The Edge of the Known – Book Three
Through a series of serendipitous events, Edge of the Known score a major contract and record the album of their lives… An album that very quickly becomes the soundtrack of a troubled age.
The long-nurtured dream has come to fruition, and Brandon Chane suddenly seems to be the Voice for every alienated kid who feels wounded and sidelined by modern life. But where is his own life in this equation? How much of the fervor is about the art and how much is about the hype? What is real?
Chapter One: Fire Thief
During the autumn of that year, several months before my twenty-third birthday, we began recording our album for upstart label Critical Mass: The album that the world would never let us forget.
This bit of serendipity had followed a period of dissipated hopes and, at its darkest verges, the deep lacerations of despair. Following a triumphant gig at Broomstick Belladonna’s in New York – a sort of informal Battle of the Bands that had been an intended celebration of peak summer – our band, Edge of the Known, had been courted by two record labels, Widowed Soul Records and Phantom Hordes. Neither of these leads proved to be avenues towards our most cherished future, however, as these companies failed to grasp that we were an utterly self-made band with absolutely no intentions of putting on airs in order to ‘make it’ in the industry.
We followed the Muse, because that was the only thing we knew how to do. And it was the only thing worth doing, even if it could potentially cost us all possible remuneration for our efforts.
By this time we’d all started wearing apparel that my girlfriend Janie had made for us, much of it from buckskin that she’d obtained from a local butcher’s during the deer hunting season. We were looking more and more “native” by the week. But one thing Phantom Horde’s Gurdon Hill ‘suggested’, one night over dinner at McNeil’s Fish ‘n’ Chips, was that we abandon all this and adopt a more “conventionally metal” look, replete with black leather pants, studded belts; basically, he was advocating an image that Tommy and I, particularly, had already perfected throughout our High School tenure. And I wasn’t exactly averse to it even now; but the idea of anyone dictating my sartorial sense was infuriating.
“If I’m gonna have a boss who’s gonna outline how I fucking dress,” I pronounced, “then I might as well keep bussing tables for the rest of my life!”
Carlos and Tommy filed out behind me. Apparently I’d spoken for all of us.
So that was it: The second of our two golden opportunities down the drain. We decided that, forever thereafter, we’d pass on any suggestions that we adopt a more clearly-defined “metal” or “industrial” or “punk” look; or that we incorporate a few syrupy and innocuous love ballads into our repertoire.
“Hey, love can be the most frightening phenomenon in the universe,” I’d opined to one A & R guy from Widowed Soul. “’Simple and sweet’ hardly sums it up.”
And so we three destitute members of Edge of the Known – currently without steady or satisfying work, prospects or hope – passed on both of our chances to completely transform our fortunes with the simple act of signing a paper.
We did continue to play; and, miraculously, we gigged steadily enough – and were paid well enough – to support ourselves for the next couple of months. But otherwise we were back to square one.
We seemed to be languishing, caught in that same conundrum that had always plagued us in our home town of Sadenport, Oregon: The inability to conceive of any way to translate this incredible creative energy that we possessed, both individually and within our group chemistry, into a larger arena, to elevate it to a higher level.
We’d relocated to Boston. Janie and I shared an apartment near where our manager, Maureen Connelly, lived in Jamaica Plain. Maureen seemed to shoulder the brunt of our recent misfortunes, as if she’d somehow been responsible for them. She’d once made an absurd vow to “quit this goddamn business” if the record deal fell through. It required several nights of champagne and pleading for us to steer her thoughts in a more productive and less self-sabotaging direction.
Why is it so often the people with the biggest hearts who beat themselves up so mercilessly?
Any other band might have taken the hint by this point and at least begun to re-think their overall ambitions. But we were utterly incapable of envisioning any other path in life. We threaded a narrow way through the straits of the world, with our fierce passion for art and honest self-expression on one side and our fear of convention and control on the other. What most people considered society’s tried-and-true roads were veritable death to us.
Failure was unthinkable. And yet success on our terms, under the circumstances, was scarcely any more conceivable. This was the precarious existential point that I had endured for many years– somehow, miraculously and beyond reason.
Tommy and I sustained ourselves throughout these months by writing songs; cementing, in the process, a collaboration that had thus far eluded us throughout the years that we’d been in a band together.
We ended up joining forces on nearly every song that made it onto our next album, aside from the already-written “Jaws of Time” and a couple of others. Music is difficult to talk about in the first place, so it’s hard for me to describe exactly what it was that we each brought to the other’s compositions. Oftentimes, though, I would take a piece from Tommy that evinced a very straightforward assault and I’d give it a peculiar twist, something much different from what your average listener’s ears would anticipate. This would somehow strengthen the song and make it even more memorable. And he, in turn, would take an evocative but somewhat elusive structure of mine and add a verse or bridge that would articulate it more clearly, give it more focused pith.
Spurred by the underlying recognition that we might never find another chance to say the things that we’d come into this world to say, we forsook all safeguards and expressed ourselves with utter candor. At last, Dionysus and Apollo had learned to work together.
One night I was lying awake with Janie in my arms, almost quivering with the force of my accumulated confusion, fear, uncertainty, frustration and pain. When she was bereaved I would often discover wellsprings of courage within myself that I never knew I possessed. And when I wavered, she became my anchor. Janie continued to hold me whilst seemingly unanswerable contradictions wracked me from within.
During an acutely vulnerable twilight hour, I finally found my voice.
“Sometimes I don’t think what I’ve done to you is fair at all,” I whispered. “Look at me: I’ve got no vision of a way forward, no real security in this world… and yet I’ve asked you to share life with me! How selfish! What kind of love is that?”
She responded so quickly that one would have thought she’d been anticipating this argument for months.
“First of all, I don’t recall you asking me to share your life. I offered myself. And who the hell sees the way forward anyway? I sure don’t. Tomorrow is guaranteed to no one, Brandon. When you love, you risk. Simple as that.”
And risks were for those who had things to lose. That included me, now. My love for Janie, Tommy, Carlos, my sister Rachel… the force of it bound me to this world. And yet knowing this lent me no clearer sense of where my actual place might be. I’d always thought of myself as some kind of cosmic mischance; an evolutionary hiccup, maybe.
“I’m just scared, Janie,” I admitted at last. “You said that none of us are promised tomorrow. I used to say that I didn’t care whether I lived to see it or not. And it brought me some comfort, too, repeating that over and over to myself. But I’d be lying if I were to say it now.”
The following afternoon, Tommy let himself in, strode into my living room and tossed the latest issue of Drum’s Deep onto my lap.
“This is kind of a ‘Year’s Best Wrap-Up’ issue,” he explained. “That’s why I suppose it took a while for this review to come out. But you should check it out. Page thirty-seven. This guy, Jack Frances, wrote about that night we played Broomstick Belladonna’s.”
I opened to the page he indicated and began reading. There was a photo of me, sweaty black hair clinging to my forehead and the look of a jungle panther in my eyes, at the top of the page.
The great French Symbolist Arthur Rimbaud once likened the poet to the thief of fire. This will have relevance a little bit later on in this review, so I’ll bid you to just keep it under your hat for now…
I’m not sure exactly when New York’s own Broomstick Belladonna’s became the hotspot for alternative music. Like most phenomena, it’s impossible to accurately trace the origins. Those in the know, however, possess an uncanny instinct for congregating without making much overt fuss about it. So it is; and so it will be, it seems, for the foreseeable future. The venue’s summer festivities – including the “unofficial” Battle of the Bands showcase that happens every August – have, of course, become a prime attraction for said crowd. This is where the Underground makes its tremors felt beneath the very feet of the Establishment.
The enticement this year involved pairing a couple of regional favorites on the bill and sandwiching in a “surprise” act – in this case, the three-piece Edge of the Known, from Sadenport, Oregon.
And what a surprise they were indeed. But more about that in a bit.
Sendaline came on first, with raw, fast jabs that immediately evoked the best of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in its era of eager innocence. Singer Fritz Torus, a walking tall-tale of Paul Bunyan proportions with charisma to match, possesses the kind of cockiness that is easily forgivable, as he’s just as likely to make himself the butt of a joke as anyone else. This band will never be in danger of pretension so long as he’s at the helm. And let me add that he boasted the greatest sheer vocal power of anyone who performed that night.
Nevertheless, he and his lethally technical bandmates – exhilarating as they honestly were – couldn’t hope to pose any real threat to Mike Makand and Nobody’s Business, the local darlings and headliners of the event. This was, after all, the band that probably eighty percent of the crowd had shown up to see in the first place. Pioneering Critical Mass recording artists, Makand and his band have six records under their belt – the four most recent ones widely considered to be classic examples of a distinctly dark, heavy and swampy stepchild of the blues genre. And they drew upon all of that recorded output to assemble a set list that could have sated any arena audience on either coast.
On any other conceivable night, this would have been the band that we all went away celebrating, gushing about, humming the contagious tunes as we relived those electrifying moments of guitar frenzy and lyrical double entendre into the wee hours…
Unfortunately for the great Mike Makand, however, singer/guitarist Brandon Chane had stepped onto that same stage a couple of hours before – bringing Rimbaud’s stolen fire with him.
He has a presence like no others’. This was evident right away. At first glimpse, I would have sworn that this was the face of a young man who had but recently crawled through all seven levels of Hell. And yet there was something else there, something beatific – transcendent, even. He peered right through those flames to the enduring light beyond…
Yeah, I know that sounds pretty airy-fanciful. But upon this occasion I can back up my overly-romantic notion with the hard evidence of… the audience response, fer Christ’s sake! At one point I had to break away and visit the men’s room – just couldn’t hold it anymore, not for any amount of transcendent glory – and I returned to find the whole floor transformed into a roiling, molten, sweaty mass. ‘My God,’ I thought, ‘does this guy carry around a pack of Maenads from gig to gig in his magic pocket?’ Because there they all were, swirling in rapture along with every musical movement as if they’d been following this virtually-unknown trio for the last three or four hundred years.
The band’s manager is off to my right, by the bar, weeping her eyes out at the sight of it all. One cocktail waitress is standing spellbound in the aisle, the forgotten platter of drinks in danger of slipping off of her shoulder. Brandon is soloing majestically behind the wall of his hair one moment and then telling us all about a ladyfriend of his who’d beaten cancer the next. You never know which way this guy is turning. It HAD to be utterly spontaneous; and yet his telepathic bandmates – Tommy Visconti on bass and Carlos Rodriguez on drums – respond to his every mad swerve as if this was all something that they’d rehearsed a dozen times over the night before.
All right, I’ve been rambling on for some time now. But that’s just the point: I really can’t fully grapple with what I witnessed that night. I’d encourage you… no, hell with that; I’m just gonna risk my whole professional reputation right here and proclaim that this is one of those bands that comes along maybe a handful of times in any generation. And that’s if we’re really, really lucky. Just stop reading this right now and go experience Edge of the Known for yourselves before their whole impossible miracle just implodes.
I threw the magazine on the couch and started pacing. I chewed on a few stillborn protests, but no actual words emerged. I waved my hands, as if to dispel what I was trying so vainly to articulate.
“Does it ever occur to these guys,” I said at last, “that they’re actually writing about real people, people who’ve got to live with this? So, what… next time we do a gig, and for some reason or other I’m not able to ‘bring the fire’ that night, people are gonna feel like they got shortchanged?”
Tommy emitted a slightly amused huff, then shook his head. “It’s a hell of a write-up, Brandon.”
“Maenads in my magic pocket!” I mocked.
“It’s an incredible review,” he persisted. “And you can quit the melodrama already, because you know damn well that I know that this isn’t what you’re really upset about.”
Of course, that’s the downside of knowing a guy so well for so many years. You’re left with no wiggle room. I stopped pacing, but couldn’t face him.
“So he singled you out,” Tommy summarized. “So fucking what?”
“I’ve never asked for that!” I said.
“Yeah, I know. You don’t need to convince me; I’m the guy who’s played with you from the beginning, remember? But let me tell you something: I could give a shit, o.k.? Seriously. This takes nothing away from me. I wanna make music. I got no need for the spotlight.”
I heard his sincerity, and was grateful – relieved, really – for it. Nonetheless, I replied, “Well, neither do I.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Tommy mused. “A person doesn’t end up in your position by accident.”
Now I did face him, my eyes narrow and wary. I felt like he’d somehow cornered me – and for what purpose?
“I’ll spell it out for you, then,” Tommy pronounced, “since you’re obviously in the mood to play dumb today. And just remember that if you think I’m wrong then Janie and Carlos and Maureen and Chas and the guy who wrote this review and everyone else who’s ever recognized this thing about you must be similarly deluded, too. You’re a man who has something crucial to say. And if I gotta play in your shadow in order to give you your chance to say it then I’ll do it. I’ll consider it a privilege.”
Tommy was rolling and I was dumbfounded; hence the conversation quickly becoming one-sided.
“I have a great respect for journalism,” he went on, pointing to the magazine. “It’s magic, the way information gets disseminated. You have the vision when you’re sitting there in your bedroom; then it spreads out to Carlos and me, then to people at our shows. But when the Jack Franceses of the world get ahold of it then that same consciousness ends up in people’s living rooms. Sure, things get distorted in the process. But we’re talking about people that you could never reach otherwise.
“But you probably shouldn’t think about it all that much. I know how this works for you, I think. I’ve played with you long enough. You’ve gotta express your thing without considering how it’ll be taken, or what significance it might assume in people’s minds. I know that’s what you’re getting at when you say, ‘I don’t want to get too self-conscious about it.’
“It’s just that this thing has grown so powerful now that you can’t even hide from it anymore. It has to come out. So I guess what I’m saying is that you should let it rip without regard – without even concern – for who’s hearing what. And that includes me.
“So you can quit making those little notes in your log book about how I’m this band’s frontman. I think it’s obvious to both of us, at this point, who ninety percent of the audience is thinking about the day after we perform a gig. And I don’t begrudge you any of it. Besides, I know there’s gonna be some responsibility that comes along with it – responsibility that a lot of other performers may not give two shits about; but from what I know of you and your conscience, you’ll take on every ounce of the burden. I’d help you with it, but I don’t even think it’s coming my way. I may be the other guy who sings in this band, but you’re the voice!”
By this time I’d settled down inside. Tommy wasn’t hurt, obviously, and that’s all that really mattered. With a half-smile, I said, “So how long you been nursing this speech?”
He bit off a laugh. “Well, not long, really, because it wasn’t always so obvious. Hell, the first year or so of this band’s existence I’d say that I was probably more the leader. I was writing more. I was coaching you along – as presumptuous as that may have been. But then somewhere along the line, particularly on our last tour, you found your voice. That changed the dynamic completely.”
He stepped over and lifted the magazine, waved it at me. “And obviously I’m not the only one who’s noticed. See, that’s the thing. We’ve been trying to break into a business that’s ruled by perception. Maureen’s always tryin’ to drill that into our heads, right? So you know what that means…”
I did. I was loath to admit it and yet forced to acknowledge it. If our band was to move forward, I was gonna have to start treating it like a business. I would have to play upon the expectations that were already sprouting up around us. And the obvious way to do that, to capitalize on the press and audience response that we’d already reaped, was to be the frontman.
Yeah, me: The guy who liked to hang out behind amplifiers after the show.
That night I rung up our… well, I suppose he was the owner of the label we were currently “on”, although we’d stopped thinking of him in those terms. Chas Gages was founder member of the band Herring Run and of Manhandle Records. He’s the one who’d not only produced our two releases but also initially connected us with Maureen.
“Just become a big label yourself, Chas, for the love of God!” I pleaded. As humorous as that may sound, I was completely earnest at the time: and desperate. “Get your cousin Ken to put down his airbrush and come in and pack boxes. Hell, I don’t know. Just hire some staff. I can’t deal with the corporate mentality, man! There’s got to be some other way of getting records out to the kids.”
In the meantime, attendance at our local gigs swelled substantially after Jack Frances’ review. Initially, this jarred on my accustomed stage poise, because suddenly the atmosphere was a lot heavier with expectation. We were used to playing for virtual strangers, aside from those at Alchemist Brews back home who’d grown accustomed to us over time. There’s a different response that you feel from people who come to see how well you mirror the image that’s been built up in their minds. Yeah, I did feel a bit pressured to ‘bring the fire’.
But that fire finally caught the attention of the one guy who had it within his power to move us forward.