‘You don’t want to do this,’ Bennie murmured. ‘Am I right?’
‘Absolutely,’ Alex said.
‘You think it’s selling out. Compromising the ideals that make you, “you”. ’
Alex laughed. ‘I know that’s what it is.’
‘See, you’re a purist,’ Bennie said. ‘That’s why you’re perfect for this.’
Alex felt the flattery working on him like the first sweet tokes of a joint you know will destroy you if you smoke it all. The long awaited brunch with Bennie Salazar was winding down, and Alex’s hyper- rehearsed pitch to be hired as a mixer had already flopped. But now, as they eyed each other from lean perpendicular couches doused in winter sun that poured from a skylight in Bennie’s Tribeca loft, Alex felt the sudden, riveting engagement of the older man’s curiosity. Their wives were in the kitchen; their baby daughters were between them on a red Persian carpet, warily sharing a kitchen set.
‘If I won’t do it,’ Alex said, ‘then I can’t really be perfect.’
‘I think you will.’
Alex was annoyed, intrigued. ‘How come?’
‘A feeling,’ Bennie said, rousing himself slightly from his deep recline. ‘That we have some history together that hasn’t happened yet.’
Alex had first heard Bennie Salazar’s name from a girl he’d dated once, when he was new to New York and Bennie was still famous. The girl had worked for him – Alex remembered this clearly – but it was practically all he could remember; her name, what she’d looked like, what exactly they’d done together – those details had been erased. The only impressions Alex retained of their date involved winter, darkness, and something about a wallet, of all things, but had it been lost? Found? Stolen? The girl’s wallet, or his own? The answers were maddeningly absent – it was like trying to remember a song that you knew made you feel a certain way, without a title, artist, or even a few bars to bring it back. The girl hovered just beyond reach, having left the wallet in Alex’s brain as a kind of calling card, to tease him. In the days leading up to this brunch with Bennie, Alex had found himself oddly fixated on her.
‘Das mine!’ protested Ava, Bennie’s daughter, affirming Alex’s recent theory that language acquisition involved a phase of speaking German. She snatched a plastic skillet away from his own daughter, Cara- Ann, who lurched after it, roaring, ‘Mine pot! Mine pot!’ Alex jumped to his feet, then noticed that Bennie hadn’t stirred. He forced himself to sit back down.
‘I know you’d rather mix,’ Bennie said, somehow audible over the caterwauling without seeming to raise his voice. ‘You love music. You want to work with sound. You think I don’t know what that feels like?’
The girls fell on each other in a gladiatorial frenzy of yowling, scratching, and yanking wisps of fledgling hair.
‘Everything okay in there?’ Alex’s wife, Rebecca, called from the kitchen.
‘We’re good,’ Alex called back. He marveled at Bennie’s calm; was this how it was when you started the kid thing all over again after a second marriage?
‘The problem is,’ Bennie went on, ‘it’s not about sound anymore. It’s not about music. It’s about reach. That’s the bitter fucking pill I had to swallow.’
Meaning: he knew (as did everyone in the industry) how Bennie had gotten canned from his own label, Sow’s Ear Records, many years ago, after serving his corporate controllers a boardroom lunch of cow pies (‘and we’re talking in the steam trays,’ wrote a secretary who’d narrated the melee in real time on Gawker). ‘You’re asking me to feed the people shit?’ Bennie had allegedly roared at the appalled executives. ‘Try eating some yourselves and see how it tastes!’ After that, Bennie had returned to producing music with a raspy, analog sound, none of which had really sold. Now, pushing sixty, he was seen as irrelevant; Alex usually heard him referred to in the past tense.
When Cara- Ann sank her freshly minted incisors into Ava’s shoulder, it was Rebecca who rushed in from the kitchen and pried her off, casting a mystified look at Alex, now suspended in Zen- like serenity upon the couch. Lupa came with her: the dark- eyed mother Alex had avoided in playgroup at first because she was beautiful, until he’d learned she was married to Bennie Salazar.
When wounds had been bandaged and order restored, Lupa kissed Bennie’s head (his trademark bushy hair now silver), and said, ‘I keep waiting for you to play Scotty.’
Bennie smiled up at his much younger wife. ‘I’ve been saving him,’ he said. Then he worked his handset, untapping from the staggering sound system (which seemed to route the music straight through Alex’s pores) a baleful male vocalist accompanied by torqued, boinging slide guitar. ‘We released this a couple of months ago,’ Bennie said. ‘You’ve heard of him, Scotty Hausmann? He’s doing well with the pointers.’
Alex glanced over at Rebecca, who scorned the term ‘pointer’ and would politely but firmly correct anyone who used it to describe Cara- Ann. Luckily, his wife hadn’t heard. Now that Starfish, or kiddie handsets, were ubiquitous, any child who could point was able to download music – the youngest buyer on record being a three- month- old in Atlanta, who’d purchased a song by Nine Inch Nails called ‘Ga- ga’. Fifteen years of war had ended with a baby boom, and these babies had not only revived a dead industry but also become the arbiters of musical success. Bands had no choice but to reinvent themselves for the preverbal; even Biggie had released yet another posthumous album whose title song was a remix of a Biggie standard, ‘Fuck You, Bitch’, to sound like ‘You’re Big, Chief!’ with an accompanying picture of Biggie dandling a toddler in Native American headdress. Starfish had other features – finger drawing, GPS systems for babies just learning to walk, PicMail – but Cara- Ann had never touched one, and Rebecca and Alex had agreed that she would not until age five. They used their own handsets sparingly in front of her.
‘Listen to this guy,’ Bennie said. ‘Just listen.’
The mournful vibrato; the jangly quaver of slide guitar – to Alex it sounded dire. But this was Bennie Salazar, who’d discovered the Conduits all those years ago. ‘What do you hear?’ Alex asked him.
Bennie shut his eyes, every part of him alive with the palpable act of listening. ‘He’s absolutely pure,’ he said. ‘Untouched.’