Here’s an interesting fact about Billy Perkins: he’s happy. No, for real, legitimately. It’s kind of his thing, actually. If a person can have a thesis statement, that’s Billy’s: I’m happy. And, well, why wouldn’t he be?
For starters, he has the most fantastic apartment. It’s the perfect size—just big enough—and it’s directly above a record shop called Charm City Rocks, so the place vibrates gently with music, as if the walls are living things that hum along. He loves his neighborhood, Fells Point in Baltimore, with its cobblestone streets and loud bars and the gourmet pretzel stand that makes his block smell like baking bread. He even loves Baltimore, because there’s something thrilling about living in a city that the rest of the country assumes is on the verge of collapse. There’s a bumper sticker he sees around town, Baltimore: Actually, I Like It, and Billy couldn’t agree more.
He’s an independent music teacher—the founder of Beats by Billy LLC—and he loves that, too, as far as jobs go, because he gets to set his own hours and spend his days teaching people the sheer joy of rocking out, and he can wear whatever he wants. He goes with jeans and sneakers, mostly, along with an array of band T-shirts that his students have given him over the years. He’s been really into cardigans lately, too, because cardigans are the perfect garment, like, the convertible of sweaters.
He teaches kids and teenagers mostly, which is rewarding work, because he gets to shape young minds and pass on an appreciation for the arts. But there are some adults mixed in there, too, which is also gratifying, because it’s never too late to learn something new, right? His oldest student is a seventy-year-old widow named Alice who always wanted to play the guitar. She meets with Billy twice a week instead of the standard once because she’s determined to play a rock-and-roll medley at her daughter’s wedding reception this summer. Plus, as she told Billy during their first lesson, “Once you hit seventy, it’s best to get on with things.”
Many of Billy’s students came to him after flaming out with more traditional music teachers. Consequently, they often arrive to their first lesson shy and sullen, convinced that learning to play an instrument is lame or boring or just too much work. Billy always manages to break through, though. He’s not sure why; he’s just got a knack for it, he supposes. Or maybe it’s the cardigans. Along with being the perfect garment, cardigans are very disarming. We can probably thank Mister Rogers for that.
Back to Billy’s apartment, though.
The place is neat and clean and full of books and music and local art, and there’s a wildly complicated espresso machine that Billy inherited from his grandma that looks like something built by NASA in the sixties. As great as all those things are, the true star of the place is Billy’s Steinway & Sons grand piano. It’s the most expensive thing Billy owns, and it’s a straight-up showstopper. Even if you know nothing about pianos, and most people don’t, you know that the Steinway is something special. Plumbers or electricians will be over to fix something, and they’ll stop and say, “Jeez, look at that thing.”
Most mornings, particularly when it’s sunny, Billy opens his windows wide and loudly plays the most epic piano parts of classic rock songs, like “November Rain” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and people wave up at him while they walk their dogs or shuffle off to work. The beer delivery guys are some of Billy’s biggest fans. They sometimes shout requests, and he obliges as best he can, because playing music is such an easy way to make people happy. For example, just try listening to the intro to “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” by Journey without feeling at least a small rush of joy.
The thing Billy loves most, though—more than his apartment or his confusing espresso machine or even the Steinway—is his son, Caleb.
Caleb is goofy and sweet, and he pokes fun at the things his dad likes, but never unkindly. And on this particular Saturday night in early spring, Caleb is stretched out on Billy’s couch like a young giraffe in repose. Billy is sitting across from him in his rocking chair, which Billy refers to as “The Rocker,” and they’re watching a documentary series on Netflix called The Definitive History of Rock and Roll.
At this exact moment, 9:25 p.m. eastern standard time, there’s nowhere Billy would rather be, and there’s no one he’d rather be with. Billy hasn’t always been this blatantly sentimental, but Caleb is a senior in high school, so lately Billy has been thinking about the finite nature of . . . well, everything. But especially childhood.
If it were possible, Billy would go ahead and pause time right here. His apartment would hum on, the streetlights outside would hit the Steinway through the window just right, and his son would be here every other week forever, stretched out and lanky, being young and silly.
But that’s not how life works, is it?
“Did you get enough to eat?” Billy asks.
Caleb makes a noise—like a grunt of general affirmation.
“Come on,” Billy says. “Use your words.”
Caleb laughs, one of those fed-up teenager laughs. “Dad, stop it. I told you, I’m fine.”
“I bet Gustavo still has some pretzels left.” Billy goes to the window and opens it. Street sounds, like a ragtag orchestra, flood the apartment. “Hey, Gustavo!” he shouts. “You still have some warm ones?”
Down at Hot Twist, which is a pretzel stand along the brick sidewalk across the street, Billy’s friend Gustavo reaches below the counter like he’s checking, but when he pulls his hand back up, he gives Billy the finger. This has been Gustavo’s favorite running joke for more than a month now.
“That’s really funny!” Billy calls. “You should be proud!”
“Yeah, man, I have warm pretzels!” Gustavo shouts. “Having warm pretzels is literally my job! You guys should come down. We can eat, and you can watch soccer with me.”
From the window, he can see the TV mounted on the back wall over Gustavo’s shoulder. Elite athletes on a vast green field run and run. Billy gives his friend a thumbs-up and returns to The Rocker.
“He flipped you off again, didn’t he?” asks Caleb.
Caleb laughs. “Classic Gustavo.”
“Anyway,” says Billy, “if you want a pretzel, I’m buying.”
“Nah,” says Caleb. “I crushed three quarters of that pizza. I could probably barf.”
Billy looks at the picked-over remains of the Johnny Rad’s pizza on the coffee table. “You did, didn’t you? Where do you put it all, anyway?”
Caleb shrugs. “Maybe I’m still growing.”
What a thought that is. Caleb doesn’t do anything useful with his six-foot-six-inch body, like fight crime or play in the NBA. Still, his height is a source of constant pride for Billy, just another weird thing he loves about the kid.
Billy was barely in his twenties when Caleb was born. Being that young and a single dad had its challenges—like something in a think piece about woefully unprepared fathers. The upside, though, is that they’ve essentially grown up together, and now their relationship is like a parent-friend hybrid.
The documentary, which moves along chronologically, is currently analyzing the nineties, so Eddie Vedder is on the TV in a giant flannel, mumble-yelling the song “Jeremy.”
“I don’t get the whole grunge thing,” says Caleb. “Was it, like, in the bylaws that clothes had to be way too big? And what’s he saying? You can’t understand him.”
Caleb has had a lot of opinions about the documentary series. His most unforgivable comment a couple of episodes ago was that maybe David Bowie should’ve just picked one look and gone with it.
After Pearl Jam, U2’s mid-career evolution comes up. Bono is dressed like a fly in a leather suit and wraparound sunglasses. “And what even is that?” asks Caleb. “Was he trying to be an asshole?”
“He was being ironic,” says Billy. “And don’t swear.”
This is something they’re working on: Caleb’s swearing. Billy is all for the subtle use of profanity, but too much just seems excessive, like saxophone solos in rock songs.
The documentary clips along, moving from the nineties and into the aughts. Nirvana comes and goes; the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Soundgarden cut their hair and begin looking like adults.
The announcer has a deep voice, like in a truck commercial. “As we go smashing our way into the twenty-first century, across the entire musical spectrum, from country to R & B to grunge to pop, female artists began to emerge like never before, loudly. And none were louder than New York–born garage band turned rock goddesses Burnt Flowers.”
Billy tilts forward on The Rocker. “Oh, Cay, listen up. This was one of my favorite bands.”
On the TV, four young women tear through one of the biggest songs of the aughts, “Power Pink.” Billy taps out the drumbeat on his thighs.
“Yeah, all right,” says Caleb. “They’re not bad. Their clothes fit, at least.”
Billy tells his son to shut up but is immediately ignored.
“It’s like, I’ve heard of them,” says Caleb, “but you don’t really hear about them, you know?”
Billy isn’t crazy about Caleb’s tone, but he’s not wrong. In the pantheon of rock music, Burnt Flowers have come and gone. They’re a blip now—a couple minutes in a streaming retrospective. But when Billy was young, Burnt Flowers was one of the biggest bands in the United States. They flooded airwaves and sold out arenas. No lip-syncing. No choreographed dance moves. They were four talented women who turned up their instruments and rocked out.
Billy is about to explain all of this to Caleb, but the announcer keeps going.
“Plagued by in-fighting and a good old-fashioned Fleetwood Mac–style love triangle, Burnt Flowers flickered out as fast as their name would suggest. But before that—and before three hit records, a Best New Artist Grammy, and general superstardom—it all began at the tail end of the nineties with a note pinned to an NYU bulletin board by the band’s founding member and drummer, Margot Hammer.”
On the screen there’s a black-and-white still of Margot Hammer, and a big swoony wave of nostalgia crashes over Billy.
“Whoa,” says Caleb, “check out those boots. Those’re pretty hardcore.”
“Yeah,” says Billy. “Boots were her thing. And I may have been a little bit in love with her.” He meant this to be something he said to himself, but now that he’s announced it, Billy braces himself, because he knows that he’s about to get roasted.
“What?” says Caleb. “Really? Her?”
“Your mom used to tease me about it,” says Billy.
The documentary cuts to a music video. Margot Hammer plays double time, hair flying wild.
“But she’s so mad, though,” Caleb says. “Why’s she so . . . frowny?”
Billy tells Caleb to shut up again, and he longs for a more innocent time, when we fell in love with celebrities on big, boxy, standard-def TVs.
“Did you think about kissing her?” Caleb asks. “Like, with tongue?”
As a father, you can love your son madly but still fantasize about throwing pizza crust at his face. “Will you stop talking for ten seconds and listen?”
A Rolling Stone cover appears. The band is lined up behind the lead singer, Nikki Kixx, who’s wearing a bedazzled crop top.
“Wow,” says Caleb.
Margot Hammer stands behind her three bandmates, drumsticks in her hands. “Here to Burn It All Down,” the headline reads. Billy has a copy of this exact magazine in a box in his closet. This is a fact he decides to keep to himself.
The announcer guy again. “After an infamous meltdown at the MTV Video Music Awards, Burnt Flowers was officially no more. Where are they now, you ask? Well, bassist Anna Gunn caught on in the bluegrass scene. Guitarist Jenny Switch has band-hopped for years. Margot Hammer, though—the quiet Flower, if you will? Well, she walked away from all of it and has become something of a rock-and-roll recluse. Nowadays she’s best known as the ex-wife of Oscar-nominated actor Lawson Daniels.”
“She was married to Lawson Daniels?” asks Caleb.
“A lot happened before you were born,” Billy says. “Wars, famines, celebrity weddings.”
They see a red-carpet picture of Margot Hammer and the actor. Lawson Daniels—handsome in a tux—carries Margot Hammer over his shoulder.
“I mean, how cool is that dude?” says Caleb.
Lawson Daniels was cool. He still is. He’s one of the most famous actors in the world. Billy is focused on Margot Hammer, though. She’s wearing a blue dress. One of her shoes has fallen off. She virtually never smiled, but there she is, beaming, and for a few weeks some twenty years ago you couldn’t leave the house without seeing this iconic photo.
Nikki Kixx reappears in a leather outfit. She’s jumping up and down as she sings.
“And as we all know, Nikki Kixx went solo,” says the announcer. “Although the singer has never quite achieved Burnt Flowers–level success on her own, she’s still at it.”
“You know, if I was picking rock chicks to be in love with,” says Caleb, “I think I would’ve gone with her.”
“Don’t say chicks,” says Billy. “You sound like a jerk. Also, you’re wrong. Margot Hammer was the most talented musician in the band, by a mile.”
Caleb points to the TV. It’s a video clip from one of Nikki Kixx’s solo songs. The singer has inexplicably been doused with water. “Yeah, but . . . look.”
“Stop it,” says Billy.
Caleb raises his palms, surrendering. “Don’t hate the player, Dad, hate the—”
“All right, that’s it, you Neanderthal.” Billy grabs the remote and turns off the TV. “It’s time for a lesson.”
Caleb’s shoulders sink. “Oh crap,” he says. “Seriously?”
Billy’s “Lessons in Art and Manhood” started when Caleb was just a toddler. They mostly covered the basics back then, like how you shouldn’t stick forks into electrical outlets or eat things you find on the ground. Billy taught Caleb how to play the theme music to Jaws when the boy was seven, and at ten, Caleb learned that he should never, under any circumstances, be a bully. The lessons turned increasingly more complex around the time Caleb’s voice changed, because Billy has always taken his responsibility as a Boy Dad seriously. His job, as he sees it, is to ensure that Caleb becomes one of the good ones—a decent young man. Tonight’s lesson starts with a record.
“Oh gee, great,” says Caleb. “Vinyl has entered the chat.”
Billy sets the turntable needle down on Burnt Flowers’s first album, Short Not Sweet. He isn’t a vinyl fanatic, but he prefers the format for albums that he considers classics. There’s that glorious two seconds of scratchiness, then track one starts, a slow burner called “I’m Not Your Girl.”
“Boom boom, pshhh, boom boom, pshhh,” Billy says.
“Dad, stop, you’re beatboxing.”
Fifteen seconds in, Margot Hammer’s drums erupt. Billy turns the volume up and pitches his voice over the noise. “Looks have always been part of the music business. Fine. But female artists are expected to be models and musicians. Total double standard.”
“I believe this is called mansplaining,” says Caleb. “Not a super-great look, Dad.”
Caleb talks smack during Lessons in Art and Manhood; that’s part of it. But when “I’m Not Your Girl” fades out and the next song, “Power Pink,” starts, Caleb’s expression turns thoughtful. “This is the one from the documentary, right?”
“Okay, yeah, this is actually awesome.”
“The drums, right?” says Billy. “They’re incredible.”
The first verse ends, and Nikki Kixx shouts the chorus.
“Hell, yeah,” says Caleb.
“And guess what?” says Billy. “She wrote this, too.”
“Who did, your girlfriend?”
“Yes. Well, no, but . . . yeah. Margot Hammer, the drummer, wrote ‘Power Pink.’ ”
Caleb nods along. “I’ve heard it, but I guess I’ve never, like, listened.”
Moments like this—a student finally mastering a tricky note, Caleb finding joy in something Billy likes—are among Billy’s favorite things. Love for his son swells, which, as it nearly always does, blooms quickly into physical affection, and Billy reaches over and shoves Caleb. It’s impossible to have a son as big as his and not occasionally shove him. “Today’s lesson,” Billy says.
Caleb pretends to start snoring.
“Today’s lesson!” Billy repeats. “Women aren’t just things for you to look at, you jerk.”
The kid accepts this without eye roll or snicker.
“Your mom, for example,” says Billy. “She’s a woman.”
“Ew, Dad, gross.”
“When you were just a giant baby, she put herself through business school. Now look at her. She’s a VP.”
“Senior VP, actually,” says Caleb.
“Yeah, she got a promotion. Maybe it’s executive VP. I can’t remember. There are a lot of different kinds of VPs.”
“Well, see, then?” says Billy. “Sometimes women are senior-slash-executive VPs.” Billy opens the record cover. There’s a collage of band pictures inside, including a candid of Margot Hammer balancing a drumstick on her palm. “And sometimes women are the best drummers of their generation.”
Caleb laughs and gently shoves his dad back. “Okay, fine. But you do realize you’re totally stanning this lady, right?”
“Stanning?” says Billy. “Wait, that’s a bad thing, right?”
The song fades out and Caleb laughs. “Guess it depends on how you look at it,” he says. “Anyway, are you still cool if we get pretzels?”