Music When the Lights Go Out (Short Story)

The bar is old and its white walls are stained yellow like smokers fingers. There are hardly any patrons this evening and my band plays on the creaky stage. They’d have been better off with a jukebox, or even the radio. No one cares or needs a soundtrack. It is the kind of bar where evenings end. Not by choice but simply because nothing happens here. I stand in front of the microphone and look out towards the bar.

I blink and then I am standing outside the bar in the rain. I smoke a cigarette. The neon washed street gives me a pink glow and glints on my black leather jacket. I look like I’ve fallen out of the eighties. I flick the cigarette into the gutter and it makes a satisfying hiss. I head back towards the bar.

A girl stops me.

“Got a light?”

I lit her cigarette for her and because she is attractive I say, “I’m in a band.”

“Oh yeah?” She shrugs me off.

I continue on into the bar.

“Jack.”

I look up and see my band mates on stage. I am being called back for the last song.

My band are shit and we have never been popular. I wonder if those things are different but then I realise it doesn’t matter. No one comes to see our shows and I can’t pay my bills. My band isn’t very good at making money.

“I didn’t hear a call for an encore.”

“Just for old times sake. Jack.”

For old times sake I thought. What was so good about the past? We were penniless when we started this band and we are penniless still. Now music just pisses me off. There are too many new genres and not a rock star in sight. It’s depressing.

I stand in front of the microphone. A handful of people huddle near the bar. I look closely and notice a lack of skinny jeans and military jackets. So this is how music dies. Not with a bang but quietly in a forgotten London bar. Was it even worth the nostalgia? Probably not.

Rock was the genre of my youth. And my band mates are the mates of my youth. We got drunk, skipped school, and made music together. I have fond memories of them all. And this is our last song. This is it. The last gig. And as I look out towards the bar I wonder if anyone really cares.

We’re all older now and we don’t have the same shared dreams. Things are more realistic. We all knew it was time to pack it in. Rock and roll may never die but it sure gets old.

So here I find myself in between an indifferent crowd and my childhood friends. I am surrounded by people but feel very alone, apart, and I look at the microphone and wonder again if I am bothered. When I was younger I enjoyed singing to a crowd of people. My band played some pretty big gigs but now we were no longer ‘current.’ And I wonder. What have I been in it for? Was it the fame and the girls? They had never materialised. Was it recognition? I hope it has been for something more. Something pure, a more artistic reason.

I can’t come up with an answer now.

“Come on Jack, last one.”

“They’re not even listening mate.”

“Alright, one for the road then.”

I turn and face the microphone and as I strum my guitar I announce, “This is an old Stones tune, Time is on Our Side.” I smile at the irony and feel a sense of timing. What a perfect song for this moment, I wish I wrote it.

The steel strings feel cold beneath my calloused fingers.

For a moment I am a young boy again, sitting at home, playing my dads battered Hummingbird. It is a beautiful guitar with ornate birds on it. The notes I play sound like promises. I blink and I’m back in the pub. I play the song from my heart, in whatever sad mediocre way. Perhaps it is for my younger self. All those hours of guitar playing were not entirely wasted.

I remember my first gig, at school, a disastrous battle of the bands. I had thought the key to rock and roll was intoxication. I got blindingly drunk courtesy of my grandfathers liquor cabinet. I had thrown up on stage and been sent home for the week. I was very proud of myself.

I wrote my first tentative songs on that Hummingbird when I was eleven. Every songwriter starts young; some just forget to keep going. For me my twenties were my most inspiring decade. I could influence and experience whatever I wanted. It had been a decadent time for the band and me. Sleeping rough, long sleepless tours, we did it all with a bottle in hand. But then my band mates started getting married. They had children to put to bed. And increasingly I found myself drinking alone. The band had had a quiet word with me, “It’s time to stop. The partying and the music.” What a depressing moment I had thought, I’m not that old. But I am older than I care to admit.

As I strum my guitar I feel like I am seeing my life flash before my eyes. And as I leave my past behind and open my eyes to the present I see that the bar is full, heaving, and people are enjoying the music. I look over at my band mates and they look younger. There is a shine to the evening, a light that didn’t exist when we started playing. Gone is the dreary grey and instead the room is lit by the brilliant flash of white from cameras. I feel like a rock star.

“You’re searching for good times, but just wait and see.”

I never thought about where all the people had come from. They were just there and they were listening to me. I belted out the lyrics. And the crowd roared in approval. And as I punched the final chord it was like the lights went out.

I open my eyes. The bar is empty. The lights are coming on. It is the most depressing time to be drinking. No one had come to listen to us. Our last song died to no applause. From the back of the room a drunk voice calls, “Have you heard of drum and bass?”

I go over to the bar and slick my hair back. I rub my chin and wave a barmaid over.

“Whiskey.”

“£2.50.”

“Where’s my free drink?”

“Have to have a crowd for that.”

I search my pockets then hear a voice behind me.

“I’ve got it.”

I look round and see the girl from before. She orders a drink and turns to face me.

“I missed your band.”

“You say it as though it were deliberate.”

The girl smiles and sips her drink.

“There’s always next time.”

“No, that was it. Our last gig.”

“Were you any good?”

I smile.

“Right at the end I think we were.”

“A good point to finish then.”

“So why did you come back?”

“For a drink.”

I finish my drink and put my coat on. I pick up my guitar. She looks over at me.

“Walk me home?”

I nod and we leave the bar. We walk through quiet city streets, the rain gentle. In the park she turns to me and says, “Play me a song.”

I take my guitar out of its case and we stop at a bench. I sit and she leans on my shoulder. I play a gentle Libertines song, Music When the Lights Go Out. I feel her watching me in the half-light and she asks, “Do you think I waited to get to know you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t like boys in a band.”

I grin. I rub my eyes and I’m back in the bar, standing in front of the microphone. The band are waiting for me to pick a song. I look over at them.

“Jack? One last song.”

I look up as the girl from before walks in. I smile at her.

“Jack? What’ll it be?”

I stand in front of a microphone and look out towards the bar.

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