There’s this moment—and if you’re lucky enough to be in a half-decent band, you’ll know it.
It comes when you’re playing a gig, can be near the start but never right at the start, can be during an encore, but usually it comes halfway through the second verse of one of your best— for some reason not your very best—songs.
You stand there, playing whatever instrument you play, with me it’s drums, and at the same time you’re able to sit way way the fuck out towards the very back of your mind—and you’re able to watch everything around you.
The music isn’t exactly playing itself, but during that moment it feels just like it could, possibly, with one more push.
And sometimes, just then, when this is upon me, someone else in the band will feel the exact same thing at the exact same moment, and they’ll turn sideways from the audience, and we’ll exchange a glance that says it all.
And after this moment, whether there’s been a glance or not, what I always feel is best is to look out into the audience—if the lighting allows—and find someone there that saw the glance and understood just what it meant: that this, for us, isn’t just another gig, this is the reason we go through all the other shit in the first.
There is a moment—I know there is a moment; I remember it pretty well, it’s just, it’s been so long since I’ve experienced it, since I’ve made any kind of eye contact with another member of okay. (Our image doesn’t exactly require us to be chummy-chummy. I know that certain fansites have compiled lists of the gigs we broke off halfway through, after throwing our instruments at one another’s heads or feet.)
This, the above, is why I thought it was time to tour again—not, I repeat, not for the money; there is enough of that, given our back catalogue and the eventual decision to let them use ‘Sea Song’ to advertise that cranberry juice.
No, I wanted to feel the moment, be in it, and then do a little dance around its precinct.
I’m thirty-five now, and I’ve only got a limited number of little dances left—or a limited time in which to dance them, without loss of dignity. (Dignity, surprisingly, is important to me—even the controlled loss of it: children bring this upon one.)
When I dance these days bits of me move that never used to, because they were never there, or because they were more securely attached.
I don’t want to be an embarrassment to anyone, least of all my daughters who will see the footage when they grow up—but I do need, for what feels like the last time, in California-speak, to reconnect.
And so I called Syph, and I called him, and I called again, and after a week, when he probably thought I was his dealer, he picked up.
‘Hey,’ he said, a hey which seemed to go on for at least ten seconds.
Although we are famous together, and I am one quarter of the reason he is (as lead singer) ten times more famous than I am, it took me a minute to get him to show any comprehension of who I was.
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘hi.’ He wasn’t unfriendly, he was just speaking long-distance, and not to me, to his own mouth—I could tell; I knew him and his drug moods well enough. It was antidepressants with God knows what layered on top: drugs of focus, drugs of obliteration—a careful balance that no longer worked, certainly not for me, probably not for him.
I explained what I was thinking—a tour of smaller venues— and Syph didn’t say no: whether he’d still remember this conversation the time after the next time he lost consciousness… I decided to fax him a reminder, then called the others.
Mono was out of the house, probably fishing with Major. Since she quit the perfume counter and moved in to his lakeside shack, that’s mostly what they’ve done—apart from have three children (could be a problem). I left a message on his machine, faxed, emailed and wrote him a letter on fluorescent paper, just so I could be sure.
Crabs picked up after a ring and a half. He doesn’t move far from the phone, ever, and is probably keeping that close so as to be sure he doesn’t miss exactly this call, when it comes. He lives for the road and dies without it. ‘I’ll be there,’ he said, before I’d even said where.
L.A.—two weeks later. Crabs having taken the red-eye, gone to hang out with Syph and try to get him both straight and in the mood. Mono having had the letter, and the fact that he owned an answerphone, a fax and a computer, drawn to his attention by the delightful Major. Perhaps she wanted him out of the house. Now I see what made Syph fall for her—she’s a solid woman. She’d put any man right, even Syph.
Not like the matchstick I found him with when I arrived at his off-Mulholland (please, don’t do it, Syph—but I just love the view) mansion. I can never remember who it used to belong to, but they were very famous and waited till they’d moved out before drinking themselves to death. Syph wasn’t intending to make the same mistake. The windows were painted black, I saw from the outside, and also covered with tinfoil, I saw when I cleared a space on the couch and sat down—very grateful not to have spiked myself on a needle, of which there were many. I hadn’t known it was this bad. Crackhouse chic—burns up some of the walls, Jackson Pollocks of dried blood, a sea of takeout containers, mice. It can be a terrible thing, when the cheques keep coming in without you having to go out of the house. Syph was wearing the darkest pair of glasses I’ve ever seen.
I remembered wanting The Moment back, but I also wanted to save my friend from himself, from the matchstick girl, the drugs, the guy in an expensive leather jacket in the shadows.
Crabs had got Syph onto the JD, so he was at least not raging. Whilst I talked, he did what passes with a lead singer for listening: wait for the sentences that include his name and then follow the content from then until the next period is reached. I had long known how to deal with this, and so began every other sentence with, ‘If Syph agrees…’ or ‘Syph, of course, is important here for…’ This pisses both the others off, but they know it has to be done—otherwise decisions are reached that Syph later claims never to have been consulted about. Legally, this causes problems, worst of all was the cranberry juice ad.
I told Syph that Syph had been really fired up by the idea of a small-scale tour, first time I called Syph, and Syph seemed to believe me. The other two knew I was lying but didn’t mind; checking with them later, I confirmed that, seeing the state our old friend was in, they’d decided to join me on my mercy mission: get him road-ready, get him away from all the leather jackets and matchgirls.
‘We’ll just turn up in a van,’ I said. ‘Let the college radio station hear about it, accidentally, a few hours before. Appear under a different name, play covers, or hardcore versions of our songs, or whatever the fuck we want.’
‘Whatever the fuck we want,’ said Syph, with a smile, then nodded off. I’d forgotten to include his name in that last sentence.
We had made a start. The following afternoon, the band reconvened. Syph was very different—completely lucid, focussed, aggressive and wanting to be in charge. From what he said, it appeared he now believed that he’d called us together, that the small-scale tour was his idea and that, out of the other three, I was the one being obstructive.
‘Er, Syph,…’ said Mono, but I shook my head at him. Although delusional, this was fine—I didn’t mind Syph misquoting me; better that than dying before our eyes.
Syph had been up all night. Our management, who I was interested to find were still interested in us, had taken an early morning flight down from Toronto—were due to arrive within an hour.
‘They’ll deal with all the shit,’ said Syph, who hadn’t sat down once since we arrived. ‘The bookings, the fees, the equipment.’
‘Of course they will,’ Mono said. ‘That’s their job.’
‘And we can just…’ said Crabs. He closed his eyes, nodded and mimed a descending bass part that I think I recognised.
‘Fucking exactly,’ screeched Syph. ‘They can talk, we can rock!’
I remembered a time, long ago, when we only used the word rock ironically—verb or noun, it didn’t matter; the word referred to something bands did to please fans who made satan fingers back at them. When I looked at Syph, now on the point of raging, I realised what a Monster of Rock really was. I also realised exactly what kind of price, in terms of personal humiliation, I was going to have to pay to save Syph’s life—or temporarily delay his death. The management should be doing all this.
The management arrived. I won’t describe them, they are scum on a percentage—scum on the skim. They talked almost exclusively to Syph, and once they were over the disappointment of not making the maximum amount of money possible, they began to agree with everything he said. Weirdly, Syph gave them my speech of the day before, about why we should do this tour—word for fucking word. I didn’t think he had that kind of memory left. Mono looked at me and shook his head, Crabs didn’t. They nodded and smiled and said absolutely and sipped drinks that contained no caffeine.
‘We need somewhere to rehearse,’ said Syph, and one of them made a note in his palm.
Five days later, we were in some purpose-built studio with everything we might want—especially everything Syph might want. Men in expensive leather jackets came and went throughout the afternoon, and Syph spoke to them in a unisex toilet with more horizontal than vertical mirrors.
‘It’s comfortable,’ said Mono, lying on a long leather couch. I didn’t know whether he meant the couch, the studios or our life in general.
Syph banged out of the bathroom. ‘Okay,’ he shrieked, ‘let’s rock’n’roll!’
We picked ourselves up and moved slowly across to our instruments. I have to say, it was good to be reunited with our old equipment. It had been a year and a half. My kit had been lovingly treated by my personal hi-grade drum-tech—the last I’d seen of it, it was scattered across the stage of some arena. We in okay don’t usually trash our instruments, but it was the end of the tour and I wanted to shock everyone into listening to my ‘I quit’ announcement. They did, they just didn’t take it seriously—it’s horrible when your friends know you really well.
Horrible, but great sometimes, too. From the moment the bass intro to the first song started up, we were okay again. No matter how many sessions I do with other musicians (it pays well), there is something fated about how we work together—as a rhythm section, as a band, as a sound. I looked around for someome to make eye contact with, but Mono and Crabs were entirely heads down at work—and Syph was working an imaginary audience.
We played through our setlist, with smiles, jokes and sips from Cokes in between. Syph only went to the bathroom twice, and we accommodated this by jamming whilst he was away and kicking into fast numbers the moment he came back through the door, raging. Part-band, part-nurse.
I tried to ignore the management, who stood somewhere off to our left—nodding, as if they liked music. We sacked our first manager because he wasn’t getting us bookings on television, and never since had we dealt with anyone in possession of an undamned soul. Oh, we made so many mistakes—and this, I was beginning to feel, was another of them.
‘Come round to my room,’ I whispered to Mono and Crabs at the end of the rehearsal, ‘about one o’clock.’ We were all staying in the same hotel, so they didn’t have to cross town or anything.
‘What is it?’ said Crabs, who joined me and Mono around quarter of two. Mono, thank God, hadn’t asked me anything—I think he knew already. We had just sat and watched a movie, buddies.
‘I don’t think we should tour,’ I said.
‘The fuck, man,’ Crabs said.
‘It won’t help,’ I said.
‘I agree,’ said Mono.
‘The tour was your idea,’ said Crabs.
‘It was,’ I said. ‘But this,’ I gestured around the tasteful beige interior and out over the grid of L.A. lights, ‘this wasn’t.’
Crabs said, ‘Yes, but—’
And Mono said, ‘Clap is right. We’re not helping Syph. This isn’t what he needs. It’s turning into a monster already.’
‘He’s turning into a monster,’ I said.
After the rehearsal, we had gone back to his house to celebrate. Without him making a single call, people began to arrive for the party, none of them had to ask where the bathroom was, and by the time I left, about a hundred were there. I was surprised Crabs had remembered our meeting, or thought it urgent enough to attend. Perhaps there was something still in there.
‘It’s turning into whatever,’ said Crabs. ‘I don’t care. I just want to play.’
‘So do I,’ I said. ‘That’s why I started this—if you remember. But we’ve lost that before we’ve even started. We can’t just do anything any more.’
‘We’re not real,’ said Mono. ‘We’ve stopped being real. This isn’t real.’
‘It’s true,’ I said. He had put it too well—it was the sort of comment that changes your life. These days, I tried to avoid hearing those.
‘Well, fuck, yeah, hey, man, we’re keeping it real for our brothers on the street.’ Crabs was more drunk or something than I’d noticed. ‘We were never real.’
‘We tried to be,’ said Mono. ‘At least, I thought we tried. What have we got left to be true to?’
Mono said: ‘The music. The fans.’ Because it was something he would say in an interview, we knew it was a lie.
‘Each other,’ I said. Mono had been saying everything I’d meant to say, and better than I could have said it, right now. Major had trained him well. I needed to put in at least one comment that went in advance of him.
‘We are,’ said Crabs.
‘Syph needs help,’ said Mono. ‘He doesn’t need more drugs and fun. He needs to lead a very boring life, supervised by people who are paid lots of money to make him forget he’s bored.’
‘We can talk to him,’ said Crabs.
‘God can talk to him, perhaps,’ said Mono. ‘He won’t listen to anyone else.’
‘So it’s all over. We just pack up and go home and wait for this to happen again in a year’s time.’
‘No,’ Mono said, ‘we stay here—at least, one of us stays here to be around Syph. We try to get him through.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘That’s what we should do.’
After a long while, Crabs said: ‘I disagree.’ Then he walked out.
Mono and I stayed in my room and decided to do what needed to be done.
The management had been partying with Syph, or pretending to party, but they were up and bright at ten o’clock when Mono and I made a surprise visit to their L.A. office. We explained our position to them, and watched them cope first of all with the idea that we might be important enough to interfere with their plans (a three-month itinerary already roughed out on the wall), then with the fact we were asking them to behave like responsible adults and finally that there were very good reasons, even of profit, why they had to admit we were right. They agreed to nothing, formally—but they said they’d see what they could do. We left, aware we’d have to fire them pretty soon, and that it would take money and lawyers and more money.
We went for lunch, then drove to the rehearsal rooms together. Mono had hired a Mustang of some sort, I don’t know cars. It was red and made a boom of blissful bass. The sun was shining in a blue sky on grey roads and off-white buildings. I wasn’t tempted for a moment.
In the parking lot was an ambulance. We ran towards it, expecting to find Syph in a coma
We’d only got about halfway there when two men got out of the cab, walked round and opened the back doors of the ambulance.
It was Syph, on a gurney but fully conscious—raving. Beside him, crying, was the matchgirl.
‘No,’ she said.
‘What’s this?’ asked Mono.
‘Hi,’ said Syph, pushed up onto an elbow.
‘He refused to go to hospital,’ matchgirl said. ‘He made them bring us here.’
‘Rock’n’roll,’ Syph said, and grinned—his eyelids were twitching, there was no flesh on his face.
‘Is this true?’ Mono asked one of the ambulance guys.
‘He said to bring him here. He said he felt fine.’
‘Half an hour ago, he stopped breathing,’ the girl said.
‘I think I’m going to write a song about it,’ Syph said. ‘I’ve got the chorus.’
The management came out through reception, followed by Crabs. ‘What’s going on here?’ the management asked.
‘And you brought him here?’ said Mono, very angry.
‘He insisted,’ said the same ambulance guy. ‘And he promised us tickets.’
‘What if he died?’ I asked. ‘Your tickets wouldn’t be much good then.’
The ambulance guy smiled as if he knew better, which he probably did.
‘I’m not going to die,’ said Syph, ‘I just want to go and play some music.’
‘Hey, man,’ said Crabs, ‘are you okay?’
‘Never better,’ said Syph. ‘Breezy.’ He sniggered. ‘Can I have some more of that oxygen?’
The matchgirl put her huge face in her huge hands and her tiny body bounced with sobs.
I turned to the management. ‘He needs to go to the hospital, immediately.’
‘We need to think about this,’ said one of the management.
‘No, you don’t,’ said Mono. ‘You need to make sure your number one client doesn’t die.’
‘What do you want?’ the other half of the management asked Syph.
‘Like I said, man…’
The management took a step or two away, to consult in private.
It was then that the girl shrieked, ‘He went blue! He stopped breathing and I didn’t know how to make him start again. I didn’t know. He was blue all over.’
‘I’m okay,’ said Syph.
‘I just hit him on the chest, like they do on the TV.’
‘Thank you,’ said Mono. ‘We’re very grateful. You did exactly what you should.’
‘You’ll definitely get tickets,’ said one of the management. ‘Backstage pass, too.’
The girl held Syph’s hand. ‘I love your music.’
‘He goes to hospital,’ said half the management while the other half made a call.
‘Thanks, babe,’ said Syph, to the girl. He lay back and closed his eyes.
‘Do your job,’ said Mono to the ambulance guys. ‘We’ll follow you.’
‘What do you want?’ the guy asked Syph.
‘He’s doing it again,’ sobbed the girl.
‘No, I’m not,’ Syph said.
‘Give him some oxygen, for Christ’s sake,’ I said.
‘Are you taking him here?’ asked the management making the call and pointing to the address on the side of the ambulance.
‘Who are you phoning?’ asked Mono, in the management’s face. ‘The L.A. Times or Music Week?’
‘The publicity department,’ the other management said. ‘They always handle this kind of thing.’
Mono turned to Crabs. ‘How fired are these fuckers?’
‘Very fucking fired,’ said Crabs.
Management looked at me, their last chance.
‘Third vote,’ I said. ‘You’re out. I never want to see you or hear from you again.’
‘You’ll hear from our lawyers,’ the management said, both together.
Crabs got in the back of the ambulance and one of the guys closed the door on him and the matchgirl, whose name it later turned out was Celia.
Management walked away. The siren started up—and I wondered how much extra that would cost us. Didn’t matter. It was worth it.
I looked at Mono and he looked at me, and that look said it all.
We walked together towards the big red car.