I watched Mike’s tiny silhouette come in and out of shadows and moonlight of the practice field. He was 200 feet away pushing the ramp as I waited by the truck on the other side of a chain-link fence. I lost sight of him for a few minutes but I could here his labored breathing and the hushed sliding of wood on grass getting closer. I was surprised by the enormity of the thing when he and the ramp materialized out of the dark in front of me. He lifted the low end of the ramp and leaned it on the fence. “Alright Kev, watch it. Don’t let it fall on Dick’s truck.” He pushed and grunted until it teeter-tottered over and landed on my side. “Mike, this is crazy! No way we can get both of them on the truck.” I said, guiding it to the ground. I was hoping to dissuade him, but he’d already disappeared back into the shadows to get the other. Without any rope to tie them down, we overlapped the ramps precariously on the truck’s bed, and drove slowly back to Mike’s house.
This was one of many of Mike’s escapades where I found myself his unwitting accomplice. “Remember Kev, we’re doing it for the band.” He’d say, enthusiastically, and to string me along. Like there was the time we played a huge keg party, and at the end of the night the host couldn’t cough up any of the cash he had promised us. The money had mysteriously disappeared. So, the next day a brand new Pioneer stereo system had mysteriously appeared in Mike’s bedroom. “Think of it as collateral,” Mike said, casually blasting Shout at The Devil. Another time we went to a music store to get Mike’s bass repaired. I was unaware that his bass wasn’t in its case. But when we got home there was a brand new one in there! I was both shocked, and impressed! Of course, being the good Christian boy from East Tennessee, I always scolded Mike for these transgressions. I was the hypocritical getaway driver.
The ramps were used for marching band practice at his high school. They were 5 feet high and and 10 feet long with a flat surface on the high end where the drum major stood. We had a show coming up at the Sebastopol Am-Vets building and Mike wanted to look pro. He had been plotting for a while and promised to return them before classes Monday morning.
“Oh man, Kev, can you imagine how awesome those ramps are gonna look on stage?” Mike said, driving.
“Yeah, but this is wrong, man.”
“Kev, we’re just borrowing them. We’ll take them back after the show.” He said.
“Okay, man.” I said, reluctantly high fiving his hand.
They looked rough and had the faded MHS school insignia stenciled on the side. So we touched them up with black spray paint on the loading dock at the Am-vets. The paint was hardly dry by show time and we ended up tracking the stage with black foot prints. Uwe seemed annoyed flanked by the enormous props. They towered 3 feet above his drum riser! I felt awkward about the whole deal and couldn’t get my guilt-stricken feet to go even halfway up the thing. Mike had a wireless system that allowed him to go anywhere on stage. He was running up and down both ramps like a kid who’d just discovered the monkey bars. After the show we scooted the ramps back out to the loading dock … and for all I know they could still be sitting there to this day.
My time as an adopted son and house-boy in the suburbs at Mike’s was shortened when his mom began dating a guy named Dick. At first, things were normal, and Dick was just sleeping over on the occasional weekend, which turned into every weekend. Then, when Dick parked his F-150 permanently in the garage, I knew my days were numbered. We were cautiously happy for Nancy as the house-hold vibe slowly began to change. Jeff said, “uh oh, dude … never trust a guy named Dick.” I tried to keep to myself in the family room, but as a jobless, able-bodied 19-year-old, my station was conspicuous and unfavorable. Dick would inevitably come to the doorway at the top of the stairs and ask me to do this and that; asked me what I did all day; what I was doing tomorrow. I would just continue to play my guitar, which he took offense to. Over a couple months, I had spoiled Nancy with a spotless house, but when Dick moved in, I begrudgingly began slagging on my cleaning duties. “Gosh, Kev, did you forget the trash today?” she’d say surprised. One night, I walked in on a family meeting that I obviously wasn’t invited to. I had entered through the garage into the family room so no one knew I was there. Upstairs Dick and Nancy were laying down the new rules and how things were going to be from now on. None of it included me. When Nancy said I would have to move out, Mike and Tim protested loudly. “No, mom, Kevin stays! He’s like part of the family now, you can’t just kick him out!” I don’t know if it had anything to do with the ramps, Mike’s increasingly bloodshot eyes and long hair, or the metal constantly blasting from his bedroom, but it seemed I’d become a bad influence. I quietly grabbed my guitar and slid back out through the garage into the night. I remember turning and giving Dick’s truck the finger on the way.
I wasn’t homeless for long. My luck changed in the form of a smiley blonde named Leza. She lived a few miles down Highway 12 on the sparsely populated hillside of Fisher Road. Leza’s family structure wasn’t much different than anybody else’s I’d had encountered. She lived with her mom, Sharon, and Bert, who was Sharon’s boyfriend. The spare bedroom hosted a rotating cast of characters, usually old acquaintances of Sharon’s who’d fallen on tough times. When I arrived it was occupied by a part-time construction worker they humorously referred to as Kevin from Heaven. It was a puzzling misnomer for someone who was neither otherworldly or heaven sent. Leza’s place was known to the Rincon Valley kids as the party pad on Fisher Road. On the weekends, carloads of high schoolers descended on the sprawling rancher with beer they got at the 7-11 by giving money to unsuspected adult buyers in the parking lot. Sharon loved all the kids, and took pleasure in being the coolest mom in the Valley. The adults of the house partied just as hard, if not harder, than the teenagers. Sharon would sit at the kitchen table drinking her Franzia boxed Chablis and smoking cigarettes, with her two beloved Pomeranians at her feet. A stray curl in her Farrah Fawcett bangs drooped lower and lower with each glass of wine. No matter how intoxicated she got, or late hour she crashed, she’d be spryly washing dishes in the early morning. She was a caretaker of two disabled children; a paraplegic named Jason who zoomed around in his electric wheelchair every other weekend, and Angela, a severely brain damaged girl who was bound to a bed in the corner of the sun room. When Kevin from Heaven was home, he’d take his usual perch on a stool at the end of the kitchen’s sideboard. He was thin with longish jet black hair. He drank Budweiser and smoked Marlboro Lights and stared at the small TV on the kitchen counter that was usually tuned into Wheel of Fortune or Days of our Lives. The wall phone that hung near his head seemed to be his lifeline to work and he answered it skillfully with pen and paper on hand. “Sharon’s residence. Yes, may I ask who’s calling?”. He’d say politely. Sharon’s boyfriend, Bert, usually stayed holed up in their bedroom at the end of hall with his Jack London paperbacks and Blockbuster movies. He’d only come out to go to work painting houses or to replenish the perpetual Coors Tall Boy that he stuck in a koozie year round.
Leza had gotten me a job helping Kevin from Heaven hang sheetrock while I was still living at Mike’s. After a week of my sloppy hammering and a lack of improvement, he let me go, but, that’s how I came into the fold at the ranch house on Fisher Road.
The Santa Rosa kids (unlike the Rohnert Park kids) were more in tune with the burgeoning thrash and death metal scene in the area. Some of the guys who came to Leza’s parties sported long hair, black t’s and pegged Levi’s. Two guys in particular were a pair of 18-year-olds named Larry and Dan. They weren’t musicians, but aficionados of metal. They’d crank their cassettes on the stereo in Leza’s den, bang their heads and strike sinister Ozzy like poses in group photographs. I spent many nights between the speakers in the backseat of Dan’s Firebird as he and Larry educated me with the sounds of DRI, Suicidal Tendencies, and later, Testament, and the Storm Troopers of Death. I remember thinking that this new metal genre would never be anything but a California thing; boy was I wrong. My introduction to thrash metal came a few months before the parties at Leza’s house. I’d just moved to Santa Rosa and was hanging and jamming with a guitarist named Chuck who lived in Mike’s neighborhood. He had recently started playing in Vicious Rumors; the band we surprisingly beat in the Cal-Skate Battle of the Bands. They were playing at a place called Ruthie’s Inn in Berkley and Chuck asked if I’d like to go and roadie for him. Although the word “roadie” was insulting and beneath me, I said yes. Chuck and I rode with their drummer Larry while the rest of the band was in a van ahead us. On the way, Larry said, “I think we’re playing with one of those bands where the audience stage dives and slam dances like at a punk show.” I had no idea what he was talking about but it sounded scary. The band they were opening for was called Exodus. A few hours later, Vicious Rumors played a killer set, but to a thin and subdued crowd. Then, the atmosphere turned dark and rowdy as the fully male audience donned in black t-shirts began packing the stage. I stood at a safe distance in the back of the room. Chuck came up to me and said, “see those two guys with matching leather jackets at the bar? Those are the Metallica guys.” It was James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich. I had heard all about Metallica but I still hadn’t heard their music. Chuck told me that their new guitar player, Kirk, recently quit Exodus to join Metallica. When Exodus kicked off their set it was like a giant brawl had erupted in front of the stage and I took a few more steps backwards. I realized by the end of the first song it was all fun and games but I wanted no part of it. Guys were ramming each other with elbows and shoulders and hurling themselves onto the stage then turning around and jumping back into the crowd. If they were on the stage more than 2 seconds, a couple of burly guys would step out from behind the speaker mains and throw them back into the fray by the seat of their pants. It was complete mayhem! At one point in between songs their singer, Paul Baloff growled the words “death to posers” and the crowd echoed his sentiment. The phrase would become synonymous with the thrash scene. It meant death to the ones who fluffed their hair, wore eyeliner, or weren’t true believers. I was wearing a blue jean jacket over a t-shirt and Levi’s and my hair wasn’t sticking up; I was safe. That night, Exodus played the heaviest, meanest, and fastest music I’d ever heard. Heavier than Iron Maiden, Judas Priest or Black Sabbath which I didn’t think was possible. It was completely original and special. At that moment, I knew I was standing at the fountainhead of a new movement. I wondered how my band would fit in.
After the Exodus show in Berkley all I wanted to do was play in the city. A couple months later I got my wish. The rock station KRQR was sponsoring a guitar grudge match that was to be held at The Stone in San Francisco. I had entered the same contest the year before but never heard back. This time I was going to be ready. I sat in Leza’s room and crafted a tight 2-minute solo with my all my best chops, recorded it into her cassette player and mailed it to the station. About a week later Kevin from Heaven dutifully answered the phone. “Sharon’s residence. May I ask who’s calling? It’s for you. Says she’s with KRQR.” I was excited when the girl on the phone told me I was a contestant and asked for my address so she could send me the details. I would be playing in the city, but … without my band. The Stone was a fairly big venue on Broadway in San Francisco where a lot of mid-level bands played. I had recently seen Quiet Riot and Vandenberg there. On the day of the contest I arrived early to rehearse. There were about 12 contestants and 3 portions to the contest. Each played a 2-minute solo, a blues jam with a house band in the key of our choice, followed by a grudge match with one of the other contestants. Before the contest started, Jeff and I were in the lobby when we heard someone say that Robin Williams was outside. Sure enough, there stood Garp in a windbreaker with his hands in the pockets. He was talking to the woman in the box office as people walked by pointing. Jeff went up to him and said, “Hey man, Moscow on the Hudson was great.” I was just as shy as Robin was but I had just enough beer in me to say, “Hi, my name’s Kevin, I’m playing here tonight.” Robin shook my hand and said “Nice to meet you, Kevin.” And that was my first celebrity encounter, (Well, my first was Archie Campbell in Gatlinburg Tennessee, but I didn’t shake his hand, or speak to him). For the grudge match portion of the show, I was matched up against a bleach blonde metal head who dressed like a male dominatrix. He was decked in black everything with chains, studded bracelets and high boots. I was in my purple jumpsuit and playing my black ’79 Stratocaster. We stood back to back, and when the Emcee gave the signal we took 3 paces and began riffing in 30 second intervals. The dominatrix kept playing the same kind of riffs, and when I started doing my tapping and hammer-ons his lip turned up in disgust. Jeff and Uwe were in front of me screaming my name the whole time. Afterward, while the judges were tallying up the scores, a guy in the audience came up and said, “Trust me, you won the whole thing.” I was called for the final round and it came down to 3 of us. After the emcee called the 3rd place winner, it was just me and another guy who had played Amazing Grace for part of his solo. He was one of those guys who could play any style and he was great. So I was surprised when they called his name for 2nd place. I had won the 1984 Bay Area Guitar Grudge Match … for 3 seconds. As the guy was walking over to receive his 2nd place prize, the emcee corrected himself, just like the emcee at the Cal-Skate Battle of the Bands in Rohnert Park. But this time the tables had turned; I came in 2nd.
Not long after, Jeff used my guitar celebrity to help land a gig at the Stone. It was a Thursday night but it didn’t matter … we were playing in the city! Our excitement faded a little when the promoter sent us 50 tickets to pre-sell in order to play the venue. We sold about 20 to our friends, and the rest we struggled to buy ourselves at $5 a pop. And that was our first pay to play experience. The small entourage we took to the city was pretty much our audience because half the kids that bought tickets couldn’t make the drive. Plus, you had to be 18 to get in, and a lot of our crowd was still in school. Nevertheless, we played a great show to about 10 of our closest friends, a couple strangers, and an unhappy bartender. And little did I know, that’s the way it’d be for a long long time.
Leza was a beautiful girl inside and out, and the pride and joy of the household on Fisher Road. Although I liked her very much, I was by no means ready to be the steady live-in boyfriend. It was a delicate situation that quickly arranged itself around me like a set change in a theatrical production. I tried to settle in slowly, but my hormones were raging and fought me for any adult-like thoughts of discretion. At first I slept on the sofa, reluctant to go into Leza’s room. She assured me that it was okay, that her mom didn’t care. After about a week, before Leza’s 16th birthday, we were officially shacking up. It was clear Leza got what she wanted, and was seemingly the boss of the house, if not second in command. But she was by no means a spoiled child. She was smart, and hard working, taking full responsibility of the many animals around the property. In the summer she rose early to go to work at K-Mart on the north side of town. If one of us possessed the maturity to be living together, it was her.
The L-shaped ranch house sat on about 20 acres of rolling treeless land. The fencing came up to the right side of the driveway where a couple of quarter horses named Sara and Nadine would come out of the field in the mornings to socialize and wait for their breakfast. There was a row of three old stables and a tack room where feed was also stored. A short metal courtyard fence attached to the side of the tack room led to a larger dilapidated privacy fence that marked Leza’s grandmother’s property. On the other side of the house goats and chickens bleated and clucked in a shared area right outside Leza’s bedroom window. We’d sometimes raise the sash and talk to the pygmies and a friendly floppy eared Nubian named Molly. I became the part-time ranch hand helping out with the daily chores. I’d drive an old truck to a near by farm to pick up bails of alfalfa for the horses, where I was greeted by a kid cowboy in boots, a big belt buckle and a Dakota hat . It wasn’t long before Leza taught me how to saddle up and ride. I learned to brush the horse, apply the the padding, tie the straps, and check the shoes. Nadine was short, sassy and temperamental, and Sarah was tall and sweet. The first time we rode, Nadine had her way with me. “You got to show her whose boss.” Leza warned me … a little too late. All I could do was hold on for dear life.
These were sun filled days of good fortune, and the situation could’ve been ideal, but after a while I grew increasingly uncomfortable living in domesticity as the unmarried married couple. As the days got warmer, and Leza happier, my insides began to freeze up. I started getting flashbacks of the teenaged parents thrust into adulthood back in Tennessee. It went against my very nature and the rock and roll lifestyle I was dedicated to. Instead of expressing my feelings, or moving to the sofa, or moving out, I turned irritable and standoffish. Leza was a burst of cheerfulness and seemed impervious to my moody temperament. She’d come skipping out of her bedroom and into the kitchen where I’d stop her cold in her tracks, unable to reciprocate her affection. She’d just flash a he’ll come around smile then redirect her attention to something else. So for a while I skated on that bridge between half-committed and free agent. But later I’d be walking a tightrope over the libertine waters of debauchery, half drunk and without a balance pole. In other words, I was turning into an asshole.
On particular mornings, Leza’s step-grandfather, Art, would be hanging on the courtyards gate smoking his filter-less Lucky Strikes. He always knew when I was home alone and waited on me to come to the fence to chat. He never knocked on the door or opened the fence gate. I knew he was there by his persistent smoker’s cough. He was short and stocky with a round belly and a white crew cut. His forearms were adorned with old Sailor Jerry tattoos from another lifetime; they looked colorless and child drawn. His red eyes sagged at the bottom like a Boxers, and our conversations were always broken by the coughing fits that made his drooping dog eyes even redder. During his morning visits he’d be sipping coffee and in the afternoons he’d be drinking beer, always bringing an extra for me. He spoke sweetly of Leza and upon our first meeting let me know what a good gal she was and what she meant to him. Although he married into the family and didn’t have to work, he always talked of job prospects; something to keep him busy and away from the house. I was still unemployed and had been unsuccessfully dropping hints to Kevin from Heaven to give me another stab at hanging sheetrock. Art had answered an ad in the paper and had an interview coming up with a couple of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco reps.
“Are you interested in a job?”
“I guess so. Doing what?”
“Setting up cigarette displays. They said it’s a two-man job, to bring a friend. The interview is tomorrow morning at my house.”
“Okay. I’ll be there. What time?” I asked.
He reached in his pocket for a cigarette and coughed out, “10 o’clock.”
Walking from Leza’s driveway and through the door of her grandmother’s privacy fence was a transition of environments one might experience in a dream. It was like entering a museum. There was a short path through small trees that led to another gate that opened to a patio and swimming pool shaded in dense jungle-like flora. Weather-worn Adirondack chairs and paint peeled metal tables sat on the multi-layered decking strewn with dead leaves and twigs stuck to the white mid-century concrete. It was easy to picture a youthful Art, post war and pre-Elvis, lounging in a t-shirt and swim shorts with dark shades, drinking a can of Schlitz and reading the paper as “The Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” billowed from the open windows. The privacy fence ran the length of the long rancher hidden in Eucalyptus, Cottonwoods and Pacific Willow. Near the driveway an old yellow bulldozer sat rusting, as if it was parked there after the road was cut 30 years earlier. At midmorning the 4 of us met in the half-lit living room where a tasteful and well organized clutter of antiques and plant life set you even further back in time. It was like sitting among the furnishings of a captain’s quarters in the bow of 19th century ship floating in the Mediterranean Sea. All of us, even Art, looked out of place, as if we were tourists wandering onto a movie set at Universal Studios. The R.J. Reynolds reps were young and handsome and dressed in the latest preppy fashion of bright colors; one with a sweater around his neck. Leza’s grandmother offered up some drinks while the interviewers described the job at hand. We filled out the applications and Art asked a few questions. But each time the reps had to wait until he finished coughing before they could answer. They sat patiently patting the arm of the sofa and making the faces people do in awkward situations.
Our first on-job training was at a Safeway in Sonoma about 25 miles from Leza’s. We rode in Art’s Volvo station wagon down highway 12 flanked by acres of vineyards in their mid-spring flowering. On the way, we stopped for breakfast at a diner near Kenwood where I sat at the counter and watched the artful rhythm and timing of a talented line cook. This guy was running the show. Cracking eggs with one hand as the other hand flipped burgers and sausage patties. Multitasking was second nature to him. After he finished a bunch of orders, he casually listened to the waitress shout out 10 more, as he scraped the excess grease from the grill like an artist preparing a canvas with gesso. It was a feat of engineering that I’d never witnessed before, and I remember thinking if there was any job to have, this was it.
We met the smiley reps in the parking lot of the Safeway. When we said our hellos, Art began coughing and I could see the two exchange glances as if it were a concern they had already taken into consideration. We helped carry the boxes of smokes and displays into the store where we began the assembling near the checkout isles. It was a busy Saturday morning and I felt like we were in the way of the shoppers who were going around our work area. One rep worked with me and the other with Art. Once the metal display wheel was together we arranged the cartons and single packs from top to bottom in order of the most popular brands. Camels and Newport at eye level, Pall Mall and Viceroy toward the bottom. We were almost finished stocking the display when Art started a coughing fit that wouldn’t stop. It was a deep hack that turned his head and neck a crimson red. He was bent over with his hands on his knees. “Do you need water?” one of the reps asked with his hand on Art’s back. The other stood with his fingers in his hair and his face full of surprise. The coughing got worse and Art grabbed the display to balance himself pulling it toward him as the packs and cartons began falling to the floor. When he pulled himself upright the entire display came crashing over. The reps started guiding Art back to the parking lot and he coughed the whole way out. The only thing I recall about the rest of that afternoon is driving back to Santa Rosa, and Art saying with a chuckle, “Well, I guess that’s that.” I’ve always thought that Art knew his days were numbered and that he epitomized the effects of smoking. And in taking that job he was teaching a morbid lesson in his own special way. I bet that neither of the young reps stayed in the tobacco business very long after that incident.
A few days later, Kevin from Heaven was leaving for work when he turned and said, “If you wanna hang sheetrock you gotta bend your damned knees, okay?” Then continued out the door.
“What do you mean?” I said, following him.
“When you’re nailing a bottom nail, bend your body and get into it, man. Act like you wanna work. Spread your legs. You can’t just do this.” He said, as he mocked my lazy way of nailing using the garage wall to demonstrate. Leza was behind me and giggled at his mimicking of me.
“Okay. I can do it.” I said.
“Be ready to roll at 6 tomorrow morning.” He said, walking to his van.
I began my apprenticeship as a sheet-rocker on a palatial upscale home in the town of Windsor. It was 4000 square feet of new construction. Nothing but studs and exterior walls with electrical wire running through the frames. I knew it was a second chance and tried to stay focused and keep my mind from the daydreams it was prone to. I learned to carry, measure, cut and nail the boards. They were heavy for a skinny musician. I realized quickly the strength and stamina it took and wondered if I was able to endure.
“Hanging drywall’s the most grueling job on a construction site.” Kevin from Heaven said, gulping his lunchtime beer. “Nobody messes with the sheet-rockers. They think we’re crazy.”
The vaulted ceilings were 20 feet high. We walked up the tallest ladders I’d ever seen with the long boards against our shoulders, slung them over our heads and held them in place with our sculls while hammering upside down. At the end of the first week, Kevin from Heaven let me hang a small utility closet by myself. I was slow and put a few holes in the boards, but he thought I was showing some potential. When we nailed off the last board 3 weeks later, I felt like I’d just finished boot camp. Muscles popped out of my body that I didn’t know I had. I felt like I could kick some ass.
But it was during that time as we rolled toward Windsor in the dim light of the early mornings a song idea wandered into my head. It came to me like a broken narrative that needed pieced together. The few songs I had written prior didn’t come this way. “‘Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” was a Jeff Beck instrumental that was on his album Blow by Blow. I had never heard the Stevie Wonder version with lyrics. I began making up my own words using that title. Scenes and images of a failed relationship that ended amicably instead of bitterly swirled in my head. I didn’t know it then but this was the artist within, the storyteller … my muse. I hadn’t a clue what to do with it, or what it meant; how to craft it, write it down, or capture it before she got away. But now I know it was the creative imagination saying, I’ll be wherever you roam. And she followed me onto the jobsite like a comforting friend from some ancient time. She was there, in the dry wall dust flecks floating in the sparkle of the sun sifting through the tall windows, and in the hammering of the nails, and the slicing of the utility blades, and the snapping of the blue chalk lines. She was there as I drifted from my dream out of earshot into the wasteful days of naiveté, unfocused, uninspired and waylaid. She’d be there when I was ready to burn my treasure map, decamp my boy fort and surrender the battered ramparts of my fight and man-up. And she would be there when I wandered out of the wilderness, back home to discover the ancestry of words and syllables and simple rhymes, where I traded a thousand notes for 3 guitar chords and a story to tell. It was a long time ago, but I remember that first visit.