A long time ago I had a neighbor, freebasing cocaine at his kitchen table.
That came later, though.
Curled around my first guitar on the front step, maybe? Must’ve been. I don’t remember how else he knew I could play. I remember our porch, and his hammers on Ziggy. That’s exactly what I wanted.
We became a pair in his basement from time to time, him showing me barre chords, my explaining why you might retune.
I didn’t have that in my life at the time. I had Gina, still several months of skepticism about my guitar playing before she’d be of much help. No one else to take an interest. Certainly not an adult example.
(My mother’s boyfriend had played guitar, maybe, in the 70s? Some distantly removed time. He had sliced the tendon on his pointer, and could no longer play barres. Useless to me. He had a clumsy way of making a C chord, remembering it a half-fret at a time.
Inwardly I swore: no forgetting.)
So there I was, in the neighbor’s basement. We had known him forever, anyway. He was fifteen years older? Feels like he was much older than I am now. At least seventeen, if he remembered Bowie like that.
I noodled on his ancient synthesizer and he restrung his Yamaha 12-string. “Like Bowie’s.” And he told his story.
He was heavy into music, writing his own all of the time. He went on a cruise ship or some other inane vacation, to play. And someone said, one night, to him – very serious about his music. They said to him he sounded like something or some other thing. It was probably the 80s, so probably some other awful thing. Richard Marx, let’s say.
And he said, “Peter.” He said my name in this very convivial way, like, we’re just two Italian guys shooting the shit. It was not a way men usually said my name. Still not.
“Peter, I didn’t know if it was a compliment. I hadn’t heard anything new in a year. All I would listen to was myself.”
I was incredulous, still a fan more than a musician. How could he turn off everything else? It seemed likely a lie.
I got too familiar, I guess. The whole family lived there, and I got used to poking my head in if I got home late from rehearsal and the light was on.
I put my head in, and there they were, him and his best friend. Hardware on the table, but not the tool box like usual. Pipes and glass?
Pipes and glass, and he said, “do you want any” or maybe “you don’t want any,” and I, numb, just walked back across the porches to my door.
Figures, the one guy who could say my name like that and mean it and play those little hammers. But I knew what my goal was – I would have to learn my barre chords before there’d be any excess.
I forget him for a year or so, here and there. There are other stories – driving to the music store in South Philly, the time I almost cut my finger off and he came over because my mom was at work. That bass in pieces in my closet.
I’ve still never been that freebaser at the kitchen table. I must not be good enough at barres. But, now I know what it’s like to only listen to myself, to not want or need anything else.
I understand him that much.