Chapter 1: On Top
I probably should have let things be. Don’t meddle with fate. Shouldn’ts are easy to see in retrospect. You shouldn’t have cut off the commuter train, shouldn’t have assumed the superstar’s identity. You know, and could probably lecture me about the perils of ego and tempting fate. The little things seem, of course, small at the time. I can see that now.
My “shouldn’t have” began near the end of the Atlanta stop of our national tour. Miles Phillips played the audience in his hands, like strumming familiar chords on his CS 350 guitar. Every riff, part of the act, heightened the expectation of lives lived in the shared moment. Miles sang the words, familiar to everyone in the stadium, “We came to conquer, to stand at the brink, to link the destiny that lies beyond….”
Out beyond the multi-hued glare of the stage lights, the audience thronged, danced, and swayed to the music. Eleven thousand moving stars in the arena, synchronized to his song, singing the melody in the homogenized men-women-teen choir voice that sounded alike at every stop on the tour. “We’re on top. Not gonna stop until the end of time.”
Maybe at the time I mused at the irony of that line. Or maybe it never occurred to me. On the top. Never gonna stop. What does that mean? Weren’t we all at the peak of a career in rock’n roll. The Miles Phillip band was still a national phenomenon. The demise wasn’t really on anyone’s radar yet, maybe just a figment of my active imagination. Shane Mercer, the paranoid underachiever playing backup guitar behind the star of the show.
Trevor keyed the theme on keyboards, Miles and I played the harmony riffs, he on a Gibson, I on my Strat. Mark walked the bass and Cal kicked up the percussion. We all joined in the chorus, our rehearsed choreography well tuned from each stop on our American tour. We were part of a machine, an entertainment enterprise created for one purpose—to deliver the Miles Phillip experience the audience came to expect.
It was music, of course, but it meant much more than that. It was a magic connection between people, cultures, and generations. A conduit that joins hearts in motion, that synchronizes spheres in a flow of time and space. It puts together people with diverse backgrounds and experience, blending them in a medley of parts like notes in a chord.
Why then, as Miles started his strut across the stage, did I get the idea to step on his guitar cable? Or was it an accident, just one of the many mishaps that become part of a band’s amusing lore? There went Miles. As if I could have predicted the exact moment, I saw the quarter-inch jack plop out of his CS 350. Right on queue, I took over his riffs on the Strat, as if nothing had happened. I couldn’t tell if he was even aware, playing air guitar to the exact solos I provided downstage, while he strutted up front.
I kept up both roles through the end of the song—Miles’ lead while he pranced and danced to the cheering crowd, and my own fill riffs on top. I’m not bragging or trying to justify what I did. Just saying what needs to be said.
I don’t know what came over me. Maybe the devil made me do it, and the angel on my shoulder did everything in his might to stop that one step that might lead to ruin. Or it could have been just me fulfilling my mortal destiny, taking matters in my own hands—or foot, as it turned out—to exercise my divine free will in a blatant act of mutiny to sink the captain of the ship. Either way, no one seemed the wiser. No one had the slightest suspicion that Miles had gone mute, and in that black hole singularity, no one missed the star at all.
We were all part of that great Miles Phillips experience. Even Miles was there in the moment, with his guitar unplugged, playing acoustic accompaniment, his tracks muted out. A performer needs his audience even as much as they crave the experience. I was having an out-of-body realization, almost as if I was in Miles’ head while we played the lead up to finish the song.
It’s as much magic as symbiosis. Miles had always had as much fun playing concerts as the audience craved the experience. It was heady being the center of attention. But like a narcotic, it took more to get the same high he used to get playing to a sold-out crowd. Here we were playing in the 18,000-seat Philips arena. It had been some time since our concerts used to fill to capacity. And here we were playing in smaller venues. It was as much to save costs as it was to keep up the appearance of a first-rate act.
After the last chorus and cadence, the crowd cheered, the roar diminished by ear-fatigue after the 50-minute set. It was enthusiastic, just not as robust as in the day.
Miles picked up the microphone, stepped to the front of the stage. “You’re a great crowd! Love Atlanta!” he said, “Drive safe, everyone.”
The cheering turned to a murmur of discontent. A few shouts were drowned out by the mix of sounds.
“What’s that?” Miles said.
A woman’s voice shouted, “Still Standing.” It was repeated by a few other voices.
He looked to the band and made an exaggerated shrugging motion with his arms and shoulders, pretending not to hear over the rising din of the crowd. He turned back “You’re still standing. Well, I can see that, can’t I?”
A chant rose above the crowd noise.
Miles played to the anticipation. “It’s a good thing,” he said, “Standing for something.”
The audience laughed and cheered. It was a standing joke they tolerated, knowing they’d eventually get what they asked for. Delayed only by the sadistic wit of the reluctant performer on stage. Miles drew out the charade.
“In fact, the world would be a better place if more people took a stand.”
The cheers continued. A chant went up, “Still Standing, Still Standing…”
He half-turned to look at us. At that moment Miles felt his guitar where his jack should have been plugged in. He looked around, seeing the cord lying on the stage like a snake with a severed head. He looked directly at me as if he knew what had happened. In the same beat he walked to the spot and leaned down, grabbed the jack and plugged in his guitar.
He turned back to the audience, offered a mischievous smile, struck an F7 chord, then launched into the song. The band kicked in. We knew the routine. Give the fans what they want, but leave them wanting more. Miles charmed the crowd with his stage antics, jokes, and understated charm. But even if he teased the hand that fed them, they always got what they came to hear, Miles’ signature anthem. They clapped and cheered while the band kept up their end of the bargain. We played the song Still Standing with all the energy the fans loved.
Miles gave it his all as we finished the set. “I’m still … still standing. Not gonna fall. In spite of it all. Standing up for myself, for who I am, and want to be. Still Standing!”
When we finished, the applause lasted over a minute. Miles unplugged his guitar, tucked it under his arm. “Thank you. Love you.” He led the exit off stage, followed by the rest of the band. I’ll admit, I hung back so I’d be separated by the rest of the band when we ducked into the access corridor and stopped past the line of sight.
Miles looked at each of us. Was it my imagination and guilt that made me wonder if his gaze paused on me? Miles said, “Let’s call it a night.” He sounded weary as if the night’s antics had aged him another year in some Faustian wager paid against the longevity of our lives. Or as the case might turn out, our careers.
“Why?” Cal said. “They’re still asking for more?”
“Better to leave them wanting more than wishing we’d finished on top.” He eyed me again. “Or do we have to put it to a vote?”
“I’m good,” I said. “Like you say, better to quit ahead. Might even catch Game of Thrones tonight.”
Mark shrugged. “I’m with you guys.” Trevor waved a hand, his abstaining vote.
“Okay with me,” Cal said. “Sorry to rock the vote.”
“I’m tired,” Miles said. “Thanks, guys.”
I pointed to the exit marker. “Sign for the time. Hold the door.”