I like to close my eyes when I play. I can hear Billy Rubio on bass and Franko Epstein on the drums and imagine that it isn't just a bunch of suburban guys with day jobs playing "Head Strings" or "Unibody". I can feel Danny Fly ripping down the frets and it's his fingers not mine making the music.
I opened my eyes at the end of the song and I was back in the Sans Souci Bar in Secaucus, New Jersey again, and there were only three patrons and they were talking in the corner and ignoring us. The owner was looking at his watch wondering where the crowd would come in and I knew that he was going to stiff us.
I play the music because I have to. I want to experience the music of the Bog Rats, but Danny Fly was living on some island in the Caribbean, and he hadn't cut a track in 20 years. Of the members of the original Bog Rats, one was dead, and the other so burned out that the Bog Rat's music would never be heard live again unless I played it.
The trouble is that cover bands, at least late 60s hard rock cover bands, don't get paying gigs, don't have a following and don't get any satisfaction unless they close their eyes and imagine.
Freddy Chizmar, a dentist by day and my drummer by night, counted out the beat with his sticks and Jeremy "Billy" Santiago stepped in with the heart stopping bass line. I let my fingers feel for the D-sharp sixth chord and bent it up slowly to the E. I barely had to touch the strings and my vintage Fender Twin grabbed the sounds out of the air, feeding it back in a throbbing wail. Danny Fly himself could not have done it better.
I ran through the intro to "Bloody Baby" and I felt the goose bumps on my arms. I get the feeling that the song is playing me and there never was a Danny Fly. The song was mine.
I didn't see the suits come through the door until half way through the song. They were drinking club soda with lime, and they wore dark sunglasses that made them look like Blues Brothers impersonators. They stared at me for the rest of the set.
They called me over, I signed the contract and that's how it started.
About a week later I flew to Antigua on a private jet. I kept on thinking that I should not be on a private Jet. Private jets were musician killers, but I had to follow the thread. I didn't think it was real until a suit knocked on the door to a pink house on the ocean. Jane Hearse opened the door and I nearly fell down.
Jane had aged, but had done it beautifully. Her hair was steel gray and had a witchy quality to it, but her face was still smooth and shockingly beautiful. Her body hadn't changed even though she had to be at almost 60.
"Come in," she said. Her velvet voice was lower than it was on the YouTube videos of interviews she had done back in the 70s. She reached out a hand to me. It was an older hand that didn't match her face, and I could see some age spots on it. "I'm Jane," she said as though I wouldn't know, "Danny is on the deck."
That's how I first met Danny Fly. I nearly wet my pants. Nobody had seen the man in 35 years, and here he was standing up to shake my hand.
Danny was old. He looked old and he had trouble standing up. He was too thin and wore a wig. In the videos he is lithe like a snake. He sneers when he sings and moves like a kung fu master as he rips out his riffs. Now, he looked like my Grandfather before the stroke killed him.
"I heard your demo, man," he mumbled. "Good shit. I couldn't have done better."
He shook my hand. His was dry like paper and weak. I was afraid to squeeze too hard and break him.
"I can't tell you what this means to me," I started to say, but he waved his hand.
"You're doing me a favor. I need you more than you need me. I've been sick, but I need to play one more time."
"You're going to record again?"
"Yeah, but I'm going on tour, first. I don't know how much I can take, but I've got to do it. I need you for backup."
"Tour?" I asked, shocked. I had been told that I would be working with Danny on a new CD.
"Yeah, I've got these songs. A couple of months ago they started coming to me. I thought that I was through with all that, but they just came to me. I've got to play them. I have to work them out, and I have to do that on the stage."
I wanted to say something, but my mouth just opened. Nothing would come out.
"Let me play them for you," he said.
He started towards the door and Jane went next to him. She didn't help him, but she supported him somehow just by the way she moved. We moved slowly down the hall with the suits in their silly sunglasses taking up the rear.
In an almost empty room was a beat up old Fender Bassman and Telecaster so used up that there was hardly any of the candy apple red paint left to see. The neck and headstock were covered with cigarette burns. I was looking at Juju, one of the most famous guitars of all time. I had spent thousands on a 1962 Tele, but my axe would never have the soul, the down and dirty mojo, of Danny Fly's Juju.
Danny grabbed the guitar and swung the strap over his head. I almost said "careful", afraid that he would drop and break the precious object. He ran his fingers down the strings and adjusted the B string. He played a few chords and flipped the standby on the '59 Bassman amp. Chords rang through the room. He deftly ran through part of the solo riff form "Unibody" and then played a short run from "Bloody Baby", the same notes that I had been playing when his suits had walked into the bar. I thought that I was good, but Danny's fingers hadn't aged a day and I wanted to sit down before I fell down.
"Here, tell me what you think of this. I haven't worked out the words, yet, but the bass line goes like this…"
Danny started a simple T-Bone shuffle and then started to embellish it until, surprisingly, a second bass line emerged from the shuffle and it took over the beat, weaving in and out. Keeping the beat going with a throbbing alternating bass the strings sang out a wailing counter rhythm that filled the room.
With a sudden move Danny started the melody line: a strong clear rock line without any frills - just a simple strong melody. He played it once and then played it again with a slight variation. He went through it two more times, building it up and then went into a break and played a series of minor triads from high to low that brought the song down through the dominant, the subdominant and back to the tonic chord in quick succession.
I wanted to say that it blew me away, but my brain wasn't working. It was too busy soaking up the first original Danny Fly music that anyone had heard in a generation. My fingers itched to get a guitar and play some of those riffs before I forgot them.
"What do you think?" he asked when it was over. I didn't want to be the guy who says your stuff is great, no matter what it sounds like. I didn't want him to think that I was that guy. It seemed like he was really interested in what I thought.
"It really works," is all I could think to say and I felt stupid because I did not shout out that it was the greatest sound that I had ever heard. "It really comes together - like you never stopped playing."
"Well I did stop for more than 30 years." He looked at me like he knew I was going to ask why. "You can't let something take you over. You can't let something be more important than you are. The music started to take over. I had to stop or I would have been lost. Too many have been lost that way."
"But you are playing again?" I asked the "duh" question. He was playing again, but what I meant was that I wanted to know why.
"I've been fine without the music. It's hard to explain. I just woke up one morning and I thought that I should do a little more. I wasn't finished yet and wouldn't be finished ever unless I got the last little bit out."
For the next three weeks Danny and I squeezed out some of the best riffs that have ever been played. Mostly I played bass and Jane would come in from time to time to sing. There was a drum player from a local Ska band that added a strange spice to the music when he showed up. Danny never wrote anything down, but he could restart a song he hadn't played in days from the note where he had dropped off.
When Danny liked the way a song sounded we switched off and I held the precious Juju in my arms and he played bass. We went though each song until I knew it as well as Danny. He showed me things, secrets, that made the music natural and easy. These were things that he had invented and never shared before. It was like God was giving me lessons.
Sometimes at night he asked me to play the old songs and he made suggestions. Sometimes he would teach me new versions. On warm moonlit nights he pulled out his old Martin and we played acoustic versions of his songs. Jane's warm clear voice, almost an octave deeper than on the old vinyl, sang the words that Danny had written 40 years before.
Our first concert went OK. It was a bar in St. John's. The tourists had no idea who Danny Fly was and probably had never heard of the Bog Rats. They might have heard "Unibody" played behind some car commercial on TV. (Michael Jackson had owned the rights to the song and rented it to anyone.) The tourists quietly ignored us and stayed in the courtyard so they could talk to each other and send text messages. One Japanese man tried to talk to us. He was enthusiastic, but we couldn't understand what he was saying. I think he knew who Danny and Jane were, and he took lots of pictures.
They booked us into the Beacon Theater in New York. It was a smallish house. I guess the promoters were hedging their bets. There was no sense in trying to sell out Madison Square Garden if they couldn't fill the Beacon. The suits wanted to hire an orchestra to back Danny, but the Bog Rats was a three piece band with Jane singing on a couple of songs. I tried to get my old friends from Secaucus, but the suits hired some heavy duty studio guys. I stood on stage and played rhythm for Danny, but I was only there as insurance, in case Danny couldn't finish.
We filled the Beacon and scalpers were getting $5,000 a seat. I had little to do on stage. I watched the audience and asked myself "who are these people?" They were young, most not even 20. In the expensive seats in the front were old men, as old as Danny, who sat politely and smiled when the music moved them. They closed their eyes as though remembering better days, but they did not get up and dance. They left their wives and children at home.
The kids in the balcony screamed and danced and smoked joints. They moved their bodies in some crazy uncoordinated way that missed the beat entirely, but they worked themselves up to a frenzy yelling "Bog Rats Rule" and "Underbelly". When Danny finally played "Underbelly" at the end of the first set, they all sang the chorus.
Jane came out to sing "Midnight Hot" about the middle of the second set and the kids went wild. The look in the old men's faces made me think that there was more than music on their minds. The front ten rows stood up to see her better (the back rows of kids had never sat down). There were chants of "Janey! Janey! Janey!" that drowned her voice out, but soon there were shushes, and the crowd stood silent, swaying to the sultry lyrics. The old men cried.
We did three encores. The last was an acoustic version of "Midnight Hot" with Danny on his Martin, me playing my Gretsch Tennessee Rose, and Jane humming most of the words. The lights went out. The crowd was sated and Danny fell down on the stage in a dead faint. He came right out of it, though, and Jane and I got him back to the hotel.
Danny was sick. He woke up in the morning retching and he was taking some kind of nasty pills ever few hours. His hair down to his eyebrows was totally gone, although his expensive wig had fooled the crowd. At each stop in the tour he would stand for an hour playing amazing licks that never repeated themselves. Then, he would collapse on a backstage couch and struggle to catch his breath at the end of each set. He didn't dance around stage, but he could still move with the music.
On stage, his lizard like quick movements were still there, only slightly subdued. I was ready to jump in and take over if he ever stumbled, but somehow he never did, until we reached Detroit.
Danny and Jane flew back to Antigua over the weekend, and when they came back I met them at the hotel. Danny was gray and could hardly speak.
"He's had another round of chemo," Jane said, "You'll have to go on tonight. You'll have to be him."
"I can't…" I began, but Jane interrupted.
"Why do you think you're here?" she asked.
Danny's clothes fit me perfectly, of course. I had the same build and I always tried to look like my hero. His lizard boots didn't fit, but I had my own. I had light brown hair and Danny's wig was like his surfer blond hair, only turning gray. Jane had some stuff that fixed it for me. The stage hands were told to keep the main spot off me. I had been listening to Danny play for a while and I didn't think that there was any way I would fool anyone with an ounce of sense.
"Just go out there and be Danny," she said, "You sing like him, you play like him and you look like he did 30 years ago. There is no problem."
"But I'm not him," I wanted to say. At the same time I thought that I wanted to be him and this was my chance.
It went OK. The crowd didn't seem to notice a difference. If they didn't cheer me as much as they had cheered Danny it was only because it was raining that night in Detroit. We did just one encore and Jane didn't sing "Midnight Hot". The new songs, however, went over big. The audience in Boston and New York had listened to them politely, waiting for the classics, but the Detroit audience got into them and at the end of one of the new numbers, everyone was clapping in time. I motioned to the drummer and bass to stop while I played some cheap ass power chords in time to the clapping. It was hokey, but it worked. I walked to the end of the stage and clapped along with the audience, letting them listen to how cool they were and then, as though we had practiced it that way, we all came in together and Jane came out to sing scat over the rhythm line. It was one of the coolest moments in my life.
Danny was waiting for me backstage.
"What the hell was that?" he asked. He was too weak to get up, but I was surprised at the venom in his voice. "Who told you to improvise?"
I mumbled, "I went with the flow. It was the moment," or something like that.
"This is my tour. You do my songs my way. I won't have some punk screwing up my life's work on a whim."
I wanted to cry, but the expression changed on his face. I thought for a moment that he was going to apologize, but he didn't.
"Look," Danny said in a softer voice, "You can't risk screwing this up. I can't let it get out that I'm too sick to play my own music. Once a rumor like that starts I might as well be dead."
"Danny," Jane started to say something.
"I'm right about this," he told her, "This is my tour. The kid is backup, but it can't get out that he ever played even one of my notes. I have to keep it pure or it loses all value. The music has to be mine."
Out of 22 dates, I went on as Danny 6 times and filled in for him a dozen more times as he rested while pretending to fix a string. I never played one note off the page. I never added even a single piece of my own soul to Danny's music.
There was talk of a European tour, but Danny wouldn't commit. He said there wasn't enough money in it, but I know they offered him a hundred million - and that was euros, not dollars. There was a YouTube video that had been downloaded 10 million times in some impossibly short period and the bootlegs of Danny's live performances were clogging the torrents. I was told the Detroit performance was a popular one.
We arrived at the Troubadour in LA early. This was a $1,000-a-seat CD release party, although there wouldn't be any seats on the dance floor, and the suits had claimed the booths.
Backstage, in the grubbiest little dressing room that I had yet seen on the tour, Danny turned on the little 50s Fender Deluxe amp that he used for warming up. He plugged Juju into the amp and handed her to me. He plugged my Tele into the other jack and tuned up. I stroked Juju and adjusted a string.
"I've been thinking about the music, a little," he said.
He flipped his thumb back and forth over the E and A strings and cut a counter beat by plucking the high strings. It was a Blues Boogie beat and he lingered on it, savoring the warm flow of it. I joined in with a walking bass line on the low strings, but Danny didn't change the chord and just sat in the Tonic, exploring the flow with splashes of color.
When he finished I said, "That was John Lee's Boogie Chillun'."
"Yeah, I know. I was trying to find something. Something I've been missing this whole trip."
He tinkled the strings, ringing them like bells in the wind and a riff I recognized. "That's Lightning Hopkins!" I said.
"Every guitar player is in love with Lightning," he laughed. He played it out and I heard "Coffee House Blues" ringing in clear notes from the Deluxe.
He sighed when he finished. "It's been a long time."
He set the guitar down and took Juju out of my arms. He took a small glass bottle out of his pocket and put it on the ring finger of his left hand. He started sliding up and down the neck with it, playing some old Son House song. I just listened.
As he played, he said, "This whole Rock and Roll thing is over. The stuff they do now is mush. Everybody knows what they don't like, but nobody can find what they do like. They look in the past and it seems like they find something new, but it's not working."
He started the stuttering beat of Muddy's "Two Trains Running".
"I'm done. Tonight is it. I've cancelled the gig at the Rose Bowl tomorrow. No more Rock and Roll."
I wanted to say something that started with the word "but".
"You've got to get out and get out now. We both peaked long ago. You've got time for a life even if I don't."
He stopped talking and finished up the Muddy song. He turned off the Deluxe with a click.
"Look, get back to your roots. Do a little blues on the side, but get a girl, get a kid, get a life. You've done Rock and Roll. You've done it well. You can't get any further than you'll get tonight. It's time for something else."
I couldn't think of anything to say. I couldn't answer him. He couldn't be right. Jane came in with some pills. Danny looked old, much older than 64. He looked like death.
"I'm going to take a nap," he said, so I went down to the bar and waited.
Jane had Danny's alligator suit ready for me. I put on his wire frame glasses with the purple glass, and she did her thing with my hair. The band knew that Danny was not feeling well and might not make it to the first set, and the lighting guy was told to only use the red spot on me. There was a Byrds cover band that wasn't half bad that played for an hour, and then the owner announced us. We came out on stage and went right into "Foghorn" and followed that with "The Cruel Equation" without a pause. I played them by the book, the way that Danny had wanted me to play. I kept glancing to stage left to see if Jane was there, but I guess she was staying with Danny.
The crowd was polite. The LA rich and powerful were way too cool to be able to appreciate the flayed nerve intensity of a Bog Rats song. They were here because it was the place to be seen. There were a few aging freaks with long hair, balding in the middle to give them a certain Bozo look, but most of the crowd showed signs of having had multiple expensive elective surgeries.
I just closed my eyes and played the music. I could have been in Secaucus for all it mattered. The time with Danny and Jane was just a dream and I was going to wake to find out that it was over soon enough.
After about an hour I asked the drummer and bass player if they needed a break, but they wanted to keep on going. The crowd was starting to get into the music. We were playing loud enough so that conversations and cell phones were useless so they had to actually listen to the music that they had paid $1,000 for.
I played the finish to one of Danny's new songs, "First Contact", a slow blues number about remembering a first love, when I decided it was time to play "Unibody". It was likely that this would be the only song that everyone in the place would recognize.
I closed my eyes and tried to feel the way the song started when I heard Danny Fly's unmistakable fingers on a fret board. It was dim and distant. I thought it might be coming from back in the dressing room, but it sounded more distant and in front of me, like it was coming in from the street. I thought maybe that someone was playing a ringtone, but it was not for any song that Danny had ever recorded.
The throbbing visceral notes of "Boogie Chillun'" started, just the way I had heard Danny playing it a few hours before. Danny's little Deluxe was warmed up and sitting on stage. I plugged into it and motioned to the drummer and bass to lower their volume. I could feel the beat and started playing along with Danny. The bass player started a walking bass line and the drummer switched to brushes.
I told the story. Blues is all about the story. I caressed Juju making her ring with the little grunts and growls that made the music talk.
Out in the crowd there was a smiling face and I almost missed a step. Danny was walking towards me, playing my Tele. He stepped through the crowd with his lizard skin boots and they never saw him. He walked up the steps and stood next to me and winked. He never missed a beat. I played along and he showed me the way. Every lick he made I copied and embellished. I threw out a riff and he played it back in kind.
The song didn't end; it just morphed into another one. I stayed in the key of E for an hour and Danny and I played every blues song we knew and the drummer just closed his eyes and shook his head and the Bass player grinned from ear to ear. The crowd started to dance, but not that stiff self-conscious white people jiggle. They grabbed at each other and swung each other around doing good imitations of the Lindy Hop and the Jitterbug. Even the ones who had never had a dance lesson in their lives lost their inhibitions and swung their girls around the floor.
Danny laughed at me with every chord change and snarled at the audience in mock anger at every turnaround. I played like I never played before.
I saw Jane in the wing. She was crying. I motioned for her to come out on stage. She looked old, older than I had ever seen her. She had lost something and it showed in her face and the way she held her shoulders. I looked at Danny and he winked again. I motioned again for her to come out on stage. She hesitated and then straightened up and walked towards me. I started the opening licks to "Midnight Hot". She leaned over to me and whispered, "It's Danny, he's…" but I jumped way from her and knocked out the lead. The bass and the drummer followed with gusto, but the little Deluxe was able to fill the room with creamy tones from Juju.
She sang like Janis at Monterey. She sang like Billie in Harlem. She sang like an Angel in Heaven and all the time the tears came down her face and I knew why.
Danny set down his guitar and walked off stage and I couldn't see where he went. We finished the song and the audience cried along with us. The drummer got up and hugged me, and kissed Jane on the cheek. The bass player turned his back to all of us and just hunched his shoulders. The stage lights went out. Danny was finished forever with Rock and Roll, but he had come back to play just one more set before moving on.
Danny was dead.
Nowadays I ride a fork lift for eight hours a day and come home to a wife and a four year old girl named Jane. I play some blues on Friday night in a bar in Hoboken, and people say I'm pretty good. My contract says that I can never talk about those three months I spent standing next to the greatest Rock and Roll guitarist that ever lived, but Jane made sure that I get a nice check every month from the CD sales. I'm only on a few of the cuts, but those are good cuts and I am proud of them.
They buried Danny on Antigua, but I've never seen the grave. I know that it's not really Danny in that grave anyway. He walked off the stage to a much better one, and sometimes when I close my eyes, I can feel his fingers, not mine, running up the strings and playing those blues, like John Lee, or Muddy, or Lightning, and I can see his face in my mind's eye as he smiles and gives me a sly wink.