I should have peed, thought Corey Lyondell.
Onstage, for the final song of the final set, Corey found herself in a flow state. It was the same song and it was the same every show. It was called Decelerate, the last track off her first album Damsel Underdressed, and it was a noodly number with chords that resolved upward, spiraling into a reaffirming and endless guitar circuit as her honeyed voice sighed “Uh oh, oh no” over and over. On the album track, the outro was over two minutes long, and the effect was hypnotic to the listener. On stage, it had the same effect on her.
Gone were all the stray thoughts that strafed her concentration throughout the rest of the set. I should have peed. I wonder if this town has a good vegetarian place. This jacket is hard to play in. Did I remember to give Josh the code to my mailbox? I wonder if Iggy is driving Josh and Kincaid nuts. I wonder if Iggy loves Josh more than me now. But my black and white striped top doesn’t work without the jacket. Ug, that frat boy is half a beer away from going full meathead-werewolf. Did I pay the power bill before I left—I’m sure I did. That goth chick is definitely going to wait around for some face time—remember to turn it on for her. Poor thing, I’m so not feeling it tonight. I just want to go home, I want my own bed. Oh, there’s Superfan Randy. It isn’t a midwest show without Randy, so give him a quick smile and raise your eyebrows for emphasis—Hi Randy!—I really should be paying him at this point. How did he even hear about this gig? Make that two people I have to talk to. Either the jacket stays or I take it off and look like Marcel Marceau. Fuck. I really should have peed…
In some sets, when she was playing for a particularly friendly audience or the hometown Boston crowd, she could stretch the outro to a full five minutes, with loyal fangirls singing along, their heads thrown back. During the salad days and the endless touring after Damsel and before the wave began to recede on the second album, she even nicked an arrow from U2’s quiver. For many tours, the Irish quartet ended their concert with the song 40, where one by one, the band left the stage while the audience chanted along, until finally the drummer abandoned his kit and the audience continued to sing. With Decelerate, her band had walked off, one at a time, until it was just her strumming her acoustic in that dreamy loop, her eyes closed. But U2 was anthemic, while her catalog was more introverted, so pulling such a move never really sat well with her, but it was the early 2000’s and the height of her popularity, so what the hell? In the end, only U2 and church could keep your ass in the seat or on your feet, singing along even after the act has left the stage, and Corey knew she was no Bono. She retired the bit on the final night of the Damsel Underdressed tour at Madison Square Garden.
But she never dropped the song. Decelerate was her traditional closer. It was her signature final song and it came to be that her fans felt cheated if they didn’t experience it, singing right along with her, lifting her up, and carrying her along. So it remained a fixture of her set. There was stagecraft in every show, recurring banter, bits of manufactured “spontaneity,” but no matter how big or how small the venue, no matter the temperature of the audience, no matter what else was going on in her mind, she always lost herself in that one song. She squeezed her eyes shut and stayed there, locking in and finding that flow state. Where she lost time. Where she wasn’t singing or playing the guitar, but rather channeling.
She was free.
And sometimes, when she opened her eyes after Decelerate, she was surprised by her surroundings. Tonight, she opened her eyes to a smattering of applause.
Madison Square Garden, this was not.
There was a handful of fans crowded in front of her, but beyond that, the rest of the club paid her little attention. In truth, calling it a club was a stretch. It was a long, narrow restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas on a snowy Thursday night. Her eyes locked on a middle-aged man on a barstool who had been watching her absently, then swiveled back to the bartender and ordered the sound turned back up on Sportscenter.
“Thank you, Larry, you’ve been great,” she said.
The silence in the room found another depth.
“Larry. Short for Lawrence? Nothing?” She looked at one of the handful of people standing closest and most likely to be sympathetic. She cupped her hand over the microphone and asked the nearest one, “This is fucking Lawrence, right?”
Louise, her manager, had booked it. She had just wrapped her latest tour, an 18 city swing through the northeast, midwest, and northwest. The last night was a pretty great show at Lincoln Hall in Chicago—she was in good form and she finally felt like everyone had gelled onstage—when Lou called and told her about adding just one more date. There was easy money to be had in Lawrence. The owner of the “club”—Hooper’s—was a massive fan of The Toddlers. That was the first red flag and it made Corey wince over the phone. The Toddlers broke up nearly twenty years ago, and Corey was only one quarter of the wreckage. Her entire solo career had just been brushed over, but she was used to swallowing her pride these days. And she needed the scratch.
By Corey’s napkin calculations, the tour was breaking even. Her last album was getting zero radio play, and her social media had plateaued. Merch wasn’t really moving either. She had brought along the nephew of a friend of hers to help load in and load out and to mind the table during and after the shows, but Kevin seemed more interested in cadging free drinks and chatting up women than selling copies of her CDs and tee shirts. Then he had the audacity to ask for a raise. To keep peace in the van, she acquiesced, but she fucking fumed.
So when this owner offered Lou a pretty exorbitant amount of money for a solo acoustic night at his “club,” Corey didn’t have much choice. It was a cheap flight, the hotel was reasonable, and someone would pick her up and take her back to the airport. It was just one more night of playing, and though she didn’t admit this to Kevin and the band, it spared her the long ride back to Boston in the van with them.
The second red flag was when the guy who was supposed to pick her up from the airport had been two hours late. He was a barback half her age called Tank who had never heard of her or her music. Finally, and only because it was better than the awkward silence in his beater, she said, “Ever heard of The Toddlers?”
Tank swung his head in her direction. “Like Shouting to Myself?”
“Yes,” she said, the word sounding like air escaping from a bicycle tire.
Now’s the part where they sing the song back to me. Badly.
Tank did not disappoint.
“I’m shouting to myself! Why can’t I be someone else!” he screamed. “Classic.”
He dropped her at the hotel, but there was only an hour to showtime. She barely had time to fling her bag onto the bed, shower, put on some lipstick and eyeliner, tousle her short shag, and get into the headspace to perform. Normally, she liked to see the venue first. Over twenty-five years crisscrossing the country with the Toddlers, by herself, or with a rotating assortment of musicians, there were very few venues she hadn’t laid eyes on, but this was an unknown entity. Red Flag #3.
Now the crowd, if it could be called that, drifted away. She imagined them as electrons, her tenuous hold on them gone, with only a few devoted protons remaining.
I’m a shitty nucleus, she thought.
The goth girl didn’t want to buy anything, which was fine, because she had left all her merch in the van heading back to Boston. It was just her and Clyde, her acoustic guitar. It was just the one night. But the girl wanted to talk. At first, she couldn’t tell if Goth Girl wanted to kill herself or start a band. Fortunately, it was the latter. It was the thousandth girl in the thousandth town who wanted to be in a band, and it was always sweet, but she wasn’t even sure if Goth Girl was a fan. All of her questions began with an “I.” It was not helping her mood. Finally, the girl drifted off, getting whatever she needed or simply getting bored, and Superfan Randy sidled up.
She punched him in the arm. “Hey, Randy, how did you even know about the show tonight?”
“I have my ways. You sounded great.”
She shot him a look.
“Okay, last night was better, but last night was epic though…”
Randy had seen her perform no less than a hundred times over her career. He had earned the right to be honest, and last night was better. She had a band and an actual venue. Tonight she was in a fucking sports bar. A busker at least gets to pick his corner.
Randy was a mountain of a man, with black horn-rimmed glasses and an ever-present denim jacket loaded with buttons, and he loved music. He had the air of an amateur rock critic, and he was definitely a collector. It could have just as easily been stamps or comics or coins, but it was music. It was shows. She didn’t understand it, but part of his collection involved her, and even if they were both just going through the motions, she was still grateful. That she could arouse passion—musically speaking—in anyone these days felt like a minor miracle. Short of passion, she’d settle for dutiful attendance.
It had been awhile since she’d ignited any passion anywhere, she thought, then she remembered suddenly.
“Hey Randy, want to see the seedy underbelly of rock and roll?”