Friendly Rivalry

The hum of the amplifiers creates an electrifying atmosphere as the arena explodes with applause, cheers, and chants of “Encore! Encore!”  The final chord resonates while the band members energetically strut off stage, graciously thanking their fans for their support.  Once the group was safely backstage and out of the view of the crowd, they grabbed towels and vigorously wiped the sweat from their faces, chests, and backs.  But first, the lead guitarist, Chester, was compelled to reach for his infamous bottle of whiskey.

He downed a few swigs straight from the bottle, just to get the tremors to calm so he could hold the bottle steady and think straight.  The other members noticed, but had long ago decided to avoid the confrontation.  After all, until recently, Chester’s performances were never affected.  Until recently.

“Pretty good show, for the most part,” Izzy, the lead singer and bassist, stated matter-of-factly while looking Chester directly in the eye.

“Yeah, I thought so too,” Chester replied.  “Couple little distractions tripped me up once or twice, but nothing too noticeable I don’t think.”  That line had become pretty standard over the course of the last year or so while the band had been touring.  Chester used it to mask his decline in concentration due to all of the substances he was pouring into his body on a daily basis.

“I’m sure you didn’t think it was noticeable,” Izzy mumbled under his breath while turning around and walking further backstage into the dressing room.

“Hey Riggs!  Good show, huh?”  Chester asked his life-long best friend, Eddie Riggs, who also just so happened to double as the band’s most trusted roadie and sound technician.

“Yeah man, not too bad at all,” Eddie responded.  He was careful to mask his true feelings in order not to upset his best friend.  Truth was, it didn’t take a professionally tuned ear to hear the mistakes that Chester had been making while on stage lately.

Typically, Eddie was more than eager to join the band in the dressing room after a show to help kick off the after-party.  However, Since Chester’s drug and alcohol use had ballooned out of control, Eddie found himself more anxious to tear down the equipment on stage than hang out and face the issues that Chester was creating.  There was a time when Riggs would be the one getting hammered drunk backstage, hitting on groupies, and enjoying the “rockstar” life through his association with Chester and the band.  Now, after seeing the effects on Chester, he was almost repulsed by it.

Instead of celebrating with the guys after a great show, Eddie would retreat to the abandoned stage and mess around with one of Chester’s lesser-used guitars.  He knew better than to use one of the main guitars, which had become famous in their own right after being featured on album covers and music videos, for fear that something might get messed up.  Eddie was curious about playing guitar and really wanted to know how, but he was too embarrassed to say it out loud and ask for help learning.  So instead, he sat on an empty stage in 20,000 seat arenas and plucked and strummed an unplugged guitar until whatever strings he pressed rang out a note or chord that didn’t sound horrid.  After several months of playing around, he was actually even starting to learn how to play most of the band’s songs.

 As the next afternoon rolled around, Eddie was taking inventory of the equipment that had been torn down and packed away into the band’s semi-trailor when Izzy and Smalls, the band’s drummer, conspicuously approached him from behind their touring bus.

“Hey Riggs,” Izzy started off, nonchalantly.  After the threesome had dispelled the small talk, the singer got down to it.  “Listen man, Smalls and I have been thinking and talking about things.  Specifically about the band and the “quality” of our shows lately.  We’ve noticed that you don’t really hang out with us after shows anymore.  Some of the other guys have mentioned that they’ve seen you playing around with Chester’s guitars…messing around with our songs.”

“I haven’t screwed anything up, if that’s what you’re trying to say,” Eddie interrupted, caught off guard by the confrontation.  “I always use the backup axes.  I would never do anything to mess you guys up!”

“No man, hang on,” Izzy quickly replied.  Quietly trying to hush the conversation.

Smalls glanced around nervously, making sure there were no ears around eavesdropping on their conversation.

“We actually have an idea we want to run by you,” Izzy continued.  “Chester is falling apart man.  I’m surprised he can even stand up throughout the show, let alone play lead guitar on our songs.”

“Totally falling apart, man,” Smalls echoed in agreement.

Eddie thought of instances where Chester stumbled on stage and was too sloshed to get back to his feet.  Riggs actually had to rush on stage and physically pick Chester back up to an upright position while Chester just focused on not missing any notes.  Riggs had gotten so good though, that mostly those instances went unnoticed by the band mates and any fan that was further away than the fifth row.

Izzy went on.  “With Chester getting worse every show, we think we came up with a way to save face in front of our fans.  We can finish the tour and won’t have to cancel any shows.  Once we wrap up the dates that are already scheduled, we can get Chester into rehab before it’s too late.”

“Go on,” Riggs urged Izzy to continue.  His curiosity was more than a little piqued to say the least.

“Chester’s gotta be on stage,” Izzy admitted.  “The crowd would lose it if we came out with any other line-up.  BUT, just because he’s onstage doesn’t mean that his gear has to be hot.  What we’re suggesting is that Chester dances around the stage and more or less ‘Milli Vanilli’s’ along with our songs while you stay backstage, out of sight, and actually play along with us.  Everybody would get what they paid for, and nobody would have to know…especially Chester.”

Riggs was caught completely off guard by the proposition, and suddenly felt incredibly uncomfortable.  His eyes darted around to make sure Chester wasn’t anywhere within ear shot.  “Guys, I need to finish running through this checklist before we head out.  I don’t really know what else to say at this point.”

“Just think about it,” Smalls instructed.

“Yeah man, just think about it,” came Smalls’s encouragement.  Like Riggs would be able to get his mind off of it even if he tried.

 Riggs’s mind was swimming the rest of the afternoon.  Completing even the most mundane task was a force of will and concentration to focus.  Things became even harder to handle when Riggs spotted Chester staggering his way en route to the tour bus.  “Awful early to be that sloppy already,” Riggs thought to himself.  It was a little too early for Riggs to know, but his growing disdain for Chester’s presence was already driving a wedge between him and his life-long best friend.

“Come on, Riggs, you’re gonna be late!” ordered Chester as he reached for the bus, missing the handle for the first step.

“We’re already late!” Riggs responded.  “We’ve been waiting on you for over an hour,” his voice trailed off toward the end of his comment.  His frustration was undeniable, and it was growing by the hour.

As the bus chugged on to the next show, Riggs approached Izzy and Smalls, knowing that Chester was passed out cold in his bunk and the trio could talk freely.  The slew of groupies were dismissed and told to keep the bus driver company while the three of them talked.

A queasy feeling crept into the pit of Riggs’ stomach.  He was not at all excited about the prospect of scamming thousands of fans, and even more importantly, his best friend.  Sure it would help the guys out immeasurably in the long run, and who would even know, anyway?  Regardless, he knew what he had to do.  Riggs held Izzy’s gaze for a moment and saw the anticipation of what he had to so.  “I’m in,” Riggs said simply.

It was all Izzy and Smalls needed to hear.  Riggs took a seat, and listened to the plan that the two had already put together.  They had it all figured out, like this was something they had been discussing for quite some time.  Riggs would have to stick to solely using the back-up guitars, so Chester wouldn’t get the feeling that something was going on and so the fans would get a peek at Chester’s storied collection.  Luckily, Chester was very rigid in the way he played his solos, rarely changing even a single note…at least purposefully.  That would make things much easier for Riggs, since he didn’t have the chops built up to freestyle like a lot of guitarists do in concert.

The group finished their plotting just as the bus rolled into the next town on the schedule.  Riggs had to check the calendar just to remember which state they were in, let alone which city.  The timing was perfect.  This was one of the smaller venues on the tour, so he would have the perfect opportunity for a dress rehearsal in front of a live audience before being thrust into the pressure cooker of playing for a massive, over-flowing stadium.

The band went through sound check, and Chester’s levels were all set exactly the way he wanted them.  Once the band made it backstage to relax and prepare for 10,000 screaming fans, Riggs got busy splicing cables into the soundboard so the input could be switched seamlessly between himself and Chester.  “I feel nauseas,” Riggs mumbled to himself, his anxiety and feelings of betrayal were already taking their toll on his nerves.  After the rowdy crowd pushed their way through the doors, past the ticket-takers, and crammed up as close to the stage as possible, the house music faded out while the lights dimmed simultaneously.  The raucous sea of people boiled with excitement as they knew exactly what to expect next.  The band manager had ushered the guys through the backstage labyrinth and they were all waiting anxiously in the wings.  Izzy glanced over to Riggs, who was standing off to the side and gave an assuring nod of the head.  Riggs reached up and wiped the sweat beads from his forehead, clearly not his usual self.  Luckily, Chester was way too trashed to notice or even care for that matter.

Seeing Chester teeter on his feet simply while standing still gave Riggs all the confirmation he needed that he was doing the right thing for the best interest of the band.  The crowd’s fever pitch was at maximum volume when Chester led his band mates out on stage.  Running to the far side of the stage, Chester swung his arm in an exaggerated motion and struck the opening chord to the latest single.  Chester managed to get through the first several songs before his first noticeable gaffe.  Izzy took a quick look to the side of the stage where Eddie was hidden out of sight, giving the signal for Riggs to take over.  The show continued with Riggs playing to the best of his ability, despite technically not knowing how to play guitar.  Riggs had figured it all out by ear, but didn’t know the difference between a note, chord, or scale.  Some notes were missed, mainly during the tougher solo riffs, but it wasn’t any worse than Chester’s performances as of late.  Meanwhile, Chester danced around the stage like the oblivious little puppet that he was.  Once the encore signaled the end of the show, Riggs made sure to make haste and be out of sight before the band made their way off stage.  Once the guitar was placed back on the rack in its designated spot, Riggs joined the rest of the band in the dressing room.

“Eddie!  Good to see you back here where you belong!” Chester yelled, referring to the roadie’s absence in the dressing room over the last months.  Riggs just smiled in response, his adrenaline still spiking from the first performance of his life which just so happened to occur in front of 10,000 freaking people!  “Now that was a good show,” Chester bragged, already starting to take credit and remind Eddie of his anonymous role.

Eddie felt so good, he didn’t give a second thought to Chester’s post-show activities or state of mind.  He had to release his excitement with the band and relive the greatest night of his life as they all shared the highs and lows of the night.  Everyone was careful not to mention Chester when they brought up the lows though.  Nobody wanted the headache of the confrontation that would ensue.  Truthfully, Chester didn’t really have any lows since his guitar had been cut after his first major screw-up.  Instead, the band referred to other randomness that they witnessed during the concert.

“Did you see that dude get hit right in the face with my drumstick after my solo?” Smalls asked with hysterical laughter?  The drummer had flipped his sticks out in the crowd, and some unlucky fan was reminded of the importance of paying attention when you’re in the first 20 rows.

“No, I missed that!” Izzy responded.  Smalls’ laughter was becoming contagious as Izzy tried to speak through fits of hilarity.  “Tell me I wasn’t the only one that noticed that girl in the front row at the end of the show.”

“Nope, I know exactly what you’re talking about.  The one with the leopard bra?” Smalls asked for confirmation.

“She was nice, but no,” Izzy said, his laughter subsiding as he longingly reflected on the fan with the leopard bra.  “There was this chick right in front of the stack of speakers on stage right, directly in front of Chester.  When he hit the last chord and the pyros exploded, I think she sharted a little bit!”  Izzy finished, completely losing control of his composure.

Smalls fell out of his seat from laughing so hard, and Riggs couldn’t resist from chuckling, imagining the sight since he had missed everything.  After a couple of hours of reliving the gig, it was time for Eddie to get back to his normal duties of tearing down the stage.

Over the course of the next few shows, Eddie began fitting in more with Izzy and Smalls, while Chester began finding himself as the outcast.  Even through his foggy reality, Chester sensed an uneasiness when it came to Riggs being around.

It all came crashing down at the last stop of the tour.  The band was set to play the biggest venue on its tour in its hometown.  The tickets sold so fast, a second show was added for the following night.  The first show kicked off just like all the previous shows had, with Chester running out on stage and strumming the opening chord in a wild, windmill-like motion.  Only this time, his first gaffe came right off the bat.  Eddie, standing in the wings backstage, picked up immediately to try to correct the mistake before the song was ruined, only Chester had a different idea.  Chester fixed his hand position and re-strummed the guitar, but the music coming from the speakers didn’t sync to his actions.  He looked down at his guitar quizzically.  When he looked over at Izzy with confusion painted on his face, Izzy’s facial expression told Chester everything he needed to know.  Smalls’ stomach plummeted to the pit of his stomach, knowing that things were about to go very bad.  Chester stormed off stage.  Izzy and Smalls attempted to continue as if it were all part of the show.  Eddie played on not knowing completely what the situation was, and since Chester was off stage, the crowd still wasn’t on to the band’s ruse.  Chester caught a glimpse of Riggs out of the corner of his eye on his way to the dressing room, and bee-lined for his traitor of a best friend.  The band excused themselves from the stage, blaming technical difficulties.

“You son-of-a-bitch!” Chester screamed through a clenched jaw in the direction of Riggs.  “What the hell do you think you’re doing?  You use MY guitars, plug YOURSELF into the board, then make me look like a fool?  I KNEW something wasn’t right!”

“You know what hasn’t been right?  The ONLY thing that hasn’t been right is YOU!”  Eddie fired back.  Chester was caught off guard.  Generally, Eddie was soft-spoken, avoided confrontation, and typically kept to himself when he wasn’t hanging out with Chester.  After a couple of moments of absorbing Eddie’s rant, Chester was unsure of how to respond.  He staggered away, his mind reeling from what Riggs had just said to him.  He tried convincing himself that Eddie was jealous.  Riggs just wanted what Chester had created.  He wanted the spotlight.  But deep down there was no arguing…Chester knew Eddie was right.

Once the smoke cleared, the concert had to be cancelled.  The band, along with Riggs, convened for a long overdue meeting.  After everything had been laid out in front of Chester, he knew the guys were right.  If any of this had come out publicly, the band would be done for; a laughing-stock.  Chester agreed to finish the final show the following night.  The normal rules applied – if, once, Chester messed up, then Eddie would finish up from there.  The band was in agreement.  “If you mess up, then Eddie will finish up from there,” Smalls confirmed.

The following night, Chester took the stage sober.  It was the first time in a long time, and the band noticed immediately.  The mood was as natural as it had been in several months, and even the on-stage interaction between the members was back to normal.  Chester finished the show by running across the stage toward the drum kit, stepping up on the drum riser, then leaping toward the front of the stage, spinning around in mid-air while striking the ending chord.  The pyros on both ends of the stage erupted and fireworks filled the stadium.  The sound of creaking metal would’ve been heard at any other part of the show, but not now.  As explosions went off, lasers flashed, and spotlights circled, a piece of lighting fell from a stage truss.

The lighting can gained incredible speed, falling from over 35 feet in the air, and came to a sudden halt upon landing on top of Chester’s head and knocking him out cold.  EMT’s rushed the stage from the shadows to revive the limp body splayed out on stage in front of 25,000 silent fans.  Izzy looked up to see what had gone wrong just in time to see Riggs back away from the spot where the light had fallen from.

Chester was revived just before the ambulance left the arena, but was completely restrained to a stretcher so no potential further damage could be done.

For all of the wrong notes, it seemed as though Chester hit the right chord when it came to Riggs.  He was jealous, and he did want Chester’s spotlight.  Even if it came at the expense of brain damage to his childhood best friend.

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