I HEARD THE NEWS TODAY, OH BOY: He was my first guru. I was 15 years old and he was 19 when we met. Of course I thought he knew all there was worth knowing in this world. He'd had sex with young women while my most erotic experience was holding a girl's hand in my pale, sweaty palm. He'd read Vonnegut, Salinger, Nietzsche, Camus and Castenada. I'd read adventure stories and schoolbooks. He drove a car and I rode a bicycle. He was finished with high school while I was shyly bumbling through my freshman year. He was a singer in a rock and roll band and I couldn't carry a tune and guitar lessons had been disastrous.
So, you can see why I was completely honored when he chose me as a friend.
We met at a little coffee house run by young, very white, very clean-cut Christians in that dirty little railroad town outside of Chicago. Ben and I were both very young and white, but we weren't very clean-cut, and neither of us believed Jesus had died for either one of us. Maybe that's why he chose me to be his friend, I still don't know.
The place had recorded music playing under our conversations and sometimes they showed an old movie or let someone with an acoustic guitar sing Bob Dylan songs. No one paid much attention.
We were stoned and drunk usually, and just hung out there because the young idealists running the place tolerated our nonsense, which they did, no doubt, because they harbored hopes of converting us.
There wasn't much chance of that. When Ben and I got together we would often wind up careening the narrow streets of our hometown in his beaten, old green Vega with a bottle of cheap red wine and a couple of joints. The radio would be blasting with Ben shouting out wisdom on the politics of revolution, sex, love, drugs, and yes, rock and roll.
I'd listen and laugh. He had outrageous opinions on everything and a scalding wit with which he made his views known. I wanted to be Ben.
In fact, it should be Ben who writes this column. He's smarter and funnier than I can ever hope to be and he knows a hell of a lot more about music than I ever will. He can't write it though, he's busy dying right now.
A little over a year ago the doctors ended his singing career when they sliced out his vocal chords to save him from cancer.
He has learned how to talk with one of those electronic gadgets that make him sound like a robot--without intonation or emotion in his "voice." I suppose he could still climb on stages and flatten a crowd with Phil Collins-type songs, but Ben isn't the type to try to make fortune and fame out of something that he only acquired through luck, cigarettes and alcohol.
I remember one time, it was probably when I was 16, when I told him about my high school friends. They were ignorant kids, but at least they were racists, too. I told Ben about how my other friends and I were talking about music one day and I happened to mention a Stevie Wonder song I really liked. My buddies had laughed and called me "nigger lover."
He wasn't amazed by their racism, that was the norm in our town. Virtually everyone I knew there thought it was perfectly acceptable to hate black people and giggle at their "jungle music."
It would have been strange for Ben to be mystified by something surrounding him every day of his life. He seemed simply awed at the tremendous stupidity required to fail to recognize the genius of Stevie Wonder.
But, the very next time I went to his band's practice, the first song he sang was "Superstitious"--a very, very angry version of it. How can you not love a guy like that?
We didn't have black people living in our town. Not one. None ever came there to visit or stop to buy a Coke as long as I lived within its borders, either. So, Ben crammed that funky nigger music down the throats of the racist rock and rollers and loved doing it.
Of course, that doesn't make him a Rosa Parks, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr. But believe me, in the heart of white-trash, lower middle-class suburbia, it took balls to do that.
The doctors who cut out his vocal chords say the cancer has returned, bigger and badder than before. There's little for him to do now but wait for the coffin lid to slam down over his head.
I don't know if that's overly cynical or ignorant or mean or anything else. It's hard to think clearly when you find out a friend and guru is dying. It's hard not to be angry. It's impossible not to cry and shake my fists at--nothing.
We lost touch with each other, as students and teachers often do, after I graduated high school and moved away. I tracked him down a few years ago and we shared some letters and talks over the phone and a two-week visit I paid to my hometown a couple of years back.
It was then I found out Ben had given up the dreams of becoming a famous singer or important writer--maybe they were just dreams I had dreamt for him. I've never known anyone with more talent and potential for greatness.
But he took all his gifts and sat them on a bar stool and drank and smoked them away. Maybe that's why I'm so angry. Or maybe it's because I'm still following his path, I just don't know.
It might be that it's time for me to learn my last lesson from my first guru: Try to let the path wind on a little longer. Enjoy the journey more without rushing toward the cliff at the end so quickly. We'll all get there soon enough.
Ben, I love you.
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