The Night I Became a Rock Star

This photo was taken by the Washington Post. It reminds me of me.

Watching a bunch of ignorant louts storm the Capitol on January 6, I suffered a sinking, eerie feeling that gnawed me worse than my revulsion at the violence being done my country’s shrine of government. I empathized with those self-described patriots; I related to these assholes fed a daily diet of Q-Anon and Trump’s own lies. Because for three decades of my life I was a similar schemer. I, too, dreamt of storming the stage.

This is about the one time I attained that stage and how it transformed me. It’s also about how it didn’t transform me, not until the sickness, impervious even to the prescribed catharsis, had to run its course, like some wounded tank slowly drained of petrol. On that day I realized that everything, the whole melodrama, had been about mere ego, just as that army of idiots may one day realize nothing was proved but their need to be seen.

To collapse a back story: after getting kicked out of Columbia University, I returned in the mid-seventies to my native Cleveland, where I discovered that my older sister’s friend, a gentleman named Roger Kleinman, played bass in Wild Horses, a rock band, launched in Columbus, that had moved up to Cleveland and were making a name for themselves. A “recovered” pothead who never went to bars, I went with Lisa to see them play.

I fell in love. And discovered the recreational joys of drinking. It was nothing for me to see the band play and dispatch a six of Miller Genuine Draft or Rolling Rock. Wild Horses represented to me whatever was rejuvenating, rebellious, and affirmative in rock ‘n’ roll.

 I was at the Pirate’s Cove every Saturday night. A rowdy Flats saloon adopted by bikers, the place had begun to resemble an S. Clay Wilson comic. Once, a fistfight raged around me while I sat up behind the sound man’s riser with Lisa, sublimely zonked on Seven and Sevens. I met a beautiful girl at the bar once and had a great time with her and would grow to wonder why I never called her again. For the most part I just got drunk and drove home. I collected a few DUIs during this period in my life.

It should have been all fun, but a sour syndrome of recrimination and worry began to pervade my nocturnal adventurings. An undeniable envy sprouted within me as I watched the band and drank. I fought off a sense I belonged on that stage with them but was too diffident to attempt such a thing. I would sink into worse, more private states of resentment and self-abuse at seeing one guy, as abandoned as I was inhibited, make a weekly ritual of getting up on stage Saturday nights to belt out “Johnny B Goode.”

The band’s hirsute, stocky singer, a toothy, clownish character, was a point of connection yet subtle mockery. When he wasn’t banging a cowbell or trying to play saxophone, he lent vocal credibility to such numbers as “Louie Louie” and “Eighteen” and would, from the stage, cajole the likes of me with the mid-set exhortation, “Get drunk and be somebody!” Maybe he had an arrangement with the saloon owners to help boost liquor sales.

I still just drank and didn’t do anything about my secret yen.

Wild Horses were dismissed by some as just another cover band, despite a flicker of at least regional fame with their quirky, reggae-styled little number “Funky Poodle.” I liked “Carbona Mona” better. I am given to understand that both originals sprang from the pen of guitar player and singer Steve Jochum, to whom my then-girlfriend ascribed the only star potential on the Wild Horses stage, amply demonstrated on that little pop-rock number with its predictable progression of chords.

Much of the appeal of Wild Horses resided in their fealty to the classics as well as recent radio hits they made their own. They did Santana, Stones, Beatles, Bowie, Kinks, Allmans, Skynyrd. The more I drank, the more I got swept up in the sense I was with them, which was fine, but this always morphed into a nagging conviction I had to do something about it.

I was of the same psychic stuff as Mark David Chapman or any of those people who assumed, or strove to assume, celebrity status through an act of violence.

I was and am a writer. I cannot help but write. I never felt that way about music. I threw off early classical piano lessons when I discovered marijuana and the Beatles’ double white album. (My dad clouted me across the jaw when, smirkingly stoned, I headed out the door to “party” rather than wait for Mrs. Krausz to come over and try to get my tangled fingers around that Beethoven sonata.) In my adulthood, during my Wild Horses fan years, I piddled around on an electric guitar I bought for over four hundred dollars and played along to Some Girls down the basement before I sold it to some kid who riffed chords on the thing and made a cutting remark about “having to work for it.”

And yet I kept going to see Wild Horses play, kept on aching to go up on stage, kept on telling myself I could do that. Sing. And kept chickening out. I’d veer toward the stage — before cutting over to the bar for another beer.

Why even have this stupid hang-up? I wondered in sober, self-pitying reflection. Many, many people stood around at the saloon swilling beers and listening. This did not palliate my conviction that I was a coward. I guess I thought I was special, I should do more.

The band cut a few albums that got regional airplay, even did some traveling. They kept on playing around town and there was Bobby Gitlin, still at it, still a fan, if disfigured by self-loathing.

There were aborted attempts to break out of my anonymity. Once I willed myself to proceed robotically onto the stage at the Sahara Club in Willoughby Hills and stood at the mike frozen, or pretending to sing, and when for weeks later some girl at the bar, who’d liked the look of me up there, kept telling me I reminded her of Springsteen it made me wish I had it in me to do it again, whatever it was I’d done. But dragging myself up there had depleted me. My revenge mission against nobodyness and failure remained but half waged.

I was in my thirties and forties, working jobs that located me squarely in the realm of lower middle class. By Achieving Jewish Standards of the era that produced me, I was a poor schlub laboring on the outskirts of anything resembling success. I could only afford some squalid apartment on the poor-person perimeter of Shaker Heights. I was a talented freelance writer, but most of my paychecks came from salaried sub-editor gigs for industrial magazines. That my craft must find inspiration in corrugated paperboard and vending machines did not sit well with this self-styled Kerouac, this would-be Salinger.

My therapist, to whom I’ve been talking about all this, tried not to smile when, remembering my life, I told her I’d thought my big problem at the time had nothing to do with entrepreneurial failure and living just above the poverty line but that I didn’t have the balls to get up on stage with Wild Horses. This silly hangup stretched on for half my adult life.

BY MY FIFTIES I’d moved to Arizona to teach high school. One summer I went back to Cleveland to visit. I spent an evening with Barb’s parents, who were, politically and culturally, the opposite of my liberal parents. I had some affection and gratitude for my mother- and father-in-law, and not just because Joe Chiancone had built a floorcovering business whose profits were already being distributed to his daughter and me as early inheritance. I felt at peace with these two working-class people as they sat in their den watching Larry King. Maybe that serene, almost drowsy feeling explains what happened.

After I excused myself, hugged Barb’s mom and shook Barb’s dad’s hand, I drove to Legacy Village, an upscale shopping plaza in Lyndhurst, where, on this balmy summer night, aging, never-say-die Wild Horses were playing outside. I didn’t drink anymore, having established sobriety and racked up several years of this as a new lifestyle.

I stood in the crowd loving the band. Tummler and self-appointed MC Roger with his between-song wisecracks as he stood there with his bass slung over his shoulders. Another bearded eminence, keyboard-playing ex-hippie Billy Buckholtz, who’d started the band and sang like Greg Allman. Jochum gone, replaced by one in a series of new guitarists. The ladykiller Italian drummer, Tony, gone into real estate. The bearded singer was still up there.

I stood in the little crowd enthralled, happy, reminiscing not without savor . . . when it occurred to me I still had those old thoughts. I still wanted to join them. And a new, fizzy calculation hit me: how easy it would be to do just that.

I marched through the light throng of mostly drunken frat boy types, up some steps, past an amp or two, sidled up next to Dennis (“Get drunk and be somebody!”) Christopher, stood behind a mike, and sang along best I could to “Honky Tonk Woman.” I think it was Dennis who handed me a tambourine or a cowbell, which I whacked with a will. I stayed up there for the next tune too. The band seemed glad to have me there, though I was miming some words. You’d have thought, having seen these guys seven thousand four hundred and thirty-eight times, I’d have them memorized.

They took a break and I got down from the stage.

Elated, I floated to my parked car, fumbled out my phone, and called Barb long distance. I gushed to her how I had done it. I had fucking done it!

She started to congratulate me, just as a call came cutting in and I had to get off.

“Where’d you go?”

It was Roger. They were going to start another set.

But I was so drained from having done what I’d done, I wasn’t sure I had the energy.

I have no memory of there being any continuance of Wild Horses with Bob Gitlin that night. I may have driven right home.

That should have been the end of this story. I wish it was. But it’s not.

Now I had something to prove. Had to do it again.

The next summer, they played Legacy Village again, and I made it a point to be in town again.

I drove around and around the place, got out and listened to the band, and chickened out. Began driving home, then castigated myself, pulled over onto a ramp off of Route 271, turned around and went back, chickened out again, and finally let myself go home to sleep at Mom’s.

Despite this, somehow singing had become part of my life.

I had wandered into an Arizona synagogue in an attempt to be Jewish, by which I mean I strove to unearth my birthright Judaism. I loved the rabbi, who took me in, fully understood my red diaper secularism, “got” that I’d had very little formal training in sung Jewish prayer, gave me a primer to learn Hebrew letters, even “conscripted” me (his joke) into the choir. I relished the spotlight, belting out the “Chatzi Kaddish” High Holy Days in yarmulke and fringed prayer shawl. Yet I was fully conscious this wasn’t the star mode I’d spent all those drunken nights contemplating. Bellied up to the bimah I manifested stocky pedantic Tevye, not yowling sinewy Jagger.

I flew back to Cleveland again one summer. Wild Horses were playing a big outdoors engagement during my stay.

They were playing outdoors to a huge crowd on a field by the Cleveland Museum of Art. Surveying the human sprawl, I quailed. This was fucking Woodstock! so unlike that Legacy Village parking lot opportunity with its accommodating gaggle of fans. But I steeled my resources and marched into “action.” I wended my way past people and speakers. The band was far off on that big stage. A mike near me was probably turned on. I parked myself behind it and yipped and growled to “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” Face burning, I left the stage right after the song, wanting to erase myself.

Roger told me on the phone next day, “Nobody knew you were there!”

We had dinner. I murmured something about still liking to sing. He said, not without a little acid, “Stick to the choir.”

My eyes fell on my plate. I felt ashamed, angry at myself for alchemizing one sweet magical moment into this sour end.

But that was the end of it, and in some tired region of my soul I must have been relieved.

ROGER is the big brother I never had as well as my longtime pro bono psychiatrist. I rarely call him to lament these days. Old age has knocked much of the mishigas off me.

But I had to call him a month or two ago for lawyerly advice about my wife’s and my will.

Soon as he saw my number flash on his cell, he picked up and cried, “More cowbell!”

After a startled moment I laughed, with happy relief. This greeting washed away the taste of his consigning me to the senescent temple choir, far removed from the soaring rebellion of Wild Horses.

“You know,” I said, “I will always remember doing that.” He knew I meant the good time, that magic solidarity at Legacy Village. “That was one of the most fun things I ever did.”

There was a pregnant pause, a moment of tacit brotherhood on the line, before Roger said, “Hey, at least you didn’t storm the Capitol.”

I chuckled obligingly, knowing what he meant, knowing all too well.

After I finally got off the phone with him, I found myself smiling bleakly at his remark.

A smile that widened as the days went by.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s