Narrated by Bob Eccles
When the three of them loped into his studio, overplaying the role of moody artists, Brian wondered at the lack of instruments. Only for an instant. You got all sorts. Barbershop quartets, an entire ensemble who slapped and pumped their body parts to popular classical themes, one lady who was a walking wind instrument. No, really.
“You want microphones?”
“We can manage,” the blonde kid said through a Niagara of hair.
“You’re the boss.” Like hell. They pulled over three mike stands, waggled the mikes till they were level with their lips. “When you’re ready. And…we’re rolling…”
And that, as they say, was when the screaming started.
“Because it isn’t your studio, Brian.” Tex said. He wasn’t a cowboy or even American. He was from Bristol, England, but wore a ten-gallon hat to go with his ten-gallon gut. “And these are paying customers. They want to make bird sounds with their buttock cheeks and we record it. As long as they’re not breaking anything…”
“They nearly ruptured my eardrums,” Brian said. Tex just grinned.
“Guess they just caught you by surprise.” Brian scowled but it was Tex who suddenly played it hard. “They’re customers and you’re employed as a studio technician. You don’t like it, you know the options out there.”
Fifty-two years old. The premature arthritis in his wrists prevented him from performing more than three-minute riffs on the guitar. A studio musician got paid by the hour, not the aagh. It got worse: “But first, I want you to apologise.”
Brian had his pride. But his bank and daughter subscribed to a different value system.
“Sorry fellas. I think we got off on the wrong foot. If you’d like to try again.”
He aimed the words chiefly at blondie, who seemed the warmest of the coolest. The lead singer–screamer–was a rat-haired boy who sat with his eyes screwed up like he was trying to pass a beachball.
“That’s okay. Happy? You ready?” Rat-boy nodded without opening his eyes.
Happy? thought Brian.
“Happy got into it when he went to primal therapy. Some bloke called Jarov wrote about it. All the angst of childhood expressed in a scream.”
“And that’s what he’s doing?” asked Brian. Blondie–aka Jonesy– shook out a cigarette for him. He waved it away. They were out back, sipping machine coffee, which was as unappetising as it sounded. Happy had departed, Ken–the third member of The Jarred–leading him out. Jonesy turned out to be, well, alright.
“Yep. I mean Happy does, we just try our best to add backing screams.” Jonesy smiled. “What did you think?”
“I thought…” Brian shivered. “It’s the rawest sound I’ve heard since punk. Three guys just screaming. That Happy has got some vocal range. I swear I can still feel it ringing in my ears.” Somewhere deeper too, he thought, and there was that quiver again.
“I know what you mean. Freaks me out too. We used to just play old Jam numbers, you know, working our way round as a tribute band? Happy got the screaming idea when he started doing the therapy and we changed from The Jam to The Jarred. Cute, eh?”
“I hate to think what he’s remembering to make that kind of sound.”
“You and me both.” Jonesy’s fingers trembled around the cigarette. Brian took one the next time he offered.
They recorded three sessions. Fifteen minutes in total, what would have passed for an E.P. in Brian’s day of vinyl releases. But The Jarred released online.
It was a sensation.
“They’re going to record a whole album with us,” Tex said happily, patting Brian’s stomach in a way Brian had never understood. “Next big thing.”
“Have you read the reviews?”
“Press hullabaloo. I mean, a kid really went catatonic listening to them?”
“You sure you want the studio’s name dragged through the mud?”
“You kidding?” Tex asked and on his face there was disgust at Brian’s naivety. Brian had never felt so foolish. But Tex hadn’t been there for the first sessions. And what kind of teenager plugged in for fifteen minutes of anguished screaming in their ears?
The album wasn’t just seminal. It was phenomenal.
“I’m leaving the band,” Jonesy told Brian afterwards. “My nerves are shot.” Jonesy could barely get the cigarettes to his lips this time, and his t-shirt had various spillages from the beers and coffees he’d attempted to drink between tracks. “Happy has been searching for inspiration. Only so much personal angst you can scream out. Guy had a terrible childhood, but he’s been taking stuff to give him new nightmares. Been surfing the net too to find other disturbing stuff. Says he needs to be scared to perform.
“I was just faking it. He knows.”
Brian didn’t say anything, but he’d known it too. The other guy, silent Ken, just hissed his way through the ‘numbers’ and was the Yoko Ono of the set-up, looking after Happy’s genius.
“It’s always been about being authentic,” Jonesy said.
“Sure.” Brian looked at his newly nicotined fingers, felt the rawness in his throat. Nothing compared to Happy: the guy literally spat blood after a performance.
The media loved them for all the reasons one would expect. ‘Nihilistic’ didn’t begin to explain it. The Jarred took regular teenage angst and made it look pathetic. Copycat bands were lambasted by Happy’s followers. It wasn’t just fickle loyalty. They knew, like Brian had. It had to be as Jonesy said: authentic.
Parents feared it.
“Happy wants to do a second album. We’re on a roll.”
“Things only roll downhill,” Brian said and Tex’s mood spilled over.
“I’m tired of all this negative shit, Brian. You don’t want to do this, then I’ll get someone who can. This becoming too big for you, then you’ve only got to say!” But Brian recognised the signs: Tex was also getting scared of what they were doing. He’d finally listened to what Happy was doing.
Brian agreed to help with the follow-up album.
Whatever Happy was doing to find these new experiences, these new horrors, it came out in his performances: high sibilants that moved into dog-whistle range, choked half-laughter, undulating siren wails. It was terrible. It was terrific.
They recorded three hours of it.
At the end of it, Happy looked up at him. After switching on the recording equipment, Brian hadn’t listened beyond the first minute, just watched the levels and tried to keep them within the sound system’s limits of endurance.
He’s empty now, Brian thought with relief.
“Another album? We just finished the last magnum opus three months ago,” Brian said.
“Yes. Well, some artists are just prodigious.”
Tex hadn’t been there. Tex hadn’t seen Happy’s face. The calm that had settled after the storm. The screaming was done for the moment.
“Look, you know how I feel about this stuff,” Brian said. “But there’s no way he can record something that will stand up to the fans’ scrutiny. Not so close on the heels.”
“Suddenly you’re an expert?” But he was, in a way. He’d been there from the beginning. Even Ken had dropped out and been replaced by a furtive looking girl with strange eyes and a permanently cocked-head expression as if she were listening out for the echo to stop. Perhaps they all were at that. “I’ve got someone else for this one. Don’t worry: you’ll still get executive producer status just for turning up and getting the coffee.”
Brian let the dig go. Tex wasn’t carrying his gut around anymore. Even the hat fit loosely on his head. The guy was shrinking from within.
He got the call the day of the recording and walked in to see the equipment was still recording, the replacement engineer nowhere to be seen.
“I don’t care, just make sure nothing’s lost,” Tex raged, spittle on his lips, eyes dancing about in a way that made Brian’s own struggle to keep them in focus: like trying to follow all three balls as they were juggled. “Engineer said Happy came in, calm as a millpond, sat down and just whispered into the mike. No screaming, just whispering.”
“And that made him leave?” Brian wanted to laugh after the shit he’d had to endure.
“Just…sort things out.”
Brian did. In a way. He sat in the booth, watching, not listening, and when Happy finally looked up and nodded, he pressed stop. His finger missed it the first two attempts.
He sent the file to Tex along with his resignation. Whatever was on that file he wasn’t going to listen. He got a call later that night. He was drunk as a skunk but that still wasn’t enough to prevent him from hearing what the caller was saying.
Three people had listened to the recording so far.
Not one of them had stopped screaming.
AUTHOR BIO: Jez Patterson is a British teacher and writer, currently based in Madrid. He has lived in Brazil, Argentina, Greece and the UK. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Perihelion SF and (upcoming) Stupefying Stories. Links to things that have his name at the end can be found at: http://jezpatterson.wordpress.com.