No, seriously, fuck.
What the fucking fuck is this, and why should I care? Why do I care? I’ve made a career out of not caring about shit like this. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I care about what’s important. The people who matter, and the music that matters to them.
Wait, I’m forgetting my manners. Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of little wealth, but impeccable taste. I’m David Kohl, phonomancer and, apparently, pop vigilante. Because there’s no other explanation for why I’m here. I don’t remember it, but apparently at some point I decided to declare war on retromancers. I don’t have any children (that I know of), but apparently there are some things I’m not willing to tolerate lest they be next.
Phonomancy is a magic of music, or the other way around, or possibly both at once. It’s about flow and motion and movement – not just dance, although obviously, yes, how you dance matters. But so does how you fuck, how you hold a pen to write, how you toss your hair out of your eyes, how you exhale your smoke (and what you smoke, while we’re at it), and how you drop a disc onto a turntable.
Retomancy is also a magic of music, but it’s about staying right where the fuck you are. It turns time into space, or rather, it turns memory into place. If the asinine slogan ‘gone from the charts but not from our hearts’ resonates with you, congratulations. At some point in your life, you’ve been the prey of a retromancer. Or you’ve listened to some ‘golden oldies’ commercial radio station, which is the same thing, only mass produced.
Retromancy takes a perfect chord progression or a heart tugging lyric and makes them real. Real enough to eat, real enough to walk into. Not that the latter’s so very hard. Some places are halfway to being memories, halfway to being retromancy, already. It depends on who did what there. For example, Electric Ladyland Studios after Hendrix, or Abbey Road after the Beatles.
Of course, what happened doesn’t have to be a good thing, just a significant. The Stones are always shadowed by Altamont, Crowded House by the Elwood Canal. And the Manic Street Preachers, by the Severn Bridge.
Which, in a roundabout way, is how I found this place. Because of its strong connection to Richey Edwards, the Severn Bridge is the focus of magical energies attached to the Manic Street Preachers. It’s the global centre of Richey-ness, as I had occasion to remind myself a while back. This place…
…this place is the exact opposite.
This is Rock And Roll Heaven, Oregon. If the dream of the nineties is alive in Portland (and, horror of horrors, it is), this is where the dream of Casey Kasem and a million more just like him live. Cynical dj’s who didn’t care what they played, so long as people listened to the morning show on WOLD or whatever. So long as they had believers, or better yet, puppet dancers.
I can see it from here, here being a hilltop about five miles or so out of town. I could sense it when I first set foot in America, like a small but nagging scent of artificial sweetener that won’t go away no matter how much coffee you drown it in. Heading west, I could feel it when I reached Chicago. A dull throbbing ache that got hotter and keener every step closer I took to it. To this. To Rock And Roll Heaven, the logical endpoint, greatest triumph and worst atrocity of the retromancers.
I’m going to burn it to the fucking ground.
But first I need to walk the five miles or so into town, so I toss my half-finished cig away to clear a little lung space for the horrid exertions that await me. And the phonomancy, too.
Rock And Roll Heaven, at first glance, is every idyllic American town, where every business bears a familiar name. And all those names belong to dead musicians, or to the songs or albums they made. It’s what you would get if Rob Gordon was the set designer of the fifties parts of Back To The Future, and all the parts of Happy Days. Which is to say, it looks peaceful on the surface, but remember that Happy Days was where an alien invasion first landed, and where the eldest son of the family walked up stairs one day and was never seen – or even mentioned – again.
Or perhaps I’m just a phonomancer, and incapable of believing that anything, even a Kula Shaker song, is nothing more than what it appears to be on the surface. Because Rock And Roll Heaven has a sinister underbelly, even if it’s well-hidden. I mean, the name of the place isn’t “Sex, Drugs and Rock And Roll Heaven” but you’d be a fool to think that meant they don’t have those things. And where they have sex and drugs, especially in close proximity to each other? There’s opportunities for evil.
Big word, that. I usually only use it when mentioning a Black Sabbath concert album, but it fits. There’s something wrong here, and I already know what at least part of it is.
You know how a song gets into your head, and won’t get out? Or how you here just a few notes of a familiar bass line, and your feet are already heading for the dancefloor, leaving your mind to catch up later? That’s the magic of music, and phonomancy is one part of it. But phonomancy, like a song, is ephemeral. It happens, and then it’s gone.
Retromancy is the dark side of that. It’s the earworm or the dance floor essential that outstays its welcome. That compels.
Right now, I might be the only person in this dead man’s town who isn’t compelled. Because all the dead rock stars who are here don’t seem to be here by choice, and all the regular citizens have that somewhat hunted expression you usually only see at North Korean parades. Smiles painted on their faces, smiles painted on their souls. With cheap, thin paint, at that.
I need to think, so I do that.
And I realise that what I really need, is to be seen thinking. I have a feeling that will bring the heat down on me nicely.
So I take a seat on a bench in the well-tended, cute little park in the town’s central square, and I do just that.
It only takes a little longer than I’d expected.
The cops play it low key at first. No sirens, no lights, not even abnormal speed. A police car slides into a parking sport facing me, and a cop gets out and walks toward me. When he gets close enough for me to read his badge – okay, so I cheated a little and used a little power to make my glasses magnify a little more – the name on it is Redding. Not just the businesses then. The power structure as well.
Otis Redding walks up to me, and says “Son, I don’t believe I’ve seen you around here before.”
“No sir,” I tell him. “I’m new in town.”
“You just passing through?”
“Feels like I’m here to stay,” I tell him, and he smiles.
“You got a name, son?” he asks.
“Yeah, but it won’t mean anything to you. I kept it a secret when I was a performer.”
“Might be I’d know your stage name,” says Redding, and I take a deep breath. Now or never.
“Les. Les MIserables. I played with a band called This Is Serious Mum.”
“Can’t say I’ve heard of them, but you must have been something, or you wouldn’t be here.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, sir, I say (“Call me Otis,” he says.), “where am I?”
“This is Rock And Roll Heaven, Les. It’s where you belong.”
“Okay,” I say, drawing it out, letting my uncertainty show. And he takes the bait. Charges right in and gives me the full spiel on the town, what it is, and what they do here. Which is, unsurprisingly, play a lot of music. There’s a concert every night, and well, the line-up is literally to die for. Even for a cynic like me, the thought of getting to hear actual legends play sounds pretty good. After a while, Otis comes to a natural stop, and waits for me to respond.
“It’s a lot to take in, I know,” he says with a smile.
“It sure is,” I agree. “But, how did this happen? Who started Rock And Roll Heaven?” Otis’ face clouds over, just a little.
“Son,” he says, and his voice is friendly, but there’s more than a hint that that’s a strictly temporary phenomenon in it, “you don’t question a miracle. You’re just grateful it happened.”
“You’re right,” I say, flashing the toothiest grin I can manage. “Just all this is enough. More than enough.” And Otis is all smiles again.
“One more thing,” he says, “we have a little tradition here in town. It’s your first night, so you get to open.”
“Me? Open for those guys?”
“Hey, we’re all just folks,” says Redding. “Now, you a bass player, so if you want some other people to play with you, you just ask. No one’s gonna say no.” Which sounds either very welcoming or very threatening, and I try very hard to react as if it’s only the former.
“I got a little time to figure a set list, work out what I need?” I ask.
“Yeah, you’re gonna fit right in,” he tells me, offering me his hand to shake. I take it and shake it back with an enthusiasm I really don’t feel.
“Thanks, Otis. I think I just might.”
And then I’m left to my own devices, although a guy I’m pretty sure is Jim Morrison is watching me from the window table of the diner across the way. You think people are strange, Jimbo? You have no idea, I think in his direction.
But it’s empty bravado unless I can think of something. I’ve bought some time by pretending to be someone who no one knows, but I can’t play an instrument to save my life. I’m a fan, not an artist. I mean, I still want to break this rusty cage and run far, far away while it burns, but I’m missing the how I do that part of the plan.
The song gets stuck in my head – the Johnny Cash version, not the Soundgarden original – which doesn’t help my concentration. Break this rusty cage, this rusty cage, rusty cage… cage…
…and suddenly, I know exactly what I have to do.
The show begins. Alan Freed announces me to a cheering crowd…
…and 4 minutes, 33 seconds later, it’s all over.