The thing is, there’s something wrong with Johnny’s voice. Until just a few weeks ago, he couldn’t hit the right pitch if you painted a target on it and let him stand real close. Now he sounds amazing. . . and strange things happen every time he sings. Lights burn out. Whole rooms become cold and hushed. People get violent.
For Johnny and Case, Ragman is a ticket out of a life of meaningless, dead-end jobs and one lousy gig after another, but as the weirdness surrounding Johnny begins to turn into outright nightmare, they find that the price of stardom might be higher than either of them could ever have imagined.
The recording from the last Ragman concert is one song long. Half that, actually, since the song never reaches completion. The recording should have disappeared, should have been cleaned up by the police in the aftermath and filed away as evidence and never been heard again. It leaked out into the world, though, the way these things do, and the diligent and the curious can still dig up a copy if they want. Many do. Dumb kids at slumber parties, playing it like a game of Bloody Mary, trying to see who chickens out first. College kids, drunk or stoned at 3 a.m. Fans who followed the band from the early days and one day can’t shake the need to know.
Most listen to it one time, and they turn it off before the end. Well before the end. Then they burn it, bury it, delete it from their hard drives or their iPods and go to sleep troubled and trying to forget that any such thing ever existed.
You can hear the crowd first. Rumblings, and a few shouts. It sounds like a good-sized crowd, maybe a couple thousand people. One voice—a woman’s voice, high and clear—starts the chant: “Johnny! Johnny! Johnny!” In a matter of moments, everyone is chanting. There’s a faint sound, maybe the drumsticks brushing the snare, and then a huge cheer goes up, dissolving the chant in a rush of noise.
Four clicks and then the rhythm section comes in—Danny T layin’ it down on the skins, and Allen Sorenson on bass. It’s a fast chromatic riff, low and rolling, and more than a little disorienting. You don’t get a clear sense of whether the song is in a major or minor key, just a seasick feeling of rumbling motion. You can hear Danny’s metal snare drum, a little too hot and with too much biting treble, cutting through the mix like steel teeth, and the scrape and rattle of the strings on Allen’s big old Fender P-Bass are driving like a runaway eighteen-wheeler. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the motion of the thing, even with no idea of where it’s going.
Case comes in after a couple of bars. In the studio version of the song, the guitar tracks were doubled, but she’s doing solo duty live. It doesn’t matter. Her guitar sounds huge, even with just the one track—a Les Paul through a hundred watts of Marshall amplification, like the fist of God coming through a speaker cabinet. The sound is mean, distorted, heavy on the mids and snarling like a wild beast. She follows the bass part for an eight-count with the drums driving the tension up higher and higher, moves the figure up into an ugly harmony to make the tension even worse, and then there’s a sleazy little run down into a slow, bone-crushing riff that comes from nowhere, like one of those grinding Black Sabbath steamroller riffs that destroys everything in its path. The transition is shocking, like plunging into a lake of cold, cold water or the sun being suddenly masked by brewing black thunderclouds. It raises gooseflesh on you when you hear it on the recording, and it must have had the same effect on the crowd experiencing it at the time. If you listen closely, you can even hear Danny say “F**k yeah,” just loud enough for his vocal mic to pick up.
The guitar drops out, and there’s a lull. Then, just before where you’d expect the vocals to come in, there’s this awful sound. A quiet, plaintive voice, desperate, and half-whispering, half-pleading: “Oh, God, please no.”
Johnny Tango’s voice. It cracks on the “e” in “please.”
Then a quick inhalation and the vocals come in, and that’s when you realize something is not right here, not right at all. The voice that comes out is nothing like a human voice, singing nothing like human words. It’s vast and deep, oily and ravenous, and it pounds into your brain like a meat hammer. The pressure is crushing, mounting, thunderous, and you forget that this is a recording and you can turn it off at any time, you forget everything except that your brain is being pulped by a godawful, godless sound that shouldn’t even exist, a sound like tectonic plates grinding corpses into fields of broken glass, and then, incredibly, the sound gets worse, and you open your mouth to scream, and—
Suddenly the noise stops and there’s screaming everywhere. You haven’t made a sound yet, but the air is thick with screams. The music on the recording has stopped, but the screams have only just started, and you listen in horror with your mouth gaping stupidly. These, too, are sounds that shouldn’t ever come from human throats, but you can imagine all too well how they might. There’s the sound of something exploding—for some reason you picture racks of lighting blowing apart—and a distant voice screams, “My eyes! Ah, my f**king eyes!” It’s impossible to tell who it is, or even if it’s a man or a woman, the voice is so distorted by pain and fear.
About then, somebody usually comes to their senses and flicks the Off switch, pulls the power cord, or simply yanks the headphone jack out of its socket. There will be a long moment of shocked silence. Maybe the guy who brought the weed to the party will wipe his mouth with a shaking hand and, face pale and eyes staring, say, “Dude, that’s . . . that’s sick.” Nobody will argue. Nobody will say a word. The party is over. Everyone will leave without making another sound.
It’s the screaming that gets everyone to pull the plug, and, in the bright daylight, if they ever bring it up again, that’s what they’ll talk about. Those awful screams. God, wasn’t that horrible? Oh, those poor people.
They talk about the screams, but those are the easiest to forget. It’s that voice, that VOICE, that sound of unthinkable speech in an impossible tongue that keeps them up night after night, driving some to the bottle and others to sleeping pills or religion. People scream every day. It’s horrible, but screaming seems like a perfectly rational way of dealing with a difficult—but sane, you understand, definitely sane—world. It’s understandable. It’s normal.
That voice, though . . . No sane world would harbor such a thing. No rational world could accommodate it. And if it really exists, then there are cracks in the foundation of reality that no thinking being dares to contemplate.
Some rare individuals let the recording go to the end. There are another four minutes of screaming, pleading, shouting, and awful, maniacal laughter. After another thirty seconds, the crackle of flames begins.
If you listen closely, and turn the volume on your stereo all the way up, you can hear, at about seven minutes and twenty seconds, Johnny Tango’s voice.
“Oh, God, I never . . .”
The recording ends there.
“This band f**king sucks,” Case yelled over the noise. Another night—another band—and maybe some of the fans would have shot her dirty looks, but this place was dead. Deader than dead. Probably nobody would have come out to hear this piece-of-sh*t band to begin with—just like the piece-of-sh*t band that was coming after them, Case thought bitterly—but the holiday guaranteed an empty room.
The bartender shrugged and put her glass down. “It’s new band night. What do you want me to do about it?”
Case tossed back half the drink and coughed. New band night on Easter Sunday. What kind of dumbass would play new band night on Easter? Who would book such a stupid show? She shot a dirty look over at the ratty leather couch near the door, where the three other members of her own band were sitting, watching the current act with bland, glazed-over expressions. Damon was pulling on his goatee absently, which made Case want to go over and yank the damn thing out by the roots. The whole idea of new band night was to put asses in seats, prove to the club you could get people in the door so that they’d book you for a real date. So naturally, Damon had booked Easter f**king Sunday, ensuring they’d be playing new band night again next month. If the club gave them another chance.
She downed the rest of her drink. She felt like throwing the glass against the wall, but she put it on the bar instead. She turned around and put her elbows on the bar, watching the band onstage with her face screwed up in disgust, as if she were watching open-heart surgery. Or maybe a massacre.
Yep, they sucked. They had all the stage presence of limp pasta, and they couldn’t play worth a fiddler’s f**k, either. The guitarist watched his fingers stumble over the fretboard with the kind of intense concentration usually reserved for advanced math problems, and even the instrument itself was a horror show, some kind of godawful fifty-dollar pawnshop Charvel. The bass player at least looked comfortable on his instrument. It was a pity he didn’t seem to know what key the song was in. As for the vocalist . . . Good God, the vocalist. He looked to be made entirely out of bones, so skinny Case thought she could see his ribs right through his shirt. He had a voice to match, too—thin, tiny, and scratchy, warbling like an anorexic basset hound. Case couldn’t hear him very well, and she wasn’t sure if that was because he wasn’t projecting at all, or if the sound guy had turned him down to do him a favor. Save him some humiliation. It didn’t much matter. Aside from the staff and Case’s band, the only people in the bar were a bored-looking woman who had come in with the bass player and an aging ex-rocker guy in the corner who watched the band so seriously, sipping from a half-full glass of whiskey, that Case just knew he was somebody’s dad. Empty room, and the vocalist still looked like he was trying to hide behind his mic stand.
She thought the band was supposed to be playing hard rock of some kind, but the guitarist and bass player were sh*tting all over the changes, and the singer had no balls. The only thing they had going for them was the drummer. If Case just tuned out everything else, the drummer had a tight little groove going. She found herself nodding her head along with that until the song ended.
“Two more songs, guys,” the sound guy said. The singer flinched like he’d been shocked, and the band laid into something that sounded like a version of the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” that had been knocked down, stomped on, and finally kicked in the head for good measure.
At least everybody got a short set on new band night. Jesus.
Case got up to get her guitar. It wouldn’t hurt to warm up a little before her set, she supposed. She slipped around the sound booth and went back to the “green room,” an oversized storage closet that was packed with so much sh*t it was barely possible to walk in, let alone get your stuff out without a catastrophe. The little room was covered in peeling stickers and smelled distinctly of piss. She picked up her guitar case from the corner, extricating it from behind a stack of toms, and started to leave.
Damon met her at the door. Alcohol fumes and the scent of marijuana wafted off him, strong enough to burn her eyes. “Gonna rock this place, Steph?”
She exhaled very slowly. “If you call me Steph one more time, I’ll break your nose.”
“Ease up there, babe. Don’t be like that.” A slightly spacey smirk spread across his face.
“‘Babe’ was your last freebie, Damon. You ready to play this waste of a show or what?”
“Waste? Come on, we’ll tear it up.”
“Sure. We could have torn it up in the practice room. Less sh*t to move, and God knows we could use the practice. Same size crowd, too.” She moved her guitar case to her other hand. “Just get your stuff and let’s do this, okay?”
She brushed past him, feeling his eyes crawling over her body as she walked away. Prick.
She only had time to stretch her fingers, and then the other band’s set was over. Usually, this would mean a few frantic minutes of mutually stumbling over bodies and equipment while they got their gear offstage and Case’s band got set up, but Case wasn’t in a hurry. Her band was the last one playing tonight, and if they got cut off early—well, so f**king what? The sound guy didn’t seem to care, either, taking his time to put everything in its place. He eyed Case appreciatively, but he at least made an effort to be subtle about it. She could tolerate that. Her customary stage getup was a pair of tight leather pants and a white tank top, and if not all the attention she got was welcome, most of it was, and it was manageable. Somebody had once told her, If you’re going to be in the band, look like you’re in the band. Good advice, she thought, but the guy who’d given it to her hadn’t mentioned the extra baggage that came with it when you were a woman. Probably had no idea.
She supposed she shouldn’t have bothered tonight. She could have played this gig in a bathrobe. Ah, f**k that, she chided herself. We’re here, and Damon’s right about one thing—as long as we’re here, we might as well rock out. It’ll be like practice, only with better sound.
They did the usual indifferent sound check—two notes each from the guitar and bass, ten seconds of whacking on the drum set, and Damon mumbling some third-grade joke about testes into the mic, and then they were on.
It was loud, and that should have helped. Despite the empty room, there was some adrenaline that came from just being onstage, and Case tried to push the bullsh*t nature of the gig out of her mind and enjoy playing. She let the first few bars of music—fast, driving—push her forward, and a nasty little grin curled up the corners of her mouth as she got into it.
Then Damon forgot the first verse—just didn’t come in at all. The band played through it anyway, and Case went right into the chorus after that, assuming Damon would catch up then. The bass player, though, apparently figured they ought to repeat the verse and give Damon another chance. The result was a disaster, an aural train wreck as the two parts of the song plowed into each other at a hundred miles an hour.
The rest of the set—all five songs—went straight to hell from there. Case turned away and played with her back to Damon the whole time, certain that if she looked at him, she’d kill him on the spot.
The last song came as a mercy. The final chord died, the sound guy fired up some Van Halen through the main speakers, and Case put down her guitar and left the stage without a word. She headed toward the bar—the other guys could clear out their stuff first, and she’d take care of hers once they were out of the way. Meanwhile, if a drink had ever been in order, it was now.
“Screwdriver,” she told the bartender, and she tossed him five bucks she couldn’t really afford.
“Good set,” somebody said.
She swung her head to the right and fixed a disbelieving glare on the singer from the last band. He had a small mouth and eyes that looked way too big for his head, and, astonishingly, he looked even skinnier up close than he had onstage. “Sure,” she said. “I bet that’s what they told Mick Jagger about Altamont, too.”
The guy grinned, which went a long way toward making his eyes look almost normal-sized. “Nobody’s dead here.”
“F**k. Nobody’s here at all.”
“Then no damage done. No problem.”
She shook her head and went back to her drink. He had a point, she guessed, but that just aggravated her further.
“I have a proposition for you,” the guy said.
“If this involves going back to your van, somebody’s going to get hurt.”
He laughed nervously. “No, nothing like that. I need a guitarist. You’re good. I like your style. Very emotive. I’ve never seen anybody play the emotion pissed off so well.”
“That’s because I was pissed off.”
Another chuckle. “Good reason. You want the job?”
“You have a guitarist.” Of sorts.
“Not anymore. I fired him.”
She turned back to him, surprised. “Really? When?”
“Just as soon as you say yes.”
She snorted. “This is the worst come-on ever.”
He rolled his weird eyes, still grinning. “News flash: Not everybody on the planet is out to f**k you.”
“News flash: Between those who are out to f**k me and those who are out to f**k me over, I think just about everyone is covered.”
He put his beer down. “What a lovely persecution complex you have.”
“Persecution complex? Emotive? Did they just let you out of college?”
“Look,” he said, steepling his hands in front of him and trying to look earnest, “I’m in a bad spot. I got the band booked for a show at some little college in West Texas. It’ll be our first college show. I don’t want to suck.”
Case, by grace of what she assumed had to be divine intervention, kept her mouth shut.
“It’s in two weeks,” he said. “Pays two hundred dollars.”
“Two hundred dollars for the band, or two hundred dollars a person?”
The guy blinked. “You, personally, will take home two hundred dollars after you play this show.”
Sh*t. That was a good chunk of next month’s rent money. Three nights of sh*tty tips. A professional re-fretting job for her guitar, if she threw in a little extra. She’d had gigs that paid more, but not often, and only when she played with cover bands.
“How the hell did you swing that?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I wrote a letter to the Student Activities Committee of every college I could find in a five-hundred-mile radius. Three hundred letters. These guys bit. Booked us, sight unseen.”
The last bit of explanation wasn’t necessary, Case thought. That they’d been booked without being heard was a given, or they wouldn’t have been booked at all.
Two hundred bucks.
Still, something compelled her to be honest with the guy. “I can’t save your band for you.”
“Ouch. Don’t hold back—tell me how you really feel,” he said, voice dripping sarcasm. “I’m not asking you to save the band. Danny’s pretty damn good, and—”
“Danny’s the drummer?”
“He is pretty damn good.”
The guy nodded. “And Quentin will do all right, I think. He sometimes chokes when he gets in front of people, but he’s solid. You’ll see. We’ll be a lot better with a good guitarist.”
She almost said something nasty about the vocals, but she stopped herself. If he was going to pay her two hundred bucks, she ought to let it go. Besides, he looked so fragile with his tiny mouth and bug eyes. He might cry.
Somebody put a hand on her hip, and she whirled, arm already half-cocked back. It was Damon, standing too close as usual and weaving drunkenly. The rest of the band and the bony chick who’d come in with the bass player stood behind him. “Good f**kin’ show, huh?” Damon said.
She lowered her arm halfway and took one step back, down the length of the bar. “Yeah, sure.”
“We’re all loaded up, and I’m gonna take off,” he said. He took a step toward her.
“Great. Get the f**k out of here. And don’t touch me again. Ever.” She took another step back.
He didn’t get the picture, or maybe he was just deaf. He took another step toward her. “C’mon, Steph—”
The note of menace in her voice must have been enough to break through the drunken fog in his brain.
“Who’s this guy?” he asked, turning to the skinny dude.
“F**k off, Damon,” Case said.
The skinny guy, to give him credit, tried to calm things down. “It’s cool, man,” he said. “I’m John.” He held out a hand.
Damon slapped his hand away. “Yeah. What the f**k are you doing here, John?”
“Just talking business.”
Voice, by Joseph Garraty
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