You know the party scene in rock star movies, when gorgeous people dance and drink until sunrise with a nerdy teenager or potbellied roadie slumped in the corner? Every night was like that. We were on tour, but we were home. It doesn’t take long for the nervous system to adjust to prolonged highs, and then you’re just a person standing in room of strangers again, looking for ways to feel less alone.
When I was 19, my best friend Jonathan opened a house venue on the outskirts of Downtown Nashville. Hundreds of kids swarmed every show, too young to see their favorite bands play anywhere else. I watched friends become stars, baristas transform into metal gods, a folk rocker play her last show before chemo, Stones knockoffs, Joy Division knockoffs, horrorcore rappers dressed as Jesus and Satan, so many aging wonder boys traveling back in time.
I stood next to Jonathan at the sound board. We’d stolen a velvet rope from the movie theater to deter the crowd from accidentally unplugging anything. There were so many people that a flock of dancers couldn’t flap their wings without knocking into a disgruntled normie, who would try to step away, thus bumping into a sweaty stranger who would bump into another sweaty stranger, setting off waves of passive aggression. From the other side of the crowd, the lead singer of Alabama Shakes nodded her crown of bleached hair at Jonathan, bloggers observing from the bar.
There were more old people, 30-year-olds in dresses and polo shirts, than I had ever seen at a show. It was Friday night, and they wanted to feel cool and try something new, like that house venue they read about in the Scene. They were civilians, tourists pretending to head bang, a pose on top of a pose, the men slamming Bud Lights and spilling on each other, a pastime I knew well and should have accepted, but they simply could not hold their alcohol, cheeks glossy and pink as a pig’s on a spit. It was far too early for such behavior.
Jonathan and I had a soft spot for the band on stage. Ranch Ghost had been playing the same batch of psychedelic surf rock tunes for years, forever holding out for a deal from a major label. Their sound was unique to our scene, but like a lot of bands, all their songs sounded like imitations of their best stuff. The rhythm section looked like the baby-faced skaters they were, but the guitarists were all ‘60s linen and mustaches. The Lilliputian lead singer wore platform dress shoes, rocking side-to-side as he played a guitar that was half as big as he was. Sweating and swaying, they were a band of pirates fighting the sea.
Jonathan looked like one of them, a plush hotel robe and necklaces layered over his concave chest. He leaned into the sound board, turning everything up, a sliver of smoke rising from his mouth. The crowd pushed back and forth, their weight dipping the floor, the stage rocking with every step, every chord, and the house seemed to slant like in a children’s book. This was his equilibrium.
After my lunch shifts at the pizzeria, I’d drive through the clogged heart of the city with leftover slices because they were the only thing Jonathan would eat, exhausted by all the attention and noise. It was too hot to go outside for long, too hot for shirts or socks. We’d sit on the floor with all the windows and doors open, and I asked what else he wanted to do, and he always gave the same vague answers, and I asked follow-up questions and he brushed me off, as if we both knew I would write a story about him one day.
When he was in a decent mood, he’d pick a piece from his crust and set it on my foot. It was our game. Over and over, he’d place a crumb between my toes or in my elbow, ear, bellybutton, and I would eat it, Jonathan clapping and smiling. Even though we barely touched, it was the closest I felt to him all summer. Once, he slipped a piece in the waistband of my boxers. I held the crumb in my mouth and waited for something else to happen, a hand on the knee, innuendo. I counted to five as a fly circled his head.
Between sets, everyone evacuated the room for fresh air. Jonathan and I stayed within the velvet rope, drinking and smoking. I could hear the silence beneath the speaker’s new wave, a buzzing amp.
I said, “That was great.”
“They’re always great.”
“That was like Michael Jordan great.”
“That was like The Beach Boys on cocaine, in space.”
“That was like having sex with an alien who feels like a human, but you can tell there’s something inside them you don’t understand.”
“That was like music.”
He played “Disorder” by Joy Division at maximum volume like a midnight drive when we were younger, and the song made us feel like we were flying, and I tried to remember or imagine a conversation that would make both of us feel better, but the next band started to soundcheck over the song, and the room filled as we belted out, “Feeling, feeling.” Nobody heard us.
I opened another tallboy. The band on stage, Faux Ferocious, moved here a few years earlier and sounded like a combination of two of the most established bands in our scene, JEFF The Brotherhood and Natural Child. They even adopted the shaggy hair and painters caps of their musical forefathers. It was unclear if anyone minded. Due to the extreme body heat, the majority of the crowd seemed resentful of each other and/or blackout drunk, and Charlie Brown shoulder shrugs and twirls gave way to moshing. Articles of clothing were removed and lost. Two lovers climbed on top of the bar, performed an off-beat jitterbug, and tumbled over the edge to be replaced by another couple. Those outside the scrum backed against the velvet rope, and I stepped forward to protect Jonathan and the music. Between pushing sweaty backs, I speed-gulped my beer, arms waving like a drunk aerobics instructor. When the crowd surged into my chest, I reached back to steady myself and dropped my can, watched it tumble in slow-motion, get booted skyward, a gold mist spraying the dancers.
When I couldn’t take one more sound, I set down my beer and walked out the door, past the neighborhood’s splintered porches and low-lit restaurants, blind dates twirling pasta, wine glasses flickering like candles through the windows. I saw men passed out on bus stop benches, old women with their entire lives in shopping carts. Cutting through the park, I wondered what the nighttime joggers thought of me, if they were scared, if I should be scared, staring at the World War II Memorial’s giant onyx globe, all those lost in the black sea, my grandfather, my father, how we were still fighting, maybe men were made to fight and die and be forgotten. We did our best to remember by scratching lines in stone.
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