The following anecdote is for those who watched “Saigon” and thought, “What the fuck? I don’t get it.” In other words, this anecdote is for everyone.
I really wanted to pull Billy Nolan’s hair. I could’ve, too. There certainly was enough of it. It was dark brown, straight and framed both sides of his face in a center part. The ends barely touched Billy Nolan’s broad shoulders, and his shaved sides were exposed every time he jerked his head. It was the 90s. I was in seventh grade.
It would’ve been just. Billy Nolan pulled my hair every day that year. Well, in between my trimonthly BoRics mushroom haircuts. But those barely provided two weeks of respite from his grasp. Otherwise, I had a black wiry tail that grew twice the speed of my other hairs. It was the obvious tuft to yank. Billy Nolan sat behind me in Spanish class.
He was tall and handsome and had cool clothes and cool friends. I was the last kid to hit puberty. I wore hand-me-downs, I had a chipped front tooth and my gold-framed glasses were held together by Scotch tape. I wasn’t much of a charmer, but my black tail must’ve seemed irresistible to Billy Nolan. He was twice my size and I was too proud to react. He would pull my tail every morning till my eyes involuntarily watered. I never turned around to show him.
I really wanted to pull Billy Nolan’s hair. Pig’s blood for pig’s blood. Lex talionis. It would’ve been just. But I didn’t. I just sat there and took it for a year. ‘Cause fuck it, I could. I was a straight-A student who existed somewhere between Carrie White’s Black Prom and Harris and Klebold’s Columbine Massacre. I lacked telekinetic powers and there weren’t enough Doom levels and Marilyn Manson hits to inspire me to wield anything that anyone would ever want to pry from my cold, dead hands. I was just a kid with a black tail who wanted his moment.
I could’ve pulled Billy Nolan’s hair, but I was too proud. No, that’s not right. I was never too proud. I was always too scared.
I tell you this now, because somewhere in there is the story of Ken Janiak, the man who brought song and dance to his neighborhood bar’s “T ki Nite [sic].” Only, Janiak had his moment:
Unless, of course, this performance never actually happened.
In the video, Janiak is an enigma. He comes off as both a genius and a simpleton, and both cool and cringeworthy. I often wonder myself which traits to assign him, but I suppose that particular ponderation is moot. Little else is known about Janiak. He either wrote and recorded a song or he didn’t. He either picked his first and only venue with care or he didn’t. And he either danced in front of an apathetic audience or he fabricated the entire performance. Janiak is not to be trusted.
What’s important is the 35-year-old was brave. Empirically speaking, Janiak’s metamorphosis from timid greenhorn to confident virtuoso takes all but 4 minutes and 37 seconds. At the beginning of “Saigon,” he’s visibly nervous. At the end, he’s jubilant. It’s a finite character arc that Janiak diligently dances through to completion. And without a second to spare! Janiak would die four years later, which is but a thousandth of a blink of an eye to our 13.8 billion-year-old universe.
I, for one, have lost plenty of four year periods blinking my eyes.
In any case, Janiak’s story is the story of making it count. It’s the story of taking fear by the horns (or hair, if fear keeps tugging at your tail). It’s the story of “no very regrets” as my brother, Joe Walmsley, likes to call them. And it’s the story of any other motivational platitudes that could caption all 12 months of a Spaghetti Baby calendar.
I sometimes wonder what Janiak was feeling as his life was being choked from him “outside the Copper Cantina in Alice, Texas.” I’m willing to bet he was scared. His eyes probably involuntarily watered, too. I wonder if he thought about “Saigon” — if that made his life feel consequential. Or did he suffocate in regret for only performing that one time?
Perhaps “Saigon” was merely a dream that lulled Janiak to his eternal sleep. And perhaps he lacked the imagination to invent a proper audience. Or maybe he did nothing and regretted nothing and was just some character played by Aaron Bryan in a music video. Man, I sure hope that’s not the case.
Oh well. Rest in peace, Ken Janiak, you poor, insignificant peculiarity. In another universe, murderers don’t make mistakes.