Elvis Romero and the Cosmic White Corvette: ‘The Artist’

- October 9, 2012

A Serialized Novel and Podcast by Andrew Leo Lovato

The following is Chapter Seventeen of a serialized novel and podcast. Start the story at Chapter One.

We called our band Ricky and the Balloons after a line in a song by the Guess Who. Angie, Lyle, Rudy and I had a blast hanging out and playing rock stars in our little town. We knew we could play our repertoire of songs pretty well and we kept busy doing gigs on the weekends. But after a while, things started feeling kind of stale.

I felt like I had gone about as far as I could in my guitar playing. I was mostly self-taught with the help of a couple of chord books. My initial excitement was beginning to lose its luster. There was so much that I heard that I longed to be able to play but the skill level of the musicians I admired seemed infinitely beyond my reach. I listened closely and tried to imagine how my fingers had to move to create the sounds I was hearing. I realized that there was a vast gulf that I needed to cross if I ever hoped to enter the elite atmosphere shared by those who occupied the rarified realm of virtuosity.

I knew that I could not bridge this gulf alone. I needed a teacher, a mentor. I’d taken band in school and I was familiar with the almost-numbing mediocrity of most music teachers. They may have understood the rudimentary mechanics of music theory, but they had no passion or understanding of creative fire. They were simply going through the motions and it showed in their musical expression. Everything they taught and played was stiff and uninspired. It was just another class like algebra or history, rote knowledge taught by bored instructors doing just enough to collect another paycheck.

 For me, music was a living, burning force with the power to transform reality. It was the language of life, a dialect of the soul. I wanted to find someone who understood this. I tried taking lessons with a variety of music teachers in the Santa Fe area but none of them had the ability to spark the flame I so passionately pursued. Then one day, I saw a small ad in the Santa Fe Reporter weekly newspaper that read:

“Guitar lessons, $6.00 per hour. Don’t just play your guitar; let your guitar play you.”

I knew at once that this was the Holy Grail I’d been seeking. I set up a lesson for the following week. I approached a small adobe house on Griffin Street with my guitar in hand. I was met at the door by a fireball of energy in the form of a five-year-old boy, who asked,

“Are you here to learn guitar from my dad?”

I smiled and shook my head affirmatively and the boy ran inside the house yelling at the top of his lungs;

“Dad, Dad! Some guy is outside and he says he wants to play guitar with you!”

I waited outside the door patiently and in a few seconds a serene woman with dark-rimmed glasses and came to the door.

“Hi, you must be Elvis; you had a lesson scheduled at 4:30? Sonny is finishing up another one. Please come in and have a seat. He should be done in about fifteen minutes.” I thanked her and sat on the living room couch.

Fifteen minutes passed, a half-hour, then forty-five minutes. I began to worry that I’d been forgotten. Finally, two men emerged from a room at the end of the hallway. The first was younger and stood about six foot four inches tall. He had curly brown hair and stooped shoulders. He appeared to be very shy and he looked down at me and smiled briefly before he averted his eyes. Behind him was a shorter, muscular man with penetrating gray eyes and an intensity that radiated from his being in the same way as the boy I had met at the door.

I stood up and he exclaimed, “Hey, hey, you must be Elvis.” He had a full, robust laugh and he slapped me on the back.

“Elvis meet Cameron, Cameron this is Elvis, a new victim.”

Cameron awkwardly extended his hand and I responded in kind.

“Oh yeah, my name is Sonny.” He grinned and gave me a bear hug as though we were old friends.

I stiffly returned Sonny’s hug, but in my heart, I knew that I was instantly in love. This was a man who understood passion, the mentor I had been looking for. Perhaps he could show me the path to creativity.

Indeed, in many ways he did just that. For the next couple of years, I took guitar lessons with Sonny and learned many fine points of music. Sonny had been part of the jazz scene in Philadelphia and had picked up his technique from some of the top studio musicians in the trade. I learned the essentials of music theory, chording and scales during my apprenticeship. Sonny explained to me that to really master a song, a guitarist had to be able to comp (play the chords behind another musician who was improvising), improvise over the changes himself, and finally have the ability to play the melody and chords together at the same time to create a solo arrangement. My primitive technique grew exponentially under his tutelage. 

As valuable as the musical knowledge was that I gained from Sonny, the most important lesson he taught me was how to think and experience life as an artist. This was a training that I carried with me even when I wasn’t thinking about music.

He explained that an artist isn’t only an artist while he is creating art. Being artistic was a lifestyle, a mode of living and a consciousness. One must always be open to experiencing the world and living life in a creative manner. It was possible to be an artist in the way one prepared coffee in the morning or how one interacted with other people. Being open to the creative essence and forces of life was not something that could be switched off and on. It had to happen twenty-four hours a day.

This outlook not only made me a better musician, but fundamentally transformed my life. Sonny believed that in jazz improvisation, a musician had to master all of the scales and theory in order to someday leave it all behind and venture into the unknown without any guide posts. The true act of creative expression was found in transcending the rules but one had to be intimately familiar with those rules before they could be cast aside.

I took this lesson to heart and it helped me to see the world in a different light. Life itself could be viewed as a big experimental process. Every second of every day was in its own way improvisation. This concept helped me to understand the consciousness it took to think like a Miles Davis or a John Coltrane. Even though I was light years away from these masters in technique, I understood their creativity on a far deeper level. I began to see this same spark emanating from masters in other fields such as Van Gogh, Einstein, and Shakespeare. 

All of this was given to me for $6.00 an hour, which I often forgot to pay until Sonny reminded me that his son needed milk with his cereal.

Sonny’s inspiration guided me in my quest. I practiced the guitar with different colored light bulbs in my lamp at home. I noticed that I played differently depending on whether the room was bathed in green, blue or red light. Oh, what a journey I had set upon.

Perhaps I tended to live my life too much inside of my head and this was probably not the healthiest thing to do. I took thoughts and ideas and played with them, turning them over and sideways until I’d squeezed everything I could from them. This activity required an abundance of uninterrupted, solitary time. Outside of Sonny and Angie, Lyle, and Rudy, I was pretty much a loner. I suppose I might have seemed like a sort of oddball to some people who likely considered me a hopeless daydreamer or worse.

One of the things I often ruminated on was what life would be like for the human race in the future. I imagined a world in which people would be involved in very different types of leisure activities. I kept a notebook filled with my musings and inventions. I wasn’t clear as to how these notions would ever come to fruition, but I considered them valuable enough to get down on paper.

One of the ideas that I came up with was the “Magic Box.” I envisioned that it would spring up on street corners of large cities all across America. It would be a total sensory experience that would allow partakers to escape whenever the noise and pace of life became too overwhelming. One moment a weary soul would be surrounded by hectic, everyday, urban existence; then instantly as one stepped into the Magic Box everything would be transformed.

It would be the size of a small room, around 10 x 10 square feet and about eight feet high. Inside there would be a soft white bed to lie on. One would reach over to the wall next to the bed and press a button and the box would spring into action. The room would become completely dark and one would experience absolute silence due to the heavily sound-proof insulation that surrounded the walls and roof. A cool breeze generated by a silent fan embedded in the walls would begin to waft across the person’s body. The air would be impregnated with fragrances such as rose, jasmine, sandalwood or whatever scent best matched the virtual experience the traveler was about to undergo. One could choose from a variety of experiences such as astral flights over oceans, forests, or far flung galaxies.

The way this all worked was a product of the ingenious design of the Magic Box. The walls, roof and floor were in reality video projection screens surrounding the subject with a total visual environment. For example, if the traveler chose to sail above the ocean, a bright, blue sky would focus above and vast, undulating water would appear below. Gulls would swoop and dive to the left and right as the air blew in one’s hair smelling of salty sea mist spraying across his or her face as the sounds of crashing waves came from below. It was a total sensory experience. For fifteen minutes, one would be absorbed in the smells, sights, and sounds of a chosen fantasy. When it was over, the adventurer would step outside and return to the bustling street, rejuvenated and ready to face the world again.

I was convinced that this invention would transform the world.

I also foresaw a future in which light and color patterns would become the equivalent of musical songs. After all, what was music other than a predictable pattern of sounds? When we heard a recognizable combination of notes that pleased us, we might comment.

“I like that song.”

This same internal cognition would hold true for color and light patterns as well. In the same way we listened to radios, in the future we would be peering into screens of dancing color combinations that we would recognize as visual “songs” to our trained eyes. Visual musicians would compose these color tunes that we would recognize as easily as we distinguish Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.”

I was convinced that this would be the next big thing in global entertainment.

I was absorbed by these types of meanderings and sometimes I found it difficult to emerge into the outer world and function in any meaningful way.

I suspected that I was a probably a space alien from a distant planet who had been physically transformed and placed on earth in order to undergo some sort of training. Everything I experienced in this world was constructed to prepare me for the day that I would be retrieved by a great spacecraft that would whisk me away to my true home. My apprenticeship being completed, I would return to my planet of origin to assume my intended destiny.

Sometimes I sat up on a large tree branch in the  backyard of my earth parents’ home staring into the sky, waiting and wondering which star would grow bigger and bigger until it hovered over my head in blazing splendor to claim me at long last. I spent hopeful nights in agitated anticipation convinced that my time was imminent.