I am currently working on a collaborative book focusing on the topic of music as a tool- a tool of redemption, demise, empowerment, etc. Each writer has the complete freedom to write whatever he/she wants about the topic. Below is the first draft of my piece. Feedback is appreciated.
I left the relationship long before I actually left. I knew months maybe years before the end that our commitment had an expiration date, but I chose to ignore it. Then the day came when I could deceive myself no further.
I penned a letter, and handed it to my partner. He knew this was no ordinary letter. I walked to my car, and turned on the ignition. I backed out of my driveway and headed down the road. My destination was a gorge with a thousand foot drop. My intention was to drive over the edge.
I gave myself an out. If my best friend, Bob, called while I was en route, it was a sign that I was not supposed to end my life. Looking back, I can see I was not serious in my attempt. It was a cry for help. But I’ve always hated the way that term “cry for help” gets shrugged off, as if needing help is something to be dismissed. Whether or not I was ready to kill myself, I had reached a breaking point. Luckily, my cell phone rang. Bob nonchalantly asked “do you want to get a drink tonight?” I knew he knew. I started sobbing, and turned the car around.
“I’ve got a new credit card. Let’s go to Chattanooga.”
“Are you serious?”
“Can we get to Chattanooga and back on $500?”
“Then pick me up in an hour.”
I was twenty six, unemployed, and fresh out of a relationship I entered into as a senior in high school. I was also crazy. I spent many days wondering if I would live to see the next or if I would somehow cry myself into oblivion. A five hundred dollar credit card bill was the least of my worries.
We gassed up the car, grabbed a bottle of Mad Dog, a bag of weed, several packs of cigarettes and hit the road. Bob drove. He might periodically ask Jay or I to take the wheel for an hour or two when his eyes refused to stay open, but primarily, he was the driver. I sat in the passenger seat, sipping from the bottle and lighting smokes. Jay chimed in from the back.
Describing Bob as a music enthusiast would be an understatement. He was one of those guys who might be two months behind on the electricity bill and driving a car held together by will alone, but he always had the latest music technology. As we backed out of my driveway, Bob handed me his jukebox- a handy little gizmo that held thousands of songs before anyone had even heard of an iPod. My job was to keep the music playing.
I had never been exposed to most of the bands in his queue. Like any geek, Bob prided himself on musical obscurity. He was also the son of musicians. He probably came out of the womb singing; a saxophone in his hands before he could grasp a pencil. Growing up in that atmosphere, he was exposed to genres I had barely even heard of. Upon hearing the word “jazz” my mind conjured up an image of Kenny G, not John Coltrane. Listening to his music was like hearing a foreign language for the first time.
Any decent road trip needs some kind of distraction. I took to noting the names of songs that I liked, commenting to Bob about some particular aspect that appealed to me- a singer’s voice, or a strange percussion section. From that information, he would steer me to more tracks.
It was freeing to voice my tastes without fear of ridicule. I had spent eight years devising my every move to please a partner. I always put up a good front as an outspoken, confident feminist. While that persona may have been foreshadowing of things to come, at that time it was pure bravado. I liked my boyfriend’s music, watched his shows, read his books. My clothes, hair and makeup were suited to his tastes. My political opinions, my religious beliefs, heck, even my performance in bed, all skewed to please him. I became so accustomed to seeking his approval, when I finally got the nerve to leave the relationship, I had no idea what I actually liked or wanted.
Upon returning from an adventure, I would hand Bob the pages I had scribbled on. When I was having a tough day, I might find a CD sitting on the driver’s seat of my car, the word “blurgle” or “boggle” scralled in Bob’s handwriting across the surface. I’d pop it in my player and be rewarded with hearing the beat of “Manteca” winding through my speakers.
You may be wondering “Why Chattanooga?” Why not Chicago, or Miami, or Pocatello, Idaho? (I think we all understand why Pocatello didn’t top the list.) Chattanooga was home to Bob’s personal arsenal of musicians. That description probably illicits visions of kung-fu musicians, wielding instruments with ninja-like proficiency- which is actually not too far off from reality. Upon our arrival, all of Bob’s old cohorts would convene for a jam session. This wasn’t just your standard rock guitar-bass-drum kit session. People brought saxophones, trumpets, bongos, and a wealth of other tools.
The guys would start warming up, but soon their meandering notes would begin to synch. I don’t know whether it was skill or just familiarity, but they each seemed to know the exact time to solo, or when to sit back and let someone else take the lead. The room became unified in groove, as musicians and bystanders alike closed their eyes and gave in to the beat.
At some point, the song would naturally wind down. Rather than taking a break, or putting on a CD, the players swapped instruments. There was an air of friendly rivalry about it. As the round robin continued, I kept waiting for someone to opt out, but it seemed as if admitting not having the skills to play a particular instrument was out of the question- among this group, you at least had to try. To be a witness to the sounds in that room was a sacred act. My ears were privy to some of the most beautiful music I had ever heard. Those songs were never to be repeated, never to be played again. It was magical and electric and completely encompassing.
After returning from the trip, I should have been very intimidated to make music, but the exact opposite happened. I was tired of listening from a corner in the room. I wanted to be part of the action.
When my relationship ended, I could not function at work. Panic attacks and constant crying were my ticket to six weeks of paid medical leave. After a month and a half, I returned to work only to leave halfway through my shift and never come back. I cashed out my 401k and took a three month vacation. It was the best move I could have made.
If memory serves (and this time period is all a bit hazy, so I’m not completely sure), Bob was also unemployed at the time. After waking when the sun was high, he’d find his way to my house, and we’d spend the afternoon getting stoned and drinking cocktails in my garage. At some point, I decided I needed a hobby- something to make my overindulgence feel like part of the creative process, and not just the road to excess. I did what all wannabe artists do- I bought a cheap set of watercolors, a palette of paper and a few brushes. The paintings were terrible, but the company was fantastic.
Sometimes Bob would paint with me. Nothing serious, just playing with the brushes, seeing how they would react to different pressure and positioning. More than anything we listened to music and talked, really talked without limitation of the other party misunderstanding. Bob always understood. I felt like a wounded animal being nurtured back to health with a regimen of inside jokes, bad artwork and for the first time, unconditional love.
My 401k payout was dwindling. I was still living with my ex-boyfriend, playing the “let’s be friends” game that never works out. I had to get another plan together. A friend got me a job as an accounts receivable clerk. Bob offered me a room at his house until I could get an apartment of my own.
Bob had a small home recording studio set up in the office of his house. Our two-person parties switched venue. Instead of hanging out in my garage, we hung out in his studio. I don’t remember if I told him of my secret desire to sing, or if it was just happenstance, but we began making silly recordings to amuse ourselves. We started out with drunken showboating, the microphone serving as permanent witness to our unique brand of humor.
At some point, I started voicing deliberately horrible versions of “Lake of Fire” and “King of the Road,” complete with bad Southern accents. Bob and I decided we would be a killer R&B duo, and took to calling ourselves Strawberry and Chives. The first time I sang, really sang, was a duet version of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” I am reminded of Bill Murray in the movie “What About Bob?” where he’s babystepping down the dock, babystepping into the boat, babystepping onto the ship until he’s finally sailing. That’s exactly what I was doing. I was fucking babystepping.
I got up the nerve to sing solo, but I still had that underlying fear of failure- as if Bob would throw me on the ground and kick dirt in my face if I couldn’t sing. In my bones, I knew I was in a safe place, but I struggled to get the gumption and just open my mouth. I found a compromise.
Bob’s studio was located next to the laundry area. The two rooms were separated by a set of sliding wooden screens. Bob ran a microphone into the laundry room. I closed the doors, took a deep breath and almost started to cry. But I didn’t. I sang.
It wasn’t earthshattering. It wasn’t the second coming of Janis. But it wasn’t horrible. It was enough for me to want to do it again. In fact, I started singing all the time, everywhere I went.
When we weren’t getting drunk at home, we ventured out to a local pool hall and restaurant called Phantom Canyon. The clientele could be a bit smarmy, but the jukebox had Mr. Bungle’s “Pink Cigarette” on the playlist, so it wasn’t all bad. One night, Bob overhead a conversation between a young lady and an admirer.
“So, what’s it like?”
“What’s what like?”
Hey, I told you the clientele was smarmy. We repeated these lines over the course of the next few days, and at some point, Bob began to put together a track called “Gorgeous.” He asked me if I would do a voiceover for it, describing the plight of the beautiful. This wasn’t fucking-around-singing next to the dryer. This was an actual track.
I didn’t give myself time to analyze it, I just did it. A single take, stream of consciousness monologue on how difficult it was to be stunning. It was sarcastic. It was funny. It even ended perfectly on time, as if it was the track I was born to record. If I could have seen my face, I’m sure I epitomized the phrase bursting with pride. By creating a piece of music, I felt initiated- like I was finally part of a club that I grew up admiring but never belonged to. I was no longer relegated to the corner. I was part of the action.
Looking back, everything good in my life seems to have stemmed from that moment. I know it sounds dramatic and inauthentic to say, but that single act gave me the confidence to never feel like I had to look to someone else to know who I am. I went on to sing for a band, record a small album, and live out my rockstar fantasy if only for one single show. I became an artist and a writer. I married a fantastically supportive man and we became the parents of two unbelievable little boys. It is almost unfathomable to think that I was once ready to drive myself over the edge of a cliff, and the only thing holding me back was a cell phone call asking me to stay for a drink.
I recently read an interview with Lena Dunham in which she said “I think about my best friendship….as like a great romance of my young life.” It all sort of clicked for me. I may have spent eight years in a relationship, but Bob was the real love of my twenties. He’s the guy who gave me music, and in doing so, made the rest of my life possible. As I type this, I am holding back tears, struggling to find the right words to exhibit gratitude for my life, literally, but there are none that do it justice. All I can say is thank you. You’ve changed me. I am a better person for having known you.