Mark orders a couple of pints, paying for mine since I blew all my cash in the strip club. I'm still amped up, riding a wave of anger and frustration. I rant to him about how I have all the responsibility of dealing with this disorganized group of kids when all they want to do is knife me in the back.
"Yeah, but look," Mark says. "You're older and you've been doing this a lot longer. So of course we're going to look to you for like, guidance and leadership, aye? But the thing is, we're basically a bunch of young rockers. Punks. And what do punks hate more than anything else?"
"Authority," I nod and take a big quaff of beer. "Right. Fuck, I wish everybody could see that we're all on the same team here. Where's the fucking trust?"
"Look, it'll be cool once we're on stage, right mate? If we can just get on stage we'll be fine."
We drink our beers and he buys a second round. We drink those. I feel pretty loaded. The time has come for Machine Within A Machine to get on stage, so we head back to the dressing room. Mark goes in first and I follow him. No one says anything. Everyone avoids eye contact.
"All right?" I say. "We go and put on a show?"
"Right," Matt says. He gets up and leads the way out. Gina follows, and I pause before going. I want to say something to Jason, but he sits with his arms folded tightly across his chest, staring at the wall. I think better of it and follow Gina and Matt.
It's a nice big stage, with spots for Gina and I set up at opposite corners. All of the gear is on stage, including both drum kits. Matt's is ready, while Mark's little kit has a sheet thrown over it. My bass rig is there. I sling it on, jack the cable in and switch on the amp. I test a string and get nothing. No sound. I check all the levels and try again: nothing.
"Bad cord?" I wonder. I can hear the hum from the amp. I pull out the guitar cord and tap the sensitive tip with my finger, listening to the "thup, thup" sound through the amp. So the cord is okay. Where's the sound?
"Gina," I call. "My bass is dead." I plug it back in and test it again. Nothing. I feel a panicked rush in my stomach.
"What?" She comes across the stage to my amp. "What are you talking about?"
"I don't know. I'm getting nothing here."
"Did you check the volume?"
I give her a sharp look. "Of course I checked the volume. The amp is okay. The cord is okay. It's the bass." I twist the end of the cord around in the jack and hear the electricity connecting, but there's no steady sound. "Fuck." I look up at her. "It's the jack. I'll have to take it in somewhere."
"Can you pull it apart and fix it?"
"Um, I could, but it would take most of the night. And I wouldn't want to do it here."
"Well, do you carry a spare bass?"
I shake my head.
"Goddamnit!" she shouts, stamping her booted foot on the stage floor. "What the hell am I supposed to do now?"
Matt comes over and asks what's going on.
"King Shit's bass doesn't work."
"Hey, it was fine last night," I say. "I don't know what happened to it. Look, I can grab the acoustic, or I can see if Jason will let me use his fakey-Fender."
Matt shrugs. "Okay. We go with two guitars and no bass. Should sound okay. Gina?"
She shakes her head in rage. "Just do whatever, Terry."
I hop off the stage and go back to the dressing room. "My bass is fucked," I say to Jason. "Will you let me use your guitar?"
He gets up. "What's wrong with your bass?"
"I don't know. The jack is fucked. I'll have to get it fixed later. Can I use your guitar for Machine's show or what?"
"Fuck Machine's show!" he screams. "What about our fucking show?"
"We'll work it out. Look, can I use your guitar or not?"
"Yeah, yeah, go ahead."
I go back out and get on the stage. Jason's guitar is there, so I hook it up and Gina and I get in tune. She gives me death glares the whole time. A crowd forms up around the stage and we finally get started, Matt counting us in and Gina hitting the power chords. I follow, playing rhythm behind her. Her guitar supplies the power, the melody, while mine fills out the sound. It works. It makes me think this band should have had a rhythm guitarist all along.
We're loose, all over the place at parts, but we get through the set without falling apart. I don't think the audience quite gets it though, and people come and go from the stage area. Applause is sparse after a few songs trail off instead of closing sharply, but considering how improvised it is, the set goes well.
We don't talk much after getting off stage. I go out to the van to get the acoustic for The Clutch Dogs set. Everyone avoids everyone else. Gina and Matt disappear into the crowd. Jason is nowhere to be found and I can't even see Mark anywhere. I figure it's best to leave them alone. I just hang around up at the stage and rig up the stage microphone for the acoustic so I have something to play for our set. I plug it into the bass amp and give it a try It sounds all right.
I talk with the sound guy until the time rolls around for The Clutch Dogs to get on stage. By that time there's still no sign of Jason or Mark or Gina or Matt. It's a big bar and I don't bother to go looking for them. They all have wrist watches. They know what time they need to be on stage. "Okay, turn it on," I say to the sound tech, and I head up on stage alone.
The tech turns the house music off and I get up there, pulling the acoustic on. I step up to the microphone, the stage lights on me. I give a few scratches across the strings and look out at the forming crowd. Where's my band? I wonder, but I don't ask for them by name. Instead I start to play.
So what do you play when you're feeling alone? What do you play when you feel like the people around you don't understand you anymore, like you've all become disconnected? You play David Bowie. You play 'Ground Control to Major Tom.'
I start strumming it, singing it with my angry rasp of a voice instead of Bowie's sweet tenor. I strum hard, laying down a more angst-ridden version of the song than anyone's heard before. I sing, I rasp angrily and desperately, hoping the members of my band hear this distress call. The audience takes notice. They stand staring, waiting. They all seem to know that this is not the way the show is supposed to start. They know something is wrong.
I get through the song and no one shows up. No Mark, no Jason. No Gina or Matt. What the hell, are they sitting in the van getting high? Or are they sitting in the dressing room saying, 'this will teach the bastard a good lesson.' Or maybe they've just said 'Fuck him, that's it, it's over.'
I get some 'Whooo-hoos,' and some applause when I finish the song. I drop my voice as low as it will go, and in a rasp I ask the audience, "So, what do you want to hear?"
"You've got to be fucking kidding me," I say and laugh into the microphone. Shit, I guess that this is what it's come to: standing alone on a stage in Calgary, playing Skynard on an acoustic guitar for a room full of rich cowboys. It's not how I expected my music career to end. So how the hell does 'Freebird' go anyway? I know it starts in Gee.
I start fumbling around, working it out, skipping back and forth between Gee, Dee and Eff to work the fucker out. I find it, find the rhythm, and start strumming it out. Mark comes through the crowd. He climbs up the front of the stage, passes me and pulls the sheet off his kit with dramatic flair. The crowd gets a kick out of it and there's a cheer and some whistles. I look over my shoulder and watch as he starts adjusting the height of the high hat.
"If I leave here tomorrow," I start singing, and I see Jason coming up to the front of the stage. He climbs up, pulls his shirt off over his head and slings on his guitar, switching his amp on. He watches me strum and listens, picking it up. I watch him and he watches me. He's leaning forward like a sprinter ready to go. When I come back around to the beginning of the line, he hammers the strings once, sending a charge of distorted guitar power through the crowd, adding one thing to the song: BALLS.
Mark sorts his kit out and starts bashing a slow, heavy beat. It's the most fucked up, passive-aggressive version of 'Freebird' that anyone has ever heard. It would drive a Skynard purist up the wall and I fucking love it. The acoustic guitar and spare vocals backed by occasional power chords and this intense, cymbal-heavy crashing is retarded. It's fucked up, and I love the spectacle of it all.
We bring the song home and I look at Jason. He looks fierce and angry, and I smile at him. Goddamnit, Mark was right. I can't stay angry with these guys on stage.
"What do you want to play?" I ask Jason.
He shrugs. "It's your band," he answers.
"All right. Let's do your song." He steps up to the microphone and we play 'Better Off Not Knowing,' singing it together. We play through it, and then lay down 'Runaway,' 'End of Us,' and a few more before I notice Gina and Matt standing near the front of the audience.
"You guys gonna get up here and play, or what?" I call to them. They shake their heads, so I implore the audience, "Come on, let's get these guys back up here." Eventually Matt climbs up and gets back behind his kit. Gina gets her guitar on. We go double-drummer and play through 'Trying To Kick It.'
We jam through a sloppy mess of another hour and twenty minutes of rock, playing through all of our material including ridiculously long versions of 'Sweet Leaf' and 'Rough Go,' with Gina singing backup vocals for songs she doesn't know on the guitar. We finish up with 'Rockin' In The Free World' as usual, playing on and on, trying to implore the audience to sing along.
Musically it's a mess, but the audience digs the chaos and I have a hell of a good time. It's almost one o'clock when we finally get off stage, dripping sweat and shaking with nervous exhaustion. We get long cheers from the crowd when the stage lights go down and slaps on the back when we head to the dressing room.
Alone, locked into a little room together with a case of beer we look at each other.
"All right guys," Matt says. "Is it time to talk about our feelings?"
"Naw, mate," Mark says. "Let's just get pissed."
So we drink and laugh about it all, laughing about our petty fights and our ongoing arguments. We laugh about how they were all up at the front of the bar where the house music continued to play, so they couldn't here me when I started to sing the Bowie song. We laugh about my broken-assed bass and how really what each band needs is another guitarist, and what we should really do is spend some time writing some new songs instead of playing this same boring shit over and over. And we drink and laugh and tell each other what a miserable good time touring is.
2007 Nolan Whyte