Cory's Dilemma: Missing the Beat: Dangerous Music
His big music career break...
...was because of a lie.
Did someone know his secret?
Cory struggled for years in Manhattan, but just couldn't get a hit. It wore on him and he was desperate. Late one night at the studio, he took a chance, and it made all the difference.
But was it a risk that could ruin him?
Would he be able to live with what he'd done?
As his career took off, the money, fame, and success came with a price he never imagined. His marriage was in trouble. And someone was out to destroy him.
Would he lose everything he cared about?
You'll love this suspenseful thriller, because the lines sometimes get blurry and the path to redemption isn't easily traveled.
Get it now.
Release date: August 23, 2020
Print pages: 272
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Cory's Dilemma: Missing the Beat: Dangerous Music
Cory plugged in a code, and the smell of bleach hit him as the door opened. It was late, after 1 a.m., and he was tired after bartending. But money was tight, and studio time after midnight was cheaper.
Time was melting away. He was thirty-two in an industry that prized youth. There weren’t many breakout artists who came of age in their mid-thirties.
A janitor on his way out passed him as he hit the first step. Trudging up, he wondered if this was his last shot to make it. He had excellent chops; all he needed was a break to prove his father wrong. Walking down a hallway lined with studios, he noticed the live room’s red light was on.
He peered in the window. Jay Bird, a hit machine, was alone in the room used to record full bands. Sitting at an ebony piano, the megastar was playing chords and notating them.
Cory watched. When Jay Bird paused, Cory knocked and opened the door.
Jay Bird slurred his words: “Cory. What’s going on here this late?”
“Polishing a couple of my tunes. I’m auditioning for Sharp Five tomorrow.”
“You’ll crush it, bro.”
“I hope so.”
“When you make it big, you still gonna play on my stuff?”
“Definitely. I’m super thankful for all the sessions you’ve given me.”
“I might have given you the first one, but you earned the rest. You know, I got the chills from your solo on ‘Joy River.’”
“Thanks, man. Look, I don’t want to keep you from doing your thing. I’ll see you later.”
“Be well, brother.”
Cory headed to his studio, wondering how it felt to be at the top of the music industry. Jay Bird had blown past Bruno Mars in the number of albums sold and swept the Grammys three years in a row.
Pushing open the door to his studio, Cory couldn’t get his head around how it came so easy to the star.
Unpacking his Martin acoustic, he strapped it over his shoulder and strummed a couple of chords. Cory tuned it and stepped into the vocal booth, putting on headphones. He sang two verses then cleared his throat. His voice sounded dry, almost scratchy. He put his guitar down and went for water.
The light was still on in the room where Jay Bird was. Peeking in as he walked by, he stopped short. The superstar was slumped onto the piano.
Had he fallen asleep? Cory didn’t want to disturb him, but something was off. Opening the first door, he leaned over the soundboard and knocked on the window. No movement. He swung the door open.
“Jay? You all right?”
Cory approached, stepping over the pencil the musician had used. “Hey! You okay, man?”
Jay Bird’s forehead was leaning on the bottom of the music rack. A stream of foam dripped from his mouth, puddling on the keys. Had he overdosed? Cory shook him. His head lolled. He put his fingers on his neck. It felt cool. He couldn’t find a pulse.
Pulling his phone out, he saw a stack of manuscript paper lying on the grand piano. He shuffled through them. There were eight songs that appeared complete and two others with sixteen bars of music.
Cory looked around. He was alone. He scooped the papers up, folded them, and stuffed the music in his jacket. He went into the sound booth, checking the recording equipment. Nothing was turned on.
Cory ran to his studio. He shoved the manuscript papers into his backpack. On the way back, he dialed 911. “I need help. My friend’s foaming at the mouth. I think it’s an overdose.”
“Is he breathing?”
“No. I tried to check his pulse, but there’s nothing.”
“Do you know CPR?”
“Yeah, but he’s sitting up, leaning against a piano.”
“Lay him down and try to revive him.”
“Okay.” He noticed a double-reel tape player with cords running to a series of microphones on booms.
“I want to confirm the address, One Forty-Six West Twenty-Ninth Street, is that correct?”
“Yes, Mirrortone Studios, on the second floor.”
“Okay, help is on the way.”
Cory went to the reel-to-reel. It wasn’t on. He rewound it and hit playback. It was blank. Jay Bird hadn’t recorded anything.
The star wasn’t breathing, and with no one around, it seemed safe to keep the new material. Then he remembered the drug EMT responders gave to reverse drug overdoses.
Cory eased Jay Bird onto the floor. He wiped Jay’s mouth with a shirtsleeve, pinching his nose, and administered mouth-to-mouth. After a minute, he paused; there was no response. He used his hands to compress the chest area. He had to be certain no one would question his attempt to resuscitate the fallen star.
Waiting for the ambulance to arrive, Cory made a call to the management office that handled Jay Bird. It was the middle of the night, but in the music business someone always monitored their celebrity cash cows. And Jay Bird was one helluva heifer.
Cory stood in the hallway as the sound of the approaching siren grew louder. He put his hands in his pockets to keep them from shaking.
Cory watched as the medics hit Jay Bird with an injection of Naloxone. They strapped a face mask on him and forced air into him with a resuscitation bag. Cory shifted positions to see if it was working.
Ten minutes passed. Cory wondered how long they’d keep at it. Nothing they were doing seemed to be working. He knew Jay Bird abused drugs and drank too much. He and many others thought there was a chance it would come to this.
Cory couldn’t believe it. The guy was bigger than Bieber and Katy Perry combined and had flushed it down the toilet. How could he be so stupid?
Even though he had nothing to do with the overdose, Cory rehearsed his story. The police would be asking questions. He could have acted quicker, but that was all. He’d leave that out and keep it to seeing him playing when he arrived and noticing he was slumped over when he went for a drink of water.
The medics looked at each other and shook their heads. One stood, and the other removed the mask from Jay Bird’s face. It was too late. They couldn’t revive him.
Cory trembled and wiped a tear from his cheek. As the medics pulled a sheet over Jay Bird, the star’s manager, Ronny Dee, rushed in. Dee stopped in his tracks when he saw the covered body.
“Oh no, God. Don’t tell me he’s gone.”
“We’re sorry, sir.”
“Oh, Jay, what have you done?”
Cory hung his head. “He was slumped on the piano. When I saw him, he was, was gone already.”
* * *
Cory and his wife, Linda, were in bed.
“I still can’t believe it. I saw it with my own eyes, but it’s hard to accept Jay Bird’s dead.”
“It’s so sad. What a waste.”
“It’s crazy, just the day before yesterday I was laying down a line for one of the tunes on his new album. He was right there, in the control booth. I opened the door just a minute to say hi, and he told me he loved my soloing, and now he’s gone.”
Linda put her head on Cory’s chest. “Life can change so quickly, it’s scary.”
“I know, but he did it to himself with the drugs.”
“Are you sure that was it?”
“Yeah, the last couple of times I saw him, he was high as a kite. I heard that’s why the new album was taking so long.”
“Didn’t anybody, like his manager or agent, realize he had a problem?”
“Oh, yeah, they had to. I’m telling you, in music, they look the other way. More people than not in this business are doing something.”
“What a shame. You better stay away from that stuff.”
“Don’t have to worry about me.”
“I still don’t understand why nobody intervened.”
“You know how much money he was making for everybody? They were afraid to mess things up.”
“That’s ridiculous. The man is dead, and now they have nothing.”
“What’s going to happen now?”
“I’m sure the album will come out. It’ll probably top the charts on sympathy alone, not that he needed it.”
“But what about you? I don’t want to seem selfish, but you got a lot of session work from him.”
“I know. There’s a new kid, a girl from Queens, supposed to be the new Taylor Swift; she just signed with Columbia. I’m going to talk to Davey about working with her. We’ll see what happens.”
“I hope it works out.”
“You know, this whole thing just shows you can’t depend on anyone else. I got to make it on my own. Then we’d control our destiny, you know?”
“You’re trying. I’m sure you’ll make it; you compose such beautiful songs.”
“I’ve been writing a lot of new stuff.”
“I got to say, some of it’s pretty damn good. Maybe the best I’ve written.”
“I’d love to hear them.”
“Maybe tomorrow. I want to clean a couple of things up first.”
“Whenever you’re ready.”
“Let’s get to sleep. Ava is going to be up in a couple of hours.”
Linda fell asleep but Cory couldn’t. Images of Jay Bird slumped on the piano continually popped into his head, interrupting his thoughts on what to do with the music he’d taken. He worried that someone had been there earlier. Had Jay Bird really been on his own the entire time?
He’d check with the network of musicians that played with the star to see what they knew. He was certain the studio didn’t have cameras in the recording areas as he’d signed his share of nondisclosures before working sessions.
* * *
“I can’t. I’m gonna be late for work if I do.”
“Oh man, I’m beat. I just couldn’t sleep after what happened last night.”
“Take a nap when you get back.”
“I have to take Mrs. Ponte to the doctor.”
“She’s got nobody else.”
Linda looked at her phone. “All right. I’ll get Ava there on the early side.”
“Come on, pumpkin. Mommy’s going to take you to school today.”
Cory kissed his daughter and said, “Daddy will pick you up later. Have fun today.”
As soon as the door closed behind them, Cory went to the small room that served as Ava’s play area and his place to practice and write music. He dug into his backpack and took out the manuscript paper he’d taken.
He shuffled through the pages, stopping halfway through the pile. Cory took his prized Gibson Hummingbird off the wall and strapped the acoustic guitar on. He set the handwritten sheet music on the stand and strummed the chords to the tune. Halfway through, he got excited and began singing the melody. After eight bars he was hooked.
The middle of the tune had a difficult passage. The rhythm was hard for him to sing. He wondered whether the song’s bridge was easier to play on the piano. He played through the section a couple of times and got it under his fingers. Hearing how it sounded made it easier to sing.
He started at the top, playing the chords and singing. It sounded good. The lyrics were nothing but fluff, but he’d played on enough tunes with meaningless and repetitive words to know that had nothing to do with it becoming a hit.
Cory shook his head. How did Jay Bird write such catchy tunes? The guy was a hit factory. Cory slipped the next page on top and played the chords. It was totally different, but he liked the dark sounds of the minor chords.
Cory read the lyrics. It was about love found and lost. A timeless theme, but this version used a puppy who’d run away to convey emotional pain. He thought it was weird, but when he started singing it, the fresh approach grew on him. It wasn’t hooky, but he felt it could be another winner.
He put the next sheet on the stand. Unlike the previous two, this one had a title: “A Handle on You.” The lyrics were about controlling someone. He began strumming the chords when the door to the apartment slammed shut.
Cory swept up the sheets as Linda came in.
“Rushing to leave, I forgot my lunch.”
“What are you doing? I thought you were going to try and get some rest.”
“I don’t know, I just felt like writing. You know, maybe the emotions from what happened will come out in a song.”
As soon as his wife left, Cory took the stolen music out and played through each song. He thought six were amazing and two others better than average. The opening sections on the two incomplete ones were pop oriented, and he felt he could complete them.
Cory took out blank manuscript paper and copied each of the tunes. He double-checked to ensure he had everything duplicated and played the copies as a final test.
Satisfied they were the same, he fed the originals into the shredder, bagged the snippets, took the bag outside, and dumped it in the trash.
Cory didn’t get the relief he’d expected by destroying the originals. He made a call. “Ronnie Dee, please.”
“Mr. Dee is extremely busy. What is this about?”
“I’m the one who found Jay Bird last night.”
“Oh my God. I’m sorry, hang on.”
“Hi, Mr. Dee. I-I just wanted to reach out and tell you how sorry I am about everything. And you know, see how you’re doing.”
“We’re devastated. It really hasn’t sunk in yet.”
“I know, it’s really crazy. I keep seeing him in my head, you know?”
“Seeing him lying there, it’s haunting. I just wish we could have done something to help him.”
“I got there too late. I saw him when I came in. I saw him through the window, popped the door open and said hi. That was it. He was working, well, not working but playing, and later when I went to get some water, that’s when I saw him hunched over.”
“These damn drugs. I warned him about it several times. Tried to get him into rehab but he wouldn’t go, said he was cutting back on his own.”
“Wasn’t anyone else with him?”
“Not that we know of. As you know, Jay liked to compose alone.”
Cory fist-pumped. “I wish I would’ve left earlier or something, anything to help him.”
“You and me both. Now we’ve got to pick up the pieces and find a way to move on.”
“At least you’ve got the new album.”
“I don’t care about the music. I’ve lost a dear friend; I have a hole in my heart.”
Cory knew the manager had spit out a canned response. He also knew the manager was truthful. He didn’t care about the music: what he cared about was the money he would be missing out on.
“I know what you mean. I played on almost every one of his recordings. He was a good guy. I’ll miss him.”
“You and me both. Look, as you can imagine, I’ve got a lot of things that need my attention. Thanks for the call.”
* * *
“Daddy! I can’t talk to my dolls if you keep singing.”
“Do me a favor, honey. Can you watch a little TV? Daddy is working on a super important song.”
“But I wanna have a tea party.”
“Just for ten minutes, okay?”
“How about a little scoop of ice cream before serving tea to your friends?”
“Yay! Ice cream!”
Cory spooned out some ice cream, put the TV on, and went back to practicing the songs. He was getting more comfortable each time he played through them. He had three that he loved and was trying to piece together a strategy.
Should he go all-in, try to get a record deal using all the tunes, or should he use one or two to secure a contract? He preferred the piecemeal route. He’d get more mileage out of it by stretching the material over a few recordings.
Though he preferred the slower release, he knew attaining blockbuster status wouldn’t be possible unless he somehow penned a hit or two to go with the material he’d taken.
Cory took out two of his recent compositions and compared them to the ones he’d stolen. The difference in the openings was startling. It made him remember what someone at Motown had said: "You gotta grab them in the first four bars: give them something to remember right away."
The lyrics contrasted markedly from what Cory wrote. Cory liked to tell a story with his. Jay Bird’s bordered on childish but were snappy. Maybe he’d have to dumb it down. If he could. He remembered his dad saying to keep things simple.
Cory grabbed one of his compositions and sat at his desk. He closed his eyes and thought of simple phrases for a new opening line. He wrote and wrote, ripping up page after page. Nothing had the Jay Bird cadence to it.
He reached for the other song he’d crafted and began writing new lyrics for it. Cory was scratching out a line when his wife came in.
“You gave Ava ice cream?”
“She said you were in here all day.”
“Not the whole time. I had some stuff in my head I had to try and get out. You want to hear something?”
Cory reached for his Gibson. “Hang on a second. I need to see what you think.”
He rifled through the pages, picking out his second favorite song from the stolen ones. Cory strummed the guitar and began singing.
“Wow. I really like that.”
“Yeah. You wrote that today?”
“Nah, I’ve been working on it for, like, two weeks.”
“I think it’s the best song you ever made. Even better than ‘Mr. Sunshine.’ I really like it.”
He wrote “Mr. Sunshine” right after they met. That meant she thought he hadn’t written anything better in ten years. It hurt hearing the assessment, especially from the love of his life.
“I’ve been writing like mad. I have a couple of others.” He reached for another of Jay Bird’s tunes.
“Maybe later. How was Mrs. Ponte?”
“Doctor said she’s doing okay. I have to bring her back next week.”
“Good. I never asked you; how much did you make last night? The rent is due Tuesday.”
“It was a little slow at the bar, only picked up sixty-four bucks in tips.”
“You have any gigs coming up?”
“Just two, but one is a good one, six hundred for the session. And I’m pitching that new record label tomorrow.”
“But even if they sign you, it’ll be a while before we see any money.”
“Gee, thanks for the support, hon.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just that if we want to have another kid and stop living like this, maybe we have to think about making some changes. Maybe put the music on hold, you know, for a little while, until we save up.”
She’s sounding like my father. “Come on, I don’t want to talk about that again. Right now, I need to get back to polishing the audition tunes.”
As soon as Cory walked into the studio, Donny Blake said, “Here he comes. The man of the hour.”
Cory’s best friend and monster player was tuning his electric bass. “How you doing, Donny?”
“Good, man. What’s with the new look? You trying to get into the Jonas Brothers band?”
Cory’s agent suggested he get a hipper haircut to make him look younger. “Can’t get stale, you know.”
“Man, I still can’t believe you were there when Jay Bird crashed. It must have been otherworldly.”
“It was super eerie. I can’t shake it.”
“When them drugs get their claws in you, it’s tough to get away. What a waste.”
“That crap is bad news.”
“Hey, enough of the negative vibe. You ready to light this place up?”
“I hope so.”
“You’ll do it, man.”
“I’m starting to doubt it, you know. Everybody’s got an opinion on what to do. One day they’re telling me I’m not pop enough, then the next day they say to do it in a folk style.”
“Just stay true to yourself. Do it the way it speaks to you. If you don’t, you’re not gonna own it.”
“Thanks, man. Let me get set up and say hello to everybody.”
They did a soundcheck, and after making minor adjustments, Robin Day, the man paying for the session, arrived. Wearing a puffy yellow vest, the A&R guy for Sharp Five Records entered the booth. He waved at Cory and signed some papers.
Cory strummed his guitar to quell his nerves. The sound engineer took a seat behind the control panel. Day and a producer from the label stood behind him.
“Is everybody ready?”
Cory and the other musicians nodded.
Cory addressed the band, “All right, let’s kick this off. Don’t rush it, lay it back, guys.”
The red light went on and Cory said, “One, two. One, two, three, four.”
Cory thought the introduction sounded good and sang the first verse.
The producer cut in. “Hold it. Let’s do that again but without the intro.”
Cory counted it off. It felt awkward without the eight-bar intro, but Cory settled in, disappearing into the music. As he started the chorus, the audio engineer broke in. “That’s enough.”
Singing, Cory turned toward the window. The engineer was waving his arms.
“Let’s run it again, but they want to change it up.”
Pulling his headphones off, Cory said, “What’s the matter?”
The producer said, “Not that it’s bad, but it’s just not there. I want to try something, all right?”
“In this take, I’d like you to be more soulful. You gotta communicate the emotions of the tune on a gut level. You have some nice lyrics, but you have to connect more. You get what I’m saying?”
“This tune doesn’t have a hook, you know. Not that it’s bad. I kinda like it. I just don’t know how big an audience will get what you’re doing. If we add more feeling, it could be the magic we’re looking for.”
“Okay.” Cory put on the headphones. Closing his eyes, he began singing.
“Hold up. That’s not it.”
“You got anything else you wanna run? Something pop oriented?”
“Yeah, ‘Empty Pool.’ The third one on the list, it’s super hooky.”
“All right, everybody. Let’s run it. We’re going use a click track for this.”
Cory cracked his knuckles. He really liked this tune and wanted to play it first but felt everyone needed to warm up and find a groove before running it. Having stopped after eight bars of the first song, they were neither warmed up nor in a groove.
The red light came on and a click track counted down, cueing everyone in. Cory had written the song to fit the register of his voice and was into the chorus when the engineer cut in.
“They feel it’s not working.”
Cory said, “We didn’t even get to the bridge yet.”
The producer said, “We need to grab the listener right off the bat.”
“It’s got a build to it.”
“Let’s run it again. But this time, add a run toward ‘and she goes’ and hold the last note in bar four.”
“Like this?” Cory added a string of notes before the phrase.
“Yes. But give it some zing. All right?”
“You got it.”
“And put the guitar down. I want you focusing on the vocals.”
Cory rarely sang without playing. He’d played many sessions without singing but never the reverse. “But I don’t feel comfortable that way.”
“Getting out of your comfort zone is where things happen, man.”
Cory leaned the guitar against the wall and cleared his throat. He flashed a thumbs-up. As the click track counted down, Cory’s heart rate went up. He muffed the opening line, and a second later the engineer broke in.
“That’s a wrap for the day.”
“Can’t we do one more take?”
The producer said, “The muse ain’t showing up today.”
Robin Day stepped into the room. “Let’s give it a rest. When it’s not happening, it’s better not to push it. Call the office next week, we’ll see if we can have another go at it.”
The heat rushed to Cory’s face. They hadn’t given him a chance, cutting the session to less than an hour. As a sideman, he’d been on sessions lasting eight hours. The record company never spared a dollar pushing the artists in their stable.
Packing his guitar up, Cory wanted to hide. He knew they weren’t interested in him. He didn’t have what they or anybody else wanted. He thought of his father as Donny sidled up to him. “Hey man, don’t get down.”
“They rushed the whole thing. It made me tense.”
“It’s impossible to make music when you’re nervous.”
“I don’t know, man. Maybe my old man was right, I’m never gonna make it.”
“Don’t say that. It takes time, you know that.”
“What did you think of the tunes?”
“I liked them, but we’ve been on a couple of Sharp Five sessions together. It’s not really what they do. Everybody’s into the pop stuff. It might be simple, but they sell the shit out of it.”
“They sure do.”
“You’re doing the Gilberto session, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, that’s at five, in studio B, right?”
“Yep, I’ll catch you later.”
Cory was about to leave when the drummer, Freddy, said, “Cory, you got a second?”
“Sure man. What’s up?”
“I’m not just saying it because I have a favor to ask, but I really liked the material today. I don’t know why we couldn’t work out whatever the suits were looking for.”
“Thanks, man. They don’t make it easy.”
“I know, it’s what I’m worried about.”
“What’s going on?”
“I’d love to have you on the demo I’m doing, but with the new baby, I just don’t have the scratch to pay you. I feel terrible—”
“Don’t worry, man. I’m happy to help you out.”
“No problem. Text me the where and when.”
Cory stopped into a Starbucks. He didn’t want to blow four bucks on a coffee, but he needed to eat up some time. If he showed up too early, his wife would know he had failed. He took a seat in a corner and called Dave. They said his agent was unavailable, but Cory knew Dave was dodging him.
Sipping his coffee, Cory wondered if that had been his last chance. He’d failed again, and though music was a major industry, it was run by a small circle of people. His options were limited.
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