The Hit Man
When I finally managed to get through to the only decent drummer on the island he told me he would only do the gig if I also booked his mate, the only local bass player who could play.
‘Are there others, then?’ I asked.
‘Yes, well, there’s a bass player who can’t keep time and stops playing and sulks if you tell him, and another bass player who gets a sound like Tiny Tim and he’s always drunk and nasty and hasn’t got a bass at the moment anyway because he fell in a snow drift last night and lost it.
‘And you won’t work with them?’
‘Gimme your pal’s number.’
‘He’s an Eskimo.’
‘Yeah, well, they all are, you know, up here.’
I phoned the bass player at once. In the Arctic you have to be glad of what you can get.
‘A jazz concert? Up here? Ho–ho!’ he said. ‘I did one last year. British are you? Don’t like the British. Bunch of hooligans.’
I started to apologise for my heritage but he hadn’t stopped talking. ‘What happens if nobody comes? Do we still get paid?’ He had a deep, vibrant, bossy, voice, like my old woodwork teacher, who used to scale our pitiful attempts at joinery down the length of the workshop if they displeased him. I visualised a huge, bearded man, about the size of a polar bear, and solemnly guaranteed the money.
‘Look here, I don’t have time, really. Busy, busy, busy. But I’ll try and fit you in.’ I stuttered my grateful thanks, and muttered something about a rehearsal.
‘I don’t do rehearsals. If your guys can’t read the stuff at sight they shouldn’t be in the band, I always say.’ I agreed, but pressed him to spare me just a teeny–weeny bit of his valuable time.
‘Tell you what—send me the parts. I’ll glance through them before the gig, on the off–chance, you know.’ He rang off abruptly. One minute later he called back.
‘By the way—no chord symbols.’
‘I don’t play chord symbols. My parts must be written out in full. Otherwise no dice.’ I humbly acceded, and spent all night rewriting his parts before sending them off by reindeer courier. I did a couple of run–throughs with the three–piece front line I’d brought along to Greenland with me. Wished I’d brought the rhythm section as well, now, never mind the damn airline baggage charges. Outside it was the middle of deep midwinter. The place was like a populated iceberg. What was I doing here? It was snowing hard. I had never been so cold in all my life.
On the night before the concert, the bass player phoned the hotel. ‘How can you do this to me?’ he screamed, completely beside himself. ‘I just found time to look at the parts. You can’t expect me to play this kind of music without a rehearsal.’
‘You said you didn’t need to rehearse.’
‘I don’t, no, but the others will. This music is unnecessarily complicated. Are you crazy? We’ll have to have a rehearsal tomorrow morning. How long will it be?’
‘How long would you like it to be? One hour? Two hours? How about ten minutes?’ He didn’t get the sarcasm.
‘I reckon two and a half, maximum. If they haven’t got it right by then, hard luck, I’m gone. Two and a half, tops, and I’m out of there.’
‘All right. Please bring your upright bass.’
‘Are you kidding? I’m not lugging that thing around all over the place in the snow. It’s the electric or nothing.’
‘But all the things I’ve written have to be played on the upright, otherwise they’ll sound ridiculous.’
‘Your funeral. You should have thought of that before. Look—I don’t need to argue about this—you want to book someone else, do it.’
‘No, no, but…’ He had already hung up.
Once he’d unwrapped himself from several ankle–length fur coats the bass player turned out to be a short, stocky, bald–headed, bespectacled, cocky little twerp with a bright red face that looked as if it had been boiled for several hours in whale blubber, and now looked ready to explode at any moment.
The rehearsal was delayed half an hour by the pianist, who eventually arrived saying that he’d experienced trouble getting the fishing boat back up the creek. No icebreaker, or something. It was an admirable excuse, useful for all occasions. I filed it away carefully in my memory.
Meanwhile the bass player had spent the time looking at his watch, tuning up his power equipment and swapping Eskimo jokes in a loud voice with his mate, the drummer.
When everyone was settled I said, ‘OK, let’s go. A–one, a–two, MUSH, MUSH! Ha–ha–ha–ha.’
No one came in but the bass player and pianist turned and looked at me slit–eyed for a very long time.
When we finally got under way it took only a few bars to convince me that this bass player, who so grandly eschewed chord symbols, couldn’t play written notes either. On top of that, he could not grasp even the simplest of rhythmic phrases, but plodded away, more or less four in a bar, with no sense of timing whatsoever.
With the monstro amp turned right up he completely drowned out the rest of the band. The bass notes leapt from his speaker with an ear-splitting TWANG, like giant arrows fired into a huge Wells Fargo stagecoach. He refused point blank to lower the volume. All or nothing, he said, bristling with belligerence at the suggestion.
In that tiny, overheated rehearsal room he imposed himself upon the environment like a dinosaur. He talked incessantly, chain–smoked thin smelly cigars, coughed, snorted, spat on the floor, and wiped his nose on his sleeve. He was supercilious, self–assured, big–headed, sarcastic, absolutely disgusting and completely useless. There was now no time to get anyone else, and, if I did, the drummer would split.
‘Hey, man,’ I said admiringly afterwards. ‘You are really disgusting, you know that? I like that in a man.’ I had waited years to be able to say that to someone. He ignored the irony, packed quickly and departed, leaving his music strewn all over the floor. The ink had run on some of the parts, where he had parked his beer glass. When he’d gone I seized the drummer by the throat. ‘What is the meaning of this?’ I hissed dangerously.
‘It’s the pianist,’ he panted, trying to knee me in the groin. ‘He keeps putting him off. Get rid of the—AAAARRRGGGHHHH!’ The pianist accepted his release thankfully, and went back to his boat. He heartily disliked the other two anyway, and their wives hated one another. It was the old, old pot of worms.
I took a peek at the crowd that evening. The place was sold out and smelled strongly of fish. Before we went on I gathered the guys in the front line together. ‘Listen—if the bass player crosses up we ignore him. One wrong entry and I pull the plug.’ I had positioned my wife in the wings, directly beside the power socket.
Right away, during the first number, he began floundering, I gave the signal and she yanked his power wire. I could hear him cursing, twanging, clicking switches and twiddling knobs behind me to no avail. The band sounded pretty good once he’d stopped. Finally, seeing the loose wire he stalked over and plugged in again.
We did this another couple of times, and then his wife appeared and stood guard on the socket. They must have been in contact by telepathy. Now, with no respite from him the band went rapidly downhill. Invariably lost somewhere during the first bar, the bass player continued on long after we had ended each piece. Finally, in the last tune, which began with a bass figure upon which he committed murder in the first degree, we collapsed entirely. The number ended in a shambles.
Believing they had just heard a tricky bit of innovative avant garde the audience stood and cheered. During the applause I heard the bass player twang his way into the coda of the piece, like the last marathon runner entering the stadium a couple of days late.
‘Went a bit astray on the last number, didn’t you?’ he said cheerfully, as we packed up. ‘Told you so. Good job I didn’t bother practising any of that stuff. Waste of time. Your fault entirely. Band didn’t rehearse enough. Be a lesson to you.’
‘Not to worry. Got the money? Let’s be having it then.’
We sat together in the bar for a while, listening to his wife, a wrinkled old bag who dressed like a twelve–year–old, was known locally as The Prune, and who never, ever stopped talking. I was told later that, even when the local band was playing full blast in a crowded dancehall, with her up at the other end of the room, she could still be heard, braying away like a donkey. After a while I stopped listening, until she suddenly said, ‘Anyway, thank goodness that’s all over. He’s been practising those bass parts day and night ever since he got them, especially that last one. Thought I’d go right around the bend, I did.’
I rounded on him, gritting my teeth. He sat there grinning evilly at me, his blotchy, apoplectic face nicely boiled and ready to burst, bald head gleaming, eyes glittering behind the huge glasses. ‘You did that on purpose!’ I shouted. ‘You know what? YOU KNOW WHAT? You are a red–faced, bald–headed, four–eyed twit.’
‘And you are a pock–faced, tomato–nosed, twitching Polack.’
‘Hey! Easy on the compliments, OK?’
‘That does it,’ I said to my wife that night. ‘He ruined my concert deliberately. I’m putting out a contract on him.’ The barkeeper put me on to a couple of shady guys, and I met the hit–man in the middle of an ice–floe at midnight two days later. No microphones, but still danger from infra–red satellite surveillance. He kept looking around nervously, and also up. We both wore black Trilby hats with the brims snapped down, black leather gloves and shades, and looked exactly like the Blues Brothers.
‘Make it quick,’ he muttered. We had already agreed on the price: one thousand bucks. I handed him the money, used bills inside an old hollowed–out copy of Letters to a Patrol Leader. He looked with awe at the title of the book.
‘How do you do it?’ I asked.
‘I hit ‘em.’
‘Really? What with?’
‘A halibut. Nice and flat. Covers a wide area.’
I tried to speak but my lips had stuck together. I looked down at a hole that had been chopped in the ice. Something was moving about in there. Maybe it was his thousand dollar halibut.
He mistook my silence for criticism.
‘It’s all we can get up here, you see.’ I blew into my glove.
‘Of course.’ I was dubious. ‘Don’t you have anything bigger? How about tuna?’
‘Don’t be silly. Never lift a tuna. Anyway, it’s a question of price.’ I didn’t go into it. I was frozen stiff. If I stood arguing there much longer they’d have to hack me out of the ice.
A few evenings later he knocked on my door and asked me to step outside. Once we were free of the hotel he produced a large cod from under his furs.
‘Where do you want it?’
‘I’m supposed to hit you with this.’
‘No, no. You have to hit him. What’s with the cod, anyway? I thought you used halibut.’
‘He’s paying two thousand, and for that he gets cod. Now then, where do you want it?’
I couldn’t afford two grand. ‘All right,’ I said, resignedly. ‘Up here. On the lip. On the lip.’
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved