Category Archives: georgia

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

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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

 

 

 

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 without a father. My dad had died driving drunk the year before, and my mother hadn’t taken my older brother and me to Daddy’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. They were elves. We swore to each other Antonio and Joe were real. We saw 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.

cg_tree-house

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. 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 brain.

I bolted awake at dawn, having slept only 90 minutes or so, 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 outside to see what it could do. My brother stayed in to play with our racetrack. It was unseasonably warm, so I wore no coat. Our house stood at the end of a hairpin curve, and we often played in the street, so I plopped myself down on the manhole cover in the middle of the road. The neighborhood still slept. I heard no traffic, just birds heralding the day.

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

A woman screamed. My head snapped up as a car screeched in front of me, a real, speeding automobile. It swerved to avoid smashing into my head and skidded to a stop a few feet away. I ran for our front yard, my remote control car forgotten.

“Hey!” she called. “Hey kid, stop!”

I did. I turned around, panting like a baby bird. A young, flax-haired woman wearing a long, wide-sleeved dress, walked 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.

“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. He 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, 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.

todd

Todd, late 80s, Polaroid by James Bond.