One of my favorite supporting characters to write in my fiction series is Donny. He’s uncouth, rough around the edges, blue collar, likes to fight, and sometimes says off-the-cuff, offensive things despite generally having a good heart. He’s a fun character when I need comedic relief, and he’s almost always played for laughs. Occasionally, he says something really wrong, learns a lesson from it, and grows as a person.
But Donny wasn’t cut from whole cloth. I spun him out of fond memories about a real-life Donny. Though I lost touch with the real Donny decades ago, I think he would be happy that his fictional namesake is a bad-ass musician and a valued crew member with hilarious scenes on the rock-and-roll adventure of a lifetime.
The fictional Donny combines the real Donny and his cousin Jimmy. I met Donny and Jimmy around 1998 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I was 24 and had my own apartment in a five-unit building on the edge of town where rent was lower compared to living near the college. Donny and Jimmy were 14, and I met them because Donny used to hang out with the even younger kids who lived next door: Dennison (literally the son of Dennis) and his little brother Jack. These kids were always playing in the yard and riding bikes up and down the street—as kids do—and I was often in my yard working on some visual art project that involved messy painting, or just playing guitar in the sunshine.
Kids are curious about that kind of stuff and ride by to check it out, so I got to know them. Then they found out I had a pet python who ate mice, and they wanted to see that, so I ended up spending a lot of time entertaining the neighborhood boys. My embarrassingly simple apartment was, to them, some kind of treehouse or clubhouse with a wildlife documentary, an art exhibit, and a killer soundtrack. And why not? At age 47, I’ve accepted that part of my brain will always be fourteen and see my living spaces as exactly that.
To be fair, they entertained me, too. Donny and Jimmy were hilarious! They had the kind of insane tales of reckless adventure, injury, and embarrassment that working-class midwestern boys thrive on. I should know, since I was one and probably, at heart, will always be. But it wasn’t just stories and jokes. After Donny and Jimmy had dropped by a few times, they invited me and my girlfriend to meet their family in the trailer park down the road and hang out for an evening.
My girlfriend—who had endured a couple surprise visits from Donny and Jimmy, rolled with the situation, and found them as hilarious as I did—was beyond awesome and handled the evening with grace and aplomb. She dressed up extra cute for that night and was a hit with the girls and wives there. After a tour of the trailer, which was basically some rooms and a hallway, we ended up drinking cheap American lager and playing cards with the adults and teens all night long. It was a chain-smoking, midwestern good time, and I don’t think either of us will ever forget it.
Somehow, Donny and Jimmy—at age fourteen—acquired a piece-of-shit Datsun that they took on wild rides through the nearby fields. They would come over to my place after their hell rides and tell me Datsun stories. They were trying to learn to power shift it, because the clutch was broken. And what fourteen-year-old has money to replace a clutch?
That fucking Datsun. We laughed so hard about it.
One day, Donny came over with this idea to write a song about the Datsun. All the kids knew I played guitar, so he brought lyrics. I will never forget them. “Datsun. It’s a good car. It’s a fast car. DATSUN! DATSUN!”
That was it! I threw together some riffs and recorded it on my old cassette-based Tascam four-track. We did another song which was something like Donny’s imaginary wrestling theme song: Daemonic Don. He pronounced it “Die-monic Don”, and that cracked me up. You’ll find a nod to that in the Meteor Mags story Old Enough. I assembled some distorted, drop-D riffs. It came out surprisingly well, and Donny loved it.
In 1999, I moved from Ypsi to San Diego. For a little while, I tried to keep in touch with the kids by sending them postcards. I’ve long since lost their addresses and can’t recall their last names, if I ever knew them at all.
But a few years ago, when I needed a name for a supporting character, I remembered Daemonic Don and his cousin Jimmy, and I thought it would be fun to channel my memories of those two teenage hellraisers into that character. They also inform more than a little bit about the adolescent character, Tarzi. The way those characters’ dialogues bounce back and forth with their older but equally reckless and so-called “auntie” Mags has a lot to do with my imagining how Donny and Jimmy would chat with me as their older guy neighbor—a role that ended up being somewhere between an adopted big brother and an uncle.
I think I filled a role in their lives because I was into all kinds of art and music, and so obviously not like their parents. They felt comfortable just being themselves, asking awkward questions about adult life, or making off-color jokes. In that sense, it wasn’t all that different from hanging out with the people I was in bands with or worked blue-collar jobs with at the time. I think the boys liked that I talked to them in the same no-bullshit style as I did with my friends. I know I always appreciated that in adults when I was a teenager. At that age, you want to be talked to, not talked down to.
Even if you are stripping the gears out of your Datsun by trying to power shift.
It’s a good car. It’s a fast car. Datsun.
Anyway, I doubt I will ever hear from Donny and Jimmy again, but I like to think they’d enjoy knowing they inspired one of my favorite supporting characters and might even enjoy reading his adventures. Hell, if those two were here right now, they’d probably be pressuring me to plug in my baritone guitar and write a new theme song.
And I would do it.