The truck pulls into the parking lot of the Crow's Nest pub at ten to five the next afternoon, backing the weathered trailer attachment right up to the building close as can get, parking right at the base of the wheelchair ramp. After raining almost non-stop for the entire day, the weather has graciously let up, but the dark clouds crawling across the sky are threatening to open up again at a moment's notice. Time, as they say is of the essence. If tonight is going to happen, people need to start moving. A point I make sure to stress as I climb out of the truck and run for the trailer.
"Let's go guys, we're already late!" I call to the others, throwing open the sliding door. Grabbing two large guitar cases, I head up the ramp and into the bar.
The place is your typical run of the mill working class watering hole; sports blaring on the television sets, largely ignored by the early barflies, veteran waitresses making their rounds while the kitchen pumps out their version of home-style pub grub from a menu chock full of items of questionable origin. One of the patrons makes a sarcastic comment about Mister Rock Star being in the house as I carry the instruments to the stage, finding a meager sound system setup off in the corner. I've seen better rigs but it'll have to do. An establishment willing to front its own sound system is a rarity, and with band relations at a dangerous low, any chance to reduce burdens on our end is seen as a good thing. I call it cutting corners, mentally readying myself for the muddy tones my guitar is sure to make through an amp that looks held together with nothing but duct tape.
No sooner do I set down the guitars than I see a crew-cut man come around the bar, blazing eyes set in a stone face. A voice inside my head groans, I know too well what he's going to say. When he gets close, I spot a nametag pinned to his shirt: PAUL COLVIN, MANAGER.
"We're late, I know. I'm sorry-"
"Late," Colvin interrupts me, "is arriving a few minutes past the hour. You said four o'clock. It's damn near five, what's your game?"
"Traffic," I mutter.
"Traffic," he says with mockery. "Have you never heard of phoning ahead?" I don't bother answering. It's obvious he isn't expecting one. "You said you're professionals. I'm not shelling out cash so you guys can play rock and roll make-believe. You understand?" I nod. Then he adds, to make sure his point hits home, "I'm not fucking around here."
"Neither are we. You never been caught in rush hour before? I said I'm sorry. It won't happen again."
"You're damn right about that." He pauses then takes a step back. "Look, how long's it gonna take you guys to setup?"
"Not long." I look the "stage" over. "This system's a piece of cake to work with. We just need to bring in the drums and get the guitars hooked up. Thirty minutes, forty at the most. You want us on at eight, right?" He confirms this. "Then we've got time to spare. This isn't our first kick at the can."
Colvin seems to consider this before shaking his head. "Just make sure you're ready in time. And," he adds over his shoulder while he walks towards back towards the bar, "make sure you find time for a pitcher or three before last call, hmm? Of course that shouldn't be a problem, knowing guys like you."
Yeah, it definitely was a good idea to have me do the talking instead of Billy. I can only imagine what he would have thought, being spoken to like that. Much as I want to snap back at Colvin too, I let it go. In this scene, you have to expect mud to be slung, especially if you're young and play anything remotely heavy. Older generations tend to look at you with varying degrees of contempt. You can hear the same thought rolling through their minds: "Christ, these kids today. And the garbage they listen to! That long-haired punk wouldn't know good music if it slapped him in the face."
Sometimes I would almost prefer the physical slap, despite having heard similar song and dance going back to my teenage years. Well, what else could you do? Get up on stage and play, that's what. Which is what I intended to do, even if the pay sucks, the crowd decides we suck and my bandmates show no interest in anything about me beyond how well I play. Music is the language through which I speak the clearest. It is what I live for. Without it, life, as Nietzsche put it, would be a mistake.
"Hey dude, quit daydreaming!" a sharp voice barks as fingers snap right beside my ear.
I flinch and turn to see Curtis the bassist frowning at me from underneath an upturned hood. "We got to finish unloading. You said so yourself. Hop to it!"
"Yeah, coming," I say, feigning absentmindedness, and follow him out the door.
We get our rig set up just shy of the forty minute mark I promised Colvin. A few curious faces look over at us while we speed through our soundcheck. Nobody applauds. If this is a sign of things to come, I'm not holding my breath for tonight.
When we finish, Brea, who's impressed me by knowing her way around a drum kit despite showing no prior interest in one, eagerly points out where Curtis fell off tempo during our once-over of a new song we've been working on called "Frozen Emotion," (can we say "coincidence?") reminding him as though he were a child of the time change between second chorus and bridge.
Curtis also looks eager - to tell her to keep her opinions to herself, in less polite ways. Not wanting salt rubbed in the wound hours before a show, I suggest we call it there and just relax until we're due on stage. Somebody mentions beer while I'm slipping my guitar strap over my head, I don't know who, but just the idea is all it takes for the others to make a beeline for a side booth close to the doors.
For the next two hours, we lose themselves in a foaming sea of lager and lamentations. Billy orders a burger and fries to go with his, a wise idea since none of us had eaten since breakfast, opting to spend most of the day rehearsing in our makeshift studio. I pass on the beer altogether, a gesture that garners many puzzled looks and a jab from Brea about going soft in my old age, (ha ha).
I'm no stranger to pre-show whistle wetting, but after getting totally pissed and subsequently fucking up throughout our set at a gig out at some dive beyond the Greater Vancouver boundary a few months back, I rarely partake until the final encore (encores, that's a laugh). It's a lesson the others don't seem to have learned. Curtis is using his arms as a pillow and Brea's eyes are taking on that bright look like a pair of freshly polished marbles. I motion to Stephen and he frowns, making a gun gesture with his fingers pressing into his temple.
Showtime in T-minus sixty and counting: The outlook could not be bleaker.
"Just remember guys," he says. "We've still got our show to do. After that, knock yourselves out, my turn to drive tonight."
"Ball breaker," Curtis says without lifting his bald head. Nobody else shares in his sentiments. "This ain't my first rodeo," he adds as if doing so will somehow lessen Stephen's resolve. "I'll be fine. Christ."
"Yeah, you said that before last month's show at Fox's Paw and look what happened."
"I told you, somebody poured f--king beer on my bass. Do I look that stupid?"
"You sure did that night. Think amps are cheap to replace? We should be thanking our lucky stars that they didn't sue us, or that we're not banned from there." Poor Stephen, the stress from the past year seems to have put a dent in his normally unbreakable optimism in the face of adversity. I don't blame him. It's been a challenging year for us all.
Brea begins to frown. She looks at me and gestures towards Curtis, giving me ‘that look'. It asks: "Where did you find this guy, anyways?"
I only shrug in response. What do you want me to do?
Paul Colvin walks by, spots the empty pitcher and glasses on our table and heads off, shaking his head, obviously disgusted at the sad sight before him and I'm not talking about the empty glasses either.
For once I agree with him. This was sad.
"I'm going out for a smoke," I say, pushing away from the table and heading out the main doors. It occurs to me too late that I quit smoking two weeks ago, remembering the reviled nicotine patch now taped to my right shoulder. I sigh, lean against the wooden railing running parallel along the wheelchair ramp and watch the fading new moon rising off in the distance, hidden from the celestial center stage; barely recognizable in the grand landscape.
Just like us.
Curtis Crest's hiring came out of desperation more than anything else. After our original bassist decided to jump ship right before we were supposed to begin a cross-provincial tour to promote the first demo we'd recorded that summer, I'd been covering bass while Stephen took over all guitar-related duties for the tour, a task that proved a real challenge in the beginning but soon fit like an old shoe. We barely finish the tour, and it's far from a success. Our drummer quits soon after.
We spend a good month in hiatus, calling old friends (what friends?) and placing ads, auditioning more than a dozen prospects before settling on Curtis Crest of Crofton. Yes, he really introduces himself like that.
Any prospective drummers end up wasting our time and the decision is made soon after to stick Brea behind the kit until things work out. Life, it seems, in its mysterious and sometimes cruel ways, had been planning other things and that rather than fight, it would be best if we accept and move on.
Sure. I'll move on. But accept it? I'll have to get back to you on that.
We've been on stage for a little over half an hour, moving between songs with about as much grace as a man wading through a pond in cement shoes. Curtis, despite his insistence, is far from "fine." His head's been tilting from side to side like a swivel chair as he falls out of time on almost all the songs, if only for brief moments. Even Brea looks to be out of it, her own head hung low although she manages to stay in time with her glassy eyes locked onto the drums in front of her, refusing to look at anyone else. She knows she's not all there.
I spot Billy's glare as he panders to the crowd. It's not just intense focus that's causing his brow to knot. My only hope is that the other patrons are just as drunk (or worse) so they won't notice how crap we're playing.
"Alright," Billy says into the mike after we wrap up the song, "Crow's Nest, how're you doing out there? Anybody drunk yet?" A slurred voice rises above the smattering applause, asking if we're the drunken ones.
I pretend not to hear it. Sweat is rolling down my face. The case of pre-show jitters hasn't vanished by the end of our first song like I'd hoped. Instead it's decided to cling to me like a stubborn piece of tape stuck to a finger, refusing to go.
"Again, we are motherfucking Dichotomy of Mind from right here in Vancouver, B.C!" Brea gives a quick roll on the double basses to further pump the crowd up. It falls flat. We're playing heavy metal for a crowd that's about as blue collar looking as you can get, we should be lucky they haven't started booing or ironically chanting "Free Bird!"
Billy also pretends not to hear the wiseass. "This'll be our last song tonight, but if you like what you heard tonight, we'll be sticking around after the show, come speak to any one of us, we'll be selling our demos to anyone who wants it!" I can't tell if the increased applause is meant for the demo or the fact that we're on our last song. Either way, it does little to improve my outlook on an evening quickly going to hell.
Resigned, I look over to Billy. He nods as Brea taps the rim of her snare and we jump into our last song; coincidentally the first complete song written as a complete band, Wrath Full. Billy throws caution to the wind with the lyrics; going with the flow of the song's racing energy. The screams seem to wake up some of the bored looking onlookers. This is raw, authentic anger, a primitive fuck you to the passive crowd, to at least one of the drunken idiots on stage with me, to the entire world and its coldhearted ways.
The applause is a little louder when we bid our goodnights to the Crow's Nest crowd and step down off stage.
"F--king rights, we killed it guys!" Curtis is jumping up and down, seemingly stuck on an adrenaline kick accented by a large amount of beer. He lands awkwardly on his feet, stumbles around like the jackass he is, regains his balance, chuckles and slaps me on the back, announcing that this calls for a round, he's buying.
All I can do is look at him and feel my chest tighten. We killed it? I'll kill you, I think, wanting to take him out back and punch his lights out.
Stephen seems to read my mind and nods, his fist flexing by his side; tighten, release, tighten, release. Fuck it, what's the use? We share a quick man-hug; he thanks me for staying straight and walks off towards the men's room.
I catch eyes with Curtis again. The urge to hit him returns with a vengeance, I can even feel my own fists balling. How can he be so happy? How wasted do you have to be to not recognize a sh-tty performance? He starts to open his mouth as I take an unconscious step towards him, but before he gets a word out, Brea's hand clamps onto my arm, making me jump.
"How about that beer, buddy?" she says and walks towards the bar, trying to drag me along with her. I am confused. Brea's rarely shown much interest in my existence outside of practice, but I follow her anyways, gesturing Curtis to hold whatever stupid thought he's got.
Instead of going up to the bar, she turns right. I almost hit the doors face first during the swing back as she yanks me outside. Never underestimate the strength of those smaller than you.
I notice right away that she's drunk, she probably doesn't even know how badly, drunk and shaking like a leaf, fury written all over her face. "Brea, what the hell's going on?"
"It's over," she spits; beginning to pace around the parking lot as though looking for something (or someone) to punch. "It's done, Jay-Jay. Over. Finito!"
"What? Jesus Brea, are you f--ked up too?" She growls in response. "Just what do you mean, done?"
"Him!" She points a trembling finger at the building.
Now I get it. "Don't remind me. I likely would have punched his face in if you didn't grab me just now."
"I'll help," she snarls, running her fingers through her hair. She's been raven-haired for so long, it's almost unnatural to see those blond and baby-blue highlights. "Jay-Jay, we gotta get rid of him. He's a waste, no good for us. That duck head's holding us back."
I'm quite sure "duck" wasn't the word she meant to use. Blame the beer for that.
"Stephen hates him too," she adds. I can't tell how much of an effect the beer's having on her vitriolic anti-Curtis campaign, although I suspect it's a fair amount.
"Stephen's the last guy to hate anyone," I say. "I know he's not impressed with all this bullshit, but-"
"Not impressed," Brea mumbles. "I'll impress my boot in his a-s, that's what I'll do."
"But it's not that simple. We fire Curtis, what's that going to do for us?"
"What's keeping him doing for us now? Two f--king gigs in two months? And he's not even trying to contribute to the songwriting, just shows up and then f--ks off when we're done. You were much better than him."
"Maybe, but I can only do so much. I'm kind of stuck with the other guitar right now. What do you want me to do?"
She looks right at me. I can feel her anger beginning to change direction, her eyes burrowing into me like two fiery little pinpoints. "Kick. Him. Out." I can hear the poison leeching from each syllable. "I'd rather not play any shows than have him making a joke out of us, out of you."
"Pardon me?" I say, taking a step towards her, narrowing the space between us to inches. She stands her ground, hands going to her hips, looking right up at me, unfazed by the massive height difference between us. "You think it's my fault that he hit on you? Take it up with Billy if you feel that strongly. Get him to fight your battles. He's your man, after all."
I sigh and feel the urge for a cigarette kick in, wanting to rip the patch from my shoulder and race for the machine on the wall between the two bathrooms. "You're right, I know-"
Brea makes a noise implying I'm an idiot to think differently.
"This can't go on. But this is a discussion for another time, when everyone's sober." I take a long, hard look at her to see if she understands my point. She diverts her eyes from mine. She knows she's lost, but won't admit it. Like me, she's got a stubborn streak a mile wide. Tenacity, she calls it. I'm willing to bet others would call this rose by any other, albeit less favorable, name.
The bar doors swing open and bang against the frame as the devil himself wanders out into the night. "What's up, buttercup?" he says with a stupid drunk grin when he sees us staring daggers at him. "A little air to clear my head, that's all I need."
Curtis wanders off towards the rear of the building, disappearing around the corner while patting down his pockets for his lighter, fiddling with a happy poison stick I want to race up and snatch out of his mouth, smoke it myself. A few moments of hostile silence pass between me and Brea, and then there's a loud cough and the sound of something wet splattering on the pavement off in the distance. My eyes screw shut. When they open again, I look over at Brea. Don't say it.
"At least I can keep mine down." She walks back into the bar without me. I stay outside, in no mood to deal with Curtis or a very likely, very angry Billy. Even the prospect of talking to Stephen makes my chest tighten and burn when it has no right to. I've heard of paying your dues, but even this is beginning to cost more than it's worth, I think.
We sell only one demo that night, a pity buy. Paul Colvin settles accounts with us once our gear is packed up in the trailer. He doesn't come right out and say it, but his body language and curt tone strongly suggest Dichotomy Of Mind isn't about to be asked to return anytime soon, as my mental checklist scratches out the Crow's Nest.
The pay is divided and pocketed between the three of us, Curtis's share remains in the envelope, stuffed into his coat pocket by Stephen while he sits in the back with me, mumbling quietly about the quality of the house draft. Brea sits with Billy, both of them refusing to look at or talk to anyone as Stephen plots a course for home. I catch him scowling in the rear view mirror more than once.
After we drop Curtis off at his apartment and the remaining four of us get the gear unloaded safely back into our pathetic studio, the first thing I do is make the three block hike up to the liquor store.
I return with a case of Budweiser and a pack of Number Sevens. King sized.