Shazam Speaks His Mind
by Kim Stafford
My name is Shazam, and I am here, your Honor, for speeding. I admit it’s true. But the proper word, your Honor, would be flying. The officer’s report said 65 in a 35 zone. But I have to say it was more like 75, tops—just to set the record straight. And I want you to understand, your Honor, it was one A.M., no one was on the road, I had just broken up with my girlfriend, and I had this new car I didn’t know how fast she could go, so that, your Honor, was the perfect time. Perfect. And the moon—did I mention it was a full moon? I’m not sure that detail was listed in the officer’s report. But that moon is a very important factor. The full moon is the reason I switched the lights off once I hit seventy. I’m not sure you realize, your Honor, but that’s how you get the feel of really flying in a car: high speed, after midnight, no lights, moon.
Your Honor, I ask you to understand.
You ask me, your Honor, if I have learned from my mistakes. You do not consider me a good risk in returning to society unless I may demonstrate to your satisfaction that I have learned, and will apply my learning, upon return to the street. I can say with confidence I have learned, and learned one thing only: “That’s life.” Something goes wrong—that’s life. Someone treats me bad—that’s life. Speeding ticket, my sweet car a total wreck—that’s life. Did I expect better? If I expected things to go well, see, I’m setting up for hurt. So I don’t do that any more. Same with my music, same principle: I play a tune—people pay, don’t pay, linger, walk away. I play the tune is all it’s about. I play the tune, you know what I mean? I play, my fingers make the song, and the mandolin, she sings. That’s life.
Your Honor, I ask you to understand about the music.
See this pick in my fingers, Your Honor, this that looks like an ordinary guitar pick I hold before you? This is the pick I use upon the golden strings of my mandolin, this jade-green pick between my finger and thumb, this plectrum of a thousand songs. Do you know how this came to me, this my chosen tongue of time, sorrow, joy, and melody? You do not know, but I, I yet remember the hand of my teacher, old Julius, my friend, my only friend in those times—he handed me this pick, and commanded, “Make the people cry for the beauty. Make them pay for your gift, make them scatter coins and fat crumpled bills into the case you have laid open before them. With this pick, pluck their hearts, my son. In your hand, with this pick reach into their secrets and bring them to your mercy. Take this pick and play your heart, and you will always thrive in the music.”
Your Honor, I am here asking you to understand the music, and my way with it.
You ask, your Honor, what I mean by this. I mean what I say: the labyrinth of the mysterious is our common life seen by the eyes of the curious mind, the questioning heart. To make music is not the inert skill of arranging the known for display, but of creating the resonant unknown for wonder. “Live music” is thus a distinct phenomenon from “music.” Music is a fossil, live music a creature.
Your Honor, I don’t know if you know how pleasing a few notes can be. A job is one thing, a job and an honorable life. This you say you wish for me. But have you known a few notes elegantly played in a simple tune of mysterious satisfaction? That is where I begin. If you desire to know me, to help me, you must understand what I am saying. A few notes. If you like, I could demonstrate.
Your Honor, I am here asking for your understanding. A little, that’s all.
You ask the best I’ve ever done. Your Honor, I am honored that you ask me this. The best I’ve ever done—that’s a whole lot of question. See, I’ve done a lot of the best. I had a whole orchestra of my own. We called ourselves The Tribe from the Oasis. They all spoke Arabic, I had English, so I got us the gigs. You should have heard us when we got down! Drums, the ’ouhd, the gha, and me on the mandolin. But my whole life is the best. When I play with my orchestra, I thrive in the mesh of sound what I could not survive alone. When I play solo, that’s when I let my fingers fly, trying to stay on top of the raging waters of sorrow. I could do it now, your Honor, if you want to know. Know what I’m saying?
Your Honor, I ask you to hear what I am saying, and to understand
Ah, yes, your Honor, there was the matter of the speeding car, the telephone pole, the scatter of diamond glass across the intersection refracted by the moon. It is fitting that you should remind me. I recall that is why we are gathered—you, and I, and this jury of patient men and women. But I would be remiss if I did not say I can only provide a worthy answer to your important questions by my music, by touching the mandolin, or setting forth a talking blues, or even tapping out an extended percussive aria in five-four rhythm on the table before me. If you would only give me the sign, I could provide a full explanation for my behavior in the private language of my soul….but, if that is not possible, I will accept your judgment for my body’s good, though I can never accept any ruling of the law upon my spirit’s calling. There is something deeper than the law.
Your Honor, dear your Honor, I ask that you understand.
You ask about my beliefs, your Honor, and I am moved to speak my mind. How big is a dream? It is compact in the dark mind…and yet it is kin to the infinite. How long is a moment, a single breath, a syllable of trust, a single musical note? It is very local…and it is a particle in the big bang of eternity. The ah-ha moment of insight may be hinge, pivot point to change the whole equation. May be the small key smelted from a mountain of historic ore that opens the door and reveals the whole new palace of experience. Music smelts the gold that forms the key that opens our way into the next labyrinth of mysteries.
Your Honor, do you understand me? Understand I am here rehearsing in my cell. Understand tomorrow I will speak to you, but tonight, here, I am speaking to a wall. This wall. Understand my fellow inmates are tired of my babble, and let me know so, by banging their tin cups on the bars, thinking to quell my ranting with noise, but to my ear, being musical beyond almost what the body can stand, I enjoy their participation in my plea, for the song is louder in my mind, and has its own demand, and so I mutter on to their insane accompaniment.
Your Honor, do you understand?
No one can know the fire in my soul when a speeding car hums the song my mother sang, the tune that rips my father’s hands away from beating. Have you felt the blows of a father, your Honor? Have you felt a song inside you humming your mother’s love, while a father’s fists bruise your outer body protected only from within? Have you known the bruise of trouble battering the heart when a father beats a mother, and you know not what to do? Can’t fight a man that big when you are small. Can’t stand between without making your father killer of a child. Can’t run off and leave her. Hostage to the scene, only finding a thread of breath in the song that hums inside you while the blows rain down.
Your Honor, I ask you to understand this is not about a car, a limit, a telephone pole in splinters. This is about a song that told me to get to 75, levitate by moonlight, and listen in the wee hours on the empty streets of Portland USA. Nothing grand, sir. But imperative.
Your Honor, I ask you, do you ... do you ... do you understand at last?