Some nights, alone in my pad, I’d soar through the early hours of the morning, drunk and stoned, working on songs. A feeling of exultation would come over me, as if all the pain and trouble I’d caused were forever in the past, and, now guided by my genius, combined with my personal power and innate capacity for good fortune, I could conquer the world. I felt warm, safe, protected, in the arms of the gods.
I’d pass out as the sun came up, waking up a few hours later in the miserable condition I called a “hang-beyond.” My head would feel like a dirty glass bowl with fishes swimming around in the murk, and I’d be shaking, sick, terrified, and unable to even get back in bed and sleep it off. I’d be in a cold sweat, and sometimes then the phone would ring and it would be a manager, or an interview, or people at the record company wondering why I’d missed the meeting over there.
Somehow I’d get through it and make the next gig, to have the laugh of being with the band, then the joy of pouring my heart out on stage in front of mobs of people reveling in the fantastic-ness and excitement of all the noise and soul. Then be home again late, dreaming big dreams in the middle of the night, writing songs and throwin’ ’em away, wishing I was on the other side of the universe. Some of the gigs were great, but I felt as if I were operating behind enemy lines. I began to get stage fright.
It started like this, one night at the Starwood, one of our favorite clubs. There we are, Plimsouls, top of the card in front of a 1000 peeps, 100 degrees, and my anxiety level is building towards the first set for some reason, and before we go on I start really pouring down the screwdrivers, but it isn’t working. Beers are lined up on my amp, for insurance, but it’s not enough.
My shoes feel wet, loose, hard on my feet. My clothes all of a sudden don’t fit. My hands are cold, the guitar strings cut into my fingers, right to the bone. I’m up on the stairs above the stage, in the dark, looking out at the rowdy crowd, the place is going nuts, ready to blow, energy is climbing up my backbone, I have the butterflies, bad, like my guts are turning to water.
I want to run. Hit the alley. Drink beer with some winos out of a paper sack. But our manager, Danny is behind me there, on the landing. He knows I’m nervous, just says, “It’s gonna be great.” I try to act like that helps. “Yeah.” But half of me feels like I’m going to be executed, and the other half is trying to pretend that it’s all just goodrockin’ fun.
Down the stairs and into the mouth of it. I feel weak, but I’m coming on bold. The crowd is cheering, Louie’s behind his kit now, blam de blam, pish pish blop! Eddie’s guitar is a piledriver. I’m fiddling with my dials. Someone’s calling out our names, kids looking up, lit by the stage lights, boys and girls, the M.C. yells “Plimmmmmsoooouls!” and we’re off into the first song, the lights come up, and I go blind with the freight train bearing down on me.
A massive surge of pure electricity courses up my solar plexus; I’m so high all of a sudden, my breath is short and fast, knees weak, shit I’m singing fucking flat! My mouth is kissing the mike ball, I can smell its filth, my mouth is dry, pitching up and the music is fast white noise. I’m huge now; the world has vanished in the white haze, my body is immense, a house, but I’m trapped, can’t get free, a piece of lightning metal sculpture, I’m caught by the nose, by the balls, by my whole life, I turn and wheel back to the drummer, then jerk to the mic where I keep up my leg backward as I sing, still bursting with stage fright, so I’m doing anything I can to elude the spell, making willful mistakes to break the predictability. I’m in hell, shaken, trying to rock my way through it.
We play the tag on “Shaky City,” and go into the second song while the audience happily, insanely roars. Drums rolling, tom toms and maracas, and I’m trying to get some quick beer. We all kick it in.
“Smashing rocks in the burning sun.” Mymouth is open and a stream of red neon comes out. A loud voice is screaming at me from a few feet away, and I’m lost in a tunnel of brilliant light, alone at center stage, I can’t see nobody, just this pitch I’m tossing in. Louie’s drums are all that hold me, though, and while the spotlight roves I see the faces at my feet: kids, friends, eyes and mouths, fists; they love it, but they’re all caught just like me.
My strength’s returning, my voice is a strip of wet black rubber now, and I disappear into it, sending it out, it’s bouncing all over the very back of the room, now to the kids on the stairway. The fear flows away, and I’m left with the size, I’m King Kong on top of the Empire, with the girl in my fist and snapping at planes, now on stiff legs like Frankenstein, colliding with Eddie back at the amps, screaming at the top of my lungs off-mic at Davido who just looks over and laughs at me, then walks away. The crowd is boiling, surging back and forth, people look up, out of control and calm eyes, and somebody I haven’t seen for ten years is in the front row wearing shades and grinning up at me.
Elvis now, King Creole, it’s a laugh as Eddie solos, a roller coaster and we’re riding it, slowly now, between songs, up at the top of the scaffold, about to drop.
Later, the dressing room is a crowded subway train at rush hour. Everyone’s sloshing a drink, got their arm around somebody; it’s a cocktail party and I’m the guest of honor, so I slip out, make down the hall, out the back and down the metal staircase, push through the exiting crowd in the parking lot, past the huge line of people waiting for the doors to open on our second show, but no one spies me as I cross the boulevard, enter the corner liquor store and score a quart of Mickey’s Big Mouth Malt Liquor. Then, taking the green bottle out in a brown sack, I cross back over Santa Monica, and after a quick glance at the pre-show chaos, I traipse on past to the corner, a nondescript office building, where I cut into an alley between it and the place behind. There I find several other dark forms propped on the concrete, against the wall, hooded, working on bottles. I plop down, and unscrew my lid, the smell hits me first, like barf, but better. I take a deep drink.
Soon, I’m more relaxed, almost ready for the second show, so I get up, nod a “take it easy” to the guys, and leg it back to the joint. Now it’s packed again, more packed than before; they got EVERYBODY in. I make it up to the dressing room, now cleared out, and “where you been, man?” everybody’s yelling at me, “it’s show time!” and this one set goes off crazier and smoother than ever.
Finally, at the end of the night, everybody’s gone, and I’m the last to leave the dressing room. I’m going home the same way I got there, sneaker power. With the boom box on my shoulder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles light the way.
What lonesome thoughts and dreams on this homeward roll? I can’t say at all. Sad? Yes, I know, and angry, too, also a bit elevated from the night, but on the verge of weeping over whatever happened between me and whoever it was up there after the show. “My Girl Is Gone,” “Bad Girl,” “The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage.” Somehow I walk right past my apartment building, and “I’ll Try Something New” is playing over and over again: Smokey knows. I’m walking aimlessly down Franklin Ave, by the red brick walls on Cahuenga, in the tailights now, as I nearly fall down on a curb; the street is cobblestone, and for a second I forget where I am, and I’m back in Buffalo, over by the train tracks, tears are in my eyes, I’m crying for Smokey, for me, for all my old friends, for all the ones who tried so hard, so many times, and went down…when a hood who’s been following me comes up and pulls a knife, I can barely see through the blur, but I’m pissed, “fuck off, motherfucker!” I wail at the top of what’s left of my voice, and he vanishes, just like that.
I wake up on Saturday with an aching head. We’re back at the Starwood tonight. I roll out of bed and put on some morning music.