Last Punch


Topanga Canyon – May 2014

He woke up to the sound of Famine’s thunderous purr. She had placed herself in his left armpit right underneath his outstretched arm, her whiskers stuck out just far enough to tickle the hairs in his armpits and purr him awake.

His eyes weren’t even open yet, but he knew what he would see. The blue light of predawn burnishing his upper bedroom windows, Famine in his armpit and Pest, Death and War lined up like a feline barbershop trio on his other side willing him awake.

Well, they did say cats adopted you to keep you humble.

Al opened his eyes. All four cats gave him the evil eye for not jumping out of bed and running to the kitchen. He also saw his black-painted bedroom, the black duvet, his four-poster bed and a vast expanse of crumpled burgundy velvet bedspread concealing nothing more edifying than four different shades of cat hair.

These days and most days lately this bed was empty. With the kind of batshit women he usually attracted, this was just as well.

He sighed at the canopy above his head, rubbed the grit from his eyes and sat up. All four cats instantly leapt off the bed and began to mewl in anticipation of their breakfast.

Silly creatures. As if he’d ever starve an animal besides himself.

“All right, all right, guys. You know the drill.” Al stretched as he got out of bed and tried not to notice the definite creak in his bones this morning.

You could be screaming famous, rich beyond your most avaricious dreams, live a life dedicated to discerning dissipation, have hordes of female phone numbers in your little black book. He had all of that.

But Gawd fucking damn it. You still grew old.


Two hours later, the cats were fed, the coffee was brewing, and he had finished the first fifty laps of the day in the pool and was working his way around his private gym. Weights, check. Rowing machine, check. Jump rope, check. On his way to his fifty-seventh birthday next month, and he could still bench-press 400 pounds. Take that, decrepitude!

Alasdair Cameron Lennox, known to the world as Al Nox, this is your life, he thought as he beat his punching bag into submission.

Fifty-seven next month, eighteen albums over a nearly forty-year career, fifty million albums sold, sold-out arenas on four continents, the accolades and acknowledgement of two generations of his peers and a gazillion screaming, rabid fans. So many, he’d had to move from his house in the Hollywood Hills all the way out here to this isolated spot of BFE Los Angeles County, just to get away from the stalkers, the crazies and the crazier women he dumped after a few weeks because they bored him to tears with their demands for everything he didn’t want to give them.

Like a relationship. A house in Los Feliz. A thorough thrashing in his dungeon. Or infinitely worse. A wedding ring.

Fuck that shit.

He punched the bag harder.

It was simple, really. He felt increasingly dissociated from the music business, from music in general, from everything he cared about and even from life. Call it middle-aged malaise. His later albums received tepid reviews, even if they still sold, even if he could still fill the venues and sell the merch.

But rock’n’roll was dying or else becoming a parody of itself in this age of MP3s, Blabbermouth troll gossip and Spotify, who didn’t even pay the bands properly no matter how many times their music was streamed. That didn’t help.

Metalheads didn’t want innovation and renewal, they just wanted their own biases and preoccupations validated. Half the time, not even he could tell most of the good bands apart, they all sounded like each other. Sure, they were good musicians, but he was schooled at Juilliard and expected nothing less.

At least, that was what he thought until Max Shell came along. These days, Max was about the hottest, raddest producer and impresario in metal since anyone in the Eighties, and he should know.

Max took unknown, run-of-the-mill metal bands and supercharged every single one of their tired, trite musical clichés until even the drums pounded out undiluted evil. He elevated the guitars to chimerical distortion levels, skewed bass lines into impossible contortions, amped up the vocals all the way to demonic possession, and then released that sonic hell into an unsuspecting world.

Al had heard everything since he first started out in the industry. Yet he had never in his entire life heard anything at all like that. Neither had anyone else. And before long, they were all trying to figure out Max Shell’s M.O, trying to take apart his sound and coming up empty. Not even he could figure it out. Six years at Juilliard with the finest music teachers in the world, and Al Nox, musical genius since age three, was drawing blanks.

He pummeled away at the bag.

Those bands sold like ice cream on hot summer days. Which meant more money and more power for Max. All the metal rags wanted to interview him, every band who had ever made a name wanted him to produce them.

No dice. Max Shell never gave an interview, never answered requests for producing or engineering. He was a strictly invitation only kind of guy.

But what Max did need was a brush of legitimacy. He needed a big name, someone who would understand what that sound was trying to say, someone who knew the drill, someone who got it all the way to bedrock and bone marrow.

He stopped beating the punch bag for a moment to catch his breath and wiped the sweat off his face.

In other words, he needed Al Nox. Which explained today.

Because Al needed Max Shell, too. He needed that extra creative kick in the balls, needed to stop coasting on his twenty-plus years of superstardom, needed a newer, fresher audience than the fans who stuck with him since his radical punk days, and they sure as fuck weren’t getting any younger either.

So two months ago, he’d signed a contract with Max. Even though the guy creeped him way the fuck out, even though all of Cambion Studios set his teeth on edge, with its very state-of-the-art studios packed with flawless black-clad youth and edgy attitudes.

The punching bag was really getting it today.

Eighteen brand-new demos were as perfect as he was able to make them. They were among the best stuff he’d ever done; he knew it in his bones. After all this time in this shitty business, he knew.

But he also knew he needed to move out of his comfort zone and away from his cronies, and so, he needed a new band. As in, a brand new band. A young band, a hungry band, a band that wanted to get it out there and give it all they had with everything they owned.

A band that would shut the fuck up and do as they were told.

Because he was Al Nox. Still relevant, still edgy, still pushing the limits and the buttons and the ticket sales.

Too many people wanted him to just slink away and die already, buried alive in this eyrie tucked away in a secret little canyon off two winding, nameless dirt roads.

Just one over-the-hill rock star sucking down his memories of former glories and triumphs and conquests, fondly remembered as the biggest douchebag in rock’n’roll.

Well, it was one way to get where you needed to be in this industry.

He needed a massive hit. Correction. He heard his mother’s voice in his head.

“Dare, you don’t need a hit, you want a hit, which is not at all the same thing.”

True. His missed his mother on a day like today. When he was reminded of the first day of school, when everyone would be staring and wondering and whispering behind his back.

The punch bang creaked on its chain as he beat away. What did he want?

A hit. That rush of adulation as he hit the stage and found the lights. When eighty thousand people flashed the horns and screamed his name. When it worked, when it was right, when it was magic, he got hard just thinking about it.

He wanted the best drummer Max could buy. Not some hotshot out to show off just how much he rocked out to Lars Ulrich, not some smartass who thought he was the next Vinnie Paul or Danny Carey.

Anyone who knew anything knew a drummer was fully half the band. He wanted a kid who simply got it, got the music, got the idea, had a backbeat for whatever Al could throw at him, had punk in his blood and blues in his soul and that all-important primeval pulse in his heart, that was what he wanted.

So last week he sat through over four hundred audition demos of every starving drummer in Los Angeles who responded to an open audition call for demos. Four hundred had been knocked down to twenty-five. The twenty-five who would audition live for Al, hidden behind a one-way mirror in the producer’s booth. They didn’t know it was him, only that they were auditioning for a headliner band.

He looked forward to seeing their shock of recognition and awe. They were so easily impressed when they were young. He hadn’t been one of them in a very long time.

Well, he sure as fuck didn’t want to be stuck out here in his solitary canyon with only the cats and the coyotes for company, either. Andy, his personal assistant and human punching bag, was usually stuck at the office fending off interview requests, plowing through the mail or passing stuff on to his manager.

His cats were lovely, but the conversation was a bit one-sided. The whack jobs and nut cases who wanted to fuck him these days didn’t know Monteverdi from macaroni, thought Schopenhauer was some kind of communicable disease. They didn’t know how to cook, didn’t know how to eat and didn’t know how to take care of him or give him space when he wanted quality time in his studio with his notebooks, his Steinway and the noises in his head. They wanted him to be their whole lives and he couldn’t be someone else’s whole reason to exist, simply because no one would never be his. The music came first. And last. Always.

The punch bag screamed with the strain as he pummeled away.

As he did, as the sky lightened over the Santa Clara mountains and his arms and shoulders began to ache, a long-buried memory floated up to the surface of his mind. The tiny, dangerous pinprick of a size 5 stiletto heel on his spine, a brush of long, satin hair and a light hand on the choke collar around his neck, heat radiating off perfumed, silky skin.

Should I be nice to you now? Have you deserved that? I mean, really, truly deserved it?”

            That faint, sexy purr of her foreign accent.

With one last, powerful uppercut and a groan that startled his cats, the punch bag described a perfect parabolic curve on its chain.

Al was so preoccupied, he never saw when the punch bag swung back and knocked him to the floor.

Something he hadn’t had in almost twenty years. Another someone he had brutally kicked to the curb for knowing too much, for caring too much, for seeing too much not of Al Nox, but Alasdair Cameron Lennox.