I always have music running through my head — always. It begins with blues and it finds a groove and locks in tight, rock steady, chorus upon chorus of the blues . . . always the guitar. Sometimes drums kick in, and bass, and I’m walking along, and rock & roll is the whole reason I’m alive. Maybe the guitar gets moody with reverb, a little overdrive, not too much — just enough to give it an edge.
Out on Ocean Beach, on a particular warm afternoon in late 1983, I wasn’t expecting to hear any music but my own, and so, at first, I didn’t. Maybe I was oblivious to anything other than my walk along the narrow margin where the sand was just wet enough to be firm and I wouldn’t have to take my shoes off. Maybe I was absorbed by the setting: the sand, the broken shells, the lowering sun, the low hiss of outgoing tide. Maybe I was brooding on my troubles, the tapes looping ceaselessly through my mind . . . no money to pay the printer for the zine I was trying to get out . . . no love for so long that the sting of my last breakup had diffused to a dull, gray static . . . no work but the office temping downtown, with its daily little humiliations. Or maybe, at first, his music just dovetailed with mine — rock & roll pure and simple. Surf guitar. Like . . . Dick Dale. The Ventures.
I stopped short, listened. This wasn’t my music. I turned to see a young man with a guitar sitting cross-legged in the sand near the seawall, playing with startling technical skill and radiant emotional intensity. In the rose glow of the sunset he looked magical; his whole body swayed from the hinge of his waist, throbbed with the music that was pouring out of that guitar. I couldn’t see his eyes, just the lank blond hair that swung in his face. He was singing — or so I thought at first, from the odd way he was mouthing the music, or chewing it, tasting it — but I couldn’t hear his voice. He was improvising: the music would visit a tune, find a groove and variations on that groove, all the while toying with the melody and working the rhythm around the pulse.
I stood there transfixed, not wanting to stare but unable to move away. Even after a thousand concerts and a hundred interviews I was still in awe of any musician who could really play, and after ten or twenty minutes I decided I would have to talk to him, learn his name, find out what band he was with, hear his story, and maybe get an article for RealRock out of it. The dying light, the soft roar of the breakers, the lone guy on the beach with his guitar — I already had my lead.
All at once he paused; the hair fell away from his face and I could swear we made momentary eye contact — it felt like the jolt of a cattle prod. I recoiled, suddenly ashamed that I had encroached on the guy’s music, on his sunset. But then he just went on playing, oblivious to me, and I felt a grateful rush of relief. I could still get my interview. I stationed myself a decent twenty yards away, plopped down onto the sand, and watched the last bloody sliver of the sun slip into the Pacific. There was nobody else left on the beach. The music grew dark with the sky, some slow spooky minor-key thing, perfect. My eyes wandered out to the fogbank that was still miles out at sea, and for a few minutes I stopped obsessing about the problems that made up the entire fabric of my life in those days. I thought of Betsy Post, whom I loved and who did not love me — for once this brought on a sweet, tender melancholy. How fine it would be to sit here on the sand with her, hearing this music, feeling this breeze. A ladder of pelicans appeared, out past the breakers, and for a long time I watched them flap their ungainly way along the horizon and into the gloom down the shore —
With a start I realized that it had gone dark and the stars were coming out and the music had stopped.
I looked around and found myself alone.
I knew that my troubles would come flooding back to me soon enough, but for the first time in months I felt an article coming on; interview or no, I would write the story. I needed a clincher for the next issue of RealRock, and here it was, something elegiac: a terrific guitar player appears on the beach, plays the soundtrack of my life — just rock & roll, nothing more, but that’s enough, that’s plenty — and then he disappears. I could even make it mysterious — was there really a guy there at all? Or was it all just —
I hurried home with the music playing in my head. Words and phrases and images were sprouting like desert flowers after the rain. For once I didn’t head for Pittsburgh’s, where the Giants game was on TV and the beer was cheap. Instead I went straight home, past the Great Highway and another block to my place on 48th Avenue. Once inside I didn’t turn on the radio, I didn’t want any other music — I wanted this music, this hypnotic music that kept unspooling itself.
I jammed a piece of paper into the typewriter and let myself free-associate. The way this music grabbed me, what was it like, where did it begin, when was the last time I’d been this dazzled and inspirited, when did the wand of rock & roll first touch me . . . ?
Four hours and fifteen pages later I still hadn’t written a word about the guy on the beach.
© Michael Fleming
New York, New York