- Como Vender no Mercado Livre
— Susie J. Tanenbaum,
author of Underground
Harmonies: Music and Politics in
the Subways of New York
— Jamie Candiloro,
Record Producer
(R.E.M., Willie Nelson, Courtney Love,
Ed Kowalczyk, Ryan Adams)
Frustrated by their lack of headway with the traditional music
industry, brothers Heth and Jed Weinstein make a radical move:
They begin playing street corners and subway stations, bringing
their music straight to the masses. To their surprise, far from
this being the terminal stop of a dead-end career, busking turns
out to be just the beginning as crowds gather, cheer them on,
subscribe to their mailing lists, and actually buy some of their
stockpiled CDs — 40,000 and counting.
In Buskers , Heth and Jed recount their turbulent adolescence,
their attempts to achieve traditional rock ’n’ roll glory, and
their unexpected path to circumventing the outmoded music
industry. Along the way, they explore the technical and legal aspects
of street performance, New York busking culture, and the lives of
their fellow troubadours.
Everything changes when the brothers take it to the streets,
proving the value of their music to themselves and anyone who’ll
listen. Read their story, and your commute will never be the same.
HETH WEINSTEIN & JED WEINSTEIN play over 200
busking shows annually. In 2006, they earned a coveted
spot in the MTA’s Music Under New York program. They
have been featured in Gothamist.com, The New York Daily
News, The New York Sun, New York Metro, Dick Clark’s New Years
Rockin’ Eve, and elsewhere. They live in New York City. For
more info, visit www.hethandjed.com.
ISBN 978-1-59376-412-8
www.softskull.com
Distributed by
Publishers Group West
Cover design by Sharon McGill
Cover image by Heth Weinstein
9 781593 764128
51495
Heth Weinstein & Jed Weinstein
“From the minute I met these guys,
I knew they had something special.
Heth and Jed’s attitude towards
getting music to the people without
a label and major financing was way
ahead of its time. Follow the story
of how they became a well-oiled
machine in the subways and streets
of NYC, and then check out a gig
for yourself.”
The inspiring true story of two
musician brothers who managed
to beat the odds – and a blueprint
for how others can follow
The On-the-Streets, In-the-Trains, Off-the-Grid Memoir of Two New York City Street Musicians
“ Buskers is a hilarious, poignant,
eye-opening journey from the
suburbs of New Jersey to the public
space performance world of New
York. Modern-day troubadours Heth
and Jed Weinstein offer us front-row
seats on city sidewalks and subway
mezzanines as they fine-tune their
musical talent, develop critical street
smarts, defend the First Amendment,
and captivate thousands of fans.
By telling the story of how busking
made them ‘part of the cityscape,’
Heth and Jed reaffirm that the
greatness of New York is in all of us.
This memoir rocks!”
Music/Memoir
Buskers
U.S. $14.95
buSKERs
photo : hope bao
bUSKERS
The On-the-Streets, In-the-Trains,
Off-the-Grid Memoir of Two
New York City Street Musicians
H e t h W e i n s t e i n and J e d W e i n s t e i n
Soft Skull Press
a n i m p r i n t o f Counterpoint
Copyright © 2011 by Heth Weinstein and Jed Weinstein. All rights reserved under
International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Weinstein, Heth.
Buskers : the on-the-streets, in-the-trains, off-the-grid memoir of two New York
City street musicians / Heth Weinstein and Jed Weinstein.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-59376-412-8 (alk. paper)
1. Weinstein, Heth. 2. Weinstein, Jed. 3. Street musicians—New York (State)—
New York—Biography. I. Weinstein, Jed. II. Title.
ML420.W358A3 2011
781.66092’2—dc22
[B]
2011011249
Cover design by Sharon McGill
Interior design by Elyse Strongin, Neuwirth & Associates, Inc.
Printed in the United States of America
Soft Skull Press
An Imprint of Counterpoint
1919 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
www.softskull.com
www.counterpointpress.com
Distributed by Publishers Group West
In consideration of their privacy, the names of some of the people appearing in
this book have been changed. The timeline has been condensed for clarity and
continuity.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To our mom
Contents
Introduction: In the Shadows
1 Background Check
2 Daddy’s Weed
3 Our First Taste of New York
4 The Great Escape
5 Dead-End Jobs and Confused Guitarists
6 Communication Breakdown
7 Paid to Practice
8 Urban Frankenstein
9 Subway Series
10 Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo
11 The Year of No Sleep
12 Cosmic Intake Valve
13 Fat of the Land
14 Future Memory
xi
1
13
25
41
55
75
87
93
117
125
133
143
155
169
Introduction
In the Shadows
I
[ h et h ]
’d been eating ketchup sandwiches for days when I drifted into
the sanctuary of a midtown church to warm up and regroup. I
needed to think things through, to figure out my next move. I was
about to lose everything, including my apartment, my girlfriend
Hope, and my two cats Jack and Milo, who were my kids. I hated
that I’d become a broke-ass failed musician, presumably one of the
world’s worst providers.
Insert musician joke: What’s the difference between a pizza and a
guitarist? A pizza can feed a family of four!
The Midwest tour I’d just played with my current band had netted
me exactly nothing, and now I was an out-of-work drummer on a
mean losing streak, freezing my ass off, making the usual rounds,
dropping off waiter applications anywhere and everywhere, with
zero results. Restaurant managers must have found it impossible
to overlook my severe lack of enthusiasm.
In the midst of this hopelessness, it took me a moment to notice
the artistry of the stained glass windows or the rumbling of the hundred-year-old pipe organ. The church organist was in deep concentration practicing Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. I knew the symphony
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xii
from my childhood—the direct result of playing too much “Guess
the Composer” on long family car trips with my music-obsessed
parents and younger brother Jed. My brother and I were definitely
the only kids on the playground who knew the difference between
Vivaldi and Handel.
The music echoed through the cathedral like it was Madison
Square Garden. Steeped in the tranquil atmosphere of the church,
my panic subsided as the vibration of a passing subway train rumbling beneath the wooden floor gave rise to an idea. I immediately
raced back to my apartment and grabbed my gear. Within minutes I
was trucking down the frozen steps of the Lexington Avenue subway
station, ready to take my first crack at busking.
Half hallucinating, under the influence of low-blood-sugar
de­lirium, I slid my guitar and battery-powered amplifier under the
turnstile and jumped over it. From behind, I heard the clerk’s muffled
disapproval: “Pay your fare!” Sorry token booth dude, can’t this time.
I’m saving up for a D19! Earlier, I’d scanned Go Noodle’s takeout menu
for job-hunting inspiration, and the prospect of the delectably greasy
D19—shrimp lo mein with soup and an egg roll—had me salivating
as I rolled my equipment along the marble platform. I crammed my
gear onto the train and rode one stop up to Seventy-seventh Street,
just beyond Hunter College, where I’d often seen an old Asian guy
playing recorder and doing pretty well. Hoping to emulate his success,
I planned to set up exactly where he’d been performing.
Despite my desperation, I was self-conscious about my appearance. My thin black bomber jacket that had faithfully served me
through several winters was now a shadow of its former glorious self.
After several duct tape alterations, it resembled a Flash Gordon wardrobe malfunction. And there were holes in my jeans through which
my long underwear was exposed, but not in that cool rock’n’roll
way. My hair was longer than usual and pulled back into a ponytail.
Today, I know buskers who try to look disheveled, using the tactic to
introduction: in the shadows
grab the “pity drop.” I don’t blame them though; you gotta do whatever works for you.
After setting up, I nervously fastened the guitar strap to both
ends of the guitar with fingers numb from one of the worst winters
on record. Telling myself, “Dude, stop thinking, just play,” I tuned
up and flicked on the amp. The light by the power switch glowed
yellow. Okay, all systems go. Time to play!
At the time, I was barely a guitarist, more like a drummer who
desperately wished he could play the guitar. To skirt the need for years
of lessons, I used an uncommon method of tuning that immediately
enabled me to play a few songs, a kind of shortcut to competency.
In this “open D” tuning, the neck of the guitar became similar to a
keyboard, allowing me to form any chord simply by pressing the top
two strings.
My awkward strumming wafted across the subway platform, surrounding me with confused, dense clouds of sound. As I played, I
intuitively disguised the bum notes with my drummer’s sense of
rhythm, as if playing on beat would override my utter lack of skill.
Whenever I caught a figure coming toward me, I assumed it was a
cop or a station supervisor bent on my ejection. But after a few false
alarms, I gave in and let the music take over, wearing my song like
an invisible protective coat. Maybe that’s why folks gathered around
as they stood waiting for their trains. We were warming ourselves by
the same fire.
I watched as my first underground audience assembled in front
of me. People could have turned a blind eye, but a backpack-toting
Hunter College kid led the charge, throwing a buck into my waiting
guitar case. It was the start of a flurry of cash. More folks gathered, urging me on with compliments like, “Sounds great man!”
and “Thanks for chilling me out.” As the trains came and went, the
ever-growing pile of my first busking dollars glowed succulently
against the black velvet interior of my guitar case. With mounting
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xiv
excitement I realized I’d be able to make it through the month after
all! As much as the cash meant to me, though, the compliments
meant just as much.
A few hours later, I left the train station with a new job and
enough money for fifteen D19s (looking back, I’m amazed I was
able to perform uninterrupted for so long; the next couple of times
I went back I was quickly thrown out). After years of struggle, I’d
finally ascended to the level of professional musician, though in a
way I had never anticipated. Why hadn’t I done this sooner? I’m
ashamed to admit that prior to my musical awakening, I shuffled
through the city believing that only inferior musicians performed
on the street. Gifted buskers unselfishly filled the city’s public spaces
with vitality, yet I’d been rushing by with scarcely a glance.
Triumphantly slurping lo mein and peering out of Go Noodle’s
window, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. For the first time, it felt
okay that record companies hadn’t appreciated me; I’d managed to
bring my music directly to the public, regardless. But there was one
more thing left to do. I had to track down my younger brother and
ex-musical partner Jed and relay the news, in the hope he’d consider
joining me again.
My thoughts turned to the pact we’d made ten years before: We
promised each other we’d become rock stars together. For most of our
lives, we’d had the kind of relationship other siblings envied. Maybe it
was a result of sharing the same bedroom as kids, playing in the same
rock groups, or simply surviving our father. For most of the previous
two years, though, we had barely spoken. Our brotherhood had been
annihilated by the bloody demise of our grunge band, Airport Hug.
The trio we’d co-founded and lovingly nurtured from its inception had
died a brutal death at the tender age of three. In band years, though,
that’s about fifty. We learned the hard way that bands are fragile organisms; few survive long enough to make even a second album.
As kids, Jed and I had been seduced by the magical early years
of MTV (back when they played videos). All we wanted to do was
introduction: in the shadows
rock! In an effort to join the lofty Day-Glo ranks of our musical
heroes, we recorded demo after demo and sent tapes around to all
the record companies. At first, there were some tentative nibbles,
but ultimately nothing more came of our efforts than the standard
rejection: “We hope you find a home for your music.”
Undaunted, we maxed out credit cards, investing thousands of
dollars to create and release our CDs independently. When all was
said and done, we’d barely sold five hundred copies. By the time
Airport Hug ground to a halt, our brotherhood and our finances
had been pushed beyond the breaking point. We wondered if we
could even breathe the same air again without kicking the living shit
out of each other, and performing together seemed just as unlikely.
The band broke up in true Spinal Tap form when I pressured Jed
to ditch his girlfriend (also our acting band manager, and now his
wife), who I was convinced favored him whenever it came to crucial
band decisions.
Even so, I hoped to parlay my busking breakthrough into the
excuse we needed to get back together. Over the last few months
we’d begun to speak again, and now bit by bit we resurrected our
relationship, growing closer, speaking on the phone and occasionally meeting for drinks at one of our favorite haunts, the Subway Inn
across from Bloomingdales, where I first broached the subject of
busking. Then, when the time was right, I invited Jed out for an early
bird special in Little India, where, with sweaty palms and tail firmly
placed between my legs, I blurted out over the Hindi music blasting
in the background, “Hey man, I know I was a dick. I’m sorry about
everything and hope you can forgive me.” After an intensive heartto-heart, I was relieved when we sealed the deal with a congratulatory high-five and a hug, and officially rededicated ourselves to our
childhood pact to “make it” in music together . . . or die trying.
As we began picking up and reassembling the pieces, we had no
idea what the future might hold, or how long we’d be able to maintain our fragile truce. We decided to reform as a duo, simply called
xv
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xvi
Heth and Jed, and resume our songwriting and performing partnership, the idea being we’d appear ninja-like in public places, ready to
perform our songs. Both former skateboarders, we threw ourselves
into the new gig like it was the X Games of street performance. Here
was a chance to test our physical endurance while playing some of
the gnarliest busking shows known to mankind, many lasting more
than six hours. Today, after six years of playing in blistering heat
and finger-freezing cold, tangling with police, drunks, crazies, and
the roving gangs that attempt to dominate the city’s prime busking
real estate, our chops are so well honed that you could fire an RPG
at us and we wouldn’t miss a note. Over time, we proved the music
industry wrong by selling tens of thousands of our CDs independently. More importantly, we figured out that while you may never
reach the dream you hoped to achieve, with a little luck you might
discover that the adventure was the ultimate reward.
1
Background Check
U
[ h et h ]
sually on the long subway ride home from a show, Jed and I
are too tired to talk. We’re wracked by thirst, tinnitus, and back
pain. Though exhausted, we both intuitively scan the stuffy
train car, easily reading the faces of fellow passengers, a survival
skill that comes naturally to us now. I generally spend some of that
time thinking about the events, seemingly random at the time, that
brought me to this bizarre lifestyle.
Dad was my hero. He was also a natural comedian, often joking
he was born at an early age to mixed parents—a man and a woman.
Ba-da-bump! He loved quoting old Vaudeville shtick and was always
ready with a one-liner. “My parents were so poor they couldn’t afford
kids . . . so the neighbors had me!” He’d been employed in the entertainment biz for most of his life, but by the time we were old enough
to talk there wasn’t much work available, and he could generally be
found hanging out, getting high, and playing flute duets with his
musician pals. As a result, our earliest memories are accompanied
by a soundtrack of flute licks and metronome clicks, and interlaced
with the pungent aroma of marijuana.
1
buskers
2
Sometimes we’d sneak in to his study while he was giving a flute
lesson. Before kicking us out he’d take a minute to roll the metallic
tasting flute against our lips. Dad patiently instructed, “Inhale.
Exhale. Inhale. Exhale,” demonstrating the precise angle at which
exhalations become sound and little kids nearly black out from lack
of oxygen.
Dad grew up in the Bronx, but just before his high school graduation his family relocated to sunny Santa Barbara, California where,
against his parents’ wishes, he joined a local mariachi band. At fifteen,
he prided himself on being the youngest and only gringo in the group.
When recalling those early days, he often joked that he wondered why
the other guys in the group were always so mellow . . . until the day a
fellow saxophonist gave him his first joint. When we were older, Dad
bragged that he’d smoked grass back in the ’50s when you could “blow
smoke into a cop’s face and the schmuck wouldn’t know what it was.”
One night Dad was the designated driver as the band made their
way home from a show in San Luis Obispo. The fog was thick as they
sped along the coastal mountain road. Nearing a curve, the guitarist
sitting on the passenger side yelled, “Watch out!” The car skidded
and screeched, coming to rest inches from the edge of a cliff. We owe
our existence to that stoned mariachi dude.
After a gig, Dad typically walked into his parents’ apartment high
off his ass with Mexican music swirling in his head, only to find his
parents just as he had left them earlier, sitting in the kitchen playing
gin rummy. He said it would kill him if he ever ended up like that.
When I was five, Dad took a job with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I remember tagging along with him to work. He plunked me
down right next to him, surrounded by the full orchestra: woodwinds, brass, and timpani—the real deal. That was the first time I
felt an honest-to-goodness surge of loud, unbridled musical power.
“Dad? How come you stopped playing?”
“See this?” he replied, pointing to a few squiggly symbols on the
sheet music. “It’s called a whole note rest. It means, don’t play.”
background check
I fidgeted too much so eventually he moved me backstage and
handed me a box of crayons, but not before a photographer from
the Los Angeles Times snapped a photo of us. I was way proud when
mom showed me the paper the next day—the two of us chilling
together in the arts section for all to see.
Mom was an East Coast babe with a thick New York accent and
attitude to match, but she loved California’s perfect weather and
easy-going vibe—a world away from her hometown. For most of
our childhood she kept her dark chestnut hair waist-length, until
she got the Jane Fonda shag and was consequently followed around
Vons supermarket by people thinking she was a movie star (Mom
swears she had it first).
While Dad taught us how to laugh, Mom made sure we were
raised in a house where freethinking was always encouraged and
racism considered an evil scourge. She came from tough but warmhearted people. Her father Louis had emigrated from Russia and
her mother Minnie from Poland, both making their way to America
right before the master race began throwing Jews into ovens. Most
of the men in her family were shit-kicking Marines, street-fighting
guys who went from looking for trouble on Ninety-seventh Avenue
in Queens to storming the beaches of Guadalcanal. Family legend
has it that on our folks’ wedding day, Mom’s brother took Dad aside
for a little “talk,” making him understand that he’d kill him if he ever
did his sister wrong. Dad knew he wasn’t joking.
Mom says she was intrigued by Dad’s wild side. Shortly after
they first met in a philosophy class at Queens College, Ira and Carol
(our parental units) were hitched and heading cross-country to
Los Angeles in search of adventure. They settled in an area not far
from Beverly Hills, where Dad’s parents lived, taking up residence
in an apartment building off Lincoln Boulevard that turned out to
be a welcoming commune, an extended family mystically thrown
together by the cosmos. The inhabitants of our little West Coast
enclave were mainly students. Front doors were left wide open,
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buskers
4
dormitory style, friends and neighbors dropping by at all hours to
chat over a glass of wine. Since Mom was usually home with us kids,
she ascended to the rank of unofficial chef for the premises, known
far and wide for rare old-world specialties handed down from her
grandmother, such as Hungarian goulash and lokshen kugel (essentially fried egg noodles with a cream cheese center). Our folks’
dinner parties were ground zero for impromptu living room concerts, where a revolving cast of jazz and classical musicians gathered
to jam. Jed and I crawled around our guests’ feet while heated philosophical debates about everything from Picasso to the Los Angeles
Dodgers raged overhead.
In keeping with the freakiness of the time, Hare Krishnas often
turned up at our apartment asking for donations. To us, the sound
of snapping finger bells and the chanting of their hit single, “Hare
Krishna,” was equivalent to the arrival of the Good Humor ice cream
truck. We’d run to the window in anticipation of our barefoot visitors. They bunny hopped single-file along the alleyway leading up to
our screen door, where we handed them oranges, bananas, and the
occasional can of soup. After bowing graciously, they’d smile and
without missing a beat of their mantra soldier on to the next residence. (Years later, these circumstances were reversed when Jed and
I became the beneficiaries of a new generation’s generosity: youngsters coaxed by their parents, waddling up to our open guitar case
with dollar bills in hand, engaged in their first act of philanthropy.)
I wish those days could have lasted forever, but at the conclusion of Dad’s stint with the symphony, our freewheeling California
lifestyle came to a crashing halt. With no work in sight, he made
the agonizing choice to move us east, where a job as cultural arts
director for a Jewish community theater in West Orange, New Jersey,
awaited.
Before we could even wave goodbye to the Krishnas, Jed and I
were planted in the backseat of our ’74 brown Dodge Dart with our
cat Flippy, a bunch of kids’ books, and an Etch A Sketch each, to
background check
keep us entertained. The speedometer read 110 mph as Dad floored
it across the open desert in the hope of getting us from one side
of the country to the other before the car overheated. We didn’t
have air conditioning, so for thousands of miles all we heard was
the wind beating in our ears and the radio blasting any jazz station
Dad could dig up. With Flippy at our feet, we glanced out the back
window to catch one last purple sunset dipping behind the Sedona
Mountains. California and the closeness we shared with our father
were officially about to become a memory.
After a week of sitting on our aching butts we arrived at 32 Lexington
Drive—one in a row of nearly identical two-bedroom colonials in
quaint Livingston, New Jersey, where the air was fresh compared
to Los Angeles. Instead of lanky palm trees and hedges artistically
manicured by Mexican gardeners, there were tall oaks, mow-ityourself lawns, and an overabundance of American flags. The
movers were days behind schedule delivering our belongings,
so we spent most of our first week playing outside in the steamy
August air and becoming well acquainted with humidity and our
new surroundings. Mostly we hung out in the gutter of our barely
traveled street playing Frisbee and popping the tar bubbles that
blistered up in the baking sun, often getting sprayed with steamy
plumes of tar juice. Those first few summers our clothes, shoes, and
especially our fingernails were permanently stained black.
Our immediate neighborhood teemed with rug rats. Most every
house on the block boasted at least a couple. This made for wellattended birthday parties and spectacular all-out neighborhood
games of “kill the guy with the ball.” If you were holding the ball, the
last thing you’d see in your rearview before getting pummeled was
the blur of a marauding pack of twenty little kids.
Though we loved hanging with our new friends, at times Jed
and I missed the simplicity of California life. With our mellow
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buskers
6
outlook and sun-kissed shoulder-length hair it was clear we were ill
equipped for the conservative North Jersey landscape. Wherever we
went, people commented that Mom had “such beautiful daughters.”
To which we always shot back, “We’re boys!”
We regularly pestered our parents, asking if we were ever going
back home. “As long as we’re together, we are home,” Mom replied,
trying to project her usual confident air. Somehow, we knew that
meant never. So we resigned ourselves to making the best of it, especially when she shooed us outside, saying, “Get away from that TV
set, it’s going to rot your brain.” That’s when we ran into brothers
Thomas and Niklas, who lived directly across the street. They were
hard at work, digging shallow holes in their front lawn.
“Hey, what are you guys planting?”
“We’re playing Holocaust,” they robotically answered. “We’re
burying the dead Jews.”
We shrugged and joined in, with absolutely no idea what the
Holocaust was. When we were older, we found out Dad’s side of
the family lost a shit ton of relatives to the Nazis in Poland. A letter
handed down to us in Yiddish and dated August 1945 gave us an eyewitness account of our relatives’ last few seconds on earth. It read,
in part: “[T]aken into the slaughter house, and slaughtered with the
apparatus used to slaughter cattle.” (Later on, Thomas and Niklas
turned out to be pretty good guys, once they escaped the influence
of their father, who’d shocked the town by writing a letter to the
West Essex Tribune insisting the Holocaust never occurred.)
Biking around the neighborhood another day, we ran into a
couple of older kids hanging out in the parking lot of 7-Eleven, just
behind the high school. Our sweet Schwinn Sting-Rays were tricked
out with prostate-friendly banana seats and had Vegas playing cards
taped to the rims. As the wheels spun, the cards made a cool-ass
clicking sound against the spokes, the kids’ version of motorcycle
vrooms.
“Hey, are you guys Jewish?” they asked.
background check
“Yup,” we replied. “Are you?”
Boom! One of them socked me in the eye and took off on my
bike, leaving me in pain and Jed freaked out. A week later we
found my mangled bike rusting at the bottom of Devil’s Ditch, a
swamp behind the high school football field, rims bent, banana seat
nowhere to be found.
Then, during our first Jersey Passover, we ran into Big Paul,
the undisputed king of our new hood. Everyone called him “Big”
because he’d repeated eleventh grade an unspecified number of
times, consequently towering over the rest of us. “What in the hell
are you bagels eating now?” he asked, as we munched our matzo.
Being avid fans of bagels, especially everything bagels with chive
cream cheese, we didn’t see anything wrong with the term, until that
winter when all the kids from the hood gathered to sled down our
street’s big hill. That’s when Paul and a few of his equally oversized
pals tested out the results of their latest modification to the ordinary
snowball: overnight storage in the freezer. As we whizzed by, they
winged their ice balls at us, yelling, “Hit the bagels!” Of course I got
nailed in the mouth on my first run. I freaked out when I noticed
the freshly fallen snow at my feet turning cherry snow cone red. I
abandoned my Flexible Flyer at the bottom of the hill, bolting home
with Jed tagging behind me.
When we walked in, Dad took one look at my bloodied face and
got a crazed look in his eyes. He dashed out of the house without
even grabbing his coat. Thinking back, it must have been the streetwise Bronx kid inside him, or possibly the ever-deepening realization that he’d moved his family to Auschwitz, New Jersey. Either way,
he totally snapped, marching across the neighbors’ yards, making a
beeline for Big Paul. Jed and I poked our heads out from behind
a maple tree just in time to see him let loose with a tidal wave of
violence, mashing Big Paul’s face into two feet of powder, followed
immediately by a knee to his nut sack.
Later that evening Paul’s father came a-knockin’. I was pretty sure
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buskers
8
he wasn’t finally getting around to welcoming us to the neighborhood. As the evening chill invaded our living room, I watched the
two dads standing quietly on the porch, discussing the day’s events.
Jed and I overheard them saying something about not pressing
charges, and that was pretty much that.
The next time we went sledding we sensed a palpable shift in local
authority. With each successive run, kids parted for us like the Red
Sea. As it turned out, Dad was a hell of a lot better at bullying than
anyone in the vicinity. Readying at the top of the hill for yet another
slalom, we looked up to see our parents on the front porch holding
hands for one of the last times.
Even though we saw Dad as our hero, a larger-than-life protector and
watchdog, in real life the daily grind of office life slowly sucked the
gusto out of him. He gradually stopped cracking his trademark
slapstick jokes and patented one-liners like “Just call me Crisco for
shortening.” He barely played his flute anymore. When he did, he
complained of his diminishing skill. “If you miss one day of practice,
you know it,” he theorized. “If you miss two days, the band knows it.
And if you miss three, the audience knows it.”
We’d seen warning signs: Mom crying alone in her room, and an
inordinate number of secretive phone calls. Whenever the phone
rang, Dad leapt to his feet and yelled, “I got it,” then disappeared into
the bathroom for hours, stretching the curly red cord to its limit.
Other times, we’d answer a call only to hear a woman’s mousy voice
at the other end of the line taunting, “Ira doesn’t love you anymore.”
Finally, one day as we returned from a fun-filled excursion to
the local Purim Carnival (a holiday celebrating Jewish victory over
enemies), still equipped with groggers (noisemakers) and wearing
King Akesh Varos costumes comprised of fake mustaches, Mom’s
costume jewelry, and gold paper crowns, our folks sat us down for
a family conference.
background check
“Boys, we have something to tell you,” Mom began. “You’ve probably noticed mom and dad fighting a lot. It’s by no means your fault,
but we’re going to be taking some time away from each other. Daddy
is moving out.”
Dad didn’t say anything, only sported a weird grin, but we let
out an audible gasp and fled to our bedroom crying, feeling like
a nuclear bomb had just ripped through our home. Welcome to
divorce, 1970s style.
Dad was having an affair with his secretary. At least that’s how
Mom eventually put it when she broke ranks and spilled the beans.
Boy, was Dad angry about being outed. “The kids are too young to
understand!”
Before the separation, and before we understood what “affair”
meant, he had often brought his chiquita, Eleanor, by the house,
playing her off as a close co-worker. Mom had even befriended her
in hopes of smoothing our transition to town, hoping to reconstruct
a new close-knit circle of friends for all of us, like we’d had back
in California. We had played with her kids, who, incidentally, were
pretty cool. But we certainly never expected any of this to happen.
Over time, we mostly adapted to the new arrangement, spending
a night or two a week at Dad’s new apartment, which was a giant
hundred-year-old railroad apartment in East Orange, two towns
away. But the neighborhood was so dodgy we were afraid to go
outside, and we felt trapped and lonely for our friends and everexpanding album collection. Dad must have thought the situation
was about as permanent as a camping trip, because except for one
brown air mattress, some sleeping bags, and a lone light bulb dangling from the ceiling, our bedroom remained unfurnished. Jed and
I took turns either sleeping on the inflatable or sharing Dad’s bed. At
least until one of his psychiatrist friends said that would turn us gay,
after which he evicted us like a couple of bedbugs and finally sprung
for a second air mattress.
We blamed Dad’s girlfriend for ruining our family. Everything
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came to a head a few months into the separation when we were
walking with Dad by O’Neal’s Balloon, a café across the street
from Lincoln Center. Dad stopped us in our tracks, exclaiming in
fake amazement, “Holy shit! Look who it is!” Eleanor had, not so
coincidentally, commandeered a booth by the window. The plot
to acquaint us with her charms was about to fail miserably. Dad
made the mistake of dragging us inside to say hi, whereupon Jed let
loose with the juiciest string of curses ever heard from the mouth
of a nine-year-old on either side of the Mississippi. “You fucking
cunt! Goddamn bitch!” he swore, giving her the one-finger salute,
vibrating with rage. Dad tried to silence the little tyke by clapping
his hand over his mouth, but to no avail. I dragged Jed outside into a
nearby alleyway, assuming Dad would follow, but he never showed.
We watched through the large bay window as he frantically tried to
smooth things over with his paramour, with very little success.
As time went on, we began to hear rumors about Dad—that
he’d gotten it on with neighbors’ wives and even some local schoolteachers. Once-friendly adults turned cold. Even one of Jed’s teachers
vented her frustration over what I assume must have been an unfortunate encounter: “Mr. Weinstein! Sit down and stop talking! You
seem to think you can get away with anything . . . just like your
father.”
It was Take Your Kids to Work Day at Dad’s office when Eleanor
finally cornered us for a little payback. “I’m telling you right now,”
she whispered. “I’m watching you little shits and this time I’m doing
whatever I can to keep Ira away from you.” She spoke Dad’s name
like she’d taken ownership.
For the most part, Dad was like a meteor hurtling past us from
some distant galaxy, a stranger beaming in from time to time. But
hey, at least riding in his car was fun. When he was baked, we often
landed on someone’s lawn or stuck in a ditch waiting for AAA. Like
the time he volunteered to give a few of our friends a ride across
town. He’d been entertaining us with one of his stories when our
background check
car did a three-sixty in the middle of rain-slicked South Livingston
Avenue.
When we came to a rest, we cheered, “C’mon Dad, do it again!”
“No thanks,” he said, maneuvering us back onto the road, eyes
glazed from the Panama Red he kept stashed in the glove compartment. “Once is quite enough!”
When word leaked back, parents instructed kids not to ride with
Mr. Weinstein anymore.
With Dad well on his way to starting a new family with Eleanor,
Jed and I desperately tried to stay on his radar. The only place left
for us to connect with him was at the theater he managed. The
Maurice Levin Theater was a cozy five-hundred-seater where we
gained a behind-the-scenes look into the lives of hardworking musicians. Dad took time from his busy schedule to introduce us to the
Tokyo String Quartet, Martha Graham, and the Alvin Ailey Dance
Company. We even hung with legends Peggy Lee and Buddy Rich.
One night, we snuck backstage and listened through the dressing
room door while Buddy ripped into his band for most of the thirtyminute intermission. “What in the hell is wrong with you motherfuckers?” he yelled. “What am I fucking paying you for?” He even
threatened to replace the entire band by the next night’s show if they
didn’t get it together. Apparently, the bitch-out sessions were so
commonplace that the guys in his band took to secretly taping and
distributing copies to their friends. I’ve got to hand it to Buddy: He was
strict, but his band played the second set that night like they were on fire.
When we were old enough, Dad promoted us to ticket takers.
That’s when we became friendly with the audience—mainly wealthy
Jewish retirees from Summit, Livingston, Short Hills, and West
Orange, their names boldly emblazoned on the backs of the Playbills
as “Patrons of the Arts.”
They would kvetch, “Tell your father we need more Bach!” Or,
“Please darling, tell him enough with the Rodgers and Hammerstein,
already.”
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One guy in particular came to all the events. He never spoke a
word, and with a faraway look in his eyes, he shakily handed me his
ticket.
“Dad, what the hell is wrong with that guy?”
“Well, don’t say anything, son,” he made me promise. “But Mr.
Goldberg’s a survivor.”
We wanted to be around Dad all the time, which is why the mornings after shows were always extra difficult. As the night’s excitement
dissipated, we were left deflated and bleary eyed. How could we be
expected to concentrate on schoolwork after hanging with Sid Caesar
or tagging along to Newark Airport to pick up the scary dude from
the Brady Bunch Hawaii episode, aka Vincent Price? The world was
obviously much wider than our little corner of it. Sensing our excitement, Mom asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. Our reply
was always the same: “Musicians!”
But Dad, well aware of the hardship associated with living an artist’s
life, reached for one of his old standards, and with a faux Yiddish
accent insisted, “Physician, not musician!”
2
Daddy’s Weed
I
[j e d ]
n a weird way, we welcomed our parents’ separation. Before Dad
moved out, we thought the normal state of family life was allnight screaming matches, punctuated by slamming doors and
projectiles soaring overhead. Then, suddenly, there was stillness.
A peaceful yet deafening silence blanketed our house. There was still
the odd incident to liven things up though, like the time we walked
in on Mom stabbing Dad with a pencil after he’d pushed her so hard
she’d fallen against the kitchen stove.
Moments before the scuffle, Dad had dropped by the house for
one of his frequent unannounced visits. He typically raided the
fridge looking for remnants of one of Mom’s specialties while multitasking a phone call to Eleanor. This time Mom wasn’t having it and
in an uncharacteristically bold move demanded he leave. During the
ensuing attack, she defended herself with the nearest sensible object,
a sharp Ticonderoga No. 2. Pop’s vintage pencil sharpener became
his undoing. That metal, desk-mountable Boston KS from the 1950s
ensured that every pencil in our home was kept as sharp as a needle.
In the end, he was left dazed, stumbling around the house with a
bloody bath towel wrapped around his hand. Upstairs, Heth tried to
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comfort me with a hug as I sat crying in our bedroom. I whispered,
“Why was Mom trying to kill Dad?” He didn’t say anything, just
squeezed me tighter.
Dad wasn’t done with Mom by any means. While she was
occupied at work, he’d sneak off with furniture and a smattering of
valuable household items. Returning home from school, Heth and
I often made a game of seeing who could spot what was missing.
“Uh oh, he got the painting from above the staircase.”
“Yup,” I replied, inspecting the dusty outline left in its place.
“Mom’s gonna freak!”
Dad’s next move was to empty the family bank account, thereby
turning monthly child support into a political tug-of-war—with us
kids stuck in the middle.
“Make sure you ask your father for the check,” Mom instructed,
dropping us off at his apartment for our weekly sleepover. She knew
we were the best chance of getting him to fork over some muchneeded coin. We’d agonize about when to broach the check subject
for the duration of the entire visit.
“Dad, um, Mom wants us to remind you about the check.”
Deep sigh. “I guess I should have known! The only reason you
boys ever come here is for money. And besides, I just gave your crazy
mother a check last week!”
The result? We frequently stared down the barrel of an empty
fridge. As the noose tightened, Mom scurried around, maxing out
credit cards and borrowing money from relatives, all the while
looking for a better-paying job and a car that didn’t break down
every other week. Thankfully, after we applied to the School Lunch
Program, the great state of New Jersey stepped in with meal cards—
one for each of us kids. At least on weekdays we were guaranteed
a hot lunch. Kind-hearted, hair-netted lunch ladies heaped extralarge portions of mac’n’cheese onto our Styrofoam plates while
other kids looked on enviously. Still, they might as well have set up
daddy's weed
a siren in the lunchroom: “Beep! Beep! Beep! The Weinstein kids are
poor. I repeat: The Weinstein kids are poor.”
It wouldn’t have been so bad if other students had meal tickets
too, but the kids’ side of our high school parking lot was filled with
convertible Mercedes and BMWs while the teachers’ side resembled
a Pinto dealership. The rift between the haves and the have-nots
was becoming increasingly clearer to us—especially at synagogue.
On holidays we’d pull into Temple B’nai Abraham’s elegant cul-desac in a rusted-out, poop-brown Dodge Dart. We’d sneak past the
whispering crowds with as little fanfare as possible, clad in outdated
hand-me-downs from relatives twenty years older, searching for a
cozy pew in which to atone for our sins. We couldn’t help feeling
that compared to our impeccably coiffed peers, we looked like two
adolescent disco kings in miniature elbow-padded leisure suits.
Mindful of our fiscal status, we gravitated toward kids in our
own economic bracket, the ones who couldn’t give a shit whether
or not we could afford a school ski trip or a summer Teen Tour,
the ones who could overlook the fact that our ailing front lawn
(which everyone knows is the true measure of suburban affluence)
had up and finally died on us, an outward manifestation of the
disintegration of our folks’ marriage. Anyway, all of us kids were
quite adept at entertaining ourselves. After school, we’d often slip
into the West Orange Water Reserve to have some fun, far behind
the vacant fairgrounds. The grounds were off limits except for one
week each summer when the local Kiwanis organization sponsored
a traveling carnival. Just like the swarms of moths drawn to the
flickering carnival lights, we were drawn to the intoxicating aroma
of fried zeppoli and sausage and pepper heroes. There were all kinds
of games, like the ring toss with rings that, of course, barely fit
around the spindle. After losing a few bucks, if you complained long
enough, the carnies would cave and hand you a few “win tickets”
which you could redeem for cool shit, like a sparkly Lynyrd Skynyrd
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16
cocaine mirror or a glow-in-the-dark Jimi Hendrix poster. The best
part was the rickety rides like the Twister that blasted KISS songs all
night long. It spun like a top until the bottom dropped out and the
centrifugal force nailed you to the wall. Kids always hurled on that
one, so we made sure to watch from a safe distance. We could hear
the commotion clear up to our house a mile away.
When the carnival left town, we’d all go back to trespassing, hiking
through acres upon acres of lush unspoiled forest, a lost army brigade on a secret reconnaissance mission. Except for a few overgrown
dirt roads where the game wardens prowled, checking water stations
and looking for intruders, it was our paradise for miles, land just as
George Washington and the colonial forces must have found it. Even
so, we stayed on high alert. If they found us messing around back
there, the wardens would hunt us down using air rifles, looking to
shoot our asses full of salt pellets. No warning shots, nothing. Even
though that shit stung like a mofo, we practically dared the wardens
to chase us. It got our blood pumping.
For a brief moment, I too owned a gun. My pal Bobby King gave
it to me for my twelfth birthday. It was a plastic hand-pump rifle
that shot yellow rubber pellets. I tucked it into my bag and brought
it along on an overnight stay at Dad’s. But while excitedly showing
him my new toy, I accidentally pointed the stupid thing in his direction. Before I knew it, he smacked me hard upside the head and took
possession. Cracking it over his knee and throwing it at me he said,
“See, that’s what you get when you play with guns!”
It was stuff like this that had Heth and me treading carefully
through Dad’s world on constant lookout, trying to dodge his
unpredictable, explosive temper. Sometimes, when he chased after
us, we’d hightail it to the safety of the bathroom, the only room with
a lock. We’d bargain, “You promise not to hit us if we come out?”
Or we’d wait it out, hiding in the nearest closet, safely ensconced by
musty-smelling haberdashery until he simmered down.
With Dad increasingly AWOL, Heth and I were beginning to look
daddy's weed
for outside parenting. Our best friend Ed was about our age, but had
all the earmarks of an upstanding father figure: He could drink more
beer than any of us and did the best burn-outs on his Mongoose BMX
bike. He’d also grown up fast since his dad’s death a few years earlier.
In addition to his loss, his mom wasn’t well, so it became incumbent
upon fourteen-year-old Eddie to chauffeur her back and forth to
work––something we respected. Beset with adult responsibility and
difficulty seeing over the steering wheel, he made do, sitting on a
stack of phone books. Once in a while he’d pick us up for a joy ride
in his mom’s fire engine red Yugo, and we’d hit the muddy banks
of the Passaic River for some sweet off-roading. Good times!
His mom was a church organist and when the diocese purchased
a new organ, they gifted her the old one. That thing was so humungous it barely fit in their living room. On special occasions, such as
Christmas, she’d honor us with a command performance of classics
like “Hallelujah” that had the entire house shaking—literally.
Mrs. O’Neil always treated us kids as equals. When making liquor
runs she never failed to include us in the festivities, always returning
with at least a few extra six-packs of Old Milwaukee for us. And
whenever we cut school, she wrote the excusal note:
Please excuse Jed from class. He was ill.
Sincerely,
Mrs. Weinstein
For his fourteenth birthday she affectionately christened Heth
“Space Cadet” and bought him a baseball cap with those illustrious
words emblazoned on the crown. Heth’s mind was always somewhere up in the clouds. People assumed he was a burnout long
before he ever partied.
We appreciated Mrs. O’s maternal ways, but what we really
needed at the moment was some cold, hard cash. To this end, we
had recently made a magnificent find. While cutting through North
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Jersey Auto one day, the three of us discovered that the garage was
leaving keys in the ignitions of the wrecks they were fixing. This
gave rise to a plan. We returned later that night and made off with a
banged-up piece-of-shit Toyota that made a heinous grinding noise
anytime we threw it into gear (they should probably get that fixed).
Before stashing it behind the racquetball club, we chugged up to
“Sev” (7-Eleven) for the essentials: Coke Slurpees, Pixy Stix . . . and
of course a few rounds of Defender.
The next morning we cut school, recovered the car, and headed
up Route 280 to Dad’s latest digs; a more kid-friendly apartment
complex called Rutgers Village, located a town away in Parsippany.
We took the Edwards Road exit, made a sharp left, and parked the
clunker in Dad’s lot. Then we snuck around the back of his building
and hoisted each other through his office window. Once inside, we
bee-lined it for the fridge, with Ed instantly taking charge of the
sandwich making.
“Salameee! Salameee! Baloneee!” he said, quoting Bugs Bunny.
After pigging, we got right down to the business of rummaging
through Dad’s mothball-scented closet.
“See anything?”
“Nope, not yet,” Heth replied. “Wait! What do we have here? Holy
shit!”
“What is it?” I begged. “Lemme see. Lemme see.” It was a Polaroid
of Eleanor lying naked with her legs spread wide as the Grand
Canyon. To this day we’re still traumatized. There was something
perverse about seeing the lady who had torn our family apart lying
bare-assed on Dad’s bed. The three of us fell silent as we took turns
passing the X-rated photo around, joking that we should send it in
to Beaver Hunt Magazine for entry in their “Amateur of the Month”
contest.
Anyway, we were hunting for something more important. Where
did he keep his cash? Unfortunately for us, Dad was apparently a fan
of banks. But then Heth popped the lid off a nondescript shoebox
daddy's weed
at the back of the closet. Inside, we beheld not money, but a giant
Ziploc bag overflowing with marijuana buds! There must have been
at least a pound staring up at us, and the cherry on top was a large
piece of what we eventually determined was a chunk of Lebanese
black tar hash. Jackpot!
Heth cut up our booty into dime bags and sold it to kids all over
town, using the proceeds to stock our fridge many times over. The
first thing we bought was a case of cinnamon Pop-Tarts and a sixfoot turkey sub with the works from Cammarata’s Pizza Pantry.
When the delivery guy showed up, we tipped him twenty bucks like
a couple of miniature Pablo Escobars.
This was some grade A primo weed, not the usual North Jersey
shwag. Because of its deep gold color we assumed it must be Acapulco
Gold, a new strain we’d read about in High Times magazine. Most
bizarre were the miniscule white crystals encrusted around each of
the buds. We surmised this was some extraordinary plant biology,
or maybe it was sprinkled with angel dust. Either way, it jettisoned
our young brains into outer space. A mere toke or two caused
hallucinations; three tokes and you could kiss the next five hours
goodbye.
Our find was so potent that our good buddy John Cooper went
momentarily blind after smoking it, complaining that all he could
see was the color yellow. In disjointed sentences and broken syllables, he conveyed his wishes to be escorted from the woods where
we were smoking back to the safety of our house for some peppermint tea. I’m not sure if it’s an urban legend, but the scuttlebutt
at the time was that drinking tea brought you down from a bum
trip. Whether that is true or not, it’s always a delightful beverage. Of
course, after John was stabilized, we all smoked up again.
The locals had never smoked anything this strong, so demand
was sky-high. Many times Heth would be sitting in class when
seniors, who’d never before given him the time of day, dropped by,
acting like his best friend. All at once we felt the magnitude of our
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situation. Either Dad’s hallucination-inducing cannabis was poised
to become legendary at Livingston High or we were going to be
busted big-time. We felt our vulnerability keenly when a rogue kid
named Alex Simmons tried to extort a decent amount of weed from
us in exchange for not tipping off the police. We bought him off
with a couple joints and explained that lots of kids, some of them
very large, some of them on the football team, would not be pleased
if they learned he was fucking with their dope supply.
Business continued unabated. We could barely get through a
meal without the doorbell ringing.
“I’ll get it, Mom!” Heth said, the budding entrepreneur happily
rising from the table to greet yet another client.
In the end, we weren’t afraid of Dad finding out we’d made off
with his stash. What could he say? “Hey, did you kids steal my illegal
drugs?” Our heist became the stuff of local legend and an unspoken
secret between father and sons. Mom had retreated so deeply into
herself from the pain of Dad’s betrayal that she hadn’t noticed our
metamorphosis into low-end drug dealers, and while Dad was out
spending money he’d inherited from an uncle who’d passed away,
traveling the world with his girlfriend on his arm, we’d gone from
guiltless little boys to pot-dealing delinquents hustling grocery
money. From disillusionment to anger, from innocence shattered
to hard reality. From “we have to rely on our parents” to “we’re on
our own.”
When the weed ran out we went back to our other pastime—shoplifting.
What began as a way of putting food on the table had become an
addictive rush. Our gang of friends lived by one simple rule: Steal at
least one thing per day. Over time we came to regard theft as an art
form, perpetually one-upping each other, testing our bravado and
thievery skill sets in a never-ending quest for top outlaw bragging
rights.
daddy's weed
Our usual target was an unsuspecting supermarket that shall
remain nameless. We customarily headed over to checkout, grabbed
some brown paper bags, and then nonchalantly made our way up
and down the aisles, filling them with whatever we fancied. It was
like the show Supermarket Sweep where the contestants run amuck,
grabbing items off the shelves willy-nilly. Once we’d checked off
everything on our shopping list, we’d casually mosey out the door
like paying customers.
If we couldn’t sneak bags from behind the counter, we resorted
to less inventive techniques, such as the underwear method. This
involved nicking smaller items, shoving multi-packs of Velamints
and Whatchamacallits (our faves) down our pants. The by-products
of this technique were a wicked sugar high and an extraordinary
bulge in the crotchular region.
With another eventful summer winding down and a new school
year approaching, we needed supplies, so Mom took us up to Two
Guys department store on Route 10 in East Hanover, basically a
1980s version of Kmart with everything from rifles, lawn mowers,
and camping equipment to dollar-ninety-nine ELO records. Heth
and I wound our way up and down the towering aisles slyly casing
the joint like Baby Face Finsters. Though the interior was run-down,
this store’s security measures made our usual marks’ efforts pale in
comparison. We had no idea we were dancing with the big boys. To
us little kids, the coast looked more than clear, so Heth made good
on our “steal one thing a day” pact, stealthily shoving one of those
newfangled erasable pens (like he really needed that item) down his
pants. As we exited, store security nabbed him.
Ignorant of the circumstances, Mom shouted, “Let go of my son!”
and yanked Heth toward her.
“I’ll take it from here,” Heth said, trying to cover his ass. “Everything’s cool, Mom. You guys go on home and I’ll meet up with you
later.”
Pfft. As if Mom was ever going to let that happen. Plus, we were
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like seven miles from home. They hauled Heth and Mom into
the back room where they took his photo and added him to the
“Banned for Life” corkboard. Ultimately, it wasn’t much of a sentence, because they went out of business a year and a half later.
Some years after high school, we were invited to a party in West
Caldwell hosted by someone whose family, unbeknownst to us, had
owned the Two Guys franchise way-back-when. When Heth offhandedly made a comment about being caught stealing up there,
the dude responded, “It’s because of assholes like you my family
went bankrupt! You know what? I think I’d like you to leave.”
Since Dad had wised up and found a new spot to hide his stash from
our grubby little hands, we were now forced to get our weed from
other sources. One of our connections was a guy named Bill Clarke
who was a dishonorably discharged Marine in his late twenties
living down the block with his mom. Bill was the neighborhood acid
casualty, a public reminder of what happened to those who strayed
a little too far into the drug world. Sometimes he meditated crosslegged in the middle of our street, burning incense and chanting
Hare Krishna mantras while wearing one of those folded newspaper
pirate hats. His mom begged, “Billy, get back in here!” But he usually
wouldn’t budge until the police arrived.
Restricted by a permanently revoked driver’s license, Bill was
forced to walk from here to there. He’d walk for hours, sometimes
to far-flung places. While driving with our mom practically in the
next county, we’d see him off in the distance doing his unmistakable, bopping walk on the side of the road. “Holy crap! There’s Bill!”
we’d yell excitedly. “How the hell did he get way out here?”
A typical drug buy started with Bill walking the five or so miles
to make a purchase from his secret supplier over in West Orange.
On the way back, he’d invariably stop along the route to smoke as
daddy's weed
much of our product as possible. Then we’d meet up at “the logs,”
our regular party spot in what we called St. Phil’s woods, the natural
refuge of forest and fallen trees between our house, the high school,
and St. Philomena Church. Buying an ounce from Bill meant we’d
end up with a little over fifty percent of our order. Also, while couriering he typically stashed the bag in his underwear, in case the cops
stopped him. This would have been fine, except he rarely showered.
When he handed over the weed, the usually lovely pot aroma was
overpowered by the scent of Bill’s sweaty balls.
When we weren’t partying at the logs with Bill, we found solace
in Ed’s bedroom, a veritable sweat lodge for psychedelic enthusiasts.
We sat in each other’s presence, lights off, incense wafting, all of us
teenagers worshipping at the altar of almighty rock’n’roll, listening
to everything from the Cars and the Clash to Black Sabbath, the
Doors, Cream, Zeppelin and that intense, live Rush album, Exit . . .
Stage Left.
We had bonded with a bunch of adventurous kids, a select group
of partiers all bent on taking the same amazing, mind-expanding
journey. Heeding Jim Morrison’s plea to “break on through,” we
hoped for a glimpse of what awaited us in the afterlife. Like junior
pharmacists in white lab coats we worked with dosage, discovering
that with the right cocktail of illicit substances we could exist inside
a Pink Floyd record, swimming in the colors and shapes the music
radiated. To push things further, we gathered speakers from all the
kids’ houses and daisy chained them into an ’80s version of Surround
Sound.
One time we were listening to “Several Species of Small Furry
Animals” off of Floyd’s Ummagumma (a song that makes excellent use of the entire stereo spectrum), when Heth asked, “Dudes,
anyone else seeing frickin’ trails?” We’d been hipped to the “multiplying effect” in health class: If you smoked weed after drinking, you
automatically doubled the high. Thanks for the heads up.
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DNA and splendid drug
supply aside, Dad had unknowingly aided
our musical journey in one other way: He’d left behind a 1970s
wood-paneled, tube-powered Pioneer stereo system, through
which mythical New York City DJs Scott Muni and Carol Miller
fed us a steady diet of rock’n’roll bliss. Our headphones were the
umbilical cord connecting us to new sounds, new worlds, and, most
importantly, other dimensions. The world felt beautifully sad when
we moped around to the sounds of Joy Division, Ministry, OMD,
and the Cure. We also slam danced to the razor-sharp power chords
of two-minute punk ditties from the likes of Bad Brains, Flipper, the
Dead Kennedys, and Black Flag, all the while avoiding disco like the
revolting scourge it was.
All this time, the desire to make music was growing inside us
like some irrepressible genetic disease. Heth and I were intent on
forming our very own band as soon as possible. Actually, we’d been
behaving like a band way before we could play instruments. Soon,
to the further dismay of our neighbors, the cacophony of off-beat
drumming and out-of-tune guitars replaced our parents’ all-night
screaming matches.
3
Our First Taste of New York
“W
[ h et h ]
anna take a ride?” Dad asked, pulling up in front of
our house in his new car.
“Hell yeah!” we replied, pointing in Ed and Adam’s
direction. “Can we bring our friends?”
“Sure.”
He was eager to show off his new toy, especially the way it handled the S curves of South Orange Avenue—New Jersey’s answer to
San Francisco’s Lombard Street. After a few passes, we convinced
him to park so we could all go for a hike at nearby South Mountain
Reservation, which was easily a couple thousand acres of unspoiled
trails and fields.
At Campbell Pond I hopped out onto some rocks. Dad followed
close behind but blocked me when I tried to return to shore.
“C’mon,” I said, laughing. “What are you doing?”
He blindsided me, knocking me ass-first into the slime green,
algae-choked water. Back on dry land I was shivering and embarrassed. “C’mon, motherfucker,” I said, taking a few half-hearted
swings at him and bracing myself for another smack to the head.
When he connected, his punches felt like cement blocks smacking
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my brain loose. “Man, your dad’s a friggin’ psycho!” Ed whispered
when it was over, as he helped me to my feet. As we silently rode
home in Pop’s sweet new ride, all I could think about was how
someday I’d be able to kick his fat ass.
That opportunity presented itself half a year later, when I was a
bit taller and had a little more meat on me. While practicing on my
drum pad with the thick steel drumsticks I used for strengthening
my wrists, I heard a commotion and ran upstairs to find him wrestling with Mom again.
“I can visit whenever I want to. I pay half the mortgage for
Chrissakes!”
Mom was yelling, “Let go of me, you son of a bitch!”
“Dad, leave her alone!” I screamed, as I lodged my drumsticks
under his Adam’s apple and tried to pry her free.
We jockeyed back and forth, chasing each other around the
dining room.
“Little boy’s a man now?” he taunted.
Click, click, click, click. The metronome in the basement was still
keeping perfect time when Dad stormed out of the house.
The violence in the air followed me to my first year at Heritage Junior
High. I had hoped for a smooth start to the school year but my
excitement soured on the very first day when a huge ninth-grade
jock named Sal Bruno took an instant dislike to me.
“Hey faggot! Nice hair,” he said, impressing his entourage of
chuckling meatheads.
As I walked by, he tripped me. I fell hard, then picked up my
belongings only to have them slammed out of my arms yet again.
All the other kids were staring at me and laughing.
After that, I tried like hell to avoid him but he kept finding me—
near the metal shop, in the gym locker room, even on the way home
o u r f i r s t ta s t e o f n e w y o r k
from school. It was always the same: “Faggot,” followed by a beatdown.
One day, I made the mistake of venturing down a barely used
basement hallway by the art classrooms. I saw Sal off in the distance
and hoped for the best as we walked the lengthy hallway like two
gunslingers in a face off.
“Why don’t you cut that hair, faggot?” he asked again.
“Why don’t you suck my dick?” I replied.
All at once I completely lost it. I didn’t care about anything anymore. You could keep my fucked up father and this whole bullshit
existence. I wanted out of this world, but not until I made that steroid case bleed, and bleed he did when I struck him in his nose with
a fast right hook. With blood gushing down his face he picked me
up like a rag doll and body slammed me onto the marble floor. My
head cracked down so hard you could have heard it clear down to
the end of the hallway. After that, he pretty much moved on to tormenting other freshmen, but kept me as an alternate on his victim
roster for when business was slow.
One morning, they made an announcement over the school PA.
“We are very sorry to announce that student Salvatore Bruno was
killed in a car accident last night. Our hearts and prayers go out to
his friends and family.” Some girls started crying and even a few of
the guys teared up. Our homeroom teacher went over to comfort
them while I sat there beaming, looking around the classroom for
someone to high-five.
With my heightened tendency to violence I could now fly into a blind
rage with barely any provocation, and this inevitably filtered down
to my interactions with little Jed. I still feel bad about it. On several
occasions, we spilled out onto the front lawn in full brawl, Mom
running out the door alongside us yelling, “Stop it! Stop it! I’m
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calling the police!” We didn’t care. As far as we were concerned, there
wasn’t much else we could do to embarrass ourselves in front of the
neighbors, and fuck them anyway for having such perfect little lives.
On the other hand, if anybody else messed with Jed I’d turn into his
psycho protector, taking on kids twice my size.
When we weren’t coming to fisticuffs with the entire eastern seaboard, Jed and I practiced our instruments relentlessly. Initially, sans
drum kit, I made do bashing the hell out of mom’s defenseless couch
pillows and unsuspecting crockery, pretending to be Charlie Watts,
the Rolling Stones’ human metronome. Eventually I found out that
a kid down the street had a sweet, green-sparkled Ludwig kit, so
I decided to make him my new best friend. As it happened, Steve
said he’d already switched over to guitar and “would rather practice
his lessons with a live drummer over a metronome any day.” It was
the perfect arrangement, since I thought drumming was the coolest
fucking thing in the world and it felt really, really good to hit something besides Jed.
“Hi, is Steve home?” I asked his mom, knowing full well he wasn’t.
“Well, would it be okay if I waited for him . . . in the basement?”
I couldn’t wait to descend the stairs past the typical North Jersey
sump pump into their mildewed basement and rip into that sweet
drum kit for hours on end. Thankfully Steve’s folks were tolerant
of all the noise, his mom occasionally folding laundry down there
while I hammered away. But I was well aware I was overstaying my
welcome, so I tried prying a couple a hundred bucks of bar mitzvah
money from Pops to purchase my very own kit—no small feat.
Before the internet and Craigslist, the most efficient way to buy
used gear in New Jersey was through a rag called the Want Ad Press.
With the latest issue in hand, I skimmed past the used cars and boats
section, making for the holy pages of musical instruments. Most of
the sets were priced well out of my league until . . . come to Papa:
For Sale. 5 pc. Slingerland drum set. All hardware incl. $250.00 O.B.O.
We cruised up to Butler, where Dad did an awesome job bargaining
o u r f i r s t ta s t e o f n e w y o r k
with the owner, an intimidating Hells Angels type sporting a cool
looking Fu Manchu.
Sensing how important it was to me, Mom graciously allowed
Dad on the premises for the watershed moment. At home, we
assembled the $185 kit in record time, but just as I was about to
mount my steed Dad jumped on the drum stool and started beating
the skins. He’d often told us tales of drumming with saxophonist
Gerry Mulligan in the Village and set about proving it.
“How about giving me a chance?” I begged.
Like a senator in mid-filibuster, he wouldn’t budge, so after a
while I gave up and dejectedly hiked over to St. Philomena’s woods
to wait it out. No matter how far from the house I went, I could still
hear him bashing away.
It was torture sitting through class knowing my drum set was
home alone just waiting for me. (Yes, I was one of those annoying
kids who relentlessly tapped his desk with a pencil.) After school,
while mathletes solved brain-melting equations and wrestlers
played grab-ass in the gymnasium, I blissfully skipped home,
walking straight through the front door to bid my baby hello. I
drummed so much that piles of drumstick shards several inches
high accumulated at my feet every few days. Drumming became
my escape from the daily household chaos, and gradually my selfesteem grew as I excelled at something other than getting high.
When some kid at school mentioned it had been proven that
the act of drumming summoned the devil, I was a little unnerved.
It seemed plausible. At the time, we were watching a lot of movies
about the occult such as The Exorcist and The Omen, while in the
news, we saw Tipper Gore and the PMRC denounce our favorite
albums as the root of all evil. I had questions. Did this mean I was
risking demonic possession in pursuit of musical glory?
Nevertheless, I bravely secured a boom box to the bookshelf
directly behind my head and painstakingly set about unlocking the
mysteries surrounding every John Bonham drum lick, flam, and
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paradiddle known to mankind. I remember taking on the superhuman “Good Times, Bad Times,” a song in which Bonzo introduced
me to the unnatural technique of using one’s foot to hit rapid-fire,
sixteenth-note triplets on a single bass drum. In an effort to become
the “best foot” in North Jersey I worked my technique so hard that,
over time, my right calf became twice as muscular as my left.
My kit, while in some disrepair, was good enough to get me up
and running in my first band. By age fifteen, I was playing the cover
band bar circuit up around Nyack, New York. I mainly remember
being paid in beer and everyone being way older than me. Like
father, like son.
In the meantime, with Dizzy Gillespie as his primary hero, Jed
gravitated to the trumpet. Dad approved of this and sprung for lessons immediately. The two had bonded over jazz and formed the
kind of close relationship I envied. Dad even spent time teaching
him how to sight-read music, while I was stuck somewhere on the
sidelines in firstborn purgatory. Learning from my example, Jed
knew that once he grew a personality, the honeymoon between him
and Dad would be over too. But until then, Dad was really there for
him and took him to see Dizzy anytime he was in town. Diz invited
kids up on stage at the end of every show, and somehow Dad always
made sure Jed was up there.
Dizzy asked, “So what instrument do you want to play when you
grow up, young man?”
“Trumpet!” he always answered.
Once after Dizzy performed in Washington Square Park with
his big band, Jed asked him if they could take a photo together.
Dizzy grabbed him and gave him an incredible bear hug while Dad
squeezed off a shot with his Kodak.
Jed’s trumpet teacher was a stuffy old Juilliard professor, the spitting image of Lawrence Welk. Mr. Treutel had taught such greats
as Wynton Marsalis and Lew Soloff of Blood, Sweat & Tears fame
(Lew was the one who rocked the classic trumpet solo on “Spinning
o u r f i r s t ta s t e o f n e w y o r k
Wheel”.) Jed excelled and was viewed as something of a young
prodigy by his liege, at least until my friend Mike and I secretly
inserted the nastiest porn spread we could get our hands on into
his Canadian Brass Book of Intermediate Trumpet Solos—retaliation
for the latest evil practical joke he’d played on us. Jed unwittingly
handed the lesson book to his teacher who, upon opening it, got
an eyeful of some California surfer dude sticking his gigantic tool
between a massive pair of fake tits. “Hmmm, what’s this here?” he
asked, adjusting his bifocals.
In the subsequent weeks, Jed tried squeezing out a few more lessons from his instructor (carefully checking all his trumpet books
for contraband beforehand) but was finally rebuffed, his teacher
believing him to be some kind of twisted, low-life pervert. When
Mike and I heard the details we hit the floor laughing so hard, we
nearly pissed ourselves, then actually felt kind of bad about the
whole thing.
Puberty was hormonal roulette. Some kids sailed through, developing
muscles and enough self-esteem to run for class president. Others,
like me, had zits and so much self-doubt I took refuge behind a pair
of mirrored, psychedelic John Lennon sunglasses and an oversized,
government-issued military jacket for the duration. It didn’t help
matters that Dad was always commenting, “Man, your face is looking
pretty bad today.” Yes, Father, thank you for alerting me to this fact.
But when he was in a good mood he’d take us on spontaneous
adventures, often in New York City. On my fifteenth birthday, he
picked us up after school and whisked us away for a greasy meal at
his favorite Chinatown dive. The stench of industrial Jersey burned
into our lungs like tear gas as we crossed the Pulaski Skyway making
for the Holland tunnel. Jed and I customarily pulled our shirts
over our faces, using them as makeshift gas masks, breathing only
through our mouths until safely out of nose shot.
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Our destination, Wo Hop, was the undisputed McDonald’s of
Chinatown cuisine. They’d been serving up legendary MSG-laced
dishes in that dank, Mott Street basement for over five decades (and
are still at it today). The decor was uniquely New York City, the walls
plastered with signed headshots of local nobodies. It was also where
the cops often ate, since the courthouses were only a block away. The
other cool thing about the place, besides the time Chinese mobsters
executed one of the cooks, was how the waiters kibitzed with you
like you were family, asking all kinds of uncomfortable questions
like, “How’s that lovely wife?” obviously referring to Dad’s new girlfriend. Jed and I left that one alone.
We ordered our favorites: chicken fried rice, spare ribs, egg rolls,
wor shu op (fried duck), and wonton soup, the bowl overflowing
with humongous chunks of pork and Chinese cabbage. Our MSG
headaches already in full swing, we headed out onto the fishy
smelling street to fulfill the other purpose of our outing: a meeting
with Dad’s fireworks connection, a mobster named Chinatown. (I
immediately liked this guy for having the balls to name himself after
the entire neighborhood.) The man could usually be found hanging
around a parking lot on Baxter Street.
“Chinatown around?”
“Wait here,” the parking attendant replied, sizing us up.
Moments later a disheveled goodfella materialized. Immediately
dispensing with the pleasantries, he began selling the shit out of us.
“Okay gents, whaddya need today? I got Romans. I got fountains.
I got some nice missiles and mines.” (Not to be confused with military devices of the same name.) In spite of his mobster demeanor,
Chinatown had an ethical streak, often mentioning he could get
dynamite just as long as it wasn’t for us kids.
We waited, trying to act cool, like we weren’t from the ’burbs,
while Dad once again bargained like a pro. Chinatown reappeared
carrying a bulging red plastic bag containing several bricks of firecrackers and a couple hundred bottle rockets. On the way home, Jed
o u r f i r s t ta s t e o f n e w y o r k
and I keenly inspected our gifts, running our hands over the lumpy
packaging with the cool Chinese graphics. You could smell a hint of
gunpowder through the bags. We felt like badass gunrunners as we
drove west through the Holland Tunnel making for the Jersey line.
Pulling into our driveway, we busted out of the car, eager to blow
shit up with our friends.
With fireworks in hand, the true purpose of our house’s ratty
sunroof was finally revealed. It proved to be an exceptional launch
pad for all-out neighborhood bottle rocket wars. The main goal of
the contest was to pick off kids scattered around the lawn below.
When a missile lodged in someone’s hair (extra points for that, of
course) the concussion from the blast could leave a kid temporarily
deaf with a high-pitched weeeeee sound ringing in his ears. Our
lawn looked like a 3-D reenactment of Apocalypse Now, complete
with smoke, sulfur stink, and debris strewn about.
You can’t control outside circumstances. That’s something Mom
learned the hard way. She’d been outgunned and demoralized by
Dad’s slick divorce attorney, and following the proceedings, fell
into serious debt. On top of the legal bills, the water heater and
the washing machine broke, then the front steps fell apart, and
then the roof needed to be re-shingled, all in rapid succession. We
came home from school one day to find her crying in bed, short
of breath.
“Mom, what’s wrong?”
“I’m having a heart attack!”
“Oh my God,” we replied in our usual brotherly unison. “Should
we call an ambulance?”
“No, no, I don’t want to go to the hospital!” she insisted, wriggling free from our grasp and plunking back down on her queensized bed, flanked by empty ice cream buckets, decomposing apple
cores, and reams of completed New York Times crossword puzzles.
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Upon further interrogation, she finally concluded it was merely a
panic attack, but she sure had us worried.
Broke and convinced that our entire gossip-crazy town knew of
Pop’s infidelity, Mom could barely pull herself out of bed anymore.
The prospect of running into any of his conquests at, say, ShopRite
or Livingston Pharmacy was too daunting. Except for her 9-to-5
in customer service at Newsweek magazine, Mom was effectively a
shut-in.
Alone and desperate to help her, we did the only thing we could
think of. We watched and learned from the master himself. One
windy spring night at 2 am we stood lookout with Ed, while Ryan
Miller, one of the biggest druggies in school and head Eagle Scout
of local Troop 51, wrapped a towel around his hand and punched
out the backdoor window of a quaint two-storey Cape Cod. Ryan
was a tough army brat who enforced a strict code of “partying etiquette.” Getting high with him was like being in druggie boot camp.
We couldn’t laugh uncontrollably or act too wasted or we’d be reprimanded. “Listen dude,” he’d warn, using his tag line: “Calm your
fucking hormones.”
We had successfully gotten inside the house when my colleagues’
faces started melting. I tried to remain calm, so as not to catch
Ryan’s ire, gently reminding myself it was merely a fine hit of primo
acid kicking in. But the hit made my stomach hurt like there was
an angry baby kicking inside. Then my tongue went numb along
with my hands, leaving me wandering around the house like a blob
of protoplasmic reticulum—something we’d recently studied in
biology class.
LSD had come to Livingston High by way of our buddy Glen, a
local kid who had recently returned from an illustrious stint as our
high school’s first runaway. After a month of living in the subway
stations of New York City, he’d returned home holding ten sheets of
supposedly killer blotter acid, each hit stamped with a tiny illustration of Snoopy snoozing peacefully atop his red doghouse.
o u r f i r s t ta s t e o f n e w y o r k
My trip that night wasn’t turning out to be particularly peaceful,
and, in desperate need of some relief, I called upon his Dog-ness for
guidance, envisioning Snoopy as my benevolent acid-trip spiritual
guide. Please, Snoopy, don’t abandon me.
We were in full-on psychoactive-fueled hysterics when we
floated upstairs to the master bedroom of the cozy, middle-class
home, whereupon we immediately located a wooden jewelry box on
the dresser and began stuffing pillowcases full of the Richardsons’
valuables.
“Holy shit!” Ryan said, rummaging around under the bed. “I just
found their fucking adoption papers!”
“Those kids were adopted?” Ed asked. “Wow, I never knew.”
A few minutes later, Jed was jumping up and down on the bed
when he heard the distorted sounds of a police radio.
“Dude! Somebody’s out back!”
But it was hard to judge sound. Noises were forming shapes.
“Pull your shit together, soldier!” Ryan commanded.
A neighbor must have called the cops. We heard one more garbled walkie-talkie transmission and that was it for us. We grabbed
our loot and bolted down the plush shag-carpeted staircase at full
speed. With feet wobbling out from underneath us, we all piled
out the back door, shooting past the pigs like a pack of psychedelic gazelles, then disappeared into the familiar terrain of St. Phil’s
woods. Snoopy must have been with us, because not one of us got
caught, but Jed and I stayed up all night tripping out and worrying.
We were certain they’d forensically trace our footprints through
the dew-soaked lawns, leading them directly to our front door.
For weeks after, whenever the doorbell rang we thought it was the
authorities coming to haul our asses to juvie hall.
To unload the goods, we played hooky from school, riding the
77 Community Coach Bus into Manhattan. After arriving at the
Port Authority Bus Terminal, we trekked up Eighth Avenue into
the cum-drenched heart of 1980s Times Square sleaze. This was
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Forty-second Street before Giuliani—not a legitimate movie theater
or Olive Garden in sight. Instead, a vast panorama of raunchy peep
shows and porn shops stretched as far as the eye could see.
We weren’t in Manhattan fifteen minutes when a guy asking
for directions targeted us as suburban and turned mugger on us,
making a gun shape with his hand underneath his Mets jersey. He
advised, “I don’t wanna blow a goddamned hole in my shirt so give
me all your fucking money . . . NOW!” While the rest of us jumped
into the street to escape, nearly getting rammed by a bus on Seventh
Avenue, Ryan explained to our would-be assailant, “Bro, you ain’t
getting shit.” The mugger looked stunned, then much to our relief
took off running down the block. Yes, we were obviously a bunch
of naïve, suburban high school teenagers, but Ryan was on a whole
other plane.
After our auspicious welcome, we headed five blocks north to
Forty-seventh Street and Sixth Avenue, looking to do some business
in the diamond district. Noticing a giant, neon We Buy Gold sign,
we nervously jogged up a narrow staircase adorned with flashing
disco lights, whereupon two Chasidic dudes helped us turn a few
thousand dollars of gold into four hundred dollars cash. None of us
had ever seen that kind of money. We rolled out onto the streets like
we’d just won the lottery—not to mention the relief we felt finally
ridding ourselves of Exhibit A.
Afterwards, we celebrated by purchasing fake IDs and a few bottles of malt liquor, both without incident. This was amazing to me;
back in Livingston, kids were always getting busted buying alcohol
at the Bottle King, one of the only liquor stores for miles. (After this
first trip, sensing a gap in the market, we regularly made the commute solely to fill kids’ alcohol orders, returning with duffel bags
full of beer.)
We were roaming Forty-second Street in the afternoon smog,
eating hot dogs and admiring larger-than-life nude chicks adorning
classic vaudeville theater marquees, when we noticed a video arcade.
o u r f i r s t ta s t e o f n e w y o r k
Like a flock of rats led by the Pied Piper, we were lured across the
street by the high-pitched din of Frogger, Asteroids, and Pac-Man
all blaring into a mishmash of electronic fuzz—super-sweet music
to our teenage ears. The arcade was thick with cigarette smoke and
packed with intimidating inner-city kids wearing fedoras, unlaced
Adidas, and Michael Jackson rhinestone-studded gloves––something we’d never seen up close. The game consoles had seen a lot of
action too. Their plastic outer shells were dotted with cigarette-burn
battle scars and the controllers were nice and loose, making them
easier to maneuver.
We changed ten bucks into quarters, using eighty-five cents to
purchase a pack of Marlboro Reds from the vending machine. “Butt
me.” That meant whoever had the cigs should hand one over. For a
while we owned Missile Command, and then one of the coin guys
spotted us sneaking sips of Schlitz Malt Liquor from brown paper
bags and asked for identification. We eagerly whipped out our new
IDs, keen to put them to the test, but that dude knew a fake from
the camera store around the corner when he saw one, and we were
unceremoniously ejected.
On the way home, we sat in the last seats of the bus discussing
our good fortune.
Things were certainly looking up.
As it happened, Mom’s fortunes were about to change for the better
as well. A friend of hers had recommended a gifted therapist who
incorporated a hefty dose of Vipassana meditation in his therapy
sessions. We’ll never forget how awkward it felt the first time we
walked in on her in deep concentration, eyes closed, sitting crosslegged on her meditation pillow. We cracked up. Mom slowly
opened her eyes and joined in, the three of us sharing a good laugh
for the first time in a very long while. It was like she’d undergone
some kind of Buddhist intervention. Sensing our curiosity, and
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secretly hoping he’d set us straight, Mom asked us if we wanted to
meet Dan, her therapist.
Our first appointment was at his studio a few blocks from the
Museum of Natural History. At the time, we were living life at full
volume: pierced ears, camouflage pants, ripped-up Clash kamikaze
t-shirts, and the requisite black combat boots. All we wanted to do
was fight, rock out, and tell any and all authority figures to suck our
fucking dicks, twice on Sunday.
But it was clear from the outset that type of approach wasn’t going
to work. During our first visit, Dan asked us point blank, “How does
it feel to have a depressed mother and a father who doesn’t give a
fuck about you?”
That sure caught our attention. He didn’t bullshit, and we liked
that. He also cursed as much as we did, and we liked that too.
We soon found out he was a serious badass, a dude who’d been a
druggie, a soldier, and an artist among other things, until he spent
a silent year alone, meditating in the mountains. Through selfimposed exile, he’d gained a deeper understanding of the natural
laws of the universe.
What a sight it must have been, the punks meeting the monk.
“Let your eyelids close,” he instructed, as we tentatively slipped
into meditation for the first time.
“Concentrate on the rise and fall of your breath, sensing it wherever
you feel it strongest. Let the breath move through you unhindered.
You don’t need to govern your breathing; the hypothalamus has
evolved over millennia to do that for you. Notice the emptiness at
the end of your exhale right before the body gathers the next breath,
that’s where a sense of timelessness resides. When you notice your
mind wandering, let go of the distracting thoughts and gently return
your focus to your breath once again.”
After twenty minutes of concentrating, the room had heated
up noticeably and our bodies felt weighed down by a heavy, balancing energy. All the while, I kept thinking how weird it was to
o u r f i r s t ta s t e o f n e w y o r k
be meditating in such a holistic setting around the corner from the
Hayden Planetarium, where we sometimes scored acid before seeing
Laser Floyd.
We began seeing Dan on a regular basis. He became an ally and
a friend and encouraged us to begin a daily meditation practice.
“Meditation is as essential as oxygen . . . and you two have been
under water for a long time.” A year after our first meeting, I had
to admit I felt way more at peace. My anger level had diminished
and I’d gone from a straight-D delinquent to honor roll student.
Though by that time it was too late to look for decent colleges, I’d
decided to get good grades simply to prove I could do it, and also to
shake off some of the wastoid stoner reputation I’d acquired from
all my years of partying.
By the end of high school, our penchant for crime was past, and
music was the primary thing on our minds—one of the last links
tethering us to our father’s genetics. To this day we can still feel his
DNA surging through us when we’re playing a really smoking concert, or whenever we feel the impulse to hurt the ones we love.
39
4
The Great Escape
“H
[j e d ]
ey, you guys party?”
“Sure do,” we replied.
“Well, we’ve got some shrooms . . . if you’d like.”
The voice was attached to a luscious blond babe—
think Stevie Nicks circa Rumours. She and her friend had been sunning themselves, leaning against a celestially adorned Dodge hippie
van with orange paisley window drapes and requisite dancing bear
stickers, when we happened along. My brother and I hadn’t known
them fifteen minutes before we were in the back of their mobile love
shack making out with them. Our new girlfriends balanced bits and
pieces of magic mushrooms on their tongues, transferring the consecrated material to our mouths with each kiss. It was certainly the
best tailgate party I’d ever attended.
Two hours prior to the mushroom make-out session, Heth had
picked me up at San Francisco International. I’d suffered through a
brutal People Express flight (a no-frills sky bus like JetBlue—only
way more ghetto). After an emotional reunion, I was elated when
big bro whipped out two tickets for the evening’s festivities. We’d
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be attending the Grateful Dead Chinese New Year show at Kaiser
Convention Center in Oakland.
“Holy shit!” I said, my heart skipping a beat.
As it had turned out, Heth hadn’t needed to worry about getting
into college after all. Ben, our parents’ former Los Angeles landlady’s
son—and also our godfather—was all grown up, and currently dean
of a college in Northern Cal. And his great spread in nearby Los
Altos boasted a guesthouse where Heth could stay for the duration
of his studies.
Over numerous long distance calls, Heth regaled me with
amazing stories of the abundance of both the superior Humboldt
County weed and the easygoing West Coast girls. I remember a collect call from Swensen’s Ice Cream Parlor in Mountain View, where
he worked as a scooper. Some smoking hot chick had walked in and
ordered a chocolate-covered frozen banana. You can probably guess
what happened next . . . She began sucking that piece of produce
suggestively, stuffing it down her throat, making all sorts of slurping
noises while staring him down. Then she leapt up off her chair and
with a knowing smile, skipped out the front door giggling, leaving
Heth alone with his boner.
“Dude, did you get her number?”
“Nope . . . I pussed out, man.”
Later, she called the store asking him what flavor he came in.
I thought to myself, shit, maybe I should get a job at the BaskinRobbins in Livingston.
It had been a rough few months prior to my visit. Not wanting to
stress Heth out during his first year away, I kept Mom’s mounting
health issues secret. While he’d known about her routine hysterectomy, he had no idea she’d suffered in terrible pain for weeks following the operation. It struck me as unfair that therapist Dan had
just helped her lick her depression, and now she was facing a whole
different kind of hurt. The idiot alcoholic doctor hadn’t tied off the
stitches properly, leaving her with internal bleeding. When Mom
t h e g r e at e s c a p e
complained, Dr. Steinberg played it down, saying it was common
for females to overreact to pain. Eventually the discomfort became
excruciating and she checked herself back into St. Barnabas where
she endured an additional operation and two more weeks’ recovery
time spent in the hospital.
During that period, I was unaccompanied, fending for myself for
the first time at the age of seventeen. Pops had promised to move
back into 32 Lexington temporarily, but he didn’t show. By the time
my buddy Aaron pulled up on his moped I was in full-blown panic
mode. The poor guy took pity on me, graciously offering to camp
out until Mom was discharged or until his parents noticed he was
missing from their humongous mansion, whichever came first.
Mom still wasn’t quite out of the woods yet but I didn’t say anything
to Heth. Best to concentrate on hanging with my brother, enjoying
San Francisco, and having our minds blown by the Dead.
Dead shows were my milestones. How much had I grown since
last seeing Jerry and the boys? What new events had shaped me?
The nature of their music lent itself to introspection, especially
during long Jerry Jams. Heth and I were used to seeing them at
Madison Square Garden, but from up in the nosebleeds, far above
all the action, amid the twirlers and whirling dervishes. The Bay
Area Dead scene was hella different from what we were used to. For
one thing, movement was unrestricted, so we easily deposited ourselves directly in front of the stage; back east security checked your
ticket stub ten fucking times per show. And I practically had to rub
my eyes in disbelief when, before the show, I noticed a volleyball
game raging in the middle of the auditorium. I think it was the Bill
Graham Crackers vs. the China Cat Sunflowers. The audience was
mostly old timers who’d been seeing the band for decades, plus a
smattering of us kids, the younger generation newly discovering
their magic.
When the house lights dimmed, the vibe electrified. With the
band keenly ripping into their party anthem “Hell in a Bucket,”
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Kaiser shook and swayed as if enjoying the show as much as we were.
Hell fucking yeah! The potent combination of jet lag and shrooms
had me breathing under water, inhaling choice hits of liquid space
music. Heth and I were exactly where we were supposed to be, in
the Kingdom of Heaven, dancing to the good ol’ Grateful Dead,
surrounded by our newly adopted and ever-so-accepting surrogate
family.
The Dead were doing what they do best, expertly surfing the
room’s energy wave as we cheered them on to higher levels of
musical exploration. There were no negative vibes, just the ebb and
flow of cosmic energy on a magical February night, twelve miles
east of San Francisco, a million miles from New Jersey. The whole
audience engaged in one communal moment of bliss, all of us passengers on the same asteroid, floating somewhere in the middle of
the Milky Way Galaxy. That evening forever changed the way Heth
and I perceived music and performance. Still, it would take several
years before we were able to connect the dots.
Once home in Livingston, I slipped back into the mundane relatively
quickly, with only my new haircut to remind me where I’d been.
Heth had shaved the sides of my head and given me a pretty rad
Mohawk, topping it off with a few bright red and blue streaks.
Friends liked it, saying it reminded them of a horse’s mane, although
a year and a half later, when I entered music school, it garnered a
surprising amount of negative attention. Surely such a creativityrich atmosphere would be hospitable to my freakdom? Nope. The
jazz department of William Patterson College in Wayne, New Jersey
was more repressed than a gay priest. Considered to be one of the
best music schools in the country, William Patterson was often
visited by big name musicians who came sniffing around campus in
hopes of discovering the next young prodigy. One time, drummer
Roland Vazquez did a guest spot with one of the student bands. A
t h e g r e at e s c a p e
month later he invited a fellow trumpet player, only a sophomore at
the time, to join his European tour. As a result, things became quite
competitive. I remember how once-friendly kids turned malevolent,
trying to psych me out whenever they had the chance, especially
right before each important recital.
“Dude, watch your pitch!” Or, “Watch me for the cue, you keep
missing the coda at the end of ‘All of Me.’” All designed to destroy
confidence. I fell for it, making stupid errors that left me frustrated
and doubting my trumpet abilities.
To defend myself, I fell back on a little of the old Weinstein charm,
informing Pete Ambrose, the biggest dick and pack leader, “Bro! If
you say another fucking word to me or even look in my direction I
will knock your fucking teeth out.” This worked splendidly, but the
school’s faculty wasn’t amused.
One day while making my way to class, I paused outside an
ensemble room to listen in as Rufus Reid and few of the other
esteemed professors jammed Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue.
“Hey Agassi!” Rufus called, nicknaming me after the mulletwearing tennis pro on account of my “crazy” haircut.
“Hey, Mr. Reid,” I said, sheepishly poking my head inside.
What a site to behold. Rufus killing it on bass; Jim McNeely, a
Stan Getz alumnus, on piano; and Steve Turre from the Saturday
Night Live band on trombone.
“Get in here man. Let’s jam.”
Holy shit! My heroes were asking me to jam with them?
Three, four, five, and away we went, all taking turns soloing over
Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”
For the next ten minutes the rehearsal room morphed into a
smoky Fifty-second Street jazz joint circa 1959, and I discharged
an arsenal of Lee Morgan and Miles Davis riffs I’d been woodshedding all semester long. Holding my own amongst some of the
best jazz musicians in the world, I believed I was finally ready for
the big-time.
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“Now tell me, Agassi,” Rufus quizzed. “What’s the last chord we
ended on? Diminished, minor . . . augmented?”
“Umm, I’m not quite sure.”
“But, you have to know.”
“I don’t know what it is, but I know how to play it. Doesn’t that
count?”
“Listen, as head of the jazz department, it’s my obligation to give
you a reality check. You ain’t never gonna make it in music.”
At first I thought he was joking. I waited in the hushed silence
hoping for some kind of divine reprieve, but it never came.
“Well, I’m not here to make it in music,” I said, regaining composure. “I’m here to learn about music.”
Though only nineteen, deep down I knew he was right, at least
regarding the jazz world. Jazz seemed to be an old boy network,
an exercise in following rules and preserving the past, something I
didn’t want any part of. I further reasoned they probably didn’t need
a rocker dude like me lousing up their scene.
Driving home, somewhere around Ridgefield Avenue in Caldwell,
with Hüsker Dü cranking on my car stereo, it dawned on me that
rock’n’roll was way more accepting. All were welcome in its deafening room, earplugs optional—even fuck-ups like me. Correction:
especially fuck-ups like me. And shit, I know when I’m not wanted.
Having recently read that Statue of Liberty poem “The New
Colossus” in English lit, the words began running through my brain
with a slight twist. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled
masses yearning to rock free.”
I’d been toying with the idea of dropping out anyway, since
Pop’s tuition checks kept bouncing. The next day I was analyzing a
Beethoven string quartet in music theory class when it dawned on
me how deeply I had fallen under Dad’s spell. After all this time, I
was still trying to get him to keep his promises and to recognize how
much I loved him. But staring enviously out the window at a pack
of Canada geese flying south for the winter, I wondered how I was
t h e g r e at e s c a p e
supposed to give a rat’s ass about tonality and melodic inversions
when I had the added complication of the bursar’s office breathing
down my neck, demanding this semester’s fees. I never told Dad I
quit school and he never asked, until he ran into me at the Livingston
Mall, where I was vending tie-dyes and Guatemalan shwag from a
pushcart.
Heth graduated from junior
college with a two-year degree in the
behavioral sciences (not sure what he hoped to do with that lucrative
puppy) and I was a music school dropout. With no prospects and
absolutely no idea what to do next, we both moved back home with
Mom. Thankfully, later that summer there was a reprieve from the
drudgery of my day job when Mom’s therapist Dan awarded both of
us “student scholarships” to attend his annual meditation retreat at
Gaia House in Devon, England. We’d heard all about retreats from
Mom. They could be difficult at times, she said, but the intensive
conditions fostered a deeper connection to self-awareness.
We landed at Heathrow and took a number of trains through the
hilly English countryside, meeting all kinds of exotic Brits along the
way. Some of their accents were so thick we joked, “Excuse me sir,
but can you please speak English!” which always elicited a chuckle.
We arrived at the center deliriously tired but enormously happy
to be in the nation that spawned so many great bands. I was hopeful
the Pet Shop Boys or Frankie Goes to Hollywood might be attending
the workshop, but soon discovered it was to be a silent, seven-day
retreat, something Dan had neglected to mention. Initially the
silence was awkward. Gathering in the dining room for meals, we
sounded like a herd of cattle chomping on a haystack. Every chomp
and stomach gurgle was amplified in the stillness.
After a few days we got into a rhythm and I noticed we had
both begun to savor the silence, especially the freedom from small
talk. During one of our first group meditations, with my brain
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decompressing from the absence of the usual barrage of daily information, I noticed a funny thing. Concentrating on the rise and fall
of my breath, I beheld a magnificent, colorful light show unfolding
behind my eyelids, centered in my third eye. It lasted until Dan
spoke and the sound of his voice sucked me back into the room as if
traveling through a cosmic portal. The experience later reframed my
tentatively held belief that consciousness continues on after death,
only this time the realization presented itself sans hallucinogens and
without the accompanying forty-eight-hour hangover.
Meanwhile Heth had noticed a hot babe sitting a few rows in
front of him and instantaneously lost interest in all “dimensions”
other than hers. Unable to concentrate on their chakras any longer,
the two lovebirds broke silence and roamed the ivied hedgerows
of West England, canoodling and making plans for when they got
back home (she only lived thirty minutes from Livingston, in Manhattan). Back in the States, they dated on and off for a while, but in
the end Julie fell for another guy. Up until that point I’d never really
seen Heth depressed . . . at least not on account of a broken heart.
Even more unusual, for the first time in my life, my big bro looked to
me for help and assurance. I surveyed the problem and decided the
best course of action would be to get out of Livingston pronto––a
change of scenery would do him good.
Just as we got up the nerve to place a deposit on the only thing we
could afford (a two-bedroom crack den in Jersey City), we received
an unexpected consolation from Heth’s failed tryst. Now a realtor,
Julie generously offered us the lease to a rocking rent-stabilized
apartment only two blocks from Central Park. It turned out to be
just what the doctor ordered.
Heth savoring
the last few
months of
being an only
child
From left to
right: Jed,
Flippy, Dad,
Heth
above: In Los Angeles with our parents; below: Heth in his favorite chair
Best buds
Dad at work (right)
above: One of our first winters in Livingston, New Jersey
below: Mom and Jed with the Dodge Dart
above: Heth rocking on his first drum set; below: Jed playing the fluegelhorn
Jed and Dizzy Gillespie,
Washington Square Park,
Greenwich Village
Heth listening to
records on the Pioneer
stereo
5
Dead-End Jobs and Confused
Guitarists
I
[ h et h ]
n 1992, Jed and I moved into our rent-stabilized fourth-floor
walkup, zip code 10022. The rent was only five hundred bucks
a month for an apartment in arguably the most opulent
neighborhood on the planet.
Life amongst the nobility was weird. When exiting our building
we were regularly cock-blocked by the paparazzi or pushed out of
the way by secret service agents protecting people like the Clintons
or François Mitterrand, shuffling the elite to and from such shrines
as Cipriani and the Grolier Club. There was the ever-present patter
of horse-drawn carriages making for the Plaza Hotel or Central
Park, both only two blocks away.
Our new digs were squirreled away in the back of the building.
We never saw a stitch of direct sunlight and heard barely any street
noise except for the distant pounding of garbage trucks around 3
am. All in all, it was like spelunking in a dark cave in the middle
of Manhattan, creating perfect sleeping conditions for us vampires.
The apartment seemed to cast a spell on us. As a result, we spent
the first few months blissfully sleeping off the wicked hangover of
our youth, waking only to catch some afternoon rays up at Sheep
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Meadow in Central Park while simultaneously keeping our eyes
peeled for potential bandmates.
We were likely the first aspiring musicians to take up residence
in the neighborhood in decades. When the Beatles first came to the
United States, they holed up at the Delmonico Hotel only a half
block up the street, and Led Zeppelin had stayed two blocks north
at the Regency Hotel while filming The Song Remains the Same.
Nowadays though, the area was dead at night, and in the daylight it
teemed with impeccably dressed office peeps and eccentric lady millionaires in freakishly large chapeaus, expertly escorted by doormen
along the treacherous journey from a Bentley to the front entrance
of Caviarteria.
We regularly embarked on skateboard reconnaissance missions,
scavenging the Upper East Side for prime furnishings left on the
curb and finding chairs, lamps, and even a desk or two to adorn our
new place. We had no radio or television and no money for concerts
or movies. A big night out for us was a $3.95 soy burger dinner
at Dojo on St. Mark’s Place and then over to Bleecker and Bowery
to catch a few bands at CBGB. Sometimes we even sprung for the
$1.25 subway ride home. But mostly we hung around our sparse
digs fumbling through the creation of our first songs, a process full
of trial and error, but mainly error.
Late at night we’d return to skating the smooth marble of the
sprawling office building complexes that littered Sixth Avenue, usually ending up at the Pulitzer Fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel
to smoke a cigarette and ruminate. There was hardly a soul in sight,
only the whoosh of an occasional taxi and the comings and goings
of the usual suspects: high-class hookers buzzing around the Plaza
and Essex House and a few homeless people sleeping on concrete
benches.
One sweltering summer night, we were cooling off by the fountain when a freaky dreadlocked blond dude skated up to us like we
were old friends.
d e a d - e n d j o b s a n d c o n f u s e d g u i ta r i s t s
“Hey dudes, I’m Malcolm,” he said, staring deeply into our eyes.
“I’m a music producer in need of musicians. You guys play . . .
right?”
“Yeah, but how did you . . .”
“Listen,” he interrupted. “We’re going to start a band together to
heal the world. Auditions won’t be necessary; you’re definitely the
chosen ones.”
“We’re the what?” we asked, laughing.
He handed us a pamphlet that read: Join the 2nd Avenue Martial Arts Studio. It featured pictures of Steven Tyler and a few guys
from Def Leppard all with arms draped across Malcolm’s shoulders
like they were best buds. Before fading into the Central Park fog, he
pointed to the phone number on the pamphlet . . .
“Dudes,” he said. “Call me.”
For our first band rehearsal, we found ourselves in windswept John
Jay Park, just off the East River, wielding three-foot Chinese swords
and learning a martial art called Qigong, similar to Tai Chi. Gusts
of dead leaves crackled across the basketball court as Malcolm
instructed, “Now try it again, guys, only lean in this time! Hold the
sword higher, then exhale as you bring it down.”
“What does this have to do with music?” we wondered.
That question always elicited the same cryptic response: “Don’t
think. Do your job.” This tagline was also repeated in his pamphlet.
I was the drummer, having not yet made the jump to guitar. Jed,
however, had already effortlessly switched from trumpet to bass,
putting to use some of his music school training. Malcolm’s hot,
dread-headed wife One Love (or One Slave, as we later referred to
her) completed the line-up as guitar player and den mother of sorts,
cooking us macrobiotic meals, at one point even giving us acupuncture. Looking back now, it was insane for us to let people we barely
knew stick needles in us.
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“Before we met,” Malcolm told us between rigorous daily martial
arts workouts, “I knew you two were close by. In fact, I’d been telling
One Love my disciples were near. Didn’t I, honey?”
“Sure did, hon.”
“. . . disciples?”
“Yes, we’ve shared many lives together,” he explained. “We were
soldiers in Egypt during the time of the Great Pyramids. And guys,
check this out, I’ve decided to train you once again as my bodyguards.”
Part of us wanted to believe him; our hunger for rock stardom
blinded us and made us ripe for the picking. At Malcolm’s urging,
we even moved in to his dojo for a spell. He ruthlessly targeted our
weaknesses, lecturing us on the things we’d done wrong in our current and past lives and prodding us to turn our backs on friends and
family. At times he even blocked outside phone calls. All the while
he dangled the carrot of musical fame and fortune, claiming, “Once
we finish our demo, I’m going to call in a favor to my old pal Clive
Davis”—then the president of Arista Records.
Luckily, cooler heads prevailed. Jed and I were not about to give
ourselves over to a Jim Jones type, so after a few weeks of unsuccessful brainwashing, we made a break for it, explaining we had an
unavoidable gig with our old band back in Jersey. This way we could
remove our instruments from the dojo and get the hell away from
this freakazoid before he could use any of his ancient Chinese sword
fighting techniques on us.
A couple days after the prison break, Malcolm called; we let it go
to voicemail. “Heth, Jed,” he whispered creepily, making us strain to
hear. “You’re throwing your lives away just as you have done many
times before. Without my guidance, you will never make anything
of yourselves. You have one hour to call me back.” Click. It appeared
there were people in the world desperately in need of privates for
their personal armies. We promised each other we’d be more careful
next time.
d e a d - e n d j o b s a n d c o n f u s e d g u i ta r i s t s
When you’re broke, you take whatever job you can get. Jed and I did
a stint together as event photographers. One job that sticks out in
my mind is the bar mitzvah of the heir to a major fast food fortune
at the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue, complete with a disco set-up,
scantly clad dancers hanging from cages, smoke machines, a band, a
DJ, a carnival, a make-your-own-video booth, magicians, a petting
zoo, and so on. When, in keeping with the Dark Continent theme,
the bar mitzvah kid made his entrance on the shoulders of four
African Americans dressed as Zulu tribesmen, Jed and I took cover
by the free sushi bar.
But that was nothing compared to the Sunday our boss sent us
out to photograph a mob wedding over on Flatlands Avenue in
Brooklyn. We knew we were in way over our heads when several
guests referred to us loudly as “longhaired faggots.”
“Okay, smile for me,” I said undaunted, photographing a young
lady who’d been staring at me all evening. With each shot, her short,
meat-headed companion became more and more incensed. I wondered what gave until he walked up and point blank asked me if I
was trying to fuck his wife. Before I could muster a response, he
cold-cocked me. I fell back dazed, blood oozing from a gash above
my eye, staining my one and only suit. When I regained my balance
and reality came flooding back into focus, I just barely made out Jed
sitting on the guy’s chest, pummeling the hell out of him. After the
maître d’ broke it up, we insisted he call the cops even though he
warned we’d only be making it worse for ourselves. When the cops
finally arrived, they were dead set against crashing the party.
“Go in there and do your fucking jobs!” I demanded.
“Don’t tell us what to fucking do,” a cop replied, in one of the
thickest New York accents I’d ever heard. “Maybe we’ll arrest you for
disorderly. Would you like that?”
Then I got word that the newlyweds, perched like a king and
queen on hideous wicker thrones, were asking to speak to me. I
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grudgingly agreed, thinking they were going to apologize, or better
yet, hand me a hundred-dollar bill for my troubles, but instead they
asked me to finish up the shoot.
“Right after you give me the name of the guy who jumped me,” I
yelled over “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang. Of course, that wasn’t
going to happen (Mafia code and all), so Jed and I bailed, leaving
twenty thousand dollars worth of photography equipment unattended. Before we drove off, we called our boss to tell him to go pick
up his shit.
The next week we went looking for new jobs. I learned that it’s
best to wait until you don’t have a black eye before dropping off
applications. Nevertheless, we gained employment within walking
distance of our apartment, at the Hard Rock Cafe clone Planet
Hollywood, where we sold hundreds of t-shirts per shift, each
costing three times our hourly wage. It was a gold mine—just not
for us. Inevitably my hatred for authority got the best of me, and I
was fired. Jed, however, remained on the job and was later promoted
to waiter. He was lucky that one of our bosses, Eve, a beautiful gothobsessed rocker chick from the Chicago suburbs, had an eye for
him. (A few years later this same guardian angel became his wife—
but we’ll get to that a little later.)
Meanwhile, I’d already found my next job by way of a friend who
recommended me for a position at Calling All Pets, a pet shop up
way up on Eighty-fourth Street and York Avenue. There, I felt exiled
to the edge of the universe, indentured to fanatical Upper East Side
dog owners, most of whom owned nervous, cupcake-sized pups
constantly shivering with inconsolable fear and neuroses. Some customers even wore their canines strapped like helpless newborns to
their chests, while others stuck to the local fashion: schlepping them
around in baby carriages.
With just five warm bodies in the pet store, my only comic relief
came by way of Marco, the delivery guy, a tough barrio kid who was
also put in charge of the massive mouse problem in the cellar. Marco
d e a d - e n d j o b s a n d c o n f u s e d g u i ta r i s t s
developed a ritual of sorts: euthanizing mice with a hammer to the
brain before inserting their bloody corpses into the coin return of
the corner pay phone. In the summer, he’d sit out front drinking
beers, waiting for some poor sucker to come along and put their
hand into the slot, looking for change. Then he’d run into the store
grinning. The months wore on uneventfully until the day he didn’t
show up for work. Turns out he’d been having some problems with
kids who were harassing him, trying to steal his new coat. One day
he snuck his brother’s .38 out of the house and the next time those
kids jumped him, he shot one in the stomach. Marco spent his seventeenth birthday locked up at Rikers. He’d never meant to actually
kill anyone, but since his mom couldn’t afford legal counsel or bail,
he continued on as guest of the state for years to come.
The place wasn’t the same without him, but I hung in for a few
more months. Once, when the bell clanged, I emerged from the
stockroom to keep an eye on a couple of biker dudes in leather
jackets who seemed to be casing the joint. One had long bushy
hair and the other was a bleached-blond skinhead, anorexic-thin.
Sensing trouble, I cautiously approached, asking if they needed any
help. In a cool raspy voice, the blondie said, “I’m looking for a cat
toy.” Then I realized that he was actually a she, and a pretty cute one
at that. I was determined to get to the bottom of this.
“Hey, are you guys in a band?” I asked, my inner rocket scientist
kicking in. She mumbled something about the Blackhearts.
Fucking hell! It was Joan Jett with a radically new hairdo. I was so
embarrassed that I hadn’t recognized one of my all-time heroes up
close that after she left the shop, I went into one of my deep funks, wondering how the hell I was ever going to break into the music business if I
couldn’t even recognize rock royalty when it was asking me for a cat toy.
Still a little shell-shocked by our close call with the Cult of Malcolm,
Jed and I regrouped with an eye toward forming a new band. Instead
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of dipping into the vast talent pool of New York City guitarists, we
pussed out and called our old pal Steve from Livingston—the cool
kid who’d let me use his drum kit many years before. In addition
to being one of our best friends and an Ed’s room alumnus, the
musical prodigy from back in the ’hood brought a great ear to the
fold. When he felt like it, he could rip a guitar solo on his Telecaster
that would make your balls tingle.
Our new band, Airport Hug, shared a one-room rehearsal space
with three other bands on West Twenty-sixth Street and Seventh
Avenue, right around the corner from the Fashion Institute of
Technology. But whereas clusters of luxury condos currently dot
every square block of that area, the neighborhood at that time
was desolate, dangerous even in daylight, except on Sundays when
vacant parking lots sprouted flea markets like poppies after a rain.
Exiting the N train, we regularly strolled past freshly assembled Santería
shrines flickering in darkened vestibules and flower arrangements
piled high on bloodstained sidewalks, commemorating the latest
murder. As we passed through the glass entrance gate to the
building, we were greeted by a set of overflowing raccoonresistant garbage cans that hadn’t been emptied in eons, their
stench permeating the building. Our hearts skipped a beat when
mysterious wildlife dove past, leaping from ginormous garbage
piles like squirrels rustling through dead leaves in the Jersey woods.
The hazardous elevator ride to the ninth floor was punctuated
by the ominous clanking of chains as the car swung wildly from
side to side. The elevator inspection certificate posted inside was
signed M. Mouse, then, underneath, D. Duck and B. Bunny.
Destitute musicians regularly made off with the hallway light
bulbs, so the trick was to have your keys ready before exiting the
elevator, as it was pitch black in the corridor. I won’t even mention
the bathroom situation except to say we tried not to go except in
d e a d - e n d j o b s a n d c o n f u s e d g u i ta r i s t s
extreme emergencies, but we preferred to climb out onto the fire
escape and whiz into the courtyard.
The main source of the gathering filth was a homeless jazz bassist
named Ted who’d taken up residence in the custodial closet at the
end of the hallway. Though a semi-cool guy and an incredible
bass player, he was a pig. Ironically, he’d been hired to straighten
up the place for the never-present landlord, Kenwood Dennard, a
legendary drummer who spent most of his time on the road with
the likes of Sting, Jaco Pastorius, and the Gil Evans Orchestra. Ted’s
inability to do his job forced all the bands on the floor to rebel with
a half-assed rent strike, which eventually led to his expulsion. But it
was too late. A massive infestation of flies and vermin had already
made his astonishing pile of refuse their permanent home.
There were probably eight other bands rehearsing on the ninth
floor, all with distinctly different vibes. We watched enviously as
two of them signed with major record labels—Brit pop shoegazers
Mach Five with Island Records, and downtown darlings Jonathan
Fire Eater with Geffen Records. Though frustrating, their success
kept us well motivated. We had a pretty decent song war going
with Fire Eater, for a time. We thought they were dicks and hated
their brand of bourgeois trust fund rock, so after listening to them
hacking away at one of their pretentious tunes through the thin
particleboard ceiling for what seemed like hours, we’d had enough.
When they took a break we returned the favor, blasting them with
our own twisted interpretation of their song. Take that, suckers! We
triumphantly went back to work, until through that same porous
ceiling we heard them brilliantly retaliating with a painful rendition
of one of our own songs. Touché, gents.
Our songwriting reflected the angst-ridden grunge of the mid’90s, which was fitting, considering the three of us were stressed out
to the max and constantly at each other’s throats. Adding to our
anxiety was the perpetual challenge of getting Steve to contribute.
At rehearsals he’d check his watch more often than a track coach.
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Despite Steve’s relentless pessimism, Jed and I believed in our latest
songs wholeheartedly. Loyal to a fault, and mistakenly under the
impression that he was irreplaceable, we let him get away with minimal day-to-day involvement. We did all the promotional mailings,
booked all the gigs, arranged all transportation, even roadied his
equipment. All he had to do was show up and play.
Steve was an aspiring tennis pro and, much to our dismay, dressed
like he’d just stepped off the court. We had a million band meetings
about it, yet it remained impossible for him to stop wearing such
un-rock’n’roll attire as khakis and pastel-colored polo shirts.
“Dude,” we’d chide, “you’re not in Color Me Badd!”
Alas, any calculated fashion purchase such as a halfway-cool
t-shirt or tight jeans might be interpreted as dedication. Whenever
he felt backed against a wall during one of our invariably heated
band meetings, he’d nervously practice his backhand, complete with
imaginary racket. I don’t one-hundred-percent blame the dude,
considering it wasn’t always easy being cooped up with Jed and me.
We were pretty intense when in survival mode, which, back then,
was most of the time.
Our favorite place to play was world-famous CBGB, despite the fact
that booking a gig there was always an epic undertaking. The club’s
phones were either constantly ringing or intentionally off the hook.
The best way for local bands to get a show there was to pop over in
the flesh on Tuesday or Thursday afternoons to check avails with
the talent booker, Louise Staley (with whom Jed and I were both
secretly in love). Since CB’s had launched the careers of so many
of our heroes—Blondie, Television, Patti Smith, the Ramones, and
Talking Heads—each visit was akin to a pilgrimage to Mecca. To
maintain our composure we’d take a few calming breaths before
entering the club; then, grabbing hold of the springy wooden front
door, we’d prepare for the initial hit of dirty mop and stale beer. It
d e a d - e n d j o b s a n d c o n f u s e d g u i ta r i s t s
blew over us like a divine breeze. Once inside, we stood motionless
for a minute until our eyes adjusted and the darkness finally
revealed the grey-haired owner, Hilly Kristal, unfailingly perched
at his desk.
The great thing about playing CB’s was it didn’t matter if you
were an unknown or if you were big-time; every band received the
dignity of a stellar light show and, of course, full use of the deafening sound system. Another peculiarity of the club was Hilly’s
dog, which was more punk than any of us. It roamed freely through
the dim shadows, taking shits wherever it pleased, like a canine GG
Allin (the downtown shock rocker who often defecated on stage and
threw it at the audience). Many were the times unsuspecting rockers
left the club wondering how they’d gotten dog shit all over their new
Doc Martens.
Airport Hug concluded a deafening nine-song set at CB’s one
night when, with my ears still ringing and amidst a thick haze of
cigarette smoke, perspiration, and twentysomething angst percolating throughout the room, I grabbed this hot babe co-worker of
mine and started making out with her.
Like me, Hope was a displaced refugee from New Jersey (Garden
State Parkway, Paramus exit 163, to be exact; guess I had to move
all the way to the city to fall in love with a Jersey Girl). She was
then sharing an apartment on Thompson Street in the West Village
with her sister and two cats, Jack and Milo, while holding down
several jobs and taking a full course load at the astronomically
expensive New York University. We’d met working as waiters at
the short-lived Fashion Cafe in the heart of Rockefeller Center
during the inexplicable explosion of theme restaurants that plagued
New York City in the mid- to late-’90s (Planet Hollywood, Harley
Davidson Café, Motown Cafe, All Star Café, Jekyll and Hyde, and
Mars 2112). Fashion, co-owned by figureheads Claudia Schiffer, Elle
Macpherson, and Naomi Campbell, featured a tacky, museum-like
interior with sneeze-guard style glass encasements shielding clothes
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worn at one time by the likes of Cindy Crawford, Gianni Versace,
Elton John, and Madonna. As far as I was concerned, the CBGB
make-out session was a sign from the heavens that Hope and I were
meant to be. Two kids against the world, love at first kiss in the
coolest anti-establishment watering hole in the universe, a union
most definitely blessed by the rock’n’roll deities because we’ve been
together ever since, sixteen years and counting.
Around this time, Jed’s girlfriend Eve, now acting as band manager,
encouraged us to record a demo to submit to major record
companies. We agreed that it did seem like the thing to do, so Jed
and I pooled our life savings and splurged on a state-of-the-art
Tascam eight-track recorder. After negotiating its steep learning
curve, we produced a halfway-decent demo and began contacting
labels. To weed out the crap, gatekeepers insisted that artists submit
through an attorney or high-powered manager, neither of which we
had, so we went through the phone book calling up every label in
Manhattan, taking turns pretending to be our own band manager.
This worked fine to an extent but mostly resulted in a not-so-sweet
pile of rejection letters:
Dear Airport Hug,
Thank you for your submission, but we are presently not looking for
any new artists. We hope you find a home for your music in the near
future.
After numerous demos and subsequent rounds of submissions
some labels grew sick of us entirely. One rejection letter began,
“Thank you for the millionth opportunity to listen in on your lives.”
Despite the negative response we remained tenacious, swaying
Steve to chance a self-funded CD, each of us committing one-third
of the financing. The idea of investing that kind of money pushed
d e a d - e n d j o b s a n d c o n f u s e d g u i ta r i s t s
him far out of his comfort zone, but after some expert cajoling and
serious hand-holding he ultimately agreed. We immediately booked
three days’ recording time at Lenny Kravitz’s Waterfront Studios in
Hoboken. Because it was located just outside Manhattan, we could
record and mix our four-song EP for only eleven hundred bucks
each. Furthermore, Steve lived only five blocks away, which we
hoped boded well for his attendance.
The studio was completely analog, the last of a dying breed.
Housed in an abandoned pre-war factory, you had to know where to
find the inconspicuous front door to gain entry. Once inside, your
senses were overwhelmed by an astonishingly luxurious recording
facility. It was like the scene from the James Bond movie The Man
with the Golden Gun, where MI6’s high-tech headquarters are
located in a half-sunken ship in Hong Kong Harbor.
We did very little overdubbing or editing, tracking most of the
record in a “live room” the size of a high school gymnasium. You
could have fit a symphony in there—and they often did. There
were also twenty vintage amplifiers to choose from, which instantly
sent Steve into guitarist heaven, an obvious selling point when we
initially toured the facility. Kravitz was an audiophile and Beatles
fanatic, having bought the actual Abbey Road recording console
from EMI Studios. While it looked more like a pizza oven than a
classic recording device, its vintage tubes and circuitry lent superior
warmth to the recording. By the end of the session we had affectionately named it the Beatle-izer. As in, “Can you Beatle-ize Jed’s vocal
a little more?” Just touching its hot surface gave us a thrill, knowing
the four lads from Liverpool had used it while recording Sgt. Pepper.
Charlie, the chain-smoking house engineer, came included in the
studio fee. Upon meeting us, he immediately confided that he highly
doubted we had what it took to finish and mix in three days, let
alone pull off a career in the music business. Continuing to impart
confidence, he lamented, “A decent project has never just walked in
off the street.” We were instantly determined to prove him wrong.
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To his credit, despite his reservations, he gave us his all in the studio.
He took a few expert hours to mike up my Pearl Export series drums
to perfection. On playback, the sound boomed through the massive
control room monitors, bouncing off the cushy brown leather sofas.
I played the intro to “When the Levee Breaks” from Zeppelin IV, just
to be sure.
Duh, duh, pop, duh, dee, dee, pop. Duh, duh, pop, duh, dee, dee, pop.
“Yup, frickin’ explosive, man,” I confirmed, never having heard
my drums sound that awesome on tape.
“Bonham only used three microphones on his kit,” Charlie said,
explaining the classic set-up. “You put one in front of the kick drum
and one overhead microphone on each side of the room.”
While we were warming up on “Fade,” the first song of the
session, we were encouraged to see a crowd of studio employees
gathering. They liked that we were throwing down old school (i.e.,
actually playing our instruments as a live band) but more so, were
getting off on this scrappy little band that had the balls to take on
such a Herculean project on their own dime. After a few hours, even
Charlie came around and began rooting for us. It didn’t hurt that
Eve had greased him with a batch of chocolate chip cookies she’d
baked the night before. It was exactly that kind of quick thinking
that helped her win the coveted position of band manager.
Except for the occasional emotional flare-up, the recording was
going along relatively well, until our third song, “Life’s a Photograph,” when Steve freaked.
Life’s a photograph
I’m not in
Cutting room floor artifact
I’m destined
Someone said I have a dream
Don’t waste my time
d e a d - e n d j o b s a n d c o n f u s e d g u i ta r i s t s
“You fucking guys keep speeding up. It’s off to the races every
time.”
Jed and I thought it sounded fine, but after a few more takes he
had a full-blown meltdown, throwing his guitar and storming out
of the session.
“Steve! Dude!” we called after him. “What the fuck, man?”
About eighty-five bucks later he once again graced us with his
presence, returning to “give it another go.” After hearing the whole
blow-up in high Dolby stereo through a flock of hundred-thousanddollar Sennheiser microphones, Charlie came out from the control
room to ask if we’d humor him for a minute.
“I think we should try a click track on this one.”
We agreed and he disappeared back into his lair to make the necessary adjustments. Seconds later we heard a cowbell clanging through
our headphones. With Charlie at the helm however briefly, Jed and I
felt a huge relief. Steve selected the tempo, and away we went.
A few more takes and we nailed it. The metronome had steadied
us. In fact, the problem song, “Life’s a Photograph,” went on to experience a successful run at hundreds of college radio stations and
was even played on the nationally syndicated “Rick Dee’s Top Forty
Countdown,” sandwiched between Hootie and the Blowfish and the
Counting Crows. Not bad for a cookie-fueled project that had “just
walked in off the street.”
Amazingly, in the months that followed, record labels such
as Columbia and Mercury came by CBGB to check us out. It felt
incredibly gratifying to finally have label interest, but the tension in
Airport Hug was palpable. Emotions were bubbling over, so much
so that we found ourselves fighting over stupid stuff like which song
to play for a friggin’ sound check. As record companies began to
show interest, we had to ask ourselves if Steve was a self-saboteur
when, seemingly for no reason at all, he set about killing our hardwon momentum.
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“I believe my guitar riffs are more important than any other
component of the song,” he announced one day after rehearsing
“Homegrown.”
Homegrown baby
Came from the neighborhood
Homegrown
Loving this feeling
Homegrown baby
Kicking it like we should
In my old neighborhood
“If any one of us ever left the band—and I’m just saying hypothetically—if I leave, I take my guitar riffs with me. Right?”
This theory was far from how the concept of song ownership is
commonly understood. Songs don’t cease to exist because a partnership has ended; remaining members continue to share royalties with
ex–band members. Still, we got the drift. Even more disheartening
was the feeling of impending betrayal by an Ed’s room alumnus, a
guy for whom we would have taken a bullet.
Steve kept yammering on with his frustrating, untenable argument. His points seemed all the more asinine considering our
present situation. We were fighting over possible future income,
sweating our nuts off in an unventilated, crap-hole rehearsal
room in one of the most cracked-out neighborhoods of the city.
So finally, to settle the matter, Jed and I had an attorney draw up
a contract stating categorically that all songs were equally owned.
The attorney predicted it would make Steve either “shit or get off
the pot.” He was right: Steve most definitely took a shit. He signed
the contract, but at the very next rehearsal he showed up cocked
and ready to blow.
“I have something to tell you guys.” Long, dramatic pause . . . “I’m
quitting the band.”
d e a d - e n d j o b s a n d c o n f u s e d g u i ta r i s t s
“What? Why? What about the Mercury Lounge gig?”
“Nope,” he said sneering. “Can’t do it.”
Jed said, “In that case, I need some fucking air. When I come back
you better have all your shit the fuck out of our room.”
We never heard from our “brother” again.
After he quit, we had two weeks to draft a replacement guitarist
for a record label showcase at the Mercury Lounge. In desperation
we placed an ad in the back of the Village Voice and hoped for the
best. To our surprise, calls poured in. We immediately scheduled
auditions, feeling optimistic.
Our first applicant arrived with four humongous Marshall stack
amplifiers, defying our directive to use our amps, already set up in
the room. It took him and a roadie three elevator trips before the
whole deal was set up. He must have gotten confused and thought
we were playing a show over at Madison Square Garden instead of
our nine-by-ten rehearsal room. He assured us it would be worth
the wait because we “need not look no further.”
“Okay, lets start with ‘So Easy,’” I said. “One, two, three, four!”
“Hold on, hold on,” he said, taking off his shirt to expose his tattoos and nipple piercings.
“Okay, ready now?”
“Yeah,” he said, “let’s do it,” and let go with the loudest set of power
chords we’d ever heard. I think we’re still deaf from it, every chord
drilling into our ear canals like a jackhammer. GAGAAAAAAHHH!
GAGAAAAAAHHH! GAGAAAAAAHHH! GAGAAAAAAHHHEEEEEOOOOSSSSSHHHZZZZZ!
We felt like the guy in the classic Maxell tape ad who gets his hair
blown back by the raging wall of sound blasting from his stereo.
“Okay! Thanks!” we yelled, trying to get his attention over the
shrill feedback. “Thanks for coming down, man. We’ll let you know.”
He took an inordinate amount of time packing up his gear. When
he finally exited the room, he glared at the next candidate and
informed us he “wasn’t into playing pussy music anyways.”
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Twenty auditions later, the ad had been a complete bust. For one
reason or another, nobody had really clicked. Then, in a stroke of
amazing luck, a friend of ours who played with Widespread Panic
put us in touch with a former bandmate. By this time, we’d learned
to feel out prospective guitarists before inviting them down to West
26th. Drake sounded more than professional over the phone, and as
expected, he aced the audition, effortlessly playing our songs better
than Steve ever had.
“No offense,” Drake said, “but the guitarist on your last CD
sounded a bit outdated. He was kind of a hack.”
We liked him instantly.
With a new guitarist in the band, we experienced a surge of creativity, not only rocking the fuck out of the Mercury Lounge but
getting down to work on a brand new CD as well.
Even though Steve bailed on performing that last show, he did
manage to make it to the club on time, even forking over the ten
bucks to stalk our new guitarist.
Drake had produced a few CDs in his day. With high hopes, we handed
over the production reins, giving him just two directives: get us in
and out of Baby Monster Studios on budget, and with a kick-ass
CD. By this time, Waterfront Studios had been shut down to make
way for waterfront condos. Sadly, this meant no Beatle-izer for our
vocal tracks, but the house engineer fortuitously appointed to our
session was a guy named Jamie Candiloro. Together we bonded over
a shared musical vision. Throughout the next several years, Jamie
came to have a dramatic and lasting effect on our career, ultimately
producing all our Heth and Jed CDs.
The recording process started off with us banging out keeper
tracks left and right. We had a great head of steam going until the
Draker started showing up in altered states. When it was time for
him to record his guitar parts, he’d procrastinate or go missing
d e a d - e n d j o b s a n d c o n f u s e d g u i ta r i s t s
altogether. Though he could still muster a twang here and there,
there was no creative fire behind his playing. Never mind Elvis
leaving the building, Drake had left the planet.
“Drake dude, how can we help you?” we begged, each of us with
four thousand dollars in credit card debt riding on the finished
product.
He responded with some kind of gibberish, agonizing over his
“inner child” and accusing us of “not understanding how hard it
is to play guitar.” We were living a bad movie plot. In an effort to
take back control and salvage what we could, we had no choice
but to eject him from the control room. With the clock ticking, we
attempted to play Drake’s parts ourselves while he sat in the lobby
making nice with the studio’s tropical fish. Ultimately we had to can
him and go even deeper into debt hiring replacements to finish up
the remaining guitar tracks. Once the recording was complete, we
printed a thousand CDs, but without a guitarist, label interest dissipated and the disc never saw the light of day.
I am happy to report that Drake did eventually regain his senses
and become coherent enough to email us cryptic death threats in the
form of song lyrics, liberally quoting verses from “Instant Karma”
and the always snappy “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” The Drakester
always was a huge Beatles fan.
His meltdown signified the end of a stressful era. Broke and
burned out, Jed and I had serious questions about ourselves. Why
were we so musically codependent? And why did our father keep
manifesting in the form of guitarists? With our creative energy
waning and uncertain how to proceed, we made the difficult choice
to pull the plug on the band. It was time for some much needed
perspective.
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6
Communication Breakdown
T
[j e d ]
he love between Eve and me was strong and real, but there were a
number of outside forces working against us, which is probably
why it took me eight years to finally pop the question. For one
thing, I was seven inches shorter than she was, and that’s when
she was in flats. Though the height difference was inconsequential
in our eyes, we had an uncanny knack for catching shit wherever we
went, especially on the streets of Manhattan, where apparently I was
invisible. We never got a break from dudes whistling, catcalling, and
throwing cheesy lines at her left and right: “Hey baby, lose that zero
and get with a hero!” Or, “You may be tall, but we’re all the same
size when we’re horizontal.” Guys her height often accosted me,
complaining I’d unfairly taken one of their “sisters” off the market.
Another problem was the inordinate number of stalkers she
attracted. One creepy dude made it his mission in life to trail her
around the city for months at a time. It was nerve-racking for the
both of us.
“Owww, what the hell?” I whined, as Eve pulled me off the N
train by my elbow. “Why are we getting off here?”
“That’s him . . . my stalker,” she whispered, sheepishly half-pointing
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in the direction of a tall, Middle Eastern–looking guy with a long
black beard.
“What? Why didn’t you fucking tell me while we were in the train?”
“Because of your temper, dude!”
Since the train was pulling out all I could do was smash the door
with my fists, yelling, “You’re fucking dead, bitch!”
Yet Eve’s six-foot-three statuesque beauty could also work in our
favor, like the time I made the awesome discovery that if she picked
up our BurritoVille order, our white bean chicken chili burritos
would be on the house.
I’d have traveled to the edge of the world for my bride, but nevertheless something always went down when we visited that hotbed
of stress known as her mom’s house, just outside Chi-town. During
one visit, Eve’s older sister Karen overheard me fondly recalling the
time I chucked one of those pastel desk-chair combos at my twelfthgrade teacher, Mrs. Buchwald, after she spontaneously announced
in front of the class, “Mr. Weinstein, you are ugly and your clothes
are gross and inappropriate.” Karen put two and five together and
miraculously came up with the harebrained idea that I was beating
Eve. As in the classic game of “telephone,” the information rapidly
mutated as it passed from person to person, and Eve’s mom hurried
her into the kitchen for interrogation. I could hear the subsequent
muffled drama unfolding down the hallway, Evie going to bat for
me, arguing that I was in fact an upstanding dude.
The family drama further intensified when, by virtue of Eve’s
German ancestry and my being a Jew-bag, both our dads declined
their wedding invitations. Sad—with so much in common, the two
would have gotten on famously. The few times Pop did meet Eve, he
left a lasting impression. Like the time he took us out for Chinese
food, only to spoil the gesture by slamming her with cheesy Nazi
references like “Achtung!” accompanied by the ever-popular “Heil
Hitler” salute. Cutting dinner short, I burst out, “Dad, if you ever
make another racist comment to my girlfriend, you won’t be eating
c o m m u n i c at i o n b r e a k d o w n
solid food for three months.” In my anger, I had turned into him. I
didn’t know which horrified me more—his newly acquired Tourette
syndrome or my own volatile behavior—and I profusely apologized
to Evie on both our behalves. Eve’s dad was less overt, paying little
attention to us. After all our years of dating, he still believed his
daughter was marrying some guy named Jet.
Heth and Hope (who happens to be Asian) didn’t fare much
better with Pops. After graciously inviting them up to his house for
Passover dinner, he called back half an hour later. “Listen, ummm
. . . sorry, but we’ve decided no goyim at the table,” he said, using a
Yiddish phrase meaning non-Jews. When close family friends came
from California to visit him and Eleanor, Dad once again pulled
the old switcheroo, inviting me and Heth and our girlfriends out
to dinner with them, only to cancel at the last minute, explaining
that the plans had fallen through. Disappointed, I did what I usually
do on a night off: picked up some primo Chinese takeout from my
favorite local spot, Congee Village on Allen Street. While paying, I
happened to glance into the bamboo forest-themed dinning room,
only to see Dad and Eleanor hosting the canceled dinner party. What
the fuck? I contemplated pouring a pot of hot tea on his lap. Instead
I swallowed my rage, grabbed my pork lo mein, and steamrolled
my way home to Clinton Street, shoulder slamming some unsuspecting hipster exiting the dive bar Welcome to the Johnsons. “Make
a fucking move, bitch,” I dared him.
Shortly after that, it dawned on me that I’d felt like a lifelong
uninvited guest in Dad’s world. In an effort to iron things out, I got
up the nerve to call him.
“Dad, I saw you at Congee Village.”
Crickets.
“You said dinner was canceled, but there you all were, stuffing
your faces.”
“Look, son, I can’t help it if you get hurt by the things you think
I do.”
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“I don’t understand how you can lie directly to my face and . . .”
Dad interrupted, “Bottom line is you must obey me no matter
how crazy you think I am, or you stand to lose an inheritance of over
a million dollars.”
Not again! Over the years he’d impetuously added and removed
us from his will so many times, it had practically become a timehonored Weinstein family tradition. Any effrontery could be
grounds for dismissal.
I let him have it.
“You know what, Dad? Why don’t you take your fucking money
and shove it up your ass?”
After a long, uncomfortable pause he came clean, soberly admitting, “Eleanor hates you and Heth, and there’s nothing I can do
about it. If I invite you to a family dinner, she’ll leave me, and I’m
not about to let that happen. I’m sorry son, but that’s just the way
it is.”
Following this blowout, Heth and I saw Dad one more time.
Mostly we discussed safe topics like the weather and the art exhibit
he’d just seen. Strangely, he wouldn’t make eye contact and when
it was our turn to speak he’d gaze at the ceiling, whistling. After
that, we fell out of touch. Months went by, then years. Though he
lived in New Jersey, I’d occasionally spy him plodding the streets
of my Lower East Side neighborhood, his own childhood stomping
ground, haunting me like an ex-girlfriend. With each encounter, I
was increasingly startled by his deteriorating appearance, his sad
eyes now sunken and his face pudgy and haggard with age. Once,
I noticed him waiting for the F train at the Delancey Street subway
station. He was gorging himself on his favorite sweets, chocolate
almond bark from Economy Candy. I guess he didn’t recognize me,
and when the train pulled in he walked by as if I were invisible.
Though the rift between us was deep, my mind still flooded with
happy childhood memories—his contagious laugh, flute lessons in
his study, the Wo Hop fireworks adventures, and how, as tykes, he
c o m m u n i c at i o n b r e a k d o w n
picked us up, tickling us with kisses on our tiny bellies. I boarded
the same car and secretly rode alongside him with tears in my eyes,
paralyzed in my stupid pain, conflicted and unable to reach out. At
the very least, I wanted to be in his presence one more time.
Meanwhile, despite our years of therapy, Heth and I became experts at
shutting each other out. Our brotherly rift lasted almost two years.
We had perfected the art of carrying early childhood dysfunction
around with us, unintentionally depositing large doses into the
heart of the band until its final collapse, and neither of us could
back down from a juicy fight. The famously feuding brothers from
the band Oasis had nothing on us.
During that time I auditioned for a bunch of lame bands and
studied digital audio engineering, while Heth worked as drummer
for hire, mostly speed drumming with a pop-punk band called
Dirt Bike Annie. Heth accompanied Dirt Bike on frequent Midwest
tours, primarily playing Veterans of Foreign War halls, community
centers, game rooms, and even the occasional basement.
“So dudes . . . we don’t have a place to crash tonight . . .” they often
announced from the stage. “Anybody wanna take home a slightly
used band?”
When the gang pulled into Columbus for a gig at an off-campus
house, Heth noticed an inordinate number of swastikas in the
vicinity. Some were tattooed on the arms of their hosts, others hovered overhead, draped across the ceiling in the form of large Third
Reich flags. He privately voiced his reservations to his bandmates,
whispering, “Dudes, do me a favor and do not—I repeat, please do
not—let anyone know I am Jewish.”
Confident they had his back, he went for a walk, finding a little
mom-and-pop liquor store where he immediately scored a six-pack
of the first thing he saw. When he returned from the beer run, it was
apparent the cat’s ethnicity was out of the bag.
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“Listen man, we ain’t got nothing against you . . . but seriously,
why did you guys kill Christ?”
Another guy added, only half-jokingly, “We might have to lynch
us a Jeeeew before the night is threeeew.”
“Ha ha. Real funny, guys,” Heth responded, feeling like a gay kid
outed at a Young Presbyterians’ meeting. Just as the pre-show tension
was becoming too much to bear, the head Nazi noticed what Heth
was drinking: a can of the celebrated local suds. He had unknowingly picked up the holiest of holy indigenous beer, the only strain
that garnered respect from the Nazi punk chapter of Columbus,
Ohio. After receiving all kinds of accolades and pats on the back
for his mystical selection, they assured him, “C’mon dude, we could
never lynch anyone with such good taste.”
“Ready for bed, Mr. Weinstein?”
“Sure am babe, er, I mean, Mrs. Weinstein,” I replied to my bride
of only a few hours. Maybe it was the never-ending supply of PiperHeidsieck talking, but Eve kept calling me Mr. Weinstein, as if we’d
both undergone the marital name change.
Our wedding ceremony took place amid the peaceful turquoise
waves at the farthest tip of a long wooden dock at Compass Point
in Nassau, Bahamas. Our moms attended the intimate affair, as did
Heth and Hope. Heth had graciously consented to be best man even
though by this time the emotional tumor formed during the band’s
break-up had metastasized. In other words, we hated the fuck out
of each other. For almost a year prior to the nuptials, we’d scarcely
hung out at all except at the occasional holiday dinner, over a platter
of Mom’s mouthwatering, peace-engendering brisket and potatoes.
No matter, Evie and I were thrilled to have family along, especially
considering that in a fit of excitement we’d nearly eloped a month
earlier. But our moms would have none of that. No problemo:
Compass Point was fully equipped for last-minute weddings, with
c o m m u n i c at i o n b r e a k d o w n
everything kept low-key—especially the killer kind bud the cabana
boys sold us. Our accommodations were elevated huts teetering
above the ocean on stilts, which allowed for instant decompression,
everyone enjoying the soothing sound of the sea lapping underneath—
and all those negative ions working their magic. On our special day,
Eve wore a sexy white halter dress while Heth and I donned rad surf
trunks with flames shooting up the sides. With a red sunset blazing
overhead we said our I dos, then partied for a week straight.
The resort’s close proximity to the famous Compass Point
recording studio didn’t mean that much to Eve, but for me it was
like sleeping a hundred feet from the Sistine Chapel. In an effort
to bury the hatchet with big broski, I’d been trying to hook up a
surprise tour of the historic facility, but the studio was closed to
the public, and it seemed nearly impossible. So I enlisted my secret
weapon, sending my charming bride to lay it on thick with the concierge. Half an hour later she returned with a confirmed appointment. They’d graciously fit us in just behind the Backstreet Boys’
exit and prior to U2’s arrival. But unfortunately, instead of relishing
the experience, with each platinum album we encountered—Iron
Maiden’s Piece of Mind, the Stones’ Emotional Rescue, and AC/DC’s
Back in Black, just to name a few—Heth and I felt more and more
alienated, trapped in some giant rock’n’roll cock tease. The torture
continued as we happened upon the remnants of the past week’s
recording session. The names of various Backstreet Boys were still
inscribed on the corresponding faders of the mixing console: Track
28: Nick intro oohs. Track 34: AJ 2nd chorus harmony, et cetera. We
fucking hated their music but coveted their success, and of course
their sweet record deal.
Upon our return: “How was the studio?”
“Fucking great, ladies!” we replied in unison, each ordering a
double Jim Beam on the rocks.
But against all odds, time spent together on the island yielded
a sort of détente between us. With the sun and surf softening our
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brotherly feud, Heth and I began to let go of lingering grudges, no
longer blaming each other for Airport Hug’s demise. Heth came
clean, admitting that it was difficult for him to have Eve as both
band manger and sister-in-law, and apologized for any transgressions. In return, I apologized for shutting him out.
Over the next year and a half, we grew closer. If we didn’t run
into each other over at Mom’s, we’d make sure to speak on the
phone, bonding over shared interests like a new song one of us was
writing or some happening new band. Slowly our desire to perform
together was reignited. We even went out for two-dollar beers at
the Subway Inn, the dive bar across the street from Bloomingdales.
That’s when Heth dropped it on me, recounting his tale of cosmic
epiphany, explaining how after the Dirt Bike Annie tour, he’d been
job-hunting when an unscheduled stop at a neighborhood church
yielded an unexpected spiritual recharge. In mid-prayer, his financial panic had subsided as he felt the faint vibration of a passing
subway train rumbling beneath the wooden floor. A firm believer
in synchronicity, Heth read it as a sign from above, beseeching him
to go forth, young man, and take thy music to the subway. Amen,
brothers and sisters!
I have to admit that I was way inspired, though I still had my
misgivings. On the subway ride home, I could barely sit still as I
imagined how this would play out: Could Heth’s newly acquired
guitar skills cut it live? Would I have the guts to play in the streets?
I decided I didn’t care, that it was worth the gamble. But I had to
figure a way to break it to Eve since she and Heth still had unresolved issues from the Airport days. I was careful to broach the subject over a bottle of her favorite vino.
“Wanna hear something cool, hon? Heth’s been busking around
the train stations and doing pretty well at it.”
She couldn’t have cared less, until she heard the part about me
potentially joining him. Then her ears perked up, big time.
“What do you mean, joining him?”
c o m m u n i c at i o n b r e a k d o w n
“You know, like starting a band again,” I answered shyly. “But this
time we’re going to do it way differently.”
“Jed, you must be crazy. Heth treats you like total shit, and I’m
positive that will never change. You’re making a huge mistake.”
By now, Eve’s executive assistant career had grown, and so had her
bank account. Her latest job had her assisting three millionaires who
ran an international stock-trading company. These dudes were classic
CEO types: pop-collared, Rolex-sporting, thoroughly douchetastic,
cigar-chomping assholes, arrogant and entitled to the max. They
would do anything to gain the upper hand, even steal another man’s
wife. As they showered her with the finest jewelry and rounds of stock
options, the prospect of being married to a budding street musician, as
opposed to the previously envisioned rock star, must have been hard
for her to take. I felt helpless as we drifted further and further apart.
After a long day at work she’d typically barrel into our apartment, excited to relay endless stories in praise of some billion-dollar
deal “her guys” had just wrapped. In a last-ditch effort to reassert
my status as one of “her guys,” I picked up a couple of Quark and
Photoshop for Dummies books, and set about painstakingly teaching
myself graphic design. As it turned out, I took to it relatively quickly,
and it wasn’t long before I was making serious bank. Eventually I
had enough clients that I was turning work down.
Most of my business came from the recession-proof pharmaceutical advertising industry, making ads for medications whose names
I couldn’t pronounce if my life depended on it. But I also found
work in the publishing industry, highlights of which included a
week of endlessly re-touching Paulie Walnuts’s face for a Sopranos
calendar and a boner-inducing book of the complete artwork of
the Kama Sutra, where I encountered more genitalia than a Times
Square whore. My success barely registered with my new bride, but
it did impress fellow designers. Never was this more apparent than
the day one of my colleagues asked me how much I had left to pay
on my student loans.
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“I didn’t go to school,” I confessed, to the consternation of the
recent graduate. Apparently the poor kid owed like seventy grand—
surely indentured for life.
“Then how did you learn graphics?”
“Bought some books at Borders.”
I didn’t mean to blow this dude’s mind, but I was proud of
teaching myself a trade, especially one that years later would be the
perfect complement to running a band.
Sadly, I hadn’t noticed any books at the store called Fixing Your
Irreparably Fucked Marriage for Dummies.
“Honey? I keep having the weirdest dream,” I confided, as Eve
applied her Smoky Lash mascara, readying herself for another latenight business meeting.
“Really, babe?”
“Yeah. Well . . . we’re walking down the street somewhere in the
Village, surrounded by a sea of people. Our hands become unlocked
and we start drifting away. I’m in a panic trying to get back to you,
but no matter what I do we drift farther and farther away until I lose
you in the crowd. The worst part is you don’t seem to care. Actually,
you seem relieved.”
Her face turned the whitest shade of pale, and she touched the
wall for balance. “It’s just a dream, baby,” she managed, but my subconscious was hip to the writing on the wall.
The next day, I was in mid-deposit at the Citibank on Fifty-fifth Street
and Broadway when it all got to be a little too much for my psyche.
“Hi, yes, I’d like to close my account.”
“Well, sir, we sure are sorry to see you go. Reason for closing the
account?”
“That would be: None of your business.”
“Well, I have to write down some kind of reason.”
“The reason is: Give me my fucking money!”
The potent combo of snotty bank employees and fears that Eve
was having an affair sent me through the roof. I threw a pen at the
c o m m u n i c at i o n b r e a k d o w n
teller and stormed out, kicking the glass door as I exited. I must have
kicked it pretty good, because it shattered into a million goddamn
pieces. I surveyed the pile of glass covering my feet and started trembling. When I saw the crowd of midday luncheoners glaring at me
I took off, hauling ass all the way to Seventh Avenue in five seconds
flat. Right around Carnegie Hall it hit me. It’s a bank, man! They
know exactly who the fuck you are! So I jogged back to turn myself
in, briefly stopping to call Eve with a little heads up.
Trying to catch my breath I said, “Hon, I just freaked out in
Citibank because they were rude assholes. I threw a pen at the teller
and kicked a glass door so hard it shattered. So I think I’m about to
go to jail.”
“Okay, babe. Keep me posted,” she said, hurrying me off the phone.
“Wait! What do you mean, ‘Keep you posted’?”
“Well, what do you need from me?”
“What do I need? I need you to give a shit!”
When I returned, the cops were already investigating. I walked
straight up to them and confessed.
“Hey, I’m the guy who broke the door.”
At first they didn’t believe me, but the bank manager confirmed.
They cuffed me and sat me down in the manager’s office for what
seemed like way too long for anything good to be happening. I sat
there trying to get my head around the concept of going to jail when
the arresting cop approached me.
“If I were you,” he said, uncuffing me, “I’d play the lottery,
because this is definitely your lucky day. The bank doesn’t want to
press charges. Now get the hell outta here and do your banking at a
different branch for a while.”
I’m fairly certain Eve’s fat six-figure bank account saved my ass,
although nothing could do the same for our marriage. A year and a
half in, and Eve and I were toast.
85
7
Paid to Practice
J
[ h et h ]
ed and I were contemplating the depressing state of our stalled
music careers over a spicy plate of aloo gobi and a couple of
pints of Kingfisher at Panna II—hands down the best Indian
restaurant in all of Manhattan; so good, their colossal cockroach
infestation was excusable. In the dinning room, beneath dangling
reams of flickering chili pepper Christmas lights, we acknowledged
that we’d wasted years waiting for the right guitarist to materialize.
We also concluded we’d spent far too long on the rehearsal room
hamster wheel, over-preparing for unprofitable tours that, in the
end, barely broke even after the cost of van rental and gasoline.
We commiserated about being trapped in our practice space,
essentially an unventilated, four-hundred-dollar-a-month Petri
dish, the air eternally fouled by high levels of methane gas and
perspiration from the rotating roster of bands rocking out 24/7.
The closest we ever came to “real performance conditions” there
was when we dimmed the lights or lit a few candles, then ripped
through a tight set pretending we were on the main stage at
Lollapalooza, sandwiched somewhere between the Red Hot Chili
Peppers and Soundgarden. We love you Cleveland! Thank you! Good
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night! Afterwards, we proudly declared to an audience of no one
but ourselves—except for a family of rodents living under the drum
riser—“Holy shit man, we fucking killed it!”
By the time the samosas hit the table, the conversation had
become a lamentation over the death of Manhattan nightlife and
the recent surge in high-end real estate that had shut down all our
favorite clubs. The intrepid community of artists, immigrants,
junkies, and mom-and-pop stores responsible for reviving the
long forgotten, hard-partying hoods like the East Village, Alphabet
City, and the Lower East Side were being driven out, replaced by an
unprecedented invasion of generic chain stores, banks, and whatever they call yuppies nowadays. It was like the circus had left town.
Luckily Jed’s graphics job supplied him with enough cheddar to
barely hang on to his Lower East Side bachelor pad studio apartment at an overpriced $1,250 a month. And I still had my midtown,
rent-stabilized apartment, though I felt like the last remnant of a
dead art scene—and let’s face it: My age clock was ticking as well. If
I wasn’t careful, my musical dreams would slip away forever, potentially leaving me trapped in a soul-crushing 9-to-5.
“Listen man,” I said, finishing off the last of my beer, smacking
the bottle down on an overfed cockroach. “So far, playing in the
subway has saved me from losing my apartment, Hope, and my cats.
It’s been amazing, but I don’t think the cops are going to tolerate a
loud rock duo down there. I think our ticket is probably more in the
midtown area—somewhere around my neighborhood, possibly.”
Jed paused, and then was like, “You mean playing on the actual
streets?”
“Yeah, dude. Think of it: the first band to rock Fifth Avenue!”
“Hmm . . . that could work. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but I bet if
we go out there every day, something will happen for us. I’m totally
in, bro!”
But first, we needed help designing a new and improved band
manifesto or we’d be doomed to a repeat performance of Airport
pa i d t o p r a c t i c e
Hug, a leaderless band more devoted to quarrelling than rocking.
Not sure how to proceed, we warily ventured into a couple of intense
joint therapy sessions with our old meditation teacher, Dan. It was
like marriage counseling, only for stubborn dipshits who wanted to
rock. Dan employed a highly effective tool for reestablishing communication between warring factions. It simply entailed meditating until
the energy of the room became balanced. Then, with eyes still closed,
we took turns airing dirty laundry, each of us listening to the other’s
grievances without interrupting. Of course, that was the hardest part.
I guess you could say we hugged it out, bitches, emerging from
“couples therapy” as if exiting a Native American sweat lodge, both
a little more fine-tuned to each other’s needs.
Cleansed of sin, our spirits were high, our souls more than intact. We
were pumped, replenished and ready to take our music to the streets.
[Cue theme to Star Wars.]
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in April 2003, we lugged a
couple hundred pounds of battery-operated music equipment over
to the corner of Fifty-eighth Street and Fifth Avenue to play our
inaugural busking show. We carried two amplifiers, one acoustic
guitar, one electric bass guitar, two microphone stands, two XLR
microphone cables, a dozen quarter-inch cables, a couple of tuners,
and a diarrhea-inducing number of butterflies in our stomachs.
Hoping to benefit from home court advantage, we set up directly
across the street from the Plaza Hotel, essentially converting our
late night hang spot into our daytime office, which seemed more
than logical, considering the area was a ready-made amphitheater
complete with a long set of stairs facing Fifth Avenue. People from
surrounding buildings often gathered there to chill with a cig or to
eat lunch, while tourists took a breather from massive FAO Schwarz
shopping sprees. We hoped if all went well they’d take the hint and
use the steps as front row seats.
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We assembled our gear, flanked on the right by a protective
United States Postal Service mailbox and on the left by one of the
ever-present hot dog vendors. Through the noxious plumes of
smoke wafting up from the seared pushcart mystery meat, I saw Jed
flash me a reassuring smile.
“You ready?”
“Yup,” I managed, trying not to focus on all that was riding on
our little plan. With little to no clue what to do next, we intuitively
modeled ourselves after some of the only other bands we’d ever seen
rocking the avenues: the Peruvian pan flute bands that often played
on 45th and Broadway in front of the Marriot Hotel. For years we’d
witnessed local bands Agua Clara and Grupo Wayno pumping their
brand of uplifting, life-affirming world music onto Big Apple sidewalks (we’d also caught the part about them selling a hundred CDs
an hour). We used their staging as a blueprint, standing with our
backs to the avenue, our guitar case conspicuously front and center to
catch tips, and our amplifiers facing the surging mass of pedestrians.
Life slowed down around us and adrenaline took over as we took
our positions. Each particle of the atmosphere seemed charged with
electricity and anticipation. Away we went . . . and man, did we sound
like dog shit. We were plagued with technical issues from note one.
For one thing, my guitar strap kept unlocking, causing the instrument to crash onto the concrete occasionally, or worse, onto my toes.
Having hardly ever played live, I didn’t yet know there was a handy
little remedy called strap locks. Our dodgy cables kept buzzing and
humming, interrupting our show with sporadic bouts of deafening
feedback that made poor old ladies plug their ears as they passed.
And my inability to play without my eyes glued to the fret board
was debilitating. When someone snuck up and yelled, “You rock!”
it startled me to the point I lurched backward into oncoming traffic.
Not exactly the auspicious beginning I’d hoped for.
Folks had no idea what to make of us. I’m sure we came off as
exactly what we were: two naive suburban kids with guitars strapped
pa i d t o p r a c t i c e
to their chests, shyly honking out unrecognizable rock tunes, out of
step with the indifferent hip hop/boy band culture of the moment.
We felt like we’d crashed someone else’s party. No, more like we were
zombies crawling into the sunlight after an eternity in purgatory.
Either way, the plan was to stay the course, come what may. If people
didn’t get our peculiar brand of rock’n’roll, we were going to force it
down their throats until they did.
About an hour in, we seemed to be warming up. Just as we locked
into our first solid groove, some geezer wearing a pair of Coke-bottle
glasses and 1950s-style slacks pulled up to his nipples threw our first
duo-dollar into the guitar case, and man did that feel good. That’s
when some cute girls sidled up, asking to take a picture with us.
They threw a fiver in the case and jumped between us, putting their
arms around our shoulders while their friend beckoned, “Saaaay
queso!” Before leaving, they gave us the oh-so-continental double
cheek kiss. Ooh-la-la!
Holy crap, I thought to myself, this is pretty fucking awesome!
As the day unfolded, we worked on strengthening our stage legs
but kept getting bitch-slapped into submission by the ever-present
Fifth Avenue wind tunnel, an unending breeze shooting in off the
park and picking up speed as it filtered through the skyscrapers. The
persistent gusts wreaked havoc on us, alternating between blowing
over our microphone stands and sending us wading into perilous
Fifth Avenue traffic to chase down hard-earned dead presidents.
One thing had become clear to us: you can train unendingly in
musical boot camp, but there’s no substitute for live ammo flying
overhead.
There was also the complication of our inner suburban childselves colliding with the reality of gritty New York street life. This
became especially apparent when an imposing, homeless-looking
guy wearing an orange and white hospital registration bracelet
begged us to let him give a “shout-out to the world.” Based on his
appearance, we were fearful he might beat the shit out of us or
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maybe grab a handful of our cash if we balked, so under fear of
repercussions, we agreed.
“Take it away, man.”
“Thanks, rocker dude,” he said. Then, spitting all over my microphone: “Hey people, this is what New York is all about! I’m sober
five days and you know what? This is life right here, what these two
boys are doing with their music. God bless New York! I’m outty.”
He threw a Hefty bag of recyclables over his shoulder, tossed a
granola bar in our case, and gave us each a resounding fist pound.
A foreign couple, dressed in bright, happy European colors, golfclapped for him, inciting a gaggle of well-dressed women in business suits to request “Jeremy.” Though it was only 11 am, they’d
already indulged in something of a liquid lunch.
“C’mon darlings,” they encouraged. “Here’s twenty-five bucks.”
“Deal!” Jed quickly responded.
We instantly violated our no-cover-tunes rule long enough to
launch into one helluva horrifying rendition of Pearl Jam’s classic. I
even broke out my lame Eddie Vedder impersonation for the occasion: “Je–re-mays spo-kane, spo-kane ha-henn, Je–re-mays spokane, spo-kane ha-henn . . .”
It had been a long day. We packed up our gear and walked our
sunburned asses the three short blocks back to my apartment. I’d
just played more in a single afternoon than I had all month. With
little in the way of protective calluses, my virgin fingers were blistered and achy from pressing the sharp steel guitar strings. I also had
a nasty cramp in my left shoulder where the strap had dug in.
There had been a lot of trial and error out there and we’d definitely learned a thing or two regarding rocking in the streets. As
we marched along, I vividly remembered the face of each person
who had generously dropped something into our case, as if it was
occurring again, right in that miraculous moment. Once home, we
dumped the cash out on the floor, looked at each other, and started
laughing. We’d just been paid a couple hundred bucks to practice.
8
Urban Frankenstein
W
[j e d ]
e became musical Bedouins, settling into a nomadic lifestyle
of roving the metropolis with instruments in tow, in search
of our next sonic oasis. We called it guerilla busking: show
up, plug in, rock out. Then, wash, dry, and repeat. Years of
skateboarding Manhattan’s pockmarked streets put us at a slight
advantage, since we already viewed public spaces far differently from
the way ordinary civilians did. It turned out that busking was only a
minute chromosomal mutation away from skating. Each sterile grey
building embankment that had previously beckoned our Tony Alva
skate decks was now a potential concert hall, another stop on our
balls-to-the-wall, nonstop tour of Manhattan.
In an effort to add quality real estate to our ever-expanding
portfolio of workable performance locations, we investigated
prospective venues using a simple litmus test: we’d rock said
coordinates until kicked out, ticketed, or both. The process hipped
us to the fact that buskers are perilously positioned on the front
lines of the battle to preserve the First Amendment. In the years
since we’d scored our fake IDs in Times Square, the city had suffered
increasingly from creeping authoritarianism. As the junkies and
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prostitutes were forced out, it became safer to walk the streets, but
it also meant that artists and street performers like us were subject
to unprecedented levels of scrutiny and harassment. With little by
way of induction ceremony, we unintentionally assumed the role
of free speech advocates. We’d either rise to the occasion, flipping a
primal middle finger to all forms of oppression, or end up crushed
by the machine—which nearly occurred when we naively set up
shop on the corner of Broadway and Forty-ninth Street during the
Republican National Convention of 2004.
Unaware that Times Square was under unofficial martial law
lockdown, we kicked off our show with a sincerely patriotic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but a wandering group of
Republican conventioneers, dressed in American flag shirts, took
exception to our interpretation and began heckling us.
“Son, if you continue to mock my country’s anthem, I will cut
you down where you stand.”
“Okay, sir,” we responded, “whatever you say!”
Then, as if on cue, the cavalry arrived in the form of a group
of anarchists, armed with cameras, faces hidden behind black bandanas and shades.
“They have the right to perform here,” they protested. “A little
something called free speech. Ever heard of it?”
And just like that, we were caught in the middle of a dickswinging constitutional debate. Like sharks to a bucket of chum, all
the commotion stirred up a nearby pack of riot police. These dudes
came heavy, decked out in full body armor, sporting M5s and just
itching for something to do.
“What are you two doing?”
“Jamming,” I screamed over Heth’s screeching guitar.
“I can see that. I’ll ask you again. Why are you here?”
“We’re here to rock. This is, like . . . our job, man.”
Probably hoping to find an incendiary device or a shipment
of pirated uranium, they poked through our belongings with the
urban frankenstein
butts of their machine guns. By now we’d heard reports that Mayor
Bloomberg was capturing RNC protesters with nets and warehousing them on the piers—some seriously scary shit. Though we
knew our rights, we treaded carefully, expressing our unwillingness to be searched but not reacting physically when they kept on
digging until the head goon called them off, evidently to save the
city from more pressing hazards, or else to save themselves from
embarrassment.
Even when the Republican National Convention wasn’t in town,
entanglements with police were all too commonplace. Their main
beef was our flagrant criminal use of amplification. But since
strumming acoustically on the deafening streets was like pissing in
the rain, we had no alternative but to plug in to be heard. Some cops
were cool about it and let us off with a warning, but others handed
out ticket after ticket, as if satisfying a personal vendetta. Thank you,
sir! May I have another?
“Do you boys have a permit for this rig?”
“Um, no,” we’d usually reply.
“Well, you need a permit to use amplification.”
“Where do we pick one of those up?”
“How’m I supposed to know?”
After a few more fines we had a stroke of luck when the boys from
Agua Clara generously turned us on to quality intel on the matter.
“Bros, you go down to Midtown North and ask for Detective
Cuomo in Community Affairs. He’ll hook you up.”
Turned out the permit was good for a five-day stretch between
the hours of 10 am and 10 pm but would also set us back $65 ($45
for the first day and $5 for each additional day). It appeared the
right to amplified free speech was alive and well in the USA, as long
as our wallets were deep enough. But we conjectured that with a
little luck, we’d cover that nut on day one and use the rest of the
week to turn a profit. Relieved to have finally unraveled the mystery,
I double-timed it down to the precinct to score the elusive prize.
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As I waited in the dilapidated, brick-walled lobby, a group of eight
unlucky gentlemen daisy-chained together with communal handcuffs were led single file into the dismal holding tank at the back
of the building. I found the humdrum, another-day-at-the-office
demeanor of the cops overseeing the spectacle a little upsetting.
“Weensteen?” the desk sergeant called out, jolting me out of my
anti-authority daydream. “Community Affairs will see you now.”
After approaching the chin-level desk to obtain my building pass,
I proceeded to the second floor, where Detective Cuomo interrogated me as I stood fidgeting in his dimly lit office.
“So, Mr. Weinstein, what exactly are we planning on doing out
there?”
“Just singing and playing acoustic guitar, sir,” I responded as
unthreateningly as possible.
“And what type of music do you play?”
“Acoustic rock.”
“You’re not playing any heavy metal, right?”
“Yes. I mean, no. No, I don’t play heavy metal,” I verified, nervously
pondering whether or not the genre had suddenly been outlawed.
“Okay, fill out this paperwork and display the permit when you
are performing. Here’s your receipt.”
In parting he admonished, “And if you ever try to forge a permit,
I will never grant you one again. Capiche?”
“Capiche,” I replied and headed out the battered, grey, double
metal doors, which banged and clanked behind me.
Standing outside the un-air-conditioned turn-of-the-century
building, I excitedly examined my certificate:
This is a sound device permit to operate a loud speaker in connection
with [Music Performer] Jed Weinstein at [Location] N/E/C – 58th
Street & 5th Avenue. Not to exceed max volume of 85 db at ten feet.
THIS PERMIT IS REVOCABLE AT ANY TIME.
urban frankenstein
We were learning how ultra-wary bureaucrats could be when it
came to the power of the electrified soapbox—never mind that one
of our founding fathers, Ben Franklin, viewed street performing as
an effective tool for connecting with his neighbors and influencing
popular opinion. He composed songs and poems and jammed in
the town square. It is said that this experience was instrumental in
forming his opinions regarding free speech.
Subsequently, whenever possible, we enjoyed shoving our hardwon slip of paper into cops’ faces. Funnily, a lot of them had never
actually seen one of these suckers before. They’d look at us inquisitively, as if it was something we’d cooked up in Photoshop.
Occasionally, the precinct even appointed us our very own cop to
monitor the volume of our shows. He’d typically show up around
noon, park his car directly behind us, and then, every twenty minutes or so, emerge to point his Breathalyzer-looking decibel reader
directly at our amplifiers.
“Okay, take it down a notch.”
Strum. Strum.
“How’s that?” we’d ask.
“Play . . . Nope, no way, you guys need to lower down. I mean way
down.”
“Dude! The busses passing behind us are ten times louder than
we could ever be.” I’d heard classical musicians moan about a conductor riding them like a fascist dictator, but this was ridiculous.
Five months into a weekly groove that consisted of alternating
between the pain-in-the-ass application process and rocking allday shows, the city mysteriously began denying us access to performance spots. The permit had become an endangered species,
and we couldn’t figure out why. In addition, it was impossible to get
Community Affairs on the phone to discuss the matter. About three
weeks later, Detective Cuomo finally took one of my calls.
“Yes, hi. It’s Jed Weinstein, how are you? I was just wondering if
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you could tell me which performance locations are currently available for musicians.”
“How the hell should I know? I’m not a talent scout!” he barked.
“You know, Mr. Weinstein, this isn’t friggin’ American Idol.”
“Whoa dude,” I said. “Take a chill!”
We were never granted a permit again, though it wasn’t for lack of
trying. Somehow our applications (along with those of all the other
street musicians) never made it to the top of the pile. Later on, we
understood the full depth of the situation when Mayor Bloomberg
sneakily implemented a campaign to privatize public spaces. He
closed down the most traveled thoroughfares to car traffic and turned
them into pedestrian malls. The city then rented out our former
busking spaces for corporate events and weeklong promotions,
charging megacorps upwards of $35,000 a day for the privilege. Why
sell sound permits to broke-ass street artists for a paltry $65 when
you could pull in crazy credit default swap-type Wall Street money
for the same service?
At least we’d made an honest effort to go legit. Still, we had a ton
of fight left in us and weren’t about to let a development like this put
an end to our blossoming music career. The show had to go on with
or without—no, especially without—Big Brother’s approval.
We likened busking to aural graffiti. It was our duty to scribble
our sonic tag and spread outlawed musical seed wherever we could.
Shit, if we had anything to say about it, the city streets would always
be filled with jugglers, fortune-tellers, mimes, dancers, musicians,
magicians, hula-hoopers, and clowns. With this in mind, we went
back to feloniously blaring away on the avenues and back to getting
ticketed. Only this time, we did what any good corporation does:
wrote those pesky fines off as a business expense.
As our campaign continued, each plaza and walkway held out the
promise of better cash flow and groovier acoustics, but with
urban frankenstein
9/11-derived security concerns as the excuse du jour, companies
like Lehman Brothers and Reuters were fiercely protecting the
perimeters of their buildings with concrete blockades the size of
compact cars. Ultimately the city deemed this sort of thing illegal,
but until then the behavior hindered many of our prospective
money-making activities. On one occasion, I made the mistake of
merely leaning against the Lehman Brothers building on Fortyninth and Seventh Avenue and was summarily given the option
either to leave the area or be arrested. Building security had seen
my busking paraphernalia and was firing a warning shot. Being
longtime skate rats, we were quite aware of these tactics, but being
treated like terrorists was something we never did get used to. The
harassment fueled our resentment, and we now relished utilizing
the illegally privatized spaces for purposes never envisioned by their
creators: smart-bombing their urban Frankensteins with our music.
We were also becoming familiar with the unwritten rules and
customs governing the high level of commerce taking place on
every street corner. Seemingly the entire populace was engaged in
some kind of transaction, with people purchasing everything from
fedoras, sunglasses, and I NY t-shirts (three for ten dollars) to
cell phones and wallets. There were hot dog stands, Mister Softee
ice cream trucks, and crêpemobiles. There were bagel and fruit
carts, book peddlers, and merchants selling framed pictures of
pop icons like Eminem and Kurt Cobain, and that classic shot of
John Lennon flashing the two-finger peace sign in front of the
Statue of Liberty.
“Where’s the show today, rock stars?” William, a totally chill pashmina salesman, would ask as we passed on our daily spot-hunting
ritual.
“Not sure yet,” I replied. “Thinking we might hit Seventh Ave and
Forty-ninth.”
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buskers
“Haven’t seen you guys for a few days, thought you might have
retired.”
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Now laughing: “Yeah man, I just won the lottery! Didn’t I tell you?”
William gave us the lowdown on vending, explaining that most
salesmen were Vietnam vets like he was––the only ones sanctioned
by the city to vend on the avenues. They often sublet their permits
in the same way a taxi medallion is shared among many drivers,
building small dynasties in the process. It was a decent perk for
having served your country.
In contrast, the Senegalese, who dressed in bright African caftans,
dominated the city’s black market. They were easy to spot from a
distance; you just had to look for a horde of crazed tourists clawing
over each other like a pack of rabid animals. They displayed illegal
knockoffs of TAG Heuer, Movado, and Rolex watches from patent
leather briefcases. This made for an easy getaway in the event of an
occasional police sweep. To the chagrin of customers, sometimes in
mid-purchase the case would be unceremoniously slammed shut,
Bob and Edna from bumfuck left standing on the corner slackjawed, while their sales associate sprinted down the street with their
money still in his hand.
With its close proximity to Heth’s apartment, Fifty-eighth Street and
Fifth Avenue became one of our regular busking venues. More and
more, workers from the surrounding buildings began spending their
lunch breaks with us, accompanied by newly converted colleagues.
When someone asked if we had any music to sell, Heth ran back
to his apartment and grabbed a few boxes of the CDs we thought
would never see the light of day, the same boxes that until then were
being utilized as handy coffee tables and footstools. By the end of
that shift we’d sold ten copies, substantially increasing the day’s take.
Later that evening I put my graphic skills to use, making a proper
for sale sign with a picture of the CD cover. With some fine-tuning
urban frankenstein
of image placement, design, and price point, we began blowing
through entire boxes and were eventually ready to do something we
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never thought possible: order more CDs!
Soon after our first CD sales, Paul, a six-foot-seven free speech
activist and entrepreneur who could usually be found on the corner
of Forty-fifth and Broadway selling Lick Bush in 04 bumper
stickers, had a word with us. Turned out he was just itching to give
us a copy of a letter from the Department of Consumer Affairs outlining exactly which items required a general vendors license.
“Yo guys, if the cops ever try to shut you down for vending CDs
without a license, show them this. Fight the power!”
Thus, we learned that while a general vendors license (which,
as Will had told us, was available only to honorably discharged
veterans) is required for the sale of crafts and other merchandise
such as figurines, incense, jewelry, clothing, and so forth, the sale
of written matter, visual art, music, movies, items bearing political
messages, and other First Amendment items, is exempt from this
requirement.
Selling our discs united gobs of fans who could now readily share
our music with their friends. And not only had we joined the throngs
of merchants hawking their wares on the dirty boulevard, but we’d
finally become bona fide professional musicians in the process. The
results were swift, culminating in an entire lunchtime office crowd
singing our song “My Headphones” back to us, word for word. We
tried to act cool, like it was no biggie, but we were totally blown away.
My headphones still smell like your Chanel perfume and
You left your Springsteen CD in my room and
I miss your charges on my credit card ’cause
Living without you is just too damn hard
Then, one warm autumn evening, as the Broadway shows were
letting out, dumping throngs of people onto the Times Square
buskers
promenade, an enthusiastic bunch of Swedish kids plopped down
on the skanky sidewalk to chill for our show. Soon everyone was
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doing it, until finally a crowd of hundreds was squatting in front
of us. We’d somehow turned a quadrant of one of the most manic
places on earth into an intimate living room complete with strangers
clapping and grooving along like one big happy family. No small
feat. After a few songs, people started lining up to buy our CDs,
and within fifteen minutes we’d sold out. It felt great knowing the
month’s bills were paid, but even cooler, we’d banked a few places to
crash if we ever made it to Sweden.
We seemed to be on a roll. At a show later in the week, our crowd
grew beyond anything we’d ever seen before. With each extended
guitar solo it tripled in size. Even the traffic on the avenue slowed
down to watch us kick ass. People were shouting and hooting, some
rode on the tops of vehicles like it was a parade.
Someone yelled, “Hey, you guys have power!”
We smiled back, with a nod. Then some crazy-eyed bald guy with
a Marine buzz-cut descended on us.
“You two idiots are causing total chaos. Stop playing right now.”
“Fuck you, man!” we retaliated. “This is a little something called
rock’n’roll! Get used to it.”
“Don’t you know there’s a fucking blackout? Get used to that!”
Thanks to our battery-powered show on wheels, we’d unknowingly become the house band for the Blackout of 2003.
Over time, we built up to playing six to eight hours daily, becoming
privy to the city’s changing moods. We carried on an affair of sorts,
strumming for her as she awoke, yawning and stretching into a new
day, then rocking harder in the afternoon, until we slid into bed with
our mistress in the relative twilight.
We jammed through all kinds of shifts—swing, night, graveyard,
and seismic. Afternoons contained the most insanity, jam-packed
urban frankenstein
with stressed out, red tape–choked bureaucrats mostly rushing past
without stopping. After a biblical exodus of office drones on their
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way back to the outlying bedroom communities, the mania dissipated all at once. Then, the Middle Eastern halal carts emerged,
selling meats over spicy curried rice, filling the void of reasonably
priced meals in midtown during evening hours. The later it got, the
longer the lines grew, sometimes stretching down the block. This left
us jamming amidst the lingering evening smog for tourists, pedicab
drivers, cabbies, and wasted late night partiers.
Busking bonded us with the community in ways we never
expected. “Heth-and-Jederz” hired us to play private shindigs,
everything from baby showers and birthdays to Mother’s Day barbeques. One guy even paid us a thousand bucks to set up in the wine
cellar of a SoHo restaurant so we could ambush his girlfriend with
their favorite song. As we played “Desert Sun,” he got down on one
knee and proposed. We were honored to be a part of that memorable occasion; luckily she said yes.
And what do I see? Looking through
You lift me up when the day is done
And what do I see? You know it’s you
You warm me up like the desert sun
These days we walked the streets with our heads held much higher,
finally contributing something to the world. No longer did we feel
like orphans aimlessly adrift in Manhattan. We were becoming part
of the cityscape and somewhat locally famous to boot.
“I love you guys,” the bodega clerk said as I grabbed my morning
café con leche. “My old lady and I are both big fans!”
“Thanks man, what’s your name?”
“Carlos.”
“I’m Jed.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said, smiling.
buskers
“So what’s the damage, Carlos?”
“Nada man! Say hi to Heth for me.”
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Finally, with three hundred and fifty shows under our belt, we’d
become the tight live band we’d always hoped to be. We matriculated through the University of the Streets, offering ourselves up as
a sacrifice to the purifying fire of judgmental glare. The scrutiny
forced us to evolve more quickly than if we’d been touring for a
guaranteed paycheck, because if we missed too many notes in a row,
the audience would grow impatient and bail on us.
Around this time, with meditation still a steadying force in our lives,
Dan began teaching us Reiki, a Japanese energy-balancing method
like Shiatsu. Without much forethought, we applied the ancient
technique to performance, transmitting the energy of our music into
the unsuspecting meridians and chakras of the public. We also took
a cue from New Age heroes like Deuter, who composes top-notch
healing meditation music, and from buskers like the Andean groups
who douse their pan flutes in shitloads of atmospheric digital delay.
By combining acoustic, electronic, and spiritual elements, we bathed
our listeners in an uplifting wave of energy that, on a good day, could
overpower the crush of midtown chaos.
With a couple of extra bucks in our pockets, we could now also
afford to invest in the most up-to-date technology, and frequently
stopped off at Manny’s Music on Forty-eighth Street to check out
the latest in guitar pedals. We picked up anything that looked promising, anything that could help us move our sound that much more
toward the modern, dreamy, and interstellar.
We hit our stride after Heth bought a foot-controlled sampler
called a Boss Loop Station off of Craigslist. The device allowed him
to loop guitar and vocal parts as well as rhythm motifs on the fly,
and in so doing, jam over the newly formed grooves. Though it took
him awhile to tame that beast, it eventually doubled our audience
size (and our salaries) and had the added benefit of helping our tiny
duo sound more like a powerful four-piece band.
urban frankenstein
Looping became one of the hooks that enabled us to grow a fan
base while playing only original music. By making fresh loops for
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each song, we were able to give the full experience of our recorded
songs without a pre-recorded karaoke-backing track. After all this
time, we’d finally connected the musical dots, creating a live show
based on the Grateful Dead method of improvisation: state a theme
and take it for a ride through the woods, using the technique we’d
been hipped to all those years ago at the Kaiser Convention Center.
Our email list grew with each street show, but it was still mostly
filled with out-of-towners. We’d proven our music had global appeal,
but in order to accomplish our next goal of packing nightclubs, we
needed to rally the locals, which meant relocating our roving rock
concert underground.
above: First jam session in our new
New York City apartment
left: Hope and Heth around the time
they first met
right: The tension is palpable right
before the Airport Hug break-up
Mike Lonoff
Mike Lonoff
above: Backstage at CBGB
below: Playing CBGB, Heth on drums, Jed on bass/vocals
Rejection makes you stronger
above: One of our first busking gigs
on Fifth Avenue and Fifty-ninth Street
left: Summer show in Times Square
above: 10 pm in Times Square is just as bright as 10 am
opposite top: Jed keeping warm
opposite bottom: New York City sound permit
Demi Chang
top: Heading to a Grand Central Station show; bottom: Big crowd
at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal
opposite top: In a Union Square groove;
opposite bottom: Backstage shot at Eighth Avenue and Fortysecond Street
above: Heth at Trout Studios,
recording tracks for our album
Between the In and the Out
left: Overdubbing in Jed’s
apartment
opposite top: Cover of
Between the In and the Out
opposite bottom: Sound
check at the Living Room
Josh Weinstein
High Tea at the Carlyle hotel, photo shoot for Idress magazine
Janice Muscio
9
Subway Series
B
[ h et h ]
efore our arrival in the subway system, the underworld
was populated by tenderhearted folkies and sober classical
guitarists. The sleepy sound of Peruvian pan flutes wafted
on subterranean breezes. You never heard any screaming,
in-your-face, Jimi Hendrix–style feedback. We’d entered some kind
of rock’n’roll desert, a void in desperate need of a crunchy guitar riff.
Playing at the Union Square station was quite different from
playing the concrete canyons of midtown, and each new station
presented a unique set of acoustics to negotiate. While the mezzanines were like small stadiums, sound reverberating off tiled walls
and metal support tresses, the smaller stations were akin to intimate
clubs. And playing too aggressively anywhere created a jumbled,
muddy mess that kept a prospective audience at bay.
Until then, we’d found it much easier to persuade a ticket-buying
public to show up at a club than to pull a crowd from the ether.
We quickly learned that to conjure a crowd, we had to become part
showman and part shaman, striking classic rock’n’roll poses and
then jumping around as though we were doing a rain dance.
With an eye toward longevity, we reorganized our set list.
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buskers
Although it was financially beneficial to play the hits (any Bob
Marley or top ten classic rock song would do), we decided to pass
118
up guaranteed money, rededicating ourselves to performing our
original material exclusively, hoping it would lead to a local grassroots fan base and packed shows at clubs. Occasionally though, we’d
stave off tedium with our own twisted version of “Stump the Band,”
taking turns quoting lyrics from obscure songs. Whoever couldn’t
string the lyrics together on the fly lost the round. It was a cool way
to reference our heroes and draw people in without compromising
our “no cover tunes” pact.
Funny thing is, whenever we gave an audience what we thought
they wanted, they abandoned us. So we quickly learned that the best
policy was to stick with the vibration of the day. When we made a
mistake, we went with it, falling into a vast gravitational pull, riffing
on the discord until it spat us out the other end. When it felt right to
jam on the same groove for fifteen minutes, we honored the impulse.
Sometimes, after a fit of exploration, we’d call it all off mid-song,
shards of sound exploding into dissonant gobbledygook, leaving
our audience and ourselves befuddled. Other times, we pulled that
spooky brother stuff, inadvertently ending songs together or playing
unrehearsed, improvised lines in unison.
“Your voices really complement each other,” listeners remarked,
some not knowing we were related. We fantasized that maybe, in
some small way, we’d joined the ranks of sibling groups who’d come
before us: the Everlys, the Louvins, the Carpenters, the Beach Boys,
the Gallaghers, all known for their unmistakable familial harmonies.
Our sound was evolving. People tagged us as influenced by late’60s and ’70s art rock acts such as Pink Floyd, Bowie, and early
Genesis, laced with a blast of New Age ambience. We proudly wore
these influences on our sleeve in hopes of attracting a local Heth
and Jed army. And indeed, we soon realized we weren’t alone; it
seemed subway audiences were just as fed up as we were with the
glut of low-grade, crappy corporate rock perpetually shoved down
s u b way s e r i e s
our throats via radio, television, and movies. When we played Yes
and Zeppelin-esque riffs, former rockers, now forced to hold 9-to-5
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cubicle jobs to be able to support their families, thanked us for “just
being out here.”
“Man, I haven’t heard shit like this since I was in high school!”
a fortyish guy in a suit and tie said while excitedly buying a disc.
“Music is so horrible these days, I only stick with the classics.”
“And us!” I added.
“Yeah, and you guys!” he laughed.
Encouraged by the public’s response, we tapped into newly discovered reservoirs of stamina, often performing as many as ten
shows in ten days. To pull off that final show we’d sometimes have
to make a call to Dr. Feelgood, scoring gallons of coffee, multiple
cans of Mountain Dew Code Red, and a shot or two of Jameson to
smooth it all out. Because of our psychedelic sound, locals routinely
dropped goodies in our case, especially when we played down at
Fourteenth Street where the NYU kids hung out. Vicodin, Xanax,
and joints aplenty ended up in our happy guitar case. One time, a
guy we’d nicknamed Mushroom (he grew pounds of psilocybin in
hundred-gallon fish tanks) came by to see if we needed any works.
He said he’d just gotten some great heroin and would be glad to
throw in some clean syringes gratis.
One of the coolest things we discovered was that we were often
the first live musicians some people had ever heard. Young moms
armed with designer strollers inched squirming babies toward us.
Junior would hold a dollar bill while Mommy instructed, “Drop it in
the case, honey.” Out of respect for their virgin baby ears, we played
ever quieter as they approached.
Another thing we had to get used to was how close everyone stood
compared to when we’d played on the streets, often right up in our
grills, audibly dissecting our performances. I found it unnerving, but
I coped by telling myself they didn’t know the real me. When that
didn’t work, I hid behind my bangs. One time, a woman watched
buskers
for two hours straight—a long time, given that an audience typically
turned over every few songs. Eventually, she trotted up with a big
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smile and tucked a buck in our case.
“You guys sound amazing,” she said. “I know it’s hard to be out
here, but you gotta put more energy into your stage presence. Also,
if you add more feeling to the vocals, it could mean the difference
between playing at Penn Station and Madison Square Garden.”
Normally, this kind of unsolicited advice didn’t bother me, but
being that we were into our fifth hour of playing and I was hallucinating, I had to call on all my years of meditation training to keep
from kicking her in the neck. Instead, I mustered up a raspy, barely
audible, “Okay man, thanks.” Later that night, after dragging my
tired ass home, I received an email from this Simon Cowell, Jr., further expounding on her earlier critique: “You should take acting lessons so that you can learn how to bring emotion into your singing
and also consider getting a drummer.” This is one of the hazards of
being out there in public.
During those rough patches when it seemed like everybody and
their mother was telling us we sucked, we employed a couple of patented responses, such as: “So does your mom!” And: “We’ll be happy
to refund your ticket, sir.” Invariably, the former led to altercations
involving our guitars and hecklers’ heads. All that pent up rage from
days of abuse would come pouring out and, wouldn’t you know it,
we’d find ourselves smack dab in the middle of one of the largest
audiences we’d ever had. Only it wasn’t the music-loving kind, more
like the type that thirsted for blood. Consequently, we came to view
the role of the busker as a reflecting pool of the human spirit. We
were society’s sewer and steam valve, punching bag and friend in a
time of need, even its therapist.
One night, a thirty-something woman with short brown hair and
gaunt features sat watching us from the wooden benches at Union
Square. She seemed heavily burdened, so we waved her over. She
s u b way s e r i e s
approached with tears in her eyes, confiding that she’d just lost her
father.
121
“Oh man, sorry to hear that,” I said.
“I’m so happy to hear your beautiful music,” she whispered. “I
really needed this today.”
But despite those wondrous moments, we still had dues to pay. A
couple months later over at Grand Central, a flood of humanity was
sweeping past when a tall, tweaked-out dude sauntered up to dance.
We didn’t think anything of it until he threw his hat down in front
of our guitar case to catch our tips. We take that kind of shit very
seriously, not keen on becoming anyone’s backup band. If you ask,
though, we’ll give you some money.
To rectify the problem, Jed trotted up to the guy like a bassplaying Beckham and without missing a note, punted the tweaker’s
tip jar across the station. The dude went nuts, spastically waving his
arms, and socked Jed in the throat. Not to be outdone, Jed plunged
his bass into the guy’s gut so hard it knocked him flat on his ass. (In
a pinch, a bass makes a great weapon, thirty pounds of pissed-off
rock’n’roll wood and steel.) Naturally, the audience was transfixed
by the scuffle.
“He wasn’t doing anything, man!” a kid in the crowd protested.
“He wasn’t bothering anybody!”
“Oh really?” I wondered into the microphone. “Well he was bothering me, motherfucker!”
Without roadies or security, we were forced to become our own
bouncers. In time, we came up with a couple of proven ways to
transform or disperse a tainted audience. Either we’d announce we
were done for the day and feign tearing down, or we’d do a chakra
sounding, the way we’d learned from our meditation teacher Dan,
pumping waves of purifying ohmmms into the atmosphere.
Sometimes it wasn’t the audience that was the buzz kill, but the
cops. One Friday afternoon at Union Square, we had a huge crowd
buskers
assembled, buying CDs, dancing, and cheering us on, when the boys
in blue showed up. After surrounding us, they popped us for dis122
orderly conduct and selling CDs. We protested, explaining that we
were covered under the First Amendment (all the songs on the CDs
were written by us), and besides, wasn’t amplification legal here on
the mezzanines? They were so accustomed to busting the CD and
DVD bootleggers lining subway stations and street corners that they
couldn’t comprehend anyone actually selling their own copyrighted
material.
“To start off,” one of the cops said, “I’m gonna write you a ticket
for violating decibel levels. I can’t even hear my friggin’ radio.”
Our audience leapt to our defense. “Shame on you! Shame on
you!” yelled one old guy. “Why don’t you fuck with the rich people?”
In hopes of eliminating their subjective perception of our volume,
I flipped it on them, demanding they read our decibel level. But my
request only made things worse.
“If you have a problem, you can speak with my lieutenant!” the
cop said, pointing to the door of the underground precinct, conveniently located a couple hundred feet away. I started to head over,
but three steps into my journey, I was thrown face-up against the
wall, my arm twisted into a pretzel.
“But I thought you said I could . . .”
“You got a big mouth!” the cop said, cuffing me with those thin
plastic riot cuffs that grind into your wrists like razors. Tied up
for what felt like an eternity, my fingers went numb. Satisfied he’d
proven who was boss, he relented and let me go with fifty dollars in
fines.
Things kept on like this for a while. Whenever we performed in
a new location, we braced ourselves for the usual police hazing. But
over time, as they became accustomed to our presence, we actually
developed a pretty strong following among the NYPD. One of our
biggest supporters was Donnie, a six-foot-three, three-hundredpound police lieutenant who went so far as to stand outside our
s u b way s e r i e s
club shows with handmade artwork that read “Heth and Jed Rock!”
in blue and red marker.
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“Get in here! You guys gotta see this band!” he’d scream at passersby.
During concerts he double-fisted Budweisers, then, between
songs, rallied our troops, getting entire audiences to chant “Heth and
Jed! Heth and Jed!” Nervous bouncers were unsure how to handle
our very large, boisterous, self-appointed number-one fan, and we
were often called upon to console upset Heth-and-Jederz. “I love you
guys, but that huge skinhead just tried to beat up my friend!”
The next day, he’d email us, Guys I’m really sorry about last night.
I’ll try to behave next time.
No way! Go as mental as you want, we always replied, ever the firm
believers in partying until thrown the fuck out of any fine rock’n’roll
establishment.
10
Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo
P
[ h et h ]
laying the subways was a revelation, a generally receptive
environment in which to ply our trade . . . with one exception:
We’d unwittingly been sucked into a turf war with several break
dance groups. At first it seemed like a high price to pay for
simply trying to get our music to the public, but we wanted in and
weren’t taking no for an answer. Until that point, the break-dancers
had governed the most profitable, high-profile performance spots
in the subway system, including Times Square and Thirty-fourth
Street–Herald Square. They ruled these well-traveled, lucrative locales
with such violence and intimidation that it rendered the areas
completely off limits to outside performers.
We had initially approached these guys in a neighborly way, but
quickly learned they weren’t into negotiation, sharing, or collaboration for that matter. We had hoped to become friends with them, or
at least forge a relationship based on mutual respect—something
we currently shared with every other busker. After all, weren’t we
all brothers and sisters in busking? Unfortunately, they took our
respectful overture as a sign of weakness, informing us that as “new
jacks,” we weren’t allowed to play in their stations.
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buskers
In busking etiquette, an empty spot indicates availability—first
come, first served. But not in the breakers’ book. It wasn’t uncommon
126
for us to stumble upon an open area and start up a show, only to
have them pull in, outnumbering us four to one, and muscle us out.
They’d customarily slide their tip bucket in front of our makeshift
stage and move in to steal our audience. We would defiantly stand
our ground, turn up our amps, and strum as loud as we could over
the deafening strains of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” booming from
their colossal PA system. Alas, we could never compete with their
volume. A half hour into our volume war, the cops usually arrived
and kicked every last one of us out.
Things worsened as the breakers continued their daily blitz, systematically banishing the competition to the lower-paying spots
until we were the only ones left willing to take them on. A fellow
busker who sings traditional Haitian-flavored songs said they had
tossed her amplifier clear across the station during her last Thirtyfourth Street show.
After holding our own against the breakers for five tense weeks,
we had one of our most violent encounters. We were serenading a
crowd of about seventy-five people with our song “Walking Away
from Heaven” when several guys in bright red hoodies, whom we
quickly recognized as our nemeses in disguise, infiltrated the audience, lifting their shirts to expose the shiny metal of pistols protruding from their waistbands.
Then you see me
But you can’t be with me
And then you tell me
I’m walking away from heaven
“Shit! Gun!” we yelled into our mics. We kept yelling it until the
breakers scattered in five different directions. Once we calmed down
breakin' 2: electric boogaloo
and stopped shaking, we went back to work, making some good
tips, selling more CDs than usual, but peering over our shoulders
127
quite a bit.
These same idiots jumped Jed a week later over by Penn Station as
he made his way back from visiting Mom in Jersey. They roughed him
up and dumped a Big Gulp on his head. He was lucky to get away with
only a few bruises and a fat lip. From then on, we watched our backs
when walking in the train stations. Even on our days off we tread carefully now, with a heightened awareness of our surroundings.
We started bringing a camera to our gigs, too, which proved
handy for documenting our adversaries’ actions.
“I didn’t say you could take my picture, motherfucker!” a wildeyed breaker screamed during one of our next gigs, lunging at Jed,
trying to pound his face in.
“Dude, we’re not taking your picture,” Jed said, dodging the guy’s
fists. “Welcome to YouTube, dickwad!”
Things spiraled further out of control when all the red hoodies
joined in the fun, throwing Snapple bottles at our heads. The explosions of glass convinced normally passive bystanders to step in and
call the police. When the cops came, they seemed freaked out.
“Are you guys serious?” they asked. “Do you really expect to take
on all these guys?”
We could never figure out why the cops gave the break-dancers
the run of the stations, until an undercover named Joe, who looked
like a younger Sipowicz from NYPD Blue, complete with greasedback hair, mustache, and wife beater, spelled it out.
“Herald Square is gang territory,” he said, his badge dangling
from his neck.
“What do you mean?” I asked, as he nonchalantly picked up a
switchblade left behind during the latest altercation.
“The break-dancers are in the Bloods, man. Nobody wants to
deal with them, especially rookies. These guys are notorious for
buskers
filing claims against us with the Civilian Complaint Review Board,
and it stays on your record for good.”
128
Everything started sloshing around in slow motion as I felt the
weight of what we were up against. All I could think about was how
Mom was going to kill me for getting Jed mixed up in all this. Until
then, I’d merely seen our hoodied foes as competitive assholes bent
on holding us back from a career in music. I guess that’s what you
get for growing up in the relatively placid Jersey suburbs.
Joe gave us his cell phone number, offering to be our “one call” if
we ever got hauled in—a real live “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
“I love your sound, guys, been a big fan for a while. Keep it up!”
he said as he bought one of our discs (employee discount, of course)
before slipping back into the anonymity of the rush hour crowd.
And we headed home, way too locally famous.
[j e d ]
I knew I’d been living in the city too long when I could tell the
time of day using the skyscrapers as a Stonehengian sundial. I also
knew that as soon as the towers prematurely blotted out the scarce
Gotham sun rays, the break-dancers would migrate into the subway
system from their usual outdoor summer spots at the Plaza Hotel
and the New York Public Library at Forty-second Street to escape
the winter freeze. Then the fight for high-end underground real
estate would reignite.
While much of the summer of 2005 had been incident free, we
weren’t surprised when around twenty minutes into our first Herald
Square set of November, a troop pulled alongside us, aimed their
thousand-jigawatt sound system, and announced their presence by
blasting us into oblivion. I have to hand it to them, they are a persistent bunch, and it was a pretty solid move. It left us with no illusions
that their prime directive was anything other than me first.
breakin' 2: electric boogaloo
Fed up with the constant harassment, Heth said, “You know
what? Let’s fuck with these assholes!”
129
“No, dude,” I replied, trying to serve as the voice of reason. “Let’s
get the cops!”
“No fucking way. Remember last time, when the cops said they
weren’t our bodyguards? La, la, la, la . . . I can’t hear you,” Heth sang
and stuck his fingers in his ears like a disobedient child as he skipped
out into the middle of their dance party. I looked on helplessly. I
knew from experience that his mess would soon be mine––the
result of our sometimes inconvenient brotherly bond.
Audience members who’d witnessed the takeover stood up for
us, yelling at the breakers, “Get the fuck outta here!” But a newly
assembled group of hip hop devotees began booing and hissing big
broski as he moved closer to the head break dancer, mimicking his
every move. Like all good rockers, Heth was quite dance-challenged.
Still, he did make a decent go of it, taking the opportunity to do his
best Rockettes-inspired line dance with a dash of ska, mosh pit, and
pogo thrown into the mix. Feeling left out, I joined in the fray. With
our heavy combat boots, denim vests, long hair, and beards we stood
out like two ex-con Busketeers.
At first, the breakers acted like they didn’t care about the retaliation,
ignoring us while yelling their customary call to arms: “Showtime!
Showtime!”
We hollered, “No show! No show!” and made the guillotine gesture under our necks.
I admit our plan wasn’t much of a plan at all, more like sketchy,
improvised mayhem—but c’mon, we weren’t going to just let them
waltz in and take over, again. I was becoming more and more concerned about where this was heading, though, as all the commotion
had attracted quite a sizeable crowd. Have you ever started down
a path, and then couldn’t activate the emergency brake or throw it
into reverse even though you knew you should? Well, I figured, it
was about time someone sorted this crap out once and for all, and it
buskers
might as well be us. If we couldn’t play here, we could at least make
damn sure nobody else could, and, perhaps with the evil empire
130
defeated, we would restore order to the busking universe.
But the dancers had a few more tricks up their sleeve. They
announced to the predominantly black audience, “These guys are
racists. They fucking hate black people!” We immediately felt the
sharp glare of a hundred and fifty pairs of eyes bearing down on us
as if we were wearing KKK hoods.
“We are not racists,” we assured one and all. “We hate all assholes
equally.” Someone yelled, “Fuck you! You hillbilly motherfuckers
ain’t shit!” And just like that, it was on. A half-dozen spectators
simultaneously lunged at us, scraping, gouging, and punching us
until we were both pinned against a railing with nowhere to go but
a thirty-foot plunge to the F-train platform below.
I could see the headlines: Angry Mob Kills Two Street Musicians at Herald Square Subway Station. Yet somehow we were
able to grab hold of our microphone stands and strike back, bursting
into Zorro mode, yelling, “Back the fuck up!” With expert-ish swordsmanship, we squirmed, slipped, and slid our way out from under the
dog pile, then made straight for the station exit, regrettably with our
bags already looted and our instruments stomped. Still not a friggin’
cop in sight. Where’s the lieutenant when you need him?
Despite a few scrapes and bruises, we were able to retreat unhindered, but not before the breakers got off a few parting gobs, their
warm loogies adhering to our faces and hair like superglue. It wasn’t
until we safely hauled our mangled gear through the jail-cell styled
entrance gate that we took a second to fully gross out. Several
breakers followed close behind to convey a message: “Next time we
see you bitches you’re fucking dead. You hear me? Fucking dead!”
“This is next time, you assholes. Make your fucking move!” we
replied while dousing our faces with Poland Spring. Hurling a
stream of insults to make a sailor blush, they retreated, having won
back “their” turf . . . for now.
breakin' 2: electric boogaloo
It was 3 am when I speed-dialed Heth to see how he was doing. He
answered, half asleep, “You okay?”
“Yeah man,” I said. “I’m fine, but we gotta talk.”
Deep sigh.
“I’ve been sitting here thinking about . . . you know, getting killed
and stuff?” I said. “It’s just that . . . well, I don’t want there to be a hit
out on me just because I want to play music.”
“Yeah, dude. I totally agree. I’ve been thinking about it too, and I
may have a solution to our problem.”
The next day we stopped by the Bitter End in the West Village to
have a beer and a word with a friend from the Planet Hollywood
days. Mike was a four-hundred-pound, seven-foot-tall refrigerator
of a guy who bounced for a few West Village clubs when he wasn’t out
protecting everybody from Puff Daddy to the Smashing Pumpkins.
With a kid on the way, he’d given up touring in order to stick closer
to home.
“Yo, Heth and Jed! My ol’ pals!”
“Hey, Big Mike! How you been?” Big bear hug.
“Good man, real good. Did you see me in The Sopranos?”
“Yeah, man. Holy shit, congratulations! Hey, listen, do you think
we can talk a little business?” He walked us into the bar. “Feel like
making a few extra bucks next Wednesday afternoon . . . ?”
At our next gig, Heth and I brought along four hundred pounds
of break-dancer repellent. Big Mike hung out on the side, standing
with his arms crossed, while we rocked the house without incident.
Several dance groups cased us but left after peeping our new sentry.
Now everyone knew we had friends, too.
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11
The Year of No Sleep
H
[j e d ]
eth called it his Year of No Sleep. The building next door to
his apartment underwent a complete demolition that included
jackhammering beginning every morning at 6 am, which
was when his bed began vibrating, and not in that hot and
steamy, twenty-five-cents-for-five-minutes, hotel massage kind of
way. Jarred awake, with nowhere else to go and feeling like a sleepdeprived Guantanamo prisoner, he grabbed his guitar and did the
only thing he could.
Playing mornings was a whole different enchilada. Big bro had to
shake the sleep from his eyes and learn how to complement the soft,
dewy energy of a fresh new day, a universe away from the rock vibe
we were cultivating as a duo. Noisier guitars had to be deferred until
later in the afternoon; early morning subway audiences were comprised of exhausted commuters filing home after long night shifts
and early risers groggily making their way to work, a Starbucks in
one hand and the Daily News in the other. So, Heth concluded that
to make it work, his sound couldn’t be too jarring; it had to be more
along the lines of what Bellevue probably piped into the mental
ward to calm their guests.
133
buskers
Though Heth sported dark circles under his eyes, he was thankful
the unyielding construction had at least been good for something.
134
Besides forcing him to check out a new subway performance time
zone, he’d made a few new friends, including Natalia Paruz the Saw
Lady, a super-cool busker with long reddish hair and disarming
smile who practices the lost folk tradition of making music with a
carpenter’s saw and violin bow.
Natalia and Heth often exchanged busking war stories. Once, she
recounted how the police had issued her a ticket for possession of a
deadly weapon, which forced her to have the saw’s teeth filed off in
order to continue playing in the subways. Fotunately, she said this
hadn’t affected the instrument’s tone at all.
When performing, Natalia moves with a contagious joy, as if
commanding a symphony. With each stroke of her bow and careful
bend of the saw she extracts a melancholy sound, comparable to
a bittersweet Billie Holiday vocal. Even though she has performed
on prestigious stages such as Lincoln Center and alongside artists
like John Hiatt and Zubin Mehta, Natalia is by far one of the most
humble and hardcore buskers we’ve ever met.
We were also making friends with other subway musicians who,
like us, persevered despite the logistical difficulties and hassles related
to displaying one’s talents in public. We first met Theo Eastwind when
he was performing at the Sixty-eighth Street station as we waited for
a downtown 6 train. A native of Austria, Theo moved to New York
City in the mid ’90s to run a Viennese bakery, but he fell into busking
when the bakery lost its funding. New Yorkers’ stomachs may have
lost out on his sweet confections, but their ears gained an underground rock star. During his long decade of dedicated subway performance, Theo has encountered the usual difficulties arising from
the lifestyle, including being arrested for selling his CDs. Following
a degrading thirty hours spent in a jail cell, he hired an attorney and
rallied against the city, standing up for his rights and winning a spot
in every busker’s heart.
the year of no sleep
Then there was Rashad. We could always count on Rashad to
show up, grab a pile of our CDs, and begin hawking them to our
135
Union Square crowd. He really helped our sales yet never accepted
any commission for his big-hearted gesture. That’s just how he
rolled. Rashad was a fellow busker and a kindred spirit who had
that Lenny Kravitz thing going on, having been born to an Italian
father and black mother. He also sported long flowing dreads, and
except for a deep scar on his left cheek, his face was sculpted like a
Greek god’s.
We usually saw him off in the distance, making the switch from
the yellow to the green line, riding a perpetual loop from the
Lexington and Fifty-ninth Street station down to Union Square and
back again. He never played in the stations themselves, preferring
instead to roam shirtless through the train cars, occasionally
getting busted for illegally serenading riders with songs of love and
unity, a tip cup dangling off the guitar neck to collect donations.
I wholeheartedly believed the trains themselves needed a good
energy balancing but didn’t have the guts to play the subway cars.
Heth tried a few times and said he felt like he was committing
some kind of sacrilegious, intrusive act, as if contaminating the last
remaining outpost of quietude in New York City. (Underground
train cars are practically the only remaining spots in the city where
cell phone reception is minimal and information overload gives
way to old school, analog socialization).
Rashad insisted, “It’s a hustle, man! That’s what we’re doing out
here: We’re hustlers!” When he spoke, he had this quirky way of
cocking his head slightly to the right and peering at us from the
corner of his eye. It made me wonder if he’d sustained some hearing
loss from all the years of exposure to train noise, something we all
had to look forward to, I supposed.
The one thing Rashad wanted most in life was a record deal. It
was always, “when I get my deal” this, and “when I get my deal” that.
By this time, Heth and I had cured ourselves of that affliction, or at
buskers
least it wasn’t our sole reason for rocking, yet we had no desire to
dampen our comrade’s enthusiasm.
136
“Just keep jamming, man,” he always encouraged. “You never
know who’s out there listening . . . and no offense guys, but as soon
as I get my deal, you ain’t never gonna see my ass down here again.”
It happens to buskers more often than you’d think. A big-time
agent throws his card in your case or you get hired for a TV commercial, a bit part in a movie, or even chatted up by a strolling A&R man.
If you’re out here long enough you end up declining plenty of
offers too. We couldn’t turn them down fast enough when Dunkin’
Donuts approached us to participate in an ad campaign designed to
promote their new 99¢ breakfast called “Breakfast NOT Brokefast.”
They offered us $20 an hour to not accept tips. Instead we were to
display a sign in our guitar case that read, “Sure you want to throw
that change in here?” We thought it was the height of disrespect.
We were offered another similarly disappointing opportunity
when the rock band Oasis hopped the pond to promote their new
album Dig Out Your Soul. Considering many buskers made Oasis
songs staples in their repertoires, it was a no-brainer for their public
relations firm to tap the street performer community. Many were
willing to interpret the band’s new songs in their own style and be
filmed for the accompanying documentary, Dig Out Your Soul in the
Streets, for the paltry sum of $100 each.
“Exsqueeze me?” we replied to the band’s reps. “That’s a lot of
work. We can do it for $600.”
“Are you crazy?” they laughed. “Everyone else is fine with the pay.
You’re passing up a massive opportunity here, plus you’ll meet the
band!”
It’s not that we weren’t big-time Oasis fans or that we didn’t
understand buskers were taking the gig as a thank you to Oasis for
providing the material that helped them earn a living throughout
the years. In fact we were front and center to see the band at the
the year of no sleep
Garden back in ’94 at the height of the second British Invasion, but
we couldn’t rationalize being low-balled by a couple of rock stars
137
who literally lived in castles.
Buskers are always on the cusp of dream fulfillment, inches away
from breaking through to a higher level. Of course, I felt for Rashad;
I understood his restlessness. I knew that subway performing could
exact a heavy toll on your psyche. Early in our career, a veteran
busker had ominously warned us that playing more than three days
a week could damage us. Yet here we were, all of us playing daylong
gigs as often as five days a week.
One day, Rashad dropped some heavy news on us. “Guys, I’m just
not feelin’ the love out here anymore. Performers ain’t being appreciated the way they should be.”
“Yeah, I hear you, man,” we said.
“So, I’ve made up my mind . . . and I think I’m moving to Germany.
Gonna be a black man in a white society for a while.” As if to demonstrate his commitment, he pulled out his flight reservation. Rashad
had fallen for a girl he’d met on MySpace and was moving into her
Berlin flat at the end of the month. It happened just that fast.
We were more than sad to see him go. The three of us had forged
a friendship under the severe conditions of public performance.
Working the stations together had united us, allies in pursuit of free
artistic expression. Yet, though we missed our older, more experienced brother, we were happy for him. His departure reminded me
of what Dan had taught us many years earlier: that just staying in
the game was half the battle.
Sometimes when I’m exhausted and strumming on autopilot, I
see a faint hologram of our long lost brother strutting toward us,
wearing his trademark ratty-ass guitar. We haven’t seen Rashad in
years and don’t know if he ever received his record deal, but I do hope
he knows how much his friendship meant to two fledgling dudes like
us as we embarked on our first underground performances.
buskers
138
We were breaking down our gear one day when we heard a familiar
gravelly voice. Felipe, another fellow busker waiting for the spot,
asked, “Guys, do me a favor? Don’t pack up. My van just got broken
into. Except for this one, every last one of my pan flutes was stolen.”
“Wow, sorry to hear that, bro.”
“Yeah and now my band just canceled on me. Any chance I could
sit in with you guys?”
Eager to help out a fellow musician in distress, we said, “Sure,
man. Jump in.”
Felipe had a great tan and wore his hair in a couple of braids,
one on each side of his head. “My girlfriend did them for me,” he
said. He’d crossed the country countless times playing a brand of
Peruvian music that sounded like it had ricocheted off the highest
peaks of the Andes about a thousand years ago, then bounced down
to the present day. His standard garb was one of those ponchos like
Clint Eastwood wore in A Fistful of Dollars. Every time I saw him,
I thought, Damn I’ve got to get me one of them things. It’s like when
you attend a Renaissance Faire and find yourself with an inexplicable, impulsive need to own a cool wizard hat with trippy blue
stars and bells. Then when you get home, you’re like, “Fuck! I spent
twenty-five bucks on this crazy shit?”
While jamming with Felipe, I noticed his fingers were adorned
with thick silver and turquoise rings, and he was also sporting a large
American Indian necklace that resembled the Survivor immunity idol.
“E minor, right?” he asked.
His trained ear quickly caught hold of the song’s chord changes
and he sailed effortlessly over our backup with a rocking flute solo.
He kept us on our toes, bringing a whole new interpretation to our
songs by playing some interesting passing tones we don’t usually
mess with. That’s the beauty of music: It doesn’t matter if you don’t
speak the same language or believe in the same invisible deity; art is
the force that bridges all cultures and unites all people.
the year of no sleep
“You guys want?” Felipe offered, taking a swig from his vodkafilled Poland Spring bottle.
139
“Sure man.” I took a drink and passed it.
“Yo, check it out, guys. This is a fifteen-thousand-dollar guitar
that my boys in the Dave Matthews Band gave me when I worked
on their last CD.”
Felipe showed off that beaut like a proud papa. “Ever seen this
kind of white pearl inlay in the shape of doves?”
After a few more sips he said, “Your music brings me such peace.
It makes me want to close my eyes. I’m so tired fellas . . . so tired and
I haven’t slept in days. Keep on playing while I rest my eyes.”
Felipe sat down on a milk carton in front of his trolley of belongings and drifted off to sleep while we continued the set. He slept for
a long while, and when we tried to wake him, he couldn’t be roused,
so we tucked his cut of the take safely under his hat. We later heard
he’d come out the other side of that weeklong binge only to discover
that all his worldly possessions had been stolen yet again, including
that sweet Dave Matthews guitar. About a month later, we noticed
that Felipe had up and disappeared as well. At times, freedom can be
an occupational hazard.
During Heth’s Year of No Sleep, Natalia the Saw Lady often played
9-to-12s at Union Square, arriving just as Heth was packing up,
ready to retire upstairs to catch some Zs on a relatively quiet Union
Square park bench before heading back to the construction zone
that was his apartment.
“So are you and your brother auditioning for MUNY this year?”
Nat asked him one day during the shift change.
“No, I don’t think so,” Heth replied. “We’ve already applied twice.”
“Don’t give up,” she encouraged, a card-carrying member herself
for many years.
buskers
MUNY (Music Under New York) got its start back in 1985 as a
pilot program and after a great public reception it became official
140
two years later. Sponsored by the Metropolitan Transit Authority,
its goal was to beautify the subways and bring a measure of warmth
and civility to the stations. MUNY also strived to reflect the diversity of the city’s culture by organizing more than one hundred and
fifty free shows weekly with a roster of over one hundred artists,
everyone from Senegalese kora players to flamenco guitarists, as well
as jazz ensembles and opera singers.
As far as we were concerned, MUNY was literally handing out
record deals. If we passed the audition, we’d be one of the few handpicked acts openly permitted to perform at more than a dozen
monthly scheduled performances. Spots were located in the most
highly visible and busiest locations in the subway system including
Times Square, Union Square, and all the commuter railway lines
(Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit, and Metro North).
Though we’d receive no salary or free entry into the stations, the
main benefit would be a reduction in the number of amplifierrelated police hassles and turf wars. But, best of all, we’d have a
guaranteed spot waiting for us when we left our cozy apartments.
Prior to the 2006 round of auditions, rumor had it that MUNY
was looking for musicians who were more soothing than rocking.
In past years we’d unsuccessfully submitted videos of our duo jamming in Times Square, so we decided to rethink our tactics. This
time we recorded a less bombastic video of Heth playing solo and
demonstrating his freshly minted, smooth morning, subway platform yacht rock. Dressed in a black suede suit jacket, nicely shaved,
and with his hair pulled back into a ponytail, he looped a flourish of
guitar riffs and solos that were heavily drenched in his now signature
spacey echo. Since we knew that selected musicians were sometimes
allowed to perform with collaborators, we hoped Heth would gain
access as a soloist and then, by default, hoist our duo into the fold.
the year of no sleep
Eureka! Third time was the charm. Heth received a letter of invitation to the auditions held annually at Grand Central Station. It
141
read, “Please come audition on May 10, 2006, from 9:00 am to 9:05
am.” He’d have five minutes to impress a discerning panel of judges
composed of MTA station personnel, veteran MUNY buskers,
and other professional musicians from the classical, jazz, and rock
worlds, as well as a smattering of faculty and performers from local
cultural institutions such as Juilliard.
Heth wanted to pass the audition so badly he could taste it, but
he was up against some seriously stiff competition. Out of hundreds
of applicants the field had only been narrowed down to about sixty
prior to the auditions. We planned his strategy: He’d arrive at Grand
Central mega early and set up his gear without rushing, making sure
all his pedals, cables, and neurons were firing properly.
But before he knew it, he was being introduced: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Heth Weinstein. It says here, he’s a one-man
electric band.”
[Applause.]
Awesome! A very friendly audience.
The warm reception melted Heth’s nerves and he began layering
down a tight rhythm track complete with funky bass line played on
the low D string. He then pounded in a drumbeat using the palm
of his hand on the outer shell of his guitar. The loop circulated
throughout the hall’s atrium, bouncing off the elaborately decorated
ceiling, then back down to the finely buffed marble floors. After a few
more guitar riffs he capped off that puppy using his Ebow. The Ebow,
a brand name short for electric bow, is a hand-held, battery-powered
device that vibrates the strings of a guitar via electromagnetic pulses,
producing a sound reminiscent of a violin bow.
[Enthusiastic applause!]
Although he was unsure how well he had done at the audition,
a month later the acceptance letter arrived. Natalia swore she had
buskers
nothing to do with it; however, I believe she was his guardian angel.
Heth and I threw a little shindig to commemorate the happy occa142
sion. Surrounded by close friends, and with a few potent joints
of Pineapple Kush making their way around the room, a rag–tag
assembly of musician pals took turns belting out tunes in a scene
reminiscent of our folks’ Los Angeles dinner parties of yore.
Strangely, out of the twenty or so musicians accepted into the
MUNY class of 2006, only a few rugged souls stuck with the program. It may seem counterintuitive, but prior to auditioning, many
acts had never even attempted busking. They weren’t aware of what
one has to endure before playing even a single note: hassles like
transporting massive amounts of equipment up and down a shitload of staircases and cramming into overcrowded trains brimming
with severely pissed-off commuters. Then there’s the difficulty of
making a buck in freezing temps or stifling hundred-degree heat.
On broiling summer days, there’s no breeze and the air is so muggy
that within minutes your clothes are completely soaked with perspiration. Couple this with bad money days and deafening train
screeches, and you get a dropout rate of titanic proportions. On
those bleak days, the key to long-term busking survival is heeding
the sage advice of our comrade Theo Eastwind: You have to go out
every day to catch the good ones.
12
Cosmic Intake Valve
A
[j ed ]
s official members of the Music Under New York program, we
now had a partner in crime. All we needed was a great new
product to sell. That’s where our old bud Jamie Candiloro
came back into the picture. Since we’d last worked together
he’d been drafted into the majors to record with such killer artists
as R.E.M. and Ryan Adams. But he hadn’t forgotten about his pals,
the subway rats.
Jamie said, “Whenever you guys are ready to make the next
record, I’m totally there for you.” Heth and I took him up on his
offer, and together we began preproduction. At one of our first
meetings, JC turned us on to a book called TuneSmith: Inside the
Art of Songwriting by Jimmy Webb, the guy who wrote classic songs
like “Up, Up and Away” and “MacArthur Park.” It completely rocked
our world and helped us gain a new understanding of arrangement,
melody, and lyrics and set the bar much higher for our next batch
of tunes.
But before we could begin recording, Jamie also suggested we
road test prospective songs, which meant taking full advantage of
the, ahem, honesty of New York audiences. After about six months,
143
buskers
we narrowed the field down to the top nine of the twenty or so new
songs that consistently attracted the most listeners, tips, and hugs.
144
Finally, a track listing for the CD was born.
We consider recordings to be markers in time with each song, an
aural snapshot of a band’s headspace on a given day. So we were anxious
to finally record the new sound we’d been developing, particularly
the ambient/psychedelic vibe that surfaced most prevalently in songs
like “Up at the Farm” and the title track, “Between the In and the
Out.” But due to excessive volume and my apartment’s thin sheetrock
walls, recording drum tracks at home was out of the question. So on
a crisp October morning in 2005, we packed all our gear onto the F
train and headed over to Park Slope’s Trout Studios to lay down the
basic rhythm tracks (bass and drums). Heth was slightly concerned
about his rusty timekeeping abilities. He hadn’t picked up a pair of
drumsticks in nearly two years and feared the day might turn into
an expensive disaster. However, under Jamie’s killer guidance he was
able to relax and ultimately conquer the basic tracks in a few hours.
“Like riding a bike,” he later bragged, forgetting about the prior
two-week period spent at Ultra Sound Rehearsal Studios busting
our asses to get back into the tight little Airport Hug rhythm section
we once were.
One great irony of the modern musical age is how the same digital
Pandora’s box that recently devalued music and derailed the music
business gravy train ended up becoming the salvation of countless
independent musicians. Even though we wanted to stay connected
to a world where music is real, not manufactured by the corporate
machine, and where a music career is based on sweat and blisters,
not instant fame and Photoshop, we took full advantage of every
technological recording advancement we could. Once the drums
were done, recent breakthroughs in home recording made it possible to get professional sounding results while tracking in a relaxed
apartment setting.
c o s m i c i n ta k e va lv e
Back in Los Angeles, Jamie edited our tracks, then uploaded
them to an FTP site (a method of transferring files too big for
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email). With files in hand, or rather, loaded onto my gooseneckscreened iMac Cube (outfitted with a pirated version of Digital
Performer) we spent the next seven months overdubbing guitars,
synths, and vocals in my one-room shoebox on Clinton Street.
Since we were self-financed, we couldn’t miss a day of our regularly scheduled busking shows, which made for some delirious
yet mighty warmed-up after-work vocal performances. Without
any deadline pressure or recording label breathing down our
necks to create easily digestible three-and-a-half-minute ditties,
we took full advantage of our creative freedom and indulged our
burgeoning fascination with songwriting and digital recording. I
think Yahweh was looking down on us too, because we didn’t collapse from exhaustion, and not one of my neighbors complained
about all the late-night vocal takes.
There was admittedly one hiccup in the process when it came to
packaging our new album. At one of our recent shows, we’d met a
friendly photographer named Go.
“Hey, I’ll photograph you guys for free,” he offered, his megaexpensive, megapixel camera hanging from a string around his
neck. “I’m looking to shoot some bands for my portfolio.”
“Good timing, man—we’re actually looking for a photographer
to shoot our new CD cover. But please, do not pass Go, and do
not collect two hundred dollars,” I joked. Go was a recent Vietnam
émigré, so when he didn’t laugh at my lame attempt at humor, I
flattered myself by assuming it had to do with a possible language
barrier between us. Nonetheless, he smiled respectfully.
On the day of the shoot, we met down at our agreed-upon spot in
Chinatown, below East Broadway. I think we were on Henry Street
when the hundred-year-old arched brick supports of the Manhattan
Bridge caught Go’s photographer’s eye.
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“Guys, why don’t you hop that fence and we’ll get some nice shots
underneath the bridge?”
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“You mean that fence over there with the sign that clearly reads
no tresspassing?” I clarified.
“No, no, don’t worry. I’ve been in there before,” he assured us.
So over we went—Go with all his state-of-the-art cameras, and
us with our instruments. We climbed onto a pile of twisted metal
and threw our guitars on for effect.
Snap, snap, snap. “Smile!” Snap, snap, snap.
“Hold that thought,” I said. “Gotta drain the lizard.”
I was protected from view on all sides except—I noticed too
late—for a slight gap opening out onto the street. When a taxi crept
by and all three passengers glared at me, I shot them a knowing look.
Fucking perverts.
They disembarked, hopped over the fence and made straight for
us. Our hearts were pounding in our throats as we wondered who
the hell they were, a possible Chinese triad? Had we stumbled onto
one of their secret hideouts?
“What are you guys doing back here?” they asked.
“Taking band photos,” we replied.
“You shouldn’t be back here.”
“No problem, we’ll leave.” We grabbed our stuff and headed for
the gate but the trio pulled police badges from under their shirts.
“Hands behind your back.”
“For what?”
“Public urination and trespassing.”
The next time we met up with Go it was a month later at 7 am
in front of the courthouse. He was acting real peculiar, not at all his
usual happy-Go-lucky self. Turned out he felt we had shamed him.
By the time the judge was done with us, the free photo shoot had
cost us around two hundred bucks each, plus court costs. On top
of the fines, I was also kind of embarrassed, since the night before
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I had googled “public urination” and found out it was considered a
sex crime in several states.
Nevertheless, we now had a sweet, sweet set-up as we freely bounced
between subway and street gigs, playing our allotted MUNY
spots, then finishing up on the breezy avenues. We were enjoying
the greatest creative autonomy of our lives, traversing Manhattan
unreservedly, capitalizing on the venerable tradition of rocking out
all day and night, logging invaluable performance time, selling mega
numbers of our new disc, and meeting awesome people from every
corner of the globe.
Once, we saw a woman, elegantly decked out in a bright shawl
and carrying a bouquet of roses, being chauffeured down the wide
Fifth Avenue sidewalk in a wheelchair. Before we knew who she was,
we already felt we were in the presence of royalty. With a blanket
over her legs, hands folded, eyes sparkling crystal blue, she sat regally
motionless, listening to us play. At the end of our set, her assistant,
the clean-cut guy in his mid-thirties who had been wheeling her
along, came over grinning and whispered, “That woman right there
is Fay Wray. She was the star of the original King Kong and she’s
mesmerized by your music.”
“Like . . . wow! That is so frickin’ awesome!” We looked over with
a smile and bowed to her. I’ve never had the inclination to bow to
anyone before or since, but when you meet the love of King Kong’s
life, the ninety-something-year-old Queen of Scream, you just do
the bow, man. Before they left, she sent the assistant over to give us
each a rose. We felt lucky to have played for her majesty mere weeks
before her passing. When she died, they dimmed the lights on the
Empire State Building for fifteen minutes. RIP, Fay.
We hobnobbed with a few other legends, too. It must have been
at least a hundred degrees in the direct sunlight when rock legend
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buskers
Patti Smith came strolling by while we jammed on the corner of
Fifty-ninth. Heth was hitting some serious power chords when she
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gave us a wink. “Rock on, Patti!” we shouted. We later found out she
had done some busking early in her career, along with sleeping on
the park benches located only a block or two from where we were
presently throwing down.
I think Heth must have a famous people radar detector built into
his brain. It doesn’t matter if we are jamming or being mugged, he
can always spot a celebrity. Like the time Donald Sutherland was our
guest at Forty-seventh Street and Broadway. Heth was so star struck
he yelled into the microphone, like a total doofus, “Hey, Donald
Sutherland in da house!” Donny boy smiled back, but made a hasty
exit once he realized he’d been outed in front of a busload of salivating Midwestern tourists.
The time Mick Jones of Foreigner happened by (not to be confused
with Mick Jones of the Clash, which would have been equally cool),
Heth and I kept glancing at each other to confirm that what we were
witnessing was actually real. Were we seriously playing for the God of
Rock who’d written “Hot Blooded” and “I Want to Know What Love
Is”? When we finished our song, he came up and tried to buy a CD.
We said, “No way, man! This is for you, for all of your amazing music.”
Then he shook our hands and dropped a twenty in our case anyway.
Once, we were having a bad money day over on Seventh Avenue,
mostly due to the cold weather (we’ll generally pack up and go
home at around thirty-seven degrees). Despite the fingerless gloves
we had on, our hands were stiff. Our amps and guitars were brittle,
making it all the more difficult to connect with an audience. Suddenly Heth’s famous people detector went off again when all sixfoot-five of Mick Fleetwood sauntered by in a pimped-out fur coat.
I followed him across the street and tried telling him how much I
loved his music, before forcing one of our CDs on him, but found
myself tongue-tied in his presence. He was way gentlemanly about
it, helping to decipher my disjointed grunts.
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“So you want to give me your CD . . . right?” he asked.
“Y-y-yes, Mr. F-F-Fleetwood.”
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“Cool, man! I’ll listen to it on the plane.”
And then there was the time that Bob Dylan walked by as we
played Eighth Avenue. I nearly fainted but Heth took off his guitar
and went running down the street after him. For a second there
it looked like he was going to make contact with Mr. Tambourine
Man, but when he got too close, Bob’s companions went all humanbarricade on him.
Heth asked, “Can I at least give him our CD?”
“Nope! Now get outta here.”
I’m sure everyone and their mother wanted a piece of Dylan but
hey, it was worth a shot.
Oh! And there were famous people in the subways too, but it was
a whole different vibe. On the streets, stars jumped in and out of
limos shielded by their extensive entourages, but taking the trains
was more of a solitary pursuit. Tobey Maguire once rolled up with
his kid in a stroller and placed five bucks in our case, then took
in the show. No hat, no sunglasses, and still nobody knew who the
hell he was—sometimes the best disguise is no disguise at all. We
also met one of Heth’s all-time musical heroes, Rod Morgenstein,
the drummer for the Dixie Dregs and illustrious Berklee College of
Music professor. After he threw some cash in our case, Rod smiled,
then bolted down the steps toward the arriving 6 train, but not
before Heth could thank him for all the life-altering tunes. We met
and became friends with bass goddess Greta Brinkman, a serious
badass who’s toured with such artists as Moby and Debbie Harry.
And we can’t forget meeting Max Weinberg, drummer for Bruce
Springsteen and Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show. We were in the
middle of a particularly rocking version of “Falling Together” (if we
do say so ourselves) when we spied Max heading for the L train.
Heth literally dropped his guitar mid song, ran over to his idol, and
shoved a CD into his hands.
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Are we falling together? Are we stronger than ever? Are we gonna make it through the night alright?
“Hey Max, you’re the fucking man!” Heth gushed. “So do you
guys ever give local bands a shot? You know, like us buskers? Maybe
tell Conan to have us on the show some time.” Heth might have
been a little aggressive, but seriously, what the hell were we doing
out here in the bowels of New York City if not pushing our music on
everyone and anyone that could possibly help our cause? After the
assault Max looked slightly miffed but shook Heth’s hand nonetheless and said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
After meeting stars, I usually fantasized about what it would be
like to perform all over the world, in venues other than windswept
avenues and dank subway stations. To be transported into the lap
of luxury, packed stadiums, guaranteed paychecks, and the world
of swanky green room deli trays. I allowed myself that minute of
fantasy before wisely shaking off the daydream and going back to
working within our circumstances—something Dan had taught us
how to do in spades. He instructed, “The best way out of a situation
is into a situation.” We applied his teaching as best we could, filtering
it through the prism of street performance.
Maybe it was our latent messianic complex kicking in, but we
came to view busking as a genuine act of shamanism, and ourselves as intermediaries bridging spiritual and physical planes. Show
after show, a strange and powerful energy visited us, turning us
into junkies for the addictive current of what felt like otherworldly
support. We acted as a musical air purifier—a cosmic intake valve
removing harmful psychic pollutants from the collective commuter
psyche—and it hasn’t left us since. So as not to piss off the gods of
inspiration, and to keep the creative energy flowing, we made sure
to keep careful records of any subconscious messages, song ideas, or
guitar riffs that came to us under the influence of this energy.
c o s m i c i n ta k e va lv e
Though we’d come a long way, there were moments when I was forced
to defend my lifestyle. I remember making out with a hot chica in
the back of Motor City Bar on Ludlow Street; when the busking
subject came up, she exclaimed, “Hey, I’m sorry but I could never
be with someone who performs on the streets. What would I tell
my friends?” Bam! She gulped the remainder of her appletini and
bolted.
The first couple of times this happened I was blindsided, thinking
it was an anomaly, but when it happened a third time, and then
a fourth, I briefly entertained the notion that busking might be a
shameful disorder. I wondered if my demonically possessed soul
was in need of an exorcism. When I went out with new women, I
wrestled with whether I had to divulge my dark secret right away, or
if I could wait a few dates first.
I practiced my rap in the mirror. “Busking is not begging. Our
hands are not simply outstretched. It’s a trade, as in we trade our
music for money . . .”
I eventually came to the conclusion that some folks didn’t get it
and probably never would. Unless we somehow became media darlings, we’d hover forever just below the threshold of general acceptability.
“Heth and Jed?” a co-worker from the Planet Hollywood days
inquired, stumbling upon our rock’n’roll show. “What the hell are
you two doing out here? You guys aren’t homeless, are you?”
“Homeless?” we exclaimed. “Nah . . . just rockin’ the fuck out,
dude! Promoting the band.”
Another time we tried to get the attention of one of Heth’s high
school exes as she fought her way through midday foot traffic. They
were hot and heavy for a while back in eleventh grade. Even so, when
their eyes met in recognition for the first time in years, she hastily
cupped a hand around the side of her face and made the I-do-notfucking-know-you gesture.
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buskers
Except for these few glitches in the matrix, we were experiencing
a surge of support like we had never felt before. The people of New
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York City had shown us so much love, and Music Under New York
had finally welcomed us aboard. Family and friends were stoked for
us, too (with the caveat that Mom and Hope were always warning
us, “Stop playing at Herald Square, it’s too dangerous!”)
Run-ins with our nemeses the break-dancers aside, busking had
become our all-around remedy for bad moods, since shows left us
feeling more balanced—at times as if we’d received a four- or fivehour hug. Especially once we began the practice of posting our gigs
on our website—after that, we routinely had crowds waiting for us
when we arrived at our scheduled spots. Some days it was fans from
Canada, or maybe a bunch of local Fashion Institute kids. Other
times, folks beamed in via satellite hook-up, like the time our friend
Amber stopped by and held her phone up for the entire set so her
boyfriend, the self-proclaimed biggest Heth and Jed fan in all of
Italy, could get his fix. “You guys know how addictive your sound is,
right?” he told us.
Thanks to the diversity of New York City crowds, we had gone
international. Apparently, we had no real need to tour, since the
world routinely came to our doorstep. While most bands strained
for international exposure, we were frequently written up in such
faraway places as Brazil, India, and Israel, all by people who’d come
across us during their travels. We often received emails from international fans well in advance of an impending visit: Hey guys! We
are huge fans visiting from France at the end of June. We’ll be coming
to all your shows. Can’t wait to see you two! We were honored by the
repeat business of folks who made us a regular stop whenever they
were in town; that’s how we learned that busking was an international phenomenon and much more accepted overseas. In fact, we
weren’t even familiar with the term “busking” until one of our European audience members used it in conversation!
It’s funny what sticks with you. I’ll never forget the time we
c o s m i c i n ta k e va lv e
surveyed our audience and noticed a group of people listening
attentively, all sitting on folding chairs. We later learned they had
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been moving around the tubes all afternoon, catching various street
performers. As they say, “only in New York.”
I knew we were really blowing up when I earned my very own
stalker, in my very own apartment building. Eve would have
been proud. I finally understood what the hell she’d been going
through. Whenever I came home, my shirtless neighbor opened
his door and stared me down like he wanted to rape or kill me, or
perhaps both.
“Hey dude. I know who you are. You’re in Heth and Jed,” he said.
“I like your band a lot. You’re not as good as my band, but you guys
are good.”
“Really? What band are you in?”
“Well, I’m not really in any bands . . . anymore,” he said, clearing
his throat. “I mean I’ve grown up. I have an adult job now.”
Another problem was he was always home, twenty-four-fuckingseven. It was difficult living in the adjoining apartment as he monitored my every move. When I arrived home exhausted after my shows,
the shirtless wonder popped his door open and interrogated me.
“I heard you getting busy last night. Was she at least cute?”
I knew his entire routine too, including his familiar cough and
how he liked to talk to himself, until, like clockwork, every night
around 4 am he’d blast Norwegian death metal while smashing the
adjoining wall with a metal pan, screaming, “Jed, I’m gonna fucking
kill you, bro. You’re a fucking dead man!”
The next day he’d repent, leaving freshly baked chocolate chip
cookies or a giant batch of brownies in front of my apartment door,
accompanied by a note that usually read something like: Hey man,
here are some goodies to help you recharge those creative juices. Enjoy!
P.S. I heard you working on that new song yesterday, really nice! Of
course I handled his “gifts” with a surgical mask, hazmat suit, and
salad tongs.
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My landlord and the cops were no help at all. The one time I
went down to the local precinct to file a complaint, they made
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veiled homosexual jokes about me having a male stalker. Things
really escalated when Heth came down to have a word with Creepy
McGee (the nickname some other tenants in my building gave him).
When he arrived, he was still pumped from an earlier busking show
during which gang after gang tried to oust us from our lucrative
Grand Central spot. We hadn’t been able to get through a single
song without defending our terrain, despite our MUNY permit. Too
bad ol’ Dale McStalkerson made the mistake of blocking the hallway
as we loaded in.
Smashing his shoulder into Heth: “Watch where you’re going,
fucking asshole.”
“What did you say?” Heth asked.
“I said, watch where you’re going or I’ll kick your faggot ass.”
Before I could say anything, Heth pulled him down the staircase
and pinned him against the wall, jabbing his trusty five-foot metal
microphone stand under his neck. (I swear Heth is having a love
affair with that thing; it really is his implement of choice when he
needs to make a statement.)
“You got some kind of fucking problem with my brother?”
“No man,” he gurgled. “No problem here.”
“Well, from now on, if you got something to say, you say it to me.
Got it? Don’t even look at him or I will fucking end you!”
“Yeah, man. Okay, calm down.”
“Now get the fuck back into your hovel!”
As I watched Dale limp upstairs and obediently close his apartment door behind him, I figured this must be why God had invented
older brothers.
13
Fat of the Land
W
[ h et h ]
e were playing Times Square and kicking butt. Besides good
tips and CD sales we also received a bunch of consumables.
It all started when a guy in full Body Glove workout garb
dropped five ZonePerfect nutrition bars into our guitar
case. By the end of our song, he’d changed his mind and added
another handful to the pile.
“You guys sound great. Eat ’em up!”
During our next tune, one of our regulars dropped a bag of
Snapple iced tea into our case. Score! Before the show was over,
someone else had chucked a few Hershey’s bars on top of our
growing cash pile. Shwing! It was a full-on diabetic smorgasbord.
“I don’t have any food to give you guys,” a girl with a hot Norwegian
accent explained, “but I’d sure like to get one of your CDs.”
“Step into our office,” we replied, with a one-liner from our
expanding arsenal that would have made Dad proud. (While we had
barely made contact with him in years, thoughts of Dad surfaced all
the time—whenever we heard the familiar sound of his belly laugh
emanating from one of our own pie-holes, or in that occasional
moment when we yearned for fatherly advice.) In any case, it was as
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buskers
if, through busking, the community had come to our aid, finishing
our parenting and maybe even turning us into (God forbid) fine
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young men.
All the support that day was particularly gratifying since just a
few days earlier we were taunted by dark energies as we tried out
a new spot hundreds of feet beneath the crust of Times Square. To
keep things fresh we try not to perform in any one location too frequently; otherwise we risk infecting the public with a severe case of
Heth and Jed overload. We often let spots lie fallow while rotating
newly discovered locations into the ol’ performance roster. Years
ago, a marketing study was conducted that revealed New Yorkers
rarely stray off a set daily route, which probably explains why we see
the same faces at the same spots again and again. (It also explains
why a Starbucks can open up directly across the street from another
Starbucks without impinging on the latter’s business.)
We took the elevator and felt ourselves going down, down, triple
down into the bowels of Hades. (Just make your first left at the bottomless pit, then turn right at the Lake of Fire.) Every spot we play
has a unique personality, and when we arrived at the bottom of the
Times Square pit, both of us had the sneaking suspicion that this
one was going to suck. Having made the trek, we shook off the negative vibrations and gave the place a chance to prove us wrong, but
it only took us fifteen minutes of playing before we had this puppy
pegged: demonically possessed insane asylum.
Besides the garbage strewn all over the place, the station floors
were covered in a slippery film of soot. A family of rats was scurrying along the walls, darting in and out of a drainage pipe from
which an unidentifiable liquid had been dripping long enough to
form stalactites. Without windows or any sense of direction, we
couldn’t help feeling somewhat claustrophobic, trapped in a confusing underground labyrinth. I pray it never occurs, but I’m positive the day will arrive when a terrorist attack hits the subways. I
can only hope they take us out while we’re cranking a kickass rock
fat o f t h e l a n d
show so we can die with our boots on and not have to claw our way
through mounds of apocalyptic debris.
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Down in the hole, Jed and I refocused and got ready to rock,
kicking out the first song of the afternoon, “Sunday Driver.” We threw
ourselves balls-deep into the jam, making our best effort to gather
an audience here on the abyssal plain. All kinds of undiscovered
species paddled by. We had visits from more common specimens as
well, such as the ever-present scraggly drunk (Drunkulus vulgaris)
in the front row who danced and shouted, “Work that shit! Work
it!” All his yelps and whoops were helping build us a crowd so we
let him carry on for a while, with the hopes he’d soon split town,
until . . . boom! It all went haywire. The motherfucker whipped out
his johnson and started jerking off to the groove of our jam. With
his giant member dangling, he went for a trifecta and released his
testes from their burrow, no doubt enjoying the full scrotal freedom.
Audience members had not yet discovered the complete range
of wonders awaiting them until he began squirting urine. At first,
everyone thought he was just spilling beer, but like a feral dog
marking his territory in spurts, he shot a yellow stream a good eight
feet (must have taken his vitamins). His warm droplets rained onto
our jeans and amplifiers. A bunch of well-dressed business people
and some emo kids ran for cover.
“You sick motherfucker!” we barked, trying to protect our equipment. “Now get the hell outta here!”
The bitter stench of the pisser’s discharge filled our nostrils. With
no sense that anything was amiss, he wallowed there for a while with
his member still exposed, trying to chat us up. Turned out he was
quite the music aficionado, too.
“C’mon boys! Play something good!” he demanded. Thank God
he’d taken a special liking to Jed and not me. “Yo, you’re the shit, Mr.
Bass Man!”
Jed said, “Thank you, sir. But could you please put your dick back
in your pants?”
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Out of the corner of my eye I spied two cops approaching, each
pulling on a pair of those there’s-no-way-in-hell-I’m-touching-you
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tight leather gloves. Salvation at last, as our heroes scooped up the
pisser and whisked him out of the station. “I don’t care,” he said,
fading out of earshot. “Do whatever you want to me. I got AIDS. I’ll
be dead soon anyway!”
As if lining a puppy cage, Jed grabbed a few newspapers from the
overflow of a nearby garbage bin and covered the steamy puddles
the pisser had left behind. While slathering on gobs of the Purell
we kept stashed for just such occasions, we tried cheering each
other up, joking that a regular 9-to-5 was looking pretty sweet right
about now. We eventually regrouped, playing a while longer, but
our hearts weren’t exactly in it, plus the area reeked to holy hell.
Our busker’s intuition had been one hundred percent accurate:
This spot sucked.
It was this kind of
occurrence that reinforced our general belief
that our band operated a world away from the more civilized club
atmosphere where public urination is not a hazard of the job, and
performers frequently demand silent, attentive crowds for their
music. Once, after a long, hard day of busking, we went to see a
friend’s band and were innocently chillaxing with a Red Stripe and
a few shots when he stopped the show and admonished, “No talking
during my songs! If you want to talk, go outside.”
It made us cringe. To us, gigs are party central; anything goes. But
then again, what do we know? Our band was born and raised on
the corner of Rat Shit Road and Kick Your Ass Boulevard. The often
absurd conditions of our last few hundred shows have carved us
into a finely tuned, thick-skinned, musical machine. We’ve logged
in more performance hours than the Doors, Led Zeppelin, and
the Beatles combined. Our shows are accompanied by a lullaby of
deafening train screeches and the odor of human excrement. We’re
fat o f t h e l a n d
fresh sushi still squirming on the plate, pure electrical impulse and
muscle memory programmed for one thing and one thing only.
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Prior to busking, our club crowds mainly consisted of our girlfriends, our devoted cousin Josh, and the bartenders. That was
before we set about accumulating fans the hard way: winning them
over one at a time. And just as technology had made it possible
for us to create a professional-sounding CD without the help of a
record label, we had discovered that it also revolutionized the way
we promoted.
Before email and the internet, it was an expensive proposition just
to advertise an upcoming gig. We had to design and print posters,
then spend hours plastering the entire East Village with them, taping
them to every payphone, mailbox, bulletin board, and streetlight we
could find. Although necessary, it felt more like an act of futility,
since an hour after we poster-bombed an area, another band would
routinely come along and rip our posters down, making room for
their own. We’d have to repeat steps B and C several times before
each gig. We were generally looking at a hundred bucks’ damage
after printing costs just to promote one gig, which would net us half
that amount if we were lucky. But in the last decade or so, bands
have been able enjoy a level of intimacy and ease of communication
with their fans not previously possible.
We had no idea what to expect when we hit the streets in 2003,
yet at every show without fail, we religiously displayed an email list
sign-up sheet placed conspicuously next to our pile of CDs, and this
practice greatly expanded our audiences on the occasions when we
surfaced to play a club. We could now reach thousands of Hethand-Jederz instantly via a one-click email blast or through a simple
video blog. And who needs corporate radio when our website radio
station streams All Heth and Jed, All the Damn Time? To date, we’ve
accumulated ten thousand names on our email list, each added by
a person who walked up and signed under their own volition. I’m
proud to say not a single arm was twisted in the process.
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Though the internet levels the playing field and dramatically increased
attendance at our club shows, it can still feel like a Herculean feat to
be heard above the din of a million bands simultaneously yelling,
“Listen to me!” That’s why Jed and I make a habit of looking for
success anywhere we can find it. Yet, on occasion, it finds us. Like
the time a local booking agent who was smitten with our guerilla
promotional tactics recommended us to a production company that
was scouting every major city for “up and coming” bands. Groups
that made the cut would be taped for a live concert television series
called CitySessions.
We were more than psyched. The shoot was to take place in
Times Square’s Quad Recording Studios. You know, the building
where Tupac was famously shot in the nuts. But as soon as we
walked through the studio doors, we were met with the unnerving
spectacle of the band ahead of us in a state of complete meltdown. It
wasn’t hard to miss this fact, especially with the lead singer’s shrieks
of “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” being broadcast throughout the studio via its
vast array of oversized production monitors adorning every single
wall. The unforgiving glare of a fifteen-member crew equipped with
state-of-the-art Sony HD cameras had reduced the inexperienced
lad to tears.
Noticing Jed’s escalating anxiety, I assured him, “Bro, don’t worry
about those guys. Just ‘busk’ the gig.”
And why the hell not? We had zilch to worry about. Our fingers were more than warmed up from our nonstop street corner
touring. When the cameras rolled, we vibrated on our own plane
and jammed a killer set. Nine months later, with the concert “in the
can,” it began airing nationwide on Rave TV. That’s when we got a
taste of the incredible power of television. Website CD sales spiked
every time the concert aired, and people periodically stopped us
on the street to say how much they liked the show and to get an
autograph.
fat o f t h e l a n d
Then again, the power of television is a double-edged sword. One
warm Saturday in the middle of July—the best time to snag tips
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from folks who are half in the bag—we went prowling for a latenight spot.
But about an hour into the hunt . . . “Jed, dude, what the fuck is
going on out here? Where are all these musicians coming from?”
“I don’t know man,” he replied. “But they sure are everywhere.
It’s so bizarre.”
There were so many musicians, especially in the Union Square
station. There was a bagpipe player in our usual spot. A mere sixty
feet from him was a lady playing an organ. At the end of the corridor
we spied a dude in a furry Elmo costume playing the xylophone,
while off in the distance we heard bucket drummers competing
for audio space with a flautist who was being overpowered by an
electric violinist. With music spewing from every angle, the station
sounded like an Ornette Coleman free jazz clusterfuck, making the
whole experience feel cheap and corporate, as if buskers had all of a
sudden multiplied like the generic Duane Reades or Starbucks now
infesting every corner of the city.
Then it dawned on us. NYC Soundtracks, a new reality show on
MSG network, must be drawing musicians underground in droves.
The show was an eight-episode series that featured contestants going
head to head in a viewers’ choice competition for the best subway
busker in all of New York City. We’d auditioned but got no further
than a seven-second appearance in the first episode (turned out the
producers were looking for solo acts). The lucky winner would be
awarded an opening slot at the legendary Beacon Theatre.
All of a sudden, busking was the cool kid on the block. Jed and
I had witnessed the cycle before: Whenever a busker seals a movie
deal, record deal, or television spot, busking becomes momentarily
hip. Still, we knew that in just a few short weeks, the frenzy would
die down, and once again, only us stalwart lifers would remain.
Despite the overcrowded conditions, our promotional efforts
buskers
inspired new interest from the media when the popular New York
City blog Gothamist asked us to write about our busking exploits in
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a feature called “Tourist (A Tour Diary).” The success of that article
became the inspiration for this book, as we continued to jot down
informal notes after each gig. At first, we had no idea what our goal
was, but little by little, our memoir began taking shape. Next, we
threw ourselves into the creation of a sketchy outline and a book
proposal. Six months later, we emailed a query letter (a formal letter
sent to literary agents, proposing a book idea) to fifty of the biggest literary agents in the country. Within twenty-four hours we had
offers from a dozen or so brave souls all willing to represent our
magnum opus to publishers—more attention than we’d garnered
from the music business in our entire career. It blew our minds, but
mostly it said something about how insular the music industry had
become. Would they even know talent if they walked by it on the
way to work, or if it jammed a hit song for them as they waited for
the train? Our earlier prediction had certainly come true: When we
took our music to the streets, directly to the people, something had
most definitely “come of it.”
Our expanding fan base and growing popularity underground helped
us secure a residency at a short-lived speakeasy called the Apocalypse
Lounge on East Third Street and Avenue B in the East Village. It was
a throwback to the early ’80s downtown art scene, a weekly respite
from our otherwise strenuous grind. The club paid homage to New
York City’s newly resurrected neo-expressionist pop art scene. In
keeping with the Warhol Factory theme, there were day-glo collages
stuck in every nook of the building, interactive art installations, and
even a few genuine Basquiats and Harings hanging on the walls.
Since they didn’t have a cabaret or liquor license, the set-up was
basically illegal, making the scene all the more enjoyable.
We were stoked to discover that all our hard work was paying off
fat o f t h e l a n d
in the form of a weekly packed house. Gazing through the neon blue
darkness of the front room, we watched like proud parents as wasted
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European vacationers partied with wasted local kids from Queens
and Brooklyn, everyone bonding over our band. This demonstrated
two things we’d noticed time and again: Music united the masses,
and Heth-and-Jederz were seriously devoted. We were becoming a
community rock band. We even printed band t-shirts emblazoned
with our new creed: Community Rock, For the People By the
People.
The later our sets began, the more surreal the ambience became.
A few minutes before our 12 am slot, I climbed up onto a lumpy
carpet that was rolled up against the bar. While ordering, I was
momentarily distracted by the silhouette of a naked chick artfully
gyrating behind a scrim (the gorgeous goth bartenders took turns
stripping between pouring). Despite the fact that I felt the carpet
moving underneath me, I ignored my instincts, figuring it was the
combination of too much Jimmy Beam and the pre-show jitters.
That is, until the Persian rug bucked me off like I was a rodeo
cowboy. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the floor with my
drink splattered on me, staring up at a smiling face sticking out
the end of the rug. The bartender said, “Sorry ’bout that dude.
That’s just Bob the Human Carpet. He likes when people walk all
over him.”
Another unusual thing about the place was how one of the
employees regularly produced music for Sony Records in a
recording studio in the basement. He mentioned he liked our tunes
and wanted to invest some cash in us, but word on the street was
he was involved with some seriously deranged drug dealers, so we
declined as respectfully as possible. Shortly thereafter, he called and
said we’d better come over and play him our new songs by midnight
or he’d be sending Ramon over . . . whatever the hell that meant. At
first we thought he said he’d be sending the Ramones over—which
would have been way cooler.
buskers
164
We called his bluff: “Send whoever you want, motherfucker!”
After that they stopped booking us.
Despite the increased turnout, though, we’re road weary at club shows
and generally about as comfortable as Crocodile Dundee rooming
at the Plaza Hotel.
“Hi. Would you mind unlocking the door?” we asked. We were
trying to load in for a gig at the Living Room on Ludlow Street.
The huge-ass bouncer responded, “Maybe, if you say please.”
“Okay, then,” we replied. “Could you please open the fucking
door?”
Later we apologized for being a little stressed out. Clearly our
patience has been splattered like a rat’s brains across the 6 train’s
third rail, and at times we seem to have misplaced our manners.
Still, with so much performance and battle experience percolating
under our belts, our confidence in our music has soared. Accordingly, when the sound engineer at that same club was too cool to
acknowledge us during sound check, we teased, “Yo, the best fucking
band on the East Coast is here!” Then, borrowing a line from
Tenacious D, we admonished, “Get ready for us to cum in your earpussies!” Good thing we packed the club that night.
The great thing about playing an indoor show is being able to
hear each note clearly. All the new songs and riffs we’ve been developing and straining to hear for the last few months finally come
into focus at club shows, as if heard through a sonic microscope.
Yet without the occasional train screech or audience meltdown, we
feel somewhat out of our element, so we have a little fun goading
the audience. If someone bails between songs, we can’t refrain from
singling them out: “Hey, where you guys going? Don’t you like our
music? Oh yeah, the Taylor Swift concert is down the block.” People
seem to like it when a rock band alpha-males the room, becoming
fat o f t h e l a n d
the dog whisperers of music. Plus, we’d be remiss if we didn’t subvert an uptight atmosphere. Rooted firmly in the school of testing
boundaries, à la Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop, we’ve discovered that
the line separating audience from performer is illusory. Holding
ourselves apart would be exceedingly elitist; we’ll leave that to divas
such as the great Céline Dion and her ilk.
At that same show, we tested the club’s patience further when
they disciplined us in front of all our fans. “Hey, what the fuck are
you two doing? You guys can’t bring outside beer into the club!”
“Geez, what’s the big deal?” we asked.
“Dump that shit out right now, or I’m telling the booker to never
let you guys play here again.”
Jed and I had to physically restrain most of the bar from kicking
the shit out of the club’s overzealous security team. We were learning
that our fans could be rather protective and that we really, really
liked it. No longer was it just my brother and I against the world. We
now had allies.
It’s not just our attitude toward our audience that differentiates us;
while hanging with the other bands before a show, we’re usually
jealous of the pristine quality of their gear.
“Did you see that guy’s guitar, bro? Fuckin’ mint!”
“Yeah, dude. Looks like it’s never been used.”
From daily use, our gear is in a perpetual state of tatters, held
together with duct tape and spit. To keep our endless tour rolling
along, we faithfully adhere to a daily flight check consisting of
morning yoga followed by a test for broken wires, dead strings,
and inoperative effect pedals. Notwithstanding moments of envy,
we wear our battered gear proudly, like battle scars. After five years
in the streets, we’ve concluded that a band needs to age like a fine
wine, and people seem to appreciate the fact we’ve been knocked
165
buskers
around a little. There’s simply no substitute for mileage, suffering,
and paying your dues. In this age of instant fame, slow-brewed pre166
mium rock’n’roll is all the more distinctive.
One thing that always helps us acclimate to the subway stations after
a cushy club show is bullshitting with cool MTA personnel. Many
MTA workers, we’ve found, have a deep affection for the arts. On
the whole, they’re supportive of subway musicians, treating us like
honorary colleagues. Our good buddy Jack Gorski is one of the
many subway maintenance guys you see around the stations and has
been a loyal friend and supporter for years. Between songs, he often
reminisces about the mind-blowing rock shows he experienced in
his youth at places like the Fillmore East (now a Chase bank, of
course) and Madison Square Garden.
Jack is always in some kind of a tizzy about having to work like
a mule. “Garbage cans are supposed to be emptied every two hours
but they fill up every sixty minutes! What the fuck are you people
putting in here?” he wonders aloud. Another time, he asks, “Did you
guys hear that report about subway air quality being safe? Between
you and me there’s a lot of respiratory issues down here from all
the steel dust coming off the metal train wheels. You guys ever seen
a greyish-blue cloud hovering in the stations? Whenever the trains
brake, that shit kicks up into your lungs.”
“Makes sense, man. Lately Jed and I have been feeling like a
couple of coal miners. When we get home after a day of singing, we
blow our noses and out comes a river of black soot.”
After one of our shows, Jack slammed the garbage can shut and
remarked, “Sounds like you guys are going through a Zeppelin
phase. You kind of have that Jimmy Page thing going on, and I
should know ’cause I’ve seen them seven times!”
“No fucking way! You saw them live?”
fat o f t h e l a n d
“Yup! At the Garden and Nassau.”
We mentioned how we’d been receiving weekly emails with com167
ments like, “Your music reminds me of all the great times tailgating
with my childhood friends.”
Jack spoke about practically growing up at the Fillmore and
CBGB. “Ever been in the bathroom at CB’s? Gross or what?”
“Yeah gross, but we loved it.”
“Hang on. I got something in my locker to show you guys.”
He returned with a photo album packed with faded Polaroids, a
veritable time capsule of classic New York City rock history. There
were front-row snapshots of seminal groups like the New York Dolls,
the Damned, and Patti Smith in their heyday. He also had shots of
more mainstream groups like Uriah Heep, Bad Company, Boston,
Skynyrd, and Thin Lizzy.
Just then, Mushroom, the dude who grows shrooms in hundredgallon fish tanks in his Astoria basement, mystically happened upon
the party.
“Hey dudes. How’s it going?”
“Cool man! What’s going on?”
“Well for one thing, I have a new crop of primo fungi coming in
and they are looking pretty sweet. I’m saving you boys some very
nice caps and stems. But please, promise me you’ll never eat them
raw. Okay? Only make tea.”
“No problem,” we replied. “Scout’s honor.”
Mush was our Captain Trips, having never met a drug he didn’t
like. Might be why all his teeth were AWOL . . . too much meth?
“Hey man, allow me to introduce you to our good friend Jack.”
“Nice to meet you,” Mush said, fiddling with his dentures. The two
surveyed each other with the quizzical looks of long lost brothers.
After shaking hands, they perused Jack’s awesome photo collection
only to realize they’d both attended many of the same concerts over
thirty years ago. The pièce de résistance came when Jack ran to his
buskers
locker yet again, this time returning with a sleeveless denim jacket.
“Check it out.” The backside was painted with a flawless rendition of
168
the cover art for Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy.
“Holy shit!” we all agreed.
“I paid some kid twenty bucks to paint it back in 1975.”
“Damn!” Mushroom said. “That thing should be hanging in the
Louvre.”
14
Future Memory
E
[j e d ]
ver since that fateful night at Panna II, Heth and I had been on
an uninterrupted rock’n’roll bender, struggling to get this family
business of ours off the ground. Six years in, we were starting
to feel like we might have overdone it a little. We were battleweary, punch-drunk, and practically sleepwalking through gigs like
bleary-eyed zombies. Heth’s asthma was acting up and I’d been
enjoying the wonderment of chronic nasal infections, all symptoms
of working constantly without much fresh air or a vacation. We’d
lost our perspective, and inspiration was seriously on the wane.
One day not too long ago, in desperate need of a recharge and
a home-cooked meal, we headed over to Penn Station to catch
the Dover Midtown Direct and make the forty-five minute trip to
Mom’s apartment in Jersey.
On that rare day off it’s always a relief to travel the city with
only a gigantic coffee in hand, free from the two hundred pounds
of musical baggage we’re used to dragging all over God’s creation.
Sometimes it even feels like we’re attending a party in our honor.
The formerly cold and lonely subway corridors are now filled with
Heth-and-Jederz and fellow buskers! Along the way, we’re met by
169
buskers
smiling faces, people excited to run into us, calling out, “All right,
Heth and Jed! How’s it going, guys?” “Hey! What’s up?” we smile
170
back, forever blown away when we get the royal treatment.
As soon as we hopped off the N train at Thirty-fourth Street, on
our way to Penn Station, a rocker-in-training wearing a rad Lamb
of God shirt and dark shades threw the devil’s horns our way. “Hey,
you guys fucking rock!” he called out. “I mean it, you fucking rock!”
We threw two hands in the air to shoot him back a respectable
double dose of hornage.
There’s nothing more gratifying than being acknowledged, yet on
the train ride out to Mom’s all we could think about was the quiet
lushness of our old childhood retreat, St. Phil’s woods.
“Dude, we gotta go there today,” Heth said, eager to hug a tree.
Mom met us at the train station. Despite her frequent grumblings
that she’s overdue for a face-lift, she looks great. For the last couple
years, she’s been sporting a magnificent kinky perm. It’s so distinctive it often elicits comments like “you go, girl!” from people who
think it’s natural. She’s as feisty as ever, too—still loves her TV shows
and is an expert at handling both the newfangled FIOS remote and
her 60" LCD flat screen, given to her by her brother on her seventysecond birthday. God forbid one of us tries to commandeer that
hardware; she’s selective about what she watches. In particular, if
George Bush, Jr. comes on the screen, she totally loses it. “Turn that
channel right now! I already told you, that man is not allowed in
this house!”
“All right, all right Mom! Settle down.”
In retirement, she’d also reclaimed a sizeable chunk of her artistic
side, having begun a series of very large paintings. Perhaps taking a
cue from us, Mom has even become a busker of sorts, drumming up
the courage to hawk her Pollock-esque works at North Jersey street
festivals.
After stuffing ourselves silly with one of her signature meals
(boeuf bourguignon cooked to perfection), we prepared for our
future memory
pilgrimage to the woods of yore by digging around on the interwebs
a bit. Who was this St. Philomena, anyway?
“Patron saint of children?” Heth crowed, skimming the Wikipedia
page. “That’s crazy! She definitely watched over us.”
“Duh,” I replied. “Why else do you think we’re still alive?”
On scene, we instinctively gravitated to one of our former access routes,
the one we’d used as kids, but the entryway to our childhood oasis
was overgrown with thorny tangles of ivy and weeds. So we clawed
and stomped our way through the jungle until our inner GPS units
synchronized, pointing us in the direction of the most sacred spot of
all: The logs. Time to pay our respects to the old stomping grounds.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The sunrays filtering
through the dense canopy of maples flickered across my face. The air
was extra sweet from a recent rainfall, and the trees that unfailingly
balanced and insulated us from cops and family drama greeted us
like old friends. They’d grown taller and their trunks had thickened
with age, and some had even spawned children of their own.
Amid tiny shards of decaying logs, Heth found a crusty Old Milwaukee beer can. He flicked off a giant daddy longlegs and held the
can up to the sunlight for further inspection.
“Holy crap! It’s got the old logo from the ’80s. I bet Ed threw it
there.”
After that, we couldn’t help but play a round or two of “remember
when.” We rapped about how far we’d come since the last time
we’d stood in this exact spot smoking Bill’s testicle-scented weed,
dreaming of rock’n’roll stardom.
“You know, it just wasn’t the right time for Airport Hug,” I suggested. “We had all the potential to be a great band but just couldn’t
get any traction.”
“Whataya talking about?” Heth countered. “We were a great
band. Just had too much baggage and not enough luck. And what if
171
buskers
we’d made it? Would you have liked being cooped up in a tour bus
smelling Drake’s farts for the rest of your natural life?”
172
I had to concede the point.
“You know, maybe we’re not rich and famous,” Heth said, “but
we’ve definitely lived a rich life.”
“Oh no. Here we go,” I said half-jokingly. I knew he was going to
hit me with one of his philosophical diatribes.
“We’re full-time musicians, man! Can you fucking believe that?
And we’ve been on a totally kick-ass journey together!”
I think we ultimately owed the resurrection of our brotherhood
to Mom, who always encouraged us to look out for one another. As
kids, we had no idea what she was talking about when she drilled
into our brains, “Never let anything come between you two!”
“Do you think Dad’s proud of us?” Heth suddenly asked me.
“I don’t know,” I replied, as honestly as I could; it’s been so
many years since we’ve spoken. In early 2009 at one of our Fortysecond Street Times Square shows, while we were knee-deep in a
toe-curling jam for an audience of over two hundred people, who
should emerge from behind a white metal column but Dad. He was
grooving to the scene, sizing up the crowd while staring at us, tearyeyed. Without saying a word he walked over, grabbed a few of our
CDs, and left without paying.
“One thing’s for sure,” I said. “He definitely developed our
musical palette . . . turning us on to jazz and classical at such an
early age. But maybe that’s why we gravitated to the raw power of
three-chord rock.”
Either way, we credit him with instilling the spirit of defiance that
keeps us going even in the face of defeat.
It was getting dark when we finally bailed, but we couldn’t leave
without making a lap around 32 Lex for old time’s sake. Our folks
had sold it a few years prior, and by then, we had already grown to
dread our occasional visits. Two seconds inside those walls was all it
took for us to revert to old childhood patterns, eternally rehashing
future memory
some unresolved, unimportant bullshit. It didn’t matter how long
ago they once raged, the energy-presence of a million and one lin173
gering battles just wouldn’t fade.
“Hope the new owners smudged the place or performed a séance
before moving in,” Heth said.
“Maybe it’ll accidentally catch fire . . .” I joked.
The day the movers had split from 32 Lex with the last bit of Mom’s
furniture, our good buddy Mike—the brains behind inserting the
porn spread in my trumpet lesson book—had dropped by to document one final walk-through. Rather than bidding goodbye to an
old friend, ridding ourselves of our old house had felt more like
finally taking off a pair of circulation-destroying, sperm count–
annihilating skinny jeans.
The video shows us descending into our moldy basement for the
last time. Serving as official videographer, Mike asks, “Heth, isn’t
this where you learned how to play drums?”
“Yeah. This is where I spent like six weeks figuring out Rush’s
Moving Pictures. My Rototoms were positioned somewhere right
about . . . here,” Heth says, proudly air drumming the intro to “YYZ.”
Bah, duh bah bah bah, duh bah bah bah bah!
The camera focuses on the laundry room. I ask, “Hey Mike,
isn’t that where you banged Cindy Friedman at one of our first keg
parties?”
Laughing. “Yup, her head kept smacking into the ironing board.”
“Mike,” I tell him, “you’re such a romantic, dude!”
It was a steamy Friday night when, feeling rejuvenated, we hopped
a train back to the city. We didn’t have one of our Music Under
New York scheduled shows, but we needed to rock, so we collected
our gear and headed out in search of an unauthorized spot. First
we swung by Penn Station with hopes of jamming in the air
conditioning while chugging a few beers, but no such luck. Next we
buskers
headed downtown to sweltering Union Square where, surprisingly,
none of our brethren were performing. We moved in and staked
174
our claim.
We went through the familiar checklist of setting up, opening our
guitar case, optimistically positioning it front and center for tips.
Funny how after a thousand shows, we still get butterflies. A train
screeched into the station and with the throbbing mass of humanity
flooding all around us, we flicked on our amps. The light by the
power switch glowed yellow. All systems go.
Heth announced, “This one’s called ‘Future Memory.’”
We looked at each other and nodded.
“Let’s rock!”
A future memory
Of where I’m gonna be
If things work out
You standing next to me.
You’re way before your time,
You’re so special
And there’s no doubt
You’ll be standing next to me.
Acknowledgments
Thanks to our agent Andrea Somberg at the Harvey Klinger Literary
Agency for believing in us and selling our book. Special thanks to our
editor Anne Horowitz and the wonderful people at Soft Skull Press/
Counterpoint. Gratitude abounding to producer Jamie Candiloro
and to our good buds Michelle Goodman, Greta Brinkman, Linda
Burnside, Joe Salerno, Janice Muscio, and Susan Romweber, who
helped organize our muddled mess of a first draft. To the folks at
Music Under New York for giving us a musical home. To the City of
New York and the Metropolitan Transit Authority for supplying the
real estate upon which to rock, and to the people of New York City
for supporting us.
To Mom, who helped us dig into the past, and to Hope, Larry
Masser, Milo, Jack, and Rocket for their love and support. To Mike
Lonoff for being a great friend and for reminding us of many early
stories. Thanks to Ed’s room alumni, wherever you may be.
175
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