Selby showed up for class with pink hair.
I sat behind her, ignoring the lecturer drone on about Deleuze and rhizomes and hypertext. There were thirty-two students taking Contemporary Issues in the Arts, maybe twenty of them who actually showed up for class every week. I’d gotten to know the regulars, over the first few weeks of the semester. I didn’t get along with them, more often than not, but Selby seemed okay.
On the break, when we ducked out to grab a coffee from the machine, I tapped her shoulder and said, “Your hair. It’s new?” like an idiot.
She didn’t hold it against me. “Yeah,” she said. “It’s new.”
“I like it,” I said, and Selby nodded, like there wasn’t any other possible response.
She wore sunglasses and a grubby white shirt that morning, her sleeves streaked with paint and ink. The sunglasses meant she was probably hung over, running on Red Bull and stubbornness. I fed three dollars into the machine, hit the buttons for white and two sugars. The internal mechanisms began to gurgle, pissed a stream of dirty liquid into a paper cup. If you squinted, you could pretend it was coffee.
I drank it because it was better than nothing, at that hour of the morning.
There was a queue, but Selby wasn’t really paying attention to that. Her turn came to feed the machine and she just stood there, glaring at the Nescafe logo. I grabbed her by the arm, pulled her aside before KD, who was behind her, lost her cool and started yelling.
“Listen,” I said, “you doing okay?”
“I saw this band on the weekend.” Selby took off the sunglasses and rubbed her bloodshot eyes. “They’re local. And good. And…shit, I don’t know. You gotta check them out, P.”
“A band.” I glanced at her hair again, started putting things together. People had been having epiphanies all semester, figuring out who they were. Pink hair happened, like piercing and tattoos. We all made bad decisions, all through that first year of class.
“You don’t understand, P,” Selby said. “This wasn’t just a band, you know? They went out there and changed my life.”
“If they’re that good,” I said, “how come I’ve never heard of them?”
“Well.” Selby put the sunglasses back on. “Well, they’re kinda local.”
And really, that explained it. We didn’t do local. None of us. I’d spent my his first semester figuring out ways to leave the Gold Coast behind, go start a better life in a city that didn’t hate me.
“Local,” I said. There was doubt in my voice.
“Trust me,” Selby said. “Wanna come, the next time they play?
I did. I was curious. Selby had seemed sensible, too focused for pink hair and a life-changed by music. I wanted to see how it happened, figure out what made this band so appealing.
I saw them play The Playroom exactly one week later. They didn’t seem like much, taking to the stage. Just another rock-and-roll four-piece: guitar, drums, bass, and a singer out the front. The bass guitarist was short and feral, with torn stockings and silver eye-shadow. The singer, tall and lean as hunger, had crimson nails and a dirty fringe that hung over his eyes. They were exactly the kind of group that wore their influences on their sleeve: a little bit of David Bowie, a whole lot of Kurt Cobain.
It was nineteen ninety nine, and that seemed a little naff.
Selby grabbed my arm, dragged me down to the front of the stage. I went with reluctance and a glass of bourbon, stuck beside her because…well, I was eighteen.
I was eighteen and Selby was Selby. It wasn’t just the band I was curious about.
But still, they didn’t look like much. Selby sensed that, as I stood there. “Just wait,” she said. “You’ll see.”
They didn’t speak, not really. The drummer shouted “two-three-four,” and they lurched into their first snarling chord. That was how it began, and Selby was right. I saw. Oh shit, I saw.
I didn’t remember the song, just what happened when they played. The way the whole band just…well, they lit up. Shone with this hideous, coruscating colour straight out of a Fusceli nightmare, streaked through with writhing strands that could have been emerald or crimson or sapphire, if only you could think of words while you looked at them. They played, and the light was hypnotic as a kaleidoscope, undulating and utterly alive.
I didn’t remember the songs, but twenty-one years on and that light show is still with me. I stood there, slack-jawed, right beside Selby at the front of the stage. There was no other choice but staring. The light didn’t give you one. It shimmered and weaved in time with the music, drew every eye in the Playroom towards the band. The rest of the world grew dark, fell away. Shadow grew longer as the band got brighter and brighter.
I don’t remember how long they played, but I remember when they were done. Spots danced in front of my eyes, and Selby clutched my arm. “You get it, right?” she asked me and her voice was filled with urgency.
“Yeah,” I said. “I get it.”
I just didn’t know what I’d got.
Hours later, when I was at home and in bed, I wondered how they’d done it. The Playroom had a lighting rig, but it wasn’t built for that kind of show. Wasn’t built to do more than light up the stage, make these punk bands and metal-heads visible while they played.
The question gnawed at me, ate away my capacity for sleep. I’d enrolled with a double-major, journalism and art. One major to please my parents, one major so I could live with myself.
I wasn’t a good journalist. Never had the drive for it. The kids in my classes, the ones who did well, they had this compunction I’d never embraced. The wanted to know things, wanted to know why and how things happened.
I’d been content with books and beer and plans of escape. I hadn’t wanted to know a goddamn thing until I saw that light.
The band didn’t talk to the audience. Never introduced themselves or chatted between songs. We wanted more than that, so we came up with plans. Selby got a job at the Dog House in Broadbeach. Hooked up with the guy who booked the gigs. Said she did it to find out who he spoke to when he booked them, but the answer never seemed to be forthcoming. I lined up a gig with the local street press, bluffed my way into doing a piece on live music venues. I hit the Playroom, and the Hard Rock, and this pub out the back of Robina. All the small venues where I’d seen the band play, even if it was just the once.
The bookers, they didn’t have much for me. They didn’t even remember who they’d brought in, or where they’d first heard about them. The band just appeared, and played, then took their leave. Lugged their gear back to the van and drove the hell away.
They were a band who gave you nothing, not even a name. The first time I saw them, they were Lustre Fatale. By the second gig they’d become Whisky-Whisky-111. Then Hornet’s Attack Your Best Friend Victor. Then All That Glitters, then Sabretooth, then something else entirely. No two gigs were performed under the same name, you’d simply see poster and know it was one of theirs.
This one guy, Skinny D, claimed the mystery was a cheap gimmick, just like their steadfast refusal to speak or engage with the audience. The rest of us agreed Skinny D was a prick, ‘cause despite his loud protest of gimmickry, you’d see him loitering by the bar at gigs, pretending he wasn’t desperate to see the band come on.
As fans, we loved the mystery. In fact, we believed that was necessary; if they became to prominent, to easily found, they wouldn’t be ours anymore. We were certain they’d be robbed of their powers, that whatever it was that made them shine would dim, or go away the moment too many eyes were upon them.
We argued about the way they did it, given their stripped-back approach. Some called it a trick done with smoke and mirrors. Some said they weren’t precisely human, that they lit up because they were aliens and this was some kind of power. Skinny D offered this theory involving a collective synaesthesia, transforming sound into an oscillating melange of brilliant crimson, sapphire, and emerald.
They were psychic, he said, and that’s what made them great. They played with our minds to make it happen.
No-one believed him. Or, maybe, we did. We had no other explanation, no matter how many gigs we saw.
Selby lived with her parents all through the first year. In the second, she got into a fight with her mum, something about the band and her degree and what was going on. She moved in with her brother, after she got kicked out. I came round to help her move, helped her load crates of CDs and cassettes into the trunk of my beat-up Ford. She sat on the front step of her parents place, smoking.
“I hate it here,” she said. “If it weren’t for them, I’d leave today.”
Selby’s hair was pale green that week. She’d shaved the left side of her skull. There was no question of who they were. I knew. We both knew. We were fans.
“They have bands in other cities,” I said.
“Not like them.”
“You don’t know that. How would we know? It’s not like anyone here is talking, telling people from Melbourne what’s going on.”
Selby didn’t seem convinced. I didn’t really blame her. There was a pattern, when people saw the band for the first time. A period where they’d swear they were the only one to see the lights, where they kept dragging people along to confirm it, let them know that they weren’t going mad.
That fervour didn’t last, nor did the evangelism. What replaced it was fear, and this nagging unease about the things you actually remembered: the light and this slurry of indistinct noise, all sonorous and angry and barbed with half-formed lyrics. Random words, sometimes, that hit you like a brick to the side of the skull and lodged there, permanently, as you blinked the spots away.
For a long time, you kept that secret. Then you started talking, and the secret mutated into the thing we all shared, something other than surf and sand and the bars full of tourists that echoed through the night. The thing that made us fans and kept us searching for new gigs. Hoping we’d be there when they finally made sense. When everything about them unfolded like an origami beard, reminding you it was just paper underneath all of the artistry.
We all wanted that. We all wanted to know.
It’s why we kept our mouths shut, when people started dying.
At first, the deaths didn’t matter.
In 2000, there were rumours they’d cut an LP, releasing a limited number of recordings into the local stores. The records were discs of amber vinyl, the sleeves a riotous mess of abstract colour and shape. We flocked to local record stores, hoping for confirmation, but the rumour mill simply suggested the albums were hidden in other locations. You’d see a record hidden among the boogie-boards in the local K-mart, or used as placemats in the Yum-Cha place off the Broadbeach mall. Fans went into a negotiating frenzy, wheedling with managers to buy the decorations, or they shoplifted the vinyl when no-one was looking and hoping for the best as they ran. Skinny D got himself arrested trying to steal from the local Op Shop, but it turned out all he’d boosted was a copy of The Cars’ Greatest Hits hidden in the wrong sleeve.
It’s during this period that the band received exposure outside of its limited base of fans. A local reporter interviewed Skinny D, tracked down the rest of us for comments. Selby went on the record. “This city’s idea of art is stainless steel sculptures of surfboards,” she said. “Worse, it’s <censored> sandcastles done en-masse on the beach. Surely, we need a space for mystery. Mystery and <censored> entertainment for someone other than tourists and bogans.”
The reporter made a big deal about the intensity of Selby’s stare. He made note of her hair, now dyed a combination of crimson and electric blue, and the steel hoops put through her eyebrow. At no point was drug use suggested, but the implications were definitely there and I wasn’t sure they were wrong.
We tried to bootleg their shows for a while, after the news article came out. Turns out you couldn’t record their music, couldn’t get anything but the crowd noise and the drummer’s initial count. The moment you heard that Two-Three-Four, the whole damn crowd went silent.
Things changed. Selby’s brother died, one of the first wave of deaths associated with the band. She’d dragged him the gig after the one I went too, exposed him the same way she’d exposed me to the light. He became one of us, an obsessive, a fan. Skipped shifts at the McDonalds he worked at, up in Surfers, on the nights the band had gigs and we all needed a ride.
There wasn’t any cause of death, according to the coroner. He went to sleep one night, after we all got back from a gig. He didn’t wake up afterwards. They buried him in the lawn cemetery up near the University, this bland stretch of grass with gum trees around the perimeter. The dead marked with marble plaques that broke up the flat slope of sward.
Selby dropped out of her degree after that, transferred into Law and said she’d do art on the side. I got tasked with doing an article of my own, when the street press that I worked for realised I had an interest. The editor wanted to leverage me, get an inside scoop on the people who were dying.
I told him he could fuck himself, and my days as a journalist were pretty much done.
I visited Selby and her family in Canberra, last Easter. Her husband invited me, wanted her old friends nearby. I slept in a spare room with a single bed and some of her art hanging on the wall. She’d developed a minimalist style since leaving the Gold Coast behind. Squares of white canvas with a few, carefully-picked black lines. Lots of right angles. Very ordered. Very stark. She’d kept it up, the art, even after she worked at a firm. Kept it up, years later, when she realised she and law were done.
One night, after her kids were sleeping, Selby confided that she still felt guilty about her brother’s death.
“We warned him,” I said. “We told him the gigs were getting ugly.”
Selby’s attention stayed focused on her fireplace, the merry flames dancing across the fake log inside. They were yellow and orange and red, chaotic and wild like all fires are.
“Warnings didn’t help,” she said. “We all knew it was dangerous; it’s what made them real. Real and dangerous beat the alternatives, that’s why we kept going, even after we should of stopped.”
For a long time after that, neither of us talked. Then Selby offered to make some tea, and we talked about her husband and his job as a surveyor, working for the department of main roads.
I swore to stop attending gigs. We all did, once or twice.
They were playing at The Doghouse, in Broadbeach, this weird bar with a stage and open space. High ceilings, like a cathedral, which meant it took forever for the cigarette smoke to permeate the room. They served three-dollar bourbons until ten o’clock, but no-one was drunk by the time the band came out.
It was the night they played under the name T-Rex 69. Selby was there, and her brother. Skinny D was still alive too, although he wouldn’t last much longer. The band played and the swirl of colour appeared, but this time it glistened like sunlight on an oil stain. It’d been eighteen months since the first time I saw them. I understood nothing, compared to that night.
No-one danced. It wasn’t that kind of gig. We just stood in place, staring, letting it all wash over us. Then someone went down, scratching at their skin like there were wasps nesting in their pores, and the band kept playing, kept droning steadily on as the panic threaded through the crowd.
This wasn’t unusual anymore. It started happening earlier that year, just after the articles came out. I knew fans who were getting stoned, or shooting up before the gig, just so they could keep themselves mellow as the light hit the crowd. Failing to turn up just wasn’t an option.
It wasn’t the fear that bothered me. It was the hollow feeling afterwards, the emptiness that lingered. Like the gig had taken from me, hollowed me out and scraped everything free, left me with nothing but basic motor function and enough change for bus fare home.
It took four years before I started meaning it, when I said me and the band were done. Selby had graduated, started her first year. Already knew that she and the law were a mistake.
“I have this theory,” she said, “that they’re not really band. They’re just this, shit, this attempt to fill a vacuum. They exist because we need them too, but we need them to be too much.”
She’d stopped dying her hair by this point. She took the rings out of her eyebrow before heading into the office. We collectively called this period The Time When Things Hit the Fan and Splattered. I was due to graduate, two years later than I should have.
In the end, after that conversation, it was Selby who stopped going. Despite my intentions and promises, I still attended another four gigs before I finally quit cold turkey.
I know of fourteen deaths that are attributed to the band, according to people I knew from my time going to gigs. I expect the actual death toll is potentially much higher, as my personal circle of friends includes only a handful of the two hundred fans that regularly appeared at a show.
This number doesn’t include the fans who chose to be pro-active when we realised what was happening. In addition to the fourteen “unexplained” deaths, I know of at least a dozen suicides, kids who swam into the ocean with a gut full of pills and let themselves get carried away by the tides. Kids who hung themselves from balcony rails on the fourth floor of the Marriott. Kids who went to the cliffs in Burleigh State Park, just up-river from the place I first saw the band play, and took a swan dive into the rocks below.
I expect there are still people whose deaths are related to the band and its impact. Every adult I know still caries scars from the stupidity of their early years. Every fan of the band still carries around the memories of the night things finally went to hell.
I wasn’t at their final gig. They played it under the name We Will Always Have the Lighthouse My Melancholy Bride, and the same way we always knew when the gigs were coming, we all knew this was the last.
They weren’t playing clubs anymore, not in the conventional sense. They’d set up in this co-op above a fish shop in Southport, played this little room built for poets who performed at candle-lit open mic nights. I went and saw the space, a few weeks after it happened. I stood next to the make-shift bar at the back of the room, below a liquor license that was twelve months expired. Traffic noise floated up the stairwell, mingling with the smell of deep-fried batter and thick-cut fries. You’d be lucky to fit a hundred people in the place, if they didn’t mind getting friendly.
I sat in the floor of the co-op and produced a tiny walkman, slipped in a boot-leg tape that Skinny D made of the final gig. At first there wasn’t anything but tape hiss and the muted hubbub of the crowd. Then came the hush as the band picked up their instruments, a faint click as the singer adjusted his microphone stand.
The drummer shouted it for the last time: “Two-three-four.”
And after that, there’s nothing on the tape. Not until the first body thumps into the floorboards about fifteen minutes in, followed by others a few minutes later, a whole audience collapsing and gouging themselves, ripping away until they started drawing blood.
No one knows what happened to the band that night, but the audience was still there a few hours later, comatose and half-alive, when one of the guys who ran the co-op came by to lock the pace up. Paramedics were called. Cops were called too.
I heard all the stories from Skinny D, when he came to drop off the tape. He stood on my front step, sneered around his unlit cigarette. “You should have fucking been there,” he said. “It was an awesome fucking night.”
I told him I wasn’t interested. That me and the band were done.
“That’s your problem, P,” Skinny said. “You think you can just give up on things.”
He caught a plane to Melbourne a week after that. Said he couldn’t handle living on the Coast anymore, that he’d stayed this long for the gigs.
I heard he fell asleep mid-flight, and never actually woke up.
Selby moved away two years after her brother died. It took me longer, sure, but I made it out alive. That’s a thing to value, when you grow up in a place like the Coast.
I dropped out of university and got myself a government job, went to work a white shirt and a tie, pushed paper around a desk until it was quitting time. Stayed there for fifteen years, until a new government came in and downsized, cutting jobs like they were the ballast that weighed the public down. There were plenty of people angry ‘bout that, enough to get some protests going.
I didn’t feel up to taking things to the streets, so I used my severance package to go home for a while, see what’d changed since the Coast and I parted ways.
There wasn’t much to see. They’d torn down the Playroom, used the lot for a park by the river. The Doghouse was long-gone, transformed into a Chinese restaurant that served sub-par honey chicken. The Co-op where the last show took place was long-gone, narrowly avoiding all sorts of legal trouble in the wake of the final gig.
I stood down on the beach, and dialled Selby’s number.
“There’s nothing,” I said. “The Gold Coast won. There’s literally nothing left anymore.”
She told me one of her kids was sick. That’s she’d give me a call back in an hour or so.
“Sure,” I said. “Sure.”
And I hung up the phone.
I’ve been drinking. You should know that, before I go on. It’s late and I am very drunk. I’m sitting here in a Southport bar, two blocks from my motel. I’m forty years old and unemployed. I’m thinking about Selby more often than I should, thinking about her still at home with her daughters and her husband. Selby, with crow’s feet at the corner of her eyes. Selby, with that quiet way she talks these days, and the art she does on Thursday afternoons, and the way she goes quiet when I ask her how she’s doing.
Tomorrow I fly home. Head back to the apartment I can no longer afford. Tonight, I drink and remember. The band, the light, the people I knew. I drink to the goddamn memories, and then I have another.
There’s a lot of things I regret, in my life. It starts with Selby and goes from there: I didn’t become a journalist; I had no talent for art; I didn’t get a Mohawk as a kid, and I’m too old to pull one off right now.
I regret my stupid job and I regret my stupid life. I regret not being there, for that final gig. I regret missing that final chance to go and see them shine.
I regret not knowing how they did it. I regret not pushing harder, when it comes to figuring that out.
The bartender brings me another glass of Merlot. She’s young, maybe nineteen, hair pinned up like she’s heading back to the fifties once she’s done serving drinks to sad old bastards. She smiles at me, a little shy. Maybe a little wary. I’m drunk, and I’ve been tipping big. Wary is smarter, right now.
I get her attention, as she goes to walk away. “Hey. If I wanted to see a band tonight…”
It’s wary. Definitely wary. “Not like that,” I tell her. “I just want to know where to go.”
She looks me over, and god, I feel old. So bloody old. She says, “What kind of music do you like?”
“I’m not fussy,” I tell her. “I just want to see a band.”
She gives me a place, and she gives me a name. Say’s they’ll be onstage around 10, if I go.
And I hold my breath as she says it, hoping…shit, I’m hoping that I’ll get that feeling again, that little thrill of recognition when it’s one of their gigs. But it’s not. It’s just this band she knows, friends of hers who play locally and do alright.
I thank her, and I go along. Spend the next three hours at the back of the room, hating young men with ironic beards and young woman who lean against them. I drink. I get drunk. I decide to walk back to my shitty motel, trudging from streetlight to streetlight.
The night is wet and cold and windy. There are headlights, in the distance, coming over the bridge between Southport and Surfers. They come, and then there’s another. Young guys doing seventy in beat-up cars, not paying too much attention. I stop and watch them come.
The headlights are bright and pure and clean. They’re coming up so fast. God, I think. God. It would be so easy.
Then another car hisses past and the night is dark again. They sky starts spitting at me, flecks of water hitting my skin. It’s cold, but it’s not cold enough.
A moment later, I start walking again.
Peter M. Ball is a writer from Brisbane, Australia. He’s a blogger, convener of the biennial GenreCon writer’s conference, and the author of the novellas Horn and Bleed from Twelfth Planet Press and the Flotsam Trilogy from Apocalypse Ink Productions. He can be found online at www.petermball.com and tweeting @petermball.