and awesome as the melody Keith was playing.
She haunted the eyes and the mind. She was someone I knew I had seen somewhere before. My eyes followed the swirling paths etched into her flesh. The tattoo was a mystic icon that stored images and impressions. A map of physical and mythical places she had graced. One of these places was on the other side of town - the Detour Cafe at Southeast Thirtieth and Division. It was almost a year ago when I last laid eyes on her private gallery. She was sitting next to the window by the street, watching Headscope perform a special engagement.
A ferocious rhythm blistered from the monitors as Keith cut loose, snapping me out of my OBE. His hands darted, turned knobs, and cascaded over the keyboards, as he bobbed up and down like a manic horny toad in heat - humping the keyboards.
Jennifer hopped up and down rapidly in place. She dipped, swayed and then straightened as she screamed - "I'M NOT SORRY!" She crouched, hissing and swaying like a pair of cobras impersonating alley cats fighting. Scales ruffled, fur flying, and mongooses running for cover. She dipped up and down, then charged toward the monitors at full speed, almost jumping on top of them as she screamed, "I'M NOT SORRY! I'M NOT SORRY!"
I felt that stiff resistance on the advance lever again as I attempted to prepare another shot. Damn, I'd run out of film. I rewind it and removed the noir clip from my camera.
The music slowed down as Dahlia started "The Last Dance". It certainly wasn't the last. The dancers kept right on dancing. And Dahlia kept right on playing. The music picked up its pace and the dancers picked up theirs. A frenzy of bodies churned the dance floor like an armada of tangled tornadoes.
I noticed someone out of the corner of my eye. It was Victor. He was staring at the stage with an expression of rapture. He glanced at my camera. A sheepish expression formed on his mug.
"Look at these lights. They're so brilliant. So vivid. And I left my camera behind."
"I know whatcha mean, I'm wishing I'd brought more colour with me. This noir ain't gonna do this colourful light show justice."
A dame turned and scowled at us. She danced for awhile before stopping and walking up to Victor. She pointed dramatically at him several times as she spoke.
He exchanged a few sentences with her.
The music was drowning them out. I heard nothing.
She walked back to where she had been dancing. Stopped. Turned. And pointed at Victor again, and finally, once at me. Then she just glazed over and lost herself in the music. Oblivious to what was going on around her. She was in her own space and time. Transported off into a Dahlia soundscape.
I leaned in toward Victor. "I didn't happen to catch any of that. What did she say?"
He raised his eyebrows. "Oh that," he paused to remove a blonde hair from the sleeve of his suit, "we were ordered to dance."
"And you said?"
He knitted his brow. Either he was sizing me up or attempting to frisk me with his eyes. It's hard to tell when someone's eyes are shielded behind a pair of cheaters.
"Do badgers dance?"
"I wouldn't know, I'm not gentry."
"She didn't seem to know, either." He spread his hands, palms out, away from his body as meekly as Jesus Christ in the dock, decked out in suit, tie, and Clark Kent glasses. He certainly looked like the corporate ideal of the Messiah. But I wasn't buyin' none of it.
I grimaced. "What the hell's that gotta do with the price of ginseng in China?"
Victor consulted his wristwatch and flashed me a friendly smile. "I think there'll be time to dash over to Shanghai's for after hours. Care to join me for a drink, after the show?"
"Nice place. You'd like it."
"No thanks. I'll have to take a rain check on that. Maybe some other time."
Victor became silent. He was staring at my camera, and brightened.
"Then let me buy you a drink, here. You must be very thirsty after taking all those photographs."
"Sure. Something cold. With ice. Just make it a coke, okay?"
Victor nodded and left for the bar.
The crowd around me continued to thicken like a rich savory stew. I'd lost sight of Miss USO Hostess. She must have wandered off to turn in her dance tickets.
Victor returned with two drinks. He handed me the coke and raised his cocktail glass in a toast.
He smiled charmingly. "Happy Landings."
I nodded. "Geronimo."
The pulsing, strutting beat of "Movin' On" flooded the dance floor with thrusting, twisting torsos. The audience turned into a turbulent maelstrom of flipping hair, flailing arms, and wild creatures writhing in the waves of swirling sounds and seductive vocals. It was a taste of things to come. A new song from Dahlia's "VASE[S]" CD due out any time now.
The next song was also a new one. It was even more powerful and even more intense than its predecessor. The lights overhead exploded in brilliance. Cameras flashed sporadically from silhouettes popping up from foxholes hidden randomly throughout the audience.
Jennifer went down into a low crouch. She paced back and forth. Straightened up. Tilted her head back and raised her arms in the air above her. She Held the mic, pointed down at her mouth and screamed up into it - "You Just Gotz To Live!" She jumped wildly in the air like a escaped salmon hurtling over the lox in a New York deli, determined to return to the Pacific Northwest - to spawn.
"You Just gotz to... You Just gotz to live!"
The audience bounced up and down, whistled, and cheered loudly. So loudly that they threatened to drown out the very music they were fanatically praising.
I turned, faced the back of the room, and tried to refocus. Something strange and totally unnerving struck me right between the eyes. Right in the centre of my very being. The room was moving sideways. It was swaying back and forth like a pendulum on a short leash. It was like Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo without the Bernard Herrmann soundtrack.
I shook my head as a wave of dizziness shot through my body. My eyes fell on the spots leaking on the dance floor from the mirrorball above. They were wobbling and staggering like drunken sailors. Then they just winked out and everything went black. It was the kind of black that lines a bottomless pit in a cavern when your torch gives up the ghost and you stumble, falling into its gaping maw. The cast-iron cauldron slammed shut, hermetically sealing itself. And I sank beneath the waves of a pitch-black phantom sea of indelible India ink.
I was in no particular hurry. I was just watching people leaving the club drift past me as I mulled over a few loose ends. The missing time and the missing Dahlia negatives. All those fine little threads that just didn't seem to weave themselves into any natural pattern. I was only left with the unnatural. A random tapestry that had pulled itself out from under me like a magic carpet - dispatched to Timbuktu.
Jennifer Stroker was walking up the aisle toward me on her way out of the club. She was wearing what looked like an ocelot. It looked warm and cosy. It looked lively. So did she. She was beaming a smile warm enough to melt the antarctic. Waving goodbye to some people as she walked pass them. Hugging others.
I felt her hand on my arm.
"Hi. Thanks for dropping in."
"No problem. Always a pleasure."
"Are you feeling better?"
"I guess so. At least the room's behaving itself." I became distracted and paused. "Ah, I was wondering something."
She gave me one of those polite expectant looks.
I squinted, giving the ocelot on her shoulders the once over. "So whaddaya feed that thing?"
"Cynics and crumbs, mostly."
"Haven't seen any here."
She grinned. "Kitty's getting hungry, I better run."
"Sounds like an idea."
She took a few steps, turned, and waved goodbye. Then walked out the door into the street. I glanced back at the dance floor. It was starting to thin out. So I made up my mind and left the club.
Jennifer was heading south, walking under the Burnside Bridge. There were one or two blankets bundled up off to the side against the wall. Homeless blankets - sleeping.
I started off north, stopped dead in my tracks, and glanced back at Jennifer. Where does one go with an ocelot, late at night?
She walked past the Cascadian National ATM without stopping. It was mounted under the bridge against the cement foundation at its south end. It was a handy cash conduit for those needing ready funds for the Saturday Market, drug deals, or in dire emergencies when the need for protection money arises - like when muggers won't accept personal checks without two pieces of ID.
She cut across the parking lot to the right.
I turned on my heels and followed her trail. I crossed the parking lot next to the Salvation Army Harbour Light. Its red neon was blazing. Above it flickered an outline of a lighthouse in Chesapeake-Cove-blue. It had a bright yellow beacon. It illuminated the corner of Southwest Second Avenue and Ankeny.
I spotted Jennifer across the street leaving the crosswalk, heading toward the building opposite the Oyster Bar. Was she going to Berbati's Restaurant? Was she going to the door on the right or that door on the left?
She walked straight ahead. Opened the door directly in front of her and vanished inside. She had chosen the door on the left. The door to the SHANGHAI TUNNEL.
The fog was starting to lift in my head. My thoughts were becoming clearer. A pattern was starting to take form. And it wasn't a very pretty one. I had a good idea what she'd find waiting for her. But I guess I really didn't want to know for sure. One thing was certain - that ocelot of hers would more than level the playing field. She had dealt herself a mighty strong hand and she knew just how to play it.
Blackmailers don't dance. But they sure can run like hell. Especially when they find they've got a wildcat by the tail. Bon appetite, Kitty.
I grinned and continued south down Second Avenue toward the Jim Morrison Bridge. I walked past three more blankets sleeping off the evening in shop doorways.
A rat scurried across the street in front of me, ignoring the red traffic signal. If a Portland cop had been here to witness this, I'm sure he would have pulled the rat over and slapped a confession outta it. Then either let it off with a stiff warning. Or shoot it if he hadn't filled his quota. Around here it's all about statistics. Justice was blind in Cascadia, or at best, only a fringe benefit - reserved for the rich.
I turned up my collar, turned down a side street, and plunged into the depths of the night.
Visit the Easy Tiger web site at: http://www.EasyTigerMusic.com.
Visit the Storm and the Balls web site at: http://www.stormlarge.com.
CLICK HERE to read the review of The Balls "Hanging With The Balls" CD in this issue.
Visit the Dahlia web site at: http://www.dahliamusic.com.
CLICK HERE to read the review of Dahlia's "Vase[s]" CD in this issue.