I met the kid just a few days into a freshly installed 2004.
I’d been working with his lovely girlfriend for some time. I’d heard she was dating an aspiring rock star. I wanted to meet him. So there I was in some dark, anonymous Lower East Side Bar, on a regular Friday night in January, 2004, when the beautiful Ms. Stoneburner introduced me to the force of nature that is Casey Shea.
The kid was a fresh face bordered by thick, wiry black hair. He could¹ve been wearing sunglasses at night, I don’t know. I could see his eyes, though. They were a little akimbo, kinda wild. I cornered the young lad, straight, I was told, from Nashville, and schooled him on the cruel New York City rock scene.
Me, the corporate media executive with a sideline on LES stages. Me, the grizzled, old veteran, jaded by apathy, age, and a waning audience. Me, who always swore this gig was the last, this record was the coda. Me, never hip, never cool, never it.
“If you’re gonna do the rock ‘n roll thing,” I said, “Do it full-on, no compromises, no fall-backs, no second guessing.”
It was all the advice I’d never been given, nor had the courage to follow. (And it was the advice he never asked for, but graciously accepted.)
Time passes. I visit the man’s home in Jacksonville. I meet the man’s family. I attend the man’s wedding. He drinks red wine on my roof deck. We share a few stages. He loans me his guitar. He plays harmonica on my record.
Fast-forward to last Friday night. Abbi and I have tossed back a few. We stumble out of a cab in front of Crash Mansion. “You’re just in time,” Jeremy, the booker there, tells us at the door. “They’re about to go on… fashionably late.”
I greet Ms. Stoneburner — now Mrs. Shea — who appears thrilled that we have joined the throng. Wes spots me from the stage, extends his hand, then turns to Casey and mouths, “Ben Wagner’s here!”
Could be that the gentlemen received me with the deference of an elder statesman. Could be that, in my three Stella Artois, two Grey Goose and tonics, and one shot Petron mind, it just felt that way. Either way, I appreciated it. I was glad I was there.
The Undisputed Heavyweights show really is a thing of its own. It’s an Vaudevillian/acoustic/rock/blues show, or something. Casey’s stage persona is equal parts James Brown, Elvis Presley, and Bono. He struts, he preens, his gestures wildly. Heck, the guy wears sunglasses on stage and gets away with it. But then comes the surprise, etched in cursive on the head of a pin. Listen closely, and the songs are beautiful heartfelt, and wrenching.
Take “Roll Your Window Down,” one of maybe about six songs ever that I wish I’d written. What sounds like a simple, melodic refrain (“Roll the windows down / It’s all behind you”) is drenched with beautiful melancholy. Have I invested the song with what I know of Mr. Shea’s interior life? Perhaps. Does the audience invest the song with its? Absolutely.
I run into Casey all the time: on the street, in the hallways, in the elevators. Mrs. Shea, when she is around, rolls her eyes. We are overly fond of one another, she thinks. We hug, chat, catch up, and then — invariably — our ridiculous days drag us back to their ridiculous bidding. Nearly every time, though, as I toss my hand over my shoulder to wave goodbye, the kid shouts, “Dominate!”