Everybody loves a comeback…
Randi Marsh loves a good, unbelievable story. She’s told so many about herself, she isn’t sure what’s real anymore. Scratch that, she knows two things are true—she could never completely give up her first passion of playing rock and roll. And Derek Hynde is the devil’s spawn and if you see him, kick him in the teeth.
The moment Derek saw that cocky, sexy young woman strut with a guitar like she owned the world, back in the hairspray and cocaine-fueled Eighties, he was smitten. Something set Randi apart from all the wannabe rock girls with their flyaway hair and skin-tight jeans. She had talent, and he had the means to make her a star. He just didn’t know what he was in for with her.
That was then, and in the now Derek’s ready to make amends, offering Randi a chance to relive her glory days. Randi, now an established TV director and showrunner, can’t just run off and join a rock and roll tour…at her age! With a man she allegedly despises.
Or can she?
“Come see, come see. Remember meeeeee…”
Whoa. Who here is singing one of my favorite songs? A classic one at that, not a pop-radio pleaser from his latest LP. She doubted the majority of girls in this crowd could name a Bowie tune pre-Let’s Dance, they all looked so nubile.
Her as well, but she’d been raised on the classics.
Randi Marsh looked away from the giant, dirty mirror spanning the sinks. She regretted the move seconds later when an elbow nudged her right side. She’d managed to claim this prime position in the closest bathroom to the coliseum floor when she arrived. She, along with the gaggle of young women crowding the mirror, had about five minutes to primp before the doors opened to admit concertgoers to the general seating area. Somebody must have interpreted her momentary lapse of focus as intent to leave her coveted spot.
Why am I even doing this? she asked herself as a clump of mascara stung the corner of her right eye. She never wore makeup, not to school or even when her parents dragged her to church or work socials. She’d have deigned to come see a white-hot rock band live with a bare face, if not for a momentary urge to compete with the clique of rich snobs from school, bragging about their plans to get noticed and get backstage. Like they had a shot, either—this show had been sold out for weeks. Thousands of young women preened and pouted around the venue, and tonight they’d vie for the band’s attention. What are the odds of being singled out by a rock star?
Randi was a good girl, too. If a roadie plucked her from the crowd, the men of Black Alchemy would be disappointed when she asked to see their equipment—meaning their guitars, not their dicks.
The sugary mist expelled from a dozen or so aerosol cans hung in the air and Randi fought the urge to sneeze. She checked her reflection once more—one in a sea of tarted-up, smoldering glances swathed in bright blue eye shadows and pink blushes—and backed toward the paper towel dispensers. Whoever sang that short line from one of her favorite songs now hummed the rest of the refrain, and it attracted Randi like a siren’s call.
On the rock music scale, Black Alchemy rested as far as possible from Bowie. Hell, much as she liked them, they didn’t even exist on the same plane. All of the British singer’s personas—Ziggy, Halloween Jack, the Thin White Duke—evoked a strange sensuality and commanded listeners to think about the songs. Black Alchemy’s music projected a twenty-hour party soaked in whiskey and bodily fluids. Their lyrics were simplistic, and Randi suspected they’d never win awards for them, but she loved their guitar solos.
She loved most styles of music, despite her criticisms, and took any opportunity to see a live show. The tall brunette in the torn jeans and ponytail to her waist, next to her at the dispensers, stood to tempt her away from the opening chords.
Damn, we’re twins. Well, not as such. Randi had teased her blonde hair into spikes and shards, and a tight black miniskirt—smuggled in her purse out of parental view and donned in the car after she parked—limited her stride. She saw their common link in the T-shirts they wore. Randi sported her first concert souvenir, a black raglan from a band her father had taken her to see three years prior. The woman drying her hands represented a much earlier show from the same group.
Randi grabbed a brown paper towel and folded it into a triangle. “Love your shirt,” she said with a nod and dabbed at her tearing eye with the limp corner.
The young woman had about a foot’s height on her. She smiled and her gaze panned down her chest to the band logo. “Likewise.” She sounded older, maybe twenties or better. A good few years more than Randi’s seventeen. “That tour was awesome, too. I saw ’em ten times that year.”
“Wow.” Randi cringed at her spontaneous awe, thinking she came off like a child. She’d attended just one concert from the tour with her father, but she wasn’t about to admit that here. “I’m guessing this isn’t your first time seeing Black Alchemy, huh?”
The woman gave a shrug, her lip quirking to one side. “First time so far, but I’m actually here for the opener.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Kristy.”
“Randi. I heard your singing. What other bands are you into?”
She must have said the magic word. Kristy’s eyes sparkled and her face softened into a dreamlike state. Words streamed from pink lips shining with gloss and carried Randi from the crowded ladies room into the din of the corridor lining the circular venue. They strolled past T-shirt vendors and concession stands tempting passersby with the aroma of fresh-popped corn, but they kept walking and talking music.
As she listened to the other woman wax on, Randi pegged Kristy as older than she’d suspected—maybe early thirties. She’d seen everybody, so she claimed in a rambling roll call of rock in vast arenas and piss-stained nightclubs. Randi sensed her skin darkening to a green tint as she absorbed it. It had taken weeks of wheedling and vows to hit the books to get permission to be here tonight.
“How do you afford it all?” she asked as they neared the entrance to the floor.
Kristy laughed. “Priorities. I do what I love, and I love live music. That’s where I invest my money.”
Randi thought of the joint bank account her parents wouldn’t let her touch. She’d be happy with a new guitar. A few hundred bucks, no biggie, but her mother argued she needed every cent for college. Bleh. Kristy talked as though she forewent food and clean underwear just to hear Steven Tyler croon Sweet Emotion while sweating under klieg lights.
Yeah, she could give up a few luxuries. Makeup, no problem.
“Do you play?” Randi asked.
Kristy shook her head. “I sing, though. I think I’m pretty good, but you know how the business is. Singers are a dime a dozen. It takes somebody with a special something to make it.”
“I hear you.”
The second she crossed the threshold with her new friend she broke her promise to Mom and Dad to watch the show from a seat in the upper decks. No chairs set up on the ground implied festival seating for the stage area, an arrangement made dangerous years ago during a concert in Cincinnati where several people had perished during a stampede. A slight chill settled over Randi’s skin with every step deeper into the crowd gathered on the concrete surface. Some sat, while others hovered while shifting their feet. Kristy continued to chat with her and inch closer to the stage.
“I met Zane a few years ago when they were an opener,” she explained, referring to the frontman of Snake Pit, the opening act. “They’re going to try out a few new songs tonight.”
“Cool.” Randi cared little, if at all, for their current hit. The lyrics bordered on misogyny and the guitar work sounded sloppy. Had she not wanted a good spot for Black Alchemy she’d have come late and missed out on the group.
“Zane’s going to wear his Hee Haw coveralls,” Kristy snickered.
Hell of a fashion statement, Randi decided. She itched to ask if Kristy was a groupie but feared a hostile reaction. Her dearth of sexual knowledge aside, she knew some mechanics and that groupies often put out in order to receive benefits—backstage access, maybe autographs and swag.
Her mother’s voice echoed in her brain, admonishing her. ‘You come right home afterward. Don’t be like those girls who flash their goods.’
She looked down at her Rush shirt, which was nearly flat. Who’d notice if I did?
Snake Pit had a modest setup, what Randi perceived as the bare minimum in lighting and equipment. Three microphone stands equidistant from each other toward the front, and two Fenders rested on stands stage right. Randi, wanting a closer look, edged toward that side but paused behind a group of people clustered together.
“If you want to move up, go ahead,” Kristy encouraged her. “I’m heading that way myself.”
“Oh, I don’t know if I want to be—”
Randi lost the opportunity to finish the thought. A long-haired roadie had stepped up to the middle microphone and uttered a deep-voiced, “Check,” that echoed through the venue. Everybody on the floor took this as a sign to expect Snake Pit to come charging out to begin the show, and bodies panicked and surged. People behind Randi pushed forward and she squealed, her mother shaming her in her head. ‘How can I face my bridge club, telling them you died at a Snake Pit concert?’
Rather than wait to become roadkill, Randi moved with the crowd and in seconds she was pressed up against the stage, a laughing Kristy at her side. “You think they’re all eager to get this started?” the older woman called, having to shout over the din of restless rock fans so Randi could hear. Randi’s heartbeat pounded in her ears, overpowering other noises surrounding her. The jolt of adrenaline from the lightning-fast sprint to the lip kept her attention focused to the front. She patted her thigh, feeling for the rectangular indent in her skirt pocket. Good, she still had her license and the car key. Assuming she survived the crush of fans, her parents wouldn’t be happy to discover she’d been stranded.
“I am, at least,” she hollered back. At this point, though, she wanted Snake Pit on and off in hopes the crowd relaxed some in between acts. When the five musicians comprising the first band strutted out to the strains of a steady drum beat, Randi winced from the pain searing through her skull. Too close, too loud, too much body odor. Every breath became a struggle as raised arms invaded her personal space. Her chest flattened against the stage and her neck kinked and turned sore as she had to look up to see the action.
They were eye level with thick-heeled boots—leopard prints and black laces to complement leather pants and vests, no shirts. Snake Pit’s lead guitarist, wailing on a yellow Stratocaster with painted-on flames licking up past the whammy bar, just missed her fingers as he danced close to the edge to tease the crowd. Randi glanced upward for an eyeful of chest and underarm hair and pale, bare arms glistening with sweat.
He caught her eye and stuck out his tongue, flicking it in some kind of lurid ‘come hither’ signal. Not on your life, bud. Randi shifted her attention toward the drums.
Snake Pit raged through their set, each song more rambling and explicit than the last. Randi, having never heard anything beyond their one radio hit, prayed her thanks to every deity that her parents hadn’t made good on an earlier threat to chaperone her. As much as she loved music, Snake Pit had a ways to go before achieving something similar to it. This was noise, and now that she was almost deaf she wondered if she’d get to enjoy Black Alchemy at all.
The lead singer, his black hair teased into an explosion around his gaunt face, pumped a fist in the air as their final number crashed to a close. “Fuck you very much, San Bernardino! We are Snake Pit!” he hollered to a rash of cheering. “Get your bloody asses ready for Black Alchemy.”
He looked down, a sparkle in his kohl-rimmed eyes and a comic book villain’s grin showing off crooked teeth. Randi met his gaze for a split second—enough to spark his interest. With Kristy nearby, though, she figured the musician had spotted a familiar face. But as the rest of the band trudged away he towered over a cluster of people, their arms waving like seagrass, fingers wriggling for even the slightest touch of celebrity.
Randi kept to herself, hands pinned to her front to protect the contents of her skirt pocket.
“Zane! Over here!” Kristy called, and Zane dipped down and extended both arms.
One for Kristy, one for her.
What? Okay, so the guy wanted to gift a ‘fan’ with casual physical contact. She’d seen videos where musicians grazed fingertips with zealous crowds. Randi could think of a dozen rock stars she’d prefer to greet—hell, more than that—but figured the chance to be a greater part of a concert didn’t happen every day.
He wasn’t a teen mag cover-model type, but Zane was cute, in a heroin chic kind of way.
She reached up to shake his hand, at the same time he tugged Kristy up onstage. That was when Randi saw the bassist and rhythm guitarist lurking behind him. They hadn’t taken off as she first thought.
They were grabbing her arm and encouraging the people around her to hoist her high.
“Hey!” she cried. One pair of arms—it was hard to tell for all the movement—tightened around her waist and she kicked upward as her captor whirled her in a circle. Kristy and Zane skedaddled ahead of her and disappeared into the wings. Which one of these snakes had her? “Put me down. I can walk, you know.”
“Soon, love,” sounded a voice like smoke in her ear. “You’re a feisty one, eh?”
Randi struggled in his grip and whooped when the bassist—she discovered as such when the guitarist stepped for a moment into her line of vision—twirled her like she was weightless and settled her body over his shoulder. She looked out into venue at the sea of shadowed faces and limbs—thousands of people roaring approval for a rock star’s conquest. She squinted in vain to find anyone from school, no doubt cursing Randi’s so-called good fortune.
Please, none of y’all tell my parents this is happening.
Drummer Greg Orville plodded offstage first, as usual, without giving Derek Hynde a second glance. The band’s young manager was used to the performer’s aloof behavior, and wouldn’t begrudge Greg his desire for peace. As Snake Pit’s elder statesman, Greg eschewed the sex and drugs components of the lifestyle and darted straight for his motorcycle after each show. By the time the rest of group exited to let the roadies change sets he’d be in his hotel room with a thick book and an eighty-proof nightcap.
Both sounded terrific to Derek right about now. Anywhere but here.
One by one the rest of the band came backstage, dressed like pornographic wasps and toting souvenirs of the female variety. Fuckin’ fantastic. He recognized the one with Zane—Kelly, Kasey, something close to that—and offered a partial smile when she waggled her fingers at him in a cutesy wave.
“We’ll be taking a break before the hotel, right?” Zane Porter called to him.
“Wear a condom this time, would you?” Derek shot back. He got the finger from the girl in response. Hey, it’s cheaper than a child support suit. He cringed, thinking back to a rather large check dashed off to some redhead bouncing a newborn on her hip, a boy with the bassist’s nose and blue eyes. It covered an agreement to refrain from pursuing further payments but didn’t keep her lips zipped when the tabloids came sniffing.
Speak of the horny devil…
Hal Kaiser passed by with a shit-eating grin and an arm wrapped around a pair of shapely legs, one heel hanging by the woman’s arched foot. Over Hal’s shoulder, his captive pounded on his back and demanded her freedom.
She caught Derek’s stare as Hal kept walking. “Oh, don’t mind me. No need to assist. I got this under control,” she drawled, then hung limp in defeat.
“Fair enough,” Derek muttered. Any other time, he’d have let the band enjoy their ‘booty’, so to speak. This bird, however, didn’t express the hard-to-get attitude other groupies had. Some liked to bite and scratch, leaving Derek to presume their aggressive behavior was designed to turn on the musicians they targeted.
This girl—and she was a girl, no doubt, teetering on the edge of legal-age—seemed to want to be somewhere else, instead of being carried into the dressing room.
Derek started toward the door about to close Snake Pit off from the rest of the world when the loudest expletive he’d heard today sounded from the truck bay. Greg. He needed to check on that before the drummer punched an innocent bystander.
He grabbed the nearest red shirt, a venue employee charged with helping out the crew. “Keep an eye on them, and if the blonde looks like she needs assistance, give it,” he ordered before stomping out into the dry California heat.
He wanted to walk far away, through the tall chain link fences cordoning off the buses and equipment trucks and up the highway. Whichever direction took him to the nearest airport and back to London, he was all for it. He hated this job—he was nothing more than a glorified babysitter for a quintet of spoiled musicians. Greg aside, they lacked talent and drive, yet their label hemorrhaged money to promote their sophomore album and American breakthrough. ‘Don’t worry, just let them be,’ his father—and boss—had advised at the start of the tour. Snake Pit were green for the most part, yes, but after a few weeks they’d let off their steam and settle into a routine of responsible behavior.
So Derek had been told. He was still waiting.
Three months after Da’s speech, most of the band had all but become walking STDs. What he wouldn’t give for the opportunity to scout a group to mold from the ground up, a discovery to influence and encourage. He wanted to walk into a bar one night and be blown away by an unsigned band, much like the time Brian Epstein had spotted a charming quartet at a club in Liverpool. The Snake Pit job was a hand-me-down, given to him because nobody else in Da’s organization wanted it.
Paying my dues, my arse.
He found Greg pacing alongside his motorcycle, borrowed from a stateside friend for the duration of the North American leg. Derek had envied the drummer’s decision to ride the tour route on his own and skip the daily melee of weed and porn and spunk coating the bus seats. The budget hadn’t allowed Derek such peace, and he cursed his own thrifty tendencies. He was saving for a house, and he forced himself to believe it was worth the headaches Snake Pit gave him.
“Fuck me. Bugger all.” The language, salty as the air, softened in volume as Derek reached the scene. Greg pulled a wrinkled cigarette pack from his vest pocket and patted his skin-tight pants for a lighter. As Derek saw no visible, cigarette lighter-shaped indentations, he offered his own and coughed at the first expulsion of smoke. He looked down to where Greg was pointing to the lighted end at the flat front tire.
“I hate American highways,” the drummer groused. “Bloody near got flattened by a van on the ride here, and now I’m stuck in this hole.”
“Maybe it’s not so bad. You haven’t had much maintenance done on this thing, and I doubt Mick was responsible enough to—” As Derek spoke, he bent to inspect the damage and quieted on finding the culprit. He reached to tug on the nail, but Greg kneed him away.
“Leave it. I don’t want it wrecked any further.” The man’s anger cut through his voice. “Get somebody here to repair it, and the sooner the better.”
“What, this late?” Derek let the activity around them distract him. He’d never been to the California coast before—until this point, he’d kept to overseeing regional tours back home while more seasoned managers in Da’s firm handled the bigger acts. Where would he find a mechanic after hours with a replacement tire for a foreign motorcycle? Granted, they were close to Los Angeles, but Derek doubted he’d have assistance over in due time to satisfy Greg.
Greg was the sane one in the band but looked close to losing it. Derek couldn’t afford to have him unhappy. The man had threatened more than once on this tour to breach his contract and walk.
“You’re the bloody manager, Derek. Manage it,” Greg barked, and took a long drag on his cigarette.
“Fine. I’ll see what I can do, but I don’t know how long before somebody gets here. Even then, they might want to tow this thing to some garage.” A mechanic realizing he’d be dealing with rock stars was sure to see big money in his future, too, and perhaps take his time. At least they had a few days in the area for shows, but with Greg grounded it meant one unpleasant fact.
“As long as it’s fixed so I don’t have to get on the bus,” Greg said as he stormed off to a less populated area, where Derek suspected he’d brood.
He heard the first notes of the headliner’s opening number, followed by an explosion of fan gratitude. The venue had a first aid station behind the stage, and Derek remembered seeing a phone there. He considered alternative options for Greg on the short walk over—he could arrange for a taxi, or else convince the drummer to ride back in the headliner’s bus. Both bands were staying in the same hotel this time, and Wayne and Ginge were a smidge more subdued compared to their opening act.
A few fans lay on cots for treatment—hydration, an EMT explained—so Derek searched the yellow pages next to the phone and found a winner on the first try. The mechanic also dealt in Italian and German models and would replace the tire on site, for cash.
Everything Derek had in his wallet. Bugger. He’d pay it if it meant preventing discord among the Snake Pit lineup. For certain, the rest of the band wouldn’t want Greg on the bus, spoiling their good time. Derek started back to the bay, patting his back pants pocket as he thought of how he might talk the mechanic into taking the travelers’ checks instead.
He saw no sign of the drummer near the motorcycle, nor was Greg lurking close enough to watch the opener. He’d either gone to the loo or had skulked deeper into isolation. No sense checking the bus, which was still parked close to the exit.
With a sigh and a shake of his head, he turned toward the party raging in the makeshift green room. Greg might not be partaking of the merriment, but maybe somebody had caught sight of him going somewhere.
He heard music, a ripping good guitar solo. Highway Star, one of his favorites. Who was playing, though? Neither guitarist in Snake Pit had the chops for that advanced a number. They performed like the punk bands of the Seventies, with minimal chords and rapid-sung lyrics.
Derek opened the door and let out the sound, richer and fuller than anything he’d expected from the band since beginning the tour. He expected to find he’d been mistaken about the live guitar, that somebody had brought in a tape player while everybody paired off with a bird. The last thing he thought to see tonight was the young woman Hal had carried off caveman-like, showing him up on his own guitar.
Bloody hell. The girl can play. Now if only…
As the thought formed, she acted on his wishes. She sang, her voice bold and rich, full of melody and star quality.
He smiled, basking in his Brian Epstein moment.