We were within a day or two of finishing the record and my week-long break needed to be planned. My plan was no plan. I would stay here at the hotel, go to the Velvet Room occasionally before meeting the lads in London to commence the tour.
One afternoon, I got a call labelled “Charleston, SC” on the caller ID. I answered immediately. It was not Caitlin.
“Nicholas, it’s Billy Farmer. How are you?”
Billy Farmer was made famous as the singer in the wildly popular hard rock band, 2VS. Later, on his own, he remained a successful act onstage and also had begun producing new artists at his studio near Charleston, where he’d moved after marrying his third wife. We were colleagues—friends—and it was good to hear from him.
“Billy! I’m fine, how are you?”
“I’m good, but somewhat in a bind.”
“A bind?” I asked.
“I have a group of young musicians in the studio who are very talented. Extremely talented. But their music is all over the place. They need a direction to focus on. A particular point of view, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes. I think I do. How can I help?”
“Several of their songs . . .” he paused momentarily. “Honestly, in my head, I hear your guitar work. It would be brilliant. Your signature sound would set them apart from the pack, which they deserve, and of course, your name associated with them would lend credibility.”
“Don’t they have their own guitar player?”
“They do, but he doesn’t have the chops—he’s not hearing the possibilities of the music. And he knowsit. I mentioned your name and his face lit up. Any chance you could come meet with them? It would be a tremendous help.”
“As a matter of fact, I’ve got some time coming up in a few days.”
“You’re recording with Taylor, right?” Billy asked.
“Right, but we’ll be finished in a couple of days. I could be there by the weekend at the latest.”
“Fantastic! Let me know when to expect you and I’ll send Raymond to gather you from the airport.”
I grinned into the telephone. “Raymond,” I said. “How is he?”
Billy laughed. “You’ll see,” he said. “He’s in love.”
We made further arrangements and rang off.
Raymond. In love.
I was on my way to Charleston. Hope began to fill me.
I called Caitlin three times before I was to leave. She didn’t answer. I left messages telling her I’d be in town and would love to see her, but she didn’t return the calls.
* * *
“Raymond,” I greeted, recognizing the huge African American and former military, former policeman who worked as driver and security for Billy Farmer. Besides those duties, he was a talented bass player. “It’s good to see you.”
We met in the current male fashion of half-hug/half-handshake.
“It’s been too long, Nicholas,” he said.
He opened the car door for me and loaded my bag and guitar into the boot while I folded myself into the backseat.
Raymond was one of those people who, after not having seen them for a long time, was able to pick up the friendship like you’d seen them last week.
Once we were on the road, I couldn’t help but tease him, “Billy tells me you’re in love.”
“I got married.”
“You got married? I’m truly shocked.”
“The love of my life, man. You’ll like her.”
I saw him grinning.
“Tell me about her,” I said.
“What do you want to know?”
Raymond was also a man of few words. I knew I’d have to pull the information out of him a bit at a time.
I laughed. “What’s her name? How did you meet? How did you know she was the one?”
“Her name is Maddie. We met at the compound. She works for Billy and Hannah and we started hanging out when we had down time together. She started flirting with me when we’d see each other on the grounds. I flirted back. When the band was on the road, I missed her. And when we were home, I couldn’t wait to be done with work so I could see her. After a while . . .” he glanced back at me, “. . . she let me know she was the one I should be with.”
“She did, did she?”
“Yeah. I already knew it was true. I just needed to hear it. We got married at the compound about six months ago. It’s been great.”
“You look happier than I’ve perhaps ever seen you.”
“I am happy,” he said with a grin.
“So tell me about the compound. I’ve heard quite a lot about the studio there.”
“The studio’s under renovation. Billy’s turning part of it into a performance hall.” Raymond grinnedback at me through the mirror. “It’s gonna be spectacular. Right now, we’re headed downtown. Not too far from your hotel. The space used to be a bar. It’s handy for everyone. Billy’s made some improvements so it’s suitable for recording and performing.”
We were quiet for a bit, while I contemplated Caitlin. “I met someone a few weeks ago,” I offered. “She lives here in Charleston. I dunno if I’m in love or not, but even if I am in love with her, I don’t think she feels the same way.”
“Women can be funky, man.”
“Yeah,” I answered.
* * *
We arrived at the downtown studio around eleven o’clock. Raymond pulled into a load-out space and retrieved my guitar from the boot.
The aged, two-story building looked to be holding up well, though red bricks had worn through the whitewash in patches. We entered through a side door into an open space smelling of stale beer with an undertone of vomit. Most notable to the eye was a bar structure backed by a broken mirror, a fairly large stage fit tightly into one corner, and the creaky wooden floor had to’ve been a century old. A raggedy billiards table was shoved into another corner like a naughty schoolboy. Constructed of unfinished wood along one wall were four rooms, each with a door inset with a square window, like a classroom. The sight of Billy Farmer rising to greet us brought a smile to my face.
“Nicholas!” Billy said. “I’m so glad you could come. You’ve no idea how much help you’re going to be. Come in, come in.”
He led me to his office. “Would you like a cuppa? Or the sweet tea of South Carolina? It’s awful stuff, but I’m occasionally expected to drink the vile concoction. Or would you like something else altogether?”
“I wouldn’t mind some water, if you have it.”
Billy rang a number on his mobile. “Penn, could you bring me a cuppa tea and Mr. Trent a bottle of water?”
Listening for a moment, he laughed into the phone. “Yes, he’s here and yes, you’ll meet him if you bring us something to drink.”
I cocked my head with a curious grin.
“Penn,” Billy said. “He’s one of the young men in the band who needs help. He’s the guitar player who isn’t quite cutting it. But he’s a good lad and it’s fun having the youngster around. He helps us out here for studio time when he’s not working his regular job. I have to thank you again for coming down to give them a hand. Like I said on the phone, they need some focus. Dougie and I have tried to get through to them but they’re not getting it.”
“Yeah, you know Dougie?”
“Who could forget him? He’s a total bounder, but brilliant behind the soundboard. We’ve done some running in the same circles, let’s say.”
We both laughed.
“Well, these boys,” Billy continued, “they’ve got incredible chemistry together and their vocal harmonies are nothing short of brilliant. Like I said, Penn—he’s trying—but even he knows he doesn’t have it. Technically, he’s not doing anything wrong. He’s using the correct scales in the correct keys, he just doesn’t hear it. He doesn’t feel it. Know what I mean?”
I nodded. “I think I do.”
“He should be able to use the knowledge he has, coupled with your instruction and practice, to cultivate the advanced skills he needs.”
Following a brief knock, the door opened. “Here are your beverages, sir.”
“Penn,” Billy said. “Come in.”
The young man handed me the water and nearly shook the teacup off the saucer handing it to Billy. His face was flush with excitement as he stood next to Billy’s chair, fairly hanging onto the back of it.
“Penn, I’d like you to meet Nicholas Trent, an old friend of mine. Nicholas, this is Penn Singleton.”
I stood to greet him and extended my hand. He seemed reluctant to take it, as if it might give him an electrical shock, but once I smiled, he shook it.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Penn finally said to me, still hanging on to Billy’s chair. “I feel so . . . inadequate.”
“For what it’s worth, I’ve known people who fancied themselves musicians when they should’ve stayed in the audience. What I know is, if Billy Farmer stands behind your talent, you’ve got some talent somewhere. Stop doubting yourself and practice. Learn what you can and put it into play. You’ll get there. Trust Billy. Trust Dougie.”
Penn let loose the back of Billy’s chair. “You know Dougie?”
“Speaking of Dougie,” Billy said, “let’s tell him you’re here.”
Billy led me through a corridor to a set of stairs so old the middles of each step were worn and sunken. A sign in the shape of an arrow read, “Studios” and pointed to the second floor.
We let ourselves inside the studio where Dougie saw my reflection in the glass and smiled his roguish smile.
“Nicholas Trent,” he said. “I heard you were here. Give me a second and I’ll take a break.”
Billy and I stood aside as Dougie finished the part of the song he was mixing. He pulled the headphones down around his neck and gave me a hug.
“You cut your hair,” he said.
“Yeah, getting too old for all that.”
Billy laughed. “Better watch what you say, youngster.”
Billy was a full ten years my senior and still wore his hair long and mostly loose.
Lunchtime arrived. We were served a brilliant meal by a stunningly beautiful black woman and a white man, grey/blond of hair and moustache. Sitting at the bar, the broken mirror shattered our images like a kaleidoscope.
The way the woman and Raymond made eyes at each other rather gave away this was Maddie, Raymond’s bride. He introduced her.
The man was called Bryan.
“Nicholas,” Maddie said, her smile shining with mischief. “Raymond tells me you’re in love.”