I’d seen him before. He always came in disguise as if attending a perpetual masquerade ball. I knew him; I recognized those eyes – crystal clear pools of blue at depths I cannot fathom – little oceans. I’d risk it all to swim in the sin of those windows to a soulless entity adrift alive yet dead – doomed to wander forever in eternal darkness.
He came to me the first time when I was about fifteen. I remember it well. I was at a midnight movie. All over town the signs were posted and I heard it on the radio: “Man sells his soul for rock ‘n’ roll!” I knew I had to be there.
The old playhouse was at least a hundred years old – one of those classic show palaces left over from the vaudeville era where a thousand ghosts lived and bred – the demons and the devils mingling with the angels – still performing their bits on the empty stage. Gone were the dance girls, jugglers and clowns; now it was a picture show.
The marquee read: MIDNIGHT MOVIE MADNESS – TONIGHT!
I walked into the darkened theatre just past midnight and sat in the vestiges of the auditorium at the mezzanine – my own street theatre where the footlights drained the black of the orchestra. I closed my eyes and floated on a swelling flood of strings accompanying a Rachmaninoff piano. And in that hall I met the man – not a man at all, really. More like an ethereal specter. This was his haunt – he dwelled and thrived in this theatre of cruelty, a guerrilla theatre, his church of souls, and he lived in every chamber. There was no escaping him. He knew my secrets, he’d tell me lies.
The hazy light unmasked the hollow vacuous figure as he came toward me from the shadowy corridor of his refectory. Had he performed in such theatres many lives ago? I wondered. His crystalline eyes met mine and then came the shame – not for anything related to the present, but rather past transgressions – he caused me to remember – in life after life. The clarion shrill pierced my heart and the pain knew no bounds. My disobedience had been my undoing in those lives; but for the present, I was an innocent. Should I stay?
Soon the rickety flickering of the film on reels rushed the screen – a photoplay about to begin – and the houselights dimmed. I’d stay.
He took my hand in his – a cold, lifeless appendage – yet with touch, all that he’d ever done or said rushed through me and I suddenly knew the story of his life… and death. A shroud of his breath enveloped me, imploring me to know his message; and it was with him and in the motion picture – his story and the many lives this phantom held captive were the crux of all the characters he’d created.
The drama began. It was the tale of a man named Swan who sold his soul for rock ‘n’ roll. He guarded his youth on videotape – recording his memoirs daily so he could go on living forever young and have it all – fame, wealth, the love of his life… and the music. To add to his good fortune, he’d discovered the genius that had composed the great rock cantata, which was to open his magnificent Opera House: The Paradise Theatre. And the love of his life would sing in a style like no other performer that had ever graced the stage. Phoenix was a dark-haired beauty with incredible charisma, big brown eyes and a haunting voice that would melt your heart.
We were “old souls in a new life,” so said Swan. We’d live together forever in all eternity. He put his hand in mine and proposed the bargain, of course, full of promises – should I choose to accept and comply. And I’d be required to sign the contract in blood. The music swam in my mind – I knew it instinctively. His plan was to make me famous, and I’d write and perform the greatest songs ever composed. I knew I had it in me. I knew my heart contained the seeds of so many wondrous melodies that could become great one day. I could become great. I could be Phoenix; and he was Swan.
Suddenly all the memory, sound and motion flashed forward. I awoke and ran from the theatre out onto the street, panting, hot, thirsty, hungry for the living. Outside at the arcade, the late night crowds played pinball and the local drinkery was alive with juke joint drifters and desperados. A lousy cover band played “Proud Mary” while a few tipsy stragglers shimmied on the makeshift dance floor.
It had been an Art Movie; the Main Attraction had been Me in my own play, in my own mind… right? Was it real or was it all an illusion? I’d lost all sense of reasoning.
Six years later I was singing on stage before a large audience in an old theatre. It was the realization of my great dream: to perform my pop cantata – the songs the genius composer and I had written, the songs that had stayed with me, haunted me and I could never get out of my head:
I was not myself last night
Couldn’t set things right with apologies or flowers….
Backstage the dressing room was dimly lit, the audience had gone home, and a silent snow softly blanketed the land outside. And whence he came – Swan, the man, his blue eyes gazing from afar, piercing my soul. “You sang my songs,” said he in his monotone drone – characterized by an exotic accent that I could never place. Startled by his sudden presence, I dropped my guard.
He took my hand and without a word proposed the bargain once more with great promises for days of future passed. Gone was the hollow figure I remembered. This man was not an illusion; he was real, dark, handsome, slick, smart… tantalizing. I could hear him without a sound. He had me in his grip; I was helpless, limp. Then he kissed me and I could taste black fruits, violets and dark spices and there was a familiar aromatic scent of dried roses and cinnamon. He’d passed the key. I understood… and the music filled my head; I could hear Phoenix sing:
Our love is an old love
It’s older than all our years
I have seen in strange young eyes
I was weak with wine and song. No longer a child, I was in my prime and living my dream. I had becomePhoenix – the girl on the stage in that old picture show. I’d dreamed it and then went out and made it happen. But how could he have known? It was as though he’d been watching me all along. He knew my secrets and he told me lies. With that kiss, I was transported back to his world where he was in control; he wrote the script of our lives and I read my lines like an ingénue. I was back in that theatre where the plot was thickening and the end was near.
But I could not recall the end of the story in that movie theatre all those years ago. Had I made the bargain? His kiss now seemed so familiar; had we kissed before? His hands were big and strong and I was defenseless, naked, full on in his grip. It took every ounce of strength I could muster to find my release. I ran from the theatre and out into the gossamer blue snow intensified by the light of a full moon. The air was crisp and refreshing as I ran home to the safety and security of my cocoon.
The next evening was the final performance of my pop cantata. I sang my heart out on that stage, but I knew it was the end of my dream. From backstage, I sang to the audience while the vision of a virgin angel all in white danced, flanked by beautiful ballerinas:
To work it out I let them in
All the good guys and the bad guys that I’ve been
All the devils that disturbed me and the angels that defeated them somehow
Come together in me now
Indeed, it was my Swan Song.