Here’s the story that won me the Write Club Denver’s Loving Cup of Deathless Glory on June 7!  The prompt was ‘rock’…

Tony played guitar.  New Jersey has the highest Tony density of any state in the Union, but this was what set him apart.  An example dialogue: “I ran into Tony at the diner on Friday.”  “Tony who?”  “Tony who plays guitar!”  “Oh yeah, Tony!”  And Tony was good, really good.  He could strum, he could pick, he could shred, and it all came as easily as breathing to him.  Give him a song – any song, really, but especially classic rock – have him play along two, maybe three times tops, and he had it cold.  The edgiest riff, the dirtiest chord progression, the gnarliest solo – his hands could play it back like they were two little eight-track tape decks. Not everyone gets a chance to be really good at something, especially in blue-collar Central Jersey, and so the guitar became who he was.  Everywhere he went, he’d introduce himself: “Hey yo, my name’s Tony.  I play guitar.”

It started when he was eight years old.  One night a sound unlike anything he’d heard before in his life cut into his sleep, compelling him to follow it into the basement, to his older brother’s stereo hi-fi.  It was Neil Young’s ‘Hurricane’, and Tony was so captivated he knew that he needed to be able to make that sound.  So for his next birthday, after his dad felt sufficiently guilty for forgetting to call again, Tony got a beat-up imported Strat and tinny knock-off amp from Tony’s Pawn and Gold (no relation) on Trenton Ave.  He’d grown into it by the time he was fourteen, and learned note-for-note Richie Sambora’s solo from ‘Bed of Roses’ because he heard it was Vicki DiTaglio’s favorite song.  And when she let him put his hands over her bra after he played it for her in her mom’s basement one Thursday night in June, he knew all he wanted to do was play guitar.

So Tony played guitar.  By the time he (barely) graduated high school, he was gigging every weekend with a 70’s rock cover band called Good Company, playing all up and down the Northeast Corridor.  People noticed, word got around, and pretty soon he was rehearsing with an 80’s rock cover band called Hairosmith.  And when Feelin’ the Sky, a Journey tribute band out of New Brunswick with a bit of a cult following, asked him to replace their Neil Schon, he was up to four gigs a week, and was making enough to quit his job at Tony’s True Value (no relation).

But it was when he sat in with Think Floyd for their twentieth-anniversary Dark Side of the Moon show that he really took off.  He played a flawless David Gilmour, got a standing ovation, and left the stage to chants of “Tony! Tony! Tony!” followed by a steady stream of invitations to gigs and to women.  Throughout the nineties and into the 2000s, he played in more cover bands than he could remember.  Shred Zeppelin, Fleetwood’s Back, Creedence Clearwater Revival Revival, the Rolling Clones.  Fan Halen, Fan Morrison, Fantana, Steely Fan.  He was RePeter Frampton, RePete Townshend, and Reproduce Springsteen.  He got to perform ‘Hurricane’ in Crosby Stills Rehashin’ Young, and ‘Bed of Roses’ in Spawn Jovi. He even played a one-off gig in a band that coverd The Band, called The Cover Band.

Then, in his late thirties, he began to feel what most American men feel as they stare down middle age – a vague desire to be something more than what he was.  He found himself getting flashes of deja vu – not just when playing ‘Baba O’Reilly’ with The Deja Who, but driving past Exit 9 on the Turnpike at three AM, wiping beer off his amplifier, picking his jeans up off a worn motel carpet: he started to feel like everything he did had been done before.  And that he was only playing music that had been played before.

Sometimes, when he didn’t have a gig or a date or anything else to motivate him to leave his apartment, he’d crack open a six-pack, or a twelve-pack, and listen to records.  Sooner or later, on nights like this, he’d stumble over to the hall closet and pull out a notebook he kept hidden in the back, behind the extra cables and old effects pedals.  He’d take it to the kitchen table, light up a cigarette, and flip through it, maybe jot a few lines on a page, or maybe just stare for a while at something that caught his attention.  Then he’d tuck it away again, polish off the beers, and pass out on the couch, waking up in the middle of the night to the needle scratching, scratching, scratching, and to the thought that he would always and only be Tony, who played guitar.

Until last Thursday night.  Halfway through his Burlington County Fair headlining set with Usurpertramp, a pyrotechnic got knocked to the side by a thrown beer bottle and went off, shattering the bottle and shooting a big chunk of glass along the back of Tony’s head with enough power to slice his skin and take his wig off.  The night nurse who stitched him up said what Tony couldn’t bring himself to think: three inches to the left, and the glass would have gone into his jugular, and he’d probably be dead. He looked down on the floor of the emergency room, where the hair she’d trimmed away from the cut had fallen.  So much of it was grey.

That weekend, he blew off his rehearsal with Bachman Returner Overdrive and his gig with Throwback Sabbath and spent all weekend alone in his apartment with his notebook, scribbling and scratching and strumming his old Ovation acoustic, which he hadn’t played since two years ago, when he jammed on ‘Hotel California’ with that group of old guys in the bar of the Edison Holiday Inn who called themselves the Bald Eagles.

And now tonight, he’s driven three hours west, crossed the Delaware River, to come to the Tuesday Open Mic at Tony’s Tavern in Allentown, Pennsylvania (no relation).  He didn’t know a soul in this town, and more importantly, no one knew him.  He’d written his name halfway down a list in the back, and now he’s sitting in the corner, at a small table all alone, chain-smoking and swigging Yuengling.  He can’t even hear the first performers over the sound of his heart pounding in his ears.  He hasn’t been this nervous since Vicki DiTaglio’s basement all those years ago.

Finally the MC finally calls him up to the stage.  He walks slowly, clutching the Ovation in one hand and his beat-up notebook in the other.  He sits down under the spotlight, sweating bullets, opens the notebook, and faces the crowd.  “Hey yo, my name’s Tony,” he says with a crack in his voice, “and I write songs.”

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