Appearances can be deceiving. To most people, I look like nothing more than a meek college professor, with my spectacles and teetering Babel of books and godlike physique and exceptional bone structure. But I was not always so meek. In olden times, I was an American desperado, a rock & roll outlaw.
I’ve stolen more than hearts, is what I’m saying.
This life of crime started with the drums, my instrument of choice. (All my life, I’ve possessed the most important quality in the world’s great drummers: I cannot play the guitar.)
The drums made me do foolish things, my friends. Of course, I’ve done many foolish things. When I was five, I drank Pine-Sol. I once attempted to capture and tame a coyote.
Growing up in Mississippi, my friends and I constructed small explosive devices, raced lawn mowers through church sanctuaries. We used a three-wheeler to pull an old tire through a weedy pasture, to simulate tubing on a lake. We used a tractor to pull a go-cart through the woods, to simulate death. We attempted to re-create the stunts we witnessed on The Dukes of Hazzard. Boredom was the root cause, I suppose, coupled with the residue of Original Sin. We got restless out there in the woods, like Eve and Adam. We had so many questions. What would we do with our lives? What would happen if we used cattle prods on one another?
What we did was foolish, sure, but we did not break the law. I knew what every good boy knew: God loves you and does not want you breaking the law. And if I did break the law, I knew what would happen: My father would demonstrate God’s love by hitting me repeatedly with his belt until I could no longer break the law, or walk.
So I heroically resisted temptation. I did not smoke, or drink, or speed, or cuss, or go with girls who did. When beautiful swamp angels offered their lithesome bodies to me, I just said no. Every now and then, I gave in and dry-humped this or that pair of Palmetto jeans, but I stayed pure of body, mostly.
I was a good boy, they said, destined for a holy calling.
In many ways, I blame rock & roll for what happened. I discovered this unholy music in boyhood, when my Uncle Mike died an untimely death at age twenty-eight. My grandmother gave all his 8-tracks to me, music I’d never heard before: Rush, Bowie, Little Feat, Eat a Peach. The eighties pop dished out by FM radio was candied and glittering and great fun, sure, but this older music was dark and gas-powered, all fire and gravel.
The center of this hi-fi galaxy was Led Zeppelin, those apocalyptic necromancers with their songs about good and evil and carnal unction and Middle Earth and Viking hordes. I bought the whole catalogue, read all the liner notes. I soon discovered the greatest nonfiction book ever written, Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga, in which I learned many important truths of the rock lifestyle, such as how when you check into a hotel you’re supposed to set fire to everything and throw all the televisions out the window.
Hammer of the Gods also introduced me to the mythos of Robert Johnson, the bluesman who, it was said, stood at a crossroads somewhere in the Delta and sold his soul to Satan in exchange for a godlike facility with his acoustic axe. And it worked. That man could wail. But no matter how skillfully he played, he always heard the hounds at his back. Having some familiarity with the coyote and its habits when taunted, I could relate. I admired Johnson’s mad moaning and sought out other blues records to learn more of these dark dealings.
I listened to Elmore James, Son House, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, every Chess record I could find. I heard songs about rivers I’d seen, places I’d walked, gods I’d known. How electrifying, to discover music born here in my homeland, under my very feet.
The feet: that’s where I felt it most.
The blues was the diametric contrary of what I heard on the radio. Madonna had no regrets. She’d make love to a family of goats and write a song about how all the goat-love made her feel sexy and beautiful. But these blues musicians—no sir. They might make love to goats, but they’d feel terrible about it afterward. I could relate to that, too.
In high school, during visits to my grandmother’s house in Greenwood, I’d take the truck out and wander the landscape searching for a crossroads. I’d find one that looked just weird and eerie enough and stop to write poems from the tailgate, like some kind of idiot. Mostly I wrote about hellhounds pursuing me for the terrible things I’d done in my own life, such as dry-humping, or littering.
My Sunday school teachers lobbied me to enroll in Bible college, where I might become an evangelist. But I’d been seduced by the devil’s music. Instead, I wound up at a godless Presbyterian college, where I fell in with a bad crowd, known to sociologists as “philosophy students” and “preachers’ kids.”
I soon took to drinking and smoking and tossed aside my vaguely bourgeois ambitions. I wanted a life in art, in music. And so, when I was twenty, after years of playing on other people’s kits, I threw myself from the roof of the temple, establishing a line of credit with Citibank to purchase a vintage Ludwig Vistalite of a glorious translucent aqua hue and a kick drum large enough to sleep inside, should it come to that. It cost $666.
You think I’m kidding.
I was leery of going into such beastly debt for these drums, succumbing to a system of credit that had nearly killed my father over the years. His middle-class aspirations were yoked to a stack of plastic in his wallet, and I wanted none of that. But these drums were my destiny. I carried them home from Magnolia Music and tucked the Citibank card away in my wallet, reminding myself to cut it up later.
Soon enough, I started a real band with a computer science major named Miller, a fledgling guitar god from Philadelphia, Mississippi, who played with Holy Ghost power. We called ourselves the Beggar’s Canyon Boys and worked up a decent set, songs like “Killing Floor,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” “Stormy Monday,” and “Sex Machine,” which we transformed into “Fax Machine,” a rousing number about a man’s torrid love affair with the Canon L920.
We played for friends here and there, and we sounded okay—we did—but something was missing. On the outside, we were white, but on the inside, we were also white. And inside that inner whiteness, there existed a deeper shade of white that knew things, such as how our good fortunes had come pretty easy, at least compared to the people we sang about in the songs we played.
I longed for a catastrophe of some kind that would give me more credibility. A devastating house fire would do it, or being stabbed by a lover, or having a parent imprisoned for tax fraud. I was open to anything, really. Perhaps a real gig, in front of strangers who might hate our music and attempt to beat us to death with our own instruments, would grant us the life experience we so desperately needed.
The opportunity came one weekend in Tuscaloosa, where Miller’s girlfriend studied at the University of Alabama. I tagged along to escort one of her sorority sisters to their spring formal. I felt out of place in my borrowed suit, but hey: The beer flowed like wine, and so did the music.
“Let’s ask the band if we can sit in,” I said to Miller, around beer number three.
“Let’s do it,” he said.
I went to the car and brought back a fifth of Fighting Cock whiskey to offer the band as a gesture of goodwill. When they announced a set break, I made my move, tendering the Kickin’ Chicken at my sleeve like the finest Côtes du Rhône.
“Uh, yeah, I guess,” the guitarist said with a shrug. We asked their bass player if he’d stay, and he shrugged, too. Whatever.
Thus it was that Miller and I mounted the stage at the Country Club of Tuscaloosa. We played, we slayed, we barked, we howled. Tongues of fire alighted on our heads, the holy spirit filled our bodies. We were, in that moment, rock gods.
Thirty minutes later, I rose like Dionysius from behind the drum kit, dripping and florid after an epic “I Can’t Quit You, Baby.” I’d never been petted by so many women with such exquisite orthodontia. This music thing was going to work out, we figured, especially if we could arrange for everybody to be drunk when we played.
Our zeal had been key. We believed.
Zeal will get you far in many things, such as religion and sales and drums, but it will not get you far in an Oldsmobile. You need gasoline for that, and the day after our blues-funk-rock apotheosis, we found ourselves creeping home to Mississippi on a desolate stretch of I-20 with no gas and less money, having spent it all on liquor and Waffle House.
“Let’s stop here,” Miller said.
“You got any cash?” I said.
“Nope,” he said. “But I’ve got an idea.”
The demon of rock glory had possessed us both, whispering in our ears, and Miller heeded its call at Exit 32.
The sign said BOLIGEE.
It was one of those desolate outposts with dust on the candy. In the gravel lot was a lone white pickup. The plan was, I’d go inside and buy a root beer, all casual-like, and Miller would pump some gas in an equally casual manner, and I’d walk out, and we’d drive away.
I entered the store and procured a drink with our last two dollars of folding money. I studied the potato logs, felt the Holy Ghost tug my ratty t-shirt. Was I about to do this?
“You’re a good boy,” the potato logs murmured.
“Do justice, and love mercy,” the jar of pickled pigs’ feet gurgled.
I approached the counter, making sure not to make eye contact with the man behind the register, for the light of the body is the eye, according to the Book of Matthew, and my eyes countenanced only thieving. I wanted to run outside, tell Miller to stop pumping, maybe offer to sweep up the place or mop the floors in exchange for the few dollars it would take to get us home. But I wanted to steal that gas. To have done it. To show myself I could do it.
Didn’t all the rock gods have mugshots—Johnny Cash and Jerry Garcia and the like? Wouldn’t this become part of the lore of the Beggar’s Canyon Boys, fodder for future songs and documentaries?
We could get away with it, surely.
It was just a few dollars.
It would be a story.
I paid for the drink and walked out.
Seconds later, Miller was pushing his Cutlass to unsafe speeds. Why Oldsmobile, a brand of car mostly driven, it seemed, by our nation’s grandmothers, had a speedometer running to 120 miles per hour, I’ll never know, but that day, we watched the needle climb as we got closer to the Mississippi state line, the crossing of which we felt must hold some spiritual significance. Perhaps we had made the mistake of confusing Smokey and the Bandit films with reality. Surely, we could not be pursued across this boundary, like Orpheus after Eurydice, like Peter after the transfigured Christ.
“Is there anyone behind us?” Miller said.
“Nope,” I said, looking back.
“Wait,” I said. “The white truck.”
T he driver, quite obviously the man behind the register, appeared to be my father’s age, and it was my father I thought about now—and what he might do to me, should we survive this high-speed catastrophe.
“Does he look like he wants to hurt us?” Miller said.
“A little,” I said.
He looked like a sensible man with obligations—be they emptying garbage or murdering young musicians—which he fulfilled with an artless sense of duty. He would be acquitted, no doubt celebrated around the state for his vigilante tendencies. This was Alabama, after all, where I wouldn’t be surprised if the state motto actually included the phrase “vigilante tendencies.”
I looked at the dash. Miller was up to 110.
“Faster,” I said.
Up ahead, we saw our deliverance: an exit. At the very last second, Miller sliced the Cutlass, flying off the asphalt through scrub grass and nipping a culvert and then bang! We were heading up the ramp at the speed of sound. We’d done it, we’d lost him.
But no, for there he was, flying up a grassy embankment, on our heels. And there, heading across the overpass straight toward the intersection, an 18-wheeler poultry transport. Behind us, a hellhound. Before us, a chicken truck.
“Go go go!” I said. “You can beat it!”
“Fuck shit hold on!” Miller said.
I cannot explain what happened next, except to say that if one grows up watching The Dukes of Hazzard, one possesses in the heart a belief in the real possibility of being airborne in an American-made sedan. We hit the top of that ramp milliseconds before the chicken truck and just kept going farther into the atmosphere, protected only by the spirit of Waylon Jennings, and then fuck shit damn we were back on the interstate, taking the Oldsmobile where no grandmother had gone before.
It worked. We’d lost him. We breathed.
And then we stopped breathing, for what we saw next were the blue lights of the Alabama Highway Patrol.
W e pulled over.
Instantly, a large man with a large gun was screaming at us to get out. These were no usual traffic violation courtesies. This was straight Cops action.
“Let me see your hands!” he ordered.
“Yes, your officer!” I said.
How does one express meek obeisance in such a moment? Your honor? Your officer? Your eminence? I showed him my hands.
“Out of the car,” he said.
I moved my hands down to unlatch the seatbelt.
“Let me see those hands, boy!”
“Yes, yes, here they are!” I said.
The gun hovered inches from my chest, as I very carefully explained my need to use at least one of the hands to undo the seat belt. Finally we worked it out, and I was up against the car, praying to Jesus. Miller was out, too, hands splayed across the trunk, playing the Very Respectfully Upset Civilian, while I played the Civilian’s Mentally Disabled Cousin Roy.
“What’s the meaning of this, officer?” Miller said.
“They didn’t say what you all did,” the officer said. “They just said to get you.”
I wanted to confess it all, throw myself on the gravelly shoulder of the highway and beg for mercy. I knew better than this. The best course of action, I decided, would be to repeat whatever anybody said.
The officer conferred with dispatch and looked us both in the eye.
“Seems like some gas was stolen,” the officer said.
“Seems like some gas was stolen,” I said.
“No way,” Miller said. “We paid.”
“No way,” I said. “We paid.”
“Who paid?” the officer asked.
“Yeah, who paid?” I asked nobody in particular.
“Him,” Miller said, pointing to me.
“Him,” I said, pointing to Miller.
You could see the officer trying to decide if we were lying, or if one or both of us had been dropped on the head perhaps too often as children. I may have drooled a little.
“Show me your money,” the officer said, seeking some proof that indeed we had intended to pay. Miller’s face lost all color.
I opened my wallet, pretended to look for cash, and that’s when I saw it, buried back there behind my driver’s license and a Dairy Queen coupon: The Citibank card.
Credit cards may have almost killed my father, but that day, they saved his boy’s ass.
T he band played on for a while after that: bars, dances. In time, Miller got married and like so many rock gods before him, took a job in cybersecurity.
As for me, I had learned my lesson. I was no desperado. I didn’t have the heart for breaking the law and throwing TVs out hotel windows. I was no rock god. I was barely a rock human. And so I set down my sticks for a pen, as a career in literature seemed safer and more sensible than one in music, its only risks being alcoholism and suicide.
But I’ll never forget that day in Boligee, Alabama, when we drove back to the little gas station, and I walked humbly inside and faced the man who had pursued us so ferociously.
“Do you take Visa?” I said.
“We sure do,” he said, as graciously as any of God’s creatures ever did.
It was, I believe, a charge of eighteen dollars.
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