Escape to California, loss and the culture of getting away.

We know a few people who are from California. They live here still, they are among those I refer to as the ‘whole some’ (as opposed to the ‘hurting many’). This is not to say that Calfornians don’t feel pain. It is just my perception that the rest of us have arrived here, okay, fled here, from some other darker, colder, lonelier and well, less fabulous place. We’ve fled here to escape those dark 5:30 kitchens when dinner is not on the stove, those cold 7:30 a.m’s when we walked alone to Junior High School and those lonely hot summers when the sound of cicadas was our only friend or the gush of fire hydrants our only ocean. Gloomy, yes, but I like it too.

And now we are here in the golden sun among the ‘whole some’. Those I perceive as handsome and well adjusted. They might be from Michigan, but more likely they are from Marin County. Their parents came here or grandparents and after shaking off their grudging pasts they were peaceful, smiling and reinvented. Their children rose up on Mount Tam, eating Chinese at Yank-Sing, summers at Camp-Win-A-Rainbow, surfing, vacations in Hawaii, sloppy cultural educations, poor writing skills. But I generalize.

Its just that the loss was left behind. And now, first or third generation, they are not interested in loss. Loss is not comfortable and it will penetrate and mar the aura of fun.  So for these folks it does not exist. They do not recognize it in us, the hurting many. And I was in their numbers, I fled here too and I didn’t like to go back or to talk about grief, loss or the dark days of my past.  And the sunshine fought against me, I couldn’t be whole and wished for rainy days and that damn song kept playing ” i’m only happy when it rains . . .”

And so we suffer alone, or on the phone with folks in the ‘old country’ (rest of America). Or with those rare Californians who defy this stereotype and reach out to share the pain.  The men in particular do not raise the subject of loss.  Perhaps too frightened by their own mortality or wishing not to elicit dread tears in public, they never raise the issue.  Some, the rare ones, meet with a meaningful, heartfelt gaze.  Eyes open and moist, expression blank, this says:  ‘if you want to talk about it, I know about your pain, and you may not know this, but I have been there’.   But most avoid gaze altogether, “how are you?” they ask with no particular implication or agenda, as in “whassup?”, “howsit?” or “what’ve you been up to?”

Oh, I cremated my brother and sprinkled his ashes at Seal Cove, but that was very short and brief.

East Side, West Side . . .

In 1990, Amee and I moved to 85th St. and York Avenue in Manhattan.  We had been squirrelled up in the East Village until then, me for five years, she for ten.  It had been her apartment downtown in a building that housed Puerto Rican families, old poets and laundry ladies and homeless guys in the vestibule, eventually adding a Japanese sake bar (Candy B-1) on the street/cellar level.  The East Village in those days was in transition from Bill Graham’s spot to Donald Fisher’s.  Lou Reed could be heard echoing from Trash & Vaudeville and Television and Ramones on the decks at Sounds keeping St. Mark’s Place a juicy crawl.  BBQ had come in but there were not yet multiple Gap stores and Starbucks.  The night I arrived from Boston to first visit Amee there, she took me to her favorite bar, The Holiday, down the street.  She was smeared with paint, me in my best Wang Chung, we were mad in love but our lifestyles and wardrobes were pretty mismatched.

By the time we moved uptown I was wearing more Gap and Amee was smeared with film.  And all this time, Todd and Marian lived on the Upper West Side.  He had never lived anywhere else in NY that I know of.  Something about the access to all that takeout Chinese food, Central Park or Riverside for walking the dogs, great movie theatres and video stores, the 1,2,3 trains to midtown, it just suited them.   Ninety-sixth, eighty-ninth, Broadway, West End, they kept bopping around but always within a few block radius.  And they never came downtown.    I think in the 10 years we lived downtown, he visited me like three times.  It seemed impossible to get him to go South of 23rd St.   So when we finally moved uptown, we saw a lot more of each other.  On a Spring day we would call each other first thing and agree to meet halfway in Central Park.  A favorite spot would be Sheep’s Meadow where we could play frisbee, fly kites and just loll around in the grass.  On colder days we’d meet for a movie East or West or hang out at each other’s apartments.

Yorkville never felt like a long-term home, but it was a nice place to be young marrieds.   A year or two later we made it back downtown and found our dream spot on 13th St. and Fifth Ave in a building that had been painting studios for Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Thomas Hart Benton.   Amee began Grad School at NYU and the jingle house I worked at moved to 21st and Fifth.  That would be our last NYC address, stylish and convenient until we left for SF in ’94.

But I’ll always remember how nice it was meeting in the park and having my brother living right across the wide green lawn.

Stalking celebrity.

We watched the first episode of ‘Treme’ last night.  I’d seen part of it on a plane but not gotten to the segment with Elvis Costello when Steve Zahn is a buzzing gadfly trying to get a few words in while Elvis has come to watch some authentic New Orleans jazz.   I’ve been that guy.   The first time when I was 18 and doing monitor mix onstage with Sonny Rollins at The Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis where I worked sound crew.   I’d been setting up all afternoon and went home to clean up for the show.  I decided to put on my white dashiki and as I passed Sonny in the hall he looked at me and said “you changed your shirt.”  I knew that he knew that I was trying to stand out while onstage–the opposite of what crew should have been doing.   The only other time he spoke to me was when I was moving the faders too much that night (trying to ‘do’ something, since monitor mix usually didn’t ‘do’ very much.)  He swatted a big hand in my direction as if to say “leave it the fuck alone.”

A year later I became aware of Laurie Anderson after hearing her 45rpm of “O Superman“.  I was struck.  I spent the next few years trying to create music like that.  I looked her up in the Manhattan phone book and made a package for her.  Rang the bell on Canal Street at her loft, she answered, I told her I was a fan in town from Boston and had something for her.  She said to leave it there in the vestibule.   The next time I saw her she was giving a talk in Boston at the ICA.  I got up to ask a question:  “some people think that the materialistic worldview of Descartes is giving way and fusing in these times with a kind of spirituality and we are entering an age of “synthesis”, would you agree?   She paused a few beats, then said:  ” I think you and I need to speak after the show.”   I was very flattered, but she was too busy after the show being swamped by other groupies.

The next year I was at a Todd Rundgren concert in Boston.  I’d been a fan since I was 13 and had once even shook the big man’s hand on the Asbury Park boardwalk as he bounced down it barefoot holding hands with the stunning Bebe Beuell.  This time he had arranged for audience members to come onstage and play percussion during the silly latin number, “When I Pray.”   I volunteered and took my place in front of a conga drum and microphone.  The song did not start, two fans on stage where asking Todd if they could play his ballad from “Something/Anything” ‘Torch Song’.  They wouldn’t take no for an answer and Todd finally agreed.  The piano part began and was being played perfectly, the singer of the duo began to croak into the microphone, neither being able to sing nor knowing the correct words.  I knew the words, I could sing, I had a mic in front of me.  I began to sing.  The room hushed, a spotlight went onto me, I sang the entire song.  Pause. Standing ovation and cheering from the crowd, Todd saunters over to me and offers his great big hand, ‘nice job man,’ he tells me.  An exceptional moment in my young life.

It didn’t end there, I spent a lot of life stalking celebrity and by that I mean celebrities and celebrity.  I always wanted to be famous, more than rich.  Perhaps it was the idea of being recognized, loved for your self or your art or music, adored, wanted.   When The Sippy Cups achieved a certain amount of celebrity, I enjoyed that.  I was recognized frequently in the Bay Area by people with kids, most of whom I did not know, but I was even recognized in far-flung places, at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, at  a Bruce Springsteen concert, at a wedding by a man who’s kids had found us on iTunes, who quickly called them in Maryland and freaked them out by having me sing “Seven is the New 14” on the phone.   I enjoyed all of that.

I also enjoyed getting to meet heroes and rock stars while we were skirting their coattails at rock festivals and clubs.  Among that crowd I include (and had my picture taken with):  Perry Farrell, Bob Mould, G.Love, Jeff Tweedy, Mark Eitzel, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Tim DeLaughter (Polyphonic Spree), Brett Dennen, Cliff from the Flaming Lips, Joel from The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Dan Zanes, Laurie Berkner, Ralph Covert, They Might Be Giants, Blonde Redhead, Donovan Frankenreiter, etc., etc.     But after a while it was like, ‘who gives a shit?’  I began to feel so much like Steve Zahn in “Treme”, just trying to squeeze into someone else’s limelight, share the glory of their accomplishments, their sacrifice to their art.  What did that have to do with me?  Was I more famous by meeting famous people?  It felt so shallow, embarrassing really.

I’ve just finished Patti Smith’s wonderful memoir “Just Kids” about her early days and her artlife love affair with Robert Mapplethorpe.   It is totally inspiring and transporting and is likely my most recommended read to everyone this year.  Patti talks about this ‘brushing with celebrity’ a bit, having rubbed torn-shirted elbows however briefly with Jimi, Janis or Dylan, when she was just a sprat.  The one remark Jimi made to her on a doorstep, the odd night spent helping Janis back to the Chelsea, etc.  There is an honest, heartfelt desire for a young (even 50 year old) artist to touch greatness, or be near to a hero.  It is not just the ‘fairy dust effect’ as if being near them will increase your success, but it is to feel the realness of their aura, to share a moment in time and space with a fellow artist, struggling, but making their mark as you hope you will too.

Of course the real moment is to reach them with your art, to be recognized or welcomed into that rosy glow by your efforts, your statement and not by the happenstance of camera/phones and a stolen image, a snatch.   Steve Zahn’s character Davis tells Elvis Costello, “yeah, I taught Kermit (Ruffin, the smoking trumpeter onstage) everything he knows” – Elvis stares at Zahn very skeptically, Davis quickly recovers ” … about Keynesian economics,” igniting Elvis’ grin through his sheer wit.

Corky

The year was 1966.  Corky was the dog across the street, Myrtle Ave., a sloping, leafy suburban street in Millburn, NJ.    Corky was the bane of our existence.  Not only was the dog unappealing to the eye, scraggly, mottled and mangy looking, but it barked incessantly.  A midrange throaty bark without pause.  The barking became a constant soundtrack to those hot summer days on the block.  And so a plan emerged.

My brother Todd, elder by four years, was the neighborhood kingpin.  As a kid he was highly creative, hysterically funny and an aberrant 9-year-old.  He would come up with the most incredible things to keep us entertained – bicycle jumps, trumped up wrestling matches between kids who didn’t want to and didn’t know how to wrestle, dodgeball games using bottle rockets, BB gun shooting ranges with kids as targets, firecrackers implanted in sticks of butter, the hunter and the hunted, etc.

Now he had a plan to ‘stop that dog in its tracks.’  This is one of my earliest memories and the image I have is of dozens of neighborhood kids cheering me on:  “do it, do it, do it, do it”.  I am filling up a bucket of water at the faucet near the back of the house.  I am stumbling up the driveway with the unwieldly bucket tipping back and forth, the kids are cheering, the dog is barking, hacking up the soundspace with its insistent anger.

I become timid, I’m afraid I’ll be bitten, but the kids keep on cheering.  I’m enjoying the celebrity, I’m the hero this time.  I face the crowd, I keep on marching – the bucket spilling a bit on my cheap summer sneakers.   “Do it, do it, do it, do it” mixed in with other phrases like “Corky, Corky” and “Dump It!” and Paulie, Paulie.”   I approach the dog,  its barking on full,  I don’t recall how or why it stayed in that spot in my driveway.   I pause over the dog’s body, I’m scared I’ll get bit, I suddenly feel more sympathy than anger, I feel I’m being used, I see up close what a pitiful little dog this is.  The cheering grows louder and more insistent –  I tip the bucket and drench the pathetic creature.

A pause in the film, suddenly the sound is turned off, a ringing in the ears,  no kids, no dog, no water sounds and then – wild cheering, I am a success and even as I want to bask in my heroic cowardly deed, I can’t get over how sad this little creature is.   Corky bursts into an uncontrolled stream of barking, more outrageous and aggressive than ever, and I turn and tear down the driveway for the back door and the safety of linoleum.

There was a crooked man . . .

There was a crooked man
Who laid a crooked floor
And never held his problems
Behind his crooked door

He spread them all about
For others who would pore
Upon them and around them
And on lonesome nights they swore

That for being dragged inside of
all his stories and his scores,
All his issues, fears and lies
And all his hopes and all his whores

And for never asking back
And for never acting bored
And for never really asking
Much of anything at all.

But when he couldn’t cotton
His own soundtrack, his own lore
He took a flying leap down
From the 37th floor.

The janitors that found him
The women and the boys
Surprised to find him straightened
Out and straightened without gore.

The only thing they reckoned
The only parts that tore
Were rectum, heart and tongue
As well as stories told no more.

True Grit

One of the last things Todd ever said to me he had already told me a few days before. ‘I saw ‘True Grit” he said, again.  Again, I didn’t comment, didn’t ask how or if he liked it. He often told me how a movie was before I’d even heard about it or that it existed. He went to a lot of movies and talked about them as if just seeing them had been an accomplishment of his. I was  jealous since we live in the middle of nowhere and don’t get too many babysitters so have to wait for DVD for a lot of stuff.

I never did hear what he thought of it, but we caught it yesterday.  Dusty yellow, well acted and a beautifully paced picture with a riveting story, we found it very satisfying.   Todd loved westerns and I’m pretty sure he would have enjoyed this one.

Todd had a western style ending too, cowboy boots and hat, photo of Crazy Horse by his side, glass of single malt (which he rarely drank) at his elbow. He created ‘a whole look and an attitude’ as Joseph Cornelius would have said. But I wonder:  did he have ‘true grit’?     I say he did.   I say he was a strong soldier.  Okay, maybe he whined more than a bit, but not a tenth of how much he wanted to.  Only those in chronic pain can know what that is like and how tiring it must be to have to deal with and talk about, or how lonely it can be to keep to yourself.   Todd most definitely ‘soldiered on’ day in and day out, getting up to fight the good fight and try and make more of his life, until he decided he no longer could.

Pictured here is a tableau we set up at the memorial held for Todd’s in Berkeley last month.  You can see his cowboy hat, snowshoes, an elk horn, a buddha and some of the Native American jewelry he made, also pictured is his manuscript “Rats in My Skull”, his prank phone call CD “Phone Crazy” and a book he loved so much, “Thirteen Moons” by Charles Frazier, the story of a white boy who is raised by a Cherokee chief named Bear. 

How’s the weather down there?

Todd always phoned in the morning and said ” how’s the weather down there?”   We lived only 20 miles apart but he realized that there were micro-climates in the Bay Area.  He just didn’t really understand how they functioned.  Its fairly simple.  In the Summer months, if it is hot inland, the Central Valley, and usually Berkeley and the East Bay, then it can very likely be foggy here on the coast.   But in the Winter months, if it is raining in Berkeley, it is raining everywhere.  Berkeley does not really have its own weather system (though there can be fog in North Berkeley passing from the Golden Gate inland).      So his question would be followed by either ” its BEAUTIFUL here!” or “its WRETCHED here”.

And I knew he was not always talking about the weather.   The weather for him was a barometer of the potential for lifting his mood.  If it was BEAUTIFUL on the coast, he might have a chance of pulling it together and coming down to visit, fishing, kayaking and probably lifting his mood significantly.   It it was WRETCHED (pronounced ‘wretch-id”), he would have an excuse for ill-tempered musings, playing violent video games all morning, maybe slumping out to some movies in Berkeley.

I know this system really well.   After Todd checked out, the weather out here was stunning.  It was embarrassingly Summery.  Embarrassing because the East Coast and Midwest saw the most incredible spate of snow and ice in recent memory.   But I didn’t really want the great weather either.  I wanted to hide under the covers and watch On-Demand movies all day.  Read, write and hide. Force the dog to pee on the rug, never drive anywhere and live on popcorn and cereal.   But I couldn’t.  Had to sit and soak up the sun, reminding myself that the Vitamin D was good for my mood disorder (death of sibling); walk the dog and meditate on the mountain; practice surfing on warm weekdays when no one was in the water; smile at others in the coffee shop.    It seemed ironic, couldn’t the weather just cooperate with our dark intensity.   This basking fling lasted for weeks, we’d never seen anything like it this time of year.

Yesterday, it ended.   We’ve got some dark grey, we’ve got some Winter wind, we’ve got flying rain and drizzle, we’ve got a forecast with nothing else in sight.   Yet I’m strangely lit inside.  I’ve worked my way through to a sort of peace and inner strength all these sunlit weeks.  I’ve spent sleepless nights with dark thoughts and tortured voices. I’ve moved from dependence on narcotics for sleep and euphoria to trying herbs to induce peace and calm to just plain drinking Sleepytime tea last night and mostly getting a full night’s rest.   So now, finally,  the gloom deigns to descend.  Now that I don’t need it anymore, now that I wouldn’t be caught dead in a matinee, now that I’m not afraid of the coffee shop.

How’s the weather over there?

Peter Pan, Faun Crayola and Captain Hook

I changed my name to Faun when I was 19.  I became enamored with Findhorn, Pan, elemental spirits, earth creatures, and decided that my natural nature was as a Puck kind of character, a trickster, drinking wine, seducing girls, at home in nature and luring children away with a panflute.   The only problem was that whenever I told anyone that my name was Faun, they heard Fawn.  My family and especially my brother decided it was Fawn, like a girl named after a deer.  Like Bambi.   In fact, even now that he is dead, his daughter who is 19 was making fun of me, saying that I changed my name to Fawn, because I had big brown eyes, like a baby deer.  My wife laughed and agreed also.  It was so totally humiliating.  No one really seemed to appreciate the difference between an elemental character like a follower of the great god Pan, or a baby deer like Bambi.   This confusion was so promoted by my late brother that just before he passed away, he phoned me from the apartment of a NY friend of his –  I had not heard from him in 20 years.  I said ‘hello’ and he said (with more than a touch of ridicule) “Hello Faun!”   He then said: ” I win that one!” with great relish.  I didn’t really remember him that well, or that we were in some kind of contest at this point, or ever. But I guess he won.

Ironically, one of my major adult accomplishments was the luring away of children with a pan flute, first as a successful early childhood music teacher, then as the leader of The Sippy Cups.  The discussion with my wife came around to the her point that I had chosen to be a follower, a faun, not for instance changing my name to Bacchus, the great God of wine, ecstasy and excess and Burning Man. While I’ve certainly been a leader at various times of my life, in this case and at the time when I was 19, I certainly didn’t feel like THE God of ecstasy, much more like one of his happy little followers.

I was exploring this mythos in a talk therapy session recently when my therapist brought up Peter Pan.  “Why yes, I replied, you’re right, Peter Pan is a good example of this type.  He flies, he doesn’t want to grow up, he lures children away in the night, girls like him.” “And of course, there’s Hook . . .” he replied.   I suddenly flashed on Todd, the beard, the great sweeping hats, the broadsword swinging from his belt, the chains and flashing objects all about his costume, the gold teeth (okay maybe not gold teeth).  But really, check it, he was Captain Hook!   Jealous of the cocky young Peter, haunted by crocodiles, blustering, threatening, boasting and deeply insecure.  Barry described him as ‘cadaverous’ and ‘blackavized.’   Todd and I had unwittingly reiterated these story-types, these archetypes.   And we were secretly rivals it seems.  Todd openly admitted his envy of my life and accomplishments from time to time and I had grown up in the shadow of his great energy, social success, comic genius, charisma and outrageousness.  Also, there was just a pure competition for space in the room – who would dominate with stories, jokes, conversation, etc.   I usually left the contest to him, contented to listen, enjoy, escape, play music, record.  But to be fair, I don’t think Todd wanted me and mine to walk the plank, as Hook so desires for Pan and the Lost Boys.  Todd, and maybe Hook,  just wanted friendship.   And like Hook, when his bluster and swords were too repellent and friendship wasn’t in the offing, he would dig deeper into the negative attention cycle and I would further retreat.

The subject is far from exhausted but should be enough to ponder for a sunny Sunday morning.  To be continued. . .

Layla

August 6, 1972

I’ve been at summer camp.  Camp Wappalane is a sleep-away camp in Stokes State Forest in Sussex County, NJ.   Things I like there:  riflery, archery, swimming, canoeing, my bunk, getting care packages filled with pistachio nuts and red licorice.  Things I don’t like that much: geology, swimming in cold water, being homesick.

I’m on my way home.  The feeling of being ‘away’ is new for me and especially being away alone.  The long ride down Route 80 is strange and filled with anticipation.  It’s thick and boiling in suburban Millburn.  We come down the block and I’m filled with the sweetness of familiarity, we pull into the driveway and as we exit the car the humidity hits me like a blanket .   Coming back to the house I’ve never left before, everything is different but familiar.

I live for my brother, he’s my hero, he’s so cool and funny and I always tell stories about him to new friends at camp.   And now I’m coming back and going to see him.   I run upstairs to his room.  Open the door, the air conditioning is on full blast.  I hear the strains of piano, I’ve never heard anything so beautiful, pounding from the old turntable console by Magnavox – the end section of “Layla” by Derek & the Dominos, the piano repeats and climbs and soars, the air is chilled,  I am so grateful and happy to see my brother.  Something has changed.  Adolescence has taken hold, my brother is knowing, more relaxed.  Something is coming . . .  I am out of the loop but can feel the changes in him, in his room, in the music.  The music foretells a sad sweetness at the end of childhood, the musicians are between us and adulthood.  They share secrets with us, I connect on a personal level, I know the piano, I could do this, be this.

(Here is the music, put through my filter ideas of the air conditioning and the distance in memory from that time, WordPress won’t allow it to play simultaneously, so imagine what you’ve just read while you close your eyes and hear the strains.)

Layla

What if . . . ?

What if you could ask Todd anything?  What if he could hear you when you speak to him?  There’s been a bit about surfing here, but not enough about oblivion, so here we go.

I was introduced to a ‘channel’ this week.  She works out of home in Redding, CA, you talk to her on Skype.  I was told she had this gift since she was a child and that she was ‘the real deal.’  This came from a very trusted source.

I called her.  She found him.  It was definitely him.  She had him ‘on the line’ and spoke to me for 90 minutes this morning.  There were many pieces that she had no way of knowing.  I recorded the conversation and transcribed it.  Things you might want to know:

He’s watching us, he’s looking down on us like an angel. He is surrounded by ‘friends, family’ countless others who have passed on, Tito his dog.   He said to tell everyone that he loves them, that he’s sorry, that there’s nothing they could have done, that he couldn’t have had a better support group.   He wants us to laugh, listen to his prank calls, read the book, laugh and laugh and laugh.  When we laugh we celebrate him, the man who made us laugh and happy, not the broken man.

He has his arm around me, looking out for me, proud of me, comforting me.  He sees our family and friends around a great big table, he is at the head raising a glass.   He asks that we get together as often as possible and laugh and laugh.

“So raise your glass if you are wrong, in all the right ways . . . ”  as the song goes.

Later in the day, I finally caught up with my next door neighbor.   His wife had been a deep coma after a severe aneurism. She was then frozen in suspended animation because her brain was swelling and they feared she would die.  She is back teaching Kindergarten today.  She had many strange experiences on the other side.  She spent lots of time with her father who had passed away years ago.  She is quite certain that the other side is there, she’s been there.

Today was my first real close experience with the other side.  Several people near to Todd have been reporting experiences of communicating with him, of him looking out for them, hearing them when they speak to him, giving them signs, etc.  But so far, this was the closest, deepest, realest experience I’ve had.

Any questions?