Category Archives: 80s

LIFERS

pic by Jack Warren

“You still playing music?”

Occasionally, a person who knew me in my teens, twenties, or early thirties will cross my path again in real life. I see them squaring two versions of me. Perhaps they recall the affable, energetic guy always in a band, walking the sidewalks with an instrument slung on his back, leather jacket squeaking as he totes an amp into a dive, hissy demo tape in his breast pocket. There he is with his Kinko’s-made postcards and flyers. Here comes his spiral-bound mailing list. There he goes, en route from his sure-to-be-temporary bartender gig to a rehearsal space. Behold another young dreamer come to Manhattan, rolling the dice like a drunken gambler, betting the farm, laughing at the odds.

pic by Jimmy Cohrssen

pic by Dan Howell

Before them is a graying, fifty-two-year-old man, decidedly not famous, healthy if not wealthy (actually technically poor), shoulders not quite so high, clearly settled into domestic life in rural Catskills obscurity, well-worn sensible shoes, utilitarian duds, limited options, no corona of celebrity glowing around his head, no evidence he has been sharing studios, stages, agents, and accountants with his heroes, as he creatively visualized in the 80s and 90s. Not a star.

So: do I still play music?

“Oh yeah,” I tell them. “Always. I will always play music. I’m a Lifer.”

“Of course,” they reply, often with discomfort, like they’ve accidentally insulted me. “Of course. That’s great.”

I get it. Perhaps they think the letdown of unfulfilled aspirations killed my desire to play. It happens. I know a few who dreamed with similar blind, public ferocity, and who, like me, ultimately didn’t make pro, at least not for the long haul. Persistent bitterness poisons their creativity well, they sell their gear, distance themselves from music like a recovering alcoholic avoids bars. They listen only to talk radio. Not pretty. The passion killing can be especially complete if a musician had a real taste of The Life, as I did. I spent a cumulative total of about eight years in which I stood in spotlights, garnered great press, toured internationally, and, through several income streams, made a living wage or better as a musician/performer. For various reasons – some of which I do not actually know – I did not sustain my membership in this small club.

But here’s the thing: now that it’s mainly for pleasure (but also for much-needed supplemental cash) and less an attempt at a kind of lifestyle, playing music is, in some ways, more enjoyable. And wouldn’t you know it? With the fame chase removed, I am a better musician, writer, and a far better singer. Can I thrash around for marathon sets, (try to) imitate Townshend, Springsteen, Cobain, Westerberg, et al, go home drenched in sweat, and bounce out of bed the next day to lather, rinse, repeat? I cannot. At least not without designer drugs and an on-call chiropractor. But I would pay more money to see me now than in the 80s and 90s, when my ace wasn’t necessarily skill, but energy.

That erstwhile me was certainly having fun deep inside a sweaty, amped-up groove, singing too high into a dented, beery microphone, leaving bloodstains on my pick guard, but… are the record company folks here? Or some other impresario? Or a bullshit artist claiming to be an impresario? Is tonight the night I meet my “Idolmaker”? My Brian Epstein (Beatles), Jefferson Holt (R.E.M.), Andrew Loog Oldham (Rolling Stones), David Geffen (Eagles), or Malcolm McLaren (Sex Pistols)? Is a powerful person going to fall in love with me, and/or see dollar signs, and help ferry me to the far shore? (Spoiler alert: no.)

I do not miss that element at all. My heyday was the pre-file sharing era, when giants roamed the earth. Record companies were still enjoying a revenue windfall from folks re-buying albums on CD. They were more flush than they would ever be again, Goliaths swimming in money, dispatching expense-accounted emissaries to all manner of venues to find the next _________. I cringe at memories of time wasted desperate for attention from these scouts, indulging dudes in satin jackets emblazoned with a record company logo, or some such sartorial ridiculousness. Kissing ass. Yeah, I did it, and it did me no good. Regret number 27.

I did indeed join a group signed to Island (home of U2), and we made an album (never released) at the Jimi Hendrix-designed Electric Lady Studios, but I quit soon thereafter because oh my god, y’all, the manager and singer were a couple of the biggest assholes I ever met. Ever. And their kind of assholery was not uncommon in “the music scene.” On the contrary.

Though I ultimately refused to share space with them, I admit I was fascinated by and occasionally envious of my enfant terrible peers. When an enfant terrible ascended, I originally thought belligerence was their key more than objective talent, and wished I too could so brazenly unleash my Id on bandmates and music biz folk. But while a compelling bad attitude didn’t hamper a trip down the garden path, it alone didn’t always keep one off the streets. (The aforementioned band, for instance, was summarily dropped by Island not long after I quit. A common story.) Those who matriculated to music (or acting, visual art, writing, et al) as a career, and remained there, were special, lucky, resilient, and tenacious. If they have one thing common, it was an allegiance with a simpatico soul who believed in them and took risks, an advocate who put their money where their mouth was. Assholery alone did not guarantee longevity, which is kind of a relief. More often than not, the few who “made it” were just consistently better in some way than most – including me – or at least more salable. And they had representation.

Naturally, these people are the minority of musicians I have known. The far greater percentage, like me, retained or eventually returned to day jobs, exiled from, or denied entrance to the big(ger) leagues. Shall we discuss why? Bad idea. Frankly, going down imaginary roads not taken, second-guessing and/or revising pivotal moments, doing the woulda coulda shoulda, makes for tedious conversation. (I would know.) No one but a paid therapist wants to hear it, and my guess is even they don’t.

Point is, years rolled by, and most of my music making, dreaming-out-loud peers, my fellow rock star wannabes, moved forward. As the writing on the wall became ever clearer, we abandoned hunting the white stag of fame, moved on to marriages, degrees, jobs, families, mortgages, layoffs, unspeakable losses, divorces, accidents, yard work, reversals, joys and sorrows, diagnoses, prescriptions, raises, pay cuts, et cetera.

In the warp and weft of these lives, my tribe of also-rans, I am very happy to say, just could not stop making music. Crushing disappointment, bearing witness to people at their worst, an obscene lack of appreciation for our kind from the world at large, and the cruelty of time could not vanquish our collective mojo. We say fuck you to all of the above, and make our music. Barring something unforeseen, we will continue to do so. We are Lifers.

pic by unknown fan

~

Like me, most of my Lifer peers got into music to be rock stars of some stripe, whether of the Led Zeppelin variety, the Nirvana/R.E.M. variety, or some other version, even the versions who disdain the term “rock star.” A few pals say that was not their intention, but I don’t believe them. To be sure, it is an absurd ambition to admit to. It bespeaks insecurity, a need for extravagant affirmation from unknown fans, delusions of grandeur, and an irresponsible tendency toward risk. But there you have it.

Having said all of that, if rock stardom were offered me today, I would take it. At fifty-two, with my son off at college, I am now ready. I am much more comfortable with saying fuck you to an asshole. Just putting that out there.

In truth, it may sound like sour grapes, but I often think being denied and/or turning away from The Life in my younger days was a good thing. The life I have made, while not without challenges, is pretty swell, and as years accrue and I stay vertical, I often feel very fortunate. One of the best aspects of this life is making music with no eye on a potential “big break.”

My fellow players come into rehearsal talking about their kids, spouses, car, the dumbass at work, aging parents, illness, their friend’s illness, the man who is putting down a new floor in their half bath, the horror of politics. But then we play, and all of that recedes. Amps buzz companionably, beers slake parched throats, pets wander in, laughter punctuates gossip. And the music is fun, even thrilling at times. No talk of recording a demo, making a CD, inviting the right people to a gig in the hope of advancement. We discuss the songs, the endless fascination of how our individual parts mesh; we compliment each other, and we argue a little. Time flies. We leave exhausted in the best way, and click back into our individual timelines with the heightened awareness music offers.

Recently, a rehearsal in a friend’s outbuilding went especially well. We’d locked in, and created joyful music destined to make local folk dance, sing, and be happy. At the end of a great rock and roll song, I looked around at my Lifer companions. Some had dreamed the Big Dream, and, like me, subsequently made peace with failure, and moved on.

“We are totally getting signed,” I said.

Everybody laughed loud, and joined in making fun of our ambitious erstwhile selves. I, for one, know youngster me would be aghast to witness his future in decidedly unglamorous circumstances. But I would encourage him to look closer, in the hope he would see not the failure he feared, but a seasoned musician surrounded by very cool, if obscure, fellow players, artists of great soul, skill, and generosity. Broken dreams and foiled plans cannot deter these people from making music. The young me would have no idea how precious and enriching such a life is. But lucky for him, he will learn.

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Jerry Ayers in Paradise

limbo

Limbo District by Barbara McKenzie. Jerry in Hat

I have many fond memories of my 19th year, spent almost entirely in Athens, Ga. 1984. A particularly vivid one is visiting Jerry Ayers at Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden. I am stunned to realize this was 32 years ago, as the images retain piercing clarity. Now, with the sad news of dear Jerry’s passing, those days pulse even more.

I first met Jerry in ’83 when I was in Atlanta band Wee Wee Pole. We opened for his band, Limbo District – sexiest Athens band ever – at the 40 Watt. Later, when I moved to Cobb St to play bass in Go Van Go, Jerry and I crossed paths a lot. We often talked well into the night beneath a streetlight, or under an awning. I admired his sweet, lone wolf quality, sought to emulate it. In his presence, I felt recognized as I wanted to be recognized, accepted, appreciated – all of utmost importance to a kid alone in the world for the first time.

Jerry and I were avid bike riders, and frequently passed one another on the blacktop, sometimes at 2 or 3 in the morning. We both sported straw hats. Sometimes, in the dark of a backyard party, someone would think I was him, which was quite a compliment. He was kind and nurturing, radiating energy, both elder and innocent. It was easy to forget his incredible history, in part because he was so interested in what was happening at that moment, which, to him, was always pretty fucking amazing. He could make a case for any quotidian moment being pretty fucking amazing. This perspective was contagious. You always walked away from him with more vigor than before. Needless to say, I would not meet anyone like him again.

In Autumn of ’84, Jerry was living at Paradise Garden in Summerville, helping rehab the long-neglected grounds, and writing grant proposals for Howard Finster. Thanks to REM’s championing, Reverend Finster was increasingly popular, but his sprawling, kudzu-wreathed, mud spattered, dawg-infested property was, to put it mildly, a mess of Biblical (literally and figuratively) proportions. Jerry was working hard to accommodate the rising tide of visitors, i.e. potential customers. This entailed much back breaking labor: shoveling, weeding, toting heavy, unwieldy, often crazy shit to a dumpster. Jerry knew international fame for Finster was imminent, and he wrote our mutual friend Cynthia Williams, imploring her to come partake of the magick, before Paradise Garden’s funky character was smoothed, before there was a gift shop, and, of course, while the still-vital Reverend still roamed the acreage with a liter of half frozen Coke, playing banjo, singing, and preaching on request. Prescient Jerry knew these times were not to last, in part because of encroaching renown, but also because Finster, a diabetic, ate almost exclusively junk food and never slept. Jerry said: If you want to meet a true holy man in his natural element, an art prophet, do not hesitate, come now. And if you can, bring money and buy art. (Incredibly, Reverend Finster would live 17 more years.)

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Reverend Howard Finster

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Paradise Garden

Cynthia invited me to come along. I had no gigs, and was not scheduled at Kinko’s, so I said hell yes. We drove to Summerville on an Autumn day. Jerry met us in the rutted driveway, handsome in red clay-crusted waders and mud spattered, billowy clothes. Grinning like a hillbilly pirate. Cynthia and I were stunned at the place. Like most, I’d only seen Paradise Garden in the hazy, dreamy video for “Radio Free Europe,” which was, like most of what REM did at that time, tantalizingly obtuse. Arty. But now, in stark detail, Paradise Garden rose, a collection of ramshackle buildings, a couple trailers, art everywhere, a car carcass covered in Howard’s distinctive religious characters and Bible verses, bicycle parts, scrap metal, plywood, and the aforementioned dawgs. Perhaps the happiest dawgs I’d ever seen. Assorted family members came and went, all smiles, conferring with Jerry about various duties, chores. It never occurred to us to worry that perhaps Jerry – a former Warhol Superstar, a decidedly unhetero male – would be in trouble around these God-fearing rural folk. The divinity of the art, the devotional work, rendered all of that meaningless.

Jerry was very glad to see us, excited like a little kid to share. He squired us around, and we marveled at the twisted tower of bicycle parts, the paths beneath the stately oaks, the painted faces everywhere, all spreading good news about salvation, about a world unseen, a world of love and poetry. Angels. Elvis. George Washington. Jesus. Howard himself, as a grinning young man, touching the ineffable, brimming with hope, eyes fearless and joyful.

Jerry was particularly struck by Howard’s preternatural energy. He said: the man is tapped into something beyond, something unexplainable, because all he eats is garbage. Twinkies. Ho-Hos. Hostess Fruit Pies. And yet. Jerry told of waking in his room in the wee hours and looking out to the trailer where Howard basically lived, where the Reverend did most of his painting while the world slept. No matter the hour, the light was always on, an aura of creation radiating into the Summerville night.

Laughing, bespectacled Howard came out to meet us, resplendent in a polyester sport coat over a flannel shirt, ever-present bottle of Coke in hand. Cynthia asked if he would tell us a story, and he said yes. Like children, we sat on the floor before him in his trailer, and he told us of a woman he knew who put her son’s jacket on a hook when the boy went to Vietnam. She said she wouldn’t take it down ’til her son returned. And then Reverend Finster wept. He told us the jacket was still there, to this day. As he cried, we sat speechless. Then Jerry thanked him, placed his strong, lovely hand on the man’s shoulder, and ushered him back to us. Reverend Finster thanked us for coming, and Jerry led us into the late afternoon, shadows creeping.

I do not recall what or where we ate. But I do recall where we slept. Jerry was eager to show us the innards of a tower Howard had built with no architectural knowledge at all. Reportedly structurally sound. How did the Reverend do it? God told him how, that’s how. In the tower was a small shrine to the actress Lisa Whelchel, aka Blair on the Facts of Life; mostly clippings of her face from magazines, pasted to a kind of altar with a cross. It decorated a wall just outside the bedroom in which Cynthia and I would sleep on a terribly uncomfortable fold-out bed. I remember the dark of that room, the hum of a heater, the warmth of Cynthia beside me, a confusion of all that I’d seen and barely grasped. Yet also, a feeling of being lucky.

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The Tower

The next day, Howard was busy working, not to be disturbed. Cynthia purchased for me one of his two-foot-by-one-foot angels, a beautiful smiling creature covered in Biblical verse and exhortations. It pains me to write this, but somehow, in my months of couch surfing in Manhattan in 1985, I would lose it. It is the dearest thing I have ever lost. As I’ve come to know grief – the tax on a long life – I have learned not to grieve objects. Except for that.

I returned to Athens in 1987, while on tour with the Fleshtones, but I never saw Jerry again. With the advent of social media, however, we connected several times. Still, I never thanked him for his kindness on the streets of Athens, when I was a kid, struggling, for the first time, to be independent. Running from trauma. And I never thanked him for providing me with the experience of walking the holy land of art, where he fit in perfectly, where he made me feel welcome. But I think Jerry knew what he’d done for me. When I did not realize it, he knew I would carry that time with me for the rest of my life.

Thank you, Jerry.

RBW, Phoenicia, NY, October 25th, 2016

In With the Out Crowd: Remembering My 80s Youth

“I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints / I am frightened by the devil, and I’m drawn to those that ain’t afraid.” “A Case Of You,” Joni Mitchell

kingtuts

King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut (latter day)

Queer folk shaped my 80s youth.

Many who shepherded me through crucial years were – and are – what we now call LGBTQ, but that term was only just being concocted back then. In any case, more than anyone else, they showed me how to recognize family, love, forgiveness, grace, and courage. Both literally and figuratively, they taught me how to dance.

It took a village, indeed. An East Village. 

~

In the way most people recall their college years, I recall my time with queer folk. While my friends were enrolling in BFA programs, I threw myself into the wind, traveling with hope. I headed north with a bass and an amp, landing in Manhattan to couch surf in the winter of ’85. The folks who caught me, cut me a break or two, had my back, and directed me toward my various destinies, were what we would now call the LGBTQ community. I learned more essential, useful life lessons from them – usually in a bar thick with beer-and-cigarette stank – than I ever learned in any classroom.

Playing bass in the East Village Orchestra, The Palladium, 1985

Playing bass in the East Village Orchestra, The Palladium, 1985

While none of my “scenes” had labels, distinctions can be helpful. To that end: my roots are in the New Wave Queer Underground of Atlanta, and the mid/late 80s post-punk/pre-Giuliani East Village scene. In each of these, it’s important to note, nobody delineated between “gay community” and “straight community.”

In my Atlanta years, bands, plays, art exhibits, and late-night hangouts teemed with all manner of sexual persuasions. For the most part, it was all fine, our own brand of same-old same-old. I knew some disapproving parents, but no tyrannical parents. (Quite a few “old hippie” parents.) I also knew some kids who harbored secret nonhetero tendencies, but they weren’t tortured by the furtiveness in which they couched their desires; they actually kind of dug it.

These days, when I see modern, troubled kids who must be talked off the ledge with the “it gets better” movement, I realize how odd my scenes were, and how charmed. I wish with all my might that one of those shamed, disaffected kids could get a postcard from the Rocky Horror crew, circa 1981. It would make them brave, and it would make them fight back.

Of course I see now that we were in a bubble. At the time it didn’t seem so, partly because, being kids, we were self-centered, and anything beyond our sphere did not warrant our attention. And the alphas among us were some of the most willful people I’ve ever known, to the point where the heteronormative standard (as we now say) was, quite frankly, effectively branded as insane. Being pretty heteronormative myself, I sometimes felt a little out of place, but not so much that I wanted to flee. On the contrary. I wanted to belong, I wanted to be brave like them.

~

Later, in Manhattan, at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, a bar on the corner of Avenue A and East 7th Street, a new set of offbeat characters welcomed me into another arty oasis. Together, in a lovingly tangled skein, we hung out, worked our money gigs, turned each other on to music, played in bands, and could not have cared less if he/she was intimate with their own sex, or whether he/she liked to wear, say, heels, or, say, combat boots, or dye their hair, or experiment. People uptight at our lack of concern – and of course, many of my peers had fled such folks – were the butts of our jokes, and we laughed our asses off at them.

Maggie and Doug, co-owners of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, hired me a few months after I turned 20. I’d been working midnight to 8 AM at the Village Copier for $5 an hour, and washing glasses at 8BC (bar-club on East 8th between Avenues B and C). King Tut’s needed a non-heroin-using glass washer/bar back. and my brand new bandmates Mark and Keiko, who I’d met through impresario-activist Jim Fouratt, introduced me to Maggie and Doug, who hired me on the spot. I soon graduated to bartending and bar managing. (Not being a junkie came in handy.) From that connection, from Maggie and Doug taking me on, I can now trace every major event of my life.

I’d come to New York a few months previously, reeling from some heavy girlfriend drama and family issues, and even though I didn’t consciously realize it then, I see now I was eager to find a way to be alone and to enjoy a community. I’d bounced around apartments, was unhealthy and depressed, and very close to heading back to Atlanta, but with the kindness of a few strangers, I found my way.

With my East Village scene, I found that balance of aloneness and community for a couple years, especially when the aforementioned Mark and Keiko let me (illegally) sub-lease their Ave B. railroad apartment. Tisch School of the Arts actor-in-training Peter McCabe become my great friend and roommate, and I was set. I paid my bills from cash I kept in a Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee can, and on occasion, I was happier than a pig in shit.

NYE

Bartending at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut on New Year’s Eve, 1989, with April Palmieri.

It was not wasted time. I played music, began to write, and spent many hours walking the streets of Alphabet City, often in the pre-dawn. With the Wah Wah Hut crew, I broke into the Pitt Street Pool to swim, and watched many a sunrise over Tompkins Square Park, the last Manhattan park with no curfew, where fires burned and kids a little less lucky than me camped.

Indeed I was lucky. In addition to being the recipient of the largesse of a few people, I was, unbeknownst to me, in the last wave of artists who could move to NYC and live cheaply. Within a decade, those days would be over.

As the 80s played out, AIDS ravaged my community. It still chills me to recall sick friends dying in their prime, to remember the feel of their wasting-away hands grip mine across a hospital bed. But when so many – including me – lived in fear of illness, or indeed, became ill, outsiderness remained a source of pride and power. We all hunkered down and embraced our outsiderness even more. Some of the braver ones marched on government buildings – the amazing ACT UP crew comes to mind – transforming grief and rage into action. Among other things, they shamed Burroughs-Wellcome into lowering the price of AZT by 20%. This was real, tough love. And it was a lesson.

There was so much love. Some at the Wah Wah Hut wished for stardom, but at the same time, were loathe to leave the love we knew in East Village obscurity. (Although one of two did achieve that stardom dream.) It was uncommon, this love, infused with, but sometimes beyond, sex; an amalgam of friendship, family, foxhole intimacy, erotic fascination, and besotted crushes, spiced with a healthy degree of disdain and pettiness, maybe a little bad behavior (OK, a lot) just to keep it lively. (We were kids, after all.) I think, in our hearts, we knew how special this all was, but we could not articulate it, and even if we could, we would not have done so because it would’ve been very uncool.

This era didn’t last, because these things never do, as this grumpy old man now knows. People eventually let go, or they fled; everyone, in their way, moved on, relinquishing apartments, turning the page on a life chapter lived with gusto and abandon. Some died, and we mourned them, and mourn them still.

When it was my time to go, I did, with my wife and son. My son was four when we left NYC for the Catskills, and he’s now nineteen and guess what? He’s finding his way among LGBTQ youths who are much less in the shadows than the queer kids I ran with when I was my boy’s age. That makes me smile. They shine, these kids, they make great art, they look after one another, and although I don’t say it aloud very much, lest I get a withering look, they take me back.

My short term recollection is starting to go. Mostly, when I meet new people, I can’t remember their names. It is vexing. But part of my memory is ironclad, at least for now: seems I will never forget the names of the queer and queer-friendly East Village denizens who took me in and/or steered me toward the better part of my life: Jim, Sally, Vinnie, Maggie, Doug, Brian, Jesse, Stacy, Kate, Richard, Byron, Byron, Luis, Itabora, Michael, Grace, Stan, Jo, Lucy, Annie, Paula, Denise, Monica, Effie, Ethyl, Wendy, Ida, Chuck, Curtis, Chris, Lady Bunny, Bob, Marleen, Baby, Mark, Keiko, Gerard, Bernard, Nick, George. They were all there to help me become me, and their names are on my heart.

~

(In this Nelson Sullivan video, shot in the Pyramid Club basement dressing room across from King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, I enter with my then-girlfriend Holly around 1:41. It’s 1988, and I’m twenty-two.)