With many things, the reality is a bit more involved than we're ever quite able to reduce into language.
It's a conundrum that's confounded linguists and philosophers of language since those disciplines began to develop in earnest - my personal feelings are that the problem of language's inadequacy is precisely what dragged those fields of study into existence.
"Dennis" as a work is no exception. The true life of the person the song is "about" (whatever that means) is no less opaque to me now than it was when we first met.
I was still living in Los Angeles at the beginning of 2020, before the whole Covid shit hit the fan. I believe it was late January or thereabouts. Chris Veilleux, a long time bassist/saxophonist for my project and a dear friend, and Anthony Guerra, who contributed guitar to my live act frequently when I was in LA, and myself on drums served as the backing band for another artist we knew at a one-off gig in Las Vegas.
We loaded the gear and bodies up in Anthony's cramped mini-SUV and hauled ass across the desert blaring "Cheeseburger in Paradise" like a low-budget Fear and Loathing spin-off. After our set at a forgettable bar in a forgettable part of Las Vegas well away from the strip on a bill with other unknown LA-based artists, a tall guy in a sweatshirt with the hood up came over to me.
"Hey man, I liked your drumming," he said in a low, strange voice; actually difficult to describe, that adjective isn't a cop-out. He's a tall dude, loomed over me while I was sitting there feeling out of place.
I said, "thanks," and asked if we could step outside to chat about music.
His name, obviously, was Dennis. Mid-thirties, scruffy goatee, walking with a strange gait and not moving his left arm very much, though it held a small bag by the handle.
We talked for a while about how he used to be in a band called the Erudites, how he'd gotten way into cocaine and semi-recovered, how he used to be an alcoholic and semi-recovered. His dad left when he was pretty young and had only very recently come back into his life. His mom died when he was in high school. His sister lived in Henderson, Nevada, a small town in the south side of the sprawling Vegas monster. He had lived with her for a bit after he got out of the hospital and now lived on his own with some roommates down that way.
What put him in the hospital was a .38.
That he'd fired.
Things had fallen apart with a long time girlfriend, things had fallen apart in general. Feeling that the best was over, never again to return, he decided to cash his check and call it a day.
Gun to the head sounded like a solid decision, very low chance of survival, or so he'd thought. The bullet went through and definitely did some real damage, but it didn't kill him. He ended up in the hospital and then a physical rehabilitation center where he, in his thirties, would relearn to walk and write his own name. In a manner of speaking, it may have been a sort of reset. Something he didn't realize he wanted when he pulled the trigger - not the damage, difficulty, pain or handicaps; but some kind of hard reset on his life.
Somewhere in there his dad came back around and they fostered a new relationship. His left arm is mostly paralyzed but it keeps its hand closed around an object so long as he uses his other hand to open and place the object in there.
I bummed a smoke from him and we stood outside in the chilly Vegas evening while he told me all of this.
I was floored by the story and deeply impressed by his total vulnerability and candor with a total stranger. Maybe he felt comfortable because I was willing to listen, even earnestly interested in hearing his story. He was clearly sharp and still pretty with it, cognitively slowed much more by the beer he'd been drinking than the lasting effects of the brain trauma. Not that there weren't the obvious signs of severe damage, some were present when you looked for them. But Dennis is still by no means a stupid man.
Dennis said he's pretty well resolved to not try again, to let death come on its own accord like it should. I was affected by that, too. Someone whose life was seemingly ruined by the all-too-common will-to-suicide was actively choosing life after their attempt. It's poetic. As someone who's spent far more nights than I can count with loaded guns, sharpened knives, bottles of liquor and all the rest trying to get the nerve to turn it all off, I could relate to the guy he'd been before the event. Meeting Dennis was a turning point in my own struggle with suicide because beauty in his newfound gratitude for life and his newfound resilience was undeniable.
Human beings can do amazing things. Terrible things. But I think it's important that we're here, doing the thing called living. To live a life for the sake of living a life is the freest thing I can imagine, now.
I highly recommend we all try that approach. If you know anything about me or even just listened to Aries, you probably know I've wrestled with similar evenings as Dennis did, only I never got the resolve together to pull the trigger. I still wrestle with thoughts and feelings of that nature but no where near the way I did when I was younger, thank God.
Meeting Dennis, for me, was like meeting an alternate universe version of myself. A version of me where things had gone worse in several different ways. It made me both grateful for how well things did go and painfully aware of the ways things could go in the future unless I got properly serious about actually wanting to live, and live well.
I'm grateful for Dennis. I am legitimately glad he survived. I see his posts on Instagram periodically and it looks like he's doing ok out there in Vegas. I don't know what I can do to make his life any better, but maybe there will be something I can do once I have some extra money and time. For now, I just pray for him and me and everyone. I think a lot of people pray for someone to come and save them; what I've realized in the last few years is that if God is going to send someone to save them, it's going to be them. Jesus Christ is helpful, a figure to hold in your heart. Someone to consult with. To measure against and receive some forgiveness from because we won't ever fully measure up to Him. That said, we should still keep measuring. We might just get taller.
My memory isn't great about this sort of stuff. I have a tendency to white-wash the past with poetics to make it conform to some notion of the "good story" version which may be close to the truth, but always slightly off.
When I play this song live, I usually say, "this is a rock song, dedicated to anyone who's survived. It's about a guy I met one night in Vegas, who I saw a lot of myself in. He told me about his life's story and it broke my heart, so I asked him if I could write a song about him. He said, 'Please'. So this song is about Dennis, it's for Dennis, and it's called 'Dennis'."