The moments of contemplation were rare; grabbing them when the opportunity would present itself in the helter-skelter of the my twenties, the din of the previous evening still fresh as the waning bits of alcohol was absorbed within my body. This was a challenge and for one who had only learned of reflection only through the impressions of childhood the effort was great but clumsy at best. My father, who jettisoned from modern life after divorcing my mother, voyaged to the Benedictine monastery, St. Vincent located in Latrobe, Pennsylvania-home of Rolling Rock beer and summer camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had expressed to me several times in my worrisome childhood, as I was fraught with anxiety and trepidation, that his two years there were the happiest times in his life. Fatherhood obligations, led him away from the hidden and quiet secrets of the contemplative life and most likely, the stress of contemporary life led to continued mental isolation whose manifestations suggested something far darker.
Living by proxy through books, music and magazines, I envisioned myself as a traveler in a world that was populated by barriers that clouded the simple view. Jenny would recoil when I slunk deeper into silence, as if the sensitivity that brought her closer to me, would bend so far under the weight of mental oppression that there was no other choice but to retreat into silence. A fondness for classical music was a refuge, especially upon hearing Pergolesi’s “Stabet Mater” when I was nineteen, it was also a happy coincidence that the copy I had purchased was on Hungaroton Records, performed by the Hungarian Radio and Television Chorus. In some way, the soft epic reinforced the mysterious relationship I had silently offered to my father, unbeknownst to him. I retreated to books on Catholicism, “City of God” by Saint Augustine, “The Lives of the Saints” and of course the New Testament. All the while, I ingested biographies both political and musical in nature, fanzines, newspapers, The New York Review of Books and of course, Spin magazine. Concocting an intellectual brew that was filled with pop culture and a sense of both entitlement and utter waste, was an odd way to find simplicity.
Holy Name church, sat just a few doors down from two of my houses, one on Adams street, I shared with the two feminists who helped nurse me back to mental health through humor, long talks and the an openness I had only encountered a few times. The second home was on Patterson, just two buildings away from the large church. I started attending mass twice a week, shuffling to 5:30 mass on Wed. afternoons after working the afternoon shift at Used Kids. For a campus church, Holy Name was not the norm, there were no long-haired glad-handers here, parts of the mass consisted of Latin, there were no “rock-and-roll” styled guitar songs, proclaiming the happiness of Christ. Much more sober than anything around, the hymns were sung a-capella and tended to be slow, as if the way to salvation consisted of miniscule movements of breath rather than the frantic pace of the ringing strings of caustic guitars. The congregation was older, and at times barely existed, just a few slow moving gray-hairs and myself, huddled alone in the back pew as I resisted the urge to leave and grab a drink to wash away the sins of anxiety and the persecution of unknowing. Tall columns lined the chapel, built of marble and thick chunks of stone; this was a building for the stern who quietly bellowed for safety.
Used Kids opened at ten am, and in the late eighties, early nineties, there was nary a person who would come in before eleven, perhaps the UPS driver delivering a box of untold secrets of longing and sexual urges, driven into the grooves of vinyl with names such as Beat Happening, the Vaselines, Bette Serveert and Yo La Tengo. But this was all; the person who opened the shop had the place to himself until eleven. This was a time for meditation, record store style, which meant an hour of coffee, an open front door and the warm grooves of whatever record we used to commune with our inner thoughts. The playlist at this hour, for myself consisted of either classical (Dvorak, or the choral music of Shultz or Byrd), Townes Van Zandt (usually “Flyin’ Shoes), Van Morrison (“Into the Music”, “Enlightenment” and “Avalon Sunset”), Phil Ochs and Gram Parsons. The search was ever-present. Sipping the bitter coffee of Buckeye Donuts, and slowly pricing out records in silence was our way of carrying water, chopping wood and washing dishes.
Most people, who knew me, were aware of the tendency that I had towards some sort of spiritual life, although it was odd that I gravitated towards the orthodoxy of Catholicism. Jerry was always respectful of my choice, and although we never really spoke of spiritual matters he was conscious enough to know my mass schedule, at times volunteering to meet me later, after mass. Jenny was at times dismissive of the yearning I had for quiet, as if the barrage of noise in her head could not comprehend, and was, in fact threatened by the fact that I had an itch that only the quiet could scratch. With the exception of Dan Dow, who was utterly dismissive of my proclivities towards the Catholic church, it was as if he wanted to punish me for some idea of a God that had been foisted upon him, all of my friends were extremely considerate of my pursuit of something that had no name or shape. It should be noted that Dan, was appreciative on the importance of early morning record listening, a feeling of calm brought out by a needle and electricity, he seemed to know that the way to peace is found at times through the application and communion of caffeine and brit-pop.
Next to the vast stone entrance of the church was a small walkway that led through a wrought-iron fence, around a statue of Christ, arms extended outwards, welcoming the repentant sinner and then into a small side chapel with five rows of pews. There, underneath the shiny polished wooden beams, I would sit in silence waiting for some sort of answer. I sat here when the hangovers were too bold and the alcohol dripped out of my pores as if I were a pungent flower, emanating the sweetest yet sickliest odor known. Listening through the small door that led into the main chapel, hoping that I could catch redemption through osmosis although, I only wanted to hear nothing. Not the drumming of my thoughts, not the fear of being alone or worse yet, the fear of acceptance. I would cobble together a prayer, feeling the awkwardness of solitary unskilled appeal. Leaving, under the guise of sheepishness and clumsy guilt, I would slink away as if I were a gawky lover who had left his partner unfulfilled. “Nothing is good enough” I would think about myself.
Today, my daughter asked me about God, and who God was and how do people believe in God. Trying to explain this to a five year old is more difficult than one would think, I said that I didn’t know and I gave up trying to find out long ago. When I gave up the booze, I decided that I would no longer allow myself to be stomped into submission by an idea that there was a mystery that could only be found through prayer. I explained to her that I thought, we should try to be helpful to those who are suffering, easing the lives of others and that in this way we will find our own answers. She asked what other people believed, carefully plucking the words from a stream of muddy thoughts, deliberating choosing the words that she could only understand. “Try to just be a good person.” I believe now, that God is an action and that is all.
Posts Tagged ‘Jenny Mae’
Alcoholism, part one:
The small wooden house sat just off the curb on Patterson Avenue. It was in the shape of an “L” and an old woman had lived and passed on in the house just a few years prior to me and Tom Hamrick moving in. The garden was filled with perennial flowers jutting up through stone cracks and raised flowerbeds that the old woman had no doubt carefully designed and plotted over the years. The yard, even after the apathy of the former renters, was brilliant in the spring, especially in contrast with the house’s flaking paint—bits of white and brown rolling in oblong tunnels as the summer and winters of Ohio did their damage. It was as if the mums, tulips, and roses had their own steely resolve and sprouted up in spite of the crumbling house. There was a destroyed picket fence alongside the rear portion of the yard that marked it as a truly private, although there was a small house in the back. The house had several tenants during my four years on Patterson, but none that ever invited me inside.
Tom’s bedroom was smaller than mine, really just enough to hold his bed and a tiny dresser. My bedroom had a row of bookshelves and a wooden desk given to me by my uncle Pablo, who had pulled it from a pile of rubbish in the sixties and refinished it. I had a tiny Apple computer given to me by Ted Hattemer as well as a typewriter with which I wrote a great deal of poetry and made some stabs at fiction. I named one of these fictional stories “Napoleon Trees” and gave it to my first wife as a Christmas present. I did not keep a copy of it and can’t recall what it was about. My bedroom was that of an aspiring drunkard. I rarely washed the sheets, which were covered in dog hair, sweat, various body fluids, and the stale scent of alcohol.
Drinking was a way to connect not just to others but to myself; an avenue of discourse into the subtleties of a mind that refused to turn off and was always working. Alcohol allowed the laughter to flow and this, in turn, presented the opportunity to make people smile. The validation of laughter is one of the finest feelings a person can have, for joy is brief in most of our lives—a small jolt of pleasure in a desert of the mundane. Jerry, Jenny, and I were all gifted with the ability to wriggle smiles out of others. Jenny and Jerry, in spite of the darkness that crept around their edges, were two of the funniest people I have ever encountered. They had an ability to see the preposterousness of life, to cultivate the absurd and bring it into focus. Of course, laughter went hand-in-hand with drinking. Laughing at ghosts, indeed.
After starting to drink again in 1991, there was no turning back. At first I was hesitant and fearful of the drink, as if I were going to receive an electric shock from picking up the bottle, but after slowly nursing a few Jim Beam and waters the fear dispersed, climbing back to some hidden cavern of my psyche only to return with a subtle vengeance some eight years later. Drinking was pleasurable and comfortable most of the time, my mind sinking into an ethereal lazy-boy recliner, with the sweet scents of whiskey, water, and tobacco serving as a soft throw-blanket over my being. At other times there was the ugliness in the booze, nights when I was so frightened to go home alone that I would wait at the bar as the bartender slowly cleaned up, rising from the stool only when I knew I was only minutes from slumber. I had the drunken timing of a professional. Bars were essential in the formulation of our lives, not only for the alcohol that provided the fuel for sociability but more importantly for providing opportunities for the bizarre and unrehearsed.
Companionship was always welcome, and the fear of going home alone gripped nearly everyone, man and woman alike, at 2:30 A.M. Nobody was spared the trepidation of lying in bed alone while the bar emptied out onto the gray and at times shivering sidewalks of Columbus. It was as if sleep was just a fly’s wing away from death, and the warm body of a lover would provide both carnal sensations and, but more importantly, the vulnerable secrets of acceptance that only love making can bring. By the same degree, though, there was the fear of the next morning—the lurching headaches, the awkward nervousness of shaky good mornings, and the thoughts of the coming responsibilities of the day.
I had a lover with red hair, a nose ring, and a slender build during this time. We were wary of one another. Usually she would come over in the early evening, we would make love, and she would leave. It was a regular ritual for us, it was oddly normal, although in hindsight one could reckon that the only normalcy in each of us was emotional abnormality. She had no interest in seeing me get drunk and was one of the first women to tell me this. She said I acted “silly” when I drank, which annoyed me to no end as I always thought that the word “silly” is, well, silly itself. And stupid. She also was fond of the word “zany” which may have doomed the relationship from the outset. Only on a handful of occasions did we spend an entire night together, and this was fine for both of us. We had very little in common with the exception that we enjoyed each other’s bodies and hated being alone. The first time she came into my room, she glanced down at my hairy bed, with sheets that held countless drunken stories between the faded and frayed white fabric, and over to the side of the bed. Next to a stack of books that I would never be able to digest during my inebriated nights sat my brown bucket. “What is that?” she asked, staring at me with eyebrows askew.
“My bucket, in case I vomit.”
Still staring, she asked, “Why? Are you sick?”
“Nope, I just usually throw up around three o’clock most nights,” I answered, taking a long pull off my Black Label.
During the spring and summer of 1994, it wasn’t uncommon for me to vomit into the bucket three to four nights a week. I was also prone to brownouts, which are PG rated black-outs, and one time I woke up on my roof. When the room would spin, I liked to go outdoors and stare at the sky. Somehow the largeness of the heavens would calm the rattling of my stomach and soothe the civil war that was tearing apart my innards. A secret hope of mine was to venture into the celestial sphere when I passed on, to taste the violent beauty of space. At four A.M. I would think about this and how my inner world tumbled upside down. Amazingly enough, I hardly gained any weight, and I didn’t experience much of the surliness of so many alcoholics. I continued to live a blessed life, one that allowed me many opportunities to explore the world that I cared so much about, music, people, and more music. But I couldn’t imagine any of it without the help of alcohol.
Ohio lays flat in places. Just west of Columbus it has a skyline the size of the Pacific Ocean, blanketed with fields of soybeans, corn, and wheat. There are a few larger towns in western Ohio, most notably Dayton and, of course, Toledo. The rest of the wide, smooth land is mottled with small towns. These towns are glorified as small town heartland America. They have large brick courthouses at their centers, several ice cream shops, and hardware stores that have every widget known to man, complete with kindly old gents who know the names of every kid in town. A homegrown sense of Americana sprouts in western Ohio like the farms that once helped feed the steelworkers in Youngstown and Cleveland and the academics and policy-makers in Columbus. There among the one-traffic-light towns there is a sense of nostalgia that for most of them, has only existed in a vacant dream-state, one that is hazy and filled with apathy and a strangulated sense of loyalty of something, like diminishing smoke, that has only vaguely existed. Most of the residents no longer feel. The belief in the American Dream that was long ago crushed by the greed of capitalism still stands proud every Memorial Day and Fourth of July, but a cursory weekend drive through any of these towns reveals the deflated dream of Middle America, from the empty store fronts to the lack of children playing baseball, football, or kick-the-can. When I arrived in the tiny burg of Catawba at the age of fourteen, my cynicism about romantic fantasies like the American Dream had already been ripened by my experiences of broken homes and the reality of attending over eight schools by the age of fourteen; I had an ingrained mistrust of platitudes.
We moved to Catawba in the summer of 1982. I had discovered Adam Ant, the Clash, and the Ramones during my eighth grade year, before we moved to Catawba. New wave was the only thing that MTV was showing, aside from Quarterflash, and it had just started on cable in Athens, Ohio. Catawba did not have cable television, and some of the kids hadn’t even heard of MTV, let alone Adam Ant, Elvis Costello, or the Clash. I was pegged, and rightfully so, as a nerd of the highest degree. A wave of nausea washed over me as we drove through the Ohio hinterlands, a sick feeling that would not leave my stomach for the next four years.
I missed the colors of the hills of southeastern Ohio as well as the excitement of the college town, where a stroll through the streets that sunk down below the uptown shops and the greenery of the campus exposed the passerby to music playing on lawns where college students played Frisbee in shorts, laughed, and drank beer. I went to late-night movies as a middle-school student in Athens: Rock and Roll High School, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and An American Werewolf in London. My older sister Erica, a high school senior who was dating a “townie” who was a freshman at Ohio University, took me to many of these. Being exposed to this atmosphere provided me with experiences that I soon discovered that my classmates at my new high school did not have. In the truest sense, among the fields and the slow everyday movement in Catawba, it was easy to imagine that the both land and the people who lived in this rural community had grown fallow and dormant, perhaps proudly so. My first day of school, I heard the hushed tones of my fellow school bus riders as they eyed me as if I were foreigner.
“Wow, look at that new kid. He’s so small.”
“Bela?! What the hell kind of name is that?”
“Are you even American?”
“Isn’t that a girl’s name? Are you sure you’re not a girl?”.
I felt isolated even before I arrived at school. The dread I felt was so thick that I could have balled it up and stuck it in my pocket.
Living parts of my childhood years near a college campus gave me opportunities that most of my classmates at tiny Springfield Northeastern High School never had. I was used to seeing a cross section of different cultural backgrounds. My mother was friends with many Nigerian students, and we had many students in my grade school who were the sons and daughters of foreign exchange students. At Northeastern, I was shocked to learn that there were no African-American students. It wasn’t until later, when I met Jenny Mae’s mother, that I learned that there had not been an African-American student at the high school for over twenty years. On my first day of school, I felt as if I would never fit in. The school was rampant with racism, although there were no African-American kids in the school, one could hear the word nigger throughout the day, on kid of Mexican descent was referred to as a “sand nigger”, I wanted to shout at some of the kids who said these things that the slang word for Mexican’s was “spick” but I didn’t thought they would miss my point and take me seriously. It wasn’t just the students who espoused racist attitudes on several occasions I heard both our principle (Donald Smith-thankfully retired) and football coach (Mr.Wasserman) tell racist jokes to our wrestling team and biology classes respectfully. I felt as if I were in a time warp. Growing up, we were taught under any circumstance to never use the word nigger or any other type of derogatory slang. Whenever my brother and I would use the word redneck, my mother would remind us that our grandparents were from Appalachia, we would roll our eyes at her political correctness but we took the slandering of other races to heart.
I have a photograph of myself, circa 1976, standing in the backyard of our new house in Newport News, Virginia. It was our second house in Newport News, and in reality it wasn’t a house. It was a new sort of condo that is now prevalent, with a “brick” façade hiding the particle board innards, as if this apparition of strength could hide the fragile, cheap-as-hell construction of the building. We had moved from another part of Newport News because of concerns about the urban grade school I was attending, where I didn’t have a single friend. The condo community we moved into was filled with the families of Navy personnel and working class families. I had a small room that I shared with my brother, my sister had a room just next to ours, and the bathroom connected to the hallway to the master bedroom. The yard was roughly ten feet by ten feet, big enough to catch a lizard in and that was about it.
In the photograph, I am wearing a red and white Washington Redskins t-shirt, although I was already a Steelers fan like my big brother. Perhaps I was trying to find my own identity as an eight year old, or perhaps others were trying to find it for me. The photo is faded like so many photos from the seventies; instantly dated, as if the picture was taken behind marbled glass. It gives the impression that the whole world was slightly askew and blurred. When looking at photographs from the nineteen thirties and forties, it feels as if the poverty that gripped the thin, weathered faces of those who managed to survive the Great Depression was more severe in black and white—as if the world had never been in color. Blurred and fuzzy, I stood in the backyard in that picture from the seventies, knowing that even if this was yet another new house, new school, and new friends; I would forever be tethered to the feelings of isolation that I felt at that moment.
In the spring of 2004, I had received a message from Jenny. She was back in Columbus, at least temporarily, and she was drunk, incoherent, and lost, as if the map to her inner soul had been doused in gasoline and burned. Over the phone, her voice sounded as if it were being wired through the ages from a time that had long since passed. It was broken, brittle, and frayed. If her message had been a photograph, it would have been faded, black and white, with eyes staring towards the lens with all of the effort of a dustbowl victim. Jenny sounded small, huddled into herself; the message spoke of desolation and the crazed chaos of alcoholism, mental illness, and the misfortune of loneliness that is only magnified by alcohol. “I don’t know what to do. I’m borrowing some girl’s phone. She must think I’m nuts. What can I do without him? I need help.” Click.
I had no idea what time Jenny had called and I sure where she was. I had been rebuilding myself for a few years at this point, living back in Columbus, working at Used Kids, and plunging headlong into various kinds of volunteer work to help other drinkers. I was ill prepared to offer solace to Jenny. With furrowed brow, I took to the stairs of Used Kids, passing the timeline of flyers that line the walls of the stairwell, a cornucopia of brazen and hectic nights of my life. Pavement, New Bomb Turks, Thinking Fellers Union, Love Battery, All-Male Mowdown, All-Girl Hoedown, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, The Great Plains, Scrawl—a virtual testament to my twenties that marked my trajectory from young, feisty indie-punk to cynical record-store drunk to grizzled befuddled optimist, the walls captured and dismissed me at the same time.
I headed to Bernie’s, where Jenny had struck up several romances since returning to town. I assumed that she had borrowed a phone from some future barfly there who had not yet dipped her life into the inkwell of wretchedness that years of bar sitting can bring, but Bernie’s in the daytime was a good as any place to start. Poking my head into the bar, the bartender glanced at me and said, “She left about three hours ago, and she was a mess, yelling at Nate about some craziness. She is off her fucking rocker. I told her not to come back for a while. She is scaring some of the customers.”
I glanced at a bearded man with bits of egg in his beard and four inches of stretched belly hanging out over a belt that longed to be put to sleep. His t-shirt was blanched and threadbare, with dollops of pizza stains and pocketed with small stretchy holes that barely contained his daily-beer-drinker’s girth. He raised one eyebrow, hoisted a Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboy, and slowly nodded his head in agreement. I gazed at another man sitting two seats down, decked in a faded leather jacket with a chain wallet dangling against his bar stool as if he were tethered to it like a dog. He looked up from his tallboy and said, “Bela, that chick is nuts.” In the background, Homer Simpson mirrored this same scene at Moe’s Tavern.
Crossing High Street, I entered the OSU Music Building and climbed the stairs to the top floor, where the university kept the practice pianos. I crept quietly and listened. I heard the vague plinking of the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl.” Opening the door, I found Jenny, hair matted, filthy and clinging to her skull and shoulders, and a thin dress drenched in sweat sticking to her arms and back as if it wallpapered onto her. She was braless, with the contours of her breasts exposed revealing not sexiness but total sadness. She gazed up at me, tears streaming down her cheeks, with a bottle of vodka stashed between her legs and the overwhelming odor of sweat, booze, and depression blanketing the air. “Oh Bela, what am I gonna do?” She turned and tried to play “Lady Madonna”, but only made it through the first several lines before switching course and attempting “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Gurgling, she croaked, “That was his favorite. He loved Paul McCartney. I would play that over and over.” Of this, I had no doubt, as she once told me that they had spent $275 playing David Bowie’s “Major Tom” over and over in a hotel while on a two-day-long coke binge. The other half of the “they” was Jim Williams, her boyfriend who had passed away only a few months ago. “You know,” she slurred, “we saw Paul McCartney five times. We flew across the county to see him. Jim was like that, once he became obsessed with something he did it to death.”
My first thought, which I managed to keep in my mouth, was “like cocaine.”
Taking a pull off the warm vodka bottle, she said, almost to no one in particular, “You know, they threw out all my stuff when he died. His brother and that bitch sister-in-law, they went to the boat I lived on and dumped it all. Even my pink records.” The pink records were the Guided By Voices split she did, the one that had been reviewed in Spin magazine only seven years prior, where Charles Aaron called her “astonishing and one of the best bohemian song-writers alive.”
Frozen, I simply said, “I’m sorry.” Inside I was angry, upset that anybody would discard somebody’s possessions with such impudence. Although Jenny could be difficult, she didn’t deserve that. Peeking under the cover of madness takes skill, an unwavering sense of determination, and a smidgeon of courage, all of which I lacked at that time. My skin felt like science fiction, sweat dripping down my back. The room was an oven—don’t they have air conditioning here? “Jenny, why don’t you go somewhere and get some help?”
Plinking on the piano, she whispered, “You can’t help, you never wanted to help. You just want to tell me what to do. Leave me alone.” Not wanting to fight, I left, a hole inside of me shuddering as if another shovel of dirt had been lifted out and dumped onto the pile of unhappy memories that littered my life. I thought of that picture of me, taken so many years ago, feeling like an outsider at the age of seven, and I realized that there is nothing sadder than being an outsider in your own life.
Days are sometimes stitched together with absurdity. One moment jells into another, morphing one’s experience into a long line of episodes that span the gamut, from unrestrained joy to the tyranny of utter depression, sometimes within only a few hours. In the mid-nineties, I was living in a small house on Patterson Avenue. It had barely two bedrooms and one large living area in the front of the house, a front porch area that was sheltered, and another small room off the kitchen that worked more as an overfed hallway that was stuffed with shelves of records and my makeshift stereo. It was pieced together with old bits of electronic gear that I had collected over the years. The only newer item was a dual cassette player that I had bought with a Sears credit card. The house, which was small and wooden and had a deteriorating garden that a recently deceased elderly woman had spent years planting, was home to many of the nonsensical events of my mid-twenties. It was a motel of sorts for bands traveling through Columbus, and my roommate Tom, a jovial bearded sort who sported a tattoo of Don Shula on one arm and one of Don Knotts on the other, was shellacked with many late night shenanigans as he tried to get enough sleep so he could get to his five A.M. job as a designer at Kinko’s. The living room had two couches. One was a threadbare relic from the early seventies that my grandmother had given me after my grandfather passed away and the other was an orange vinyl sort that was deathly cold in the winter but easy to wipe off.
These couches and the floor around the stereo made quite a comfortable space for many traveling bands during those years. Some were kind of known and some lesser so to most, with the exception of those of us who breathed music the way others focused on such things as family, jobs, and religion. Bands with names like Sleepyhead, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, The Ex, and Nothing Painted Blue would make nary a ripple for most of the people I used to know, while others, such as Jon Spencer, Chavez, Guided by Voices, and The Breeders, may have garnered a raised eyebrow from a family member. This was my life, though, and I embraced it as if the certainty of my existence depended on it.
One of the bands staying one night witnessed one of those absurd situations that many of us often found ourselves in. The band was from Boston. They called themselves Kudgel and dubbed the genre of music they played “lard rock” due to the hefty girth of the band members. They had one stupendous song called the “Alphabet Song” and a new record called Chimp Rock. Although they were from Boston, they lacked the brainy pop eagerness of other Northeast bands like the Blake Babies, the Lemonheads, and Sebadoh. They were more akin to the sludgy sounds emanating from the Amphetamine Reptile label in Minneapolis. Kudgel were pure hate rock but in a very goofy way, as half the band dressed in skirts and muumuus. The shared a bill with the Bassholes and the Cheater Slicks, who were also from Boston and whose immense guitars sounded as if they were belched from the bowels of the Atlantic during one of those fabled New England Northeasterners that could erupt out of thin air and bring the death of a thousand shipping vessels.
Jenny lived just a few blocks from me in the crammed apartment I had left a few years before, complete with most of the belongings that we had accumulated during our stormy and hesitant four-year relationship—several pianos, pieces of broken stereo equipment, half-finished artworks, hundreds of painted doilies that Jenny would churn out during her fits of mania, and a boundless array of women’s clothing that spanned the last fifty years of the 20th century. Sometimes when I visited her we would argue and throw verbal shots at one another, blaming each other for the misery of our lives, never taking a modicum of responsibility for our own sadness until I would crack under her spell and apologize as if I were just convicted on manslaughter. Other times, we would inevitably have ruinous ex-sex, humping our bodies together for a brief period to help squelch the past or the present or whatever longing needed to be squelched. This would always followed by a promise that we were not going to get back together again as I left her house as soon as it was appropriate to do so. We were both seeing other people during this time, and as navigating one’s twenties is difficult enough, there were no thoughts that this constituted unfaithfulness on our parts.
I had some issues with my bodily plumbing around this time. I had gotten an STD from a former girlfriend and had to go to the Health Department to take care of it, as I was too ashamed to go to good old Dr. Brown. D r. Brown was in his early forties and had a family clinic just on the outskirts of campus in an old wooden house that straddled Pearl Alley and a gas station. He had an easy going charm about him, with the kind of good natured easiness that he must have gained by going through medical school in the nineteen seventies.. There was no possible way I could have him, with his Mickey Mouse earring and bushy mustache, look me in the eye while sticking an antiseptic, 8” cotton swab down the shaft of my penis. When I had some new symptoms, I realized that I needed to go back to the Health Department. I assumed that most people who would be foolish enough to acquire a sexually transmitted disease would be late risers, so I made a point of arriving early to have the symptoms that had been bothering me treated.
The Columbus Health Department provides tests for the standard line of sexually transmitted diseases: gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and syphilis. The agency will immediately disperse medication if someone has symptoms of a sexually transmitted disease even before the results are returned. These symptoms range from pus and discharge to itchiness. I was experiencing two of these. During the first two visits out of three, I was given antibiotics and told that I would have to refrain from alcohol for the duration of the medication, which was roughly ten days. I could not abide for even two days. On my third visit, I was the first to arrive at the Health Department. I sat in the corner, filled with bewilderment and shame. I had refrained from having sex during the month and was perplexed. Soon after sitting down and flipping through a wrinkled copy of a years old Sports Illustrated, I noticed another man sitting across from me. He was roughly my age and seemed slightly familiar. Soon my name was called and I took my chart to the desk. Entering the back room, I was met with a heavyset African-American nurse who gazed at me and shook her head. “Weren’t you just here?” she muttered more to herself than me. “Well, you know the drill,” and before my pants got to my knees she had jabbed the long swab up into me, shaking her head the entire time.
For an alcoholic, taking antibiotics while refraining from drinking is about as easy as eating one potato chip. After my symptoms didn’t go away after my three visits to the Health Department, I resigned myself to seeing good old Dr. Brown, with his Mickey Mouse earring and his undoubtedly disappointed mustache. I told him that I had an STD. I figured a good shot of penicillin would do the trick. Shortly before my visit to Dr. Brown, Jenny phoned. “Hey, you got the clap again, huh?” she asked.
“Shut up. If I got anything it was from you and your vagina that welcomes anybody who asks.”
She laughed, “My new boyfriend saw you there the other day. You guys were the only ones there and you both fucked me.”
“Yeah, that’s real funny, Jenny. Real fucking funny.”
I went in to Dr. Brown’s office, surrounded by Highlights for Children and Ranger Rick magazines, my dick itching as if an ant had crawled up it. I went back to see Dr. Brown, who had been treating me and my variety of drunken escapades for a few years, and told him what was going on. He laughed when I informed him of the three trips to the VD clinic. Looking at me with a face of bafflement, he said, “You probably don’t have one at all,” explaining that the symptoms would have worsened and, besides, the medication would have killed whatever I had. He asked if I had ever gotten my results.
I sheepishly said, “No, its kinda humiliating calling there.” He then asked me to drop my pants and said he was going to check my prostrate.
Leaning over, I was startled to hear good old Dr. Brown shout out, “Good heavens, son, no wonder you are so uncomfortable. Your prostate is huge. Christ, it feels like you’re sixty five years old.”
Pulling up my trousers, trying to look dignified with an enlarged prostrate and jelly all over my ass, I asked, “So that means I don’t have an STD, right? That’s good.”
The good doctor’s brow furrowed as he shook his head. “No, it is not good for a twenty-two-year-old man to have a prostrate that large. It can only mean two things—it is severely infected or you have cancer.”
I was dumbfounded. Cancer? On my fuel injector? I asked, “So now what?” Dr. Brown made an appointment with a specialist right away. I would only have to wait two weeks. Needless to say, there was a great deal of alcohol consumption during those next two weeks. I was relieved that I didn’t have any communicable diseases, thus saving me from the embarrassment of informing someone that they might have to get checked. I believed that I had cancer. Besides that, I lost at everything. I knew that I would never be a cancer survivor.
Kugdel arrived at my house sometime before my appointment with the specialist. I was smashed, ears blown by the Cheater Slicks and the goofy throat-rattling lard rock of Kudgel. Laughing as I fetched blankets and a trusty bucket that was kept bedside to make puking more convenient, the gentlemen from Boston were shown to the various beds in the house. Soon, Mark Erody, the erstwhile singer of Kudgel, walked into the living room holding a medical enema. “What the hell is this?!” he cackled.
“Oh, shit, I gotta be at the urologist in four hours and I have to give myself an enema.”
“Uh huh, they think I might have prostate cancer.” News like that will suck any humorous energy out of a room, no matter how late at night.
“Oh wow, I’m so sorry to hear that, Bela.” The men all provided appropriately forlorn looks.
“It’s fine, and really I’m cool with it. I won’t wake you guys.” With that, I shuffled off to bed, bucket in hand.
The next morning, still drunk and struggling to decipher the small print of the instructions for the enema as I got on all fours, bare ass sticking towards the heavens, I had no idea what to do. My head throbbed and my hands were shaky from the morning shakes I would occasionally have. I figured, how hard it could be to stick something up one’s ass? Apparently, being half-drunk, hung-over, and experiencing more shakes than a 1970s Tudor Electronic Football game can make this an extraordinary endeavor. The first attempt caused a small bloody cut where I had never believed a cut was possible, and I wondered what it would feel like when I had to have a shot there. Standing up, I had half a mind to go ask one of the gentlemen from Kudgel to assist me, but thought better of it and plunged the small tube in. Soon enough, I was out the door, my ego low as I headed to the doctor. Checking in, I was informed that my appointment wasn’t for another week. I laughed as I informed my friend Gretchen, who had driven me, that I got the date wrong.
“You mean you gave yourself an enema for nothing?”
“Yup, isn’t that hilarious?” The men from Kudgel also thought it was funny when I returned.
Seven days later, I arrived at the urologist office with two weeks of heavy drinking and worries stacked up like a line of bottles on the bar, peeled labels and sticky glass. I was a mess. The urologist was a shaky old man who asked me to bend over while he checked out the canyon-sized prostrate that sat inside of me. The appointment was early in the morning. I was a bit groggy and still a bit drunk from the night before. I was so dehydrated that a lizard would have felt quite at home amongst my innards. The old man asked me to bend over even more, and I felt him struggling to get to that prostrate.
“Fuck,” I thought, “what the hell is he doing back there?” He asked me to turn around and, taking my sheepish penis in his hands, he checked to see if there was any discharge coming out.
He looked me in the eye and said, “You smell of alcohol. This may take a little longer.” Leaning again across the table, I felt him try to push something out of the wasteland that was my insides. Soon, my knees grew weak, and I felt stars dancing around my head as if I were being squelched by every force known to man.
“Uhh, I don’t feel to good,” I groaned as I rolled off the side of the tiny urologist bed. The old man caught me and slid a chair under me. This was the worst.
The urologist produced a small packet of smelling salts. In a calming voice he stated, “Doesn’t matter, happens to the best of them.” There was a “best” of people who had their prostates squeezed and poked? Waking from the faint, I looked down as he grabbed my pathetic, droopy penis and wrestled a smidgen of moisture out of it as if he were squeezing the last drop of toothpaste from the tube. “That should do it. Before you leave, the nurse will give you something to put your ejaculate in.”
At times, reality is much more far-fetched than any concoction a mind can make up. Pulling up the trousers that had sunk like a cordless flag to my feet, nestled around my ankles in utter defeat, I murmured a “thank you” to the aging physician. I felt the damp jelly that he had used soak into my underwear as my hangover dissipated into the wild morning. Walking through the waiting room with a slightly modified drunkard’s gait, several thoughts came to mind. First, had I heard the old doctor correctly, that I would have to dispense sperm this morning after the ordeal that I had just gone through? How was this done, exactly? It occurred to me, as I passed elderly men hunched next to concerned white-haired wives who were holding their hands and rubbing their shoulders, that somehow my life had turned into a living, swirling, and debilitating clusterfuck.
I asked the small mousy woman who combed her bangs forward with just the right amount of hair spray to look as if she could be auditioning for a part in a John Hughes movie what I needed to do. “Er, I think the doctor wants something else.”
She smiled, “Oh, he must want a stool sample.”
Somehow, in a matter of just a few seconds, the situation had gotten more absurd. I leaned forward, poking my head slightly through the opaque glass window the framed her 1982 haircut. “Hmm, no,” I whispered, “he wants something else.”
Her face crinkling, eye brows arched, she replied, “Really, I wonder what that could be?” Swiveling around in her chair, she bellowed to a nurse who was in some mysterious back room that all doctor’s offices seem to have. “Missy?! What else did the doctor want for Mr. Koe-Krompecher?!”
I noticed a head poke around a doorway in the back. “He needs a sperm sample from Mr. Koe-Krompecher!” the nurse brayed from the back. I turned around, hopeful that none of the grandmothers sitting next to the grandfathers who littered the waiting room like cows staring blankly in a field would have heard the words so ineloquently yelped from the back. I noticed a flock of mildly amused and curious smiles staring back at me.
“Oh, that’s easy to do,” said the mousy woman with the bangs. “I’ll have to get you a sample cup for you to put your ejaculate in.” Any sense of pride may have been tethered to my flailing and tattered being had just been torn and let to drift into a sea of humiliation at that moment. Completely confounded by the nonsensical situation I had found myself in, I stared up at the ceiling while I waited, a series of thoughts flashed through my mind. What sort of cup would this be? Would they give me a room? Were there any sort of “tools” used to help facilitate the process?
The woman reappeared with a small plastic cup. “Hmmmm, interesting,” I thought to myself as she handed me the cup. Holding it in my hand, I noticed that it had a small label wrapped around it with small typed print that included my name, address, phone number, patient number, and the purpose of the cup. I grinned flatly, rocked back up on my heels, and stared at her. Seconds ticked by as she smiled back and nodded. A few more seconds passed. “Er, mmmm, so?” I inquired.
Red bloomed across her cheeks as if a curtain had closed over her face, eyes widened so far that they almost reached those combed down bangs. “Ohhhhhh,” she mouthed, answering the unasked question, “no, you need to bring it back in sometime in the coming week.”
“Great, thanks.” And with that I left.
Returning a week later with the small container, I hesitantly walked into the doctor’s office. The collection of old men with brave wives appeared not to have moved since my last visit. Smiling with trepidation, I rang the small metallic bell, inadvertently calling attention to myself. Ms. Bangs appeared, smiling the same vacant smile she had a week before. With pun intended, I handed her the plastic vessel containing a bit of my organic constitution and said, “I’ve come to drop this off for the doctor.”
Her eyebrows rose again. “Oh yes, of course? and what is it again?” she asked while spinning the tiny bottle in her hand. With another silently mouthed “Ohhh,” she nodded knowingly at me. “Oookayy, we will get back to you as soon as we get the results.”
The next week went by slowly. I was a man with too much on his mind looking for evening escape from the fear of the unknown. The fear was only placated by the sound of music, the consumption of beer, and the touch of another human being. Sitting in a back corner booth of Larry’s with small bottled candles burning into the smoke-filled air, peeling the labels off of beer bottles was a hobby unto itself. I plied for relief. Doom was about and I gabbed my fearful information to anyone who I thought could delay the loneliness of a dying man. Drawing comfort from the familiar, I managed to procure several different lovers in between dropping the seed of the Krompecher family for the doctor to read and hearing my fate. I thought that it was appropriate that, as my life circled the drain of death, I would not be alone.
Entering the doctor’s office nearly two weeks later, the apprehension was muggy in my mind as I prepared to receive the news of my demise. My breath was decaying as the cancer ate me from within, slowly from the loins up. There would be some justice in this, I presumed. I waited in the small, cramped, white-covered examination room. Staring blankly at graphic medical posters of the penis and urinary tract of a man, I was ready.
The old doctor entered, asked me how I was, and startled me with his first question. “Young man, how much alcohol do you drink every week?” He leaned towards me, clipboard held tightly to his chest as if he were protecting his chest from the arrows of denial.
“Oh, a few beers here and there,” I said as innocently as I could.
“Well, maybe, but it appears as if your prostate is infected and may be allergic to alcohol and maybe caffeine. We know that when the prostate is infected—we call that prostatitus, and you appear to have a severe case—alcohol and caffeine exacerbate the situation. My advice to you is to give up drinking alcohol or slow down or you will continue to have these problems.”
“That’s it?” I thought, “no cancer, just quit drinking?” I didn’t know what was worse. Looking up at him, I asked, “So, you’re saying I don’t have cancer?”
“Yes, you don’t. You drink too much. You need to stop.” And with that he left the room. With a great deal of relief, I left his office, smiling to myself. It would take me another twelve years to decide to quit drinking.
The North Sea is not to be confused with the Atlantic Ocean, especially if you are Dutch. The Dutch can get a bit testy if you refer to the Noordzee as the ocean. Not only will you get stern look, but you may even get a chuckle. When I was a young child, my family spent a few years living in Springs, New York, which is located at the far tip of Long Island—just a stone’s throw from Montauk. We could cut through the forest that backed up against our yard and be at a small harbor, smelling the salty air of the Atlantic, in just a few minutes. Some weekend mornings we would drive to the lighthouse and pick from what appeared to be acres of mussels. They were so plentiful on the beach that their shells would crack and snap under our rubber boots. Gazing into the grayness of the Atlantic, I would try to see all the way to England, although my step-father would gently remind me that if I could see that far I would most likely see Spain, France, or Holland. The damned curvature of the ocean always prevented my owl-like vision from seeing the other side of the world.
Holland is below sea level, but the Dutch have used their centuries of expertise and ingenious determination to carve a complex series of dikes and canals into the ocean. Water is ever present in the minds of the Dutch. The ocean can be threatening in terms of rising water, storms, and global warming, but it also provides life and income. The Dutch made their mark in trading—Holland has been a hub of international trading since the 1300s—and they are surgical in terms of practicality and efficiency; they do not tolerate fools lightly. I met my wife Merijn at Used Kids. She was a young Dutch woman with the characteristics of most Dutch women; that is, she was staggeringly beautiful. She was tall and mysterious, with close-cropped blonde hair and a hushed voice that was a cross between Marilyn Monroe breathily singing “Happy Birthday” and IngridBergman. She was prone to blushing whenever I cracked a joked, gently pushing whatever compact disc she bought. She came into the shop roughly three days a week, always when I was there. Soon I was openly flirting with her. I was recently divorced and trying out one-night stands as if they were cups of coffee, floundering is too kind of a word. . Some of my co-workers shook their heads at me when she was in, never failing to mention that she was out of my league. In fact, she was out of everybody’s league in Columbus, Ohio. Luckily, talking to women was never an issue for me because I realized that a way to a woman’s secrets is through her laughter. It also helped that I have never known when to shut up. I made Merijn laugh every time I saw her.
One afternoon she came in with a tall curly-haired man with stark blue eyes that were reminiscent of hers. They laughed and spoke a strange hockery-guttural language. They had an intimacy that suggested that they were a couple. But when they got to the counter, she eyed me and him and then me again, as if pointing me out with her eyes. I smiled at her and she blushed like a school girl caught with a note in her hands. Within a few weeks, determination set in. Talking to my friend Candace, I mentioned, “I think I’m in love with this foreign woman.”
Candace smiled. “Is she kinda tall and blonde?”
Feeling my heart quicken, I said, “Yes, she is.”
“She likes you. I’m in class with her. She said there is this guy at the record store who is very handsome and funny and she keeps going back.”
Eyeing her, I asked, “Are you sure that’s me?”
Laughing, Candace said, “Of course.” A few nights later, Candace pointed her out to me at a crowded Larry’s. By the next week, I had her phone number and was invited into her window of the Dutch world.
After getting through the initial trepidation of new lovers—when one explores each other’s past history of lovers, matching up against the past, measuring the ability to hold onto brand new love as if it were shiny pearl to be polished and cared for—I found out that the tall curly-haired gentleman was Merijn’s Dutch friend Edo Visser, who was also going to graduate school at Ohio State. He was a gentle man who was full of pensive yet easy laughter and an almost childlike amazement about the world. He would gently laugh at the baffling ways of Americans, who could be so quick to do the absurd, choosing illogical avenues that were so contrary to the Dutch philosophy.
Edo was student of Paul Nini’s, the leader of the band Log, whose Kiwi sounds I adored and whose members all looked as if they owned homes, made regular car payments and knew their way around a New York Times crossword puzzle. Paul taught design at Ohio State, and Edo was blown away when I showed him Log’s CD that had come out on Anyway. In a sense, this helped Edo understand that everything in the world is local, everything is small and interconnected. Soon he was accompanying me and Merijn to shows, where he was exposed to the world of underground music.
Edo was fascinated by the life I lived, including the bands and the art I was submerged in. He was interested in the fact that, like so many of my acquaintances, I had dropped out of college but was well read. We wrote and tried in our own ways to live lives of creation and evolution. He was taken aback by the amount of alcohol we consumed—he had never had a drink of alcohol in his life, nor did he eat meat or talk derisively about others. It was as if we were bugs in a glass jar for him, and his eyes would grow large as he ventured into our world. He came into the store at least once a week, usually spending about an hour combing through the $3 CD bin. He could only afford cheap CDs on his meager grad-student salary. He would pick music based on the artwork, hoping that would be reflected by the music inside.
He was soon a participant in our world a bystander in a world filled with music and hilarity, where every night was a chance at making a mark on world. He was a witness to the fragility and emotional ineptitude of a small swath of artists and musicians in Columbus at that time. He became friendly with our all of our friends, attending the wild parties of Jenny Mae and sometimes sitting in the corner booth of BW-3 with Ron House, Jerry Wick, and myself as five-o’clock rolled around. As we tempered the day with vases of alcohol, Edo would sip his coke and then shuffle off to his house.
One evening I decided to make Edo dinner. I was living with Ted Hattemer and our pack of dogs. Edo sat in the kitchen as I made vegetarian chili, and as I prepared to cut up the green peppers, he offered to show a secret method to slice them. I called him off, wanting to do the work myself. I was insistent. He made some flaky, stuffed hors d’oeuvres with filo dough and cheese. Later that night, he talked to Merijn as I swayed in front of a stage while Two Dollar Guitar sang about a dead friend. What is so odd about that mundane experience in the kitchen is that every time I handle a green pepper, I think of Edo. And in some way I yearn for him to show me the secret of slicing a pepper. It is the small reminders of friendship that bound into my thoughts, in the same way, every time I’m on the corner of Summit and Hudson Streets in Columbus, I think of Jerry Wick.
The Dutch are emotionally reserved. Plunging into a relationship can seem like a violation of ethical concerns to them. While this can be frustrating, upon deeper reflection it makes sense. One must keep one’s sense when living under the ocean and being dependent on the trading of goods for survival. Edo never spoke of his family with the exception of his sister, who he appeared to adore. There seemed to be an extra layer of emotional veneer about him as he said, “I don’t drink. People in my family did and that was enough for me.” But he never judged me about my own intake of alcohol, and when my voice would rise in a burst of emotional turmoil towards some dissatisfaction with Merijn, Edo would turn heel and leave.
Edo adored Jenny Mae. He was amazed that someone whose life was in such chaos could make such touching and delicate music. He was respectful, hesitant, and curious about her outspoken, ramshackle mannerisms. She could easily crack a joke about blowjobs and stinky balls and, in the next breath, play a song as heart wrenching as “Ho’ Bitch.”
One night we traveled over to Jenny’s, whose tiny green house sat directly behind two bars in the middle of a gravel parking lot. Her house was hidden from the neighborhood—as if it had been erected only for outsiders—parked in an alley with only tiny stones and broken glass for a yard. She had decided to have a party. In her own way, every night was a party. There were times when she would invite Merijn and me over, saying she was having a party, and it would be only us and her husband. “Where’s the party Jenny?” I would ask, annoyed that we had dropped our plans for her “party.” After about ten times of this, Merijn would say, “I’m not going to any more of Jenny’s parties unless it is a real party. This is madness.”
“Oh, I forgot to tell anyone,” she would say nonchalantly, taking a pull from a wine bottle. When she did have a party, she invited her friends—usually only a handful of people she identified with, including other musician types who stood on the outskirts of the mainstream, never wanting to put a toe into the flowing river of conformity.
That night, we arrived to a half-full house. The Shannon brothers, Tom and Dave, who made up 2/3 of the Cheater Slicks, were there, along with Jerry Wick, Ted Hattemer and his future wife Julie, and some of Jenny’s band mates. Later, Ron House showed up with Mark Eitzel of American Music Club. Jenny was dressed in a thrift store evening gown with long, fake diamond pearls hanging deep into her formidable cleavage and her husband, Dave, was wearing a black suit. There was a small waterfall in her living room that she had dragged from a dumpster and her walls were adorned with black-and-white photos that she had ripped from old Life magazines and her own paintings of odd looking women with large heads and thin bodies. Edo was impressed. He turned to me and said, “Wow, she is really some artist-type person. I always got the impression she was just a drunkard.” Later, as she turned on her fog machine, smoke rolled from her basement practice space and the cocaine she snorted in the bedroom lit a fire in her belly. The drunken absurdist Jenny took over, with her new record blaring from the speakers all the while. I asked Edo that night if he would do the artwork for the record.
Edo took his design work seriously; he was smart and deliberate in his work. He was careful and respectful of Jenny’s idea for the cover of Don’t Wait up For Me. I told him that I had never liked her idea for the cover of There’s A Bar Around the Corner…Assholes. This time, I wanted something that displayed the emotion of the music. He did a fine job. I then asked him to do the artwork for a record I had been trying to assemble for nearly eight years. I Stayed up All Night Listening to Records was intended to capture songwriters in their own element, without any assistance from others. The guidelines were that the song, the instruments, and the recording had to be done by each performer solo. For the most part this ended up being true, with the exception of a few recordings that people did in a studio. I asked a lot of musicians I greatly admired. Most were from Columbus, but I also asked several who I had come into contact with and respected. I asked too many musicians, and when I got to the studio to assemble the record I had to keep several artists who had submitted stuff off the final record. Two of the most notable deletions were Tim Easton and Paul K., who contributed a live band recording.
I wanted the artwork for I Stayed up All Night Listening to Records to pay homage to the Folkways records I had grown up with as a child. This would be hard to do, as it was only going to come out on compact disc—Revolver was not going to splurge for a double LP of mostly Midwestern songwriters. I gave Edo a copy of Dust Bowl Ballads by Woody Guthrie along with Music Time with Charity Bailey and Songs to Grow On. He came back a few weeks later with beautiful cover for the record that was humble and simple, but, most importantly, that was descriptive of the mostly simple four-track recordings.
Some of us must have a gathering around us, or just a hesitant phone call away, to bind the grimness of being together with laughter and companionship to create the joy of an unfettered existence. Others choose the solitary life, for it is more emotionally economical to sit on the sidelines of life, observing as the world lurches by. Still others settle in between the two, letting music, books, and movies be their companions when the world is too tight. Gaiety has always come easy for me. My well-worn sense of humor has cost me at times, but humor goes a long way when the core of a person is unsettled. Edo traversed a lonely path, most likely by choice. At the end of graduate school we sat in my kitchen, Edo, Merijn, and I, discussing the future as we ruffled the heads of itchy dogs and drank coffee.
My wife decided to stay in America for another year, taking a gamble on a charming man with ruffled hair, a winsome smile, and blood diluted with copious amounts of alcohol and the hopes of a job. Edo planned a trip down the west coast by locomotive, just him and the rails in pursuit of an all-American sense of adventure that could only be found in the imagination of a European boy. Taking a sip out of my “Proud to be a Democrat” cup—a defiant token against the impending impeachment of the President—I asked, “Are you are going by yourself?”
Edo, sipping his herbal tea, said, “Of course.” He continued, pulling a map from his a worn leather bag, “See, I will fly to Chicago and take a train to Seattle and then travel down to San Francisco and then I will fly home, and then fly home again.” He smiled at the double life he lived, one in Columbus and one in Holland.
Surprised, impressed, and curious, I asked, “Really, you will go across America by yourself?” The idea that one would choose to be alone without so much as a reassuring touch available was beyond my grasp. In view of his choice to travel alone, I was left with the fact that I had not spent more than a few weeks of my adult life alone. I always searched for companionship, and I was fortunate (or unfortunate) to always have it available to me.
Perhaps Edo had no one to travel with. He had mentioned that he had a lady friend in Holland for a while—an older woman in her late thirties who was married—but in the States he had no romantic partner that I was aware of. I last saw Edo two years ago, at my in-laws. He traveled down from Amsterdam and took a long walk with us in the gray flatlands of Southern Holland, past Dutch cows and miniature horses who breathed mists of air as we walked by. Edo held our daughter’s hand and pointed out the animals and spoke to her in English and Dutch. His English was blunted with age, withered by the years now spent in the Netherlands. His features had hardened a bit, his brown hair retreating and flecked with gray, but his eyes sparkled with playfulness as he charmed our three-year-old daughter. He had a gift for me, a wonderful book by Hazrat Inayat Khan, titled The Art of Being and Becoming, written in the early 20th Century, it’s Sufi philosophy jibbed well with my ever growing interest in Buddhist literature.
In a sense, he was more isolated than he was some eight years prior, living alone, as if his years in the Midwest had transformed him into a man without a land to call home. His exposure to American ways of life had transformed him, mutating his sense of society. He experienced how rigid the Dutch could be, as contrasted with Americans, but realized that there was a fine line between knowing too much and not enough. Edo went home a visitor and stayed that way.
Last year Edo moved to a small island just off the coast of the Netherlands. He was working as a designer for a boating magazine, seeking solace in the sea as waves of turmoil crashed in his head. Early in the year, I had to travel to Holland as part of a research class and contacted Edo. We made arrangements to meet up in Amsterdam, but upon my arrival he never responded to my emails. By June, his email account was closed. Sometime in August, Edo cleaned up his small apartment, making sure that his belongings were in place, and headed towards the seashore. Thinking of his family, his recently lost job, and the sensitivity that comes from being too vulnerable in one’s own skin, he walked into the ocean. What does a person think as the water swallows him whole? Did Edo fight the current or let him take him away? His sister emailed my wife earlier this month to tell us that his body had washed ashore in September.
Matador at 21
Standing on the shoulders of the past is a dangerous position gazing through the haze of dead bodies, former lovers, and the highs and lows of the past can provided a remedy for today. 1989-1990 were years of planting seeds, at least for the soft underbelly of the fermenting underground scene. At night we huddled in bars, clutching long-necks as if they were talismans, eyeing bands on crumbling stages while looking for lovers through the haze of cigarette smoke. Back then we got paid to listen to records and laugh at the responsibilities of the rest of the world. Very few of us had children, had jobs that required button-down shirt or, god forbid had mortgage payments to make. The thirst inside of us was for music, booze, and the sense of belonging that those two ingredients can provide.
The grotesque hierarchy of major labels and commercial entities tried to foist the sickening, barbaric, and sexually destructive machismo of such drivel as Warrant, Motley Crue, and other purveyors of all things hair, spandex, and stupidity on us. The underground scene was more approachable, and although Dinosaur Jr. may have lacked the audio sheen of “Girls Girls Girls”, the guitar solo from “Freak Scene” ferociously laid waste to the whole ridiculous genre of 80s corporate rock, and Dinosaur Jr.’s song was more honest about relationships than anything Vince Neil and his skinny dumbfuck drummer could ever hope to aspire to. We discovered that those who made the most precious, moving art were among us, just a phone call or, better yet, a 7-inch away.
At Used Kids, we were connected to the loose but sophisticated network of labels, booking agents, fanzine writers, and fans across the country. There were only a few distributors getting the music into people’s hands. The labels were started in living rooms and some, by sheer force of personality, perseverance, and hard work, lifted themselves out of those living rooms and into real offices with fax machines, computers, and maybe even a Starburst commercial or two. It’s ironic that now, twenty years after the static indie/grunge rock revolution, many labels are again being run out of living rooms, coffee shops, or wherever one’s laptop may be. Because of the kind but acerbic enthusiasm of Ron House and Dan Dow, whose reputations preceded them, I got to know most every important player in nineties underground rock. A tiny touchstone in the largest college town in America, soon I was handling the ordering at Used Kids, and I started booking shows into the cozy confines of Staches and Bernie’s. My own enthusiasm was exhausting—records were more important than anything. more important than sex because a record can’t hurt you, more important than jobs because songs don’t have responsibilities, and more important than families because music can’t leave you.
Gerard Cosloy phoned Used Kids one day and asked Ron to order the first full-length record on his new label, Matador Records. My memory is clouded because I thought it was Teenage Fanclub’s A Catholic Education, but it must have been Superchunk’s self-titled debut. In any event, we ordered a handful and were blown away by both records, especially the life-affirming sound of Superchunk’s “My Noise” and “Slack Motherfucker,” the sentiments of which laid the groundwork for an entire generation soon to be labeled Gen-Xers. A Catholic Education was itself an epiphany, combining the raggedness of Sonic Youth with the fragility of Dinosaur Jr. (two bands that Gerard had worked closely with at Homestead Records). Teenage Fanclub’s record was beautiful in every staticky, disordered note, a watershed of sound coalescing into what may be described simply as Perfect Sound Forever.
We ordered direct from most labels; Scat in Cleveland, Dischord in Washington, DC, Ajax in Chicago, Siltbreeze in Philadelphia, Sub Pop in Seattle, and Revolver in San Francisco. All of them were run by people with the same devotion to musical escape that we shared. It wasn’t too long before I was working closely with the labels as bands played and sweated through the college towns and major cities across America. Bands and label employees knew that they could find ears and couches in Columbus, and it wasn’t long before Columbus had become a main stop for touring bands. I discovered that every town had someone like me who was all too willing to shell out meager guarantees to musicians who were escaping their own mundane jobs for two weeks to eat greasy eggs and falafel and snuggle up to a stranger’s dog. I got to know some of these folks myself, either closely or by the casual association of the scene. In Athens, Georgia, Henry Owings booked shows and was soon putting out the devastatingly funny Chunklet zine that lampooned our entire tiny universe. In Pittsburgh, a curly haired, overtly serious short man named Manny brought bands in by the dozens. In Cleveland, Kathy Simkoff eked out a living finding bands to fill her small club, the Grog Shop, with many of the same bands who would wake up at eleven A.M. on my floor and make the two-and-half-hour drive to Cleveland.
I had only two unpleasant interactions with bands over the years, both involving bands that I booked as favors for their labels. The first was H.P. Zinker, who managed to have the debut releases for both Matador and Thrill Jockey Records. I had gotten a last minute show for them at Bernie’s on a Monday night with Gaunt, who had just “signed” with Thrill Jockey. There were all of six people at the show—me, Gaunt, and one rabid, blonde-haired fan who stood in front of H.P. Zinker for their entire set. The drummer also played in the Amherst band Gobblehoof (for whom J. Mascis moonlighted on drums) and he was a bit irate that I didn’t have more than the fifty bucks I gave him out of my pocket. He threatened to take me outside and “kick my skinny little ass.” At that point in my life, I was sober—a quiet, peaceful record store guy whose only aspiration was to listen to the next Ass Ponys record. There were to be no fights that night, although I did not offer my couch or to introduce them to my lovable dogs.
The second unpleasant interaction was with Moonshake, an English band signed to the brilliant Too Pure label. They lacked the frenetic genius of label mates Th’ Faith Healers and Stereolab, and leader Dave Callahan and songstress Margaret Fielder didn’t have the charm and politeness of those bands. After receiving a call from the Matador offices asking for a last minute show for Moonshake as they came from Chicago to New York for the annual College Music Journal Marathon, I placed them on a bill with three noisy, garagey bands on Thrill Jockey: Zipgun and Gorilla were from Seattle (Gorilla had released a brilliant song called “Detox Man”) and, of course, Gaunt. Moonshake didn’t like the fact that they had to go on second nor did they approve of the garage drunkenness of the other bands. Several times during the night, Margaret complained to me about the order of bands and the sounds of the bands. At the end of the night, after splitting the modest door four ways, each band made roughly $150 (with the exception of Gaunt, who usually played for free on the shows I booked). Needless to say, Margaret was none too pleased with this and said, “Well, I think most people were here to see us as we are on Matador.” I was in no mood to get in a pissing match with a musician, so I simply walked away. Several days later we bumped into one another in the Matador offices, as we were all in New York City for the CMJ festival.
In the pastures of middle age, when the difficulties in life are simpler yet can be complicated by the spilling of apple juice, finding a moment to sink into the electric hum of guitars requires planning. Choices are made based on the effects that they have on one’s ability to navigate through to the next day and provide a modicum of the appearance of responsibility. In my office, the records climb the walls, the compact discs wrestle for space, and books long ago read ply for space on cheap warping particle board shelves. Downstairs, the stereo is surrounded by more compact discs and a few long lost but just discovered cassettes, with every vinyl record I have purchased over the past three years stacked underneath. Most are unopened, as I buy them out of habit, by rote as I navigate the various websites to purchase music. Again, as I did twenty years ago as the buyer for Used Kids, I either order directly from the labels (both Matador/Beggars and Merge are favorites, as their LPs contain download codes) or obtain new music from e-music (I subscribe to the connoisseur plan, 75 downloads a month) or get it on the cheap from Amazon. I usually run out of my downloads from E-music within a week and wrestle with whether I want purchase more downloads. Like a fat man eating pizza, I don’t always taste what I shove in my mouth—I consume and forget how to digest the music I hear. I find favorites for a moment (currently Bare Wires, Justin Townes Earle, and Love is All) and continue to be bowled over by old friends like Superchunk and Teenage Fanclub.
Over our lifetimes, we gather, hoard, and discard, playing a mathematical game of emotion versus materialism. I have spent the last nine years quitting—quitting drinking, quitting screwing around on my wife, trying to quit eating shitty food, quitting expecting myself to be someone who I may have been but can no longer be. I have seen the destruction of longing and attachment eat up the ones I love the most, leaving bare spaces of loss in my psyche that I try to fill up with a new life of young children and, of course, music.
Sometimes I play a mental game, revisiting myself as a younger man wading into a scene I was once very much a part of. Now I sit outside the lines, learning to not so gracefully be a bystander to the lives of others who are a bit younger and a bit more curious. I can see myself picking up a bottle at whatever show is playing at Columbus’s newest version of Staches (this year it is the Summit) and making the young women cackle and the men nod in agreement. I realize that with my graying hair sticking out like a thorny bush, a slight paunch not from alcohol but from exhaustion, and daily stubble that resembles tiny bits of prickly confetti scattered around my mouth as if they were a small parade for the losers, I would be a mess in a matter of hours. I would pine for my new self while wrestling for a time that came and went and was left asunder by alcoholism and mental illness that, fortunately, never held me hostage. Instead, I climb into bed early, even when I have the notion to huddle next to the stage, bobbing my head back and forth while a band plays loud and passionately.
I got an email from my cousin’s wife a few months ago asking if I was going to Las Vegas for the Matador Anniversary show—three nights of memories that would not be a nostalgia act but a celebration. I gazed at the lineup: Superchunk, Guided by Voices, Chavez, Pavement, and Yo La Tengo. These names brought me back to some of the happiest moments of my life, as they provided a soundtrack to a life that I lived and still live. They all meant something personal to me, either by casual relationships or because of the sheer beauty of the music they made. Superchunk’s music defined several breakups in my life. Their album Foolish provided me with solace as I maneuvered through several fleeting relationships in 1995, grappling with the fact that perhaps a fuckup means you’re not able to sustain any type of relationship that requires being able to navigate the end of a night without some assistance from a bottle. Likewise, Here’s to Shutting Up provided the balm to me when, at the ripe age of thirty-three, I was as broken and shattered as the plane imagery of that album, with lines such as “plane crash footage on tee-vee, I know that could be me” (“Phone Sex”), and “they’re building skeletons out of steel” (“The Animal Has Left It’s Shell”) and another song “Out on a Wing”, the record eerily mirrored the tragedy of the Twin Towers. Sometimes, crawling inside of a record is the safest thing a person can do, safer than the clutch of another body holding on for dear life as the emotions drip from the ending of and the beginnings of dreams. In the comfort of sound, we could be who we dreamed to be, with invisible walls that drew attention away from the bewildering aspects of our lives, we found consolation in sound. Even water is drawn to water, so it was the underground sounds found is home in those of us who choose to live outside the parameters set for us. The fact that most of us were white, (somewhat) college educated, and prone to make cynical and ironic statements made us prone to derision by some, surely not the same amount of derision we felt for much of mainstream culture.
As my wife and I visited Gainesville in the late spring of 2001, we stayed in hotel in the middle of the University of Florida campus. The atmosphere was thick with smoke erupting out of fires that had engulfed much of central Florida. As I gazed out into the swamp of the campus, the environment thick with green, creeping plants and the encroaching smoke snarling the hopes I had for a successful marriage, I had a feeling that the fires did not portend a hopeful year. While there offering my newlywed spouse the fragile words of encouragement for a lifelong and very adult dream of teaching fine arts to adults, I felt a touch of sickness for myself and for her, in her dreams I slowly realized that a part of mine was shifting, disintegrating around me. Snaggled and constricted like the smoke that was slowing covering the ground below. Appropriately one of the most painful songs on Here’s to Shutting Up that I repeatedly subjected myself to, is titled “Florida’s on Fire.”
After gazing at the line-up for the anniversary show, I emailed my wife, whose last concert was five years ago (Sonic Youth and the Flaming Lips). I was startled by the fact that she said that she might consider attending. Sadly, but with a tiny amount of relief, I realized that the event would be held during my monthly weekend of graduate school classes. We could not attend. I would be in Cleveland, learning how to be more skilled in the act of providing clinical compassion. In the years since giving up the bottle, I have learned that I suffer from a social phobia. It is with a small sense of dread that I attend concerts. I set little rules for myself when attending shows—I go late, usually when the band I want to see is ready to go on and I leave when I grow tired. Last month I saw Titus Andronicus, staying for only about six songs. I thought that they were brilliant, but I had to get up the next morning and shuffle off to work after helping balance a jittery house filled with two over-anxious youngsters. I know that I can’t operate on as little sleep as I once did, even without a hangover. Seeing Pavement earlier this month was a pleasant experience, but I had no desire to wander up to the stage or try to talk to the band that once slept on my floor after I booked them several times in Columbus. I sat back and marveled at the easy pleasure they had in playing old songs and how well they all looked. Tonight the reformed Guided by Voices are playing in a show that may be one of their only Columbus shows that I did not have a hand, I haven’t decided if I am going to go yet (I did decide to go and had a wonderful time). Perhaps more than any other band, I have been identified with GBV, mostly due to the fact that a very good bootleg was recorded at my 26th birthday party when they were hitting their stride. Crying Your Knife Away was recorded shortly before Bee Thousand was released and after Alien Lanes was already finished (Alien Lanes was tentatively called Scalping the Guru at the time). We were all friends then, but over the course of time we have become un-friends. This is not due to any squabbling, but my own interests rise and fall as every diaper is changed.
In the newest New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones writes a somewhat dismissive article about Pavement, accusing the band in not-so-subtle terms of playing reserved and couching their sound in an attitude built around their supposed “normalcy” to exclude people who were unlike them. He thus dismisses the cultural times that the band was created in—that of Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior, the aforementioned prefab shit of eighties hair-metal, the radio bombast of Phil Collins, and the tepidness of inauthentic rebels like Billy Idol and Bon Jovi, who were about as dangerous as a two-liter bottle of Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. Mr. Jones misses the point. We longed for normalcy to combat the force-fed tripe many of us suffered through while growing up in high schools across the land. There were sonic oases to be found on the far-left bands of FM radio stations and in the bins of local record stores. It was bands like Pavement, Guided by Voices, Mudhoney, and Superchunk that bound us together, providing the belief and determination that we didn’t have to buy the bill of goods that mainstream America was throwing against the wall. If anything, Pavement brought the warm, reality-based sounds of the Velvet Underground into the nineties, and they had enough self assurance not to have to wear sunglasses indoors or have tattoos of women whose breasts were as big as watermelons on their arms. There was no need to pretend to be something else—a Disney version of rock & roll—because we were self assured enough in our own lives to realize that we may not have known what we wanted, but we did know what we didn’t want. If you were in the middle of Mr. Jones, so-called clique, it didn’t feel that way, it felt like home.
After having spent a vast amount of time trying to tear our worlds down night by night, beer by beer, shot by shot, and note by note, I now spend my days trying to rebuild lives, sentence by sentence, listen by listen, and patience by patience. It is an ongoing struggle that is tempered by the gold soundz of my MP3 player.
Every time I visit my memories I bump into the dead, who curl around my thoughts like wisps of smoke rising up and disintegrating into the air, silent but ever present in spite of my busy life filled with middle-aged responsibilities. As my two fair-haired children dance for me, arms extended as if only I can temper the giddiness that shoots like downed power lines from their frantic arms, I think of moments of true escape from the closed dread of an ordinary life that I once both at times strived for and repelled with all of my might. Sleep comes harder but is more restful as I wade into my forties, with the experiences someone who has seen breathtaking beauty and horror in the same moment but with the fear of a mortality that has yet to enter my children’s life. There is a story that the Buddha’s father tried in vain to protect his son from the destruction of life, but it wasn’t until Shakyamuni Buddha witnessed the true revulsion of life that he became determined to vanquish his attachment to the material world and the causes of suffering. At times, as I gaze down at the blond jewels of my life, the sparkling of life emanating out of their big blue eyes
, setting each moment on fire, I gaze into their future, trying in vain to protect them from the tragedies of survival. I am nothing but a bystander as the moments tick past, and the floor of life rises faster than anything my eyes has ever held It is pointless to try to protect them. As a father I can only try to help them navigate tragedies as they appear in their lives, for in surviving one is the constant spectator of both the elegance and ugliness of life.
After my breakup with Jenny, I couch surfed in Columbus for a few months and rented a small apartment in Athens. I would make my getaway to Athens on the weekends, spending time at The Union Bar on West State Street. As a boy, I spent my afternoons in uptown Athens at the Side-One Record store that stood almost exactly across the street from the Union. This was in the late 70s and early 80s, when I was in middle-school. Both the store and the town provided a purpose to me, as I searched for a family that had disintegrated in the hushed tones of secrets and mental illness that, sadly, have remained unchecked for thirty years.
Side-One was a sliver of a store wedged between the underground comic book/used record store/tee-shirt shop known as Hoffa’s and The Underwear. It sold mostly cut-out LP
’s with a few new releases. The two men who ran it , were kind to me. Taking a gawky, nerdy kid of eleven under their wings, they let me play records and howled as I mimicked the bass lines of late 70 ’s funk and “Another One Bites The Dust.” They seemed to live the easy life, sipping beers behind the counter and playing Herman Brood and His Wild Romance at top volume. Across the street , stood the Union, a townie biker bar that sold hot dogs for a dollar and let me in to order for the gentlemen from the record shop. I knew at that early age what I wanted from life—an opportunity to escape into the safe confines of laughter and music. Sadly, Side-One closed up shop the summer of my seventh grade year, forced out by the larger and more in-depth School Kids Records, a semi-loose brand of indie-stores that catered to the punk and college rock of university campuses in Big Ten country.
Every college town had one. In Columbus we had two: Bernie’s & Staches. In Champaign it was the Blind Pig, Cleveland had the Euclid Tavern, and Chapel Hill had the Cat’s Cradle. While I never visited Champaign or Chapel Hill, those night clubs were known country-wide as safe
-havens for the near drop -outs, rockers, and bookish music nerds of the American underground scene. The Blind Pig was made famous by the long forgotten Honcho Overload, who described the best method of romantic revenge as getting wasted. The Cat’s Cradle was the clubhouse of all things North Carolina, namely Superchunk, who provided the soundtrack of our lives and deaths.
Athens had a pretty health music scene that was a bit more ragged, freakish and organic than the hardened punkish and ironic sounds of Columbus. Folks in Athens were more prone to dance, even to the bizarre hardness of some of the Amphetamine Reptile bands such as The Cows and Surgery who played there often. The most popular bands in Athens were the majestic Appalachian Death Ride and Torque who managed to get the gritty metallic hate of the Amrep bands down to a science. I was more inclined to ADR, whose sounds came from the same organic roots as such like-minded bands of the time as Mudhoney, early Soul Asylum, and Eleventh Dream Day, bands whose high school record collections contained not only Neil Young, but also The Stooges, Black Sabbath, and early hardcore.
Torque branded itself as hate rock. They were led by a large, good-looking singer-guitarist named Pat Brown, whose girth was offset by his glinting blue eyes and goodnatured laugh. He never wanted for a woman. The drummer, Ted O’Neal, was a friendly, handsome man who had long dark locks of curly hair that no doubt played a part in him securing a breathtakingly beautiful woman named Marissa. Ted manned several bars in Athens, including the Union and Tony’s. Tony’s was the underground version of a sports bar, where you could go to watch the Browns on a Sunday afternoon while My Bloody Valentine, Prisonshake or Gram Parsons provided the play-by-play. Ted was the best kind of bartender. He freely provided me with a two-for-one special every time I ordered. This was manna for a happy drunkard.
The Union was a long bar, with small booths crammed against the wall just a body-width from the long bar that ran 2/3 the length of the building. There was a small area in which those delicious hot dogs were made and a back area that held a pool table and one shitty Simpson’s video game. The club portion was upstairs—a shoe box of a concert setting containing a large stage with sightlines that were hindered by support columns and the use of too many intoxicants. This was nothing to complain about, as the crowds in Athens always moved to the music whether it was Tar, The Cynics, or a local art-school experiment. The walls were covered with Pabst Blue Ribbon signs and the shoddy, amateurish paintings of patrons who aspired to be more than the sum of their talents (as we all do).
I used some of my contacts to help book several shows at the Union, as I was by this time, getting my feet wet and wallet soaked promoting shows in Columbus at Bernie’s and Staches. But for every money-making show with Love Battery, Sebadoh, or Pavement, there were money-gulping shows like Moonshake, the aforementioned Eleventh Dream Day, the Grifters, and the incredible Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. I had helped arrange some show in the fall of 1994 at the Union. I have no idea what it was, but I was in the midst of developing my talent as a baffling, hysterical, frenzied, alcoholic being. Prone to an elevated state of being fueled by Jim Beam, long-neck beers and copious amounts of coffee, I could somehow channel the energy of my future children. This usually brought about tears of laughter to my eyes, as I was a stand-up comic in my own head. Many of the onlookers got my joke (i.e., the joke was me), but others were embarrassed. I had no impulse control.
Ted lived with Eric Gunn, whose love for all things hateful was only surpassed by an obsessive record-
-hours would be cramped with people huddled around the worn coffee table. As the bong was passed, I would demur—I had no use for anything that would impede the racing buzz that flowed through my body. I stood at full drunken power, rapidly describing the different life choices of me and my Green Beret brother, who lived in Athens and knew many of the Union regulars but had a life of college classrooms, rugby, and bars.
Although much of that time is faded, fuzzy, and forgotten, I do remember a comical discussion my brother and I had about him wanting to give me gun. I had tried to describe to him how I was unhinged, and that putting a gun in my hands was akin to giving an anvil to a drowning man. I remember Ted and Marissa laughing as the verbal bolts of lightning shot out of my mouth and into the room. A week later, Ted lay in a hospital bed in Columbus, clutching to life as a shot of heroin proved too much for his battered body. Ted hung on for two weeks, during which time visiting friends met and shared memories at my house. I slowly fell in love with my first wife during this time, even though I was seeing another woman from Athens. As Ted struggled to regain consciousness, I became enamored with Robin, who had dark black hair and a wickedly fast sense of humor. We would gather in my obtuse living room, drinking beer and trading stories as each of us thought of death, lust and friendship in our own separate manner.
Ted was buried in Dayton. We gathered at Pat Brown’s parents house. His parents exuded Republican, Midwestern values—his mother made Velveeta Mexican dip with Triscuts and we were all on our best behavior. As I pulled out of the cemetery and drove back to Athens with a woman I would break up within a matter of days as I tried to seduce my first wife, I popped in an advance copy of Bee Thousand and listened to “Ester’s Day” over and over. Ted was the first friend who died in my life.
Saturday’s at Used Kids was an event, at times I may have been nursing a hangover and would have stopped at Bernie’s before opening up the store and have gotten a Bloody Mary to go in a styrophone cup, complete with straw to help me over the ten am hump or I would have sent Jerry down to Larry’s to get a cold six pack of Black Label at two pm to get an early start on a long evening. By early afternoon the CD side of the store would be crammed with people, shuffling around one another, jockeying for an advantageous view of the racks of used cd’s and vinyl records. By 1994, we had opened up the Used Kids Annex, which was the “collector’s” side, although the philosophy of the establishment was not to ever have collector prices. Dan Dow’s motto was “get the music to the people” which translated into an almost idealistic socialist idea of music; it should always be affordable. Music may have been a commodity but we felt that it should be an inherent right first and foremost, of course, later as the burned timbers of the music industry crashed around our bewildered, frightened heads we had no choice but to embrace e-bay and other “collectable” venues. But the early nineties were the salad days of music buying, the proverbial party before the dawn.
The Annex was run by a gentle soul, Dave “Captain” Diemer, a large man who had a striking resemblance to Richard Brautigan. Cap at one time worked at Moles Record Exchange with Dan and later ran Capital City Records, the collector’s offshoot of Singing Dog. Dan loved Cap with all of his heart and soul, and Captain was as kindhearted as he was large, a tall man with a bushy white mustache, slightly stooped he lived a life that had captured the essence of the sixties but was cynical enough to embrace the sounds of punk rock and heavy metal. He loved the sweet melancholy sounds of Phil Ochs as well as the death sirens of “War Pigs” of which he could air drum every drum fill. Captain had the most stable family life of us all, an affectionate wife and a young son all living in a small tiny farmhouse in rural Delaware County. Captain was the wise man in our world, one who presented an island of calm in the general neurotic filled days of our lives as we all crashed against the chaos and calm the sundered around us. He was always lending a bent ear to our tales, most mornings when I would bring him a large coffee with cream from Buckeye Donuts, he would beat me to my own punch, lean against me, slowly shaking his head he would mutter “I got so fucking drunk last night.” I never knew Captain to drink but he certainly was accustomed to my proclivities.
The compact disc changed everything from the staid familiarity of the vinyl record, not so much because it sounded better (which it didn’t) but because it was much more convenient. The format duped the listener into thinking the sound was better, just because it had a cleaner sound but the CD lacked depth and the affable inviting sounds of vinyl. The CD did make music exciting again for people and for some years people rushed to replace their old scratched records with shiny new compact discs and Tuesdays (which is the national release day for records) meant something. Used Kids, as with hundreds of other small mom and pop stores across the county, became a destination point.
By nineteen-ninety-three, some bands had achieved legendary status in our lives, maybe not necessarily across mainstream America, we had yet to see the self-congratulating cynicism of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the make believe idiocy of Guitar Hero and for those of us who hid our lives deep inside our record collections we relished the moment to bump shoulders with some these legends. For all intents and purposes, punk rock was not yet thirty years old and for the most part the musicians we adored in high school were still making music. Because of the good easy access of Staches and the Newport, it was quite easy to chat up John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Pere Ubu, and Alex Chilton, whose early work helped shape our comfy world. The Ramones, had turned into a punk-rock version of the Grateful Dead at this point, not in any way to insult either band but they made their money by touring, releasing semi-pedestrian records every so often that was a facsimile to their braver, younger selves. The Ramones were giants in our eyes, pillars of our musical and philosophical foundation. I had first heard the Ramones from the movie “Rock and Roll High School” which I saw in 1981. By the time I was fifteen I owned their first four records.
The Ramones played Columbus yearly, an annual stop at the Newport and at the Used Kids Annex to see Captain. Johnny and Joey never came in together but both would come in and see Captain and peruse the shelves for hours. Johnny was the bigger collector and he would be escorted to the dingy, damp back room to rifle through boxes of hard-to-find sixties garage and surf records. Truly, still a boy at heart.
We had two English gents working at Used Kids at that time, Colin Harris and Keith Hayward (who is now a semi-famous scholar) but quite English and charming in the old world ways. Keith was blond, handsome with a winsome personality that was skilled enough to entice any barmaid in town. Colin wore the dark morbidity of centuries old island living under the guise of his quick wit and eager thirst for draught beer. As I was standing up, slurping down a cold Black Label beer one Saturday afternoon, Keith came barging in the front door of Used Kids. “Mate, you won’t fuckin’ believe it” he excitedly exclaimed, “but Joey FUCKING Ramone” just walked in the Annex!” In my knowing, been-there, seen-that voice, I replied “yeah, he comes in every year to see Captain.” “Holy shite!” Keith shook his head “ I had no idea” he muttered to himself. I asked him in anybody was manning the counter next door, “um, no but give me a beer.” I handed him a beer and he disappeared. A few hours later he appeared, “you won’t fucking believe this mate but fucking Johnny just walked in.” I told him to show him the stuff in the back and gave him a few more beers to settle his nerves.
I went over during a lull in the action, Johnny asked about Captain, who left early on Saturdays and chatted up Keith, by this time I had met so many of my idols that I was mostly concerned with how I was going to drink for the night and who I would meet. I was already past the hill on disenchantment and while it could appear that I was aloof perhaps even haughty, the feeling I felt was more insular and I realized that people are the same everywhere. Some of us were too narcissistic to bother. Johnny bought a stack of records including a “Wild Angels” soundtrack which he accidently left on the counter. He of course, got tax off. He told Keith and me to come around the back of the Newport that night and he would have some passes for us, as it was already seven o’clock and would be too late to put us on their guest list. After closing up shop Keith and I ambled up to Larry’s to procure a few more drinks so the buzz would peter out.
Songs. Pt one: Back to the Suffering, thank you.
We collected songs the way some people collect comic books, baseball cards or shoes, holding each song close to our hearts-an immediate mood changer. Everything was about either setting the mood, matching the mood or of course changing it. Growing up, feeling separated the sounds of music provided an elixir to a sometimes utter feeling of isolation that helped many of us through the suffering afternoons and evenings of adolescence. An opportunity to escape in our bedrooms, or when we hit sixteen in our cars, feeling a sense of escape as bald tires lifted us from the mundane often cruel existence of high school, forming rapid distance from a parking lot of rusted junkers and peers that were only peers by age not interests. An album was like a vacation, a chance to step into the life of someone bigger than life, who told a story that we could relate to and at times only dream about.
At the end of my fifteenth year, as another Ohio summer slowly cranked the humid grind of days, I heard Lou Reed for the first time as I picked meat off of fifteen boiled chickens in the kitchen of a small hippie Mexican restaurant in Athens, Ohio. Within two weeks I had half his catalog and later that summer Polygram released the long out of print (only fifteen years or so at that time though) Velvet Underground records. Providing my achingly boring existence with colors I thought only capable by moving to New York City, which seemed a million miles and countless years away. From there, I discovered a mountain of underground sounds such a R.E.M., The Replacements, the Lyres and a host of other bands arising from the underbelly of the vapid clean sounds of commercial radio. I was hosting my own radio show at Wittenberg University by the end of the summer, where I was exposed to even more music such as the Minutemen, Black Flag and English pop like Echo and the Bunnymen, early Adam and the Ants and Joy Division. I was prone to like the more pop oriented stuff associated with the Paisley underground, the Long Ryders, Beat Farmers, and Let’s Active, my punk-rock credentials have always been more of an attitude than a sound.
When Jenny and I began dating within a year and half of my musical revelation, I suppose I appeared exotic, at least as exotic as a lonely but confident seventeen year old can appear in rural Clark county Ohio can appear. After school, the gravel parking lot of Northeastern high school would be filled with the canned sounds of Def Lepard, Hank Williams Jr., and early bland banal sounds of early hair metal which in one fell swoop took any danger left in rock and roll and bottled it for the safety of every Spencer Gift shop in every mall in suburban America. It was the bane of my existence, and I took it seriously. Jenny climbed the stairs up to my bedroom on our first date, as I had no job, no money and nobody at home to watch what I did. We carried a six pack of Pabst Blue label and I opened her eyes to the sounds of early R.E.M., Lou Reed and early Bowie which she had never heard. I had about seventy records at that time, and 100 cassettes, she had never seen so much music. Perhaps it was the sound of the unknown that propelled her to fall in love with me. She had never heard any Rolling Stones besides the hits off of “Tattoo You” and “Satisfaction”, so hearing “Some Girls” and “Sticky Fingers” helped lay the ground for me to present myself as someone who I wasn’t quite sure who I was to the funny, eccentric girl of seventeen.
All most of us wanted to ever do was to listen to music, to have temporary deliverance from the reality of our surroundings, an atmosphere that at times inflicted tiny pointed darts of pain in all of our lives. Witnesses to the bruised and at times, bludgeoned emotional lives of our parents, music was (and is) the balm that allowed a mind to turn off and get lost in the wonder of being. It helped that our parents were either unavailable or scattered in the morasses of their own lives and insanity that they couldn’t pick up on the comical dangers of the Ramones or tender loss of the Smiths, it was our own secret. At times, this was the equivalent of hugging a building for redemption.
As the door to the bedroom or car shut, the stereo turned to ten, head bouncing, cracking-out-of-tune voice bellowing out the words to “Bring on the Dancing Horses”, I was fortified for moment. And when the song ended, it was back to the suffering.
Jerry and I met, we immediately found the kindred spirit of songs, of a hook that could flinch you away from now and fling you to there. There being, the space between emotion and dreams, of feeling pleasantly lost while three chords matched whatever feeling you had. For Jerry, his musical upbringing was graduate school compared to mine, by growing up in Parma, at the metaphorical foothills of the Terminal Tower in Cleveland, he had the luxury of hearing first hand (while in high school) such wonderful sounds as the Mice, Death of Samantha and Spike in Vain and was only a few short years removed from The Dead Boys, Pere Ubu and the Pagans. Jerry was a romantic at heart, whose hope for a life that only existed among the sung and written word would always tragically disappoint him. This romantic ideal would always show when he played solo under the moniker of “The Cocaine Sniffing Triumphs” (itself a homage to The Modern Lovers), as he always covered The Ramones “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.”
A Sense of Right and Wrong
No matter how splintered life had become, there are those among us who never fail to acknowledge the suffering of others. This could be that there is a part of every person that realizes that as long as breath escapes one’s lips, there is always someone worse off, and in the gesture of recognition we somehow alleviate our own suffering no matter how intense it may be. For some this comes easy, for others they may need to find the darkened stained-glass environments of a church or the corners of bookstores and libraries learning how to trap compassion into words.
Jenny’s mother was one of these people, a woman who would offer the food off of her plate to feed a troubled high-school kid. With a shortened sixties bee-hive this thin woman would startle a room by her misgivings of various television shows, one time she exclaimed that Freddy Kruger was “the trashiest man I have ever see”, and another time stated in reference to “Revenge of the Nerds”, shaking her head, “my heavens, well nerds are people to!” I quickly nodded my approval.
My grandmother, due to untold suffering in the Second World War, was a hoarder, one who had a multi-colored collection of empty egg cartons stuffed under varying sizes of plastic bread bags filled with coupons, cut-out photos of flowers, teddy-bears and used stamps. For years, her living room consisted of varying paths leading to chairs and the television, rugs covered by thick plastic protectors that could have been used for industrial use. Magazines, stuffed animals and Kleenex boxes formed miniature mountains throughout her house, with Cheeto tubs and Triscett boxes strewn along the paths to offer fortitude for the weary traveler who dare traverse the house on Boxwood Drive. One time at an all-you-can-eat Ponderosa I witnessed her stabbing my uncle Peter in the backside of his hand as he tried to steal a spoonful of mayonnaise and cheese from her bowl of uh, mayonnaise and cheese. It wasn’t as if my family wasn’t kind it is that for some, empathy was something to look for, a search for betterment that needed constant feeding.
Jenny has always had a heart bigger than even her thirst for the drink. In the summer of 2005 rolled on, she was staying in the ravine. The ramshackle camp she lived in was fraught with fights and the seething discomfort that only a homeless camp combined with the thick acrid wave of humidity that only Central Ohio spews forth. At times, when I would go looking for her, the camp would consist of only two or three men, men for whom time and weather had turned their skin leathery and their faces taunt with alcoholic poverty and vacant stares. “She ain’t here, there was some trouble last night and they took off up the ravine or they went by the river” one of them would bellow, “She’s with some safe guys, she’s alright but someone got cut here last night.” Traipsing down into the ravine, careful not to come into contact with any poison ivy I never felt fear but was always hesitant about what I may find. “Christ, what the fuck happened the last ten years” I would think to myself as I try to spy empty forty ounce bottles or fast food bags. Jenny had told me once that if you went deep enough into the ravine and arrived at the tunnel that connected the Glen Ellen Park you had gone too far, because the crack heads tended to smoke around the tunnel. It could get dangerous back there.
I walked about 100 feet back and didn’t find anything, except empty cans, no signs of anybody sleeping in the bushes. When this happened my insides would curl for a moment, an edge would climb up into my head and settle for most of the day. Sometimes, my wife would pick up on it and ask me what was wrong, depending on how severe my concern was I would tell her or not. She worried about me going to the camp, even though it was just a stone’s throw from out front porch. Our lives had changed dramatically in the past few years; we were more domesticated than ever before. She was getting ready to give birth to our first child; I was contentedly working at Used Kids and had returned to college. I had taken my Buddhist vows earlier in the year and was meditating every day, trying hard to extinguish the fires of attachment that still burden me to this day.
There is a time when frustration unattended turns into acceptance, I had quit wrestling with trying to save my high school sweetheart, the times of being the white knight had passed and I wrestled with just not acting on whatever though went through my head. Jenny would always appear in a few days, when the violence would settle down in the camp and it was safe to reclaim their small patch of concrete behind the Goodwill. Some of the men were in fact dangerous, one in particular, a tall man with a striking resemblance to Snoop Dog could be frightening in the manner in which he could switch. At first he had tried to protect her, and they were lovers briefly until she realized he occasionally smoked crack, when she rebuffed him he could turn violent and he would show up at the camp intermittently to harass her and her boyfriend. His name was Butch, he was roughly forty-seven and had sinewy arms that a lanky athletic body that betrayed the hard life he had lived. There were stories that he had done time for murdering one man and had perhaps killed another. He was respectful of me as all of the “tramps” were. Jenny, in her most romantic Hollywood way, referred to all of them as tramps and the camp was filled with these blighted men and women (only a few). She would build up my exploits and kindness to these folks, so when I came down offering coffee, White Castle hamburgers or bottles of water they would change their tone of voice as if I had some authority that I didn’t have. I just wanted to get her out of there.
Butch knew I was sober and once in a while he would talk to me about some of the 12-Step meetings I went to, which were a lot back then. He had experienced small steps of sobriety over the years and we could talk about this and what his life was like. He would shake his head, look towards the pavement and say, “yeah, but that rock will get you every time.” I suppose it would but I always tried to squirm away from some of these conversations with the men. There is a maudlin stereotypical version to much of the speech used by homeless and criminal offenders, as if they had lost everything except a high school cliché of life that they desperately hung onto. I had tried most of my life to avoid clichés, not only verbally but especially living one.
When I would bring Jenny and her boyfriend food, she always first offered it to the other tramps, who would dig in with a gusto only found around dog shelters and kegs. She would wait until everybody ate. After living in the camp for roughly five months an outreach housing program helped get her and her boyfriend off the street. She had been housed since then, with two moves into better apartments during the past five years. It was not uncommon during the first several years to arrive at her apartment and find the floor littered with several tramps who knew they could count on the kind sympathy of Jenny. I would tell her, “You’ll get kicked out of the housing program if you let them stay here.” “Where are they supposed to go?” she would scowl back. “A shelter, they can go to a shelter.” With that one of the heads would rise up from the floor, the stench of stale alcohol spreading across the room in slow motion drift, “I ain’t stayin’ in no fuckin’ shelter!” For some of the tramps the shelters could be more dangerous than the woods, with more drug use than in the camps. For many of these mentally ill men and women, they were safer banding together with their bottles of booze and cans of soup.
Jenny was always like that, it was not uncommon for me to find some barfly, whose fingernails told the sure sign of homelessness on our couch with a plate full of food and one of my Milwaukee’s Best ensconced in his hand. She would have had a happy hour pitcher with him or pulled him from the corner of Chittenden and High and brought him home to feed. I would let him finish, slip him a few bucks and send him on his way. Haranguing Jenny all the way back to our pitiful bedroom where she would hide under the blankets to get her verbal whipping. “One of these days, I’m gonna come home and find you dead and raped by one of these guys. Shit, you can’t save them all.”
Some years later as I sat talking to a friend and colleague who did a lot of work going into the homeless camps of Columbus, I had mentioned Jenny and inquired into whether he knew her. He did and replied, “Wow, what happened to her? Everybody knew her, at first we were like, is she a worker? But then we realized she wasn’t. I would think, how did she end up here?” I looked at him and said, “yeah, me too.”