The celestial bureaucracy ships him to Rock ‘n Roll Heaven, where he meets the true icons of rock ‘n roll—Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin and more–and learns that even ‘heaven’ is relative. But, what impact can a small-timer like Jimmy make on the biggest stage in the universe?
Targeted Age Group:: 45+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Oddly enough, it was a short story by Stephen King in his “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” collection. The story was called “Yeah, We’ve Got a Hell of a Band” and it was about a young couple that got lost in the Oregon wilderness and wandered into a small town that looked like Rock ‘n Roll Heaven. SK took his story in the direction of horror, but it got me to thinking about what Rock ‘n Roll Heaven would really be like. Would icons from different eras, say Buddy Holly from the ’50’s, Jim Morrison from the ’60s and Freddie Mercury from the ’70s and ’80s all hang out together? How important a player would you have to be in order to make a splash in Rock ‘n Roll Heaven? What would a concert be like there? I knew I had to write the book to find out the answers.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Many of the characters–Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Roy Orbison, Janis Joplin– are real people, so they took a lot of research before I felt comfortable putting words in their mouths. I read multiple biographies and histories of all the major players before I ever started to write. The most interesting characters to me, though, are Jimmy ‘Guitar’ Velvet and Pertime, the angel. Jimmy Velvet is a small-time rocker who never hit the big time. He has a very bad bus ride and ends up in Rock ‘n Roll Heaven. I love Jimmy because he is flawed, like we all are, but he has a real character arc throughout the book. He learns about love, truth, responsibility, all the hard lessons, after he’s already dead. Pertime is probably my favorite character I’ve ever created. I wanted a guide who knew all the answers, but was cool enough not to let them slip. Pertime is an angel with the attitude of a rock ‘n roller.
Music seemed to be everywhere. A slight breeze rustled through tall elms lining the road, sounding like a whisper of “Sh-Boom, Sh-Boom.” Crickets, frogs and birds combined for a soft chorus that reminded Jimmy of the melody of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
Jimmy and Pertime walked under the billboard, past the trees and turned a corner into a sleepy little town. It was nothing fancy. It looked like a fully realized set for the play Our Town.
None of the buildings were more than two stories tall. They all seemed to be made out of brick or stucco. All the windows looked freshly washed; the sidewalk was clean. They walked past a drug store, a five and dime, a small bookstore and a movie theater whose marquee read THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE. There were people here and there on the sidewalk, but Jimmy and Pertime had the Golden Road to themselves. There were no cars or bikes. The air smelled of new-mown lawn, and Jimmy could feel warmth on his face, despite the absence of a sun.
Jimmy craned his neck, looking at everyone, hoping to recognize somebody; maybe Eddie Cochran, or Bobby Fuller, or Elvis disguised as a short-order cook. He didn’t recognize a single face. No one was paying them any attention.
Pertime seemed to read his mind. “Not exactly what you thought, huh, Jimmy? Just give it a chance. Every single person has a reason to be here, including a lot of non-musicians. There are engineers, record producers, roadies, even accountants. They might not be famous, but there’s logic to it. You’ll see. There’s the first stop on our tour, just up ahead.“
Ahead on the right was an impossibly huge skating rink. Except for the sheer size, it fit right in with the rest of the town. It had a plain wooden exterior that looked freshly painted, tan with white trim. There were four sets of glass double doors at the front of the building. Overhead, a hand-painted sign read: “Appearing Nightly – The Lubbock Flash – Buddy Holly, with Special Guests Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson.”
A shiver ran down Jimmy’s spine.
He walked up to one of the doors and cupped his hands around his eyes so he could see inside. It was what it looked like: a massive skating rink. In the middle of the skating oval was an elevated wooden stage with hay bales scattered carelessly around. Most of the stage was empty, except for a Gibson acoustic guitar with lettering across the bottom that read Texas, an electric Fender Stratocaster leaning against an amp, a standup bass and a small drum kit.
Nobody’s played rock ‘n roll with a set-up like that for twenty-five years. The whole thing looks like it should be in a museum, or the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. It was all so casually laid out that it looked like the players might reappear at any moment and start a set.
Without thinking, Jimmy reached down to open the door and go in for a closer look. It was locked. Damn. Jimmy never would have handled anyone else’s guitar without permission, but he would have loved to get a better look at them.
Jimmy was lost in his thoughts, imagining being inside when the music was playing, watching Buddy Holly blast out That’ll Be the Day, when a hand on his shoulder pulled him out of his reverie.
Jimmy turned around and looked directly into the trademark black-framed glasses and dark brown eyes of Charles Hardin “Buddy” Holly. He was wearing a plain white t-shirt and jeans pegged at the ankles, curly dark hair spilling over his forehead. Buddy had died February 3rd, 1959, Jimmy’s tenth birthday, so Jimmy had missed out on seeing him in person. He was taller and thinner than Jimmy would have guessed.
Jimmy jerked to a stop, disoriented, trying to make sense of it. Standing less than three feet away was the legend himself, still looking exactly like the twenty-two-year-old he had been on the day the music died. Every other miracle he had seen up to that point faded into insignificance. It is all I can do not to scream, “Holy shit! Do you know who you are?”
“Say, Jimmy. I didn’t mean to scare you. You all right?” Buddy’s speaking voice was deeper than Jimmy would have thought, but the Texas drawl was there in force.
Pertime took mercy on Jimmy and jumped in to fill the void. “Jimmy, this is Buddy Holly. Buddy, please meet Jimmy ‘Guitar’ Velvet.”
Buddy smiled so kindly at Jimmy it put him halfway at ease. “Howdy, Jimmy. Pleased to meet you.”
The very first song the Velvets had played at their first gig was Buddy’s Heartbeat. The last set he’d ever played, at The Eagle’s Nest, had included his own version of That’ll be the Day. Tell me I’m now dead, that I can handle. Tell me I’m standing in front of Buddy freaking Holly? Someone has to be out of their mind. Might be me. Well, I guess there’s one thing worse than making an ass of myself, and that’s making an ass of myself in front of my idol. Jimmy cleared his throat. “Umm, pleased to meet you Buddy. I…I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t need to say anything.” Buddy said. “I just dropped by to see if maybe you wanted to come in and see my place, maybe play together a little bit.”
That confirms it. I now believe I am definitely in Heaven. “Of course I would!” Jimmy blurted, half star struck and a little too loudly.
Buddy laughed and said, “Well, c’mon then, let’s go on in.” Buddy reached his hand out and pushed the door that had been locked a moment before. It whooshed open.
Pertime laid a hand on Jimmy’s shoulder and dropped his voice. “Don’t worry. Most everybody’s a little dazzled when they first meet Buddy. Even John Lennon got a little twisted up when he met him, and almost nothing impresses John.”
Buddy walked inside and to the left, flipping a row of switches. The whole interior lit up. A faint buzz emanated from the overhead fluorescent lights.
“It ain’t fancy, but I like it.” Buddy said.
“So do I.” The air smelled of popcorn and floor oil, like the roller rink near Grandma’s house. Wheel marks decorated the circular floor. Nothing was easier than picturing hundreds of skating couples holding hands, skating in rhythm to Buddy Holly playing live.
“Everybody that headlines in Rock ‘n Roll Heaven gets their own place. We’ll talk about yours coming up. This is Buddy’s,” Pertime said.
“Everyone gets to choose their own layout, and I liked this. I knew I was going to spend a lot of time here, so I wanted it to be comfortable. I never did go in too much for all that neon and fancy lighting and stuff. I leave that up to some of the other guys. We play here, most every night, pretty much like me and the boys used to in Lubbock before we made it big.”
“Usually, J.P.—the Big Bopper—comes out and does a quick warm-up set, then Ritchie does his set. After that, I do a set with this little trio I’ve put together, and then we all come out and jam until everybody’s ready to go home. J.P. and Ritchie could have had their own places, but when we got here, the whole place was empty, so we just decided to stick together right here.“
God. Just try and be cool, will you? “Can I just hang out here, then? I’d give anything to see that show.”
“Jimmy, you can come and play with us any time you want, but we won’t be playing tonight. There’s only one ticket in town, and that’s you, hoss. Every other show in town will be dark tonight except yours. I did want to ask you something, though.”
“Would you mind if I came and sat in with you?”
I. Have. No. Words.
Then find some! “You want to come and sit in with me? I…Buddy, you’re my hero. You’re the reason I wanted to pick up a guitar. All the other kids wanted to be Elvis, but I wanted to be you. The day your plane went down…” Oh, shit. Maybe it’s bad manners to mention someone’s real-life death. Hope not, or that he’ll forgive me. “…anyway, that was my birthday, and my mom let me stay home from school because I was so upset. I remember…” Jimmy realized he was babbling, and decided to shut up.
Buddy smiled at him. “I’ll take that for a ‘yes’ then, huh? Well, that’ll be great. We’ll get you off to a good start. Pertime and I’ll take you around to meet a few of the other guys, and you can figure out who you want for the rest of your band.”
As Jimmy’s head was filling with the possibilities, Buddy hopped nimbly onto the stage. “Let’s get a head start on the whole thing right now, whaddya say?”
Buddy slipped the strap of his Stratocaster over his head. “Let’s see, there’s got to be another guitar around here somewhere.” He slid his Strat over his back and rummaged around in a storage area at the side of the stage. After much rattling, some humming, and a small crash, he emerged with another guitar just like the one he was holding.
“Reckon this’ll do for now,” Buddy drawled. Jimmy climbed up on the stage and strapped on the offered guitar. It fit as if he had already adjusted it.
Buddy strummed a few random chords, then looked thoughtful. “Hey, let’s see if you know this one.” He jumped right into the a cappella, hiccupping vocal that led off Rave On. He played the lead guitar part, sang, and gestured for Jimmy to join in.
Jimmy stood stock still, wearing Buddy Holly’s spare guitar, watching the legend. He had sung Rave On hundreds of times in his career, but at that moment, he couldn’t remember the chord progression. Buddy kept waving for Jimmy to jump in with him, and on the second chorus, he tried. All that came out was an embarrassing little croak. I’m humiliating myself! Jimmy just strummed along, trying to catch his breath.
Pertime stood off to the side, leaning against an amp, watching Jimmy and tapping his foot slightly. Buddy strode around the stage, smiling.
That’s exactly how rock ‘n roll is supposed to make you feel.
Jimmy’s paralysis melted away. The chords popped back into his head like they had been there all along, and he played what he decided was passable backup. Where the song could have ended, Buddy brought it back around again, but nodded his head to throw the lead vocals to Jimmy.
When Jimmy had done this song in the clubs, he had done it Buddy-style. Halfway through, he was bending his syllables just right, and they even managed some nice two-part harmonies on the chorus. It was over too soon for Jimmy’s taste, but they managed to both stop playing at the same time, which is a desirable ending for a rock ‘n roll song.
I think that’s the worst I’ve played since that first kegger. And nothing I played ever felt so good.
Jimmy wiped his forehead and leaned against one of the hay bale stacks. Buddy was having none of that. “C’mon, old man, you can’t be that out of shape, can you? One song and you’re done? Let’s do another one. Here we go, you should know this one…”
Buddy laid down the classic lick that jump-starts Johnny B. Goode. The next thing he knew, Jimmy was back in the middle of the stage, trading guitar parts and jumping around like a kid.
Buddy led Jimmy through Brown Eyed Handsome Man, Summertime Blues, That’s Alright, Mama and Party Doll. By the end of the set, it felt like jamming with any other rock ‘n roller. Any other rock ‘n roller that played and sang like Buddy Holly, anyway.
“Are you two finished for now?” Pertime asked. “Rock ‘n roll was never meant to be played this early in the day. Let’s go.”
“Okay, Per,” said Buddy, toweling the sweat off his face. “Let me get my guitars ready to be shipped to Jimmy’s place and we’ll be ready.” Buddy gave Jimmy a quick wink and pulled two guitar cases out of the storage area. One was a sturdy black case with hinges in the back. He took his Strat, unplugged it from the amp and placed it gently in the case. The second case was hand-tooled brown leather, and he laid the Gibson acoustic inside. He handles them like women…like I should have handled women in life. I know that way. That’s love. Those aren’t just wood and string to him.
While Buddy packed, Jimmy absently strummed the guitar in his hands. He didn’t want to take it off. This didn’t seem like the right time to ask Buddy if he could borrow it until he found one of his own, though, so he slipped it off and leaned it carefully against the amp. Every piece of equipment on the stage fit right into Buddy’s lifetime. There were no wireless pick-ups, no neckless basses. Is that a rule here, or is that just how Buddy and his fellow legends like it?
Buddy had finished readying his guitars. He looked at Jimmy. “Ready?”
“Come on, Jimmy,” Pertime said. “We’ve got all of Rock ‘n Roll Heaven still ahead of us today. Don’t you want to see what other wonders await us?”
Shawn Inmon hails from Mossyrock, Washington–the setting for his first full-length book, Feels Like the First Time. By day he works in real estate with a side of public speaking; prior to that, he has DJed, sold stuff that you definitely wanted, cooked your hamburgers, fished for crabs, bought for department stores, and done business consulting. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Dawn. He is a father of five, grandfather of five and best pal of two chocolate labs named Hershey and Sadie and a slightly insane cat named Buddha.
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