A sonic wave washes down from the stage at The Venture as Rich leads his Lady Endorphin band-mates through a wild intro. The drummer pounds out the rhythm on the toms, battering along while the keyboardist provides a low electronic drone and a spiraling chord pattern. Rich stands at the front of the stage, shirt off, hard-muscled arms and six-pack abs wowing the girls in the crowd, doing runs on his Schecter.
What the hell? Jay says, as he finds Steve, Peter, and Tyson standing on the fringe of the crowd. He's opening with a solo?
His lead singer isn't even on stage yet, Steve responds. He's got to get everyone's attention.
They watch Rich play. He's all grimacing guitar-face, heaving his body as he swings a violent arm to hit the heavy chords, and then all light touch and speed as he rips through complicated lines. It's a heavy metal crunch with the drums and keyboards backing it up, and Jay thinks about how high Hellakill with have to raise its game to keep pace with the bands that are opening for them.
Out of the machine-made mist comes a female form, slinky and curvaceous in build, dressed in tight clothes that reflect the light of the strobes out at the open-mouthed crowd. Casey pauses at center stage and goes through a cat-like stretch before stepping forward and latching her hands onto the monkey-bar microphone stand. She kicks a stiletto-booted foot up and climbs, lifting herself over the heads of the kids that are staring up at her.
Casey sways, staring out into the darkened hall, perched like some sexy gargoyle on a steel cathedral. Rich starts backing off the shredding and begins playing a riff with the bass-line throb from the keyboard. At last Casey begins to sing, picking up with the second verse of the song: You can cut me open and count my scars, but there's nothing inside but wires and pain...
Jay and the others stand watching, transfixed by the vision of the black-clad industrial-goth goddess singing in front of the crowd in the half-empty hall. Jay stares, trying to figure out who she is up there. Is she the enigmatic music engineer wearing layer upon layer of clothes in a house full of recording equipment, or the vulnerable girl who sat next to him on her basement sofa playing X-Box? Or is this the real Casey up above them now, stoned out of her mind on cold medication and Jagermeister, but still able to captivate a crowd with words and movement? What a beautiful mystery.
Come on, Steve says, grabbing the infatuated guitarist by the arm. We need to get ready.
The Hellakill players slip inside the green room. The members of Sharp Edge are there getting ready to leave, putting on their jackets and snapping shut their equipment cases.
You beautiful bastards, Steve says as he squeezes inside. We owe you guys big time. That was a terrific show. The other Hellakill members echo the sentiment, heaping praise and thanks on the Sharp Edge players and promising to return the favor at the first opportunity.
It's cool, replies the Sharp Edge singer. We're happy to help.
Jay makes sure they all got drink tickets, and after a round of sincere hand shakes, fist bumps and high fives, the Sharp Edge players carry a load of gear out through the fire exit to the van waiting outside.
You're not going to leave your gear in the parking lot, are you? asks Peter.
Don't worry, Sharp Edge's drummer says. Our van has a kick-ass alarm.
The members of Hellakill exchange regretful looks.
A few minutes later the room is clear of Sharp Edge's gear, the door is closed and the members of the pub-rock-turned-metal-band are out in the main hall enjoying Lady Endorphin's performance. The members of Hellakill stand facing each other in the relative silence of the green room.
It's funny to think about, isn't it? Steve says with a little smile. If Peter's van would've had an alarm, we wouldn't have put this whole thing together. He looks nervously at Peter. Not that I'm saying it's your fault you didn't have an alarm.
Peter grins half-heartedly. Well, he says, I guess you know what to get me for Christmas.
Jay looks around. I guess we're missing Danny. You guys hang out. I'll go grab him.
Jay finds him in the lounge, holding hands with Benny. Several other kids are sitting at their table. Danny is the center of attention, even though he hasn't played his first gig. Good, Jay thinks. The kid could use some confidence.
Hey Danny, Jay says. Band meeting backstage. Come on.
Sure, Danny says. He stands up stiffly.
You still sore from the mosh pit?
A guy hit him, one kids says. There's a little gang of assholes. They're actually in a band too, except they suck.
Where are they? Jay says. We'll get them kicked out.
They're actually outside right now, another kid says. They keep going outside to drink so they don't get thrown out.
Jay shrugs. Well, keep your eyes open for them, I guess. If we spot them we can toss them later. Come on, Danny.
The two brothers leave Benny and the others behind and head back into the main hall, stopping at the bar to grab beers before heading to the green room. Jay takes the opportunity to watch Lady Endorphin at work on stage. He has a hard time pulling his eyes away from Casey, and bumps into people as he makes his way through the crowd.
Danny and Jay arrive in the green room and the band goes over the set list. Everything is planned. Julie will get up and do guest vocals on one song, and later Rich and Casey will come up for a song. The band will need to push itself as hard as it can. If they put in a half-assed performance tonight, it won't matter if they make enough money to buy new gear. This performance is their test: if they fail to live up to their own standard, each one of them will know they'll never make it out of Millenburgh.
As per Hellakill's request, Lady Endorphin plays a long set, going way beyond the fifty minutes the other bands were allowed. The members of Hellakill stay in the green room, chatting, trying to stay loose, telling stories and jokes. They all keep checking their watches and waiting.
At a twelve o'clock Peter's phone rings. It's Kev and Kathy, calling from The Station. Okay, The Bantam All-Stars are done, Kev informs them.
Cool, Peter says, relaying the message to the rest of the band. Do you guys want to head back? You must be freezing.
Hah! Kev shouts into Peter's ear. Don't worry about us. We're having a good time. We'll let you know when Allsystemsgo starts playing.
Kev hangs up, and Peter slips his phone back into his jeans. Okay, he says. So we wait for Allsystemsgo to play, and then we get up there?
Jay taps his hand on his knee, and taps one toe on the dirty floor. The nervous knot in his stomach is turning into excitement about playing. To hell with waiting, he says. Let's play as soon as we're ready. If the people that left would rather see Allsystemsgo, let them watch Allsystemsgo. Let's play for the people that want to see us play.
Tyson smiles. I like it. You're finally showing some attitude.
They all agree. Ten minutes later Lady Endorphin finish their set and get a rousing ovation from the audience. Steve peeks out the door. Looks like a few people came back, anyway. I guess some people wanted to see us after all.
Rich and the other musicians start bringing their equipment down off the stage. They are red-faced and sweaty, but smiling. That turned out pretty well after all, says the drummer, peeling off a sweat-soaked T-shirt. She came through for us.
Good thing, Tyson says. Think she's got enough left in the tank to do one with us?
The drummer shrugs and grins. Who knows? Best of luck.
The band and the two Lady Endorphin roadies clear the stage. Casey appears, and flops like a dead body next to Jay on the green room sofa. Fuuuuuuuuuck, she moans.
I wasn't sure you could get up there, Jay says. He has his Sears special out, and he sits twiddling the tuning knobs. Are you going to live? We don't need to call an ambulance or anything, do we?
No, I'm cool, she moans. Another energy drink and a few more shots and I'll be fine.
I don't get it, he says. You're great on stage, you have a great voice, a great look, everything. Why do you get so messed up before you play?
I don't always, she says. Sometimes...I get nervous, you know? Sometimes it's easier to put on a show if there's a distraction. A buzz.
Whatever works for you, I guess, he says. I'm no one to judge.
She shrugs and closes her eyes.
The two bands shuttle back and forth from the stage to the green room, Lady Endorphin clearing away their gear, while the members of Hellakill get their borrowed instruments ready. Rich's Schecter stays in place.
Danny moves around, not really knowing where to go or what to do. He follows Jay's instructions and tapes a set list to the floor at the spot where he's going to stand, and puts a water bottle on the amp he's using. The stage lights are down and people aren't focused on what's happening on the stage, but Danny feels awkward being up there. The place had been almost empty when he had been up on stage earlier, but now the room has a crowd in it, and Danny feels like every one of them are watching him. Every movement seems clumsy. As soon as the list is taped down and the Strat is plugged in, he gets the hell off stage.
Tyson is in the green room with Rich and Casey, and Julie from Pattern Disruption, going over the set. Danny squeezes into a spot on the sofa and finds the bottle of beer that Jay had bought for him. He sips quietly, wishing he could disappear.
The other members of the band finish with their own gear and come down, filling the little space. Okay, Tyson says. We're ready? Everybody has their shit together?
Let's do it, Jay says.
There is a buzzing sound, and Peter reaches into his pocket for his cell phone. It's Kev, he says. He opens the phone. Okay. Okay. Thanks. Come on back. We're about to go on. He flips the phone shut and looks at the others. Allsystemsgo just started playing.
Perfect timing, Jay says. We can go head to head with them, right? Shit, who cares what they're doing over there? Let's get up there and play.
Right! Peter claps his hands. Let's go! He turns and heads up the steps onto the stage. Steve and Tyson follow. The stage lights come up and there is a cheer for the audience.
Rich and Julie look at Jay. Have a good show, Rich says. They step out of the green room to watch the show, leaving only the apparently passed-out Casey and the two guitar-playing Warren brothers.
You ready, Danny? Jay asks.
I feel a little funny.
You'll be fine once you start playing. We've got to go.
Danny gets up. Yeah, I know. I just...I don't know, I feel really exposed. And there are those assholes here, you know, they kept yelling at me before, and one of them hit me in mosh pit. I'm pretty freaked out.
You're worried about a couple of bullies? Jay shakes his head. There are always going to be assholes, bro, and you can't get away from them by hiding. We've got your back, but you've got to stand up for yourself. Come on. We gotta go.
Danny goes up the steps, and Jay puts his hand on his brother's shoulder and goes up after him. There is cheering and clapping as they step out onto the brightly lit stage, and Danny hears a friendly female voice calling his name and cheering for him. He picks up the red sunburst Stratocaster, pulls the strap over his shoulder, and plants his feet firmly, one slightly ahead of the other.
* * * *
In the parking lot next to The Station, Kathy stands with a joint between her lips. Kev holds his hands up to block the wind as she lights it. It's the second one they've had, taken from a stash in the inner lining of Kathy's purse. She gets it burning, and flips it around for Kev to take. He plucks it from her grasp with cold, stiff fingers.
I don't know if I need this, he says. I'm flying off that first one.
You'll be fine, she says. We'll just smoke this and go watch the boys play. Man, you're shivering. You should wear more than just Slipknot hoodies, you know? How many of those things do you have, anyway? I think I've seen, like, three different ones.
He blows smoke out. I have four. You need at least four. Slipknot deserves it. I hope to get a fifth for Christmas.
Slipknot's all right, Kathy says. Although I prefer Stone Sour.
Oh, you didn't just say that, Kev says. He prepares to make a long Slipknot versus Stone Sour speech, but he's distracted by the sound of the bar doors banging open. They hear voices and footsteps, and Kev instinctively hides the joint behind his back. The people coming out onto the sidewalk don't pay any attention to them, however. There is a steady stream of young people, all marching down the street in the direction of The Venture.
Hey, Kathy calls to some of the passing kids. What's happening?
Can't you hear? one boy snaps. These guys fucking suck.
They're drunk off their asses, shouts another guy. They've been drinking since the doors opened. They're playing like shit.
Too funny, Kev says, stepping forward to pass Kathy the joint. Come on, let's smoke this thing and get going.
* * * *
The amps are on. Danny is standing to the right of the drum set, as far back as he can go. Tyson is up front in the middle of the stage, with Jay on his right and Steve on his left. Danny's glad that's he's in the back row. Hopefully people won't be focusing on him when they start playing.
Danny watches as Jay and Tyson look at each other and exchange a nod. That's Peter's cue, and he batters the snare to start the first song, Fracture. Danny watches Steve play, counts four measures, and then starts strumming the part he's practiced a hundred times. A few measures later Jay cuts in with a squeal of power and distortion. Tyson begins to sing, and just like in practice, the whole band is rocking the song.
It's a fast, hard number and Danny is used to playing it, but he's not prepared for the sheer force that the excitement of performing gives the rest of the band. They fly, hammering, slashing, ripping and screaming, turning a pretty simplistic rock song into brutal onslaught of crashing, thundering rock mayhem. Danny gets caught up in it, a desperate grin appearing on his face as he stares at his fret hand, trying to keep up with the explosive power of his band-mates.
The song ends on a solo from Jay and a long roll on the cymbals from Peter. There is a cheer from the crowd, and Jay turns back to look at his brother. He smiles when he sees the grin on Danny's face. Let's go! he shouts at the band, and Peter hits his sticks together to count in the next song.
They pound into the blues riff of Enemies. Danny's part in this one is basically a double of Jay's, and support when Jay plays the solo. He watches his older brother leaning forward to strum, swaying with the music, moving fluidly with the rhythm. Danny had been thinking earlier about what kind of pose made a guitar player look cool on stage, and when he looks at Jay, Danny understands: the coolest pose is no pose at all. For Jay, moving on stage is simply natural.
They play it through, and by the time Tyson shouts Thank you! in response to the cheers of the crowd, sweat is running down Danny's body. The lights are bright on his face. He looks at Peter behind the kit, and sees the drummer mopping off sweat with a towel.
Number three is a blast. Although Danny makes a few mistakes, they get lost in the speed and volume of the band. As the song ends, Steve turns and gives him a nod and smile.
The lights go down on the stage for a moment, and they are all washed over in blue light. Danny can see into the crowd, and he steps forward and looks out, hoping to see Benny's face. Instead he sees Boyd directly in front of him, making a face and giving him the finger. Danny shrinks back, looking at the frets of the Strat.
Okay, we're going to get a friend up to help us with this next one, Tyson says. This is Julie from Pattern Disruption. I hope you saw them play earlier because they were fucking great, and they were a big help setting all this up, so give her a big hand.
The crowd cheers as the pretty blond comes up on stage. She has a wireless mic, and when Jay starts to play the opening riff, she starts to sing: It's three in the morning and I'm waiting for you...
Tyson starts singing along and the band jumps in, Danny watching Peter to make sure he gets the timing right. Suddenly he's frigid, afraid to move, afraid to make any mistakes, knowing that there's a loathsome prick out in the crowd just waiting for him to fuck up. They pick up the pace and the song starts to really rock, but Danny can't find the rhythm. He seems to be half a step behind.
The crowd in front of the stage is dancing, the band is moving, and Julie looks great with her blonde ponytail bopping behind her as she jumps and sings with Tyson. Everything is great except for the feeling in Danny's gut, and at last the song mercifully comes to an end with a cheer from the crowd.
Jay turns around and gives Danny a questioning look, but the younger brother reaches for his water bottle, avoiding his brother's face.
From out in the crowd, Danny hears a mocking cheer: Yeah, Danny, you fucking rock! You fucking rock! Yeah! Danny! Yeah!
Danny knows that it's Boyd doing the yelling. He takes the cap off the water bottle and takes a sip. He puts the cap back on, twisting it tight. There is a sick feeling in his stomach, but he turns around and walks toward the front of the stage.
Julie is taking an extra bow, and in the momentary delay before the next song starts, Danny spots Boyd. The prick is down there, still making facing and screaming. Julie leaves the stage, Peter taps in the next song, and just as the band hits the opening note of What You Call Living, Danny hauls back and throws the plastic water bottle as hard as he can, catching Boyd square in the face. Boyd goes down and disappears from sight, and Danny takes three steps back, looks at his frets, and joins in with the band.
The band plays through, and when the song comes to an end, Danny shouts to Peter, Next one! Go! Go!
Peter laughs and counts it in, knowing that the young guitarist doesn't want a single second for anyone to ask why the fuck he's throwing bottle at people in the crowd. The band follows the drummer's lead, and they start to rock The Venture all over again.
Powerhouse songs follow one after the other, and pretty soon the bottle-throwing is forgotten by both the band and the jumping, dancing, cheering crowd. The audience, after everyone from The Station comes back in, is one of the biggest that has ever seen Hellakill play, and the band feeds off the energy in the room. What the band gives to the audience, the audience gives back to the band, and the air in the room is musky with sweat and electric with excitement.
After the eighth song, the lights dim again, and Danny wishes he still had a bottle of water. At the same time, he hasn't seen Boyd's shitty face or heard his stupid voice since throwing the bottle, so he can't feel much regret.
Jay has a drink from his own bottle and passes it back to Danny. What was that shit earlier? he asks.
Danny takes a long drink from the bottle. Standing up to a bully, he says, and wipes his mouth.
Some more friends are going to come up and play with us now, Tyson announces, as Rich comes up and grabs his Schecter. He pulls it on, checks the connection, and runs the pick over the strings. There is a charge of metal distortion through the stacked amplifiers. Rich nods, and quickly he and the other guitars tune up.
Rich nods to Tyson. Let's do it.
What about Casey? Tyson says, covering the mike.
Don't worry. Let's go.
Tyson nods to Peter and the drummer starts to bang out the opening beat. Tyson starts clapping and the crowd picks it up. Danny looks out across the audience and sees the hands up in the air, slapping together to the beat. Jay and Rich are supposed to hit that famous riff, but the two lead guitarists just stand facing each other, smiling, bopping their heads.
Jay grins and mouths to his friendly rival: one, two, three, four, and they hit the riff in precision time, ripping it out. The crowd recognizes it and goes nuts, and the band jumps in blasting. Tyson starts to sing: Was a backstroke lover, always hidin' 'neath the cover, 'til I talk to your daddy, he say...
Danny smiles at the action of the crowd as they leap and cheer for the old hit. He plays his simplified lines and watches Tyson, Jay and Rich rock the hell out of the song, and as they reach the first chorus, everyone hears the voice, and they all turn to look off the side of the stage.
She's there, cordless microphone in hand, high-stepping out among the musicians in those shiny knee-high boots, singing Walk this way! Talk this way...
Casey steps to the front of the stage and wraps an arm around Tyson's shoulder as she starts belting out the second verse, with Tyson hitting key words for extra pop on the lines. It's a magical moment with the two of them singing, the whole band rolling along, and the crowd so into it. Danny feels a tingle go up his sweaty back.
They hit the chorus and Casey starts doing a sexy dance around Jay, reaching out to trail a finger around him like a stripper caressing a brass pole. She stands behind him with an arm across his chest, her head on his shoulder, singing out the words.
As Tyson starts singing the third verse, Casey reaches up with one foot to catch the back of Jay's belt with the toe of her boot. She plants her hands on his shoulders and without warning, jumps up to climb up on top of him, swinging her legs around his neck to sit on his shoulders.
Jay sways but manages to keep his balance with the girl on top of him. He keeps playing, feeling a rush as she squeezes her latex-clad thighs around his neck. She stays on his shoulders through the third and fourth verses, singing and pointing out to the audience. The crowd loves it, and she doesn't climb down until after the last chorus, just as Rich begins to solo.
This is the fateful moment that the whole band had been waiting for: the solo axe-war between Rich and Jay. Rich blazed away, staying close to Joe Perry's original run. He finished with a flourish and stepped back for Jay, who jumped on the line, his legs spread wide and sweat running down his cheeks.
Jay hammers out the main riff twice and then starts to improvise on it, making more and more complex swirls of sound as the band keeps the time for him. He goes up and down the neck of the guitar, shredding furiously, coaxing every bit of power that he can out of the simple little instrument, until he finally throws an arm up in the air and lets Rich take over again.
They go back and forth and the audience watches, dancing, loving the self-indulgent display of dirty rock and roll. At last, Jay and Rich fall in time together and pound out the main riff, bringing the song home at last.
The crowd goes nuts, and Rich waves, unplugs his guitar and walks off stage. Everyone looks around. Casey is already gone.
Hellakill plays out their set, keeping each song tight and heavy. Before they start the final number, Tyson takes a moment to thank the staff of the venue, and then starts introducing the members of the band. At the sound of their names, each member plays a quick note. Danny feels nervous, but when Tyson says his name, there are no smartass calls from Boyd, only cheers. He plays a few notes and smiles.
The band starts Million Last Times, their final number. They play through the verses, and as they hit the final chorus, Jay turns to look at Danny. He steps to the side, nodding for Danny to come up and join him at the front of the stage. Danny smiles and moves from the rigid stance he's held for the whole show and steps forward.
The brothers face each other as Jay plays the closing solo, with Danny playing the rhythm. They bring the song to its peak and as the whole band hammers out the final notes, Danny feels an unbelievable rush, and a smile crosses his face. There is a big cheer as Peter gives the cymbals a final crash. The guys pull off their guitars and give a bow, standing for a long moment while people clap and whistle. The stage lights go down, and at last they stumble off stage and down the steps into the little green room. Tyson, the last to leave the stage, barks out Thank you! to another big cheer before putting the microphone back in the stand and walking off.
Everyone is leaning against walls, flopped on the sofa, sweaty, exhausted, but most of all, happy. It shows on their flushed faces: satisfaction, relief, glorious afterglow, and the feeling of being in a band again, which is something none of them had really felt since their gear was taken.
The door opens and the tiny room is flooded with people: Julie and Rich enter hand in hand, congratulating the guys on their performance. Benny comes in and wraps her arms around Danny. Kathy and Kev push inside, plus as many other friends, fans and well-wishers that are able to squeeze into the space. Beers appear in people's hands, and the party becomes a celebration. Everyone starts talking at once:
...best solo I ever heard...
...everyone walked out on Allsystemsgo...
...Boyd's friends carried him out. They think he has a broken nose...
...Kathy says she's going to teach me to play drums...
...the whole night was incredible...
Jay takes a long drink from the beer he was given. He looks around, but he can't spot the one person he'd really like to see: Casey, Lady Endorphin. She, her ninja roadies, and their giant microphone stand have disappeared. It doesn't matter, he thinks. He'll see her again. Soon. He'll find a reason.
* * * *
Two hours later, the beers have been drank, the gear has been driven away by the few remaining sober musicians, and Tyson, Steve, and the Warren boys stand outside of The Venture waiting for Peter to come back with the van to pick them up after dropping off some of the others.
Steve takes a sip from the bottle of beer he carried out with him. Too bad about Allsystemsgo, huh? Real shame, messing up the way they did on a big night.
Yeah, too bad, Jay says. Shit, I'm not worried about them. Jokes aside, they're good musicians. Either they'll realize their mistakes and get their act together, or they'll disappear.
Yeah, Tyson says. Like we almost did.
We're fine, Steve says. You know how much we made tonight?
We're not sure, says Jay. I figure around four grand, but we won't know until Monday. It will be enough.
Does this mean I get a guitar too? Danny asks.
We'll see how we do with the budget, Tyson says. Remember, you didn't lose a guitar. You never had one in the first place.
Danny nods. Do you think you'll ever find out who took the gear?
Jay shrugs. Hell, I don't know. Maybe. Probably not. Maybe something will turn up in a used guitar store. It's been months. I'd say the shit's gone for good.
They stand in silence, listening to the wind. They see Peter's van come around the corner at the end of the road and start rolling toward them. Steve finishes the beer and sets the bottle down. What do you think we should do next? he asks.
Buy gear, Jay says. Write more songs. Do some more recording. There's a Battle of the Bands in Indianapolis in a few months. I think that's worth checking out.
Yeah, totally, Steve says. We would kick ass.
The van stops in front of the building and the musicians climb in. There's no gear, so there's plenty of room. But as they drive away, each one thinks about pieces of equipment he would like to put in the back of the van. All except for Danny. He's just happy to be part of the band.