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.