Trust me with your time machine, your metal marvel built to bend laws and carve up continuums. Then ask me where I’m headed. My answer surprises, your expectations betrayed with a crooked grimace.
I won’t line up before the ticket booth at Ford’s Theatre. You won’t find me pressing through the crowd, hurling myself through the Dallas heat toward Kennedy’s motorcade.
That kind of history is hot to the touch. That much gravity would pull me apart.
Whatever I alter, for better or worse, let it be a ripple, not a wave.
I turn the dials, set my face, hold my breath for Cambridge, Massachusetts. Spring 1996. Before oncoming light rearranges all my molecules, I call out over the whir and the exhaust. If I don’t come back, tell them I went to save Weezer from itself.
My body drops like wet rags against the quadrangle. I stand, shaking off the journey with a canine instinct. Tenses blur into metaphysical fragrance, stinging my nose. I am past, we are present.
Where is he? I wonder. How long will this take? I ask, making myself laugh. Who worries about running out of time when you’re out of time altogether?
Across the lawn, my eyes take him in: shaggy hair, soccer jersey, his glasses like a bumper sticker: “I’d rather be reading Rimbaud.” Still wobbly, my systems pull together, overlaying my mental picture with the countenance of this man-child.
Crimson coeds pass; his head swivels. Arousal and self-abasement converge across his face. And I know that I know.
Rivers! I yell with confidence. Wait up.
He looks like he might be sick, right here on the grass. Right here, within the crush of America’s best, brightest and most blessed. He forces a smile as I bound to a stop. Sorry, man. I don’t do autographs when I’m on campus.
No, no, I say in my most reassuring tone. Just a quick question for you.
His eyebrows arch and I ask. Do you want to be Brian Wilson?
Do I want to be Brian Wil-? Sorry, do we know each other? Are you … are you in my theory class?
Do you want to be Brian Wilson? I repeat. The good one, the genius. Pet Sounds, choirs of angels in harmony, hearing instruments in different keys. Not Brian Wilson, the burnout.
Do I want to be Brian Wilson? He parses the question, intrigued. You’re talking about legacies, right? I suppose … yeah, I mean who doesn’t want their songs in the canon? To have their name associated with some timeless form of rock and roll.
Then don’t listen to what they say about Pinkerton.
Don’t listen to … what? Nobody’s heard … sorry, who are you?
They’ll tell you it’s too dark, too dissonant. They’ll say you squandered all the Blue Album mojo. And if you listen to them, your heart will shrivel. You’ll spend the next 25 years churning out cheap ear candy. People won’t be able to name any of your songs. You’ll have a career, but zero respect. But … if you wade through it all, if you just wait on the world to come around, your music will be a balm for everyone who hears it.
A bomb? he asks, pantomiming a mushroom cloud.
A balm. B-a-l-m. People need the darkness. They need the mess. They need music that sounds like the inside of their heads. They need to feel heard. You hear it. You hear us, man.
His lips part silently, and after what seems like another 25 years, he exhales. All I want is to be heard.
There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s how it should be. You can’t give up on … whatever that is, I say, moving my arms through the space between us.
Then I pause to rifle through pockets, securing my secret weapon. But I need you to hear something. This is what it sounds like if you give in.
He stares at my phone like it’s a time machine. I cue up “Beverly Hills,” with its crisp handclaps and baby-doll backing vocals. Gimme gimme, gimme gimme. He withstands this out-of-body experience with only the slightest tremor.
Is he … am I … being ironic? he stammers when the song ends.
No one can tell, man. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you let them get to you, all your best songs will be Toto covers.
I love Toto.
Everybody loves Toto, Rivers. But is that how you want this all to end?
He sighs so loudly it produces feedback. Then he screws up a smile. I can do it, he nods. I can stay on the right track.
I know you can. Just remember, you get the final say.
I begin my exit, then execute a half-turn and look over my shoulder. And Rivers …
His eyes flash with anticipation.
Cut it out with all that shit about half-Japanese girls. It really creeps people out.
From nowhere, a lit cigarette materializes in my palm. I flick it through the air and set the grass on fire.
Aarik Danielsen is a journalist, essayist and poet living in Columbia, Missouri. He writes a weekly column, The (Dis)content, for Fathom Magazine and his work has appeared at Image Journal, Plough, Entropy and more. Follow him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.