Billboards and TV spots and banner ads online are calling it “The Ultimate Tribute.” Tickets sold out within forty-nine seconds, and have been changing hands since for up to twenty-five times the price. The queues at all three entrances tonight stretch back for at least two blocks. It’s almost as though people haven’t registered the third word, are seeing this as more of a comeback concert, the classic showbiz resurrection.
Certainly, that’s how Mecha-Hendrix himself feels it, standing there in the wings, waiting for the auditorium to fill up like it used to. His circuits are jangling. He’s puffing on an e-cigarette to calm himself down.
This project has been in development for nineteen months, and rests on a foundation of tech dating back a lot further than that. From the outset the team of scientists and nano-engineers and bio-mechanics have been committed to capturing as many details and quirks of personality as they can (working from rumour and old newspapers and second-hand interviews), in order that the end result be, to use the Team Leader’s term, something more than just an animatronic jukebox.
Though, the ability of this machine to physically perform the music itself has been paramount, too. The mechanism of the hands — those hands — the rhythm of even the minimal movement required for smoking, by itself took months of work to get smooth enough, believable.
He waits there, Mecha-Hendrix, with a comb in his wire-wool fro, e-cigarette dangling from his electric lips, daydreaming of electric ladies, of reverb, of overdrive, of twin Marshall stacks and the Wah-pedal beneath his tapping foot. He’s antsy. It’s been a long while since he last did this — going on sixty years — and he hopes that he doesn’t embarrass himself.
He hopes he doesn’t disappoint the fans.
During initial research — which doubled as team-building — they spent most of their time in the lab getting high, listening to his albums, even the posthumous ones, on constant repeat, and then played slowly, and then played backwards, all the while freaking out over whether they’d be able to get anywhere close.
Then they mellowed, and it became a case of working out how they would get close. They watched endless video loops of his fingers, trying to record and translate into camshaft-ready algorithms all their sensitivity and responsiveness; all the semi and full-tone bends, the pull-offs and hammer-ons, the slides, the double-stops, the working of the whammy bar, vibrato.
They tested their formulae on a simple model, attached to a desk, and stood watching it mesmerized, still pretty much hotboxed, wondering between themselves, almost telepathically, what the sound was or should be of a robotic hand air-guitaring.
The crowd cheers so loudly when at last he’s given the nod to go on, and, when the second curtain raises behind him to reveal the rest of the Mechsperience, they somehow get louder still. They make so much noise that his circuits shake, they’re already having so much fun.
He trills stutteringly on the reverse-slung strings. There are a few small white sparks.
He isn’t quite sure what he’s ever done to deserve all this adulation. He’s waiting for quiet, but he doesn’t ask for it, doesn’t hurry it on.
Having mastered the basics, they went after his tricks, his showboating, making sure his arms were flexible enough to get the guitar behind his back, above his head.
Of course, they tried for the big one, tried to get him playing with his teeth. But when they first replicated that, the first few times in fact, Marks I through IV, it kept shorting out — the contact was closing a circuit in the wrong place, overloading.
All the tests suggest they’ve cracked it now, though, in the Mecha-Hendrix Mark VII.
The applause is ongoing as he moves towards the front of the stage, but still he registers a weird sensation, a whirring, a fluttering inside of himself, which he guesses must be what people call butterflies.
It was always like this, he thinks, before the big concerts, but usually he could get loaded backstage, or even during, and not notice it so much.
He stares out at the mass of people, trying to focus on faces, see if he recognizes anyone, from the old days, before the house lights go down.
They watch — the scientists and engineers — from a box on the second tier to the left of the stage. These are nervy moments, nano-seconds, as incremental shifts in his mechanism carry him closer to the mic. Anticipation for all involved is at fever-pitch. The stalls and seats are at max capacity and the traffic on the live-stream is off the charts.
The relief, when Mecha-Mitchell kicks off a beat and Mecha-Hendrix answers, is not only palpable but palpitating — it is not simply a presence, a weight in the air, but an active participant, in time with the song.
From the start, they’re delighted with how fluid the movement is, from his fingertips down to the arching of his back as he leans into the opening solo. Aside from the metallic skin, the hair, the fro-comb antenna that hums with blue static, this could almost be footage from the videos they’ve watched. The mechanical lungs, powered by a set of microscopic fans, revolving first one way then the other, work the e-cigarette; the lips purse a smoke-ring as he bends and holds a high E.
On stage, Mecha-Hendrix is no longer paying the crowd any attention. Is trying not to. They’re too excited now. They’re not just passively swaying, baked, padding trance-like in mud — they’re not singing, they’re shouting along, out of tune, out of time; they’re waving fluorescent canes and illuminated, pulsating walking frames in the air; they’re tossing pill containers up on stage.
He glances down at the small orange tubes, pokes them with a boot, but they’re all empty. He misses a note.
They’re relying on him too much. Much too much. Somewhere in his circuitry, he starts to feel like a charlatan, a fake — it’s too intense and he can’t hide from it.
He wants to entertain, of course he does, up to a point. Always did. But mostly all he wants is to be playing, alone in the spotlight, improvising, pushing the rhythm, chasing it, lost. Thumbing for a lift at Villanova Junction …
That time, with that guitar, when he got carried away, he was making a sacrifice, he was offering himself and his music to everyone there.
For a debut, they think, this is certainly promising. The audience metrics are through the roof — though, mercifully, their heart-rates are more or less stable — and from the online contingent the upvotes are flowing in fast.
The feedback the Team Leader’s been getting from crowdfunding sites and finance groups is good, and he shares the news with the rest of them, and they high-five and knock their plastic cups together, the springing and shaking of which causes beer to spill on their jeans, though they don’t really mind.
This is only the first stage in a much bigger project, and they’re beginning to believe they might just pull it off. In hazy sessions in the lab, passing a bag of tortilla chips around the circle, fighting each other for the tangy cool dip, they began to moot the idea of a whole concert series, touring worldwide, playing the biggest arenas, a huge line-up of stars: The Mecha-Masters of Rock.
It would be the greatest show on Earth.
He just wants to be back in the dressing room, playing slide with a beer bottle, swigging from it, blowing across the top of it, the cry of the wind; blowing smoke inside it, watching it swirl, thinking of planets; practising riffs.
They’ve all paid so much money, though. They’ve paid so much money to be here, to see him; all he can think of is that he’s got so many demos that he wants to work up — hours, weeks he wants to spend in the studio — but they keep on cheering, requesting the old songs, holding up signs.
He feels bad, really bad, but he just wants to leave, to get out of here, his digitized eyes straying off to the side, to his roadie. Help me, man, he mouths, accidentally dropping the e-cigarette.
The crowd are still bumping and bopping and twisting in the aisles, pushing their way down to the front, by the stage, their glo-canes waving, clashing with others, threatening duels. Still the occasional pill container arcs over the heads and outstretched arms of the stewards, scuds towards his pedal rig, nearly lodging underneath the Wah.
With all this activity, with all of that mess, the engineers almost don’t notice the small pfft, the quick cloudburst by his feet as the vaporizer in the cigarette shatters.
What’s going on? they ask each other, trying to keep their voices down so the Team Leader doesn’t hear; he’s otherwise occupied with the crowdfunding forums, so they don’t think he actually noticed the incident himself. He seems pretty happy about tonight so far, and they’d like to keep it that way.
The longer they watch Mecha-Hendrix, though, in the extended jam section of this latest song, the less convinced they are that they’ll be able to hide it. He’s moving less smoothly now, much less smoothly, travelling, against his parameters, towards the double Marshall stack. They try sending the override code, via his aerial, but it isn’t getting through.
The comb in his fro is still buzzing with static. His metal fingertips still rotor-whirr and jump pneumatic into pulls-offs, hammer-ons and bends — but the individual notes are becoming lost to him, blended.
He walks into a wall of sound, a feedback loop, the speaker supermassive, like a black-hole, all-consuming.
His back is to the audience, his whole self is to the audience, but they don’t seem to mind, they’re still cheering, singing along to about three different songs, misspeaking the lyrics. Misshouting them, rather. Some of the songs aren’t even his.
But, who is he? What is he?
He doesn’t know.
If he does know, he wants to forget.
He walks closer. The wire-mesh of the amplifier pulses insanely, barely an inch from his biomechanical face. As he reaches towards it, he is trembling all over.
There must still be butterflies, somewhere inside.
No one can see quite how it starts but within seconds the sparks become fire, an electrical storm, rampaging unchecked through his intricate system. The denim and silk he’s wearing frazzles and darkens, then disappears. The circuitry, the wiring, blisters and bursts like poisoned veins through the aluminium alloy skin.
There’s just enough energy left for him to turn, to stumble, cradling his instrument, and collapse as a furnace in the heart of the stage.
Up in their box on the second tier, the development team is in disarray. The Team Leader is dealing with two calls at once, one headset in each ear, at the same time as he fields questions from the online community, struggling to keep pace with responses to his hastily-drafted “Setback Report.”
The bio-mechanics can only watch in horror as roadies fumble to open the extinguisher valve; they count every second that passes as a missed opportunity to save more of their work.
The engineers, meanwhile, are shifting the blame, tossing it like that bag of tortilla chips around their own mini-circle: You dealt with the processor fan; You coded the personality; Didn’t you even bother to check the firewall tonight?
Their accountant, invited along as a thank you, is downing beer after beer and telling himself over and over that it’s just a bad dream.
Down below, the baby boomers are growing restless; snapping their glo-canes over titanium thighs and wielding them like nunchucks; hurling their walking frames onto the blaze.
As they pry chairs out of the floor and carry them closer to this impossible pyre, a few of them fall to reminiscing about the good old days; about the fractions, the slivers that are still almost clear.
The free love was wonderful, one says.
And the drugs, another offers.
And the rock ’n’ roll, says a third.
They can all see the shadow inside the flames, the slender neck of the Stratocaster trying to escape it, the headstock like a woman with bows in her hair. Flowers.
Yeah, they agree, feeling sombre, feeling blessed.
It really had been a beautiful time, hadn’t it? The most important decade in human history, some people said. It gave the world Hunter S. Thompson, and John F. Kennedy, and The Magnificent Seven, and Muhammad Ali. It gave them the moon landing, and conspiracies, and that car chase in Bullitt. It gave them the Voting Rights Act, and The Dick Cavett Show, and the Man with No Name. It gave them the man with that name, and that guitar, and all of that music. It gave them three days in a field in August, and the closest thing to peace and love that anyone had ever seen …
Yeah … they all sigh, with harmonizing nostalgia.
As they sit and watch the robot burn.