The summer before you entered the 11th grade your high school started offering a guitar class as an arts elective. The next fall, campus was invaded by dozens of teenage boys with Yamaha F325s and Epiphone DR-100s slung over their shoulders like slightly less lame Jon Bon Jovis. They filled the halls, the cafeteria, and every shady spot in the quad playing bad renditions of the same Candlebox, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana songs. It was a sea of flannel shirts and unkempt Kurt Cobangs. The high school girls, straying from their usual discerning tastes in men, were eating it up. If you could pick out the intro to “Far Behind” or “Yellow Ledbetter” there were no fewer than ten girls hanging on your every note. Having a varsity letter in three sports was no longer enough to get you a date to homecoming. It was a serious problem.
Not one to be left behind by this new trend, you bought a beautiful Fender acoustic from your economics teacher. You were pretty sure he was ripping you off, but it had a great sound and a unique look. The deep sunburst finish on the cut-out dreadnought body stood out and gave the impression that you were a connoisseur, a man among boys.
The fact that you couldn’t play didn’t factor in to your decision-making. You practiced relentlessly at home, putting your adolescent insomnia to good use. You learned a few of the standards that everyone else could play, but invested the bulk of your time to learning deeper cuts from less mainstream bands like the Violent Femmes, Dead Kennedys, the Smiths and the Velvet Underground. The goal was to set yourself apart and attract the girls who were tired of listening to weakly fretted renditions of “Basket Case.” It worked. After just a few months you were top dog at rock ’n’ roll high school. You started to cultivate the rock star image (as best you could in the suburban central Florida setting in which you existed) and became a proto-bad boy. Not a legitimate bad boy, but the artistic kind of bad boy who’s not all that bad when compared to actual dudes. Sure, you were a rebel, but your big dark outlets were songwriting and weed. You still did your homework and took out the trash at home.
You formed a band with a few of the guys in the school’s jazz quintet and played punk covers at high school parties and the occasional bar mitzvah. It was fun for a while but it wasn’t going anywhere in the long run. Your biggest claim to fame was being ushered off the stage at the school talent show after doing your best Henry Rollins impression. You were determined to hit the big time, so you began the search for a band that could make it.
You found a Misfits cover band that needed a rhythm guitar and practiced with them for a few months but they never booked a gig. After that you joined a band fronted by a no-talent hack with one bleached eyebrow who fancied himself the next Robert Smith. They played mostly originals but they were all his originals, and they all sucked. Despite that, they had a solid local following and played gigs weekly. The only problem was they never actually let you play a show. They told you your guitar skills weren’t good enough and had you switch to bass. After learning all their songs on the new instrument, another bass player joined the group and you were out. The next couple of years were variations on the same story. Bad bands, good bands with bad leaders, decent bands who couldn’t get gigs, but you were never a good fit.
You did, however, make enough friends and contacts in the local music scene that when you decided it was time to form your own band you had no problem getting three other talented guys in struggling groups to join you. You played a healthy mix of fun covers and alt-punk originals and garnered a small but loyal following in a year of grinding it out on the local bar circuit. You were making enough money off the door each night to pay your bills, but needed to take a job at Starbucks to pay your bar tab and your dealer. When your big break finally came you’d be practiced up and ready to live the rock star life.
When a star lives that life it’s glamorous; when a star falls as a result it’s tragic. When a guy fronting a band that draws 30 people at most to a shitty bar in Leesburg, Florida lives that life it’s just pathetic. At the height of your popularity the healthiest thing you did the night of a show was mix two Red Bulls and a pint of vodka and chug it before taking the stage. Even though you would go onstage and implode halfway through the second set, missing chords and forgetting lyrics, you were sure that you guys were just a handful of gigs away from making it big.
You did manage to hold it together long enough to get signed to a label. Their rep saw you at a regional music festival — somethingridiculous-palooza — and fell in love with a couple of your originals. Within a month you were in the studio cutting an album and alienating everyone you knew in the local scene by being a complete ass about getting a contract. The A&R guy liked one song as a single and brought someone in to completely rewrite it for you. Past you was furious with present you for selling out your artistic integrity. Present you was like “fuck you buddy, we’re getting paid.”
The single got decent airtime but peaked at #77 on the charts. The album never saw the top 100 and barely sold enough units to cover production costs. The label stopped taking your calls, as did your band mates after you busted up the drum kit on stage during a show. At that point you were already back in the local bar circuit and drinking your feelings away. You weren’t making any money with music and you were too much of a burnout to hold even menial jobs. You lost your house, your car, and your will to live, opting to ride it out and see which of your vices would send you on up to the spirit in the sky.
Your rise may not have been meteoric but your fall certainly was. The only gig you could get sitting in the town square playing the last thing you owned that hadn’t been repossessed or pawned — the Fender acoustic you bought from your economics teacher. When you needed to get enough cash for a drink or a night at the shelter you busted out a rendition of your big hit, and when the dollars started dropping into your felt-lined hard case it only bothered you a little bit that nobody knew it was your song.