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 ferreted its way into 2 weeks among the top 30 most played jazz L.P’s in the US, two thoughts crossed my mind. First, I anticipated a sizeable and potentially life-altering check from BMI for all the air time Hey Snake was getting. Second, it occurred to me that maybe, though I would never know for sure, Pudding herself would not only hear the song on the radio, but miraculously connect the dots linking the band, me, and the song to the great injustice of my broken heart. Lyrical, if not poetic justice, served with a samba.
BMI did send a check, which as a English Lit major, I should have realized was a harbinger of things to come on the poetic justice front. A year’s worth of royalties totaled $417.22. Fantasies of fast cars, slow food, and moderately paced women were reduced in a single deposit to continued laps through fast food Drive-thru’s in a nondescript though reliable secondhand Toyota pick-up truck, which I purchased with 84,010 miles on it.
As for her hearing the tune, I could never know, and in the short shadow of my anemic BMI “windfall,” I hardly gave it a second thought. With regular mentions of Hey Snake falling off all radio station reports outside of Corpus Christi, TX and Sedona, AZ, places I’m sure she never frequented, the odds had become several song lists south of 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, our hearts and charts never strayed far from the local Bay Area scene. We had an album, won talent searches, had been written up in the local rags, we 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.
At the center of the hub and hubbub of our good fortune was restaurant and bar called The Monterey Whaling Company. We held court there and generally packed the place with our signature blend of jazz, blues, R&B, and original material every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. The club perched just above the crossroads of El Camino Real and Route 85 in Mt View CA, a beacon in the fog of the rush hour commute that wooed the drivers hopelessly enmeshed in the endless post work gridlock of the two major arteries. It’s big sign with the white Broadway style bulbs towered over highway 85 and lured in the weary with promises of food, drink, live music and coastal bliss. Aside from the wooden silhouette of a whale that adorned the wall of the entrance, and a harpoon that hung in the foyer, which was stolen midway through our second year of performing there, the “establishment” (as the owner like to refer to it) didn’t have the remotest association with whaling, rarely featured more than 2 fish dishes on the menu, and was a good 90 minute drive north and east of Monterey.
One Saturday night, post Pudding by a couple of years, the band had come to the close of our second set. We were vamping over the final chorus of Hey Snake as the singer introduced the band and gave fair warning that we would return for two more sets that would put the fever back into that particular Saturday night. The night was young. The energy rising. The crowd stirring. We launched into the CODA, the final rhythmic hits of Hey Snake, and there, two tables in front of me, materializing from the not-so-thin air of cigarette and cigar smoke that choked the place, was Pudding. She slithered into a seat, smiled and gave me a little wave as if we were mid senior year, as if no time had passed, as if I hadn’t placed a very distant I 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 miracle. Awkwardly timed, but I knew enough even then to never look a gift asp in the mouth simply on the grounds its pacing was a little off.
Knowing any sudden movement might send the quarry slithering off into the underbrush of suburban Mountain View, I smiled back and froze. Then, very very slowly, I held up an arm to the rest of the band in a subtle motion to keep them on the stage. Without taking my eyes off of her or even moving my lips, I repeated the word “wait” several times, quietly and to the pulse of an S.O.S. Three quick and frenzied – wait, wait, wait. Three long imploring – WAIT WAIT WAIT and then three more quick – wait, wait, wait.
Without ever breaking eye contact with her, I leaned toward the guys and whispered, “We need to play one more tune.” I paused. “We need to play Hey Snake.” She was ordering from the waitress, so I turned my head and nipped the whole “we already played it” chorus with a crisp and somewhat frenetic, “She’s here,” I said.
“THE Snake. Is. Here. Now. 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 appeared to be listening. Thanks to a round of tequila shots a few tunes back, everyone in the crowd seemed to roll with the instant replay, with only moderate head scratching and a single shout of “Déjà blues,” from a regular.
We finished. The audience applauded, though a touch less enthusiastically than they had the first go around. The guys drifted off the stage. 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 doused 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 told me I looked good and in a breathtakingly general way, wanted to know what was going on. As I scrambled to put together a complete sentence, and though I hadn’t asked, she quickly offered that she was doing “great” 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, though none of my business, reverberated in my head like a bad trumpet solo.
I looked past her and saw the guys lined up at the bar, all eyes on the snake pit. I realized I was drifting off script.
“Hey,” I asked, again not adding the word “snake.” “Did you like the tune?”
She leaned in close over her Margarita. “WHAT?” she shouted.
“DID YOU LIKE THE TUNE?” I asked.
“What was it called?” she asked loudly, “First take? Did you write it? I couldn’t understand any of 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 ultimately been on my initial crusade for her heart. Misinterpreting my silence for interest, Pudding was talking a blue streak, about what, I have no memory. I couldn’t hear a word over the buzz of the room and the obsessive thought wailing in my head that we were obviously going to have to play Hey Snake again, the third time being the charmer.
As we got ready to kick off the next set, I noticed Pudding’s glass was empty. I gave the waitress the high sign to send over another round, on me, and then casually 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 keys and offering coffee instead of another shot, the guys balked. They took great pleasure in suggesting a taunting set of alternate tunes, peppering me with titles faster than notes from a Coltrane solo: It’s Too Late, Suicide is Painless, Can’t Get No Satisfaction, Ain’t No Sunshine, No Greater Love, I Can’t Get Started, and Teach Me Tonight. I spun around and assured them this would be the last time, manically repeating the title “Hey Snake” as a mantra to override their resistance. Then I sat back down at the keyboards and set my sights on 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.