Spring, 1973 – suburban Cleveland, Ohio. The first rock band I was in practiced at our drummer’s house because his drums won’t fit through the door: their rhythm was nontransferable. I had learned my guitarmanship from books and folk guitar lessons. At 14, I didn’t really have a clue.
We actually played from sheet music – Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” was our first victim. You don’t act like DeNiro because you have his script, and you don’t play like Cream because you have the sheet music: the “how” counts as much as the “what.”
Fortunately for the dozens that our band was to eventually entertain, a good samaritan found us and took pity. He was a red haired, gnome-like individual who was somebody’s older brother and a real “professional musician” on hiatus from the rigors of the road.
With a magical wave of the hand, this benefactor initiated us into the world of 1-4-5 blues progressions and barre chords. Most importantly, he taught us to play what we heard, not what we read.
His knowledge seemed boundless, his patience less so. His recurring refrain was, “No, no, no. You’re doing it the hard way. Let me show you.” His voice was edged with irritation but supported with benevolence.
Our guru disappeared for weeks at a time, then materialized unannounced at critical moments to dispense his rocking revelations. We resented our dependency upon him, but we were always glad to see the maestro. After a particularly contentious session, the wandering wiseman didn’t reappear for several weeks, which then stretched into months.
Finally, seeking guidance and alternate fingerings for C#7 chords, we pursued our Yoda’s vapory trail. The trail very sadly led to the graveyard as our benefactor had not survived an afternoon on the road with a bottle of grain alcohol. Talk about doing things the hard way.
Players have come and gone – one lineup was good enough to play some high school dances and to win a battle of the bands. The band would have been even better if certain individuals hadn’t chosen to pickle themselves off of this mortal coil, but that’s all ethyl under the bridge.
The band now had a totally cool place to play. Someone’s mother knew someone who ran the local art center and the basement was our “rehearsal space.”
The subterranean bomb shelter ambiance was patently unappealing to adult tastes, but afforded a palace of pleasure to teenage would-be rock ‘n’ roll stars and guests. It also lent an air of gravity to our undertaking, but equally impotantly, the pit was a place to party with impunity. How many high school kids had their own adult-free, but adult-sanctioned bona fide party room? Damn few (and it’s probably a good thing).
We had a monster party planned for the night. It was Halloween and the choicest girl-flesh was coming over in an hour, “So let’s get this stupid practice over with, pronto.” We ran through the repertoire: Stones, Mott the Hoople, Bowie, Skynyrd, Zeppelin, NY Dolls, etc. We still did “Sunshine of Your Love” and we did it right.
The night was cold and didn’t pretend to be fall. The girls sashayed in, resplendent in their winter finery. Alluringly costumed teenage girls removing their parkas and ear muffs are sexier than a boatload of strippers, or so it seemed.
We enjoyed a sophisticated interlude with the babes, then others begin to drag in, and soon the room was full of witches, football players, transvestites, and cartoon figures. I was a urinal: don’t pee on me.
The Bogus Basement Band began to play. The dungeon became a swirling miasma of smoke, hormones, elbows, knees, rubbing, jumping, loud noise, mud, blood and beer. The scene resembled the underwater frogman battle from Thunderball: all grand gestures in slow motion enacted by sinuous plasma awash in a muddy sea.
At midnight, a climactic firestorm of guitars heralded the end of Mott the Hoople’s “One of the Boys,” and chased a cockroach through a crack in the wall. Next came “Sunshine of your Love,” featuring yours truly on, um, lead vocals and guitar solo. My voice was shot from the screaming, the metallic heat, and the toxic fog that enveloped the gathering, but I gave it a go.
The guitar solo was much more successful than the vocals: particles of emotion spread before me. I hunted them down and smote them with my battle-guitar, lingering triumphantly over each dismembered corpse. White fire consumed the carnage and chased the ashes skyward into the orange and black night, or select your own similarly hyperbolic metaphor.
After the solo, the band jammed on into the void, somewhat anticlimactically, I might add.
While the others droned on, I maneuvered my urinal costume around with my back to the crowd and took an edifying gulp of glacial brew. I then placed my guitar pick, a thin triangular wedge of plastic, between my teeth in order to tune up amongst the din of the “Sunshine” groove. As I tuned, I felt a satisfied yawn well within me. I opened wide to luxuriate in the yawn when everything stopped dead.
I tried to cough.
I tried to inhale, exhale, Nathan Hale – anything.
I had swallowed my pick and its edges were wedged painfully and emphatically into my windpipe. I whirled around to find faraway faces thinking faraway thoughts behind makeup and masks.
I waved, I pointed at my constipated larynx. The band assumed I was commenting upon their playing and collectively fliped me off.
I reached into my throat, jamming my entire right hand into my mouth.
Nothing – I pounded my chest to no avail.
I began to feel light-headed. No one knew, no one cared. I tried to scream, but nothing came out except a tiny spray of red droplets that lightly dusted the dung-brown carpet, then disappeared.
The band played on – stupid, relentless. I fell to my knees and reached into my mouth again, like some circus freak performing a trick.
I touched the pick. It turned sideways and allowed a zephyr of fresh air to enter my pleading lungs, but the same air betrayed me immediately, turning the pick flat again like a carburetor shutting off my air and my hope.
I saw large patterns moving around my sweating, expiring face. I could no longer stand. I waved weakly “goodbye” to everyone as they got fuzzy and faded away.
Suddenly, violent, cold air revived me. Someone slapped me on the back as I knelt on the ground. The slap hurled me forward and I smacked my head on the carpeted floor.
I sat up, coughing, gagging, reeling but not rocking. A delicious sharp pain gripped my throat. The pick lay upon the carpet glistening with red slime.
“I, I can breathe!” I exulted above the din, finally silencing it.
“Is that a song title?” asked the drummer.
“Are you puking again, you wuss?” sneered the bass player.
“I couldn’t breathe. I almost died. I swallowed my pick. Who hit me on the back?” I yammered.
“No one hit you, man. We’ve been playing, in case you hadn’t noticed, and no one else could fit back here in this rat hole. I thought you were tossing cookies, or praying or something. You’re always doing something weird,” replied the other guitar player.
“Well who….” My voice trailed off as a cold ammonia sweat erupted from a thousand pores and the wind outside whispered, “No, no, no. You’re doing it the hard way. Let me show you….”