Friday, October 9, 2009

Beatle Boots

“I’ve never been to Spain. But I kind of like the music.”
That’s how my night, a random night in early October, ended and began: Singing at the Press Room in Portsmouth, NH. The open mic host saw me carrying a guitar and asked, “You wanna go on after this guy?”
“Where’s the Jazz band?”
“They all gone. You just play what you want.”
“No drummer?”
He looked like this was crazy.
“Not unless you brought one.”
I’d thought a band showed up, a drummer and maybe a bass player, but that was not the way this one went down. This was an all solo show.
“So you wanna go on?”

I’ve never been to England, but I kind of like the Beatles.”

Half of this is true. I’ve been to England. And I like the Beatles. In fact, I was beating my brand new vintage Beatles boots on the wooden floor of the Press Room. Keeping time because there is no rhythm section at this open mic. My boots were almost possessed. I seldom stomp my feet in time because in my intermediate orchestra classes and beginning strings classes Dr. Eastman would say, “If you want to tap your foot then take the Big Band Jazz class.”
They don’t let in violinists to the big band class so I stopped tapping my foot to keep time during a Mozart Minuet. That’s the conductor’s job, anyway.

But these Beatles boots, some real piece of work someone put together in 1960 or 1970 with zipper sides and an inch heel. You feel like Ringo Starr in these boots, like Keith Richards. One look at them and a pretty girl in a tight sweater says, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
And you say, “Yes. Fuck yes.”

And the boots were tapping as I sang “Never Been To Spain” by Three Dog Night or Hoyt Axton depending on whom you ask. And I’ve song that song perhaps a hundred times in La Paz and my bedroom, so many times that I almost remembered the entire three verses. One starts with Spain. The next starts with England. Then the last one is I’ve never been to Heaven. I do it like I remember it with a slow first verse and then a medium second verse and the final verse is an all out redemption shout.

“…But I’ve been to Oklahoma.”

As though that’s a good substitute for salvation’s garden. I’ve been to Oklahoma, though not recently, but once in a while I go through and this song is on my mind. Actually, I was born in New Mexico, not Arizona, but what does it matter?

Now, I had missed the jazz jam because I was in the middle of nowhere in Nottingham discussing the mental and physical health of the nimble fingered Benny Hawkmaster, the piano man of the north, the man who would be king but found himself only hours earlier at the end of his rope, literally hanging from the neck by a badly tied noose and a pine limb. I thought I would intervene with a bottle of whiskey but it turned out that Benny was passed out. A young woman was talking to me through a screen door as a dog watched us from her legs and a rooster crowed in the darkness of the Nottingham forest.

“He sounded worse than normal.” I said, choosing my words carefully.
“I…I can’t even tell you how upset I am.” Responded the bird.
I couldn’t tell she was upset so she was one of those level-headed codependent “enablers” that career drunks like Benny attract. Probably compensating for a drunken father or ex husband or maybe her own troubles with the sauce.

“What the hell are you doing out here in…?” I asked.
“…the middle of nowhere? I don’t know.”

But I knew. The old story of living downtown because it is close to everything turns out to be code for living over a bar that has a permanent tab for you and your ass wears away a groove in the plastic lined seats and you have played digital darts so many times that you can actually recognize which areas of the board respond to the dart and which are broken. Someone asks for a Bruce Springsteen song, “Badlands” for instance and you already know the digits. “B-55” you shout.
That’s how it starts and Nottingham is where it ends…with a rooster, a broken motorcycle, a rusty truck, piles of wood from a decaying shed, a lot of lies you sweep under a rug. An old mailbox shaped like a barn. Loads of compromising, as Glen Campbell predicted. On Saturday you wake up to the sound of the Epping Speedway. Benny calls it the “redneck roulette.”
“They gave us tickets,” said Benny, slurring his words, avoiding my questions as to his address. “But I don’t want to go to a fucking car race.”
“Right. So what road do you live on? What town?”
”Oggy. Oggy. Why are you such an asshole? I hate you. I hate you. No. Really I love you. But I hate you.”
I laugh to deceive him. “But where do you live?”
“I’m sick. The tree broke and I hit my chin.”
“Where is the tree? You tried to hang yourself on a maple tree?”
“A pine tree.” There is venom in his voice like I'd called his mother a whore. “A PINE tree you fucking....”
I pause as his words become unintelligible.
“Benny, this is bullshit. You are holding all the cards and I don’t like it. You got me at a disadvantage.”
“All of you. You team up on me. I want to kill you all. You know what, Oggy? I will…”
Then the call got disconnected.
I had to look at the phone to make sure it had gone back to default setting. No more Ben. I sighed. The Jazz Jam started in a few hours. There is always an excuse not to do anything productive with your life. Believe me that I have found every excuse in the book. They follow me around. Suicidal friends. Lunatic artists. hateful girlfriends, sick dogs, A period of time where I studied microelectronics “for the fun of it”. Not to mention gainful employment, the worst time-killer of them all. Only the guitar has born fruit after a decade plus of agony and stolen moments when I was supposed to be giving my girlfriend a back massage or whatever. And my one outlet for this hobby is at open mic nights here and there across the country and in Mexico. Now, as the moment of my first gig in Portsmouth grew near I had a decision to make: Intervene with Benny or go to the Press Room without delay.
“He’s drunk? Then forget it,” said my father.
“Fuck him,” said my brother.
“But he’s my friend. I was trying to get in touch with him,” I said.
“You can’t help him. YOU CAN’T HELP HIM.” Said someone.
I lay my fork down. “I wanted to hang out with him and now that he’s trying to kill himself you think I should ignore him? Why? So I can go to an open mic night and get discovered? That makes no sense. You guys are assholes. I don't like you as people, let alone as family.”
“Do what you want,“ said my brother, cocking the hammer, “But if you go and see him then you are a cunt.”
I looked around as my father and brother stuffed their mouths full of meat and beans. It was raining outside.
My father: “I like this place because you can order your food and sit down and not get bothered.”
“Yeah. It’s alright.” Said Brooklyn stuffing his face, a fork full of greasy food falling on his lap, “But sometimes too much is too much.”
This is my family. This is how they deal with a crisis.
"The pork chops are good," says someone.

I started my set with “Handbags and Gladrags” a tune Rod Stewart covered that was originally written in the ‘60s by a Vegas performer whose name I can’t remember. For some reason, the song, a kind of lullaby from a father to a daughter, speaks to me.

“Have you ever seen a blind man cross the road, trying to get the other side? Have you ever seen a young girl growing old, trying to make herself a bride?”

There are about 5 chords to the entire song. If I can remember the first line of every verse then I can sing the song without a problem. I even have the lyrics on a chair in front of the stool I am sitting on. Unfortunately I am going deaf in my left ear and can only hear a distant echo of what I sound like. It is a little weird. I can hardly hear the guitar. A girl, a pretty singer who caught my eye earlier and who looks like the actress Ellen Page, is singing the words to this obscure song that I am singing. Then she kisses her boyfriend, who also knows the words and I am filled with hateful jealousy. It is a moment they are sharing together; inspired by this bittersweet song I am singing, but as remote from me as Benny and his pine tree performance.

“So what becomes of you my love? When they have finally stripped you of… the handbags and the gladrags that your poor old grandpa had to sweat to buy you.”

What indeed?
The song could use a rhythm section to give me a chance to play a solo of some kind. With six chord changes it is a little hard to maintain the harmonic progression over my normally meandering solo leads. In fact, the original recordings are all done with a big orchestra, Rod Stewart in front of like twenty musicians. I think Coldplay covered it with a dozen musicians. I haven’t heard it as a solo but it's a good acoustic tune. Whenever I play it someone will marvel that I know that song, a rarity in the eyes of many. But I play it like I wrote it and emphasize any part of it that drips nostalgia.

“Once I was a young man and I thought, all I had to do is smile.”

At this point in my life- not an old man, not a young man- I can sing this line with some credibility though it isn’t completely true. I always knew that my smile would get me nowhere. I smile as I sing this because whatever it means, the important part is “once I was a young man…” That’s all I need to say because to a young person the rest is irrelevant and to an old person the rest is redundant. I think that’s what brings out a smile in me as I sing it. I know that this is a cliché that one has to earn to sing, and I can sing it now as a bearded man with grey on his chin, whose testicles are shriven. If I were to say this to a youngster then I would be intolerable. There would be no irony, no self-awareness in it. I really would be an old fart telling kids what I thought about my useless life…passing my wisdom onto them. It’s laughable when the kids sit at their tables drinking wine or beer and living their life, almost nothing to reminisce on. That’s the difference. There is living and then there is reminiscence. I can sing this song of nostalgia because I have earned it and the kids can relate to my being nostalgia, but that’s as close as we can get. There is a gigantic gulf of years and experience between us on the worn floor of the press room. I could just stop singing and say, “Fuck all of you. My friend is killing himself right now and I’m leaving.” That would create a bit of a stir, but the gulf would still be there. So I keep singing.

“Sing a song of sixpence for your sake and drink a bottle full of rye.”

That’s what Benny sounded like he had been drinking when he called me.

“Is Oggy there? This is Ben.”

I didn’t recognize the number or the voice. This could be, I assumed, a random caller for an ad I placed on Craigslist for nude modeling. I didn’t know.

“What’s up?”

“It’s so good to hear your voice.”

I paused. Did I know a Ben? The voice continued rambling as I squinted at a squirrel climbing a tree.

“I went to the woods…two road diverged in a forest…there was a rope and a tree…I broke my chin cause the noose was loose. Rin Tin Tin.”

Was this a crank call? The fucker. Then it dawned on me, a voice from the past. Ben. Ben Hawkmaster. Wait.

“I know you!” I shouted, ecstatic. “I know who you are!” I pointed at the phone.

Ben laughed because this was the last thing he expected to hear. I then remembered that I had put two carrier pigeons out with messages to Ben, whose whereabouts were unknown to me. He had responded within hours…

“What was that about the rope?”

“This isn’t a cry for help. Let’s get that straight. I am not asking for help,” Benny slurred.

“But…a rope and a tree? A noose?”

“I followed my rooster into the forest and he led me to the tree and I was gonna hang myself.”

“Whoa! Slow down. Did you say hang yourself? You mean, kill yourself?”

My father asked, “Are you ready?” We were going to a restaurant. I held a finger up.

“But the rope,” Benny continued, “I tied a slip knot and it slipped up the rope and onto the limb and I was left hanging there with one foot on the ground and my ass crack showing ‘cause my trousers fell down.”

“Christ, Benny. This is some fucking how do you do.”

As soon as my tone of voice changed he considered me a traitor and enemy.

“Never mind. Forget it. Go do what you gotta do. Fuck you.”

“Let’s go, moron.” Said my brother to me. “We gotta eat.”

Urgently, I held up a finger then my whole hand, the line was getting full of static.

“But wait. Aren’t you..?"

I heard a dead silence on the other end. My father walked out the door. My brother impatiently gave me the finger.

I called the number back. A part of me, the selfish ten-year old part that dominates and destroys all my relationships, was thinking, “What about the food? Whatever you do, don’t do anything that might end up with you missing out on a taco. And the Jazz Jam. Remember?”

I was almost relieved that no one picked up Ben’s phone. I was absolved of responsibility.
“I’m coming.” I called out and closed the door.

The second song I played was Wagon Wheel, by Old Crow Medicine Show. Easy chord changes, like Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.

“Headed down south to the land of the pines, thumbing my way down to North Caroline.”

This is another song I can relate to on different levels; even more touching because I learned it in Mexico at a small RV park from a nice artistic couple from Oregon who modeled a relationship that I didn’t know could exist. The wife loved her daughter and showed me pictures, hoping I would approve or something but I was obsessed with a Mexican girl who would eventually tear my heart apart. The couple were musicians and dancers and adult, function, no poisonous stares, no passive aggressive comments, no games. I marveled at their conversations that were, for lack of all the words I learned growing up, mature. It was a rarity, a functional relationship. And they loved me, adopted me, even ignored the crush I developed on the woman, and taught me this song: Wagon Wheel.

“Rock me mama like a wagon wheel. Rock me mama any way you feel. Hey hey mama rock me.”

Some or all of it was written by Bob Dylan, so the legend goes, but the group Old Crow Medicine Show performs it with an old time country and bluegrass attitude.

“Those east coast winters keep a getting me down, lost my money playing poker had to up and leave town. But I ain’t heading back there living that old life no more.”

This part I sing with conviction, like losing all my money in a cold part of the country is beneath me… or at least not worth repeating. The second chorus always seems easier to sing than the first, like at this point singing “Rock me Mama” sounds more like a plea than an order, a plea for some relief from my mistakes. Rock me any way you feel, because I have no idea what I’m doing.

At the table in the Mexican restaurant I mentally remove my brother and father from the “People to call when suicidal” list. I don’t want Benny to call back, but now that I know he has my number I figure it is just a matter of time. I am selfish and order something with cheese.

“So are you going to grad school or not?” my brother asks.

“Grad school? What are you babbling about? I’m going to Baffin Island. I'm going to save the wolf.”

"No, you're not," says my father and I want to punch him in the mouth. My brother ignores him.

“All right. And after that?”

“Who are you to question my life? Who are any of you? I’m living. I’m eating. I have a life and you insult it.”

“This is a life? You call this a life.”

Brooklyn’s tone drips condescension, like he’s talking to a legless man who wants to learn kickboxing. My father laughs.

"You two are loathsome people, " I say.

“Wait a minute," says my dad. "His van, I mean his house, is still rolling. He’s got fuel in his camp stove. What’s the matter? What are you saying? Are you saying that Oggy isn’t successful?”

Everyone laughs, even the family at the table next to us, but I look with disgust at my taco. Ten or twenty seconds was all it took to turn my life into one big failure…a joke…a topic of mockery. I wouldn’t treat my worst enemy like this and they do so without even putting their forks down. It’s not even a conversation, it’s a diversion, it’s small talk.

“I hope everyone is having a good time. I hope this is a good old time for you.” I say this with practiced technique, my voice with a party tone and my eyes like a funeral director.

“Huh? What?”

They drive daggers into my life and then have to be reminded they were doing it. What a bunch of unforgivable snakes. I could start all over with the family at the table next to me and do no worse. My taco tastes like dust.

“Walkin’ down south out of Roanoke, caught a trucker out of Phillie had a nice long toke.”

I’ve hitchhiked out of Roanoke, Virginia. And although contract and law strictly prohibit driving big rigs stoned, I’ve ridden shotgun with some high drivers. Any stoners in the crowd inevitably smile or nod in recognition. We like to hear songs about things we’ve done or approve of. It’s like a song we would have written. Wagon Wheel is my song, a road holler to a girlfriend on down the line. If the women in our lives only knew the trouble we went through they wouldn’t give us so much shit when we did eventually arrive a little late or with the wrong type of pasta…

“If I die in Raleigh at least I will die free.”

Isn’t that what it means to live in the ‘live free or die’ state? Then Benny calls back.

“Benny, dude, we’ve got so much to talk about. I want to hear everything.”

“You and everyone else,” says Benny. “You take it and use it against me. It’s ammunition.”

This is why Benny has removed his humorous blog that I had followed for a few weeks. The blog was basically a diary of his decline from functioning alcoholic to recovering alcoholic to active alcoholic to unrepentant drunk. The next step - belligerent, suicidal menace - is normally not recorded and when I saw his blog vanish from cyberspace I knew he had crossed the line.

“I completely identify with that.” I said. “These motherfuckers. Our parents. Our fake phony friends. They are all cunts. They use our words against us. FUCK THOSE DECEIVING CUNTS!”

For the first time my brother actually took an interest in my conversation by saying, “Dude, use your inside voice.”

I followed his eyes to the table next to us where three pre-teen kids were staring at me over their plates of macaroni. They’re mother is shaking her head. This was Exhibit A in why I should live on the beach in Mexico. I opened my mouth to apologize but the horrified look in their eyes shut me up. Although it was rude to eat and run, under the circumstances I decided it was appropriate, so I excused myself from the table and walked outside.

“Benny, are you there?”

I heard a groan from the other end of the line.

“Benny, this phone system is the worst. I had better reception on the beach in Mexico. That’s where I belong.”

“You don’t care, Oggy. You don’t care about anyone but yourself. Where are you? You were supposed to be here by now.”

“I can’t really argue with that first part. I am selfish. Live with it. Now tell me your address.”

Which brings me to the last song of my set, a song all about me and where I’ve been and what my observations are. While Handbags and Gladrags is a plea to a young and careless daughter to be less like her flighty father, Never Been To Spain is all about me. I am selfish and that’s how it is. The first word of the song is about me.

I introduce the song with an explanation of where I have been in the last year.

“Just got back from Mexico,” I say as I noodle around with a C# minor pentatonic scale. “Drove over here in my 1969 Ford Econoline Van. Through Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, St. Louis, Niagara Falls, Boston. I’ve been a lot of places…yes I have…but one place I’ve never been…I’ve never been to Spain. But I kind of like the music.”

“The ladies are insane there. And they sure know how to use it.”

It’s a little hypocritical to make observations about the women in Spain despite never having been there. I mean, what am I implying with these details

“They don’t abuse it. Never gonna lose it. I can’t refuse it.”

I can’t refuse it? What can’t I refuse? And when was it offered to me?

One could argue that the point of the song is that odd contrast of never visiting a place but still making comments on the music and women there. It’s like…I don’t even have to go to these place because I know the next best thing.

My brother and father exit the restaurant and I follow them. Kenny finally says his address. Something something a lake road, Nottingham. I’ve never been to Nottingham. I’ll get the map off the Internet later.

“Look, I’m coming out there with booze. What do you want to drink? Benny? Benny?”

We’ve been cut off again. I get in the car.

“So who was that?”

A buddy. Apparently he’s trying to kill himself.


“Who is it?”

“The kid who played piano at Brett’s funeral. Remember.”

“Oh yeah. Talented kid. So who wants ice cream?”

Later, I arrive at the chicken coop that Benny calls home and a barking dog and a girl meet me at the door. We talk, each eyeing the other up. I'm not invited in. She is wondering if I am a thief or maybe a drunk or meth head looking to take advantage of the situation. I am wondering if she is the cause of all his problems by being A) A bitch; B) A sexy drunk; C) A bitchy sexy drunk or D) None of the above but still a problem.

I leave with no conclusion except that I sense a major strain on their relationship that I’ll never fix and that Benny is alive. I look at my watch and see that there is just enough time to make it to the Jazz jam. I fly through Durham and Newington and walk into The Press Room only to find the Jazz band leaving and a folk singer, the open mic host, playing ragtime instrumentals.

After the final verse of Never Been to Spain I noodled for far too long with the C# minor pentatonic. I figured that I’ve been playing with that scale for so long that I should not care what comes out. I just naturally make something sound ok. It’s no Eric Clapton performance but it’s obvious I’m familiar with the guitar. It’s also obvious that I’m improvising. No one claps after the solo and after I sing the final verse a last time a bit slower I slap the guitar strings and stand up. A few people clap. I’m moving to the door. I nod to the no one in particular, not making eye contact with anyone. I was done and another artist was taking my place with an autoharp and two guitars. I packed my guitar up and even left a bit of beer in my glass as though to send a message that I was only drinking it because I thought it was the least poisonous thing on the menu. I made my way for the door thinking, in my ignorance, that my night was over and I could sleep. Outside I moved from the press room toward my van.

“Are you the guitarist?” asked a baby-faced man in torn clothes.
“I’m A guitarist.”

“Good because you are going teach me to play guitar. I’m a tattoo artist. Do you want a tattoo?”

Who doesn’t want a tattoo? He looked at me and said, “I make priceless art. Priceless. And I just had my guitars stolen from me and I quit my job as a chef. Now I am making custom one of a kind clothes and sell them for thousands of dollars. Look. I made this tonight with a pair of scissors and it’s priceless. I’d sell this for three hundred dollars.”

As he manically talked he modeled his torn flannel shirt. He had spray painted something on the fabric.

Do you want to work here or in my car? I don’t have a house. I’m traveling the country with MOE. Do you know MOE? It’s a movement. You’re coming to Florida with me and we’re going to go shark fishing. Tonight! It’s a full moon.

The moon was full the previous night but I didn’t correct him. I wasn’t tired.

“My name is Oggy. I live in a van. I’m going to Newfoundland to record the habits of Arctic wolves.”

The guy didn’t hesitate.

“That’s fantastic. But first you have to teach me to play a song.”

“Ok. Have you ever been to Spain?”

And before he answered he looked down and said. ”Those are awesome boots.”
Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.