Invariably, behind every great tune is a love story. Love won, lost, or labored. Love sick, struck or stuck. It’s the bedrock for the blues, the soulful moans of inspired ballads, and the giddy catalyst that inflicts a host of pop lyricists with irrepressible blather about the urge to dance. It fans Christians in their futile and relentless pursuit to find words that rhyme with Christ and Holy Ghost, and inspires Country Western artists to weave a woman, pickup truck, whiskey and a 3-legged dog into a single chorus.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, she loves me. The backstory predates Adam, Eve, and the snake. The rest of the story, however, is one we rarely glimpse. While all of us have nursed wounds of the heart or celebrated new found love by tuning in to the curative and euphoric works of great songwriters, I often wonder how the lyrics and melodies fared for the artists themselves. I’m curious if any of the myriad of great love songs ever mended a broken heart or unthawed reticent Popsicle Toes for the artist. Did things go well once Stevie wonder called to say I love you? Is Lionel Richie’s Endless Love still going? Were The Doors just blowing smoke, or did they get their fires lit? Did the sun ever come out for Bill Wither’s when she was away? I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, it’s a metaphor, but I can’t help but wonder.
My moment came and went in the wake of “Pudding,” (named by friends, backstory here), a heartthrob that set my pulse skyrocketing but nearly flat lined my exodus from college. Blinded by her Siren song and awash in a turbulent torrent of testosterone, my senior year got away from me, and I careened love struck and rudderless toward the academic rocks. With my heart strings plucked and plundered and my English Lit major hanging in the balance, I eventually would turn in my final thesis on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales after reading less than a third of it. In a frenzied 2-day Hail Mary thesis scramble, I wrote a tome based entirely on a random verse I had stumbled upon, that “love is a gretter lawe.” My flailing work somehow wooed the professor to graduate me into the post-college wilds as a student who had pierced the very heart of Chaucer and his love-struck knights as if he had lived it.
Time, with a little help from the blues, heals all wounds. I moved from the written word to music and lyrics, and as I took on the slings and arrows of more psychologically scarring experiences, such as earning a living writing for and performing with a jazz sextet, my Pudding drubbing faded to an almost unnoticeable scar. It receded to a cautionary whisper that that would surface only occasionally, on the cusp of a budding relationship, like an old injury that aches ever so slightly before the next rain.
In the rearview mirror of romance, however, wounds of the heart are always closer than they appear. Two years and one album into our sextet, it was my guitarist’s flameout with his old flame, a female vocalist, that sent repressed Pudding pangs splattering out of my blind spot and into the crosshairs of my songwriting. While I can’t recall the details he recounted of her infidelity, I do have a vague recollection that his retaliatory acts involved a microphone, KY jelly, a diaphragm, and a phantom vibrator reverberating in a locked office drawer. What resonated most, however, was his final heartbroken condemnation of his unfaithful partner, which he delivered with no expletive to delete in his inimitably passionate but understated Midwestern parlance.
“SNAKE!’ he hissed.
I was shaken, stirred, and inspired. Two hours after he hung up, I had written “Hey Snake,” a jazz anthem which unearthed, unraveled, and purged all the emotional mayhem and venom born of having gone emotionally “all-in”, only to be so completely left out. Courted. Coupled. Crushed. As I wrote the words “CODA” and “El Fin” on the final 8 bars, I had finally doused the embers of those passionate highs and hurts, which hissed quietly to closure.
When I read that our second album had reached the top 30 most played jazz L.P’s, two thoughts crossed my mind. First, I anticipated a life-altering check from BMI. Second, it occurred to me that maybe Pudding herself would not only hear the song, but connect the dots linking the band, me, and it to the great injustice of my broken heart. Lyrical, if not poetic justice, served with a samba.
Eventually, BMI did send a check, a year’s worth of royalties that totaled $417.22. Fantasies of fast cars, slow food, and moderately paced women were reduced to fast food Drive-thru’s in a secondhand pick-up truck purchased with 84,010 miles on it.
As for her hearing the tune, I would never know. With regular mentions of Hey Snake falling off all radio reports outside of Corpus Christi, TX and Sedona, AZ, places I was sure she never frequented, the odds became infinitesimal.
While national airplay teased us with glimmers of hope that we might soar from local obscurity to the more coveted plane of national obscurity, we thrived on the local scene. We won talent searches, were written up in the local rags, weren’t homeless, and in the pre-Twitter twilight of KAYPRO’s, floppy disks, and word-of-mouth, we had a mailing list of over 5000.
The epicenter of our good fortune was The Monterey Whaling Company, a restaurant and bar we packed every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. The club perched on a rise between two main freeways and was a beacon in the fog of rush hour gridlock. It’s big sign with white Broadway style bulbs lured in the weary with promises of food, drink, live music and coastal bliss. Aside from the wooden silhouette of a whale and a harpoon that adorned the foyer, the club didn’t have the remotest association with whaling, rarely featured more than two fish dishes, and was a good 90-minute drive north and east of Monterey.
One Saturday, post Pudding by a couple of years, the band was ending our second set vamping over the chorus of Hey Snake as the singer promised we would return after a very short break. The night was young. The energy rising. We launched into the song’s final rhythmic hits, and there, materializing from the not-so-thin air of dense cigarette and cigar smoke, was Pudding. She slithered into a seat, smiled and gave me a little wave as if no time had passed, as if I hadn’t placed a very distant second in the frenzied race for her heart, as if Chaucer hadn’t been on the cusp of dragging me into a 5th year of undergraduate study.
It was a poorly paced miracle.
Knowing any sudden movement might send her slithering off into the underbrush of suburban Mountain View, I smiled back and froze. Then slowly and without taking my eyes off of her, I repeated the word “wait” to the band several times, quietly and to the pulse of an S.O.S.
Careful not to beak eye contact with her, I whispered to the guys, “We need to play Hey Snake.” As she ordered a drink, I turned and countered the whole “we already played it” chorus with a crisp and somewhat frenetic, “She’s here! THE Snake. Is. Here…There.” I motioned subtly with my eyes and told them not to look. All five of them pointed to make sure they had spotted the right brunette sitting alone at the second table.
We played. She listened. Thanks to a round of tequila shots a few tunes earlier, everyone in the crowd rolled with the instant replay with only a single shout of “Déjà blues.”
We finished to applause that was only slightly less enthusiastic than the first time. I walked to her table awash in a suddenly confusing crosscurrent of anticipation, self-righteous confidence, and the disquieting thought that some of the embers from our past weren’t as completely extinguished as I had imagined. I opened up the conversation with an ambiguous “hey,” not giving in to the temptation of adding “snake.”
She stood up, hugged me for just a heartbeat longer than what I would categorize as neutral and invited me to coil up at her table. Sadly, she looked amazing. She mentioned I looked great and in a breathtakingly general way, wanted to know what was going on. As I scrambled to put together a complete sentence, she quickly offered that she was doing “amazing” and still living with her man, a doctor, in southern California. Given how loud the place was, she practically shouted “STILL LIVING WITH THE DOCTOR,” a line which reverberated in my head like a bad trumpet solo. I looked past her and saw the guys at the bar, all eyes on the snake pit.
“Hey,” I asked, again not adding the word “snake.” “Did you like the tune?”
She leaned in close over her Margarita. “WHAT?”
“DID YOU LIKE THE TUNE?”
“What was it called?” she asked, “First take? You write it? I couldn’t understand the words. What’s First Take?”
“WHAT?” I asked, not because I hadn’t heard, but because I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“I COULDN’T HEAR THE WORDS,” she explained.
I had a sudden epiphany as to what may have driven Billy Joe McAllister to jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge. My Ode to Pudding had been euthanized and swallowed up in the cacophony of the Whaling Company, as unheard and overlooked as I had been on my crusade for her heart. Misinterpreting my silence for interest, Pudding talked up a blue streak. I couldn’t hear a word over the buzz of the room and the obsessive thought wailing in my head that we had to play Hey Snake, the third time being the charmer.
As we got ready to kick off the next set, I noticed Pudding’s glass was empty. I signaled the waitress to send over another round and then called “Hey Snake” as if we hadn’t played it in months. “And,” I added, “We need to kick up the volume on the vocals.”
Like asking a drunk for his car keys, the guys suggested a taunting set of alternate tunes, peppering me with titles faster than notes from a Coltrane solo: It’s Too Late, Can’t Get No Satisfaction, Ain’t No Sunshine, I Can’t Get Started, Teach Me Tonight. I swore it would be the last time, manically repeating “Hey Snake” to override their resistance. With a sigh, I sat back down at the keyboards and looked back at her table.
She was gone.
There’s been no Pudding since.
||: —————————————— El Fin ——————————————–:||
I hope servers at Spotify and iTunes will handle the rush and crush of international fans.