Damning with Faint Praise

By Lenny Levine

t must have been a hundred degrees in the auditorium. Michael Trowbridge, sweating bullets under his robe and mortarboard cap, strained to hear what the principal was saying. He didn’t want to look like an idiot and miss his name when he was called to the stage.

His friend Ralphie wasn’t helping, trying to tell him a stupid joke about someone giving advice on what to say on a blind date, whispering in his left ear.

“So the guy’s buddy says, ‘You’ve gotta compliment her, right off the bat. You’ve gotta say something nice to her as soon as she opens the door.’” Ralphie giggled in anticipation of the punch line, as Michael desperately tried to ignore him.

“Well, he gets to the girl’s house and she’s ugly as sin, a real porker. I mean, grotesque to the max. But the guy remembers his buddy’s advice, so he says, ‘Hey, you don’t seem to sweat much for a fat girl!’”

Ralphie cracked up laughing as the principal intoned, “And the winner of this year’s award for Perfect Attendance is…Michael Trowbridge.”

“Way to go, genius!” said Ralphie, slapping him on the back and cracking up again.

Michael stood and made his way down the aisle, to the feeble clap-clapping of his parents in the balcony. His fellow graduates watched him impassively as he gingerly mounted the steps to the stage, trying not to trip on his gown and humiliate himself for all eternity.

The Perfect Attendance Award. He’d never known such a thing existed until this morning, when they told him he’d won it. Now, here he was, forced to stand in front of everyone, right along with the Science Award winner, the History Award winner, and all the other brainiacs.

He’d been lucky to even graduate this year. If the gym teacher hadn’t taken pity and given him a B, bringing him up to the required C average, he’d be getting ready for summer school right now.

The principal gave him the plaque and shook his hand, barely glancing at him. Michael took his place between Phil Gennero, the Math Award winner, and Jane Sadowski, the Economics Award winner. Phil Gennero had never spoken a word to Michael before, but he did now.

“They say success is just showing up, so I guess you’re the proof of it.”

Jane Sadowski chuckled softly.

Michael’s face reddened. He looked down at the plaque he was holding and saw that they’d spelled his name “Trobridge.”

He wanted to cry.

Then a thought occurred, unbidden. What’s the matter? Isn’t this what you wanted?

He had no idea where it came from, or what it meant. Did it have something to do with the dream he had last night, the one that yanked him out of his sleep at two a.m.?

Usually, he remembered nightmares, at least for the first few seconds afterward. But he’d forgotten this one as soon as he opened his eyes. He was wide awake and sitting straight up in bed, unable to go back to sleep and unable to shake a feeling of impending disaster.

The principal was introducing the valedictorian now, a tiny, birdlike girl who seemed almost swallowed up in her gown. He lowered the microphone for her, stepped aside, and she began her speech in a whispery voice.

It was about learning to think independently. Michael barely paid attention, still wondering what he was doing there, feeling like everyone was secretly laughing at him.

The girl was speaking. “And just as you must ignore people who discourage you, you must doubly ignore people who praise you.”

Michael felt a twinge of unease. He didn’t know why, but it made him start listening to her.

“We all love praise,” she went on, in that whispery voice that was starting to sound creepy, “but praise is like candy. It tastes so sweet, you want more and more of it, until you can’t get enough.”

If he was sweating before, now it was pouring out of him. He blinked, trying to clear his vision as the vast auditorium in front of him began swimming before his eyes. What was happening?

“But inside each delicious morsel of praise is a tiny grain of poison. You can’t taste it, but it will fester within you and slowly eat away your soul until it dies.”

Michael fainted.

*   *   *

He lay on a cot in the nurse’s office, a tube running into his right arm for hydration, as his parents stood over him.

“Leave it to you,” his mother said, “spoiling that poor girl’s moment.”

She was an obese woman, whose body practically eclipsed his father’s slight frame as he stood behind her. Ralphie sat across the room, one hand over his mouth to hide the smirk.

“Come on, Edna,” said his father, “it was the heat. Give him a break!”

“I’m sorry, Bill, but he’s always looking for some way to call attention to himself, and it’s not right.”

“He wasn’t trying to…”

“We’ll talk about it later.”

“Listen, everybody, I’m fine,” said Michael.

He’d been out for only a second, and he’d immediately tried to get up. But the principal had insisted he lie there until the nurse could come to the stage and examine him, completing his mortification.

“One thing’s for sure,” his mother declared, “you’re calling off that stupid band rehearsal tonight and staying home.”

Ralphie’s smirk vanished. “Hey, no, please, Mrs. Trowbridge, don’t make him do that. We’ve got a manager coming to see us, and…”

“Don’t worry, Ralphie,” Michael interjected, raising his head from the pillow. “We’re not calling off the rehearsal tonight. No friggin’ way.”

“You watch your mouth!” said his mother. “Just ’cause you graduated high school doesn’t mean you get to use foul language.”

“Sorry, Mom, but we really do need to rehearse tonight, especially me. And incidentally, I’m fine.” He looked up at the bag attached to his arm, wishing the nurse would unhook him already, so he could get out of there.

After a few minutes, his wish was granted. She came back into the room, checked his blood pressure and pulse, disconnected the IV, and pronounced him good to go.

“Great!” he said, grabbing his cap and gown, his diploma, and the useless award they’d given him. “Let’s rock and roll!”

But he still didn’t know what came over him on that stage. And he still didn’t know why he had this feeling that something awful was about to happen. Or worse, that it already had.

*   *   *

They called their band The Plug-ins. Ralphie played drums, their friend Steve Philbart played bass, and Michael played guitar and sang. They basically sucked, but he didn’t care. As embarrassed as he’d been during graduation, that’s how liberated Michael felt whenever he was in front of a microphone, croaking out Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi songs off-key on open-mic nights.

The audiences either ignored them or shouted rude remarks. It didn’t matter. Michael would close his eyes and, for a few brief moments, become the Boss, sending a packed stadium into a frenzy.

Last night, maybe because graduation was the next day and they’d been distracted, their set was particularly sloppy. As they were packing up, a short, stocky man wearing a brown suit and a toupee came up and introduced himself as Harry Magnus. He handed each of them a business card that read Magnus Management: We Make Music Legends.

“I’ve seen lots of bands,” he told them, “but I think you guys are something special. If you don’t mind, I’d like to turn you into superstars.”

He claimed to have been instrumental in the careers of such artists as Sting, John Mayer, Bruno Mars, and many others.

“Now, I know you’re gonna Google me, and you’ll think I’m full of shit because you won’t find anything at all. But that’s the way I work, behind the scenes. Deeply behind the scenes.”

“So,” Ralphie asked reasonably, “how do we know you really aren’t full of shit?”

“Because I’ll prove it to you. How would you like to open for Joe Walsh this Saturday night at the Rock Palace?”

“What?!” they said.

“I can do it with a simple call. And I will. Check out the ad for the show in tomorrow’s paper and you’ll see your name there, right under Joe Walsh.”

The three of them nodded slowly.

“In the meantime, I’d like to come to a rehearsal, give you a few pointers. Where do you guys get together?”

“Steve’s parents’ garage,” Michael said and instantly regretted it. This man could be crazy. He sure sounded like he was. Michael wondered if he should’ve told him even that much.

“What’s the address?”

Steve gave it to him before Michael could say anything. The man wrote it down.

“When’s your next rehearsal?”

“Tomorrow night,” said Ralphie, “but this gig you just got us, if it’s real, is only two days away. Do you think we’re ready?”

“Oh, you’re ready,” the man said with a smile. “See you at the rehearsal tomorrow night.”

He shook hands with all of them and departed.

“Wow, how about that?” Ralphie said.

“How about nothing,” said Michael. “This is ridiculous; the guy is certifiable. We’ll check out the paper tomorrow morning, and that’ll be the end of it.”

But unbelievably, in the Friday Entertainment section, there it was:

 

Saturday, June 5th, at 9 P.M., The Rock Palace Presents

An Evening With Joe Walsh!

Then in smaller type, but not much smaller:

 

Special Added Attraction, The Plug-ins!

 

*   *   *

They told no one. They’d agreed to secrecy in hurried whispers as they got ready to march down the aisle with their classmates. If anyone happened to notice the ad in the paper, there was nothing they could do. But most people didn’t even know what their band was called, so they probably didn’t have to worry.

That night, when they got together in the garage, Michael told them he might have figured out what was going on.

“Obviously, there’s another group called The Plug-ins. I mean, it’s not impossible, right? That ad has been in the paper all week. When he noticed our band had the same name, he decided to prank us. I’ll bet if we check yesterday’s paper, we’ll see the same ad as today’s, with our name included.”

“Okay, let’s do that,” said Ralphie, whipping out his phone.

But they couldn’t find any ads for the show in the online version of the paper.

“Shit, we need to find a print version,” said Michael.

“I think I may have one,” said Steve, moving over to the back wall. “My parents always stack the papers and recyclables here in the garage. Wait a minute.”

He rummaged around briefly and came up with it. “Yes!” he said.

The others peered over his shoulder as he turned to the Entertainment section.

The ad referred only to Joe Walsh. No mention of The Plug-ins or anyone else.

“Hey there, guys!”

Harry Magnus was standing in the open garage doorway. He seemed to have just appeared there. They’d been so intent on finding the ad that they hadn’t seen him walking up the driveway, even though it was long and straight, and the exterior lights were on.

“I see you have some pretty crappy equipment here,” he said, stepping inside and looking around. “Not to worry. You’ll have a state-of-the-art setup tomorrow night.”

Michael was the first to find his voice. “Can I ask you something, Mr. Magnus? Why are you doing this? We’re not nearly good enough. In fact, we suck. Anyone who hears us knows that immediately.”

“You mind if I close this?” asked Magnus, reaching up and pushing the button that shuts the garage door. “There, that’s better.”

He stood with his back to it, facing the three of them.

“I know what you think of yourselves. But it’s only because you haven’t begun to work with me yet. It will all change, you’ll see.”

“By tomorrow night?” Michael said.

“Sooner than that. Pick up your instruments and play something for me. Anything.”

Ralphie moved behind the drums while Steve and Michael put on their bass and guitar. They spent a few seconds tuning up, a process that was mostly successful and as close as they usually got.

“What are we gonna play?” Steve asked. “Something Springsteen?”

“Let’s do ‘Dancing in the Dark,’” Michael suggested.

Ralphie counted it off and they launched into it, much faster than the count-off. It immediately became slower, then faster again.

Michael closed his eyes, stepped up to the mic, and let it rip.

I get up in the evening (flat on the last two notes) and I ain’t got nothin’ to say. I come home in the morning (the same two notes now painfully sharp) I go to bed feeling the same way. I ain’t nothin’ but tired…

Steve tilted his bass and whipped his head back to make his hair fly, playing several wrong notes and not noticing.

Man, I’m just tired and bored with myself. Hey there, baby, I could use just a little help…

Ralphie had stopped playing at this point. He was bent over, trying to retrieve one of the sticks he’d dropped trying to twirl it. He picked it up and then did the same with the tempo.

You can’t start a fire, Michael rasped, as Ralphie pulled ahead of him. You can’t start a fire without a spark. This gun’s for hire…

“Okay, stop!” Harry Magnus called out.

He strode across the garage to the drums and stood over Ralphie. “Look me in the eye.” Ralphie blinked and then did as he was told.

“You’re an empty barrel, Ralphie; all you do is make a lot of noise. But not anymore.” Ralphie blinked again. “I’m going to turn you into Ringo Starr, Mick Fleetwood, and Ginger Baker, all wrapped up in one.”

Michael wondered how he knew Ralphie’s name. They never told him their names, aside from the one reference to Steve’s parents’ garage.

“Give me your sticks, stand up, and move away from the drum set, please.”

Ralphie, with a shrug to the other guys, complied. Magnus sat down at the drums.

“You’re going to watch everything I do,” he said, and suddenly Ralphie was mesmerized.

“Good,” said Magnus.

He then proceeded to play the most incredible drum solo they’d ever heard. It went on for several minutes, with explosive crescendos and intricate polyrhythmic figures. His sticks were a blur, flashing from cymbals to snare to toms and back again with blinding speed, his feet pounding the double bass drums like artillery fire. It concluded with a crash that rattled the garage walls.

“There,” he said, standing up and returning the sticks to Ralphie. “Now sit back down.” Ralphie did so in a daze.

“Steve,” said Magnus, turning to him, “you’re not going through a very good time right now, are you? It’s tough when your parents are getting a divorce.”

“Holy shit, Steve,” Michael blurted out, this being news to him. “Is that true?”

It was news to Ralphie too, but he was still in a trance.

“You feel like you’re alone in the world,” Magnus went on as Steve gaped at him, “because all your parents care about is their hatred for each other. It really sucks, doesn’t it? The only thing that gives you any pleasure at all is that bass around your neck, the one you play so godawful shitty.”

Steve nodded meekly.

“But that’s all in the past, Steve. You’re going to become an amazing bass player, right up there with the greatest musicians who ever played bass. Give me your instrument, please.”

Michael would swear he never saw Steve take off the bass. It seemed to float from his shoulders into Magnus’s hands. “Don’t look away from me,” he said, and Steve instantly became a zombie like Ralphie.

Magnus began playing a funk figure, making the strings pop with percussive sounds, moving to an unexpected chord change and back, laying down an infectious groove. It morphed into a Motown-style bass line that would have been the rock-steady heart of a sixties mega-hit. He kept it going, adding a melody on top with the use of harmonics. Finally, he slipped into a smooth jazz progression that Miles Davis would have been proud to improvise over, before tearing into the dizzying string of descending notes that concluded it.

“You got all that?” he asked Steve, handing him back his bass. “Good.”

“Now, Michael . . .” Michael’s palms went clammy. “Your mother has a pretty low opinion of you, doesn’t she? She says you shouldn’t try to call attention to yourself, because you don’t deserve it. She’s absolutely right, you know.”

Tears sprang to his eyes. He tried to speak, but his lips wouldn’t open.

“Look at yourself. Why should anyone pay attention to you? You barely made it through high school. You can’t sing, you can’t play. All you can do is close your eyes up there and masturbate in front of everyone.”

“Please, don’t…” Michael managed, before his mouth stopped working again.

“And the thing is, you know it. You know it deep down in your soul, and you hate yourself for it. You wish that, somehow, it could all magically change, that by some miracle, you could be like Bruce Springsteen. The glorious object of praise.”

The tears were running down Michael’s face.

“Well, guess what?” said Magnus. “You can. Give me your guitar.”

Michael was unaware of taking it off. The next thing he knew, Magnus was wearing his guitar.

“You will not look away,” Magnus told him, “even for a nanosecond.”

He tore into a rapid-fire solo, his fingers dancing along the strings as the guitar keened and wailed and tore virtual holes in the air. Then he switched to a driving rhythm figure, growling as it boiled.

He began to sing to it, a song Michael had never heard before.

Hey, baby, look at me

The only one you’ll ever see

From now throughout eternity

And that’s the way it’s gonna be

His voice was rough, smooth, mellifluous, and earthy, all at the same time. He repeated the chorus, varying the melody and displaying a vast range that went from deep bass to a screaming falsetto, finally shrieking out the last note.

He took off the guitar and gave it back to a stupefied Michael.

“Okay, fellas,” he said, “let’s hear ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ take two.”

They stared at each other. Then, almost robotically, Ralphie counted it off.

The tempo was locked in now, so tight it squeaked. Steve’s bass lay down a solid foundation for Michael’s guitar, both of them now perfectly in tune and playing off each other. Michael opened his mouth and couldn’t believe what came out.

His voice was pure Springsteen, just like the record, and he wasn’t imagining it. He really sounded that way. Not only that, he was varying the original melody, doing vocal riffs off of it, taking it to another level. The song ended and they stood there in wonder.

“Not too shabby,” said Magnus. “Okay, here’s the deal. You’ll do six songs tomorrow night, all Springsteen. I’ll give you the set list before you go on. Don’t worry, you’ll perform them just as well as you did this one.

“You will not rehearse between now and then because it won’t do you any good. The only time you’ll sound this way is tomorrow night on that stage. After that, we’ll discuss the future.”

“Are you gonna ask us to sign some sort of contract?” Steve asked.

“Nope,” said Magnus. “We all shook hands last night at the club, remember? That’s the only contract I’ve ever needed.”

A wisp of a memory tickled the back of Michael’s brain. It was that dream, and it faded instantly again, replaced by the same feeling of dread, only more of it.

*   *   *

It was an absolute triumph! They did the set list Magnus gave them, starting with “Glory Days” and ending with “Born to Run,” and they played and sang amazingly.

But Michael couldn’t enjoy it, somehow. The strangeness seemed to overwhelm the wonder. He hadn’t told his parents, saying he was going to another rehearsal tonight. His father was curious about why they’d rehearse on a Saturday night, but he didn’t make a thing over it.

Ralphie and Steve hadn’t told anyone either, perhaps in fear that it might turn out to be an embarrassment after all. It was far from it.

The audience, at first, gave them lukewarm applause, but then they really got into it. These were, after all, great Classic Rock songs they were hearing, and Michael sounded exactly like Bruce. By the end, the crowd was on its feet, cheering.

It was surreal, as they drifted off the stage and into the wings. One of Joe Walsh’s roadies, going the other way, complimented Michael on his guitar.

“Nice Strat, dude,” he said.

“Thanks,” said Michael, even though it was just an ordinary Stratocaster and beat up, besides.

A group of girls was standing by the fire exit. “Love your shirt,” one of them said. “Love Springsteen,” said another.

“Thanks,” Michael said again, that ominous feeling growing.

Ralphie and Steve had preceded him into the dressing room. They were oohing and aahing over the buffet that had been left for them while they were onstage.

“This is really something, ain’t it?” said Ralphie, grinning widely.

“I could sure get used to this,” said Steve, picking up a canape and throwing it into his mouth.

Michael had no appetite. He couldn’t stop feeling like something was terribly wrong.

The door opened and Magnus came in.

“Well, guys, how did you like it?”

“It was great!” Ralphie and Steve said together.

“How about you, Michael?”

“Yeah, it was great,” he muttered.

Magnus raised an eyebrow. “I sense some hesitation on your part. What’s the matter? Isn’t this what you wanted?”

They were the same words he’d thought on stage at graduation, just before the girl started speaking. It made him think of the dream again. It was there now, just beneath his consciousness.

“You wanted praise,” said Magnus. “I got it for you. I even got you that Perfect Attendance award, as a show of good faith.”

“But that’s nothing,” Michael blurted out. “Getting an award for just being there? It’s embarrassing.”

“I can’t help that,” said Magnus. “Didn’t you like what that roadie said to you, or those girls outside the dressing room?”

“He liked my guitar! What’s that got to do with me? And one girl liked my goddamn shirt! And the other one didn’t say anything about me. She just liked Springsteen!”

And then he remembered the dream.

He was standing in a field, and there was a raging fire in the distance. It was getting closer. He knew he had to run, but he couldn’t move. The heat was becoming more and more intense. He could see a face forming in the middle of the flames, Magnus’s face.

It spoke the same words Magnus would use in the garage the next night. About how Michael hated himself and wished his life could magically change, that by some miracle, he could become like Bruce Springsteen, the glorious object of praise. It asked him what he’d give for that.

“Everything,” he’d said.

And that’s when he woke up in a cold sweat.

“I told you guys that after the show we’d discuss the future,” Magnus was now saying. “Well, here’s the future. You’re going back to your lives just as they were. No more rock ’n’ roll acclaim for you. I said I’d turn you into superstars, but I never said for how long. And anyway, who gives a shit about a Bruce Springsteen cover band?

“You will not remember any of this. You’ll go home, and whatever is supposed to happen in your lives will happen. But in the end, even if you don’t think you deserve it, and believe me, nobody thinks they do, I’ll be there. I’ve fulfilled my part of the bargain. You’ll fulfill yours.”

He gave a malevolent grin and then vanished, leaving a burnt match smell behind.

The three of them stood there, stupefied. They didn’t even hear the knock on the door.

It came again, louder, and the door opened. A bearded man in his thirties stuck his head into the room.

“Hi, my name is Van Simmons,” he said, “and I’m a producer with Parkhill Records. I saw your show just now.” He grinned and shook his head. “Man, I’ve seen lots of rock ’n’ roll bands, but you guys are something special. Each and every one of you has such good posture!”

With a cheery wave, he stepped back outside and closed the door.

___

Lenny Levine attended Brooklyn College, graduating in 1962 with a BA in Speech and Theater. Immediately thereafter, he forgot about all of that and became a folk singer, then a folk-rock singer and songwriter, and finally a studio singer and composer of many successful jingles, including McDonald’s, Lipton Tea, and Jeep. He has composed songs and sung backup for Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Peggy Lee, Diana Ross, Barry Manilow, the Pointer Sisters, Carly Simon, and others. In addition, he performed for a number of years with the improvisational comedy group War Babies.

His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, Bitter Oleander, The Dirty Goat, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, Forge, The Griffin, Hobo Pancakes, The Jabberwock Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, Penmen Review, Rio Grande Review, riverSedge, Rougarou, Verdad, Westview, and Wild Violet. He received a 2011 Pushcart Prize nomination for short fiction.


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