Heading to the studio, they wound their way along the curves of Pacific Coast Highway past sunning sea lions, surfers bobbing at Point Dume, shithawks—seagulls—bombing the pier. Fiona watched Dennis ogling a busty brunette astride a Palomino stallion bareback, galloping through roiling surf.
“You can see the gray whales during migration.” He told them smugglers used to run liquor, opium and Chinese labor through the area.
The studio sat under the lee of the mountains, a veritable citadel by the sea. The massive foyer, a circle of mahogany pillars, opened teepee-like, rays of sun warming the slate floor.
“Hey Virgins, it’s your first time!” joked Dennis. “In a studio.”
Producer Dan Foley ambled in, gently gruff in a RECOVERING CATHOLIC t-shirt, black jeans, lizard skin cowboy boots. He sat, Virgins arranging their bums on a bank of white couches.
“Okay, so what kind of a production values are you going for?” he asked, voice like sandpaper.
“Don’t you know?” Jackie clung to her guitar case.
“It’s your music. You tell me.”
Fiona knew. “Raw. Gritty.”
“Right,” said Rita. “And we want it tight.”
“Monster bass!” said Jackie. “I play bass like no one, melodically, but with a lot of guts.”
“Describe your sound. As a band I mean.”
Gawd. I wish we had a manager. “We sound like the Virgin Marries. Our drummer is a walking, talking, sonic boom. Our bass player is an original. Dolores plays her Les Paul like a band saw. It rips! We write excellent songs. The singer can actually sing. I have great stage presence too. We all do. Right, girls?” They nodded. “We’re talented. Fucking brilliant in fact.”
Dan feigned ducking, as if to avoid a blow. “Alright then. We have a band in the studio. Who’s responsible for the arrangements?”
Dolores groaned. “Arranging is for wimps. We don’t arrange our stuff.”
Rita brandished her drumsticks. “Yes we do! We don’t want a ton of effects, Linn drums, or a million overdubs.”
“No cowbells!” said Fiona. “I hate fucking cowbells. Let the farmers have ‘em.”
“Or synthesizers,” said Dolores.
“I hate saxophones almost as much as I hate cowbells. And flutes! I hate the flute. It reminds me of beatniks. And hippies.”
Dan stood at the window looking out over the mist-shrouded hills. “Okay, so you know what you don’t want. I will venture to say I think you need a clean sound. Organic. Unrestrained. Untainted.”
“Organic?” bleated Jackie.
“Yeah. Organic, as in authentic. Virginal. Pure. Virgin Marries, doing what comes natural.”
“Er, yeah, okay.” Jackie feigned gagging. “But we are not hippies!”
The cowboy led his horse to water
The horse refused to drink
The cowboy roped a steer one day
The steer was full of sawdust
The cowboy saw a sign in the sky
Revolving neon stars
Dudes in white fringes live here now
Dudes in pink sombreros are here to stay
The cows are lowing, the myth is dying
This land can break my heart
I have no place to go
Beyond my wild whisky dreams
“How about piano?”
“Gimme a break! Do you want us to sound like the Eagles?”
Rita glared at Fiona. “We couldn’t sound like the Eagles if we tried!”
“It is a ballad,” said Dan.
“Yeah, it’s a ballad,” said Fiona, “but it’s a cowboy song. I hear guitars.”
“Guitar yes, of course, but this song, a wonderful song by the way, should be played on acoustic. Just the rhythm parts.”
“Acoustic!” yelped Dolores.
“Yes. Acoustic will make it a classic. Showcase the vocals. A little piano in the bridge.” Dan leveled his eyes at Fiona. “And another thing. Hit songs do not have minor chords.”
Let’s hit you. Fiona sighed.
“I thought you were tired of wasting away on the fringe,” said Dan.
How are the provinces?
No I can’t come home
I have viewed the greatest paintings
But none of them move me
I hear so many voices
But none of them move me
I wish he would draw me in
“What’s it about?”
Jackie thought it sounded derivative. She’d been pulling out the ten-dollar words lately, as if she could compete with Rita.
“It’s not very original,” parroted Dolores.
Rita was bothered by its overt pathos.
“Christ. Everybody’s a critic.”
“Don’t worry about being original.” Dan took his seat at the console. “It isn’t possible. There hasn’t been a new chord written in over three hundred years. Shoot for distinctive. Or better yet, just be your inimitable selves.” He shooed them out of the control room. “Go set up.”
The twins started each song with a loud thwack on their guitars, Dan wincing. “Turn down please. We have to get out of the red. At least once in a while.”
“It’s too crunchy,” reported Dolores. “I need more fuzz.”
“I love these musical terms of yours. And you’re going to have to turn down.”
“Come on, Dolores!” Rita rose from her kit. “It’s not the same as playing live for Chrissakes.”
The twins plugged, unplugged, tuned, re-tuned, Rita complaining that she couldn’t hear herself in the click track of her headphones. Hurry up and wait. Waiting for all the Virgin Marries to be happy could take forever; only one reason Fiona was beginning to detest recording.
Everything Gets In Your Mouth
She stops his heart with red lips
I can see him staring
I can hear lies resounding after each sigh
Sense secret desires, the lies and shame
Everything gets in your mouth
She tries to touch color
She tries to kiss truth
But it just gets in her mouth
There’s too much to swallow
Too much to choke down
So much to swallow
It just gets in your mouth
They finally managed to piss Dan off, smoking hash in the control room. Dolores and Jackie refused to turn down or play any song more than twice. Fiona found them blowing smoke rings, Jackie sitting queenly on her amp, Dolores leaning against her stack o’ Marshalls.
“We’re on strike,” said Dolores, crushing a Marlboro. “I hate the way he’s making my guitar sound. It’s so wimpy.”
“Yeah,” said Jackie, “the overall sound is way too thin.”
“Oh, so now you’re experts all of a sudden.”
“He’s not listening to us! He doesn’t know what the fuck we’re about. I mean, look at him. He’s just a big old hippie,” Dolores the teapot, short and stout, calling the kettle fat.
“He’s doing us a huge favor, and you’re making Dennis look bad. Besides, Dan’s not a hippie. He’s a hipster.”
“Who gives a shit?”
Dan emerged from the control room, smiling despite the tension. “Maybe I should pull a Phil Spector on you. He once held the Ramones at gunpoint you know, forced them to play with a string section.”
The twins recoiled, not in mock horror.
Many hours later, working on lead vocals in the isolation booth, Fiona flattened notes and flubbed lyrics.
“You’re coming across hard,” said Dan. “Cold.”
“Well you’re not hard, or cold, so why do you want to come across that way? You should be thinking beyond punk, remember? You’re writing some heady tunes here. At the same time, you’re holding back.”
“Surrender. Learn to surrender.”
Surrender what? She was not about to ask. With concerted coaching, things slowly turned around, eventually leading to a series of superior takes. They took a break.
“Was it good for you too?”
They laughed and listened to the playback as the other Virgins descended for their scheduled tracks, Dolores toddling into the control room, pupils like nail heads.
“We should fire her ass!” hissed Rita. “I hate it when she plays all fucked up like that.”
“Yeah, well,” said Dan, “she’s not playing through the nod on this recording. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
Jackie may have quit smack but it hadn’t dampened Dolores’s appetite. She used to follow Jackie’s lead but lately it was one way the twins differed. Dolores represented a deep cavity of vague yearning but Jackie knew what she wanted and how to get it. They tried to keep Dolores away from the stuff but the scoring process was nearly imperceptible. As soon as they hit town, any town, it was as if smoke signals went up. Locals ran out, tracked down dope for the guitar player of that all-girl band, the Virgin Marries from Vancouver.
“You’re sabotaging everybody’s hard work!”
Rita’s lectures had no effect. All she could do was warn Dolores not to buy drugs from bikers. Dolores continued playing down the volume of her inside dope, no sleeve long enough to cover her festering itch, once mewling, “I’m just trying to crawl back into the womb.”
Fiona went off on her. “Okay, I get it, supreme bliss, but why does everyone talk about the womb as if they remember? How do you know it’s the same way you feel when you’re high? I’m so tired of that fucking cliché. It’s almost as tedious as a rock star-junkie.”
Recording wrapped the next day and the Virgin Marries didn’t implode. They traipsed down to a beer bash a few houses up the beach, relishing hot, homemade salsa, barbecued chicken and a bonfire. The Honeydrippers ambled over after playing at a nearby wedding reception, Fiona just as thrilled to meet country singer extraordinaire Candy Kane and her friend, ultra blonde, super-stacked Los Angeles poet Saint Teresa Stone, radiant in a silk bridesmaid’s gown.
An hour later, Fiona snuck away to rendezvous with Dan. She breathed in his musk-citrus aftershave, still pleasantly surprised by his carnal aptitude. He threw a big, powerful arm over her hips.
“So why’s the record called ‘Mnemonic Device?’ ”
“Uh, let’s see. Because I use them all the time?”
“Will you remember me?”
“You sound so sad Dan. What is this if not a fling?”
“What is it for you?”
“A fling. With Dan the Man, the married man with children, the married man with a seven-year itch. How’s that for a mnemonic device?”
“Very effective I’m sure. Especially the itch part. Wanna scratch it again?”
She did. He did, placing a series of furtive phone calls in the following few days.
“Dan! It’s okay. I have no regrets. I know you care for me.”
He wanted to see her again. Though sorely tempted, Fiona declined. “I know you don’t want to lose your family.”
He was not happy. It seemed no one else was happy either.
“The mix is way too treble,” said Jackie. “It doesn’t have enough bottom.”
“It’s too bad,” said Rita. “What he calls atmospheric, I call hollow.”
“The only thing he didn’t fuck up was your vocals,” said Dolores, eyeing Fiona with suspicion.
She sighed, determined to view it all as a gift.