Fanfare for an Uncommon Man

I was a twenty-year-old kid, fumbling around, knowing I no longer belonged to a life I’d thought all those twenty years was for me. Knowing my fairy tale had taken a sharp turn on a dark, rainy night, skidded off the road and gotten mired in the mud. And I sat there, spinning my wheels in 1973 from late May until November 28th. That night, at the Fairgrounds Arena in Oklahoma City, I sat on the seventh row, on the floor, just in front of Greg Lake at an ELP concert. Not long after they’d changed formats, going live with the Brain Salad Surgery album. Chapter one of the rest of my life.

I walked out of the arena and said, “That’s what I’m gonna to do.” Not that I was going to be Emerson Lake and Palmer, something I considered only briefly early on and discovered wasn’t going to happen, but it sent me down a road I’d seen the signposts for that night. I told people about it, what I was going to do. Build a pile of keyboards and rock the world. They said you have responsibilities, you can’t do that, you’re nuts. Sure I was. But I’d already punched my ticket to ride right on out of the mainstream, so why not?

The fastest way to get to be Keith Emerson, or someone like Keith Emerson, aside from piano lessons and a good left hand, was to buy a Moog synthesizer and learn how to use it. I’d already taken piano lessons, so I put my MG Midget up for collateral at the bank across the street from the deli where I was making sandwiches for my old classmates in their office tower clothes and bought the second Mini Moog to hit the state of Oklahoma. Only hours behind the first one that went to a lounge band. I laughed. Screw those guys. I was going to be a synthesist!

Like the man said. Now I are one.

emo adFor just over six years I was the North American Product and Artist Relations manager for an Italian company that built digital pianos. Innovative and unique digital pianos. They were a small company and didn’t pay anyone much for endorsements or ship tons of gear to artist’s doors. They built an instrument, that’s it. Keith Emerson was one of our first “endorsees.” He sold a lot of pianos and got a few free ones in return. And he brought a number of great keyboardists with him. All unpaid, all friendly, all brilliant and talented. Keith or his tech Will would call, “I need a piano to meet me here or there.” Fine. Keith rode motorcycles with the Italian guy who owned the company. Through the desert, the wine country. “No problem,” I’d say. “Give me an address.”

All of that leads to me sitting with Keith in a Holiday Inn restaurant one evening, drinking way over-priced Kendall Jackson grocery store quality wine and, surprisingly, being roundly ignored by passers-by. I’ d often thought of telling him before, but that evening after enough of that expensive cheap wine, I informed him that the lost years of my mid-twenties were his fault. I told him about Oklahoma City, about how my screeching MiniMoog made my neighbors on 32nd and Barnes think I was sacrificing cats. Or worse, practicing some form of Godless Voodoo after I’d figured out his steel drum sound. More importantly, that I’d wanted to be him when I grew up. He laughed, said don’t blame me, and if trying to be him ever netted me any female companionship I owed him. For getting me out in front with the guitar players who, up until Emerson, invariably got all the girls. I told him that if I had to pay him what I owed him for that business I’d be way more than broke. He laughed again, we drank more wine, told more stories. I didn’t tell him that as disrepectful kids we often joked that ELP was what happened when Paul Revere and the Raiders discovered crack. If anyone still thinks that, it’s an urban myth and nothing more.

Keith was an uncommon man whose stiff-necked, iron-spined, no-holds-barred and totally uncompromising approach to rock ‘n roll changed the way the world looked at keyboard players over the last forty years of the Twentieth Century. He had ganglion cyst surgery, piano lids crashed down on his hands, roman candles hooked to a ribbon controller blew his thumbnails off, but the show we were always welcomed to always went on. Emo was the Jimi Hendrix style showman of keyboards and, as I said, he helped an entire generation of dorky piano lesson boys get off the bench and put them in front of serious guitarist’s electricity. The Moog went from Switched on Bach and the hallowed halls of academia to switched full-on rock. We were a legion, the Emerson-ites. A legion of white pirate shirts and vests, all of us turned up to eleven. Our old piano teachers covering their ears, spinning in their graves. It wasn’t about the chops as much as it was about balls. It was about relentlessly pushing the envelope. Turning three guys into five. It was putting ten pounds of music in a five-pound bag and keeping it from exploding. If you blew it up some nights getting there, that was okay.

The show that never ended, that we were all welcome to attend, has now come to a close. Suddenly and violently, just as the finale of Karn Evil 9.

I’ll miss you, Keith. And I’ll say “Thanks” as well. For making me miserable when I was young, making me laugh as I grew older, for being the tow-rope that got me out of the mud and back on the road when I was aimless and sightless. For being the inspiration that forced me to be better than I was. For setting a standard. For setting me on the path that ultimately led me to the rest of my life and for mercilessly demanding better than mediocrity. For making mediocrity, often my own, so easy to spot.

I blew up a studio monitor the other day listening to “Knife Edge” after I found out Keith was gone. It felt great and sounded magnificent even after I lit it up. You might consider trying it, if you have a fire extinguisher handy.

 

 

Locked Out

“Pretzel, Neeko?”

Neeko eyed the plastic wicker-look basket on the bar, full of nothing but miniature pretzels. “No ChexMix?”

“Nope.” Lamar smiled more with his eyes than his mouth, raised his chin a little toward the bartender who stepped to her left, reached under the counter and held up a small bag of miniature pretzels with a chip-clip on top. “Low sodium. She likes me, I can tell.”

“Like she likes her grampa. You always have been able to talk to women, Lamar, I’ll give you that. What’d you say?”

“She came down, stood right in front of me after you left last time. I was startin’ to get up, thought I’d mine the last of the pretzels from the ChexMix before I followed you out. She puts her hand with the towel in it on her hip, puts her other hand on top of mine, locks it in the bowl, cocks her head a little and says, ‘That’s not really playing fair. You know that, right?’ I was trying to dust off my talk to a strange woman chops when she smiled, like to have knocked me off the stool forty years ago. ‘You don’t like my ChexMix, or what? It insults a girl when you dis her snack baskets.’ And now it’s worse because she’s got a deep, movie star voice to go with the rest of her. So I say ‘It’s got nothing to do with you. You’re a lovely, attractive woman and I’m sure your heart is in the right place, but I’m a pretzel man, always have been. I’m not gonna sell-out now for a potpourri of crunch and flavor all goin’ off in my mouth.’”

“Jesus, Lamar. You can still spread more shit than a whole crew of landscapers. So that ‘lovely, attractive woman’ business netted you your own bag of pretzels?”

“Nope. She snort laughed some, said I must have been a real pain in ‘attractive women’s asses’ when I was young. She did that quotes thing with her fingers when she said ‘attractive women’s asses.’ I denied that and she called bullshit. Said she could see it in my eyes I was lyin’, so I told her that it never goes away, all that pretty girl shit. The only thing that happens is the box it’s in gets beat up like something fragile for your wife in a UPS truck at Christmas time. She laughed then, told me all she wanted last Christmas was one of those big-assed Vitamix blender things like the one here at work and she cussed a streak because it showed up in about forty pieces. See she free-lance bartends and caters some not-too-big weddings and graduations, business receptions. Charges a small fortune, and I can see people payin’ it because she wears a nice, tastefully sexed up evening gown and a push up bra, looks like a million bucks, and knows just what kind of music to have playin’ on this Bluetooth thing from her phone. Got a complete little set-up. Showed me the pictures, has a website and everything. She’s a single mom, her kids come along and help. That Vitamix and some more work blouses like she’s wearin’ is all she wanted for Christmas and had hell gettin’ either one.”

“She told you all this over a plastic basket with a disproportionate amount of missing pretzels?”

“She did.”

“She’s not old enough to have helpful sized kids, is she?”

“Thirty-one. Kids are fourteen and twelve. Boy and a girl. Got knocked up as a junior in high school. Boy’s parents were dicks about it, she said screw him, she shouldn’t have fallen for the tall, shallow blonde with sideburns thing in the first place and kept the baby. She had three sisters who didn’t shun her for having sex and they all pitched in and got her through high school. She got pregnant again first guy out of high school, married and divorced before the baby got there. Went histrionic for about six months then took the kids off to New Mexico, sat on a rock for almost a year while she worked at a hospital with free daycare and pulled her shit together. Been around some, no men because of the kids. Here she is.”

“You tell her your life story, too? I guess not, you’d have been here three days just for the Reader’s Digest version.”

“Nah. The funny thing is that all came out because of some sexist trash Fontaine and I threw back and forth about high school.”

“Not more Jaclyn Werther nonsense. Neither one of you went there unless going there was sacred and God froze your tongues after, because both of you jokers would have let that out.”

“No, none of that. Watch your bartender down there bend over.”

“Shit, Lamar, I’m too old for –”

“No, I don’t mean check for camel toe or groove on thoughts of her ass, watch her as a person, check out her clothes.”

Lamar watched Neeko get that serious look he got about everything when he thought it might be against some moral code while the bartender reached for glasses, bent over the ice bin, squatted, reached way over the bar to drop an extra cherry or olive or take a credit card handoff.

“So? Come on, Lamar, this has to do with Fontaine how?”

“Gettin’ there. Bend over, pull up your socks. Not like an old fart, Neeko, bend over, all the way.”

“Goddam, Lamar. Ow. What is this? Stupid stunt Tuesday?”

“Look at your shirt tail, brother.”

“Shit…I might need to unbuckle to fix this. Lamar, Jesus…”

Lamar drank some lemonade in his nonchalant way that always got to Neeko. “Hers didn’t do that. You missed it?”

“No, I didn’t know I what I was supposed to be looking for.”

“When you look at a woman, Neeko, you look at all of her. Taking nothing away from the memory of your late wife, but it’s no wonder you’re still single ten years on. I see your daughter at the bank all the time and she says you told her I was a player in the land that time forgot and she asked me would I please teach you some things sometime so you didn’t die droolin’, horny and alone. That was lesson one. Women are a whole thing. That’s how you talk to a woman, about all of her, you don’t just make some shit up and hope she buys in. We got to talkin’ because I asked her where she got locked out 2the body shirt. She gave me one of those ‘why was I looking so close’ looks like they get these days and asked how did I know. I said what was a real pain in the ass back then wasn’t me, it was going out with girls in those damn body shirts. I told her I thought they had to have been designed by some girl’s mother who was a ‘you’ll be a virgin till you’re out of my house’ Nazi.”

“How’d that go over, her getting pregnant in high school and all?”

“Didn’t know that yet. That’s when she said she wished they had them when she was in high school, she might be two kids lighter and a maybe psychologist, but that’s how it had played. That’s when her story started to come out. She said body shirts were hard as hell to find these days, mostly they were sexed up see-through things with matching underwear, useless as a steakhouse in a vegan commune to her right now, that she’d tried a couple of vintage ones from resale shops and the thought of where those snaps had been, well, she donated them all back. The other option was leotards but skin tight with her figure wasn’t where she was at. She found a specialty place online that had body shirts, kind of utilitarian looking, but they were okay. Notice she dolls them up with a scarf she stitches down. Thought she might find out where they were importing them from and design some for lady bartenders, casino dealers and other women who had to move when they worked. I told her like tuxedo shirts maybe, with those little skinny bow-ties gamblers always wore in westerns. She laughed and sketched a couple out on napkins. Place was dead, she was supposed to be restocking, but we talked about it for a while, let her work it out on me. That’s why the pretzels.”

“Fontaine was in this somewhere and now I’m lost thinking about body shirts and you shooting the shit with my bartender all afternoon about it, trying to get my head around how you watch women way beyond tits and ass which we all thought that’s what you were, you know, a tits and ass bullshit artist.”

Lamar smiled a little, kind of tight. “Fontaine writes to me about how we were back then. How the biggest problems we had were new-fangled front closure bras, stupid body shirts that snapped in you-know-where and zits. ‘Wash your face with shampoo’ he told me back then, I was on my own with the other two. I bought my girlfriend some matching sets of that sheer, stretchy lingerie that hooked in back and I wonder to this day what her mother thought ‘cause my wife would have lit up like downtown if she’d found that shit in my daughter’s laundry basket. Anyway, I didn’t encounter front closure until my wife. But that body shirt business? I promise you, those things cut me out of a lot of loose change because a girl could say ‘no,’ and you could try again, and no matter how hard you pulled all you were doing was giving her a front door wedgie and pissin’ her off because the shirt tail wasn’t coming out.” Lamar got a quick, faraway look and a grin like he’d just replayed that very scene on the big screen in his head, date complaint and all.

“So you know Fontaine, he’s like you, Neeko. Give him a puzzle, he has to work on it. We went back and forth with all these different scenarios, even found some old body shirts we sort of recognized on the internet. What we discovered, after a number of tries, was that there is no answer to the ultimate body shirt mystery. After all that obvious and impossible and what’s left over Sherlock Holmes junk and spreadsheets with countless possibilities, we had ourselves an unsolvable conundrum, and how all we could ever quantify was how much fun those damn things cost us.”

“Now I’m really lost.” Neeko had absent mindedly loosened his belt and was stuffing his shirt tail back in. “What’s the big damn mystery to body shirts?”

“Neeko, look here. You’re seventeen. Our bartender down there who is wondering why your pants are unzipped and who also has no real need for the push-up bra is seventeen, too, and she likes you. Not super likes you, but she’ll make out seriously with you, fog the windows. You roll up somewhere, maybe even the drive-in, you get friendly and she’s all about how nice you are to her twins, and you’d like to get to know them better. No buttons. Shirt tail isn’t giving it up. She likes you, you like her boobs, she’s willing to give you some northern exposure, but you’re not southern material, so how do you get to what you can get to if you can’t get to the lock that will let you in? You can’t. For as long as you’ve got that evenin’ you warm her up through the shirt, you can for sure tell how much better it would be without it and you are locked out like a dog that shit on the carpet. I hated those shirts.”

“This kind of thing keeps you and Fontaine up nights, doesn’t it?”

 

 

 

 

 

Cat Show

Lamar pushed the wicker mold plastic bowl to his left. “Neeko?”

“No thanks. You could eat the ChexMix, Lamar, ‘stead of digging out the pretzels. They reload that and you’ve been digging through it. You wash your hands after you took a leak?”

“Pretzels and you are the only reason I set foot in this place, Neeko. I wash my hands before ’cause I know where my dick’s been. My hands, before they get ahold of it, that’s another story. Shake hands with a man, who knows if he just did a reach and rearranged his junk, scratched somewhere dark. So I wash them first. Lamar junior hasn’t got any funk. You think my DNA all over these puffy baby Triscuit looking things is a public health hazard?”

“Not knowing if you had some splash guard like they put on gasoline hoses, I’d be suspect of that entire bowl.”

“How do you know it’s a gasoline hose? Somebody tellin’ my secrets?”

“Even if they had been I’d know they were lying. Only reason your wife keeps you is you can cook. Saw her at the store the other day, she was looking fine as always.”

“She does look good. That’s a woman thing. Even if she looked like hell you’d say she looked good. That’s Neeko’s glass is half full philosophy right there. If you saw me and then somebody who hadn’t seen me in a while you’d say “I saw ol’ Lamar the other afternoon. He looked good.”

“Does that make me a bad person? Telling people we’re all looking good?”

“No,” Lamar sort of laughed. “It makes you about a lyin’ motherfucker though. Not all of us have that magic that women have these days. I watched some old black and white on TCM the other night, and the way they showed old women, and I mean old women who were way younger than our old women, they looked like old women. Like those National Geographic pictures of Russian women hangin’ out laundry in the Sixties. Boxy dresses and that old woman hair, figures like whiskey barrels with tits. Not anymore.”

“I remember in some of those TV shows how old the women looked, and you Google it and they were thirty-four. Going on a hundred. Like once they hit about thirty they looked the same. They got that helmet hair and the whiskey barrel you were talking about and turned into nanny’s and housekeepers. Our women look better now than a forty-year old housekeeper on TV in the Seventies. Or a thirty-five-year old nurse in the Fifties. I think it’s down to the hair.”

“More than that. They work out, have organic hair dye that looks like a color found in nature, hormone therapy. We don’t get any of that. Used to be men looked distinguished when we got older, and being ‘robust’ was a sign of success. Now the doctors want us to weigh what we did when we were twenty, hormone therapy will kill us and all that hair junk for men looks like shoe polish. If we have enough hair to use it. I don’t care how chiseled a look you put up, even Clint Eastwood would look messed up with his head shaved or with jet black hair. I say wear what you have how it is. If all you can grow is ear warmers and a collar cover, let it be. I see men with that skin skull cap and a wispy gray ponytail and I want to smack ‘em for making us all look stupid.”

Neeko hit his iced tea, shot Lamar a sideways glance. “I thought about that hormone therapy for men. Actually looked into it. You get a shot every couple of days or some implants or cream. It might make you crazy before it killed you, but what a way to go. Walk around with a coat hook in your drawers like you were seventeen again for a couple of days before your heart exploded. Go find a couple of hookers I could wear out. Like a personal holy week of testosterone before you check out.”

“Your wife has been gone these ten years, rest her soul,  and you’re still banking on hookers? You’d need to find a couple of ’em drunk enough to take your money, Neeko. Speakin’ of bein’ seventeen with a whopper, I was sittin’ at a light the other day and next to me was this girl in a little maroon Mazda needed a paint job. She was a carbon copy of Jaclyn Werther. Down to the hair. Hadn’t seen or even thought about her in forty years. There she was.”

“She have a tribe of guys following her like Jaclyn used to?”

“No. Car wasn’t daddy issue, either. Shame, a girl like that drivin’ around solo. I don’t think they talk to each other these days, Neeko. Like in this place. They get jobs and if the college romance doesn’t stick they stand around and pose because they forgot how to talk to each other without a phone in their hand.”

“If you recall, we didn’t know how without a bong in our hand.”

“At least we were in the same room talkin’. Since you started this with that seventeen-year-old coat hook, and me seein’ that girl looked like Jaclyn, I heard from Fontaine the other day.”

“Fontaine? Damn. Now there’s your real half-full glass man.”

“Yeah. We went back and forth a little. Jaclyn came up some.”

“Bet she did. Bet y’all came up some talking about her. Long time down the road for all of that. What’d he say?”

“Sounded like you, Neeko. He sees somebody, he says they look good. Now I know for a fact Morton looks like hell and went through two rough divorces, with a handful of near-grown kids in there somewhere. The last wife of his, that woman was a hurricane of bat shit crazy. Fontaine says ‘Saw Morton over the weekend. He was looking pretty good.’  That’s some shit, there.”

“Not that I don’t care, but fuck what Fontaine had to say about Morton. I heard something about Jaclyn?”

“You’re still snowed over that business, huh, Neeko? Said he saw her, thought maybe she even got a divorce and she was still gorgeous. Must have been about fifteen years ago.”

“Well hell, Lamar, I looked good in my forties. So did you.”

So we did. But you were never gorgeous. I’d heard she got a divorce myself. Fontaine said he figured no matter how good looking you are or what you got going on, a couple of kids and a divorce had to tear your heart and your life up just like she was one of us.”

“I wonder sometimes about people like that, Lamar. How their dreams went. What they wanted, what they got. If they had a script, did it play as well as it read, or feel like it was supposed to going down? Was it as smooth as an Italian highway and full of poetry or all fucked up and broken in the middle like a Texas Interstate? Did they make it or give each other the finger and throw in the towel. I’d like to meet a few of them in here some afternoon, ask them what kind of ride their dreams took them on. Jaclyn’s one.”

“Well, Jaclyn’s dream took her to a cat show. That’s where Fontaine saw her.”

“No shit? What the hell was Fontaine doing at a cat show?”

“Showin’ some lady his domestic compatibility side. He said the woman loved cats and was looking. They breed those things, did you know that? They don’t just show up under the neighbor’s house and end up in a box in the front yard that says “FREE KITTENS.”

“We had a cat one time, Louisa and the girls had to have one. That cat shit like an eighty-pound dog. And left it on top of the litter box like she was proud of it and we should all want to go in the laundry room and check it out. Why anyone would want to get a specific model of cat is too deep.”

“Then it’s a good thing you never took up with Jaclyn because cats must have been her thing or Fontaine wouldn’t have run into her there. He said at the time he thought that might have been the most embarrassing moment of his adult life, seeing her like that. His only cat show and getting busted that way by the prettiest girl he ever knew.”

“Might have gotten him some points, her liking cats and both of them being divorced.”

“Naw, Neeko. You know how things look different dependin’ on your state of mind. You feel stupid at a cat show, somebody sees you and you feel more stupid, figure they think you’re as stupid as you feel.”

“One shot at Jaclyn Werther or whoever she is now, and he blows it feeling stupid at a cat show. Idiot. He say anything else?”

“One thing. Made me worry about Fontaine a little. He was talking about that cat show? He said he hated seein’ Jaclyn there, bustin’ him at the only cat show of his life. Said it felt just like seeing somebody you knew that one time you thought you’d try on a dress…”

 

Not Too Deep or Wide and Kind of Slow

You could fish here with your Grampa. Or stand by the rail and think about Route 66 a long time ago. Walk across and feel the wood move, hear it creak and groan. You could park just off the road in the shade and blow an entire afternoon with the stereo off and nothing but the music of the breeze and the birds and the creek to serenade you on a hot, Oklahoma summer day. You could share it with a friend or your true love, lean on the rail and watch the leaves land on the water and get carried off into nowhere like your thoughts. You could think about who you are, where you’ve been and where you haven’t and how you might correct that. You could think about nothing at all and let the movies your mind wants to play for you run until the sun starts to set and twilight says get home before they eat without you. You could bask in the simplicity of your not very deep thoughts and be all the better for it. Because simple isn’t always as easy as it appears and navigating shallow waters is often worse. Which is why we should enjoy all of our moments with our not so deep thoughts. Because they pave the way for deeper ones.

Not far from this peaceful bridge in Catoosa, Oklahoma, a man shot and killed a police officer. The man convicted of it somehow seduced, from prison, a girl who was at the top of the list of girls most likely to be somebody. She became the somebody in a story full of tragedy who helped him escape from jail and they moved to nowhere in the Dakotas. Years later they were both recaptured, and she died of an overdose and a broken heart at forty-nine, the love of her life back in jail until he turned to dust. Her house could have been on your paper route. Maybe her mother made you talk to her through the screen door. She might have made fun of a record you took to a swimming party once, but your name wasn’t on it so you dodged that one. You could watch a leaf kiss the water and float away and make it almost any allegory you wanted.

Oklahoma trip 039You could stop here after taking a picture of your lover in that Route 66 Blue Whale, laugh, drink a Coke and talk about all those people who splashed in that mud hole like it was fun, watch another leaf kiss the creek and wonder where memories go, and if they really live forever.

One day no one will stand here because the bridge out of Catoosa will have rusted away. All of the dreams dreamed by dreamers with the top down on their MG, the travelers with their tired kids who needed a place to pee right now, the people who crossed this bridge daily or only once, all of those will no longer have a home. Did the girl who escaped with the murderer cross this way? Will their memories all die with the bridge?

Lord Byron begins his ode to Venice with,

I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs

and ends with,

There are some feelings time cannot benumb,

Nor torture shake, or mine would now be cold and dumb.

All of our dreams, all of our crossings travel a Bridge of Sighs. A bridge of memories that once made, cannot collapse or die. They merely fall like leaves in the breeze, kiss the water and float off into forever.