Times were tough. Not as tough as they are now, or anywhere close to what they’re about to be, but tough enough that Pablo Gleechap moved up to Oakland to work as a busboy. He found a $400-a-month third-floor single apartment on Glen Avenue, near 41st Street, just uphill from the shops along Piedmont Avenue. Pablo and I were about the same age. We met in art school. Pablo painted and made audio pieces. And he had this technique of working bleach into large color photographs, removing the color layer by layer, which he’d developed while working at a photo lab. I thought that Pablo and I might become famous artists, but we didn’t.
I don’t know about Pablo, but I was lost. I lived all over the place, nowhere in particular. Los Angeles. I had a car. Every few weeks or months, I drove up to visit Pablo. Slept on the floor. Pablo was probably lost, too, but he didn’t seem to mind as much as I did. Now I’m getting used to it, I guess.
Pablo bused tables at a bar & grill in Emeryville. He got off work around 10. I’d show up around 9, have a pint of local beer, exchange short phrases with Pablo as he passed with the bus tray, bum around the bookstore next door until he was done for the night. Then we drove back and stayed up late, talking, drawing, writing, listening to music and drinking red wine.
I was going through a get-buzzed-and-do-impersonation-of-someone-doing-a-bad-Kerouac-reading period, and when the buzz was from red wine, I inevitably obsessed on one of the Red Wine passages of Neal and the Three Stooges: “Only American, and Neal saying, ‘Now, damn it, boy! You’ve got to admit that we’re high, and that was real good wine!’ And more instant and interesting, and always happening, and everything always all right.”
Pablo, meanwhile, was going through an Allan Holdsworth period, a Henry Kaiser period, a Robert Fripp period, a Béla Bartók and Gustav Holst period. The exploitation of vulnerabilities in formal structures — that’s what Pablo liked, at least as a means to a worthy musical end. But we both liked the Minutemen. And jazz. And lots of other stuff. It was late, though, so we liked it quietly. Kept our shoes off while transporting wine and glasses. Remembered to lift and not to scoot the chairs on the hard floor. We respected not only the downstairs neighbor but also his sincere intent to make good on the offer of a king-size ass-whupping.
Then Pablo got back together with his old girlfriend, Jeanette. Jeanette got a good job in Oakland, and she and Pablo rented a nice little house in the Dimond District, a mile or so southeast of Uncle Gaylord’s. There was a one-car garage downstairs, which Pablo turned into a painting studio.
Pablo’s new neighbors to the south were seven loud, dimwitted late-night partiers, constantly rotating in and out of jail.
“Knuckleheads,” Pablo called them, as he showed me around the studio. We could hear the knuckleheads playing Tom Petty’s “Refugee”; when the song ended, they played it again. “At night they all get drunk and crank up the rockin’ tunes — usually Tom Petty — at fuckin’ 4 a.m. Lasts for about 10 minutes, then they turn it off and pass out, I guess. Sometimes the cops come by and tell them to shut up, but that just makes them crank it back up after they leave. Fuckin’ morons.”
Sure enough, during my second night on the living-room couch, the opening strains of Petty’s “American Girl” blasted me awake around, yes, 4 a.m. I hadn’t heard it that loud since the Forum in 1981. I always liked that song, until then. When the first verse started, the knuckleheads — a few of them, anyway — slur-hollered along, sort of. As well as they could, I suppose, without actually knowing the words:
Well, Sheila’s an American girl!
Raised on proper sense!
She couldn’t help baking the bread!
What a little motor life!
At the mall there was a creepy girl!
With lots of cases of rum, too!
Jeanette got up and took a shower. She had to get up in two hours for work anyway. Pablo came into the living room to marvel at the situation, to wait it out. Other than drinking, fighting, doing drugs and listening to loud music, Pablo wasn’t sure what the knuckleheads did, or exactly why they kept going to jail, or why they were released. Based on what I’d heard, it probably had something to do with alcohol, firearms, ass-whuppings and parole violations.
Pablo had shared no past pleasures with Tom Petty, and made the case, later that morning over coffee at Peet’s on Piedmont, that Petty’s audience must be dominated by knuckleheads.
“Aw, man,” said I. “That’s not fair.” And I went off on a pro–Tom Petty rant — quintessential American songwriter this, anti-corporate individualist that; Petty’s noble threat to change the title of Hard Promises to $8.98 after MCA was going to exploit his name to raise the price of all of their CDs to $9.98. “Artistically, politically, ethically. The man can’t help it if these assholes like his shit. Plus, from what I’ve heard, the knuckleheads only play A-sides. They don’t like Tom Petty, they like the Tom Petty that gets played on the radio.”
“I’m not saying you’re an asshole because you like Tom Petty,” said Pablo, watching the knucklehead house through the living-room window two nights later, after we’d been blasted awake by Petty’s “Even the Losers.” “I might like Tom Petty, too, if I’d listened to him in high school, like you did. But I didn’t, so now, because of these fuckers, every time I hear Tom Petty it sounds like asshole music.”
“Even the assholes,” I sang softly to myself, after Pablo had gone back to bed, “play good songs sometimes.” Jeanette got out of the shower and made herself some breakfast, quietly humming.