INTRODUCTION: The chapter below come from the unfinished draft of my “sorta memoir” “WHAT HAPPENED: Confessions of a Failed Boulevardier.” The book recounts significant, untold chapters in my life, including colorful, adventuresome, and, in the end, deeply troubled times abroad. The stories are told through the lens of “fictionalized non-fiction,” true-life experiences told through the artifice of storytelling, in which names are changed, and scenarios imagined into life, all of it true to the spirit of what actually occurred. The following story traces back to high school in a suburb north of Cincinnati. It portrays a friend who was an epic influence in blowing my mind with great performers — and inspiring me to woodshed my own weekend singer-songwriter career into being, eventually.
FOR UPDATES ON NEW EXCERPTS AND WORD OF THE BOOK’S PUBLICATION, FREE SUBSCRIBE TO: TheStoryIsTheThing.substack.com or this website.
By Douglas John Imbrogno | from “WHAT HAPPENED: Confessions of a Failed Boulevardier”
We are standing in Tommy’s family room on a bright Saturday afternoon. The family’s weiner dog, Charlotte, bolts across the carpet, yapping in protest at the insult of the mailman’s brief appearance on the front porch.
“You have got to listen to this,” says Tommy.
As usual, when I’m over at my friend’s house on the weekend, Tommy wears his sunburst Gibson Les Paul guitar. Its light-brown leather strap strings across his chest and back like a bandolier.
That Tommy even has a ’59 Les Paul is wonder enough. His father is a downtown management guy for the Cincinnati-based Kroger grocery chain. His parents don’t blink at the indulgence of a high-end electric guitar for their only child.
It is an instrument the likes of which no other acquaintance I know possesses or likely could afford. Whenever they see it, classmates ‘ooh!’ and ‘ah!’ over the same instrument as the one slung around the shoulder of Led Zeppelin’s guitar god.
“Hey, if it’s good enough for Jimmy Page, it’s good enough for me,” Tommy likes to say.
He first unveils the instrument to my eyes two Christmases ago, after he had gotten it as a present. He holds it out flat to me as if he were a parent hoisting a baby for a priest’s pouring of baptismal waters.
“You mean to say, when I am slow-dancing to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ at the American Legion Hall dance with Leesa Bailey the guitar I am hearing is THIS one?” I ask him.
“Same model. Same sunburst!” Tommy replies. “And you still won’t be getting any nookie from Leesa Bailey, I might add.”
I nod, sagely.
This would be true, thus far.
Since its lyrics are essentially entwined in my body’s DNA, discussing “Stairway to Heaven” pops a quatrain into my head. It unspools in Robert Plant’s voice. But Leesa’s long, golden hair decorates my shoulder in my mind’s eye:
And it’s whispered that soon if we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter….
Tommy lets me don the guitar.
I literally strap in. I strum a few chords. I have been self-learning guitar for years, now. One day, I’ll play publicly in front of my peers, I vow to myself. I will wow them. Women (hopefully, Leesa Bailey) will fling themselves in my general direction.
“That’s pretty good,” he says, noting my proper execution of C, D, and G chords in sequence, returning to the C.
“You’re almost ready for the next talent show.”
“Right …” I mutter, sardonically.
But in my head, I’m saying:
READINGS: “Stormtroopers & Grandmas”: When “Speak English or Die!” was the song of the day at a farmhouse deep in France. An excerpt from the work-in-progress “WHAT HAPPENED: Confessions of a Failed Boulevardier” by Douglas John Imbrogno
I am deeply pleased Tommy has noticed the details of how hard I have been woodshedding on guitar.
I enjoy the heft of the instrument’s mahogany body. I admire its double humbucker pickups, which crush the room when “Stairway to Heaven” vaults heavenward via Page’s fingers and Plant’s soaring vocals.
“You know, Jimmy calls his Les Paul ‘Number One,’” Tommy says.
His voice is dreamy.
“What are you going to call yours?” I ask.
I shrug off the guitar strap. Hand the instrument back to him.
He strings the guitar back around his body, rearranging it like a dignitary’s Memorial Day sash.
He flashes his signature angular grin at me.
“Fred,” says Tommy.
Which about sums up my dear friend.
The additional astonishment that impresses everyone in school is that Tommy is actually proficient on Fred. The Les Paul’s glossy, red-and-orange Tequila Sunrise paint job has twice, now, appeared on stage at Forest Park High talent shows.
One time, Tommy accompanied Alice Margolin, when she channeled Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” She dressed as Dolly, with bouffant big hair and a spangly, country starlet silver dress, which glinted madly like a fireworks display off of her substantial curves.
Alice, one of the school’s larger-than-life personalities, has an impossible-to-ignore, almost operatic voice and equally over-the-top spirit. We all think she’s headed to Broadway or deserves to be there.
She also has an upper-level physique that is, shall we say, akin to Dolly’s, too. So, it is a full-on “Jolene” impersonation.
Tommy, meanwhile, dresses as Porter Wagoner — a tan suit, bolo tie, and a ten-gallon cowboy hat. The Les Paul serves as a splash of technicolor at his waist.
It is kind of a legendary performance. Our friend Jack, a yearbook photographer, immortalizes the moment in a black-and-white portrait, prominently displayed in that year’s edition.
At another show, Tommy and some of the school’s best musicians — the Roush brothers, Bethany Stout on sax, Ron English on piano — accompany Boz James as he delivers a killer rendition of The Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl.”
As the song nears its end, Mrs. Christopher’s seven-year-old daughter, Eliza, walks onto stage. (Boz’s idea. “We need a surfer girl!”)
Boz kneels. Gives the young girl a hug. Slaying female hearts across the room, no doubt. After Eliza curtsies and leaves, the players launch into a rousing, competent version of “Johnny B. Goode.”
The place erupts into a standing O.
God, how I dreamed of being on that stage.
My interior critic — actually, I have an entire Gregorian choir of them, who sing in polyphonic harmony — reminds me of how utterly inadequate I am in most moments of my life. A too big nose. Inept at closing the physical part of relational flirting. Intoxicated by academic and sports successes, followed by a whipsaw return into inadequacy.
Yet to be loved on stage while speaking straight and powerfully from the heart — and the heat — of guitar-strapped giddiness seems a straight shot to personal redemption.
Of late, I’ve added ‘apotheosis’ to my Word Bank:
“The perfect form or example of something: quintessence; the highest or best part of something : peak; elevation to divine status. Deification.”
It’s not quite that I seek deification. But to be seen as ‘divine’ — dressed with a guitar in a yellow spotlight — seems like a lot of medicine for what ails me, when looking on my life from the deeper shadows in the wings, as the Gregorian choir chants a dirge.
Which is not what Gregorian choirs are supposed to be conveying!
“Listen to this!” says Tommy.
He shifts the Les Paul to his lower back, neck down, pointing toward the carpet. He looks like a rock legend. Tommy positions a needle on a record inside the living room stereo.
“Edgar Winter,” he says, almost reverently, as the record scratches to life. “Johnny’s brother. A song called ‘Frankenstein’ by The Edgar Winter Group…”
He reaches down. Nabs an album from a thick stack leaned against the stereo.
Hands it to me.
“You know they’re albino twins, right?”
I eye the cover.
It shows Winter’s ethereal face in profile and his streaming white hair and muttonchops. He has fire engine-red lipstick and a bare chest. Around his neck hangs a bejeweled necklace worthy of a queen’s coronation.
Eight minutes later, I have had a religious experience. Anything seems possible in life. The existence of God. Alien civilizations. Riches beyond imagination. A home-life minus weekly parental warfare. Sweaty sex with Leesa Bailey dressed in wispy white lingerie …
The song’s breakdown is what it might sound like if a rock orchestra melted down into its constituent atoms like a runaway nuclear reactor. And then, compressed into a pulsing black hole, all that throttled energy comes roaring outward, back at you. Pinging, popping, bursting back out, exploding into a supernova of glorious, celebratory sound.
“What the hell was THAT?” I say as the record shifts from song to static.
Tommy’s face beams.
He pulls the Les Paul from around his back. Goes over to a squat, black guitar amplifier beside the stereo.
Picks up one end of a guitar cable. Plugs it into the Les Paul.
“Play it again!” I plead.
“Of course,” he says.
He heads to the stereo, trailing the cable like an umbilical cord.
“This time, I’m going to try and play along.”
TO READ MORE ADVANCE CHAPTERS from “WHAT HAPPENED: Confessions of a Failed Boulevardier,” see below. Subscribe to WestVirginiaVille.substack.com for updates on the book’s publication:
READINGS: “Stormtroopers & Grandmas”: The balls of his black pupils stare at me intently. They are oddly echoed by the round marble of what looks like a self-shaved head, its yellow stubble hinting at what must once have been luxuriant blonde hair. Moments later, I have second thoughts about my diplomacy as lyrics to the band’s “Speak English or Die” batter the room.