BIG IN JAPAN
Prayed like a martyr dusk til dawn
Begged like a hooker all night long
Tempted the devil with my song
And got what I wanted all along
Billy Moon didn’t know exactly when he had sold his soul. There had been no pact penned in blood, no dusty crossroads. Maybe it had happened that night on the bridge, the night he met Trevor Rail. Maybe his soul was tucked away in one of those paragraphs of legalese he had skimmed over hungrily in his mid twenties—his eternal spirit leveraged against mechanical royalties and recoupable advances in a five-point font. I sold my soul, he thought, and it fit. Like a perfect chorus summing up the verses of his life, it rhymed with the rest of him.
On the last day of the Lunatic tour, Billy received a harmless looking fax that felt like a death sentence. It was from his manager, Danielle Del Vecchio. She had departed Japan two days prior, confident that the final show at the Tokyo Bay NK Hall would go off without a hitch. Billy took the envelope from the bellhop and mumbled, “Domo.” He’d given up on trying to tip them, but it still felt weird not to. As the door of the suite glided shut, he collapsed into a stuffed leather chair. He shook the page free of the envelope, which he tried to fling across the room like a Frisbee although it disappointed him by flying like a bat.
Trevor just called to inform us that he has you booked at Echo Lake Studios in upstate NY for the next 2 months. I know it’s short notice, but Gravitas doesn’t mind paying for you to write in the studio this time. It’s a residential studio out in the woods, so you’ll be free of distractions. We’ll fly to NY on 10/30. You’re doing the MTV Halloween show on 10/31, and then I’ll have a limo take you up to the studio on 11/2. Would have just called, but now you have your schedule in writing so you won’t forget. Break a leg tonight!
Billy let the page flutter to the floor. He took an American Spirit from the pack on the coffee table and lit up. The afternoon sun warmed his face and hurt his eyes. He could see his reflection on the dull gray surface of the TV screen: tangled unwashed hair, black kimono, belly hanging over the waistband of his underwear. He didn’t like the image so he exhaled, banishing it with a breath of smoke.
Why couldn’t she call him on the phone like every other day for the past ten months? So he’d have it in writing? No, she had to fax to tell him he’d be spending the next two months in the woods with Trevor Rail hunting songs for the third album because she knew he was having reservations about Rail. That was just like Danielle to drop the bomb from a safe distance all the way back in L.A. Just got a phone call from Trevor, my ass. But then, if honesty was to be the word of the day, he had to admit that “reservations” was an understatement. What he felt about Rail was more like pure, undiluted dread.
He hadn’t talked to her about that in any depth, but if he had she would have just told him to stop smoking so much pot because it was making him paranoid. And she’d probably be right. Still, could she blame him for being paranoid when he had to divine his fate from some fax while everyone with the decision making power in his life was on the other side of the world?
Billy looked at the heavy oak door and remembered where he was. Someone was knocking and he wasn’t sure how long they’d been at it. The knocking started up again but now it was deeper and softer in tone. Someone had switched to pounding on the door with the side of their fist.
“Billy, you better be getting laid because if you’re passed out drunk I’m gonna have to beat your ass.”
Billy opened the door. The pressure that had been building in his head over the fax dissipated at the sight of Flint’s mischievous grin—missing tooth, scruffy dimpled cheek and all.
The guitarist scanned him from top to bottom and back again from behind a pair of sunglasses that looked like welders goggles. It was a wonder he could see anything at all through them, but he must have because he said, “Christ, Billy, don’t you even dress yourself when Danielle’s not around? Come on, we gotta be at sound check in half an hour. Don’t want to blow it on the last night, do we?”
Billy gave a half-hearted smile. “No. After all, we’re finally big in Japan.”
On the way to the limo with Flint, the concierge called Billy over to the front desk where they had a small package waiting for him, delivered by a local shop. It was a red and gold silk brocade box with a dragon theme and silver clasps. He opened it in the back of the car.
“Sexy.” Flint said beside him, looking at what lay on the gold silk lining.
“A knife.” Billy said, stating the obvious.
“Not just a knife, bro. That’s an authentic Japanese tanto.”
Billy picked it up gingerly and turned it over in his hands. The handle was scarlet silk wrapped in a diamond pattern over some black textured material. The silver end-cap on the hilt was engraved with a cherry blossom motif. Three more of the same flowers adorned the black-lacquered wooden sheath in mother-of-pearl. It was stunning, exuding a graceful evil beauty.
“What’s a tanto?” He asked, staring at it.
“That’s one of the three blades a Samurai would carry. My old roommate was way into this shit. Samurai movies every other night. Dude had some replicas too, but nothing like this. That’s real sea ray skin on the handle.”
Billy drew the blade from the sheath and examined it—nine inches of tapered steel that looked sharper than anything he had ever handled in his life.
“Whoa, Dude. Put it away before we hit a bump. That thing is sick. Who’s it from?”
There was a small envelope in the box. It contained the knife’s registration with the Japanese Ministry of Education and a second card with a sword-smith’s insignia and a typed message.
A small gift to celebrate your recent success on the Japanese charts. Please bring it with you to our sessions. I think it would be brilliant to get some photos of you with it for the cover art. Looking forward to working together again.
“It’s from Trevor. He wants pictures of me with it.”
“Samurai blade, huh? I thought they carried big swords.”
“They had three different blades for different jobs. The katana would be for the battlefield, that’s the long one. Then there was a medium size one for close combat, a waki-somethin-or-other, I forget. And this one here for ritual suicide if they were captured or disgraced.”
Billy laughed without humor. “I’ve barely even written anything for the next album and he already knows he wants me posing with a Japanese suicide knife in the artwork.”
“See that’s what makes ol’ Third Rail a marketing genius. He’s already thinking about how to bridge your new Asian audience with your crazy Goth chicks who like to cut themselves. The crafty fucker.”
They closed the show that night with “I Like to Watch,” a techno-metal song Rolling Stone had called, “a scathing high decibel diatribe against the vampiristic nature of the news media.” Billy staggered out of a foggy wash of blue lasers as he struck the final chord on his blood red Les Paul, then slammed his fist down on top of his amplifier making the spring reverb inside it rattle and shudder in what became a series of explosions echoing throughout the hall. Only when the sound had almost faded did the applause swell up and break over the stage. Billy was once again impressed by how intently Japanese audiences listened. In America there was always some drunk guy yelling during a quiet section, but that never happened here.
He handed the guitar off to Phil, his tech, bowed low to the crowd and ran down the metal stairs beside the drum riser. A second set of boot heels echoed in the narrow corridor and he cast a glance over his shoulder at Flint. Looking ahead again, Billy threw his arm out behind him, pointing at the floor somewhere in front of Flint, then swept it forward to point at the double doors at the end of the corridor and the security guard stationed in front of them. He passed the dressing room and heard the guitarist’s step falter.
“Where are you going?” Flint called.
“Out. Come on.”
“The street? What are you tripping? You’ll be caught in an autograph mob.”
“Not if you hurry up. Most of them are still wondering if that was the last encore.”
“No they’re not. I saw the house lights come up.”
“Then we really better move.”
Billy and Flint shoved their shoulders into the doors and pushed through into a clear night sparkling with city lights.
A small group of Japanese Goths flocked up the steps to the exit with CDs and permanent markers held aloft.
“Billy, I don’t see the car,” Flint said. “I don’t think we’re on the right street.”
“Don’t worry so much. I just want to get some air.”
“That’s the last thing you’ll get if we hang around here.”
Billy looked around at the kids. There were only five of them who had skipped the last song to stake out this particular exit. Well, they got lucky.
“Hey, are you all together? Did you come to the show together?” Billy asked as he scribbled a black squiggle across the front of a jewel case.
They all started talking at once and he couldn’t make out a coherent sentence, so he said, “Who has a car?”
A muscular kid wearing a wife-beater and a small silver cross on a chain said, “I have a van.”
Billy noticed that this kid was the only rocker among the Goths with their black clothes, makeup and dyed hair. This one looked like most of the Japanese rock fans he’d seen, a walking advertisement for American corporations: Converse sneakers, Levi’s jeans, pack of Marlboros poking out of the pocket of a plaid shirt unbuttoned to reveal the beater and the cross. Totally Americanized, from his smokes to his personal savior.
“Where’s it parked? I want to get out of here.”
One of the Goth girls started jumping up and down, tugging at the bottom of her sweater. The kid with the van smiled. He looked at Flint, “You coming too?”
Flint glanced at Billy. “Man, this is not a good idea. It’s Tokyo, for Chrissake. I couldn’t read a train map if I had to.”
“You’re such an old lady.” Billy said. Then to the rocker kid, “It’s our last night here. Take us someplace interesting. Show us something we can’t see at home.”
“Where’s home?” the kid asked. He seemed way too cool for the situation. Billy decided he must not be a fan, just a ride for some of these other kids. When the jumping girl settled down and clasped her arms around the rocker’s bicep, Billy decided she was probably his sister. There was a resemblance.
“Good question. Flint, where is home? New York? I have a house in San Francisco. Fuck, I don’t know, I think the Hilton is home.”
The kid laughed and said, “Man, this place want to be New York, and you have shit in California you won’t find here, but I can definitely show you something you don’t see at Hilton.”
“Well then I guess it’s not anything sexual. I’m game. Flint?”
“Man, you’re in a dangerous mood.”
Billy just grinned.
“Yeah, I’m game.” Flint sighed.
“Kiyoi,” the kid said over his shoulder. “Tell your friends they have to take the train home.”
“Why can’t they come too?” she whined.
“Not enough room. And your idol want to see something exotic. I’m not taking a bunch of kids.”
“Where we taking them?”
To Billy it sounded like the kid said, “Tosainnuring.”
The girl gasped, “That’s so cool. Guys, you have to go home.” This met with groans of complaint. “Give me your CDs. Maybe they sign them in the van. Come, come on, give them to me. I’ll call you guys tomorrow, I promise.”
The rocker, who said his name was Munetaka, trotted across the street and unlocked a white van. Billy, Flint and Kiyoi followed.
The city dwindled behind them until a few faint stars could be seen twinkling through a veil of smog over Mount Fuji. Billy had feared the drive might be one of those regrettable private moments with a fan in which he was deluged with questions, but Kiyoi was deadly silent after he and Flint signed the stack of CDs. Her English was good, but she appeared to be too afraid of saying something stupid to venture any conversation at all. Billy considered breaking the ice just to put her at ease, but after singing for two hours his voice was hoarse and he was content to not use it if he didn’t have to.
When the van stopped, Flint slid the door open and they climbed out onto a pockmarked muddy lot in front of a warehouse with blacked out windows, somewhere south of the city. A couple of orange sodium lights poured their jaundiced glow over the lot, illuminating cars whose riders’ muted voices could be faintly heard from somewhere inside the cinderblock building. Shouting and cheering seeped through the cracks in the walls, mingling with the ringing in Billy’s ears in the cool, quiet night.
Munetaka rapped his knuckles on a door Billy hadn’t noticed was there. It opened to reveal a lean Japanese man in mechanic’s overalls. Munetaka rolled up the sleeve of his flannel shirt and flashed a tattoo Billy couldn’t quite make out. It might have been a stylized animal mask like the ones on totem poles. The doorman waved them in.
They descended a flight of stairs lit by a series of red neon tubes and fell into the back of a crowd. The men at the front were yelling, but their shouts were the only sound in the room. Whatever they were here to witness, it didn’t involve music, and although there was plenty of alcohol being passed around among the revelers, the quiet put Billy on guard. It was unsettling to be in a crowd of drinkers without so much as a rave beat. Even sex shows had a beat. What kind of party was this, anyway?
Flint leaned into Billy’s loose, black curls and said, “What do you think, bondage show?”
Billy studied his friend for signs of fear. Was Flint trying to make an optimistic joke, or did he really believe it would be sexual?
“I don’t know. It smells strange in here. Some of that Jap porn is pretty foul.”
Billy felt a slim arm encircle his waist and Kiyoi slid around him as if he were a pole in a strip club. She had her mouth open and he saw a little round tablet on the flat of her tongue. In the red light he couldn’t tell what color the tab was, but what difference did it make? Whatever it was, she’d apparently had one already and it must have loosened her up. He bent down and allowed her to push the pill into his mouth on her soft tongue. Her kiss tasted like cinnamon, medicine and sweat.
Billy swallowed the pill.
“What is this place?” he asked her.
“Come on,” she said, tugging on his arm, pulling him away from Flint and into the crowd. A moment later they spilled into a space where there were no more bodies to buffer them and Billy fell to his knees on the concrete floor. It was shit—that was what he had smelled. He felt his heart hammering and wondered if it was just fear or the drug.
At first he thought he was seeing a six-legged crimson beast spinning toward him. Then he realized it was two dogs entangled, tearing at each other’s throats, blood pouring down the swaying dewlap of the one on the bottom, mixing with its fawn coat and the red neon light to form an image of homogenous murky gore. The dogs went about the work of mauling each other in eerie silence devoid of snarling. Billy, who had grown up with dogs, was anything but afraid of them, yet here on his hands and knees just a few feet away from the vicious melee, he felt a short burst of piss escape him before he could stop it.
He clutched at Kiyoi’s long black skirt and looked pleadingly up at her, “What did you give me?”
He tried to stand, but his boot slipped out from under him in a puddle of dog blood. His chin hit the concrete floor, and he bit his tongue on impact, tasted his own blood. Kiyoi squeezed his jacket in fistfuls at the shoulders and tried to pull him up, but she had only succeeded in getting him back on his knees again when the dogs broke apart, the loser slumping to the floor in a heap of mangy fur and disjointed bones. The crowd roared with equal parts triumph and outrage.
A shaven headed handler with a sharp black goatee stepped into the ring and slipped a wire loop over the winner’s head, but the dog had already made eye contact with Billy. It lunged at him flashing its frothy red jaws in a quick, chattering rhythm that spattered droplets of blood and saliva across Billy’s cheek and forehead. Later he would wonder if the dog had reacted to his prone position, his submissive stature at the moment it had noticed him, fresh from the kill. Or did it smell his urine and the scent of fear radiating from his pores as the speed was transmuted into sweat? But in that space of three deafening heartbeats when the dog’s eyes locked in on him, all he could think of was Trevor Rail and a fragment of an old, old song playing to the beat of his heart.
Got to keep movin, blues fallin down like hail
Got to keep movin, hellhounds on my trail
Billy felt his fingers and toes going numb as the fear surged inward, closing off his senses. Pink video noise swarmed from the neon tubes in his peripheral vision, narrowing the tunnel through which he viewed the dog’s thick neck, bloody muzzle and flashing fangs. The rush of blood roaring in his ears drowned out the foreign voices. He imagined the pressure with which it would jet across the room if the dog bit him. His throat constricted, but he soon realized that this wasn’t another symptom of his terror; someone was pulling on the collar of his leather jacket. Someone stronger than the girl was lifting him to his feet, wrenching him back from the mouth of the monster and into the crowd.
Danielle Del Vecchio flipped her cell phone open, dropped it on the tile floor and exclaimed, “Shit!” through her sea kelp mask. Flavio, her manicurist, picked it up and placed it back in her left hand, then resumed his work on her right. She reclined again and said, “Yes?” It was Donnie Lamar at Gravitas.
“He’s fine,” she said. “Don, get a hold of yourself. I said he’s fine… What? No, it wasn’t a pit bull… Uh-Huh. A Tosa Inu… I don’t know. It’s some kind of Japanese mastiff. I guess it looks like a pit bull, I don’t know, who cares? It didn’t bite him… It scared the living hell out of him but he’s fine now… Yes, his hands are fine, not a scratch. Stop being so hysterical, okay? He’ll probably get a song out of it… Mmm Hmm. Yeah, I’ll tell him. Flint was there. He’s okay too… Don, can you hang on a sec? I have another call coming in. It might be Billy.
“Hello? This is she… Evan Malhoney? The fireman. Billy’s told me so much about you. What can I do for you, Evan? Billy’s on his way home from Tokyo today. He gets into LAX at 9:10 tonight… What?” She sat up straight and wiped the kelp strips off of her face, yanking her hand back from Flavio so fast she cut her finger on the edge of his emery board.
“Pen, pen!” she whispered. Flavio shot out of the room and returned before the door could finish swinging shut, bearing a ballpoint and a pad with the salon letterhead.
“What’s the best number to reach you at? Give it to me anyway… Okay. Sunday, Pearce and Sons Funeral Home, Port Jefferson,” she said, scribbling. When she had finished writing, she closed her eyes and listened. She said, “Evan, I’m so very sorry.” She looked at the phone, took a breath and pressed a button.
“Donnie? That was Billy’s brother. His father died of a heart attack. He’s going to New York sooner than he thinks.”
Billy Moon, his band and crew landed in L.A. on Friday night in the rain. Danielle was waiting at the gate. Billy knew someone was dead before she even took him by the arm and sat him down in one of the terminal chairs to tell him who. She wasn’t wearing any makeup and her face was so solemn and pale, he almost didn’t recognize her at first. If he trusted anyone, he trusted Danielle, but seeing her face devoid of all pretense was something new. He had learned a long time ago that acting was an essential skill in a rock manager’s toolkit. She needed to change faces from mother, to motivational speaker, to mad dog depending on who she encountered around the next corner, or on the next call in the queue. Seeing her standing there, by the baggage carousel with no mask or strategy in her eyes both embarrassed and scared him.
She sat him down and took his hands in hers. Travelers rushed past with their Starbucks cups and paperbacks, rolling their luggage to the departure gates and taxi stands. A soothing female voice announced the last call for flight 931 to Salt Lake City. Then Billy was taking a fist full of Kleenex from Danielle, marveling at how quickly his eyes had filled with too much water to see anything but splintered light and how much sniffling he had to do all of the sudden to keep the mucus from dangling down into his lap in this crowded place where someone might recognize him.
He caught himself resenting her for exposing him to this unexpected grief in public. But then he reflected that he had made a career out of being emotional in public, an observation that made him laugh and cry at the same time, as he wiped his face and tried to breathe. Keith, his bodyguard, stood in front of him and folded his arms over his broad chest. The foot traffic flowed wider around them as if the man were a boulder in a stream.
Billy told Danielle to get him on the next plane to New York. After doing her best to convince him to at least spend the night before flying again, she relented and bought him a ticket. He was back in the air without so much as a change of clothes by midnight, flying over the Great Plains with lawyers and executives whose laptops illuminated the first class cabin like a video arcade. In their company he looked even more like a vampire than usual. He turned inward, behind his sunglasses and headphones, letting his favorite duo, Jack Daniels and Joni Mitchell, lull him to sleep.
When he woke up the sun was rising behind New York and the pilot was telling them to fasten their seat belts for the descent into JFK.
On the ground, Billy kept the shades on to avoid eye contact and kept walking when anyone called his name or touched his jacket. As a kid, he’d thought rock stars looked cool in sunglasses. As an aspiring musician in his twenties, he’d found them pretentious. Now he knew them for what they really were—privacy. Eye contact was how they trapped you, the leeches who wanted to rub up against your aura of fame and take the residue of glamour back to their mundane lives. It never seemed to cross their minds that you had mundane bullshit to deal with too. Hunger, grief, a moody girlfriend, a dead father, and maybe some of that was on your mind today as you made your way from here to there on your tired feet like everyone else. Didn’t they understand that he had bad days just like they did? If he didn’t want to sign his name every fifty yards on a given day, did it really have to mean that he was actually “an asshole in person?” He fixed his eyes on a far-off point on the concourse ceiling and kept walking.
On the street he flashed a wad of cash at a cab driver and climbed in. By mid-day he was on the north shore of Long Island winding through tree canopied suburban streets he hadn’t seen in years. The cab dropped him at number 14 Huckleberry Lane.
The house he had grown up in no longer resembled the one he remembered. His father had been renovating it for as long as Billy could recall. He suspected the man hadn’t been finished working on it the day he died, but the small transformations it had undergone each year while Billy was away chasing his dream amounted to what appeared to be a whole new house: a porch where the hedges had been, a bay window where there had been none, new vinyl siding. The old cars had been replaced too and Billy wondered as he walked up the path, if the classic convertible Mustang he had bought the old man when Eclipse went platinum was in the garage. The house was still a two-story cape, but it looked like an impostor sitting among the trees he had climbed before the guitar came into his life.
Then he looked up the cracked cement steps and any feeling he had that this wasn’t home evaporated at the sight of his mother in her nightgown behind the storm door, the reflection of red leaves and cotton clouds overlaid on her ghostly silhouette.
So that’s draft 7 of the opening chapter of the book I’m currently pimping. What do you think? Would you keep reading?