Bourbon Billy

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
If you don’t notice the ones that aren’t wearing shoes, you might miss out.

Submitted: February 05, 2015

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Submitted: February 05, 2015

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It was a bad idea to take that speed my girlfriend gave me.  She said it helped her lose weight, and it would keep me awake as I drove all night from Nashville to Montgomery.  The speed did its job.  I didn’t wreck, and I never slept the entire trip to New Orleans and back.  But I also didn’t shit for nearly a week.

In Montgomery I met my pal Tim.  He drove us the rest of the way to Louisiana, and our ultimate goal.  Mardi Gras.  The yellow Alfa Romeo made a rumbling sound as it carried its passengers to their destination. 

We rolled in to the city below sea level at about 10 am.  We were cutting it tight.  We just had enough time to get a hotel room, eat, and then start drinking.  We were already way behind everyone else.

By dark, we had caught up.  We were stumbling through the French Quarter, ogling strippers, avoiding the crossdressers, even the ones that looked good at a distance.  We stayed away from those strange but friendly folks in the berets, and kept on drinking.  Then I heard the guitar.

People who play rhythm guitar are the red headed step children of the guitar world.  I’m not shy, I’m pretty decent at it.  Yet, if I’m on stage at an open mike night, and one of my buddies is accompanying me on lead, he will get the accolades from the audience.  I’m just the guy strumming and singing badly.

We are members of a secret fraternity.  Those of us who know how cool it is to play rhythm guitar.  Mark Knopfler can kiss our asses.  Just kidding.  Sultans of Swing is one of my top three favorite rock songs.  Guitar George is my hero.

When I heard the guitar, I knew I had found another member of the fraternity.  And not just any member.  You didn’t play like that if you just started last week.

By then, Tim was pretty trashed.  I had already taken the car keys away from him.  I had to pull him toward the guitar player.  I wanted to hear more.  So far, we had been randomly staggering around, gathering beads and plastic trinkets.  But now, I was a man on a mission.

Everyone else was walking past, mostly not noticing.  Street musicians were everywhere.  Bourbon Billy was nothing special to look at.  He didn’t even have on shoes.  But he was all musician.  And when he strummed that guitar, I could hear every note.  I could hear all the subtleties.  The difference between down strokes and up strokes.  Lower strings versus upper strings.  Spread them out so you hear each note, or make a powerful stroke that generates enough heat to melt all the strings into a chord.  The clicks, the pauses, the mutes.  The tiny variations that make each player’s style unique.

Billy and I were twin sons of different mothers.

The song he was playing was standard 3 chord fare.  Every guitar player that has ever written a song has used that pattern at least once.  Myself, more times than I can count.  Most of my songs are disposable.  They are also recyclable.

But the lyrics were fascinating.  I knew he was telling a story.  I just couldn’t figure it out.  The name of the song, as best I could tell from the chorus, was Max and Shelley.  It was about a guy who was captivated by this girl, but she just blew past him like he wasn’t there.  Apparently, Shelley left some holes that Max had to patch up.  That’s the best I could make of the song, it was an odd one.

When the song was finished, I put a fiver in the man’s guitar case.  He stood, and said, “Thank you sir for your patronage.  I’m off for now, but I’ll leave you with three pieces of advice.  And I don’t give advice often.  First, never wear an Alabama jersey in the French Quarter.  You’re young, so you can’t know how wrong that is, in so many ways.  Second, you should wipe the drool off of your friend’s face.  I think he needs to go to bed soon.  Third, you should stop by Pub Flanerty later, and listen to me play.  Things get cranked up good about 2 am.”  He handed me a wrinkled hand bill with a photo of him up on a stage, and the address of the bar.  “Bourbon Billy Blasts The Blues”.  Then he walked off.

I decided to take all three pieces of his advice.  I took Tim back to the hotel room and got him cleaned up.  It was bedtime for him.  I took off the Bama jersey, set the alarm clock for 1 am, and crawled into bed.  That was when I started wishing I hadn’t taken the speed.  I was still awake when the alarm went off.

I got up, put on my Auburn jersey, and headed back toward the action.

By the time I got to Pub Flanerty, Billy was already grinding his ax.  There is something magical, when you approach a musical happening.  From a distance, you hear the first wisps of the music.  It’s tantalizing, but you need more.  The closer you get, the pieces start to fit together.  It can make the hair stand up on your arms, or the back of your neck.

That is what I felt when I walked through the door.  Music can captivate you.  Even if it’s just one person strumming a guitar.  When you get five really talented musicians together, each playing a different instrument, it is an experience that cannot be translated into words.  You just have to be there.

Billy was shredding an electric now, not the acoustic he was playing earlier.  Also, there were drums, bass, piano, and saxophone.  This was some serious chit.  I was having a Green Onion moment.

I’ve been a music addict for longer than I can remember.  That may happen if you have siblings that are a lot older than you.  My brother was big on the Beach Boys and Johnny Cash.  My sister was in to the Beatles, Dylan and the Stones.  And my mother listened to Bach, Beethoven and Henry Mancini.  As the joke goes, I like both kinds of music.  Country and Western.  And all that other stuff.

The first time music made the hair stand on my arms, there really wasn’t hair, just peach fuzz.  Picture a den with a 19 inch black and white TV.  No remote, just 12 clicks on the dial.  A very young Booker T is dishing it out with the MGs.  Everyone in the band has a serious look on their face.  I would later realize that playing a musical instrument is hard work.  If you can dance like Michael or Madonna, go ahead, but most of us play better when we stand still.

That was my first Green Onion moment.  They would happen at various unpredictable times throughout my life.  They are still happening.  The last time was the other day, when I googled the chords to Radioactive, by Imagine Dragons.  Not every song lends itself to just one guy and a guitar.  But sometimes, you get a Green Onion moment.  Even if you have to capo at the second fret.

As I sat there at Pub Flanerty, the bizarre songs just kept coming.  “I Don’t Have To Clean My Room”, “White Man Black Soul”, and “Moss Man Rides The Wind” fit right in with “Max and Shelley”. I did not realize Billy had noticed me.  The room was full, and I was at a table along the back wall.  I had no idea Billy was a mind reader. 

Billy and the band stopped.  He said, “We’re going to take a break while I rest the pipes.”  Then he looked straight at me and said, “Hey, Bo Jackson.  Apparently you don’t take advice very well.  It’s the spirit of the advice that matters, not the letter of the advice.  And if you are as good at guitar as you think you are, you can play while we drink a cold one.”

The Green Onion moment was in jeopardy.  I realized I had two options.  Surrender, and get the hell out of Pub Flanerty immediately.  Or, get up on stage and play.  The greatest athlete in the history of Auburn University would never back down from that kind of a challenge.  Neither would I, if I happened to be wearing a licensed copy of his jersey.  I chose my ax, and strapped in.

I started with Nights in White Satin.  I whistle the solo part while I accompany it on guitar.  I think it sounds awesome, even though I had to simplify the solo a lot.  I don’t whistle any better than I sing.  I always alternate a serious song with something light hearted.  The Moody Blues standard is one of my favorites to play, but it is a bit pretentious.  Godzilla is a good follow up.  It is a cautionary tale about science gone wrong.  But it is so absurd that it is funny. 

Then I go back to dark and serious.  Comfortably Numb is the song that has gotten me the most praise, of all the covers I’ve ever done.  Even though I can’t sing the high notes that well.  And, the scream in the fourth verse is hit or miss.  But that song, out of every song I’ve ever played, may be the best of all for just one guy strumming and singing.  If properly performed, or halfway properly performed in my case, it can be mesmerizing.

I closed my set with a song you may have never heard.  It’s called “Me and Opie”, by a band out of Birmingham, Rolling In The Hay.  It is about an episode of The Andy Griffith Show that never got made.  I’m not a true Southerner, even though I was born and raised here.  When I sing that song, I sing with a southern accent that no Yankee can tell is fake.

If you’re interested, Rolling In The Hay will be performing at the Flora Bama on February 28th.  If you run in to them, tell them Serge Wlodarski has played that song, more than once.  On some of the same stages as them.

I have no idea how I sounded, belting it out at Pub Flanerty.  My performances always sound perfect to me, except for the mistakes.  It doesn’t matter.  I’m in the zone.  You could cut me with a knife and I wouldn’t notice the bleeding until after the set was over.

As I walked off the stage, Billy shook my hand and said, “When you played Comfortably Numb, that is what rock and roll is all about.”  That is the coolest compliment I’ve ever received in my life.

Then I realized it was time to go.  There was going to be a long drive back to Montgomery, then north to Nash Vegas.  I hadn’t slept in forever.  No matter.  I had to be at work in mere hours.  Oh, to be young again.

Tim was so hung over, I knew I had to drive.  That was going to be dicey.  An Alfa Romeo is a tin can with an engine big enough to haul a horse trailer.  It was raining.  Somehow I made it back. 

A FEW DAYS LATER

It’s 4 am.  I’m sitting down, in the smallest room of my house.  There is sweat on my brow.  A cat is meowing at the door.  She wants one of the two things cats always want.  Food, or my undivided attention.  She’ll have to wait a few minutes.  The Mardi Gras trip finally comes to an end.

EPILOGUE

Several months pass.  I’m in my cubicle with the consultant we’ve brought in to help with the Peoplesoft upgrade.  He’s an interesting looking dude, grey hair pulled back in a ponytail.  After we’ve worked all morning, we decide to get lunch.  I ask where he’s from, he says, New Orleans.

I laugh, and tell him the Bourbon Billy story.  He has an odd look on his face.  He says, “I’ve lived in New Orleans my whole life.  I’ve been in every bar, restaurant, and strip club in the French Quarter.  There is no such place as Pub Flanerty.  That’s not even a proper Irish name, it should be Flaherty.  And I’ve never heard of a musician named Bourbon Billy.”

I didn’t know what to make of that.  But I remembered the handbill.  When I got home, it was still folded up, along with the pile of beads I had deposited on my desk.  I opened it up.  It had a picture of a red beret.  Below were the words, “Guardian Angels, keeping it safe since 1979.”

So I can’t prove any of this happened.  I could just be making it all up.  I’ll say this.  My house sits up on a hill.  At night, when the traffic has petered out, and the birds and insects have shut down for the evening, it is really quiet.  Some nights, I can hear the auto races, at the local quarter mile track, four miles away.  Sound carries.

Sometimes I hear music.  Maybe it’s just someone’s car stereo.  Sometimes I hear someone, strumming a guitar.  Maybe I’m the only one who can hear it.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

Cobol is still around.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen Fortran.  Remember, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  And the only kind people are likely to get from me.


© Copyright 2017 Serge Wlodarski. All rights reserved.

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