Tag Archives: Music

One Elvis Fan Could Be Wrong

Recently I applied for a life insurance policy and as part of the screening I was instructed to go to a clinic to surrender some bodily fluids to insure that I wouldn’t be collecting on the policy anytime soon. On the appointed day I arrived at the “clinic”, which was actually a converted storefront in a strip mall.

When I entered the clinic I was immediately overwhelmed by its sterility. This was the whitest office I’d ever been in; devoid of any color or artwork on the walls. I approached the receptionist’s window and read the small note card: “Please ring the bell for service.” I tapped the bell and it let out a single tone that lingered unnaturally in the cold space that crowded me as I stood alone.

A lovely black woman in her mid-thirties greeted me warmly. “Good morning Mr. Cheetham, I’m Layla and I’ll be taking care of you today.”


She gestured to a door to my right, “Go right in that door and I will meet you in the lab.”
I walked through the door – more unbearable whiteness; walls, ceiling, tile floors, and fluorescent lighting. It was a large room with one table and two chairs against one wall and a chair with a small medical table next to it used for taking blood samples.
Layla walked in wearing blue scrubs that accentuated her dark skin. She stood in stark contrast to my surroundings. “Let’s sit down and do some forms first,” she said gesturing to the table and chairs. I sat down holding my ridiculously large set of keys and my oversized phone. “You can put those on the table, Mr. Cheetham.”

I put my keys and phone on the table. Layla unfolded a tablet on the table saying “let me just look through these forms.”

I sat quietly in the echo-chamber of a room, then it started – emanating from Layla’s tablet – Elvis, the King himself, wailed:

“Well that’s all right, mama
That’s all right for you
That’s all right mama, just anyway you do
Well, that’s all right, that’s all right
That’s all right now mama, anyway you do”

Layla picked up the beat as she reviewed my data on the tablet. She almost imperceptibly moved her shoulders to the rhythm before she caught herself and looked at me as if to ask, is it okay?

Before she could speak I enthusiastically answered, “Oh, I like Elvis.” Who couldn’t like Elvis? He was shattering the sterile environment and that’s all right.

“So we’ll just leave the music on?”

“Yes!” I answered immediately.

Layla did some light typing and then handed me a small plastic cup. “Okay Mr. Cheetham, I’ll need a urine sample.” She pointed to a small bathroom.
“That’s all right, mama” the King sang.

I walked into the bathroom and got to work, but I couldn’t help thinking, she doesn’t seem like the Elvis type. Just goes to show you Cheetham, you can’t account for music tastes. I walked out of the room only to be greeted by the sounds of Gene Vincent:

“Be bob a lula, she’s my baby
Be bop a lula, I don’t mean maybe…”

This was becoming much more than an insurance screening – this was a certifiable rockabilly revival right in a sterile lab inside a nondescript strip mall!
I place my sample on the table as instructed.

Before Layla could speak to give me my next set of instructions I smiled and said, “Gene Vincent. This guy was a genius. Love this song.”

Layla smiled, “It is good. Isn’t it?”

“I love this stuff,” I returned.

“Okay Mr. Cheetham I’m going to ask you to sit in the chair so I can take 3 small vials of blood.”

Of course, I’d be glad to give my blood to her. This was a woman who understood rock and roll. As I sat down and rolled up my sleeve, I started constructing essays in my head. My mind raced, “you see – this is the real power of music, people. A young black woman and a middle aged white guy are connecting, right here in a stark laboratory, because Gene Vincent was forcing us to connect. That’s beautiful.” My thoughts were the thoughts of an obnoxious long-haired sociology professor preparing to lecture bored 18 year old students.

Layla wrapped my upper arm with a rubber band and applied alcohol to my bulging vein, “You are gonna feel a little stick.”  And as if she was synchronizing her movements, just as I felt that stick, from the tablet on the table came the drum intro and then Eddie Cochran kicked in with:

“Well c’mon everybody
And let’s get together tonight
I’ve got some money in my jeans
And I’m gonna spend it right…”

Layla changed out the vial of blood and started a second sample collection.

“I’ll tell you, I just love this rockabilly music. I listen to it all the time at my house,” I said. “Do you use Pandora?”

Layla kept her eyes on the blood, “oh yes, I like Pandora.”

“I listen to this same type of channel at home,” I added, “amazing.”

“Just one more vial, almost done,” she assured me.

Take your time, I thought.

Layla finished and deftly replaced the needle with a cotton ball. “Direct pressure for a minute.”

She was labeling vials and Chuck Berry was singing:

“Maybelline, why can’t you be true
Oh Maybelline, why can’t you be true?”

A second nurse entered the room and took note of the concert. “Ooh I like it. Where’s that coming from?” Layla gestured to the table. “Nice! We should have music in here all the time.”

“Why don’t you?” I asked. “You should have music in here all the time.”

The second nurse readily agreed, “We really should!” And then she breezed back out of the room.

Layla finished putting a bandage on my arm, “you are all set Mr. Cheetham.”

I hated to say goodbye, but all good things must come to an end. I reluctantly gathered my keys and my phone. I thanked Layla and walked out of the lab, out of the office and out to the parking lot.

Then something astonishing happened. Right in the parking lot I heard, loud and clear, Bill Haley and his Comets and they were rocking and rolling – singing:

“I said shake rattle and roll,
Well, you never do nothing,
To save your doggone soul.”

It wasn’t my imagination. It was coming from my pocket.

It was my cell phone.

My cell phone had been playing my Pandora rockabilly channel for more than 30 minutes.

Copyright © 2018 cjcheetham

The Day Joe Strummer Saved My Life

In August of 1987, exactly 8 days before the start of my sophomore year of college I faced a personal crisis that threatened to undo my entire life’s plan.  It was music, specifically the music of Joe Strummer and the Clash, that miraculously provided a timely solution to an impossible situation.


In the winter of 1982, during my senior year of high school, my father suffered a tragic economic collapse.  His life’s work, as an independent supermarket owner on the South Shore of Massachusetts, dissolved under a mountain of debt in early December of that year.  As a result, my parents went into a financial tailspin that they would never fully recover from.  I was the youngest of 4 children, the only one still living at home, and I immediately knew this turn of events would change my plan to attend the University of Rhode Island in the fall of 1983.

After spending the subsequent two years unsuccessfully saving for college by working as a landscaper, roofer, and other manual labor jobs, I had joined the Army National Guard.  Thanks to the glorious G.I. Bill, I finally managed to get to an affordable college in the fall of 1986.  In order to save money that first year, I commuted from my home town to the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth (a 50-minute one-way drive on a good day). For the entire first year of college, I borrowed my brother’s car to attend school.  That car was available only because my generous brother, a member of the US Navy, had training requirements and deployments that entire year and didn’t need his car.

However, in the summer of 1987, my brother had returned from the sea, picked up his car and headed off to a naval base.  This left me with a dilemma:  how was I going to get to school in the fall of 1987 for my sophomore year?  Sure I was working and yes, I was pulling in a small monthly check from my one-weekend-a-month National Guard duties, but I’d never been able to save enough cash to cover room and board at college.  Likewise, a combination of youthful irresponsibility and low salary had left me with no real hope of buying a car either.

It was the summer of great discomfort.  I was already 3 years behind my high school friends, most of whom graduated college months earlier in the spring of 1987.  Now I was faced with the bleak prospect that I would not return to the University in the fall.  Barring a miracle, I would be home in September without a car, without any hope of completing my college degree, and without a future.  I skillfully navigated awkward conversations with friends throughout June and July, pretending that everything was fine; and “yes, I was looking forward to returning” to school in September.  Despite my charade, by mid-August I was sure of one thing:  there was no way on earth I was going back to college in September.  Sure, I was enrolled – but I knew, with certainty that I would not be in class on the first Tuesday after Labor Day.


On the last Sunday in August, reality loomed just 8 days away.  Reality, a monster that plagues all men, was shadow boxing and eagerly awaiting his chance to knock me out cold.  I was resigned to my beating, hopelessly playing out my remaining summer days.

Music has always been an important part of my life.  It has always brought me joy; and more importantly it has brought me escape.  So, on that last Sunday of August, I did something that defied logic.  I went to the record store to buy an album.  It was completely irrational; it was futile; it was stupid.  But with Otter’s voice in my head, “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part,” I headed to the mall with the intent of buying Black Market Clash by Joe Strummer and the Clash.

I lingered in the “Musicsmith” a (now defunct) music sanctuary in my local mall.  I spent an hour flipping through vinyl LPs, which was the best way to shop.  You poured over the vinyl selections and then you bought a cassette for the boom-box in your bedroom.  Of course, on that day I knew exactly why I was at the store.  I needed a new cassette of Black Market Clash because, as anyone who has owned tapes can attest to, they get eaten from time to time.  Black Market Clash a collection of killer non-album singles and B-side tracks by Joe Strummer and the boys.  Soon, I’d be home listening to Armagideon Time with the lyric apropos to my predicament:

“No one will guide you, through armagideon time.”

As I waited in line to pay for Black Market Clash, I noticed that the guy ringing the register was a classmate from high school days, Dan Heggerich.  Dan was a good guy – lots of fun; we were friendly in high school but I hadn’t really talked to him in years.  I dreaded the inevitable conversation about college.  To make matters worse, last year I’d seen Dan on campus at the University of Massachusetts (he was an engineering student) so it was a guarantee that he would ask something like “ready for school?”

I considered putting back the Clash cassette and quietly escaping.  But I had to hear Joe Strummer sing.

“My daddy was a bank robber, but he never hurt nobody…”

I decided to fake one more conversation.


Dan:  “Cheetham – good choice with the Clash.” He took the cassette from me.

Me:  “Well, they are my favorite.”

Dan:  “Ready to go back to school?”  (There it was.)

Me:  “Yeah.  How about you?  You going back too?”

Dan:  “Yup.  But I am not living there this year.  Need to save money so I am going to commute.”

[What?  My mind clicked and whirred.  Did he just say, commute!?]

Me:  “Commute?  You mean you are driving to campus every day.  A 50-minute commute every day?”

Dan:  “Yeah – kinda sucks.”

Me:  “Actually it might be the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.”


Dan and I drove to school together every day that year.  We became good friends and had lots of laughs. The Heg-Man, as he came to be known by me, saved my sophomore year.  When I reflect on that day – even today I can’t believe it.  It was/is a miracle.  If I had not gone to a record store when it made absolutely no sense to do that, I would have never made it through college.

Go figure.

Yes, Dan Heggerich is a hero in this story – I can never repay him.  And yes, I agree, God works out beautiful chance encounters for us all on a daily basis, and I can never thank Him enough.

But when I look back on August 1987, I still say it was the day that Joe Strummer saved my life.

R.I.P.  Joe


Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham


Here’s The Clash with Armagideon Time from Black Market Clash


Oh, and just in case you were wondering about that “Otter” quote: