The Rock Star's Song
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 In his milieu, the rock 'n roll world, he's already out of date.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?"