When we were little kids, my brother Joseph threw a hammer at me. The claw end caught me on the forehead, causing a lot of blood and requiring me to have stitches. I don't remember why he threw it at me, or if I was really mad at him or any other details. All that I have from it now is a cool scar and a cool story. I think that is a metaphor for our relationship.
Even though we were only 18 months apart, Joe and I were never friends in childhood. We fought all of the time -- mostly verbally -- and by the time we were in our teens, we treated each other with a cool disregard. We had nothing in common. Well, almost nothing: music.
But other than that minor little thing, we really were polar opposites. I was the good kid, the first-born, the apple of my father's eye. Joe was the bad kid, constantly getting into trouble, and creating huge parental disputes on how to discipline him. My dad wanted to be harsher and my mom wanted to be more lenient. I really didn't care; I was actually sort of glad to have him around as a lightning rod.
As a faithful follower of the 11th Commandment (Don't Get Caught) and always aware of accepting responsibility for my actions, I didn't necessarily take a whole lot of risks. So where I'd sneak out a night and hang around with friends somewhere and quietly drink beer, Joe would sneak out, drop acid, and walk around town until dawn. I drank and smoked a little pot. Joe tried everything.
Joe took piano lessons when he was about nine, and unlike most kids, he liked it. He spent long hours playing, improvising licks and even writing songs. These were primitive, at best, but soon two more things happened: Joe taught himself guitar and he discovered Bob Dylan.
By this time, we were in our mid-teens, and had discovered rock n' roll as music and a way of life. I was beginning to buy all of the albums I could get my hands on, and was reading everything I could about music. Joe was too, but since he could actually play music, he wasn't nearly as much of a fan as I, except for his intense worship of Dylan.
The only thing Joe and I really shared during our entire teenage years was this: he'd grab his acoustic guitar and start singing one of the at least 100 Bob Dylan songs he knew, and I'd start "playing drums" on the back side of a broken-down, stringless acoustic guitar. I'd hear it coming out of his room, walk in, and just start banging away. He never resented it, never got mad when I couldn't figure out a particular rhythm and sometimes even recorded us. By this time, he had also taught himself bass and harmonica and had played in a couple of garage bands with local teenagers, but given his considerable talent, not really doing anything. He was just too fucked up.
His grades were miserable, he was drinking and frying, and his attitude was the dictionary definition of bad. He was tossed out of our high school and eventually went up in Kennewick, Washington, to live with our cousins, one of whom was our age and he was pretty close to. It really didn't make all that much difference to me. I mean, I sort of missed our jamming together and stuff, but he was just too much trouble.
This was in 1981, I was in my second year at Fresno City College, and I remember Joe calling from Washington telling me about this cool new cable channel that played nothing but music videos, 24 hours a day. I though that it was really cool sounding, but since Fresno didn't have cable I knew that I'd never get to see this Music Television, or whatever it was called. Ha! Little did I realize that a scant decade later, I'd be graduating from Fresno State after writing my Senior (goddamn, how difficult is it to spell "Senior?!") Thesis on this video monster that completely changed the music I love so much. Ah, life, it's just so fucking weird.
1981 was also when he traded acid for Jesus and met his future ex-wife. Sometime in late 1982, Joe came back from Washington with a Bible in one hand and Karen, his fiancee, in the other. And he preached. He had accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior, and if I didn't I was going to regret it -- maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of eternity.
I suggested that his conversion to Jesus had followed a little closely on the heels of Bob Dylan's, and maybe he had traded acid as a crutch for Jesus as a crutch. This didn't make me too popular, but I really didn't care: I was too busy helping my mother through our parents' separation, helping KFSR go on the air, and helping me lose my virginity.
And so when Joe got married the next year, I was barely there, and for the next few years we really didn't see each other. He had his wife, and soon, two daughters, and I had the radio station and college. We saw each other occasionally, and while the Jesus thing dissipated, we still weren't all that close. I felt that he was just sitting on his musical talent and, yeah, I resented that.
No really. I'd always resented and been jealous of his musical talent. I'm the one who loves music so much, why did I get stuck with this stupid talent for writing that either A) I'm going to ignore like an idiot for the rest of my life -- except for when I need it for other reasons, like to get laid -- and then I'm going to be miserable without really knowing why (which is more of the time than I'd like to admit), but then I can always rationalize by saying that there is really no money for writing the things I'd like to write -- just "A" papers, and I suppose I could have always been an English major except for the fact I really could care less about dead European writers and analyzing poetry because I'm uncouth (except I do like to go out with English major type women), or B) I'm going to get off my dead ass and write -- which for a lazy slacker like me is akin to having my testicles ripped apart by rubber bats (I have no idea what that means but doesn't it just sound awful) -- and then I'd express myself honestly and I've found out in the past how much trouble that can cause, so please god, in the next life can I just have the musical talent thank you very much. I'd always said that if I had Joe's talent, I'd be famous, or at least critically respected.
In those years, we would spend some time together -- he would come over to my apartment or he'd pop in on my airshift at KFSR and bring me some new Dylan bootleg to play over the air or he would just scare whatever girlfriend I had at the time with his weird intensity. But we weren't friends.
In the fall of 1987, I had to temporarily move into my dad's, because a failed relationship had left my out of both money and living quarters. Joe's marriage fell apart at almost exactly the same time, and so for the first time in 15 years, we had to share a room. And for the first time ever, share pain. Under those extraordinary circumstances, I guess we discovered we weren't really that different after all. But we still weren't really friends.
At this time, he had lost all interest in his own music and I was putting myself where my mouth was and teaching myself drums. So he fixated himself on the band I was playing in -- coming to our practices, and even playing piano during a couple of our shows. When I moved out of my dad's again, he stayed, but I'd come over on Sundays and he and I (and our other two brothers, John and Jeff, then in their mid-teens) would shoot the shit, watch "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and barbecue steaks.
Then he discovered cocaine. Well, I doubt he discovered it then, because he'd never been too discreet about what he'd put into his system. But this time, it seemed to discover him. After all, cocaine is simply and advertisement for itself. There is only one thing that even the most casual users want after their teeth de-numb and THAT FEELING goes away: more coke. This craving doesn't last very long, but it is so intense that only strength of will, a ton of alcohol, or a lack of money are effective in combating it.
Now I am not, in any way, shape or form, anti-drug. I've seen many people use many things in many casual ways over the years and never get addicted. In fact, I find the whole government-inspired moral outrage over drugs hypocritical and the "Just Say No" campaign ludicrous. So, I wasn't worried about Joe's coke use, no more than I was worried about anybody else's coke use. Indeed, Joe had experimented with what I thought was scarier stuff in his teens. But the despair caused by the breakdown of his marriage combined with the despair inherent in his job (he was working at a retirement home where he'd develop attachments to people who were just about to die) caused him to drink and use. A lot.
To this day, I simultaneously wish I knew and never want to know what happened to him in 1988. (1988 was, by all accounts, an evil evil year, the worst year in human history -- a year so mind-numbingly bad, so breath-takingly awful that they were going to cancel it in mid-July and proceed directly to 1989, but there was problem with the paperwork, so they couldn't.) Some of it surfaced in his songs, and it isn't very pleasant. I know that at least one of his girlfriends committed suicide by overdosing on heroin, and that he felt somewhat responsible, and he was crashing in some pretty dangerous places while hanging out with seriously scary people. I don't know how or why; I had my own problems. Nor did I know that when he brought up the idea of starting a band in early 1989, he had a serious monkey on his back in the form of crack.
I soon found out. I knew that he used drugs, but at that point, who didn't? (Like I said, 1988 really took its toll on everybody.) What I didn't know was how bad it really was. I soon found out. During all of this time, he was still ostensibly living at my dad's, but nobody knew that he'd just stopped going to his job.
You know all of the horror stories they tell you about drug addicts being so far gone that they will even steal from their family and friends? They're true. In my family, we don't lock doors, and we keep money lying around. So Joe would steal money from my dad. He borrowed/stole my brother John's car in the middle of the night to drive out and buy drugs. He "borrowed" my dad's girlfriend's car once.
Often, I would find him crashed out on my couch when I came home from work in the mid-afternoon. I never left my back door locked, and for some reason, he hadn't stolen from me. I think it was because our band practiced at our place and it was pretty much the only thing he had to live for. Not that he was going to live much longer. It was only a matter of time before he ended up dead, in jail, or both.
But I couldn't confront him directly about his problem because he hadn't yet stolen from me. Nobody whom he had stolen from had really confronted him directly because nobody could say "clean up or get out of my life forever!" My mom couldn't. My dad and brothers couldn't because Joe knew that they wouldn't enforce it. I, on the other hand, was perceived as strong enough (or a big enough asshole) to make it stick. But I felt I couldn't get directly involved until he had taken from me. Of course, with addicts, that's just a matter of time.
Finally, I came home one day to find he had taken some CDS and "borrowed" my girlfriends bike to trade the CDS for crack. By this time, he was sleeping on my couch in the mornings when I knew I was at work and was usually gone by the afternoon. (If we had practice, he'd show back up later.) So I surprised and confronted him. He had a choice: clean up or never set foot in my apartment again. Period. And he had nowhere else to go. Nowhere. If he couldn't admit that he had a problem and wanted to do something about it, he was out on the street. It was really now or never. He had to decide.
To my everlasting surprise, he not only admitted that he had a serious problem, but that he wanted to clean up, and just didn't know how. This took me by sunrise -- I had expected confrontation and denial; I got capitulation and acceptance. Since he had no job or place to live, we struck a bargain: if he stayed clean and got a job, he could stay at my place for a portion of his paycheck. But if he fucked up, he was gone.
I had an extra room (and our band practiced in my living room, something that when I'm 50, I'm sure I'll find strange/cool), so it was a doable deal. We got his hair cut and a shave and he went out and got a job and ended up living with me for a year. It wasn't easy, he and my girlfriend at the time never really got along, he drank an awful lot and there was more than one time I wondered if he was gong to slip or already had slipped.
But during that time, two things happened: he found his voice as a songwriter, and we became friends.
His songwriting had always lagged behind the rest of his talent, but he had gone through so much that the best way was to let it out in his songs. And so he was suddenly writing these beautiful, powerful, heartbreaking songs about his failed marriage, his drug addictions, his fears. Simple songs, yet full of deep meanings and truths. And these songs, when played at full volume weren't always so easy to take, but if people could, they really liked them. So our band, Sedan Delivery, had a reputation for great songs, if sometimes erratically and drunkenly performed.
Our friendship just happened. Finally -- with the band, I guess -- we had enough in common to establish a dialog. In any event, we could hang around together, drink beer, and discuss our songs and music.
In the last two years, the band has broken up and reformed twice; the girl I was with and I tried living together and it failed; and Joe's been in rehab and other programs for his drug and alcohol addictions. And so, once again, he is living on my couch -- only this time, it is a tiny one-bedroom apartment instead of the larger place I had before, and the job market for someone like him is grim at best.
Sometimes the whole situation really sucks, especially when I need to be alone. But he is trying, really trying, to put himself together under almost impossible circumstances. I'm glad I can help. And recently, the latest version of Sedan Delivery walked on stage at the Wild Blue, all of us clean and sober for the first time ever (OK, I drank one beer), and Joe sang his songs of fear and terror and redemption and hope . . . and people responded. I was proud.
What a nice ending. Too bad it's false. I wrote that two weeks ago, and since then, evidence has come to my attention to suggest that he might be using again. Maybe, maybe not. Many times over the years, when things got grim, I have found myself eulogizing him, knowing it is, but hoping it's not an example of the prescience I'm sometimes afflicted with.
At his funeral, they play "Like A Rolling Stone," but not the version that everybody knows. It's so familiar as to be like Muzak. Nope, if this song fits Joe, and "no direction home" fits him as well as it fits anyone, then it can't be the familiar version. Martin Scorcese sidestepped that issue nicely in his segment of "New York Stories" by using the official 1970's live version with The Band, which is cool, but by that time the song had become a singalong for an entire generation, also robbing it of some of its original meaning and power. Nope, at Joe's funeral, there is only one version of "Like A Rolling Stone:" the 1966 Royal Albert Hall bootleg version . . .
Dylan and The Band (called The Hawks then) have just played 40 minutes of the most amazing rock music on the planet -- crashing and burning and flying and reaching peaks that only those who live over the edge ever reach. They're playing rock and roll at its most visionary, but the audience would rather hear Dylan play "Blowing in the Wind" on his acoustic guitar. They are just about to start the song when taunts are thrown from the audience. Dylan loses it. He's just played his heart out for this audience, dragging into music nobody has ever explored before -- they want to hear his old songs. "I don't believe you," he says, "You're a liar." A couple of chords are strummed, the drummer counts off, and then Dylan turns to the Band and says "Play FUCKING LOUD!" And with that, they all crash together on the song's majestic beginning, and Dylan just spits out the lyrics -- singing not from his head, but right from his everlovinmutherfucking heart. I think its, arguably, the most intense rock and roll performance ever. And for Joe, it fits.
Joe is one of the Doomed. Nothing I can say or do will alter that fact. And I'm just fucking kidding myself in thinking otherwise. He knows it. I know it. Today we recorded two of his songs: "Hold on one more day/Whatever difference it'll make" goes the chorus -- the hook, for chrissakes -- of one. We all sometimes feel that way. But he can't shake it. And at this point, I'm not sure if he even wants to try. So fuck it.
This piece was like a snapshot of the situation at that point in time. Without elaborating, it got worse. Much much worse, but now, its better, and even if it isn't, I'm not around to be found. Maybe, I'll include some other writings about him, maybe I won't.
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This document created on 04 July, 1995
Last modified on 16 January, 1996
I was listening to Robert Johnson -- The Complete Recordings