First published in New Reader Magazine, 2020
Downtown, North Vancouver, Canada.
June 2020, long before lockdown.
Billy wore a brace, around his neck
held G-harp into place, a chord
he loved, three notes he’d play, or four
on special nights, occasionally
the house half full, instead of full-on empty
playing on E the band would say
with grins and snorts
awaiting the next off-ramp and a fill.
Yes, G was Billy’s home, more so than not
where he’d return, harp nestled into key
like an heirloom quilt in eider down
swelling with pride in cold, cold weather. Now at the end
of a particularly ponderous, wanderous song
those vague and directionless sojourns Billy seemed
so fond of – recollecting liquor, lovers, ridealongs
and endless songs that meandered, smoke-filled
as memories, mementos, mired in his mind
tugging, times gently, others acerbic sharp
on the hackle-back of every neck, the brace
a chain link shackle, holding Billy into place, next to a G
the band, the stage, the half-E-fully-E-beer-soaked room
with a server who knew everybody’s name, she’d hum
the tunes and touch their arms – not sexual like – just a kind
of touchstone, lifeline, in the midst of the storm of everyday.
And she would go about her way, tending to everyone
while Billy and his bandmates they would jam and stray
but always they’d come home to stay
in the womb-like warmth of Billy’s G. He’d bow
his head toward his harp, close eyes and disappear
into the music, movement, fill his lungs with love
and he would play …
“Gee Billy” was inspired by a set of repetitive originals performed with harmonica in G, at a brew pub by railway tracks in North Vancouver, intermittently interrupted by the power-chord of a passing freight train.
However, Bill Arnott says the poem is not entirely autobiographical. “As horribly egocentric as it might seem, I simply liked the sound of the words ‘Gee Billy’ and it IS a bit tongue in cheek – as I found myself writing stuff in G it was simplest to leave my G harp in the neck holder when performing.”
Bill made his carpool video as part of North America’s National Poetry Month earlier in 2020.
Stereo Story #556