Helter Skelter, 1978

By Sikivu Hutchinson

From Rock ‘N’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe

On the toilet, Rory could make out the sounds of tentative gasps and grunts, demon beating, pint-sized exorcisms rising symphonic in the next stall.  Tan white girl, backup singer, drum majorette boots pointing sideways accusatorily.  Katy would wait like clockwork for Rory with a bottle of Milk of Magnesia thirty minutes before big performances when her stomach was in an all-out palace revolt.  If your belly’s not on fire then the stage won’t be lit either, she’d proclaimed, shoving the bottle in Rory’s face for her to drink down in one gulp.  

“Christ, I’m bailin’ to barf city. You got anything for me, baby doll?” the girl shrieked.  

Rory rustled up half a Milk of Magnesia tablet from her pocket and passed it under the stall.  

“Pardon me, baby.  Pardon me,” the girl said, letting loose a fantabulous fart.  “This gonna be where we can hide out when the Russian warheads get launched,” she cackled.  “Whole state of Tennessee will be safe as a steel trap bunker in here.”  

Rory flushed the toilet and left the stall, washed her hands, dabbed water on her makeshift spit curls.

In the mirror, Katy frowned at her disdainfully from behind, appraising the white girl’s doughy thinness in the silver sheath halter dress Jude’s designer had slapped together for the backup singers stitched in the dead of night as they brooded over late tax returns, bounced checks, clingy mates, ditched file clerk jobs, and children left haplessly behind for their  shot at the road and their deep dark heart’s desire. 

Jude had assembled a crackpot sisterhood of Fleetwood Mac refugees around her. An iron wall of bottom feeders who warbled, scratched, and punched through Jude’s bootleg blues repertoire. Rory kept a careful eye on the drama of fourth string white women backup singers. Watched their unspoken assumption of being catered to. Noted the cunning, solicitous once-overs they got from the crew. All the breaks and excuses that rained down on them like candy when a harmony or a dance move went sour. The white women, in turn, were always watching her for a misstep, a slight, a trespass in the wee wrung out hours after they’d dragged offstage, talking shop over a joint and Jack Daniels, waiting for dawn in a flea bitten trailer before they got up and did the same sub-Vegas shtick all over again, prancing around, oozing omnipotent control down to their pink fingertips in the presence of Black men musicians.

“Don’t think we’ve met,” Rory said to the white girl.

“Mooch brought me on.  Dirty goat, promised me at least two month’s worth of work.”

“If you fucked him?”

“Something like that.  More diplomatic about it.  Perv’s got a foot fetish so just wants me to stomp on him a little bit, like they do the grapes in Greece, ‘er, I mean Italy.” 

Rory grunted goodbye and walked out to the arena.  A man pushed an industrial-size vacuum cleaner across the stage as a crew of attendants in gray uniforms and rubber gloves did a final sweep of the seats for trash.

“Afternoon, ma’am,” the vacuum cleaner shouted over the din, face alive with a hundred creases.  “Finally made it back.”

“Pardon?”

“I caught you and your mama at the Imperial back in ’55.”

“Yeah?”

“Coming down in buckets and mama did a solid five nighter, kicking around on a cane but still a sparkplug.” 

“Recovering from a hernia.”

“Nothing could stop that woman.”

Rory nodded, looking around.  “How long you been working here?”

“Since they started hiring Colored. Put me in charge of maintenance ten years ago when the white boy they had doing the job rolled in drunk too many mornings.”

“Figures.”

“I tell these pups to take pride, ‘cause every square inch of this joint’s got our mark on it, whether the bosses acknowledge it or not. Gonna be nice to see you up there.”

“What’s the hourly, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Just under two bucks.”

“Hard to take pride in scraps.”

“It’s either that or starve.”

“From what I’ve seen around here, looks like some of us is pretty close to it.”

“Well that’s long behind you, sister Tharpe.  It’ll be a blessing to see you play.”

Rory took out her purse, fishing a twenty from her wallet.  She held it out to the man.  “Take it, please. Car fare, bills, something nice for your lady if you have one.”

“Good of you, but I can’t.  Bosses’ eyes and ears are wired into the stage. Besides, might want to save it for rainy days in the next city.”

He turned the vacuum cleaner back on and started working the wings, hoisting the cord against his sagging hip, the stage gleaming back at them.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to see Mick

“Thurston and Butch are going at it again.  You got to stop this.”

“At it over what?”

“Just dicking around. Miscellaneous shit.  Card’s stirring the pot. Gets off on it.”

“They like performing for him.”

“I can’t have it.”

“What do you want me to do, lock them down? We’re on in three hours.”

“Can Butch.”

“Butch? You mean Thurston.”

“He’s a three a.m. junkie drunk and a thief.  Lifts small shit from stores, lifts food, any little crumb that ain’t nailed down.”

“I never seen that.”

“A lot you don’t see, baby.”

She paused.

“Butch’s playing—”

“Is going soft.  You can’t see it and you can’t hear it.  Motherfucker’s coasting.”

You’re soft on Thurston.”

“Please.”

“Always have been.  Birds of a feather.”

“You know that’s crap. Butch can’t do the distance and now we got corporate watching. Think about what’s best for you, for the band, for making a half decent living for the first time in ten fucking years.”

“You blaming me for that?”

“Course not.”

“You want a break to ditch it all, cool your heels, just say so.  Don’t make Butch the excuse.”

“He’s a liability. Card too.”

“I’m smelling something else, Mick.  Jealousy. Stinks to high heaven.”

“I’m not jealous of him.”

“It’s about the bass, isn’t it? Him showing you up? Shit, we got Jude’s people and her white trash audience set to eat us alive in a slow munch if I ain’t at the top of my game. Folks from The House are going to be watching hard. Not the time or place to start nitpicking Butch.”

“We’re bleeding and he’s stumbling over every other note, disappearing after hours to god knows the fuck where.”

“Why don’t you put a tail on him since you’re itching to know?”

“What sense does it make to keep on deadweight with all the bills we have and the debts you’re under?” He was in her face now, wincing from back pain, a phantom of all the years he’d tried to play bass, his rock god daydreams galloping over what little grit and discipline he had. At thirty-three he’d surrendered to the drumbeat of doubt rescued from the walking dead by Rory’s job offer to manage the band.

They did their angry twostep, eyed from the wings by the vacuum cleaner, monitoring the white man’s tone and body language for signs of transgression while he watched the staff double check the aisles for trash. He wanted everything to be correct.  Polished down to the studs, maneuvered by Black hands fading into invisibility for the chanting, overspending, stoned out of their skull whites out for a few hours of packaged abandon. It would be the smoothest ride for her until the deep bend of the Delta, where there had been rumblings of a service workers’ strike at the big arenas.

“You know this isn’t just about me,” Mick said. His voice went hoarse under the roar of drilling in the bathroom.  “Not trying to jam you up at the last minute and suck you into some mess.  It’s just that you’ve turned your back on this shit for too long.”

“And brought Card in, right? That’s what this is really about.”

“Horseshit.”

“Go on, lie to yourself.”

He looked at her hard.  “You ready to go back into the studio?”

“Unless the House or some other wizard pays for it, we ain’t going nowhere.”

“After all this, they’ll give you some time, maybe even a better than decent deal.  But that wasn’t what I asked you.”

“Nobody’s giving me anything.”

“You ready?”

“When have I had any goddamn time to write or think or pee straight, holding together the gigs, the bills, paying for the roach motels we stay in.”

“The last one didn’t seem so bad.  At least you got a little leg for your troubles.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It’s ok to have liked someone, to have fucked someone other than Marie. Cut yourself some slack.”

“Back off.”

“You’ve got to be shitting me. It’s been years since you and she were together. Move the fuck on. For all intents and purposes the lady’s dead.” He paused, waiting for a glimmer of recognition. “You hear anything about that Sid girl? Anything about how she’s doing?”

“No.”

“Case closed on that too, huh? I know it’s still eating at you. That night you were too sick to go down to the police station.”

“I was drunk. Flat out drunk. Don’t sugarcoat it. Or are you fucking with me? You know, you’re a bad psychologist.”

 “I’ll stop psychologizing then. Just thought you might want to talk about it. You keep this crap bottled up—”

“You’re doing it again, Mick. I fucked up. I’m living with it.  If I could snap my fingers and make it right I would, hear?”

“Alright, I’m done.  Just stop acting like a damn martyr.”

“Deal.” She hesitated, looking past him to the backline crew fumbling with a toolbox onstage. “Listen, can you find out what the numbers are for the crowd tonight?”

“I told you, 20,000 or so…How’s your stomach been, you been taking those pills?”

A figure advanced quickly toward them in silvery Beatle boots. “Rory, Ms. Tharpe! Can I talk to you for a minute?” Lavender strode up with a commanding flourish, mustering a dry smile for Mick as she edged towards Rory. She crumpled a package of Saltines between her fingers, cracker bits spraying from her agitated lips.  “Mooch Morrison, know who he is?”

“Vaguely.”

Mick drew himself up, irritated by the intrusion.  “Obnoxious radio guy out of Ohio.”

“He wants to interview you before the show, one on one, live, in studio, broadcasts to mega millions, syndicated across the entire country.”

“I’m Mick, her road manager.”

Lavender looked Mick up and down.  “Mick Guilfoyle.  Yes, I’m familiar with you. The not quite so big man on campus in Vegas and Atlantic City.”

“What?”

“I guess craps is better than shoving shit up your nose. Are you down for the interview, Ms. Tharpe?”

Mick pointed a finger in her face, “All queries need to go through me.”

“They just did.  Ms. Tharpe?”

“When and how long? We got a sound check two hours before.”

“He can do it asap, just need to get you to the studio and mic-ed up.” She stepped closer to Rory, eyeing Mick contemptuously. “And keep your damn hands to yourself.”

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