The summer of 1981 comes like a scene change and I’m lying on my back in the middle of a montage, flat out on the concrete listening to that tape. The hot wind coming off the river is laden with moisture that beads on my upper lip, and crawls from my armpits all the way over my shoulders to my neck.
I can see cloud races in the North Carolina sky. The concrete is warm like the concrete at the edges of swimming pools, at dusk. I have watched today come and go; I can hear Pete popping a can, and that might be Bill’s shoe near my right ear.
Someone drags out a mattress and we lie on that instead, or more like across it, our feet and necks dangling over the edge. I can smell the garage in the mattress stripes when I hear that tape. Its velocity, its innocence. While the old world listens, we’re flicking through magazines, drinking from cans.
Our journey to Charlotte along humid highways, AM Radio, country and haze. Michael smokes incessantly, shuffling lyrics and tapping his feet as he reads. Mike layers harmonies over the top and soon enough we’re all singing it, extending the instrumental section brilliantly, then fading out under the sound bed of the van’s old engine.
Maybe we crested a hill, saw the city mingling with the background, like all destinations best seen from a distance. We pass a NASCAR advertisement and start trading swap talk, but I can’t be bothered for long. I park the van sharply outside the recording studio and we all just expand out of the van, like we’re folded maps, or MAD magazines.
I needed something to drink, I needed an air-conditioned hotel room, balsawood door opening out onto the parking lot, pool in the corner, white snapback lounges. The tone of my sunshades makes me feel like drinking cola from a large paper cup. No ice.
I’ve been here before but the others haven’t seen the place yet so I settle into a couch in back of the demo room, aiming to catch me some eyelid tv time. The room is incongruously itself, the muffle that makes your ears pop and release whenever anyone opens the door.
Soon enough they’re back, Bill’s singing in a Dolly Parton voice and I can see Mike’s already itching to get started, like the young entrepreneur he is.
Pete passes me a giant bucket of cola, which I place gingerly on the floor.
— It is so fucking hot in here, I gasp finally. Everyone’s laughing.
Bill points to the wall, where I see for the first time there is an outlet, promising cool.
— Okay cool then, let’s get going, I say. Pete gestures again for his cola and I pass it back without comment.
— I thought I already told you how much I hate that stuff.
— You did, I just thought you should keep your fluids up, y’know, rehydrate?
— Is there some place we can swim around here? Mike asks, grabbing the cola from Pete’s sticky hands, like down by the river?
— I mean, I was just thinking if it’s still this hot tonight, I’m not sleeping in that van.
More laughs. We start unpacking the gear.
— Sleeping in that van, I mutter. More laughs.
Bill’s set-up takes the best part of two hours, during which the others explore the studio, and one of them (I think it’s Pete) walks down to the store on the corner to fetch cola and cigarettes, coming back with beer.
Meanwhile we’re plugging in amps and microphones, sound-trapping, as we like to call it. I can’t help hearing the ghosts of gospel and soul groups in the reverb chamber. My can-space is soft and warm from from its repeated hum.
Then it’s Michael’s voice I can hear in the cans, and the studio soundscape slowly comes to life inside my ears.
Like any Western city, like any city at all, Charlotte looks better at night. Its summer streets take on an eerie orange glow. The wind-snapped green foliage and starbursts of neon signage eradicate the day’s slumbering yet radiant heat.
We take turns at the phone booth, Mike the last to push his hot quarter through the slot. Sitting one by one on a park bench as the crickets creak and cars flash past, we must look pretty incongruous.
And yet, just as it was last night in Athens, there’s something in the way the street itself accepts our darkness. College crews blast by but they too fail to disrupt this moment.
Bill’s talking about radio and radio waves, as Michael throws in the odd interjection, quiet correction or reference to film technique, almost sotto voce, stage left.
There has to be a streetlight. We’re playing statues underneath it, moving in slow-mo animation behind the sun’s back. Mike’s cleaning his glasses on the edge of his shirt, having just returned from a trip to the local hi-fi store, where he has picked up some leads.
Turns out there’s a steak joint down by the river where we can eat all we like, play pool.
— Are you missing your girlfriend? I ask, obliquely. Only Mitch laughs.
Suddenly everything’s set and we’re back where we were the last time we rehearsed what, two weeks ago? Now the long and winding process of dry runs and echo effects conspires to bring us back to the level.
The last thing we switch off is the radio.