I stared at my lifework in solemn silence. Just one more turn of the key and it would all be over.
“Haunted Heaven,” it used to read above the entrance in red neon letters of the same font as Whisky-a-Go-Go, the famous rock club in Los Angeles that had inspired me to open my own place in Tokyo.
I looked down at my hands, the joints more swollen and the fingers more crooked than usual it seemed, as memories of the despair I felt when as a nineteen-year-old I was given my verdict: rheumatism arthritis.
“Me? I play the guitar! I can’t have rheumatism!” I protested wildly to the doctor who was looking at me with empathetic eyes, but speaking with conviction.
“Give me something else! Put me in a wheelchair or something! I don’t care…just not my fingers!” I tried desperately, but to no avail of course.
A period of disbelief followed when I pretended everything was alright. I tried to muscle my way through the pain, attempting anything I could think of to heal my fingers: stretching them, bending them, pulling them, beating them against the table, icing them, even almost boiling them until the skin was redder than a lobster.
Nothing worked, and I fell into despair. I lost all direction in life and drifted away from my band mates and my friends. I felt like I had no purpose anymore. Weeks passed, even months, and I only left my tiny flat to buy cup noodles, which was all I could afford.
Then one day it hit me that things could actually have been worse. Yes, even worse! I started imagining things. What if I had lost my hearing? Sure, I would have been able to play, but to deaf ears. Now I could at least still enjoy music. This concept somehow took root in me and gave me a strange sense of consolation as I every morning forced a smile on my face, feeling like a man desperately clinging on to the edge of a cliff, certain death waiting below, but still determined to enjoy the view.
I had to retrain my hearing, though. I tried to block out the sound of the guitar in my mind to stop myself from unconsciously recreating every chord, every note, every delicate move of the fingertips, because it tormented me. Instead I focused on listening to the music as a whole, as an entire entity, and over time I started to enjoy what I was hearing again. In fact, it felt liberating, as if somebody had freed me from the shackles that had been keeping me in a dungeon of despair. Before long, I reconnected with my music friends and found my way back to the rock scene as a fan rather than a player.
That was when I decided to try to make a living from music, and after a year of preparation, I opened Haunted Heaven to the great excitement of all my young band friends.
That was over forty years ago, and it was now all coming to an end.
I must have been standing there for quite some time, unable to take my eyes off the beautiful red façade, still intact except for the neon sign which I had removed the day before and carried home as a memento of my lifework, when I was suddenly brought back to the present by a hand on my shoulder. I turned and found myself looking at a familiar face.
“Kentaro!” I burst out.
“Kentaro…that sounds right,” the man in front of me said, as a wide smile came across his usually cool, almost emotionless face, which was the only one he ever showed on television. “Kenny,” was the name he went by in public – a name that would have sprung to mind for anyone in Japan if asked to name a famous guitarist. Apart from myself, there was probably only a handful of his old friends who still called him by his real name.
Kentaro took off his black sunglasses and brushed back his long, wavy, black hair away from his face and behind his shoulders. Gray Converse shoes, damaged black jeans, and a black Led Zeppelin print t-shirt made him look just like any other kid in a band, except that he was in his sixties. It was his towering height, although slightly hunched over from decades of bending down over his guitar, and aura, though, that would have made people turn around and look twice. Kentaro was not someone who was able to stay anonymous even if he tried, and I knew that was the only thing he missed from his youth before he hit stardom.
“I guess it’s been like five years?” he said, peering down at me with curiosity in his searching gaze. If it wasn’t for the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth - something you never noticed during his television performances - he could have almost passed for forty.
“How have you been?” he said, his focus moving from my face to my hands as if he used them to gauge my general state of health. Indeed, he probably could, since he was one of the few people who knew me from those early days and had witnessed my struggles.
“Not too bad,” I said. “Except…” I nodded towards the red building that he was just as familiar with as me, having performed there back in the day more than anyone else.
As he let his eyes move from the entrance and up the wall where the sign had been, a sigh escaped his lips, and I felt a wave of guilt washing over me. I knew how much this place meant to Kentaro. In fact, hadn’t it been for his tireless performances at Haunted Heaven, where he perfected his craft, I doubted he would have ever made it onto the big stages. This was almost a sacred place to him, and I was going to shut it down.
“Covid, you know…I just reached a point when I couldn’t go on anymore,” I said, apologetically, shrugging my shoulders.
“I know, it’s been tough for everyone. I mean, for me it just meant I got a break from touring and had some time to write new stuff, but my heart goes out to all those younger bands…” he said, sighing again.
We both fell silent for a moment, our eyes fixed on the place that had not only bound the two of us together, but also served as a launch pad for so many other musicians, although no one greater than Kentaro.
“So what brought you here all of a sudden, anyway?” I said, as I noticed a black van parked a little further down the street, recognizing Kentaro’s manager waiting in the driver’s seat.
“Well, I suppose the only good thing about Covid is that it’s given me time to think. You know, if there’s any way I can support young artists,” he said, not taking his eyes off Haunted Heaven.
“Then I heard that this building is for sale,” he continued.
“Yeah, my poor, old landlord had no choice now that he won’t be getting any rent from me anymore,” I said, adding, “I doubt anyone will want to buy the old shack, though…”
“Actually, I did,” he said, his eyes dancing as if he was excitedly anticipating my reaction.
“You?!” I burst out.
He broke out in laughter, “I thought that would surprise you!”
“I’m sure you’ve got the money and all, but…” I said, just staring at him. “What are you going do with it?”
“We’ll freshen it up. Put in the latest sound equipment and stuff. All the young bands will love it! Maybe we’ll even put in new air-conditioning so that we won’t have to suffocate anymore, eh?” His face glowed with excitement like a little kid talking about redecorating his room.
“We?” I said, although I had already guessed what was on his mind.
“Of course we! You’ll be the manager, just like you always have. The renovation work will be done by the time this whole Covid thing blows over, and then, Haunted Heaven reborn!” he said, putting his fists on his hips and nodding to himself.
He then took a quick look at his phone which was ringing, turned around, and gave a thumbs-up to his manager.
“Well, I have to be off to the studio. Think about it, alright?” He gave me a pat on the shoulder and walked away to the van.
I knew Kentaro well enough to understand that he wasn’t doing this to help young bands, or at least not primarily. He wanted to help me out, although I was sure he would never admit it, not wanting to hurt my pride. This was his way of thanking me for having provided a place for him to hone his craft and perfect his act all those years ago.
I turned my gaze back to Haunted Heaven. A smile came across my face as I remembered the very first time I asked Kentaro to play with his band, then just a fifteen-year-old kid. He had gotten lost on the back streets and was late, and when he finally arrived, he wouldn’t stop apologizing to me, so I literally had to get his guitar out of the case, put it around his neck, and walk him onto the stage.
“Well, lucky I kept that neon sign after all,” I said out loud.
I locked the place up and slowly started making my way on the narrow alleys down towards Shibuya Station, while humming on the very first song Kentaro played that night so long ago, which eventually made him famous.
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