“What kind of music do you play?” Johnny asked.
“90’s hits. Country hits. Popular bullshit.”
“Nothing original?” Johnny asked.
“Look at these folks,” Franz replied. “They only want you to play stuff they can sing along to. If we play anything original, they’ll throw bottles at us.”
Johnny looked around at the crowd and agreed. People didn’t come to dives like this to hear anything new or original, they came to remember the good ol’ days and drink away the bad. The place looked like it could use a few good ol’ days.
“You know them?” Johnny asked nodding toward the warm up band.
The band on stage at the moment had struggled through a string of classic covers – “Sweet Home Alabama,” a bunch of Eagles songs and were now ending their set with “Freebird”.
“Yeah,” Franz said. “Nice guys, but can’t play worth shit.”
“I haven’t played in a while,” Johnny said. “You think I could…”
“No,” Franz said. “Get your own band.”
Franz finished his beer and put it down with finality.
“I don’t blame you,” Bill said. “Johnny sucks.”
Bill finished his beer and put it down with the same sense of finality. He grinned at Johnny.
“Fine,” Johnny said getting up. “Anyone want another?”
Everyone at the table nodded and raised their beers.
“You’re not even finished with the one you have,” Johnny said to Eddie, the base player for Franz’s band.
“You didn’t ask if I was finished,” Eddie said. “You just asked if I wanted another.”
Johnny shook his head and went to the bar. The door to the bar flew open and a couple of cowboys blew in, their hats dripping from the storm. Bill looked at them and saw a big flash of lightning outside. Less than a second later a loud thunderclap shook the room and one of the cowboys turned quickly and slammed the door. Another thunderclap sounded, and even though the door was shut, the thunder was just as loud. The lights dimmed briefly but didn’t go out. The storm outside had forced Johnny and Bill to pull over and take shelter. Any other time they would have driven on by this dump.
Johnny ordered the beers and leaned back on the bar as he waited. He thought the bar was crowded for a rainy Tuesday night. The smell of old beer, cigarettes and damp carpet made him feel at home. He felt good. The urge to get on stage and sing was overwhelming. He watched the band as they finished up “Freebird”. They were having a good time doing the jam at the end. They weren’t that great, hell, they weren’t even good but Johnny smiled anyway and cheered and whistled at the band in approval. They were having fun and that’s what he wanted to do.
The bartender put six beers on the bar.
“Eighteen Dollars,” the bartender said.
“I wanted them in mugs,” Johnny said.
“Sorry,” The bartender said and grabbed frosted mugs out of the cooler. He poured the bottles into the mugs. Johnny helped.
“It’s on Franz’s tab,” Johnny said, nodding towards their table.
The bartender looked at Franz and the band at the table. He looked back at Johnny suspiciously.
“But this is for you,” Johnny said, handing him a ten.
“Works for me,” the bartender said, “That cheap sonofabitch never tips.” He took the money and stuffed it into the tip jar and moved on to another customer.
Johnny took one of the beers, held it below the bar and looked around to make sure no one was looking. Bill was looking. Johnny smiled at him. Bill shook his head “no.”
Franz also looked toward the bar, which Bill noticed.
“How long you guys been playing together?” Bill asked quickly.
“About ten years,” Franz said, turning his attention away from the bar and to Bill. “I think we opened for you guys one time seven or eight years ago.”
“Really?” Bills asked.
“Yeah, I thought you guys were pretty good.”
“Thanks,” Bill said.
“But Johnny was an asshole, that’s why I won’t let him play with us.”
Bill sighed. “Yeah, he gets in these moods and you can’t do anything with him.”
“Is that why he…” Franz started.
Johnny sat the mugs on the table. Eddie grabbed one, but Johnny snatched it away.
“That one Franz’s,” Johnny said. He handed it to Franz.
“What’d you do to it?” Franz asked.
“I spit in it,” Johnny said.
The band stared at Johnny.
“For god’s sake, Franz. It’s a Guinness. I remember you were the only one besides me that liked them.”
Franz noticed that two of the mugs were darker than the others. He smiled.
“Thank you, Johnny.”
“Least I could,” Johnny said, “I was an asshole to you guys back in the day.”
“Yes, you were,” Eddie said, taking another beer.
Johnny took his Guinness and sat down. “To old times,” he said holding his beer up.
They tapped mugs and drank.
Franz and his band were in the third song of their set when Franz abruptly ran off stage and into the bathroom. The rest of the band kept playing for a while, but when it was clear that Franz wasn’t coming back, Eddie went to check on him.
“What did you do?” Bill asked Johnny.
“Nothing,” Johnny said. “The man can’t handle his beer.
A few minutes later Eddie emerged from the bathroom and came over to their table.
“You think you can play a couple songs with us,” Eddie asked. “Just until Franz gets through puking up his guts. He was never much of a drinker.”
“I don’t think Franz would like that,” Johnny said.
Eddie looked around. The crowd was getting uneasy.
“I don’t care,” Eddie said. “If we don’t start playing soon, the crowd is gonna get ugly.
“I don’t know,” Johnny said. “I’ve had a few myself.”
Someone from the crowd shouted, “This is bullshit!”
“You’d be doing us a big one,” Eddie said.
“Well, since you’re begging and all,” Johnny grinned.
“I ain’t begging…” Eddie started.
Someone else yelled “Fuck this shit!” and tossed a bottle onstage.
“Okay, I’m begging,” Eddie said.
“Just a couple songs,” Johnny said.
“Just a couple songs,” Eddie repeated.
“Allright,” Johnny said standing. He and Eddie moved to the stage. Johnny gathered the band around him and asked them if they knew “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns N Roses. Eddie, the rhythm guitar, and the drummer said they did, but the lead guitar, Tamarius, didn’t. Johnny had Tamarius unplug his guitar and took him offstage and back to the kitchen area.
The crowd booed. A bottle almost hit Eddie.
“It starts like this,” Johnny said and he stepped behind Tamarius and took his hands and played quickly through the song. Tamarius wanted to move away at first, but when he heard the sound coming out of his unplugged electric he was amazed. Johnny played the first part of the song and then stopped.
“That’s the gist of it,” Johnny said and stepped away.
Tamarius looked down at his guitar in amazement. He could still feel the song in his hands. He looked up at Johnny and for a moment, he was frightened. Johnny seemed to have black veins beneath the surface of his skin.
Johnny stepped up to Tamarius and whispered in his ear, “Remember.”
The next thing Tamarius remembered was being on stage and Johnny saying “And a 1 and a 2 and a 3”
The crowd was boisterous at this point and people were standing and cursing and then Tamarius started playing “Sweet Child of Mine” and everyone stopped cursing and stopped booing and stopped doing everything except staring at Tamarius. Even Eddie and the other bandmembers turned and looked at him, trying to figure out if the incredible sound coming out of his guitar was real. It sounded just like the song. It sounded just like Slash. For a moment Eddie thought it was a trick. Maybe Tamarius had a recording of the song playing, but when he saw the look in Tamarius face and his hands playing and his body moving to the song, he realized Tamarius was fucking killing it. He wanted nothing in the world but to keep watching Tamarius play, but Johnny snapped his fingers at him and Eddie seemed to awaken from a dream and joined in the song, trying his best to keep up. The other band members followed.
Eddie thought he had seen and heard the most amazing thing he had ever seen or heard on stage, but then Johnny grabbed the mic and sang,
“She’s got a smile it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
Was as fresh as the bright blue sky”
For a long couple of seconds, the crowd was still and silent, like a snake about to strike. They looked at the band. They looked at each other. They couldn’t get their minds around the sound coming out of the band.
Johnny sang on,
“Now and then when I see her face
She takes me away to that special place
And if I’d stare too long
I’d probably break down and cry”
Franz, vomit down the front of his shirt and in his beard, stumbled out of the bathroom and fell to his knees. No one noticed because when Johnny sang,
“Oh, oh, oh
Sweet child o’ mine
Oh, oh, oh, oh
Sweet love of mine,”
The crowd lost their fucking minds.
The bar was packed. People witnessing the bands unearthly performance had called, texted and snapchatted their friends. There was a line outside to get in.
Johnny and the band had played a dozen songs and it quickly became apparent that Johnny had the uncanny ability to sound just like whoever they were playing. They played “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and Johnny had sounded like John Denver. They played “Margaritaville” and Johnny sounded like Jimmy Buffet. They played and played and played and then they played “Hurt” and Johnny sounded like Trent Reznor AND Johnny Cash and that’s when a few people in the crowd started to feel uneasy. Then the band played “Luckenback, Texas” and for a few minutes the uneasy feeling went away, because Johnny sounded just like Waylon Jennings.
“The only two things in life that make it worth livin’
Is guitars in tune and firm feelin’ women
I don’t need my name in the marquee lights
I got my song and I got you with me tonight
Maybe it’s time we got back to the basics of love,”
The crowd cheered and stomped. Women took off their shirts and showed their boobs. Years later, when the reporters and the cops asked the people who were in the crowd that night what they saw, the witnesses could only say that it was the best night of their lives.
Johnny kept singing,
“Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas
With Waylon and Willie and the boys…”
The crowd sang along. And they would have kept singing along, but toward the end of the song, Johnny stopped sounding like Waylon Jennings and started sounding like Waylon Jennings AND Willie Nelson at the same time.
The crowd kept singing, but some of them seemed confused. Some of them didn’t know or understand what time it was, some didn’t know where they were. Some didn’t know who they were. One guy ran out of the bar screaming.
Johnny was about to play another song, but Bill had quietly moved onto the stage. He had a tuning fork in his hand and struck the microphone with it. It caused a little bit of feedback. Bill held the tuning fork to Johnny’s ear. Johnny stopped singing immediately, as if in a trance. In fact, everyone in the bar stopped moving except Bill.
Bill took Johnny by the hand and led him offstage, through the crowd and to the door. The tone from the tuning fork slowly faded. When they left the bar, the people in the crowd snapped back to life. There was much confusion. Franz wandered out of the bathroom, feeling better, but he was even more confused than the people in the crowd.
The reporters, years later, would also ask the people if they believed Johnny could have done all those horrible things to the people out in the desert that he was accused of. The ones that bothered answering the question would say “No. That man couldn’t have done those things. That man had the voice of an Angel.”