All these songs were written for Julia. Note the passive construction—it’s intentional. Sure, I put the pen to paper, cut shapeless feeling into word. But these songs lived in her long before that; I just had to find them. In the wisps of hair over her eyes, in those red scratched cheeks. That whole perfect wreck of a woman cobbled together like some heartworn fakebook. Of course, if Julia heard the songs, she might not like them. She might rage, topple the sculptures cluttering my apartment, shout that this mess wasn’t music. But that was just her way, and if I could calm her—a skill I had once sharpened to a fine edge—she might hear how these songs assemble into a whole. Into us. She might hear how each pedestrian note, each word, each line, each verse, each chorus all meld together. How all the bits of murky heart stuff I poured into this music, and into her, all became one big undeniable force. The same way all the best stuff in life, the things that shudder caged up in your chest, have some kind of alchemy behind them. Like how Julia and I came together that day at the record store.
The shouting—that untethered howl she could scrape out of the bottom of her lungs—was already filling the air when I walked in. And there was Julia. In the Rock/Pop section, smashing Smiths’ discs off the floor, screaming about her old boyfriend. How he loved Morrissey so much he skipped town to catch a show in San Francisco. And how would she feed or clothe herself, she wanted to know. He hadn’t even paid the rent before he left.
I don’t remember moving toward her, or speaking to her, but I got her out of the store and into the café across the street and calmed her over tea and not one but two muffins. There was a warm haze in her eyes, past all that bloodshot anger, a care in the way here eyes smoldered that said this is it, the soft, needing middle of me.
She didn’t waste time moving in and the albums she brought with her in that one cracked crate filled the apartment like so much plush furniture and I forgot my army of awful sculptures shoved into the corners of every room. She’d spin Darkness on the Edge of Town or Tonight’s the Night or Fear of Music and those albums were what I thought of when I bought that pawn shop guitar and when I filled that notebook with words, and when I called Log Cabin Studios and booked time and told them I’d be there for the long haul. Driving out there, I figured I’d make these songs and she’d hear them and come back to me. I thought about how she always said—like always, as in too much—that she’d fuck Dylan’s voice if she could, or how she envied her aunt that time in Champaign, Illinois when she’d slept with Rick Danko. There was this quiver of worship in her voice when she mentioned those guys.
The studio set me up with an engineer, this guy Stan Danford, to man the soundboard. He’d produced two pretty obscure albums—The Shinplaster’s Copies of Frankenstein and Totally Evil’s Totally Evil—and played them all the time during breaks. He’d scream descriptions of them over the playback, call them things like ‘part adrenaline, part Grand Guignol’ when all they were, far as I could tell, were thick frayed beds of distortion. Still, Stan was good enough to teach me a few chords and some scales on the guitar so he wasn’t all bad. I practiced hard, too, and eventually got my hands, which she called lifeless mounds when I worked on my sculptures, moving over the frets pretty good after a while.
Of course, I couldn’t play every instrument myself. That’s where the session musicians came in. I mean, they weren’t cheap. But I had no reason left to penny pinch, as she always called it. There was no future left to plan for. Just blank spaces in pictures where you once were. And yeah, I’ll admit, there weren’t actually any photos. But it’s an emotional image, and that’s what us songwriters do.
It was nice to go call in some players and whip it up with them, and nice to have some people around since I hadn’t seen many friends or family since we started dating. They all didn’t get us, thought she was a mooch—I think my father, at one point, used the term leech—and they’d get offended if I didn’t call them back for a few weeks. If I’d been holed up working on sculptures, if I’d just told that lie, no one would have minded. But they seemed to think she was stealing me from them, or just stealing from me, so they wiped their hands of us. Getting these guys together was like making new friends, ones that I think she’d like. For the most part.
Like Stamper Casp, for instance. He played all the drums for me. A rail of a guy, really, he’d curl over the set with his head turned to one side. Between takes he told me how he toured with all these rock bands in the ‘70s, how he’d crash cymbals and snap fills off the snare. But now he worried that soon he wouldn’t be able to hear his granddaughter’s voice over the phone, and that worry hissed out beautifully in the tiny ping of cymbals, in the shuffle of brushes on the snare. In the hushed tapping of a man clinging to the little he has left.
Stamper was the only drummer I ever needed; no such luck with bass players though. Those guys are a little trickier than percussionists, and I ended up rattling through a bunch of them. They were all the same, really. The way they all checked notes and worried over progressions, how they name-dropped people they’d played with over the years while they tuned and retuned their strings. It all couldn’t help but remind me of Julia, of how she checked labels on the dresses I bought her or how she’d set up shop in front of the mirror, teasing her hair or smudging on make-up. We’d fight—seriously, but in the end playful fights—because I’d tell her that she was plain, the most beautiful kind of plain. That she didn’t need dress after designer dress or all those chalky pads of foundation. I told her that every night, when she lay on that old mattress, she was an undeniable truth laid bare, an axis the world could spin upon. And she’d tease me in response; tell me I could be so much more handsome if I tried even a little. Like if I shaved everyday and maybe cut my hair more than once in a calendar year. Or if I ironed my shirt so the collar didn’t hang there like overcooked pasta. I tried all those things, even if she didn’t really care about it all, but during one of our last fights—if only I’d known then—she told me once she left I’d never have beauty again. But when she hears this record, she’ll see she was wrong. I have these songs that I made, this big beauty of an album to share with the world.
And those goddamn bass players tried to take it over, break it down into parts and strip it away from me. I mean, show me a famous bassist and I’ll show you a guy who tries too damn hard—and that include Rick Motherfucking Danko. I’m sorry, I am, but every bassist that walked in the studio door tried to hijack the whole thing. They couldn’t see the big picture. They spent their time trying to sneak some tumbling rundown into track six (“This is a Goddamn Pipe”) or yelling at me to tune my guitar again. They just didn’t get it—that getting a perfect sound didn’t matter. Or how rotten love can pull the heart’s sound sharp or stretch it flat. How the right note and the true one aren’t the same sometimes. One of them had this busted little amp that squealed whenever he stopped playing and I got a twenty second clip of that to use, which was about all the whole lot of bassists was worth. Until the last guy, anyway. His name was Solomon Tessler, and he was a skyscraper of a man. Tall and black, he looked like he walked out of a Blue Note album cover, and acted just as cool. The guy would let notes ring endlessly off the walls, setting the imperfect heartbeat to the whole album. Solomon really drones on track nine (“You Can’t Eat My Heart with Your Fingers”). It’s some of his best work.
It wasn’t long before money got tight on the album, the same way it did with Julia, when the bit of money I made off my junk metal sculptures dried up after I stopped pitching work to galleries or even scrounging the junkyard for material so I could spend all my time with her. By September, the album had nearly emptied me out. I took a couple days off and tried to get rid of the last few pieces I had left around the house. Called a few old acquaintances from smaller art spaces, tried to sell them my stuff at bottom dollar. But it was no use; no one wanted them. I couldn’t find steady work and I couldn’t call my parents because they’d just insist again that I move home and that hurt bad enough without that relief in their voice, the relief that she was gone. No one, not even my own family, could understand me and Julia. Everyone seems to think love is some sort of give and take, some two-way street. But I know what love is. I mean what it really is: it’s not something to accept, but something that we all pour out, all over, wherever we can. I gave my love over to her and once I did it was ours. Whether she put it in her heart or a paper shredder didn’t matter. We came together and made a complete love, and that was what I wanted her to hear in this album.
Chas, the guy who played all the lead guitar and keys, he got it. Well, he got the size of it anyway, the importance. He was so anxious for the work he played for almost nothing so I let him do whatever he wanted. For nearly a month, he layered six and seven tracks of guitar on top of each other. Puffed up each song with gauzy phrases from the keyboards. It was a bit much, but I knew I could cut it up and keep what I wanted later. And at the end of October, I kicked everyone else out to record my parts and put the whole thing together. The whole time I kept thinking about the day Julia left, about that note she’d laid on the kitchen counter—The cupboards are bare. I spent the rest of that day just wandering around the city and downtown felt like scrap metal. The rebar embedded in the cement buildings, the antennas cowlicking off skyscrapers, the shiny glare of hot dog stands—I couldn’t put any of it together in my head to look like something. I got home at night and measured the seams between the floorboards, I put on This Year’s Model and tried to do that hop dance she always did in the living room, but I felt tethered to the earth. I sang along to the songs, until that phrase, until the cupboards are bare, thinned out and left my head, and then I kept singing, sliding her name into the songs here and there. And when the record clicked off and stopped its spin, I just kept singing, making up my own words. Those words became songs in the early morning hours, and I knew that they could be my love letter to her. A way to pull loose of this heavy feeling and reach her.
Sometimes I couldn’t sing how I felt though, no matter how much I tried. So I’d eat chocolate and smoke cigarettes until I sounded like something dragged across pavement, like Tom Waits low on batteries. Or I would drink only water and eat celery for days to get my voice to a weak trill. I taped a picture of Julia, the only one I had, to the music stand by the microphone. Not that I needed reminding of why I was there. I mean, track fourteen (“Killing Poets”) is just the sound of me sobbing while I lobbed light bulbs around the studio. Stan didn’t like that very much. He kept complaining while we mastered everything down. He told me the early tracks made more sense, probably because they were about me Julia’s first days, those honeymoon days right after I’d met her at the record store when we made sense. In those days she could silently unbuckle my belt in the back row of the movie theatre (“Weekend Matinee”), and we always agreed on wine (“The Power of Merlot”), and she didn’t find out yet that I was cheap and sad and afraid all the goddamn time (“Paying Bills in the Basement”). Later on in the album, the songs fell apart—of course they did—into humming dirges and death blues. The instruments would crackle and fade, wax and wane, scream over each other and shatter into silence. In the background of one tune, I won’t say which one, you can barely hear the sound of me smashing a copy of The Queen is Dead off the studio floor—a little broken gem for Julia to find on here.
“Puff the Magic Dragon” seemed like a perfect cover because it’s clean-sounding and beautiful and, like everything I knew but me and Julia, all a fucking lie. “Puff the Magic Dragon?” Stan said more than once, kind of like when he threw me weird looks every time I asked him to cut up takes and paste them together out of order or loop vocals over one another or run guitar riffs backwards. He said he had no idea where “Keep the House, Lose the Home” was going, wondered why it couldn’t be more like the first song, “Foundation,” which he kept referring to as a pop gem. And then there was the last song, “Tomorrow Morning’s Coffee.” He hated that one, always asked me why it had to sound like I took a chainsaw to a rocking chair. I tried to tell him how all my life I’ve been trying to make something, to built some bridge back to the rest of humanity. At the very least, I figured, this could be my bridge to Julia. This music wasn’t about us. It was us. This is a goddamn pipe.
Especially that last song. I still feel that one in my bones. That morning after she left, I got up and made coffee, that expensive Kona stuff from Hawaii she loved. I made the full pot, like I always did, thinking maybe that would bring her back, that maybe the smell of it would make hope surge in her chest the way it did in mine. It reminded me of the first days, how Julia and I had made something beautiful, something you could truly call love. Two lonely people who’d found each other, finally, in Back Alley Records over a pile of cracked Smiths’ records which, I don’t care what anybody says, is as good a start as any. But not good enough to stop us from tearing it all down, from turning love into a raucous vase-breaking amelodic banging of cooking pots or interminable stretches of crippling silence that weighed down the bed frame. That stripped the cupboards bare, just like she said in her note. I’ve figured it out since then, or at least part of it, the part that occurred to me that morning after she left as I sat and drank that whole pot, each cup more bitter than the last as it say on the burner and scorched. She probably wanted me to get a job, just something regular to bring some money in. That might have solved it. If she’d said anything. If Julia had spoken up about it just once. But she didn’t, and instead it metastasized somewhere deep inside her and worked its way into her heart and she told herself it was too late for us, it was over, and the end came pretty goddamn quick. And as I fumbled around in my own head to put words to the hurt, to fill in the spaces she left empty in the apartment, those records kept playing. Especially Bringing It All Back Home, every spin of the record was a twist of torture. Because it reminded me of how she always played this record, way more than the most, and knew every word—and because Dylan used those words like bullets straight through whatever he decided to catch in his crosshairs.
That was the precision I was after, the aim I wanted everyone to hear when I finished the album. Before I sent it off to her, I invited the players over, even some of those bass players, to give it the album a listen and see what they thought. Only Solomon and Chas showed. As Chas sat down, and I hit play on the stereo, he asked why I called it The Cupboards are Bare, but he wasn’t there long enough for me to answer. Two minutes in, when he heard how I’d cut up all his takes, stripped a lot of those layers down to the bone, he got up and kicked a dent in the fridge and gave me and Solomon the finger and was out the door and gone.
Solomon, though, sat through the whole thing, sunk down in the couch barely nodding his head along. He squinted like was looking off in the distance, but no matter how much I looked at him, my own eyes pleading for some reaction, he never said anything. And when it ended, he just gave one definitive nod and said Blues, man like he would’ve said it about a turkey sandwich and then he left, too. I stood there alone for a few minutes, until it seemed like the echo of the album was still faintly ringing off the wood-paneled walls like tinnitus, then I grabbed it and ran down the street to Back Alley. I left the disc with the clerk and told him to give it to Julia when she saw her next. He shrugged and I took that as a yes, and left. For days after that I walked around in a fog. Everything felt off, on a slant somehow, like nothing fit. The seams between the floorboards were spreading the more I stared at them and it felt like the walls were separating at the corners and the ceiling could cave in at any moment. No one would take my sculptures and they just kind of glared at me from the corners of the apartment like they were fascinated by me, happy to watch me unravel, punishing me for bringing them to near-life, for not getting them close enough to beauty. I’d get out of the apartment but that was no better, since Downtown felt bombed out and gutted bare, just shards of broken things around me everywhere I went. I fought through that feeling as long as I could, almost a week, and then I could barely stand up straight anymore. So I went back to the record store.
I walked in and Julia wasn’t there. Of course she wasn’t. Just that same clerk behind the counter, some music grinding and shuffling away in the overhead system—something familiar—and one guy working his way through the used record bin in the back corner. I watched him, brow furrowed, head hunched up between his shoulders, but he was bobbing his head slightly. To this music, this music that was slowly washing over me, the underwater muffled sound of a guitar riff running backwards. A faint crashing sound in the background. That imperfect voice, singing those hurt words—it wasn’t at all as fragile as it felt when I sung it. There was something missing, something alien about the song. I couldn’t hear the ruffle of bed sheets in the back of my mind, the clinking of tea cups into the sink, the fading pink of raw-skinned cheeks. It was just the howl of the instruments, the mumbling of voice. My voice. The guy at the used bin looked up then, saw me standing just inside the door, turning my head toward the speaker up above the entrance, feeling every note bristle on my skin.
“What the hell is this?” he asked. And the clerk looked up to answer, and that’s when he saw me, when he saw the answer. So he pointed at me, and the guy scrunched up his face in confusion but he didn’t ask again. I closed my eyes and stood there, taking it in, sharing it with these strangers, in this silent way. I heard the clerk ask if I was all right, but his voice was lost in the raspy shuffle of Stamper’s drums, in the rumble of Solomon’s underground bass. It all came together and swelled in my head, and I closed my eyes tighter to keep it all there, as the songs came back to me and I felt each note before it sounded.
“She hasn’t been back, you know,” I heard the clerk say somewhere on the other side of the world and I just kept my eyes closed and waved a hand in his direction, as if to wipe his voice away.
“Shhh,” I whispered. “Just listen to this next part.”
Matthew Fiander received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. His work has appeared in the Yalobusha Review and Driftless Review, and he contributes and edits for the online literary journal storySouth. When he’s not writing fiction, he is also a music critic and editor for PopMatters online magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.