Freedom rides on a turning wheel
And we're just checkin' out the view,
If you don't catch us now, we're gone. Anyhow,
We're just passin' through.
A muffled, tearing crash and a long grumbling sound threw Pete Astor out of sleep. His heart started to slow down when he realized that it was only thunder. He opened his eyes cautiously. Pale, subdued daylight was leaking through a chink in the curtains.
"God! What was that?" gasped a female voice beside him.
"I reckon we're in for a good, old Manchester thunderstorm and
bucketing rain," said Astor.
A louder, closer crash of thunder coincided with a pounding on the door of the room. "Nine o'clock, get up," one of the crew was yelling in the corridor. "We're out of here at ten to twelve sharp. Move it, guys and gals."
"Yo!" called Astor.
The pounding moved to another door.
"What time did she say?" yawned Belinda.
"Nine. They do that every half hour until half-eleven. Then they
invade your room to find out if you've ODed."
"Wow. I'm Bee, by the way."
"Yeah, I remember. I'm Pete, by the way."
"Yeah, I remember."
"How are you feeling?"
"Okay, really. I was just tired last night. Not completely smashed, or anything."
"Well, I suppose we'd better get up. Do you want first shot of the bathroom? Ladies first?"
"Nice of you to think of me as a lady," said Belinda. "You know what I'd really like to hear right now? Some rock star telling me to give everything up and go on the road with him."
"Reckon you've got time to get packed before the bus goes? You've got less than three hours."
"You could tell me where you're going and I could meet you there if I miss the bus."
"One small problem, like I said, I don't know."
"You could ask someone."
"That's the trouble with women, they always want to know things."
"So this is really just another one-night stand to you?"
"You've got some sort of problem with that? You knew that was all it would be last night. No one kidnapped you."
"Right. So you're going to tell me to be a responsible adult?"
"Nope. It's your life. You decide what you want to do with it. Only I'd have thought someone as short of cash as you would want to take the free bus rather than pay to go on a coach or the train."
"Good point. So if I turn up here with my bags packed, I can go with you?"
"And what if you dump me in the next town?"
"You'll have had a whole heap of fun and it won't cost you much to get home."
"You really don't care whether I go with you or not, do you?"
"Do you want an honest answer to that? Or do you want me to lie a bit to make you feel valued?"
"Lie to me."
"I'll probably top myself if you don't go with me, Bee."
"Well, if you put it like that... How am I going to get home now?"
"The record company Japs can pay for a taxi."
"I can probably just about afford to get one back, yes."
"Sod that! Tell the driver to wait for you."
"Just do it."
"Am I doing the right thing, Pete? Just giving up the flat and walking away?"
"Well, from what you've told me, staying here is just wall-to-wall hassle. But don't decide now. Go home, pack if you still feel like it, come back here if you still feel like it. If the bus is still here, get on it. If it's gone, go home and regret not packing quicker for the rest of your life."
"So you reckon it'll be okay if I'm just with you at your next stop?"
"Yeah. It's in the budget under entertainment, cheering up good-looking women when they're feeling miserable. Just let me know if any bugger gives you some grief, like our esteemed tour manager. I'll threaten to shop him over his fiddles."
"He's got some? The tour manager?"
"Lots. It's traditional. You can get away with them as long as you don't get caught. Stupidity is no excuse. So, shall I save you a seat on the bus?"
"Okay. I'll do it," said Belinda.
Astor was one of the later arrivals at a corner of the hotel's breakfast bar, which had been kept open for the benefit of late-rising musicians. Mocking cheers greeted him from the members of both bands, who were sitting at separated tables, as was the rule for tours.
"Where's your mate?" remarked Syd Melchior.
"Sacrificed by witches last night," said Astor.
"You're not telling us she's a virgin?" scoffed Syd.
"I wouldn't dream of asking a lady such a personal question," Astor said indignantly.
"Quite right. Nice to know there's one gentleman among this gang of ratbags," said Angela.
"What's this book Keith's been telling us about?" said Carol-An, an American blonde from Orlando, who was currently shacked with Blood Axe Stoker. She was approaching her mid-twenties and she still called herself a student even though she had given up studying in favour of working her way round the world.
"The grimoire?" said Astor.
"Right," said Syd. "Anything useful in it? Like something authentic that sounds authentic, if you see what I mean?"
"Funny you should say that..." Astor lifted the lid on a white dish and found some sausages. There was enough toast left for a sandwich.
"Great!" said Syd. "Only I think we need something about four
numbers in to really supercharge things."
"You sound like a bloody Yank evangelist," scoffed Astor. "No offence, Carol-An."
Carol-An smiled at him dutifully.
"Just make sure you don't supercharge things too much, darling," warned Angela. "We don't want you lot getting chucked off the tour for up-staging the headliners, do we?" she added loud enough for the party at adjoining tables to hear. "This is the music business we're supposed to be in. We're here to make money, not to indulge in teenage fantasies about being the greatest rock band in the world."
"Don't you just hate practical women?" Astor remarked at random.
"Right, I'd sacrifice the lot of them, virgins or not," laughed Jed Ferman, the dark and balding bassist of the Raiders at the next table.
"So what state's this new number in?" insisted Syd.
"I can give you a preview on the bus," said Astor. "But we're not
going to be doing it tonight. Okay?"
Syd smiled at him patiently. He had a reputation for being in a permanent hurry. He saw himself as a vital driving force, without whom the band would never get anywhere. He believed that a band revolves around the vocalist's personality - not out of egoism but because that was his personal vision of the way the world works.
Syd received support for his view from those who revived bands of the past with just one member of the original line-up, insisting that they
could recreate the original sound if they used the original vocalist. And if the other members of Intoxicant neither supported nor respected Syd's opinion, that was their problem.
"Who's here? Everyone alive?" The bright, smiling figure of Tony Stock, the tour manager, flitted round the tables, counting heads. "You'll be pleased to hear we're on schedule for getting out of here on time and in good shape. Great show last night. There's some really good reviews in the papers that missed the first night."
"Wanker," muttered Syd as Stock hurried away.
"Doshan bleeda," added Astor.
"Somebody's got to do his job, darling," said Angela. "If we left it to you lot, we'd never even get to the first venue."
"You tell him, Ange," remarked Jed Ferman. "I don't think you lot show enough appreciation for the splendid job our Tone does. Despite his obvious handicap of being such a wanker."
"Anyone trash their room last night?" said Syd. "I wanted to but I felt too knackered."
"I did, but it was all magically back together again when I woke up this morning," said Astor.
"Wow! I'll have some of what he's been smoking," mocked Jimmy Rail, the blond and balding founder of the Raiders.
"I'll tell you a bit of black magic that would be really worth doing," said Angela. "A spell to hide one of the rooms. So when Tone goes to check them for damage, he ends up with one unaccounted for and it drives him spare."
"Have you noticed how all women have a broad sadistic streak?" grinned Astor.
"We get driven that way by bloody men," said Angela. "Come on, you, shape yourself." She drove an elbow into her husband's ribs. "Let's get our stuff onto the bus first for once. And I absolutely have to do some shopping before we start travelling again. Okay?"
"Ja, Boss," groaned Syd.
"Keith was real impressed with this book you found, Pete," said
Carol-An. "He reckons it puts you in direct touch with 1692 and the
time of your Stuart Kings."
"Actually, it was the House of Orange by then," remarked Jed
Ferman, a history graduate. "Following on from the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the last of the Stuarts got chased out. Giving rise to Bonnie Prince Charlie, and all that."
"True," said Astor, "But if it was published then, the guy must have been working on it for a number of years before that."
"Well, if you're going to be pedantic..."
"So this grimoire," said Carol-An. "I'd really like to see it."
Jimmy Rail grinned across at Astor. "Has it got a spell for pulling the birds in it, Pete?"
"You name it, there's a spell for it, as far as I can see," said Astor.
"What about one to make a hall full of punters think they're hearing the gig of their lives? Save us the bother of having to work?"
"I haven't come across that one yet," laughed Astor. "But if I do, it'll be available at a very reasonable price."
Talking about the grimoire started a flow of inspiration. Luckily,
Blood Axe Stoker arrived to get into a pointless argument with Carol-An over some aspect of their living arrangements. Astor finished his sandwich and coffee and headed back to his room. The cleaners were busy. An Asian girl hoovering the corridor produced a copy of the Intoxicant CD and got him to autograph the liner. Bright sunlight was flooding through the window when Astor reached to the room to finish
packing. The black thunderstorm was heading for Yorkshire.
A loud pounding on his door gave Astor the eleven-thirty warning. Cath was going round telling everyone to 'shape up and ship out'. Astor
let her team take charge of his suitcases and carried his main guitar and the laptop computer himself. The work of developing the new song was going surprisingly quickly, not that speed was ever any indication of quality.
Some of the band's standards, such as the immortal Hump Till Ya Slump, and some proper clunkers, had flowed from the unholy duo of his guitar and his word-processing program. Equally, others of the same
quality had been dragged out note by note and word by word, and undergone a dozen revisions before either reaching a satisfactory state or being abandoned.
"Hi!" a strange brunette said to him as Astor was waiting for one of the roadies to get out of the way so that he could stow his luggage on the bus.
"Hi!" said Astor with an automatic smile. "Oh, hi, Bee. I didn't
recognize you in uniform. So you made it, then?"
"It was a bit of a scramble, but I managed to get some stuff over to my sister's," said Belinda. She was wearing a new pair of dark green cords and a black leather zip-up jacket with the badges of a member of the NYPD. "The rest of my life went into two suitcases and a big tackle bag."
"You managed to rush out and pawn the rented telly?"
"I don't have a telly any more. I let them take it back. I was doing so much baby-sitting, I could watch other people's."
"Are you getting on this bloody bus or what?" demanded Cath.
"Are you going to ask us nicely?" Astor said to their driver.
"Just bloody do it," sighed Cath. "Can we have those cases in the back?"
"So you made it, then?" said Angela's voice behind them as Astor was loading Belinda's cases into the storage area.
"As Pete said last night, I owe it to myself to do something daft once in a while," Belinda said with a self-mocking smile. "And it's not as if I've got any confidence in that bloody Job Shop finding anything decent for me. Or anything decent coming back from the jobs I've already applied for."
"Negative waves, such negative waves!" Syd Melchior made the sign of the Cross with his index fingers as protection.
"Get on the nice coach before Cath clobbers you, darling," said
"So I thought, what the hell?" Belinda added. "Just go. And it's nice to be appreciated, even if it's only for a few days."
"Just watch out you don't get hooked on it," laughed Angela.
"So, Pete, mate, what's the state of this new song," said Syd as Astor was fastening his seat belt as a gesture toward legality. "Are we getting there, or what?"
"Anyway, where are we going?" Belinda remarked over her shoulder to Angela.
"Sheffield," said Angela. "We're in Yorkshire for the rest of the
Astor passed a cassette and a print-out from his computer back to Syd. "This whole thing looks pretty much finished," said Syd. "I thought you only just started it?"
"Some people are fast workers, Syd."
"Yeah, you don't have to tell me that!" Syd mocked with a pointed look in Belinda's direction.
"Before you start with that, I want to swap seats with Pete," said
Angela. She knew from experience that her husband would put the cassette into his personal stereo and sit learning the words to the new song for the next hour or so. Angela preferred to talk to someone new to the travelling group. "Did I ask you what you thought of the show last night?"
"It was good," said Belinda. "But not what I was expecting. I thought they'd all be dressed up like extras from a horror movie. Being black-magic rockers. I wasn't really expecting the leather jackets and that white suede jacket of Pete's."
"Yes, they do more like a bunch of Hell's Angels," laughed Angela. "And Syd's a proper Halloween character with those splashes of UV-luminous paint all over him."
"No, I think that worked very well," said Belinda. "The way you got those flashes of colour and you're were never quite sure you've seen them. It looked very magical."
"Don't let Syd hear you say that," laughed Angela. "That's just the effect he was aiming at." She glanced at her husband but Syd had his headphones on and he was lost to the world.
"And they looked more like mad scientists than black magicians with those head-sets on."
"They use them to hear what they're playing instead of having a row of monitors along the front of the stage. They can adjust the volume and it stops them going deaf, having their ears covered up."
"Yes, I suppose that's a serious problem in this business," said
Pete Astor settled down next to Syd Melchior with his copy of Wasp as the minibus moved off, heading east towards the top of Derbyshire
before the turn to the south-east on the other side of the Pennines. The others either picked a cassette or CD to listen to, or chose a book from the communal stock that Astor had acquired; except for Blood Axe Stoker, who used the bus trips to catch up on his sleep.
Astor could ignore someone beside him mouthing words without sound and muttering impatiently whenever he had to rewind the tape. Like Syd, he had the ability to cut himself off when among a group. He felt no urge to be part of whatever most of the group was doing most of the time. But his powers of concentration proved unequal to tuning out someone beside him yelling: "Shit! Where's the phuckin' batteries?" as the minibus started to return to civilization after its trip over the mountains.
"Panic, everyone," Angela said urgently. "We have an on-going Syd battery crisis."
"Are you taking the piss, Mrs. Woman?" said her husband in a dangerous tone.
"What do you think?" laughed Angela. "The batteries are where
they've always been, in that locker right next to you."
"We've got to do this tonight, Pete," Syd said as he fought with a
wrapper to gain access to a new set of long-life batteries. "It's bloody good. It's really got something. Something you can feel going right through you. You know what I mean? It's going straight on my M-Track, I can tell you."
"Glad you like it," said Astor. "But don't you think we're rushing
"No, I think it's just right. If we can put this into the set right before Devil Dance, we've got that bridge we were looking for, you know, the change of pace."
"I agree with what you're saying, Syd, but I'd prefer to do a fair bit of rehearsing before we unload something new on an unsuspecting public. And I bet Dexie and Blood think the same."
"No, I reckon I've got the words off now. You know the guitar part. Blood can fill in on the drums and Dexie can busk those long chords he does on the synth for atmosphere."
"I'll have you know, I'm a serious musician," remarked Dexie Jordan, the bass player. "I don't bloody busk."
"You have a listen to this first, mate." Melchior passed him Astor's cassette. "Then tell me if it speaks to you."
"Oh, bollocks! Are we going all metaphysical again?" Dexie took the cassette out of his own personal stereo and replaced it with Astor's. His smile took on a more serious edge as he listened to a semi-polished performance of the new number.
"Has Syd really got one of these M-Track things too?" Belinda asked Angela.
"You mean, you're surprised to hear Pete wasn't having you on about Radio Pete in his head?" laughed Angela. "No, there's a Radio Syd too, or so he tells me."
"And Ange pretends she's got a Word-Track so people will think she's a proper writer," remarked Astor.
"I do too have a W-Track," said Angela. "It's the only way to get
your dialogue properly polished, rehearsing it."
"Aren't creative people weird and aren't you glad you're not a writer or a musician?" Astor remarked to Belinda.
"I don't know. It sounds quite fun," she returned.
"Well?" demanded Syd when Dexie took his headphones off.
"I see what you mean," nodded Dexie. "About this being a good bridge to the next section of the set. And if Pete's got the music written
out, we could try it. Are we going to let Blood listen to it?"
"Nah, we'll just do it," said Syd. "I don't want all the bloody aggro of waking him up. And anyway, it's all part of his image as someone who's totally laid-back and able to handle anything we can throw at him, like when he's playing sessions."
"Can I hear it?" said Carol-An.
Dexie passed her the personal stereo.
"We should do this for the sound check as a try-out," said Astor. "If we're doing it."
"Right," approved Syd. "That should get us all on the same page. I really think this number's going to get us noticed. And if we can work it up on the road, we can maybe get a CD single out quite quickly. Work it into a mini-set, almost."
"He'll have us doing a concept CD around it next," scoffed Dexie.
"Wow! Listen to this, Jen. It really gets through to you." Carol-An passed the personal stereo over the seat to Jenny Grover, Dexie Jordan's current companion.
"Impressed, huh?" said Syd.
"Yeah, it's, like, a really fundamental riff, you know what I mean? It really grabs hold of you inside. You can really identify with it. On a spiritual level."
"Right," nodded Syd. "It speaks to you. And Blood's going to love that drum introduction you wrote."
"Yes, it's really good, Pete," Jenny added in turn. "It sends shivers down your spine. I'd really like to hear you do this properly tonight. It's good. Have you heard it yet, Bee."
"Not yet." Belinda took charge of the personal stereo.
Astor looked from one woman to the other in amazement. Carol-An, he knew, was the sort of person who embraced pseudo-sciences with
enthusiasm, seeking an inside track to the secrets of the universe, personal success and happiness. He suspected that she believed that there was something deeper to Black Magic Rock than the hype that Syd Melchior fostered, that the music could have a greater impact than at a purely surface, emotional level.
Jenny was normally more level-headed and hard to impress. Genuine enthusiasm from her at first hearing of a new number was unheard of. Pete Astor was satisfied that his arrangement was a good, workman-like effort, a sound early draft, but he didn't consider it to be anything too special yet.
"Yeah, I see what you mean," said Belinda as she took the headphones off. "I can't explain it, but it's almost like you can feel it crawling all over you."
"Give us a listen." Angela took her turn with the cassette.
"Okay, look at all the public demand," grinned Syd. "So we're doing it tonight? That's definite?"
"Okay, what are we going to drop out of the set?" said Dexie. "I vote for Out There."
"Yeah, right, the best number in the whole act!" scoffed Syd. "Is it too much to ask for a sensible suggestion?"
"Yeah, Pete!" said Angela, breaking into the discussion on which number to drop. "This is great!"
"Can I hear it again?" said Carol-An.
Astor glanced at the sleeping form of Keith Blood Axe Stoker and wondered if they were the only two sane ones on the minibus, or the only two not caught up in a contagious form of group mania.
No trees were consumed by Farrago & Farrago and Henry T. Smith Productions, 10/12 SK6 4EG, UK in creating this material for Jon A. Gored. Sole © Jon A. Gored, 2001.