Three Years

Last night, I stepped into a smokeless room and saw the aging, pudgy man with glasses on stage. He had a Fender Strat strapped across his chest and a hitch in his voice that was impossible to not remember. A lot has changed since the last time I saw this guy. I’ve moved three times, found a wife and dog, bought a house, and signed a three year contract that promised me nothing and strapped me to a reporter’s chair.

Brian Henneman ordered a shot of Jose. He didn’t care who bought it, but he needed one on stage. Two arrived shortly, one in a glass, the other in a South Carolina standard mini-bottle. He was just abobut to drink, then put the shot back down.

“I just about broke a band rule,” he said with a smirk. “I can’t take that shot until we play this song.” He told a story of too much tequila in Lexington, KY and getting his fingers wedged between his Strat’s strings. He knocked out “Welfare Music” then took his shot.

I stood in back of the small crowd, a beer in hand, and tried to figure out what had changed about the Bottle Rockets. The band had lost one member and the sound was a little hollow. Henneman–who has put on some weight–explained that the former band member was driving a transportation van for elderly people in St. Louis. “He thought that was a better idea than playing rock and roll,” the frontman said. The crowd laughed.

I was watching in a town that knew little about the band–as opposed to inside a crowded, smoke-filled Columbia, MO Blue Note. I had a couple of friends there, but not the rowdy, liquored-up buddies of college days. Things had certainly changed. But Henneman’s voice and guitar chops were the same, and that made it all worthwhile.

I poured out of the bar and into a freedom I didn’t recognize until this morning. That three-year contract expired at midnight. I am no longer contractually obligated to do anything. I still have to show up at work if I want to get paid. But if I choose a simpler life, I can leave whenever I want.

A more sober writer might suggest that it would’ve been nice to be offered a renewed contract with a hefty raise attached to it. The same sober writer might suggest that he would’ve been happy to sign on for another three years if management had seen fit to open its wallet and pay for the work it gets out of the man. That sober guy might suggest that he would’ve continued to put every effort into producing a solid journalistic product every day…if only he had some sort of incentive. He would suggest that it would almost be incentive enough to see people appreicated for the work they do…or more to the point…people reprimanded for the work they DO NOT do.

Fortunately for all of us, that sober writer fell off a cliff of insanity three months ago. We don’t think he died. More than likely, he is hobbling around down at the bottom of some ravine, sucking on a wet pay stub, and shooting the bird at local wildlife.

(A quick aside here…Ralph Machio was a bit of a chump in Crossroads. You just can’t take the Karate Kid as a serious bluesman. But Crossroads was still a kick ass movie. I think I may watch it this weekend.)

Three years, a couple dozen gray hairs, one Emmy nomination, a gross sense of the lack of work ethic in this world, just enough money to pay the bills and have a little bit of a good time in the process.

There is a certain amount of fear in being cut loose. It’s like your wife saying…go out and do whatever you want tonight. The freedom is so severe it straps you to the couch.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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