STEPHEN KING’S LATEST NOVEL, Revival, is not just his usual eerily compelling masterpiece. It’s also a beautifully observed reflection of the culture of rock'n'roll and its impact on young Americans. The lead character is music-mad, guitar-playing Jamie Morton, with much to learn about life and, as it is to prove, its B-side. But that’s enough of our yakkin'. Here’s Part 1 of MOJO’s exclusive extract... ----------------------------------------------------------------
My musical talent was far from huge, but much larger than Con’s . . . or anyone else’s in our family, for that matter. I discovered it was there on a boring, overcast Saturday in the fall of 1969. Everyone else in the family – even Claire, who was home from college for the weekend – had gone over to Gates Falls for the football game. Con was then a junior and a starting tailback for the Gates Falls Gators. I stayed home because I had a stomachache, although it wasn’t as bad as I made out; I just wasn’t much of a football fan, and besides, it looked like it was going to rain.
I watched TV for awhile, but there was more football on two channels, and golf on the third – even worse. Claire’s old bedroom was now Connie’s, but some of her paperbacks were still stacked in the closet, and I thought I might try one of the Agatha Christies. Claire said they were easy to read, and it was fun to detect along with Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. I walked in and saw Con’s Gibson in the corner, surrounded by an untidy heap of old Sing Out! magazines. I looked at it, leaning there and long forgotten, and thought, I wonder if I could play ‘Cherry, Cherry’ on that.
I remember that moment as clearly as my first kiss, because the thought was an exotic stranger, utterly unconnected to anything that had been on my mind when I walked into Con’s room. I’d swear to it on a stack of Bibles. It wasn’t even like a thought. It was like a voice.
I took the guitar and sat down on Con’s bed. I didn’t touch the strings at first, just thought about that song some more. I knew it would sound good on Connie’s acoustic because ‘Cherry, Cherry’ is built around an acoustic riff (not that I knew the word then). I listened to it in my head and was astounded to realize I could see the chord changes as well as hear them. I knew everything about them except where they were hiding on the fretboard.
I grabbed an issue of Sing Out! at random and looked for a blues, any blues. I found one called ‘Turn Your Money Green,’ saw how to make an E (All this shit starts with E, Hector the Barber had told Con and Ronnie), and played it on the guitar. The sound was muffled but true. The Gibson was a fine instrument that had stayed in tune even though it had been neglected. I pushed down harder with the first three fingers of my left hand. It hurt, but I didn’t care. Because E was right. E was divine. It matched the sound in my head perfectly.
It took Con six months to learn ‘The House of the Rising Sun,’ and he was never able to go from the D to the F without a hesitation as he arranged his fingers. I learned the three-chord ‘Cherry, Cherry’ riff – E to A to D and back to A – in ten minutes, then realized I could use the same three chords to play ‘Gloria,’ by Shadows of Knight, and ‘Louie, Louie,’ by the Kingsmen. I played until my fingertips were howling with pain and I could hardly unbend my left hand. When I finally stopped, it wasn’t because I wanted to but because I had to. And I couldn’t wait to start again. I didn’t care about the New Christy Minstrels, or Ian and Sylvia, or any of those folk-singing assholes, but I could have played ‘Cherry, Cherry’ all day: it had the way to move me.
If I could learn to play well enough, I thought, Astrid Soderberg might look at me as something other than just a homework source. Yet even that was a secondary consideration, because playing filled that hole in me. It was its own thing, an emotional truth. Playing made me feel like a real person again.
Three weeks later, on another Saturday afternoon, Con came home early after the football game instead of staying for the traditional post-game cookout put on by the boosters. I was sitting on the landing at the top of the stairs, scratching out ‘Wild Thing.’ I thought he’d go nuts and grab his guitar away from me, maybe accuse me of sacrilege for playing three-chord idiocy by the Troggs on an instrument meant for such sensitive songs of protest as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’
But Con had scored three TDs that day, he’d set a school record for yards gained rushing, and the Gators were headed for the Class C playoffs. All he said was, ‘That’s just about the stupidest song to ever get on the radio.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I think the prize goes to “Surfin’ Bird.” I can play that one too, if you want to hear it.’
‘Jesus, no.’ He could curse because Mom was out in the garden, Dad and Terry were in the garage, working on Road Rocket III, and our religion-minded older brother no longer lived at home. Like Claire, Andy was now attending the University of Maine (which, he claimed, was full of ‘useless hippies’).
‘But you don’t mind if I play it, Con?’
‘Knock yourself out,’ he said, passing me on the stairs. There was a gaudy bruise on one cheek and he smelled of football sweat. ‘But if you break it, you’re paying for it.’
‘I won’t break it.’
I didn’t, either, but I busted a lot of strings. Rock and roll is tougher on strings than folk music.
In 1970, I started high school across the Androscoggin River in Gates Falls. Con, now a senior and a genuine Big Deal thanks to his athletic prowess and Honor Roll grades, took no notice of me. That was okay; that was fine. Unfortunately, neither did Astrid Soderberg, although she sat one row behind me in homeroom and right next to me in Freshman English. She wore her hair in a ponytail and her skirts at least two inches above the knee. Every time she crossed her legs I died. My crush was bigger than ever, but I had eavesdropped on her and her girlfriends as they sat together on the gym bleachers during lunch, and I knew the only boys they had eyes for were upperclassmen. I was just another extra in the grand epic of their newly minted high school lives.
Someone took notice of me, though – a lanky, long-haired senior who looked like one of Andy’s useless hippies. He sought me out one day when I was eating my own lunch in the gym, two bleachers up from Astrid and her posse of gigglers.
‘You Jamie Morton?’ he asked.
I owned up to it cautiously. He was wearing baggy jeans with patches on the knees, and there were dark circles under his eyes, as if he was getting by on two or three hours’ sleep a night. Or whacking off a lot.
‘Come down to the Band Room,’ he said.
‘Because I said so, freshie.’
I followed him, weaving my way through the thronging students who were laughing, yelling, pushing, and banging their lockers. I hoped I wasn’t going to get beaten up. I could imagine getting beaten up by a sophomore for some trifling reason – freshman hazing by sophomores was forbidden in principle but lavishly practiced in fact – but not by a senior. Seniors rarely noticed freshies were alive, my brother being a case in point.
The Band Room was empty. That was a relief. If this guy intended to tune up on me, at least he didn’t have a bunch of friends to help him do it. Instead of beating me up, he held out his hand. I shook it. His fingers were limp and clammy. ‘Norm Irving.’
‘Nice to meet you.’ I didn’t know if it was or not.
‘I hear you play guitar, freshie.’
‘Who told you that?’
‘Your brother. Mr Football.’ Norm Irving opened a storage cabinet filled with cased guitars. He pulled one out, flicked the catches, and revealed a gorgeous dead-black electric Yamaha.
‘SA 30,’ he said briefly. ‘Got it two years ago. Painted houses all summer with my dad. Turn on that amp. No, not the big one, the Bullnose right in front of you.’
I went to the mini-amp, looked around for a switch or a button, and didn’t see any.
‘On the back, freshie.’
‘Oh.’ I found a rocker switch and flipped it. A red light came on, and there was a low hum. I liked that hum from the very first. It was the sound of power.
Norm scrounged a cord from the guitar cabinet and plugged in. His fingers brushed the strings, and a brief BRONK sound came from the little amp. It was atonal, unmusical, and completely beautiful. He held the guitar out to me.
‘What?’ I was both alarmed and excited.
‘Your brother says you play rhythm. So play some rhythm.’
I took the guitar, and that BRONK sound came again from the little Bullnose amp at my feet. The guitar was a lot heavier than my brother’s acoustic. ‘I’ve never played an electric,’ I said.
‘It’s the same.’
‘What do you want me to play?’
‘How about “Green River.” Can you play that?’ He reached into the watch pocket of his baggy jeans and held out a pick.
I managed to take it without dropping it. ‘Key of E?’ As if I had to ask. All that shit starts with E.
‘You decide, freshie.’
Extracted with permission of Stephen King and Hodder & Stoughton from REVIVAL © Stephen King, published by Hodder & Stoughton on 11 November 2014. Not for further distribution without written permission of the publisher.