Fiction: Tempo Rubato

An essay by an unnamed musician, as provided by Jonathan Danz
Art by Errow Collins


Tonight, backstage is too hot, too dark, too much like some high-ceilinged mausoleum straight out of one of those old Friday night TV horror shows. The strap of my dinged-up Telecaster bites into my shoulder. Tonight, like most nights in recent memory, this guitar is like my very own stone of Sisyphus. Truth be told, I don’t know if I can roll it up the mountain one more fucking time. I don’t know if I can go out on stage yet again and pretend I’m me.

Vegas–swarm cams, drinkbots, holo-betting, omni-feeds, every last bit of it–can go to hell. The guy on stage now, the Buddy Holly impersonator, even with his bitglam in effect, comes off more like an impersonator of a Buddy Holly impersonator. He’s opening with “Peggy Sue.” Poor bastard. There’s nowhere to go from there but downhill.

Everyone’s an entertainer these days, what with voice plugins, appearance modifiers, movement enhancer neuro-mods, and every other trick. There’s no work at the art anymore, just show up and let the tech do the work.

Me and my new band, we’re the only completely analog performers in Vegas. Re-Invaded And It Feels So Good, that’s our act. Real clever stuff. The crowds eat it up. It’s fresh, in a manner of speaking, especially after seeing a hundred enhanced shows in a hundred casinos. After a while, it all blurs together.

I know, I know, that’s what they said when we were all flooding into the U.S. during the British Invasion. I’m a connoisseur of irony. But when something stands out from the pop-star one-offs and Rat Pack 3.0 crooners, people take notice. People don’t know they’re craving something different until they get it.

These Vegas performers could stand a lesson in “less is more,” but instead they’re all in on everything. All that tech must seem like magic to these fools, but tech ain’t magic. Believe me, I know from magic. Not like this Buddy Holly guy.

Look, I liked Buddy Holly back in the day–we all did–but that sound aged about as well as a bottle of piss. When you hear it, you know exactly when it came out. It never evolved. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if his plane hadn’t crashed.

Sometimes I wonder if Buddy wasn’t the lucky one.

~

It was the 1960s, and the Beatles exploded out of Liverpool with us right on their heels, and the British Invasion was on. The money began rolling in free and easy like juice through a Marshall stack. In a move that would become the hallmark of making it in rock and roll, I bought a posh estate in the English countryside.

That’s where we were between tours in ’70. One night, December 11–Christ, you’d think I’d forget after so long, but the memory is like tough old scar tissue that’ll never go away–anyway, we were in the studio, turning a three minute song into something epic. I dove into my solo, weaving amplified heat through drums and base and rhythm guitar, stitching it all together at first. Then I began teasing strands out into the dark corners of sound. My fingers slipped and slid high on the fretboard. My guitar wailed and moaned with an urgency I could feel. I raced out ahead of the rhythm, then eased back into the mix by turns. I scooped time from some measures and poured it into others. The world around me wobbled and shimmered.

By the time the cops barged in, I was fully lost in the solo. It was as if someone had accidentally stuck a needle in my artery and my life was spraying out everywhere. It wasn’t blood, though, dig? I swear it was life itself flowing from me, streaming into my mates. Everyone was higher than an old vicar’s waistband. The cops’ shouting tore it all down and the music collapsed. I was wasted, could barely stand.

The cops’ arrival probably saved me, but all they saw was some weed, some pills, and whatever, and that’s all they needed to know. They grabbed their headlines for busting some punk kids who’ve risen far too high, and I grabbed some jail time. Prison was no great shakes, but there was something about the monotony of the routine. It freed up time to think. And I had a lot to think about.

~

Vegas Buddy Holly slides smoothly into “Rollercoaster.” It’s a checklist for him: hit this note, do that hiccup thing, take three steps. Technically, it’s perfect, but there’s no love for the music, no heat. Choosing to impersonate Buddy Holly is purely mercenary. He’s found a niche and it pays. It’s calculated. And I’ve got to tell you, hearing exactly the same thing done exactly the same way night after night gets tiresome.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the music itself; I feel like I could play forever. It’s everything else. Some might say the world has passed me by, but I’d argue it’s the people who flock to this place on the regular who are being passed by. Was a time when people would spend hours parsing song lyrics or album cover art. Now everything wheels by like startled birds, gone in an instant, replaced by the latest streaming shows or VR episode or vending machine stimdrugs. We’re so fixated on what’s coming next, we can’t enjoy whatever it is we’re consuming right then and there.

The marketers’ll tell you their latest con expands the mind and taps into unexplored landscapes of the imagination. Rubbish. It’s about making money. It’s always about making money. Just ask ol’ Buddy Holly on stage there.

The guys in my band are no different. Sure, they tolerate the analog sets, occasionally even enjoy themselves when they’re not thinking about it. But they’re just gigging with me to pay the bills while they seek online stardom. That’s where the real money is, even if the odds are so long they stretch well beyond the horizon. They just need one video to virus out, and they’ll have it made.

I hear you, telling me to fuck right the hell off. I made my money, so why shouldn’t they make theirs, right? I say, have at it. There’s no magic there. You want magic? Strip it all down, get rid of the enhancements. Focus on the music, the guitar strings beneath your fingers, the vibrations of your vocal cords, the buzz of a packed venue. If you let yourself fall deep enough, you’ll find the space between it all.

You’d think songs almost a hundred years old would lose their luster, but that ain’t so. There’s that quote about not being the same person who crossed the river the first time or some shit. There’s truth there. Songs are like rivers, always changing, waiting to show you something new, if you’re willing to look. That’s why I hang around, every single day and twice on Saturdays.

~

After the bust, I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened at that rehearsal. I needed to know what that was. As a band, we were looking forward, working on new songs, planning new tours, finding new ways to spend our windfall. But as an individual, I’d decided to look backwards as well.

I searched for answers in the deep, slippery roots of music, looking for the faintest whiff of anything even remotely like what happened the night of the bust. Whenever we hit a new city, I scoured libraries and bookstores and pored over rare tomes, letters, and sheet music for something like magic.

Then I found tempo rubato.

Now, I know you’re thinking of that Styx song about the robot. That was Japanese. Tempo rubato is Italian, mate.

The definition of tempo rubato in music texts refers to, and I quote, “the slight speeding up and then slowing down of the tempo of a piece at the discretion of the soloist or the conductor to be more expressive.”

But here’s the thing, Tempo rubato isn’t just an Italian term on some sheet music like sotto voce or fortissimo or any of that lot. Now I had no idea if the concept originated in Italy or not, but the Italians nailed the naming of whatever this phenomenon is.

In Italian, tempo rubato means stolen time.

As a musical cue, that was all fine and well, but I was positive there was more to it than that. Slowing down, speeding up, everything I’d been doing that night, it was all there.

I began playing around on stage, messing around in subtle ways with what almost killed me the night of the bust, learning, refining. I did it carefully until I unpacked tempo rubato and put it to work for me. I pilfered small bits of time so as not to cause harm and, as much as we played, the stolen time accumulated like the juice on a mob loan.

~

We’re a long way from Vegas, now, aren’t we? What does this have fuckall to do with tech enhancements and swarm bots and flash androgynous technicians? Well, hang tight, bruv, I’m getting to that. Besides, Buddy Holly’s got one more song yet.

He launches into “That’ll Be the Day.” When he hits the chorus, like he does every night, I can’t help but think that maybe in some alternate universe I’m dead, and he’s here in Vegas in real life, the original watching some mercenary performer imitate me.

“That’ll be the day that I die,” Buddy sings. Well, the real Buddy Holly boarded a plane that flew him right into his grave at the tender age of 22. And, despite the booze, the drugs, and other depredations of the body, here I am still going strong well beyond my expiration date. Is it fair? That’s not for me to say, but I’m fully aware of the irony.

The ubiquitous “they” insist everything that’s old is new again and I’m inclined to agree. Maybe that’s true, but it’s a cycle, ain’t it, which bloody well means everything that’s new becomes old again as well.

I think about all those musicians who hung around too long. I’d need more fingers than I’ve got to count everyone who couldn’t let it go, guys who wished they headed out at the top of their game, leaving the fans wanting more.

But damn if every time I hit that first chord on stage, I’m not transported back to our first live gig in Coogan’s Pub in Dartford. Now there’s a magic all its own, you know? Throw in the fans and the applause, and small wonder musicians can’t let it go.

What I miss, though, what has me in this funk, is that I’ve got no one to share any of this with. Everyone’s gone. What’s the use of hanging around as long as I have if you can’t share the honest-to-god artistry?

There are days I’m aware the only person I’m really playing for is myself, searching the music for ghosts of the long-gone boys who crossed the Atlantic and got rich with me. There are days I wonder if stealing time during all those tours with them might have hastened their respective ends. Shit, we were all getting older. People just age differently, right?

I search through the music. Maybe some combination of sound will bring them back, but inevitably the ghosts are always just out of reach. I’ve seen musicians wind up searching elsewhere, the needle or the booze or something just as deadly even though we know whatever it is we need isn’t there at all. And sometimes you don’t even know you need anything at all until you’re shown otherwise.

~

Inside some nondescript sound studio in Memphis in the late ’20s, I was waiting to record an interview for some classic rock retrospective podcast. At least I think they were still calling what we did way back when “classic.” The host was explaining to an angsty lad on the sound crew what vibe he needed and who I was.

Illustration of a guitarist on stage from the point of view of backstage. Another guitarist waits in the wings.

But damn if every time I hit that first chord on stage, I’m not transported back to our first live gig in Coogan’s Pub in Dartford.

“Seriously?” the angsty lad asked. “I thought that guy died years ago.” No embarrassment. No apology. Just a statement of fact with perhaps the smallest hint of a question or accusation in his tone. That’s when I realized I couldn’t keep on as myself forever. No matter how good I felt, no matter how I looked, someone would do the math and start asking questions I had no intention of answering.

And so I did the only thing that made sense: I disappeared to sort things out. For a few decades, I traveled to places where people had no idea who I was. For a while, it wasn’t so bad, the newness of it, you know. I tried out things I couldn’t do when we were touring, things like gardening and painting and woodworking, whatever struck my fancy.

Even as I did these things, in the need was always there, waiting. I told myself it was just the music I needed, just the feel of the guitar in my hands, the heat of the stage lights, the cheering crowds. I mean, the music was definitely part of it, but I missed what I was able to do with the music even more. I needed tempo rubato.

What better place to resurface than Vegas, the impersonator capital of the world? If I couldn’t be me, at least I could pretend to be me. I mean, I had me down pretty good.

~

Buddy Holly wraps up with a deep cut, one of his b-sides that has surprising layers. Something about this song appeals to Buddy. I can tell, because he loses himself in it. He’s so close to touching the music and doesn’t even know. The crowd applauds just enough to encourage Buddy Holly to do an encore.

Buddy Holly launches into a respectable version of “Not Fade Away.” Huh. Normally he trots out a tired medley of songs that roll into that other song that’s not by Buddy Holly but about Buddy Holly, when his plane crashed, and the music died, and all that. Tonight, Buddy Holly’s veering off script.

I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding.

One more song to figure out how I’m going to break it to the band. Since I returned to Vegas–what has it been, 30, 40 years?–I’ve asked myself why I keep going so many times it feels like a vocation unto itself. If there’s an answer to that question, I’ll be damned if I know what it is. Now’s as good a time as any to call it quits.

“Hey, Billy,” I say to my bassist.

He turns to me and raises his eyebrows in question.

Time to tell the crew tonight is the night I stop, but the words die in my throat just as Buddy Holly strums the last chord of his encore.

The applause for Buddy Holly packs more punch this time around, there’s real enthusiasm behind it. Buddy comes off stage. His bitglam distorts and winks off. Bruv looks tired, but he’s smiling.

We nod at each other.

That simple gesture is like a smack upside my head. It’s straight out of those days right before the British Invasion, back when we were just one of a hundred bands were trying to make it. Yeah, we hated each other, but there was some measure of respect for the fact we were all chasing the same thing. There’s a camaraderie that comes from mutual suffering.

Maybe I’ve been too hard on ol’ Buddy.

Then the host is announcing us to the crowd. Cheers and stomping feet shake the building. The crowd is as amped as I’ve ever heard it. That sound … that sweet, goddamned sound washes over us. The hair on my arms and the back of my neck stands at attention, expectant. My heart thrills and prances inside my chest. A smile spreads of its own accord across my face.

Billy smiles the same me. He’s feeling it too. “What were you going to say?”

My guitar feels lighter, and the only thing on my mind is strumming that first chord. “Forget it,” I say.

Billy’s no longer the fresh-faced kid I brought in to hold down the beat a few months ago, but that’s what the business does to a musician, isn’t it? The pull of the stage and the lights are like an old friend’s arm around my shoulder, warm and comforting.


A British Invasion musician learns the secret to rock on for evermore, but after outliving his mates and winding up as an impersonator of himself in Vegas, he wonders if it’s time to hang it up.


Jonathan Danz is a speculative fiction writer living in West Virginia with his wife, daughter, and cat, all of whom are artists in their own right. He attended Viable Paradise 21 and narrates for various science fiction, fantasy, and horror podcasts. He likes books, bikes, and beer.


Errow is a comic artist and illustrator with a predilection towards mashing the surreal with the familiar. They pay their time to developing worlds not quite like our own with their fiancee and pushing the queer agenda. They probably left a candle burning somewhere. More of their work can be found at errowcollins.wix.com/portfolio.


“Tempo Rubato” is © 2019 Jonathan Danz
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Errow Collins

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