Category Archives: Essay

Jerry Ayers in Paradise

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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

The Gods Await to Delight in You: Playing and Enjoying Music in the Catskills

Originally published in the Woodstock Times

RBW, with Satellite Paradiso, 2016, pic by Hans Wendland

RBW, with Satellite Paradiso, 2016, pic by Hans Wendland

Hudson Valley life affords me more opportunities to play music in front of people than any other place I’ve lived, and that includes New York City. The Catskills, in fact, feel like one big stage, with accommodating spirits hovering, encouraging, constantly offering chances for musicians and music lovers to step out of everyday life and into the timelessness of song. I completely understand why Dylan, the Band, Hendrix, John Sebastian, Van Morrison, Rundgren, Bowie, and many other musicians have lived – or still live – here. And why Woodstock (in Bethel) happened in these hills, and why its scope and vibe has never really been repeated elsewhere.

In his poem, The Laughing Heart, Charles Bukowski wrote, “The gods await to delight in you.” In our rolling, mysterious hills, this notion feels quite real. Our local gods, in the rocks, the waterways, and lush mountainsides, await to delight in us, musicians and music-lovers alike. Their desire is palpable.

Uncle Rock & Noel Fletcher, Wilson Campground, Mt. Tremper, NY, 2006

Uncle Rock & Noel Fletcher, Wilson Campground, Mt. Tremper, NY, 2006

~

I’ve actually lost track of the venues in which I’ve performed. The list runs the gamut from the Bardavon and First Steps Preschool, to the Bearsville Theater and the Woodstock Farm Festival. Almost every church. Definitely every school in the Onteora system. Mountain Jam? Did it, more than once. Santa’s arrival on the Woodstock Green? Played that, with my band, on a flatbed truck, with Santa himself on lead guitar. Adoption ceremony in Delhi, at which foster kids officially became family members? Check. Garlic Festival? Several times, ate the garlic ice cream. Glenford Church? I turned fifty on that stage. New World Home Cooking? Yes, broadcast on WAMC. Utopia Soundstage? A lot. Levon’s Barn? God yes, with Levon on drums. Harmony Café? Yes, and walked off with a cannabis-scented, crisp fifty dollar bill, pressed into my hand by a very friendly, very high dude in a Grateful Dead hoodie.

RBW, Kleinert/James Gallery, Woodstock, NY, 2014

RBW, Kleinert/James Gallery, Woodstock, NY, 2014

Also: Kleinert/James, Byrdcliffe Theater and Barn, Colony Café, Tinker Street Café, every bookstore in the region, every library, Proctors, The Linda, Rosendale Café/Street Festival/ Theater, Clearwater (Sloop and Fest), Taste of the Catskills, Belleayre, summer and winter Hoots, Tinker St. Cinema, the Shandaken Theatrical Society, Empire State Railway Museum, Woodstock Animal Sanctuary, Woodstock Community Center, ‘Cue, BSP, Market Market, and probably your neighbor’s house. Maybe even your house.

Uncle Rock, First Steps Preschool, Bearsville, NY, 2015

Uncle Rock, First Steps Preschool, Bearsville, NY, 2015

RBW with the Catskill 45s, house party, Mt. Tremper, NY

RBW with the Catskill 45s, house party, 2014, Mt. Tremper, NY

Every venue offers something different, and affects music, music-maker, and audience. As a musician, you become accustomed to how you sound while practicing, usually at home or in some hovel. But once you play out, that sound changes; the music takes on characteristics of the room (or the outdoor space), the people, the communal vibe of the day, which is nigh impossible to predict. After some time, you learn to gauge the space, the people, and adjust. You learn to pivot.

RBW in Rocky Horror at Byrdcliffe Barn, Woodstock. Pic by Dennis Oclair

RBW in Rocky Horror at Byrdcliffe Barn, Woodstock. 2013, Pic by Dennis Oclair

Sometimes the venue is charmed, and energizes, imbues you with power. Alternatively, even in our music-friendly region, a space can work against you, with bad tech, crappy acoustics, and/or a clueless or hostile crowd that’ll make you feel like you’ve been thrown to the lions. At which point you must suck it up and play on.

In my experience, the local venues I’ve loved playing are, not surprisingly, often the venues in which I’ve also seen some unforgettable shows. Best acoustics? Easy: Levon’s Barn. Thick, rough-hewn wood, few windows, and somehow, even though you feel you’re in someone’s home (because you are in someone’s home), the Barn features top-notch sound equipment and sound operators – usually Brendan McDonough.

When I played the Kids Ramble in 2007, I stepped onto the thick rugs of the performance area and recalled how, three years before, I’d seen Levon sit in with Ollabelle at the first Midnight Ramble I attended. We’d been told Levon couldn’t sing, due to his cancer treatments. But to everyone’s astonishment, he did sing, in duets with his daughter, Amy. The energy between them was magic, a glowing thing. And like I say, it all sounded fantastic; perfect volume, all instruments discernible as individual waves, but also part of a whole, touching the audience’s insides, enlivening us, making us one.

Uncle Rock and Tracy Bonham, Fiber Flame, Woodstock, NY, 2014

Uncle Rock and Tracy Bonham, Fiber Flame, Woodstock, NY, 2014

Because most of us listen to music on substandard speakers, earbuds, or through bad systems operated by amateurs, you forget how great amplified sound can be. So, excellent live sound is often revelatory. And that’s what you get at the Barn.

And by the way, Levon was not supposed to play at that 2007 Kids Ramble gig, either. But he did. Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower, with whom I, as Uncle Rock, shared the bill, played the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On,” and they drafted me to play bass an arm’s reach from Levon, who laid down a funky beat and grinned at me like a Cheshire cat. I will take that one with me when I go.

~

When folks talk – and/or post – about “best concert(s) I ever saw,” I always include Richard Thompson at the Bearsville Theater, solo acoustic, Rumor & Sigh tour, 1991. (My wife and I were weekenders then.) First time I saw him, first time I heard his now classic “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” The sold out, 400-person capacity room was the perfect venue. Any bigger, and it might’ve lost some intensity; any smaller, and the crush of people would’ve distracted. His songs, jaw-dropping fingerpicking wizardry, and quiet charisma mixed with a mysterious element he conjured among the congregation, a sense of community. I’ve seen many shows in this room, full bands and solo performers, and I’ve played in various configurations – solo, band, huge band – and for me, the Bearsville Theater excels with smaller-scale acts. Again, much wood makes for good acoustics, the vaulted, church-like ceiling gives a sense of quiet grandeur, and the separate space for the bar means no glasses clinking during quieter moments.

When I finally played Bearsville Theater about fifteen years later, my first thought was, “This is where I saw that amazing Richard Thompson gig.”

RBW in Paul Green Rock Academy's Christmas Spectacular, 2014, Bearsville Theater

RBW in Paul Green Rock Academy’s Christmas Spectacular, 2014, Bearsville Theater

~

My favorite local gig of all – one that I played – was impromptu and just three years ago. I’d performed at Mike and Ruthy’s inaugural summer Hoot at the Ashokan Center, first on the Toshi Seeger stage, then throughout the grounds over the course of the day. It was a perfect summer day, ideal temperature, few bugs, verdant surroundings. The Hoot was well attended, with great food, reasonable prices, and much spontaneous fun for kids and adults. It was the kind of day that makes everyone a better person.

Summer Hoot, 2013, Toshi Stage, Ashokan Center

Summer Hoot, 2013, Toshi Stage, Ashokan Center

I was officially done, and Mike Merenda asked if, after Natalie Merchant’s set, I would commandeer a “song swap” at a bonfire atop the hill overlooking the Pete Seeger stage. It would be an alternative for folks who didn’t want to go dance at the Killian Pavilion, an opportunity for the many campers who’d brought instruments to play together. I said sure, thinking, “No one will come. Everyone will go dancing.” I was wrong.

RBW, Kingston, NY sidewalk, 2012, by Tania Baricklo

RBW, Kingston, NY sidewalk, 2012, by Tania Baricklo

The perfect day melted into a perfect Catskill summer evening, starlit, no sounds of heavy industry audible, dew in the air. Someone lit a huge bonfire on the hill, just as Natalie said thank you, good night. The crowd below dispersed into the deepening dark. To my surprise, a wave of people ascended the hill, and campers stepped into the firelight with guitars, mandolins, banjos, and ukuleles. The congregation swelled quickly, from twenty, to fifty or so. Maybe more. The crowd, as an organism, was initially bashful. I was wondering how to engage everyone, when out of the darkness, a woman’s voice asked, “Anyone know ‘I Love Rock N’ Roll’?”

“I do!” I said. And I played it, and everyone sang, and we were off. As the hours passed, people grew ever bolder, singing folk songs, country, rock, punk, and originals that ranged from a cappella emo laments to crusty sea chanties. As goes it with a successful song swap, a momentum asserted itself, and young and old alike settled into our temporary little firelit tribe, tapping into ancient strands of collective memory. Humankind as a species has spent much more time singing songs around fires than any other activity, and a sense of familiarity takes hold, a constant déjà vu.

Finally, around 1 A.M., I grew tired and took my leave to drive home while I still could. The circle kept singing, barely conscious of me, piling on logs, sending sparks aloft as they engaged in song after song after song. I could still hear them from the darkness of the parking lot, where I reluctantly re-engaged with modern life, i.e. my car. Just before I turned the ignition key, I could also hear, ever so faint, the laughing of the delighted gods.

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Back to the Garden: How Digging in the Dirt Made Me Better

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Even though the last two winters were particularly harsh, I griped less about the weather. What changed? Mellowing with age? Hardly. One word: gardening.

Winters 2014 and 2015 found me looking at the snow-packed ground and easily summoning the sensation of soil yielding to my fingers. I’d actually felt that in my gardens, as opposed to talking/thinking about it and/or benefitting from someone else doing it. The memory, housed in my fingertips, bore me up. Spring was imminent.

Of course, like you, I always realized snow would melt, ground would soften, buds would bloom, etc. Even in the noticeable throes of climate change, Nature still grants us our somewhat predictable (although less so) seasons, particularly here in the Hudson Valley. But with gardening, intelligence extends beyond the head and into the hands, where it remains. I retain the feel of dirt in my palms, the muscle memory of digging, wielding a trowel, stroking stems and buds, the sweet snap of the bounty dropping into my palm. Like the music I’ve learned to play, the knowledge isn’t only in my brain; it’s in my flesh.

You think you know yourself, especially when, like me, you are smack in midlife. But no, I had no idea I’d love gardening as I do. I didn’t think I’d be on the verge of tears the first time one of my tomato vines fell from its stake and broke; I didn’t think I’d be elated seeing bees congregate on my plants, or blindly furious when an idiot dog figured my garden an excellent place to dig and defecate. Apparently, moments of looking in the mirror and saying, “Who are you?” never cease.

~

It was a long time coming, this shift. When my wife and I moved with our four-year-old son, Jack, from Manhattan to the Hudson Valley in 2002, I had been a city dweller my entire life, an admirer of gardens, but a stranger to them. Arriving in Phoenicia, we fell in love with and bought a 1910 Victorian house on four acres of land, a significant chunk of which had been gardened by the former owners, the Teasdale family.

The Teasdales were intrepid, back-to-the-land techno-hippies (please check out Videofreex). They’d lived in the house for twenty-eight years, raised three girls, farmed the acreage, and done a lot of gardening. Vestiges were evident: fenced-in plots, long-dead vines among the loamy earth, and, to keep away birds, glinting aluminum pans hung from stakes.

The land called out, but I ignored her for about a decade. I didn’t quite get the language she was speaking, and I was too busy to learn. I was the hands-on parent of an elementary school kid, re-inventing myself as a teacher, attending to children, and spending my spare time playing and writing music. My nurturing energy was spoken for.

In times of stress and heartbreak, however, I found myself wandering into the back yard and talking to the land, regardless of the season. I’m not sure what gave me the idea, perhaps I just needed to get out of the house. In any case, I asked for signs, for solace, for clues. I received no clear answers, no actionable intelligence, but the mere asking helped. I sometimes felt like Chuck Noland, Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away. [Spoiler alert!] Marooned on a desert island and desperate for connection, Noland talks to a Wilson brand volleyball that, like him, washed up from a plane crash. He christens it, wait for it, Wilson. While Wilson never answers (that would have made it a very different movie) the act of engaging helps stave off Noland’s madness.

Unlike a volleyball, however, the land is very much alive. I never felt this more than when I took my troubles to her and asked for help. We got further acquainted, the land and me. Just by being there, steadfast, all things respirating at a slower pace, she helped me relax in tough times. I was able to tap in to her rhythm, and this helped stem the flow of my cascading, dark thoughts.

Still, I wasn’t ready to go all the way.

~

Finally, in 2013, when our son was fifteen, my wife and I began the process of stepping back as parents, letting him go in some ways. Obviously, you can’t parent a fifteen-year-old the same way you do a five-year-old or even a ten-year-old. Seems like a no-brainer, but this process is always rife with missteps and mistakes, a clumsy dance most families know well. Your kid has his own life, his own friends; his world is not yours. Staying engaged while backing off is a challenge.

You can talk about this stuff ad nauseam – I know I did – but luckily, in a quiet moment between conversations, I heard and, most importantly, heeded, the call of the land, which I’d begun to decipher on my stressed-out nighttime wanderings.

After a decade of living on it, I looked intently at our acreage, assessing the arc of the sun over the maples, the firs, the birches, the mountains. I listened to the Earth’s call resonating in the space where my need to obsessively care for something resided. Perhaps I was not only born to parent, but to garden. The time was ripe, if you will, to find out.

~

That first season, I started late (timing is not my strong suit). I bought small plants and potting soil, Googled “starting a garden,” and built a raised bed from spare wood salvaged from a disused tree house I’d built for my son when he was tiny. I upcycled it into a square, about the size of a small table, and placed it in a sunny spot. I poured in soil, planted my tomatoes, lettuces, and cukes, added in some foul-smelling fertilizer, and waited.

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Garden, 2013

A late frost almost took out my tomato plants, but to my elation – and I do mean that – they survived and budded. I watched the bees pollinate, and the process captivated me. I’d never fully understood why sex was euphemistically called “the birds and the bees,” but seeing the insects burrow deep into the dripping petals, I got it. When the fruits and vegetables swelled from those petals, I really got it.

I tended my garden every day, loving the scent of it on my skin, the dirt under my fingernails, my actual red neck. (Not loving the ticks, which are worse every year.) I watered and weeded, pruned the plants, and talked to them like a crazy person, sometimes well past dusk. My family made good-natured fun of me, but they loved my little handful harvests. Meanwhile, I felt ever more like a hunter-gatherer, a little more ready for the grid to go down, connected to a shadowy part of my ancestry.

With regards to parenting, the garden, I think, made it easier to step back and better realize what I can and cannot control, what aids growth and what stunts it. Again – I knew a lot already, intellectually speaking, but not in my body. And gardening requires patience. I couldn’t force my plants to grow any faster, or bear fruit on cue. They did it on their own time, which I had no choice but to respect.

Thankfully, I couldn’t afford to muse overmuch on this stuff. (That’s what winter is for.) There was blessed work to do, always. The vines grew ever faster, and I hammered in stakes and old pieces of fence to keep them vertical. My tomatoes in particular thrived, yielding fat, juicy fruits, which I foisted on neighbors and friends, not unlike a new dad waving food in front of a small child. I could be irritating.

“Eat this! I grew it!”

“Could you not do that?”

The first time I ate produce I had grown, it tasted quite different from store-bought, which, by comparison, is virtually flavorless. From the moment the juice squirted from the skin, I was as hooked as a crack head.

Last year, I expanded to a space twice as big. Mysterious and tenacious blight plagued my tomatoes both years, but luckily it arrived at the end of the season, after I’d harvested a lot. The first year, the unsightly black fungus upset me, but last year, not so much. Humbled is a better word. As I put in my new garden I known I will fight it again, and the smart money’s on the blight to win. But fight I will.

Garden2014

Garden, 2014

~

One of the biggest getting-to-know-yourself aspects of gardening has been my deeper connection to the natural cycles pervading all life. Through this, I realize now, in my body, that we, as a species, are screwing up the Earth. I’ve known it intellectually since I was a kid, but I hadn’t really grasped it until now. The media, of course, makes a lot of hay with the doomsaying and the screaming headlines and much-clicked-on posts. It all gets a lot of play, as it should. And it is upsetting, even more so now that I am viscerally connected.

What to do? Some of my friends just say, unequivocally, “We’re fucked. Or rather, our grandkids are fucked. Do nothing. You are wasting your time.” But I’ve discovered hand-wringing fatalism to be profoundly depressing and certainly no help except in a “misery loves company” kind of way, which I can’t really brook anymore.

Naturally, I hope there’s hope. I take heart that history, like life, is rife with game-changing, 11th hour saves; I hope something unknowable, but good, is in store for our descendants. But in the meantime, I asked myself, what can I, as an individual, do? What process feels right?

After years of consideration, I joined the Green Party. I’ve watched my Green Party friends expose and/or fight climate change deniers and/or outright rapers of the land, or those who would legislate in favor of the desecrators. I want in on that. I look at these foes like I look at my tomato blight. We may not win, but we will fight, even as they slime back into my (and your) plot. Also, we may win, or, at the very least, affect change.

Now that I’ve put my energy into the land, I really do hear the Earth’s voice, even when the snow is thick on the ground, and even when the many connections in my world crackle and spark with the noise of “civilization.” I hear her from within; she is, quite literally, under my skin. And despite her awesome power, I hear her call for allies.

She’s taught me and given me so much, especially in these last couple of years. Fighting her enemies is the least I can do.

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Garden, 2015

Thoughts At 50

rbwchilton

Ahoy there,

Tomorrow, on March 29th, 2015, I turn 50. This feels more significant than any previous birthday. When I turned 16, 21, 30, 40, people said, “Wow, look at you. Big change, eh?” but I never felt it, really. Not like this.

Now, however: lots of gratitude, some grief, snatches of wonder, some perspective, and, I’m glad to say, a little excitement, all of it just under my skin, informing every step I take. It’s odd, bracing, and I’m riding it, wondering how long it’ll last.

I have a lot in front of me this coming year; my three-years-in-the-writing novel, Perfectly Broken, will be published, I’m knee-deep in satisfying work on another book, and my family dynamic is shifting, as my son is setting himself up to leave high school (class of 2016) and I am very excited for him. That’s a lot of stuff, and I’m sure there are plenty of other things I do not foresee (that’s always the case).

Below are recent thoughts from some stolen moments of reflection. Some are positive and feel-good-y, others are on the dark side, some surprise even me when I read them. All are from the still-functional heart and head of RBW, looking to his next 50 (if I’m lucky, fingers crossed), where, I’ll wager, you’ll play some part. Thanks for reading. Onward ho.

THOUGHTS AT 50

I am a better singer and guitar player than I’ve ever been. I cannot run as fast, do as many pushups, or avoid rest like I once could, but I play guitar and sing better than at any other time in my life. This is largely due to performing for kids on a weekly basis for the past nine years as my alter-ego Uncle Rock. The sheer hours have improved my guitar work, and singing unamplified at top volume – a must with kids – has strengthened my voice. I now have a good solid high A, which I’ve always wanted. (That’s the “money note” McCartney sings in the bridge of “A Hard Day’s Night,” on the word “tight.”) My voice is not my strongest suit as a musician, nor will it ever be, but it’s better. As other physical attributes inevitably decline, I’m happy to acknowledge that, a point for me in the ongoing battle against time.

I have logged quite a few failures, more than I care to list, and about which I rarely speak. Someday I will post only about those, but not just yet. Even though the stories are less interesting, I’ve also enjoyed some great successes, which, often as not, arrived in disguise. Still, who wants to see a list of successes? Not me. At least not written by me. What I like to talk most about is the work, whatever I’m working on, and I’m always working on something, and happy to be employed. One maxim I have found to be true: “The idle mind is the Devil’s workshop.”

Another maxim I’ve found to be true is Eleanor Roosevelt’s, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” Amen, sister. Although, interestingly/maddeningly, I’ve found sometimes I want to feel inferior, and I recognize others do, too. You want to be the kid, the little brother/sister, the acolyte, the newbie in the thrall of the expert, the fledgling at the feet of the pro with the will of iron. But I capitulate to that less and less these days. I am 50, after all.

I get frustrated and remorseful, but still, I must say, at least once a week I look around and say, “You got lucky. Don’t let the good stuff get away unnoticed. Look at all those excellent friends, supportive family, lovely wife, healthy kid.” As the great Graham Parker sings in “Brand New Book”: “I’ve got much more than most people have, and a little less than a few / But you can’t measure these things by weight, they either drag you down or they lift you.” I will file that line (the whole song, really) under “Wish I’d Written That.” That is a big file, by the way.

 

 

I’ve had many close brushes with death, one just last week on the Thruway. I can’t account for my luck, or if there is some “reason” for it. But I practice gratitude for it, just in case.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes, most due to passivity. I made some active mistakes, of course, but some top cringe-y moments feature me capitulating to someone else’s will, and/or being a coward. Those episodes haunt me, but I’m trying to turn them into work, trying to be kind to myself, and that helps keep me moving forward.

Speaking of kindness, I’ve found that to be an increasingly rare thing, so when I see it, I do my best to acknowledge it, not take it for granted. I try to surround myself with kind people, or people who are inherently kind, even though they may not seem so outwardly. Whether in the actions of a child or a crusty old adult, kindness strikes me as grace, little sparks of whatever force binds us together. The jury’s still out on my spiritual beliefs, but suffice to say here and now: I feel forces of creation and destruction swirl about us always, and an act of kindness, more often than not, is tapping into creation, and allowing some level of intimacy with that force. It’s a mini-religious experience. Cruelty, more often than not, is about distance and destruction. I’ve indulged in both, and these days, I try to invest my life more with kindness. Cruelty can be exhilarating at the outset, but for me, it carries a prohibitive cost, and no act of cruelty perpetuated by me in the past feels good in retrospect. Those acts resonate now as mistakes, but teachable ones. Everyone knows cruelty has become ever more prevalent in our culture, even celebrated, so it tends to feel more OK, while kindness feels less accessible, certainly less cool. But kindness is always a choice, even when seductive darkness swirls around it. It’s like searching for mushrooms in the mulchy leaves; the more you look, the more you see. The more you see kindness, the easier it is to find it within, and enact it. That’s been my experience.

~

There is no such thing as closure, at least not for me. It’s an ingenious bit of psychobabble, but it doesn’t have any teeth, that word. Would that it were so. We move on, we get back into the sun and sometimes we reconcile, but any physicist or Alzheimer’s ward worker will tell you: time does not exist, and the illusion of it frequently shatters. Music, scent, the turn of a phrase can, and will, deliver you back. Sometimes it’s great and you want to stay. Sometimes, not so much. Getting back to the present is not always easy, but the work required is good work, and just being able to make that choice is a wallop of good fortune. I tell myself: it’s nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try.

For me the work includes but is not limited to: strenuous exercise, fellowship, sunlight, psychotherapy, art, diet, getting away from the Internet, doing something that evokes fear in myself. Again, I invoke Eleanor R: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” That is excellent medicine.

Some folks prefer to be miserable, and they excel at it, sometimes to an artful degree. Hard not to be impressed, especially if they’re humorous people. Still,  unless I can bring the laughs, I try very hard not to be one of those people, but sometimes I still am. I am well-acquainted with the “I feel sorry for you” energy, and, when given, it can be a kind of narcotic, but for the most part, I feel complaining, for me, is the road to madness. I can sense that if I didn’t try to accentuate the positive, I would be in a van down by the river, alone, wrapped in a moldy blanket, feeling righteous, and going slowly insane.

Some people work very hard to be happy, and they inspire me. I’ve seen people brook incalculable loss, and somehow find their smiles again, and that stuns and humbles me and, at least once daily, makes me shut up about my problems.

Sometimes I actually forget a friend or loved has passed away and think about them in the present tense, go to the phone to call, or wonder what they’ll say about something. I like to think this isn’t just a brain misfire but is, in fact, me slipping the time-space continuum for a moment.

I’m a better writer than I’ve ever been, because I do it a lot and because I have actively sought out writers I admire and asked for their time and input, and they’ve given it, and helped me improve my game. I am grateful for that, and expect/hope this energy exchange will continue well into the future. I’ve turned in some copy of which I’m proud (also some lame stuff, but whatever) but my best work is ahead of me.

A large part of what I seek to know in my work is forgiveness. The concept fires me up. I’ve spent the last decade or so trying to figure out just what, exactly, it is, and realizing how often other things masquerade as forgiveness, i.e. passivity, indifference, masochism; all can walk as forgiveness, but they’re not, at least not to me. I wrote a whole book to try to figure it out. Lily Tomlin said, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past,” and that’s pretty good. For me, it’s a fluid thing, like an expanse of terrain opens within where plenty of space exists for everything, so bad stuff doesn’t crowd other feelings, memories, etc. Indulging in the aforementioned good work creates that broadened vista, which, thus far, inevitably contracts, and it’s back to the drawing board. But knowing that drawing board even exists feels like a blessing.

In dreams I have, on rare but real occasions, forgiven everyone, even myself, and awoken with real joy, though it ebbs away as consciousness takes hold. Still, I know it’s there, somewhere.

I’ve done my share of causing others pain, and I am grateful most seem to have found their own brand of forgiveness, however they conceive it. (It is a subjective thing, after all.) As far as I can tell, they don’t let my bad deeds define me in the ongoing story they tell about me, when they’re thinking of me, which, I realize, is far less than I imagine.

Speaking of stories, I am, obviously, a storyteller, but I recently realized: everybody is. Everybody is telling stories about everyone else all the time. It’s a trait that sets human primates apart from other mammals, and it’s mysterious. Scientists argue about it constantly, but most think this ability resides mostly in the pre-frontal cortex, which is the least developed area of the human brain, i.e. it is prone to mistakes, full of bugs, if you will. In any case, it’s how we do so many things. Consider: you want to build a city. You must tell yourself a story about where the buildings and roads will go before you build them. Or say you must go shopping; your list is a story, a projection into the future. You wonder where your loved one is, you tell yourself a story about it. Anxiety and paranoia –with which I am well-acquainted (you too, I bet) – are the storytelling impulse gone awry. Art and the healing circle of fellowship, by contrast, are storytelling at its best.

Relationships go well when the story you tell about yourself jibes with the story the other person tells about you, when the stories harmonize. When they don’t, things get rocky. Some folks, to my amazement, actually like that, in the way some folks like really dissonant music. I do not prefer it, though. At all.

To sum up, the story continues. Mine, yours, ours, each different, but intersecting in real time, and across this expanse of virtual space. If you are reading this, we are part of each other’s stories, and for that I am deeply thankful, even if the story you tell about me is flawed, just as the one I tell about you is flawed. But there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in, or so says Leonard Cohen.

In any case, among writers, affixing the words “THE END” to a work is considered the greatest feeling. But in this case, that’s not accurate. For me, here and now, the greatest feeling is to write these words:

MORE TO COME.

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A Song Shall Lead (And Annoy) Them: “Let It Go” from Frozen at The Weeklings

Ahoy there and Happy Spring.

Songs fascinate me. I play them, I write them, I obsess over them. I throw myself at them like a drunk. Last year, at the preschool where I play once a week, an encounter with a three-year-old inspired me to find out more about “Let It Go” from Frozen, which, you probably know, is an international phenomenon, and the engine behind the most successful animated movie in history. I wrote about it for the Weeklings. Please enjoy by clicking HERE or on Elsa below.

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Also, I have a Facebook Author page. Why not LIKE me?

Thanks for reading, folks.

sound as ever

RBW

January Roundup, featuring Elvis, Lo Fi, and Sneak Peek at my novel “Perfectly Broken”

Hello all!

Hope the first 1/12th of your 2015 was fun. Here in the Catskills, it’s been characteristically cold and snowy, with the usual constant commentary about same, which reminds me, once again, how storytelling is innate in everyone, and I mean everyone.

In addition to  publishing several items this month, I licensed the Uncle Rock tune “It’s Hot (Don’t Touch It!)” to 2015 film People, Places, Things, which stars Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords. Here’s a teaser:

 
I recorded “It’s Hot (Don’t Touch It!)” in my bedroom/home studio with a cheap microphone and a Mac and a then-seven-year-old Jack on background vocals. I sent nine tunes to the music supervisor, most of which I’d recorded in pro studios for substantial sums. But this one had something those others didn’t. I think I realize what it was/is.
 

As for writing, here are links to several pieces I delivered this month.

Originally published in The Weeklings, Salon picked up and re-ran my piece on Elvis, in honor of his 80th birthday. I watched the ’68 Comeback Special again, and, as ever, it blew me away. Click here.

Elvis_stage

Both the ’68 Comeback Special and the licensing of “It’s Hot! (Don’t Touch It!)” got me thinking about “lo fi.” My favorite aspects of the Elvis special and of that song are that they’re raw, and therein lies the magic. I wrote about that for The Weeklings in a piece called Lo Fi Luv.

outside

My novel Perfectly Broken is still bouncing around editors’ desks, but the venerable Akashic Books published a snippet from one chapter on their site, as part of their weekly “Terrible Twosdays” flash fiction series. It’s from a chapter entitled “The Junkie Incident.” Read it HERE

Lastly, I’ve put up some memoir writing on temporary site Notes From the New Wave Queer Underground. 

More to come in February. Thanks for reading and all the enthusiastic and supportive comments. Much appreciated.

sound as ever – RBW

The Hippie Angel – A Christmas Story

Hippie Angel

Hippie Angel by MCL, photo by EBW

On Christmas Eve 1973, I was hyperventilating beneath my Charlie Brown sheets, thrashing in the dark, my salivary glands in overdrive. This was my first anxiety attack, triggered by the worry that I would hear my mother placing presents beneath the tree, thus officially obliterating the Santa Claus illusion.

I already knew the truth. I was eight years old, soon to be nine, and I’d seen the remote controlled car I’d requested from Santa in my mom’s closet. Even before that, science had captivated me, and I couldn’t square the technology requirements for the sleigh, among other things. But I had yet to admit my crisis of faith to anyone. The dreamer in me, the believer, was still strong, and, due to particularly hard times, I was desperate for dreams and magic. More than ever, I desired the illusion of Santa’s visit. To experience that, I needed to fall asleep.

I gotta get to sleep, I told myself, again and again.

1973 had been intense. It was my first full year of fatherlessness. My dad had died driving drunk the year before, and my mother hadn’t taken my older brother and me to Dad’s funeral. As secular, hippie agnostics, we’d not engaged in any rituals to deal with the loss.

In the wake of my grief, I’d befriended an impish boy named Kemp. While dumpster diving behind the A & P grocery store, Kemp and I had discovered a brown bag full of Penthouse magazines, which we secreted away in our plywood treehouse in his family’s backyard. We pored over them, fascinated, titillated, and scandalized. The explicit photos and erotic stories alternately aroused us and freaked us out.

Perhaps in response to it all, Kemp and I invented imaginary friends Antonio and Joe, who were elves. We swore to each other that Antonio and Joe were real, indulging our fantasies in a kind of sad pact. We ginned up excitement at seeing them in the monkey grass, peeping from behind the azaleas, their little peaked caps bobbing among the bees. Sweet, yes, but our imaginary friends could not compete with the smut. The siren call of porn lured us away from Antonio and Joe time and again, until finally, as the magazines grew dog-eared, our elven playmates faded.

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In retrospect I wonder if the lingering trauma of my dad’s death, combined with the adult activity of ogling Penthouse magazines, had something to do with my anxiety attack. Quite suddenly, I was intimate with death and sex, and I had no tools to shape the horror and excitement they evoked. In my bed, on Christmas Eve of my eighth year, the air around me was heavy with shadow.

Our house was small, so only the dining room stood between my tiny room and the area where the Christmas tree shimmered, covered in lights and garlands and crowned with a homemade angel we called the Hippie Angel. Sometime in the mid-60s, when she was newly divorced from my father and we were quite poor, Mom had drawn the Hippie Angel in ballpoint pen on white cardboard and cut her out. The haloed, long-tressed, tiny-winged Hippie Angel wore a wide-sleeved gown and slippers. In her left hand she held a scepter topped with the peace sign. She was much beloved, especially when I was very small and she seemed quite real.

Mom was bustling around in the kitchen, waiting for me to fall asleep. I smelled her freshly lit cigarette, heard her boiling water and padding in bare feet on the old linoleum, familiar sounds and smells that usually gave me comfort. It was well past 2 AM, and my brother slept soundly in his room at the other end of the house.

My mother came to my door to check on me. I called out.

“Mommy!”

“Yes, honey?”

“I can’t sleep! I can’t sleep!”

“You’ll be fine, you’ll fall asleep, I promise.”

I resented her apparent calm. “If I don’t fall asleep,” I said through sobs, “this will be the worst Christmas ever.”

She recoiled a little but recovered quickly, took a drag on her cigarette, the burning tobacco crackling as she filled her lungs. “You’ll be fine, honey,” she said. “You’ll fall asleep. I love you. Merry Christmas.”

She headed back to the kitchen, and, according to my ears and nose, she made a cup of Constant Comment tea in the crockery she and my dad had received as a wedding present, stirring in honey with a tarnished silver spoon. Sometime after that, I finally drifted off into wild dreams in which the Hippie Angel flew between the synapses of my fevered brain.

I bolted awake at dawn, having slept an hour and a half, but energized and deliriously happy. I ran to the living room and there, in the flickering of the Christmas tree, the Hippie Angel smiled down on my remote controlled car, plus some Sesame Street puppets and, for my brother and me, a racetrack, fully assembled. Our stockings were crammed with candy, which we would consume for breakfast. I ran into my brother’s room, passing my mom’s on the way, noticing the familiar lumps of her deeply sleeping body.

My brother woke easily. We did not speak of Santa, but rather said to each other, “Look! Look what I got!” We put the Partridge Family Christmas Card LP on the turntable and tore into our gifts, a familiar ritual we’d engaged in for as long as we could recall – just the two of us, wide-eyed, intoxicated with sugar, avaricious as pirates.


partridge

I took my remote controlled car into the street to see what it could do. My brother stayed in to play with our racetrack. It was unseasonably warm that Christmas Day, so I wore no coat. Our house stood at the end of a hairpin curve, and we often played in the street with no fear, so I plopped myself down on the manhole cover in the middle of the road. The neighborhood still slept, and I heard no traffic, just the birds heralding the new day.

My car zipped along quite well on the cracked concrete as my hands played across the plastic remote. I was happy, but my huge chocolate breakfast and lack of sleep were taking a toll, and as the sun poked over the pines, my head drooped. I could barely concentrate on my toy.

A woman screamed and my head snapped up as a car screeched in front of me, a real, speeding automobile, swerving to avoid smashing into my head. It skidded to a stop a few feet away. I was running for our front yard, my remote control car forgotten, when I heard a woman’s voice.

“Hey!” she called. “Hey kid, stop!”

I did. I turned around, panting like a baby bird, to see a young, flax-haired woman wearing a long, wide-sleeved dress, walking toward me on slippered feet. She stopped below a naked old oak, shaking her head and panting just like me. A bearded man was slumped in the passenger seat, rubbing his eyes. The scent of burnt rubber wafted over us.

“I almost… I almost hit you kid,” the woman said, pushing hair behind her ears. “I could have… Look. I don’t want to sound like a bitch, but you shouldn’t be playing in the fucking street, kid. Please. Never do that. Never.”

I nodded, transfixed. The bearded man got out of the car, lean and lank-haired, and retrieved my toy, which he handed to the woman, who handed it back to me. It was warm.

“Merry Christmas,” the bearded man said, smiling. A frisson of energy passed between them, quick micro-expressions shared. I shivered.

“Be careful, kid,” said the woman, on the verge of tears. “You can be a little wild, but… You got a long life ahead of you.” I nodded again. After this, I would never play in the street again.

Just before she dropped back into her car, she smiled and held up the index and middle fingers of her left hand. “Peace, kid,” she said. “Peace.”

RBW, December, 2014