Animal Smell

gigwall

 

I don’t remember all the words I wrote back then, in the summer of 1989, except for fragments. The song was called “Animal Smell,” and I mostly remember the first lines and the first chorus:

 

What’s left of the new position

Even in the raging sun

Cause I’ve got nothing here

To keep me anyway

Nothing here, anyone

But your animal smell

 

Is that right? They’re my lyrics. It was my song. I didn’t know much about writing songs: verse, chorus. Not that interested in a bridge, though I think there must have been one. It was in E minor, so a great big low heavyhearted chord could storm under the words “animal smell” like a throbbing bottom line. It was ironic, because obviously it was about a person, but it was sincere, because attraction. It was a female-mammal-in-a-raggedy-black-T-shirt song, and I wrote it for the band I played in with my boyfriend. But forgive me, because it wasn’t about my boyfriend. Some 26 years later, I’m sure he knows that.

I’d write songs without really thinking about it: I’d be doing something, and I’d find myself warbling some apparently nonsensical words to myself, and something would stick. Except sometimes whatever phrase had emerged, as if some kind of sudden card spat out of a punch-key machine, turned out to be terribly accurate, totally fitting. Revealing more than I’d understood, but there it was. I’ve never been good at building a wall between the inside and the outside, even worse in terms of music: played a certain way, the circle of 5ths can still make me cry. But this was a time when, at the age of 27, I was still trying hard to build a wall between dark and light, between the sense of a day well lived— with a pat, go-to-bed-not-having-fucked-anything-up kind of ending, and a day suffered long into an endless night — which is where I tended to. There was viable me and disastrous me and I was really working on the viable part. But so many of us were then. In bands, however, even the more functional souls, such as my boyfriend, had a way of turtlenecking their goodness away for the sake of that appropriately edgy united front.

New York City in the spring to summer of 1989 was, as the trope goes, a very different New York City. Pre-ruined, still viable: an era of three-figure rents and friendly bars and cassette tapes, of fanzines. It was all going to change and you could already feel things lurching in that direction: the Lower East Side already turning into a real estate scam, but not entirely, yet.

There were as many clubs as could fill all the smudged columns in the Village Voice, endless bands that could manage fast bar chords and a good leather jacket and just a slight bit of snarl, and the manager might say he’d listened to your tape and he liked it, and he’d actually book you. There were hundreds of bands around, like flocks of edgy, hopeful birds, gig bags like folded wings as they hunched down into the subway. Most of us flew under the radar, trucking gear to clubs with black painted stages and seatless toilets, keeping our friends entertained, occasionally making it onto a compilation, occasionally writing a song people remembered.

I’d returned in 1987 from being very un-viable in Miami, where somehow the sunshine had just made the shadows all the darker. Through friends I found solace in a haunted sublet on Crosby Street ($330 a month), and when that got too haunted, passed it onto a brighter soul and moved into an illegal floor-through sublet in Little Italy ($618 a month), where the rent was paid to a dead person and the landlords had a pack of sons who all wore Armani suits and Luchesse cowboy boots. Someone in the family, which seemed to have many branches, was a judge, just in case there were any thoughts of skipping rent. My boyfriend and I lived there, and our friends lived downstairs, and we got a cat, decorated with plastic dinosaurs and strange objects from Chinatown. And then the landlords bounced us all out before we could get too comfortable, so we ventured out to the wilds of Brooklyn to a brownstone in Park Slope, where we shared nearly the entire thing for $1200 a month. And somewhere in that time, the band formed.

We called ourselves the Campfire Girls. I was the broody lead singer and played rhythm guitar, which made some dull blade of a manager once joke that men in the band as he called them – Nick the drummer, Nathaniel, my boyfriend, the guitar player, and Blaise the bass player, must be the campfire, though it was more the other way around. When I wasn’t having a fit of rampant insecurity I felt like an incandescent center, a heat source, so long as the music kept fueling me. But perhaps I was uncomfortable being the center of attention, I think, secretly, so I secretly threw my own heat onto someone else. Or else I was so heated from the chance to express myself, a girl raised on judgment and expectation, that I could barely hold it in, and those Miami shadows were still hovering.

Three of us: Nathaniel, Nick and me, all knew each other from college where we’d been in a couple of bands together, and this is relevant because bands become these kind of ersatz families without any supervision; a kind of sugar pops and beer for dinner life in which a starchy connective tissue grows between you all. Our first band (junior year) had been an all-out fast punk band called the Generics, and we did a lot of covers: I remember struggling through “Mystery Achievement” and feeling like the opposite of Chrissie Hynde, clumsy and earnest instead of sloe eyed skinny and skeptical. Senior year we came up with a better concept, an intentionally bad surfcore band, Danger Beach: the Ventures on speed and we-don’t-care. Except that Nathaniel could actually play the lines and well: he was a wiz at tremolo, and he played his old Strat like a demon. He’d grown up playing classical music, morphed into worshiping the Grateful Dead, and had a Boston area band with high school pals called the Authoritarians fronted by a raucous ham named Dave. It was through Dave that we got Blaise, the bass player. Blaisedale. He had a first name and his last name was actually not quite Blaisedale but that’s what I called him. A roughhewn strapper who was also, right then, in the midst of a bad bout with speedballs and dope. He was, during that time, a mess. And he had an unruly mess of titian curls he never washed, and he had legs like trees. He wore raggedy flannel shirts half open and cut off shorts and gigantic battered hiking boots with no socks. And he was from a set of rougher (and therefore, I thought) more genuinely creditable punk rockers that were now playing with Dave as well. Hell raisers, full on. And he had that animal smell.

Collectively the Campfire Girls had no real ambition for anything besides maybe making a great set, having the songs be powerful, and getting through the set without forgetting any chord changes, parts or words. We wanted to play on bills with bands we knew and liked, possibly with bands that more other people had heard of. We tried to avoid the horrible and deadening fate of being slotted between heavy metal acts, and we tried to not take gigs that started at 8:30 on a Wednesday, since everyone worked. We tried to make sure people who bought beer came to gigs so the clubs would be happy. And to not get a flat tire on the way to the gig in the yellow 1977 Toyota Corolla we drove around in. We played at CBGB, we played other places, we rehearsed somewhere on 14th street, I think, and sometimes Blaise made it, and sometimes he didn’t, and when he flaked, we’d get through the songs anyway, but it never felt right. I think his absence made me think about him even more, like we were playing punk rock, and he was being punk rock. The worst, worst thing you could be in 1989: a poser. We were sure we were not.

We played solidly moody and quickly wrought tunes with catchy parts and dreamy / abstract / specific / angry words. That was the range. Dreamy to angry. I didn’t want clever, because clever meant Boston frat band, and I wanted nothing to do with that. I didn’t want slick, because that was very un punk rock. I was all right with irony, but not tongue in cheek, more like knife in heart. And I wanted to be considered a member of the band, not the chick singer, because I had never been very chick. I was very un-chick, but I was watchable, and I knew that. It is odd to feel very unchicklike and yet be built with visually tangible curves and the ability to move and such. I was old enough to understand it though, and had reconciled with the fact that just because my hair was chopped late-80s short did not make me androgynous. And by then there was some power in knowing that, and in connecting with the similarly restless sisterhood that was just starting to birth itself: side-eyed glancing, dirty-haired girls with a lot to say who were not afraid to wear dresses. And there was also power in hating the fact that always, clearly, and especially then, there would be something else in men’s heads, in the glint in their eyes, no matter what I thought. So I did not try to appeal to them. After a gig once, a guy in a too-clean leather jacket, who had a bit too much tidy to his swept-back hair, came up to me and asked me if I ever didn’t play guitar. Why, I wanted to know, thinking, he probably thinks I suck. Cause then we’d be able to see you better, he said.

I didn’t suck. I played a black and white Strat that lived at home in a big, tan tweed case and lived when we went out in that black gig back that everyone had, front pocket stuffed with strings, stray notes with scribbled lyrics and old set lists, a sharpie. My amp was an old blackface Fender Twin that smelled like burning hair when it got too hot, but you do not abandon a blackface Fender Twin. I had a Boss fuzzbox and some other distortion pedal, and I liked jamming the heel of my engineer boot onto them and suddenly turning everything dark. One of the things about playing, as a girl, was that pedals gave you power: suddenly you got the benefit of being electric, of all that traditionally male current running through your boot and up your leg and into your hips. After that, you’re not shy.

It’s possible that Nick, out of all of us, might have talked about looking for a small record deal since he was the most clearly ambitious: he had a quick hungry way about him that made him hit the snare particularly hard. But success to me was filling whatever dingy basement club we were playing with friends and not letting myself go crazy on the inside. And above all, not letting anybody, especially my boyfriend, the one I lived with, know how profound or painful my crush was on Blaise by then. So heavy a crush that I’d written this song about it, a despairing chide at my own attempt to be straight and good. My new position wasn’t working, though I was hell bent on making it work.

I am pretty sure, as well, that Blaise also did not know. I was going to marry my boyfriend, too and I loved him in a fashion, in the fashion of someone determined to make it right, and for a while, we did. But that’s another story. This is the story of not knowing but knowing, and of having the best song I wrote be like my own Fleetwood Mac’ing of our good and earnest little band. It did not really inflict endless damage, but it informed me, and so I suppose this is a bit like a confession and an apology and an admission, because good songs come from nothing less.

Brooklyn, the Polish Social Club on Prospect Avenue, wasn’t it? There sat the duality of my heart on the stoop in a late spring evening as we waited for sound check: the boyfriend, tall and smart and steady in his black shirt and dark jeans and sneakers, and Blaise, the wild man from somewhere up north, like Vermont or New Hampshire, reeking in a brown shredded flannel, old cut off shorts disintegrating from his acrid sweat. Tapping out some strange beat with his itchy feet in those sockless boots. They are both sitting on the steps smoking cigarettes — probably, definitely, Blaise bummed from my boyfriend. I am leaning against the streetlight across from them, and Blaise is profoundly high. He has just been somewhere doing speedballs, a succession of them, and his eyes are muddy whirls around pinned pupils, and the sweat is raging out of him. He is twitchy, wants to go for a walk and clear his head, which means shoot up again, probably just dope to take the edge off. We are all there, ¾ of the band, to discuss the set list. And I want to do the best song first, which to me means Animal Smell:

Cause I’ve got nothing here

To keep me anyway

Blaise is by this point in his tenure with us deeply stricken by a need to bolt and cop. And I have a habit of wanting to bolt with him, though I keep it shut inside, a buzzing filament of a girlish secret. Instead I’m tapping the gritty sidewalk too, kind of staccato-ing around his own staccato, with the toe of my boot, and I’m hiking up my leggings, and I’m watching his eyes shift as he probably calculates how long it will take him to find The Man and whether a bump will be enough and will he get back on time. Oh, I am thinking, we are all so terribly boring compared to the liquid hot rush. And Oh, motherfucker, don’t you dare abandon us and fuck up this gig, because at least 35 people I know are coming. And I want to sing Animal Smell, and I am getting the pre-gig jitters anyway. And I was thinking that Animal Smell was a great song but it not easy to sing, a little below my range. So I would have to thrust my voice at the microphone and hope it picked up, and make sure I shouted just enough to hurdle that big wash of barre chords. And I had to remember that one thing I played up on the neck, just that one thing. Which I often nearly flubbed.

My boyfriend and I are having one conversation, a sober and productive and therefore somewhat reassuring conversation about putting the song later, since it takes some warming up, and maybe we should put it third? Fourth? And Blaise and I are having another conversation, a silent one, about whether or not my staring at him is going to keep him from dashing off into the night. The hook of one of my earrings is making my ear sore, because the earrings are heavy cubes made of acid green Lucite, and I’m rubbing at my ear, which he notices. And where my roommate buzzed the back of my head itches, because she never brushes it off, and I’m brushing my hand against my neck, and he notices that too. I don’t know what I am to him right then: just the guitar player’s girl, or the girl who is actually trying hard not to be bad news anymore but he can see it, that little nick of copper in my eye. That night I’m wearing a graffiti printed minidress over the leggings, and my heavy leather jacket over that, my Schott perfecto, a leather jacket that was such a good friend that it was never hot, even in the summer. And the heavy metal buckle clanks around as I move. And I’m holding up my black and white strat still zipped into its gig bag, unlike his bass, which is probably not even his bass, which is propped up against the side of the stoop. And one of the bands we’re playing with rolls up in their white van with all the stickers to unload their gear, and in the hubbub and chit chat — hey, nice boots, we’ll stick around to hear you, oh, yeah cool about that compilation — I feel his gaze click off.

His bass is still leaning against the concrete of the stoop, canted and just to the left of a nasty patch of old gum. But he is gone. The sun is going down on this greenish night. How he disappeared so fast is never the question: he always does. It’s not even why, since he often has to. I’m not yet a bass player, but I should be, because then we wouldn’t have to depend on him, but I always stick up for him. It’s an hour before the doors open and we’re set to play at 10, and the sun has gone down on this greenish night, and Blaise has once again disappeared. And the other band scatters, off to park the van, and when I look up, there’s my boyfriend, comprehending, but already forgiving me. He’ll come back, he says to me.

campfire girls dThat night turned out to be a kind of pinnacle for the band. We wound up leaving Animal Smell for the last, and by then the entire situation seemed like irony piled up on irony: the truth was, there was something after that new position after all, and it wasn’t going to be my own despair. The crowd thundered, clacked the Bud bottles with their heavy rings and stamped the floor. No one told me not to wear the guitar. A week later, I found out I’d gotten into grad school, and everything changed. Blaise went on to seek his fortunes and his nightmares, but today he’s a good man, he’s alive, he’s good hearted, which makes me think I wasn’t entirely crushing for nihilism after all. My boyfriend and I got married, split up, he went on to raise a family. I would have another stint under the shadows, and still come out of it alive, and play in lots of other bands, finding a better mate in bass. Instead of leggings I wore hip huggers, slung low, and instead of a graffiti’d minidress I wore a ringer T with a bunny on it. Or sometimes, a gigantic red wig and a nurse’s uniform, razored just below the panty line. And instead of jitters, I got bold and sure. I wouldn’t really stop chasing those darker rainbows for quite a time, but I understood why. Because they make for good songs.

 

 

 

Jana Martin

About Jana Martin

Jana Martin is the author of Russian Lover and Other Stories (Yeti Books / VerseChorus Press), as well as numerous books of nonfiction, including Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (Abbeville Press), Great Inventions, Good Intentions (Chronicle Books) and Scarlett Saves Her Family (Simon & Schuster). Her stories and short prose have been published in such journals as Glimmer Train, Five Points, Mississippi Review online, Spork, Willow Springs, and Turnstile, and her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Chronogram, Tucson Weekly, and many other publications. She is a former member of Eagle Valley Search Dogs, a K-9 rescue team in the Hudson Valley, and was for years a bass and guitar player and lead singer in various unsung punk and indie bands. She recently closed her Etsy shop to write a book about wolves.
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