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Atonally Yours

by M. E. McMullen

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

The Bedderman Agency was Lou Gould, the Broadway agent, short and pudgy, unshakably supercilious. Chet White watched the headlamps gleam off the Columbus Circle merry-go-round forty stories below while the company parrot, a large blue, fanned its feathers and pecked under its wings, startling an unwary Brenda with a sudden, blood-curdling RRRRAAAAWWWKKK.

“A college concert tour,” Gould said, “a research project studying perfect pitch, and a documentary film about the research project. A book tour, a sound track album, and a charitable foundation funding research into the curative powers of atonal music. When’s the last time you heard about a musician having a shot at the Nobel in medicine?”

“Who’s doing all this?” Her skeptical frown said it all.

Seeing that a little snit was about to erupt, Chet White looked in the mirror, the story goes, and saw a lonely, haunted Lloyd Mulroy peering back. “You are, Honey,” he said, softly, just the way the old Hungarian would have.

“If you mess with me, Lou,” she told Gould, “the parrot gets it.”

Ely and White played Basin Street East in New York. “Opened with “My Funny Valentine” to the sounds of slurps and gurgles, burps and gulps,” Mulroy wrote. “Sailing’”was next, with thumps and bumps, ratchets and flapping sails, far-off thunder, foghorns, bells on buoys, cords slapping in the wind, waves lapping, seabirds beating the air with their wings, while Brenda’s siren song descant floated cannily above the fray. After the intermission, they did Brenda’s signature number “Chicken with a Train,” which ran twenty-one minutes, capturing the anguish of a lonely soul tied to the railroad tracks of life.

By the time they played the Paris Opera House, the act was drum tight. Ely and White were headliners in Europe. Brenda had worked Russ Wesley into the mix, a young guitarist who kept a string or two slightly out of tune, giving his play a jarring edge. “A homage to edginess, a fingernail across the blackboard of musical sensibility, a paean to progressive gauche,” Le Monde called their Paris sweep.

Running the Jersey Pike through a wasteland of rancid air, metal pipes and oil tanks, otherworldly backdrop to the energy of anticipation coursing through them, her fans braved a sulfuric world to see Brenda and Chet in person. They found the city, made their way through deserted streets to cramped rooms in a dingy hotel, where they fell into fitful, shivering sleep.

Twenty bucks for a table was a lot of money in those days. Braving the glances of other barside aficionados, taking quick glimpses of exotic, upside-down cleavage in the overhead mirrors above the bar, they smile when their guy snaps his fingers and a table and chairs appear from thin air. The houselights dim. A voice offstage intones, “Ladies and gentleman, the Basin Street East is proud to present Ely and White, masters of atonal jazz.”

Brenda came out with Russ, the guitar player. The spotlights came up, spinning the room into a blue, smoky feel. The drummer and bass player were set up left, easing into a little finger-popping be-bop riff as the blue lights came up.

When Chet White came clicking in from the left, the drummer started into a major roll, like bip bop doo bam bam ring-a-ling, bip bop doo bam bam, ring-a-ling, while the bass player got a walking line going. Russ popped one of his sweetly dissonant chord runs, and the legendary most over-the-top set ever seen in atonal jazz circles began.

Rod Marvin of Variety wrote:

Reed players marvel at Brenda Ely’s ability to sustain a screech,

She bares a thigh, pumps her fishnet clad legs to the accompaniment of crinkling wrapping paper greatly amplified, doing a piece she calls “Creech.” She follows with twenty minutes of a mellow version of Dizzy’s “Night in Tunisia,” with the sound of "ten drummers pecking away inside an empty oil storage tank." The ten drummers are actually one drummer from ten different lighting angles.

She flips two ratchets to the savage drive of “Busted Bonnie Doon,” tingling the hairs on their necks with a sudden, piercing wail that comes screeching out of her gut like a bat out of Hell, the first startling notes of her unsettling twelve-bar “Unexpected Freight Train Blues.”

Next, in tender tremolo, Brenda’s quavering voice wanders into a meadow of soft ambient near-silence. The house system mix of gurgling brooks and Bedouin tribal chants as background is irresistible.

Chet White’s own personal coda was not so structured.

He went out for a cigar one day and never came back. Brenda had rented the old Regal Theatre on 39th Street to rework some classic big-band arrangements for a new Vegas review she was putting together.

Somebody saw Chet White get into a cab. He said he was going out for cigars, which was odd because he didn’t smoke cigars. It was the last time anybody ever saw him. Brenda was working out “Lady in Red” at the time, playing lead with a blowtorch, with much hissing and popping to a Latin beat, and bits of molten metal and white-hot sparks flying everywhere.

The revue borrowed from a broad sampling of modern musical sell-outs, embracing every musical cliché, every derivative phrase, every stolen line and lifted lick she could find, from all across the spectrum; teeny-bop to R&B, punk to metal to disco to R&B to be-bop, hip-hop, rap and back. “When the body of my work stands for appraisal by History,” she wrote, “let it be said that no bauble was too gaudy for me to wear at least once.”

Put off by this new direction, purist fans denounced the gig as a charade. Some cursed them. Many lost faith. A guy named Gus Ramos called her a “sell-out whore” on one of those street interview segments, tearing up afterward, like he’d caught his girl cheating. “We are sorry-ass eavesdroppers,” he said as an afterthought caught on tape, “pitiful voyeurs with no lives of our own, wasting our time caring about people who don’t even know we exist.”

“In Budapest, they have a saying,” Lloyd once said, “never take a monkey to a funeral. Are you hanging around waiting for me to die, Brenda, so you can take a monkey to my funeral?”

“I have a rental rhesus on standby,” Brenda said.

When Lloyd Mulroy came back after Chet White’s low key departure, nobody paid much attention. For his last autograph, signed years later, Lloyd used a yellow ballpoint pen with CHESTER A. WHITE Productions written on it.

In a dim hallway backstage at the Basin Street East years before, when Brenda was doing yoga breathing exercises, there’d been an exchange overheard accidentally by fans. They cleared their throats, shuffled their feet as Brenda brushed by. They were as panes of glass to her. Her sweet aura made them weak in the knees.

Lloyd came by afterward smiling and extending a friendly hand, ever charming, ever congenial. Black suit, white shirt and gold cuff links, he bore little resemblance to the mythic guy on the California patio, having switched from apricot brandy to vodka mixed with Squirt and put away on the No Tomorrow Plan.

She delivered the line with a comical derision bordering on contempt for the depth of his seeming naïveté. “Divorces?” Her crooked grin was priceless. She’d had a few too many. She was enjoying this. The fact that nameless faceless fans were gathered as inadvertent witnesses was all the better. “There weren’t any divorces, honey, just marriages,” she said. “If you push me, Lloyd, the house of cards caves in.”

“I’m not pushing you, honey.”

“Honey isn’t the only thing that attracts flies, Lloyd.”

“What do you want from me? You get loaded, Brenda, get that edge.”

“You’ll find a way to keep strings on the money, even from the grave, won’t you, Lloyd? Just to have the last word.”

“You should be doing yoga instead of vodka.”

“When you’re lying in your grave, Lloyd, and somebody’s dancing up there on top, and all the dirt’s dropping down in your face, and you think you hear laughter and smell piss? Guess who it’ll be, Lloyd.”

Mulroy couldn’t have been nicer, pretending nothing happened, pretending he remembered these young fools caught in the cross fire. Fans. “You guys have been coming around for a while.”

Yeah, they had.

One of the guys had a cocktail napkin mounted and framed. He kept it on a shelf next to the Johnny Walker and a papier-mâché tipsy sailor leaning against a lamppost. Brenda’s sweep gave the front row a cheap gander at that Grand Canyon cleavage. She took a cocktail napkin, dashed off an autograph, “Atonally yours, Brenda Ely,” handed over with a sweet smile.

From Cabaret Beat: Brenda Ely’s new retro show, a touring anti-musical called Polly Loves Andry, was about to be syndicated by the newly formed Polyandry productions; her cookbook of mostly edible delicacies from the East Bay was to be released simultaneously; until Mulroy sued for an injunction.

He sued Brenda, Polyandry Productions, White Productions, Chester A. White, personally, and fifteen other subsidiaries, spin-offs, divisions and affiliates. He even sued himself.

After calling in his political chits and paying off some big people, he had Brenda declared a national treasure. Every contract, every composition, every arrangement, every piece of special material, all the assets, props and equipment, the present and deferred income, the license fees and royalties, everything was put in trust by the Registry of National Treasures, administered by the Directors Committee of the New Haven Institute of Music for the preservation and promotion of atonal jazz.

Brenda threw a fit when she found out. Everything was already out of her name because of all the husbands. Her legal position, she learned, was untenable.

It rained the night Brenda was inducted into the New Haven Institute of Music Hall of Fame. The music press was there. The familiar faces of several fans could be seen. The committee gathered. Drinks were soon flowing and exotic phrases soon filled the air: shoo-be-doo-wah, ram-a-lam, oop bop she bam, show-dote-show-bee-doe and coo coo ca joob.

Her silver sequined dress shimmered in the blue light when she flashed that radiant, endearing smile. She fell in with the house band on an impromptu little scat number they’d worked on, taking her place in the spotlight with a quiet sense of belonging. She thanked folks by name, saving the late Lloyd Mulroy for last. “Best husband I ever had,” she said, getting a laugh. “Best partner I ever worked with,” she continued. “Thanks, Lloyd, baby, wherever you are.”

The voice of Lloyd Mulroy came rattling in over the speakers. “The pleasure, dear Brenda,” it said, “is all mine.”

This startling if not downright weird development freaked out the in-crowd as much as a bunch of aging hipsters could be freaked out. Brenda, stunned into an involuntary interlude of silence, recovered quickly.

The sound engineers were waving from the wings to show their support. They’d put Lloyd’s “line from the grave” together from some old tracks lying around. The bit fell flat, and the silence was deafening, but Brenda was gracious, tossed it off with a laugh, not unlike the way she sometimes tossed off life, somebody observed.

“I will try to tell you why I love this undisciplined discipline of ours, this atonal jazz,” she said, “although I scarcely think it matters why anybody loves anything or devotes their life to it. It gives disorder its due, and it’s wild and free, untameable, and never the same from day to day. Lloyd always said that just getting them to take it seriously wasn’t enough. They had to appreciate it, understand that it wasn’t just noise. Lloyd was a dreamer. That’s why I loved him.”

Dean Madge Anderson, Committee Chair, read a letter from Bernstein and Jacoby, a law firm in New York, reflecting how they’d been instructed to drop all legal claims against Brenda and restore her to rightful control of her own career and legacy, turning over a generous allotment of money to her as well, all a token of Lloyd’s love.

Smiling unflinchingly, stifling a cry, Brenda lit up the room like a lighthouse. The crew brought out the gorgeous blow up of the Budapest Kid picture, visibly moving her. Somewhere in the audience, among dozens of loyal followers, one watched from the back with special love, never getting close again.

Copyright © 2013 by M. E. McMullen

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