While in Pursuit of the Perfect Ballad
A drama based on today's music industry with a
double-barrel surprise ending!
a place in Northern Illinois that sits on nearly a hundred acres of luscious
green hills covered with tall pine and maple trees.
A long gravel road leads off the county highway and winds through trees that
extend out over the gravel road to form a canopy. This road leads to a small log
cabin on the edge of a beautiful, quiet lake. The sun warms the grounds, the
wind sways the trees, and the only sounds are those nature intended. The rustic
log cabin with wooden floors is furnished simply in oak. There is a small
kitchen and a living room with a fireplace. Near the large window, looking out
on the lake, sits a piano on which framed pictures of various sizes are neatly
arranged. In one corner of the living room is an old, opened roll-top desk. On
the desk is a typewriter and lying next to it is one piece of paper that reads:
"While in Pursuit of the Perfect Ballad."
I paced around the cabin
trying to think of the words that I wanted to say and wondered what my father
had done when he hit a creative block, or if heíd even had creative blocks. I
walked out onto the porch, reached overhead for a pack of cigarettes I had
placed in the rafters, took one from the half-empty pack, and lit it. My eyes
wandered out over the lake as I smoked the cigarette and listened to the harmony
of nature. The sounds blended together perfectly, as if orchestrated. Then,
cracking a slight smile, I realized what it was he
had heard. It was so simple. How was it that I didnít hear it before? After
putting out my cigarette, I walked back inside the cabin.
Chase Harris has been a
loner all his life, or at least all of his life that he remembered. He was not
sure if this was something inherited or something he had picked up along the
way. He was a songwriter by trade. Not the glamorous sort with top-forty hit
singles and limousines to drive him to his Park Avenue apartment. He was a
modest songwriter who made a decent living writing jingles for radio and
television commercials. Those funny little thirty-second anthems you can never
seem to get out of your head once you hear them. For as long as he could
remember, he had been talented in the arts. He learned to play the piano at age
seven, the violin at age nine and the guitar at age twelve. Although he could
read and write music, he preferred to play by ear. When he heard a song Ė a
good song Ė within a half-hour or so, he was able to play it from beginning to
end. Chase was never one to wake up and remember a great melody he had composed
in his dreams. He had to work at it, sometimes for weeks or months. He spent
most of his time at the piano, banging out melodies, arranging and harmonizing.
Music was his true love. And for the moment, his only love. It had been quite
some time since he had been with a woman. He didnít meet many women. One must
leave the house in order to meet people, and Chase had little desire to do so.
He was content to work on his music while he searched for that perfect melody.
Despite his modest
success, Chase always believed that he had it in him to be something great. To
write that one song that becomes an instant classic. It didnít hurt to dream.
In fact, he was very good at dreaming. His parents tried to keep him grounded
with a cute little saying they had: "Slip out of those dreams and jump into
the clothes of reality." The trouble was the clothes never fit right. They
were too small, too baggy, too young, too old, or just too weird looking. So
Chase continued to dream while he wrote jingles and waited for the special
moment of inspiration that would change his life.
Making the Rent
In a small, rented apartment on the
East Side of Chicago, Chase Harris lived and worked on the fourth floor. A tall,
slender man of thirty-eight, he had managed to hold on to the innocence of his
youth, and although he was pushing forty, could easily have passed for someone
in his late twenties. Chase had come from a family where they just didnít age
until their mid-fifties or early sixties. Then, all at once, it happened. It was
amazing to go to bed looking thirty-something and to wake up looking like your
parents. But life had a way of evening up the odds. What you lacked in one area
you made up for in another. Like random numbers, if you play them long enough,
you soon discover that they are all chosen the same amount of time.
The apartment was in the one of the
older sections of the city. Its timeless 19th Century Italianate
architecture brought to mind the early black and white movies. The tall, rounded
windows and doors, the stone trim with foliated ornament, and the intricate
woodwork were all common from the 1860s through the 1890s. The streets were
always lined with cars and the alleyways with trash, which blew against the
sides of buildings where it laid until another gust of wind from the shores of
Lake Michigan picked it up and tossed it further down the alley. Inside the
apartment, the arched doorways and high ceilings dramatized the room while the
stained hardwood floors reflected their images. On the white, speckled, plaster
walls of the living room were hung with paintings by local artists that accented
the modern furniture.
Chase ambled over to the living room
window, peered down into the streets, and was pleased with the fact that he
worked at home so as to avoid interaction with those strange individuals below.
Everyone seemed to be at ease in the chaos of the big city. They hardly seemed
aware of the life they were living or the world in which they live it. They were running a marathon, and the first one to the finish line won.
But what was it they won? Chase felt that he had been born in the wrong era. He
should be living somewhere in the fifties with Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn,
Cary Grant, and Ingrid Bergman. Instead, he was stuck in the present, in
crazy-land with people who had forgotten what it meant to have integrity.
Whatever happened to the classics? The way Hepburn could project innocence
simply by saying "Garage," how Bogart could describe a moment with a
look. Who had Bergmanís brand of grace and glamour, or Grantís wholesome
charm? No, they didnít make Ďem like that anymore. Now, it seemed, the
louder, more outrageous people were, the greater their success. Or at the very
least, the greater their press coverage.
Chase left the living room and went
into his studio. The spare bedroom had been converted to a recording studio
where he had spent countless hours creating and arranging music. The single
window had been insulated and boarded to help sound proof the room.
State-of-the-art equipment lined the walls, and starting from the center of the
wall to the ceiling was painted a piano keyboard on three of the walls. The
fourth wall has a large glass window built in the center of it. He walked over
to the tape deck and pushed the eject button. Out popped a cassette, which he
tucked into the inside pocket of his suede jacket. As he closed the tape deck
door, he noticed a shadow looming outside the sliding doors of his balcony.
Chase looked up to see Stu standing on the other side of the doors in nothing
but his pajama bottoms. Stu lived across the hall, and since moving in last
year, he had yet to use the front door. For some reason, Stu insisted on balcony
hopping whenever he wanted to visit his neighbor. A tall, buffed man, he was one
of the strangest characters Chase had ever met. One possibility for his behavior
was that his parents had passed away several years ago and left him with enough
money to keep him from obtaining a steady job. Stu devoted most of his time to
his two passions: working out and wreaking havoc wherever he went. Chase slid
back one of the doors and let Stu in.
"Hi, Stu. One of these days youíre
gonna fall off that balcony," Chase said.
"Hey, whatís up?" Stu
called out as he tripped over the sliding door track on his way into the
Chase stepped back to avoid being
bowled over by the stumbling giant. For all his attention to personal fitness,
Stu was not the most graceful person on the planet.
"I just finished this bit for
Caseyís Ford dealership on Fifth Street. I was going to take it over to
Jenniferís. Do you want to go?" Chase asked.
"Sure, why not. Jennifer still
single?" Stu asked, grinning.
Jennifer was Chaseís agent. At
five-foot-seven, she was a pretty woman with long, blonde, braided hair, hazel
eyes, and a penchant for exotic clothes from Asia and Europe. She was always
trying to convince him to write top-forty songs, but he didnít like the new
music and had no interest in selling his soul for a platinum record. His opinion
was that the industry had done little more than change the lyrics of a few songs
and spit them out again and again. It was quite a racket, the music industry.
Classics like Beethoven, Mozart and The Beatles stayed around because no one was
writing anything else worth listening to, so people kept reverting back to the
old music. Not that Chase compared Beethoven to the Beatles, but that the
quality of the music came first with the artists of the past, not the flash. The
artist of the past would have played for food money. The artist of the past was
about integrity, not popularity. Whether it was "Ode to Joy" or
"Let it be," it was always about the music.
"Yeah, I guess. I donít know, I
never really ask about her personal life. You need to find a job," Chase
"Why?" asked Stu with a look
of innocent surprise.
"Never mind. Why donít you get
some clothes on, unless youíre wearing that downtown."
"Iíll be right with you,"
Stu said as he left out the sliding glass door.
Chase closed the door, got a drink of
water, and left the apartment. He stood waiting outside Stuís door. A short
time later, Stu came out, then they walked down the stairs and out into the
"Why donít you ever use the
elevator?" asked Stu.
"Why don't you ever use the front
door?" replied Chase.
"I keep trying to catch you having
sex on the kitchen floor," Stu said.
"You lead a shallow, uneventful
life don't you?" Chase responded.
The two headed down Michigan Avenue to
Jenniferís office. On the way there, they discussed the current rage on the
radio, an up-and-coming new artist boasting the number one hit. Lia Cayon has
been the talk of the town. Her new single, "Forever", had blasted
through the top-forty list at a record pace. She had a great voice but was now
part of the "Star Machine" hurling her and her new found fame to the
top for who knew how long. It didnít seem to matter that the music has been
churned out by the same dozen or so writers who had written the last fifty
number one hits, or that the scant clothing worn by today's singers fell
somewhere between that worn by George of the Jungle and Playboyís latest
pinup. Chase believed that the music video was the death of the songwriter.
Today, music wasnít pure music. It was music video. The difference was that,
with music, people could close their eyes and be taken to another place and
time. Music videos took you to a strip club where the artists danced around
waiting for dollar bills to be tucked into their sparse clothing. If you closed
your eyes, you'd lose interest because there was no music, just entertainment.
The music industry had sadly fallen into the hype, and the songwriter seemed to
be missing in time.
"Hey, I agree with you. Todayís
music isnít about the music. Itís about what sells. If you canít sell it,
they donít want it. And the only thing that sells is sex. If you canít beat
ĎemÖ," remarked Stu.
"Yeah, I know. I just canít go
there right now. Iím still working on that perfect ballad." Chase opened
the door to Jenniferís office. "After you Ė beauty before the
aging." Stu entered the office and Chase followed.
"Hi, Jennifer. I have that Casey
tape finished. You want to have a listen?" he asked.
"Great! Ahead of schedule, again.
Just the way I like it. Why donít we go into the studio and listen to it
there. The acoustics are much better than in my office." She turned and
walked down the corridor as her braids swayed back and forth behind her.
"Do you have any Lia around
here?" asked Stu.
"Sorry. Wrong office. She signed
with one of those New York agents," Jennifer called over her shoulder.
"Too bad. Sheís hot!" said
Stu. "So have you had any lunch yet?"
Jennifer opened the studio door and
looked at Stu, "Just finished, actually. Maybe a rain check?"
"Sure." Then turning toward
Chase, he smirked and said, "Well, letís hear it, Chay. Iím thinking
about buying a new car. Maybe this will push me over to Chevy."
"Itís Ford, Gumby. The way you
drive you should be in prison. Now shut up and listen." Chase pushed play,
and the sweet sound of strings began to fill the room. A few seconds later, the
most distinguished bass began its rhythmic dance. The harmony was exquisite, the
melody intangible, and just when you were beginning to feel the ride down Lake
Shore Drive on a Sunday afternoon with the top down, the song was finished. It
was like being this close to capturing the proverbial pot of gold at the end of
the rainbow. But just as you reached out for it, the rainbow disappeared taking
the gold with it.
"So what did you think?"
"You are such a shit! Wasting your
time with commercials instead of writing for the industry," Jennifer barked
"You know my address. Send me the
check. Iíll talk to you later." Chase grabbed Stu and led him out of the
studio. He was not about to get into another debate over writing top-forty
again. "Come on, letís get out of here," he said quietly to Stu.
"Whatís the hurry?"
"I thought you were hungry? Donít
you want to get something to eat? Iím buying," Chase coaxed.
"Lead the way, my man. Iím right
behind you," said Stu. He was not one to pass up a free meal.
Miles away from Chase, in Manhattan,
New York, was Dona Mayerre, a singer who hadnít had a hit in quite some time.
She had first come on the scene about twelve years earlier. A new and refreshing
talent to the industry, her debut album went double platinum after a few months.
You couldnít turn on the radio, pick up a magazine, or turn on the television
without hearing or seeing something about Dona Mayerre. But the "Star
Machine" grabbed hold of her, used her until the public got bored with her,
and then moved on to a newer, fresher star. It was a pathetic industry. Most
recording artists didnít last long, and the public was fickle where music was
concerned. They seemed to know good music from bad; they just choose badly at
times for lack of good music. Different wasnít necessarily better, just
Dona stood in front of her bathroom
mirror. She was a beautiful woman. Her short dark hair, cut like the movie stars
of the past, made her look elegant. She had the ability to convey the innocence
of a child while looking from behind her dark, hypnotic, brown eyes with a
devilish glare. Although her skin wasnít that of a twenty-year old, she had
just a wrinkle or two here and there that only she could notice. She'd invested
thousands of dollars in creams, gels, cover-ups, and masks Ė anything to help
retain the appearance of youth. Dona had two failed marriages in her life. The
first was to Parker Johnson, a popular actor who was always more in love with
himself than with her. The second was to Shaun Mason who was not part of the
Hollywood scene and despised anything to do with it. Shaun, a lawyer in New
York, loved Dona but not quite enough to get past his outraged jealousy about
Donaís popularity and the constant harassment of the media. After almost two
years, he couldnít take anymore and decided to call it quits. He had since
remarried and moved somewhere outside of the city.
Dona was twenty when she released her
debut album. By the age of thirty-two, she had released seven albums, but
nothing from the last three had reached the top forty list. She was looking to
make a final comeback. A last hurrah so she might be remembered as a talent and
not a has-been. It was hard to have been at the top and then forgotten a short
time later. Her goal was to make it to the top one more time so she could retire
with dignity and class. If only she could find a songwriter who was talented
enough to capture the range of her six-octave voice. A songwriter who wrote for
the love of music, for the pure and simple joy of creating what no one else had.
Someone without the pressing deadlines of recording contracts or the consuming
insecurity that fans might forget you and follow some other artist. Someone who
desired to capture the music simply because it was in their heart and soul.
Melodies that could not be held back and would spill out in the form of quarter
notes and half notes.
Dona finished dressing and left the
bathroom. She grabbed a celery stick from the fridge and walked to the bay
window overlooking the city. She had been on a diet forever knowing that fans
noticed every little detail about her and critics had been known to write entire
articles on an extra pound or two. Her gaze wandered over the skyline of the
city without really focusing on anything in particular but letting it all blend
together. Like an old picture that had lost its sharpness and was now barely a
hint of what the photographer had wanted to capture. The phone rang, jarring her
from her reverie, and she hurried to pick it up.
"Hello," she said.
"Your car is ready, madam."
"Thank you. I will be right
She hung up the phone, picked up her
coat, and left the apartment. "Well, itís time to pay the rent," she
muttered to herself. The elevator took her down to the lobby where her agentís
driver, Mark, greeted her. Carl, who normally had taken her wherever she needed
to go, had taken the day off.
"Hello, Mark. How have you
"Just fine, maíam. And
"Good. Itís a beautiful day
today. I would rather work in the garden and enjoy the day than go to another
one of these talk shows," she replied.
"Yes, maíam, I know what you
mean." Mark opened the door to the limo and Dona slid in. He closed her
door gently and got back into the driver's seat. Mark was taking her to the MVTV
(Music Video Television) office for an interview. One of those "Whatís
been happening with this star" interviews Ė the kind pandering to the
public's need to know what that famous artist of yesterday had been doing
lately. Dona remained polite during such interviews and anything else that would
get her name back in print and lead to other jobs, jobs that might just
kick-start her career, again. She never knew which of these lousy doings could
turn into something more. At the very least, they provided the paycheck to keep
Dona in her luxury apartment and her cosmetic cremes. After all, royalties from
the previous albums went only so far.
At MVTV they were met by a small group
of reporters and photographers. Mark got out of the limo and opened Donaís
"Good luck, maíam," he said
and held his hand out to help her from the car.
"Thank you, Mark," she
"Dona, are you working on another
album?" shouted one male reporter.
"I am currently looking for
material," she called back.
"Dona, do you think your career
is, for the most part, over?" belted out a short, fat little man.
Dona stopped in her tracks, turned, and
looked directly at him. "I believe that, like in any profession, your
career is over only when you stop trying to have one," she said as
graciously as she could. She then continued toward the door.
"Is there a new someone in your
life right now? What do you think of Lia Cayon?" fired a young woman.
"I think Lia has a beautiful voice
and is very talented. I am sure she will be successful. She has a promising
career ahead of her. And no, there is no one I am seeing at the moment."
Dona was glad to see her agent Greg who
promptly led her up to his office. Thirty seconds in front of a team of
reporters could seem like hours in front of a firing squad waiting while they
"Please, sit down. So Dona, how
have you been?" Greg asked as if to be sincerely interested in her life.
Dona found herself staring at Gregís
receding hairline that he tried so desperately to hide. He combed the hair
forward from the middle of his scalp in an attempt to salvage the appearance of
a full head of hair. His three-piece Italian suits, imported Asian ties, and the
large diamond ring on his little finger all screamed out the shallow
self-importance with which he regarded himself. Dona wondered if he ever had a
passion for the art of music or if it was all just business and impressions.
"Iíve been well. I have been
reviewing new material," she said.
"Youíre too picky, Dona. You
have to stay in the public eye. With your voice any song will do." He
picked up a pen and began to play with it. A thick gold bracelet dangled from
his wrist, resting on top of the desk.
"I have done the mediocre album
before. Three times to be exact. That was for the public, which they didnít
like anyway. This album is for me. I have no desire to turn out anything I am
not completely happy with and proud of." She glared at him with her dark
brown eyes, as if they could ignite his pompous ass and he'd burst into flames.
"Well, itís your life. Iím
only trying to give you advice on your career. Itís not an easy profession to
maintain. You have to be out there continuously. You have to stay in the
foreground. People need to see you and hear you, Dona." He tilted his other
wrist and looked at his gold diamond Rolex. "Well, I think itís time. We
"Yes, I must be seen and heard
now," she responded pretentiously.
Greg looked at her with a puzzled
expression. He opened the door to his office and they stepped out into the
hallway. Silently, they walked down the corridor. Dona wished she could be
anywhere in the world right now but here. Greg pulled open the door to the
"Well, break a leg, kid. Iíll
talk to you after the show." He closed the door and headed back to his
"Hello, Dona. You look great
today! Weíll just do a little cover-up here and get rid of the nasty age lines
for you. What about the hair? Time for a change, darling?" asked Lance, the
Dona stared at him and wondered when
exactly it was that the word artist became associated with the covering up of a
womanís natural beauty.
"Leave the hair. This is me. Itís
who I am," she said.
"Okay, darling. It does give you
that fifties glamour look," Lance conceded as he stood back to get a better
look at Dona's hair.
The large room was one massive mirror
tile with enough lighting to illuminate a small city. There were several
stations, all armed with the tools of the trade, ready to overhaul any person
that entered. It was a magicianís act to cover up, conceal, accentuate, and
mystify a gullible public. But by the same token, the public didnít want to
know the truth. They were all too familiar with the day to day grind and the
affects of time on a personís face and body. They were only interested in
seeing the illusion of Hollywoodís magic so they could, for a moment or two,
be lost in its splendor and become part of its luxurious appeal.
All Dona could think about was that in
about three hours she would be back in the comfort of her home. Ah, home Ė no
reporters, no arrogant agents, and no opinionated make-up artists. Hers was a
home where she felt safe from the obnoxious world. A home where she could relax
and enjoy the simplest of things, like watching old movies or working in her
garden. On the other hand, no one was there waiting to hear about her terrible
day when she returned. No one to hold her close and tell her that it was okay,
that no matter what happens, she is always loved.
Suddenly, the door popped open and a
woman leaned in.
"Okay, Dona, youíre on!"
It was about eight oíclock when Chase
finished up his Chinese dinner and sat down at the piano. He played the
beginning of a song he had been working on for weeks.
"The beginning is awesome,"
he mumbled to himself. "If I could just figure out what comes next."
He played it over and over, trying
different arrangements and melodies. But none seem to match the songís elegant
beginning. Finally, he stood up, stretched, and moved toward the balcony. He
stepped out into the crisp September air and from the planter on the balcony,
retrieved a pack of cigarettes. About a year ago he had quit, but every now and
then he indulged himself when things werenít going well. He opened the new
pack, took out a cigarette, and lit it. Chase closed his eyes and inhaled the
smoke deeply. After a moment, he opened his eyes again and exhaled into the
chilly night air.
"Why I take such pleasure in these
things is beyond me," he said out loud. He looked out over the city, quiet
now except for the hum of the streetlights, the distant sound of traffic on the
Kennedy, and the occasional clamor of a car in the street below. A young couple
was walking by on the sidewalk across the street. Hand in hand, they whispered
into each otherís ears and laughed as they meandered down Thirty-first Street.
Chase watched them as they passed. As he took the last drag of his cigarette,
the couple turned the corner and disappeared from his view. He put the butt out
in the planter and went back inside.
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