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German Holiday Vomit Kiss
Dave is smoking, fiddling with his tuning but not using a tuner, which doesn’t surprise me at all. I have always felt like- I could be wrong, but I don’t know- I have always felt like tuning the guitar to some kind of crisp perfection was a little too ‘the man’ for my brother. I mean, I’ve seen him play guitars so far out of tune that the discordance being born from the air around his pink face dripping nicotine/whiskey sweat was like some kind of beautiful infection being hacked into your bare arms and neck and shoulder blades with a machete that must sever and pop and sink deep through skin/muscle/and bone with the violent quickness of one tribe attacking another for reasons that have, by that point, been almost forgotten entirely.
The smell of death becomes the thing.
At some point, killers kill because it reminds them of yesterday. Which they lived through, you know. So might as well do the same thing again/ live a while longer.
The tuning of the guitar for Dave, I think, is a compromise of the highest artistic order. It’s as if he wants you to mention it, or he wants me to anyways, so he can take a hard drag from his smoke, squint at you with his condescending art eyes, and then let the moment float away/ unaddressed by actual language/ but fully dealt with through the glance and the slight trembling smirk and the smoke floating up from his lungs/ leaking out his face/ as your (my) words still hang in the air like some kid crying in Walmart a few aisles over.
To tune the guitar once every now and then is enough. To tune it over and over again is to miss the point entirely. It is, I suspect, not to say that my brother wants me… or you… or whoever the fuck to think he can’t be bothered/ although there is an essence of that, you know, in all of this, and that essence is something we ought to talk more about if we ever get the chance, but I’m jagging here now and I need to land this other plane in your yard. And so I guess what I’m saying is that: yesterday, as I’m standing there with Dave and we haven’t played any music together in two years: and it’s just the two of us/ two electrics, two amps, one tuner (mine)/ and he is smoking cigarettes and sweating his little ocean out and it looks basically like it did, once upon a time, in Belgrade/ or in Dublin/ or in Seattle/ Asbury Park/ Paris/ Memphis/ all the places: and I am wondering now, after all this time, after so many years and shade and smoke ringing his face in the stage lights of some German night club with Scorpions sized monitors and 60 people in the crowd/ or in the sunshine of the festival day/ or in the practice space in South Philly or Brooklyn or here in this country-ass town where we live now, far removed from the world/ from the conspirators of ambition/ from the movers and shakers/ like two headstones with a crow upon each/ one smoking/ one just kind of watching: I wonder to myself: Do I say something?
Do I tell him to tune that shit up so we can sound good together?
In the past I would have. And I would have gotten the shade thrown at me. And I would have understood intrinsically too.
We don’t have to be in tune, it says/ his unspoken message. Eat this, he says without saying, you motherfucker. You lovely old motherfucker, eat this now. Eat these chips of tone, of sour note punk club vomit that I am feeding you right now/ right here/ in this evaporating moment/ as our days fade and our bones decay behind our skin. Put this sound inside your mouth and swish it around/ someone else’s vodka spewed up directly in your mouth and taste that whole cavernous Hamburg hall one more time, you simple son-of-a-bitch. Taste the backstage lunchmeat. Taste the euro chocolate. Taste the darkness out in the main room, before the gig, before our opening spot for the one they came to see, and remember it like it was yesterday because it was if we let it even though it was not and we cannot deny that burning truth anymore either. Standing together now in the back corner of the massive hall and it smells like last night/ like some late night world of joy and drugs and glasses etched deeply with the scent of beer/ so deeply that the smell remains/ soap cannot take it/ time cannot reduce it/ the smell of something burning with intense fire and lust and language we will never understand/ all here last night and we missed it but then again/ they will likely miss tonight/ soon/ when we are up there in the purple light/ the hard red light/ like breaded sausages in the gas station hot tank/ like dead bodies still alive dancing/ weaving/ bobbing to the punches being thrown by the song we are playing so fucking far from home and no one watching out for us except each other and do you remember all that? How close to death we must have been while we were living so much more than anyone else alive maybe?
Or maybe that’s just my thoughts?
Like, maybe he isn’t thinking that at all?
I don’t know. I can’t ask him that. I canoe down rivers of dreams, man. You ought to know that by now. I exist in my head/ in my skull. The big German rock clubs are inside me more than I was ever inside them. I close my eyes and I smell Hamburg, drifting up from the gutter, so luscious and raw and threatening and punk.
The doner kebab still on the spit. The bright lights of the joint on the hairy arms of the men with the glistening steel knives. The people waiting patiently in the warmth, by the counter, eyeing the feta and the olives and the spanakopita in the glass cases that will one day be gone as fuck, just like me, standing there still, all these years later, just staring in at the scene like the inter-stellar whack-job American traveler that I always was, always have been, always will be.
Leaping dreamscapes of mountains, some I saw, some I imagined, I hop about the Earth just sitting there in my filthy Honda/ parked in the lot up at Burkholder’s Country Market/ evening sun going down/ people going in/ people coming out/ gallon of milk/ bag of meat/ mask/ no mask/ kid by the hand/ smiling/ crying/ breath smoking in the cool light of one more dusk so far from the cities where we showed up just to disappear.
His theory, I guess, Dave’s tuning theory, I mean, is that we have come far enough without thinking too much. Without catering to the sonic whims of the ever-changing moment. The elasticity of the strings, it only goes so far. The given moment/ the living breathing here and now/ it dies beneath the crush of constant vacillating. Rabid joy can exist only in the purest of seconds unfolding beneath your feet and in front of your eyes.
Dave, I’ve been meaning to tell you, doesn’t really give a rat’s ass if the guitar is not so in-tune anymore just like he never did. Because all along, I’m thinking, he understood that the perfect chord was okay and all, but really it was just The Man. Showing up to reel you in. Showing up to stroke your shit and shine your money so he could take a little in the process while… over there in the dimly lit crevices of the skankiest clubs…certain people were dancing/ drunk/ to the wildly out-of-tune guitars of an unknown band who will probably never come this way again/ and even if they do/ this is magic, don’t be late.
So, uhh, yeah.
We start playing one of our songs. Angels of Destruction. Capo 4.
Around the corner/ from everything I wanna destroy.
We sing that first line together. First line together in a long time. I didn’t even think we might ever do that again. Because, you know. Life. Time. Sadness, Hurt. Confusion. Money. Responsibilities. Pandemics. Whatever. I don’t know. I don’t know why I ever started playing in a band in the first place. I didn’t want anything from it. I didn’t want to get rich. Women never liked me much, so I had no misleadings about that shit. I wasn’t hungry to be the best. Or even close to it. I didn’t even know who the best were. Still don’t, if we’re being honest.
I just wanted to stand there, I guess, downstage from him and all the others. To see what could happen if we dumped the honest out of our bodies and onto these lit-up platforms all over a lot of the fucking world.
I just wanted to hear how out of tune we could play and still pull this whole thing off. Like Chamberlain’s men, Shakespeare’s very own gang on their most smashing nights. Tipsy, drunk, sick, effervescent, overwhelmed, excited, talented beyond compare, and wearing the same thing they wore yesterday and the day before.
Vests that smell like bile. Like puked up doner and cigarettes and chilled London dawn.
Dave’s guitar this afternoon is an over-the-top disco ball Les Paul that was made the year he was born. 1974. From the moment we begin playing our song together/ the first in a long long time/ the thing is slightly out of tune.
Slightly fucked up, slightly tinged with German club vomit.
He looks at me with the quickness as we sing the first line together, same as we always did. It’s a questioning glance both swift and sharp, as if to challenge me. As if to ask me what I want to do with this moment right now.
Stop the song?
Mention the tuning?
I smile. I sing my part to his part/ throwing my junkyard dog at his pack of smokes.
The guitars are miles apart/ tuned and untuned. Somewhere in the tangle of sound, a G string crosses the tracks into F-Town.
I look at the floor, my hand strumming, aching. It’s been so long. It feels good.
I spot the old European tour vomit on the carpet here and now. The German club sauce. The moments we have lost, despite our love for them so deep. I kneel down, still playing, still singing my lines when they show up, and I just lap it all up into my mouth, all down my chin, all down my throat and in my nostrils and forever in my hair even, because it is vile and strange and everything slightly removed from all the plans we made in song, well, it had proven to be what we wanted all along.
I stand back up, grinning, old nightclub dripping off my face.
Dave sees, sings, smiles, bashes at his strings until there is nothing left in them except all the sounds at once.
It will be a holiday show, this thing we will practice for. A Holiday Extravaganza, I think we called it for the Facebook Event page. You have to name these things, you know. You have to brand it all lest people not understand what you are getting at. But I find it tiring. I can’t compete with your event on the same night. Or his event. Or theirs.
I can’t find the right tint of soul down in me to correctly assess what it might take to sell a few hundred tickets to a few hundred people who might be interested in coming to see Marah play a show again after a couple years.
How do you convince another human being to give you their money in exchange for your music? I have never figured that out. That’s why I mow grass for a living now, I guess. That’s why my guitars have sat untouched for almost two years until now.
What return is this? I ask myself that a lot now. I was hesitant to play a gig in December this year. The show falls on the night of December 11th, the night before my birthday. I’ll be 50 on the 12th. It hits me at times when I’m out in the day. 50. I like it. I don’t fear it or feel scared or whatever. At least not on the surface of things. Deep down in me, I think I’m afraid of dying and of all that comes with it, but up here on the skin, I’m alright with the age. I wanted to think of a cool way to turn it out, to celebrate my arrival to this age that a lot of people call a milestone, but honestly, I haven’t come up with anything.
Big parties are the opposite side of the universe for me. I don’t visit. I don’t care. Plus, no one would come. I’ve removed myself from a lot of small life the past few years, Small life: social gatherings/ friends at bars/ hanging out/ talking jive. I lost interest in it as anxiety and depression pounded me hard. And in the process: I left relationships: I said goodbye to toxic ghosts: I tried to get reconciled with the hurt kid who lives inside me and I moved away from trusting basically everyone but Arle and the kids. Me telling you that isn’t to let you in on anything, really. It’s just to say that, turning 50, after all that, well, you know.
It doesn’t look like I’m going to be having a big kegger around the fire pit. Or hitting The Cheesecake Factory hard as fuck with my people. Or opening a bunch of really thoughtful wonderful gifts from all the people who care about me/ so many/ thank you all so much/ Jesus Christ!/ rare Gettysburg books!!/ you guys really know me! You guys really GET me!!!
I’m fine with who I am. I’m making mental inroads as I go and I’m more in love with a woman than I have ever thought possible and I’ve got five kids who look at me and smile and laugh now more than I’d say they did even a year ago and that means more to me than I can possibly tell you.
Me: Now. I have a good life even if I fight sadness and blues, make it hard for people to love me sometimes. Who doesn’t? Who wouldn’t, honestly? Get out of tune. Dance to your own blithering mess.
It’s small poetry, honestly. This life I lead. The one you got as well.
Me, I drink red wine in the evening with Arle in front of the TV.
I read my books before I fall asleep in the bed.
I write these essays. They lift me up. I hear from readers/ they carry me forward.
I stagger down into the kitchen at 5 or 5:30 in the morning most days, let the dogs out to piss, stare up at the morning stars. Or at the clouds blocking them out.
I wander away from myself in thought.
I hunt for old Civil War books, but I don’t read them all. So I hunt for something else that lives outside my understanding. The Civil War itself maybe? Or my connection to it… if there is one. Is there?
I bought Arle a kitchen witch for Halloween. A real one from the 70’s like I remember my neighbors had.
I can be an asshole at times, sometimes more than once in a day. I’m insecure and built on flimsy dirt. I mean no harm but that doesn’t stop me.
I exercise less than I should.
I tell myself I will exercise way more than I should.
I have a toothache.
I am still horny as fuck.
My bones hurt a lot. My muscles. My hips seem to be leaving.
I don’t watch as many movies as I ought to. I watch more streaming series.
I lay in bed sometimes and stare at the night through the venetian blinds and I know that I’m running out of time and it takes my breath away.
I have switched to half decaf coffee a lot. What the fuck.
I like to be outside. I like hiking with Arle. I love to watch her moving through the fallen leaves/ down old stone steps/ on trails built long ago upon mountain tops made of rock where rattlesnakes sleep beneath us.
I like it when the kids lean on me when we watch a movie, but they do that less and less now as they get older. There are no words for how that feels.
I listen to jazz a lot. Miles, Coltrane, Monk, and those guys. I never listen to the Replacements anymore. I listen to Bruce Springsteen a lot. But I rarely listen to so many of the bands of my youth. I still love them, but I don’t know if I even know them anymore.
I like looking for wild turkeys in rainy farm fields as I drive by.
Reading is still my favorite thing. And fucking. And pizza. And wine. And the kids.
And what else?
I don’t know.
I mean, what else is there?
Look, man… I have no idea how anyone is supposed to turn 50 years old.
Playing the guitar again seems to make about as much sense as anything. Play the guitar with the band and look down at the people that show up. See their smiles if they brought them. See their beer cups touching their lips. See their eyes sparkling in the winter basement. See them looking up at me, maybe saying my name.
Life to life.
Out of tune. In tune. Singing. Blood racing. Hearts blowing up. Sweating heart attack ponds down on the tuners and the set-lists and the dropped picks and the harmonicas by my amp. Fifty years of living. Twenty-five years of playing rock-n-roll. Maybe twenty or thirty years of living left, if I’m lucky; if the meds click when they need to someday when I need them to. But that train is on the prairie yet and I’m still freaked out by all I’ve seen.
How did this happen?
How did I live? How did I feel so many things, so many lovely beautiful things and so many painful hurtful things? How did I wake up so many mornings? How I did feel so much? How did I want so much? Dream so much? My desires were immense, but how did I deal with so much disappointment… so many times I wanted to step off the cliff? How did people keep loving me like they did? How does that happen? How do we go and go and go and lose so many along the way/ watch them detour off into other people’s lives/ watch them turn away/ watch them set fire to your living moments in order to see you only through the lens of the past?
How do we roll beneath the raging surfs of indisputable agony and come up with little fistfuls of joy after all that pummeling?
How do I keep noticing the kid smiling up at me with such dirty face gap tooth wonder?
How do I clip the tiny nails of a heart that trusts me and not eat the remarkable filth I find? All that worm dirt and melted candy. All that bird shit and dead mouse and squashed Ladybug… I will eat it, I think, the next time we do the thing.
Charlie, I will say, as he sighs his second grade sigh/ tired of my being clean bullshit, let me see them fingers, hoss. And he will hand them over, like some gambler forking over his last two tenners in this cruel, cruel world.
And then I’ll carefully scrape all that living out from under his nails and I’ll call it like I see it and I’ll eat it right in front of him. To his amazement. To his overwhelming alarm and happiness.
Pepperoni pizza and school bus seat crack!
Then I eat it.
Baseball field grass and small dog crap!
Then I eat it.
Old book dust and school bag bottom crumbs and fish sticks and boogers from your giant head!
Then I eat it.
Birthday cake and smooshed blood bug and Uncle Dave’s cigarette ash!
Then I eat it.
Then I eat it.
Then I eat it, boss.
By all means….
Carefully edited by Arle Bielanko
Photographs: #1: Unknown (let me know and I’ll credit!) #3: Eddy McLaughlin. #4: Henry Bielanko as Santa/ 2nd grade. #5: Arle Bielanko. Other photos: SB
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