Category Archives: Essay

‘Tis of Thee: On Being an American in 2021

RBW, mid 80s

In the days following the White Supremacist Insurrection of January 6th, 2021, I struggled to name the emotions that overtook me. I still do. Turns out there is no single word to encompass the mixture of rage, anguish, terror, and anxiety. I was also astonished – although I should not have been – at the clear lack of concern, or even conception of consequences as the all-white terrorists bragged, posed maskless, willingly – proudly – gave out their names, and were eventually calmly ushered out, many high fiving one another and gloating.

This was the biggest mass delusion I’d ever seen. In the citadel of American democracy, they left behind feces and piss on the floor, garbage, graffiti, broken windows, a cowering Congress and Capitol staffers, beaten cops, and a five dead people. And a country changed.

I am changed. As the pandemic has played out alongside intensifying political upheaval, radically altering my life in many ways, I have often said to myself, “This is changing me” without really being able to accurately qualify that. Both physically and emotionally, I am different, older than these ten months, grayer. Parts of my insides feel broken, but what has seeped out is hardening around the cracks. It’s difficult to catalog the emotions because the combos are new, spiked with swirling, unfamiliar agents. Strange cocktails drugging my blood. Memories surge, thoughts of the future quicken. In that future I hope to better understand what is happening to me, what is simmering. The White Supremacist Insurrection added something potent to the mix, something hot.

To put it bluntly: how could I not be further changed by that asshole army? Those empowered, mentally ill bullies. I have seen their like in my day. I have been bullied. Physically, emotionally. Sometimes by someone “not in their right mind.” Bullies, in fact, helped create me. But what once was fear is now clarifying rage.

I had wondered about “the base.” Like: “Who, exactly, are these people attending the rallies? This powerful, angry mob?” I know some Trump supporters, but I know them only in our consensual reality. I don’t know who they are, and how they act, among their own, in the thriving ecosystem of an alternate universe. Now this internet-bred madness has a legion of faces attached. Many smiling dumbly, like drunks. MAGA writ large, heavily armed, joined at the hip with QAnon, a metastatic version of Charlottesville, with a higher body count. People intoxicated on a story as fantastical as any L. Ron Hubbard book. Any Tolkein book, for that matter.

I knew they’d kick up shit when their Dear Leader egged them on, but I didn’t think they’d storm the Capitol. Mainly because of the damage it would do them. Surely they must know this will mean jail time. But no, I was wrong. Naive me. I’m guessing it’s as close as I’ve ever seen to battle. On a battlefield, a soldier can’t acknowledge their enemy’s humanity. If they do, they can’t kill. Battle is a mass delusion.

The footage of the rioters’ baldfaced glee reminded me of Charles Manson, and particularly the unrepentant Manson Family members who smiled into the cameras at their 1971 trial. Those images of brutal murderers completely disconnected from the horrors they had committed will always haunt me, especially as I learned – and sadly can never unlearn – the details of what they did. Similar to the white supremacists, they were under the sway of a sociopathic father figure. A charismatic failure, a vampire. Also, not coincidentally, a white supremacist intent on waging a race war.

Considering how many of the anti-democratic hypnotized insurrectionists were armed at the Capitol, and the various pipe bombs and IEDs left behind, it seems miraculous there was not more death. Had Congress not escaped, it would have been a bloodbath.

Unfortunately, infuriatingly, news broke today that the hours-long close-quartering of Congress was a superspreader event. Because some Republicans refused to wear masks, and even derided those who did, three House Democrats – Bonnie Watson Coleman, Pramila Jayapal and Brad Schneider – have tested positive for Covid-19.

But wait there’s more. Directly after this superspreader event, Congress returned to the hastily-cleaned chamber in the wee hours to finish their business, as guards held firearms at the ready should some asshole be lurking. A long list of Republicans continued with their lethal and antidemocratic political theater of objecting to the Electoral College, all to appeal to Trump’s base, to get those votes. Even after the whole sham had almost just got them killed.

***

Almost a week later, as more information and footage emerges, I’ve experienced some satisfaction at images of rioters finally being arrested, escorted from airports, crying and screaming in protest, apologizing for “getting lost in the moment,” losing business, getting fired. But again, their resistance and outrage arouses in me that same anxiety: look how brainwashed these fully functioning members of our society are. My hope is these perps will all do serious time, but I won’t hold my breath. I’ve experienced some cold comfort at the political resignations, the outrage of some – but not nearly enough – Republicans. The banning of Trump from social media, the losses accrued from corporations pulling funding, canceling GOP events, refusing the GOP cash cow. At this writing there seems to be an outside chance Trump will be convicted in the Senate, and legit impeached. But I won’t hold my breath.

It’s been a week of talking about America. It’s actually been four years of talking about America, but more intensely following January 6th. I am reminded of the dark saying, War is God’s way of teaching people geography. Similarly, these recent events have sparked deeper conversation of patriotism, of what it really means to be an American. What is this thing we are part of? This democracy, or representative republic, or whatever it is. This thing that teeters on the brink of being something else, namely an autocratic fascist regime. Land of Charlie Parker, Tennessee Williams, Stacey Abrams, Katherine Hepburn, Questlove, Arthur Miller, Johnny Cash, Jackson Pollock, Jack Kerouac, Howard Zinn, Toni Morrison, The Ramones, Woody Guthrie, Emily Dickinson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Janis Joplin, Star Wars. What, exactly, does American mean to me? Why, exactly, am I so emotional, so wrought up about my country? Why am I so deeply injured by the desecration of the Capitol?

The words fail me. But the memories do not. I’ve found myself returning again and again to September, 1986, to the first time I ever felt like “an American.” The memory rises to the surface unbidden.

I was twenty-one. I had been living in New York City a year and a half, and had found an apartment, a band, a couple jobs, companions, and most important, independence. I bleached my hair. I saved enough cash from tending bar to visit London, and then a little town near Nuremberg called Fürth. I can still conjure the thrill of my first transatlantic flight. Passport always at my hip, I traveled alone, didn’t make many plans, went with the wind, took trains, lived on the cheap, enjoyed the kindness of strangers. With a companion I traveled to Munich, drank the best beer I have ever tasted. I walked the profoundly ugly Berlin wall, showed my passport at Checkpoint Charlie and spent a day in East Berlin, traveling back in time.

All around me were ghosts of WWII, the war to end fascism. Bullet holes remained in walls, craters were unfilled. Some buildings had not been rebuilt. My companion told me the lack of rebuilding was intentional, so that none would forget Germany’s descent into fascism, so none would forget the Nazis, and what Hitler and his henchmen had quite successfully wrought. The entire country had not quite shaken off that toxic dust, forty years on. This was no accident, but a choice, a kind of collective repentance.

While in the East, I saw a ballet, ate yogurt from a small shop. The East German marks were so flimsy they crumbled in the pockets of my coat, where I also kept a picture a beautiful young German woman had drawn of me, a sketch I still own, in which I am playing my bass, surrounded by American flags. I felt no deep emotional connection to the war, or to the Allied Forces victory that had shaped everything I was experiencing, yet people frequently told me I was so American. (Except for my bleach blonde ‘do, which everyone said reminded them of Bowie, which of course was my intent.) Like every American, I had apparently been configured by my country, whether I wanted to be or not. And as a wayfaring, wide-eyed twenty-one-year old, I dimly thought that made me very lucky indeed. I knew – and know – my country’s deep shame of slavery (I was raised in the Deep South), its ongoing humanitarian crimes, and I was – and am – deeply conversant in the continuing problems that need correction, most of them based in institutional racism. But at that time, I was glad to be who I was and where I was. Then my thoughts were pulled elsewhere.

It was a life-changing, romantic adventure. I was gone a month. As much fun as it was, however, I was surprised at my eagerness to return to New York City, USA. My life – the life that would lead me to this moment – was calling.

I got a train from Berlin to Frankfurt, and flew from there to JFK. I recall nothing of the flight home (I probably caught up on some sleep), but I do remember going through customs. A jovial, blue-uniformed African-American New Yorker sized me up, seemed to know exactly where I’d been and what I’d been up to. He grinned, took my passport, and said:

“Welcome home.”

A wave of emotion hit me. Indeed, I was home, and glad to be. I was not some rootless, wandering, life-in-a-suitcase, leave-in-a-cloud-of-dust nomad. No. I was, and am, an American. I am the descendant of immigrants and Native Americans. I am of this particular soil, part of a story in which I have increasingly, consciously engaged ever since. To keep it advancing in the right direction is much more work than I thought it would be. But the option to move that needle feels ever more precious. To my marrow, I am invested in an America that edges closer to ideals that have brought to me the most amazing people and experiences, the songs, stories, and spirit that have been so much a part of the richness of my life, and the lives of friends, loved ones, and tens of millions of wildly different people I will never meet.

Despite recent horrors, the promise of a country more like what I’m describing is closer than it was just a few weeks ago. And the delusional white supremacists who would raze the Capitol, build a wall, and murder those who are not like them, are as terrified as their man Hitler was in his bunker.

But the Capitol stands, and change is afoot. And next time I travel to another country, I will proudly take that change with me, in my passport. And then I’ll come home, and get back to work.

RBW, Phoenicia, NY, 1-13-21

 

 

Star Wars & Me

downloadSometimes symmetry presents itself as if planned. Chance occurrences seem poetic, intelligently designed, and for a while, a belief in, say, a mystical Force arises, if only fleetingly. Like when you see both the first and the last movies in the Star Wars saga alone, all by yourself, 43 years apart. And you’re overwhelmed by it all, awash in memory, feeling both grief and gratitude, longing and relief. The onward crush of time relents for a few moments. Ghosts hover. You’re a mess in the Best Buy parking lot is what you are.

I saw the first Star Wars movie – A New Hope – alone in an Atlanta theater in the summer of 1977. I was 12, arguably the perfect age for it to have maximum impact. I was sensitive, a fan of fantasy and sci fi. Bookish, a budding romantic. Fatherless. In short, it was made for me. I would never again look at something with such a strong conviction of: that’s MINE.

I’d been intrigued by the all-black posters in the theater for months prior. They simply proclaimed: “… a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” No photos. Ingenious. My mom, Mary Lucchese, and her boyfriend came home after seeing it, raving, just out of their minds over it. So the next day, I rode my bike about 3 miles to Loew’s Tara cinema in cutoffs, and sat in the front row of a packed house.

In the same way Baby Boomers talk about everything being different after seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, my world was changed when I stumbled back into my timeline, blinking against the Georgia summer sun. My molecules rearranged.

It’s not overstating it to say Star Wars offered me much of what I sense religion offers to the faithful: a story that articulates connectedness, a sense of destiny, of Fate, of someone watching over you, guiding you; a sense that you’re part of a story so vast you cannot comprehend it, but if you “trust your feelings” and act honorably and selflessly, it will reveal itself. And if you push through fear and hatred, interesting friends will come to your aid. Indeed, they will save you in ways your blood family cannot. Fortune favors the bold. Tyranny will never last. Death is painful, but not final.

I bought it all. Now that I have lived, I don’t buy it all. But some of it actually still resonates as true.

In the ensuing 43 years, the arc of my life would ensue. I would never miss a Star Wars movie in a theater. Early on, there was no choice, no VHS market yet. But even when video was an option, I insisted on walking into the darkened cathedral of the theater to experience the films as CINEMA.

I would see the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi with friends, girlfriends. I would become a musician and an actor, I would leave home to find my life, my own interesting friends and enemies, and meet challenges seen and unseen, within and without. I would read Star Wars novelizations and geek out over the mythology with fellow fans, and annoy non-fans to no end. I would complain about George Lucas’ shortcomings, and watch as the various actors’ lives played out. To me, no matter where their careers took them, the stars from the original trilogy would always be Luke, Leia, Han, Obi-Wan, Lando, Vader, etc. It seems amazing and almost mystical that Carrie Fisher and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) held on (pretty much) for the final installment, The Rise of Skywalker, which I just walked out of at the Albany Crossgates Mall.

I saw the dreadful “prequels” with friends. We shared an ecstasy of indignation over their dreadfulness. This coincided with my time as a New Yorker, and my early years of parenthood. One of my now 22-year-old son Jack’s earliest memories is seeing Attack of the Clones with me. (Yes, it was a Parenting Mistake to take a 4-year-old.)

The JJ Abrams reboot/continuation of the saga has transpired in what I hope is my middle age, which is happening in the Catskills, and which is where my wife and I co-raised our son, who grew up with the Star Wars mythology. VHS tapes, DVDs, even a couple bootlegs. We would even watch the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special on YouTube and force hapless Thanksgiving guests to watch it with us. Interestingly, the previous inhabitants of the house we bought in which to raise him – an intact family of father, mother and three grown daughters – were also Star Wars fans. They gifted us with a Star Wars Monopoly set, on which I would teach my son to play Monopoly (and frequently be legit beaten by him).

When The Force Awakens came out in 2015, we were there as a family, at the Kingston Mall. The feeling of my then 17-year-old son expectantly and tenderly watching my face in the darkened theater is one of my dearest memories.

In the 2019 holiday time lead-up to the release of The Rise of Skywalker, Jack was home from college, and my mom was visiting. Although Jack and I successfully watched all 8 Star Wars movies in sequence over several days, prepping for Episode 9, we couldn’t find time to get to a theater to watch the new one together. Suffice to say a lot was going on. He headed back to finish his senior year of film school, and weeks passed. The movie left our local mall. I become consumed once again with my day-to-day life. Working money gigs, traveling, making music, worrying, planning, writing, hoping myself into exhaustion.

But today, a quick scan of technology my 12-year-old self would’ve thought very Star Wars told me The Rise of Skywalker is playing in Albany, about 90 minutes from my home.

Seemingly fatefully, I have a rare night open. So, just like 43 years ago, I don’t hesitate. I text Jack to tell him I’m going. No one else. And I don’t take the time to invite anyone to go with me.(I can’t think of anyone who would’ve said yes.) I just put all my chores and to-do lists on hold and head north to sit in stadium seating in the multiplex with four other folks and take it all in. Quite different than the summer of ‘77. But close enough.

Not gonna lie. I wept. Sat to the absolute end of the credits, teary eyed. The years compressed, and I thought of so many people I’ve farewelled. People I wish I could talk to about the movie, and geek out with. But I also realize with intense clarity how fortunate I am. At 12, I did not yet know what I wanted to be when I grew up. But I knew I wanted love, family, and a conviction I could take care of people who needed me, and they, in turn, would look out for me. And I have those things. As much as I’ve often convinced myself otherwise, some kind of Force, it seems, is with me after all.

At least tonight, in the Best Buy parking lot.

P.S. The movie is really good.

P.P.S: May the Force Be with You

RBW

2-13-20

Redheaded Friend

rbwbtb79edit

Todd and RBW, circa 1979 pic by Susanna Hernandez-Gray

Hello there, dear Solitude & Good Company Followers,

I hope you’ve all been well. These last 15 months (!!) I’ve been busy with a project I’m excited about: Redheaded Friend: A Coming-of-Age Song Cycle. It’s a tribute to my friendship with Todd Butler, one of the most important relationships of my life. It encompasses everything I do: writing, acting, singing, songwriting, and playing guitar and bass. I debuted it as a theater piece in April. If you’re a social media contact, you know about this. For those of you who are holdouts and/or have left social media in disgust (I get it), Redheaded Friend is a one-man show with music – i.e. musical memoir – and a forthcoming album, which I’m hoping you can help me finish.

I’ll cut to the chase. Please check out my Indiegogo campaign HERE. It explains everything. It ends in FOUR DAYS (i.e. Saturday, Nov. 23rd). If you can pre-buy the music, fantastic. If you can give more, even better. You’ll see I am SO CLOSE. (96% at this writing.) ANY AMOUNT is much appreciated. One person gave $1,000. Another gave me $5. Several total strangers donated $50, one from Sweden, another from South Korea. All good.

Curious about the music? I’ve posted a couple mixes-in-progress on my Soundcloud page – At the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Defy Gravity – and I made a video of Painting a Vast Blue Sky.

I’m performing the show again at my local theater the Phoenicia Playhouse this week, so I’ve been doing press and radio. You can listen to an interview I did on our local NPR affiliate WAMC HERE.

This is the first time I’ve put RBW music into the world in 15 years. I’m eager to share it all. Please help if you can.

Thanks so much!

sound as ever

Robert

 

 

 

Excavating Myself

“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.

A Brand New Book,” 1991, Graham Parker

 

Late last year, I learned, to my delight, AARP magazine would be publishing an edited version of my Lifers essay sometime in 2018. The essay details the realization that, despite not having achieved youthful goals, playing music for fun is, in fact, a pleasure. And the irony that I’m better now than I was then. (Publication is imminent.)

In preparation, a few weeks ago, AARP sent photographer Gregg Segal to get shots of me on my home turf here in the Hudson Valley, playing music with friends in my backyard, performing solo acoustic at the humble Woodstock Farm Festival, and posing at the Colony, the venue I play most frequently these days.

AARP told me Gregg got some great stuff. It was, indeed, a fun, sunny day, ending with a lush Catskills summer twilight, and I was among good friends, hale and hearty family, in excellent health myself, doing well in the supportive and nurturing community I’ve called home for the last sixteen years. 

The AARP photo editor asked if I had any pix of myself from “back in the day” to juxtapose with Gregg’s shots. Turns out I do, both jpegs, and pre-digital prints I’d not looked at in years. These I needed to excavate and scan. This process brought me face to face with the work of two dear friends from “the old days”: photographers Dan Howell and Jimmy Cohrssen. Both of these men I am still in touch with via the internet, but I rarely see them, as the kids say, “in real life” (IRL). We were once significant parts of each others’ lives. In those days none of us owned laptops or cell phones, and were not yet thirty.

While I was pounding the NYC pavement in the 80s and 90s, Dan and Jimmy were setting out on their paths to become professional photographers. None of us, incidentally, had backup plans if our ambitions did not pan out. We were hungry dreamers. We encouraged and consoled each other, and we had some adventures and misadventures. To my great fortune, I was their frequent test subject, and they showed their belief in me by making many prints for nothing. Neither was a big drinker, so I couldn’t reciprocate with free booze at my various bartending gigs. They didn’t care.

Those times, those friendships, that heart-full emotion of knowing you are at the beginning of something –  all neatly tucked away in my memory. Until, of course, I held the prints in my hands again.

I am happy to say I was mindful to store the Cohrssen and Howell prints – and a few others – quite well. That is telling. I have not been so good at storing other things well. But evidently, with these marvelous photos, I knew I possessed hard copy documents whose value would increase with time, at least in my house. If I’d allowed them to decay, I knew I would not forgive myself, and Dan and Jimmy would be understandably pissed. I had, in fact, already allowed some precious tapes, magazine clips, correspondence, and other photos to degrade in what I’d come to realize was subconscious destructiveness. For that I felt – and still feel – idiotic. With these prints, however, I’d vowed to be careful, to respect my friends’ work, to honor them and my erstwhile self.

I dimly recall painstakingly sealing the prints in a plastic tub well over a decade ago, storing them like a time capsule in a cedar drawer. All these actions were pre-digital, which, oddly, makes them feel like ancient history. But it was only the mid ‘aughts. I recall the strange, unstuck-in-time feeling of communing with the ghosts of my past and future selves, introducing two different versions of myself to each other, then stepping away from this disorienting headspace and back into the onward rush of my timeline, which in the early ‘aughts was pretty intense, if not quite glamorous. Certainly not boring.

On top of the tub was the New York Times from Wednesday, November 5th, 2008: OBAMA. Stored not quite so carefully, yellowed, not sealed in plastic. When I saw that, my gut tightened, and I knew I was heading into fraught territory, about to sail around a bend to rough waters, in which I would feel, with excruciating freshness, losses, both in my life and in my world. I was going to cry. And I did.

 

RBW, 1990, by Jimmy Cohrssen

RBW, NYC, 1990, by Jimmy Cohrssen

RBW, NYC, 1991 by Dan Howell

RBW, NYC, 1991 by Dan Howell

RBW, NYC, 1993, by Alexa Garbarino

RBW, NYC, 1993, by Alexa Garbarino

 

 

After pulling myself together, I looked at the photos and realized: the guy in these photos has had an interesting life up to the point of the photo, and yeah, he’s full of youthful vigor and trying to make the most of it, to document it with the help of his friends, and yeah, he’s vain, a little presumptuous. But I don’t begrudge him any of that. In part because he’s about to get his ass kicked, literally and figuratively, in both good and bad ways. He has yet so much life a-comin’, so much to be done and to deal with. He will, in fact, do his best work after these photos.

I realize with stunning clarity the life yet to be lived, the joy and despair, and every gradation of emotion in-between. The level of fame and monetary success he seeks will not be forthcoming, but in many respects he will be luckier than most, though it will take some effort and guidance to realize this.

As I look at the images, I make a by-no-means–comprehensive list of what is yet to come for this guy. It goes on and on and on, which in itself feels lucky, as I now have said farewell to quite a few whose lists ended years ago, long before they should have. People I mourn still. I realize if I do this again in twenty-five or so years, I will be in my late seventies. If I get that much time, what, I wonder, will I list? I cannot help but muse on that chronicle-to-be. For whom, if anyone, will it be a message? For you? Someone not yet born? Or just for me, a means of taking stock, realizing not only what I’ve done, but what I’ve survived? Not only what I’ve made, but what has made me.

Before I once again step away from this admittedly intense headspace and back into my timeline, I will farewell you with the current list, pasted below:

The guy in the pictures above has not yet

written a book

written a good story

written a good song

written an album

produced someone else’s album

written a decent essay / article, much less a great one

driven someone to tears with any of the above

attended a protest

co-produced a baby

seen a Sonogram

attended a birth, wishing he could do more, feeling like God had let him backstage, and leaving that room forever humbled

changed a diaper 

cleaned up baby vomit (and other effluvium)

broken up a toddler fight

had a baby fall asleep on his chest/on his back/in the Bjorn

made children – and their parents – dance and sing together

wept with gratitude 

taught a word

taught a dance

taught a class

taught a concept

been entrusted with two dozen toddlers

read a child to sleep

read an adult to sleep 

nitpicked (lice, that is)

produced an event

hushed an audience with words and/or song, both his own, and others’ 

carried a 3 hour show 

performed a great show without having slept in 36 hours, and without the aid of drugs

had what was once referred to as “a nervous breakdown” (and recovered)

walked away from a dream

watched friends achieve dreams like the one he walked away from

said goodbye to New York City

been amazed at how leaving NYC didn’t, in fact, send him into deep depression

held elected office (8th Grade doesn’t count)

spoken before elected officials 

sung before elected officials 

affected an election

published a poem 

performed solo acoustic without subsequently breaking into tears of rage and humiliation 

unpacked “issues” for a mental health professional 

tried to work out said issues via art

taken prescription medicine 

taken holistic medicine

communed with God (or…something) on an Andean mountaintop

learned songs written before 1956

heard his song on network TV

heard his song on satellite radio

received a royalty check

had a song plagiarized

had a root canal

met a murderer (Robert Blake)

attended the funeral of a friend

met an idol (John Paul Jones)

talked to – interviewed, actually – Stevie Nicks

played music in a children’s cancer ward, and been subsequently, radically changed

said goodbye to a brain dead friend in an ICU, and subsequently received notification that friend’s organs had saved three lives

received news that his dearest friend committed suicide

become a parent

watched friends become parents

watched friends become grandparents

watched friends get kicked to the curb by their kids

felt like a bad parent

flet like a good parent, then felt like a bad parent again

watched friends go through unspeakable grief

learned he is, according to a DNA test, 8% Native American, 92% European white guy

learned some devastating family history

been told he’s “too old to get testicular cancer” (uh… thanks?)

had a colonoscopy, with most awesome Propofol high

held the following live wild animals in his hands: robin, starling, hummingbird, bat, flying squirrel, mouse, chipmunk, snapping turtle

helped a crazed woman pull a dead black bear off the highway at night

come face to face with a very alive black bear in his backyard

seen a bald eagle mere feet away, and freaked out (in a good way)

heard coyotes laughing in his yard at night

made a deathbed promise

pierced the veil between the living and the dead

been in a room with a recently deceased person

voted for a winning presidential candidate

cut off an addict

forgiven an addict

attended a 12-step meeting

written epic, raging letters 

been told he’s “a bit much”

negotiated a fee

been totally ripped off 

been paid handsomely

had clothing tailor-made

done his taxes 

signed a mortgage 

signed a lease

sold himself short

been forgiven causing great pain

raged in public 

set foot in a gym 

set foot in a yoga studio

beat a traffic ticket

won, or rather settled, a lawsuit

lost, or rather settled, a lawsuit

spent more than $50 on a shirt

attended a protest

sent an email

wasted time on the internet

pulled someone from a riptide

been punched in the face on the street by a stranger (soon, though)

chopped and stacked wood

shoveled snow

kept a garden

made a pie

done battle with weeds

established a friendship with someone whose politics differ significantly from his own

cried in a theater 

cried from a book

run across the street in the wee hours to tell the guys playing free jazz to fucking STOP already, as his pregnant wife can’t sleep

burned an heirloom Confederate flag

talked to the man who last saw his father alive

successfully performed downward facing dog (with feet flat) in a yoga class (that’s this month, btw)

made a list of life events for someone as yet unseen

I Was There, Edition 1: Tom Jones at the Friar Tuck, Catskill, NY, 1992

In which I record an event of which Google has no accounting. 

TOM_JONES_1992

Tom Jones, 1992

 

I’m pretty sure it was summer, 1992. Google says Tom Jones played New York’s Westbury Music Fair in ’93, so I assume he would not also have visited the Friar Tuck in Catskill that season. Plus, at the Friar Tuck, he played two songs that came out in ’91, so it couldn’t have been before then. Thus my deduction.

In any case, the Welsh Soul Brother was still riding his 1988 worldwide hit, a fabulous rendition/re-invention of Prince’s “Kiss masterminded by Trevor Horn/Art of Noise and Jones’ son, Mark, who’d become dad’s manager in ’86. Mark had summarily instructed his old man to ditch the leather trousers for well-cut suits, and record something cool, fer fook’s sake! Genius move.

On a weekend away from our Manhattan home, Holly and I heard about the show at the Friar Tuck’s “Buckingham Palace Theatre,” and conspired to venture to Catskill. We’d bought TJ’s 60s and 70s LPs at yard sales, and enjoyed them both genuinely and ironically, and we loved his irresistible “Kiss.” In those days, we were always angling for a road trip down the two-lane blacktop to some adventure (or misadventure). This plan seemed promising, and if memory serves, it wasn’t expensive.

At the city limits, a faded sign proclaimed Catskill as Mike Tyson’s early 80s home, where he’d trained with (and been adopted by) local legend Cus D’Amato. The terrain was sadly common depressed blue collar Upstate NY, land gone to seed, a sense of barely hanging on, of cheap real estate. Until we rounded a corner and saw the line of cars turning onto to the long drive leading to the Buckingham Palace Theatre at the Friar Tuck Resort & Convention Center.

 

6-06FriarTuckPalace

This was old-school, down-at-the-heels glitz, echoes of bygone Borscht Belt days. Like Vegas, Jr. Chandeliers, folding chairs, stonework, etc. The 2000-capacity Buckingham Palace Theatre was quite full, if not a sellout; an audience of excited middle-aged ladies, original TJ fans I presume, and some game husbands, plus the odd 20-or-30-something rocker clique. Of course, I heard the odd joke about girdles being thrown onstage. An elder woman proclaimed, to the amused distress of her friends: “I’m gonna scream when he does ‘It’s So Unusual’! (sic)” I’d never been in a space with that many women, that much unabashed lust.

The lights dimmed and a quintet hit the stage. They were serviceable, all with ponytails or mullets. One blew into a heinous synth programmed to “sound like a horn section.” (Early 90s digital tech almost always awful.) But they were fine. Tom strode out in a green silk suit and, to our amazement, launched into a stunning version of Richard Thompson’s “I Feel So Good.” Despite furrowed brows, and a palpable sense of confusion at this very current choice (previously unheard by them, I’m betting), the elder fans were civil and appreciative. I envision them trusting Jones wouldn’t leave them unsatisfied. Above all, I am absolutely positive they were transfixed by that voice.

His voice was astounding. One of those artists whose instrument has never been fully represented on record, via analog, digital, whatever. (I am reminded of Glen Campbell at Mohegan Sun on his farewell tour, voice undiminished by time or illness.) I have tried out a few of his tunes, and they are fucking hard to sing well. (“Delilah,” “What’s New Pussycat,” and “Thunderball,” for instance. No recordings exist of me trying to sing these songs, and never will.) At fifty-two (a year younger than I am now), he hit every note, just filled the room, commanded it, wove a spell with those pipes, transported all of us from the Friar Tuck in Catskill to… Heaven? But he also came off as nice, approachable. Not dangerous. Powerfully sexy. His own, very distinctive thing. He could rock, but he possessed a finesse few rockers can claim, a mastery of sound. Although no undergarments of any kind were thrown onstage, it would not have surprised me if there had been.

Other contemporary tunes he slayed: Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis,” and EMF’s “Unbelievable.” (Neither of which seem to be in his discography, sadly.) He chatted with the audience, said he was “so happy” to be at the Friar Tuck. In the middle of the set he sang all his hits, back to back (including “Kiss”), with admirable gusto, and the crowd went nuts.

Having done his due diligence with those chestnuts, he closed with another surprise: Johnny Winter’s “Still Alive and Well.” Which he and the mullet-y band KILLED. Frankly, at that point, he could’ve sung the theme to “Scooby Doo” and everyone – the older women, the husbands in tow, the cooler-than-thou rockers – would’ve loved it. To this day, Tom Jones remains one of the best singers I have ever seen, certainly in my Top 5.

I’ve been talking about that show for 25+ years. And now that I have written this, it will finally be searchable on Google.

More to come.

RBW, 4-8-18

Postscript: Curious to see images of the Friar Tuck? Click HERE What became of the Friar Tuck? Click HERE.