It’s dark. I’m scared shitless. My heart pounds out of my chest, and I can’t seem to steady my breath.
The corridor is narrow. Walls are closing in on me. I breathe deep—in and out. Stomach does cartwheels.
I’m not alone. I hear them out there—voices crashing together, forming a roar that steadily builds. How did this happen? Most of it’s a blur. But here I stand and there they wait.
Then, thundering like God commanding Moses: “Hollywood! Would you please welcome Astral Fountain!”
Troy counts off eight on his drumsticks and—Boom
—I lay down the first three power chords in the opening riff of our first song. The crowd erupts and surges forward. We’re out the gate. Troy’s laying down a solid beat. Drexel—in his black leather pants, Ray-Bans, and tee depicting Colonel Sanders’ head sticking out of a bucket of chicken—tears into the vocals and flies the length of the stage in three giant leaps. Jay blisters the bass line. It’s a wonder his fingers aren’t bleeding.
Sounds loud and mighty.
I’m shaky. Too stiff. Not looking at anyone yet. Imagining I’m alone in my shitty apartment playing to my mirror instead of a nearly packed house of 500 plus. I hit the solo hard, but I’m tight. All brain, no balls.
I can’t fuck this up.
A&R execs are in the house. The night is dubbed The Best Unsigned Bands in L.A.
Four groups—Sunset Nation, Year Long Disaster, the Pontius Pilots, and us—each play an hourlong set with one encore. After the coin toss, we ended up the closers. Our job is to send the crowd off with—as our flier promises—an unforgettable dose of straightforward rock with a modern edge.
I stare up at the massive crystal chandelier that hangs over the floor of the El Rey Theatre. Try my damnedest to turn my brain off. Zone in on a cluster of crystals blinking like a beacon and let their flickering crayon box of colors envelop me. And then a wave of peace hits me square. My hands begin to move on their own. My Blackie Strat starts talking and I’m not pulling the strings. I’m out of my own way. Finally. I start to surprise myself, get lost in the music, and feel possessed.
Hands reach up to me from the mosh pit. I see faces out of the corner of my eye, but I won’t acknowledge them. Not yet.
A blast of euphoria as I start my solo. Goddamn—I love this. This is why I was put on this earth.
Solo nailed. Drexel spins across the stage like the Tasmanian Devil and finishes the song on his knees. The crowd explodes. “Fuck yeah!” Drexel screams. “We are Astral Fountain and we are here to ring your ears.”
By our third song—an anthem Drexel and Jay wrote called “Creed”—I’m in the zone, standing taller. The band is right in the pocket. The crowd sways in unison. The chandelier is a wicked kaleidoscope. Finally, I’m at ease and make eye contact with the crowd. The first pair of eyes I lock with are bloodshot. Dude in the pit with a yin-yang tattoo on the top of his head is drenched in sweat. Crusty lips. Looks like he could drain a water cooler dry. Ecstasy. Too much of it. Probably won’t remember he was here tomorrow. I scan the first two rows. A blonde—silicone jugs like basketballs—mirrors my solo on her air guitar. She’s spilling out of her Kings of Leon tee. I nod and wink. She smiles back. Target acquired. I play my balls off for Blondie and her twins. I do some harmonizing with Drexel and Jay.
I soak up the ambience of the theater. The chandelier dominates the room, but so does the sea of red. Everything’s seriously red—the walls, carpets, ceiling, and booths that line the side walls. It feels like I’m trapped in an artery. The place used to be a movie theater back in the thirties. Hit the skids and wound up as a concert venue in the early nineties. It’s a building with a lot of shadows. Definitely haunted. I feel restless spirits in the air, but I don’t care. They can do their thing. I’m doing mine. I’m not in that business anymore.
Next up is our ballad—“Shelter.” Journey through Hollywood’s underbelly. Drexel introduces the song with the story of how he and Jay wrote it in rehab in 2007. Then he makes his little public-service announcement about the scourge of drugs. Speak for yourself. I hate this part of the show. Wish he’d just shut up and sing.
Drexel’s vocal range on this one runs the gamut of the vocal scale. Starts down in Barry White territory and ends up somewhere in Robert Plant-land. Amazing range this kid has. And charisma to boot.
We close the set with the song that got me hired—“Layla.” And I’m the star on this one. When I end with the bird chirp, the crowd goes apeshit.
We pulled it off.
The house lights come on. Barbie waves and flashes me from the pit. Yes!
We take our bows.
That’s when I see him—three-quarters of the way back. Can’t be. Jay pulls me off stage before I can pinpoint if it’s really him.
We stand in the wings soaking up the cheers. “Dude, you were a mad man out there,” Drexel says to me. He takes a huge swig of Tazo tea. A twenty-one-year-old kid who doesn’t drink. A pity.
I nod and grin. “You, too.”
Jay types on his phone. “What the fuck?” I say to him.
“Tweeting,” he says.
The house lights dim. We march back on stage for our encore. Zone in on the location where I thought I saw him. He’s not there. Move toward center stage for my solo when I spot him again. It is him. He’s made his way to the center of the pit.
Excuse me—Dr. Ned Ross. Standing there in the same lame khakis and brown sweatshirt he was wearing the last time I saw him a year ago. Hasn’t lost a pound. I lock eyes with him for an instant before redirecting my gaze to the chandelier. No way. Not tonight. But a mini-glance back toward him confirms that he knows I’ve seen him. He’s grinning, reaching up with the rest of the hands tomahawking me during my solo. The yin-yang X
-tripper runs amok in the pit. He’s bulldozing like a sumo champ when he plows into Blondie, knocking her flat on her ass. Then he barrels the other way and Ned extends a leg all nonchalantly, trips him, and gets a dozen high fives for the effort. A brawl breaks out as we take our final bows. The house lights go up and we watch six guys stomp the shit out of the yin-yang wrecking ball. Ned has moved aside to watch the carnage, laughing his ass off. He waves and yells my name but I ignore him as we leave the stage.
Our manager, Bo Flanigan, herds us into the closet-sized dressing room and slams the door shut. It flies opens a second later, but Bo slams it shut again and orders Syd, our stage manager, to stand guard and tell any would-be trespassers that the band is locked down for fifteen minutes of mandatory decompression. “No one gets in until I open the fucking door,” Bo shouts. “Understood?”
Syd nods and ducks outside.
Bo’s always edgy. Talks fast. Always looks like he just rolled out of bed. Midthirties, but looks fifty. Stringy red hair. Drinks like a champ, but not even the hint of a beer gut. Sweats like a contestant on The Biggest Loser
. You don’t need to slap a cuff on his arm to know his blood pressure is up there. Just standing next to him, you can taste his stress. He owns two pairs of jeans, a dozen concert shirts from the nineties, an official Rolling Stones tour jacket from the Bridges to Babylon
tour, and a Rolex—a parting gift from The Killers. Bo led them to the promised land and they dumped him after they signed their record contract.
Bo knows music.
Bo’s smart. He’s aggressive, but not pushy.
“You slayed ’em, boys,” Bo says. “I smell a record deal. Ira Bowersock was in the crowd. I spotted him.”
“Me, too,” Jay says. “He was into us.”
Bo reaches in a cooler and hands Red Bulls to Drexel and Jay. He cracks open a Stella for himself, but glances at Drexel and then Jay before taking a swig. “This gonna bother you?” he asks them for at least the hundredth time. “I’ll dump it if it does.”
“Fuck no,” Drexel says.
“Drink up. Celebrate,” Jay adds.
Bo hands Stellas to me and Troy. Beer has never tasted better. Troy downs his in two gulps and throws his head back. He’s the elder of the group—thirty-one. A decent drummer—nothing special. But he’s a presence—big, thick, blond, always bloated and puffy. Only wears head-to-toe red. I call him the fire truck. I’m standing next to him, all in black. We look like Crips vs. Bloods. He’s a serious binge drinker, mostly beer. The way he just downed that first one … we’re in for a long night. Troy cracks open a second one. “I’m getting righteously fucked up tonight,” he says. Hollywood, be warned.
Now that drinking has commenced, Drexel and Jay put a few feet of distance between me and Troy. They play for the clean team. Drexel’s demon was heroin; Jay’s, booze and pills. They met at Promises Treatment Center in Malibu. I assume they were born with golden spoons. Twelve steps with an ocean view doesn’t come cheap. Neither does their gear or their clothes.
Jay McCollum—stage name JayMac—is the best musician among us. He’s a gifted guitarist, keyboardist, and harmonica player, but on bass, he’s truly brilliant. Plays with such speed and power that the instrument transforms into a six-string rhythm guitar. A twenty-five-year-old African-American god of thunder and a solid, even-keeled guy. Always looks cool on stage with his Kangol and expensive silk shirts. Dead serious when it comes to music. Never flies off the handle … unlike Drexel.
Word on the street is that Drexel (no last name) is the bastard son of a famous rocker. Rumors run the gamut from Axl Rose to David Lee Roth to Flea. He won’t confirm or deny it. It’s one of those juicy rumors that gets us some mileage on the local music websites. He’s twenty-one going on twelve. Bitches about everything. Doesn’t believe in paying dues. But he possesses an authentic stage presence. Impossible not to look at. A triple-E front man: entitled, egotistical, and exceptional. Those are the guys who usually make it. A giant pain in the ass, but he’s going to be a rock star. I know it. And I’m along for the ride.
Bo knocks on a table, demands attention. “When Ira comes back to chat, I do all the talking. Understand?”
We all nod. This’ll be our third meeting with the legendary Ira Bowersock. The man who discovered and signed Garbage, Green Day, Marilyn Manson, Kid Rock, and Nickelback—to name a few. Been at Warner Music twenty-three years. Started out as a radio-promo scrub; worked his way up to executive VP of strategy and business development. Fucking big shot. Just got run out in a reorg when the new CEO came in.
Ira spotted us before EMI or any of the other major labels. He took us all to dinner at Bouchon. Sized us up. Spent time chatting with each one of us. Asked a lot of questions about our musical influences. He struck me as smart and driven the first time we met.
“So does he have a label or not?” Drexel asks. “I don’t care about his past. What’s he doing now?”
“Still counting his severance package and cashing in his stock options,” Bo says. “Word on the street is he’s flush, he’s pissed off, and his new label will be launched within sixty days.” Bo raises a hand of caution. “What we have to find out is if Ira’s little venture is a midlife crisis or if he seriously wants to get back in the ring and make music.”
“A start-up?” Drexel gripes.
“If this guy is serious and we can get in on the ground floor …” Bo lets it hang. Can’t speak for the others, but I understand. Big fishes in a small pond wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Drexel pouts. “I don’t know,” he whines.
Drexel’s still licking his wounds, still pissed off that we got turned down by EMI. It was fun the few weeks it lasted. A metrosexual A&R exec with a cheesy smile and a wimp-ass handshake wined and dined us for a couple of weeks. Steak dinner at Cut. Praised us up the ass. Kept using the word solid
. Told us he’d help us find our sound. Take us global. Make us rock gods. Three minutes in and I pegged him as a hollow chocolate Easter Bunny. Didn’t know dick about music.
Did I mention I pretty much hate everyone? That includes trust fund pups with uncles high up on the EMI food chain. Fuck them. They’re a big bloated megacorp. And while Drexel and Jay were drooling over his every word, I wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid.
Didn’t matter in the end. After our six-song EP made the rounds internally, EMI passed.
“All right, boys,” Bo says, cracking open a beer for himself. “Enjoy yourselves, but go easy until our meeting with Ira is over. Syd!” he shouts at the top of his lungs.
Syd throws open the door and at least a dozen people rush in, drinks in hand. As if the rest of us are invisible, the majority of the crowd rushes right up to Drexel.
It must be good to be the front man.
I duck out of the room and into the corridor that leads from dressing rooms to the stage. The entourages of four hungry bands are on a major high. Beer is flowing. Shots are downed. The smell of weed—good weed—fills the air. Despite the rivalries, camaraderie is high. We all kicked ass. There’s an electric crackle of something good buzzing. It’s hope, and it’s contagious.
I like moments like this, when people, me included, are brimming with positive energy. Tonight, we all believe that destiny’s calling, that there’s something just over the horizon so good that it’s terrifying. Some people like to talk it up during moments like this. Boast. Beat their chests. But not me. I keep these moments to myself. Tuck them away. There sure as hell aren’t many of them.
I walk by the members of the Pontius Pilots. Jeremy Bayre, the drummer, hands me an open fifth of Jack. I take a big, fat swig. It burns delightfully and I get a little shiver as it slides down the hatch. Further down the hall, I cross paths with Barbie and her twins. We awkwardly get in each other’s way as we try to pass. We laugh.
“You’re really good,” she says.
“So are you.”
She giggles. Sounds perfectly ditzy.
“Enjoy the show?”
“I love you guys,” she says.
God, up close her tits are even bigger than I thought. “I’m Kane.”
“Wendy,” she says with a killer smile and nary an ounce of brainpower.
“Can I get you a drink?” I ask.
“I think that’s doable,” I say, taking her by the hand and leading her back to our dressing room. As soon as we walk in, the other guys start ogling her. I hate letting Wendy out of my sight for the twenty seconds it takes me to dig Bo’s bottle of Belvedere out of the cooler and fill a red plastic cup.
Just as I hand Wendy her drink, Bo enters and lets out a piercing whistle. “Attention! Guys, Ira wants a word.”
“I’ll be right back,” I tell Wendy. “Help yourself to the Belvedere.” Troy, Drexel, Jay, and I follow Bo into the corridor where Ira Bowersock is waiting with a smile. This guy oozes success. Late forties. Salt-and-pepper hair. Five o’clock shadow. Jeans. Untucked white shirt and navy blazer. George Clooney would play him in a movie.
“Ira,” Bo says, hugging the guy. “Glad you made it.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it,” Ira says. He has a deep, DJ voice. He’s heard the EP. This is the first time he’s seen us live. Here comes the verdict.
He makes eye contact with each one of us. “Look, guys, I’ll be brief,” Ira says. “You put on a killer show. I liked the EP. You’re catchy, but you also have a rev in your engine. It’s music to dance to, or rob a 7-Eleven at gunpoint to.”
We all laugh. He defined us in three seconds. He’s good.
Ira looks at Bo, then at us. “I think if we can put some meat on your bones—lyrically, stylistically—you might pop.”
Drexel winces. He doesn’t believe he needs an ounce of meat on any bone. Boy needs to find his poker face.
“The rumors are true. I’m starting a new label,” Ira continues. “Nothing official yet. Just leased some rehearsal space temporarily out by Van Nuys Airport. I’m building a studio in Burbank.”
Bo smells blood. “Congratulations,” he says to Ira. “But if you’re really interested, we need to know now. Other labels are calling. Tonight’s gonna put us over the top.” Bo’s stretching the truth a little. Now that EMI passed, only a handful of minor labels are still courting us. But if Ira doesn’t know EMI passed yet, Bo’s strategy might just work.
“Let me get away and think,” Ira says. “I’ll be in touch this week.”
Holy shit, it’s a maybe. “When’s your next gig?” Ira asks.
Bo hands Ira a flyer. “Friday night. At the Whisky.”
“I’ll be there,” Ira says.
Bo plays it cool. “You and many others.”
I study Ira as he walks away. He doesn’t stop to talk to any of the other bands.
I have a good feeling about this guy.
“I don’t know,” Drexel whines again.
“Listen to me,” Bo says sternly. “I know the lay of the land. If this guy is serious and we get in on the ground floor, this is an elevator that won’t stop climbing.”
We stand there silently for a few minutes.
Bo breaks the tension. “Work is over,” he says. “Go have fun.”
We all go separate directions. I’m about to make a beeline back to Wendy, but Syd stops me short of our dressing room. “There’s some fat old dude out front who won’t leave,” Syd says. Says he’s a friend of yours. Should I let him come back?”
“No,” I snap. I’m not mixing worlds. Ned’s not welcome in this reality. “I’ll go out and see him. Do me a favor,” I say. “Go pour Wendy Whoppers another Belvedere on the rocks and tell her what a genius I am.”
He laughs. “Yeah, right.”
I walk down the crammed hallway to the stage. Look down. There he stands in front of the stage, all two hundred eighty-five pounds of him. Dr. Ned Ross. Ghost from the past. He grins. “Look at you. Eric Clapton up there. Guitar Hero. Big rock star—can’t respond to emails or phone messages?”
“Sorry, it’s been a crazy year,” I say, extending my hand down. He grabs it, plants his foot on a chair, and I pull him up onstage. “Fuck, you’re heavy,” I groan. “What happened to that blood type diet you were on?”
“I did what it said. It didn’t work.”
“You can’t lose weight eating roast beef every day. It’s fucking impossible. It doesn’t matter that you’re O-negative.”
“I’m thinking about getting that lap band.”
“Just lay off the Funyuns and pizza. Get a dog and walk him. It’s not rocket science.”
“If it were as easy as rocket science, I’d have washboard abs by now,” Ned says.
And with that, we’re right back in our groove.
“Why’d you come?” I ask.
Ned takes in the view of the ballroom from the stage. “To hear the music.”
“I wasn’t disappointed. Your band doesn’t suck. Actually—truthfully—you’re pretty good. You’re the nucleus … and I’m not just saying that ’cause you used
to be my friend. You really nailed ‘Layla.’”
“Thanks,” I say.
“I also came to talk shop. I might have something for us. Could be big.” Ned looks at me intently. I don’t flinch.
“I’m done with all of that. I told you.”
“Just hear me out.”
I still like this guy, but I want to turn and run. “No.”
“You still have the soul trap, right? You didn’t destroy it?”
“It’s right where I left it.”
“I may need it,” Ned says.
I’m getting jittery. I need to get away from him. Away from my past. Back to the band—to Wendy.
“What’s the problem?” Ned asks, impatiently. “It’s me. It’s Ned. We’re still friends, right?”
I don’t answer. I’m having trouble breathing. My pulse is racing. The hair stands up on my arms. I feel like I’m being watched from behind. That old feeling is back.
“I mean, why does it have to be all or nothing with you?” Ned demands to know.
“You have to understand something. This …,” I say, raising my arms and glancing around, “… is my present. You’re a reminder of the past.”
“That stings,” Ned says. “Got ice in your veins, Kane,” he adds, chuckling in disbelief.
“No offense,” I shoot back. “When past and present collide, it fucks me all up.”
“We’ve been through a lot,” Ned adds. “I have feelings, you know.”
Christ, take a hint already. “I know,” I say. What does he need me to do—write it in blood for him? He’s not getting back in. I feed him some bullshit: “You know me—I’m not good at balancing things.” Then, the truth: “You know me—I’m an asshole.”
He laughs. “Yeah, I know you. And I’ve sure as hell missed you.”
He is not going away. Ever. “You wanna talk? Catch up? Fine. But not now.”
“When?” he asks.
“We rehearse almost every night. Next week?” I can turn next week into next month.
“How about tomorrow? You rehearse on Sundays?”
May as well get it over with. Whatever. “Fine. Tomorrow night works.”
“I’ll meet you at that bar by your apartment. What’s it called?”
“The Frolic Room.”
“Yeah. Nine o’ clock. Okay?”
I haven’t been to the Frolic Room since I throttled the bartender. It was the day I kissed off my past. Kind of miss that jukebox, that smell of rot. “Okay,” I tell him.
“Bring the soul trap.”
It’s a demand, not a question. I flinch. Even though I haven’t touched it in almost a year, it’s still mine. I’m the one who uses it to hunt down, capture, and send ghosts from this world to the next. I’m the one who risks my hide, scrambles my brain to project my soul inside the trap to face the spirits I trap. It’s the coolest fucking toy in the world, and like a bad kid, I don’t like sharing it with anyone, even the guy who helped design and build it.
But if I keep it, I’ll never escape from my past. I’ll never bury the ghost hunter persona that defined me for a decade. “All right,” I finally say. “I’ll bring it.”
“Okay, then,” he says. Damn, he picks up on my reluctance. He knows me too well. “I’ll let you get back to your festivities.”
“I’d invite you back for a drink,” I lie, “but—”
“Nah,” he growls. “I’d stand out like a turd on a wedding cake.”
I laugh. I kind of miss that.
Ned clumsily jumps off the stage and lands on his feet with a thud. “That hurt,” he groans. “Damn knee.”
I watch him limp across the ballroom. He stops and turns. Yells, “Thanks, Kane.”
And then I get a shiver. There’s a spirit in this old theater. The minute I tuned back in, I felt it.
I kind of miss those shivers.
I wave good-bye and head toward the dressing room. Hopefully, Wendy’s plastic cup is empty and she’s ready for a night of fun. Syd stops me short of the dressing room door. “You may not want to go in there,” he says.
I ignore him. Walk in. Drexel’s making out with Wendy, one hand on her ass, the other up her Kings of Leon tee.
Goddamn it, Ned.
Wendy sees me out of the corner of her eye and totally ignores me. Starts nibbling Drexel’s neck like a vampire toying with her prey.
I turn and aimlessly wander. Syd’s laughing. “I told her you were a genius,” he teases. I give him the finger. “Twenty bucks says he bangs her on the premises.”
I walk away. A few minutes later, I see Syd waving madly at me from down the corridor. “She’s blowing him,” he mouths at me, slowly and deliberately, as he points to our dressing room.
It must be really good to be the front man.