WEBS chapter four ‘Bobby Lee’


•Tuesday, January 19th•

     Bobby Lee drove toward the Haight past the tree lined swath of park known as the Panhandle. Although it no longer resembled the free love, psychedelic Haight-Ashbury of the 60’s, it was the only district of the city that still felt a little like home to him. The once familiar neighborhoods, Fillmore, Hayes Valley and Union Street, had morphed from family restaurants and small, live music clubs into vodka bars, trendy clothing boutiques and Bikram yoga salons. Old San Francisco was long dead and buried under the weight of gentrification but the Haight still had the funk, still had a heartbreak. A grungy kid with multiple facial piercings and neck tattoos was squatting on the sidewalk in front of Re-Collections, Patrick’s vintage, vinyl record store.

     “Got any spare change, man?” the kid asked Bobby Lee as he was about to enter the store.

     “Sure.” Bobby Lee fished around in his pocket and handed the kid a dollar. He took the money without a word of thanks or making eye contact. Irritated by the kid’s ingratitude, Bobby Lee said, “Get something to eat with it.” The kid looked up at him with a nasty smirk and replied, “With a buck? This is San Francisco, man, not Alabama.”

     “So, that’s what I look like. Some dumb, old hillbilly,” Bobby Lee thought, shaking his head and entering the store.

     “Hey, Bobby Lee.”

     “How’s it hangin’, Patrick?”

     “I haven’t seen you in a while. Where have you been?”

     “Out on the corn dog and funnel cake circuit. Cool shirt, man.”

     “Oh, this old thing?” Patrick punned, tugging at the sleeve of his polyester, paisley shirt.

Bobby Lee strolled through the store exploring the bins of records. Many of the artists he’d known from his glory days or the new kids he’d met on their way up while he was on his way down. Some had burnt out on drugs and others had had the good sense to transition into other jobs in the music business that didn’t require a thirty inch waist and a full head of hair. Then, there were the old, warhorses like Bobby Lee who either never knew when to quit or had no other alternative but to keep performing for a living.

     From the time he was a child in South Carolina all Bobby Lee had wanted to do was play music. His mama used to say he had a voice like an angel, a gift from God, and it would be a sin to waste it. She bought him a cheap guitar for his fourteenth birthday and he learned to play it imitating Leadbelly records. Back in the day, Bobby had talent, drive, good looks and sex appeal. All that and a little luck had made him famous. Now he was just another has-been playing forty year old songs to sixty year old men and women reliving their youth for an hour.

     In the bin labeled R he found a copy of his first album.On the cover was a picture of him with a guitar strapped across his back, looking plaintively out at the Pacific ocean. The young man he had once been stood arrow straight and sinewy with chestnut colored hair in waves around his shoulders. Gazing at the album he felt as though he were looking at a stranger, someone on the cusp of success, confident and impervious to failure.

     “You got above your raisin’, didn’t ya’ son?” he whispered at his picture. “Shoulda’ got out while the gittin’ was good.” He stuck the record back in the bin and walked to the counter where Patrick sat reading.

     “Whatcha’ readin’?”

     “Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen,” Patrick replied, folding the corner of the page and setting the book on the counter.

     “Good title.”

     “Good book. You read much?”

     “I used to read a lot when I was younger but now I get sleepy when I read. Old eyes.” Bobby Lee looked over the selection of flat picks and strings in the counter.

     “You can get books on cd now. They lend them at the library,” Patrick said.

     “Kinda’ defeats the purpose of a book, don’t ya’ think? Lemme’ have a set of those D’Addario’s.” Bobby Lee pointed to a package of acoustic guitar strings.

     “You going to the concert in the park on Saturday?” Patrick asked as he rang up the strings.

     “Who’s playing?”

     “It’s a Dead revival.”

Bobby Lee let out a loud, chesty laugh.

     “That’s a good one. A dead revival. Who’s gonna’ be there? Jimi and Janis?”

     “A bunch of new bands are going to play Grateful Dead songs. It’s a tribute concert to Jerry.”

     “I dunno’. I never liked the real Dead much so I probably wouldn’t like the remix any better.”

     “So, what music do you like?”

     “The greats. Johnny Cash, Willie, Dylan, Leadbelly…”

     “Who’s Leadbelly?”

     “Who’s Leadbelly?” Bobby asked in amazement. “The best blues man ever lived. Hand me that Gibson behind you, there.” He pointed to a guitar hanging from a hook in the ceiling. Sitting in a chair and tuning the strings, Bobby Lee broke into a version of Where Did You Sleep Last Night? While the guitar rested on his left knee, he tapped out the rhythm with his right foot. He wrapped his upper body over the guitar as if embracing his lover, plucking the strings with the assurance and sensitivity of someone who had played his whole life. His voice was deep and raspy but strong and he closed his eyes as he sang. When he’d finished he looked up at Patrick and said, “That’s Leadbelly.” The young man looked back at him with admiration and surprise.

     “You’re really good. Play another one.”

Bobby Lee played Midnight Special, Rock Island Line and Roberta, songs he hadn’t played since he was a boy. There was a pure vitality in those old songs that renewed him and he felt the old love of music slowly warming his blood and creeping into his brittle bones. Patrick was mesmerized. With every note Bobby Lee played he felt himself falling in love with the older man and his timelessly, poignant music.

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