Read an Excerpt
She throws open the door and walks into an end-of-the-world
watering hole called the Havoc Bar and Grill, a converted
research laboratory somewhere on the outer fringes
of the metropolis. She is carrying a guitar. Its case looks
ordinary enough. It is scuffed and well-travelled, her name
-- JENNY SLADE -- is stencilled on the side, and it has a few
old stickers for amp and effects manufacturers, but there is
nothing about the case that gives any hint of what's inside.
The bar's decor is early post-nuclear holocaust; exposed
pipes and ducting, mutilated concrete, buckled metal furniture.
The customers might have been specially designed to
match. The crowd is male, drunk, aggressive, misogynistic,
and adolescent in mind, if not in age. They all lack a certain
something: good looks, teeth, fingers, brain cells. Undifferentiated
hostility hangs over them like a cloud of swamp gas.
Behind the bar a waif-like barmaid does her best to keep the
rabble in check, at least while they're ordering their drinks.
The badge on her white T-shirt says she's called Kate.
One of the drinkers looks at Jenny Slade and says, `Hey,
the stripper's arrived,' but even he knows it's not a good
joke. She doesn't look at all like a stripper. She doesn't look
much like a guitar player either. Oh sure, she has the beat-up
leather jacket and the motorcycle boots. And she has the
cheekbones and the mess of wild hair, but she isn't posing
as some kind of guitar heroine. She isn't playing at being
tough. She looks strong but not hard-bitten. She looks
self-possessed and able to take care of herself, but that
hasn't destroyed an essential sensitivity and vulnerability,
even a fragility. Jenny looks over her feral audience and
smiles. She's played far more difficult rooms than this
She can't remember a time when she didn't play the guitar.
She was the kind of kid who sat alone in Dad's garage,
yanking weird noise out of a plywood cheese-grater guitar.
That might have been considered a strange thing for a good-looking
teenage girl to be doing, but she had always been
far beyond that kind of suburban nonsense.
Even back then she liked to think of herself as a relentless
experimentalist. She employed what she only learned later
was called `extended technique'. She could play conventionally
enough when the gig required it, but at other times
she attacked the guitar with hammers, box spanners, nail
guns, adzes, spokeshaves. She would dangle house keys,
six-inch nails, rusty razor blades, spark plugs, nipple clamps,
from the strings. She loved feedback, distortion, sheer noise.
She liked to abuse both guitar and equipment. She knew
this wasn't going to get her into the charts but it made her
happy, and if it didn't always make her audiences happy that
was OK, since for a long time she seldom had an audience.
She orders a beer from the barmaid and props the guitar
case against the bar. The manager of the Havoc, a bald,
bearded ex-biker, comes over and asks, `What kind of axe
you got in there?'
`It's custom made.'
`Yeah? Can you play it?'
`Yes, thanks,' she says.
`Tell you what,' he says, with what he takes to be a devilish
glint in his eyes, `the beer's on the house if you can get up
on the stage and keep my customers entertained for a couple
`Oh, I can do that,' she says, and her face says that she
can do a lot more besides.
The barman tells her she can plug into an old Brand X
ten-watt amplifier, miked into the house PA. He admits it
isn't an ideal arrangement, but it's fine by her. She knows
that in the end it isn't a matter of equipment.
By now the crowd is taking quite an interest. They're too
hip in their malevolence actively to taunt her, but they leave
their seats and the pool table, and they crowd in around
the bar's tiny stage, their body language challenging her to
She stands on the stage, looking suddenly much smaller
and younger. She still hasn't taken the guitar out of its case,
but now she snaps open the clasps. There's a noise like a
sigh, and a wisp of what looks like steam, or maybe even
hot breath, billows from the case.
She reaches inside and takes out this thing. Well yes, you'd
have to admit it was a guitar, but none of these drinkers,
these lovers of good ol' rock and roll, has ever seen one like
this before. The neck is made out of some kind of unnaturally
lustrous metal, so shiny it almost has a glow to it. It is long
and thick, and convincingly phallic. The strings run along
its length, ultra light, ultra malleable, and end at the machine
heads in a lethal-looking tangle of spikes and cogs and
But this is the orthodox bit of the guitar. It's the body
that defies belief. It is shaped like an amoeba, which is to
say that it's curvy but essentially shapeless; and it appears
at first glance to be made out of some sort of tan-coloured
plastic. But the more you look, the less it appears to be
plastic at all. In fact it looks more like a piece of soft, private
flesh, and in places there are growths of hair bursting out
in thick, black, irregular tufts. There are blemishes that on
a piece of wood might look like knots, but here they look
disturbingly like nipples, and the pickups look like three
parallel bands of livid scar tissue.
`Hey, what do you call that sucker?' someone yells.
`I call it a guitar,' Jenny Slade answers quietly.
She straps it on, this instrument that looks part deadly
weapon and part creature from some alien lagoon. She plugs
a lead into a deep orifice in the thing's surface, and the bar
manager takes the other end of the lead and runs it into the
Without tuning up she grabs the neck at the seventh fret,
holds down a fairly straightforward-looking chord, and picks
out a lazy arpeggio with her plectrum hand. Well, the guitar
isn't in standard tuning, that's for sure. The chord contains
all kinds of weird harmonies, unisons, octaves, diminished
sevenths, augmented fourths, suspended ninths. In fact it
sounds like the richest, most complicated chord anyone has
ever heard. And that guitar has absolutely incredible sustain.
She's barely touched the strings and yet the whole room is
filled with that dense, ringing, fluid sound. It's not so very
loud, yet it demands absolute attention. It isn't a sound you
could dance to exactly but it sure keeps you on your feet.
And as the music hangs in the air the guitar tone is not
a wholly pleasant sound. It has elements of feedback in it,
elements of white noise, of grunge and skronk. And yet it
remains listenable and utterly compelling. Nobody's walking
out of this performance.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when somebody
comes on stage and makes horrible noise with, say, a
saxophone, the audience tends to dismiss the performance
as `just a load of fucking about'. Whereas when somebody
comes on stage and makes horrible noise with an electric
guitar, the audience is far more likely to say, `Holy moly!
Ruined cities of sonic mayhem! Give me more!' One day
Jenny thinks she may come to understand the reason for
this, but for now she's happy just to take advantage of the
She might have stayed a bedroom guitarist all her life if
it hadn't been for a dream she had. It was the last of a series.
Often these dreams were full of frustration; she would be
on stage playing an electric guitar in front of an audience
and something would always be wrong. Sometimes she
couldn't get the guitar in tune, sometimes it was too quiet
to be heard, sometimes the lead from the guitar to the amplifier
was too short to be usable.
But this final dream was different in several ways. In this
one she didn't even get as far as going on stage, and yet
there was no frustration. She simply arrived at a strange hall
in a strange town and outside was a poster advertising her
presence. The poster said, `The Flesh Guitar of Jenny Slade',
and there was a crowd of thousands trying to get into the
She liked the name. Even in the dream it seemed kind of
absurd and funny, and she knew how important a catchy
name is for entry-level rock musicians. Next day she set
about forming a band, Jenny Slade and the Flesh Guitars;
and sure enough she did eventually see her name on a poster,
and even occasionally saw crowds of people going into a
It was not in the strictest sense a prophetic dream. Yes,
it did forecast what was to happen, but only because Jenny
made it happen. But if she hadn't had the dream perhaps it
would never have happened at all.
Mostly her early fantasy life didn't come so directly from
the unconscious. Some of it was just playing around in front
of a mirror, some of it was just rock and roll teen dreams.
She imagined performing under the name of Juanita and Her
Musical Snakes. She would come on stage with a Gibson
Moderne and half a dozen boa constrictors of various ages,
lengths and diameters. The more sedate of these would grip
themselves around the guitar neck and hold down unresolved
chord shapes, while the younger more slender critters
would squirm across the strings creating wild atonal arpeggios.
The liveliest snake, whom she nicknamed Fidel, would
curl himself around the tremolo arm and create a profound
and unworldly vibrato. The audience would love it. But even
in the fantasy Jenny was aware that this was just a novelty
act, and she wanted more than that.
Another fantasy: If a guitar is cranked up high enough,
with the amp, and pickups and fuzz box all sex on maximum,
even the slightest vibration, a knock on the body, the mere
act of picking up the instrument will produce noise. In one
of her earliest, most radical pieces Jenny's playing consisted
of no more than blowing on her guitar strings.
In the fantasy she imagines she is in an empty, desolate
landscape, strapped into a kind of wheeled electric chair.
The wheels fit on to railway tracks, and there is a powerful
engine attached to the back of the chair. She is holding a
guitar, and it is cranked up so that every breath of wind sets
the strings roaring. A wireless transmitter sends signals from
the pickups to a mountainous wall of amps and speakers set
up some distance away.
When the moment comes, the engine will propel the chair
along the railway track, and the rush of air will make the
guitar whine; then, when the track runs out, like in some
Roadrunner cartoon, she will be propelled into space, into a
vast, deep canyon, still strapped to the chair, still clutching
the guitar. And as she falls through the air the guitar screams
and sings, and she knows that when she and guitar eventually
hit the ground, the most wild, eloquent and destructive
music will issue from the speakers.
And finally there is the fantasy of playing to a crowd of
fierce, low-brow, blue-collar yobs; but the Havoc Bar and
Grill is all too real, no fantasy at all.
Jenny's guitar continues to fill the place. Her playing
remains simple and unostentatious. She hardly seems to be
doing anything, scarcely playing at all, and yet this strange,
wonderful music continues to spill from the guitar. The
music gets ever more complex and darker, gets louder and
louder, and before long it seems to be the sound of planets
melting, of death factories imploding, of mythical beasts
being slaughtered, the sound of air moving and valves dying.
It goes on and on, timelessly, constant, yet ever changing.
And as the crowd watches, increasingly spellbound, the
guitar seems to develop a life of its own. It seems to be
breathing, to be pulsing with its own heartbeat. And then
the finale. Just when you can't imagine how Jenny Slade can
possibly embellish or prolong the music, and when you can't
see how she's ever going to bring it to a conclusion, the
guitar starts to bleed. Thick warm blood starts to ooze from
the scar tissue of the pickups, trickles down the guitar's
body, makes dark, scattered blots on the stage.
It's a hard act to follow. The audience is silent, but gives
Jenny what she wants and needs; unqualified, undivided
attention. And she takes certain energies away from them.
But that's OK, it's not as if they were using those energies
for anything much. As forms of vampirism go, this one is
relatively benevolent. She brings the music to an end, a
long diminuendo, a series of descending melancholy minor
Jenny would always claim that guitar playing has something
in common with chaos theory. A simple movement of
her plectrum, a pluck of a string, a movement no greater or
more dramatic than that of a butterfly's wing, would create
a signal which could sound as loud, as complex, as elaborate
as the sounds that might accompany the end of the world.
The music starts to evaporate. Smoke and decay and a
new silence hang in the air. The customers in the bar are not
quite sure what they've heard or seen, but they're suddenly in
need, acutely aware that they're dying for a drink. They
huddle around the bar, and the barmaid has a hard time
coping with their urgent demands for more booze.
Nobody applauds Jenny Slade. It wasn't that kind of performance,
but she's well contented with the audience
response. She sits down at a corner table and the manager
sends over a beer. The crowd are in awe of her, deferential
and too shy to approach her. Jenny slips her guitar into its
case and snaps its lid shut with a bold, decisive gesture.
Done it. It's finished.
Nearby is a young kid, not more than seventeen years old,
all Celtic tattoos, multiple piercings, blond hair and dirty
denim, a tough cherub. He's alone at a table full of empty
beer bottles lined up like ten pins, but he appears sober.
When Jenny looks towards him he turns his gaze aside, but
he can't ignore her when she says, `You're a guitar player,
`That's right,' he admits. `How could you tell?'
`The way you watched me play. The way you twitched
He grins shyly. `Yeah, I should stop playing air guitar,
`I've got something I want to give you,' Jenny says.
He blushes, aware of the sexual innuendo, but he can't
respond, and his embarrassment turns to dumb amazement
as Jenny Slade hands him her guitar.
`It's all yours,' she says, and she drains her beer and heads
for the exit.
`Hey, hey,' the boy says, and he gets up and pursues her
out on to the street. All eyes from the bar turn and look out
through the grey mottled windows to watch the dumbshow
that now takes place; his mimed reluctance to accept the
gift, Jenny Slade's absolute refusal to take no for an answer.
They watch as finally Jenny walks away and the boy doesn't
follow her. The guitar is his, though he has no idea what
future comes with it. He is too stunned to return to the bar,
and he too wanders off into the night, guitar in hand, but
in the opposite direction from Jenny.
`What was that all about?' Kate the barmaid asks. `Of all
the juke joints in all the world, why here? What did she
None of the drinkers offers an answer; they've already got
enough to think about. That was quite some cabaret turn
they just witnessed. They finish their beers and slowly start
to drift away. The manager talks of closing early, and
Kate begins cleaning up the bar and stacking some of the
At which point the door of the bar is thrown open again.
This time it's a plump, uncool lad in a tangle of thick, ill-fitting
clothes, laden down with several carrier bags, a briefcase,
a rucksack. Greasy hair is tucked in behind his ears
and his face shows the trouble he's having breathing. He's
panting like a greyhound and the sweat pours down the
sides of his nose, letting his horn-rims slip so that he peers
over the top of them. He's exactly the kind of nerd the bar's
clientele would normally have a lot of fun taking apart. He
speaks only with great effort.
`Am I too late?' he asks of the almost empty room.
Nobody responds and he hustles up to the bar. The
manager ignores him completely and the barmaid carries on
with her stacking, but eventually she calls across the room
to ask what he wants.
`Did I miss Jenny Slade?' he asks, but something in his
voice shows that he already knows the answer.
`Was that her name?' Kate replies. `Yeah, you missed a
`A good show,' he repeats bleakly.
`Actually,' she says, `it was more than a good show. It was
a great show, totally cool. I was completely blown away.'
He slams his fist down on the bar and for a moment it
looks as though he's going to do the same thing with his
head. There are tears in his eyes, tears of pain and absolute
`Can I get you a drink?' Kate asks sympathetically.
`Yes, whisky, lots of it.'
She eyes him uncertainly. He's young, doesn't look as
though he's much of a drinker, but he definitely needs something
to sustain and console him.
`Water with that?' she enquires.
He doesn't reply so she dilutes the whisky with a good
splash of water. She doesn't know why she should care. She
sees young men drink themselves into oblivion every night
of the week, but there does seem to be something uniquely
vulnerable about this guy.
`Come far?' she asks.
`From the ends of the earth.'
`Yeah, you really missed something special,' Kate says.
`I know,' he yells. `I KNOW THAT!'
The manager glances over, wondering if the guy's a
troublemaker in need of bouncing, but he seems harmless
enough and Kate is a much tougher cookie than she
looks. The new arrival takes off his spectacles and lets
the sweat and tears run freely down his wide, rounded
`Please tell me about it,' he sobs.
`Describe Jenny Slade's performance to me. Please.'
The barmaid tries but it isn't easy. She can't put her
enthusiasm into words, can't begin to express the excitement
of it. Besides, he wants masses of detail, more than she can
provide. She wasn't all that aware, for instance, of how Jenny
Slade was dressed or how she stood or what the piece of
music was, or what gauge of string she was using. Kate just
knows that she loved it. Her account is lively but it does
nothing to enliven the new customer. The more she
enthuses, the more miserable he becomes.
`What's your name anyway?' she asks.
`Bob,' he says. `Bob Arnold, and I'm Jenny Slade's number
`Is that right?'
`Yes, it is.'
`Well, you have very good taste. So how come I never
heard of her before?'
`Because she's a cult,' Bob says shortly.
`Tell me more.'
`How long have you got?'
Kate thinks of the cheap, cold, low-ceilinged room that
she calls home, a place she doesn't want to return to. Then
she contemplates a bar full of drink, the offer of company
and the chance to hear more about Jenny Slade, though
admittedly from a guy who looks like a nerd, and she replies
encouragingly, `I've got as long as it takes.'