I jumped into my old Ford F-150 and tried to come up with a game
plan as I rumbled through the pothole-riddled streets of
Providence. Strangely enough, I decided that I better go see the
last person in the world I should be meeting with right now -- my
bookie, Buck. After my Uncle Al's stern warning, I was 99 percent
sure I could resist the urge to place a wager and focus on the
task at hand. Buck was the one guy I knew who seemed to know
everybody. He might be able to help me create a new band out of
the ashes of my old one. The Losers had gone from a trio down to
a duo, with me on vocals and bass, and my mullet-headed pal Craig
Hurley on guitar. Drummer Ben Sellers quit to stalk his
college-bound girlfriend to Massachusetts to make sure she didn't
cheat on him. He was too fragile to handle a long-distance
When I pulled into the narrow driveway of Buck's working-class
home, he was sitting on the front steps drinking a beer. A short,
stocky guy with a shaved head, black T-shirt, jean shorts and
construction boots, Buck covered almost all of his skin with
tattoos and smiled with the confidence that he could kick just
about anyone's ass, including guys much larger than himself. But
thanks to the success of his underground betting operation, he no
longer had to do much of the dirty work. His most notorious goon
was a 300-plus-pound Dominican named Pepe, who, according to the
latest grapevine reports, had left at least two welchers in a
coma. This is why I stole from my grandmother when I got in over
my head after two straight horrible weekends of football betting
to kick off the season.
"Didn't expect to see you here today," Buck shouted with a grin
as I got out of the truck and approached the steps. "Back for
"Hell no," I said. "I didn't have enough to cover the last two
"Well, I didn't send Pepe over to your house with a dozen roses
so you must've robbed a bank somewhere," Buck said, pulling a
beer out of the cooler next to him. "Reeb?"
"Sure," I said, taking the beer and cracking it open for a swig.
"Let's just say I had to borrow from a family member and now
another, more violent family member is not very happy with me."
"That's what you get when you bet on Miami in the cold weather,"
"Against Cleveland? In September?" I protested.
"It was a night game, Vin," the bookie pointed out. "That's a
cold wind coming off the lake."
"Whatever, the bottom line is I gotta pay this certain violent
family member back, so he basically ordered me to form a band,
make it big in the music industry and pay him back plus 25
"Good luck," Buck said with a laugh. "You're better off robbing a
bank -- several banks while you're at it."
"No shit," I said. "The problem is, he's going to be checking up
on me and everything."
"Wow," Buck said.
"Yeah," I said. "And get this. He's like a big rock and roll fan.
He said all the bands today suck so he wants me to bring rock
back from the dead."
"He's fucking right about that," Buck said. "There's nothing good
on the radio these days. Classic rock is about it."
"Yeah, well, I don't even really have a band right now," I said.
"My friend Craig plays guitar. He's OK, but not that great. I
sing and play bass. I'm decent. Our drummer quit. And that's it."
Buck pounded the rest of his beer, seemed to think my situation
over for a couple of seconds, let out a huge belch and grinned.
"Well Vin, I just may be able to help you," Buck said.
"Seriously?" I begged.
"I was a pretty good drummer back in the day," he said.
"Really? How long ago?" I asked.
"In my 20s," Buck said.
"How old are you now?" I asked.
"Never ask your bookie his age," he said with a laugh. "But I
wouldn't mind banging the skins again. I could relive my youth."
"That would be awesome, Buck," I said, sipping my beer and
pondering the strange dynamic of forming a musical bond with my
Buck grinned again, which seemed to indicate another thought had
just popped into his brain. Indeed it had.
"Holy shit," he said.
"What?" I asked.
"I just remembered Pepe telling me about this black kid down in
South Providence who plays guitar by the highway," Buck said
excitedly. "Totally bizarre. In between gang shootings down
there, this one kid is like the second coming of Jimi Hendrix."
"Really?" I said.
"He might not be all there, upstairs, you know what I mean?" Buck
continued, pointing to his buzzed head. "But apparently he lives
in one of those three-story tenements right by I-95. His front
yard is the highway basically. Pepe says he dances and waves to
the cars during the day and then he jams at night. I think he
does a little dealing on the side, too, but he's kind of like a
legend down there. I could have Pepe arrange a little sit-down
for us with the kid and see if he's as good as people say."
"Buck, that would be totally cool," I said. "Let's do it."
That night, Buck ferried us down to South Providence to meet
Freeway. As Buck steered his silver Caddy around a corner and
drove up slowly along an access road adjacent to Interstate 95,
we noticed a row of rundown three-story tenement houses tightly
bunched on the right side of the street overlooking the busy,
eight-lane highway. Some houses still had functional balconies
and porches providing a splendid view of the speeding cars.
Others were falling apart, boarded up and possibly condemned.
There were no driveways. We just pulled up to the curb in front
of the faded green tenement five houses down, just as Pepe had
instructed Buck. This house did have a functional porch and on it
stood a tall, thin black kid with a huge afro and a bigger smile.
Next to him was another shorter and much thicker black kid with
his arms folded in front of his chest, a red bandana around his
head and a menacing stare.
Buck and I got out of the car and approached Freeway and his
cohort, who looked like they were in their late teens or early
20s. They were both wearing beat-up blue jeans and dark, hooded
sweatshirts with the hoods down on this cool September evening.
"We don't see people like you around here much, man, better watch
out," Freeway said with a teasing sense of humor and a disarming
grin. With his soft black eyes, smooth voice and quiet swagger, I
certainly could see why people thought he was the reincarnation
of Jimi Hendrix. I wondered if this kid could play guitar
"Pepe says you're a legend so we rolled the dice," Buck said,
shaking hands with Freeway after we ascended the porch stairs.
"Nice to meet you, I'm Buck and this is Vin."
"I'm Freeway. This is Ronnie, but we call him Friday," Freeway
said as we all shook hands. Friday remained the only ice-cold
presence in the bunch, checking me out in particular like a guard
"Want a 40?" Freeway asked us.
"Most definitely," Buck replied.
"Help yo self," Freeway said, directing us toward a cooler on the
"Thanks," I said.
Buck handed me a 40-ounce beer, we twisted them open and drank
some. Friday already had knocked back most of his 40. Freeway
"So Freeway, we're looking to make some music and we've heard
you're something special," Buck said. "We wanted to hear you play
and see if you want to join our new band."
Freeway put his hands in his pockets, looked down toward his
high-top sneakers and smiled at the ground.
"I'm more of a solo artist, man," Freeway said.
"That's cool," Buck said. "Can we hear you jam anyway and just go
"That'll cost you a Benjamin each," Friday suddenly piped up,
completely serious in look and tone.
"No shit?" Buck said.
"Normally, I play for free every night, but this is a business
meeting and I gotta see if you guys are for real about this band
thing," Freeway said, still smooth and smiling.
"Done," Buck said, surprising me with how quickly he forked over
the cash to Friday. "Vin, you owe me $200."
Oh. Now Buck's response made more sense. I just nodded. Hell,
what's $200 more?
"Any requests?" Freeway asked before he ducked inside the screen
door and quickly came back with a gleaming Les Paul guitar. Then
he hooked it up to an amp that was behind a card table.
"Whatever you feel like playing," Buck said. "We're looking for
more of a blues-rock sound ... Hendrix, Zeppelin kind of thing."
"Right up my alley," Freeway said, sticking a big pick in his
afro and, ironically, grabbing a small pick for his guitar
"Where'd you get that amazing Les Paul?" I had to ask.
"Are you a pig?" Friday interrupted.
"Hell no," I said.
"Then don't ask no dumb-ass questions," Friday reprimanded me.
"Got it," I said quickly, shut up and drowned my mouth with beer.
That's when Freeway immediately launched into a huge, soaring
solo that reverberated down the street. His playing seemed
effortless and masterful right from the start. Unlike Hendrix,
Freeway played right-handed. I guess that's where the
reincarnation theory was flawed, unless of course Freeway was
ambidextrous. I wouldn't doubt it. Clearly, he could do just
about anything with a guitar. After cranking out what sounded
like an original bluesy solo inspired by Hendrix, Freeway blew us
away with the catchy opening riffs of "Crosstown Traffic." A
fitting song, indeed, as the blur of headlights and metal raced
past us on the highway below. Freeway's playing was flawless and
jaw-dropping. Friday remained stone-faced throughout, but Buck
and I couldn't stop opening our mouths and then grinning at each
"Damn that was good!" Buck shouted as Freeway wrapped up
Freeway smiled and quickly followed that up with a Led Zeppelin
tune. I recognized the hooky riff, but couldn't immediately
identify the song because Freeway chose one of their deeper
tracks instead of a typical hit.
"That's from 'Bring It On Home' off Zeppelin II," Freeway
"Oh yeah," I said. "Great tune."
Bottom line, this kid from South Providence could jam. He was a
musical diamond on the rough streets next to I-95. Unfortunately,
he was going to cost us -- namely me -- about as much as a
"So what's it going to take to get you to join our band?" I asked
Freeway, fully expecting Friday to jump into the negotiations.
Surprisingly, he let the guitarist do the talking this time.
"I jam for free right here every night, so if you want to jam
together and work on some songs, come on down, man," Freeway
said. "If there's some magic going on, we'll see."
Wow. That sounded promising. Then the came the first catch,
provided by Friday, of course.
"But if you want Freeway to play live gigs with you, he gets $100
per show and so do I, man," Friday said. "We a package deal, got
Freeway smiled at his buddy. Buck and I gave each other a
"No shit?" Buck finally queried.
"No shit," Friday confirmed with a grin, one of his gold teeth
twinkling from the glare of the street light overhead. "We get
paid. That's what we do."
"How many you got in the band right now?" Freeway asked us.
"Well, I sing and play bass," I said. "Buck plays drums. My
friend Craig can play rhythm guitar and some keyboards. So you
would play lead guitar and round out the quartet."
Then came the second catch.
"Don't you mean quintet?" Freeway corrected me, nodding toward
"Package deal, man," Friday said with a grin. "I'm on the stage,
part of the band."
"You jam, too, Friday?" Buck asked.
"Hell no," Friday shot back. "I don't sing. Rap a little maybe."
"Do you play any instruments?" I asked.
"I'm pretty good with this here," Friday said, pointing toward
his crotch. "It's easier to see the ladies from up on the stage."
We all laughed.
"So if we put out a CD," I just had to ask, "and on the inside
cover we listed Freeway as guitarist, me as singer and bassist,
Buck on drums and Craig on guitar/keyboards, what would we put
for you, Friday?"
"Unknown," he deadpanned. "Don't pigeon-ho me!"
I was stunned. Freeway shook his head and smiled. Buck was blown
"Fucking genius," Buck said, his eyes getting excited and his
hands clapping loudly. "I love it. Friday will be like the
X-factor. The mystery man. Nobody knows why he's just standing
around on the stage. Is he security? Is he part of the band?
We'll be the talk of the town. People will be like, 'Have you
seen that band where this one guy just stands there the whole
We all had a good chuckle, but I wasn't as excited as Buck about
this gimmick, especially given the extra $100 per gig for
basically nothing. However, I was willing to give it a shot as
long as Freeway and Buck were joining the band. One thing was for
sure. Uncle Al could kiss his 25 percent goodbye for quite a
while. Profits? This venture looked like it was only going to put
me deeper in debt.
But after Craig came down with me the next night and we all
jammed together for the first time on Freeway's porch overlooking
I-95, I didn't give a shit about debt anymore. We all knew we had
something special. Just watching Freeway squeeze soul and magic
out of his Les Paul was inspiration enough to make the rest of us
better than we ever thought we could be. Ideas began surging
through our collective brains like whitewater rapids. Some of the
local ghetto kids repeatedly came around to check us out.
Apparently, Freeway and Friday had enough street cred to draw
their interest and keep them from mocking the three honkies in
the band. Our bluesy rock-rap sound seemed to take care of the
Within three weeks, we had a bunch of raw but original tunes and
a live gig lined up at the Heartbreak Lounge in downtown
Providence. Our debut would come on a Friday night. We were the
first of three bands to open for headliners The Agents, a popular
ska band. We didn't really fit in with the ska-punk lineup on the
bill that night, but we didn't care. We were happy to land a spot
at a good-sized club and couldn't wait to rock the house.
Oh yeah. All we needed was a name for our band. Leave it to the
bookie to come up with it. Sitting at his drum kit in between
songs and staring at the cars whipping past us below, Buck
experienced a moment of revelation on our third jam session
"I got it!" he shouted. "Freeway & the Vin Numbers!"