Achilles’ Last Stand

By on Oct 21, 2013 in Fiction

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A band from backstage

LOS ANGELES – William “Sledge” Mitchell, the lead singer and face of ‘80s rock band Dodge City, died Thursday of complications from pneumonia. He was 49 years old. Mitchell was admitted Wednesday morning to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center with a chest infection stemming from complications relating to a 1992 gunshot wound that had left him paralyzed, his agent, Thomas Randall, said in a statement.

That’s the obit they let me run in the L.A. Times today. Originally, they asked me for a feature, but that got cut at the eleventh hour in favor of something more “uplifting.” Something to do with American Idol, I was told. And that’s probably for the best, dear readers. No reason to bring people down at the weekend. But I wrote the story anyway, and now that it’s done, I know they made the right choice. It’s not the kind of story the Times prints today, or Rolling Stone, for that matter. Hell, RS probably wouldn’t have wanted it even when they ran features on Van Halen and The Crüe, or that godawful cover photo of Jon Bon Jovi and the white horse. I’m not even sure dreck like would care about this story, because the music doesn’t matter anymore. Oh, some of the players pop up on VH-1 occasionally, but mostly just to prove their irrelevance. The fans that once adored them — who filled goddamned stadiums to scream their names — won’t admit it now out of embarrassment, but these men were part of our lives once. Some of them were important. Others were assholes from the beginning. But these aren’t mutually exclusive terms for describing the great. They were our Olympians, with all their rages and petty jealousies, incandescent for generations, then smoldering away to nothing when people ceased to believe the myths. 

You know what, though? Fuck that overwrought shit. This isn’t that story either. This is my story. Mine and Jeff’s.

But some background for the uninitiated, or for those of you who stumbled on this blog by accident (whom, I suspect, outnumber the people coming by on purpose these days): even casual fans of metal know the story of Dodge City, the band that single-handedly saved Rock from itself in the late ‘80s, if you believe everything you read in liner notes. More than a few people have thrown the bullshit card on that one, but there’s a grain of truth in it. They represented their generation without succumbing to it, and in the process wrote some of the best blues-based hard rock ever put to tape. I’d like to think the best of what they offered came from their roots in my hometown of Ayrshire, Indiana, and the fact that Port Wells and Sledge Mitchell, before they ever wrote classics like “New Jerusalem,” used to cover Zeppelin and Doors tunes with my older brother Jeff on pawn shop guitars. That’s right, my brother used to play in Dodge City, and I never told you. Surprised? Don’t be. My uncle was also Kip Winger. Okay, that part’s a lie, but bear with me.

Anyway, one sticky night in 1985 I awoke to find Jeff, Port, and Billy (Sledge’s old, non-hammer-related name) huddled around a pool of light in the corner of our room. I didn’t get up for fear of a wicked Dutch rub, but I lay for hours, listening to them make plans with an old atlas from my dad’s glove box. After two years of having the town marshal shut down their garage rehearsals, they were heading for the Sunset Strip, where almost every band they loved had made its name, all the way back to Messieurs Morrison, Manzarek, Densmore, and Krieger. I was sad because I didn’t want Jeff to leave, but it turns out I had nothing to worry about. He was in the county clink before the end of the next day, and Port and Billy left his shoplifting ass to rot.

You know the rest. Port and Billy hooked up with British axe-man Trent Lincoln, brought in Ratchet Perkins on bass, and stole drummer John Mudge from the punk band The Shitburds. After a year of squalor playing now-legendary venues like The Rainbow and The Whisky, they signed with Elektra and released Nine Days without a Friday, the fifth highest selling debut album in history. Jeff watched the videos roll on MTV between shifts at the factory. For seven years he packed engine parts, waiting to hear from them, too stubborn to call or write. He never stopped playing but couldn’t stay out of trouble. He was in and out of jail every few months, and in the spring of ’92 he got busted for stealing some boxes of fairly expensive something-or-others on the night shift. His court-appointed lawyer said there was a pretty solid chance that he was going away for a real stretch this time (you don’t screw with rich people’s engine parts), but I don’t think Jeff cared anymore. He was twenty-eight and still sharing my bedroom — one of those long-haired, concert T-wearing losers who frequents the local bar on weekday afternoons, playing every Skynyrd song on the jukebox. Then, the mail came. 

* * *

“Can I see the tickets?” I said it loudly, but between the roar of the engine and the sonic assault of the stereo, it died on my lips. I reached over and tugged on the sleeve of Jeff’s biker jacket. “I said, can I see the tickets?” I over-enunciated, and he turned the stereo down a little.

“What?” he asked as he tore down the backroads out of Ayrshire.

I turned it down some more, at the risk of breaking his rules of the road (Rule #1: Don’t touch my goddam stereo), then spoke again. “The tickets. I haven’t seen them yet.”

“Why do you want to see them? They’re just paper.” As if he hadn’t spent the last week peeking at them every five minutes. As if the only thing in the envelope was tickets.

“I know. I’ve just never seen real concert tickets before.”

“Which is a tragedy, man. Seriously. You need to quit listening to that girly shit and grow a pair.” The girly shit was a cast recording of Les Misérables that my band teacher had loaned me. Jeff had walked into our room while I was listening to it, and after a few comments about “that fag Mr. Sanders,” he decided that I was going to the show with him. Not that he had a lot of other possibilities. When his girlfriend left him for her karate instructor, I had become the center of Jeff’s social circle by default. I kind of enjoyed it, except for when I had to clean up his puke.

“It’s not bad stuff. You’d probably like it,” I suggested.

“Does it have guitar solos?”


“Then I won’t like it.” And he was right. If an actual, physical Church of Rock existed, Jeff would have been at least a deacon. (Hail Lemmy, full of crank.) I think he saw my flirtation with showtunes as backsliding, especially since we’d been raised in the same temple. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned somewhere before, my first memory is of the LP sleeves stacked neatly next to our dad’s hi-fi system. We didn’t always have milk to go on our Corn Flakes, but you’d better believe we had the new Aerosmith album the day it came out. I’d spend hours looking over the album art and get lost in the worldscapes depicted there. I especially liked the Zeppelin covers. Physical Graffiti pushed me toward my first experiments as a writer, as I considered what might be going on behind those windows. Houses of the Holy on the other hand, with its post-nuclear Eloi crawling toward that scorched hilltop, scared the bejesus out of me and gave me nightmares well into grade school.

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Chris Drew's essays and stories have appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, Big Muddy, Concho River Review, Red Wheelbarrow, and The Sycamore Review. He is currently a dissertator in the creative writing Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where he has served as nonfiction editor for cream city review. Chris can be found on the web at