Elegy - Cover


Copyright© 2023 by Lumpy

Chapter 20

Warren had picked me up early that morning for the drive to Asheville. It seemed crazy that he’d driven up from Asheville to Wellsville just for us both to go back, but I guess this was official, and he felt he needed to get me prepped for the interview.

I did wonder briefly, what with his cast, how he was going to drive us, but that was explained when he showed up in a town car with a guy wearing a suit driving the car while he was in the back. It seemed like a bit of an unnecessary expense. I’d driven to Asheville a bunch of times by now and was used to it, but who was I to question how the record industry worked?

I was at least glad he didn’t bother to get out of the car. Having been on crutches the previous year, I knew what a pain it was navigating your way in and out of a car while dealing with them. Instead, the driver got out and opened the passenger door for me to slide in next to him. For a kid who grew up in a broken-down RV, this was quite the step up.

The whole trip we went over what to expect from the interview. Warren had a bunch of questions that he thought Rivers might ask, so he made sure that I wouldn’t be surprised and that I had some idea how to answer them. Several were indeed shocking, which I guess should be expected from a shock jock, leaning into the most horrific parts of that night. While I didn’t love talking about that, I was glad Warren had brought it up now, so I wouldn’t be caught off guard. We also went over some strategies for redirecting the conversation, although that was less predictable, so instead of role-playing our way through it, we went over general tactics and guidelines.

Finally, we were dropped off in front of a dingy, old-looking building with a sign for the local rock station. I don’t know what I expected for a radio station, but this wasn’t quite it. Of course, this was a small market, and country was much more popular out here than rock or pop, so maybe it was just the area.

As we stood out front, taking in the building, and giving me time to build up my courage, Warren clapped me on the shoulder, giving me an encouraging smile.

“You can do this. You play in front of crowds two or three times a week. It’s just a conversation, and I’ve seen you charm rock stars. Rivers is small potatoes compared to Ronnie Ralston.”

“Easy for you to say,” I muttered, wiping my sweaty palms on my jeans.

Last spring, I’d been a mid-act at a concert event and had a run-in with Ronnie Ralston, who was just about as big as you could get in our business, and the interaction had gone okay. Of course, that was a completely different situation. For one, our conversation was more like a handful of sentences and lasted maybe two minutes. This was completely different.

It also wasn’t a crowd where I was performing. Sitting alone in a studio, talking into a microphone with a million-plus strangers listening in ... that was a whole other level.

We pushed through the dark glass doors into another world. Gone was the bleak concrete and nondescript brick, replaced with lush carpets, warm paint, and what I could only assume was expensive furniture. The walls were covered with signed pictures of famous musicians going back forty years, some of whom I recognized and some I had no idea who they were.

The station manager greeted us and led the way into the studio, chatting enthusiastically the whole time about what an exciting opportunity this was and about how many listeners Axel Rivers commanded. None of which did anything to calm my churning stomach.

“Have a seat here, Mr. Nelson,” the manager said, gesturing to a padded chair in front of a fancy-looking microphone. “We’ll have you on with Axel in just a few minutes. Do you need anything before we get started? Water or coffee?”

“Uhh, no. I’m good, thanks,” I said, stumbling over my words.

My mouth had gone dry, but I doubted I could swallow anything right then.

“Great. I’ll leave you to it then,” she said, giving me an encouraging thumbs up and leaving.

Alone in the studio, I took a deep breath and did my best to center myself, thinking of some of the techniques Chef taught me. I assumed the advice about keeping calm before a fight, keeping my wits about me, and trying to stay ahead of my opponent applied to this just as much as a fight.

I wanted to do well. This was a huge shot for us. Sure, the circumstances leading up to it weren’t ideal. No one wants their music to get exposure because their concert venue nearly burned down, but I’d take what I could get. All I had to do was not make an idiot out of myself, talk up the band, and who knew where we might end up after this.

First, though, I had to manage not to throw up or pass out. Every time I looked at the dark screen on the wall across from me, that the station manager had pointed at, I thought about all the people who’d be hearing me. A crowd of thousands was one thing. This was ... something else.

Blowing out a slow breath, I leaned forward in my seat. This was what I’d signed up for.

The screen flashed to life, making me jump. There was Axel Rivers staring into the camera with a sly grin. I realized I’d never actually seen a picture of him, just heard his voice. He looked nothing like what I had pictured. If anything, he reminded me of some of the older guys on the back end of their music careers that I used to see at the places Dad played when I was a kid. He had long, curly brown hair, already going gray, and a scraggly half-stubble, half-beard, also starting to turn gray.

After a second, I realized he wasn’t looking directly at me, but at someone else in the room with me. The camera eye-line was looking directly at him, but a little higher. It gave the impression he was talking to me when he was, in fact, just looking straight ahead, probably at a producer or a computer monitor. It was clever placement.

“Good morning, America, and welcome back! We’ve got an exciting guest for you all today. Fresh off a fiery show in Raleigh, literally, please welcome Charlie Nelson, frontman for Charlie and the Wild Cats!” I winced at the pun but managed a smile.

“Hey, Axel, thanks for having me.”

“We’ve already covered the fire a few times and talked to a few survivors, but I’m dying to hear how it appeared from up on the stage. So we’re gonna start with what everyone wants to know. What was it like?”

“To be honest, Axel, it was a nightmare. We’d only just gotten through our first song when one of the projectors at the front of the stage started sparking. It happened so fast I barely had time to figure out what was going on. It only took a minute before the entire stage was on fire. Before we knew it, the fire had started climbing up to the ceiling and people were panicking. If it wasn’t for our tour manager, Warren, getting everyone out of there, it could have been a lot worse.”

“I heard that if it wasn’t for you, things could have been a lot worse. People on the scene tell us you got a rear door open and were leading the crowd out.”

“It wasn’t just me. Two of my bandmates, Marco Manning and Seth Bell, were the ones who fought through the smoke to get the doors open, and if it wasn’t for Lyla Grant, who plays bass for us, our tour manager would have bled out. They really came through.”

“Didn’t you go into the crowd, directing people out through the doors?”

“I had to. Two of my best friends were working our merch booth at the back of the room. My only thoughts were to get them out, really. Honestly, anyone else would have done exactly what I did.”

“Maybe, although this reminds me of that fire in Los Angeles last year. Unlike what happened in Raleigh, thirty people died in that fire, including two of the band members. From what I’ve heard, this fire was just as bad and could have gone the same way.”

“We just got lucky, Axel,” I said, pushing the raw emotions that still came with remembering seeing the venue burn down. “I’m just really grateful for everyone’s support. The guys from the Raleigh police and fire departments responded incredibly fast and are the real heroes here. I also want to give a shout-out to my label, MAC Records, for making sure we had everything we needed after this happened. They were really there for us. Honestly, we’re just looking forward to moving on from this. Our album came out in September and is still doing great, and we had another show the week before Raleigh in Charlotte that was amazing. We all see this as a small bump in our story, thankfully one that ended more or less happily.”

“That’s incredible. I’m glad to hear you all made it out safe. And your fans too, of course!”

“So are we, Axel. Our fans mean the world to us, and I hope to get a chance to meet more of them under better circumstances,” I said, struggling to steer the conversation away from the fire without sounding callous about it.

“What I think our audience really wants to hear, though, is what it was like in there. You were in the middle of the flames and just barely made it out. Paint us a picture.”

That was literally the last thing I wanted to do. I’d thought for a second there that I’d managed to steer him away from the fire and maybe even ready to talk about something else. Clearly, I hadn’t satiated their morbid curiosity. I could see Warren through the glass partition, standing behind the audio engineer or whoever. He could see me struggling to answer.

“It was ... intense,” was all I managed.

“That’s an understatement. Sources say at least a dozen concertgoers had to be hospitalized for severe burns and smoke inhalation. A few are still recovering in intensive care units across the state. Did you see any of that up close? Witness the injuries and suffering firsthand?”

“I don’t really ... It happened very fast, and I was mostly just focused on getting my friends and all of the people in there to safety,” I said, my voice trailing off.

“How did it make you feel?” Tommy Ducks asked, piping up for the first time.

Here I thought he was supposed to be the comic relief. Instead, he was bringing me down even more.

“It was terrifying, but really our focus now is on moving forward. We want to celebrate life and follow our passions. That’s what our music is really about, finding the joy in life. We debuted a new song at the show that isn’t on our album, called The Little Things.”

We actually hadn’t gotten to that song since it was our closer, but we had played it at the Blue Ridge once, and it was on our set list that night, so it wasn’t a straight-out lie.

“Speaking of new songs, I know a lot of the artists we talk to are inspired by events in their own lives. Has what happened that night given you any ideas?” Axel asked.

He was good. Instead of an abrupt change back to the fire itself, he took my talk about writing songs and twisted it to be about what happened.

“Not yet, but there’s a chance it might. I wouldn’t say all of our songs are based on events in our lives, since I never met Jesse James, but a lot of them are. I guess we’ll see where inspiration takes us.”

Instead of looking straight ahead, Rivers looked into the camera and gave a smirk and a small headshake. He didn’t seem particularly annoyed, and if anything, the gesture was more one of amusement, so maybe I scored some points by not giving up.

“After everything you went through, I gotta say I’m impressed you’re able to put it behind you and focus on your music. It shows some real resilience. I’ve known a lot of bands over the years who were hit something only half as traumatic, and it basically ended their careers. So kudos. It shows the mark of someone who’s in this for the long haul,” he said.

I shrugged, even though he was back to looking straight ahead.

“We’re just doing what we love. I once told one of my bandmates that nothing would get me off the stage, so I guess now I had to prove it. We took a week off after Raleigh, but then we were back to our regular weekend gig at the Blue Ridge Bar & Grill just off Exit 19 on I-26 here in North Carolina. I guess the real test will be our upcoming show in Philadelphia and our spring break tour across Georgia and Florida, where we’ll be part of the Spring Break Smash in Miami in March.”

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