Part Four: Pick Up My Guitar And Play Just Like Yesterday
“It is the biggest and most beautiful box I’ve ever seen,” Trevor is telling everyone. “Even better than that military looking box for Steel Battalion. Remember that one?” he asks me, trying to figure out which metal tubes go where for the drum kit platform. He’s already done it wrong once.
“It’s like getting a swing set for Christmas and having to wait for your dad to build it,” Peter says, seeing all the bits sprawled out among the cardboard detritus from the packaging. Me and Trevor, having been raised by single moms, never got swing sets for Christmas.
“That’s nothing,” Trevor says. “We had to go on a quest last night to get this. It’s like the Holy Grail, or that briefcase in Pulp Fiction.” He’s telling them about our trip while he unravels cords and plugs them into the adapter, but they’re not really listening. They’re looking at the box and reading the case and tapping the strum bar on the flat regal guitar and trying to spin the drum sticks. One of the sticks goes flying.
“Careful, man, this isn’t a Wii. Okay, first thing’s first. Everyone make your character.”
“Yeah, like The Sims. You all have to make rockers.”
We’re not sure whether this is awesome or whether it sucks. But we’re willing to go along with it. Each of us dutifully does our term of service with the character builder. This takes nearly a half hour, mainly because Mike has to check every single hair style. Then we’re all signed in and ready to go.
“Okay,” Trevor says. “We’re almost there. But first, we need a band name.”
“The Cocks of the Walk,” Peter blurts out.
“No, we’re not going to do it that way. Everyone write down a band name and put it in the hat.” He’s rips strips of paper and hands them out.
“You don’t like The Cocks of the Walk?” Peter asks.
“Put it on your piece of paper,” Trever tells him.
“I need a pencil,” Jude says.
“Wait your turn. There’s only two pencils.”
“I’m still trying to think of a band name,” Peter says, chewing the eraser end of the pencil. “One better than The Cocks of the Walk.”
“Dude, don’t put that in your mouth. Other people have to use it.”
Trevor gathers the names in my Half-Life baseball cap. He pulls one out.
“‘Knights of Rock’? Who wrote that? That is totally gay. I’m going to veto that.”
“I don’t think that’s how drawing names from a hat works,” Jude says. “You’re supposed to go with the one you pick. But, yeah, let’s veto that one.”
“‘Trevor’s Mom’? No. Just no. That’s not even funny.” He takes out another piece of paper. “‘BioShock Rock’? That’s you, right?” he asks me.
“I did it for you,” Peter tells me. “I couldn’t think of a name better than The Cocks of the Walk.”
“Thanks. That’s very cool of you.”
“Okay, you can’t just put something in there to kiss up to the host. I’m going to draw another name. Ah, this one must be yours.”
Trevor holds up the piece of paper on which I wrote ‘Garrison Keillor Can Suck It!’.
“I don’t think that really reads very well as a band name,” he says.
I shrug. “I’ve heard worse.”
“Plus, it’s too long. We don’t get that many letters. Okay, here’s the name we’re going with. ‘Stumping for Incumbents’.” He holds up the ripped strip of paper.
We look around to see whose name that was. No one seems to be the offending party. Trevor’s already entering it with the 360’s gamepad by the time we figure out it was his idea.
“‘Stumping for Incumbents’? That’s the name of the band?”
“I don’t get it.”
“That’s the whole idea. There’s nothing to get. Explain Blue Oyster Cult to me. Or Queens of the Stone Age. Or Pink Floyd.”
“I can actually explain Pink Floyd,” Jude offers.
“Why don’t we be the Knights of Rock?” Mike asks, revealing to everyone that the gayest choice was his.
“I told you. That’s just gay. Knights of Rock is like something a bunch of kids would name their band.”
“But you could spell it with an N. Nights of Rock. It could have a double meaning like knights with a K. It’s a homonym.”
“You’re a homonym. We’re Stumping for Incumbents. Buy your own copy of Guitar Hero if you don’t like it.”
He played the ‘buy your own copy’ card, which is pretty harsh and always a comment of last resort. I’ve only used it twice in the entire history of Shoot Club, and both times it was on Douglas. We’re cowed into accepting the band name.
“Rock Band,” Peter notes.
“You said Guitar Hero. This is Rock Band.”
“Fuck, did I say Guitar Hero? That’s going to take some getting used to.”
“Not for me,” Jude says, continuing to smack the little plastic drums in anticipation of actual music coming up. He’s told us three or four times that he was a drummer in high school, but he hasn’t mentioned it so much after losing control of a drum stick and flinging it across the room.
“I wonder if there’s a Rock Band faceplate for the Guitar Hero III guitar?” Peter muses, pulling gently at the guitar’s faceplate. “That would be cool.”
“Can I have a turn?” the new guy asks.
“You’re after me,” Jude tells him.
“Hey, you know, the Will It Blend guy did one with Guitar Hero III.”
“He blended Guitar Hero III?”
“Well, the neck of the guitar.”
“That guy is full of hate and rage.”
“He is creepy looking. Like he has kidnapped children locked up in his basement.”
“Okay,” Trevor announces after typing ‘Stumping for Incumbents’, “we are gonna rock out with our cocks out.”
“What does that even mean?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s figurative.”
“That’s good to know.”
“Are these the only songs?”
We can choose Weezer, Nirvana, and Garbage.
“At first. You have to unlock the rest. Duh.”
“Oh, I know this one,” Jude says when Trevor goes by the Nirvana song. “I vote that one.”
“Okay, here we go.” Trevor takes up the mic, Peter hitches up his guitar strap, I lower my guitar strap to be more bass like, and Jude taps the drum sticks against each other three times. Tap tap tap. And then three more times as the song as loading. Tap tap tap. And then three more before the song actually starts. Tap tap tap. And then the song starts when he’s half way through trying to tap the sticks another three times. It doesn’t bode well for Jude’s sense of timing.
But then we’re playing Rock Band. It’s slightly transcendent, except that all we can hear is Jude banging the plastic drum pads, trying to catch up with the rhythm. But it’s still Rock Band and it’s awesome. We get to the end of the song and look around at each other, grinning and embarrassed at how exciting it was.
“I’m disappointed,” Trevor laughs. “It doesn’t tell me that I rock. But I’m pretty sure I do.”
“You do. You totally do. You were actually singing.”
“I just need the reassurance. A helpful reminder from time to time. That’s all.”
“Okay. Good enough.”
“Where do we put in our high score?” Peter asks.
I shake my head. “No high scores.”
“Nope,” Trevor agrees. “He’s right. Just for Xbox Live.”
“Wait, what?” Jude says.
“There are no high scores.”
“There has to be high scores. We just haven’t gotten enough points yet.”
“Nope. I’m telling you. No high scores.”
“How could they leave that out?” Peter asks.
“Man, it really pisses me off when games are this close to being perfect,” Jude says. “What the hell? What’s the point of playing if there’s no high score?”
So we get a legal pad and resolve to keep it near the TV. On it, we write our high scores for each song. Next to that, we write each band member and the difficulty he was on.
After Trevor takes a break because he’s getting hoarse, Peter takes over singing. Mike takes the guitar and sets the difficulty to easy. The new guy asks if he can play drums yet, but Jude tells him he can be manager instead. The new guy isn’t sure what that means, but he sits and waits patiently.
“Hey, could you maybe sit down, here in front,” Jude asks Peter after a few songs, “so we could see over your head?”
“I’m the lead singer, bitch. I’m not going to sit down.”
One of the challenges we face is frontage, which is a word I know from wargaming. It has to do with how many units can attack a single hex. For instance, you might have a million soldiers in your army, but if they’re all in the same hex, you’d only have enough frontage for half a million of them to attack the enemy.
That’s what it’s like with Rock Band. There’s only so much space for us to line up so we can each see the TV. The drummer, being a drummer, gets tucked in back. This is also because he makes so much racket that the rest of us have to be closer to the speakers. Plus, drummers. Who cares about drummers. Name a famous drummer. Okay, so you can name one. But try to name three. See what I mean?
Then there’s the singer. He needs the least amount of space since he doesn’t have the neck of a guitar protruding from his left side.
“Well, it’s not like you’re dancing or anything,” Jude says to Peter. “And you don’t have to hold an instrument. Why do you have to stand up?”
“Dude, careful,” the new guy tells Peter. “You almost stepped on BioShock.”
“See, you’re out of control. Just sit down to sing.”
Trevor steps in. “Okay, you know what, Jude?” he says. “You’re not on drums anymore. No one can hear themselves fucking think with you clacking away on those things. You don’t have to hit them so hard, you know. And spazzing out on drum fills just messes everyone up. You were so not a drummer in high school. Or if you were, you sucked. Why don’t you play bass where you can do the least amount of damage?”
“Fuck that, I like playing drums,” Jude says.
“Dude, there is no ‘like’ in ‘team’. Or ‘band’. And, Peter, don’t make be-bop noises during the vocals star power. This isn’t Scat Band. Just go like, ‘ooh yeah’ or ‘whoa baby’ or something.”
“I would go, ‘Hey, Los Angeles, we’re Stumping for Incumbents’ if the band name wasn’t so long and so stupid.”
“Hey,” the new guy pipes up, “I thought I was the manager.”
“He has a point,” I say. “Jude told him he was the manager.”
“Okay,” Trevor says. “Manage.”
The new guy swaps us around to different instruments. He has us move the couch into the hall to make more room so we can all see, and so the drummer is farther back. He picks a song the singer knows. He puts me on volume control duty in case the music has to be turned up to drown out the clacking drums. Under the new guy’s leadership, we devise a system for all six of us to play a four-player game. There are six roles: the singer, the guitarist, the bassist, the drummer, the manager, and the roadie. The roadie is in charge of signing everyone into his own account and untangling the cables. The manager picks where we go next and sometimes what songs we play. He decides whether we do any of those special challenges, like the charity for extra fans or the corporate gig for extra money. Six people, six roles. It’s perfect. Then Douglas shows up.
“Aw, Douglas, you’re fucking it up.”
“Hey, I made a hundred and ten bucks at poker tonight. What have you losers done beside fuck around with your little toy instruments? What are those, drums?”
“We unlocked Stockholm,” the new guy says. He’s playing roadie right now, hunkered down in front of the 360 tracing the unplugged cable from Trevor’s microphone. It came unplugged when Trevor got a little carried away. He’d been using the wireless Guitar Hero III controller, which let him roam around, getting in everyone’s way. He tried to do that thing where the bassist and guitar player lean on each other’s backs, but Peter thought he was trying to get everyone to do star power. Appointing Trevor the new singer was a way to tether him, but it hasn’t worked out so well.
“Okay, now we’re going to Chicago,” Jude the manger announces. “Also, I’m firing you from the band, Peter. You’re no longer the guitarist. I’m replacing you with me. I’m the new guitarist.”
“Cock,” Peter says.
“The good news is that there’s an opening for manager. So that’s you now. You’re the new manager.”
The unspoken rule is that you have to manage the band for three songs.
“Roadie, can you sign Peter out and sign in my character on this guitar? Also, I think this is the guitar with the broken red button.”
For the inevitable complaints of “I think this guitar is broken”, we have a can of compressed air on standby. The new guy blasts the red button on Jude’s guitar with compressed air.
“Okay, you’re good to go,” he says, ducking back out of the way.
We start up on that Foo Fighters song, which I now really like. After that, Peter has me trade places with the new guy. As the roadie, I resist the temptation to watch the screen while they play. I watch them, which no one else is doing. In Rock Band, everyone looks at the screen, even when he’s not playing. Their faces range from grim to delighted to ecstatic. Each of them is starting intently at the screen, watching his own fret scrolling along. But they’re plugged into the same thing: the song. The song is the point, and they each play their part, ignoring each other, yet completely tapped into each other.
I figure a sewing circle must be like this. A bunch of old ladies sitting around concentrating on their own thing, but doing it together.
I see them listening to Gimme Shelter, watching its bits pulled apart and laid out and unfurled before them. I’m starting to think, incorrectly of course, that it’s sort of hollow. Not hollow like dead, but hollow like old and a little mystical. Hollow like looking through photo albums with a friend. This isn’t new stuff. It’s old stuff with a new way of resonating.
None of us cares to play the bonus tracks, for instance. Those songs don’t mean anything. We haven’t heard them before. They’re an unwelcome reveal that Rock Band without familiar music is just a bare rhythm game with expensive controllers. The songs we don’t know are the worst ones to play, at least until we come to know them and they get a little less worse. Freezepop in Guitar Hero II, for instance, and now that Foo Fighters song.
This is not the revolution; it’s just something like it. It’s not about games. It’s about music. It’s a new way of listening, of trying to get in, like following the lyrics in the album sleeve or clumsily learning the chords on a beat-up guitar in the hopes of one day being that guy at a party who impresses the girls who might like the song as much as you do. Like Guitar Hero before it, I will practice Rock Band, like a skill. I will do this off and on for two weeks, imagining each time that with just a little effort each day, I’ll get really good. Not YouTube good, but still good. Better than Jude, maybe. But like Guitar Hero before it, something else will come along and I’ll resign myself to never making it past the fourth tier on hard. As a drummer, I’ll never get past medium. As for singing, I have no interest in it.
And then Rock Band will sit in the corner where Guitar Hero sat, while Guitar Hero is cycled into a closet. We’ll always think fondly of it, like we always think fondly of board games, or D&D, or a favorite LithTech engine shooter, or Giants when someone mentions it once every two years. There are no revolutions. Just different ways of playing. It’s never about the games. It’s always about something else, and the games simply point, like ghostly promises of things to come, inchoate, barren, and expectant, waiting to be born while I watch my friends jump around, oblivious and slightly happy.
Epilogue: He Knows Changes Aren’t Permanent, But Change Is
Trevor will suffer his first heart attack at the age of 48. It will be mild, but it will freak him out. We won’t have seen each other in nearly eight years, since I’ve gotten married and moved away. But he’ll call me after the heart attack. He’ll tell me about it and how it really scared him. He’ll try to tell me how much he misses me, and Shoot Club, and how the whole thing with Monica didn’t work out. He’ll be telling me this while my son is crawling around on my lap, trying to get down to play with the dog in the other room.
“Look, can I call you back?”
“No, it’s cool, I just wanted to say ‘hi’.”
“No, really, I want to talk to you, but I’ve got my hands full. Seriously, let me call you back in like fifteen minutes. I need to put Eli down for his nap and then we can talk.”
“Yeah, okay, call me back. But mainly, I just want to say I was sorry about that one time that I ran out of gas when you were trying to work. That’s one of the things I thought about in the ambulance. That I wanted you to know I was sorry for times like that. I know you had a deadline and I was messing you up. I never got to tell you I felt bad about that.”
I will have no idea what he’s talking about. My wife will be at a wedding in Tuscon and Eli will be in a fussy mood, so I’ll get off the phone and try to think back to what he meant. It’ll be over an hour before I call Trevor back and he won’t pick up. I’ll leave him a message telling him we should talk soon and that it was good to hear from him. And for the life of me, I won’t be able to remember what he was talking about because to me, they will have all been good times.
Tom Chick has been writing about videogames for fifteen years. His work appears in Games for Windows Magazine, Yahoo, Gamespy, Sci-Fi, and Variety. He lives in Los Angeles. Shoot Club appears in this space every Thursday.