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Authors: Josh Farrar

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BOOK: Rules to Rock By
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“I can’t believe your parents are Benny and Joon,” he said. “
Entranced
is a great record.”

“You Googled me?”

“Yup.” He pushed up his glasses.

“All righty, then.”

“So are they crazy? Why would you guys leave Brooklyn? Brooklyn is like the international center of indie rock.”

“Tell me about it. Shows every night of the week.”

“All my favorite bands are from Brooklyn. Animal Collective, Liars, Interpol, they’re all there.”

“I know.”

“You must be bummed. There’s maybe ten bands in all of Providence, and half of them are metal tribute bands.”

“Yeah.”

“So … why’d you move here, then?”

“My parents wanted a place where they could live and record, and they couldn’t afford it in Brooklyn.”

“Really? But they’re totally successful.”

“Well, if by ‘successful’ you mean that a lot of people like them, sure. But they don’t exactly rake cash in, doing what they do. They’re not competing with Beyoncé for a spot on the top ten.”

“Well, yeah, they’re indie. But they could play to at least five hundred people in almost every major city in the country. Not Providence, maybe, but every
major
city.”

“Yeah, I guess. But you’d be surprised how little they make, after you count up the hotel bills, the gas, the blah, blah, blah. They don’t make much on records, either.”

“Oh man, that sucks. I guess I should listen to my dad and become a lawyer, then?”

“Ha. Totally, you traitor.”

We walked by my poster, and Jonny stopped.

“This is you, right?”

I nodded.

“ ‘For those about to rock’?” he read.

“Umm, yeah. You think that was cheesy?”

“Nah, don’t worry about it. Everybody needs a little cheese in their diet. So what do you think, are you gonna form the biggest band in the world, or what?”

“Well, you’ve gotta start somewhere, right?”

“What’s more important? Is it about being incredibly popular, or just sounding really amazing?”

I had to think about it. “When I imagine this band,” I said, “we’re playing in front of thousands of people. But for thousands of people to like us, we’d have to sound really great, right?”

“Yeah, but there are some really, really popular bands whose music is terrible, don’t you think? Look at Hilary Duff.”

“Well, sure, I hate ninety-nine percent of what’s on the radio. So I guess I want to be the biggest
and
the best.”

“So, Annabelle Cabrera has to have it all.”

Heh. I was starting to like this guy. We kept walking.

As we made our way toward the yard, I realized we were getting an awful lot of sidelong glances. I couldn’t figure out why. A pudgy goth nerd taking a stroll with a four-foot-ten rock girl.
Keep moving, people,
I thought.
Nothing to see here.

Suddenly, I saw a familiar face: the attention-deficit girl from the week before. She walked right next to me, talking to one of her friends in a voice obviously meant to be overheard by anybody within a mile radius.

“There she is, the talent scout,” she said nastily. “The choir director who thinks she’s too good for this school.”

I winced. “Don’t ask,” I whispered to Jonny. “ADHDiva.”

She went left, thankfully, and we went right.

Jonny pushed open the door to the yard with his shoulder.

“Ah, fresh air,” he said. “Too stuffy in that hallway.”

We rested our backs against the wall, squinted into the sun, and pulled out our lunches. I was having another one of Jake’s specialties, PB&J. Jonny chomped on a tangerine, a Ho Ho, and a piece of mayo-slathered salami that he had pulled out of a soggy-looking sandwich.

“Nice feast,” I said.

“Ho Hos rock.”

Three big guys walked by. My eyes were at jeans level, and I spotted a folded Fender guitar strap hanging out of one of the dudes’ back pockets. Keeping in mind Jonny’s anti-band attitude and Ronaldo’s very first rule to rock by, I got up and started following them.

“Annabelle, wait up,” Jonny said. “Bad idea!”

But I was already off and running.

I followed the jeans until I could get a better view of the kid wearing them. He was massive, adult-tall, with slicked-back hair and the beginnings of a scraggly goatee. He had on the mirrored sunglasses of a cop and a swimmer’s broad shoulders. Had to be an eighth grader. I walked alongside him until he couldn’t ignore me anymore.

Finally, he stopped and faced me.

“What?” he said. His buddies turned around, and I immediately recognized one of them as Curly Burly. Disaster. But it was too late. I was on the spot now.

“You … play guitar?”

“You … know who you’re talking to?” the guy said in a voice unbelievably deep for a middle schooler. He turned to Jonny, who had just caught up to us and was so out of breath he had to put his hands on his knees to keep from hyperventilating. “Fatty McGoth, you want to introduce me to this … Muppet?”

“Annabelle … this is Jackson Royer,” Jonny said. “Jackson, this is Annabelle. She’s, um, a bass player, and she’s starting a band.” Jonny stuttered a bit and kept his eyes on the floor.

“Thanks for the translation,” Jackson said, smirking. He peered out from the top of his sunglasses and looked me up and down so slowly that I could feel my flesh crawl. Somehow, I still had time to wonder how much hair product it took to keep a slickie like his going all day long. Once we got super friendly, I’d have to ask him.

“What are you going to do, Beatles Girl—sing ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ until McGoth lets you be his girlfriend?”

“Ha-ha, Jackson. Hilarious,” Jonny said.

“I thought it was amusing, myself,” Jackson said. “Jonny, remind your new lady friend: no eye contact.”

I could feel my face go red. The heat started in my neck and spread across my entire face in about a half second. I tried to say something, but the words died on their journey up my throat. Jackson turned toward Jonny, took off the shades, and looked at the scar above his lip like a doctor examining a patient.

“It’s healing quite nicely,” Jackson said, walking away. “Good luck with your little project, Beatles Girl!”

“Annabelle, maybe you should slow things down a little,” Jonny said. “I was about to tell you, number one, that Jackson’s already
in
a band, and that, number two—”

“Why did he say your scar’s healing nicely?”

“Nothing. Forget it.”

“Did that guy give you the scar?”

“I said forget it.”

“Okay, fine. So there’s
another
band at Federal Hill?” I said.

“Yeah, there’s Jackson’s band, Raising Cain. They’re heavy. They’re all eighth graders. And they’re really good.”

“So I’ve heard. What grade are you in anyway? You’re sixth, right?”

“Seventh. But I occasionally allow sixth graders to talk to me.” A quick smile. “Anyway, listen. Even more important is that Jackson Royer is easily the biggest jerk in the whole school. There’s no point in talking to him. He’ll just mess with your head.”

“Okay, I get the message.”

Here’s a new rule to rock by
, I thought.

Rock stars don’t let bullies mess with their heads.

THE CHURCH OF ROCK

“Hey ho, let’s go!” Xavier shouted the next Saturday morning, processed sugar pumping through his veins. He was skateboarding wildly inside the house, although for once it was for a very specific reason. See, a miracle had taken place: my dad had agreed to take some time off from mixing the Benny and Joon album, and the Cabreras were going on … a family outing.

“Nick, honey, have you seen the blanket?” my mom asked.

“Babe, we’re not going camping,” said Dad. “We’re just going for a walk. Right?”

“I thought we could go to Roger Williams Park. It’s supposed to be beautiful there. I packed lunches.”

“Roger Williams Park! Roger Williams Park! Roger Williams Park!” X chanted.

“I said I could take a couple hours off, not the whole day,” Dad said.

“Whole day off, whole day off!” X had obviously entered a chanting phase, and it was grating on all of our nerves. My nine-year-old brother was starting to act six again. Or maybe five? Not cool. Not cool at all.

“Nick,” Mom said, “can I talk to you for a second … in private?”

I had to laugh at that one. There was no such thing as “in private” in our place. Unless they were going to lock themselves in the bathroom and whisper like church mice, X and I would hear every word.

My mom took my dad’s elbow and steered him toward the kitchen. They actually did a pretty good job, because I just heard a few snippets.

“… almost finished with it …,” said Dad.

“… but that was the whole point …,” Mom said.

“… what puts food on the table …”

“… not about the money and you know it …”

“… come to a compromise …”

“Okay, okay.”

“… I’ll do my best … you know I love you …”

“Yes I do … now where is that blanket?”

Mom walked back toward us. “Okay, kids, we’ve got it all figured out. We’re going to take a walk over to Brown. We’ll do a little window shopping, maybe get some ice cream—”

“J and J’s Candy Bar, J and J’s Candy Bar!” X chanted the name of a great ice cream place on Thayer Street, one we passed every time we went into town, as he literally tried to run up a wall.

“Xavier, honey, you need to calm down, okay?” Mom said.

“Sugar is the last thing X needs,” my dad said, but he said it nicely, ruffling X’s hair and giving him a playful swat on the butt. I could tell X was glad to have my dad’s attention, but it didn’t calm him down at all. If anything, it revved him up even more.

On the way out the door, Mom tried to take X’s hand, but he twisted out of her grip. He zipped down the staircase, sliding on the handrail like a maniac. So we had it all: parental tension
and
my brother dancing on the edge of chaos in the key of fourth grade.

X had never been this bad in Brooklyn. Sure, he had always been a sugar freak. He could get out of control like any nine-year-old. And my parents were horrible at controlling him. But Abuela and I had always been able to calm him down, and when he
was
mellow, he was an incredibly cool guy. He was hilarious at imitations, he was a great dancer, and he had a ridiculous memory for baseball statistics. How many nine-year-olds do you know who can do the moonwalk while reciting Albert Pujols’s slugging percentage for the last five seasons?

X was really sweet and considerate, too. Since age four he’d been making his own presents for the whole family on Christmas and birthdays. He’d spend a whole day making cards and collages out of whatever materials he could find in the house: glue, tinsel, toy soldiers, jigsaw pieces, spices from Abuela’s cabinets. But ever since the move all he seemed to want to do was blabber nonsense, skate inside the house, and generally annoy the bejesus out of everybody in sight. I hadn’t had an actual conversation with him in weeks. Nobody had.

“What a gorgeous day. I feel like I haven’t been outside in ages,” my mom said, apparently trying to steer the SS
Cabrera
toward some friendlier waters.

Dad was a half block in front of us, trying to keep up with X.

“You haven’t,” I said. “You’re making a record. It’s always like this when you’re making a record.”

“You’re right. It’s been too long. Too long since I’ve spent any time with my daughter, too.” She tousled my hair. “How were your first couple weeks of school?”

“Do you really want to know? This is the first time since school started that you’ve talked to me for more than two minutes.”

“Baby, I’m sorry.” She stopped. “Belle?”

I stopped after a few feet, and she walked toward me. She reached out, about to touch my shoulder, then pulled back.

“Belle, I promise that things will go back to normal … some kind of normal … when this record is done. I know this move’s been hard on you, and I want you to know that I know that. It’s been hard for me and your dad, too.” Did Dad even notice what state he was in when he was this obsessed? “We’ll all get through this, I promise. So … will you tell me how Federal Hill is?”

“It’s okay, I guess.”

I walked on, head down, trying to decide if I was going to let her off this easy. The weird thing is that if I had been in her position, with my band and a new recording studio at my beck and call, I wouldn’t want to be the typical parent, either. I’d just want to be in the studio all day, dreaming up new songs, new sounds.

“Okay, how?”

“I mean in some ways it might be even worse than Sunset Park.”

“What ways?”

“It’s just thug boys playing tough and girls in halter tops. Rock is dead.”

“Well, give it time. You trying to find people to play music with?”

“Yeah. Trying. It’s hard, though.”

Up ahead, I saw X swinging monkey-style on my dad’s right bicep. Dad turned around and gave my mom a pleading look. She ignored it.

“It’s never easy, finding people you like
and
like to play with. Before your dad, I just went from band to band to band. Nothing ever clicked.”

“Tell me the story again? How you guys met?”

“Again?”

“Come on. I like it.”

I knew that I was still supposed to be mad at my mom. But it was just easier to let her off the hook, and I
wanted
the story. I needed it. It gave me hope. If Mom had conquered Ronaldo’s first rule of rock, so would I.

“I’ve told you that story a thousand times.”

She brushed back her hair and smiled. It was true. I was always asking her to tell me the story of how Benny and Joon came to be. I couldn’t help it. It was like the best VH1
Behind the Music
ever. It was romantic
and
it was about rock ’n’ roll.

“Okay, okay … It was a little over thirteen years ago. The grunge years. I had just moved to New York from Ohio, and I didn’t know a soul. I used to get up, get a Vietnamese coffee from this little place in the East Village, and grab the
Village Voice
. This was before the Internet was really that big, so musicians put ads in the
Voice
when they were looking for band members. Your dad’s ad definitely stood out.”

“What’d it say?”

“You’ve probably got it memorized by now, I’ve told this story so many times.”

“Come on, just tell it right.”

“It said, ‘Kurt Cobain’s guitars are hurting my eardrums. Let’s hide out in my room and play pretty records. Sick-of-it-all singer/guitar player seeks bass and drums.’ ”

“But you play keyboards.”

“I just liked the ad, and I went for it. I showed up at his apartment … it was right around the corner from me. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought he might be a ninety-pound weakling who hadn’t seen sunlight in years. I didn’t know if he’d be able to play—I didn’t know whether the man would be able to hold a conversation. But I was curious. I couldn’t not go.”

“So what did you think when you first saw him?”

“Well, it took him a long time to answer the door, I’ll tell you that much. And when he did, he looked like he hadn’t been sleeping very well. He hadn’t shaved in a couple of days, and he was wearing a white V-neck T-shirt with yellow stains under the armpits.”

“Gross!”

“Yeah, maybe. But he was so sweet. And innocent, like a little boy …”

This I didn’t get. What’s cute about a guy who acts like a little kid?

“He was holding a to-go coffee cup, and the first thing he did when he saw me was spill it on his jeans.”

“More stains.”

“Yeah, more stains. As soon as he recovered, he realized that I was still carrying my keyboard on my shoulder, so he put his coffee down and helped me get it into his apartment. The place was so tiny. And dirty. He was sharing it with I don’t know how many other musicians, and they never cleaned the place. There were dishes in the sink that must have been in there for months.”

“Wait, I can take it from here,” I said.

“Okay. Go for it.” My mom laughed.

“Then he pulled out his guitar and played you a really beautiful song. He had been writing songs since he was sixteen and he’d never really played them for anyone else, so he was super nervous. But you just sat there, and you crushed out on him
and
the songs he was playing. You started to play along. He liked what you were doing, and he asked you if you could sing. You started to harmonize, and it was awesome. You were just looking at each other like,
Is this a dream?
Then, after an hour or so, he just leaned over and kissed you like you had known each other forever. Like it was nothing. And then a year later I was born.”

She laughed. “It wasn’t quite that simple, but yes, we did get serious right away. We didn’t think about it at all. We just went for it.”

See, my mom can be pretty cool when she wants to be. I just wish she wanted to be a little more often.

My dad was waiting for us by the time we got to Thayer Street. I tried to picture him the way my mom must have seen him back then. He was still unshaven, still obsessed with music. But he didn’t seem like someone who would lean over and kiss somebody he’d met an hour earlier. He just seemed tired and cranky.

“Okay, babe, it’s tag-team time. I need a break.”

X had already run ahead of him by a block and was waiting with puppy dog eyes in front of J & J’s Candy Bar.

“The kid is pretty whacked today,” Dad said. “You sure ice cream’s a good idea?”

“It’s my fault. For mentioning it at home,” my mom said.

We gathered at the shop, ordered ice creams—sugar free for X, not that it made a noticeable difference—and kept moving.

“Should we say hi to Don?” I asked.

“Perfect,” Dad said. “Don loves X. Maybe he can surrogate-parent for us.”

I had been planning for this possibility while my mom was telling the origin myth. We needed a tension breaker. And we couldn’t take a stroll down Thayer Street and
not
enter the Church of Rock, known to mortals as Don Daddio’s Guitars.

BOOK: Rules to Rock By
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