I’m sitting minding my own business at the counter of Max’s Bar. A strange odor fills the air. A chemical, sulphurous gassy smell mixed with strong liquor and cheetos. I turn my head toward the door and put one hand over my face, gently clutching my bourbon with the other hand. The door opens and a fog drifts in, clinging to the walls and bar stools like a drunk dame who’s mislaid her purse and returned to make vague inquiries.
This is bad weather, even for The Snake.
He sits down next to me. It’s just The Snake, no Kitty. He doesn’t look so good.
‘Where’s Kitty?’ I ask him.
‘She ain’t here’ he says. I guess that clears things up a little.
‘Forget Kitty. I got some information that might interest you.’
‘What kind of information?’
‘Information about a crime’
‘A jazz crime.’
I buy him a scotch and take him over to one of the booths. The waitress at Max’s Bar is a swell gal but there’s certain things she doesn’t need to hear.
‘You ever heard of Noak E. Kelly?’ The Snake asks.
‘I don’t believe I have’.
‘Played with Johnny Blue for a spell’.
I’m about to say ‘the blues guy?’ when I figure it might be easier to just play along.
‘Yeah, sure. What about him?’
The Snake leans back into the plush pleather seating and takes a long drag of his scotch while slugging a cigar. One of these days I’m gonna ask him how he does that. But not today.
‘They say he hated music. Ever since he was a kid. His ma used to take him to talent competitions. Got him to sing songs from the shows. Oklahoma, Show Boat, that kinda deal. The crowd loved him. Thing is, they loved him ‘cause they thought it was a comedy routine on account of him wearing his papa’s clothes and him being only six years old. You get the picture….. I’m saying his clothes were too big. Way too big. He got kicked outta music class at school. The teacher said he couldn’t teach a kid that had no passion for music. But he had a passion alright, he hated music with a passion stronger than anybody could ever know. On his sixteenth birthday his ma got him a guitar. This is where things start getting a little strange. I’ll be right back.’
The Snake slides over to the bar and chats some with the waitress. I can’t hear what’s being said but the waitress suddenly rolls her head back and laughs so hard that the neon beer sign behind her crackles, sizzles and burns out.
He slithers back over to the booth with enough liquor for a two-part story.
‘She’s a swell gal’ he says, laughing about something that maybe he oughta keep to himself.
‘Anyway, he’s got this guitar and he gets to thinking; “maybe I could learn to play it, and play it real good. And sing, and write songs. Get into some big band and then ……… Destroy Music From The Inside!”
He’s got it all figured out. He’s gonna bring the whole stinking deal down with one big out of tune mess.’
‘Yeah, I remember him now. No Key Kelly. The jazz guy. Made the bass player play with only one string. Told him less is more. In the end the guy wound up with no strings at all. Once did an entire show where the band stood with their backs to the audience talking to each other about Chet Baker and occasionally playing a few obscure notes with no time signature. But where’s the crime? That’s just jazz.’
The Snake is about to answer when a sudden gust of perfume fills the bar and a wistful trumpet starts playing some place in the distance.
‘Might’ve known I’d find you two jokers in here!’
Kitty is standing next to the booth wearing a hundred dollar gown and carrying a tiger print briefcase.
‘I’ll be over at the bar. Something smells a little off around here and I don’t want any folk thinking I got anything to do with it.’
She walks over to the bar, sits down and orders herself a vermouth I guess. She lays the briefcase flat on her lap, opens it up and after a short while starts tapping it with her fingers while staring at the lid. Looks like she’s finally lost it.
‘Back to the story. Kelly was in here a few nights ago. He didn’t see me sitting in the shadows. My hat was pulled down but not quite all the way, if it was I wouldn’t have been able to see what he did.’
‘What did he do?’
The Snake looks around to check nobody’s eavesdropping.
‘He walked casually over to the jukebox. Put a few quarters in and the thing fired up, then music started playing.’
‘Yeah, that’s how those things work.’
‘This wasn’t just any kinda music. The thing was pumping out punk rock. Most people in the joint didn’t know what was going on. They thought maybe they’d had some bad liquor and were hallucinating. One guy had his hands clasped over his ears screaming “Stop The Noise! I Can’t Take It Anymore!”
Kelly was standing there laughing maniacally and wailing along with the record. Bawled out something about being an antichrist. Said he wanted to be anarchy. Didn’t seem to care that it made no sense grammatically. At this point folk started hurling chairs at him, calling him a low-life commie and a punk. Kelly didn’t care, he just kept on shouting along with the record, calling everyone in the joint music snobs and even worse names than that. Max made his way over to me from behind the bar, dodging flying chairs and bottles. Asked me what he should do. He was thinking of calling the cops. I told him no, they’ll just start poking around the joint, maybe turn over a few stones that are better left unturned if you know what I’m driving at. And besides, it’s out of their field. This is just another jazz crime. Leave it to me.’
‘I pull my hat up a little so I can see where I’m walking and weave across the saloon toward the jukebox. I slide my hand between the machine and the wall, find the cable connecting the jukebox to the electricity supply and pull it clean out of the power socket. The noise stops abruptly, though Kelly’s still standing there shouting and jumping up and down like some kinda freak. I grab hold of him by the shoulders. “Ok Buster” I tell him. “The party’s over. You wanna listen to a bunch of kids shouting nonsensical garbage over three chords that’s swell. You can do it in the middle of the ocean or out in some backwoods some place but don’t do it ‘round here. Nobody needs to hear that junk. Have a little respect”. Then I let go of him and return to my seat. Kelly splits and Max cleans up the mess. Like I say, just another jazz crime.’
Kitty walks back over, holding her briefcase open. An eerie light seems to be beaming out of it. She holds it up in front of The Snake and starts talking mysteriously.
‘This might interest you. It’s an email. From my attorney. It concerns the hotel. In Casablanca.’
The Snake is staring at the briefcase in exactly the same way that Kitty had been earlier. Like the thing has some kinda hypnotic effect on the pair of them. His face turns pale. His mouth is wide open and his eyes narrow and tight almost as though he’s reading something terrifying, or just badly written. Like pop lyrics.
‘Crooked? You leave me a hotel buried deep in debt in a foreign country and run off with a mediocre jazz singer and I’m crooked? Well now the hotel’s in Consuela’s name and I guess she’s gonna be as sore as I was when she gets there and finds out what the place is worth. Crooked? Ha! At least I’m straight crooked!’
It’s karaoke night at Max’s Bar. A Tina Turner song is playing and some dame is impersonating her. I knock back my drink and leave the bar. Kitty was right, it’s not even jazz.