Tag Archives: memoir

‘Tis of Thee: On Being an American in 2021

RBW, mid 80s

In the days following the White Supremacist Insurrection of January 6th, 2021, I struggled to name the emotions that overtook me. I still do. Turns out there is no single word to encompass the mixture of rage, anguish, terror, and anxiety. I was also astonished – although I should not have been – at the clear lack of concern, or even conception of consequences as the all-white terrorists bragged, posed maskless, willingly – proudly – gave out their names, and were eventually calmly ushered out, many high fiving one another and gloating.

This was the biggest mass delusion I’d ever seen. In the citadel of American democracy, they left behind feces and piss on the floor, garbage, graffiti, broken windows, a cowering Congress and Capitol staffers, beaten cops, and a five dead people. And a country changed.

I am changed. As the pandemic has played out alongside intensifying political upheaval, radically altering my life in many ways, I have often said to myself, “This is changing me” without really being able to accurately qualify that. Both physically and emotionally, I am different, older than these ten months, grayer. Parts of my insides feel broken, but what has seeped out is hardening around the cracks. It’s difficult to catalog the emotions because the combos are new, spiked with swirling, unfamiliar agents. Strange cocktails drugging my blood. Memories surge, thoughts of the future quicken. In that future I hope to better understand what is happening to me, what is simmering. The White Supremacist Insurrection added something potent to the mix, something hot.

To put it bluntly: how could I not be further changed by that asshole army? Those empowered, mentally ill bullies. I have seen their like in my day. I have been bullied. Physically, emotionally. Sometimes by someone “not in their right mind.” Bullies, in fact, helped create me. But what once was fear is now clarifying rage.

I had wondered about “the base.” Like: “Who, exactly, are these people attending the rallies? This powerful, angry mob?” I know some Trump supporters, but I know them only in our consensual reality. I don’t know who they are, and how they act, among their own, in the thriving ecosystem of an alternate universe. Now this internet-bred madness has a legion of faces attached. Many smiling dumbly, like drunks. MAGA writ large, heavily armed, joined at the hip with QAnon, a metastatic version of Charlottesville, with a higher body count. People intoxicated on a story as fantastical as any L. Ron Hubbard book. Any Tolkein book, for that matter.

I knew they’d kick up shit when their Dear Leader egged them on, but I didn’t think they’d storm the Capitol. Mainly because of the damage it would do them. Surely they must know this will mean jail time. But no, I was wrong. Naive me. I’m guessing it’s as close as I’ve ever seen to battle. On a battlefield, a soldier can’t acknowledge their enemy’s humanity. If they do, they can’t kill. Battle is a mass delusion.

The footage of the rioters’ baldfaced glee reminded me of Charles Manson, and particularly the unrepentant Manson Family members who smiled into the cameras at their 1971 trial. Those images of brutal murderers completely disconnected from the horrors they had committed will always haunt me, especially as I learned – and sadly can never unlearn – the details of what they did. Similar to the white supremacists, they were under the sway of a sociopathic father figure. A charismatic failure, a vampire. Also, not coincidentally, a white supremacist intent on waging a race war.

Considering how many of the anti-democratic hypnotized insurrectionists were armed at the Capitol, and the various pipe bombs and IEDs left behind, it seems miraculous there was not more death. Had Congress not escaped, it would have been a bloodbath.

Unfortunately, infuriatingly, news broke today that the hours-long close-quartering of Congress was a superspreader event. Because some Republicans refused to wear masks, and even derided those who did, three House Democrats – Bonnie Watson Coleman, Pramila Jayapal and Brad Schneider – have tested positive for Covid-19.

But wait there’s more. Directly after this superspreader event, Congress returned to the hastily-cleaned chamber in the wee hours to finish their business, as guards held firearms at the ready should some asshole be lurking. A long list of Republicans continued with their lethal and antidemocratic political theater of objecting to the Electoral College, all to appeal to Trump’s base, to get those votes. Even after the whole sham had almost just got them killed.

***

Almost a week later, as more information and footage emerges, I’ve experienced some satisfaction at images of rioters finally being arrested, escorted from airports, crying and screaming in protest, apologizing for “getting lost in the moment,” losing business, getting fired. But again, their resistance and outrage arouses in me that same anxiety: look how brainwashed these fully functioning members of our society are. My hope is these perps will all do serious time, but I won’t hold my breath. I’ve experienced some cold comfort at the political resignations, the outrage of some – but not nearly enough – Republicans. The banning of Trump from social media, the losses accrued from corporations pulling funding, canceling GOP events, refusing the GOP cash cow. At this writing there seems to be an outside chance Trump will be convicted in the Senate, and legit impeached. But I won’t hold my breath.

It’s been a week of talking about America. It’s actually been four years of talking about America, but more intensely following January 6th. I am reminded of the dark saying, War is God’s way of teaching people geography. Similarly, these recent events have sparked deeper conversation of patriotism, of what it really means to be an American. What is this thing we are part of? This democracy, or representative republic, or whatever it is. This thing that teeters on the brink of being something else, namely an autocratic fascist regime. Land of Charlie Parker, Tennessee Williams, Stacey Abrams, Katherine Hepburn, Questlove, Arthur Miller, Johnny Cash, Jackson Pollock, Jack Kerouac, Howard Zinn, Toni Morrison, The Ramones, Woody Guthrie, Emily Dickinson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Janis Joplin, Star Wars. What, exactly, does American mean to me? Why, exactly, am I so emotional, so wrought up about my country? Why am I so deeply injured by the desecration of the Capitol?

The words fail me. But the memories do not. I’ve found myself returning again and again to September, 1986, to the first time I ever felt like “an American.” The memory rises to the surface unbidden.

I was twenty-one. I had been living in New York City a year and a half, and had found an apartment, a band, a couple jobs, companions, and most important, independence. I bleached my hair. I saved enough cash from tending bar to visit London, and then a little town near Nuremberg called Fürth. I can still conjure the thrill of my first transatlantic flight. Passport always at my hip, I traveled alone, didn’t make many plans, went with the wind, took trains, lived on the cheap, enjoyed the kindness of strangers. With a companion I traveled to Munich, drank the best beer I have ever tasted. I walked the profoundly ugly Berlin wall, showed my passport at Checkpoint Charlie and spent a day in East Berlin, traveling back in time.

All around me were ghosts of WWII, the war to end fascism. Bullet holes remained in walls, craters were unfilled. Some buildings had not been rebuilt. My companion told me the lack of rebuilding was intentional, so that none would forget Germany’s descent into fascism, so none would forget the Nazis, and what Hitler and his henchmen had quite successfully wrought. The entire country had not quite shaken off that toxic dust, forty years on. This was no accident, but a choice, a kind of collective repentance.

While in the East, I saw a ballet, ate yogurt from a small shop. The East German marks were so flimsy they crumbled in the pockets of my coat, where I also kept a picture a beautiful young German woman had drawn of me, a sketch I still own, in which I am playing my bass, surrounded by American flags. I felt no deep emotional connection to the war, or to the Allied Forces victory that had shaped everything I was experiencing, yet people frequently told me I was so American. (Except for my bleach blonde ‘do, which everyone said reminded them of Bowie, which of course was my intent.) Like every American, I had apparently been configured by my country, whether I wanted to be or not. And as a wayfaring, wide-eyed twenty-one-year old, I dimly thought that made me very lucky indeed. I knew – and know – my country’s deep shame of slavery (I was raised in the Deep South), its ongoing humanitarian crimes, and I was – and am – deeply conversant in the continuing problems that need correction, most of them based in institutional racism. But at that time, I was glad to be who I was and where I was. Then my thoughts were pulled elsewhere.

It was a life-changing, romantic adventure. I was gone a month. As much fun as it was, however, I was surprised at my eagerness to return to New York City, USA. My life – the life that would lead me to this moment – was calling.

I got a train from Berlin to Frankfurt, and flew from there to JFK. I recall nothing of the flight home (I probably caught up on some sleep), but I do remember going through customs. A jovial, blue-uniformed African-American New Yorker sized me up, seemed to know exactly where I’d been and what I’d been up to. He grinned, took my passport, and said:

“Welcome home.”

A wave of emotion hit me. Indeed, I was home, and glad to be. I was not some rootless, wandering, life-in-a-suitcase, leave-in-a-cloud-of-dust nomad. No. I was, and am, an American. I am the descendant of immigrants and Native Americans. I am of this particular soil, part of a story in which I have increasingly, consciously engaged ever since. To keep it advancing in the right direction is much more work than I thought it would be. But the option to move that needle feels ever more precious. To my marrow, I am invested in an America that edges closer to ideals that have brought to me the most amazing people and experiences, the songs, stories, and spirit that have been so much a part of the richness of my life, and the lives of friends, loved ones, and tens of millions of wildly different people I will never meet.

Despite recent horrors, the promise of a country more like what I’m describing is closer than it was just a few weeks ago. And the delusional white supremacists who would raze the Capitol, build a wall, and murder those who are not like them, are as terrified as their man Hitler was in his bunker.

But the Capitol stands, and change is afoot. And next time I travel to another country, I will proudly take that change with me, in my passport. And then I’ll come home, and get back to work.

RBW, Phoenicia, NY, 1-13-21

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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

WWH

RBW, Chuck, and Grace, 1985, by Tom Berry

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. Those who caught me, cut me a break or two, had my back, and directed me toward my various destinies, were, shall we say, offbeat. 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. They liked having a secret.

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 these 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. When anyone thought or assumed I was gay, I took it as a compliment.

~

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 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, turned each other on, 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 pierce something or other, 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, enjoying a distinctive quality of life that included good food, a reasonable amount of space, low overhead, and an abundance of art and adventure. Within a decade, those days would be over, or at least they would be prohibitively expensive to all but a few.

Of course it wasn’t all fun. 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. The pride and power, in fact, intensified. 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 a couple 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, Tom, 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, Pam, Deb, Mark, Keiko, Gerard, Bernard, Nick, George. They were all there to help me become me, and their names are on my heart.

kingtuts

King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, circa early 90s

~

(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 without a father. My dad had died driving drunk the year before, and my mother hadn’t taken my older brother and me to Daddy’s funeral. As secular, hippie agnostics, we’d not engaged in any rituals to deal with the loss.

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

Perhaps in response to it all, Kemp and I invented imaginary friends Antonio and Joe. They were elves. We swore to each other Antonio and Joe were real. We saw them in the monkey grass, peeping from behind the azaleas, their little peaked caps bobbing among the bees.

Sweet, yes, but our imaginary friends could not compete with the smut. The siren call of porn lured us away from Antonio and Joe time and again, until finally, as the magazines grew dog-eared, our elven playmates faded.

cg_tree-house

In retrospect I wonder if the lingering trauma of my dad’s death, combined with the adult activity of ogling Penthouse magazines, had something to do with my anxiety attack. Quite suddenly, I was intimate with death and sex. I had no tools to shape the horror and excitement they evoked.

In my bed, on Christmas Eve of my eighth year, the air around me was heavy with shadow.

Our house was small, so only the dining room stood between my tiny room and the area where the Christmas tree shimmered, covered in lights and garlands and crowned with a homemade angel we called the Hippie Angel.

Sometime in the mid-60s, when she was newly divorced from my father and we were quite poor, Mom had drawn the Hippie Angel in ballpoint pen on white cardboard and cut her out. The haloed, long-tressed, tiny-winged Hippie Angel wore a wide-sleeved gown and slippers. In her left hand she held a scepter topped with the peace sign. She was much beloved, especially when I was very small and she seemed quite real.

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

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

“Mommy!”

“Yes, honey?”

“I can’t sleep! I can’t sleep!”

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

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

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

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

I bolted awake at dawn, having slept only 90 minutes or so, but energized and deliriously happy. I ran to the living room and there, in the flickering of the Christmas tree, the Hippie Angel smiled down on my remote controlled car, plus some Sesame Street puppets and, for my brother and me, a racetrack, fully assembled. Our stockings were crammed with candy, which we would consume for breakfast. I ran into my brother’s room, passing my mom’s on the way, noticing the familiar lumps of her deeply sleeping body.

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


partridge

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

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

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

“Hey!” she called. “Hey kid, stop!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

RBW, December, 2014