Beat me Daddy (Eight to the Bar)
Black Gate, Issue 2, Winter 2001
Update: this story is now available for free online, through the good graces of Fortean Bureau, an excellent webzine. You can read it here
I got the idea for this story one day while wandering around my local fairground -- a good pastime for a theme-park nut. There was an old-timers' ragtime band there, a clarinet and a set of tubs and a guitar with a little amp and a trombone, and all in matching red jackets, not a one under 60. They swung their way through a bunch of my requests, but it was all cut short when the goddamn airshow started and they got buzzed and buzzed and buzzed by jets. They valiantly struggled through it for a couple numbers, but then gave it up.
I've always been obsessed by the apocalype (I grew up in the antiwar movement, three-quarters convinced that I was headed for nuclear doom), and with apocalyptic lit, especially John Wyndham and Nevil Shute. When relatives nag me about not saving up for my old age, I usually smart off with a remark about not needing a retirement plan, just a long pole so I can dig for canned goods in the postapocalyptic rubble.
The title, of course, is from a great old Andrews Sisters number.
We were the Eight-Bar Band: there was me and my bugle; and Timson, whose piano had no top and got rained on from time to time; and Steve, the front-man and singer. And then there was blissed-out, autistic Hambone, our "percussionist" who whacked things together, more-or-less on the beat. Sometimes, it seemed like he was playing another song, but then he'd come back to the rhythm and bam, you'd realise that he'd been subtly keeping time all along, in the mess of clangs and crashes he'd been generating.
I think he may be a genius.
Why the Eight-Bar Band? Thank the military. Against all odds, they managed to build automated bombers that still fly, roaring overhead every minute or so, bomb-bay doors open, dry firing on our little band of survivors. The War had been over for ten years, but still, they flew.
So. The Eight-Bar Band. Everything had a rest every eight bars, punctuated by the white-noise roar of the most expensive rhythm section ever imagined by the military-industrial complex.
We were playing through "Basin Street Blues," arranged for bugle, half-piano, tin cans, vocals, and bombers. Steve, the front-man, was always after me to sing backup on this, crooning a call-and-response. I blew a bugle because I didn't like singing. Bugle's almost like singing, anyway, and I did the backup vocals through it, so when Steve sang, "Come along wi-ith me," I blew, "Wah wah wah wah-wah wah," which sounded dynamite. Steve hated it. Like most front-men, he had an ego that could swallow the battered planet, and didn't want any lip from the troops. That was us. The troops. Wah-wah.
The audience swayed in time with the music, high atop the pile of rubble we played on in the welcome cool of sunset, when the work-day was through. They leaned against long poles, which made me think of gondoliers, except that our audience used their poles to pry apart the rubble that the bombers had created, looking for canned goods.
Steve handed Hambone a solo cue just as a bomber flew by overhead, which was his idea of a joke. He didn't like Hambone much. "Take it, Hambone!" he shouted, an instant before the roar began. It got a laugh. Hambone just grinned his blissed-out smile and went gonzo on the cans. The roar of the bomber faded, and he played on, and then settled into a kicky lick that set me on a expedition on the bugle, that left me blue in the face. Steve gave us dirty looks.
Then a stranger started dancing.
It was pretty shocking: not the dancing; people do that whenever they find some booze or solvents or whatever; it was the stranger. We didn't get a lot of strangers around there. Lyman and his self-styled "militia" took it upon themselves to keep wanderers out of our cluster of rubble. She was dirty, like all of us, but she had good teeth, and she wasn't so skinny you could count her ribs. Funny how that used to be sexy when food was plentiful.
And she could dance! Steve skipped a verse, and Timson looked up from the book he keeps on his music stand and gawped. I jammed in, and Hambone picked up on it, and Steve didn't throw a tantrum, just scatted along. She danced harder, and we didn't break for the next bomber, kept playing, even though we couldn't hear ourselves, and when we could, we were still in rhythm.
We crashed to an ending, and before the applause could start, we took off on "Diggin' My Potatoes," which Steve sang as dirty and lecherous as he could. We hopped and the stranger danced and the audience joined in and the set went twice as long as it normally would have, long after the sun set. Man!
Steve made a beeline for her after the set, while I put away the bugle and Timson tied a tarp down over his piano. Hambone kept banging on his cans, making an arrhythmic racket. He only did that when he was upset, so I helped him to his feet.
"C'mon, Ham," I said. "Let's get you home."