Book Excerpt: Joe Pernice's It Feels So Good When I Stop
Lou Barlow from Sebadoh was headlining, playing solo acoustic, so I was okay with suffering through the four opening acts. One of them was Jocelyn’s friend Stephen’s band. They were called the Coughins. They all smoked on stage and went to great lengths to look like they couldn’t give a shit how they looked. They embraced the crappy-playing-equals-pure-art-and-unmolested-genius myth. Stephen graduated from Pratt, but was doing production at Redbook because it was easy money. Jocelyn said that he’d designed some nice Vera Wang bridal knockoffs, and too bad they were counterfeits. I wasn’t too impressed, since Stephen had merely copied Vera’s design. Jocelyn said it still wasn’t easy to do. She suggested I try banging out a Cézanne.
Stephen put us on the Coughins’ guest list. The whole band probably only got two guests, so I was grateful. I liked Lou Barlow’s songs a lot. I wasn’t alone. When dangerously full, Brownies held about two hundred and fifty people. All three nights sold out in about twelve seconds.
After the Coughins’ set of Game Theory B-sides, Jocelyn and I went outside to have a smoke and wait for Stephen. It was one of the first nice nights in April, when you think you might actually live to see the summer. A crowd of people kept us from venturing too far beyond the entrance. Two bouncers stood like enormous African urns on either side of the doorway.
One of them got up on a milk crate and made an announcement. “People, the show is sold out. If you don’t have tickets, go somewhere else. I repeat. The show is sold out. Sorry.”
People moaned, though very few left.
“You’re not sorry,” the other bouncer joked.
“You’re right. I don’t give a flying fuck who they do or don’t let in. Let ’em all in. Let none of ’em in. I don’t care.” They laughed.
“I like these guys.” Jocelyn said about the bouncers, loud enough for them to hear.
“You catching that?” one of the bouncers asked.
“Oh, yeah.” He called in to the guy taking tickets. “Zippy? Zip, you make sure this pretty lady and her friend get treated nice.”
“What’s that?” Zippy was flustered, taking tickets like a madman and trying to make sense of a messy guest list. Brownies was not accustomed to crowds this size.
“Forget it, Zip. Go back to work.” The bouncer winked at Jocelyn.
“Zipper-headed Zippy,” said the other.
Two sonic youths wormed up to the front of the line. “You sure there aren’t any more tickets?” one of them asked.
“One moment, please.” The bouncer got back up on his milk crate. “Oh, I forgot to mention,” he screamed down at the sonic youths. “The show is sold out! Go home!”
People with tickets laughed. The bouncer stepped off the crate. The sonic youths evaporated.
Stephen finally came outside. He’d changed into a ratty white t-shirt that said “Be All You Can Be.” His hair was wet, and his face was red. He was hyper and effeminate.
“Hey, you!” He hugged Jocelyn. Then he hugged me. I wasn’t into it. I don’t like people who I’m not fucking touching me. “How were we? Be honest.”
“You looked like you were having a good time up there.” It was the most positive thing I could come up with.
“Really? Thanks.” He was still breathing heavy from the gig.
“I agree,” Jocelyn said. “You guys were amazing.”
“Thanks, you guys.” He group-hugged us.
“Nice set,” someone leaving the club said.
“Thank you soooo much.”
“Was it good for you?” Jocelyn asked.
Stephen turned into Willona, the lusty neighbor on the TV show Good Times. “Sister, it’s always good for me.” Jocelyn slapped him on the arm. “No, there were some bumps, you know? But on the whole, I think it was—no, I know it was our best show yet. Each one gets better.” Stephen moved his hand in small increments from the left side of his body to his right, mimicking the Coughins’ evolution as a band. “And as long as that keeps happening, you know?”
“Something good’s got to happen,” Jocelyn said.
“Improvement’s what you want,” I said.
“That’s what I keep telling Jeremy, but he’s so”—Stephen clenched his fists—“he wants everything to happen yesterday. He’s like a child. But you know what? I’m not going to think about his issues tonight. This is me not thinking about it. It was our best show yet, and I’m going to enjoy it.”
“You go, girl,” Jocelyn said.
The Coughins were never going anywhere, and at least two of the three of us knew it.
The crowd in front of Brownies parted. Lou Barlow waited while the rest of his party got out of the cab. He looked like a Lovin’ Spoonful-era John Sebastian. There was a scrawny dude wearing an unfashionably full beard and an olive drab army fatigues jacket. He had a camera in his hands, and two more around his neck. He immediately swapped out lenses. A green-haired woman wearing a co-opted auto mechanics jacket with LADY SUB POP embroidered in pink on a breast pocket was reading the number off her pager.
“Lou’s here!” people murmured. “That’s him.”
Lou walked the length of the concrete-gray carpet. He saw Stephen standing near the door.
“Hey, man. Sorry I missed your set. Fucking ridiculous photo shoot.”
The photographer was unfazed. He got the camera right up in Lou’s face.
“Oh, please,” Stephen said. “Thanks for just letting us play.”
“Was anyone there?”
“By the end it was pretty full. More people than we’ve ever played to.”
Stephen introduced us. He told Lou I lived in Amherst.
“Yeah, you look kind of familiar,” Lou said.
“I wait tables at that restaurant, Esposito’s.” I had also seen Dinosaur Jr. play about twenty times when he was still in the band. I left out that part because I didn’t think it was a good idea stirring up the bad blood.
“He’s got a cool band, too,” Stephen said. “The Young Accuser.”
I was embarrassed. “It’s not really a band. Just me and another guy on acoustics. I think you know him. Richie Leonides?”
“No way! The Richie Leonides? He’s a musician?”
“I worked with him in kitchen at the Soldiers Home in Holyoke.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Fuck! That was like eighty-two, eighty-three. He’s’ the guy that got me way into Sabbath.”
“No way!” Stephen said. “He’s the one?”
“Totally. I owe that guy a lot.” And with that, Jocelyn added Lou Barlow to her shit list. “He also showed me how to suck the nitrous out of these big industrial canisters. I definitely owe him a lot.”
Lady Sub Pop finished sorting out arrangements with Zippy the doorman.
“Okay,” she said, “they’ll let us use the upstairs office for the interviews, but we have to do them, like, right now.”
“Fuck,” Lou sighed. “All of these fuckers think they own you.”
Lady Sub Pop took Lou’s disdain for her and her industry as a healthy and highly marketable display of indie cred. She nudged the photographer back to work.
I sheepishly took a three-song cassette from my pocket. “You don’t have to listen to it, but maybe you could pass it on to your guy at the label.”
“That would be me.” Lady Sub Pop accepted the tape like a mother into whose hand a child spits his spent chewing gum. The scrawny dude photographed the whole thing. I pictured my demo suspended in a pillar of wet paper towels, lipstick-kissed Kleenex and feminine-hygiene packaging in the ladies’ room trash can.
Lou’s set was very good. He tried out some new songs and a bunch of my favorites off The Freed Weed. Jocelyn and I got moderately shitfaced. Except for two guys who chose a Lou Barlow acoustic set as background music for their five-year high school reunion, the room was dead quiet when he played. People “shushed” them with little lasting effect. Lou finally stopped a few bars into “Soul and Fire” and told them to get the fuck out. The audience cheered. Lou shaded his eyes from the stage lights and scanned the crowd.
“I’m serious,” he said. “Get the fuck out! Get your ten bucks back—or however the fuck much it is—and get the fuck out!”
The audience went crazy. We all started chanting, “Get the fuck out!” The two guys got the fuck out. One of them held the bird high like he was carrying the Olympic torch.
“Fucking maggots,” Lou said, then started the tune from the top.
After the gig, we hung around and had a few drinks at the bar with Lou. Only musicians and their satellites remained in the club. We were talking about Robin Williams, trying to estimate how much cocaine—both in weight and in money—he’d done behind the scenes of Mork and Mindy. The amounts varied greatly, but even the lowball figure was a lot. We agreed that however much it was, it was more than any of us had done. We toasted to that.
It came up that Fifi had recently opened some Sebadoh shows in Holland and Germany. Stephen told Lou that Jocelyn and Roger Lyon III had a past—a very brief past.
Lou didn’t hold back. He said Roger Lyon III was a dick for a number of reasons. “He’d sing a line and then spit all over the place.”
I loved it. I had to know more. “What do you mean, by accident?”
“Fuck, no.” Lou imitated Lyon III flapping his phlegmy epiglottis.
“Gross,” Stephen said.
“And he kept spitting through their entire set.”
“Did he spit on the audience?” I asked.
“On the audience, on the stage, on the monitors, on the amps. It was fucking weird.”
“What’s the point?”
“Exactly.” Lou scraped the soles of his shoes on a bar-stool rung. “I had to wade through his fucking throat eggs every night.”
“Eww. That’s so gross,” Stephen said.
“I was like, ‘Dude, someone’s going to get sick from all that saliva and phlegm.’ And he says, ‘What are you talking about?’”
“What a fucking dick,” I said.
Lou turned to Jocelyn. “How long were you his girlfriend?”
Jocelyn was not completely immune to being star-struck, or she never would have gone out with Lyon III in the first place. If Lou Barlow had been Joe Public, she would have told him it was none of his fucking business. “We went on three dates.”
I added color. “And the first one was when he picked her up after one of his shitty band’s shitty shows.”
“He’s got that down to a science these days,” Lou said. He put his hand on my shoulder. “I don’t know jack shit about this guy right here, but I’m sure he’s a huge upgrade from Roger Lyon the Fucking Third. A huge upgrade.”
“And what kind of pretentious fuckwit puts ‘the Third’ at the end of his name?” I asked.
“An enormous one.”
Lady Sub Pop was sitting alone near the low stage, patiently bored stiff, drinking a can of Diet Coke. She was ready to go back to her chrome room at the Paramount an hour before.
Lou called to her, “Jenna, from now on I want to be called Lou Barlow the Third.”
Jenna smiled, using the last of her A&R man’s daily allotment of phony amusement.
“No, even better, Lou Barlow Junior.” He stood on the rungs of his bar stool and proposed a toast to his new name.
Jocelyn told our cabbie we were going to Brooklyn. He groaned like he’d just been told by his boss that he was going to have to take a small pay cut.
“Sorry”—Jocelyn looked at the cabbie’s nameplate display—“Ahmed, but that’s where I live.”
I gave her a look.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “They have to take you.”
I was not so drunk that I couldn’t
sense the eighth day of the Seven Days’ War dawning. I distracted
Jocelyn by pulling her closer to me on the slippery vinyl seat. I
kissed her neck.
Ahmed hauled ass toward Houston Street.
“And take the Manhattan Bridge, not Brooklyn,” Jocelyn added for good measure.
Ahmed’s eyes tightened in the rearview mirror.
The cab crossed the bridge the way a hovercraft does gentle sea swells. Jocelyn had her head tilted back far enough to look straight up through the rear windshield. Her tongue and teeth glistened. A sparse constellation made up almost entirely of aircraft shone through the blurry rhythm of ironwork. She started imitating the in-cab recording of Elmo telling tourists to buckle up and not to forget their shit when they left. I kissed her exposed throat.
The sound of the steel-belted radials on the road changed from a sizzle to a wash as the Manhattan Bridge became Flatbush Avenue.
“I like that Lou Barlow,” I said.
Jocelyn had no comment. She lifted her ass off the seat and guided my hand under it before sitting back down. Traffic started backing up right around Junior’s cheesecake restaurant.
“Elmo says, ‘Keep doing that.’”