At the beginning, it was easy to dismiss the music coming out of Brashton as surfer reggae pop; its bright melodies are why you might hear a tune by Bear Claw or Peeler piped-in at the grocery store. Brashton’s sound was on the face of it as mellow as the homeless hippie who sidles up to you on the beach and tries to sell you a joint. But the shadows show up soon enough in the coastal sunshine. The hippie starts telling you a story about Miami and Bolivia and a jail cell and a vision of Guadalupe. The best Seawall single will take you on a perfect three-minute ride, and it’s only when the wave dumps you off at the end that you realize how far away you still are from shore.
And back there on the shore, the bars are blasting Rock Me Amadeus and Livin on a Prayer and Michael Jackson, bless his heart. There was nothing else in 1986 in music like what was happening in Brashton in 1986, the year the House of Beef and the Manta Ray started having shows. The closest thing to it was halfway around the world with another beach boy gone bad, Nick Cave in Australia, who was breaking out right around that time. Or maybe, with its bright, heart-tugging melodies, elemental lyrics, and glossy finish, it was the aural equivalent of David Lynch, whose Blue Velvet also came out that year: It looks like a beautiful day, and then the camera zooms in on a severed ear, exploring it with as much detachment as if it were a chambered nautilus.
Maybe it was caused by everyone’s ocean-addled hearing or by the hurricane-warped walls of the clubs, but the one thing you always hear in Brashton’s music is echo. And the thing about echo is that it’s an illusion. You think there’s someone listening, and someone singing back, but it’s just you in there, alone. What’s at the heart of Brashton Beach music is the same thing that’s inside the best guitars and drums—a beautiful, resonant, hollowness.
--B.B. Bodeaux, text from “Wander or the Wave: Brashton Beach Music and Musicians”
Malone nodded and smiled and picked at a fast dinner at Karen’s, which had gone exactly as she’d feared. Linney was bouncing around in a little activity chair Karen’s kids had outgrown, batting at toys and turning herself in circles with her little dancing feet. She looked happy. Thank god she hadn’t displayed any of the “stranger danger” vibe she’d just started to show, crying when anyone but Malone picked her up. That would have been her fault somehow.
But it was a problem that she’d be too tired for a bath, Malone fretted. Probably fall asleep in her carseat, then wake up hungry at 1 or 2 a.m. There went the schedule. Even though she usually kept her baby awake until 10 or 11 anyway, for the last feeding of the night, Malone begged off by saying she had to get Linney home into bed. Then she heard about how Karen’s children had slept through the night at four months.
All the way home, through the drive now past rush hour but still on packed roads, through finding a parking space and strapping on the backpack and clicking out the carseat and walking three blocks in the dark with the shell carrier, the handle cutting into first one hand and then the other—why did they call it a carrier and then design it so that no one could actually carry it? she wondered. As usual, she countered that by thanking the gods that she and Nils had, fully by accident, ended up in a safe neighborhood, two blocks from a police station that usually had to deal with nothing more harrowing than getting non-diplomatic cars towed out of diplomat-only parking spaces. All the way through changing the sleeping Linney’s diaper and gently pushing her arms and legs into her sleeper, through taking a two-minute shower and sterilizing the hand pump from the backpack and lying on her bed reading a clutch of zines that were months old and drinking glass after glass of water mixed with cranberry juice—nursing set up a thirst that never seemed to end—Malone was somewhere else, trying to figure out where they’d been and how they’d gotten to where they were now.
They’d met in Brashton, at a restaurant just south of the border of the Magnolia lands, a sawdust-and-peanuts local steakhouse known for having good-looking young waitresses who took no shit. The three filled the bill. They had to be on the sharp side, because the House of Beef was the kind of place both the locals and the Magnolia men came when they wanted to cut loose a little. Between the waitresses and the country gospel music the owner piped in whenever a local band wasn’t playing, they were kept in line.
The three women had all come in as Brashton University freshmen. Bebe was Brandy then, and had to endure being sung to a half-dozen times a shift: “Brandy, you’re a fine girl…” She didn’t become Bebe to the world until she began to be published under her byline, B.B. Bodeaux, chosen to conceal her gender. No one made it too easy for a woman writing about rock and roll.
Bebe and Lee took to the job right away, firing back as good as they got, being Southerners practiced at taking the piss out of someone, but charmingly. Malone, as a “quiet type” from up north, was a little less comfortable with it all, but having waitressed from age 14, she handled it as she had all her life. She specialized in the dark “you must be shittin me” look, and could shut grown men up without saying a word.
Malone had moved into her college dorm only to find an absentee roommate, who had gone to live with her boyfriend, without telling her parents. After two months, Lee, whose roommate was a rabid Christian, had taken her place. Bebe lived at her grandmother’s house, in a little low-ceilinged suite fashioned out of the attic of the poolhouse. Far from being the despair of her grandmother, she was her darling, and it wasn’t because they didn’t know what she was up to. She prized her “high spirits,” cultivating her eccentricities as she would a prize dahlia.
Neither of her new friends could figure out why she was working at Beef at first. But she really did need the cash. Her parents were busy spending the money, and her grandmother wasn’t inclined to share anymore. She was generous about her closets, however. Bebe’s ironic retro style was a result of not being able to afford new clothes—she shopped in her grandmother’s storage rooms.
Lee and Malone had bonded first, on the day they discovered, both poised at the service bar, trays shaking slightly and trying not to cry, that they’d both broken up with their hometown boyfriends. It was trending toward November, and it was pretty remarkable that it had even lasted that long. A university five miles from a beach town known for bands and bud was not a setting designed to encourage fidelity to long-distance love. Soon, Bebe was joining them at the bars after work, and then everything started speeding up, with or without the meth they took on and off.
Malone, a vegetarian at the House of Beef, had the run of the salad bar. None of them had to buy much food or cook for four years at least, and their friends and their men often ate for free as well.
One night when the three of them were at the Manta Ray, some scrub from the newspaper was doing one of those polls that newspapers thought they had to do back then to keep up with USAToday. The leftover Beatles had rigged up another pseudo-reunion, so that was the theme. The reporter made the mistake of asking them: “John or Paul?”
“George,” Malone said.
“Badfinger,” Bebe said.
And the mysterious Jackson, who had been draped over an old wooden chair and watching the stage idly, simply noticed them and smiled, like a light turning on. After that, it was if they had all known each other for years.
Brashton was a vortex that made things like that possible, an inland town of swamp and shine and gators and crackers with an intrusive wedge of Magnolia money jabbing in from the north and a beery wave of students sloshing up from the south. All anyone had in common was that they liked to party, and that was enough to build an empire. Any town-gown conflict was dissolved in beer. Even in the ’80s, when suddenly everyone wasn’t white anymore and the gays came out and started kicking ass about being left to die, it was OK—the Magnolias were in that golden ’80s glow of being too rich and Republican and most of all too Floridian to feel threatened by anyone. The townies were cool with eccentrics, just like Bebe’s grandmother was with her.
So it was that Bebe in a Dior pouf and bouffant could walk down the beach road arm-in-arm with Malone in pegged pants and a Louise Brooks bob and Jackson in pants so ripped his ass hung out and a newsboy cap over his reverse-mullet hair—shaved in the back and long in the front—and no one would throw anything. People did throw things, sometimes, in those times, in other towns. It was a good place to be in college in 1986, in a backwater safe from the Reagan clampdown.
It was a place where, three months after having picked up a bass guitar for the first time, Malone could find herself on stage next to someone who would go on to be reviewed in Rolling Stone magazine. She never imagined anything like that—no, really, she didn’t. Lee had plunked down her cocktail tray one evening at the service bar and said: “I want you to be in my band. Play bass, tambourine, whatever. I want a band and you need to be in it.”
Malone would never have an original musical idea in her life, but she was a good parrot, with good hands and a good ear. What she’d done was apply her obsessiveness, as she did to everything else she wanted. For a solid month, she played for two hours every day, until she’d mastered the bass part from The Song Remains the Same by rote. That gave her enough familiarity with the frets; then she just did what Lee and Tommy told her to do, creating a few fills. Truth be told, Mr. Jones and—really—the Grateful Dead were formative influences on the Brashton sound, much more so than Alex Chilton or the Velvet Underground, as much as people would have preferred that hip cred. The only “secret” to the Brashton sound was front-loading the melodic bass and laying some echo on the vocals. Chilton and Reed just taught them to keep the songs short.
Most everyone had forgotten Malone was even behind a guitar at that first show, and she had no problem with that. And no one had the pictures, either—because she had been busy playing.
But, as Bebe said, if everyone who said they were there, at that first show at the House of Beef, featuring the lineup that would become Seawall, had actually, truly been there? Well, every other bar in Brashton would have had to be empty that night, and maybe every bar on the mainland, too. Malone could remember a crowd of about 30, tops, herself.
She played with them about six months. She never figured out how to use a pick, and real musicians found it highly amusing to see a small-framed woman playing a Vox hollow body with her fingers. She bought it on installment (and eventually sold it to Tommy). Brashton was like a music library or flea market, with constant trading. You could hear the difference later, when everyone from that lineup ended up in bands with real bass players, but in those six months, there was enough talent playing next to her to cover up her ineptitude.
Bebe wouldn’t have done it, and Lee knew that; she hated to be on public display. Malone was easy with it and Lee liked her voice well enough. No one paid any attention to anyone else when Lee was there, anyway—with her music, her beauty.
She still had it all, Malone thought, thinking of how she’d looked at Seth’s, ignoring his crudity, graceful, serene.
Bebe and Malone segued easily from college to the regional newspaper, which ate up the best of the university as quickly and cheaply as it could. The newspaper was flush with Magnolia money; the halls teemed with young people on what were essentially microbeats: high schools, visual arts, restaurant business. They worked two or three to a cubicle, taking turns on computers and phone lines. Department stores and car dealerships bought page after page of ads, giving them more newsprint to fill.
Meanwhile, it was the Jackson-Lee era, and the battles were fierce. Lee’s story was like a Behind the Music with a lot less money. On and off with Jackson, always touring, seven years of chaos during which Malone was never sure what really happened. About the fifth time she and Jackson split up, Lee took up with a Magnolia lawyer. He kept her as a kind of pet, but he did keep her, and he was kind, even eventually, covering her hospital bills. They saw Lee less and less, and they saw Jackson, well, never. Nobody saw him around anymore. The creator of the Brashton sound rarely even recorded there.
It didn’t seem to matter to anyone else. Everyone wanted a piece of Brashton, and as usual, by the time anyone started talking about the scene there, it was dying out. Satellite bands spun off in speed-fueled tours up and down I-95, Lee always a passenger in some van or other, being flown home after a crisis by her rich guy, in a tedious repeating cycle. She was playing with this one, she was touring with that one. Word only got back to Malone and Bebe intermittently. Malone figured that was all part of the rock star thing; she hardly saw anyone else from those times anymore, so why should Lee be any different?
Everyone did speed in Brashton once in a while, from a townie pulling a double shift to a student trying to finish a paper. The Magnolia men did coke in the 80s; it was part of the package for some people with money. Surfers smoked weed and wives took Valium. Lee, generous spirit that she was, took everything. Because that’s what musicians do, right?
Malone had moved in with Nils by then and retreated into a safe haven of long swims, working, long projects of her own choosing, and always answering to the daily assign-shoot-print-edit cycle at the newspaper. Malone and Nils became, prematurely, like old marrieds when they went out occasionally to Manta Ray’s, sipping gin and tonics at a side booth, listening to the music getting grungier, duller. Bebe saw plenty of music people, from Brashton and from everywhere else, because she was sleeping with as many of them as she could. That was the hamster wheel that she had jumped onto.
Bebe had bagged Seth first. A carpetbagger, he’d had a minor college radio hit and came to Brashton to check out the sound in 1994, a little too late to be for real, but not too late for anyone on the outside looking in to notice how dead it was. Seth used Bebe to get to Lee. First he took Lee, then he took Jackson’s longtime manager, an early fan with an MBA, and the only one who had been keeping Jackson on track. Jackson spun off into isolation and increasingly odd recordings.
When the music world declared Seth as Jackson’s successor, Seth left Lee behind. Everyone left her behind. Bebe careened from job to job, to Charlotte, to Richmond, finally landing in Baltimore, still writing about rock and roll.
When Lee had her big smash-up, Malone only heard about it via email. She was in the middle of another trip “home.” There wasn’t much home there anymore. It was a disaster scene. Her brother, always drugged up and otherworldly, went permanently missing, presumed dead, and it literally killed her stoic and silent father, who made quick work of dying of pancreatic cancer. After the funeral, her mother’s clan decided to welcome her back to the fold, bundling her back to the bosom of the West Virginia mountains and the Catholic church. So Malone and Nils moved north again, “to be closer to family,” although there was nothing left of that. At regular intervals, Malone zoomed down I-81, dodging big rigs, to visit her mother, listened to her talk about the Virgin Mary for an hour or so, and then drove back. Her mother didn’t know her anymore—but Malone could hardly blame her; she herself didn’t know who she was.
The three women had started tentatively remaking their relationship about three years ago. Malone felt guilty for never having helped Lee, Lee felt guilty for being a crazy addict, and Bebe was just crazy. All they had done was love rock and roll, and this is what they got for it. But they were alive.
Look at us out there, walking on water
Watching me wander, watching me falter
What are you drinking
What are you drinking
The wander or the wave
The man who holds the sticks is cryptic as ever
The man who holds the strings is amused by it all
What are you drinking
What are you drinking
He’s just pretending to fall
Look at them out there, so far from the shore
I’m all the way out here, looking for more
What are you thinking
What were you thinking
What was it for
--Jackson Hill, Wander and the Wave