Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas with Patrick

Christmas is the only day I see my brother Patrick. Every visit is more than enough for the year.

My brother has always had an incredible imagination. When we were young I thought it bordered on genius. Now I’m thinking his imagination might be symptomatic of dementia.

We both seem to suffer from a form of OCD with our individual manifestations.

I have been a chain smoker, a drug/alcohol addict, a career skydiver (which ruined my credit), and a tyrant when it came to my band. I have a tendency to push every pleasant conversation to the point of torture.

My brother’s chemical obsessions leave mine in the dust. His stories turn to fantasies he becomes convinced are reality.

I remember his Christmas visits when I was married. My ex, Kim, was always terrified he’d make a scene in front of her parents and he always did. I’ll never forget the year he was so rude and obnoxious Kim burst into tears yelling, “I don’t ever want him in my house again!”

I was always impressed with her parents’ tolerance. They were pretty uptight otherwise. The image of my 8 year old son, tears welling in his eyes, telling me, “This is the worst Christmas ever!” is permanently burned into memory.

My brother and I share a lot of very dear friends. They’re always asking how he is and why they never see him anymore. Patrick dropped out of society 20 years ago and has no intention of dropping back in.

Our friend Fojammi is in the hospital following surgery. Just before the operation I told him I’d bring Patrick by Christmas day, provided he wasn’t already too drunk.

Danny wasn’t feeling well so our visit was short. Coming down on the elevator, my son pointed out there was no 12th or 13th floor button. I assumed these were floors that normal folks weren’t supposed to have access to.

The elevator was crowded, so I guess Patrick felt compelled to put on a show.

He gave us all a lecture about the government putting the 13th floor in the basement and running their secret conspiracies from there. This was happening in large buildings all over the world. It was the wildest “Beware of the big bad government” story I’d ever heard. Every jaw in the elevator had dropped by the time we exited.

From there Valerie, my kids, my mom, my brother and I met up at our apartment to share Christmas.

Valerie only smokes in our kitchen. I guess my brother figured it was the designated smoking area. He said he wanted to hang there for a smoke and asked if he could have a beer. I had just gotten a Christmas six pack from my ex’s boyfriend. I popped off a crown cap with my church key and handed him one.

I left the room to visit every one else around the tree. I came back after what seemed the time it took to smoke one cigarette. All six bottles were empty in the trash can. I never really saw him drink, but in the few hours he spent with us he drank three six packs and half a bottle of whiskey.

After 4 beers I wake up with a hangover. I can’t imagine what his mornings are like.

My son loves his uncle Patrick. He’s always wondered why I’ve always been so apprehensive about my brother’s Christmas visits. This year Dylan admitted Patrick was more fun to talk to the more sober he was.

In spite of that Dylan had a wonderful time. One of his gifts was a bottleneck slide. I taught him to tune my guitar to open G and almost immediately he figured out Leadbelly’s Black Girl. He played and Patrick belted out the lyrics. Dylan talked about it all night after everyone left. “How did Uncle Patrick know all the words?”

He’d be surprised to find out how much Uncle Patrick knows.

I have the most beautifully dysfunctional family. My mother has always been curt with her opinions and not at all sentimental about ritual. My brother is just out of his mind and the tension between the three of us drives most people to despair.

Somehow Valerie embraces the whole situation. Every Christmas is a zoo and my son sees it all as family tradition. I’m not sure about my daughter Chloe but at the end of the night she smiled and very quietly said, “This is the best Christmas ever!”

The kids and I were camping so Valerie went to see George Clinton at Vintage Vinyl to represent. She took this pic of Patrick and his long time girlfriend Gwen.

Patrick and me a couple of years ago at Christmas.

Group photo of us with my mom’s mom, brother and family. This was a family reunion in Hardy Arkansas late 70s or early 80s.

70s pic taken by Matt O’Shea with our beloved Cokes.

Soulard pic of us just before we moved away from home.

The second to last one shows my brother with an eye patch. He had to wear those for a while. He was a pirate even back then.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Captain

My buddy, Dominic, called the other day with news that Captain Beefheart had died from complications of Multiple Sclerosis. Dom was pretty choked up. The news hit as hard and personally as John Lennon’s death. I can’t even begin to express the effect Captain Beefheart has had on my taste and aspirations.

I remember an interview with Ian Anderson in the early 70s, before Jethro Tull became trapped by the stigma and success of Aqualung defining the band. He was asked if there were any American musicians he respected. He said the only thing happening in America was Captain Beefheart.

I’m not sure how Dominic discovered him. Dom really opened my eyes to a lot of important and obscure artists when we were very young.

The Captain did take a little getting used to. He was totally uncompromising, totally idealistic, and he backed it up with a huge body of work!

Needless to say, he went through a lot of record labels.

I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun as singing along to Trout Mask Replica with Dominic in our early teens. We knew all the lyrics to every record by heart. The poetry was wild, disjointed, and deep. We caught every subtle innuendo intended or not. The music can not be described in words. He somehow, literally, painted and sculpted sound.

I remember thinking most of my girlfriends thought of him pretty much the way they thought of the Three Stooges. Something only boys liked. I was wrong.

It only took one listen to Orange Claw Hammer to convince my girlfriend Jill. I saw her a few months ago and she told me I was responsible for her marriage. Her husband fell in love with her when he saw Trout Mask in her record collection.

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band performed in the Washington University Quadrangle when they toured the album Unconditionally Guaranteed. My girlfriend Pam and I were in High School and into photography. We always had cameras around our necks. You were allowed to go to concerts with cameras in those days.

We were up front, against the stage, when Pam grabbed my arm and pulled me past security. “Press,” she said. The camera must have convinced them. We enjoyed the entire performance on the stage. Man, she had balls!

Years later, The Captain came with Frank Zappa, touring Bongo Fury. Somehow, Pam and I ended up outside with the band after the show. I stood right next to Zappa but had absolutely no interest in him. I mentioned my love of Trout Mask to The Captain and we ended up at the hotel with the band. He was as charming as Hell. I have since learned he can be a real jerk, but that’s probably only to people who work with him.

The Captain told us, that night, to meet up with him at a place called The 5th House, near St. Louis University. I couldn’t believe my luck, the man was God to me.

I had my mother’s VW, and, for some reason, we had to drive somewhere far away before we could go. My mom’s clutch cable broke, and we couldn’t make it. Dominic tells me The Captain sat in with the band at The 5th House. He read a newspaper into a microphone as the band jammed on.

Today, Pam sent me a story from a friend of hers who knew Van Vliet when he was a teenager. The Magic Band lived together in a house, where they also recorded. If someone flubbed a note, they were sent downstairs to practice until they got it right. Pam asked if I remembered the car breaking down that night.

I must have thought about it a million times.

Friday night Valerie and I listened to Trout Mask, Clear Spot, The Spotlight Kid, and Safe As Milk. Everything else I have is on vinyl and I’m not set up for that right now. We could have gone through his whole catalog.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Mountain

Years ago my girlfriend Joanie and I spent some time in the Smoky Mountains. I always wanted to brag that I’d climbed a mountain so we decided we would. I can’t even remember the name of the mountain we were on but there was a path that led to a water fall at the top called Rainbow Falls. It seemed to take all day to reach the top. I thought we were really mountain climbing but it was a hill compared to the mountains I would see eventually in my travels.

Just before I got married, Kim, my fiancé, started talking about a dream her dad had of taking the whole family on a trip to the Rocky Mountains.

By the time he realized his dream we had two kids.

We rented several cabins on a mountain that was probably over 13,000 feet. The cabins were at about 8,000 feet. This was a real mountain. My brother in law Colin and I decided we were going to climb it.

We started out one morning just before sunrise. We figured it would be a long trip so we packed a few supplies in backpacks and headed out.

We got above the tree line and it got difficult to climb. I seem to remember hitting permafrost that never thawed. It took all my energy just to lift a leg one more step. We’d take a couple of steps and rest.

I remember looking down at the cabins and then up to the peak. We weren’t even half way. When we talked about it later we both admitted we wanted to quit but neither one of us wanted to be the first to give up. I was also out of shape around this time.

When we finally reached the top the mountain actually came to a point. There was mountain goat poop at the apex. It seemed like it was a message left behind that humans were weak. Like the goat was saying, “See, I poop on the mountain!”

As we collapsed to look out over the valley I remember thinking, “I wish I packed a couple of beers in Colin’s backpack.”

The view was worth every bit of the pain but I don’t think I’ll ever do that again. I think I’m satisfied being able to say, “Been there, done that!”

Pics are: One of my favorite pictures of my dad at Pike’s Peak, Me climbing a mountain with my friend Vince (this was a trip my buddy Tracy organized at hot springs in the Rockies for my old band mates), and a camping trip Tracy and I went on in the Rockies (this was when my marriage fell apart. Tracy thought I needed the distraction. I did a lot of soul searching.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010


For all the pain and anxiety my kids’ adolescence is putting me through, there’s a beautiful side to it all. Philosophical, youthful exuberance is hitting my kids head on. Their intellectual curiosity is raging. They’re asking questions and seem to have a genuine respect for my opinions and experiences.

My son is 16. He’s fascinated with marijuana. It might be naïve on my part, but I believe him when he tells me he's not using drugs. I know everyone has different experiences, but I’ve known too many people whose emotional and intellectual development stopped when they started using them.

There seem to be two different types of people when it comes to drugs. For some, it’s just a matter of getting fu%#ed up (might as well be booze). For others, it’s a genuine lust for exploration.

I have junkie friends who look at LSD and other psychotropics with disdain as “merely recreational”. Altering their state of consciousness is strictly a physical experience.

All my son’s rock and roll heroes are big druggies of course, so he’s naturally curious.

Altered states of consciousness are a natural part of intellectual curiosity, but I’ve asked Dylan to wait until he’s in his mid 20s. He’s promised he would.

Dylan’s been reading Herman Hesse. I’m about to turn him onto Carlos Constaneda and maybe John C. Lilly.

Constaneda’s first book, The Teachings of Don Juan, was written for his college thesis. Don Juan was a Yaqui shaman. One of the first things Constaneda learned from him was how to know when you’re dreaming.

His trick was whenever you saw your hands in a dream, you'd realize you were dreaming. It took practice, but I taught myself how to do it. I was almost always lucid in my dreams. I fully intended to search for some deeper meaning in life, but all I could ever think to do was fly. It was a lot of fun though. It still happens every now and then.

I fell in love with the band Supertramp when I heard the song Dreamer. “Can you put you’re hands in your head?” “But now you put your head in your hands, oh no!”

Dylan is learning about the Buddhist philosophy of becoming one with the universe from Hesse. Meditation is just around the corner.

John C. Lilly invented the sensory deprivation chamber and wrote about his experiences meditating in one, as well as taking LSD. He was in his 50s, and it was the 1950s.

When I was around Dylan’s age, I trained myself to turn off my inner conversation from information gleaned from these books. It was harder than waking up in my dreams.

I remember staring at the wood grain pattern in my bedroom door one night. My inner conversation stopped, and I began to hallucinate. The door became an entrance to a cave, and I went in. Planets and stars began to whiz past me, and I felt an overwhelming sense of euphoria.

Adolescence can be a wonderful experience. It breaks my heart when I hear how terrible it was for so many of my friends. I know my kids are on their own, but I can’t help but want to do every thing I can to make it a great time for them.

Pic is my brother Patrick, me, and my girlfriend Pam in my bedroom in our Soulard apartment. Believe it or not, we were in High School. You can just make out my brother’s dog Cello’s tongue sticking out from under the bed.