Have you ever watched a mediocre band playing a local joint and wondered whether they did anything… else? One hundred and fifty dollars a night split among four guys is no way to survive. Some people step up and offer coins and singles to the empty guitar cases. But its not enough. It can’t be. How does the band pay rent? How do they afford dinner, or dates, or even their own drugs?
The easy answer: we don’t.
I have been employed as the lead singer of a blues band for the better part of five years. During that time – I have begged, borrowed, and stolen from the few friends who trusted me enough to let me into their lives. I’m an animal. I hate myself. It has become a chore to stand up in front of an audience of ten people and drone on about my missing woman, unpaid bills, and bad timing in life.
And that’s the cruelest part of it all. Time. I have officially run out of time.
An agent once told me that my prime passed ten years ago. He was right. In those days, my very presence electrified the stage. In those days, I could command a crowd of hundreds with one meaningful stare and a flick of fashionably overgrown hair. I belted out the words to every sad song with the confidence of a reckless twenty-something Hell bent on changing the world. Or at least – with the passion of a horny kid hoping to get in the pants of some cute girl in the audience.
Forgive my arrogance. It’s all I have left. That and my drugs.
The simple fact is that a good percentage of your modern musicians are so stacked up on pretty little pills that the pain killers are the only things keeping us sane. I don’t mean to judge the ones who are not. But I am unfortunately the same. Without my medicine, as our judgmental friend said, I am absolutely useless on mic night.
One evening two years ago, we found ourselves in such a sticky situation.
The venue was a dive bar just across the river from New York City. The manager gave us the stage for six hours. Right from the start, it became very clear to all involved that I would not make it through half that. I shouldered a beer and kept it by my side the whole time. That did not do much for my withdrawal.
We opened with a Citizen Cope song called Son’s Gonna Rise. We had played the jam a million times. It’s a little more upbeat than the rest of our stuff, but that’s not really the point. I knew the words better than my mother’s birthday. And yet something inside my fucked up mind made me slur the lyrics.
“Rollin’ down the highway“
“Like a rocket“
“God, I’m headed to town now.“
“You can’t stop it.“
“With the wheel in my hand – as I stand – on the floor of this boat, on this car, on the road.“
The band nearly stopped playing as I powered through the next verse and into the chorus. The song came to a close four very awkward minutes later. My guitarist, Jake, accosted me immediately after it ended.
“Man, you’re screwing up the lyrics now,” he said through a hoarse whisper. “Its ‘on the floor of the board of this car on the road.’“
I mumbled some derogatory excuses under my breathe.
“And now the attitude. Fucking great, man. Some of us would like to get paid tonight.“
Our drummer, Tim, leaned forward to enter the conversation with his own badly hidden inside voice.
“I thought he sounded fine. Its one lyric, dude, quit being such a hard ass.“
Jake exited stage right and began the riff to our next song in a huff. I turned around and grabbed the microphone with a plan to not suck stuck in my head.
“Hey Matty,” Tim called out from behind. “Picking up a pocket full of sunshine at our next break. New guy this time.“
The prospect of drugs always seemed to liven up my mood. We played through a haunting cover of Smokestack Lightning. I nailed every vocal chord stretching note on Tighten Up. We finished with Cross Road Blues and Jake ran off stage to grab a bottle of water from a distant vending machine; always the straight edge.
Tim found he slurping down a couple of Miller Lites at the bar. The alcohol did nothing to cure my withdrawal. Sweat poured from my shirt like an open wound. I had to smell. I told myself that the rock-and-roll lifestyle would explain my grungy attitude to any poor passerby that noticed. Another lie.
I didn’t recognize Tim’s friend. Not that it mattered. The guy could have been the fucking Mad Hatter for all I cared. Tim bargained about the types of drugs, and price, and quantity. That made me more agitated. We saved money for weeks. It should have been simple. All I wanted was to take a large quantity of those little pills and shove them in my mouth. It didn’t matter what they did. I knew they would probably make me feel a hell of a lot better than I did at that moment.
Once the deal was done, the guy hung around a little bit. Tim disappeared to do some bumps in the bathroom while I washed down a few the old-fashioned way. I pulled out my phone and started reviewing the lyrics to our next song with a refreshed mind when the creepy guy whispered in my ear from behind.
“How would you like a pill that could change your life?“
His gruff voice caught me off guard. He spoke so close to my ear that I could feel the small prickles from his beard against my skin.
“Jesus, are we dating? Back off. Tim got our shit already. I’m not trying to kill myself with fucking tar tonight.“
The man pulled up in the bar stool next to me and ordered a tonic. I never really considered him before that. He was older, maybe in his fifties or sixties. That did not seem strange. Most of the folks who frequent blues bars are trying to relive the good old days. The mismatched leather jacket and oddly faded jeans only further fit the persona of his stereotype.
“Not heroin. I didn’t tell your friend because it would be of no use to him. This pill will make you famous, kid. This pill will make you change the world.“
I looked into the man’s dark eyes seriously for a moment. I wanted to give him some hope before my rejection. That made it funnier.
“Nah. Fuck off.“
The man chuckled and took a long sip of his gin.
“You’re still sitting.“
I wanted to get up. My brain said to get up. But a little voice told me to stay. Call that voice my fear of inadequacy. Call it panic based on the fact that Jake would almost certainly know I was fucked up in five minutes. Or just call it my own pea sized self worth.
“I don’t have any money, man. So you should probably peddle your shit somewhere else.“
The man seemed to get excited when I said that.
“That’s the thing… this drug is only for you. No cost for now. I watched your performance tonight. You have so much hidden potential sitting underneath that wrinkling skin that it is begging to burst out. This pill will do that for you. It will release your potential.“
He looked around the bar to see if anybody was watching. Then he opened his palm to reveal a large pill, encased in an ordinary blue shell. I ripped it out of his hand and shoved it in my mouth. Then I wagged my eyebrows like an asshole.
“All gone. Can I go change the world now?“
The man gave me a confident grin and gestured towards the stage.
“Off you go. One day, you can pay me back.“
I didn’t think much about his words. They did not feel like a warning at the time. Besides, the lines to the next song overwhelmed my insanely focused mind.
Save Him is a sad tune by an artist named Justin Nozuka, released in 2007 as part of his Holly album. The lyrics describe an abusive relationship. The climax describes, in brutal detail, the death of both husband and wife. Save Him is a repeated line from the woman. She asks God to save her husband from the hand that he beats her with. God never answers.
It is a heartbreaking and gut wrenching ballad that requires an infinite amount of passion.
My band-mates seemed surprised when I signaled for it. I spit into the mic a bit to open us up. Jake sat down on a chair and plucked the chords to the guitar beautifully. Tim padded the drums softly, only to keep the melancholy beat going as I entered over the rhythm with a wandering soprano offering of the words.
“He loves her more. She loves him more.“
The bikers and bartenders turned from their respective stools and sinks and stared from afar. Right from the start, I knew they were captivated by that opening part. I flew through the lyrics and let them breathe through me. I lived the part of the abusive husband and broken wife all at once on stage. I finished with the final haunting line in the most dramatic fashion a thirty-four year old has been of a man can offer.
“Laughing and kissing, it’s a match made in heaven.“
Most of the grown men in the audience had tears in their eyes by the end.
We played that same song over and over again a thousand times over the next few months.
It started with the high class bars. Then we booked gigs at actual concert halls. We were openers in the beginning. Then we became the headline. We covered more of the popular blues songs. Somewhere along the way, I summoned up the strength to write a few myself. We finally began to make it as a band. People respected us. Jake got a girlfriend. Tim got married. I met a few women and loved them all but never settled down for fear that one day, someday, some way, that man would come back and demand his payment.
I wasn’t a fool.
I played the blues, for fuck’s sake. Everyone in my world has heard of Robert Johnson.
I looked for the man over my shoulder at every show. Soon the effects of the drug started to slow. Nothing else helped. I slurred my words again. My presence started to wain and the sweating started to show. Jake worried about me. Tim told me to go to rehab. I ignored them. We were not famous yet. The man’s promise had not come true. It could not be over.
And so I went back to the bar where we met for the time.
Time played its games again. I arrived at the dive to find myself two years older and looking like most of the regular stereotypes. A new band stood up on stage and mumbled through the words of Red Rooster. The lead singer looked like a slightly less dehydrated version of me.
I found my demon perched in a booth with the least amount of light. He smoked a pack of Kool Menthols. I don’t know anybody else who does. The snail line of smoke emanated from behind his back like some sixties era mobster.
He spoke before he even saw me coming.
“You must know what happens next?“
I sat down across from him in the ripped cloth booth. The man’s grizzled beard remained the same. The balding forehead and rugged leather jacket attached to dad jeans stayed the same. He looked at me with those dark eyes, just like he did two years ago, and smiled.
“No more freebies this time.“
“This pill will change your life. You only got a taste last time. If you thought playing state fairs and slamming tour whores was fun… oh baby, just wait. Your band will reach the billboard. You will father a child with the woman you always waited for. Everyone will know you. In life, and of course, in death…“
The man reached into his pocket and produced another blue pill. This one seemed a little bigger; more substantial. Like the weight of it implied the seriousness of the situation. My druggy reflex kicked in. I tried to snatch it out of his hand.
But the man pulled back like an offended call girl.
“Ah-ah. Like I said, no freebies this time.“
A hunger burned inside of me like the one that had been chasing me my whole life. I knew the hunger blinded me. But I could not say no.
“I’ll be blunt. I know you like that. You won’t live through the year, son. You will have to repay the debt before then.“
The man stared at me serious and continued softly.
“And the worst part is… I don’t choose how it ends. That’s up to the big man. Well, my big man. It could be horrible. It could be gut wrenching, literally. It could be… well, Hell, if you catch my drift.“
He pointed underneath the booth. I nodded and took a long look at the stage. The band strummed along to their own cover of Crossroad Blues. It sounded horrible. The singer forgot half of the words. People started to boo and jeer from the crowd. A server walking by spilled a pint onto the already stained and sticky floor.
I looked into the man’s dark eyes one last time. I thought about my own life. Whether anybody would miss me. Whether anything I had contributed to society up until that point actually left an effect. I grabbed the pretty little pill and tilted my neck. You know the rest.
This encounter only occurred two weeks ago. I have since had time to reconsider. Maybe my life is worth more than I thought. I met a woman who loves me, and I love her, and I know that for sure. But I don’t think it matters. Late at night, I can still hear something scratching at my front door. I can still hear claws clicking across my kitchen floor.
It is only now that I realize I don’t want to die.
I just wanted to feel good.