Jack jumps awake, his wide hazel eyes fixed on the blackened brick of the wall just two metres beyond the window, as if expecting an apparition. He blinks, yawns and scratches his fingers through his thick auburn hair. His cheeks flap as he shakes his head, trying to emerge from the depths of a fifteen-hour sleep.
A thrill runs through him as he realises where he is, a rundown residence club in downtown San Francisco, having arrived after a forty-hour journey from a remote beach in the Philippines where he spent the last six months.
“For God’s sake, they speak English here,” he mutters in a soft Scottish accent, bouncing to his feet on the bed. He jumps to the bathroom in a single bound. Scrubbing himself down, Jack whistles and wonders whether San Francisco could really be his rainbow’s end.
After wandering from Scotland through Europe, Africa and Asia, he feels he has served a good apprenticeship for this city of restless spirits. Now he has finally made the leap across the Pacific, back into the mainstream of civilization, and he has the chance to indulge in his main love, jazz. He plays flute and sax himself, and can’t wait to check out the local club listings and see some of his favourite musicians.
Jack dresses quickly. He plasters his damp hair down onto his skull, pushes his flute into the deep pocket of his combat jacket and goes down in the wobbly elevator to the dining room.
When he catches the smell of bacon, Jack realises that he is starving. A dark, lean waiter comes to his table and rests a hand on his hip. “What’ll you have, dearie?” he asks, “Scrambled, fried, boiled. Bacon, sausage.”
Jack has to stifle a laugh. “Yeah, gimme scrambled wi’ bacon, will ya?” The waiter wiggles his hips back to the kitchen.
Jack’s glance flickers around the room as he eats. A few residents sit behind pillars, in corners, muttering to themselves or chewing abstractedly. He feels his vitality being drained by the deadening atmosphere. He devours his breakfast and hurries out.
With a full stomach, Jack begins to explore the streets of the Tenderloin District. Faces pounded by life look sadly up at him and beg for change. Others stare into space. He ambles along Market Street, smiling and nodding at some of the flamboyant characters he passes.
He stops at the corner of Mason and Market behind the patchwork jacket of a guitar player rendering Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child at top speed. The black head sways, lost in the music. Jack walks round to the front; it’s a woman. Her fingers probe viciously at the upper frets, her face screwed up in delight. He throws a handful of coins in her case and props himself up on the railings to listen.
Then he catches the strains of a saxophone wailing somewhere behind him and follows the sound. He finds it coming from an old black man, almost buried in the shadows. His stubby fingers move of their own accord, the eyes squeezed closed and cheeks puffed wide.
Jack oozes with envy. He considers himself a good sax player, but this old man has him beat hands down. Sounds like he’s been playing since he was in the cradle. Soon the old man stops to rest. He bows, showing a thin head of grey hair, and looks down at his hat which holds less than a dollar in change. Jack walks up to him.
“Here you go, Pop,” he says, pushing a dollar bill into the hat. “Hell, I’ll even gie ye a wee bit more if you’ll show me how you play that thing so sweetly. I’ve been practising for years and still cannay get a tone like that.”
The flattened face looks up with a gleam of pride. “It ain’t just practice, son—it’s soul. You gotta feel ever’thing and give it all out to this here machine. You gotta be the machine.” His foot stamps on the ground.
“Will you do it then?” Jack asks. “Wanna earn a few bucks for a wee lesson?”
The old man shrugs. “I guess as I’s had enough here for today, anyway. Folks sure ain’t too generous in the friendly city, huh? The name’s Walker.” He sticks out a calloused hand. Jack shakes it.
“Walker? Pleased to meet you. I’m Jack.”
They saunter along Market and up Kearny, passing the edge of the Financial District and Chinatown. Walker is buffeted frequently by fast-moving businessmen. He clings to the worn saxophone case and shuffles on, head bowed.
At the junction with Broadway, he pauses and points to a building diagonally opposite. “That’s where I live,” he says, and steps across the street. The building stands out among the strip joints and elegant restaurants like stained underwear on a line of silk slips.
From the upstairs windows, ragged banners proclaim ‘Rent strike’, ‘Non-cooperation with fascist landlords’. The ground floor is boarded up and splattered with flyers. They approach a small door set back from the street.
“Hey, what is this place?” Jack asks as they clatter up the stairs.
“This here’s the Swiss-American Hotel,” Walker answers, “but it ain’t got no paying guests. It was a kinda residence hotel but the landlord never maintained it, so we all went on rent strike. That was about a year ago now, so I guess you could call us squatters rather than tenants.” He chuckles. Jack smiles.
Walker unlocks a padlock and shoves the stiff door open. A stale odour meets Jack’s nose. The small room is cluttered with debris—books and yellowing newspapers scattered on the floor, boxes of bottles, a bed that looks more like a nest. Walker uncovers a small wooden chair from a pile of clothes and gestures to Jack.
Walker perches on the bed. He pulls out his sax, which is as worn as a pair of old shoes apart from the keys, which shine from constant use. He pulls a hard rubber ball from his pocket and begins to flex his fingers around it, against it. “Ever use one of these, son?”
Jack shakes his head, puzzled.
“Keeps your fingers in trim,” Walker goes on, “Helps you get them top notes cleaner, if you wanna impress them recording agents.”
Jack marvels at the old man’s wisdom. He has always looked for some kind of mentor to help his own music unfold and suddenly sees that Walker is the man he’s been looking for. Jack pulls his flute from his combat jacket.
“Listen, Walker, why don’t you play a few of those tunes again, let me try and keep up with you on this?”
Walker’s dark eyes glow. “Sure thing, fella. Now you see if you can follow this.” He launches into a complicated riff, which Jack finds almost impossible to follow. But after a few repetitions he picks it up and manages to keep in time, although the full sound of the sax seems to swallow the fragile notes of Jack’s flute.
For more than two hours Walker shows Jack tips he’s picked up in his long playing career. Jack sits astounded as Walker displays the continuous breathing method, which allows him to produce an unbroken sound for several minutes by simultaneously breathing in through his nose and out through the instrument. His nostrils flare and the sound moves from rich melodies to frightened squeals.
At last Jack gets up to go and produces a $10 bill. Walker raises his eyebrows. “Aw, c’mon, man, ain’t no need for that.”
Jack insists. “Best ten bucks worth I’ve ever had,” he says, squeezing Walker’s shoulder. “And you better believe it. I only wish I could practise where I’m staying. But the landlord would have me out on the street in no time.”
Walker thinks for a moment, then clutches Jack’s arm. “Listen, son, a buddy of mine’s just moved out of the corner room. Let me see if I can get a key and you can have it. Call me Saturday.” He scrawls a number on a book of matches.
On Saturday evening Jack moves into the Swiss-American. Walker unlocks the door and Jack throws his small pack onto the bed. They sip at cans of beer while Walker explains his friend’s disappearance.
“Ya see, Milt was really a woodsman. He weren’t cut out to be no streetperson. Just drifted into town like everyone else, lookin’ for fun. Well, Milt said this sign out here always drove him crazy. I guess he weren’t too used to the night life.” Walker chuckles, shaking his head.
A huge neon sign fills the window, the logo for the sex club next door, The Hungry Eye. Below the name, a simple neon eye stands like a primitive mandala—a white tube for the rim, blue for the iris, red for the pupil. Its neon glow floods through the ragged lace curtains.
“Say, Walker, where’s the Keystone Korner?” Jack asks, wiping the beer from his lips.
“The Keystone? Ain’t you been there yet? That’s just around the corner—best jazz in town, that place.” He rubs his thumb across the tips of his fingers. “Cost you, though,” he grumbles.
Jack leans towards him. “Hey, let’s go. I’ll pay for you. It’s the least I can do when you’ve found me a free room in the heart of the city. Slim Hogan’s on there tonight. You know his music?”
“Slim? Sure. We used to play together in Buddy Shaw’s band some years back. Guess he’s moved on since then, though, huh?” He pauses a moment. “Alright, son, let’s go. I ain’t been down the Keystone for years, not since I quit the bands.”
“Why did you quit?” Jack asks in earnest.
Walker sighs. “Ah, I guess I’m just a loner. I tried with a lotta outfits, had me some good times. But nothing lasts for long, son. You gotta go your own way in the end.”
Ten minutes later they are sitting in the smoky club sipping beers. Jack leans back and takes in the mellow notes of Hogan’s guitar. Somehow he manages to fuse elements of country, blues and rock into a fresh jazz format, building up tapestries of echoing phrases into waves of soothing sound. His long blond hair hangs down to the curves of his guitar and his fingers move slowly over the frets, as if mapping the route of an imaginary journey.
On one side of him a young black sways with his bass, while on the other side an Asian American pushes his glasses up his nose and jabs at the keyboard. In the dull red glow at the back of the stage, a Latin-looking woman strokes time with wire brushes, her eyes closed in contemplation.
At the interval, Slim Hogan lopes past their table on his way back from the restroom. Walker punches him lightly on the thigh. “How ya doin’, Hogan?” he croaks.
The wave of blond hair spins round. Electric eyes dart round the table. “Hey, Walker, you old sonofabitch!” Slim slaps him on the back. “Haven’t seen you for years. How ya keepin’?” His ice-blue eyes flick across at Jack, hover on him a moment.
“Oh, reg’lar,” Walker answers. “Slim, this is Jack, just got into town.” Their hands meet. A firm grasp. An open smile. “Y’know, Slim, Jack here plays a pretty mean flute, if you ever want to fill out your sound.”
Slim swings a chair round and sits across it, his forearms on the backrest. “Is that true? Well, it just happens I am looking for a wind player who would fit in. What do you think of our music?” His eyes drill into Jack, who tries to keep calm.
“Oh man, I think it’s terrific. I’ve, er, never really played with a proper band before, but I’d sure like to try out with you if that’s OK.”
“Sure,” Slim smiles. He pushes his hair behind his ears and pulls a pencil from his back pocket. He turns over a damp beer list from the table and scribbles an address on the back, then pushes it across to Jack. “Here, come out tomorrow if you can, in the afternoon. You got a car?”
“Nah,” Jack answers.
“Well, I guess Stella could bring you along. I live out in Bolinas, but Stella will be coming up from the Mission. Are you staying in the city?”
“Aye, just around the corner,” Jack answers. Slim calls to Stella, the drummer, who stands drinking with friends. When she comes close, Jack goes to jelly. He falls in love instantly with her huge dark eyes, the long taunting eyelashes and broad smile. Jack arranges to meet her the next day, then Slim and Stella go back to begin the second set.
Jack leans back in his chair, hands behind his head, smiling at the ceiling. He feels a wave of goodwill towards Walker, who nestles a beer as if nothing has happened.
Then Jack closes his eyes, and in his mind floats through the intricate layers of music, vaguely plotting counter rhythms and little pools of notes he could interweave to the music with his flute.
* * *
The exhaust of Stella’s Bel Air wagon splutters like a coughing smoker as she starts the engine. She casts Jack an earth-shattering smile from the driver’s seat and glances at the flute in his lap. “It’s alright for you,” she says, a trace of Spanish accent behind the Californian lilt, “I couldn’t play without a van to carry my gear around.” She looks over her shoulder at the boxed-up sections of her drum kit.
Jack smiles. “Aye, I took up the flute in the first place 'cause it’s the easiest instrument to travel with. I’ve never regretted it.”
They go under the Broadway tunnel, over the Golden Gate Bridge and into the hills of Marin County. Stella chats easily about herself and the band. She questions him about his travels and seems impressed by his tales of faraway lands. As they drive round the lagoon behind Stinson Beach, he reaches across and touches her shoulder.
“Stella, will you go for a drink with me after the practice? I really dig talking to you.”
Stella turns away. “OK, Jack, but be careful. I’ll hurt you.” Her voice has a brittle tone. She goes on, her eyes clouding, “I don’t want to, but I always do.”
She pulls up outside a converted barn on the outskirts of Bolinas. Slim and Russ, the bass player, are already working on a piece that involves intricate timing. Jack and Stella haul in her boxes and begin to assemble the drum kit. While they are setting up, Zak, the keyboard player, arrives with his compact equipment.
Soon they are moving through some set pieces. Jack blends in as well as he can. Slim cues him occasionally and once or twice gives him room to improvise. Slim’s eyes seem to be on him all the time. Russ and Zak nod encouragingly once in a while. As before, Stella’s eyes close at the start of each piece and her expression becomes detached, far off. Yet she holds the band together like the mortar of an indestructible wall.
At times Jack’s notes blend into the clear round sound of Slim’s guitar. Their floating harmonies are enmeshed in a cocoon of throbbing bass, drums and distant, echoing keyboard. When they stop for a break, Jack feels high, partly on the music, partly from the exertions of breathing so hard. He slumps down on a wreck of a sofa in the corner.
Slim joins him there. “Hey man, that was great!” Slim’s eyes gleam. “I guess we could work well together. What do you think?” His long fingers come to rest on Jack’s thigh.
Jack clutches fearfully at Slim’s wrist. “Listen, Slim, I’m into making music with you, but not that.” He glances down. “I guess I’m a pretty straight guy when it comes down to it.”
Slim withdraws his hand, looks away. “Sure, Jack, that’s cool. You’re still new here, right? But I like your style.” He pulls himself up. “I’ll catch you later,” he says and walks off to tune his guitar. One by one they drift in with Slim’s spiralling patterns. Again Jack loses himself in the music, though at times he senses a strange undertone sucking against the forceful rhythms.
Later that night Jack and Stella lie in bed at the Swiss-American smoking a joint. The neon eye fills the room with a cool light. The tiny red pupil appears to pulsate. Jack turns to Stella. “I cannay believe it,” he purrs, “I am suddenly so fulfilled, by you, by the music, by this place. I feel totally bewitched.”
Stella raises her eyebrows playfully. Her skin still shines from the sweat of their lovemaking. She leans closer and clasps his genitals, which are still damp from their juices. Jack groans, exhausted. “Hey Stella, I’m sorry, but I’ve just about had it for today.”
She glances up, a determined look on her face, and then dips her head below the sheets. Jack’s head swims. He hovers on the edge of consciousness. Then slowly, sweetly, he is drawn into the concentric circle of the neon mandala before his eyes.
* * *
Three months later, at ten o’clock on a Saturday night, Jack stands in front of The Hungry Eye. “Come on noo, aw you lads and lassies,” he shouts in an exaggerated Scottish accent, “Step on inside. Thrill of your life! You should see what they’re doing in there!”
He steps out to try and divert a couple of young guys who are glancing at the doorway. “Come on now, lads, if it’s a good time you’re after.”
He tries to force some enthusiasm into his voice, but the boys shake him off and stroll on down the street. Jack scuffs the sidewalk, hands in pockets. The vulgarity of sex for sale has dampened his own sexual urge, and he watches the constant stream of sex seekers with a detached sympathy, conscious of a deep frustration they will never shake off.
He turns. Standing there with pitiful eyes is Stella. He hasn’t seen her for a month. After an idyllic spell playing with Slim and the band, going everywhere with Stella, she suddenly became cold, detached. As she warned, she hurt him. She threatened to leave the band, but Slim asked Jack to leave instead.
Since then he’s scraped a living barking outside the club next door, hardly touching his flute. He looks down into Stella’s deep eyes and shivers at the memory. She seems to be begging forgiveness before she speaks.
“Stella…” Jack begins. Then something stiffens inside him. “What brings you here? I thought you’d finished with me,” he says bitterly.
Stella frowns, pleading. “We’ve missed you, Jack, all of us. We’d like you to come back to the band. Can you get off work now? We’re going down to L.A. to cut a few tracks for the new album. Slim wants you to come—he’ll give you a percentage.”
Jack hesitates. He glances over his shoulder at the doorway. “Wait a minute,” he says, “I’ll get my flute.” Stella smiles as he races away to the Swiss-American. She sees the dim light go on in the corner room. Ten seconds. It goes off. Jack reappears. He has changed his blazer for his combat jacket. She takes his arm and leads him into a side street, where her wagon is parked in the shadows. Slim slouches in the back.
“Hey, Jack, how’s it goin’?” Slim holds out his hand.
“Slim! Good to see you, man.” Their hands clasp. “Where are the others?”
“Oh, Russ has gone down with Zak in his MG,” Slim answers. “We’ll see them down in L.A.”
Stella puts her hand under the dashboard and pulls out a crinkled envelope. She sniffs inside. “Anyone for mushrooms?” she asks, pushing the envelope to Jack. “I’m driving, so I’ll stay clean. I’ll be your control.”
Jack smiles. Five minutes ago he was shouting inanities at a depressing Saturday night, and now he’s getting high, on his way down the Pacific Coast to record in the City of Angels. He blows a kiss out of the window to the spirit of San Francisco, the city that turns events around so fast.
He chews at the tough stems and conical caps. They seem as old as fossils. The acrid taste trickles around the back of his tongue. He passes them back to Slim, who takes a few then returns them. Jack looks dubiously at the remaining pile of gnarled stems.
“Go on,” Stella encourages, “a high’s a high, ain’t it?” Jack shrugs and continues chewing. The loaded wagon floats up onto the freeway and speeds between the rooftops. The streetlights flash by, counting a rapid beat. From the radio, the strains of jazz filter through the hiss of static.
“Hey!” Slim jumps forward, excited. “Let’s go down Highway One. We don’t have to be there until three tomorrow afternoon. We can stop off at the coast at dawn and get into the rocks, the sea.” Stella and Jack agree.
Within five minutes, Jack feels the unmistakable signs of a trip coming on. First a warm, ultra-sensitive vibration in the back of his throat. Then an outward pressure on his skull, as if his brains are trying to expand.
He giggles at the stream of cars doing a steady 55 miles per hour—the conveyor belt mentality. For a moment he feels that they are all motionless while the world rolls by beneath them.
Then suddenly, like a rocket taking off, his thoughts begin to race at ten times their normal speed—intertwining, stretching out to the limits of imagination, then burning out. His body tingles and his senses seem to drop away their veils.
Behind him, Slim sniggers. “Hey, this is some trip, huh?”
“Uh yeah,” Jack manages, “but talk about strong! I’ve never got off so fast or so far.”
Slim cackles, on the verge of cascading laughter. Jack glances at Stella; she seems suddenly a hundred yards away from him. He relaxes his vision, watches her float back to within a few feet of him. Her face flickers in the passing headlights.
As Jack watches, her features begin to shimmer, leaving a spectrum of trails around her profile. He turns back to the road ahead. The trails become stronger, headlights coming at them like blazing searchlights, taillights moving away like rivers of blood.
Stella veers off the freeway and across the peninsula. The coast road is virtually deserted. A waxing moon casts a silver sheen over the dark sea. The drive in the dark reassures Jack.
When they pass through Santa Cruz, he no longer feels threatened by the neon glare. This time he wallows in the brilliance of the signs. He enters a paradisal Hollywood of the mind, where neon palm trees sprout and Disneyland characters play on every corner.
Suddenly, a fuse blows in his brain. The trails return to his vision, one image building up on the next until he races through a frantic blur of colour. He closes his eyes but the vision persists. For a moment he panics, thinking his sight is burning out, overcharged. For sure there is something strange in those mushrooms, or deep inside himself that they have released.
The word ‘overdose’ flashes through his brain, a word without meaning, a three-syllable mantra to chant at the night. He pulls his feet up onto the seat, snuggles his knees against his chin.
A warm voice comes from behind, a hand on his shoulder. “It’s alright. Hang on there, man. We’ll take a break soon.” Jack nods his head, his breath short and shallow.
The truck drones on for a while, but suddenly Jack buries his face in his hands. “Please stop,” he hears himself saying. The words echo in his brain. Stella pulls into a rest area overlooking the sea. She smiles at him. In the curious shadows, her teeth seem filed.
He hears Slim’s voice, then Stella’s, but understands nothing. Their voices also trail, overlapping each other, words becoming a meaningless accumulation of vowels and consonants.
Jack swings the door open and steps out. He bends double to touch his toes and breathes deep. He stumbles to a rock, passing a sign saying ‘Big Sur’, and sits down, staring out across the sea. There’s something familiar about the name to Jack; isn’t Big Sur where that Dharma-Bum Jack Kerouac went mad? Jack sniggers to think he might be following in his hero’s footsteps.
He looks westwards. Iridescent trails shimmer over the surface of the sea where the moon is reflected. Sucking and hissing noises of waves breaking on the beach swim through Jack’s head. Suddenly he feels a touch on his shoulder and looks up.
He sees his own face leering down at him, the pupils glowing red. An admonishing finger fills his vision, wagging like a pendulum. Then the figure moves away, gives a small wave and disappears among the rocks.
Jack freezes with fear, but a kaleidoscope of images continues rushing through his brain. He’s incapable of moving. His body feels as heavy as a rock. Dropping his face into his hands, he allows himself to be dragged through a magic theatre of the mind.
He’s driving at breakneck speed down a freeway over an empty plain. Innumerable exits flash by, each with a white question mark on the signboard. As he passes each one, he has the feeling that he should have taken it.
Then an exclamation mark hovers above his lane. The freeway ends at the top of a sheer cliff. Jack feels his personality smash like a pane of glass on the rocks below. The scattered fragments shine like a shattered rainbow. The light fades. Darkness. Nothing.
Jack wakes with a start, without memory. A thin light creeps from the hills behind him. He’s sitting against a rock overlooking the Pacific, just a few steps from a fatal precipice. He looks around, sees the dull outline of the wagon, and remembers in a flash how he got here. He stands stiffly and wanders over to the vehicle, where Slim and Stella sleep in separate bundles.
He crosses the road and climbs a small hill on the other side. Already the eastern sky has a peach glow, a radiant prescience about it. Behind him the sea hisses endlessly. He closes his eyes for a moment and reopens them to a world of sharp contours, the trails gone forever.
Jack digs his flute from the pocket of his jacket and pushes the cold tubes together. He licks his lips and blows lightly across the instrument. A deep note resonates in the still air.
Then he breathes deeply and plays the first movement of Satie’s ‘Trois Gymnopédies’, holding the notes longer than he’s ever done before. The pure sound runs out clear and rich into the surrounding hills, which swallow it up thirstily.
The orange lip of the sun pushes over the horizon. Jack turns back and descends the hill to the rest area. His skull feels scrubbed out, scoured clean. From above the road he sees the curled-up figure of Stella still sleeping in the wagon and Slim sitting on the hood. Jack crosses the road. Slim smiles, his eyes a cool, clear blue.
Jack walks up to him and throws his arms around him in a huge hug. “Oh, Slim,” is all he can say.
Slim clasps Jack to him, pats his shoulder. “I’m glad you’re back, Jack. I’m glad you’re back.”