He called himself Johnny Rockstar that last year before he died. The name came to him one day in the mirror like a pop of flashbulbs. He stumbled out of the little washroom at his place with his hair slicked back and his collar unbuttoned and stood over me in the bed and said, “I’m buying an electric guitar.” So off we went into the crowded streets of the capital.
In those days—do you remember the beauty of the city back then? Every building was like a garden, flowers and trailing vines rooted in every window. The air was blue with the breath of the fried-food stalls. The dresses the women wore were like flags saluting their allegiance to the nations of joy and sunlight. I wasn’t yet used to wearing my own dress, but it lightened my feet and carried me like a parasol buoyed by the breeze. Johnny plucked a bloom from a trumpet-vine and tucked it behind my ear.
The music shop was in a basement near the park named after the old president. The walls flaked green and gold down on turtlenecks and brown corduroy and head after head of slicked-down hair. The cracks in the foundation were hidden behind framed 45s from Rikki Ililonga and Dara Puspita, Miriam Makeba and Dando Shaft, Sinn Sisamouth and the Daughters of Eve.
The girl at the counter wore her hair short and a bandage on her cheek. She looked me up and down and I felt nervous, but she popped her gum and nodded to the guitars racked up on the back wall.
“Univox,” he breathed, stirring the hairs at the nape of my neck. He rushed on. “Gibson. Mosrite. Kawai.” He touched them like relics, fingers brushing strings, a holy glow outlining his hair. For the first time I could see him as he would be onstage, limned in limelight.
He crumpled bills out of his pocket and left with a silver Telecaster. The girl at the counter flattened and counted them as if they might be sticky. She saw me waiting anxiously at the stairs, unsure Johnny had paid enough, and graced me with a gum-scented laugh. “Better catch up. He’s sure he’s going places.”
Johnny’s first gig arrived fast. He fell in with a drummer named Karina and a bassist named Paolo who did dishes together at a Lebanese restaurant when they weren’t slipping out into an alley where Johnny liked to smoke. Karina and Paolo made out on a carpet of greasy cardboard while Johnny enlightened them with his plans and the songs he had already written.
“Everybody just covers the Stones, man,” Karina said, pulling her face away from Paolo’s, but soon the dishwashers became his first disciples—after me.
“What’s your band’s name?” I asked at Johnny’s place that night, wincing as I pulled my earrings out of newly pierced ears.
“Johnny Rockstar,” he said, and I forgot my earrings while he kissed me.
We bundled onto a bus with Johnny’s guitar. I kept pulling at the hem of my skirt, wishing I’d worn one longer. I didn’t feel comfortable until we were underground again, this time at a dive near the old college where once upon a time poets had come to read and now no one listened to whatever happened on stage. Karina and Paolo were already in place, plugging in amps and wiring the microphone for its holy duties. They each touched one of Johnny’s leather sleeves, and I swallowed down a swell of pride. They were his, but he was mine.
If you’ve seen Johnny, if you’ve heard Johnny—and who hasn’t? That first night the drunks blinked up from their amber haze and for the first time in a dozen years they heard something, really heard. Johnny’s chords were sloppy, but they cut and twirled beneath his voice. Karina sweated over her kit and Paolo was lost in the rhythm, driving each other to lust and withdrawal, hitting highs and coming down just before you could release, maintaining the tension as a springboard for Johnny’s voice.
If you haven’t heard Johnny, what else is there?
Afterward, Johnny pulled me onstage and kissed me, and for once I didn’t feel all the eyes on me, for once I felt like I was who and where I needed to be.
The shows grew. Radio stations interviewed him, a record label approached him, newspapers were transfixed with his picture. I didn’t feel superior to any of Johnny’s new acolytes. I knew what it was like under his spell, to grow in his light. At every show I sat at the front and watched him, sometimes losing the music in the sight of his face.
At the end of each show, Johnny would beckon me beside him and tell the crowd, “Sisters! Brothers! Siblings! We are all alive here, together, right now. Isn’t that a wonderful thing? Isn’t that a precious thing?”
It was not to last. Such things never do.
Fashions changed. The dresses were no longer quite so colorful. Skirts grew longer. A new president made his dictates and his displeasure known. One by one the bars and the dives shut down, fresh edicts nailed across their doors. Friends and disciples siphoned off.
“I can’t, man, not anymore,” Karina said. “My mother, she’s—I just can’t.” I saw her only once more, years later, wrapped in gray, hurrying a small child off the street while tanks rolled between us.
The last days of Johnny Rockstar went quickly. I tried to hold on to each moment as it fled, but it could never be enough. He went wherever he could and sang to the people, sang even without a microphone. He sang in the park. He sang, always, to me. To be who I was, to be where I am—always to be, to be. He sang even with his guitar broken and his arms pinned behind him.
But in the end, in the end—
Rick Hollon (they/fey) is a nonbinary author, editor, and parent from the American Midwest. Feir work has appeared in Prismatica, perhappened, Pareidolia Literary, and other small-press publications. Find them on Twitter @SailorTheia.