Barenaked Ladies

 I first met Barenaked Ladies while pushing a double-decker bus that was following a diversion around the Yorkshire countryside.  The bus was the 72 going from Leeds to Bradford.  It was a straightforward trip that usually took about forty minutes.  I had fallen asleep and woken up with the bus on an unmarked road near Askwith, the wrong side of the River Wharfe.  I had no idea why.  The roads around Askwith weren’t made for a double-decker.  The bus had stopped, wedged in a tight corner.

Some diversion, I said to the man next to me.

We need to push, he said.

There were seven of us on the bus.  The driver stayed where he was, leaving the rest of us to try unstick the bus.  Progress was slow.

Sandwich break?  I asked the five guys around me.

Could do, they said.  You got any?

Do I? I said, and produced a whole picnic basket from my pocket, which surprised me. I usually bring this with me on bus journeys?  I think. Just in case of this type of situation, possibly?  I was still confused from waking up on the bus in a strange place.

I shouted to the driver, asking him if he wanted a sandwich.  He waved a bottle of vermouth at me.  Liquid lunch, he said, laughing.  He laughed alone.

We may have to abandon bus, I said as I passed out a selection of sandwiches.

You got any pastrami and mustard? asked the guy with the glasses.

I do, I said, which was as much a surprise as the picnic basket.  I hate pastrami.

You’re the man, the guy said, we could get used to having you around.  You have a very hospitable imagination.

The guy with glasses who didn’t yet have a sandwich nudged the man who had just spoken.  Just then, we were attacked by a pack of wolves that jumped out at us.  We started throwing sandwiches at the wolves to try and fill them up.  No such luck.  They gulped each tiny triangle down with the ease of an elephant hoovering peanuts with its trunk.  The wolves got to the bus driver first, mainly because he had no sandwiches to throw, and because he had the body of a bus driver.

Where the fuck did these wolves come from?  shouted the other guy with glasses.

His defences are triggering, said the shortest of the men.

Defences?  I said.  They are eating him alive.  As much as I was horrified, I was calm, and not just because I hoped the bus driver’s carcass would sate the beasts.  Just another day, I thought to myself as the bus driver’s body was gulped down in great chunks by the wolves.  In seconds, all that remained was his cap and the metal plates and pins that had held his knee together after he stood on a mine in Afghanistan.

The driver was a war hero?  asked the man who was carrying a double bass.

Looks that way, I said.  No wonder he drank so much.

Shit, said the other glasses guy.  We didn’t program that backstory.

The wolves advanced, gore dripping from their lips, howls in their throats and hunger in their eyes.

We need to get control back, said the man with the bald head.  Where’s a woodcutter when you need one? he shouted.

Did someone say woodcutter?

From the hedge behind us emerged a giant of a man.  He had arms like bulldozers, legs as solid as a cathedral’s foundations, and an axe so sharp it sliced the sky open to reveal a group of planet sized scientists watching and taking notes.  The wolves whimpered, turned tail and fled at the sight of the woodcutter, who chased them over the moors, swinging his axe above his head like a deranged helicopter of death.

The skies fucked, said the stubbly man with the keyboard.  We’re pushing too hard.  Anyone got any paint?

I searched in my picnic basket and found some Namibia Evening paint.  I do, I said, but it’s the wrong shade.

It’s better than looking at that, said the shortest of the men, pointing up to the scientists beyond the torn sky.

Is no one worried about the implications of having a group of scientists watch us as we go about our lives? I asked.

The men all shrugged at once.  Some kind of experiment, they said.

Don’t worry, said the man with the largest eyebrows.  We’ll play you a song.

Is that wise?  asked the first glasses guy.

We need to control this, said the keyboard guy.

Who are you guys? I asked.

Barenaked Ladies, they said, and began playing If I Had a $1,000,000 from their album Gordon(1992) in a way that sounded desperate.

Get it together, guys, said the double bass guy. 

The playing became less frantic, they smoothed into a groove.  As they played, I felt the world swimming out of focus.  At the same time, something tickled in the back of my mind, some memory of snow, of a steam powered eagle.  The face of Chris Clark swum into my vision in a way that reminded me of a cheap effect from some old black and white film.  You can have this back, he said, pointing at a yellow rock I held in my hand.  You need it more than me.  Resist these bastards.  You are stronger than them.  Then, he was gone.  With the rock in my hand I no longer felt I was dropping out of reality.  I felt clear.  Strong.

Stop, I shouted at the band.  They carried on.  They smiled at me, jovial, friendly, but their grins now looked forced, straining at the cheek, eyes flickering like an old fluorescent bulb.  I looked up.  Beyond the tear in the sky, beyond the suspended ceiling of the giant’s laboratory, I sensed something else, something that I knew was fragile.  I felt the weight of the rock in my hand, swung my arm back behind my head, ran two steps and pitched the rock as hard as I could upwards.

Something was wrong with the perspective.  The rock hit something a few feet above my head.  The whole illusion of a ceiling beyond the sky cracked, splintered, broke apart.  Beyond was darkness.  The whole of the sky shattering, spreading to show a shape, a dome like an upturned bowl with me inside.  Pieces fell, smashing at my feet.  The yellow rock landed softly back in my hand.

The band stopped abruptly.  Code yellow, they shouted into their wrists, we have a code yellow in containment cell nine.

In the dark beyond the sky, red lights began to flash.  The cracks that traced the dome revealed it to be as big as an apartment.  Sirens were shrieking.  The Barenaked Ladies dropped their instruments and tried to stop me as I climbed out of the shattered illusion.  I brandished the lemon rock and they backed down, holding out their hands.  No need for that, said the bald one, we can all leave here alive.  We’re as much victims as you are.

I don’t think so, I said.  Memories were coming back to me.  I had been captured.  Something to do with Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.  Something had happened at Mount Othrys.  A crash.  I was in a room.  Looking back, from the outside the shattered dome looked like an exploded cathode-ray tube with thick cables snaking up to the ceiling, attached to a complicated set of gears and lights.  I could hear shouts above the sirens from somewhere beyond the room.

I kept my eye on The Barenaked Ladies, who were still inside the crumbling dome, cowering from the threat of my rock while I looked for some way out.  A red button in a yellow casing was attached to one wall.  It looked like it needed pressing.  I pressed it.  The wall began to slide open.  I was blinded by bright sunlight and held my arm over my eyes.  The shouts were louder, almost on top of me.  Then, a voice I recognised.

Here, they shouted, in this one.
 
I stumbled out into the light, grasped by reassuring hands.  Neal, I said, what has happened?  Where are we?  Looking around we were on an airfield, potholed and overgrown with yellow grass.  Mountains surrounded us.  Bodies littered the runway.  Smoke palled above buildings much like the one I’d emerged from.

This is Ergenekon Valley, said Neal Cassady, my saviour.  He was surrounded by four men with bowl haircuts.  Neal looked down at the rock in my hand.  I’m glad Chris Clark could get to you in time.

A memory surfaced in my mind.  Where are GUNSHIP?  Last I knew they were flying the chopper.

We have them secured, said Neal.  They weren’t as strong as you.  Their minds crumbled under the weight of the simulation.  We may never get them back.  These bastards.  Are the Barenaked Ladies still alive?

I pointed to the hangar I had emerged from.

Not for long, said Neal.  He motioned to one of his companions.  Pete, get the flamethrower in there.  The man nodded in agreement and moved into the hangar.  Screams followed.

Who are these guys? I asked

The Kinks, said Neal.  This is Ray and Dave Davies, and this is Mick Avory.  That guy with the flamethrower is Pete Quaife.  You guys will get along like a house on fire, trust me.

Neal wasn’t wrong, because we’ve been friends ever since.


Connected episodes:

Chris Clark

GUNSHIP

Task Force

Selected episodes with Neal Cassady:

Francis Bebey

Ocote Soul Sounds

Saul Williams






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