‘Eddie J No More’

Here’s another piece of fiction from the folder in the file cabinet. This one was written in November 1990 in Columbia, Missouri, so as you read it, put yourself in the early 1990s. I likely got some things wrong about the music business, but so it goes when you’re writing to please yourself. Anyway, I hope you like “Eddie J No More.”

My guitar needs a new E string. I found that out last night. When the urge to play a few tunes hit me and I opened the case, I saw that the string – the high one – was loose and curled up like a nylon snake, right at the top of the neck. In my mind, I could hear the sound it made when it broke, kind of an idiot “ping” followed by the whispery sound of the long portion of the string curling up toward the neck, seeking its old circular shape just like water seeks lower ground.

I never heard it when it happened. No reason I should have. I keep the guitar case in a spare room between the box filled with my old music notebooks and the box that holds my old records. I suppose I hadn’t touched the guitar for, oh, three months. Maybe not that long, but it’s been a while since I had the urge to play.

But I wanted to last night. And when I saw the broken string, all I could do was look across the spare room to where my old Stratocaster sits. All its strings were intact, and all I needed to do was plug that baby into the amplifier of the sound system in the living room. A little bit of tuning and one quick flick across the strings for orientation, and I’d jump back on the rails and make that fucker howl!

But no. I haven’t played the Stratocaster for a long, long while. I haven’t wanted to howl since, well, since maybe ’85 or ’86. All I wanted last night . . . well, it’s kind of like something I saw Bruce Springsteen do in a solo acoustic show a few years ago.

When Bruce is out with the E Street Band and they get to “Born To Run,” it’s all guitars and drums roaring and the saxophone wailing as the road goes by and the lonely rider and Wendy aim their motorcycle toward whatever tomorrow will bring them because they know it has to be better or at least no worse than what they have right now and the roar of the imagined cycle gets mixed in with the roar of the crowd at the Boss’s feet and the music pounds and thunders with a noisy momentum that carries the E Street Band and its Boss and the crowd toward some wonderful place, and baby, we were all born to run.

But when Bruce did some solo gigs a few years ago, toward the end of the night, he’d play it slow, just him and an acoustic guitar. It was almost thoughtful and almost sad, and the crowd was quiet and just about ready to go home. And it was right to do it like that: We have what we have, even if it isn’t everything we dreamed of finding out there. And none of us were running anymore.

And that’s what I wanted to do last night, play the music that comes after the running is over, the quiet stuff that can fill the air when you are where you are and you’re not looking for the next turn. I just wanted to strum my acoustic and maybe hum along a little, then maybe sing out and let my voice carry the weight of the song. I haven’t wanted to make the fuckers howl for years. I don’t think I could anymore. And I don’t think I want to, even if I could.

But my E string was broken and curled up, so I closed the guitar case and found something else to do last night. I read a book. And the Stratocaster stayed in the spare room.

You know, it’s funny that I think of Bruce and the way he changed “Born To Run” on that tour when I think about last night. From what my manager always told me, I was supposed to be where Bruce is, be what Bruce is.

I should introduce myself, I suppose. My name is Eddie Jopp. Never heard of me, right? Or if you did, you’ve pretty much forgotten me. Fair enough. I never really believed you’d remember. Maybe if I had, maybe if I’d believed, then I’d be more than a faint whisper in your memory. My manager believed, or at least that what he said. What he really believed, I think, was that anything or anyone can be packaged and sold, and I know he believed in ten percent. Anyway, I’m Eddie Jopp, also known as Eddie J for a while. No period after the “J,” please. Eddie J was the name.

When I say I keep my old records in a box in the spare room, I’m not talking about my high school copy of Saturday Night Fever or my copy of The Wall. I’ve got those – and Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles and Supertramp and all the others – in the living room. No, the records in the spare room are my records: A Free Man In Greenland, Take The Wheel, my favorite Let The Spring . . . and a few others. Those are my records, the ones that Mick Pelzer produced in Kansas City at the start and then in L.A., the ones that were supposed to be on the list of everyone’s essential sounds of the ’80s. Eddie J on guitar, Eddie J on keyboard, Eddie J on vocals, and then it was Eddie J on the remainder racks and eventually Eddie J on the all-time favorite show, “Whatever the fuck happened to . . . ?”

It’s a good question, really. “Whatever the fuck happened to Eddie J?” I’m not sure I know, and I lived it. Oh, I haven’t forgotten it or lost it in some chemically induced paranoid haze. No, I stayed straight, most of the time anyway, but you can figure out how it is when you’re on tour and you’re only twenty-four. And I never got rid of the people who were there at the start only to find out I needed them later. No, the guys who started with me were there when it ended: Parker Stram on drums, Bobby Lippner on bass, Stu Kelsey on rhythm guitar, Jana Hall and Linda Camino on back-up vocals. They were on the first track we laid down in K.C. (“The Baker’s Dozen,” I think), and the last one in L.A. (“Inside Slide”). That’s when it ended, even though we didn’t know that for a while. But they were there.

So whatever the fuck happened to Eddie J? Life, I guess. The way it’s supposed to. Just because I’m not what I was expected to be doesn’t mean I’m not what I’m supposed to be.

It’s funny. I remember, back in the summer of ’81 when it looked like everything in front of us was gold or platinum, we were all sitting in a huge suite in downtown Milwaukee. We’d played a show at the arena there the night before, and we had two days before we had to be in St. Paul, so we were taking a day off. A show must have been canceled somewhere, I guess, but I don’t remember.

Anyway, Cal Mellon, my manager – our manager, really, because Parker, Bobby, Stu, Jana and Linda were just as much a part of Eddie J as I was; I just gave it my name – Cal was talking about what he saw. He was waving a bottle of Heineken in the air, proclaiming that he saw Eddie J as the latest in the line of what he called “authentic American voices.” He had Elvis, and Buddy, and Bob, and then Bruce, of course. And at the end of the line (for the moment, anyway, because someone always tacks another car onto the Mystery Train, right?) came me. Or us. Eddie J, anyway.

Like I said, it’s funny. It’s the modern nobility, kind of the twentieth century version of white rock ’n’ roll knights: Here’s Elvis of Tupelo with “Love Me Tender,” ‘Jailhouse Rock” and so many more. Here’s Buddy of Lubbock with “Rave On” and “Peggy Sue” and the dreams of would’ve been. Here’s Bob of Hibbing with – oh, shit, which ones? The first time I saw him was in Wichita, and he sang for ninety minutes, and an hour’s worth of stuff he didn’t sing would have made the fucking best greatest hits package anyone would want to hear. But just to keep the monologue moving, let’s say “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Forever Young.” And here’s Bruce of Asbury Park with (same problem here, but what the fuck) “Born To Run” and “The River.”

And then, says Cal, comes Eddie of Olathe with . . . with what? Oh, maybe “Sailor Serenade” and “Let The Real Game Roll.” Never heard of them? Fair enough. Not a lot of people did. Well, more than I figured would on those days back in high school when I started writing songs, but not nearly as many as Cal – and the rest of us, too – had plans for. Never heard of Olathe, either? That’s cool, too. It’s in Kansas, for those who don’t recognize it. But I imagine there are lots of folks who wouldn’t know much about Tupelo or Lubbock or Hibbing or Asbury Park without those other guys being able to connect to some kind of magic that Eddie J never found.

And that’s okay. Even as Cal was waving his beer bottle in the air and declaiming his vision, I didn’t buy it. It was kind of like one of those old intelligence tests. You know, the ones that ask “Which one is different?” Well, when it’s Elvis and Buddy and Bob and Bruce and Eddie, I didn’t have too much trouble figuring it out. Neither, as it turned out, did the people who buy the tunes. And after they figured it out, the folks at Kappa Delta records got the word pretty fast. And by 1985, Eddie J was gone.

Oh, I’m still around, and I’m doing okay. And most of the rest of the gang is okay, too. Bobby’s gone. He had a heart attack on the tennis court a few years ago. But Parker and Stu are still in L.A. doing session work. Jana married a guy who worked at the studio in K.C. where we first recorded, and I hear she’s got a kid now and sings jingles in the studio. Linda went back east and got a job as a deejay, and she’s part of the top morning team in Annapolis, I think.

Me? Oh, I’m going to school here in Wichita. I’ve got a teaching degree in mind. Yeah, I’m lots older than most of the others in my classes, and nobody recognizes me. At least if they do, they’ve never said anything. That’s not surprising – they all listen to CDs and none of my stuff ever got there. They don’t even look in the remaindered record racks, which is the only place you’re going to find Eddie J these days.

And Cal? Well, there’s always someone new to promote, someone else to put into that line of voices. He’s got a kid on the road now, a guy named Custer Barnes. The kid’s good – I’ve heard a few of his tracks – and maybe he’ll make Cal’s dreams come real. I couldn’t do it for Cal, but my dreams became real.

Hey, they really did. All I wanted was a chance to play, to get my stuff down on tape and onto vinyl. Now, I suppose that sounds like the kind of noble bullshit that you hear all the faded stars spout, those that survive, anyway. But it’s not. I got what I wanted. I played my music, and for a while, a lot of people listened. My dreams weren’t Cal’s though. He wants more than that, And like I said, he believes in ten percent. But he’s an okay guy anyway.

He called the other day. Wanted to know if I would come out to L.A. and put some stuff on tape with Parker and Stu, see what came out of the headphones. Well, I’ve got some new things – I may not play a lot, but I’ve never really stopped writing – but it’s my stuff, and I’m not sure anyone would want to listen to it. I said so. He said he was sure it would go, and that he’d already booked the studio time. Had he called Parker and Stu? Not yet, he said.

Something wrong with Custer Barnes? “No,” he said, “I just want to get your stuff out where it belongs, with the listeners.” I thought for a minute. Shit, maybe he was right. Maybe it’s worth another shot. But then I figured that if the listeners really wanted to hear me, I wouldn’t need my old agent to tell me so.

I asked him what date he had the studio time reserved. He told me, and I said, “Sorry, I’ve got a mid-term that day.”

Aced the fucker, too. And tomorrow after class, I’m going to get a new E string. Hell, maybe I’ll get a whole new set of strings. Or I could sell the Strat and get a new electric . . . No, a new set of strings for the acoustic will do just fine. Let the words carry the weight as far as I want it to go.

GPE
November 15, 1990
Columbia, Missouri

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