Category Archives: Mr. Mom

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


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.


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, late 80s, Polaroid by James Bond.

Rock On for The Weeklings


RBW in Rocky Horror. Pic by Dennis Oclair

RBW in Rocky Horror. Pic by Dennis Oclair

I’m happy to report on my new gig as music editor for The Weeklings. I’ve written for this fine publication before, weighing in on post-apocalyptic novels, rock and roll movies, and the Syria Crisis (see here) but now I will be writing and editing regularly on music and music-oriented  topics. My first post is a getting-to-know you essay entitled  Rock On, in which I condense highlights of my life in music, including, but not limited to, RuPaul, the Fleshtones, Buddy Holly, Electric Lady Studio, The Roots, the Big Apple Circus, and kindie rock.

Please click HERE and enjoy. And thanks.


The Last Straw: Halloween Grace


Our old home, 113 St. Mark’s Place, NYC

A thug stabs a teenager to death outside the Catholic school on our block. We stay. Gunshot to the face kills a handsome drug dealer on our stoop. We stay. A junkie O.D.’s in our basement. We stay. On the 14th street A-train subway platform, during rush hour on a Friday, a man who will never be caught shoots and kills our wacky, beloved upstairs neighbor. We stay.  

Shortly after we become parents, we watch the Trade Towers fall. For many Manhattan families, this horror is the last straw leading them to seek safer homes. Perhaps this should be the case for us. Especially considering 2001 is already the worst year of our married life. Pre-9/11, both my in-laws have passed away within weeks of each other, my wife has parted ways with her longtime employer, and, due to a lost eviction case with our landlord, we must find a new home. 9/11 is actually the cherry on top.

You’d think we’d get the hint, but no. We perversely cling to New Yorker-hood, tighter than ever. We’re still looking at apartments, living off hope, dwindling savings, and cash from the one bartending shift I kept when I became a stay-at-home dad.

For weeks, black plumes rise from the financial district, but we cleave ever tighter to the crucible of punk rock and possibility where, over the course of almost two decades, both my wife and I have become our current selves. We’ve suffered, but also, through skill, luck, and stubbornness, each of us has beat mythical odds, and experienced some dreams actually coming true; at different times, we’ve both made good money, or I should say, acquired remuneration doing what we love. We’re like compulsive gamblers refusing to leave the crumbling, squalid casino, because once in awhile, we’ve hit the jackpot. If that doesn’t root you to a place, what will?

Speaking of jackpot: one realized dream we share is our Manhattan parenthood. I love toting our son in a backpack in the russet-tinged light of the East Village. I love the immigrant women baffled by my stay-at-home dadhood: “Where’s the baby’s mama?!?” the Ukrainian woman yells from her stoop. (And/or the Indian woman, or the Ecuadorian woman. They cannot wrap their heads around a man doing what I’m doing.) I love foreseeing our boy coming of age in multicultural neighborhoods, where Farsi, Arabic, and Urdu pepper the air, where Richard Hell, Lou Reed, Allen Ginsberg, and Phillip Glass still walk the earth. This will be our son’s stomping ground.

We’ll find some way to explain to him the violence that haunts the sidewalks where he learns to walk. We vow he will experience the wonders of Manhattan, his bedazzlement overshadowing the horrors. We picture him becoming a city teen, meeting pals at CBGB, hanging out with his girlfriend on the tar beach of our roof. We are not easily dissuaded from these dreams. We are, in fact, professional dreamers.

The shock of 9/11 morphs into deep sadness; we decide to take a break from the collective grief of our town, and leave the acrid odor still wafting up from Ground Zero. We will spend Halloween in a secluded cabin near Woodstock. Our three-year-old will experience his first trick-or-treating in the famed Woodstock Halloween Parade, not the East Village storefronts and stoops.

I’ve not thought about pagan Halloween history in a while, but on the 31st, when we drive to Woodstock and see the crowds, I remember delicious details of this odd fete, details I learned at Enchantments, the occult store near our apartment, where I’d spent a little time buying essential oils, getting my cards read, and talking to the witches.

The urban witches at Enchantments told me the reason people began dressing up at harvest time was to disguise themselves from malevolent forces that run amuck in mid-Autumn, when omnipresent death of crops weakens the barriers between the world of the living and the spirit realm. Trick-or-treating would come later, but in the beginning, we donned costumes so these ill-meaning entities would mistake us for their own kind, and move on. Move on, at last. Christianity tried to squelch these powerful rites, and failed.

Anne Beattie said, “People forget years but remember moments.” I remember this: Woodstock Halloween Parade, 2001, air scented with apples and fresh donuts; my son, in a homemade ghost outfit, walks fearlessly among strangers guised as vampires, werewolves, zombies, all manner of pretend evil; in my mind, they are joyously keeping the real evil of the world at bay. This clear moment is, quite unexpectedly, the last straw: I see the promise of a new life, protected from wickedness by mischievous, benevolent spirits of the wood. An illusion, yes, but a powerful one. It bears me up.

Soon after, we leave our beloved, broken New York for good, and head for the Catskills, feeling blessed for the first time in a long while. The final straw is steadfast, pagan, Halloween grace.

Children Trick-or-treating

I Am A Weekling

Ahoy there,

Hoping this finds everyone hale and hearty and looking back on an 2012 with a healthy mix of “that was pretty good” and “let’s move the hell on, shall we?”

2012 brought much richness into my life. Among the more pleasant events was my becoming a Weekling. The Weeklings is a great blog begun by my friend, Greg Olear, author of, among other things, Fathermucker. (Which I wrote about here.) The Weeklings posts at least one piece a day, and I’m happy to count a few friends among the contributors. When Greg asked me to contribute, I was happy to jump in with A Post Apocalyptic Reader, an essay comparing and contrasting four of the many speculative novels I’ve read in which the End Of Days actually happens. It’s a thing with me. I’m looking forward to more writing for them in 2013.

Please enjoy my Post Apocalyptic Reader by clicking HERE.


Thanks for reading Solitude and Good Company this year. WordPress sent me a year-end round-up and I’ve received hits from 56 countries, which is mind blowing. Wherever you are, please know I appreciate it.


See you on the other side.



January 31st, 2012

Phoenicia, NY

Paul McCartney, Fantasy Dad

In honor of Paul McCartney’s 70th birthday, I’m reprinting of a piece I wrote for Paste last summer.

 Paul McCartney is 70 – the same age my divorced, troubled father would have been had he not drunk too much in a hotel bar in April 1972 and subsequently driven off I 85 and killed himself at the age of thirty-one. I had just turned seven. Not long after that, Paul became my fantasy dad. I’d forgotten all about it until I saw him at Yankee Stadium, where I realized this fancy still flickers in a very deep part of me. I can only imagine how a son would feel seeing his father captivate fifty-thousand people, but as I witnessed McCartney tear it up for almost three hours, I came pretty close to papa-pride.

McCartney’s voice and image filled my late-60s and 70s childhood via my mom’s Beatles LPs, and as of 1972, Wings was all over the radio, which I listened to incessantly. I remember  photos of the McCartney family touring with Wings – probably in my mom’s Time magazine, or later my own Creem; I was struck by his beautiful, grubby kids Mary, Stella and stepdaughter Heather (from Linda’s previous marriage, but adopted by Paul). This crew sported shaggy hair like their dad, and they were often either in his arms or at his heels, running through airports and the like. Fun. Here was a most unusual set-up: a vital, rockin’ superstar, proud of and present for his children, never hiding the fact that he was happily married, up to his knees in domesticity, apparently satisfied to be tied down in that respect. Paul was fulfilled, yet still somehow funky, raggedy, unconcerned with appearances. His first solo album McCartney was recorded at home (and sounds it, blessedly) and the cover features a photo by his wife Linda, who also sang background vocals. The pic of bearded, smiling Paul with their first baby, Mary, nestled in his shearling coat fascinated me as a child. His eyes are dark, mischievous, sad but… strong and full of what I imagine to be love for his mate, his kid, his family. As a fatherless boy, this was very exotic to me.

As I grew up among increasingly dysfunctional children of divorce, the McCartneys’ inseparability bucked rock and roll standards and seemed an odd yet attainable ideal. So they wouldn’t be apart, Paul had enfolded his wife into Wings, to much eye rolling and allegations of Linda’s dubious musical talents. Similarly, Lennon would claim Yoko as a musical collaborator and suffer intense criticism. They both were undeterred by the snipes. I always loved that and I still find myself sticking up for the Beatle Spouses. In retrospect, the wife-involvement stuff and, in particular, McCartney’s inclusion of domesticity in his public image seems, ironically, cutting edge for the era.

Macca’s life was the rock star fantasy I wanted. But I didn’t want to be him; I wanted to be his kid joining him on the road. The swaggering, lock-up-your-daughters stuff would not appeal to me until my hormones kicked in, and even then, I kept close my McCartney-as-dad dreams and longed most for stability-within-rock, a notion that seems contradictory unless you apply it to McCartney. In my mind I was Paul McCartney’s son, watching from the smoky wings with my crazy-haired sisters as he played Dad Rock, goofy songs that lodged in my brain and made me laugh: “Hands Across The Water,” “Magneto and Titanium Man” and “Listen What the Man Said.” I imagined myself grabbing a fistful of his rank bellbottoms as we posed together, sweaty-faced in Lagos or Jamaica, both of us sunburned and sleep-starved. No matter what opportunities he had to stray – and he would have plenty, I’m sure – my traveling gypsy troubadour millionaire dad with the funny accent would never abandon me.

Later on I would find that both Lennon and McCartney had lost their mothers as kids. Paul’s to cancer, John’s after being hit by a car. Needless to say, my devotion intensified; Paul had overcome a blow not unlike mine, yet stood tall, brazen and larger-than-life, whole. So could I. Thirty-plus years on, I’ve come to realize that damage on this scale can’t be quantified, and to assume that he weathered “better” than Lennon, whose life always seemed fraught by comparison, is ridiculous. And now I realize no one is whole, ever. But that is what I believed then.

These were some of my thoughts as I marveled at near-septuagenarian Sir Paul tear it up at Yankee Stadium on July 15th, 2011. From the opening of “Hello Goodbye” to the encore of “The End,” I was a riot of sensation and notion; chill bumps, laughter, singing with strangers – all messy, uncool spillage from an open heart. When the thoughts of my father crossed the threshold and then departed, I realized McCartney possesses the power to do what meditation, drugs, food, sex, travel, athletics, yoga and art are designed to do: place a listener in an ineffable, timeless moment, then bring them back and take them elsewhere.

My wife, Holly, and I had arrived a little early, as the sky was just beginning to darken. Weather-wise, it was a perfect summer evening. The Biblical-style crush (“And lo, the people went down to the Bronx to be counted”) was intense until we made it to our seats about fifty yards from the stage. The scent of hot, processed meat and salty starch was everywhere and indicated vegan Macca’s lack of influence over the vendors. (Dads must compromise!) We settled in, giddy at our proximity to the stage, and the experience began with the massive PA pumping out instrumental versions of Beatle tunes by Booker T. & the MGs (an oddly upbeat “A Day In the Life”). As dusk descended, the two screens flanking the stage began to spool moving images and designs, lots of Linda McCartney’s classic 60s rock and roll photos interspersed with cartoonish psychedelia, black and white clips from Beatle movies, Super 8 footage of the Family McCartney. Whoever designed the presentation knew it would evoke everything from nostalgia to wonder to amusement, even a little annoyance. As with the entire show, the visual aspect was almost as genius as the music itself. The Cute Beatle has surrounded himself with an impressive retinue of showfolk – performers, designers, and engineers. The sound was mind-blowing.

Obviously, I am a superfan. I will allow that Paul has released some steaming crap (I think he’d allow it too), some unlistenable tunes and unwatchable videos. But, as he is my surrogate dad, and considering the level of stellar stuff, I have unusually low standards for acceptance of his work. Sometimes to the chagrin of loved ones, I will sing along to “Silly Love Songs” (one of the best basslines ever, I don’t care what anyone says) “My Love,” and even “Coming Up.” Interestingly, a couple of these largely loathed tunes were part of a looped McCartney Megamix that took over for Booker T as the stage lights slowly lit the waiting microphones and drum set. Even with my charitable taste, it was a little obnoxious.

Paul and his fantastic band came out around 8:30 or so, in the gloaming. Rusty Anderson on guitar, Brian Ray on guitar and bass, Paul “Wix” Wickerson on keyboards and the stunning Abe Laboriel, Jr. on drums, forty and fifty-somethings who still look great in understated rock and roll clothes – if there can be such a thing. Paul cut a striking figure in a tapered Edwardian three button blue jacket, black Beatle boots, snug black stovepipe trousers, a plain white dress shirt and suspenders/braces. He is ridiculously fit, with the ass of a twenty-something man. There, I said it.

All of the band members sing, and Laboriel in particular is a powerful vocalist, sometimes covering for Paul on the really high stuff while propelling the whole outfit forward like a machine with a soul. He is perhaps the finest drummer I have ever seen. They are a lean, rocking, passionate band with longtime road chops, charisma and that greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts quality every worthwhile band possesses. Simply put, they are the best band he’s had since the Beatles (check YouTube for various Wings lineups and Paul’s very good but unremarkable backup musicians from the 90s and you will agree). I think this current foursome may be one of the reasons he’s toured quite a bit in the last decade, after Linda’s death from cancer in 1998.

That’s right, I remember thinking as his astonishingly well-preserved voice cracked slightly on “Maybe I’m Amazed,” one of many songs written for Linda, the same affliction that took out his mother robbed him of his wife. Yet he got past it.

In one of the most moving visual displays of the evening, a sepia-toned home movie of the photo session for the McCartney album cover – with Mary snuggled in Paul’s coat – played on the screen behind Paul. It was that same image that resonated in my childhood come to life, with Paul posing and laughing, cradling Mary, his face glowing with love, seen as Linda saw him. The audience looked through Linda’s long-departed eyes. It was ghostly, dreamlike.

He lost her. Yet my New Dad threw himself into work and, with some guys only a little older than me, took to the stage after the passing of his soul mate. Didn’t go off the rails drunk, blaming crazed behavior on inconsolable grief, didn’t lash out, make a mess of things, but worked through it with song, with performing, giving of himself to the Fans.

I recalled my own losses, disappointments and betrayals, levies on the gift of a long life. Where had I searched for a road map, for clues, examples? My actual family of mostly women is pretty impressive, but when I needed to see how a man deals with rage and bereavement, I realized I’d kept my fantasy dad in my peripheral vision all along.

McCartney and Co. soared through “Jet,” “Drive My Car,” and, for the first time ever before an audience, the raucous Hard Day’s Night nugget “The Night Before.” The big screens pulsed with images of jets, cars, et cetera and the crowd got progressively more ecstatic. Before long I realized I’d never been in a group of that many people who felt that good, ever. It was palpable, a crackling connection coursing through an audience ranging from small children to folks with walkers.

At one point McCartney acknowledged the signs held aloft, fake-scolding the fans for throwing him off. One sign read “Kiss My Butt” and he chuckled and said “Well, let’s see it then!” then hastily backpedaled.  Another said, “My name is Jude” to which he gamely said, “Hey, Jude!” The patter was goofy and, according to his DVD from a couple years back, not totally spontaneous. Except the Derek Jeter crack: “Who’s this guy Derek Jeter? I hear he’s got more hits than me!” Rim shot.

As the band rocked on, I was hoping for “Here Today” and I got it. It’s a heartbreaking song, an imaginary conversation between Lennon and McCartney written after John’s murder. Even before I lost my best, oldest friend to suicide in 2004, I loved this song, which delves into unresolved issues between friends; the heart brings you into contact with difficult people and insists you remain, even when it’s a challenge. Then, sometimes, before you get a chance to mend fences, you lose someone and the pain just echoes on. The band left and Paul, armed with only an acoustic guitar, introduced the song. He made special mention of New York City being John’s home, which brought a deafening roar in honor of The Smart Beatle. Then the crowd listened respectfully as a simple image of a full moon glowed on the empty stage and Paul’s falsetto arched into the purple sky above the Bronx. I caught this moment – or at least a pixilated rendition of it – on my iPhone. When I play it back, McCartney’s voice is both crystalline and grosgrain, but the lo-fi image is a shimmery, saturated white burst of light on a screen surrounded by bobbing heads, like the very essence of dignity in the face of loss. Which, to me, is beyond rock and roll and simply art.

Linda, George, John, all gone. And so many of his friends from the 60s, too. I imagined I could hear it all in his voice, which ached but also raged and, at the same time, saluted the enduring beauty of those lost loved ones, reveled in the strength they gave him.

As “Here Today” ended a roadie handed Paul a mandolin – one of five instruments he would effortlessly play – and the band launched into the jaunty, damn-the-torpedoes “Dance Tonight,” from 2007’s Memory Almost Full. I recall publicists falling all over each other to proclaim the CD a “return to form.” It was his “break-up” record, supposedly touching on his divorce from the mercurial Heather Mills, and people with a lot of time on their hands figured out that the witty title is an anagram (likely accidental) of For My Soul Mate LLM (Linda Louise McCartney). In any case, it’s a good tune about enjoying life regardless of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, a concept on which fantasy dad needs no schooling.

On “A Day in the Life,” Paul sang John’s distinctive verses and tacked a repeated chorus of “Give Peace A Chance” to the end, like a coda. This was the only awkward moment of the evening. The audience, like a lot of Americans, isn’t really sold on the ideal of “Give Peace A Chance.” Not anymore. It was enjoyable but toothless. My cantankerous Uncle John was better with punky irony, and I’m sure Papa Paul knows it and doesn’t care. Like “Here Today” and the lovely ukulele arrangement of “Something,” it was a tribute, not a manifesto. The sad resignation of “Let It Be,” which followed “Give Peace A Chance,” went over much better.

The inevitable over-the-top fireworks and flashpots of “Live and Let Die” cast a veil of smoke over the congregation and scented the air with sulfur. Paul walked around in faux dismay at the extravagant pyro, actually imitating an old man as if he is not one. It was funny but also bizarre.

The night concluded with “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End,” the perfect concert-ending suite if ever there was one, topped off with red, white and blue confetti seeming to fall from heaven, as there was no ceiling. The communal satisfaction hummed through the air like feedback as the assembled separated into streams pouring through gates, doorways, concrete halls, back into our lives. I was struck by the amount of families, some of whom carried sleeping children out of the still-charged stadium. This had been a family event. Of course.

I had a lot to think about and plenty of time to do it as we sat in traffic, trying to get home. The usual two-hour trip would take four hours, but we didn’t care.

Clearly my boyhood desire for a rock and roll dad was never actually realized, and I made it to manhood under far less spectacular circumstances; I had help from a loving single mother who never remarried, a very present maternal grandmother, a United Way Big Brother, my friends and a couple of teachers. They did the actual work, and I don’t begrudge them their lack of rock star accoutrements. In fact, I was lucky in a lot of ways.

Paul’s actual kids – my fantasy sisters Heather, a potter, Stella, a fashion designer, and Mary, a photographer, plus fantasy brother James, a musician – have all done fine. Heather has said the hectic decade of traveling with Wings was not all fun. She told the press she had a hard time making friends once it all ended. Although I love traveling with my family, I also have tasted a little of the rock and roll lifestyle myself, and that is a very different, very particular animal. I actually cannot imagine having a kid in tow while going through the rigmarole of the road, much less three. Granted, the McCartneys had tutors and likely a phalanx of nannies, but for the kids I imagine it must’ve been hard at times. I can also imagine trying to explain these realities to my childhood self and making no impact whatsoever.

Finally, being a dad myself, I have long since moved on from searching for father figures and look to Paul McCartney now as a fellow dad. In true rock and roll style, his daughter Beatrice – by ex-wife Heather Mills – is five years younger than my son and younger than a couple of his grandkids. When I try to imagine an offspring of mine having a child who is older than one of my own kids I need to lie down. Leave that to überbeings like my fantasy dad Macca.

Beatrice McCartney

I have always known that music and images, when expertly wielded, can have a time-shifting power for both listener and performer.  The promise of that power is one of the things that led me to be a musician. Yet, when Holly surprised me with tickets to see Paul McCartney at Yankee Stadium, I did not expect to revisit any childhood longings for a rock and roll dad. I’d heard he still brought an impressive show, even from some very prickly, hard-to-please cynics, so I was banking on a great experience. What I was not prepared for was the welling up of a dormant desire for an adventurous, raggle-taggle, brilliant musician to spirit me away from a fatherless childhood to concert halls, tarmacs, hotel rooms, people bestowing love and accolades in foreign tongues, the feel of a jet’s carpeting beneath my bare feet as we fly over the Pacific. But even the most far-fetched of fantasies still exist in my mind, somehow, just waiting for the right sequence of notes combined with the proper visuals to unearth it.

Paul sings to departed Linda as he looks up at the Jumbotron, seeing his younger self gazing into his soul mate’s eyes while he cradles their firstborn against his chest. Time and space ebb for a few liberating moments and I see me, a grieving kid, caught up in a melody, singing in spite of it all, looking at a magazine photo of a musical family on the run who appear, for the time being, far away from loss, tragedy, death. Then and now, my fantasy dad has brought me to a timeless place. When the song fades and the cheering subsides, I am a man again, and Paul is not my dad. But he has allowed me to touch the part of myself that remains connected to the man I lost, and the dreaming child still inside me. As these feelings recede, I am happy to leave that longing. I’m glad to say I possess the skill to come back to being a real, actual father, blessed with health, a gorgeous, shaggy-haired child and a beautiful, supportive, fascinating wife. I am pretty sure I learned how to do that from Paul.

RBW & Jack, 1998, by Dan Howell

RBW & Jack, 1998, by Dan Howell


Friends, Roamers, Countryfans,

The current issue of regional arts monthly Chronogram contains my review of the excellent Fathermucker, a novel penned by New Paltz resident Greg Olear. It was an interesting assignment, as the main character in Fathermucker is a stay-at-home dad, which was my gig for my son’s formative years. Greg nailed so much of the experience it felt like he’d been reading my mail. Here’s an excerpt:

“Almost everyone knows a stay-at-home dad—or SAHD, as Josh says. What most of you don’t know, and what Olear provides, is the passionate, devilish inner monologue often at odds with a SAHD’s (mostly) responsible exterior. Their friends view Josh and Stacy as a “great couple,” but inside, Josh is a piece of work; even before he tortures himself with screenplay versions of his wife’s infidelity—schadenfreude at its best—he’s just this side of a car crash. His frequently hilarious, insecurity-and-id-fueled conscience is stoked and soothed by hyperconnectivity to pop culture; tormented by tabloid titillation, calmed by Tom Petty, rankled by Facebook, saved by Noggin. Most men who care for kids don’t want you to know this stuff, but Josh’s frankness strikes a refreshing, power chord of truth. His little rebellions against the crunchy hipster class of New Paltz are deeply satisfying to anyone ever frowned upon for a substandard car seat.”

Read the whole thing HERE

…and if you’d like to check out other reviews and previews I’ve done for Chronogram, be my guest by clicking HERE.

Carry on!