June 07, 2005

The Necessities

He hocked his guitar for gasoline a hundred miles ago. Far from the first time he’s had to do that. It used to bother him a lot -- he’s loved every guitar he’s ever held -- but now he thinks of it as like sending his kids off to college. Some local boy will pick up a Guild twelve–string he couldn’t otherwise afford and play it for pretty girls on the lawn of a dorm building. Meanwhile, the songwriter will still play tonight. The coffeehouse manager will have a cheap but trusty Yamaha in the back room, or as a last resort a plea will go out to the audience and someone will rush off and come back ten minutes later with a new Martin in hand.

Gasoline and other necessities. He’s been able to cut down a lot on overhead since he quit his day job and started living in his car. Just couldn’t see putting up drywall for another month when there were songs to write, people to sing for. Lowering the back seat and putting down two blankets you can make a cozy bed. He used to be a vegetarian but it’s hard to keep that up on the road. Nowadays he eats at McDonald’s at least three times a week -- Wendy’s when he’s got the cash. For three bucks, three double cheeseburgers will keep you going from dinner time all through the show and into the early morning hours, when you’ll crash on the couch of some new acquaintance who’s got stacks of great old vinyl records and some bread and peanut butter in the cupboard. Two meals a day makes most sense, it burns your fuel at an even rate. He can usually scrounge some stale pastry at a coffeehouse, too, and if he’s playing a church on a Saturday night, the next morning he can get coffee and sweet rolls at fellowship. Soup kitchens and community pantries are gold mines of material: at least once a month some new character steps up to him and tells a songworthy life story. There are people who’d pay to hear that kind of thing, and he gets it for free.

Tonight it’s a coffeehouse named for an early socialist heroine, a storefront with drawn–back thin red curtains, yard sale sofas and chairs, vegan scones and cookies (not bad), a glass gallon jar one–third filling with dollar bills. The crowd is small at first but people keep coming; by ten pm it’s standing room, and people are smiling, and there’s just enough cross–chatter to stimulate him to try to overcome it. He sings them all his best ones, saving nothing. He sings the one about the giving mountains, and the one about the oyster and the pearl, and the one about how love is always simple. That one was put on a CD by a singer he knows in Oregon; he once got a royalty check for $15.83. The check made the whole folkie circuit of the central Midwest -- there were postmarks on it from Champaign, Bloomington, West Lafayette, Kalamazoo -- before finally catching up to him in Columbus.

The coffeehouse closes at midnight. The usual types come up and shake his hand -- alas, no lingering girl–hands tonight -- while he’s eyeing the bagel shelf. Someone says he’s going to look up the songwriter’s CD online, but doesn’t actually buy a physical copy from the carton lugged from the trunk of the car.

There’s this one guy who’s hanging around longer, and he’s well dressed and groomed: Polo jeans, a stylish, longish, graying haircut. Talks about the bands he used to play in, the songs he used to play, before he quit to make money.

“Look, come over to my place, we can have a drink, maybe play something,” the guy says, and when the songwriter gives him a suspicious look, quickly adds, “No, not that.” So they drive for a few miles and it’s a McMansion -- a word he’s used in a song, rhyming it with “ranchin’” -- although it looks enough like a real mansion to the songwriter. They sit in big chairs on opposite sides of a fireplace, cognac in snifters on end tables, and the guy hands him an old Gibson Dove, with that blond cowgirl body and soft deep prairie–sky twang, and they play Jimmie Rodgers and Fred Neil and Ewan McColl and Townes, and the next day when the songwriter is waking up on the couch the rich guy calls him to scrambled eggs and espresso and the Dove is standing upright at the kitchen island, and the rich guy lifts it toward him and says, “I never play it anymore. Take it with you, it needs to be played.”

He doesn’t get too upset anymore when he gets a guitar stolen or has to hock it en route. A guitar will always come along. Some people have a word for that, but he tries not to use it since he’s not sure about it. All he’s sure about are the words in his songs, words like railroad and tumbling and home.