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81_ym_neofolkrock_kjhannah.jpg
Art by K.J. Hannah Greenberg © 2020

Neo Folk Rock Trio

 

Curtis Pierce

 

“You wouldn't be undressing me with your eyes?” asks Melissa, five minutes into our date. Curve of lip revealing hint of a smile.

“I'm not going to dignify that with an answer,” I reply with a grin. I hope she's being flirtatious.

We are seated at the terrace of Annabella's Asylum, a popular café on Main Street near Venice Beach where oval stained glass graces the façade. The walls inside display pink tinted photographs of mountains and coastlines. There is a thick scent of peppermint incense. Razor riffs from “Purple Haze” blast from tall outdoor speakers.  

Melissa has long blond hair flowing past her shoulders and bright blue eyes.  I was already seated when she showed up in tight jeans, black leather boots with laces, and a low-cut tie-dyed T shirt.  I smiled, stood up and signaled her to my table. As she approached, I noticed a small black rubber flashlight hanging from a thick denim belt. 

Melissa contacted me on a dating app called cool professional singles, of which I have been a member longer than I care to admit.  I hesitated when Melissa suggested meeting for a drink.  Her profile featured a photo of her in gym shorts jogging on a sand dune. She described herself as a “physically fit free-spirited woman with a passion for music.”  Apart from that, she didn't reveal much.

Internet dating has been a wild ride. A lot of nut jobs but I'm hanging in.  Pushing 40 with no long-term relationships under my belt. They usually fizzle within a couple of months. When it comes to enjoying the company of the opposite sex, I only need two nights a week. But when the right one comes along, someone with a strong independent streak, I think I could be better about that.    

“So how are you finding cool professional singles? A lot of unusual people out there. Wouldn't ya say?” I ask raising my eyebrows.

“How do you mean?” she says perplexed.  “Most of the men I've met have been very friendly.”

It's a warm winter afternoon. Young couples accompanied by perfectly groomed golden retrievers push sleeping babies on strollers with blue and white striped cushions up Main Street taking in the fresh and salty breeze blowing in from the blue Pacific.   The merchants at the Farmers’ market on the corner with their organic jams and breads and cheeses draw swarms of locals.

“Well, on second thought, tell me about your job.  What do you do for a living?”  I ask in a friendly tone of voice.

“I'd rather not say.”   She sips herbal tea from a tall paper cup with a thick brown cardboard sleeve. Her fingernails have a glossy red polish and are trimmed or bitten very short. “It's not important. What I really do is sing,” she says. My goal is to sing professionally.”

“What kind of singer?” I reply, off-put by her evasiveness. “Pop diva like Lady Gaga?  Or actual opera?  Would you like to perform the lead in Carmen  or La bohème?”  I ask trying to sound sincere.

“No, sir. Nothing like that.  I do Neo folk rock,” she says.  “Classic folk rock with modern arrangements, modifications and a woman singing.”  

I am tempted to reply “Neo Folk Rock? Seriously? Good luck with that!”  Instead I opt for “sounds interesting, I would love to hear you sing some time.”

“Would you really? Looks like you're talking about music but thinking about something else.” That hint of a smile again.

“If you are seriously interested, you are in luck,” she says.  I am seriously interested or genuinely curious.

“I'm singing tonight in a couple of hours at a small club in Hollywood.  I am getting ready to head out there soon.  Can you take me?”  She starts bopping her head to the background music.   “I love this song,” she says as “People Are Strange” by the Doors blares around us. 

“I have to get my guitar from my apartment.   It's not far. I won't be long.” 

“I don't know.  Tomorrow is Monday morning. I have to get up early for work.  What time would we get back?”

“Not too late, I promise. It'll be fun.”  

It occurs to me she never asked about me.  Not even one question about where I live or work or grew up.  But I don't mind. Would rather keep to myself that my alcoholic dad spent six months in county jail for domestic violence when I was in middle school and mom had a restraining order against him for most of my adolescence. And my sister and I never speak.

 “Sure.  Why not?”  I say wondering what I'm getting myself into.

 

***

“Hey, all you open mic fanatics, are you ready for reggae, rappers, and rockers?”  A voice over the loudspeaker hollers out. Candles in green glass jars are set out on round mahogany tables of the dark square room that is deluged with the scent of cigarette smoke and alcohol. At the end of the room is a small wooden stage with a red velvet curtain toward the back. The club can probably seat about 100 people or so. Black and white posters of Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, and Amy Winehouse in glass frames adorn the walls.

I am now aware that Melissa will be one of many performers. We drove up Highland Avenue, bordering the grassy divider with towering palm trees. Traffic flowed smoothly in the last hour of daylight.  Melissa played with the radio the whole way, flipping between oldies and classic vinyl. I parked near the Capitol Records building and endured angry looks from a barefoot couple with a blue tarp camping on the sidewalk until we made it inside Café Shining Star. 

The first performer is tall, thin and black. He calls himself “Jamaica” and is rapping with a thick accent matching his name to a back track of drums, bass and occasional horns.  He is cursing “immigration and deportation” and how messed up it is that countries have borders. He sports a white clergy-like silk robe with gold trim.  He gets a loud round of applause from the small crowd, one table in particular.

“What would you like to drink?”  asks the tall young waitress in a black T shirt with a glittery silver star and black shorts accentuating her long legs. Melissa orders a whisky sour and a burger. Coke and nachos for me. I try to make conversation, but it's noisy.

The next act is “Ninja Blue.”  The lead singer is a leather-clad woman with bright blue hair screaming about the end of the world. She is accompanied by two musicians on bass and drums. They are dressed entirely in black:  knee high boots, tights, a cape. The bottom half of their faces is covered with fabric and blue-tinted sunglasses cover their eyes.  Enthusiastic shouts come from the next table, where three girls who must have flashed fake IDs to enter the club are standing and cheering. One has a tattoo with a skull on her forearm. The other two have half shaven heads. 

Several acts follow.  It's starting to get late. “How much longer till you go on?”  I ask Melissa. The crowd is starting to thin out. I imagine being woken by the alarm tomorrow morning.

“Shouldn't be much longer,” she says.  “I think I'm going to be—Hey Rob, over here!”  Melissa stands up and waves her arms wildly to someone at the door.   He approaches and they give each other a warm hug.

Rob is about 35, tall, muscular, short-cropped brown hair with glossy green eyes that carefully look me over.  He's got a blue denim jacket and tan combat boots.   He could use a shave.

“Jerry, I'd like you to meet Rob.  We go way back.”

“Hey Jerry, great to meet you.”  He reaches out and squeezes my hand with a painfully powerful handshake. Then he sits down at our table with his back to the stage. 

“Talk to me, Jerry. What do you do?” he hollers. 

“I sell accounting software to CPAs.”  I shout over the music with exaggerated mouth movement so he can read my lips. “Nothing as exciting as being a musician and performing. How about you?”

“Social worker. Between jobs at the moment.” His head oscillates like a fan as he speaks. He turns around to look up at the stage, then the entrance, then Melissa, then back at me. 

“It's tough because I'm restless. No patience. It's hard for me to listen for one hour while people talk about their problems. Not that I don't want to help.” His eyes wander. “I do. I just can't sit still that long.”   

“Sounds like a challenging job,” I holler. “Have you thought of doing anything else?”

“Negative,” he replies. “How do you know Melissa?” he cries out.

“Guess you can say we met by chance.”

“Come on Jerry. We're all friends. How did you two meet?”

“Hey, all you old school rock aficionados,” says the overpowering voice of the MC, rescuing me from Rob's interrogation if only for the time being. “We know you love to rock. Are you ready for some Neo Folk Rock? Well then, give it up for Melissa!”   

The scattered dwindled audience applauds politely. Rob stands up. “I need to see the guys who do the sound and spotlight. They never get it right. They have the guitar drowning out the voice. Or the other way around. We should talk later Jerr,” he says with an intense stare.

Black guitar strapped over her chest, Melissa marches up a few stairs on the side of the wooden stage. A yellow spotlight casts a shadow of her guitar and upper body on the curtain behind her. She ignores the wooden stool and stands in front of the microphone. She adjusts the boom so it is next to her guitar. 

  The strumming of Melissa's steel strings fills the room. Her voice is gritty and low and has an echo effect. I nod as I recognize the tune. She is singing Bob Dylan's “Blowing In The Wind.” When she gets to the chorus, I find myself quietly singing along. “The answer my friend……” The audience is polite and respectful. She looks at ease. I'm smiling through the second verse and chorus and it's all good—but wait—suddenly there are lyrics I don't recognize. 

“Tell me how high the world's temperature must rise, till there's only fire in the skies….”

Whoa.  Hold on. Is she is really changing Dylan's lyrics? My mouth opens.  I stop singing along.  Can you do that?

She finishes the tune with the new lyrics. Polite applause. Perplexed looks.  

“Thank you very much. Let's see if you recognize this one.”

She launches into an altered rap version of John Lennon's “Give Peace A Chance.”

When she gets to the second chorus, she replaces it with “Make love and dance.” She's bobbing her head and clearly pleased with her refinement.

 

At the next table, an older guy in a dark suit and white dress shirt says to his date in a long evening dress “Is this a joke?”  I start to wonder the same thing.

“No. I know what's going on” I overhear the woman say cheerfully. “She's rehearsing for a TV show. Or movie part. Gotta be.”  

 I applaud loudly. “Yes!” I shout. “All Right!”

“Thank you very much,” says Melissa.  “I'd smash my guitar now, but then I'd have to buy a new one. Can't afford that until I get signed.” She flashes a huge grin before walking off the stage.  

“What did you think?”  she asks me.

“Yeah” I say. “That was really something. Did you change some of the original lyrics?” 

“Of course. Otherwise, it wouldn't be neo. There's always room for improvement. Where did Rob go?”

I look around the room. I don't see him. I see more people leaving.  

“How do you know him anyway?”

“We went to music school together back east. Schoenberg Music Academy.”  

“Really?” I scan the room again for Rob. No luck. “Sorry. Looks like Restless Rob has left the building.”

***

We're stopped at Hollywood and Highland as the siren of a police car wails past us. A short man in a Spiderman costume stands in front of the red illuminated lights of the Hard Rock Café. He is looking up at the late evening sky. I'm driving Melissa home. A few people with nothing but time pace up and down the emptying boulevard.

“It's disappointing when it's not crowded like this,” says Melissa. But that's not uncommon at open mic night. I hope there were talent scouts. It's high time for me to get discovered already.” 

We start to move. Melissa toys with the radio. Soon we are heading west on Sunset Boulevard, passing mansions decorated with sculptures, fountains and Roman columns on the way to the 405.

“So how long you been doing open mic nights? I ask.

“10 years.”

“What else do you do to get discovered?”

“I post videos on YouTube. Every month or so, I go to the offices of record companies around town and drop off CDs and promotional information about myself. No offers yet. But I know it'll happen. It just takes time.”

“What about representation?” I ask. “Wouldn't it be better if you had an agent or manager? Have you tried to get one?”

“Yes, sir. It's not that simple. Not so easy.” She raises her voice. Her tone is suddenly hostile. “If you knew anything about the music business, you would know that.”   

I am tempted to make more suggestions but say nothing for the remainder of the trip. I turn left on Pico after passing an adult bookstore, an old-style diner with red booths and a counter, and a bowling alley.

I find a parking space right in front of her place, a square stucco apartment building that says “Paradise of the Pacific” in raised script lettering. A quiet street with pine trees. Similar apartment buildings, two or three stories high with sliding glass doors and balconies with metal bars, line the block.

“Do you want to come in?” says Melissa, holding her guitar case. 

“Sure,” I say, a bit surprised at the invite. Her studio apartment is at the end of the hallway on the first floor.

“You're nice” she says, after closing the door. “I appreciate you taking me to the club and sitting through my set. Have a seat.”

I check out the room. There is very little furniture. A mattress on the floor. A small white clock radio. An old oak table that hasn't been varnished in years. A couple of old wooden chairs. And a red mountain bike in the corner with rusty handlebars.

“Cool bohemian set up you got.” I say smiling.

“Thanks.”

“Do you have a television?”

“Negative,” she says.

“You sleep on the mattress on the floor?”  I ask.

“It's great. Very good for your back. You want to try it out?  By the way, you're welcome to stay.”  She doesn't have to ask twice. 

She undresses and lies down. Her eyes are shut. She doesn't say anything. Despite the intimacy, there is distance. She is removed. Does she know who is with her? Could it be anyone? In the darkness, it's quiet except for the loud metallic buzzing of the old air conditioner which adds an extra layer to the harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel seeping out of the radio.

I'm facing the ceiling. Melissa is asleep on her side with her back to me. I'm fading out trying to make sense of this. She has been trying for years to break into the music business. Doing the same thing over and over without success. I recall an Einstein quote, something about doing the same thing repeatedly and hoping for different results. What was it again? But for Melissa, what would the alternative be? I try to picture her working in a bank or a doctor's office, but sleep overcomes me.

***

“Coffee?” 

I see “5:00 AM” in illuminated blue numbers and smell burnt toast. Melissa is seated at her worn-out table. Already dressed in jeans, pink T-shirt with no sleeves and black running shoes. I notice a tattoo on her shoulder. A man with a beard and long hair in green ink. The caption in red below reads “Saint Jude.”

I get up, toss on some clothes and sit with her. She tears open the shiny wrapping of a strawberry pop tart and takes a bite. I'm startled when the clock radio on the floor suddenly goes off.  Oldies station, of course.

“I didn't think you'd invite me to spend the night. I notice you didn't ask much about me.” 

“You mean the twenty questions about work and school and family. Does anyone really care about any of that stuff? I know I don't. Thanks again for taking me to the show. You should come next week. Different songs. Right now, I've got to head out to my crap day job.”

 

“Can I call you?”

“Yes, sir.  I'm around.”

She gets up and walks over to the bicycle. She reaches down toward the thin carpet and picks up a helmet, purple with vents. She places it on her head and buckles the strap beneath her chin before rolling the bicycle to the front door.

 “You're biking to work in the dark?”

 “I've got reflectors. It'll be daylight soon. I save a ton of money on gas and parking. You can stay and finish breakfast. Make sure to close the door all the way shut when you go,” she says, before doing the same.

It's not yet daybreak as I walk to my car. A thin layer of fog blankets the street. I wonder where Melissa is really going. I get inside my car and turn on the ignition and wait for the condensation on my windshield to clear up. I notice someone standing in the street in front of my headlights. He is waving his arms, signaling me.

No other movement on the street. What the hell. I turn off the engine and get out.

“Sorry, Jerr. I hope I didn't scare you. I need to tell you something.” It's Restless Rob, dressed as he was last night. 

 We are the only ones on the street at this hour. I can barely make out the branches of the trees in the fog. There is mist under the lamp of the hanging street light. No movement on the street except for a garbage truck in the distance. 

“Tell me. How did Melissa say she knows me?”’

“Schoenberg Music Academy.”

He chuckles. “Wow. And you believed that? 

“Why are you laughing?”  I reply. 

“Because it's not true. More like the Cheney Military Academy.” 

“What do you mean?”

“We're veterans, Melissa and I. Three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“Are you kidding? No way. She never mentioned anything about military service.”

“That's because she's blocked it all out and replaced it with music school.” 

He shakes his head. He pauses. I wonder if he has been walking all night. 

“I'm listening.” I say.

“We were in a jeep. We were supposed to take some pictures of a compound in Basra and get the hell out of there. Melissa was the photographer; she was a very good one. We were heading back when we heard the shots. I was driving.” He pauses. His head starts moving slowly side to side as he continues.

“Two other members of our group were shot in the face. Melissa and I were the only survivors. They said we were lucky to have made it out alive. Not the first time she was involved in a mission gone wrong. She didn't speak for days. When she did, it was clear her memory was shot.”

We're standing in the middle of the street. A black and white security vehicle slows down looks us over and then passes.

“Will she get her memory back?”

“Not likely, they say. But I think she will. She and I were getting pretty close. At this point, I like to check on her, make sure she's doing ok.”

“Are you saying you don't want me seeing her?”

“Who me? Rob says with an edge. Hell no! You seem like a decent guy. I've moved on. I just wanted you to know what you're getting into.”

“I appreciate you telling me this.” A few seconds of silence. I turn toward the “Paradise of the Pacific” and see a black antique lantern on the facade, the only light coming from the building. 

“Can I ask you something Rob? Are you saying she's crazy?”

“We're all crazy, Jerry,” he fires back looking right at me. “Matter of degree. If you're hanging out with Melissa and thinking you're immune, you might want to take a hard look in the mirror.” 

He walks off to the end of the block and turns the corner.

I get back in my car and restart the engine. Not sure where I'll go. Very tempted to take day the day off and maybe drive up the coast. Or find a good Irish pub. Should probably head home, change, and stagger into the office and face the reality of Monday morning.

I drive slowly in the fog. I stop carefully at the stop sign at the end of the street. Up ahead, the mist is lifting and there is a hint of daylight. Does Restless Rob have a point? I turn on the radio. More classic rock. Mick Jagger is belting out “I can't get no satisfaction.” I listen for a few seconds then switch on the news.













Curtis Pierce has taken several writing workshops at UCLA extension and Gotham Writers Workshop.


His work has been featured in bewilderstories.com and hobopancakes.com. 



KJ Hannah Greenberg captures the world in words and images. Her latest photography portfolio is 20/20: KJ Hannah Greenberg Eye on Israel. Her most recent poetry collection is Mothers Ought to Utter Only Niceties (Unbound CONTENT, 2017). Her most recent fiction collection is the omnibus, Concatenation (Bards & Sages Publishing, 2018).

Recently, Hannah’s seventh short story collection was published by Bards and Sages Publishing.

The publisher writes: "Bards and Sages Publishing is pleased to bring readers Walnut Street, our seventh short story collection by KJ Hannah Greenberg. Greenberg’s flair for the peculiar and eclectic shines through in this collection of over fifty flash and short fiction works featuring anthropomorphic starship pilots, angsty authors, strange neighbors, and more."

Walnut Street is available on Amazon:

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Volumes One through Five of the KJ Hannah Greenberg Short Story Collection at 50% off the list in an exclusive bundle only at 

https://www.drivethrufiction.com/product/156488/Greenberg-BUNDLE?affiliate_id=51852














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