To follow this story, you have to see the film Almost Famous. But no sweat, if you haven’t, I till tell you on the way. There is this boy journalist called William who is going to tour with a rock band, to interview them for the Rolling Stone magazine. Now this is back in the early 70s when people still read magazines, and it was a big deal to appear on the cover of one. There was no blog and website for every newborn, there were only magazines. When I watched William, I decided that’s what I want to be. He is in high school, I am just done with my college graduation. Jobless. All I had to do was find a band and tour with them.
It wasn’t easy. Number one, no magazine or newspaper would pay me to tour with a rock band and interview them. Why couldn’t I do it on phone like everyone else, they ask. I say I will forget about my payment, would you just take care of the tour expenses. They would as long as it is in train and not too long. This was disappointing. All the rock bands I knew took flights, not like in the movie, where they had a huge bus that they loved.
Number two, there were no tours happening. But I found a local band called Sentinels planning to come from Kochi to Trivandrum for a show. Only a local paper has once carried a photo of their performance. No one knew about them. I mean, yes, there were fans. There is a fan following for every video uploaded on Youtube. So that didn’t really say anything.
The Sentinels were very happy when I made the proposal. “Of course you could tour with us, we have a gig in Trivandrum this weekend. We are going in train, would you be okay with it?” I would be more than ok. Well, I would have preferred our own private bus where we could make all the noise and sing songs together like William and his band. But this was more practical. My magazine – again, a local one – agreed. So we started from Kochi on a Friday evening. It’d take about four hours. I began my interview with Sunny, the fat drummer. He was always ignored, he had complained to me when I first met the band members. Everyone went for the lead singer or guitarist. The drummer was just the long-haired punk in the background no one wanted to talk to. I assured him drummers had their appeal, and all the girls fell in love with them. This seemed to cheer him up a bit until he remembered, that’s never been his story. I had my question ready for Sunny. I copied it from William. And added more to it, for effect.
“Do you experience the feelings that you express in your songs? For example, when it is a love song, is it because you are in love? When you sing a sad song, are you sad?”
The question didn’t seem to make any sense to Sunny. He said, “You know what? That’s a bad question, you are a bad journalist. I am going back to my drums.” He then went on to literally hug one of his bags, which I assumed carried some part of his instrument, or maybe it was his teddy bear. He did seem the kind to carry one. But I didn’t want to give up, and like William, end up with no interview. I went near him and pressed again. “What made you join this band, Sunny?” This was more simple, he shouldn’t be upset. But he was. “What do you mean? You think I am not good enough to join a band?” This guy had a huge problem of inferiority complex. “Did you think it would get you a girlfriend?” I know, that was very rude. But by now, I was annoyed too. So I was pretty surprised to see the fat lad grin. “Did Lenny tell you that?”
Lenny was the bassist. I smiled. “Come on, tell me the story. I won’t write it, I promise.” He laughed louder this time. “Oh you can write it, I don’t mind. Maybe that will give some girl an idea to come talk to me.” And that was it. This long-haired fatso started with the drums in class 7, to impress his classmate Leena. She was a diehard fan of Midhun, the drummer of Avial Band. Or, so she said. Little Sunny learnt his first few lessons and tried to show it off but Leena never took notice of him. Frustrated, he began to vent all his hurt on the drums. And then, somewhere between the frustrations and the strength it gave of holding those drumsticks, he forgot about the girl. And fell in love with the sound of his music. He spent time with his drums for hours every day. He’d cut classes on days he didn’t feel like leaving them back at home. Now I realized it had to be those drumsticks that he hugged, not a teddy bear. And somehow I made my conclusion thus: It’s always about a girl, always.
Next, I went to Lenny. His real name was not Lenny. And he wouldn’t tell me what it is. “I just had to adopt this one so it’d rhyme with the others in the band – Sunny, Tommy, Mickey.” Seeing my puzzled expression he said “Yeah these names are pretty common where we come from. We like to believe we are descendants of the British who left us 70 years ago.” It was 66, but I didn’t correct him. Lenny was not as sensitive as Sunny. Well, at least not on the outside. He seemed to maintain a serious air around him. Laugh quietly when he did, and not drink or smoke. I should say Tommy and Mickey were smoking almost all four hours of the journey. Actually the journey took longer, but I will get to it later. In a bit, I mean. I won’t make it too boring. And Sunny was sipping what he insisted was a cola, but everyone knew was mixed with cheap rum. He was only 17, and was still wary of what the ‘uncles and aunties’ who saw him in the train would tell his mom back home. “You never know who knows us and who doesn’t. Mom’s no rockstar but everybody knows her!”
Lenny, on the other hand, had no interest in drinking or smoking. “Or girls,” he added with a smile, guessing my next question. “But why?” I suspected this was an act. “No space, no time. Music takes it all.” Bah. Too artificial, too readymade. And yet, looking at his brown eyes and uncombed long curls, his Elvis-like side burns and stubbles, I couldn’t help believing them. I was, like any other girl fan, in love with this man, forever. Well, to be technically correct, for 6 months, since they launched their first single on Youtube and I accidentally discovered them. I had in fact suggested Sentinels, only in the hope of spending some time alone with Lenny, on the pretext of an interview. I had to look away, love was all over my face. The train was drawing in at Alappuzha. As if on cue, the three others stepped down to stretch their hands. “You can go too, I will wait,” I said, still looking away. Silence. I turned back. He was looking at me, the brownness of his eyes, moving here, and there. Absentmindedly I said “Here, there, everywhere.” He laughed. “You like the Beatles?” Oh no, did I sing that Beatles song, or did I just say it. Please god, please tell me I didn’t sing it. “You have a good voice you know.” Oh darn, I sang! “We are not thinking of a female vocalist now, but if we are, I will definitely give you a call,” he winked. “Why do you love music so much?” I blurted out. I was acting like a jealous girlfriend, jealous of the music he gave everything to.
I raised an eyebrow. “A girl?”
He looked down. “Alice.” I said nothing. The siren had gone off and everyone got back into the train. He looked outside the moving train and said. “And to remember.”
I got the answer to my first question. He talked, without my asking. “I can’t do happy music when I am sad. So I wait. No one is eternally happy or sad. They come and go, and come and go. All these feelings. They never stay forever. Just like Alice.” He laughed. “Now that sounded cheesy. But you know you can’t always wait to make music. I can’t wait for love to come to me every time there is a love song to play.” And then he began to hum their single, ‘Love to love you’. What a voice! I liked it better than Tommy singing it. “Why don’t you do vocals?” He looked at me, one of his strands flying in the air that the train windows blew in. “You think I am good?”
I nodded like a helpless fan. “Absolutely. You are brilliant.” I paused. “So, when you sing this… are you in love?”
“Hahaha. You are a nosy journalist now, aren’t you?” More like a nosy fan. But yes, I was going too far. Had to keep this professional. And then he continued, “Yes, lucky me. I am always in love. Not with the same girl,” he winked. “Other people may call it flings or crushes or lust. For me, it is all love. Every time. I don’t think of how long it will last, what kind of desire she evokes in me, of commitments or hurt. I love to love.”
How sad there were no private bathrooms in the train, like in the flights, they showed in movies. Where new lovers go to make out. Lenny was now singing the rest of the song. He had taken his guitar out. Sunny began to drum on the bag he held. Mickey too got his guitar. Only Tommy looked out of the window. Maybe he heard my asking Lenny to be the vocalist. Not that I didn’t like Tommy. I liked his Bryan Adams-like voice. It had a permanent crack, like the voice of an adolescent attaining puberty. I went to him, an apology written on my face. “Can I do your interview next?”
He didn’t hide his annoyance. “So you think it’s finally time to talk to the lead singer?”
I tried to lighten the air by smiling a lot. That didn’t work. He turned away again. And talked to the trees outside. “I know what you all think. That I am a bad singer, and people like Lenny should lead the band.” Oh my, this little Bryan Adams, with hundreds of fans, was more insecure than young Sunny. Tommy was the oldest in the group, I knew. He was 28. He was previously with other bands, trying his hands at guitar and keyboard. Unlike the other new members, he was pretty popular because of his experience. He was also the most good-looking among the lot. Though my thoughts would always be partial, to Lenny. Tommy looked like a teenager with his straight hair falling all over his face, his red face, and tiny lips and dimples. It was so easy to fall in love with him. His insecurity made him dearer, perhaps he knew that. I wondered. Aloud. “How could you have all these fans, and still not feel good about yourself?”
He didn’t even turn. He spoke to the trees again. “They don’t like me. They just love the fame ‘n all. They’d go after anyone who holds a mike or a guitar in his hand. Just a status thing.”
“You mean groupies?”
“That’s what you call them?” this time he turned to look at me.
“Yea.” I had just learnt the term from ‘Almost Famous’. “Girls who follow music bands around, sleep with them n all, for some kinda status symbol. Maybe to brag.”
“Oh I didn’t know they had a word for that. Yes, groupies.” He said and slipped into his thoughts. I wanted him to talk. The train was nearing Kayamkulam. I had to finish my interviews. But more than that, I wanted to cheer him up. “You have got real fans you know. People who love you for what you do, for your music.”
“Oh yea? Name one!”
“I started listening to Sentinels only because of your voice.” This was true. “I thought it was a teenager who would crack soon. And I wanted to hear all the music he could make before he became a man. It was such a relief when I learnt you are 28, and your voice will remain so forever.”
He smiled. “It does sound young doesn’t it?”
“The youngest. And you have no idea how charming that is. When you sang the Poison cover Every rose has its thorn, it was like a boy singing it to a girl next door. I mean, it felt so real.” I wasn’t sure if this would sound complimentary but he smiled more. And sure enough, he too had a girl in his tale. The next door girl, Sheila. Bam, I was right on spot. “Sheila used to say the same thing. That I sound like her little brother Kevin. She used to look at me tenderly when I sang and I thought that was love.”
“Was she older than you?” Darn I really am nosy!
“Yes, by three years. Maybe I was another Kevin to her. When she ran away with Michael, I thought it was my fault. I thought no girl will ever like me. For me.” I so wished at the moment I had fallen for Tommy instead of Lenny. I mean Lenny would anyway get tons of girls but Tommy would always be insecure, wary and push away every girl that came his way.
The train pulled in again. We had crossed Kayamkulam so this had to be a crossing. That happens a lot here, trains waiting for other trains. Like people, waiting for people. “Hey, when is my turn?” Mickey came to sit next to me, with a cup of coffee and a cigar. “Have you ever thought of quitting,” I asked looking at the smoke falling on my face.
He didn’t seem to understand the question. “What, this?” he looked at his cigar, like it was a harmless little thing. “He’s like my best friend, man! We’ll never separate!”
I shrugged and looked outside again, to watch the other train come. But it took a long, long time. It was dinner time. Lenny brought food packets for all of us and to my joy, came to sit next to me. He whispered “Is his smoking bothering you? You could always sit opposite and do your interview.” I was touched by this concern. “No, no. I am fine.” I actually loved the smell of cigarettes. I imagined Lenny looking at me and blowing smoke rings into my face. Too cheesy, like he says. But nice, still.
We opened our biriyani packets. I realized I was hungry and ate like a pig. When I looked up, I had four faces looking at me and grinning. “Oh my, you really came for the free food didn’t ya! Some fan!” said Mickey. That’s when we connected. In the two hours our train waited for the other train, we talked about everything. Our mothers, brothers and long lost fathers. Our childhood and our love. “Come on, you made all of us tell our love stories. Mickey would also tell you about his Minnie Mouse soon. Now tell us about your love. Is it all about a boy for you?” I blushed. I couldn’t look at Lenny, who asked the question. I tried to deny, in vain. And ended up giggling stupidly. “So, who is the lucky man?” Tommy asked, wonder in his eyes. Did he expect it to be him? “Is it one of us?” This man really couldn’t keep anything within. I tried to drink some water to hide my face but Sunny grabbed the bottle. “Ah ah, nice try, miss journalist. But you gotta answer our questions too!”
I gave in. “Ok yes, it’s all about a boy.”
“Which one?” Tommy again. “Not you,” I said, putting my tongue out. He pretended to be hurt. Clutched his heart and said “Ouch, that hurts!”
“Then, then? Is it me?” Sunny. I shook my head.
“Oh my! It is Lenny isn’t it?” asked Mickey, with mock surprise. By this time, they all knew. It was written on every line of my face. “Shut up! I have to do an interview”. I tried to be professional. It didn’t work. They all started guffawing like a bunch of monkeys and Mickey literally lifted me up to place me on Lenny’s lap! Lenny took charge. “Guys, stop! She is a journalist, here to interview us.”
“Yes, a journalist in love!” Tommy seemed to have got cured of his insecurity. A little too soon.
Mickey, Tommy and Sunny began to sing ‘Love to love’. Lenny moved his brown eyes up (me being on his lap, was looking down at him) and asked, “Is this true?”
I was trying hard to say no or shut up or at least stop blushing. Why can’t these expressions be in my control? It was my face! I tried to ignore his question and join the others in their singing. But not trying to stand up from his lap. He laughed. “It is!”
I gave in. I fell on his shoulders. But this was Kerala. The passengers from the other sides walked in with raised brows and asked us what was going on. I jumped out the next second. Lenny went to talk peace. By the time they left and all was back to normal, the train started moving again. I missed seeing the other train cross. But my thoughts were away. I didn’t jump out just cause we were interrupted. I jumped out when I sensed a kiss on my neck. Did Lenny just kiss my neck?
I got lost in my thoughts for too long. The others had gone back to their drinks and smokes. And Lenny, I didn’t look at. I was afraid of what I might see on his face. Outside, it was another big station. Kollam. Oh no, just one more stop to go. I had to finish my work. “Mickey” I suddenly called. His interview was short, and a little hushed up. He was 25, same age as Lenny. They were classmates, and fell in love with the same girl once. I wondered if it was Alice. He chose to be a guitarist cause his dad was one. And he grew up listening to its sound every evening at home. “It was only natural that I ended up like my dad. Guitar’s like my older brother, man. It was there in my home even before I was born. And I grew up with it.”
I realized then that what Lenny told me in the beginning was true. It was not a readymade answer. They were all in this for the music. Maybe it’s a girl that started it. But then the girl would take second place. It’s all about music.
We reached Trivandrum. “Won’t you come for our show?” Sunny asked. I nodded. “Free pass for you,” he waved bye bye. I smiled and walked away. I had started the journey thinking I was like William, the boy reporter of Almost Famous. But wasn’t I just another Penny Hale, wasn’t I a groupie? A mere fan who’d follow a rock star cause he was a rock star. Wasn’t Tommy right? I felt my neck. I kept one hand there, and walked. No, he wasn’t.