I can still see gramps when he was really old, flailing around in his wheelchair with his electric guitar in hand and his Pignose amp going full blast in the basement family room. Back then he only had a shock of white hair on his head and his hands were all mottled and cramped, but he still managed the chords to ancient Rolling Stones numbers like "Dead Flowers" and "Start Me Up."
This was way before he started taking the youth drugs, of course. Those damned drugs.
Anyway, he played loud! He'd crank that pint-sized amp up getting maximum distortion out of it all the while singing at peak volume in that sandblasted old-guy's voice of his. Then he'd start wind milling his arms around hitting the chords right on time until I thought he might just fly up out of the chair and start doing splits like he used to with his band when he was a kid in the 1960s. Actually, he sounded pretty good, not that I'm into that old-timey music or anything. Anyway, pretty soon grandmom would come down and tell him to turn it down or he'd wake the dead.
"My parents used to tell me to turn it down," he'd yell back at her, though not in anger, just to keep up with his guitar. "And later my kids told me to turn it down. Well, I ain't gonna do it. No way! I'm going full tilt right to the end!"
He knew better than to use "ain't" that way; that was the cranky old rock 'n' roll rebel in him. I mean he was a retired professor of geophysics, after all.
Grandmom would just kind of huff out of there, careful to close the door behind her so all the noise wouldn't make it upstairs. She'd been sweetly tolerant of his musical side for many years -- they'd been married more than five decades at that point -- and sometimes I still get sad thinking about what those insidious youth pills did to that beautiful elderly couple.
My mom and dad had a house just down the street from my grandparents and it was my job to kind of keep an eye on them after I got home from school, at least until my parents came home from work. I got an allowance for mowing their lawn and taking out the trash and chores like that, and I didn't mind. Both grandma and grandpa were smart and funny and had all their wits. So I'd hear lots of stories about what the world was like sixty, seventy years ago. Gramps was always trying to give me guitar lessons, too, and I picked up a few things.
So I was there that Sunday when The New York Times website's top story was about the breakthrough: People didn't have to get old anymore; they'd found a cure for aging. What's more, scientists had succeeded in reversing the process and had already returned several elderly people to their early twenties.
"Yiii-hah!" grandpa yelped. He was so excited he shouted for grandma to come on down to the basement, they were going to be young again!
Grandma didn't greet the news with quite the enthusiasm gramps did.
"Settle down, Cliff, you're going to have an aneurysm if you're not careful. Anyway, it says here it's experimental and they're not sure if there are any side effects or what the longterm impact on society's going to be. I mean, if everybody stays young and lives forever, how on earth are we going to support everyone?"
"You need to read the whole story," gramps said with some agitation. "We're not staying on earth. If you elect to take the treatment and you're older than eighty -- that's us, my dear -- you gotta go to the Mars colony for the next fifty years. Anyway, that's the prediction. How great is that? You get a second chance at life but you gotta go to the Red Planet to help settle it. It'll be like the Wild West and we'll be young again in a time of discovery and adventure, like when we went to live in San Francisco in 1975 -- except it's Mars. Let's do it!"
He started cackling and whanging away on his guitar again, practically dancing in his wheelchair.
But grandma didn't look so convinced. In fact, I thought I saw tears in her pale blue eyes.
Personally, I blame what happened next to the world on Mick Jagger. He's that old rock 'n' roll bastard -- I think he's in his late 90s now -- who decided he wanted to live forever so he formed a consortium of other rich, geriatric rockers, rappers, hip-hoppers, movie stars and other super-vain, super-rich celebrities to found The Jagger-Venter Longevity Institute with genome-guru Craig Venter. David Bowie was on board, among many others. Madonna, Dr. Dre, Brian Seacrest, Will Smith, Stephen King, Bill Gates, to name a few. Even Chuck Berry, for crying out loud, who was like on his last legs at a hundred and something. Together they raised billions to speed up anti-aging research, and they got lucky. Genetics and computer science converged at just the right moment and bam! "The Other Pill" was born.
Not since that last big game-changing pill, the one that ironically enough ended life, the birth control pill that started the sexual revolution, had there been such a civilization-upending event. And from what I've seen, calling what followed a "revolution" is putting it mildly.
At first, the Federal Drug Administration tried to keep the lid on the Jagger-Venter pills, saying it would take another ten years of research and review before the experimental drugs were ready for prime time. But try telling that to millions of superannuated Boomers and Gen X'ers, fully a third of the United States' population. Some were so old they were going to expire way before the pills were available, so they wanted the treatment now, immediately, pronto.
"They're worried the side effects might kill me?" I remember grandpa saying incredulously as he scratched tenderly at a patch of basal cell carcinoma that had taken up residence on his thinning scalp. "I'm freakin' eighty-seven; old age is gonna get me first. What do I have to lose?"
It was a rational argument.
After the AARP sit-ins and riots in practically every city in America, including The Million Geezer March on Washington, D.C. (more like a hobble than a march, actually) and organizers' threats to use gray power at the polls in November, politicians woke up and went into panicky overdrive to push for the pills. When a revitalized and militant Gray Panthers Party led by antique Vietnam vets began rallying everywhere with loaded M-16s, the feds sped things up and got the pills to market in six months.
Such was the power of old age and treachery.
As soon as they hit, everyone started calling the black and white gel caps "jaggers" although Big Pharma had a less catchy sounding brand name that never caught on. Soon they were all generic anyway and were just "jaggers." The black half of the generic cap had a tiny white skull and cross bones; the white end was stamped with that lascivious red tongue and leering lips logo. Sex sells, I guess.
"Let's do it!" grandpa had said and so they did. Cheaply, too. Oh, sure, Big Pharma had tried to make big profits by initially charging a fortune for the drugs. At the original price, only the rich could afford them -- and what gave them the right to a long life over the working guy? More riots ensued, but soon it was moot anyway because the black market took over once the formula was out there and before long the jagger pills were everywhere. There was no stopping them.
So grandpa got his dose and he got a dose for grandmom, too, although she seemed reluctant. For grandpa, though, it was 1969 all over again ..."Yiii-hah!"
That's when my world really got weird.
I'd heard from my mother that "grandmom and grandpa were on the jaggers," and
I remember thinking it was kind of interesting and funny. Would the drugs work? Were my grandparents going to get younger? Would they go all the way back to their teenage years?
My mom told me that wasn't possible. "The drugs can only take you back to somewhere in your twenties, for reasons scientists don't quite understand yet," she said somewhat wistfully. It was soon after that I noticed her skin was looking smoother and her hair darker, and although I never asked, it was evident she was on the jaggers. My dad, too. His pot belly disappeared and his hairline went in reverse, with a thick crop of wavy black hair returning within weeks.
But it was the effect on my grandparents that was the most dramatic, at least initially.
They were both in their late eighties when all this started, pretty much at the end of their tether on earth. My mom told me they were flying off to Paris one last time; they'd always loved the City of Light and tried to make a trip there every few years. We took them to the airport, and I helped wheel gramps through security. We all waved and threw kisses as airline personnel helped them on the passenger bridge to their waiting plane.
A month later, when the airport limo pulled in the driveway I was out in front of their house mowing the lawn in a last minute attempt to spruce the place up. I waved to the limo, shut the hovermower down, and started toward the car to help them out. Before I got there, though, a middle-age guy with longish black-and-silver streaked hair fairly leaped out of the vehicle and held the door for a tall, attractive middle-aged woman. I didn't recognize them and thought maybe they were going to help gramps down the ramp with his wheelchair. I couldn't see through the limo's tinted windows and was momentarily puzzled.
The skinny guy with streaked hair smiled at me and pushed his cool sunglasses down on the tip of his nose and stared at me through his startling blue eyes. "Yiii-haaa!" he shouted and commenced doing a jig. I noticed for the first time that he was wearing bell bottom jeans and a gaudy flowered shirt.
"Yep, that's me, kid!" he answered in voice that was still sandpapery. "That's me!"
Of course I was stunned. You always wonder what your grandparents looked like when they were younger -- vids and photos go only so far. So here they were, all healthy and strong and unbent. It was really strange, like meeting people who reminded you of your grandparents, but couldn't possibly be them.
"C'mon kid," grandpa said heaving a suitcase at me with one hand, obviously showing off his arm strength. "Help me get the old lady in the house," he chortled, and slapped grandmom on the rump area.
"Oh Cliff -- don't embarrass the boy," she chastised him. But I could tell she kind of liked his attention, so I really was even more embarrassed and I felt my face flush. I mean, I always thought grandmom was beautiful in a grandma kinda way, but now I could see she was just a beautiful woman, period.
"Hah, hah, hah," gramps was laughing. "I can't wait to party with you tonight, babe! Let's go freshen up and we'll burn down the town."
Now I was really embarrassed.
"Oh yeah, kid," gramps said glancing at the iTat on the inner wrist of his left hand, tapping it until a vid went streaming across his skinscreen. "Check this out."
He tapped his wrist again and I couldn't help but notice how black and curly his arm hair was, like an animal's -- like a bear's! It used to be snow white. And his skin was tight and had lost its saggy, melted cheese look. There was a flicker as his tat went to widescreen and expanded the length of his now-muscular forearm. First up were a bunch of old farts holding various electric guitars and laughing as one of them strummed the chords to "Wild Thing" (gramps had taught me that one). "That's my band; we're getting back together," gramps said. "They're all on the jaggers. This time we're gonna do it right -- nothing less than world domination."
"Wow, gramps. That's crazy -- but it sounds like a blast (that's one of gramps' favorite expressions; I only use it around him)."
"I'm glad you said that, kid, because you're our new bass player." He touched his wrist again and a vintage violin bass stretched along his forearm in all its sunburst glory. "It's a custom -order Beatle bass and it's on its way. I always liked John Lennon better than Sir Paul, but it's my way of thanking McCartney for kicking in a stray half-billion for jaggers' research. Now it's just him and Ringo -- but they're planning a reunion, too. Yii-hah!"
I wasn't sure what he meant about the band. I mean, I got that he wanted me to play bass and I vaguely recalled that the original bassist had died in some drug mishap that led to their breakup. But I'd only just graduated high school and was headed to college in the fall, so I figured gramps wanted me to fill in temporarily until he found a permanent and age-appropriate musician. But as I was to learn later on, and much to my parents' consternation, that was not his program.
Gramps always said rock 'n' roll will never die. And though it wasn't his intention, for me that phrase always conjured images of the undead vigorously partying and frugging, or whatever they called it, to a really noisy bar band in Hell. Robyn Hitchcock and his ancient rocking Egyptians, or maybe The Ungrateful Dead, which is how I thought of them, tweaking the name of one of gramps' favorite bands from 1 million B.C.
The day the Beatle bass arrived, I was in gramps' basement helping him turn it into a music studio, really just a rehearsal space with some prehistoric analog recording gear he'd dusted off and tinkered with until he got it working again. A Fed Ex deliveryman brought the axe right to gramps' door. It came in one of those old rectangular "coffin" cases and when I opened it up, there lay the instrument on a gorgeous bed of purple crushed velvet. I mean, from where I stood, that electric bass was a work of art.
"It's a brand new reissue," gramps said. "Exactly like the original but with better electronics... Kind of like me!"
I could only stare with awe at the thing, with its orange and whiskey sunburst and thick, cable-like strings. Now gramps had taught me a few chords on guitar and I had a good ear, he said, for picking out single-string melodies -- but I'd never played a bass, and it looked intimidating.
"C'mon kid," gramps finally said. "Quit admiring her and let's plug her in."
I picked it up out of the case and right away could feel how sleek and smooth the neck was, and how easily the strings pressed against the fret board. It played with a certain silky, tactile perfection and I felt something electric shoot through my fingers even though it wasn't jacked into an amplifier yet.
Excitedly, I plugged it into a 1960s silverface amp. Gramps had several vintage amps and speakers scattered about the studio, with various guitars on stands and cables snaking everywhere across the floor. A blue-sparkle drum kit was set up on a maroon oriental rug in one corner and an electric piano, its black and white keyboard like a long gap-toothed smile, waited in another. Several microphones were also set up on stands around the room and all the equipment and wires gave the basement a laboratory kind of feel, as though an experiment was about to begin that might bring something new and different, something even monstrous and galvanizing, into the world. Something fun! There was electricity in the air and suddenly I felt creative and alive; I was ready -- dare I say it -- to rock.
Gramps taught me a bunch of old songs and basic progressions that day, and he was relentless. We practiced for hours until my fingers felt stiff and arthritic. I finally had to tell him I had to quit, my fingers were numb. Here I was seventeen years old and my hands felt like a geriatric's. Meanwhile gramps, who at that point looked about forty, was crackling with crazy skinny energy. He was in constant twitchy motion, strumming, singing, throwing down lead guitar hooks and twiddling amp dials. No way I could keep up.
"You're young kid, don't worry about it," he told me. "Your fingers will be fine tomorrow when you come back, same time as today. We've got a set list to work on if we're going to make that gig I've got lined up in a couple of weeks."
He walked me to the basement door, and I noticed he'd picked up an open bottle of bourbon along the way.
"Not for you kid," he said when he caught me looking at the bottle. "Maybe when you're twenty-one. Bad for your health -- but it takes the edge off my nerves. I've always had nerves."
He opened the basement door onto his grassy backyard and brilliant late afternoon sunshine. "Peace, man," he said somewhat jokingly, flashing the two-fingered sign and taking a drink straight from the bottle. "The band's going to be great."
I remember thinking that maybe reliving the youth you always wanted to live wasn't necessarily a good thing, and I made a mental note to keep a close eye on gramps. I was already worried that maybe he'd go too far.
And that's how it went for the rest of the summer. I was in gramps' rehearsal space and jamming every day, and gramps was right -- it all came easily and it wasn't long before I was completely sucked into the whole scene. Unless you've played in a band, it's hard to explain the feeling you get when the music comes together and everything is clicking. Especially with electric instruments, it's like the juice just flows right into your body and brain, lighting up every cell and synapse. And then there's the volume and the power which surges around and through you and blasts you along, propulsive and divine. For some, it's an out-of-body experience; for me, it's like surfing a tsunami across an ocean of sound.
Gramps and his band mates from yore, now in various stages of youth restoration, were my fellow surfers and guides. Tater was on rhythm guitar, whanging away on a smoke-green Gretsch hollow body. His shoulder length chestnut hair had all its color, but his hairline hadn't quite returned so he had this Mongol-invader kind of look that he augmented with a greasy Fu-Manchu mustache. They called him Tater -- a contraction of potato -- because when he was a kid he was kind of pale and attenuated like a tuber and rarely went outside, happy to play guitar and indulge his bookish side.
RayMan (his real name was Raymond Mahon), was on keyboards. He was actually the oldest guy in the group, in his late nineties when he got jagged. Now he looked to be in his mid-thirties. As a kid in his early teens in the 1950s he used to hang out in all these Greenwich Village jazz joints. Later through the 1960s he still sported a goatee and beret, peppered his speech with "y'know man," and would toss all these bebop riffs and improvised musical meditations into a tune. Here it was decades later and he was still a latter-day beatnik. A ragged, crumbling paperback copy of Kerouac's "Dharma Bums" was always positioned like a good luck totem somewhere near his antique Hammond B-3 organ.
Then there was Buzz Burr, the lead vocalist. I'd originally thought gramps was going to handle the singing duties because I'd heard no one knew what happened to Buzz, or where he was. But gramps found him. Buzz was a legend not just in his own mind, but at least in several others, mostly fellow band members. Gramps blamed the failure of the band back in the day on Buzz. He said he was a self-destructive narcissistic clown who'd do anything to get attention, which was mostly good for the band's notoriety -- except when it wasn't. Like the time Buzz got totally shitfaced at a show when he knew record execs were in the audience. As if rolling around on the stage and moaning instead of singing wasn't enough, he had one of his girlfriends (there were many) bring out two big buckets of live fish. Mackerel, gramps said. As his band mates watched in horror, but kept the power chords going, Buzz began flinging the live and flip-flopping fish into the audience. Pretty soon dozens of silver-flashing fish were arcing through the air every which way, and pandemonium broke loose. It was a great and delirious rock 'n' roll moment -- but it was only a moment. One of the fat mackeral smacked into the top exec's head, getting him right in the eye. He had to be rushed to the hospital for surgery. End of the band's career, or so gramps said.
Photos from the time show Buzz in all his bizarre glory. For starters, he was six feet seven inches tall, wore his hair in a modified beehive the color of a Creamsicle and had a tattoo of Curly from The Three Stooges on his right bicep, Moe on the left. In the late 1960s, his preferred stagewear included sleeveless black shirts, pink velveteen bell bottoms and yellow lizard skin cowboy boots. The boots and the beehive hairdo added at least another foot to his already precipitous height. Now this doesn't sound particularly outrageous by today's standards, what with all the inter-species fin-and-fur DNA grafts that teens are sporting, but back in '68 it was an eyeful.
So, okay, what happened to that legendary madman Buzz during the missing years, where did he go?
How about he became an investment adviser for a major international bank? Yep, that's where gramps found him, wearing a nice suit and still working as a consultant. Turns out, old Buzz was able to fall back on some pretty formidable math and computer skills at the beginning of that whole paradigm shift. Did pretty well for himself, too. But how does one find one's inner rock monster after all those years moving petrodollars around the globe, or whatever? This was a quandary, and the Buzz that first showed up at rehearsal -- and we're talking the newly young Buzz -- had all the charisma and badass attitude of a certified public accountant. He was dressed conservatively in khakis and a white polo shirt and actually wore cordovan tasseled loafers. The goofball tattoos were long since removed and the orange beehive was now a crew cut.
So it was quite a shocker the first time I met Buzz. We were all assembled in the basement, fiddling around with our various amps and instruments, noodling along on a couple of new songs -- gramps was writing originals again, and I'll come back to that later. In fact when Buzz first arrived, I just kept playing on the bass; I thought he was an insurance salesman or something, and it didn't occur to me he could be the Dionysian rock god of gramps' near mythological stories. He just looked like any other middle-aged square to me (since I'd picked up the bass, I'd started to adopt a hipster outcast persona myself; if you're in a band, it's inevitable).
When gramps motioned for me to stop playing and then introduced me, I was dumbstruck. I mean, I'd been hoping for this amazing legend to show up, blow us all away, and take the band to the next level. Instead, here was this wimpy guy with skinny legs and arms stretched out like taffy, a crew cut and tasseled loafers.
A glance around the room told me the other guys were equally miffed.
Gramps scanned their faces, peered down at the floor a moment, and laughed.
"All right," he said when he looked up again. "Buzz needs some reprogramming but he's gonna be fine, wait and see."
Then gramps pulled out the bourbon bottle from its hiding place behind his amp, took Buzz by one of his rubbery arms and guided him out the back door. "We'll be back in a while; keep playing," he ordered as he closed the door behind him.
We all looked around at each other, puzzled and wondering if this was the end. Without a great front man, we were just another band.
"Not to worry, boys," RayMan said from behind his Ray-Bans. "Cliff will get him fixed up and in the proper mode, so to speak. He knows what he's doing."
Then he began tinkling away on his keyboard and we all joined in on a new spacey number gramps was calling "Future Sapien."
An hour later or so, gramps and Buzz came stumbling back in, both the worse for wear. Gramps had grass stains all over his white Nehru shirt and a black eye. Buzz had a bloody nose and the sleeves were ripped off his oxford button down. He was barefoot and had a skinned knee that was still bleeding. They both smelled of bourbon and pot, and their eyes were unfocused and wild. But they were both laughing uproariously and didn't seem able to stop.
"Let's go, Burr -- buzz awhile," gramps yelled at him, throwing in an uncontrollable "hah, hah,hah."
Buzz lurched toward the mic stand in the middle of the room, miscalculated, and sent it hurtling in my direction. As I ducked to the side, I caught a glimpse of Buzz's snakelike arm flicking out and snatching the stand before it hit me. And just like that, we were off and running on "Future Sapien" with Buzz ad-libbing great gouts of lyrics and diving and plummeting around the room as we jammed.
So gramps had finally coalesced the band he'd been dreaming of for more than fifty years, and he was young again, and so was everyone else.
It was a new world; it really was. When I say everyone, I mean everyone everywhere was young again. You either hadn't got old yet, or you were on the jaggers. And this epochal change literally happened in the space of a couple of years. The reverberations around the globe were, to use archaic slang, mind-blowing. First off, all the fears about superannuated baby boomers and X'ers wrecking the economy evaporated. Where once millions of addled grayheads were wobbling inexorably toward extinction with a detour through expensive nursing homes -- depleting Medicare and Social Security and so on -- they were now once again young, fit and free. Sure it wasn't all good news and there was some blowback as society convulsed. Suddenly millions of able bodied men and women were dumped back on an already stagnant job market and it was rough for awhile. But some of the billions that would otherwise have gone to pay for health care was used to tune-up the oldsters flooding the market. The colleges were filling up again with old-timers, now physically in their twenties and thirties, getting retooled for a new era. And these folks were veterans of just about every human condition and vocation, and many had led successful lives well into their dotage. Now, most were ready to start over again -- no, they were ecstatic to start over -- using their renewed vigor and knowledge to kick start economies all over the world.
Then there was Mars. The colony was booming and the newly young were shipping out in droves, even some of them in their sixties and seventies, although the government didn't require anyone to leave earth until they were eighty-nine; then it was compulsory. The oldsters got a new lease on living and the government got a ready source of labor to terraform the rowdy red planet. Making another rock in the solar system habitable for the species was an awesome human endeavor, and life was an adventure again, albeit a dangerous one.
So how did the band fit into all this? Well, in gramps' groovy grand scheme we were going to conquer earth with our music -- and then Mars. Two whole planets! Nobody had done that yet. But he didn't have much time; eighty-nine was only eight months away for him. That was the deadline.
To say he felt pressured is to grossly understate what was going on in that newly rejuvenated and teeming brain of his. He was the bandleader, the visionary, the idea man, the guy who kept it all going, and he needed an edge, he needed stimulation to keep him operating at maximum rock 'n' roll velocity.
After we finished that first rehearsal with Buzz, who lit the room up with his raw singing and the crazy, angular way he stalked around all elbows and spider legs, I stepped out back for some fresh air. The sky was dismally overcast with some splotches of blue sky trying unsuccessfully to bleed through. As I leaned against the house I could see where the grass had been flattened (oops, I hadn't mowed it in awhile) when gramps and Buzz were hanging out. I imagined they got pretty animated because the whole area was stamped flat. And right at the peak of a small hill that fell away to the broader lawn, you could see where they'd rolled down the incline, fighting or horsing around, who knows at that point? The path through the grass ended in another trodden down clearing under a giant oak tree. As I stared down at the clearing, maybe twenty yards away, I could see something white and gleaming in the grass. Thinking that maybe gramps or Buzz had dropped it, I jogged down the little hill. The object turned out to be a plastic baggy filled with white powder. I knew it was cocaine, which despite being legal for the last ten years was still a reason for concern. A lot of concern. I hoped it was Buzz's but I knew it was gramps'. And that scared me.
I emptied the bag out on a lilac bush and then brushed the speckled white residue off the plant's green leaves, so as not to leave a trace.
I never said anything to gramps about it, but now I understood where a lot of his manic energy was coming from, and I wasn't happy about it. Nevertheless, the band played on and I stuck with my role in the rhythm section, thumping murderously away on some tunes, using a more nuanced approach for others.
On the afternoon of our first gig a month later, a fund-raiser for a Mars-bound group of "elders" who all looked about twenty-five, I saw that all was not going well between gramps and grandmom, who now preferred to be called Ellen.
Ellen had jaggered back to about 30 years old or so, and as I previously mentioned, she was splendid and heartbreakingly beautiful. Wherever she went, men of all ages were mesmerized by her, and I've got to say that even I -- her grandson for Christ's sakes -- was starstruck by her beauty. For some reason, and I'm pretty sure it was a toxic mix of drugs, stress and ambition, gramps seemed inured to her charms. I mean, I don't think he was completely oblivious -- he clearly loved having a beautiful woman on his arm -- but he was so submerged in his single-minded vision that he wasn't paying attention. Or paying attention enough. At least that's what I heard Ellen say on more than one occasion when she thought I was out of earshot.self a
"You don't hear what I have to say anymore, Cliff," she told him once. "You just nod and start talking about the band, or some other inane thing. Look at me, my hair color is one of my loveliest assets and you've said nothing about its return. When we were young -- really young -- you used to love it. You used to compare it to honey and gold and sunshine. Now, I don't know if you've even noticed."
Gramps snapped that he had noticed, but it was obvious he was embarrassed and angry over his oversight. Then came the ancient excuse every guy's ever used to deflect scrutiny of their self absorption: work.
"I'm sorry honey, I've been working so hard to get this band off the ground. It takes everything I've got and this might be my last chance."
"You've been chasing this music dream all your life," she said forlornly. "Why can't you just be happy with who you are?"
"This is what I've always wanted," he rasped back. "And I'll be goddamned if I'll let it slip through my hands now. We're gonna make it big-time or we're going down in flames trying!"
It was just like gramps to strike a grandiose chord; after all, he was there at the birth of heavy metal.
So here it was our first gig and we're set up on a stage above a good sized crowd, plugged in and ready to go. There's that special energy before a rock show, a kind of primal subsonic telepathy crackling from performers to audience, literally waiting for amplification. Gramps was up at the mic scanning the front rows and then pacing the stage, peering behind one black-curtained wing, then the other. That's when I realized he was looking for grandmom, I mean Ellen, and she was nowhere to be found.
Buzz wasn't anywhere to be seen, either. I hadn't thought much of that until this moment because I thought he was planning a dramatic entrance that would turn the spotlight on him, the star vocalist, in keeping with his rediscovered rock 'n' roll id. Now, though, a darker reason for his absence sprang to mind.
When Buzz finally showed up, he was drunk and stoned and stumbling. Gramps, who'd been waiting with the band on stage, strafed him with a blue-eyed glance filled with anger and loathing and then stamped on his array of floor pedals and launched into "Ballad of the Wizened," a mid-tempo, medieval Zep-type dirge about being young with an old man's mind. The crowd loved it, and seemed to instantly relate to gramps' lyrics and the tune's catchy hooks.
Ellen appeared in the wings at stage left, vacantly smiling, dancing and watching Buzz. Gramps saw her but ignored her. Meanwhile, Buzz was everywhere stalking the stage and climbing over amps while howling in his best Jim Morrison imitation, which was certainly a problem in the 60s before the Doors' singer died at twenty seven, but was an asset now. The audience loved Buzz and maybe this newly refulgent generation needed to have its own heedless and hedonistic Morrison, who was once quoted as saying he wanted to live for a hundred and twenty years. Like Jimbo, Buzz knew a thing or two about theater and entertaining a crowd, that's for sure, and he ended the song by bending his ectomorphic, mantis-like frame backwards until his red hair dragged on the stage and then he suddenly snapped forward like a missile shot from a catapult and dove into the audience. They crowd-surfed him back onto the stage to the opening chords of "Future Sapien" and the roof seemed to come off the place. From there on out, we owned the crowd.
Back in our dressing room after the show, Gramps was sullen despite our success. Buzz had disappeared as soon as he left the stage and Ellen was nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, a Rolling Stone reporter had cornered Gramps for an interview and a local public television crew was circling, saying they wanted to do a documentary about the resurrection of a long forgotten band. As Gramps' eyes darted around looking for Ellen, the young female Stone reporter flattered him by telling him he looked and played just like Jeff Beck.
I was sitting on a bench against the dressing room wall still holding my bass in my lap and toweling the sweat from my hair and face when two very pretty girls approached and told me they loved the show. This was absolutely my first brush with anything resembling celebritydom and when they asked me if I wanted to party, I hesitated a moment because I wasn't sure exactly what to say. I mean I was 18-years-old now but still kind of shy around girls. I also detected something in their manner or their voices that told me they were really not as young as I was, but were probably older women recently rewound to a much younger age. Which was kind of strange, to say the least.
But they were certainly attractive and I was about to answer in the affirmative when there was a disturbance at the entrance to the room. The club's bouncers had been trying to hold back a group of overly exhuberent -- read: drunk -- new fans, but it seemed some had burst through their defenses. Several came rushing into the room and I immediately realized they weren't fans, but protesters from the upstart and militant Sleeper movement. The Sleepers took their name from death itself, the Big Sleep, and they were for the most part religious fanatics and rabid anti-life extensionists. One of the Sleepers, who had the gray hair and crows' feet wrinkles of someone in their natural fifties, made a bee-line for Gramps and started ranting.
"Men! Not Methuselahs!" And then he lunged. "Time to die, you motherfuckin' infidel!"
At that last, I saw him pull a knife and as his arm lifted to slash at Gramps, I acted reflexively and jumped up swinging my Hofner bass like a real axe, catching the guy's arm as it went up over his head to strike. The blow sent the knife flying and likely broke the assailant's arm because I heard the crunch of wood against bone. Frankly, as frightened as I was, I felt a fleeting twinge of remorse over my smashed bass. All that lovely wood and workmanship wasted on a crazy person. But of course I was glad to have been able to keep him from harming Gramps, and in the next few seconds I kept swinging the instrument to hold the other Sleepers at bay, giving the club's security and then police time to arrest them.
Gramps rushed over and hugged me and thanked me for saving his life.
"You know," he said, his blue eyes tearing up. "I understand if you don't want to stay in the band. We've obviously attracted the attention of the loony fringe and who knows what's next."
"You're kidding me, right Gramps?" I said. "I love this band -- this is what I want to do, too. No way I'm quitting."
Gramps laughed out loud and I could see he was momentarily happy. Then he was looking around the room again, and I heard him ask RayMan if anyone had seen Ellen. No one had.
The public television crew's cameras had caught the entire Sleeper drama, and we were all over the news that night. Most of the reports underscored the growing threat from religious terrorists among us, but the footage of me chopping away at the crazies went viral on iTats around the world and we were instantly catapulted into the global spotlight. The next day we received offers from several major record labels; we signed with the best-known one.
We were soon in the studio working on an album and the next thing I knew, our songs were everywhere. I'd be coming out of a diner down on Main Street and some kid would walk by with his wrist tat blasting Future Sapien. You'd hear it blaring from passing cars, from apartment windows, local bars, in airport waiting rooms -- we were the latest musical flavor and the world was eating us up. And the money was flowing in.
We were all rich overnight and I have to admit I indulged about every lust and whim that flitted through my teen-age brain. Fast car? Check. Beautiful groupies? Check and check. The latest amps and vintage guitars? Check, check. Dope and alcohol? You bet.
But oddly enough, I always seemed to catch myself before descending too deeply into any of my desires. It was like I had a natural off switch for dangerous impulses. At some juncture, I'd just stop and move on to some other pleasure or obsession. Not so, however, for my grandsire.
Gramps was always going in all directions at once and he pursued his music, drugs and alcohol in a headlong and unstoppable way that was scary to behold. New and brilliant songs kept coming, along with empty whiskey bottles and cocaine nosebleeds. He'd always been a stringy-muscled, rangy guy, but now he was just emaciated, a walking wraith. I mean he looked cool up on the stage, but in real life his health was down the drain and I was concerned. I tried talking to him, of course, and he'd nod along with me, agreeing he had to take better care of himself. And then he'd continue down the same dark path he was on.
I knew that only grandmom, Ellen -- his love for decades -- could help him with his troubled mind. But she was gone, ignited by her newfound youth and intent on burning brighter the second time around, which was true for so many of this generation. So many who'd failed or missed their mark in their first seventy years were now determined to succeed at all cost in this new life. And Ellen, who'd spent her first life as a loving and complaisant wife, was now embarked on her own career. Her involvement with the band and the notorious Buzz Burr had helped her gain the attention one of Hollywood's hip young directors, and she was suddenly an eighty-five-year-old starlet, as fresh-faced and glorious as her current twenty-five-year-old body. And she had immense and magnetic talent; her first movie was a hit and I'd seen her image on palm-tats and skyscreens in the U.S., Europe and throughout Asia. She was the next big thing -- not me, not gramps, not Buzz.
So here's the problem: how was I going to get her back with gramps? Whatever it was about her that kept him from eating himself alive, from excess, from whatever pain he needed to numb -- it worked. Without her, his need, whatever its source, was insatiable and was devouring him physically and spiritually. She was the only one who could intervene and end his pitiable self-destruction. But I couldn't get near her. I tried pulling what strings I could; I had agents and producers and even a private eye trying to get through to her. Nothing and more nothing.
Nothing but silence.
And then gramps' time was up and they sent him to the angry Red Planet. It was like Elvis going into the Army; everything stopped, the band was over.
He's up there now, doing geological surveys in the deep mines of Olympus Mons. He's got to log another 50 years before he can come home. That's the law. Once in awhile my wrist will tingle and it's gramps on the skin-vid. He looks healthy, but tired and haggard for a 28-year-old. He pretends to be upbeat and during his last call he told me he'd started up another band and was playing in dive bars for rednecks and sandhogs, the miners and working men of Mars.
"A tough crowd to please," he said. "They like to throw bottles and crap at the stage -- funny how some things never change. But if we can make it in this hellhole, we can make it anywhere ... And I'll be ready the next time."
He says it like he means it and I don't doubt he'll try to stage a comeback, no matter how long it takes. I mean, he's basically got forever.
After sunset recently I found Mars shining cold and lonely in the black depths of sky and I thought of gramps. I saw him by himself at his desk with his maps and mineral specimens and the other instruments of his trade, his face smudgy with red dust. In the background, I imagined there were amps and guitars and I felt better for him, glad he was hanging onto his dreams.
Somehow, though, I don't think he'll ever be happy until he's back with grandmom, with Ellen. And while she's more famous and elusive than ever, the grandson in me wants to believe that despite her Garbo-like detachment and reclusiveness, she still loves him. After all those years together she has to, doesn't she? Maybe she just needed a timeout.
But soon enough she'll celebrate a very special birthday, one that will take her off to that speck of light I saw after sunset in the western sky. Then she can start her life all over again.
Maybe gramps can, too.