Tuesday September 11, 1979 – Los Angeles
The rattle of locks and chains stopped the heel of Jackson’s fist from landing on the warehouse door for his third set of bam, bam, bam. The locks continued to rattle against the galvanized door, up the left side, down the right, then the middle. The rattles stopped, nothing happened for long enough he considered announcing himself to see if that would help. An electric motor behind the door started grinding, the door split in the middle and rolled away across the front of the almost waterfront warehouse. Three mid-twenties Art and Dance grad school girls in loose clothes, all sporting a tangible air of caution, were spread out across the opening, the two on either side holding three-foot long steel pry bars. The middle one looked right and left down the alley with no name, waved to a forklift driver two buildings down before she turned back.
“Yeah. I –”
“Who was your ref again?”
“Audrey. Boriman. Atlanta Bal –”
She pulled him inside, the grinding commenced, considerably louder inside than out, and the doors came together behind him with a boom that seemed to reverberate forever.
“Sorry.” All three of them frisked him. “Weirdos. You never know.” The one who’d pulled him inside left them, lifted several industrial breakers and flooded the space with light.
Old welded angle iron and pine-plank bleachers like the ones at high school practice fields were arranged in a loose horseshoe in the middle of the warehouse. He knew by heart from reading the seat bottoms when he was a kid they’d hold “approximately 105 adults or 3, 250 lbs.” On the floor in the center of the horseshoe was a twenty-by-twenty-foot pad resembling a boxing ring. Its edges, the floor around it and the first couple of rows of the bleachers were splattered with paint.
“Aja,” the middle one, introduced herself. “Hope Audrey knew what she was talking about.” She stripped down to her flip flops. “Hard to find good help these days. Everybody can talk, nobody can do.”
“Uh…” Jackson eyed the other two still gripping their pry bars. “The ad in the practice hall said ‘Painted Ladies Dance Troupe seeks non-derivative sound artist.’ There wasn’t anything about, um…Clothing being, optional?”
“Are you high?”
“No, but I –”
“Excellent.” Naked Aja grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him across the warehouse while she talked. “What we do is totally dependent on a high level of intuitive interpersonal communication. We can’t…No, we won’t have the integrity of our work disgraced by tainted sensory reception.”
It was getting weirder, but art and dance majors all talked a stream of crazy shit most of the time, with or without their clothes, and he could hang right in the middle of it with them.
Aja marched him to the far, open edge of the splattered pad, lifted the lid on a good-sized wooden shipping crate where she proceeded to pull out a wide assortment of junk and toss it in his direction.
Jackson caught a few things, had to let others clang and bang on the floor. Juggling metallic kitchen utensils and construction site junk in a “surprise, I’m naked!” interview wasn’t what he expected.
Aja continued to toss until she was satisfied with the mess of debris at his feet, dusted her hands. “Make us some music.”
He squatted, went through the chunks of pipe, enameled wooden boxes and paint sticks, kitchen spoons, stainless steel dog food and salad bowls, sheet aluminum, a bowling ball with a chunk missing, a small galvanized flower pot with French writing on the side and other junk.
“Lots of it, but not much to work with.” He held up a wooden meat tenderizing hammer, thunked it on a bowl suspended from a banana hanger, got a dull bunggggg for his effort. “Short term interesting, not very good percussion is the only possibility for most of this. The washbasin and some marbles would make a decent groove. Nothing lyrical. I’m not sure what you expect here.”
“You’re the ‘Sound Artist.’ Make something wonderful happen.”
He knew they were waiting for him to fold or build a drum set out of dog food bowls and fold even harder. He looked past the two expressionless security girls leaning on their weaponized pry bars, scanned the warehouse.
“That.” He pointed to the far corner where a version of every church basement and grandmother’s house 1898 upright piano sat, adorned with a psychedelic multicolored paint job, and partially draped with a splattered canvas painter’s cloth. “I need that.”
“It will never be in tune. Piano players are like gum under church pews, and Piano Man is not who we…” She stopped, weighed his enthusiasm against her cynicism, waved in the piano’s direction. “We let you in.”
There was something unsettling in a naked girl with her fists on her hips in that “You’re wasting my time” way watching him push the piano across the warehouse, the ancient brass casters screeching on concrete.
He scattered the pile of junk with his foot, spent a few minutes modifying the piano with odd bits and pieces, set a chunk of steel on the damper pedal. At first he coaxed some eerie, metallic drones out of it by scraping the strings with a steam basket, ringing occasional dissonant bells from the top end with a medium-sized aluminum serving ladle. He looked up and all three of them were naked, rolling all over the mat in and out of modern dance poses. He abused the strings and soundboard with other objects from the floor, monitoring the ‘dance’ out of the corner of his eye and adjusting his output to their activity dynamics as best he could until they folded into each other. He smashed a raspy, banged strings-on-aluminum-strip from the upper middle of the soundboard and stood, eyes closed and arms wide while the warehouse’s huge natural reverb decayed around them.
“Cool. The room lets you stand inside it.” He absently set two metal ladles on top of the piano along with several lengths of galvanized pipe. “I need an egg beater like I used with Aud. More dynamics.” With the steel block still resting on the pedal he played a slow, out of tune arpeggio that rang through the warehouse like distant church bells on acid. “Man. I could get up inside of that with one and –”
All three of them, naked and slightly sweaty, hugged him. They helped him toss the excess junk back in the crate and dressed before they led him to a glassed-in upstairs office that overlooked the small arena and handed him a steaming pottery class cup.
“Honest to God fresh roasted coffee.”
His first instinct was to refuse. After his last three girls and their Timothy Leary’s Gatorade in New Mexico, he liked to watch his drinks being mixed. But they were all drinking from the same pot. He might die crazy, but not alone.
Aja pulled a chair away from an old, metal, paint-splattered like everything else in the warehouse work table, pushed a box of donuts his way. “I was afraid you were another Bartok tone cluster wannabe. But…” She looked at him with clear, appraising eyes. “That was amazing. Magical.” She checked in telepathically with her two partners who had left their pry bars downstairs. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” one of the ex-pry bar girls laughed. “Thanks for being the most disappointing real piano player in L.A.” A comment that in any other context he might have found disturbing.
“You got a gig doing wha?” Dash had to set the bong on the counter while he coughed. “Sheee-it, my man. Fine, nekkid women rollin’ around in paint? However much they payin’ you be too much. As you have piqued my interest, what is the entry fee to witness this creative endeavor?”
Jackson loaded and fired the bong. “Two-hundred and fifty dollars.” He blew a series of smoke rings. “Fifteen hundred in the paint splatter zone. I figure they have to gross close to a hundred grand for a full house.”
“Call me Sambo, slap my momma, order pizza for later. You shittin’ me?”
“Nope. The canvas auctions start at seventy-five grand. Unless they find something artistically disagreeable on one or it won’t fit in the buyer’s space and cut it up into smaller pieces that add up to more money. I’m going to a show at some Warbucks’ pad in Malibu on Sunday. I have to be ‘Rasputin’ for a while, but you can hang if you’ll play my awestruck, culturally underprivileged token sidekick.”
“Depend first upon what a Rasputin be. I refuse to be seen in such an enlightened environment wearing a Sunset Boulevard at midnight bulldog collar.”
“None of that. I’m supposed to forget to shave, blow my hair up crazy and take kitchen utensils out of the host’s drawers that I’ll use to gently abuse the inside of their grand piano in a cocktail piano version of what I do at the paintings. While they all eat shrimp cocktail and talk art and admire their wall-size naked chicks in paint art.”
“And what do you say as you peruse their drawers for these magical implements of sonic construction?”
“Nothing. I grunt, but not too dangerously, and if pressed I guess I’ll tilt my head with an air of quizzical seriousness, like a dog that doesn’t quite get it.”
“Sheeee-it. It is my assumption, as your friend and confidant in this affair, they be payin’ you way too much for that artistically suspicious activity as well?”
“Mama said stand up tall when confronted by a truth.”
“My man! You are an artistic fraud of the highest order.”
“I prefer carefully constructed poseur.” Jackson raised his hand, wiggled his fingers like a magician. “An elaborate accessory to the festivities.”
“Fraud by any other name. I am down, my brother. For shrimp and a rich white people in Malibu tableau I will become the epitome of Buckwheat and suspend belief in any creative photography degree that bears my name.”