Chapter 18: The Guitar Hero Goes Home
[Currently live at the Exterminating Angel Press Magazine]
by Marilyn Jaye Lewis.
IT’S JUST LIKE THEY SAY IT IS. You’re floating. You’re going to the light. And then you’re looking down on yourself, at all the men, slamming the palms of their hands into your chest with all the strength they’ve got. I could hear them talking, calling to me to come back. Saw all those lights flashing on the highway. Then they got out that horrible little machine. I could see my chest lurching. I could see you crying. No one seemed to notice that all you were wearing was a little blue trench coat, nothing under it. No shoes, even. Standing there barefoot on the shoulder of the freeway at 3 in the morning.
And George sure is a good friend. I know that now without doubt – not that I ever really doubted him.
I’m glad I’m back, but I didn’t wanna come back. Not when I was out there looking down, because, honey, my god, was it peaceful out there. Just so peaceful.
Not that I wanted to leave you. It wasn’t like that. It was just that peace. It felt like something I had always known and yet had just suddenly remembered. It was all around me. I hated to leave it.
* * *
Do I really wanna keep on living if I can’t smoke? Jesus.
Come on, honey. I didn’t mean it like that. Yes, I know this is crucial. It’s important stuff now. I have to make some serious changes here, but goddamn it, I’ve been smoking since I was, like, 10 years old.
And what the hell are all these things on me?
Get me outta this fucking place.
* * *
An angel came to me when I was just a little boy. I was in my bed. A winter morning was just barely creeping through the window shades. It was quite early. My little brother was sound asleep in the bed across the room from me.
She was blonde, the angel, and just so pretty. And she told me things I eagerly believed. All about destiny and dreams manifesting, hearts rejoicing and being fulfilled. She told me this in pictures, you know; not words, as such.
It had something to do with a guitar.
So I begged my dad to buy me one. He said no. I begged again. He said no. I begged some more and he said, “If you don’t shut the fuck up, Christmas is never gonna come.” And he kicked me.
Right on my little shin. My left shin. It hurt like hell. I was just a little boy.
But Christmas morning came and there it was. A big red bow stuck on it and everything. A beautiful acoustic guitar. I don’t know how he afforded it. He worked, and all that, but, man, booze is expensive and he was always drunk.
And then he helped me learn how to play.
He sat me right down on the couch in the front room there, and he taught me C, D, and G. And he said, “These are easy chords. You learn ‘em and you can play about 50% of everything. So just learn ‘em.”
I was stunned, you know? I had no idea he knew how to play a guitar. There were no musical instruments in our house at all. Nothing to indicate I’d come from any sort of musical lineage.
But that Christmas morning, he lit a cigarette, sat down on the couch with my brand new guitar and said, “Sit right next to me here so you can see.” And so I sat down next to him.
He put the neck of the guitar in front of me, his arm came around me – a man who never even hugged me or got demonstrative in any way. His arm goes around me and he takes my little left hand in his and with his what seemed to me to be huge fingers, he helped me shape the chords right there on the frets of the guitar. And by lunch time on Christmas Day, I was playing it. Really playing it, you know?
Because he was right. You can play 50% of everything that’s worth playing in rock & roll with those three chords.
“Oh yeah, your daddy used to play,” my mama said a little while later, while she and I were sitting at the kitchen table, alone. “He played all the time when we were first dating.”
This, of course, was startling news to me. “But it bothered him, you know,” she went on. “Because his daddy – your grandpa, who you never met because he died so young – was a drunk. He drank himself to death when he was 49 years old. And all he did when he was alive was haul your daddy around with him – a beat-up guitar and your daddy. And he’d go hang out in this little bar called the Pissin’ Weasel.” My mama laughed then. She was so pretty when she laughed. “It wasn’t really called that. It was something like the Piston Wheel, or something similar. But your daddy always called it the Pissin’ Weasel. Your daddy’s so funny.”
My daddy was funny? The same man who kicked me on my left shin because my wanting a guitar had irritated him?
“Well, your grandpa would play that guitar for hours on end in that bar and just get so drunk. Made your daddy stay there with him, hour after hour, listening to your grandpa sing those old hillbilly songs. Your daddy didn’t call it singing, though. He called it caterwauling like a drunk skunk in a steel leg-hold trap. And then when it got near closing time, your grandpa would make your daddy drive them both home. Your daddy was just a child. A little boy. He could barely see above the steering wheel!”
My mama went on to explain that it hadn’t mattered at all how angry that whole scene had made my daddy as a little boy, he still grew up playing the guitar. And before long, he was playing it and singing in bars.
“And that’s what he was doing when we met,” she said. “I thought he was the best looking young man I had ever seen. And the way he sang could just melt your heart. I always tried to dress up as pretty as I could – well, as I could afford to, at any rate. And I’d go listen to your daddy sing and hope that he would notice me. And of course, he did. Because I was always there. And then, you know…”
She sat there at the kitchen table and smiled at me in the most beautiful and yet peculiar way. And in the softest, prettiest voice, she said: “Now, don’t you ever tell anybody on Earth that I told you this. But it was right around the time that your daddy and me got married – right around that time; very, very close – we found out I was gonna have you.”
Then she winked at me! I was way too young to have any clue what she’d meant by that. That cute little wink just stumped me. I’d never seen my mama do a thing like that before. It wasn’t until I was a little older and just by accident happened to do the math regarding their wedding day and my birthday. Then it all came together and made great big sense.
They’d been doing it before they got married.
And I was the reason they’d gotten married.
And having a new mouth to feed is what caused my daddy to quit playing his guitar and singing in bars and to go to work at a regular job, because he didn’t want to end up like his own father had – a drunk, caterwauling in a bar, dragging his son around so that he could get a sober ride home at closing time. But instead, my daddy became a drunk who had a regular job that bored him to tears and dreams so dead it filled him with nothing but anger.
Anger and a little rage.
But that Christmas morning, he was patient with me. For the first and last time, if I remember right.
He took my fingers in his and pressed them down on the strings against the frets and said, “No, son, like this. Press a bit harder. Let each of those notes really ring. It’ll hurt, at first, but you’ll get callouses and it’ll be fun to play. You won’t notice any pain.”
Right away, I started writing songs. But I didn’t tell anybody. My brother knew, but I made him swear not to tell a soul. I’m not sure why it bothered me that I was writing so many songs, or why I didn’t want anyone to know. I guess because, down in my heart, I knew I really, really wanted to go hang out in bars and sing and play my guitar. And I knew that wasn’t gonna go over at all in my house. Just not at all. And I was right. Because as soon as I got just a little bit older and started playing music with my buddies and practicing out in the garage like everybody else was doing back then, it pissed my daddy off to no end.
Even though he let us use our garage most of the time. I could tell it made him mad. My grades were suffering and he could see I had no thought in my head about getting a regular job, or going to college, or anything like that.
When I was 18, I left home with my guitar and a couple of the guys I’d been playing music with around town, and my girlfriend – who later became my first wife. We were all going to New York because I was gonna go get famous. I knew I would. I knew I had it in me. I knew my songs were good. But when I was leaving, my daddy took me aside and said, “Just try to keep it in your pants, son. Because there’s no quicker way to kill a dream. You will kill it quick and hard if she gets knocked up. It costs money to feed a kid. More money than you’ve ever seen.”
We all piled into the van and I left my daddy standing there in the driveway, just standing there, staring at me, a look on his face that seemed to say that, even though my little brother had eventually come along, too, and my little sister after that, it was me; I was the one whose mouth had been impossible to feed. I was the one whose hunger had cost him more money than my daddy had ever seen.
When I got a record deal, and when my songs got on the radio, and I got written up in magazines – it made my dad happy. It did. You had to know him pretty well to see it. It wasn’t easy to see the difference in my daddy looking drunk and angry and my daddy looking proud of me. But I knew the difference, and that’s what mattered.
By the time my daddy died, I was really famous. Famous, with two little girls who always had food in front of them whenever they sat down at the table. Girls who’d been conceived in love. Who were sheltered by love. Who were nothing but love to me.
It didn’t hardly cost me anything to feed those girls.