Unlikely Requiem

On the road to recovery with the Drive By Truckers.

Gooch was a sight for sore eyes when he showed up on my doorstep on New Year's Day. The two of us have been best friends since grade school. But we're more than that, really; we're musical soulmates. At least, we were until we hit the proverbial fork in the road when he gave up on U2 -- a band that had shaped our adolescence -- and refused to listen to anything newer than the "White Album." Up until then, our tastes and interests had been identical. In fact, I became a musician because of Gooch. I vividly remember that afternoon in his basement when I picked up his cheap Les Paul knockoff and started awkwardly strumming while he eagerly pounded out rhythms on a drum kit that, in retrospect, dwarfed his then-meager abilities. Together we dreamed of becoming rock stars.

Obviously, that didn't happen. He followed a radio career that took him up and down the dial from Cheyenne to San Jose to Guam to Detroit before finally landing in Tampa, where he's currently working as a hot-dog vendor. And I became a writer, but only after playing in bands that never made it much past the basement. A while back, I wrote a song about us that's perfectly summed up in these lines: "Couldn't help but notice how we've watered down our dreams/When we were doing time on Malley Drive, dreaming was our currency."

Although we've kept in touch over the years, I hadn't seen Gooch since '99, when I traveled to Brainerd, Minnesota, to be the best man in his wedding. And before that, we'd gone five to ten years between visits.

So it was good to see Gooch, but the reason he came was bad: A couple of weeks before Christmas, my dad finally succumbed to the congestive heart failure that had been diagnosed several years earlier. After he passed, an air of melancholy tinged everything for me. And that included music, so I made a concerted effort to avoid it -- not exactly the most prudent decision for someone whose living is entirely dependent upon it. But I was afraid that whatever I listened to at the time would be tainted by the mournful atmosphere and subsequently conjure up painful memories. Because like it or not, music has a way of attaching itself to life's pivotal moments.

I didn't realize how strong this attachment could be until I sat alone in my dad's chair on the balcony, listening to one of my favorite records of all time -- Astral Weeks, by Van Morrison. I thought it would soothe my aching soul. I was wrong.

A few days after Christmas, I finally began to ease out of the somber haze that had wrapped itself around me like a winter coat. And so I hit the Boulder Theatre for Rose Hill Drive's hotly anticipated pre-New Year's Eve gig, in which the trio tackled Led Zeppelin I in its entirety. As Clark Griswald would say, Hallelujah, holy shit! It was exactly the palate-cleanser I needed: no pretense, no glossy, cerebral, post-punk introspection -- just gritty, visceral rock and roll the way it used to be. I woke up the next day feeling more invigorated than I had in quite some time.

And then Gooch arrived, sensing I needed a friend. Like I said, he and I used to be in lockstep, but my tastes grew and became more sophisticated, while his seemed to stagnate. So when he showed up singing the praises of Drive By Truckers, I was stunned. Not only had he discovered music from this decade, but it was a band that didn't suck.

So there we were, back where we started, in the basement -- mine this time. We spent the next three days waxing nostalgic, chain-smoking and draining bottomless cups of coffee, listening to the music that connected us so long ago. We sat through a bootleg of a vintage U2 performance and marveled at how urgent and vital Bono and company sounded back then. We cued up obscurities that we'd both long since forgotten -- Adam Again, the 77's, the Choir. Then I strapped Gooch to the sectional and force-fed him a steady parade of my favorite discs from the past year; he shrugged off almost every entry.

And then it was Gooch's turn. Given his inexplicable, newfound obsession with the Truckers, he naturally popped in their Southern Rock Opera, and I watched him lose himself in the band's blistering Southern rock. Rearing his head back, he let loose and started singing -- as the cliche goes -- like no one was looking. And as I watched, I reconnected to that time in my life when "it was ok to be a little barbaric," when "it was ok to turn your three guitars up to ten."

Thumbing through Opera's liner notes, I was struck by how parallel parts of the story were to the trajectory of our friendship over the years. Growing up in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Patterson Hood and his bandmates had taken for granted the Southern rock that permeated their home town -- specifically, bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Years later, after realizing how much they had missed, the players set out to write and record an album that paid homage to that bygone era. Opera is the story of two friends who grew up together and dreamed of becoming rock stars. But one friend died in a car crash just before graduation, leaving the other one -- who had "moved to the city, then a couple more cities…got a funny haircut or two" and became a punker who "tried to disassociate himself from his youthful transgressions" -- to forge ahead. Act II opens up with the surviving friend fronting his dream band. "All the shit he went through is now in his music," Hood writes. "He ain't necessarily happy, but at least he ain't dead."

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