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The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle
A life-like adventure from Cheeseburger Brown
Cheeseburger Brown's Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle

There is an unwritten law that states that all garage bands will evitably try to eject their own passionate, angst-ridden founder, hoping to leave the burden of his artistic ego behind while they make off scot-free with reputation, recordings and songs.

There is another unwritten law that states that said sensitive founder will then spend months or even years harbouring elaborate fantasies of revenge against his disloyal former cohort, becoming even more embittered with every success the band achieves.

Very occasionally, the spirited underdog gets his chance to get even. Once in a blue moon, he is able to put one of his malevolent daydreams into action, and set right the scales of teen justice.

This is the story of how I helped my friend Red Vicious do just that.

My Girlfriend Gets More Pussy Than I Do

I have heard it said that one day this planet's magnetic field will undergo a profound and sudden reversal of polarity, unleashing tidal waves and earthquakes, and causing microwave ovens all over the world to go on the fritz.

I'm not sure about that, but I do know this: when I was in high school, my girlfriend's sexual orientation underwent a profound and sudden reversal of polarity. There were no tidal waves, but I still felt a bit shook up. "So that's why she had her hair cut like that," I said to myself.

I was cut loose. I was not given a gold watch for my years of service. And, as can happen after the end of a multi-year relationship, I found myself seemingly abandoned, adrift between social circles with torn loyalties.

I wasn't even sure what kids did for fun. I mean, I didn't go clubbing or stay out all night at drunken parties, because these are things that teenagers do to try to get laid. Why order out when you've got room-service? We didn't shoulder-tap outside the beer store, or smoke up in parks. Bean and I had spent our weekends at private house parties hosted by a rich lesbian whose parents were always travelling, with a cliquish group of self-satisfied art-wankers.

This all goes to say: when I was cut loose, I was cut loose. I lost my girl, my social circle, my haunts -- all in one turn.

"It's time for a new Cheeseburger Brown," I said. "Wheretofore I have been a burger of peace, from this day forward the skies will be pierced with my fell voice of cheesy chaos."

I smoked my first cigarette on the lawn outside our school, dizzy and a bit sick, my fingers feeling tingly and fat. Years before, someone had spray-painted the words TEENAGE WASTELAND on the broad south wall of Butcher-of-the-Somme Secondary School, and the custodians had, in an effort to erase the graffiti, made it permenant by sandblasting only the painted bricks. At the base of wall writhed a red-headed boy in denim and plaid rags, throwing some kind of private tantrum at the sky.



"What's up with Red Vicious?" I asked the girl who gave me the cigarette. She was a pretty and buxom Turkish sprite from my life drawing class, and it dawned on me that I was probably flirting with her by bumming a smoke and standing around with her. Inexpert in flirtation, I was surprised by this realisation. (Simultaneously I wondered if, as a Turk, she was very hairy under her clothes.)

"He got kicked out of his own band," she informed me.

I watched him lying on the asphalt, punching the air. "He doesn't seem to be taking it very well."

"No," she agreed, drawing on her smoke. "Poor freak."


From Royals to Rebel

Red Vicious had experienced some severe culture shock when he had first arrived at our public school all dolled up in his private school Sunday best. He kept his red hair cropped short, combed neat. He tucked in his shirt, he pulled up his pants, he wore a tie. (Inside his locker: pictures of the Windors. Seriously.) In our major class, he painted stilted geometric compositions, over which he blushed and stuttered painfully when critiqued.

He blossomed sometime the following summer, returning to school the next year with scraggly locks in his face, torn clothes and a considerably less socially-minded, conscientious attitude. "Fuck everything," he told people.

His major class contributions became garish found-object collages of shellaqed refuse, stained paper and soiled photographs. He switched from briefs to boxers. He started a punk rock band, and became a wild man on stage. He screamed and hooted and hollered, and broke his arm crowd-surfing into a pillar at a local underage speakeasy. He didn't care about anything. He was Red Vicious.

Red Vicious' uncle worked at a minor music label, and he agreed to pass along the band's tape to the right people. The right people called the band's drummer, who was the listed contact inside the cassette's cover. "We're not crazy about the vocals," the recording label representative told the drummer.

To the drummer, this provided no conundrum: cut Vicious loose, keep his material, have a chance at impressing a minor record label.

Ta-dah!

...And so, lying on the cool autumn asphalt outside the school, Red Vicious gave the sky the finger and muttered something about "thieving bastards" before he noticed me standing over him.

"What?" sneered Red Vicious from the ground.

I noticed that he was clutching a mitten for some reason. The wall behind us continued to proclaim TEENAGE WASTELAND in letters ten feet tall. I put out my cigarette and smooshed it with my foot, awkwardly.

"Wanna get some beer?" I asked.


Punk Rock Puberty

Red Vicious and I became fast friends. Though he was unemployed, I worked at an office of lazy peace activists, calling people from petitions to bother them about donating money which largely went to paying ourselves and our hippie overlords. With these proceeds I bought tobacco, hashish and beer for Red Vicious and I. "We're going to need a scene," he told me in the small hours of one morning, as we kicked our beer bottles around a sandbox in the park. "You know -- groupies."

"Don't you need a band to have groupies?"

"Yeah, maybe," he said, dragging on his smoke. "Maybe we could invent a band, get some groupies, and then just get rid of the band." He sighed. "The band is too much trouble, man."

And so the new band came and went, living and dying over the course of one Battle of the Bands concert played out in the downtown square. Like most of the acts that night, we were terrible. We were a nine piece folk-punk explosion of acoustic noise that never should have seen the light of day. We were called Soylent Green.



"Band practices" after that point became relaxed, nebulous social affairs where I marvelled at Red Vicious' power to tame women with a guitar. There was Twinkie the expensively dressed pseudo-hippie who thought her crush on Red Vicious was a secret (harmony vocals); Harpie the sharp featured, sharp witted minx we saw give public head to some British guy at a big summer party (cello); Littlestar, the buxom blonde with bosoms to spare (lead vocals); Heavylids, the slow but friendly girl who loved animals (tamborine); Curvy, the exotic half-Israeli half-Indian shy giggler (extra tamborine); Indigo, the easy-going smiling blonde with crooked teeth (go-go dancer); and, last and least, Ire the gay drunken red-headed landscaper (autoharp).

One day Ire said, "I don't think I'm coming to band practise anymore. All you guys do is get drunk and flirt with the girls."

"It's a shame to lose you," said Red Vicious.

Without Ire's landscaping truck to haul us around, we were forced to find new means of transportation. Sometimes I would borrow my mom's car, which Red Vicious preferred because it had a CD player. The first time I picked him up he grabbed my CD case and flipped through it eagerly. "What've you got?"

"Er," I said. "Let's just put on one of your CDs."

"What is this shit? Rimjob-Gorbachev?"

"Rimsky-Korsakov."

"Never heard of him." Red dug through his battered and soiled knapsack, eventually pulling out a disc. He fed it into the player as I drove, and cranked up the volume. "This is the New York Dolls. They rock."



And so began my punk rock education, from The Buzzcocks to the Sex Pistols, thrumming through my mother's aging BMW as we did the milk run around the city, picking up our girls for another evening of mock rehearsal and partying.



"What's this?" Red asked, holding up the gem of my teenage collection.

"That's the 1968 recording of Karajan conducting the Berliner in Beethoven's Ninth. It's my favourite version. I got it in Paris."

"Which one is Beethoven's Ninth?"

"You know -- er," I stammered, clearing my throat awkwardly. "Freude schoner Gotterfunken, tochter aus Elysium; wir betreten feuer-trunken, Himmlische dein Heiligtum!"

"Hey, that's like A Clockwork Orange," said Red. "We should sing that when we smash stuff."



That night, while we were getting the girls drunk in the seedy backroom of a downtown falafel joint, I put my head down on the table to regain my balance when Red Vicious seized me from behind and drove a hot safety-pin through my earlobe. I shouted and startled, but the wiry runt held me in place until he'd recaught the clasp. "There!" he announced as I straightened, dabbing at my bloody ear. "Now you're a real punk."

"Jesus Red, that fucking smarts," I said irritably.

"Holy shit, Red!" cried the girls, gathering around me to putter over the site of my assault.

"You need another drink, my friend!" crooned the grinning Indian behind the bar, laughing. The long ash of his cigarette fell into his drink with a hiss. "Oh for shit," he muttered.

The year wound by. By snow and rain, we drank and smashed and tomfooled. We swapped flirtations back and forth and in circles, and our girls no longer felt obliged to bring instruments to our get-togethers (though we lost Littlestar, who had been in it for the singing, not the hanky-panky). We made a bong out of spare plumbing parts, we hosted a rock show and stole all of the proceeds, we pissed in the ice cube trays at parties, we smoked the girls until they puked, we slept not at all and studied even less...

All in all, it was a slice of teenagedom experienced that I had previously felt left out from. "What a year it's been," I said to Red over warm beer and stale pizza in the grey light of dawn. "You've given me so much."

"Every teen needs nihilism," said Red Vicious.

"That's true," I agreed. "And now I think it's time for me to give something back."

"What do you mean?"

"I've been thinking about the way those guys in your old band screwed you over."

"Yeah?"

"Well," I said, lighting a mangled cigarette. "I have a plan."


Congratulations, Sucker

The details were worked out in the dark rear of the dirty falafel bar. It all hinged on the analogue master of the band's recording session that Red Vicious still had in his possession. "But what good can it do us? They don't want the master back, man. They don't care. They have new material now."

"We're going to make them want it back."

The plump waitress brought us a pitcher, and I outlined the first steps to Red and the girls. "A year and a half ago Red sent his uncle's minor music label the band's first album, and there was some interest, right? Well, the minor music label is going to call Drummer back." I turned to the girls. "Curvy, you're the secretary. Harpie, you're the promotions manager. Now let's nail down what we're going to say."

The call was placed with Twinkie's cellular. The Indian owner turned off the jukebox, and lit up a smoke to listen in.

Curvy: "Hello, is this Mr Drummer? Hi Drummer, I'm calling from Minor Record Label. You spoke with one of our reps last year, I think. That's right. I'm calling on behalf of Ms Harpie, our promotions manager, who's organising our local talent contest this year in partnership with CKXX-FM -- every year we put together a compilation disc of emerging Toronto bands, and we're wondering if you'd like a chance to audition. Super. Can you receive a fax? I want to send this entry form off to you right away."

Red Vicious shot pool with Heavylids while the falafel-hole owner and I fed the bogus entry form into his ancient biege facsimile. Within moments it was faxed back, signed by the drummer as a representative of the band. "Congratulations, sucker," I said, chuckling.

Two days later we were back, making another call to inform Drummer that his band had made the final cut. One of the tracks from their first album would be featured on the compilation.

"Now, who will we be making the cheque out to?" asked Curvy into the phone. Drummer was overjoyed to hear that money might be involved. "Are you authorized to handle funds for the band?" Drummer gave her the name of the band's guitarist, Skinny, who held the account for the band's money. "I have to be honest with you," said Curvy, "it isn't a lot of money. The biggest thing you're going to get out of this is the promotion." The drummer understood completely, but still wanted to know how much the cheque would be for so that he could tell the other members. "Only eight hundred dollars, I'm afraid," Curvy told him.

Our chances of success in this plan seemed remote, but executing it was fun. The girls were all a-giggle with conspiracy. I sucked my beer and admired the jiggle of Curvy's breasts as she laughed. "What happens now, Cheeseburger?" asked Indigo.

"We give them a week to stew, to get excited. And then we throw in the wrench."


The Wrench

Harpie: "Hello, Drummer? I'm Harpie, I'm calling you from Minor Record Label? Yes, you've been speaking with my assistant. Listen, I'm calling you myself this time because we've run into a little bit of a problem."

The problem was this: because the band had a different vocalist than the one featured in the cut that would go on the compilation, the original vocalist (Red Vicious) would have to sign a waiver before the label could proceed. Drummer felt confident that he could have such a waiver signed, and so Harpie faxed it over to him.

"That's great, Drummer. So once we've got that waiver signed, just send us the master tape and we'll cut the cheque for you." Pause. "The master from the original recording session. Yes, we prefer to go back to the source when we're mixing a compilation like this. Don't ask me why, I'm not an engineer." Harpie laughed. "That won't be a problem, will it? Great, great. So just make sure to get this taken care of quickly, Drummer, because we're going into the studio next week to mix. Okay? Great. B'bye."

When next we ran into Red's former band-mates outside of the school, they were strangely obsequious and polite. "Say," said the bassist nonchalantly, "you don't still happen to have that old master tape, do you Red?"

"The master? Shit, I don't know. Maybe somewhere. Why?"

"Oh, it's nothing big," said Drummer, revealing that it was something big. "There's no money involved or anything," said Drummer, revealing that there was money involved. "It's just that we might have a chance to be on a CD, but we need the master to audition."

"You need the master to audition?"

"Don't ask me why. But it's a big chance. For, uh, all of us."

"Well, I'll think about it," drawled Red Vicious.

The drummer furrowed his brow. The bassist spat. "What do you mean you'll think about it? This is fucking important, man."

"You guys were pretty big assholes to me," said Red simply. "Unless you want to sweeten the deal, you'll just have to wait for me to think it over."

"We don't have time for this. We need an answer now, man," warned the tall bassist.

"Eat shit," suggested Red.


The Brawl

That night Red Vicious took a call at home from the guitarist, a spindly, soft-spoken fellow with long, girlish fingers. Skinny was prepared to offer Red a hundred dollars in exchange for signing the waiver and handing over the master tape. Replied Red: "I'm sorry man, but the price is four hundred."

The next day at school Bassist and Drummer confronted Red Vicious and I in the abandoned blue hall by the English wing. The bassist opened the parley diplomatically. "You're fucking insane, Red!"

"Four hundred or nothing," said Red evenly. "Fuckwad," he added.

Bassist shoved Red Vicious up against a bank of lockers, but Red just laughed. "This isn't helping your case," he said.

The bell rang, and the moment broke. Red and I slipped into the stairwell and disappeared into the inter-class crowd. "What's your fifth period?" I asked.

"Smoking hash in the park," said Red.

"Let's go."

Since the boys were nice and riled up, I judged it was high time for Ms Harpie to start getting impatient. Her next call to Drummer emphasized that if they couldn't make the timeline, the next band on the roster would be featured on the compilation album instead. "I don't want to have to do that," Harpie told Drummer. "But deadlines are deadlines."

Another call from the polite liason. "I'm really sorry about how Bassist acted," Skinny assured Red on the phone. He said they were prepared to make a deal, and requested a meeting at a local doughnut shop with a French name. "I can't go, but Bassist promised me he wouldn't be an ass," said Skinny.

So Red Vicious and I drove his dad's station-wagon to the French-named doughnut shop as the tape player warbled and shuddered under the noise of the Pistols' Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle. "It's a swindo!" screamed Red Vicious as we swept into the slushy parking lot.



We lit our smokes, and walked in two abreast through the double-doors. My ear, infected where Red had pierced it, throbbed as my heartrate went up. Three tall boys sat at a round table: Bassist, Drummer, and New Singer. Red Vicious and I sat down opposite the triad. The unsigned waiver lay in the middle of the table. "Hi," said Red.

"We're here to be reasonable," said Bassist.

"We want to level with you," said Drummer. "The fact of the matter is, we are getting some money out of this. But we're only getting four hundred bucks. So, if we give you four hundred, we get nothing. And we don't think that's really fair."

"We want what's fair," said Bassist.

A little Chinese man with a broom came by and took our orders. When he left Drummer said, "We're prepared to offer you two hundred and fifty bucks, if you'll sign this thing and hand over the master." Drummer's eyes flitted over to Red's backpack. "Did you bring it?"

"Yes," lied Red.

The little Chinese man arrived with Red's coffee and my tea. Red stirred a grotesque amount of sugar into his cup. I tried to sip my tea, but it was too hot to drink.

"So can we have it, or what?" asked Drummer. New Singer hid behind his hair.

Red smoked for a moment, and considered his coffee. "No, I don't think so. You guys are dicks. Give me four hundred or I'm walking out now."

"Look," said the Bassist, turning pink, "we're trying to be reasonable here. We want to be fair."

"What do you think, Cheeseburger Brown?" Red asked, turning to me.

"I think they've been flexible," I said slowly, smiling in turn at the flare-nostriled giants. "And I think we should be flexible, too."

"You're right, man," said Red, nodding. He turned back to the band. "Three fifty."

"Three fifty?" echoed Bassist incredulously. Through gritted teeth he added: "We're trying to be reasonable here, you dipshit!" He pounded the table with his fist, causing the little Chinese man to look up in alarm.

"Why don't you be reasonable to my glistening corn-hole?" asked Red, grabbing his knapsack and standing up to leave. "You know my terms."

Smelling brewing animal violence, my eyes snapped over to Bassist. But my instinct was astray, for it was Drummer who launched himself bodily over the round table to come crashing down on top of Red Vicious beside me, both of them spilling to the floor in a gaggle of limbs and coffee.

In a long moment of slow motion, I watched Bassist shove away from the table and come around his chair at me. I looked down at the steaming cup of tea in my hand, and then back up at the towering assailant bearing down on me. I had time to think: what a waste of a good cuppa tea!

Then I threw it in the bassist's face.

The cup itself followed.

In a frozen instant of bullet-time, I saw the airbourne mass of writhing tea slosh up into Bassist's eyes. I spent thick milliseconds watching his expression change to shock an instant before the cup bounced off his forehead with a hallow tunk!

Bassist fell back, off-balance and scalded. "Behold: tea is mightier than the fist!" I cried, wading into the wrestling match between Red and Drummer on the floor. Red cast Drummer off with a great heave, and I kicked him the chest.

"No fight in my store! No fight in my store!" yelled the little Chinese man, brandishing his broom like a quarterstaff.

Drummer recovered and jumped on Red Vicious again, sending plastic chairs scattering. Bassist and New Singer grabbed me from behind, pinning my arms against my sides and tripping my feet from under me. I went down on my knees, hard. The Chinese man poked Drummer sharply with his broom. "No fight in my store!" he repeated. "I call police!"

As quickly as it had begun, it was over. The band scattered and fled the shop, chased by the little Chinese man. I grabbed the waiver, then Red and I ran out the fire exit and jumped into the station-wagon. "Should I head for my place?" Red asked, lighting a cigarette with shaking hands.

"Nope," I said. "The time is right to visit Skinny."


Teenage Wasteland

We sat in the station-wagon outside of Skinny's house until he came back from his guitar lesson. By this time Red Vicious was beginning to develop a dramatic-looking natural black eye, but we enhanced the reality with powders from Twinky's make-up bag. Skinny was horrified when he saw it.

"I feel just awful!" said Skinny. "This is all so stupid. The truth is we're getting paid eight hundred dollars, so I'm going to write you a cheque for four hundred. That's half. That's fair, isn't it?"

"Yeah," said Red. He fished the master out of the backseat of the car. "Here." He signed the waiver against the hood. "Here."

"Jeeze, thanks for being so understanding about all this," said Skinny awkwardly as he wrote out a cheque from the band's account against my back. He ripped it off and handed it to Red.

We each shook his hand, and left. We cashed the cheque immediately. "What now?" I asked.

"My parents are away all weekend," said Red Vicious with a sneering grin. "We're having a party. A big party. A four hundred dollar party. And everybody's invited." He nodded to himself and cranked up the feeble tape deck. "We're got some shopping to do."

We bought beer and liquor, mushrooms and marijuana, snacks and mix, party hats and party horns. We ordered a cake with icing on the top spelling out IT'S A SWINDLE. We called the girls and told them to invite everyone, and to spread the tale of how the big boys of the band had ganged up on poor witto Red Vicious and I. "Make sure everyone knows," Red said; "And encourage exaggeration."

The party was a firestorm of teen revelry. Music blared into the night:

I'm a jealous God and I want everything,
And I love you with a knife;
I'll take you, if you're ready for me,
And I'll give you my life.

And come chorus Red Vicious would lead the crowd in cheer:

The time is right to do it now:
The greatest rock'n'roll swindle --
The time is right to do-o-o it NOW!

...Though they knew not why they sang. I laughed to myself between retching into the bushes outside of Red's house on the second night of celebration. Things had worked out pretty well, I thought. Red Vicious had avenged himself upon the traitorous dogs of his former band, and I had broken out of my shell to do things like taking advantage of easy girls, attending raucus, out of control parties and throwing up in shrubbery. A cheeseburger renaissance!

"Are you okay, Cheeseburger Brown?" asked Red, hanging off the porch.

"Yeah."

"Do you need more beer, man?"

"Probably," I said, burping. "I lost some."

"You're fucking hardcore, man," he said, squeezing my shoulder. He paused, and considered me thoughtfully for a moment. "Listen: thanks for the swindo."

We turned to head back inside, to flirt with our roost of girls and fetch more drink; to live recklessly and deeply, carelessly and freshly; to test the limits of our depravity and joy. "Anytime," I said.

Fin.


CONNECTED STORIES
Salty Dog East | Ode to Littlestar | Brat Punk Discordia | The Wrap Party | On Enemies | The Red Dart of Destiny

IF YOU HAVE ENJOYED READING THIS STORY, PLEASE CONSIDER LEAVING A SMALL TIP. A PAYPAL ACCOUNT IS NOT REQUIRED. THANK YOU VERY MUCH. YOURS TRULY, C. BROWN.
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