The Verve, an all-ages club just off the interstate, was the kind of place any touring band hoped to avoid. It was a grey cinder-blocked box, capacity 400, so close to I-405 as to be underneath it. The shadow of the off-ramp made it darker and danker than it would’ve been otherwise, and with no other businesses around, the chances for a walk-in crowd were nil. Inside there were no seats, and the cement floor would’ve been more suitable for storing utility vehicles. The bar, which looked like a concession stand at a Little League game, was tucked around the corner, far away. The stage was so high horny kids would spend the night looking up Betty’s skirt.
Band and crew watched from the bus as people piled in. They were students mostly, high school age or a little older, wearing slacker clothes and sporting hairstyles meant to piss off parents. They parked their cars in no discernible pattern in the lot, and when the lot was full they parked across the street. They poured onto the grounds in groups of twos and threes, giving off an energy Badge associated with the last day of school. Some went into the venue, others hung around smoking cigarettes. Betty watched out the window like a kid watches a snowfall, visions of Christmas and sledding and snowball fights dancing in her head.
“Where do you think they heard about it?” Tad said.
“Word of mouth,” Les said. “News of No Fun Intended has traveled up the coast.”
“The record isn’t even out yet,” Betty said.
“The best way it could happen,” Les said.
Betty watched, the same kid seeing life after the snow, freezing cold, ten-feet drifts, not wanting to get lost in it. “Grab your acoustic,” she said to Badge. “We gotta warm up.”
A pop musician writes, plays, records and waits for a signal. Most of the time he plods along, does his all-too-mortal best, reaches for the stars but winds up with something closer to home. Anyone who struggles in the pop world knows the drill: keep at it long enough, and maybe one day you’ll wake up with that gnawing question, when, finally answered.
And then it’s answered, and all of a sudden, on a day you thought you’d rake the lawn or visit your parents or renew the tags on your car, you’re on a surfboard riding the zeitgeist, hunched over in the tube of popular sentiment, realizing too late you’d forgotten to learn to surf. Most people don’t like this mad rush to the rocks. The ones who do might also like the trenches of war, ducking sniper fire, dodging bayonets, avoiding land mines, and always with one eye trained on victory. In short, it’s something you’d kill to get to and can’t wait to be over. When you’re dead a hundred years from now and everyone who knows you is dead too, if anybody bothers to remember you, it will be from this moment. That night in Seattle, Badge realized this was his moment. He would play these songs, with these musicians, for these people, for as long as they’d let him.
Onstage at the Verve, Badge felt taller, stronger. The packed room rose and fell ocean-like, and Badge and band were above it all, the stage a moored dock. The swirling action of people reminded Badge of a colony of ants, each doing its own thing while somehow staying in synch with the whole. None of Badge’s moments in the Famous Dead could compare to this. All these folks in this room saw him as elevated, and hell, maybe he was.
Betty commanded the Verve stage more with her aura than herself. She sang with abandon, wielded her Gretsch against boredom and ennui and uncertainty. The crowd couldn’t help but be entranced. Kids looked up at her from the floor, shining faces asking for benediction, for a message. The message was simple: watch, love, slam dance, but more than that feel the pulse of the music around you. If anything more real existed in the world, you wouldn’t have been able to convince anyone who was at the Verve that night.
The band closed with “Calypso,” and the crowd wouldn’t leave, screaming for an encore well after the band had left the stage. The four re-emerged to wow them with “Heartbreaker” and, out of material, scurried off for the night.
Backstage, Flip tried to open the Patron bottle on a chair’s metal armrest, cracking its lip. No one could find shot glasses so they used plastic cups.
“These kids up front said they heard about it online,” Les said. He took a drink from his cup, swished the tequila around in his mouth, making sure he didn’t swallow glass. “Some blog called Neil Diamond Must Die or some shit.”
“Aw,” Flip said. “I love Neil Diamond.”
Badge looked out at the crowd. The tops of heads peeked over the stage gopher-like, wondering if a second encore was coming. “They’re not going anywhere.”
“We need more material,” Flip said.
“Leave ‘em wanting more,” Les said. “It’ll make sure they come back next time.”
Betty had disappeared, so Badge went looking for her. He found her in a fenced-off area behind the club. Stacks of liquor boxes leaned this way and that. The freeway above kept things dark and cool. On the other side of the fence the crowd dispersed. A few hummed the melody of “Calypso,” Gregorian chant-like. They hadn’t even heard the album, and they already had a favorite song. Betty sat on an overturned milk crate, her head in her hands. She was crying.
“Hey,” Badge said. He crouched next to her. A mascaraed tear ran over her fingers. A mist sprinkled down from somewhere above: the off-ramp, the heavens. “This isn’t how a rock star is supposed to act.”
“I know,” she said. Her voice was scratchy from the night’s singing. “I was just listening to them and I–” She choked on her words.
“Come on,” Badge said. He hugged her, both of them squatting, two dance contestants trying an impossible, low-to-the-ground move.
Betty wiped her eyes. Her cheeks were flush with the heat of the gig. “I know I should be happy, but I can’t help but think of all I’ve given up to–”
“What did you give up?”
She wiped her face, harder this time. Mascara found safe havens in the creases around her eyes. “Never mind. I’m just being a baby.”
Badge angled her head up, wiped mascara away with his thumbs. “You’re going to be bigger than Jesus.”
Betty cracked a smile. “I am, aren’t I?”
Badge picked her up, pulled her close to him. “You did it, girl.” He hugged her, inhaling some combination of sweat and skin and the Seattle night.
She sobbed again, hugged him, her arms around his neck. “We did it.”
Badge sighed. They had done it, but instead of reveling in it, Badge’s mind flashed to Malcolm, Holly, his life in Albuquerque, which seemed less his life than ever. He squeezed her tightly. “We did do it.”
ART EDWARDS, a Portland-based writer and musician, is three novels into his ten-novel series spanning many generations of musicians from 1990 to well into the 21st century. Badge, the third installment in the series, was a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s Literary Contest for 2011. His second, Ghost Notes, released on Defunct Press in 2008, won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. His first, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, was made into a feature film. His shorter work has appeared in The Writer and Salon, among many others. In the 1990s, he was co-founder, co-songwriter and bass player with the Refreshments.
Adapted from Badge, by Art Edwards, Copyright © 2014 by Art Edwards. With the permission of the publisher, Thirteenth Note.