Of all the people I met during my first year in advertising, the most memorable was the guy who watered the office plants. His name was Phil, and though he only showed up twice a week he upstaged everyone, even the creative directors. You could walk into the lobby wearing a Burberry top hat and a snow leopard around your shoulders, but if Phil happened to be nearby pruning an orchid, you might as well be invisible. Nothing could outshine his mullet, skintight black jeans and gleaming white sneakers. It was an ensemble that screamed fearlessness, and screamed it in a crude Boston accent.
Other maintenance people tiptoed around the employees, avoiding eye contact as they fixed printers or installed recessed lights. But Phil made his presence known. He carried his watering can into closed-door meetings, made small talk with anyone he passed in the halls, and sometimes offered his opinion on the creative that hung from the studio wall, pointing his garden trowel at his favorite ad layouts. “You know what commercials I like?” he’d say, looking around for a response. “The ones with the lizard, you know, that lizard who drives the car. You guys make those?” Phil seemed oblivious to the barrier that existed between him and us, the invisible wall that we tastemakers had erected, protecting us from mass channel shoppers.
I on the other hand was keenly aware of that invisible wall. In those early days I kept to myself mostly, eating lunch at my desk, pretending to work but really just staring at the Yahoo home page while I chewed my food. Since the rest of the staff were either upstairs in the kitchen or eating offsite, I used the time to listen to CDs on my iMac. Our office PA system played music throughout the day, but it was mostly contemporary soft rock, artists like David Gray or Train. These were what radio stations referred to as “adult pop” or “easy listening”, the kind of music one might hear in a doctor’s waiting room, something to soothe the nerves before an invasive genital procedure. It had the opposite effect on me, though. Rather than a sense of calm, or joyousness, I experienced nausea, followed by vertigo, followed by severe depression. The only antidote I found was thirty minutes of my own music, somewhere in the middle of the day.
One particular afternoon I was at my desk, eating a tuna melt and listening to the British metal band Judas Priest, when I heard a voice from inside my office.
“Mercenaries of Metal tour, ’88, Worcester Centrum. 12th row center. I was there.”
I looked up from my computer and saw Phil, trimming the spikes from my window orchid.
“That was the last time Dave Holland played with the band,” he said, pointing a spray bottle at the orchid and blasting each leaf with a cloud of mist. “Which is fine if you ask me, because he was an asshole, but that’s when the band started to fall apart.” He stepped back and examined the plant for a moment. “Still, they played ‘Sinner’, which they hadn’t played since ’84. It was almost like they knew the end was coming so they went back to the set list from the ‘Killing Machine’ era.”
I wasn’t familiar with the ‘Killing Machine’ era, nor did I have a clue who Dave Holland was, but I understood Phil’s language. I spoke it fluently in my youth, a time when my bedroom walls were covered in cutouts of men in spandex and eye makeup, a time that, for Phil, had extended well into his thirties.
He went on about Judas Priest for another twenty minutes, becoming more passionate as he detailed their rise and fall. “By 1988, everything was synthesizers. Look at the intro to ‘Blood Red Skies’, for Christ’s sake. Tell me that doesn’t sound like Tears For Fears!” Coworkers passed by my office, gawking at Phil as he leaned over my desk, his hand gripping the garden trowel, his mouth foaming with white spit. “Marketing!” he said. “It’s all goddamned marketing!”
“Totally,” I said, noticing the framed print ad that hung on the wall behind his head.
“It’s a fucking trade-off, plain and simple,” he huffed, returning to the orchid. He sprayed it some more, primping the leaves between each misting. This made him look like a hairstylist, practicing on a houseplant. “You wanna sell records, you gotta sell out,” he said, shaking his head.
I sensed a deeper resentment in Phil’s tone, so it came as no surprise when he told me about his own band, Black Angel. Their high point came in ’91, when they opened a few dates for the progressive metal group Dream Theater. “Rock bands have a small window of opportunity,” he said. “You either crack the ceiling and keep climbing, or you slide back down the other side of the hill.” I’d heard those exact words before, maybe in a Motley Crue song, and I wondered how much of our conversations were stolen from various 80s power ballads.
Every Monday and Thursday Phil showed up in my doorway, holding his watering can, eager to report the latest developments in the world of heavy metal. Motorhead released a new album. Slash checked into rehab. Ozzy had an abscess drained from his ass. His biggest news was the announcement of the Iron Maiden reunion, a tour he’d been waiting for since 1993. “Dickinson is back. Adrian Smith is back. The tour manager from Seventh Son is back,” he said, counting off each highlight on his hand. I wasn’t a big Iron Maiden fan, but it was hard not to share his excitement. It stirred in me a nostalgia for a simpler time, when I was young enough to have dreams but too young to actually pursue them.
My conversations with Phil soon became a lifeline, tethering me back to a world I once knew, a world of vanilla-scented car fresheners and acid-washed denim and menthol cigarettes. The more he and I waxed about the heyday of heavy metal, the more I realized I had no place at an ad agency that specialized in fashion. Aside from the outfit I wore on my interview, my closet consisted of sweatpants and hoodies. On a typical day I’d show up to work in a black leather jacket, Adidas track pants and Converse All-Stars—suitable clothes for the emergency room at three in the morning, but not at the agency that pioneered the “lifestyle brand image”. The rest of the office looked like extras from Love Story: handsome and healthy, blue-eyed and rosy-cheeked, cable knit sweaters with cashmere scarves draped around their necks. It was as though they had come straight from the quad after a friendly game of rugby—unlike myself, who had come straight from a studio apartment after a round of earth-shattering bong hits.
One Monday I was called into a brainstorming session for a new business pitch. The meeting was scheduled at the same time as Phil’s routine visit. At first I was quiet and sulky at missing our regular heavy metal rundown, but soon I got comfortable and became engaged in the discussion, chuckling and throwing around buzzwords like “modern authentic” and “timeless classic”. I was halfway through describing a campaign idea when I heard a snip. At the far end of the conference room was Phil, pruning shears in hand, scowling at me from behind an orchid. From that point on, every time I said something, Phil clipped off a leaf. “This feels too much like Eddie Bauer,” I said. Snip. “For the advertorial, how about four beautiful young people escape to rural Maine for the weekend?” Snip. “Maybe we could get Damian Rice to play at the trunk show? Him and his acoustic, dress him in a Henley and a knitted cap?” Snip snip.
The group applauded my ideas, but I felt sick with betrayal. There I was, illustrating some apparel brand’s core values, when I’d so obviously lost sight of my own. Had Phil not awakened some truer part in me? Had he not reminded me, while quoting Metallica, that a person’s soul never changes, that either it breeds or it’s condemned to a creeping death? Had I sold out in an attempt to sell records?
When Phil finished with the orchid, he picked up his watering can and stormed out of the conference room, slamming the door behind him. I recognized this petulance from my teenage years. In junior high I was banished from the popular crowd for making friends with someone outside of our clique. Rather than grovel back with my hat in hand I shunned them and vowed never to return. I quit the football team, boycotted the school dances and retreated to the shadows. There I made new friends, kids with spiked hair, earrings and Slayer tee shirts. Though we looked like a group of rejects, we shared a common thread: anger.
I was liberated. There was something virtuous about hanging out in convenient store parking lots after school while the popular kids played sports and dated girls. On weekends I took the train into Boston and loitered outside rock clubs like The Rathskeller. There wasn’t much going on at eleven in the morning, but I hung around the area anyway, hoping someone might mistake me for a lead singer, or at the very least a homeless kid. I’d sit in Kenmore Square and fantasize about my rise to stardom, something so spectacular that the entire school would have no choice but to worship me. Could I release an album by the time I finished eighth grade? I doubted it. Other options included dating a thirty-year old or saving the school from a Russian invasion, neither of which seemed plausible either. Then I had a vision: me, alone on the auditorium stage, in front of my eighth grade class, finger-tapping through the symphonic climax of Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption while four hundred of my peers sat hypnotized.
“Mom, I need to learn the guitar,” I said one day after class.
“What’s wrong with piano?” she shot back. For the last three years I had taken piano lessons at my mother’s insistence. According to her, all children should begin intensive musical training by the age of ten. Like Mozart, she had reasoned. “By the time he was your age he was conducting operas for kings,” she said, a simple and fair comparison.
Piano is a fine instrument but insufficient as a means to channel rage. There are only a few angry pianists, the most obvious being the Phantom of the Opera. I needed an instrument that could scream, one that could accurately express my anguished soul. More importantly I needed an instrument I could play standing up, while dressed in leather pants and a hooded cloak.
My mother eventually gave in and found me a guitar teacher who made house calls. To send the message that I was a budding virtuoso, I showed up ten minutes late for the first lesson. Had I been traveling from a distant suburb this might be expected, but the fact that I was coming from an upstairs bedroom lent a certain mystique to the proceedings. “Danny! Hurry up, you idiot. We’re paying this man by the minute,” my mother yelled. Finally I appeared at the top of the staircase. As I slowly descended to the first floor my mother’s face tightened. “Why are you wearing pajamas?” she said.
I explained that this was the signature outfit I’d wear on stage: a white dress shirt, unbuttoned and tucked into my little league baseball pants. Originally there was a bathrobe, too, but my mom convinced me to drop it, even though it gave the whole look that touch of royalty. “Lose the wine glass, too,” she hissed, taking it from my hand. “You look like a jackass. No one drinks iced tea from a wine glass.”
I followed her into the living room, where a strange bearded man stood holding a guitar case. “Danny, this is your guitar teacher, Ira Falkenhemie.”
There are many suitable names for a guitar teacher, but Ira Falkenhemie is not one of them. His Members Only jacket only reinforced my doubt, as did his gray cotton slacks, white tube socks and black sneakers. He looked like a postal worker who had just picked a tattered guitar case out of someone’s trash. Normally I try and hold back judgments based on name and appearance, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. If my dermatologist entered the exam room wearing platform boots and introduced himself as Sid Vicious, I’d have similar concerns.
In spite of my prejudice, Ira was a good teacher and talented guitarist in his own right. He’d start each lesson with a brief theoretical overview, then we’d work on building blocks, and then he’d end by playing a complete song, something to inspire me. Still, my progress was slow. Six months in and I was still learning chord arrangements when I should have been soloing. Naturally I blamed this on Ira’s clothes. “If only he wore a cowboy hat,” I said to my mother, “or had some rings…or something tattooed on his hand, like a woman’s face…maybe I’d be further along.”
“Maybe you should try practicing,” she said. “You don’t live up to your end of the bargain. Every night I walk past your bedroom and you’re lip-syncing in the mirror, trying on different costumes like an idiot. The other night I heard you talking to someone, and when I opened the door you were interviewing yourself in a British accent. Maybe you should spend less time pretending and more time learning how to play the stupid instrument.”
I considered this for a moment. “I don’t know, mom. I hear what you’re saying, sort of, but I think it’s time for a new teacher.” To my way of thinking, rock and roll was less about fundamentals and more about persona. It was not something one practiced or learned, but rather a divine gift that was transferred from an elder to a select pupil. The right teacher would not be found in the classified ads, or tacked onto the neighborhood bulletin board. He must be sought out, and I knew just where to begin my quest.
Newton Centre Music was the only guitar shop within biking distance. I rode there at least three times a week after school, never to buy anything but to marvel at the collection of guitars. They hung on the wall, majestic, staggered up and down like the pipes of a church organ. Fender, Gibson, Yamaha, Ibanez—names I’d only read about in the pages of Hit Parader. Some were priced as high as five thousand dollars. I’d overheard the owner a few times talking about a guitar teacher who sometimes taught out of the back room. When I approached the counter and asked the owner’s face grew solemn. “You mean Pete Duran?”
Pete Duran. It was precisely the kind of name I wanted in a guitar teacher. “That’s him,” I said.
As it turned out, Pete Duran also taught out of his apartment, which happened to be four blocks away from my house. This meant I could walk to my lessons, carrying my guitar case as I strutted down suburban streets. I’d see my shadow under the streetlights and hold out my thumb like I was hitchhiking. This will be the cover of my first album, I thought. All I needed was a title. And some songs.
Unlike Ira, Pete Duran looked the part: long brown curls, parted down the middle like Ted Nugent. His image was all the instruction I needed, and soon I realized that’s all I would get. He spent most of our thirty-minute lesson describing the various studios he’d recorded in, or talking about his earliest influences, or trying to sell me his personal belongings. It started with his CDs, a stack of which he displayed on the table, as though his living room was a Barnes & Noble book signing. Beyond that he tried to hock old guitars, amplifiers and other related gear. After a couple months he branched out to everyday household items, anything from used bandanas to imported hair products. “This is the only kind I use,” he said, referring to the thermos-sized can of styling mousse in his hand. “It’s regularly ten bucks. But for you, it’s five.”
After three months Pete upped his rate from fourteen bucks a lesson to sixteen, and my suspicion grew. After four months he had disappeared entirely, with no notice or anything. I walked down for our Wednesday night lesson and knocked on the door. A young woman answered. “Can I help you?” she said.
I stood on the front porch, guitar case in hand, and then turned around and left.
That summer I saved up my caddying money and bought a Fender Stratocaster and a Marshall amp. I also subscribed to Guitar Player magazine. Published in each issue was the sheet music to a handful of popular rock songs. For those who couldn’t read music the songs were transcribed in tablature, an ingenious system that replaced those confusing dots and staffs with numbers that corresponded with the frets on a guitar. The age-old language of music had finally been decoded and made accessible to anyone who lacked the discipline to understand it.
Gone were the days of strumming cheery campfire sing-a-longs or bleak Irish folk tunes. If someone asked me to play something I dazzled them with a medley of Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC and Van Halen. The only fundamentals needed to play these songs were two ears and a basic understanding of the numeric system. Unlike the acoustic, the electric guitar forgave my lack of skill. Rather than hunker down and learn the advanced parts, I’d compensate by scraping the pick up and down the neck or hitting a high note and bending the vibrato bar back and forth until the strings snapped. The music was often incoherent, but if I closed my eyes, tilted my head back and made the right facial expression, it was considered performance.
In high school I cobbled together a band, three guitarists and a drummer. We took turns on vocals, which didn’t matter anyway since none of us owned a microphone. Our instruments were out of tune, our time was off, and we lacked that one special ingredient called talent. We couldn’t even get to the bridge in “Back in Black” before drifting off into side conversations. Still, I kept showing up, mainly because I enjoyed the bus ride to the drummer’s house. I pictured myself on a Midwest interstate, bound for Hollywood, nothing to my name but a guitar case, a few bucks and a notebook full of song lyrics. Then I’d get to the rehearsal and start playing, and my dream of rock and roll greatness instantly dissolved.
After three weeks the band broke up, but I continued taking the bus to random places, like pizza parlors or car dealerships, always with my guitar case in hand. Playing the role of struggling musician was far more gratifying than the actual struggle to play music.
By tenth grade I got back into sports and other school activities. I abandoned my headbanger clique for a more socially acceptable, well-adjusted group of friends. As such, the guitar went down to the basement, where over the years the humidity and mildew has warped it into a Salvador Dali painting. It’s still there to this day, propped on its stand, next to that Marshall amp, both covered in a coat of dust. Whenever I’m at my mother’s house I’ll go down, turn the lights on and there it is, this souvenir of my teenage angst, slowly curling up at the edges like a withered tree branch.
In my late thirties I was haunted by the idea that I’d chosen the wrong path in life. At work I’d idle away the hours on Youtube, watching vintage concerts from the 80s and 90s. At home I’d lie on the couch reading one rock and roll biography after another. If I just stuck with guitar. If I just stayed in Los Angeles. If I just got sober twenty years earlier. I had spun a narrative in my mind, one in which my true passions were sacrificed for a more stable, conventional career. But there were no true passions. No missed callings. No squandered gifts. Just because I identified with the image of heavy metal didn’t mean I could survive its reality. In one biography I read that a certain 80s hard rock band—one of the biggest in the world—shared a studio apartment on the Sunset Strip for two years before they caught their break. Five guys living in one room. After a month the toilet broke, and instead of fixing it they just shit into cardboard boxes and throw them out the window. I love that story, but I can’t see myself as a character in it. What with my chronic bowel disease, I can’t even go to the beach for two hours without first scouting the dunes for a port-a-potty.
* * * *
When Phil the plant guy finally saw that Iron Maiden reunion concert his report was abysmal. “Total bullshit,” he said from my doorway, trembling with rage, his watering can in hand. “They didn’t play ‘Wasted Years’, they didn’t play ‘Alexander the Great’, and they didn’t play ‘Hallowed be thy Name’. And to make things worse, Bruce Dickinson started railing against some kids in the front row for smoking pot, like he’s making this big anti-drug statement just because he spends all his time doing competitive fencing, or whatever the fuck.”
He made no effort to hide his disappointment. Later he was upstairs in the studio, re-potting the second floor orchids, ranting to the entire creative team about the fucking god-awful Iron Maiden show and how he’d been ripped off by a bunch of sell-out geezers. The art directors nodded politely, but whenever they tried to resume their meeting Phil would lash out with another gripe about the malfunctioning sound system, or the parking lot chaos, or how the opening act was booed, or the vomit stain on his chair that the ushers refused to clean. In his fury he knocked over one of the orchids, sending a fan of soil across the hardwood floor. “Goddammit!” he cried, dropping his trowel and holding his head in his hands. Then he walked off to the bathroom to collect himself.
Two weeks later a new plant guy showed up to water our orchids. I assumed our HR person complained and Phil was let go, either that or Black Angel finally got that recording deal. I miss our conversations, the same way I miss holding my old Stratocaster and playing the intro to “Welcome the Jungle”. It’s fun for a minute but then it feels embarrassing and redundant. Even so, it’s nice to know it’s still around, if for no other reason than to remind me of how it used to be.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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