A watercolor image of a messy backstage table overwhelmed with plastic cups, beer bottles and other assorted trash.

Chapter Five: You Soldier On

All backstage areas are the same. Same outdated IKEA furniture. A functional, stained sofa, maybe two. A table spread with exactly the same shit; same vegetarian food, same chocolate, same case of beer, same bottle of merlot, same bottle of rum, same cola for your rum, the same — the same — the same, but for local variations.

Which makes sense, they’re only fulfilling what’s on the rider. Everything you could ever ask for. And you hover over the food, the alcohol, picking away at it, filling your plate, your glass, knowing you asked for too much—again—as always, and there’s no way anyone in their right mind is going to finish all of this.

But you asked because you can. So you crack open a bottle of wine and start indulging, imbibing, because you’d hate to squander the privilege. Besides, it’s the only decent meal you’re likely to see until the next night, when the same routine takes place in a different city. With local variations.

These are the spaces on the cusp of performance, between the mundane and magical. They are holding areas, relief to be off the road and out of the tour van so you can finally take a shit areas, vocal warm up and last-minute rehearsal of a troublesome song areas, put on your makeup in a cramped bathroom areas, get mad at the opening act for exceeding their allotted time areas, the place to get drunk and/or high before going on stage areas. Places you won’t remember, not necessarily because you were that high, or that hammered, but because they’re utterly unremarkable, unworthy of a second thought.

They have their own special energy, though. But it’s even the same energy every time, that nervous energy that builds progressively as your set time nears.

This one is different. Albeit unique by chance.

Only because it’s my last. The last time I have to do this.

Honestly, I’d probably miss it, were that not a moot point. I live for this monotonous merry-go-round. My problem is how to acclimate myself once the roundabout stops. I’ve grown so accustomed to the constant motion that I can’t get my head right, can’t get my vision to settle without it. Because I love it, I keep going. It is everything. It’s really all I have left.

This is the last time I get to do this.

For the moment, I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with Kåre, leaning in to use the same tiny vanity mirror, eyeliner pencils in hand. Both of us are attempting smokey eye, but his smokey eye game puts mine to shame. I mean, his has glitter. Mine, by comparison, looks like a hyperactive child drew it on in cheap crayon. As he’s riding on a rollercoaster. During an earthquake. While drunk and bereft of depth perception, assuming that hypothetical kid is me.

As I’m finishing up one side and waiting for Kåre to finish and leave so that I can butcher my blind eye too, I’m left with time to think. To consider how Micke’s band was in this same room only a week before. Lounging on these same couches. Hovering over the same tables, gnawing at the food. I can even picture them cutting out lines on the counter behind us. I bet I could still lick the surface of it now and be up until Tuesday.

Mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur...

A screenshot of an image from Lisa @merchdame's social media in black and white. Axel and Kåre sit close together on the couch laughing while Axel strums an acoustic guitar. Tor lies across the back of the couch behind them in a 'sexy pose' grinning. Lisa writes in Swedish: Behind the scenes with these lunatics. Kaare comments in Swedish: Ugh. Do I always look like a 16-year-old emo chic even without makeup?

"Hey, you know I've been meaning to tell you this. It never feels like the right time."

I turn from the mirror and take a good gulp from the bottle of wine I’ve placed on that very counter.

Same ritual, same room, different faces.

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"I realize things have been rocky between us lately. But I want you to know that if..."

It’s irrational, but I feel this anxiety, like I just missed him, like our paths might have crossed if we’d timed it right. Like when Attax was on tour at the same time as Nauru, way back in the day. We’d end up playing the same cities, but on different nights. And I’d miss him even more, imagining him there, mere steps ahead of me. That was when I’d call him and we’d talk to each other from backstage in different cities, different countries, with near identical backstage areas. Local variation on a theme.

Mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur...

"You just seem really off lately."

“Hey, I’m in Budapest.”

“Ah shit. We left there this morning. We’re in Vienna now.”

“I know. That only makes it worse,” I’d say. “I miss you.”

“I miss you too.”

But he was never here and the fact that his band was — well, it’s yet another heart-rendering reminder that everyone else has moved on.

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"I'm still here whenever you need me."

If only I could call him. I mean, I could call him. I still pay his phone bill so I can hear his voicemail message. Even though all it says is “Hey, you’ve reached Micke. I can’t pick up at the moment. Say something after the beep. And if it’s Axel: seriously, stop it, you! I love you.” He never wanted me to call him without hearing that he loved me. Probably very sickening for all the others attempting to get in touch.

I haven’t called his number in a while, but I keep paying in case I want to. I used to leave him messages every day. Mostly unintelligible sobbing that I’m glad no one will ever listen to. Please don’t be dead, was the gist of it. I did it until the mailbox filled up and I realized I didn’t have his passcode to delete them all again.

Mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur...

"I mean, if you want me around at all. I remember what you said."

Now a cold digital voice announces, “Mailbox full”. Each and every time.

You’re probably wondering what the “stop it” bit is about. That was his silly way of anticipating, acknowledging my everyday anxiety, my fears, whatever end of the world scenario is playing out in my head, whatever sadness I’ve spiraled into this time. Take a deep breath and stop, Axel. Get a grip on yourself. Stop driving yourself crazy.

Mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur mur...

"Axel? ...Hello?"

God, I must have been exhausting. No wonder he… -

Illustration of Kåre form the eyes up, glaring in a black and red frame with large block letters spelling out: "Hey!"

“Hey!” Kåre rips me free from my rumination. I blink. “Hey, you disappeared.”

“Sorry.” I look down at the kohl pencil in my hand and roll it between my fingertips.

“I’ve been talking to the air for a full minute.”

“Sorry,” I say again. I have no idea how long I’ve been standing there propped up against the wall, wallowing, with only one eye finished. “I was just thinking. About Micke’s band being here.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty shitty that they didn’t tell you,” he nods, catching my eye for a moment in the mirror.

“I’m also waiting for you to be done so I can finish up my other eye.”

He leans forward, touching up the corner of his eyelid and then blends his eyeshadow with the tip of his index finger. “Fine. I’ll leave.” He shakes his head to let me know he thinks I’m ridiculous, tousling his back-combed hair a bit with one hand, taking his time just to irk me.

I take another swig of wine. He zips up his little glittery black makeup bag. Me, I only have this one pencil I found rolling around in the bottom of my dusty duffle bag.

I grab his arm on his way out. “What were you trying to say to me, anyway?”

“No, it was…” his voice trails off. “… it was nothing.” I get the distinct feeling that it wasn’t, though.

Once he leaves, I finish, arrange my hair to cover what I’ve completed and place my hat back on top to keep it all in place.

In reality, I don’t even need to call Micke. Besides, I can’t or I’ll lose my shit and ruin the makeup I just put on. I can hear Micke’s message without putting myself through it, anyway. It only turns my stomach now. Even if he wanted nothing more than to make me a little less miserable than I’ve always, always managed to make myself. Och om det är Axel:  

I look my reflection in the eye. “Seriöst, sluta nu!” I say in unison with Micke’s voice in my mind. And my lips turn up slightly, in an almost imperceptible, bittersweet smile.

“You alright in there?” Tor calls out from around the corner, beyond the open bathroom door. “What, he’s talking to himself in the mirror again. That’s never a good sign!” he laughs. “Enough with the primping already!”

“I don’t know if you all are even ready for this!” I set down the eyeliner pencil and exit like a model taking to the runway, striding assertively into the center of the room, tossing my hair and striking a commanding pose before turning on my heel and heading back to retrieve my wine from the bathroom because I forgot it. “It’s a good thing the unwashed hipster thing is cool right now, that’s all I can say.”

“I never thought I’d say this but you’re worse than Kåre,” Tor coughs and covers his face with his bandaged hand.

“Only worse because he actually looks good when he’s done!” I drop myself onto the couch beside Kåre too closely, and we collide. He smiles faintly and shoves me away.

“By the way, you still haven’t made us a set list and we’re on in like ten minutes,” Tor reminds me.

Kåre glances around and plucks up the paper and sharpies we acquired for precisely that purpose from the floor. I set to work scrawling out song titles, reasoning it out loud, “No, wait, if we do that one too early, I’m going to lose my voice by the halfway point…”

And Tor weighs in: “I seriously can’t play that one tonight. It gets way too busy on the chorus!”

“Shit, we haven’t played that one in a while!” Kåre leans in tight against me again to get a better look. “I hope I even remember it.”

“Well, it may be now or never!” I shrug.

The mood shifts abruptly. Not like a flipped switch; more like I, the hangman, dropped the trapdoor on the scaffold.

Kåre sighs. “Shut up, Axel.” He stands up abruptly and starts rummaging in the beer crate for something to take on stage, probably to avoid meriting my remark with anything resembling a response.

“What the fuck did that mean?” Tor asks after the longest second of my life.

“Oh, he’s just being a drama queen,” Kåre scoffs, popping the top off of his beer bottle, allowing it fly and fall where it will. Then he tosses the bottle opener back onto the table in a gesture of casual annoyance. “His career is over, he’s a washed-up has-been… Tor, I’ve had to listen to that the entire trip.”

“My career is over,” I say under my breath as I scribble out a copy of the setlist for Tor. “I’m ending it. Tonight.”

Thankfully, that’s the point at which Ola pops his head around the doorframe and asks, “You guys gonna be ready soon?”

Who ever thought I’d be so happy to see that guy?

“We shall be there momentarily!” I pass the hastily constructed setlist off to Tor, grab my own copy along with a bottle of water and a beer and make my exit.

As I do, I hear Tor ask, “Is he fucking serious?”

And Kåre, he says defiantly, derisively, “No, he’s not. He just says shit like this. He’ll change his mind the second he sets foot on stage.”

The venue itself has no backstage area, only the venue over the venue has one, so we have to walk through that venue, where there’s a hip hop night going on, down a flight of stairs, sneak through the main entryway and enter our venue, where we will have to fight our way through a throng of fans to make it to the stage.

I’m attempting to stifle my irritation as we file out through the upper level, which is twice, maybe three times as big, and is currently host to ten individuals. I suppose it’s still early in the night for a club. But with the last album, I definitely would have been playing that stage.

Self-abasement grabs the reins, a burden that crushes me hunchbacked. As I bear it along the barren dancefloor, it rides me ragged, cracking its whip of cruel commentary all the while. It’s sad. It’s ridiculous that this — this is going to be my last show. This is how the world ends. I’ll have to buck against it, cast it off, if I’m ever to give a good performance tonight. The lights throw its looming shadow across the wall, distorting the beast, ameliorating it with their rhythmic dance. Soon its shadow dominates and floods my vision with darkness.

However, when I reach the top of the stairs and look down, the light hits my eye, and all the ugliness dissipates without any kind of epic struggle. Down there, it’s a madhouse. The place is packed.

As we approach, it becomes apparent how problematic this situation is. Several fire safety codes must have been violated to create this environment. Patrons are spilling into the venue’s entry, flooding the foot of the stairs, pooling there as the flow into the venue itself has slowed to a mere trickle.

I wave at Tor and Kåre to stop in mid-descent as I survey the situation in shock. “How the hell are we supposed to get to the stage?”

Tor shakes his head as if to shake off slumber. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Kåre bursts out laughing, slapping his hands down on his thighs, and nearly doubling over. “Are all these people here for a has-been?!” he crows, then takes hold of the rail with one hand as a precautionary measure to keep his balance.

“Fuck off!” I toss a glance back at him, but I cannot hide the gaping grin of unbridled disbelief dominating my face. What a relief.

I mean, that kid said the show was sold out, but this is insanity. And now they’ve even spotted us. Some of them are staring, others pretending there’s nothing to see, but occasionally peering up all the same. How will we get to the front of the venue without being mobbed? How does anyone get in there?

“Oh shit,” Tor says suddenly, scratching his beard while gazing up at the ceiling. “I totally forgot. Lisa texted me from the merch table a half hour ago to say we might want to learn to crowd surf.”

“And you didn’t think to ask her why?” I raise my eyebrows at him.

“I did. She didn’t answer.” He pulls his phone out of his pocket and fumbles to unlock it. “No wait, she did.”

And?

“Yeah, she said it’s a madhouse,” he smirks.

I stare at him, deadpan.

“Oh, and hold on, hold on. There’s more. People who couldn’t get tickets bypassed security and pressed themselves up against the patio glass,” he reports.

I sigh and motion for the two of them to form a huddle. “Okay, we need a strategy!”

“Yeah, we sure do!” Kåre quips.

“There’s no choice but to push through as best we can.” I glance over my shoulder down at the crowd. “If we lose anybody along the way, well then… fallen comrades are not to be forgotten, but I’m afraid we’ll have to carry on without them. It’s a battle-zone out there!”

Then it hits me, what I’ve just said. But before I can get stuck on a gaff, Kåre catches on, patting my shoulder like something right out of a tacky Hollywood war drama. “Be brave boys, be brave!”

“We’re going in!” I bellow, fist raised, brandishing my beer bottle as a makeshift battle baton.

We descend and surge onward.

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