Fight Forever


Before I was accepted into grad school at the age of 34, I was living in Chicago. I’d been a writer and performer with Second City for close to eight years, and spent five years touring. During that time, I typically played characters close to myself—a six-foot tall, lanky white dude. While some were very silly, like the Werewolf who steps on a nail (Awooo!), or the lifeguard with diarrhea (stop running…), or getting into a guitar duel with a lonely Satan who just wants to talk about Mumford and Sons (they’re kinda cool, right?), they were all, on some level, believable. It was mostly the nervous-first-date guy, the office-employee-that-makes-puns-but-is-really-sad guy, or the anxious-because-nothing-in-life-makes-sense guy.

So when that time in my life started to wind down, I decided to try something totally different. Two members of my ensemble had been recruited to write for SNL, one moved out of the city entirely, and my writing partner/closest friend started a podcast that became so successful, she was able to pay rent from ad sales and merch within two months. It left me completely alone in a city that, at one point, had embraced me.

Performing hadn’t left my blood yet, even if that stage of my life had, so I put together a character named El Chupacabro, stemming from my love of folklore, the supernatural, and Lucha Libre wrestling. The half-baked idea was to be an ’80s hair-metal luchador that turned famous movie soundtracks and TV themes into metal songs. Instead of lyrics, I could splice in sound bites from pop culture to the pre-recorded tracks. This achieved two things. The first was that the audience didn’t have to work on understanding the music. It was something they already knew presented in a way they weren’t expecting. Second, when I wrote original music, the sound bites would clue people in as to what the song was doing, and I’d never have to sing. From Star Wars medleys and Harry Potter themes, to Samuel L. Jackson going on an F-bomb tirade, to my finale—an original called “Fight Forever” based on a wrestling chant—I felt like I was creating something no one had seen before. And that was kind of the point—to push myself in new artistic ways without having a defined end goal.

It became a bit of an obsession. I’d come home from my day job, teach myself melodies from a film score on the guitar, and then frame them through an ’80s hair metal lens. There were a lot of fast and flashy riffs, some funky effects, and each song was mixed through GarageBand on my Mac. To fill out the sound, I’d record a few harmony guitar parts, add in a bass line, and program a drum track.

With my previous connections through Second City, I was able to book shows fairly easily. I’d show up with a small amp, my guitar, and my costume, which consisted of a blue and pink lucha libre mask, a long curly black wig—not unlike Slash from Guns ’n Roses—black jeans, and a black sleeveless tee with a ribcage on the front. I plugged my iPhone with the backing tracks into a PA, and off I went.

I was able to open for bands like The Grave Boys, Dance Fight, and Broken Hotel at some decent sized venues, while also being booked at the Chicago Music Fest and a local all-ages venue called Stage 312. I had tee shirts, lapel pins, and other merch to sell, most of which I had to pay for upfront, then cross my fingers I’d be able to turn a profit. I wasn’t after the money—my new day job at a tech start-up looking for creative types took care of most of the bills—but it was nice to have some passive income and an outlet for my creative desires.

During El Chupacabro’s career, there were three shows where I didn’t get a cut of the door or a guarantee. Three shows where I made no money at all, each one standing out as a defining moment for my character.


The Canticle, Chicago
In August of 2016, I got a phone call inviting me to be part of the pre-show entertainment to promote a local bar, The Canticle. They were showing one of WWE’s flagship events, SummerSlam, a four-hour long mega card featuring all of the company’s top performers. Since my act was big and flashy, with a strong wrestling component, it sounded like the perfect fit. They offered to pay me in unlimited food and drinks, to which I said, “Done deal.”

The talent buyer asked me to show up at 4 pm, which was three hours before SummerSlam’s pre-show started. That should have been a red flag, but it was not unusual to get to a venue early and do a sound check. I showed up expecting to have to run through a few steps before the other performers, mostly comedians and podcasters, hit the stage. But when I walked through the doors, I saw there was no stage. There was no PA. There were no lights.

The guy who booked me saw me standing at the door with my gear and ran over. “Hey man!” he said, looking like he’d been chewed out by a manager. “Do you think you can set up and play right now? Right there, in between those two high-top tables.” I followed his finger to the two tables, both of which had families with young children enjoying dinner service.

I told him “Ok!” which is a response that only makes sense to performers.

Most people ask why I didn’t up and leave right then. The only answer I can give is that most every performer dreams of the day we can walk into an unsavory situation and bring the house down. For all I knew, that could have been my shot at greatness.

I set up quickly and decided to run the backing tracks through my small amp. Right away, the sound didn’t blend and everything got muddled. It was still loud, but it was wildly unbalanced, and the second I launched into my first song, a kid at the table to my right covered his ears and told his dad, “I hate this!” About a minute later, I realized the spot where I was performing was the only way to get to the bathrooms in the hall behind me. Drunk suburban moms in thin leather jackets and colorful scarves kept walking up and saying, “SCUSE ME, I HAVE TO GO TO THE BAFF-ROOM” and, on the way out, “MOVE PLEASE, YOU’RE IN THE WAY.” I couldn’t do anything, because my character wore a mask and didn’t speak.

During the next song, I saw the promoter motioning me to wrap it up. It was only the third song of a planned eight, but I didn’t protest. I finished the song, waved goodbye, and changed out of my costume.

To fill the void of bombing hard, I ordered way more food than I could reasonably eat, and sat with the other performers. John Cena and AJ Styles were set to collide in a dream match, and the rumor was it would be one for the ages. Despite my show, I was legitimately excited to kick back and watch the event.

Thirty minutes into the first match of SummerSlam, I got horribly, violently sick from food poisoning and was forced to go home, where I couldn’t stream the pay-per-view due to electrical work being updated in the building.

The match turned out to be a rare performance, hailed as one of the all-time greats, and I knew if I hadn’t performed as El Chupacabro, I could have seen it live. But I did play the show and spent the majority of the night in my empty apartment hugging the toilet instead.

Unbelievably, the Canticle attempted to book me for the following year—which, unbelievably, I agreed to.


The Fundraiser
In July of 2017, I got an email from a 15-year-old kid named Marcus who wanted to book me for a fundraiser. In his email, he mentioned how he and his friends saw me play at the Chicago Music Fest, and a few times at Stage 312. He wanted to know how much it would cost to have El Chupacabro come play at his charity event, and how his Mom told him that sometimes, asking was enough.

It was such a genuine email that I wrote back and told him I’d be happy to do it for free, especially if it was for a fundraiser. He excitedly replied and promised a packed house. A few days later he sent me directions to the venue, specifically a side load-in door, which would bring me through a kitchen. The address was on the west side of Chicago in a neighborhood I was unfamiliar with, but the cab found it no problem. When I was dropped off near the side door, I could already hear live music. The people in the kitchen greeted me and pointed to the venue. The second I crossed that threshold I realized I was in for a rough night.

  1. 1)It was a thousand degrees in the room, and only getting hotter.

  2. 2)The room was a church basement and there were uncomfortably large paintings of Jesus EVERYWHERE.

  3. 3)The “Packed House” was mostly 80-year-olds in wheelchairs who’d been wheeled over from the nursing home down the block.

Even better was the random kid on stage with an acoustic guitar wearing a white button up, a black vest, and blue jeans—none of which fit him. He kept saying,  “Though I’m just a college freshman, I really believe I can change the world through music,” to which he got thunderous applause. When he announced that one of his songs was an original, he got a damn near standing ovation before playing G, D, Em, and C and mumbling through some lyrics.

I was waved over to a table of Marcus’s teenage friends, who seemed in awe that I’d actually showed up. They couldn’t believe that I—the Man, the Riff, the Legend—was playing their fundraiser.

Marcus’s band went up next, despite my pleas to have our acts switch place. I told him I’d be fine playing a shorter set so his group could headline. He adamantly disagreed, and his band took the stage. Their whole set was covers. The only one on his feet, and dancing, was someone who appeared to be Marcus’s music teacher. Everyone else sat in their wheelchairs looking comatose.

Then it was my turn. Marcus introduced me as from “Parts Unknown,” which was kind of baller. I hit the stage in full costume—to NO applause—and launched into my first song. Keep in mind, my act was fast, loud, and aggressive, and I was legitimately concerned I might kill someone, which would give an ironic twist to one of my tee-shirt catch phrases: “Shred ’til you’re dead.”

About 40 seconds in, the sounds shut off entirely except for my guitar. I had no backing tracks at all, and the act didn’t work without the backing tracks. I scrambled awkwardly to unplug and re-plug everything back into the PA, then struck my power stance center stage and hit play. About 90 seconds into the second song, everything shut off again. The PA kept shorting out, and no one was jumping in to help troubleshoot.

I readjusted and started my third song. About a minute in, the same thing happened. Once is random, twice is a coincidence, third time is a pattern, so I shrugged, waved goodnight, and exited the stage. The first thing I did was take off my mask.

Marcus came rushing to the wings to ask if everything was ok. I told him the truth, that there were some severe tech difficulties and I didn’t know if I could realistically perform the rest of the act. His friends were still looking at me like a superhero, so he offered me his guitar to play. The guitar wasn’t the issue, but it was so touching I told him I’d give it one last shot. Then I did something I’d never done before—I hit the stage as El Chupacabro without the mask.

There was no microphone, but my Second City training taught me how to project in an open space. I apologized for the tech issues and said that from time to time, these things happen with an act like mine. I said I was going to try one last time, and a voice from the crowd yelled, “Keep the faith, brotha, you’re in the right place!” It was enough of a positive shift for me to re-claim my power pose center stage and ask if anyone in the crowd was a fan of Harry Potter.

And people started booing. Because I was in the basement of a church.

I hit ‘play’ anyway.

Unbelievably, it was the only song that played from start to end, and I played it over loud boos and jeers and the occasional cries of “Blasphemy!”

At the very least, I took pride in knowing I could whip any crowd into a frenzy.

I left the stage drenched in sweat and ready to just go home and rethink my life. A fragile old lady wearing a shawl approached me as I was putting on a fresh shirt and said, “Excuse me young man are you the one who likes to dress up like wrestlers?”

“Yup.”

“Well you shouldn’t, because wrestlers are false idols.”

“I dunno, I think they’re kinda cool!”

She scoffed but left me alone after that. There was still a raffle to sit through, but the teens at my table kept treating me like a celebrity. It was why I didn’t leave. They brought me candy bars and cans of Coke in appreciation, so in return I regaled them with stories from the road and the celebrities I shared the stage with during my Second City days.

As the night wrapped up, I grabbed my gear and slung the guitar over my back. I was on my way out the door when a guy stopped me. “Interesting show, bro.”

“Some tech difficulties, but … it happens.”

“That’s because the PA was built to spread the word of our lord, not for metal.”

I was exhausted at that point, but also hopped up on processed sugar. “Listen, I didn’t ask to be on this bill. I wasn’t begging to play this show. I did it because those kids over there wanted me to be here.”

In the cab home, I texted a bunch of my friends about the experience, but no one got back to me.

The next day at my newly acquired desk job, I tried to tell some of my co-workers about it. They listened politely, but ultimately said things like, “You’ve got a lot of free time on your hands, huh?”


Boone, NC
My buddy Brian, a studio musician and touring drummer for Dance Fight, was putting together a mini music fest in his hometown of Boone. He wanted me to come play. The proceeds would support a 19-year-old local kid named Daryll who had recently been diagnosed with leukemia. It sounded like a really great event, so I bought a ticket to fly out on my own dime.

My flight got delayed three and a half hours at the gate, so it didn’t end up taking off until 2 am. It landed at 5 am in Raleigh-Durham, where Brian picked me up and drove me the two hours to Boone. I had an hour or two to sleep on his couch before we had to go to the venue for sound check and to meet the other bands. Because of this delay, Brian was behind schedule and stressed. He didn’t outwardly blame me, he was actually quite accommodating, but I still felt responsible.

A bunch of jam bands, and cover bands, and some old fashioned rock bands were on the bill, but nothing exactly like me—which, previous stories aside, had traditionally worked in my favor. But I was overtired and pushing dehydration. Brian couldn’t leave the venue, which meant I couldn’t leave, so I curled up on a disgusting leather couch in the green room and tried to sleep in short sporadic bursts to shake out the cobwebs.

At one point I got up and wandered outside. A girl was walking her fluffy black dog, so I said hello and that her dog looked like Jon Snow. This offhand remark made her laugh so hard she started crying. Actual crying. Her unusual reaction put me on edge.

There was a woman by will-call SCREAMING at the venue’s manager about how loud the music was, and even though the manager explained over and over, “We’re a performance venue first, and a restaurant second,” I started to get nervous. If the locals were this easily upset, I could be in for a grueling set.

During the hours until show time, I listened to the roadies tell their acid trip tales. I was able to win their trust with stories about the Canticle and the infamous Fundraiser. As a gesture of solidarity, they offered me pot brownies, adding that there was “Probably other stuff in them.” I needed whatever focus I had to get me through the set, so I kept turning them down, much to their disappointment. They wondered how funny I must be stoned if I was this funny sober. I’d be lying if I said the temptation wasn’t there.

El Chupacabro was booked second to last, co-headlining with Brian’s new band. The venue was awesome. Professional lights, professional sound, and the house was legit packed. But then again, they’d been listening to cover bands and jam bands since the doors opened. I wasn’t that.

This ended up being the last “big” show I ever played. After years touring with comedy, and playing shows around Chicago as El Chupacabro, I could feel change settling in. I was in my 30s, unmarried, and unsure of what I was “supposed” to be doing with my unconventional, and not-exactly-transferable, skill set. I didn’t know that come November, I’d be moving back to New England, leaving 10 years of friendships and memories behind, but I did know something was happening.

El Chupacabro allowed me to be someone else. To put on a mask and disappear, be the type of person who was confident when he hit the stage, who was unapologetic and uncompromising in his vision, and who put his skills to use making a lot of people—mostly strangers—happy. I got to play a character that wasn’t close to myself, the six-foot lanky white guy.

But outside the mask, I was constantly second-guessing myself, taking risks that didn’t always pay off, and often fighting the losing battle of trying to have people see the world in the same way I did. Still, I’d come too far, done too much, missed too many holidays and weddings and births, to give up. I didn’t want to quit, but I also didn’t know how to continue. I just knew it was important to me—and that was worth fighting for. It was the one fight I’d always come to, the one fight I’d always been a part of, and the one thing I’d always have to face: defending the ability to—at the very least—try.

I geared up. My name was announced and I hit the stage. It was loud, it was packed, and there were people climbing over each other the second my music started to play. The woman who’d been outside screaming earlier was holding a little girl, and they were both loving the show. Daryll was just right of center and he was having the time of his life. I played Star Wars and Harry Potter and the Samuel L. Jackson tirade, and the crowd ate it up. People were dancing and moshing and high-fiving. Whatever I was doing, it was working. I rode their energy into my last song, “Fight Forever.” It was the only original in my set, and used a spliced up motivational speech as the verse, and the wrestling chant “Fight forever!” repeated as the chorus.

While I played, I had the impulse to point to Daryll—it was his benefit after all—and the crowd parted around him. He stood tall, embracing the recognition. I hit the first chorus. Unbelievably, the crowd around him picked up on the words “Fight forever” and they started chanting it TO him. When the chorus came around again, the entire room chanted along to the song. Fight Forever. Even as the song ended, they echoed it for a few more measures. I threw one of my El Chupacabro tee-shirts to Daryll, and then I was gone. I hit the couch backstage and listened to Brian’s band through the wall. The next morning, he drove me to the airport at 6 am to fly home.

A few months later I got a text from Brian to call him. He answered with, “Hey man, I gotta talk to you about Daryll…”

My heart dropped and I assume the worst. All of it—my act, the songs, the show—what was the point? What was ever the point?

“ … Because of the fundraiser, Daryll could afford a more aggressive treatment, and is now in remission.” He texted me a picture of Daryll in the hospital. The doctor smiled, giving the thumbs up.

Daryll smiled, giving the metal salute, and wearing my tee-shirt.

El Chupacabro.

Fight forever.

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W. T. Paterson is the author of the novels Dark Satellites and WOTNA.  A Pushcart Prize nominee and graduate of Second City Chicago, his work has appeared in over 40 publications worldwide include Fiction Magazine, The Gateway Review, and a number of anthologies. He is a current MFA candidate at the University of New Hampshire. Send him a tweet @WTPaterson.