CHAPTER 1: PAPA WAS A GRAVESTONE
My unexpected adventure toward musical stardom began
inharmoniously enough -- with a sharp punch in the gut from my
"What kind of degenerate punk steals money and jewelry from his own helpless, senile grandmother?" Al shouted down at me after assaulting me on the sofa. His booming voice blasted a hole through my beer-soaked brain as I rolled off the couch and onto the floor of my mother's living room, writhing around in wrenching pain.
Then Al picked me up with his two huge hands by the front of my shirt and tossed me back on the sofa like a rag doll.
"Look at me!" Al screamed.
I glanced up while wheezing and trying to get my breath flowing again. He was a short, stocky, balding bull of a man. And the raging black fury in his eyes at that unforgettable moment in time confirmed in my mind at least what I had always suspected -- this is the man who killed my father. That's right. His own brother.
"Who told you?" I gasped.
"You thought nobody saw you at my sister Marie's party the other day, didn't you," Al bent down and shouted, sticking his fat face in mine. "Sneaking upstairs to your grandmother's room, coming back down like nothing happened. A relative who shall remain anonymous called me. This person didn't want to confront you during the birthday party, so I'm confronting you now. You better start talking and giving me some answers while you're still breathing. Am I making myself clear, Vincent?"
"I got behind betting football," I mumbled as fast as I could. "I needed money fast to pay the bookie. I know it was wrong. I didn't know what else to do, Uncle Al."
"You could've called somebody for help instead of robbing your grandmother!" Al barked.
"Who?" I said, trying not to bawl. "My mother? No!"
Even Al shook his head in agreement with me on this option. Mom, aka Danielle (real name), aka Destiny (stage name at the Roxy where she has stripped off and on for as long as I've been alive), was more than unstable enough to shoot me after a wretched act such as this -- one that threw her 18 years of parenting completely under the bus for the whole world to see.
"No, better off she doesn't know about this for as long as possible," Al said.
"Who then? My father?" I continued. "He's dead!"
Al backed off for a second. His visibly pained reaction made it clear to me that he had let his interrogation go down the wrong road. I wanted to go down that road in theory, but probably not on this morning with Uncle Al ready to add me to his hit list. Dad's mysterious death happened when I was just 10 months old. My mother told me he drowned on a fishing trip. She also warned me never to ask Uncle Al about what happened. I never did. Of course, posing that question was pretty hard. Uncle Al lived in Miami. He rarely migrated north here to Providence, even during the summer. Apparently stealing from Al's mother was enough to warrant a personal visit from the prodigal patriarch of the family. All I really knew about him was that he was in his early 40s, he was rich, powerful, dangerous and had a legendary temper. I guess that knowledge should've smacked me upside the head before I pocketed some cash and jewelry belonging to my nana, but when you've got to pay the bookie -- and Buck's crazy cronies are a hell of a lot closer to pummeling you than Uncle Al -- you let geography make the choice for you. That plan actually worked quite well for several days. Nana never noticed anything. Buck got his money. And I had some leftover pocket cash to buy gas for the truck, two large pizzas and a 30-pack of beer.
But as Sunday morning arrived, let's just say geography caught up with me, and Uncle Al was here to cleanse me of my sins by beating all the blood out of me -- or so I now feared.
"Vincent, do you realize if we weren't related, you'd already be dead right now?" Al pointed out, turning the conversation back to where he was more comfortable -- and where he could ratchet up his anger once again.
I nodded slowly, wondering if Uncle Al said the same thing to my father before doing whatever it was he did to him some 17 years ago.
"You're 18 for Christ sake!" Al said. "Stop betting on games and start making something of yourself. Your mother told me you're a good musician. You jam with a band or something. Right?"
"Sort of," I said.
Al shook his head in disgust and pulled up a chair to grill me at eye level.
"What kind of pussy answer is that?" he said. "Do you jam or not?"
"We do," I said quickly.
"Good," Al said, transitioning from potential killer to businessman with ease. "Then here's what we're going to do."
I sat up a little more on the sofa and paid attention. I desperately wanted to get out of my horrible situation. And more importantly, I wanted to live.
"You stole from nana -- my own mother -- to pay your bookie," he said. "Some people would prefer to call the police and see you thrown in jail. You sure as hell deserve it, Vin. Am I right?"
I nodded. What else was I going to do with this guy literally breathing down my neck?
"You're dead wrong!" he shouted into my face, his eyes darkening back to killer black. "You deserve a hell of a lot worse for stealing from your own flesh and blood. Jail is way too fucking good for the likes of you."
"I know I was wrong, Uncle Al," I said. "I was going to pay nana back as soon as I got on a hot streak."
"Bullshit!" he shouted. "You would've gambled it right back because that's what degenerate gamblers do."
"I …" I tried to interrupt.
"Shut the hell up, Vincent!" Al ordered, sticking his finger in my face. "You fucked up and now you're going to start making it right. Uncle Al doesn't call the police. Uncle Al is the police, especially in this case because it's within the family. He's your judge, jury and executioner if need be. Understood?"
I nodded for mercy.
"Good," he said. "Being the wonderful guy that I am, I will cover your debt to your grandmother. I will make restitution to her on your behalf."
I tried to protest. "But …"
"But nothing, Vin," Al said. "You've got no say in this what-so-fuckin-ever. You lost that right. I'm going to right that wrong for you. But here's the catch. Now I own you. Not only do you owe me the thousands of dollars you stole from her, but you also owe me for dishonoring my helpless, senile mother. What's that worth, Vin?"
I shrugged with dread.
"Well, I'll tell you what it's worth," Al continued. "First, you're gonna stop the gambling. That's a given, right?"
"Absolutely!" I said, jumping to accept the unexpectedly lenient first salvo.
"Second, you're gonna take all that musical talent that your mother says you have, and you're going to do something with it. I know you're not a college guy, a student and all that. I don't give a shit. Neither was I. But here's what I expect you to do."
Again, I sat up alertly, thinking maybe there was a chance Uncle Al wasn't so horrible after all. That's when the pep talk took a bizarre turn.
"Rock and roll is fucking dead," Al said out of the blue. "And if it ain't dead, it's, at the very least, buried alive. I don't even hear it tapping or trying to bust out of the grave."
Huh? I tried to listen to Al with the same serious face I had moments ago, but it was hard given the sudden change in subject matter. He went on just the same.
"Led Zeppelin, the Doors, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen … now that was rock and roll, Vin. Today, what do we got? Fucking squat, that's what … a bunch of pansy-ass fag bands with no heart, no soul, no balls. Do you know what I mean?"
"I wasn't born when …," I said.
"I know that, Vin," Al cut me off. "But you've heard of these bands and their music, right?"
"Oh yeah, definitely, they're all great bands," I quickly replied.
"So the bottom line is this," Al said. "You and your band are going to bring rock and roll back to life. I want a real rock and roll sound. You better make it and make it big-time … or else. I don't care how you do it, but you better fucking do it and do it fast. I'm not a very patient man.
"And just remember … I'm your judge, jury and executioner," he added, jabbing his finger at me again. "I will be checking on your progress every so often … kind of like a parole officer."
I was stunned. How should I respond? I got a stay of execution from a deranged uncle who now demanded that I become a rock star … or else. And not just some run-of-the-mill rock star. A fucking legend. Practically overnight.
"Any questions?" he asked, before standing up and heading for the door.
"How …" I started.
"Good," Al said, slamming the door behind him.
Seconds later, he opened the door, stuck his head back in and added a parting shot.
"And don't forget, I get all your profits until your debt is paid," he said. "After that, I get 25 percent of your share for coming up with this brilliant idea in the first place."
Al slammed the door again before I even had a chance to process everything he said, much less reply.
Profits? What profits? I didn't even really have a band at the time. We were in between drummers.
I just sat on the sofa for a few minutes and looked around at all the empty beer cans. I lifted my shirt and gazed at my black-and-blue gut. Then, as I pictured my Fender bass guitar and Peavey amp sitting idle all the way in the bedroom, a lyric suddenly popped into my overtaxed brain: "Papa was a gravestone."