“I want to leave something behind when I go.
So they’ll know I was here.” -Darryl “Doc” Rini
The Palomino Club 1987
Billie Jo wore my boots that night, the black and blue Tony Llama’s. Because they went with the dress. I know that’s right, because she borrowed the dress from me, too.
For some reason the three of us were in the parking lot, between two parked cars. Her boyfriend held up a beach towel and played look out. I was a lot more nervous than she was; she was never very shy at all.
They had dressing rooms, didn’t they? I’m sure they did. But for some reason we were out there. Then she was in my dress and we swapped boots and earrings and she was ready to go.
Billie Jo was a coworker and a friend; that’s why I was there. Oh, and I like music. I liked Billie Jo’s voice and I liked her. But I never liked “Country”, to say it nicely. At this point I was unaware there was such a thing I could ever like. I plead ignorance. I was still learning that good music is good music, period.
So I simply went to see my friend play, and hang out at The Palomino. And, yeah, there was that outfit.
Billie Jo played and sang and growled and purred, and it was a good show with a good crowd. Whatever my taste in music, I could appreciate her talent and I enjoyed myself enough. It wasn’t until the last song her band played that I began to see things a bit differently.
Truthfully, I can’t remember what the song was at all, though it may have been one of Billie Jo’s originals. It was a driving, rockin’ number that made me think of fast trains, and if I’d have had someone with me or been a little less shy back then, I’d have been on the dance floor. But things got even better when the steel player took over the song and made it his own.
She’d already introduced the players a few numbers back, and it was Darryl “Doc” Rini on pedal steel guitar who was now setting his instrument on fire. I had never seen anyone play like that before, and I fully expected to see something combust, or melt. I couldn’t do anything but sit still and watch until he was finished several minutes later, awash with sweat. And then I was still absorbing it.
I’d seen plenty of players give their all to playing, and I love to watch people do whatever they do well, when they really love what they do. But Doc had that extra something so many wish to have. Passion. And the ability to make you have it too. He gave that passion a voice, and the voice came through the steel. Until those moments, I’d had no idea anyone could do that playing Country Western music.
I was pretty close to the stage, and I tried to watch the finger picks he wore, but they flew and his hands were just a blur. For all I knew his hands were performing some feverish and ancient magic ritual. He was sweating more than I thought was possible for someone sitting down. Of course, he was working hard and likely in some kind of altered state. I was transfixed. I realized my mouth was open.
He’d seemed to teeter just on the edge of losing control, and you know, he never did lose it. Not a stumble. I imagined smoke rising from the steel when he finished that solo. I tasted ashes, and still he played on. I thought about the fire hose on the wall, and I know that’s corny. I wondered how many people were in the club. It seemed like there were suddenly a lot more people, and it was awful hot in there with all the bodies. Things felt dangerous, and I was looking towards the front door, wishing for air.
Before I can think about how to get there, his face is before me, words falling from his lips. Cowboys and bikers, tourists and squealing girls all making sounds like a boiling soup of noise; my head is ringing from his long train-robbing solo. It sounds like stampedes in my head and I can’t hear a word he says, but his eyes are a piercing blue and they bore down into my soul like deep water pouring into me, and I don’t look away like I usually do. I admit, I can be cold that way, and who has not been approached in a bar and it’s really nothing special. And then there’s that look again like fire and blue water together, so I smile, and say “Pardon?” and dip my head a little closer. I still can’t hear. The third time my ear ends up just about where his lips are and I know this voice is the smoothest thing I could ever feel at all and I feel the heat of it when he says in one easy breath, like it’s the first time “You’re a very pretty girl”. When I look up, those eyes look the same as they did, no different, and I see what I later will forget. The same thing I saw when I watched him play.
One day I’ll look back and remember it was never really gone, just hidden lest he burn himself up on normal days.
We’ve had fun, no doubt. I can’t really say how long it’ll last, because it won’t really end in the usual sense. I’ll just go and do other things after a time. I’m living the five minutes of my life where I just won’t be pinned down. At the same time, I do have a way of getting my back up about a guy not telling me how he feels about me. I figure he’s had enough time to know, and he knows how to speak.
But that really isn’t his language, at least not yet. He speaks through the steel, and sometimes, through his eyes. Whatever the reason, I’ll wander off finally.
While we are here, he makes me laugh. He has a wicked sense of humor that covers nearly everything from his coworkers to the five or six leaks in this Hollywood Hills roof. I know he has a deformed and less than prestigious car that he never complains about but gives a pet name to that cracks me up, every time.
While we are here, he plays the steel for me when I can get him to, in this place in the Hills that leaks rainwater on the bed. He doesn’t like an audience when he practices, when he pushes himself, perhaps because it’s the only time he doesn’t feel in control. But he does let me be one, sometimes. I enjoy it even more than watching him perform. I get to see the real thing.
While we are here, I will tell him the one thing I know, that he was born to play that pedal steel, and is really here to be heard. I believe this of him more than I believe most things, and I tell him so whenever I can.
He looks like a young John Heard with a smile like the Cat that ate the Canary. A hiccup easily missed that floats out a feather here and there. I sit in the bed watching The Headbangers Ball on the TV until the feathers stop and the snoring starts, and wonder just what it is we have in common. And I know there’s only one thing, and it’s something neither one of us can name or even see. We’re both watching the sky and the dark and the strings for it, but it is elusive and multicolored. And while it makes you dance like bullets when it’s aimed at your feet, it hides in alleys when you ask it yourself, to dance.
What I’ve fallen in love with is the theme music to our story. And it will always take me there, just like this. It will forever make me know exactly who this man is, just like the first time. But I’ll stop listening, because it’s time to go. In too many years to remember why, I’ll finally remember what it sounded like when it became a part of me.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Billie Jo, but like I imagined, she isn’t hard to find. She looks the same with that long blond hair and the quick smile and she’s playing and singing wherever she lands. I’m glad to see her, but she says “Doc’s got cancer.”
I don’t know this, and wonder why I don’t. “It’s in his brain.”
She asks me to call him and I am surprised when she says, “I really think you should.” Should I really?
Here’s where things start to get hard for me, where I stop knowing how to tell the rest of the story, the end of the story. Because there really isn’t one.
He’d had brain surgery and been recovering a while. He has me helpless within minutes with his humor that is so Darryl-nothing sacred, completely irreverent, yet steeped in a touching and self-effacing insight that is crystal clear. I cry tears of laughter, and of sympathy. But mostly we laugh.
His immediate recovery from surgery was brutal I think, and was graced with what he referred to as a male Nurse Ratchet. Nurse Ratchet reportedly thrust a mirror into Darryl’s hands right out the gate and said, “You might as well get used to it.” With a shaved and swollen head full of staples, he said he wasn’t ready. I myself might need to get used to the thought of it for a day or two before looking, but Darryl did look, and his first sight of himself brought Frankenstein’s monster to mind.
At least this is the story he told me, and I laughed ‘til I cried, and then just cried.
Later, I received beautiful letters from him, revealing the Darryl I never knew. I don’t know what ever happened to those letters, but I wish I had them now. I’d known Doc in his day, but Darryl was someone I only suspected, now and then when I heard him play.
Not so very long ago I learned Darryl was gone by “the late-‘80’s”. I don’t know why I ever imagined maybe he wasn’t. I’ve not known of many brain cancer survivors that have lived a long time. And it had been a long time. I suppose I hoped, and didn’t want to think about the obvious too much. I’d shut a door and moved to another planet; I couldn’t, wouldn’t keep the connection I had with him. And I suppose once I’d seen those letters he wrote, I could have never again seen him as that smooth talker in snakeskin boots who’d run me over in The Palomino. I knew more. I loved him more as a friend than I ever could have as a lover. And that was far more dangerous than some man in snakeskin boots. So I stepped far to the side. And we just slipped away.
A while back I happened across the wonderful Garrison Elliott [also known as Bert], who knew Doc well. Upon hearing from me, Bert very graciously sent me everything he had of Doc on recording, including his own music. Not only am I pleased to become acquainted with the talented and kind Bert, but I will always be grateful to him for giving me a part of Doc that will never die. He cannot know what a gift he gave me.
When I received those tracks, it took me a while to play them. I guess I knew I would be with the “real” Darryl again, even if only in spirit. And since I never got to say goodbye, I wasn’t sure if I was ready.
The music made me cry. I was totally unprepared. I didn’t know I cared that much, or that I would know the sound of him so quickly, like he was in the room with me. I listened for a long time, cried, laughed, and clapped my hands. I even heard him talking in a bantering intro, and I cracked up like I always did. He was something else, and that’s when I really remembered why I’d liked him so much in the first place.
Bert thought so much of Doc’s playing, he salvaged original tracks by Doc on steel from the ‘80’s, and has given us the simply beautiful “Rainy Day Serenade” to which Bert gave his perfect and restrained vocal. In my opinion, it is a stunning tribute to the subtlety and passion Doc was capable of. This is not the firestorm of picking I remember and know, but the song is a quiet beauty.
“I want to leave something behind when I go.
So they’ll know I was here.” Darryl really did say those words. And yes, the second part always came out funny, I don’t know why. Even though you knew he meant it. And he did.
Thank you Bert.
Garrison Elliott and “Rainy Day Serenade” can be found Here. As Bert said on his track notes, “Enjoy the haunting steel..”
“Darryl was deep as the sea.”-Garrison Elliott
I began writing this a few years ago. Before the time I began to say I was stuck and couldn’t write, that I had something to say and couldn’t say it, couldn’t string my thoughts together, and far before the time of just not having time to write.
I could not finish it.
The truth is, I didn’t know what the ending was. The “ending” was something I didn’t know, and didn’t wish to face, and was an ending much more difficult to deal with than the simple ending of a relationship. That had been easy. I walked away. While I didn’t really know that he was gone, I didn’t need to have an end.
The real ending came from Bert. He had what Doc left behind, so we’d know he was here. The ending is that he’s still here after all. He left his music with us, and our memories. He was The Doctor, after all.
Rest in peace, Darryl.
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