Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven
He thought of himself as a Rocker, if for no other reason than that he had all along sensed that everyone must think of themselves as something. But identifying himself as a Rocker, which was not a process of self discovery or trial and error, but rather a random decision made in the uncertain days after graduating high school, never brought him any nearer any peace. Then again, he figured, that was supposed to be the point. Rockers were meant to live a life of turbulence and impoverished excess. So he never took any guitar lessons; never made an honest attempt at becoming a vocalist. In fact, he never took any serious steps towards becoming a musician in any sense. The point of rock had nothing to do with music; it had everything to do with attitude. He knew that becoming a Rocker would involve a certain level of spirit, and that only time, and not music, could decide whether or not he had the spirit necessary.
He did however allow himself to believe that he at least looked like a Rocker, though that was much more due to financial necessity. He left his hair to grow long. It was cheaper than paying fifteen dollars to get it cut every other month. He never shaved because razors and creams cost money. And what cheaper wardrobe was there than an indomitable leather jacket, though it had shrunk some in the Los Angeles rainstorms it weathered, and was never the right size anyhow, and tattered black jeans with holes up to the inside of his hips, threatening to expose his pathetic, white dick at any moment? He never wore anything else. He owned no other clothes. For all of the grunge and punk his image evoked, it was really just a practical style. Still, with the long beard and long hair of the homeless, another identity he was never far from assuming, he did strike a sense of, probably not the fear he intended, but at least confusion in the people who saw him on the streets. And if you asked one of those people what he looked like, giving them a few hints in the right direction, they would agree that, yes, he looked like a Rocker.
But, standing at the precipice of the afterlife, he did not feel like a Rocker. It was much more the opposite. For the first time he felt satisfied to accept that he had never been a Rocker, would never be a Rocker, and more likely was meant to be something less extreme, less determined by intangible forces, less prone to give him such grief, like a data entry specialist or a package deliverer. Still, when he got his pamphlet, his eyes were involuntarily drawn to Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven, which was near the bottom of the list, lodged between Sports Heaven and Movie Heaven. There were other things that caught his attention, particularly Sex Heaven and Woman Heaven, but he worried about the embarrassment he might be subjected to in those places, and further, it was unclear to him whether Woman Heaven was a heaven meant for women or a heaven full of women. With only one chance at this, he decided it would be less risky to just go with something he knew well, take his tour through Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven, and be done with it.
The silver escalator took him upwards, which seemed far preferable to going downwards, towards whatever might be below heaven, and wound through the many levels of clouded architecture. The clouds were still clouds, in that he could almost see through them and they floated gently on the breeze, but there was a more defined shape to these clouds; these were not clouds with which a lover’s gaze might interpret their daydreams, but sturdier clouds that convinced him that something was actually out there beyond the edges of the rising escalator. He was sure, then, that Heaven was much realer than any song had ever led him to believe.
At some point, the escalator leveled off and the silver steps disappeared into golden tiles. He followed the walkway onward, using the great pillars in the distance to gauge direction, but though he felt he had walked for a very long while, he was no nearer the pillars; the walls of clouds that surrounded the golden walkway and the bottomlessly blue sky were the same in every direction. Sight was useless where he stood, as were his senses of recognition or realization, and it became a waiting game. He lay down to rest on the gilded tiles, which were smooth and comfortable, more liquid than solid, but sleep would not come to him, for the dead do not sleep. Instead, he lay there surrounded by the yellow gold and stared into infinity. Many hours passed. Unbeknownst to him, many years passed, until the Voice came to take him away from all that infinity.
“Is it true that you have chosen Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven?” said the Voice.
His eyes still wide with sleeplessness, he searched about him for the source of the Voice. He found nothing, just the clouds and the gold.
“Well?” continued the Voice, annoyed.
The Voice was not coming from any place in particular, but rather from every direction all at once, even from within himself. It was a jarring sensation to be covered in sound like that; it was similar to the way a new song used to be able to give him goose bumps and make him feel like he was going to cry, but much more powerful and much more complete.
He croaked, having not used his own voice in so long, “Yeah…I did.”
“As it was when it became so, before you are cast down to the eternal fire and flame of the world below, as your final wish, you have chosen to visit Rock n’ Roll Heaven. Is this correct?”
He knew it was useless, and he knew it was true, but he asked anyway, “I’m going to Hell?”
The Voice enveloped him, “Is this correct?”
“Yeah. Sure," he relented.
“Please move through the doorway on your left.”
He turned to his left and found the doorway where there was no doorway before and slid off of the golden surface for good, moving through the doorway’s black arches with a calm that was not his own. Ever since he got to this clouded place, he has felt calmer than usual. It has been a welcome feeling, one that he had sought after for most of his natural life, but accompanied by the inescapable knowledge that it is not his calm; it is a calm being inflicted upon him by the visceral touches of the afterlife. And he knew, from lyrics that taught him about such things, that without freewill, there is no happiness. There is no peace but what we can create for ourselves.
Past the black arches, he stepped into a large, empty room.
“This is the beginning. As with all journeys, there is a starting point and an ending point. Rock ‘n’ Roll is no different, except that it got its start by accident. Rock ‘n’ Roll is a fluke,” said the Voice.
He twisted his head upwards, looking to the far white corners of the room, but there was nothing to see.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll was a miserable old soul, born of the ancient times, of stone and fire, and it was too dangerous to be let out into the world. It feasts on lust and greed and angst; it finds a rhythm in the downtrodden, the neglected, the spiritually bankrupt; it tears out the insides of the moral man. It belongs here, trapped, so it can’t hurt anybody. And for countless millennia, this is where it stayed. Waiting.”
The Voice pauses. He continues staring up at the white nothingness that surrounds him in the empty room, from which there is no exit. Even the black arches have disappeared. The room is one contiguous wall that stretches into a perfect square from which there is no exit.
The Voice returns, “Granted, Rock ‘n’ Roll was a slow process, cherry picking various bits from things in the past, like a scavenger, going back all the way to the First Beginning, sampling the gaseous blasts of the Big Bang, but then, moving forward in time, stealing the pure energy from the fire-dances of the African bushmen, the raw emotion from the Icelandic throat singers, the focused power of Tibetan monk chanting, and the sultry seduction of the Sirens, marooned on that forsaken island, pulling sailors to their deaths. Rock ‘n’ Roll is all of these things, and like anything else, is nothing more than a copy of a copy, incorporating elements that it had no hand in creating, passing off pre-existing ideas as its own. But to pinpoint the creation of Rock ‘n’ Roll as you know it, with its rhythmic sadness and hyperbole, one need not look back very far at all.”
The Voice speaks with dispassion, as if telling a story it assumes everyone knows and the retelling is just pointless procedure, benefiting no one.
“It started when that old boozehound, Chuck Berry, fresh out of jail, got a job at the automobile plant. There, working on the assembly line, Chuck is exposed to a symphony of clanging sheets of metal and bouncing rubber tires and screeching powersaws and the gruff, honest voice of the Working Man. All the noise gathers in his head, funneling into a very distinct sound. At that point, all it took was some severe disturbance in his life to let that noise out. And three years after the war ended, three days before All Hallow’s Eve, Chuck got married, which, for better or worse, was more than enough to let Rock ‘n’ Roll loose.”
A doorway appeared in front of him.
“Please move into the next room,” the Voice says politely.
Ducking through more black arches, he emerges into a very small room, appearing even smaller compared to the limitless room he had just been in. Taking up half the space of the room is a crusty couch, laminated in red suede. On one side of the couch sits an obese woman in a dirty bathrobe, her greasy hair falling about her many chins.
“Sit down,” the Voice instructs, not as politely.
Careful to leave a healthy distance of red suede between him and the fat woman, he takes up a spot at the extreme opposite edge of the loveseat. He gazes at the woman openly, for she seems completely unaware of her surroundings, licking her lips and dripping massive globules of drool onto her enormous breasts, which press against the collar of the bathrobe like underwater volcanoes.
“This is You.”
He looks to the ceiling, continuing to make the mistake in thinking that the Voice is coming from some overhead speaker system, when he knows it is in fact coming from every particle of every thing: the red suede, the globules of drool, even the holes in his jeans.
“This is me?”
The Voice responds angrily at being misunderstood, “No! This is You. Her name is You.”
He stares at You, who has stuffed her fat, sausage fingers into her mouth, sucking them for flavor.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“She is a victim of adoration. She has been gorged on her own beauty.”
He stares at the trail of acne leading down You’s neck, the whiskers on her fat cheeks, her bulbous elbows, and that awful, greasy tangle of hair.
He asks the Voice, “She’s supposed to be beautiful?”
“There is no such thing as beauty, just as there is no such thing as a sunset or a thunderstorm. These are collectively held impressions of things that are created by perception. She appears to you now as the songs imagined her.”
“People wrote songs about her?”
“Yes. Millions upon millions. Almost every song that ever existed is written about You or to You. Unfortunately, that type of exaltation can really go to someone’s head. Her narcissism has completely collapsed on itself. Now, she can barely understand the songs written about her. Each one seems more hollow and less important than the ones that came before.”
You, finished sucking on one set of fingers, inserts the other hand in her mouth and gets to work on the other set.
“So this is where all those sappy love songs go? Into this behemoth?”
“They don’t go into her as much as they constitute her. She wouldn’t exist without the songs, but at the same time, the songs are destroying her. In a few years, there will be nothing left.”
You finally turns her head in his direction and devours him with big, hungry eyes. Her wild, uneven eyelashes flutter. She sucks her fingers even harder, making big suctioned sounds with her spit.
“I think I’ve seen enough of this room.”
He jumps off the couch just before You’s mammoth hand makes its way across the red suede and onto his lap.
“As you wish,” says the Voice. You disappears. A doorway takes the place where the couch had been.
The first thing he notices in the next room is its familiar smell. Strings of lights on the ceiling shine to life, illuminating the green paint on the walls and the rows of cages that lead off going forward and sideward. Woken by the lights, the animals in the cages animate themselves, hooting, screeching, barking, and howling at one another in a furious animal chorus.
Recognizing the smell as the manure-scent of a dirty zoo, he steps to the first cage and sees a lovely feline curled into a peaceful ball of repose. She notices him approach her cage and puts on airs of seduction, beckoning with furry eyelashes that lap gently over her dilated, sienna pupils.
The Voice explains, “She is the Lady Fox.”
He pulls himself from the Lady Fox’s trance and continues down the rows of cages, finding all manner of animal life lined up against the green walls: monkees, barracudas, buffalo, ratts, piggies, wild horses, and dogs upon dogs. One cage has three black dogs stuffed inside it. Another contains a giant scamp of a dog, more hound than dog, which looks, despite its size, as though it could never catch a rabbit no matter how long it tried. Near the end of the dog cages, in the distance, a small oval-shaped cage catches his eye, hanging from the ceiling, elevated well above the mutts below. Once he gets near it, he sees that it is a birdcage.
The bird inside is a quiet little creature with grey wings and orange feet. He peers into the cage, looking closely at the bird, and detects a hint of sweetness in its eyes. There is longing in the eyes too, in the little beads of black that rest above its tiny grey beak, but the bird seems comfortable with its longing.
The Voice erupts above the growling of the dogs, “He is very cute. Yes. And if you care to listen, he can sing you soft songs of lost loves. But be careful, for if you let him loose for too long, he gets a little out of control.”
“Why, what happens?”
“It’s as if he can’t help himself. After a few minutes of melody, he always tangents into a half hour solo of ear-shattering gobbledygook. Very unruly and intense. It never seems to end. So you have to be careful about how much freedom you give the little guy. You can’t give him too much.”
He is staring deeply at the bird, his nose stuck between the vertical bars of the cage, when it suddenly expands into a massive, multi-colored raven, the largest of the songbirds, and begins flapping its neon feathers violently, squawking and squealing at a fevered pitch. He steps away from the cage, rubbing the tip of his nose, where the raven pecked him harshly.
“Fuck you too, little buddy,” he scolds the bird as it continues to thrash in the cage. Looking to his side, he sees that the rows of cages continue on forever, and in no mood to do anything forever, he calls out to the Voice.
“Okay. Let’s move on.”
The Voice swoons in reply, “As you wish.”
The next room brings a smell worse than manure and he recognizes it immediately, having awoken so many mornings surrounded by its pungent force. He steps forward, to the edge of the pool and looks down at the brown water, which he can tell right away is not water at all, but vomit. The surface of the vomit is mostly still, save for small injection needles that bob to the surface from place to place, sending tiny ripples through the fleshy chunks of bile.
The Voice explains, “This is the Purge Room.”
He searches for the opposite edge of the pool, surprised to find it less than fifty yards in front of him, unaware that the endlessness of the Purge Room is not side to side, but downward; one could travel on forever, descending through the regurgitated depths.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll is too temperamental to be anything but cyclical. Each generation, each half a generation, each half of a half, redefines Rock ‘n’ Roll to suit its own purposes. Like a parasite, gaining life force by leeching from other sources of life, Rock ‘n’ Roll goes through endless cycles of destroying itself. Rock Stars cannot help but experiment with new techniques as a disavowal of the past, though those techniques, as I’ve explained, are nothing but a larceny of that past. They forge an identity by hating everything that came before, defining themselves in negation, but when the evolution is complete, the purpose fades and the hate remains, redirected inward. When times are bad, Rock Stars purge themselves of the past. When times are good, they purge themselves.”
A hazy purple smoke lifts out of the vomit. A few plastic baggies make their way to the surface, catching on the needles. He bends down to try and find his reflection in the liquid chunks, but he sees nothing, not only because dead people have no reflection, but because the chunks are too thick and murky and brown.
“Jim Morrison is down there somewhere. He comes up from time to time, if there’s some organ music to be heard.”
Overcome by the smell, he stands up, the puke flashes into nothingness, as if absorbed by a massive sponge, and he moves through the black arches where the pool had been. The new room is narrow, but impossibly tall, with wood panels rising upward farther than the eye’s reach, shuttling into some far above vanishing point.
He begins to ask, “What is…”
But his words explode, doubling, tripling, quadrupling in volume, ricocheting from wall to wall, panel to panel, reverberating into a deafening crescendo. The cacophony of sound is brutally loud, shockingly loud; as loud as pain, as deep and powerful as lightning. It is a room from which no sound can escape; the sound simply expands upon itself like an infinite volume knob being twisted to the right in perpetuity. It is louder than even the Voice, which makes no sense, as the Voice is all, the Voice is everything, but still, it is louder than the Voice. Only, when the Voice speaks, he can hear it easily above the noise that rampages on, growing louder and louder.
“This is the Humble Room. Man lives in a finite world. Everyone must die. Rock ‘n’ Roll is no different. Yet, the egotism of man leads him to believe that his creations are immortal and that there will always be someone there to remember what has come before. So Rockers involve themselves in a foolish game of one-upmanship, each struggling to get to the top of the dung-heap, inspired by the illusion that whoever sings the best, plays the best, looks the best, or is loved the most will somehow find life beyond the mortal bonds of humanity. So they pile their efforts on top of one another, spiraling skyward to the biggest and the boldest.”
The sound progresses upward. Just when he thinks it can go no louder, it redoubles itself, pressing down on him. He falls to his knees in surrender to the sound. It cares not. It gets louder.
“It is here that we keep the ridiculous things that come of this ridiculous game. It is here that we store the runs and rolls and wails and shrieks and scats and be-bops and flourishes and moans and blares and hoots and hollers and squeals and growls that cry out for attention. There isn’t a single sincere note in the bunch.”
The sound is an up-tick away from finishing him off.
“Okay, that’s enough,” the Voice commands, in mercy, and all falls silent.
All that remains, besides the silence, are the blank wood panels and the vacant space left behind the silence. Black arches appear, but after he gains his footing and staggers through them, the arches turn a shade of midnight blue and then evaporate inside the new room, which is likewise blanketed in midnight blue. The walls are blue, the ceiling is blue, the old, blue lanterns hang from blue hooks, the blue-painted rocking chairs are topped with blue seat cushions, and even the ground, where one would expect to see a blue floor, is covered by a fine layer of soft grass, each blade, from tip to root, dressed in midnight blue. Gaining his senses, or perhaps losing them further in the inferno of blue, he gets a whiff of Alabama woodchips, but before he can understand why he knows the smell to be Alabama woodchips, when he has never been to Alabama, nor smelled its woodchips, the Voice is rushing him away from the blue room.
“Let’s move on. I don’t really understand this room, to tell the truth.”
He stares out into the blueness, conceding that he doesn’t understand it either.
“But black people seem to love it.”
On cue with the word black, the black arches appear and he hurdles through them, finding himself alongside a forested glen. He takes a breath of air and finds it to be what he remembers of nature’s air. Clear water streams through the mossy glen, sloping downward to where the tree line disappears in the overhanging foliage. He searches around him, admiring the peace of it all.
A plume of color catches his eye just across the tiny stream. Resting against the face of a leaning tree, he spots a gleaming hunk of horseshoe-shaped metal. Looking harder, he sees the skinny shaft protruding from the base, seemingly held together by the silver strings that run the entirety of its length. The closer he looks, the more defined the colors become: intersecting lines of black and white and a vivid red, layered on top of each other in a way that makes the foundational color impossible to discern. The colors just scramble around each other, headed in opposing directions, crisscrossing the silver knobs and squares that carve into the surface, emboldened in relief. Leaping over the stream to get nearer, he knows what he sees before landing on the opposite bank, without having recognized the humbucker in the bridge position, or even the signature Floyd Rose; he would know that guitar anywhere. It’s the Frankenstrat.
The Voice joins him in the wilderness just as he is running his hand along the neck of the guitar, “There is no other guitar like this in the entire world.”
He knows it’s true. One only needed to look at it to know it was true.
“The miniscule cuts and scratches in the wood, the grooves on the frets, the shape of the body, the vibration from the strings, the glimmer from the pick-ups; this instrument can create a sound that cannot be duplicated. Not exactly, anyway. Sound is beautiful in this regard: it never occurs twice in the same way. Either the sound changes, or the listener changes, but either way, once a sound is heard, it can never be heard again. And there is power in impermanence: the less things happen, the more meaningful they become.”
A strap appears and he slings the Frankenstrat over his head. It rests nicely against his stomach. Suddenly, a pick is in his hand. He forms a G-chord and strums it slowly, savoring all six notes. And the Voice is right. It is a G-chord he has never heard before: the growl of a minor chord, the brightness of a major, the unforgiving vibrato of an I-beam. He imagines what the guitar would sound like through an amp, but of course, there is already an amp connected to the guitar by a long black cord, pulsating in anticipation, knobs twisted up to ten, maybe even eleven, but he doesn’t know what to play.
It had happened to him before, even when he spent weeks rehearsing with the band and memorizing the set list. He would get on stage, the microphones would go live, the drummer would count it off on the cymbals, the crowd would simmer to hear what song was coming, and he wouldn't be able to remember what to play. It was as if a vacuum had come to suck him dry before the performance even began, leaving him empty and useless. He had no way of explaining himself afterwards, it was just that when the moment came, it was never what he thought it would be and the music just wasn’t inside him. It didn’t take long for his band mates to grow weary of the embarrassment and ditch him for whoever else they could scrounge up, but by that time, convinced the music would never be inside him when he needed it to be, he had tuned out life altogether, sedating himself with harder and harder drugs until there was no one left to beg for money, nowhere to spend the night, no one to return his calls, and no one to convince him his life was worth a damn thing.
Now terrified of the thing curled around his neck, he rips it off and chucks it into the stream. The silver strings clang against the stones that funnel the stream into shape, and as he escapes through the black arches, he can still hear them vibrating.
He emerges in a darkened theater which is empty. He walks to the front, just below the grey projection screen, and sits down. The movie begins immediately.
On the screen, he sees himself. Only, he isn’t the violent, angry, loathsome thing he imagines himself to be. He is little more than a kid, really. His hair is long, his beard is matted and long, and his clothes are rough, but beneath these things, there is only a scared little kid riding the escalator to the afterlife, unsure of what is to come. The Voice joins him in the dark theater.
“This is you on the Stairway to Heaven. Well, it used to be a stairway at least. Things change, even in Heaven.”
He watches the silver steps of the escalator become the golden walkway. He watches himself walk on the golden tiles for hours, going nowhere, not caring. Then, the him on the screen settles to the ground, abandoning his search. It is upsetting to watch how long he stays there, doing nothing but staring up at the sky. Years pass. He cries out to himself to get up, to do something. Nothing happens. He lays there on the screen and he sits there in the theater, helpless to himself in either place. After a long time, the screen goes blank. Black arches appear.
The Voice snorts.
“Are you sure?” asks the Voice.
“Then there is just one more place to see.”
Eager to get things done as quickly as possible, he stands up and floods through the black arches, but there is no room on the other side. There is only darkness. He looks down at himself and sees nothing. He is as disembodied as the Voice.
“This, of course, is the room of Hate. This is where Rock ‘n’ Roll dies. But in many ways, this is where it has been all along.”
He stares out at the obsidian blackness. It is infinite and eternal.
“Anything that defines itself with pain and misery has no choice but to hate itself. It is a hate that feeds upon itself, exaggerating its own illusions, satisfied by nothing but self destruction.”
The Voice goes silent. In the empty darkness, he has a last wish that the Voice would return, if only for a moment, just to say goodbye…
“This is the end.”
Though the words are not his own, he feels as if they are, as if the Voice had been his own, all along, and that those words had always been his, or more exactly, that those words were the only words he had ever known. Of course he hated himself. Of course this was the end. He killed himself, hadn’t he? But from the remove of death, that hate seems more transitory than it had felt near that end, when it was everything he knew. Perhaps, he imagines, he could have shifted that hate onto something else, maybe something less tangible, like Heaven or Rock ‘n’ Roll, and he would have been alright, but then the darkness bottoms out and he falls to the depths below.