20 August 1999. London.
Alone and insecure on his fiftieth birthday, the ‘World’s Most Gorgeous Guitarist’ spent thirty minutes scrutinising his face in the hotel bathroom mirror before swearing that his worries were unfounded.
He was JD Twain, beautiful and charismatic, talented and charming. He was one of the brightest stars in a blinding galaxy. He was timeless, ageless, immortal. Fifty to JD Twain was as 150 years to normal people.
He stared into the doubting eyes of his reflection until his phone interrupted his pity party for one.
He answered before looking at the caller ID with all the day’s frustrations clear in his tone: ‘What?’
‘I was going to sing you Happy Birthday but I won’t fucking bother.’
‘You should’ve come up to Scotland like I said.’
‘I don’t like the countryside.’
‘You sound down. What’s the matter, dear boy?’
‘You’re also fifty.’
‘And? Bluesmen get better with age. Like wine or whiskey or something.’
‘I love you, man.’
‘What are your plans today?’
‘Got a gig later.’
‘Hadn’t thought about it.’
‘Where’s Byrne these days?’
‘No idea. How’s Sprocket doing?’
‘Well. He’s writing his own music now.’
‘Jay… are you OK?’
‘Gonna party like it’s 1999.’
‘I’m good. All good. Don’t worry about me, Cochran.’
‘It’s my job to worry about you.’
‘No it isn’t.’
‘Come on,’ He heard her disagreeing chuckle hundreds of miles away. ‘I’ve been professionally worrying about you since 1970. Firing me didn’t change that, at least.’
Time to change the subject. ‘I’ll be at the 100 Club tonight. Exclusive birthday gig. Apparently tickets were changing hands for hundreds. I still got it, baby.’
She chuckled – actually chuckled: ‘You were born irresistible and you’ll die that way too.’
‘Yeah. Anyway, I gotta go.’
She sang “Happy Birthday” down the line to him, all breathy Marilyn Monroe at first before it morphed into Janis Joplin’s screech and ended as a raucous Marie Lloyd cockney music hall cackle. She took a breath and when she spoke it was as herself. ‘Love you, Twain.’
‘Back atcha, Rosa. See you soon.’
‘Yeah right.’ She hung up, leaving JD alone once again.
There was a day full of hours before he had to be at the venue, and nothing to do. On the street below he knew – theoretically at least – he’d find normal people living the lives he’d only ever seen on TV.
Life for Twain had never been normal, not since the woman left and he became the first kid in his class with divorced parents and a mom who’d gone away without him. He’d never had to consider getting a real job. His peripatetic lifestyle and his own attitude meant his only real long-term relationship with anyone beyond a song-writing partnership with Liam was the whateveritwas with Rosalie.
He had been fifty for three and a half hours, give or take a few minutes and the time zones, but already he felt like the line of girls waiting for him after the gig would be shorter. If he was honest, the line had been dwindling for a long time.
Unable to remain inside a moment longer, JD tossed his jacket over his shoulder and went out into the bright sunlight. His discman sent the Spencer Davis Group directly into his head and he bounded along the street to the beat.
He was eight when he first came to London. He hid behind his dad, who never met a social situation he couldn’t handle, and wondered why everything was so grey. He had become familiar with the city through the years as it changed from grey post-war gloom to shiny-shiny noughties lustre with stops at swinging psychedelics, garbage strikes and yuppie heaven-hell on the way.
“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” The lines of the old Dylan song came to mind above the funk-soul of the Tim Buckley song that had just started playing. How could he feel young and magnificent when his reflection told him otherwise?
The weather turned from blue skies to wet and grey without warning. He ducked into a pub for respite and the drink he hadn’t known he needed until stood at the bar.
‘What can I getcha?’ The barman was Australian, of course.
‘Best whiskey you got. And a pint of something cold.’
JD leaned against the bar as he waited and took in the scene around him. It was a studenty place, full of people, and each pretty by virtue of youth. The TV on the wall pumped out music videos as the callow children chattered non-stop, ate greasy pub food without a hesitation and drank like it was going out of fashion.
Once upon a time and not so very long ago, this scene would’ve filled him with delight at the opportunities it presented. Now, he just felt tired, old, and after a minute, invisible.
One of the students called out to the barman: ‘Oh hey, turn it up!’
The latest music video on the TV was – to his surprised shock and awe – one of Shadowlands’ earliest. The little rat bastard on the screen taunted him with his breath-taking, youthful beauty for one thing and his lightning-quick, flawless fingering for another. Hypnotised, he watched the young buck effortlessly command absolute devotion from the audience.
His maimed hand ached and he hated JD Twain like he’d never hated him before. Never before had he loathed and despised that cocky little asshole, not even in his darkest moments hunched over hotel toilets or during the revolving door that was his bed in the early 1980s before everyone got scared. It was a new and unpleasant feeling and he concentrated on the scar. Staring at it for twenty five years had made it familiar, but never beloved. It was a ready-to-use noose and the cause of a thousand nightmares. Even the niggling, never-quite-absent ache in his back since the Vancouver stabbing was easy to live with in comparison.
He despised JD Twain for being young and perfect on screen because JD Twain on screen captured the attention of nearly everyone in the damned pub and not one damned person had noticed that JD Twain himself was stood right there.
He looked up from his pint to stare at his reflection in the antique mirror above the bar until the video was over and he could breathe again. A minute or two passed and his eyes narrowed at his own imperfect, aged face. The video mercifully ended.
‘He was so cool!’ one of the girls said in a rush of breath and vague attraction. Whatever she said next was drowned out by a burst of guitar chord from the TV: it was showing another damned Shadowlands video!
JD squinted at the TV and saw a tickertape graphic running along the bottom: “JD TWAIN TURNS 50 TODAY – CELEBRATE WITH US!”
If there was a God, or gods, or any kind of benevolent deity concerned with the matters of humans, He/She/It/Them had a malicious sense of humour. If there was a God, He/She/It/Them had no idea how cruel it was to send a man like JD Twain into senior citizenry.
He was referring to himself in the third person and that was never good.
‘Hey man, can I get another one of these?’ JD waved his empty glass at the barman.
How strange it was to witness his fans being fans and not one of them aware that the subject of their idolatry stood only a few feet away. Watching them watching him…
The second measure of whiskey went down even easier than the first, and the third was second nature. He gulped his spirits but sipped his beer as Twain the Younger continued to mock him from the TV screen.
Dear God, how beautiful he had been! How lustrous his long black hair, how snakelike his hips, how sharp his cheekbones…
To add to his freezing humiliation, the next video was for “The Girl in the Green Dress”: His young self, costumed as Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, flounced around the courthouse set at Universal... His young self was a prettier girl than most girls, even if it was uncomfortable to watch now. The students were laughing, but at least they were mostly laughing at Sam as Marilyn Monroe and Pete’s massive shoulders in his Gilda dress.
He missed being that beautiful. He missed being young. He regretted every single fucking moment of insecurity or unhappiness. He regretted every missed meal and every spoon, fork, knife or finger he’d shoved down his throat because he didn’t feel good enough, beautiful enough, perfect enough.
What the holy fuck had he been thinking? What had he seen in the mirror then to think he was anything less than fucking Adonis?
Rosalie used to call him Antinous as a joke. The perfect-faced favourite of a Roman emperor was 18 when he died. JD had even far outlived the likes of the 27 Club. There was no denying that he was now simply old.
He ignored the pint and slumped his way out of the pub. He had a gig to get to, after all.
Soundcheck at the 100 Club was excruciating. He was too drunk to focus on the finer points and too angry and hurt to care about the bigger picture.
He stretched across a sofa in the dressing room, closed his eyes and wished for the day to be over without delay.
‘Get the fuck up, you sad bastard.’
He opened his eyes. Rosalie Cochran herself was leaning against the doorway, as lovely as she had always been, if less skinny and more imperial.
‘Leave me alone.’
‘I flew down here from Scotland to see the most gorgeous guitarist in the world.’
‘When you meet him, let me know.’
‘You got a year older. Get over it.’
‘I’m not… you don’t get it. I’m…’
‘Old. Past it. Uglified. Invisible. Might as well be dead.’
Rosalie let out a single, sharp bark of a laugh. ‘Now you know how I’ve been made to feel for fifteen years!’
‘It’s different for you! You were never beau-‘ He stopped himself before he could make matters worse as her eyes flashed and her right hand closed into a fist. ‘You were never… never dependent on your looks.’
‘And you were?’ Her fist stayed clenched.
‘People expected it of me.’
‘No, they didn’t.’
‘I had a reputation to uphold.’ He sat up, brain swirling, and grabbed for the nearest bottle of beer.
She snatched it away and lobbed it neatly into the bin across . ‘You and your bloody reputation. Wasn’t it enough to nearly die for it?’
‘I should’ve died,’ he moaned. ‘Live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse.’
He watched Rosalie’s entire posture fall, head and shoulders drooped, knees bent as though they had too much weight to bear. ‘If that’s how you feel…’
‘No, it isn’t.’
'Then get off the flabby side of your arse and get to work.’
‘My ass is not flabby!’
He stood and smoothed his hair out of his face. With great majesty he turned and waved his leather-clad backside at her. Rosalie responded with a deep, throaty laugh that seemed to get his heart beating again.
‘I’m glad you’re here.’
‘Wouldn’t have missed it in a million years.’
‘Richard is at school.’
‘You need coffee.’
The gig was a sold out success, of course. JD Twain didn’t have to be young to own a stage; didn’t need to feel like a million bucks to outplay any and all comers.
He made it back to the dressing room with adrenaline pounding through his blood and sweat pouring down his face and back. Rosalie was not far behind and once the door was closed it was just them again, exhilarated fans shut out for now.
She fussed over him as she had in the really early days, before anyone knew she could sing, until he was ready to face his public once more. ‘You’re still beautiful, Twain.’
‘Maybe.’ He stared at himself in the mirror. ‘Bit… grizzled, maybe?’
He rubbed his hand over the salt and pepper of his midnight shadow. ‘I can live with that.’
Once the door was open, JD Twain the star was in place. There were fans lingering, waiting for autographs which he gave with his easy charm.
A particularly pretty young woman handed him a copy of Never the Twain.
‘Someone bought this?’ he asked, glaring at the unassailably 80s artwork and the poodle hair he’d dabbled with at that time.
‘I did!’ she replied. ‘I’m a huge fan.’
The girl blushed under the power of his most charming boyish grin. Within five minutes casual chat, they were off together in a taxi back to his hotel. He leaned back in the seat as she nestled into his loose embrace.
He had reached fifty years old but he was after all, still JD Twain and there was still a line of girls waiting for him.