The B string on Tom's guitar breaks four measures into the second song. He waves his hands at me and Grant until we stop playing, then drops his arms and slumps over the microphone.
"Thanks everyone, that's our show. Fuck it."
He pulls a flask of Jim Beam from his coat and takes a slug. I shake my head.
"Dude, we still have extra strings in your bag, string it up."
Grant jumps up from the drums to help Tom while I make small stage talk with the slightly confused audience members.
I realize I'm the de facto chatty guy for a band I met less than a week ago playing a bar that didn't know it had bands.
This is the story of Sweet Paradise.
Sweet Paradise started at a bar called Sweet Paradise, and the bar's existence had even more to do with the reason I was there on Monday, October 26th, than the laws of causality would require. Leah lived across the street, and one of the many small reasons topping off the large reasons she moved there was that there was a cozy bar with delusions of hipness that sold candy between its whiskeys. The bar was a few f-stops too dark and a few decibels too loud and too far away from anything at all to properly maintain this illusion, but she'd befriended one of the bartenders, so it was neighborhood enough to get blasted on a Monday night, especially when you hate your job and are younger than thirty.
This Monday was way back in 2009, when the weather made a certain amount of sense, so it was a cold and not particularly windy night, notably lacking in storminess. We sat down for our respective liquors, and Leah headed for the bathroom, leaving me to my own devices, since she didn't know better yet. I was already drunk for reasons I can't remember, and I decided to listen to the bartender and the bouncer chat, since this was back when people my age were still embarrassed about being on a smartphone for more than a couple of minutes in public.
Bouncer: "Yeah man, Saturday night, Halloween."1
Bartender: "That fucking sucks."
Bouncer: "Right? He fucking Yoko'd on us."
Bartender: "Can you get somebody else?"
Bouncer: "Dude, it's bad enough finding a fucking bass player, and less than a week before Halloween?"
I lurch across the bar.
Bouncer looks at me. "Yeah?"
"You need a bass player?"
Bouncer (interested): "Yeah, you know someone?"
"I'm the best bass player you've ever met."
Bouncer: "You fucking with me?"
Bouncer: "No fucking way!"
Thomas fucking Battle.
I date a girl with a last name that makes people do a double take, but Thomas fucking Battle pretty much takes the cake. I know a guy named James Bond, but I think I'd take Tom Battle if I had to choose. My-middle-name-is-danger guy? Fuck you, my last name is Battle. Danger included, bitch.
He's writing down his info on a napkin when Leah gets back to the bar.
"What did you do?" she says.
"Joined a band."
She rolls her eyes.
"I leave you alone for two fucking minutes. I can't take you anywhere."
I woke up the morning with the thought I imagine Snoop Dogg must have, judging by his TV career: "Oh shit, I say I'd do what? Ah, fuck it." The only difference was I didn't have a joint to take the edge off. I had to go to work at OkCupid, back when it was a 9-to-7 gig and you got in trouble for being ten minutes late. Seriously, fuck those guys. Having a gig like that means you're not available for anything until 8, and you're not really recovered from your programmer's autism coma until 9, which happened to be what time the napkin told me I had to be in a studio in Bushwick.
I bust out of work, race home to get my bass and have my roommate help drag my amp downstairs and into the cab. One high-five and one cab-driver-very-surprised-at-how-heavy-my-amp-is later, I show up at a studio in a part of town that's sketchier than the industrial district north of my house. The street cats look like they're packing, and they should be, because the rats look like they've killed before.
I get to the door, check the napkin for the pass code, punch myself in, and text Battle: "Bass player, Pete."
The lifecycle of a first practice for a power trio is well-documented. First, the guitar player is inexplicably already set up, even if he's the last person to arrive, but he spends the first ten minutes futzing with his pedals and arranging his alcohol. The bass player sets up in about two minutes, mostly spent testing how far he can turn the bass up without risking structural damage to the room, then plays the most complicated bass line he can manage because he knows he'll never get to play it during an actual song. Meanwhile, the drummer makes several hundred small adjustments to his equipment, with the kind of neurotic attention most people save for their first moon landing.
Thus prepared, everybody plays twelve-blues in the key of A, just to make sure everyone can actually play their instruments and hear each other over the drums. If they can't, the bass and guitar players begin the traditional struggle for aural dominance, ending only when the bass can't go any higher or the windows start popping out of their frames.
Turned out we all knew what we were doing, so we started practicing Battle's songs, or chord progressions, since nobody could hear Tom's vocals over the cacophony. To this day I don't know what the lyrics were.
Tom pulled a flask of Jim Beam out of his coat with hands that seemed awkwardly undextrous when they got too far from his guitar. "You got that bass shit down, son," he said after a swig. "I was worried with all the slap shit you were doing, but you can hold a line."
I shrug this off with false humility, take a deep breath, and decide to open up the hardest, bitterest discussion every band must face.
"So what are we calling ourselves?"
"Dude, your names Thomas Battle. Go with it."
"Yeah, people keep telling me that."
"Grant, what's your last name?"
"Wait, Pete, what's your whole name?"
"Welch... yeah... doesn't..."
"No, I know, don't worry about it. It's a grape juice."
"You got a middle name?"
"HUNT? Your middle fuckin' name is Hunt? Fuck man, you are HUNT now. I'm never calling you anything else. Fucking HUNT, man."
Thomas fucking Battle was the first person ever to refer to me as Hunt, and this was the inspiration for calling myself Hunt Welch to nab google results.
"Let's just call it Battle, Hunt, and Grant?"
Tom thought for a second. "I dunno. Whatever, we met at Sweet Paradise, let's just call it that until we figure it out."
I pondered this.
"Whatever, next song."
Grant Anderson was a drum machine, and not made by some crappy American knock-off business: Grant was the finest in German engineering. When we practiced, we just gave him the chord progression and had him lead the song. He never, ever missed a beat, blew a solo, or so much as dropped a stick. He heard every misstep Battle and I made, no matter how slight. He should have been in a Rush cover band, and I don't know how he ended up with us.3
Grant was also a bit like a character out of a romance novel written by a nervous teenage girl. He looked like a clean-shaven Norse god, and wore t-shirts so shredded and barely clinging to his shoulders they wouldn't get past a shirt-and-shoes-required sign, yet was the least confident and most high strung out of all of us. I think he suffered that rare affliction among men of wanting to be wanted for his mind and not just his body. He could have modeled or just fucked his way into a life of ease, but here he was pursuing a music career and scraping by on part-time service industry job.
The first practice went well. We're doing this. I have three more days to learn a set of original songs well enough to go on stage.
I walk into the studio to find Battle sleeping under one of the makeshift desks. He opens his eyes, yawns, pulls a Jim Beam flask out of his coat and takes a swig, then coughs heavily.
"Hey dude. Picked up a mic cable for you. What are all these desks and computers, anyway?"
"Oh, we're sharing the space with a radio show. Newtown Radio. Some friends of mine are starting it up, I'm helping them."
"Word. You want some water?"
"Nah, nah, I'm good."
Grant shows up, makes two thousand adjustments to his kit, and we're off. The first two songs go by smooth, then Battle gets a call on his cell phone. I take the chance to crack another beer.
Battle comes back in with tears streaming down his face.
"My cousin's dead."
"Car accident, fucker got drunk. Just had a kid, fuck man. Fuck."
"Dude, I'm sorry," says Grant. "Let's just call the show off man, forget it."
"NO!" screams Battle. "We're playing the goddamn show, and we're playing for HIM."
So, not one of us feeling any pressure at all, we practice until midnight.
I walk into the studio to discover the guy who supposedly got us this gig got fired from the bar we're supposed to play at.
"That's some shady shit," says Tom.
We decide to ignore this for the moment, and get to work. Mostly deciding what to call ourselves. I propose Nervous, because I really want to play in a band called Nervous. I still intend to do this someday, and I will title the albums exactly as you'd expect: Tic, Habit, Nelly, and God of Sheep.
Tom's in and out of sobriety. I've been making an attempt between practices to make him use text messages, because when he calls me, it's impossible to understand a goddamn word and I have to make him repeat himself until we're yelling at each other or I determine that whatever he's saying isn't important so I can just say, "Yeah, works for me."
He cries sometimes, but holds it together, and spends a lot of time on the phone with his family, trying to sort out arrangements and how to take care of his cousin's girlfriend and kids. It's a long time before I realize that his current drinking habits are normal for him.
I took Friday off from work, or made some excuse, because seriously, fuck those guys. This gives us a chance to practice early, but first, Tom has to get a tattoo to commemorate his cousin's death, and we need to shop for something, I forget what. He drags me along in this venture.
We hit the tattoo shop, Tom introduces himself to the girl at the counter.
"Hey, I'm Tom Battle, I gotta get a tattoo 'cause my cousin died and I always get a tattoo when somebody dies."
The girl at the counter blinks.
"What day is good for you?"
"Yeah, that works."
I liked Tom, but the connection we had was probably a little less intense for me than him. I'd made some offhand comment about slinging some weed among friends in college, and, as always, I let it sound a lot shadier and more exciting than it was. Tom was an actual drug dealer in an actual city before he cleaned up, and took me as someone as serious as he was, and who knew "what it's like on the street." I know a lot about what it's like on various streets, but definitely not the street he was talking about. This was our phantom bond, and why I supposedly understood him the way Grant and the radio kids never would. This is why I rattled around Bushwick with him for a couple of hours while he told he was going to show those motherfuckers. Who the motherfuckers were, what he was going to show them, and why, I never figured out.
I don't know if allowing Tom to hold the misconception that I was anything more interesting than a middle-class white kid who got in over his head a decade ago was enough of a decision to qualify as something that could be judged as a good or bad idea. Regardless, it put me in a conversation I had no place in. I had not just lost a close a relative, I'd never been dependent on the market price of cocaine, and I had nothing left to prove. In fact, this was a few of years after the moment when I decided to stop trying make myself cooler than people who don't remember me and started paying attention to the automatic efforts I made to puff myself up and act Alpha, and put a stop to them. Alpha posturing is a battle to win something you've already won or already lost, and fighting the fight only makes somebody's day worse and somebody else look like an asshole.
The only reason people do it is to compensate for something they can neither fix or accept about themselves. I don't know what it was in Tom's past that made him so intent on proving he was better than the people that obviously hurt him, but it was bad. He was a smart, good-looking guitar player and genius songwriter, and he was drinking himself to death in a under a desk in a studio. This behavior is standard when you're famous and resentful of it, expected after you're famous and resentful of not being famous anymore, and it can happen just because you're a dumbass, but Tom was none of these things. Tom was a fighter who didn't know he was losing.
Later that night, the microphone breaks. I tell Grant and Tom I'll pick up another one, get blasted at my local bar, and fall asleep wishing, for some reason, that I could still smoke pot.
I pick up a mic for eighty bucks Saturday afternoon and head for the studio so we can get some more practice in before the show. Grant's getting in later, job or something like that. Tom's asleep under the desk again. After he wakes up, we decide to deal with the bar-maybe-not-knowing-we-have-a-gig-there situation, and we head down.
The girls behind the bar are already dressed as zombies, and apparently playing the part.
Girl one, with a blank, expressionless stare: "Hello."
Tom: "Hey, I'm Tom Battle, we're playing here tonight, my friend set it up but he's not working here anymore, we just wanna make sure it's still cool."
Girl one stares at us, then turns around without a word and wanders over to girl two. They proceed to whisper to each other for a minute, then they walk back to us, still wearing their Village of the Damned expressions.
Girl two: "What time would you like to play?"
I think this is the first time any band has ever been asked this question.
Girl two: "Okay."
And that's apparently the end of the conversation, because they stare at us for about three more seconds, then go back to their jobs.
Tom and I are quiet for a minute on the walk back, until I turn to Tom and say, "What the fuck was that?"
"Some creepy-ass shit, Hunt. Some creepy-ass shit."
We cannot get through the third song, after eight attempts. Grant's at the end of his rope. Tom breaks his E string at 8pm, and has no backups. I hand them forty dollars, give them the address of the nearest guitar shop, and tell them to get a cab there and back. They get back an hour later, having managed to get a cab out, but not back, since getting a cab on Halloween in Brooklyn is almost as hard as getting a cab at 12:25am on January 1st in Manhattan.
Nonetheless, we try to get a cab to the venue, which is about eight long blocks away, as we have a shitload of equipment, since the bar has no back line, and has probably never hosted a show in its life. Since we're trying to sabotage ourselves, when the first two cabs come, we say, "No we asked for an SUV, we can't fit all this shit in a car." On the third cab, we remember we're not rockstars, and should have taken the first cab, so we cram what we can into the car, send it off with Tom, and Grant and I throw the rest on our backs and walk over.
As we're arriving, Tom is already on his way back to the studio.
"They don't have a PA," is all he says, shaking his head.
We get in and start setting up. The staff seems slightly more human by now, but still confused, so we just roll past them and start moving furniture around to make room in the back. Tom shows up and starts running the same, "I know what I'm doing, just step aside" game to hook up the PA.
We're set up. Leah and one bar friend are due to arrive in half an hour. We start drinking. Well, Grant and I start drinking, Tom just continues.
A few people wander in. I realize that neither Grant nor Tom has actually told anyone to come, and it's tough to sell any event on Halloween. Whatever. We get to a crowd of about twelve, plus the staff, and we go for it.
Tom takes the mic.
"We're Sweet Paradise. This show's for my cousin."
I learned later that the acoustics were sub par, and the audience joined us in not knowing what the hell Tom was singing, but that aside, we sounded like gods of rock, as far as I'm concerned. We had our post show drink and smoke outside with all the nerve-untangling, back-slapping bro love you'd expect from a real band finishing five-encore show at a sold-out club. For crowd metrics, we managed to get consistent applause from a dozen confused hipsters expecting a quiet drink at a local bar, but that may be just because they didn't know who we were and thought they were getting in on something early.
I had another drink and managed to get Tom and Grant to take care of my equipment while I went to my home bar with Leah and got trashed, spurting ego at everyone who would put up with me until I stumbled home and passed out. At least, that's what everybody told me I did, next time I talked to them.
I discovered Tom in the wrong order.
First, I learned he was cool.
Then I learned he was talented.
Then I learned he was passionate.
Then I learned he was a drowning drunk.
First impressions are not the longest lasting, unless you're content with judging people by the shallowest glimmer of the farce they put on in order to navigate unknown territories. The second longest-lasting impression is the moment when they do something that doesn't jibe with the automatic preconception your mind builds in order to handle new people. The longest impression is the one they leave you with right before you never see them again.
The last time I saw Thomas fucking Battle was last time we practiced together. We had to get new studio space since the radio show was running almost every night, so we took what we could get at the local hourly studios. That night, everything was taken except the stage room, which cost thirty bucks an hour. Since I was backing basically every expense anyway, this wasn't much to me, but Grant was nervous about that kind of money.
Tom was just plastered. He spent the next two hours telling us about his heyday playing around London clubs and getting into to fights with bands whose slots he hijacked by sweet-talking the bouncers and bookers. He was also consistently confused as to whether he was drinking his beer or his Jim Beam, and slurring his words. I think we got through two or three full songs. The rest of the night was Grant interrupting Tom to say, "Dude, can we play? This room's really expensive," Tom putting down his beer, looking like he was about to play, then saying, "I showed those motherfuckers," and launching into another story.
Grant stopped returning texts and phone calls, though he pocket-dialed me once a week for the next year. Tom called me now and then, mentioning we needed a new drummer, but those tapered off as he moved in with some blond girl he got into a lot of fights with, and, in the ultimate, story-closing irony, Yoko'd himself out of the band he created.
I didn't pick up my amp from the radio station until eight months later. I never got my mic or cable back.
Tom was the best guitar player I ever played beside, and one of the best I've ever seen. It wasn't technical skill; it was talent and energy. It wouldn't surprise me to see him headlining a stadium concert tomorrow, but I wonder if he's even still alive. He made passion his bitch on the orders of his muse. He could front a band as well as anyone ever has, and wrote the kind of songs people sing when they don't know the words.
But lost is the soul that doesn't know it's destroying itself. Tom Battle was blinded to his decaying mind and body by his need to prove something to people who probably didn't exist anymore. It didn't matter what he did to himself, as long it made him feel ready to wage his imaginary war.
The band would have been great, but it was too late for all of us. Grant was too practical, I was too jaded, and Tom was too drunk. It would only have taken one of us to keep it together, but that would have been a full-time job, so we just faded away from each other like the end of a Sartre play.
Sweet Paradise the bar closed a few years later, never gaining much business because they were trying to be a hip underground bar in the middle of nowhere. They might have built a regular crowd if they opened before 7:00, turned the lights up and the music down, but they never did, and the owners pulled out and left it to the hipsters as Orchard street gentrified faster than you can say "another freaking art gallery."
Thomas fucking Battle, If you're still alive, you've got nothing left to prove. Play your goddamn music because you are the best at what you do.
1 All conversation is related to the best of my memory, but I'm attempting to approximate my level of inebriation at the time of hearing, because of sense or state memory or whatever that guy in the front of the room was talking about when I was stoned in college.
2 I'll never be accused of being humble, but I'm the best technical bass player I know. That doesn't make me a great musician, or even a great bass player, but if I were six beers down and challenged to a bass-off by Les Claypool mid-concert, I would lose, but wouldn't go home ashamed, or even afraid of being beat up by the frat-boy fans who always clog the front rows.
3 I sometimes think of Grant as Hermione from Harry Potter: Harry and Ron would never get anything accomplished without her. But then I think Tom was clearly our superstar Harry, which makes me Ron, and even though Ron did get with Hermione in the end, she's Grant in this simile, so I just stop thinking about it and have another drink.