Julian collected the change from his guitar case, counting it with jaded efficiency. ’10 dollars and 65 cents; 52 and 80 for the day’. He poured the change into his bag and packed up his gear. He wasn’t dismayed or delighted; those sorts of emotions went away a long time ago. This was just business, but even that suggested a kind of zeal, or zest, or whatever the fuck those people have when they talk about ‘business’. This was just a daily routine that Julian still practiced because… well because he did. The passion, and love, and whatever the fuck musicians have when they talk about music dried up a long time ago. All that was left was rusted machinery still operating with an arid effectiveness.
There was a time when Julian took pride in doing what he thought was the last true form of musical expression. He saw himself as a vagabond, a gypsy roaming the countryside playing to his heart’s content. He patted himself on the back for playing on street corners instead of peddling coffee or deep-frying potatoes. Of course he also dreamed of being adored by millions not because it was the cool thing to do but because he spoke to them and connected with their souls. The thought now made him gag. Twenty-five years of playing American Pie fifteen times a day to crowds that couldn’t hear him over their goddamn iPods had deflated his romantic notions. He now saw himself for what he was, just another overweight musician clinging to dreams that he hadn’t truly believed in for years.
He’d packed up his gear carelessly, thrown away the pieces of garbage that were mixed with the change in his case and put on that tattered old leather jacket that every old man with a bad mullet, still clinging to the seventies wore. As he was about to get going he heard hurried footsteps approaching.
“Please dude, can you play Cry Baby Cry?”
Julian turned around to see a young kid, maybe twenty or so, obviously drunk, doubled over trying to catch his breath. The rest of the street corner was more or less deserted; it was almost one in the morning.
“Don’t do requests kid. Not since those assholes wrote Wonderwall.”
“Please, I need to hear it.”
The kid wasn’t lying; he looked about as needy as the junkies that Julian sometimes shared the corner with. He looked like one mean word would push him over the edge and into tears; like this song could save him from drowning. It was strange, very strange. What was ever stranger was that Julian cared; he hadn’t paid this much attention to a ‘customer’ in years.
“My iPod is out of batteries,” slurred the kid, “I need to hear that song.”
Julian remembered what that was like. Coming home from a night of drinking and feeling that euphoric high teeter and then plummet into a miserable low. But putting that one song that you love on, that you want to hear more than anything else in the world, made it all okay. For a moment Julian wasn’t on a street corner at one in the morning. He was around a campfire again with his friends taking requests, he was playing Stairway to his parents for the first time, he was playing the Crossroads solo to impress a girl even though he couldn’t quite hit all the notes. He opened his guitar case.
“By The Beatles right? God I haven’t heard that in years.” The kid’s face lit up with all the anticipation of a Christmas morning. “Jesus that’s obscure, you sure you don’t want to hear Hey Jude instead?” For a second the kid’s smile waned and he tried to respond but just stuttered incoherently. “Nah it’s okay I think I know it.” Julian fumbled through a few chords and false starts.
“Cry baby cr-, no that’s not it.” He tried something else. “Cry ba-, nope.”
“I think it starts on a G,” said the kid.
Julian gave it a shot. “Cry baby cry. So it does!” (Listen while you read.) He launched into it and the kid seemed like he’d just sunk into a warm bath. It was a bit sloppy the first time through the chorus, but then it started coming back to him. Julian loved this song too.
~The king of marigold was in the kitchen cooking breakfast for the queen.~
The kid started swaying and moving in such an unrestrained way that if people were looking on they would say he was the worst dancer they’d ever seen and possibly in need of medical help. It was so unfettered that it might even seem repulsive and difficult to watch. But if they could see it from Julian’s point of view they would see someone expressing more happiness than the hordes that had passed by him in the past year put together.
~Cry baby cry, make your mother sigh.~
Julian started moving too, slowly and only a little at first. It’s not easy to shake off the rust engendered by years of indifference. Then he started stomping his feet and shaking his head. Slowly the monotone that he usually sung in dissolved and he sang, he actually sang.
~The king was in the garden picking flowers for a friend who’d came to play.~
They weren’t even trying to hold back anymore. Julian was bobbling his head and moving his feet. He was sure he looked a bit ridiculous but he didn’t care. The kid was jumping up and down, bobbing along with his whole upper body, and mouthing the words.
~Cry baby cry, make your mother sigh.~
The kid’s eyes were overflowing with tears that sprayed everywhere as he danced. They held memories that Julian was allowed to share in for the moment. Shame for laughing at the balding lunch lady, who wore the same clothes everyday but was always smiling. Sadness for the small bird who’d flown into his house and hadn’t died quick enough. Guilt for not liking the Christmas presents his parents had gleefully thrust into his arms one year. Regret that the party hadn’t gone as he’d planned. But a pure, and heavnely happiness that he didn’t have to feel it all alone right at the moment.
~At twelve o’clock a meeting…
“…round the table…”, replied Julian
…for a séance…
“in the dark!”
Julian was pounding at the strings now. His pick broke around the time the king was picking flowers and so he strummed with his fingers. He was sure that he was bleeding and that he’d broken a string but he didn’t care. He kept it up for the rest of the song…
~So cry baby cry. ~
He looked up for a second as the song ended. The kid was frozen waiting to see if this perfect moment could be even more perfect, to see if Julian really knew his music.
~Can you take me back where I came from? ~
The kid jumped up with both arms in the air and screamed with delight. Julian was jumping up with every quarter note now. He was yelling, melody was a thing if the past and instead was determined to tear his vocal chords to shreds. He strummed the final chord for what seemed like minutes and then jumped along with the kid and played it one last time. They both doubled over gasping for breath.
When the dust cleared Julian got the feeling you get when the credits of a movie come up and you have to get back to the real world. He and the kid both tried to think of something to say but nothing came out. It seemed like putting what had just happened into words would just dilute it. They just smiled at each other. The kid reached into his pockets for some money but came up empty. Julian shook his head anyway, he didn’t want any. It was strange how accepting money from him seemed so out of place, like taking money from a friend, even though they’d just met. The kid nodded knowingly, smiled again and walked away.
Julian looked at the blood all over his guitar from his bleeding finger. He tied an old handkerchief around it and knotted it tight. Slowly and carefully he took off the broken string from his guitar and picked up the broken pick from the floor. He put his guitar away gently, zipped up the case and walked home.