“You ladies want a beer?” a voice called out.

We looked over to see Randy Bachman walking toward us with two Coronas in his hands. He had an affable way about him, one of those non-threatening musicians, which I guess they all are when they’re from Canada.

He stopped by our table and handed us both a beer, which we accepted graciously. We made small talk for a few minutes while I tried really hard to be professional and not gush about The Guess Who, knowing he probably didn’t want to talk about his ex-band.

After he left to go join Fred Turner, I shot Emeritta a look.

“You thinking about him?” I joked.

She shrugged again. “Not at the festival, but he’s kind of cute. Why not?”

There I was back to not understanding her mentality. We finished our beers and began the hot walk back to the trailer, the grass tickling my bare legs. I realized she’d never answered my original question.

“So, back to this, what do you think about the other groupies…rock lovers…out there?”

She seemed to chew on that for a bit. Literally chewing on a piece of her blonde hair.

“It’s a dog-eat-dog world, that’s what,” she admitted with downcast eyes. “At the beginning, girls were a lot nicer to each other. It was all about the music and we were all in it together. Then the groupie scene kind of exploded thanks to that stupid Groupie movie. Now you’ll find girls who pretend to be your friend. You know the ones who say things like, “How are you, darling, I heard you had a flood in your neck of the woods, I was thinking about you and hoped you were okay,” or something else said out of fake concern. But they only say that shit when you’re in public and there’s lots of people around to see it, and then they go and talk behind your back. They only want people—musicians and famous people especially—to think they are oh so nice while they go and spread rumors about you when you’re not looking. That’s what I think about other groupies. No one helps or loves anyone anymore. It’s every fan for themselves.”

I was surprised to hear her rant like that, but there was a sense of relief to her face, like she hadn’t been able to confide in anyone for years. I was slowly but surely finding out that all the fun parts of the music scene weren’t exactly as they seemed.

***

Given that realization, when we got back to the trailer I wasn’t too surprised to find Robbie doing a line of coke with Jacob and Noelle, the white stuff sorted out on the faux-wood dinette table. None of them looked ashamed and just continued to snort the stuff up using a twenty-dollar bill that Jacob had provided. Jacob, who was wearing a yellow and brown suit despite the heat, gave me one of his “I am what I am” looks and carried on.

I tried to ignore the disgust I felt (they had a festival to play, shouldn’t that have been enough excitement?), and I walked into the rear of the trailer and flopped down on the cheap green couch beside Chip who was lying down and drinking a can of Pepsi. Sage, Graham, and Mickey were nowhere to be found. I heard Robbie offer Emeritta a hit but she refused, saying she never did hard drugs. I liked her even more after that.

Hybrid’s set was on the second biggest of the three stages, with the coveted sunset slot. I was going stir-crazy in the hot trailer, and convinced Chip to explore the festival with me and catch some lesser known acts (Emeritta and Robbie disappeared into the back room of the trailer, so there was no point waiting for her). The rest of the band seemed to want to stay on the bus with that one measly rotating fan. I’d later figure out that they were nervous and hiding. Playing to a crowd that’s not specifically there to see you was always a challenge to them, a band that too easily judged their talent by the crowd’s reaction.

Chip was good company and knew a lot more about some of the bands than I did and loved to flex his “I know everyone” muscle. We drank beer and enjoyed the sunshine, mingling with other roadies and sound techs as well as the general public— scruffy-bearded men and women in flowery dresses. There was an overall stench of marijuana and body odor in the air, though the occasional breeze wafted by carrying the smell of hot dogs, dirt, and river water. The Catawba River was the place to be in between sets, and we sat by the muddy banks, watching a bunch of stoned hippies run into the water naked and shrieking.

As fun and carefree as the setting was however, that didn’t stop me from glancing around every chance I got. I was looking for Sonja, Terri, or Sparky, my eyes fixating on every pale blonde or spiky-haired brunette I saw. I wondered if they were here, hiding and waiting, and if they were, what they would do to me. Of course, there was a big chance they wouldn’t do anything—their bark could have been worse than their whorish bite. But I wasn’t going to take any chances; Jacob didn’t tell me they weren’t dangerous, and Sage, in all his vague glory, was definitely leaning toward that option too. Maybe it would just be name-calling and hair-pulling (which I would win at), or perhaps something worse. I shuddered a bit at the thought and Chip mistook that for a chill and put his arm around me.

“Is my Rusty doing okay?” he asked, steering me back toward Hybrid’s stage. He was going to have to set up and check the levels soon. The sun was low in the sky and the air temperature was dropping to a more tolerable level.

I smiled awkwardly but let him keep his arm there. Chip was harmless, and I felt like a little extra protection couldn’t hurt.

Hybrid went on to an electric and moody atmosphere. The sky was darkening, a mixture of bright reds and purples as the glowing sun began its descent toward the horizon. Bats appeared, flittering above the crowd’s head, followed by the flowery, cooling smell that comes with dusk after a hot day. I spent the first few songs at the side stage, gawking at the members of REO Speedwagon before Emeritta dragged me down into the crowd where we could experience the show as it was supposed to be seen.

I didn’t know why Hybrid was nervous at all, or if perhaps that tension made them play that much better, but it was the best show of the tour. Absolutely. Determined to knock the socks off of the crowd, they gave it all they had. Robbie strutted around like a peacock, wailing into the mic like his life depended on it, his tight pants, open fringed vest, and winning smile causing the women to shriek and fan themselves. Sage and Mickey worked with each other, walking right up to one other during the harder parts, like a riff-off, only they were smiling for once and enjoying it. From my viewpoint I couldn’t see Graham and for that I was glad, but I could hear his monstrous sound and that was enough for me. The only one who seemed off-kilter was Noelle. She held her own with a nervous, hunched over stance, and a few times I was certain she was going to mess up, but she pulled through and so did the band.

It really was a prime example of the band’s energy and musicianship. They introduced a never-played before cover of “Purple Haze” which made the crowd go bonkers, and they ended with “Wet Lips” which they extended from three minutes to fifteen, jamming without a care in the world. I looked at the dude next to me, and he had his eyes closed, moving to the unpredictable beat, his face lit up with a spacey smile. I heard murmurs spread through the audience, things like “far-out,” “cool city,” “awesome,” and “best set of the festival.” Hybrid wowed their fans and earned new ones in the making. Troubles aside, I was honored to be a part of it. The band really had me on a roller coaster ride.

Finally, Hybrid was pretty much forced off the stage and REO Speedwagon took over, probably wondering how they were going to top that. Emeritta and I made our way through the clustered, intoxicated crowd toward the backstage gates when Sage came out of them, heading toward us.

“Robbie’s looking for you,” Sage said to Emeritta. Beads of sweat rolled down the sides of his head, his black curls sticking damply to his skin. His coal-colored shirt was soaked through and it clung to every well-formed muscle. I had to wonder how on earth Sage managed to keep up a body like that when he was playing music all the time. Did he do sit-ups and bench presses in his sleep?

Emeritta grinned like a girl in love and gave me a sly (almost too sly) wave before skipping off toward the gate, her giant boobs swinging from side to side.

“She’s great, isn’t she?” I commented. I looked up at Sage who was watching her go with amusement.

“As far as groupies go, yes, she’s great.”

“I thought bands loved groupies.”

He gave me a funny look. “When you deal with the psychopaths, you get burned out on groupies as a whole. Want to go listen to some good music and get a hot dog?”

I was startled by the invitation. “What, now? Don’t you want to shower?”

He lifted up his arm and sniffed. “I think I smell better than most people here. Don’t tell me Miss Emerson is afraid of a little sweat.”

Was there an innuendo in those words? I couldn’t tell. So I did what I normally do in these situations: I laughed nervously.

“Besides there’s an act here I don’t want to miss. Ever heard of Tom Waits?”

I thought about it and we slowly made our way back into the crowd, toward the food vendors. People stared at Sage as we walked past, not believing their eyes.

“Yeah, I’ve heard of him. Haven’t listened though. Doesn’t seem like my kind of music, and I don’t know, debut albums aren’t always the best.”

He scratched at his sideburns, green eyes glowing incredulously. “That’s where you’re wrong. To really understand music, to love it for what it is, you have to be open-minded and go into everything thinking you might find a new part of yourself. It can only make your heart bigger.”

Now it was my time to give him an incredulous look. He was being borderline corny again and yet…I was eating it up.

We stopped to get our hot dogs, people in the line moving aside for him like he was an ice-breaking ship. A few of them told him how wicked the show was, others gawked, a few looked at me with interest, and others shot me dirty looks. I threw back my shoulders and stood proudly beside him. I was the journalist and he was the subject and this was his kingdom. When we got our dogs, mine piled with extra relish, he took my hand in his and led me through the mob toward a smaller stage. My skin vibrated at his touch, like static or musical waves.

He didn’t let go of me until we found a place at the back of the crowd, everyone hushed together in front of us, strangers in the dark. The stage was small and dimly lit with red and yellow lights. Despite my height, I could barely see Tom Waits and his ragtag band, but I heard them. Not at first, I was too wrapped up in having the hulking Sage standing right next to me, his hand by his side, so close to my hand that now felt cold without his touch. But after a few choruses of “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” I really heard him. His raw voice was subtle, the composition simple, but it grabbed me. I looked up at Sage and he was already staring at me with a knowing smile in his eyes. I held them for a few seconds, lost in the specks of gray-green that shone through the darkening sky.

He was the first to look away. He eyed the stage. “Can you see?”

***

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