Robert Black didn’t work for the movies.
The closest he’d ventured to the silver screen: a score strung together for a just-about-straight-to-DVD horror flick: “Friday Night Frights.”
Black’s official vocation was now reality-TV score composer, but if you dropped the reality-TV part, you’d be left with how he truly saw himself: Goth composer. The closest Corinthian had come to the big time: a record release party in France, at a smoky subterranean bistro: Nick Cave solo, their supporting act.
After Mute Records sent Corinthian packing, and the other band members disappeared into drugs, Black had to retune. At a studio session, laying down steel guitar for a respected alt-country singer (an 80’s one hit wonder maintaining a steady fan base), he was asked to hit the road again. This time, it didn’t hit him back: Deep stage left, he played piano, organ and guitar on a cushioned stool, his mug shaded by a black cowboy hat. On the tour bus, lit by the glow of his Mac, he was finally able to hone his macabre instrumentals, other markets firmly in mind.
For two years the band latched onto an 80’s revue tour, filled with light shows and wrinkled rockers, happy to be remembered and paid. The gig locked him into an annual album-tour salary, roughly thirty thousand a year. He paid twelve months’ rent—in full—at the start of each tour, but at tour’s end, he had to crawl back into Borders Books & Music, to pay for the drinks that weren’t free anymore.
The alt-country singer became pregnant and Black was back to where he was when he answered that “STUDIO GUITARIST NEEDED” ad three years ago.
Square one. Freelance.
Making freelance Hollywood dollars was not for the faint of heart. But years of touring in the van with Corinthian, talking all things morbid with all brand of nocturnal creature in all manner of fleabag motel, provided fuel for his dark concoctions. State by state, mile by mile, gig by gig, he carved a dark thick skin of a soul: one he deemed fit to absorb the Hollywood hits.
If clients second-guessed his darkness, they only had to repeat his name: Robert Black. He had wiki-ed a few famous Blacks, all women who had married into the name: Holly, Karen, and even one from Ireland, Mary. Like Robert, they all made art that embraced the dark side, with matching black hair. Picky, stubborn, and never willing to admit his intimacy issues (even when he was drunk), Black wasn’t keen on making anyone a Black-neé-something. He was too busy living up to his own birthright, down to every black strand of his hair (which, when he was too overworked to dye it, revealed traces of his natural Irish red).
On his second go at freelance, the suspense started. There was always the hunt, the chase, his heart beating for the next buck: that fat royalty check flapping behind the smog of the Hollywood skyline. At first, he felt like the hunter, making, and trying to hit his own targets. But it was he who was always slain: a connection broken here, an interview, cancelled there. “That’s Hollywood,” they’d say. Black started camping out in bars, trying to conjure his now-monthly rent (even as he drank it away) from the swirl of his cigarette smoke.
There’s no pension plan in rock n’ roll he’d heard himself say, a thousand times, backstage, at after-parties, as the musicians chatted biz: “the recession,” touring twice as hard to recoup record sales lost to downloads and file sharing.
When Black found his dark corner, his niche—how could he have missed it, flipping channels?—he was more than prepared to exploit it. Trying to fit other, “respectable” projects into his calendar proved only problematic. Hashed out with a few other gifted souls (mostly through e-mailed mpegs), these collaborations left nothing but a few more notches on his myspace/youtube resume: a few bar buddies, if he ever bumped into them, but never friendships.
To the “fascist corporate fucks ruling his life,” as the DJ from Release the Bats coined them one night, Robert Black’s music fit the bill.
Now, they were footing it.
He finally had the “cush” job: reality-TV score composer, a steady stream of payments rolling in, like the ticker tape on those money market shows he watched, trying to avoid clicking on NTV, NTV2 and V2: music channels comprising the conglomerate that signed ninety percent of his paychecks. He could see no end in sight for NTV and V2—or their new, teat-bursting cash cow. Reality TV would forge on forever, padding Black’s account until retirement reared around.
He was one of the rock n’ roll survivors, who’d bucked the casualty list, and didn’t have to hear his songs in Guitar Hero perpetuity. No, he’d stick to the shadows, sharpening his musical scalpel, scraping the backs of peoples’ brains for bucks. The suspense was never-ending for them, but for Robert Black, it was over…
Stepping into the glare of a blinding footlight, Black covered his squinting eyes. He thought of the grip he’d bumped into moments before, an old drinking buddy from Long Beach. Like yesterday, he kept the chit-chat short, as he preferred to talk to acquaintances in the dimness of dives: caves, he called them. He was barely on time, a gofer handing him a pair of headphones like an afterthought.
The two contestants stood side-by-side: Dakota, wearing jewel-encrusted jeans and holding a cowboy hat: and Raven, wearing a silk black dress and holding her expression, a tense stare. This was the big show, the season finale, the canvas to paint their celebrity on: T-RON’S REAL LOVE.
The producer had wanted Black “there” and here he was, ready to finalize the timing of his suspenseful instrumental. But Black was also here for the raven-haired, smooth-skinned beauty staring into the camera, fretting only elimination, and nothing close to losing T-RON’S REAL LOVE.
Candace Reese had sent in an audition tape (Black had discovered, asking the Long Beach grip) because her unemployment ran out. But maybe she’d wanted a little more, he surmised. Maybe she’d missed out on the dorm drama in college, the warring factions: freak vs. sorority sister, sorority sister vs. sorority sister, sorority vs. sorority. On weekends, she was probably out drinking with a coven of Goths, chasing down bands like Corinthian. Maybe those days were the same as T-RON’S REAL LOVE, only dressed in black.
One thing was obvious to Black about Candace Reese: She had lightened her look for the show. On air, her only remaining Gothic badge was her tattoo, a one-inch ankh, no doubt based on “Sandman’s” Death, riding the slope of her ankle. Off air, she wore shiny patent leather corsets and dresses: hardcore, and expensive, Goth gear sold in specialty shops. Candace Reese had gone undercover—for the money, a little notoriety, or maybe that “soul-searching trip” after college: not to the playgrounds of Europe but Hollywood, all expenses paid. When the camera rolled, she was Raven, and her true self was put on hold for T-RON: a has-been white rapper, sporting taut cornrows, staring across at the Final Two, ready to banish the runner-up.
Ready to eliminate.
“Count ‘em in,” said Rich Waterman Jr., director.
On cue, Black’s cocktail slipped into his headphones: bone-chilling, back-tingling, brain-numbing: a schlock of suspense that epitomized the elevator music of reality show elimination segments: creaking metals, swooning organs, pounding drums: a meat freezer, a funeral hall, an African jungle, all in their cheesiest manifestations.
Black stared at pale-faced Raven, but with his sonic swamp swishing in his skull, his mind drifted to the past. All those shows he’d worked on for the NTV/V2 conglomerate: ROMAN’S BESTEST B.F.F., CASH MONEY X 3, and the one that
got him started in the racket: TUFF ENUFF: SEASON 6.
All that suspense music. All those hours in his apartment with his Pro-Tools, or in the mix room. All those nights alone on the sixth floor of the Capitol Records tower, looming over Hollywood & Vine, toiling over masters. All those months synchronizing with footage reels, watching contestants being lined up like cattle to be shot to his soundtrack. All that sound pounding in his head, refusing to let him sleep at night, driving him to the ear-splitting edge.
The wrestling show, though the gaudiest, had haunted him, rattled his nerves the most: Being his first freelance TV gig, he equated the bone-crunching wrestling maneuvers, and the convulsing ring, as metaphors for the industry’s hard knocks. The show’s catchphrase—ARE U TUFF ENUFF?—brainwashed him, reminding him that he could not, would not be a loser at this game. Doing bills at the end of the month, staring at his trashed apartment, or staring down all those TV execs, staring right back at him, he’d ask himself: ARE U TUFF ENUFF, ROBERT BLACK?
Black wasn’t hearing the cemetery bells anymore, the SAW’s-1-through-5 iron scrapings, or the funereal cellos, inspired by the foghorns he used to listen to, rising from the San Pedro docks: the droning wail of some lumbering Lovecraftian leviathan, which in the worst of his unemployed moods, always signaled THE END. Now in his earmuffs was weepy, wistful music: a lone, John Tesh harpsichord, plucked to Raven packing her bags, pulling a sliding glass door and walking, ankh and all, out of the rented Hollywood Hills mansion. (Robert Black refused to compose sappy post-elim music, as it was dubbed in the biz: It would bleach his reputation.)
“Cut!” Waterman Jr., director, said and Raven’s ankh swung back through the glass door and up to Black. She was smiling, Black thought, because she had procured her twenty-thousand dollar second place fee—smiling because she hadn’t run screaming out of the mansion in a fit of Prozac-fueled-sadness and eliminated herself before the winner was announced. Or was she smiling because of Robert Black—that old face he’d caught her sizing up yesterday? A face he hoped she had recognized in a CD bin, or on a late night Internet search.
“Robert Black?” she said. “Were you on set yesterday?”
“I score the show, if you haven’t guessed.” She looked him up and down, stopping in the middle to appraise his slight beer gut. “Do you want to go drink this one
off?” Black said, T-RON stepping away with Dakota for a private moment: O.C. they called it, Off-Camera.
“Sure. But not tonight. Tomorrow…at the wrap party.”
She was calling Black to her current turf: this cast of fair weather fuck-heads she had lived with—had to live with—for the past two months of her life.
Rich Waterman Jr., director, son of Rich Waterman Sr., CEO, stepped up to Raven. Waterman Jr., a silver-spooner who wanted to be the next enfant terrible, was shooting reality shows incognito to “learn his craft”—instead of going the longer, harder route: UCLA film school, with all those critical eyes dissecting him, eyes that had driven away the First Father of Dark Romantic, that one-film wonder: Jim Morrison.
“Actors can’t date crew,” Waterman Jr., director, said, with a smirk.
“But crew can go to the wrap party,” Black said, nodding at Raven.
The smirk said what it said yesterday: Waterman Jr., director, wanted to bag Candace Reese, a.k.a. Raven, if only for the cheap frisson of having something he’d captured behind his lens.
Black walked away, for he didn’t want to forfeit his hand: He also wanted Raven and had watched her, in bikinis, pajamas, evening gowns: every outfit that a boyfriend (even a Goth boyfriend) would watch his girlfriend wear through the months. He had grown so accustomed to admiring her ankh tattoo, as if he’d picked it out himself. The tattoo tattoo transfixed him, because it reminded him of who she really was.
After timing the final episode’s schlock of suspense, deep into the nocturnal hours he could only work in, Black slept alone, his ominous organs, tinkling glass and whining bows swelling in his head.
Robert stepped into the club, scanning for Raven.
It didn’t take him long to see that sworn enemies from the show were keeping their distance, and that “unbreakable alliances” were clustered, their colorful drinks aglow—like warning signs, or mixed signals.
Under a thumping techno beat, Black sensed another tone, another note: Everyone was relieved the show was over. The only worry on their faces was that wrinkle of tension Robert knew so well: when, where’s my next gig? Some of the actresses on T-RON’S REAL LOVE would be, or already were, repeat offenders: reality stars that garnered increasing pay, per second season, per spin-off. They concealed their fear, their D-listedness, with intense chatter, centered around the biz, all roads Black had ridden before.
He caught Raven—Candace, he reminded himself to call her—in the corner of the bar. Waterman Jr., director, leaned into her ear, yelling over the DJ.
Later, Black thought.
Dakota, wearing her ubiquitous suede cowboy hat, knocked back a tequila shot, T-RON nowhere in sight.
Black sidled up to the other end of the bar. His usual: Guinness, the only beer dark enough for him. Before he could fling out his twenty, the bar-back told him tonight was all on the house, on NTV/V2, Rich Waterman. Black almost asked which one, but held back.
One look over at Candace, and she caught him. Her lithe body slinked around the hulking son-of-a-CEO: Like a fox, Black thought, escaping a predator.
Candace, her drink held above the crowd, came striding over in her real attire: a corset stitched so tight it simply could not have been tied by one of her thin-wristed girlfriends (none of who appeared to be in sight). Since Candace was wearing big, knee-high boots, Black had to imagine her ankh tattoo, bounding up to him, along with her crystalline drink: vodka, he guessed, a Goth standby popularized by Siouxsie, the one name wonder.
“Let’s go to Bar Sinister,” was the first thing she said to Black: a command? He hadn’t been there in years, had outgrown the 80’s hit parade battery, the pretentious upstairs V.I.P. parlor.
“Anywhere’s better than here,” he said, grabbing Candy’s hand and turning for the exit.
Waterman Jr., director, stalked from behind, nudging nobodies aside, hangers-on, inconsequential cast members: Big Money, Six Pack, Dakota. Black tracked Waterman as he shoved his way through.
“Old Hollywood rule,” Waterman smirked, “crew don’t date cast.”
Black returned the smirk, and said:
“Old punk proverb. Piss off…”
Later, Black, shirtless, shoeless, sockless, would lie in bed next to Raven, after a long four-hour talk. She would take off her boots, but stayed fully corseted—those strings tied too damn tight to undo in the shadows.
His ankle against hers, astride her ankh tattoo, he realized she was facing the same thing all of the other women in his life had ever faced.
Robert Black awoke to the ring of his phone, Candace Reese out of his bed, her number, scrawled on a napkin, imprinted with the purse of her black lips.
It was the producer, telling Black the review meeting
for his final take had been cancelled; NTV was happy with
the tape he’d dropped off yesterday—the deep floor toms and gongs must’ve accented the pre-elimination jitters just perfectly—and he didn’t need to do another drop of work.
This was a first—no review meeting, no screening—so he gambled a call to NTV/V2.
The secretary, in a stream of sympathetic whispers, said that Waterman Sr., CEO, had actually “made the call.” They had “hired someone else” to time Black’s piece with the final cut of the last episode; Black’s mix was “grossly out of sync” with the footage reel and “Rich was pissed.”
Robert flopped back in bed, thinking of Rich Waterman Jr., director, son of Richard Waterman Sr., CEO: wondering why he’d mixed business with pleasure: wondering why he’d wanted a girl the boss’s son had already targeted: wondering if he’d walked into the whole mess on purpose.
He thought of the line he crossed, and a pun of such career-changing finality that it had to make him laugh, had to make him forget the last five years of his life, had to make him call Candace Reese back.
Robert Black had been blacklisted.
The suspense was over.
MATT SHARAR, a writer from San Pedro, heard somewhere that you had to write a thousand pages to be a writer and he thinks, between the comic book scripts, short stories and children’s fantasy novel, he’s at nine-fifty so that appositive phrase at the start of this bio might be a lie.