Mac regretted mooting the ‘bandmates-with-benefits arrangement’ the moment he’d all but spat said accusation at Joe. For a multitude of reasons, first and foremost being the fact it revealed far too much for comfort.
While he’d never been lazy, envy was the only other deadly sin Mac wasnae guilty of. He was riddled with vices, most of which he valued above his scant virtues; none of which had ever served him well. Quite the contrary, he considered them weaknesses. Mac had done his damnedest to suppress, if not eradicate, anything that reeked of ‘softness’. Pity, in particular, was lethal—he’d quashed that like a beetle beneath his boot—the most fearsome of foes couldnae compare.
Mac didnae want to watch the world burn. Nothing so…noble. Fire could be considered purifying. Mac couldnae claim to be a righteous man. Nor a decent one. He dealt in vengeance and death. Killed in cold blood. He was a weapon without a cause, pointed at a target, as injudicious as death itself. A reaper of revenge. Mac took out the trash. Men he deemed worse than he.
Playing God? No, far from it. He didnae cull innocents. Not even as ‘collateral damage’. That was a crime he’d only committed for Queen and Country…and the main reason Mac no longer did. The other…? Doing so while living half a life himself. An existence that required him to kill to order, but denied him the right to love. Openly.
Psycho Killer? Joe’s tongue-in-cheek tease, and taken as such. ‘Paint it Black’ would’ve been more fitting…except Mac had never shied from facing up to the fact his world was as black as his heart. But jealous wasnae Mac’s colour.
Or, hadnae been. Who the fuck is Joe Fitzgerald, indeed…
Aside from the miscreant intent on pointing the Psycho Killer finger at Mac in front of thousands, that is. Fair enough…it was their secret code of sorts. Ringtone of the McBatphone; the only one Joe answered. It might even be considered a…fond nod to that fact. But…in tandem with My Way? It became something else entirely. A piss-take from the safety of a stage. A very public one.
‘What did I do wrong? You can’t say nothing, cos Jez noticed too…‘
Yes. Mac could: Nothing…yet.
‘As for Connor? If it ever happened, neither of us noticed, so I wouldn’t worry about it. Even if you weren’t the last man who fell to Earth who might need to...’
“Why might that be?” Mac enquired. He was wound so tight, his voice sounded flat, devoid of feeling. Verging on bored…as if he couldnae care less. Nothing could’ve been further from the truth.
“You know why. I promised. I meant it.” Joe shrugged, too casual to possibly be so. As was the way he flicked the butt of his cigarette to the floor and ground it beneath the heel of his boot.
“You expect me to believe that while sneering at me in the most public way possible? My Way?” Mac retorted. “The song itself has that covered…but Sid even sang it as a sneer. That’s just the half of it—”
“No!” Joe cried, cutting him off. “No, It’s none of it. It was never about that! I jus-just wanted to…it’s the only way I know—that I could show—I, Mac, I—” Joe broke off, digging his fingers into his scalp, as if intent on tearing his hair out. “You’ll see…please? It’s…all I can do. The only thing…worth anything. Just let me show you…trust me, you said. I know you don’t trust me…and I don’t blame you. I don’t…but this? Tell me one thing you trust yourself to do, Mac. One thing above all else?” Joe demanded, spearing Mac with an accusing stare.
If midnight burst into flame it would look like those eyes.
“You know damn well, which is why you’re asking…and yet, you want confirmation. Christ knows why…you want me to tell you how it feels? It doesnae. That is why you don’t want to know, Joe. So, go in there, sing your song, tell your truth. I asked for it, after all,” Mac snorted. “My terms. My Way…” Fuck.
He chews ’em up and spits ’em out like cherry pips…
…Oh, but not me? Arrogant arse.
Mac raked a despairing hand through his hair.. “C’mon…let’s get back. The sooner you’re done, the quicker you can get back to what really matters.”
“That’s not fair.” Joe rounded on him like a spiky kitten with eyes spitting sparks.
“Prove it.” Mac returned, resorting to icy indifference. He had fuck all else to safeguard himself from Joe Fitzgerald. Yanking the door open, Mac jerked his head to indicate ‘you first’ and followed his flouncing charge back inside.
Mac had blown it. Buggered his remit to deliver Joe in a fit state to function in one fell swoop…and for what? A bruised ego? Petty point scoring? Jealously? Pathetic. Fuck knows what Joe’s bandmates would wind up suffering for Mac’s utter ineptitude. He’d pretty much pulled the pin from the grenade and tossed it into the rehearsal room.
Blowing out a regretful breath, Mac followed in Joe’s wake. Possibly to attend a rehearsal for that of their careers.
“Thanks for holding the fort. Is everyone good to go?” Joe breezed into the studio for all the world as if he’d just been for an invigorating walk in the woods. “I don’t expect it t’be pitch perfect, I just want to feel m’way through. So, same set list, ‘cept the new song…I’ll play it solo after ‘Is This It’. We may as well do the covers last, for now. I just want to rattle through from start to finish…so, no worries on the bum note front, just carry on regardless. Adam…I’ve decided to use ‘Cat People’ as the intro music, if you’d be so kind as to sort it…”
“The whole set, without…pause?” Connor sounded incredulous. “Who are you? And what the bejeezus have you done with…etcetera, etcetera…?”
“Shurrup O’Donnell and do your plinking thing.” Joe sniffed, affecting affront, as he selected a guitar from the rack and shrugged it’s strap over his shoulder. “Ready?”
“As you’ll ever be…” Connor grinned, taking his place at a mic to the left of Joe’s, set centre ‘stage’.
“Damn cheek…” Joe just winked, spinning on his heel to face Luke.
The next hour was the most staggering sixty minutes Mac (as sure as shit hitting the fan) hadnae foreseen when Joe stomped off in a huff…a few minutes beforehand. He stood, leaning against the wall, arms folded, legs crossed at the ankles, little knowing what to expect. Either in content or…commitment. Joe’s jaunty air had suggested they were about to launch into little more than a rough jam, ‘bum notes’ and all.
Mac, of course, had only heard Joe play one song; a ballad as achingly raw as the impact it wreaked. Thus, the sudden surge of sound that crashed against his ears was as unexpected as it was exhilarating. A breath-snatching assault of sheer power and musical prowess. As staggering as the intensity of Joe’s delivery…the irony weaved by its words. Even its title was an oxymoron. Bedsit Busker. Buskers played in public for passersby who tossed pennies into a hat. A bedsit suggested a bleak box room in a busy city…a tableau of loneliness. It definitely did to a teenage ‘Gutterheart’ who’d sought solace in the lyrics of Marc Almond and Morrisey while stripping himself back to sinew and bone. Deadening the truth that would destroy his future before Mac even embarked upon it.
The bleakness of the bedsit song was followed by a swift succession of melodies as irresistible as the mind from whence they’d sprung; running a gamut of emotion from one end of the scale to the other. Minor chords of melancholy entwined with deceptively intricate ditties, and refrains as immediate as they were infectious.
Had that been all? Mac would’ve declared that Joe had a gift for knocking up a great hook, but that was the least of it. Those mellifluous melodies merely framed—shaped—the stories Joe told. With an intonation as uniquely his own as any artist could lay claim to. Some songs could be sung by anyone…others belonged entirely, exclusively, to their singer. Words that could’ve only frothed forth from the wellspring that was (who the fuck is) Joe Fitzgerald. The click of that tongue, the roll of his rrrr’s, the moue of his mouth. Inimitable.
The lyrics themselves were a revelation. Lyrics? They were poetry, pure and far from simple. If Mac hadnae seen them flow from Joe’s fingertips with startling fluidity, he would’ve thought they’d been meticulously crafted—wrangled to his will—honed and perfected over hours, days, weeks, months…and maybe they had been. But Mac felt somehow sure their essence had been captured in one frenzy of focus so intense, Joe wouldnae have noticed if the world had burst into flames, until his paper and pencil followed suit.
Words that swept Mac along on a tidal wave of emotion. From the most incisive clatter of self-contempt never spat by John Lydon to the unbearable tenderness of a ballad Joe and Jez coaxed from semi-acoustic guitars. ‘Is This It’—the song Joe had referenced at the start—was the former. A track as bitter-sweet as it was brutal, pulling no punches as it battered its subject with scorn, mocked it with disdain…and left him for dead.
“Hey Joe, where’d you go…
Why d’you stay
Washed up, wasted,
Scoring day to day.
Is this it? All there’ll ever be?
Tall poppy tales
from the toppermost tree?
A brief relief
from being me?
And so I flail,
from fail to fail
From fix to fix
A fix to fix
Numbing the ache
Yours to take.
Is this it? All there’ll ever be?
Filthy lucre ’n’ kicks for free?
No you, for me?
Never to hear
A ‘mine’ nor ‘we’...
Without thee. Who’d you be? Is this it…no you, for me? No ‘mine’ nor ‘we’. Merely…I, myself, and my eneme...”
The entire song was a teeth gnashing crash of futility. As poignant as it was precise in its dismemberment. Rage, regret and self-recrimination, directed inwards and out. Delivered by a Joe Fitzgerald Mac would’ve been prepared to swear he’d never met in his bloody life. Gone was the gawky grace of those long, lean lines…in it’s place? Joe was all sharp corners and spiky limbs, as fluid as freeform jazz…and yet, as mesmeric as a metronome.
Mac sat, spellbound by this stranger with Joe’s eyes. For they could belong to no other. They drilled him to the seat he must have sunk on to, at some point. Implored far more than Mac could afford to surrender. Ablaze with fearful fury, as cruel as glass shards ground against skin. It didnae seem possible that one gaze could ache with such intense vulnerability and yet, spit such vitriol. The latter felt like being spattered by needlepoints of hot fat. Soothed, by imploring pools of drowning brown in the very next breath.
Only once had Mac felt quite so besieged; as brain scrambling, breath-snatching experiences went? It sure had waterboarding beat. An endurance test he’d emerged from sane. Whether Mac would survive the next few days in a fit state to function, was a whole other matter.
Moreover, as it soon transpired? Joe had barely begun…