Johnny Rocck could tell the crowd wasn’t into the show, and if he was honest with himself, he wasn’t either.
Rocckstar was a talented band, for sure, but what had really made them a chart-topping phenomenon was their ability to play to the audience, to whip them into a frenzy with just a few riffs and power chords. Chris Kyller might be the voice of Rocckstar, but Johnny Rocck was its heart and soul, and when he played, people listened.
Of course, there were a lot fewer listeners these days. They had worked hard to move up the charts, but the fickle tastes of the public had changed, and they were now playing “intimate” shows, as their rep put it. Gone were the sold-out football stadiums of just a few short years ago. Now they were back in the same half-full small clubs where they’d been only an opening act before their big break.
It wasn’t the lack of publicity or money that bothered him the most, though. It was the apathy. Rocckstar might as well be lounge singers, the way people were carrying on conversations while he hopped across the stage, shredding up and down the neck of his custom guitar.
Chris was howling the chorus, spinning around the mic. But with the ho-hum response, he looked foolish, just a has-been reliving his glory days before an indifferent audience.
Johnny looked down at his effects pedals, lined up neatly in front of his monitor. There was his vintage orange fuzztone, the chorus pedal that had been made just for him back when he could still get endorsements, and his very first distortion box, the labels on the knobs long since worn away so only he was still able to tune it to just his custom sound. And at the far end, a dark red box with a single, silver switch on the surface, and an old-fashioned red bulb at the top.
He had come across the pedal in a secondhand music shop in some backwater city, years ago. “Plug your guitar into this,” the strange man in the strange little shop had said, “and you’ll wail like never before. Your solos will be unstoppable. You’ll tear up your fretboard like the Devil himself.”
“What’s the catch?” he had asked.
“I’ll sell it to you cheap,” he said, “but there’s a price to be paid for playing the Devil’s music.”
At the time, he had been going through a phase–his rep had suggested that he dabble in the occult, to give his persona more of an edge. So he bought it. But something about the man made him feel uncomfortable in a way that pentagram tattoos and Ouija boards didn’t, and so he never plugged in his new purchase.
But a few nights ago, before yet another show, he had come across it in the bottom of a trunk of gear, and hooked it into his effects bank on just a whim. The show had gone fairly well, so he had left it turned off, and the same happened the next night, and the next. But tonight, he was bored. His audience was bored. And Chris looked ridiculous.
The little red bulb gleamed in the stage light, beckoning.
Chris got to the end of the chorus. “C’mon, Johnny, rock it!”
That was his cue for the solo. He was going to try it. He stomped the switch. The red bulb flickered, then brightened to a warm glow.
The guitar began to growl with a sound he had never heard before. He almost missed a note in sheer surprise, but the absolute perfection of the harmonics brought him back. Slowly, he began to work his way up the fretboard, carefully at first, teasing out one note at a time.
Then, without warning, he tore into an off-time arpeggio that screamed from the amplifier, threatening to leave the rest of the band outright, but then bombing back into the main rhythm with a bend on the tremolo that sent the pitch diving far below the bass and almost to the height of human hearing in a single sonic shockwave. He didn’t even know what scale he was playing, but it seemed filled with unlikely third-steps and 17th-steps, strange and twisting chords that filled him with violent passion.
His fingertips burned as he worked his way back up the fretboard, and he realized that he was kneeling at the very edge of the stage. He couldn’t see the audience; he couldn’t hear anything beyond his own playing; he felt the music assault his ears, his lungs, the depths of his stomach. It was so loud, so bone-crushing, a face-melting, soul-destroying solo of unprecedented power.
His vision was fading to static and his head was spinning as he leaned back to the floor. How worth it this was! His eyes were filled with shimmering lights; all he could feel were the strings vibrating in perfect unison beneath his calloused fingers. He wished he could see the audience. They must be loving it, he thought. They must be wailing, screaming, burning alive with the sheer pleasure of the sound blazing forth from his fingers…
Mrs. Bellweather had lived through plenty of new musical styles, thank you very much, but she did not care at all for the sort of folks who frequented the club down the street, and if you asked her, it was little surprise to see sirens and smoke coming from the vicinity. The street was cordoned off with yellow tape, and it looked like half the fire departments in the city were outside, as well as a good number of police.
In fact, a pair of them were leading a handcuffed man to a squad car as she wheeled her grocery cart by.
“You don’t understand, man! It wasn’t me! It was that pedal!” he was shouting, half-sobbing.
“Please, Mr. Rocck,” said one of the officers. “You just walked out of the worst fire I’ve ever seen without so much as a singed eyebrow. You’re only going to make it harder on yourself if you keep lying to us.”
“Hey, the judge might go easy on you if you’re honest,” said the other. “I think he’s a big fan of your second album.”
Mrs. Bellweather stopped and glared at the man, at his tattoos, long hair and ripped jeans. “Hmph. Devil music, if you ask me.” She turned away with a sniff.
The man stopped walking, staring back at her, then began to sob all over again. The officers stuffed him into the back of the car and slammed the door. The street was silent, except for the crackle of flames and wail of sirens.