Spring 2012, Volume 12

Fiction by Lenny Levine

Compared To What?

The name of the club was the Royal Palace, a joke and a bad one. The only thing royal about it was the pain in the ass it was to be playing music there on New Year’s Eve.

We arrived in the van around seven p.m., to find a square cinderblock structure that looked like a warehouse. Surrounding the doorway was a big, two–dimensional cutout of Buckingham Palace that sagged slightly to its left.

Inside, the place was just one big room, with a concrete floor and a bar running up the side wall. The “stage” was a small, hammered-together platform set up on the opposite wall, facing the bar across the large expanse that would eventually be packed with drunken, sweaty people, shrieking themselves into 2012. Our “dressing room” doubled as the boiler room.

“How do you think Austin will spin this gig?” Larry Gottfried said, as I helped him carry one of his keyboards up the rickety steps to the platform. “You know he’s gonna say this is nothing, that he once played a shit hole that was light years worse than this toxic–waste dump. How much you wanna bet he’ll say it in the first two minutes?”

Larry was a wiry, energetic little guy, who played some beautifully inventive jazz piano. He was twenty-three years old like the rest of us, except, of course, Austin.

You might recall “Heart Stopper” and “Downbeat Beatdown,” the two hits Austin James and the Jaguars had in the mid-eighties. Or you might not. The three original Jaguars are probably selling insurance and visiting their grandchildren, but Austin has been putting it out there for longer than I’ve been alive on this planet.

Larry, drummer Dave Kalanchik, and I are just the latest in a long series of Jaguars. Possibly more musicians have passed through this band than the actual world population of jaguars.

Dave was already up on the platform ahead of us, attaching one of his crash cymbals. “Hey, Brian,” he called out as Larry and I carefully lowered the keyboard to the floor, “you think we can get them to remove some of these decorations? They’re gonna hang right in front of me.”

The place was festooned with tinsel streamers, drooping like stalactites from the ceiling. He was right; the ones hanging over the platform were too low.

“You’re lucky,” I told him. “No one will see you, so you can always deny you were here.”

“No, seriously,” he said, frowning. “Austin’s got to take care of that.”

Dave Kalanchik was an earnest soul. He hardly ever smiled, which was intimidating to people at first, since he was six-four, two–hundred-thirty pounds. But once you saw that he wasn’t angry, just a little slow on the uptake, you realized he was a sweet guy, and he is. Dave never gets mad or raises his voice. He only takes his anger out on the drum solos.

Larry and I climbed down the steps and headed toward the entrance, where my bass amp was waiting. “Maybe if we set up quick, we can jam a little,” he said, “get a chance to play something interesting before we put it on autopilot.”

He always complained about doing eighties cover songs, which was mostly what we did. “There’s only so much Duran Duran a body can tolerate,” he once said, “before you lose consciousness.”

I didn’t feel that way. My earliest memories were of eighties music. My father, before he died, used to play his LPs and cassettes all the time around the house. I took my first steps to the accompaniment of the Talking Heads, or Phil Collins, or even Austin James and the Jaguars.

Now when I perform songs by the Cars, for instance, or the Police or Tears For Fears, it sort of feels like I’m paying him homage. I think my dad would’ve been proud, although not to see me here.

“Tell me something, Brian,” Larry said as we grabbed both ends of the bass amp and trudged back toward the platform. “Is Austin pulling some kind of prima donna shit on us? Where is he?”

Austin was late tonight but he was no prima donna. He did his share of setting up like the rest of us, so I thought that wasn’t fair, but I didn’t say it.

“Remember how he told us he had family nearby?” I said. “He was gonna stop over and see them before he came here, so maybe he got hung up there for some reason.”

“Yeah,” Larry scoffed, “maybe they stole his guitar ’cause he owes them money, like he owes us.”

I said nothing as we cantilevered the bass amp up onto the platform. Dave was taking his snare drum out of its carrying case. He looked at me with an eyebrow-furrowed expression.

“I can’t set up with all this crap hanging down. When is Austin getting here?”

It always puzzled me why they assumed I knew more about Austin than they did. Like I should speak for him, since I was the only one who didn’t complain about him.

“Listen, I don’t know…” I started to say.

“Hey, dudes, happy New Year!”

His voice rang out as he pushed his amp ahead of him through the entranceway, his Stratocaster in its leather bag slung over his shoulder. “Great night for rock ’n roll, wouldn’t you say? Sure beats working for a living!”

From a distance, Austin looked now as he looked then. The years hadn’t added any bulk to his short, stocky frame, and his dark hair was still wavy and thick—a tribute to Rogaine and Just For Men, according to Larry. Whatever it was, from the stage, he looked like someone in his thirties. Up close with no makeup, you knew he was in his late fifties.

But the clear, high, raspy voice was still there, along with the intensity in his eyes when he sang. And, man, could he play guitar.

“Remember what I told you,” Larry whispered. “He’s gonna say he worked in much worse places than this one. Within two minutes, just watch.”

“Serious ass will be kicked tonight!” Austin proclaimed as he wheeled his amp across the concrete to where we were. He lowered his voice. “Has a guy named Eric Hotchkiss come up to you? He’s the booking agent for this extravaganza.”

Larry and I shook our heads.

“Well, he’ll be here sooner or later.” Austin looked around at the cheap bar that was nothing but tables strung together, the dirty concrete floor, and the postage-stamp platform we were supposed to do the show on.

“This place isn’t so bad,” he said. Larry started to giggle and turned it into a cough, but Austin didn’t notice. “We once played a joint outside of Ames, Iowa, that was literally a barn. Dirt floor, piles of cow shit in the corners. No stage, and we had to run extension cords outside to a generator to get power. It must’ve been a hundred degrees in there. The smell was unbearable, a combination of shit and rotting milk. We had to burn our clothes afterwards because we couldn’t get the stench out of them. This club is Versailles compared to that one.”

He tended to talk like that, which was why Larry could be a smartass about it. Austin’s reaction to a bad situation was to compare it to a worse situation. It was his way of dealing with it.

“Austin, man,” Dave called out amidst his half-constructed drums, “we’ve been waiting for you. They got all this tinsel and shit. I can’t even set up.” He waved his arms around helplessly. “Can you get the manager or somebody?”

“Oh, for chrissake, Dave,” Austin said, shaking his head as he bounded up the steps to the platform. “This is your space, dude. Take possession of it!”

He reached inside his guitar bag, pulled out the little wire clippers he trimmed his strings with, reached up over Dave’s head, and snipped the wires that held the tinsel. It all collapsed in a glittery heap behind the platform.

“Wow, man!” said Dave.

“Even if those things were hanging in your face, you’d still have it easy,” said Austin. “I once had to do a show from behind a fountain. Nobody could see me and the noise was louder than I was. Whenever the wind shifted, I’d get sprayed.

Larry’s attempts to suppress his giggles failed. He started to sputter and Austin glanced over at him, then at me.

“Do we have a dressing area, Brian?” he asked.

“It’s the furnace room,” I told him.

Austin sighed. “Well, at least it’ll be warm.” He shed his guitar bag and came down the steps. “We once worked a club in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, that had no place to change in, only a one-person public toilet, so we figured we’d change in the van.” He grabbed his amp, and I helped lift it up onto the platform.

“We go outside, and it’s thirty below and snowing. The van’s motor won’t turn over, so we’ve got no heat. Then it starts snowing for real, I mean blizzard conditions. We barely manage to make it back inside the club, and, two minutes later, the electricity goes, and the heat.

“We wound up being trapped there for twenty hours, along with the club owner and the five customers who were stupid enough to be there. They finally sent a rescue team for us. Three people got frostbite.”

By this time, Larry had lost it completely. He was doubled over, cackling like a lunatic.

“Always glad to amuse,” said Austin.

“I just want to know something,” Larry said, wiping at his eyes. “While you were going through all that shit, did you think it wasn’t so bad? Did you tell the band it was no big deal, that you once had a gig that was way worse?”

Austin gazed at him. “I told them what I’m telling you, good buddy. That the worst gig in the world still beats the crap out of a day job.”

Larry looked over at me like, “is he bat–shit?” I just looked at the ground.


Our first set started at nine o’clock, and the first fight started at 9:10. The floor was already crowded, as the place was rapidly filling up. Most of the people milled around, but a few couples were dancing. One of the dancers inadvertently elbowed one of the millers. It was while we were doing “Take On Me,” by A-ha, and I guess the other guy just decided to take him on. He shoved him into his girlfriend, who fell against another girl, who screamed and pushed her down, while the guy who’d been shoved punched the first guy in the mouth, and it proceeded from there.

Two bouncers were right on it. One thing I’ve learned during these things, just keep playing. I don’t think Austin even noticed it. The bouncers hustled the combatants through the crowd and out, and that was that.

By the end of the set, there were probably three hundred people jammed together on the floor, with two-hundred-ninety of them ignoring us. Since there were no tables, they had to stand around with their drinks in their hands, so dancing was at a minimum. They mostly just stood and yelled at each other over our music, when they weren’t talking on their phones.

Another fight broke out as we were doing the last song. I didn’t see what caused it, but it involved maybe six people, and the bouncers had to really work this time to get it under control. We waited until it was over before we climbed down from the platform. As we inched our way through the multitude toward the basement steps and our boiler/dressing room, Larry said, “You think the equipment is gonna be safe?”

“It’ll be fine,” Austin said.

“I don’t like it. I think I’ll stay here and keep an eye on things,” Larry told him.

“Okay, suit yourself.”

Dave seemed to share Austin’s confidence. “I don’t think they’ll try to trash our stuff,” he opined as we descended the stairs. “Not yet, anyway.”

We had to leave the door open, so the heat from the furnace wouldn’t turn us into roast beef. I hoped my bass wouldn’t warp, as we plopped ourselves down on the flimsy bridge chairs they’d provided. A man appeared in the doorway, wearing a rumpled suit and a toupee. His face resembled a ferret as his eyes darted from me to Dave and finally settled on Austin.

“Hey, Eric!” Austin said, getting up and taking the man by the arm. He eased him outside to the hallway, where they both conversed softly.

I figured this was Eric Hotchkiss, the agent he’d mentioned. Whatever the guy was telling him wasn’t good, judging by Austin’s expression, which made me think of our financial situation.

The three of us were supposed to get paid at the end of the night, not just for this gig, but the remaining half of what we should’ve been paid last week.

In the year or so that we’d been Jaguars, we’d always gotten our money on time. But last week Austin asked us if, just once, we’d let him pay us half of it this week. We all said it was okay, but I was glad Larry was upstairs, not sitting here watching Eric and whatever bad news he was bringing.

After the agent left, Austin came back in the room and sat down. “Everything all right?” I asked him.

“Couldn’t be better,” he replied.

“We’re getting paid tonight, aren’t we?” said Dave.

“Of course,” Austin said, laughing. “That wasn’t what he was talking to me about. We go back a long way; Eric’s a good man.”

Then he told us about Whitey Pratt, his first agent, who paid him in rubber checks and would send him to places that denied ever booking him. He’d also arrange “auditions” that Austin didn’t know were paying gigs, with Whitey the one getting paid. “Compared to that sleaze bag,” Austin said, “Eric is the pope and Mother Teresa combined.”

By that time, our twenty-minute break was over, and we had to again buck the tide.


There were even more people packed into the club now. Our next set featured two more fights, and the second one was a dilly. It was right in front of us and involved a guy with a shaved head who must’ve weighed three–fifty, and none of it flab. He was fighting with two other guys who were clearly getting the worst of it. Their dates were trying to help out, jumping on him and clawing at him.

At one point, the whole pile of humanity slammed into the platform, shaking it so hard I thought it might collapse under us. I stopped, right in the middle of “Everybody Have Fun Tonight,” by Wang Chung. Austin shot me an angry look and yelled, “Keep playing!” Which I immediately did.

Maybe a half-dozen bouncers waded in and, finally, got the guy under enough control to perp-walk him out. As they conducted him through the crowd, he kept shouting, “I’m comin’ back, you motherfuckers! Just wait!”

After the set, even Austin agreed we should stay up there and guard our stuff. “Won’t be the first time,” he remarked and then told us about a club he played that was so out of control, the band spent the whole gig on stage watching their equipment.

“At the end of the night,” he said, “we went out to get the van and someone had stolen it.”

As he talked, I could sense the frantic energy all around us, a sort of giddy desperation with an undertone of malevolence. Like some noxious brew was slowly coming to a boil. And it wasn’t even midnight.


We began the third set playing to chaos, but then a miracle happened. I don’t know why, but midway through the show Austin started to reach them. Maybe there was a turnover in the crowd, but a bunch of people in front began moving in rhythm to our version of Prince’s “Kiss,” and it spread from there. Austin’s falsetto was cutting holes in the stratosphere, and suddenly, the whole place was swaying.

His guitar solo—I must’ve heard a hundred, but this one was special. Intricate as a tapestry and blindingly fast. It took my breath away. He got a big ovation from the crowd as he finished.

The next two songs were greeted the same way, with huge, energetic support. Then we did Austin’s hit, “Heart Stopper.” We’d done it in the first set, and it had been part of the background music. This time they remembered it. Not only that, they loved it. We got to the chorus:

She’s a heart stopper
      She’s a jaw dropper
      The sexiest supermodel can’t top her
      Just one look at her
      Makes your heart shatter
      You can give her your love but it won’t matter

They were singing with us. They were clapping and stomping to the beat. We had them. Incredibly, we had them.

For the first time, Larry was into it. He was hunched over the keyboard and wailing. Amazing riffs were coming out of him. Dave and I sang the backup vocals, blending seamlessly with Austin’s voice. I love singing backup almost as much as I love playing bass. Our groove was the tightest it had been all night. The song ended to wild cheering, and now it was time for the countdown.

Austin grabbed the mic. “Okay, everybody,” he announced, “we’ve been doing the music of the eighties, but now it’s time to get right back here to the twenty–first century. I can see by my watch that 2011 has only ten seconds left. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six…”

Everyone was counting down with him, the crowd waving their arms in the air. From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw of some kind of disturbance at the entrance.

“Five. Four…”

A scuffle was going on. People were trying to move away from it. Two of the bouncers were yelling, “Watch it! Watch it!”

“Three. Two. One…”

Filling the doorway was the big, bald–headed guy who’d been kicked out during the last show. He was trying to push his way back in, shouting something, reaching inside his parka. He was pulling out a… Holy shit!

“Happy New Year!” Austin cried out, oblivious to it, as a burst of gunfire erupted.

People screamed, trying to get away, trampling each other in their panic. There was no place to go. The club was already jam–packed, and he was between everyone else and the door. There must be a fire exit, I thought, but I sure didn’t know where it was.

The whole thing seemed so unreal that, for a moment, I couldn’t move. I just stood there watching the guy stroll calmly toward us, shooting people left and right.

Austin grabbed my arm and yanked me toward the back of the platform, where our amps were. I could see Larry, crouched beneath his keyboards. I didn’t know where Dave was. “Get behind the amps!” Austin shouted at me.

There was a narrow space between them and the back wall, with just enough room for the two of us. I crawled in with Austin right behind me.

I squatted there in terror, thinking that if the guy ever fired in this direction he could shoot us right through the amps, which were, after all, only cloth and wood. Austin squatted next to me, muttering, “Son of a bitch! Son of a bitch!” Screams and moans filled the air.

You could see through a crack between the amps. I peeked through it and watched the guy approach. He got to the platform, turned, and, almost casually, leaned his back against it, continuing to fire the weapon.

It was an Uzi or an AK–47 or something like that. I’m not a big gun aficionado so I don’t know the difference, and it sure didn’t matter. Some two dozen people were lying on the concrete floor, some not moving, some trying feebly to crawl to nonexistent safety. Occasionally, he’d pick one of them off, interrupting his slaughter of the people to either side, shrieking and climbing over each other, trying to get away from him. It went on and on.

Austin muttered, “Son of a bitch!” one more time and then stood up. I couldn’t believe it, as he stepped out from behind the amp, both hands wrapped around the neck of his guitar like a baseball bat.

The guy’s back was still against the platform, his head at ankle level to Austin. He must’ve been so deep in his own private killing zone that he never saw him. Austin swung the guitar in one smooth motion and connected.

The guy staggered forward and fell, still holding the gun. He tried to get up, but suddenly there was Dave, sprinting out from under the platform, pushing him back down, trying to get at the weapon, grinding the guy’s face into the floor.

Dave looked small, that’s how massive the guy was, but he had surprise going for him. He slammed the guy’s head against the concrete, over and over. Finally, the guy went limp and released his hold on the gun. Dave kicked it away.

The screams continued around us, mixed in with sobs. The smell of blood and death was in the air. Outside the club, sirens could be heard approaching.

I stumbled out from behind the amp and stood next to Austin, silently surveying the horror. Larry crawled out from under his keyboards and joined us.

After a long moment, he spoke. His voice sounded distant, like people talk when they’re shell-shocked. “I guess this is the worst one, huh, Austin?” he said.

I’ll give Larry this much, Austin had to think about it.

“Actually, no,” he said.




BIO: I attended Brooklyn College, graduating in 1962 with a BA in Speech and Theater. Immediately thereafter, I forgot about all of that and became a folk singer, then a folk-rock singer and songwriter, and finally a studio singer and composer of many successful jingles, including McDonald’s, Lipton Tea, and Jeep. I’ve composed songs and sung backup for Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Peggy Lee, Diana Ross, Barry Manilow, the Pointer Sisters, Carly Simon, and others. In addition, I performed for a number of years with the improvisational comedy group War Babies.

My work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, Cairn, The Dirty Goat, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, The Griffin, The Jabberwock Review, RiverSedge, and Westview. I received a 2011 Pushcart Prize nomination for short fiction.