Dragging a dense cloud of leaded — charcoal across low gray — the Fairlane swung by Swingo’s, Cleveland’s famous-for-calling-itself-famous Celebrity Inn, and we climbed in. Me shotgun, Bruce in back, Bruce, when his curls were curls and arms kid-skinny, hanging over the front seat like an outbound boy in a Bruce song. My friend Charlie, slouching in the driver’s, was going to show us the sights:
A dive bar Charlie liked. A dive bar his band played before they threw him out for being drunk all the time. A dive bar next to a radio station — “Allen Freed” Charlie tossed out, by way of history lesson, as we rattled past. A dive Charlie liked to hang, by the record store he liked to hang. And here he snatched his fingers from the wheel to count down the righteousness within — “Ayler. Ornette. The 5. The Godz. Stooges...” — before plugging another Camel in rubber-band lips, another homemade cassette in the dash, and drifting into focus and out.
It had started with a handwritten note on a pink square of paper, “While You Were Out” pre-printed in black at the top. On the message line it had said: “Come to Cleveland.” In the “From” space, the raspy-voiced caller had asked the receptionist to write: “B.S.” But even a short-term temp from Squaresville knew what those initials stood for, a week after simultaneous covers of Time and Newsweek.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the invitation was actually the ploy of a manager who used to be a critic, trying to make sure all the contrarians — and our magazine was a hotbed of them — had come aboard.
“Hey, Bruce,” I could hear him saying, “why don’t you invite that Creem kid to the Cleveland show.”
Maybe I’d gone terminally cynical — a once credulous midwesterner curdled, at 22, by too long in New York. And maybe Bruce, a credulous kid from the midwest of the east coast, wide-eyeing the towers across the river, actually thought he’d found someone else who had a clue how it was to try and measure up, to be twenty-something and burning, an honest-to-pete friend. Sure, we’d had an adventure or two, hangs in Detroit, an evening in NYC, though I’d be hard-pressed, under the circumstances — post-school, post-band, pre-Holtzman, perennially marinated — to supply details. I only know some of the nights ended in an underwater clown show of me and Clarence, the saxophonist and ex-linebacker, turning over the mini-bar and playing tackle football till the house dick knocked, while our pal Bruce — whose sole known flaw was he didn’t like to marinate — was into his second or third cycle of working on a dream. But let’s just say “Come to Cleveland” was all him, fully spontaneous and genuine and, beneath the offstage reserve, wildly exuberant. Either way, the guy was enough of a star that enough of a starfucker went.
Called Bruce back, said I’d get my friend Charlie to show us the real Cleveland. He would love Charlie. Cleveland born and raised, black-eyed Charlie was a righteous street poet, trippy songwriter, out-of-tune guitar basher, squeaky singer, implacable evangelist — in the columns of Creem — for rock insurgencies, apostle of Lou Reed, friend of Lester Bangs, booze guzzler, syrup sucker, pill popper, bad dancer, brokeass, mama’s boy, veteran blood donor, speed-rapper, world’s most skeletal life-model, and nothing if not a “bird” — which, I explained, is what my father called people he didn’t know where to file.
Like me. Probably like you, Bruce.
Charlie was also a sweetheart. And through a long, perfectly odd — and perfect — afternoon, he swerved his wobbly junker all over Cleveland’s crumbly streets and pitted highways until I thought it might fly off its springs. He slowed down, speeded up, scraped off a hubcap, kept going, screeched to a halt and, after roaring back into traffic, dove under the dash for a dropped cig. Missed the exit from the interstate and backed up on the shoulder, abruptly leaning across the front seat to flip open the glove compartment. A pistol fell out, with not a “Shit” or “Fuck” from Charlie, who kept scratching around, scattering gum wrappers, crumpled Camel packs, band flyers, parking tickets, expired registrations and assorted detritus of an outmatched attempt at citizenship, until finally, with bony fingers and long, dirty nails, he extracted a handful of .45-caliber bullets, giving one to Bruce, one to me and holding one more, for ceremony, in the palm of his tremulous hand. And then — I’ll never forget — Charlie from Cleveland said to me and Bruce:
“This is how we’ll remember.”
— from the novel Loudmouth, coming 10/13/2020. ©2019 by Robert Duncan.