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PUNKER by Kevin Bigley

Leslie stalked the stage with the palpable anxiety of a mountain lion locked in an exhibit. His shoulders were hunched, guitar still echoing the final chord from the previous song, his face bleeding rivers of perspiration. He slithered from end to end, fighting existential hysteria.

“Play ‘Ready to Go’!” cried a fan near the lip of the stage. “Come on, dude. Play it!”

Leslie ignored the fervent fan, wiping his damp forehead with his already drenched t-shirt. He sweat profusely, battling his intense flu-symptoms. He had a fever of one hundred and two degrees. His stomach flipped like a rabid circus chimp, gargling the indigestible street tacos and Budweiser. He looked out into the crowd of thirty-or-so punks with exhaustion and hatred. He was bored with them and he was bored with himself.

He hated playing in Sacramento. It called itself a capital like someone calls themselves an “Assistant Manager” at an Arby’s. It reeked of overcompensation, a city arguing with you, attempting to convince you that it was substantial. It was a half city, half cow-town that was easily driven through in under two minutes. The people were peculiar, but not enough to be interesting. Many of them had tinges of southern accents. What was that about? Why was the city fighting to be southern? Even so, you wouldn’t find the same edge here as you would find in a Memphis or New Orleans. No, Sacramento was a homogenized south. These people were as southern as Leslie was Irish. The Sacramento bars were always the same: honky-tonk vibes with elk horns on the walls, filled with accidental audience members who, as he began his sound check would perk up with curiosity. “Oh, is there music here tonight?” “Hey look, a live band!” “Cool, is this a cover band? Is it 80’s night?” Leslie would target these people, usually playing the most uptempo, abrasive song he had within his is catalogue. He’d lock eyes with them, watching as scowls flooded their faces when they realized they hated him. “Oh, maybe we should go,” they’d mouth to one another. He loved to watch them drift out the door.

“Mickey! Come on, Mickey,” the fan cried out to Leslie. “Come on, Mickey, you motherfucker. Play ‘Ready to Go.’ Play the T-Mobile song, Mickey!”

“Ready to Go” was originally a throwaway tune. It was immature, caveman punk. Three chords the whole way, two minutes in length. But somehow it had found its way onto a Grand Theft Auto soundtrack and garnered the attention of T-Mobile executives. Just like that, The Morons had their first and only hit (the term “hit” is used relatively, of course, as this is as close to a hit as an indie punk band could ever hope for). The fact that the song was a throwaway reinforced Leslie’s disdain for the chaos and injustice of the music industry. Nothing makes sense. He was chained to his vapid hit just as he was chained to his angst-ridden, alter-ego “Mickey Moron” of The Morons.

Presently, The Morons existed only in name. The original members, with the exception of Leslie, had all left. Matilda, his ex-girlfriend, had gone solo with great success playing power pop. Roger, the drummer, had left music altogether and was finishing up his associate’s degree. Leslie was the last spinning plate, and even he wanted to bring it crashing down. He had been experimenting with a new sound, a sound the gratuitously-pierced audience presently standing before him would despise. He was going for something slower, less fuzz-induced, with actual singing. Something Roky Erikson-esque. He always admired Roky, a reverb prophet who sang haunted tunes that were more American than Springsteen, with intricate picking, and nuanced lyrics about complex themes. Of course, Roky was no role model. He had been in this business for so long that he had nearly drank himself to death to the point of being unable to speak. The only working component left in his brain was the music part. He still toured, still sang, but couldn’t converse. Now going on thirty-three and still playing music for a living, Leslie was beginning to wonder if Roky’s cautionary tale would be his own.

“Play ‘Ready to Go,’ Mickey!” shouted the peevish fan. “Play it, motherfucker!”

Leslie sneered, smacking his lips as his mouth over-salivated. His stomach was beginning to bubble and boil, rejecting the beer and street food. He was pale, paler than normal. His jeans no longer fit. He pulled them up, trying to get them to a sticking point. He had grown a potbelly sometime after turning thirty. The fat cascaded over the front of his jeans and love-handles ballooned over the rear edges. His face was bloated and tired. He still had his long blonde hair, a tribute to Cobain. But these days, his hair resembled his fraying psyche: a delusional gun fighter who was outnumbered and outgunned, but had stubbornly convinced himself that he could still shoot his way out of anything.

He was staying with Katy, an old music friend he knew from their days of starting out. She lived in Sacramento with her husband Chris, a real estate agent. They had a lovely home and had just welcomed their second little girl. Katy used to be a punker, playing in a three-piece industrial hardcore band; she was lead vocals and bass. But her shaved head had been replaced by bangs, her piercings were now scars, and her tattoos were merely conversation pieces at block parties. She was nursing Leslie through his flu, providing him with homeopathic medicine, which was a huge help as he didn’t have health insurance. Chris was a nice guy, funny too. He and Katy had built a nice life, filled with picnics in the park, vacations to the coast, and a budding wine cellar. Leslie envied them.

“Ready! To! Go!” chanted the fan. “Ready! To! Go! Ready! To! Go!” Leslie stared into the crowd as if it were a placid surface of a still pond. His mind wandered.

He was wrought with the cliche musician crossroads of The New Stuff versus The Old Stuff. What do you play? Either you’re a dinosaur who can’t adapt, or you’re a fool who thinks his new shit is any good. He stared at the audience with festering acrimony. He’d heard stories of Dylan saying “fuck it” and turning his back to the audience as he played. Kim Gordon staying as still as possible so as to deprive them of even the slightest bit of “show business.” Cobain throwing his frail body into the drum-set, hell bent on destroying himself before he plays “Smells Like Teen Spirit” one more time.

As he sipped his beer, he suddenly felt light-headed and stumbled, almost falling on his face. He could feel the audience holding its collective breath. Camera phones floated into the air. They wanted to watch him fall apart. They wanted a show.

Fuck Sacramento, he thought. But at least it wasn’t Los Angeles. He hated playing in LA even more. Clubs that were CBGB wannabe’s with crowds of hipsters who were there to sponge up art. They stood with their arms folded in the back, slowly nodding as if they were members of an indie rock jury. They quietly formulated bullshit opinions and their own, personal Pitchfork ratings. They were too cool to mosh, too cool to show emotion, and too cool to interact with one another. And there was always a musician friend Leslie knew, someone doing much better than him. Someone who had successfully transformed, evolved, waiting for him by the bar. Afterwards they’d buy him a beer and give him an empty compliment, “What a show,” “Man, you guys really went for it,” “Super loud, dude.” But he knew what they thought. He was a thirty-three-year-old playing music he wrote when he was twenty-one. He was pathetic, and there was a tacit tone to make sure he knew that.

He paced with is beer, his band staring at him, waiting for his signal to continue. But Leslie would have none of it. He drank the rest of his Budweiser, gulping it down and virulently throwing the can into the audience. They cheered at his outburst. His gut was folding in on itself, queasy and disturbed. His senses were alert, taking too much in all at once. What if he just gave up? What if he just dropped his guitar and walked off the stage never to be heard from again? The myth of Mickey Moron would spread. Where is he now?

“Fuck you, Mickey!” cried the fan in front. “Play it, Mickey! Fuck you!”

All this time he thought he was the smart one. He thought he had it all figured out. He pursued the thing that he loved, got really good at it, shared it with the world, and made money. It was all so simple. He used to pity the people he knew from high school who became accountants, salesmen, teachers, etc. They had failed and he had succeeded because he had it all figured out. But as time passed he realized that he was the fool. He had convinced himself that he could make a living out of a hobby.

Heat rose in his intestines, a warning that something was on the rise. He closed his eyes and concentrated. He had to continue. He thought about the next song, the chord changes. He was a teenager trying to suppress a boner with desexualized thoughts. As his mind focused on the next song, he felt his nausea subside. He had thwarted it for the moment. He took a deep breath.

“The T-Mobile song, Mickey! Come on, dude! Play it!”

Out of nowhere, Leslie thumped power chords with ferocity. “Ready to Go” was music a monkey could play, but it was catchy as hell. The whole song is made up of three chords (A, C, and G). He started at A for four beats, then changed to C for another four, then G for three with a quick finishing beat at C, then back to A. As he came to life, so did the crowd. They began to jump, push, and jostle. He had infected them. The drums pounded their repetitive 1, 2, 1, 2, standard punk beat with heavy snare and kick drum. The fan that had badgered Leslie writhed with primal joy.

But instead of the opening verse, a stream of vomit erupted from Leslie’s maw. Tacos, beer, Katy’s homeopathic medicine, and other undigestible rubble spewed from Leslie’s oozing face and onto the truculent fan. The fan, shocked and disgusted, was too horrified to move. Once a tough-as-nails punk, he transformed into an humiliated child. Finally, his jaw trembling, he dropped his head and slinked away, heading for the bathroom.

The band slowly ground to a halt, looking at Leslie to make sure he wasn’t about to pass out. Leslie nodded and tossed them a thumbs up. He felt instantly better. He moved to his pedals and turned off his SuperFuzz, and instead shifted to a high-toned, reverb-heavy, tremolo SkySurfer pedal. He strummed an a-minor chord that resonated throughout the small, western-themed bar with the haunting sounds of neon beer signs, Roky Erickson, and the San Fernando Valley at midnight. He picked slowly, allowing the tones to paint every corner of the space. He smiled as he watched disappointment spread, spider-like, as it crawled across every punker’s face. He delicately unleashed his new sound and watched as bar patrons mouthed “Oh, maybe we should go.” They settled their tabs, and drifted into the night.

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