The combination of the crowd’s rapturous cheering and the overpowering green glare of an overhead stage light had me momentarily stupified. Lifting my hand to shield my eyes, I found my way behind Budgie’s guitar amp and to the keyboard. I adjusted the microphone stand in front of me. On the keyboard’s electronic display, I selected the LEAD SYNTH #2 setting and then plonked my left thumb on a B-flat. The harsh thunder from the amp beside me nearly knocked me over; I removed my thumb and gave the volume knob a quarter turn anticlockwise. A sound check would have prevented that unprofessional gaucherie (that’s six). Perhaps it was best we skipped the sound check.
I stretched my left hand wide enough to straddle an octave and then held down an especially eighties-sounding bass note; the retro drone was answered with whoops and whistles from the crowd. Meanwhile, the fingertips on my right hand caressed the keys and found the ones it wanted, then hammered down a B-flat chord—dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat… The four hundred-odd people before the stage gave such a roar, I didn’t even need to ask them if they were ready to rock. Instead, I put my lips to the microphone and said in my coolest voice, “Welcome to Rory’s fortieth birthday party!”
The crowd erupted, though I’m sure none of them knew Rory. I looked out over the audience with a smile. My eyes had adjusted enough to the stage lights that I could see people crammed together right up to the house. My right hand faltered and lost the rhythm for a second; by the house I noticed the men in black jackets, Jimmy O’Shea’s crew. There were a lot of them. I turned back to the microphone, a bead of sweat rolling down my cheek. I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Hey!” called Budgie.
I turned and looked backstage.
“Get us up there,” he said.
I nodded. I played a glissando down the keyboard and then went back to the short stabs of the B-flat chord. I cleared my throat into the microphone and then said, “Allow me to introduce tonight’s entertainment. On percussion, a man who once broke three snare drums in a month—” I lowered my voice to the deep, dramatic tone of a ring announcer “—the mighty LaShawn.”
LaShawn ran out and did a cartwheel at the front of the stage. He punched the air as though breaking boards in a martial arts demonstration, then removed a pair of drumsticks from his back pocket and raised them over his head in an X shape. The crowd went berserk. He took his place behind the drum kit and began thumping a beat on the kick drum. The audience clapped along.
“On lead guitar,” I announced, “a man who makes Jimi Hendrix sound like crap. I only met him yesterday… put your hands together for Nils!”
Nils emerged onstage to roaring applause, plugged in his guitar and played a lick that was mostly just bending the highest note on his guitar while picking the string as fast as he could (with a contorted expression on his face). It was third-rate musicianship and first-class acting.
“On guitar and lead vocals, please welcome the greatest songwriter of any generation in the history of the world. He provided the beer tonight—” here the crowd gave its greatest cheer yet “—he is… Budgie.”
Budgie leapt up behind me and onto the stage. He grabbed the microphone and blasted an eighties heavy metal-style vocal solo. It started well, but his voice was raspy, and he stopped short with an inelegant coughing fit, thumping his chest with his fist. (I don’t think he was faking it; he had exhausted his vocal cords co-writing his anti-communism song in the gulag.) The audience’s applause diminished somewhat.
I noticed a guy in a black, hooded coat squeezing his way through the crowd toward the stage. He wore a bushy beard and dark sunglasses. Even with the sun going down, it was too hot for a coat, and it was too dim for sunglasses. I tried to get LaShawn’s attention, but he had his eyes closed, nodding along with his bass drum. The guy with the glasses looked up in my direction; a sneaky grin showed through his beard. Surely this was Jimmy O’Shea. Nevertheless, the show had to go on.
“And now the man of the hour,” I said. “Bass player extraordinaire, the Musical Maestro, the Sultan of Slap, Lord of the Low Notes, the Funky… Führer? I don’t know. Here he is, the birthday boy himself, Mr… Rory Zanzibaaaaaaar!”
Rory marched out on stage, slipped his guitar strap from his shoulder and performed one of the riskiest rock moves known to man—the guitar hula. It is exactly what you think it is. As an act, it is probably on par with juggling machetes—done well it looks effortless, and you don’t notice the hours of practice that went into it, but there is a lot that can go wrong. For starters, you need a wide berth; a rapidly spinning bass guitar can inflict serious damage to nearby equipment or bandmates. Next, you need high quality guitar strap locks. If you don’t have strap locks, do not try the guitar hula. And then of course, you must unplug your guitar. Attempting this manoeuvre while the guitar is attached to an amplifier will guarantee an embarrassing and expensive trip to the guitar shop to your gear repaired, and give you a fair chance of a bonus trip to the hospital. Those are your basic safety measures, and then there are physical requirements: you must be good at regular hula hooping, you need a smooth guitar strap that will slide as much as possible, and you need to master the guitar strap shuffle. The guitar strap shuffle is when you deftly shift the strap around with your hand with each pass of the guitar; if you try to guitar hula without this technique, you’ll get two revolutions at most, and then the strap will get stuck and the guitar will swing too close to your body, lose momentum, then hit you and drop to the ground. This can result in bruised hips, broken toes and snapped guitar necks. Rory himself destroyed at least a dozen bass guitars perfecting this move. Anyway, he nailed the hula, collected his round of applause, plugged in his bass and took his place near the drum kit.
“And give it up for our main man Miles on the keys,” said Budgie into his microphone.
He gave me a nod to continue. I put my mouth to my microphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said, “we are…”
Sh**. You’ve got to be kidding me. All I had left to do was come up with a name for the band, and my mind went blank.
I had nothing. Nothing. The man in the sunglasses and hood had pushed his way to the front row of the crowd. He reached into his cloak. I looked at the guys in the band; they were all watching me with urgent fascination, as though the naming of this band would determine the course of history. The hooded man retrieved a small box, put it to his mouth and then removed it, leaving a cigarette between his lips.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I repeated. “We are, uh…”
“Get on with it!” yelled a voice from the crowd.
You must understand how odd, and frustrating, this was. I literally could not think of a band name. And band names are not hard to come up with. Look, I’ll do it now—The Socks. That’s a band name right there. The T-Shirts. That’s another one. The Laundry Baskets. (My wife is folding clothes next to me.) The Sexy Filipinas. That’s a band name. Sure, they’re not great band names, but we didn’t need great, we just needed a name, and I couldn’t do it. And I am normally really good at creating band names. Years ago, I began writing potential band names in a notebook. I’ve come up with hundreds. But that night, with everyone watching, with our performance a matter of life and death, and with that stranger in the cloak staring up at me, I could not recall a single name I had written down.
A red glow shone before the face of the hooded man as he lit his cigarette. I cleared my throat and—sorry, what was that? You want to know if the band names I wrote in my notebook were any good? Well, you be the judge:
The Rash, Dangerboy, The Sensual Bastards, Hooter Elfman and the Ramjets, Snotwish, The Cellophane Beef Rats, Mister Smish, Toothpaste Gloria, Return to Zygote, Lonely Aerobics, Decade of Dust, Bing Bang Chang, Kelly Blender, Fart Harmony, Crisis a la Mode, The Bums, Merjel Furjis, One Day We’ll All Be Enemies, Hectic Venom, Unhappy Gavin, The Ointments, The Leon Hessman Half Dozen, Barram-Undy, Business Goose, Radish and His Secrets, Facehead, A Boy Called Linda, Headbutt Salmon, The Unqualified, The Soups, Triggerfish, The Stains, Judo Child, Bojangles Junior, Nan Angry At Cat, Man Overbite, Not Your Regular, Old Man Mowing, Bad Cola, Age Of Disrepute, Deadly Screwdriver.
That is just page one of forty-eight, all filled with band names as good or better, in my first notebook. That’s right—my first notebook. Currently I have four notebooks filled with band names, and I have just started a fifth.
Anyhow, like I said, everyone was staring at me, waiting for me to announce the name of the band, but I couldn’t think of anything.
“Ladies and gentlemen…” I said, for the third time, with nothing to follow it.
“You suck!” yelled a man from the back of the crowd.
Our plan was already working.
“Come on man,” said Budgie. “Just say a name.”
I looked at Rory. He nodded. LaShawn gave me a thumbs up.
“Hey,” called the man in the hooded cloak.
He threw his cigarette packet at me. It tumbled through the air and struck me on the forehead before landing on my keyboard. I stopped playing and picked up the packet. There were boos from the crowd. The cigarette packet was slicker and heavier than any I had encountered before. I didn’t recognise the brand. On the front there was no writing, only a picture of a man in a karate stance, wearing a bright orange gi and headband. The man had a tremendous moustache. I looked back at the hooded man in the front row.
“Name the band,” he said, or rather commanded.
After a moment of thought and a flash of inspiration, I smiled, grabbed the microphone and declared, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are… Ninja Moustache!”
© 2021 MILES VENISON ALL RIGHTS RESERVED