Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Short Story: "The Song That Never Died"

The Song That Never Died

by Brian Greene


Bob Wilburn and I met each other in Richmond, Virginia, when we were both 23. I took over his position as a 30-hour-a-week clerk at a record shop in the Fan district, after he’d moved on to the more lucrative profession of table waiting. A few weeks after I started working in the store, when this dude came in and began talking to one of my co-workers, I knew it had to be this Bob guy I’d been hearing so much about. The Bob who had sex with his girlfriend in the stock room during business hours. The Bob who liked to trip on LSD while working the counter at the shop. The Bob who, any time anybody talked about him, they smiled and laughed.

Bob looked like a dopey cowboy. 5’10, skinny, straight light brown hair worn short. Extremely pale skin, huge nose, lively brown eyes. There was a cartoony feel about him. He was like the living version of one of the rubbery “dependable bendable” toys I had when I was a kid. I knew I liked him before I ever heard him speak. And when we did speak, just after he’d finished chatting with the other clerk, we hit it off right away. We liked a lot of the same music, whether it was ‘60s stuff like Love and The Kinks, punk and new wave era bands such as The Undertones and Wire, or groups that were active at the time, like The La’s and The Go-Betweens. We also laughed together. That first conversation we had with each other was mostly us just laughing. I can’t remember what about. We were always laughing together.

I was learning to play the guitar then. Pretty much everybody I associated with at the time was figuring out how to play a musical instrument, or to make films, or to paint or sculpt, etc. Bob was also a novice guitarist. But he had something that set him apart, artistically, from the rest of us beginners. He already had a fully formed creative talent. Bob could sing like a soulful angel. His voice sounded a little like Gram Parsons, but then had its own unique Bob qualities. I loved listening to him sing.

We started playing music together. We’d be at his apartment or mine with our acoustic guitars and some of my songbooks I was using to learn my instrument. We’d get stoned and figure out how to play covers like Elvis Costello’s “Blame it on Cain,” David Bowie’s “Soul Love,” the Stones’ “No Expectations,” Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” The Kinks’ “Lazy Afternoon,” etc. Sometimes Bob would just sing and other times he’d play the guitar along with me. When he strummed, at times I’d play single notes on the lower E string of my guitar, to create a sort of makeshift bass sound. We sometimes recorded ourselves playing, by simply putting a blank cassette in a boombox and hitting “play/record” then running through songs. Bob very often forgot lyrics or forgot when to come in with singing. We were both always stoned when playing. Bob had eaten acid so many times. We’d just laugh when he messed up a song, then go right back to the beginning of it.

Eventually, Bob and I decided to try writing an original song. It was my idea. In playing around on my own, I’d come up with this guitar progression I thought sounded pretty good. I’d learned how to play somebody’s else song – I can’t remember what one – and messed around with it by strumming in the same rhythm but reversing the order of the chords. When I did that, I realized the rhythm needed to be altered a little to make it sound better. I eventually felt a tickle in my brain that told me I had it right. I came up with a different but similar progression that could work with a bridge or chorus. The whole of it had a kind of accidental flamenco feel.

I played my creation for Bob during one of our music hangouts. He nodded enthusiastically and soon started humming a vocal melody. He told me to just keep playing it over and over while he worked out how he could sing over it. He put together some lyrics. Before I left his apartment two or three hours later, we had a working demo of the song recorded onto a cassette via Bob’s boombox.

The lyrics didn’t tell a story per se. Bob put them together by randomly combining lines from various stream-of-consciousness poems and other jottings he kept in a composition notebook. Kind of a William S. Burroughs cut-up process. Yet despite the haphazard way they were formed, the words to the song spoke of something – a particular kind of emotional atmosphere, it nothing else. One stanza I especially liked went:

Non-property, scattered head/Blushing over my bended knees/I was crying for Marisol/I knew that song would never die

The chorus lyrics were:

Now before the crashing sea/Manhead, you’re my priest

We decided to call it “Manhead.”

There was a rock and roll clothing shop right across the street from the record store where I worked. I was friendly with a guy named Charlie, who was the co-owner along with his girlfriend. The place was more of a hangout than a busy retail establishment. I never saw anybody buy much of the leather jackets, vintage band T-Shirts, and such they offered. But there were always plenty of warm bodies in the shop, most of them containing people who were in local bands. Also, Charlie was a barber and sometimes gave people haircuts from inside the store. He offered to make my hair look like Keith Richards’ circa 1966, but I opted stick with my non-descript do.

I brought a tape of Bob’s and my recordings into the store one day, asked Charlie if I could play it on the stereo in there. He let the Son House song that was playing finish, then popped in my cassette. I felt nervous as it played. There were seven or eight others in the store at the moment, a few of them people who played in bands that I thought were great. Nobody paid much attention through my and Bob’s versions of “Blame it on Cain,” Gram Parsons’s “She,” or “No Expectations.” But by the second verse of “Manhead,” the atmosphere in the place changed. People stopped milling about and chatting with one another. They stopped to listen. A few walked closer to the stereo. My nervousness morphed into a relieved energy. When the song was over, one guy who was a guitarist in surf and rockabilly bands looked at me and said, “That’s yours?” A girl who played bass in an act that sounded like Exile on Main Street Stones exclaimed, “What I like is it doesn’t sound like anything else. It’s like it came from a different century. Can we hear it again?”

Charlie was friends with a guy who ran a Richmond recording studio. Local bands cut demos and sometimes albums there. The guy also had his own record label, and it so happened that at the time he was putting together tracks for a compilation album of songs recorded there. It would be a showcase of both his studio and local talent. Charlie thought “Manhead” would make a good addition to the compilation, introduced us to his friend and played him our boombox version of the song. He liked it right away and booked us to come in and get it down professionally. We went in on a late Saturday morning and did what we needed to do within 90 minutes or so. I got the guitar parts down in two takes. Bob’s vocals took a little longer, because he kept forgetting to come in or out with his singing at the right times. But he ultimately got it right. We never put any percussion or bass on the track, but a guitarist who was hanging around the studio added some subtle lead parts in places that had no vocals. Bob and I left the studio each with a tape of the recording. The album was expected to be released within a few months. We had to come up with a band name for our song and went with The Harry Rags, after a Kinks song we both liked.

I wore out my tape copy of the song.  When the compilation album came out, it got reviewed in one of Richmond’s much-read weekly arts and culture magazines. The reviewer wrote of “Manhead”:

“The most memorable song on the album is also the most curious one. “Manhead,” by a duo who call themselves The Harry Rags (Kinks reference), is a timeless, surreal ballad driven by sweeping, Spanish-flavored acoustic guitar and arrestingly rich singing. It manages to be both melancholy and trippy. It’s like a Dadaist’s musical tale of existential longing. Who are The Harry Rags and what is a manhead? This song is unique and it’s gorgeous.”

 I started having visions of what The Harry Rags could be. We’d write more original songs. We’d add a bass player and drummer and maybe a lead guitarist to fill out our sound. We’d put a live set together. Build a following there in Richmond, then spread out and become a regional and then a national phenomenon. Get a record deal on a mid-major label and make albums . . .

We needed more originals. I kept coming up with chord progressions and bringing them to Bob, hoping we could work together to develop them into songs, a la “Manhead.” But Bob could never remember his lyrics or vocal melodies from one practice session to the next. And the sessions were rare, because most of the time Bob didn’t show, or was too far gone on LSD to be able to focus on music. Or he’d say how about if we go for a drink at this bar first, then go to his apartment to play; then five or seven people who knew Bob happened into the bar and joined us, and soon the possibility of a Harry Rags practice was out the window. Then Bob started dating a girl and simultaneously got something going on the side with her sister. He said to me one day, “I’m just too emotional to write songs right now, man. Maybe when things settle down a little.” I figured there was probably no better time to write songs than when one was “so emotional.” But Bob as bandmate/co-songwriter was unreachable then.

One weeknight evening, Bob suddenly showed up at the record shop. He had on a white button-down shirt and black pants – his waiter gear. He looked shaken, ashen.

“I need to talk to you. man. I don’t know what’s happening.” His voice sounded like it was talking from someplace far away. I’d had my share of panic attacks and Bob presently looked how I felt when enduring mine. I led us away from the counter area and to a corner of the store, where nobody was.

“I was waiting on these four people. Two couples. They ordered shrimp cocktails for their appetizers. And, man, I don’t know. I went to the kitchen to get the shrimp cocktails and I just couldn’t do it. I kept picturing them as apes. I couldn’t bring shrimp cocktails to four apes. I just walked out of the place through the back door and came here.”

I let a pause happen. I looked at Bob’s scared face. Then I said, “I wonder if they’re still waiting for their shrimp cocktails.”

Bob looked at me searchingly, like he had to probe inside my head to understand the meaning of what I’d just said to him. Then he burst into laughter. I laughed with him. Then a customer needed my help, and Bob exited the shop while I waited on the person.

The next time I talked to Bob was about five days later. He called me at my apartment on a Saturday morning.

“I’m going back home for a while, man. To Roanoke. I just need a little break from things. I can stay at my parents’ house and I can work in my dad’s furniture shop. This way, I’ll be able to put away a little money.”

I thought to myself, The Harry Rags. They recorded one song and were never heard from again. I also thought, I wonder if the two sisters will miss him.

Roughly 18 months after that phone chat with Bob, I was in a different record shop in the city. I wasn’t working at the other one anymore. I hadn’t talked to Bob in all this time. Right after I walked into that store, a staff person put on the compilation that had the Harry Rags song. It was the fourth track. When it played, you could feel something change in the store. Before “Manhead” came on, the music was just another part of the room, like furniture that nobody really noticed. But when our song played, a lot of people stopped flipping through records and CDs and T-Shirts and listened intently. Many looked in the direction of the stereo, or up at speakers. People stopped chatting with each other. The song ended, and by the time the next one was into its second verse, everybody went back to not paying much attention to the music coming through the store’s system.

I decided I wanted to talk to Bob. Maybe he’d worked out whatever he needed to work out by going back home. Maybe I could get him to come back to Richmond and we could revive The Harry Rags. I tracked down his family’s phone number in Roanoke. His mom, who seemed like she wanted to tell me to not bother contacting her son, reluctantly gave me a different number I could use to reach him. When I got Bob on the phone, he filled me in, in his usual disarmingly candid way, on what had been going on in his life.

“I got into smoking crack, man. Please tell me you’ve never used that shit. Biggest mistake I ever made. This place where I’m living now is kind of like a halfway house for substance abusers. I think I’m getting better, but I don’t know.

“Have you been playing any music? I got into a band around here with these younger guys and this one girl. They want to sound like Oasis. It was going pretty good but the girl is the girlfriend of one of the guys, and something started happening between her and me. Her boyfriend found out and they threw me out of the band.

“I had a girlfriend for a while. She’s an artist. But we split up. I got with a prostitute a couple weeks ago. She stole my wallet after we did it.”

It was about eight years after that phone chat with Bob when I heard from a journalist writing for the same Richmond weekly that ran the review of the local music compilation with “Manhead” on it. She was writing a piece about some of the legendary and mythical music that had been made in the city over the decades. She learned about “Manhead” and wanted to get the story of the song and the band that seemed to vanish from the universe after recording it. She tracked me down online and we met at a cafĂ©. We talked about The Harry Rags and our song for a half hour or so, then spent the next three or four hours telling each other parts of our life stories. We were married within a year.

Just last week I played “Manhead” for our 18-year-old daughter. She’d heard it before and knew the story of the role it played in bringing her mom and I together. But this time she listened to the song in a more intent way than she had before. She plays guitar now, is in a band with two friends. She said, “Wow, he could really sing. And that’s you playing the rhythm guitar? The song is so good.” We were in the car, had listened to the song on a CD version of the Richmond compilation. My daughter said, “Tell me again why you guys didn’t make more music together.” I put one hand on my chin while continuing to steer with the other. I noticed a haggard homeless man standing on a street corner just ahead. I knew if we got stopped at the light at that intersection, he’d approach us and ask for money. I wondered if Bob was in a state like his now. I said to my daughter, “I’ll tell you that story sometime.”

My daughter’s band is working up a cover version of “Manhead.”