Reverb - Chapter One
The driver’s seat of a rented ten-year-old Toyota, parked in a New Orleans parking lot, was not where I expected my nervous breakdown to begin.
I hadn’t planned to have a nervous breakdown at all. But here I was, scrolling through the app on my phone that showed hotel after hotel with sold-out status, feeling panic rise in my chest.
Sold out. Sold out.
This hotel had a room available. For sixteen hundred dollars.
The next one: Sold out.
I was almost halfway through a ten-week tour with the Road Kings, the legendary band that had reunited after five years apart. I was the journalist assigned to cover the tour and write about it exclusively for Soundcheck magazine. I was—supposedly—given transportation, hotel, and tickets to every show on the tour. I was given four days of bus access with the band. I was put on the list to get backstage at every show. I was being given all the access any journalist could ask for, and there was no question—it was my dream job. Since the day I first saw Almost Famous at age thirteen, I’d wanted to be doing exactly what I was doing right now. Touring with a legendary band, writing for seventies-era Rolling Stone—okay, not quite, but I could imagine—and learning life lessons along the way. I dreamed that I’d create great writing, live my passion for music, and have an experience that was nothing less than extraordinary. And here I was, living that dream.
Everything about it sucked.
Exhibit A: The band hated me. They’d hate any journalist, because they were famous for loathing publicity, but they most definitely hated me. Not one of them wanted to talk to me, and they avoided me like I had a particularly hideous type of infectious disease.
Exhibit B: Because the band hated me, they struck my name from the credentials list to get backstage every night, so I had no special access. I was stuck watching the shows from the audience with everyone else.
Exhibit C: Because the band hated me, I was not allowed to travel on either of the tour buses. Instead, I had a jarring, lonely, exhausting schedule of airports and rental cars, while the band bonded on the bus rides, talking (I imagined) about all of the things I was supposed to be writing about.
Exhibit D: As a result, the pieces I was turning in were terrible. I tried, but they were still terrible.
I could just about deal with all of this. The music business isn’t for weaklings, especially female ones, who everyone assumes can’t hack it. I didn’t care if the band didn’t like me—I had a job to do. So I’d sit in airports and follow them around like a bad smell, and if they wouldn’t talk to me, then I’d write whatever I wanted about them, whether it was true or not. If they didn’t like what Soundcheck was publishing, they could damn well give me an interview and set the record straight.
Also, the music was good. Really good. The Road Kings were a legendary live band for a reason. They had devoted fans who followed them from show to show just to soak in the brilliance of each night. The guys were in the second half of their thirties, at a point at which their musical skills and their attitudes were hitting a maturing point—it was no longer the raw, undisciplined playing of twenty-year-olds, but not fossilized into “classic rock” status, either. Even from where I sat in the audience, I could see what was happening with the changing setlists, the new arrangements, the new songs. Those assholes were at the top of their game.
And god, I loved writing about that stuff. I lived for it. I wanted to pick those jerks’ brains apart and listen to them jam and know everything about what they were thinking about next. Those dumbasses thought I wanted to intrude into their private lives and ask them about their outfits or their childhoods or their sex habits or something, and all I wanted to talk about was music.
The Road Kings didn’t trust me. That was fine. I would make them trust me. I was determined to stay on the tour.
Except, Exhibit E: I now had nowhere to stay.
I’d landed in New Orleans, where the band was to play three sold-out shows, to find I had no hotel room booked. I had no idea why. I only knew that I was stranded in my rental car, scrolling through a booking site, seeing that every hotel in the city was fully booked unless I was a millionaire. Was every convention in town on the same days? What was going on?
I kept scrolling, feeling the panic close in. I was weeks into this shitty disaster of a tour, and I could feel it: this was the thing that would break me. Not the loneliness, the hatred from the band, the creeping certainty that I was failing in my career. I was either going to have to spend thousands of dollars of my own money, sleep in this rental car, or go home to Portland.
I didn’t want to go home.
I pressed a palm to my forehead and closed my eyes. I was hungry, I needed a shower, and I needed to do a few hours of work. “Think, Sienna, think,” I chided myself out loud. I’d already called the Soundcheck office, where I’d told an admin assistant about the cancelled booking and he’d promised to “check it out” and call me back. I didn’t hold out much hope.
I could stay outside of town, maybe. Or find a youth hostel. Even the hotels by the airport were booked up. AirBnB only had sketchy single rooms in some dude’s house, and even those were overpriced.
Whatever I chose, I’d be paying for myself, at least until I could sort this out and claim back the money. I had maybe a few hundred bucks’ room on my credit card and another few hundred in the bank. If I spent it all staying in New Orleans—then what? The tour had almost six more weeks to go.
I had no friends or contacts in town, no one who owed me a favor. I hadn’t been in this business long enough to have a network. This tour, with the Road Kings, was supposed to be my big break.
I put my phone down, then picked it up again. Put it down. Started to panic again. Even if I wanted to give up, I had no way to get home unless I drove to the airport and bought a ticket. Which I couldn’t afford. Maybe I’d try the Soundcheck office again. In the meantime, I was starting to understand that it was possible I’d have to sleep in this rental car tonight.
I picked up my phone again, then dropped it with a screech when someone knocked on the passenger window, two sharp raps.
Framed in the window was a pair of male hips clad in black jeans and adorned with a belt with a silver buckle. Above the belt, the soft cotton of a dark green tee draped over a perfectly flat stomach.
My heart squeezed up into my throat in panic. I recognized those hips, that stomach. I’d watched them onstage for every show of this tour. It was Stone Zeeland, the Road Kings’ guitarist.
What the hell was Stone Zeeland doing knocking on my window?
As if to compound the question, Stone leaned down and peered in at me. He had to lean pretty far down, because he was a big guy. Tall, built, and muscled. One of those men that never seems small, in any way, in any circumstances. It wasn’t just his shoulders or the granite of his thighs. It was his presence, his rock star attitude, his scowl. His talent. His status as a guitar god. His scowl was in full force now, his dark eyebrows drawn down, his mouth frowning through his short, dark beard. He looked intimidating, which was—as far as I could tell—his usual mode. Frankly, if I didn’t know who he was, I’d wonder if I was about to be mugged or carjacked by a member of a biker gang. Instead, I waved at him to go away.
Stone blinked once, and instead of obeying, he grabbed the door handle. Too late, I realized the car wasn’t locked, and before I could reach for the lock button, he’d swung the passenger door open, dropped in next to me, and slammed it shut.
For a second, I was too shocked to react. In all the weeks of this tour, I had exchanged less than ten words with Stone. His loathing of me came off him like a smell. I had never been alone with him, and never this physically close. He loomed enormous in the small space. I wasn’t even certain he knew my name.
He glared at me in silence for so long I eventually said, “Yes? Can I help you?”
His voice was gravelly, as if with disuse. “You’re sitting in your car in the parking lot,” he said. He pointed out the windshield. “The hotel is right there.”
My hackles went up. “So? There’s no rule against it.”
There was another long beat of silence. I hadn’t even known the Road Kings had arrived in town, because I wasn’t on their bus. I didn’t know the precise moments they arrived anywhere. I was constantly chasing the band, hoping to catch them at a good time.
“You’re also freaking out,” Stone said.
Was it that obvious? Obvious enough to be seen from a distance through a car window? I wasn’t crying. So how did he know?
The humiliation of my situation came back to me again, and it made me mad, so I said, “I am not freaking out.”
Stone glared at me. There was silence for another minute.
And another, and another.
This guy was very good at silence, but he wasn’t going to win. I glared back at him, getting angrier by the second.
Finally he said, “Go freak out in your hotel room.”
“Why?” I snapped.
“Because the fact that you’re sitting here is bothering me.”
“Bothering you?” I couldn’t quite believe that I had to deal with this shit on top of everything else. Forgetting that I was talking to one of the musicians I would normally give my left arm to interview, I half shouted, “Stone, that is too bad.”
Do you know how many women were in my music journalism course at the beginning of the first semester? Four, including me. Do you know how many actually finished the course? Take a guess.
Yes, one. Me.
It doesn’t matter what year it is, the music business is a boys’ club through and through. The big record producers are men, the executives are men, the promoters are men, the people making all of the money are men. The musicians, still, are also mostly men, and the groupie scene might have changed form since the Almost Famous era, but it’s alive and well. It’s a business in which Mick Jagger still gets to do whatever the hell he wants in his seventies, while Taylor Swift’s dating life is scrutinized endlessly and a bunch of guys on Twitter think she’s past her prime at thirty. Take a look at Lizzo’s replies sometime. If you feel the need for a dose of good old toxic masculinity, the music business is the place to be.
I learned, early on, to fake it. I was twenty-eight, and I knew I was still green, but I could put on an attitude, make like nothing bothered me. Since entering this business, I’d been hit on, looked down on, and outright ignored, but I could play tough.
Stone Zeeland didn’t scare me. Or if he did, I wouldn’t let him know it.
“What’s the problem?” he barked at me now, as if I’d come bothering him instead of the other way around.
I adjusted my glasses. “There’s no problem,” I lied.
“Then go to your hotel room. It’s getting dark.”
Stone waited, staring at me. “Well?” he said.
“I’ll go in after you leave.”
“No, you won’t. Go now.”
“What is your problem?” My voice rose, and I remembered to modulate it. It wouldn’t do to come across as hysterical, now, would it? That would just play into his sexist prejudices. “I’m minding my own business. Since you detest my existence, I suggest you leave me alone and mind yours.”
“This is stupid,” Stone said, once again as if I’d started this. It was getting harder not to scream. “Just tell me the truth. You don’t have a room, do you?”
“Of course I have a room,” I lied again.
“Right.” Stone pointed to the hotel. “If I go in there right now, go to the front desk, and ask them if you have a room booked, they’re going to say yes.”
“I hope they don’t tell you anything, because that would violate my privacy.”
“Be honest.” He sounded mad now, and he leaned toward me. It was only an inch, but it was enough. He enunciated clearly. “You. Don’t. Have. A. Room.” I was going to argue again, but he didn’t give me the chance. “I can tell by the look on your face that I’m right. So where are you going to stay, Penny Lane?”
For a second I just stared at him in shock. Had he called me Penny Lane, the groupie character in Almost Famous? It was like he already knew what my favorite movie was. “I’m not Penny Lane!” I shouted at him, not caring if he saw how livid I was. “My name is Sienna Maplethorpe. Maplethorpe. If you want to talk Almost Famous, then I’m William, who is based on Cameron Crowe, who wrote the movie! The journalist! I’m not a groupie, you ass!”
“Jesus, just answer the question,” Stone said. “If you don’t have a room, where are you going to stay tonight?”
“I have somewhere to go.”
“You don’t, or you’d be there by now.” He pointed at the hotel again. “You went in there, you went to the front desk, and they told you there’s no room booked for you. Then you came out here, got in this car, and scrolled on your phone for half an hour. You’re still here, which tells me you have nowhere to stay.”
“I’ll figure it out.”
“I can’t think with you staring at me like that.”
His eyebrows rose. “Really? You’re supposed to be so smart, and you have a hard time thinking? I thought thinking is what you do for a living.”
I made a scoffing noise. “Like guitar players are such experts on thinking.”
What was I doing? Stone Zeeland wasn’t just a guitar player. He was a rock star. Rolling Stone had called him “one of the unsung heroes of the rock scene, carrying the mantle of Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck while pushing their legacy kicking and screaming into the next century.” Heady praise, if you didn’t look too closely into Jimmy Page’s personal life. Stone could make or break my career, and he was sitting here in my car. While I insulted him.
He shrugged his big shoulders, letting my insult roll off of his no doubt gigantic ego. It must be nice in there, where no form of criticism or self-reflection could penetrate. “You think,” he commanded me. “I’m gonna sit here and wait.”
I looked around. Night was falling fast, like a blanket. I wasn’t the type to jump at shadows, but there was something cold and unpleasant about sitting in this parking lot in a strange city while the light died. I’d have to find a hostel with a bunk in a room full of strangers. Or try to sleep in this parking lot, find a gas station that would let me use their dirty bathroom. I tried not to feel despair. At least no one would mug me with Stone’s giant, silent bulk sitting here. “All right,” I grudgingly admitted when the silence had drawn on for what seemed like a year. “I’m a little stuck. My room seems to have been cancelled. Even if I had the money, everywhere else is sold out. Okay? Since you have all the answers, what do you suggest I do?”
Stone made a hmm sound deep in his throat and looked out the passenger window. He scratched his beard with his big hand. It was like sharing a car with a bear. I couldn’t see his eyes, so I couldn’t figure out what was going on in his stupid head. Was he going to suggest something? Or was he just going to sit here all night in silence?
Nothing. No sign. This man had less than zero social skills.
“Well?” I asked when I couldn’t take it anymore.
He spoke abruptly, still not looking at me, his voice rough. “Stay in my room.”
What? Had he actually said that? I couldn’t even speak. Instead, I made a strangled noise of outrage. Stone raised a hand, palm out, as if I’d spoken. “I’m not trying to screw you, all right? My room has two beds. I’ll barely be there, anyway. I’ll get a second room key, and we can mostly avoid each other. That way you have somewhere to stay until this mistake gets worked out. Okay?”
“Absolutely not,” I practically shouted in his face.
Was this a real question? How egotistical could one spoiled rock star be? “Journalistic integrity, for one.”
“This won’t affect your journalistic integrity, because I won’t be talking to you.”
“Well, that’s great. Congratulations. It’s me that has to maintain integrity, not you.”
“You will,” Stone said, because life was infuriatingly simple for men like Stone Zeeland. “We’re just sharing a room, not talking or sleeping together.”
I sighed, leaning back in my seat and briefly closing my eyes. “My god, are you actually this dense? It doesn’t matter if we’re sleeping together, Stone. Everyone will think we are. That’s what matters.”
It seemed, incredibly, that this had not occurred to him. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, the rasp of his beard loud in the quiet car. I tried not to let the sound annoy me. “No one will know anything if I switch my room to a different floor,” he said.
“You can’t,” I shot back. “The hotel is fully booked.”
Stone gave me a look that said, Do you actually think I can’t get what I want, whenever I want it? I felt the urge to scream all over again.
“I’ll talk to them,” he said. “They’ll swap me with someone. Let’s go in.”
“I’m not going in with you,” I snapped. “Were you listening to what I just said?”
“Just sit on a chair in the lobby while I talk to the front desk. No one will know you’re with me.”
“What about my luggage?” My suitcase was in the trunk. Too late, I realized I seemed to be actually negotiating this, as if I was considering it. Then again, it was either this, or I slept in this car. Besides, it was just for a night, two at most. There had been some mistake at the hotel. When I got it cleared up, I’d have my own room again.
“Bring your suitcase,” Stone said. “Once I get things settled, we’ll go up separately. You’ll have your own key card. Got it?”
He put his hand on the door handle, but I said, “You can’t be serious about this. What if you want to bring someone back to your room after a show?”
Stone turned to me, and if anything, he glowered even harder than he had before. “That’s enough outta you, Maplethorpe,” he said. “Now, get the fuck outta this car and go sit in the lobby until I get you a key.”
He got out, slamming the door behind him. I watched, still in a sort of shock, as he circled the front of the car, those familiar black jeans and that familiar belt buckle. Then he opened the driver’s door and stood there. Waiting.
I sighed. “Fuck my life,” I said.
“That makes two of us,” Stone said. “Let’s go.”