When I was a teenager, most of my friends were between two and ten years older than myself. This was largely due to two things: that I played music in bars since age fifteen and that in a small town you cling to people with common interests despite age differences.
I met Walt Sheffield when he was working at Liverpool Records, where you could find cool imports and other good music that would never have found its way to Dothan, Alabama otherwise. I was 15 and Walt was 25. I was friends with some people he was friends with, etc. Over the next 3-4 years, long after Walt left the record store, we ran into each other a lot around town and got to know each other fairly well.
I had a habit in those days of going out for walks at the crack of dawn, sometimes clear to the other side of town and back. I don’t really know why I did it. It was meditative. It helped me sort through the myriad crazy things rattling around in my teenage brain. I sometimes came across Walt at these times, in the process of a similar exercise. I came to learn that he walked the same route every morning, and that he kept a list of things he observed along the route and how they changed over time. This was part of his writing process.
Walt was working on a novel, and all I knew of it at the time was that it involved a teenage boy and there was something about the impact that rock and roll had on this boy’s life. I always suspected that Walt was mostly interested in me as a kind of research project for this character. After all, I was a teenager in a rock band. His novel was never published. As far as I know nothing he wrote was ever published.
I knew then that I also wanted to be a writer. In fact, everything I knew about Walt was something I also aspired to be. He played in bands when he was in college at the University of Georgia, and he had met members of REM. He had studied philosophy, which was also an interest of mine. Even Walt’s folksy mannerisms became elements of the kind of persona that I was then developing for myself. In short, he was my role model. Never mind that he always had rather menial jobs like waiting tables or managing the produce section of a ghetto grocery store. He was smart, and he was funny, and he lived for the sake of art. And that was what I wanted to do too.
By the time I was 17, Walt was living with a couple of guys that I also knew. One was Tommy Sorrells, who a few years before had been one of my first guitar teachers. I used to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and go hang out at their place, where we would play guitars and talk about music and writing and philosophy until the wee hours of the morning. Walt was the first person to introduce me to bands like Sonic Youth and the Replacements, who became so important to me in my own musical journey. I remember specific things he told me about writers like Walt Whitman and William S. Burroughs. I remember talking about existentialism and the beats and the early days of punk and feeling like I had been there because Walt just knew so much about everything that interested me.
After a few years, I lost contact with all those guys. But I recently was reunited with Tommy through Facebook, and I found that he ran an open mic in Tuscaloosa on Monday nights. So while I was nearby for the holidays, I made plans to drop in. We had a great time together playing music until nearly sun up just like we used to do almost 20 years ago when I last saw him. I asked him if he knew what Walt was doing these days, and he told me that Walt died in 2003 of throat cancer.
I remember walking through the mall record store with Walt once. He pointed to a poster of Michael Bolton and said, “You know–if I hadn’t met certain people in my life, and maybe if I’d never been to New York City, my hair would probably look like that now.” And I think if I had never met Walt Sheffield, my life wouldn’t look much the way it looks like now either.