Learn from our mistakes?
All we ever do is polish up even better ways to screw up,
Rehearsing for the big time.
Intoxicant played their normal set on Friday night, surprised to be on the tour still. When the musicians had crawled out of their respective beds late on Friday morning, with just enough time in hand to pack and grab a quick cup of coffee, they had been expecting to find Tony Stock waiting for them with bad news. That had not happened.
The band travelled to the next gig on the tour with a sense of something about to happen. The whole crew was laying bets on exactly what would happen next. Sindycal had realized that the tour's headliners would score no points by complaining about the backing act doing too good a job. They too were just watching and waiting to see what happened.
It was not until Sunday morning that the terse fax came through from a meeting at the recording company's London office. Intoxicant was history, fired off the tour officially with a week and a half still to go. A new band was being brought in for the final ten days. The official excuse was unspecified breaches of contract but everyone knew that the real reasons were daring to put the longer version of The Portal in their act, upsetting the headliners by getting such a rave reception and the alleged connection between their Italian bootleg and the death of the youth in Sheffield.
The parting of the ways was totally civilized. As Syd Melchior remarked to his wife, it was like having an out-of-body experience. He had a sense of watching from a distance as the trouble-makers accept their fate and say their good-byes while actually being one of the rejected bad-boys. Confident that they had a friend in high places, who could get them signed up with Kiron Sounds, the members of the band announced to the inevitable media vultures that they were taking a fortnight off from the music business before they decided what sort of trouble they would be making in the future.
The sound of a telephone woke Pete Astor on Monday morning. Picking up the bedroom extension allowed him to combine a yawn with a good stretch. "Ah, yo!" he said into the receiver, expecting the caller to know who he was.
"Pete?" said a female voice.
"Was the last time I looked." Astor yawned again.
"I hope I didn't get you out of bed. It's Rachel."
"Hi, Rachel. No, I've got a phone by the bed."
"It's all right for some."
"Yeah, well, some of us never got to bed on Saturday night and we're still catching up. You've got some good news for me?"
"Quite the reverse, I'm afraid. The parents of the lad who died after the Astoria's opening night are going to sue KS for compensation. I've had a tip-off from a journalist I know. She was looking for a comment from the company. The parents must have taken counsel's opinion and they think they've got a case they can win."
"Doshan bleedas! I suppose it's rather appropriate to get that news on Halloween. A sort of legal trick or trick."
"So what do you want done about it?"
"Well, I reckon you'll probably get a round-the-world cruise out of it. And some lucky QC will probably end up with an arm and a couple of legs."
"You're going to fight it?"
"It's our only choice," said Astor. "It would be cheaper in the short term to give them a few grand to settle out of court but that will only encourage more vultures. While Kiron Sounds has every sympathy for the parents, the company takes no responsibility for the kid's death and we'll go all the way on that."
"I had a feeling you'd say that. You've discussed it with the top levels of management?"
"It's called contingency planning. As I'm sure you know. Have you spoken to Nick about this? About the PR aspects?"
"Not yet. But he's next on my list."
"Could you give James a ring too to put him in the picture? And you might as well tell Walter while you're making calls. The official company line is we will take responsibility for those things for which we are responsible, even if an insurance company would put them in the act of God category, but not for anything else."
"What about getting our own counsel's opinion?"
"Is that really necessary right now? Whether someone says ‘yes, these people have got a case' or ‘no, they're just flying a kite', that's not going to affect what the other side does. If we actually get served with a writ, or whatever, and there's a date set in court for the case, that's when we need to get a QC on the payroll. But in the meantime, I think we can leave it to Nick and the PR machine."
"He'll have to be careful about contempt of court, Pete."
"So he'll be running everything by you. Are you okay about that? Is potential contempt of court something you can spot?"
"Yes, it is," said Rachel in a very positive tone of voice. "What about my journalist friend? Can I tell her anything?"
"I should have a word with Nick first and let her have first bite of whatever press release he cooks up."
"Right. I'll let you get back to sleep again."
"I suppose I might as well get up now I'm awake." Astor yawned again. "Cheers, Rachel."
Showered, shaven and dressed, Astor checked the kitchen for food. It was strange, he thought, the multi-millionaire was still making his own breakfast toast and not sitting around idly while a staff of nubile maidens did all the cooking and serving. Wendy had left newspapers folded to inside pages all over the dining table. Astor parked his coffee mug and his plate with a toasted bacon sandwich among them and started to read.
‘What we have here is failure to communicate' began an article in the Guardian's tabloid Media section. The author had either seen the film Cool Hand Luke or the catch-phrase had been trawled out of a sub-editor's memory banks. Astor learned that Intoxicant was clearly a band in tune with its audience and out of tune with its recording company. The band, according to a self-styled authority called Mark Forster, could communicate on some visceral level that certainly got its message across in spades.
‘What I and about three thousand stunned others heard on that unforgettable night at the end of Intoxicant's part of the tour,' Forster added, ‘was a landmark performance of what will be recognized as one of the all-time classics of rock music. The Portal in full is simply a transcendental experience. I shall never forget that night. Nor will anyone else privileged to have been there.'
Like the rest of the reviewers, Forster seemed to think that in playing The Portal, Intoxicant had committed the most magnificent act of group suicide in pop history. With the cynicism of long experience of the music business, Astor noted that the piece was all about the band and it made no mention of someone called Pete Astor, who had created the piece.
The telephone started to ring just after Astor had taken a particularly big bite of his sandwich. It was still ringing when he felt able to speak.
"Yo?" he said.
"Is that Pete Astor?" said an unfamiliar voice.
"Might be," Astor replied, not committing himself.
"Dale Everett, Sounds Around. I was just looking for your reaction to Intoxicant getting the sack. As the author of The Portal. Before your ex-mates started messing it around."
"Speaking as someone who got sacked by the same outfit, I'm not surprised." Astor realized that it was not generally recognized that he created the extended version of The Portal too. "I don't know what they're trying to do, but if it's an attempt at censorship for some misguided reason, it won't work in this country."
"So you see some hidden agenda in this?" pressed Everett.
"Frankly, I don't see any point to it, hidden agenda or not. After all, it's only rock 'n' roll music. It's just people having a good time, not an attempt to take over the world."
"You wouldn't happen to have a number for Syd Melchior, at all? I need to talk to him."
"They've all gone on holiday, last I heard," Astor said.
"How about any of the others? Blood Axe, Dexie?"
"No, I've not seen them since that gig and I don't know where they are."
"Right, thanks for your time." Everett rang off quickly.
Two calls later, Astor switched on his answering machine. Anyone who wanted to talk business with him, or even have a chat, would have to know his mobile number. In the meantime, he had nothing more strenuous planned than a look through the papers, a lunchtime appointment with Syd's pianist friend Cherryl Lamar to talk about recording a version of Under Alien Skies then a trip out to Melody Studios to find out how the sound engineer was getting on with the task of making cleaned up copies of some of Astor's ancient vinyl recordings on recordable CDs.
Tom Maddox contacted him on his mobile the next morning then he called round at Astor's home with his report on Rixborough & Co. He had learned that the company was no longer in existence. At the death, the business had been run by an offshoot of the family called Hallan. The last of the line had closed down the firm about two years before after an arson attack. Maddox had been to see Philip Hallan twice since Astor had given him the job, once on the previous Friday and again to buy him a very expensive lunch on Sunday.
"So what do we know now?" invited Astor as he filled mugs with coffee in the kitchen. "He owns all the copyrights?"
"Yes, he admitted that much."
"Admitted, Inspector?" Astor asked with a frown.
Maddox put on a wry smile. "Yes, it did feel very much like I was interrogating a suspect at times. Hallan wanted to find why I was interested in Rixborough & Co before he said much. My impression is he's naturally a very secretive sort of bloke. Someone who wouldn't even tell you the time in case it's used against him."
"You told him about the plan to reprint the grimoire?"
"That's okay with him. But I got the impression he'd want an under-the-counter payment with a very modest fee up top."
"That's not a problem."
"I did drop some heavy hints about having a big company behind the publishing plan. Which seemed to appeal to Hallan's mercenary instincts. What I suggest you do next is go and see him yourself. I think he really needs to talk to the guy making the decisions, not someone at my level."
"So what do you reckon to him? A crook? Being mysterious to avoid incriminating himself?"
"Not really. The fire was a bloody thorough arson job. The one that forced Hallan out of business. And the local police had a bloody good go at proving he was behind it."
"Pretty much, yes. I gathered they had no suspects and about all they had to follow up on was the victim."
"So what do they reckon? Did he do it?"
"The local mob reckons not. But the insurance company still haven't paid him yet. It's still going through the courts."
"So he'd appreciate a few bob in copyright fees?"
"The bigger the deal you can offer him, the more likely he is to go for it."
"So where does he live now?"
"A place called Postwick, about four miles out from the centre of Norwich. Quite easy to get to."
"Okay, I'll set something up."
"Oh, yes. Something else I found out. The lead singer of the band that replaced Intoxicant on their tour is the girlfriend of an executive at the record company."
"Girlfriend as in what? What the meeja call a partner?"
"Girlfriend as in the bit on the side he hopes his wife doesn't know about. I also heard the word to dump them came from the States. Not a local decision. Not made here."
"Not Tokyo? Or wherever in Japan?"
"No, someone high up in the American management team."
"Well, that explains everything. Some bloody Christian Yank doing his bit to fight Satan," Astor said sourly. "I've got a good mind to sign Intox up and send them on a tour of the bloody Bible Belt in middle America."
"That would make you popular," laughed Maddox. "Another thing, Nick has had me looking at the family that says they're going to sue the Astoria."
"Nothing startling in the way of dirt. It looks to me as if some lawyer has taken the case on a no-win, no-fee basis. And he's trying a bit of good old-fashioned American extortion. A settlement out of court to get rid of a nuisance, a big chunk of that for his fee ..."
"Yeah, well, that's not going to happen for him."
"He'll probably take some convincing, the lawyer."
Astor shrugged. "The more cash he wastes on the case, the bigger the hole in his pocket when it all goes horribly wrong and collapses around him."
Megan Glyndwr asked for a meeting with Pete Astor to discuss some details of her video project. The best place to meet seemed to be the Astoria with James Faucumberg and Walter Merion on hand to keep things in the realm of reality. When Astor arrived at twelve-thirty, the in-house catering had just delivered lunch. Soup and hot snacks were on the menu at the chilly beginning of November.
"Well, I must say, this real food makes a pleasant change from nourishing wholemeal sandwiches and tea," remarked Megan as she helped herself to the thick vegetable soup.
"Well, we do have the advantage of top quality catering facilities on the premises," said James. "And I suspect this all is for Caroline's benefit. I assume she's here in her capacity of a real person, so she needs real food."
"So what's a real person?" frowned Megan.
"Someone with both feet on the ground, who agrees with the financial bloke when he says a proposed expenditure is outrageous," said Walter.
"In that case, I'm glad you're here, Caroline!" laughed Megan. "For the food and because I'm sure you're going to be on my side over the money."
"Nice to be appreciated." Caroline chose the lemon grass and Thai chicken soup.
"So what is your budget?" said Astor. "So we know whether we're here to talk or just for lunch."
"A hundred and thirty-two thousand," said Megan. "Plus or minus six per cent."
"Well, if Walter's not yelling because he's spilled hot soup all over himself, I assume that's reasonable?" said Astor.
"If it can all be done for that," said James.
"It can be if we base it round the stage show and edit in the extra scenes that flesh out the drama side," said Megan. She pulled a sheaf of papers from her briefcase and distributed sets. "This is the basic structure of the video. The running time's going to be about an hour. So we're always trying to squeeze it down rather than stretch it out. I think that always shows through, when there's not enough decent material and the thing is full of padding."
The group spent an hour talking over the plans and looking at sections of videotape from the material shot at the Astoria the previous week. Astor noticed that Megan seemed to be pitching her remarks more and more at Caroline, accepting that she had to be able to interest a ‘real' person in her material, and that tricks of the trade might not score so many points with an outsider, as far as the music video business was concerned.
Part of Drachensblut's act remained in German but most of it had been translated into English. The idea was to appeal to the global English-speaking audience but to retain German sections for the sake of some dramatic incomprehension, and because the band thought that the American market would accept it.
Astor was quite willing to leave the project to the professionals after he had heard Megan's presentation. She seemed to know exactly what she was doing, and James and Walter were there to keep her in touch with financial reality.
"Well, I've quite enjoyed this," Megan remarked as she was packing up her collection of papers and videotapes. "And you don't usually get such a good selection of chocolate biscuits when you're trying to sell the final shape of an idea."
"Yes, we're nothing if not extravagant at Kiron Sounds," remarked Walter. "And talking about that, can I have a small word, Pete?"
"Tiny?" said Astor. "Is that small enough?"
Walter smiled dutifully. "You know the Germans have got themselves a couple of what they call ‘translators' as part of their, well, I suppose you'd call them the supporting cast."
"How do you mean?" frowned Astor.
"A couple of them have acquired girlfriends, who are staying with them. Live-in translators. And we're paying for them."
"Is it costing us that much? Like as much as hiring a couple of professional translators?"
"Well, no, they're doing it on the quiet and they're being quite discreet because they think they're doing something we wouldn't approve of if they told us about it."
"Who are these girls?"
"Just student drop-outs, according to Tom Maddox."
"You've had them screened?" chuckled Astor.
"Well, if we've got him on the strength, we might as well use him. Both rebelling against a middle-class up-bringing by hanging around with a bunch of foreign musicians. They're translators and unofficial road managers, I suppose."
"A band needs a crew, Walter. If we're getting them cheap and they're enjoying themselves, I should ignore it. No need to get heavy unless they start abusing their privileges. Like trying to blag a Roller each on expenses."
"Still the poacher at heart, Pete?" said James.
"Us poachers have some really good times," said Astor.
"I hear Intoxicant have asked you to rejoin them now they've been fired," James added. "To continue as a five-piece that includes your replacement, Ryan, who's another mate of yours, I gather."
"Nice idea, but I've not got the time at the moment, what with everything going on around here," said Astor. He felt that he had to remain on the spot to be there for Drachensblut. Supporting the German band was an obligation to Kiron, the source of everyone's good fortune. In fact, he had been prepared to pay for the video with funds from Kiron Sounds' parent company as an easy way out if Walter had been difficult about the value-for-money side.
"What else are you buying?" Walter asked with a frown, assuming that Astor was still in expansion-mode.
"I was thinking more about the recording side," said Astor.
Walter pantomimed mopping his brow in relief.
"Okay, I guess we should take a look at what the Drachs are up to," Astor added. "Are you fit, Caroline?"
"What, after that brilliant lunch?" laughed Caroline. "Sitting down behind a steering wheel's about all I'm fit for now."
"Yes, our compliments to the caterers, James," said Astor. "Can we give you a lift, Megan?"
"I think I ought to walk back for the exercise, but I was never much good at doing what I ought to," said Megan.
Drachensblut had formed an alliance with the manager of a pub just down the road from their small residential hotel, which was three private houses at the end of a terrace knocked into one three-storey building. Three houses at the other end of the hotel had gone to provide car parks for the hotel and the pub, which was called The Gap and featured a sign showing a village idiot with a gap-toothed grin.
As well as performing gigs around the local area, the musicians had started putting on shows at the pub. They were using the pub as a workshop where they tried out ideas for the main show and tested the audience response to variations and new ideas while honing their final performance through practical trials. The system seemed to work, and if a couple of them were getting free board and lodging for girlfriends out of it, and the recording company was getting the services of unpaid translators and road crew, then the deal looked solid all round.
When Caroline dropped him off at his home at the end of the afternoon, Astor had decided to get an expert opinion on the value of what Drachensblut was doing. Inhaling Charm to a muted background of the notorious Italian Intoxicant bootleg, he made himself available for comments from Kiron, the source of his current circumstances.
Kiron had become a firm Drachensblut fan. Astor also gained the impression that Kiron had been somewhat overwhelmed by the impact of Intoxicant's swan song. Astor was able to assure his mentor that he intended to provide more when the band returned to the music scene.
Astor could never be quite sure of what The Other really thought or meant, but he detected what seemed to be amusement when he quoted some of the postcards sent to him by Angela Melchior and Blood Axe. The band seemed to be enjoying their holidays and their notoriety in equal measure.
Cherryl Lamar had turned out to be a tall, lanky woman, who looked rather like a first-year student in her university scarf and a pair of spectacles with large lenses to give her a wide field of view without moving her head. If she had been at secondary school with Syd Melchior, she had to be around thirty-two years old, but she seemed immune to the effects of ageing.
She had been both flattered and eager to take on a free-lance job when Astor had shown her his score for Under Alien Skies and explained his requirements. Cherryl had been able to spend the week practising and learning the piece because The Croydon, as the orchestra was usually know, had not needed her services.
Pete Astor treated the first session at Melody Studios as a rehearsal, an opportunity for Cherryl to become acquainted with the piano that he had hired and the recording crew. It was during two session around lunch on Sunday that Cherryl laid down the master tracks for the final performance. After that, the performer retired to do other things while the composer began the process of tinkering to achieve an overall effect, which was not yet entirely clear in his mind.
All that the postman could find for him on Tuesday morning of the following week was a pale green card from his dentist to tell Astor that it was time to make an appointment for a check-up He was wondering whether to tackle the half-mile walk for the exercise or phone for an appointment when the telephone rang. Walter had news for him.
"I've just had a communication from your ex-record company," he announced. "They seem to be rather displeased with you."
"So what else is new?" said Astor.
"You and the rest of Intoxicant. They've decided to suspend all royalty payments until they've sorted out penalties for failing to fulfill a contracted tour."
"Cheeky bastards," was Astor's automatic reaction. "Hey, come on!" he realized after a moment. "What's that got to do with me? I've not been in the band for bloody months."
"It's just a typical member of a large organization working from a list of names and not knowing the list is out of date. The thing I can't work out is why they sent the letter to Kiron Sounds if they think you're still part of Intoxicant," Walter added. "Do you want me to send it on to you? Or keep it till the next time you're at the Astoria?"
"Hang on to the original for the moment, but fax me a copy in the meantime, if you don't mind," said Astor.
His fax machine came to life a couple of minutes later. Astor read the letter, then he switched on his computer to get some on-line information from his bank. He didn't need the money any more, but he noted with indignation that a mid-year royalty payment was now three months overdue.
Astor fired up his copy of WordPerfect to compose a sarcastic fax telling his former record company that as he was no longer a member of Intoxicant, he did not expect to be caught up in any arguments that the company was having with the band. Then he decided to walk round to the dentist's to make his check-up appointment and use the time to think about strategy.
When he returned home with an appointment at the end of the next week, he decided to ring the record company's offices in London as a follow-up to his fax. He began the exercise in a fairly reasonable frame of mind. He rang off after half an hour feeling thoroughly pissed off after getting what seemed like a pointless run-around. Nobody, if what he had been told could be believed, had the authority to reinstate his royalty payments right away.
Feeling rich and mean, Astor decided that a counter-strike was in order. Rachel, the company solicitor, was instantly available to his phone call. Astor asked her to take the matter to the local County Court and get an order requiring payment of his missing royalties forthwith. He had no confidence in getting speedy action from his ex-record company if he failed to apply a legal boot to its backside.
No trees were consumed by Farrago & Farrago and Henry T. Smith Productions, 10/12 SK6 4EG, UK in creating this material for Jon A. Gored. Sole © Jon A. Gored, 2001.