So, the show already.
If Ziggy could be a moody bitch, so could I. The two of us were all business now with the bitchiness and bastardy, and people stayed out of our way. Bart didn’t try to lighten the mood–maybe he wanted to see what would happen. Zig and I worked ourselves into a fine stew not speaking but giving one another glances that were by turns angry, pitying, regretful, and immature, and once in a while making comments to bystanders that betrayed our state of mind like “We’re going to kick some ass tonight” and “God I hope they don’t throw stuffed animals.”
We’d both learned by then that whatever state of mind you’re in when you’re offstage changes the moment you step into the lights, and it does not always change the way you’d expect. Any images you have of what the show is going to be like are never the way it goes once you’re in the moment.
Once you get out there on the knife edge, everything’s real-time improvisation and whatever script you think you’re going to play from vanishes. It’s like sex that way, the give and take can still surprise you even if you’re following a well-known set list.
We opened with Welcome. Johnny Rotten was right, anger is an energy, and we launched into things hard. The song begins soft, but it can be done with intensity. I let loose with a little crying riff before the verse like a horse neighing in the starting gate, Chris picked up on the tension and gave the cymbal roll an extra push, and when the spotlights hit, Ziggy came in literally growling the words.
I had that feeling as I played, as I picked out a lead line and carried it up, that the notes were coming out of my throat even though I wasn’t singing, like the notes were pouring out of me as I breathed. That happens at the best of times, and usually takes me several songs before I can reach that kind of peak, before I can give myself over to the total that way. But here I was, ripping, my head thrown back, feet planted, two hands moving, and then the chorus came and time to really sing. One part of me did its job singing, while another part of me kept playing, and whatever part of me it is that does things like tries to come up with a script or thinks about what I look like up there got pushed to the back of the bus.
The crowd feels that kind of energy. They were out of their seats and we gave them no chance to sit down between songs. I like a smooth set, with only a few breaks for patter in between. We kicked right in to “Do It Up” –it’s a pretty simple tune, both musically and lyrically, a party song, or as close to one as we come to doing, and we’d put it second in the set to carry the tempo forward from Welcome’s ending and to give people a little good-time feeling before we start hitting them with the heavy stuff, the theatrical stuff. Ziggy was with me on this, we were at the edge of the stage side by side facing the audience, being as loud and steady as you can imagine. We exchanged looks, we kept going. I left him up there to step back and face Bart–we traded riffs like a game of catch and I could see Chris’s eyes when he looked up at us, bright, a little maniacal. He knew we were riding the wave, too.
I had a brief moment of pause as the song was coming to a close–it seemed impossible somehow that so much communication could be going on without us speaking to each other. But look what happens when we do speak to each other…
I pushed through the pause by deciding to test the envelope. As I threw out the notes of the closing riff, I changed it. I started the chug of Intensive Care’s hook; it’s an almost Hendrix-like bit of work with three string chords all over the lead.
They were with me. Ziggy’s mouth was all teeth as he turned to me before he began to sing.
We dropped the volume down so the grinding menace in his voice had a chance to build.
And here it was, the real-time knife edge thing, happening all around me. Ziggy must have been thinking I was out of my mind, or maybe that he’d won the argument after all. Of course I wasn’t thinking about that at the time, because that would have pulled me out of the moment. But it was happening all the same. And it felt good.
Intensive Care can be an ugly song, or it can be sort of erotically painful. After we’d been through the chorus the first time I found myself away from my mic, sinking to my knees facing him, as he crawled over me like a predator, like he’d bite my neck if he weren’t busy singing, his knees touching mine, and then he pulled away in time for me to get back on my feet and sing the chorus again.
It was, I guess, sort of like old times.
Here’s where it started to go wrong. As we were finishing up Intensive Care, I knew it was up to me to either steer us back onto the set list or take us somewhere new. Just as I was about to start into “Wishes,” thinking that after that we’d get back into the regular set order, my thumb locked up. Not exactly locked–a tendon or something caught suddenly and threw me off by a half a beat. I needed to crack it but couldn’t stop then. I got the song going, and Bart picked the riff up and then I did take a step back and shake my hand.
It ached but was okay, or so I kept telling myself. How long had it been aching and I hadn’t been paying attention? And that brought the thought into my head about all the people backstage and wherever who saw that flick of my hand and were now worrying about it. I could feel their anxiety and there was no way I could send a message–I’m okay, forget it–not even by playing, hiding it. And that opened the door for the general thought of what they were thinking, looking at me up here, Digger and Remo, Colin and his bootleg tapes, excellent sound man Graham.
I was out of the now and into self-conscious land again.
I suddenly wondered if Graham could tell about me.
And then Ziggy took a step toward me, sneering, accusatory with the line of the chorus “Oh, I wish.”
I took a step back, short of breath and wondering where my cup of water was, and how I was going to need a sip of it when this song was over. Ziggy sang on, coming closer to me with each repetition:
Oh I wish, I could tell you more
I wish, I could even the score
I wish, I could walk out the door…
Those are the wishes I whisper…
I stood my ground, breathing hard, thoughts spinning through my head. I planted my feet apart and kept my hands doing their job, until we were nose to nose, our foreheads pressed together, wet and more wet, me canted forward like I was leaning into a strong wind to keep the guitar free of his body, him holding the cordless mic to the side a bit so he didn’t hit me in the chin with it.
I wrote this song. I wrote it one day when I was pissed at him. I don’t remember exactly when or which time, and even though I knew some of the lyrics were clunky, cliched, or didn’t completely scan, he hadn’t dicked with them or smoothed them out. I didn’t know if it was that he didn’t bother, or if he knew damn well who the song was meant for and decided to leave it alone for some reason related to that.
But now he was singing it to me, enunciating the words carefully with little snarls and held out syllables, and he was making it make sense this direction, too.
I thought you were the one for me
But a river runs its course
How well I know that you know me
I don’t have to say, because…
We hit the chorus together and stayed together, physically I mean, still head to head, the crowd screaming at the edges of my awareness, and all of those what-do-they-think thoughts were driven forcibly out of my mind.
On the last verse he broke away, spinning on his heel and going back to prancing in front of the audience. But when he started the last verse, I sang it with him. That whole body singing feeling had returned and I played the melody and sang a counterpoint harmony at the same time, dragging the tempo down a notch as we ground toward the end…
Forget the life that has to be
Live instead the truth
I’m on the highway west of me
You’re on the way to the moon…
And I stuck with that line “You’re on the way to the moon,” and Bart and Chris picked it up with a thump-kick line, and I let my hands free and clapped on You’re and Moon, and the audience clapped with me, me and Ziggy repeating the line again and again until it had no meaning anymore, and then we reached that moment where we did all finally stop.
I dumped my cup of water over my face and down my shirt. There were cheers and whistles in the silence while I picked up the Ovation and slid the thumb pick on, checked the tuning, and stepped back to Chris to tell him we were back on the set list now, and to hit it whenever he was ready.