An excerpt from

#Zero

Neil McCormick

We staged a mass exodus to the Pilgrim hotel for award rehearsals, an MTV crew expanding my entourage. Any normal person of sound mind and limb would walk 50 metres across Times Square but we went twice round the block so that I could be transferred from limo to blacked out people carrier and sneaked in through the rear goods entrance. The zeromaniacs, of course, were way ahead of us, screaming and banging the side of the van as it drove past production trucks into underground parking. I was hustled like a presidential candidate on assassination watch into a staff elevator, almost colliding with Sting as the holistic superstar made an exit after his own rehearsal. “Have you been roped in by the do-gooders to save the orphans?” he enquired, while my people faced off his people, mobiles at the ready.

“I hate charity records,” I muttered.

“We all hate charity records,” the greying Adonis laughed. “It’s the things that test us that make us stronger.”

Then we were on the move again, emerging amidst a cackle of walkie-talkies into an enormous ballroom, the ceiling a sea of chandelier glass blazing in the glare of TV lighting. One wall bore a blow up of the latest Generator cover, featuring yours truly, naked from the waist up, with a Superman logo painted on my chest beneath the headline ‘From Zero To Hero’. I was introduced to camera crews, stage managers and TV directors, tragically hip men the age of my father squeezed into clothes two generations too young. One was even wearing my own brand tailored trackies, which of course I complimented him on, even though they made him look like a lard ass loser. Not the feel my designers were going for, I suspect.

A tall, nervous, middle-aged effete in mod suit and ponytail turned out to be Generator’s editor. “Hope you enjoyed the cover feature,” he murmured. “Brian Spitzer is America’s finest contemporary music writer and I really think he’s done you proud.”

“I never read my own press,” I said. It’s not true, of course, but why give them the satisfaction? But I had to wink and show him I was just joking. I am so weak.

Our host for the evening’s event was lured out of his dressing room to pay his respects. I could see him switch into on-mode, casual stroll turning into shoulder-rolling, street-hustling slouch. Willard Meeks was a black American online comic with a hyperactive persona and a rep for tweeting the untweetable. I had caught his act on U-Bend and he was pretty funny but I was already cringing in anticipation of assault. “Yo, Zero, wassup, bro?” he started in, like we were old friends. “You left my girl Penelope in the jungle with Troy Anthony? What’s wrong with you, man? You think she won’t go for a man her own age? Ain't you watched any of his movies? God damn, his ass oughta have its own agent. He must be, like, contractually obligated to drop his pants every movie or the ass goes on strike. You got to respect an ass with the clout to swing a shower scene in a biopic of George Washington. Only man in the world I'd recognise by his buttocks. If he came into the room now, buck naked, backwards, I be like, 'Hey Troy, thanks for coming on the show'. You better pray those Amazonian mosquitoes are sucking the blood out of his white ass, cause I don’t like to think what else is getting chewed up, you know what I’m saying?” Then he let out a big yuck of trademark laughter to remind me we were all show buddies here, just trading banter.

I have never understood people who think it’s a testament of character to be able to laugh at themselves. Why would I want to laugh at myself? It’s hard enough getting out of bed in the morning without starting with the premise that life's a big fucking joke and I'm the punchline. I had enough of it in school, I had it all my fucking life, and I didn’t claw my way to the top of the fucking hit parade just to take more fucking abuse from fucking self-styled verbal vigilantes. But it’s no use trading one liners with a comedian. It was either smile or punch him in the throat. I’d have a word with Beasley. No jokes about Penelope tonight or we’d pull the show.

My band was already onstage, with Donut McCann fretting about the suitability of the hired backline, our own equipment being in a studio in Queens, where, he reminded me at least ten times, I was scheduled to do a full dress rehearsal at four. “What do you need me for, Donut?” I chided him. “I know all the songs, I wrote them.”

“Then don’t come crying to me on Monday night if you stand over the wrong trapdoor and get a firework up your arse in front of a full house at the Garden,” snarled Donut. He had a point, I suppose.

We ran through ‘Never Young’ a couple of times for camera blocking. The bright sparks at Generator had proposed bringing in a choir of infants dressed like war refugees to join in the chorus, which Beasley opposed out of concern that it might be perceived to be crass in light of the Medellin orphan situation, and Donut opposed on the more practical basis that you should never work with children, especially on a tight schedule. So we came up with a choir of septuagenarians, the oldest gospel singers we could find that could stand without a Zimmer frame and hold a note. Dressed in white robes, they looked like a choir of ghosts. The backdrop was supposed to be black and white footage of children in peril, in wars, famines and refugee camps throughout the last century, finally freeze framing on a particularly appealing Medellin orphan, but when they sat down to watch the edit, no one could get through without bawling their eyes out. Well, no one except Beasley, obviously, but he pulled it on the grounds it would create negative associations. So instead, someone hastily assembled global warming disaster footage, floods, fires, stranded polar bears and pictures of the earth from outer space, ending with a new born baby being held up to his mother for the first time. Her expression as she pulled this tiny creature to her breast still got me, to be honest, but I didn’t have to look at it, I was on the mic, back turned to the big screen. I wasn’t playing an instrument for this, just standing very still and singing my heart out, dropping to my knees for the finale. At the end, the studio techs broke into applause, which is usually a good sign.

The old folks didn't have the faintest idea who I was, which was nice. They just smiled at me benignly like I was a clever child who could sing. When I went over to say hello, only one man asked for my autograph, for his grand-daughter, and then glowered intently when I scribbled in his book, before asking, “What’s that say?”

“Zero,” I said.

“Your name, son, write your name,” he insisted, rather fiercely, and had to be helped back onto the choir stand by Donut and my musical director, Carlton Wick.

For a moment I stood and stared at this motley assembly of worn out skin and bone, liver spots, rheumy eyes, wrinkles so deep they were like scars on the surface of the earth, and had to pull my gaze away with a shiver, a cold tremble running up my gullet. Was that where we were all going? I’ve never really known anybody old, not really old. My Irish grandparents were gone before I was born, or before I remember anyway. And my mother’s parents were an abstraction, I had never really given them any thought. I don’t know if she even had parents, maybe she was an orphan, or there was some big disruption with her family back in the mists of time, I don’t remember her ever talking about them, I don’t remember her ever talking, I don’t really remember her at all. She never got old. Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse. That’s rock and roll, isn’t it? My mother must have been rock and roll. Did she leave a beautiful corpse? I stared up into the choir, all these craggy faces, beauty long since having taken a leave of absence, all that was left was life, a fierce will to survive. Why couldn’t I remember my mother’s face? How could I forget something like that? She looked like me, that’s what my old man said, that’s why he found it hard to look at me sometimes.

I sat down at Carlton’s piano. “I need some water,” I announced, to no one in particular, and then chose from an array of bottles pressed upon me. I felt the cool, clean liquid glide down my throat. Sometimes there is nothing like water. And sometimes you need a little twist of something extra. It had been a long day and we weren’t even half way through yet. “Are we done? What the fuck are we waiting for?” I snapped at Carlton.

“Just waiting to hear if they have got everything they need, then we’ll wrap it up,” replied my long suffering musical director. Carlton was a former one hit wonder from the Eighties. You must remember ‘I Sing Therefore I Am’ by Zen Twister? Carlton was that very same trustafarian with tatty dreadlocks who fashioned a jingle out of the tenets of Descartian philosophy and has survived on the royalty cheques ever since. He was brought in on my first solo album to add a bit of polish to my home production and stayed on to enjoy finally being acclaimed a genius, when all he really did was transcribe my parts and use communication skills honed at Eton (and wasted for decades trying to follow up his only hit) to organise a team of top session musicians, who could have probably organised themselves just as well for a 12 pack of beer and a gram of coke. Since we had a few minutes on our hands, I asked Carlton if he knew ‘Motherless Child’. “Of course,” he replied, as if I was impugning his professional integrity. “Everyone knows ‘Motherless Child’.”

“Well, I don’t fucking know it, Carlton,” I sighed, although there was some vague melody lurking in the back of my mind. “Would you mind playing it for me?”

I pushed over on the piano stool to make room, and Eugenie came dashing forward with the lyric sheet. There were just three verses, doubling as choruses, and they only had a couple of lines in each, with lots of repetition. I wondered how Adam Monk thought he was going to get his A-list chorus to share this around? Carlton was laying down some simple, soulful, gospel chords with an underlying minor melancholia, and as the notes rang through me I realised I did know this song, fuck knows from where or when or how, perhaps it was imprinted in my neural circuits like an ancestral memory. I started to sing, softly, tentatively, to myself, feeling my way through the lines.

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
A long way from home …”

Something strange was happening, something moving across the stage like a breeze, the way that music can, the way that music does bring everything together. The old folks stirred. They were swaying gently with the chordal movement. And they started to sing along, at first a soft hum, rising with confidence to a mournful sigh.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone
Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone
Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone
Way up in the heavenly land
True believer
Way up in the heavenly land …”

Those old folks could sing. Their voices had the cracks and patina of age, they had the stretched thinness that years wreak on vocal chords, the dry timbre of kindling that might catch fire at any moment and disappear in a crackle and puff, but blended together in harmony the effect was awe-inspiring, a cathedral of sound, climbing up to the chandeliers and beyond. Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. Even me.

“Sometimes I feel like freedom is near
Sometimes I feel like freedom is here
Sometimes I feel like freedom is near
But we a long way from home …”

“Are you all right?” said Carlton, his face suddenly looming before mine, snapping me out of my reverie.

“I’m fine,” I said, then realised I wasn’t. My eyes were swimming. There were tears pouring down my cheeks. Carlton had stopped playing and the choir resumed chatting amongst themselves, as if nothing had happened. But I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t even know where the tears were coming from. Kilo was at my side now, Kelly was dabbing my face with a tissue, my people were closing around me, cutting me off from prying eyes. “I’m fine,” I protested. “It’s just … the lights …”