A washed out image of fans in the front row clutching their cell phones as they take picutres and gaze up at the stage.

Chapter Six: Means to an End

The crowd is close to impenetrable. I’m first to make it anywhere near the stage, despite untold numbers of unobservant audience members who, impervious to taps on the shoulder, jostle me from my blind side, deaf to my pleas for passage. Weaving my way through is akin to a vertical limbo dance. Considering I’ve been drinking pretty much all day, you can guess how that’s going.

Two particularly flagrant offenders form the final oblivious obstacle in my path, hopelessly resistant to the old polite pat. Dressed near-identically in white t-shirts, light blue jeans, and floppy hats, they sway side to side to the music as they sip their drinks through tiny, striped bar straws.

One of the two hollers to the other, “Do you think he’ll play any Nauru songs tonight?”

At last, I place my entire hand on her shoulder. “If you’d only allow me through, you may just find out!”

Her face crumples in disbelief and she mouths, “Oh. My. God.” to her friend. Needless to say, they finally step the fuck aside and let me through right before they collapse upon each other in a fit of uncontrolled laughter.

It takes a moment before even the more attentive members of the audience notice that I’ve taken the stage, low as it is. Those who do erupt into intermittent applause; some woo-hoos, some whoops, the occasional obnoxious whistle. As I set my beer bottle atop the guitar amp, I extract the setlist from my back pocket and unfold it before placing it on the floor where both Kåre and I can see it. Next, I grab my guitar, sling the strap over my shoulder and realize that I’m awkwardly alone up here. Like one of those dreams in which you have the distinct sense that something’s missing, but it only hits you once you step up to the podium to deliver the most important acceptance speech of your entire career—you forgot to put on your pants.

Squinting in the stage light and attempting to scan the swarm, I inquire into my mic, “Um… coincidentally, has anybody seen my band?” Which unintentionally earns me a laugh. “Seriously though, if you see them, can you let them through?”

Tor makes himself known by waving his bandaged hand over the throng, and the sea parts, permitting him to pass. “Alright, that’s great. We’ve found a drummer! But we still need Kåre. And he’s a tiny little dude, tends to drown in a crowd, so kindly float him on up here if he drifts by.”

“Very funny!” he shouts with the flash of a sardonic smile as he finally reaches us. Hastily, he sets down his beer, sneaks a quick peek at the setlist as if he hasn’t the foggiest idea what song we’re going to begin with, and takes up his bass, plucking out a few random notes to test his presence.

“So um… thanks for finding my band. I appreciate that. Oh! And for coming! Very polite of you folks,” I babble on a bit as I fiddle with a renegade guitar cable and strum out a few chords. “Anyway, I’m confused. Should I speak Norwegian or Swedish or… English tonight?”

The response is incomprehensible clamor.

“Well, that was completely unintelligible. But if I’m being honest, by this point in the evening I tend to descend into gibberish as well, so…” I check my tuning before continuing to ramble. “You know, my father’s a linguistic historian and my mother’s a professor of English. Used to teach right over at the University of Oslo, in fact. So, of course, their son, forever the black sheep, grew up to be an inarticulate mess.” I smile, shaking my head. “But look at me now. I get paid to slaughter language onstage! Anyway, how are you tonight, Oslo?” Despite the obvious discomfort of being crammed into such a small venue, this crowd seems remarkably receptive. “So you’re good?”

“Yeah!” they holler enthusiastically.

I plant my hands on my hips and screw up my brow, my nose. “Are you sure? ‘Cos I don’t feel like you are…”

“Yeah!” they roar in response, interspersed with laughter.

“Okay,” I nod, biting my lip. “I guess… because like, if you’re not feeling it, let me know after this next.... Nah, I’m just fucking around. This first one is called ‘Jagged Teeth’.”

And it always is. It’s the song Kåre chose for his audition. Pretty sure it’s still his favorite after all of these years. The potent energy he pours into its performance never fails to revive me, no matter how down I am that day. We kick off every single show with that song and I don’t believe he has the slightest idea that it’s an homage to him.

I should tell him before it’s too late. He should know.

Tor, in contrast, is off to a rough start, but he recovers with determination. I offer a sympathetic smile to offer some encouragement and he shrugs. “It is what it is, Axel!” he calls out, stifling a laugh. Unfortunately, what this song is is highly beat-dependent. Poor guy.

And then I realize that yeah, I’m supposed to be singing right now. Which ends up being okay, because the audience picks up my slack, singing the opening lines before I grasp that I should be and we are already killing it tonight, folks! I guess it’s better to join in late than never:

"You lurk in the recesses of vulnerable minds
Kindling insecurity, have you got a light?
And I stoke the flame that fuels the fire, fuel the fire, I like to: -!-! play with fire…"

The entire front section of the audience is already hopping up and down to the decidedly wonky beat; I can feel the ground shudder in rhythm, even through the stage. And they’re singing every last word in sync with me as if it were Southern Baptist gospel.

"You scorch the earth, make visionaries blind
And I’ve got no power to resist you tonight -!-! when you ignite…"

This is, from the first moments, the wildest party I have ever attended.

I hope I remember it in the morning.

By the time we reach the chorus, we’re this communal mass, this symbiotic entity. I sing at them, and they sustain me in their feverous fellowship. An exorcism that dispels the suffering, however short-lived.

"You’ve got a serrated smile, sharp jagged teeth
Like a yawning deathtrap always ready to spring
Hey put the kettle on, you’re precisely my cup of tea
And as the flames rise, the smoke is smothering
There ain’t no fire escape, I like the misery Let it devour me alive — I don’t need saving
Lure me with your serrated smile, I’ve got nowhere else to be
If you’re the arsonist, I’ve got some gasoline."

After so many years on stage, I still don’t think I’ve ever really gotten it. After all, I have rarely been near enough to peer directly into their faces. And they’re so close — just one miscalculated guitar swing, and I’ll club the girls in front right in the face. Hands clasped to their chests, they’re way too invested, singing as if what I had written was not about me, but an expression of our collective struggles. ‘Jagged Teeth’, it’s not about me and my crippling anxiety, it never has been. It’s about whatever’s eating any one of us alive at any given time. It’s about us.

I look over at Kåre, giving it his all again, singing along with a passion to rival the front row. Why is it his favorite song? What’s eating him? And why have I never thought to ask?

What's eating me?

He doesn't really care, otherwise he would have asked me long ago. He's had four years to get to the point.

Not that I'm the easiest person to convince to open up.

Axel believes what he wants to believe, and he has it in his head that I'm perfect. I don't believe that's a fantasy that he wants obliterated. And that is why he never probes any deeper. If I was imperfect, I'd be complicated and his life is complicated enough as is.

He's my dearest friend and yet his comprehension of me is so shallow that if you dove in, you'd break your neck.

The thing is, he fears the deep end, no matter how much he denies it.

So he gets the kiddie pool version of me.

And that's fine.

There’s a lull between the first two songs as Tor struggles to adjust his bandage to accommodate his grip. While he’s working on that, the kind of guy whose Grindr pic is a headless torso with a freshly shaved chest and chiseled abs, hands me a beer which has sloshed around on half of the audience on its way up to me. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there.

Cheers, everyone! Cheers!” I raise the glass with the rest of the audience, clink it against hot Grindr guy’s glass, drink and immediately grimace. “Yeah, that’s warm! You’ve been saving that for me since doors opened, haven’t you?”

He chuckles, shaking his head in denial.

“If you like, you can save a little something for me for after the show too!”

“Oh, it won’t be little!” he boasts.

“Ooh, listen to him!” I leer at him, shooting a skeptical look at the rest of the audience directly after. “I’ll be the judge of that, honey! Wait, come to think of it, aren’t you the dude that sent Kåre a dick pic earlier today?”

Grindr guy throws his head back, laughing.

“You seriously gotta be more careful. He shares that shit backstage like your coworkers do pictures of their kids on office lunch breaks! And we’re all like, oh my, look how he’s grown!” When I look over at Kåre, he’s bent over his bass, shoulders shaking, flushed face planted in palm and yet still capable of giving me serious side eye. I’m fairly certain I broke my bassist now, too.

Yeah, I used to dread these lapses between songs, so self-conscious and scared of sounding stupid that I was stricken mute, sweating, all eyes upon me. Just say something! Anything, for fuck’s sake! As frontman, it should have been my job, but I was so utterly incapable of performing it that Nauru’s lead guitarist, Onni, was forced to fill that role for years.

Of course, as a solo artist, it would have been spectacularly strange if I used someone else as a mouthpiece. However, Micke was such an extreme extrovert that often the banter between the two of us in the breaks was enough to entertain the audience. When it was just a conversation between him and me, albeit in front of a crowd, the whole affair was far less of a threat.

Micke was a crutch. Now he’s gone, along with the comedic content provided by our habitual ragging on each other. There’s a gaping hole where we used to be. At first I really struggled to fill it. I didn’t know how then and I still don’t. It’s an insurmountable chasm. I’m the king of self-deprecation, but it’s just not the same dynamic when I stand up here and rag on myself. I’ve had to adapt. Work twice as hard. Take on a modified amalgam of Micke and myself, to truly become a solo artist.

Micke was a crutch, but at least he supported me while I was learning to walk on my own. It’s a shame he was taken away prematurely. It may be my imagination, but I still feel like I’m limping along without him.

“So that was our first soooong…” I strum out a few chords. “The next will be along in, I dunno? Five, ten minutes?” I glance back at Tor, and he flips me off with his good hand. “In all seriousness, though, I ask that you folks please bear with us tonight. Tor back there smashed his hand in a car door and he’s so dedicated to this circus that he still came to work. So let’s hear it for Tor on drums!” They cheer on command and he waves one drumstick in the air in acknowledgment.

“You know, it’s been a while since I played a show this intimate. There’s something very humbling about knowing that the first row is close enough to smell your breath. So yeah, if someone wants to send up a shot of something with mint in it next, that would be great.”

“I’ve got you!” Ola gives the thumbs up from the side of the stage, simultaneously sliding through the crowd toward the bar.

“I’m ready whenever you’re done making drink orders!” Tor bellows out behind me.

“Okay, okay!” I holler back, adjusting the mic stand that someone in the front bumped sideways.

“You should have a little sign that reads ‘Will busk for booze!’ up there!”

“Yeah, yeah, I guess I should,” I say dryly, stomping on pedals for distraction.

Sometimes Tor reminds me of Micke. And when he does, I struggle to subdue the rage that rises up in me. Or no, not rage, indignation. It’s patently unfair that Micke’s not here, and he is. Of course, I’m not mad at Tor. He’s done absolutely nothing wrong. So I try to suppress it; still it rises off of my skin like a scalding steam. I try to redirect it and it inevitably boomerangs back to bloody my nose.

I toss a quick glance over at Kåre to see if he’s recovered from earlier, and he nods. “This one is from Shaking Hands. It’s called ‘Until It Hurts’...” Tor counts off.

“Do you wanna tell where you've been?
I've got this sinking feeling.
There's something hidden that you've left unsaid
These days you're always leaving,

‍Oh, it's nothing we can't fake,
With the cameras pointed at us
Oh, the poses that we make
We're entertainment, pure tabloid fodder

Performance is catharsis. I have all of my best tantrums on stage and as long as I pick the right song, nobody even notices. This is one of those songs, one that essentially builds into a prolonged howl. I can thrust my guitar forward and slam it down against my hips to bruise them again and again, pull at my hair in moments of particular intensity if that’s what it takes to purge the pain. Up here, it’s pretty much protocol. Copious amounts of alcohol? Just another rock ‘n’ roll ritual. Who wants to go out, grab a beer and watch a slow-mo one-man fist fight?

As long as I’m standing up here, self abuse is socially acceptable. And I carry it out until the song’s last lines lead me to its abrupt end:

"Oh, it's nothing I can't take
I've endured a lifetime of pain
Do you even realize what's at stake?
I've been longing, searching for some kind of escape."

The crowd goes wild. They always do.

After about five songs, Tor is not unexpectedly forced to call it quits, ushered offstage with well-deserved fanfare. Frankly, I’m impressed he made it that far. But I’m inevitably going to have to doctor the set list on the fly. Or just forget it altogether.

“I guess it’s going to be a ballad kind of night from here on out, folks,” I announce.

They don’t care. I could declare that the four horsemen had taken to tending bar, and they’d be all for it, lining up for last call apocalypse cocktails.

While I’m negotiating an adapted setlist with Kåre, some baboons in the back begin barking:

Nauru! Nauru! Nauru! Nauru! 

“There’s always gotta be a douchebag,” I sigh. “Or two.”

What bothers me is not that they want to hear a Nauru song. It’s that they tend to be the type that show up to bitch about my current repertoire while reminiscing about days of yore. And occasionally I’ll play a Nauru song. But not on demand.

“Ignore them,” Kåre says.

“Nauru! Nauru!” They continue to chant.

Nauru! Nauru!

Another person in the audience shouts at them to shut up, but I’ve had enough and grab the mic. “Hey, what do you even know about Nauru?” A slew of phones go up in the air to record at the mere mention of my previous band’s name. Typical.

“Best band ever!” Brays one baboon.

“Yeah!” someone else across the room hollers, stoking applause.

Thus begins my TED Talk. “Nauru, it’s an island in Micronesia. Home to a detention center for asylum seekers. All they wanted was a better life. In Australia. What they got was a deplorable prison. Hunger strikes, people sewing their lips shut in protest. Suicides. Can you imagine?” I ditch the Les Paul and drag out the semi-acoustic, slipping the strap over my shoulder. “Back when we named the band, we couldn’t possibly imagine what the fate of that little island would be. But it’s an apt analogy if there ever was one.

“The point is… I was dying to escape the repressive, abusive bubble of that band and some people will never allow me to leave, never let me move on to a new life.” I plug in, quickly check my tuning. “So yeah, sure. Let’s do a Nauru song.” And that, my friends, is how you stun a crowd into submission.

Kåre releases an uncomfortable laugh and leans in to ask me, “Um, you wanna tell me what we’re doing?”

“‘Jerk’. We’re doing ‘Jerk’,” I tell him, before returning my attention to the crowd. “This probably isn’t the Nauru song you bros in the back wanted, but it’s the one I need to hear tonight.” I have to get it out of my system. One last time. Even if it’s gonna hurt like hell. “I wrote this one about the night I first met my husband. It’s called ‘Such a Beautiful Jerk’.

As I’m plucking out the intro, I question my choice to humor them. But what am I gonna do? Stop and say I changed my mind, or suck it up and sing?

"Awaken me, shake me awake from slumber
Dance me bombastically to the brink
Counteract, call into question all the trash I think
Rubble-rouser boy-wrecking ball,
Demolishing my brickwork
You are such a beautiful jerk..."

By the time the bass-line comes in following the verse, I’m struggling. I keep playing the section that falls between and I play it a little too long, adding in additional measures until I can reel myself in again. Thankfully, Kåre is a pro, deftly adapting to whatever I throw at him, albeit with a focused frown of thinly veiled confusion. Patiently biding time until I get on with it.

Frankly, I never know if I have it in me to go on. I just keep going through the motions rote.

Surveying the solemn faces amidst a sea of raised cell phones, I imagine Micke among them. I conjure him up and spy him lingering, looking on from the bar. Ethereal his skin, his blonde hair curling into soaking wet tendrils that drip and make ripples in his beer. His once bright blue eyes washed out and colorless, ever hold my gaze. God, he was gorgeous. In his own funny way.

I’m no longer drawn toward him by a debilitating panic, desperate to run barreling into his arms. Not plagued by the pain of a palpitating heart that no longer beats in rhythm with his, that attempts to find a beat of its own and nearly fails. Those kinds of imaginaries may continue to play out in my dreams, but they have ceased to taunt me from the stage. Only the acrid ache in my chest remains, the distinct sensation of a scraping beneath my sternum, a dull blade gnawing away at my rot-ravaged cask of a rib cage. The grief that will not go until it hollows me out completely.

I’m almost empty now.

But I can still finish the song for him:

"Subdue my self-effacement and kill me with a smile
You give precisely what I can’t deserve
Conquer me with compliments, you really can’t do worse
Than make me the happiest man in the goddamn universe
Tear down my carefully laid, meticulous brickwork  
You are such a beautiful jerk…You’re such a beautiful jerk."

Ephemeral Micke makes his way to the far end of the venue with ease, because spectral him knows no obstacles. He deposits his glass by the door. “Don’t go,” I whisper, but he dissipates nonetheless. It’s not so much that he’s gone, because I resurrect him constantly. It’s more that he’s simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.

The applause brings me back; it swells and washes over me. I realize that I’m crying; I’ve been crying for who knows how long. At some point, I put my guitar aside. I don’t remember that either. When I look over at Kåre, he’s wiping away the dampness beneath his eyes with his fingertips. The song is over. My hands are shaking.

To my great relief, Tor appears out of nowhere with a glass of wine. “Oh god, thank you,” I say, releasing the breath I must have been holding. “What are you, a mind reader?”

“I thought you’d probably need it after that,” he says, giving me a quick, sideways embrace before heading stage-side to join the spectators again.

I have to say something. I’m ready now. It’s time. But for once, I’m at a loss for words.

“I’m sorry,” I say, rubbing at my cheeks with the sleeve of my jean jacket. “I’m really very touched that you people came here tonight. Apart from those two in the back, you’ve been amazing,” I smirk. “You see, people often come up to me and tell me ‘I’m your biggest fan!’ Well, I’m your biggest fan, all of you.” They celebrate that with still more applause. They don’t realize what’s about to hit them.

I don’t deserve this level of devotion, especially not when I’m about to break their hearts. “Listen, I have some bad news.” The audience goes hush, and I hesitate.

This is the wrong night. The wrong crowd and the right crowd. It should have been special. I should have said goodbye in Stockholm. But as circumstance would have it, this is it. It is what it is.

No more standing on the precipice. I made my decision. Now, I leap.

“This is my final show. I can’t do this anymore. I’ve tried really hard to continue. But it’s— too painful.”

I watch some faces in the front row break, like porcelain masks slammed mercilessly to the venue’s concrete floor. Cries of “No!” erupt from various places in the venue that I fortunately cannot see.

“I want to thank all of you for letting me do this for so many years. So, please... why don’t we make this the wildest retirement party ever?” I force a smile. “You’ve got half the show left to help me go out with a bang.”

I can hear him in my head, even now. But his voice grows quieter with each passing day. Today it’s a mere whisper. Tomorrow, softer still. One day, I won’t hear it at all. The thought is more than I can bear.

Kåre approaches and leans in close to shout into my ear above the din of the ensuing commotion. “I know what you’re doing!” I note his furrowed brow, how he wrinkles his nose. However, it’s difficult to surmise if it’s in disgust or disdain.

“What am I doing? I’m quitting. Of course you know that, I told you.”

“No, it’s more than that. This is the worst thing you can think of doing to yourself, because it’s the only remaining thing that brings you joy!”

“Wrong. It used to bring me joy and now every single show is an emotional roller coaster.” I stop to throw back what’s left of my wine. “No, no, no, you know what it is? Every gig is a goddamn fucking funeral!

Yeah, that last bit was probably picked up by the mic. Everyone heard that.

Tor comes running up onstage in the confusion. “What the fuck? You were serious?”

“Oh yeah, dead serious!” I chuckle, motioning for him and Kåre to meet me in a band huddle. “So let’s end this.” I tell Kåre we need to go right into an upbeat batch of songs that I had planned for the finale, to lift the mood. Which may be a bit much of an ask, considering that he looks as if I just backed a tour bus over him. “‘Focus’, then straight into ‘Mirror’. Okay?’”

Kåre sighs. “Can we even pull that one off without drums?” His face is expressionless.

“Fuck it!” Tor says. “If it’s the last time I get to play with you, I’ll manage.”

He takes his seat behind the drum kit before I can even slip my guitar strap over my head and counts off. Nothing is the same. The whole dynamic, everything has changed. This is the end of the world, after all.

Thankfully, my idea works. It feels like the band on the Titanic at first, but the atmosphere gradually lifts again, once again becomes buoyant. Maybe I imagine it, but the voices seem louder; it’s now or never and everybody knows it. Now when they sing, their voices almost eclipse my own.

I’ve been so incredibly fortunate, endowed with the honor of leading an audience night after night on a tour of my personal triumphs and tragedy in song. Here’s the thing, though. What these songs mean to me no longer matters. It never did. They mean something different for every fan I’ve ever talked to. I’m only the prism refracting their light. Together, our spectrum of experiences creates something truly beautiful.

Songs are vessels, filled with whatever the listener pours into them. They transcend their origins. I may have crafted the container, but they are the contents. They didn’t come to hear me sing my life; they showed up to sing theirs. Along with me. Suddenly I understand what an absolute honor that is. When it hits me, it sends me reeling.

But idiot me, just minutes ago I threw all that away. Because I felt so completely alone that I couldn’t hear the choir.

Soon, inevitably, we’re nearing the conclusion of the set. Well, what I like to call the “fictitious finale” of the set. I mean, let’s just call it what it is. You aren’t actually planning on leaving for long.

“Thank you to every single one of you for being here with us tonight,” I say again, as the “final song”, drawn out in an old rock cliché, reaches its dramatic conclusion. “I am truly, truly grateful!” The sound they make is staggering; I have to take a few steps backward before giving the customary wave. “Goodnight!”

Then comes that awkward moment when you remember you’re in a venue without an accessible backstage area to retreat to, and nobody is going to let you get far until you just keep playing. So we three goons stand there in the shadows, in a cramped corner, discussing our next move, drinking our beers and casually pretending that nobody can see us. The crowd’s cheers for an encore are so loud that we can barely carry on a conversation.

“So you, Tor, are off the hook for the evening. Thank you for your service!” I holler and offer him an authentic hug. “How’s your hand?”

“I don’t know, it went numb ages ago!” he shouts with a shrug.

I turn to Kåre. “How are you doing?”

He gives me a flat look, then glances up at the ceiling, blinking and shaking his head ever so slightly.

“You’re still pretty pissed at me.”

“No,” he says, finally looking me straight in the eye. “I’m fucking sad!” Then the corners of his lips twist downward sharply. I grab him so as not to see him cry, pulling him into me in a tight embrace and resting my head atop his. We merge and time seems to slow to a trickle. The only reminder of its usual rhythm is the pulse of the crowd stomping for our return under our feet and the shaking of his shoulders.

“Come on. We gotta pull ourselves together and go back out there,” I say, at last forcing myself to release him. “Assuming you want to play. You don’t have to.”

“I want to,” he says resolutely, sweeping under his eyes with his fingers once more, blackening their tips with displaced eyeliner and rubbing finger and thumb together to dispel the dampness. “I’ll manage.”

Then I remember the tears and my makeup. “Shit, do I look okay?” I ask, pointing at my face on our way.

“Pfft. My makeup is messed up now too, thanks,” he reminds me. “You look fine. You have always looked fine.” His hand at my back lightly shoves me toward the front of the stage.

Jesus, they are absolutely deafening. I grab the mic. “Aaaaand, we’re back. Let’s just pretend that we never left, shall we?” They clap and they howl in anticipation, playing along. “And let’s hear it for Kåre Jansson, the best bassist… and the best friend anyone could hope to have!”

They erupt into applause for him. He waves dismissively and mouths “stop it” at me. Finally he’s forced to give in to the acknowledgement, offering a nod and a shy smile to the crowd. The kid’s the most reticent rock musician I’ve ever worked with, I swear.

“So, um, who wants the world’s most inaccurate setlist?” I laugh, bending over to peel back the tape and pluck it up from beside my monitor. “It’s my last show, so you can sell it for a small fortune on eBay!” I give it a little wave in the air.

The horde in front goes wild, all hands vying for it, snapping at it like rabid hounds. But standing almost motionless amongst the mob, is a girl with turquoise hair, a row back, who only meekly reaches out, revealing to me her arms, which are marred by myriad scars. I see in her eyes how badly she wants it. But she clearly doesn’t want to inconvenience anyone else by fighting for what she desires.

I give a commanding wave of my hand to put a stop to the insanity and motion for her to step forward. “You. Come here.” The people in front reluctantly step aside to let her through. “What do you want to hear?” I ask, handing the coveted setlist to her.

Her eyes go wide and she blinks. “What?”

“What’s your favorite song?”

“Really?” Her brow knots up in confusion.

“Yes, really,” I nod, chuckling. “But you best hurry up before I change my mind.”

“‘Now Is Not the Right Time’!” she blurts out in a sudden, anxious rush.

I draw in a sharp breath. Lick my lips. Look away. Well, fuck. That certainly backfired.

Kåre, the saint that he is, tries to salvage my misstep. “Do you even remember how to play that?” He says it loud enough for her to pick up, offering me an exit, while masking his intention with forced laughter.

I acknowledge his offer with a strained smile, but when I return to her, her hands are knit together as if she’s praying for it. Like it would mean the absolute world to her.

“You don’t have some other favorite? Perhaps one with a bass line?” I chuckle, glancing at Kåre.

She shakes her head.

“Well, let’s try it,” I reluctantly relent, moving to take my seat before the keyboard and adjusting the microphone. This is the second song this evening that I vowed to never play again. “So I’m going to attempt my new friend…” I look back at her. “What’s your name?”

“Maia!”

“… my new friend Maia’s favorite song. But I might need some help to get through it, so uh… so be kind.” I suck in a deep breath and release it on a plosive puff of air. “This is ‘Now Is Not the Right Time’.” And, with some hesitancy, I begin to play.

"The light slinks across this tomb with a view
Skanstull obscured through frozen winter window panes
Dust dances and sparkles in the late-morning glow
But you know it’s only dead flesh on a draft, it’s beauty profaned."

I wrote the song for Micke the time he returned after a tour with Attax, determined to get clean on his own terms. His own terms, for my sake. But the ensuing depression… it ravaged him. He told me that if coming down didn’t kill him, he would do it himself. He didn’t just come down, he crashed, flaming debris raining down over both of our lives.

Less than a week later, he was using again. At the time, I almost felt relieved. Because at least Micke was Micke; he wasn’t suffering anymore. Not overtly. I fucking hate myself for that.

I glance up, realizing my focus has been exclusively upon my fingers moving across the keys. Although he has no role in this one, Kåre hasn’t left the stage, instead standing off to the side, clutching the bottom edge of the body of his bass and watching me intently. His expression is funereal, but his eyes are full of empathy and somehow him standing there in solidarity helps.

"You curse, wondering what you did to deserve another day
This endless age of suffering steadily strips away
Your humanity, your sanity
Light is cruel upon your eyes, with your darkness beckoning
‘Come to me, I’ll set you free.’"

The upcoming refrain is in my head voice and I can feel that I’m going to botch those notes. It’s hard to say if it’s because this song has once again brought me to the brink of breaking down, or if two years of binge drinking has at last obliterated my upper range. After my sorry first attempt at the first line of the chorus, I decide it’s time to laugh and acknowledge the truth.

“Yeah, well, clearly I’ve destroyed my vocal chords, so… do you wanna sing it for me?” And they sing it. Almost as badly as I did. So at least I’m not upstaged by my own audience. They sing it sourly as hell and so sweetly that it chokes me up completely.

"Desperation has replaced me as your closest, constant friend
You take hold of the golden thread and follow to its end
You believe the skein is winding out and you’ve reached the end of the line
But hold on,
Now is not your time
."

Axel sits at the keyboard in dark blue stage lighting, singing into the microphone. His cheeks are wet with tears, his long damp hair fallen over half of his face.

My voice drops out, but the song continues. I can even stop playing the piano altogether. I stand up to watch them all keep going at it, pacing the stage in this moment where something that I created has taken flight, like a runaway kite no longer under my control. When I can manage, I join them. However, the song goes on without me. It’s beyond a doubt the most beautiful thing I’ve witnessed in my entire career. And still it doesn’t sway me. I won’t budge.

This was the song I wrote naively, hoping it could save Micke. Ultimately, it was useless. The song failed him; the song failed me, and I never wanted to hear it again for as long as I live. Now everyone is singing it for me and it’s destined to fail once more.

"I won’t promise that the years will smooth out snags and heal your wounds
But I promise that I’ll try to guide you through
Life may spool out endlessly
But your fibers are forever bound in mine
The frayed edge will mend, the tears will end
If you give it… just a little more time."

They don’t actually need me as much as I needed them tonight. They will clearly continue to sing my songs without me. Whether or not I’m here.

My time is up.

Suddenly lightheaded, I barely make it back to the piano bench. “Okay.” I lean in toward the mic and release a long exhale. “Oof. That was intense!” I feel Kåre’s hand come to rest briefly on my shoulder, but I can’t bring myself to meet his sympathetic gaze.

My heart is pounding. This is it. It’s the end. “This next one is our last for tonight. We actually have to stop at midnight. I apologize for the late start and for talking too much, as usual. But, I really need to get to the bar and you guys won’t let me out,” I’m obliged to smile here. I hope it looks more authentic than it feels. “But here’s the thing. I’ll stick around after the show and hang out over at the merch booth. You all are welcome to stay until closing time and keep me company. I’ll sign your shit, I’ll photo bomb your selfies, whatever you want… is that good? Can we agree on that?”

“We love you, Axel!” Somebody calls out.

And another.

A washed out image of the crowd cheering before Axel with the house lights turned up.A washed out image of the crowd cheering before Axel with the house lights turned up.

“You guys need to stop that or I won’t be able to sing this one either!” I warn them around the growing lump in my throat, swallowing to chase away the sensation of strangulation. “I loved you all. Don’t forget that.” I’m overwhelmed.

Also, I’m terrified. Because there’s no turning back now.

Ironically enough: “This last one is called ‘Means to an End’…”

Indeed.

And then.

Just like that.

It’s over.

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