The audience sat quietly mumbling, no words or voices clearly audible under the dim studio lights. Shuffling could be heard in the distance backstage, and the camera, mounted on square platforms on each side of the audience remained motionless, with headphoned operators waiting silently. The whole room smelled like a new building, the carpets clean and without any gum mashed in, and the arms of the theater chairs polished like a new car.
Visiting the ‘Windy City’ for this weekend only, I thought it would be fun to catch a show – since so many TV shows these days are filmed here in Chicago. Tickets were free – the only requirement was just to get here on time. When I arrived at the reception desk downstairs at NBC Tower, asking for directions, they sent me to the 37th floor, whereupon immediately exiting the elevator I found myself waiting in line, almost sticking into the elevator itself. Even though I was 45 minutes early, I thought that I would surely be getting one of the worst seats in the back, but much to my surprise after getting my tickets from the short gum-chewing teenie in blue stilettos, blood red lipstick and a scrunchy, I found out that I was seated almost perfectly in the center of the audience.
Suddenly the lights shot up, and the rumble of the opening music of the Charlie Park Show began swirling in. Trumpets blasted through the hanging speakers, and then it was softened by the warm piano, gliding through the harsh melody, with a crunching drumbeat, against a backdrop of gently climbing ocean waves. At the same moment, as the announcer (whom I couldn’t ever find anywhere from my view) stated through the loudspeakers “Welcome to The Charlie Park Show” in a genuinely commercial, strong voice of enthusiasm, Charlie Park strolled onto the stage, in a tan suit and denim blue shirt, smiling widely and waving with a caring air to the crowd. The audience cheered, some girls whistled in the row next to me, and everyone sat with eyes agape as he centered himself on the stage, clasping his hands together as if he would start clapping, and looking directly across the room full of people, and finally into the main stage camera, above the last row of the audience.
The audience cheered, and Charlie Park began pushing his hands down in the air, still smiling. As the audience died down, he began
“Thank you, thank you. It’s great to see you all here today. We have a really special show for you tonight. Rock star Nick Final,” he said, smiling, and looking around the room with his eyes. The audience had started up again cheering at the mention of his name.
“Nick Final is one of if not the most interesting musician in America today, if not all over the world. He invented his own genre of music, and remains so much a mystery to his audience and to the world, that it’s impossible to know whether the stories behind his music and his themes are real life or invented. He took the term ‘rock opera’ to an entirely new stage, and yet remained mysterious and unique all at the same time. In his last performance tour through America for his second album, for the The Rise and Fall of Space and Humankind, ticket sales were sold out in every city, and yet for every performance, we never saw his face. What we did see was filled with technical realism, thunderous pyrotechnics and a recreation of atmospheres from other worlds, seemingly both apolitical and dystopian, yet ordered and emotional. So, without further misrepresentation on my part, let’s give a very warm welcome to Nick Final!”
The audience roared, and a man (he looked in his early 30’s), nearly 6 feet and a half tall, strode out onto the stage, hair combed neatly, in a simple grey suit, and a red and black-checkered tie, carrying a black umbrella. He smiled and waved at the audience gratefully, walking up to Charlie Park, shaking hands, as Charlie Park motioned for him to have a seat in the brown leather chair near the back of the stage. They both walked to the chairs and sat down, waiting for the applause to die out. There was a single round table in front, holding two glasses of what seemed to be ice water.
“Well, it’s certainly great to have you here. Thank you. May I call you Nick?”
“Thank you, I’m glad to be here. Yes please, Nick would be fine.”
“That’s great. I actually heard that you don’t give many interviews, so it feels like this is a really special treat for us here today to have you on our show.”
“Yes that’s true, I don’t get to do many interviews, so it’s a special event for me too”, he said, smiling, and looking into the audience, as the crowd clapped joyfully.
“Why is that, that you don’t give many interviews?”
“Well I’m on the road a lot, and it’s always hard to happen to line it up with where I’ll be, and have the time to do it – so this time we’re lucky, since I’m here in Chicago for a week scoring the Joffrey Ballet performance of The Women of Trachis.”
“Yes I’ve heard all about that, and I’ve seen the posters too. I believe I also heard this is the first ever performance of The Women of Trachis that uses completely synthesized electronic sounds, is that right?”
“Yes it is. The traditional scores for The Women of Trachis were using mostly choirs, but I thought I’d mix it up a little and use synthesized choral voices. I’ll be playing it live, but it’s all through a group of keyboards that I’ve programmed for it. The voices will have a specific Greek accent, too.”
“An accent for a choir? Is that actually possible?” he said, humorously laughing and looking into the audience. “That’s fascinating.”
“Oh, absolutely. Every voice has an accent, and synthetic voices can be programmed that way, too.”
“But I also heard that this is the only city that you’ll be performing with The Women of Trachis with this same setup?”
“Yes that’s true. When we get to Boston next week, my band, the Picky Plinkety Plicks will be scoring it. We’ll be playing space rock, but of the same musical score as I’m playing now with a keyboard. I’ll sing too, but through a voice box. Do you remember Peter Frampton’s song Do You Feel Like We Do?”
“Wow, that’s incredible. I might have to go to Boston just to see that! Why did you decide to change it?”
“I thought that doing it in just this one city like this, it really fit with the whole feel of Chicago, to me. When you walk down the streets at night, the cold crisp wind from Lake Michigan blows in your face, it whirls around the buildings, and everything seems grey, and fresh in the new morning sun. For some reason that really seemed to match well for me with the play. When I was in Boston last year, we played at this old theater called The Paramount, and I could just feel the pulse from the band. It felt like we could just keep that groove going on all day. I think we even played there all night, and didn’t need to get any sleep before we left on the bus back home for Toronto the next day.”
“That’s great how you’re taking the feeling from the city and incorporating it into the work. It even makes us as natives of Chicago feel like you’re really making something especially for our city,” he said, as the crowd whoo-ed and ahh-ed.
“Yes, I hope so. That’s how it feels to me.”
“This is amazing, really. I really had no idea what to expect from your coming on this show. Some people I told about your coming and they said they were scared of you in sortof that “doesn’t he wear a lot of makeup” or “he never shows his face to the audience – it’s always those weird masks and lit-lit up stages like that movie Tron..”
“-which is one of my biggest influences, I should add.”
“Somebody else even said for me to be careful because you might try to suck my blood. But here you are, just as friendly and genuine as I never would have imagined, but I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Actually all those things were really great compliments, I’m flattered. That’s really the kind of impression that you want to make, isn’t it?”
“I mean we talked just a little backstage and on the phone, and to me you seemed much more friendly and geniune, almost just like an actor in all these different roles.”
“Yes that’s very true, I think – at least especially when I have to be on stage. But really all of the descriptions are fine. I just have a lot of interests. Being flippant and always changing keeps me inspired.”
“What is it about performing, and playing music that makes you inspired?”
“It’s just that – playing and performing music. It’s like putting together many things all at once, and having a new kind of expression and energy – even if it’s just by impression or improvisational – but at the same time I just like singing songs.”
“What kind of music were you interested in when you were younger?”
“I grew up in a very religious family, and they didn’t approve of many kinds of music. My parents mostly listened to oldies, if anything at all. Music wasn’t really a very big part of our life, but I was really drawn to it, and listened to everything I could get. The grunge and metal scene was really big, even though I was from a small town, and there was no scene whatsoever there. My friends and I, every week, would take the little money we had and drive into the city to the one or two CD shops that there were, and buy what we could. There was even a used shop called Dirt Cheap Discs that a lot of stuff for cheap, hence the name. It was hard to find much that was underground or not from the popular music circuit, but it came through occasionally.”
“How did you listen to music if your parents didn’t approve of it?”
“I listened to it on headphones, in the car when we were going somewhere, or in the bathroom. I even had to hide my CD collection because they’d throw them away if they found them, which happened more than once. I remember even trying to scratch out the curse words in some of the lyrics books to make it look like it was censored, but of course that didn’t fool anyone.”
“That’s really strict, throwing away your music collection.”
“It was, but I think they really just didn’t know about music at all, and they also never understood much about being a teenager, and that going through phases of experiences helps with learning. They considered everything remotely dangerous as destructive, yet despite these attempts I still listened to music, and eventually became involved in music for my career.”
“Did things change for you after you finished high school? I heard that you went to many different universities.”
“Yes, at first I floated around a lot, particularly because I had no idea what I wanted to do, and because my high school didn’t prepare students for the future at all. I guess they expected most of the kids to stay in the general area and start working. But my friends and I all wanted to leave. I went to a small community college near my home at first. It was close enough to my home to be able to visit anytime, but far enough that it was more convenient to live nearby. However at so many American community colleges, the diversity of the population was very strong, and it had many negative aspects. Some of my friends from home that went to the same school were into the rave culture, and even though I never became very involved in it, it introduced me to electronic music. The other side of my friends were mostly from the nearby city, and listened to metal – different kinds, like black metal, death metal, grindcore, hardcore, sludge. I became friends with a small group of them, and started to get to know some of the bands in the scene also.”
“Are you still friends with many of these people?”
“No, not a one, I don’t think.”
“Why is that? That seems surprising, because you strike me as a very likeable guy. Though I can’t say what you were like in those days.”
“I was different, but not all that different. I stopped being friends with both groups for different reasons. The rave kids were mostly only interested in drugs and partying, and even though I did some of it myself, it became more of a problem than anything else. Drugs and alcohol really change people, and it’s impossible to rely on anyone. I think with most of them, I just moved on and never kept contact. The metal friends, they weren’t going anywhere, and all they did was talk about wanting to get laid or gay bashing. It got really old, and suddenly I just stopped talking to any of them. Coincidentally, around the same time I moved up north to go to a different university, and never contacted any of them again.”
“How long a time period was that?”
“Maybe about 2 years.”
“That’s not so long. But I have to say, just personally, congratulations for that. Ladies and gentlemen, even though this was many years ago, I think we can give Mr. Final a round of applause for that decision. To me it shows the mark of a guy who gets it.”
The audience clapped and whistled, and everyone smiled. I leaned back in my chair, and wiped the sweat off my forehead. I think it wasn’t hot, but I had been so into the conversation that I had been leaning forward for the last half an hour. Charlie Park continued to ask questions, occasionally talking to the audience and cheering on Mr. Final, and I kept thinking back over some of the stories they had talked about. I can hardly remember the last 15 minutes of the show, and it seems like it lasted for hours. I kept looking up at the lights, and thinking over and over in my mind about my own high school and college days. I remember studying a lot, and living in my apartment on Poplar, behind the bowling alley. I even had a smoking habit in those days. Things were really different.
Later that day, after the show had let out, I walked a few streets away from Lake Michigan, and felt that cool breeze that Mr. Final had been talking about. Even though it wasn’t winter, I could feel the wind in my face, and felt like I knew exactly what he meant. There’s something special about it, and it’s simple just like it is. I walked under the train tracks, and into a Toddle House for a coffee and biscuit if they had some. I hadn’t eaten any breakfast that morning, so I was famished. I could eat lunch, since it’s almost noon, but just a refreshment would be nice. I sat down in a booth near the door, looking out the window. Across the street and through the intersection you could see the edges of the lake, with joggers running by. Even on a Tuesday, they’re still working out, at almost noon. Think of that!
“What’ll it be?”
The waitress was standing next to my table, biting her lip, with her red pencil pressed against her order pad, all ready for my decision. She had on a red and white striped hat and apron (so did all the other staff members), red lipstick, and light blue mascara. She was probably about 45, with long pearl fingernails and crow’s feet.
“I’ll have a black coffee and a buttermilk biscuit. Is it ok to order a biscuit by itself?”
“One black coffee and a biscuit, right away,” she said, smiling genuinely, and walking off without writing anything in her order pad.
I got up from my booth, and went to the Men’s room. It’s wooden (and rather heavy) door opened with a creak and I walked inside and shut the door. The inside was bathed in a yellow light stuck above the mirror, like you’d imagine in a backstage dressing room. Thankfully the john was behind another door, so the stench wasn’t so bad as they sometimes are in Toddle Houses. I turned on the water, and washed my hands under the cool, clear water. I splashed some water on my face, smoothed out the sides of my hair with my barely damp hands, brushed the part with the palm of my hand, and pulled the sides of my corduroy coat. I straightened my black square-end tie, and looked in the mirror. I took a deep breath, dried my hands with the brown paper towel from the white tin dispenser to the left of the sink, and walked back into the restaurant.