I had played with jazz quartets, recorded to drum loops for rappers to spit rhymes over and shredded with fusion musicians but the sad fact of my career was that turning up in a short skirt and being able to make a suitable bass face still earned me gigs.
I had spent three years touring with Prince, but people still looked at my legs and my chest and made their minds up before I had even played a note. I point this out before I talk about what happened.
Hyper Fist had been fortunate enough to come in at the peak of the hair metal craze, surfing on Nick Kenny’s ego and Oliver ‘Oddball’ Dennis’ intricate, dense guitar playing until they beached on the shore of grunge. Nick’s ego had destroyed and resurrected the band a few times, to the extent that him and Oliver were the only original members left.
Petra had got me the audition off the back of a run playing in a musical about Parliament – Funkadelic. I had just finished changing a set of strings on my Fender Jazz, which was my go to instrument for any number of gigs.
She asked me if I remembered Hyper Fist. The irony had been that they had been playing their first hit, ‘Love Me Like A Fist.’ on the radio as I drove back from the last performance of the musical.
My intuition sparked like a firework. The bass parts were root note work, deceptively simple to pull off, which meant you had to strut a little more if you wanted to get noticed.
I wanted to get paid, so a few weeks of minor pentatonic parts and not letting anyone in the front row see up my skirt was a relief. I didn’t want to go back to waitressing again, and that fear had kept me taking gigs for the better part of eight years. Fear was a good motive, I often told myself, on nights where I had to hump my own gear to a soundtrack of cat calls and patronising comments.
So, yes, I took the gig. Their last bassist had quit in the middle of recording and Oliver had to step in and record all the bass parts, which was something I would have liked to have known before accepting as it meant I had to dig out a six string contrabass.Decades of solid narcotic experimentation had put Oliver on an entirely new level sonically, so I had to spend three weeks going over the parts until I had them down as pure muscle memory.
It had been time invested wisely because I needed a lot of energy just to deal with the band.
Oliver was lovely, a little strange and perpetually distracted whilst Iain on drums had a brusque, affable manner about him and a liver that had tried to leave him more times than his wife. Greg was the keyboardist, and we bonded over the scale of the task we had inherited in being able to perform the new material.
Which no one wanted to listen to.
No, we could have played ‘Love Me Like A Fist’ for two hours and no one would have cared. The crowds were high on memories of adolescence and determined to go back to the eighties with every fibre of their being.
I thought of the money and the hope that this might lead to something better. You can build a career that way if you were smart.
The biggest problem I had, though, was Nick Kenny.
Thirty years ago, he was sinuous, dangerous and agile.
Now, he was just dangerous, cased in a watery carcass that bore every mark of the years. What surgery he had made him look manufactured and plastic, too white teeth beneath lips that were bloated like he had a perpetual summer cold and hair plugs that sat in his sweaty, pink scalp like a clumsily planted garden and a belly that swung like a pendulum when he stalked the stage. At the start, his third wife, Jacinta came with us, which meant he was kept on a short leash outside of the stage.
It was when he started to dry hump me during solos and flick his yellowing tongue at me that I started to fear when Jacinta left the tour. It was not like the quality and quantity of groupies would ever keep his ego fed, a poignant reminder that the world had moved on from Hyper Fist, and by proxy, Nick.
Jacinta was already on a plane when Nick started to find excuses to come to my door and want to talk about recording with me on bass. I pretended to be asleep, fielding his petty accusation the following day with expressions of blithe ignorance and counting down the days until this leg would end, and then I could leave without violating the contract.
It was supposed to be my last gig, not anyone else’s.
The club had, much like Nick and Oliver, seen better days but clung to them with an admirable measure of determination. The walls were perpetually slick with a thin film of stale sweat, cigarette smoke, alcohol and hormones and the posters were faded, curled at the edges whilst young, ambitious faces stared out, daring you to challenge their ability to rock you. We had loaded in through the back, Nick holding court with an awestruck bar owner whilst the rest of us humped our gear through.
Oliver had gone outside to count the sparrows that had gathered in the evening sky.
Nick sauntered in, forty minutes late to soundcheck with the support band, Razor, weighing up the odds of expressing their frustration or simply sucking up the ambient humiliation, stood there and glared at him as he barked swear words in his cod-English accent into the microphone with a tumbler of scotch in his hand then belched and walked off stage. He winked at me as he left, and I almost pitied him.
Until I saw him deliberately paw at his crotch as he walked away. He was forever doomed to past glories, unable to move beyond a time when the world revolved around him and he winced at the look of pity in my eyes as I called to the sound engineer to give me some more treble in my monitor.
Nick had gone off stage to accept the delivery of something different for the last show. Greg rolled his eyes whilst Iain swore under his breath.
I glanced around at the dimensions of the club, the ominous low ceilings and how cramped everything was in here, imagining a sweaty sea of fans and all those bright, harsh flares going off. I calmed myself down by telling myself that Nick wouldn’t be that stupid, despite all evidence to the contrary.
I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, I really did.
Which proved difficult when he kept pushing himself against me whilst we ate from the botulism buffet that had provided for us. After the last cursory brush of his leather sheathed micro penis against the crack of my ass, I took great pleasure in telling him that I was leaving the tour after the show, as per my contract.
He spluttered and grimaced before his ego demanded that he pretended that he did not care. I knew there were other gigs there, and in an instant, I saw past all his childish shit to the scared little man underneath. He was lashed to Hyper Fist forever, whilst I would go on and grow as a musician. I was younger, more talented and smarter than he had been at that age and in his pleading eyes, I saw his desire to fuck me as a way to undermine that immutable fact.
The show that night started off with a ferocity that surprised us new guys, the crowd ready for us from the first note. The irony of the energy blinded us to the pyrotechnics, and I wondered if saner heads had prevailed as we rattled through the first few songs until Iain gestured for me to come over whilst Oliver ran his perfect fingers down the fretboard with such speed that it became a single shower of compressed notes.
‘Stay away from the front, love. The twat’s going to set them off at the end of Fist.’
I grinned and he shook his head.
‘Wish I was going with you, but I need the dosh, love.’ he said.
I gave him the thumbs up and he played a rapid run along his kit without a change in expression as we started to play the one song that the crowd was waiting for.
The audio did not do it justice, but that last performance of the song changed things between us. Its rudimentary parts, recorded before I was born, sucked in the energy of the crowd, burned our resentments and ambitions for fuel and set them ablaze.
When the fire pots went off and shot a solid wall of flame into the air, I screamed with fright. Nigel caught it and gave a mocking grin as he waved his arms in the fire, urging the crowd to scream the chorus. I did not miss a note, but stood back and looked up.
I watched the flames lick at the ceiling and stopped playing. Greg followed my gaze, then Iain whilst Nick and Oliver did their faux-homoerotic back-to-back dance at the front, hungry for adoration.
Iain set his sticks down and called to one of the crew from the side. I unslung my bass and Greg extricated himself from behind his banks of keyboards. The crew started to get out, trying to get Nick and Oliver’s attention as well as alert someone to call the fucking fire brigade. It was futile, Nick and Oliver were lost to the crowd as much as the crowd were lost to the moment.
I want to say I was brave and noble, but that would be a lie. I ran, with my bass in my hand and kicked out the fire door, frightened that I had not heard the alarms ringing out. Iain and Greg followed along with a few of the road crew.
The fire needed no permission, it was as relentless in its ambitions as Nick and Oliver. It was a more subtle performer, biding its time and feeding on the old wood and tarmac in the roof, gently ushering smoke down until by the time that anyone in the crowd realised that it was not part of the show, it was too late.
We stood there, trying to get the doors open at the front, only to find that the mass of the crowd’s panicked exit had blocked them and so we stood there, cold and despairing as the club burned around. I lost two fingernails and sprained my index finger on my right hand trying to get a window open but Iain dragged me back and wrapped my arms around me, whispering to me that it was all done now.
Nick and Oliver never made it out. No one really cared about the eighty people who died along with them, but I imagined that Nick would have felt that entirely appropriate. I stayed for three days in Long Island, talking to insurance agents and police before they released me and I was on a plane back to Los Angeles.
What stayed with me, stubborn and appalling, was that it had been Nick’s idea from the start. I imagined him sat there, looking at the gradual decline of his flesh and faculties, already a standing joke and deciding to go out on his own terms.
Oliver, well I imagined he saw it as a transition from one state to another.
I had just come from a good audition to be part of Justin Timberlake’s band and was waiting for a cab when I heard the riff of ‘Love Me Like A Fist’ belch out from the speakers of a cell phone. Two girls staring into the screen of a phone and giggling with a cold glee as they sucked on blended juices.
I shuddered and turned away, raising my face to the sun and wondered when it would stop hurting.
If it ever would.