Prologue: Daddy Wasn’t The Only One Not Paying Attention
I’m eighteen-years-old when I kill Ami. No one wants to talk about it. Least of all me. I’ve got a deep, zig-zag gash in my own stomach.
There’s blood everywhere but no one even mentions Ami or the fact that he’s gone.
Hours pass. Still nothing. I guess it makes some kind of sense. No one did ever pay him any attention.
After a few weeks, I’m still not talking.
I hear a voice outside my hospital room.
“He tried to kill himself,” someone says.
They don’t understand anything.
More time passes.
I start feeling like I should explain myself. Chambers tells me not to be so stupid, that they’ll lock me up for sure.
Weeks go by.
I think about what happened a million times.
The rain had lasted for weeks. I did it in the field, my feet sinking in the soaking wet earth. Maybe that’s why they haven’t found the body. It got swallowed up by the water and the mud.
I know that’s not what happened. Chambers knows it too. He keeps telling me it’s going to be alright. Some days I nod. Others, I tell him there’s no way.
Another day turns into another and then into another.
Still no one mentions Ami.
Chapter 1: If Kurt Cobain Can Move To Seattle…
It’s been six months since I killed Ami. The only person asking me questions about him is the therapist they make me see.
“We’re leaving,” Chambers says.
“They won’t let me,” I tell him.
Chambers gives me a look. I know it well.
It’s not as if we haven’t talked about it. Chambers locks up the rathole we’ve been renting and shoves the key through the letterbox. He rubs his hands together like he’s just buried a body.
Outside, the sky’s the colour of petrol and the smell of the sea air wafts in with the wind. For a moment, I think Ami’s on our tail. I turn around, but no one’s there.
Chambers gets into his ancient yellow Fiesta. He reaches towards the passenger door, shoves it open and grins up at me.
I take one last look around before throwing my guitar and bag onto the back seat. Dawn is on its way; I can see it in the distance.
Chambers turns the stereo on. We’ve listened to the same songs countless times but still the lyrics are arrow-sharp: ‘I’d like to daze away to a place no one has known’; ‘I think I’m just happy’; ‘Get me to the stage, it brings me home again.’ We sing the words all the way out of town. Past the lake. Past my old home. Past the place where I killed Ami.
All the hours we’ve spent talking about when to leave and where to go. The circles we’ve gone around in. Or at least I have. Chambers would have left months ago. He thinks we could have avoided the whole Ami mess. But he’s wrong. He’s pretty much never wrong about anything, but he’s wrong about that.
Not that it matters now.
I look at my friend behind the wheel, his hat with the Mother Love Bone logo pulled down past his eyebrows, the background of narrow Cornish lanes and wide, ominous skies blurring behind him.
“What are you staring at me for?” he shouts over the music.
It’s going to be a good day. Nothing else matters apart from the here and now. I’d wanted to think it would be this easy and it is. London is miles away. Nothing will be able to reach us there.
Not Chambers’ makeshift family.
Not my parents.
We can forget about everything.
I pull the tape out of the machine and replace it with another. More songs that we’ve heard over and over: ‘Daddy didn’t give attention’; ‘Don’t wait up ’cause I won’t be home’; ‘Gonna let you follow your own dreams.’
Chambers glances at me.
He’s not so much asking as telling me we will be. We’re going to be rockstars. We’ve said it again and again.
“Kurt Cobain left his home and moved to Seattle,” Chambers says. “It worked out pretty well for him.”
“He didn’t move there until the year after Nevermind came out.”
“Then he killed himself.”
“Whatever,” he says.
Outside, it’s getting lighter. Shannon Hoon’s voice fills the car. His words explode all over me and Chambers and we yell along.
“When you stop dreaming, it’s time to die,” we howl.
No one understands those lyrics better than us.
Chapter 2: Kiefer Sutherland’s In All The Best Films
We’re on our way to Carlito’s. Chambers has been trying to get us a gig there for as long as I can remember. I’ve seen him put at least five different demo tapes in the post and heard him call the venue a hundred times.
When nothing happened, I said ‘I told you so.’
When nothing happened again, I said, ‘I don’t give a fuck.’
Chambers kept doing what he was doing. He had a plan to get us out.
And now we’re out.
“Top ten songs of the last five years,” Chambers says.
I don’t hesitate.
We’ve made thousands of these lists.
Chambers falls into contemplation. I start to fidget, drumming along to the music. I look around the Fiesta. Chambers slogged his guts out to buy this car, serving coffee to the mums and dads of the same kids that told Ami he was pathetic, that he was ugly, that they were going to kill him. Ha. In the end, I did it for them.
“Taillights Fade,” Chambers says eventually.
I shake my head. It was released in ’92. Chambers shrugs and picks Heart Shaped Box instead, but that came out in September ’93. A month too soon. Chambers tells me I can’t be serious but he knows the rules.
The sun rises higher. Not that it’s easy to see behind the clouds. Chambers pulls into a service station and aims at a spot between two badly parked Range Rovers.
“Will you get in there?”
Chambers eases the car into the space and turns the engine off.
“When have we ever struggled to fit in somewhere?” he asks.
I make a face and Chambers puts his arm around my shoulder as we walk inside. Because we watched it last night and probably for lots of other reasons we talk about Stand By Me. I used to wonder if Chambers’ parents loved the film as much as we do.
“At least they didn’t call me River,” Chambers joked before reminding me that we were born years before the film even came out.
We eat and get back on the road. With the motorway disappearing under our wheels, we start listing the top ten films of the eighties. We both choose Stand By Me, Young Guns and The Lost Boys, but Chambers has one pick left. I’m annoyed. There’s nothing better than those films.
“This better be good,” I warn him.
“Are you ready?” Chambers asks.
“I’m ready to kill you, if that’s what you mean.”
“Go on, then,” I say.
“The Empire Strikes Back!”
“That’s not even an eighties film!”
Chambers looks disappointed, but who does he think he’s messing with?
“It was released in 1980,” he says.
That’s not the point and he knows it. It’s not an eighties film. There’s nothing eighties about it.
“So, Empire’s not allowed, and yet you’ve got E.T. on your list?”
“You don’t get more eighties than Spielberg.”
“What about Harrison, man? Pretty much as eighties as Spielberg.”
I’m not going to argue. Chambers knows exactly what I’m on about.
We fall into silence.
“It’s still not as good as The Lost Boys,” I tell him ten minutes later.
A lorry thunders past, puking fumes all over the place.
“If you say so.”
That drives me insane. As Chambers knows it will.
“It’s not about what I say. It’s fact.”
“Whatever you reckon,” he says.
Fuck. We’ve not even reached London yet and already I want to kill my only friend.
He better watch his step.
It’s not as if I haven’t got history.
Chapter 3: Gavin Rossdale Would Have Brought An Umbrella
It begins to rain. We’ve been driving for hours. London isn’t far away now.
“Do you know where you’re going?” I ask.
Chambers glances at me.
“Always,” he says.
I roll my eyes, flip down the mirror and adjust my hair. I’ve been trying to grow it long like Kurt Cobain’s and now I’ve dyed it a dirty yellow too. Chambers notices me staring at myself.
“You look gorgeous,” he jokes.
I shake my head and turn the stereo volume back to maximum.
Hours pass, then out of nowhere, London’s on top of us. There’s been no build-up, no New York style skyline, but there it is. I take it in. Everything is grey. There are no flying cars, but it feels like we’ve moved into the future. A fractured, fast-paced future. The roads turn from one lane canals to lawless go-kart tracks and back again. It’s early afternoon but time has no meaning anymore.
The rain is coming down now like someone’s pouring it out of buckets. Alien starts playing. Makes sense.
We’re looking for Carlito’s. We turn this way and that. Then that way and this. At last I see it. It’s a backstreet pub and it doesn’t look much like its name makes it sound.
Chambers parks and stares through the windscreen at the weather.
It’s hard to believe we’re here.
“Ready?” Chambers asks.
I’ve never been ready for anything but things are going to be different now so I nod.
Inside, there’s one man behind the bar. His eyes are the colour of polished wood and his hair’s as black as gunpowder.
He’s on the phone but he looks us up and down. Then he slams the receiver onto its hook.
“This is him?” he asks.
His attention’s on me but the question’s aimed at Chambers.
“Yep,” Chambers says.
Carlito comes out from behind the bar. He takes a step towards me and I flinch. Then he hugs me like I’m his long-lost brother. The intensity with which he holds me makes my stomach hurt. Right where they stitched me up. I imagine my guts all over the place. Again.
“You crazy bastard,” he says when he lets me go.
He grins and then he turns to Chambers. It’s like they’ve known each other for years.
We sit at a table. Drinks appears just like that. Everything Carlito does seems to happen at triple-speed. I try to take him in: his constantly moving hands, his colourful clothes, his Portuguese accent.
“The famous James Dean,” he says, shaking his head as if he can hardly believe I’m real.
“JD,” I correct him.
Carlito throws his hands extra-high into the air.
I reach for my pint glass.
“You look like you need that,” Carlito says and he howls with laughter.
“He always looks that way,” Chambers tells him and Carlito howls again.
Then he leans in my direction. He lowers his voice, like he doesn’t want anyone to hear.
“Do you ever feel like the world has got you by the balls?” he wants to know.
He stares at me intently, then his voice goes back to full-volume.
“Of course you do,” he roars. “I mean, look at you!”
I stay quiet, but Carlito continues talking noisily. He says he recognised me as soon as I came through the front door. Which makes me wonder how much Chambers has told him. There’s no way he would have told him everything.
Chapter 4: Hope Is Important
Carlito bounces out of his seat.
“You need to tell Fen you’re here.”
I want to get up but I don’t know if I can stand. Maybe it’s the long journey, maybe it’s something else.
It’s something else.
I focus on breathing evenly. I stand without letting anyone else know it’s an effort. I follow Chambers into the live room at the back of the pub.
And that’s where we meet Carlito’s sound engineer. He’s six and a half feet tall and covered in tattoos. I see the archangel Michael fighting the devil on one arm and the words Accident Prone on the side of his neck. We wait for him to acknowledge us. When he does, we try to tell him who we are.
“Come back later,” he snaps.
Chambers and I return to the bar. We shouldn’t have come.
Not that Carlito sees it that way. He acts like he’s known us forever. Like our home is his home. He tells us to move our car into the yard at the back of the pub and introduces us to the other bands as they arrive.
They ignore us.
By seven o’clock, there’s a queue outside the pub. Everyone’s soundchecked apart from me and Chambers. Then the doors to the live room swing open. Fen stares out at us. His tattoos are almost three-dimensional.
“Your turn,” he says.
He looks like he wants to kick our heads in.
The stage is already full with the other bands’ gear. We squeeze into what space we can find and plug in.
“You’ve got one minute,” Fen tells us.
Chambers plays a chord. Fen cuts him off, before taking the same rapid-fire approach to testing my guitar, both our voices, and then all four parts mixed together.
“That will do,” Fen says, “you’re on in five.”
Fen leaves the room. Chambers and I stay where we are, taking in our surroundings. A box of a room with nothing on the walls apart from the wear and tear of years gone by. The floorboards must be saturated with the sweat of band after band after band. I feel claustrophobic trapped in the middle of the kit onstage. I want to smash it all to pieces, get it out of my way.
Fen’s back in the room.
He does this wave that means two things. One, we should start. Two, he doesn’t give a fuck about us.
Nor does anyone else.
There are exactly zero people watching.
I can hear the music blaring from the speakers next door.
I start to play. Chambers’ vocals flap around the room like birds let loose. A guy comes into the room and I stare at him until he turns around and leaves. Then Carlito comes in. I stare at him too but he stands his ground.
Chambers and I sing together.
“If you can’t hear, you can’t fear the noise.”
“I light a match.”
“There are doors leading to doors leading to doors.”
When it’s over, Carlito bounces in our direction. I’m not quite back in the real world and so he seems crazier than ever. He’s like the human version of strobe lighting. I can’t look at him.
But I feel his buzz.
He likes us.
He thinks we’re good.
Not that I care what people think about us.
Chapter 5: When James Dean Met Marilyn Monroe
We exit the live room just as people start piling in, ready now to watch whatever band’s on next. Chambers and I find a seat next to the window and Carlito brings us drinks.
“These are my very special magias,” he says. “They will send you cock-a-hoop!”
I empty my glass in two swallows. I can sense the dark wave coming. Our old life may be miles away but still I can feel Ami coming to get me. Carlito passes me another drink.
“Where are you hobos staying?” I hear him ask, but I’m not quite on the planet and the drinks are strong.
The truth is, we have nowhere to stay. We’ll sleep in the car tonight and then see what happens.
From the stage, I hear the sound of drums.
“Let’s go and watch,” Chambers says.
So we do and with music filling my head once more I feel the world level out again. The band finish and we pour back into the bar with a heap of other sweaty, winded kids. We find some standing space and I notice the directions to the bathrooms, scrawled in marker pen on the wall. The words ‘Ladies’ and ‘Gentlemen’ have been crossed out and replaced with ‘Cunts’ and ‘Cocks’. In the corner, by the pool table, three underage girls pull a bottle of whiskey out of a handbag and add shots to their glasses of Coke.
I breathe this new life in. And as I do, four more girls stalk in through the front doors as if I’ve inhaled them from the street outside. It’s the girl at the front of their diamond formation I really notice. She’s wearing a Marilyn Monroe t-shirt and a scuffed pair of Converse. She has deep green eyes, flecks of galactic yellow ingrained there like orpiment, and sun-hued hair. Her electric blue eyeliner and smudged blue mascara make her look extra-terrestrial.
The girls hover near to us. They scan the room like they’re looking at dresses on a rack and it’s Chambers they notice. One of the girls, clothed entirely in denim, taps him on the arm and points out his tattoo, half-hidden beneath his short sleeve.
“What does it say?”
Chambers tries to deflect her interest, but she won’t let it go, so he lifts his sleeve, revealing the heart-shaped tattoo with the word MUM written across it in capital letters. All of the girl’s friends are paying attention now. In unison, three of them make cooing noises. The fourth girl, the one in the Marilyn Monroe t-shirt, is the only one who says nothing, does nothing. The denim girl tells Chambers that she got her first tattoo today.
“You wanna see?” she asks.
Without waiting for an answer, she undoes the button on her trousers and pulls the waistband down. A blue blob is visible beneath some film.
“Cool,” Chambers says, polite as ever. “What is it?
“A dolphin,” the girl replies proudly.
“Why a dolphin?”
The girl looks at him blankly and Chambers rephrases the question.
“Why did you choose it? What does it mean?”
“What do you mean, ‘what does it mean?’ It’s a dolphin.”
The girl doesn’t know what else to say and I notice the tiniest flicker of amusement ripple across the face of her friend in the Monroe t-shirt. Another girl in the group takes more offense.
“It means she’s a legend, mummy’s boy.”
I tense up. Can we never get away from this kind of shit? I’m grateful to Carlito when he climbs onto the bar.
“Five minutes,” he shouts.
The band everyone’s here to see are about to come on stage. Chambers and I push towards the live room.
On stage, the band jump in and out of the shadows as the crowd sing along.
“Will you still care for me?” they yell.
Jumping up and down, I collide with the Monroe girl. She’s too absorbed in the music to notice and, anyway, everyone is bumping into everyone.
And then it’s over. People tumble out of the bar and into the night. Pretty soon the doors have been locked, the lights dimmed and Chambers and I are two of only about thirty people left.
Carlito bounds over to us.
“I’ve had a storm in my brain,” he whoops. “You should play again. Right now.”
Before we can respond, there’s a bang at the front doors.
“It’s the police,” someone says.
Chapter 6: Don’t Ever Invite A Vampire Into Your House, You Silly Boy
Carlito practically hurls himself towards the entrance. He stares around at us and puts his finger to his lips. Last orders should have been an hour ago but everyone in the pub is still drinking.
We quieten down as he pulls back the bolt and opens the door. Outside, in the darkness and the drizzle, there’s a boy about my age, sparking in the rain. His hair is bleached, cut into a style that’s almost but not quite a mullet. Even with a normal haircut, you’d notice him a mile off. He’s out on the pavement all alone. No police in sight. He steps inside and the door is bolted shut again. Carlito ushers everyone into the back room. He doesn’t bother asking us if we want to do the second set. There’s no need.
Fen brings us stools and switches one footlight on. Chambers says hello to the people now starting to pay attention as the room quietens down. The Marilyn Monroe girl is looking at us. Chambers starts to play. I lose myself in the sound of his guitar and when the song’s over people clap. They’re listening.
“Next, we’re going to play something you might know,” Chambers tells them.
He strums the introduction to Glycerine and it puts me on a rocket into space like it always does.
From there we glide through the rest of the set. No more covers. Just our own songs. The last one is When Boys Are Boys. I hear every squeak as Chambers’ fingers move along the strings of his guitar.
“Kneeling down and praying to God,” I sing, “lost amongst the rows of empty pews.”
I can feel the electricity in the air.
“I’m still trying to work out whether being young was really an excuse.”
I glare around as the next verse intensifies and we thrash each chord out with a fierceness that keeps everyone locked on what we’re doing. I see Fen weighing us up, the boy with the almost-mullet watching from the far corner, and the Monroe girl’s eyes fixed firmly on me.
I feel myself being swallowed up by the music. For a moment, it feels like Ami’s in the room but then I pummel my guitar and beat him back. I lose him completely in the song’s noisy, furious outro. When we finish, we don’t need applause. We get it, but we don’t need it. We don’t need anything from anybody.
I see the Monroe girl coming over.
“Hey, I’m Sawyer,” she says.
I don’t say anything.
“That wasn’t bad,” she tells me.
When I still don’t reply, I know what she thinks of me.
She’s gone as quickly as she arrived.
I sit down on the edge of the stage. Carlito brings me and Chambers more magias. Then more. The live room has been empty for a while. We go into the bar. The girl in the Monroe top is just leaving. She’s got a home to go to. Someone waiting for her. I’ll never see her again.
Within minutes, it’s only me, Chambers and Carlito left.
“We should go too,” Chambers says.
He’s right. I don’t look over at Carlito, but I know he’s watching us as we gather our bags and guitars.
“What are you doing, you lunatics?” he asks eventually.
I don’t know what to say.
“Are you still planning to sleep like a pair of hobos in the car? In my yard? Like it’s some kind of car hotel?”
Chambers shakes his head.
“We’ll move somewhere else.”
It’s Carlito’s turn to shake his head.
“If you think I’m letting you cheeseheads roam London all alone, then you’re crazier than you look.”
“And I have to be honest to God, I don’t think anyone can be that crazy.”
Maybe Chambers hasn’t told him much about me after all.
“Put your stuff down,” Carlito tells us. “You’re not going anywhere.”
I look at Chambers. He shrugs. Carlito’s already making more drinks. I guess we’re staying.
Chapter 7: Without You, I’m Nothing
In the morning, it takes me a moment to remember where I am. Chambers is lying on a makeshift bed of blankets and cushions like mine and there are noises coming from somewhere underneath us. Then there are footsteps on stairs. Chambers and I both sit up as Carlito appears in a doorway.
“I think I must turn you into the next Brian Flanagans,” he says.
He’s behind the bar before I can blink and it’s a second before I realise he wants us to join him. I pull my trousers on and for the next half hour Carlito shows us how to pull pints.
“You’re hired,” he says when we’re done. “Now you hobos just need to find a home.”
Chambers and I try to look like we’ve got everything under control, like that will be no problem. It’s a look I’ve practised, but Carlito sees right through me.
“I am pulling your arm!” he explodes. “You cheeseheads are already home!”
Then he shows us the basement. There are empty boxes piled to the ceiling, cigarette butts on the floor and mattresses leaning up against the wall.
We can make something of it.
“Are you sure it’s okay?” Chambers asks.
“If it’s okay with you disgusting degenerates, it’s okay with me,” Carlito cackles before leaving us to settle in.
We start to tidy. We sweep away cobwebs, turn a crate into a table and throw the rubbish out. Piece by piece, we make the space liveable. I pull the last boxes to one side. Hidden behind them, I find an ornamental Scottie dog.
“I’m going to keep it,” I tell Chambers.
“Are you sure? Having a pet’s a lot of responsibility.”
I show him my middle finger.
Then Carlito’s back again. He notices the dog straight away and smiles in a way that means his whole mouth opens wide.
“You found Alfred!”
He leans down and strokes Alfred’s white paintwork.
“He’s a good dog,” he tells me. “You take good care of him.”
I don’t know whether he’s messing with me. He sounds serious.
“I will,” I say eventually.
It’s the right response. Carlito’s happy.
“I have something for you,” he says.
He leads us back up the stairs and into the small yard at the back of the pub where the Fiesta is parked.
“A car is no use to anyone in London,” he says. “This is what you two hobos need!”
Lying on the ground are two BMXs, both rusted orange with flat tyres.
“They can be as good as new,” he says.
I look at Carlito doubtfully.
“I tell you,” he huffs, “a car is no good to you in London. This is what you need.”
Again, he points at the ancient bicycles.
“Thanks, Carlito,” Chambers says. “They’re awesome.”
“Yeah, thanks, Carlito,” I echo.
I can’t tell him they’re awesome, though. They’re ridiculous.
The rest of the day whizzes by. In the evening, Chambers and I start work. Carlito tells us about the people he had working for him before we turned up. The last guy was sacked because he didn’t like the new Placebo album and it was then that Carlito gave in to Chambers and offered us a gig. We accuse him of knowing things would work out like they have.
“I didn’t know they wouldn’t,” is all he says to that.
When we go to sleep that night, we learn something else about Carlito. He’s actually got a home to go to. Chambers and I will be in the pub on our own.
“Mind the bugs don’t get you,” he calls out before leaving.
Chambers and I lie on our mattresses, listening to Neon Ballroom and thinking about the bugs. It’s hard to believe we’re here. Only last week I was listening to Chambers on the phone, trying to sweet-talk Carlito. Now we’re living in his basement.
The Silverchair tape finishes, flips over and the air fills up with the noise of songs Chambers and I have written together. We built them out of our craving to leave our hometown and they sound different now. Better somehow.
And the songs about Ami?
Well, maybe I’m starting to believe they aren’t true after all. Perhaps this time I really have found a place to hide.
Chapter 8: Great Pâté, Carlito, But I Gotta Motor If I Wanna Be Ready For That Party
The next morning, I wake up late. Chambers’ bed is empty.
“Good morning, mates,” Carlito cheers when I make it upstairs.
I’m already used to the way he uses the plural ‘mates’ even though there’s only one of me.
“Morning. Where’s Chambers?”
Carlito points in the direction of the yard so I wander outside. Chambers has his sleeves rolled up; he’s kneeling on the ground, polishing the frame of one of the BMXs. It doesn’t look exactly brand new, but it doesn’t look like it’s just fallen off the scrapheap either. The other BMX is in better shape too. The bikes are definitely rideable.
“Choose which one you want,” Chambers tells me without looking up.
“Thanks. What time did you get up?”
When he’s finished, we go back inside. We spend the day working. Not many people come into the bar during the afternoon, really we’re just there to show the bands where to load in. By the time night falls, though, the place is busy. We serve drinks non-stop until Carlito rings the bell.
At the end of the night, Chambers and I sit on the kerb. The clouds have been blown away and the stars are like bullet holes. I ask Chambers if he’s called his foster parents.
“Yeah. They said they’re already clearing my room.”
“They reckon they’ll get another foster kid in.”
“I pity the next sucker.”
Chambers doesn’t reply. He doesn’t need to ask if I’ve called home.
“Let’s go out,” I suggest.
And so we do. Most of the country might be going to bed, but London’s alive. Chambers and I soak it in and as we whirl through the streets we flicker and shimmer. By the time we crawl back to the basement we’re desperate to pick up our guitars. Songs come to us like breaths. We feel as if we could burst.
“I could live like this forever,” I say to Carlito the next day.
“You will, you will,” he promises.
I believe him.
He doesn’t need me behind the bar, so I BMX from one side of London to the other. The bike isn’t so ridiculous after all. It’s just what I need. I cycle past the banks of phone boxes on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and the candlestick from Beauty and the Beast leans towards me from above a theatre entrance. No one notices I’m here. I’m invisible.
Once more, it starts to rain. I’ve drifted to the outskirts of town without realising. The roads are bumpier, the buildings closer to falling apart, the people as well. I don’t like it, so I turn around. It’s that easy.
I arrive back at Carlito’s as the big, dark night comes for me like a wolf. I shiver as I notice it there, right on my tail. I sling the BMX in the yard and back in the basement I’m grateful for the chilled-out expression on Alfred’s face. Carlito has left a sandwich out for me. I sniff it. Pâté. I take one bite then stretch out on my mattress on the floor. I’m almost asleep by the time Chambers comes down to the basement. He prods me with his foot.
“We’re going out.”
I open my eyes and look at him.
“That girl came in, she’s having a party.”
That wakes me up.
“What girl?” I ask.
But I already know.
There’s only one girl it could be.
Chapter 9: Sha La La La La La La
I pull my clothes on and throw myself up the steps and out onto the street. We travel halfway across town, using the tube for the first time. Our hair is blasted all over the place by the wind at Camden station and I stand on the wrong side of the escalator until someone tells me to move out of the fucking way.
Bethnal Green is dark but I’m used to dark and we find the party in a house that looks as if it might fall down if it weren’t for the buildings crammed either side of it. Inside, its stairs are narrow and run around a hollow central area that goes down below ground level.
There are people all over the place but they aren’t like me and Chambers and they all seem to know each other. People bunch together in a way that makes the space around Chambers and I even more pronounced.
“Reminds me of home,” Chambers says.
More and more people arrive but that only makes me feel more on the fringes than ever. And then I see her. Her hair is pulled up in a wild, incoherent style and her face is a candy mix of pinks and yellows. I take her in completely before noticing the boy at her side. He has hair the colour of vermilion and, as soon as he sees me looking, he drapes his arm around Sawyer like a leash. A boyfriend. Of course there’s a boyfriend. Still, when Sawyer turns and sees me and Chambers, she moves in our direction.
“It’s a horrible party,” she says when she reaches us. “My housemates arranged it.”
She looks in the direction of the girls she was with the other night, then she introduces us to Ace, the boy slouching over her.
We follow the two of them down the staircase; it leads directly into Sawyer’s bedroom. Chambers and I have been carrying a bottle of tequila around since we arrived and Sawyer steals it from me, taking a sip before passing it back.
“Perfect,” she says.
I offer the bottle to Ace and he drinks from it before then returning it without a word. I look around at the Eddie Vedder poster on the cupboard door and the pile of CDs stacked haphazardly on the chest of drawers.
They’re the first two words I’ve spoken to Sawyer but something about her makes me feel like it doesn’t matter what I say or how long it takes me to say it. When I pick up Siamese Dream, she grabs it from me and puts it on.
“So, where you from?” she asks.
“The middle of nowhere,” Chambers tells her.
“Ah, yes, I know it well.”
We’re hardly through the first song on the Pumpkins’ album, but Sawyer’s already swapping the CD. She plays Blind Melon, then Screaming Trees, then music Chambers and I would never have chosen – seemingly random tracks by everyone from Marilyn Manson to Counting Crows. I watch her as she kind of dances across the room, back and forth between the beanbags we’re sprawled on and the stereo, and I know for sure that I’ve never met anyone like her. Ace barely speaks but I get used to his silence. Really, I try to pretend he’s not there at all. Not that it’s completely possible to do that; he makes small noises whenever I say anything he thinks is stupid.
“So now you’ve left your no-town hometown behind, what’s your plan?” Sawyer asks us.
“We’re going to be rock stars,” I say in a way that’s meant to show I’m not being serious.
Even though I am.
Cue small noise from Ace.
“And you’re really living at Carlito’s? How did you swing that?”
“Just good luck.”
Cue small noise from Ace.
“He doesn’t believe in luck,” Sawyer explains, before asking who writes our lyrics.
“Mostly JD,” Chambers says.
Cue another small fucking noise from Sawyer’s boyfriend.
This time the sound prompts Chambers to turn in Ace’s direction.
“Who’s your favourite band?” he asks.
He poses the question gently because that’s his way.
“Favourites don’t mean anything,” Ace says.
Chambers nods and gives up.
Before I know it, the night has vanished and we’ve listened to a hundred records. Sawyer leads me and Chambers back upstairs and it’s like we’ve landed on a different planet. The party is over but there are people slumped against the walls.
“Well, I’m certainly not tidying this up,” Sawyer says.
She opens the front door and flickers in the pale morning light as it leaks into the house. The sky is a faint blue, the colour of her denim jacket.
“See you later, koala bears,” she says.
“See you later,” I reply.
Chapter 10: When I Argue
For the next week, I try to think about something other than a promise Sawyer made to come see us at Carlito’s. Still, I can’t help but count every hour until she appears.
And then, at last, she does.
“I told you she’d come,” Chambers says.
I haven’t said a word about her, but he’s always been able to read my mind.
“Hey, koala bears,” she says from underneath Ace’s arm.
I put a compilation tape on. The first track is When I Argue I See Shapes.
“I love this,” Sawyer yells. “Don’t you LOVE this song?”
She’s the first girl I’ve ever met who’s into the same music as me. I give her and Ace drinks and tell them they’re on the house. Carlito hears me.
“I am not a charity,” he says.
Then he thinks about how he’s housing me and Chambers in his basement. He shrugs.
“Or maybe I am.”
He wanders off and Sawyer laughs. I’m too busy to talk but her being there makes me feel like I’ve swallowed a bolt of lightning.
Then Ace says they have to go.
“Chambers, JD, you have to come with us,” Sawyer pleads.
I smile because I’m pleased that Sawyer wants us to join her, although I can’t help but notice that she said Chambers’ name before mine.
Whatever. We’re not going anywhere.
“We said we’d clean up tonight.”
It’s Chambers who says it but I know he’s right. Carlito has given us everything. We need to give something back.
“Let’s go out on Friday night,” Sawyer suggests before she goes.
“Sure,” I say.
And then she’s gone. Again.
More days pass. I hardly think about Ami or my parents or any of that. I’m too filled up by the noise of the here and now.
Then it’s the end of the week and Sawyer reappears.
“Hey, koala bear.”
My blood whooshes towards my skin. I want to duck out of the way so she can’t see, but there’s nowhere to hide. I have no choice but to look right back at her. Her eyes are colliding meteors, explosions amidst the darkness of her black eyeliner, her black skirt and her black leather jacket. I hardly notice Ace until he speaks.
“What’s to drink, then?”
There are no bands playing this evening so the pub is quiet. I pour a round of tequilas. Then another. My head starts to vibrate. I have a third drink. Already, I’m feeling like I’m on a helter-skelter. By the time, we slam the pub doors shut, I’m drunk. Sawyer leans over and pats me on the head.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Just checking you’re okay.”
“That’s Chambers’ job!”
“I think Chambers might need some help.”
“Chambers never needs help. He’s a wolf.”
I can see the amusement in Sawyer’s eyes and I don’t like it.
“A lone wolf, I mean.”
“Doesn’t seem too lone to me,” Ace says. Again, I’d forgotten he was even there. “You two might as well be tied together, the amount of time you spend with each other.”
“Look who’s talking,” I reply.
Cue small noise. The sound of it makes me want to kill him.
“What’s your problem?”
I’ve asked the question before I know it.
“You don’t want to know,” is all Ace says before getting up and walking over to the pool table.
Every ball he pots slams into the pocket with a thump that makes me flinch. The more drunk I get, though, the more I toy with him. I ask him if he’s got plans to play pool professionally and whether his mum and dad like playing cards.
“What are you doing?” Chambers asks me at about three in the morning.
I pretend not to have any idea what he’s talking about. Chambers shakes his head.
“Tell us about you,” I say to Ace.
“I don’t think so,” he replies.
Even I can feel the atmosphere shift.
“Come on, man, we’re all friends.”
There’s a silence.
“It’s late,” Sawyer says, “we’ve got to go.”
“Ace,” I say, throwing my arm around him. “Don’t go. Let’s carry on talking. We’re only just getting started.”
But Ace stands up, slipping away from my grip and I stumble as I leap after him. I stretch out and ruffle his cardinal hair.
“Come on, Ace Face,” I carry on.
“JD, they’ve got to go,” Chambers says.
“Yeah, we’ve got to get some sleep,” Sawyer agrees and, when she looks at me, I attempt to smile but I can feel my face contort unevenly.
“Ace Face,” I try once more.
I reach out for his hair again, but he snaps his hand out and catches me by the wrist.
“Leave it out”
“Mate,” I beg.
“JD, they’re going,” Chambers says.
And they go.
Chapter 11: Everything Up To Now Is A Story & Everything After Now Is A Story
The next morning, I feel a howling, screaming thing in me. It’s not just the hangover from the alcohol. It’s me. I thought I’d changed, but I haven’t. Chambers know how I’m feeling. He’s ready for me.
“Let’s write some music,” he says as soon as I’m semi-conscious.
We write and we write. The howling and the screaming ease a little. But for days, Sawyer doesn’t reappear. I sit on the bar cross-legged and read Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. I watch the bands load in and I listen to them as they soundcheck.
“So, what are you two mad lunatics doing with your songs?” Carlito asks me.
I don’t say anything.
“You should not wait for a million years,” Carlito says in his usual upbeat way, before gesturing towards the bands coming in and out of the back room. “Look at all these bonkers nuts who travel across the universe to perform a show at Carlito’s.”
“Everyone wants to play at Carlito’s,” I tell him.
“But what about you? Do you want to play here again?”
Carlito’s eyes twinkle.
“I could make that happen, you know,” he says, before jigging back towards the bar.
“He’s making a point, you know,” Fen says.
I jump at the sound of his voice but by the time I turn around, he’s already walking away.
At last, Sawyer reappears. I try to apologise, but she says that I’m making a big deal out of nothing. Maybe I am. Maybe I’m not.
Either way, there’s hardly a day over the next few weeks when Sawyer doesn’t come into Carlito’s, or Chambers and I don’t meet her and Ace somewhere in the city. Together, we wander around and around London. We sleep when there is time or when we collapse. We roam the streets like rats.
One morning, Carlito says he wants to drive us somewhere. We follow him outside, to where Chambers’ Fiesta is parked. Just as Carlito predicted, we haven’t had any need for it since arriving in London, but now I’m excited to be going somewhere. We all pile in and for the first time since Chambers and I got to the city, we head away from it. After driving for about an hour, we’re in the countryside. Carlito pulls to a stop on the side of an unmarked road.
“Are we there yet?” Sawyer asks for the hundredth time.
Carlito jumps out of the car without answering. One by one, we follow him. It’s November and the light is almost Arctic, but it’s warm. Carlito leads us through a small wood of trees and into a field. The grass is long, but we push our way through it. We’re carrying guitars and flasks of magia. When the grass thins out, the track becomes sandy and starts to incline steeply up towards the sky. We climb.
Five minutes later, in the midday sun, we’re standing up high, on the edge of the big rock and staring towards space. At God. At nothing. The sun is splurged across the sky. It feels more like summer than the edge of winter. Trees rock in the breeze. It’s loud, just the sound of the earth revolving. We drink without talking, all of us absorbing the peace and quiet. Chambers crouches down, looking towards the horizon and bouncing on his haunches as the sun gets yellower and yellower.
Far below us, a car, toy-sized and shiny, glints in the sun as it passes by. Ace sits down then stands up. He’s wiry and his red hair is blazing. He looks up at the empty sky. Sawyer is further away. She’s kneeling on the crumbly earth, hunched over, looking closely at the flowers that have rooted uncertainly there. From where I am, it looks as if she’s on the edge of the world, that huge, cobalt sky the only thing behind her. She picks one of the flowers and puts it in her beach-coloured hair. I sit down and draw shapes in the soil with my finger.
It’s Carlito who breaks the silence. He holds up Chambers’ guitar.
“Let’s jam,” he yells.
Chapter 12: Right On, Motherfucker
It’s time for me and Chambers to get out of our own heads. Carlito knows it and now we know it too. That’s why we’ve come here. We don’t even laugh at him for shouting ‘let’s jam’. He has a way of saying stuff like that and making it sound cool. Chambers and I start by playing songs we think the others will recognise. Carlito wants everyone to join in but Sawyer refuses – she seems suddenly shy. To everyone’s surprise, though, Ace does start singing along. And, when he does, he makes this mournful, ecstatic sound that shouldn’t even exist, let alone make sense. We have a go at No Rain and then more and more songs and eventually the day passes. We don’t want to go home so we climb down to the fields below the big rock and lie in the long grass. I feel like a chameleon. I look up as the sun becomes a moon, a hole in the swelling darkness. I shiver and I’m grateful when Sawyer suggests going back to the car to get jumpers. Once we’ve got the extra clothes on, we decide to walk. Two cars tear past us through the night, their beams like searchlights. We go deeper into the dark but we’re unafraid. If we can’t see what’s there, then what’s there can’t see us.
We’re sustained by snacks that Carlito hands out to us when we’re hungry and by endless supplies of magia. When any of us complain that we’re cold, Carlito makes us run until we’re out of breath and laughing. Over the course of the night, we start talking about Ace as our singer, and although on one level the idea fucks with my head, on another level I’m happy that I won’t have to stand at the microphone anymore. Carlito talks at a million miles an hour about how we’re a band now.
“All the people they will love you.”
Chambers rubs his hand over his close-cropped hair.
“Can you help us, Carlito?”
Carlito knits his eyebrows.
“Have I not helped you lunatics already?”
And even though I can hardly make my friends’ faces out in the blackness, I am sure everyone is smiling because of course we know that without Carlito, Chambers and I would have nothing.
“You could manage them,” Sawyer suggests.
“These banana brains?” Carlito yelps. “Do I look completely bonkers?”
“Well,” Sawyer teases, “you don’t not look completely bonkers.”
We all laugh again, and even Ace can’t stay completely miserable in the face of all the compliments everyone throws his way.
“Let’s do it,” he says.
Everyone’s wired as we drive home, a compilation of obscure b-sides blasting from the speakers. The roads are empty. I’m disorientated. It feels like at some point in the last twenty-four hours, we stepped out of time.
“My mates,” Carlito says. “Before you know it, you’ll be headlining Reading Festival.”
The thought thrills me. All we need to do now is write some more songs, practise them, perform them, record them, sell them…
With Carlito in charge, it all seems possible. When we get home, he’s like a hurricane – he gets everything organised. He lets us use the pub’s live room as a rehearsal space as well as his backline equipment. And then he introduces us properly to David.
Chapter 13: Hello, Hello, Hello
David was only fifteen-years-old when Carlito first saw him behind a drumkit. Legally, that made him too young to even be in the venue, but there he was. And it may have been unusual to see someone his age hanging around in those sticky, smoky live rooms, but nothing about David was usual. Not that he looked out of place. He might have been way younger than any of the other musicians he performed with, but Carlito said he belonged more than any of them did. His eyes were lined with mascara, his hair was past his shoulders and he drummed with a cigarette in his mouth. He had the clockwork skills of Dave Grohl and the weird outsiderness of Kurt Cobain.
Three years on, the makeup may be gone, but still David fits in like Carlito said he would. The only strange thing is that he’s not a full-time member of a band already.
“He’s always played with whoever’s around,” Carlito says. “Whoever he wants to.”
I hold my breath and wait for him to play. When he does, the room fills with electricity. He’s limber and loose, yet defined and sure-footed. He’s a natural, catching beats like a juggler. His hair is damp with sweat and he sweeps his hand through his vertical fringe between songs. His eyes are wide like he’s permanently waiting for someone to deliver a disappointing punchline. At the same time, though, it’s clear he isn’t waiting for any punchline at all; his complete disregard for anyone else’s presence is obvious. He doesn’t respond to or show any awareness of the clapping from the small crowd of people watching and when he takes his Mother Love Bone vest off the sense that he’s alone in the world only becomes more prominent. Physically, he has been shaped by his drumming. The roundness of his muscles is pivot-like, his straightness articulated by his compressing limbs.
As soon as the set is over, Carlito introduces him to us, but he hardly seems interested.
“I’ve got to see someone,” he says and walks lazily away, towel over his shoulder, t-shirt in one hand. He gets as far as the bar, leans on it and starts whispering in the ear of the girl serving drinks.
“He’ll never join our band,” I say, talking to Carlito but still looking at David.
“My mates, he will join for sure,” Carlito replies, “he is not as bonkers as he looks.”
We smile. It’s impossible not to. Carlito’s optimism, combined with the lightness of his accent, constantly takes us by surprise.
It’s time for the next band. David leaves his spot at the bar and sits down again behind the drum kit.
“He plays for these guys too?” I ask, shouting over the music.
“He plays with everyone,” Carlito hollers back.
Again, I’m transfixed by David’s disarming style. His posture is so relaxed and fluid, and yet he drives the rhythm so precisely and exactly.
“That was cool,” Chambers says to him when he comes back off stage and instead of brushing off the compliment, David pauses, rubbing his hair with his towel.
“Thanks, man,” he says, and I see a connection between Chambers and David that maybe they feel too.
Earlier, when I’d noticed David’s t-shirt, I’d thought it a shame that Chambers wasn’t wearing his own Mother Love Bone hat, but he and David don’t need to see each other in matching outfits to know they have something in common.
“Did you listen to the music I gave you?” Carlito asks.
“Yeah, sure,” he says but I’m not convinced he knows what Carlito’s even talking about.
“So now you know what I have been saying,” Carlito says as if no one can listen to our homemade demos and not hear that they are the best songs ever.
“Yeah, sure,” David repeats.
He looks at Sawyer and she smiles at him. I see him through her eyes, his bare chest glistening and suddenly I don’t know if I want him in our band. But it’s obvious that we need his glamour. We’ll be rock stars. And the fact that I find him threatening in ways I will never admit conflicts confusingly with the realisation that I am eager to gain his approval.
“Come to practice your drums with us tomorrow,” Carlito says.
Chapter 14: Don’t Stop Believing
Winter arrives the next day with a quietness that changes the city. Neither Chambers or I own coats, so we lock ourselves in Carlito’s live room with our guitars and thrash them until we’re warm. David’s meant to turn up soon, but we pretend not to think about the vacant stool behind the drum kit. Ace and Sawyer arrive. Sawyer sits on the floor in the corner, her knees pulled up under her chin. Ace sings icily into the microphone. He sounds good and he looks the part. But he’s still a fucking asshole.
“I suppose,” he says, “Carlito’s been handing out that same tape of yours that he gave me. That’s what he would have given David, right?”
“I guess,” Chambers shrugs.
Ace doesn’t respond, but I can read his mind. He thinks the songs are a mess. David will have listened to them and had second thoughts. He isn’t coming and Ace already blames me and Chambers for the inevitable failure of this band. After the next song, he speaks again. For someone who couldn’t bring himself to say two words to me for so long, he’s suddenly got a lot to fucking say.
“So, which of you will play bass?”
It’s a question I’ve been hoping to avoid. I know we need a bass player but Chambers and I both consider ourselves guitarists. Chambers, though, has been playing longer than me. He is better, more of a natural. I kneel down and pretend to fiddle with my amp. When it becomes clear that I’m not going to say anything, Chambers speaks up.
“I’ll do it.”
He puts his guitar down, picks up the bass guitar Carlito has provided and we jam. The songs are missing something other than drums, but I don’t mention it and we play on.
“If he’s not coming, I’m going home,” Ace says after a while.
He steps back from the mic and puts his jacket on. Sawyer stands up, pulls her skirt straight.
“So, I guess we’re still looking for a drummer,” I say.
Ace makes that small fucking noise I know so well and, because I probably can’t get away with killing anyone else, I’m very grateful when the door blows open and David waltzes in, still dressed as if he’s in a hot club.
He sits in his seat behind the drum kit without saying a word. And it is his seat. No one’s in any doubt about that from the moment he starts pumping out the beat to a track Chambers and I wrote during the summer called The Lights Will Go Up. We quickly pick up our instruments again and follow his lead. He’s tight. The song finishes, and I try not to look as excited as I feel at having heard my song smashed out at full volume by a complete band. David doesn’t look so sure.
“The guitar sound’s too thin,” he says.
He glances at me and then at Chambers.
“Do you play guitar?”
Chambers nods and explains our current set-up. I’m tense, anticipating David’s request that I play bass instead. I know I won’t argue with him. But instead of asking anything of me, David turns to Sawyer.
“Can you play?” he wants to know.
“Only the recorder,” she replies.
David pays the joke no attention.
“I can show you how,” he says.
And that’s that. Sawyer doesn’t argue. No one does. She’ll be the band’s bass player. David thinks it will work, and so we do too.
It’s amazing how quickly Sawyer learns how to play. Within days she is playing the root notes of our songs in the right order and although I am pleased and impressed too by David’s commitment to teaching Sawyer, I can’t help but jealously count the minutes the two of them spend alone together. As soon as each of their private sessions is over, I herd everyone back to their assigned positions in our rehearsal room and relish the feeling that we are a real band.
“Look at the horrible blisters on my fingertips,” Sawyer cringes. “They’re sore.”
“Don’t worry,” Chambers says, “you’ll get calluses there soon.”
“Oh, lovely. That sounds much better.”
As soon as each rehearsal is over, David goes his own way. To another gig or to some other unspecified event. Is he really in our band? Perhaps his intentions are different to what I hope. Maybe, for him, Sawyer is the main attraction. The thought lives in my mind, and, I’m sure, in Ace’s too.
Chapter 15: David Bowie, Black Sabbath, Blah Blah Blah
Days go by. Then weeks. David doesn’t miss a rehearsal and after that first time he’s never late again. He even starts hanging around with us outside of practices. We become like animals, racing alongside Regent’s Canal and yelling at the sky. We jump on the night bus at Camden Road then fling ourselves off it again at Denmark Street. We glance at the places where David Bowie, Black Sabbath and other old bands once recorded but we don’t give a fuck about them. We’re living in the here and now. I look around at the gang: David with his trousers rolled up, showing his twelve-hole boots; Ace fiddling with the bar through his eyebrow; Sawyer dancing to imaginary music; Chambers making sure no danger comes our way. We fall asleep in our clothes.
Carlito keeps making everything possible. He gets us into clubs – the Borderline, the LA2, The Camden Palace – for free and we start to know the people that work the doors, the bars, the cloakrooms.
“You are bonkers nuts,” Carlito keeps telling us and we love it.
How many times did I tell Ami I was going to do this?
“It’s not possible,” he’d always say. “There’s no way.”
I’d almost believed him.
Watching bands during that winter is like feeding. I become solid. I’ve waited forever for the experience. Bodies push against mine. Each other’s sweaty, wet hair in each other’s faces. We are bound. Our breath on each other’s necks. The crowd screaming as another band arrives on stage. We jump. I am on them and they are on me. I have waited for this. It’s the beginning of my life.
In the core of the night, right in its dead centre, we talk about music.
“I’m the weak link in the band,” Sawyer says but she doesn’t really mean it.
She knows there’s more to being in a band than being an expert bassist.
“You’re doing great,” I tell her.
“Anyway,” David says. “It’s punk rock not to know how to play your instrument.”
He’s not being serious. He knows what being punk rock is and he assumes everyone else does too. But Ace always takes everything the wrong way.
“That’s not punk rock,” Ace says. “It’s more punk rock to actually know how to play.”
No one bothers telling him to chill out, but Sawyer does give him a kiss on the top of his nose.
For fuck’s sake.
I start feeling crazy.
If Ami was here, I’d tell him it was his fault.
And he’d tell me to forget Sawyer. That we’ll never be more than friends. I can hear the way he’d say it. I can hear his voice like he’s in the room.
I get up.
Sawyer shifts her focus from whatever Chambers, David and Ace are talking about and looks at me.
If we were alone, would I tell her? About me. About Ami. About my parents. Would I? In all these months, I’ve hardly said anything that means anything to her. So, would I?
“Everything’s cool,” I say.
For a second she looks like she’s going to say something else but then she turns her attention back to the others and I escape to the basement. I undress and fall into bed. Before I turn the light off, I see Alfred staring at me with those wise fucking eyes.
Like he knows who I really am.
Like I can’t fool him.
Like he knows everything.
Chapter 16: Who The Fuck Are Coldplay?
December 1998 to March 1999
Two days before Christmas, Carlito tells me and Chambers that he wants us to record some new acoustic demos. He takes us to a studio. There are sleeping bags taped to the wall and you need to throw a bucket of water into the toilet if you want it to flush. But that’s all fine. The only problem is the man in charge.
“You boys be nice,” Carlito says before floating back to the pub.
Yeah, right. Fen hardly talks. Not to me anyway. Everything goes through Chambers. I don’t care. I sing and play when it’s my turn, like a good fucking boy, and maybe Fen thinks I’m doing what he wants. But these are my songs and when I’m singing them he might as well be miles away.
By the end of the session, it’s late and we’ve finished four acoustic tracks – no drums, no Ace, just skeletons of some new material for the rest of the band to learn.
“What was the point of that?” I ask Chambers on our way home.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, we hardly needed a studio if that’s all we were going to do. Our crappy cassette player could have done what Fen did.”
“You know that Fen’s not really a producer. He normally works as an engineer.”
“How do you know that?”
“He told me.”
Of course he did. He hardly says hello to me but he shares his whole life story with Chambers.
Not that it matters. He works fast and a few days after the new year, he gives Carlito the finished mixes. Carlito then hands us – me, Chambers, Sawyer, David and Ace – our own copies of the tracks.
“Know the songs on here like you know how to walk,” he says, waving his arms in the air. “Like you know how to breathe!”
Now I actually have the chance to listen to them, I realise we couldn’t have made these songs sound this way on a tape recorder. They sound big in a way they haven’t done before and everyone’s excited. We lock ourselves in Carlito’s live room and we practise and we practise. We become tighter than ever and soon we’re playing the tracks seamlessly. We head into the city to celebrate. The sky folds in half. The universe opens up. We jump in. The galaxies burst and we rupture with them. Life’s frame melts away and leaks into the cracks in the pavement. My life so far has been crawling along behind me, trying to keep up, but now I stop, turn towards it and boot it under the wheels of a passing car. In the car’s rear window, I see the reflection of clouds passing overhead like spaceships. I yell and we all duck.
I swing from high to low, from over-excited to super-frantic, but Chambers and David at least remain constant. Chambers is like that, level-headed, the kind of person you’d always put in charge. David isn’t quite the same. He might come across like he doesn’t care much about much, but if I ever talk big about playing big stages to big crowds, he growls and tells me it’s the small venues that are all the fun – that’s where our dues have to be paid.
“You’ve got to sweat, brother,” he says.
And even though he’s only a few months older than me, I feel like he knows things I don’t and so I become more like him.
“Keep it real,” I say with all the intent I can muster.
“That’s right, my brother,” David nods, dressed as ever in his Mother Love Bone T-shirt with the sleeves cut off.
And, yeah, he might juggle his drumsticks like skittles and pretend he isn’t really thinking about anything, but behind his dark glasses he has his eye on us.
We carry on watching band after band: groups that were big five years ago and brand new ones with single-word names like Coldplay and Muse. We watch them take to the beaten-up stages in Carlito’s and the Bull and Gate. We love it, but there’s no one we completely connect with or think we sound like. Practices are the only times we feel an immaculate symmetry, a genuine alignment with the world, or with each other at least.
“Try the verse like this,” Chambers suggests when we rehearse, and as we all come closer together we feel each other’s heat.
“Both of us should back Ace up in that middle eight,” I tell Sawyer next and so we move towards the one spare microphone.
She hasn’t sung before but now she does. We lean towards the same microphone and I can see the tiny creases around her eyes when she concentrates. Ace tenses up and the next song benefits from the extra tightness. Every moment we’re together is full of magic like this. Most of the time, it’s indescribable and impossible to put a finger on. But it’s there. We roar like engines. We never stop.
“Where next?” Sawyer asks.
“This way,” David says.
And so the five of us go on. At the bar, everyone knows us. Like characters in a book. That’s how I think of us – swinging from word to word, abseiling from sentence to sentence, running and jumping from page to page.
Chapter 17: A Year Since I KIlled Ami
It’s March. A year since I killed Ami. Still, no one’s missed him. I blew him out like a candle and that was that. I walked away. It was all fucking nuts and I left it behind me. None of it matters anymore. No one’s coming for me.
The best thing I can do is forget about it and be grateful.
Because here I am.
The way it was always meant to be.
And now – at last – Carlito’s putting us on the road. When he tells us, we cheer and bundle him. He looks worried.
“You cannot go bonkers.”
Chambers pats him on the back. Sawyer smiles. David shakes his head and I do too. Ace pretends to be doing something else. And no one actually promises not to go bonkers.
That night, I can’t sleep. It’s dark but I know Chambers is awake too.
“I can’t believe all of this,” I say.
“It’s what we wanted,” Chambers replies like that’s all that matters.
Maybe it is. All those hours, practising and writing. This is what it was for. Maybe it feels so weird because nothing else in life ever worked out the way I hoped it would. Maybe this kind of shit is normal for most people. I mean, we have worked hard in our own way. When all the other kids were playing sports, playing computer games, doing whatever they did, we were sweating out songs. We chose a path and we followed it. When our peers were going to parties, making friends and drinking, Chambers and I were learning how to play the guitar.
“Are you okay?” Chambers asks, like he can sense what I’m thinking about.
Which of course he can.
I don’t need to say anything.
He knows I’m both okay and not okay.
When I eventually sleep that night, I dream of school. Ami’s there. I see him being pushed around the back of the football field, and shoved further and further back in the lunch queue. I notice all the tiny things that might have seemed accidental if you hadn’t been looking properly, but to Ami were so fucking obvious and so fucking deliberate.
The next day, I’m up with the sun. I’m desperate to escape the night. I climb quietly upstairs, open the curtains and look out at the small public garden on the other side of the street. There are flowers growing. When Chambers gets up, he pours us both glasses of orange juice and we sit in silence until Carlito arrives, then Sawyer, then Ace, then David. There’s only a week until we go away, and we rehearse as if we’ve been attached to a circuit board, thrown into a washing machine and then chucked down a lift shaft. Musicians at the bar talk to us and reminisce about their early days on the road but they’re old men and their stories mean nothing to us. We are solar-powered.
At some point over the next week, Sawyer has a moment of panic.
“Why are we going on a full tour without even making sure we can get through a set first?” she asks.
I don’t know what to tell her, but David does.
“It’s better to make your mistakes when you’re a million miles from anyone who knows you,” he says.
The comment makes me think about the mistakes that David assumes we will make. I look at Carlito for assurances that he isn’t sending us out on the road just so that we don’t embarrass him closer to home.
“It will be the time of your life,” is all he says.
I need to clear my head.
“I’m going for a ride,” I say.
Sawyer looks over at me.
“Can I come?”
She glances at Chambers.
“Is it’s okay to borrow your bike?”
Chambers nods and Ace gets up.
“I’ve got to go,” he says.
“I won’t be long,” Sawyer explains. “Just a scoot around the block.”
“Whatever. You do what you want.”
It’s clear Ace doesn’t intend to wait for her and I can see Sawyer changing her mind about the bike ride. But Ace is already halfway out the door and although for a moment I think Sawyer is going to chase after him, she doesn’t.
Chapter 18: 10 Things I Hate About You
There’s nothing like being on that BMX bike. Dodging the traffic with Sawyer alongside me, I feel bigger than the sky.
“I love London,” Sawyer says as we cycle in parallel lines.
I don’t reply. I don’t think she expects me to. Our lives are meshed together by the things we do more than the things we say. Sawyer often has stories to tell, though.
“I tapped this guy on the shoulder in HMV last week because I thought he was Dave Grohl,” she tells me.
“I should have known Dave Grohl would never wear a Kurt Cobain T-shirt.”
“He might do!”
She speeds up and so do I. When I’m past her, I take a corner at the last minute. I feel the ground shift under my back wheel and hear Sawyer screaming behind me when she has to then negotiate the same turning. The wind is in our hair, the city too, and we are at home. Deeply, dementedly at home.
The night before we go away, we all lounge around at Carlito’s. There are no bands playing so the venue’s quiet. A few of the oldies are at the bar, talking to Carlito. A boy and a girl are draped drunkenly over each other in the corner on the other side of the pool table. There are a group of musician types standing at the bar, complaining about the fact that so many shitty bands have made it and yet they haven’t.
Sawyer is looking through a magazine and she shows me an advert for a film that’s showing called Ten Things I Hate About You.
“What ten things do you hate about me?” Sawyer asks.
I think about it even though I don’t need to. When I don’t say anything, Sawyer laughs.
“Are you saying I’m perfect? I guess that sounds about right.”
She pauses and looks more serious.
“I hate that you never tell me what you’re thinking,” she says.
She really is serious.
“What do you mean?” I want to know. “I always tell you what I’m thinking.”
Sawyer laughs in a way that confuses me. She looks around.
“Back me up, Chambers. Does JD ever say what he’s thinking?”
“Well, it’s his lyrics we’re listening to about seven million times a day. I’d say they give us an idea.”
“You know what I mean, Sawyer says. “I’m talking about being to the point. About saying something specific about himself or his life. If I tried to figure out his existence based simply on those songs, all I’d end up with is some lunatic who likes lighting matches and staring at the sky. And what about those motorcycle lyrics?”
She turns her focus back on me.
“Have you ever even ridden a motorbike?”
“And there are so many wolves. And, oh my God, soooo much rain.”
Sawyer’s deliberately trying to get a reaction out of me and I almost tell her that all those things are metaphors, but of course she already knows that.
I’m grateful when David cuts in.
“Leave JD alone. He’ll speak when he’s ready.”
When I’m ready?
What’s that meant to mean?
Chapter 19: The Fire’s Cookin’
That night, I’m too hyped to sleep. Tomorrow, we’ll be on the road. I lie wide awake and stare into Alfred’s beady, black eyes. I don’t need to wonder what he reckons about it all.
I roll over. I think about the songs in the setlist and whether, like Chambers said, the lyrics actually reveal anything about me. Or does he only see what they really mean because he lived through them too. Maybe Sawyer’s right, maybe to everyone else they don’t say much at all.
The next morning, I’m ready first. I run up to the bar and out onto the street. The invisible winter sun is rising. Carlito has appropriated a van for us because there’s no way we can fit all our gear into Chambers’ car. The sky is almost white as we leave the city. It’s only the second time Chambers and I have set foot outside its limits since arriving six months earlier. The stereo is on full blast and we sing our hearts out. Listening to Hunger Strike, I take the role of Chris Cornell and Chambers comes in over the top of the young Eddie Vedder.
The first venue is underneath the pavement like some kind of animal den and it’s thanks to David that we manage to avoid appearing like we haven’t got much of a fucking clue about anything. Chambers and I may have performed a few times back in our hometown at Johnny’s Diner, but setting up then never involved anything more than plugging in an amp or a lead. I don’t want to but I look to David for instruction and he lets me follow him without comment.
We’ve tried calling our band a few different things. Right now, we’re The Regulators.
“It is not a cool name,” is all David says when he sees a poster advertising our gig.
I’m not going to argue with him. I need him to ease us through this soundcheck. I need him telling us what to do before the sound engineer can start throwing the fit he’s keen to throw.
The other bands on the bill are even less interested in us than the venue staff.
Not that we care about them either.
Only the headliners speak to us. They’re the first ones to soundcheck but because they arrive last, everyone else is forced to hang around, doing nothing.
“Lend us your guitar,” one of them says.
The last thing I want to do is give my prized Takamine to a complete stranger, and I don’t know why I hand it over, but I do.
“Nice one,” is all the other band say.
At the end of their soundcheck, they pass my guitar back with broken strings.
“Nice one,” they say again.
I know David’s watching as they walk off. He gets up from behind his kit and steps over to me.
“Give it,” he says.
“It’s fine,” I reply, but he takes the guitar anyway.
He restrings it quicker than I would have and it’s just as well because the headliners’ extended jam has left the rest of the acts with about two minutes each to soundcheck. I strum a few chords and nod when the sound engineer asks if my monitor levels are okay even though I haven’t been paying attention.
We’re on in a minute.
But my attention’s not on the gig, it’s on the headliners. They’re at the bar, laughing.
Chapter 20: Not Big In Japan
I look out in front of me. It’s either pitch black or the room is completely empty. I feel as if I am in some sort of remote and distant land. And then I hear it, like a voice in the distance, calling me – the same beat that David had played that first time he stepped behind our – his – drum kit. It loops over and over, and I let it. The rest of the band are waiting for me to join in, but I don’t.
Then I bow my head over my guitar, the black hole of a room disappears out of sight and I play.
The universe explodes.
When the set is over, I’m sweating. The room of course is both pitch-black and completely empty.
“Let’s get out of here,” David says.
And so we don’t hang around for the other bands to play.
“No one came to see you,” the man on the door tells us.
It means, he says, that we don’t get paid. David shows him his middle finger and we leave.
“Shouldn’t they be the ones promoting their own nights?” Sawyer asks as we climb back into the van. “Why should we get punished if they can’t get people to come and see us?”
David shakes his head as if he’s seen it all before but Sawyer’s pissed off.
“Surely they can’t just rely on unheard of bands – bands from a completely different city – to bring people through the door?”
No one says anything.
“The promoters should have a reputation for putting on exciting nights, right? That should be what pulls in a crowd…”
We all shrug.
“Just wait ’till you get to Europe,” David says as if he knows from experience that touring around France or Germany is a much more luxurious alternative to trekking across England.
“Or Japan…” he sighs as if remembering a moment of ecstasy.
I’m sitting in the passenger seat and I look at myself in the side mirror. I haven’t bleached my hair for too long and my original yellower colour is seeping back through. My eyes are like marbles. I turn my attention back to the road. Behind me, the others are laughing at the prospect of the headline band back at the animal den having to ask someone else if they can borrow their instruments.
The next night, there’s no one watching us again but two nights after that, we earn actual money.
“I know what it’s like for a new band on the road,” the promoter says as he hands over forty-five pounds. We’re grateful to him. All the other gig organisers have been impatient or rushing to be somewhere else or absent altogether.
“I don’t understand how most bands can afford to do this,” Sawyer says. “We’re lucky we’ve got Carlito.”
We nod. We’re quickly starting to realise how unusual it is for a band in our situation to have a three-week tour arranged. Most venues are nervous about booking bands with no reputation or agent but we are due to play nineteen out of our twenty-one nights on the road.
“Maybe he belongs to some kind of mafia mob and he’s threatened all the promoters,” Sawyer jokes but no one laughs and out of the corner of my eye I notice David looking at me over the top of his sunglasses.
On the nights that we go out, Sawyer and Ace usually go to bed before everybody else. Arriving back later and finding them asleep, I try not to think about what they might have been doing but Sawyer’s in my head.
It’s a dangerous place to be.
Just ask Ami.
Halfway through the second week, the two of them announce again that they’re going back to the youth hostel early.
“Don’t go,” I say as light-heartedly as I can, but it makes no difference.
“I think I’ll head back too,” I tell David and Chambers ten minutes later.
Chambers looks at me like he knows what’s going on in my head – which surely he can’t do because not even I know that – but I ignore him and leave. Outside, it’s cold. I shove my hands into my pockets and make the short journey back to our hostel. It’s a sticky, unfriendly place and it’s weirdly quiet. I creep up the stairs. I find the door to the room we’re all sharing and try the handle. It opens. The light over the sink is on so I see immediately that Sawyer is the only one in the room. Her bedclothes are already tangled up around her in a way that suggests she is fast asleep, but there’s no sign of Ace. I undress and lie down on my own bed. In the silence, I can just about decipher the sound of the music on Sawyer’s headphones. Whether she’s put it on to relax or to block out the noise of us coming back I don’t know. I wonder where Ace is.
And then he appears.
I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even see me or realise I’m in the room.
He climbs in next to Sawyer and goes to sleep.