"My Life as a Rock Star" By Jaan Landheer
Updated: Jan 15
- Moving In -
When we arrive at the college dorms, there are cars everywhere. It is a chaotic scene of boxes, bedding, mattresses, desks, bikes and trinkets in boxes strewn everywhere. My parent’s green Volvo station wagon is packed with surfboards on the rack, a computer, printer, school supplies, guitars, amplifiers, posters of Bob Marley, the Beatles, Hendrix, Dylan, sports gear, a soccer ball, a snow board and a Trek mountain bike strapped on the back.
I carry my acoustic Martin guitar up the narrow stairs of the hallway to my new room and the door is propped open by a pile of half-empty boxes. There is already a poster of Andre Agassi pinned up on one side of the room. I see my new roommate rummaging through books and DVDs, carefully arranging them on his desk. He’s about 5’ 6’’and is already equipped with a bright yellow UCSC Slugs baseball cap.
His parents are huddled on my side of the room, digging through desk supplies and t-shirts, frantically putting them on shelves and in drawers.
“Mom, don’t go through my clothes, I got it!” he whines.
“I am almost done, let me just fold these last…”
“I said I got it!” He takes the t-shirts and stuffs them in the drawer. I gently knock on the open door.
“Hey, I’m Jaan.” I stick out my hand and he puts a box down to exchange a weak handshake.
“Nanden,” he says in a quiet mumble, his dark brown eyes stuck on the murky off-white carpet. We all introduce ourselves. Our parents start chatting about how they ended up in California, how beautiful it is up north, and I tune out.
“So where you from again?” I ask Nanden.
“Bay Area, but I was born in Sri Lanka. And you said you were from Santa Barbara, right?”
“Yep, born and raised.” I gaze at the life-size poster of Agassi in mid-swing. An uncomfortable silence spreads.
“Do you want any help with anything before we leave?” asks my mom.
“No, I’m cool. Thanks for helping me move in and everything.”
“Of course, we love you. Take good care of yourself. Remember to eat well and get sleep, OK?” She looks at me for a moment and her eyes get glassy. She puts her hands to her face and I give her a hug.
“I’ll be fine, don’t worry.”
“Call us if you need anything,” says Dad. “We’re only four hours away.”
When our parents finally shut the door, we kick back.
“So do you know your major yet?” asks Nanden. I imagined my first conversation in college would be about beer. I had my top five memorized just in case.
“Yeah, I want to be a creative writing major and music minor. How ‘bout you?”
“Computer science or film I think. I write a lot of poetry too... So what films do you like? Have you ever seen Waking Life?”
“Yeah, I’m more of a Pulp Fiction fan though. I don’t really like animated movies.”
“But the concepts are ingenious!” he adds quickly.
“I guess.” I try to change the subject. “So, do you have a girlfriend or anything?” Nanden smiles.
“Check this out.” He rolls up his shirtsleeve to reveal a circular bruise the size of a golf ball. “She gave it to me, to remember her.”
I don’t know quite what to say. That’s awesome! What a great idea!
“Looks sore,” I say matter-of-factly. I scan his side of the room some more. I notice a pack of cigarettes on his desk.
“You smoke?” I ask. I don’t want our room smelling like butts.
“Just cloves on special occasions. You wanna have one?”
“No, I’m cool. Have you checked out the knoll?”
“No, what’s that?”
“It’s the grassy field that overlooks the ocean. I think I’m gonna go play some guitar down there before it gets dark. I saw a lot of people hanging out. You wanna come?”
“I think I’m going to get organized first. What kind of stuff do you play?”
“I like to play a lot of stuff, mostly rock. I started with the Beatles on piano when I was a kid and worked my way to jazz improv, but I really got into guitar in high school. I wanna try and start a band up here.”
“That’s cool. I used to play classical guitar.”
“Right on, did you bring it?”
“No. I don’t play it much any more,” he says softly. I don’t see Nanden being a close friend of mine, but I don’t foresee any problems either.
“Well, I’ll see you around later tonight then.”
As I walk down the hall, I’m distracted by a girl moving in next door, as she reaches on her tip-toes to center a painting on her wall.
“Do you need any help?” I ask.
“Oh, hi! I think I got it, thanks though. I’m Grace by the way.” She smiles and looks at me with wide blue eyes.
“That’s a cool name. I’m Jaan, I live next door.”
“Oh, well I guess we’ll be seeing a lot of each other!” She turns to adjust the painting again and her brown curly hair bounces. It’s a Warhol-esque portrait of Jimi Hendrix in red and purple shadows.
“Did you paint that?”
“Oh, yeah. I’ve got other stuff that’s better, but I sell these.”
“That’s cool. I’d like to see more sometime.”
“Yeah, just come on over.”
“Hey, do you wanna go check out the knoll with me?”
“I’m gonna unpack first, but maybe I’ll see you there.”
A group of other freshmen are already congregated drinking and smoking on the knoll. I see my friend Amy from high school. She runs up to me.
“Jaan!” She says, giving me a jumping hug. “How awesome is this place? Are we stoked or what?” I look out at the ocean straight ahead and the redwoods to my left, illuminated by a haze of city lights.
“It’s pretty sweet.”
“You brought your guitar! You should play that song you wrote for Rachel!” Amy starts singing the words, “Don’t look now, she’s coming to cry on my shoulder!” Amy’s been going to see me play since my first coffee shop gig in S.B. “Come meet everybody!” She takes my hand and leads me to a bench under a 50-foot redwood. There’s a crew of freshman drinking beers and passing joints. So this is my new home.
“Everyone, this is Jaan. We grew up together!” Amy fires off names I don’t even try to remember. “He’s a really good guitarist. I asked him to play some songs!”
I’m put on the spot, but there’s no turning back. I start with some classic Sublime, and start singing “What I got.” Amy starts dancing and I see some heads nodding and bobbing to the familiar rhythm. When I get to the chorus, everyone starts chiming in Lovin is what I got, said remember that and I see clouds of smoke rising into the red Pacific sunset. When the song ends, there are sporadic claps and a few drunken yells of approval.
“Yeah! Hey man, my name’s Steve, you want a beer?” asks a tall skinny guy with a glazed grin.
“Sure.” He hands me a cold Natural Light.
“Do you ever freestyle?”
“Not really, but I can make up songs on the spot.”
“Let’s do it man.”
“Yeah, sure.” I drink more and relax. I start ad-libbing words and others contribute with their own off-the-wall lyrics. I play major sevenths and power chords till my fingers are raw and burning.
I take a break to have another beer, and I hear some other guitarists playing on the grassy field. I go investigate with Amy. We take a seat by the players, and I see the gold Martin label on the head of a guitar in the moonlight; same brand as mine. The other is an old acoustic Gibson. Both are quality guitars. The musicians stop playing for a moment, and I introduce myself. I can barely make out their faces.
“Hey, I’m Jaan. Nice playing.”
“Jared,” says the lead guitarist.
“Chase,” the other guy says quietly.
“Do you guys live at Stevenson too?” I ask.
“Yep, we’re both freshies,” says Jared. “Where are you guys from?”
“Santa Barbara, you?” I ask.
“Bay area, Orinda.”
“Have you guys played together before? You sound good.”
“Yeah, we grew up together and were in a band in high school.”
“Right on.” An awkward silence lingers.
“You guys want to smoke?” asks Chase. He smiles as he takes a joint out from behind his ear.
“I’ll take a few hits,” says Amy.
“We should have a jam sesh in the forest!” suggests Jared.
We walk in darkness on dead leaves, the moonlight shaded by giant redwoods. With our cell-phone lights guiding us, we come across a wooded fence wrapping around an old white kiln. There are boards mysteriously barricading the archway entrance. We take seats on the fence and Chase lights the joint. Amy and I didn’t smoke much in high school, but I figure this is as good a time as any.
I try to channel my energy to the music as Jared and Chase play a haunting familiar rhythm. I take a deep breathe of fresh air and try and blend in with slurred vocal harmonies and layered solos on guitar. The song naturally fades into the forest. The subtle echo of passing cars resume.
“That was cool,” says Chase.
“Yeah. So are you guys getting a job up here?” I ask.
“I probably won’t get one till next year, I just wanna surf,” says Jared.
“For sure. I’m looking to come up with some kind of way to make money for a new board with my own hours, you know? I don’t want to be a dealer, too risky, and I want to be my own boss; some kind of niche, maybe after-hour food delivery. A lot of people seem to smoke weed here, and that makes for munchy profits.”
“Jaan,” says Amy, “what are you talking about?” she asks, laughing. I tune her out as I’m in the creative zone.
“Wait…Forget pizza, I could deliver home-made sushi to the dorms! All I need is a good sushi chef. Check it out, we could make California rolls! I’ll buy the ingredients cheap, hand them off to our official chef, and then you guys can market them. What do you guys think?”
“Jaan,” says Amy, with her you’re embarrassing me face she usually reserves for surfing, when I “accidentally” cut someone off their wave. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I think it could be huge! I’m gonna first ask people on campus if they’d buy, and get a sense of our market…”
“Hey man, let’s just chill now,” says Chase.
“Alright, what do you guys wanna play? A cover or something improvised? Do you have any original songs?” I ask excitedly.
We jam on some of Chase and Jared’s songs, and I think I may have found my band. Of course, one of us would have to play bass, but there’s time to decide. For now I need to focus on my craft, play with as many people as possible. I can’t limit my options.
I walk back to the dorms and Nanden is online, looking up tennis stats.
“What’s up man? Have you met anybody else on the floor?” I ask.
He breaks his stare from the computer screen, turns to me, and smiles.
“Actually, there’s a kind of attractive girl down the hall, Morgan, but I don’t know if she’s your type.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s got the L.A. look and you seem more laid back… So are you just all about chillin and surfing?” Nanded looks at my three boards stacked on top of my dresser with a grin.
“I like to surf, but I don’t usually have much time to just chill with school and all.”
“I’m a pretty serious student,” Nanden says wearily.
“Well, I think I’m gonna go to bed man. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Yeah, see you tomorrow. Is it okay if I keep my desk light on?”
I lie awake listening to new instant message alerts while Nanden types away, but it doesn’t really bother me. I can’t sleep anyways.
Even after going to bed at 2 AM and waking up at 5 AM in the lounge for the past three nights of being exiled by Nanden and his girlfriend, I feel more energized than ever. It may have to do with my change in diet. I’ve been inspired to live out my ideals and eat vegan food ever since I saw forestland destroyed in Costa Rica for cattle grazing this summer. For some reason, I can’t seem to eat very much of it though.
I play music every minute I’m not in class. If I’m not playing guitar on the knoll, I’m in the Fireside Lounge playing piano. I take my guitar everywhere, asking anyone I suspect who may play music if they want to jam. I play at the knoll every night, and the crowd gets bigger each time, nearing 30 people.
Tonight I feel bolder and decide to play with Jared in the middle of the quad outside the dorms. A group of our friends circle around us as we play, and Grace does an interpretive dance while others watch. Her long curly hair sways as she shakes her hips to the rhythm. I continue to belt out the last chorus:
Buy nothing and change how we think!
Take action before we’re all extinct!
Buy nothing, take action
Find wealth in satisfaction!
When I’m done playing, I put my guitar in my case and a large man with a walkie talkie wearing a black t-shirt and pants comes up to us. The man looks at Jared with the guitar, beads of sweat running down the man’s bald head.
“Were you the one yelling and making all that noise?” he asks Jared, looking directly at me.
“I was just playing some guitar,” says Jared.
“Well you can’t play out here.” He glances at me and walks off.
“Who the fuck was he?” I ask. Jared shrugs.
I go inside with Grace, and we find a convenient place in the hallway stairs to talk. She’s a close talker, and her eyes are even brighter from a few inches away. I move in for a kiss and she artfully dodges it. I try again and she closes her eyes as our lips meet. She touches my face with her hand and then pulls away.
When I get to my room, I remember that I left my keys inside, and it’s locked.
“Nanden!” I pound on my door with no success. I don’t want to sleep in the lounge again. I knock on Grace’s door to see if I can sleep in her room.
“What’s up?” asks Grace.
“I’m kinda locked out, and I was wondering if I could sleep in your room?”
“Yeah, come in.”
I get high with her roommate Jenny, and she exhales hits toward her lizard named Puff.
I can’t sleep with Grace’s back nestled against me in the single bed.
We go on a walk off-campus the next morning and I can’t stop talking as we pass through an open field of tall yellow weeds.
“I’ve been thinking in terms of music. Everything is a rhythm, you know? Sometimes I pound my feet to the rhythms I hear around me as I walk. Sometimes people look at me funny, but I don’t care.” I pretend to surf on a drain gutter, flailing my arms to feign a cutback.
“Wow, you are so blue right now!” She looks me in the eyes.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I mix colors and sensations sometimes, and you emit a certain blueness. See, I’m orange. It’s called synesthesia, when your senses mix together.”
“I think I might have that too. Sometimes I see sounds or feel colors.” I never knew there was a word for having mixed senses. I feel our artistic energy merging and it makes me want to write a song.
Later that day, I walk across the school field in my robe with my guitar. I pretend to be high as I lie in the middle of the field and people play soccer around me.
I look up at the sky, waiting for some kind of divine intervention for what to do next. I hear a code coming from a fire truck’s radio nearby, as if it’s speaking to me. I walk across the field like rock-n-roll Jesus toward the truck and see a worker’s protest going on down the hill. The people seem to be calling me.
I walk on the side of the road in my sandals, singing a Rage Against the Machine rendition of “Maggie’s Farm,” cars drowning me out as they drive by. The asphalt is hot on my feet, even with sandals. There’s an inviting student produce stand ahead with shade and I haven’t eaten all day.
“Just that apple?” asks the cashier, with an enthusiastic smile.
“Yep…Hey, would you mind if I left my robe behind your stand for a minute?” Her expression suddenly changes.
“It’ll just be for a minute, I have to play a few songs.”
“I guess, but I can’t be held responsible if…”
“Thanks.” There are mostly workers with signs demanding better wages. I play a few quazi-protest songs I know, like “Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and some of the protesters start clapping along. A Channel 4 News van drives by and I wonder if they’re going to put us on TV. I’m not sure I’m ready for that kind of exposure yet. When I’m done playing, a short older woman approaches me.
“You are a good player. Thank you for your music,” she says genuinely. I feel like a rock star, bringing it to the people. Now that I’m winning the streets, I sense it’s time for an ultimate test to see if I’m meant to have my guitar. I carve SC on the mahogany wood below the strings with my fingernail and decide to leave my acoustic by a tree on the side of the road. If I get the guitar back, I’m meant to have it, and if not, it’s an offering. I artfully drape some vines over it and walk away.
When I get back to the dining hall, the vegan tofu doesn’t look especially edible, so I make a salad. I spot Nanden sitting alone in the back facing the windows. I look outside and I see a man in black walk by and say something in his walkie-talkie. I take a seat next to Nanden and make sure no one is listening.
“What’s up man? Look, I need to talk to you. See that guy in black over there?”
“Yeah. Who is he?”
“I think he’s following me.”
“Are you serious?” Nanden looks at me with full attention.
“I think the CIA is onto my music,” I whisper. He looks at me wide-eyed. “Just tell me if you see anything suspicious, OK?”
“Yeah, no problem.” He sits upright and his eyes dart around his food, as if contemplating their organic make-up might solve something. We finish eating so fast there’s no time to talk.
As I’m leaving the dining hall, I grab a handful of Lucky Charms for the road. I see a high-school bully from my hometown, and I decide to toss some cereal in his direction. That’s for four years of being a dick. He looks back at me, but keeps walking.
I play some hackey sack with the boys in the quad. I stall the sack on my shoe and flick it onto Steve, when I see the two guys from the dining hall rush toward me.
“Come here, faggot!” yells the ex-football player. My soccer training pays off as I scurry down a flight of stairs and escape into a vacant classroom. I know I’ll see them again though, and I might not be as lucky.
Later that night, I go check if my guitar is still by the tree where I left it. There’s no sign of it, but I’m not too upset. I still have my Fender Strat for now and it’ll come back to me if it’s meant to be. I decide I want to have a concert, since I almost have a full band with Chase and Jared, so I start promoting. I tell everyone I know that I’m playing at the Quarry Amphitheatre on campus, Friday night at ten. I tell them to bring a candle so it will be like the Nirvana Unplugged concert. I need to practice, so I invite Grace to a private concert on the knoll.
I wish I had my acoustic guitar still, but I figure I can make do with my electric. It’s a nice night, not too cold, and the creative juices are flowing. I decide to try an improvised song. I come up with a strum pattern in A-minor. The guitar part is not very loud without amplification, but I figure it accentuates my vocals.
It feels so good it feels so right,
No need for school we could leave tonight
Moon is shining, the stars are bright
I’m in the mood for a sleepless night…
When I’m done with the song, she’s crying and I don’t know why. She says she can’t go with me. I’m hurt, but I’ve got a show to promote.