THIS IS NOT SLANDER Chapter Eleven

Jocelyn continued her train of thought:

“I know we have a show tonight…..”

“What the hell happened? Was this last night when you guys went to hang at Marcus’?”

“Yeah, Rudy came with us, and everything was fine for the first hour or so. Jeremy showed up at about 11.30, and then you could sense a noticeable shift in Rudy’s comportment.”

Hmmmn. Comportment. I liked that word. I was silently impressed.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know if Rudy still has some residual angst about Jeremy moving to Brooklyn and throwing Geneva into rebuild mode, but he was such an asshole after Jeremy arrived. He started berating Todd and Jeremy about their taste in music, which is of no real news in the context of things. But still, the night before we play at the TAZZIES? You think he could hold it together, but oh no, not Rudy. It was simply awful. And then when I started to defend their right to like whatever music they liked, and that Rainbow was no great shakes as a band, he starts going down the misogynist avenue he loves to pretend isn’t real. But it is fucking very real, and I cannot be in a band with him anymore! I will not be treated like that!”

It was of no surprise to me. I had reached out to Rudy in every way I knew how, to get him to move beyond his anger and paranoia. I kept imploring him to look at the big picture, and that this very band could provide him with the creative outlet he was so desperately seeking. Or was I misreading it? Maybe he was satisfied within the cult of Geneva Holiday; their uniformed visage morphing from one iteration to another- not so much a costume but a cloak. There were no cloaks in the world of Piercing.

“Ok, ok, ok….. Don’t worry about it. We will simply show up and play tonight as if nothing is wrong. Don’t betray your feelings tonight, and relay that to Todd. I’ll talk to Adrian about it privately. I agree with you, because he delineated me as a faceless facilitator during the whole thing that went down on the trip to Cabinets last Thursday.”

“Yeah, what was that all about? We barely have a draw in Brooklyn and he suggests we headline a show with bands from town who have never even played in the city? Delusional”

“I know. And that is where we can define the reason why he needs to go. I don’t want to publically expose him as a misogynist asshole; that is for other people to decide. But we can remove him because his commitment isn’t there.”

“And you are willing to handle that?”

“Of course. Let’s just get through the weekend. We’re still going to have to practice with the five of us on Sunday before Adrian heads back to the city. We all agreed to it.”

I leave work at five on Saturday to give myself enough time to load the van and prepare my outfit for the night. I loved getting dressed up for the Awards Show, and I had found my outfit for the night months earlier. I had come across a waist cropped black wool jacket, adorned with square silver buttons, which ran the length of the front and were graciously placed in rows of three on the lower sleeve cuff. It was unseasonably cold on this night, hovering around 48 degrees in a weird, late winter echo. I decided to add a layer of thermal underwear to my outfit, sensing that the cold temperatures and the frigid wind off the river would be more than enough reason to sacrifice fashion for comfort. As I took one last look in the mirror before exiting our walk-in closet, I felt as if I would be able to pull off the multi-layered look. I turned the doorknob, and entered the kitchen, where Anne sat silently going over the mail. It was six o’clock.

“Are you going to get dressed?” I asked, quietly.

“What did you say?” was her reply.

My hearing was definitely going, to some degree. The most noticeable effect was that people couldn’t hear me talk, because I spoke so quietly due to the fact that my ears were so shot every sound was loud and present to me. I had to wear ear protection just to vacuum the floors. A clanging ping of colliding glasses in a restaurant would make me flinch. So, perhaps, she had not heard me.

“Are you going to the show tonight?”

“No, I’m not going to go. It’s business for you, right? You have to go, but I certainly don’t.”

“Wait, we always go to this show, and this year I’m actually playing the show, and my band is actually nominated. The night I actually play the TAZZIES is the night you are not going to go?”

“I didn’t get an outfit together…  You have to go already because you’re playing. its just a timing issue, and really….. I’ll help you in the ways I can, like shooting photos, but I don’t want to have to be put in the role of den mother, you know what I mean? It’s hard enough taking care of you, much less the kids.”

I was shocked. I had always agreed that they were my responsibility, not hers. Each time they were scheduled to be at the house for a practice, or a gig, or a video shoot, I cleaned every room of the house. I tried to make our daily life as invisible to the band as possible. The idea of getting into a huge argument about this didn’t sit well; I had a long night ahead of me and didn’t need the extra layer of tension.

“Ok, then. I gotta go.”

“Ok, I’ll see you later tonight.”

She stood up from the stool in the cold kitchen and gave me a kiss on the lips.

I parked the van two blocks from the outdoor theatre at Royal Park, where the TAZZIES were annually held. By the time I make it to the entrance, you can sense the weather was already wreaking havoc upon the event. The promoters were total pros, so I had no fear of a cancellation, but they were constructing an awning at this very last minute, to shelter the red carpet from what seemed to be inherent rain on top of the frigid temperature. Joss, Todd, and Adrian all met me at the front gate, when I pointed out the awning being hastily assembled.

“That’s not a good sign. Let me go find Caron and see what the deal is.”

After wedging myself in to ask Caron this question, who was answering questions to what seemed like half the attendees and musicians, I find out they are running an hour late. The event is set to go according to the schedule, once they open up the red carpet at 8pm. I head back out to the sidewalk to inform everyone just as Tabitha arrives to meet us. We had regaled her with tales of how much fun the event was, and she was curious and excited by the idea of a night out in town on this scale. She was decked out in a cool, spangly dress, and I reached out and gave her a beak.

“How’s it going? Pretty cold, huh? What are their plans?” Tabitha asked me, obviously looking to frame the evening where some time getting warm could be factored in.

“8pm is go time.”

“Hey, can we chill in the van for the time being?” asked Jocelyn; shivering.

“Yeah. It’s down on South Pier.”

As we walk away from the Park, Rudy is backed up into a deep shop window at a store next to the Park. He’s wearing the trademark Geneva uniform. A voice swelled up inside me a blurted out something I had not intended to actually say.

“You’re here early……”

“Uh- huhhhn………..”

I turn away in contempt. I had to listen to all of the whining and cajoling about even getting to the stage by 9.30 and here he was in the deep cold at 6.45? It was as if he knew he had stepped over the line, and was now taunting me to do something about it. That time would come. And before this night was through, there would be even more damning evidence to allow us to walk away from Rudy without fear of reprisal.

An hour later we depart the van and its confines, and brace against the chilling wind coming off of the river. When we make it to the gates of the Park, the night is under way, and we get ourselves into the formed line. There is a cadre of eight photographers, in some senses “playing” the role of the paparazzi, but the photos of yourself do matter to some degree on this night. Not so much in a way to further your career, that would be a faux pas at the TAZZIES. Rather, you wanted to contribute to the magic. As we made our way toward the front of the line, and the parallel sets of four photographers gracing the carpet, I noticed that I was standing between Jocelyn and Tabitha. There was no way, after our tet a tet earlier tonight, that I could let Anne see pictures of me flanked by Joss and Tabitha the night she stayed home. Right as we were being given the cue to walk the carpet, I reached back and grabbed Todd by the sleeve:

“Hey! Come up and be in the pics with Joss and Tabitha!”

Todd eased his way past the few people ahead of him, and he held each of them in an elbow lock he exaggerated by raising his hands for the last few steps. Cute, perfect; I thought to myself. And then something very nice happened, something I needed to stop and recognize as it was happening. A few rows behind me were James and Charlize Affeldt, the husband and wife duo I had spent five years in Bold Schwa with. They had left New London and relocated to western Massachusetts after the band had collapsed six years earlier, but with so many friends in the GSECAZ musical community, they made it a point to come down for the TAZZIES. I excused myself as I cut the line in reverse, so I could talk to them. And yet, even more so, I wanted Anne to see TAZZIE photos of me walking in with the Affeldt’s, and not anyone from Piercing. I suppose it was a conscious ploy to convince Anne I was serious about the music, and not the social possibilities of success. I was grounded as a musician; and desperately trying to allow none of this to be a detriment in my life with her.

“Hey man! Can I talk to you for a second?”

It was Tim Jones, who was stage managing the night. He was a fantastic drummer who played in several different groups at the same time. I turned to meet him as he handed me a copy of the itinerary.

“Hey Tim, how’s it going? Smoothly, I hope.”

“Well, the time is an issue, so were trying to get everybody on the same page regarding load in and set times. Do you guys have all the gear you need?”

“Yeah, I only brought one guitar amp because they said there would be backline guitar and bass.”

“Yes, we have one guitar amp, so you should be all set. Now, you guys go on at 10.15. I need all of your stuff set in the backstage area by 9.30. can you do that?”

“Of course, no worries from us man. We’ll be totally ready.”

“Cool, thanks. If you need me I’ll be in the backstage area or that front bar over there.”

He finished with a laugh, and then peeled away on a single heel turn. I knew what the staff was going through; hopefully it wouldn’t be a long night.I took another glance at the schedule and noticed that the award for “Best New Artist” was the second envelope of the night. The show was due to begin in about five minutes, so I began searching the Park for the other Piercing members. I finish three complete laps without setting eyes on a single one of them. Starting to feel a bit worried, I made my way out onto the street and began walking the few blocks around the Park; perhaps they were keeping warm in one of the bars, but I didn’t catch a glimpse of anyone. I head back to the park, a brisk wind settling between the classic brick architecture of the side streets of downtown New London.  I remind myself to feel good about preparing for the cold and having the extra layer of thermal underwear. Hoping to see them on the street parallel to the backstage of the Park, it suddenly dawns on me that if I had a cell phone, I  would simply text them and they would materialize out of thin air. And then I became possessed with an opposite, angry thought:

“I’m supposed to text these damn kids to let them know their career is going on?!?!?!?!?!”

“Fuck that” I thought to myself, as I rounded the corner to the entrance of the park, blasted with another strong dose of brutal wind. “Now I’m never going to get a cell phone.”

I wind my way through the encouragingly large crowd to stake out a spot among the beautiful, thin limbed trees that are the demarcation between the lawn caressing the stage, and the pebble gravel walkway further back. Once I was comfortable, I took a sip of beer, and the show began. The first act was a hip hop collaboration between several of the area DJ’s and four MC’s. it was a brilliant performance, sculpted just for this night, and truly established the depth of the possible. There was a full frequency, a pure spectrum of music being celebrated tonight, and it was exciting to be an integral part of it. The first award followed their performance- “Best Hip Hop Album”. One of the guest MCs from the opening act took home the TAZZIE, and the crowd roared in appreciation, especially after his dazzling freestyle moments earlier. I took that as a very good sign- in the cold and near sunset, the crowd still wanted to create the TAZZIE magic.

We were up for the second award, “Best New Band”. This was the one award I truly wanted to garner, mostly because you can only win it once, but moreso for Adrian. When Piercing attended the TAZ Awards a year earlier, the band had written about five songs and had yet to play its first show. But Class Ring were nominated in 2013 for “Best New Artist”, four months after they had replaced Adrian, and I couldn’t possibly forget the look on Adrian’s face as I stood next to him when the award was revealed. His face was scrunched up in a cyclonic fold, as if a sudden tension in his skull had wound his facial features into a pinwheel. He turned to me, looked me straight in the eye, the depth of his blue irises increasing with his frustration. Adrian reached out for his longtime girlfriend Elizabeth’s hand, and walked out. The image of his contorted face was the well I went to over the long winter doing PR for the singles. Winning a TAZZIE was not a “goal”, that’s not what they were about to begin with. But to see Adrian have the opposite reaction once Piercing took home the prize- I used that as fuel to keep pushing forward when there were no reciprocal emails coming in. when there were no gig offers. When the latest email blast to bloggers produced not a single review. We were making so much progress, that it was easy to play this game in my mind, to motivate me to keep moving forward. The shark that never sleeps. It’s was the joy on Adrian’s face when he finally had payback. Class Ring had basically won on the merit  of songs he had written. But I had still not heard or seen from anyone in the band.

“And the winner is ……. “PIERCING!!!!!”

Applause. Tangible excitement. But I was petrified, because I actually wasn’t one hundred percent sure they had said Piercing. I leaned over to the person standing next to me; I had no idea who he was, and said:

“Did they say Piercing?”

“Yeah, man! That’s you! Go go go!”

I could feel the nightmare beginning. I would be onstage, alone. In of itself, that was of no worry to I had begun my “career” in show business playing Moses in the Ten Commandments, at a Christian summer camp I attended for a week each summer during my junior high school years.  The program I signed up for during the summer before 9th grade was a theatre/musical  conference. Basically, hippie Christians from around Connecticut that had worked in musical theatre volunteered to spend a week in northwestpart of the state crafting a musical for the attendees to perform within that limited time frame.

At the final group rehearsal for the overture, I had let myself get a little too into the music. The entire conference was seated in a great hall, and the live band was cranking out the song. The band was made up of professional musicians, who were committed Christians, hoping to spread the good word through their art. I absolutely loved the environment, and committed myself wholly. On this day, perhaps a bit too much.

“With all your Heart, with all your SOUL

You can love the Lord

with all your HEART“

It was a catchy tune, something you might hear on side two of a cool country-rock LP from 1975. And I was dancing while seated, singing out loud, gesticulating with both hands, lost in the music. The director suddenly stopped everything, and said aloud, waving his hand palm down toward me:

“Ellery, you seem to be really into this song.”

“Yeah….”  I didn’t want attract this kind of attention, and had unwittingly done so.

“Why don’t you come up here and lead the whole group?”

“Do you mean, like, conduct the group?”

“No, no, no. just come up here and stand up and sing; like you just were.”

Hmmn. I wasn’t so sure about that. Why me? I thought, I was just, you know ‘giving energy’; that’s what the counselors were constantly asking for. I could feel two hundred eyes upon me. And I remember thinking to myself, right before I stood up to walk to the front of the hall:

“ok, ok. That’s what you want? I’m going to give it to you.”

My biggest obsession during the whole week was to be able to get a few minutes and play the house drum kit, which was gleaming in 1970’s red flake sparkle. It had hydraulic drum heads, a recent definition of the “serious drummer”, and the oil between the two plasticine layers produced subtle rainbows of color. I figured, if I went up there and did Sammy Davis Jr on their ass, I might parlay that into a few minutes playing that beautiful drum kit. I would eventually be right about that. But I had to pull it off first. I stood up, and walked slowly, to the front of the room. I remember looking completely left and right, across the entire assembled group. And then the drummer clicked off the beat.

“with all your HEART

with all your SOUL

you can find,

you can love the lord!

WITH ALL YOUR HEART!!!!!”

And I started doing Vegas leg kicks-first to the left, then to the right. I began racing down the length of the assembly, shaking hands, high fiving people; imploring them to SING! I had the most limited idea of what Vegas even was, other than Elvis died after being there. That was all I could discern from the front page of the New York Daily News, driving to see my paternal Grandmother in New Bedford, Massachusetts on August 16th, 1977. My father had always bought The News and The Post each morning; I didn’t know at the time that it was due to his gambling addiction. But Elvis’ death was on the front page of both papers that sat casually between my mother and my father on the front seat. I kept peeking over the headrests, trying to understand its importance. Who was Elvis? And why was Las Vegas so bad?  I was empirically drawing from a well of Jerry Lewis Telethons, and lonely Labor Days spent on the couch while the adults sedated themselves on the workers holiday.

“We’d like you to play Moses, are you up for it?”

I promised myself not to do the Vegas leg kick while I walked to the stage to accept the TAZZIE; alone. I even had a speech prepared just in case I might have to speak on this night. But as I took yet another step toward the stairs, and no other Piercing members were with me, I felt the old shudder of unfulfilled expectation. There was not a single person in attendance that wanted to see me give an “acceptance speech” for “Best New Artist” when I had been playing shows in New London since before the members of Piercing were born. The crowd, and the organizers wanted to see Jocelyn, and Todd, and Rudy, and Adrian bask in the delight of this fleeting moment. You could almost feel the deflation in the crowd when they realized I was the sole representative.

“I tell the kids at the Palace all the time- ‘there is no world out there waiting to validate you. You have to build your own world. Thanks you for letting us contribute to this world that you have built.”

I turned to my left, to make my way down the stairs, when I catch a glimpse of Jocelyn hurrying down the red carpet, toward the stairs. It’s the recurring nightmare- walking off the TAZZIE stage as she walks on to it. I reach out, give her a beak, and keep walking down the main aisle. If I had any balls, I would have walked all the way to South Pier, put the key in the vans ignition, and drove the fuck home. But I didn’t. We had to play tonight, and I didn’t walk out on a gig, no matter how incongruous the circumstance. I doubted whether anyone would even talk to me afterwards, so I simply took up residence in the same spot among the trees. Other than seeing Joss as I exited the stage, there was still no visible evidence of the Piercing members. The next award was an online vote by the music community for “Best Rock Band”. As much as Rudy poo-poohed the TAZZIES, Geneva was up for the award in this category. Suddenly, the next announcement caught my full attention.

“And the winner for Best Rock Band is ……………… Geneva Holiday!!!!!!!”

They had finally won a TAZZIE. I hadn’t seen Rudy for hours, and I was rather curious what their response to winning would be. Would they take a hardline punk stance? Or would they play the game?

“This is the happiest moment of my fucking life!!!” roared Rudy into the microphone, setting off an interesting feedback the sound engineers culled immediately.

When their name was called as this year’s recipient, I caught a glimpse of Rudy, sprinting toward the stage, his uniform black tie cascading back and forth across his chest. Peter Meeks was right on his tail, as Geneva was his brainchild. They were ecstatic about winning, which is exactly what the night derives its energy from; a willing consecration towards fun. And Geneva delivered, making self-deprecating remarks about how they had never won before and “Now we’re being recognized!” it was genius instant theatre, and I was supremely proud that they were Mystic kids. I was clutching our “Best New Artist” TAZZIE when Joss tapped me on the shoulder; one tap, quietly.

“We won!!!’

“Yeah. We did…” was my sullen reply

I didn’t even ask where they were, I didn’t want to know. Part of me just wanted the night to end in a cataclysmic rainstorm, but I knew that wasn’t a fair thought on any level. Anne wasn’t here. The kids seemed to have their own agenda that did not include me. I watched as Rudy and Peter raced down the stairs back into the crowd to make way for the next award. Somehow, Rudy had edged up against me in the row of trees where I was trying to remain invisible.

“Can you believe it??!?!?! I fucking won something! We won something! This is the first time in my life I have actually won anything!!!!”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, actually, the first thing you ever won in your life was “Best New Artist” for Piercing about five minutes ago. I chose not to say anything, other than a perfunctory “Congrats.” So he knew I was actually paying attention.

“I can’t be in a band with Rudy anymore”

And neither could I.

It didn’t even matter what Adrian or Todd thought. We had to take advantage of the out clause that defined our internal agenda regarding Rudy. He had brought this on himself.

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THIS IS NOT SLANDER Chapter Five

Little did I know that Whitney’s contact at Earcandy was the associate editor of the entire operation. When she told me of the opportunity, I imagined that she had friends who wrote sporadically for the site, which I’m sure she did. But Paul White wielded a singular authority within the context of the indie music world. He was the epitome of the modern mogul; a reflection of the best of the previous era, when one insightful person could shape a culture. This wasn’t John Hammond coming across Bob Dylan, but in the modern world where the internet articulated the possible audience, his voice was extremely influential. I exchanged charged emails with Paul for a few weeks, as he began to grasp the tenor of the Piercing story, which only months before we had collectively agreed was bereft of any context.

Eight weeks later, we had to explain ourselves, and for the most part, it was left up to me to express this message. I had signed up for this role when I agreed to work with Jocelyn, but I hadn’t anticipated this accelerated schedule. How could have anyone? We had played our third show in late December, with one of the local bands that had set the template for us to emulate. Blow-Up had been a Brooklyn band, treading the same streets Adrian was now, and coming to the conclusion they could achieve the same goal from their childhood home of New London, relocated at the height of the musical resurgence in town. Bold Schwa were getting regional and national attention at that point, in the mid Aughts-, and the Up’s escaped the madness of NYC without sacrificing their access to it. They were beginning to subscribe to a Post Generation concept, which defined the Station House aesthetic- that in that moment, we just happened to be in a singular place- there was no way to play a gig in NYC and go to work the next day if you lived in Iowa. We had an advantage.

And people in local bands were starting to capitalize on this. Piercing would become part of that cyclical endeavor in ways that would define a singular expression of what was possible, within the framework. Not only did I own the van we used to transport the music, Anne and I also owned another van, the two of us participating in travelling roads to define our art- myself with the various bands, she with her fine art photography which she showed at traditional New England Art Shows held throughout each summer.

One van for music, one van for photography. But now that Anne was running the family business, and was sacrificing her artistic schedule for practical purposes. Piercing inherited the blue photo van; with its high scoop top, allowing for the interior TV/VCR combo to be above the heads of the passengers. This served her well on the road doing art shows, as she could change into “show clothes” after getting the booth ready, while being able to stand up. For Piercing, it allowed Rudy and Todd to stretch their legs on the three hour ride to NYC for a show. Another hindrance removed.

Paul had decided to name Piercing as one of the Earcandy “Bands to Catch”, which featured a new group every six weeks, as something their audience should look into. With the volume of music being released, these websites carried enormous clout, and to have our very first single be featured created two new fronts. The first was something I told the band after a typical winter practice at Centraal- the furnace blasting for Jocelyn and a fan blowing air on Rudy so he didn’t overheat- we had two microclimates battling it out within the room as we attended to the musical details of the band.

“The Earcandy review will change everything. There can be no more last minute cancellations, no weddings, parties, or funerals that take precedence over a show. The only funeral we can cancel a show for is your immediate family.”

My hyperbole was supposed to actually bring the point closer to a clear realization; as the intent was not so much to draw a line in the sand about what we should tolerate, but more to add new definition to opportunities we had passed on. In September, we were offered a Brooklyn loft show that we couldn’t play because Jocelyn and Adrian had a wedding and a memorial to attend to. And there was Jocelyn’s last minute studio cancellation. The second part was the lynch pin- there was absolutely no point in continuing the band, with the press we were sitting on, to not make this the focal point of everyone’s personal daily lives. It had to become Piercing- and then anything else. The kids needed to be able to acquiesce to this new reality, otherwise it was going to be difficult for me to continue. I had been with Anne for twenty two years, and here I was asking her to support me getting back on the road, again. I was positive it would be the last chance I would have.

The second part had an interior element that I wanted to talk about with the band. “Certain levels of success are quite exciting, and as each of you experience these moments, you need to let them leave their mark, sort of what Joni said in “Blue”- ‘songs are like tattoos.’ Let the progress seep in deeply, and if we can all do that together, we’ll be in much better shape. Letting each little victory exist as a manner of course will lead to expectations that may not be met. And the people you will be most suspicious of taking away that feeling of progress, will be each other. As we move toward each goal, the people you will be most afraid of taking it away will be the members of this band. Don’t give in to it.”

I was met with a silence I had yet to hear at Centraal, which was almost always filled with sound, or at least noise. Hopefully they understood the message. Expectations need to be reserved solely for the work itself;  the next song, the next visual representation, the next flier, the next idea. Chasing success is a damning exercise; and I didn’t want any of us to witness the eventual dissolve into a social cold war which is so common when a band isn’t capable of articulating their potential.

We had scheduled a show with Boyfriend at the Warehouse in Mystic. After witnessing so many great shows there while I was in the studio with Borealis, I had a secret desire to play a gig in the old lumber yard building, not a DJ set- at least once. Everyone in town knew that the continued existence of the Warehouse was precarious at best- I had never been around an all-ages performance space that treated the performers like some 1960’s cattle call. Artists were never paid on time, and rarely the correct amount. Admission prices fluctuated as the need for revenue changed. You might pay $7 to see three local acts one month, and then $10 a few weeks later for two of the same acts. Everyone knew the business end of the operation was a shitshow, but the venue was spectacular. An open floor that was full with 70 people, and a U shaped balcony wrapping the whole room a story up, bringing in another 30 people, all the while creating an illusion from below that the room was infinite. I went all out with the local PR, stapling fliers to telephone poles in a way I hadn’t done in twenty years. The local paper had featured the show, and there was a palpable sense of excitement in town that Boyfriend and Piercing would deliver a classic night at the Warehouse. Earcandy had decided to run their review of our debut single with a short interview on the following Monday.

As we practiced for the show on the Thursday before, word started to leak out that we were in for a brutal blizzard, a February to remind us of 1978 in these parts.  The show would be cancelled on the Friday before the Saturday storm, and there was a bit of disappointment and unease, hearing about it. Inside, a small part of me realized that Piercing would never play a show at the Warehouse. It was a thought I needed to corral and then let be, the romantic notion of being a living part of the next Mystic Music Collective was not part of the master plan.

The power went out at 7pm that Saturday night. The winds were already sculpting the snowdrifts, and there was no logical way to imagine the show could have gone on; everyone trapped inside the Warehouse with no power. Instead, we were all safely ensconced inside our respective dwellings; hoping to safely ride the storm out. But a power outage in the winter is quite the opposite from the power being down during the warm months of the hurricane season. The temperature at our house dipped to a frigid 54 degrees overnight, and then plummeted as residual heat dissipated into the post-storm winter silence. Anne and I made it through the day with some inspired outdoor fire pit maneuvering, but as the sun set, and we entered a house with no power and no heat, we were settling into pure survival mode. How long could we sit dormant in a 44 degree room covered in blankets, with candle wax dripping? And yet, there was another element to the situation that made this a moment of pure essence-. the Eargum review was due to be posted Monday. Hopefully, we would have electricity back by then, so I could see the review as it was entering the digital realm. The blizzard was certainly a sign. “How patient are you willing to be?”

The power was restored at midnight between Sunday and Monday. I decided to binge on Live Aid performances from  1985, hoping to exhaust myself into a sleep that would last until the review was posted. It’s still somewhat mindblowing to think that Lionel Richie escorted Dylan, Keith, and Ron Wood off-stage after their horrible performance.  I also had a renewed appreciation for the electrical grid.

The review could not have been better. The new national spotlight that was shining on us for this brief moment in the culture created a seismic shift in the way the business of being in this band would exist. I found it easy enough to book Piercing locally, through the email channels that were not afforded to Thames. But there was no way to be prepared for our new reality. Every single day for two weeks the inbox was flooded with requests- from clubs looking to book us, to publications wanting to write about us, to filmmakers who wanted to use some of our music in their film. The cacophony was as intense as any modicum of success I had found as an artist.  And yet, it was almost effortless to keep in contact with the various interests. I had already been committed to a daily routine of promoting the band, but now I was spending anywhere from two to eight hours each day, every day, to keep up with the sudden interest. The nature of indie music had become so fierce, so dense, that unless you were swimming, you were busy dying. We had to become the shark that never sleeps.

Later that night, I received a phone call from Jocelyn. “I’m worried about Todd. He’s living with a bunch of dealers, and he’s siphoning off their supply. And they are letting him” she told me.

This was one of my lines in the sand, something I told them I would walk away from the band over. But the Earcandy review had run on this day. How was I going to leave this potential behind? I had dealt with the issue multiple times over my career, and even had my share of blow outs with band members accusing me of dragging down momentum with my own decisions. But this was different. Jocelyn had an acute sense of time and place- and she knew that waiting until a good review from Earcandy to reveal this would keep me from upholding my position. She was quite conscious, from the years of recording together, how much this opportunity with Piecing meant to me. And she played it perfectly. I was rather impressed on recollection. I was secretly hoping that her acumen could work to our advantage.

“I’m going to leave it up to you to handle Todd. I won’t make an issue of it if you get him to be under control, and for him to consider the much bigger picture. It’s up to you to keep him on the straight and narrow. Do you feel okay about taking on that responsibility?”

I think she knew any other answer may have determined an outcome in no one’s favor, except for what she did say to me:

“I can do it.”

The comments section at Earcandy was one of the areas where the modern cultural battles raged. I remember Jeremy showing me the comments section on one of the big blogs when All in the Family had released their debut LP. Some of the remarks were scathing, and it took me by surprise because their debut was one of the records I had most fully enjoyed in years, and that had very little to do with knowing Whitney or Phoebe.

“That’s the sign of success, now. When people are anonymously trashing your hard effort- it’s the new compliment.” Jeremy enlightened me, with the spittle that was so often caught between his lower lip and top row of his teeth fully evident.

I certainly believed him, as he had spent a year and a half in Brooklyn hanging with Whitney, Phoebe,and their extended circle of friends. So I decided to closely watch the comments on the Piercing article.

There wasn’t much activity there, which underscored how difficult this effort would be, regardless of our inherent advantages. But one comment of the few gave me quite a bit of validation, as the criticism had been addressed before the Earcandy was even published.

“I’ll give them a listen, but I won’t be surprised if I never hear about them anywhere else ever again. Y’all have a tendency to declare a new artist a “Band to Catch” who actually isn’t even at a level of the slightest buzz yet”.

We had the long form video for “Massive/Spirit” already in the can. We were prepared to capitalize on the initial interest in the band. And the commenter would become an ally of Piercing over the next year.

Our first show after the review was in town, at the local all ages hall that had been hosting shows since Thames booked a four band bill there in December of 1991. That night was the next iteration of the Mystic New Music Fest, which ran for five years showcasing the area bands at a variety of venues. This night was also something of a festival, as the rhythm section brothers of Class Ring wanted to build a small memorial in their yard for their recently deceased dog, who would actually walk the short distance into downtown from their house, navigating the crosswalks, and chill in various stores for hours on end.

Locals and visitors alike were so taken by the fact that this dog had become so sociable, it seemed like the right thing to do. I helped organize the night, and soon came to regret that decision. If I had expected any help from the bands playing the show to actually set up the PA, lights, and run the door, I was being nostalgic for 1991. Times change, and the group mind that we had all so willingly subscribed to in our twenties was not present in this next generation. By the time I had singlehandedly unloaded the contents of our van into the hall and onstage, Jocelyn, Jeremy, and Todd pulled up, and offered their assistance.

“yeah, we’re all good….. everything is already inside….”

I was talked into one of the locals being the “MC” for the evening. As I was always looking for ways to get people to participate, I wholeheartedly agreed. I asked “Where is the script? Or is he just going to wing it up there?” My trepidation was the undercurrent of resentment toward Piercing from a segment of the local musicans after the Earcandy review came out. You could sense within certain segments of our world that there was a righteous indignation that this kind of praise was being heaped on us. Many a Mystic musician felt they deserved such attention, and that it was being wasted on Piercing. In our rush to gather songs for the Piercing live set, Adrian had decided to revisit a Class Ring song that he had written- and we took his guitar part and wrote a completely new song around the riff, making sure to stay as far away from the original as possible. Adrian approached the Class Ring members about his imagined reworking of the song, and they replied that it was of no concern to them.

And yet, after the Earcandy review, the Class Ring bass player wrote on our Facebook page: “hey Piercing- Class Ring wants their bass line back.” Rudy was livid hearing about the post, as he wasn’t active on Facebook. But I don’t think Rudy was prepared for the MC to use that same line, as he introduced us- the first band of the night.

“Hey Piercing, Class Ring wants their bass line back!”

His act was supposed to be similar to a comedy roast, which at the time were making a moderate comeback. I thought it was incredibly immature, and revealed a specific jealousy; which we were not perpetuating at all. I took one look at Rudy after the comment, and thought I was going to have to restrain him.

“Fuck it,” Rudy said, “let’s fucking open with it!”

We had decided beforehand to not even play “Age of Resent”, and bring any possible animosity into the equation. But now we were being called out on it.

We were set to open with “Massive”, but I thought, ‘Yeah, let’s battle it out here, it may come in handy over the next six months to assert that we were here to stay, and were not afraid of criticism.’

The five of us walked onstage, slowly, deliberately. There were a good hundred people at 7.30 on a cold March night to see us in a smoke filled hundred year old hall. Once we plugged in, and looked to each other for the start, Adrian waved his hand.

“Fuck it, let’s not give in to this bullshit, let’s just play our set.”

As Morrissey so succinctly stated – We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful.

We had a full band practice the next day, as we had all agreed to practice every weekend that Adrian was in town, regardless of prior commitments.  There was an expected lethargy, following a long night, but I could sense a change in each of their individual emotional connections to the band. There was now tangible proof that we had all made the correct decision in forming Piercing. This was the crucial moment I had been squinting to recognize ever since our first practice. And opening the band email the following morning served to cement that inspiration- a PR company in NYC wanted to talk about possibly working with Piercing to support the next single. As difficult as it was to push the first single to labels without any press, the press was actually opening doors I had not even remotely considered at this stage. Keith Taylor had been working in the indie world for years, beginning as so many do on his college’s radio station, where he would spend the last years of the century. After a few non-starts on a date and time we could mutually talk, a phone call was set up for the evening of Wednesday the 13th, at 7pm.

I was pacing along the long rug in front of my dj set up in the studio, drinking a warm beer, waiting for the phone to ring. I had a sudden pang of nervousness- “maybe I shouldn’t be having a beer right now?”

But if this was going to be rock and roll, and not some cool kids club, I think one beer before I talked to Keith wouldn’t disengage his interest in Piercing. And it didn’t. But my approach to the meeting would begin to haunt me months later. I felt we were literally on the verge of getting to the next level- why else would he even be calling? Why should I leave anything to chance? I decided to explain as much of the complete picture as possible, discussing my time and experience in each band I played with before Piercing, and this seemed to pique his interest- that this was obviously no ordinary group of kids trying to find their way. He asked me what our goals were, and I stated that we “wanted to sign with Year Zero” the boutique label that continued to thrive in these difficult times. YZ0 had released seminal records for decades, and had even survived a dearth of interest in their bands during the musical depression of the Aughts, but rebounded recently in a manner few labels can attest to. But that was the GOAL, not what was necessarily the next step.

“What we really need is to sign with “sound Vision” (which was one of the many small independent labels I had unsuccessfully shopped the “Massive/Spirit” single to during the previous autumn). “Yes, they are the hot label for a band making music like you guys do. Tell you what, keep me posted about your NYC gigs, and we’ll keep in touch.” We would exchange emails occasionally over the next seven months, but I would never meet Keith in person.

The show offers were the most interesting element of the new shift. Clubs in Manhattan and Brooklyn were now asking us to play, the inverse of constant emails begging for a chance to perform, or heaven forbid, a return to hand delivering the PR. We ended up booking seven shows over the next eight weeks, a considerable haul when we had played a grand total of five shows since our inception eleven months earlier. The second night of that stretch was in Bushwick, at one of the local coffee house / performance spaces that were gaining so much traction all over Brooklyn at the time. I didn’t have time to genuflect about our role within gentrification, as I needed to focus everything on maintaining our public perception. Jeremy had set up the show with a local opener, Piercing, and Boyfriend. Fortunately for us, while there were some snow piles on the street corners, it was unseasonably warm; which helped bring out a decent crowd. At one point, I had to head back to the van to get a replacement guitar for Jeremy, who broke some strings tuning prior to the Boyfriend set. Sticking with my age old routine, I insisted that we pack our gear into the van after our gig at the earliest possible chance. On my way through the quiet, sloping streets of Bushwick, I couldn’t help but think, “What if these people see me as the enemy?” Not that I was fearful- far from it. And yet this notion that their neighborhood- beautifully manicured miniature city lawns, with decorative flair built up over decades, were being altered by my presence. As if they were being forced to accept me. Living in a tourist town, I was constantly welcoming people- but that night I felt like an intruder.

We took our scheduled practice night off, to rest and be ready for the next show in NYC, this time our Manhattan debut, on the LES where I had lived through so many weekends with Greenmanville.

Bold Schwa also gathered much of their steam playing the LES, especially tonight’s venue, Cabinets. In the early 2000’s, photo blogs of the newly vibrant NYC indie music scene fueled its resurgence. There were difficulties finding a way in those early  internet days to host massive photo files, but a handful of ambitious artists who understood the implications of the new media began to be scene shapers of their own accord. When Bold Schwa first was featured in one of those photo blogs, it became much easier to book shows in NYC. Without those tastemakers, things would have evolved in a much different manner for their entire career. Tonight would also mark another first for the band- Tabitha Williams was a young videographer/photographer working on a short film who wanted to use a portion of “Massive” on the soundtrack, and she came to meet us at Cabinets.

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THIS IS NOT SLANDER Chapter Three

Following the somewhat triumphant debut of our live show, I sensed it was time to head into an actual studio and give Whitney something to hear. There was no way I was going to be able to capture the true sound of this band at Centraal, so I got in touch with my friend Jimmy Fiero, who operated a small studio in Middletown where Greenmanville, Bold Schwa, and Borealis had recorded or done some mastering .

Jimmy was the perfect producer for a band at our level- finding out what the group was capable of within the context of their development. The first of two scheduled nights was exceptional, the band getting tracks down in record time, and the direction from Fiero being implemented immediately. We ended the four hour session with all of the instruments recorded and dialed in- in addition, scratch vocals from Todd and Jocelyn were recorded on both tracks. We all agreed that the next session would be to finalize the vocals, and to possibly get the entire mixing slate done, bringing us in at budget and accomplishing the goal of having a three song demo to begin showcasing the Piercing sound.

When I arrived at Jocelyn’s Mom’s house to pick her up for the second session, she wasn’t waiting for us in the yard. That wasn’t particularly uncommon, but with so much riding on the night, I thought she might be agitated to the point of uncomfort; anticipating singing her first final vocal session in a real studio.  Jimmy had an old fashioned light in the studio with “RECORDING” written on it that she had taken a photo of the night before, and posted online. I thought that was encouraging, as we would more than likely need to boost the social media aspect of our existence in shrift time.  I hated to honk the van horn to get someone’s attention- it has always felt so rude in a residential neighborhood, so Rudy volunteered to call Jocelyn on his phone.

“Hello…?” Rudy drawled into the cell.

We could hear through the static of loud voices that something strange was going down, something that we shouldn’t be privy to, and that this was a backward moment for Jocelyn. Rudy turned off his phone.

“She’s not coming tonight…..”

“What?!??!” I replied. “What the fuck is going on?”

“Something bad man, I don’t really know…..”

I had an overwhelming urge to turn the van around, drive back to Mystic, and say “Thanks, but no thanks……” How do you cancel a studio session at the actual last minute? Jocelyn was living in her Mother’s house, with her boyfriend Marcus, which I was sure created its own inherent hazards. But Jimmy was running a business, not some demo studio or home recording nirvana, like Steven. We were going to have to pay Jimmy for the session whether we showed up or not, so I put the van in drive and headed up the rural highway toward Middletown, without her. Little did I know at the time, it was the first glimpse of how the band would almost always exist in a fragmented form.

Upon arrival, Jimmy immediately noticed that Jocelyn wasn’t with us. I could sense a slight pang of disappointment in his voice, as if he may have been waiting all day to record her singular sound.

“What’s up with Jocelyn?” said Jimmy

“A domestic issue. She won’t be here tonight. Which means, we will probably have to book a third night to finish everything….  perhaps we can get the bulk of the mixes programmed in, and when we come back… she can add final vocals and we can mix accordingly.” I replied, trying to mitigate anger and opportunity.

“That sounds like a plan.” Jimmy responded with his usual delicate nature- which kept everyone focused on the task at hand. Jimmy was right, let’s not get sidetracked by inconvenience or interruption. Keep moving forward. It was a lesson we were lucky to learn at such an early stage.

The night went by in a blur without incident, as Jimmy rolled through the three songs with, professional ease. We had the bulk of the mixes set, and we had a burn of the tracks to listen to on the hour long ride home. Salvaging the session was paramount, and fortunately Jimmy had an opening two days later so we could bring Jocelyn in for final vocals and to clinch the mixes.  I had to come up with $200 of my own money to cover the third session, which I was confident we would be able to recoup, having made $220 at our very first show. I had rarely let myself think within a band situation that there would be enough income to offset the expenses, and yet with  this group that detail seemed completely different. Perhaps it was the absence of the street gang mentality- we were all together to be professional, and not simply a sequential hobby that might sprout wings. Ours was a singular determination, even at this early stage, that we all seemed to share. It made Jocelyn’s cancellation all the more puzzling.  I asked her about it when I called to schedule the third session.

“You don’t want to know anything about it.”

There was a certain totality to her vacuous answer. For a moment, I was absolutely petrified- was she hinting that something in my own personal life had leaked over to her own personal life? I had to come to terms that the possibilities of that were remote, and that we were also not quite as transparent with each other as I had previously thought. I was fine with that development; as long as the music and the band her primary focus.

The third session with Jimmy went as well as I had imagined the second session would have gone. Jocelyn was fully prepared to sing, and get her ideas across in a moment’s notice. That night reaffirmed to me that the entire foundation I had built with Jocelyn, and Todd to a certain degree, was strong enough to get us through the momentary distractions, which I well knew would be voluminous. With Jimmy, we had captured a raw version of our sound, and we could now begin to imagine what it should be, at least musically. There was not a conversation to be had as the five of us put the burned disc into the stereo and hit repeat. Four passages of our first EP culminated as Adrian, Todd, Rudy, and I crossed the drawbridge in the center of town; it’s grid platform ringing out under the weight of the van.

We had decided as a group that Jocelyn would dictate the image of Piercing, not necessarily what people would wear onstage, but the cover image for the EP was the first test of her acumen, visually.

We exchanged a few days of emails, when she came to her conclusion:

“What I envision is something like a Lichtenstein comic panel- “a woman in distress”.

“Somewhat Lynchian?” was my reply.

“Not directly, but an image that conveys there is so much more going on. I think it’s fitting for where we’re coming from.”

That night, I began to pour over back catalog work from Anne’s portfolio; thinking there must be a singular image within that would catapult our cover to completion. The very first picture I pulled out of the twelve archival storage boxes was a shot of June Geneva, one of Anne’s longtime models. For that particular shoot, Anne had a concept loosely based around “What Price Fame?”  Since she had hundreds of test prints of June over the years, she was able to cheaply set up a photo shoot where June was in a room plastered with photos of herself, trapped within her own fame. This particular picture had each element Jocelyn was looking for; June with hands clasped over her face, showing a weave of fingers, her bowed head, and nothing else but beautiful photos of herself. I immediately felt this was the perfect image- “A Woman in Distress”. Black and White. Stark. Produced by our circle of artists. A Mystic thing. But I insisted to myself that I must look through each of the twelve boxes, the chances that my initial intuition was correct seemed to be too confident for the work at hand. Three days later, that very first photo I pulled would be chosen by Jocelyn as the cover of our first recording.

We released the EP on a website designed and run by Malthus, and printed a small batch of 200 CDR’s to send out to whatever media outlets we could approach, and mostly to give away for free to the people who made it out to our shows. “Be prepared to give your music away for free” was something I remembered empirically from an early internet diatribe about where the business of selling music was going. That was in 2002. This was ten years later. Malthus took the Anne photo and put it through his machines; getting an incredible crop that only added more tension to the concept. He also found the font that would help define the Piercing image, a singular grace sitting between the future and the near past, which we would use on every subsequent show flier, cover design, and PR kit. In some senses, we were enacting the next stage of The Infectious Reality, where I would have joined Todd, Jocelyn, and Jeremy- as the drummer for their third EP. That never materialized in the wake of their splintering. I asked Jocelyn about it one night after a Piercing practice.

“What really caused you guys to break up? I never was really able to put it together…. ”

“I just didn’t like the direction the music was heading, especially Jeremy’s newest songs. I felt that TIR was being pulled in three separate directions, and none of them really appealed to me as a long term, viable option. And I am so happy with Piercing, it’s exactly as I imagined when I approached you”

Some local reviews started to trickle in, and that was when I realized what a slough this was going to be; creating a media groundswell for a band that was simply one of thousands of groups using the same channels to gain some traction in the indie music world. The landscape was dominated by a few major music blogs- similar to the era when Thames were going through the same PR machinations. But instead of Rolling Stone and Spin as the polar opposite directives, today it was web based giants Hellhound and EarCandy. And yet, every review noticed the presence of Jocelyn on the recordings, a trait that would continue with each subsequent release. As good as the band was musically, as much prowess as the musicians brought to the table, it was her voice that made all of the difference. We collectively knew this, and it seemed in this early moment that people we didn’t know could sense the same thing. I decided then to make sure that getting Jocelyn in the proper place to achieve maximum effort was paramount. Managing the band as well as being in the band was starting to fall into place. I found the perfect Gemini situation for me to exist in- as I began to think of myself as two different people within the context of the group- the drummer, and the manager.

I decided to send the songs to Whitney after a few weeks of debating when would be the right time. The more I pondered it, the more I literally didn’t know when the right time was, so I may as well take that chance- she had asked to hear us after all- yes?

“hey! im listening right now, so cool! v dino jr SY etc, but if kim sang like gwen stefani, right?! these demos are rly solid but you guys should maybe get someone to produce for you in a studio. Massive is really really cool. i love jocelyn’s voice! if you guys feel like going to new york, you should record with my dear friend michael. he’s done every all in the family recording, and has been doing a bunch of other great stuff – get on a cool label! Go on tour! Etc etc! michael is expensive but amazing… I’ll get you in touch if you want. very cool stuff, send me more when you have it.”

I was a bit taken aback by Whitney’s response. I knew we were onto something good, but to head into Brooklyn and record a debut single within six months of the band’s inception was an acceleration I had not anticipated. I found Michael and his studio online, and sent them a simple email request, referencing Whitney in proportion. They got back to me promptly- the very first evidence of how professional they were.

“Whitney is a great friend of ours, and if she recommends a band, we always look into it. We have a basic schedule for a single ten hour session at $750. Normally, we can record and mix one song in that time frame, but sometimes, if the band is prepared, we can get two in during the same ten hours. It all depends on how well the band can execute in the studio.”

I was thrilled they actually responded to our inquiry, but coming up with $750 was going to be pretty tough. The kids in the band had no money, except for Rudy, who seemed unlikely to part with any for a “frivolous” recording project. I was confident his response would be that we could do the same thing locally, for much less. But this was a real chance to solidify the group once Adrian left for Brooklyn- he would be living there as we began to craft an identity within the New York indie scene. We could become bilateral- if everything worked out efficiently. We would have the connections from the studio, and some instant credibility, in the sense that our PR could be bolstered by the fact that we recorded with Michael, and not some home studio which was the ubiquitous reality of the modern age.  It was too much for me to pass up. I sent an email to one of my very best friends- a regular at the Palace for over 15 years.

Robert Spargo’s nickname was “Folk Mass” at the Palace. Many of the regulars at the shop had similar nicknames, based around their collecting obsession. There was “Bobby Byrd”, who was not a funk fan, but a Byrds collector- Blues Dave sought out first pressings of early blues. Beatle Bob, GaryU2, REMCharles- this list was endless after thirty years of being in business. Robert had always been kind toward my drive for musical aptitude. More than once over the years he offered to help financially, within the context of a current musical ambition. I had always refused, as his friendship meant far more to me than money. But Piercing was different; perhaps that was why I had waited all of this time to ask for his assistance. If the Folk Mass could loan us $500, the remaining five of us should surely be able to come up with $50 dollars apiece to make up the difference. Even if the band imploded after recording with Michael, the experience would be worth much more than $50. I knew this for a fact, as during the Thames days, Brent’s parents fronted us thousands of dollars to afford to record with Russell Johnson. Those were some of the very best days and nights of my life, so if borrowing $500 from Robert could facilitate that for Jocelyn, Rudy, Todd, and Adrian, it was well worth the risk. Even if I had to repay all of that money myself.

After procuring the investment from the Folk Mass, and getting everyone in the band to contribute their $50, I emailed Richard at Stormy Harbour, the business side of the operation. He and Michael were partners in the studio, and while Richard was an exceptional producer/engineer in his own right, Michael handled the bulk of the day to day recording and Richard handled their finances.  He offered us Saturday the 22nd of September- two weeks away. Following several phones calls, emails, and Facebook messages, I was finally, after full day of communication, able to get the members of Piercing committed, so I could confirm the date with Stormy Harbour. It was the beginning of a routine that would dominate each day of the week for me during the next year and a half. The dynamic had totally shifted.

The attempts to get in touch with the four of them illustrated that. Previously, if I didn’t hear back from one of then about a practice night, there was little at stake other than our forward momentum. But Michael and Richard at Stormy Harbour were professionals, and fortunately, I had plenty of experience dealing with people in the recording field. Once we agreed to borrow capital, and follow through for our connected friends efforts on our behalf, everything was at stake.

Jocelyn, Todd, Rudy, and I left Mystic at 10.30 am for a scheduled 2pm session in Brooklyn. Adrian had already moved to the city three weeks earlier, and had the luxury of a morning that was not delineated by a commute. I had done my time in NYC when Thames reformed as Greenmanville; so the drive in and out of the city was no big deal to me. I had driven there and back hundreds of times, and even learned a secret “no toll” route to any of the five boroughs. As I drove down the Hutchinson Parkway making our way in, I thought of Adrian grabbing his guitar case, opening the door on Montrose, and taking a left down the street toward Broadway. The kid had been in Brooklyn for three weeks and yet, there he was, just as so many others were, plying their dream on the street. As much as I wanted Adrian to stay in Mystic, this was the best scenario for him as a writer, which would certainly benefit the band. I admired him for it. The longest time I spent in the LES was four days, exiting up the 95 corridor to work and make some money while playing with Greenmanville.  This slender reed was just twenty years old, and had a drive that was pure determination. Adrian and I had been friends for years, with him telling me stories of teenage pranks that had landed him in jail from the moment I met him. We were always open and convivial with each other, and I instinctively knew I had to make a greater effort to enhance our relationship while he was living 177 miles away.

When we arrived at Stormy Harbour, I was somewhat surprised that it was so far inside the building. We had to descend two flights of stairs, toward a long corridor that turned left at the end of the hall. I was feeling a bit claustrophobic, which hardly ever happened to me. When people ask how tall I actually am, I always like to say “five foot, one” in deference to the Iggy Pop song; and yet most people don’t catch on. When I then say “I’m five foot, five”, it frames my lack of ever feeling that the walls might be closing in. But as we opened the door to the actual studio, another long corridor greeted us, this one filled to near capacity with seven full drum kits, each descending tom size stacked upon the bass drum, with cymbal sets balanced precariously on the top. I began feeling as if maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, and that maybe I should have done more research. It was a brief moment of paranoia. As we entered the main studio, you could see Michael and Richard’s genius on display in the incredible Feng Shui execution that was their personal work space. Every inch was meticulously maintained, in a room no bigger than the Palace in Mystic. Amplifiers were stacked four high and three deep in the unusable bathroom. The isolation booth Rudy and I were to be mic’d up in was about four feet by eight feet with a slant on the corner facing the engineer, so those in isolation could see the control board, and the other band members. Michael believed in getting live takes of all of the instruments, then adding only the most necessary  complimentary tracks, while creating a vocal spectrum as intense as the need for getting the band in one take.

Michael greeted us with a story about his lone visit to Mystic.

“So, you guys are from Mystic. I went up there for a weekend with Whitney about two years ago.”

“Really?” I replied. “What did you think of the big town?”

“I loved it. We didn’t go out and do the social thing, but we did swim at this pond on a local farm that left a lasting impression.”

“Kittles Farm?” we all responded in unison.

“Yeah, that was it! There was this kid who was doing reverse back flips off of the diving board secured to a floating dock.”

“Brian Capuano!” the five of us shouted in misplaced harmony- our totality surprised Michael.

Yes. Even Michael had his exposure to the Mystic kids. They were unforgettable. This was the mantle we had begun to articulate with Piercing, this notion that it was now our responsibility to capitalize on all of the advantages the people before us had carved out. And one unique link was that I was there. I had been on the “Cruise to Nowhere” ferry shows in the ‘80’s, I was there for the resurgence of the local rock clubs in the early ‘90’s. I was at Station House, I was at Saturn Hall. I was at the Portersville Collective. It made sense that I would be here for the final quest for the grail, a moment if only briefly, where the efforts of our inspiration were exalted in the musical culture. Piercing was straddling an irreplaceable opportunity, as many before them had.

As I began to set up my drums in the isolation booth, Michael noticed that this was not a commonly seen drum set.

“Hey man- where’d you get these drums?” he asked with genuine inquisitiveness.

“Back in 1990, I went in to the local music shop just to pick up some sticks, or something. The drum guy, who had sold me my very first drum set- the Stewart Copeland Imperialstar, complete with 4 octobans-..”

Michael let out a hearty laugh that interrupted my statement. I was hoping he would get the reference, hoping that he would realize I didn’t take myself seriously, but that I did take the music seriously.

“Sonor had just sold their distribution license a week earlier. The previous distributor was still sitting on a bunch of stock, so they were offering these kits at incredibly low prices. If I could come up with fifteen hundred dollars before the next day at closing, I could get a Sonor kit for half price. At the time, I simply had to make it happen. The funny thing is, these drums are older than most of the kids in the band. Todd and Adrian….  Joss was a year old, I think, when I bought these. Rudy was about five years old.”

“Wow, that’s an incredible sequence of events.” replied Michael, a telling response that began to reveal his depth of what musicians were going through combining their day to day lives- making money to exist- and making the time, having the energy, and the mental acuity to actually write original rock music. And perform it in a live setting. To be able to make succinct recordings. All artists come up against the same terms of commitment, but Michael and Richard were illustrating a new breed to me. As I finished setting up the last of the cymbals, and as a Broadway Brooklyn sweat began to seep in, we had come to a moment that we had built for ourselves. It was all up to us.

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Cacophony of Anniversary

In the summer of 2013, my dad convinced me that I needed an iPhone for everyday life. Previously, the mobile phone that Rich and I brought with us, if we went out of town, in one of our two 1999 Ford Econoline vans, in case we needed to call AAA, was a Trac-Fone. And you couldn’t really text with a Trac-Fone. My dad, a retired USN helicopter pilot,  was an early adopter of technology. When I finished school and moved back to Mystic in the summer of 1990, he had a corded Motorola phone in his car, that was in the middle console, nestled between the drink holders. He loved to call ahead to his destination that he was “on his way”, and when he was fifteen minutes out.

The first text message between my dad and I was on 25 July 2013 at 12:07 pm:

LG:       “Michelle: Running a little late: be there by 12:45 to 1. Please acknowledge. Thanks, Dad.”

MG:     “Got it…that’s fine.”

It was a Thursday, and I had been at work since 9 am at the Mystic Army Navy in Downtown Mystic. I had been co-owner with my dad of our two stores- one in Downtown Mystic, the other in the Olde Mistick Village, since September 2010, when his business partner (also his best friend from the old neighborhood), had retired after 17 years. They reached an agreement, and then my dad made me the co-owner. There was an understanding between the both of us that I would be taking over the two stores, when he was ready to retire. That  day seemed far off at the time.  I felt more than ready for the future change of ownership.

I had been raised in the family business, A Stitch in Time Boutique in Downtown Mystic, opened when I was five years old. Although we lived in Noank, my sister Maria and I would take the afternoon school bus that routed to Downtown Mystic, and we would get off at Pearl Street, and walk across the street to the store, where our mother worked the final shift that ended at  6 pm. Maria and I loved being at the store, and “helping” the customers, and would thrill to the attention that ensued: “Oh, I want the little lady to show me the silver rings in the case…” Our summers were spent at the store, working as a family. By the time I was fourteen, I was on a  schedule, and have been ever since.  As I was back in Mystic that summer of 1990 , I resumed working at Stitch in Time for my mom. Rich and I started our relationship then, and I found myself swept up in the excitement of an intense art scene in Mystic, that he was integral in, and I became enamored with photography.  In 1995, I was fortunate to gain the employ of the professional photographer, Rollie McKenna of Stonington, until she retired in 1998. At that point, I joined the newest family business, Mystic Army Navy that my dad had started in 1993, to fill the void, post- divorce, where my mom “got the store” (Stitch in Time), and my dad “got the house” (in Noank), and “got the boat”.

I had invested in the family business. I was involved in every aspect of helping to run the retail business with my dad and his business partner on a daily basis, but mostly I was chief negotiator between the two Navy veterans, each stationed at their preferred store, my dad was at the downtown store(DT), and his partner at the Olde Mistick Village store(OMV). By the summer of 2013,  the business was getting ready to celebrate its twentieth year in business, and we all felt a sense of relief, especially after surviving the tumultuous Hurricane Sandy catastrophe in October 2012, when the DT store flooded up from the floorboards as a tidal surge from Long Island Sound forged into the Mystic River. The DT store had to be emptied, and all of the merchandise relocated  to the OMV store.  The store had to be bleached and dehumidified, and then rebuilt,  and it had been the most difficult professional experience thus far. However, our staff performed on a high level; it was all hands on deck in true Navy fashion, and we were successfully back on track.

Little did I know that three months after getting the iPhone, my father would pass away on 27 October 2013. The five day sequence leading up to his death, is burned into my memory, and I realized that this year, 2019,  marks the six year anniversary, and as such, the days and dates are lined up in the exact order as they happened. I went into my iPhone for the first time to look at all of the text messages between us, which are all still there, buried at the bottom of my phone.

Prelude on Monday 21 October 2013: 12:46 pm

LG:       “Michelle: Don’t forget I have an endoscopy tomorrow at the WHVA (West Haven VA) hospital. Not sure about Wed/Thurs/Fri at MANS (Mystic Army Navy Store): depends what they find? I’ll keep you posted. Love, Dad.”

MG:     “The store will be fine..Don’t worry there, and try to keep the worry component down..Keep me posted tomorrow.”

Tuesday 22 October 2013:

My scheduled day off, and I had a photoshoot planned at 2 pm, with a brand new model: a veritable “Greek God” that Rich had enthused about to me, Titus Abad, who happened to be a most ardent fan of Slander, Rich’s latest band. Titus and I were going to shoot at the Greek Revival Mansion in Old Mystic, the “House of 1833”, run as a Bed and Breakfast  by Evan Nickles, a longtime Mystic entrepreneur. Titus was 20, and had participated in some photo shoots at school, but had moved back to Mystic, and I was confident that we would hit it off. It was a great shoot.  I didn’t text with my dad that day, but we talked on the phone. It had been a month of mostly minor physical discomfort: he thought he had an ulcer and wanted to get it checked out at the VA.  He was in fair spirits, but I could tell that he was worried. He had just turned 70 on September 19th, and out of nowhere really, he seemed to taking the birthday milestone hard. He was the most vivacious person I have ever known, so to not be up on the mountain, that was so unlike him.

Wednesday 23 October 2013 at 3:52 pm

MG:     “Any news on the biopsy and cat scan?”

LG:       “They found one small polyp in my stomach & sent it out for biopsy.  Results due in today with cat scan results.  Went to see my GI (Gastro-Intestinal) guy here in New London this morning, and I’m going to let him take over the GI stuff. West Haven just too far away.. will keep you posted. Love, Dad.”

My dad loved the West Haven VA Hospital: he had a procedure there in December of 2011, unrelated to his current state, and he always raved about the legendary treatment he had received there. But Pat’s schedule with her new job, which required some serious travel, would have an impact for his future medical appointments, which is why he was considering the local doctor.

We talked on the phone a lot as I was running the two stores , while he was convalescing at his house between doctor’s appointments this week. He was still involved in daily store business, and we would discuss store banking, and other pressing matters. That night he and his girlfriend Pat went out to a scheduled dinner in Providence, and attended a theater fundraiser. They got dressed up in fancy clothes, and from the photographs I later saw, he looked fantastic on the outside, with a big smile on his face.

We’re both Red Sox fans, and that year, our team was playing in the World Series. Later that night, we texted at 9:41 pm

LG:       “Cards making too many errors!!!
“Triple Play! Wow!”

MG:     “We like this lead, but Sox have to realize that no lead is safe..”

LG:       “Agree!”
“PAPI!!!!!!”

MG:     “Love it!!”

LG:       “Spectacular!!!”

MG:     “Awesome!”

This back and forth between us was during Game One at Fenway Park, and the Sox won 8-1.

We were excited.

Thursday 24 October 2013 at 1:05pm

I was at work at the downtown store, and I texted my dad:

MG:     “How are you feeling—it’s beautiful out there-hopefully you can catch some warm rays!”

LG:       “Having lunch: back later.”

MG:     “At home?”

LG:       “Yes!”

Later:

MG:     “How are you feeling? Any pain today?”

LG:       Actually took a full Vicodin last night and slept straight through!!! First full night’s sleep in about three weeks.. Having a meal with us, or just appetizers? Thanks, Love, Dad.”

I was working until 4 pm, then had a mammogram appointment at Pequot, and Rich had a gig at the El-n-Gee later that night with Slander, and I planned to attend with my friend and model Jane, and would be meeting up with Titus there as well. But I wanted to see my dad for dinner and a visit for a couple of hours beforehand. We had veggie burgers and a bunch of appetizers, but he was not his usual self. He was down, and I know he was worried about the medical results.

Later that night, while I was at the Gee, he texted me updates on Game Two of the World Series at 8:53 pm

LG:       “Top of the 3rd¨Sox finally got a MOB, but then fly out. Waca throwing much heat, but so isn’t Lackey!”

He kept me posted throughout the game, which resulted in a loss for the Red Sox (Cards 4 Sox 2), though Rich and I made it home to watch the end of the game, with the Sox down.

MG:     “We’re home now, and hoping for the best!!”

LG:       “Cliff-hanger!”

Friday 25 October 2013

I went to work at OMV for my regular shift of 10-6 pm. My dad normally worked with me out there every Friday, ever since his partner had retired, and we always had a full plate with receiving merchandise, and wanting to get everything in place for the always important weekend. My dad, who enjoyed a good meal immensely, always treated every Friday with a takeout lunch from Mango’s. The Garlic Cheese Bread: “Mozzarella & Romano cheeses, fresh garlic & olive oil on our hearth baked flat bread.” and The Blacksmith Salad: “Crisp lettuce, grated Romano and Parmesan cheese, mushrooms, tomato and red onion. Served with our house balsamic vinaigrette dressing.” It was easier to manage a few bites of bread and salad around customers, and making sales.

But we hadn’t ordered lunch from Mango’s since the last time we ended up working together out there, October 11th, a Friday, two weeks earlier.

So I texted him at 12:19 pm

MG:     “How are you feeling today?”

LG:       “Ok. Slept good again last night. The VA needs more blood work today, so Pat and I are driving to West Haven today & procedure is next Tuesday (cat scan with needle biopsy), Keep you posted. Love, Dad.”

And then he got back to me at 5:40 pm

LG:       “Hell’s bells!!! Just got back from West Haven & they called & said my potassium level was dangerously high (6.5), and it should be under 5. He told me to go to an ER ASAP to get it lowered immediately! Life’s a test, Michelle & Maria, & what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger!! Love to everyone! Dad & Grandpa.”

MG:     “Good Luck!! What do potassium levels indicate? Where are you going to ER?”

He was at Pequot, and I was planning on going over there to visit him right after work. When I got there, his potassium levels were already stabilizing and he seemed in fine spirits and little pain. But because Pequot closes at 10 pm nightly, and is the outpatient arm of Lawrence and Memorial Hospital, they decided to transfer him there for the night so they could monitor him. Before I left to go home, Pat went to their house so she could pack an overnight bag for her and my dad, as she planned on staying the night with him in the room. I wished him a good night and went home. The next day I had to open the downtown store at 9 am, and planned to visit him at L & M after work at 5.

26 October 2013 at 8:07 am

MG:     “Good morning!”

LG:       “Good morning! Fairly decent  night’s sleep! Waiting for ultrasound. Can eat after that!!!”

MG:     “Great! Did you text Maria last night or this morning? Let me know how the day goes..”

This was the last text message between us, as he was busy with tests and doctors in and out of his room. He called me later at work, and told me how he had talked to Maria, and his business partner, and some other friends and family, just letting them know he was getting some tests, pretty normal stuff still.

Game Three of the World Series was at 8 pm that night, and our house was Sox HQ for a few close friends, so they were planning on coming over to watch the game. I headed over to New London to go visit my dad at L & M, and would keep Rich posted. Visiting hours were over at 9 pm, but at 8:30 the doctors came in to take him down the hall for a MRI, as they were still trying to discover what was going on with him,  so I said goodnight to him, and told him that I would come over with Rich on Sunday since it was on our day off. I left L & M, and had taken Exit 88 to get back home, as the van was acting up, and I didn’t want to press it on the highway longer than I had to. I was about to pass by the Dairy Queen in Poquonnock Bridge when a call from Pat came in to my iPhone, so I quickly pulled in to the DQ, and took her call. She was hysterical:  the doctors just told her that he would not live through the night! The MRI had finally revealed the source of all of this: pancreatic cancer, and his organs were now in final shutdown. Stunned I told her that I was on my way back to the hospital. I sat there, and called Rich in disbelief, and told him that I would be in touch.

We sat in his room and I held his hand and talked about the store, and happy times, sailing on the Mystic River into Fishers Island Sound, and so many others. I told him that I had anticipated taking the store over when he was ready to retire, and not that he would be throwing the reins to me! He laughed.. Pat dialed the number of every family member and he talked to them, so bravely and lovingly. Then she dialed the number of all of his Navy buddies and I could hear them breaking down in shock and he comforted them. I talked to Maria in Syracuse and they were having an early Autumn snow storm, and since it was her oldest daughter’s 12th birthday the following day, she had 8 girls at her house in a sleepover party for Emma. My dad recorded a birthday message for Emma that night in his hospital bed, and I don’t know if she has ever heard it. But I urged Maria not to drive down, as I felt it was too dangerous to risk. She was having a hard time with it, and she really wanted to come down. By midnight they were upping the morphine, and he was trying to rest and sleep. Pat was in his room and the rest of us were out in the waiting room. I left at 6 am, and everyone there was trying to doze. I went home and sat there.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Pat texted me at 9 am that he had passed. With Rich by my side,  I called Maria, my mom, and Gordon at the store so he could tell the rest of the staff.

The very last text message entry from his contact in my phone was from Pat using his phone because she couldn’t find her phone and we were making funeral arrangements:

PB on LG’s phone:      “Heading back home to find phone.”

MG:     “I am at Dinoto in the parking lot drinking coffee. I will wait in my car so I can help you carry the photos in when you get here..”

______

Thank you to Rich for the title, given to me five years ago on the first anniversary of my dad’s passing, and all I could do was to schedule another photo shoot with Titus on 22 October, a tradition we managed to uphold until recently, thank you to Titus!

Thank you to Red Sox HQ: Peter Jazz, Humpy and Malthus!

Thank you to Dan Curland, who almost died the same night as my dad, having choked on chicken at dinner,  and saved by his daughter Lena running to our house down the street and getting Rich and Peter to go help him. Dan was brought to L & M the same night that my dad was there, and turning the corner, I bumped into Peter Jazz!

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Honoring My Ancestors: For Heather Heyer

Me, on the set of the Dukes of Hazzard, 1977

“In an era of great division, a point that is often missed in the Confederate monuments debate is that most factions rightly agree that history should not be erased. The question is in how it should be remembered.” — Dr. Susannah J. Ural, “Let Us Speak of What We have Done”

Ancestry.com is a Pandora’s Box. I always knew that there were wealthy slaveholders on my mother’s side, who owned large plantations in Georgia before the Civil War. But I had been told by my father that they were the exception, not the rule; and that his ancestors had been of a different class, working poor who couldn’t have owned slaves even if they’d wanted to. But the hours I’ve spent on research have disproven any imagined innocence of my paternal line. Census record after census record show that many of my predecessors on both sides owned slaves. Some may have owned just a few, but others hundreds. Sometimes the first names of these slaves are listed in census documents, but more often not, as they were considered property. There are no records of them beyond that, where they were from or where they were buried. Their descendants can’t build family trees.

All of my ancestral lines came to America early. They turn up in the first censuses taken in colonies in what are now Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. A few were Pilgrims, several were Quakers (something I never knew) and a number were Huguenots (far more than I realized) who came here to escape religious persecution. Some came as indentured servants or prisoners of war, some as wealthy planters or traders. I’ve found four ancestors accused of being witches in colonial Massachusetts, and one hung for heresy. Many fought in the Revolutionary War, and many would fight in the Civil War, for the South. I qualify as both a “Daughter of the Revolution” and a “Daughter of the Confederacy” many times over. In other words, I’m the product of settler colonialism, both Northern and Southern.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that one branch of my family tree was triracial (Native, Anglo, African). My great, great, great grandmother was Annie Jean Jacobs of North Carolina. The North Carolina Jacobs have been multi-racial for generations, and can be traced back to one slave, Gabriel Jacobs, who was freed around 1690. My father told me that my grandmother had some Native American ancestry, although he kept changing the name of the tribe: Tuscarora, or Waccamaw, or Lumbee. He didn’t say anything about her African American ancestry because it had been a family secret, I think, for years. Studying the census, I can see that my Jacobs ancestors made a choice around 1850 to present as white; they had previously identified as free people of color. Other Jacobs identified as Native Americans, and I have found records that classify the same person as “Mulatto”, “White”, and “Indian”. The more that I look, the more stories I uncover about the “tri-racial isolates” (as anthropologists call them) of North Carolina. Their histories are case studies about the complex realities of racial identity in early America. I can see on paper the effects of changing laws (for example the one-drop rule) on the Jacobs over generations.

I wish I could share these discoveries with my father, but he isn’t speaking to me, because I don’t like Trump or the Confederate flag.

***

When people ask me where I am from, I tell them Atlanta, Georgia. If they ask me if I consider myself Southern, I say yes. I suppose if I tracked all my days from the ages of 0 to 18, most of them would have been lived above the Mason Dixon. But I spent the first 6 years of my life in Georgia, and my ancestors have lived in the South since before the Revolutionary War. Moving as a child to the most Yankee of places—Mystic, Connecticut—didn’t change that.

For those who aren’t locals, Mystic is beautiful historic village on the coast of Connecticut, close to the Rhode Island border. The Mystic Seaport is there, and the Charles Morgan, the only wooden whaling ship left in the world. Mystic is a place where the lines between past and present constantly blur, and it is easy to time travel there (especially as a teenager on acid).

After my stepfather got a job at the Mystic Seaport, he moved us into a house on Pequot Avenue, a street that cuts across the hills above town, running parallel to the river, down to the sea. Clift Street climbs up from the river to meet Pequot Avenue at its top. At the intersection of Clift and Pequot, there is an odd little roundabout, just a circle of grass, that forces drivers around it for no discernible reason. The roundabout isn’t a speed bump or an abandoned garden; instead it served for many years as the base for a statue of John Mason, a local colonial hero.

Mason’s statue was erected to commemorate a raid that he led on the Pequot tribe in 1637, afterwards known as the Mystic Massacre: “Major John Mason… said, We must burn them, and … brought out a firebrand, and putting it into the matts with which they were covered, set the wigwams on fire. Within minutes, Mistick Fort was engulfed … In one hour, more than 400 Pequot men, women and children were killed.”

The Pequot War is a pivotal moment in colonial history; the tribe was vanquished so the English could continue to take over Connecticut. Mason’s statue was placed near the approximate location of the Pequots’ fort, and its purpose was forthright: it was to mark, in space and time, the successful displacement of natives by settlers. The local people (including some Mason descendants) who devoted themselves to the cause of raising a memorial on Pequot Avenue—a considerable investment of time, energy, and money—did not question his heroism. Their intention was that the statue would evoke awe and gratitude in its viewers. After all, without Mason, there wouldn’t be white people in Mystic, or Connecticut for that matter.

As a kid, I didn’t understand that my house was built where hundreds of Native people burned to death. But the woods behind our house scared me, and I never explored it. I waited for the school bus at Mason, sometimes leaning against him, or climbing over him, or chasing my friends around him. I read the inscription on his base again and again—“Erected AD 1889 By the State of Connecticut to commemorate the heroic achievement of Major John Mason and his comrades, who near this spot in 1637, overthrew the Pequot Indians, and preserved the settlements from destruction”—but I didn’t wonder about the story being told, let alone the stories being left out. He was huge, bronze, and he had a sword. Looked like a hero to me!

But as I grew older, my feelings about Mason and his statue changed. I was not alone. Mason and his troops, despite their best efforts, didn’t kill off all the Pequots, and descendants of the massacre survivors still live in the area. After getting federal recognition in 1983, they built a huge casino on their reservation, Foxwoods, which became a spectacular success. Regaining economic and political power in Connecticut after centuries of marginalization, the tribe again became a force to reckon with, and they directed some of that force at taking Mason down. For them, the statue was an insult, the equivalent of a murderer doing a victory dance on top of his victims, and its removal was imperative. After years of efforts by activists, Mason was relocated, peacefully, away from the site of the massacre, leaving only grass behind. There was some local fuss but certainly nothing like the deadly riots over the Robert E. Lee memorial in Charlottesville. My stepfather, an old Yankee through and through, was fascinated by the archeologists digging around his yard. He did not protest Mason’s removal, unlike some of our neighbors, but he was once a history teacher, and better prepared than most to think through the complexities of public memorialization.

***

When the topic of Confederate memorials started appearing in headlines a few years ago, my first reaction was their removal was a bad idea. I imagined all the statues in little towns across the South, and then Charlottesville-style violence erupting at each one because of outsiders coming into peaceful communities. Leave those statues alone, I thought, don’t make trouble!

But then a friend from Mystic reminded me of Mason coming down. The statue’s removal and relocation were reparative acts. Instead of just accepting history as told by “the winners”, Pequot activists demanded acknowledgement of other perspectives. For them, Mason is nothing to celebrate; he destroyed their culture. By challenging the established narrative of his heroism, they made room for other views, for example that colonization is a cruel and destructive process, based on theft and murder. Their perspective is valid, and could apply to many other memorials on American soil as well.

My initial resistance to the removal of Confederate memorials was due to my consideration of only one side of the story. There are several men in my family tree who fought for the South. My mother’s elderly relatives in Eatonton, Georgia, still referred to “The War” and told stories passed down about Sherman’s March (his troops stole all the food but spared the Steinway piano). My father told me more times than I can count that the display of Confederate memorials and flags is intended to “honor our ancestors”. What he never mentioned, and still doesn’t seem to consider, is the perspective of the descendants of slaves. The Civil War and its aftermath are still quite present for them too, but there aren’t any flags or statues for their ancestors, although they suffered much more than ours did before, during, and after “The War”.

Many of my ancestors once owned slaves, and fought a war so that they could keep on with that owning. There is no way to separate that truth from the existence of Confederate memorials. Public sculptures aren’t just gravestones, created to honor individual family members. They are monuments in common space that everyone sees while going about their daily business. In my opinion, we should certainly remember and memorialize our dead, but we can’t ask (or force) others to honor them, as Confederate statues in public space demand. There are many bodies in Southern ground unmarked by even the smallest of stones: the bodies of people stolen from their families, then abused, and then buried in strange soil. We should remember and honor their lives too, rather than continuing to erase their histories.

***

Two years ago, in July 2017, I attended a festival organized by my father, Ben “Cooter” Jones, at his Dukes of Hazzard museum and store in Luray, Virginia. Although I was glad to be with my family, I was uneasy about everything else. My father had created the festival as a response to the ongoing controversy over Confederate symbols. It had been two years at that point since the Charleston shooting, and during that time, my father had doubled-down on his defense of Confederate flags and memorials, even serving as spokesperson for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Because of his role as Cooter Davenport on The Dukes of Hazzard, my father still has a certain celebrity. His events can draw thousands of fans. As a public figure, his opinions carry weight and have consequences outside our family. While wandering the midway, I tried to laugh with the crowds at the monster truck races and wrestling matches, but what I really felt was dread. I kept repeating “freedom of speech, freedom of speech” to myself, as if that would fix what was going on around and inside me. My father’s anger at “Political Correctness” was spilling out more often, both onstage and off, and he was directing some of it at me, the lefty, queer New Yorker. The audience gave him validation for his beliefs, something I could no longer do.

In August 2017, just a month after my father’s festival, a group of white supremacists held a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a town an hour south of Luray. They came to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee memorial. They flew Nazi and Confederate flags, burned torches, and chanted racist and fascist slogans like: “Jews Will Not Replace Us.” During the rally, James Fields, a neo-Nazi, rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer and injuring almost 20 other people. He was sentenced to life in prison for this act, after pleading guilty to 29 hate crime charges.

My father is holding another festival this summer, two years almost to the day of the Charlottesville riot. I wonder if he chose the dates that he did because he is aware that some of his fans were likely at the rally in 2017, flying Confederate flags purchased from his stores. Perhaps he is trying to offer them an alternative venue for their complaints, to make things safer for them and for those they disagree with. I hope so.

I’m sad about my estrangement from my father, because I love him, no matter what differences we have. This is not our first falling out, and perhaps we will be able to reconcile again. But it is more likely that our Civil War will continue. My father is furious because he feels that his freedom of speech is under assault, although in reality he remains completely free to fly the Confederate flag and to state his beliefs. And I’m furious too, about his demands that I respect and agree with ALL of his opinions, while not being allowed to have any of my own. It is an oppressive dynamic, a dictatorship rather than a relationship, and a double standard that is no longer acceptable to me.

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The Legend of Chicken Charlie’s Rock

Allow me to explain the legend of Chicken Charlie’s Rock. As you may have gathered, my daughter Marley has nothing to do with the tale, paths with Charlie having crossed nearly two lifetimes ago from her vantage point.

Marley in front of Chicken Charlie’s Rock, ’09

She simply accompanied me on a trip down memory lane. (Her sister Jules, aka Green Machine, was back at grandma’s house, glued to the weather forecast praying for snow).

Jules aka Green Machine frolicking in the snow, ’09

Naturally, the trip included a handful of slow laps around the same parking lot where my grandfather first let me drive. I was twelve, thirteen tops. Having just turned thirteen, Marley got her turn at the wheel, the same as I did–no gas, permitted only to ease a foot off the brake pedal, achieving no more speed than cruising on idle would allow. Still, I imagine it to have been as exhilarating for her as it was for me, sitting beside my grandfather in my mother’s newly acquired used car.

Chicken Charlie’s Rock started out simply as The Rock, a massive granite protrusion that I have since come to recognize as endemic to the New England landscape. Our rock sat in the woods just behind the Village Green Apartments where my sister and I moved with our mother the year our parents split up. In time, Kim found her set of friends and got on with her thing. And I found my set of friends, Gary C. principal among them. We spent the vast majority of our spare time exploring the woods, at first on foot, then by bicycle. Eventually, we acquired motorized transportation allowing us to explore the far reaches of the woods by dirt bike, a string of secluded waterfalls leading the way to an abandoned rock quarry. The details of our gas-powered antics will have to wait for a future installment of my tales of a kid from Connecticut, making his way in the world.

The Rock played a central role as home base for our activities during breaks from school. We waged one-pump BB-gun wars on and around the rock (thankfully, no one shot their eye out). We built forts. Debriefed atop the rock upon successful completion of our daily excursions, conjured future plans sitting in full survey of the entire universe as far as any of us was concerned. We formed and strengthened bonds on that rock, tested allegiances. Through thick and thin, we grew up together.

Last and most certainly not least, I had my first kiss on the rock. We can debate whether woman or man is capable of achieving perfection. Whether any of us would know how to conduct ourselves if perfection were to show up one day and plop down in front of us. Still, I am eternally grateful to have borne witness to the tender beginnings of what I imagined at the time to be as near to perfection as might ever exist–Andrea P.

Andrea was outgoing, energetic, athletic. She would hang with us most every day, doing anything we could do and then some, though we never lost sight of the prospect that Andrea was separate from us. She was GLORIOUS–outgoing, energetic and all that jazz, and glorious to boot.

I can still picture her–even brown skin with deep set eyes like she was imagining things bigger than the rest of us were capable of comprehending and a mouth that made you wonder why lips were ever used for anything other than kissing. It would be years before I’d get another glimpse at perfection, that shift in perspective that occurs when you meet someone so far removed in thinking, in examining the world from anyone you’ve encountered, who inspires you to be more than you might have known achievable without the benefit of her outlook.

Even Andrea can’t claim responsibility for the naming of Chicken Charlie’s Rock. Charlie was a kid who moved to Village Green a couple of years into the rest of us having settled in the neighborhood. He earned the Chicken part on account of his run–stiff and upright, a cardboard cutout of a kid pushing like a sheet of plywood against a determined wind. A thick mop of rust colored hair stood on end, flopping in rhythm with the breeze to form the crowned comb atop a rooster’s head. This coupled with an innate chicken-shit demeanor and Charlie couldn’t hope to escape the nickname.

One summer, we found ourselves in possession of a length of sturdy rope. We tugged on it, swung on it, bound and tied various things with it, Chicken Charlie included if memory serves. Gary and I eventually got the notion to drop the length of rope down the face of the rock and scale the damn thing. This was well before rock climbing was popularized as sport, housed in purpose-built gyms. Instead, we climbed to achieve the pinnacle of adventure for boys growing up in Village Green.

For reasons I can’t remember, Chicken Charlie accompanied us on our maiden voyage, our trusty rope securely in place. But, being Chicken Charlie, he couldn’t be convinced to venture a climb. After several successful roundtrips apiece, Gary and I headed down the face for lunch. When we stepped outside again, we were met by a high-pitched screeching. We took off in the direction the woods where we found Charlie dangling from the length of rope having steeled his nerves to attempt the climb in private, free from jeers over his upright, stiff, plywood way of doing things.

Whether midway up or midway down the face, only Charlie can say for certain. But there he was, clinging for dear life, screaming at the top of his lungs for somebody to save him. We sprang into action. I took my place as spotter at the base of the rock should Charlie lose his grip and fall the rest of the way to the ground while Gary sprinted around to the summit then scaled down the face and escorted Charlie to safety–all in a day’s work for a couple of boy adventurers. And that’s how The Rock came to be known as Chicken Charlie’s Rock.

Everything changed after school resumed that fall. Andrea advanced to junior high leaving us to toil another year steeped in our elementary school, king of the hill, BB-gun warrior nonsense. She and her family moved out of state within the ensuing year. Gary’s parents found more spacious digs to accommodate their brood a couple of streets over, within the same neighborhood. But that quashed nearly all activity around the rock as the center of our daily adventures. Chicken Charlie eventually disappeared too. I can’t tell you with any certainty what any of us did the next summer. Some things together, many other things apart from one another. Junior high and high school eventually exposing us to our respective, separate new worlds. But that summer forged bonds that have persisted to this day.

 

 

I have limited interest to unearth what became of Chicken Charlie. But look who I found via Facebook–Andrea P. decades removed from those days on The Rock but little worse for the wear. And still Glorious. (Images used with permission.)

Andrea P. - teen years

Andrea P. – teen years

 

Andrea P. twenties
Andrea P. – twenties
Andrea P. - recent
Andrea P. – recent photo

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Goodbye Moonshine Man

I am sitting in my small Santa Monica apartment when Mom calls. She refuses to take her anti-psychotic medication these days, dozing in and out of sanity. It’s hard to believe if what she is saying these days is true or not. “Charlie, Haliti vdiq.” She speaks very matter of fact. “Haliti died” Grandpa had rarely been sick, he was a tough Albanian country man, who religiously brewed his own moonshine with the grapes that grew in his garden. But I believe Mom. Partly because a few seconds into our conversation my younger brother texts with the news.

But still neither mom’s words nor my brother’s message hit a cord, no tears, no sick feeling in the stomach, nothing.

It isn’t that I don’t care about my grandfather. I believe I loved him. Last time I had seen my grandfather when I visited Albania, I stayed with him and grandma. At 76 he hadn’t slowed down a bit. When the 6ft wall that separated his garden from the neighborhood had been damaged in an earthquake, he dragged his hurt leg and re-built it himself. Brick after brick. He refused any help.

At the end of the trip I remember grandmas last words.

“Call us okay?” she says as we hug one last time and the smell of her warm cooked peppers wafts off the white gauze scarf she wraps around her grey bob. Now guilt rushes in.

I never call my grandparents after that trip. Not once.

“What a cold hearted bitch” I hear my inner voice railing on me. “Why hadn’t I?”

I know being an immigrant has toughened me up in some ways. And it had also numbed me.

Numbing up was a better guarantee of survival. My family’s first many years as immigrants in the US were fraught with so much drama, pain and poverty. When my mother’s mental illness got out of hand, I was the only one in the family to admit there was something wrong and eventually had to make the call that landed her at Bergen Regional, a mental hospital in New Jersey. I was nineteen. Already having spent 10 days in a looney the year prior when I’d called the suicide hotline.

Mom was the one who usually called our extended family in Albania. The last few years the relationship between her and my grandparents had been strained.

Dad had told me that she’d often call my grandmother at 2 or 3am Albanian time and go on one of her delusional rants. Speaking about dead Albanian relatives she’d seen roaming the streets of Hackensack New Jersey, where my parents now lived.

Dad would have to intervene or eventually grandma’s patience would run out and she’d hang up, usually in tears, upset Mom was so delusional. I felt too embarrassed to call grandma. I always felt I had to make excuses for mom.

When my grandparents refused to accept mom’s invitation to come visit us in America Mom had been furious and upset. I understood and was angry with her, but I also realized my grandparents had spent a lifetime dealing with a daughter who seemed too wild, too much for them. For most.

“They never loved me” Mom moaned for days, weeks, months, then eventually her madness got the worse of her. She rarely spoke of them anymore. I never knew what had really happened between Mom and her parents when she was young. I wish I knew.

My grandparents were tough country folks, they were also kulaks. Persecuted by the communist regime because their families had owned lands pre-communism. My grandfather’s dad, my great grandfather had hung himself off a fig tree in his land when the communist came to snatch everything he’d worked for. My grandpa had to learn to fend for himself early on.

I want to cry for my grandfather, I want to be there for him, but I can’t.  To cry means to feel the pain and to remember the past. To forgive him and grandma for never visiting us, for whatever I assume they might have done to Mom. For sometimes wondering if his moonshine obsession had something to do with Mom becoming addicted to alcohol from an early age.

I call my brother Ergi in NY. It’s already ten in the evening there. His work as an inner city teacher and his second master’s studies keep him busy. But he answers. “I meant to call you but it’s been crazy.” he says, sounding exhausted.

“I know it’s okay”

“You got my message about grandpa?” he asks worried.

“Yea, mom called too. She didn’t even sound upset”

“Yea that’s mom for you, she’ll panic over the silliest thing but her father dies you’d think she didn’t even know the guy.” Ergi ads sighing in a tired laugh.

“How are you feeling though?” we rarely speak these days.

“Better than I thought. It’s crazy how living apart makes you not as upset, you know. It’s like you let yourself feel and in some ways you’re kinda fucked cuz you can’t do much about it. I mean I haven’t seen the guy in forever. I’ve forgotten what he looks like.” His words are somewhat comforting. I know exactly what he means.

I decide to rummage through some old boxes where I’d hid old photographs of my family. Some from my childhood in Elbasan, Albania. Some from our early years as fresh off the boat immigrants in New Jersey.

Black and white photographs of our family at the beach before life in Albania became a shit show and even those gorgeous beaches were too dangerous to visit. Black and white photos of me as a baby. The first colored photo of my little brother and I posed in a bush in the main park, taken by one of the local photographers since nobody owned personal cameras. Photos of our parents’ wedding, even one of my mother in the special black wedding dress my paternal grandmother had sewn of her.

But no photos of Grandpa. I quickly rummage my memories of him. They always begin in the house he’d built in the north end valley of our lil ol city of Elbasan. His immaculate garden, chickens running around kookooing, the whole property surrounded by his all organic white and red grapes. So many you’d bump your head thru the bushels as you walked through the front gate in the later summer months. The time when I was seven and sat on his lap curious as to what that wood oven in the middle of the garden my dad had built for him was being used for.

“I wanna try grandpa” He doesn’t hesitate.

The small shot glass smells like rubbing alcohol and grapes. It’s warm, immediately comforting but also nauseating. I take a small sip feeling the heat burn up my insides.

“Yuck” I pucker my lips and run off. Grandpa laughs.

Then there is Grandpa sitting on the veranda, writing in his mysterious notebook in the early afternoons. A notebook he keeps locked in an old wooden box at the foot of his bed. Grandpa was a serious man. He spent hours watching the news. Yelling at the politicians on the screens for making empty promises. Then I remember grandpa, who wasn’t one to give compliments, telling me one hot summer afternoon when I am twelve: “You’re smart, you know. You can make something of your life.” I don’t know what to make of it. “Did he mean it? Or was he trying to make up for the times when he’d make fun of my dad for not being able to hold his alcohol well.”

My heart is softening up but my mind is still fighting it. I wish I could’ve been closer to my grandparents. I wanted to know them better, as an adult. I wanted to ask them about mom. Sometimes I’d blamed them for her madness. “They must’ve done something to her.” I remember feeling upset as a teenager when mom’s madness hit its peak. But I would never know. I close my eyes and realize I don’t want to live with anger in my heart for a dead person. I have to let it go, all of it, the questions and the silent accusations. I imagine his soul somewhere between the living in the dead. “I hope you hear me. I didn’t know you so well but I want to wish you a good afterlife. Goodbye Moonshine Man.”

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Living in Sin

Recently, writer Royal Young suffered the loss of his grandfather, Zayde.  As he writes in Fameshark,  his memoir noir (Heliotrope Books 2013), “My maternal grandparents Babbi and Zayde supported everything that had to do with the arts. Their three-story house in Great Neck, Long Island was crammed with Zayde’s impressionist paintings and Babbis’ sculptures.”  Royal called it “Jewish Grey Gardens”, and everything about this picture was in direct contrast to my own maternal grandparents.

This month marks the tenth anniversary of my grandfather’s death, and I feel nothing, really.  We were not close since twenty years prior, though close is a stretch to define our relationship even at all.  Anthony Beaudry, my aloof French-Canadian grandfather: he smoked cigars incessantly, my father hated cigars. Whenever my grandparents came down from Worcester, Massachusetts, to visit us at my childhood home in Noank, Connecticut, Anthony was forced outside to smoke his smelly cigars. Yet the house reeked all weekend and even after they left. My other three grandparents, Anthony’s wife Louise Caputo, my paternal grandmother, Helen Pelosi, and my namesake paternal grandfather Rocco Gemma, all radiated an Italian warmth, or at least parlayed easy company.

I left the United States on January 4, 1989 to study abroad for my last college semester, meaning I would graduate while in Grenoble, France, and I had no intention of returning home for an anonymous graduation at UCONN.  Plus, my parents’ divorce was finalized on August 17, 1989, a process that started in the spring of 1987 when my sister was just about to graduate from high school.  Time was up, and my mom made the announcement, as soon as I got settled in my first dorm room, fourth semester, up at UCONN Storrs. I had just moved out of the house in Noank, after living at home for my first three semesters at UCONN Avery Point.

My sister had started college in the fall of 1987 at URI, and seeking sisterly solace would drive Route 138 West over to UCONN most every weekend, not wanting to go home to Noank.  My parents had separated, but due to each of them not wanting to grant the space to the other, they were still living at the same address: my childhood home, a raised split-level ranch, where my mom lived in the upstairs, and my dad lived in the downstairs- a situation that was not fun for anyone. It took another year before my mom moved out, in the fall of 1988.

I was ready to move off campus as well, three semesters of dorm living were three too many for me. In the same fall of 1988  that my mom moved to a temporary place in her hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, I moved into a modest Colonial  brick house with four other roommates that I had casually met in the last year, three boys from Fairfield County and the sweetest hippie girl from Norwich.  My sister Maria continued to visit me at UCONN, arriving at the brick house most every weekend. When I left for France in January 1989 for my eighth and final college semester, Maria transferred from URI to Northeastern in Boston, and looked up one of my former brick house roommates, who had already transferred to UMASS Boston.  She moved in with him, as a familiar counterpart. During the year that I was abroad, their friendship deepened from the platonic to the romantic.  When I returned at the end of 1989, it was official that they were an item.

The first family function in Worcester that spring of 1990 was a cousin’s school graduation, and my sister and her boyfriend planned on driving down from Boston to attend.  My maternal grandfather, Anthony Beaudry, announced that he would boycott the family event, if Maria and her boyfriend made an appearance.  They were living in sin, according to my grandfather.  I remember being shocked that he was actually taking a stand on this distinction. He had, heretofore, never crystallized an official definition of his Catholicism. I felt that I was already growing apart from the totality of family gatherings in Worcester, having been raised in Noank since I was five, and I was at that point, barely attending the annual Christmas Eve dinners. My parents’ divorce had far-flung all previously engaged in rituals, so it was basically a free-for-all for my sister and I.  We were already feeling the guilt trip that each parent passively placed on us to divide our time evenly, while visiting each side of the family in Worcester for Christmas Eve: the only relief was that at least the host of each family gathering was conveniently located just a few miles apart from each other.   We tried to make it a party and have fun ourselves, but there was never a moment that we didn’t feel some guilt, if we had inadvertently let the moment escape at one house, we knew that disappointment would follow at the next stop.

But, my grandfather’s stand clearly required a response. I wrote him a letter, urging him to reconsider his position; that times had changed, and modern relationships were strengthened with cohabitation. That as a couple had the chance to live with one another,  they could discover if their relationship would survive in the long run.  As children of divorce, we most wanted to not get divorced.  We watched our grandparents,  in what we interpreted as loveless marriages: separate bedrooms, which seemed frightening, and  each grandfather barking orders to each grandmother, who waited on him “hand and foot”, because… he… worked…all… day. Then we watched our parents get divorced. This is not what we wanted.

Anthony Beaudry would not budge, in typical stubborn stance. He wrote back to me, claiming ownership to his religious principles, which forced him to be inflexible in his points of view. I was disappointed, and other relatives intervened on my sister’s behalf, and life moved on.  In the summer of 1990, I was not only back from Europe, I was back from an ill-fated trip out west in the US which resulted in a ski-trip accident in Vail, Colorado, and then knee surgery and physical therapy back east. I started a relationship back in Mystic, with an old friend from junior high school. As late summer faded into the autumn, I was ready to get my own place in Mystic, and found a lovely apartment located within the glory of a local mansion, run by my friend Courtney’s family. My boyfriend Rich moved in with me that October 1st, just two short months after we started dating. I was now living in sin.

As my sister and I were the two oldest cousins out of the eleven that comprised my mom’s side of the family, we were the first to experience the many rites of passage throughout our childhood. It makes sense that we would be the first to break ground in the family with boyfriends and living arrangements. As Grandpa Beaudry aged, it seemed to matter less to him, when my younger cousins experienced the exact same milestones, and they moved in with their significant others. My mother was always bitter about this. As well, my grandfather had tried to convince my mom against getting a divorce, on religious grounds, but he lost that argument.  He, however, in a finely tuned maneuver,   never acknowledged my mom’s new partner that she was living with in Mystic. My mom visited her parents solo from 1992 until her parents’ death in 2009, just ten months apart from each other: January 3rd and October 3rd, 2009.

I could never grasp religion with my grandfather’s type of dissociative fervor. In my childhood, I resented being brought to church weekly, and worse, being forced to attend “Sunday School” at the local high school, adjacent to my church, which was across from the town police station. I could not buy the basic premise of Catholicism, that the Pope was infallible. Noone was infallible. It did not make sense to me. I dreaded church and stopped going just after my confirmation.  I understand the structure that religion provides for the ceremonies of life- baptism and marriage, and for the ceremony of death.

Placing judgment on life itself:   to define “living in sin” did not have merit to me. The years passed quietly from 1989 to 2009 for me in my relationship with my grandfather. I was polite, dutiful in the sense, that I would not embarrass my mother. I even conceded a visit to him in the nursing home, when all that was keeping him alive was a feeding tube. His mind was gone, and his body followed on the third of January, 2009.

 

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