This isn't the way I imagined it. The skeletal steel rafters that suspend the disbelief of corporate rock's grand illusion, the lighting trusses and pyrotechnics rigging are rendered meaningless from behind by the overpowering fluorescent glare of workmanlike progress. Walkie-talkies walk and talk in circles of clearly defined intentions, while giant black boxes with things like "ROCK" stencil-painted on their sides just sit there like building blocks for a toy city built on Starship's rock & roll. Where are the bloodstained riders with pills and powder scattered across them? Where's the set list duct tape with pubic hair caught in it? I want a knob that turns up to 11! Where, oh where, is Nancy Spungen?
"I'm here to thing the thing," I mutter into the hair gel of a head attached to an earpiece. "You know, the thing."
"Oh, you're our celebrity guest judge," he sort of rolls his eyes while making no eye contact. "You can just go ahead into the venue."
It's not like I've never been backstage at the Hard Rock Live before. Bring on the memory cloud! Let's see, there were the Crown Royal hijinks of my disastrous hosting gig for the now-defunct Orlando Music Awards, the vodka bravado of my peroxide-off with Poison's C.C. Deville, the cocaine floor-crawl for a lost pager with the Kids in the Hall, but all of those moments seemed so much messier and more gratifying somehow. Oh, I see. I'm sober.
"You know, he was almost your mayor!" the very same gay photographer who caught my ass on film at every one of the aforementioned tragedies screams my redemption. Yeah, almost.
Hard Rock staffer Jeff Jones, who might or might not be the devil, greets me in the venue with the same look of disgust he always turns on for me when I violate his line of sight. He'd asked me here to "judge a battle of the bands on Sunday night" on Thursday, in a manner cryptic enough to play on my vanity and thereby force me to be here. I plucked around the computer a bit and figured out exactly what bands would be battling, hoping against hope that the reason my name had popped out of his Rolodex was that there would be some glittering pop fantastic alight in purple flames. Nope, it's a duel of laryngitic jam bands, the kind that seem to reproduce fungally in Central Florida's never-ending damp.
"So, it's SugarFree and the Kevin Maines Band?" I blink twice.
"Yep," he smirks. "They're kind of … similar." That's one way to put it.
"More importantly, am I allowed to drink while I quietly judge?"
"The bar is open."
So I grab a drink and make my way over to the judges' table right behind the soundboard. Already here and to my right is a perfectly coiffed Ken doll with arched eyebrows and a snugly fitting, gay-embellished, button-up top. I'll call him Simon. He's a stage and set designer by trade, he clues me in, and he apparently enjoys life's finer things.
"Not a bad way to spend a Sunday night," Simon says. "Free music, a couple of drinks."
Right. Then we're joined by the other judge, whose name is actually Randy, although he isn't black and probably prefers "brah" to "dawg" while traversing his limited lexicon of bad-ass expressions — although he's not so keen on talking to the gay mess to his right, so I'm only going on instinct here.
"So do I get to stand up and fall over and dance and cry and stuff?" I fag out to Jeff, acting out all of the above. "Can I slur my speech and sleep with the runner-up?"
"Of course," he says. "You are Orlando's Paula Abdul."
"But you won't have a microphone."
It's still awhile before the show starts, so the other two judges and I are trying to look important while surfing the Internet on our iPhones. A Hard Rock higher-up named Keely comes over because she's totes friends with Simon. She just got back from being barefoot at Coachella, where Paul McCartney was "amaaaaazing."
"So, just so you guys know," she fills us in, "this is a semifinal for the Ambassadors of Rock Battle of the Bands. Both of these bands already won one other battle here. We're doing this in 22 markets, so the winner tonight will be videotaped and put up on the website for the public to see. The winner of the whole thing will be judged by Little Steven and DMC from Run-DMC."
I try to look impressed here.
"And that winner will play Hyde Park in London on the same stage as Bruce Springsteen and the Killers and the Pretenders." Or a third stage at 7:45 a.m.
"So this is a really big deal!" I blink three times.
Soon enough, it's showtime, although the less said about the music the better. Both bands have congas, both do that fake song ending bit that goes on forever, both feature receding hairlines and probable family troubles at home of the babe-I've-gotta-go-rehearse-with-my-boyz variety, both would be embarrassing exports. They are … similar.
"Similar" isn't a strong enough rating for Hard Rock, though. Instead, their talents are to be jotted down on nonsensical scales of one to 30 for musicianship, one to 20 for vocal talent, and one to 10 for fan reaction (there are maybe 50 people here). Zero, zero, zero. I go for fun numbers, like 17, because I just want to make the math that much harder.
By the time default winner SugarFree is tripping over its tambourines during "Sympathy for the Devil," the devil himself taps me on the shoulder with a somewhat sympathetic "You can go now."
On the way into the backstage area and back to reality, the photographer goes to snap a flamboyant photo of me and Jeff.
"We've already done this picture," Jeff smugs.
And it was just like you'd have firstname.lastname@example.org