Tag Archives: Billy Stewart

The Summer of Rock and Other Fragile Ecstasies

Photograph by Jose Padua
At first it was just the summer of rock.
Every burger I ate was fast, every morning
had a beat, every hour out of school was
a guitar chord no one had ever heard before.
I was ten years old or eleven though I wished
I could be twenty-five. My blood felt like
it flowed through a wah-wah pedal, and
even all the strings and voices in Beethoven’s
ninth seemed to rock out until I went dizzy,
until I was spinning around and around,
digging my way to the center of the original
Earth. Jimi Hendrix was the real thing, and
The Doors were on the car radio too as we
rode across town with the voice of Jim Morrison,
wild and cool, but even then I thought he was
also just kind of a dick. I would have rather
hung out with the fat guy Billy Stewart
who sang a version of “Summertime and
the living is easy” and made this weird
beautiful bird sound with his lips that was
more than enough to show me what it meant
to get high when I was a child before he drove
off the road and died. And I learned I could run,
imagining I was an Olympic runner with his
hands held high at the finishing line even
when I was just running out of breath
because it was the summer when I discovered
how hard it was to breathe sometimes. Everyone
could take me when it came to running for
distance, but if it was a quick dash to the bus
stop, or across the street from the old burlesque
clubs on 14th Street in DC, I could beat anyone.
Like Professor Irwin Corey I was the world’s
foremost authority—of running fast for half
a minute. And back in school I could dance
in class for half a minute like James Brown,
holding up my arms, swiveling my grade school
hips like the cool guys and getting smiles from
all the girls. And there was a girl named Barbara
and a girl named Vanessa and a girl named Nancy
and a girl named Dolly, and these names all
sounded like abracadabra magic to me because
I was young then and the summer of rock
happened before I was old enough to really think
about this. Before I realized for the first time,
that no matter how fast I ran, or how long I danced
that chance could soon force me to leave it all
behind. Because at first it was the summer of rock,
and everyone I had ever loved was still alive
or else hadn’t been born yet. But it was also
another summer of war, the way just about
every summer is a summer of war. And with
so many dying young—looking into the battle
to feel its slimy heat, bite and gnaw on its grit
with their teeth and never coming back and
never telling anyone what it did to them—
I wondered what I’d do when I turned eighteen,
if I’d do anything, like stop trying to breathe,
just to be able to go the distance.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua