There was nothing but a low murmur at the gate. My brother Max has never been a fan of quiet.
The bleach-blond 3-year-old with big blue eyes started to strum his little guitar, about the size of a ukulele. He opened with Livingston Taylor, faking his fingers to make chords and getting about a third of the words right. Everyone turned to see the source of the commotion.
Then he played some Paul Simon. Now they were transfixed.
Max, with that floppy blonde mop, had the crowd in the palm of his hand. He closed his set with a deep cut by Raffi and the gate erupted in cheers. One man came up to my mom, said he was an agent, had a plan to make Max the little Elvis. At least that’s how my mom likes to tell it.
Everyone deserves an origin story.
Max continued to play music — first violin recitals, then middle school rock shows. He’d traded his little acoustic for a black and white imitation Stratocaster by then and traded in his Raffi covers for the Violent Femmes.
The bleach-blond 3-year-old with big blue eyes started to strum his little guitar
When I was 10 and he was 13, we would take the bus together back to our house. We’d head out front with our gloves to play some catch. I’d crouch down and announce the first hitter — “Leading off, the centerfielder, Ken-ny Lof-ton…” — and then I’d call the game. One finger for fastball, two for curve, three for changeup. A middle finger meant a brush-back and a belly laugh.
Once Max had mowed through the imaginary lineup, I’d get set and field grounders off the pavement. We’d play until our arms dragged and the sun began to set. Sure, when we got back inside, the three years between us would return — but out there, we were just two friends playing catch.
During high school, Max would have band practices in our garage in San Francisco. I was the annoying little brother by then, unwelcome downstairs, unsure what that smoky smell was. I was eager, which wasn’t cool, and a seventh-grader, which definitely wasn’t cool, and secretly knew the words to “Sk8r Boi” in a household raised on the Grateful Dead.
I’d sit atop the stairs, listening to the music through a door, up a floor, the notes muffled and thick.
I’d sit atop the stairs, listening to the music through a door, up a floor, the notes muffled and thick. I’d scatter from the landing when I heard anyone coming. I didn’t want to be found out.
I remember peeking my head in one day during Max’s senior year, as they played a song I’d never heard before. The gap had closed a bit — I smoked weed by then, had sneaked some beers. Through the void, I heard the words: “Every time I think about back home, it’s cool and breezy…”
Years later, my girlfriend’s dad told me a story he heard while working as a sound engineer for Stephen Stills. Stills said everyone kept talking about this young guy from Canada, long-haired and pale, driving a hearse around LA. I loved the image of Neil Young showing up to shows like a funeral, then singing those beautiful lyrics in that high tenor whine of his.
“Everybody seems to wonder, what it’s like down here…”
Everyone deserves an origin story.
The magic of art is that it exists both within specific places and times and outside time itself. Music can capture a precise moment and stay relevant to each listener who hears it for the first time. “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” meant something specific for Young, in a strange city where the weather never changes, dreaming of a bit of a breeze that never seemed to come.
I’ve stayed closer to home, never far from the street where we used to play catch, and that perch where I surreptitiously listened to him play.
Unlike art, siblinghood shifts incessantly; the timeline is expansive and nothing stays in context. Max is forever three years older than I am. At certain moments that was a lifetime. Soon it will be nothing at all. There are moments that stick out in the timeline, of course — getting punched, playing catch, drinking beers, and talking through broken romances — but the gravitas comes from the lack of specificity. Of course he introduced me to Neil, but he also showed me how to roll a joint and how to talk to girls. If a great song places you in a certain spot at a certain time, then siblinghood is spinning a globe and placing a finger at random.
“Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” always brings me back to that perch atop the stairs, apart from but still close to my brother. When Max graduated, he moved to Eugene, Oregon to start college and I moved downstairs. I visited Oregon, held my own with his friends. Each time I saw him, the three years continued to shrink. Shorter, closer. But always farther away.
Max never moved back home. He lived in Eugene, Portland, and now in New Orleans. I’ve stayed closer to home, in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and now Oakland: never far from the street where we used to play catch and that perch where I surreptitiously listened to him play.
Max comes back sometimes, but never for long enough.
I was at my parents’ house in San Francisco recently. In the closet, tucked away behind some umbrellas, was Max’s glove. Beaten, molded leather. Begging for a catch. I could throw it in the trunk of my car, right next to mine, and drive all the way to New Orleans. But I haven’t. There’s always another thing to do, another place to be.
Neil Young, in Los Angeles, a thousand miles south of Winnipeg, sang fondly about his cool and breezy hometown. I’ve never been to Winnipeg, but I understand the breeze, and I understand wishing to be anywhere but right here, running around. Max comes back sometimes, but never for long enough. But when that first whiny G comes in, I can go back to the stairs, and also to the whole spinning globe, and then he’s not so far away.
He’s continued to be that kid with the tiny guitar — less bleach-blond, but still on stage most nights.