Death don’t have no mercy, the old song tells us, and sooner or later will sweep each of us from the face of the earth. Sometimes, however, a recipient of the Grim Reaper’s ministrations will make the bastard work overtime to achieve his victory. So it was with my pal Al, who died early last week after many years of resistance.
Al was only 49, with one wife, one daughter, and someone else’s liver. His original model had bailed out early and apparently almost took him along for the ride, but a donor was finally found and the Reaper was repulsed. Not only that. Al made a habit of torturing Mr. Death with the help of his mandolin, with which he made the world a bit livelier. That’s how I got to know Al. We were in a band together.
We called ourselves the Roadhousers, and we were brought into being for the sole purpose of playing a single gig at a Richmond groggery known as the Chop House. The front man was a house painter with a couple of thousand songs in his repertoire — country classics such as “She Thinks I Still Care,” a little Texas swing (or a close approximation thereof), and many obscure songs from America’s acoustic past, including “Borneo,” “Black Dog,” and “Old Bill.” A computer guy played bass, I played lead guitar, and Al played his Phoenix mandolin, which had a beautiful rendition of the eternal bird carved into the headstock, like a big hood ornament.
The day of the big gig arrived, and due to the artistic majesty of the assembled musicians, plus some fairly vigorous arm-twisting of friends and associates, a nice crowd showed up. Al leaned into his solos and sang a jazzy rendition of “Just Because” in a lonely, distant sort of voice. At the end of the song, he chirped “Thank you, music lovers,” which was something of a signature line.
As it happens, we heard that chirping for another half-year or so, for the Roadhousers decided to extend their original mandate. Al played well much of the time, though it seemed he would sometimes struggle to maintain his focus. When the band eventually dissolved, a couple of us reforming under the name “The Squalor Hollow Boyz.”
We didn’t hear from Al for many months. Then one day he drove to the Chop House to see the Boyz in action (a very cheap thrill, to be sure). He did not look well. Indeed, it was clear that the Reaper was back on his case, with a vengeance. His complexion was far off color and he had difficulty speaking with clarity. I asked if he had brought the Phoenix along, but he said he had been too sick to play. Money troubles had also forced him to pawn his beloved Martin guitar.
It was easy to have the sense that Al had been gripped by the riptide, and would soon be dragged from sight. So all of us were quite surprised, the day before Easter, to look out the Chop House window and see him sitting in his car. He was hesitant to join us, but after some prompting strolled in with his dog. “Did you bring the Phoenix?” I asked. He nodded and was soon singing “Just Because.” It was just like old times, when Al leaned into his solos with great determination and provided a lonely harmony to “Long Black Veil,” with its haunting chorus:
“She walks these hills in a long black veil. She visits my grave when the cold winds wail. Nobody knows, nobody sees. Nobody knows but me.”
Al’s spirits were high at gig’s end, as if he had received a magical transfusion. In this same spirit he showed up the next day for some street playing along Monument Avenue, which Richmond closes on Easter Sunday for its annual promenade. It was good to see him, but the difference between spirit and body could hardly have been starker.
Though Al’s eyes were bright, his complexion was very gray with a greenish tint. The streets were full of children and their parents, many of whom were dressed in bright spring colors and wearing huge Easter bonnets. In their midst, Al looked very much like a marked man.
We never saw him again. He apparently fought on with great bravery, but large doses of anti-rejection medication and a series of transfusions had no effect. He was bleeding inside, though no one could determine exactly where. Before he lost all mental clarity, he asked his wife to invite his friends to gather beside the James River in his memory.
That’s still in the works. Directly after the funeral, however, twenty or so friends gathered at a local brewery to remember Al in song. And so the memories continue to pour in, most of them unsolicited: The determined look on Al’s face when he took a break; how he had once told me about boiling old strings in hot water to bring them back to life; and of course “Thank you, music lovers.”
Most of all, I think of how the spirit of music seemed to keep Al going even as Death pulled furiously at him. The mandolin has only eight strings, but may have given him nine lives. If only it had a few more. So long, Al.
—Dave Shiflett is a writer in Midlothian, Virginia.
(Posted 5/14/01 on The American Spectator Online)