Some of you might know that I lived in Seattle for almost twenty years, and that I have two books set there, Emerald City and West Seattle Blues. It’s not Leeds, but the place still has a chunk of my heart.
The main character from those novels, music journalist Laura Benton, popped into my head several weeks ago with a little tale to tell. This is it…(and if you like Laura, those two novels are available as ebooks or audiobooks. Just, you know, a suggestion).
This is to the memory of Cyril/Larry Barrett, a wonderful man and a startlingly original singer and songwriter who died far too soon. And he was a real original.
‘I swear to God,’ he slurred. ‘I’m not shitting you.’
He looked at me, eyes at that point just past focusing, the words barely hitting the mark. I nodded and hoped he’d go away. But Danny had his audience; he wasn’t going to leave anytime soon.
I should have guessed there was a reason for the empty barstool in the Two Bells on a Thursday night, the time most people in Seattle started celebrating the weekend. I’d just planned on a quick beer before walking down to the OK Hotel to catch Girl Trouble.
Instead, I got Danny Hill. Over the last ten years he’d been in at least a dozen bands, none of them good, none of them original. For as long as I’d known him he’d been a drunk. And now he was saying that Nirvana had ripped off one of his songs. It was about as likely as all the Californians who’d arrived here in the last couple of years heading back home again. Especially with Nevermind just out and the whole world suddenly smelling like Teen Spirit. Hey, suddenly we were famous all over again in the Pacific Northwest.
‘I’ll prove it, man,’ Danny said and fumbled in his pocket until he brought out a cassette. ‘You listen to that, okay? Just listen to it. You’ll see.’ He half slid off the stool and vanished toward the john. Time to leave, I decided.
‘He’s ripped,’ Annie the bartender, said, shaking her head. ‘He’s been going on about this all evening. I’m going to cut him off when he comes back. If you’re heading out, do it now, Laura. He’ll be following you all night if you don’t.’
‘Good plan,’ I agreed. ‘I’m going to jet.’
I loved music. I loved writing about it. I’d been lucky enough to make a living from it. Pieces for magazines all over the country, and a lot for The Rocket here in town. The downside was people like Danny. People were always giving me demos, saying they were the shit, they were going to be huge. Most of them ended up like him, working down at Pike Place Market or for Muzak Corporation while they waited for something that was never going to happen.
I still had his cassette in my coat when I walked home later that night. I was living up on Queen Anne, a good, cheap apartment that looked over Lake Union and the downtown skyline. Crane my neck and I could see the Space Needle. Best of all, it was just five blocks from Tower Records.
Girl Trouble had been good – they were always good – a burst of energy that blew out the cobwebs. I just wasn’t ready to sleep yet. I pulled a Henry Weinhard’s from the refrigerator, stuck the tape in the deck and settled back on the couch.
For maybe the first time in his life, Danny was right. I played the song, rewound it, and played it again. Then I dug out my copy of Nevermind. The song wasn’t an exact copy, but it was close enough to make me wonder.
There was no date on the plastic cassette case. I had no idea when it had been recorded, and the whole style was different from Nirvana. Still…
Just after ten the next morning I opened the door of the old building on Fifth Avenue and climbed the stairs to the office The Rocket.
Jack was back in the editor’s ocubbyhole, going over the proofs for the next edition. I tapped on the door and waited until he finished reading the paragraph.
‘Hey,’ he said. ‘What’s up? Got two pieces of yours in here.’ He pointed to the byline: Laura Benton. I’d been seeing it for years but it still made me stupidly proud.
‘Got something interesting. Take a listen to this and tell me what you think.’ I put the cassette on his desk. He gave me an odd look, turned in his chair and put it in the player.
‘Shit,’ he said when it was done. ‘Who gave you that?’
‘Danny Hill. He says he wrote it.’
Jack ran a hand through his hair and gave a long sigh. He knew as well as I did that Danny was a lush.
‘Have you heard the radio this morning?’
I shook my head. I’d slept late, tumbled out of bed and into the shower, then walked downtown.
‘He was killed last night. Hit and run, up in the U-District.’
‘Are you serious?’ I asked, not able to believe it. ‘I just saw him in the Two Bells about nine-thirty.’
‘All I know is what I heard.’ He took out the cassette and handed it back to me. ‘Sorry.’
‘Maybe…’ I began, then shook my head. ‘No.’ No one was going to kill over a song. Not a band, not even a big record label. That was just stupid. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Look, if you want to see if you can find out about the song, go ahead,’ Jack told me. ‘I mean, it’s probably a coincidence, but…’
‘Just bring it to me if there’s anything interesting, okay?’
I gave him a loose salute and left.
Back in the apartment, I called the Seattle Police Department’s public relations woman. She wasn’t going to give too much away, but she did confirm that a male aged twenty-nine had been struck by a vehicle the night before at a little after eleven. The victim has been taken to Harborview but was declared dead on arrival. The cops were still hunting for the car and driver.
Twenty-nine, I thought. He must have come out here for college. I tried to think where Danny was from. He’d told me once; somewhere back East, I could remember that much, but that was all. As far as I knew, he wasn’t married, and he seemed to break up his bands every six months.
The White Pages showed an address for Daniel Hill on Beacon Hill, nowhere near the U-District. So what could have taken him out that way? That was one question. Then death was another.
First of all, though, I wanted to find out about the song on that cassette. I tried to think back and come up with people who’d played in Danny’s bands. Cathy. She’d done some gigs with him the year before, I knew that. But I didn’t have a number for her.
It took five calls before I managed to find one, and then she wasn’t home. I left a message. All I could do now was wait.
The phone rang a little after six. I’d just finished writing a couple of reviews, the final drafts ready to go in the mail.
‘This is Laura,’ I said.
‘It’s Cathy Leighton. You left a message?’
‘Yeah. I write for The Rocket. I’m calling about Danny Hill.’
‘Oh.’ There was a flat, defensive note in her voice.
‘I know, it’s pretty bad, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah, a friend of mine called to tell me. I mean, I quit his band six months ago, but…’
‘This is going to sound weird,’ I said, ‘but I saw Danny last night. He was pretty wasted, but he gave me a cassette. Just one song on it.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It…it sounds very much like something else. He kept saying he’d been ripped off, that someone had stolen his song.’ I paused. ‘I told you it was strange.’
‘We recorded some stuff, you know, demos.’ She sounded uncertain, as if she was dredging up memories and not sure about sharing them. ‘But it was all kind of funk back then. He was on this thing like he wanted to be Cameo or something – “Word Up” kind of stuff.’
‘That’s nothing like this,’ I assured her. ‘You didn’t do anything more rock, loud-soft-loud, Pixies-ish?’
‘No. Nothing like that.’ She seemed mystified.
‘Do you have any idea who was playing with him recently?’
‘The last I heard, he was looking for people.’ She hesitated. ‘I mean, I don’t want to say anything bad with him dead and everything, but he wasn’t very easy to get along with. And his songs weren’t so great. Not as good as he thought they were, anyway.’
‘I know that. I’ve seen him play before. Is there anyone you can think of who knew him well, a friend or anything?’
‘Have you talked to Mette?’ Cathy asked.
‘Mette. She’s this Danish girl. They were really close. Not like, you know, but buds.’
‘I’ve never heard of her,’ I said.
‘Let me see what I can find out,’ she offered.
Cathy called back a little before nine. I was zoning out with some stupid TV show, debating whether I wanted to go down to the Ditto and catch Chemistry Set or just stay home.
‘This is Laura,’ I said.
‘Hey, it’s Cathy. I found Mette if you want to talk to her.’ I wrote down the number. ‘I said you’d be calling her.’
‘Thanks,’ I told her. ‘I appreciate it.’
‘If you find out about that tape, let me know. I’m curious now.’
Mette might have been Danish, but there was only the slightest trace of it in her accent, a small lilt of music in the words. She lived on Queen Anne, too, on West Galer just by the top of the hill.
‘I’m sorry about Danny,’ I told her.
‘Thank you.’ Her voice seemed empty and far away. ‘I can’t believe it. I keep thinking…I don’t even know what I’m thinking.’
‘He gave me a tape last night.’
‘Was he drunk?’ she asked.
‘Yeah,’ I admitted. ‘He was.’
She stayed silent for a while.
‘I’d like you to hear it,’ I said finally. ‘See if you recognize it.’
‘Okay,’ she agreed reluctantly. ‘You mean now?’
‘If that’s okay.’
‘I guess,’ Mette said.
I drove over, up Taylor and along the strip past the supermarkets and the restaurants that had blossomed up there. She showed me into a cozy studio, the kitchen with a red Formica table and vintage chairs, then through to the main room. Photographs spilled from a shoebox, all of them of Danny.
I turned and looked at her.
‘Look, if you’d rather do this another time…’
She shook her head, blonde hair swishing from side to side around a big moon face.
‘No, no,’ Mette said in quiet despair. ‘I guess now’s fine.’ She held out a hand and I gave her the cassette.
I watched her face as the song played, the intense concentration, then the way her features softened and the faint smile as Danny’s voice came out of the speakers. She let the whole piece play without saying a word.
‘I’ve never heard it before,’ Mette told me when it was done. But there was more in her tone. ‘I remember the bassline, though. He came up with that a couple of months ago, one night when I was at his apartment.’
‘Two months?’ I asked in astonishment. That was shortly before Nevermind had been released.
‘It wasn’t any longer than that. It can’t have been.’ She pulled a Kleenex from the sleeve of her sweater and dabbed at her eyes. ‘I’m sorry. I…’
A thought struck me.
‘Did Danny ever see Nirvana play?’ I asked. He must have done. It seemed as if every musician in town had been to plenty of their gigs.
‘Oh yeah.’ The small smile returned. ‘He loved those guys. I guess the last time was back in the winter. We went down together. You remember when the weather was really bad?’
I did. During February it had been surprisingly brutal, inches of snow and ice shutting down the city for a few days. Seattle was fine with rain, but we couldn’t cope with worse.
‘It was just after that. I don’t think I ever saw Danny focus as hard on anything as he did that night. It was like he was taking in every note.’
‘Was he drinking much?’
‘Not really. Just a couple beers. He was fine to drive home after.’
I nodded at the tape in the player.
‘What about the song?’
‘I don’t know. It sounds like he did it all himself. That’s his guitar playing and his bass. I’d know it anywhere. He has a four-track. Had,’ she corrected herself.
‘I see.’ It was simple enough. The riff, the idea, had lodged in his head when he’d seen the band. And it had come out later, all his own work, maybe, but so close to the original.
I didn’t know he was insisting he’d been ripped off. Very likely he’d just convinced himself it was that way. I didn’t know what went on in an alcoholic’s mind. And we’d never find out. Danny wasn’t around anymore to say.
‘Do you know why he’d go up to the U-District?’ I asked. ‘He was down in Belltown when I saw him, at the Two Bells.’
‘Sheila.’ The word came out so quietly that for a second I believed I’d imagined it.
‘Sheila.’ Mette looked at me. ‘They broke up a month ago. She lives up near there. He’d get drunk and just stand across the street from her place, out of sight. No hassles,’ she added quickly. ‘He wasn’t like that. But she called the cops once. They warned him, but he kept going back.’
It was creepy. It was disturbing. Once I thought about it, I could believe it was something Danny would do. But I could see from Mette’s face that she wished Danny had loved her.
‘Thank you,’ I told her.
‘Do you mind if I keep the tape?’ she asked. ‘You know.’
‘It’s all yours.’ I didn’t need it any more.
I was awake early, struggling out of strange, dark dreams that evaporated as soon as I opened my eyes. In the kitchen I made coffee and switched on the radio, the news on KUOW.
‘Police have made an arrest in the hit-and-run killing of a man the night before last in the U-District. The deceased has been named as Daniel Hill. The driver is said to have been intoxicated at the time of the accident.’
So simple. So terrible. So fucking empty.