25th March, 2004.
“What is up, fucker?”
“I was gonna call into the Rockline the other day and ask you the same question.”
“Hey, always great to meet a fan! How’d we do?”
“Professional opinion? You were all right, dude."
Tracii slaps the bar when he reaches Vince and pushes up against edge as a way to launch himself sidelong into the stool next to Vince. It‘s a bizarre acrobatic move that Vince, a fellow of equally short stature, can‘t recall ever using.
The second thing Vince notices settle in is an ether, Devil’s lettuce & Nag Champa mixed with that sweet garlic unique to guitarists who eschew coverings for their pickups. The guitarist recently-arrived has stained teeth and needled grooves across his cheeks, and his soulpatch is fashioned just like Nikki‘s. Vince isn‘t overjoyed to see him, and neither is Janeane (Glendale, 34DD, five months pregnant) tending the bar who eyeballs them both with mild angst - not everyone in town has forgotten the Key Club shooter incident, yet - but as Vince is feeling loose enough for bonhomie, he welcomes the warm breathing distraction for what it is.
Glasses chatter and skid over the bar, chiming and filling the space around them. Tracii kicks the toe of Vince‘s dirty white cowboy boot in camaraderie, “flattery will get you everywhere, goldilocks. But, be honest with me, here,” he says, sotto voce, “are they dragging me down?”
“Well, Sixx sounded like an asshole but that’s a reassuring constant.”
Tracii beams, ecstatic over the rare discovery of someone interesting with whom to bitch about Nikki. “You said it, brother. Shithead should come with a warranty.”
Tracii Guns is not his brother or even a friend, but Vince wallows in the mirage that he could be; a lull that almost closes his eyes. How many friends & comrades has Vince made by now, because Nikki is his enemy?
The grip of a strong phantom arm slips around Vince’s stomach as he & Tracii both wait for the other to speak. They make an odd tableau. Tracii swings his feet where they dangle off the floor and contents himself for a minute kicking at the legs of Vince‘s barstool. It’s a little cute, and it’s more irritating. and damn if that doesn’t explain why Nikki has taken to him.
Vince sucks down the last of his drink, shakes the soundless bottle next to his elbow and waves to Janeane for a top-up. She nods and casts about for another a bottle of Ten High but doesn‘t make eye contact. Stuck-up bitch. Vince prefers Rachel who works the graveyard. “So give me skinny. There another record already in the works?”
Tracii cuts his eyes to the smoke-mottled paint peeling off the ceiling. His mouth curls, as a a fortune fish does in a palm hot and desperate. His almost-teenage shag of hair, up close apparently growing back to oak brown from Just For Men in jackboot, conceals the burns & fades of wear across his face that guys like them eventually garner like they rack up DUIs and paternity suits. Around his sunburnt neck steel chains loop and drag his small body to tip forward a little into their conversation. “Three-album deal. Guess he didn’t tell you, huh.”
“He doesn’t tell me anything." Vince knaws his lip to force a smile, “you got full distribution?”
“Europe, Asia, 10 states. We got songs to go for years and we’re set up to tour anytime, anywhere, however long - we’re taking this one out 'til August - but you know how it is. Technically, Universal owns our asses now so we have to deliver big on this first disc.”
It isn’t a brag, and Vince does know how it is. He also has contradictory intel from Doc, and knows that in fact Nikki is refusing to tour with Poison even if it means getting to stand next to his beloved KISS and that Tracii is angling to wait a year so they can go out with Aerosmith instead. Vince wants to see what else Tracii tries to lie to him about.
“I gotta admit, looks good from where I’m standing. That’s a hell of a breakout you got. Billboard 100, 13,000 copies sold, three stars from Rolling Stone, Leno. Not bad...for a hungry pack of punks & wannabes.”
Tracii drops his eyes and his grin is absurd. He chuckles over and through his words. “It’s nearly 14,000 but thanks, Pops. Means a lot coming from a vet." He spins on his stool with an easy flourish. It looks ridiculous. Vince remembers a similar image from one of Skylar’s books strewn open on her bed in the ward, of a gremlin sat gaily on a toadstool. Tracii's blunt scabbed nails and nose and fingers are shorter, but otherwise he could be that merry imp.
On his slow return to stillness Tracii catches the bottle Janeane has finally dug out and lunges for Vince’s empty glass in the same movement, overfilling it, and says “and happy fuckin’ birthday, by the way. This one’s on me. What is it now, Mrs. Robinson, your 90th?”
Vince takes the drink and doesn’t wait for Tracii to find a glass.
Vince turned 44 over a month ago, and he suspects Tracii knows that very well from Nikki’s MySpace page status updates and name-dropping in interviews if nothing else. After hearing Nikki wish him happy returns on the radio Vince had to party until he blacked out at the Ritz-Carlton in South Beach.
Four years and fifty weeks is all the difference in age between the two men currently holding court at the bar and Vince feels every minute of that time as a gravity, an extra sandbag tied to his leg. They were all dumb dropouts when they first pulled on leathers 20 years ago but Tracii really was just a schoolkid, barely 17 and skipping his Prom to put Hollywood Rose together. Maybe, Vince thinks, that slight difference is why Tracii has left his physical appearance untouched by plastic & tongs; has seen the funny side when it comes to ageing; and now feels fit enough to charge back into the fray of their business even with his soul marooned somewhere in the cultural wasteland after Woodstock but before In Through The Out Door. He’s only 38 years old and apparently he hasn’t noticed the clock tick over to 2000. Fuck, Vince doesn’t even remember 9/11 let alone 1999.
Vince forgets often - the interminable ache & scratch he used to get down into ridges his windpipe after a string of consecutive sets and too many pills; the metallic dusty cologne of blow & bath-salts; the crackle in his ear from an earpiece feeding back from tech-to-stage; Tommy’s voice early in the morning before he smooths it with OJ & vodka and laughter. He cannot yet avoid the prickling in his spinal column and iridescence twinkling at the edges of his vision whenever he hears Nikki’s name, or whenever the other approaches him in silent threat.
He’s getting there. The symptom is dwindling with the ice in his whisky as each new summer comes in and swells. He doesn’t touch coke now, and Tommy spends his time spinning decks in Malibu with supermodels.
Behind the music, Vince thinks, there’s almost nothing now.
Tracii peers at him with curious apologetic concern, so Vince kicks him back and growls, “hmph. You wish your grandmother looked this good, son. I’m still fresh, just a young working gal trying to make it in Sin City.”
Tracii giggles in relief, leans elbows on his knees, tosses out another smile like he’s feeding Vince quarters to get him to play. “You’re a hot ticket right now from what I hear, Vinnie Vintner. I can’t even spell, what is it called, ’Sauvignon’?”
“Ah, get outta here. That’s just so I can afford to hit the tables on weekends without Lia losing what’s left of her mind.”
It’s half a lie. It’s a running joke that Vince will never win a dime in a game no matter how cautious or considered his bet, but in truth he hasn’t walked into a casino or sat down to a Six-max in months. Sometimes the words on the Rocketdyne paperwork all over his home office desk blur when he reads over them for anything he’s missed, and the letters begin to melt and morph into shapes, hearts & spades. Fuckin’ dyslexia. Last time he couldn’t read the latest from his lawyers he almost kicked Cakes across the room and then put his fist through the liquor cabinet. Lia never goes into that room anymore, and neither does the latest Colombian maid she recently hired.
Tracii suddenly straightens and rearranges his cheerful expression to something uncharacteristically grave. He sighs with melodrama and intones, “‘Trace - Vince likes action more than you like mota, and while I don’t approve of his habitual wastes of money and mental energy it isn‘t our place to judge his decisions.’”
Vince suspects Tracii’s impression sweetens the insult, that the original unabridged version of that soliloquy wasn’t so kind much less so reasonable. He plays along, smothering a snort into his glass. “Fuckin’ Sixx. He really say that to ya?”
“Somethin’ like that, man. He sounds like a damn Congressman, sometimes. For what it’s worth I told him to lay off and save the horseshit for his band of brothers at Twelve-Step.” Both know Nikki has never willingly attended AA for longer than a weekend and that he barely stayed five minutes inside the door of the Betty Ford no matter what he said in his book. As far as Vince knows no-one has ever openly called Sixx on that before. Nikki extending his compulsive lies to aphorisms and Tracii fuckin’ Guns of all people mockingly defending Vince’s vices to his face in rebuttal is a sure sign that something cosmic is amiss, and Sixx’s demonic power of control over hearts & minds is abating - or worse, he really is trying to go straight this time.
Tracii doesn’t recognise this happenstance as portent and chirps on, oblivious, “but he’s pretty happy with you, beyond that. There’s no denying the latest is fantastic - well, for a ‘Greatest Hits’ record.”
“Well, we did have a lot of hits, Electric Gypsy.”
Tracii raises his eyebrows but smirks, pleased, “right on.”
Vince notices Tracii has not taken a sip from the bottle sentinel between them nor has he asked for a glass of his own, and that as they talk he glances around at the other patrons with surreptitious interest. Vince wants to ask him for whom or what he’s looking, given Vince is here drinking solo and at this time of the day Tracii has no obvious purpose in coming here beyond a quick refreshment and a way to kill a half-hour.
“Speaking of glory days, you catch The Desolate One on the Ball? He took Pretty-boy with him and didn’t ask the rest of us. Dick.”
“Yeah.” Another lie. “Who knew that was still on the air. You like him?”
“London? Oh, his voice is killer. I question the ink, especially with looks he’s got - but what can ya do? But even with fuckin’ wings drawn on his face he’s beyond cool, really. Great kid.” A careful return, a dodge finessed into something resembling an answer.
“Then he’s not like we were.” Vince mock-toasts the air with the Ten High bottle, now half-finished.
“Hey, come on. I was always on my best behaviour. And no dogs on yourself allowed when it’s your birthday, man.”
Tracii still isn’t gloating, isn’t rubbing anything in Vince’s face and he’s not even trying to get Vince spilling mud and crushing out frustrated tears onto the backs of his hands; but his sober presence irks Vince more than any deliberate provocation. Tracii amuses himself watching Vince, reminiscent of a kid who examines a glow-worm caught in a jar on which he’s taking notes for a damn science-class report.
A cold solid point of chronic pressure in Vince’s ears clicks free, a safety. He hears a crowd echo - tinnitus, he’s had it for years but it only flares at times like these.
Fuck, he’s been sent a minder.
”You’re on orders.“
“He told you to come when he knew I’d be here.”
Tracii goes rigid, but for a frown. “He doesn’t tell me anything."
Well, ain’t that a bitch. “Whatever. I already know why. It's because of the fight on Sunset, years ago. Well, for his information that case is getting thrown out. Judge Stone isn’t even gonna charge if I go to anger management and bullshit some community service. It was 2002, and that sleazy cocksucker was beggin’ for it.” Tracii looks off to his left and over Vince’s shoulder. He‘s grimacing. Vince grips the whiskey neck and stands the bottle on his thigh. “No? Not it? Then what? The Sweden thing? Lia panicked, that’s all. I didn’t need to be in the ER. It was a VIP event, free booze and models, so of course it gets a little crazy. I had no idea that crew kept the cameras rolling another 24 hours after that.” Vince couldn’t face watching the episode of High Chapparal over, listening to his mother spin and careen through tales of his childhood misting over in his mind as a cataract. Thank God it didn't air in the States. “He used to skate, so beautifully", she’d said. He doesn’t think he could stand on ice, these days.
Tracii says, voice high and sympathetic, “I just wanted to say what’s up. You’re all good as far as I’m concerned. Whatever the deal is with you & Nikki-”
“The deal is, we wouldn’t be having this discussion if he wasn’t trying to psyche me out - which you’re gonna find out is just another nasty habit of his. This will blow your mind."
Vince skewers him with a critical stare. Tracii has pulled his shoulders inward and crossed his legs. He is giving Vince a distant look that is a dead ringer for Mars on those interminable studio days where nothing gets done, as if he’d rather be alone, be anywhere else where the news is better. He spreads his left palm out and upward on the sweated counter in surrender, and nods in slow assent for Vince to continue.
Vince moves forward on his stool to rest a foot on the ground and the other on the stirrup bar. “It’s no secret I sometimes lose days when I hit the Johnnie Walker a little too hard, and I miss things. Call-times, court-dates. I’m the first person to admit that and try to make amends. I treat the drinking like it’s part of the job description, and if it weren’t for Lia & Burt putting the cap back on the bottle I’d have nothing to show for it." Tracii opens his mouth to rebut; Vince is undeterred. “But here I am, not in jail and not in the ICU. Last I checked it’s not September. And it’s as much my fuckin’ band and my decision as it is his, to go out and do this pony-show again. I know what I need to do to keep it check and I sure as shit know how - on my terms, on my own steam. So you can stop wasting your rehearsal time, Dick Tracy, and go get in your car with a message for your Boss - I’ll see him on-stage clean and show-ready in five months, like always. And until then? I don’t need his boyfriend tailing me wherever I go getting all up in my ass about sobriety.”
Vince sits back. Janeane is gaping at him from where she is rubbing tumblers dry with a cloth. Vince blushes, and scrubs at strands of his hair under his heel. His notorious bleach falls are drying, breaking, turning bone-ashen with each summer gone. The skin on his scalp is numb to feeling, now; he wonders not for the first time if peroxide should have been his choice of poison over fire-whiskey, starting from the night Raz died and continuing for as long as it took to join him. Vince thinks next of Sharise and the customary chemical scorch of her greeting kiss after getting back from her monthly cosmetologist visits. He squeezes his eyes shut and hopes Tracii gets the hint to leave.
Several moments go by. Vince opens his eyes, and Tracii blinks back at him. He has not risen from his seat, or shifted his position. His answering gaze holds no pity or censure, just warm agreement. "He’s not my boss. And it’s his car.”
Vince starts with a laugh from his guts, and it feels like being hit; really, really hit. "What?”
“His fuckin' Porsche, dude. I borrowed it.”
“The 996? No shit. I saw him drive it out of the showroom the day he bought it, but he never let me get a good look at her.”
Tracii tips his head to one side, jovial, and his dogged black eyes seem to fizz with vigour and the desire to lift Vince’s spirits. It‘s conspiratorial. “Get this. He was driving my fuckin’ beat-up truck around the Strip in, God, ‘86, '87? I’d come home and my car would be missing from the driveway, no note or nothing. So I figure, hey, now it's 18 years later and we’re in bed together, so to speak - everything that’s his is mine, right?" Vince’s shoulders tremble with the effort of crushing out his mirth, of denying his companion the satisfaction of common ground. Tracii finally plucks the whiskey bottle from Vince’s hand and downs a mouthful. “So I’ve been joyriding his baby all over Sunset since we got back from doing Kilborn a week ago. He called me this morning to ask where his fuckin’ car is - I just told him Donna probably got it impounded 'cuz she found out about what he did at CB’s. He'll get it back when I'm ready." Vince doesn’t press for details, confident he can likely cite the indiscretion exactly without confirmation. Sixx is getting predictable - boring, even.
Another memory nips at his consciousness; just before recording Too Fast For Love, a small hour when he & Nikki & Beth came home from The Rainbow after hitting her high-grade blow all night long as hard as they could and breathing it into each other’s ears. Nikki had idled at the foot of Vince’s vile excuse for a bed on Clark Street just watching his bandmate caress and lap at Beth, but slunk away to his own sheets before Vince could turn to lead him into their dance with tongue and trailing touches. It was Nikki’s idea but Vince had wanted it more. Beth, confused and delirious, called his name five times to no response. Vince’s heartbeat spun out and collided with his ribs. He wanted to call out too, but that name would not leave his lips. He waited for Beth to fall asleep once he had finished, then stayed up on the couch and smoked into the morning. It hadn’t occurred to him until now that he had been waiting.
Tracii rambles with no pauses and Vince's mind re-enters the slipstream of his whimsical ideas to hear, “-and there's a Phase Two. I'm thinkin' about asking Donna to hit on me right in front of him, make him sweat a little. She’s a cool girl, she’ll be totally down to mess with his head. Plus, we’re going to England in June so I wanna be able to tell Bruce Dickinson to his face that I avenged his wife's honour." Tracii laces his fingers and palms, stretches out. “Hey - you still with me?”
Vince gives up. He smiles without effort, this time. “Yeah. I was just thinkin’ on how you’re a real piece of work.” They all are, and they make it a point of pride.
Tracii bares his teeth, cheeky. “What can I say? Payback’s a bitch, and I missed her.” The jukebox blurts behind them - something country neither of them recognise. At that Tracii jumps up, as if he's touched a wire still live. He throws a filthy crumpled fifty on the bar, hops off his stool and walks backwards with the soles of his taped-up Chucks slapping all the way to the open saloon doors. He winks at Vince as the light from outside eats into his image, hollers, “but I’ll keep him out of trouble 'til it's time to give him back, man!”
The growl of a twin-turbo engine is the concluding statement of their meeting. Vince slumps over the bar.
He routes a river of the remaining liquor down his throat to soothe his gullet laid open, his chirotic wound.
Minutes roar and race through him. Time spills. The insides of his eyelids sear and in front of his vision there are tunnels, hexagonal tunnels he plummets into that strip his synapses and imbue his atoms with new cores incandescent as fuses of rockets and expansive as columns of fire billowing from molten steel. Vince sees a silhouette of Skylar run down those tunnels and he pushes every thought and impulse in her direction. It’s a paralysing agony but he doesn’t give into the pain. A sound of bones pounding against skin begins. The ozone shrieks. Magnesium ignites. Pins & needles. White heat. Bitter lemon. Nausea. Her mercury, her shadowed essence melds with the tunnel’s end.
He wakes. As he comes to he flinches at a pinch of static. In seconds it’s beating and showering down on the hairs of his forearms and trickling through his nervous system. His brain chirrs. The feeling, what he’s come to think of as Nikki’s electricity, is stronger now than it’s ever been.
Janeane is gone. The AC is puffing cold breaths. Vince’s cell-phone vibrates in his back pocket. The call rings twelve times and then goes quiet.
Vince gets home, somehow, but doesn’t remember the journey.