PREFACE: About a singer whose talent emerged after a car crash, the story has the rhythm of music, the characters of a Cohen brothers film and the dread of Easy Rider. In the end, you might not know for sure what it’s about, but you’ll have no doubt you enjoyed the journey. (Jacob H. Fries)
His stage name was Jimi Snakeskin, and he was broad as a bear and nearly as hairy, with a long, goatish chin beard and wild brown eyes. Jimi sang only Earth, Wind and Fire songs since a severe closed head trauma from an auto accident seven years before gifted him the ability to sing the shit out of Earth, Wind and Fire songs. He named his act, “Earth, Wind and Snakeskin, Featuring the Amazing Jimi Snakeskin” and set out to make a go of it in his hometown of Spokane. His gigs weren’t very regular, as Spokane is not a real big Earth, Wind and Fire town but more into Nickelback and Toby Keith.
The fact Jimi got his head smashed in a car wreck and woke up in the hospital singing perfect versions of Earth, Wind and Fire songs should be enough to cause a reasonable person to say, “Oh, my God, that’s pretty messed up — but kind of cool.” But even more remarkably, the car wreck involved a chain-reaction collision reconstruction so intricate, complicated, and technically illuminating of the physics of high-speed, multiple-vehicle collisions that it was named the “Snakeskin-Interstate 90 Cross-Lane Off-Ramp Nine Vehicle Multi-Target Collision Sequence” and used as a test question on the final exam in the advanced accident investigation course at the Washington State Patrol academy. Jimi had the kind of famous luck most folks would be fine without.
Jimi played coffee shops, cafés, open-mics, dive bars, street corners, contests, charity events, private parties and the odd hotel lounge — just Jimi garbed in a tie-dye T-shirt, blue jeans and white Converse tennis shoes while playing his Martin acoustic and singing his full repertoire of Earth, Wind and Fire songs. He plugged along for seven years trying to make his act work and realized it just wasn’t, he needed more material — even some Commodores would help — but whenever he tried to step off the Earth, Wind and Fire train, he fell flat on his face. His non-Earth, Wind and Fire voice was a chugging croak of horror.
Finally, Jimi decided enough was enough. He had one more gig — a Sunday evening show at the baby bar in the Hotel Rainbow, and then he’d call it quits. His brother in Tacoma had a salesman job for him at Tacoma Screw Products and told Jimi he could crash at his place until he got on his feet. Jimi had a remarkable memory and aptitude for sizes, grades and types of fasteners, bolts, screws, nails, pins, rivets, rods, hooks and collars, and he’d possessed the ability before the wreck, so it wasn’t some trauma-informed gift of screw products mentation.
The next morning, he would gas up his little Honda Civic with the night’s tip money and hit the freeway for a new life.
The crowd was light, one table with five Browne’s Addition hipsters who would no doubt laugh at him, rate his douchebaggery, ironically mouth the words to the songs and wipe Pabst Blue Ribbon foam off their furry postmodern beards. Another table held his most loyal fan — a 70ish wheat farmer from Colfax who drove up every time Jimi had a gig and who would quietly drink Maker’s Mark or Budweiser Light and tap his big brown work boots to the beat. Jimi debated whether he should tell the farmer — whose name, he realized with a start, he’d never even asked — that this was the end of the line for Earth, Wind and Snakeskin. Jimi figured he might not tell him because the farmer could be a lonely widower with no children, farming wheat with a hunting dog and a few dozen barn cats to keep him company, and the only part of his life bearable enough to refrain himself from toppling face-first into a grain elevator filled with soft white winter wheat and suicide was Earth, Wind and Snakeskin.
The old farmer confused Jimi — Jimi believed that he and his act were a joke to night-crawling hipsters and many in the local music community who admired how perfectly he sang Earth, Wind and Fire but not how he was a bit of a freak for even trying — and here was this old farmer who seemed to live to see Jimi.
Jimi rocked his set as he knew his debasement and frustration were ending and a new life beginning. He cooked “Shining Star,” nailed “Sing a Song,” obliterated “Got To Get You Into My Life,” drilled “September,” funked “Boogie Wonderland,” creamed “After the Love Has Gone,” and flat-out fried “Let’s Groove.” He worked his last set like he owned Earth, Wind and Fire —and in many ways, he’d been lugging them around for seven years.
After Jimi wrapped the set and cased his guitar, he decided he’d tell the farmer he was closing up the Snakeskin shop for good. Jimi didn’t want any guitar strings of regret binding him to this damn town — he just wanted to make a clean break. And the farmer probably deserved the truth.
“Hey, man. Thanks for coming. I’m ashamed to admit I never got your name,” Jimi said while extending his hand for a shake.
The farmer shook his hand and said, “Phil Bailey. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Snakeskin. I’m a big fan, as you know — I think your singing is flat out of this world.”
“You’re my biggest fan, without a doubt, so I thought I should let you know I’m done with all this. Moving to Tacoma tomorrow and doing some real work, getting a real job,” Jimi said with a little chuckle.
Farmer Bailey stared at Jimi, then down into the brown film of whiskey clinging to the bottom of his glass, and then back at Jimi and said, “That ain’t right, Jimi. You cannot quit quite yet.”
“Sorry, man, got to. It’s been long enough, and I’m tired of trying. Why is it you don’t want me to quit, anyway?” Jimi asked. “You just a big Earth, Wind and Fire fan?”
“Shit. Shit. Son, you don’t know anything. Shit,” Farmer Bailey said.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Phil, but I’m burned out,” Jimi said. “Can’t sing anything except Earth, Wind and Fire, and I’m sick of the lack of interest, lack of work and the surplus of ironic college students.”
The farmer sprung from his chair with a velocity belying his age. “Hell with you then — you just don’t know shit, son,” he said as he stormed out of the bar.
Jimi didn’t get this guy, what his problem was, but it was time to roll home and crash anyway. Long drive tomorrow, and ever since the accident he’d get headaches about every hour on the road, so with all the breaks for headaches, it would likely be a seven-hour trip to Tacoma.
Jimi was driving home on Dishman-Mica Road and blinking his bloodshot eyes hard to stay awake when his rearview mirror glittered like starburst from the high-beams of a pickup truck accelerating at a breathtaking pace. Three thoughts crossed his mind in the seconds before the pickup smashed into the back of his Honda: Please slow down. Just go around me, dumbass! Oh, shit!
The pickup launched Jimi in his Honda off the road, over a dirt berm and into a grove of immature Ponderosa pines. The Honda ricocheted off the trees, rolling twice and smashing to rest, upside-down, with the airbag deployed but unable to protect Jimi’s head from cracking against the roof.
The pickup stopped on the road above Jimi’s crumpled and smoking Honda. Farmer Bailey got out, walked to the shoulder and flipped Jimi’s car off and shouted,
“You almost had it, you stupid son of a bitch — you were only a hair of a note off on “Shining Star,” and the next time you would have nailed it. Then the damn Zoroasters and Trilaterals would have left on their damn hunter-killer ships and no more radars. You blew it, mister!”
Farmer Bailey shook his head, returned to his pickup and drove away.
In the Honda, there arose a strange sound, a wheezing, bubbling and crackling sound which slowly transformed into a pitch-perfect and note-pure rendition of Robert Plant singing about looking to the west, spirits crying for leaving and those who stand looking. The voice grew softer as it sang “Stairway to Heaven” until there wasn’t any wondering anymore.