The Tenuous Rise And Inevitable Fall Of Wailing Thunder

A (more or less) true story about the first gig I ever played: My highschool prom, and the horrible, horrible disaster it turned into.

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In order to understand just how this ridiculousness transpired, I need to preface this story with a couple of very important details. Firstly, growing up I lived in a place affectionately referred to as the middle of goddamn nowhere.' Its a little hole in the ground on the wrong end of Wisconsin (Is there a right end of Wisconsin?) with a population of 900 and a population that mattered of 0. Our claim to fame was that we were one of many small town clichs that had popped up around, among other things, the mill', the plant', the old factory' and etcetera. In particular, ours was the mine'. The easiest way to wrap your head around where I live goes like this: If Matt Damon were to try for another Oscar nod, his character would live down the street from me. He'd have Daddy issues, or get raped, or something, and keep talking about how someday he was going to make it out of this place and show them all. We were so cookie-cutter to that neighbourhood in Good Will Hunting that it was practically on our tourism pamphlets "Visit scenic Goddamn Nowhere! If Matt Damon were pretending to be poor, he might live here!" I'm just kidding; we didn't have tourism pamphlets.

The second thing you need to know in order for this story to make sense is that at the time it happened I was the bass player in a band. Looking back, we were objectively terrible, but that's not that important. The reason the I'm in a band' part is relevant is because one Thursday morning my then-guitarist took his dad's car and drove to Milwaukee to check out the atmosphere at the local Battle of the Bands in the hope that we might play next year. Coincidentally, he happened to be in the background inspecting some curtains when a reporter snapped a photo of the winners that got put on page 23 of the Milwaukee Tribune. He wasn't even facing the camera. Understand? That is all that happened.

I walked in the door from school on Friday afternoon to see my mother bouncing excitedly from one foot to the other all whilst doing her best to look as though she didn't know something that had her giddy like the ugly girl who got asked to prom.

We said our quick hellos and I made my way to the fridge for some orange juice when all this nonsense started.

"So, I heard you were on the news."

I paused, the carton of OJ hanging inches from my dry lips (I had decided not to get a glass. Yes, I'm a rebel). This was the first I'd heard of any news story.

"...what?"

My mom beamed, "Donna you know Donna, from down the way? Christian's mom she said that she saw Wailing Thunder in the Milwaukee Tribune."

Wailing Thunder was my band; we played heavy metal. Yes, that's right; I was unironically and unapologetically in a heavy metal band named Wailing Thunder. I'll give that a minute to sink in.

Ready? Good.

"Mom, I've never been to Milwaukee, you know that."

Mom shook her head. It seemed that physical impossibility was a mere inconvenience when placed next to maternal pride, "Well, where were you last night?"

"Here. We ate dinner together."

"Oh, right." She scrunched her face up as she tried to reconcile this in her mind. Finally, she returned to her grinning, "Well, why would Donna lie about something like that to so many people? Sounds like she's told the whole town already."

I blinked, but said nothing. Far as I could tell, that was going to be the end of it a cute story I could share with the band on Monday morning before we all snapped back to reality.

The rest of the weekend passed without incident.

Come Monday I was about two seconds away from snapping back to reality' as I'd intended when shit started to hit the fan. Entering the main foyer of my high school, I was treated in such a way that it could've only been one of two things either my status had been elevated to Godlike reverence, or I smelled awful. Crowds parted when I entered, gazing at me with a look I'd never seen before.

Finding my bandmates was easy, I just had to walk through the path that had been left in their wake like freakin' Moses. They were in the cafeteria at the center table, alone, surrounded by a semicircle of empty space, and a further semicircle of literally everyone. They were all whispering and doing their best not to stare at the two burnt out punks nursing juice boxes. As I approached, the whole crowd briefly fell silent. I sat down next to my mates.

"So..." I began, glancing to the teeming mass of flesh.

"We were on the 10 o'clock news in Milwaukee." My drummer explained, looking as though he might explode from excitement. He spoke in hushed whispers, like if he talked too loudly the dream would crack and we'd go back to being nothing but blips on the radar.

I leaned in close, arching an eyebrow at him, "My mom told me we were in the paper, Mike." Now I was whispering too, though I couldn't tell you why.

"No, man. They told me that they were doing one of those human interest things on the Battle of the Bands, and I guess our name came up when they started talking about potentials for next year."

Even I must've been swelled up with all this attention, as it hadn't occurred to me that nobody in Goddamn Nowhere had heard of Wailing Thunder before Thursday evening, let alone in Milwaukee. Mike seemed so confident in his explanation though that he almost made sense. I nodded like I was onboard with his reasoning.

Christian our guitarist he just sat silent and smiled at the attention.

What a dick.

What a group we must've made. Three guys wearing t-shirts depicting bands better than ours, with uniform jet hair past our shoulders. Christian had his nails painted black, because hey, if you're going to be picked on in high school anyway, you might as well go for goth' and faggot' all at once and get them over with.

Finally, with some very insistent part of my brain still calling bullshit' on the whole situation, I asked the big, burning question, "So, what do we do?"

Did we run with this, or did we come clean before it ballooned very, very out of control? Mike and Christian sat there grinning like idiots, and though neither of them answered me, I knew how this was going to go down.

What was the title of that one After School Special where the kid told an enormous, life changing lie, and in the end everything worked out okay? He got the girl, and won the lottery, and his terrible band got famous based on what was really just a misunderstanding that had gotten out of hand. And he got a puppy. I always forget the name of that one.

The bell rang to go to class, and the throng of kids melted around us to make their way to their studies. I took one last quick look at my friends, who both seemed content with just letting this thing run its course, before exiting the cafeteria with the steady stream of people, now more engrossed in their own shit and thus forgetting to separate for their idol.

Either that or it was because I was the bass player; we never get any love.

I figured that by lunchtime this whole stupid thing would've died down, but of course, it hadn't (What else were people going to talk about?). For the first time in my life I was starting to get the recognition that I could only assume popular high school kids were getting (Years later I found out that through one medium or another we all basically experience the same level of ridicule, but hey, for the next couple thousand words of the story I get to be cool, cut me some slack).

It was about fifteen minutes into lunch that everything started to come apart at the seams.

I was sitting off in a corner with Mike and Christian, blessedly able to avoid the kind of attention we'd gotten in the morning, when slowly but surely the gazes of my bandmates went from me, to behind me.

"Hey, Dave."

I knew that voice. Oh man, did I know that voice. Quickly I whipped around on the bench seating only to discover myself at eye-level with the most majestic pair of breasts I'd ever seen. I knew them well.

My eyes darted upwards to meet the sapphire blues of young Katie Samuelson. She had flowing brunette locks and a pair of lips so plump that the bottom half of her face was fully fifty percent cherry red lipstick. Katie had the rare distinction round these here parts (Heh) of being not just small-town pretty, but legitimately pretty. That is to say, she had all of her teeth and owned no more than two plaid flannel shirts. She wore one of them today; I was still turned on.

"Uh, hey, Katie." I murmured as quietly as I could. She'd never talked to me before.

That's not to say that I hadn't tried to initiate contact with her. In the two years that I'd been in high school so far we'd had five classes together, all of which I had sat in the chair immediately behind her. I spent a good portion of each of those classes trying to win over the back of her head with my sex-ray vision. It had never worked, largely due to the fact that she was the popular girl which meant that if she got within three feet of me in a social setting, some twisted pagan girl-law dictated that she be ostracized by her peers.

"So, I heard you guys were on the news. You were in that big Battle of the Bands in Milwaukee weren't you?" She glanced briefly to my friends, looking for some kind of confirmation.

Mike moved to correct her; I moved to correct Mike, "Yeah that was us." I told her, nodding vigorously, "We uh, we came in third. We would've won, but you know how judges can be. Politics and whatever."

"Okay, so," She began, biting the edge of her lip in that way that every girl secretly knows how to do in order to get what they want, "You know I'm on the winter formal planning committee, yeah?"

We had a winter formal planning committee?

"Of course."

"Okay, great! So the formal is this Friday, and the band that was supposed to play totally bailed on us on Saturday night. They said they didn't want to drive for four hours to play in a gymnasium in the middle of nowhere."

That sounded perfectly reasonable to me. I stayed silent.

"Anyway, now that I know you guys have a band, I was kind of hoping that you might be able to fill in and play it for us. You'd be doing me the biggest favour ever."

"We don't really play prom music." Christian informed her.

Truth is he was right. We barely played music at all, let alone prom music. We knew two songs that we furiously practiced over and over again. To our credit, we were really good at those two songs, but that filled eleven minutes of what promised to be a several hour dance.

Unfortunately for Christian, Mike, and Wailing Thunder's reputation, my sixteen year old brain had shut off the moment I came within a foot of Katie Samuelson's gravity defying chest. I didn't know how, and I wasn't sure why, but I knew one thing for certain: If we played this dance for Katie, I was getting so laid.

"What are you talking about, man?" I turned my head to Christian, giving him the universally-recognized just go with it' slow head nod, "We were just talking about volunteering to play the winter formal anyway, remember?" "Oh right," Replied Christian after a moment of silence, his tone drier than the cafeteria chicken breast he was shovelling down his gullet, "How silly of me to forget all those slow, prom-appropriate songs that we know. I worked so hard to learn them."

What a dick.

"Ohmigosh, thank you! I love you guys so much," Katie gushed, somehow oblivious to the world at large, "So, you just need to be at the school gymnasium for six or so. The dance starts at nine, which will give us plenty of time to set up your gear and make sure all that sound stuff is sorted out. I'll be getting ready, so I won't be there, but you guys are experienced so I think you'll be able to manage on your own. See you then!" She turned on her heel and bounced off.

Other, far more important information should have been on my mind at that moment, but as the three of us sat in collective silence, the only thing on my mind was how a girl could possibly spend three hours before an event on nothing but getting ready.

The rest of the week was spent busting our asses trying to learn prom songs. I insisted that we devote as much time as possible to learning "Earth Angel" from Back to the Future, but Mike had never seen that movie and Christian doubted that anybody would get the reference. By Friday night we had managed to learn four songs which, since we were without a singer anyway, we planned to simply repeat over and over in the hopes that nobody would be paying enough attention to call us out on it.

Hauling all of our gear to the show proved to be somewhat difficult, as, at the eleventh hour, we realized that none of us had a truck with which we could easily move Mike's drum set. At 5:30 we began the long trek from his house to the school gymnasium hauling bits of drumset, which all in total is about forty-five minutes each way, and we had to make a handful of trips. By the time we were ready for the sound check, having haphazardly assembled the drum kit in the corner, it was closing in on eight thirty. With kids already waiting at the other side of the gymnasium doors, we had no time for sound adjustments and just had to hope that the settings we used at home for our amplifiers would be good enough.

Standing there, the three of us in rented suits (It seemed appropriate), we waited for the doors to open to admit the end of the world. As if the universe wanted to rub it in, at 8:59 from the other side of the door I heard a lock click and the school's vice-principal yell, "Ladies and gentlemen, the winners of the Milwaukee Battle of the Bands, our very own Wailing Thunder!"

An uproarious cheer burst into the echoey gymnasium along with a steady stream of snappily dressed teens. Mike swallowed hard, glanced at us, and clicked his drum sticks together for the count-in.

Five seconds into our first song (one of many little known Marvin Gaye tunes) we realized that we were obnoxiously loud. It wasn't that we played too loud at home (we did, but that wasn't it) it was that, as I said before, the gym was echoey. All at once there was this cacophony that the crowd tried their damndest to dance to and failed. As the song wore on we discreetly fiddled with the knobs and after a little while the music came down to a respectable level.

This continued for the first hour or so. We kept playing the same slow chords over and over and nobody seemed to notice that the song never changed. The sober kids were too engrossed in their dates to give a damn, and the drunken kids (Spiked punch is the only thing that makes a dance worth going to) were too blurry-eyed to notice. For a very brief moment we allowed ourselves to hope against hope that this might actually work itself out. This of course was when Mike's drums began to wobble.

It was subtle at first, the tom-tom vibrating just a little too long when he struck it or the hi-hat being a little too loose-sounding as we neared the end of hour one of our show. It was around hour two that things went to hell. Mike struck a tom which came loose and swung awkwardly downwards, clacking against the bass drum below it. Like the straw that broke the camel's back, all of a sudden the whole damn thing came apart. Mid-song, with a sudden crash of cymbal on varnished wood, every single drum popped off all at once and tumbled to the floor. Shocked by the noise, Christian whirled around to see what the ruckus was about, the neck of his guitar hitting me square on the nose. I stumbled backwards, catapulting head over heels over my own amplifier, which let out an ear-piercing wail as amps tend to do when you upset them.

The silence that followed was more deafening than the deafening noise that had preceded it. Everyone had stopped dancing and turned to stare at us, mouths agape. Worst of all, Katie looked to me as though she might be about to burst into tears. We had just ruined her winter formal after all. I, beet red, managed to haul my ass off the floor, glancing first to my band, then to the crowd, and finally down to the ripped suit I was wearing and, presumably, now owned. What were you supposed to say after such a catastrophe?

Desperate to pull together something resembling dignity, I glanced apologetically to my friends and raised my fist in the air, index finger and pinkie extended in the heavy metal salute. I held that pose, turned to the crowd, and shrieked at the top of my lungs,

"Thank you Wisconsin! We are Wailing Thunder! Goodnight!"

6 comments sorted by best / new / date

    steveman_guitar
    Fairly well written, but I kinda felt like I had heard it all before. Seemed just a tad familar for me.
    zzzaaaccc
    If you would have said, "I love Wisconsin!" (That 70s Show reference) instead, that would have been purely epic.
    DifferentWorld
    Just real quick - I wrote this for a university Creative Writing class, and the assignment had a page limit. So yes, the ending is a bit rushed, and I apologize.
    albooga
    Funny story. I appreciate your acknowledgement that the story got rushed. However, you probably could have extended the second half of your story since this blog does not have a page limit (I presume). Still a good read though. Thanks for sharing.