By Zach Jennings
(LSM Oct/Nov 2010/vol. 3 – issue 6)
When trying to describe what it is about music that moves me, I inevitably come back to a very basic idea: that our time on this Earth mirrors that of a very long film, and the music we consume is our life’s soundtrack. If I hear Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction, my memory jogs right back to fifth grade and Nintendo and 1988 Fleer baseball cards with the white borders and funny streamers down the side. I remember blaring “Welcome to the Jungle” as my friends and I built a large but ill-conceived fort in the woods of central Arkansas — a fort which later met a violent, fiery ending when we decided to find out the answer, once and for all, to the perplexing question, “Why isn’t it a good idea to throw cans of spray-paint into a bonfire?”
When I think of Alice in Chains, Nirvana and early Pearl Jam, I think of the time, not long after I moved to St. Louis and my angst had faded, that I met Bryan Reyna on my school bus. He came up to me and simply said, “That’s a sweet basketball hoop you have. You wanna play some time?” Little did I know that we would play basketball, habitually, for the next seven years, only having to pause our game due to geographic limitations as we split up to attend different colleges and later to have families of our own in different cities and states.
The morning of Sept. 5, 2010, will always have a profound place in my heart. It was the first time in several years that the soundtrack of my life crossed paths with that of my old buddy, Reyna (I almost always called him by his last name). Just four days prior, after a year-and-a-half-long valiant and inspiring fight against cancer, my best friend had passed away. . He was heavy in my head and my heart and also, it seemed, in my stereo …
Somewhere around 6 a.m., I woke up to hear Ryan Bingham sing of gold “buried in the hills of old Mexico.” Why was “Boracho Station” suddenly playing on my home audio system, but only on my outdoor speakers? At 6 a.m.? I slipped out of bed in time to hear Bingham followed by what I then only knew as “the quirky song from Wall Street” (otherwise known as the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place”). I was pretty certain that song wasn’t even in my iTunes library, but I didn’t even think of that until a little later. All I could really focus on at first was trying to get the damn song to stop, because it was blaring across my backyard. Problem was, my stereo was already off, and the volume was turned all the way down.
Let’s take a step back … Reyna and I had always shared a common bond in the music we listened to. In junior high and early high school, we were fully engrossed in the grunge movement that included our mutual favorites Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. Similarly, our film interests dovetailed, as we both could recite every line to Fletch, Spies Like Us, Three Amigos, Coming to America, and later in life, The Godfather, The Usual Suspects and the seminal Wall Street. When I was a groomsman at his wedding, his gift to me was a money clip with the name Jon Cocktoastin engraved in it. Only Fletch fans will get it, but it meant the world to me and absolutely cracked me up.
We got the word from our parents’ employer (yes, all four worked for the same company) that our families would be relocated from St. Louis to San Antonio during our freshman year of high school. As it happened, Reyna ended up moving with my dad and I during the transition, as the rest of our families hung back in St. Louis to finish off the school year and tie up loose ends at work. As a near only-child (my brother was out of the house and in college by the time I could ride a Big Wheel), I can honestly say that I’ve never had as much fun with a sibling as I had those couple of months. Never mind that we weren’t related by blood; we were brothers, period.
On the first day of school, the administrators warned us that San Antonio had a gang problem and certain clothes (including those bearing the likeness of a famous Disney Mouse) were off limits. In a series of events that was recounted to me numerous times over the next decade and a half, my dad and Reyna were getting into the car on the way home when my dad paused, looked Reyna straight in the eyes and said, “Bryan, if any of these ‘gang’ kids try to mess with you, you just let me know and I’ll come up here and handle it.” From his hospital bed, 16 years later, Reyna recounted the story one last time and half-jokingly said, “I don’t know that I ever felt safer.”
Every day was fairly similar during that time. We’d get off school and, as we always had, would play basketball against one another. Just he and I, one-on-one. You can learn a lot about a man from playing heads up in anything, but particularly basketball. We played many hundreds of hours of basketball over the next five years. We knew each other’s tendencies and we knew how to get under each other’s skin. We fought each other daily, but never in a physical sense, only mentally, pushing each other to be better players and, in particular, pushing each other to perfect the patented Michael Jordan fade-away jumper and the Tim Hardaway “UTEP Two-step” (which paved the way for the Iverson “killer crossover”). When we played, there was rarely a time when we didn’t have music playing as loud as our Jam-box would go. Most of the time, it was Pearl Jam. We wore out Ten, really taking a shine to the songs “Garden” and “Porch” (the two loudest), and then really immersed ourselves in Pearl Jam’s follow-up, Vs., with its mix of frantic (“Blood,” “Leash,” “Go,” “Animal”) and reflective (“Daughter,” “Indifference,” “Elderly Woman …”). You can guess which category we gravitated toward.
Life went on like that until college, when I opted for the Longhorns of Texas and Reyna chose the Memphis Tigers. He would eventually find his true lot in life when he became a father to a beautiful little girl. He was always the type of guy who seemed as though a smile was permanently etched on his face, but the birth of his daughter brought with it a sense of accomplishment and pride. He had created something that would make the world a better place. Our contact became less frequent, but we never missed a beat when we saw one another or talked on the phone. I hit the lottery and met my wife and had kids of my own. Our talks became even less frequent, but we’d still see each other from time to time.
My wife and I were at dinner when I got the call from Reyna. He told me that he had been diagnosed with Mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer of the abdomen and chest usually brought on by asbestos. His initial prognosis was 12-24 months. It was the first of many times that I’d cry and wonder, “Why him? He’s needed here!” The next year was a series of ups and downs, but we never let time lapse. We talked frequently, usually only touching the surface of what probably needed to be said. I had the luxury of being able to take off and visit him when he would go to the hospital. In June, I visited him at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda. He looked weak and frail but he still had his wits about him and his memory was impeccable. That first night, I went home to my hotel room and sat on the couch to watch TV, only to find that Wall Street had just started. I watched it until 3 a.m., when it ended. The next day, I told Reyna that I wanted to text him but didn’t want to wake him. He said he had seen it, too, and, like me, watched the entire thing. “If that movie is on, I just can’t turn it off,” he said. We proceeded to have a 20-minute discussion about the film, riffing like we did back in the old days.
I returned to Texas, positive he’d beat this dreaded disease. Two weeks later, I got the call from his brother saying the doctors told him there was nothing else they could do for him and he’d be returning home to stay at his mom’s. I immediately made plans to visit him and this time my wife wanted to come as well, if only to tell him how much his friendship toward me had meant to her. I didn’t want to say goodbye but I knew I had to. There would be no miraculous recovery. We both tried our best to make our goodbyes as graceful and witty as the final scene of Tombstone, with Doc Holliday saying to Wyatt, “If you were ever my friend … if you ever had even the slightest feeling for me, leave now. Leave now, please,” and Wyatt stoically replying, “Thanks for being there for me, Doc,” before walking out. But life isn’t like the movies and I left having said what I wanted to say but not at all certain that I said everything I should have said. Reyna passed away 11 days later, going peacefully in his sleep.
But apparently, he had one last message for me.
On that morning less than a week later, with my Sonos audio system blaring through my outside speakers, I had numerous questions that kept popping into my head: How is it that my system turned on while my wife, myself and our kids were asleep? How did the system turn on when we had the receiver off, every speaker zone both inside and outside the house in the off position and the volume turned down to zero across the board? Why was it only playing outside?
Chief among those questions, though, was this: Why was it playing that song from Wall Street?
Over the next 30 minutes, I tried turning off our Sonos bridge, and went for the handset, only to find that it had been left off the charger and the batteries were dead. Now things were really getting spooky, because the only way to turn the system on was to use the handset, create a queue, and then play the songs in that queue/playlist. Meanwhile, after the Talking Heads song ended, Pearl Jam’s “Blood” started rifling through my yard at a volume best described as really f’ing loud. I put the handset on the charger and went back to lay in bed, my heart and mind both racing. My arm hairs were standing up and I was both confused and scared. Could it be? I mean, how in the hell? After 20 minutes, or long enough for the song cycle to start back over and make one more complete play through “Boracho Station,” “This Must Be the Place” and “Blood,” my recharged handset lit up and I quickly hit “Pause All Zones.” It worked and I went to bed, my heart now completely pounding, my body completely tingling as it does when a cool, unexpected breeze rises up when you least expect it. Lying there, I tried to make sense of it all.
When my wife woke up a couple hours later, I rolled over and asked, “Did you do something to the Sonos? Did you create a playlist? I need to know.” She thought I was nuts. I caught her up to speed and told her how weird it was to hear the “Wall Street song” playing, as I didn’t even know it was in our iTunes library. When we got to the kitchen, we went over and looked at the Sonos handset. I was shaking. We looked at the queue and there it was: a three-song playlist had somehow been created, thrown in a loop and played on repeat. To this day, neither of us have even a remotely plausible explanation for how it happened.
My final surprise came when I did a little bit of research on “This Must Be the Place.” A warm energy rushed through me as I read the lyrics — an energy that I can recall at will now and one that I’m certain will never leave me. I don’t know that I ever felt safer.
Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me round
I feel numb, born with a weak heart
I guess I must be having fun
The less we say about it the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground
Head in the sky
It’s OK, I know nothing’s wrong … nothing
Hi yo I got plenty of time
Hi yo you got light in your eyes
And you’re standing here beside me
I love the passing of time
Never for money
Always for love
Cover up and say goodnight … say goodnight
Home is where I want to be
But I guess I’m already there
I come home, she lifted up her wings
Guess that this must be the place
I can’t tell one from another
Did I find you, or you find me?
There was a time before we were born
If someone asks, this is where I’ll be, where I’ll be
Hi yo we drift in and out
Hi yo sing into my mouth
Out of all those kinds of people
You got a face with a view
I’m just an animal looking for a home
Share the same space for a minute or two
And you love me till my heart stops
Love me till I’m dead
Eyes that light up, eyes look through you
Cover up the blank spots
Hit me on the head.
— “This Must Be the Place,” by David Byrne