Mind Fields: Coltrane’s DeadPosted: September 2, 2022
This is an excerpt from my novel, Confessions Of An Honest Man:
The men get into the car and Zoot steers it carefully across the bridge. “Still need a Pissngas?” Zoot inquires mockingly.
“I forgot I had to pee,” says Aaron. “Now I got to pee really really bad.”
“Well shit, get out and pee, we about fifteen minutes from the Steelville turnoff.”
Aaron goes out behind a bush and relieves himself. He hears the sound of his own stream against a world that has gone supernally silent. There is no wind, no bird song. The sky is a weird shade of pink. As soon as he is finished the rain begins to fall again. The drops are huge, heavy, laden with silt. Covering his head, Aaron races back to the car.
After driving for ten minutes in silence, a black and white road sign appears. The trapezoidal shape of the state of Missouri encloses a number four. Fifteen yards past this sign there is a green board with white letters and an arrow pointing to the right. Steelville, eight miles, it indicates. At this one-sided intersection is a little gas station and a tiny grocery store skirted by a wooden plank walkway. Zoot pulls into the station. He gestures to Aaron to stay in the car. This part of Missouri isn’t explicitly segregated, but it has the taint of old rebellion. Zoot asks a black attendant to fill the tank, and Tyrone jumps through the rain towards the store, looking for another pack of cigarettes. Aaron watches the Schlitz Beer sign flicker, rolls the window down to smell the storm-soaked earth. He knows this country, too. He has come here for vacations with his family. They have gone to Bagnell Dam, Lake of the Ozarks, Wildwood Resort. In a childhood with a paucity of happy memories, this country means peace, relief, respite, jumping from a pier into the lake, riding horses, mom on her best behavior, dad relaxed and having fun.
Zoot chats with the station attendant about the twister, informs him that the Willens Creek Bridge is no longer covered.
“Be damned,” the man says, “twister blew the top the bridge away? No shit?”
“No shit, almost blew us away too, turned this here Lincoln Continental hundred eighty degrees backward but left a cigarette in the ashtray, still lit and ready to smoke.” Zoot’s dialects always reflect his circumstances. He pronounces “this here” as “thissheer”.
Hurriedly finishing the transaction to get out of the rain, the attendant takes Zoot’s money and rushes back into the shelter of the store.
A moment later, Tyrone comes walking out, holding a newspaper limply in his hand. His mouth is hanging open, his eyes have a staring and shocked quality, as if he has just survived a terrible battle. He opens the passenger’s door , throws the newspaper towards Aaron in the back seat and slumps abruptly on the plush leather, one leg hanging out the side.
“You look like you just got terrible news,” Zoot observes with concern.
Tyrone nods and points towards the newspaper.
“Coltrane’s dead,” he says mournfully. “It’s in the paper. He died yesterday.”
There is a stunned silence. Aaron feels as if he has just taken the first plunge on a roller coaster ride, his stomach goes up through his chest.
“No,” Zoot says. “No.”
Tyrone has the paper folded out to the entertainment section. It is the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. There is a big article about Barbara Streisand, a review of the new James Bond movie, a review of the Led Zeppelin Concert at Kiel Auditorium. Down in the far right corner of the page is a two-paragraph squib. ‘Jazz Musician John Coltrane Dies,” it says. There is sketchy information about the jazz giant succumbing suddenly to liver cancer.
Aaron puts his face in the paper and squeezes himself with it, crumbling it around his cheeks. “He is forty years old!” He wails. “Forty years old! What is happening? Why are jazz musicians dying? Why Coltrane, of all people, Trane? “
Desperately, he claws at Zoot’s shoulder. “We’re all professional jazz musicians, Zoot. Is this my future? Is this Tyrone’s? Are you going to die on us, too? Why can’t we survive? What are we doing to ourselves?”
Zoot stares straight ahead, seeing nothing. He reaches across his shoulder and pats Aaron’s hand, squeezing it.
“You’re just beginning to see what it’s like,” the old musician says. “It’s dangerous to be a genius. That’s why I stay in this chitlin circuit groove, play the college campuses, keep my mid-stream profile. And this is hard enough. You think Coltrane can be inspired every night? You think he can get up there and reach down into his guts and deliver a brilliant set five nights a week, be a genius?”
A core of bitter reflection stains Zoot’s voice. These are things he generally keeps to himself. As he speaks, his anger grows and his voice scrapes with frustration and old pain.
“You have to use something, like Bird, like Lester, you have to use something to get to that place where you even feel like playing at all, let alone be great. Then you raise the standard, people turn out and expect to be transformed, to hear an oracular performance, night after night. I smoke my weed, that’s how I do it. And I don’t ask too much of myself. That’s why I’m sixty-three and still playing. I know how much I can give. Men like Coltrane, they don’t know moderation, they can’t know moderation, they have to keep pushing the limits or the critics jump on their ass, the fickle fans get restless, the talk on the street starts goin’ ‘round, ‘Trane’s lost it, Bird’s lost it, Jackie’s lost it, Prez’s lost it, Bud’s lost it! You have a couple bad nights and all these assholes who can’t play a note go talking, he’s lost it, lost it, getting’ tired, man, runnin’ out of steam, his great days are behind him, what a shame, used to be a great musician.”
Zoot pauses for a moment, looking at his sidemen, at his disciples in the mystic art of music. Then he spits a long gobbet out the window and says, with a lengthy and contemptuous drawl, “Sheee-it! Son of a fucking bitch!”
He turns backward to look at Aaron. Cobra-like, he shifts his body, glancing at Tyrone beside him. He is seething, indignant. “That’s why genius musicians die. They have to die! Ain’t no choice! Once they get a reputation as a genius, they have to be a genius every night. They use it up! Then they’re gone!”
He turns on the engine and drives about a hundred yards down the road. He pulls onto the shoulder and scrunches the emergency brake with his foot. He puts his large hands in front of his face, then leans into them and begins to weep.
It is contagious. These three friends, of different ages, races, different backgrounds, are not afraid to show their feelings to one another. The three jazz musicians, on their way to a gig, taking a short cut through the back roads of Missouri, pull onto the side of the country lane and weap for John Coltrane.
Arthur Rosch is a novelist, musician, photographer and poet. His works are funny, memorable and often compelling. One reviewer said “He’s wicked and feisty, but when he gets you by the guts, he never lets go.” Listeners to his music have compared him to Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Randy Newman or Mose Allison. These comparisons are flattering but deceptive. Rosch is a stylist, a complete original. His material ranges from sly wit to gripping political commentary.
Arthur was born in the heart of Illinois and grew up in the western suburbs of St. Louis. In his teens he discovered his creative potential while hoping to please a girl. Though she left the scene, Arthur’s creativity stayed behind. In his early twenties he moved to San Francisco and took part in the thriving arts scene. His first literary sale was to Playboy Magazine. The piece went on to receive Playboy’s “Best Story of the Year” award. Arthur also has writing credits in Exquisite Corpse, Shutterbug, eDigital, and Cat Fancy Magazine. He has written five novels, a memoir and a large collection of poetry. His autobiographical novel, Confessions Of An Honest Man won the Honorable Mention award from Writer’s Digest in 2016.
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