Not many remember Robbie October. From 1970 to 1981, guitarist and singer for Powderkeg. He penned many of their songs, although the hits all came from founder Geoff Harrison. Hits or no, Powderkeg was cursed. By 1983, every album they’d ever made was out of print, even those that had been wildly successful. Did any musicians in history have such a run of bad luck, bad advice, and devastating lawsuits?
Of the four members, two took their own lives: death by hanging. Drummer Todd Russell died a decade or so after the band’s final stalled attempt at resuscitation. He was forty-three. Only Robbie, that damaged pearl, remains.
I met Robbie just once, in 1984. Inexplicably, he was working the counter at Cut Outs, a humble used record shop in Columbus, Ohio, which is a very long way from Robbie’s native Liverpool, and even farther from the hot lights and packed houses of Powderkeg’s starstruck heyday.
It was a school day in March, chilly and gray. I wasn’t supposed to be off the grounds, but I had a free period and a car (just as secondhand as Cut Outs’ stock), so, rather than continue to educate myself about Tecumseh and the Logan Elm, I opted to expand my musical horizons.
Cut Outs faced North High Street, four lanes of stoplight traffic hemmed in by miles of shoulder-to-shoulder brick-façade shops, broken by canyons of cross streets. An old blues tune played on the stereo as I entered, a Texas-inflected shuffle, fast paced and (for a blues tune) happy. The place smelled musty, like dorms and mildewed basements. From inside the moldering LP covers, you could almost hear strangers’ memories, an overdub straining to escape the endless vinyl grooves. I thought I glimpsed, as I always did on entering, the ghosts of failed rockers sailing through the shadows, humming along to the music and hoping against hope that some final scrap of their output might still be purchased, hugged to the chest, borne home.
Robbie and I were the only people in the shop. He was bouncy and short and still looked remarkably like Ringo Starr.
I asked him for help finding a forty-five called “Things Get a Little Easier,” something I’d heard once on the radio but hadn’t caught the artist’s name because my little brother was holding forth about the history of tennis.
I think Robbie enjoyed the hunt, fingering sleeve after almost-identical sleeve. His fingertips and mine both came away coated in a grimy papery dust that no CD shop will ever know. He tallied up the bill of sale by hand and said, as I headed out the door, “Cheers, mate.”
And that was it.
What more could there have been? I was fifteen, a cynical and reclusive high school sophomore. I had acne and a shoulder full of chips.
So of course that was “it.”
I pointed up to the enormous overhead poster promoting Powderkeg’s new (in 1973) album, Midnight Apple.
“Excuse me, but that’s you, isn’t it?”
Robbie eyed the shiny brown poster warily: four pleased-looking longhairs, all dressed in brown against a leather-brown background. A study in brown, that photo. Brown fading to deepest blue. “Second from the right,” said Robbie. “Different times.”
I nodded. “Do you miss it?”
Robbie laughed, humorless and quick, over and done like a match blown out. “Not photo shoots, mate. But playing, being on stage, those were better days. Anyone out of the game misses that. Anyone who says otherwise, well, I’d call ’im a liar.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Hiding,” he said. “I’ve got friends here. Met ’em on the road years ago. Decent people, good musicians—that’s the name of the game. You know how it is.”
I didn’t, but I smiled and nodded to show that I did, and Robbie rang up the sale. Outside the dusty window, a grumbling city bus drove a wedge through the traffic, and I saw Robbie’s eyes follow it as if he wished he were aboard, as if that old soot-encrusted behemoth could up and fly him out of Ohio and right back to amplified stardom.
“My life,” said Robbie, “it’s not had what they’d call a cracking good result. I’m thirty-seven, mate, and I’ve run my wicket. This is s’posed to be the prime of my life—but I went from gold records to laying carpet. Thirty-seven and done. How old are you?”
I told him. He chewed on the answer as if I’d pushed a cherry pit into his mouth, but he said nothing.
In that moment, I was moved as I’d never been moved before, not by starving kids in Ethiopia, not by the aged in nursing homes (where my high school Dixieland band sometimes played), and certainly not by the plight of people in general. What child of fifteen can work up any empathy for a concept like that? But for a fraying, lonely rock star, washed ashore on what I took to be my doorstep, I had empathy in spades.
Besides, I was a fan.
“Robbie, do you wanna maybe go get a sandwich?”
No immediate response.
“C’mon. I’m buying.”
We went to Bernie’s Bagels, an Ohio State campus hangout. Robbie had a pastrami on rye; I had the turkey club. I told him about what I listened to: Madness, Strawbs, Fairport Convention. Powderkeg, of course. The Clash, Pretenders. Not a lot of teased hair and synthesizers in that pile. Not exactly the hit parade of 1984.
Robbie had favorites I’d never heard of, Czech bands, Russians, South Africans. He asked me what I thought of shape singing. He went off about Chopin’s Nocturnes. I had only the most vague idea of what he was talking about, but I finally screwed up my courage and told him I played keyboards.
“Meaning what?” he asked. “Piano or organ?”
“Both,” I said. “And trumpet.”
Within the week, we’d recruited a drummer and a bass player and formed the Robbie October Express. I got the requisite Ohio work permit and dropped out of school. That summer, we placed a hip, sexy video on that brand-new bauble, MTV, and within two months of that, we’d played the Roxy and CBGB’s.
Rock ’n’ roll.
“Hey,” Robbie called, “you forgot your change.”
I had one hand on the door. The little brass bell tied to the top had already let out a faint, expectant jingle. Such a flexible word, change. Robbie, I thought, change!
I couldn’t bear to see him shipwrecked like this, and I tried to say something coherent, like, “Keep it, it’s yours,” but then I realized this would come off as condescending, the sort of comment one tosses on the heels of copper dropped to a beggar on a chilly street, and that epiphany left me so tongue-tied that I not only didn’t know what to say, I no longer knew how to move.
My shoulder was on the door, and the door was opening outward, and as it did, I was tipping out with it, a human glacier tilting helplessly into the street. I glanced back, and Robbie had me fixed with his huge eyes—little planets—and I could see that he understood perfectly my sickened hesitation, my desire to race pell-mell away not just from him but from anything that might suggest my own life-story didn’t come affixed with a guaranteed happy ending. Worse, my hesitation seemed to send Robbie flashing backward, and I watched as, for an agonizing heartbeat, he relived the collapse of his own personal velocity, the mudslap of tarnish on his shiny, happy, rock band aspirations.
Power-pop: that’s what they called Powderkeg’s music in its heyday. Power-pop. Such irony. What power remains in a popped balloon?
“Well,” said Robbie, “stop in again.”
Breath held as if the cessation of breathing could, in and of itself, right the universe, I staggered onto the sidewalk. Never, I told myself. I will never let that happen to me.
Robbie rang up the sale on the register and said, as I headed out the door, “Cheers, mate.”
I gave him the sort of perfunctory smile-and-wave that people do when coming and going from places and people to whom they have no significant connection, but I didn’t quite get away. The telephone rang. Robbie jumped as if he’d been stung.
The phone rang again.
“Hey,” Robbie called, “would you mind picking that up?”
I had one hand on the door, one foot practically outside. I looked at Robbie’s stricken face. I looked at the telephone, a large black rotary sitting next to the shop’s turntable. The dependable old Bang and Olufsen had been playing a long-deleted Albert Collins LP, but now, as if in perfect synch with the blaring telephone, it allowed the stylus to drop comfortably atop its armrest.
“Okay,” I said. “What do I say? ‘Hello, Cut Outs’?”
Robbie sidled into a corner and put up his hands, as if to ward off the still-ringing telephone. “Anything you like,” he said. “I just can’t answer right now.”
I shrugged, walked back to the counter, and stretched for the phone. The coil dragged as I pulled it toward my ear. “Hello?”
There was a long pause. I pressed the receiver closer, but all I caught was what sounded like a sigh, swallowed by the rush of wind and a lively crackle of static. (In those days, we didn’t have dropped calls. We had bad connections.)
“Hello?” I said again, sensing there was someone there, and sure enough, I heard a small, throat-clearing cough.
“Cheers,” said a male voice, a British tenor, cracked from too many cigarettes. “It’s Evan.”
“Evan Davis. Put Robbie on.”
Evan Davis: Powderkeg’s bass player, and the second band member to hang himself. I didn’t know the ins and outs, but from what I’d read, I was pretty sure that Robbie and Evan hadn’t parted on good terms.
What to say? How best to run interference between two former bandmates, one lost in the heartland of a country not his own, the other a ghost clinging to life through a static-filled telephone line?
“Hi, Evan,” I said. “Robbie’s not really here right now. Can I take a message?”
Evan snorted a laugh, the laugh of a man who wasn’t too thrilled to be dead.
“I like that,” he said. “‘Not really here.’ So he’s there but won’t talk, is that it?”
“Something like that.”
I didn’t have to look at Robbie to know I was correct not to put him on the line.
“Well, listen,” Evan went on, “I won’t keep you. I just rang up to say I’m not angry anymore. Will you tell him that? Tell him that as far as I’m concerned, it’s over. He can move on.”
I watched the base of the phone slowly tipping like an iceberg onto its side as I pulled still further on the reluctant cord. I watched the second hand on the wall clock glide past the twelve. I watched anything but Robbie.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll tell him.”
I hadn’t even finished speaking when the line went dead, and the only sound left in my ear was the dial tone. At the same moment, the stylus lifted on the turntable, shifted itself sideways, and plunked down with that fumph that you never hear on compact discs. As I reached over to hang up the receiver, a bluesy rhythm section kicked in, dusky and dark, a shuffle overlaid with the razor-wire attack of Albert Collins’s guitar.
“So?” said Robbie. “What’d he say?”
“He said, ‘It’s over.’ Like the song.”
Robbie wagged his head back and forth, denying this, denying that. “He says that every time he calls. I can’t take it.”
Confused, I said, “What do you want him to do? Chew you out?”
“I don’t even believe it’s really him! Do you?”
Had anyone asked me, ten minutes before I entered Cut Outs that day, if I ‘believed’ I would soon be meeting Robbie October, I’d have said, “No way.” Now here was Robbie asking if I believed in telephone ghosts.
The turntable stylus lifted again, advanced half an inch, and reset itself on the spinning record. And then, as we both watched, it did it again.
“It always does that,” Robbie said. “First Evan calls, then the bloody turntable—Christ. I’m losing my mind.”
I gestured at the door. “I think I need to get back to class.”
“Yeah, all right, then. Sorry ’bout all this.”
“No problem.” I smiled, because smiles are easy to give, but I stopped short of saying, “That’s what friends are for.” Friends can’t do certain kinds of shovel work. And besides, we weren’t really friends.
I left. Robbie remained, and through the glass, I could see him staring with wide, frightened eyes as the stylus rose and fell, dancing to its own internal music.
An old blues tune played from the stereo, a Texas groove, fast paced and (for a blues tune) happy. Robbie and I were the only people in the shop. In fact, we were just about all there was, period. The wall decorations were gone, the countertop was bare, and the display shelves were completely empty except for traces of dirt, hair, and dust bunnies.
“Hey,” I said, “where’d all the records go?”
I knew I was face-to-face with Robbie October, and I knew I should be impressed and point at where the now-absent Powderkeg poster had been and say, “That was you, wasn’t it?” Instead, it was all I could do to take in the suddenly real possibility that my favorite store in all the world might be going under, and that I’d somehow missed out on who knew how many chances to learn, listen, and absorb new music.
Even the resident ghosts had fled.
Robbie brushed his long, straight hair out of his eyes and giggled. “It’s all out back,” he said, and he pointed through the interior door. I knew that if I proceeded far enough down the dim, claustrophobic hall beyond, I’d find a second door leading out to the alley where I’d parked.
“Everything?” I said.
This sounded demented. Nobody warehouses records outside. And besides, I’d just come from the alley, and there weren’t any records there. Just a door in an unremarkable brick wall with the words “Cut Outs” painted on by hand.
“Go see for yourself,” said Robbie. He giggled again in a way that suggested nothing here was funny, that nothing ever would be funny, that humor itself had just been outlawed.
I walked through the shop, picked my way down the dark hall, and pushed open the rear door. Outside was a vast, level plain, partitioned by cinderblock walls that ran for as far as the eye could see. Directly in front of me, sitting at a junky metal desk, was a heavyset Mexican man, thickly mustached and wearing a plum-colored button-down. He was reading the classifieds of a very yellowed newspaper, and barely looked up as I appeared.
It was warm, suddenly sunny. Without really meaning to, I let the door swing closed behind me.
“Okay,” I said. “What the hell is going on?”
“No sé,” the man grunted. “¿En qué te puedo ayudar?”
“Yes, sí,” I answered, pleased that I could sort out what he was saying. “Busco los discos.”
“Ah,” he said, and he pulled a clipboard out from behind the desk and scanned its attendant papers. “Por allá. Para música de Señor October, cero.” Then he paused, frowning deeply. “¿Cómo se dice ‘zona’ en inglés?”
I shook my head. “‘Zona’? It’s just ‘zone.’”
“Pues, Bueno. Zone.” And then, in heavily accented English, he said, “You go to Zone Cero. You will find what you need, mi amigo. That way to the end, then a la izquierda.”
The most sensible idea, retreating back into Cut Outs, did not even occur to me. I was bound for Zone Cero, and nothing was going to stop me.
Under my feet, chalk-white gravel crunched. I followed a road wider than a two-car garage and stretching on and on, indefinitely. Above, cornflower blue, unbroken. On either side, in large bays hemmed in by the cinderblock walls, lay unbelievable piles of junk. The junk was sorted by type. One bay might have pink pacifiers, another one rigid blue insulation. Over there, broken Naugahyde recliners, piled to the sky. In the bay ahead, on the left, comic books: Casper the Friendly Ghost, from top to bottom.
I trudged on, thirsty now, less certain, and my shoes scuffed up little puffs of dust. At last, a new horizon line hove into view: another wall, more gray cinderblock. There were no signs, no maps, but I turned left, confident that the man in the plum shirt wouldn’t lead me astray.
He didn’t. A short way on, I came upon a pair of storm cellar doors mounted right smack in the middle of the roadway. The doors were painted pine green, but they were peeling badly and showed many other colors beneath: a rainbow of paint jobs, layered like tree rings, each layer leading farther inward.
A dry wind came up, and I had to turn away to shield my eyes from blowing dirt and grit. When it subsided, I looked again at the doors and found words had formed, letters made of shifting, whitish dust: ZONE CERO: THE PLACE OF PERSONAL LOSS. In the surrounding bays lay mounds of Hershey’s candy wrappers, a host of broken ukuleles, a massive slush pile of outdated gas station maps. Each separate, each its own withering, rotting heap.
I ignored the rapid pounding of my heart, and pulled open the left-hand storm door.
Inside, stairs led down. Infinitely, for all I could tell.
I threw both doors wide (they slammed loudly on the gravel, old wood smacking older stone) and descended the stairs.
After ten steps, I had trouble seeing my way. After twenty, I had to keep a hand to the wall. After thirty, the light had all but gone, and by forty, I proceeded entirely by touch.
I lost count of the stairs.
I lost count of everything except the task of descending without tripping and tumbling helplessly down into the never-ending, timeless dark.
Just when I came to the conclusion that I’d been tricked, that I’d better go up before someone closed the cellar doors, my fingers found a gap to my right, and my feet reached a floor. Very cautiously, hardly daring to breathe, I felt my way along the nearer wall. Nightmare images of labyrinths filled my mind, and I pictured Theseus stalking the Minotaur. Unlike me, had Theseus had the sense to bring light?
I found a door. Or, more properly, my fingers found a door. I turned the knob, stiff with age and disuse. It opened, and daylight flooded in. I blinked, shielded my dark-adapted eyes, and tried to adjust.
To my surprise, I was back on the level plain, or perhaps some other part of it, and all around me lay piles and piles and endless piles of Powderkeg albums. They were all jumbled together, most in their sleeves but some not, and I could see all the important titles like Better Days and Midnight Apple, together with obscurities like Perfection, and battered forty-fives, Greek-issue singles of “Come and Take It,” the Swedish release of “No Matter When.”
I couldn’t begin to guess how many records lay moldering in that piled-up mound. Millions, maybe. Maybe every record the band had ever sold.
I climbed that vinyl mountain, I scrambled right to the highest peak. I stood and gazed across that otherwise empty plain of dust and watery sunlight, of wind and memory, and I wondered what it would take to finally throw this avalanche of music away.
And then, just as I was about to climb down, it occurred to me that someplace out there, I might be building a mountain of my own. Not of records, perhaps, but maybe something disastrously similar.
For a moment, I thought about going off to find it, to see what my landfill of regrets might look like at age fifteen—probably all would-be girlfriends, ripe warm bodies I would never, ever touch—but in an act of entirely sensible cowardice, I decided that no, it would be better to simply retreat.
I skidded down, my tennis shoes smushing the band members’ faces with every step, and I caught Robbie peering at me from the inside cover of Throw the Dice. He blinked. He smiled. A breeze ruffled his hair.
“Ta, mate,” he said. “Thanks for taking the tour.”
I fled up the stairs, slammed the storm cellar doors, and half-jogged back to the man in the plum-colored shirt. He looked up at my approach, rose from his seat, brushed some crumbs from his shirt—he’d been nibbling biscotti—and grinned broadly.
“Para ti, amigo, hay una destinación más. Zona Uno.” He pointed in the direction I was now headed. “It’s not so far. Tempted?”
I said, “What are you doing here? Is this your, I don’t know, your job?”
The man smiled as if his mind were unspooling through the ten billion choices that had led him here, to this awkward moment, and he ran one hand back through his sweaty hair. “I’m new in this country,” he said, “I take the work I can get. It’s better than—how do you say? Laying carpet.”
Robbie and I were the only people in the shop.
I asked him for help finding a forty-five called “Things Get a Little Easier.” I think Robbie enjoyed the hunt: fingering sleeve after sleeve after almost identical sleeve. His fingertips and mine both came away coated in a grimy papery dust—whitish, sun-bleached, dry as the death of dreams.
Robbie rang up the sale and said, as I headed out the door, “Cheers, mate.”
And that was it.
Afterward, I cried for weeks, helplessly, day after day, in all the wrong places: gym class, the cafeteria, at dinner with my parents. Teenage boys aren’t allowed to cry, so really, every place was wrong. Allowable or not, the taps would not turn off.
I like to picture Robbie crying, too, but maybe he didn’t. He was a grown-up, after all—thirty-seven—and now that I’m grown, I have made at least one ugly discovery: it’s always easiest to weep for someone else.
Mark Rigney, who may be found at www.markrigney.net, is the author of numerous plays, including Acts of God, Bears, and Ten Red Kings. In reviewing the off-Broadway production, TheaterMania called Bears “the best play of the year.” His short fiction appears in Unlikely Story, Black Gate, Witness, The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review, Realms of Fantasy, and Black Static, among nearly fifty other venues. The Skates and Sleeping Bear, two haunted novellas, are now available from Samhain Publishing, and their sequel, the novel Check-Out Time, is forthcoming in fall 2014. Two collections of his stories are available through Amazon, Flights of Fantasy and Reality Checks. “Mayor of a Flourishing City,” which appeared in the first issue of Betwixt, revolves around the same salvage yard depicted in “Robbie’s Zona Cero.”
“Robbie’s Zona Cero” first appeared in Escape Clause, edited by Clélie Rich (Ink Oink Art, 2009)