#114: Cream, "Disraeli Gears" (1967)

114 Disraeli Gears.jpg

On Saturday mornings old men pull up their socks and mow lawns. Listen to chainlink rattle against hard plastic wheels. Listen to motors stutter as blades choke on clumps of grass, heavy with dew.

Gary, though, he doesn’t mow the lawn on Saturday mornings.

Gary says, “Chad, meet me out in the garage in five?” but Chad, who is eating toast at the kitchen counter, doesn’t want to go into the garage because Gary has been out there all morning fucking around on his guitar, and any time Gary calls his oldest son into the garage after fucking around with his guitar all morning, it’s almost certainly because he wants to jam. Jam—Gary’s word, not Chad’s. Chad says, “I’m going to mow,” then walks past his father into the garage and begins to unroll his socks so they reach up his ankles. Gary follows Chad into the garage, says, “Easy there, old man.” And Chad says, “Somebody’s got to do it.” Even though he knows his father was mocking him for rolling his socks up, he’s decided not to engage with that bullshit.

Gary says, “Would it kill you to grab your bass for a minute?” And while Chad knows that it would not, in fact, kill him to pick his bass up for a minute, it wouldn’t be particularly useful or enjoyable either—Chad hasn’t played his bass, or any bass for that matter, in five years. He says, “I’m not going to play with you.” Chad can’t stand the thought of playing bass. The only times he thinks about it are when Gary asks him to jam, or when he reminds himself to remember to take it to a guitar shop to sell.

Until he was seventeen, Chad had played in a band called Bad Grey Alien that performed an eighty-twenty split of covers to originals, with covers ranging from the psychedelia and classic rock of the sixties and seventies to what was, at the time, the contemporary sounds of mid-to-late period grunge. Their originals ranged from songs that sounded a lot like outtakes from the first two Pearl Jam albums to square-as-fuck twelve bar blues tunes accompanied by lyrics about not having girlfriends or not being taken seriously by parents. Being in a band, mediocre as it was, provided a certain amount of smalltime acclaim and modest notoriety for Chad at the time, but he, along with his bandmates, knew all along that they weren’t going to write the kinds of songs that would catch anyone’s ear, and they were nervous about turning out like the guys in Missile Toe, a slightly older eighty-twenty band who hadn’t been ready to let go of their certain amount of smalltime acclaim and modest notoriety afforded them for being in a band, and so stayed in town to play local gigs at night and work jobs bagging groceries or bussing tables during the day.

The thing was, Missile Toe, too, knew they weren’t the kind of band that was going to “hit it big,” but still couldn’t let go. Chad sometimes thought that the guys in Missile Toe had done him and his friends a favor—maybe Bad Grey Alien would have tried to make a go of things had they not seen how sad the Missile Toe guys seemed. And so in spring semester of their senior year, Bad Grey Alien threw a big party and played their last ever gig together. That was the last time Chad played his bass. One might think someone who generally enjoyed playing music might pick it up to dabble here or there but between the Missile Toe guys desperately clinging to whatever it was they were clinging to, and his own father’s constant obsession with fucking around on his guitar in the garage, Chad stopped wanting to have really anything to do with music after his band’s last show.

And then, four days after that last show, Gail, she was—is?—Chad’s mom, ran off to check herself into a rehab clinic in New Mexico, claiming an addiction to booze and antidepressants. Chad had never seen his mom drink anything other than water, orange juice, or Diet Coke, and surely had never seen her take a pill in her life, so he wasn’t all that surprised when, two days after she checked herself in, she checked herself right back out, but instead of heading home, disappeared into America’s wide open West. Gary didn’t even bother calling the police or hiring a private investigator—he just continued his routine of working eight-to-seven at the firm, and upped his guitar time in the garage from one hour a night to three. So no, Chad hadn’t really felt like playing his bass since then, and who could blame him? Who can blame him now? Five years out of high school and still living with his dad, to pick up the bass now, Chad thinks, would surely signal something frightening and deeply unsettling about how he fits into his hometown’s ecosystem of aging boomers and their adult children.

“Seriously, though, I’m going to mow now,” Chad says. But before he can finish priming the motor, Gary says, “Remember that time you guys played “Sunshine?”

Chad says, “And you told us it sounded like shit.”

“You were what, twelve?”

“Seventh grade. So, yeah, twelve.” He continues, “You told us, twelve year olds, that we had no business performing the song if Todd wasn’t going to use the Woman Tone.”

Gary says, “The song doesn’t exist without the Woman Tone.”

“We were twelve.”

Gary says, “Still one of my proudest moments.”

“Shitting all over the greatest achievement of what was, at the time, your twelve year old son’s greatest accomplishment?”

“No, idiot—watching you play the song.”

Though this admission from his father surprises Chad, it doesn’t particularly move him. He isn’t sure he can remember the last time he had this long a conversation with his father, and sure as hell can’t think of a time when he and Gary talked about anything other than doing work around the house or what one of them needed to pick up at the store. So, really, the admission doesn’t mean much to Chad at all.

As Chad awkwardly stands over the mower, Gary spreads his fingers across the neck of his Les Paul and picks out the opening riff of “Sunshine of Your Love.” The notes seem to swallow themselves, then hum—as if anyone listening isn’t hearing the notes themselves, but the holes at the middle of the notes, the quiet vibrations rumbling out of each tone.

“That’s pretty good,” Chad says.

“It’s an easy riff—a twelve year old can play it.”

“The tone. You’ve got it down.”

“Like I told you then, the song doesn’t exist without the Woman Tone.”

Gary wasn’t wrong, and Chad knows it. Chad always knows it. Everyone who has ever played the opening riff of “Sunshine Of Your Love” on an electric guitar without at least attempting the Woman Tone knows it somewhere, deep down inside, even if they don’t know that they know: every teenage garage band, stringy-haired and gangly; every middle aged bar band, balding and beer-gutted; every semi-professional corporate event and wedding band, pony-tailed and arrogant; every pep band, karaoke singer, coffee house crooner, professional band who throws in the occasional cover—every single goddam last one of them knows, has known, will know that the song isn’t anything without that tone.

Chad says, “It’s not like I disagree with you.”

Gary turns up the volume on his amp and plays the riff again. Says, “Dennis wants to place this at our first gig. I told him only if we get the sound right.”

“Your first gig?”

“At the distillery. The new one.”

“You’re a band now?”

“We have been.”

Gary plays the riff—then plays it again, again, again. Chad doesn’t have anything to say, but feels weirdly betrayed by his father’s revelation, though he can’t put his finger on why, exactly. If his father wants to play in a band with other old men, that’s his business. As a brash, young twenty year old, though, Chad feels uncomfortable, even a little embarrassed at the thought of men in their late fifties and early sixties “jamming” in front of strangers. Chad feels blood rush to his face. He’s about to bolt so he can begin mowing when he hears his father begin to sing, “I’ll be with you darling soon.” It’s a whisper, a far cry from Jack Bruce’s guttural howls. “I’ll be with you when the stars are falling,” he continues.

Chad can’t help but note a surprising sadness in his father’s voice. He is surprised, period, to hear Gary singing, but to hear his father’s voice so quiet, timid even, catches him off guard. Soon, Gary switches from the famous opening riff to the rhythmically halting chorus, sings “I’ve been waiting so long,” and when he gets to the next line, “To be where I’m going,” Chad, without even realizing it, begins to sing along. Together, voices increasing in volume, the two sing the last line of the chorus, and then Gary is right back into the song’s main riff, while Chad sings the bass part, and bangs out a beat on his legs. The pair continue this way through the end of the song.

Gary says, “Why don’t you go grab your bass.”

Chad says, “I’ve got to mow.” He adds, “Maybe next time.”

And with that, he starts the mower and pushes it out of the garage into what’s left of this bright, crisp Saturday morning.

—James Brubaker