I met him on the square. He always played his accordion proudly and loudly, sticking out like a sore thumb against brick buildings and refined architecture. The people I knew in those days were a bit clueless and fearful, treading carefully on the large UCLA campus, not sure where’d they fall and what professional niche would catch them. I was one of the freshest faces, my days like hurricanes, my hair cropped and unwashed. I pounded around campus in white cowboy boots and flannel shirts. The existentialist in me had seen the end of any sort of self-denial: I was nervous and felt wild like a horse. The walls of the school boxed me in from some greater sense of truth. That truth was packaged in rawness and malaise, a malaise that felt good in my veins. Perhaps I was on the verge of living.
“But I would soon come to know the accordion player well…”
It was him, the accordionist, that evening. We quickly exchanged eye contact, a fleeting night moment when my mind was in a haze, bouncing from one dorm compound to the next. I would never have noticed him outside of the context of his performance. But I would soon come to know the accordion player well, his broad wide chest that confidently presented his instrument, his wavering smirk that suggested deep musings and irony, his medium length sandy blonde hair, his hiking boots and blue jeans and button down shirts.
He came up to me a few days later in front of the music building and said plainly, “I noticed we have locked eyes a few times. Would you care to join my friends and me for a night of music and adventure?” There was something unusual in his manner, this Benjamin Jones. I could tell he was selective with whom he opened his doors.
And so our light and heavy adventure began. Rooted in disdain for the common ‘man’, we filled our evenings with late night break-ins to golf courses and underground tunnels graffiti’d with French poetry. Benjamin Jones was a kindred spirit: someone who wouldn’t dare to grow up through a pre-ordained lens. His slight frustration towards others’ ways of living was endearing. Together, we could drink gin and whisky and wine, ride bicycles to the beach, and hold onto our idealism of another reality that would emerge: more raw, more unadulterated, more explicit of the inner turmoil of every soul that grappled with societal expectations, a lust for creative expression, and thrilling adrenaline charged moments.
We began to sing songs. Old country was the voice of him and his friends. My female voice lent a new opportunity. Ben’s friend, Johnny, was the lead guitarist of their band of folklore, medieval literature, and country blues. They placed words in my mouth to moan and groan, a ballad of lost love or pain in an open and free land, where the law was never on your side. Mainly, we sang Johnny Cash and began to toy with Townes Van Zandt.
I had not heard much of this Townes Van Zandt character. He seemed mystical and dark and twisted. I had heard about his strong bouts of alcoholism and drug addiction that led to his eventual demise. I felt self-conscious when I crooned his songs, surrounded by finely trimmed bushes and the well kempt landscape of the school. What real hardship had I known? What real hardship in a man’s world did I know? The best music seemed to come from the man displaced from his traditional journey of obligations. It was in the ferment and the conflict that he seemed to discover himself.
Johnny’s Korean parents were domineering and had high expectations for his future as an English teacher. This atmosphere loomed heavily over the ambiance of the musical dorm room. He stuck a DVD in the television one night as we were all bantering and drinking. It was a documentary on Townes Van Zandt called Be Here to Love Me. I began to watch his life story unveil before my eyes. Here was a ghost of a man who no longer was, but seemed to haunt some familiar dream of which we were all a part.
At one point in the film, Van Zandt, his girl at the time, and a handful of unseen others sat around in a small farm house in Clarksville, Tennessee, listening to Townes strumming on his guitar. Uncle Seymour Washington, an older black man about town in a denim jacket and large cowboy hat walked into the room with purpose. He was there to listen to the music and he gave silent nods to the fellows that surrounded him. The girl sat next to Seymour, and Townes started to play, “Waitin’ Around to Die.”
“I knew I was being introduced to another story not like my own, at the end of a dusty road.”
I had sung this song a few times before, but it had felt somewhat melodramatic and forced. When watching Townes, the lyrics rolled out of his mouth, effortless and matter of fact. I knew I was being introduced to another story not like my own, at the end of a dusty road. Uncle Seymour was moved to tears over the despair and disillusionment that came from the verses, a slow and methodical ramble to the bitter, repetitious end. The song recounted a man in flight from his ultimate demise, until he finally gives up and lets his waiting consume him, making him inactive and ultimately vulnerable to his own fate.
I wondered how Uncle Seymour connected to this tale. His pain, raw on the screen, was a pain with which I knew both nothing and everything. Often frustrated by feelings of disconnect from my peers, I could, through this song, connect to this common theme of existence. I too wanted to get to the point that I had felt I had lived until I couldn’t live much more at all. Maybe I’d be jaded, maybe wise, and probably regretful. But one thing would be certain. I had lived. I could look back and feel the weight of all that life churning and brewing beneath the surface of my worn face.
My only hope was that up until that infamous life ending there would be trembling moments of ecstasy, some cross between joy and sorrow, like a heart that has been fully cracked open. The group of people gathered around Townes could have been us gathered around Johnny, sharing songs in domestic spaces, and experiencing some sort of musical catharsis thereafter.
My brazen nineteen year old self could feel my ego momentarily dissolve into a larger consciousness. These passing moments were the way we could reckon the irreconcilable. I couldn’t speak much the rest of the night. It wasn’t necessary.