Darwin Slaughter kept reaching for his Megadeth CD as he drove northbound on the Garden State Parkway, but each time he quickly thought better of it.
He had been warned.
One more violation of the Gillers Moral Superiority Act and Tax Omnibus Executive Order of 2017, and Darwin faced a punishment cruel enough to keep him from taking any chances. If he dared listen to any music whatsoever, tiny electronic devices embedded beneath the pavement, known as “rhythm detectors,” would send out a signal to Federal Vice Police dispatchers. In a matter of moments, a convoy of red Ford Crown Victorias would be in hot pursuit of Darwin “Shock” Slaughter, disc jockey at New Jersey’s WRAT-FM, formerly a hard-rock station.
Listening to his fellow WRAT DJ, Goatman Greg, trying to deliver an international news report was about as enjoyable as a root canal. Yet Darwin found himself in the strange position of being jealous of Goat, a fellow rocker reduced to mumbling in a crabby monotone about unprecedented floods in Eastern Europe and guerrilla warfare in the Sudan. As the least senior DJ at the “Rat,” Darwin had no shot at reading glamorous stuff, like the international news.
For the past six weeks, he had been reduced to reading obituaries on the air.
Darwin punched the volume knob in frustration, leaving him with just the drone of the old Honda Accord’s out-of-tune engine, and his distant sound of his father’s voice, chiding him over and over. “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain,” white-haired Dustin Slaughter warned his politically apathetic son on the eve of Election Day 2016. Sorry, Dad, but I’m complaining, he muttered to himself. How was he supposed to know that talk-show host Marvin Gillers’ DOWN WITH ART 2016 presidential campaign was serious? How was he supposed to know that Americans would elect a president so intent on restoring “Christian family values” that he was willing to enact a ban on music?
For weeks after the enactment of the Moral Superiority Act, Darwin dragged himself down the Garden State Parkway to the radio station to recite the obituaries to coastal New Jersey, stubbornly keeping the faith that one day soon, the music would return. It had to.
But it wasn’t. Popular music had grown so derivative and wretched by 2017 that most of the white, working-class voters in middle America who voted for Gillers didn’t miss it. The public support for the executive order astounded Darwin and his colleagues at the Rat—but it shouldn’t have.
After all, the formation of the twenty-million-strong Federal Vice Police, and the instant jobs for the construction workers and engineers who installed the rhythm detectors in record time, had almost completely eliminated unemployment. The few dissenters to the Act, mainly along the coasts, were belittled and branded “liberals.”
A Married with Children rerun was about to start as Darwin sat on his sofa that night, wolfing down cold Spaghetti-O’s directly from the can. Just as the suave crooning of Frank Sinatra was about to come through the TV speakers, a shrill female voice filled the room instead.
“PHONE call! PHONE call! PHONE call!”
Darwin groaned. When people found their telephone bells were setting off the rhythm detectors, resulting in millions of unwarranted bust-ins by the Federal Vice Police, the FCC ordered the immediate switchover of the nation’s 1.3 billion landline and cellular phones from ring to voice notification. A contest was held to find the one voice that would notify people nationwide that someone was calling them. In a cruel twist of irony, the winner turned out to be one-time pop-music sensation Avril Lavigne.
“Yeah,” Darwin mumbled.
“I’m fucking bored, Shock,” moaned his girlfriend, Scarlet. “You need to come here.”
Darwin froze, staring blankly at the TV. Instead of the dulcet tones of Sinatra, there was nothing but buzzy feedback as the lyrics to the classic theme song appeared in bold green letters at the bottom of the screen.
LOVE AND MARRIAGE
LOVE AND MARRIAGE
GO TOGETHER LIKE A
HORSE AND CARRIAGE
Those fuckers, Darwin thought, angrily hitting the power button on the remote.
“I’ll see you in ten, babe,” said Darwin, grabbing his car keys.
As he closed the door of the Honda and headed for Scarlet’s apartment, Darwin couldn’t help but feel a nauseous sensation percolating in the pit of his stomach, as if he’d downed too many shots too fast. Still, when Scarlet answered the door, Darwin’s body tensed up excitedly. In a trashy gray low-cut tank top, a sharply spiked black leather necklace, and tight faded jeans cuffed at her bare ankles, Scarlet was red hot. Her platinum blond hair was wild, but attractively so. The fringes around her brown eyes were bathed in sky-blue eye shadow.
“Hey, babe,” he said.
Scarlet’s demeanor was cold, all business. She motioned for Darwin to come in and he obediently followed.
“What are you waiting for?” Scarlet asked coldly.
Darwin failed to respond, the nauseous sensation intensifying despite his better wishes.
Scarlet undressed herself with one hand and tacitly pushed Darwin toward her dilapidated convertible sofa with the other. Wasting no time, she unlaced his Vans sneakers, slid off his jeans, and lifted off his Iron Maiden T-shirt, leaving a pair of black socks as his only barrier from her thin, warm body. She forced his right hand off her small, knob-like breasts and onto her corduroys; he fumbled awkwardly with his right hand to unbutton them as their lips locked in an almost violent kiss. Before Darwin could completely gain his bearings, he felt her body thrusting against his, up and down in imperfect, syncopated rhythm.
In the absence of the heavy metal that always used to play when they made love, his ears filled with a ringing sensation that gradually grew from benign to bothersome. They were completely out of sync. All at once, all Darwin could think of were the day’s obituaries that he’d read on the air. 91-year-old Alice Fletcher of Lakewood, who’d left behind twenty-three grandchildren. 52-year-old Henry Slovinsky of Toms River, who’d smoked in bed and paid the price. 26-year-old Darwin Slaughter, whose soul was dying in a world without music.
A sense of panic set in. Nothing was happening. Darwin realized he hadn’t had a decent conversation with Scarlet in weeks. Their entire chemistry revolved around music, going to hardcore and metal shows. When that was taken away from them, their relationship was done for. But it just kept going, like a train rolling slowly toward a deep cliff, with no brakeman to stop it.
Just as Darwin finally willed himself into a modest state of ecstasy, Scarlet stopped cold. She stared at him with wide open, threatening eyes. The ringing in Darwin’s ears grew unbearably dissonant. The silence in the room seemed as loud as an airplane taking off.
“What’s wrong with you?” Scarlet’s disappointed voice suddenly rose from the quiet.
“This is driving me insane,” Darwin said weakly, reaching for his jeans. “I need music.”
“I’ve got headphones. Play something.”
“Play something?” Darwin was surprised by the anger in his voice. “Don’t you know what they do to third-time offenders? They’re going to put me in solitary, tie me to a fucking chair and play Barry Manilow songs every minute of the day for twenty years! And you’re telling me to fucking play something?”
“I don’t think we should see each other anymore,” Scarlet growled.
Darwin opened his mouth to say something, but no sound came out.
“Bye, Shock,” she said, tossing him his clothing one piece at a time. “Better luck next time.”
Darwin couldn’t sleep. Every time he started to fade out, massive symphony orchestras started playing in his head. Every time he woke up, he wasn’t in a concert hall, but in his apartment watching the lyrics to sitcom theme songs flash on the TV.
Three o’clock passed. Four o’clock. It was hopeless. He had to hear music, somewhere, anywhere, or he was going to lose it. “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. “Paradise City” by Guns ‘n’ Roses. “Oops, I Did It Again” by Britney Spears, for fuck’s sake. “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” The theme music to Family Feud. Anything!
Darwin got dressed, threw his leather jacket and sneakers on, and grabbed his car keys, slamming the door behind him. His Honda Accord would take him someplace to save him from the hideous silence.
He turned the key and the twenty-year-old heap cranked and cranked, but wouldn’t start. “Fucking lemon!” Darwin screamed into the dead air.
He kept cranking the engine, the starter motor turning progressively slower, the warning lights flickering mournfully on the dashboard. After four tries, the engine sluggishly came to life. Darwin floored the gas pedal in triumph, and the car roared raucously into the night.
The rhythm detectors were programmed not to detect car engines, Darwin realized with delight.
He listened to the sweet sound of the idling motor for a few moments, then gave the gas pedal another shove. The sound was so coarse, so industrial, so wonderful.
A wide-eyed Darwin gunned the engine, let it go, gunned it harder. Bedroom lights illuminated up and down the block. Darwin grinned as the orange RPM needle danced across the instrument panel. It was like a junkie’s first hit of cocaine.
Darwin revved it to the red line. He was so busy laughing that he didn’t notice the oil light glowing crimson on the panel. In seconds, the engine choked to a halt, the front end of the Accord lost in an oily torrent of smoke.
“PHONE call! PHONE call! PHONE call!” the cell phone screamed hours later. Darwin opened his eyes languidly and groaned, confused as to why it was so bright outside, and what he was doing sleeping in his car. It was 9:23 a.m.
“Yeah,” Darwin groaned, but there was no one on the other end. He threw the phone across the passenger compartment.
Darwin tried the ignition, and when he got nothing but a pitiful scraping of metal against metal, remembered why he was in the car.
He picked the phone off the floor and called for a cab. Half an hour later, a yellow Toyota Camry pulled alongside his broken-down Accord. “Carnegie Hall,” he told the driver.
An abrupt burst of acceleration pushed Darwin back in his seat before he could fasten his seat belt. Within minutes, they were on the New Jersey Turnpike, weaving through the eastern spur at nearly a hundred miles per hour.
“Uh, sir, maybe you should slow down?” Darwin spluttered as the Camry twisted through the helix leading down to the Lincoln Tunnel like a race car rocketing through time trials.
“I get so bored driving this cab without a radio,” the driver grumbled, braking sharply and swerving to avoid ramming a slow-moving truck. Darwin exhaled deeply. “Hey, is that a Jimi Hendrix shirt you’re wearing?”
“I’m amazed I haven’t been arrested yet for wearing it,” Darwin lamented.
“Jimi Hendrix is a guitar god. One of my biggest regrets is that I was born too late to share a stage with him. That man could play the guitar like nobody’s business.”
“I’d give anything to listen to ‘Crosstown Traffic’ right now. Or ‘Foxey Lady.’ Or anything.”
“Same here, man, same here. My life has been such a mess since I can’t jam with my band anymore. Look at what I’ve been reduced to, man. From winning Grammy Awards to driving a cab sixteen hours a day just to make rent.”
Darwin’s nausea intensified as the taxi escaped the Lincoln Tunnel and whizzed up Eighth Avenue, then turned right onto 57th Street. He studied the stickers in the cab, his eyes falling on the driver’s hack license. His jaw dropped when he saw the driver’s name: MATTHEWS, DAVE.
“Forty-five, buddy,” Dave Matthews said as the car stopped at the northeast corner of 57th and Seventh.
Darwin handed Dave three twenties. He wasn’t going to stiff a rock icon, even one whose music he thought was stoner-hipster garbage.
“Thanks, man!” Dave said excitedly. “If you’re buying a lot of plywood, I can have a minivan dispatched for you. Just tell me what time you think you’re going to get out of there.”
“I don’t think I need a—oh, shit.”
Darwin looked out the window. Orange and white balloons hung from the entrance of Carnegie Hall, the elegant marquee emblazoned with a new sign: HOME DEPOT – NOW OPEN!
“At least they turned Carnegie into something useful,” Dave said. “Lincoln Center’s now the world’s largest Walgreens.”
Darwin handed Dave another twenty. “Yankee Stadium, Dave,” he said, “and step on it.”
With Dave Matthews driving ninety up the Henry Hudson Parkway, Darwin got to Yankee Stadium in plenty of time to plunk $106 on a seat in the right-field upper deck. Shortly after one o’clock, a recording of the legendary Eddie Layton playing the Star-Spangled Banner on the Yankee Stadium organ would blast through the Stadium’s speakers, with an amateur chorus of 53,000 singing along.
“May I have your attention please…ladies and gentlemen,” the so-called “Voice of God,” ageless public address announcer Bob Sheppard, beckoned to the crowd at two minutes after one. “Please rise…and remove your caps…for the recitation…of our national anthem.”
The words lit up, one line at a time, on the Diamond Vision screen, and as Darwin watched in horror, the crowd read the words blandly:
OH SAY CAN YOU SEE
BY THE DAWN’S EARLY LIGHT
WHAT SO PROUDLY WE HAIL’D
AT THE TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING?
Darwin stared out at Monument Park beyond the left-field wall. He envisioned Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle turning in their respective graves.
Right around the middle of the anthem, an impeccably dressed older man jumped onto the field, ran to the microphone behind home plate that remained from a pre-game ceremony, and belted out a convincing tenor solo.
“And the roh-kets red glaaaaaare!” he sang passionately over the crowd’s monotone. “The bombs BURST-ing in aaaaaaaair!”
A squadron of Federal Vice Police, uniformed in bright red military fatigues and red steel-toe Doc Martens, raced out of the visiting team’s dugout. They surrounded the impromptu anthem singer, guns drawn.
“YOU WERE WARNED, JOHN AMIRANTE!” screamed one of the soldiers, his voice carrying through the microphone. “WE HOPE YOU LIKE ‘COPACABANA!’”
The offender was dragged forcibly off the field. The crowd murmured uneasily.
“Let us continue…with the recitation…” Bob Sheppard implored the fans. And they did, soullessly reading the words on the Diamond Vision as if there had been no interruption at all.
Darwin ditched the Stadium before a pitch was thrown, jumping on an empty No. 4 express train to Union Square. The red façade of Irving Plaza, the concert hall where he and Scarlet had first met at that fateful Machine Head concert, had turned electric blue. Irving Plaza had become a Citibank.
He got back on the train, continued down to Bowling Green.
It was his last hope.
Whitehall Ferry Terminal was packed. A digital clock above the Slip One boarding doors counted down the minutes to the next Staten Island Ferry’s departure in giant red numbers. His last chance to hear music was just eight minutes away. Seven minutes…six minutes…five minutes.
A massive orange ferryboat grew larger through the glass as it eased into the slip. Darwin fought his way to the front of the crowd and anxiously waited for the giant glass doors to slide open.
“Excuse me, where do you buy tickets for ferry?” a middle-aged man with an Italian accent asked Darwin.
“There are no tickets,” Darwin responded. “It’s free.”
“Thank you kindly. I look forward so much to seeing Statue of Liberty.”
“I look forward so much to hearing the beautiful music.”
The tourist eyed Darwin skeptically, as if he had grown an extra head on his shoulders.
The boat was secured to the dock, and a large crowd plodded up the ramps. The mob seemed never-ending. Three minutes, then two. Darwin anxiously drummed his fingers against the glass.
At last, the captain of the ferry gave the signal to load the boat. The glass doors silently crept open. Darwin charged down the ramp.
There it was: the Spirit of America. Darwin raced to the front of the massive Staten Island Ferry, leaning right against the metal gates protecting him from the edge of the boat. He glanced up at the pilot house, bracing himself for the joy of the big moment. As soon as the ferry began to sail, its fog horn would fill New York Harbor with a sonorous trombone blast.
The ferry started coasting away from the dock and into the bay. A seemingly endless minute passed before the vessel reached full throttle. Darwin’s heart was beating so fast it almost hurt.
“All crew members to the main deck for the harbor warning procedure,” the captain’s voice crackled over the public address.
Huh? Darwin suddenly found himself surrounded by the Spirit of America’s entire crew of sixteen deckhands, each dressed identically in navy blue uniforms. They cupped their hands in the shape of bullhorns and roared in unison into the New York afternoon.
AAY! ALL YOUSE BOATS! GET OUTTA THE WAY!
That was it.
Darwin started to shake. Around him, children screamed. Tourists laughed.
“Those fuckers stole our music,” Darwin muttered to himself. “Those fuckers stole our music,” he repeated incessantly as he climbed over the metal gates, finding himself on the narrow perch separating man from harbor.
“Hey!” a squat deckhand bellowed at him. “Remain behind the designated barriers for docking!”
Darwin turned around and faced the crowd of tourists.
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, YOUR GOVERNMENT HAS FAILED YOU!” he screamed. Only a few people glanced up.
“Richie, we got a 12-9 on the main deck, Staten Island end,” a big, bald deckhand said into his walkie-talkie.
“IN THE NAME OF ‘CHRISTIAN FAMILY VALUES,’ YOUR GOVERNMENT HAS BANNED MUSIC, THE INTERNATIONAL LANGUAGE OF—”
“You were warned, Darwin Slaughter!” an announcement boomed from a distant megaphone. “This is your third violation of the Moral Superiority Act and Tax Omnibus Executive Order of 2017! Step back behind the gate, and put your hands over your mouth!”
Darwin turned to face the passengers, refusing to back down.
“DON’T FUCKING STAND FOR THIS!” he screamed, a few members of the crowd staring at him blankly.
A squadron of Vice Police marched through the doorway onto the deck, their red boots pounding the bare metal floor.
“Stand down, Slaughter!” the lead cop bellowed through his megaphone, machine gun drawn. “There’s no way out!”
“You’ll be doing the Bandstand Boogie at Sing Sing, boy!” another Vice Policeman chimed in.
“We’re not gonna take it!” Darwin sang angrily in a raspy voice. “Oh no, we ain’t gonna take it! SING ALONG!” he screamed at the crowd. Their faces were lined with confusion. They had never heard of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister.
“SHUT UP, SLAUGHTER, OR WE OPEN FIRE!” the lead officer roared.
Darwin, left with no choice, rushed for the starboard side of the boat and belly-flopped into the icy currents below.
In the wake of the Gillers Moral Superiority Act and Tax Omnibus Executive Order of 2017, there was only one situation in which music was permissible: it was still legal to sing “Danny Boy” at funerals. Knowing the frigid April currents would kill him in a matter of minutes, the crowd on the deck of the ferry joined in a chorus of the Irish folk song.
Darwin swam furiously after the Spirit of America, pumping his arms and legs for dear life, savoring every moment of the sweet, sweet music.