A faint, residual mist of hairspray hung in the air, motes sparkling in the semi darkness as Josh picked up his cigarette from the ashtray and inhaled. The tip flared and illuminated the descending shroud of spray, a tiny universe of stars falling and winking out in front of his eyes. He exhaled, blowing a long, lazy smoke ring that dispersed the last of the haze. Eighteen years on the road and these were the two things he had to show for it, the two things he’d learned. First, how to blow rings. Second, how to style his hair and smoke at the same time without setting himself on fire. No one was much impressed by either but he’d seen enough wannabes never master the second: why’d you think so many frontmen wore bandanas ?
Veteran rockers. That was what the reviews had said this tour. Veteran. Like they were returning from war or something. If he was then Josh was pretty sure he hadn’t won: it’d been a long, bloody siege, camped just outside the walls of mainstream success, battering to be let in but never quite finding the firepower to get it done. It hadn’t always been like that. First record had gone gold and Rolling Stone had anointed them heirs apparent to Guns ‘N Roses, eulogised about their inevitable place in a lineage traced from the New York Dolls through to all those West Coast bands that ripped it up in the 80s. They’d even opened for Motley Crue back in ’89, an experience that had teased a glimpse of a life they’d see fleetingly a few times in the years that followed but never quite catch. Still, those boys had shown him how to handle a can of hairspray and their audience had taught him how to dodge a bottle of piss so he couldn’t say it was a total waste.
This felt like coming full circle, except now they were opening for a parody of all the bands they used to think they wanted to be. When did rock and roll become pantomime ? Maybe it always was. Maybe it just came down to timing. If they’d landed in ’89 with three chords, a distortion pedal, and a plaid shirt then they could have decamped to Seattle and ridden the swelling (new) wave of grunge instead of being in LA just as everyone got washed up, spent, on the shore. Left to wring out their spandex. No-one wore lycra anymore unless they were cycling. It’s the new rock and roll apparently. Remember when rock and roll was the new rock and roll ?
Josh exhaled again and watched his face, staring out at him from the dressing room mirror, disappear behind the fug. As the smoke dispersed he came back into focus, indistinct and translucent at first and then sharper until he could trace every line on his forehead, every crease around his eyes that the soft smudges of mascara didn’t conceal quite the way they used to. Exhale. He liked himself better in the smog.
Two minutes. Someone had banged on the door and shouted the final call. No sense in being late on when you opened, not when you were trying to pack eighteen years, trying to pack a lifetime, in to the thirty minutes on stage you were allotted. They’d steal a bit back at the end. String out the band intros and stretch out “Sex Freak”; it was the song everyone came for now anyway. Billboard rock chart top ten, had even looked like breaking the Hot 100 in the midweek listings until dropping away at the end. Maybe if they’d agreed to the edits MTV wanted they’d have kept up the rotations but you don’t think it’s your only shot when you’re twenty one. You don’t want to start off by playing the game. It’s rock, man, not the Backstreet Boys. Cut the sex scene ? Fuck cutting the sex scene. Had he meant that or had he just been egged on by Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee ? Maybe taking advice from filthy rich hedonists with a sideline in heroin addiction wasn’t the smartest move he’d made. Great hair though.
Must be time. Do what you love, he muttered under his breath. Do what you love. It’d be the last thing he’d say to the crowd as they finished their set and it was the last thing he’d said to every crowd they’d ever played to. He’d carried it as a mantra all the way back to the days (or mainly nights) spent flyering the Sunset Strip, begging club owners to give them a slot, pestering label execs to turn out to watch showcases. Do what you love. It had sustained him through being dropped after the second record, kept his faith as half the band quit in acrimony last year. No, we’re not going to try more of a country feel. Who’d you think we are ? Steven fucking Tyler ? It was the rallying call as he’d put the new line up together, mostly kids: he could still see the belief – the desire – burning in their eyes each time they played. It could all still happen when you’re twenty one. It almost did for him.
You’re on Josh. Kill ‘em, man. Show time.
Do what you love. But what do you do when you don’t love it anymore ?
This is story 39 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts
This is for an old friend. It is fictional but may have been partially inspired by watching a Steel Panther gig this week. Yep, Steel Panther. I’m not proud.