Everyone needs something that makes living living, not just getting by. For my parents it was the bottle, they tell me, and for the Penguin it was supposedly Jesus, though I always suspected she really lived for whacking kids with that damn pointer stick. I knew a guy once who lived for glue, no kidding; people got a little weird in the head after they worked at that factory for a decade or two, what with all the fumes. Most people, it's something a little more normal, like their families, or God, or even money. But everyone's got something, no mistake.
If I could have picked what it would be for me, when I was fourteen, all gangly and awkward? I probably would have picked, you know, Annette Funicello or something. We didn't get movies at Our Lady of the Holy Shroud, on account of movies encouraged us to sin. But I had a picture of her I'd ripped out of a magazine. Kept it stashed under my mattress, and it was pretty well creased from all the folding and unfolding it got. But since the only way a kid like me was gonna meet a starlet like that was in his dreams, I figured I'd probably end up sticking with the church. I sang in the choir every Sunday, and even though I didn't really want to be a priest, on account of Ms. Funicello and such, I didn't really know what else to do with myself. Maybe I could clean for the orphanage like old Curtis or something. It wouldn't be such a bad life.
And then I came out of church one day and there he was. The new kid. About my age, short, fat, stinking of cigarettes, and with the biggest innocent brown eyes you ever saw. "Boys," says the Penguin, "this is Jake."
There wasn't a sign or anything. No light coming through the church window, or big red "X" to say, your life starts here. I didn't even talk to Jake for a week or two, until he came up to me one day when we were both on dishwashing duty after dinner. "Hey," he said. "They told me you sing. You like music?"
I shrugged. "I like it okay, but the choirmaster's pretty mean."
"No," he said, "real music, like Floyd Dixon, Charles Brown, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson?"
"I dunno," I said. "Never heard of them."
His eyes got real wide. "That's just sad," he said. "We gotta get you educated."
He dragged me down to the basement to hang out with Curtis that night. I don't know how he got to be so tight with the old guy. I'd been living there pretty much my whole life and I'd never said more than a couple of words to him. But Jake was good at finding people like that. He had something that just made people – not like him, exactly, because he was kind of a jerk a lot of the time. Just, five minutes around Jake and it was like you'd known him your whole life. He was that kind of guy.
Anyway, it turned out Curtis was cool. He'd been a real live singer for an honest-to-God band once, even. He sang a bit for us and played us some old jazz and blues records. I was a good kid, went to church every Sunday and said my prayers and sang in the choir, but when I heard that music, I swear that's when I found God. I was hooked right then and there, on the music, on Jake, on all of it.
We came back, of course, often as we could. Spent hours down there, hiding from the Penguin and smoking and listening to old records on Curtis's beat-up phonograph. Curtis was real good to us; he'd sing us Elmore James songs and blow the old silver harp sweet as anything you ever heard. He taught Jake to scat, but gave up on me after a week or two; he taught me to play harp instead.
The other kids started calling us the Blues Brothers, and it kind of just stuck. And when me and Jake were coming up on eighteen, and the world outside Our Lady of the Holy Shroud was looking pretty near, I said to Jake one day, "So, what are you gonna do when you get outta here?"
And he looked at me like I was nuts, like I was seriously whacked to even be asking, and he said, "Elwood, my friend, you and me, we're gonna start a band."
Jake had this way of saying things that made them true. Crazy things like, "We're gonna start a band," and the next thing I knew, we were putting up flyers in all the music shops around town, talking to guys, listening to them play. Wasn't long before we had a pretty tight ensemble - well, what would be a tight ensemble once we all got a little practice together. Murph had a car, and Jake had an old microphone Curtis gave us both as a goodbye present, and we even had a gig - God only knew how Jake had managed that, in three weeks' time - at some dive out on the South Side.
We weren't real good that first time, but we were good enough to get another, and another after that. The Penguin pursed her lips and told us what she thought of our sinning ways, but she didn't kick us out, and for that alone we woulda owed it to her to get that tax money. She let us stay at Our Lady until we had enough in our pockets to scrape together a room in a residential hotel and after that we never looked back. I don't know if she ever gave us her blessing, but we sure felt blessed; gig piled on gig, and we sounded sweeter by the day, until we were playing sold-out crowds at the goddamn House of Blues, dancin' and singin' 'til dawn. I never felt so good in my whole life as I did up there on stage with Jake; we were electric, unstoppable together.
I never knew why he had to fuck it up with armed robbery, of all goddamn things, like we weren't doing well enough for ourselves already. But that was Jake for you; he always had to push. Sometimes it really worked; I mean, we never woulda been the Blues Brothers without him being such a pushy little fuck. But armed robbery turned out not to be such a good idea.
Anyhow, when Jake went inside, all of a sudden, it turned out I didn't have anything. I tried; me and the band kept booking gigs and I was singin' and dancin' my goddamn heart out and the boys were backing me up real good. But it wasn't working. We sounded okay, sure, but the spark was out of it, I guess. People stopped coming. Pretty soon we couldn't get a decent venue anymore, and everyone drifted off pretty fast after that. I got hired at the glue factory and traded in the Bluesmobile for a good microphone – just in case we made it big again some day – and a beat up old cop car. It wasn't bad. It wasn't much of anything. Jake wrote and asked about the band, but I never had the heart to tell him.
Goodbye, Annette Funicello. Turns out that the light of my life – the real light, the spark that I needed to make sense of my days – was a drunken fat Polack from the South Side. He owed me fifty bucks, so I woulda gone to pick him up when he got out anyway, but truth was, I missed him. Goddamn Jake.
I'm not saying that what you need is always good, or right, or even easy. If it was, we'd all be saints, and the bars would go out of business, and that ain't happening anytime soon. God, Jake could piss me off. Three years of jail and the first fucking thing he did when he got out was bitch about my car. Nobody knows how to push my buttons like he does, nobody, and before I knew it I was halfway up that damn bridge, and by the time I knew that, we were flying. But that's how it is. He's abrasive and rude and obnoxious as all hell and then the next thing I know my heart's going double time, there are sirens and explosions and crowds and the band is back together. When I'm with Jake, things happen, all around me. It's like I was asleep while he was gone and once he came back I was suddenly wide awake.
Figures that when God spoke to one of us, He'd choose Jake, felonious womanizing asshole extraordinaire. When they say the Lord works in mysterious ways, I tell you, they ain't kidding. But from the moment I saw Jake lit up in the back of that old church, I never doubted that it was true; he had seen the light. And I saw it, too, I swear I did, and I wanted to kneel and pray and dance and sing and jump and shout out loud for the sheer joy of it. Sure, I wanted the band back together, and so did Jake, just for us, just because it was what we did, what we loved. But this was more than that. We were on a mission from God.
Everyone could feel it, too. Jake and I had always been good, but from that moment on we were fuckin' magic. People were pouring out into the streets and shakin' it like they couldn't ever get enough of the music. I remember we watched those old musicals and laughed, me and Jake, because really, who starts just singing and dancing in the middle of the day for no reason like that? Now, everyone was doing it, really doing it, stopping in the street to dance or jumping up from their seats to sing chorus. The band members, sure, they took a little persuading, but they couldn't resist it either. Everyone could feel it: Ray at the Music Exchange, letting us have the stuff on credit; the kids from the orphanage, spreading out around the city to shout out the news about the Palace Hotel Ballroom gig; Curtis, holding the crowd until we could get past the pigs and onto the stage; the band, sticking with us through that first disastrous gig and on into Joliet.
And it was all worth it. Being hunted by Illinois Nazis, shot at by a bunch of crazed country bumpkins from Bob's Country Bunker, wanted by the police, stalked by Jake's nutjob old flames, having our comeback concert cut short by the combined efforts of Illinois' finest, never getting back to the motel that night to see if that nice blonde lady was waitin' for me – all of it. You can't expect a mission from God to be easy, after all. At least we didn't have to build a boat or climb a mountain or wander the desert or anything. We just had to sing and dance and run like hell, and we were already pretty good at all of that.
I mean, sure, we're here in the clink, but we saved the orphanage, and when we get out of here in five or ten years (dependent on good behavior, they keep telling us, which with Jake probably doesn't cut off much time) the money from that "Jailhouse Blues" record we cut is going to keep us in sunglasses and cigarettes for a good long time. It went gold, can you believe it, right around the time we had our first lockdown on account of prisoners rioting at a show. They weren't rioting; they were just dancing – and it wasn't just them, I saw some of the guards doing it, too. Jake's still got it, that crazy golden touch that makes the music reach out like that.
And I've still got Jake. And that's all I need, whether I'm in a one-room walk-up under the L or a concrete cell block in Joliet. I'm twice as happy and alive in leg irons, with Jake by my side, as I ever was on the outside without him. I figure, once you realize what it is that makes your life worth living? You gotta follow it, no matter what. Because whatever it is, collecting stamps or traveling the world or kissing your sweetheart when you come home every night, there will never be anything else like it. Everybody needs something, and there's no shame in that at all. No sir, none at all.