Homeruns and Heartbreaks
Then we hit the bigtime. Not really … but it was a big time.
The Rohnert Park chamber of commerce promised us an opening slot for a big show at Pioneer Baseball Stadium in exchange for playing 2 shows at Founders Day, the towns annual birthday bash, for free. Before we even knew who the headliner was, we said yes. We ended up playing all three shows for free. Even back then, art was worthless. But an added incentive was that the city would pay for band t-shirts. So Stacie’s brother Chris, who designed our posters, drew up a graphic of the red and white Japanese sunrise bursting out of ONE. We finally had some merchandize!
A few weeks later, almost a year to the day that Jeff and I headed west, I’m in black and gold moto-cross pants with my sunburst Les Paul playing to 2000 faces spread across the diamond. We’re opening for Night Ranger, who is still riding high off the success of their debut record and hit single “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me.” Everything is pro, and fast moving. The soundmen are speaking in a technical language, coming across as brash and territorial on a stage that is deep and wide and 8 feet tall stretching from dugout to dugout. It’s all fairly intimidating, and I feel the beer soaked butterfly wings still a flutter in my stomach. But, it’s our home turf, and when the music starts we are bringing our A-game; knocking every song right down center field and out of the park. Each of us are a good 10 feet apart, including the crowd. It’s a measurement of just how far we’ve come. Jeff stands directly over home plate honing in on the girls in the front. He dances over and puts his arm around my neck, and messes up my hair, then struts over to Mike who rocks out in the hinterlands of stage right. My guitar is loud. Plugged straight into 2 Marshall stacks, on loan from a guy who bizarrely stands beside them with his arms folded directly behind me. It’s like he’s guarding the amps! I want so badly to kick them over and ram my guitar through the speakers! Uwe is high on the riser, surrounded by every drum he owns, in a blur of sticks and hair. The sound man won’t let Bob near the sound board, so naturally he’s celebrating behind the backline refilling our yellow solo cups. We get an encore, but before we start the final song, Jeff walks out with a camera and snaps a picture of the audience as they go crazy. We are on top of the world.
As we’re breaking down our equipment, Night Ranger pulls right up to the stage in separate BMW’s. They are Bay Area boys. Their keyboard player, Alan Fitzgerald, heard our last few songs and tells me “good job” as I head down the steps. The rest of Night Ranger is huddled around their beamers in an important conversation. I act like I don’t care, but I do. Of course, I do! It’s Brad Gillis! He played with Ozzy after Randy Rhoads died in the plane crash last year! We were told that the show is the record release party for their 2nd album due out in 4 days, which means managers and record executives would’ve seen our set. Our fantasy is that we will land a record deal, or they’ll be so impressed with our performance that we will be asked to tour with them. We expect to see a party atmosphere, but aside from the band and a few roadies, no one is backstage. Turns out, they didn’t invite anyone because it was a small town “pick-up gig.”
After our set we go into the crowd and are overwhelmed with joy and adulation, high-fives and hugs. We sign t-shirts, posters, ticket stubs, body parts and random pieces of paper. Eventually, I make my way to the center of the field near the sound board and watch Night Ranger from the pitcher’s mound. They play their new record in its entirety. It’s the the first time anyone’s heard “Sister Christian” and “When You Close Your Eyes.” Jeff Watson does his four finger tapping with his right hand on the song “Rock in America,” and Brad Gillis is showing off his new whammy bar tricks. I’m thinking I’m just as good as they are. I could play in that band. But something’s amiss. I notice the sound is muddy, and the crowd seems to have lost its enthusiasm. They’re playing these new songs no one knows. They’re hitting grounders and fouls, and people are sitting down in the outfield. A David Lee Roth quote I heard in an interview pops in my head: “There’s no such thing as a dead crowd, the band is either dead or alive.” In the distance, I see a cluster of heads moving through the crowd. It’s my bandmates surrounded by people; basking in the glory; in their audience within the audience. I feel pats on my back, and eyes watching me watch the band. Maybe I’m patting my own back, because, I just realized we’ve stolen the show. We shut down the heavy hitters. And I’m up on the mound, feeling proud.
I could easily end the story here and leave the page victorious. (Well, victorious as a novice scribbler can be). Aside from a few stolen songs, and a white lie or two, we’ve gotten out unscathed. The easy truths have been told. When I was a boy, I loved reading the rock magazines because there was always a success story inside. Jimmy formed a band right out of high school, drove a beat up van 3000 miles to the city, knocked on every record company’s door until someone listened to his songs, and they sold a million records. So far, this story is a success, albeit small, and not even close to Jimmy’s. For years I waddled in the unsuccessfulness of my experience, trying to reconstruct the snapshots of my memories scrap book into a more palatable tale that’s easy to live with. It was a lot of would’ve, could’ve, should’ve’s. It wasn’t until middle-age that I realized that I accomplished more in a year than most do in 20. Part of me wants to end it here, because, the difficult task of reaching deep into the swamp waters of one’s former self can be a scary thing. The rest is not a winning story. It’s about mistakes and failure, a loser’s story. It’s difficult too, to tell these events without upsetting and embarrassing others. But, in writing and reading this, one must remember that, it was a hellava long time ago, and we were just kids.
I was sitting in Robyn’s driveway in Mike’s mom’s Nova watching him negotiate my record albums. He turned and gave me a thumbs up as Robyn and her mom went back into the house. After a while they returned to the door with the wooden crate and Mike brought it to the car. When he went back to thank them, I thumbed through the records by the car trunks light and noticed that all the albums were Jeff’s. I shut the trunk as Robyn simultaneously shut the front door and turned off the outside light.
“They kept my records, those are all Jeff’s.” I said, getting in the car.
“Really? Do you want me to go back?” Mike said.
“It’s no use.”
“Kev, if you want your records, I can come back and get them while they’re gone.”
“You mean break in?” I said.
“They’re your records. If you want them I’ll get them for you, no prob.” He said, winking.
“No way, they would know it was us.” I said
“Okay. Suit yourself.”
I didn’t know it then, but that exchange of words was an imperceptible introduction to the flipside of Mike’s one-size-fits-all personality. He wasn’t kidding.
Let’s back up a little. While I was gone to Tennessee, Robyn and Kendra took my car on a joyride to the city and broke down. The transmission went bad in San Rafael and they left it there. Upon my return I lost my temper and blamed everything on Robyn. She tried to apologize but my anger and resolve was implacable. I wouldn’t hear it. The next thing I know I’m packing my things with no where to go. Robyn and her mom reciprocated my harshness by telling me I owe them for 3 months rent. Knowing I was about to be homeless, Mike talked his mom into letting me stay at their place. So, I said goodbye to Rohnert Park and hello to Santa Rosa. In the fog of all the drama, my records somehow became my non-negotiable security deposit. I never got them back. I publicly avoided Robyn with a cold shoulder from then on. Kendra thought it was unfair of me to be mad at Robyn and not her. She said, “You know … I went to the city with her in your car. It was my idea too.” I knew that was true, but we had been dating for a while, and in my eyes she could do no wrong. So my only reply was, “yeah, but you’re my girlfriend.” Months went by before I realized that I may have overreacted, and that my cars problems were most likely preexisting. But after treating Robyn like anathema, I was too ashamed to talk to her. And because of that experience all those years ago, I don’t hold grudges. It taught me that it’s always best to talk things through.
At summers end, I felt a palpable transition that had nothing to do with the seasons. But with the weather came a sudden recasting of time, place and people in my life. It was like I stepped into a new chapter, on my own in a new town. Unlike Jeff, I possessed few of the qualities it took to ingratiate myself into the households of others. His infectious laugh and diplomatic manner could charm the door keys right from your pocket. I was polite but I wasn’t a hugger or a boot licker. Without Jeff as my wingman, I learned to work in a slow and quiet manner to disarm one’s skepticism they might have of a guitar slinging drifter from the southland. Mike’s mom, Nancy, and his little brother Tim were very kind and welcoming to me. They lived in a fatherless home in a suburb of Santa Rosa called Rincon Valley. I slept on a futon in the large family room adjacent to the garage. There was a sofa and a television on a rolling stand, stacks of games and books on shelves, and sports equipment piled in a corner. During the day I practically had the place to myself while they were at work and school. I wanted to make myself useful, so I earned my keep and endeared myself to Nancy by cleaning the house, inside and out. She was surprised and delighted in my abilities, and within the first couple of weeks I became her dutiful southern au pair. I swept, vacuumed, mopped, and dusted. I spot-shined the kitchen and bathroom sinks with the obsessiveness of a health inspector. I used a toothbrush with Ajax and scrubbed away years of mildew and rust from the tile and hardware. I folded clothes and checked the mail and beat the doorstep rug. One day, I pulled back the heavy drapes of the sliding glass door and went outside onto a weather worn deck over-looking a backyard with waste-high grass. I imagined it once a well kempt place of family gatherings before a broken marriage left it to wither in a forfeiture of happiness. It felt like it was a place of bittersweet memories and that I needed to ask permission to clean it up. I did.
In my new role of domesticity, I developed the keen schedule of a schoolmarm. I had gotten in the routine of falling asleep at midnight watching HBO and waking at 8:30 every morning. I had coffee, ate lunch and dinner, cleaned, played guitar, took long walks, and had sex all at specific times during the week. Kendra was taking a bus from Rohnert Park to see me on Monday’s and Wednesday’s and sometimes on the weekends. She had started classes at Sonoma State and hoped to study emergency medical technology. At that point I didn’t know anyone in Santa Rosa and looked forward to her company. But my abrupt departure from Rohnert Park left me feeling disconnected and worried that the band was in jeopardy. Uwe was living in Penngrove with his girlfriend and working 12 hour days delivering wine. The separation made it even more difficult to practice. I called Jeff so often that before long our conversations became predictable and brief. I spent most of my evenings hanging out with Mike and Tim in their bedrooms. They talked school and sports and did their homework while we listened to music. Mike would call friend after friend to get all his weekend action in line. I was glad to be living with our bass player, but he was young and still had his high school days to live out. In a way, it felt like I was back in Tennessee trapped in the confines of the family, a million miles away from my rock and roll dreams. But I made the best of it and rolled with the changes.
Some snapshots of the past never quite come into focus, as if you’re peering through a non-adjustable lens smeared in paraffin wax. While other memories come in bright colors and are as haunting and evocative as the day they happened. You wish they’d just fade away. I was at a party with Bob in a warehouse in Rohnert Park when a guy in a faded blue IZOD shirt asked if my name was Kevin. I said, “Yeah.” He walked over to a group of guys then a few minutes later came back and asked if I play in a band, and if I know Kendra. “Yeah,” I said. He walked away again, and a few seconds later came back and asked me to go outside. Bob and I had smoked a joint before we went into the party and I was so high that it was a chore just to stand. I was thinking there’s no fucking way I can fight someone right now. “You want me to go with you?” Bob asked, grabbing my shoulder. “Yeah,” I said, going out the door. Standing about 8 feet away, flanked by his 3 buddies, the guy told me that he fucked my girlfriend, and he thought I should know; that he thought it was best to tell me before I heard it from someone else. He said the same thing a second time, but in a different way. Only the second time he added, “And, she was really hot, man.” I was so wasted that I couldn’t tell if the guy was being sincere in his admission, or if he was a dumbass, or if he wanted me to take a swing at him … or all three. I stared at the pavement, speechless and paralyzed, completely awash in humiliation. Sitting here typing this, I wish I could go back in time, un-stoned and clear minded with a slight beer buzz. I would extend my left hand to you, IZOD boy, and say, “thanks for telling me.” Then as you shake my left hand I’d hit you with a right so hard that your mouths blood splatters across your friends’ faces. As you’re staggering backwards, I’d grab your head and knee you square in the nose and watch the blood flow over your preppy shirt, and drown that little fucking alligator. I walked to the van and waited for Bob to unlock the door.
“Do you want to go somewhere else?” Bob asked.
“Nah, man. Just take me back to Santa Rosa.”
The following Monday at Mike’s house, tears quickly flooded Kendra’s eyes as I began telling her about my unfortunate encounter. In one of the most dreadful hours of my life, we sat at the kitchen table like victims giving testimony in some sad honor court of heartbreak. By the time I finished my first sentence she was sobbing uncontrollably. I wanted her to feel as humiliated and gob-smacked as I did. She was saying all the wrong things; that she was drunk; that she was thinking of me, it didn’t mean anything. I looked out the bay window at my un-drivable car sitting in the street. It was proof and corroboration of our short-lived love affair. It only lasted 5 months. Then we walked silently to the bus stop on Calistoga Road, and as the bus drove away, I raised my hand to her doleful profile in the window seat. I felt sorry for her. Sorry for what would be the dogged cruelty of a moment in time that neither of us would ever outlive. Sorry, because I knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t worth the heartbreak. That I was never going to be the faithful boyfriend. It should’ve been her breaking up with me. Because, I was already headed down that royal highway of recklessness. I looked alright but I came with problems, like a transmission in a used car. It was just a matter of time.