Category Archives: Music

‘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

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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

 

 

 

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

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

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Tom Jones, 1992

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to come.

RBW, 4-8-18

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

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.

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~

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

LIFERS

pic by Jack Warren

“You still playing music?”

Occasionally, a person who knew me in my teens, twenties, or early thirties will cross my path again in real life. I see them squaring two versions of me. Perhaps they recall the affable, energetic guy always in a band, walking the sidewalks with an instrument slung on his back, leather jacket squeaking as he totes an amp into a dive, hissy demo tape in his breast pocket. There he is with his Kinko’s-made postcards and flyers. Here comes his spiral-bound mailing list. There he goes, en route from his sure-to-be-temporary bartender gig to a rehearsal space. Behold another young dreamer come to Manhattan, rolling the dice like a drunken gambler, betting the farm, laughing at the odds.

pic by Jimmy Cohrssen

pic by Dan Howell

Before them is a graying, fifty-two-year-old man, decidedly not famous, healthy if not wealthy (actually technically poor), shoulders not quite so high, clearly settled into domestic life in rural Catskills obscurity, well-worn sensible shoes, utilitarian duds, limited options, no corona of celebrity glowing around his head, no evidence he has been sharing studios, stages, agents, and accountants with his heroes, as he creatively visualized in the 80s and 90s. Not a star.

So: do I still play music?

“Oh yeah,” I tell them. “Always. I will always play music. I’m a Lifer.”

“Of course,” they reply, often with discomfort, like they’ve accidentally insulted me. “Of course. That’s great.”

I get it. Perhaps they think the letdown of unfulfilled aspirations killed my desire to play. It happens. I know a few who dreamed with similar blind, public ferocity, and who, like me, ultimately didn’t make pro, at least not for the long haul. Persistent bitterness poisons their creativity well, they sell their gear, distance themselves from music like a recovering alcoholic avoids bars. They listen only to talk radio. Not pretty. The passion killing can be especially complete if a musician had a real taste of The Life, as I did. I spent a cumulative total of about eight years in which I stood in spotlights, garnered great press, toured internationally, and, through several income streams, made a living wage or better as a musician/performer. For various reasons – some of which I do not actually know – I did not sustain my membership in this small club.

But here’s the thing: now that it’s mainly for pleasure (but also for much-needed supplemental cash) and less an attempt at a kind of lifestyle, playing music is, in some ways, more enjoyable. And wouldn’t you know it? With the fame chase removed, I am a better musician, writer, and a far better singer. Can I thrash around for marathon sets, (try to) imitate Townshend, Springsteen, Cobain, Westerberg, et al, go home drenched in sweat, and bounce out of bed the next day to lather, rinse, repeat? I cannot. At least not without designer drugs and an on-call chiropractor. But I would pay more money to see me now than in the 80s and 90s, when my ace wasn’t necessarily skill, but energy.

That erstwhile me was certainly having fun deep inside a sweaty, amped-up groove, singing too high into a dented, beery microphone, leaving bloodstains on my pick guard, but… are the record company folks here? Or some other impresario? Or a bullshit artist claiming to be an impresario? Is tonight the night I meet my “Idolmaker”? My Brian Epstein (Beatles), Jefferson Holt (R.E.M.), Andrew Loog Oldham (Rolling Stones), David Geffen (Eagles), or Malcolm McLaren (Sex Pistols)? Is a powerful person going to fall in love with me, and/or see dollar signs, and help ferry me to the far shore? (Spoiler alert: no.)

I do not miss that element at all. My heyday was the pre-file sharing era, when giants roamed the earth. Record companies were still enjoying a revenue windfall from folks re-buying albums on CD. They were more flush than they would ever be again, Goliaths swimming in money, dispatching expense-accounted emissaries to all manner of venues to find the next _________. I cringe at memories of time wasted desperate for attention from these scouts, indulging dudes in satin jackets emblazoned with a record company logo, or some such sartorial ridiculousness. Kissing ass. Yeah, I did it, and it did me no good. Regret number 27.

I did indeed join a group signed to Island (home of U2), and we made an album (never released) at the Jimi Hendrix-designed Electric Lady Studios, but I quit soon thereafter because oh my god, y’all, the manager and singer were a couple of the biggest assholes I ever met. Ever. And their kind of assholery was not uncommon in “the music scene.” On the contrary.

Though I ultimately refused to share space with them, I admit I was fascinated by and occasionally envious of my enfant terrible peers. When an enfant terrible ascended, I originally thought belligerence was their key more than objective talent, and wished I too could so brazenly unleash my Id on bandmates and music biz folk. But while a compelling bad attitude didn’t hamper a trip down the garden path, it alone didn’t always keep one off the streets. (The aforementioned band, for instance, was summarily dropped by Island not long after I quit. A common story.) Those who matriculated to music (or acting, visual art, writing, et al) as a career, and remained there, were special, lucky, resilient, and tenacious. If they have one thing common, it was an allegiance with a simpatico soul who believed in them and took risks, an advocate who put their money where their mouth was. Assholery alone did not guarantee longevity, which is kind of a relief. More often than not, the few who “made it” were just consistently better in some way than most – including me – or at least more salable. And they had representation.

Naturally, these people are the minority of musicians I have known. The far greater percentage, like me, retained or eventually returned to day jobs, exiled from, or denied entrance to the big(ger) leagues. Shall we discuss why? Bad idea. Frankly, going down imaginary roads not taken, second-guessing and/or revising pivotal moments, doing the woulda coulda shoulda, makes for tedious conversation. (I would know.) No one but a paid therapist wants to hear it, and my guess is even they don’t.

Point is, years rolled by, and most of my music making, dreaming-out-loud peers, my fellow rock star wannabes, moved forward. As the writing on the wall became ever clearer, we abandoned hunting the white stag of fame, moved on to marriages, degrees, jobs, families, mortgages, layoffs, unspeakable losses, divorces, accidents, yard work, reversals, joys and sorrows, diagnoses, prescriptions, raises, pay cuts, et cetera.

In the warp and weft of these lives, my tribe of also-rans, I am very happy to say, just could not stop making music. Crushing disappointment, bearing witness to people at their worst, an obscene lack of appreciation for our kind from the world at large, and the cruelty of time could not vanquish our collective mojo. We say fuck you to all of the above, and make our music. Barring something unforeseen, we will continue to do so. We are Lifers.

pic by unknown fan

~

Like me, most of my Lifer peers got into music to be rock stars of some stripe, whether of the Led Zeppelin variety, the Nirvana/R.E.M. variety, or some other version, even the versions who disdain the term “rock star.” A few pals say that was not their intention, but I don’t believe them. To be sure, it is an absurd ambition to admit to. It bespeaks insecurity, a need for extravagant affirmation from unknown fans, delusions of grandeur, and an irresponsible tendency toward risk. But there you have it.

Having said all of that, if rock stardom were offered me today, I would take it. At fifty-two, with my son off at college, I am now ready. I am much more comfortable with saying fuck you to an asshole. Just putting that out there.

In truth, it may sound like sour grapes, but I often think being denied and/or turning away from The Life in my younger days was a good thing. The life I have made, while not without challenges, is pretty swell, and as years accrue and I stay vertical, I often feel very fortunate. One of the best aspects of this life is making music with no eye on a potential “big break.”

My fellow players come into rehearsal talking about their kids, spouses, car, the dumbass at work, aging parents, illness, their friend’s illness, the man who is putting down a new floor in their half bath, the horror of politics. But then we play, and all of that recedes. Amps buzz companionably, beers slake parched throats, pets wander in, laughter punctuates gossip. And the music is fun, even thrilling at times. No talk of recording a demo, making a CD, inviting the right people to a gig in the hope of advancement. We discuss the songs, the endless fascination of how our individual parts mesh; we compliment each other, and we argue a little. Time flies. We leave exhausted in the best way, and click back into our individual timelines with the heightened awareness music offers.

Recently, a rehearsal in a friend’s outbuilding went especially well. We’d locked in, and created joyful music destined to make local folk dance, sing, and be happy. At the end of a great rock and roll song, I looked around at my Lifer companions. Some had dreamed the Big Dream, and, like me, subsequently made peace with failure, and moved on.

“We are totally getting signed,” I said.

Everybody laughed loud, and joined in making fun of our ambitious erstwhile selves. I, for one, know youngster me would be aghast to witness his future in decidedly unglamorous circumstances. But I would encourage him to look closer, in the hope he would see not the failure he feared, but a seasoned musician surrounded by very cool, if obscure, fellow players, artists of great soul, skill, and generosity. Broken dreams and foiled plans cannot deter these people from making music. The young me would have no idea how precious and enriching such a life is. But lucky for him, he will learn.