1:12 A.M.—I’m in a motel room. It’s a rundown motel with a queen bed that’s about as soft as industrial plywood.
The place smells like mildew. I found a cockroach under my pillow. I named it Bill. I told Bill to get out of my bed and sleep in the bathroom.
The whole world is asleep. I am eating a tuna salad sandwich, watching a holiday special on TV.
I just got in from playing music. I haven’t played with my buddies in awhile, and I didn’t realize how much I missed the old band.
Lately, I have been writing and traveling so much I haven’t gotten to see them. But it all came back to me tonight.
The joint was like every waterhole you’ve ever visited. Neon signs, graffiti in the men’s bathroom, good burgers, a bartender who calls everyone “pal.”
The patrons in this glorified shack were salt-of-the-earth people. They were shouting over each other, laughing, eating. The characters were all the same, but with different names.
The manager: perpetually mad at the world.
The waitress: tired.
The loud man at the bar: a traveling sales rep.
The musician: refers to everyone as “man.” Even women and innocent children.
I sort of grew up in places like this. These are my people. I was eighteen when I started playing music for a living. In my daytime hours, I would work construction. At nighttime, I would play in spots like this.
On Sundays I would play at church.
The first night I ever played in an actual beer joint was for a Christmas party. I was nervous. People were smoking cigarettes, wearing holiday hats. There were bouncers at the doors. Folks were dancing, holding their belt buckles.
I was raised as a dyed-in-the-wool Baptist. The only dancing I’d ever seen was in a Gene Kelly movie—my mother covered my eyes during the dancing parts.
That night long ago, the fellas in the band told management that I was twenty-one. Management probably knew better, but they let me in anyway.
We played backup for an Elvis impersonator from Houston. The King arrived late. He wore a skin-tight jumpsuit, sunglasses, and called me “man.” Elvis was sixty-three years old with a forty-six-inch waist.
He gave one doozy of a performance. Before he finished his show, he turned to me and whispered, “Hey man, do you know ‘Blue Christmas?’”
Know it? Does a bear play piano in the woods?
Of course I knew it, and I played with all my heart. He sang along with me. And it felt like I was flying. Until then, I’d always been a gangly kid who stammered slightly. But on that night, I was playing music alongside the King.
After that, I played joints in the Panhandle, South Alabama, and Georgia. These were rundown establishments my mother didn’t want to know about. Often, I would stay in cheap motels, and sneak my dog into a room with me. We ate a lot of tuna sandwiches. I was introduced to a lot of cockroaches.
But this is the life of a musician.
Musicians are the kind of people who have managed to get along on no money, liability insurance, and cheap lodging. Many of us have more or less disappointed our parents. We are not always clean shaven. We sleep late. But we are a good lot.
We attend baby showers for guitarists who are having twins. We attend the funerals of the bassists, pianists, and drummers who we called “friend.” We play together every New Year’s Eve. And we call each other on birthdays.
Tonight, I played with these friends again, and remembered what I used to be once. And it felt good.
Before we packed our things, my friend showed me pictures of his daughter. She’s getting huge. Another friend just had a grandson last week. So help me, a grandson.
This life moves so fast.
I wish it would slow down. But it won’t. It rolls forward like a song. All I can do is pray the music keeps going a little longer.
My friend hugged me. We slapped each other on the backs. He told me to “be safe, man.”
I got into my truck to leave. I don’t know when I’ll get around to playing with my friends again. We swore we’d do it more often. But we know we probably won’t of course.
My friend hollered: “Hey! Remember when we played for that Elvis impersonator, long time ago?”
“We had fun, didn’t we?”
Then we embraced before going our own ways.
He’s right. It has been fun. It has all been so much fun.