Tag Archives: memoir

Sam F. Lucchese, Savior of My Bloodline

Salvatore "Sam" Francis Lucchese, circa 1920

Salvatore “Sam” Francis Lucchese, circa 1920

Today, April 21st, is my late grandfather, Salvatore “Sam” Francis Lucchese’s birthday. I honor him, now more than ever.

My writing gene comes from Sam. As I’ve nurtured it this last decade, communing with the DNA he bequeathed me via my mother, I have connected to a man I never felt close to in life. Most significant, I’ve realized how that writing gene altered the course of my family for the better, pivoting the line away from darkness. I feel that significance, and I am so proud. My grandfather was a quiet, unassuming hero, the savior of my bloodline.

~

Sam F. Lucchese, as he was professionally known, was born in 1900, in Victoria, Texas, to Sicilian immigrants, Giuseppe and Anna. Giuseppe and his brothers were renowned boot makers from Palermo. In the late 1800s, they’d come through the port of Galveston to make footwear for the Army at the Texas/Mexico border.

Sam, however, cared nothing for boot making. For reasons we will never know, when he came of age, he chose to make a life as an American writer. He did not go to college, but rather taught himself.

His cousin, Cosimo, turned Lucchese Boots into a thriving business. (LBJ is buried in Lucchese boots.) Sam, meanwhile, became a typesetter straight out of high school, and worked his way up to editor. In the 20s, he accepted a position on a paper in Georgia. In the Peach State, he met the beautiful, charismatic Genevieve Camp, my grandmother.

I never got a chance to know Sam. Although not unkind, he wasn’t really a kid person. My mother says he wasn’t “a hugger” in her youth, either. I don’t think Sam and I ever had a conversation. Yet, he was always around, a benign, calming presence, easy to take for granted. A diminutive Sicilian-American who loved All in the Family, black instant coffee in a plastic mug, and his poodle, Nicole, a gift from Tony Curtis. As children, my brother and I spent a lot of time in our maternal grandparents’ bungalow home. While our grandmother, Genevieve, aka “Gammie,” was very affectionate and present, Granddaddy spent hours in his musty basement office, focused, tapping incessantly on a manual typewriter. To this day, the distinctive percussion of a manual typewriter reminds me of him.

Before my birth, he primarily wrote arts-related features for Hearst-owned newspapers, most significantly the Atlanta Journal, for which he was entertainment editor most of his professional life. He was the publicist for Gone with the Wind and he interviewed the Beatles when they played the Atlanta Stadium in 1964. He retired from the Journal the year I was born (1965) but did not stop working; he wrote for Variety and other outlets, including the Atlanta Playboy Club’s At the Club publication. His writing put food on the table, paid the bills, kept my mom and her two sisters in saddle oxfords, and put them through college.

After a long decline, Sam died from Alzheimer’s in Atlanta in 1986, just before my 21st birthday. I was touring with the Fleshtones, in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. I flew home to help my brother and cousins carry the casket, my fingernails painted black, Mardi Gras beads dangling from the epaulet of my biker jacket.

~

Genevieve Camp, circa 1920s

Genevieve Camp, circa 1920s

 

Gammie did not speak much of her history until just a couple years before she passed in 2000 at age 94. While she displayed no photos of her family, the Camps, in the Lucchese house, she festooned the walls and surfaces with framed pictures of her and Sam’s progeny – their daughters, my brother, our cousins, me – and many movie stars they’d met on junkets. This lack of documentation of her pre-maternal life aroused no curiosity in me. Until Gammie, in the winter of her years, addled from falling down and hitting her head a few times too many, began to talk of the distant past.

Much is still shrouded in Southern Gothic mystery, but what emerged was a harrowing story of Gammie’s father, Josephus Camp, a hopeless alcoholic, failed attorney, likely bipolar. Darkly handsome. He would eventually blow his brains out in the 50s, and Gammie’s mother would insist she come help clean up the mess, which she did. He left behind a legacy of addiction, shame, and fear; carbons of letters thick with the scariest racism – i.e. hatred from the pen of an educated, eloquent, crazy person.

The Camps were devout Southern Baptist. Gammie’s siblings, Imogene and Joe, were both certified mentally ill; she with paranoid schizophrenia, he with what they called “dementia praecox,” which was likely schizophrenia with excessive manic features. Movie star gorgeous Imogene was able to function in society, but Joe spent most of his life institutionalized in the state mental hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia. Nannie, the febrile Camp matriarch, wrote of their relentlessly stressful life in journals now in my mother’s possession.

I knew none of this until my son, Jack, was born in 1998, and I was thirty-three.

In the middle of the maelstrom was Genevieve, my Gammie, eldest child and caregiver for her entire family. The rock. Yet, I imagine her desperate to find a way out of the doomed drama that was her family, a drama she would not speak of for decades.

To her racist parents’ horror, her ticket out was the short, blue eyed, Catholic, Sicilian writer, Sam F. Lucchese. On top of all those qualities, Sam was a “Yellow Dog Democrat,” meaning he would rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican. The Camps, diehard conservative Republicans who loathed FDR, would refer to him only as “The Wop.”

According to Gammie, she had two suitors named Sam, so she called my grandfather “Casey.” This nickname would stick for the rest of their lives. Gammie’s parents desperately wanted her to marry the other Sam, a lily white Protestant guy whose parents did not hail from a country so close to Africa. The other Sam was, like the Camps, likely an apologist for the Confederacy, one who romanticized “the old ways.”

But no. Genevieve Camp chose the swarthy Wop. To her parents’ dismay, she converted to Catholicism, and began the process of shutting them out from the family she created: three girls, whose father would be faithful, a solid man who would not be consumed with alcohol-fueled madness about race, religion, or some destructive fantasy about white supremacy.

And Sam chose her. He spirited her away to Texas, where they married among his kin, surrounded by the lilt of Sicilian dialects, excellent food, and hardboiled Texas folk, a bright sun blazing down, my grandfather resplendent in a double breasted white suit, my pale-skinned grandmother holding the hand that would write them into a new life in the New South. The writer. She married the writer, and put her faith in his ability to spin sentences into money. It was an excellent call.

Interestingly, while Gammie converted to Catholicism, she did not convert to the Democratic Party or leave behind the racism that her chronically terrified family carefully taught her. Not hardly. She remained a product of the pre-Civil Rights Act, Jim Crow South. In years to come, she and I would argue about civil rights, unions, and miscegenation, and she would infuriate and disappoint me. I would wonder how the man who enthusiastically voted for Jimmy Carter could live in relative peace with the woman who adored Ronald Reagan. And I continue to marvel at how much Gammie’s love, despite her reprehensible moral and political beliefs, shaped me.

I have come to realize this: by accepting Sam Lucchese’s marriage proposal way back when, Gammie contributed to change almost in spite of herself. I recall how she did not make any great effort to convert anyone to her batshit crazy, backward views, smiling enigmatically as I grew ever more liberal, like her husband and like my mother. I prefer to think Sam appealed to the better angels of her nature, secret forces that helped her take baby steps toward the right side of history, an evolution her youngest daughter, my mom, would continue in passionate earnest, and which her great-grandson, my boy Jack, amplifies with captivating, inspirational vigor.

It all began with Sam F. Lucchese. He enabled the pivot that changed everything. Thank you, Granddaddy. And happy birthday.

Sam F. Lucchese, 1972.

Sam F. Lucchese, 1972.

 

 

 

 

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In With the Out Crowd: Remembering My 80s Youth

“I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints / I am frightened by the devil, and I’m drawn to those that ain’t afraid.” “A Case Of You,” Joni Mitchell

kingtuts

King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut (latter day)

Queer folk shaped my 80s youth.

Many who shepherded me through crucial years were – and are – what we now call LGBTQ, but that term was only just being concocted back then. In any case, more than anyone else, they showed me how to recognize family, love, forgiveness, grace, and courage. Both literally and figuratively, they taught me how to dance.

It took a village, indeed. An East Village. 

~

In the way most people recall their college years, I recall my time with queer folk. While my friends were enrolling in BFA programs, I threw myself into the wind, traveling with hope. I headed north with a bass and an amp, landing in Manhattan to couch surf in the winter of ’85. The folks who caught me, cut me a break or two, had my back, and directed me toward my various destinies, were what we would now call the LGBTQ community. I learned more essential, useful life lessons from them – usually in a bar thick with beer-and-cigarette stank – than I ever learned in any classroom.

Playing bass in the East Village Orchestra, The Palladium, 1985

Playing bass in the East Village Orchestra, The Palladium, 1985

While none of my “scenes” had labels, distinctions can be helpful. To that end: my roots are in the New Wave Queer Underground of Atlanta, and the mid/late 80s post-punk/pre-Giuliani East Village scene. In each of these, it’s important to note, nobody delineated between “gay community” and “straight community.”

In my Atlanta years, bands, plays, art exhibits, and late-night hangouts teemed with all manner of sexual persuasions. For the most part, it was all fine, our own brand of same-old same-old. I knew some disapproving parents, but no tyrannical parents. (Quite a few “old hippie” parents.) I also knew some kids who harbored secret nonhetero tendencies, but they weren’t tortured by the furtiveness in which they couched their desires; they actually kind of dug it.

These days, when I see modern, troubled kids who must be talked off the ledge with the “it gets better” movement, I realize how odd my scenes were, and how charmed. I wish with all my might that one of those shamed, disaffected kids could get a postcard from the Rocky Horror crew, circa 1981. It would make them brave, and it would make them fight back.

Of course I see now that we were in a bubble. At the time it didn’t seem so, partly because, being kids, we were self-centered, and anything beyond our sphere did not warrant our attention. And the alphas among us were some of the most willful people I’ve ever known, to the point where the heteronormative standard (as we now say) was, quite frankly, effectively branded as insane. Being pretty heteronormative myself, I sometimes felt a little out of place, but not so much that I wanted to flee. On the contrary. I wanted to belong, I wanted to be brave like them.

~

Later, in Manhattan, at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, a bar on the corner of Avenue A and East 7th Street, a new set of offbeat characters welcomed me into another arty oasis. Together, in a lovingly tangled skein, we hung out, worked our money gigs, turned each other on to music, played in bands, and could not have cared less if he/she was intimate with their own sex, or whether he/she liked to wear, say, heels, or, say, combat boots, or dye their hair, or experiment. People uptight at our lack of concern – and of course, many of my peers had fled such folks – were the butts of our jokes, and we laughed our asses off at them.

Maggie and Doug, co-owners of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, hired me a few months after I turned 20. I’d been working midnight to 8 AM at the Village Copier for $5 an hour, and washing glasses at 8BC (bar-club on East 8th between Avenues B and C). King Tut’s needed a non-heroin-using glass washer/bar back. and my brand new bandmates Mark and Keiko, who I’d met through impresario-activist Jim Fouratt, introduced me to Maggie and Doug, who hired me on the spot. I soon graduated to bartending and bar managing. (Not being a junkie came in handy.) From that connection, from Maggie and Doug taking me on, I can now trace every major event of my life.

I’d come to New York a few months previously, reeling from some heavy girlfriend drama and family issues, and even though I didn’t consciously realize it then, I see now I was eager to find a way to be alone and to enjoy a community. I’d bounced around apartments, was unhealthy and depressed, and very close to heading back to Atlanta, but with the kindness of a few strangers, I found my way.

With my East Village scene, I found that balance of aloneness and community for a couple years, especially when the aforementioned Mark and Keiko let me (illegally) sub-lease their Ave B. railroad apartment. Tisch School of the Arts actor-in-training Peter McCabe become my great friend and roommate, and I was set. I paid my bills from cash I kept in a Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee can, and on occasion, I was happier than a pig in shit.

NYE

Bartending at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut on New Year’s Eve, 1989, with April Palmieri.

It was not wasted time. I played music, began to write, and spent many hours walking the streets of Alphabet City, often in the pre-dawn. With the Wah Wah Hut crew, I broke into the Pitt Street Pool to swim, and watched many a sunrise over Tompkins Square Park, the last Manhattan park with no curfew, where fires burned and kids a little less lucky than me camped.

Indeed I was lucky. In addition to being the recipient of the largesse of a few people, I was, unbeknownst to me, in the last wave of artists who could move to NYC and live cheaply. Within a decade, those days would be over.

As the 80s played out, AIDS ravaged my community. It still chills me to recall sick friends dying in their prime, to remember the feel of their wasting-away hands grip mine across a hospital bed. But when so many – including me – lived in fear of illness, or indeed, became ill, outsiderness remained a source of pride and power. We all hunkered down and embraced our outsiderness even more. Some of the braver ones marched on government buildings – the amazing ACT UP crew comes to mind – transforming grief and rage into action. Among other things, they shamed Burroughs-Wellcome into lowering the price of AZT by 20%. This was real, tough love. And it was a lesson.

There was so much love. Some at the Wah Wah Hut wished for stardom, but at the same time, were loathe to leave the love we knew in East Village obscurity. (Although one of two did achieve that stardom dream.) It was uncommon, this love, infused with, but sometimes beyond, sex; an amalgam of friendship, family, foxhole intimacy, erotic fascination, and besotted crushes, spiced with a healthy degree of disdain and pettiness, maybe a little bad behavior (OK, a lot) just to keep it lively. (We were kids, after all.) I think, in our hearts, we knew how special this all was, but we could not articulate it, and even if we could, we would not have done so because it would’ve been very uncool.

This era didn’t last, because these things never do, as this grumpy old man now knows. People eventually let go, or they fled; everyone, in their way, moved on, relinquishing apartments, turning the page on a life chapter lived with gusto and abandon. Some died, and we mourned them, and mourn them still.

When it was my time to go, I did, with my wife and son. My son was four when we left NYC for the Catskills, and he’s now nineteen and guess what? He’s finding his way among LGBTQ youths who are much less in the shadows than the queer kids I ran with when I was my boy’s age. That makes me smile. They shine, these kids, they make great art, they look after one another, and although I don’t say it aloud very much, lest I get a withering look, they take me back.

My short term recollection is starting to go. Mostly, when I meet new people, I can’t remember their names. It is vexing. But part of my memory is ironclad, at least for now: seems I will never forget the names of the queer and queer-friendly East Village denizens who took me in and/or steered me toward the better part of my life: Jim, Sally, Vinnie, Maggie, Doug, Brian, Jesse, Stacy, Kate, Richard, Byron, Byron, Luis, Itabora, Michael, Grace, Stan, Jo, Lucy, Annie, Paula, Denise, Monica, Effie, Ethyl, Wendy, Ida, Chuck, Curtis, Chris, Lady Bunny, Bob, Marleen, Baby, Mark, Keiko, Gerard, Bernard, Nick, George. They were all there to help me become me, and their names are on my heart.

~

(In this Nelson Sullivan video, shot in the Pyramid Club basement dressing room across from King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, I enter with my then-girlfriend Holly around 1:41. It’s 1988, and I’m twenty-two.)

The Hippie Angel – A Christmas Story

Hippie Angel

Hippie Angel by MCL, photo by EBW

On Christmas Eve 1973, I was hyperventilating beneath my Charlie Brown sheets, thrashing in the dark, my salivary glands in overdrive. This was my first anxiety attack, triggered by the worry that I would hear my mother placing presents beneath the tree, thus officially obliterating the Santa Claus illusion.

I already knew the truth. I was eight years old, soon to be nine, and I’d seen the remote controlled car I’d requested from Santa in my mom’s closet. Even before that, science had captivated me, and I couldn’t square the technology requirements for the sleigh, among other things. But I had yet to admit my crisis of faith to anyone. The dreamer in me, the believer, was still strong, and, due to particularly hard times, I was desperate for dreams and magic. More than ever, I desired the illusion of Santa’s visit. To experience that, I needed to fall asleep.

I gotta get to sleep, I told myself, again and again.

1973 had been intense. It was my first full year of fatherlessness. My dad had died driving drunk the year before, and my mother hadn’t taken my older brother and me to Dad’s funeral. As secular, hippie agnostics, we’d not engaged in any rituals to deal with the loss.

In the wake of my grief, I’d befriended an impish boy named Kemp. While dumpster diving behind the A & P grocery store, Kemp and I had discovered a brown bag full of Penthouse magazines, which we secreted away in our plywood treehouse in his family’s backyard. We pored over them, fascinated, titillated, and scandalized. The explicit photos and erotic stories alternately aroused us and freaked us out.

Perhaps in response to it all, Kemp and I invented imaginary friends Antonio and Joe, who were elves. We swore to each other that Antonio and Joe were real, indulging our fantasies in a kind of sad pact. We ginned up excitement at seeing them in the monkey grass, peeping from behind the azaleas, their little peaked caps bobbing among the bees. Sweet, yes, but our imaginary friends could not compete with the smut. The siren call of porn lured us away from Antonio and Joe time and again, until finally, as the magazines grew dog-eared, our elven playmates faded.

cg_tree-house

In retrospect I wonder if the lingering trauma of my dad’s death, combined with the adult activity of ogling Penthouse magazines, had something to do with my anxiety attack. Quite suddenly, I was intimate with death and sex, and I had no tools to shape the horror and excitement they evoked. In my bed, on Christmas Eve of my eighth year, the air around me was heavy with shadow.

Our house was small, so only the dining room stood between my tiny room and the area where the Christmas tree shimmered, covered in lights and garlands and crowned with a homemade angel we called the Hippie Angel. Sometime in the mid-60s, when she was newly divorced from my father and we were quite poor, Mom had drawn the Hippie Angel in ballpoint pen on white cardboard and cut her out. The haloed, long-tressed, tiny-winged Hippie Angel wore a wide-sleeved gown and slippers. In her left hand she held a scepter topped with the peace sign. She was much beloved, especially when I was very small and she seemed quite real.

Mom was bustling around in the kitchen, waiting for me to fall asleep. I smelled her freshly lit cigarette, heard her boiling water and padding in bare feet on the old linoleum, familiar sounds and smells that usually gave me comfort. It was well past 2 AM, and my brother slept soundly in his room at the other end of the house.

My mother came to my door to check on me. I called out.

“Mommy!”

“Yes, honey?”

“I can’t sleep! I can’t sleep!”

“You’ll be fine, you’ll fall asleep, I promise.”

I resented her apparent calm. “If I don’t fall asleep,” I said through sobs, “this will be the worst Christmas ever.”

She recoiled a little but recovered quickly, took a drag on her cigarette, the burning tobacco crackling as she filled her lungs. “You’ll be fine, honey,” she said. “You’ll fall asleep. I love you. Merry Christmas.”

She headed back to the kitchen, and, according to my ears and nose, she made a cup of Constant Comment tea in the crockery she and my dad had received as a wedding present, stirring in honey with a tarnished silver spoon. Sometime after that, I finally drifted off into wild dreams in which the Hippie Angel flew between the synapses of my fevered brain.

I bolted awake at dawn, having slept an hour and a half, but energized and deliriously happy. I ran to the living room and there, in the flickering of the Christmas tree, the Hippie Angel smiled down on my remote controlled car, plus some Sesame Street puppets and, for my brother and me, a racetrack, fully assembled. Our stockings were crammed with candy, which we would consume for breakfast. I ran into my brother’s room, passing my mom’s on the way, noticing the familiar lumps of her deeply sleeping body.

My brother woke easily. We did not speak of Santa, but rather said to each other, “Look! Look what I got!” We put the Partridge Family Christmas Card LP on the turntable and tore into our gifts, a familiar ritual we’d engaged in for as long as we could recall – just the two of us, wide-eyed, intoxicated with sugar, avaricious as pirates.


partridge

I took my remote controlled car into the street to see what it could do. My brother stayed in to play with our racetrack. It was unseasonably warm that Christmas Day, so I wore no coat. Our house stood at the end of a hairpin curve, and we often played in the street with no fear, so I plopped myself down on the manhole cover in the middle of the road. The neighborhood still slept, and I heard no traffic, just the birds heralding the new day.

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

A woman screamed and my head snapped up as a car screeched in front of me, a real, speeding automobile, swerving to avoid smashing into my head. It skidded to a stop a few feet away. I was running for our front yard, my remote control car forgotten, when I heard a woman’s voice.

“Hey!” she called. “Hey kid, stop!”

I did. I turned around, panting like a baby bird, to see a young, flax-haired woman wearing a long, wide-sleeved dress, walking toward me on slippered feet. She stopped below a naked old oak, shaking her head and panting just like me. A bearded man was slumped in the passenger seat, rubbing his eyes. The scent of burnt rubber wafted over us.

“I almost… I almost hit you kid,” the woman said, pushing hair behind her ears. “I could have… Look. I don’t want to sound like a bitch, but you shouldn’t be playing in the fucking street, kid. Please. Never do that. Never.”

I nodded, transfixed. The bearded man got out of the car, lean and lank-haired, and retrieved my toy, which he handed to the woman, who handed it back to me. It was warm.

“Merry Christmas,” the bearded man said, smiling. A frisson of energy passed between them, quick micro-expressions shared. I shivered.

“Be careful, kid,” said the woman, on the verge of tears. “You can be a little wild, but… You got a long life ahead of you.” I nodded again. After this, I would never play in the street again.

Just before she dropped back into her car, she smiled and held up the index and middle fingers of her left hand. “Peace, kid,” she said. “Peace.”

RBW, December, 2014


 

Blue Impala – On Father’s Day

RBW Sr. early 60s

RBW Sr. early 60s

Father’s Day has always been an unusual day for me. Prior to my son Jack’s birth in 1998, it wasn’t a happy day. But now it is, at least partly. Yes, it’s the day my son and his mom make a fuss over me, and that’s very sweet indeed. And it’s an opportunity for me to reflect on this most important aspect of my life; fatherhood defines me more than anything, and makes me feel blessed. But Father’s Day, for me, is also a time of deep, melancholy wonder.

I wonder how things might have been different, had my own father, Robert Burke Warren, Sr. – Burke to his family and friends – not died on April 11th, 1972, just after I turned 7. He was 30.

Jack’s birth has brought lasting joy in the face of a vacuum in my life, but Father’s Day still finds me longing, occasionally angry (less so these days), and stubbornly curious about what might have been, how my dad would have aged, changed, and whether he’d be a Mac guy or a PC guy. I think about the man who, even though I only knew him for a brief period, shaped me, and whose shaping I both accept and continually fight against.

Burke’s death was tragic and mysterious. He was an ex-Marine, and, like his parents, an alcoholic. One night, after carousing with his cousin,  he drove drunk at high speed into an embankment off I-85 in Atlanta, and killed himself, by accident or by design I will never know. By all accounts, he was depressed (a proclivity I inherited), unemployed, and perhaps, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman (spoiler alert) he knew his heirs would receive benefits in the event of his death. (Which my brother and I did.) But like I said, I’ll never know. My last memory of my dad, I’m happy to say, is of him playing guitar at my 7th birthday party, leading my friends and me in a singalong of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Country Roads,” “If I Had A Hammer,” and “Home Grown Tomatoes.”  He seemed pretty ebullient that night, although if anyone knows the skill with which a depressive can hide his condition, it’s me. But I was so proud to call the cool guitar playing dude my daddy.

RBw, dad, brother Britt, saying grace, probably 1970

RBW, dad, brother Britt, saying grace, probably 1970

My mother had divorced him when my brother and I were toddlers, and they’d been estranged, but in the last few years of his life, he was making an effort, coming around, hosting us at his swingin’ singles apartment, taking us on trips. I adored him. He drove a blue ’68 Chevy Impala, and often had a cocktail in a plastic cup when he picked us up from our home. The summer before he died, he and his second wife, Dee, took us to Disneyland. Our first airplane trip. They rented a Volkswagen Bug, and I recall laying on the backseat, happily exhausted from all-day amusement, and making up a song as I watched the passing streetlights of Anaheim, bringing myself to the verge of tears with the joy of creating a melody out of thin air (a melody I do not recall, but was, in all likelihood, a rip-off of something from a Sid & Marty Krofft show).

Britt, dad, RBW, Christmas '68 or '69

Britt, dad, RBW, Christmas ’68 or ’69

Dee, a gorgeous stewardess, adored Burke, too. He was movie star handsome, charismatic, a fun character with a debilitating gloomy streak exacerbated and medicated by alcohol. Though my mother says he would rage when they were married, the only time I recall him angry was when my brother and I – aged 7 and 6, and impish – got his Marine sword down from a shelf and unsheathed it. He came in before anyone was impaled, and of course he freaked out, swatting us on our butts as we howled in terror and remorse. He wore British Sterling cologne, had a BA in English from UGA, had once considered the seminary, but also wanted to get in the shit in Vietnam (they wouldn’t send him). He loved to play guitar and sing, and was skilled and self-taught, loved the early 60s folk stuff and sappy, romantic ballads. Didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. Probably peaked in high school and never got a chance to redress the imbalance. Was not cut out to be a husband, at least not at 22, when he married my mom, hastily, if you catch my drift.

RBW Sr, 50s

RBW Sr, 50s

From these details, and others I have culled from people who knew him, I compulsively try to create a presence with which to commune, to try to understand, to rage at, and, as I’ve gained a little perspective, to console. I expect no satisfaction from these actions, no “closure.” It’s just a thing I do, sometimes gaining traction somewhere inside, sometimes spinning like a hamster wheel.

***

When my mother sat us down and broke the news that sunny April day, we all cried for a long time. I remember, just before she dropped the bomb, being in a  great mood. My mother said, “I’ve got some bad news,” and I replied, “What could be bad on a day like today?” And then she told us, through tears. Probably one of the hardest things she ever had to do, and she handled it well. 42 years on, I retain a visceral memory of the grief. All of us bereft, in unison, mom telling us to cry as long as we needed to. We asked if we’d ever see our father again, and she said no and she was so sorry.

She was sort of a weekend hippie, our mother, working in advertising, a la Peggy Olson, during  the week, but attending protest marches, communes, and festivals on the weekends. (Atlanta in 1972 was still kind of “the 60s.”) She said she believed in the collective unconscious, which we did not understand intellectually at that time, but sort of “got.” In a move she regrets, she didn’t take us to our father’s funeral, at which, I was told many years later, Dee threw herself on the coffin.

Mom initially told us our father “fell asleep at the wheel,” but when I was about 13, I found the police report in the attic and learned the truth. Documents and, horrifically, a photo of the Impala, the front end demolished, spiderweb shatter on the windshield. Thankfully, no photos of my dad, but autopsy reports stating he’d died with high levels of alcohol in his brain. This discovery occasioned another memorable sit-down with my mom, during which she revealed to my brother and me some of our genetic inheritance, i.e. our family tree is blighted with alcoholism. (Also, I would find out later, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, suicide, and, not surprisingly, divorce.) We were adolescents then, and it was an excruciating, but enlightening chat, and one of the only times she talked to us about our father when we were kids. Mainly, she said, “Watch out for alcohol, boys,” which I appreciate.

I’ve dodged the bullet of a “drinking problem,” but, interestingly, I am drawn to addicts, usually without consciously knowing they are saddled with the disease. Somehow – pheromones? facial “tells”? intuition? – I am disastrously discerning on a preconscious level. I have a history of diving into relationships with addicts, and then, after wonderful intimacy followed by stress, disappointment, and chaos, I bolt. I need to do the abandoning this time around, and I do. After the dust clears, I see the pattern clearly and feel like an idiot. Again. It was – and is – a therapist’s dream, and I have the bills, the time spent in Al Anon, and some fractured relationships to prove it. Also: my main source of moonlighting income in 16 years in NYC? Bartending, at which I excelled. I have to admit: I enjoyed cutting people off and 86’ing them. Power over the drunk at last.

Bartender, The Beauty Bar, wee small hours of Truckstop Tuesday, 2000

Bartender, The Beauty Bar, wee small hours of Truckstop Tuesday, 2000                          “You are cut off.”

Is it my destiny to neurotically recreate the story of the relationship between my troubled father and me, wherein the addict elicits and invites great affection only to spoil it all through bad, yet predictable, choices? Choices I, as an adult, can now control, or feel like I control, through rejection? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe addicts are common, especially in my lifestyle, and 86’ing some – from my life and the bars – was the right call, regardless of my history. The addicts still in my life are a challenge to love, but that’s not been wasted energy. And they will tell you I can be trying, too, because I can be.

Juicy Freudian interpretations of such life choices are the rage of our age, as is blaming and shaming, etc., but at the end of the day, that all feels simplistic and reductive. Fodder for good stories, sure, but only fodder. To flesh it all out, to get closer to accommodating, if not understanding, marks left by love, you need music. You need art.

***

I inherited my father’s musicality, and I’ve been a musician most of my life. I wrote songs in my teens and 20s, but didn’t really invest serious energy in songwriting until I became a father at 32.

The received wisdom is that parenthood saps your creative juices, and your spawn are like little vampires. But, like a lot of dire parenting predictions, this was not true for either my wife, a writer, or me. For both of us, Jack’s birth brought a burst of creative energy. Also, and this is crucial, I wanted to impress him. Granted, he wouldn’t grasp the tunes for a few years, but I needed to buckle down and write some good stuff, and that entailed lots of rewrites and hammering away as I had never done before. No writing about romantic love; the best stuff came when I wrote about family.

I’d tried to write about my father before. I wrote a terrible poem about him in high school, a screed about his alcoholism and abandonment.  My English teacher loved it, and I got an A, but I’m glad it did not survive.

With my first CD, … to this day, I set about trying to write a resonant song about Burke, how I felt about him, how I dreamed about him sometimes, how I was angry but also sad about his death, and how I would always remember and miss him. In becoming a father myself, I felt a few steps closer to knowing who he was, what he’d felt; the delirious happiness, the terror, the humbling – and, at times, humiliating – privilege of parenthood. But for my father co-creating me (albeit by accident, my mom says) I would not be experiencing any of that – and I was and remain grateful for all of it.  Becoming a dad helped me move further toward forgiveness.

Al Anon sharing, therapy, et al, is helpful in constructing a less chaotic narrative of one’s life, but it’s no help in the songwriting process, so I let all that go, and let dreams and photos guide me. Most interesting, the song for my father began to come when I tuned my guitar to DADGAD. Coincidence? Maybe. (I would record it one step higher, in EBEABE, which makes the story less cool, but true.)  For non musicians, all you need to know is this is an alternate tuning favored by folkies.

My efforts birthed “Blue Impala.” Except for Richard Doll’s exquisite bowed double bass part, I played everything. And I stepped back from it and felt satisfaction. Fourteen years on, I still do.

 

Blue Impala
by RBW

Your paper face, your silent smile
Peel back the years, erase the miles
Bittersweet scent, cliche cologne
Photograph ghost in sepia tone.

CHORUS:
A blue Impala, one hand on the wheel
I will remember you, you were just passing through.

Sometimes you rise into my dreams
Some strange disguise in mad shifting scenes
I’m like you now, back then did you know?
Did that make it easier to let go?

CHORUS

Questions go unanswered, mysteries will remain
Wonder why and I ask the sky, but all I hear is the rain.

Just a wild seed in the tailwind of time
Cruel as a storm with calm in your eye
You left us all with so very much
So much to claim but nothing to touch.

CHORUS

Questions go unanswered, mysteries will remain
Wonder why and I ask the sky, but all I hear is the rain.

***

I sent … to this day to my mom, and she loved it, but for about a year, she told me she couldn’t bear to listen to “Blue Impala.” This did not surprise me, and, in fact, gave me a perverse little thrill; I’d evoked an emotional response, which is what you want as a writer.  But finally, she told me she could listen to it, and was ready to talk in detail about my dad, lo these many years later.

Even though I’d wanted to hear that for decades, I said, “That’s OK.”

I’d found him on my own.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

Your son, Robert, June, 2014

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