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Dylan, Johnny reminded himself, had repeatedly rearranged his old songs for live performance. He would do the same. For the first time in his career, he felt like an innovator. That was why the Beatles were so great: they were constantly introducing new sound effects, new studio techniques, and new subject matter in their lyrics. George Harrison introduced the sitar to the pop world in "Norwegian Wood" and within a couple years most British acts echoed back with Indian music: not just the Beatles, but also the Stones, Donovan, and even those guitarzans, the Yardbirds.
Maybe in a year every band will have an insect in it, Johnny thought. He imagined Keith Richards with wings.
But he had to be good tonight. Including Richmond, they had only two concerts before Madison Square. Concerts to learn to play the wings and find his voice.
That night, during "I Can't Get You to Listen to Me," instead of playing power chords on his Gibson SG, Johnny Jewel played continuous warbly notes on his wings. On "Baby Doll," instead of providing counterpoint to Mollo's lead, Johnny clicked, peeped and chirped.
The audience was unenthusiastic.
The crowd did, however, applaud wildly during Tobashi's drum solo and hooted when Mollo stood on his hands. But when Johnny played his wings, they didn't cheer, they didn't boo. They were just silent. More silent even than stones, for sound echoes off stone.
Johnny told himself: What did he care what the crowd thought of his music?
After the gig, he realized he still cared how the band felt. They unanimously agreed that the insect music had been a disaster. The songs hadn't been written for wings, or even strings. Sweet Lester pretended to come at Johnny's wings with garden shears.
Johnny was crushed.
On the tour bus to Atlanta, the last show before Madison Square, Jocelyn told Johnny, "It's obvious that you're looking for a new direction. I've got it here."
She put in an eight track and out came Latino bongos and percussion, followed by a seductive bassline and layers of hi-hats and wah-wah guitar. Strings sugar-coated the arrangement. All of it to an unrelenting beat.
"What is that?" Johnny said, horrified.
"It's the concept for your next album," Jocelyn said.
Johnny said, "But that's... that's... disco!"
"I know it's only a rhythm track, but..." Jocelyn said and started to bounce up and down in her seat.
"You want me to make a disco album?"
"Look what disco has done for the Bee Gees and the Four Seasons!" Jocelyn said. "Neither group has had a hit in years, and suddenly disco's put them back on the map. Think of what it can do for you, who's already on top..."
Johnny walked to the back of the bus.
Pacing back and forth in his Atlanta hotel room, Johnny remembered a conversation he'd had with Sweet Lester.
"You're trying too hard," Les had said. "You're no different than anyone. Just relax and enjoy the ride while it lasts."
He wanted to yell Dylan quotations at him: "He not busy being born is busy dying!" Johnny wanted to shout: "I AM DIFFERENT!"
His eyes filled with tears and drifted out the window to the street corner. Painted on a stop sign were the words: "Stop Disco! Disco sucks!"
One show before Madison Square.
The insect music had to be fierce, driving, and most of all, well integrated with the rock. Or else there would be no insect music at Madison Square and the next album would be disco.
He tried to make his wings sing, but they only spat out awkward drones. Something was missing.
Through the wall he could hear Mollo and the others playing KC and the Sunshine Band. He could see the future a little clearer now. Mollo's one solo album will be disco.
Maybe I should go solo, drop the Johnny Jewel moniker and use my real name, he thought. No, that's not the answer. Jocelyn had told him: "How many albums do you really think a John Henry Miscisin could sell?"
As he placed his Gibson SG down, it hit something hard. Garden shears. Sigh. Trying to make it to the bed, he stumbled on the weird hooks and pads which his feet had become.
Scrambling onto the bed, Johnny closed his eyes and turned the lights off. He needed to enter a musical trance, as he had when he jammed with the spirit of Otis Redding.
Resting his elbows on his knees, he took a deep breath and went into a prayer-like state.
But Johnny wasn't entering into the presence of the Lord. He was entering into the presence of the blues. It wasn't Jesus that appeared to him, but James Brown. Good God, y'all! Wilson Pickett! Aw, hep me! Eddie Floyd. Ow! Fontella Bass, Dusty Springfield, the Staple Singers. Hrrrrrah! Other faces drifted by: Jimmy Page, Eric Burdon, John Lennon, Little Richard. Ooooh!
Now, just a few more years to be peeled back.
The pastel colors in the painting on the hotel wall swirled into a vortex and mist poured out. A black man appeared, his hat tilted down over his bad left eye. He carried a guitar, but his face was so sorrowful Johnny thought he might hang himself with his guitar strap.
He was unmistakably Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers. The man had recorded only twenty-nine songs in 1936 and 1937, but what songs! They were covered by Muddy Waters, Clapton, Zeppelin and the Stones.
Robert sat on the bed next to Johnny, carefully moving the shears. A thousand questions came to Johnny's mind: Had Johnson really been poisoned with strychnine-laced whiskey by a jealous husband? He had only been 27. Johnny felt foolish even asking.
Robert Johnson turned his back to Johnny and faced the wall. Setting his fingers to the fretboard, he made sure Johnny wasn't studying his fingering before he started to play.
Johnny wanted to join in on Robert's playing. That would seem easy, as Robert didn't merely play the melody, but used his guitar to sketch out piano chords, a bass line, a rhythm track. Robert was a one-man band, dashing from instrument to instrument. But just as Johnny was about to step in, Robert suddenly dropped half a bar and threw in off-beat accents. Johnny felt tiny.
Closing his eyes to listen, Johnny heard Robert's voice changing. Now he was a medicine dealer, now an unctuous balladeer, now a sharecropper leading a field holler.
Now he was evil incarnate.
When Johnny opened his eyes, he was not the only one with wings. Leathery, pearlized wings rose up from Robert's back. Not like Johnny's parchment-like wings, but wings nonetheless, bunched up like webbing between fingers. Like a bat.
With his guitar, Johnny knocked off Robert's hat. Underneath were horns.
When Johnny shrieked, Robert looked over his shoulder at Johnny and stopped playing guitar. The wings and horns vanished.
Johnny's wings let out an amazing buzz, full of terror.
Robert turned around again and played frightening, misshapen chords, and Johnny's wings vibrated in fear, making sounds like Hendrix-style feedback. Johnny didn't notice that his wings' clipped squawks perfectly complemented and echoed Robert's guitar playing.
Robert howled like a whipped dog:
"You can bury my body
Down by the highway side."
Then Robert screeched incoherently and his face extended, his teeth jutting out like fangs. He fell off the bed, threw off his guitar and flung his head up. On his hands and knees, he was a mad dog barking at the moon.
Then, reaching for the guitar with a paw, he suddenly turned back into a man and sang without missing a beat,
"You can bury my body
Down by the highway side.
So my old evil spirit
Can get a Greyhound bus and ride."
As he finished the song, Robert collected his hat and brushed the carpet lint off his knees, in time with the music. Then, without saying goodbye, Robert stood up and walked back into the swirling pastel mists.
"Wait! Can I come with you?" Johnny pleaded, falling on his knees.
A bus door appeared in the mist. Before boarding Robert paused long enough to shake his head. No.
Through the receding mist, Johnny saw the bus drive off, chased by dogs. Hellhounds.
Johnny sat up all that night and, in a fever of activity, rewrote every song played at the previous concert, adding harmonies and segues and parts for the back-up singers. Most of all, he added parts he could play on his wings.
He had found his voice.
"Why do you keep rewriting songs that are already pretty good?" Mollo asked.
"I'm trying to go deeper, become more real with the music..." Johnny said.
"The cricket thing sure seems like a roundabout route," Mollo noted.
"It's just a tool," Johnny explained. "Don't you see how important this is to me? This world is filled with talented people. Jocelyn was one. But she gave in. It's so easy. You just say, Oh, I can't be creative today. I don't feel well. Or I'm too busy working. Or my family doesn't encourage me. Or there's no money in it. The cricket thing's just a way for me to keep struggling, keep growing, not to give in. If you give in, you die."
"Musically, emotionally or physically?" Mollo asked.
"What's the difference?" Johnny said. "Mollo, you've got to give me one more chance tonight. It means everything to me. I'll make you a deal. If the insect music doesn't work, I'll play the old way at Madison Square. But if it does work, I get to do the insect music there."
Mollo convinced the others and Jocelyn that they should give Johnny's bug-eyed soul one last chance.
As the band played Johnny Jewel's insect music that night in Atlanta, the crowd, at first skeptical, slowly grew loud and receptive. Eventually the crowd cheered ecstatically whenever Johnny turned his wings to them. Johnny's wings breathed fresh energy into songs the band had played a hundred times live.
Johnny was overjoyed. The music worked! He'd found a way to integrate his voice with the band. They could play insect music at Madison Square! Yet for some reason he still wasn't happy.
He had reached the top of this mountain, only to view another, higher peak. Johnny had not realized that, even if he integrated the rock and insect styles, his music would still, by definition, not be pure. The insect music was mixed with soul, rock, and blues. Excellent ingredients, but yet he had to promote the joy of the insect music itself, not watered down and converted into pop.
Now he was ready for the next step in being born.
At some time during each show, Johnny played a few songs by himself, alone on the stage except for an acoustic guitar, a stool and a spotlight. Tonight his solo time was during the close of the first set. He brought a guitar with him onstage, but he took a bite out of the head before tossing it into the audience.
Then he turned his back to the crowd and spread his wings. Blood pulsing through them, they glistened iridescently in the spotlight and the fans cheered wildly. But Johnny didn't do it for them.
Still facing away from them, Johnny rubbed his wings against each other, letting out a single perfectly sustained chirp. The only sound in the arena, it rose up through the air like a gentle curlicue of smoke. Johnny didn't sing a note; his wings vibrated so rapidly that they were invisible to the human eye. They snapped and zipped, buzzed and crackled, Johnny making up the melodies and rhythms as he went along.
From then on, Johnny decided, he didn't care what anyone thought about his music. Not the twenty thousand faces, not the band, not Jocelyn. He didn't need their approval. He had finally reached the level he wanted. Goodbye to you all.
He was oblivious to his fans, and Johnny's serenade for wings stretched on and on, matching the length of one of Tobashi's drum solos.
At this point he knew that Mollo and the rest of the band would voice their disapproval, Jocelyn would point out the lack of audience response, and the rest of the show would be played without insect music. Despite his promise, Johnny couldn't go back to that old style. Ever.
When he was satisfied with his solo, Johnny jumped up on his long cricket legs, leaping twenty feet through the air and landed with a smack on a framework holding a half dozen Fresnels. As the spotlight tracked him and the crowd hooted, Johnny climbed the framework until he reached the drop ceiling high above the audience.
He chewed through that ceiling until, disappearing from the view of the fans, he made it onto the catwalk used to access the houselights.
From the catwalk, Johnny Jewel escaped onto the roof and then fled from the screaming thousands into the cool night.
"You better be back before we leave for New York!" Jocelyn shouted, unheard.
"I won't get to get what I'm after - 'Til the day I die."
Johnny rested unseen atop an 18-wheeler full of office furniture, and rode the truck as it snaked its way through Atlanta and then headed north through Georgia.
When the truck stopped at an all-nite diner, Johnny slipped off into the darkness, crossing over fields until he reached an abandoned quarry. He walked over the moonlit cement flowstone, then over the jagged rock, careful not to trip over any remnants of blasting wire. Then he wandered around a conical mound of broken stone waiting to be crushed, until he reached the quarry wall, thirty feet high. Facing a V-shaped hollow in the wall, he started to saw on his wings, the quarry cliff amplifying his sound.
When he turned around, he realized that several tiny real crickets had gathered around him, watching and listening quietly. Smiling at them, he compared their little bodies, less than an inch long, to his own.
A tractor tire was nearby, spilling out stagnant water. He slurped from it, watching the crickets, expecting them to flee.
They stayed and others came.
A cricket chirped.
Johnny lifted his wings to their proper forty-five degree angle and twilled, just one chirp. Some of the crickets, in unison, buzzed in reply. He played for them for a few minutes, repeating some of the more fantastic music he had played in Atlanta earlier than night. Then he listened for their response.
A male cricket, Johnny learned, had only four songs. The first was an everyday song used to attract a passing female. When she arrived, he played a courtship song, accompanied by a jerky dance. Then he played a brief song indicating that he was about to mount, which he did to a "copulation" song. Johnny was amazed to find that all these songs were simple compared to what he was doing. Each song was a single phrase repeated over and over, phrases distinguished only by the number of pulses in each chirp and the length of silence between chirps.
Johnny showed the crickets that music need not be monotonous. They could mix chirps with trills and pauses, injecting clicks and whirrs into the melodies as counterpoints.
When Johnny showed them how to use leaves as amplifiers, several males flew off in search of the biggest leaves.
Johnny felt alive. This was the best night of his life. He had felt a surge of power when he had played his solo that evening, and now he felt a musical communion he had never experienced before. He had found not only his voice, but its echo. He was 27.
As the night wore on and crickets kept singing lullabies to him, Johnny grew weary and cold. He was exhausted.
As he played he thought of the evening walks he had taken as a child, stopping to listen to the crickets, grasshoppers and katydids singing in the fields. The summer after sixth grade. There had been a cacophony of sound, as if his head were a bean inside a maraca. The cicadas sang during the day, the crickets at night. Then, in late July, the crickets fell suddenly silent, but the songs re-emerged in August. Johnny wondered why. He always assumed that it was a second generation rising up that year, but one month seemed like an awfully short life cycle.
As Johnny leaned back against the cold rock and closed his sleepy eyes, he listened to the crickets singing and realized that the one-month gap represented the annual passing of one species of cricket; they had sung their songs, found their loves, consummated their passions, left their eggs in the soil for the next year, and died. The August singers were an entirely different group.
Johnny again thought of the walks as a child. As the days got cooler, the cricket population was decimated, leaving fewer and fewer singers. Finally there was only one lonely cricket left out of the millions, singing sweetly every night for a lover who would never come.
Soon after that, there was only silence.
That night, the killing frost came to the quarry.
Being of the mind of a cricket, Johnny wanted to dig himself a burrow, scraping at the earth with his forelegs and moving dirt clumps with the pincers of his mandibles, excavating to find warmth deep in the soil. As he was in a stone quarry, he could not dig. Although exhausted, he considered jumping away. Then he looked at the crickets around him, moving and singing ever more slowly, the night air wrapped around them like a cold dream. The frost would kill them tonight, and their eggs laid in the ground would hatch in the spring, their children never knowing their parents and never hearing their parents' variations on Johnny's music. After this historic, unrecorded jam session, the crickets would die tonight, along with the music.
Shivering as he played, Johnny gathered the crickets to himself. Forget Jocelyn. Forget the band. Forget the fans. Forget Madison Square.
Everytime he played a note, Johnny felt his blood snake through his wings and his body heat dissipate into the cold air. That night he would stay with the crickets in the quarry. It was an artistic decision.
Two teenager boys, skipping school to shoot beer cans in the quarry, found Johnny Jewel the next morning, curled up among the rocks, covered with the bodies of dozens of dead crickets.
During the next two weeks Johnny recovered from dehydration and hypothermia at Emory Hospital. Jocelyn asked the band if they could play Madison Square with a stand-in for Johnny. "Nobody will see his face if he's wearing the mask," she said. Mollo forced her to cancel the show and refund the tickets.
It was in the hospital that Johnny learned about Dr. Gaudio's deception. Surgeons carefully removed the wings, excised the implants and stripped off the layers of microporous plastic.
When he thought of all the crickets in that quarry, singing with him all night long until they were killed by the cold, he cried. He cried for the music.
When he was wheeled out of the hospital, he was angry at the fans, at the band, at Jocelyn and Dr. Gaudio, but angriest at himself for being fooled. He said goodbye to Mollo, the closest thing he had to a friend, and bought an unassuming cottage in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Meals were delivered by pizza truck. He grew a beard so he wouldn't be recognized.
Somehow Jocelyn found out where he was and for a while had flowers sent to him every week. Was it an act of kindness? An apology? Or simply another sleazy ploy to get back on his good side?
All through that long winter, and through the following spring and summer, Johnny watched television. He had never watched so much before. He watched Bruce Jenner win the decathlon, prior to appearing on Wheaties boxes across the nation. He watched the tall ships at the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July. He watched the election returns that told him a peanut farmer was the new president. He collected bicentennial quarters and Kennedy half dollars. He hardly went outside all year. Mollo came to visit on Johnny's 28th birthday, but Johnny didn't even answer the door. He was playing dead.
Johnny Jewel's guitars sat in a box in a closet. He wrote nothing, sang nothing, played nothing. All he heard on the radio was disco, Elton John and David Bowie. No one played his songs anymore. It was unbearable. One day he opened his door to a new pizza delivery boy, who said, "Hey, man, has anyone ever told you that, without the beard, you'd look just like Johnny Jewel?"
Feigning ignorance, Johnny said, "Who's that?"
"Some whacked out rock star. He thought he was a cockroach or something. What a bozo."
After the kid left, Johnny sat and cried until his pizza was cold, and wished he had died that cold night with the crickets.
In the March of '77, with two hundred dollars in his back pocket, he tossed a box from the closet into the back of his VW Rabbit and headed out onto the New York Interstate. He had wanted to make an enormous mark on music history, but now he was considered a bozo, a whacked out rock star, or else completely forgotten. What did he have to live for?
When the two hundred dollars was all gone, he decided, he'd swerve in front of a tractor trailer and slam on the brakes.
A week of cheap motels, fast food and endless directionless driving later, he was in Oregon and out of cash.
But he couldn't bring himself to commit suicide on the highway. Even at that, he decided, he was a failure.
Stopping at a rest area, he climbed over a chain-link fence and wandered into the nearby woods.
Maybe he could find a sharp stick.
Hunting through the moist underbrush, he came upon a cricket. It chirped. Then it chirped again. Trying to recall the four types of cricket songs, Johnny realized that this song wasn't of any of those types. Odd trills and pauses were mixed into the chirps, with clicks and whirrs injected into the melodies as counterpoints.
This was Johnny's music! Two cricket generations and two and a half thousand miles away from that cold night in Georgia!
How could this be? Had the cricket heard his music on the radio? Impossible! The Madison Square solo had not been recorded. Then he remembered. He had once read (and forgotten) that adult crickets aren't all killed off during the winter in the south. Apparently some of the crickets had survived that night. Maybe some had escaped from the quarry and burrowed into the ground or fled to the nearby all-nite diner and warmed themselves by the truck engines.
In the spring those survivors must have taught his music to their children, and this cricket before him was a grandchild of the crickets Johnny had serenaded.
This was the echo of his voice he had waited years to hear.
He stood in the woods, drowning out the cricket's music with great sobs of joy. All this time he thought his music had been forgotten, when in fact it was being sung by millions.
He rushed back to the car, found an acoustic guitar and ran back into the forest.
By the time he had his guitar tuned he had already composed half a dozen new songs.
Comments about this story by Frank Wu
Originally published in The Morpo Review. Part One published, vol. 3, no. 3, July 8, 1996; complete text published, vol. 4, no. 1, Sept. 4, 1997.
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