basementsongs

joshua-tree1Like a long-lost brother, Elliott greeted me with a warm hug as I stepped into his house. Although it had only been six months since we last saw one another, the passage of time felt like years. He looked the same: stocky, glasses, curly hair and a funky goatee sprouting from his chin. His eyes had the creases of sadness that began the morning he learned that his older brother, Matt, had died, and sank deeper when his father passed away nearly a year later. Elliott and I shared an uncommon bond: we had both lost Matt, who was my oldest friend and a brother to me. Elliott and I had begun talking regularly after Matt died in 2005, but only recently we had become friends in our own right. No longer did all of our conversations involve death or the dying. Instead, we shot the shit about stupid topics like Journey, great movies we’d seen, and new music we should be listening to.

We grinned and made some ice-breaking smartass remarks before entering the kitchen to sit at the same kitchen table I had known from my childhood. The smell of ancient cigarettes hung in the air from decades of Camels and Marlboros inhaled by Elliott, Matt and their father. Even though Elliott now sequestered himself to the garage to light up, that sweet tobacco aroma would never go away. Elliott grabbed a couple of Bud Lights and slid one to me across the table. As we cracked open the beers, I took comfort in the familiarity of this house I called my second home during my childhood and adolescence.

Elliott’s mom, Mrs. B, was off getting made up, as if my visit was of some importance. Who was I? I was just that punk who was always hanging out with her son. At least, that’s how I felt. While Elliott and I waited for her, the two of us got caught up, filling in the gaps of our lives that don’t come up during the rambling phone calls we have about once a month. Mrs. B finally popped her head in to say ‘hello’ and give a hug. Still dressed in her bathrobe, she looked as if life was treating her well. The past few years had been devastating for her, yet she seemed to be surviving. Then, she rushed off to finish getting ready while Elliott heated the oven for a steak lunch he was cooking for us.

As the meat broiled, Elliott sheepishly brought out his acoustic guitar and strummed a few chords. My mind flashed to one of my favorite photos of Matt taken just before he moved to Seattle in 1993. In it, he’s holding his own guitar with his long wavy hair dangling in his face. Through his thick, round glasses, his eyes are full of life and he gives the camera a wide grin. The edges of the picture are fuzzy, possibly because it was the last photo on the roll. And now here was Elliott, holding the guitar the same, strands of hair out of place the same, same narrow look in his eyes.

“Play him that song you wrote!” Mrs. B called out from her bedroom at the back of the house, her voice full of pride. Elliott rolled his eyes and shouted back, “Right, mom,” then ignored her request. Instead, the chords he played had a familiar ring to them and when he began singing a hushed version of U2’s “Running to Stand Still,” I had to look away for fear I might cry. U2 was one of those bands I associated with Matt and since his death I have rarely listened to their music. This particular song, with it’s torn innocence and building passion, has always reminded me of him, even while he was alive. When The Joshua Tree was released in 1987, “Running to Stand Still” was often played during the times Matt and I would hang out in my parents’ basement or while driving around town in the Whomobile. We had seen it performed live in the autumn of ’87 at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium during U2’s world tour. Elliott was with us for that concert, and so, the song connects all three of us.

After he finished the U2 number, we looked at each other. After a long silence, I requested he play his original song, which he got halfway through before the timer went off. He never finished playing the song for me, but it was quite good. Mrs. B rejoined us, dressed for the visit. She opened a bottle of wine and expressed her excitement about the future, her impending retirement. I was surprised that she did not seem overly annoyed with the twelve foot wall the city had built in her backyard to reduce the noise of traffic after plowing down the forest where Matt and I had stashed stolen skin magazines from under his dad’s bed. As the wine flowed and the lunch was devoured, we talked and laughed and reminisced. It was comical watching Elliott and Mrs. B interact as they have developed a unique relationship, something out of a David Lynch film. They bicker, finish each other’s sentences, tease one another and correct each other’s mistakes. Under all of their words and actions permeates a deep love, a bond only they can understand.

Mrs. B got up to answer the phone while Elliott and I wandered back to his room to check out some documentary about cinematographers he’d recorded. We went about things as if this was just another day, two friends hanging out, drinking, watching some TV and listening to good tunes. He played me a recording of Bob Dylan reciting a poem about the death of Woody Guthrie. The free flowing words from a young Dylan swirled around in my brain as I tried to grasp their meaning. These same words, lost on me, resonated with Elliott and brought him to tears.

While I toiled away, sampling the music of artists on Elliott’s iTunes, he went out for a smoke and to refresh our drinks. He returned with a sad smile and said, “My mom’s out there crying. It means so much when you come to visit.” Who was I? I wasn’t just that punk who was always hanging out with her son. I was his best friend, his brother. She feels connected to Matt through me, and I am a reminder that other people loved Matt and that he had affected lives. I stammered, trying to find the proper response, but Elliott cut me off, saying, “We both do.”
As my visit was winding down Mrs. B came into Elliott’s room to give me a hug. She placed a twenty dollar bill in my hand, insisting I take it and put it to good use. I looked at Elliott, who shrugged. After she exited, he told me, “She’ll be insulted if you don’t keep it.” Always the mother.

Elliott saw me to the front door. He embraced me once more and slapped me on the back. One last hug until we saw each other again. Walking to my car, I found myself singing “Ha La La La De Day, Ha La La La De Day, Ha La La De Day.” Above me gray clouds were pasted on the sky and the daylight was quickly fading. As I backed the car into the street, Elliott and I waved one last time before he closed the front door and I drove off into the evening.