Saturday, March 14, 2015

Hard Traveling

Early last week, I got the news that my old friend J had passed on.  He had been in a nursing home for a long time, after debilitating head injuries he suffered from a few falls.  J had always been a poster boy for bad habits, particularly smoking and drinking, and these things caught up to him over the years.  From what I gather, the smoking finally did its thing, and an aggressive form of lung cancer took him down for the last time.

I don’t think I’ll be telling any more cautionary tales.  People make their choices and live with them.  And then die, as we’ll all do, whether we’re the pictures of health and virtue, or like J, we let it ride, common sense and longevity be damned.  At the same time, I’ve been reading Night of the Gun by the recently-deceased New York Times writer, David Carr, which bears a passing similarity to J’s wild ways, save that Carr, thanks to the guilt he felt over the fate of his two infant daughters, made himself shift gears and took off in a far more successful direction. 

What I like about the book is the lack of judgment he had on himself, on the people he knew, whether they were light or dark forces.  Not so much “lack of judgment” as the simple realization that people are going to do what they will, and it’s up to them to change if they so desire.  His life spiraled out of control numerous times and as noted, the only thing that finally registered with him was his two kids who demanded his commitment as a father.  But they really didn’t … as he noted, some of the foster families who handled the kids in their infancy seemed to be decent people who probably could have raised the kids as their own.  It was what he wanted, to stop the cycle and take as much control of his destiny as he could.

And that’s where I sense whatever I feel about J now, that concept of taking control of your life.  To an extent, no one really can.  Shit is going to happen that no one could see coming.  In my case recently, a house fire and hernia followed by surgery.  And shit that you know is coming, like my parents passing on.  You would think the unplanned stuff would be more jarring, but I found that the house fire gave me a new perspective on possessions, and the hernia completely changed my life for the better in terms of my body weight and health.  It’s been the expected stuff, the parents departing, that have taken much more of an emotional toll, and remain a much more real, ever-present condition to live with.

J’s passing takes its place in that more permanent emotional condition, granted nowhere near as profound as my parents’ passing on, but something I will dwell on in good and bad ways over the coming years.  And that’s one thing you learn as you age: you’re going to be dwelling on deaths, of family and friends, as they happen more frequently in your life, and it’s a good idea to learn how to handle these things emotionally, otherwise you’re sure to be overwhelmed by the experiences, or more inclined to completely shut down emotionally, which is always an option (and one I've taken with a few people).

When A gave me the news earlier this week, I knew it was a much heavier load on him, as he and J got to know each other in that great open time right after high school.  As A tells the story, they met while working the boardwalk the summer of 1978 in Asbury Park, New Jersey, pick-up jobs around the beach before A went off to college and J got into whatever was coming his way.  They lived in the same boarding house, A in the basement and J on a higher floor, not really knowing each other, when one Sunday morning, A heard The Sex Pistols blasting from an open window.  Understand that history has been re-written with The Sex Pistols in America, like we were all listening to them as if they were Led Zeppelin.  No.  Hardly anyone was.  That sort of English punk was portrayed as a circus sideshow in the American media – very few people took it seriously, particularly kids raised on 60s and 70s rock.  Very few people were even into the American stuff like The Ramones.  So to be into The Sex Pistols in American in 1978 was one very individual thing … to hear someone else blasting it from a stereo at that time was like a Bat Signal being sent out over the land, and the only thing you could do was find that source.

And so A did, and thus was born a thorny, strange friendship over the course of decades, with A cast as the reasonably responsible, relatively straight arrow, and J the provocateur/raconteur, always causing scenes, making shit happen both good and bad, trying to make it as a poet and a musician, never quite getting where he wanted to be, but not inclined to stop trying.  J had been orphaned and raised by a family in Red Bank, New Jersey.  I never knew what his father did, save that he was successful, they were Polish and deeply Catholic, and raised J in that way.  J had been a rebellious kid, possibly because of his orphan status and just his nature, but he always carried that dual sense of wanting to be out of control all the time, yet answering to some higher spiritual authority, ditto the same with patriotism.  He was the wild guy at the party, permanently smoking, hobnobbing with all the prettiest girls, with shoulder-length hair and a “Nixon Now” button on his lapel that in one sense was ironic, but in another, once you got to know him, he really wasn’t fucking around and thought the world of Richard Nixon.

That button best exemplified J, that strong sense of self he had, and knowing that he could play it both ways, that he could find himself sitting in an American Legion hall respectfully listening to and appreciating old war stories, and later do some lines in the men’s room of a local bar with a bunch of wastrels while a local band blasted electric guitars and bass through the walls.  I’m reminded of those occasional episodes of The Sopranos where Tony would be watching a World War II documentary or movie on TV and expound on what great Americans these men were, and he was just trying to uphold that level of manhood and decency as exemplified by that generation’s necessary struggle.  Knowing in the back of his mind that he was full of shit and doing things all wrong, but not willing to disassociate the connection to that sense of decency in his mind.  I feel the same way myself when I watch John Wayne or Clint Eastwood movies: that sense of manhood will always be very appealing, but really, what it has to do with our modern lives and how we live them, I’m not so sure.

I met J via A in the mid 1990s in the infant days of the internet, as we were all connected into an bulletin board dedicated to the New York radio disc jockey Vin Scelsa (whom I still find myself listening to after all these years).  I wrote about the legendary party that “Bob” threw in Hoboken where all those disparate voices on the internet gathered for one glorious night, and that’s where I first met J.  As I described it at the time, he had the persona of someone who had just rolled off the water bed of a smoke-filled Chevy Van, Cheap Trick blasting from the speakers, bong in one hand, can of Old Milwaukee in the other, and barked out, “Wh-Wh-Wh-Wh-Where’s the party?”

That was another oddly endearing thing about J: he stuttered.  Totally unexpected and out of character.  This Type A personality trapped in a rock-and-roller’s body, somebody you would figure would have total command of the room, but when he spoke, every few sentences, some word would hang him up completely and have him stumbling over the introductory syllable for seconds on end.  I think he hated when anyone acknowledged this, or at least I know he told me to go fuck myself (always without a stutter) any time I ribbed him about it.  It was one of those J things: either you rode along with it and stopped paying any mind to it, or you got the hell out.  Just another of his strange, somehow sweet contradictions.  It’s hard to get mad at people who stutter.  (But, trust me, in J’s case, you would anyway.)

J’s forte when I knew him was managing his two bands and embroiling himself in the boisterous New Jersey club and bar scene that he knew so well.  He was in his natural element working a club while one of his bands played, greeting strangers at the door, hustling them for drinks and email addresses for the list, making sure everyone knew who he was, that his band was up on stage, and I hope to see you again next week at (insert seedy club name here).  The problem with J as a manager was that he was terrible with money, going into negative balances for the “Twangfest” festivals he’d stage every spring or summer, a gathering of many of the alt country bands around New Jersey.  And he didn’t give a shit because he loved the music so much, and the simple idea that he was making all this happen was good enough.  But that’s one thing I know about successful band managers: they’re all about the cash.

J was all about the music, and maybe this was his downfall.  The same way I’m all about the writing and don’t really give a shit about the cash either.  As Bob Seger put it, Beautiful Losers.  Much like J, I’m O.K. with losing in this sense, so long as the art is there, the ability to go on making it, to keep the ball in the air.  But when you’re managing bands, the whole idea is to make a financial profit and hopefully grow it to another higher level.  A good manager will get you shows, make you feel like The Beatles in terms of your talent, and push you into making even better music.  A great manager will do all that … AND make you a truckload of money.  While J understood that on some basic level, I don’t think he understood that this really wasn’t him, that he was too much of an artist himself and didn’t have that financial savvy to push the managerial thing to a level where profits rolled in.  While some of that with bands comes down to shit luck, don’t kid yourself, most successful bands have cut-throat management behind them doing whatever it takes to keep themselves and their artists in the green.

And this just wasn’t J, which I’ve always considered a hard blessing.  The guy had too much heart to be that cut-throat, despite fancying himself as being that hard-edged.  He might have considered it a character flaw in some sense, but we all saw, it was his saving grace.  His generosity, the way he’d put out a meal or spread and invite anyone to join in, to soak up the conversation and company, to bicker about which bands or songs were better, to trade personal barbs and make them good and sharp enough that we’d end up laughing with each other.  J and I saw that in each other and always enjoyed sparring.  Every time I’d phone him from work during the week, he'd mutter, “I’m busy, what the fuck do you want?”  I’d pretend like I was insulted and get ready to hang up in a huff, and he’d immediately change the subject to some song he had just heard or new album, and off we’d go, on tangents involving Korean War Vets, the best whiffle ball bats, who was going to suck worse this year, the Phillies or the Mets, and so on.

I should also mention his wife E here, whom I also met at that party in Hoboken: J’s saving grace.  For however caustic and irritating J could be sometimes, you always had E to balance things out with general sense of compassion and humility.  He knew what he had in her, and dear Lord, that woman had the patience of a saint to roll with some of the shit J would pull over the years, the carousing, drugs and drinking.  Which as David Carr can tell you, makes for a wild, fun ride when things are going well, but things always stop going well at some point.  And that’s where people like E come in to make things whole again, to hang around when no one else will, to be there through the darkest hours.  She rolled with so much over the years, and I’m sure this is far more true for the hard years after the falls when the rest of us just gave up and started going about our lives.  I can say for myself, shit, house fires, hernias, parents dying … my dance card has been full, to say the least.  But I failed in character not to be more helpful and just “there” in some sense when J went into decline.  One of many character failings I’ve had.  With many more to come.  Life’s going to do a pretty good job of beating the shit out of us, no need to do it to yourself.  Acknowledge you fucked up and move on, as J did so many times.

Which was pretty much my attitude this past Thursday when it came time for J’s funeral.  All day long, I sat at work: I’m going, I’m not going, what if I go and get cold shouldered for not being there in J’s life to the end, fuck it, I’m going, no, I’m not going, dude, I’ve buried two parents, I know how this works, just go, no, don’t go, you don’t deserve to be there, but remember all the people who showed up at Dad’s and Mom’s funerals whom you hadn’t seen in years, just go, if you get chased through the parking lot, fuck it, make that your tribute to J, as he’s had a good run through many a parking lot with angry people cursing after him.

At 2:30, I decided, go, just go, be there.  You know the drill now with death, as you didn’t before all this stuff starting going south J, just be there, if only to pay respects and say goodbye to someone who had a real influence on your life.  Naturally, I rushed out of work and got the wrong train in Penn Station, heading out to Long Island after making a mad dash, two trains right next to each other leaving at 2:45, and I jumped on the wrong one.  Got off at Woodside and took the 7 Train back into Manhattan, getting back with enough time to buy a cheap pair of headphones for the iPod as I couldn’t imagine making this long trip to Red Bank, New Jersey without some music.

I got on the 3:45 Jersey Coast train from NJ Transit and got rolling.  Beautiful March day, cold as hell, but season appropriate after weeks of bitter cold and snow, coursing through the shit end of all those northern New Jersey towns.  I was glad to pick up the ear buds as I foolishly left my new expensive headphones back in the apartment.  I sat there watching the miles roll by, punching in songs and bands that I knew J loved: Marah, The Trash Mavericks, Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam.  It had been a long time since I went through that country playlist, and that’s how I felt myself moving towards J.  He got me into country back in the 90s when we first met.  Like most rock kids, my version of country was “Dead Flowers” by The Stones and more rock stuff like that.  J imparted a deep sense of real country music to me … how he came to love it is someone else’s story to tell.  But he made it O.K. for me to explore this kind of music, find the good stuff, of which there was and is tons, and to love and appreciate the music as much as any rock music I was born and raised with.  Here I was, from deep in the woods of Pennsylvania, fucking hating country music up to that point in my life, and a guy from suburban New Jersey tells me to wait a minute, you should be giving this stuff a real chance.  That was probably the greatest influence J had on me, to get me to at least listen to country music, give it a chance, and find there was a lot to love about it.  I don’t think I can point to any one person in my life who ever had that sort of musical influence over me – plenty of people who pointed me in a good direction, but J was someone who insisted I change the way I perceived the world because I was missing something important.  (Of course, that goes for a lot more than country music with us.)

The shitty lumberyards and warehouse parking lots of North and Central New Jersey started turning into the rolling fields and beautiful seaside inlets of coastal New Jersey, and I knew instinctively that Red Bank was near.  It’s a long ride form Manhattan down to that part of Jersey, and you can really feel the change-over when you get near the water like that.  All that trip, the music was opening up my mind in the right way, relaxing me, reminding me why I knew J and how much he meant in the overall course of my life.  Music has meant so much to the both of us, and that was our main connection.  It made sense that it would guide me back, on this train, to see him one last time and say goodbye.

I got into Red Bank, a nice enough town and walked the few blocks to the funeral parlor.  Made my way downstairs to the viewing area where I saw J laid out in his casket … and I have to admit, all things considered, knowing what I know of how “unreal” my parents looked to me in the same circumstances, J looked pretty good.  I was worried that the passing years might have done a number on him physically, but he didn’t look that far away from how I remembered him.  There were a few dozen people spread around the room, and I saw A across the room.  I hadn’t told him I was coming (because until 2:30 that day, I really wasn’t sure I would), and he just about shit his pants when he saw me walking over.  I knew he had been worried, too, about this whole situation, but felt much more strongly about being there as J and he went back much further than we did.  She had her back turned to me while speaking to A, but E was right there, turned around, and she looked exactly the same as I remembered her.

Everything just slipped right into place, right then, as much as they can in such a horrible circumstance.  E seemed glad to see us both and appeared grateful for everyone who showed up.  If you’re reading this and don’t have much experience with funerals, let me impart some wisdom on you: if you’re sitting on the fence about attending someone’s funeral, get off the fence and go.  Be there.  It gives you a chance to fully confront the emotions associated with that person, and it’s a quiet, soul-strengthening exercise to force yourself into a situation that could go in any direction.  Chances are, it’s going to go well.  Funerals are for honoring the dead and comforting the living.  Unless you plan on showing up and making some tree-stump speech where you set everything “right” in your mind, chances are you’ll go and be immediately welcomed into what is a very fragile, new world for everyone in that room.  And it helps to have warm bodies around, because it’s when the warm bodies fade back into their lives, that the ones left behind start working through all that grief and darkness.  It helps to have that ceremony where everyone gathers and says goodbye, if only to let them know you cared, however distantly, that the person in that box, meant something to you.

When I went up to J’s side to pay my respects, there was a small boombox on the pedestal next to his coffin playing “Beast of Burden” by The Rolling Stones.  E had put together a mix tape of J’s favorite Stones songs.  Well, at least the funeral-appropriate ones as songs like “Starfucker,” “Short and Curlies” and “Some Girls” might night go so well in this environment.  J worshipped The Stones, and it reminded me to relax, you’re among friends and family.  If J really had his way, he probably would have insisted on a spread, big pot of chili, meat on the grill, everyone have some beers, turn up the Stones, A, get out your bag of weed and let’s you and me take a stroll around the parking lot outside.  But this would have to do, J was gone, but the music was still there.

It was a good experience, more of a wake than a funeral, and I know wakes tend to be more reflective and light-hearted, people recalling good memories of the deceased, seeing old faces and such.  The funerals tend to be much harder, much more somber, the finality of it all coming down, that buoyant sea of memories from the wake the evening before replaced with the closing of the casket and the lowering into the cold ground.  But I understand J was to be cremated, and this was it.

And it was a good place to end for me, to travel all this way and find that there were people on the other end whom I could help make sense of this in some small way. But I have to admit I couldn’t bring myself to say a word to J’s mother, whom I only met once before and didn’t know at all.  I could tell by looking at her she was a good person, strong as hell, of my parents’ generation, hard people whom I will always look up to, who came up in a world that seemed much tougher and direct than the one I’ve lived in.  I could only imagine the hurt and grief she was going through to out-live one of her kids.  I recalled how surprised J was when his father passed on that his mother, after feeling bad for a few months, bloomed in a whole new way, joining social groups and making herself start living again after such a grievous blow.  I could only hope that same spirit she took from that bad situation could help her through this one.  I had no idea what to say to someone in her shoes.

So, I tried to sneak out around 7:00 as I had a long ride home, but E grabbed me on the way out, probably remembering how I’d love to sneak out of J’s shows by pretending I was going to take a piss in the men’s room and keep on walking.  And she thanked me for being there.  It was the least I could do, literally, and another reminder of how my life has shifted gears, getting to that place where this will be happening more often from now on.  My parents’ generation is nearly gone, and most people I know are getting older, it’s just the nature of the world that we deal with the harder things in life the longer we hang around.  It’s making more sense to confront death whenever I can.  I know that sounds strange, but what was once a horrible mystery to me now is something I can grasp, if only tangentially while still being alive.  Death is part of the deal, and the time comes when have to learn how to live with it.

It was somehow fitting that this song came up on the iPod shuffle as the train was cutting across those swampy New Jersey inlets just outside of New York City.  If only in spirit and sound, J was riding with me through the dark night.