I’m three rows from the stage, surrounded by fifty thousand screaming fans, when the guitar-playing lead singer says the words I’ve daydreamed for the last thirty years: Who wants to come up here and play guitar with us?
Both my hands shoot into the air; my left waves madly while my right points down to my calm face, a rehearsed presentation of stable confidence. No hysterics from me; the band knows I’m a practiced professional they can count on to deliver the kind of hell-raising fan performance that sets the crowd on fire — nail the chords but drizzle on some of my own riffs, strut around the stage with a cockiness that belies my average looks, allowing all the other schlubs in the arena to live vicariously through my fortune. The singer finds me, asks if I know the song. I nod. I do not know the song. He double-checks that I know the song. I give a thumbs-up. But inside I know the truth, which is that I do not know how to play the song.
Two security guards lift me over the barricade and onto the stage, where a roadie straps a cherry-red electric guitar over my shoulders, puts a pick in my fingers. The crowd’s going nuts, channeling lifetimes’ worth of deskbound daydreams into me. The singer/guitarist and the bass player flank me, center-stage, and get me ready for what should be a simple three-chord chorus. But the issue is that I have no idea how to play the song. This is the first time I’ve held a guitar, and the string part — the neck? the long piece of wood with the lines and dots — feels foreign in my hands. Who knew the strings kind of hurt? One, two, a one, two three — I close my eyes and shred, hoping the adrenaline will fuse some neurons in my brain and give me the knowledge to play this song, like those men you see on the news who fall out windows and wake up speaking Chinese. But there’s no more room for miracles tonight. My guitar squeals rancid, a sharp, ear-burning whine that pisses off the bass player, who shoots me a look like I betrayed him. I lock eyes with the singer, gesture to the bassist. “He’s screwing this up,” I shout over the noisy drums. “He’s in the wrong tuning.” The singer looks confused. “He’s not in drop-D,” I say, using a term I do not understand, a term I remember hearing my guitar-playing friend in high school say. The singer rolls his eyes at the bassist; I’ve found my leverage, activated an ongoing feud for my gain. “This guy can’t play the song,” I say close enough for the mic to pick it up. I point more clearly to the co-founder of the band and say directly to the fans, “His bass is out of tune, and it’s throwing me off.” The crowd boos. The bass player spits in my face. I shake my head, strut across the stage to huddle up with the singer and drummer, propose we kick the bass player out of the band, adding that I’ve seen evidence he’s been stealing cash out of the other guys’ bunks. They agree, and I tell the crowd that the leech is out, and they love it. Two security guys haul the flailing bassist off stage while the drummer keeps the momentum going with a steady beat.
Slate clean, the singer counts us in again — one, two, a one, two three — and I pinch one of these confusing strings and horrible feedback screeches out. The drummer shoots me a look and I glare back at him, shaking my head. I pull the singer aside, tell him the drummer is dragging, badly off-tempo. I insist I have a Ph.D. in music theory and that guy behind the kit is an amateur. I also say that it’s interesting what a big game that guy talks about sixteen years of sobriety considering I saw him shooting up skag laying under a urinal this morning. The singer agrees to kick him out of the band and the drummer throws punches as security hauls him away to the noise of cheering fans.
It’s just me and the singer now, a pure distillation of the core creative force behind the band. He asks one more time to confirm I can now play the song without the rhythm section messing me up, and I assure him that is the case. One, two, a one, two, three — He sings the first word and I hold up my hands to stop him. “This song is in G,” I say, having no idea what that would sound like. “You’re singing in C-minor.” He insists the song is in E-flat major and he’s singing it correctly. I roll my eyes, turn to the packed stadium, and gesture to the singer like he’s a buffoon. I take the mic and say, “This guy wants us to do a dance-pop album — keyboards, goofy outfits. Unlike this clown, I’m a purist for real rock and roll like you all. Boo at him! Boo!” The singer’s furious, charging at me reaching for my neck, but security stops him. “We ought to kick this traitor out of the band, yeah?” The crowd roars louder than ever and I give the signal to our manager, standing in the wings, that the singer no longer has any official affiliation with my band.
Alone on stage, I grip the mic, tell the lighting techs to give me just one spotlight. Sniffing in tears, I tell the crowd how I was like them once, before I joined and then successfully completed my mutiny of my favorite band. And I’ve been waiting my entire life to come up here on stage, take full control of the group, and announce that we will be selling the publishing rights to our entire catalog of classic songs to Oakmont Capital Partners, a private equity firm that will license our timeless hits for use in pill commercials and foreign militaries’ recruitment videos. The crowd cheers louder and tears well in my eyes. They see themselves in me up here, their avatar for this rock and roll fantasy they, too, have wished for. I thank my fans for making my dream come true, and then I tell them I want to give back to them. I ask who in the crowd wants to come up here and play guitar? Who wants to play bass, drums? Who wants to sing? The crowd’s fused into one electric hive now, pulsing with excitement as four regular people climb on stage and I hand my guitar over, then count the musicians in with a one, two, three, a one — wait, shoot. I messed that count up, but it’s okay because they’ve started ripping. They can play, and the fans all the way out to the nosebleeds lose their minds cheering. Do they sound as good as our former lineup? Absolutely not. It’s hollow and noisy, lacking soul. But I’m grinning wildly over here in the wings, savoring the rock and roll romance of this night, basking in that mythical glory knowing that I don’t have to pay those four suckers up there a dime because they’re living out a fantasy while I, the only official member of the group, collect every penny.