Halloween—the one night of the year when the veil between worlds disappears. When things normally unseen become plain. And those bumps in the night are most likely to be infected.
All Hallows’ Eve at Klub Krakatoa. What happened? It feels like one of those direct-to-DVD horror movies you watch only for the tittie action and you’re so drunk by the time it’s over, you’ve nodded out and don’t remember any of it.
One minute, my group, Deathballs, was rocking everybody’s face off. Chicks were up on stage hunching each other. The next, I’m out in the alley to kill Nick.
All I know is, I didn’t kill anybody. I wanted to, and now everybody thinks I’m a murderer anyway. I’m telling you this from Brushy Mountain. I’m supposed to be running an online survey for the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy back in Knoxville. The gal in charge there—she wants to hear my story. Only certain kinds of girls go for the bass player. The dirty underwear type, you know? The ones who go for bass players framed for murder are real pieces of work. But, if it gets my story out, I’ll say whatever I need to.
I can’t believe it’s been a year since Nick Pagan showed up to play guitar with us. Crazy looking, like an 18-year-old who’d been to hell and back. A hundred times. He had this gaunt, haunted, starving concentration-camp face. Wore a long black cutaway coat that looked and smelled like he found it grave robbing at Old Gray. Skin albino white, hair blacker ’n Satan’s ass. Teeth like a rat’s. He liked to show off those fangs when he played that old Fender Telecaster. He’d throw his head back and roll his eyes up in his head and get sounds that Adrian Belew needs a pedal board and an array of computers to make.
Women loved this ruined sumbitch. They all wanted to be his lover or his mother—to fatten him up and give him a place to stay. Girls started rushing our stages after Nick joined the band. And while they’re hanging on him, he’d look at me like a dog looks at you when they’re taking a dump, thinking that you’re the one who ought to be embarrassed for looking. He always managed to pick a cute loner and he’d shrug and say she was fine when they parted ways at the Waffle House.
Dude just showed up one day when Drummer Dave and me were auditioning for a lead guitar player for our power blues trio. Deathballs. Cool name, huh? Eddie Shitstrings had left us ’cause he got married and the bitch made him get a real job. We needed somebody pronto to cash in on all the Halloween parties.
Nick walked into practice the night before the paper came out with our “Lead Guitar Needed” classified ad. Just turned up carrying that Tele in a child’s casket slung over his shoulder, pushing the amp ahead of him with his old-fashioned, pointy-toed black leather shoes. It’s possible he scooped the paper up hot off the rack. You know how the paper can be found early at the cool joints downtown where their asshole editors hang out? Same dudes that would be writing up Nick as the new monster guitar player in town when they’d never printed a word about me and Dave. And we’d been gigging around Knoxville since we were all Fort Sanders rats, back when we were smarter and happier.
The Longbranch let us rehearse in the basement. That first night, me and Dave watch this tall, skinny turd stroll in with a classic Telecaster and the first Fender Deluxe Tweed tube-powered amp I’d seen in 20 years. All frayed on the corners. That you can kick and explode the reverb?
Damned guitar looked like a blowtorch had been put to the blond finish. Every fret had divots in it from somebody’s bony fingertips. He claimed it was a ’49 model. Had this story he must have thought was funny—how he got it from Leo Fender himself from that first batch. That did look like about 60 years’ worth of cigarette burns on the neck right above the nut.
I knew from the opening bars of “Hell’s Bells” this was our guy.
That first show we did with him—a private party at the old Knoxville Screw & Bolt industrial site—he worked our Cream/Skynyrd/AC/DC/ZZ Top/Deep Purple covers into a nuclear war of chords. Skinny fucker rolled his eyes back into his head so all you’d see were the whites and make these tortured rock-god faces. He’d hunch over that old Tele and you didn’t see his fingers until we slowed down for the 3-in-the-morning, smacked-out blues. He seemed to be able to span 10 or 12 frets in one hand position. It’s impossible, but that’s what me and Dave both saw. It was like his fingers were not only twice as long as a normal person’s, but they had another joint or two. He could twirl the volume knob with the pinky on his picking hand. It had to be five or six inches long.
The strings on that Tele—they didn’t shine like wire. Instead, they were a kind of dull, reddish black and when you looked real close, you could see it was a monofilament, but kind of organic-looking. And that guitar stunk. No way a “plank with wires” ought to smell like the dumpster behind Vic ’n’ Bill’s on an August night.
The cover plate was splattered with what I thought was barroom crud. “Blood,” he said. “I got so into ‘Free Bird’ last night, I blistered the shit out of my fingers.” That about says it: Playing with Nick was such a wild ride, “Free Bird” for the 5,000th time was fun again.
It wasn’t too long before he started giving me the skunk eye that said how bad I am. It wasn’t like when Tim Lee started calling me “Thumbs”—“’cause you play like you’re all thumbs!”—and canned me in favor of some hot redhead bassist. Then the browbeating started in earnest. On stage, fer chrissakes. There was that show we did at the Panhellenic Building where he took off on “Hey Joe” at quadruple time and started throwing all kinds of minor chords in there Hendrix never imagined. Me and Dave just started floundering. So, Nick goes up to the mic and tells the room full of sorority babes and their frat-boy dates, “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.” Me and Dave—we didn’t like it, but we took it.
“Murder Victim” was the theme for that last Halloween party at Klub Krakatoa. Brianna, this hot goth chick who’d been coming to our shows, she was there. See, I always thought me and Brianna had something going on. We always checked each other out, you know. Her costume was a flannel granny gown with a plastic bag over her head. I thought maybe I’d told her how flannel really does it for me. But after the encore—“Crossroads,” during which Nick’s guitar caught fire—she came up and put a big lip-lock on that bastard. Right through the creepy mouthhole in her plastic bag. I crawled into the corner and spent the after-party making out with a bottle of Jagermeister. The last thing I remember was trying to get Nick to come out to try some good weed I had.
The next morning, a couple of rookie flatfoots cherry-picking along the fringes of the Old City action found Brianna and me in the alley behind Klub Krakatoa. Brianna was naked. Her head had been caved in. Her beautiful, spiky, blue-streaked hair was gobbed with pink chunks of brain. The brick used to hold open the club’s service door was in my unconscious hand. The bloody flannel gown was wadded up under my head, like a pillow. So the cops said, anyway. Brianna had been gutted. At trial, the medical examiner said he believed about 10 feet of her small intestine was missing. “Excised,” was the word he used. I’d never do that to a girl.
Some nutty old private investigator who’d been hired by the family of a girl from Maynardville missing since the ’80s came to talk to me at Brushy. At least he knew I didn’t kill Brianna. He had a theory about how Nick Pagan got such unearthly sounds from a simple electric guitar. You know how they used to string violins with catgut? Well, this guy believes Nick makes his strings from the guts of women who succumb to his spell in every town along his way, damned now to reside inside a scorched old Telecaster with sinewy strings. Soloing, shrieking in eternal torment. Screaming for mercy. Begging for release. Like all of us
Jack Rentfro enjoys Halloween for all the wrong reasons. The journalist-gone-bad expects Sarah Palin masks to be the hot ticket for trick-or-treaters this year.