I have always been an author. My first real effort was "Zanis," a short story about the Eurovision song contest and the improbable odds of an entry from Latvia that took the prize.
Then came the novel "The Rock Star's Song;" the tale of Teddy McGillicuddy, who changed his name to Tobias Stern in search of a record deal in LA the early 90s.
The first chapter of my autobiography is also listed here (and is the first selection you will come to). "Camp Moosehead" tells the true story of a nine-year-old boy up at camp in the wilds of Maine.
"You don't know the five finger fillet?”
I looked down at the ground and shook my head, no, I don't know.
"Hey guys! This newbie here, he doesn't know the FFF!"
Two or three of the other guys laughed contemptuously. I felt my cheeks turning red.
I was nine years old. It was 1960, my first year at Camp Moosehead, way up in the wilds of Maine. Some of my older (maybe long-dead) relatives had thrived there in their younger days, and so I was packed up and sent off to the summer camp, Camp Moosehead, where Cousin Bill was sent. It will be good for you, they said. Cousin Bill was a poor, sickly child when he left, but was a strapping and confident young man when he came back. "I expect Camp Moosehead to have the same effect on Tommy," said Isabel Harby, my grandmother on the maternal side. And so I was sent off with trepidations to Camp Moosehead, fulfilling an age-old family dream.
We were outside our campers’ cabin, the Falcons, where 12 boys, all about the age of 9, lived and slept for the six weeks that they were away at camp. It seems like such a short time now, but at that age, in those days, during that long-lost summer, it seemed like an eternity.
"Okay. Pay attention." My instructor was a camper named Buddy. He had also been here last summer, so he was an experienced and accomplished individual; a guy to look up to. And I "paid attention." Sure, I paid attention as if my life depended on it.
"So: the FFF, the five finger fillet. All right, here we go. Which one of these is your direct hand?"
My direct hand? I wasn't really sure. Would that mean, the hand, the hand that I would use to direct the symphony? I looked helplessly back at Buddy.
"Your direct hand, stupid! Your main hand! The one you write your name with!"
Oh. My prioritizing hand. The one I do write my name with.
"Right hand," I said, and I blushed again, deep red.
"Okay. We take the left hand, then. If you gash and bloody up your left hand, you can at least write with your right hand."
Gash and bloody up your left hand? What was I getting into? Oh my Lord. But I guessed it was too late to stop now.
"Put your left hand down on the ground," Buddy said.
I put my left hand down on the ground. But somehow I didn't put it down right.
"No. You do it like this." Buddy put his left hand down, facing down instead of up. "Then you spread out your fingers like this, as far as they will go." Buddy splayed his fingers wide. I thought, at least he didn't call me stupid this time. That's a relief. Somehow, imperceptibly, I felt like I was being brought into the sacred trust of the nine-year-old boys.
"Now you've got to promise me - on the Sacred Heart of Jesus you must promise - that you will not move a muscle of your fingers that are spread out the way they are. Not move a muscle. You've got to promise. Do you?"
I assented with my nod, yes, yes, I do promise.
"Say it out loud," he said.
"I promise," I said.
Buddy brought out a thickly packed folding knife. This one had everything on it: a screwdriver, a hammer, tiny cutting scissors, a corkscrew, and not one, not two, but three blades, each with a different thickness for sharp or fine cutting. This was the kind of knife that every nine-year-old boy was expected to have. Some of the rich boys had a genuine Victorinox Swiss Army knife, a very cool one indeed, but I had one that was picked up at the local H.A. Hills five and dime store. But, still, mine was thickly packed with the implements and accouterments that the more expensive models boasted.
"Yes," I said.
With the largest knife blade of his knife he quickly stabbed and cut the ground between each of my spread-out fingers. Whap! Whap! Whap! Whap! Whap! And then he went back! Whap! Whap! Whap! Whap! Whap! It happened so fast, I had no time to think.
"And that's the FFF!" Buddy crowed. "The five finger fillet!
"You are now a member of our most exclusive club!" Buddy and the guys whooped it up, and slapped me on the back. I smiled shyly too. A member of the club… how great was that?
"Okay, man. Now you do it. Let's see your knife." I got out my H.A. Hills blade. I thought the guys would laugh, but nobody did.
"That's cool, man. Now you want to take it nice and slow, until you get up to speed. Pull out the blade."
I pulled out the blade. The Five Finger Fillet; here goes.
I must have taken it excruciatingly slow. I thought some of the guys would laugh (and I did see a couple of them smile), but they were more helpful than taunting. “That's it! Way to go!" I heard someone say. Instead of a put down, it was like I found… I don't know, I got, I found acceptance from the guys.
I kept doing it again and again, each time getting a little bit more accomplished, a little bit defter, a little bit cooler with the task at hand. I was going to master this, yes I was. The FFF, the Five Finger Fillet… I had met the enemy, and it was mine.
By the time a week had passed, I'd say I was as good at the FFF as Buddy was. I sat there in the yard in front of the Falcons cabin, endlessly doing it with a bored but nonchalant look. And Buddy emitted a chuckle as he passed by. "That's it, man," he said, "that's it."
The Falcons cabin was on the north side of a thickly wooded hill. Three or four other cabins were also there, stuck back in the woods. Upon the crest of the hill were the outhouses. If you passed the outhouses, you came down the other side; this is where you came to the lake, Lake Moosehead. This was the bounty on which the entire camp resided.
Camp Moosehead was a boys camp; across the cove was the sister girls camp, Camp Thee Pines. And although it was run by the same owners, its denizens were kept strictly apart; with the exception of one, big, late-year closing intramural dance (called sanguinely "the Moosehead Rumble" by the kids and counselors. For the older teenagers it may have been a big deal, but for the young campers it was a bother; the boys on one side of the hall eyeing warily the 13-year-old teenage girls dancing together.) And one field trip, to the shoreline Scarborough Beach or its cousin, the Ferry Beach State Park, for a day of swimming at the shore.
On the water was the pride of Camp Moosehead, the Swimming Area, a put together construction of logs and timber blocks that divided the wash into two areas, one for swimmers, one for non-. I had already gotten my swimming wings by age 9, so I didn't need to wear those childish "water wings," handed to the mostly younger kids. They were patiently being shown how to dog paddle by the head counselors. That was a relief; I thought. No dog paddle for me, I thought. I could swim at least.
Next to the swim area was the sailboat area. I never went there. I just saw it on my way back to the central residence. The trees had thinned out, and a small sized baseball field led to the main Moosehead House, where all campers and counselors came together, where breakfast, lunch, and dinner was served.
That's where all things of the Camp-Moosehead-world were bred. Among the rumble of our daily bread, we had meetings, we sang songs, we had notices, we had announcements, and we got prizes for a job well done. But it was more than that, though. The laughter of the boys, the rough two-part harmonies, the silence of talk in the evening as we slurped up our main course; all these moods affected us for years to come. The jokes told over the morning oatmeal affected the breadth and course of our days. Our colors as Moosehead Campers, our remembrances as developing boys, were forged in the steel of those sweet laissez-faire summer days.
Going down from the outhouses and Falcons cabin, one came to the shooting range. 22 caliber rifles were placed in the hands of the young boys, who were sternly admonished to follow each and every one of the safety regulations. You could kill your neighbor with this firearm, I thought. Jesus Christ!
Upon the instruction of the counselor, we got the target papers. These we placed on the target area. When we were safely back in the shooting range, we were told to get into a prone position. There, waiting for the command of the counselor, we were told to shoot five times into the tiny circular targets.
Bam Bam Bam Bam Bam. I didn't get a single one, not a single one into the tiny circular target area. "Tough luck, Cunningham," said the counselor. "You've got to practice some more."
It was strange to have knives and guns around on such self-assured basis. I grew up in the suburbs in the fifties; there weren’t many of them. Some kid down the block maybe had a BB gun (and he was oh so proud of it). But that was it.
The Falcons cabin had 12 boys in it, six on each side, with a tiny corridor separating three from three. My bunk was at the far end of the right side of the right half, next to the door. We called them "bunks" instead of "bed." It was the unspoken folklore of the Camp Moosehead way that the outdoorsy slang of a "bunk" would never replace the indoorsy, girlie-lingo of "bed."
In the middle of the two rooms, 6 boys on each side, was the room where the counselors slept. Our counselors were about 18. And between nine and 18 was an immense difference. A nine-year-old was just a kid, whereas the 18-year-old man would be an adult male who voted, drove cars, and fought wars.
Travis and Ken were their names. Travis was the nice one; Ken was a hardass. They didn't have much more space to pack their luggage trunks than we did.
We went to bed at 9 PM. We were allowed to read our (usually) comic books until 9:30. Of the two counselors assigned to us, Ken, the one who was tough, put us to bed.
"Okay campers,” said Ken. "Lights out. And when I say, lights out, I mean precisely that: every God damn flashlight, candle, gaslight, and searchlight had better be out by 21 hours 30, or I will come back here in such a foul mood that you will wish you had kissed my ass when you had the chance to obey. So, 21 hours 30.
"HAVE I MADE MYSELF PERFECTLY CLEAR?"
Yes, boss. He had made himself perfectly clear. No one dared a murmur. Ken and the nice guy, Travis, made their way out the cabin door. Travis said, “Sleep well, you guys.” A couple of brave souls offered their assent with, "Yes, sir". And the counselors took off down the trail.
At the other side of the cabin, two campers (let's call them Terry and Iggy) crawled into bed together. I couldn't see them from my perch on the other side, but their glee was unmistakable.
"Woo-hoo, Terry! Is that your dingle up next to mine?" Terry giggled his assent. "Don't they just look a pair! My dingle and your dingle! I'm dangling your dingle! Woo-hoo!"
What could that be? They went on playing with their dingles (that is, their penises) for quite a while. I was too young to know anything about masturbation, but I had instinctively the feeling that they were doing something that older guys secretly and mysteriously did too. None of the other campers said a word, but they were probably all thinking the same thing.
And somehow Terry and Iggy made it back to their own bunks before the counselors returned. The counselors looked in, and it was quiet. It was as quiet as a Christmas Eve down on the pampas. Quiet as home on the range.
And they thought that we were all asleep… ha! You had to just "pity the fools"… (or maybe they weren't quite as foolish as we assumed…)
Bright and early the next morning, five of us Falcons were out on a hunting trip, led by counselor Ken, the tough one. Dutifully he had us stand in a line before we started.
"Now listen here guys, and listen well." His voice, booming and instructive, took no bull. "We’re moving from the safe suburban camp area into the wilds of the obscure unknown. Anything can happen. We might surprise some animals of prey, and some of them could be deadly. So each of you has to be real quiet, real observant, and determined not to make an unnecessary sound. Pretend that you are now living in the wild."
Each boy thought about this. "Living in the wild"… wo, man…!
"You must remain quiet; like a true Indian Scout, you remain quiet. Okay? Have I made myself clear? Capeesh?"
Each one silently nodded, yes boss, I am quiet, I am the most quiet one of all.
"Okay then you guys, let's go. Fall into a single file behind me." And we fell into a single file behind him. Soon we were up to our necks in boughs and brush, slapping away the leaves and bugs that without mercy descended upon us from above.
Suddenly Ken held up his hand. "Freeze!" he called in his low, guttural tone, and all five of us froze like strings of snot freezing in the sub-arctic wild, eyes wide upon our leader. Ken pointed with his finger to a brown bird standing up upon a branch.
"See that bird there?" He slowly lifted the barrel of his 22 caliber hunting rifle. "Watch this." Then he pulled the trigger.
Out in the woods it was louder than hell. I nearly jumped out of my skin.
And the bird. It was dead, man; it was dead! It was gone from its perch on the branch.
That poor old bird. What had just happened? It was perched on that branch, and now it was gone. Jesus Christ! It was just perched on that branch… And now it was gone, now it was dead. Dead as a door nail. Holy shit.
Nobody said a word. Ken didn't either, but looked grave, and somehow satisfied, as he strolled firmly onward, as each of our suburban, sheltered boys’ eyes followed him in awe.
We five followed him wordlessly down the trail.
One time during the summer season all the campers would be loaded onto buses. It was time for the Summer Vacation; a faraway trip to the beach, a couple of hours away from the camp. It would be held at either the Scarborough Beach, or (a little bit southward), at the Ferry Beach State Park. The crash of the waves on the beach, and the camp-out with hamburgers and hotdogs were a welcome change from the swimming area of Moosehead Lake and the cafeteria-style food we got at Camp.
And the girls from Camp Three Pines were also invited. The older counselors were excited. But young and old, all Moosehead campers were allowed to enter the sea and splash among the waves. Yes, it was a glorious feeling.
Also glorious was the extra candy that one was allowed to purchase at the outdoor candy stand. I opted for a Sugar Daddy. This was a large stick of hardened caramel with a grip made of cardboard. It was dense to the touch, and nearly unchewable. This dollop of caramel could put the nine-year-old sir or madame into a sugar high of ecstasy. A high that lasted for nearly one hour or more.
I bit down hard on the Sugar Daddy. What an ecstasy it was! No chocolate, no nuts, just the raw pleasure of the unadorned hard caramel wafting down the eager throat of the pristine nine-year-old kid. Pure pleasure.
But there was something wrong about it. My teeth had gripped so far into the caramel that they were stuck. The Sugar Daddy was now stuck in my mouth. Oh shit, I silently cried. My teeth won't come out.
Ever so slowly I managed to get the upper, then the lower, free of the evil caramel mess. What a relief; I was free, free at last!
But something was wrong. I look at the caramel candy in my hand.
There was a big old tooth - my tooth - embedded among the caramel. That tooth belonged in the upper row of my upper teeth. But instead it was down in my hand, among the caramel mess.
I stood there looking at it for what seemed to be the longest time. Eventually a kindly counselor came over.
"What seems to be the trouble, son?"
"My tooth," I cried. "My tooth! It came off. It came off in the Sugar Daddy!"
“Let me see," he said. And he raised up the Sugar Daddy to the sun and inspected it with the care that a NASA inspector would put on outer space lunar-rocks from the moon.
"It looks like you lost a tooth there, son," he said.
"Yes. I know. I lost my tooth. How horrible can that be!"
He looked at it again, carefully inspecting it; it was a study of annihilation, of the destruction of the Camp Moosehead camper’s mouth, here on Scarborough Beach in Maine.
"I wouldn't worry about it," he said. "This is your baby tooth. Your grown-up tooth will grow in in a couple of months; it'll grow back. So, no problem. Just enjoy the water, all right?" And he gave me a smile as he walked away.
That's right, I said to myself. It's just a baby tooth. The grown-up tooth will take over by the end of the summer. And I will floss it and brush it three times a day. On this I swear.
And with that, I rushed into the entrancing waves down there on old Scarborough Beach.
I started going to Camp Moosehead every summer, five summers in total. To be a returning camper instead of a new boy starting out was like the difference between fine old wine and lemonade. The older returning boys have the age-old skill and proficiency that the newbies must learn. It's a knowledge that only comes with the ability and art of growing up.
Plus, as you got older, you weren’t assigned to a cabin with 12 other boys. The older campers had their very own wood and canvas tent. Only two people were assigned to it, on two twin beds.
That was heavenly. You can lie on your bed, and hear the sounds of the breeze and the animals rustling in the night. That was cool enough, but a far greatest thrill came from putting our transistor radios under the pillow to listen to the hot sounds of the local AM radio guys in the darkness. "Paperback Writer"… a brand-new Beatles tune echoed into the night around us. (I can hear it now, as if it was just yesterday in the charts…)
Six of these wood and canvas tents were set up in a row overlooking the far side of the hill; it led down to the rifle range and the archery court. But one day, on the way back from rifle practice, I noticed that something was wrong; my cabin looked like a layer had been removed and the roof been rolled down to the floor.
Shit. I knew immediately what had happened. Some guys had snuck up, and with great delight they had jumped my two-man tent. They had simply jumped my tent and turned it into a ruin down there on the ground.
And not only that. A hornets’ nest was also uncovered. With the roof now down, a whole mess of wasps and hornets had been let loose, and were now angrily buzzing about the whole camping area. Great.
I remembered that I had bought some anti-hornet spray at the commissary, and I was wildly spraying it around. Suddenly behind me a voice said, "Hey man, looks like you got some hornet friends there… Ha ha!" Furiously I turned around. He was a big camper, bigger than me, with blonde hair and a sneering smile on his lips.
Hornet friends, eh? I'll show you, man, I'll show you. I didn't stop to think. I just kept my finger on the aerosol button. I sprayed him; I sprayed him hard, I sprayed him right in the eyes.
"Fuck!" he said. He rubbed his burning eyes, all the while saying, " God dammit to hell… ! Fuck it! Fuck this shit!" And he turned and walked away, his red eyes running.
I continued to keep spraying the wood, my mouth caught in a grimace. Well, I thought. Serves him right, I thought. He shouldn't go around and break someone's tent like that. Shouldn't do it; shouldn't do it at all. What was I to do, I asked myself, after all, it happened so fast, I told myself. What was I supposed to do?
Of course, I knew that I had to deal with my conscience. I was guilty; yes, I was so guilty. I was guilty of a higher crime. In my mind the old judge on the High Court, the old judge with the big thick eyebrows who wielded a thick gavel, he just stared me down. Guilty, he said, guilty as charged. He turned away in disgust.
This wrecking of a young guy’s tent, he said; well, it was just part of a tradition. The older guys, the experienced campers, well, they just played around, they just ruined the cabin a bit, a little bit playfully, and then they showed up to help you put it all right. It was a tradition, an age old tradition, a long-held tradition, a tradition in the very annals of Camp Moosehead lore. It was a tradition of how the younger dudes were brought into the mystical and magical traditions of the ancient, sacred Camp, the good old Camp Moosehead saga.
And I fucked it up. Righteously fucked it up. What had I done? Lord, what had I done?
I didn't sleep well that night. I ruined the traditions of the camp. They should run me out of town on a rail, split me from ear to ear, and hang me out to dry. And even "Paperback Writer," running on the hit parade with its Beatlesque's flair, didn't help to wind this down.
Every day, on my way to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, at the big Camp Moosehead house, I passed the big baseball diamond on my way. No summer camp would be complete without it. Summer days, and summer baseball… what could be better than that?
Nearly anything, I thought to myself. Baseball; what a horrible, horrible game. In elementary school I would be put way out in the right field, hoping, praying, demanding that no hit ball would ever come my way. Because the truth had been there established; I couldn't throw the ball over 70 feet; I just didn't have the strength to do it. And in right field the line to the catcher at the home plate was 90 feet or more. My piddling little attempt would run out of steam well before it reached its goal.
Every time I'd try to heave back a right-field ball, every time I attempted to make the throw, I turned flustered and red. It wasn't so much the other guys who made a comment; the hardest task-maker was that brutal voice inside myself. You stupid kid! Why can't ya throw it? You sad sack of a saint! I had spent many a day with dad practicing in the backyard, but still, no dice. It was only when I caught the ball in mid-air that the dread and shame of the ball not- making-it-to-home plate was avoided.
A few years later I was walking past the baseball field at Camp Moosehead, when I noticed that they were choosing sides. Somebody yelled, "Hey Tom! You want to play some ball?"
It's now or never, I thought. I went over to join up. And I said, "I play shortstop." I remembered that Steve Nesbitt, the most talkative raconteur in my class, always claimed the "I play shortstop" routine when it came to baseball picking up sides. It was his badge of honor when mounting the baseball field. Suddenly it hit me; when you played shortstop, you never had to throw the ball any long distance at all.
I took my place at this shortstop's place of honor. Several of the boys were younger than me, and I noticed that they didn't have the same control of the ball that I did.
I flipped it over to the first baseman. Hey! It was easy! Right in the old socket it landed. And I found that I actually enjoyed the game. I caught a kid’s grounder, and whammed it over to second base for an easy out. The left-field man caught a fly ball that dropped; he flipped it over to me and I nailed it to home plate.
It came time to finish the game. On the very last pitch I caught the ball again, and the game was over. "Hey man, nice goin’! You're really good!" I smiled modestly and replied, "Hey man, thanks a lot."
If only he knew how truly, truly happy I had really been.
Tucked away in the back of the Camp Moosehead house there was a tiny room. It was pretty empty, except for a chair and a table. I had gotten to dinnertime a bit early, and I heard a sound coming out of the back room that I couldn't describe. A musical sound, musical but wailing and loud.
I went into the room to investigate. There was a cool dude slouched down in the chair playing riffs on an electric guitar. He looks so cool sitting there, keening out these unearthly good sounds. And it was loud; it was so loud, that I must've felt the tremors and the fissures of the earthquake right below me. What was he playing? A little bit of "Wipe-Out," a taste of "Walk Don't Run," a smidgen of "Pipeline." With his hair over his eyes, his eyes closed, and his mouth half open, his soul was drawn up in an expression of pure ecstasy. I would hope that I, a mere mortal only 11 years old, could only hope one day to appreciate like he did this musical bounty.
He was getting ready for his solo, where he would be the star of the show on the last day of camp. The power and glory that came from that electric guitar in the mid-60s in Camp Moosehead; well, it just knocked me out. The mojo wings of Chuck Berry, the sounds of "Louie, Louie," and the virulent riffs of the chorus of "Surfin' Bird." What a sound! It was like nothing I had ever heard. I was shaken to the very soul.
The Beatles hit Wellesley High School hard, and soon the Wellesley High School juniors and seniors were buzzing with new bands, hot guitar players, and notable cool guys, not drawn from the sports teams or the academic quarter, but from the fervid young rock-band scene. The school would go on to sponsor a Rock Contest, but in those early days the bands formed up and catered to their hipster audience all by themselves.
And these guys were famous. One year ahead of us was the band "Lincoln Clapp and the Chancellors." I remember being in seventh grade, sitting in the cafeteria, and listening with rapt wonder as the band loudly played through its cavalcade of hits. I felt like I was in the cavern club of Liverpool itself, grooving wildly and wisely to the hip sounds of the Beatles. And like the cool kids of Liverpool, I was there in the halls of the Wellesley Junior, with the other contemporary trendies, listening and grooving to the Chancellors.
When summer rolled around I was back at Camp Moosehead. By this time I was already in my fifth year, occupying my own "private" tent. It felt good to be a senior camper, and to be looked up to by the younger kids.
Lots of kids got stuff sent via the Postal Service, little "care packages" from home. The care packages got handed out after lunch at the Camp Moosehead lunch table; there was much comment about what kind of goodies this camper or that camper had received.
One day a round box came with my name on it. I already knew what it was. My mother had baked up three rows of delicious chocolate chip cookies. These were made with colored M&Ms, for a much more mouthwatering treat then cookies made with ordinary Nestlé Tollhouse chocolate bits. They were arranged in circular layers, sticking out invitingly among the strands of wax paper. There must've been at least 25 cookies in the Christmas-decorated cookie tin. I decided to save them, to have only two after each meal, to receive the full power and glory over many days of the indescribable taste of the M&M’s chocolate bits in my hungry, savoring mouth.
I sat on the bed of my solo bunk, looking out at the blue sky beyond the greenery of the fabled Camp Moosehead flora. Does it get any better than this? I asked; this is absolutely indeed the good life. And now I will top it off with a delicious chocolate baked cookie from home.
My hand reached under my pillow for the round canister of cookies. I had already pried off the lid, when I noticed somebody standing in the door.
Oh my God. It was Billy Squier.
Billy Squier, who played the lead guitar for the Chancellors. Billy Squier, who inspired the young crowds to come and hypnotically stare, to come and ape him at the edge of the stage. Billy Squier, inspiring all the cool kids (and yes, that meant me) to Liverpool Cavern Club-type frenzy.
And here he was at my door. Billy Squier, at my door! I had, of course, never talked to him. He was a whole grade ahead of me, and besides, he was a… rock star. He wouldn't deign to speak to an underling like myself.
But here he was, larger-than-life. He was even grinning from ear to ear.
"Hey man," he exclaimed. "Nice place you've got here! A solo cabin and everything. Way to go, Smoky!"
Smoky. I was bewitched, I was entranced, I was enraptured. He reached out by using the cool new rock phrase of Smoky. Did he mean Smoky Robinson? No matter, but it was some honor, I tell you. I mumbled something like Thanks, man, and looked at the floor.
"Only cool guys get to have a solo tent. I like it!"
I mumbled something else and kept looking at the floor. Billy Squier, sitting on the chair in my tent. Who’s gonna believe this?
"Hey! What have you got there? Are those… cookies? Chocolate M&M cookies?”
I nodded, Yes, that's what they are, chocolate M&M cookies indeed, and passed over the silver box. Billy Squier… man-oh-man. Sure, you can have a cookie. Of course you can have a cookie; you can even have two.
"I think I'll just take the whole box," Billy Squier said with a smile. The whole box? Really?
Like a shell-shocked war veteran, I let him have it. I thought, Sure, Billy. Take it. Take the whole damn box.
Again he gave me amesmerizing smile. "Thanks, man," he said winningly. As he headed off down the trail, I thought, I will never forget this. I will never forget this until the day I die. Billy Squier. I gave a box, a box of cookies, I gave it all, I gave it to Billy Squier.
I carefully followed Billy Squire's career in the years that followed. Yes, he became a rock 'n roll superstar. He had some megahits in the 1980s; who can forget "Everybody Wants You," "Lonely is the Night," and, above all others, "The Stroke"?
In fact, things were going quite swimmingly for Billy, until he starred in an ill-fated early MTV video called "Rock Me Tonight" in the early 80s. It showed him in a pink T-shirt circling around a vertical pole, not unlike the strippers in an after-hours Pittsburgh strip joint. It was somehow like the Hall and Oates video, where John Oates kept bopping furiously in the background as Darrell Hall sang. It was already set up for someone's derision.
One video, and poof. All the teenage kids started laughing, started showing the video to their friends, and started mocking him with their mouths full of mean little teeth.
Poor Billy. And what fickle, fickle kids.
The Rock Star's Song
chapters one and two
Beautiful Hollywood. That's a laugh, Teddy says to himself as he drives along Sunset Boulevard. It seems like the Hollywood sign, towering over the hills of LA, is mocking him with its cold, bitter laugh. "So you think you can make it?" it says to him. "Who the fuck told you that?"
Teddy McGillicuddy just had a birthday. 23 years old. In his milieu, the rock 'n roll world, he's already out of date. If you don't make it by 18 (or maybe 20, if you take your time), you probably won't make it at all. This isn't the golden age of rock 'n roll music in the USA—not the 60s or 70s, when kids were bushy-eyed and "ready for that new sound." The calendar has already turned to 1990, and every young 20-something, screaming nitwit has already clogged up the works with an abundance of recorded product.
"You're lost in the crowd, Bub," the Hollywood sign seems to say. "With your measly little recorded demos, you're one of 100—make that 1,000—products that sail over the desks of the honchos in the record companies every single day, destined for the dark, empty crevices of the trash bin, already overflowing with rejected tapes. The time for easy money, hot chicks, sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll has already passed. Don't kid yourself. If you haven't got a friend at the record company or a rich daddy ready to spend his millions on you… well, 'fahget it,' as the New Yorker might say. 'Get outta here,' they'll tell you. 'Go back to your little Midwestern town and get a straight job selling shoes.'"
"Brown shoes won't make it," Frank Zappa sang. "Quit school, why fake it." Dylan said, "20 years of schoolin' and they put you on the day shift."
"That's all you're good for, Teddy, isn't it?" the Hollywood sign seems to say. "Go take your crummy little demos and put them on the shelf. And get a job. 20 years of schoolin' and they will so rightly put you on the day shift. Welcome to the workaday world."
The sign looks to have taken on a crooked, cough-ridden smile, the old pleasure of a senior doing evil to the younger. It seems to delight in this destruction of Teddy's soul, this finger on the delete button, this suicide perched on the precipice.
The Midwestern town of Montezuma, Missouri, seems like a dream to Teddy now. How bright eyed and sweet and eager he once was! It was always a blast to play for the high school students at the high school dance. Those girls, those lovely, pretty, young things with adoration in their eyes… Oh yes, it was a high school dream.
And when he got into Claremont College in Des Plaines, Iowa, his family nearly burst with pride. Teddy was always devoted to the guitar, of course, and always had his prized Martin 0028 close at hand. But his father sternly reminded him that there was no money—absolutely no money at all—in the music business, what he called "this rock 'n roll thing." Teddy's parents didn't have a lot of money, but they scrimped and saved over the years in order to get him started in the freshman class at Claremont. A high school senior, now in the freshman class! They were so, so proud.
Teddy was determined to land a safe job in a respected firm that would bring him plenty of money over the coming years. After all, he owed it to his family and their ancestors from the hard Midwestern time. They gazed down on him from the old photographs on the landing wall. Our boy Teddy, they seemed to say. A son to make their forefathers proud.
He was determined to make up his mind on a major by the end of his freshman year. He looked in on several programs, but Introduction to Physics, Applied Mathematics, and Rudiments of Engineering all left him cold. What a waste of time, he thought. If I have to work on Quantitative Finance until the day I die, I might as well kick the bucket sooner rather than later.
But then he enrolled in Psychology 101. All right, he thought, I could get into this. In particular, the course delved into the works of Sigmund Freud, whom Teddy considered to be a great pioneer of psychological science. He was fascinated. Freud more or less single-handedly invented the modern realm of psychoanalysis. Some his early books—Civilization and its Discontents, The Interpretation of Dreams, and Beyond the Pleasure Principle—were littered on Teddy's bed and bookcase in the room he shared with his bunk mate, Brad. This I can sink my teeth into, Teddy thought. This I will study and master. And the faithful Martin 0028 gathered dust in the corner.
It wasn't until he met a certain girl who gave him a certain look that the other things started happening. There was always a "certain girl" involved, as Brad opined, making his comment with the usual lewd twist. "She can chisel my weasel," he slyly expressed.
The girl stopped by Teddy's room one day to borrow Dr. Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (they were in the same class) and she noticed the dusty, old acoustic guitar stored in the corner.
"You play guitar?" she asked, and he replied, "Sure. I used to play quite a bit, in fact, but these days I really have to get down to studying and I have so little time."
"Oh, okay… but I'd really love to hear somebody play guitar. It reminds me of my old uncle; he always used to play for me," she said, and the "love" part had a certain sensual ring to it. And, as a young college student who wishes to impress a pretty girl is wont to do, Teddy dutifully picked up the ax. "Well, let's see," he said, "I maybe know a tune or two..."
That was all it took. Her eyes were shining brighter and brighter as he worked from one song to the next. This is so easy, he secretly thought to himself; one song effortlessly followed the next, and she, the lights gleaming ever more luminous in her eyes, moved closer to him. You could almost smell the sex coming up, fuming right there through the room. She learned his name, he learned hers (Laura), and they breathlessly made love on the small bunk bed. The time was so, so right.
So soon it followed a pattern. He picked up his guitar that he played for her bright shining eyes. She was so enthusiastic that he started writing a new song just to see what her reaction would be. And when he told her that he had just started writing it last evening, or that morning, or even now, he noted a special glow in her eyes and a voluptuous smile on her lips. The song was played, and usually that was all it took for the excitement to reach a breaking point. Once more they made mad, passionate love on the thin mattress of the old Claremont Des Moines College. And, as Brad said, (and he loved, like all roommates throughout time, to ribaldly comment), "Oh yeah, give it to me, give it to me baby!"
But, more importantly, he started getting into writing songs, and not just for Laura's sake. He would literally start a couple of hours in the late afternoon before she would arrive, and, if he were honest, he would admit that the songwriting brought him more of a pleasure then the actual touching, squeezing, and "ramming it home" ("bringing home the bacon," as again Brad liked to put it) of his sexual union with Laura.
In particular, one song really made it: "Gambled on Your Love, Babe." It had an infectious lyric to it, and soon "I gambled on your love, babe, I gambled and I lost" filled the hallways, as Laura, and then her friends, and then even the guys who were friends with the girls, started singing it.
One day a couple of dudes stopped him in the hall.
"Hey man," one guy said. "You're the man who wrote 'Gambled on Your Love, Babe'… Great hook, man! If you feel like checking it out, I'll bring my bass over." And so the Laundromats were born. Joe played his bass, and also brought his friend Olaf over, who added drums. He originally started playing on the backside of an old briefcase. They started playing in the small area called the common room, and soon kids from the college started talking about it, and it got packed. It became a Thursday night institution; so many people asked them when they were going to play that he decided on a regular Thursday night.
And someone asked him what their name was. Teddy had just come up from doing his wash in the community kitchen; he replied, "Uhm, let's see, uhm, the Laundromats. Yeah, the Laundromats! See you on Thursday, okay? Take care."
And a couple of cool guys joined right in; Elvin on lead and Matt on the blues harp. It was a hit, a fucking, blasted hit! And it all seemed so easy at the start. A guy asked them if they would play a dance for the whole school. So they packed up their gear and set up in the big Claremont College Memorial Sanders Auditorium. "Teddy McGillicuddy and the Laundromats," a handmade sign said.
And the crowd went really bananas. Sure, they played a couple of well-known songs, but it was their own original material that really got the public excited: "Below the Surface," "Good Year," "Sweet Melissa"; the place was insane with exuberance and revelers.
But it was "Gambled on Your Love, Babe" that really "socked the cat in the puss," as again his roommate Brad put it. "It's a hit!" the fans told him. "If you put this out on a record, I will buy it, for sure!" And so a spark, a tiny spark, was built inside the crux of Teddy's brain. If I put it out on record, and it sells, if it sells one million copies… then I will be… a star. A Rock Star.
He reacted with a shiver. His rational, pragmatic psyche warned him of getting into a position where he couldn't really see the sinister, treacherous future. But his wild, rock-star alternate being, his ego-driven self, foresaw a world, a world of an abundance of promises.
"A Rock Star. A bloody Rock Star.
"Why the hell not?"
Zanis wins the Eurovision
In which a Latvian boy named Zanis wins the Eurovision Song Contest; and
In which he gets his girlfriend Rosa in the bargain.
Zanis was his name, and he came from Latvia. For his age, 22, he was tall and gangly; he stood apart from the other normal-sized people in the town of Ogre, Latvia, where he was from. It was a shabby, almost forgotten suburb, the kind of town where the toilet paper was drab, the skies were gray, and the people had a kicked-in look on their face.
Zanis knew he had to leave. It was a case of them versus us; if you didn't get out soon, he would become the same as his neighbors. They hated anything new. There was his mix-up with the rebel group, the Latvian National Independence Movement (LNIM). No one seemed to care that the system was corrupt, and it was his bound duty to fight it. His neighbors, when they looked him in the eye, did so with sad disapproval. He decided never ever to mention the LNIM group again.
And so he left. From that day forward, Zanis did not show his face in Ogre, and he traveled on the sly: with a rucksack on his back, and a guitar to one side.
This guitar was his proudest possession; he was absolutely crazy about it. He bought it from a pawn shop by sweeping out the back room three weeks long last summer. He admired it in its dusty case, and thought, I'll never let you go. And it's true, one had never seen anything like it: it resembled the Fender, like the one he had seen Jimi Hendrix play on TV, but it had some distinct features; like an oversized head, a prominent tremolo, and a hollow body that transformed it into an acoustical-electric. And it had a sound like nothing before; like a knife through butter.
He loved that guitar, and would rather cut if off his own leg then leave it somewhere behind. He knew he had to leave town, but the guitar would come with him.
But first he had to see Rosa one more time. Rosa. She was the light of his life. She lived in a government-built block of flats on the southern side of Jurmala. It was time for one last visit. Right now it was coming on five o'clock, and the tall trees were in full blossom. In particular the huge tree on the south side of the drab apartment building was spectacular. It rose up the whole six stories, with ancient crusty bark sprouting the new green leaves, as they danced in the twilight of the coming spring.
It gave Zanis hope. As he crouched on the small slope of the building’s perimeter, he felt a fire of excitement building inside his stomach. Rosa. My lovely, lovely Rosa. One of the drab curtains parted, and there she was. Ah yes, he thought: she's here!
But he had to watch out for Teodoros Rubinsky, her father. He was not the most popular guy; in fact, he was the least desirable of all the young swains who had courted her. "Why Zanis?" Teodoros Rubenis asked. "You could do much better than that! He doesn't even have a job! He just plays his damned guitar all day long and looks at you with his dreamy eyes! And then there's the LNIM thing, and blah blah blah blah blah..."
Rosa already had tuned him out. She looked at him without a word, taciturnly, but her mind was already made up. Nothing could touch the way she felt about Zanis. Her mother Jelena Rubinsky also knew. She didn't say a word, but she knew her daughter, and she knew that nothing in the whole universe would make her change her mind. She smiled softly to herself, and went on with the laundry. Teodoros was going to be away until this evening, and she somehow had the feeling that Zanis was going to drop in just one more time before he left town. Of course she didn't let on, least of all to Rosa. She was a proper Latvian Frau, and some things - some dangerous things - were just not breached.
Zanis crouched on the small rise leading to the back door of the apartment building. A cool springtime breeze was blowing; no one was coming. Carefully looking both left and right, he sprinted for the door and went up the stairs of the drabby old building. A soft knock on the door, and Rosa let him in.
"Shush," she said, and led them softly to a small, unused room in the basement. He looked at her, and kissed her with full passion. Rosa. My dear, dear Rosa. Although I have to go away now, I will never, ever leave you. She looked at him with a smile in her eyes, and he was convinced that he had never seen anything quite as beautiful. They laid on the mattress in the corner; they had never been so much in love.
Zanis took a pull on a cigarette, and let out a long relaxing sigh. This was even better than the last time, which was even better than the time before. "So this is what it means to be in love," he thought. And his Songwriter’s brain was searching for just the right word, the right melody to express it. "I will bring you snowflakes for the tip of your tongue," popped into his consciousness. Not bad, he thought; let me write it down. He reached for pen and the gnarled pocket notebook that he always carried; as Rosa asked, "What's that you're writing?" he replied, "Oh, just a song idea… I'll show you when I'm finished."
She smiled, realizing that she was right up against the "bullmark of inspiration", as she secretly put it.
He said, "I have been working on some new songs; do you want to hear them? This one is called, ’Sane’":
I have fought for so many lost causes,
Believed in so many Santa Clauses…
And she waited as one song outdid the next. What a great, great composer and singer you are, she realized. Actually, she herself had quite a good voice, but was somehow shy to join in. She just let him be a private composer and singer for her alone; what a thrill! I must be the Queen Elizabeth of this old Latvian town of Jurmala to have such a bounty paid to me. The guitar echoed against the walls as his voice and melody filled the air.
Two things he was passionate about; this Rosa, of course, but also his music. He sang with an intensity that took him out of the basement of that old apartment building and put him on stage with the greats he aspired to: Bob Dylan, Mikos Thedorakis, Hannes Wader. A lesser man might have given up against the odds, but he was a musician, and musicians lived on a potion that they called Hope. And Rosa felt it somehow. What a musician, what a man he was! He was so good, somebody somewhere just had to give him a chance.
And then she heard something on the stairs. "Quiet!" she said; "I think it's my father; you better get out of here fast!" Surprisingly lean for such a tall one, he jumped out of a ground floor window and was off through the bushes. But he had already made up his mind, this Zanis, that he would get to her, where ever he was, and have her come to him. Rosa. He couldn't imagine a life without her.
Teodoros Rubenis walked in the door. He was irritable, as was his want on a Tuesday night. There was always something doing that went wrong; a bad mood at the construction site, an incident on the street, some ugly talk down around the late shift men.
He walked in to the room with a permanent scowl. The same old drab apartment in the same old dumpy squat building. Latvia, he sighed. Now why has the rest of the world simply passed Latvia by? Germany; well, there's really a dynamic land! In Germany, the workers take several vacations a year to Turkey, Tunisia or Thailand with their profits from the global sales of giant worldwide firms like Volkswagen, or Audi, or Mercedes, or BMW. The problem in Latvia was simple; nobody had an idea of industrialization; nobody knew how to make a mark in the human world. How lovely it would be just to be a German, with a German family, with German food on the table, and, above all, with German euros in your pocket!
With a heavy sigh he took his place at the head of the table. "Where is my dinner?" he glowered. "I come home late because there is a disturbance at the construction site, I am as hungry as a hog, and I don't like having to wait for my supper. Just remember that it is the hard toil of the lowly worker who puts the food on the table here!"
Jelena, his wife, had the sense not to utter a word. She'd seen this before. She knew it could lead to something, that would lead to another thing, that would lead to - who knows what?
She quickly put his re-warmed supper on the table and grandly gave him a fake, wide smile. Only after he had dug in, still glaring, did she remark, "That's good, dear."
Now if the cartoonist filled in the little, characteristic bubble that was floating above her head, he would know that she thought, "What an utter, utter, ass." But, she was a subservient Latvian woman. She was used to getting things done in a different way.
Rosa came upstairs. She headed for her room, but Teodoros, more pleasant now since he had three beers in him, called her to him.
"Rosie," he said, addressing her with the old nickname. She thought, oh my God, I have to be nice when I really don't want to. He is the last person that I really want to talk to. Please give me strength.
In this regard she wasn't like her mother at all. "Hey," she replied, without cracking a smile.
"So what have you done today?"
"Oh," she replied, "Not much. You know. School."
"School. That's good. You must retain a high average. Your mother and I are counting on you getting into an advanced secondary program. We have spent much time and money on this thing. Time and money!
"And you will see that it's no use wasting your life on some young lowlife peasant like Zanis when, in the end, with your mother's and my guidance and approval, you will eventually go much farther than with him. There are some fine young men in this town; you can do much better."
Somehow this affected Rosa under her skin. Always these young men... were they really so fine? Because I have a man I wish to live with for the rest of my live. Her father's incessant goading acted like a huge zit, swimming toward the surface, ready to burst.
"What's wrong with Zanis?" She asked, irritated that her father had so easily gotten "her goat".
He smiled charitably. "Well, you see, my dear Rosie, it's just that his kind is absolutely no good for a smart girl like you. Remember how he got all mixed up in the LNIM movement? Making speeches and generally raising rabble wherever he went? I said at the time that it would be smarter to keep your head down, and let the politicians and would-be radicals and whistleblowers fight it out. And, furthermore, -"
"And furthermore, what?" she replied. "Let people like Zanis and the other LNIM guys do all the dirty work while we reap the benefits? Let them be punished while we comfortably make our money and eat our steaks and potatoes?"
Teodoros was turning red in the face. Jelena, long-suffering wife that she was, thought, oh no, here we go again.
"I'll tell you something, little miss high and mighty. Guys like me work eight hours a day on grimy dead-end job at the construction site just so that our little princesses can have a better pact on life," said Teodoros. "Don't you tell me how a young lout can ever want to provide you with something more than his stupid damn guitar playing will ever get him. And -"
"Stupid? Stupid? He plays his guitar brilliantly! You should have one iota of what he possesses in his little finger than in your whole fat body. Furthermore -"
Teodoros stood up now, totally flushed. His voice took on a new, higher level of volume. "You don't talk to me like that, my daughter! You don't talk to me like that! I forbid this Zanis to enter this house, and I forbid you ever to see him!"
"You forbid? You forbid?" Rosa was as worked up as her old man. Like father, like daughter, thought Jelina.
"What if I told you that he was just with me today," said Rosa in fury, "A few minutes ago? What if I told you that we made love, yes, sweet love, and that nobody in the whole fresh flocking universe could ever stand in its way?"
There was silence. Oh my, thought Jelena. She was taken aback, of course, but not totally surprised. She knew that look in her daughter's eyes. They look of cold rage, masking that gaze of starry-eyed acceptance, like someone standing on the great cliffs of the Baltic Sea ready to take the plunge into the depths below. Like someone who has found herself the only man that she will ever, really, truly know. She knew that look.
But Teodoros surprised her. Instead of fulminating and cursing and raging at his daughter, he simply pulled on his coat, and with one very dark threatening "don't talk to me now" look, a look he had never shown before, he left the apartment.
Oh boy, thought Jelena. Now we’re in for it.
It didn't take long for Zanis to get to the main town of Riga by hitchhiking. He had heard that there was a club called "The Stratocaster", named after the legendary guitar that English guys had played back in the rock heyday of the 1960s. There was supposed to be a contest for the best singer in town, and a prize of 100 euros for the best performance. He was normally kind of shy, but he desperately needed the cash.
He strode up to "The Stratocaster" and saw, on a yellow Din A4 pad, a notice promising "A whole hundred euros for the vocal that will move and shake them!" But it was already after 10:30 pm, and the guy who was currently on stage was... well, Zanis had made up his mind to never speak poorly of a fellow musician, but the dude was, well, to put it mildly, he was just…execrable. The customers had already left the stage area, and were well out into the parking lot, laughing, drinking, and joking and flirting the way that kids everywhere will do.
Zanis found his way up to the leader of the band, the bassist, and asked if he could also play.
"Oh man," the bassist said. "If you had come at the beginning of the night to ask, I may have said yes. But here the Schlager King Heinie has just about closed off the entire contest…"
Zanis look down. Man, he was so shy; he never knew what to say in this situation. "Okay," he said, and started to walk away; but just then another guy entered around the corner.
"Zanis? Is that you?" It was the voice of an old friend, Gregor. They used to go to school together.
"Hey man! Zanis! Those were some days, weren't they? Hey -" the next question was rather obvious, since Zanis’ ax was popping up over the top of his head. "Are you still playing guitar?"
"Gregor! It's good to see you, man… and yes, I still play the old gutbuster…"
"Well then, you've got to play something here tonight! Get the taste of that Heinrich out of the audience’s mouth." He turned away. "Peteris!"
He was talking to the bandleader, the bassist. It dawned on Zanis that Gregor, his old school friend, was actually the big cheese, the main Richard, the prime factotum of the club. This is good, he thought. This is great. And not a moment too soon. All right.
"Uh, sure; I'd love to." The smile on Peteris’ face was decidedly fake. But Zanis just ignored it.
"Do you guys know ‘Roll over Beethoven’ from Chuck Berry?"
Sure they knew it. Everybody knows Chuck Berry. You didn't get your card playing guitar in a rock 'n roll band unless you played Chuck Berry. And every Chuck Berry song had only three chords.
"We'll start it in A, okay?"
The drummer even gave him a wink: "I'll remember the key," he said, and everybody laughed.
Peteris the bass player takes over the story. He was telling his friend Giorgio about the evening.
Well, it was fantastic... just fantastic. This guy walks in and asks to play; since I didn't know him, I turned it down at first, because I just thought he was some guy from the hills who had no idea whatsoever about playing rock 'n roll.
But boy, was I wrong - was I ever wrong! This guy jumps up on stage, and suddenly his energy is just transformed. He wears a big smile and says, "Hi everybody, my name is Zanis, we're gonna play a little bit of Chuck Berry's "Roll over Beethoven". The drummer starts up a beat, and Zanis quickly rolls himself up to his eyebrows in his speaker cable. Then he jumps out, leaving the speaker cable standing for a second in the shape of his body before it collapses. You never saw anything like it!
He starts in to this incredibly hot solo as the intro of the song, I mean it was so hot, that Jimi Hendrix would've raised his eyebrows!
Everybody in the band then got behind it, and I swear, these are these are one of the few times when you forget you're in a shady bygones-past club, and you feel like you are drinking the elixir of the true rock 'n roll goddess. The band was cooking way out into the parking lot, and somehow the customers sensed that the real thing was happening, and they came pounding back in.
He was singing really just great in this incredibly high voice, "I'm gonna write me-a letter gonna mail it to my local DJ", and when he came to the part that says, "roll over Beethoven," not only was the was the band on it, but the entire audience was singing and dancing and generally whooping it up as well! I have never seen anything like it. He played a killer solo in the solo section - I swear, there were sparks flying off his fingers! - and then he said, "we'll take it to D" and everybody had another gust of energy. Roll over Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news! He did a duck step - you know, the Chuck Berry original dance step - back and forth along the entire stage! You had to be there; man, you just had to be there.
Obviously it was over in a flash, and the crowd was not going to let him go! I think they realize that they had witnessed the true coming of the rock 'n roll God. But he was gone before anybody really knew what's happening. He got the hundred euros from Gregor, and beat it out the backdoor.
And it was good that he ran as well. Turns out that Zanis was wanted by the police. They came in the club and were looking for him, but he was already long gone. They had a guy with him too; I found out later that he was the father of a pretty young thing that... well, you know what I'm trying to say; Zanis had had his way with her, right? And not only that. He was somehow mixed up with the LMIN thing, he was wanted for it as well. I tell you. The cops. You just can't trust them.
He took a long drag on his cigarette.
Well, I say, carry-on, Brother. A true rock 'n roll legend, if you ask me.
Zanis took the hundred euros from Gregor and made it out the door just in time to avoid the bright flaring red lights from the police car. The audience was still shouting, "Give us more! Give us more!” as an enraged Teodoros Rubenis strode up and yelled, "Who's in charge here?" Gregor, with the skill that all club owners where ever they may be in the world will demonstrate, came up with his best fake smile and queried, "Can I help you, Sir?"
“Have you had a young ruffian named Zanis on stage here tonight?" Teodoros asked. The two policemen, who were secretly sorry that they had missed would seem to have been a great gig, looked at Gregor in a glaringly obvious manner. A couple of cool looking girls were jabbering excitedly, and one policemen gave a knowing, "well lookie-here" glance to the other.
Gregor, having that sixth-sense of suspecting trouble that all club owners seem to possess, asked, "Zanis? Hmm. Was somebody here named Zanis?" And the cronies from the bar shook their heads and said, "Zanis? No we don't know nothing about nobody named Zanis…"
Teodoros looked frustrated. The cops looked bored. It was Friday night, and they had obviously been too late for a great gig. Other things to attend to. But he was on their list as being involved in the LNIM mess, and he was wanted for questioning. Teodoros raised his voice.
"Listen. This young hooligan named Zanis has violated my daughter in the sanctity of my own home! I demand that he be arrested and sent to trial immediately! Immediately! Have I made myself clear?"
"Please, Sir, let's not raise our voices. I really don't have any idea of what you might be talking about. But be assured, if this young man named Zanis should enter our establishment, I will immediately contact the local authorities." And Gregor beamed his ulta-fake smirk. Teodoros had nothing more to say. Lousy club owners, he thought. They should all be hanged.
Zanis made his way down to the docks of Riga. The newspaper told him that a steamer was leaving at 12 tonight, destination Stockholm. He hurried, and made it down about 10 to midnight. And there was the ship; somebody was up on the deck making preparations. He called up to the deckhand.
"Hey! Hello! Is this the steamer that's going to Stockholm?" Zanis called.
"That it is," came the reply.
"A friend told me that I can hitch a ride with you on the way. Is that okay?"
Actually, that was complete fiction. There was no friend, and nobody told him he can hitch a ride. He actually saw the Stockholm route was on the back of a newspaper.
"Who told you that? We don't take passengers. Sorry, Bub." And the deckhand went back to his work.
"But my friend told me! Please! I've got to get out of this town really quickly. And I just won "The Stratocaster" contest; A hundred euros. It's yours if you'll take me… Please!"
"A hundred euros?" The deck hand looked suspicious. But Zanis showed him the two bills, 50 euros each.
"Let me see those," he said, and he pocketed them.
"This is highly irregular, not to say illegal." He looked around to make sure that the coast was clear.
"But, all right. But - keep your head down, and don't be seen by anyone. We reach Stockholm tomorrow morning. "He looked up appraisingly up at the instrument that Yannis carried.
"What kind of guitar have you got?" he asked.
It turned out that the deckhand was an aficionado of the Blues. Zanis got out the guitar and played him a couple of riffs. The deckhand reached into his grimy overalls and brought up a Hohner C harp - a great harmonica for which the Blues were invented.
Zanis knew the Muddy Waters hit, "I Just Wanna Make Love To You."
From there it was golden. They went on to many other songs into the deep, deep night.
They were friends for life.
Zanis looked at the chain-link fence surrounding the Ericsson Globe Arena Stockholm Eurovision Song Contest parking lot. Shit. Nobody said there was going to be a fence surrounding it. He walked down alongside it, looking for an entry. It seems like he spent hours walking alongside the barrier; the tight security and barbed wire just wouldn't let him in.
Then he heard a voice shouting, "Hey you!" Oh no, he thought. I've come all this way only to be discovered, to be found out, to be interrogated by the police and thrown out of the country. He looked both right and left for an escape route, when the voice appeared much closer. He turned around, and looked right at it.
This voice had a face as well, and it definitely was not that of a cop. There was much too much black hair involved; bushy black hair on the top, on the sides, and that black hair even making a small beard. And the voice, much closer now, was definitely not the voice of a policeman. The voice actually sounded friendly.
"Hey man!" The voice said. It was a quite friendly voice. In fact, it accompanied a grin.
"I see you've got your guitar here! You're taken part in the Eurovision song contest tonight?"
Zanis look at the ground. "Umm, that's right, taking part in the festivities tonight... Um, but I can't seem to find the entrance..." Zanis' looked at the ground again. Man, he just hated to lie.
"Well, you're in luck. I happen to be on the Eurovision Song Contest Functioning Committee. Our duty to make sure that all the members are accompanied and put totally at ease before they take part in such a world shaking event! This is the Eurovision song contest, featuring over 40 countries and fifteen thousand journalists! It is one of the biggest television events ever contrived - over 200 million viewers over the whole world! After all, we’re not just some little run down, over-the-hills contest, but the number one, Prima, longest lasting song contest that's ever been made!"
Zanis kept studiously listening. This guy sure knows how to talk, he thought.
"Besides taking care of the artists, I write a list of the events for the great number of journalists from the whole wide world who are here to enjoy the festivities. It's a big deal, don't you know!
"By the way, please to meet you! My name is Bo! And you are?"
"Zanis". He looked at his companion, all that long bushy black hair framing an animated smile. Yeah, what a talker.
"Zanis! All right! Good to see you, my friend! This is an honor to be with you on this great day! Who are you playing with? Slovenia? I hear they've got a really hot chick out in front of that band. Or Estonia? or-"
"Actually, it's Latvia."
"Latvia! Great! Funny, I didn't notice them on the schedule. What are you doing for Latvia? Playing hot guitar in a “luke-warm” band?" He made the “in-quotes” sign, and chortled magnificently at his own joke.
"Actually, I am singing lead on my own song. It's-"
"Your own song? Well, that's amazing!" Zanis recognized his chance. Always get out the guitar and start playing, particularly if that somebody is important. He didn't know if Bo was of high rank, but something told him to do it. What have you got to lose? Zanis thought. And from the expression on Bo's face, this was the time to do it.
"It's called "The Present". I can play you a bit if you like…"
"Oh yes!" he exclaimed. "Let me hear what you got!"
Zanis got out the guitar. Bo continued talking; "Hey, by the way, that's a usual looking guitar piece... where did you get it?"
But Zanis had already started to play the opening chords. It was an electric-acoustic model - thank God, he thought.
When you’re tired and beat
And you’re on a dead-end street
Lookin’ for the pieces of a dream that’s shattered
You could spend all your days
Feelin’ sorry in a hundred different ways
But would it matter?"
‘Cause yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery
It can feel like life’s against you, but it isn’t
Suddenly the winds may shift
And then you’ll see, today’s a gift
And that’s why it’s called The Present
He finished the end of the song, and for once - for once! - Bo had nothing to say.
Finally he said, "Oh man. Oh my good God, man. That was; that was..." Zanis was afraid of what was coming next. What if he said, terrible? Not suitable for the Eurovision song contest? What if he said, maybe I'll see you at the next tournament? He looked at the ground, afraid to look up at Bo’s face.
"Incredible. That was simply incredible! I have never ever in all my days ever heard such a moving piece of music! I have to sit down for a minute, I'm sorry. This is a life changing experience for me."
So, he concluded: it was good. Thank God, thought Zanis. He sat down on the bumper of a car next to him, but he was too afraid to look him in the face.
"What's it called, again?" askedBo.
"The Present," said Zanis.
"The Present. Ahh, The Present. Of course! The Present!
"It takes place in the in the present tense, the only thing that's tangible, so, of course, is that it's a quote unquote Present to us. Mind blowing times three! This is a song, a true song that will banish all of the ditties to the dim dark dusty past! I tell you..."
Zanis had never heard such high praise before. He felt his cheeks getting a little red. Fortunately he didn't have do anything except to say, in a mumbled tone, "Thank you". Bo was now talking fast, manager-like, a few steps ahead of him...
"You're going to sing the song in the Eurovision song contest, and you're going to win fortune and acclaim! I know it! I just know it! Let's get you started here, under and forth with! No time to lose at all! Gladly I now present thee and thine and your entire crew from Latvia with the biggest prize for the greatest song of all time! Fame and fortune will be yours forever! And furthermore -"
"Bo," Zanis said. Bo stopped his dreaming. "Huh? What?" he replied.
Zanis felt himself getting red in the face for a second time. Man! Why does this talking about the business have to be so hard? The singing, the singing, it is simple. Just sing the words, and they flow naturally from you. But the business; oh my God, the business...
"Bo. Listen to me." But before he could continue, Bo looked very alarmed.
"What is it?" Bo said. "You're not from Latvia? Or the song is not original? Or are you an imposter? What is it? What could it be? Please tell me; what is it I have to know?"
Bo looked at him with a pleading face.
"No, no, no. I am from Latvia. And the song is my, all mine. The problem is; the problem is... elsewhere. You see, I am from Latvia, but actually, I haven't been selected for the contest..."
"What --- you haven't been selected for the contest?" Bo asked, and Zanis' looked at the ground. "No," he murmured softly.
"Oh man. Oh man," said Bo, Zanis stared at the ground, in fact anywhere but up in the downtrodden Bo’s face. He felt his countenance getting red already a third time. Oh shit. Zanis hated this.
"I have heard perhaps the best damn song in my entire life." Bo spoke uncharacteristically slowly, "Perhaps best damn song ever written in our entire lifetimes, and you, you!, fail to enter it in the contest." Zanis started to say something but, Bo waved him away.
"Quiet! I have to think."
Zanis didn't dare to look him in the face, and just kept staring at the ground. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Bo spoke.
"Okay. Okay. Here's what we're going to do." Zanis thought, man, he really sounded like a manager now! Now he understood what all those English musicians were talking about of the cool managers behind the scenes while they were out there playing their hearts out.
"We're gonna get you in there, get you in there to the main stage of the event. And then... and then... Zanis waited expectantly.
"Well, then... I will think of something!"
Zanis’ dreams of a ultracool English manager vanished. This Swedish boy Bo had no more idea of what to do then he did. But, at least he'll get close to the stage, which was a lot closer than they been an hour before.
"Go in this unmarked door here," Bo said. You've got to wander around the storage area, but eventually you'll come out. I'll find you; don't worry, I'll find you. "The Present" is the best song I have ever heard! And I solemnly swear on my grandmother's tits, that you will sing it! Somehow, someway, you will sing "The Present", and win the celebration tonight. I believe it! I truly believe it! Just have faith! So - get going!"
Zanis vanished behind the unlocked unmarked or door. This is it, he thought. The one and only Eurovision song contest. The real thing. Here we come.
Teodoros was on a quest as well. With a bribe here, and some payoff there, he found out where Zanis was headed for after his victory in "The Stratocaster". Unfortunately, he was too late; by the time he got to the dock in Riga, the boat was gone.
But that didn't matter at all. He was a man, as they say in the television commercials, he was a man with a mission. Quite simply, he would find this Zanis and bring them to justice. And he thought about his daughter - his poor helpless, impoverished daughter. She was powerless to withstand an evil genius such as Zanis!
He had connections in Riga. He would go by car to the Eurovision song contest in Stockholm, Sweden, and find him there. His mood grew darker and darker as he dwelled on his poor daughter Rosa and her poor shattered virginity. I will get him no matter what I do! he thought.
Teodoros pulled up to the in Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden, in a late model Mercedes, driven by a couple of friends from the factory. So this is it, he thought, the Eurovision song contest. He didn't have much of a taste for modern music, but he had to say, looking at the spectacle of a modern rock show, he had to grudgingly say, not bad, not bad at all.
By now the Eurovision song contest had been a firm institution of the European life since the 60s. Europeans have been watching it on their television sets since 1956; in the meantime it had become an institution, with more than 50 billion viewers around the entire world. There were so many countries vying for it that they had to take turns being in the top 20. Love it or hate it, there was no denying its power and its presence. America might laugh, but it was a bridge to the people of Europe and therefore the people of the world. Every country that won was required to host the games for the following year. Somehow Sweden seemed to be lucky. But everyone, beggar or King, rich man or poor, understood Zanis when he said he was going "to the Eurovision" to get famous.
And Teodoros was going there to stop him.
The girl may at the main desk had a friendly smile. "Welcome to Sweden," she said. "How may I help you?
"I am looking for Zanis," the little man darkly said. "He is singing for Latvia. Where can I find him?"
"For Latvia!" She said. "How delightful! You must be thrilled! Are you the father?" He smiled a tight smile. Yeah, thrilled, Theodore thought. Thrilled when I get his head off.
"Hmmmm" She said. I don't seem to find his name anywhere. Just have a seat over there, I'll talk to a supervisor." She looked through some papers and messed about the phone; when she finally looked up, the Latvian man was gone. "Where can he be?" she asked.
Theodore motioned to his two companions. "Come on fellas," he hissed, "We'll look down this way. We'll find him, don't you worry." And they ducked into a small, unmarked door…
Zanis was lost. It should be full, after all, the stage was one of the biggest events that Ericsson Globe Arena Stockholm Sweden has ever seen. But it was surprisingly empty, at least the place where he was. He then turned the corner, and to his great surprise (and despair), he came upon one person he didn't want to see at all: Teodoros Rubinsky, the father of his Rosa.
No one spoke for what seemed like 10 minutes (although it was probably a few seconds at best).
"Zanis!" Teodoros cried, his face getting redder than normal. "Ah-Ha! I have found you, you bastard! So you think you will get on stage here and wow the public with your songs? Not on your life!"
Zanis just looked at the floor. Teodoros was getting more excited with each word he spoke.
"You have violated my daughter! This is a crime, a huge crime, against Latvia, and against all mankind! You should not be allowed to live with this abomination on your hands! What have you got to say about that?"
Zanis raised his eyes, and for the first time, looked at Teodoros in the in the eyes.
"But, you see, I love your daughter. I will do anything for her. Please believe me."
"Rubbish!" shouted Teodoros. "I know your kind! You are the kind of cheap slimy bastard who'll promises the poor girl a respectful life, and then leaves her as you go gallivanting around the globe with your love, sex, and rock 'n roll rock band!" Teodoro was nearly apoplectic. Is there a doctor in the house, thought Zanis. We could really use one.
Teodoros drew out his knife. Terrified, Zanis stepped back. He's got a knife! He thought. What do I do now?
Teodoros raised the knife over his head, as if he were about to strike. Zanis was paralyzed with inaction. So it's come to this, he thought.
"Teodoros! Stop this minute!" Who was the owner of that familiar sounding voice?
From around a corner stepped Jelena, Teodoros Rubenis’ wife. Teodoro, for once, was speechless.
"Jelena! What the hell are you doing here?" he said.
"I have come to put a stop to whatever rubbish you had planned with Zanis, that's what! I know you too well, my husband! You get a fixation of what you think reality is, and you act with no benefit of the truth!"
Theodore started to speak, but you Jelena cut him off.
"You just keep quiet, Teodoros, and listen to me for a change."
Teodoro had never had his shy, retiring, Latvian wife say anything like this. His expression was a mixture of surprise and astonishment.
"All of her short life, you have tried to lord it over Rosa in every detail," she continued. "If she wants to go to a festival, you say no. She wants to wear her hair short, again, you say no. But if she wants to wear her hair long again, you still say no. She wants to go out with her friends and wear a nice dress, you won't let her, because you say it is too revealing. I have seen it, and it wasn't really too revealing at all. Maybe for your mother's generation!"
“And then comes Zanis. If you look past his long hair and his guitar, you actually see him for what he is: a very nice, respectful, young man who loves your daughter. I tell you; you could do a hell of a lot worse!"
The room was quiet. Nobody thought that Jelena, shy, retiring, standing always in the background Jelena, would come out with such passion and fury.
"Hey man! Zanis!" And the unmistakable cheery mass of Bo stepped around the corner.
"Wow!" He said, "Quite a family here! I would love to meet all of you in detail, and I will take the time to do that later, but I've got to get Zanis and hurry over to the stage! You won't believe this, man! The Latvian team has failed to show, and I got you on as a replacement! Yes, that's right: you going on as the replacement, as strange as it seems! But we have no time to waste – you’re due on in 5 minutes. So: come on!"
He grabbed Zanis by the arm, and in a flash they were gone.
The Eurovision song contest. It was held in the Ericsson Globe Arena hall; at least 10,000 people were there. And all over Europe another 50 billion were watching on their TV screens. And it was live; very live.
"Ladies and gentlemen;" said the announcer, “Mesdames et Messieurs. We now bring you our final contestant, a young man from Latvia named Zanis. He is replacing the band "Muscle Mass" who are apparently lost in the northern Swedish Arctic woods."
Zanis lumbered up on stage, not looking to left or right, but looking shy and studying the ground. He found an amp not far from his microphone, and with a loud rumble plugged in his guitar. Somewhere in the crowd a spectator jeered.
But he started to play, and the guitar over the amp sounded fine. In fact, it sounded great.
He started the first verse.
When you’re tired and beat
And you’re on a dead-end street
Lookin’ for the pieces of a dream that’s shattered
You could spend all your days
Feelin’ sorry in a hundred different ways
But would it matter?
‘Cause yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery
It can feel like life’s against you, but it isn’t
Suddenly the winds may shift
And then you’ll see, today’s a gift
And that’s why, it’s called The Present.
He finished the first verse, and he could tell, the crowd was hanging on the song. Some indefinable small thing told the accomplished artist that the audience was totally with him. It was as if a small "aha" hung over there the entire crowd, and he intuitively molded it just as he wanted.
But he didn't actually think these things. It was more or less there, as the great artist would intuitively look at a Mona Lisa and would say, yes, this is my masterpiece.
In other words, he was caught up in the dream of the performance. And so it didn't even really matter when another voice chimed in on the second verse. And an incredible voice it was. It was a female voice, so strange and yet very so familiar.
He looked at the second microphone. Their standing, putting her everything into the words of the song, was Rosa.
Each day is like a friend
You won’t ever see again
Better grab it, ‘cause it’s gone before you know it
Turn a light on in your heart
Find the love that you’ve kept hidden in the dark
Go on and show it
‘Cause yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery
It can feel like life’s against you, but it isn’t
Suddenly the winds may shift
And then you’ll see, today’s a gift
And that’s why, it’s called The Present
They finished the song, and stood there. For a moment - a very long moment - the place was totally silent.
Then it exploded like Hell's own magic fire. What a Duo! What a performance! What a song! It was a diabolical wizard of a moment indeed, as if all the ghosts of music, from Bach, Beethoven, Lennon and beyond, had swooped down and cherished this small song with the grace of the ages.
They went through the motions of adding up the song votes, but no one was surprised that the final output:
"The song of the year was "The Present", as presented by the Latvian team of Zanis and Rosa," the announcers intoned, and the stage was immediately mobbed.
Zanis and Rosa were arm in arm; there was so much stuff going on around them, that the human body shut down much like a small child in the middle of a hurricane having found its blind spot.
"Rosa," he said. "Zanis,” she said.
"Rosa," he said again. "How did you know where to find me? How did you find your way to Stockholm, Sweden? Where did you ever learn how to sing "The Present" so beautifully? How, where, why?"
"It's easy," she said. "I knew you were heading for the contest; you basically told me so after you played me "The Present" the very first time. And the song would not go out of my head. So I learned it." She was very matter-of-fact about this. She just learned it. Zanis thought, I have so much to learn from this woman.
"This very nice guy helped me get up here on stage… His name is Bo."
Bo. The incredible Bo. Who was he exactly - a messenger from the gods?
And just like that, the actual Bo did appear. And, as usual, his mouth was going a mile a minute.
"Zanis! Rosa! So happy to see you! The wonderful, wunderbar Zanis! The fantastic, incroyable Rosa! You are great together, simply great! And the fact that you are involved with each other makes it even more tasty for the tabloids!" Bo winked.
"There is a whole lot of planning talking and devising to be done - but let's enjoy the champagne, the bright lights, and the whole party to begin with!"
It was like a dream, Zanis thought. Just a dream. Can it be that I am still alive and on the earth? That my songs have been heard by millions, nay, billions of people?
Rosa brought him back. "Zanis," she said. "Listen to me. You know that when we made love in my tiny room in the basement?" Zanis blushed again deep burgundy, but nodded that yes, he knew.
"Do you know what you said to me?" Zanis nodded. "That you love me, you needed me, and you never leave me?" He nodded again. Of course he meant it! He had never meant anything so sure as his love for Rosa.
"Because now you must love two of us." Rosa said. Zanis was puzzled, and turned crimson yet again. What does she mean, he thought.
"There's a little Zanis now growing inside," she said, and she put his hand on her abdomen.
Oh yes, he thought. Now I get it! We made a baby! We made a baby! What a gift!
With tears in his eyes he said, "Rosa. Will you marry me?" She said yes, and the whole bloody rocking wild Eurovision contest faded into second place. He was the happiest man on earth.
Theodorus Rubinsky stared at the stage. He had tears in his eyes, and although he didn't want to admit it, it was because he was moved, he was truly moved, by the song "The Present", and by the extraordinary rendition of the boy Zanis and his own sweet Rosa. "Dammit" he explained to his wife, "That was actually quite good," and surreptitiously wiped away a tear that was forming in the corner of his eye.
He finally made his way up to the stage, broke through a couple of party-going hangers-on, and looked Zanis in the eyes.
"I never thought I would say this to your face, but… Zanis: that was incredible. Simply incredible."
Zanis looks him in the eye. "I am very honored and humbled that you tell me this. Because I have something to tell you."
The seconds that followed before seemed like an eternity. "I have asked Rosa to be my wife," said Zanis. “And she has said… Yes."
Teodoros was speechless. But like fathers everywhere, he made his fate with immortality. "I am happy for you, Son."
Rosa chimed in. "And you are going to be a grandfather. I am already pregnant!"
At this point Teodoros really didn't know what had hit him. But, with generations of fathers before and since, you simply raised both hands in grace to embrace this daughter and her mate. And the tears did indeed flow, but tears of joy, like the final old superior Scotch from the uppermost northern regions of Scotland.
The Next Day
Bo sat in his office. He was buzzing. Even his black hair and beard seemed to be on fire, on a jag of light that shone with happiness. This is what I'm talkin’ about, he thought to himself.
The fax machine was buzzing, the phones were ringing, and Bo had a look on his face as if he couldn't be happier, to be here, to be exactly here, right in the middle in the thick of the action.
He picked up the telephone.
"Hey! Bo here! So nice of you to call back, Mr. Spielberg! What's that? Well, sure, Steven, sure, I can call you that! And I’m Bo! But you know that!"
"Anyway, I'm sorry I couldn't take your call; it's been just a mob scene here! By the way, I love your pictures, from"Jaws" to the latest. You always have the right touch, just the right touch, don't you think?
"Anyway, Steve - you don't mind if I call you Steve? - I can't really give you an answer right now. Zanis and Rosa are hidden, establishing a pre-honeymoon if you like; they’re hidden away and working on new material for the new album." Here Bo pointed to his desk for emphasis.
"Yes Steve: a new album!"
"No Steve, you know I would really, really like to say more, especially to you all the way there in Hollywood, USA, but only I know their location, and my lips are," and here Bo smiled devilishly to himself, "sealed!"
Zanis and Rosa are on the same dingy seacraft that brought him to Sweden. Before the Eurovision song contest it seems like years before, but it actually was only a day away. And the deckhand with his C-chord harmonica was jamming with the music as well. Their voices twine in a brand-new song that rises to the heavens.
It may seem unlikely to somebody else, but to them, work, and play, and fun are all under the same enchanted glow. They go on and on, into the magic dust of the twilight, and it was entrancing.
Zanis could've told you:
When you've got it, you’ve got it.
(a modern fairytale)