Okay, all you rockers, fans, and groupies out there, it's time to talk about Neil Gardner, front man for the Grim Reapers and has he got a story.
He and Lins first meet on Karaoke Night at the seedy Flying Fish Club. She's automatically suspicious of guy who suddenly has joined them at their table. But he has an endearing clumsiness to him that saves her from telling him to leave. Lins' politeness also keeps her in check, even though she has the uneasy feeling that her pal Patti, also at the table, would like to see her make friends with this stranger.
After Lins notes that he’s a part-time rock god, Neil sets about getting the story straight for her. I’m going to let him explain it:
“Part-time, yeah. Not so sure about that rock god thing. For one, I’d be making a whole lot more money if I were a real rock god. I had big dreams, though. Once upon a time.”
He goes on: “We thought we’d be the next E Street Band or Bon Jovi. But reality’s a harsh mistress, so the dream got small and local. We do it out of love now. Our piece of the rock pie is pretty thin, but, hey, it’s ours. Take what we’ve got and be glad.”
The leader of this part-time bar band, this loser guy who lives over the music store that he manages was born to a couple of hippies: Corn Flower Gardner and Rowdy (of no discernable last name). They lived on a commune in Western Maryland and later in a cooperative in Baltimore. Some years after Neil was born, the young hippies had a little girl.
The anti-establishment parents gave their children names that worked on a commune, but not so much on the outside: Strong Oak and Little Doe. When Neil became an adult, he legally changed his name. He claims she always admired musician Neil Young, so he took “Neil” as a first name.
(The truth is I named my character after Neil Innes, musician and former member of the Bonzo Dog Band and Monty Python. Neil says he was the 2nd 7th Python. You go figure that out.)
Corn Flower Gardner was always searching for meaning. Toward the end of her rather short life, she joined a church that had stringent beliefs, and this turned Neil completely off – especially after the platitudes they offered him after his mother died from breast cancer.
In talking to Lins and not knowing that she serves as an assistant pastor, Neil reflects on the time before and after his mother died:
Neil bit into his ice cream cone and chewed for a moment. “The short time I was at the church, there was this kid, Freddy. He got leukemia. It must have been bad because he was sick a long time. Nothing seemed to work. The church people prayed like mad, but he died anyway.” He finished the cone off and wiped his fingers with a paper napkin. “Same thing with my mother. There was no miracle. They both died worn out and in pain. The people in the church came up with all sorts of bullshit: God wanted them, God needed another angel in heaven, don’t question God’s will, that kind of crap. As if they were showering the bereaved with comfort. Well, it wasn’t comfort, not to me. I mean, why would God take my mother? And what possible use could an all-powerful God have for a kid like Freddy? Why couldn’t God just give them a break?”
A little later, he says:
“I kept wondering why my mother died. Was it punishment? Did I say the wrong prayer? Didn’t God like me? Didn’t God approve of her? I mean, if God is love, why would he do shit like taking someone’s kid or someone’s mother?” He stared at the bright lights in the stores. The sound of people on the boardwalk and ambient music from the shops floated on the breeze. “Like, for instance, why would God take your father? You were just a little girl. You needed him. Only a monster would take away a kid’s parent. That’s why I think it’s all bullshit. I don’t think there even is a God, you know?”
Rather than reacting in anger, Lins has compassion for both Neil and the people in his mother’s church. She reflects (to herself):
He had been wounded all right – and by well-meaning people. I knew they were well-meaning because I had colleagues and friends like the people in his mother’s church. They had strong beliefs and used certain phrases that were meaningful to them, but couldn’t hear how those things sounded to those outside their circle.
His mixed up background feeds into Neil’s seemingly dual personality. He's quiet and a bit reserved off stage, so Lins' first impression of him is that he is a shy, nervous guy who wants to pick her up by asking her to sing with him. Of course, Patti encourages her to do it.
But when Lins and Neil hit the stage, things change.
I could not have predicted what came next. This middle-aged guy took charge. His sang the first verse in a controlled manner. When we hit the chorus, though, he switched to full-on powerful. And he had range, effortlessly hitting the low notes and the high notes. I had to work to keep up and provide the harmonies.
…He had, I thought, an amazing expression and demeanor. It was perfect for a man fronting a rock band.
At the end of the number, Lins reflects:
He had been in control, powerful, and passionate up there. It was like sex – only with music. At the end of our number, I almost expected him to light a cigarette and ask, “Was it good for you?” And I would have told him that it was incredibly good song-sex.
Hmm... chemistry. Lots of it.
But, hey, this is a romance., Things can’t go smoothly right?
So, they don’t. Big time.
First of all, Lins knows that Neil is an agnostic or atheist, she can’t bring herself to tell him that she’s a pastor. She keeps her vocation a secret because she can’t figure out how to tell him.
When he asks her to join the band, Lins is thrown into a crisis. Is this the change God has in mind for her? Whoever heard of that? It doesn't make sense. But she likes the guy...
As for Neil, he's divorced. He got a girl named Ginger pregnant, married her (because it was the right thing to do, he says), and became the parent of a little girl, Penelope, or Penny for short. But the marriage soured and the couple split. Lins sees the tension that exists between Neil and Ginger. Ginger has full custody of Penny and is strict about how often their daughter can see Neil, because she considers him to be irresponsible. Does she want that in her life?
And there’s one more tension: Neil has a sister has a problem with addiction, something Lins learns mid-story.
And that’s where I’m going to let this blog rest, because, as River Song tells the Doctor, “Spoilers, sweetie.”
You’ll just have to read the book to see if Neil and Lins rock off into the sunset together.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder