It seemed so strange to me, as Jed, Ryan and I pushed our way through the packed room to get to the little stage. The bar was full because of us, but we were no one special, and a good part of the crowd had no idea who we were. They came because word spread fast that a band was going to tear it up in a shitty little bar. Hell, half the people there probably just showed up to be ironic. A gig at Jake's Restaurant? You're kidding me! Hell yeah, this should be a laugh!
They were there to see a band, but they didn't know us, and we actually had to yell at people to clear off the stage so we could get up there. There was a feeling in the air: some crackle of tension waiting to be broken, some undercurrent of angry, pent-up frustration waiting to burst forth from the over-stressed student mob.
Keith turned off the house music and flicked a switch, cutting the lights in the place almost down to nothing. Jake's Restaurant was obviously not a place that was rigged to be a venue, but the lighting was so low it was almost dangerous, to the point where we had to feel our way up on stage.
We shouted people out of the way, and Ryan switched on the upturned desk lamp that was the low-budget source of lighting on his side of the stage. The forty-watt bulb cast enough light for me to switch on the lamp on my side of the stage, and for the three of us to find our place and get our instruments.
I took a moment to plug in, and also to set up the vocal effects box I had rented for the show. It was all pre-set: I had three settings ready, which I could shuffle between with a tap of my toe: clean, one with chorus and heavy reverb, and one that was extra-heavy on the distortion, chorus and reverb, which I called ape-shit.' I liked that one, but I recognized it was something that was best saved for dramatic effect at key moments.
The tense vibe got worse when the lights went down. There was muttering from the crowd because of the darkness, and the bad feelings went up my spine as I dicked around, trying to make sure my gear was sorted out. I was in bad headspace, man. Never mind all that shit with Jasmine on the way to the show. I was up there with no warm up, cold hands, weak knees and a chill in my gut. And worse, the shot of Crown Royal had made me feel drunk all over again, but hadn't loosened me up one bit.
Jed started pounding the drums: bip-bip-bip, bap-bap-bap, in some little drum check. Ryan and I looked and each other and touched strings to get in tune. The atmosphere was heavy and weird, made all the worse by the eerie, from-below lighting.
Apparently the tuning went on too long for the roughneck jocks in the crowd, because the cat-calls came fast. We got some Whoooos from random girls, but there were also some Faggots! and Fuckers! from random dudes.
I got shitty nervous, and I looked back at Jed. He seemed fine. Go? I said. Heroin?
He nodded and started tapping the rhythm, and I laid out a single, doom-laden G. We slowly wandered into the grinding buildup, tapping along, a guitar riff here, a bass note there. Maybe it was the wrong way to start, but if there was anything that could have increased the anxiety I was feeling, that was it: a really slow, dramatic buildup. Fuck it, I thought. At least we're playing.
Maybe some dinks in the audience thought this was what we were here to play: slow pseudo-rock in the dark. The room lacked patience, and guys started screaming again: Pussies! Fuck you, fairies!
I felt something rise up inside me, like in Tae Kwon Do class when I had to spar against a big-mouth, or in a hockey game when I had to drop the gloves against the other team's guided missile. I bit my bottom lip and thumped out eight solid Ds, then eight Gs, letting the last one ring. Ryan and Jed backed off a bit, waiting for me to count in or something, but instead I tapped my toe, switching my microphone to ape-shit, and screamed: Whhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrr!
Jed knew what to do, and he started banging slow and super-heavy on the toms. I banged a low E and screamed again, this time into the clean channel: You want us to destroy you now? (switch to chorus/reverb) Fuck you!...you!...you!...you!...
We were randomly just bashing loud shit now. Ryan had gotten into the spirit and was pumping open strings to the rhythm Jed was playing, holding his fret hand up to flip off the crowd.
I kept screaming: You wanna see some pussy? You're all going to die!...die!...die!...
It didn't make sense, but it was dramatic. I kicked it back to ape-shit and screamed: One! Two! Three! Four! and Riot Band exploded into the song.
For me, Heroin' is all about going back and forth between D and G and keeping time, but this time my challenge was keeping up. We went into it with insane energy, playing as close to speed metal hardcore as an under-talented guitarist, shitty bassist and good drummer could. We bashed back and forth between the chords, and I started screaming into the reverb-heavy mike, sending waves of noise out at the shocked audience.
Ryan started singing, although he was so caught up in the sheer aggression of the moment, he was practically screaming: I DON'T KNOW JUST WHERE I'M GOING BUT I'M GONNA TRY FOR THE KINGDOM IF I CAN CUZ IT MAKES ME FEEL LIKE I'M A MAN...
Heroin' always takes a long time to play, whether we do it fast or slow, and I know we pushed the ten minute mark, even though we flew through the lyrics in no time. It was simply mad, but it was energy like we couldn't believe, and when the last note died there was a pause, a breath, and then the audience went nuts.
Ryan shouted the name of another song, one of his old ones, and we went straight back into the mayhem. The sound was loose and chaotic, fed by the last-minute anxiety, the lack of preparation and the remorseless angst of the darkened room. We had a pots and pans kind of sound, banging and slashing away, but it worked for the moment. The chaos matched the mood of the crowd.
We played Ryan's two newer songs next, and they took us farther away from the tight sound we wanted: the songs were barely finished, and we missed changes and forgot parts. It didn't matter to the crowd. They didn't know the songs anyway. Hell, we barely knew them ourselves. The important thing was that we kept going, and didn't lose the rhythm. We just kept banging away, and when Ryan missed or forgot lyrics, I helped him out by shouting things into the chorus/reverb, preventing the sound from getting thin.
At song's end I took a breath and looked out into the darkness. By the light coming in through the windows at the front end of the room I thought I could see Jasmine, but I couldn't be sure. I didn't want to think about her right then anyway.
Could we get some beers up here? I asked through the clean channel. I could see Keith hustling at the bar, trying to keep up. He had a second bartender working that night and they were both busy, but Keith looked my way and nodded.
I looked at Ryan. How you doing?
He looked red-faced and sweaty, his curly blond hair hanging in his face, but he had it together. Let's keep going, he said.
No Fun'? I asked.
I switched back to the distortion-heavy channel on the mike and shouted out the title of the song, and laughed at the crackling reverb: No Fun!...fun...fun...fun...fun...
Jed started banging the drums, and we gave a good long wait, maybe a dozen measures before adding the guitars. Ryan and I watched each other, nodding our heads along to the beat until we mouthed a mutual one-two-three-four, and we ripped in together.
No fun! I sang into the mike, and it went out in an industrial shout. No fun, my babe, no fun...fun...fun...
We played through, and it was dark and nihilistic, but joyfully so. I remembered what Johnny Rotten said about playing the song at The Sex Pistols' final show: It just felt like it wasn't going anywhere. It didn't feel that way to me. It felt like the beginning of something, something simultaneously destructive and creative, ripping through the fabric of the tired and the old and allowing a peak at the fierce and new. It was a Nietzschean moment if ever I experienced one.
And yes, I'm aware the song is forty years old. The irony is not lost on me.
The song played brilliantly. We were ferocious for a while, then quieted down, and I whispered in a distorted-electronic voice: No fun, being alone, no fun, by myself, no fun, before exploding back into a full crash and clatter of our full power.
The song ended with a tremendous throat-tearing, cymbal smashing, finger-cutting flourish, and I thought, My God, we are the greatest band that ever walked the Earth. We let go of it at last and the song ended, and the crowd cheered. Someone passed beers up to us, and we drank and soothed our throats and refreshed ourselves.
We played through Relief,' and No Destination,' and In The Dark.' It was great, but I was starting to lose steam. My arms were dead and my fingers were aching. The massive adrenaline rush that passed through me as we opened the show was giving way to exhaustion. I was close to collapse.
When In The Dark' came to an end, I looked around at Ryan and Jed. What's left? I asked.
Your song, dumb ass, Jed said. Revolution Baby'.
Shit. How did I forget that one?
I stepped back to the mike. I looked down at the bass guitar. The fingers on my left hand moved around, touching the strings in random places. My fingertips were raw, and my forearms ached. There wasn't much strength left. My right hand hung, posed over the strings, as though I was ready to start playing. Except I had no idea how the song started. Hell, I had no idea what the song sounded like at all.
Words? I couldn't remember any words. I couldn't remember the song at all.
I looked over at Ryan. Ready? I said.
He looked back at me. Quit fucking around, he said. Let's finish up.
I nodded. I had no idea what the song even sounded like. I knew it was something about politics, something about...revolution...baby. Shit. I was in a bad spot.
Two toe-taps brought the mike channel back to ape-shit, and I breathed a deep, slow breath into the mike. It came out like this: Shhhhhhhhhh-eyaaaaaahhhhhh...yah...yah...yah...
Forces are gathering against you, I said softly, letting the electronics make me sound like a robotic demon. There were random catcalls and cheers from the crowd. You are under their control. Sinister forces. The first, a sinister beast that calls from deep beneath the ground. He is the...what is he? The element of Earth, the bedrock, Jed muthafuckin' Carter, the monster of drums. Play the drums, monster, and show us what this final song will sound like.
Jed grinned and started playing the beat.
There is a demon that burns, I said in the distorted voice. His crotch burns with the fire of a thousand STDs, and his guitar burns with all the evil and malice of humankind. He is Ryan Endstrom, the element of fire, demon of guitar. Play for us, demon!
The crowd cheered, and Ryan started playing the riff to Revolution Baby.' I slowly began to remember what I needed to play, although the lyrics were still lost to me. It didn't matter.
I am Eric, the element of water, I shouted. My bass notes crash like the waves that wipe out your villages. I am destruction come to piss on your flower beds, evil come to fuck your pets! I am the revolution, baby! And I am the last song you will ever hear! We are RIOT BAND! And we will kill you all!
I started to play along with Jed and Ryan, and eventually I found the notes I needed to play. We jammed on the riff for a while and then counted in and started the song properly. Through the whole thing I never sang a word. I couldn't remember a bit of it, so I screamed at them instead, shouting crazy, psycho-sounding nonsense into the distortion, letting them wonder what it was all about. It was enough. By the time we finished, they were begging for more. They loved us, they wanted to fuck us, they wanted to buy us drinks, whatever. It was stupid, glorious, rock'n'roll bullshit. It was undoubtedly the greatest fuck-up of my life.
And then it was over.
2009, Nolan Whyte