The auditorium of the Astoria sounded like a warzone, 20,000 fans stamping their feet, cheering and singing for their homecoming kings. It was the last night of the tour and the band stood huddled in the stairwell just off stage, waiting for that moment, that sweet spot to launch back up into their positions of exaltation for their third and final encore. The lead singer, Zak, regarded his bandmates with a manic expression “The usual! Give ‘em some cheese and finish up with crazy?” Assorted whoops and cheers from Dex, the stout badger drummer and Si, the lithe, toned cheetah rhythm axe man signified they were ready to take this gig down screaming. “Xander? You with us, foxy?” Zak snapped his fingers in front of the arctic fox frontman, who had disappeared behind a mop of purple hair, run into lank ringlets by sweat. “Oh. Uhm. Yeah, right. Cheese and crazy. Easy finish.”
“You sure dude?” Zak’s lupine expression wild, excited but still somehow just a little concerned.
“Totally!” he grinned, “let’s show ‘em how it’s done.” And reached down to flip on the wireless transmitter on his metallic purple Fender Jazz Mexi; his fingers snapping out the staccato beat of Another One Bites The Dust as he launched himself up the stairs and into the dazzling glare of spotlights and pyrotechnics.
The crowd went wild. A whole room in unison roaring, cheering, even before there was life visible on stage, they knew the routine as well as the band and they were ready, the noise levels increasing as each band member took their spot, Xander’s back to them, beckoning and acknowledging each one of them with a dip or flick of the head of his guitar, the custom paintwork on the body catching and refracting the light in explosions of colour every bit as flamboyant as the luxuriant, white-furred creature playing it. The songs came thick and fast, old cover versions mixed with a couple of their own classic hits, as familiar and warm as old friends as Xander caressed & lilted each lyric, the passion in his eyes flickering almost as much as the fireworks had been along the stage front. They were coming to the end of Motherless Child, the penultimate song of the set. With a wry grin, Xan stepped back up to the mic.
“There’s a lot of history here tonight, folks!” He beamed at the crowd, blinded by the lights but knowing they were hanging on each and every word. “We formed in a pub just over the road from here 25 years ago this very week!” A whoop from the audience “I see we’ve got the bar staff in!” he quipped. “I know you all know who we are, but if you’d not mind putting your hands together for Dex Brockstein! He’s pounded the skins for quarter of a decade; he’s been our heartbeat and voice of reason.” A peal of drums almost drowning him out, a gesture to his left “Zak DeLupe, A man I’m proud to call a brother and the world’s finest guitar player! Give ‘em a taste, Zak!” For a moment, silence, then a faltering rendition of three blind mice & the room reverberated with the roar of the audience laughing as one “Rock on, my brother! And… Yep, that’s it!” an insulted slap of fingers on strings stopped him in his tracks “Oh, Si, did I forget you? What is it you do again?” he grinned, again, the easy charm, the half-smile betraying his silliness. “Ladies, gentlemen, Si Hacker, A finer rhythm strummer you’ll not meet this side of Melody Maker!” Cheers filled the room as Si flipped him the bird, a good natured grin on his face. “Love you too man. Love you too.” Turning to face front, he asked for the house lights to be brought up. “And you. You’ve been with us through the highs, lows and Dax’s mullet! We’d have not got this far without you…. “He blinked hard, silver eyes filling with tears; his voice faltering. “This is our last gig here. The Astoria is closing its doors for the final time tonight; we’re the last to grace these beer-stained boards… And it’s my last gig with the band.”
A stunned silence filled the room, instruments hushed. “Don’t be sad, folks.” Xan said quietly “We’ve just cut a brand new album, it’ll be in the shops tomorrow; it’s not goodbye, just an au revoir. But for now,” he grinned through the tears “We have a show to finish, boys… It’s been one crazy night!” Xander barely registered the booing and catcalls as they hammered through a punked up version of Streets of London, their trademark closing piece. He couldn’t see the audience through the tears. As the lights dimmed, he slung his guitar across his back, bandolier-style & slouched off the stage, a hand raised in resignation.
“The /FUCK/ man?” Dax bellowed along the backstage corridor, grabbing Xan & throwing him hard up against the wall. “You can’t quit on us, man. Dammit… The Fuck…”
“Dax, man. Don’t make this harder than it already is. It’s been 25 years, I’ve been through hell and back for this band and seeing this place go has made me realise something. I need to lay some old ghosts to rest. “
The badger’s shoulders sagged & Xan slithered out of the grasp “Get the fuck out of my sight, man. Get outta here before I change my mind…”
“And what?” He laughed, bitterly “What could you do to me that would make me feel worse than I do right now?” The badger blinked, the fury in his eyes faltering. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. I’m outta here. “
“Xan?” A whisper so quiet, he barely heard it over the roar of blood in his ears.
“Look after yourself, man.” But Xan never heard, he’d already slipped out of the emergency exit and into the cold, wintery night.
His car was parked behind Soho Square, the vintage Ford Shelby, painted in a custom dark silver flake; lowered to the point of being slammed, chrome gleamed under the streetlights. He ran his hands over the ragtop, closing his eyes for a moment to blink back another wave of tears. Moments later, guitar stowed on the back seat he was tearing along Oxford St, caught every 100 yards by the dazzling flash of speed cameras, the car radiant under their harsh, white stare. He knew he was speeding, he didn’t care. Thumbing a switch on the dashboard, the roof slid neatly back, packing itself neatly away; the cold night air whipping his sweat-dampened hair back into long, tangled plumes as he planted his foot deeper into the shag pile. The silence in his head was deafening, he reached down to activate the in-car entertainment system, 28 near field speakers, as finely tuned and balanced as any studio setup thumped softly into life, the CD in the drive spinning up and in moments, the sound of Dax’s deep, resonating voice filling the space around his head.
"You know me, you don’t see me. I loved you, you deceived me…"
He winced, hit eject and threw the disc to the kerb; the first promo pressing of their new album. He knew Dax would do fine without him, the decision he’d made to let him sing lead on this track would prove it to him. The band would live on without him, whatever the future held. With no disc to play, the audio system switched to the internal jukebox, the car filling with the mournful, broken blues of Tom Waits. “Operator, number please. It’s been so many years…” It seemed so fitting. He cranked the volume & sang along, the words catching in his throat, carried away on the bitter evening breeze. City lights gave way to darkness, countryside, the car howled along, pushing over 120mph, showing no sign of slowing until he swung wide onto a secluded gravel driveway in front of a rambling, old country estate. Pulling the handbrake hard, he slid the car on the shingle to a stop outside the door. A solo light burned in the lower front right of the building. Shutting the car off, the night was oppressively still, the slam of the car door as he clambered out deafening in the utter quiet. The front door was opening before he’d even made it to the step.
“Guess what? I quit the band.”