It had been about six weeks since she moved out, and it was time I found something new to do other than sitting around watching the laundry not do itself. I was thumbing through a week-old issue of Q or NME I had found on the tube and saw this ad in the back:
Punk combo seeking bassist. Our influences include the Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, Fugazi, Buzzcocks, Hüsker Dü, Bad Religion. You will be influenced by being on time for rehearsal and not being rubbish. For more, contact…
I flipped around the rest of the magazine for a bit, checked out the reviews, realized I didn’t know any of the bands they were talking about. I read an interview with some guy in mascara who wrote songs about not getting laid until he was, like, 26 and now his band had teenage girls throwing their knickers at him. Touring meant he had knickers from all over the world. Said Japanese ones were the best.
I tossed the magazine aside.
I did some channel hopping. The re-run for some brain-dead teen soap was on, so I spent a few minutes checking out some hotly generic rent-a-rack actress, and for a while I debated acting on those thoughts. I had been without physical affection for a lot longer than six weeks, but now this just seemed all a bit ho hum. Too much effort. I got up, made a sandwich and threw some dishes in the soapy-but-cold water. I scooped up an armful of clothes from the floor and threw it in the machine. When I sat down, the ad was still there, looking up at me. The call for auditions was later that day. Screw it. I called the number.
‘You wanna play bass?’ the kid on the other end said. He was eating.
‘I play bass,’ I replied. ‘But I’m thinking I’d like to play in a band.’ Again, I didn’t say. The washing machine shook. I dropped a cigarette butt into a half-empty Beck’s bottle.
‘S’okay,’ he said after chewing a bit more. ‘Be here at four.’
It was already 3:30, but like I said—I wasn’t doing a whole lot anyways.
* * *
The address was a pretty decent place just out of Primrose Hill. It was one of those neighbourhoods where everything was green and leafy and smelt like the suburban equivalent of new car. I could hear some serious racket coming out of the garage. I tried calling The Chewer to let me in, but no one answered. I pounded on the door.
After a moment, it rolled up. Three guys were in the middle of the concrete square, speakers and kit all set up. The garage floor was spotless. The cars that parked here didn’t leak much, I guessed. A low hum hung in the background, speakers anxious to get roaring again. They were all tall, skinny, with stovepipe jeans, struggling facial hair and beat up trainers. All of their t-shirts featured bands that had split up before they were born. They were each 19, maybe 20 years old, tops.
‘Yeah?’ the kid on the left with the guitar on his shoulder asked.
‘I’m here about the band.’
They exchanged glances quickly, with Guitar and No Guitar looking balefully at the drummer who, based on the quick bite of his lower lip, had not informed his colleagues that he had apparently recruited Old Man Moses for the try-outs.
The silence was just about to get awkward when I said, ‘Where do I plug in?’
Guitar flicked his head towards the appropriate speaker. I waited until my back was to them to smile a little bit. Regardless of whatever happened next, this was already the most fun I’d had in a while. 38 could be a tender age.
‘So, uh, what kind of stuff do you play?’ the drummer asked.
‘Don’t sweat it. I read the ad before I called,’ I answered. I wasn’t really trying to be curt, but I just wanted to jam. I hadn’t played in months and what I had heard through the garage door hadn’t sounded all that bad. It was loud, at least. Loud was good. Loud was fucking great, actually. Tinnitus was always useful for blocking the other noise in your head.
‘Okay,’ No Guitar said. The singer, evidently. The introduced themselves quickly: He was Marcus, Dean was on guitar, Jer on drums.
‘John,’ I said, giving them a quick nod.
‘Great, great,’ Dean said, fingers twitching a bit. ‘Can we, you know, play now?’
‘Know any Stooges?’ Marcus asked me, raising his mic a bit closer to his face.
I did. All told, we tore it up for about an hour. The three of them were good, solid. Very energetic. I kept my stuff simple and watched Jer closely for the time. They weren’t kidding about the ad they placed: they stuck to what they obviously (desperately) saw as their classics, so not a post-2000 AD tune was to be heard. Fine with me.
Around ten after five, we called it quits. Some quick handshakes, and a high five from smiling Jer. His hand was hot, sweaty. So was mine. It felt good.
* * *
I thought it had gone fairly well, but I was still happy when Dean called a bit later that night. I had been searching for the remote.
‘So, yeah. You’re in if you want it,’ he said.
‘Okay,’ I said, running my hand under the couch cushions.
‘We’re practicing Tuesday again, at seven.’
‘Okay,’ I said, finally finding it under a pile of newspapers and bills.
‘We’re going to be doing some Black Flag and some Bodyjar—do you have any?’
‘Okay,’ I said, flicking on the telly and plopping on the couch.
‘What?’ he asked.
I flicked through channels. ‘I mean, yeah, I’ve got some.’
He paused. I heard him exhale briefly. ‘Just be on time, Dad,’ he said and hung up.
* * *
Before Tuesday I got a call from her lawyer, Trent. He and I go back a bit. Even played together for a while. Then he went back to uni.
‘So, the money,’ he began.
‘There isn’t any money.’
‘She means the land,’ he said.
‘Come on,’ I said.
‘She’ll get it, too.’
‘Jesus, Trent. We used to be friends.’
‘Look, just sign over half of it, or sell it and give her her share.’
‘It’s hardly worth the money to sell it,’ I say. ‘It’s in Scotland. The Highlands. And it was my dad’s.’
‘Well, evidently she never liked him.’
‘Funny, I thought she never liked me.’
Trent tutted, briefly. ‘Don’t be melodramatic, John.’
I didn’t say anything for a minute, just thinking.
‘You still playing?’ Trent asked when he got bored of me not talking.
‘Just some guys,’ I said.
‘I miss the band,’ he said.
‘Ah, it was great. Like, where was it, Norfolk? We were playing that rathole, the one with the sinks blocked with puke from some guy the night before. Blood on the bar towels. And that bird who threw a bottle at you on stage?’
‘It was in Leeds. And that bottle was meant for you.’
‘Sure it was. Look, what are you going to do about the land?’
I decided to go with the silent manoeuvre again. Trent sighed. He started talking, making his case. I turned my telly volume up to block him out until he got the hint. He hung up, shouting at me. Oh well. I popped in a DVD and grabbed a beer. There is nothing worse than listening to some guy bang on about the good old days—especially when his have really just started, and yours weren’t all that good in the first place.
* * *
Tuesday I was a few minutes early, but I could hear Marcus singing and strumming from inside, so I listened for a minute before knocking. It was fast and poppy, but still had a bit of bite. I liked it.
‘That your stuff?’ I asked as I started setting up.
‘Yeah,’ he said, putting the guitar away. ‘Just a few things I’ve been working on a bit.’
‘Sounded all right,’ I said.
‘You play it for the guys?’
‘Maybe you should. I mean, what, you want to sing other people’s songs forever?’
‘No, but, well. I dunno.’
My turn to shrug. No time to worry about it anyhow—the other two showed up dead on seven. We finished setting up, and hit it, hard. In two hours we had built on Saturday’s work and hammered about six or seven songs into very respectable playing shape. My first impression had been right: the boys were good. Jer was airlock-tight, but smart enough to skip anything too show-offy, maybe the odd double-roll, but mainly happy to just keep things pounding along. Dean aped a bit of Johnny Thunders, but he could pull it off. And Marcus. Marcus could sing. He lacked any sense of self-consciousness, despite the fact he was roaming around in front of three guys in a garage and not on a floodlit stage dodging Japanese panties. But it was not just his voice and letting himself get lost in the songs. You wanted to look at him. Sometimes, it was as simple as that.
Next rehearsal, I decided to ease up a bit on my standard spread-legged-and-bored pose, maybe move a bit. A few songs in, I let myself do a little hop with Dean when we hit a big chorus. It didn’t look that bad. After, Jer told us his old man knows somebody who manages a pub in the East End. Two weeks from Friday, we can play there if we like.
No one said anything for a few seconds. Finally: ‘We’re not ready,’ Dean said.
‘Who’s ever really ready?’ Jer asked, clearly disappointed his news was greeted with thoughtful pauses and pursed lips rather than bombast and fanfare. ‘And come on, it’s just a gig. There might be, like, 20 people there. Most of them will probably be friends we’ll have to buy beer for blowing a Friday night on us.’
Marcus’ forehead was creased a bit. ‘John? What do you think?’ he asked.
Dean already had his mouth set in a hard line, so he was ready for a fight over this, but to hell with it. I wanted to play, and said so.
‘Yeah,’ Marcus said after a moment, still looking down, but his forehead smoothing a bit. ‘Yeah, me too.’
Dean shook his head. Jer twirled a drumstick, smiling.
‘Cheer up, son,’ I say, giving Dean a soft poke in the shoulder. ‘Our first show wasn’t going to be at Wembley, right?’
‘I’d be happy just to have a second show,’ he said.
We decided to practice some more before calling it a night.
* * *
Work. My stress leave had been up for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t all bad. Marcus had emailed some tunes and lyrics of stuff he’s working on. We IM’ed:
John: We should be playing some of this stuff.
Marcus: Not yet.
John: Seriously, it’s good. One song. For the gig.
Marcus: Ha! No.
John: What are you waiting for?
Marcus: Hmmm, how about ‘to not suck’? And, no offense, Mr. Man of Action, but have you asked out that girl from your accounting department yet?
Marcus: Right-o. What are you waiting for?
John: So if I ask this girl out we’ll do one of your songs?
Marcus: I didn’t say that.
John: I did. Talk at rehearsal.
I logged out and walked to accounts. The girl, Claire, was a temp who started a week ago. We’ve had a cup of coffee or two together in the canteen. She was a good listener, and sometimes when she laughed she hid her mouth behind her hand. I liked her. It was nice to like somebody.
‘Hey,’ I said, peeking over her cubicle.
‘Hi, you,’ she said.
It occurred to me I had no idea what I was supposed to say. It had been a while. Finally I came up with, ‘Do you want to hang out next Saturday?’ I winced inwardly—too full-on? too weird?—but she looked up smiling, so I guessed it sounded okay.
‘Ooh, I can’t. I’ve got something going on. How about Friday?’
‘Well, Friday I’ve got something going on, actually.’
‘I play in a band and this Friday is our first gig…’ My voice trailed off as I caught her eye, and I realized that Claire definitely wanted to come to this, my newest Big Life Event, and I couldn’t decide if I was excited or scared.
‘Hey, wow, that’s great! That is so cool,’ she said. ‘I’d love to go, if that’s okay.’
‘Sure,’ I said. I gave her the name of the pub. I emailed Marcus to tell him that I had taken the leap, and I expected/demanded reciprocity. I left out the part where I had settled on ‘scared’ over ‘excited’. I was still pretty sure of my choice even when I got home that night, and there was a message from Trent on my machine.
* * *
The next practice was a blur, with us settling on the ten songs we were going to play and picking a song out for an encore.
‘Getting ahead of ourselves, maybe…?’ Dean observed.
‘As they say: be prepared,’ I said.
Marcus clicked his tongue, snorted some gunk off his throat. ‘Actually, um. Well, I was thinking about the encore, actually, and not that this should be the encore, really, but I have a, you know… a thing.’
‘What?’ Jer and Dean asked at the same time.
‘He’s got some songs,’ I said, before Marcus’ nerve slipped. ‘And they’re good.’
Dean straightened. ‘Well, that’s cool and all, but do we really have time to do a new song? I mean, we’ve got about an hour left tonight and one more practice before the show…?’ Dean, annoyingly, wasn’t being unreasonable here. ‘I mean, I just think we stick to the plan.’
‘I think it’d be okay,’ I said. ‘Besides, maybe we should do at least something that’s our stuff.’
‘It’s not our stuff, though,’ Jer said. ‘It’s Marcus’ stuff.’ He gave Marcus a nod. ‘No offense, mate.’
‘Yeah, well.’ I said. Another good point.
‘All right, all right,’ Marcus said. ‘Forget it. Maybe after the gig.’
This was the right decision. It was reasonable, it would spare feelings, it left the door open to future options. And yet. As soon as I saw which way the boys were leaning, I realized I wanted to go the other way.
‘How about this?’ I suggested. ‘We finish practice tonight, yeah? We’ve got these songs down cold, right? So we come back for Thursday’s run-through and we give one of Marcus’ song a shot. If it’s good, we go for it. If we can’t nail it, we just push it back, and we’ll do another run-through of the set. No harm no foul, and all that.’
Jer and Dean considered this, glanced at each other. Jer nodded again, and Dean shrugged.
Good. ‘Cool?’ I asked Marcus.
Marcus was either staring into space or at the mic stand. ‘Cool,’ he said, after a moment.
* * *
Friday night. The pub wasn’t that bad, actually. The stage area was even raised slightly. We were the ‘special guests’ opening for some outfit called Pillbox, who, looking at the audience, did soundtracks for school spree killers’ YouTube confession clips. Leather, gloom, long coats, and black everything, everywhere.
‘Yeah, nice one, great,’ Dean said to Jer at the bar. ‘Your dad’s mate never mentioned that we’d be playing the bloody undertakers convention, then?’
‘Hey, we’re playing,’ Jer said. ‘That’s the part we should be worried about.’
Dean scowled by way of response.
‘Forget it,’ I said, sipping my beer. I was determined to get slightly tipsy beforehand, even if the boys had put themselves on a strict two-pint limit before showtime. ‘We all got friends coming, you guys got your girls showing up later, so we’ll fill the place out with the not undead, okay?’
‘Your lady is coming too, right?’ Marcus asked, desperately trying not to smirk. And almost succeeding.
‘Yeah, I guess,’ I replied, hoping he correctly interpreted my I will eat your nose if you mention this again look. Fortunately, Jer and Dean seemed to be a bit too nervous to pay attention of this potential mockery bonanza.
‘Any other friends?’ Marcus asked.
I had already scanned the room. Trent had slipped in and was wedged uncomfortably at the bar, unable to get the barmaid’s eye despite his suit and briefcase marking him out like blood on snow. I had asked him here. I wanted him to see this, see us. See me, maybe.
‘Nah,’ I answered.
We set up. The boys’ friends and girls did show, bless. The front of the stage was getting a bit thick, I was on pint three when Claire arrived and gave me a quick hug, squealing, ‘I love this place!’
‘Hi!’ I said, briefly more excited than scared, hugging her back. ‘Thanks for coming.’ She was wearing boots, blue jeans and a simple white tee, and her hair pulled back. ‘You look great,’ I added. She did, too.
‘So what do you play?’ she asked.
‘All of it,’ I said, wearily. ‘I’ve pre-recorded the whole set, and just throwing these guys a few quid to mime along, give the whole thing that authentic “live” feel the public seem so into lately.’
She covered her mouth with her hand. ‘You silly,’ she said. She made eye contact with someone across the bar. Some guy, Ted Baker shirt, messy hair, stepped towards us, handed her a drink, and kissed her on the cheek. ‘Tanqueray okay, babe?’ he asked.
She nodded, took the glass from his hand, their fingers brushing for a moment. ‘Randy, this is John. He’s the friend at work I told you about, the one who just split with his wife.’
‘Hey,’ he said by way of acknowledgment. My pint was, thank God, getting empty enough to give me an excuse to leave in the next six seconds or so.
‘All right, mate?’ I managed. He nodded, fishing some cigarettes out of his jacket pocket.
‘Back in a second,’ he said.
He stepped by me, and somehow I must have let something cross my face, because Claire reached out and touched my elbow.
‘Um, you knew I had a boyfriend, right?’ she asked.
I pulled the last of my beer. ‘Well, sure,’ I said. ‘Come on, why wouldn’t you?’ I managed to make it sound passably jovial. I smiled and held it.
Satisfied, she sipped her own drink, looking around. ‘Oh John, thanks for asking me to this. It’s so colourful. I’m sure you guys’re going to be great.’
‘Thanks,’ I said.
* * *
Ah, but then. We blew the doors off the place.
By the end of the first song, we knew it was going to be all right. The recruited friends were clearly enthusiastic, but even the goth-heads were nodding along. Marcus was great. No banter.
Everything was about the song, the moment. He paced, prowled—coiled tight, ready to snap, seize a chorus, draw everyone in. Hard work. He was sweating through his eyeballs by the end. Dean hopped and shouted the harmonies dead-on, and Jer was metronomic. Bam bam bam. Everything hit. It was a tiny stage, but I allowed myself a brief scissor kick jump during our Snuff song.
We wrapped up the set, Marcus took a quick, short bow and said so long, and the crowd was cheering, whistling. Howling. The people up front were pumping their fists, looking for more.
I fake fiddled with my strings for a second, looking out. Trent was there, standing in the back, papers packed, waiting for me to sign away the Scotland stuff. We met eyes. He looked—what? Resigned? Indifferent? Bored? I shifted, and saw Claire had slipped back to the bar, leaning against the rail, facing us but not looking, while Randy whispered something in her ear. I could hear my ears howling. No earplugs. Ever.
You’d think I’d have known better after all this time.
‘All right, one more.’ Dean said, and shot me a glance. ‘Preparation pays, right?’
‘All right,’ Marcus said.
Wait. ‘Let’s do the new one,’ I said suddenly.
‘What?’ Dean asked, incredulous. ‘We played it, like twice. It’s rough.’
‘No, it’s good, c’mon. Let’s end with it,’ I said.
Boom boom boom: up front, people were stamping and clapping and shouting. They loved us then, but we only had a few moments to decide. Jer was hesitant. Marcus looked at me. I looked back over the crowd, feeling it. First time in a long time.
‘Marcus,’ was all I said. I didn’t know why I wanted to play this so damn bad. Maybe force Marcus to take a chance? Force myself? Who knew. But it was a good song. I looked back at him. Now. We’ll lose them in about four seconds. He looked over his shoulder at the others. It was a good song. Sometimes, it was as simple as that.
‘All right, all right,’ Dean said. ‘Fine. C’mon.’ Jer nodded his assent, rolled his head on his shoulders a bit, kicked the bass three times. Nervous energy. That was good. I smiled, bit my bottom lip. C’mon.
Marcus wrapped the mic cord around his hand, turned back to the crowd. ‘This’ll be it for us. This is a new one.’ Jer counted us in. I closed my eyes. And the guitar roared in and I hit my spot. Oh, yes, play it loud, oh play it now. Oh, just let it happen, and oh, be joyful and love these two and a half minutes of sound. Be joyful for the noise, for it all. Just for now.
And then it was over. Nothing but the people, the noise, the din. People up front were grabbing at us, and I reached down and slapped a few hands. The boys were waving, looking beatific. Jer threw his sticks out. I wasn’t mic’ed, no-one could hear me, but I didn’t care. ‘Thanks, thank you!’ I shouted, feeling strangers slap my arms and the cool splash of thrown beers washing over my head and back. I drew a breath and shouted it out, knowing to hold onto this, this moment, this one thing. ‘Thank you and good night!!!’ I hollered.
And they all hollered back.
Featured Image: Brett Kiger