Category Archives: memoir

‘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

 

 

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

Happy 2018

 

If you’re reading this, you made it to 2018. Congratulations. Many with whom I agree politically and morally were, at this time last year, inconsolable, even hostile toward hope, and scarcely capable of envisioning this day. We were in the early stages of a kind of grief.

Grief over what loss, exactly? Loss of a sense that our society is on a path toward inclusivity, a sense that we are closer to the mountaintop, in striking distance of a promised land of diversity, justice for the disenfranchised, less economic disparity, concerted action toward the troubled environment, respect on the global stage. A more perfect union. If not a cessation of war, a move toward more peace. Progress.

But on January 1st, 2017, all of that seemed dashed.

Around that time, at a meeting of fellow Progressives, most of them women, I posit that all of the above might merely have been deferred, and we must cling to hope. I am heckled. In that moment, my whiteness, maleness/cisgendered-ness, and privilege are obvious as never before. Easy for me to say, and to think. In the faces and voices of my sisters, white, of color, cis, and otherwise, I see in excruciating relief their grief exacerbated by a shocking clarity: sexism and racism are even more entrenched in our nation than we’d thought, which is saying something indeed. And these forces are not abstract. They are as real as the air we all breathe, but unlike that air, quite visible; malevolent, physical presences, now wielding great power. How are we to deal with this, to beat it back as our forebears did, to continue their great work, and preferably not die in the process?

Shortly thereafter, the Resistance fitfully coalesces, gets its shit together. Yes, there’s some collateral damage: friendships are strained or lost, relationships rent asunder. Families plunge into crisis, prescriptions are filled. Clickbait and outrage porn earn millions for darkly savvy media types, and genuinely drive some folks legit crazy. Twitter battles ensue. The word THREAD gains new meaning. Rabbit holes are traveled, realities reassessed. Civility seems suddenly quaint. Nostalgia for boredom becomes a thing.

Has it really only been A YEAR?

I am reminded that the only way to slow down one’s perception of time is to travel. The constant influx of new information, new scenery, etc, makes the days, weeks, months seem longer. I once looked at this phenomenon in only a positive light. But now, not so much.

It does not seem possible only twelve months have transpired since January 1st, 2017. Because, like travelers, we’ve been processing new data, pivoting, thinking on our feet, planning. We make space for an unprecedented political and cultural flux, from the actions of the new administration, to the ongoing pushback; from the Women’s March, to the Mueller investigation; from the seismic #MeToo movement, to Democratic wins in North Carolina, and, for the love of God, Alabama. Even if you stay home in 2017, you travel in your mind, you memorize faces, names, places, as never before; you visit vistas created, and/or reported on, by others. You spend way more time in cyberspace, unintentionally distorting time. And you fiercely desire for this to change, even as your dopamine is digging it.

But more importantly, despite the exhaustion, you are actually engaged in action to change it all, probably as never before in your life. I certainly am. And while certainly not every action of resistance is successful, it’s not wasted energy. People are connecting in real time, in the streets, on doorsteps, at City Halls, on the phone, at the polls. Much better than chatting – or warring – on Facebook/Snapchat/Twitter/et al. I daresay we can all agree on that.

A different collective is rising, emboldened by small victories, not quite so despairing. Cautiously hopeful. Accepting, as the grief-stricken eventually do, that we lost a great deal, but beginning to allow that concerted, sustained effort may yet restore some semblance of those dreams of long-ago 2016.

Happy New Year.

RBW, 1/1/18

 

My Rock & Roll Paris

paris87

RBW, Paris, ’87

FLESHTONES MANAGER BOB SINGERMAN was on the phone. The band had discovered me playing bass for the drag queens at the second annual Wigstock Festival in Tompkins Square Park; Fleshtones’ guitarist Keith Streng later met me in King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, where I tended bar; they’d lost their bass player, and was I interested in auditioning? I said hell yes, and the gig was now mine. A new album, Fleshtones vs. Reality, was about to drop, and tours were imminent. Bob was calling to give me details. It was late 1986. I was twenty-one.

“Robert,” Bob said, a smile in his voice, “how do feel about… opening for James Brown?”

From my rumpled sheets in a three-room tenement on Avenue B in the East Village, I told him I felt great about that.

“How do you feel about opening for James Brown… in Paris? In April?”

Naturally, these were all rhetorical questions. I was beyond excited, like I-won-Lotto excited. First of all, I would be seeing Paris for the first time, and I’d be traveling under optimum circumstances – as a rock and roll ambassador. Secondly, I’d be sharing a stage with the Godfather of Soul, fer chrissakes, a mountain of a man whose music inspired and influenced me. Also, although I was a New Yorker, I’d been raised in Georgia, where James Brown enjoyed folk hero status, not unlike, say, Ted Turner, MLK, and Gladys Knight. In Georgia, my people proudly claimed Mr. Dynamite as one of our own.

It got better. Bob went on to explain that the Fleshtones would be beginning the French leg of a European tour with a one nighter opening for James Brown not just anywhere, but at the 16,000-seat Bercy arena, a venue only slightly smaller than Madison Square Garden. Mr. Brown’s single “Living In America,” from Rocky IV, was a hit, and he was enjoying yet another resurgence in popularity, especially in Europe.

While somewhat “underground” at home, the Fleshtones were very popular overseas, particularly in France, where they’d recorded not one but two live albums – Speed Connection I and Speed Connection II – at Paris’ famed Gibus club. They’d regaled me with tales of their previous exploits among the diehard French fans, all of whom worshipped rock and roll and were skilled at having a good time.

“Fasten your seat belt,” the Fleshtones’ red headed saxophonist Gordon Spaeth told me, grinning maniacally. “Or don’t.”

Fleshtones ’86

I quit the bars and spent the winter of ’86-’87 hitting the U.S. college and club circuit with my new friends. The band had already been at it for almost a decade, releasing several LPs and singles, and they were quite a well oiled machine into which I fit pretty easily. It was sweaty, intense, fun work. Singer Peter Zaremba, it turned out, was not unlike James Brown, conducting and morphing the grooves we laid down while simultaneously enrapturing audiences. Onstage, we were untouchable, playing marathon sets of our own mix of garage, psychedelia, and R & B, referencing great soul like Stax Records, edgy proto punk like The Stooges, and gutbucket blues like Howlin’ Wolf.

Peter was still hosting The Cutting Edge on MTV, a once-a-week lo-fi program showcasing up-and-coming bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Husker Du, Los Lobos, and R.E.M. The band had been label mates with R.E.M. and the Go-Go’s, and enjoyed a loyal fanbase of college kids, new wavers, and some punks, all of whom turned out en masse to our shows, regularly packing clubs and small theaters to dance and holler and hang out with us. We toured into the south, arriving in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, stopping off in Athens, where Peter Buck joined us onstage and got us drunk back at his new house. Several times, we tooled up and down the East Coast in a van, arriving back at our practice space, the infamous urine-soaked Music Building in Hell’s Kitchen (“Madonna used to live here!”) in the chilly, wee small hours, unloading our gear with the help of our driver/road manager/sound man, and going home to sleep for a few days before heading out again, back into the buzz of the oncoming spring of ’87.

I was enjoying my first real taste of Life on the Road, watching the landscape zip by from a van window, often the only Fleshtone awake on the post-gig ride, my long legs cramped, ears ringing as my bandmates snored around me, their exhalations filling the Econoline with stale beer breath and various other man smells.

The guys took a real shine to me. They were all contentious and egotistical by nature – which is what you want in a rock band – and they nursed grudges at the world, insisting they should, in fact, be as famous as their ever-more-successful and inferior contemporaries. But for the hex someone had put on them, they would be. One of the Fleshtones’ best songs was actually called “Hexbreaker,” a funky rave up we usually saved for the end of the set. Several times, Zaremba looked at me in the darkness of the van, placed his big hands on my shoulders, and said: “You! You are the hexbreaker, Warren! You’re the hexbreaker! Our luck is gonna change!”

It was one of the happiest times of my life. And it was all prep for Paris.

The April afternoon we left JFK for Paris was a Perfect Manhattan Spring Day, blossoms in the East Village trees, bare-legged folks in T-shirts, music spilling onto the cracked pavement from open windows. Artists everywhere, all of us poor and, for the most part, happy; tolerated or even beamed at by the old Ukranians and Poles whose neighborhood we’d invaded.

Our meeting spot was outside the Pyramid Club on Avenue A. We waited for the van, our instruments and bags encircling us. Sweet anticipation connected all as we sat in the warm late afternoon sun. We laughed a lot. The van was running late, so I walked across the street to King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut to see some friends and have my customary double espresso with Sambuca. I must’ve been radiating something, because a beautiful young woman sidled up to me and struck up a conversation. I told her I was a bass player, and I was waiting for a van to take me to the airport, as my band was going on tour, and our first gig on French soil was opening for James Brown. I asked about her, and she told me, quite unapologetically, that she was a mistress. That was her job. And did I have time to come back to her apartment and, you know, hang out? I told her I did not. Sadly. She kissed me and told me to have a good time and be careful. I would never see her again.

About eighteen hours later, an official was stamping my passport at Charles de Gaulle airport. I rarely sleep on planes, and this flight had been no exception. I was too excited and amped up on coffee. These were the days when you could still smoke on planes, and even though I was not a smoker, I bummed a French cigarette – a Gauloise blonde – from a Parisian guy heading home. Just to have something to do, and to talk to a French person, as prep. He had not heard of my band, but was a fan of James Brown. Although Zaremba had told me I didn’t need to worry about speaking French, as I would be conversing in the language of rock and roll (this would turn out largely to be true) I still wanted to try to resurrect my high school French.

Friends of the band picked us up at the airport and, as French folk are wont to do, they took us to their house, where we sat, bleary-eyed behind our shades, on a terrace in a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, and drank yet more (sublime) coffee, the best red wine I’d ever tasted, and Kronenbourg beer. I cracked open my first still-warm-from-the-neighborhood-bakery baguette and smeared it with the best butter I’d ever tasted. I caught the occasional word and gist of the conversations around me (although our hosts, like most French, endeavored most often to speak English in our company), and the name James Brown was excitedly uttered amid the occasional flurry of French. As the sun crept low over the russet tiles of the surrounding roofs, fatigue finally began to pull me under.

Another drive took us to our accommodations, the Hotel Regyns, in Montmartre. We careened down cobbled, tiny avenues, and diesel-choked thoroughfares, all of which looked, to my bloodshot eyes, like a cross between Breathless and the 1981 film Diva. Everyone was slim and urbane and beautiful, or dignified and happily elder, with, I shit you not, berets and tiny glasses of wine on folding tables outside apartments and cafes. Seemed like everyone was smoking, everywhere, and everyone was kissing hello. A subculture of dogs seemed to roam freely, even in and out of shops. And among the clearly Gauloise faces were enfolded Turks, Africans, Middle Easterners, every color of the world, gracefully woven into a fabric I could reach out and touch with my naked eyes and eager hands. It was even more effortlessly multi-culti than New York.

I felt like Henry Miller, like Jim Morrison, like I’d stepped into a painting, like I was falling, happily exhausted, into the embrace of an ancient culture of arts love, of sensual, guiltless pleasure. It began to dawn on me in a visceral sense that I was in the land where the creators are revered; Paris greets artists with an affection so strong it gives an energy boost, life force, enabling one to go back to the blank space with faith, with no fear. And indeed, I was not afraid. I was the opposite of afraid. They don’t call it the City of Lights just because it literally shines at night; they call it that because of what it does to your insides.

paris88-copy-e1512138452631.jpg

~

The tiny Hotel Regyns, overlooking the Place des Abbesses metro, was the rock and roll hotel of Paris, famed among bands as being laissez faire about all night carousing and guests. But none of us partied that night. In twenty-four hours, we would be rocking the Bercy. Best to be somewhat rested. We all crashed at a “reasonable hour” for once, our casement windows open to the misty springtime air laced with the scents of diesel and cooling stone.

I awoke around 4 AM, eyes wide, senses on hyper-alert. I got dressed, pulled on my Chelsea boots, and made my way through the streets of Montmartre as dawn paled the sky peach and the warm yeasty smell of bread baking rose in the coolness. I actually saw a squat, beret-wearing man in rumpled tweed walking along with a baguette tucked under his arm. I am in a tourist postcard, I thought. I found his bakery, a sunny little storefront where they smiled indulgently at my lousy French; I purchased coffee and the absolute finest croissants of my life, which I ate on the steps of Sacre Couer as the sun lit the red ceramic roof tiles of the 18th arrondissement. I made my way back to the hotel, passing the painters setting up their easels in the plaza, awaiting tourists; meanwhile, young, beautiful drunk couples were making their way back from nearby Pigalle to collapse in bed together. I bid them all a shy Bonjour and crawled back into my bed.

We arrived for sound check to the echoing strains of James Brown’s band laying into a hard groove: “(Get Up I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine.” I heard James’ voice and hurried into the empty, cavernous house, where techs were rigging lighting and tweaking the massive sound system. I was stunned by the size. I’d never played anywhere remotely that large. Somewhat to my disappointment, James was not there. One of his backup singers, a slender man with a Jheri curl, was checking for him, sounding exactly like him.

The rest of the Fleshtones headed for our dressing room while I watched the bass player and sax great Maceo Parker navigate a couple more grooves. I finally approached and introduced myself, and they were nice as could be. The bassist had been in K.C. & the Sunshine Band, and that man was funky. Maceo, of course, was one of James Brown’s many indispensible collaborators, and clearly the actual bandleader. We chatted for a while and he said he’d try to get us an audience with James, the prospect of which made me ambivalent.

©Christian Rose/Fastimage.
James Brown & Maceo Parker. 1986.

A few hours later, as we waited to go on, we were informed James couldn’t meet with us due to problems with his teeth. Maceo, however, came by to tell us to break a leg. We hit the stage and a cheer rose in the three-quarter filled venue, but the audience was not there for us. We rarely opened shows, and while our thirty minutes was fun indeed, it wasn’t nearly as fun as our usual club show, for which we were deservedly famous.

While most expressed appreciation to the five white dudes called the Fleshtones opening for the African-American dude who sings “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” at least one Parisian did not care for us. As I walked the lip of the stage during my fuzz bass solo, an orange object spun to my left. When the lights went up, I saw what it was: an orange-handled, blunt, rusted straight razor, flung at us during our set.

I showed it to Maceo who laughed like Santa Claus and went out and worked the Bercy crowd for about fifteen minutes, the band pumping behind him. He actually gave a more inspired, energetic performance than The Hardest Working Man in Show Business. Once James hit the stage, the energy level actually dropped. Nevertheless, it was an amazing show. An off day for James Brown is probably way better than a stellar day for most musicians.

When it was all over, we went to the Bataclan, danced and drank, then back through the lamplit streets to our hotel. We caught a few hours sleep, some of us alone, some of us not, before meeting our French road crew – two lovable, hardboiled Parisiens – who would drive us through Europe in a red converted bread truck, leaving a plume of diesel in our wake, listening to the Stooges on a handheld tape recorder.

Paris faded in the rearview, but we would soon return triumphantly after playing for adoring crowds in the provinces. At our final gig for this leg of the Fleshtones vs. Reality tour, before heading to Italy and Germany, we led the audience of La Locomotiv out of the club to the sidewalk, and we climbed into the trees, up among the streetlamps, our instruments dangling, completely unconcerned with possible trouble from the Gendarmes, because indeed, they did not care.

In time I would return again and again, as a Fleshtone, as a newlywed, and several more times as a visitor. I sought out the sad-eyed smiles of the citizens of the City of Lights; all speaking passionately of politics, art, and wine, no matter their standing: millionaire’s daughter or a squat dwelling punk. The welcome was always there, that familiar touch of the emboldening friend. That contagious passion drew me back again and again to my Paris, rock and roll town extraordinaire, multi-hued haven of beauty, art, erotica, and courage, all offered to anyone visiting the City on the Seine. I took all of it with me and ran into the creeping evening of age. But I will be back.

This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings