Tag Archives: Todd Butler

Playing Alongside Your Echo – For BTB

R.E.M., Todd & Me

Todd and me, summer, 2004

I understand the impulse to maintain a dam-like wall against swelling emotion for fear it’ll flood the meticulously kept terrain of persona. At best, that turbid stuff can make a mess, at worst, it can cause permanent damage. But I think you would’ve advised, as was your wont, to go ahead and chip away, let the untamed, hard-to-manage stuff spill out. That’s the truth, anyway, you would’ve said. The rest is boring. And boredom is the enemy. And, crucially, the kids are watching. Do we want them to be ashamed of what they really feel? No. So spill it.

You would’ve been 50 today. Five months older than me, you and I celebrated milestones five months apart since we were seven years old: you were the first to reach the double digit of ten, to get your driver’s license, to see an X-rated movie (Cafe Flesh, I think, or maybe Pink Flamingos), to legally enter clubs to see bands.

That's me, far left, in fireman hat. Todd Butler in center. My brother in fangs. Not quite drag, but we're getting there.

RBW, far left, in fireman hat. Todd in center. EBW in fangs.

Ten years ago I superseded you, when you died by your own hand and left me to pass these markers without you to compare notes with. I turned 40 in the wake of your death. We had a party at which floodwaters rose in the basement of my Catskill mountain home as I tried unsuccessfully to fix a sump pump. Interesting. That was the first of several floods.

In a way, you’ve been spared, as some of our note-comparing would’ve been complaints of increasing infirmity – the tax on a long life – but I like to think you would’ve also helped shape my perspective, as was your wont, to direct my focus, gently, usually with humor, to the good stuff: the food, the beauty, the endless halls of art and story to savor, the kids, the woman on the beach, the hilarious cat, the coffee mixed with Swiss Miss in the cool of a summer dawn while our families slept.

You were and remain many things to me, but I keep going back to you being the first to pick up a guitar and teach yourself to play. You encouraged me to do the same, and you taught me, in the front rooms of that bungalow that was my second home, with a depth of patience I took for granted. Most people know me as a musician, and that is because of you. I recently told my son, who you last saw when he was six, how I still feel guilty for intentionally getting on your nerves until you struck me with a badminton racket. I was saying the same infuriating nonsense phrase over and over like a mantra, and I still don’t really blame you for coming at me in such a fury. (I wish I could recall what I was chanting, but I can’t.)  Regardless, you showed me how to play Led Zeppelin songs, a currency that actually led me away from you for a time and bought me “coolness,” but again, you forgave me that, and we eventually rocked stages from Atlanta to New York City, having teenage adventures that shaped us, and gave us a shared history that would grow more precious with time.

Todd'83

Gina, Todd, RuPaul, 1983. Photo by Clare Butler.

But our story was more than that, much more than the music. The music and the teen years were never our “good old days,” never the only common ground. For years, in fact, we shared faith that good days were ahead, always ahead, and for a time, they were, especially when we became dads. We stayed close friends, even as I moved north and you stayed put to paint and make a life in our hometown. You wrote me beautiful, funny letters and sent me mixtapes that I listened to on a Walkman as I walked the mid-80s Manhattan streets, finding out who I was, how much I could take, and what I could do with what I goaded life into throwing at me, always with your encouragement. (The one thing you didn’t encourage was holding a grudge.) We visited and talked often, sharing successes and failures, effortlessly picking up the thread, hanging out with our wives in my grandmother’s den, brewing another pot of coffee, telling stories, laughing ’till we cried, completely present, no thoughts of past or future.

I recently told  a friend who’s about to turn 40 that I learned more in the past decade than any other since my first. That is the truth, or at least it feels like the truth. It’s truthy. Pain is the greatest teacher, and losing you – and another friend, in ’06 – kicked off my 40s. Pain has taught me, but also, much of this steep-curve learning has come from doing what I am doing now: writing. I have begun to fashion my stories, many of which feature you in some way, or which I write with you in mind, as my reader. As our fellow Georgian Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” For me, that has been so, and I’ve learned a lot, traversed paths, brightened corners, found strength, and done a little forgiving, including forgiving you for enacting what you first told me you wanted to do when we were in my Plymouth Duster in the Denny’s parking lot, post-Rocky Horror, 1982. We were 17.

You’d be amazed at the world, at your daughter, my son, our wives and friends. I can barely begin to tell you. My son is a beautiful young man, making his way into the world with kids who remind me so much of the Rocky Horror crew of our teens. He’s sharp and brave and spreading his wings with such style it makes his mom and me gape-mouthed, it makes us weep. Your gorgeous daughter, who I keep up with on her mom’s Facebook page (don’t ask), is playing guitar and singing in a band and she’s funny and original and you’d be so proud, I know you’d bust. She would’ve kicked your ass a bit, no doubt, and you would’ve said “bring it,” and when the dust settled, you would’ve looked around, like me, and said, “these are the good ole days, even as they sometimes suck.” And then we would’ve complained a bit, but leavened it with something funny or something that provoked our awe and/or indignation. That stuff remains easy to find.

You would’ve been 50 years old on this rainy autumn afternoon, and I send this to the ether, to the past, to that point several million miles into the cosmos where it’s still 2003, and you’re sending me encouraging emails about some demos, or even further out, where it’s 1985, and you’re saying yes, go to New York, see what’s in store for you, or further to 1983, where we’re smiling across the smoky light of a stage, melding our musical gestures into a song that sounds brand new but has, in fact, been playing since we first met, further out, in 1972. That song continues, here and now, as I keep playing alongside your echo.

Happy Birthday, Todd. Sent with undying love and gratitude.

todd

Todd, late 80s, Polaroid by James Bond.

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Rock On for The Weeklings

 

RBW in Rocky Horror. Pic by Dennis Oclair

RBW in Rocky Horror. Pic by Dennis Oclair

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

Please click HERE and enjoy. And thanks.

RBW

Me & RuPaul

RuPaul and me, ca. 1983

By Robert Burke Warren

Before I met RuPaul Andre Charles, I saw him do a stand-up routine on amateur night at an Atlanta comedy club in 1982. I was seventeen. A twenty-two-year-old RuPaul came out in pasted-on tassels and glitter. In front of an unsuspecting congregation of white frat guys and their feather-haired dates, he gestured to his get-up and squealed, “You like my outfit? Well… this is the front…” then, after a dainty spin, he added, “and this is the back!” It didn’t go over well. I recall feeling pity and fear that he’d soon be gay-bashed in the parking lot.

Almost two decades later I would see him do this same bit on his own national TV show, and it would kill.

A year or so after that night, I was forming a band with my best friend, guitarist Todd Butler. Todd had come into his own at the local art house theater portraying Riff Raff in the live floorshow of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I’d been playing bass in a punky pop band.

Through Rocky Horror, Todd had gained access to the new wave queer underworld of Atlanta, and had fallen in love with trash-funk band the Now Explosion and their back-up singers/go-go dancers RuPaul and the U-hauls.

Chrissy, RuPaul, Gina

Chrissy, RuPaul, Gina

One day Ru took the bus to Todd’s house, but unlike the cringe-worthy “comic” I’d seen, this RuPaul was charming and magnetic. The three of us fired up an ancient drum machine from the 60s and christened ourselves Wee Wee Pole – “like something a little kid would say.” In short order we appeared on public access and booked our first gig – opening for the Now Explosion at a seedy downtown club. We tore the roof off the place.

Within months we added percussionist David Klimchak – the only “functioning adult” in the band – made a three-song demo, and began gigging regularly. One memorable night we played at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, and RuPaul dared to voice what everyone was thinking, screaming from the stage, “Where’s MICHAEL STIPE? He’s so CUTE! I just love him!” Sadly, or perhaps not, Stipe was on the road.

Inevitably, we fell out with Todd’s mother, Betty Butler. Initially, she’d tolerated our rehearsing in the front room of their house; we’d spend after-school afternoons concocting a Prince-and-Blowfly-inspired new-wave-y funk repertoire, our sweaty sessions often overlapping with her coming in the door around 6, exhausted from working all day at the Shriner’s Temple. Despite – or perhaps because of – Mrs. Butler’s devout Christian beliefs, she accepted Ru’s screamingly obvious gayness, never even addressing the non-issue. As an added delight, the Butler family had a bursting, starch-sugar-carbonated-deep-fried-Twinkie-fied dream of a kitchen, which we were allowed to raid, no questions asked. One day, however, she overheard the lyrics (that I wrote) to a song called “Get Sexy” (“Perfume on yo’ cleavage, perfume on yo’ toes/Perfume on yo’ privacy, where everybody wants to go!”) and Mrs. Butler evicted us. We had officially tried the patience of a saint.

Regardless of minor setbacks, RuPaul went into promo overdrive. He Xeroxed fanzines about himself and wheat-pasted Wee Wee Pole gig posters all over Atlanta. One featuring a photo of him clad only in a loincloth was stuck on my grandmother Gammie’s street in a conservative Atlanta neighborhood. She was not pleased. (It would be years before I would convince her I was not being “recruited by the gays.”) It all paid off; soon our local hit “Tarzan” was getting airplay on Georgia State’s WRAS, we were opening for national acts, and headlining clubs.

RuPaul didn’t do much full drag in the early 80s. It’s expensive, for one thing, and he was dirt poor. He was an impressively inventive thrift store cross-dresser. I recall a feather boa wired into his short Mohawk, an oversize diaper, football shoulder pads affixed to his shirtless torso, and a pair of size 13 fisherman’s waders worn with hot pants.

On the downside, RuPaul could get pretty drunk and cavort sloppily onstage with drag queens while Todd, David and I vamped interminably on “Love Hangover.” I had no patience for that and I made sure everyone knew it. How I wish I had tapes of our band meetings from that time, just to hear things like: “Ru, you cannot invite Ty-D-Bowl on the stage with you, he ruins everything.”

The tech department at my alma mater Northside School of the Performing Arts had brand new video equipment and they were eager to do a live shoot with an audience of students. I volunteered Wee Wee Pole, worried yet thrilled at the risk. Ru did not hold back one iota – parading amongst the teens and dumbstruck teachers in one of his trash-glam ensembles, cutting loose with some over-the-top moves and cries of faux ecstasy, exhorting the spellbound kids with “EVERYBODY SAY LOVE!” I retain hope of this performance giving courage to some secret misfit kids.

I sent our demo tape to New York City, and from my grandmother’s kitchen I booked a Thursday night at the Pyramid Club and a Friday at Danceteria opening for Gene Loves Jezebel. Our fellow Atlanta scenesters took it upon themselves to warn us about “New York audiences,” clucking that the folks up there wouldn’t clap and perhaps might even boo, and not to take it personally.

We made the trip from Atlanta to New York City in one twenty-hour shot of continuous driving, done mostly by Ru, who once had earned money as a drive-away car guy and loved the open road, especially after he’d smoked a joint. It was late fall of ’83, I was eighteen, and the gigs we would play would be my last with the band. Athens, Georgia was calling like a siren.

Since R.E.M. had started their precipitous climb, the stock of the sleepy little college town had risen, and I was enthralled from 65 miles away in Atlanta, where I’d spent my whole life. Invited by well-established musician Vic Varney to start a new Athens band, I was drawn to the presumed depth and artiness of the scene.

(more about this episode HERE)

In spite of Wee Wee Pole’s success, I’d grown frustrated; I told myself we were destined only to do songs about sex, partying and fun, as if that was a terrible fate. I decided this was a bash I wanted to leave early, and a New York tour was a perfect swan song. But I told no one.

Wee Wee Pole arrived in Manhattan on a cold autumn evening. We crashed on the Chelsea apartment floor of Dan, an old buddy of my girlfriend’s mother. A former male-model-turned-professional-waiter, Dan was prone to walking around his apartment completely naked, which seemed fine at the time and caused no incident. In fact, his shower was in his kitchen, so there was no way around it. None of us took showers.

The next night we played the Pyramid Club on Avenue A in the East Village. Within moments of our first song, it was clear that the sizable Thursday night crowd loved us. With applause still ringing in our ears, we stumbled into the post-midnight chill deliriously happy, relieved, and nowhere near tired. Ru had begun some celebratory drinking and although Todd, David and I didn’t drink, take drugs or smoke pot, we all got caught up in his elation. Our good friend Margie Thorpe suggested the Staten Island Ferry as a cheap, touristy adventure. Excellent idea! The early morning hours found us heading towards the water, the band and Margie all packed into the van, laughing, giddy, afraid of nothing.

We parked on the ferry and found seats upstairs. The fluorescent lights and sad, dingy colors of the boat could not suppress RuPaul’s drunken gaiety. He ran full-tilt from bow to stern, getting right in the faces of the taciturn late-night commuters, crowing “JESUS LOVES YOU! YOU ARE SO GORGEOUS! WHO WANTS GUM? I DO, I DO!” Todd, David and I were still buzzing from the gig, and Margie was beaming so proud, we took no notice of some sneering Mean Streets-looking toughs who growled, “You gotta wake up to reality, man… wake up to reality!” FUCK THAT.

It wasn’t until we landed on Staten Island and went to retrieve the van that we noticed our tires had been slashed. We drove our crippled vehicle onto the Island, temporarily marooned. Ru’s high came crashing down and he moped and dozed in the front seat while we cuddled in the back. (Thank God for Klimchak’s credit card and for his wisdom to pay a little extra for insurance. He is the hero of our little tour.) As we awaited delivery of a new rental, the sun rose, our adrenaline dipped, and silence set in. In my memory, this was all part of the fun, an element of the adventure, but at the time I’m pretty sure it was a bummer. Except for the cuddling.

We slept at Dan’s most of the day and awoke in time to go play our Danceteria gig. I have no memories of eating. We kicked ass, and once again RuPaul had the crowd by the balls – in a good way. It was another triumphant night and I daresay we blew Gene Loves Jezebel off the stage. The next day we would retrieve our hapless new van – which had been towed – from a carbon-monoxide drenched garage and hit the road for home, satisfied and eager to relay news of our conquest.

Within weeks I quit. No one was surprised – my dissatisfaction with the band was no secret and there had been friction, complete with morning-after recriminations and apologies for missed cues and drunken lewdness. But if RuPaul ever bore me any ill will, I certainly never felt it.

The three songs Wee Wee Pole recorded ended up as side B of Ru’s first album Sex Freak, which you can find online for 50 bucks at Discogs. And/or you can enjoy these video versions from YouTube:

In My Neighborhood

Tarzan

and a live version of Body Heat, which was banned from Atlanta radio due to faux orgasms.

Ru and I would cross paths several times over the next couple of decades. After spending most of 1984 playing in Athens band Go Van Go, wanderlust overtook me again. I pulled up stakes and moved to Manhattan at the age of nineteen. In the 17 years I lived there, Ru would be a sometime-New Yorker and I was called in to play guitar and bass on his LP RuPaul Is Starbooty. We had a ball. The album is crazy expensive on collectors’ sites, but you can enjoy the track “The Mack,” featuring my fuzzed-out guitar, in this video:

After getting sober and hooking up with ace management in the early 90s, Ru’s star really began to rise. At that time, I ran into him on lower Broadway and he had a whole agenda laid out – hit single, TV show, book, movies. Within a few years, it all happened. And when my elderly Gammie called to tell me she’d seen his career-ma king spot on Arsenio – “I saw that RuPaul on the TV!” – it seemed a part of the natural order of things. RuPaul was a “Superstar In Exile” no more.

The last time I saw RuPaul in the flesh was during my late-90s years as a Manhattanite stay-at-home dad. I was carrying my toddler son Jack through the East Village in a backpack and there was Ru, dressed in a sharp suit, passing unrecognized through my neighborhood. He had all the time in the world for us. He’d had his hit single “Supermodel,” his talk show, and various roles in Hollywood movies, and at that time he was a popular morning DJ on WKTU FM New York, splitting his time between Manhattan and L.A. His freckled face beamed goodwill and happiness for me, and he expressed empathic joy for my new life as a parent, and even hope that one day he might be able to take on that particular challenge.

It would not surprise me in the least if he did.

More about Todd’s and my musical adventures HERE