Three Chord Ricky
When I first met him, I was just out of high school and was unable to find it in myself to go on to college, or to go onto anything, for that matter. I worked as little as possible and spent the rest of my day absorbing rock and roll. It was the only thing that could get me going, and I found myself more and more gravitating to dark, crowded clubs nearer the city, where it was possible to hang out, have a few drinks and observe first hand musicians as they went about the long business of becoming overnight sensations. I could tell, even then, that most of the people I met, with their long hair and “gonna be a star” attitudes would be lucky to be working at a Wal-Mart in ten years, much less have a recording contract or for that matter even be able to pay the rent and buy cigarettes with what they made from music. You meet people like that all the time, even down here, people who tell you to come see them in some little play downtown, or just read this poem or whatever, all the while you’re just wanting them to serve you coffee or give you change at the mall.
I had little to no patience for that sort of person, (or maybe I saw myself there, I don’t know) but when Ricky Roberts banged through the back door, head down, a mass of black curls covering his face, trying to both light a cigarette and drink a beer while shaking some guy’s hand, I knew right off that he was different. He angled up to the bar and ordered a Crown, talking to the bartender like she was human, and like he knew what her day had been like. He probably did, seeing as how they both spent their evenings in a bar, taking orders and leaving when the sun came up. Maybe it was the way he laughed, or seemed to know everybody, but you could tell he would stand out of this crowd without even trying. I walked across the room and listened to him regale the people around him with some story he had heard, or lived, and either way, he had the five or six people around him hanging on his every word, and as I found out later, when he played, he had the same effect. You couldn’t help but listen to Ricky when he was “on,” and if you were out in public and saw him, he was always on. It was his way of life, to treat every moment, every encounter with the outside world as if he was onstage. I think it enabled him to continue to live like he did, long after he should have stopped and gotten a real job, like the others that had heard The Beatles in ’65 and spent the next few years learning guitar off of records and waiting for their hair to grow. If Ricky thought for a minute about it — and I’m sure that the time for that was years past — but if he had ever stopped to consider his life and wondered why he kept doing it, the fact that he was able to feed himself with a guitar I’m sure amazed him. To be up on a stage, singing “The Race is On” or one of a hundred other songs he could recall in a moment, was to Ricky like stealing money. Sure, it was hard work, and no, he most likely would never earn huge money doing it, but he never had to get up before noon, was able (actually required) to drink on the job, and had his choice of whatever women were around when the mood struck him.
“Yeah, I was thinking the other day about putting my name in the Yellow Pages under “Bar Fixtures,” seeing as how I live in them anyway! You got a room that needs some folks, some noise, some genuine R&B, well, call Ricky and let the games begin!” He exclaimed, his voice sounding like the forty miles of bad road you are always hearing about, and I laughed just like the rest of them, but for perhaps a different reason. A few minutes later, the owner stuck his head out from around the corner and barked at Ricky, “You guys gonna play tonight or just sit around and wait until your bar tab equals your pay?” Ricky nodded at he guy, lit a smoke and grabbed his drink off the bar, and headed for the stage.
As he passed the half-full tables, the rest of the band rose and followed. Everyone followed Ricky’s lead. When he played, you played, and when he stopped, you stopped. That’s the way it had been for years between these guys, and it was the same anywhere he plugged in. Ricky had played in dozens of bands, some bigger than others, and for the most part, you couldn’t have told, by listening, which decade they were from. Ricky’s music was a collection of things classic, like a garage full of a dozen different sports cars — all the same in most ways, different in others, but great all around. Ricky strapped on his guitar, one of the few things in the room older than he was, pulled his jacket straight under the strap and strummed across the strings a few times. Strummed isn’t the right term, makes you think of some folkies up there about to sing “Join Together.” No, Ricky’s guitar was a sonic intrusion into most peoples brain waves. Loud was only the beginning. It was sharp, piercing, and slammed into people like walking into a meat locker without your pants. Add a set of drums, bass, and a poorly mixed PA, and you might be hearing funny for a few days. And liking it. I know I did. After seeing him play for a few years, I got to where I could guess the first few songs just by watching Ricky in the bar before the set. If his girlfriend was with him (god forbid), then he would start with The Stones’ “Under My Thumb” or “Stupid Girl,” which he claimed to play because The Stones were her favorite band but actually allowed Rick to voice a feeling that if spoken face to face would leave his jaw aching and his bank account barren. Pamela was not, by any stretch of the word, a nice girl. If she thought that you would buy her a drink, she could sit and make conversation for about ten minutes, tops, and then would get bored and bounce off across the room, looking for coke dealers and trying to avoid the guys she had hoovered blow from the night before. We all thanked Ricky for taking her out of circulation, because she was just good looking enough to make you think she was worth a play. If you were lucky, she would just take all your money and leave you lonely. If you weren’t lucky, you woke up next to her, her skinny body stealing all the sheets and you wondering if it was possible to sneak out of your own apartment. We all learned, over the years, that it was. That night she wasn’t around, I guess, and the band started into the tune “Muddy Water.” Ricky most likely hadn’t written five songs in his life, but neither had Sinatra last I checked, and he had done okay. Ricky’s talent lay in finding the right song, one that sounded like him, and “Muddy Water” was such a song.
“I washed my hands in the muddy water/I washed my hands, but they didn’t come clean/I tried to do what my daddy told me, oh yeah/But I must have washed my hands in a muddy stream.“
When Johnny Rivers made that song a hit years ago, it was a nice little song, but you never thought for a moment that Rivers had ever done anything wrong in his life — not sitting on a chair in a sharp little suit at the Whiskey — but when Ricky sang it, the song became less a pop number than a resume. After that it was a number from one his old bands, The Angels, and then it went from Chuck Berry to Elvis to Gram Parsons, all of them different but each one sounding a little like the one before, and leading perfectly into the next one. When Ricky was singing on stage, playing those three chords that every good rock and roll song is made of, when he closed his eyes and the smoke from the Winston stuck in the neck of the guitar would hang in front of his face like a spider web, he was the best in the world at doing what he was doing. Ricky was not the type of musician that would last at Juliard, and he wasn’t above retuning his guitar in the middle of songs, if need be, but whenever a band from out of town came in to play, no matter how big or long-lasting, it was Ricky they asked to see play after their show was over. Over the years, I heard tales of him meeting Dylan, who liked his version of “Amazing Grace,” to his account of watching the sun rise over a Days Inn in Athens with a certain L.A.-based songwriter, both of them so full of nose candy that they didn’t sleep again for three days. You would have to admit they beat most of the stories that a person normally hears when someone describes their job.
Once, years ago, his band was riding the charts with a song we all had been dancing to for years, and they were being interviewed on Japanese television. The mental image of Ricky, who on his best days was not suitable for family viewing, let loose on national television anywhere, much less Japan, was enough to send his friends into gales of laughter. Instead of being Mr. Ugly American rock and roller, he kept asking about Japanese baseball, about Sadahara Oh, the home run king of Japan. When the interviewer found out that Rick and the band hailed from Atlanta, he became excited and asked Ricky if he knew Henry Aaron. Ricky said sure, he hung with him all the time. The guy bought it, too, which is a riot. To Ricky, it was all a game, part of being a larger-than-life figure. Nobody would watch James Bond if he worked in a shoe store to make ends meet, and nobody wants to see a rock star turn out to be just like everybody else. Ricky knew that, and respected it, but also knew when to draw the line.
If you would talk to him after a show, maybe giving him a ride home when Pamela had AWOLed with the car, you saw a quieter side to him, one that few of us ever had the chance to see. He was the only one out of that group of people I traveled with in those days who, in later years, would ask about my kid, my job, or my life and not sounded amazed that I had “gone straight” after so long. I respected few people I met in those days, and when I run into most of them today I act like I don’t remember them (which in some cases is true, especially the women), but I developed a great deal of admiration for him over that time, and I remember thinking that even if he was a fry cook at McDonald’s, I would most likely feel the same, but to find a real person in a profession that almost requires you to be a bastard was a real trick. Like I said before, Ricky knew he wasn’t going to make a lot of money playing rock and roll, but as long as he could make the lease payment on his black Corvette and eat sushi sometimes, he was cool.
He never played crap, and didn’t take much of it either. The idea of him playing guitar in some hack band just because the money was good just wasn’t Ricky. So when I heard that some geek band from the eighties was getting back together and that Rick was replacing the guitar player (who had gone from rock and roll to running a florist shop, or some such nonsense), I just felt sick, like you would if someone told you something really rotten about a close friend, which in way they had. I guess at the time I figured that he must have gotten tired of slamming around the bar scene and waiting for the next big break to come, and decided to take what he could when he had the chance, like we all had, once upon a time. I lost most of my interest in the music after that, not right away, but gradually, over time, to the point that I went months or longer without going out and hearing a band live, and most of what I bought went further and further away from the music of my past and closer to the past of my parents, people like Billie Holiday and Sinatra. Music became more wallpaper than centerpiece in the rooms of my life, and worse, I hardly missed it.
It was years later, when the combined force of my friends finally got me out of the house to have a drink, that I realized what was gone. We had gone to a new club downtown, and we passed a bandstand on the way to the back where the bar was, and I remember not even wondering who was playing. We sat around and drank for a while, and I had forgotten all about the stage in front until the “thud” of a kick drum made the beer bottles jump off of the table. I was annoyed at having my conversation interrupted and rolled my eyes at someone across the table. I winced as an over-amped voice traveled into the back of the bar.
“We’d like to do a request for somebody out there. We’d like to, but since we ain’t a goddammed jukebox, I guess it would be impossible!”
Ricky. I got up from the table, and as a smile crossed my face, I went to the bartender and waved a bill at her to catch her attention.
“Two shots of Crown, okay?”
I paid and carried the drinks up front and walked around the side of the stage and placed one of the shot glasses on top of Ricky’s Hi-Watt amp. He turned back from the mic and gave me a grin, spilling cigarette ash down his vest front like always, and yelled over the roar of the band.
“Long time no see, padre! Anything you wanna hear?” he said as the song wound down.
“Sure, how about something from The Band?” I said as I started to make my way into the crowd, to gather my friends from the back to join me up near the stage, to go deaf with me for a while.
“I’d like to say to all my friends out there that I’m sorry I went away, but I’m back and ready to party. This one goes out to a old buddy from way back.”
“Go down yonder, peace in the valley/Go uptown, have a rumble in the alley/Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in“
I thought to myself, “yeah, three-chord Ricky, I do.”