Category Archives: georgia

Perfectly Broken Southern Tour!

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Hello and Happy June!

I am prepping for my Perfectly Broken mini-tour through the South. Very excited to be doing events at Malaprops in Asheville (Thursday June 16th at 7 pm) Parnassus Books in Nashville, (Friday, June 17th at 6:30) and A Cappella Books in my old stompin’ grounds, Atlanta (Sunday, June 19th, 6 pm). I’ll also be dropping in on an Atlanta book club called “Reading Between the Wines.” They’re reading Perfectly Broken, and we’ll discuss it.

I’ll be posting all press clips. Watch this space. (And/or my Facebook page.)

More reviews have been coming in. You can read a great one from The Nervous Breakdown HERE.

Remember: if you’ve read the book and want to help out, you can (and please do) write reviews on amazon and Goodreads. Or just give stars. And of course actual word of mouth is still the best. Thank you.

Wonderful North Carolina public radio station WNCW asked me to send them a one minute audio file of me reading from the book, which they will use to promote the Malaprops event. Here ’tis:


On Tuesday the 14th, I’ll be renting a car and hitting the road for my first jaunt – 14 hours, give or take, to Asheville, where my brother and his family live. I’ll be staying with friends and family in every town. I expect Atlanta to be particularly interesting, as I’ll be seeing some folks I’ve not laid eyes on in 30 years – a combo of schoolmates from Christ the King Catholic School and Northside High School, members of what I have dubbed the New Wave Queer Underground, my family and friends, plus curious strangers attracted by the press.

I intend to blog as much as I can. Stay tuned!

RBW

Indie stores with signed copies of Perfectly Broken to ship to you:

LITTLE CITY BOOKS

GOLDEN NOTEBOOK

OBLONG BOOKS & MUSIC

 

 

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.


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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


 

Playing Alongside Your Echo – For BTB

R.E.M., Todd & Me

Todd and me, summer, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Todd, late 80s, Polaroid by James Bond.

Not A Misspent Youth part 5: Who Wants Gum and Pizza

Once in a while, my past pops up on YouTube. So far, it’s been very pleasurable, and this clip, circa early 1983, is no exception. (Thanks to Julie House for bringing it to my attention.) This is footage of Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul and the U-Hauls gigging at the 688 Club in Atlanta. That’s me on bass in the loud sweater. This was one of our first performances. I was seventeen, a senior at Northside School of the Performing Arts, majoring in drama, minoring in music. (I’ve written a good bit about this here and here.) My best friend Todd Butler is on guitar. “Pizza” is the first song Todd, Ru and I wrote together, in the front room of Todd’s house, before Todd’s mom kicked us out. We never recorded it, and prior to this, I thought it was lost to the ether. (More about Todd and me here.)

Like a lot of Wee Wee Pole video (maybe all), this is courtesy of Dick Richards, of Atlanta’s American Music Show. The American Music Show was a public access variety program that chronicled a glorious time in Atlanta’s New Wave Queer Underground. Did Dick and his cohorts know they were creating invaluable documents? I suspect they did. It didn’t cross my mind, though. I was quite in the moment, and not taking time to do much but live, live, live. These clips, a few photos, some boxed-up letters, and the music that survives are as close as I have to a diary of a seismic, charmed time. My gratitude to The American Music Show runs deep.

This video captures the golden age of Wee Wee Pole, when the blush was still very much on the rose. Soon Gina and Chrissy, the U-Hauls, would get fed up and quit, but in this video, it’s all about love and excitement (and Krogering). The interaction between Ru and the gals is priceless. I cannot explain the sweater I am wearing.

Gammie and RuPaul

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Wee Wee Pole, 1983. From left: David Klimchak, RBW, Todd Butler, RuPaul

In 1983, I was a teenage bass player in a funky Atlanta band called Wee Wee Pole. Our lead singer was a magnetic, six foot four, black, gay man named RuPaul. Ru would go on to international fame as a drag queen, singer, and TV star, but in the early 80s he was running with the scrappy “new wave queer underworld.” These were my people, a group thick with gender bending children of absentee parents. I’d fallen in with them around the time I started shaving. Many, like me, were the spawn of exhausted, former flower child single moms. Because of a laissez faire “trust in the universe,” these moms often let their kids twist in the wind. The only adult keeping tabs on me was my maternal grandmother, Gammie, a southern belle in her 70s.

 Wee Wee Pole was popular, due in part to RuPaul’s tireless self-promotion, which included wheat-pasting provocative flyers everywhere, in neighborhoods both sketchy, like his own, and respectable, like Gammie’s. The posters always featured a Xeroxed image of a near-naked RuPaul, and his name in boldface. On a leisurely walk down her dogwood-lined street, Gammie encountered this image on a telephone pole: Ru in a loincloth, a feather boa wired into his Mohawk, his arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross.

 I’d told my grandmother I was in a band with a guy named RuPaul (“Tell me about your new band!” she’d asked, always interested). I’d omitted crucial details, however, and she’d not seen Ru until that day. I was, as usual, home alone when she called and curtly asked me to come over. I figured she needed help with my Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandfather, but upon turning onto her street in my VW Bug, I saw the “Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul!” poster. My heart sank.

 Gammie and I were close. My dad had been dead eleven years, killed when he drunkenly drove at high speed into an embankment, and my mom was often otherwise engaged, so Gammie had co-parented me for over a decade. She nurtured my rock star ambitions. Showbiz, in fact, was part of her life; my grandfather, Sam Lucchese, was the retired entertainment editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and had been the publicist for Gone With the Wind. Gammie had tagged along on junkets, and, judging from the photos and frequent stories, she loved glamour. Lucille Ball, Natalie Wood, and Jimmy Stewart, seated with my beaming grandparents, smiled down from framed 8 x 10s on the walls of Gammie’s house.

 In thrift store regalia and a sloppy new wave haircut, I walked in, my hands sweating. I found Gammie in the den, where I’d eaten many meals from an indestructible TV tray as I watched All in the Family with my grandparents. Gammie, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, cheered Archie Bunker’s bigotry, and I knew I was due for an earful regarding RuPaul.

 “Sit down,” she said, unusually terse. I did so, across from her Civil War library, which included The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government by Jefferson Davis. She loomed over me in a faded housecoat. My grandfather mumbled incoherently in the next room.

 “Robert,” she said, drawing a deep breath and clasping her hands, “I know you are going to think I am just a crazy old lady who doesn’t know things. But I do. You listen to your Gammie. Robert, you… are a type.”

 “A type?”

 “You are a type that… an older… homosexual man… would want to… lead… astray.”

 The clarity of the moment stunned me. This was how she saw me? I babbled denial, to no avail. Little did she know I was en route to my latchkey girlfriend’s, where, quite frankly, hetero sex would ensue. I wanted to blurt this out, but didn’t dare. I sat mute while she leaned into her fantasy.

 “Your grandfather and I know… gays,” she said. “We met all kinds of people in show business. I know how it is. I’ve seen it, and I want you to know what I see with you and your… band. You are naïve, you need to know that. No one else is going to tell you this.”

 I protested feebly, and she finally let me go, her lined face clouded with doubt, her hug harder and longer than usual. As always, she said she loved me. But I was embarrassed for both of us. Wee Wee Pole would not last, and much of my teenagerdom would fade with time, but this intense episode stayed with me. It was the only time Gammie and I discussed anything sexual.

 Fast-forward a decade. I’m living in Manhattan, and, to Gammie’s delight, I’ve married a North Carolina woman. When RuPaul appears on Arsenio, my grandmother, pushing 90, calls to make sure I’ve seen this career-making performance-and-interview. I tell her I have, and I’m happy for my old bandmate. She says she imagined I would be. I hear her smile down the line, and I smile back. Our long-ago conversation has morphed from cringe-worthy memory to a reminder of when she, alone, was looking out for me. Even when it was unnecessary, Gammie had shown up. She wants me to remember it like that, and I do.

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Jack, RBW, Gammie, on Gammie’s Etowah marble bench in Atlanta, 1999

Lou Reed and the Frogs

It’s early spring, 1984. I am 18, living in a one-bedroom cottage on the outskirts of Athens, Ga. For the first time in my life, I am alone for days on end, unattached, free. I own next to nothing; a bass, an amp, some thrift store clothes, a few cassettes, a bad stereo, and the Velvet Underground’s first LP, which I purchase at Wuxtry Records because the guys in R.E.M. say it’s great, so it must be. (And it is.) I’m acutely aware I stand on a threshold, my childhood behind me, my as-yet-unwritten adulthood ahead. I’m mostly thrilled, but sometimes afraid. One March morning, it pours rain, and I make coffee and play the VU album, which begins with “Sunday Morning.” Lou’s voice is often remembered as caustic and sneering, but on this tune, he is the urban shadow man crooning words that I hear as encouragement, hope, and faith, all the more potent because they flow from this damaged guy’s mouth: Everything will be fine. The world awaits. People will detract, but don’t worry, all will be well. You’ll get hurt, yeah, but it’ll be worth it. Go for it. Live. Before the song ends, the sun comes out as the rain still pours on the monkey grass, and hundreds of tiny frogs appear out of the muddy soil, jubilant, dancing, as if heeding Lou’s call. In time, I would do the same.

Rest in peace, Lou.

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