Mark, Jason and I sit at a table in the crowded Inn-Towner and work out two set lists. We figure we should save our best songs for the second set, so the first set gets all of our covers, including 'Sweet Leaf,' 'Rockin' In The Free World,' 'Runaway,' and for the second time in a row, The Rolling Stones' 'Dead Flowers.' For originals we add Jason's song 'Better Off' and four of mine: 'Rough Go,' 'Old Boots,' 'Thrown Away,' and 'Knuckles.'
To add a little more meat to the list, I press the boys to accept a song we've never played before: Bob Dylan's 'All Along The Watchtower.' Sure, Jimi Hendrix made it famous with virtuosic guitar playing, but really it's a simple three chord song that I figured the guys could hash out in a single go. After all, every single night in America someone somewhere is standing on a stage at a shabby bar's open stage jam night playing 'Watchtower' for the first time and doing a damn fine job of it. Jason agreed when I told him I would play guitar and handle all the solos and complex stuff. He would just have to thump out the three-note bass line.
The second set will only be necessary if Machine Within A Machine doesn't actually show up for the gig. We have three old Tremors of Intent songs, plus our new one, 'Redemption,' where I again take the guitar from Jason. The list is short, so our only hope is that we get a good hour break in between the sets where we can figure out a few more covers to slip in.
Jeff, the fat, bearded manager of The Inn-Towner keeps giving us menacing looks from behind the bar. "Okay guys," I say. "Let's get up there."
It's nine-thirty, and to be fair, the bar is full, but I'm a little surprised by how intense and violent Jeff seems. You would think a band had never been late before. And shit, Machine Within A Machine isn't even my band.
The bar staff turns on the stage lights and we climb up on stage and switch everything on. I pull on Jason's guitar and he slips my bass over his shoulder. I can't explain why, but the bass sits unnaturally on him. He may as well have a trombone hanging on a guitar strap. I don't know. Some guys are just supposed to play guitar.
We touch the strings to check make sure the levels are still okay from the sound check. Mark, as is his habit, bangs sharply on the snare drum five times, them does a quick improvised fill, making sure to hit ever drum and cymbal in his kit, which is made up of crap from the old Sears kit of his roommate's and quality older pieces donated/borrowed from Bobby Metronome.
People are looking up at us on the stage. Unlike the night before in Sault Ste. Marie where nobody seemed to care that we were on the stage, we seem to have a lot of eyes on us. I think for a moment about how to open. Usually it's "Good evening, something, something." I decide that's not the approach I want to take tonight.
"THUUUUUUNDER BAAAAAAAAAY!" I howl into the microphone. "THUUUUUNDER BAAAAAY!" I slash at the strings, sending a jarring strip of guitar screech through the room. I repeat it, let it reverberate this time, and repeat it again and again until I fall into the rhythm of 'All Along The Watchtower.' A savage 'A' chord. Another. And another. A savage 'G.' A savage 'F.' Another 'G.' Look on my guitar, ye Mighty, and despair.
Mark picks it up and starts banging the four/four beat, and Jason figures out where I want him. We pick it up, increasing the tempo, until I turn to the microphone and power out those prophetic words: "'There must be some way out of here,' said the joker to the thief"
We slay our way through it, getting shocking power out of three simple instruments. I don't care man, you can have a band with three guitars, two drummers, a horn section, two guys on keyboards and a choir backing up the singer, but sometimes in a pub by the Trans-Canada highway, there is absolutely nothing that can match a trio just beginning to find it's true power and abilities.
When it's over Jason and I swap instruments. "That was fucking cool," he says. The pub is full of noise. There are cheers and whistles.
"That was nothing," I tell him. "After tonight, they're going to name a local holiday in our honor."
"All right, you bastards," I tell the crowd. "Taste my fucking knuckles! One-Two-Three-Four!"
I can hear Mark laughing behind me as we explode into 'Knuckles,' It feels really good to just slash through a fast, hard song, and even though it's often hard to get a pub crowd interested in an original (everyone just wants to hear 'Free Bird') I always get the feeling that with a simple, catchy chorus like 'Knuckles' has, by the time the song is over everyone will be singing along. Maybe I'm just crazy. I get romantic about good songs that way.
We hit them again and again, song after song. There is no let-up. People get up and dance to the slower songs, and they just stand and bounce during the faster ones. Even Jason and Mark look sweaty and frantic trying to keep up with the pace I'm setting. Where am I getting this energy? I ask myself. This is it: a packed bar loving the music I'm making. This is it. This is the absolute best.
We finish the opening set with 'Rockin' In The Free World,' and we get a huge round of applause. Jason and Mark get off, and I pause at the mike. "We'll be back in a while," I say, "unless the other band shows up and steals our spot." Just like I'd hoped, there are boos. That's it. They want us back.
Jeff is standing at the bar. He's not smiling, but he doesn't look all pissed off like earlier. "Was that all right?" I say.
"Okay," he says. "You've got the second set. Be back on stage in half an hour."
I turn and tell Mark and Jason. "Well down, boys," I say. "We've got half and hour to work out the second set."
Jason nods. "Maybe we should go up to the room," he says. "No distractions."
"We're no going to have a drink?" asks Mark.
"There's beer upstairs," I say. "Yeah. We should take a quick breather and work it out."
We head for the exit. As Mark and Jason slip out the door a hand clamps onto my arm. I look and see a buxom blonde with big hair standing in leather pants and a denim jacket. "Hey there," she says. I figure she's forty, and has probably been to bed with at least two hundred men. I bet she blew the minds of every single one of them. "Where are you off to in such a hurry?" she asks with a big smile.
I think for a moment about Sheila, my wife. Yes, Sheila is a stripper, but she's a stripper with class. This chick has 'tramp' written all over her, but she's hot enough to make me stumble on my own tongue. "I'm um, going uh, to our um"
"Come outside and have a cigarette with me," she says.
"Yeah, okay," I say. We slip out the door into the hotel. Jason and Mark are standing there waiting for me, ready to head upstairs.
"Terry, what are you doing?" asks Jason, who is standing with his hands on his hips.
"I'm just going to grab a cigarette," I say. "I'll be up in a minute."
Jason looks at the woman. He sighs like a mother disappointed in her child, and turns to go up the stairs. Mark gives me a ridiculous grin, and then follows the Guitar-Star.
The blonde and I head the other way and step outside into the parking lot. There are a few others out there smoking. She and I step away from the group a little.
"What's your name?" she asks, pulling two cigarettes out of her pack. She hands me one and gives me her lighter.
"Terry," I say, and light up. I light her cigarette for her and pass the lighter back to her.
"I'm Tammy," she says.
Yeah, I think. That sounds about right. She looks like a Tammy. "I probably shouldn't be smoking this," I tell her. "This is the first one I've had in a few weeks."
"Oh, I'm sorry," she says. "I shouldn't have given it to you."
"That's all right. I was in the mood for it."
"You guys were great," she says. "You looked really hot up there."
"It felt good," I say. The cigarette burns my throat a bit, which is already raw from singing and screaming. Smoking is probably the last thing I should be doing if I have to sing again in half and hour, but the buzz is pleasant. It's funny how people don't mind long term decay in exchange for a few seconds of a pleasant buzz.
She stands with her jacket open. She has on a pale blue tank top with a plunging front that gives a generous view of her cleavage. There's a tattoo of a rose visible at the top of her right breast. It's about four inches long. Ten years ago it was probably only two inches.
"It's cold out here," I say. "You're getting a little nippley."
She looks down and sees that her nipples are indeed poking out through the cotton tank top. She pulls her jacket closed and gives me a reproachful smile. "Bad boy," she says. "You shouldn't be looking there."
Yeah, right, I think to myself. Then why am I standing here? I look up at the stars. Do I actually want something from this woman? Some physical contact? A make-out session and a chance to play with her big breasts? Or should I just flick away the cigarette and head upstairs and get ready for the next set? I take a drag. "Listen, I"
She takes my free hand and guides it inside her jacket. She presses it against her breast. I can feel its softness and weight. Somewhere inside the breast I can feel hardness. I know that hardness. It is a breast implant. Again, with nostalgia and a heavy heart, I think of Sheila.
"I need to head inside," I tell her. "We need to get ready for our second set."
She smiles. "But I'll see you later?"
I'm not generally paying attention to what's happening around me, but I notice squealing tires and a van aggressively driving through the lot. It screeches to a stop not far from where Tammy and I are standing. I forcefully pull my hand from the inside of her jacket.
Matt, Wayne, Dave and Gina of Machine Within A Machine pile out of the van.
"Terry!" shouts Matt. "Jesus Christ, are we too late?"
2006 Nolan Whyte