Swans sing before they die - 'twere no bad thing,
should certain persons die before they sing.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Epigram on a Volunteer Singer
Hank was very surprised to see the car pull up outside his house.
It wasn't so much the unearthly noise it made, all screeching tyres and sirens; or the fact that it was constructed almost entirely out of bones - human bones as far as he could tell, painted black and white; or because it appeared out of nowhere in a brilliant flash of light.
No, it was more a case of the music that accompanied its arrival. Like a kind of da-da-da-da-diddle-de-da-da over and over and over on a loop.
Hank opened his front door and stood there gaping at the extraordinary machine, its exhaust pipe belching out thick gouts of red smoke, a supernatural glow surrounding it.
The driver's door swung back and a figure snapped to its feet. Whoever was on the passenger's side did the same. Then two of the most objectionable things he'd ever seen walked up his drive. They waved. Hank waved back, in a comical "Oh my God, look what's just turned up on my doorstep!" sort of way.
'Hello Hank,' said the first.
'We're back!' said the second.
But it wasn't until they came right up to him that Hank mouthed a silent hello in return. And promptly passed out there and then in his hallway.
Hank awoke on the sofa some time later.
'What a terrible nightmare,' he mumbled, rubbing his eyes. That would teach him to have cheese on toast for supper.
A gleaming white head hoved into view above him. 'You still with us there, Hank?'
Hank scrambled away from the vision and dropped over the arm of the couch.
'Hey, calm down, Hank. It's us.' Hank whipped his head to one side and saw the second...guest sitting in his favourite rocking chair. He began to gibber something about death and acid tabs.
'No man, this aint no flashback. We're really here.' Hank studied the arrangement of bones sat in that chair. A skeleton. An honest to goodness skeleton in his house...wearing sunglasses, talking to him.
'Don't you recognise us?' asked the other dead "man". 'It's your old compadres. Been a long time, I know. But, well, here we are. Right, Bony M?'
'Right, Bony B.' Bony M's teeth chattered when he talked. The sound was like cat's claws on piano keys. But now he'd had time to listen to their voices, he knew it was them. The brothers. He should do, they'd all played together for fifteen years.
'Only now we're The Bones Brothers,' announced Bony M.
'I just...I just can't believe it. You look so different.'
'We lost weight,' Bony B joked, and the brothers fell about laughing.
Hank was starting to relax. He picked himself up off the floor and perched on the end of the couch. 'So where have you guys been?'
Bony B came and sat beside Hank. 'We've been dead, pal. Remember?'
'He means what have we been up to, B,' said Bony M.
'Oh yeah, right. We've been on tour, man.'
'On tour?' The concept was clearly a hard one for Hank to absorb. Up until tonight he'd always assumed that when you died, that was it. Adios. Finito. Goodnight sweetheart, goodnight.
'Yeah. Gigs in the Afterworld. Nothing like it. You know, we've played with all the greats. Buddy, Jimi, The Stones-'
'Aren't they still alive?'
'That's a matter of opinion.' Bony B scratched at his ribcage, a throwback to a time when he still had nerve endings there. 'Audiences lapped it up, Hank. You should have seen us.'
Hank looked from one brother to the other. 'So what happened? Why did you come back? How did you come back?'
'Well, he caught the Katy,' Bony M thumbed over at his companion.
'And I left him a mule to ride,' completed Bony B. Again they burst out laughing, and this time Hank couldn't help joining in. It was just like old times.
'No, but seriously,' said Bony B, easing back into the sofa cushions, 'we came in our new wheels: The Bones-mobile outside. She's a beauty, aint she?'
'Classy,' nodded Hank, waiting for the answer to his first question. Why were they here? And why now?
'We're putting the band back together, Hank,' Bony M cut in.
Bony B grinned. 'Yeah, and we need you, man. You're one of the best damned guitarists we've ever played with.'
Hell, thought Hank, up there with Jimi. That's quite a compliment.
'You're joking, right?'
Bony B shook his head. 'No joke. We need to raise some cash, pronto.'
'You leave the thinking to us. We've never steered you wrong before, have we?' Bony B thought for a minute. 'Unless you count that time in Philly when-'
'Anyway, will you join us again, Hank?' Bony M creaked forward in the rocking chair.
Hank shrugged, which they took as a yes. The brothers hugged him and clapped him on the shoulders.
'But wait a second, what about my business? I run a laundry service now...' Hank argued.
'It just folded, baby,' said Bony M.
'Yeah, forget about it,' said Bony B.
'Right. Now you're with us we're gonna make you some serious dough. All we need is to contact the other members of the band.'
'But first we have to get ourselves some decent threads.'
'And hats,' Bony M reminded him. 'Don't forget about the hats.'
Bony B turned to his sibling. 'I think this calls for a little trip to the mall. Don't you, brother?'
'Absolutely.' Bony M rounded on Hank. 'Wanna come for a spin?'
Hank held up his hands in protest. 'Oh no, no...I've seen the way you drive. That's how you ended up like this in the first place.'
Bony M nodded thoughtfully. 'True, true.'
'Okay then, we'll pick you up in the morning, bright and early,' said Bony B, already halfway through the front door.
Bony M raised a finger to his mouth. 'But not a word to your wife, Hank. I don't want her singing at us again like the last time.'
Then The Bones Brothers strolled off down the path towards their car, waving back at Hank as they went.
'I told you we could rely on Hank,' whispered Bony M.
'One down, five to go. Do you think we ought to have told him the truth? You know, about being kicked out by the King of Afterworld?'
'And stealing the Bones-mobile? Are you nuts? Next you'll be telling me we should have explained why we need the money.'
'Mmm...I guess you're right, brother,' Bony B replied. 'Now, let's go shopping, shall we?'
The next day they went out looking for the other members of the band.
Jonesy, Hank informed them, was now working at a dog pound - a far cry from his wild days as a drumming fiend. They'd known him to get through six pairs of drumsticks an hour, and that was even before he started playing. Lord knows what he did with them.
It goes without saying that Jonesy was shocked to see the trio. He'd thought his musical career was as dead as the two lead singers who now stood before him. Brushing his long hair out of his eyes (maybe it wasn't such an odd choice of job, after all), he'd stared hard at his old friends, the mutts in their pens going ape at the smell of all those tasty bones.
'So what d'you say, Jonesy? In or out?' asked Bony M.
'I'm in, man. You know it!' Jonesy confirmed, handing over all the leads to his gawky assistant. 'Just give me a doggone minute to say goodbye to all my hounds.' And they did exactly that.
It was even easier to convince Step "The Organ" Macey (a nickname he'd been given for more reasons than one) to join them, because he was filling in time as a refuge collector. Given the choice between playing again and hauling garbage around the city, he made the only sensible decision.
Next up was Virgil, their trumpeter, now to be found DJ-ing for WKYN radio. Bony M was fascinated by all the leaps in recording technology during their absence.
'What happened to vinyl, Virg?'
'Replaced by these.' He showed them a compact disc. 'Crystal clear. You'd almost believe that you were playing with the band.'
'Almost,' said Bony B.
'Yeah, almost.' A couple of nostalgic stories later and he was like putty in their hands, ready to throw his CDs in the nearest river and dig out all his old twelve-inchers.
'It's the grooves that make them groovy,' quipped Bony M.
'Oh yeah,' agreed Bony B.
Base player Tito, meanwhile, had seen the light and become a priest at the Chapel of Holy Moley and Mother of Pearl.
'You'll have to go in there and speak to him fellas...' Bony M was shaking from skull to toe-bone, and believe me, when he shakes you certainly know about it (there's a touch of rattle and roll thrown in for good measure, as well).
'Brings back bad memories,' explained Bony B. 'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust and all that.'
Hank took Virgil and Organ in, but Tito was having none of it. What a ridiculous tale. Now if they wanted to do some charity performances for the chapel, well then that would be a different thing.
In the end they managed to drag him outside and show him the Bones-mobile. He was never quite the same after that and wouldn't stop genuflecting for at least half an hour.
Sax-man Clive proved the hardest to convince, though. He was now a politician and enjoyed the fruits of good living.
'You, my friends, are merely a figment of my imagination,' reasoned the Sax-man. 'And even if you weren't, what makes you think I'd go back on the road with you now? I've got a good job. I'm happily married with kids. I've got everything I'll ever need right here.' As if to drive home the point, Clive showed them around his luxury apartment.
Bony M ran a chipped finger along the collar of his shirt, loosening the tie. 'But you're an integral part of our overall sound, Sax-man. You have to come with us.'
'No way. No how.'
'Don't force us to get nasty, Sax-man. This is very important to me and my brother here.'
'Why, what could you possibly do to make me-'
Bony B leaned over and whispered something in his ear.
'You wouldn't,' Sax-man gasped, turning bright red.
B nodded. 'We're on a mission from...Well, we're on a mission for ourselves, actually, but we'd really appreciate your help.' He held out a skeletal hand. Reluctantly, Sax-man shook it.
As they were coming down in the lift, Bony M asked his brother what he'd said back there to Clive.
'I just told him that we had the negatives and we weren't afraid to use them.'
'I haven't got any. But he doesn't know that.'
Bony M tittered to himself as they reached the ground floor.
Now they were together again. Everything was falling into place. And for one night only The (Bones) Brothers would play again.
All the arrangements were made. The venue was booked for a week's time - Halloween night - and in that short space of time the band had to attract an audience.
So the Bones-mobile travelled all across the country, spreading the word. Leaving a trail of disaster and car pile-ups in its wake, but making sure that all the victims knew there was a good time to be had come Saturday night. Tickets were sold by the dozen; such was the pulling power of this novelty band. And a cult following grew up around them overnight. People would break into dance routines wherever they went and clamour for their autographs. Those who could remember these performers from way back when were joined by a new group of admirers, impressed by this resurrected approach to R&B. Not to mention the lead singers' skeleton costumes...
One thing was for sure, it was definitely going to be a gig to remember. Both brothers could feel it in their bones.
The auditorium was packed.
Hank was nervous. He hadn't played in front of an audience like this in years. Come to think of it, he'd never played to an audience of this size. He let the curtain fall back again and breathed in and out a few times. Got to get it together, he told himself. If this night was a success they could have another bite at the cherry. Chart hits, albums, videos...the sky was the limit.
He turned and walked back to the stage, to all those strange instruments. Quite where brothers M and B had got them from was anyone's guess. They'd simply fished them out of the Tardis-like boot of the Bones-mobile and handed them to the crew. Hank had been more than a bit repulsed by his new guitar, cut from flesh and blood and bone, (with gut for strings). But after he'd strummed it a few times he soon forgot all about its appearance.
The other instruments were made out of the same organic offal. However, they all carried a good tune and that was worth its weight in gold in this business.
The rest of the band came out to join him, all except The Bones Brothers themselves. No one had seen them for quite some time in fact.
'Where are they?' Virgil's agitation was understandable, as the punters started a slow hand-clap.
'Have you checked their dressing room?' asked Hank.
'First place we looked,' Organ replied.
Sax-man had his head in his hands. 'What was I thinking about? All that time spent canvassing for votes, sucking up to senators. All those bribes. I knew the brothers couldn't be trusted. Remember that time in Philly? Death hasn't changed them one bit!'
Tito was in the corner, praying.
'What do we do now?' This was Virgil again.
Hank sighed. 'They want music. Let's give it to 'em.'
The band took up their instruments, the curtain parted in the middle, and they kicked off with the introduction theme. Da-da-da-da-diddle-de-da-da. The audience began to jiggle up and down, tapping their hands and feet. But the musicians could only keep going for so long without words. Soon people would notice that they didn't have any singers.
Hank looked at Jonesy bashing away on the drums, who looked at Virgil blowing his trumpet, who looked at Organ and Tito, who then looked at Sax-man looking back at Hank. They were all thinking the same thing: Christ, what a disaster!
The band were just about to throw down their instruments and make a run for it, when two distinctive profiles appeared on stage, backflipping and somersaulting down to the front and belting out a rendition of "I've Got a Soul, Man!" without waiting for them to catch up. Now the joint was really rocking. The assembly getting down to their wicked jive.
During the instrumental Hank shimmied up to them and asked where they'd got to.
'Long story,' said Bony M, covering the mike with his metacarpals.
'We got held up,' added Bony B.
Bony M started singing again, spotting a couple of female fans on the front row. He bent down, showing off. But the chorus proved too much for his jawbone, which flew off and landed in one woman's lap. She picked it up, the mandible still working up and down to the words of the song.
A scream was inevitable.
At the back of the stage, distracted by the noise, Jonesy broke one of his drumsticks in two. 'Dammit!' he cursed, the drum solo only seconds away.
Always one for thinking on his feet, Bony B quickly detached his Radius forearm and slipped it down his sleeve. He tossed it to Jonesy just in time.
These incidents had not gone unnoticed by the rest of the crowd, though, and now they started to realise that this wasn't some cool Halloween special effect. Those were real skeletons on stage dancing about. And yes, the instruments being played were made out of&ldots;
Pandemonium ensued as the band started up with "Sweet Home Crematorium" and Bony M jumped down into the throng to retrieve his jaw.
'Much obliged, ma'am,' he offered with a tip of his hat.
Men, women, and even some children, dashed to the emergency exits, clamouring to get out.
But just then the theatre started shaking. The doors at the back of the building blew clean off their hinges as an incredible energy force gushed in. Cars began to coalesce one after the other, ramming through the walls, missing spectators by a whisker.
'I thought you said we lost them, M.'
'Guess they must have found us again,' Bony M retorted, still trying to fix his jaw.
'Who are they?' Hank shouted above the racket.
'Afterworld police,' the pair said in unison.
'What?' cried Sax-man.
'You see, we sort of "borrowed" the instruments and our car,' Bony M elucidated.
'Who from?' Virgil ducked as a blast of pure light shot over his head.
'Uhuh, I'll take back what's mine now, thank-y-very-much.' Everyone gazed at the far end of the hall. There was no mistaking the King of Afterworld's spangly jumpsuit or his colossal quiff.
'Time we were off, brother,' said Bony B snatching his arm back from Jonesy.
'Got the money, Bony B?' A nod from his partner.
'Just keep playing, lads. It's us they want. Remember that old saying: the show must go on...'
Outside, on the way to the Bones-mobile, a fat man in an expensive checked suit stopped the brothers.
'Hi, I'm Harvey Winkleburger,' he declared, 'of Winkleburger records. A great set tonight, boys. You really raised the roof off this dump.' As he spoke the roof rocketed fifty feet into the air, carried on a beam of preternatural power. 'Literally,' he added, guffawing. 'Listen, I'd like to sign all of you up for a three-album deal worth almost twenty million. Interested?'
The Brothers couldn't believe it. This was a dream come true. 'You bet, Mr Winkleburger,' they chorused.
'Just one thing, boys.'
'Name it,' said Bony B.
'Lose the skeleton costumes. The punters don't go for it. I mean, look at 'em!' Winkleburger pointed to the hordes of people now heading for the hills. 'They're scared stupid.'
Bony M smiled. 'The matter's well in hand, Mr Winkleburger, sir.'
'Erm, but if you need to go over the details, just see Hank inside. He's the one with the guitar. We're in kind of a hurry.'
'Of course, of course. Well off you go, then. I'll speak to you soon.'
Winkleburger watched them climb into their unusual car. I must get me one of those myself sometime, he thought.
Inside the Bones-mobile, Bony M adjusted the rearview. Behind them the entire Afterworld police force was gearing up for a chase.
'It's 5381 miles to England. We've got a full tank of blood, half a pack of Junior Mints. It's dark and we're wearing sunglasses,' said Bony M.
'Hit it!' said Bony B.
The Bones-mobile pulled up outside the Burke and Hare Memorial Mortuary in a puff of red smoke, then collapsed into a thousand pieces with a tinkling sound.
The brothers stepped out of the wreckage, thankfully undamaged. They'd put quite a bit of distance between themselves and their pursuers. Enough to do what they had to do (they hoped).
Bony M ran into the building, followed closely by Bony B. They were greeted by their contact, a tall man by the name of Scrimm who was eagerly awaiting their return.
'Ah, Mr M, Mr B. So you managed to raise the funds, then?'
Bony B pulled the ticket money from his jacket pocket.
'And you have the merchandise, Mr Scrimm?' B asked.
'Naturally. Top of the range. Best that money can buy.'
'And they're, you know, ready to wear right now?' Bony M was anxious to see their purchases.
'You can slip into them whenever you like. I personally filleted them both myself and kept them on ice for you.'
The brothers turned to each other and grinned. No more walking around in their bare bones, and the Afterworld pigs wouldn't be able to touch them once they were safely encased in skin again. Out of their jurisdiction.
They'd be human once more, and not a moment too soon.
Yes, all the effort had been worth it. And when they clapped eyes on their new forms they were both delighted. So much so that they burst into song, accompanied acappella by the mortuary staff and Mr Scrimm.
And what number did they choose to perform this time? you ask.
Why, "Everybody Needs a Body" of course...
Text (C) Paul Kane 1999
Artwork (C) Steve Lines 1999
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.