Will knew which song the audience wanted to hear. Even from his backstage dressing room he could hear them chanting “Carla!” The band would have to perform it – there’d be a riot if they didn’t. With a heavy sigh, he stood up and stretched his aching arms. The song’s hook was definitely one of the best lead guitar licks he’d ever composed, but even the most intricate riffs got old after years of playing them.
He began pacing slowly. The rest of Psychotherapy was waiting for him just offstage, but Will’s ritual between the main set and the encore was to spend 10 or 15 minutes alone in his dressing room. This one was dingier than what he’d become accustomed to when Psychotherapy’s popularity was at its peak, but it was still well appointed. There was a vanity mirror and a battered dresser, as well as a sagging couch. Will’s favorite guitar, a venerable Fender Stratocaster with Jimi Hendrix’s signature burn pattern, leaned against one end of the couch. Picking up a towel from the dresser, he ruffled his hair to get rid of some of the sweat. Then, sitting back down on the couch, he hefted the guitar and began strumming idly. His fingertips were so callused that even after a two-hour set he could still play without pain.
The audience was still chanting, and hearing the name of one of the first songs he’d written resonate throughout the stadium put Will in a kind of nostalgic trance. Before long, he found himself loosely strumming a cover tune he’d learned before writing “Carla.” It was an old favorite of his, with a simple but compelling hook – one of the most common and popular descending chord progressions imaginable. Cliché, but so infectious you didn’t care. He couldn’t stop himself from singing the first line of the chorus:
“I’ve still got your face painted on my heart –“
Will stopped. He hadn’t sung that in ages, and the last time … Carla, all those years ago, when she was still the namesake of Psychotherapy’s hit single. “Painted on My Heart” was a strangely bitter song to serenade someone with, but Will and Carla both loved it anyway. It was by The Cult, one of the few bands Will was glad to see survive the end of the ’80s.
Will shook his head in an effort to clear it, his shaggy hair flying every which way at once. It didn’t help. Back in the early days, “Carla” sounded remarkable in concert because Will always had the real Carla on his mind while performing it. Afterward, when he’d had to attach the “ex” prefix every time she wandered into his thoughts, Psychotherapy stopped playing the song. Album and ticket sales dropped, and Psychotherapy’s fifteen minutes were over. The lyrics of “Painted on My Heart” became much more appropriate: “I thought it would be a matter of time / till I had a hundred reasons not to think about you / but it’s just not so.” Will tried to drink Carla away, but instead he lost his visitation rights with their child. Soon after that, Carla moved to another city.
Will woke up from his alcohol-induced daze a year or so later. He was still an emotional wreck. Sober, though, he could make much better use of his music as an outlet. Psychotherapy released a greatest hits compilation, allowing them to make the jump from one-hit wonder to nostalgia act – but to keep the crowds’ attention, the band had to play “Carla.” Will toyed around with alternate lyrics, but nothing other than the original wording had that catchy ring to it. So he satisfied himself by lengthening his guitar solos in the song, pouring his frustration and bitterness into each dissonant note. Eventually, Psychotherapy’s newer, darker albums attracted a core group of fans, but whenever they played to a large crowd like this one, their wider audience always screamed for “Carla.”
He put the guitar down. There was no putting it off now. For Will, part of being a musician had always been giving the crowd what they wanted.
Scuffing his worn sneakers as he shuffled his feet, Will inhaled deeply and opened the door. Seeing him emerge, the rest of Psychotherapy made their way back out onto the stage. The ensuing roar was deafening; the crowd knew what was coming next. A lanky sound tech handed Will a silvery Strat as he approached the stage from the side. Phil, Psychotherapy’s drummer, started a cymbal roll to cue the band for Will’s entrance.
“Carla! Carla! Carla!“
Will nodded at Johnny, the balding bassist, from just offstage. As Will walked out, Johnny struck a sustained low E that shook the rafters. Will stopped near his microphone, facing away from the crowd before giving the Strat’s volume knob a quick spin. His pick hovered over the B string for a breath, then he launched into the blues-rock riff that made Psychotherapy famous. He was about to turn and face the audience when he saw her.
Somehow, he managed to keep playing.
The band kicked in below his lead. The fullness of the sound made Will’s whole body vibrate, but his feet didn’t move. She looked at him, smiled and nodded, then motioned at him to turn around. Realizing that he’d miss the first verse if he didn’t get to his mic, he spun quickly and moved to the front of the stage.
Will started to sing. The song went on, but he wasn’t focused on it anymore. His thoughts were spinning so fast that he played the album version – no long, dissonant guitar solos, just straight-up blues rock. Psychotherapy were tight enough to follow his lead without missing a beat, and Will didn’t notice his bandmates’ perplexed looks.
The love song that made Psychotherapy famous was more than enough to pacify the audience; some of them were already leaving by the time Phil brought “Carla” to a crashing close. Will didn’t waste time; as soon as the rhythm section took over the song’s coda, he leaned his guitar against a stack of amps and darted off the stage in a sea of feedback. She was waiting for him, wearing a backstage pass, her hair as red as he remembered it. It was much too loud for them to hear one another, so she took his arm loosely and they went back to his dressing room. He shut the door and then leaned against it; she stood just in front of the couch.
“You look a lot older, Dad.”
“So do you, Rachel.” How long had it been? A couple of albums now. She was … 19? “Does Car… does your mother know you’re here?”
“No. I’m in college now.”
“Yeah.” She paused. “Dad?”
“Aren’t you going to give me a hug?”
“I … all sweaty like this?”
Rachel nodded. They met in the middle of the room, and he was surprised at how tightly she held him.
“I’m sorry.” It was all he could think to say. For what, he wasn’t precisely sure. Any number of things.
“I liked … I liked your encore,” she murmured into his shoulder. He leaned back and looked at her incredulously. She met his gaze, and they lingered for a moment before Will spoke.
“You … what? Why?”
Rachel sighed and freed herself from his grasp. “Do you always have to …” It was the beginning of a question, but Will had no idea what she was trying to ask him.
“What? ‘Do I always have to’ what?”
She shook her head. “Never mind.” There was something in her eyes, the shining green that Will remembered looked muted somehow. What had happened to her? Will felt guilty that he didn’t know. Had he been so single-mindedly focused on Carla?
“So you like ‘Carla?’ The song?”
“The album version. Yeah. I used to listen to it after you left.”
After you left. Carla had practically thrown him out!
Well … that wasn’t entirely fair. Will realized that he didn’t even know where Rachel was during that last shouting match, which ended with him storming out of the house for the last time. He’d even sent movers to the house to get his stuff for him.
“I visited you,” he blurted without thinking.
She blinked. “… Yeah. Until you started drinking again. That took, what, two months?” More than a hint of bitterness, there. Will brought a hand to his face and massaged his temples with his fingertips.
“I know. I … I’m sorry. I really am.” Again. That wasn’t enough … couldn’t be enough. But amid the confusion and guilt, it was all he could find.
“Your voice still sounds good.”
This time Will blinked, moving his hand to rub the fuzz on his cheek. “Thanks,” he murmured.
She liked his singing. She was … a fan.
“Did you hear the whole set?”
“Yeah. I liked ‘Carla’ the most, though.”
A thought occurred to Will, then.
“Okay, I’ve got another one for you.” Stepping back from her, he picked up his old burn-patterned Strat and sat down on the couch. “Have a seat.” She smiled tentatively and took her place on the cushion next to his.
“Will I know it?” she asked.
“Probably not. I used to … I listened to it before you were born.”
“Yeah?” Rachel leaned forward slightly. Will began strumming.
“I’ve still got your face painted on my heart …“
Raja Doake is a would-be-writer in engineer’s clothing. He lives in Ontario, Canada.