100%/Serpents by Neil Schiller

Things change. It happens slowly, but when the realization hits it feels like I turned my back for a moment and time slipped through a hole in the walls of my life.

It’s Friday night. It’s raining. I’m sitting at my kitchen table sending emails out to people who don’t exist. There’s no-one on the street outside my window. All I can see is the slick pavement and my front gate hanging from its hinges; all I can hear is the stage whisper of a steady downpour that arrived two days ago and refuses to move on.

Fuck it. I hit the play button on my stereo and a jagged edge of paranoid guitar rips open the speakers. I haven’t changed the CD in weeks. It doesn’t matter. I just need the noise. And noise it is, but there’s a tune in there somewhere. It occasionally tries to surface from the feedback but is quickly dragged back under, like debris circling a drain.

Sonic Youth were our band of choice. 1993. Music to get stoned to, music to shout at each other over, music to get girls with. Well, maybe not that last one. We were obsessed with the fuzz and static and those random pinpricks of pure, piercing melody. That was me, my flatmate, his brother. They weren’t the only band we listened to, our sitting room was a chaos of drunkenly stacked vinyl, the floor a random mosaic of ripped cardboard sleeves. Dylan, Nick Cave, Nirvana, The Smiths. We played them all until the needle wore them out and argued about American cinema, about the first Iraq war, Motown versus Stax, the girl in my history class with big tits. I must have smoked a million cigarettes and nobody cleared the ashtrays until they were spilling onto the floor and someone’s parents were due for a visit.

My flatmate’s dead now. Pneumonia got him two days before his twenty-fifth birthday. Fucking pneumonia; who dies of pneumonia at that age? His brother is an accountant in Milton Keynes, or Staines, or some unholy place. I stayed here because there was a girl, and a scene, and a bunch of pretentious pricks I thought were my friends.

The CD player is set to random, so as "Sugar Kane" fades out, finally choked to death on its own distortion, I can only guess as to what comes next. I’m vaguely hoping for "Drunken Butterfly" but it never works out that way: I never get what I want. I stick with it though, because that’s what you do when you listen to an album. All this mp3 nonsense, all these single track downloads. Nobody has an attention span anymore. Listening to a record is supposed to be like living your life. There are supposed to be boring bits; you’re meant to have time to wonder why you didn’t make more of yourself while the band goes off on a self-indulgent instrumental break. And then, when those glorious anthemic moments hit you, they have more power because they’ve emerged out of nowhere. They’re like the sun striking the distant hills on a day you’ve spent bored and restless and contemplating death.

‘Are you playing tonight?’

‘Always.’

‘Alice and Ben are hosting it.’

Of course they are. They get paid for it too and I could have used that money. Don’t get me wrong, she has a voice and he can play a few chords; they’re alright if you like that sort of thing. Fucking dull though, which is probably why they got the gig. It’s always the same with these things: keep it bland, appeal to the lowest common denominator. I wouldn’t have done it anyway. Maybe a year ago, but I’ve moved past that stage now.

The crowd is pretty appreciative. Easily pleased. I sit at the bar and scowl at the endless parade of amateurs that get up on the mic before me. The same guy I see in here every week gets up and does the same cover of Easy by the Commodores. It sounds ropier every time he cranks it out. A friend of Alice’s does an acoustic take on "Paranoid Android" which is ok, it’s slightly less predictable, but then he does an encore with a Spinal Tap song. I hate that comedy shit. What a waste of the limited talent you have.

Finally it’s my turn and I set up my practice amp and pedal. After all that anemic strumming and half-arsed finger picking it’s time to show everyone how it should be done. I’m the only one who ever brings an electric guitar. I crank it up as far as I can and load it with as much gain as it can hold. I play an original first: cover versions are what the kids do. Then I switch to an interpretation of a Muddy Waters song that I changed up to sound a bit like The Cramps. They each get a polite spattering of applause and I scan the room to see if anyone really got it. I think I need a new venue.

‘Have you been down to The Round yet?’

‘No.’

‘They pay the bands there. It’s not much, but it’s money.’

‘I don’t know.’

Last time I was there we’d sat through an hour of some sixteen-year-olds grinding down old Beatles songs. They thought they were cool for picking album tracks instead of the popular ones. Glass Onion went round and round for an eternity until I couldn’t take it anymore.

‘It’s not that big a place.’

‘Fucking hell Andy.’ And with that she leaves the room, probably to avoid throwing something at me. We’ve had this argument before. At first it only started if she came in from work and found me on the PlayStation in the same clothes I’d worn the day before. Now it happens even when I’m pretending to write songs as she walks through the door. It isn’t a good sign.

‘I have some new demo tapes to send out.’

She either doesn’t hear me or doesn’t care. I can hear her rattling plates around in the kitchen.

The truth is, you need a moment. Just one moment. A piece of luck, a cosmic alignment where someone who realizes how good you are also happens to be someone who can do something about it. And they have to be in the same place at the same time as you. I’m not stupid, I know the odds are long. But they’re even longer if you’re sat in some office somewhere all day and then lying half asleep on the couch every night in front of the TV.

‘You see the guy at the back? The one right up by the bar?’

I see him, but I don’t know why I’m looking at him.

‘Which one?’

‘The baldy one. There, at the end. That’s Alan McGee.’

It isn’t Alan McGee. He’s too tall. Creation Records folded years ago anyway. It doesn’t matter though: it spreads like a virus through everyone waiting to perform. They’re all infected by the false possibility that tomorrow they’ll be on tour with Teenage Fanclub or Primal Scream. Each and every one of them gets up on stage and tries too hard; each and every one of them sounds like shit. I laugh out loud when the fake McGee gets too bored to even stay to the end. When he leaves he sucks all the nervous energy out of the room with him. It’s like a pulse, a collective sigh, a discharge of mass disappointment. It’s an EMP that shuts down everything and everyone. The night is over, despite the fact there are still a few bands waiting to get on.

That is how desperate we are. Delusional really. Half the people here won’t make it through a year of disappointment before they crack. They’ll have jobs in the public sector before Christmas, they’ll be back at college on teacher training courses. The rest of us will carry on, not because we love doing it, not because we believe a deal is really just around the corner, but because we don’t want to do anything else. If anything, we lack the imagination of those that quit.

‘Andy, it just isn’t going anywhere.’

This is it. The intervention: the moment in which your pointless routine of writing and performing and signing on with no tangible goal in sight collapses in on itself. You’re supposed to say I know, I realize, let me reassess my life. If you’re stupid enough to deny it, then there’s the ultimatum, and that gets really tricky. Because she can’t carry on supporting you forever. There’s rent to pay, food to buy, all the things that people who have jobs spend their money on just waiting to have money spent on them. There are houses and cars and babies and the future. I’ve been waiting for this, I’ve been expecting it. So I don’t do either of the things she was anticipating. I pick up my guitar and leave instead.

‘I’ll be back.’

‘Andy – ’

‘Just wait.’

Sharon Van Etten is playing at the student union. I don’t have a ticket but I have an idea. I saw someone try this once and it worked for them. And I’m running out of options it seems.

The support band are just finishing when I get there and I avoid the hall itself and go directly through the bar instead, hurry round to the stage door with my guitar case. A bored looking security guard is leaning against the jamb, his thick forearms wrapped in wristbands. He stands up straight as I walk over to him.

‘Pass.’

‘Yeah, I don’t have one. I lost it.’

He stares through me for a second and then goes back to leaning.

‘I know some of the band.’

‘Is that right?’

‘Come on man, I’m a musician.’ I nod down at my case. ‘I know these guys. They’ll be pleased to see me. We were supposed to catch up earlier and jam for a bit but they got held up.’

He looks around me to make sure I’m on my own, and to make sure nobody else is paying attention. I guess the last thing he wants is everyone getting the same idea. I’m in luck because nobody is looking our way.

‘Seriously, they’ll be expecting me.’

With a shrug he grabs at my t-shirt and eases the door open a crack. He half pulls and half pushes me through it.

‘Go on then, get in. Quickly.’

And just like that I’m backstage. There are a few people milling about, union staff mostly, the odd roadie. It’s a lot less frantic than I expected. Nobody stops me, nobody asks who I am. I find Van Etten’s band in the green room. The singer herself is nowhere to be seen, but it doesn’t matter, I can wait. Her drummer is playing pool with someone on a table with threadbare red cloth, the others are sat round on a couple of dirty looking sofas. I perch myself on the arm of one of them, looking for all the world like I’m supposed to be there.

‘Nice guitar.’ I nod towards the instrument the guy closest to me has on his lap. He’s playing silent chords, making nonsensical runs up and down the fretboard, generally messing about and limbering up like all guitarists do.

‘Thanks.’

He gives me the once over and I can sense he’s deciding whether or not to talk to me. I lean a bit more heavily on my flight case gambling on the guitar nerd within.

‘What have you got in there?’

I knew it.

‘It’s a Telecaster.’

His eyes light up.

‘A Fender? Cool. Can I see it?’

‘Oh, er, no. It’s a Squier Telecaster.’

He does a pretty good job at hiding his disappointment.

‘Ah. I used to have one of them. Butterscotch blonde, pretty much my first electric.’

‘Yeah, they’re really nice. This is a two tone sunburst.’

I open the case and pull it out. Hold it up so the light catches it for him.

‘Do you mind?’

I pass it over. He places his own guitar down carefully next to him with one hand and sweeps mine into position with the other. He mimics a G7 chord on it, then a D major moving into D minor. All you can hear is the slight steel sweep of his fingers as they move.

‘Nice. How many pickups?’

‘Two.’ 

He starts to play the intro to "Serpents", you can just make it out over the background noise of conversation and pool balls clinking. And it sounds good, although playing an electric guitar without plugging it in always sounds good, it’s when it’s amped up you can hear the flaws.

‘It has a nice feel to it.’

‘Yeah, I like it.’

He turns it around to look at it from a few different angles, and then hands it back over.

‘Are you with the other band?’

‘No, I’m solo at the moment. The band I was in broke up.’ I don’t know why I say this, I’ve never been anything other than solo. It sounds more authentic though somehow.

‘What type of stuff do you play?’

I shrug. ‘It’s hard to say. I don’t think it has a name.’

At this point, Van Etten’s bassist leans over. I realise she’s been watching from the other couch. There’s a wry smile on her face and I can tell I’ve been rumbled.

‘Play something. Maybe we can come up with a name for you.’

I can feel my face starting to flush slightly, but fuck it, I’ve gotten this far. Anyway, I think they’ll be surprised.

‘Ok. This is something I’m working on. It’s not finished, but I’m –’

‘Just play it. There’s a mini amp here.’ She bends down and grabs a lead off the floor.

‘Ok.’

I plug in and check I’m roughly in tune; clear my throat; then I launch into it. There’s a short intro, I nail that, then the first verse which I belt out. I can see everyone in the room pausing to look and listen from the corner of my eye. Second verse. That goes ok too. I have a bridge before the chorus, nobody expects that. I glance up as I get to it and the two musicians next to me are staring intently, not giving much away. Halfway through the chorus I hear a pool ball drop and realise the guys at the table have stopped listening. Fuck them, I push on: third verse, second chorus, then a guitar solo bit and the end. I mess up the solo but it is pretty intricate and I’m feeling under a little bit of scrutiny.

I finish to the biggest, most deafening silence I’ve ever heard. Van Etten’s guitarist and bassist look at me, then at each other, and then back at me again.

‘Er, wow, yeah, nice job.’

The bass player laughs and gets up.

‘Well Greg, what would you call that?’

He flashes her a look.

‘I don’t know. What would you call it?’

‘Oh, you’re on your own on this one.’ And with that she walks off. ‘Come on, I think we’re up.’

The room empties. I watch them all leave to go and play their set.

‘What did you think?’

But nobody answers. They’re gone, I’m left alone in there. From a short distance away I hear the student crowd cheering as they take to the stage. I sit and listen to it for a minute or so. The muffled sound of some shit album track makes its way through the walls and I very carefully unplug my guitar and put it away. I stand up and brush off the dust and dirt I can imagine clinging to the seat of my jeans. Then I put my foot through the speaker, fuck it right up, and leave the amp howling behind me. It sounds like a dying animal and there’s something grimly satisfying about that. 


Neil Schiller is a Business Analyst, perennial post-graduate student and short story writer from Liverpool. He often turns his obsession with indie music into fiction as a coping mechanism.