"Did you have an unhappy childhood," asks a correspondent and I answer, "Yes I did, thank God."
The great compensation. In exchange for an unhappy childhood, the gods gave me about a zillion little gifts and all through a mainline writing career, these little abilities have popped up and there was little I could do to stop them from coming out.
One day I decided to go out and be a rock star. I found out I could fake some chords besides faking paragraphs for the Globe and Mail, but as soon as I hit centre stage, my small musical talent seemed to leave me. What is this silver-fretted Fender thing doing in my left hand? What is that big bright light, who are all these people? Who am I?
"You're a rock star, you asshole”, says the bass player. “Start rockin'."
So I closed my eyes for a second and imagined myself to be Jimi Hendrix, played some riffs I'd learned from Lightnin' Hopkins and tried to think of the tablature for a Jimi Hendrix song.
"Picks up guitar. Drops pick. Picks up pick. Drops guitar. Picks up guitar by the neck and smashes it on an amplifier. Turns to drum section. Picks up can of lighter fluid. Pours lighter fluid over smashed guitar. Looks for lighter. Can't find lighter. Rummages through tight satin pants. Plucks forth Bic lighter. Sparking now. Broken guitar now on fire. Awful feedback still there after Star Spangled Banner ending."
Oh f*ck. Wrong tablature. The tapes in my head are all scrambled up. Get the other tape in the old brain.
Thank god the sidemen are into a Jimmy Reed boogie lick and now, finally, I know what I'm doing.
You got me peepin'
You got me hidin'
You got me peep hide peep hide anyway you want
A little roll.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
You got me doin' what you want to
Baby what you want me to do.
Ah, that mothergrabbin' blue note, in between a major and minor, that flatted fifth, reaching for it now as I somehow go from an E to an E-5, hit the blue note, the bass player picks it up and we are on our way. Doesn't matter now, the backup guitar player can do the riff. Got away with it.
Then the Blues Brothers routine with the other guitar player and we somehow get applause.
After it's all over, I tell the bass player I'd better stick to writing, and he says, “Why? I wanna keep on playing with somebody good."
Where did this entire musical episode come from?
I have no idea. All those stupid tapes in my head.
I used to read a story to my children, I Wish I Had Duck Feet, a little kid wishing he had duck feet so he could walk home in the rain and a waterspout on top of his head so he could douse the playground bully and it did strike me that my small talents made me a lot like the kid with the duck feet and the waterspout on top of his head, where all the tapes were, and my son, who was turning out to be a mathematician was a lot like me, though not as crazy, as crazy as his old man who was writing for his life, spinning out fantasies that he could sell to the people. Making a living at it, but the god always demands a price. Occupational hazard. Alcohol.
"What does Daddy do up in that attic when he finishes typing?"
"Whom do you drink with?" Wifey wanted to know.
"I was stuck," I'd answer.
Eat? I'd rather be poked in the eye.
Having a dialogue with my friend in the glass trenchcoat.
What do you do when you're young, married, rich and spoiled? Do a Kurt Cobain? Better stick with the sauce. Sensible wife is no Courtney Love.
“What do you do for a living?” somebody asks at a party.
"I'm a pig farmer," I reply in all seriousness.
"So tell me about pigs and their ways," the cocktail dress lady almost snickers. "Certainly not the usual line of work".
The tape goes on in my head: "Instances of swine urisipe are quite common. Pigs do have heart attacks..."
She was starting to believe it.
Where the hell did that come from? The drinking? The information is there all right, it's just that it's scrambled up now.
Still, much better to tell people you're a pig farmer than some other fraud, like a writer.
I decided to park the writing for a while, took a leave of absence from the Globe and went back to the music.
But it got to be a job, like anything can get to be a job. I was drinking even more and the need to go out there and be brilliant every time took a lot of alcohol. The great Gordon Lightfoot was on the same TV bill as me. Impossible act to follow. So I drank, got Lightfoot to show me more chords, and more or less faked my way through.
"Better quit your job," said my friend the bank teller. "You're starting to look really bad."
Back to the writing, back to the spinning of fantasies.
But here, after all the alcohol, a problem. Blank screen syndrome.
I can't write.
A night watchman with no flashlight? A fireman with no hose? A traffic cop with no whistle?
The damn John Barleycorn.. Now I can't write. Where are those tapes? The tapes had always been there.
The editors are waiting. The mighty presses are poised to roll. And I can't write.
"You're blocked?" says the harried editor. Professionals don't get blocked. "I'm blocked Jerry. Real bad."
"So write about the block, you asshole. Gimme something, anything."
So I did. Wrote about the block.
And the tapes are suddenly, inexplicably, back.
The block has somehow produced a written piece. Jewel in the toad's head.
Those damned tapes again.
I think I need to see somebody.