His Own Best Audience

HIS OWN BEST AUDIENCE

by

Dwight Hilson

 How would you feel if you never played your favorite song again?

How would you feel if you no longer played your ten favorites? Twenty?

Maybe more songs than you cared to remember?


Stage lights—those damn stage lights: didn’t matter how small the bar or club—full stage, riser, or chair in a corner—didn’t matter, they always had at least one annoying stage light aimed to expose more than just that zit on your forehead.

Tom Garvey hated stage lights, especially when he’d performed earlier in the day; but he refused to wear sunglasses. Oh sure, he could understand why a lot of up-and-comers—even established arena stars—wore them; it just wasn’t his style. Tom felt lucky to stare into a spotlight for three hours a few nights each week, and the folks in this corner of the state deserved to see his eyes—no matter how bloodshot.

The Asheville Saloon had a long row of multicolored stage lights, but Tom liked playing gigs there nonetheless. Great sound system for sure, and the place hosted an appreciative bunch of college kids and mostly young professional types—and they kept the lights low while he set up. He trudged from his midwinter grimy Cherokee, feeling pretty burnt out; no better way to describe it than to say he felt like shit. Worse still, he needed to select a new show closer, a chore Tom found ever more draining.

That last one was a favorite; the words just flowed without thought, and Tom could close his eyes, knowing his fingers would play the right chords and he could hear the music as if listening from the table nearest his feet. It was a Jackson Browne song: “These Days.” Tom’s arrangement sounded closer to the Gregg Allman version, but it had done the trick for a while now—a great closer, perfect at mellowing the crowd after he’d done his thing, which was to fill three near hour-long sets of tunes that left the audience mildly wasted, cash depleted, and anxious to return when he next appeared on the schedule.

He’d crafted his show like a scientist: years of trial and error—more like six years, actually—from when he boxed his sociology diploma (poor career choice anyway) and hit the road with his guitars and a half tank of gas. The show really came together two years earlier, after Tom gave up life on the road and settled in Haywood County. There was something inspiring about all the artists and dousers and weird evangelical cults living leeward of the mountains. People here embraced those who were different and, although he thought himself too young to marry, let alone start a family, this was a place where you could settle, and his music meant more every day. Worst aspect was spending too much time organizing his schedule—who would’ve thought that being in demand could be such a pain in the ass? That and losing songs: It got harder each time, but he figured just maybe, losing a favorite made all the others sound that much better.

Billy Kay, the saloon’s owner and, when necessary, bouncer, held open the double door for Tom to struggle in, hands full hauling guitar case and amp.

“Welcome back. How’s things over in the land of mobile homes?” Billy couldn’t resist a little ribbing even though his button-down shirt couldn’t hide a sequoia-size chest and kudzu-thick beard not long removed from the subsistence counties west of the city.

“Things are lookin’ up—no tornadoes this week.” Tom made a point of bumping Billy with his guitar case.

“Damn glad to hear it. One of these days we’ll convince you to move to the big city. Hell, I’ll even let you play more nights.”

“This ain’t exactly Broadway now, is it?” Tom laughed.

“You got that right, but at least the streetlights don’t shut at ten.”

“Try nine.”

Billy angled back behind the bar, and Tom headed for the low stage in the back. It was a decent crowd for a Wednesday, most tables already filled and only a few spaces open at the dark, stained bar. He knew what they wanted to hear, and some of the faces looked familiar; too bad, when he was performing, the lights kept him from getting a clear view of the ladies. They’d try to talk with him between sets, but often enough he’d be too amped up to listen real well.

Tom deposited his guitar case—one with worn leather edges and covered by stickers bought in towns he once wanted to remember—near a couple mike stands and nested his amplifier by a bramble of wires at the back of the stage. It was a compact Boogie model, not cheap, but capable of casting a growl when Tom needed to ratchet up the energy a bit.

“Well, you got here just in time, boy.” Tom turned and smiled into the crack of Candy Law’s tightly cinched cleavage. “I was getting nervous that some of these folks were itching to vamoose, and here I picked to work tonight all special on account of you.”

Not likely that Law was her real name, but Candy’s curves and a braided ponytail hanging venomously down to her butt could generate more cash than a county sheriff speed trap.

“Now, honestly, you think I’d miss a chance to watch you in action?”

She put her hands on her hips and puffed out her chest. “Hon, you come home with me sometime, and I’ll show you action you couldn’t dream. You’d have to strum that Jackson Browne song just to keep me from breaking you in two.”

No way he had the energy to contemplate that offer—at least not at that moment.

“Afraid that one’s off the playlist. But I’ll come up with another.”

Candy’s smile collapsed, as did her arms. “I’m sorry, what happened?”

“Another client died.” He could tell she was staring but avoided her eyes nonetheless. “I better get set up before Billy starts docking my pay.”

She touched Tom’s leg. “Don’t you worry about him. I’ll get you a beer.”

Her hand felt warm through his blue jeans, or maybe his mind was just playing tricks.

Tom’s guitar was an Ovation with a pickup hidden inside its polished blond, hollow body and a jack to plug in directly to his amp. His classic Martin six-string might’ve sounded richer for his acoustic numbers, but then he’d need to mike the instrument and bring a second electric for later sets. The Ovation could jam when required and made it easy to carry everything in two hands.

“Testing, testing, one, two—how y’all doin’ tonight?”

There was a time that, when Tom asked that question, all he heard was murmuring moans and clinking bottles, but now that he’d stayed put for a couple years, his regular venues responded with whoops and claps and the occasional shout of “Whipping Post!”

“I hear ya,” Tom laughed and strummed a chord. “We’ll get there.”

He liked to keep things kind of mellow during the first set. Folks wanted to hear songs they knew, maybe even sing along, and a few love-type tunes never hurt to get the liquor flowing and loosen a few lips.

“I’m gonna start with one I think you know from Elton John—”

A few boos drifted through a smattering of applause.

“It’s called ‘Amoreena.’”

Tom had transposed the song’s piano intro after inheriting his mom’s nearly played-out old vinyl records. Maybe the younger customers wouldn’t remember it—or even know the song—but he didn’t care; it was a great tune and set the mood with words of missing her in a cornfield and young lovers bursting upon each other. You had to mix it up in a good set: a couple vaguely familiar songs were okay, but mostly, you needed ones everyone knew, ones that held the emotion of being heard throughout someone’s life. Thank God that even the college kids listened to the classics; there just weren’t that many great songs being written anymore.

Tom’s eyes were fuzzy from the lights, but he could hear voices, mostly female, singing along. A lull before the final refrain worked as a perfect transition, and Tom hummed the opening bars leading to more words about lovers, counting headlights on the New Jersey Turnpike, and searching for America. Everyone seemed to join in for the chorus when he segued into “Ventura Highway,” and he needed to catch his breath after its last chord. Applause possessed its own energy, and he could feel every pore open to sensation, a feeling he sensed as well during the daytime when he played in still, quiet rooms for far fewer people.

Once the din of conversation and rustling began to climb, Tom brought the music closer to home with “Carolina,” and a sip of beer proved all the lubrication he needed to let his voice resonate deep and syrupy. Of course, he couldn’t match James Taylor for tone, but anyone in those parts knew the song, and by the end of the first line, it was doubtful the audience could hear his voice over their own.

Moisture from sweat began staining his shirt, and he let the rhythm of songs flow on from “Desperado” through “Tangled Up In Blue”—with everyone channeling Dylan’s nasal twang—and on with “Comfortably Numb” before he challenged recognition with the gentle chords of “4th of July, Asbury Park.” Perhaps only a few were familiar with Springsteen, but Tom heard singing and the vague swaying of heads whenever the refrain mentioned a girl named Sandy.

As applause reached its loudest, Tom shifted key and began the dirgelike chords of “Country Girl.” The song came from a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young album, but it was all Neil Young and completed a set that ensured the audience would wait through the break wanting more. The song sang like a rowboat rolling on small waves and repeated “too late” and “no time” and “too young” within allusions of an impersonal city life he once imagined might be worth a try. Tom closed his eyes, the music soared, and he let his voice follow, filled with wonder for his calling and a sadness that someday he might lose this song too.

***

That same morning Tom lounged in a deep, frayed-pillow chair facing a picture window inside the Panacea coffee shop—more of a coffee “salon” actually, with its high ceiling, wireless Internet, and no time limit. He stared out into a February mist rising off the Pigeon River. His cell phone chimed.

The Haywood County Medical Center only called when they needed him, usually two or three times a week and, thank goodness, only during daytime hours. It was good to have a day gig; didn’t pay as well as clubs and pubs, but dependable as hell. Just took a lot out of you.

It didn’t happen often, but you couldn’t work for the Mountain Hospice service for too long and avoid it. The winter months were the busiest (flu season in the mountain mold capital of the South), but as unlikely as it seemed, he hadn’t lost anyone since Thanksgiving. Lots of sessions with soothingly medicated patients and their grateful families, everyone breathing deeply again when he finished a session and packed up his guitar. Still, Tom started to dread the call.

“You playing tonight, Thomas?” It was Cheryl Mathers from hospice.

“In Asheville. You gonna come?” Cheryl had four kids and a long-haul trucker husband, and Tom knew her answer.

“Yeah, right. But you might ask them nurses up on six. They’ve been talking about you.”

“Cheryl, you know I don’t mix work and pleasure.” Tom chuckled.

“I’m ’fraid to ask which is which.” Her voice lowered. “Listen, we need you. Local lady is in a bad way over here. Daughter loved the sound of music therapy. Sooner you can play for her mom, the better.”

Hospital sessions were generally bad news; home was more the norm, at least during the first days a patient used hospice care. Tom parked near the south entrance and grabbed two bulging, loose-leaf binders off the pile resting on the cracked leather of the passenger’s seat. He left a third lying behind.

He didn’t really need the sheet music, protected by plastic covers inside the binders. He was sort of a notes and lyrics savant, able to memorize a song after just one or two playings. Still, flipping through the hundreds of songs jogged his memory and helped him make selections once he had a sense for his audience.

Cheryl sat next to Tom, holding a packed manila file folder on her knees. “Her name’s Katy Moore, sixty-five. And if you ask me, too darn young to be dying of lung cancer.” Cheryl adjusted the file to keep papers from spilling out. “Never smoked in her life but her husband did. He died here five years ago, from ALS, of all things. Folks were originally from New York City, lived up on Walker Road for almost fifteen years—she said they needed to escape all that big-city hubbub.”

“Not quite a baby boomer,” Tom noted. “But I bet I’ve got a few songs she’ll like.”

“You might talk with her daughter. She’s standing vigil in her mom’s room up on five.”

Tom wedged the binders under his arm.

“Oh, and one more thing,” Cheryl added. “This lady does not look good, near skeletal, and her breathing is painful to watch. Thought you ought to know.”

Tom pulled the case for his Martin acoustic out of the car and worked his way up the main elevator to the fifth floor. He knocked softly on the closed door.

A young woman near Tom’s age eased out of the room. Her name was Melissa and, despite exhausted eyes, she possessed an unfamiliar sophistication—maybe it was the gold earrings and snug jeans, but it could’ve been the two-inch heels as well that suggested a full-time home much farther north. “It’s been a rough morning, but the doctor upped her IV and Mom’s calm now.”

Tom led her to the family waiting area and asked what music her mother enjoyed. “That’s the thing; she loves it all: jazz, Sinatra, show tunes, even pop and rock.”

“Well, I try and pick four songs for a first session, see what she likes.” He opened one of the binders and Melissa quickly pulled it onto her lap.

“Oh my God. You can play all these?”

Tom thought he detected a hint of flirtation, but it was probably just honest flattery. He nodded.

She flipped through the pages as if scanning a clothing catalog, stopping occasionally with a smile of recognition before continuing, her crimson fingernails darting about like a flock of cardinals.

They selected a handful of songs, and Tom wrote each one down in pencil on a Post-it note. His usual process required finding a quiet room in the hospice office to practice chords and changes, and he thought about grabbing a sandwich first when Melissa regained his attention with an excited tone. “Oh, this one would be perfect.”

She held her hand flat on the plastic page protector holding “These Days,” words and music by Jackson Browne.

“My mother loved this song. She could play it on the piano and I sang along—once I stopped being embarrassed to sing with her. You have to play it.” Melissa sighed.

Tom stared at the sheet music under her hand. He’d played the song for patients before but only in homes; playing it in the hospital was a risk. He stared at the plastic page and hesitated, then mumbled, “Sure.”

***

Tom lowered his ear near the guitar body and twisted each tuning peg tiny amounts while picking the metal strings. He liked to ramp things up a notch for the second set; not too much, just enough so people might think staying up too late was worth it.

Candy knew to bring over a glass of ice water. As Tom reached for it, she moved the serving tray out of reach and grabbed his hand. “Boy, you got the roughest hands in the state. Bet you could scratch a rhino with those paws.”

“So I’ve been told.”

She put a hand on his shoulder and winked. “I guess I’d have to do all the rubbing in this relationship.”

It was warm in the saloon, but damn if Candy hadn’t brought sweat beads back to Tom’s forehead.

She leaned closer. “Time to put a little giddyap in that pickin’, hon—sister here needs to make rent.”

“What’s a matter, that last set didn’t do the trick?”

Candy mouthed a kiss and turned; her long braid swung like a panther tail across her back.

Tom let that image linger as the spotlights brightened.  His fingers began strumming almost by themselves, and he let the chords grow louder, with a steady beat, until he heard the crowd sing the chorus for “Go Your Own Way,” and he didn’t realize he’d begun singing well before them. The sounds were loud now and washed out the din of a busy bar. Heads bopped in rhythm and, with a slight twist of a volume knob, Tom switched chords into “Long Train Runnin’.” This was the fun part and a hundred-plus people singing along, even out of sync, made it easy to forget what ailed you. He could’ve filled a whole set with Doobie Brothers tunes, but why bother when you can nail the riff for “Runnin’ Down a Dream?” He had ’em hooked and wouldn’t let go; Candy bopped among tables as he attacked a solo—just enough so they knew he had chops. One guy, one guitar—classic rock.

He stood in the spotlight singing “Losing My Religion” and barely stopped to breathe, continuing straight away into Steve Miller’s “Rockin’ Me.” Some people said that before you saw the terminal white light, you floated—out of body—above yourself, watching, and he felt at that moment like he’d become that person, applauding, his own best audience. Tom’s fingers moved effortlessly and as he sang “A Good Feelin’ To Know,” he felt the vibration of the crowd and heard their words echo back even as his thoughts meandered in search of a song to replace the one he would never play again.

***

Peering over Melissa’s shoulder, Tom could see her fragile mother lying still: a bedsheet molded along her near concave chest, and mottled skin covered with dark spots and sores appeared around the lady’s neck. Her emaciated arms lay over the covers, scaly and covered with purple bruises from so many attempts to draw blood. An IV line snaked across her left arm, secured by a lightly fastened bandage, and although the skin on her face hung gray and loose, Tom could see that she was once beautiful. Patchy, thin, gray-brown hair was brushed straight back, eyes shut, but her pallid lips parted just enough so he could hear her breath whisper through.

It was hard not to think of his mother and how she looked near the end. She kept asking for him to sing and would try to smile. But they wouldn’t let him watch her die, and Tom always wondered why. She could never have predicted that one day his music would help others let go: He had become a music therapist. Still, it was never easy to play for the dying.

Tom sat in a high-backed visitor’s chair and touched each tuning peg out of habit. The room was silent save for the soft rush from an air duct. He let out a deep breath and gently picked each string, letting the notes fill the space. They had selected a Gershwin tune, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and Tom wanted to play it first, not with the easy swing of Sinatra’s version, but rather as Fred Astaire’s delicate ballad. He sang quiet and low, raising his voice only enough to merge with the smooth tones from his fingers’ strumming. And as he held the last chord, Tom thought he saw Mrs. Moore’s lips purse, so slightly, before he let the sound slowly fade to silence.

A muffled hallway intercom broke the calm, and Melissa clenched her arms across her chest. Tom closed his eyes. His mother would often drag him to musicals whenever summer stock companies staged revivals near their home. She liked Rodgers and Hammerstein best, and he remembered the awkward feeling of learning those songs while fantasizing about the beautiful performers who sang as effortlessly as their dresses billowed when they twirled in dance on the stage. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was one of Tom’s favorites; he’d played it for so many patients that, although he couldn’t feel his fingertips, he knew the notes were correct, overlapping, rising until, for just a brief moment, he let himself feel a golden sky beyond a dark storm and hoped Mrs. Moore could hear the melody.

Of course, he understood that sound penetrated even the most heavily medicated.

The song begged to soar like a hymn, yet Tom kept his voice low, muted, vibrating from his core. He opened his eyes as the song ended.

Mrs. Moore’s face was flushed; her daughter’s eyes were shut.

He couldn’t remember ever playing The Allman Brothers during a hospice session, but the next selection was an easy choice, and whenever he sang the name, “Melissa,” he imagined a subtle quivering he’d seen on far too many pale lips before.

Before finishing the first verse of “These Days,” Mrs. Moore’s mouth opened wider, and her chest began heaving in beats faster than those of the song. Melissa stroked her mom’s arm, looking apprehensively from the room door to the nurse’s call button. Tom thought he heard his voice break on the refrain, one he first memorized from a scratchy record in his mom’s dusty collection. He wanted to speed the tempo and secretly hoped Melissa would ask him to stop, but she bent down over her mother, and he felt guilty for the thought. Tom played on until the end.

***

He’d done his job well: Hardly anyone had left the saloon, and the natives were clearly restless in wait for his last set. A bunch of years earlier, Tom had seen Pete Townshend on one of those Behind the Music cable shows, attacking his acoustic guitar with the same ferocity as when fronting The Who, aided by a mountain of amplifiers blasting at their back, and for the first time, he saw how to let the music take over, to perform unreserved, without fear.

It never hurt to be slightly buzzed for the last set; one beer did the trick, and as Tom strapped on his guitar, Candy brought a cold one, condensation dripping off the bottle.

“You gonna make it through this one?” She ignored shouts from annoying customers.

“You know me; I’m always ready to rock.” Tom knew his smile was unconvincing.

“Well, let her rip, boy!”

The intro for “Baba O’Riley” was an immediately recognizable, synthesized, pulsing tone that Tom imitated with fierce strumming before upping the volume and crashing the main chords with an arm swing to make Townshend proud. The crowd sang from the start, shouting “teenage wasteland” as if a recent memory, their arms flailing at air drums in imagined accompaniment.

He followed with U2, then let his voice turn raspy for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—which the youngest patrons echoed as if their anthem—before bringing it all back to the South with some toe-tappin’ from ZZ Top’s “La Grange”; Skynyrd always brought out the Rebel Yells, and Tom couldn’t help but close his eyes with weariness. He heard himself sing each verse while his mind tried to count all the songs he’d sung that day.

It was four from the hospital for sure, perhaps eight from the first set, but his concentration wavered and he didn’t dare forget any words from the song he was singing, and anyway, he knew the total was somewhere near 25 in all.

The regulars were screaming for “Whipping Post,” and Tom obliged with barely a pause, happy to let the rhythmic opening bass line build into the riff he so often heard drifting down the sidewalk as he approached his old house on the way back from school.

The crowd sensed his show was coming to an end, and Tom drifted with the waves of sound, feeling dryness in his throat and searching for the one he might play next, still needing an easy, soft song to close the show and make people leave feeling they’d spent their time and money well.

These were the longest days, and exhaustion made him wonder why he felt the need to stay in the mountains. He could head back on the road, perhaps to a big city, where he would write his own songs and join a band. Tom certainly thought, at the least, he’d quit hospice when his binder of lost songs was filled. But earlier, as he pushed down on the pages of sheet music to make room for “These Days” to join the others—that in memoriam—he’d never sing again, he thought that idea unlikely and drove away from the hospital accepting that it would be easiest to simply buy another binder.

For some reason the Green Day song “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” popped into his head; it was a good one, a breakup song, but catchy, familiar, oddly affirming. Yet he looked into the spotlight and thought of his mother’s favorites; she had so many.

Maybe a Kenny Rankin tune; what was the song? “Silver Morning,” she loved that song, and Tom could see the album cover: a musician with a dog by his side and a child resting, arm on his shoulder, a sun shining through from behind—a sun much the same as the one that rose that morning through the mist over the Pigeon River, its rays glistening off the moist, bare branches extending over sparkling ripples.

Warmer weather was coming, the forest would bud out, and hillsides would show their soaring elevations with fully leafed trees in the valleys and ice and snow on the ridgetops. Soon scarlet rhododendrons and the tiny white bells of mountain laurel blooms would follow everywhere.

Tom liked the idea of a song for the spring, an Appalachian spring.  Maybe it was spring that kept him in the mountains.

 THE END