By Kyle Decker
Luke ran his fingers up and down the strings of his guitar. The sound of the strings clicking against the frets was calming. His nerves teetered and he felt a chill. He’d played in front of crowds large and small over the course of his career, but this was something else altogether.
“Nervous?” asked Steve, his agent. Luke gave a long stare, not at Steve but in his direction. He was looking at all the fliers on the far wall of the green room. Each had a distinctive art style. Bright colors and fonts with rounded edges for the pop acts. Muted tones and pencil sketches for the emo bands. Ransom-note collages for the punk shows. Violent imagery and illegible text for the metal shows. The same stage had hosted an eclectic variety of music acts with seemingly nothing in common but one simple thing.
People were actually there.
“Why would I be nervous?” Luke said. “I’ve played thousands of shows.”
“True, true,” said Steve, “but you’ve never played to an audience this size before.”
“What audience? That dome in the middle of the floor out there?” Luke said.
“Don’t be glib,” said Steve.
“I’m not being glib, Steve,” said Luke, picking at his guitar for a moment. “I’m being flippant.”
“Well, whatever you’re being, stop. This is a great opportunity for you.” Steve glanced toward the door behind Luke as he spoke and Luke’s eyes followed Steve’s.
Standing in the doorway was Donald Richard Jones, who at twenty-seven had worked his way up through the ranks of Desert Island Records. Everyone called him “Doctor J.” Not because of any special degrees, mind you, but because his first and middle initials were D.R. But if you asked him, he’d tell you he got the name due to his surgical precision in the business matters. Either way, that same confidence is what put him in the position of director of special projects at Desert Island.
“What’s up, Doc?” Luke asked.
“Bugs Bunny. Funny.”
“Oh, so you got that reference.”
“Why wouldn’t I know who Bugs Bunny is?” said Dr. J. “Because I’m black?”
“What? No. Black people know Bugs Bunny…”
“Why? Because of Space Jam?” Dr. J said. Luke just stared at him. “Man, I’m just messing with you, Luke. You old guys think young people are all so easily offended.”
“I’m only…” Luke started to say before realizing he was forty-five. Which, when talking to someone in their mid-twenties, doesn’t warrant an “only.” He went back to fidgeting on strings and tuning pegs.
“Besides ol’ Bugs was even before you.” Dr. J caught himself in the mirror and adjusted his scarf to let Luke sit in the awkward silence for a moment. “You looking forward to tonight?”
“Sure,” said Luke, not hiding his lack of enthusiasm.
“I hope you appreciate how historic this is.” Dr. J began.
“He does,” Steve said.
“Why don’t you let him tell me that?” Dr. J said, suddenly dropping his affable demeanor. Everyone knew Dr. J hated these ten-percenters. In his eyes, they were little more than sucker fish desperately hanging on to the bellies of sharks. The way Steve swallowed, the way life ran from his eyes at the slightest sign of confrontation showed how easy it had been for Dr. J to get where he was. “Where do you get off thinking you speak for others? That’s not how you climb the ladder, agent.” Dr. J looked at Steve coldly. “That’s how you stay a rung.” Dr. J continued his cold stare before turning to Luke.
“I do,” said Luke. And he did. He understood the significance of what was about to happen. He just wasn’t sure how he felt about it. The hesitation in his voice was palpable and Dr. J gave him a quizzical look, silently calling him out for being disingenuous.
“All right, that’s it,” Dr. J gave Luke a light slap on the shoulder and gestured for him to follow. “Come with me.”
Luke rolled his eyes before setting down his guitar, reluctantly acquiescing. He followed Dr. J into the main hall.
“Damn, man,” DJ said. “With that kind of attitude, you’d think I was the one old enough to be your father. Where’s the rest of the band?”
“Bar down the street,” Luke said. “Getting a bit loose for the gig.”
“What about you? You need to loosen up?”
“No,” Luke said. “I don’t do that anymore.”
“Whatever you say.” They stepped out into the venue. It was a standard mid-sized venue. Stage up front, a balcony, and bars at the back and to stage right. Normally the staff would be here by now setting things up. Lining up the bottles, checking the kegs, bringing out the cups. Tonight there was no one and nothing except for a large dome in the middle of the room.
“See that?” asked Dr. J.
“See what?” Luke remarked.
“Don’t be coy. It undermines your image.”
“Yes,” said Luke.
“Yes. I see that.” Luke pointed at the dome.
“Now ask me what it is,” Dr. J said through a smirk, jamming his elbow into Luke’s hip for a two count.
“I know what it is.”
“Ask. Me.” Dr. J gave Luke a long, hard look. Luke met Dr. J’s gaze and as much as wanted to stare down his boss, he couldn’t bring himself to care as long as Dr. J did.
“What is it?”
“That, my friend, is the future of live performance. And your ticket back on top.”
A little over ten years prior, Veldt Industries had started developing augmented reality “Entertainment Rooms” for homes. The rooms provided a range of augmented reality features that appealed to every sense in both humans and animals. The inventor, it seems, had been a Ray Bradbury fan and named his company after the short story from which he took the idea. People could experience the African Savannah and then take a quick jaunt to an island paradise in the Gulf of Thailand. “All Five Senses (and a few more)!” as the ads would say. Within a decade the Veldt Entertainment Rooms were as commonplace as personal computers. Naturally, the adult entertainment industry had gotten on board immediately. Surprisingly, live entertainment had, until now, been a hold out.
Dr. J’s wheelings and dealings had brought about a collaboration with Veldt to broadcast the very first live fully augmented reality pay-per-view event. Luke was, according to Dr. J, the first guy that had come to mind when he proposed the project to the board. When he came to Luke with it Luke had asked, “Why me? Why not a much bigger name?”
“I know you never hit it big, in the mainstream sense of the word. But you’ve got a reputation, man. You’re still considered to be one of the best rock frontmen alive. You’ve got energy. You’ve got charisma. Those other guys, they just phone it in. But you? You still go hard. Hanging from the rafters while barking into the mic, crowd surfing while playing guitar? You crack jokes. You banter. If a mosh pit isn’t happening, you jump off stage and you start one. You spend as much time in the crowd as you do on stage. People love that. Nobody else does that anymore,” Dr. J had said. “Plus, you’ve spent more time on the road than any other artist in our stable for five years running. You’re the perfect guinea pig for this project.”
“Or the perfect canary.”
“Think about it,” Dr. J said. “You’ll be performing to the largest audience of your entire career. We can offer shows completely unencumbered by venue capacity limits, travel costs for touring, venue staff, or security concerns. No more bottles chucked at anyone’s head. This device even acts as a projector. So, audience members who opt in will be projected on a random rotation throughout the show. You’ll be able to see them too.”
“How are we supposed to sell merch?” Luke asked. “That’s where we-”
“Make most of your money, I know. I helped draw up your contract, remember? Don’t sweat it. Merch will still be sold. Exclusive merch will be offered during the event. The ads will pop up in the form of a virtual merch girl. All people will have to do is say yes, pick a size and funds are automatically deducted from their account. The item comes the next day. If they order a shirt, an AR projection appears on their body through the show.”
“Luke. If that doesn’t sell you, think about this. No more need to tour. You will have performed all around the world in a single night. One hour and you’re done. No more buses, no more planes. A whole world tour in one night. That’s more time with your family. The thing you’d been complain- wanting all these years.”
It’s true that Luke had been wanting more time with his family. However, Luke hadn’t gotten around to mentioning that his wife had left him earlier that year and taken the kids. Nothing had been finalized as neither of them had, as of yet, worked up the nerve to get the paperwork started.
His constant touring was what had done it. It wasn’t drugs and alcohol. He’d quit all that when the kids were born. He never cheated on her. He thought she was far more beautiful than any groupie. He wrote all of his best stuff trying to win her over or win her back. Besides he was too tired for all that partying anyway. Holding more cards than any of those rationales, was the simple fact that he loved her.
“I’m married,” he’d say to every woman approaching him after a show, “and she doesn’t deserve the betrayal.” He’d said it so many times it was practically part of the setlist. As rehearsed as the line was, he meant it every single time. Still, asshole that he was, he’d just found a different way to do it.
Technology had changed how people interacted with music. Nobody bought records anymore. They streamed singles. Even when people did it the legal way his cut of the take was paltry. A song getting consistent radio play for twenty-five years only gets you so far, and it’s not far enough for braces and school activity fees. If he wanted to provide for his family in the one way he knew how, then he had to tour. Constantly. He had been on tour over two-hundred days the previous year. He’d missed too many baseball games, too many school plays, and too many date nights. Love, like consistent radio play, only gets you so far. And it’s not far enough.
Even if tonight went well he knew he was just pissing in a river. Still, that distant, hopeless hope for reconciliation was the only currency that meant a damn. One day (hell, one night) compared to two-hundred. It wasn’t just about his family. He could stop living on fast-food. He would have time to exercise. All that time wasted on the road could now be his as well as his family’s.
“So,” said Luke, warming more and more to the idea the more he put some actual thought into it, “what if, say, one person pays for it and invites people over to their Veldt Room?”
“One word: Biometrics,” said Dr. J.
“Is that one word?”
“You sure?” Luke said. “It sounds like two.”
“It’s just one.”
“Okay,” Luke said. “You’re the doctor.”
“Ignoring that. I am choosing to ignore that.”
“Well, one word or two, I don’t know what the hell that is.”
“Biometrics. Using body measurements and characteristics as a form of identification,” Dr. J begrudgingly explained, his voice lightly seasoned with condescension. “Y’know. The very basis of modern society? So the same way your home security knows you are you. The same way the ads you see on the street are catered to you. You don’t buy the event and have it broadcast to a room. Your biological signature is your ticket. You can attend the event in any room, whether it’s your house or a friend’s. The room reads your biometrics and knows if you paid.”
“If someone doesn’t pay and tries to enter a room?” Luke asked.
“That depends on the security settings of the room, really. So, it could be the show not broadcasting until the offending party is removed, or an ‘invisible fence’ stops them at the door.”
“So, like, virtual bouncers?”
“Hey! Yeah! I hadn’t thought about it like that. I love that. Virtual bouncers. We may have to use that one.”
“I really am going to use it.”
“Okay. Feel free.”
“All right. Enough exposition. Feeling any better about all this?”
“What do you want me to say here?”
“I want you to say ‘Dr. J, I’m literally stoked about tonight. I can’t wait. Thank you so much for this opportunity. I’m gonna go HAM for you.”
“Okay,” said Luke as he started to walk back towards the green room, “that’s what I’ll say then.”
“So say it.” Dr. J didn’t follow.
“Later,” Luke called back.
Back in the green room, Steve had receded to a chair in the corner and Luke’s bandmates had returned from the nearby bar.
“Know what sucks most about this?” said Tom, the drummer. “They don’t have the bar open. No free drinks. I gotta go to the bar next door like a sucker.”
Sean, the bass player, just nodded in agreement.
“Plus, the only guy I’ve got to talk to is this mook. And he never says a damn thing.”
“I know you just joined last year, man. But, Jesus. You can start warming up to us at this point, yeah? I’ve heard you say like five words in six months.”
“What do you want me to say?” Sean asked.
“I don’t know. Something. Anything. You don’t want people to think you have a disability or something.”
“I have autism,” Sean said.
“Oh. Oh my god. I’m sorry, man. I didn’t know. Really?”
“Sure. Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Oh, you can go to hell!”
Luke just rubbed his forehead and stepped out into the alley. Luke had been playing with Tom for about two years, Sean had joined them about eight months ago. Luke was the only consistent member of his band. The other members rotated in and out every couple of years. An album here, a tour there and then they moved on. He was only bothering to perform under the name of his old band at Steve’s recommendation. Which was, of course, the agency’s recommendation. He hadn’t played with Keiren or Mike in over fifteen years. He remained in social-media contact with Keiren but hadn’t heard from Mike in about a decade. These guys were talented, sure. They’d been fans so they were familiar with the songs, making for a quick turnaround. Luke didn’t think he was difficult to work with, but the band was very much his project. Other musicians can only do that for so long before jumping onto something better. Or, at the barest of minimums, something in which they possessed a modicum of creative input.
That thought rapidly connected the scattered dots in his head. He pulled out his phone and stared at the name Sally for a few moments before calling. The phone rang and for the first time in two weeks she answered. She had, however, disabled the holographic projection.
“What is it, Luke?” had become her go-to greeting for her husband. The blow dart sting of her salutation showed itself in his voice, which creaked its way through a jumbled greeting of his own.
“H-hey, kid-kidd, uh, Kitten. You comin’ to the, uh, watching the, um, experiencing? Experiencing the show tonight?” he laughed nervously. “I don’t even know what to call it. Whatever it’s called. Are you?”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“But this could fix everything.”
“How? How, Luke? How will this fix anything?”
“I-I wouldn’t have to tour anymore. I could spend time with you and the kids. I could do a year’s worth of-”
“Stop,” Sally said. “Please, just stop.”
“Hon- Luke. Do you even know why I left?” she said through a sigh.
“I was always gone. I wasn’t around. And I’m sorry, I was trying to…this will fix that.”
“Luke. It wasn’t about the touring,” she started. Luke thought about his rotation of bandmates and desperately wanted to show off the picture formed from his connected dots.
“I made everything about me. It was what I wanted and how I wanted to do it. I made you and the kids feel like guests in my life. I… I didn’t give you any creative input. And I’m, I’m sorry.” His words hung in the air and slowly sank. When she started to speak he could tell she’d been crying.
“No,” she said.
“That’s not why I left,” she said.
“What? Wh- I don’t understand.”
“I didn’t love you anymore,” she said simply. “I did. At one point. But I just stopped one day. And I tried to love you again. I did. The touring helped, actually. I could miss you. But I started to realize I loved you more in your absence than I did when you were there.” Luke had so many questions, and he didn’t want the answer to a single one of them.
“Why?” he asked.
“I don’t know…”
“Tell me. Why.”
“You’re mean, Luke,” she said finally.
“You can be. Sometimes.”
“I’m mean,” he said with an air of realization.
“That, that came out wrong,” she said. Luke tried, in vain, to distract himself by deciphering graffiti.
“Well,” he said. “Make it come out right then.”
“You have an aggressive passion about you. Fifteen years ago that was a turn on. And in the right contexts, it still is. It just got difficult to see you being so hard on people. Especially yourself.” Luke wanted to chuck his phone against the wall and scream. But that would only prove her right, and that was not something he could allow himself to do. Not out of spite or anything that petty. He needed her to be wrong for his own sake.
“I’m an artist. It’s a professional hazard.”
“You are. You’re an amazing artist. It’s just that, I stopped being attracted to that at some point.”
“I’ll change,” he said quickly.
“Luke, I couldn’t ask you to change. And I wouldn’t want you to change. But somewhere along the line, I did. And I need you to allow me to.” Luke crouched next to the wall by the dumpster and buried his face in his free hand.
“It’s not for me to allow you to do anything,” Luke whispered. Sally chuckled slightly.
“You still have the right answers most of the time,” she started. “That’s what made me want to hang on for so long. Okay, not ‘allow’. Not like, give permission. ‘I need you to accept it.’ Maybe, is a better way to put it.” She had put that same cutesy rhythmic air in her voice she’d always had when she was trying to diffuse an awkward or painful conversation. “Can you?”
“I hope so,” he said, barely audible. She let him cry for a minute.
“Luke?” she said finally.
“Good luck tonight,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said. They both hung up, neither said goodbye.
Jordan, the lead guitarist, had finally appeared by the time Luke walked back inside. He was leaning against the wall, his tongue in the mouth of a girl of questionable legality.
“I’ll see you after the show,” he said, his voice a few octaves below his natural one. She made a noise that was some mixture of a moan and a squeal and grew into a giggle.
“Can’t wait,” she said, sticking her gum back in her mouth. As he turned he swatted her on the curve of her tight jeans. She headed towards the exit, giving Luke a hungry eye as she passed.
“She lives nearby.” Jordan said, preempting Luke’s question of how he manages to pick up groupies at a show with no live audience. “She’s gonna watch the show at home with some friends and then is hosting an after party.”
“How old is she even? She looks like she’s sixteen,” Luke said.
“You’re over 40. Everyone under twenty-five looks sixteen to you,” Jordan shot back. Luke just continued to look at Jordan, waiting for a real answer.
“Fine,” Jordan continued. “I have no idea. But I met her in a 21 and over bar. So I got plausible deniability going for me, right? She’s rocking a fake ID, that’s on her. Besides, she’s hosting a party. So she’s got her own place.”
“At least till her parents get back in town,” Luke said.
“Yeah, well. From what I hear, you ain’t one to talk,” Jordan said. Luke winced at the reference to a sin fifteen-years past. He hoped Jordan hadn’t noticed but Jordan grinned, fully aware that the shot had landed.
“You heard wrong,” Luke said.
“I don’t think I did,” said Jordan.
“Yeah, well, you didn’t hear everything.” Luke walked back to the green room.
“Break a leg tonight!” Jordan called after him, still wearing a smug grin.
Luke had let Jordan in the band at Dr. J’s insistence. Not that Dr. J forced him to, but after hearing some of Jordan’s solos Luke figured he could add something after all. It wasn’t until later that Luke found out that Jordan had augmentations to his arms that allowed him to play how he did. He’d only picked up a guitar a few months prior. Still, this was the direction things were going and as Dr. J always said it was better to be out in front than left behind.
“We go live in two,” Dr. J said. “You ready?”
Steve stood from his corner and gave Luke a thumbs up from behind Dr. J.
“Sure,” said Luke. “Let’s do it.”
The band took the stage first and Luke waited behind. This was their typical routine. Band goes out, the crowd cheers. Band starts the intro riffs of a familiar song, the crowd cheers louder. When the vocals kick in about a minute in, Luke charges in, the crowd goes wild, Luke stage dives. Some bands like to build energy. Start somewhere in the middle and give themselves somewhere to go. Luke always believed that you kick in the door and keep the energy up for the whole set.
The band started up, but there was no cheering. At least none that they could hear. Luke shook himself off to loosen up and just as the first verse started he charged in screaming into the mic. Out of pure force of habit he charged forward to stage dive and got all the way to the front of the stage before he remembered that there was no one to catch him. He stopped himself, but stumbled forward, nearly tumbling over the side of the stage. He had managed to stop himself but halted his singing. The band, professionals that they were, kept playing. He picked the song back up but caught Jordan rolling his eyes.
He introduced the band and the next song. As the riff kicked in he spread out his arms and nodded his head, he looked around the room to read the projected faces of his audience. Some glitched and shifted. Most looked like they were just watching television. No expression. No reaction. One fan seemed to be vacuuming.
Luke started to point to random spots around the room with the shot-in-the-dark hope that someone in the broadcast audience was looking at him from that spot. He walked across the stage, pointing at no one. He made jokes and couldn’t hear laughs. When he tried to get in the audience, he just looked like what he was: a jackass running around an empty room.
He was glad to be done. And it was only Jordan who thought to ask, “Hey, how do we know if they want an encore?”
Dr. J stared blankly. “Oh,” he said. “I hadn’t thought of that. How long do you usually wait before taking the stage again?”
“I don’t know? Two minutes? Minute-and-a-half? It always feels longer than it is,” Sean said.
“Well. Umm. Just go back out after that amount of time then?” Dr. J said. Luke glared at him. This time, Dr. J looked away.
The band went back out for the encore. This time, Luke just stood at the microphone.
“Well,” Dr. J said the next day. “It’s not good.”
“I knew that. But how bad?” Luke asked.
Reading from the news on his tablet Dr. J said, “‘A performer once known for his energy and genuine enthusiasm phoned it in. Luke’s performance, broadcast live the world over, was clearly phoned in. Everything about it felt phony.’ And it goes on like this. The other reviews too.”
“I didn’t have an audience,” Luke said.
“You did. You did have an audience. The largest you’ve ever played to,” Dr. J corrected.
“You couldn’t have had people actually at the venue?” Luke asked.
“You saw the size of that camera. We couldn’t have fit them. Besides, we can’t trust that kind of crowd around equipment that expensive.”
“I need people there,” Luke explained.
“This is a dying industry, Luke. Hell, it’s been dead. I’m trying to Dr. Frankenstein this motherfucker. This is how it has to be done now. And if you can’t keep up with that, well, it’s time to get into a new line of work. Hate to say it. But there it is.”
“Are you…dropping me? Is that it?”
“Luke,” started Dr. J. “You will always be an important piece of rock history but…”
“But you need someone to throw under the bus because this crappy idea of yours cost way too much money?”
“I’m sure you will put it that way to the press,” Dr. J said. Luke stood up to leave. “Good luck out there, Luke. I really do wish you the best,” Dr. J stood and stuck out his hand. Luke thought a moment before taking it.
“Thanks,” said Luke. “And Dr. J?”
“Go fuck yourself.”
Luke went home and poured himself a drink. After two or three more called his bandmates. He called venues. He called other bands. It was like 1987. His tour on his terms, the true Do-It-Yourself ethos. He poured more drinks. He made more calls. He set up more shows.
Two weeks later Luke stood on the street in front of his house. Sean and Tom pulled up in the van.
Sean leaned out the passenger window. “You ready to go?”
“Yeah,” said Luke. He opened the back of the van, loaded his stuff and hopped in. He closed the doors behind him and took a seat on a bass amp.
“We stopping to get Jordan?” Tom asked.
“No,” said Luke. The others just looked at each other and shrugged. Tom put the van in drive and they started off on the road.
Forty-five cities. Fifty days. Coast-to-coast.
In San Francisco there were thirty people. In Portland, two dozen. Twenty-eight came out in Seattle. Boise? Maybe a dozen. The show in Salt Lake City was canceled. Not enough tickets sold. The Las Vegas venue had double booked. Ten showed up in Flagstaff. The Austin venue had shut down by the time they got there. No one bothered to tell Luke. In New Orleans Sean and Tom wanted out. Luke sang Neil Young’s “My, My, Hey, Hey” to six people in Little Rock.
My, my, hey, hey
Rock n roll is here to stay
It’s better to burn out, than fade away
My, my, hey, hey
He sang with his eyes closed.
Sean and Tom decided to stick it out.
St. Louis, ten people. Kansas City, closed venue. Des Moines, the other bands walked out when only five people showed up. In Chicago there were twelve. In Indianapolis, it was just the other bands.
He took to the stage. He had energy. He had charisma. Those other guys, they just phone it in. But Luke? Luke still went hard. He hung from the rafters while barking into the mic, he crowd surfed while playing guitar. He cracked jokes. He bantered. When a mosh pit wasn’t happening, he jumped off stage and he started one. He spent as much time in the crowd as he did on stage.
People had loved that.