In an openhearted memoir of faith on the fringe, Roger Thompson meditates on the life and premature death of his best friend and business partner, Tim Garrety, cofounder of Skate Street Ventura.
Roger and Tim’s twenty-year friendship was forged in the surf and on the streets of 1980s California. Together they hazarded countless waves and every rite of passage—from guitars to girls to God—and influenced the lives of thousands of skateboarders, musicians, surfers, and otherwise disconnected youth in the process.
With unrestrained honesty and a punk-rock soundtrack, My Best Friend’s Funeral is a memoir of friendship, doubt, surfing, and the complex relationships between fathers and sons. If life has ever left you feeling abandoned—or if you simply prefer a rock show to a sermon—My Best Friend’s Funeral is a memoir you won’t want to miss, and a confirmation that you are never alone.
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|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
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About the Author
Films. When not working, Roger can be found fly-fishing, building furniture, and surfing with his sons near the coastal town of Ventura, California, where he lives with his wife, two young sons, one old dog, and seven productive chickens.
Read an Excerpt
My Best Friend's Funeral
By Roger W. Thompson
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Roger W. Thompson
All rights reserved.
I fell in love with music while riding shotgun down an empty Western highway. It was in a faded blue '57 Chevy Apache pickup truck, presumably named after the Indians who wandered these roads before they were roads. From the running board, I used to climb into the wood-lined bed to watch dirt-track races on the long summer evenings of my youth.
Dad was driving, and sitting next to him on those desolate roads I always thought he seemed at his best. Windows down, he drove with one elbow resting on the windowsill, hand holding a cigarette. His other hand alternated between the wheel and the radio, tuning in highway poetry. My hand stretched out the passenger window, surfing the rise and fall of the Western wind as it flowed over the curve of the hood, along the fenders and through my fingers on its way to eternity. On the curl of the wind rode the scents of licorice weed and Marlboro Reds. We had found a back road to heaven, and with the full glory of Southern rock, we drove to the rhythm of the road.
Dad loved to sing when he drove. He would sing so loud I began to only recognize the songs through his voice. The soundtrack to his life fit the roads he traveled. The Allman Brothers, the Eagles, Bob Dylan, Jim Croce, the Band. His favorite songs seemed to be about going somewhere, about a journey. They were a roadmap to a place in his soul that could only be found through the music. At a time when nothing made sense in his world, this music was a compass and a salve for wounds inflicted by the troubles of his generation.
In addition to memorizing times tables and state capitals, I memorized the words to "Hotel California" so I could sing along as we drove. The opening lines sang like a promise of what was to come. "On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair."
Along the twists and turns of the Sierra Nevada foothills we'd sing harmony with Don Henley. As we sang, Dad was happy, and I was happy. The sound of my little voice inside his made me feel safe.
By grade school these harmonies had disappeared, and sadness made itself at home in my heart. Dad and I didn't sing together anymore. It was during this time I got my first guitar. From the moment I held it, I imagined myself in a band writing songs that could make it all better. We moved a lot in those years, and though I don't remember what happened to the guitar, the songs kept writing themselves into my soul. By the time we moved back to the beach town I was born in, the songs were ready to come out. I just needed someone to help me find a rhythm. It would be a lifelong friendship with Tim Garrety that would help me discover it.
Music has etched memories in my mind, like grooves of a record. I can't remember the name of the girl I first danced with in the sixth grade, but I remember the song was "Time After Time." I'll also never forget the beach where I was hanging out when I heard my first Violent Femmes song. It was the day I got into my first fistfight. By then Tim and I were good friends and spending another summer day together at the beach.
We were sitting on the short brick wall between the sand and the street, awaiting a ride from my grandma, when a tanned, scrawny kid approached us. He was smaller than us but had several friends with him. Still, their collective weight looked to be only 150 pounds. He stood as close as he could and with as much anger as an upper-middle-class white kid from the beach could summon, gestured with his fists to my face.
"What are you doing here? This is our beach."
Tim stepped in front of me and threw him over the wall. He wasn't a very good negotiator. All of a sudden more kids surrounded us and we all started punching and kicking and cussing. We created a sandstorm and through the billowing clouds of dust, arms and legs flailed wildly in the air while "Add It Up" from Violent Femmes blasted in the background. I imagine it's what a fight between Snoopy and Pig-Pen would have looked like on a Charlie Brown TV special.
Just when it looked like we might be overrun by this pack of wild beach Orcs, my five-foot grandma pulled up in the getaway Town Car. With our boogie boards in the trunk and us in the backseat, we sped off down the street with Tim's middle finger out the window getting the last word.
This and most other memories of my youth are played out over a background of music. I can still sing along with every word of "Hotel California" and if I'm alone on the road, arm surfing out the window, I can still hear my father's voice in the harmony.
Generations are defined by music, further subdivided by genres and styles. The kids in our high school quad were organized like sections of a record shop. Pop, punk, alternative, show tunes, and so forth. By high school Tim and I had been best friends for years and during our freshman year, my childhood dream was realized when we started our first band.
It was a punk band we named Common Indecency, and our music lived up to the name. He played drums and I played bass. Early on I learned to lock into his beat and bounce a riff against his kick drum. We developed a timing and style that would go far beyond the music. Eventually outgrowing the garage, we converted his parents' tool shed into a music room, complete with egg-crate walls and neon beer signs, and in that holy space wrote the soundtrack of our lives.
Soon we were legitimately playing venues that previously we had to sneak into. After gigs we would hang out in all-night diners with our tight group of friends, discussing music, life, and lesser things. When we were not playing, we were going to as many shows as possible. There were lots of local venues where we could hear music, but when it was Social Distortion or Pearl Jam, we went to the Ventura Theater. For the high school music connoisseur, the place was a temple and we would sit at the altar of our music gods memorizing every beat or riff that came from the stage.
The marquee read like Greek mythology, and we imagined our name suspended in that immortal space above the street. That became our dream. Rolling up to the Ventura Theater, name on the marquee, looking out the tinted windows of our tour bus at the line of people waiting to watch us play on that stage.
A short lifetime later, I rounded the corner from Main Street on my way to the theater with these thoughts running through my head. Tim and I had been best friends since childhood, and now I was staring at his name in that magical space. No local opening bands. Nothing about what shows were coming up next week. Just simple black letters against a white, backlit marquee.
Below it, a line formed, running past the row of Harleys in front and then wrapping around the block. I watched through dark-tinted glass the people in line, staring back at us. But instead of the dream tour bus scenario I had always imagined, I was looking through some beat-up Ray-Bans, delivering my best friend's wife to his funeral.
She looked strong and beautiful and pale, and I couldn't look her in the eyes. So as we parked I distracted myself by looking at the line that continued to grow longer than lines of any shows in my memories. It was strange to me how few of the people I recognized. Up until a few days before, Tim and I had spent more than two decades together, and I assumed I would know most of the people he knew. Or at least recognize them. I couldn't help but wonder who would be in line if it were my name on the marquee. What kind of a life makes enough difference for this many people that they would wait for hours to have one last chance to be near a person?
This question sank in deep, and I didn't realize how much it would haunt my life, until it eventually transformed it. Just the thought of this question made me feel like I was falling short on a test I knew I could have passed if I'd only gone to the library instead of the beach. Only this test was life. In the back alley of the theater, next to the trash can that smelled like urine and stale beer, with a line of strangers staring at the concrete, I felt a distantly familiar stir in my soul. Then a question whispered like thunder.
Are you living a life that matters?
Closing my eyes to fight back the fear of what was next, I heard the question again. Only this time it sounded more like the voice of my best friend.
* * *
Best friends are like mirrors, helping us see around the blind spots of our lives. Sometimes they are those annoying dressing-room mirrors that let you see how the pants look from behind—but you never really see how the pants fit because all you can look at is that bald spot on the top of your head; you just stand there wondering how it got there and why it's the second-fastest-growing area of your body. But if your best friend is seeing the worst angle of you and is still a great friend, there is hope. Because at least one person on earth who doesn't have to care for you, does.
That person can gently (or directly) point out those most important areas of your character that could and should be better. Then, best friends become backstage mirrors surrounded by lights, illuminating the possibilities of a better self. So maybe I shouldn't have been surprised that at the earthly end of my friendship with Tim, I was still seeing myself reflected in him. Or that he was revealing the gap between who I was and who I could be.
Either way, it made me angry.
Here I was getting ready to deliver a eulogy for someone I'd spent most of my life with, and I was being reminded, minutes before, how inadequate I was to deliver it. Not just because every time I had to say something in front of a crowd it made me panic uncontrollably, but because each line I was about to say was a checklist of my own deficiencies. That line about loving ... I need to love better. About serving others ... I mostly avoid them. About being a good friend ... here I was at his funeral mostly thinking of myself and how the people in the balcony were going to get a great view of my bald spot as I spoke. The same one he never mentioned.
Perhaps that's the point. That those great lives lived among us are mirrors reflecting light into our darkness. And the more briefly they shine, the more urgently they get our attention. They remind us that every moment is both a gift and a call to action. That in any moment, I could begin to rewrite my life for the eulogy that will someday be given for me. Backstage that night, it occurred to me for the first time that I was also about to hold up a mirror to all those standing in line. I was about to reveal to them, through a life that had ended, through a vulnerable and broken messenger, that all of us together have just this one chance to become what we were born to be.
* * *
Backstage, the greenroom wasn't as cool as I'd imagined. I had images in my mind, all in black and white, of our band sitting around the greenroom, talking about the tour with other bands and about how the sound guy in Spokane was tone deaf and the salsa in Madison was just some ketchup mixed with mayonnaise. We would be smoking too. I had smoked a couple of times as a teenager and looked like a penguin in a knife fight. I couldn't figure out which hand should hold the cigarette, and I was always nervous that I was about to set myself on fire. But in black and white, we'd look cool and I'd be asking Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers for a light. As he was handing it to me, he would be saying how much he liked the bass riff on that song I wrote about the girl I never asked out in college.
From the greenroom I could watch as people poured in. Family in front. Balcony jammed with the underage crowd. High school friends disappointedly gathered around a dry bar, looking like they needed a drink. It felt more reunion tour than funeral. I imagined all the black shirts as concert tees with a list of things on the back like, "He helped me fix my faucet" and "He drove me to the airport" and "He talked me down from the ledge." For a moment, life pushed back death. Friends were being reunited. There were conversations about old times. Even laughter. They kept pouring in.
I was on after the worship band, after our mentor, and before the video with the Green Day song, "Time of Your Life." There's a cadence coded into grief that takes over when our hearts fail. In times like this, we march instinctively to its beat. Over the last several days, it had become a comfort of sorts; and now, while I was sitting between a pile of cables and a piano on the hardwood stage, it provided a moment of quiet.
Then it got loud. The band was onstage. The audience began to move and the theater sprang to life. But instead of lighters waving, there were hands. Grasping and groping. Pleading for something or someone to come into the theater and make sense of it all. To turn back time.
This wasn't how it was supposed to happen. This was supposed to be our opening band onstage. We were supposed to be in the greenroom laughing and flicking ashes into ashtrays. We should have been quoting Nietzsche and Nirvana and debating the virtues of three-quarter timing. There should have been laughing and singing in the triumphant splendor of our youth. But life is sometimes a ten-thousand-piece puzzle of the sky with no edge pieces. In a few moments, I would need to put it together for that theater full of people.
The worship band led in, and the crowd responded with raised hands and closed eyes. I never shut my eyes when I sing. Someone once told me the reason you shut your eyes while singing is to block out all distractions and be totally abandoned to the moment. Only then can God have complete access to your heart. I tried it once, but I kept thinking someone was going to sneak up from behind. So I stopped. Now God has to find other ways into my heart, and since I always have my eyes open, that has been difficult to do. Even for God.
But this time, by the third song, I realized my eyes were shut. I was totally abandoned. Then as my hands lifted, new access was given to my heart and God moved in to expand it like a water balloon, until I was sure it would pop and anybody around would be drenched with its contents. But instead of filling with peace, it was filling with pain, which flooded in until there was no room for anything else. It pushed out all remaining hope or courage or air, and I began to drown. The only hope of breathing would be to let it pop. My vulnerability has purposely been limited to small groups in quiet places, but here I was onstage, in front of a crowd that, with the exception of only a few, would never have known I had any emotions at all.
Death creates an unexpected capacity of feeling, and I was able to feel every word our mentor Jeff was now onstage saying. He talked of the sounds of Skate Street, the skate park he, Tim, and I had created after an idea at a backyard barbecue. They were sounds of a vision we erected from piles of plywood and two-by-fours. A day earlier, Jeff and I walked through the skate park trying to decide what was next. Where there were usually sounds of wheels on ramps—grinding, sliding, and rolling—there was silence. Behind the silence there was emptiness. Behind the emptiness there was pain. The same pain I felt now as he spoke of what once was, and what would never be.
As he finished onstage, time slowed and then stood still. It was my turn. A bunch of still-frame images flashed through my mind. Our picture before the seventh-grade dance. At the beach. In the back of Spanish class. High school graduation. College graduation. The band. The skate park. Weddings. Kids. Lifeless in a casket. My heart continued to expand out of my chest until it finally popped. There I stood, alone onstage, exposed, in a puddle of hopelessness and fear.
Not long before he died, Tim visited me in Nashville to see Rocketown, an entertainment venue I helped design and was then running. It was a 2.0 version of what we had built back home. In addition to a skate park—and the coffee shop conveniently located outside my office—it included a live music venue. Though it was arguably the best venue in town, we floundered after opening, struggling to get anybody to come to shows.
We did great promotions, experimented with different prices, and did everything the experts suggested. We even prayed. But nothing would fill the venue until we discovered a simple and obvious key to filling it every time. In order for anybody to show up, they had to love the band. If the band didn't have fans, there was nothing you could do to get people to hear them play. If they did, you couldn't beat them away. They came because there was something about the music that connected on such a visceral level that not being there would be like not breathing.
Excerpted from My Best Friend's Funeral by Roger W. Thompson. Copyright © 2014 Roger W. Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsNote from the Author, xiii,
Part 1: In Search of a Father,
1. Sold Out, 3,
2. The Road Home, 15,
3. Secret Fishing Hole, Part One, 25,
4. Angel Falls, 29,
5. Rites of Passage, 43,
Part 2: In Search of a Friend,
6. Kmart Hill, 55,
7. Muy Bueno. Gracias, 67,
8. Hobo Jungle, 79,
9. Gangs and God, 85,
10. As He Likes It, 99,
11. Almost Famous, 111,
12. Ten Mile Creek, 125,
13. Launch Ramps, 135,
14. Fish Tacos, 147,
15. Safe Harbor, 157,
16. Nashvegas, 165,
17. What the What?!, 177,
18. Jesus Has Left the Building, 185,
19. Thirty-Three, 195,
20. The Theater, 201,
21. Eulogy, 213,
Part 3: In Search of What Matters,
22. Caught Inside, 223,
23. Life Insurance, 235,
24. Secret Fishing Hole, Part Two, 243,
25. First Day of Summer, 255,
About the Author, 267,