Playing Alongside Your Echo – For BTB

R.E.M., Todd & Me

Todd and me, summer, 2004

I understand the impulse to maintain a dam-like wall against swelling emotion for fear it’ll flood the meticulously kept terrain of persona. At best, that turbid stuff can make a mess, at worst, it can cause permanent damage. But I think you would’ve advised, as was your wont, to go ahead and chip away, let the untamed, hard-to-manage stuff spill out. That’s the truth, anyway, you would’ve said. The rest is boring. And boredom is the enemy. And, crucially, the kids are watching. Do we want them to be ashamed of what they really feel? No. So spill it.

You would’ve been 50 today. Five months older than me, you and I celebrated milestones five months apart since we were seven years old: you were the first to reach the double digit of ten, to get your driver’s license, to see an X-rated movie (Cafe Flesh, I think, or maybe Pink Flamingos), to legally enter clubs to see bands.

That's me, far left, in fireman hat. Todd Butler in center. My brother in fangs. Not quite drag, but we're getting there.

RBW, far left, in fireman hat. Todd in center. EBW in fangs.

Ten years ago I superseded you, when you died by your own hand and left me to pass these markers without you to compare notes with. I turned 40 in the wake of your death. We had a party at which floodwaters rose in the basement of my Catskill mountain home as I tried unsuccessfully to fix a sump pump. Interesting. That was the first of several floods.

In a way, you’ve been spared, as some of our note-comparing would’ve been complaints of increasing infirmity – the tax on a long life – but I like to think you would’ve also helped shape my perspective, as was your wont, to direct my focus, gently, usually with humor, to the good stuff: the food, the beauty, the endless halls of art and story to savor, the kids, the woman on the beach, the hilarious cat, the coffee mixed with Swiss Miss in the cool of a summer dawn while our families slept.

You were and remain many things to me, but I keep going back to you being the first to pick up a guitar and teach yourself to play. You encouraged me to do the same, and you taught me, in the front rooms of that bungalow that was my second home, with a depth of patience I took for granted. Most people know me as a musician, and that is because of you. I recently told my son, who you last saw when he was six, how I still feel guilty for intentionally getting on your nerves until you struck me with a badminton racket. I was saying the same infuriating nonsense phrase over and over like a mantra, and I still don’t really blame you for coming at me in such a fury. (I wish I could recall what I was chanting, but I can’t.)  Regardless, you showed me how to play Led Zeppelin songs, a currency that actually led me away from you for a time and bought me “coolness,” but again, you forgave me that, and we eventually rocked stages from Atlanta to New York City, having teenage adventures that shaped us, and gave us a shared history that would grow more precious with time.

Todd'83

Gina, Todd, RuPaul, 1983. Photo by Clare Butler.

But our story was more than that, much more than the music. The music and the teen years were never our “good old days,” never the only common ground. For years, in fact, we shared faith that good days were ahead, always ahead, and for a time, they were, especially when we became dads. We stayed close friends, even as I moved north and you stayed put to paint and make a life in our hometown. You wrote me beautiful, funny letters and sent me mixtapes that I listened to on a Walkman as I walked the mid-80s Manhattan streets, finding out who I was, how much I could take, and what I could do with what I goaded life into throwing at me, always with your encouragement. (The one thing you didn’t encourage was holding a grudge.) We visited and talked often, sharing successes and failures, effortlessly picking up the thread, hanging out with our wives in my grandmother’s den, brewing another pot of coffee, telling stories, laughing ’till we cried, completely present, no thoughts of past or future.

I recently told  a friend who’s about to turn 40 that I learned more in the past decade than any other since my first. That is the truth, or at least it feels like the truth. It’s truthy. Pain is the greatest teacher, and losing you – and another friend, in ’06 – kicked off my 40s. Pain has taught me, but also, much of this steep-curve learning has come from doing what I am doing now: writing. I have begun to fashion my stories, many of which feature you in some way, or which I write with you in mind, as my reader. As our fellow Georgian Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” For me, that has been so, and I’ve learned a lot, traversed paths, brightened corners, found strength, and done a little forgiving, including forgiving you for enacting what you first told me you wanted to do when we were in my Plymouth Duster in the Denny’s parking lot, post-Rocky Horror, 1982. We were 17.

You’d be amazed at the world, at your daughter, my son, our wives and friends. I can barely begin to tell you. My son is a beautiful young man, making his way into the world with kids who remind me so much of the Rocky Horror crew of our teens. He’s sharp and brave and spreading his wings with such style it makes his mom and me gape-mouthed, it makes us weep. Your gorgeous daughter, who I keep up with on her mom’s Facebook page (don’t ask), is playing guitar and singing in a band and she’s funny and original and you’d be so proud, I know you’d bust. She would’ve kicked your ass a bit, no doubt, and you would’ve said “bring it,” and when the dust settled, you would’ve looked around, like me, and said, “these are the good ole days, even as they sometimes suck.” And then we would’ve complained a bit, but leavened it with something funny or something that provoked our awe and/or indignation. That stuff remains easy to find.

You would’ve been 50 years old on this rainy autumn afternoon, and I send this to the ether, to the past, to that point several million miles into the cosmos where it’s still 2003, and you’re sending me encouraging emails about some demos, or even further out, where it’s 1985, and you’re saying yes, go to New York, see what’s in store for you, or further to 1983, where we’re smiling across the smoky light of a stage, melding our musical gestures into a song that sounds brand new but has, in fact, been playing since we first met, further out, in 1972. That song continues, here and now, as I keep playing alongside your echo.

Happy Birthday, Todd. Sent with undying love and gratitude.

todd

Todd, late 80s, Polaroid by James Bond.

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6 responses to “Playing Alongside Your Echo – For BTB

  1. that was lovely Robert.

  2. made me smile as i cried 🙂

  3. Very touching memorial Robert. Very tough to write I’m sure.

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