This one is even new…
The studio is our bunker. We surface from time to time for cigarettes, for air. It is a long way past midnight and it is January. The steam rises from us when we step outside.
The night is intense, the lack of colour, of light, around us seems oppressive. The studio is in the middle of nowhere, a low building on the edge of an abandoned farm complex. The shapes of agricultural equipment and the crumbling barns and sheds, all strike grotesque poses.
Behind us, and behind the studio door, shrouded in darkness, the corridor is all red painted brick, light switches, rusting fire extinguishers. The air is bitter but it feels good. We have run the set three times on the bounce and we are all half dead, the theory being that one has to rehearse with as much energy as one would use when playing live. Finishing the set is the moment when a wrecking ball, having hovered for so long, finally crashes into the solid brick of a building. All the air leaves the lungs, the head rings and the legs become unsteady, as the feedback dies and my eyes slowly, ever so slowly, begin to focus. It is not so intense at rehearsal but we do what we can.
We are talking. We are making jokes. We are laughing. We shiver a little, drag on cigarettes. The drummer drinks a little from a bottle of glucose drink, I drink a little from a bottle of wine. I have no real love for music. What used to be my passion is now something to which I cling, more from a desperate desire to justify my existence. After years in the wilderness without finding the fountain of youth, You lose hope of finding the fountain, but you’re still stuck in the wilderness.
The owner of the studio doesn’t know that we are here. He gave us the keys and we frequently book in with him to rehearse until 10pm. But he is proud and old and arrogant and he is rarely there, and so we stay until 2am, and don’t tell him about the extra time, certainly don’t pay for it. He has a voice like television static, like the clatter of falling pots and pans. It grates on me, like lag in a computer game. Like a twitch. Like hiccups. He takes a lot of drugs. The last time we recorded with him, he was two hours late and threw up into a bin.
The drummer, the bass player and I have known each other for a long time, and we exchange jokes and smiles. Soon we will drive back to the town, they will drop me off at home and I will sleep for a couple of hours before it is time to go to work at the factory. At the factory we make parts for the robots, robots which make parts for everything else. One day they will make their own parts and we will all be obsolete, but the day has not yet arrived when metal can quite give birth to new metal. All it can do is create a reality from the theories of men.
“Shall we go?”
We hesitate, nothing left for us to do but equally none of us having the energy or the inclination to leave. The night is frightening. There is no light except for the small, timed motion sensor lights outside the studio. If we stay still for too long, or wander too far from the entrance, then we will be plunged into darkness. Frantic flapping and waving ensues until light is restored. At this moment, the studio corridor is in darkness, and the soundproof door to our room is closed. So the security light really is like God, in a way. Without it, there would be no light left.
“I’ve never seen darkness this thick before. It’s like you could reach out your neck and gulp some down. It’s like a medicine” – our bass player always was the philosophical type.
We hum one of our songs a little, laughing with pride at the fact that it has stuck in our heads. Surely this makes it good.
The drummer grabs the bass player with one hand by the jaw, and the other by the back of the head, opening his mouth and forcing him forward into the chill night air, laughing
“Doctor, take your medicine!”
We feel young and strong and pulsing with life. There is nothing that can destroy us. As we open the door and head inside to gather our things, our drummer turns and roars into the night. We mock him but I entirely understand his sentiment.
We leave the studio, drive back through that impossible night, thick and slow like medicine. We listen to the radio, blaring out the music of bands who are the same age as us but are more successful, and we find reasons to dislike them.
The drive back to my place is short, I crawl into bed and try to sleep. It is 3am and I start work at 8. My mind skips over a variety of things. Songs we have written, songs written by others. My memories, my fantasies. The texture of my pillow, the temperature outside. I remember places that I have slept before this. I think about the Russian alphabet.
I suppose I fall asleep, because somehow, suddenly, the alarm sounds and I am suddenly completely awake. It is how it comes to me at the moment, there is no thrashing about, no yawning, no bleary eyes. Suddenly I am simply entirely functioning. Sleep doesn’t feel like a rest, more like a pause. Always tense.
The shower is numbing a little, my skin feels like a carapace. I am reminded of a scene in a film. Everything reminds me of scenes in films. I hate my job but I don’t have the energy to find anything else. I guess I like being in a band.
In the morning, it is much more difficult to feel indestructible.
The walk to work is dispiriting. I walk across an industrial estate and pass a couple of roads with shops. One road contains a bakery which I sometimes visit on the walk home. Never in the morning. When I am walking to work, the bakery is surrounded by vagrants, who never dare to go in – rumour has it that the owner keeps a baseball bat behind the counter – but crowd around the windows, their faces pressed against the glass, staring at the array of pasties, cakes, croissants and loaves. I once went to visit the bakery in the morning, after a particularly late evening, and they stared at me as I went in, while I bought a ham and cheese pasty, and as I walked out. Their eyes never left me, but they said nothing, asked for nothing. Their constant, religious staring into the shop is the ultimate expression of futility, of tragic desire. I could feel the eyes, dulled from all feeling except the yearning for warmth and food, and I felt almost unwell. After that one day, I have stayed away from the bakery in the morning.
My mouth is dry – always the morning after a rehearsal, and I chew some gum to try to resolve the issue. I live 30 minutes away from the factory, by foot. The gum is cheap and tastes chemical. The texture is like plasticine that has been left out in the open air.
As I pass by the dull greyness of my district, I eventually reach the factory. It is a small building – it used to be a church but was converted by new owners into a factory. The conversion must have been quite expensive, but they left much of the structure the same. So, almost perversely, our work spaces are looked down upon by stained-glass windows. The owners had bought it from the government after religion had been outlawed, and once the factory opened, they had put up a banner outside the building saying “God is back in business!” with large silhouettes of currency symbols and tools. Within a week the sign had been vandalised so severely that it was removed.
I step into the building and head straight for the locker room. I get changed – I am a little early but I don’t mind. I prefer the locker room when it is empty. Against one wall lolls Gus, who is part of my shift. He is in his boilersuit, but his eyes are closed and he is sitting on the bench, leaning back against the wall, asleep. As I walk onto the factory floor, I slap him on the shoulder.
“It’s time, Gus”.
“Time for what?” his eyes are big and terrified, like a wounded cow. He is a fat, old man with big eyebrows. He looks like a cartoon of himself.
“Our shift is starting in ten minutes”
He shakes his head, looks at me with different eyes
“Oh, of course. Sorry. I didn’t sleep again”
I don’t say anything, but I walk out to check the rota to see where I am assigned for the day. Gus is looking yellow.
As I reach the rota, I hear a thud behind me, and I turn around to see Gus collapsed to the floor. He is splayed out on the painted concrete like a fat, sad starfish.
I press the emergency button and continue to my workplace, waiting for someone to come and deal with that mess. As the klaxon begins to sound, two administrators run out from the stock office, and two of the night shift who are still working, turn suddenly around, their eyes baked into their faces like clay from the tiredness of a long shift, and everyone runs towards Gus while I quietly and calmly prepare for the day. I suppose I should feel something, but I don’t really know Gus, so what’s the point?
It is later on, lunchtime, that I speak to Buddy. Buddy is the opposite of Gus, except in the unhealthy complexion. Buddy is impossibly tall, impossibly thin and is in his late teens. He has a fashionable haircut that swims in product. He looks a little like a jaundiced Elvis Presley. Buddy and I know each other a little better than I knew Gus.
I’m sitting on a bench outside the factory, consuming a sandwich, when Buddy saunters over with a cigarette hanging from his lips. He thinks that he is James Dean.
“What about Gus then?”
“What about him?”
“Of course he is”
I chew on my sandwich a little more as Buddy, nonplussed, sits down next to me and stretches his arms and legs out, yawning. In a way, he also resembles a starfish.
“How’s tricks?” he asks – I can tell that he is not looking for an answer.
“Fine. And you?”
There is another little pause. I finish my sandwich and reach down to put the tupperware box back into my bag.
“Funny thing”, he continues, “I passed a car crash this morning on the road” – he also walks into work – “some family in their car had crashed into a guy on his way to work, I guess. The ambulance was there, and the p’lice, but it was still quite chaotic. I found these just outside the p’lice tape-” he held up a crumpled pack of cigarettes with the bottom right hand corner blackened and burned away, and a couple of specks of something red on the box.
“It’s nearly full – some of these ones in the corner are a little burned up and mangled, but the rest are fine. I don’t know if I should feel bad”
“It’s not stealing if everyone was dead”
“I think one of the kids was alive”
“Then you’ve done him a favour -it’s a filthy habit”
We laugh a little. There is no point in being maudlin.
We fidget, moving our legs about without any real purpose. He offers me a cigarette and I take one from the bloody, damaged pack.
“How’s the band?”
“We’re okay. We’ve got a show on Friday”
This is true, a show on Friday. Today is Wednesday.
“A little way south, near the capital”
“You expecting many people?”
We smoke companionably in the silence. Buddy runs a hand through his hair. The hand glistens a little.
I look at my watch; it’s time to head back in. I swing my bag over my shoulder as I stand up – buddy looks uneasy.
“Hey, are you going back in there?”
“Sure, it’s time”
He looks at the ground for a moment, then looks around, almost conspiratorially, then desperately. He reaches into his pocket, fumbles for a moment, and presents me the car-crash cigarettes
“Hey, take these. I don’t want them”
He is a kid.
“You sure? There’s no guilt?”
“I’m sure, please, take them”. He shudders a little as he hands them to me. When I was eighteen I felt guilty about everything too. I take them and put them in my pocket. I don’t care.
Thursday comes around quickly – after a quiet Wednesday night mostly spent reading and eating plain pasta, Thursday’s factory shift has been uneventful. Gus has been replaced already by a contract worker, until the plant can find a permanent replacement. There is talk of organising a collection so that we can contribute something towards a floral wreath at his funeral. I don’t think he has much in the way of family. Maybe a daughter with bad skin. Maybe a son with a nervous disorder. I don’t know.
The show is tomorrow. We are rehearsing again, heading back out to the studio in the middle of nowhere. After I finish work, but before I am to be picked up by the band, I am going for a drink with Magdalene.
I don’t want to. I remember Magdalene. We used to be friends when we were young, fourteen, fifteen. I don’t remember what she looked like, except that she had terrifying eyes. She sent me a message entirely out of the blue, out not having seen each other for something like six years, suggesting that we should go for a drink and catch up. I don’t know what she is like these days. She might be beautiful. She might not be crazy. I selected a timeslot that was neatly sandwiched in between a working day and a working evening, just to make sure that things would not need to go on for too long.
Of course, I arrive at the bar a little ahead of time. It is a bar underground, on the fringes of the finance district, slightly more upmarket than I would normally frequent, and consequently rather more expensive than I would like. But of course, if I was choosing the time, she would have to choose the venue – that was only fair.
I took the elevator down to the bar – the only way it can be reached is by a series of metal elevators leading down from pods on the street. Above each pod is the name of the bar. I don’t like this arrangement. It feels odd. The elevator has the mixed stink of stale cigarette smoke and mid-range perfume. It smells of middle age. I am the only person in the elevator.
I get to the bar, step out of the elevator. Everything is done in dulled neon lighting, blues and purples. There are several underlit aquariums enclosed in pillars, which provide light around the place. Immediately I see Magdalene.
She is sitting at the bar, wearing a business suit. She has hair of indeterminate length and indeterminate colour. She is drinking wine and she is twitching, moving, staring at her mobile telephone and typing frenziedly.
“Magdalene” I greet her in a monotone as I stand next to her.
“How are you?” she asks me without looking up from her mobile telephone – she is typing automatically, like a robot that I might help to assemble in the factory.
“Fine. Get you a drink?” I asked, noting that she already had a full one and so I probably would not be required to purchase another for her.
I ordered myself a beer.
“And how are you?” I ask her. She does not look attractive. Somehow she looks younger than I remember.
“I’m fine, I think. Listen, I need to speak to you about something-” – suddenly her eyes are upon me and somewhat eager, that old terrifying intensity is back, despite being shrouded in mascara – “Let’s go and sit over there” she gestures to a darkened corner table and, almost before she has finished speaking, she stands up and is walking away. I accept my beer and the change from the barman and follow her over.
Despite my antipathy towards Magdalene at this point in time, the meeting is taking a mysterious turn and is arousing my interest, if nothing else.
“You look well” she lies, playing with the strap on her bag.
I say nothing.
“Anyway, what I wanted to talk to you about today – I’m interested in making a move. I’m interested in getting out. I wanted to sound you out about it?”
I am confused.
“Sorry – what do you mean?”
She smiles humourlessly, shaking her head a little.
“Of DBM – I’m interested in getting out of DBM. What do you think of my moving to your place – how open do you reckon they would be to bringing me over? I know they have vacancies in my sector – I’ve been working on the financial analysis team…” she rummages in her bag for a thin plastic folder that appears to contain some documents.
DBM is a chemical manufacturing company that is extremely high-powered and is linked with the illegal manufacture of chemical weapons.
I don’t understand.
“Magdalene, I don’t think we have financial analysts at my place?”
“Stop messing – I know the state bank are looking for analysts at the moment – yes, okay-“ she says, holding her hands out “I know it might be a bit soon, I know everyone’s still coming to terms with what happened with Robinson’s team and the disciplinary action – I know things are shaky in your financial analysis department at the moment, but I really have a glowing set of personal references here and my work on the business valuations of Mitchell Hazchem Dispersal has been-“
I cut in, of course – “I’m sorry – Magdalene – state bank? I don’t work for the bank. I work in a factory.”
“I work in a factory. I make parts for automatons”.
She blusters a little, and then her shoulders sink. I don’t know why, but I add “and I play in a band”.
She looks at me rather sceptically.
“I thought you worked for the bank? Definitely you, it…” she drops off as she looks through her telephone contacts.
She stops, looking down at the small, brightly lit screen.
“Oh, my mistake.” She shows me her telephone – my name is next to the name of an old school friend with the same initials. HE is the one who is a headhunter for the state bank.
She quite pointedly deletes my number from her telephone and stands up, draining her wine glass.
“Are you going?” I ask her, looking up.
“Aren’t you?” exasperated, she scowls at me and walks away. There is a jitter in her footsteps. As she reaches the elevator, she turns around and stares daggers at me, shaking her head.
Given the circumstances, I feel quite unmoved. It’s not my problem. I sit with my beer for a few minutes, wondering what I will do with the time that is still to pass before I am due to be picked up.
I drink slowly and fish my book from my bag. I am reading a novel about a man who fakes his own death. I sit for some time staring at the pages before I realise that I am not actually reading the words.
Rehearsal is good, it feels good to play. It always feels good to play, descending into a sweat, feeling light and heavy with exhaustion, the grate of my voice on the inside of my throat. It feels like I am doing something worthwhile. It is the only time that I feel that I am doing something worthwhile.
The room is big, there is a darkened window in the front wall that looks through to the engineer’s room and sound desk, in order to communicate when bands are recording in here. It is 10:30pm, the owner has long since gone for the evening, and we have the place to ourselves, as usual. We bring the first run of the set to a close, sweat, pain, tiredness, and we smile at each other, breathing heavily. Tomorrow night should be no problem. Of course, there is the issue of how worthwhile it will be to travel all that way to play to what, in all probability, will be a very small crowd, but what else is there?
We’re sharing a bottle of wine – our bass player takes a deep swig, wipes his mouth and passes the bottle to me. I do the same and pass it to the drummer. We have known each other for such a long time. We can barely imagine what life was like before we knew each other, even before we were playing together in the band.
I tell them about my earlier encounter with Magdalene. Our bass player works in the courts as a clerk, and our drummer is training to be a mechanic. We are a million miles away from DBM. We laugh a little.
“Magdalene is crazy” sighs the bass player. His eyes are wistful. He dated her for about a week when we were kids.
We decide to pause for a smoke and some fresh air, and step outside into the familiar, medicinal darkness. I feel my shirt sticking to my body with sweat, and the wine makes my mouth feel rusty. The darkness is a familiar friend, foe.
There is a rusting old bicycle near to the studio door, slightly old fashioned but serviceable. The drummer makes a joke of it, riding around in a little circle. The circle becomes wider and wider as he becomes more intrepid, and the bass player and I laugh a little, sharing the wine. Eventually the drummer rides off around the side of the broken down old farm building in front of us.
As he goes, the bass player and I stare knowingly at each other, until suddenly we hear muffled sounds, deep, guttural barking, and we see him pedalling back at pace, with some shadows chasing him. Four-legged, with wild eyes.
Halfway across the open ground, more or less, he jumps off the bicycle and we all run inside the studio, forcing the door shut behind us.
After a few seconds, of course, we erupt into nervous laughter – the wild dogs outside are frightening in their way, but the comedy of the situation is always worth appreciating. We slump down in a pile against the studio door, laughing, with tears in our eyes as we clap each other on the back and struggle to speak. Outside, the dogs scratch at the door and bark in a demented chorus.
This is what I will remember with the most fondness – these moments of comedy, of camaraderie, of joy in each other’s company and of freedom, youth and mischief.
Eventually, we run the set again, do a little work on some new material, and finish up for the night. We are cautious in opening the door, moving gingerly to the car as we squint into the darkness, looking for any trace of our canine companions. But there is nothing. As we pack amplifiers and guitars into the car, the dogs are gone, and the night is quiet once more, broken only by the staccato of our laughter, and after a while, another kind of growl, as the car starts and we leave that place behind us.
I will be out of the car only for about twelve hours – by 2pm the next day I am back there, an early finish at the factory behind me, and we are driving down to the show.
We have done many shows, 120, 130? Many of them roll into one, some I cannot even remember. So there are no nerves, there is no fear. This is quite a routine business for us now. There is the gentle cynicism, the knowledge that we are not going to be greeted by a sold-out crowd of baying teenagers and record label executives, but there is also the calmness and the confidence that we are doing something, that we are doing it well, and that, in the words of a singer of the day, we are doomed to be “cult classic, not bestseller”.
It is about two hours’ drive, and I am not the best navigator, so the drummer drives and the bass player has the map. I am in the back of the car, underneath the amplifiers and guitars that won’t fit into the boot. It isn’t uncomfortable, in fact, in a way it’s rather cosy and warm. I drink a little whisky from a hipflask – not a lot, but enough that I feel the effect. We talk and joke on the way, reminiscing about old times, about school, about past shows, discussing other bands, films, sports. We are flying on the motorway. We are fresh and clean and real. I drink lazily from a hipflask filled with cheap whisky
We see a large piece of graffiti that looks over the motorway, painted as it is along the large white wall of some kind of retail park that is next to the road. It says “God is dead – save yourselves”. We laugh a little. Presumably there are commuters who pass this message every day.
We wonder how long it has been there, who created it. It must have taken some time – and some paint.
We drive, and drive, watching the signposts fly past, each one telling us that the capital is getting closer. Eventually we find a sign to the town that we are aiming for, just outside the capital, a big town but not quite a small city. There is a protest outside the town hall, and the police are evident in force. We have to take a diversion.
It’s no problem. As we pass, the protesters run at the police, which is not the most intelligent thing to do as the police have riot shields and heavy truncheons. The protesters just get pushed back like a broken Mexican wave, some of them are hit a few times.
“That’s the most pathetic kamikaze attempt I’ve ever seen”
“I know, it’s hilarious – it’s like an extreme sport”
We laugh a little. These people are animals. As we drive away, the police are preparing a water cannon.
The venue is not difficult to find – there are not many music venues in this town, and this one is fairly prominent. It is a bright red building with graffiti on the door – a heavy, metal door with a grille over the small window. It feels like we are entering a horror-film police station.
The door is open so the bass player and I head in while the drummer parks the car. The corridor is a little damp and covered with posters advertising shows from the recent past, all the way back to the venue’s opening, which was apparently some fifteen years before.
There are a few nondescript doors, we pass the toilets, and then at the end of the corridor a right turn leads us into the venue itself. It is a good size, big enough to hold about 300 people, perhaps. There are barriers in front of the stage.
“Maybe we’ll get riot police, too”
“I’ll only let them in if they bring the water cannon”
We are the first group there. We say a brief “hello” to the soundman – a fairly typical, late forties, grizzled veteran of the toilet circuit music scene, with a stained t-shirt and a greying beard. He says that his name is Raz.
The room, as always, smells heavy and the floor is slick with the accumulated grease of many spilled drinks and drops of sweat. The bass player and I go out to load the gear in from the car. The only exercise I ever seem to get. The handles of my guitar cases are threadbare and bite into my hands, and the amplifiers are awkward. But of course, we question nothing. We are the soldiers of ambition, untouchable and relentless.
I am beginning to tire a little but it’s not drastic – we are a little early. Dusk has nearly finished progressing across the sky and the chill of January cuts through us as we leave the venue and step out into the chastening darkness of the streets.
There is a tacit agreement between us that, if we are early to soundcheck, we go out on the hunt for junk food. It was never something that was ever discussed or questioned, but always seems to be our natural response. We swagger down the street, smoking, looking for burgers or pizza. I won’t have much, I prefer to be a little hungry when we play.
It’s a Friday night, so there are already some people around, standing outside the bars, walking around the streets together. Some well-dressed couples perhaps on their way to dinner or the theatre, and some students, some younger sorts, already a little rosy-cheeked from drinking, are casual, heading from pub to pub to club with the weekend stretching out ahead of them, full of promise.
“Kids these days” I mutter, wryly. The bassist snorts with laughter. We are kids ourselves.
It’s only a fairly brief walk to a gaudily-lit takeaway, all neon red and yellow to try to light up the faded tiles. The staff look tired.
The bass player and the drummer each order burgers, I have some chips. I’m not hungry. I am gently numbed by the whisky that I drank in the car, there is still a rusty tang at the back of my throat. I feel more tired though, and the change from comfortable car, to cold street, has made me feel a little unsettled, as frequently it does. We sit on plastic benches around a dirty, scratched table. We eat in silence, the bassist and the drummer are hungry and I am yawning, scratching my face, thinking about whatever presents itself.
It begins to rain outside. The restaurant is still quite quiet, it being early in the evening. A couple of builders come in to order burgers and chips.
We’re there for about fifteen minutes before we agree that we should head back to the venue. It’s not a long walk, and the rain is light enough to avoid our getting too wet. We’re a little style conscious. Not very, but a little. I swig a little more from the hipflask.
Not a lot, just a little. It sounds reminiscent of the television game shows I used to watch when I was a child. It sounds like the ubiquitous catchphrase of a beloved family entertainer who has since been jailed for sex crimes – there are so many. Seems to be a trend.
By the time we get back to the venue, one of the other bands has shown up – the headline act. They’re younger than we are, and local. One of them is wearing a vest under his leather jacket. Our drummer asks him if he is cold. He just stares. I don’t think he really knows what to say.
I talk a little to their bass player, he is nineteen and has a mop of ginger hair that he keeps pushing out of his eyes. He is tall and thin and seems a little shy.
“How’s it going?” I ask, having introduced myself. Standard chatter.
“Yeah, not bad – you?”
“Can’t complain.” A pause… “So what’s the scene like around here?”
He shrugs “’s’alright. There’s not many venues around, so this place normally gets quite a few people”
“Ah, nice one, that’s cool”
“You guys come far?” he asks me. I tell him that we’ve come a long way. He seems quietly impressed.
As we’re milling about, awkwardly making small talk, the opening band comes in. They seem around our age and are dressed in similar garb to the headliners, with similar hairstyles and a similar smell of metrosexual testosterone and cheap deodorant. They keep themselves to themselves in the corner of the room.
The bar isn’t yet open, but we have brought some cans of beer and we fish around in the back of my guitar amp for the carrier bag containing them. It’s standard operating procedure on the toilet circuit, unglamorous but cheap.
We split our time between loitering uneasily in the room, and wandering outside to smoke, as ever. We take our time smoking, even though the night is cold. It is infinitely preferable to be in our self-contained bubble than in the room with the, I confess, terrible music that the other bands are playing during soundcheck.
Sometimes it can be quite lonely – even for the group of us. It is clear that sometimes, we seek the chance to gather together and talk about past glories and in-jokes, even when we are only playing away for one night. We are young and free and triumphant, but we are sometimes a little uncomfortable.
Our soundcheck comes and goes. A little ungainly fumbling around to set things up, and of course the awkwardness of repeating riffs or beats in order for levels to be adjusted. We play a song, it sounds okay, we store our gear and sit down. The bar is now open.
By the time the doors open, there is a small crowd outside the venue, but nowhere near the level of audience that would be required to fill it.
“What do you reckon?” the bassist mutters quietly as we observe the crowd heading in, one by one, while we smoke.
“Maybe a third of the room full, if they all stay inside”
We don’t really care. But in some ways, we care so deeply, every show is still, somehow, the chance for something to happen. This is not the crowd to make anything happen. We could play the set of our lives, inspired flourishes and energy that in another time, in another place, would have propelled us into the eye of the press by its own force alone, and yet it is clear that the best we will get tonight is a couple more people subscribing to the newsletter and potentially a couple of recordings sold.
In the distance, there are more police sirens. There is a small park some way away, across the town centre but part way raised above the nearby buildings by dint of the ground that it is on. If I squint, I can almost see the reflection of the sirens bouncing from the trees. It seems oddly beautiful. I am almost hypnotised. I think of rainbows and fever and neon restaurant signs.
The first band aren’t awful. They’re not great, but they’re not awful. A couple of half-hearted attempts at fashionable radio hits without any of the catchiness or charm. A little too much posing, but too self-conscious. The audience is lukewarm. We are drinking wine, we have a bottle with three glasses. We are perched at a small circular table nearer to the bar than to the stage, with a variety of chips and stains on it. The bassist is picking at the stains absently while he stares at the band. The drummer is looking at his watch.
As they announce that the next song will be their last, we look at each other and agree on a final cigarette before the show. I must have smoked ten today.
The soundman nods at us and we return the nod – no real feeling or expression. He is so typical that I can see nothing in him but other people.
The streets are a little more alive now, some more buzz, some more chatter, some more lights. There are more kids staggering around, there are more groups of muscular middle-aged men standing aggressively outside pubs, staring at them.
We fidget, not with nerves but with restlessness.
At a moment, we look at each other, nod, shrug, stub out our cigarettes and go in to play.
There are about a hundred people in the room, maybe ninety. They are mostly our age or a little younger, with a few more seasoned individuals peppering the crowd nearer the bar. There is nobody that we know. Sometimes that is the best kind of crowd.
It’s a blur of a set as always, it goes very quickly as we go through a song, wipe sweat from eyes very quickly and then rush into another – there is very little time in between songs because we never want to lose the attention of the audience or, perhaps more importantly, our own momentum.
I catch the eyes of the bassist and the drummer, focussed stares or the occasional knowing grin, as we twist and whirl around the stage, only using the occasional break between songs to swig from the bottle of wine – all glasses have gone back to the bar, we share the bottle onstage.
As always, it’s difficult to judge the audience’s reaction, partly because it’s hard to see them – the lights are all pointed at us, after all, and partly because drunken applause and enthusiastic applause do not always sound very different.
The final song comes around, I move nearer to the bass player and I seem to get my leg caught in his cable – he turns and I collapse, still playing, arching my back so that my shoulders and my feet touch the floor, but little else, while I thrash at the guitar for the closing riff – he storms out in front of the stage and screams while battering bass strings. The drummer stands up, attacking cymbals and snare with genuine venom.
And suddenly it’s done.
After a little while, the urge to vomit – a mixture of dehydration, expended energy and a sudden drop in adrenaline – fades and we smoke, we drink, we watch the other band. A few people come up to us and say that they enjoyed our set. A middle-aged man buys one of our CDs and says that he hasn’t seen a band he has liked so much, for some time. We thank him. A group of youngsters, three girls and two boys, want their picture taken with us almost as soon as we have left the stage, covered in sweat and eyes staring, half-conscious. They say we look like zombies.
The last band is clearly the one for whom everyone has come to the venue as, despite being quite mediocre, they receive the full gamut of cheers and yells and eager applause. At the end of their set, people run up onstage until it is a writhing mass of dancing and smiling and movement and noise and youth. Anything is possible for them. I go to the toilet and throw up. I am drinking whisky from my hipflask again, as I don’t want to spend too much money at the bar.
In that cubicle, as the music dies in the main room, I look half-heartedly at the graffiti on the walls and the burn marks from cigarettes, on the top of the plastic cistern. I think about Buddy and Gus, about Magdalene. I think about the bassist and the drummer. I think about the man who bought a CD and the group who asked for their photograph to be taken with us.
Is this all there is? The factory, the rehearsal space, the car, the bars, the bed. Is this really the circle of life? Am I really doing all this for good reason, or am I stuck on a treadmill, doing the same things to make myself feel worthwhile without actually making any progress, without actually moving anywhere?
There is no reason in thinking about these things. I throw up a little more and head back outside.