Song Of The Day 8/7/2016: KISS – “Hard Luck Woman”
They put me in Special Ops. The Strategic Unit Tactical Troops. The “Strutters,” they called us. Our chief was Lieutenant Gerald Aucoin. “Action” they called him, but never in his presence. One of those guys for whom smiling was a breach of trust. He wore the history of his past missions on the lines of his weathered face.
I spent 14 months chasing down rogue agents, mediocre sound guys, duplicitous roadies and groupies from the KGB. Sometimes with very little information to go on. We never knew what our missions were going to be until about 30 minutes before they were scheduled to start.
One summer day Aucoin called us to his tent. He said it was a “rescue mission.” We didn’t normally do rescue missions. Whoever we were supposed to rescue must have been critically important — or, quite possibly, we could expect heavy casualties in the process.
The name: Barnaby Quinn.
“The finest Strutter I ever knew,” Aucoin told us 30 minutes before commencement. “He could saw through leather restraints using only a medium ball-point pen and a pocket-sized version of The Ten Commandments. He could get confessions out of a mannequin. He could beat a tour manager into submission with a studded shoulder pad. He always made the best flyers for our propaganda drops. And he could cook a mean mutton stew.
“Went missing six months ago during a backstage conflict with the crew from Slade — dumb thugs — and we’ve been trying to find him ever since. We got some information last week that he’d been spotted in an enemy convoy. They’ve had him for weeks and have been trying to indoctrinate him. But I know Quinn. You can’t corrupt him. He’ll die before he betrays the KISS Army. He’s playing it out, waiting for us. And we’re about to get him and bring him home… ‘cause we found him this morning.”
So this wasn’t just an approved military operation for Aucoin. This was personal to him. Which meant it was personal to us too. “Lieutenant,” I asked, “where’s the theater of action for this mission?”
Aucoin turned to me and frowned. “Only the most dangerous, fraught-with-peril arena in the whole goddamn war — a Bread record signing at Tower Sunset.”
We parked a half-mile from the scene and moved stealthily along Sunset Boulevard. No picnic. Smithers got a blister on his heels and McNaughton had to take a flyer for someone doing est sessions in Ojai. But we got to the base of operations. A line of about 100 people circled around the parking lot and onto the sidewalk. Poor saps. Suckers fighting for a force they had no real knowledge about.
The service entrance was our only way in. We disguised ourselves as coke dealers and got past that with no problem. Just enough time for a quick huddle in the Broadway show tunes section. I took out my field binoculars and tried to find Quinn in the mass of feathered haircuts, stay-at-home moms and lapsed Mormons. Where are you, Quinn? After what they’d done to you, would I even recognize you from the photographs I’d seen?
There he was. Sullen, drooping and spent, sitting at a merch table with vinyl copies of The Best of Bread. Just passively handing them out to the drones that passed by, for $4.99 plus tax.
“Lieutenant,” I whispered, “there he is.”
Aucoin took my binoculars and turned to the merch table. Then he lowered the glasses. “Oh, Quinn,” he sighed. “Stay cool, amigo. We’re comin’ for you. Just a few minutes more.”
Briskly Aucoin turned to us. “All right. Here’s the plan. We’ll need a decoy. One of you is gonna have to bring David Gates a bottle of Perrier and engage him in a quick conversation. The rest of us will fan out. Arden, you sweep left over by the 5th Dimension stand-up display. Camino, you zig-zag through the R&B section and exit over by the singles. Howe, you’ll tail Arden and pick off any A&R men. Marconi, you and Watt back up Camino by about 10 feet and handle the cashiers — one of ‘em, the granola-looking guy with the John Lennon glasses, he’s been tipped off and knows we’re coming. He’ll make sure there’s no obstructions. Then when Camino breaks off to cover the door, you steal left and grab Quinn.”
Aucoin turned to me. “That leaves you, Coldgin. You’re the decoy. I wouldn’t be asking you if I didn’t know you were the only one who can withstand talking to David Gates about his career. There’s a bottle of Perrier behind that Earth, Wind & Fire display. Grab that and fan out through the country aisle. Our cashier has already roped that off for you. You’ll have a clear path to Gates. Open the bottle and hand it to him. While he’s looking at you, the rest of us will grab Quinn and make it out of the front entrance. You’ll be the last of us to leave, Coldgin. Meet us at 1700 hours by the pet rock store on Larrabee Street. Got it?”
“You were in Operation Hard Luck??” Wickes says. “Holy crap! We talked about that over in Fort Shandi for months on end! Goddamn it, Coldgin, you’re a legend and I never knew it all this time!”
“Legends are heroes, Wickes!” I yell as I slam down my shot glass. “I ain’t no hero! Everybody else here in the Black Diamond, they’re more of a hero than I was! You don’t understand!”
I’m inebriated enough to attract the attention of a few folks down the bar. Folks I haven’t spoken to in all my eight years of coming to the Black Diamond. Folks who are afraid to look at me. Because there’s nothing behind my eyes they should be looking at.
Rocky the bartender touches my wrist. “Hey, Rudy,” he says, “you gotta take it easy. Nobody comes here to relive the past. You’re a good man. A good man who got caught in a terrible bind. You can’t keep going over this.”
“He was in Operation Hard Luck!” Wickes insists. “He freed Barnaby Quinn from the Bread street team! He’s a hero, Rocky!”
“Lester!” Rocky breaks in. “You gotta back off Rudy here! Give him some space, man!”
I briefly look up and over to my right. I see the barback. He’s new. He’s looking at me with a mix of pity and… I don’t know what. What would you call that look? Respect? Acceptance? I don’t get it.
“It’s all right,” I tell Rocky. “Wickes doesn’t know. I was tellin’ him the whole story. He’s cool. Just… he doesn’t know, that’s all.”
Wickes raises an eyebrow. Gets softer. “Know what?”
Know what, Les… ah, yes. What do I want you to know?
“You see, Captain Coldgin… dere is so much you don’t know about us… be a good boy and finish your Prinsesstårta… that’s it…”
Execute. That’s all I had to do. Everything was set up for me. The cashier cleared my path. The Perrier bottle was where it was supposed to be. All I had to do was walk up to the table, give David Gates the Perrier, and talk with him for just enough time to get everyone else in place…
“Rudy,” Aucion said, elbowing me in the arm. “We’re all in position. It’s go-time.”
I looked up at Aucion, the determination working its way into my nerves at warp speed. “Ready, Lieutenant.”
He winked. “This may be the mission that defines us, soldier. You gotta promise me… if we get through this, you call me Jerry. Brother Jerry.”
“On my signal.” He glanced around the store. Nothing was out of place. Everything was quiet.
I marched down the aisle. I couldn’t look back, but I could hear the shuffling feet of my fellow men behind me. I knew their timing. I could tell who they were by the sound of their footfalls. They weren’t going to let me down. They never had. I marched straight towards the Earth, Wind & Fire stand-up display.
There, behind the display, right on the other side of Verdine White’s boots, was the bottle of Perrier. But the cap was already off, and haphazardly put on top of the bottle at an angle. Fine, one less thing to deal with. I took the bottle up and marched onward without a beat.
Flush against the eastern wall of the store, there they were. Bread. Gates was, thankfully, closest to my position. This was going to be easier than it seemed. But there was no time to analyze. Execute. I marched on until I reached the table. I hesitated.
Quinn was still at the merch table. Oblivious to the plot. Oblivious to everything. Just a few more seconds, brother. Hold that copy of The Best of Bread like you were going to marry it. Give nothing away.
I reached the table. Gates was signing an album and talking with some semi-attractive housewife. Reseda, I guessed. Got a sitter, phoned her husband to pick up some take-out, and drove into the forbidden land of West Hollywood to meet her a soft-rock superstar.
No time. Execute.
“Mr. Gates,” I said in mock authority. “Your Perrier, sir.”
Gates looked up. That Walton-esque gaze, the honeycake voice that every AM radio freak in the country trusted with their ears. I handed him the Perrier.
“Thanks.” Looked back at Reseda and resumed his conversation.
That wouldn’t do. I had to keep him occupied. I could sense the steps of Marconi, Watt, Arden, Howe and Camino nearby. I couldn’t be the tell, the weak link. Execute, Rudy.
“Ah…” I stammered…
What do I say? What do I say to David Gates? I didn’t know Bread from Lobo. I had no idea what the hell they sounded like…
Grace saved the day. Right on the table in front of me, a copy of The Best of Bread turned over so the back cover was showing.
The list of the songs on the album. Right there. Deliverance.
“Mr. Gates… I just wanted to let you know… my wife and I… ‘Baby I’m-a Want You’ was our first dance at our wedding reception.”
Gates looked up. Took a swig of the Perrier. “Yeah?” he said. “That’s great. That’s great. Not much of a dancing song but I’ll take it.” Back to his table. Reseda was gone. A young guy came up. Loyola-Marymount, I guessed. History major.
“And… and… we also really liked…” quick glance…. “‘Everything I Own.’ That’s, just, you know, such a great song… says so much…”
Gates looked back up again. “Well, you’re a regular Breadaholic, aren’t you?” Took another drink.
“Yes! Yes, definitely. You could say that. That and…” quick glance… “‘Diary.’ What a rockin’ tune ‘Diary’ is.”
Gates looked quizzically at me. “You call ‘Diary’ a rockin’ tune? It’s a ballad about a loser putz who reads a girl’s diary.”
“I meant — heh heh, man, I call everything ‘rocking,’ you know? Ha-ha! I saw Jim Croce at the Palladium and told everyone he was rockin’! It’s… it’s a California thing, you know? Ha!”
That must have bought me about five seconds of acceptance. Gates was nonplussed. “Well, then… I guess it’s rockin’, all right. If you say so. Well, then, tell me… what other certified Bread classics are you a fan of?”
“Oh, well, you know…” quick glance…
The album was gone.
Someone had picked it up. It had vanished. My guys were so close, if I could just buy a second or two more… dammit, Rudy, you listened to enough AM radio to know something by Bread! Or just something that… sounded… close…
“Uh… I like…” Gates waits. Takes another drink. I’m reaching with my eyes, looking for something, anything… what did I hear? What did I hear on the radio by Bread? What could I say!…
“Oh! ‘I Honestly Love You!’”
That sounded like a Bread title, didn’t it?
Gates frowned. Grew silent. Leveled his eyes straight at mine. All joy left his face.
“That’s not us,” he whispered. “That’s Olivia Newton-John.”
My stomach fell. My brow broke out in perspiration. I choked out an “uh… I mean… uh….”
Gates got up a bit slowly. “That’s Olivia Newton-John, you…”
His face filled with realization. My face filled with hot, red fear. Then he said the words I wanted to hear less than anything in the world at that time:
“QUINN!!!!!” I shouted. “GET QUINN OUT OF HERE!”
At that moment Marconi popped up behind the merch table, where Quinn’s expression changed from taciturn to active in a hot flash. “GRAB HIM!” Watt appeared on the other side of Quinn.
Gates flew into a rage. “QUINN’S OURS, you hear me? He’s one of us now!!”
Quinn overturned the merch table. “Goddamn it! I knew you’d find me! Get me out of here!”
Marconi and Watt grabbed Quinn and lifted him off his feet and headed towards the exit as Arden, Aucton and Howe fell behind to screen them. Camino was already at the front door holding it open.
“Get him out!” I yelled. “I’ll follow!”
Just then I felt a blunt force on the left side of my face. Gates was frothing. And he had a solid uppercut, apparently.
“You miserable glam rockers! Quinn was happy, do you hear me? He was happy and content with his life!!”
He hauled back to punch me again, but I blocked him with my forearm and grabbed the collar of his shirt. “Get Quinn out!” I repeated. It was unnecessary. The brigade hustled through the door and Camino followed them. Quinn was back with his brethren. All I had to do was fight off Gates and get free.
But he was brutal, in action and words. “You makeup-wearing motherfuckers! All we want to do is make soothing music that resounds in the marketplace of the new suburban America!”
“You brainwashed Quinn! You stole him and you brainwashed him! That’s not the new America!”
“You don’t get it, you flabby little piece of lardon! Quinn was key to our future plans! I’m not letting him go without taking you out, you stupid… you… you…”
He trailed off. His eyes went blank. Now the froth was coming full force out of his mouth, and his cheeks inflamed to nearly double their size. Gates staggered onto the back of the folding chair. He seized his throat with his hands and collapsed into the shape of a prawn onto the floor. He was knocked out. I had no idea what was going on. I shot fervent glances around the table as the chaos spread to other parts of the store… in the corner of my eye I saw a capsized green bottle…
So that’s why I found it already opened. Give that granola cashier the biggest raise he’s ever gotten in his life. And whoever his dealer is. Nice work, suede head.
I had to climb over bodies to get into the passageway between funk and Canadian music. Straight shot to the door. I burst out. Larrabee was due west, and my boys were waiting there. Mission accomplished. I took off through the parking lot and headed towards Sunset. Just a few blocks more…
This was going to go down in history. I’d get a medal for sure. Maybe a pair of commemorative boots from Gene. I started to get ahead of myself but I didn’t care. Everything I’d worked for had led up to this moment and…
I knew better than to stop, so I don’t know why I did. I turned around to face the voice. A harmless looking man with neck-length blond hair and a well-kept beard. He was in a beige leisure suit.
“Congratulations, Meester Coldgin. Excellent, excellent work.”
I didn’t see the wrench, the brick, whatever it was. I just felt its impact on the front of my head. I felt my knees collapse and hit the ground. I blacked out before my head even hit the pavement.
The first thing I caught was the scent of pastries. Then the faint whiff of sour cream and dill.
I was on some sort of overly angled contraption that was supposed to be, I’m guessing, a chair-like device. My eyes started to open. I was on some rickety set of wooden slats that were barely held together. I felt the slats buckle under my weight.
“Hello, sunshine!” came the smooth, medium-pitched voice. Something between Helen Reddy and a Bond villain. “Wakey wake! I see you are enjoying one of our customized furnitures! So easy to assemble with instructions that are internationally legible!”
I could only make out the tone of the room — stark white. Satin. Clean. Not a hint of antiseptic overkill. The voice.
“You see, Captain Coldgin, da woorld, shee still revoolves, ya? How long might you dink it will take befoor shee sends you away? Can you see da sky, Captain Coldgin? Can you see that yellowy little sun peeking out amongst the tall evergreen trees? Oh, it makes me so happy!”
Enough of my vision had been restored to where I could look around. Two men. The guy in the beige leisure suit, and another one in sort of a faded yellow leisure suit. They had the same glowing countenances and facial hair strategies.
Beige guy continued. “Well, let’s not get too esoteric on your first day heer! You see, where we come from, we don’t like to consider our captures ‘prisoners of war.’ We prefer the term, ‘guests of pending resolution!’ So you see, we have prepared for you a little feast containing food!”
He gestured to a table. Pastries, salmon, some dips, and dozens of dill sprigs scattered across a bright, white table cloth. “I suggest the ebelskivers,” he said as he picked up a rounded, golf-ball-sized pastry. “They are filled with our delicious lingonberries!”
I tried to bolt out of the chair, then discovered my arms and legs were bound by rainbow-color restraints.
“Oh, you will be here for a little bit, Captain Coldgin. I would suggest accepting your position and not trying to struggle. Struggling is so… uncivilized. Everything will be taken care of for you, I promise. Just like in our beloved homeland, where the juniper trees grow in the purest sunlight you ever saw, and street-sweepers are completely taken care of in terms of health care and sing traditional Viking shanties. And they make our streets sparkle as if they were diamond mines!”
“Who are you?” I grumbled.
“Ah, yes. Who are we? The eternal question, no? Who is anybody, Captain Coldgin? What is identity? What is a name? What is the difference if I were Ivan, or Boris, or… heh, heh… Ace? What if I called myself ‘Ace,’ Captain Coldgin? Would that make me an ace? If I were to call myself ‘Ace’? These lines of questioning are quite popular in our homeland, where the gök birdies sing and the old men play Kubb in their front parlors.”
“You got me here! Now tell me what you want with me! Enough of this!”
The beige guy nodded. “Well put, Captain. Enough of our intellectual to-and-fro. Let me tell you who I am, who this gentleman is, and why you are here. And, more importantly, what you are now going to do for us.”
He got up, went to the table, grabbed a biscuit, then shoved it in my face. “First, Captain… how about that ebelskiver? Yum-yum!”
Wickes’ expression has changed. He’s scowling now. As if I’d just thrown a shot of vodka in his face. The veil of mistrust fell all over him.
“They got you? They got you?”
“Stop callin’ ‘em ‘they,’ Les,” I say. “The war is over. You can call them by their name now. The Arietta Ballistic Battle Army. They’re not around anymore. You know that.”
Rocky is bracing himself for an outburst, but he knows I’m not gonna let it get to that point. I can’t fight anymore. “So, anyway, Les… you can get that serial-killer look out of your eyes. What do you think I can do to you anyway?”
Wickes is quiet and measured. Not exactly fearful. But not sure, either.
“Well, I don’t know, Rudy,” he finally says. “Sorry if I’m acting strange, but…”
“Well… I never met anyone who was captured by ABBA before.”
To be concluded.