The Ear of the Beholder

When I worked for Warner Bros. Records, I spent a good deal of my time trying to calibrate, coordinate and prognosticate the exact moment the headlining artist would take the stage. This involved calls to the manager, the road manager, the box office, the artist and spiritual mediums. In four years there, I never once saw an opening act.

I bring all of this up because I recently found myself listening to something called Nestling Willy, an opening act for something called Caroline’s Spine. Nestling Willy sounded like a trio of pneumatic drills, slightly out of tune and amplified to the point of pain. I did not decipher one single word that they were singing — screaming, actually. They could have been screaming in another language for all I know, but I can’t even imagine what other culture could produce such a mess. Sadly, we can’t blame this on Afghanistan.

The reason I suffered so has to do with a girl named April who is as lovely as a spring day and knows the drummer, the pneumatic drill in the middle. She invited me to meet her at the show. "Do you like them?" she asked.

This was the moment in the movie when everything stops and gets all fuzzy. I think: Could I be with someone who actually likes this music? I mean, if she was an Al Qaeda operative, we could agree that she simply wasn’t worth the trouble, but where exactly do you draw that line? How low would you go? I don’t expect everyone to have as great taste in music as I, but how much sacrifice is expected in order to let romance flourish? I might have walked through the fires of hell to woo fair April, but even Dante would have hesitated to conjure this trio.

If, as part of my elaborate plot to win her favors, I tell her I do like them, I’m setting myself up for a lifetime of headbanging. Then, when I tell her I don’t want to walk down the aisle at our wedding to the strains of Metallica, she’ll know I was patronizing her. A refrain of the great romantic poet Meatloaf comes to mind: "I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that."

Yet, if I answer truthfully, "No, they suck," I’ll probably never get a chance to find out if this is the music she likes to listen to at top volume during the sexual act. (On the other hand, I don’t think I could perform to my usual high standards if this music was being played anywhere in the vicinity.)

Why don’t I like these guys? I used to be a pretty "with it" cat in my day. I try to keep up with the kids, but I don’t know if this was "grunge," "speed" or heavy metal. Heavy mental is more like it. I’m sure it would take a while to get a straight answer out of these three nincompoops as to what exactly it is they think they’re playing. It could be something called "alternative," but an alternative to what, I wonder? Good music? I sprinkle some applause their way in recognition of the effort.

At least it was free. My friend Charlie got me "on the list" — as though free admission was recompense for being tortured at the hands of amateur musicians.

I counted 41 people in the club. We were small in number, but we were mighty. Then April asked me to sign up for the band’s mailing list, which she was passing around on a clipboard. I would gladly have signed anything she presented to me, including a credit card receipt for their bar tab. After completing a lap of the crowd, she shilled for the band, pulling some guy out onto the dance floor with her, which had been utterly deserted to this point, as if the band was on fire and the audience was afraid of dancing too close to the flames. She abruptly abandoned him to continue her direct marketing solicitation, leaving the poor slob stuck out there, shaking his groove thing all alone with his shattered rock ‘n’ roll dreams lying in a heap all around him.

I know just how he feels. It seems April and Ringo might be more than just friends, which makes me a groupie for their groupie — chewed up and spit out by the star-maker machinery.

I exited quietly before the inevitable encore, crossed a barren Fairfax to my waiting car and turned on the radio. Ella Fitzgerald was taking the Ellington band through "Caravan." Order is restored.

J.D. Smith is banging his head @