I woke up when someone shook me on the shoulder. I opened my eyes to find Ziggy kneeling backwards in the seat in front of me, frowning like maybe he’d been there for a while. He brushed the hair away from my eyes and I let him.
“You okay?” he said.
“Just tired.” I yawned. The stage was empty and dim. “Didn’t sleep well last night.”
He looked like he was about to say something and then changed his mind, tucking his lips in and settling back on his heels. He jerked his head to the side. “Doors about to open.”
“Okay.” We stood up in unison and as we walked toward the wings he threw an arm around my shoulders. “Don’t be cold,” he said.
“What do you mean.” I resisted the urge to pull away.
“Tonight,” he said, as if that clarified everything, “don’t be cold.” And then we were back stage and he broke away from me.
Digger’s hand landed on my shoulder where Ziggy’s had been and I jumped.
“There you are,” he said, his voice neutral, though I found myself listening for a hint of something more and wondering if he’d overheard that little exchange between us. “The food’s over here.”
The next half hour was a blur of glad-handing people from the radio station, other bands, and local press. Catering was in full swing now in the back hallway, with champagne punch and fruit and cheese. Digger seemed to fit in just fine. Ziggy was lost in the crowd. The lights flicked on and off and a few minutes later the first band went on. I had a series of conversations of this formula:
Them: You’re Daron, aren’t you?
Them: Candlelight/Prone was one of my favorite songs/albums of the year.
Them: It was really great to meet you finally.
(repeat with next person)
I began to feel that I wasn’t doing enough to hold up my end of the conversations. What else should I be saying? What else did I have to tell them? Should I ask them about themselves? Sometimes they would tell me things like “I’m the production manager at the station” or “I’m so-and-so’s wife” which might give me a hint but didn’t go very far in varying the topic of discussion. These people felt like they knew me, or like they wanted to tell me they did, but that was all.
And the more I nodded and smiled and shook hands, the more I realized that they didn’t know me at all. Oh, big revelation, I told myself while I was washing my hands in the men’s room. Like there haven’t been a million songs and books and movies about celebrity alienation before. Get on with it, boy.
At least I had something different to fret over besides my thumb and the mediocre state of our recent rehearsals until our turn came. Ska Ka Doodle got the crowd bopping–sometimes I think ska is the ultimate party music, some of the happiest, moving-est music on earth. And as I stood in the wings with the Fender slung across my back I began to think maybe following them wasn’t necessarily the best idea. I looked back at Bart who was looking out at what we could see of the audience. Their faces colored identically by the amber light, they looked like something from an old Life magazine photo. Chris was tapping on his head like a drum, making the jingle bell on his hat tinkle. Ziggy was staring straight up into the rafters, still as a stone.
The stage manager gave me the high sign, and I took one, two, three steps out into the lights which came up bright a few seconds later. The crowd cheered louder, a forceful sound, and although one part of me was thinking ‘home town crowd’ another part was thinking that there was something scary about standing up in front of people who were screaming. Okay, most of them were just cheering, but some of them were genuinely screaming, and there seemed to me to be something violent in that, some kind of damage incurred or price to be paid.
Bart was looking at me: waiting for me to plug in. I did, and Chris hit the four count a moment later, and there we were, in the thick of “Cross to Bear.” Ziggy jumped from the drum riser and snagged the mic stand as he flew past, catching it at just the right moment to hit that first note. The slide felt slick in my fingers as I ran it up the neck. Ziggy ran his hand up his thigh in tandem and licked his lips at me.
Don’t be cold he had said.
I swallowed hard and bent my head over the guitar as if I had to look at it to play. Maybe I did–I sprayed out a flurry of notes that should have been a neat arpeggio but wasn’t. I wanted to make eye contact with Bart, fade into the background of the rhythm section while Ziggy did his thing out front, but I didn’t want to see the look on Bart’s face that my flub would prompt. I stared into the crowd instead, chugging out safe, familiar riffs until I regained my balance. Some people were standing up, some sitting down. The overabundance of red and green lights made it seem darker than usual on the stage and brighter than usual in the audience. I could see individual teeth in smiles, B.U. sweatshirts, baseball caps, but couldn’t focus on any one person.
From the corner of my eye I could see Ziggy crawling across the front of the stage toward me as he panted out the chorus “Cross. To. Bear.” And then he was on his knees in front of me, holding the cordless mic in his prayer-folded hands, his eyes looking deeper and darker than I had remembered them. “You are my angel, cross to bear.” I kept playing, knowing I had four bars until a solo, and hoping that he’d crawl away in that time. But he didn’t. I let the slide move seemingly by itself and picked out a series of notes, while he dipped and bobbed in obeisance like he was worshipping the guitar. The audience couldn’t see his lips moving like he was speaking in tongues, but I could. My feet wanted to take a step back from him, but performance-wise I knew that would be worse than the leaden, meandering solo I was playing now. Just play the melody, goddammit, I told myself, but I wasn’t at the right place in the progression to start it again, and I couldn’t seem to hear where to pick it up in the middle. I swung my eyes to Bart, who was standing by the drum riser, both his and Chris’s eyes glued to me. I gave a nod and hit the opening riff again: they followed me. We had skipped the bridge after the solo and were barreling straight for the end of the song. Ziggy hopped up with a frown but didn’t get lost with where we were, thank god. The song ended.
“Next time, use Levy’s nails,” Ziggy said cryptically to the audience, which responded with a titter of false I-get-it laughter.
Bart and I exchanged looks. I shrugged, not sure who he was questioning, Ziggy or me. Come on, I tried to say with the shrug, it’s not the first time we’ve had a rough take.
But I knew I was in the quicksand. Ziggy would not take the hint and leave me alone, circling me, rubbing his back against mine. I could see Digger in the wings, rubbing his chin, and hear Chris pushing the tempo like he was trying to resuscitate me. “Don’t be cold,” Zig had said, and here I was, freezing up like the proverbial virgin on wedding night. Out came another set of riffs from my mechanical hands that sounded like I was trying to make a backing track for myself to overdub. Bart tried to overcompensate by throwing in more fills and we ended up stepping on each other. Even “Rain,” one of our most straightforward songs, the tune that should have worked beautifully with the slide, came out awkward. When I sang, I sang too hard like I was trying to make up for it, and the sweet harmony we’d had in sound check was gone. I stopped looking into the audience for fear I’d see quizzical or disappointed faces. Or indifferent ones. Sweat made my eyes sting and I wished I’d left my hair in a pony tail. I let it hang over my face then, like a curtain, squeezed my eyes shut, and tried to play.
There’d be no encore because there was a band coming on after us. Two songs left, the new “Way of Life” and “Candlelight.” With my eyes shut and the sound of Chris and Bart the only thing I could sense, I concentrated on the melody of “Rain”, on twining the melody around itself. Ziggy’s voice joined in, and I brought us around to the chorus again, once, twice, before I hit the ending notes. There, I told myself, that wasn’t too terribly bad… I segued into the opening of “Way of Life” before I could think any more congratulatory thoughts.
We were halfway to the chorus when I had the disturbing thought that with my eyes shut, I couldn’t tell where Ziggy was or what he might be doing. He could be lying on the ground with his head between my legs for all I knew… I opened my eyes but kept my head down: no, he wasn’t there. I knew this wasn’t ideal. With me rooted to one spot, that left Bart stranded on the opposite side of the drum riser. With me ignoring Ziggy, I’d left Ziggy only Bart to play off of. He’d said not to be cold but I couldn’t somehow now be anything but. Did we really slide down, eyes closed, together, to kneel side by side on the stage in Portland? Did I really let him wrap his arms around me to play a few notes while I clapped my hands in Chicago? How did I ever grind my hips into the guitar with all these people watching?
I looked up and Ziggy was pretending to lick the mic like an ice cream cone between lyrics. Bart caught my eye again and we moved to stand together, matching each other, riff for riff. This is okay, I thought, if only we had more time.
But then, we had to split apart to do Candlelight, each to our own mic to add voices to the chorus. I fumbled with the slide and it fell onto the stage and rolled away from me. Fuck it. My fingers shook a little as I dug into the first chord, pressing down with the middle three and hooking my thumb over the top of the neck. The thumb held up for the first few changes and then the pain shot up my arm like something had come loose. But my grip stayed tight and I gritted my teeth as the ache between my thumb and wrist deepened.
Tears were starting to come out of my eyes as Ziggy neared me, his mouth forming words I’d written years ago in a church at Midnight Mass (the Drunkards’ Mass, Digger called it) on a page torn from the missal and stashed in a notebook until two years ago. I had never intended it as a Christmas song, but between the new video and the theme of the concert it seemed almost crass. The pain seemed to creep up my arm and I mouthed the words in unison with him until we came to the chorus, “Candlelight, candlelight…” I could hear a shakey quality in my voice in the monitor. Ziggy sidled up to me, and I let the guitar hang free as I sang. The plan had been for us all to stop playing at once, and for us to suddenly be singing a capella, but I dropped out early, suppressing the urge to hide my hand under my arm. Bart dropped out next, while Chris tapped out a Stewart Copeland-esque rhythm, until he too was just singing. Ziggy held his mic behind his back and sang, eyes closed, into mine. Our cheeks touched as we sang, I could feel his sweat-soaked hair against my temple, and I kept singing even though my throat felt half-closed up.
At least the crowd was singing along, some of them, until we stopped and their voices were lost in the general applause. Okay, it wasn’t that bad, I told myself. But if it wasn’t that bad, why do you have to keep telling yourself that?
“Merry Christmas…” Ziggy sing-songed before they cut off his mic.
I was in excruciating pain and it must have showed, because Bart took the Fender from me as soon as we were off stage. Then I did stick my hand under my arm, as he said, “Jeezus, man, you’re shaking.”
“No lie,” I said. We went to the dressing room, Ziggy and Digger both hovering around as I took what felt like extra-slow steps to the sunken couch.
“Here you go, kiddo, here you go,” Digger was saying as he tried to hand me a plastic cup of champagne which I had no free hand to take with.
Bart took it and sat down next to me. “Christ on a pogo stick, did you do something? It wasn’t like this yesterday.”
Chris and one of the guys from Ska Ka Doodle crouched down in front of me. “Try this.” The guy handed Chris a little yellow pill. He patted me on the knee. “Man, you look in rough shape.”
“What is it?”
“Percs,” Chris said. “Same stuff your doctor gives you when you get a tooth pulled,” he added, as if that made it okay.
I took the pill and washed it down with the champagne. Digger was still repeating “Here you go” from time to time and I wondered if he’d popped any magic pills tonight, himself. I handed the empty cup back to Bart and stuck my hand under my arm again. “Jeezus fucking christ on a pogo fucking stick,” I said then. “What are you all looking at me for? I’ve fucking had enough of people staring at me tonight.” I squeezed my eyes shut and wished I was wearing dry clothes. “I’m going to live, okay? Crisis over. I mean, thank you for your concern and everything…” I opened my eyes and everyone was still staring at me. “What, did I grow two heads, or something?”
Bart was shaking his head as he got up. “Or something,” he said under his breath.
“Yeah, and Merry fucking Christmas, too,” I said to no one in particular.