45 - Aches-n-Pains

April 14, 2020

A Short Story

Jackson, an appropriate name for a rock star, you think? This was where he felt at his best, this was his time to be on top of the world. Here he was all smiles, comfortable, even relaxed, unlike the real world, off of this stage, and outside this place. But, only as long as he had a guitar slung around his shoulders or a sax hanging from his neck. Take either of those away and you won’t find him up here in front of all those people. Hundreds of people out there looking up at that stage, at him, and his 5 buddies. They make up Aches-n-Pains. An appropriate name for a band of guys in their 40s and 50s. Only about half the spots were on before they start the concert and dance and Jackson could feel the warmth from them already, his whole body was warming up and he was feeling energized by the sounds from the people who came to see the band and dance to their music. It was going to be another night of fun, excitement, sweating musicians, and ear-splitting noise. And he loved it. He reveled in it. That was where he belonged.

Two a.m. arrived quickly. The owners of restaurants and bars like this were always strict about closing time. They know the law said no more alcohol sales after 2 am so they used that as their closing time. And they told all the bands to stop at 2 am. Not 2:05. But that was okay with the guys because they were being cooked by those spotlights and were happy that they would be turned off, finally, after 4 hours of playing in their heat. Those lights put out as much heat as they did light. The guys put down their instruments and walked to the bar where the owner gave a packet of money to Jimmy, the leader, and then gave all the guys shots of his best Tequila. It takes a little while for the adrenaline rush to come down, and the Tequila probably didn’t help with that, but it did give them all a chance to congratulate each other for another gig well performed. Another “audience” kept excited for an evening. Then it was time to pack up all the equipment and finally leave for home.

The drinking/self-congratulations part was always no more than 15-20 minutes, the packing part at least an hour. The driving home part could be anywhere from an hour to 5 hours. After that evening’s show, it was half-way across the state and about 4 hours of non-stop very early morning driving, with tired eyes. They got to watch the sunrise in their mirrors while they drove along the interstate. Nobody said much, and the ones who weren’t driving were sleeping. They didn’t have a luxury bus or even a small RV. They had their cars and a pickup pulling a trailer. This repeats 2 or 3 Saturdays a month, some weekends would have Friday and Saturday gigs, in different towns. It wasn’t the life of the glamorous international rock star. And that packet of money? That amounted to a hundred bucks, maybe a bit more, for each one of them. Hardly enough for all the time that went into the evening, but that wasn’t important, because being on that stage was what they loved to do.

Bar bands don’t make much money, but they do it anyway because they love playing music, they love entertaining people. Some guys like to show off their prowess on their instrument, typically it’s the lead guitarist or drummer. It certainly wasn’t Jackson. He prefers to be behind the others, but when he is at the front with his bass guitar he does what is expected, play and dance and bounce around on the stage like a superstar. The people love it, they come to dance, but they also come to be entertained, and to forget about the week they just finished.

Jackson pulled into his driveway around 8 am and found his wife in the kitchen preparing breakfast for her and the boys, Richie and Bobbie. They were both young musicians in the making. They and their mother never really paid much attention to Aches-n-Pains. That was daddy’s thing. And the boys weren’t really into that kind of music, TexMex. Jackson had always wished, to himself, that the family would be a bit more interested, but it just wasn’t there.

“How was the gig?” asked Brenda as she stirred eggs in a pan. Brenda may not have been interested in the band but she supported everything Jackson did in the band, allowed him to buy instruments, and whatever he needed for his “hobby”. But never actually saw the band perform.

“Very good.” He kissed her, hugged the boys, took a shower, and went to bed.

His day job was in a warehouse. He was the guy who took care of the paperwork for shipping the goods all over the US, Canada, and Mexico. He didn’t have the title of “manager” but he managed the shipping and receiving side of things. A dead-end job. Not exciting, but it kept him busy for 9 hours a day. And it paid the bills. Well, it combined with Brenda’s job paid the bills. The band money was just pocket cash.

“Hey, Jackson! Come here,” the boss yelled from his office.

Jackson put down his work and strolled to the manager’s office and sat down, thankful for the chance to get off his feet. “What’s up?”

“Friday is our quarterly meeting and I want you to do a presentation on the shipping department,”

“What? Why me? I’m no good in front of crowds. You know that I become a nervous wreck when I’m standing in front of a group of any size.” Then he thought, but didn’t say, “unless I have my bass or my sax in my hands.”

Jackson’s boss knew about the band and had even seen them play a couple of times. He smiled and said, “Come on, Jackson, you’re great up there on stage. I’ve seen it, you love it, being in front of all those people.”

Why did I ever ask him to come to one of our gigs? And then he came to a couple more. And now he wants me to give a presentation. This isn’t good. “Yeah, I’m good on stage, but that’s different.”

“No, it’s not. Just think you’re up there with all those people dancing. Piece of cake! Remember, Friday, 9 am, be ready!” That was that. Jackson was already feeling anxious, nervous.

The days passed too quickly. He just finished the presentation early Friday morning. Jackson was a nervous wreck. Hands sweating, forehead sweating, cheeks flushed. The one thing in the whole world he dreaded the most was speaking in front of a group. Any group of any size. Just standing up in front, all those eyes peering at him, some anxious for whatever he managed to stutter out of his mouth, others anxious for him to finish and sit down, and the few who knew about his anxiety of being in front of a group were hoping to see him flop like a fish out of water.

“Thank you, Jenny, for that report on accounts receivables. Now we’ll hear from Jackson. He’s going to fill you in on what’s happening in the shipping and receiving side of things. Jackson,” The boss smiled ear to ear, held his hand out for Jackson, and passed the remote control for the projector to Jackson, who immediately dropped it. When it hit the floor the battery cover popped off and the batteries bounced out and rolled across the room. Now he was really nervous. “Shit! What a disaster! Right from the beginning!”

He looked up at some shocked faces, some laughing faces, then realized he said that out loud. “Um, excuse me, sorry, I, I’m not good at this kind of thing.”

“Jackson, I’ve seen you perform on stage many times, you can do this better than anyone.” The boss just wouldn’t let up.

He went on with his presentation, stuttering, stumbling, faltering all the way through. His sweaty hands dropped the remote two more times. He did eventually get through the presentation and managed to finish it with a flurry of words that didn’t make a lot of sense.

Just for fun everyone stood up and gave him a standing ovation. Jackson wasn’t having any fun and stormed out of the conference room.

“Okay, that’s good for today, everyone back to work.” The boss closed the meeting and went to talk to Jackson before finishing his own day. “Jackson, you need to get control of yourself, of whatever this problem is. It makes no sense, you can play music in front of crowds but you can’t talk in front of crowds. I don’t understand that. Maybe you should talk to a therapist, or counselor, or psychologist, somebody.”

“I don’t need any of that, I’m fine. See you tomorrow,” and he sullenly walked out to his car and drove home, mad at himself for looking like a fish out of water. He didn’t even play any music on the radio on his drive home.

Back at home Jackson let loose on his wife, “Holy shit, Brenda! My presentation was a disaster today! You should’ve seen me! I was a nervous wreck! That stupid boss! Why’d he make me do that?”

“Oh sweetie, I’m sorry. Sit down and I’ll get you something to eat.” She gave him a hug and a kiss and prepared dinner for him. He always felt better with her arms wrapped around him and her warm lips pressed to his. He took a second hug, longer, and let out a long, deep breath.

Not every gig works out as planned, unfortunately. One weekend they had a gig all lined up in a town about 3 hours drive away. One of the band members even went to the town a few days before to do a radio interview and plug the band for the Saturday night dance at the grange hall. It was the only place large enough in that little town to have a live band and a dance.

“Guys, we are scheduled to start at 9, right?”

“Yeah, that’s what they put on the flyers and announced on the radio.”

“Well, where is everyone?”

There were 4 people in the hall. And they were there because they heard the band warming with and doing sound checks.

The band leader got on the phone and called the radio station, “Hey, what did you guys announce for your gig? I was here on Tuesday and we told everyone it was on Saturday, remember?”

“Yeah, sorry man, somebody screwed up at the printer. You know, they’re a small operation.”

“What do you mean they screwed up? What’d they do? Print the wrong day?”

“Well, yeah, that’s what they did. They printed Friday.”

“Shit! Seriously? How on earth could you let this happen?”

“Hey, I didn’t know until today.”

“And you didn’t think to call me? We drove 3 hours to get here. We set up the band, did sounds checks, and now what? You’re going to pay for this, you know that, right?”

“Hey, it’s not my fault! Just cool off! Give me a few minutes, I’ll call you back, okay?”

“You’d better!”

The radio DJ called back about ten minutes later, all the band members were sitting in the hall waiting, “Okay, the printer admitted he screwed up and can pay half of the fee. That’s it, that’s all you’ll get. I had nothing to do with it. So, either you take the half, or nothing.”

That was the only time the band ever played in that town. They decided they wouldn’t take any chances with them again.

The band was scheduled to play at an awards festival for Texmex music, in Texas, the next weekend. That was something he always looked forward to. This would be the third time they’ve played at the Texmex festival. He’d be up on stage in front of some big crowds but this time with a saxophone in his hands, and the crowd cheering, dancing, and clapping to the music. The only sweating he would be doing was caused by the hot stage lights and the non-stop dancing while playing the fast-paced music. And he loved it!

“Hey Jackson, what would you do if we actually won one of these awards festivals and had to go up on stage without our instruments?” One of the guys in the band loved to tease him about his insecurity.

“You could go up on stage and I’d just watch from the crowd.”

“But the whole band would have to go up to receive the award.”

“Well, then I suppose I’d take my sax up with me.”

“You really do need that to hide behind, don’t you?”

“I don’t hide behind it, Sonny.”

“Really? Then why would you take it with you?”

“I just feel better if I have it, or one of my bass, between me and the crowd. That’s all. Now drop it.”

“Fine. I hope we win that award one of these years.”

“We all do.”

A year passed by and thankfully the boss hadn’t asked him to do any more presentations, but something even more worrying occurred – at the next year’s festival the band won! And they had to go up on stage to receive an award.

This worried Jackson because of his insecurity, or anxiety, whatever it was that he felt, he didn’t know the actual name of it, if it had one. He just knew he couldn’t go up there empty-handed.

“Here they are ladies and gentlemen, Aches-n-Pains!” The emcee made a really big deal out of winning the award and got the crowd to cheer even louder as the band walked up onto the stage. Except not Jackson, he stayed put in his seat, next to his wife. This year Brenda actually went to Texas with him and watched the band perform, though she spent more time being a tourist in the town.

“Thank you, for this award, but hey, Jackson, get up here! We’re not complete without you!” He tried to hide behind Brenda. It didn’t work. She was too small for him to hide behind. To the audience, the band leader said, “He’s a bit shy, believe it or not!” The crowd started chanting Jackson! Jackson Jackson! He had no choice, he had to go up there.

Brenda pushed him, and pushed him some more, then took him by his hand and led him up the steps and gave him another push. Jackson immediately went to the back of the group. The crowd cheered for the guys and they all waved and smiled back at the cheering people. Jackson couldn’t help but feel the pride well up inside him, but it wasn’t enough to get him to step out in front. But nobody cared about that at that moment. But Brenda could see the fear and anxiety in his eyes.

Back at the hotel that night, “Brenda, you shouldn’t have pushed me up onto that stage tonight,” he told her when they were laying in bed.

“Oh, come on, Jackie, you had to go up there, you know that. The crowd wanted you up there. The band wanted you up there.”

“I know, but it was terrible! I was sweating like a dog! My hands were shaking! My heart was pounding at a hundred miles an hour.”

“Sweetheart, you really should talk to someone about this problem of yours.”

“I don’t need a shrink.”

“Not a shrink, baby, but some kind of therapist or counselor. I’m sure they could help you learn how to cope with your anxiety.”

He had had enough of that subject, “I’m tired, let’s go to sleep. We can talk about at home.”

A week later Jackson and two other band members were at the local radio station to do an interview. The DJ asked “Where does the name of the band come from? Why do you call yourselves Aches-n-Pains?”

One of the guys gave the whole story, the history of the band, but it got to be too long, so Jackson interrupted, “The history is long and boring, it comes down to this – we’re a band of old guys and we all suffer from some kinds of aches and pains. That’s it.”

DJ, “So, tell me, tell your fans that are listening, what are the aches or pains you suffer, Jackson?”

Jackson curtly replied, “It’s not important”.

“Sure it is, your fans want to know this stuff about all of you guys.”

“I read our fan mail and I see the questions they ask, and you know what? They ask about the name of the band, but they don’t ask about what ails each of us individually.” He was getting impatient and testy and the DJ noticed. Jackson got up and left the studio and the DJ continued asking the other guys about their aches and pains.

Brenda wasn’t impressed and told him so, “Jackson! Why did you do that today? During the interview? I can’t believe you responded like that. Both the boys were listening to your interview. And then you just walked out? Really? What got into you?”

“That DJ got into me, that’s what!”

She made arrangements for them both to talk to a counselor the next week. Jackson wasn’t happy about it but he did agree to go.

As the sessions passed, week after week, month after month, Jackson slowly learned to control his anxiety and all that went with it. He was never as comfortable on stage without an instrument as he was with one, but that was okay. He could at least give a presentation without dropping the remote control 3 times and swearing when the batteries bounced out. He could stand at the front without his hands shaking, even if his feet were non-stop bouncing a little, in his boots.

And Brenda and the boys actually went to watch a few of his gigs, they never really learned to enjoy the music that he had chosen to play. But that didn’t bother Jackson anymore, they at least came to listen to the band, and him, play on stage. And that made him happy.