Perfect Sound Forever

A BOSTON FOLK TALE


Image from Boston University and BU Photography

fiction by Jim Rader


After two years on Boston's folk/acoustic scene, I'd made friends with many musicians, including a few other ex-rockers. But coming by a folkie girlfriend was more complicated. They all seemed too good. A Seinfeld bit came to mind, Jerry explaining a failed romantic prospect to George as "too good," how he couldn't have sex with someone who was "giving and caring and genuinely concerned about the welfare of others." The laugh track laughed but I didn't.

Then along came Kris Buckhold, a fellow ex-rocker and ex-New Yorker who somewhat recalled my ex. We met in Cambridge's storied Club Namaste on open mic night and hit it off immediately, as she'd covered Lou Reed's tearjerker "Pale Blue Eyes." She looked nothing like my ex, but had a similar vibe, effusive, giggly, yet sharp.

After a month or so of running into each other, Kris got a couple of gigs. As a relationship seemed imminent, I decided to attend those gigs.


*

Kris' first gig was Harvard Square's Word Of Mouth Coffeehouse, a Protestant church annex. As all donations went to the church's community projects, the gig was unpaid yet a requisite rite-of- passage for new songwriters. The Word's monthly three-songwriter show was handled by a floating staff of volunteers who worked the door, sold instant coffee and day-old pastries, or emceed. Obtaining the gig indicated that you were "in" though it led nowhere. True to its name, Word Of Mouth didn't advertise and was always half-empty.

Going there high was a mistake, the door worked by diminutive, embittered Bill Blunt, an ex-folkie who after years of struggle hadn't come by a name. "So, how's your career doing, Jim?" asked the spectacled forty-something, his faint smile almost a sneer. "Still building up your mystique, I take it?"

"Greetings, old chap," I said in a jokey English accent; I threw three ones into the small wicker basket he held out. "There you go, old bean."

"Enjoy," he snipped sourly.

I walked into the annex, a small chapel with varnished mahogany pews, tonight's emcee squeaky clean singer/songwriter Ollie Ohrbach. "Folks, tonight I'll also be filling in for a cancelation." The spot had been canceled by a friend of mine who'd ditched the folk scene for better-paid Irish music gigs.

Someone dimmed the houselights. The annex half-empty, I sat in the first row. Kris came in and sat with me. Hugging was common on the scene, but tonight she held me closer than was typical.

"Oh my God, I've got stage fright," she whispered. "I'm shaking."

"Oh Kris, relax, it ain't Carnegie Hall."

"SH-H-H-H!" hissed Bill Blunt, right behind us, playing classroom monitor.

Ollie played first. Thank God for small favors, he played only three songs, closing with mawkish signature song "I Will Shatter," his choir-boy mugging evoking my late mother's kitschy Hummel figurines, his self-caricature offset by new vocal shadings. Ollie did work hard on his voice, his looking up not just an angelic pose but also a posture for hitting the high notes.

Ollie intro-ed Kris Buckhold as a "new, exciting, stand-out performer." Kris dealt with nerves by playing a fast rocker for her first tune, smooth sailing thereafter. She knew how to work a room, her eyes moving from face-to-face throughout the set.

Ollie called a ten-minute intermission, encouraging the audience of twenty or so to buy instant coffee and day-old pastry in the foyer. Handsome singer/songwriter Chris Vandenburg chatted Kris up, and I feared she might stick with him.

Ollie Ohrbach came into the foyer, clapping his hands, "Okay everybody, break's over, showtime!"

Kris broke away from Chris and we resumed our front-row seats. The last act was older folkie Stan Deans, one of those legendary names heard around the scene.

His eyebrows, permanently cast in upturned weeping mode, and his greying full beard recalled Fidel Castro. Tall barrel-chested Stan's first song concerned a decades-old South American revolution crushed by a US-backed "strongman." The lyrics revealed Stan's involvement as a Red Cross volunteer, and I felt like saluting the dude. But this impression faded on his next song which weepily extolled the virtues of pricey guitar brands Larivee, Martin and Taylor ("Oh, Jean Larrive/what a lovely finish!") What a bringdown, Stan now came off an older Ollie. I hoped for another protest song, a rarity these days, but hoped in vain- Stan's next ditty a precious pastoral paean to a friend's farm ("Oh, such beautiful/alluvial soil!"). His emotive tremolo was cringeworthy. As Kris worked three days a week on a farm the alluvial soil song moved her to tears; she looked to me for approval, so I wrenched my eyebrows into upturned weeping mode. Stan changed up with a stunning flamenco piece but followed that with acapella "funny song" "The Tenant," smiling and stomping as if ascending a stairwell, announcing to his wife: "Oh darling/it seems we have a new tenant!" The "tenant" was the couple's first baby. "The ten-ant/oh the ten-ant!" he warbled, Bill Blunt sincerely laughing, stomping along with Stan. "The Tenant" was a typical codified "funny song"; as my surrealistic lyrics had branded me a "funny songwriter," Kris beamed at me, and I forced a smile that almost hurt, Kris diving into Folkland headfirst, Stan her zealous baptizer, Jim's head still above water.

Fortunately, Stan Deans' wholesome weirdness was offset by post-show socializing in the lobby, an atmosphere that recalled the post-service socials of childhood... the old church stood opposite a used car lot, the lot's green, blue and yellow plastic pennants happily flapping in a stiff April wind... Spanner's Pharmacy, Kunkel's Restaurant... Easter Sunday, my father and I in identical green stingy brim hats... snow flurries, the chill wind cutting through my thin green blazer...

Bill Blunt's insinuating whine snapped me back to the present: "So what's next on your folk agenda, Jim?"

"Well, old bean, I'm planning a St. Valentine's Day-type massacre of all the competing folksingers, rat-a-tat-tat, then I take over, see?"

Blunt shook his head hard, as if shaking off the flip retort, then moved on to Ollie. Kris cheerily hobnobbing with Stan Deans, I walked to the door then caught her eye. "Kris, I've gotta split, see you soon." I waved goodbye.

"Cool, drop by The Goldenrod Tavern next week, I got another gig there." Her soft eyes forgave my snubbing the aggressively gentle Stan Deans.

But that night I couldn't sleep, couldn't get over Kris' strange tears which somehow evoked my father catching me crying over a Peanuts comic strip: "What's wrong, Buddy?" I explained myself by showing him the strip, Lucy punching Linus. My father threw up his hands, blaming the creator of Peanuts: "Oh, I never did like that Schulz! He's sick, Jimmy, sick, sick, sick!"


*

I went to the Goldenrod gig straight to lessen the chances of Bill Blunt turning up. This wasn't just superstition. That spring, Blunt kept turning up whenever I came in high.

The Goldenrod was in distant town Jamaica Plain, across the Orange Line's last stop Forest Hills. The gig had a one-act one-hour format, a flat twenty bucks and two half-off drinks. Now late March, cold drizzle fell on the drab little shops that flanked the tavern. I arrived just as Kris took the small circular stage that stood amidst the tables. She smiled and nodded, her tight yellow t-shirt encouraging. This was our big night, alright, unless the vengeful Folk God threw a lightning bolt at my penis.

Several of Kris' fans gathered round the stage. Halfway into the set, she asked me to play harmonica on a bluesy tune.

The long set over, Kris offered a ride back to West Somerville. We both lived near Tufts University. Like many other folkies, Kris drove an affordable yet trusty Honda Civic. We were still in JP when she asked, "Jim, who are the characters in your songs 'Missy Joy' and 'Mary Clover'? Are they real people or did you make them up?"

"They're two old girlfriends. Mandi lives in South Wales now, Violet disappeared ages ago." The songs' characters were just symbols, but I wanted to draw Kris out.

"Disappeared? Oh my God, that doesn't sound good. What exactly happened to Violet?"

"She might've been killed by her ex-husband, a junkie-dealer. Or maybe she just took off for France or Greece, where some of her druggie friends had gone to."

"Is that why you wrote about her poetically?"

"Yeah, I guess so."

Kris in turn related the story of her last boyfriend who'd died in a highway accident, sole passenger Kris unharmed.

"How can you recall so many details, Kris? Weren't you in shock?" "I was in mild shock, I guess. I mean, I couldn't talk for a while, but I knew what was going on."

"Watch it, Kris, watch it! Pull over to the curb, fast!" I panted; she'd been driving in the wrong direction on a one-way street. Another car heading right toward us, she swerved to the curb just in time.

No one said anything for five minutes or so. Kris broke the silence by asking for a cigarette. I gave her a Marlboro Lite, we smoked, exchanging awkward yet calming small talk about the shitty weather and The Goldenrod's excellent margueritas.

The long ride from J.P. to Somerville seemed even longer that strange night. Kris turned on the radio, a nostalgia station playing Edie Gorme oldie "Blame It On The Bossa Nova."

She shut it off. Now we couldn't even make small talk, somber as pallbearers. When we got to my place we hugged again, this time not like lovers but like relatives at a funeral.

I exited her cerulean Civic. "Thanks for dropping me off, Kris."

"No problem, Jim. Have a good night."

Though I had only three keys on a ring, I had trouble finding the front door key.

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