Monday, September 15, 2014

Gutt-man came to NYC to play his songs

Shocked last night by the news of Peter Gutteridge's passing, and shocked that I could be shocked by the news, given his reputation for rigorous life-doings and a pervading sense that few people have ever engaged their demons more fully, or for a longer time. I met him once, but I didn't know him.

Peter Gutteridge, Brooklyn, August 2014
I'll spare you here the story of the time I met him (find me on Earth and I'll tell it), because much more important is that he was just here, not three weeks ago, to play what I'm pretty sure was his first-ever gig, solo or otherwise, in the U.S. Possibly his first ever outside New Zealand. It was not a great show — familiar songs veered miles off-course as he peered at his array of pedals, looking for the right cosmic-buzzsaw sound, almost as if a crowd wasn't there. And he did not look so great either, his face drawn tightly and his body hidden underneath incongruous, oversized clothes. BUT, the record will show that he did come to Brooklyn to play us his songs, and those songs are amazing things that he wrote and played, and when he did acknowledge the crowd, he smiled a lot, and his eyes were aflame, and when he spoke, he expressed a very plain and genuine gratitude that the few dozen of us had come to meet him at an out-of-the-way club deep in Brooklyn, so incredibly far from his territory. When he idly scratched out what my brain thought were the opening notes of "Born in the Wrong Time" ("I can name that song in one note"), and then took another spell to sort out his pedals, I was left with a vast handful of seconds to wonder if that was the closest I'd ever get to the song . . . and then he did play it, and the goosebumps went up all over, and he sang not in the biker-growl he'd employed most of the night but in a brilliant and unexpected Lou Reed-ish poem-sing . . . Well, it was all this fan could've asked for. "Yeah they're pushing his bags out the door . . . " Not this guy. He carried his own bags everywhere. R.I.P.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Monday, August 25, 2014

Jeff and me and rock & roll

“ ‘Hit me with your rhythm stick!’ Nayr-nayr-nayr-nayr-nayr-nayr-nayr!” You know how people will sing a song to someone? My brother Jeff used to sing that Ian Dury song at me. And after the seventh nayr he’d crack me on the kneecap, hard, with a drumstick he caught at some concert. Apart from the bruising, I’d say Jeff’s version was the superior one.

The way I remember it, he tortured me with that song for the entirety of my youth, but it couldn’t have been that way, because about a year after it came out — which was three years after he took me to my first concert (Kansas, the Spectrum, 1976, deep) and two years after he took me to buy my first album (Styx The Grand Illusion, so deep) — he left for college in Ann Arbor. That’s when Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and the Pretenders, who he’d given up ’70s classic rock for (and who compelled me to turn my back on Kansas and Styx), became the Cure, Psych Furs, Echo and the Bunnymen and Public Image. All of which went over my head, but I was able to measure the distance and knew I could close it. Even as he moved into the new wave ’80s though, Jeff never really abandoned anything he’d liked before. Our basement in Lower Merion had 8-tracks by Elton John (Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player), Springsteen (everything), the Who, Zeppelin, Queen, BTO, pretty sure there was some Alice Cooper (who scared me), the Kinks… They’d all play while he killed me in Nerf basketball.

One of his old photo albums is packed with ticket stubs, backstage passes and a ton of photos from the late ’70s into the mid-’80s, with no sense that things didn’t belong together: Jackson Browne opposite Talking Heads, Squeeze adjacent to the B-52’s, the Stones, Van Halen, the Who, the Police, the Dead, Clapton (ugh), and one lone photo of Muddy Waters, who was probably on Clapton’s bill. If you flipped through his photo albums you might've thought Jeff was an aspiring stringer for Rolling Stone.

Jeff was an accomplished amateur rock photographer in the era before security was all that secure. He'd always manage to sweet-talk or otherwise just work his way into shows with a camera, though I don’t recall anything getting published outside of his high school paper. (He did have the lead byline on the school paper’s coverage of the Who concert disaster in Cincinnati in December ’79, it’s worth pointing out.) When he went to Michigan he got a job in the campus ticket office, probably bullshitted his way to manager in about 10 minutes, and proceeded to get all the tickets he ever wanted for himself, his girlfriends and whomever he wanted to make happy (invariably lots of people). Many of the photos he took are a bit blurry or not well framed, but some are great: Springsteen and Clarence Clemons shoulder-to-shoulder staring dares at the audience; big-white-suit David Byrne throwing his head back in ecstasy; Townshend windmilling (that one’s not really a good photo, it’s just that it’s Townshend windmilling); Mick Jagger all tarted-up; Clapton looking insufferable. There’s an amazing 8x10 of Annabella Lwin from Bow Wow Wow (a band I’d come to love well after the photo was taken).

All of that music came to me through Jeff and his experiences. After the kick of what I heard in his Ann Arbor dorm room in 1980 I blasted into punk and new wave; years later, at a lesser Big Ten school, that energy carried me into jazz, folk, hip-hop, noise, etc., all stuff that he hated or mocked. (Jeff did love reggae and even had a one-hour reggae lunch show on KUCI in the mid-’80s, which got me into both reggae and college radio; I already liked lunch.) At some point though, maybe during the late ’80s, he just sort of stopped — his taste in music held its position and maybe even got a bit more conservative. I blame Southern California. Do they still play No Doubt every hour on KROQ? I have a possibly invented, possibly just half-blocked-out memory of hearing Oingo Boingo twice in an afternoon on KROQ — in the mid-2000s.


When we cleaned out Jeff’s house after he took his own life late in 2012, even though he was OCD about not having stuff — he once proudly told me he’d whittled his entire CD collection down to about 25, during a year in which I'd already given him about 50 CDs — a few important objects came right to me: his baseball glove (Jeff and me and sports — maybe next time), the aforementioned photo album, and two iPods. I snatched those like they were contraband and didn’t look at them till I got back to NYC.

The blue longish one didn’t seem to have much of anything on it. Why would he have an empty iPod? I hardly knew how to work the thing; I kept clicking and whirring the wheel looking for whatever must be there. I knew that if I plugged it into my laptop’s iTunes, whatever was there would be gone forever (right?). I found a few photos, but they were all ones I had sent him. I wish I could describe the panic as I was about to make this one my iPod — had I missed something, was there a message tucked somewhere that he knew I’d get because music was one of our bonds? — but I went ahead. Because by that point I had looked over the other, little square silver iPod.

That thing was loaded. Is loaded. Will stay loaded for eternity with what in the current vernacular I guess you’d call “his music.” I don’t know how to count the number of songs on it, but for him, I’d say it was more or less all of them. The nostalgic and great, the pretty good, the riotously bad, and the frighteningly ugly. What the fuck is Alanis Morissette doing on my late brother’s iPod? Wasn’t losing him bad enough? I knew about his love of Pearl Jam and Arcade Fire, and happily supplied him with their CDs (I was getting them for free and had no real use for them). To see all these names stacked together in a mile-long scroll, from every bright and dark corner and period of his life… The A’s (Philly!), ABC, Aimee Mann, Al Green, Al Stewart. The B-52s, the Band (he had The Last Waltz on LP in the house when we were kids, and for years I was flummoxed — how are they allowed to call themselves that?), the Beach Boys, Beck, Bill Withers, Black Uhuru, Blake Babies (he was impressed that I knew them, we went to see them out in Cali once, guest list and all that, very bigtime). The Buzzcocks, Buzzy Linhart — I’d need a lot more space to try to explain Jeff and his college best friend Doug’s uncommon interest in Buzzy Linhart — Carpenters, the Cars, Cat Power. Lily Allen, Linda Ronstadt, Little Steven — there might not be a musician I hate more that Jeff loved more — Live (groan), Lloyd Cole, Lou Reed, M.I.A., Macy Gray, Madonna, Marshall Crenshaw, Marvin Gaye, MGMT… Does this make sense to anyone? Was he just super open-minded and free and didn’t waste time wondering why he liked a song, content enough that he just did? His iPod of Neil Young: 9 albums; New Order: 7 albums; … Radiohead: 6 albums. Okay, I feel all right about more Neil and New Order than Radiohead. (Um, Pink: 2 albums. ???)


Early in the ’00s I had a Friday-night DJing residency in Tonic’s basement, and one weekend Jeff came out for a visit. Normally we played everything from all over time and Earth and space, but to impress him — which was my goal always — I pulled pretty much only reggae records that night. He was gonna hear how deep I went with this music he introduced me to and taught me to love. As it turned out, he hated most of my reggae records, but thought the club was pretty cool cause people were making out and smoking weed and dancing, so hey.

The only other time he saw me DJ was on his last trip to New York, spring of 2012. By this point he had been talking openly for years, emotionally but coolly and lucidly, about killing himself. I had given up trying to help him find a way out of it. He was either going to do it or not (a line he himself uttered hundreds of times). I was doing palliative care, just trying to help him not be in pain, moment to moment, saying and doing whatever I thought might make him feel all right. Weeks before his visit I had agreed to play records as part of an all-day event at St. Marks Church put together by the choreographer and artist Ralph Lemon, a friend and neighbor in my building. I was to accompany Ralph’s performance, and two other dancers’ as well, and my sole direction from him was: “black music.” I assumed that Ralph could tell that I am not black, but whatever — I was flattered and terrified. I pulled a lot of records and Jeff was not gonna like any of them (Bad Brains, maybe; Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Sonny Sharrock, anonymous African village mystics, probably not). I told him I’d be done by 3pm and would meet him at his hotel for a pizza walk (traipse around the city aimlessly, stopping for a slice at every pizza joint you pass). He asked for the name of the church.

About 10 minutes after I’d started with Ralph — him in his underwear, flying around the room like a superhero while I feverishly whipped records on and off, sweating the cross-fader hard, thinking constantly “Is this working is this working” — Jeff slipped in and nudged me in the arm. The room was littered with artwork and obstacles for the dancers; a couple hundred people surrounded the floor. He sat there silently and just watched. I’m fairly certain he had never attended a dance performance of any kind in his life.

He told me afterward he thought it was cool (“No, really!”), but I might not have believed it till my mom told me a while afterward that he had called her that night and would not stop talking about me and the dancers and how cool it all was. She said he sounded really proud and happy.

When I think about how I’d assumed he wouldn’t want to be there, it breaks my heart. Everything about what happened to him breaks my heart. When he was happy, he defined what being alive means: You love music and toss baseballs and meet girls and talk to people and make things happen and go places and try and fail and try and succeed and laugh and eat with gusto and sing in the car at the top of your lungs and just LIVE. Maybe he saw me trying something difficult and unusual and that made him happy. Maybe his rigid opinions about things softened as his connection to this world grew more tenuous. Or maybe at different stages of life it can go in the other direction, and he viewed it and loved it through the lens of his little brother’s experience.

Today is his birthday, August 25. I miss him like crazy.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Christopher Meyer 1981-2013

Christopher Meyer died in a bike accident early yesterday morning. It may have been the kind of thing better described as a car accident, a car's accident, which killed the guy who was riding the bike. It's being described by the police as a possible hit-and-run. Whatever the facts, the crime is that Christopher's no longer here.

It feels transgressive to write about him like this because we weren't close friends in the sense of hanging out. We were co-workers at a record store in Brooklyn that had a small staff, which imparts its own unique and rapid sort of intimacy. Oh, this is what makes you jump out of bed? Me too, and also this. Oh, this is what enrages you? Me too! Oh, this is the personal stuff that you need to print out at the store, the school-life-strive that you do away from here? Christopher was someone you felt like you'd known for years after 10 minutes in a room with him. He had immediate expression; he was knowable. That's increasingly rare and a plainly beautiful way for a person to be.

Chris smiled easily and frequently. He was mostly smiling and it was a mischievous smile that made you want to be a part of whatever might be cooking up in his head. I think it was really just that he was excited to be here, pretty much wherever he happened to be. And he made it fun to be in that space with him — a joke, a snide comment, the way he bounced around the store.... He sometimes looked like a Mad Max character capable of a scrap maybe, but much more at home as the biker gang's grinning mascot. Wiry build, blackened hair, charismatic nasal rasp and some great tattoos, including the Drag City logo. He rated as a superfan and his passions sprawled from the high-quality wing of indie-rock to classic and extreme metal. He was the one who made sure we had old Maiden and Venom in stock and customers were glad for it. He was a snob with vast loves that many people would describe as guilty pleasures. Not him. In Christopher's fandom, all of it was level, high low and in-between.

After the store where we worked closed up this past spring, he landed at a cool record shop in Greenpoint while I found my way to one in the East Village. Late in the summer he dropped in to visit, and we spent long minutes perusing the horror films in stock. His passion, usually a visceral, energetic thing, went quiet and reverent as he pulled titles from the racks. "Ohhh, you guys have this," he said dreamily. He vowed to be back next time he got paid. The last time I saw him was fleeting: about a month ago, in Greenpoint, sunny afternoon, me walking with friends, he walking his bike the other way on Franklin. We caught each other just as we passed, that sudden flash. "Hey! How ya doin'? Yeah I'm — okay, see you soon." Big smiles. His high-spirited vibe needed only a moment to work magic and it always rose up to meet you.

I'm thinking about his family, I'm thinking about Jimmy. Everyone who knew him is surely luckier for it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

I am her companion animal

And it is not exaggeration to say that she has seen me through to the other side of the hardest, darkest time of my life. As have you, friend.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Jeff Sotman, 1962-2012

Last year, at the end of November, in all probability on a Wednesday, my big brother Jeffrey took his own life. Jeff was my best friend and one of two people there for me every day of my life. The void left by his death is immense.

I have not told many people about it, and it has taken me months to write this because I could never get past this point. My fingers hover over the keyboard and right now, this moment, it’s not clear whether I’m about to get past this point. This is where I've been for months, stuck right here. What to say? How to say it? How to go on?

Jeff was at the top of my cosmology. Almost everything I’ve experienced or understood in life came to me through the lens of our relationship, the little brother’s view up. Technically we were half-brothers, hence the name, but it was never that way, at least not after I was 1, when he fed me a marble. The story as it came to me was that my dad picked his blue baby up by the feet and shook the marble free. Thus having failed to rid himself of the interloper, Jeff decided to be a big brother instead, a role at which he excelled.

Among many other things, he saw to it that no one would pick on or beat up the scrawny kid. No one except him. The square red carpet in the living room became a boxing ring, and no matter who was Ali, Foreman or Frazier, he always won convincingly, and always in 15 rounds, even if I had been crumpling to the mat since round 3. But Jeff also took awkward little brother into Philly for soft pretzels and pinball and ballgames. We shared a room and bunkbeds, and regularly traded spots – whenever he wanted to switch really, though he was benevolent enough to put together complicated packages of baseball cards and candy as payment. He was a superb deal-maker and that never changed.

Jeff was good at everything and I was good at nothing, except school, which he was also good at. Jeff was a lefty pitcher at Lower Merion H.S. and could throw a curveball. He was a great basketball player despite being 5'9". He took me to Sam Goody to buy my first album (Styx The Grand Illusion); the year before that he took me to my first concert: Kansas, at the Spectrum, 1976. As I was getting ready he said, “You’re wearing THAT?” It was a stripey T-shirt like what I’d wear to school. “No, you haveta wear a concert shirt to a concert.” Which is a problem when you’re 9 and have never been to a rock concert before. The Yes shirt he loaned me came down to my knees.

I often told him that he was responsible for me having a life in music. He replied that any big brother anywhere gets their younger brothers and sisters into music. But the fact is that when I was 12 and still listening to the lame ’70s, he brought home Joe Jackson records, and Elvis Costello, and the Pretenders, and a year later, when I visited him in Ann Arbor, it was suddenly Joy Division and New Order, the Cure and Public Image and the Psychedelic Furs and a monster-size Plasmatics poster with a giant Wendy O. Williams mohawked head and the imperative “DON’T BE A WANKER – DON’T MISS THIS SHOW” Heady shit for a 13-year-old.

Jeff had charisma. That is an understatement. He always had cool friends and girlfriends. Everyone got nicknames: Maven. Golden Boy. Swampy. He gave me the only nickname that ever stuck, and all of his friends still use it: Hikey. When I was 5 Jeff and the other big kids deemed me too small (also: uncoordinated) to play football in the street with them. I went crying to Mom, who demanded my inclusion. So they let me hike the ball for both teams and then immediately run out of the way.

There is one story that Jeff took great joy in telling, especially when he would get to meet a girl I was dating. I was 6 or 7. He was babysitting me and my sister Julie and somehow, it ended up we were having cereal, and I made a joke at his expense and laughed. “Stop laughing or I’ll dump that bowl of cereal over your head!” I can remember just how far over the line that seemed to my kid mind. No way he’d do it. So I dared him. And he didn’t hesitate. In finishing the story, Jeff would always lean forward for emphasis, laughing and talking at the same time, animatedly dragging his fingers over his face. “Mike was crying and had milk and tears and Frosted Flakes running down his face!” And so I did. Now I’ll have to tell that story to anyone new.

Jeff went everywhere and did whatever he wanted, and took me along a lot of the time. He graduated from Michigan and moved to Minneapolis to wear a suit for some company. I moved to Minneapolis for college and to be near him, but by the time I got there less than a year later, he’d already had enough of that kind of life, the suit, the cold. I helped him move to Southern California, where he spent the rest of his life. He got a business degree at UCI and then took a plunge and went for yet another degree, in the “horse race-track industry program” at Arizona, the only school with such a thing. He was well-known and well-liked in his field. I kind of hate horse-racing and have never gone to a track without him, but it was never an issue for us.

Jeff was very good at gambling and handicapping. He always had a tight grasp on how much he was up or down in any calendar year, and never got into trouble with money. He bet on horses and played poker — even took home money at a handful of World Series of Poker events, though to hear him tell it, all he did was lose. Once I picked up the phone and heard his voice, ashen. “Hike…I just lost 20 grand at Hollywood.” You WHAT?? And this will explain how he saw the world: He had expertly handicapped that day’s Pick 6, and the first five dominoes tumbled as predicted. So did the sixth, but he could not foresee the steward’s inquiry that DQ’ed his last horse. That money he lost was merely supposed to be his. Another time he did hit the Pick 6 at Hollywood, and I think once more elsewhere. Like everyone in horse racing, he desperately wished for a Triple Crown winner to come along and inject some life into the sport. I was with him at Belmont in 2004 to watch Smarty Jones (the Philly horse!), who was heavily favored to bring home that third win. We had good seats — Jeff always had good seats — and we were perched above the finish line. Looking at the heavy odds on Smarty Jones earlier in the day, Jeff decided the only way to win anything substantial would be if he composed a typically impossible trifecta-box-something-something bet. He told me I could go in on his impenetrable bet if I wanted. I gave him $20.

If you’ve never been to a big horse race, no matter what you think of the sport, it’s pretty damn dramatic when they come around the home stretch, and this was the biggest race of the year, maybe decade, and Smarty Jones had it. One hundred twenty thousand people rose to their feet as one. And then, for the only time in his career, Smarty Jones got passed in a race. At the wire. By a 36-1 longshot with late speed. One hundred twenty thousand people, stunned in unison. Even I felt bad for horse-racing. Jeff gave me a sideways look, grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the betting windows. This was when I learned that Jeff was a master hedger. Sure he wanted Smarty Jones to win like everyone else. But he bet against him. And because he was good, he had liked that 36-1 horse, Birdstone. And my $20 investment got me about $800.

Jeff went to Super Bowls, the Sugar Bowl, BCS championship games, the Final Four several times, every regional and sub-regional NCAA hoops weekend in California that he wanted. He went to see the LA Kings win the Stanley Cup last summer, because he just could. He went to Thailand and all over Europe. Even if he was never really rich he was a master of anything that involved money. He knew how to parlay airline miles into free nights at five-star hotels where you could make it 67 degrees instead of 68. He knew how to sweet-talk any hotel employee in the world into getting him the quantity and quality of pillows he needed, and anyone he couldn’t sweet-talk he just bribed. Jeff was a self-styled VIP without the millions of dollars.

Jeff took me to the Rose Bowl, where Michigan lost to Arizona State. He took me to countless Michigan football games in Ann Arbor, where I saw them lose to UCLA, Iowa and Ohio State. He took me to Amsterdam and Paris. He flew me out to visit him regularly, and once put me in first class, “just so you can see what it’s like.” He took me to game 3 of the 2000-01 NBA Championship and to two World Series, one of them won by our hometown team. That year we sat in deluxe, heated VIP boxes with free food because the woman who distributed VIP tickets at Taco Bell – the No. 1 ad-buying client of Fox Sports – absolutely adored him. Everyone adored him. I adored him and idolized him and would have done anything to stop the slide he had been on for the past six years.

He wanted to stop it too, and he tried. The vortex of anxiety, depression and loneliness that consumed him had been building since 2006, when a mystery ailment that was never properly diagnosed put him in the hospital and left him changed. He knew whatever was wrong with him began then. So, his suicide was not a sudden thing. It sounds completely insane, but the possibility of him doing it was a part of our life for years. He talked about it all the time, to us at least – his closest friends, his ex-wife, me, my mom to an extent. He didn’t see any reason to live past 50. He had no kids and truly believed that the only things waiting for him were increasing pain and decrepitude. He didn’t want to be old. We’d see an elderly person walking in the street, bent and using a cane, and he’d say, “There you go Hike, keep eating your vegetables and you could have that too.” But he had known happiness and tried so hard to win it back. He went through a lengthy series of medications; he wore out therapists. He scouted for other places he might live. He endured several sessions of shock therapy to try and reset his brain. During the last one his heart stopped for 15 seconds, and after they successfully brought him back he felt cheated of an easy out.

Essentially, for the last three years of his life, he tried to prepare us for this. He didn’t want to hurt us. I think the thought of that kept him around. He took his time and one by one tried to make each of us understand his decision. The conversations we had…it had been a long time since I suggested any new option for him. I said I’d move to California to be with him but he knew I’d be unhappy living there (he was right, but I told him I didn’t care). The last year, all I tried to do every day was say anything to calm him down and help him relax. I’ve never had such dark conversations with anyone. He let me see everything he was feeling, and I’ve never been so sad for anyone else’s pain. This, my favorite person in the world. I couldn't bear the thought of him leaving, nor could I bear to see him suffer like he was.

He would be going nuts over Michigan’s run in the NCAAs. He’d be saying how they had no chance tonight while at the same time checking out how many miles he’d need to get a first-class ticket to Atlanta. He’d get there without a ticket and would scalp his way in and would probably make a few hundred dollars in the process. If he knew I was thinking of posting this today he’d say, “Wait a day or you’ll mush it for them.”

The last I heard from him was the Monday in November. He replied to a phone message with a text: “At Clippers game. Had a calm day. I feel okay.” That was the pinnacle for him, to be out among people and just be able to be calm.

We scattered his ashes at the finish line — “where it always went wrong for Jeff,” as his friend Tom said — at Del Mar, his favorite racetrack. I found the ticket stub from that Clippers game among piles of others from championships and Springsteen concerts. Next to the PRICE it reads: $VIP.

I miss him more than words can say.

Friday, December 30, 2011