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Like a Song


It was my wife’s little-known cousin’s 21st birthday party in the back room of a suburban bar. We had only recently moved to this southern city—after the band had broken up—so we had been invited to this family event with the enthusiasm that comes with discovering novelty relatives. For our part, we didn’t know a lot of people, we were getting ourselves established in a new kind of life and this seemed an invitation we should accept.

As we arrived and Clair introduced me to the members of her extended family and they, in turn, introduced us to others of the partygoers, just one or two commented on my “story.” 
“Sorry to hear about you guys breaking up,” one offered.
“I saw your band play at the Forum a few years back,” another guy—about my age—commented.
But few others picked up on these hints. To the crowd of older relatives and parents’ friends—even to the 21-year-old and his friends—I was unknown. Thankfully. Even though they would probably tap along with some familiarity with our songs when they came on the radio.
I noticed the band setting up, tuning up, gearing up in an alcove with curtains that looked like something from your grandmother’s guest room. Standard musical arrangement: frontman with acoustic guitar, a “real” guitarist, bass player and drum kit behind. Their lighting rig was a bank of four coloured spotlights on each side of the “stage.” 
If I’d been Ben—“our” frontman—it would have been different. He’d done the talk shows, the magazine covers, most of the radio interviews. I’d been the guy up the back in the photo shoots—and on stage, a multi-instrumentalist who held the music together and had a hand in most of our song writing. I guess I’d always been about the music—and the fun of being in a band. The other guys, particularly Ben, had wanted to be famous. And got what they wanted.
The party had that early-in-the-night freshness. Old friends and distant relatives exchange greeting, hugs and news after not having seen each other since last they celebrated some similar event. There were gifts for the 21-year-old, food for the taking and drinks for everyone. The band continued their pre-gig set up below the sociable hubbub. 
Clair was meeting unknown relatives, sharing updates from her family up north and remembering to introduce me to most of them. I smiled politely, grabbed drinks for each of us and kept an eye on the band.
I’d never played a venue or event like this. Our band had started playing together in high school, all in the same music class—and, yes, we opened our old high school’s new performing arts venue a couple of years ago. We wrote and recorded some original songs for a class project, for which we only received a “B,” then sent a three-track demo to a radio station’s competition for unsigned bands. We won and our first song suddenly became a radio hit. Before we finished high school, we were signed to a record company and spent the next 10 years on the road with seemingly endless touring, four platinum albums and a string of national music industry awards. It was so easy—except the parts of it that weren’t.
The arrivals had slowed and drinks increased. The band received the nod from the venue manager and switched on their lights, as the room’s lights were dimmed. The red-blue-green-yellow switched through their limited spectrum on an alternating cycle, each hue picking a different highlight from the curtain print behind them.
“Hey, how you doing? Happy birthday to our birthday boy—21st and all that. We’re just gonna play some tunes. Great to be able celebrate with you. Hope you have a great night.” Then sound. A Jimi Hendrix song was an ambitious place to start—and a loud one. It didn’t quite fit the demographic—or the musical ability.
Clair and I have always entertained ourselves at events like this with guessing the playlist—a kind of musical bingo. After a couple of songs, you pick up the “musical direction” of the band and nominate a selection from the house band cover-version standards. It’s hard to go far wrong and this band did not disappoint. We nodded and grinned with recognition as they eased into some more mellow covers from the commercial radio playbook.
Our band played a few cover versions on our first couple of tours. We only had an EP of material for our main set, so worked up some covers, carefully selected to add to our musical credibility but not too complicated to play. We found ourselves as a high-school band with high-rotation airplay, chart success, serious fans and medium- to large-sized venues to fill. After graduating from high school, we had never played as a support act.
With the band a few songs in and various partygoers a few drinks in, there was a crowd on the space in front of the band set aside as a dance floor. Some were dancing, some were just jumping around, most were singing along as best they could, drink in one hand, other arm around whomever was next to them.
The music was still a level too loud for the size of the room. Music- and volume-wise, it had the feel of quantity over quality. The textured brick feature wall did nothing to help the acoustics but the volume made space for the high-spirited singing and partying. 
Whenever I wrote songs for our band, I imagined them played in arenas or stadiums. Huge sound, full light show, thousands of fans singing along. It might have been one reason we made it. Our songs, although initially only in daydreams, were made for big stages. The five of us on stage could play our music but the venue, atmospheres and production made our shows. And we got lucky—fast-tracked to the level that fitted our sound. Playing big for big stakes and usually winning. Three years in a row, our tours were among the biggest entertainment events in the nation.
Five or six songs into their set, the band began a song neither of us had picked. It took me a few bars but Clair was already looking at me strangely when I turned back toward her. Not only was it one of our songs, it was a lesser known album track, not one we would have ever guessed. I looked around nervously, unsure how to react. I tried not to listen but could not help noticing a missed chord. 
I caught the eye of the guy who had mentioned he had seen us play. He grinned at me as I looked away. I sat there stunned. Thankfully, this type of house-band rock is unlikely to attempt the more heartfelt songs from a band’s catalogue. This was simply a thumping rock song. I must have performed it a hundred times during a couple of the tours at the mid-point of the band’s career. It was fun to play. I found myself nodding along, at the same time as trying to avoid looking about me. This was a song from our high-point of success, fame, living the dream.
The release of a second album is always key. The critics talk about second-album syndrome but our second album was bigger than the first. It made our band known across the country. We were everywhere—radio, TV, festivals, our biggest tour (until our farewell tour), performance at the major music awards show, number one on the single and album charts. People told us we had made it—but I knew it had simply landed on us. But that kind of success gives opportunity—at least the opportunity for a couple more albums and a few more tours.
When our song ends and the band moves into another of their rock standards, I feel myself physically relax. Of course, I knew that there would be bands like this who might perform a song or two of ours but I had never been there for it. 
“Thanks, guys. Are you having fun? We’ll take a break and be back with some more in a few minutes.” The set ended and the party crowd shifted. Leaving the dance floor, some headed back to the bar, others the bathroom. The party’s host readied themselves for the expected speeches, embarrassing photos and cake cutting.
Clair turned to me, still in shock. She was laughing. “Some good taste in music, even if the performance lacked something,” she said.
I laughed, too. “It’s not how I remember that song,” I replied.
“Maybe it is now,” she mocked. “I assume they don’t know you’re here?” she added as a question.
“I’m not the band—or Ben.”
“But they must be fans,” she suggested. “That wasn’t an obvious choice. That wasn’t one of the biggest songs.”
“But probably the easiest of our songs to play,” I replied.
“And still they didn’t get it quite right, did they?” She was teasing again.
I didn’t respond but looked across to where the band members were ordering drinks at the bar.
“It’s hard to be ‘rock-n-roll’ in front of floral-print curtains,” I offered.
“Think they’ll play any more of your songs?” It was a leading question.
“Plenty of other songs in the world,” I quipped.
“But, if they’re fans . . . What about a little game? If they play another one of your songs, you have to get up and dance to it.”
The 21-year-old was led to the front of the room and speeches began. I poked Clair in the leg but did not make any further response to her taunt.
It was a running joke in the band that I never “moved” on stage—and it was mostly true. I was focused on making the music, getting it right. Ben and sometimes the others would jump around, revving up the crowds and being revved up by the crowds. I was usually at the back of the stage giving them something to jump around to. I was our ship’s engineer.
Twenty minutes later, the band was back. The later set was louder still. With formalities out of the way, some of the families and older members of the crowd began to leave. But the party was now becoming serious about partying.
It might have been my getting married that signalled the end of the band. Not that we saw it that way at the time. But when Clair and I got married, the band changed to become just my job. It was a great job but it was no longer everything I was. Ben wanted us to go to Europe, to crack the scene in London, get a new audience and take our career to the next level. With some momentum but third and fourth albums that never matched number two, it might have made sense but I was becoming tired of it and I didn’t want to be starting all over again. We didn’t know how to be an unknown band.
Three songs into the next set and I begin to relax. These are more the party tunes—well-know sing-along rock songs to keep the increasingly tipsy crowd engaged. Clair is starting to yawn and her conversations with little-known family members have all but flagged.
Of course, there were arguments as they band ran out of band-ness but no real fights, just a growing realisation that it was coming to an end. Ben was going to London to try a solo career and would probably make it. Others had other projects and pieces of life to go to. I wasn’t sure. But we decided to end it well: a final farewell tour, celebrating 10 good years. And it worked. The fans came out one last time. Having made the decision, we all got on much better and, of course, we finished with a sold-out show in our home city. It was fun. The only rock music cliché we missed was the untimely death of one of our band members. 
That was more than six months ago. We moved south and, after living with those guys for 10 years, we still checked in occasionally. I didn’t miss the life but I missed the music. 
The party was winding down. Those bent on serious drinking would be there for a while longer but the event was over. The band noticed the decline and tried one last rousing song. I recognised it instantly.
With a triumphant laugh, Clair grabbed my hand and pulled me to my feet. It was our biggest song—number one on the national charts for five weeks back then and still on regular rotation on most rock stations in the country. 
Except for incidental radio play, I hadn’t heard to this song since I had last played it at that last concert. Clair and I stepped to the dance floor, which was suddenly filled with singing and jumping, not so much dancing. She was laughing and I was dancing badly—intentionally, of course.
The song soon ended, and with it the band was done. We were stranded on the dance floor, in a group of friendly strangers, watching as the band put down their instruments, switched off their meagre lights and began to pack up.
“Thanks, guys, that was fun,” I said to the lead singer, bending down over his equipment just a few feet away.
He looked up briefly. “Thanks, man.” His voice was a little husky from its exertions. “It’s been a fun night.” 
I was about to say something more—I’m not sure what—but he had already turned back to his post-performance chores.
Clair was still giggling from her “dancing” but sensed my confusion.
“It’s OK,” she says, “that song doesn’t belong to you any more.”
A couple of the other partygoers are still on the dance floor, arm in arm, singing the last chorus again to each other.
I smile at their exuberance—and their silliness—and follow Clair out to the car park.
I had never before danced to one of our songs.
This continues our monthly feature, Stories with Nathan Brown. Previous works include: “The dead book,” Mystery,” “The Regular,” “The Veteran,” and “Urban and Oggy.”
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