Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Story About a Song

Part 1

I was recently at Little Kings Shuffle Club on Music Trivia night. I think Music Trivia night in Athens, Georgia is probably more challenging than it is in other places. This is what it's like: there's this bespectacled balding guy who stands by the door of the bar with a mic and he asks these impossible questions like, "What year did R. Stevie Moore release Delicate Tension?" and all these tattooed guys wearing Eddie Vedder shorts are flapping their hands in the air yelling, "ooooh! ooh! oooohh!" like they've been waiting their whole entire lives for someone to ask them that question. It's intense.

Anyway, the night I was at Little Kings for music trivia, I was half watching the proceedings and after it was all over, the trivia dudes were standing around arguing about whether Les Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 or 1989, when this song came on:

After about 15 seconds I looked over at the crowd of music aficionados because they had all gone quiet. I scanned the furrowed brows, took in the subtly played air guitars, and I'm here to tell you: that song was taking those guys places. I was being taken someplace myself, actually.

Part 2

I spent the summer of 1997 in Wyoming, cleaning rooms at a hotel in the Grand Tetons. I was 19 and a terrible maid. Probably the worst maid that ever lived.

In May, my friend Kristin and I drove my 1988 Honda Accord out to Wyoming from Georgia, and you better believe we had a Plan: we were going to spend the whole summer practicing folk songs from the Rise Up Singing songbook on our guitar and banjo, and we'd most likely get a record deal by September. November at the latest.

So, we got to the hotel and settled into our dorm room which was cramped, dark and had a wide, naked view of the staff parking lot. We trudged through the snow to the staff cafeteria for dinner, and the first thing I noticed as I sat down with my plastic tray was this amazing looking man staring at me like he wanted to floss his teeth with my face.

(Excuse me while I pause for a bit of narrative housekeeping:

When I was a teenager and didn't know how to deal with a situation, this look right here was my default strategy:

I call this look the "I Knew That." For those of you who happen to be a teenage girl at the moment, a word:

When you're in a new situation and feeling insecure, the benefit of this low-effort approach is that you never have to say anything interesting: other insecure people leave you alone out of the assumption that you're either thinking something real good or judging them because you're better than they are. However, in certain cases the "I Knew That" can be misconstrued as the "Let's Make Out in The Corner," and can instigate more of a response than you bargained for. Please feel free to email me with questions.)

Anyway, this man: he appeared to be some sort of viking king, which isn't generally the sort of thing I go for, but whatever--when you're 19 and getting amorous eyes from Thor, you have like zero recourse. But while I'm divulging all sorts of personal information, let it be known that back at school I had just had my life ruined by a guy who always wore cowboy boots and who told me about a month too late that he thought he was probably in love with this girl he met in Montana at welding school. Which was such weak sauce. So in light of my fresh heartbreak, I decided to eschew the Norseman with a firm hand: I put on my best IGNORING YOU face, ate my dinner and left.

Later that night while Kristin and I were playing some sad Gillian Welch ballad on the aforementioned banjo and guitar, there was a knock on our uncurtained window. It was the viking king, grinning.

"Hey," he said. "I'm Beau. Come on over and play some tunes with me and my friend."

Some things you should know about Beau:

1. He was 27 and from Omaha, Nebraska, which didn't really explain why he talked like English wasn't his first language. Kristin thought he was probably a little mentally handicapped, but I think he just didn't give a shit and couldn't be bothered to communicate like a civilized person.

2. He was the sluttiest person I've ever even heard of. During the three months I knew him, he whored his way up one side of our dorm and down the other, skipping all the Mormon girls, of course. And Kristin and me.

3. He loved music, and he was utterly, hilariously tone deaf. But that didn't keep him from singing most of the time.

4. That summer we knew him, Beau successfully ran off every single boy who tried to talk to me or Kristin. He all but peed on us in his territorial fervor. Once he even marched me out of a social situation by the elbow and gave me 15 minute lecture on why I shouldn't talk to the room service guys (i.e. "they're cock-suckers.").

Beau, Kristin, Beau's friend Marie and I got together three times a week to "play some tunes." We always played in Beau's room, which was a one-room log cabin that smelled like dust and pine trees and dude. Marie was a middle aged woman who spent winters on the Apache reservation in Arizona and summers working in the kitchen at Jenny Lake Lodge. Marie loved Gram Parsons and taught Kristin and me to sing "Love Hurts" so good that one time we made her cry. Beau was an adequate guitar player and a lot of nights he made us sing along with him for hours and hours, until we were hoarse. When we'd say we were too tired to sing any more, he'd grin and make us listen to his 20 minute arrangement of "Rockin' in the Free World." It was awful. But we learned a whole lot of songs that summer.

You know how everybody has a special little diddling riff that they play when they're futzing around on the guitar? Everybody's is different, but once you know what someone's guitar futzing sounds like, you can walk into a room blindfolded and know who's playing guitar just by the sound. Anyway, Beau used to always play this little "doodle-oo-doo-doo-doo-doooo, strummy-strummy-strum-strum...." One time I asked him what the hell song he was always playing, and he sang it for me, all the way through. Of course it just sounded like the bellowing of a bull walrus, so that was no help. But I probably heard him play that riff 3,000 times that summer. If I was on my deathbed with Alzheimer's, I would know that little riff that Beau always played.

The last time I ever saw Beau I stopped by his cabin right before I left to drive back to Georgia. I knocked on his door and there was some scrambling and a protracted wait before he appeared wearing a pair of khaki shorts and a t-shirt he had pulled on backwards. Behind him on his bed was a dark haired, tattooed pixie girl--maybe the prettiest girl I'd ever seen. Beau introduced her as his girlfriend who had just arrived from Nebraska. I'd never heard of her before. She sat on the edge of the bed, her black t-shirt hanging off one shoulder, and looked right through me, expressionless.

Part 3

A couple months later, I was riding through eastern Montana in Matt Thomas' old green Suburban. There were about 12 people in the car, and I was sitting in the front seat between the open window and this girl named Erin who was from San Francisco and knew everything. It was a really pretty fall day--warm but not hot, and it was one of those afternoons when everything on the prairie is either yellow or blue. I saw a little red fox catch a mouse on the side of the highway and I tried to tell everyone, but most people were asleep in the back and Erin was too busy digging around in her backpack for a tape of this band she had been talking about, elbowing both me and Matt (who was driving) in the process. Finally she hollered and pulled out a clear gray tape with SON VOLT written on it in black Sharpie. She jammed it into the tape deck and it started playing.

And there he was: "doodle-oo-doo-doo-doo-doooo, strummy-strummy-strum-strum...." I started laughing.

"What are you laughing at?" Erin asked me. She was annoyed.

"Nothing," I said. " This song... it just reminded me of something."

And for a while I just looked out the window and listened, kind of grinning into the wind. I really had kind of loved that guy.

But not too much. Just enough.


  1. You are the best. I remember that while you and Kristin were in Montana, I was spending the summer working as a dishwasher at a restaurant at the beach and the three of us traded a post card or two. What a great summer. I'm glad I chose today to check in on your blog.

  2. I think this may be my favorite Cloudless Sulphur post to date... or at least tied with the one about Matt Thomas. Also - I kind of love the song too. One of my college BFFs put it on a mix tape for me sometime around 1995. I loved that tape.