Friday, November 27, 2009

Cover of the Week 56

Have you seen this video? It has been passed around on the web for a while now. Stay with it until you have seen Prince solo to the end of the song.



What you see here until about the 3:30 minute mark is a perfectly serviceable and respectful cover version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," a tribute to George Harrison. You have the studied aloofness of Tom Petty, sleepwalking through the vocals and acoustic strumming. You have Jeff Lynne doing his part perfectly reasonably, thankfully unable to weigh the song down with goofy backing vocals and other shit he piles on when he is in a studio. You have Stevie Winwood -- arguably the most soulful Englishman next to Jagger, Rod Stewart (and who else?) -- on the B-3 organ. You see the latest incarnation of the Heartbreakers being what they have always been: one of the greatest backing bands of all time, Petty's not-so secret weapon. And you have Dhani Harrison, George's son, strumming along.

And there is the guy in the cap, aping, note-for-note, Eric Clapton's original solos from the legendary White Album recording. It took me a bit of searching to figure out that his name is Marc Mann and, as far as I can gather, he is talented enough to be chosen as a sideman/session guitarist Lynne and George at various junctures. Now, you watch and you might think, "cool, he is nailing the bends, the notes, the whole original solo." And the Clapton part was more than just soloing; it was a wholly integrated arrangement for guitar parts. Yet, when it came time for the actual solo, Mr. Mann -- who I am sure is quite capable of striking out with his own improvised solo -- makes a respectful choice to play the parts Clapton laid down. Totally fine, if forgettable. And unnecessary.

Then you notice the pimp-hatted Prince playing sideman on stage left. But he seems like a loaded gun with a hair trigger. And sure enough, around the 3:25 mark, you see Dhani -- who should never play poker (take it from someone who knows) -- unable to stifle a grin; he has an idea of what is coming.

And sure enough, the soloing, the song, perhaps the whole night is then turned over to Prince, who in the last few years (for me) has made the argument that he is the greatest lead guitar player since Hendrix. He is truly heir to Jimi. As we all know. Hendrix revolutionized lead guitar playing. And he did so without the benefit of some of the technological advances made since his death, stuff like intricately balanced distortion pedals and other devices that are made to harness the sort of feedback and sustain that Jimi, Townshend, et. al. had to rein in by manipulating volume controls and primitive distortion stomp boxes before their signal reached ridiculously loud tube (valve) Marshall and Hiwatt amps.

So Prince has the benefit of a few more devices to exercise a bit more control, but it really does not matter much; what made Hendrix's playing so distinct was his laying it all out there, performing without a net, taking chances that only bop and post-bop jazz guys were taking, and doing so at massive volume, so that he in turn influenced the most forward-thinking of jazz cats like Miles Davis.

And here, in one single performance, Prince comes on like an atom bomb and levels the place, destroys everything in his path, devastates the stage and the players. He performs at a whole different level. He goes out there with no regard for tradition, for the original solos; no, he goes out there and shreds it, putting his own stamp on the song, and in doing so, shines up an otherwise dull rendition. He brings out the best of the song. He takes it to new place, while leaving the rest of the band to keep one foot in the original. As such, he pays the greatest respect to the song, its author, and to Clapton's original sign posts pointing the way to the potential.

While the rest of the band, the old guys, all kind of lay back and play it cool, keeping the song grounded -- to the point of keeping every backing vocal part in place ("look at you all.......still my guitar gently weeeeeeeeps") -- Dhani's face is aglow. He looks around at the other guys with a sort of "can you fucking believe this?!" expression, hoping to make eye contact and get some acknowledgment and musical communion. He seems to get no such feedback from the grizzly old dinosaurs. Dhani is our -- and George's -- stand in and representative. He is there to express what we sitting at home feel: "Holy Mother of God! Is this not one of the greatest virtuoso guitar solos of the past couple of decades?!" Dhani is quoted at this Beatles fan site, "Harrison concludes by stating that he doesn't like music that pulls its punches. 'All the records I like are hardcore. Bob Dylan is the hardest core of the core. Air are chilled out, but they're hardcore musicians. U Srinivas is a hardcore dude from Madras. Leadbelly? He killed a man! Enough said!'"

I've never been a big fan of basketball, but one of the only analogies that springs to mind is that of a perfectly average team of aging pros all of a sudden spiked with a young Michael Jordan or LeBron James; a superstar who opens the game up to spectacle; someone who is so comfortable in his own skin, with Zen-like presence in the moment and absence of extraneous thought and second-guessing. They rise above all the other players, but lift the whole team up to a new level. Sure, there are other players who are jealous and resentful. But then there are players like Dhani, who are playing without ego and who appreciate being in the presence of greatness.

OK, some (likely some of the guys on stage) might just shrink from this and see Prince as showboating. And the way Prince just struts -- struts -- offstage after his seemingly pre-rigged guitar just swoops up and disappears above the stage - surely indicates the same sort of arrogance displayed by Jordan when he would refer to teammates as "my supporting cast." But for Jordan, the ball was just an extension of his hands and he was one with the whole court. For Prince, it is the guitar and the stage. He is not composing the solos before he plays them; it is all one subconscious stream. He has tapped in. These are the great ones.

Others might claim, "sacrilege!" for messing around with Clapton's original solo, as old timers who watched and idolized Bob Cousy might claim that the game should be about passing and set shots. And I would agree that Clapton's solos are perfect for the song: the weeping, the tasteful use of bending strings as displays of sorrow. But that's been done. That recording is over 40 years old and has been played somewhere every day of those subsequent years. Now George is gone, and the world is even more in need of "sweeping." George sang, against hope, "with every mistake we must surely be learning." Prince is the post-modern answer; as Stevie sang, "Telling us how you are changing right from wrong/'Cause if your really want to hear our views/You haven't done nothing."

So Prince takes up where Clapton and Harrison left off, changing the weeping to the outright gnashing of teeth, moaning, yelling and raging. He performs without fear, though, without the net, as he went on to do in the also-legendary performance on SNL a few years later, of the song "Fury."

The rest of the band should have kicked up some dust, as well. But they are just guys in suits playing for other old guys in suits; the worst of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame concept; by its very existence, the HOF fossilizes vital music. Crusty rockers content with their place in the lineage. It is, arguably, a place that had a hard time making space for someone like Prince, who defies categorization. The performance is from 2004, the year that both Prince and George (posthumously, as a solo artist) were inducted into the Hall. It feels like Prince is out to prove he can outrock any straight-up "rock" artist. He is the rightful heir to the Hendrix mantle. I choose him over Stevie Ray. You heard me. Any day of the week.

I think George would approve of the new take on the song. Many, if not most, of his songs had the conscience of eastern thought running through them. LSD and the Maharishi woke him up in the mid-'60s and he kept on teaching: "All things must pass away"; "Isn't it a pity/Now, isn't it a shame/How we/break each other's hearts/And cause each other pain/How we take each other's love/Without thinking anymore/Forgetting to give back"; "The love you are blessed with/This world's waiting for/So let out your heart, please, please/From behind that locked door"; "Beware of sadness/It can hit you/It can hurt you/Make you sore and what is more/That is not what you are here for."

These are all paraphrases of the teachings of the Buddha and other eastern philosophers. They taught that so much of the negativity in the world is borne out of fear. As a result, most of us live defensively most of the time. Buddha says get back to your original self, who you were, your face before you were born. Everything after that is adding to a mask, a shield, buttressing yourself against the pain and suffering in the world. Open yourself back up. Live in the moment. Realize we are here for a limited time. Don't be afraid of making a fool of yourself. I'm not saying go to work at your office in a pimp suit and strut out of a meeting after making a particularly astute and bold point. But live it up a little. Just ask yourself every once in a while, "what would Prince do here?"

Yeah, I know, now it all seems trite, "dance like no one is watching," and all that Chicken Soup kind of shit. But it's because it is all true: "He not busy being born is busy dying," as Bob Dylan sang.

Almost everyone on that stage with Prince is playing defensively. Prince is busy being born.

*****

And so, I continue a Beatles-related chain. Perhaps I am still looking for musical therapy. This week's cover is from my favorite solo record from the individual Beatles, George's masterpiece, All Things Must Pass, which actually might be in my top 4 Beatles-or-Beatles-related records. I would rather listen to all three LPs, including the jam side, more than sitting all the way through Sgt. Pepper's, for example.

And I'm not sure if I don't just go ahead and ignore my own advice, making all the safe choices on this recording. It is a pretty faithful cover. How about that? My only excuse is that I am covering a song a week here, and I don't always have the time to be very inventive -- in, say, a Cat Power-way. Do I take enough chances? Not sure. Probably not. Buffalo Tom used to blister through a hairy version of "Wah Wah," and going way back, "My Sweet Lord." Galaxy 500 used to do a great cover of this number. Seek it out.

Isn't It a Pity? Mp3

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Cover of the Week 55

This song was going through my head every time I opened a box, cabinet, or drawer in my uncle's place (story here and here, for those of you who are interested). But it was certainly most present when I went through the artifacts from his days in the navy, and the items he had saved that were my grandfather's, from his own days in the army during World War II.

It gives me an excuse to cover Tom Waits a third time, taking the lead, I believe, from the Stones. Dylan and Elvis C. are bound to start getting multiples as well.

Thank you, everyone who wrote in with their support.

A Soldier's Things mp3

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Richard Wilbur

The House


Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes

For a last look at that white house she knew

In sleep alone, and held no title to,

And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.

What did she tell me of that house of hers?

White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;

A widow’s walk above the bouldered shore;

Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.

Is she now there, wherever there may be?

Only a foolish man would hope to find

That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.

Night after night, my love, I put to sea.


-- Richard Wilbur




Taken from the New Yorker August 31, 2009

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Back to Work

This page has gotten a bit self-indulgent, I would say; an awful lot of "sharing." Thanks for your patience, especially those mentioned in some of the more personal ramblings. Back to a basic music blog with shorter posts, I promise.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Cover of the Week 54 and Part II of the Miami Saga

Cry Baby Cry mp3

Not much to tie this song into this week's post, but I certainly have done my share of crying this past month. Someone requested it. Again, a charitable donation is always encouraged. This has long been a favorite Beatles song from one of my favorite records. The Throwing Muses did a cover, I believe, back in the day.

Below is part 2 of 2 posts about the murder of my uncle. Part one is here.

*****

A good place to start would be his first communion photo -- him before all the stress and struggle -- which I actually found at the end of a long first day in his house going through records, paperwork, making piles, trying to organize it all, as if by working through the tasks, I could keep myself distracted and hold the waves of emotions at bay.

It had been a long day, that first day which had started bright and early, then a quick flat tire on the rental, the first meeting with the lawyer, the detective’s office and news of the arrest, back to the airport to exchange the car, and then a lunch with Vincent T. and Jane. Vincent T. had quickly become one of the all-time greats to me and now here I was meeting another compassionate and interesting person, Jane, who had worked for the brilliant Mario Cuomo up in Albany. We had an amazingly healing lunch where we discussed the arrest and compared stories about our mutual friend, Vince. Finally, the three of us went to the house.

I had not been here in years. The first thing that hit me, after the initial approach and entering through the front gated courtyard, was the beautiful smell inside. He had always chosen just the right room scents, little fragrance sticks soaking in oil. It was the smell I remembered from my last visit, years before, and instantly brought him back and brought me back to this place. And then I took in the visuals, the lay of the place, the open floor plan with views out of the walls of glass doors in the rear overlooking the very sleek pool and lush tropical foliage dotted with Buddha statues and Burmese teak patio furniture, a canal back behind the foliage.

The house was mostly clean, Vincent T. having, saintly, opened up the place to a “bioresponse” industrial cleaning company that specializes in crime scenes.

Imagine.

But still there was blue dye left on the walls and floors; there were framed prints removed from the walls, piled against a door; a sisal rug was stained with blood. All such remnants of a crime scene, of the struggle, were tough to take. But not as tough to take as the more mundane signs of life, the life that had been lived there, living daily as we do, leaving things undone: dishes in the sink; trash not taken out; counters not yet sponged clean; a gym bag with scrunched up shorts and a new iPod Touch; clothes and bath towels on hooks in his new bedroom suite.

I surveyed it all, taking it all in, silent except for the sighs, walking aimlessly with Jane and Vincent T., each of us doing something, picking up, cleaning, throwing out trash, eyes glancing, listing, taking inventory:

bags of paper
dog toys
blue dye
dried blood on the gate’s lock
his navy medals

his little book of restaurants he loved from his travels:
this little cafe in Sao Paolo
that little trattoria in Napoli
a grander brasserie in Paris
duck in Hong Kong

his birthday was September 19

special soaps he ordered
stepping small steps
opening the back door
books: a fan’s notes; some gore vidal; sedaris on the night stand
buddhas in the gardens
his new addition off to the left there
leaking AC unit in the utility closet
friends

And so many pairs of eyeglasses! He had never thrown any out, it seemed. There were eyeglasses and frames everywhere I turned and I started gathering them up from end tables, night stands, counters, the Audi in the driveway, the gym bag, cabinets, his work briefcase, eventually -- and it seemed steadily for the next two weeks -- piling them in a basket and bowl in the center of a round wooden table in his office. It became this activity of which I was at first only numbly aware, something that kept me busy and gave the appearance that I was making progress when all I was doing was circling the wagons of the larger and more difficult items on my to-do list as executor. All the sorts of things one needs to do when trying to fulfill his responsibility as the executor of the estate of one who was murdered -- of one who was taken senselessly, as if there could ever be sense to such an abomination as murder.

*****

At 43, I thought I had pretty much gone through or sampled most of the adult-sized responsibilities, getting married, owning a house, having kids, a career or two. But except for maybe caring for an aging parent or close relative -- which I have not had to do -- or perhaps serving in the military when one is young -- few things I can imagine makes you feel more grown up than trying to manage the closing out of someone’s life according to their last will.

My friend, Jay, and I attended the funeral of the father of our college buddy, Mike, a couple of months ago in Springfield, MA. Mike had been the executor for his father, who was only around sporadically for Mike during his childhood. It was not easy for Mike in his father’s waning years. Mike was out in the Bay Area, where he has lived for over 15 years, and his father was starting to suffer from dementia and living alone in Springfield. The service was very moving, in a small funeral home, with old friends from his dad’s days as a civil rights activist and as an educator, testifying, telling funny and emotional stories, and singing spirituals.

I was struck at the awesome responsibility Mike had undertaken and how disruptive it must have been for his life as a father of two small kids. He lauded Jay for all his help he had provided clearing out his dad’s place. Apparently he had started to become a bit of a hoarder. Mike had told me he is also listed as executor for an aunt in New York and for his mother, also in New York.

Afterward, Jay and I discussed all of this at a lame sports bar downtown Springfield. (The only thing more exciting than Springfield during the day is the famous Springfield nightlife). I think we looked at each other in a bit of bewilderment, feeling like their had been a shift in the parent-child relationships; we were entering the phase where we have to watch out for our elders. I am on the young side of the scales, with my parents only in their late 60s. I know a lot more people have been dealing with all of this for longer than I have. But the older your parents are, the more likely you have older siblings as well.

Here I was, only a few weeks later, hit with two shocks, the major one being the murder of my beloved uncle and friend; the lesser surprise was that I discovered that I was the executor and had just been handed that same responsibility that I admired Mike for handling with such grace and aplomb.

*****


Jane and Vincent stayed a little while at the house but then had to leave. Left alone in the house, in the waning sun of the October afternoon, I tried to get down to the business at hand. I can easily slip into morose loneliness in even the most benign of circumstances. But now, without the presence of, and a temporary absence of support from Vince’s friends, I again relented and let my guard down and let the waves crash over me. It was hard not to, wading through Vince’s house, his papers, his objects, all the little and big pieces that gave tactile evidence of his life.

But I started. I had to at least start going through it all. I get overwhelmed when I have a few bank statements and scattered papers in a pile on my desk waiting to be filed. So the idea of going through someone else’s records to try and make heads or tails of his finances, obligations, debts, credits, etc. was daunting. Each time I would get up a head of steam, make some progress, getting things into piles, the phone would ring. It would be my mother, or a family member, a friend of mine, or one of Vince’s friends, checking on me, offering help, making arrangements, or reminding me of things. These calls were welcome as therapy, to keep me talking, keep me from wallowing in loneliness and stress. But they would also successfully aid me in procrastinating and I would have to back up a few steps to pick up the trail where I had left off.

By 9 p.m. I was exhausted and hungry. I started to go through the darkened house locking up. Back in his bedroom, the loneliness started to well up again. Back in the office (large converted 2-car garage), I started preparations to leave, picking up some things to bring back to my hotel room. I needed a box or something and I started to look for one. I found a basket, and I opened it. It was filled with photos. The first one, right at the top, was the picture of him on my grandparents' lawn on his first communion day and I was brought down to my knees on the floor, staring at it.



*****


I kept thinking he would walk in and ask me why I was going through his stuff, and asking me if I wanted to go grab something to eat. I didn’t feel like I had lost an elderly relative; he could not be described that way -- even though he would get a perverse kick out of and would half feign dramatic outrage at the headline seen later, “Elderly Gay Man Murdered...” No, he was taken down during healthy and productive years. I felt like I was mourning a brother or even a kid, that little boy he had been in the picture. And I thought of my poor grandmother, who had lived out her final few years just next door on the other side of this office wall, and was thankful this did not happen during her life, during the years that she had still been lucid enough to understand; it would have crushed her, this violent taking of her only son, a gentlemanly and caring soul. The thought of my grandmother hearing such news made me feel misery at such depths that it made me feel physically ill.

Then I thought of my siblings, all forever my kid brothers and sister, who had all taken the news as sadly as I had, if not more so. I thought of my mom, from whom I still and will always feel that mother’s love for a child. And I thought of my kids, too young and innocent to grasp something like this and so from whom we had kept the details of Vince’s death.

And then I thought of my uncle again and saw the arc of his life laid out before me, starting as a little boy about my own son’s age. I thought about being a parent, going through such trouble to raise our kids healthy and safe until we can let them out into the world, somehow managing to stave off cancer, accidents, disease, only to have such potential trouble almost arbitrarily washed away with an unnecessary and obscene incident like this. And so I mourned the man my grandmother had cherished, preserved, and delivered into this world.

*****


But of course, this was not a child, a boy, or even a young man taken from us. It would be a tough loss even without the whole business of murder. It would still be sad and we would still feel the grief. And there would still even be a bit of shock, given that he seemed young for 63. We are all going to die, though, ravaged by cancer, heart attack, or just plain old age. Like many friends of mine, I am just starting to take this fact seriously. I’m not afraid of death, even though I lean heavily toward the atheistic end of the agnostic scale. I am more sad about endings in general, friends and family leaving each other. You just want peace for those you love, absence of suffering. You wish long and happy lives and, when death comes, they go as easily as possible, in their sleep, or, as I said in the previous post, in the arms of someone who they love.

My friends have lost close parents in harrowing and protracted bouts of cancer. There are children who fight, only to take their last breaths before they reach the prime of their lives. For those close to them, this can only be the worst kind of pain and excruciating loss. From this perspective, we don’t need any extra compassion, I guess, for the way Vince died. But this was not a quick gun killing. He was stabbed multiple times. He had suffered. He died at and, perhaps, in the hands of more or less a stranger. Picturing that, imagining the struggle and desperation he felt at the end is what makes this disgust and heartache more acute.

Looking at the remaining signs of the crime scene, once could trace the course of the incident. There was an initial struggle outside of the office/garage, which forms an “L” around a courtyard. I have my theory, and the detectives’ theory, of what happened after that. I don’t want to describe any of that here for a number of reasons, some obvious some not so. But suffice to say that there was a significant amount of traces of the crime on the interior of the house as well.

I looked around. There was nothing more I could do tonight. Gathering myself together, I turned out the lights and locked up I got in the car and drove to the Miracle Mile, an older street (In much of Miami, anything around more than 10 years is old) of swanky shops and mix of restaurants and bars. I needed some life around me. I just wanted a seat at a bar of someplace I could get a drink and something basic to eat. The first place I poked my head into was way too much life, more of a pick-up joint for young professionals with no seats at the bar -- or anywhere else; there was a wait. I did not need that so walked down the sidewalk to a fake but dark Irish pub, where I had a steak and a beer or two, watching the Yankees/Angels game next to some obnoxious “Jeter girl” before heading back to the hotel.

I had brought my acoustic guitar under the ridiculous assumption that I would be able to practice for the Exile show the next week. I took the guitar out of the case once, to tune it back up after the plane de-tuning.

*****


I woke up the next morning and it was still dark out. I looked at my phone. There was a text message from Mike O’Malley from 5:41 am: “Text me when you wake up.”

I wrote back, “I’m up.”

“Breakfast at coconut grove?”

“u serious? Where are u?” I asked.

For his reply, he sent a picture of the hotel plaque in Coconut Grove.

I called him. “You’re unreal, man. What are you doing? You take the red eye?”

“Yup. I’m here in case you need any help.”

Now, I have written in this space about how we should all have friends like Mike
, the kind of guy who takes a red-eye, leaving his wife and kids across the country for a day, so he can literally come to the side of friend. We met fairly late in life, but there is no one I consider to be a better friend than Mike, and believe me, I have some astoundingly caring, gracious, funny, smart, and long-time loyal friends, many of whom I have been through the trenches with, including Chris and Tom and probably half of you reading this. And I wish I could say that I could just hop on a plane and do the same thing.

Mike did it. He had heard me on the phone the night before trying to stay stoic but breaking down from emotion and stress, refusing offers of help, refusing his offer to leave his family and come down to Miami. The phone calls were enough of a help to me. When I had still been back in Boston, he asked me if I wanted him to come down to meet me. He has a friend who lives and is working on a show in Miami. I told Mike he was more than welcome to come down if he needs an excuse to get away. But I was going to be busy with the nuts and bolts. He didn’t need an excuse, however; his wife, Lisa, is a saint. And he is away all the time. So there he was.

Not in some empty dramatic gesture; he was there to go to godforesaken Home Depot and pick up filters for the air conditioner that was being repaired. He came to drive me around while I closed out bank accounts. He came to buy me lunch and listen to me talk about my uncle. He came to provide comic relief, talking over the GPS lady and missing exit ramps, making truly terrifying U-turn maneuvers as if he was shooting an episode of “Miami Vice.” He was there to help me shoo away a television reporter, the first task he undertook -- after grabbing me a coffee on his way over to meet me at Vince’s house.

Handing me the coffee while I was on the phone, Mike walked in to take a look at the place. An air conditioning guy was there repairing a leak. The reporter was still out front after I had told him I could not talk at that moment -- I was on the phone and the house was chaos. I had developed a twitch in my eye that did not subside for two weeks.

“Is he still out there?” I asked covering the phone with my hand.

Mike nodded. “You want me to get rid of him? he asked.

“Yeah...I just can’t talk right now and...”

“Fuck him,” Mike decided, walking in and placing his coffee on the table. “Let him fry out there in the 90 degree heat and humidity in his suit and tie.”

Thus it was decided. This was the second television reporter to visit the house while I was there. On Wednesday late afternoon, a woman from the same local channel came by to see if someone was at the house to get a reaction to the news of the arrest and the statement the kid made in his affidavit. I had seen the first report the station had made on the first day after the incident. It had been so coldly anonymous, with no details. That was fine with me, though. When the first reporter and a cameraman showed up, my intention was to send them away. But she told me what was being reported, that the kid made his tawdry and flimsy self-defense claim. I decided, against my better judgment, that a “no comment from the next-of-kin” could lead one to believe that there was some truth to it, that Vince was some sort of lecherous old man caught in some sort of anonymous hustle.

So I explained, off-camera, who Vince was and how tragic this has been for his friends and family. She asked if I would state a few of those things on camera. I relented, with the intention of providing some balance and context to this story. Apparently I was at least correct that the story needed to be balanced; shortly after she left, I got a call from an outraged Vincent T. who said that station had just included a story on their early evening broadcast with just the details of the arrest and the kid’s statement. He had fired off an email to the station telling them they should be ashamed of themselves for telling only one side of the story -- that of the confessed killer.

I had gotten back to my hotel, waiting to see the new, hopefully more balanced report. No such luck; I sat there through 30 minutes of the sort of dreck Miami television news is legendary for.

I wrote the reporter an email:

Hello Ms. ___,

Just wondering why the 11 p.m. broadcast did not include the interview you taped with me today or why the report on your station's web site does not have an updated version with our side of the story, including the fact that the confessed killer was the son of my uncle's maid, whom my uncle was trying to help with letters of recommendation, getting him odd jobs, etc.

The longer this incomplete information that is on the web site is up, the more potential damage it does to my uncle's reputation. The reason I agreed to speak with you on camera was to provide more facts and context to an incomplete story. So you can see why I might be disappointed.

Any information you can provide would be helpful.

Thanks,

Bill


She wrote right back, within minutes explaining they ran late on time, but that the clip was on an earlier broadcast on their sister station, and that they would update the web site, which they did very quickly.

The next day, when I had finally seen the clip and read the report online, of course I was dissatisfied. They took one out-of-context remark from me and, well it doesn’t matter in the end. Nothing I said on air or off can do much more than to possibly steer the sensationalistic story slightly more back to the center. I have dealt only with music journalists, really. And who really cares what story they want to tell? Mike had a lot more experience dealing with people looking to tell a preconceived narrative, regardless of possible damage to the reputations of the subjects of their stories. He took some pleasure in making the guy sweat, literally. I have to say, though, that the resulting story the guy filed was a far more nuanced version of the event, with a comment from a neighbor who really shed light on who Vince was, probably better and more objectively than I could have.

So Mike was there to run defense, pick up coffee, run errands, and just listen to me. You need to be reminded that dignity is still an attainable and worthy goal in the face even of such desolation as a pointless murder of a loved one in Miami, Florida, U.S.A. 2009. Mike was there to provide some dignity.

And he was there to take me to pick up my uncle’s ashes.

*****


You pull of the highway near central Miami into the outskirts of the “Design District,” an upscale redeveloped area that is home to high-end interior design businesses, art galleries, and the businesses like bars and restaurants that serve the clientele that shop there and the people who work there.

But before you get there, you are still faced with a rather industrial, down-at-the-heels sort of neighborhood close to the highway. You pull up to a really beautiful, simple, and authentic art deco building that does not draw attention to itself the way those in South Beach do. You park on the side there, and walk in, in broad daylight, to a darkened hallway smelling mildewy. Mike and I were seated in a conference room immediately to the right once we stepped in. We waited for the funeral director. In this case, there would be no funeral. We were just dealing with someone coordinating a cremation, arranging for picking up the body from the medical examiner’s office

We had brought a blue-and-white antique Asian vase from Vince’s collection of them. I had the forethought to bring a roll of electrical tape to fasten down the wooden lid. These are the sorts of things that systematically get added to a mental to-do list. The plan was to scatter his ashes over the waters of Lanikai, Hawaii some time in the future. So I had originally just opted for a basic travel-ready box. It felt so wrong. But Vincent T. suggested one of the blue/white vases, which seemed perfect. The travel part of it would have to be worried about later. Vince’s friend John recalled to me that Vince had considered his 5-year birthdays (55, 60, etc.) worthy of extra observation. So his 60th had been held with a gathering of friends in Carmel. For his 65th, he had an idea and called John to run it by him.

“I know what I want to do for my 65th,” Vince had explained.

“”I thought, ‘Oh Christ, what’s this gonna cost me?’” recalled John.

“I want to gather everyone in Lanikai.”

“So that’s what we will do, if you agree,” John told me. “On his 65th, we will arrange for whomever can come to be there and we will bring him home.”

*****


There’s nothing like an over-air conditioned, outdated, and moldy conference room in an old funeral home, surrounded by shelves of ash urns -- including a teddy bear next to a child’s blocks -- to bring a conversation around to the nature of mortality. Mike and I spent the next 10 minutes or so doing just that, not that we have ever needed such obvious and sobering impetus to get into matters of life and death in our conversations. Generally, “sobering” is not the word that would describe the conversations we have, which usually take place over drinks.

Bringing my uncle’s ashes -- heavier than I had anticipated -- from the funeral home, out into the midday sun, into Mike’s waiting minivan rental, just pretty much made me laugh. It was so absurd. The whole thing -- Vince would have laughed, I am sure. What a bizarre site. This is like Chris Farley being in charge of something ponderous, I thought; me, carrying out my uncle’s ashes; there should be pomp and circumstance, a 21-gun salute for a guy who came up feeling so alienated, gay in the 1950s and ‘60s, through the Navy in Vietnam, had survived New York City in the 1980s.

(As I wrote that last sentence, Van Morrison came up on iTunes singing Woody Guthrie: “Well it’s a hard road, dead or alive.” Tell it, Van.)

*****

Mike helped me roll up the stained rug and bring it out to the trash. We had some lunch. He had barely gotten any sleep, so it seemed like a good time for him to go back to his hotel and get some rest while I attended to the details of getting the estate organized. We reconvened around eight for dinner down in Coconut Grove. We stayed up late at the bar in his hotel. We had hours of conversation that just added to the years of conversation we have already had.

He had to be leaving early the next morning but did not want to get to sleep, as he was afraid of adjusting to eastern time. I went back to my hotel, decidedly more basic than his, crashed, and got up the next morning, Saturday, to find another text message from him:

“Here’s a good one. I am at airport now. Wake-up call came three hours early and I never bothered to look at clock. Flight leaves in six hours. I have time to threaten TSA, get the FBI down here, investigate me, and have me released on bail before flight leaves...I was like a drunk uncle sleeping in the airport...my flight was at 825. I got to airport at 240. That is not a misprint. 2:40.”

*****


I at least started Saturday in a fairly busy way, with a meeting at the attorney’s home. He has an amazing 3-story penthouse in a tower on the bay, decked out in a sort of rococo style one would not normally associate with Miami: classic busts, tapestries, oil paintings, antique furniture... Clearly this estate was relatively small potatoes for him, and yet, here he was, so on top of it and devoting such a level of attention and care that he was meeting with me at his own place on a Saturday morning.

I spent the rest of the day organizing papers, tracking down contact information, and meeting with a real estate appraiser and a real estate agent, which is what do for my day job. It was one thing I felt I could actually tackle with some authority and sense of control, finally. We talked about prices -- I wanted both a “sell it tomorrow” price and a “not-quite pie in the sky, but optimistic” price. The short version of the story is that he called on Monday, when I had gotten back to Boston, and told me he had mentioned the house at his sales meeting. Someone else in his office had a French couple ready to buy something, cash, and could they see it that evening. They saw, they liked, the bought, full price, cash deal, huge deposit, no significant contingencies.

As an agent and seller, I could not help feel a little charge from this. And everyone I told also reacted with joy. After all, everyone has heard about how bad the real estate market is in general. It is not as bad up in the towns I work. But this is Miami, pretty much ground zero for all booms and busts. Four years ago and this same house was almost definitely worth twice as much.

But such happiness was short lived. How could one feel happy about the fast liquidation of someone’s life? As I mentioned, Vince was a designer and had just finished this dream project, an addition of a master bedroom and bath suite. He had maybe gotten about two weeks of enjoyment from it.

You take whichever small victories are handed to you.

*****


Saturday night was the loneliest of all I have spent in Miami. You know the song, “Saturday Night,” which goes, “Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week”? Frank used to sing it. But when most of the tasks of the day were completed, I felt no real sense of accomplishment, only slight relief that some of the major work was being chipped way. Mike had left. Vincent was with his family probably for one of the first times since the incident. He was trying to manage a new job while helping me in my role as executor. He knew so much about my uncle’s life and business that I, quite literally, would have been lost without his guidance. On top of it, they were due to have his daughter’s eight birthday party the next day, and the poor girl was sick with the flu.

While I was dreading being by myself, I also knew it had to be done. I needed to clear out my head. I had talked all of this out with Vincent, Mike, my uncle’s friend, John, my family, and all the other friends of mine who had called over the past several days. I headed out to a new tapas bar in Coconut Grove. It seemed like the perfect solution -- I could eat small dishes at the bar and watch the Angels/Yankees game. Maybe I would chat with some strangers at the bar. Well, I had a martini and some great food and wine, but the game was rained out and the bar was blaring the fucking Gypsy Kings at obnoxious levels. It felt like a hangover and I got down to drinking-while-texting with about five of my good friends scattered around the country. This was post-modern grieving at its core.

The most important thing I have taken from the aftermath of this whole incident, is the support of people -- friends and family, yes, but also new friends, Vince’s, whom I now counted among my own. Their absence was felt conspicuously that night and I felt quite alone, adrift from the moorings of home.

Vincent T. invited me over to his house for pizza on Sunday night. I would be leaving very early the next morning, and returning the next week for the memorial that we finally planned. His daughter’s birthday party had been postponed due to her flu. So Vincent, his wife Renee, and I caught up on everything. It had been 10 years since the last time I had seen Renee, the first time I had met she and Vincent. Vincent grew up in Miami after his Chinese immigrant parents moved the family from California. Renee is from Memphis. I started talking about Memphis music. She told me about working at a dry cleaners where Al Green would take his lime green suits and silk shirts. She told me about hanging out with Alex Chilton at Shakey’s Pizza when they were young. Her sister came over for a bit and I listened to them talk to each other in those spellbinding Tennessee accents. We talked about the investigation, about family, back stories. I felt like I had two old friends in Miami that I hadn’t known about.

I would be back the next week to get the house ready for the memorial, sell the car, and meet the buyers. It would also be the first time I had seen John in five or six years. We had been speaking every day since I first called him that first weekend. I had been nervous. I had only met him twice in my life, that I recall -- that last time, while he owned the house next to Vince in Miami, and when I was a little kid in New York and he had come from San Francisco with Vince to visit at our house. When I called, he seemed to have girded himself. We all had to take this in as small portions as we could handle.

He didn’t really know who I was now, as a 43 year-old man. But there certainly was this inherent trust that came from both of us -- all of us -- being so close and important to Vince. But that trust did not mean we all had a basis for automatic communication; we all have individual friendships and other relationships that don't necessarily move in the same circles. Perhaps there is even animosity between a person's separate relationships. Vince seemed to have a few of these independently operating circles. These were not gears that sometimes come around to groove together; they were different machines altogether.

But we had no such issues between us and quickly and steadily found ways to talk about all of it. When we finally saw each other again, the day that we had a memorial, it felt like we were old friends. These past weeks have seemed like ages anyway. As I write this, it has been exactly a month. Driving together to go pick up ice and beer for the gathering, John recounted meeting Vince back in San Francisco when they both worked in the same department store as young men. The fact that they remained best friends for over 40 years will tell you everything you need to know about the strength of the bond and the loyal character of both men.

Vincent, John, and I were down in the trenches together on this one. Vincent has done more leg work than even I have. But we all had things to do, including planning this memorial event.

It was Vincent and Jane’s idea, I believe, to have something at the house, to “reclaim it from being a crime scene.” It was a perfect idea. Vince would have been tickled to see us all in the same place -- friends, family, neighbors, clients, contractors, politicians, and so on. My brother, Scott, had come down with me. My sister, Kristine, came down from Atlanta, meeting up with my parents in Naples, and driving over. Like an Irish wake, we ate, drank, told stories, admired the house he was so proud of, and got to know each other. The ice was broken with a big hammer, a friend speaking about the charity set up by Human Rights Watch, which Vince had recently adopted as a personal cause. Friends who knew of his dedication to this spoke with clarity and passion regarding the nature of the fund -- to aid homosexual Iraqi refugees escaping the brutality, mutilation, and murder for simply being who they are in a country that has no real protections in place. It was a highly emotional moment. And we all choked up as each person who wished to -- quite a few -- testified to what Vince meant to them. Then we ate, drank, and the night started to wind down to just a core few of us, sitting around and listening to music as we chatted into the night.

*****


Each time there was some hubbub in the house, it kept me out of my own head. But, on the flip side, every time I was left alone again, I felt hollowed out and pining for Vince’s return to his empty house. Or even for his dog, Gracie, to come back home and reclaim her toys. The poor dog had witnessed something awful. When I met her for the first time, at Vincent and Renee's house, she could smell her old house on me and would never come close enough for me to pet her. I am reminded of the statue we saw when we went to Tokyo outside of Shibuya station of the dog, Hachikō, who would escort his master to the station and arrived and waited loyally for the master's return each day. One day the master died while at work and never returned. Still, Hachikō came back each day at for the evening train and waited for his master. That went on for 10 years.

The next day, Scott headed back to Boston on a midday flight. Vincent met me at the car dealership to pick me up after I had sold off Vince’s great convertible Audi. Within a few weeks, there would hardly be any trace of the guy.

Vincent and I and some leftovers from the memorial for lunch and then he, John and I cleaned up the house for the buyers. They were nice people, though I am sure they felt tenuous about the nature of this sale. Additionally, there was a slight language barrier. So both sides mostly kept to themselves. They left, and eventually John and Vincent did as well.

I still had a few hours before I had to go to the airport. I had finished up most of my tasks there at the house and in Miami. I knew I could not just stay at the house and wallow. I started to go for a drive, figuring I could finally get over to South Beach for the first time since this all went down, to go have some coffee, and maybe a walk and a drink. But the traffic looked to formidable and I did not need any more stress to get back in time to get to the airport. I pulled over in the Grove again and went for a long walk.

When I finally got back, showered, and was ready to leave, the afternoon sun was setting, daylight savings having fallen back to shorter days that past weekend. I went around locking the place. It was too quiet and I began to feel heavily emotional again, so I went with it, the quiet and the emotion, and sat down and meditated in Vince's meditation room, his ashes in the urn next to the Buddha.



My sister, Kristine, took the shot.

Here is Scott, the night of the memorial:





*****

I met all kinds of characters during these past few weeks. Miami is everything it is made to be in fictional accounts. I have not read and Carl Hiaasen, but I imagine he writes about these sorts. Russel Banks' Continental Drift is populated by some of them as well, I recall. I often felt like I was on "Miami Vice," or meeting characters out of Starsky and Hutch or some other bad 1970s cop show. For instance, I needed an appraiser to get the items inventoried and priced to settle the estate. I was referred to a guy who had been described with a caveat, “a bit full of himself.” This comes nowhere close to describing the man I had a phone conversation with when I stepped back off the plane back in Boston after the first trip.

“Bill, this is ___, how may I help you?”

“Hi___. Did you hear about my Uncle, Vince?

That was all I said for about the next 15 minutes, while this guy went on some caffeinated (giving the benefit of the doubt, here) soliloquy -- about how he had heard the news; how he had known Vince; had given Vince his start with his shop on Miracle Mile; about the person, let's call him “JJ,” who had “broken (my) uncle’s heart” as an employee, stealing money from him at the shop; about how JJ had been telling some convoluted story about the murder; and, basically, just about himself. I just sat there, listening, stunned at the hubris of this guy, who seemed unable to control anything that came out of his mouth. He told me how he himself was part of the gay community there, how he had become the best appraiser in the business, and anything else that popped into his head, apparently. When I heard a bit of a breath after the salacious-gossip part of it, I found a chance to briefly interrupt.

“Well. That is all very interesting,” I said.

“Oh, well, of course, I am sure you want to know what is being said and about how I knew your uncle and how I want to help the estate, because I am here to help in any way I can...”

He was still in mid-sentence when I stopped him again. “No, that is interesting,” I said again. “It is good for me to hear how ridiculous shit like this gets started. You know, for example, that this kid is the son of my uncle’s long-time house keeper, right?”

“Well, no! I did not know...” he started, in a dramatic display of surprise.

“Yes,” I interrupted again. “And you do know he was someone my uncle has known since he was a child, and was trying to help by writing a letter of recommendation.”

“Oh, no! Well, that is all very important to know and it certainly squares with the person...”

He seemed genuinely let down at the less sensational facts I was telling him.

He was still going, but I had lost my patience about 8 minutes prior and I stopped him again.

“Mr. ___, you know that this is not the reason I am calling, right? I was just wondering if you are an appraiser with experience in this sort of estate.”

Then he went on for God knows how long, telling me about how great he is, how in-demand, how “only millionaires” can afford his fees, but how he would, in his largess, be willing to take on this estate, partially as a favor to Vince, whom he knew “was a man of modest means,” but, I guess as a side benefit, he would also like to work with and get the future business of the attorney, “who currently works with some old guy” he went on to disparage personally.

I had long ago decided there would be no possible way for me to do business with him. There was way, way more said, with even less discretion than I am letting on. It was like a Benzedrine-jacked informant spilling his guts to Barretta, or a coke-fueled pimp boring Sonny Crockett. A week later, he sent me a proposal filled with British spellings of such words as “honour” and “colour.” His follow-up phone message included the desire to make room in his “shed-jewel,” as if he were a Minister of Parliament. English people may have no idea why Americans find this pretentious and funny, but trust me. Vince would.

*****


No, it is more important to focus on the people I have connected with on this. So many friends and strangers have reached out during it all. But I will leave you with the words I wrote to Vincent and John. I thank you all for indulging me though this all. It is just one guy’s story of dealing with grieving the loss of another guy. You all have stories as well. The fact that you’ve taken time to hear mine means a lot to me. Grieving and memorials are not for the dead, they say, they are for the living. But telling stories is how we keep the memory of people alive.

Each time I leave the house, and as I leave each of you, it feels like I am -- we are  -- leaving our friend with more and more finality and so the grieving starts to close in and I am left to face it in increasing solitude. I lost it in the car for a while before I could drive to the airport the other night. And then I couldn't find a decent place to eat at the fucking airport so I got cranky on top of bring sad. I should have just eaten the fucking leftover ham. I am a sentimental sort by nature, so the idea of not having you guys there as everyday presences is a reality that makes Vince's passing more difficult to face.

....I have not yet had to deal with a whole lot of loss of very close people in my life, just the usual grandparents and a few scattered old friends with whom I had mostly lost touch. I just feel the need to keep talking about it to help work it out.

Anyway, it means a lot to me that you guys have both given me so much support through all of this, and I have quickly come to think of you as family. I really, honestly, sincerely have no idea how I would have done any of this without you. Vince was always perfect at choosing just the right gifts for the people he loved. I would like to think that the intense friendship I have felt from both of you is Vince's final gift to us.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Cover of the Week 53 and Some Words About Losing Someone

I’m going to start off this week by putting the cover song right at the top, to save you from scrolling down if you don’t feel like reading a book.

"Waters of March" (Portuguese: "Águas de Março")mp3


I’m not sure if writing all this that follows here is appropriate. And I almost feel the need to apologize to anyone else close to the subject. But I am an expressive person by nature, and writing is one way for me to deal with life. However, I cringe at the thought of this being a confessional diary and overly personal. I have this conflict about keeping such things private. Maybe the Internet turned me into an exhibitionist (I already was a voyeur of sorts). But I feel there is a need for people to understand that we just lost a great man.

My song this week is "Waters of March" (Portuguese: "Águas de Março") by Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim. It is a standard from the bossa nova songbook. It has long been one of my favorite songs, which I wrote about at allmusic.com about eight or nine years ago. The melancholy litany and cascade of Zen-like images cuts to the essence and cycle of life and death. March, of course, is the beginning of autumn in Brazil and the southern hemisphere, so it has an even more melancholy tone in Portuguese. Jobim also wrote the English translation, though. I know I have some readers in Brazil. If any of you are good singers and have good recording equipment, I can post this without vocals and you can send me some .wav files of you singing the Portuguese version and I will do a remix and post it.

I was going through some of my Uncle Vince’s CDs and noticed he had one by Susannah McCorkle, who sang one of the definitive English language versions of Jobim’s pop masterpiece. I dedicate the song to him.

I have a new charity suggestion -- and again at the bottom of the post. It was a cause Vince felt strongly about. I request that all regular followers donate to. That would be one of the most positive things we could wrest from all of this. I thank you in advance. I also post a video of a beautiful song my brother, Paul, wrote in the wake of this tragedy.

*****

My life has been a source of amusement for friends, but more in a "Look, the cat's on fire and running through the convent" type of amusing.


-- My Uncle Vince


I am devastated.

Our 63 year-old uncle, my mother’s brother and only sibling, was murdered in his home in Miami on October 16, 2009. His name was Vince. He was single, gay, and lived alone with his beloved dog, Gracie. It would be revealed five days later that the killer was the 20 year-old son of Vince’s house cleaner. My uncle had known James A. probably since the boy was five years old. The kid had lost his father, whom I gather was not much to write home about when he was alive. What I understand, is that Vince had been trying to help the kid out a bit, give him odd jobs, make some introductions, and, most recently, writing him a letter of recommendation. James did not show up for the appointed time to pick up that letter. No one knows what happened after that, other than James has admitted that he stabbed Vince repeatedly. Then he took his credit cards and went on the kind of spending spree only a numb teenager is capable of, and did so after committing a murder.

None of this was immediately known, though. It took a few days for it all to come out. I know now what the kid has said, but no one is buying it, especially the police. In his desperation, he is adding another level of tawdriness to a depressing tragedy.

Friday evening, October 16, 2009, I received an email from Vince’s close friend in Miami, Vincent T., who had been Vince’s business partner in an import business for Asian antiques and home furnishings. He told me to call him. I called and left him a message. At about 7:30 or 7:45 as my kids were getting ready for bed, Vincent T. called me back.

“Billy, I’m on my way over to your uncle’s house. Something has happened.”

“OK,” I said, tentatively, looking up at my wife, at the top of the stairs with our young son. She looked in my face and saw something wrong.

Vincent continued, “It’s a crime scene. His friend, Jane, was supposed to meet him for dinner and when he didn’t call back all day, she drove over, late in the afternoon.”

In the 1980s, my uncle had been mugged in New York when he lived in the city. The assailant used the butt of a gun to strike him across the face. It busted his nose badly. He needed plastic surgery. He lost his big Italian nose, gladly. It was his excuse to get a nose job.

But he vowed after that horrible event never to get himself into another situation of vulnerability again, if he could help it. But this is what I thought of when his friend, Vincent, called me; a mugging, some injury or something. I mouthed “crime scene” to my wife, shaking my head.

“I’m on way over there now, Billy. I will call when I get there and let you know more,” Vincent said.

But then, shockingly, he continued. “Your Uncle Vince is dead, Billy.”

I am sure I gasped. I did not see it coming. It came so fast. “What?”

“Yes. I don’t know what happened,” he went on. “I...I will call you as soon as I know something.”

My knees buckled. I had not felt this feint or nauseous in years. I felt like it was an actual, physical blow. I slid down the wall to the steps. Laura shuffled the kids out of view. She peeked back, hand over mouth. “Oh my God, what happened?”

Then the emotions swept over me. I was shaking, breathing hard, then the waves came higher, knocking me. And I started to sob.

*****



Frank and Vinny, Kew Gardens, circa 1949. Check out those kids in the background. It is like the Bowery Boys or something.


My uncle was a huge influence in my life. He was my godfather, yes, but he was largely absent until I was an adolescent. He suffered, in the closet, as a teenager in Kew Gardens, Queens and Garden City South, New York. His mother’s family had come from Turin, and a father who was a second-generation Sicilian. That man, the guy who I knew as my grandfather, worked his way up through the civil service after serving in World War II, from garbage man, to the level of Deputy Chief of Sanitation for the Five Boroughs of N.Y.C. He was a softy, a sweetheart, the perfect Italian grandfather who would teach us swimming, growing tomatoes, how to play poker, and the joy of "The Honeymooners" reruns. But that was not the guy my uncle remembered. Vince remembered a guy who did not understand him and whom he did not understand. His memories were more painful than that, but it is not my place to speak to the memories of others.

Vinny (as he was known then -- he was Uncle Vinny to us) told me he had felt tormented at home. He joined the Navy and served in Vietnam. After his stint, he landed in San Francisco, got his degree, and spent the late 1960s/early-‘70s in one of that era’s counter-cultural center. He moved on to work in human relations in Hawaii and eventually back to New York. He moved to the East Village in about 1979, when I was 13 and just about old enough to start to be able to take the train into the city on my own. He quickly made an effort to become more of a presence in our lives. He had my brothers, sister, and me in for a trip around the city -- a horse & buggy ride around the park, a shopping trip to the new wave Fiorucci’s, burritos at Tortilla Flats on the west side, and hot dogs at Nathan’s in Time Square. He had always been the cool uncle, the young guy popping in for a holiday or summer visit every couple of years. But now, here he was in New York. I looked up to him and his glamorous life. I only had a subliminal understanding that he might be gay; it went unspoken. He had a good-looking younger “room mate” named Neil. Neil was shy. Vince was bold. Both were handsome and youthful. Neither of them was particularly effeminate, which is how gay guys were depicted on t.v. I have always been slow to realize such things. It was a gradual comprehension. It never seemed particularly important, even to a kid coming from the frighteningly homophobic suburbs of the Island. In fact, it even probably added to some pride I had in him being so “cool” and somewhat exotic.

I had no older siblings, so he was sort of an older brother to me. When Vince bought me gifts, they were so unbelievably thoughtful and spot-on, that I cherish them to this day. This is a trait I have discovered that he carried though his whole life and into all of his friendships. For my 14th birthday, he bought me three records that had just come out: Talking Heads Remain in Light, U2 Boy, and a 10’’ Nina Hagen record. No one had heard of the latter two. My friend, Danny and I stared at the U2 record for a while, thinking the band was called, “U2 Boy,” as in, “you too, boy.” He called one evening and told my mother he wanted to take me in to CBGB to go see the Dead Kennedys, on a school night. He wasn't familiar with, nor do I think he would for a second enjoy their music; I think he just liked shock value of the name and I’m sure wanted to get a rise out of my mother. When I moved to Massachusetts, I would take the train down for a weekend to stay with him. Early 1980s East Village was a very cool place to be visiting at ages 14-18. When I graduated high school, he got me one of the first sleek Walkman models. It was how I listened to music all the way through college.

One of the seminal moments of my life, though, came in the summer of 1986. This was a huge year for me. Later that autumn, we formed Buffalo Tom, and I met and fell in love with the woman that became my wife. But that prior June, I was looking at another summer of painting houses, smoking pot, and watching rented movies with my buddies -- admittedly not a bad existence. But Vince called me and told me he had a cushy job waiting for me in his office at Citicorp in Manhattan for $15/hour. Would I like it? I did not hesitate.

I called Danny, who had recently moved to New York from the Island, along with another friend who had played in bands with us in early high school, before I moved. “Hey,” I said, “my uncle offered me a job for the summer. Do you guys have any space for me?”

“Sure!” Danny said. “Come on down. We don’t have a huge place, but there’s plenty of space for you.”

When my uncle came to get me from the way-station of my grandparent’s house, I told him the address, 99th Street and Broadway. This was a borderline neighborhood back then. If he had any reaction, I don’t recall what it was. But when I lugged all my shit out of his trunk, he declined to help me move it up to the “apartment,” offering his hug and a “see ya in the office on Monday” sort of good-bye.

The sidewalk and the lobby of the building was a bustle of the Haitian, Indian, and Pakistani cab drivers who made up 99% of the inhabitants. There was a little sort of box-office kind of window with a dude behind it and a small old-fashioned elevator. When I got up to the door, my buddies welcomed me with smiles an open arms. They did not tell me that they lived in an S.R.O -- single-room-occupancy hotel called the Clinton Arms. And they had a single room. No bathroom. Not a studio with a kitchenette. No open-floor loft-style single room. They had a single room, right out of William Burroughs’ Junkie, which I ended up reading that summer. They had one bed, which they took turns with, the other guy taking the floor on alternate nights. It was like the “alternate side of the street parking regulations” that the radio guys would announce. But that place inspired me to write some lyrics, including the words to the Buffalo Tom song, "The Bus": "Went home and listened to Billie Holiday/Stared down to Broadway."

We would go out to bars and clubs every night -- King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Downtown Beirut (Huskers and Dead Boys on the juke), CBGB, Nightingales, the Ritz, the Cat Club, Billy’s Topless, wherever we could go being slightly underage. We would straggle back in at 4 a.m. to the smells of creole cooking and curry scents overpowering the whole place. I would crash on the filthy floor and get up at 8 to take the subway to midtown for the job by 9. I would awake in a hungover stupor, sickened by the ingested liquor, lack of sleep, and the overpowering smells of the place. I would make my way down the hall to the disgusting single bathroom shared by the whole floor. A giant roach died a long painful death that hot and sticky summer on the threshold of that bathroom. For over a month it lied on its back there, kicking its legs helplessly as we all walked over it. Just when I thought it had given in, it would kick feebly once again.

I could often barely make it to work, but I always did. Often, I had a Pepto Bismal bottle in a brown bag at my desk, sitting there in my clip-on tie and bad Macy’s permna-press pleated slacks trying to key data entry, results of employee surveys, in the early days of the desktop. I had no idea how to work on computers. I don’t even think I had even typed papers yet on a word processor. Needless to say, I was unqualified for the job, often requiring the programmer-consultant to come to the office to straighten out whatever I had done. I could see the knowing winks and looks at my uncle from the people in the office that could see right through the patronage. We didn’t tell anyone I was his nephew, so I am not sure what conclusions they had drawn. But he had leeway to hire someone to do this job and pay them “up to $15 an hour.” He had given me the chance at the full rate.

Near the end of my tenure there he took me out to dinner at one of the many Indian joints between 1st and 2nd Avenues down near his place.

“Can I tell you something?” he asked, not that would have any say in the matter. “Don’t ever work in an office. You can’t do it. It’s not you. You will never work in an office.”

“Um, OK,” I mumbled in my 20 year-old fashion.

“What do you want to do?” he asked. “...with your life?”

“I guess I want to finish college and... I dunno. I’m majoring in communications, studying literature as a minor...”

“No, I mean, what do you want to do, to be?”

I told him I wanted to play music.

“Then play music. Don’t worry about money. Money will always come when you need it.”

With those simple words, spoken by an adult to a kid who already felt support in his family, I felt confident to do what I wanted to do, to not be forced into conservative and safe choices.

“Look at me,” he continued. “Here I am in some windowless office doing something I never wanted to do, trapped by rent, by safe choices.” He was then in his early-40s, the age I am now. He told me how it had taken him years to admit to himself that he had made compromises he now regretted. He had no kids, no one else to be responsible for to answer to, and yet he chose some middle-corporate path that sapped his soul, in a job that he had no passion for. It took him years to realize and admit to himself what he wanted to do. I asked him what that was. He told me he wanted to design furniture. He had always been artistic. And he was already making plans in the back of his head for the life switch that would eventually bring him to Miami, to buy a house, and to open up his own high-end home furnishings place on the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. This lead to designing his own pieces, then a business and partnership that imported Asian antiques, and concurrent to a lot of this, an interior design/decorator business.

He also asked me, “do you want to get married and have kids?”

I hemmed and hawed and said, “nah.”

He asked why. I answered with vague assertions of my mythical independence and claims that I saw no need for adherence such convention. Bear in mind that I had probably gotten laid a total of five times at this point, and you have to take even that with a grain of salt; you know how guys exaggerate. And it was about two months before I met my one-day wife. But he kept asking, smiling, “why not,” insistently.

In an ill-considered attempt to end the interrogation, I blurted, “Well, how about you?”

“Me?” he asked, somewhat stunned.

“Yeah, you.” I knew that I had now put him on the spot and was putting myself in a position of awkwardness, potentially revealing that I did not know he was gay, something we had not spoken about.

“Well...I’m a different story,” he said, sheepishly. I had never seen him blush before nor did I ever see him do so afterward. He was not one to embarrass easily; he was the one to embarrass others, not the other way around. But I swear he blushed this time.

“What do you mean?” I insisted. I wanted him to just say it I guess. I really just wanted to steer it away from me. I was successful at that.

He just kept repeating, “well, I’m a totally different story.”

I relented, “I know, I know.”


*****


I went back and finished school. When Buff Tom passed through New York in our early days, he would stay out late and come see us at CBs or the Pyramid. He got a kick out of this, I could see. He was proud of me, even if he did not find much in our music.

He eventually moved to Miami. His relationship with Neil in NY ended. He had a brief rebound relationship in Florida, but after the 1990s, he stayed more or less single and unattached. He devoted himself to his business and to friends who were his family. He took care of my grandmother in her waning years, moving her into a house next door to his as she was increasingly seized by dementia, until her death in the early 2000s. We would visit when we could, but with my band, my marriage, and growing family, getting down from Boston was tough. And he didn’t get the chance to come up to Massachusetts much either. We talked a lot, though. At least a half-dozen times a year and for hours at a time. When email came along, we kept in touch that way as well.

I don’t know for certain, but the last time I saw him was probably in 2003, in Los Angeles. He was there opening a west coast branch of his import business, renting a small apartment, not as brilliantly cool as his mid-century-modern/Asian-influenced ranch in South Miami, but as cool as a Hollywood glorified-efficiency pad could be made. I came to town for the production of Mike O’Malley’s play, “Searching for Certainty,” for which I composed the score. Vince came down to the show and cast party and really enjoyed it. I had never seen him so enthusiastic for something I was part of. He really loved Mike and the friends of mine he met. He had a biting and sardonic sense of humor and he would always let you know what he was thinking. But he really dug the play.

When Vince was murdered, I tried to remember the last time I saw him. I think this was it. When I told Mike what had happened, he reminded me of the play by asking if it was the same uncle he had met. I am so thankful that he reminded me, as it hurts me enough that it seems to have been this long ago; it would feel far more acute if it had been as far back as my grandmother’s funeral. There had been a recent estrangement with him and some of our family -- not with me or my wife. But it seems now sort of like he became only a voice on the telephone from that point on. Though it had not felt like that before. The years just fall away so quickly.


*****

I spent the night Vince died, October 16, on the phone until the early morning hours -- detectives, friends of his, my family, the medical examiner’s office, and his lawyer, who informed me that I was the executor of his estate. I now had a to-do list to distract me from the shock and grief. I had no idea where to start; should I fly down now? Is there anything I need to do down there that I can not do here first? I started to feel guilty about not just hopping on the first plane. But what else could I do down there immediately? Luckily, Vincent T. was a friend who was helping me out immeasurably in those first days.

But the pain kept hitting me. The detached surreality only would last a few minutes before actual reality came swooping back. My uncle was dead. The detective told me it was definitive homicide. That made me think immediately that it was a stabbing; how many gun deaths would be immediately and clearly declared homicide, shutting the door on any possibility of suicide? (Anyway, he was not the suicide type). He was killed. He had struggled. We want the ones we love to die a peaceful death, in their sleep in their old age, or in the arms of their loved ones. He died at the hand and in the presence only of some pathetic loser who then took his credit cards and cash and went to Wendy’s, a bar, Best Buy (to buy a Playstation), KFC, etc.

So how do you process something like this? How is one supposed to react? Am I supposed to break down or stay steady and stoic for others? Lots of calls for days between the family members. What do I tell the kids? It is obscene: Murder. It is nothing new, and we live in a violent country, but you really don’t think something like this is going to happen to someone close to you. You just don’t.

Vince and I would invariably joke about aging. While he was aging gracefully, he was not going to go out without a fight. He stayed in top shape, ate extremely well, was never one who could drink, and smoked exactly one cigarette a day since he was young. But I would always tease him and he would give it right back. The thing that made him feel the oldest was watching me hit my 40s, his nephew and godson.

“Who’s gonna be around to take care of you when you’re too old” I would ask. “I’m going to have to put you in a home. Have you saved up enough money?”

“I am spending every dime,” he would reply. “You’re going to have to take me in.”

“You’re gonna have to live in the garage, then. Maybe the basement. And you’ll have to cook for us.”

And we’d go on like that almost every time we chatted. But at the end of the calls, I would turn more melancholy and tell my wife that I really was concerned for the long-term. He had very dear friends, but none were as young as I am. He had lost a lot of old friends as well. AIDS took a bunch of them. What if he made it, as his mother did, into his late 80s and developed dementia as well? I sure as hell was not planning on moving to Florida.

A violent premature death was nothing that I counted on. That brought deep and painful grief. Vince was a peaceful guy, full of love and compassion. He had a meditation room with a big old Buddha in his house, where he sat in silence every day. He had a sedate life with his young dog, Gracie, a small hound whom he loved immensely. He took almost no risks. He worked, had dinner and game night with friends, took in movies, and traveled. Years ago, he had a regular poker game with a bunch of old straight men (like I do). He served on an advisory board for an independent film festival. He read. We saw the same movies, liked the same books, shared some of the same music.

*****

The focus of the phone calls veered from the grief to trying to figure out who was capable of doing this. The detective told me it was probably someone he knew, since there were no signs of forced entry. I scrolled back into my memory. He had just finished an addition on his house, his dream master suite. I mean, he had just finished it only a couple of weeks prior. He had no time to enjoy it before this happened. I had just talked to him on his birthday, September 19. I remember him complaining about some contractor. In phone calls with Vincent T. I learned that there had been a supervisor for the general contractor whom Vince had a falling out with and requested be removed from the job. But Vincent T. told me that he highly doubted that the animosity had been to this level. It was a very easily handled situation. The supervisor was not a menacing sort, apparently.

But we could think of no one else aside from contractors who had access to the interior of the house. The detective talked all of this over with Vince’s friends, Jane and Vincent T. The only other conflict in his life recently had been an argument with his maid’s son, James. But he was thought to be harmless, if a bit of an oafish numbskull.

The cops were at the house all Friday night into Saturday morning. They took his computer and “a lot of evidence,” I was told. I had to talk to the medical examiner, to a funeral home, and -- this is something no one should ever have to deal with -- a biohazard cleaning company that specialize in crime scenes. Thankfully, I had Vincent T. there to let them in. All I had to do was talk to them and arrange payment.

I realized I had to attend to prior commitments. I was thankful for them. Saturday afternoon, I went and played a matinee set at the Middle East in Cambridge for a benefit show. Saturday night rolled around. We had tickets to go see Aretha Franklin downtown. My wife and I went out to Montien, a Thai place we love in the Theater District. I had a martini and sobbed off and on, through dinner. We had a giggly flamboyant Thai queen for a waitress. I just kept thinking of how Vince would get a kick out of him. As I said in one of the earlier blog posts, I didn’t expect Aretha to be so good. She was unreal. She played tons of soulful vamps and gospel numbers, torch ballads. I was in heaven. She started to heal me. She opened the night with one of Vince’s favorite songs, Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher.” I remember him driving me around Miami with the song on repeat. Aretha helped bring me through. On Tuesday, I had a gig at the Brattle Theater. The two sets I had that weekend/week, plus the Aretha show -- and the Exile show we played a week later -- the music really helped deliver me through this all.

Then I flew to Miami Wednesday morning. I hate the nuts and bolts of travel as much as anyone. But I was too beaten down to feel the ordinary stress. This stayed true through an hour-long line at Budget rental, which had apparently just laid off most of their force. By the time I got to my car, I had no fight left in me to contest the assignment -- a fire-engine red (technically “Victory Red”) Chevy HHR. The juxtaposition of driving this ridiculous vehicle around sunny Miami to attend to such sober business was not lost on me. And so I was somewhat thankful when the little fucker got a flat on my way to the attorney’s office at 8:30 the next morning. First order of biz was to use his phone to call “roadside assistance.” They came to switch the tire -- 2 hours later. I had to get myself back to the airport to switch out the little fucker, which of course meant dealing with understaffed Budget again.

Before that privilege, however, I had to make the now-rescheduled appointment I had made at the office of the detective, which was on the outskirts of Greater Miami, in Doral. This is a city, like L.A. and Phoenix, that was designed almost exclusively around the automobile. So, here they have this police and justice campus, with television news vans stationed outside for “breaking news,” and they have about 20 public parking spots. I ended up parking in a strip mall across one of those shopping-plaza-fast-food highways that I have railed about in this space before.

I somehow made it across, life intact. What I thought was just going to be a cursory courtesy visit from the point of view of the detective, brusquely and bluntly became something else. I was seated in the sort of conference room you would expect. Detective L. brought in her partner. They offered me “cop coffee,” which they then congratulated me on my choice in refusing it.

“Well, we made an arrest,” she told me.

The results of the fingerprinting came back, dovetailing with the discovery of the maid’s last name. The detectives rushed over to her house, blowing off an appointment with the general contractor (they also had appointments set up with the pool service, the landscapers, etc. It was the latter crew who had rung the bell for Vince to move his car, got no answer, peeked in through one of the walls of glass, and saw the body, alerting the police.)

When the detectives rang the bell at the maid’s house, James answered. His prints had come back from the scene. The prints had been on record for a recent small grand larceny/pot bust. The detectives were expecting to interview the maid.

James, though, talked right away, from what I understand. I don’t think he told them about the odd jobs he had been doing for Vince, or the letter of recommendation Vince had just written for him. What he told them was that my 63 year-old uncle made “unwanted advances” on him, this taking this down an all-too-easy path, a path where if there is a gay man who is murdered, it must have been because he was making advances on a younger man. As Vince's friend's reminded me, there was a reason Vince was single: he had idealistic and exacting standards that did not allow attraction to an oafish and “retarded looking” kid he has known since he was 5. Even if the kid looked like Enrigue Iglesias at his prime, Vince would not have gotten hustled by a kid he had known since childhood, the son of his longtime house cleaner, whom he cared a great deal for. James has desperately grasped a self-defense tact. In his version, 63 year-old and 165-pound Vince was overpowering 20 year-old, 220-pound James so he had to stab him to death. And then James didn’t feel the need to call police; he stole Vince's wallet and ran up charges on credit cards at Wendy’s and KFC.

Apparently, the kid was always asking his poor mother for money and was getting in trouble -- no job, some community college. People I have spoken to have invariably used some form of “he looks retarded” to describe him. This is followed up by some form of, “but apparently he has some brains and might be kind of smart.” People that had met or known him said he has a hard time looking you in the eye, shaking hands, and seems kind of slow and detached. But Vince saw potential and wanted to try to help him as a favor to his house cleaner.

As with his helping me with a job when I was the same age as this kid, Vince offered his help to my siblings around that vulnerable age, a time in many peoples’ lives when they make life-altering decisions. He remembered his own struggles at that age and recognized this vulnerability. He searched for the potential in people. But he was black-or-white in every aspect in his life. He either saw it or did not. He either liked you or did not. He gave you a chance. If you fucked up, you heard about it. When this kid decided to blow off an appointment to pick up a letter of recommendation that Vince had gone on out on a limb and produced in order to help the kid get a job, I’m sure the kid heard about it. And somewhere during the next week, he made one of those life-altering decisions. It could have been made earlier or it could have been instantaneous, in the moment. He is charged now with second degree murder.


*****

I will probably write more next week about the time in Miami, but more importantly, the people who have helped me through all of this: my family and friends, Vincent T., Mike O., John, Jane, Sam... I just got back from a second trip. I will also keep on top of the trial, if it comes to that. In the meantime, I ask you to donate to this charity, from Human Rights Watch, which Vince cared deeply about:

http://www.hrw.org/en/middle-eastn-africa/iraq

Article in New York Magazine

A report on executions of homosexuals in Iraq

Paul Janovitz:

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Signed Exile books

We sold 30-something books at the Exile show last week. I can either return the balance (I ordered 50 to be safe), or I can send out signed copies. If anyone is interested, please email me at janovitz.bill@gmail.com. I am not sure how much they are to send, but I will figure $2.00. So let's say they will cost $12. You can send check or money order (or try cash). No bartering yak milk or shoe shines.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cover of the Week 52

I guess it has been a year of these. Not quite, as I believe it counts a couple of bonuses. I don't believe I specified that I would only do it for a year, however. And while it has not always been easy to crank one out during some particular weeks, it has not been an unmanageable task and it has even provided a nice exercise for me on days/nights when I might otherwise just resign myself and surrender to the inertia of the easy chair. So I will keep it going indefinitely. But I do feel that the accomplishment of 52 in less than a full year ought to allow me a little slack moving forward. While I will try to stay on the weekly schedule, I might be OK with missing a week here and there, or posting more previously recorded live covers.

I got a call from Adam Duritz, of the Counting Crows -- one of the good/smart guys of the bands we toured with in the 1990s -- about an internet hub site he is starting and inviting me to bring this CotW project -- in some form -- over there at some point. It might be something different as well. Maybe I will just write over there. Maybe only one of these a month will be there. I don't know. We will see. But I am glad this baby managed to find all of you listening in and following along at home.

Back to a guy with his guitar for this week's cover. Some kids requested some Tom Petty in the request post down below (85 replies!) I have a funny relationship to the music of Petty. The Heartbreakers were one of those ubiquitous radio staples growing up. I remember going into the record store when I was in junior high and seeing a life-sized cut-out of Tom for Damn the Torpedoes. And I had a little red "Damn the Torpedoes" button/badge that they were handing out. I liked all of those songs back then. But I never felt compelled to buy the records. I had to be discerning with which records I bought with the money from my paper route. I still needed some cash for two slices of Sicilian and a small coke at DiRaimo's Pizza.

And then I totally lost interest in Petty as he and the Heartbreakers morphed into less-straightforward pop. I loved them as a lean, mean, garage jangle-pop, folk-rock band. Anything relating to Jeff Lynne sends me running in the other direction, including Traveling Wilburys. So I have not liked much of the Petty music that came after the early-80s. Not even Wildflowers does much for me. But I do like the Mudcrutch record quite a bit.

So here is one of the all-time great late-'70s/early-'80s radio hits. I have been covering this for as long as I can remember. I love playing it with the SessionAm boys acoustically as well. So here is a guy and his guitar.

I think I have to finally give up on singing in the key of D.

American Girl mp3