Ballad for a Plain Man
Jeff Finlin might be one of the finest American troubadours since Bob Dylan. Just ask Bruce Springsteen or director Cameron Crowe. So why is he scraping by on the Front Range, playing gigs on a cracked guitar?
I wrote it up—Finlin's journey, the experts' praise, Crowe, Springsteen—and shipped it to L.A. Then, unexpectedly, my editors ran my story by the newspaper's music critics, who savaged it. This guy isn't unique, they said. Countless musical artists can't get a break, they argued—why should we care about Jeff Finlin?
Because he's great, I replied. Because if he isn't unique, if there are countless Jeff Finlins out there, what better time to report on their plight than the day of the Grammys? And if Finlin is one-of-a-kind, aren't we obliged to spotlight him, to feature this huge talent who somehow fell through the cracks? Isn't that what we do?
While the editors and critics deliberated, I bundled up and went to hear Finlin perform at a bar in downtown Denver. It was a miserably cold Friday night, the temperature near zero. For some reason the bar had positioned Finlin and his band—a group of local players with whom he sometimes gigs—beside the front door, so that whenever someone went in or out, which was every four seconds, an arctic blast rushed in and seemed to freeze the music in midair. Also, to set the mood, someone had arranged candles all around the barroom. But this actually served to ruin the mood, since gusts from the perpetually open door made the candles constantly gutter or blow out.
Unfazed, Finlin strapped on his big old guitar, the one with the crack under the bridge (Aidan dropped a toy on it years ago) and sang his guts out. He gave a stirring performance, flinging his verses like bouquets into the half-lit barroom, even though only a dozen people were draped along the bar, ignoring the band, ignoring the arctic blasts, ignoring everything but the chemicals they required to stay warm and high. I, however, hung on every note. I never liked Finlin's stuff better, and I prayed that the newspaper would run my story.
The next day the newspaper killed my story.
I didn't know how to tell him. I paced the house all weekend, rehearsing what I'd say. I picked up the phone, put down the phone. Finally I took the coward's way out, sent Finlin an e-mail. I wrote that I was disappointed, angry, for both of us, and deeply sorry. He e-mailed back right away. Don't sweat it, man. "It all works out the way it's supposed to."