In order to tell this story, I have to make up a fake name.
I guess I’ll call him “Luke.” As in, “Skywalker,” or maybe, the Lucas McCain character from “The Rifleman.”
A gunslinger if there ever was one. However, his weapon of choice wasn’t a lightsaber or a Winchester Model 1892. He wielded a ’69 Fender Stratocaster.
And when he did, oh, boy… you’d best fasten your seat belt.
He was astounding, gifted. A prodigy, an artist and a dangerous maverick, all wrapped up in one. He was a natural, and could play any style or song that you could possibly think of, adding his own melodic eleven different herbs and spices to the recipe. The results almost always defied description.
When you were a kid, maybe for some of you it was the head cheerleader or the accomplished athlete.
Perhaps it was the talented drama kid. Or, it was some other archetypical high school popularity contest winner that you wanted to “be just like.”
In my case, it was this guy. I was proud that he’d treated me like a friend since the eighth grade. I really admired him. And I just about lost my mind when one day, near the final days of senior year, he said to me:
“Hey, come over after school. We need a rhythm guitar player.”
I gave it a shot. But it quickly became apparent to all that I was punching way above my weight. After a few weeks, Luke was cold and businesslike when he told me that he and the band would be better served if I would “step down.”
After that day, we never spoke. I felt pretty bad about suddenly being on the “outside” as a teenage wannabe rocker. And also as a now-former member of that weird, long haired rag-tag gang who would meet up every day at the local greasy pizza joint, to talk for hours about girls and guitars.
Within a month of graduation, I learned that Luke had moved away to literal fame and fortune. In no time at all, he became a top, in-demand New York studio player. And although I tried to convince myself otherwise, I knew deep down that he didn’t consider us to be “friends.”
That is, until one day in the early summer of 1985.
I came home to see the red flashing light on the answering machine. I hit the button and heard a voice from 10 years earlier.
“Hey, mt, long time no hear from, what’s going on, man? Hey, I’m in town for a couple of days, and I’ve been thinking about something… let’s get together and talk! OK, man, I’ll try you again later.” He called back again, at nearly one-o-clock in the morning.
“Something an honest-to-God professional musician would do,” I remember thinking.
We ended up meeting the very next evening for coffee. He looked a lot older than I thought he would, even after I’d mentally added the 10 years that were now in our shared rear view mirror.
We talked for a minute and a half about nothing, when he suddenly blurted out, “I want to apologize about that band thing back in senior year. It was all wrong, man.”
Before I could muster up any kind of a reply, he pivoted like a pro. “You know, I heard you’ve been playing, and doing really well. Word gets around, ya know. I heard you’re killing it. Tell me about the shows!
This was… something. This was a guy who had actual player credits on real records. And he wanted to hear about my gigs?
I was all too happy to tell him all about the time last month that I was on stage, and-
He interrupted almost immediately.
“Hey, you know, so, the thing is… I have been having kind of a slow time booking work lately. Just one of those little dry spells, between sessions, right? It’s no big thing. Part of the scene, you know? It happens all of the time in New York.
So I was wondering? You able to spare a couple of bucks? Just so I can help out the fam while I’m at home? I have a ton of gigs coming up in a month. And I can pay you right back.”
I sure hadn’t imagined that this was where we were going.
But… it was true. After a long period of comparatively empty pockets, I was very lucky to have been doing pretty well at the time. And I vividly remembered how bad it felt to consistently be in the overdrawn bank account club.
I had one of those new fancy-pants bank cards, with a pretty fat limit for ATM withdrawals. And this was clearly an emergency. An old friend needed help, and I decided on the spot that any stupid, old high school drama was now water under the bridge.
“Sure, I said. C’mon. There’s a bank machine around the corner. I’ll drive.”
He pocketed the $400 in fresh twenties. We stood for a second in the dark parking lot. And then he asked about the guitar that I “just happened” to have in the back seat.
I had really wanted to hear him play it and handed it over. But he said, “No, no – you play.” I gingerly took it back, and just riffed on the first thing that I could think of. It was the final, terrific outgoing solo from a recent hit song that I had just heard again on the radio, on my way to the coffeeshop.
He listened. He kept his head down, as if what I was doing was worthy of scholarly analysis, or something. I tried hard to make each note count.
He said, “Oh, yeah, this tune… yeah, you definitely have it, right there. That’s it.” And without raising his eyes, he stared at the pavement quietly said, “I appreciate the help. I’ll always remember how you bailed me out whenever I hear this song.”
A week later, while standing in the rain pumping gas, I ran into a local musician, a drummer named Steve. I said excitedly, “Oh, wow – you’ll never guess who I saw last week!
“Yeah? I’ll bet that I can,” he said.
And that’s when I learned that my high school music-guy-crush didn’t come back to town to help out his mother.
She’d died three years earlier. He lived in his car. He hadn’t picked up a guitar in years. “He’s real trouble,” Steve continued. “He’s putting the touch on everyone. He stole money from some of the guys. He’s a full-on junkie. Nobody wants to have anything to do with him. He’s bad news.”
And as he looked right at me, he knew immediately that I too, had been conned. “I don’t know how much you gave him, but I can say for sure that it all went up his nose. If not into his arm.” Then he said,
“Look. I get it. I know the two of you go way back, and I’m sure that you meant well.”
“But I’m telling you: if he calls you again, do yourself a big favor. Hang up the phone.”
This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you how great everything was after that moment. How I looked him up, found him, and helped him. How I stood up for an old buddy, and how he turned his life around.
I’m supposed to tell about how we are good friends to this day, and how much fun all of it is, because we still meet up regularly, and play all of the old songs. I’m supposed to tie this up with a nice, happy ending.
But I can’t.
Once I knew the truth, I should have reached out. I should have been the definition of a friend and tried to help. But I was too preoccupied with being hurt, angry, and feeling sorry for myself about being deceived and used.
So I let it drop. I decided right then and there with the gas nozzle in my hand: I was done with him.
And it was only a month after the coffeeshop reunion that I learned the news about who the cops had found in a ditch, under a bridge in the next town over.
That’s when I learned that he was to be forever 28 years old.
Over the years, I’ve thought about all of this quite often.
My usual conclusion is that a better man would have found some way to do something. All of the rationalization and tossing it over in my head is just a way to avoid the simple fact:
I didn’t step up. Could have, but didn’t. And I’m afraid that it’s as simple as that.
And it’s my warped reason why for years, I never listened to the entirety of a particular Number One record that I otherwise love to celebrate.
And in the long run, I realize that my quirky reaction is an unhealthy response. So, I decided all way back during our collective tnocs virtual year of 1980, that I would make a change. I’m going to try and take it back: and listen to Everybody Wants To Rule The World all the way through without hitting ‘shuffle’ or changing the station when the outro solo starts to play.
I’m goin’ for the full fade. I’ll make it though.
And the next time this one finds it’s way on your playlist? If any of you are not too busy, maybe join me in spirit? Because I just might be listening to it, too.
And truth be told, I could use the virtual company.
You’re a good man, mt. But don’t beat yourself up over something like this. You couldn’t “save” that guy like you can’t “save” anyone. They have to decide to save themselves. If they truly want to get on the path of healing, you may be able to play a support role in that process. But you can’t be a savior; that’s a fiction.
So you did what you thought was the right thing, then when you learned the truth, you still did what you thought was the right thing. The idea that you could have somehow turned this guy’s life in another direction is pure fantasy.
You’re a good man, don’t second guess this kind of thing. It’s terribly tragic what happened to Luke Shredder, no doubt. But it’s not on you bro, not in reality or in any theoretical universe.
Ditto what Pauley said. All the good things you’ve done throughout the following years more than make up for anything you couldn’t do for him.
We all have songs that bring back regrets but I always counter them with the songs that bring a smile to our lips.
All we can do is be sure that whomever is keeping count of all our actions is putting the majority of them on the plus side of the ledger and if, in the end we just break even, then it’s been a good life.
As ever, our voice of reason.
Thanks, friend DF.
SG’s migration of our comments deleted some key words from my reply to you, I think, because I used italics originally. Hope this platform is more forgiving:
mt, my friend, the worst that can be said is you cared and someone took advantage of your caring. I see no downside there, just a compassionate human being. I think, even in his state of addiction and using, he at heart knew that. Whenever you’re tempted to think, “I should have been a friend ….” — full stop. You were a friend. You are a friend.
OK, so there’s still some coding weirdness. Regardless, those highlighted words remain the point.
Roger on the italics, and kind thoughts. Well recieved.
Thanks, friend Chuck.
mt, I know how you feel. I didn’t have quite the experience you did, but I’ve had several similar brushes with people headed down a dangerous path, or speeding along on said path. And I know how you feel.
One of my good friends from high school went down that road. He was dating another of my friends, and we all used to hang out, and sometimes do drugs. He introduced me to most of the designer drugs. For most of us, it was always about experimentation. Not for him. For him, it was about pushing himself as far as he could go, likely to kill the pain he felt due to childhood trauma. Once we graduated, he left the city for college–until he dropped out. My friend who dated him remained in contact, but it was eventually less and less. At one point, he wouldn’t answer her calls. She tried and tried to reach out, but he didn’t want her help. Likely due to shame, but also because he wasn’t ready to accept help. He was determined to go down that road. She hasn’t heard from him in years. He still haunts my thoughts, but not as much as he haunts hers.
I also had an uncle who was always in trouble, and always asking for assistance to get out of trouble. Most people learned not to enable him; my parents thought of it as tough love. But, my grandparents felt responsible (maybe some guilt for how tough they were on him), and so they took him in. But even then, he disappeared for weeks, and eventually he was found alone in an alley, dead from a drug overdose. They helped him as much as they could, but he didn’t want that help. And yet I’m positive that this death weighed down on my grandfather’s soul. We can’t help feel like there was something more we could have done, even when there’s not.
Shortly after high school, I was going to warehouse parties and clubs and going crazy with all sorts of substances, getting into trouble with friends I had met from the scene. Until…I got sick of it. And once I stopped doing drugs, a lot of those friendships from the scene fizzled away. And I still think about those people a lot. Did they ever settle down and find a normal life? Or did they end up like my friend from high school? Or worse, like my uncle? For some, I can’t even look them up by name, because I only knew them by nickname. There’s not much I could have done for them (and maybe they’re all fine), and yet still they haunt me. Just how casually we were flirting with risk, and then how casually we all broke away. Eats away at me.
But, there was at least one tale of healing. My brother-in-law’a younger brother was a heroin addict for many years. He was a junkie when I first met him at their wedding. Not too long afterward, he stole money from their bedroom. But then a few years later, he hit rock bottom, and he decided to get help. And at that point, that is when the help of others becomes crucial. My brother-in-law remained committed to him. Not too long afterward, he became my roommate and good friend. Over the years he gained a reputation as a brilliant musician, and eventually he was playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra and touring the world for productions of Golijov’s Passion of Mark. Sadly, he died of cancer a few years ago. Yet as terrible as it was to lose him, and to have his life snuffed out so soon, I am always so glad that he was able to turn his life around so dramatically. To spend his days celebrating life and contributing to a community rather than shooting up on the street, falling headfirst into oblivion. He was ready to accept help, and his friends and family gave it to him, and so he was able to heal, and thrive.
As much as you feel guilty over your friend, I agree with Pauly. Your friend wasn’t ready to accept your help; he wanted someone to enable his worst impulses. If he had been able to live longer, maybe he would have eventually felt so low that he would have finally been able to sincerely ask others for help. Without that moment, there’s just speeding along the path of oblivion, tempting fate with every turn of the wheel.
I’ll think of your friend when I hear that song now. I hope some day you can find some peace with his memory.
I wish you were my boss, mt58. You would call 911, or give me the address of a work friend, instead of sending me back to work.
I’m so glad you reposted this here, mt. I don’t have anything to add to what the others have so eloquently stated, but it is the hard truth of life – you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves. You’re still a good person for wanting to help them; you’re not responsible for their actions. Doesn’t make the pain any less though when you’re watching from the sidelines.
I don’t doubt I will always think of this tale mt whenever I hear Everybody Wants to Rule the World now. Through you, his life’s story has not been lost.
I feel like we all need a group hug now…
I listened to “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” over the weekend and remembered this story, though I couldn’t come up with the details. Thanks for posting it again.
As I drove through Pennsylvania last week, I remembered doing the same drive home a dozen years ago. As we passed the sign for Reading, I thought about stopping in on my brother-in-law who lived there, estranged from my sister. We really didn’t have the time so we kept going, but if we had, it would have been the last time we saw him. He shot himself the next year. After that, I was pretty hard on myself for not stopping, thinking it might have made a difference.
Truth is, it probably wouldn’t have. His demons wouldn’t have been defeated by a couple hours with family-by-marriage. It takes a lot more to raise someone from those depths, and we had no idea he was that low. Besides, beating myself up makes the whole thing about me, and it’s not. It’s about him and him alone. Sadly. Same goes for Luke. It’s strange how many of us interact with other people, but choose to remain so desperately alone. Some never get to the point where they can accept help, and we can only help people who will take it.
Wow, that’s a lot more depressing than I meant it, but the point is, mt, there’s nothing you could have done to help Luke – he asked for money, not help – so don’t beat yourself up over it. You know you’re a good man, we know you’re a good man, and so did Luke. That’s why he hit you up in the first place.
I can only reiterate what Pauly and the others said so well. Its human nature to think ‘if only’ and to look on the situation with hindsight knowing how it ended. Ultimately though it was his decisions rather than yours that led him to that position and any attempt at redemption needed to come from him. Its tough but the fact that it still weighs on your mind shows that you’re a good guy.
I think VirginDog made a wonderful point. Luke asked for money, not help. It sounded like he was asking for help, but the situation he described was untrue. He invented circumstances that would make you likely to give. And you, as a good friend, did give. You did your best. We would all like to think that we can be the person with the magic words to influence someone that we love to turn their life around. In truth, there are no magic words for that, as I have learned all too many times. The only “magic” words would have to have come from Luke himself, preferably during a meeting. “I’m Luke, and I’m an addict.” NOBODY else could say it for him. All we can do is our best. No one could have done more.
I regret missing this story when you posted it in the mothership and many days later here Mt. I have relatives who do the same modus operandi, and myself had been conned by someone that I thought I was helping too.
It’s completely normal to feel bad about how everything turned out, even when people often say that we only learned from bad experiences, but life shows us that was the lesson we had to learn.
People also say that we give what we have in our hearts, and you have a good heart my friend, this is why life has given you back good things.