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STAGES

by

Neil Grimmett



We pull into the parking area and the engine is running and outside the windows a world is passing: though in reality everything has stopped and it is just the usual disappointments that keep it moving. For some reason, I still believe that as we are shuttled from one town to another something will have changed: that in an unpredictable but vital way this venue will be different from all those we have left behind: it never is and that terrible small voice tries to say we are carrying our space around with us like a shell.

This time there is a huge, tar-blacked wooden hut dumped on a scrap of land and waiting further developments to sweep it aside. Messages have been scored into its lighter underside: like us they sing the same old songs.

Our roadies have gone to open the stage doors. We sit in the van and wait, the four of us, the band. A lot of people imagine that a group is made up of friends that enjoy being together and having fun - just like in the movies, all running around caught up in some amazing adventure and bursting into song at the drop of a tuning-fork. We can't stand to be on the same planet but have allowed ourselves to become bound inextricably together with the chains of too much vanity, desire and ego. Now we are beyond struggling. Everything we do is just part of the show. Even last night's attempt to wreck the dressing room had been over-rehearsed and pointless and if the old lady had not arrived and looked as if our actions were the most terrible thing she had ever hoped to witness, would have left us empty and without any feeling of satisfaction.

The doors at the far end of the hut swing open. They do it with a crash of steel bars and blaze of colour. The inside of the place is dark green and matt purple with clever geometric patterns that make the thin walls seem infinite. I already see it later when cheap, yellow spotlights will churn it all into a filthy brown stain which will spread from the audience to us or vice versa.

Hulk, the head roadie and his weedy little helper who is new and has too many names are busy wiring up amps and mikes and tapping on drums or standing on the hi-hat that keeps opening and shutting its mouth in swirls of laughter. Soon we will do a sound check. Then there will be more time to kill. This is a one night stand so there are no digs to hide in and we will have to find somewhere suitable to skulk like insomnious vampires until the night falls.


Another day has gone. This is a seaside town and we found a beach to lay on. We ignored the local stories about freak waves sucking families and lovers off the prom and drowning policemen attempting to save them. Everywhere you go these days you end up surrounded by these new mythologies - it is as if everyone is looking for something that is greater than the sum total of their reality. We just stay out all the longer to discredit them. And you only need to be here a short time to recognize that there is no way this sea is going to suddenly leap out and grab anything. It looks heavy and leaden, as if everything dumped in it has become too much and that one more thing would choke it. It seems so full to me that it would be more likely for the dead to come walking out rather than any more be taken in: just like our business in some ways: another overcrowded scene where even wannabe victims have to learn to queue.

Something strange did happen though. We were lying on the sand smoking and taking a drink from a couple of flagons of the local brew, when Hulk started yelling that something had crawled out from the tide into the bank of mud at the water's edge. We went to have a look and there was this massive type of fish trying to swim in the heavy silt. I thought it belonged between the two environments and was at some stage of evolvement; the guitarist and Hulk felt it was stranded and needed rescuing. They began wallowing around in the gray liquid trying to lift it and turn it. After a time they got it into the water and it just lay there letting the shallow waves roll over it until it was back exactly where they had found it. They rescued it again and again, then had a better idea. They would put it in the sea and then throw rocks at it to drive it out.

I joined in with the others gathering stones as I liked the sound of the plan and the memory of throwing stones into water seemed to belong to a different time in my evolution. A short while after the bombardment started this couple arrived and watched for a while, then they told us that it was a mudfish and that they like to lay around in the stuff. It was too late by then because we had hit it with a lot of big rocks and it looked pretty dead. They said it was very sad and glared at us like we were a bunch of murderers or worse. But how can you know all these things? We are musicians. We were just trying to help, and that is what they should have recognized. Not some dead lump stuck at the edge of a polluted sea that didn't know if it was fish or fowl in the first place. What are these type of people trying to prove anyway? That's what I always wonder but cannot be bothered to find out.


The club is open and there is a queue starting to filter their way in. The man at the door knows who we are and it is great to be able to walk past the waiting, paying public without a pause. We go straight into the dressing room and never mix with any audience before playing. A bubble is only a bubble until you stick a pin in it: that is one of the things we always keep in mind.

I do take an unnecessary walk out onto the stage just to make sure that my drum kit is set up exactly as I want. I know it will be but it is a ritual that I have developed. The place is filling up and I don't think I have ever seen so many real youngsters in a crowd before. Then, though I can't be seen looking too closely, I get a strange awareness that they are not in anything, but are everything. As I am moving back off the stage I see two girls rolling around the floor fighting, their short skirts riding up over their arses with scratch marks just about everywhere and nobody bothering to even notice.

I go back into the dressing room and tell them that I think we are playing at the local kindergarten. The rest of the band have already changed into their stage clothes and I have to hurry because suddenly I dread being left alone. We have ages before the first set and decide to go and find a local pub. I see a lot of the kids staring at us as we leave and there is not one look on a single face that I could say I know, or want to.


We get back and sit in the dressing room listening to the disco finishing off. At one time we used to hate them and go about with stickers saying: 'Keep Music Live'. Now we couldn't give a fuck and know we are all part of the same crotchet factory: boom boom tick tock heartbeat womb-beat: from the cradle to the grave in a steady four four. After the pub we are feeling quite relaxed and perhaps even looking forward to the initial buzz of getting onto stage, when this military looking man comes barging in. "Right," he says, "these are the rules:

No girls backstage.

No smoking or swearing on stage.

Watch the volume: if I wave my hand it means turn it down.

Afterwards I want you gone from this venue quickly."

Then he marches out. It happens so fast we don't get any chance to tell him what to do with his list. Once, we were treated with a little bit of respect and decency. Free food and drinks were normal, good size dressing rooms and stage. Now it is all we can do to get paid the amount it states on our contract.

Hulk comes in and tells us that we are on after the next number. He says that there have been two fights while he's been out there checking the gear. Nobody wants to hear this before going out to play. I also try to ignore the message that has been carved in deep jagged letters next to our mirror: THIS PLACE IS HELL.

We hit into the first song, loud. At least twice the volume of the disco. It is a punchy rock number and the crowd like it. We play these numbers so often, we do them on automatic pilot and they have no meaning for us. The only thing to have any affect is crowd reaction if we are in the mood to be receptive. Tonight it feels good. The crowd is so young it makes me remember when it all started - the first band we formed at school. We were allowed to do a few numbers at the end of term concert. The music teacher had begun to hate us but the kids got off on it: school ties and skirts twirling around. We were the stars and thought we would go so far: nothing could stop us: local heroes all.

These memories and their momentum nearly carry the first set. I think the break came a couple of numbers too late and that once again our vocalist and front man managed to lose the audience by choosing to do slow ballads that suit his voice but put the dancers off this early. We row about it. He thinks I have a drummer's mentality and the primitive associations of dance and rhythm are all I understand. I don't think he knows how to control the crowd: and what are words compared with a beat that can enter through the viscera and make those feet shuffle about: dancing kills the ego: words only torture it a little. However, the mood is good enough and we enjoy our break. We even start to hope some of the girls might come back for a visit and forget a lot of the bad stuff we've been getting into and make out that if they did we would be nice and let them go away believing in their fantasies about us. Luckily no one turns up.


Things start to go wrong during the second number of the next set. The crowd have pushed forward and are mostly just bopping along enjoying the show. This one little boy is actually leaning on the front of the stage watching everything as though it is just where he would choose to be. Tim, our bass player steps forward to sing his harmony part. He has this dance routine worked out with the guitarist, where they both move either side of the singer in a series of matching steps. It looks good and I can't work out why this kid does what he does. He waits until Tim just about reaches the mike and then takes hold of one of the legs on the mike stand and tips it back. I watch this as though it is happening in a sort of slow motion. The microphone hits Tim in the mouth. It makes this wet thudding sound that pumps out through the PA system. He manages to make a reasonable job of finishing the part and stepping back in time. I see a few kids laughing at him.

The next time he moves forward exactly the same thing happens: this time he messes up completely and falls totally out of time. Alf, the singer, gives him a filthy look. He never knows what is going on anywhere but inside his own head. There is one more part to do and you can feel the tension stiffen the rhythm section as I am caught up now as well.

This time as Tim moves he makes a sidestep away from the rocking stand and then brings his heel down onto the boy's hand. Tim is over six feet tall and weighs plenty. He gets the hand without disturbing the dance or harmony part and it was a good pay back. The kid must have got hurt but doesn't let on, he just moves back from the stage and begins to stare: first at Tim and then each of us in turn. And though there are a lot of people in front of us, he draws all of your attention with his face. He has this stretched, almost webbed skin that makes him look as if he has been through a fire or something. In the depths of his eyes there is a cold emptiness that makes you want to close them for good. He no longer looks anything like a little boy and seems pleased to have shucked off the disguise. He turns and walks away. Right through the crowd, which ignores the fact he is one of the smallest people in the place and opens out of his way.

When he comes back it is with a gang. They file through the dancers and begin to line up in front of us. We know better than to ever stop playing: learnt that lesson in a military base in Germany when a big fight started and we did not listen to the manager and stopped and got beat shitless and had our gear trashed: now we just keep playing and ignore the fact that the rest of the audience have sat down. We end up with this semicircle of strange looking kids swaying and making threatening gestures. It is time for my drum solo and the rest of the band leave me alone on stage to do it. I can sense that the kids are enjoying the power and force of my playing and that they mean me no harm. I drag the solo out and put in lots of difficult parts that I haven't played for years. I loved this instrument once and worshipped the greats of the past. I can recall all those hours shut away behind a set of practice pads trying to become the best - then the white pureness of new drum skins and balance of hickory sticks in my hands before both got sliced to ribbons against walls of mind numbing sound.

Somehow the rest of the band have managed to pick up on a cue and get themselves back into the number. It comes to a stop and they are looking at me as if I can do something else. I get a message from Alf that we are to play another number and that help is on the way. Of course it is some soppy ballad about man needing woman and how lonely we all are without one. Before it is over these security guards arrive. They are in uniform and are carrying riot sticks which they really enjoy swinging.

The gang file out in a very orderly way as if they have done this many times before. The one that started it moves off last and I really want him to look back, but he doesn't even bother. The man tells us to get moving and that the security guards will wait until we are loaded and on our way. We try to get him to explain what was going on but all he will say is that we were too loud and that he will be in touch with our agent. We get paid and drive off.

At first nobody has very much to say about what happened or what was really expected of us. They manage to turn it into another of their great jokes and say what they will do the next time. I keep quiet and let the miles pile up on them.

Soon I am the only one awake apart from Hulk who is driving and never has anything to say that is worth listening to. I try to picture our next gig: somewhere big and modern with an intelligent audience that will want to listen. It could be true: things must change one day. But something has changed and I know that it is time I left this band - maybe left music altogether and tried to do something else, something more normal.

I keep watching as the town thins away and just a few houses glow in their solitude. I try to feel the coziness and security that may exist inside, but pass too quickly to touch any comfort. Finally, there is unbroken darkness and silence. You could almost imagine that the van is not running and that outside everything is still and unchanging.

Then I think of someone who might be out there at this very moment looking into the darkness and dreaming: he is the ultimate loser of all time in a lot of people's minds: that drummer who left The Beatles when they were nobodies and went to play happy families instead. I threw that story into my father's face once: now the night throws it back into mine. And I know it is a sign that we really are on our way and it is just a question of keeping going until we make it.







ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Although English by birth, Neil Grimmett lived for the previous two years on the Greek island of Crete and now lives in Andalucia, Spain. His stories have been published by amongst others: London Magazine, Panurge, Iron, Stand, Sepia, Pretext, Ambit, Paris Transcontinental, Fiction, The Yale Review, DoubleTake, The Southern Review and on the net with Web Del Sol, Word Riot, The Blue Moon Review and others. A short story has recently been included in the anthology England Calling , while his first novel and collection of short stories has just been signed by The Irene Skolnick Literary Agency in New York and Abner Stein in London.




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