FAST FORWARD TO the present: 25 years later, and we’re pushing middle age, and truth be told we haven’t changed a bit. When I was young I assumed people change as they get older, but now I know it’s a rare thing. We don’t change much at all, and we fight mortality with every ounce of denial we’ve got left, telling ourselves age really is just a number and gray hair is nothing to worry about.
25 years passed in a flash and we awoke to this strange foggy world where it became quite apparent time was running out.We’d stretched our youth about as far as it would go. The more I think about what happened to Fooz, the more I think this is what it was all about.
25 years gone:
After graduating high school Fooz and I went to the same college, Cal State Northridge. In terms of higher education it’s not much better than the local J.C. but there are lots of sexy valley girls there and it’s cheap and any dummy can get in.
It was there that Fooz began his transformation into a punk rocker. Gone were the Duran Duran and Depeche Mode and Culture Club albums, replaced by bands like Anal Cunt and The Casualties and Dead Swans. He grew out his hair and chopped it to shreds with a pair of kindergarten scissors, leaving a shapeless mess atop his head that changed colors thrice monthly. He tried classes in advanced music theory, was completely bewildered, and dropped out. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to study, or if he wanted to study at all. Finally, inspired by Tom Cruise’s “You can’t handle the truth” speech, he decided he’d be a lawyer. When he saw the workload involved, he decided it would be more realistic to shoot for a Paralegal Studies Certificate. He was confident he could ‘work his way up’ when found a spot in a firm. I had my doubts about that and so did Sharon Pinkley, but neither one of us said anything. Sharon just wanted Fooz to get a job, any job, and I figured out long ago not to question Fooz’s schemes.
Around this time he started his band, the Fooz Pinkley Experience, and played small clubs throughout the San Fernando Valley, trying to jump in on the mall-punk craze of the mid-1990s. Major labels came sniffing around, but nothing much happened. The band’s sound became softer and more “commercial” with each passing month, but no labels took the bait. After Fooz resigned himself to the reality that big rock star money was never going to come his way, he re-embraced the punk rock ethos, starting his own Noxious Ruminations label and putting out a fanzine with the same name. Band members came and went, but Fooz carried on. At 30 years old he got his first job: Paralegal for Roseblum, Felcher, & Smith LLP.
I was a German history major with a minor in creative writing. I got my degree and found myself unemployable for anything other than low-level jobs. Eventually I was hired by Eichelbaums, the biggest movie studio in town—as a mail room clerk. I somehow wormed my way into the television business, writing scripts for the unmemorable fare one can find on the EB network—teen-girl tripe like Bobbsey Twins 1999 and Young Vampires in Love and Tampax Playhouse Presents: The Myrna Binger Show. I was 34 years old when I started to make decent money. I had a nice car and a townhouse in North Hollywood and my girlfriend Amber and from time to time I would splurge on a hooker to do the things Amber wouldn’t. Still, I was worried: because I was getting older, and because I was starting to wonder how long I’d have my job. Eichelbaum had begun scaling down operations to please its shareholders, and no one was safe: from the lowliest janitor to the CEO himself, every day at the big EB lot in Encino could be your last.
Through it all, there was my friendship with Fooz: going to his shows, drinking beers at band practice. I didn’t have much of a life outside of work, and around Fooz there was always half-a-chance I’d hook up with some sleazy punk rock chick he’d discarded. So like I said, if we change,it’s not by much. Fooz was a little older, the guy who understood the moves: the rebel, the anti-establishmentarian, the cool dude. And me: a wimp, a dork, a pushover, a jerkoff, a conformist. My self-esteem was still the same after all these years, even after my salad years at Eichelbaums. You’d think I’d have thought more highly of myself after that kind of success, but no: down deep I felt myself a hack and even worse, I was a hack for THE MAN.
And what of Fooz? Sure, you could say he was a paralegal for one of the biggest law firms in LA, so what does that make him?
But I knew that he was “fucking shit up from the inside,” just like he’d always told me he’d do. He’d sabotaged the work of other paralegals in his department, deftly shitcanning various cases and torpedoing the careers of his enemies at the same time. One paralegal, Linda, refused to date Fooz—so he snuck in one night and redacted information crucial to the case she was working on. He told me himself: “When she got fired, I watched her walk out of the door crying…I was hard as a headstone, bro.”
When things went wrong in the firm, there was no doubt Fooz got a creative charge. After we’d found Joseph Rosenblum with his head blown off Fooz had gone into a mad creative frenzy, writing most of the songs on The Fooz Pinkley Experience’s 6th album I’m All Out of Bubblegum. I’m not quite sure how to explain this, but working in such a staid environment fueled in some way the anarchy and chaos of his life as an artist.
I WAS OFF work and settling down to some bad show binge-watching. I had a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of buttermilk in front of me and I was feeling pretty relaxed when the phone rang. I looked down at the phone: it was Fooz. I sighed, looking wistfully at my grilled cheese sandwich, but I picked up. I always pick up when it’s Fooz; if I don’t, he’ll call over and over again, his voicemails threatening violence and calling me every name imaginable.
“What up, Fooz?”
I could hear guitars tuning, laughter, a woman’s voice, the distinctive surfer accent of Blinky Boy, lead guitarist for the Fooz Pinkley Experience, saying “…Yah man…I din’t even put on a new tire…I just got some of that cum-lookin’ shit that comes in a can…sprayed it right in there…” Then, a crash as someone knocked over a bunch of beer bottles.
“Oh hey uh…what’s up, Jack?”
“You called me, Fooz. You tell ME what’s up. That’s how it usually works.”
“Yeah, well, uh…you wanna come down to band practice? We’re having a good-ass time here, man, rehearsing stuff off the new album.”
Right away I knew he had an ulterior motive. He usually does.
“I don’t know, Fooz. I was about to watch a few episodes of Parker Lewis Can’t Lose.”
“Aw, come on man…you can do that any time,” he said. The little whine at the end of the sentence, the way he said tiiiiiiimeeeee, told me he was loaded.
“What do you want, Fooz? My grilled cheese is getting cold.”
“I need your help, bro-en-heim. Blinky Boy was supposed to pick up our new drummer but he had a flat on the 405. He was able to pump some Fix-A-Flat into it but he doesn’t wanna drive on a bad tire. Moody Mick is here but he’s so fucked up on Jack and ‘ludes we had to bury his keys in the back yard. Jenny just showed up but she’s acting like a—you know, a c-word. She’s got a yeast infection again because of those tight-ass pants she wears, and—”
That was Fooz’s on-again, off-again girlfriend: bass player, “burlesque” artist, and borderline personality Jenny Homewrecker. I heard the delightfully mellifluous sound of her voice in the background : “EAT SHIT, FOOZ.”
“Just kiddin’, sweetheart,” said Fooz. “Jack, I gotta call in a favor. You gotta go pick up our new drummer.”
“How the hell am I gonna fit a drum kit into my Honda?”
“His kit is already here; he left it from our last practice.”
“Aw geez…I don’t know…I was hoping to have a nice quiet night in front of the tube.”
“Come ON, Jack. YOU OWE ME, man.”
I looked sadly at my grilled cheese sandwich, knowing Fooz was right—I did owe him a favor. He’d hooked me up the week before with one of Jenny’s friends and she’d blown me in the parking lot of an Arby’s with the speed and suction of a professional. When I got out of the car and tried to pull my shirt down over the wet spots on my pants Fooz winked and pointed at my crotch as if to say: I took care of you, you take care of me. It turned out he’d procured the girl’s services with $20, a big baggie of weed, and a sack of Arby’s Beef ‘N’ Cheddar sandwiches. I’d been manipulated that night in more ways than one.
“All right, give me the guy’s name and address.”
“You’re a good man, Jack. The guy’s name is Greg Monroe and he lives in Willowbrook, right off of Avalon Boulevard.”
“He’s a brother, man. He’s black. You know we’re an inclusive band, Jack. You gotta a problem with picking up an African-American?”
“No! It’s just…it’s Friday night, Fooz, and you’re asking me to go to Willowbrook?”
“Psshhhaw,” said Fooz. “Hey guys, Jack is afraid to go to the black part of town!”
“Don’t be a goddamned pussy!” screamed Jenny. “You faggit!”
“Yeah, Jack,” said Fooz. “Don’t be a pussy.”
“He’s a pussy AND a racist!” screamed Jenny.
“I wouldn’t go down there either, dude,” said Blinky Boy. “That’s a suicide mission, bro…”
“Shut up, Blinkster,” said Fooz. “Hey Jack? Stop making a big goddamned deal out of nothing. Greg’s waiting.”
“Now I gotta risk my life for a little hooker oral?” I whined. “This is hardly an equitable trade, Fooz.”
“Just write down the address, Jack….Christ.”
“Hey Jack!” yelled Blinky Boy. “When you pick homeboy up….you’d better haul your white ass outta there, post-haste! IT’S A WAR ZONE, BRO!”
THE FUNNY THING about L.A. is that most of these places don’t seem so bad by day. Take a nice drive down Avalon some sunny afternoon and sure, you’ll see a few homeless fellows with their mouths hanging open, gaunt, in rags, and maybe you’ll see graffiti on bus stops—but the houses are the same single-story bungalows you see everywhere else in town (albeit with more bars on the windows) and people walk the streets, seemingly unafraid.
And then, at dusk, everything changes.
At dusk the somber orange glow in hundreds of streetlights flickers. The people scatter. Deadbolts turn in one hundred thousand doors. Living room lights are extinguished. The denizens of this hell on earth eat their dinner at the rear of the house— if any number of stray bullets in a drive-by shooting happen to smash through the front of the building, that extra wall or two might mean the difference between life or death.
The homeless cower in alleyways, behind dumpsters. They are the only ones left to bear witness to darkfall. As traffic wanes and dies and picks up again and as the sky darkens to black they descend on the Boulevard: booming bass, tattooed arms hanging out of windows, slitted eyes full of hate looking out at a broken world. These are the Friday night cruisers and they are hunting for sex, for violence, for drugs, for money. For trouble.
And in the midst of this I drove along in my 2008 Honda Fit, hoping desperately to find the cross street off Avalon where The Fooz Pinkley Experience’s new drummer was said to live.
Greg Monroe, that was the guy’s name. 37222 West Pinstick Boulevard, Willowbrook. When I typed the address into my phone the robotic voice said:
“Are you sure you want to navigate to this neighborhood, Jack?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
The voice paused like it couldn’t believe what I’d said… I’d blown the phone’s mind. After a few more seconds the robot voice spoke again:
“Okay, Jack. Here are the directions to 37222 Pinstick Boulevard, Willowbrook. Good luck.”
I couldn’t remember my phone ever wishing me luck. It was unsettling.
I came to a stop light. Two black guys in white t-shirts pulled up next to me in a purple El Camino. The car was lowered so far to the ground that all I could see was the tops of their heads and their eyes as they stared. The guy on the passenger side gestured for me to roll down the window. I gave a little wave and a sickly smile and blurted out “How’s it goin’, bro?” The light turned green. I didn’t know a Honda Fit could peel out but it did, and I took off down the street doing 70. In my rearview mirror I could see them laughing.
Finally I came to Pinstick Boulevard and turned left onto a quiet residential street. The street ended in a cul-de-sac. I swung back around and found the place. The house was a crumbling Spanish Villa painted a queasy orange, with big wrought iron gates and a fountain out front with a cupid statue urinating into a pool of water. I gave the horn a tentative honk. Silence. I was starting to wonder if I was at the wrong place when he tapped on the driver’s side window. I jumped and yelped like a poodle hit with a cattle prod.
He was a barrel of a man in a big yellow jacket with cargo pockets and faux fur around the neck, a too-small Kangol cap pulled down over an immense bald head, and blue-gray eyes so light in the frame of his dark face that the effect was jarring. In one hand he held a big gray duffel bag.
I rolled down the window.
“Uh, hi. You must be Greg Monroe?”
He paused, looking me up and down and at the inside of my car, assessing the situation with the kind of wariness that becomes second nature when you live in the ghetto.
“Yeah, I’m Greg. What you want, man?”
“Fooz sent me to pick you up. He didn’t tell you I was coming?”
He nodded slowly, still staring at me.
“He told me. Let’s get up on out of here.”
He walked around and opened the passenger door and got in, grunting as he settled his gargantuan frame into the Japanese-built shitbox.
I pulled the car left back onto Avalon in the direction I’d come from. I didn’t feel any safer with Greg in the car—to the contrary. A white guy and a black guy driving together in Willowbrook on a Friday night? God, I hoped we didn’t pique the curiosity of the LAPD. Call me paranoid, but you’ve seen what’s happening in the country with cops shooting black people. It would be a hell of a thing to end my life in a hailstorm of bullets when all I wanted was a grilled cheese sandwich and a tall cool glass of buttermilk.
The further north we drove along Avalon and the closer we got to the 105 freeway, the better I felt. But we were still well within the boundaries of Willowbrook when Greg said:
“I’m hungry, man. Pull into that Jack in the Box right there. Drive-thru.”
What could I do?I pulled the Fit into the drive-thru. Greg said:
“I’ll take a large jalapeno poppers, a Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger….and a Diet Coke.”
Then he got out of the car, taking his duffel bag with him. “What the hell,” I said.
What could I do? I ordered his food.
As I waited in line I watched Greg walk across the parking lot with that worn gray duffel bag slung over his shoulder. A group of young men watched him as he walked over and looked warily at him and his bag both. He raised his hand in greeting and I could see he was laying down a sales pitch of some kind. A few of the young men nodded and withdrew cash from baggy jeans. Greg looked around the lot and at Avalon Boulevard, presumably for police, then reached into his bag.
A horn honked behind me. The line was moving along. I drove up to the window, got the greasy bag of food and the drink, and pulled around into the parking lot where Greg was shoving folded bills into a pocket somewhere on his voluminous person. He got in the car and unwrapped his burger as I pulled out onto Avalon Boulevard. I looked down at the duffel bag, wondering what was in there. I had a feeling it wasn’t just Vic Firth drumsticks and copies of Modern Drummer Magazine.
We drove along Avalon, nearly to the freeway, Greg jamming jalapeno poppers into his mouth and slurping on his Diet Coke. He hadn’t said a word to me and I felt a little indignant about that, being treated like his chauffeur or something. I was debating whether or not I should say something snippy when he wadded up the empty fast food bag, threw it into the back seat, wiped his hand on his pants, and said “You see that cat right there? The dude waiting at the light in the Ford Explorer? Pull up next to him.”
As he said this, Greg reached into the deep hip pocket of his jacket and let it rest there. I did exactly what he said, sure he’d stick a “gat” in my face if I refused. I pulled up to the light and stopped next to the Explorer and Greg jumped out, again with his duffel bag. “Hey bro!” he yelled. I tensed up, waiting for the shot. If that happened I was going to floor it, red light be damned.
As he walked toward the Explorer I saw the face of the driver go from suspicion to recognition. “Yo wassup, dog?” I could see them doing the whole complicated handshake thing black people sometimes do; then Greg reached, once again, into his duffel bag. Again, I couldn’t quite see what it was he had in the bag. His massive body obscured the transaction.
“Y’all take it easy now,” he said, and tapped the driver side door with his palm. “On the real,” said the other guy. “See you back in the place.”
Greg got back in. “Let’s roll on out of this piece.”
Finally we got on the 105. The uncomfortable silence continued. I’d decided by this time (duh) that Greg had a generous supply of drugs in that bag, probably crack cocaine, and I was worried that he was going to ask me to take an exit somewhere else in South Central, a detour into some other land of horrors, but as I took the offramp onto the 110 north with an immense feeling of relief I glanced over and saw he was asleep, his head laid back, hands folded on his big belly. He let out a long wheezing snore.
I PULLED THE Honda into Fooz Pinkley’s driveway forty-five minutes later at his home in Calabasas. I hadn’t yet quite squared away this staid Spanish villa with the madman punk rocker I knew, though the madness of Fooz’s lifestyle certainly carried on behind those walls unbeknownst to the other denizens of this upper-scale, very tony neighborhood. Fooz had gutted and soundproofed the entire bottom floor to create a rehearsal place/ recording studio/party pad. He’d paid for the remodel with credit cards he had little to no intention of ever paying off: “The whole rotten structure is coming down any day now,” he liked to say. “Visa can suck my balls.”
Greg Monroe was still sawing logs in the passenger seat of my car. I tapped him on the shoulder and he sat up like he’d been shocked and reached into that big hip pocket.
“Relax! Relax! We’re here!”
“We’re here,” he repeated, looking at me like he wasn’t sure where that might be, or who I was for that matter. He rubbed his hand over his bald head, realized he wasn’t wearing his Kangol cap (it had fallen off into the back seat somewhere around Encino), muttered “Mutha fucka”, found his cap, put it on his head, and got out of the car.
I walked up and rang the doorbell, Greg following behind slowly, stiff from the car ride, carrying his duffel in one hand. I could hear the farty twang of Moody Mick’s bass guitar from the somewhere in the compound. The front door opened and marijuana smoke, sweet and damp,wafted out into the cool air.
“Oh hell yeah,” said Greg. “White boys smokin’ some WEED up in this bitch.”
Jenny Homewrecker’s hair was dyed black and cut into a shapeless mess, and you could outfit a fly fishing tournament with the hardware that was stuck in her face. She saw me and her heavily mascaraed eyes turned to slits.
“Hey there,” said Greg. “How you doin’, girl?”
Jenny seemed taken aback. “Hi,” she said. Then she screamed over her shoulder:
“JACK IS HERE. With your new drummer.”
“Well let them in,” Fooz said from inside.
We walked in. The place was a total wreck, but what else was new? Along one wall were a couple beat-up couches where various Fooz Pinkley Experience hanger-onners sat watching the band rehearse. There was Bill Philtrum, drinking a Pabst and smoking a cigarette, every inch of his arms covered in tattoos he hid with long-sleeved business shirts in his other life as a computer programmer. Then there was Emily Lowry, the “goth girl” who wasn’t really a girl anymore, whose Siouxsie and the Banshees shirt stretched tight over a beer gut where once it had hung baggily on a tiny girl’s frame. There was Denny Martin, the 43-year-old ex-skateboarder and “wall rider” who’d once made the cover of Thrasher Magazine and now lived with his 90-year-old mother in a one-bedroom apartment in Lawndale.
Truth be told, Jenny Homewrecker was the kid of the scene, and she was 34. I was 38. Fooz was 39, just about to turn 40, though he routinely lied about his age and claimed to be 32. Sometimes looking around at my friends get me awfully depressed.
In the center of the room, encircled by lava lamps and enshrouded in wet clouds of weed smoke, the Fooz Pinkley Experience was tuning up.
Blinky Boy’s bic-clean head gleamed in the dim glow of the overhead light. He picked up a Pabst, downed it, belched, and continued tuning his “axe”, a pink Ibanez. Blinky Boy’s real name is Todd Gittens and he was the band’s lead guitarist, a headbanger and death metal freak from way back. He grew up in Tujunga among contractors and redneck bikers and speed freaks. He’d been a speed-addicted white supremacist in his earlier years until he found Jesus and renounced his racist ways. Jesus never gave him quite enough juice to completely kick his penchant for methamphetamine, and he went on speed binges from time to time. He lived in Tujunga, as had his father and his father’s father before him. He had a wife and two kids and worked as a roofer.
Then there was “Moody” Mick Romero, the band’s keyboard/bass player. His dad was a music teacher for a local high school, and he’d been raised in a home where musical ability was a given; he had a nodding acquaintance with all kinds of instruments. He suffered from some sort of social disorder, and would have gladly played music in his bedroom alone for the rest of his life had his parents not encouraged him to join a band. He’d answered Fooz’s craigslist ad and joined the Fooz Pinkley Experience when he was 34 years old. He had no aspirations other than to play music. His nickname, “Moody,” was an ironical comment on his completely detached, flat-line emotional state. This detached personality lent for effective stage presence, however: while Fooz and Blinky Boy flailed around on the stage like epileptics having a seizure, he stood to the side: aloof, imperturbable, vacant, hitting synth keys and playing his Seinfeld-style bass grooves.
And Fooz: standing in the middle of the room, a single light dangling from the ceiling specifically to cast stark shadows across his face, except the shadows weren’t so stark on his puffy countenance. His mohawk, bereft as it was of the aquanet and egg yolk that usually made it stick up into a three-foot high peak, hung down on one side of his head. In his hands he held his guitar, a purple Stratocaster with uncut guitar strings exploding crazily from the headstock. He strummed a bar chord: BLUARRRRRSXXXXXXXXNNNN. The guitar was perfectly tuned, which was to say, not at all—just the way he liked it.
“Man… what the hell is this shit,” said Greg.
Fooz looked up from his guitar reverie. His mouth fell open. He turned down the volume on the guitar.
“Hey Jack,” he said softly. “I don’t know who this dude is, but that isn’t Greg Monroe.”
I DIDN’T JUST stand back, I jumped, and my eyes went to his hip pocket and to the duffel bag. How could I have been so stupid? I’d picked up the wrong guy. Just let him into my car. A crack-dealing brother from the most dangerous neighborhood in Los Angeles.
“What address did you go to, Jack?” asked Fooz.
“37222 Pinstick Boulevard. Like you said.”
“East, or West?”
I swallowed hard and looked around the room at everyone looking back at me.
“It was supposed to be East Pinstick, Jack,” said Fooz.
Meanwhile, “Greg” walked over and helped himself to a beer. He popped the top, took a hit, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as we all watched him. An awkward situation, and a dangerous one, if “Greg” decided to pull that heater out of his hip pocket.
“Ah, I’m sorry sir, but there seems to have been some misunderstanding,” said Fooz. “You see, my fucknut buddy here, Jack, was supposed to pick up our drummer, who unfortunately has a similar address to your own.”
“Greg” belched. “Shit,” he said, “I figured there must be some reason a white dude comes picking me up in the ‘hood in the middle of the night.”
Blinky Boy said: “Dude. You got in a strange car, with somebody you don’t know, no questions asked?”
“Greg” looked at me and smirked.
“Come on, man. Look at this guy. What’s he gonna do?”
Everyone laughed. I felt my face flush.
“You guys think that’s funny, huh? Let me tell you something. This homeboy was slinging dope the whole way here, and what’s more, he’s got a gun in his pocket. So yuck it up, assholes.”
Fooz looked at “Greg” and raised his eyebrows. “You selling some drugs, man, I’ll tell you right now…you got more than one potential customer in this room.”
The assembled crowd made a general sound of agreement. Blinky Boy nodded and said “Oh yeah, man. OH yeah,” and Jenny Homewrecker was gazing at “Greg” with real interest now, over-mascaraed eyes gleaming. You’d almost mistake it for sexual interest if you didn’t know she was a coke slag from way back.
“Greg,” meanwhile, just shook his head.
“Oh give me a break, man. You think I’ve got narcotics in this duffel bag?”
“I saw you!” I yelled. “I saw you selling to those dudes at the Jack in the Box! And the guy at the intersection!”
“There ain’t no drugs in this bag, fool.”
“Let me ask you something, my brother,” said Fooz. “What’s your name?”
“My name Cornell Tatum.”
“So Cornell. If you don’t mind me asking, what is in the bag?”
“I’ll show you.”
He set the duffel bag on top of one of Fooz’s half-stacks, reached inside, and pulled out a handful of compact discs. There he was on the cover: mugging into the camera with with his kangol cap and a beautiful cherrywood Gretsch guitar.
“I’m a musician. These are my CDs. I sell ‘em ten bucks a pop. Dudes in the hood love my shit.”
Fooz’s mouth hung open. “Whoa. You a guitarist, bro?”
“I been playing jazz guitar for over thirty years. Used to jam with George Benson back in the day.”
“George Benson, man. He’s a jazz legend.”
“Jazz…uh huh…” Fooz put on his condescending look—that look that says he’s tuned you out.
Cornell picked up on that. He laughed.
“Hey man, I guess it ain’t punk rock. But I guarantee I can keep up with you dudes.”
A look crossed Blinky Boy’s face, the kind of look I imagine he had back in his skinhead days right before doing a good ol’ curb stomping. But then it the light of Jesus prevailed, and his face broke into a warm—if not entirely convincing—grin.
“You wanna jam with the band, dude? You can play my ax. I know it ain’t no Gretsch, but hey…”
He held up his guitar. Cornell scratched his chin thoughtfully.
“Jeez, an Ibanez? I guess I can play anything, but damn…pink?”
That expression returned in a flash to Blinky Boy’s face; I could almost see racial epithets flying through his subconsious mind. But this was the sort of banter all musicians engage in, and he realized that, and the smile returned.
“Come on, old man…show us what you got.”
“All right then,” said Cornell. He took the guitar from Blinky Boy, who promptly went over to the beer cooler for another Pabst. Cornell looked at the remaining band.
“Any y’all mothafuckas know a little tune called “The World is a Ghetto?”
Fooz picked at his left nostril. “The world is a wha’?”
“Sheeyit,” said Cornell. He finished off the Pabst and threw it over his shoulder. “C minor. Try to follow along. Who gonna play drums?”
“I can play a little,” said Blinky Boy. He walked over to the kit, sat down, and picked up the sticks.
“Good. Now follow my lead.” Cornell tapped his foot. “1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4…”
What happened next was nothing short of astonishing. Imagine this African-American man, a big bear of a man holding a pink Ibanez guitar like a child’s toy and drawing from it the smoothest sounds you’ve ever heard…and being backed up by a punk rock band, all of them astonished not only at the sounds emanating from the man’s fingers and soul, but at the sudden realization of their own rank amateurism. Blinky Boy was doing okay, playing a 16 beat with a little lite syncopation on the groove, and Moody Mick played a repetitive but serviceable bass line. Fooz, however, was lost. He watched Cornell’s fingers, lips moving like a learning-disabled child struggling with a reading primer, his face a picture of utter confusion, his hands moving over the fretboard looking fruitlessly for a place to jump in.
Cornell pulled the mic stand away from Fooz, flipped on the mic, and started to sing.* I looked over to see Jenny Homewrecker dancing with a look on her face like it was the first time she’d ever heard music, like she’d never realized music could be something beyond the three out-of-tune chords in Fooz’s repertoire. Seeing her smile and dance was like the effulgence of God breaking through the densest of dark cloudbanks. A jazz convert.
“GO MAN! GO!” screamed Bill Philtrum.
We all watched with our mouths hanging up as the music built up and up into a crazy crescendo. Cornell nodded up and down, trancing hard, his hands flying over the strings in an expression of man and music as one indivisible expression of energy. And then, with ashattering explosion of electric licks, the song was over.
Everyone burst into applause—everyone except Fooz, who looked like he’d been hit in the head with a ball-peen hammer. He’d never once managed to play along with Cornell. His arms hung at his side, limp and useless things, and in all the years I was friends with Fooz I’ve never seen him look so defeated.
Bill Philtrum held up his hand for a high-five. Cornell looked at him like he’d lost his mind. Bill dropped his hand and said:
“Let me ask you a question. Your name is Cornell Tatum. You related to the guy who played for the L.A. Lakers in the 70s? I remember him from when I was a kid.”
Cornell smiled and set Blinky Boy’s Ibanez on its guitar stand with the respect one man shows another’s instrument (no matter how effete it might be). Then he walked over, picked up his gray duffel bag, and threw it on the floor.
“Naw…I ain’t related to him,” said Cornell. “In fact, that ain’t even my name.”
“What?” Philtrum looked confused.
Cornell—or whatever the hell his name really was; we never found out—reached into that big hip pocket and pulled out what looked like a Glock. He said:
“All y’all take all your wallets and jewelry and put ‘em in the bag. I got a lot of rounds in this gat and I’m a good shot, so don’t try anything stupid.”
He pointed at me.
“I’m gonna borrow your ride, homie.”
The room was completely silent. Everyone was stunned.
“But why,” said Moody Mick. “You’re the greatest musician I’ve ever played with. Why do you want to rob us?”
“Hey asshole,” said the man. “You know what? I don’t like fuckin’ punk rockers anyhow.”