Behind the Music
a short story by matthew webber
In London, she said his song was pretty.
The verse went like this: E minor, C major seventh, palm mute; E minor, C major seventh, some kind of D chord (D major seventh?), palm mute. He wrote it in Milan, he said, after watching a blood-red sunset, where the color of the sky was the color of his eyes, where he rose as the sun set, where he drank when he was hungry, where he fucked when he was sleepy (backstage, on buses, in hotels, in the studio), where he counted on the stars whose numbers he stored in his Blackberry: Tara, Nicki, Shannon, Gisele…
She said his song was pretty.
The chorus went like this: C/G, then E. And the bridge went like this: A minor, then C. It's simpler than it sounds. It's actually pretty easy. He wrote the lyrics two weeks later, he said, still in Milan, throwing up downers, downing half-bottles of uppers, where the color of his pupils was the color of the night, on Laura, you know, his garage sale guitar, the one with five strings, with the A string out of tune, it cost him two dollars, or five seconds with the stripper in his room. He probably has, like, eight billion dollars by now. He is probably worth more than Nairobi's GNP. The stripper's name was Amanda, or Amy, or Amaya; or Amoco, Amazon, something like America. Naked, on the bed with him, her belly was flat like a mirror. He saw himself inside her. He smashed the guitar on her snaggletooth. The cops arrived to find him snorting lines of cocaine off her breastbone. He was wearing pants made of alligator. His notebook was taken as evidence. The stripper's blood smeared his handwriting. It coagulated on Laura's case.
She said his song was pretty.
* * *
In Paris, he lights a cigarette. His tongue is the color of the ashes that fall onto the table.
"You're wrong, mate. You don't get it. It's not about violence. It's not about religion. It's entertainment. That's why it went platinum. Like, I'm not Jesus Christ. I'm not some fucking rapist. It's not real. The rape is metaphorical. I'm not raping 'Amelie.' 'Amelie' is me. It's you, mate. It's everyone. She's fiction. The rape is the rape of our spirit. It's like we're giants, you know, like we're masters of the universe, but there's all these bigger giants who can stomp on us or rape us. So we watch our laughtracked reruns, we supersize our fries, and we die. I don't wanna take it. I wanna take back the rape." He lowers his voice to a whisper. His mouth smells like a smokestack. "I wanna sell you some records."
He accentuates his words with his cigarette. He has painted his fingernails black.
"Or maybe it's about robots. I'm just a fuckin' songwriter."
* * *
In Amsterdam, he kills them. All twenty thousand of those motherfuckers.
"How the fuck are you doing?" he asks them, in between "For Violet" and "Amelie." "I'm killing you motherfuckers!"
Twenty thousand people scream for him, as if they are really dying. They are louder than his band, which is louder than a meteorite. You can still hear a bass note, alive from "For Violet," falling and crashing and smashing the earth. You can still see its sound waves, pulsing through fog and smoke. You can smell the red stagelights: burning, melting, bleeding. His songs are not pretty. He'll kill you if you think so. You hear and feel a minor chord earthquake. You scream. You love this song enough to die. At least that's what you sound like.
Here is what you're screaming, awash in gory stagelights:
"I'm snow white in the moonlight, I'm jet black at her back, I hear her asking for it, as I'm gnawing at her neck. Then she's clawing at my back, her screaming mouth is black, I hear her fight, I know I'm right, the teeth beneath my palm are white. She's asking for it, in the night. Begging for it, in the night. Screaming for it, in the night. Asking for it, in the night. Asking for it, in the night."
Twenty thousand motherfuckers are asking for it tonight. As he screams, as they scream, as he grinds against the mic stand, as you see a man in front of you throw a girl to the floor and jump on top of her, as you see him shred her shirt and as she claws his face, you're screaming it: "Amelie! Homily! Amelie! Homily!" The only one you can't hear is she, although you watch her mouth like a gash in her face. You can't even hear yourself. But you feel their voices dropping out of the atmosphere.
Everyone but she screams it: "I did it for you, and now I don't need you! I did it for you, AND NOW I DON'T NEED YOU!"
As the man tears the girl's shirt off, the singer rips off his black, gauzy shirt. His belly and chest are white like the girl's panties. Behind the singer, his guitarist impales a Marshall stack with his Gibson. The stack teeters, topples; the guitarist kicks it over. The singer kicks the microphone and rapes it. He flops onto the speaker and simulates unzipping his pants. He thrusts into the speaker. The guitarist smashes a minor chord. The singer pumps faster. The guitarist riffs like his fret board is on fire. Amsterdam smells like fire. Amsterdam tastes like ash. The singer screams. You think the girl screams. Everyone screams. The singer ejaculates. Everyone else thinks it's only a show. You think it's possibly the greatest thing you've ever seen. You know he can have any groupie slut he wants.
"What will come out of you, baby?!" he screams. "WHAT WILL COME OUT OF YOU?!"
No one knows the answer.
Everyone screams - you can feel it.
"Why won't it be mine?! WHY WON'T IT BE MINE?!"
You watch the girl give up.
* * *
In Los Angeles, the reporter asks him, "What if it happened at a show?"
He taps his black fingernails on the tabletop. No one has ever asked him that before. He looks at his black diamond-encrusted watch. He takes a drag and responds.
"What if what happened at a show?"
"What you sing about, 'the forcing,' 'the man who walks the streets.' Your fans take it seriously. That guy in Philadelphia…"
"I'm not talking about that. That guy in Philadelphia was deranged. Fuck him if he can't separate entertainment from reality."
"He was listening to a walkman. He was playing your tape."
"It's an isolated incident. It happens everyday. What the fuck does that have to do with my shows?"
"You simulate a rape with your speaker on stage. Can you talk about the lawsuit? Can you talk about Julie Newman?"
"I simulate the end of this interview. I'm done."
He throws his cigarette like a dart at the reporter for emphasis.
"Why the British accent? Can you talk about the drugs?"
He knocks the reporter's teeth out.
* * *
At a meeting in the New York City headquarters of his record label, he, his manager, his producer, his A&R guy, and five suits from the label decide to release "Amelie" as the first single.
He wears a priest's cassock in the video. The concept is he is an exorcist.
"Amelie" peaks at number three.
His debut album, Shattered, debuts at number one.
* * *
Sunlight and dust mites danced in the air of his room. His fingers were dancing up and down his guitar strings. She leaned against the doorframe and watched him. Even after what had happened - even after what she had done - she loved to watch him like this: glowing in the afternoon, swaying to his melody, moving his lips to his poetry. This was how she loved him. His eyes shut out the sun - and the dust and the room and the day. He didn't see her. Her hair was as orange as the sun would be later. She was wearing cut-off jeans and a white tank top. Her shoulders and elbows were freckled. Her lavender bra strap slid down her left shoulder. She tiptoed across the threshold.
"What's that?" she cooed. "It sounds pretty." She looked pretty, as always, when she smiled.
Startled, he jumped. Mid-word, he stopped lip synching. He set his guitar, his baby, on his bed.
He opened his eyes, but he didn't look at her. "Hey, um, what do you want?" He probably thought she looked fatter already.
"You," she whispered, twisting, twitching the toes in her sandals. She had painted her toenails cherry. "I want you to forgive me."
"Right." He picked up his guitar. He looked surprised when he played an E minor chord. He recited: "I saw you underneath him. I saw you in the moonlight."
"Is that a new song?" she asked, taking a step towards his guitar, his bed, and him. She remembered the "moonlight" of which he just sang. She remembered the "him" whom she had been underneath. "It's really pretty."
"I know it's pretty. I wrote it. It's kind of your life story."
Her bra strap, lavender, slid towards her freckled elbow. She stared at her cherry toenails. "I gave my uncle your tape. He said he'll give it to his manager friend. "
He hadn't seen her. He didn't look. "I hope you gave herpes to his manager friend. If he likes my tape so much, then I guess I don't need you. Thanks, though."
"But I need you." She took another step towards the guitar pick in his fingers.
He threw the pick at her toes. He surprised both of them by looking at her belly. "I'll fuck so many women I'll impregnate you vicariously." He grabbed another pick from his guitar case, strummed E minor, and threw it at her right sandal. He looked at his picking fingers instead.
She took two steps away. Two guitar picks separated her from him. "It was an accident, baby. You know I didn't mean to. I mean, you know I love you, right? You know it was a one-time thing? It just kind of happened. Like, we were drinking, and we were talking about you. He said, 'Tell me about your songwriter friend,' and he put his arm around me, and the next thing I knew he was pulling down his pants. I swear that's how it happened. He wanted to hear your tape. Baby, you're gonna make it. Baby, you know I love you."
He strummed a C major seventh with his thumb. "Baby? That's ironic. Baby? I hate you."
Her bra strap slid down past her elbow. Her stomach was definitely growing. "I did it for you."
"You got pregnant by him for me? Well, now I definitely don't need you."
He ignored her twirling toenails. They were cherry. He ignored her freckles and her tangerine hair. He grabbed another pick. He played some kind of D chord.
She screamed and/or pleaded. Neither one knew for sure. She moshed against the doorframe.
"I bought you that guitar! I named it after my sister! Give it back! You'll never leave Milan!" She was singing now. "You'll never get out of Missouri! You won't even get to St. Louis!"
He strummed the chords again: E minor, C major seventh, D. He sang what sounded like the first words he could think of: "What will come out of you, baby? What will come out of you? Why won't it be mine? Why won't it be mine?" He looked into her eyes for the first and last time. He muted his strings and stopped singing. "You should pronounce it like the Italian city. When you say it like that, 'My-lin,' it sounds so provincial."
Amelie sang: "You'll never get out of My-lin, Missouri. You'll never get out of My-lin, Missouri."
But maybe he would. Really, the song was pretty. He muted her.
Maybe one day he would get to meet models.