Some twenty years ago, there was a rough-looking man who used to frequent the Mississippi bars where I once made my living playing music in acoustic duos and trios. I remember him because he always stood in the back and applauded enthusiastically. He would even shout out words of encouragement in between requests. I remember that he liked the Allman Brothers and wished we would play more of their songs.
It is likely that I first met him in 1991. But I didn’t know anything about him until 1993. That was when my singer pointed him out and said he was a heroin addict who was slowly killing himself with his addiction. She said it was a shame that he so rarely made it out anymore. She claimed that he was the best singer she had ever heard. But I had never heard him sing. I only heard him say nice things to the people who sang for him.
One night in July of 1993, I was setting up to play for the very last time in the bar where I had played my first professional gig. The heroin addict with the hidden talent showed up and started drinking before we even started playing. I told him I was going to invite him up to the stage to sing a song before the night was over. He kept drinking and I kept my promise. I’m glad I did.
When he came up and sat down next to me on stage, I started playing my favorite Allman Brothers tune. It was called “Melissa.” He sang it so well I wished the song never would have ended. Then I asked him what he felt like singing. He said he wanted to sing a song called “Please Come to Boston,” by Dave Loggins. But he sang it more like David Allan Coe, which made sense. He looked a lot like David Allan Coe. He had been living a rough life.
When he started to step off stage, a young girl I’d never seen before – she could not have been more than 18 – asked him if he would sing “The Dance,” by Garth Brooks. Neither of us liked the new country music. But we both agreed we loved that song. We probably would not have confessed knowing the song if it wasn’t for George Dickel. So we played the song for the girl.
Before we finished, the young girl had buried her head in her hands as she sobbed uncontrollably. When we stepped off stage, her friend came up to us and thanked us both. She told us the song was the girl’s favorite. Her dad used to love it, too. But he died of cancer just two weeks earlier.
When it came time to end the show, we finished with an old James Taylor song. I don’t like any of James Taylor’s music except for the first three albums. The song I picked was “Carolina in my Mind.” It made sense because I was moving to North Carolina the next day. It was a song James recorded in 1968 back when he was a better and hungrier artist. He was also a full-blown heroin addict.
After we finished the song, I grabbed my Takamine in one hand and a bag full of Lee Oscar harmonicas in the other and just walked out the door that was behind the stage. Wendy was waiting for me in the parking lot. She was there to drive me home. I left behind a pair of EV cabinets, a 600 watt main amp, a 300 watt monitor amp, and a stack of effects racks. I told my singer to take them down to Backstage Music to put them all on consignment. I never played for money again.
When we got home that night, Wendy and I just rolled out a sleeping bag in middle of the empty apartment. We talked until we fell asleep. I got in the U-Haul late the next morning to make the 12-hour drive to North Carolina. Sixteen hours and one flat tire later I pulled up to Wrightsville Beach. It was about three o’clock in the morning when I walked out onto the beach and sat down under Johnny Mercer’s pier.
As I looked out over the ocean and waited for the sun to come up, I couldn’t help but think about the heroin addict who sang so beautifully just the night before. What a waste of talent, I thought. I would never hear him sing again. I never even saw him again. Looking back, I don’t even remember his name.
… To be continued.