What worries me is letting my teeth go. As a musician, or any vocal performer for that matter, professional success not only depends on one’s ability to totally rock out, but the pleasing appearance of one’s mouth area. I mean, is there anyone out there who doesn’t think of popstar Jewel while also imagining her impossibly crooked teeth?
So what I do is keep a teeth-cleaning kit in reach while on the job, which is where I am now, gliding in my chrome 2000 Hyundai Elantra across interstate 8. I secure the steering wheel with my knees in such a way that frees my arms so I can more closely inspect my gums in the rear-view-mirror. It’s been almost an hour since I’ve flossed. My damn gums are beginning to swell.
At the 80 miles per hour that I’m expertly traveling, there’s no apparent safe method to effectively eliminate all areas of potential plaque influx within the tight cervices of my beautiful, tusk-white teeth. For the time being, I swoosh around some peppermint mouthwash, spit it out the window, and watch the cool-blue liquid parabola shatter against the impenetrable rushing barrier of air. I look at my watch, then down at the strange box on the seat beside me.
Okay. I have time for one more song before my next stop. Here I go.
I lean forward and reach below my seat looking for my new binder-case of homemade CDs, each burned with at least 12 average-length albums in MP3 format. I pick one out arbitrarily, making sure not to look at the label. I like to be surprised. I slip the eager disc it into Betty, my sexy new Kenwood eXcelon KDC-X959 MP3 player. I set her on Random. She goes to work, her laser softly and erotically chirping as she takes her pick.
Eccentric organ noises ensue which I recognize immediately as soon as they enter my ears. Betty has picked the first track of Radiohead’s Kid A, “Everything In Its Right Place.” How appropriate, I say out loud to her, as I mess up my hair, position my hands over my steering-wheel/keyboard, and prepare myself to do what I was made to do. I wait for it.
“Everything…” I sing in passionate high notes with my right eye squinted just like Thom Yorke, “in its right place…”
How appropriate indeed, I say again as I create the subsequent synthesized sounds with my fingers skillfully on the dash. I can feel the epiphanies surging inside me, forces summoned by the music and my magnificent show. Whenever I feel like this, I can’t but help rejoice in my new choice of career, thanking God (Radiohead?) that I have somehow been chosen to deliver His musical message.
“Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon… Everything… In its right place…”
Some would call me the prophet of rock. Others just admit that I’m a really good singer. But word choice definitely does not change the simple fact I am, and will always will be, a Car Singer.
Back in the day, a week ago, I was at this party. There was a cover band playing MTV rock shit, and everyone seemed to be more interested in chatting and sipping flat bud-light keg beer than actually paying attention to the show. The music was a distraction and got in the way of conversations because, simply, the band totally blew.
I waited for a tactful moment, which was after the wannabe Blink-182 front man finished an old hit by Ugly Kid Joe, and approached the stage. I whispered something into his ear, which, at first, took him by surprise. But my fixed expression well communicated my serious meaning. He stepped back to consult the other bands members in private.
After a moment, their deliberating huddle broke apart and the singer returned to me. He had a look in his eye that seemed occupied with warning.
“Sure you want to do this, man?” he asked me, seeming pleased that someone was going to look as bad as he.
“Look. I appreciate your concern,” I said, “but I assure you that I know what I’m doing.”
He looked at me for a couple of seconds, reforming his outward disposition, now seemingly envious of my courage and determination. “Okay, dude. Good luck. Psh,” he said, as he stepped down and rudely dropped his cordless microphone into my ready grip.
I climbed onto the stage like a pro. The band looked at me. I looked at them. We were brothers now (a sister on bass), all sensing a serious new standard of quality. I mouthed the numbers one… two… three… and then the show commenced.
As per my whispered instructions to the singer before, this band and I covered the song “Pushit” by Tool, a major label hard rock group who’s popularity was indeed growing amongst a generation of headbangers; however, a calmer-than-usual Tool song was my tactical selection, track 11 on their third album, which, nearing 10 minutes in length, is often skipped over and surely never played on the radio. But I had seen it performed live at least 9 times before, and, with the right moves, I knew the song could be awing.
The guitarist must have been a major Tool fan because he performed the song as if he wrote it himself. Adam Jones’ mesmerizing high-pitched introduction remolded my entire self-awareness. Suddenly, I was Maynard James Keenan (save the bald head) with my right leg bent and firmly placed in front at a distance from my straightened left. I was feeling it. It was time to glow.
“I will choke until I swallow...” began a voice in me more delicate than I was aware I could muster. “Choke this infant here before me…”
My soul abruptly advanced one notch closer to enlightenment. The bored personalities of the party, once scattered aimlessly around the room’s perimeter, no longer merely shot shit with each other, but migrated into a dense clump at center stage and gazed as if up to heaven, entered holy captivation, and speechlessly witnessed my magical, rhythmic, liquid writhing of torso.
After a bitter chorus of “Pushing and shoving me” (repeat), shirtless now, I again resumed the softest singing voice, ever: “Rest your trigger on my finger…”
Several girls in the audience removed their shirts, too, but I refused to notice them. I was way too into the song.
“Bang my head upon the fault line… Take care not to make me enter… 'Cause if I do we both may disappear…”
As I sang these lyrics, I pointed to a girl in the audience who I had had my eye on earlier. She had purple hair and blushed upon my gesture.
The song progressed flawlessly, sounding perhaps even better than the original. Someone who was also familiar with the timing of the song took control of the lights and made the show not only audibly, but visually stimulating as well.
Nine minutes later, the song’s aggressive climax, I hunched my back and strained my arms as if the musical sensation was too great to bear (and it was), and screamed: “Remember I’ll always love you! As I tear your fucking throat away! It will end no other way!”
The guitarist and drummer, who were so dead on, slammed out the last four notes just as the lights were killed. It was as if the end of our song cued the end of all life as we knew it until gradually fading back into lightness to reveal the band hastily leaving stage and myself putting my shirt back on. I made a strong mental note to later commend the talented anonymous individual on the lights.
The people around me were begging for more, literally throwing themselves face-first into the ground at my feet, purposefully breaking their noses on the carpet for some reason, gurgling blood and what sounded like a desperate demand for an encore.
Overwhelmed with groping hands, I reached for the mic and readdressed my new fans.
“Friends,” I said to them, my voice now overwrought and hoarse. “I thank you all for coming tonight. Unfortunately, that was our last song. My fantastic unpracticed voice is only good for so long. I hope it was enough to lift your spirits at least temporarily.”
Everyone in the crowd released a simultaneous “Aww!” as I once again gave up the mic and made my way to a couch to catch my breath. My girl with purple hair followed me and took the adjoining seat.
“That was really amazing,” she finally said after an awkward moment of silence.
“Thank you,” I said, expecting the praise and trying not to sound too pretentious. “It felt amazing…”
“Where else do you play?” she asked. “I’d love to see a full show.”
“Oh…” I said, “I don’t really do this officially. I just picked it up from going to a lot of concerts and singing all the time in my car.”
“Really? That’s so cool. You look tired. Want something to drink?”
“No,” I said. “I need some floss.”
“Yeah. Dental. For my teeth. Do you have any?”
“Actually…” she said, looking at me as if I had tapped into something top-secret (because, come on, who the hell else brings floss with them to a party), “…I do.”
She reached into the tight pocket of her blue jeans and produced a small and familiar plastic container. It was the waxy wintergreen kind, my ultimate fav.
“Oh my god, I am in love with you,” I said, already beginning to rejuvenate my gums. With a fistful of string in my mouth, I managed to mumble, “as a musician, or any vocal performer for that matter, professional success not only depends on one’s ability to totally rock out, but the pleasing appearance of one’s mouth area. I mean, is there anyone out there who doesn’t think of popstar Jewel while—”
“Also imagining her impossibly crooked teeth?” she interrupted.
“Oh my God,” I said again, “I really am in love with you. How did you know that?”
“I’m a dentist.”
“Really?” I echoed. “That’s so cool.”
“Yeah. Gotta pay the bills. I’d prefer just going to shows though, you know?”
“No kidding,” declared I, “can you imagine getting paid to rock out?”
“Actually,” she said, giving me a glare similar to the one before, “there is this job I think might interest you. I know a guy. And at the moment, I think he’s looking for someone.”
I was intrigued by her obvious vagueness. “Someone?” I asked dumbly.
She handed me a business card. “Give him a call. He’s a classic Italian dude, but not mafia or anything crazy like that. Just tell him Betty sent you.”
I examined the card. His name was Giovanni. “Thank you,” I said hesitantly.
“You’re welcome,” she said and arose. “I’m going to get some beer. Sure you don’t want one?”
“I’m sure,” I said, still staring at the card. “But thank you. And thanks for the very minty floss.”
“My pleasure, you can owe me,” she said. “See you.” And then she began walking away. At a small distance, she turned back around and said, “Oh, on the backside is my number.”
And like that, she was gone.
I called Giovanni the next day. He said he felt uncomfortable talking “business” over the phone, so I agreed to meet for a live interview. I combed my hair and wore a fine suit, which I would later discover was absurdly unnecessary.
The address he gave me didn’t turn out to be an obvious place of business at all, but his home. At the door, he said there’s no place better to talk “business” than a man’s home. Also, he requested that I call him Joe. Because that’s what his friends call him, he said.
Joe was a giant man in both length and width. A typical Italian boss-guy character, as Betty described, with thick hair everywhere, slight grease, and that omnipresent odor of Italian food; he was probably a wealthy man judging from all the gold he wore. Also, he had blotches of flour on his face and clothes as if he had been cooking all day. Sure enough, as we sat at his dining room table, he served two large plates of spaghetti and meatballs, failing to ask if I was even hungry.
“You will love the taste of my homemade sauce,” he demanded.
I wasn’t hungry, but I ate anyway to be polite. It was astoundingly delicious!
“This is astoundingly delicious!” I blurted.
“Of course it is. I’m Italian,” he said as he sat. “Tell me,” he continued, arming each hand with a fork and loading them with meatballs, “what are you?”
“What am I?” I asked timidly.
“Yeah, you know,” he said as he stuffed a meatball in each cheek, “What you doin’?”
“Well, actually, Joe,” I said nervously, “I’m a singer. Sometimes I sing.”
“A singer, eh? What’s the name of your band?” he said, sounding almost rehearsed.
“I’m not in one, Joe.”
“If you’re not in a band, who you sing with?”
“Usually, I sing alone in my car, sir.”
“I said call me Joe,” he snapped.
“Sorry. I sing alone in my car, Joe.”
“In your car?” he said at a higher and slightly intimidating volume.
I shrunk. Normally, I brim with confidence, but the size of this man and the fact that my teeth were now tainted by garlic tomato sauce was eroding my ego.
I managed to finally say, “did I mention that Betty sent me?”
Joe laughed. “Haha, okay, big joke. Funny, right? Yes, she called me so I could expect you. I’m no good with surprises, see. Plus, Betty wanted me to scare you for fun. Don’t worry, I’m harmless as long as you don’t double-cross me. I run an honest exchange of business here. And I already know all about you and your singing.”
“Really,” he said, reloading his dual forks with food. “I also know that Betty gave you her number…”
“She seems to like you… I suggest you call her soon and take her some place nice. Did she mention that I’m her extremely protective uncle?”
“No, she did not…”
“It’s true. Don’t forget it. She’s a wonderful girl, despite that silly hair color, which I will never understand. But she makes an excellent sauce, of course. She’s Italian. Which reminds me,” he said, taking another bite, “let’s get down to business.”
He paused, probably just to scare me. It worked.
“Joe…” I said finally and carefully, “may I ask, in this honest exchange of business you mentioned… what is it that you exchange, and with whom, exactly?”
“I’m glad you asked. Right to the point. I like your style. It’s best to get this out in the open right away.”
Good, I thought, finally some direct answers. I waited.
“I’d rather not say,” he said plainly.
“Um, okay…” I said.
“Nothing personal, kid. All you need to know is that I’m part of a very large family and we’re constantly sending things back and forth, things we can’t exactly stick in the mail, if you know what I mean.”
I’m not sure I do, Joe.
“Did you know that the word “mafia” means “family” in Italian? Well, it does! Family is everything. And it all comes down to keeping our family values and business relations amongst only ourselves, meaning us Italiano’s, and at very low volume, so no corporation can ever Americanize, bottle, and sell our merchandise. Understand? We don’t enjoy seeing ourselves crudely portrayed on the movie screen either, you know, as if we’re all just a bunch of silly fat gangbangers. We’re artists. We have style. Values. And no one else can have them!”
He could tell that I was feeling confused and uncomfortable.
“Just think of it as the ultimate secret family recipe, okay?”
I refuse to be a courier for secret Italian drugs. Of course I didn’t say this.
“Okay…” is all said, actually.
“I’m about to make you an offer you can’t refuse,” he said.
“What if,” he said, signaling his words to be exceedingly important by setting down his forks, “I hire you as a Car Singer.”
“A Car Singer,” he said passionately. “Someone who drives whilst singing. To initiate joy in one’s self and delight in those who might witness the act, be it through sight or sound, or both! You’re an artist like I am, kid, and I respect that. I would like to provide you with an arena to exercise your abilities and make a healthy living.”
“Are you serious?”
Joe slammed his fist to the table making everything everywhere shake. “Of course I am serious! Don’t I look serious?”
“Yes, sir.” I said, then grit my teeth and closed my eyes in forgetful error. “I mean… Joe.”
Luckily, he let it slide. “So we have a deal?”
I had to make sure I was hearing him correctly. “So, you’re going to pay me to sing in my car?”
“Yes. Absolutely. Why not?” he said casually.
“Whilst,” he confirmed.
“Um…” I said aloud as I thought it through not enough. “…Okay?”
“Okay!” he exclaimed and shot out of his chair to get a second helping. “You require more excellent Italian sauce!”
He returned to the table and drowned my poor untouched noodles in marinara.
“Here’s how it will work,” he explained, “You’re on call. When I need you to take a drive… somewhere… then I call you up. And then you drive here, as fast as you can, to pick up… something… and deliver it to… someone. Meanwhile, you sing your little heart out as you drive. Capiche?”
“Something?” I asked, now beginning to see the hidden strings attached to the deal.
“Yes, something, as I’ve said. I have many clients who call upon my services for… specific reasons.”
“Which are specifically?”
“Specifics don’t concern you, kid. I just ask that whatever I send you with arrive at its destination on time. If your missions are successful, you shall be taken care of generously.” He said this sternly, looking deep into my skull. “Do we have a deal?”
What could I say? Sure, I was sort of uneasy about the whole vagueness of it all, scared of possibly becoming the second-hand to an Italian drug lord. But come on! A chance to get paid to sing whilst driving? Of course I told him we had a deal!
“Good,” he said. “I will call upon you after three days.”
“Why three days?”
“Two days to rest, relax, and prepare yourself. And one to take my sweet niece out on a date.”
Joe and I just looked at each other.
“You are now,” he said unarguably, “free to go.”
Over the course of the next three days, I did as Joe advised. I prepared rigorously. I bought a bunch of blank CDs; I filled them all with song files, and installed a new MP3 player in my car. I named it after my purple-haired benefactor, who I happened to call on the third, and final eve before officially becoming a Car Singer.
“Hey Betty, remember me? I just wanted to thank you for setting me up with Joe,” I said into the phone.
“No worries,” Betty replied, her voice sounding particularly sweet and unique like the color of her hair. “Hopefully, after all that practice in your car, you’ll be able to perform more than one song at the next party.”
“Maybe,” I said, “But really, I’m a born Car Singer. Onstage at the party was just one of those things…”
“That’s a shame. A lot people really loved you out there.”
“Thanks,” I said. And then we fell into one of those long silences. I worked up the courage to break it. “Hey Betty?”
“Yeah?” she said, waiting for me to ask her out.
“Do you think I should ask you out now?” I heard her almost giggle.
“I don’t know, you tell me.”
“I named my new car stereo after you.”
She was quiet, but I could imagine her smiling on the other end. We eventually made plans to go to a Karaoke Bar that night. It was her fancy idea.
The entire evening out with Betty, drunkenly singing countless tacky ballads, was thoroughly enjoyable. Later, she invited me in and offered to make some lasagna. I graciously accepted. Like Joe said, the meal was mean and crazy good.
When we said our final goodnights (no I didn’t stay over), instead of giving me a kiss, she gave me a handy tooth-cleaning kit that she made herself.
“Backup whilst driving,” she said.
As soon as I got home, I went to the bathroom to test it out, brushing and flossing my teeth many times over.
The next day, Joe was on my phone. He needed a runner. It was lunchtime.
Once there, Joe covertly handed over a thin, square box through my open passenger window, setting it gently on the seat. He noticed my suspicion.
“Are you ready?” he asked me.
“I am,” I said. “And I want to thank you, Joe, for giving me this opportunity. It means a lot to me, to be doing something that I really love.”
“Don’t mention it kid. The roads need more good Car Singers like you out there. I’m just glad we can help each other out, a mutual symbiosis.”
“There’s one more thing. The contents of that box are highly sacred to my ancient Italian family. In addition to painting the road with your brilliant songs, it is your job to make sure that my super secret box doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Resistance will be difficult, but I suggest you never even open it. Don’t get stopped by a cop, especially. Drive straight and swiftly to your target. No arbitrary stops. If I find out that pieces are missing from inside, and believe me I will, you done for. And I don’t mean fired.”
This potential threat and danger took more than a moment to register.
I told Joe that he could count on me.
“Good,” he said, handing me a small slip of paper. “Here is the address of today’s client. He will pay you in cash. You must make it there in 20 minutes or less, or else.”
Joe stepped away from the car and pointed onward.
“Now go!” echoed his voice behind me. I was already gone.
“Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon…”
Now it’s just road, the music, and me combined in a sweet harmony of natural elements.
“Everything in its right place…”
Except the goddamn motherfucking traffic! Traffic isn’t usually a problem for me because I can just rock ‘n’ roll my way through it, no problem. But I’m on a strict time limit here. Joe says lateness equals trouble. Oh my Radiohead, what if I’m late and he kills me?
But sure enough, the road starts to clear, and I breath easy again. Everything is okay. Glory. Life.
Radiohead ends and Betty goes to work again, landing pleasantly upon Soul Coughing’s “I’m rollin’” On the open road, I fill my lungs and gloriously annunciate my words just like M. Doughty.
“Hey Norm was it thrown with a broken arm? Bottle it up, yeah, to keep it warm…”
Mid song, I reach my destination. In a rush, I pick up the box and scurry up the driveway, carrying the package like a waiter might a tray. For the first time, I realize there’s something warm inside. I smell something in the air that activates absolute hunger.
Joe’s warning quickly echoes through my head and kills all chance of nosiness.
I hit the doorbell. A man, Italian, sticks out his hairy, grease ball head.
“Hi,” I say, handing over the box. “Joe sent me.”
The man takes it and looks at me apprehensively. “You’re late,” he says.
I check my watch. I only missed my mark by 5 minutes! “Come on, pal,” I plead. “It’s my first day on the job...”
He thinks about it. “Alright,” he says, checking left then right, and hands me a wad of cash. “Five of that’s just for you, kid.” Then, he winks.
“Thank you,” I say and watch him recoil back into the house and lift the lid.
“Oh wait,” he blurts as a flow of steam rises from the unseen opening of the box. “This isn’t what I wanted!”
I step back cautiously, hands in the air, releasing all forms of responsibility. I imagine him pulling a gun on me for delivering heroine instead of cocaine.
“Excuse me, sir,” I say, still backing up, “I’m only the messenger…”
“Give me my money back! Twenty minutes or less, or else its free!” he shouts.
His nerve perks my bravery, “What do you think this is, Pizza Hut?”
“Huh?” he says in a look of utter confusion.
Approaching my car, I assert, “No sir, allow me to inform you. I am a Car Singer.”
I get in, ignoring him shouting something about being allergic to anchovies. He doesn’t have a gun.
I don’t know. Like Joe said, specifics don’t concern me. Only the music.
As I turn the key, the engine swallows and spits, and Soul Coughing comes back to life inside the sweet electric jaws of Betty.
I retrieve my dental kit and quickly refresh my entire mouth. Once more, I am ready. Here I go.
I’m rollin’ I’m rollin…
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/carsinger.html]
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