This excerpt is unedited and unfinished… and is Copyright (C) 2020 by Brent Salish.
A Little Courage tells the story of a guy in a band and the woman he has no idea he loves. Here’s what you need as background for this chapter:
- Peter Connor is the 20-year-old singer in a band called Mother Courage, which had a hit in early 1969 called “Sarah Montana.” The follow-up single, “Highway One,” has charted but not been terribly successful.
- He has a crush on Anna Martel, and they’ve been traveling cross-country together, and eventually sleeping together as well. He doesn’t understand that she cares for him. They have driven from Berkeley to Atlantic City, where Mother Courage is scheduled to perform at the Atlantic City Pop Festival as the first stop in a club and festival tour. (They were invited to Woodstock as well, to be held two weeks later, about which Peter said, “Woodstock, never going to happen. They’ve moved the venue twice, and our manager says the Podunk town they’re in now is likely to kick them out as well.” So they turned down the gig.)
- This chapter contains adult language, direct sexual references, and the description of an acid trip.
- The events of the festival in this chapter are as accurate as research and memory could make them, other than Mother Courage not actually existing.
Chapter 20, from A Little Courage
Friday introduced crystal skies, the new month, and a morning that arrived before Anna was ready. The sounds of Peter’s guitar, fingerpicked quietly in a corner of the motel room, woke her from a restless sleep.
“Nervous?” She sat up, kicked the sheet away, the day already clammy despite the air conditioning.
Peter gave a one-shoulder shrug, kept picking at a song she didn’t recognize. She held up her watch. “Still two hours before your guy comes and gets us.”
“If we went on right now, I’d be fine. But it looks like we’re on around six, though they keep changing the order. Which is why Ares wants to get us there way early, so we’re ready for anything.”
“Yesterday he said you were following the Airplane. At least that’s like home, right?”
“Day before, it was Iron Butterfly. But he also said we might go on early.”
She put her hands behind her head. “I know a way to burn off some of that nervous energy.”
He hesitated, then lowered the guitar, walked slowly toward the bed. Stopped when the phone rang, picked up the receiver. He listened for thirty seconds, interjecting a few uh-huhs. Eased the receiver back into the cradle, frowned. “Ares Reel. Said things are really disorganized over there, so he wants us ready in fifteen minutes.”
“I can be quick,” and she slid off the bed, knelt in front of him.
Fifteen was more like twenty-five before the band members had piled into their tour bus. She sat up front in a pale yellow Thunderbird Landau driven by Reel, a tall black man with oversized mustache, oversized shades, and a short afro, wearing a yellow rayon shirt, patterned in red squares and black heraldic lions, over bright blue slacks.
Reel lowered his window, waved a follow-me, and led the tour bus onto the highway. He offered her a joint, fat, unlit.
She smiled, waved it away. “A bit early.”
“Me, too, but y’know, gotta offer. ‘S my job, doing whatever it takes to make the music happen.”
“Like getting this gig right.”
“Yeah. I mean, they’re mostly organized, but this festival thing is new. No one’s ever done anything like this, so there are going to be lots of broken pieces. I want to get Courage there before they break, so everything’s ready. Never know, right?”
They entered the racetrack through a back entrance, Reel holding out the letter from the promoters. He thumbed toward the bus. “Band’s right behind us.”
The guard waved them through, directing them to a parking area. It took an hour and multiple trips through a growing crowd of musicians and equipment to get the band’s gear to the holding area next to both the dirt of the racetrack and the elevated temporary stage. She helped where she could, but mostly tried to avoid being in the way.
The backstage area was a zoo, bands milling around, with roadies and assistants and promoters and stagehands and groupies. She recognized Grace Slick and the bass player from the Airplane, the guy with long, impossibly straight pale hair, but everyone else – except Peter – was a blur to her. She clung to him even when the other band members returned to the bus and Reel talked with representatives of various record companies, all of whom seemed to know each other. Peter wanted to stay near the band’s equipment to be sure it didn’t get scattered. Or maybe he just drew energy from the anxious crowd, Nosferatu inhaling their blood.
The heat from the cloudless day had everyone sweating. At least Peter had anticipated the heat, had a second shirt ready in his guitar case, a form-fitting white cotton shirt with a vee neck outlined in red. She was grateful when Courage’s bass player, James “Never-Jim” Harder, offered her a drink. She took the cup, glad he was finally accepting her presence, talking to her instead of silently oozing resentment at the chick who was taking up too much of Peter’s time. Harder smiled, revealing even teeth that complemented his lanky frame and contrasted with his pitted face and green eyes hiding under bushy brows. For the gig he’d dressed in bright orange tie-dye and black jeans.
# # #
As the scheduled starting time approached, Ares Reel found Peter. “Hey, latest word is you’re on after Joni, which should be around five if everyone sticks to the agreed playing times. Just in case, get back here around four. I’ll tell the other guys. Meanwhile, why don’t you go out front and enjoy. I know you’ve seen the Airplane, but Chicago puts on a heck of a show, and go let Iron Butterfly be your inspiration.”
“Butterfly?” Peter laughed. “Name one thing that Doug Ingle and Peter Connor have in common.”
“I’ll name two. Long hair, and right now you’re both one-hit wonders. We’re pushing the hell out of ‘Highway One,’ but you know as well as I do that it’s not ‘Sarah Montana.’ So get inspired to write another hit, got it?”
Peter reached for Anna’s hand and led her past the edge of the crowd. Together, they took in Booker T’s brief set from a corner near a fence below the grandstand.
She turned to him during the third song. “I don’t feel well. It’s….” She waved her hand in an uncertain gesture. “Bathroom, okay?”
“I’m going backstage. Come on with me.”
“I’ll meet…. Gotta go.” She lurched, shook her head. “Meet you back….” She pivoted and raced down a crowded path, following a sign for the restrooms.
He watched the changeover from Booker T to Chicago. The organizers had built an octagonal rotating platform above the stage, on which the bands put their amplifiers, electric keyboards, and drumkits. A group of stagehands rotated it by pulling ropes, mules on the Erie Canal, and in five minutes Booker T’s equipment had been replaced by Chicago’s. Ten minutes later, after some warm-up fits and starts, the power of horns and guitars filled the racetrack, first the extended song “Beginnings” and then a long, incantatory introduction to Stevie Winwood’s “I’m a Man.”
As the song wound through Danny Seraphine’s drum solo, Peter worried that he’d miscommunicated with Anna. “Meet you back,” and then she’d shivered and run for the bathrooms. Maybe “back here,” which was what he’d thought, but she could as easily have meant “backstage.” In fact, the latter made more sense. In the swirling crowd – 30,000 easily, and they all seemed intent on converging where he was standing – it would be impossible to find one specific person. Backstage was disorganized, but it was also a far smaller group.
A pair of officious security guards let him pass as Chicago finished their set. Three extended songs, but they’d played a good thirty minutes, maybe more, to the crowd’s roars of approval. No encores, though. The promoters seemed intent on sticking to schedules.
He chatted with Mary Balin of the Airplane while Iron Butterfly took the stage, all the while keeping an eye out for Anna.
“You okay?” Balin put a hand on his shoulder. “Nervous?”
“Just looking for someone. And yeah, nervous a bit.”
“No sweat. You guys are good. Have a great show, man.”
“You too.” He watched Balin saunter off to talk with Spencer Dryden, their drummer, found his own bandmates, and kept watch for Anna.
Not a lot of women backstage. Grace, of course, and huddled in a corner, chain-smoking, a woman with bright blond hair he assumed to be Joni Mitchell.
Reel came up to them as Butterfly finished the interminable “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and launched into their closing song. “Joni’s up after Airplane, then you guys. She gets an extended set, but she’s just using a mic out front, no gear, which means you set up behind Airplane. As soon as Butterfly gets their crap off, get your stuff ready.”
They walked over to their equipment, began working it to the back edge of the stage.
Peter kept an eye out for Anna.
Still no sign.
# # #
The world dripped red, the sky pouring color over the grandstand, over the crowd, over the entire world. She held onto the wall as she pushed people out of her path, staggering toward the restroom.
The wall gave way, turning soft, with hands reaching out, grabbing for her. She scraped them off, forcing herself to remember where the image came from, the Roman Polanski film she’d snuck into a few weeks before her sixteenth birthday.
In the stall, she stuck her fingers down her throat, forcing herself to retch, even as she knew it was too late. The cup had been dosed.
She’d never done acid, never wanted to, but some of her friends had been regular trippers. Knowing what was happening, however, gave her no clue to stopping it.
Nor did it help her understand why Peter had done it to her.
She recalled the looks the band had shared at Thursday’s practice, going over their setlist for the show. What’s the chick doing here? This is business, and that’s fucking, and don’t mix the two. She hadn’t sensed at the time how much Peter was part of that subsonic conversation, but of course he was. She was the intruder. He’d ridden her horse willingly and even lovingly, but when it came time for the band to gather in the living room, her place was the corral.
She wanted to kill him. In the bathroom mirror she saw blood and veins in her teeth, his blood, his veins. She squeezed her stomach, whipped her head away from the vision, staggered out of the restroom.
She fought her way toward the gate to the backstage area, the world tilting perilously, as she struggled to retain her balance on ground that was spinning like the stage that whipped Joni Mitchell into view. Brave girl, facing 30,000 horny men who each wanted to fuck her over and over, standing alone, armed with only a guitar. And her voice, which floated over the crowd. “Chelsea Morning” in a New Jersey afternoon turned ugly, the voice interrupted by static, the screech of a record needle dragged across the vinyl.
Anna looked at the crowd. She was the only one who heard the cries, the shrieking. And that calmed her, somehow. Because it couldn’t be real, any more than Repulsion had been real. Just hang on. Get control.
And then the singer faltered, stopped.
So the shrieking was real. But of course. Joni, so sensitive, had heard it too.
# # #
Peter watched as Joni Mitchell fiddled with her capo, allowed dead air to drain the crowd’s energy while she retuned the guitar to yet another of her variety of nonstandard setups. He couldn’t understand why she didn’t have multiple guitars. She could certainly afford them now.
He stood with the rest of Courage, Jeff and James and Zoran, brothers in arms, though their arms were mostly holding their gear. Iron Butterfly had taken a while to disassemble their setup, and hadn’t gotten it all off before someone in a white shirt and tie had said, “Schedule. Let’s go,” and waved Joni to the microphone. The back half of the stage now featured a mix of their gear and Iron Butterfly’s.
Joni fingerpicked her way into “Cactus Tree,” capo high on the guitar neck. The crowd was edgy, noisy, and a beach ball floated hand to hand near the stage. Joni watched it as she sang, then hesitated in the middle of the song. Grabbed the mic with her hand. “I sang that verse twice and nobody noticed.” She played a couple more notes as the mic amplified her sniffles. She pivoted and stalked offstage, tears streaking her makeup.
“What the fuck?” Reel, standing next to Peter, looked around, spotted the night’s MC. “Tim! We’re ready whenever you are.” He grabbed Peter’s shoulder. “Go. Get up there. Go!” He gave a squeeze, then set off toward one of the producers whose mouth remained open in a parody of shock.
Courage barely had their gear on stage when the turntable began to revolve. They didn’t even get to make an entrance, just rotated on stage as clouds moved across the early-evening sun.
# # #
Anna watched as Mother Courage swiveled into view. Even in her state, she could see they were unprepared, thrown into the breech before they were ready.
God, she wished she were up there, to help, to give Peter strength. And then to give him hell afterwards, tell him what she thought of his stupid fucking practical joke.
She focused her thoughts. Squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them. Like the sun, occluded for a few minutes by clouds, now peeking free again. And knew that if she could focus, focus, count backwards from one hundred, when she got to zero, she’d be okay.
She’d be okay.
One hundred, ninety-nine, and she made it to seventy-three.
Then Peter shouted into the mic, “One, two, three, four,” and slammed out the opening chords of “Sarah Montana.”
His count overrode hers, and the weight hit her shoulders once more. She clung with desperation to a chain-link fence as Courage started to play.
# # #
Peter finished the four-song set dripping with sweat. As they came offstage to the roar of over 30,000 people, he and the other Courage members were jumping up and down, screaming, whooping.
Reel brought them back to earth. “Fantastic set, but you’ve got to get your gear off.”
There were stagehands to help, of course, but like many bands, Courage considered their instruments and amplifiers – and Zoran’s drums – precious. It was mass confusion – again – as they swapped with Procul Harum, who had equipment that dwarfed theirs.
Peter kept looking for Anna, even as he reveled in his performance high and as the bands and stagehands and hangers-on tried to keep out of each other’s way – or in a few cases get in each other’s way, musicians swapping stories, photographers snapping pictures, and a few fans begging autographs.
Peter signed what was offered, posed for photos, and responded to a question from Procul Harum’s guitarist about the acoustics onstage. “No worse than a gym dance. No better, either.”
The Englishman grinned, mouthing thanks over the stinging guitar and Hammond Organ that kicked off Mother Earth’s eponymous opening song. Peter edged toward the front. He wanted to hear Tracy Nelson sing. Her voice, like Janis’s, could cut steel.
But he also needed to find Anna. Wanted to find her, figure out why she’d abandoned him at the biggest moment of his career.
He didn’t think she could still be waiting at the foot of the grandstand, not after their set. But she’d seemed sick, getting progressively sicker with each passing minute.
He turned to Never-Jim. “Keep an eye out for Anna, ‘kay?” He left the safety of the performers’ area and pushed into the crowd, shaking hands and signing autographs.
# # #
Even in her drugged state, Anna knew Courage’s set had been amazing. They had planned to start with a slow blues as a way to transition from Joni Mitchell, but after Mitchell had freaked out and run off, someone in the band – Peter, probably – had made the decision that the best way to recapture the crowd was to launch into a song that could get everyone clapping and dancing.
They’d only gotten better from there.
And she’d gotten worse, small clarity fading. With her body shaking, she could only close her eyes and sway to the music, clinging fiercely to the fence to avoid being knocked down. Even the hand reaching between her legs for a few seconds, some asshole thinking – correctly – he could get away with an unseen feel while swallowed by the crowd, hadn’t been enough to break her flow, hit some reset button.
By the end of the set, she lay curled on the ground, weeping.
A hand on her shoulder. A woman her own age, hard face but kind blue eyes, knelt next to her. “You all right?”
She forced herself to her feet. “I’m…. Sorry. I’m….” She couldn’t say it. Didn’t know why, either. A bad trip wasn’t her fault, especially since she hadn’t taken the acid intentionally. But she’d shown so much weakness the past few days, doubling down the past few hours. She couldn’t expose more. Not now.
She mumbled thanks, set off along the fence, a steel-rail with posts sunk in the earth, grounding her. She worked her way, hand over hand, toward a corner of the stage. Each time she had to let go, to edge past someone leaning on the fence, electricity surged, rattling her teeth, grinding her bones, amplifying the screams that shook that ground like a next-track diesel locomotive. Each time, she reached desperately for the grounding rail beyond one more obstacle, and each time it deadened but did not fully conquer the shrieks and shakes. Each time, it took seconds, years, just… time to risk another step.
The sky was dark when she reached the entrance to the performers’ area.
A beefy guy, maybe forty, in a white shirt and tie stopped her. “I’m sorry, but you can’t go back there.”
“My….” She didn’t know what to call him. “My friend is…. In a band.”
“I’m sorry. They’re not admitting friends.”
She wasn’t sure what that meant, or how to interpret it through the vaporous night swarming her shoulders. Perhaps Peter wasn’t a friend anymore. And in a flash of clarity, she understood that’s what the guard meant. Of course. Funny how the straight knew that, even before she did. Peter must have told him.
She turned away, staggered back along the fence.
From the stage, the Chambers Brothers belted out “Time Has Come Today.” After a few verses and a lengthy solo, the tempo collapsed, the words echoing.
The time had come.
She threw up. She spent her last fraction of strength keeping the bile from fouling her clothes.
# # #
Peter refused to believe Anna had abandoned him, had run off.
Yet he could find her nowhere, even with the band and Ares Reel helping search.
As the Chambers Brothers built ferocious intensity, “Time Has Come Today” returning to tempo, Never-Jim put his arm around him. “It’s okay, man. Sometimes chicks just leave.” He gestured to their equipment, sheltered under a tarp. “This isn’t a lifestyle for most people.”
Peter brooded on that until the band arrived back at the motel.
At Ares Reel’s suggestion, Peter asked for a 6:00 a.m. wakeup call. Courage had a gig tomorrow in Philly, and the Jersey highway would be jammed with people heading to the beach, or to the festival, or just driving for the sake of driving. He’d be glad to get an early start. He wrote a note for Anna, with his itinerary and Reel’s phone number, the A&R guy’s private line.
He put it in an envelope, with her name on the front.
He figured in the morning, he might leave the envelope at the desk, in case she came back. Or not, since she clearly had no intention of coming back.
Well, she’d been a dream at best. And dreams faded in the raw light of morning.
Either way, it didn’t matter. Just one more pileup on life’s highway. Highway One, indeed.
Peter heard Peer Gynt’s voice as he drifted into a restless sleep. “Go around,” the life-advice the troll had shared.
# # #
Anna found herself on the grass outside the racetrack as downpour turned the oily streets to dusky predawn rainbows. She shivered uncontrollably for minutes, or hours.
And then, when the rain stopped and the shivering subsided, the world had returned to its normal, everyday, ugly self.