Thoughts on inspiration and mimicry
Most people think they love their favorite song for the sound. They really love it for the memory. This is the story of my favorite song and a boy I shared it with.
Facebook keeps suggesting that I send a friend request to a dead guy, he’s been dead a long time too. This says a lot about me or at least what computers think about me. The Facebook mainframe knows how suspicious I am of its kind, skynet, impending doom and all that — the suggestion to get closer with Erik VanCleef is a way of letting me know they have their eye on me, that my apprehension has not gone unnoticed.
I first met Erik as a grade schooler, he spelled his name Eric with a “c” then. He was lanky and always scooping bangs out from dark circles ever beneath his eyes. My mom and his dad were friends, but not romantically. I’m almost certain they hung out together to swap prescription pills. Anti-depressants and assorted soothers from mom, opiates and muscle relaxers from Jerry who had all manner of bone and organ failures. His skin always looked sunburned which was made worse by a full of sporty red convertible hair.
Single parents are lonely so they think that their children are lonely too. Mom brought me along when she visited Jerry and threw me into Eric’s bedroom, when we didn’t try and bite each other she kept doing it. I don’t remember much of that time together, it’s a photoplasty of back yard trampoline jumping and hitting rocks with sticks while our parents drank Vodka from disposable plastic cups in the back yard, sitting crooked in lawn chairs while they laughed at jokes we were too young or too mature to grasp. Eric and I weren’t very close then because I don’t remember doing anything stupid or dangerous together. True friends find true trouble.
By the time the two of us reached high school we were estranged, our friendship trees didn’t have a single crossed branch. He was a rebellious child of divorce who got bad grades and hung out with kids who smoked under bridges; I was a well behaved for latchkey kid, I got good grades and played sports.
Mom enforced just three rules to produce this model of a thirteen year old: Brush your teeth before you go to bed. If you miss the bus, you’re walking (this was instituted at age 10 and triggered a conversation with child protective services after my 4th grade teacher watched me saunter past the classroom window on a blustery fall day two hours after the bell). The last was be smart, try hard, always do your best because Mom’s a fuck up and you want a better life. This last rule was an amalgam of the things she told me over the years when I’d misbehave or ask why our phone number changed at least once a year. That was all the guidance I needed to be good. My greatest defiance at age 14 had been naming my German Shepard “Shaq”, though we lived in a Chicago suburb at the height of Michael Jordan mania. It caused quite the row at basketball practice when I told the other kids. When I reconnected with Erik, who now spelled his name with a “k”, that all changed.
The first day of 9th grade I passed him in the hallway. He had shoulder length, greasy hair and holes in his clothes that he didn’t pay extra for. The striped thrift shop sweater slung around his body hung sideways and made his wiry frame look like it was ever facing right. Kurt Cobain recently deceased but his wardrobe lived on with Erik. We gave each other a half nod then he turned his eyes towards the floor. Mine clung on him as he walked down the hallway to a vanishing point like boys usually do to pretty girls, and exactly like the girls I didn’t have courage to talk him either. I was in awe, he was what I wanted to be. Not the sallow skin or those exact jeans and certainly not that sweater, but he was cool. Dissident. Disobedient. He reflected something inside me, what the regurgitated backwash of mainstream teenage fashion had covered up — a lemming outside but a Lemmy inside.
We both had headphones clamped on our ears and I wondered what better, more obscure music was pumping into his head. That day I stopped cutting my hair and got serious about learning to play the guitar. I couldn’t talk to him yet, I was a poser and I knew it, I had work to do first.
A few weeks later I walked passed a coffee shop where Erik sat with his back to the front window, strumming a guitar. I recognized him immediately because I’d spent so much time leering at the back of his head as he walked down the hall. He was a good singer, his voice had ache and grit. I loved the sound but once I recognized the song I almost screamed. I was angry and jealous and excited, he was singing my song. The one only I was supposed to know about, a hidden track by Nirvana called “Verse Chorus Verse”, well I called it that but he called it “Sappy”. It was the first of many disagreements we had over this song and it was the catalyst for our first half hour conversation that next Monday during lunch. What tuning it was in, when it was recorded, who was played the drums. The one thing we agreed is that the guitar solo was the greatest of all time, it might just be sentiment but I still feel the same way.
Our entire friendship was based on that song and if the Internet had been then what it is today it would have instantly settled our disputes and we probably never would have been friends. It makes me wonder how many kids have lost how many friends because we can be so certain about everything all the time, mystery isn’t always a handicap especially to the curious minds of kids.
I had gotten a guitar the previous year for my birthday, the neck was warped and even when it was in tune it was out of tune. I always told myself if I could just learn that solo I’d be happy, I’d never need to get any better. Trying to learn the guitar with a really shitty instrument is like trying to learn to draw with an eraser.
After seeing Erik I went out the next day and got something I could learn on, so we could form a band and take over the world. I took the birthday money I’d gotten from my family to a seedy pawn shop out on route 20 and bought my first real guitar, a powder blue and white Fender Stratocaster for $110 (they were asking $125). I still have it, the only sign of aging is the yellow hue of unbrushed teeth on the knobs.
Now that we were friends I had to look the part. I scraped the graphics on my Pearl Jam tee shirts across the sidewalk to age them. I got faded Dickie work pants from Goodwill and put black shoe laces in my Converse All Stars. Eric wore XXL striped sweaters so I got tight earth tone wool that itched and fell apart.
We became fast friends and we were good kids, at first. We spent nights transcribing and deciphering our favorite songs, listening to music, going to shows. Then one day he asked, “do you think you could steal some of your Mom’s Xanex?” Sure. “Whatever else she has too?” Sure.
I didn’t know what Xanex was nor did I understand why anybody would want to take someone else’s medicine. It certainly didn’t make my mom happy, but I agreed because I wanted to be cool, I wanted him to like me, I needed him as a friend. He was the only friend I had who was into my music and who played guitar and who looked how I wanted to look. I told him I’d give them to him at school on Monday.
I couldn’t sleep that Sunday I was so nervous. Not that my mom would find out, but that these pills would hurt him. That I would be responsible for some kind of overdose or drug freak out. At 4am I got out of bed to get it over with so finally get some rest. We didn’t have any sandwich bags so I ripped a thin strip of cellophane and took it into the bathroom. I placed half a tiny Xanex tablet in the middle of the plastic sheet along with a slew of multivitamins, fish oils, and other health food store nonsense that had sat in that cabinet unused my whole life. I wrapped them all up like a roast bound for the deep freezer and shoved them into my pocket when the morning alarm beeped me awake.
Eric wasn’t at school that day, he must have forgotten he asked me to act as a drug mule or maybe he didn’t think I’d go through with it. The little parcel dug at and burned my thigh all day, I was sure some teacher would spot it and expel me on the spot. At lunch I sat by myself and fired the bulky horse pill vitamins into my mouth one after another and washed them down with chocolate milk. Careful not to eat Xanex, I buried it in my pocket, sure that I was going to return it to the bathroom bottle. This seems silly now, but when you grow up as poor as I did you learn not to waste things. Not because I was a moral and upstanding kid but because that meant less money for shoes or video games or whatever other unnecessary shit I wouldn’t get if I threw money away.
I forgot all about the pill and ate dinner on a tray table next to my Mom in our living room with it still in my pocket. When I slid out from the miniature faux wood table the waded plastic sheet and one distinct white marble flopped out onto the floor between her feet. She wasn’t pleased. I stood there while she battered me with words, the shock and disgust of someone who thought they had a perfect child. The truth didn’t seem like it was going to make things better. I told Erik what happened to up my cred, ensure he knew I wasn’t some punk poser. It was the same reason I faked all sorts of drugs with Erik. Spit rum shots into slyly poured out beer bottles. Pretended to inhale. Cheeked random pills like a disgruntled patient on the psychiatric ward. What a waste. My heroes had burned out but I looked forward to fading away. When I saw someone I admired like Erik, I took the bits and pieces I liked and discarded the grim and gristle. Eric didn’t operate like that, he was a master mime. He repeated things I’d heard our grunge god’s say in interviews and wrote songs with riffs he stole from obscure records he didn’t think I’d heard. He wasn’t compositing, he was tracing.
Our musical tastes began to drift apart senior year and with it our friendship. Nu-Metal stormed in and he began wearing jump suits and braiding his newly dyed black hair hair, the ends capped in ridiculous colored rubber bands. He assumed a new identity and pursued new vices. I only saw him a few times in the years after high school, each time he looked more frail and pallid.
The final time he invited me over to his grandma’s after he returned from his first stint in rehab. The house smelled like cinnamon sticks and even though we were well into our twenties he had a black light bulb in his bedroom that I thought was odd, inappropriate, uncool.
He said he had something to show me as he yanked a long, rectangular hard-shell Fender case from under the bed. Inside was a candy apple red Fender Jag-Stang, a rare guitar designed by Kurt Cobain himself. The guitar we often lusted after as kids flipping through guitar world magazines on his bedroom floor. I thought he had called me because he wanted to jam, maybe play some of the old songs we wrote together or start a band. No, he’d asked me over to see if I wanted to buy the guitar, then he turned his eyes to the floor and scratched at his forearm as he waited for my answer.
Erik died several years later of a drug overdose on good Friday, 2013. Just like Andrew Wood and Kurt Cobain. Shannon Hoon. Layne Staley. Mike Starr, Scott Weiland, and countless others that Erik loved and admired the way I once loved and admired Erik.
There’s a fine line between mimicry and inspiration, muse and theft. I wish I had been wise enough to understand and articulate that when I was a kid. It’s hopelessly optimistic to think that I might have been able to say something to alter the trajectory of his life. Narcissistic too. The best way to honor a tragedy is to learn from it and here I learned that there isn’t any value in tracing. That you should take all the things you love and pin them as a reference instead of placing them on the table as a blueprint. That trying to become the exact thing you love will leave you with a bunch of stupid fucking haircuts, or worse, dead.