Fiction Finalist Barbara Black

Jan 31, 2018 by

Fiction Finalist Barbara Black

Velvet Voice

Even with insects—some can sing, some can’t.
—Kobayashi Issa, trans. Robert Hass

Until that gig she never thought of a concert venue as a habitat. But I’m ahead of myself.

“As soon as all of us were in one place we’d do a few gigs,” she told me, dragging on a cigarette and nursing a wheatgrass smoothie. “We hardly ever practiced, we just—” she blew out a perfect stream of smoke, then sipped the green drink—“winged it.” Apparently that was how Rick the lead guitarist, AKA Rat Boy, liked it. Raw. Or, as Sofie put it, “Rat Boy was the kind of musician who thought that every bar of music should be crammed with noise, and the audience should leave a gig with their nerve endings flayed. One of our reviews said: sounds like a group of crazed chimps slaughtering their simian god. Which I took as a compliment.”

They had a new bass player, Pinky. Silent, like all bassists. He played like an architect, layering up deep structure. “He had something in his fingertips. It came from really deep inside him,” she said. He wasn’t quite part of the group yet. Rat Boy called him “Pinko commie.” He hadn’t taken to him, but his spider senses told him he wasn’t worth messing with. Sophie had “found” Pinky at the Blues House open mic night. She suspected he was a closet jazzman, but he seemed to be able to slip into any genre. Everyone except Pinky knew her style: tragic, unstable, raw and wicked. Music scraped from the very organs of Sophonisba’s1 world. In just one song she could scream her guts out, cry a lyric, or sing hysterically like a harpy. Every gig wiped her out. Every song exhausted her emotional arsenal.

But it was good. Sofi and the Suprematists2—their new band name—were hot on the indie circuit, riding the ebbing tide of punk into something that didn’t require Mohawks, dog collars, and shitloads of anger.

“You know, everything was just fine. Pinky was starting to fit in, but he thought the band should actually be, like, practising. He said we needed new songs. I agreed. He pissed off our drummer, Duke, when he said to him, ‘What are you, a human sledgehammer?’ I was reading about this leftist art movement in Russia. I wanted to write a song based on words by the poet Mayakovsky. There’s this amazing recording of him reciting poetry like some doomsday oracle. ‘I will make myself black trousers of the velvet of my voice.’ I loved that line. I don’t know why, really. I didn’t even quite get what it meant.”

But as she went deep into the meaning of that phrase, she got lost, couldn’t locate the velvet in her voice let alone fashion black trousers from it. Structures of her world started to chunk off.

“It was, like, I know this sounds stupid but like my innards had dissolved. I couldn’t access anything. There was no music, no words, no emotions, just this sloppy undefined mass. All I could do was cry or sit, catatonic, looking out the window all day. I couldn’t write my angsty songs about love any more and scream them into the mic. Rick was on my case constantly and when we had sex he thrashed on me like I was the vessel of his sick inspiration. Some people, you know, never change. They just morph into more hideous versions of themselves.”

She spent afternoons at Crank Coffee reading up on the Russians, especially Kulbin’s idea of sensibility as—and, as she tells it, reading out loud to Pinky in her best preachy voice—“the point where a subliminal sensation becomes conscious.” He only nodded and pulled on his goatee.

Meanwhile, crashing, head banging straight-up power chord beats were giving way to a new rhythm and lyrics that seemed to alter the shape of her mouth. She invited me to a practise where Pinky listened to her struggle with a new song and said, “It’s a five, Soph, you can’t cram it into a four-four. It’s 3-2, 2-3, variable, like a man with a wooden leg walking down stairs.” Rat Boy watched them, his body shifting crazily like he had eyes all over his head that gave him too much information. He did not believe in love. But his body did.

Her new music was an uncharted language. She started getting stage fright, throwing up before gigs, mangling words, disassociating in the middle of a song. The tunes were impossible to slam dance to. With no body-smashing anger outlet, the audiences got bored. There were fewer and fewer bookings. The Suprematists—except Pinky, who stood in his corner plucking his celestial bass—were supremely frustrated. Sophie decided to take beta-blockers, but they made her songs sound robotic, a pale whine in a loveless world. She tried downing four vodka-wheatgrass martinis before going onstage, but alcohol made her forget the lyrics, and she fumbled in glossolalia labyrinths of her own making. The band was constantly struggling to cover up, weed-whacking their way through chord changes. But Pinky could always lay down a bass solo that would float out like a magic carpet, bringing her back.


I kept following them, dropping in on practices. One night Pinky spoke. He had a voice like a sedative, only a good one. “You wanna work on the intuitive principle, hon. Balance the harmony with the dissonance. Know how to use it, not let it use you,” he said cryptically, smoothing his hands down the curves of his bass, then plucking out a little riff as an end-stop. Sophie didn’t really get what he was talking about.

“Look, if you were a cow, it would be as simple as mooing. But you’re a singer, so just sing.3 Rat Boy stepped behind Sophie and forced a ball of hash in her clenched fist. She turned and looked into his eyes—Escher staircases that led you everywhere and nowhere.

“We were playing at the Stray Dog4 on Broadland, this grubby hidey-hole place. The ceilings were super low, like playing in some kind of fifties grotto. When I walked onstage in my black velvet cape I felt like I’d passed through an invisible screen. Everything felt infused with reality. I introduced myself and the band, but they seemed like, I don’t know, different versions of themselves. I was pretty sure I did, anyway. But then when I looked out into the crowd in the dim light it seemed like this mass of twitching and scuttling, pointing fingers, moving mouths, turning heads, like a weird chaos of inter-connected sensory nodes, like a hive. I felt like I was going to sing to a room of insects and they were eating my songs, they were eating me.”

She went backstage and threw up. I heard it. She watched the audience through a tiny slit in the curtain. Pinky came to her: “Hon, think threshold. Hold off on the ecstasy. This room, it’s your habitat. All these strangers come to hear you—The Emoto Queen—because that’s their program, their deep need. All they need is a nudge, not a push. Music is like a pheromone. Your voice is a pheromone. You send it out and they receive it like nectar from heaven.” Then, because he wasn’t holding his bass, he tapped out a little riff on her bare shoulder, plink-plink-plink. She went back on and nailed it.


A few weeks later, after the band scrapped most of his two-chord songs from the giglist (losing “Assbackward Psycho” particularly pissed him off), Rat Boy dropped Sophie and dropped out. Not before leaving his trademark trail of destruction. He smashed Pinky’s bass into smithereens, slivers of jagged anger all over the floor. But, like some kind of self-regenerating infinity machine, Pinky just pulled out another one from his stock.

They subbed in a female guitarist with a mean finger-picking style. The drummer started to lay off every few bars, carved out some space for himself. The Suprematists leapt back into indie play, but their style had changed: more plush, less catastrophic. They recorded their first CD. Pinky suggested the title: “Black Heart, Velvet Voice,” and everyone liked it except Sophie, who didn’t know yet that she was carrying Pinky’s child.


Winner of the 2017 Writers’ Union of Canada Short Prose Competition, Barbara Black’s writing has appeared in CV2, The New Quarterly, Freefall, and numerous other national and international publications.

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