Wednesday, February 15, 2023


Some people have asked me to post what I said at Dad's funeral. I know that I added a little while I was speaking, but in general, this is the script.

Dad was born on June 3, 1919 on the same piece of land he lived on for the rest of his life.

He was slightly younger than Prohibition and slightly older than women’s right to vote.

He met my mother while they were both in grade school. She said that she knew when she was six years old that she would spend her life with him. They got 93 more years together.

He learned to drive in a Model T when he was twelve years old. He was still driving as of this past Christmas. I can’t prove it, but I believe this means that he drove for a longer period of time than anyone else who ever lived.

He worked on the family farm and helped build many local roads.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s he played guitar and mandolin in his Uncle Clark’s band, which he told me were called the Phillips Family Band, and sometimes The Back Porch Boys. They played local dances and competitions where he met country western stars such as Big Slim the Lonesome Cowboy, and a very young Grandpa Jones. I found this out just last year. We watched Hee Haw together every week when I was a kid. You would think at some point he would have said, ‟Hey, I know that guy.” Twice they won competitions that allowed them to play on the main stage of the Wheeling Jamboree.

He played baseball for a number of local teams, primarily Nineveh, where once, in a single game, he hit a single, a double, a triple, and a home run. He remained a Pirates fan until the end.

In the 1940s he joined the US Military. While stationed in California he was awarded the job of driver for Lieutenant Milton Borcherding, who he served with for the duration of the War. He landed on Omaha Beach, drove a Jeep across Europe, helped hold the line at Saint Vith at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, drove across the bridge at Remagen, and smoked cigars with some Russian boys at the Baltic Sea north of Berlin in the last days of the War.

He was a great ‟dog man.” This doesn’t mean he was a werewolf. Let me explain... He raced Field Trial dogs. He bought King, his first one, from his father-in-law, Arnie Hamilton, and continued to race dogs until the 1990s, winning much more often than he lost. The house had more trophies than would fit.

He worked as a truck driver for T.G. Walker, then as a plant operator for Benwood Limestone Company. He retired in the mid 1980s.

He had a long life, of remarkably good health. He worked. He lived through danger and adventure. He had hobbies he loved. He had multiple friendships and a close relationship with his family. He had a lifelong, loving relationship with Alberta. He passed away in his sleep on the same piece of land he was born on.

We should all have such a good life.

Saturday, September 3, 2022


A few days ago a friend posted something on Facebook about An American Prayer, the posthumous Jim Morrison/Doors album. This is a significant album in my life, tied to a very specific time and place. I commented on the Facebook thread that it was the soundtrack to one of the most intense, and ultimately toxic, friendships in my life.

Five or six years ago I was experimenting with writing creative nonfiction. I had a plan to delve into some of my experiences through the music that I associated with them. The first one I did was about An American Prayer. Though I have shared it with a couple of friends I have been reluctant to put it out publicly. It’s fairly personal. It involves real people in my life, though I’ve changed the names for obvious reasons. This is my memory, seen through my eyes, with a little artistic license thrown in. It might not be be entirely accurate or true. It’s been forty years. I think it’s time.

Note: Lines in italics are quotes from songs, copyright their original owner.

Is everybody in?

It was 1984 and no one was watching. I had been out of college for a year and after splitting time between a couple of part time jobs and internships I landed my first professional full-time gig as a counselor for the Greene County Association for Retarded Citizens. I worked there for two years until adult life got boring and I escaped back to the womb of grad school. In that time I became the co-supervisor of one of the group homes.

We were in the midst of a staff meeting in the kitchen to discuss one of our residents who had been causing tremendous chaos for everyone. He was not an appropriate placement in our system, and we were sitting at the table with the director of the GARC and someone important from the state to hash out the fate of this poor young, bipolar man with severe developmental difficulties.

The somber conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door. When I opened it there stood Dion, unannounced and unplanned for, drenched in sunshine and sweat, pupils dilated in a face more manically animated than anything I had ever seen on the resident we were discussing.


I’m pretty sure he actually said ‟Dude.”

‟I dropped acid and I’ve being tripping for three days!” he said, grabbing me by the shoulders. I could see fractals in his eyes. ‟You wouldn’t believe what I’ve seen! I gotta tell you about it!”

I somehow managed to steer him away from the house and get back to the meeting. I still don’t know what things he saw.

Strange days.


Dion isn’t his real name, but he was a self-professed follower of the Dionysian, so I’m going with that. He was Italian, handsome. His chest was hard and brown. He had a boyish quality about him that accentuated his good looks, a touch of innocence in the face of a man. His smile was a cauldron of charm. It was like that optical illusion... you know, the one that looks like a beautiful woman from one angle and an ugly crone from another. Once you’ve seen both you can never unsee it.

Dion was my nemesis. My opposite number. The Joker to my Batman, and probably the other way around. He was my friend and enemy years before the term frenemy came into fashion. He’s the only person I’ve ever felt really competitive with. He was a narcissist, a self-destructive alcoholic, and a sociopath. An asshole, in more prosaic terms. We brought out the worst in each other in one of the only truly toxic relationships I’ve ever experienced.

Man, did we have a lot of fun together.


Like a lot of intelligent young men with artistic aspirations and pretentious tendencies I got really, really into The Doors. I was only a kid when they were a thing, though it’s likely I saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was a Sunday night ritual in my house, one I resented because it meant I could never watch The Wonderful World of Disney. I know I heard the classic tracks during my teens, ‟Light My Fire” and ‟Riders on the Storm” if nothing else. But, in the costumes and flash of my teen rock idols I remained mostly unaware of Jim Morrison.

There must have been a resurgence of interest in The Doors in the early 80s. Maybe it was the anniversary of his death. Maybe I just became more aware. A friend of mine had a poster in her dorm room, a shirtless Morrison with the lyrics to An American Prayer. She was really into it, but at the time I was diving into New Wave and some of the more accessible fringes of Punk, so her enthusiasm didn’t rub off on me. I was looking forward, I thought, and not as interested in music from the 60s.

Dion was the person who really turned me on to The Doors. Not surprising, really. Has there ever been a bigger pop culture avatar of art and excess than the Lizard King?


I met Dion in college. We were the same age, but he had started a couple of years late so he was still taking classes after I graduated. We were part of the same social group, though on a small campus it was easy to sort of know everyone. As often happens with people in our lives I don’t remember exactly how we became friends. And we were friends... I think. I may have been the first person Dion ever thought of as a friend, as much as his sociopathic heart would allow friendship.

He was arrogant. He told me that he always knew he was smarter than anyone he had ever known. The sad part of this statement is that it was probably true in lots of ways. He was easily able to manipulate people, and had no real moral compunction not to. It also meant he never developed respect for anyone. He saw them all as weaker than himself.

I think I challenged him. In a rare vulnerable moment he told me this was true. I have an element of intellectual arrogance myself, much more so then than now. Life and experience have worn down that rough edge. Smarter or not I wasn’t easily manipulated by Dion. I called him out on his bullshit. He couldn’t get over on me the way he did others. This earned me something like respect from him. Something like respect, but probably not actual respect. In me he saw a challenge. In him I saw... I’m not sure. A dark reflection? Is that too poetic? He gazed deeper into the abyss than I would allow myself, though I was certainly fond of the view.

Dion’s intelligence, good looks, and charm were a deadly combination. These led a lot of women into his bed. I probably don’t need to say that he didn’t respect them either. I’m still friends with a couple of these women and I can’t speak for them and the nature of whatever relationship they had with him, though one of them told me she had completely forgotten about him, which says something. I know what I witnessed over time. I saw the tears, and heard the stories of those he threw away when someone new came along.

I worked with a woman I thought of as a friend, and though she wanted more from me I just wasn’t interested in her in that way. Our friendship ended badly and, in my youthful way of not knowing a better solution, I was unnecessarily cruel to her at the end. She told people we were dating. We weren’t. She told people we were sleeping together. We weren’t. Dion did sleep with her, and couldn’t wait to tell me. He seemed disappointed when he discovered I wasn’t involved with her.

‟That’s the only reason I did it,” he confessed.

Another friend told me of the time she went to a bar with him... She had one drink and the next thing she remembered was throwing up in her toilet at home.

‟Do you think it’s possible he put something in my drink?” she asked me. I don’t know if he did, but do I think it’s possible? Yeah, I do.


I heard An American Prayer for the first time at Dion’s apartment. He was surprised I hadn’t heard it and was genuinely excited to share it with me. I remember it now as a nearly sacred experience. The room was dark except for a couple of candles. There was beer and probably pot. This was something important to him and sharing it with me was, though neither of us would have used the term at the time, an act of intimacy. I understand this about music. There was a reverence to the way he placed the disc on the turntable and lowered the needle. We sat and just listened.

Morrison’s words were invocation and invitation. He spoke of gods and their abandonment by the modern world. He spoke of sex and despair, ghost gods and young women, kings and magicians. So many things that felt oh so important then that feel a little pompous and sophomoric to my now middle age sensibilities.

How I wish anything spoke to me in the same way now.

Morrison recorded most of this album as a spoken word recitation of his poetry not long before he died. Years later the remaining Doors recorded music to go with it. It is unlike any other Doors album. Morrison had become the ghost god himself presciently narrating his farewell. ‟I’m getting out of here.” ‟Did you have a good life when you died?” ‟We live, we die, and death not ends it.” ‟Death makes angels of us all.

This was a good night with Dion. We had many. Over time he opened up to me in ways I don’t think had ever done with anyone before. He admitted he had never had friends and wanted me to be one.

He related strongly to the Dionysian qualities of Morrison, and arrogantly claimed the god as a personal avatar. He strongly believed in the idea of cleansing the doors of perception, as the Aldous Huxley quote the band took its name from famously puts it. He wanted to break on through to the other side. His behavior with others was an attempt to challenge the bonds of societal expectation. Like the Beats and the Hippies he saw alcohol and drugs as gateways to this other side, even though a closer inspection shows that substance abuse more often than not clouds the doors of perception, and sometimes closes them entirely.

Dion longed for some kind of heightened experience beyond the daily grind. But, for all his affinity for the god of ecstasy he harbored an Apollonian side as well. He loved poetry, and when not immersed in this he read philosophy, with the probably obvious leanings toward Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. There was the night he reverentially read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Elliot to me, because it mattered to him and he wanted to share it. He would do the same with e.e. cummings, and the Beat poets. Together, in his dim apartment, we visited The Wasteland and slouched towards Bethlehem. This gave me glimpses into his true self and a vulnerability I’m not sure very many people ever saw. On one sacred night he read to me the poetry that no one else knew he had written. He told me the secrets of some of his hidden scars, but never mentioned the actual ones across his wrists.

But there were so many of the other kinds of nights, the ones when I would arrive at the apartment and find him sitting in the dark with a twelve-pack high stack of empty beer cans next to him. The times we were out with friends and he would just start pushing me to see how much of his bullshit I would take. The times he tested our friendship to see if I was worthy. I called him on it, usually. A couple of times I simply left, abandoning him to find his own way home. I rarely fought back. I would simply disengage. A few days later he would find me and start a conversation as if nothing had happened. This was the only language of apology he knew.

The height of this behavior took place one night when we were hanging out at his place with a couple of girls. We were drinking. There was music, and in my mind it is always The Doors whether that is true or not. Things were fine, until the moment they weren’t. We were in the kitchen and he pulled a knife on me.

Dion had applied to be a summer counselor with the college Upward Bound program I worked with. He had been turned down for the job and in that drunken moment blamed me for badmouthing him to the woman in charge, which he saw as a betrayal. I either trusted him far more than I should have, or was suffering from macho stupidity. When I saw the knife in his hand I said, ‟What are going to do with that? Stab me?” Even in this heated moment I felt the need to deflate Dion’s power play. The women intervened immediately, as I’m sure he counted on, pulling us apart. I left with one of them while the other stayed behind to calm him down with sex. A few days later he approached me like nothing had happened.

Thing is, he was right. When someone from the program asked if I thought he would be a good fit I said no. I simply didn’t trust him with the vulnerable high school kids we served.

This incident occurred just a few days after he had shared his poetry. It was Dion’s pattern. He would let me get close, and then do something to push me away. He wanted the friendship but was afraid I would leave, maybe because he recognized he needed it more than I did. So to maintain a feeling of being in control he occasionally tried to drive me away before I simply left.

I was not entirely the innocent in this. I saw what was happening but I kept going back for more. I was chafing at the bounds of my world at the time and was seeking something bigger as well. My closest friend and a couple of the other people I hung out with had all moved away to college, leaving my social life a little bereft. I was in my early 20s and still living with my parents. I was working but I was aware that this was a ‟for right now” type of job, but had no idea what came next. My fear was that ‟what came next” was simply more of the same. I was perched headlong on the edge of boredom and convinced I was wasting the dawn. I was more afraid of drink and drugs and rejection than Dion. Mostly I was afraid of leaving the secure womb of what I had always known. Apron strings and velvet chains, forged from love and support, were invisibly holding me back.

I was not as influenced by the poets and philosophers as Dion. I wouldn’t find the classic writers that really spoke to me for a couple more years. At this time science fiction, and fantasy, and comic books provided the bulk of my metaphors. If I’m honest, they still do. My reading material was more pop culturally prosaic, though I maintain that if you haven’t read the comics of the 1970s you have no idea how psychedelically metaphysical and trippy a lot of them were. Through these I discovered classic mythology, and many other deeper, more meaningful works. The headier books that influenced me then are a list of the clichéd greatest hits of the hippie generation; Man and His Symbols, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and the entire run of books by Carlo Castaneda 

The Castaneda books in particular had a profound effect on the way I viewed the world. I say that now fully realizing that they are problematic in ways far beyond the scope of this conversation. Even then I read them more as fiction and metaphor than anything else. The elements of the fantastic in these ‟autobiographies” keyed in to my love of comics and all of the rest. Somehow this made them more readable and accessible to me than straight-up philosophy. At the same time I was reading a comic book series called Coyote. This character, based on Native American trickster mythology, was a superhero peyote trip on paper. Coyote was arrogant and foolish and funny and passionate, a perpetual adolescent attempting to understand the new, greater power he held. You know... just like everyone in their early 20s. These two sources led me to exploring a lot of Native American mythology and storytelling. I read, among other things, Black Elk Speaks and the more difficult anthropological work The Trickster by Paul Radin.

So while Dion was wrestling and identifying with the Dionysian/Apollonian split in his nature I was more in tune with the metaphorical holy fool. Both of these ideas collided in the person of Jim Morrison. On An American Prayer he tells the true story of seeing a car accident when he was a child. There were, as he says, ‟Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding.” He goes on to say that he believed that the ghost of one of these Indians leaped into his soul... ‟And it’s still there.” Much like with Castaneda, whether Morrison actually believed this or if it was poetic license is beside the point. He thought of himself as a modern day shaman when on stage, leading his followers on a spiritual journey. ‟Give me an hour for Magic.” By today’s definitions this was probably cultural appropriation, but at the time provided a powerful alternative spiritual metaphor to mainstream religious belief.

I was looking for that, and I think that Dion was as well.

The end of this beautiful friendship was not an explosion, as you might have expected. It died the slow death of separate pathways. I moved in with a girlfriend, someone I have known since we were babies, and applied to grad school. I spent most of the last six months before classes began with her and her children. That romance didn’t last, but she remains a lifelong friend. Dion got married, and try as I might the details of this development remain vague. Probably because I was wrapped up in my own love story. His wife was the daughter of an older woman we went to college with, and in my memory they met and got married really quickly. The obvious reason of pregnancy was not a factor. I don’t think the entire marriage lasted a year and I simply can’t put all of the pieces together.

It was summer, the last few weeks of my stint at the ARC before moving away. I had taken a couple of my clients on a walk. We were in a nearby playground when Dion’s new wife walked by. She stopped to talk. During our conversation it quickly became obvious that she was inviting me back to their apartment for sex while Dion was away. I didn’t. I was living with a girlfriend, and didn’t want the drama with either her or with Dion. I'll always be true. Never go out, sneaking out on you, babe. But I can’t say I wasn’t tempted. Partly because she was attractive and sexy, but mainly because it would have put me one up on Dion. Not a very noble reason to sleep with anyone.

I left for grad school. So did Dion, though a different one. I occasionally heard about him from a mutual friend in the same program, but in very short order Dion simply slipped out of my life.

Skip ahead about seven years. I was living in Pittsburgh and had already abandoned the career I pursued in grad school. I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for a while, a woman who had given her virginity to Dion. We hung out naked a couple of times before she told me she was still in touch with him. I felt hesitant, but finally agreed to a meetup.

It was a fun-filled disaster, just like every other time. We drank, we joked, we pushed each other. It was good to see him and it was bad for both of us. Over a few short hours in a nearly empty bar I felt it all coming back. The competition, the theatrics, the darkness, another night we tried to die. My worst tendencies had been asleep and were quickly roused by his presence. At the end of the evening we exchanged numbers and agreed to hang out again. I gave him a fake number and haven’t heard from him since. It was an act of self-preservation.

Over the years most of my closest friends have been more straight-laced than I. Less inclined to explore drink and altered states and sexual abandon. I love the friends I have gathered on this thin raft, and thank them all for providing a rock to attach a tether to. I think I have the self-control not to self-destruct, and my experiences with Dion tell me this is true. But still, the abyss also gazes.

I’ve tried to find Dion since then, on the internet if not in real life, but he has proven elusive. I don’t want him back, but I’m curious. Did he fake his death in Paris and move to Africa? Was he eventually ripped to shreds by his Dionysian excess? Did he die in a dark room, An American Prayer on repeat, with a stack of empty cans and his poetry beside him? Or did he settle down, get a job, and have a family? Why does that last option seem the most tragic to me?

Morrison famously screamed, ‟You cannot petition the lord with prayer!” yet the final words we hear from him are from a prayer he had written. God grant me another lifetime to perfect my art. I’m not ready for the record to end, but eventually the music’s over. No one here gets out alive.

Turn out the light.

Friday, April 29, 2022

RIP Neal Adams

 Neal Adams was easily one of the most important and influential artists in comic book history. I know this because he told me that himself when we met a few years ago. From anyone else it would have sounded arrogant. From him it was simply a statement of fact. I had told my students much the same thing about him just a few weeks earlier.

For a list of his credits and achievements there are many online resources, so I won’t take up space repeating them here. I want to talk about meeting him. He was one of the first comics artists whose style I was able to recognize when I was young, and one of the first artists I was a big fan of. A few years ago he flew into Pittsburgh to appear at a convention and to do a signing at Phantom of the Attic Comics in Oakland. I had the privilege of picking him and his wife Marilyn up at the airport. I’ve met a lot of big names in the industry in my life, I’ve interviewed Stan Lee, but I felt a little nervous. He was one of my first heroes. I didn’t want to just gush my fanboy geekdom all over him immediately. We had a lovely conversation about Pittsburgh as we drove back into town.

Neal Adams was a larger than life character in real life. He was loud, and opinionated, and obviously felt pretty good about himself. But this was all expressed in an open and friendly manner. He was a sideshow barker – he had actually been one of these at some point in his life – and carried that demeanor with him. He was knowledgeable and passionate and talented, and as far as I could see while he was at the store, genuinely kind to everyone he met. Before the signing was over I got something signed, an art book of his I have had since I was an early teen, and got to do my fanboy gushing. I then drove him and Marilyn to their motel.

Neal had some pretty out-there ideas about the world. Hollow earth and expanding planets, and a bunch of frankly crazy sounding nonsense. You can find videos and posts about this if you look. I was treated to some of his rambling theories while we drove. I don’t believe the things he did, but it was entertaining to hear first hand. I was also treated to a rant about how all hotels should have Thomas’s English Muffins instead of any other brand. Honestly that may be my favorite moment, just because it was so very human.

So RIP, Neal Adams. Thank you for Batman and the X-Men that you gave us. Thank you for Ms. Mystic and Skateboy. Thank you for your tireless work for creators rights. Thank you for opening up a world of art and story to this young mind.

I hope Heaven has Thomas’ English Muffins. If not, I’m sure you’ll tell them about it.

Neal Adams with the Phantom crew

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Big Slim

In a recent conversation with Dad (he’s 102 years old), I discovered more of his history with local music back when he was young. The conversation went something like this:

Me: I was reading a book about old Country music. It’s one based on the Burns documentary. It was talking about Grandpa Jones getting his start in Wheeling on WWVA. Did you ever see him?”

Dad: Oh yeah... we used to run into him all the time.

I grew up watching Hee Haw and seeing Grandpa Jones every week. If Dad ever mentioned that he knew him it escaped my notice.

Grandpa Jones began playing the character
when he was 22 years old.

My dad played guitar and mandolin in a family band. His mother played piano and accordion, but it was her brother Clark and his sons who were the musicians. Uncle Clark, who a I remember only slightly, was a barber in the small village of Time. He played the fiddle, and his boys and my dad rounded out his ‟Back Porch Band.” Dad couldn’t remember if that was their official name, or if it was simply the Phillips Family band. He thinks they played under both names at one time or another. Dad says he mostly just chorded along, and did some singing. His cousin Ray was apparently one of those classic back woods prodigies who could play anything with strings. They played frequently at local community get togethers and fairs, participating in contests. Dad mentioned playing frequently at Golden Oaks Park near Rogersville, PA (the site of this park is near my high school and is currently where the garage for their buses is). Sometimes they got paid (Dad remembers making at least a dollar once in awhile), and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes these affairs were contests and the Phillips Family Band was good enough that twice they won the opportunity to play on the stage at the Wheeling Jamboree. This would have been in the late 1930s and early ‛40s. He played some after he returned from the War, but not as frequently.

This circuit of small community venues was frequented by a lot of the country music stars who were getting airplay on WWVA at the time, including, apparently, Grandpa Jones. Dad says they were never great friends, but they were certainly friendly when they ran into each other. Given the rules of Kevin Bacon, this make me three steps removed from everyone in the country music business.

Another country star of the time, who was never as famous as Jones, was Big Slim the Lone Cowboy, and Dad was genuinely friends with him. Slim had a radio show on WWVA and played on KDKA in Pittsburgh. He did live shows all over the area, including a lot of the small community events my Dad played at. Slim had a band, and in his live outdoor shows he would bring a horse. He did rope tricks and Dad saw him, many times, flick a cigarette out of his wife’s mouth with bullwhip (Slim a had number of wives, and did this trick with at least two of them. Dad knew his third wife. More on that later).

You can read more about Big Slim HERE. One of the things that struck me in this article is the mention of how Slim’s actual history is a bit of mystery because over the course of his career he told various stories about where he was from and what his life entailed. This struck me as funny because one of the things Dad said to me was, ‟I liked Slim, but you couldn’t believe a word out of his mouth.”

Slim was also a coon hunter and dog trainer, both of which were things my dad did as well, which extended the scope of their friendship. In addition to hunting, Dad also participated in Field Trials, a national dog racing competition. This is not the greyhounds running around a track you’re probably picturing, but a far more feral outdoor in the middle of nowhere activity my dad was part of well into his 70s (which deserves a much larger explanation and a blog of its own).

At some point, Dad sold Slim a coon hound for $125.00, a lot of money at that time (according to the US Inflation Calculator I just used, thats $1,458.24 in 2022 dollars). These were the days when the dogs were used for both the races and for hunting, before the two activities became more specialized. He saw Slim later and asked him how the the dog was doing for hunting. Slim told him at first he thought the dog was worthless. He was out hunting and the dog was barking on the trail, and kept circling around back to him. ‟I thought he was chasing deer,” Slim said. ‟I figured the next time he circled around I was just going to shoot him and get it over with.” Suddenly the dog started treeing deep in the woods. According to Slim, when he found the dog he was barking up a pine tree. When Slim shined his light into the tree there were seventeen coon in it staring back at him. He shot sixteen of them, but the last one got away. Best dog he ever had. He said he wouldn’t take $1000.00 dollars for him now.

Can’t believe a word he says.

The other story was a trip to the Kenton Nationals, or Leafy Oak as it was called back then. This was the biggest field trial in the country, near Kenton Ohio. Dad and Mom, their friends Ken and Elsie Shepherd, and Big Slim and his third wife, all stayed at the same motel. At first, when telling the story, he couldn’t remember Slim’s wife’s name. A few days later, on the phone, he says to me, ‟I think Slim’s wife was named Bebe.” Sure enough, her name was Bebe Bernard, the ‟Annie Oakley of West Virginia,” as she was billed in his act. ‟She was a whole lot younger than Slim,” Dad told me.

Anyway, they all got up early in the morning and Dad, Ken, and Slim piled into Dad’s car while the women all rode together in Ken’s. They went to to the race and spent the day. Apparently Bebe got completely shitface drunk over the course of the day. Passed out on the way home in the car with my Mom and Elsie. Slim carried her into the motel room and put her in the shower in her clothes to sober her up.

Elsie Shepherd and Mom, one of her
"best friends ever," at a field trial. Elsie drove
the car with drunk Bebe while Mom
tried to take care of her.

The article linked to above said that Slim took a number of young and upcoming country stars under his wing. One of them was Hawkshaw Hawkins, who died in the same plane crash as Patsy Cline. Not to spread unsubstantiated rumors seventy years later, but Dad says everyone at the time believed Slim was Hawkins real father. I know of no actual confirmation of this.

I’m 60, and still discovering fascinating things about my parent’s lives. Part of me is stunned that Dad never mentioned knowing Grandpa Jones, or if he did, me not remembering it. But then, by the time I was old enough for this to register it would have been forty years in the past for my Dad.

You can hear some of Slim’s music on YouTube. Here’s one of them.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Fish is Biodegradable

One of my favorite musicians passed away suddenly. However, unlike Bowie or Prince, I’m afraid very few people ever heard of him. Enough that he maintained a music and recording career for forty years, but still, pretty obscure.

Pat Fish recorded under the name the Jazz Butcher. It was, technically, the name of the band he led, but as the only consistent member of said band, it was pretty common for Pat to be referred to as The Jazz Butcher. His first album, In Bath of Bacon, was released in 1983. He was part of the post punk, new wave, pre-alternative, college radio wave of British artists. He released thirteen studio albums, several compilations, and two or three live albums.

I didn’t hear the Jazz Butcher until 1986. I had just started grad school and moved into an apartment with a bunch of other guys. One of them, Steve, had a record collection that changed my life. That first semester I was exposed to tons of artists that I had either never heard of before, or had only the vaguest awareness of: Bauhaus, Love and Rockets, Japan, Hoodoo Gurus... many, many more. Steve would simply put on a record and it filled our days. It took awhile for some of these to really register with me, at least in terms of recognizing who they were. There was a lot of challenging new sounds, and I admit a lot of it really had to grow on me. Some of it joined the list of my favorite bands. Some of it never grew on me.

In the midst of all of this new music, one album, one song specifically, kept catching my ear. "This is partytime, and we’re all having so much fun." But the tone of the song belied those sentiments. There was a sadness to the lyrics, as if simply partying just wasn’t enough to bring one happiness. The words were fun and ridiculous and conveyed a deeper sense of meaning than a first listen would indicate. They were, to use the title of a later Jazz Butcher album, Glorious and Idiotic. And, once I finally singled the album In Bath of Bacon out from the all of the others, I was a fan. Over the years his music became a very personal soundtrack to my life, one that I didn’t share with too many people.

There’s a lot of silliness in Pat Fish’s lyrics. He sings about Bigfoot, and goldfish, and buffaloes, and Shirley MacLaine, and alcohol. A whole lot of alcohol. But somehow he manages to never, at least in my opinion, devolve into simply a novelty act. Given his subject matter, this was a real possibility. But he rounded his oeuvre out with a lot of more serious fare, what I once heard him refer to as ‟Art Misery Songs.” These were a mix of heartfelt ballads and social commentary.He played with a wide variety of musicians. David J, bass player for Bauhaus and Love and Rockets was on two of the early albums. But his most regular collaborator was Max Eider, a guitarist with a singular, jazz-influenced style. Max left the band in the mid-80s and then rejoined around the turn of the millennium. The albums released between these events were good, but something, specifically Max, was missing. It was their collaboration as artists that lifted both of them. 

I saw the Jazz Butcher in 1988 at Peabody’s Down Under in Cleveland, and again at the same venue in 1992. As I related in a previous blog, ‟While there I had Pat autograph the booklet that came with my CD copy of Scandal in Bohemia/Sex and Travel. These were his second and third albums, the ones David J played bass on. At the time this was a very rare German import that I had managed to get my hands on, and for years the only way these two albums were available. When I showed it to Pat his response was something like, “Where the bloody hell did you get this? I've barely seen one of these.”

I saw them twice more, in 2000, once at a small bar in Erie, and again the next night in Pittsburgh at the Millvale Industrial Theater. This tour featured Max and Mr. Jones, the original drummer, so of course I got both of them to sign the booklet.

Pat Fish, Max Eider, and Mr.Jones in Erie

It took another twelve years, but I finally got David J to sign it as well.

Pat had a Facebook page, and few years ago I reached out and we became friends on that platform. Obviously, I didn’t really know him. But, he would occasionally comment on one of my posts, or wish me a happy birthday. He was friends with Alan Moore, of Watchmen fame, among many other things. A few years ago I reviewed Alan’s book, Jerusalem, in which he mentions the Jazz Butcher. Pat commented on my post in a very surreal, meta kind of way.

So this feels like a loss to me. Not really personal, except for the role his music has played in my life. I’ll miss just knowing he’s out there somewhere in England, still performing, singing ridiculous songs about elephants and broken hearts.

There’s an early Jazz Butcher song called Big Saturday, and though I forget all of the details, he told us in Cleveland in 1988, that it was cowritten by a girl he had loved who had died. He then performed the song Angels, in her honor, wherein he says, ‟It’s always Saturday in Heaven... Just one big Saturday in Heaven.” The song has broken my heart just a little every time I’ve heard it since.

Thanks, Pat! Thanks for the music, and the laughter, and the art, and the misery. I know the devil is your friend, but what if there were angels?

Thursday, September 24, 2020

To Bring You My Love

I remember specifically the first time I heard To Bring You My Love twenty-five years ago. I was visiting an ex-roommate’s new apartment. We had spent years building a friendship based on comic books and music, something that has never changed. We were hanging out in his room. He had just picked up the CD and knew I would want to hear it.

It wasn’t the first time I had heard PJ Harvey, of course. When we lived together he had purchased all three of her prior albums, and I had seen the few videos that MTV played on 120 Minutes. While I liked Dry and Rid of Me neither had really captured me as a fan at that time. But something about To Bring You My Love resonated immediately. The sound grabbed my ear in a way her previous efforts had not. I probably couldn’t have told you that day that this would become one of my desert island albums, but I knew I was instantly in love.

I don’t have the language to describe it in musical terms, and I realize that so much of what I love about it is personal and subjective. The word that comes to mind for much of the album is resonant. Polly’s voice is deep and echoing, vulnerable and powerful at the same time. The rhythms that underlie this album, on guitar as well as the drums, feel disjointed to me with emphasis in unusual places. I want to say syncopated, but my musician friends may disagree. The bass notes rumble with distortion, reverberating in the chest like a broken heart.

But for me it is not just the sonic qualities that make the album special. Through her lyrics and imagery PJ creates a mythic landscape worthy of Faulkner and O’Connor, gothic and rural in texture. Depending on the song Polly embodies the wronged woman, or maybe an angel working for God, or maybe a woman imbued with magic who you believe has her voodoo working. There is mourning: for lost relationships, lost children, and a loss of faith. She begins the album by telling us she has laid with the devil and by the end you not only believe her, you realize it’s the devil who is in trouble. There is righteous power in her voice, a feminine power, that of the goddess. When she says ‟I think I’m a mother,” I hear her stating not a biological fact (though that is certainly implied), but invoking the Mother who is the matrix of creativity, as well as destruction.

On that first listen at my friend’s apartment I remember saying to him, ‟I think she’s been listening to a lot of Nick Cave.” That wasn’t meant as a criticism or complaint. In addition to there being a sonic resemblance Cave, at that point in his career, had spent a lot of time creating music in a similar narrative world. For whatever reasons, this is a world that speaks to me. Some of it is, no doubt, just the movies and books I’ve been exposed to. Some of it is having grown up in a northern Appalachian home with our own folk tales of love and murder and angels and devils. It’s a world I feel in my bones.

Not long after this PJ and Nick recorded a duet version of the classic folk tune Henry Lee as part of his Murder Ballads album (the internet tells me Henry Lee, like many traditional ballads, has many different versions, and is based on a tune called Young Hunting). In the video PJ and Nick are dressed in matching black suits, emphasizing their shared traits. The video fairly sizzles with sexual tension and not long after they engaged in a brief love affair in real life. Nick managed to get a lot of songs out of it for his next album, The Boatman’s Call (well worth your time to listen to), while Polly, like with most things in her personal life, simply never talked about it.

This was also a period where PJ was experimenting with her stage persona. During Dry and Rid of Me she typically performed wearing basic black jeans and leather jackets, with her hair pulled back severely and very little makeup. To Bring You My Love was kind of her Glam period, in dress if not in content. On the album cover and in the video for Down By the Water she has big hair and bright red lipstick that matches her shimmery ballgown. In concert she would sometimes wear gold catsuits, or a bright pink bodysuit and gaudy fake eyelashes. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for stage costumes, as my love of Bowie and Alice Cooper and Adam Ant, among many others, attest to. The live clips from this era are some of my favorites of hers.

From Hooligan Magazine

I’m sorry to say I didn’t get to see PJ on that tour. If my research is correct she has only ever played the Pittsburgh area twice in her thirty year career: once supporting Live at Star Lake (or whatever it was being called at the time), and once supporting U2 at Mellon Arena. I have seen her several times since then in Washington DC. My first time was for her next album, Is This Desire?, at the 9:30 Club. I saw her twice when she was touring for Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, shows which bookended her jaunt with U2. The first of these ranks among my top concert experiences ever. In late 2000 PJ knew she was going to be touring with U2. She wanted to break in a new live band. Rather than mount a major solo tour she played a few, small, and relatively unannounced shows at small venues. I was on a PJ mailing list at the time and found out about a show at the Black Cat in DC, and somehow manged to score tickets. The Black Cat, while having a history of some pretty amazing shows, is essentially a small bar. I stood about three feet from the stage and about five feet from PJ. She brought me, and everyone else in the room, her love that night.

The next time I saw her was about ten months later with the same band at the 9:30 Club the night before 9/11. I remember reading a statement from her at the time that she had been awakened in her hotel room by what turned out to be a plane crashing into the Pentagon.

A trait PJ shares with some of my other favorite artists, most notably David Bowie and Nick Cave, is her willingness to experiment and never stand still with her music. Her career has been a constant change of sound, ideas, and presentation. This keeps an artist from getting stale, but also runs the risk of losing fans if they veer too far from made you love them in the first place. While I am still interested in PJ’s career, and will no doubt own whatever she releases next on the day it comes out, I do fully admit I have not been a big fan of her last few albums. She hasn’t done anything to just drive me away, but her output has not spoken to me in the same way as in the past. I’m a different person now, and so is she. The next album may be my favorite thing ever. Or not. I’ll still be there with her in some capacity.

While I have not been as enamored of her later work she has recently been giving new life to some of her old. This summer saw the release of the Demo versions of her first album, Dry. These were recorded by Polly on a 4-track recorder in her home studio, I believe before she had a recording contract. They are sparse, and bring a new experience to these seminal and formative songs. This not the first time we have heard her demos. My memory tells me that she was, ultimately, not happy with the production of her second album Rid of Me and not long after its release she also released and album entitled simply 4-Track Demos, featuring her own recordings of most of the album (plus a couple of extras that didn’t make the cut.

This year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of To Bring You My Love, and a couple of weeks ago she released the demo version. What struck me most upon listening to it was just how fully formed it was in this early raw version. For many of the tracks, most of them actually, the differences between this and the official release are incredibly subtle. I can tell these are different vocal tracks, but mainly because this is one of the albums I’ve listened to most in my life. The guitars and drums are nearly identical. The biggest difference is on the final song of the album, The Dancer. On the demo version the guitar has a Spanish Flamenco tone and rhythm, which was replaced by a more droning, quickly strummed electric guitar. What was weird when I heard this though was that I had to actually go back and check to make sure I wasn’t imagining this. The Flamenco guitar was indeed not present on the version I was familiar with, but somehow it had been implied by the rest of the song to such a degree that I imagined hearing it, so uch so that the Demo version, while different, still sounded like something my brain already knew. Now, by this point of her career Polly had access to better equipment and had more studio experience than with demos for Dry, and that probably accounts for a lot of the fidelity of this project, but I think a lot of it was simply the strength of her vision of what this album was meant to be from very early on.

In some ways I’m disappointed with the Demos version. I was expecting something more raw, or something in a more formative state. It’s so close to the studio album that only someone really, really familiar with it can really hear the differences. I guess I am that person, and digging through the subtleties of this has been rewarding, just in a different way than what I expected. It is insight into the process of one of my favorite artists, and taking it along with the demo versions of PJ’s first two albums it’s fascinating to see how quickly she grew, as a songwriter and musician as well as in confidence and skill.

To Bring You My Love was a critical success, if not a giant financial one. At the end of that year it was celebrated as the ‟Best Album of the Year” by the majority of the music press. I remember seeing PJ on many music magazine covers (remember those?).  MTV, who I’m sure played the video for Down by the Water at least twice nominated it for ‟Best Female Video” at their annual awards show. But that was the year of Alanis Morrisette and Jagged Little Pill and no one else stood a chance to get that little astronaut statue.

Twenty-five years later it's still an album that is lodged in my heart and brain. Like all of the music we claim as our own, the music that defines portions of our lives, my thoughts and feelings about it are wrapped up in things beyond the songs. It became a part of the soundtrack of my life at that, simply because I played it so much. It still reminds me of specific people and places and events. Playing now involves a little bit of time travel to a special time.

Thanks, Polly.

To Bring You My Love on Spotify

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Giant Days

A couple of years or more ago I spent some time on the blog discussing some of my all time favorite comics. They overwhelmingly represented the past, mostly from the 1980s. These books are the ones that helped form me in my early adulthood. I have read many, many comics since then but it has felt like very few have inspired the level of love that I have for the old stuff. That’s part of getting older and the same paradigm seems to apply to music and books and movies and whatever else that helped make you the person you are.

As a comics retailer it part of my job to keep up with new releases so that I can make smart recommendations. I admit to a little bit of burnout. There are a lot of comics coming out these days, and many of them, particularly Marvel and DC, seem to this old reader to be a continual rehash of stories and concepts I have read too many times before. It felt like it had been a long time since anything had captured my imagination. But, I’m happy to report, that in the last few years there are several ongoing titles that I have been happily engaged and genuinely excited about. I’ve been feeling the need to write about new loves rather than, like the publishers, rehashing my past. I’ve just been a slacker about actually writing. But last week at San Diego Comicon something happened that told me to get off my ass and write about something.

Giant Days won the Eisner Award for both Best Ongoing Series and Best Humor Publication. I’ve been hyping Giant Days to anyone who will listen for a couple of years now. It’s a book that just makes me happy. I was excited to see that it received the Eisner nomination, but I honestly thought it might be a long shot. I know I love it, but I was unaware of it’s reach and impact. I feel a little giddy that it won.

Yes... I said giddy.

It’s about three young British women in college and their wacky adventures with friends. It’s fun and funny and touching and real. I’m really not the demographic I think Giant Days is aiming for, though there are definitely reasons I like it. I tend to describe it ‟as more adult than old-school Archie comics and far less adult than Love & Rockets.” I’m a big fan of both of those and Giant Days just hits a sweet spot that captures elements of both for me. My own comic from long ago, Grey Legacy, was the story of young people in college, albeit in more of a sci/fi fantasy setting. This was created much closer to my own college and grad school experience. Years later when I produced a short run of a comic strip set in the same world I focused on a young woman named Brix and her wacky adventures with friends, but even then I was aiming for the audience of Chatham University students. Obviously there is something in this trope that speaks to me.

But back to Giant Days...

Daisy Wooten was home-schooled and as a result is socially awkward and slightly naïve. She’s also brilliant, ridiculously optimistic, and highly organized. She tends to act as the conscience of the group. Susan Ptolemy is a med student. She’s overworked, down to earth, cynical, and sometimes a little mean and impatient with foolishness. Esther DeGroot is the beautiful Goth girl that everything comes easy to. She’s a whimsical force of nature, lucky, creative, and the object of every misplaced male crush. She’s also much smarter than she gives herself credit for. In spite of their differences they develop a beautiful friendship.

Somehow, I relate to elements of all three of them.

JohnAllison, the creator, writer, and sometimes artist of the series has a long history in comics. He has been creating web comics since the late 1990s. Giant Days is a continuation of some of the settings and characters that appeared there. His characterizations are deft and his comedic pacing is immaculate. Giant Days is a genuinely funny book. But the characters are not merely cartoons. We feel for them and become emotionally invested as they go through relationships and heartbreak and deal with the pressures of school and impending adulthood. In a recent story someone’s father dies and the story is deep and heartbreaking and incredibly insightful about dealing with grief.

I can’t say enough good things about the main series artist MaxSarin. Their drawings are full of life and energy. The characters are animated and feel as though they are always in motion. Sarin is a master of body language, subtle and not so subtle. The facial expressions can be wildly exaggerated, utilizing all of the tools of cartooning, but you are never taken out of the reality of this world. The drawing make you feel what the characters feel. When Daisy cries it is hurt down to the level of her soul.

As a middle aged man I’ve wondered why this appeals to me so much. Some of it is just sheer admiration for the craft of making good comics. Even though I am many years removed from the college experience I am surprised at how many moments in the series, like in every issue, something happens that has a direct corollary to something I have experienced in my own past, or speaks to who I am now.

I had this exact experience with a tripping friend
once. I was in the role of Esther that time.
This is an uncannily accurate description of me.

A large part of the appeal is the nostalgia factor. That’s something I think anyone can relate to. That time in your life, whether it was in college or high school or some other setting, when you were officially an adult, but still hadn’t figured out what that meant. The time when you were experiencing all of your firsts. When everything felt heightened and was tinged with importance in ways that can never be completely recaptured as you get older. When you first started to meet people who would be your chosen family and you can’t imagine life without them in it. For younger readers, those who are the age of the characters, it mirrors their life. For those of us who are older it reminds us of just how important and formative those times were.

Giant Days indeed.