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.