“No matter how good you are, there will always be someone better.” Michael didn’t remember these words when he heard the song on the radio. He remembered another of his father’s expressions instead: the wordless joy on his face when he watched his son play the bass all those years ago. Dad would bring home CDs and tapes during the week while Michael stayed with mom across town. “I’ve got something I want you to play for me when we get home,” he would say on the golden hour drive over on Friday afternoon. “Can you play this one?”
Michael almost always could play them. He could fake his way through anything his dad wanted, jamming along to the hits of the sixties and seventies on a big amplifier he carried up and down the stairs. Lit by the warm glow of the kitchen shining into the living room of his Dad’s upstairs apartment, he felt unstoppable, ripping through Santana, Pink Floyd, Spirit, Motown, his father nearly crying from joy at the silken effortlessness of his fingers on the fretboard.
Michael was scrolling over Twitter in the Drive-Thru line at McDonald’s when the song, Heart’s “Crazy on You,” came on the radio. He had heard the song a hundred times before, but this time the bass line caught his ear. The flat, compressed warmth of the tone. The almost indiscernible space between one note and the next. The irrepressible motion beneath the melody. The gesture toward counterpoint. He was surprised this song wasn’t one of his Friday night songs all those years ago, and shocked by the feelings it brought to the surface.
This was ridiculous. Heart never made him feel anything at all. It wasn’t supposed to. He wasn’t sure who was supposed to feel things when they listened to Heart, but it wasn’t him. But there it was anyway. He was unsettled and saddened, stirred to a smoldering anger in some deep register he couldn’t quite understand.
Maybe it was loss. Michael had played a few shows after high school, but it never worked out. Bands fell apart. Rent had to be paid. Moving away, going to New York or Nashville, took more than he could save. The movies about starving artists don’t tell you that it takes money to live like a pauper in a new place. By the time he learned how to take care of himself, though, it was too late.
Listening now, he could hear so much in “Crazy on You” that he would have missed then. Striving to outdo the performer, he would have added flurry upon flair–runs, ghost notes, slaps, sweeps–smirking over the fretboard, but he wouldn’t have heard the music at all. Maybe now he could do it right, he thought, because responsibility both gives and takes. The steady tug of necessity drove him away from music a few years after the living room concerts, yes, but didn’t it give him the humility to step back, to listen? It was a shame, he thought, to waste talent on the young.
But would he ever stand before an audience as joyously rapt as his dad had been so many years ago?