When Stereo Boy put on his music in the club, everyone stopped whatever they were doing and listened. I mean really, deeply, listened to the music. It was almost a sacrilege to call it "music" at all, although it clearly was. It was just unlike every music we’ve ever heard before and it was different every time.
Yet, we were still teens and making fun of everyone older who enjoyed the brief recess that Stereo Boys music provided was part of our nightly ritual. We enjoyed the music too, but would never admit it to the others. We never talked about the evenings at the club when we met back in high school the next day - another unspoken rule. Hanso once wanted to impress a girl and invited her to come along to the Shelter club, but when she asked why she should, he fell silent. Stereo Boy and his music couldn’t be talked about.
We called him Stereo Boy because no one ever found out his real name. Shelter then didn’t have any posters or big program books, you would show up and see what’s playing. Stereo Boy’s nickname came from the fact that he was wearing black headphones while doing his set, one that said “STEREO” in bold industrial letters on the side. Kyuki suggested they were glued to his head, because he never ever took them off.
The first time we heard him, and indeed the first time Stereo Boy played at Shelter, I remember every detail. We were sitting at the bar, Hanso to my right, Kyuki and Taka to my left. We were drinking ice cold beer, fitting to the humid heat outside, when Stereo Boy (“The new one”, we called him the first two or three times until I came up with the nickname), walked in. He had an unusual way of walking, quickly paced, rather small steps, as if he was determined to arrive at his destination without any delay.
"Hey, who’s that?" Taka asked the barkeeper, who only smiled mysteriously.
"You’ll see…," he said.
In my memory, when Stereo Boy entered the club for the first time, he saw us seated at the bar, backs turned, heads swivelling around like owls and he stopped when he spotted me. I’m not sure at all if it really happened, but I definitely remember it happening. It was only the first of two times he caught my eye, his dark gaze caressing mine and I blushed immediately. Before I could react, his small, sure steps had already led him to the back of the club, carrying along a large suitcase full of vinyls.
"Oi, let’s go, grab seats at the couch," Kyuki said, taking her beer along for the journey to the best spot in Shelter - the couch right in front of the DJ table. The acoustics here were perfect, and additionally, you could observe all the people in the room, except the DJ. Usually I didn’t mind, but this night, I was kinda annoyed, so I got up often, going to the toilet to check makeup, grabbing new drinks, stepping out to breathe the hot air - just so I could come back to the room and observe Stereo Boy. I noticed he had two vinyls on the record player, one being black, the other white. No labels, as far as I could tell.
And let me tell you about the music… really, I thought I had a broad musical horizon, but after hearing the music Stereo Boy played at Shelter, the same four chords from my favorite bands sounded like chewing unflavored rice. The music he put on was unique, a journey, as if someone switched on the lamp in a dark basement. It flowed from the speakers and pushed us into the seats, it rattled the beer in our bottles and choked us after drinking. We couldn’t speak or think, Hanso made some grimaces, but I couldn’t interpret them. At first, I thought it was ambient, seemingly recorded in some old machinery hall, which was then brought alive by birdsong and leaves, all those sounds firing up images in my head as if I was watching an avantgarde movie. For a second, I thought our drinks had been spiced and this is what being on psychedelics must feel, but I was completely coherent. The song continued slowly, added something like a faint guitar and what sounded a saxophonist practising scales in the condo across the hall. It was marvelous and it continued to be for the next hours.
By the third time Stereo Boy played his set, we had somewhat learned what to expect, but he still managed to surprise us. This time he played something different, based on heavy metal, which actually made a couple of people leave angrily a few minutes into the set (the only time I saw that happen). Us four, we enjoyed it, it took us right into a fantasy world of mighty dragons and courageous heros, blood eagles and vast armies in some nether-realm.
During the break, Hanso mustered up the courage to walk the three steps towards the DJ record player. Stereo Boy was seated, leaned back, his headphones still on, eyes closed. Hanso lingered for a moment and Kyuki gave him the sign to tap the DJ, which Hanso did. Stereo Boy didn’t react, just stayed like he was temporarily transformed into the Buddha. My friend withdrew then, not wanting to be rude. After some minutes, the DJ opened his eyes, stood up towards the records, almost without touching moved up the volume slider and pulling us right back into his glorious adventure.
We had no way to find out what music he played, because he wasn’t ever around to talk. A minute before the show, he’d pace in, set down his suitcase and pulled out his vinyls, always two of them, one black, one white. We’d listen, I tried to make him look at me, which he never did. I hate to admit it frustrated the hell out of me then, and now I think what might have happened if I hadn’t ruined it all.
After the show, he’d take the vinyls off, closed his suitcase and left Shelter the same way he came in. Hanso was outside one time, trying to catch him, but he came back, telling us that Stereo Boy vanished into a taxi that just happened to show up right when he left the club.
"And the street was empty the whole time before, no one around!" Hanso recounted, looking a little bit mad.
The next time, just as he passed, Hanso tried again, calling after the boy - "Hey, what’s the rush, Stereo Boy, have a beer with us!" No reaction at all, just stippidy-step out on the street.
Taka was the one who had the most daring idea, and we debated a long time if we should really pull it off. "What if… we get one of his vinyls and then listen to it at home?" he suggested. "My uncle works in Record Nation, he’ll be over this week and surely knows what band it is." I can’t really tell you how many counter-arguments we found to this, not least violating the moral imperative of not stealing, but as it often happens in the teenage years, dare won out over rationality.
It was the only time we didn’t listen to his full set, because right after Stereo Boy faded the last song out for the break, he sat back and closed his eyes. Taka and Kyuki were distracting the barkeeper and some patrons by staging an escalating argument, so all eyes were on them. Hanso crept around the corner and swiftly drew a vinyl from the DJs case, it was a black one in a black paper sleeve. Then he wrapped his jacket around it carefully.
I’ve never felt so guilty in my life, walking out of Shelter with the stolen record. The barkeeper shot us a suspicious eye and I was sure he’d stop us, but the didn’t. My heart seemed to want to pulse out from my mouth. Equal measures of terror and glee in us, we walked a couple of minutes over to Kyukis place, taking off our shoes in solemn silence. Her parents were out for a movie, and we were alone in the house. Which record would it be? One we had heard already? A new one? What did we expect?
"Well, I’ll do the honors," Hanso said, switched on the record player and placed the black vinyl on it. Lower the needle, first came two small cracks - then, terrible noise. He’d cranked up the speakers, and we all clapped our hands over our ears. It wasn’t even normal, white noise, but seemingly a heavy metal band destroying all instruments in an orchestra at breakneck speed. With the noise turned back to a normal level, Hanso looked as us bewildered, while the clanking and shattering and tearing continued. He switched off the player, the sudden silence ringing in our heads. On the second track, the same. On the flip side, the same. Incomprehensible, annoying, hair raising noise.
"He surely can’t play that ...stuff at the club ...?" Taka said later, after we all sat shocked in Kyukis bed.
"If only we had the others as well, maybe this was a wrong master," Hanso suggested and I reeled at the thought.
"No more stealing!" I insisted, tortured by hurt and the shame of taking this single, weird record. "It’s better we give it back the next time," Kyuki said and I thought I heard sadness in her voice.
I can admit that it was my fault for taking the listening pleasure from all of us in a selfish move. It took a long time for me to admit, blaming my friends, or Stereo Boy himself, or the barkeeper or anyone. But in the end, it was my curiosity. I knew the day was weird when Kyuki and Taka weren’t coming to the club, because they were out on a school trip. Hanso and I were going alone and sure enough, Stereo Boy played. Outside, rain drizzled and kept people off the streets, so the Shelter really lived up to its name that night. I saw Stereo Boy walk in, not glancing at us, even though Hanso waved his beer at him. I had a sudden flash of realisation that we never had heard Stereo Boy talk - he never said hello or goodbye, he never reacted to people coming up to him, even gratulating him. When he walked past someone who asked a question, it simply seemed he didn’t hear. Not in an arrogant way, just as if any outer disturbance couldn’t get behind those headphones.
After his set, Hanso stood up to talk to a girl he had wanted to date for ages, and I heard Stereo Boy’s case snap shut. He walked past and this time, I followed him outside, ready to do anything - block his way, pull his black, unremarkable sweater just to have him look into my eyes for a second. I did neither, but when we came to the ground level of the rainy street, two taxis were waiting. Stereo Boy got the first and I got into the second - briefly feeling myself transported to an action movie when I told the driver to follow the first car.
Quite unexpectedly, the drive didn’t go downtown or in a suburban area, instead taking us into the industrial area located between the highway and the harbor. The taxi in front of us stopped at a large office hall, or maybe a workshop. I told my driver to wait and hopped out, pacing carefully to the door into which the DJ had just vanished. I skimmed the business signs, but nothing really rung a bell - a t-shirt printer, a law company, some others that had unguessable professions. The door was closed, it must have locked itself after Stereo Boy had entered. Maybe I could go back there some time during the week, but with school and extracurricular activities, there wouldn’t be much time to stalk the boy. Just as I wandered back to the taxi, a light went on in a window. It was barely above my head, so I first crossed the street to see into it, but all I could get from there was a white ceiling fixture. Grabbing an empty beverage case, I propped it in front of the window, checking that the street was empty - except for the taxi, waiting ahead with blinking lights. I didn’t care what the driver thought, all that pushed me was the curiosity. Now I wish I hadn’t followed it then.
I looked inside. There was the DJ, standing amidst heaps of cartons, placing his vinyl case on one, stretching his back, which I had never seen him do before. Then I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me: another boy came out from the cartons - looking like a mirror image of Stereo Boy. At first, I was sure that someone had placed a mirror there, but the two boys were actually separate persons, even though they looked exactly alike. Both were wearing the headphones that said STEREO, the black sweater, the jeans. They gestured for a while, until I understood that they weren’t actually gesturing, they were talking in sign language. I breathed in surprise. Had we been fooled and Stereo Boy had taken shifts with his ...twin? Clone? It was eerie, the thought of thinking that there is just one person, when in fact it was two. And why the gesturing? Was he deaf or mute? Both? But why would he play music then? It was all a puzzle to me.
Maybe at this point, I should have left, but I wanted to find out more. I really couldn’t wait for the look on Hanso’s face when I told him. With a sudden turn, the one Stereo Boy looked over to the window and I ducked down, slipping off the crate. I hit the pavement in a twisted way and before I could do anything, the window cracked open and Stereo Boy (which one of them was it?) looked down at me. His eyes met mine and within his gaze, I saw my reflection, the shame of losing trust, of coming after him, the sadness of loss. It seemed like he stared at me for a full minute, when it probably was a couple of seconds at most. All I’d hoped to get from that look was gone, no affirmation, no inviting happiness. I felt a fool, the biggest fool I’ve ever been in my life. He withdrew, the window closed and the light shut off.
I knew it was over, that I didn’t need to wait, that I wouldn’t get a chance to apologize, so I limped back to the taxi, who luckily, brought me back home without any question.
Stereo Boy never played at Shelter again, or at any other club near us, even though we asked around. Years later, when I came back home to visit, I dropped by the location, but the owner had changed. Hanso wrote to me that the old owner had died shortly after we graduated school, so there was no one left to ask. And in all those years, I wasn’t ever able to find the music that he played, going to more and more obscure record shops, all decades, all countries - nothing even close.
Yesterday, I walked past a music school, and some music floated down to the street. I was talking on the phone to my daughter, so I didn’t register at first, but when I came home, I found myself humming along a tune… one that then, when I listened to myself, transported me back to Shelter and Stereo Boy playing a set of music about ancient worlds with dragons and heroes. It made me smile.