Thursday, April 9, 2009

Rock and Roll is a Hard Life (Part 2)

The following is an excerpt from Rock n. Roll is a Hard Life: a Mitch Metzger Mystery by Ben Shakey. It will be published by Suicide Club books in May 2009

After someone dies you forget lots things about them. You forget a lot negative traits. When Johnny Squeegee died there was an instantaneous memory loss of why he was a considered an inconsiderate jackass just a few moments ago. If there was a Squeegee T shirt anywhere in my top dresser drawers I would have put one on and helped form a larger tribute with Graham.

When someone dies you forget lots of things about them but you also remember a lot weird things about them too. Strange details of Johnny Squeegee rose to the surface of my memory like words floating to the surface of alphabet soup.

Johnny was always in some various stage of facial hair. He was always two or three days into a goatee or a moustache or a soul patch and then he couldn’t commit and he would shave it off. After a few days some new hairy design would start to surface on his face.

Or the memory that the police would often try to confiscate Johnny’s squeegee and say it was stolen from a gas station. As proof he bought a new one and had the receipt laminated. He wore it on a shoelace around his neck like a backstage pass. He was never seen with out it

The strongest memory was what was now going to be known as his last show. The Squeegees were called onstage for an encore. It was something that they rarely gave into because they only knew about forty five minutes worth of songs and they played every song they knew in order to fill out a full set. When it came time for an encore they were tapped out. Tonight Johnny came back on stage and played “Broken condoms and broken promises”. It was the song that they had opened the show with but this time Johnny had dusted off the old ukulele that he used in his busker days.

At first the song got a lot of laughs but it became clear that Johnny didn’t care if was playing on silly little four string Hawaiian guitar covered in punk rock stickers. He played the song with the same alley fight intensity as when he opened the show. He barked out the last few lines in a rage that made them illegible. Ronnie dropped his drumsticks and started punching his cymbols.

Johnny raised the raised the ukulele over his head by it’s neck and then smashed it on the stage. The crowd went insane.

A lot of undeserving musician have become legends after they died. Its an easy joke that death might be the best career move in rock n’ roll. Just ask the Big Bopper. Johnny was one of the few on the scene that didn’t have to die. He was living the life of a legend all along and didn’t even care if you noticed.

He used to give the same over the top ukulele show outside of the Nanaimo sky train station. You just had to wander by.


“Good god the phone won’t stop ringing”

My roommate Chuck runs his hands over his face and kneads the heel of hands into his forehead. Chuck drives a cab from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. which makes him a fantastic roommate. He is out all night and he sleeps quietly all day. He wakes up as I get home from work and tells bizarre tales of the drunk passengers from the night before for an hour or two then starts his shift. He is less of roommate and more like a guy that drops by for a few hours in the evening and then pays half the rent.

When a roommate is this agreeable it is a bad thing to drive him crazy with the endless Johnny related phone call that must be flooding the apartment.

Fortunately Chuck has a coping method. He has been up in less time than he needs to make a cup of coffee or to properly tie the front of his robe shut for that matter but he is already to the kitchen table rolling a joint.

“What the hell is going on? Fucking everybody is calling for you. Not just that student loan lady. You win some money or something?” Chuck holds the joint tight in his lips and squints his face up like Popeye then leans down to the red burner on the stove and lights it.

“No, I think everybody wants to talk to me because Johnny Squeegee just died and I’m probably going to be the one that write about it in the Inquisition.”

Chuck holds the rank pot smoke in his lungs and puffs his chest out like a partridge. While he holds it in as long as he can he makes eye contact with me and waves his arms around. He has something he wants to communicate to me it will have to wait the few seconds it takes for the THC to mingle around in his lungs. Finally he lets out a huge cloud in a dramatic exhale.

“Shit, Johnny Squeegee died. I knew those guys. They used to clean my windows whenever I drove by Main and Terminal. Hell, they were hilarious. They were so funny they were the only squeegee kids that customers would make sure to pay them just clean the cabs windows. It was like they were putting on a show.”

“Ya you should have seen the live shows. It was like the Marx Brothers or something.”

“So he O.D.ed?”

“I guess so. Maybe some other kind accident. I don’t even know. He was only twenty, maybe twenty one. What can you die from at that age?”

There was just a natural assumption that he had died of drugs. Graham hadn’t bothered to offer an explanation and I didn’t even think to ask for one.

“Man Alive. That is so young. He was barely old enough to get into a bar.” Says Chuck.

I have just graduated from university and Chuck spent his time after high school saving up enough money to travel South East Asia. We feel like we have learned a lot about life but we are reminded how young we really are when we realize how shocking it is to have someone younger than us die.

“Well that's it,” says Chuck “ I’m not giving any more money to those street kids. I don’t care how funny they are. I give them money and then they o.d. and I feel like I’m responsible. Selfish little maggots” Chuck drops the final remains of the joint in the ashtray and with a moment of stoned dignity he make sure the front of robe is tried shut. I am relieved that he has finally closed it tightly.

The phone rings. “It’s for you.” Says chuck “There are your other messages” he points to scattered system of loose scrap of paper with names and telephone numbers scribbled on them with sleepy handwriting.



“Yes, speaking”

“It’s me it’s Dan. We need to talk.”

“Ya what’s up? I guess you heard about Johnny Squeegee.”

“I guess you did too. It’s really horrible. We wanted to run the last interview he ever gave as the cover story this week. You know as a tribute.”

“Well how about I write a tribute. I could interview all the other musician and people on the scene and we could do that as tribute. People’s memories of him. Almost an oral history of Johnny Squeegee.”

“Every paper in town is going to do that. We need to scoop every one and do it as the last interview with Johnny Squeegee. Make it look like we were the only paper with the street cred that Johnny wanted to talk to.”

Death can bring out strange things in people. In Dan’s case it brought out things like an aging hippie publisher saying words like street and cred. “Do you really think that other papers are going to give that much attention to Johnny Squeegee? We really are the only weekly in town that pays that much attention to punk stuff.”

“Are you kidding me?” asks Dan “ A former street kid makes good, forms a band, and on the eve signing to major label someone kills him. It’s not the kind of story that happens in this city a lot. Even the mainstream papers will cover it. Not just the weeklies.”

My head jerks back a bit. Even sitting at the table Chuck sees that something in the conversation makes my body language jolt and he begins to openly evesdrop trying to hear what words could have made my spine stiffen up like that.

“Wait, wait, wait a minute.” I say “someone killed him. Someone killed Johnny Squegee.”

Chuck lifts up his eyebrows and lets out an exhale.

“I thought you knew,” says Dan “Someone stabbed him. They found his body in the alley behind The Bricks.”

The Bricks was a hardcore bar on the edge of gastown where the tourist blocks met the skid row blocks. It was on the block were the cruise ship passengers spent a few hours before leaving next to those that had no chance of ever leaving.

There is a feeling of shame that it was just assumed that he died of some sort of overdose. Trying to think of something to say that might redeem myself all I come with is “That is going to be a big story. I bet the Sun puts it on the front page.” After that statement the feeling of being cold and shallow grows a little more.

Dan doesn’t notice the callousness of what was just said. “It most certainly will be. That’s why we need to run the interview with him. I don’t know when he was killed. Did you manage to get that interview with him before it happened.”

The directness of Dan’s question is stunning. Talking in such frank business terms seems disrespectful to Johnny’s death but rather than object I just stammer out an answer “No, they never showed up. I waited around but they never came. They were probably upset about Johnny. I don’t know when they found out. I don’t know when he died.”

“That’s okay”

“What’s okay?”

“The interview. We still have the scoop. Even if they never talked to you Janet Mah still has the last interview with Johnny Squeegee.”

“Janet Mah? Why didn’t she say something at the meeting today.” It was strange for Janet to hold out on a chance to scoop me on an interview.

She once scooped me on an interview with a visiting German art rocker. She used a German to English dictionary and wrote out all the questions and then called him in Frankfurt. She read of all the questions phonetically from eight by ten cards and recorded the answers. Later she used the tape and the dictionary to translate the interview word by word. This was all because she heard that I was waiting to have my German friend sit down at the interview and translate rather than attempt the interview on the phone.

“She wasn’t sure of the quality. At the show she was at on Saturday she was interviewing some singer songwriter guy and Johnny Squeegee came up all drunk and grabbed her tape recorder and started talking into it. Bev called me when she hear what had happened” said Dan

“That’s what you are calling the last interview? A drunken rambling into her tape recorder.”

“Well it’s all we have. You didn’t get the interview at the The Only like you planned”

“Well I guess I didn’t. He was dead. If you want I can interview him with my Ouija board.”

Even the garbled jumbled of letters a Ouija board might produce might make more sense than recording of drunken Johnny. Did he even make sense? Would they print the words in the slurred patter he spoke them in? Yesh for yes and wahtchalookinat for hello.

“I know it might not be the best interview but our presence on the punk scene is very important. We need to have the best coverage of this in the city. People will e looking at us so I need to run Janet’s interview and her tribute.”

“Janet wrote a tribute too or is she going to transcribe the message he left on his voice mail?”

“Janet is writing a tribute as we speak and it will be the cover this week” There didn’t seem to be much room for negotiation in the way Dan said that.

“Alright can I write a tribute too.”

“I don’t think there will be room Mitch.”

“Why not? How long is her piece? She hasn’t even written it.”

“She told us that she would take the story elsewhere if we didn’t let her write the tribute we wanted and run it as a cover piece. I think she knows it will make a great clipping. She wants the piece to be 4000 words.”

That many words was unheard of at the Inquisition. The average cover story here ran about 1,500 words. The longest story the Inquisition ever ran was an indulgent 2,000 word piece that was written by Dan himself in 1980 for the John Lennon tribute issue. Foe several pages Dan gave a second by second account of how John Lennon said “hello mate” as he walked past him in central park a few years earlier and how that event changed Dan’s life.

“It is lengthy. I’ll admit that” says Dan

“Lengthy, It’s a bloody novel.”

“Well I agree with her. We need to run the interview.” Just like that I am down graded from the cover story to reviewing a skid row chowder bar.

“Should I hand in my notes to her?”

“No Mitch, don’t be like this. I still want you to run the memories that people have of Johnny. Ask some people for statements.”

“Thank you Dan. How many words do you want?”


“500? My horoscope is longer than that.”

“Mitch it’s the best I can do. We can run it as a side bar.”

“Alright Dan. I’ll try and make them 500 really good words.”

“You always do. Thanks Mitch.” He hangs up the phone.

Chuck is still sitting at the table. “Wow, you got a raw deal my man” It’s nice that Chuck doesn’t try to insult me with pretending he didn’t just listen to the whole conversation. “I bet your story would have been way better than Bev’s. I’m sorry”

“Thanks man.”

“I’m sorry Johnny died too.”

“So am I. I didn’t really know the guy but I’m sorry.”

I pull up a seat at the table. It is hard to understand that Johnny is dead. That he was murdered. Proximity to murder is something that hasn’t been experienced in my life before. Death is something that has been pretty much avoided in my life.

My grandparents died very early in my youth so it was never really experienced It was like they were always dead and just existed some childhood wonder back when there was still a belief in things like Santa Claus, or Easter Bunnies, or Grandparents.

The only person my age that died was a girl from junior high that had some sort of heart defect. She would go away to the hospital periodically and the trips started getting longer and longer. We were told that she had died on the last trip the hospital but it was more like she had just gone on one more trip and never came. That’s how it felt with Johnny too. I had to keep reminding myself that he was dead and there was hell of a lot of things that twenty year wasn’t going to get to do. Still, I felt more like he had just gone on tour.

We both sat at the table. Chuck in a stoned silence and myself in melancholy one. Finally chuck got up and said “ We’ll I better get ready for work.” His eyes were bloodshot slits.

“Are you okay to drive that cab?” I ask”I don’t know. I better roll one more. I don’t want to get grumpy.”

He giggles and starts twisting some pot in a rolling paper.

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