It’s a warm, sultry May night in Los Angeles, as Alex Turner leaves the Echoplex, where he’s just finished yet another show. The year is 2008. The wind ruffles the jacarandas, blowing purple petals through the soft air. Matt and Jamie had heard there was a cool club down the street, they wanted to score some blow. Alex isn’t interested. He’s feeling weak and depleted, his typically trim hair starting to shag around his eyelids. He walks east on Sunset Boulevard, towards home in a small sense, feeling an aimless longing for something he doesn’t have, can’t have. He doesn’t even know what it is.
He smokes half a pack of fags on the way.
He soon comes to a tavern that somehow beckons him. The exterior is black. The bar’s seediness feels appropriate, far from the dancefloors and cornerstone pubs of his homeland. The bouncer spends some serious time checking his ID, trying to reconcile the baby-face with the birth year. Finally, he waves Alex in. Alex drops his cigarette butt on the ground, not bothering to stomp it out. As he walks in, a riot van screams past behind him, off to yet another drug bust. He doesn’t even look up.
The darkness inside is oppressive. Some people are shooting pool towards the back. American cricket reruns play on the tellies. It’s almost 1:30, and the bar is relatively empty. Alex pulls himself onto a stool and orders a pint of the black stuff. A few seats down the bar, he sees a towering figure with a shocking red mane. The man is drinking a boilermaker, what looks like his seventh, glass-bottle Tecate with a Patrón back. He’s clean-shaven, no beard to hide the disgusted scowl on his face. He wears gold-rimmed aviators. Alex finds himself staring at the man for too long, and the imposing figure looks over.
“Oh,” says the ginger. “It’s you, that kid. From that English band.” His voice is low and honeyed, like that of a hairless golden bear.
“Oh, me? No, I’m nobody.”
“No, monkeys, what is it? Arctic Monkeys. Right? Dumb name, but I hear you’re the cream of the English crop.”
“Was. I was. Now . . . now I don’t know.”
“What’s up, man, what’s the deal? What’s your damage?”
The tall man beckons the bartender, a pudgy, slimy looking fellow with a receding shock of jet black hair and a poorly masked cold sore on his lip.
“Greg, you cocksucker, get Alex here a double tequila. He looks like he needs it.”
“No, no, really, I’m doing – “
“Take the shot, man,” says Greg. “Do you know who this is buying it for you?” The barkeep drops the drink, mutters something about his waning career, and heads back over to the other end of the bar, where his friend Mark hunches over a nearly empty bottle of Jim Beam Black Label.
“I’m Josh.” The redheaded man takes a pull off his beer. “Josh Homme.”
“Oh, blimey. Bloody hell. Queens of the Stone Age, right? You guys are major, a big deal back in the UK.” Alex is finding himself mildly starstruck for the first time since he was seventeen.
At the door, a tiny tatted man with a shaved head and a long beard is trying to get in. He’s shouting Josh’s name, pleadingly. He’s not wearing a shirt. The bouncer looks at Josh, who shakes his head as minutely as possible. The angry little man is turned away.
Josh turns back to Alex. “Yeah, it’s a fun country over there. A lot of hot chicks with bad teeth.” Josh leans back in his bar stool, revealing the diminutive tattooed woman with platinum blonde hair who’s been sitting next to him the whole time, but hidden by his mass. “Alex, this is my old lady, Brody.”
Brody sniffs in Alex’s general direction, then goes back to her ninth neat rye.
“Pleasure.” Alex wipes a bit of sweat off his brow.
“So, Alex, my brother. What seems to be the trouble?”
Alex pauses a moment. Should he let this man in? There are secrets within him that he’s afraid to unleash. He doesn’t know if this is a safe place. But after tonight’s gig, anything seems to go, so he takes his shot and launches into it, voice low and desperate.
“We blew up sooner than we knew what way was up. We were snookered right into it. There were no two ways about it, according to NME, according to Melody Maker, according to Q, we were the bee’s knees, the absolute shite. This was even before our first record was out. We’d awoken the beast, and we had to perform. We toured that record for a year straight. Our bassist quit, he couldn’t handle the stress of it all, the drugs, the birds. The pressure. All eyes were on us for the second album, and I didn’t know what to do. I thought I could stand to change the formula a little bit, but our managers held me back. Matt was all for it, but Jamie… Anyway. We put out this second record. It’s decent, but we’re treading water. People seem to like it. I think. I’m just tired – Is he okay?” Alex is looking with concern at the gaunt, tall man at the end of the bar, who’s now filling his Beam bottle with tears.
“Mark? Yeah, he’s fine, don’t worry about him. A little death-obsessed, is all. And the Clippers lost, as usual. But you, you’re tired. Tired of that t-shirt and tie combination. I know what you’re feeling, little man. Those people are vampires. But I’ve heard your records. You’ve got that jangly, regionalized shit down pat. You’ve even got some sick, sick, sick riffage on there sometimes. And your drummer is an absolute beast. Not as good as Joey, but damn fine. But look, Alex, bud, man. Sometimes you’ve got to just let people leave you, though, for you to move into new spheres, new plains . . . new deserts.” Josh takes another pull, then starts chewing viciously on his lime.
“New plains. I wish I could move onto new plains, but I don’t know what they want out of me. There’s no winning – either I cave and do another record of the same old shit, or . . . I don’t know, look at The Strokes, look at bleeding Interpol. No one’s made good on their third record when they try to shake things up.”
“Go with the flow, man. Go with the flow. No one knows what’s in store, dawg. They want lullabies, they want rock ’n roll, they want you to be their little pet on a rope. But you have to let them fall behind you, let them drown. You have to do what’s in your soul. You’ve just got to learn how to handle the rope and get out there, where you can do you.”
“But I don’t know what’s in my soul.”
“No one knows, man. No one knows.”
At the far end of the bar, Greg is trying to shake Mark back into consciousness. “Alright, gentlemen,” he shouts. “Last fucking call! I need to get back home to my lady.”
Josh kills his beer, looks Alex dead in the eyes with the blankest, darkest stare imaginable and says, “Have you ever been to the desert?”
Alex, the poor provincial boy from Sheffield, has to admit that he hasn’t. He’s sweating profusely now, he’s not sure why.
“Me and Brody, we live out there. It’s a ranch, middle of nowhere. The stars, dawg, the stars . . . we were going to go back, get blazed, maybe do some mescaline. You ever done mescaline? I think you should come. Better living through chemistry, amirite?”
Alex furrows his brow. Who is this snake-oil salesman? What does he want with me?
“Last chance, little man,” says Josh, as he flattens two hundreds onto the bar top and waves goodbye to Greg and Mark, who’s begun drooling on the bar. He and Brody start walking towards the door, when Josh turns around. He lowers his shades for moment. “I think it’d do you some good. I think I can help you with this problem of yours.”
Alex looks down at his hands, pale and weak. He glances at the remainder of his beer. “Ah, humbug,” he says, downing the last drops, and follows them out into the heat of the night.