“Music is the only religion that delivers the goods …”
-Frank Zappa, born in Baltimore, died in Los Angeles
Cherry stole the Apicellas’ still-smells-like-new Ford Granada a couple hours after the bars closed on Thanksgiving. It wasn’t exactly theft. Mrs. Apicella left the keys on the seat and told the delinquent what time her husband would be stuffed with mashed potatoes and snoring like a cow. Cherry and Pete Kanaras threw their guitars in the back and aimed for Los Angeles.
So long East Baltimore.
Look out Tinseltown!
The car–milk white with a Landau roof of powder blue vinyl–was a lemon the moment it left Detroit. Instead of reporting it stolen–American flag decal on windshield, LIVE BETTER/WORK UNION bumper sticker, Maryland plates RMA 060–Mr. Apicella hit his wife so hard she cracked her head on the piano where the 12-year-old Cherry Triplett took his first formal music lessons.
“Man, Cherry,” said Kanaras, lighting a joint before they were out of the neighborhood, sticking a Johnny Winter 8-track into the ersatz wood grain of the dash. “You are too wild.”
“Wild enough to meet Frank when we get there?”
“Wild enough to try out for the Mothers?”
“Easy, superstar,” said Kanaras, passing the joint to Cherry and staring out the window as they passed the pink and orange glow above the Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrows Point.
Both of their fathers had worked the mills at one time or another. Kanaras’ old man sat him down in high school and told him to “shit can that colored music” and start working his way up the seniority ladder like a man. Mr. Kanaras would live to see his pension gutted before he died of mesothelioma.
Cherry, who could count the times he’d been with his father on one hand, took a deep hit of the reefer and handed it back to Kanaras, who took it without looking.
“Easy does it, chief … it’s a long road from the basement to the cut-out bin.”
Kanaras, just on the other side of 30, had paid his dues in band vans with many a psychotic drummer and narcissistic guitar player who never made a dent in the soundtrack to the universe. Not to mention lead singers who believed themselves the natural offspring of Sinbad the Sailor and an especially good-looking Avon lady.
He had been to L.A. a handful of times before Cherry and his talent barged into his life. Kanaras had learned a few things, made a few friends and enjoyed himself.
Cherry, too cute to be a minute over 17, had never been west of Hagerstown or south of Annapolis. California was the dream–he’d seen clips on TV, just a month or two ago, when Elton John sold out Dodger Stadium two nights in a row–the Golden State a verdant bowl as yearned-for as if his name were Joad, tear-ducts caked with dust.
“You never read The Grapes of Wrath?” said Kanaras, whose education was made up of never-returned library books and earplugs. “Christ, Cherry. Lester Bangs isn’t the only guy who ever had a thought.”
Cherry threw another tape in the dash–he only relinquished the wheel after drifting into the other lane and sometimes not then–the idea of crossing state lines in the Apicellas’ new car nearly as exciting as fucking Mrs. Apicella in the middle of the day while other kids sat in class pretending they understood Steinbeck.
“Class is a pleasure when Jerome is not in it,” the nuns at Pompeii wrote to Cherry’s grandmother, the rosary-rattling mother of his never-present-long-enough-to-be-missing father.
Kanaras shepherded the Gemini capsule from turn to turn (if Cherry didn’t know McGuinn he sure wasn’t going to know Gene Clark; what the prodigy’s metal head could not fathom his fingers knew beyond thought) across the continent.
In this way, the unlikely friends (Kanaras rode shotgun because Cherry was the ticket, though Pete knew better than to say it aloud) made it from Baltimore to Bristol, Tennessee and from Bristol to Nashville, where Cherry couldn’t give a shit about the Opry but insisted they drive by the 16th Avenue Quonset Hut where Johnny Winter recorded “Second Winter,” the fabled three-sided double album in which one side of the second LP was blank, more or less like Cherry’s conscience.
Some 200 miles west of Nashville they pulled up to the Music Gates on Highway 51.
Cherry made the trip to Memphis reluctantly, even bitched about it like a pussy until Kanaras said they would either pay their proper respects or the kid could make the rest of the trip by himself.
It was 1975 and the world had not yet come to an end.
Two short years and a dozen cross-country trips later, Cherry sat at an upright in an empty room and played “How Great Thou Art” for the soul of Judy Apicella just a few days after her husband hit her for the last time.
Armand Apicella went to jail, and Cherry played the hymn in silence, remembering how Kanaras had to force him to touch the scarred stone wall outside of Graceland, how Judy made him fried salami and cheese on day-old bread in the afternoon, and how stupid he was.
Stupid, even innocent, if you can call a born thief who learned to play music the way Cherry did innocent.
“Frank recorded his last album at the Roxy … let’s go there first,” said Cherry over scrambled eggs and pie at Chiriaco Summit, the Granada filthy and beginning to rattle, spider cracks in the windshield from stones flying from the back of a gravel truck.
“Nope,” said Kanaras, who had no expectations beyond making it home in one piece while Cherry wanted everything, wanted it all.
“No?” said Cherry, all hopped up on Judy’s diet pills, bits of egg on his cheeks and chin. “Penguins in Bondage! Pygmy Twilight!”
“Nope,” said Kanaras, wiping his mouth with a napkin, wondering if he might toss the obnoxious goof into the desert before they made the last 150 miles. “We’re going to Babe’s & Ricky’s.”
Cherry made a face, bit the inside of his mouth so hard it bled onto his lips.
“Who the fuck are Bay-bay and Ricky?”
The bottom dropped out of Cherry’s mania somewhere outside of San Bernardino, and he was dead asleep when Kanaras pulled up to 5259 Central Avenue, just off of East 53rd in South L.A., the sun white at noon like a thin slice of unsalted butter.
It was Christmas Eve, and it was 65 degrees.
Pete punched Cherry in the arm–“wake up Jerry Lee”–shook out the cobwebs and went to see if anyone was inside the club at the ungodly hour of 12:20 p.m. on the day before Christmas. He peered in–all dark–and walked around to the back where Miss Laura Mae might be doing something in the kitchen.
“Wait here,” said Kanaras. “We’re gonna sleep in a bed tonight.”
Cherry leaned against the Granada–in L.A. at last–and rubbed his eyes, the smog less oxides and volatile organics than a haze of desperation shot through with false hope and calorie-heavy promises.
Clouds of petitions–novenas to the gods of lucky breaks, if you can bounce high, bounce for her too; Fitzgerald haunting used bookshops not five miles from here in search of his own pulp before his death–a drone of petitions hovering between the sunshine and the most beautiful people Cherry had ever seen.
The warmth of the sun and even the poor people taking Christmas Eve naps on the sidewalk around Babe’s and Ricky’s looked good.
(Every Christmas, Victoria Spivey used to tell Kanaras and the other white boys who grew up on lasagna and the Glimmer Twins–kids trying to soak up blues more profound than having the air conditioner in the car break down in August: “You gonna be cold and hungry when the hawk come down and the gigs dry up … best stock up on them canned goods.”)
This year, instead of laying in stores, Kanaras took a chance on a neurotic piano player who women found irresistible, scraping his knuckles against the splintered wood of Babe’s & Ricky’s back door while Cherry turned his face to the sky.
As they left Baltimore, Kanaras told him: “If you’re a four in L.A., you’re a nine in Baltimore.”
Groovy, thought Cherry, tired of waiting for Kanaras to come back to the car, but what if you’re a nine in Baltimore?
And then hopped behind the wheel and drove off because if you’re a thief in Baltimore-even if it’s an honest mistake that all of your friend’s belongings, including the way he makes his living, are in the car when you abandon him–you’re a thief in Los Angeles.
Cherry fiddled around with the radio. When old man Apicella sprung for the 8-track, they threw in the FM, a tub of Jerry Vale and Al Martino tapes scattered in the back, a blanket of hamburger wrappers, dirty clothes and empty beer cans over their guitars. He manipulated the knob like he worked Judy Apicella’s clitoris-“A Little Bit of Heaven, Ninety-Four Point Seven-KMET-Tweedle-Dee!“–until Neil Young’s voice warbled out of the cheap dashboard speaker.
Young had just released “Zuma”–a guitar album, big chords–and as an elliptical solo spooled and unspooled like neon suds circling a copper drain, Cherry pointed the Granada toward the ocean on the notion that he hadn’t gone all the way if he didn’t wade into the surf.
“And they built up with their bare hands,” sang Neil as Cherry found the last of Judy’s diet pills, washing them down with warm cola. “What we still can’t do today …”
It was a straight shot down Slauson from South Central to Venice Beach, about 15 miles (Cherry had a good sense of direction even if he didn’t have much sense), and Zappa–can you fucking believe it, he shouted to the palm trees–FRANK!–following Neil on the radio, the smartest asshole in rock and roll working out seven minutes of intergalactic neon of his own.
The music sounded better out here–Frank and Neil not just on the radio but in the next canyon–and Cherry followed the only prescription he’d known since birth: if one is good, six is better.
He parked the car as close to the beach as possible, thought about taking his guitar but figured he’d wait until he made some friends before breaking it out. He took off his shoes and dove into the water in his ripped jeans and pink Robin Trower t-shirt.
SWIMMING ON CHRISTMAS EVE!
He spent more than an hour in the water–“singing to an ocean, I can hear the ocean’s roar …”–his mind racing 10 times faster than his heart as Laura Mae sat Kanaras down with a bowl of chili and put him on that night’s bill.
“Help me get this raggedly-ass tree out the closet,” she said, promising the guitarist that his no-good friend would surely show up in time. “We’ll decorate it right on the stage.”
Nine hours later, just before the birth of the Messiah in a manger–“What happened to all those Johnny Winter fans?” the Mad Albino would ask one day, “Did they die?”–Kanaras played rhythm on a borrowed guitar behind Don Preston and Bunk Gardner while Cherry stumbled around Venice Beach wondering if he should report a stolen car stolen.
Round and round in his brain, the last of the diet pills missing along with everything else: “It serves me right to suffer … serves me right to be alone …”
By looking for what didn’t exist, he missed the prize twice: neither present for the past or the present; too young to have been at the Fillmore with Frank, too sick to enjoy what danced beyond his nose.
Staring at the black waves from the boardwalk, the night coming down with a chill that reminded him of home–nary a Rhonda or a Caroline in sight–Cherry cried into the darkness.
“You fucked me up Judy … you really fucked me up.”
Rafael Alvarez is a short story writer in Baltimore and Los Angeles. He is the author of the “Orlo and Leini” stories.
*Photo courtesy of chickpokipsie.