So you remember Ethan, right? He thought he was a big deal. Hell, he was a big deal in Vineland. He convinced everyone that he was the next big thing. He was just so sure of himself that you had to believe him. He could sing alright. He was like Steven Tyler on stage. And he could write, too. Good musicians are a dime a dozen, especially guitarists. Singers are harder to find, but they’re out there. But not too many guys can sing and write a good catchy tune, too. Mark used to call Ethan “Dr. Hook” ‘cause his stuff was so catchy.
Ethan had a few good bands in South Jersey. Mark played with him a lot; so did Ethan’s brother, Kurt, when they weren’t fighting. They used to play Ethan’s songs in those lousy South Jersey clubs, like the Galaxy in Somerdale or the Venice in Atlantic City, and that joint by Stockton College. I don’t remember the name – the Liquor Locker or something. Carrying amps and drums through the parking lot in the snow at two in the morning and playing to an empty room. Ethan worked in a casino in Atlantic City. Hardcount Department, counting quarters from slot machines. He hated it. He was always telling his co-workers where he was playing, trying to get them to come out to gigs and making them listen to his demo tapes. All his money went into those demo tapes. I remember he sold all his metric tools for a few bucks to go do a mixdown at a recording studio in Pennsauken. I helped him out by sending his demos to record companies. I’m no good at that stuff, he told me once. I know it sounds stupid, he said – you just put a stamp on it, what’s the big deal? But I can’t do that shit. So I did it for him.
He was a lot of fun to hang out with. We’d buy some weed from Ryan and smoke it and go out to some bar, the Driftwood or someplace, and talk up the girls. Ethan was great with girls. Singers usually are. Sometimes he’d get depressed, ya know, if he got rejected by some record company. Six years I’ve been trying to get a contract, he’d say. What the fuck do people wanna hear? He took rejection hard. If they don’t like my music, he told me one night, then they don’t like me. Well, I don’t think that’s true, I said. Yes it is, he says, absofuckinlutely it’s true, dude. I think maybe that’s why he had me sending the demos for him. But usually he was all confidence. And that’s why the girls liked him.
So this one time I get a phone call from an A&R guy at a record company in NYC. This guy loves Ethan’s stuff and he wants Ethan to come up to The City to talk to him about a contract. I checked up on the company; they were small, but they had a decent reputation. So Ethan plays it cool. Told everyone about it but played it down. I’ll go up there and talk to ‘em and see what they offer, he said. If I don’t like it, I’ll just go around the block. You could tell how he really felt, though. How the hell’s he supposed to feel after six years of trying?
So we drive up to NYC and get a hotel room. He always liked to tell people that he was from NYC, but he’d only lived there until he was two before his parents moved to Vineland. After we check in, we go out to a bar. The place was crowded. Ethan is real quiet. It wasn’t like back in Jersey; we don’t know nobody in the place and they don’t know us. Ethan doesn’t even talk up the girls, and there were some sweet girls in that bar. So after a couple hours we decide to go back to the hotel.
On the street Ethan keeps looking behind us. That guy’s following us, I swear it, he says. He starts walking faster. I keep lookin’ over my shoulder, but the guys back there aren’t looking at us. No one on the streets of New York seems to be looking at anything. Then we stop at a corner and Ethan says, look, dude – there’s the guy over there now. Why’s he following us? I don’t like it. Now, I know nobody’s following us but I said, are you sure, man? Yeah, he says, I’m sober as a funeral and I’m telling ya that guy’s following us. Well, be cool, I said, there’s only one of him. But Ethan is still walking fast and looking back. When we get back to the hotel he tells the guy at the desk that we almost got jumped on the street. Do you want the police? Nah, it’s cool, says Ethan.
The next morning, we have breakfast downstairs in the hotel before Ethan’s appointment. He doesn’t say much other than telling me that I can stop wishing him luck already. I called him a cab to take him to the record company offices, then I took the subway to the West Village and had a good time just wandering around by myself. Kinda wish I coulda stayed a few days.
I get back to the hotel half an hour early and Ethan is already there. Seems relaxed, more like himself, sitting on the edge of the bed and rolling a joint.
How’d it go? I ask.
Oh man, he says with a chuckle, that was bullshit.
The guy’s a shark, he says. He wanted me to pay eight grand when I sign the contract. Gave me some bullshit about needing money to make the recording. What kinda idiot does he think I am?
Oh shit, I said. I’m sorry about that, man. I thought they were a good outfit. They have a good reputation.
It’s not your fault, he says. Well, fuck it. Let’s smoke this and go home. Can you drive until we get to the Turnpike? I hate driving in this city.
So we go home and I find a message on my machine. It’s the A&R guy. Hey, where’s Ethan, he says, I’m waiting in my office for him. Been waiting for him all day and he hasn’t come by. Is everything alright? I really wanna talk to him, love his work.
I never told Ethan about the message, but I stopped sending out tapes for him. He didn’t seem to notice that. Now that I thought about it, it seemed I’d always had to push him into it, bugging him for copies of his demos. But something else changed, too.
I never found out why he blew off that meeting. I never learned if he was afraid of rejection or maybe success or if it was The City itself. But now I didn’t trust him. I’d see his confidence in the bars and his smirk and I knew none of it was real. Now that I think about it, it was pretty important, that trip. After that, I looked at people more carefully when they smiled.
# # #
David Bassano is a History professor at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. He is a human rights activist, an author of academic and literary works, and an avid hiker and cyclist. Trevelyan’s Wager, published by Harvard Square Editions, is his first novel. You may learn more about him and his work at www.davidbassano.com.