After ten years of hard work, rock band Pax are enjoying a stable career, but not everyone rejoices in their success. Just weeks into their first holiday in years, a family files a complaint against them for causing their son’s death. Their lawyer assures them the lawsuit will go away quietly – after all, a rock band can’t be blamed for some poor kid’s fate on the streets.
Or can they? This is the eighties, at the height of the moral panic surrounding heavy metal, and no accusation is too ridiculous. When Jamie takes on a guitar pupil who pushes the boundaries of artistic freedom, he starts to question his own responsibility for what he puts out. At the same time, Michael meets a former bully who insinuates that Michael wasn’t as innocent a victim as he thinks.
While Michael fights his personal battle against demons from his past, he also prepares to give evidence on the part of the band in a court of law. The question isn’t just whether Pax will survive this latest blow – it’s whether Michael will.
Guest Post – Symbols and opposites
Years ago, when I still worked as a teacher, there was this one student who was a bit wild and always said what was on his mind without thinking. One day he saw my key ring, which at the time was a Celtic cross, and he blurted, “Are you a Christian?” I said no, and he went on, without breaking stride, “Are you a Satanist?”
I told him I wasn’t, and then I went home and laughed about it with my husband – because it highlighted something about symbols and the connotations they carry. For this student, a cross could be one of two things: a symbol for God or a symbol for the devil. Complete polar opposites, combined in the same artifact.
In a documentary (Headbanger’s Journey) that I re-watched as part of my research for Cutting Edge, one guy says that Satanism couldn’t exist without Christianity – that it’s so filled with Christian symbols it’s almost ridiculous. That they need each other. Of course they do – they’re part of the same belief system – but deeper than that, opposites tend to reinforce each other: there can be no light without darkness, and no good without evil. Without something to compare with, we can’t see the thing itself. Maybe that’s why we’re so enamored with dichotomies and so loath to accept the spectrum in between.
The funny thing is that for opposites to be opposites, they must have most traits in common. For example, black and white can be seen as opposites, because they are both colors. Black and an umbrella aren’t opposites, because they have nothing in common. Similarly, men and women are often constructed as opposites, but men and ants aren’t quite as useful to pit against each other.
Meanings change, however, and symbols lose their power. For me, that key ring meant neither Christianity nor Satanism. It symbolized my love of goth/punk fashion and the tarot, and it also made me think of Ireland. Some people may dismiss that interpretation as wrong, and argue that the meaning of the cross is absolute and unchanging. I respectfully disagree, since I view symbols as manmade, which means that they can be unmade.
And herein lies the magic of art. It has no power, unless and until we read things into it: feelings, memories, personal truths. Words in themselves are just ink on paper or pixels on a screen, but when people read them, they come alive with associations. For one reader, this text may activate religious defensiveness because they have a lifetime of persecution behind them. For another, the fact that I’m talking about men and women as traditional opposites will conjure feelings of anger or hopelessness.
And so it is with Pax’s music in Cutting Edge. They may have meant their songs in one way, but they’re taken in another. For Jamie’s young pupil Nathan, Pax’s lyrics appear quite meek, while the family that sues them for the death of their child views them as evil. A line like all her little cells have gone to sleep takes on a sinister meaning when the prosecutor interprets it as being about a lethal disease. Even the issue under scrutiny – suicide – means different things to different people. Some see it as the only way out of an untenable situation, while others view it as the most selfish thing you can do.
Human beings battle over such meanings every day. Words like ‘democracy’, ‘kindness’ and ‘progress’ have unstable, shifting definitions, and every time we use those words, we promote a specific meaning. No one has a claim on the absolute truth – because it’s a social truth, a fluid reflection of all the people who keep exchanging ideas.
For example, what does ‘romance’ mean? You won’t find a cut and dry definition that everyone will buy. Of course, there is a vague collection of prototypical criteria that a majority of people agree should be fulfilled for something to be called a romance, but apart from that, it’s an on-going discussion. For that matter, what does ‘m/m’ mean? Or ‘HEA’? Does there have to be a baby at the end to really seal it?
Views differ, as they always have and always will. We debate the content of terms and sometimes push the envelope to make them more inclusive. But in the midst of disagreeing, why not take a moment to consider the nature of opposites: maybe, even as we try to bring our antagonists round to our way of seeing things, we agree with them on more than we think – because most of our traits are the same.
When Jamie finally came out from the bathroom, Michael still hadn’t hung up. “But we’ve done nothing wrong!” he could be heard shouting from below. “Evan, this is just ridiculous.”
Stomach knotting, Jamie tiptoed down the stairs.
“Christ, that too?” Michael groaned. “Seriously? I mean, what do we even say to that? Alright, alright… We will, Jesus… Don’t go all dad on us, we’re thirty years old, for God’s sake.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Fuck.” Michael collapsed on the chair beside the telephone table. “Hang on, Evan.” He put the receiver against his chest and looked up at Jamie. “Bottom line is, we’re fucked. No, sorry, we’re screwed. Is that a nicer word than ‘fucked’? Or should I say that we’re ‘in a bit of a pickle’?”
Jamie kneeled in front of him and took the hand that wasn’t holding the receiver. “Michael, calm down. Tell me. Has something happened?”
“You could say that.” Michael laughed without mirth. “We’re… we’re…” He looked up at the ceiling, like a sinner begging for absolution. “We’re being sued.”
Jamie just stared at him. There was a muffled outburst from the phone, and Michael raised the receiver to his ear. “That’s what you said, wasn’t it?”
More shouting from Evan.
Michael’s jaw set. “I have to tell him what you said.” He turned to Jamie again. “You won’t believe this. It’s our music. They think we’re…” He shook his head and laughed again, and this time, it was a sound of pure disbelief. “Devil worshippers!”
Jamie sat back. “Devil…?”
“Don’t ask me.”
“But we’re not even… what?”
“Apparently, it’s our fault that this girl torched her school. Or something. No, it was…” Michael stopped to listen to Evan’s hollering. “That was the tabloids, right. The court case is in Virginia. No, West Virginia.”
“Court case,” Jamie repeated dully. He wasn’t sure what the word even meant, he was so shocked.
“They’re accusing us of… well, I don’t really… Fuck the reason, we’re being called to court. In front of a judge and everything!”
“But… devil worship? I mean, where do they–”
“We’re ‘seducing America’s youth’,” Michael said, making quotation marks in the air. “Apparently, Prey encourages vandalism.”
“And murder. Let’s not forget murder. We’re inveigling young working class people to rise against authority and… and… promoting anarchy, and…”
“But it must be a joke.”
Holding his gaze, Michael shook his head. “It’s not, Jamie. You want to talk to him yourself?”
“Yes, I do, dammit.” Jamie grabbed the receiver. “Evan?”
At once, Jamie’s heart sank. In that one word, he heard the full weight of what they were up against. Their usually upbeat manager sounded dejected, beaten.
“Okay, listen,” he said. “This is the situation: they think you’re encouraging Satanism and homosexuality in the young. General depravity. That kind of thing.”
Jamie couldn’t help a weary laugh. “‘That kind of thing’? What does being gay have to do with Satanism?”
“I don’t know, I’m not a priest. It doesn’t matter. Thing is, they’re calling it negligence. Law mumbo-jumbo which means you should have known better.”
“You can be punished because you should have known better?” Jamie asked, on the fence between laughter and anger. “Not a single human being should go free, then.”
“But for the actions of the tortfeasor, the harm would not have occurred,” Evan read aloud from something. “Meaning, but for these songs of yours, this kid wouldn’t be dead.”
Jamie gasped. “Dead?”
“Look, you have to come up to London so that Mister Harrison can explain.”
“Your lawyer. According to him, your best bet is to plead the first amendment. Freedom of expression.”
Jamie stared into space. After an eternal moment, he repeated, “Freedom of expression.”
“I don’t believe this.”
“Believe it. But look,” and now Evan started to sound like his normal self again, “I’ll take care of it. Mister Harrison is flying over from the States, and he’s positive that we can dismiss their claim. That it’s not, you know… viable. Or something.”
“Some legal word that means the people who’re suing us can go to hell?” Jamie smiled acidly.
“Pretty much. But the two of you need to come up here and meet him, okay? We need to talk strategy, and you have to be present to hear it all. You understand.”
“I think so.”
“We’ve scheduled a meeting a week from now. Mister Harrison couldn’t get away from his other duties before that. So next Thursday at ten o’clock, okay?”
“You don’t have a school talk that day, do you?”
In a daze, Jamie reached for the calendar on the telephone table. “Nope.”
“Alright, see you then.”
Evan hung up, and Jamie slumped against the leg of the telephone table. “Jesus. Was this what Ferdinand was talking about?”
“Okay, don’t panic.” Michael rubbed his forehead. “As long as we don’t panic, it’ll be okay.”
Jamie made a wry grimace. “Really.”
“He’s going to take care of it. Mister Harrison, I mean.”
But Jamie could hear the fear in Michael’s voice.
“And if they insist that we go to court,” he went on, “we show up, we tell them that they’re being ridiculous, and then we walk away. I mean, what’s their case? Death by music?”
“You’re not even going to talk to me about it?” Michael snapped.
“What’s the point? We’re at their mercy now.”
“So we’re just going to ignore it?”
Jamie shot him a sullen look. Then his gaze slipped to the black strands of hair that lay drying against Michael’s shoulders. A pang in his chest made him sit up straight. “That tape. The death metal thing.”
Michael hesitated. “Yeah…?”
“Don’t talk to anyone about it. The last thing we need is to be associated with a band like that.”
Michael fell quiet, half a breath down his throat. He searched Jamie’s face, and Jamie felt it redden. “‘A band like that’?” Michael repeated. “He’s the nicest guy I’ve ever met.”
“Yeah?” Jamie sneered. “Just to be clear, we’re talking about the same guy here? The one with the eyeliner and pentagrams?” He was almost hyperventilating now.
Michael gripped his hands. “Look… Okay, okay. I’ll pretend it doesn’t exist. We’ll go to London and meet this lawyer, and we’ll appear in court if we have to – we’ll do everything they tell us, and it’ll be okay.”
“Yeah.” Jamie’s voice snagged on a dryness in his throat, and Michael pulled him close for a hug. Breathing into his shoulder, Jamie whispered, “This couldn’t have come at a worse time.”
Michael pulled away and sought his eyes. “What do you mean?”
“The school talks! We’re supposed to be role models, aren’t we?”
A stiffness came over Michael, and his gaze dropped to his lap. “They don’t know about this, though. I mean, we only knew about it five minutes ago, and we’re going to our first school tomorrow. The grapevine is an impressive thing, but it’s not that fast.”
Jamie leaned his head on Michael’s knee. “I hope so.”
Michael stroked his hair – cautiously, as if he didn’t know if he was allowed. “Don’t worry,” he said in a voice that sounded tinny. “It’ll all be just fine.”
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Ingela Bohm lives in an old cinema, tucked away in a northern Swedish forest where she can wander around all day long and dictate her books. She used to dream of being an actor until an actual actor asked, “Do you really need to do it?” That’s when she realized that the only thing she really needed to do was to write. She has since pretended to be a dietician, a teacher, a receptionist and a cook, but only to conceal her real identity.
Her first imaginary friend was called Grabolina and lived in her closet. Nowadays she has too many imaginary friends to count, but at least some of them are out of the closet. Her men may not be conventionally handsome, but they can charm your pants off, and that’s all that matters.
Ingela’s more useless talents include reading tarot cards, killing pot plants and drawing scandalous pictures that no one gets to see. She can’t walk in heels and she’s stopped trying, but she has cycled 12 000 miles in the UK and knows which campsites to avoid if you don’t like spiders. If you see her on the train you will wonder what age she is.
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