by Jack Alcott
To say he felt pressured is to grossly understate what was going on in that newly rejuvenated and teeming brain of his. He was the band leader, the visionary, the idea man, the guy who kept it all going, and he needed an edge, he needed stimulation to keep him operating at maximum rock ’n’ roll velocity.
After we finished that first rehearsal with Buzz, who lit the room up with his raw singing and the crazy, angular way he stalked around all elbows and spider legs, I stepped out back for some fresh air. The sky was dismally overcast with some splotches of blue sky trying unsuccessfully to bleed through.
As I leaned against the house I could see where the grass had been flattened — oops, I hadn’t mowed it in a while — when gramps and Buzz were hanging out. I imagined they got pretty animated because the whole area was stamped flat.
And right at the peak of a small hill that fell away to the broader lawn, you could see where they’d rolled down the incline, fighting or horsing around, who knows at that point? The path through the grass ended in another trodden-down clearing under a giant oak tree.
As I stared down at the clearing, maybe twenty yards away, I could see something white and gleaming in the grass. Thinking that maybe gramps or Buzz had dropped it, I jogged down the little hill. The object turned out to be a plastic baggy filled with white powder. I knew it was cocaine, which despite being legal for the last ten years was still a reason for concern. A lot of concern. I hoped it was Buzz’s but I knew it was gramps’. And that scared me.
I emptied the bag out on a lilac bush and then brushed the speckled white residue off the plant’s green leaves, so as not to leave a trace.
I never said anything to gramps about it, but now I understood where a lot of his manic energy was coming from, and I wasn’t happy about it. Nevertheless, the band played on and I stuck with my role in the rhythm section, thumping murderously away on some tunes, using a more nuanced approach for others.
On the afternoon of our first gig a month later, a fund-raiser for a Mars-bound group of “elders” who all looked about twenty-five, I saw that all was not going well between gramps and grandmom, who now preferred to be called Ellen.
Ellen had jaggered back to about 30 years old or so, and as I previously mentioned, she was splendid and heartbreakingly beautiful. Wherever she went, men of all ages were mesmerized by her, and I’ve got to say that even I — her grandson for Chrissakes — was starstruck by her beauty.
For some reason, and I’m pretty sure it was a toxic mix of drugs, stress and ambition, gramps seemed inured to her charms. I mean, I don’t think he was completely oblivious — he clearly loved having a beautiful woman on his arm — but he was so submerged in his single-minded vision that he wasn’t paying attention. Or paying attention enough. At least that’s what I heard Ellen say on more than one occasion when she thought I was out of earshot.
“You don’t hear what I have to say anymore, Cliff,” she told him once. “You just nod and start talking about the band, or some other inane thing. Look at me, my hair color is one of my loveliest assets and you’ve said nothing about its return. When we were young — really young — you used to love it. You used to compare it to honey and gold and sunshine. Now, I don’t know if you’ve even noticed.”
Gramps snapped that he had noticed, but it was obvious he was embarrassed and angry over his oversight. Then came the ancient excuse every guy’s ever used to deflect scrutiny of their self-absorption: work.
“I’m sorry honey; I’ve been working so hard to get this band off the ground. It takes everything I’ve got and this might be my last chance.”
“You’ve been chasing this music dream all your life,” she said forlornly. “Why can’t you just be happy with who you are?”
“This is what I’ve always wanted,” he rasped back. “And I’ll be goddamned if I’ll let it slip through my hands now. We’re gonna make it big-time or we’re going down in flames trying!”
It was just like gramps to strike a grandiose chord; after all, he was there at the birth of heavy metal.
So here it was our first gig and we’re set up on a stage above a good sized crowd, plugged in and ready to go. There’s that special energy before a rock show, a kind of primal subsonic telepathy crackling from performers to audience, literally waiting for amplification.
Gramps was up at the mic scanning the front rows and then pacing the stage, peering behind one black-curtained wing, then the other. That’s when I realized he was looking for grandmom, I mean Ellen, and she was nowhere to be found.
Buzz wasn’t anywhere to be seen, either. I hadn’t thought much of that until this moment because I thought he was planning a dramatic entrance that would turn the spotlight on him, the star vocalist, in keeping with his rediscovered rock ’n’ roll I.D.. Now, though, a darker reason for his absence sprang to mind.
When Buzz finally showed up, he was drunk and stoned and stumbling. Gramps, who’d been waiting with the band on stage, strafed him with a blue-eyed glance filled with anger and loathing and then stamped on his array of floor pedals and launched into “Ballad of the Wizened,” a mid-tempo, medieval Zep-type dirge about being young with an old man’s mind. The crowd loved it, and seemed to instantly relate to gramps’ lyrics and the tune’s catchy hooks.
Ellen appeared in the wings at stage left, vacantly smiling, dancing and watching Buzz. Gramps saw her but ignored her. Meanwhile, Buzz was everywhere, stalking the stage and climbing over amps while howling in his best Jim Morrison imitation, which was certainly a problem in the 60s before the Doors’ singer died at twenty-seven but was an asset now.
The audience loved Buzz and maybe this newly refulgent generation needed to have its own heedless and hedonistic Morrison, who was once quoted as saying he wanted to live for a hundred and twenty years. Like Jimbo, Buzz knew a thing or two about theater and entertaining a crowd, that’s for sure, and he ended the song by bending his ectomorphic, mantis-like frame backwards until his red hair dragged on the stage and then he suddenly snapped forward like a missile shot from a catapult and dove into the audience. They crowd-surfed him back onto the stage to the opening chords of “Future Sapien” and the roof seemed to come off the place. From there on out, we owned the crowd.
Back in our dressing room after the show, Gramps was sullen despite our success. Buzz had disappeared as soon as he left the stage and Ellen was nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, a Rolling Stone reporter had cornered Gramps for an interview and a local public television crew was circling, saying they wanted to do a documentary about the resurrection of a long-forgotten band. As Gramps’ eyes darted around looking for Ellen, the young female Stone reporter flattered him by telling him he looked and played just like Jeff Beck.
I was sitting on a bench against the dressing room wall still holding my bass in my lap and toweling the sweat from my hair and face when two very pretty girls approached and told me they loved the show. This was absolutely my first brush with anything resembling celebritydom and when they asked me if I wanted to party, I hesitated a moment because I wasn’t sure exactly what to say. I mean I was 18 years old now but still kind of shy around girls. I also detected something in their manner or their voices that told me they were really not as young as I was, but were probably older women recently rewound to a much younger age. Which was kind of strange, to say the least.
But they were certainly attractive and I was about to answer in the affirmative when there was a disturbance at the entrance to the room. The club’s bouncers had been trying to hold back a group of overly exuberant — read: drunk — new fans, but it seemed some had burst through their defenses.
Several came rushing into the room and I immediately realized they weren’t fans, but protesters from the upstart and militant Sleeper movement. The Sleepers took their name from death itself, the Big Sleep, and they were for the most part religious fanatics and rabid anti-life extensionists. One of the Sleepers, who had the gray hair and crows’ feet wrinkles of someone in their natural fifties, made a bee-line for Gramps and started ranting.
“Men! Not Methuselahs!” And then he screamed “infidel!” and lunged.
At that last, I saw him pull a knife and as his arm lifted to slash at Gramps, I acted reflexively and jumped up swinging my Hofner bass like a real axe, catching the guy’s arm as it went up over his head to strike. The blow sent the knife flying and likely broke the assailant’s arm, because I heard the crunch of wood against bone.
Frankly, as frightened as I was, I felt a fleeting twinge of remorse over my smashed bass. All that lovely wood and workmanship wasted on a crazy person. But of course I was glad to have been able to keep him from harming Gramps, and in the next few seconds I kept swinging the instrument to hold the other Sleepers at bay, giving the club’s security and then police time to arrest them.
Gramps rushed over and hugged me and thanked me for saving his life.
“You know,” he said, his blue eyes tearing up. “I understand if you don’t want to stay in the band. We’ve obviously attracted the attention of the loony fringe and who knows what’s next.”
“You’re kidding me, right Gramps?” I said. “I love this band — this is what I want to do, too. No way I’m quitting.”
Gramps laughed out loud and I could see he was momentarily happy. Then he was looking around the room again, and I heard him ask RayMan if anyone had seen Ellen. No one had.
The public television crew’s cameras had caught the entire Sleeper drama, and we were all over the news that night. Most of the reports underscored the growing threat from religious terrorists among us, but the footage of me chopping away at the crazies went viral on iTats around the world and we were instantly catapulted into the global spotlight. The next day we received offers from several major record labels; we signed with the best-known one.
We were soon in the studio working on an album and the next thing I knew, our songs were everywhere. I’d be coming out of a diner down on Main Street and some kid would walk by with his wrist tat blasting “Future Sapien.” You’d hear it blaring from passing cars, from apartment windows, local bars, in airport waiting rooms — we were the latest musical flavor and the world was eating us up. And the money was flowing in.
We were all rich overnight and I have to admit I indulged about every lust and whim that flitted through my teen-age brain. Fast car? Check. Beautiful groupies? Check and check. The latest amps and vintage guitars? Check, check. Dope and alcohol? You bet.
But oddly enough, I always seemed to catch myself before descending too deeply into any of my desires. It was like I had a natural “off” switch for dangerous impulses. At some juncture, I’d just stop and move on to some other pleasure or obsession. Not so, however, for my grandsire.
Gramps was always going in all directions at once and he pursued his music, drugs and alcohol in a headlong and unstoppable way that was scary to behold. New and brilliant songs kept coming, along with empty whiskey bottles and cocaine nosebleeds.
He’d always been a stringy-muscled, rangy guy, but now he was just emaciated, a walking wraith. I mean he looked cool up on the stage, but in real life his health was down the drain and I was concerned. I tried talking to him, of course, and he’d nod along with me, agreeing he had to take better care of himself. And then he’d continue down the same dark path he was on.
I knew that only grandmom, Ellen — his love for decades — could help him with his troubled mind. But she was gone, ignited by her newfound youth and intent on burning brighter the second time around, which was true for so many of this generation.
So many who’d failed or missed their mark in their first seventy years were now determined to succeed at all cost in this new life. And Ellen, who’d spent her first life as a loving and complaisant wife, was now embarked on her own career. Her involvement with the band and the notorious Buzz Burr had helped her gain the attention one of Hollywood’s hip young directors, and she was suddenly an eighty-five-year-old starlet, as fresh-faced and glorious as her current twenty-five-year-old body.
And she had immense and magnetic talent; her first movie was a hit and I’d seen her image on palm-tats and skyscreens in the U.S., Europe and throughout Asia. She was the next big thing — not me, not gramps, not Buzz.
So here’s the problem: how was I going to get her back with gramps? Whatever it was about her that kept him from eating himself alive, from excess, from whatever pain he needed to numb — it worked. Without her, his need, whatever its source, was insatiable and was devouring him physically and spiritually. She was the only one who could intervene and end his pitiable self-destruction.
But I couldn’t get near her. I tried pulling what strings I could; I had agents and producers and even a private eye trying to get through to her. Nothing and more nothing. Nothing but silence.
And then gramps’ time was up and they sent him to the angry Red Planet. It was like Elvis going into the Army; everything stopped; the band was over.
He’s up there now, doing geological surveys in the deep mines of Olympus Mons.
He’s got to log another 50 years before he can come home; that’s the law. Once in a while my wrist will tingle and it’s gramps on the skin-vid. He looks healthy, but tired and haggard for a 28-year-old. He pretends to be upbeat and during his last call he told me he’d started up another band and was playing in dive bars for rednecks and sandhogs, the miners and working men of Mars.
“A tough crowd to please,” he said. “They like to throw bottles and crap at the stage. Funny how some things never change. But if we can make it in this hellhole, we can make it anywhere ... And I’ll be ready the next time.”
He says it like he means it and I don’t doubt he’ll try to stage a comeback, no matter how long it takes. I mean, he’s basically got forever.
After sunset recently I found Mars shining cold and lonely in the black depths of sky and I thought of gramps. I saw him by himself at his desk with his maps and mineral specimens and the other instruments of his trade, his face smudgy with red dust. In the background, I imagined there were amps and guitars and I felt better for him, glad he was hanging onto his dreams.
Somehow, though, I don’t think he’ll ever be happy until he’s back with grandmom, with Ellen. And while she’s more famous and elusive than ever, the grandson in me wants to believe that despite her Garbo-like detachment and reclusiveness, she still loves him. After all those years together she has to, doesn’t she? Maybe she just needed a timeout.
But soon enough she’ll celebrate a very special birthday, one that will take her off to that speck of light I saw after sunset in the western sky. Then she can start her life all over again.
Maybe gramps can, too.
Copyright © 2013 by Jack Alcott