Another night, another club. Smoke tendrils in the lights of amps and spots; pitch black, shadows moving on shadows. I wrinkle my nose a little at the scent of piss in the stairwell, push through past the bulk of a sneering bouncer in a dark suit. There's a bar at this end of the room; within thirty seconds I have a drink pressed into my hands, numbingly cold for a few minutes before the breath of a hundred mouths brings the room to boiling point.
Razz leads us towards the stage, but I hang back once we're about halfway there, and at once the sea of people closes over him and he's gone. I put my back against the wall, feeling posters advertising gigs long gone and still to come crinkle and fold. Something crunches under my boot. I hitch up my sleeves, fold my arms, and wait.
For some people, this press, this blackness, this heat is all part of the experience. Not me. I get mocked at work because they think I prefer to sit in a concert hall and watch a performer - no more than an action figure way below - spin out choreography on a well-lit, spacious stage. That kind of anodyne night isn't what guys in our industry are all about, right? Well, maybe it's just because I'm getting old, maybe it's because I've done this once too often, maybe it's because I know where the money is buried, but I don't see why I have to be suffocated, splattered with vomit, spit, snot or piss, just to hear what I get paid to hear.
Maybe I'm just sick of all the bullshit. Maybe it's because tonight isn't about the music.
The crowd cleaves for a moment, and I see Razz on stage, one foot up on the foldback, his hand cupped against his mouth as he bellows into the ear of a lean, stubbled, weary guy, a guy who looks older than me, but who is probably ten years younger. The guy has a black Ibanez PGM across his chest, a roll-up in his mouth. His eyes are focussed miles and years away. Colour drains from his face. Razz leans back, makes his "I'm sorry, that's business" face, shrugs and hops down from the stage. The crowd shifts, a ripple passing through them, and I lose sight of Razz until he breaks through the press.
"What happened to you, chicken-shit?" he sneers.
"You really needed to do that before they play?"
Razz grins; whitened, perfectly-straight teeth gleam from his perfectly handsome, perfectly tanned face. "No need to stay and listen to this shit now, is there?"
He drains a bottle of imported beer, drops the empty on the floor, nudging it a fraction closer to the wall with the toe of one Paul Smith Romero. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, then looks at me with a wide grin. He enjoyed this. In thirty minutes we'll be drinking £80 a bottle Chablis in a city-centre winery, and he'll be boasting to the boss how he wrapped up the career of Indigo's first signing, how he was the one to bite the bullet and lead the label forward. Razz loves this shit; the contracts and the promotion and the marketing.
"You ever see him live?" I ask, with a nod towards the stage.
"Three, five years ago. At the Apollo. He could still shift units then."
"Yeah, he could play."
The same shrug I saw on the stage. The conversation is over. It's obvious Razz wants to know why we're still here, why I am still cradling a pint of Stella that is turning lukewarm with every breath in the room. His body is angled towards the door; his mind is already on and in the taxi, the anecdote, the jokes; maybe some easy conquest taken back to his flat near Baker Street.
"I'm going to stay."
Razz doesn't even look surprised. He shrugs one more time, and then the tide of people closes between us. I feel a gnawing ache in my guts, and sip at the Stella, almost wincing at its sour, greasy taste. Jesus, what is wrong with me? Another shit night, drinking foul beer, inhaling the equivalent of twenty king-size, drenched in sweat and bruised from flying elbows. How many have there been? How many more will I want?
A chord; a straight C. A hard-edged American drawl of experience and regret.
"Good evening, London..."
And it starts.
It's not a great gig. I watch it, anonymous and detached, on the fringes of an audience of older fans who know every word, every note Peter Gray ever wrote or performed. A few young locals who maybe recognised the name on the flyers and thought it worth fifteen quid try to headbang in front of the bass bins. They get their money's worth, maybe a whole lot more, but none of it what they expected.
The band opens with "Razor", which they've played almost every night they have appeared on any stage, anywhere. Killer opening; the whole band in on a count of three; bass racing, drums full; metal with jazz overtures. Seattle meets Chicago. There's a keyboard solo after the first verse; string effects, lots of reverb. Improvised tricks; string-breaking hammer effects. Five minutes of fusion power. It ends as fast as it started.
Half the band changes instruments for the second track. A girl steps out from behind a Kurzweil K2500, strapping on a fretless black Vigier bass; the drummer moves to a set of tabla and crash cymbals. Slow count in. Jazz stylings over a time signature that jumps around. The older guy phrases like Santana, moves like Townsend. They barely acknowledge each other, stay aloof from the audience. It's tight, intricate. You want them to break out; they rein you in. It's musical obedience training.
Two tracks I hadn't heard before follow. The rhythm guys come out of their comfort zone. It's acidic metal, racing, pulsing. More soloing from their leader, anxious, clear, high. The girl twists around him on a Schecter C-7 Hellraiser, working effects pedals like she was tap-dancing. She makes it mew like a cat, howl like wind. I hear calypso drums and trash cans. They chop songs into segments, fire them like a Gatling gun. The audience is cowed. The sound comes on, ruthless, ferocious, uncompromising. You think you know where they are going, and they come out of the slipstream and break off to come at you from another side. There's not a commercial moment, not so much as a nod in the direction marketability, in ninety minutes. I watch with an aching regret.
For all I know, this is the last time they will play like this. After fifteen years, Indigo - the label I work for - is dropping Peter Gray,. Razz may have twisted the knife, but I put it in his hand. Gray's last CD sold 20,000 units. Not actually that bad for one of Indigo's acts, but a long way down from the 150,000 he moved with his 1998 release, Spectrums In Different Colours. And his contract is expensive. Thwenty thousand units by a new band is a good investment in the future; 20,000 for Peter Gray is going through the motions. Chase, Indigo's founder and owner, wanted to cut three acts to make room for new signings. I got to wade through contracts looking at the numbers, but I guess I knew all along whom Chase had in mind. He didn't so much as twitch when I put Peter Gray at the top of the list.
I'll pretend like I didn't think he would go for it. I had, after all, put four names forward - Chase could have laughed at my gall, struck Gray's name off and fired the rest. Instead he initialled the memo and handed it back to me.
"Take Razz with you."
I had done more than that. I had let Razz run with the idea. He had a new band, four lads from Leeds with Coldplay looks, and a Killers energy, and the sooner we could move Gray aside, the sooner he could sign them. They were playing at a private party in Ladbroke Grove the following night; the deal could be done there and then. Time was money.
Razz got the lawyers to find the escape clause in Gray's old contract; Razz arranged the meet in the upstairs bar of the Camden pub. I spent the day tying up some loose ends - cancelling a photo shoot and finding out if we could dump the remaining stock. That was how fast it happened. One minute you're a slow-burn act on the downslope, but a band with critical acclaim, and a Mercury nomination and some column inches in the music press every time a CD comes out. And then someone in AM snaps his fingers, and you're not just playing a shit-hole to rehearse for a tour; you're playing there because it's the only kind of gig you're going to get.
I stay to the end. My mouth is dry, my head is drilled. Peter Gray barely moves all night; lips pressed to the mic, the Fender gripped in tight fingers. You can't hear a word, but that's OK, because everyone knows the old stuff, and thrashes to the new and unheard. They finish with "Chords", the one track of theirs I thought could have been crossover; mainstream concerts; MTV and Capital. It sounds good tonight. Maybe I'm just listening more.
Gray never sings this one himself; it's a tradition that goes back fifteen years, and to guys who are no longer alive, that different people in the band do the vocals at each gig - hell, I've sung them twice, and I've seen Gray pull girls out of the crowd to give it their best shot. Three short verses, and a four-line chorus - easy to remember - culminating in a lengthy ensemble free-for-all. Indigo once remixed "Chords" as a conventional song, with the chorus coda'd to fade; that was the version I thought could have made their name. Gray vetoed its release. I think Chase had it in for him ever since.
Tonight, the girl on second guitar steps up to the mic. She looks surprised, as if Gray had originally told the band it would be someone else. I watch her switch her Schecter to his effects board, while he slings on a battered old acoustic and leads the band through all the improvisations like a conductor. I watch, a little bemused, as she takes the main solo parts, and accents little phrases under the vocals with long, sustained notes, and complex minor chords. It's a different song; I'm not even 100 percent sure I recognise all the lyrics. It sounds older, purer; in the same breath, it's so new it's unformed. The sound becomes ethereal; it evaporates over its fading complex rimshot rhythm.
They're done. No encore, but then no-one really asked. A few cheers, some whistling; then the lights come on and we are all blinking and shielding our eyes. I'm still wondering what I just heard. People push past me on their way to the door. I put the glass of Stella - still half-full - on the floor, and peel my shirt off the posters on the wall. I'm waiting, and I don't know why, and then Peter is in front of me, his eyes cold and tired, blood-shot, and when he pops his fist into my face I slam back against the wall, and slide down in a blizzard of photocopied paper and drawing pins. I taste my own blood, and it's actually better than the Stella.
I can hear "Chords" playing in my head, soaring and calling in 19/16th time. Someone hauls me to my feet and asks if I'm OK, and then the bouncer has me by the collar and halfway down the stairs, and then someone else asks if I shouldn't be taken to hospital and I'm answering 'no' from about half a mile away from my own head when a woman's voice says she'll take care of it.
There's a cab ride, but it's not far. I notice Liverpool Street and Bethnal Green tube, and then we're in some backstreet of grand houses converted into flats, and after a slow climb to the top floor and through a door built to keep the drug squad at bay, I'm on a futon in a tight, constricted attic with ice on my lip, painkillers in my palm and coffee steaming on the floor at my side. And a woman in severe black-framed glasses, whose dark hair is scraped back along her scalp, is looking into my face and commenting how a couple of stitches maybe couldn't do any harm.
"You ever been to Whitechapel Hospital?"
"Let it bleed."
She laughs, and fetches more ice and tissues, and the bleeding stops after a while. I am vaguely aware that there are aching bits, and stinging bits (one of which goes away after I take a drawing pin out of my arse) but they're all going to survive long enough to bitch at me tomorrow. Today. I see off my watch that it's 1am.
"I should go."
"You should stay. You'll frighten the neighbours."
"Someone else lives round here?"
She brings Jack Daniels, more ice, and squats on the bare floorboards beside the futon. There is music playing; fusion bass I don't recognise. She shakes her hair loose and takes off the glasses, depositing them on an extremely low table beside the futon, where they clatter behind an alarm clock set to 11 and some medication bottles. I look her over carefully.
"Geena." She offers me her hand to shake; formal and ironic. She has an American accent, warm, rich, dry. I look past her shoulder, and take in the tiny flat, which is made all the smaller by the weight of sound gear against every wall. The futon is on a kind of raised platform, reached via a short ladder arrangement that I don't remember climbing; we're sitting - lying - under the house roof. There's a skylight with pigeon shit on the glass, and a TV aerial with no cable. I look down, and the lower area has a desk built into the corner, with two G5s running Protools, hooked up to Laney VH100 amp, an older-looking Kurzweil and a home-made effects board. There's enough wiring under the desk to run a power station. Three guitars, including the Schecter, are on stands by the wall, plugged into the Laney. There's a fridge as a nod to domesticity, and the front door. I guess everything else she owns must be under the platform.
"Cute," I offer. She curls up her nose.
"It's temporary. I've only been here a month."
Uh. Peter Gray's bands are a constantly changing swirl of musicians, coming and going. Some he hires here in the UK, since that became his home in the mid-nineties; others come over from the States to say for a few months or a year. I've met maybe thirty different musicians in the years I have known Gray, and that's not all of them. Geena tells me she flew in three weeks ago, after the guy she was replacing ran off with a table dancer in Germany. I'd heard the same story. Geena had rehearsed with Gray at his place in the sticks pretty much non-stop; tonight was her first gig with the band. My mouth sours with more guilt.
We drink Corona, and Jack Daniels. She asks if I want to hear something, and uses a remote to change the music on the G5s. She cranks it up loud. Bass, guitar, drums, synth. The sound cannons off the walls in the tiny flat.
"Don't you -?"
"There's no-one else in. They're all out at a party." I'm minded to say that I wasn't just concerned for the people in the house, but for most of the residents of Bethnal Green, but I close my mouth and listen. The time signatures cut and change, fluid but fractured, like classic Peter Gray; 6/8, 5/8, 6/8, 5/8, 3/8, 3/8, 6/8, 7/16, 6/16, 7/16, 6/16. But it's not his style of playing. It starts with an octave lick in G#, then the same licks in B and D. Tremolo picking in G# and B; a jazzy fill; a section of even less conventional timings with some fast descendings. It never settles, never relaxes. There's one moment when I think I can hear John Coltrane; another when I think it's Limp Bizkit. Head music. It completely messes with mine.
She nods. "Work in progress."
She sits cross-legged at the foot of the futon, by the ladder, her back to the wall. I sit opposite, then lie back on the futon because even sitting down my head is on the ceiling. The flat is filled with sound. We talk between phrases. She is as complex and restless as her music. I watch her face as she talks about her work. She has long, dark brown hair which reaches down to her arse, straight and glossy, square cut on the fringe. Her eyes are luminous, clear blue. Pale skin. She is slender, waspish, almost a tomboy, with small breasts and slender hips. When she talks, she is quiet one moment, animated the next. We discuss record labels, commerciality, sleeve design, great gigs we have been to (nothing in common), Miles Davis, grunge, Aretha Franklin. And Peter Gray.
"What happened tonight?"
"His record company cut him loose."
"Oh." She drinks slowly. Her eyes are thoughtful. She strokes at the side of her neck with her fingertips; she is wearing a black, square cut Bebe tee and jeans. The track she was playing comes to an end, and she reaches across to put her glasses back on so she can see what to play next. When she looks up through them, I see sadness in her eyes but no tears.
"Looks like I'll be heading back to the States, then," she whispers. There is a moment of silence. I take off her glasses again, and put them back on the cut-down table. She looks into my eyes, and peels off her tee-shirt.
"You can stay with me tonight," she says, a note of pleading in her voice. She crawls against me and we kiss. Her full mouth feels good against mine, even allowing for the bruised, swollen state of my lip. I caress her breasts, and feel her nipples harden instantly. She is lying on me, hair spilling over my face, her clear blue eyes staring closely into mine. We're grinding against each other; I feel she has to be aware of just how crudely erect I am. Listz starts to play in the background. She moans as familiar strings sweep upwards.
I lick at her nipples, and she arches, her body as flexible as her playing. She tells me that sometimes she comes just from having her breasts sucked, so we try that out. The girl don't lie. She lies in a ball on the futon, her back against my belly, my hands stroking at her small breasts. She squirms in my grasp, and I kiss hungrily at her mouth. We slide against each other like a bow on strings, effortless but soaring. She begs for me to take her jeans off.
Ambience; house-lite. The tiny apartment is no longer resounding with clamour. Synth slides around the walls like vapour. I don't know the track, but I know the lyrics. Geena is panting, mewing. She thrusts her taut, trim arse back against me, arousing me in ways I don't care to describe. Fingers fumble with buttons and fly, and then I slip the head of my cock between her soft lips, and all she has to do is shift once and I am deep inside her.
I stroke her like a Stradivarius or a Fender. My hands brush her nipples, pulling her back to me; she curves in my arms. She appears smaller in my arms, fragile, malleable. When I hold my cock still inside her, she strokes her lithe body back on it, filling herself, moaning in triumph when she finds some part of herself previously untouched. When I thrust into her, she opens, flares, and accepts the way I play her body. I think she comes again, but the sounds she makes are indecipherable, and when she slides forward and disengages from me, I feel a pang of regret and despair deep in my guts.
She leans across me, once again perching the hard-framed glasses on her nose to change the track. Strings well; voices climb out of water and mist. Choral loops twist around each other, a Gregorian chant sung in some deep granite valley.
"Fuck me," whispers Geena, and she straddles me, guiding my cock back into the heat of her body, riding me. She is soft in the saddle, barely twitching her hips to drive us along, stroking and bumping her clit on my shaft as she fills herself. She hums "fuck me, fuck me" in time to the sweep of the orchestration. My hands are on her waist, then rise up to her breasts, conducting her to a crescendo of which there is no doubt. Her juices flow across my legs, into the crevices beside my balls. She is so tight, I feel like every part of me is touched at once.
She lies against me, kisses her mouth. While riding me, she had kept her glasses on, and wore a studious, focussed, concentrated expression on her face, biting her lip, frowning as if certain this moment would be snatched away from her at any moment. Now, as she leans forward, her glasses slide from her face and onto mine. Geena frowns again, but then we both laugh.
"Do you like how I feel?" she asks. "Do you like what I do to you?"