The Back Catalog

By Jim Speese

A stack of vintage televisions displaying static channels

Songs were in his head. Constantly.

It was a problem and he supposed it wasn’t unique. Given the hegemonic presence of advertising jingles and TV show themes and music pumped into grocery stores and pharmacies and hospitals, it seemed quite likely that the fact that songs constantly flowed through his brain was a problem shared by the bulk of Americans. His conundrum was different, though. Because the songs were his—songs he’d written, performed, performed, and performed again. One might say performed to death.

His name was James Douglas Santori, and he was popularly known as Alpha Santori, and he was a rock star. Those songs that drowned his consciousness were songs that also drowned the consciousness of his fans. Songs with titles like “Oceans Away,” which drunken fans had screamed and pined for at his band’s stadium shows for ages. They were songs that had made him rich, had bought him several houses and swimming pools, and trips to exotic places, and when he was younger, beautiful women and dangerous drugs.

Those days had long passed, though. James Douglas Santori had been sober for well over a decade now, and his tomcatting days were behind him. In fact, while his various wives had left him with various degrees of alimony years before, he was a grandfather several times over now. As his seventy-fifth birthday approached, he felt healthier than ever. He was thin, his face almost drawn. His hair was still long, but its black was tinged with gray. For a few years he’d dyed it in a seemingly vain attempt at forestalling age. But, like the wrinkles that drew around his still-sparkling, deep-blue eyes and his thin mouth, wrinkles that suggested decades of laughter, he’d come to accept the gray in his hair. It seemed to imply he was an elder statesman of the rock era.

But his mind was drowning in music. He, as one might say, could not escape his back catalog. ASCAP and BMI could make a fortune inside his head, a jukebox of painful familiarity.

He coped. The easiest way to cope was to fill the air with white noise. He slept with the TV on. He ate with the TV on. He listened constantly to podcasts and news and talk shows. He avoided music assiduously, but whenever silence covered the outside world, the old melodies and lyrics would crawl into his head.

It was driving him mad.

At first, when he realized the songs never left, he tried taking silent walks on his estate. But as he passed the trees, verdant in the spring, he couldn’t think, couldn’t concentrate, as the tunes invaded his consciousness. He desperately wanted to focus on other things—focus, in fact, as his songs had preached, on the moment. The moment in front of him. This moment. But he couldn’t as this moment, and every moment without outside noise, was invaded by his prodigious songbook.

James Douglas Santori had written, recorded, published, and sold over a thousand songs in his fifty-year career. His manager, Bernie, had told him he could sell the rights to his catalog of music for enough money to keep his grandchildren and their grandchildren, and so on, in mansions in perpetuity. “Something to think about,” Bernie had said.

That conversation had happened recently, when Santori had visited Bernie’s office to discuss his twilight years. Well, both of their twilight years. Bernie was actually two years older than Santori, had been with the star since the start, had piloted his career, had helped make him a household name. He was short in stature, and his hair, a mop-top like the early Beatles, was indeed dyed. Even in his old age, though, Bernie constantly jittered. His hands moved of their own accord, and he often randomly laughed at inappropriate moments.

Bernie had been busy the day Santori had come to visit, busy trying to get Rolling Stone to interview a young artist he’d just signed—the next Prince, he was convinced. But when Santori had shown up at his office and asked Bernie’s secretary—who’d been told that Bernie was not to be disturbed—she’d immediately disturbed him. She knew where the bread was buttered.

At first Bernie had been annoyed.

“Francine, I told you I can’t take any calls right now!” he’d reminded her petulantly.

“It’s Mr. Santori,” she’d calmly replied.

“Oh. Send him right in.” Bernie knew where the bread was buttered too.

Santori had entered and begun to talk to Bernie about business, about what he could do as an aging star for the rest of his career. To Bernie, his fingers playing with pencils on his desk, it sounded like rock star whining. Bernie offered suggestions, all of which Santori immediately rejected.

“You could make millions,” Bernie had noted, “just touring the world, doing easy shows, playing songs you know by heart. You could hire the best musicians available. You’d never have to think or worry.”

“It’s been done. I’ve had that trip.”

Which was true. Santori had toured stadiums a few years earlier, choosing sites based on their proximity to golf courses he’d wanted to play. He’d found it relaxing in his old age, and the fans still loved him.

“Okay, why don’t you get authentic [Bernie bracketed this word with air quotes], do an album and tour of your best songs, stripped down, acoustic?”

It should be noted that implied in this conversation was something both Bernie and Santori knew implicitly, that the star’s fans, the music press, and even his own band was unaware of: Santori had not written a new song in decades.

Albums of “new” material had come out, yes, but he’d written the songs ages ago and had initially chosen, for one reason or another, to put them aside. Those cast-offs had accumulated over the years, and the past few albums had been filled with them. But now that well was dry. The cast-offs had been drained. There were none left. And Santori, while never speaking of it, knew implicitly he would never write another song. Bernie knew about the cast-offs. He, too, had long suspected that his golden goose would not—perhaps could not—spin more gold. But he could recycle gold over and over, so Bernie had settled on different methods of doing so.

But Santori was not interested in the “stripped-down” approach and said so.

This was the problem with the conversation in Bernie’s office that the two had that day: they both thought that Santori had come to Bernie’s office to discuss business, but what Bernie didn’t know—indeed, what Santori didn’t know—was that he really had simply come for someone to talk to. His subconscious mind, seeking a therapist, had settled on the one person he trusted in the world—his business manager.

So while Bernie had suggested many fine business ideas to Santori, none satisfied him because he wasn’t really looking for business ideas. He was, deep down, looking for peace. Still, Bernie had tossed him idea after idea after idea, frustrated that there was always a reason to reject those ideas. His last comment, then, was about selling his song catalog and retiring.

“You can rest on your laurels. And the sale would set you and your family up forever. Dylan did it. Other songwriters. There’s no shame in it.”

And that was the moment—the moment that James Douglas Santori discovered his problem wasn’t ennui but rather noise. In the brief moment of silence after Bernie’s suggestion, a moment that slowly filled with the chorus of his hit “Money Talks,” Santori had realized that his catalog was constantly playing in his head. Bernie’s comment had made him suddenly and acutely aware that he never had a moment’s peace without old melodies filling that silence. In that moment he had wished that he could not only sell the rights to his songs, but also somehow sell the memories of his songs.

The first person Santori called after this discussion was a hypnotist. Krokpotkin the Great listened with interest and assured Santori he could bring silence back to him with daily sessions for a few weeks. But those sessions simply changed the soundtrack. After several weeks of hypnotic therapy, Santori realized he was still haunted by his songs, only now his mind eschewed the hits and focused on what the industry called the deep cuts. These were the songs rarely played on his massive tours. It was, he recognized, an improvement, but not a cure.

The next attempt was transcendental meditation. Santori figured it had worked for The Beatles (it had not, of course), so it would work for him too. He searched far and wide for a Yogi to take him on as a pupil until Bernie had finally found an apparent relative of the Maharishi, who gave the star his secret mantra, the mantra Santori was to repeat in his head every day as he sat cross-legged on the floor in an attempt to reach transcendence. But, to be honest, Santori was not interested in transcendence. He was interested in quiet. He found his mantra repeated itself over and over in his brain, but the syllables snugly fit the melody and the tempo of his biggest hit, “Surrounded by You.” No matter how he tried to pull it away, the secret mantra always returned to that one song. Constantly. Now he recognized what it felt like for shoppers in grocery stores who didn’t care much for “Surrounded by You.” There was no escaping it.

He had similar results visiting a Buddhist monastery. The monastery had a vow of silence—they did not speak. They welcomed Santori with open but quiet arms, and he did feel more at peace. But he found again that the soundtrack did not disappear; it simply changed. As he swept the floor of the ancient monastery, he swept to the rhythm of his power ballads. In frustration he finally and silently waved goodbye to the monks and waltzed, in time to his song “Wild,” out of the monastery.

He began to suspect that the only way he was going to escape the music in his head was to fall off the wagon. For the first time in ten years, drugs and alcohol whispered to him, “We can help.” He was beginning to believe them. He wondered if this was why so many musicians turned and returned to substances—not to escape depression or anxiety, but to escape the soundtrack in their souls. He wondered how long he could resist.

Two weeks later Santori sat in his brass bed, staring up at the ceiling as the melody and lyrics of “All Over You” ran through his head. Before that it had been “Another Revolution.” As “All Over You” ended, the opening chords of “Distant Days” launched. Santori put his fingers in his ears, as if he were a child arguing with another child, refusing to hear the other’s argument. But it didn’t help. The strains of “Distant Days” simply gained volume in the forced silence. In a gesture of defeat, he picked up the remote and turned on the TV, pushing the volume high.

Randomly, a commercial showed children starving in a distant land. It begged Santori, and anyone else who was listening, to give just a cup of coffee’s worth of money a day to save a child. Absently, Santori did the math. He could afford a lot of cups of coffee a day. He wondered how many children he could save. He laughed at the absurdity of this mental arithmetic and aimed the remote to change the channel.

But then he hesitated.

He began to wonder.

He called Bernie’s office.

Bernie was on an important conference call with RCA Records, a call that Francine interrupted and that Bernie drew immediately to a close. They both knew where their bread was buttered.

“How much money will my back catalog bring?” asked Santori.

“I mean, I’d have to run the numbers,” Bernie replied. “I can do that if you give me a couple of days.”

“Do it,” said Santori, hanging up.

Bernie rolled his eyes. Working with rock stars was always an adventure in some new form of juvenility. He wondered where this was headed and, not for the first time, silently reminded himself it was time to retire. He giggled, then nervously tapped the desk and pulled out his Rolodex.

When Santori, a few days later, asked, cajoled, and finally demanded that Bernie sell his songs, collect the money, and give all those riches to charity, Bernie knew he had no choice but to follow his directions. But he still did what any good manager does—tried to talk his client out of foolishly giving away money, explaining that giving away money was a stupid thing to do, that it didn’t really help any charity, that there would always be poor people, that the money would, in the end, make little difference. He made this argument for the good of his client, not to protect his own financial interest. After all, Bernie realized a lump sum earned as a manager (20 percent gross) meant he’d never really have to get his bread buttered again. He could butter his own bread, so to speak, with his cut. But ethically he still felt driven to try.

“You’ll help one or two people not be poor anymore,” he said. “But millions more will be poor. And you’ll be one of them.”

“I’ve made up my mind,” said Santori.

“You can’t save the world!”

“I don’t want to,” Santori countered. “I just want to make it quieter.”

Bernie didn’t know how to respond. He laughed nervously. His hands flew up in a futile and inevitable gesture. Silence reigned for a moment. In that moment—just for a part of it—Santori listened to the silence and, for the first time in ages, didn’t hear any of his songs. Then Bernie broke the spell.

“Destitution! You’ll be destitute. How will you live?” he asked.

Santori allowed another moment to pass.

The word “destitution” echoed in the silence in his head. The syllables arranged themselves to new, unheard melodies, tied themselves to chords, began to coalesce in a new, unheard rhythm, form an ecstatic and novel chorus.

“I guess I’ll write some new songs,” Alpha Santori replied.

Category: Featured, Fiction