Tuesday night at Jake's Restaurant with a good crowd in to see Riot Band:
Ryan on my left, using short, jagged sweeps of his pick over the strings of his battered blue Les Paul to bring out crunches of distortion, his curly blond hair now grown so long that it flows in waves when he bangs his head along to the beat of the music, the snarl on his face belying the fact that he's having the time of his life;
Jed on my right behind his keyboard, punctuating riffs with siren sounds and various screeches, drones, voices and calls, singing backing vocals, his twinkling eyes hidden behind mirrored aviator shades and his mustache, fully grown again, waxed up at the tips to make comedic curls;
Conrad behind us, behind the kit, shirtless, sweating profusely, his head freshly shaved, his face held in a twisted grimace of furious effort, bashing away, trying to keep the time, keeping time, having a great time, loving the time;
The crowd in front of us on the tiny dance floor, packed tight, swaying and bobbing along with the pounding of the music, the guys in black t-shirts with half-drunk/half-stoned eyes watching us, their jaws clenched in the effort of holding their spot on the floor, the girls in tight dresses being forced to the outside by the pushing of the guys, the people at the very front practically being driven up onto the little stage;
People sitting at the chairs and tables in the front half of the little bar, their tables covered in full, half-empty and empty beer bottles, pint glasses, highball glasses, and shot glasses, the drunks, the girlfriends waiting for their dancing boyfriends, your friends, my friends, their friends, our friends, and probably you as well if you're not dancing or already passed out;
Lise, who sits at a table with a Crown and coke in her hand, watching the show while keeping an eye on the bar and on the door, waiting for me, her eyes glowing warm when my eyes meet hers, enjoying watching me, loving to see me having my time, anxious to get me home so we can collapse together in a sweaty tangled mess;
Emily, Ryan's girl, who as usual has her video camera trained on the stage, not missing a thing, a bad girl for him, a user, a liar, a sneak, but pretty enough, smart enough and crafty enough to have wormed her way into his affections and it's not a cool thing to give a guy too much shit about his choice of girl, especially if you don't want him to quit your band again;
Jed's girl, a vampish brunette of Colombian extract sitting at another table with the art scene kids, seeming cool to me, but the less I know the better because I don't want things to get more tangled up than they already are;
Conrad's girl, a stylish but heavy girl in a hoodie with a lip ring and dark eyeliner sipping vodka-seven with lime by herself near the bar and watching the band, looking as mysterious as Conrad wishes he was;
Nick, our manager, tapping away on his mobile device at the bar in a black gabardine coat, looking like a player, working as hard as we are, always pimping, trying to work up a better angle for us, trying to get more people to see us, trying to find more places to play, more ways to expose the band, more ways for us to make some money, having as much fun being the quiet guy on the side, the player, as we are having fun on stage;
My buddy James, as well as mixed members of The Urges and his side-project band The Technology Gizmos, plus members of Garrison Valley's other scene bands, plus their girlfriends and boyfriends, all laughing and drinking and dancing and partying, loving that they are a part of something, hoping that they will someday be a part of something even bigger, but happy for the moment that they are riding a cresting wave;
Members of Blowing Up Springfield, I think maybe the bass player and rhythm guitarist but I don't know for sure because they're not exactly friendly f--kers, drinking pints of black beer and watching us from the back of the room with keen, serious expressions, trying to figure Riot Band out, trying to understand how our formless, loud, exploratory cacophony of shouting, banging, crashing, speeding up and slowing down songs, without the benefit of a good singer or a wizard on guitar or a really tight presentation can possibly be achieving all this success, while at the same time smirking and gloating, secure in the knowledge that they are better players, more technically advanced and skilled, and secure in the knowledge that they are beating us to key gigs, such as the opening spot for The Pop Rocks show at The Market in April;
The staff, busy behind the bar serving drinks, selling-selling-selling, pouring, serving, taking the money (a percentage of which goes to the band), working behind renovated fixtures at the bar, new beer taps, a wider selection of drinks, a fifty cent increase in the price of domestic bottles of beer, and a couple of hot young waitresses to help out and increase the tips;
Keith, the manager, also pouring drinks, keeping an eye on the band that has become his unexpected meal ticket, the band that in a bad economy and in the worst part of a run-down town managed to revitalize a community's social scene by not knowing where or what or how to play, that somehow managed to transform a crappy old bar full of bums counting out quarters to buy beers into Garrison Valley's most lucrative college crowd night-spot;
Smoky outside in front of the bar selling single slender joints at five dollars each, pulling in a few extra bucks while still having a good time, doing what he loves even though he knows it's time for him to grow up and move on;
The cops, occasionally passing by but never stopping in to count heads for fire code violations, ID for minors, or bust drug dealers;
The old bums, pushed out of their long-time hangout and forced to drink their beers at the seafood restaurant on Edward Street because Jake's just isn't the same bar anymore;
My ex-girlfriend Sash, somewhere else, beautiful, vain, and clueless, wondering how the hell the formless, shapeless lump of nothing she used to date became the front-man for a fixture of the local entertainment scene;
My more recent ex-girlfriend Jasmine, also somewhere else but happy, and happy for me;
Taylor, the leader of The Pop Rocks, getting ready for a gig in Pocatello, Idaho, living the dream of half-empty bars, bad pay, bad food, sleeping in a van, too much time spent drinking beer, not enough time spent on personal hygiene, burning up, burning out, and loving every exhausting minute of it except the waiting, and it's nearly all waiting;
My parents, at their home in Rose Creek, probably not in the same room, probably not thinking about where their son is or what he's doing, secure in the knowledge that they at least tried to get him to come on home and forget all this band crap;
And me, Eric, at the front of the stage in Jake's, banging away at D, G, E and A, shouting lines into a microphone without concern about singing in key or in tune, unsure about the difference between being in key and in tune, looking out over this mad scene in front of me, wondering how I've come to be here, and completely clueless about where I would end up and what I would end up doing.
Why did it always seem like such a mystery? Every week we were up there in front of the crowd at Jake's. Sometimes, when Keith needed a fill-in for Thursday night we would play twice a week. It wasn't a lot, but we were getting regular money. We were getting to know the crowd. They were getting to know the songs. It wasn't a huge crowd, but Jake's was a small place so it always seemed packed, and the money was definitely coming through.
And there was a feeling that there was some kind of future. We had a gig for bigger money coming up at The Grill House soon, and Nick was working to find us paying gigs further out around the region. Expenses would be higher for us to take our show on the road, and we would need to invest in better gear.
According to people who spent more time trolling the 'net, we were apparently starting to raise eyebrows in broader circles, thanks in part to Emily's constant video work and the social media power of our regulars.
But whatever we might be achieving, we were still just a university band.
No one would commit to sticking with Riot Band beyond the next corner. Hell, Jed would be finished school soon, and he always made it sound like he was going to disappear the moment the degree was in his hand. Ryan might stick around, but he was both hot-headed and flighty. I didn't know how long this would be his thing. Sooner or later he might get itchy feet too, or we might have another falling out and he'd quit again. You never could tell.
Only Conrad, the mentally unstable and occasionally homeless member, seemed certain to stick with the band, and that was because we got him off the street. But Conrad also loved to play, and crazy or not, I didn't think he would voluntarily leave.
And then there was me, and I was far too addicted to the whole process to quit. I had a feeling Jed and Ryan were going to stick around. Hell, if things kept getting better and better, why would they leave? But even if we hit another sour patch and one or both of them left, I would find someone to replace them. Or if the whole thing fell apart, I would find or form another band. There was no way I'd be able to get this life out of my system.
On stage, all our problems and concerns went away and I was literally just trying to keep up with my own band: we were like a runaway train when we were performing to our potential, flying through songs, blasting away, struggling to control ourselves, always threatening to burst apart and fly off into some great destructive mess. The world outside the band and outside the stage didn't matter. All of life was about making it to the end of the song, the end of the set.
It was nothing more than drums, bass, guitar, keys and a bunch of microphones, but we were like those toy robots that could combine to become a giant crazy destructive robot that was super-powerful, but erratic and always in danger of coming apart and falling to pieces in defeat. The audience could feel the tension in the whole affair. It might have been messy but it worked, and it made for compelling viewing and listening. I hope it did, anyway.
The song crashed to an end, the crowd cheered, and I looked down at the sheet of paper taped to the floor next to my feet. We were halfway through our set list. It was a long list. We were careful to drop songs that didn't quite meet the quality standard, and we refused to get too loaded down with covers, but even so, the list kept growing. We kept jamming, and kept writing, and songs kept coming out of us.
Sweat was running down my face, and down my body under my clothes. I was glad that it was getting warm enough outside that I could step out after the set to cool down before coming back in for a few beers. My fingertips were sore, but they were tough enough to play all night. I was in good shape to keep going. There were a lot of songs left to be played, and I was glad. Even though it was basically the same show we played every week, I didn't want it to end too quickly. I was ready to play.
I nodded to Ryan, turned and nodded to Jed, and nodded over my shoulder to Conrad. We were all ready. Conrad tapped the snare four times, and we started another song.
Riot Band's story does not really end. It just keeps going and going, changing, morphing, and being repeated thousands and thousands of times over and over in shitty little towns and great big cities around the world.
Having said that, the series Riot Band Blues ends here. Although there's still plenty going on with the characters, I feel it's best at this time to bring things to a quiet close. There is always the danger of becoming complacent and trying to just "shift product" for the sake of it, and I don't want to sell the story's very loyal fans short by presenting uninspired material.
A few months ago I said the series would end with the hundredth chapter. That would have been nice, but I don't want to force out chapters that serve no purpose other than reaching an arbitrary number. The story can end here as well as anywhere, because it will always end in an entirely open manner: Eric and the boys can always keep playing, and if they break up they can always get back together. Their story doesn't need to end anywhere.
And maybe they could even make it all the way to the big time. It's possible. But that's a story that doesn't need to be told. Stories about humble beginnings are more interesting than stories about standing around on mountaintops. Or I think so, anyway.
I'll be taking a break from Ultimate-Guitar for the time being. I have no plans for another series, but then again I had no plans for Guitargasm! after Comeback Road, or plans for Riot Band after Guitargasm! So maybe I'll be back. It's completely open.
I will say that my own site, nolanwhyte.com, will be closed soon as it no longer serves any purpose. If people are interested in keeping track of what I'm doing outside of U-G, I recommend following me on twitter, @nolanwhyte, although most of my tweets just link to my hockey blog.
What else? Just thanks, I guess. Thanks to the readership of this and my previous stories. Thanks to U-G, Zapp, Andrew, Genie, and the others. Thanks to Mike and Dev who played in The Famists with me back at the University of Regina. They didn't directly inspire any of the characters in these stories, but I never would have written music fiction if it weren't for them. Thanks also to the wacko in Regina who inspired Conrad. Seriously, the guy was nuts.
Okay, there's nothing left for me to say, so I'll let one of my early role models have the final word...