Small, poorly lite buildings dotted the neighborhoods around campus and the Short North, places that served as extra homes where the lonesome and social anxious moored themselves to thick cut planks of polished wood, brown bottles and tall stools where one had to be careful if he sat on it too long, getting sloppy, wavering legs stuck in the small metal rings at the base of each stool. On the walls of some were posters of former gridiron dreams, moments of spectacular (for the winners, that is) athletic feats seized by the camera and now bronzed for ever more on the walls of these establishments. Reminders about the smoky din that, yes, there was winners along High Street at one time, for many of the inhabitants of these spots we went not be a winner or a loser, although most of us related to the semi-ironic motto of Sub-Pop records “Loser”, but because we wanted to be felt and to feel even if it was just the cold touch of a beer bottle or that small moment as the hushed regulars all erupted in unison to Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” I had my favorites, all on the convenient way home but more likely I chose my resting place to be near to my other homes, as I was wary of drunk driving and enjoyed the stumbly-walks or even, on occasion crawls home with jeans burnished from the tumbles and falls, hands bloodied by gravel and specs of green, brown and white glass scattered among the alleyways of North Campus.
Court Street was a smorgasbord of bars, from townie bars like the Crystal to the one-night-stand fanfare of the Nickelodeon, I had my first Chili-Dog at the Union Bar and Grill at the age of 11. At the time it was mostly a biker/hippie bar, this was 1979 or so, around the time that punk and new-wave were splitting the halcyon days of weed soaked turntables that had been spinning over-produced dreck like Yes, ELP and REO Speedwagon, into the speedy-blasts of two minutes of guitar and the savvy technical dance music of the Ramones, Talking Heads as well as the pronged attack of English bands such as Wire and David Bowie’s Berlin records. Colleges across the country were undergoing mini-revolutions in cramped dorm rooms and in the various nightclubs that co-eds bounced off one another in, in just ten years the Union would become a mainstay for traveling punk and indie artists traipsing through tiny college towns.
The drinking age in 1982 was 18, and shortly thereafter it changed to 19 where is stayed until the summer of 1986 when it was elevated to 21. I was fifteen, in Athens for Spring Break, where my best Athens friends, Eric Zudak and Rick Winland and I got a cabin at Lake Hope. The first day we managed to drink through the weeks’ worth of alcohol, several cases of beer and a bottle of Jack Daniels. It was a revelation for me, as I managed to go to bed with a girl who was year older, performing fellatio on me while a TDK cassette looped Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Smash Hits.” Outside, wind forced trees to bend in yoga poses, rain smacked against the wooden walls and thin windows, and in the other room a frantic game of quarters was being played, “..there’s a Starman waiting in the sky, he’d like to come and meet us…..” Clumsy hands mimicked a slug trying to drive and the world unpeeled itself note-by-Bowie-note as the room turned itself inside out in those foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Later in the week we drove into Athens not only were we out of beer it became apparent that there were not too many teenage girls wandering the banks of Lake Hope during the early spring of 1984. There were two bars that were easy to get into, the Greenery which sat on the far end of Court Street, just small downhill walk from the rest of uptown, it had a wooden balcony the drooped over the side walk, a minor miracle every weekend that the balcony didn’t collapse into the pavement from one too many lusting, drunken co-eds. At the other end of town on Union Street, a few store fronts from the Union Bar was the Nickelodeon, otherwise known as The Nick. Its motto should have been “getting high school kids drunk for the past fifteen years” and sitting down near the door, Rick came back with a handful of beers. My face was a smooth as the bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon Rick handed me, I asked if I needed to go show the ID I didn’t have, “no, shut up. Don’t make them notice you.” Rick was already 18, getting ready to graduate and had purchased all the beers. The room was relatively empty, the smell of bleach and beer still permeated from the floors, shiny with the fresh glow of mopping, and on the walls were beer lights and a giant disco ball twirled tiredly in the middle of the empty dance floor. A Thursday night during spring break in a small college town meant the bar scene was propped up by townies. Drinking a few beers at the Nickelodeon planted a seed of confidence, one that sprouted the idea that with a few drinks, anything socially was possible. By the end of the evening, inside the more crowded Greenery, we found ourselves contorting our bodies to the sounds of Blondie and Adam Ant as bodies stretched and silently begged for the kind of attention none of them had ever encountered.
Living with depression is akin to licking a flame, engulfing the senses it is as if the moroseness of breathing has slowly strangled every other part of the person other than the breath. While the lungs keep working the rest of the body and mind chokes on concrete blocks of sadness and apathy, in the end, for many the chunks of sadness overpower everything else. Jerry came by the store, shortly after Gaunt got dropped from Warner Brothers, he was still living above Larry’s getting ready to move into his new house. His mood vacillating from being optimistic about renewing his relationship with his father to utter despair at being dropped from Warner Brothers; his lifelong hope of being famous, in his eyes being shuttered during the Great Purge by major labels in the latter part of the 1990’s, it was obvious by the broken dreams of many musicians across the country that the “modern-rock” era of major labels was a ferocious bust. In Columbus, the finest bands of the 90’s had been guinea pigs in this experiment, Scrawl, The Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, V-3, Watershed and of course, Gaunt had all been signed, and spit out after failing to make a dent in record sales. For some, like Ron House and the women of Scrawl, they had been through the experience of being on small independent labels and were used to little support as well as minimal paychecks. Jerry had wanted to be famous and on his own terms, for a kid growing up in Parma, Ohio, listening to Kiss records over and over before discovering the sheer beauty of the DIY scene through the near-by sounds of Death of Samantha, The Mice and Prisonshake the idea of affirmation and financial stability was made more real with the affirmation by being on a major label. It was analogous to having the blessing of a father who was never there, a nice idea maybe but totally unfounded by experience. Certainly the community at large felt that being on a larger label validated the music, the one independent “modern-rock” radio station, CD101 only played Gaunt, and the New Bomb Turks when they were on larger labels, ignoring their combustible earlier indie records and the station never played many of the other superb true independent bands such as Jenny Mae, Moviola or Greenhorn. One afternoon in 1998 I ventured into Discount Records, a store I used to run and sold a large amount of classical records. I went in to purchase the newest Spin which had a review of a new Jenny Mae single, they also sold Paper magazine and she was also in that edition. As I paid, the young man behind the counter, himself in a band, his attire was the “set-piece” of the current bands vying to be radio playlists. A soul-patch, a ring of bracelets, a chain of necklaces dangling from his neck and a primitive tattoo crisscrossing his well-manicured arms. “Wow, somehow you get your bands in all these magazines, you must have some secret cause we can’t even get the local paper to write about us.” Feeling peevish, I mumbled, “I don’t know, I just send them stuff. The bands work hard, and are good, so….” “They can’t work harder than my band does. I listened to her record, I don’t know what the big deal is.” “Thanks, have a great day” I mumbled as I walked out. This was the context of Jerry coming to me that one spring day in 1999, on one hand he was very successful and on the other there was a need for validation from his parents, and the community at large for his music and more so for himself. Many had this need.
Wearing a white polka-dotted, short sleeve buttoned up shirt with a collar stretching from Columbus to Bloomington, black jeans and Chuck Taylors, Jerry walked in the store, went to the dollar bin and flipped through the records, pausing he eyed me while he lit a cigarette. The spring sunshine danced through the cast-iron barred windows, making the job of eyeing vinyl more difficult as the sheen from the rays made every blemish on the wax more pronounced. A stack of crappy seventies and eighties rock records sat next to me, I was almost blindly putting the waxy stickers in the right corner of each record jacket and making them a dollar. “Hold on Jerry, let me get this stack out and we can go for a walk. You want a beer or something?” He shook his head, waving the offer away with some slight disgust from his eyebrows. It was mid-afternoon, I was in the midst of some poorly executed self-control with my own alcohol consumption. A large black coffee from Buckeye Donuts sat next to me. Bim was manning the turntable, at the time he was infatuated with the Cheater Slicks, “Forgive Thee” and the entire Unsane catalog the latter which could empty the store faster than a fire at a movie house. “I got this, go see your man”, Bim lit a cigarette. “cool, thanks. Let’s go Jerry.” Nodding at Bim on the way out as a way of appreciation, Jerry and I headed up the stairs onto the hot sidewalk that was drowning in sunlight, “what’s up man?” We headed south down High Street towards Bernie’s, “I don’t know man, I’m just kinda going crazy. I sleep half the day, I’m trying to stay out of Larry’s because when I go there, I just drink all night, I’m thinking of buying a house. Honestly, I need to get a fucking job. I wish I could have my job back at Used Kids.” I had mentioned this to Dan and Ron, Dan was against it as Jerry had become undependable as Gaunt had heavier commitments due to the signing to Warner Brothers as well as Jerry not having a phone for many years. He tended to use the store phone to do all his business, at times setting up recording time, European and National tours via the Used Kids phone. To focused on what he needed to do than realize our credit card machine went through said phone line, “O.k., Jerry get off the phone we have a credit card” Ron would say. Jerry tossing an incredulous look at Ron, “I’m fucking talking to our booking agent in France, hold on” He would turn his back, “sorry about that” Ron spoke to a bewildered customer. Thirty second pause……… “O.k., Jerry get off the phone we have a credit card” Ron repeated. Jerry huddled in the with his back to us, he turned down the volume of the stereo. “Jesus Christ Jerry, you aren’t even working today, get off the phone we need to do this credit card!” I yelled. Jerry hung up, glaring at both of us, “Well if our European tour falls through it’s your fucking fault!” Marching up the stairs, we could see Jerry lighting one of his ever present cigarettes. “I don’t think you’ll get your job back. Let’s go to Brennen’s and get a coffee, I don’t want a drink yet, besides it’s too nice to be in Bernie’s.”
Brennen’s was on the corner of 15th and High, a well-spring of memories for thousands of Ohio State graduates, a spot marked by history from the giant Long’s Bookstore sign that hung over High Street like a beacon for the best and brightest of Ohio, to the grand entrance to the Oval just a half block away, it was a spot where Governor Rhoades called the National Guard against protesting students, who teargassed them to hell and back, at one time Jeffrey Dahmer probably tripped over the curb in a drunken haze, with one death behind him and many more to come and marker of future dreams that spread from Ohio State into the world. Brennen’s had a curious spot in my heart, walking in, I glanced around. The small table to the left upon entering bore into me as if it were a six-inch nail and I was a rotting board. A few years prior, I had been seeing a lovely young woman on the side, and one day over coffee she looked at me and said, “we can’t do this. Sorry, I think you are terrific but this isn’t right. Good luck.” And with that she left, leaving another pin-prick in a chest full of holes. She had already shaken Columbus out of her life when Jerry and I walked in, went to the counter and ordered two black coffees.
Some people never learn to talk about their insides, all the while the insides bleed into the outside, via behavior, fashion and the interesting manners of interacting. Alcohol helped, it split the unease in half, buffing off inner anxiety into something round around the edges, a small filter from the rest of the world. Sensitive hounded Jerry, who could recoil at the smallest slight and push back with switchblade of words that could slice a hole into the nearest victim. Depression works in odd ways, and when married to mood swings, no matter how severe the upswing or downswing can make for haphazard interactions leaving all parties bewildered. Humor helps, defusing the inner tension as well as allowing someone to see a more human side of the inner battle of self-depreciating thoughts that move through the brain, a slow lava of despair that clogs all perception. Jerry, was at the least, hysterical as is Jenny.
We crossed High Street, a bevy of cars with competing radios blasted the music of spring around us, competing heavy bass flavored songs, mimicking the thrust of passion bullied out the lesser sounds of top 40 hits as we caressed coffee cups trying not to spill them as we dodged the metal love-making machines. Finding a bench that provided a panoramic view of the Midwest’s largest campus in full seasonal bloom, young women with shorts hugging tight to polished thighs, skateboarders weaving through couples holding hands, a bountiful mix of frat-boy-baseball-hat-on-backwards crowding the sidewalks with broad shoulders that belied their already entitled attitudes. We were oblivious, focused on tying to connect with our splintered emotional systems, transformed and frayed from lonely childhoods, drinking and an inherent feeling unease around others. Jerry furrowed his brow, his pointy incisors sucked against his lips, and his hands shook. Small trembles that I was very familiar with after my own bouts of heavy drinking, at first when I encounter these tremors, I laughed it off as I joked I was turning into so many of the people I admired, the first tremors appeared in my early twenties after laborious successive nights of drinking. They came and went, infrequent as if they were your favorite song being played on the radio. Jerry spilled his coffee, is splattered onto his grimy jeans. He still never did his laundry. He rubbed the coffee into the black crusty cloth, maybe a Genie would appear and lift the black curtain of depression from him. “Jesus, look at me. I can’t quit shaking, every fucking morning.” His eyes gazed across the street, to Buckeye Donuts and farther afield, “I don’t know what is happening to me. I can’t leave my apartment, I think I want to be a cook, maybe go to culinary school.” Isolation already a problem had gripped him hard, his muse Anna had moved away, he was quiet about the loves of his life, maybe if they were made public he would be discovered. Jerry constantly chided me for falling in love as easy as a leaf falling from a tree, “love is for suckers” he would giggle at me, taking long pulls from his cigarette.
“I don’t know Jerry, you know I have my own history of depression and I’m not drinking as much as I used to.” Jerry had pulled me from the ledge of suicide some year’s prior, my shifting emotional state teetering with every moment. “Have you thought about not drinking?” “All the time, but I don’t really know how to stop, my band is done, I lost my job at the store. Ron had a kid, he never goes out, you never go out. Brett fucked my girlfriend. I don’t even want to play my guitar.” He wiped his pant leg again, a soft breeze filtered in, bringing goose bumps to my forearms, I watched the hair raise and felt Jerry’s depression. I could relate.
We were as sensitive as water, reacting to every outside stimulus as if we were made of liquid, a gaze sent us to heavenly heights of love or to the utter rejection of the cheese-stands-alone. We both loved based on the idea of romance, which was genetically implanted in both of us, whether it was Russian literature or the transporting sounds of a crackling record. There was no division between lust and love, a tangled yarn of emotions that dictated evenings, words and dreams. The list of lovers unrolled through my mind on a daily basis, four Jennifers, Sharon, Nora, Robin, Dawn, Sara, a couple of Beths, and the list went on and yet the feeling of total acceptance was something I never felt, a small piece kept behind somewhere in the bottom of my brain, hidden next to frayed Spider-Man comic books, Lincoln Logs, and the baby sitter who took my clothes off. In thoughts and words, I would sculpt my lover’s bodies with words, trying in vain to tack what I felt through the sluggish sounds of a clunky typewriter and cups of black coffee followed by the watery Maker’s Mark that was sipped ever so carefully.
“What about college, have you thought about that?” Jerry shook his head, “nah, I went to Kent for a while, it’s not for me, a bunch of phonies.” Somebody was carrying a large stack of records down the stairs into the record store, “I gotta go Jerry, Bim is there by himself. I’ll hang out later if you want, I just need to let Merijn know that I’m going out.” “Thanks, buddy, I think I’ll go look for a job.” There were no hugs, no handshakes, just a few sparse words between us, but we understood. Shortly thereafter, Jerry got a job as a line-cook at a Short North diner, he excelled at it his food was tasty and spicy, he bought a house with the help of his parents just across the highway from Clintonville.
Hearts are sometimes made of Paper-Mache, tender yet with a ruffled shell, they are set above us on thin strings, emotional wind chimes that are tethered to memories, ideas and for some of us minds that are as jumpy as a cowering mouse. In the end, the one thing that has never failed is music. It’s as if there really is a strum of all existence that ticks from the bottom of a perfect melody, it mirrors our insides, speaking for words that don’t exist for the way we feel. For me, still, it is the one anti-depressant that still works, and it is the secret code that many of us use. In the end we have the sounds that keep us grounded, furtive bits of sound that we trade and experience together that pull some of us together if just for a two and half minutes of understanding. Then the song ends and we wait in awkwardness for the next song to begin. When the music doesn’t work anymore I don’t know what happens.