Chapter 1: Nineteen 1 NINETEEN
I had dropped out of high school. After I had disappeared for weeks, my father wouldn’t let me return. He was permanently kicking me out to protect my mother, who was a recovering alcoholic. My presence would only make her worse. She didn’t want to see me. That was hard to hear, but it was even harder to argue with—so I didn’t. I stayed silent. I had no defense. I was drinking and drugging and had no intention to stop.
My friend Sam slipped me into the basement of his house, where he said I could sleep in a crawl space under the stairs, so that if his folks came down, they wouldn’t see me. The basement had a beige linoleum floor. On the walls were family pictures, including Sam’s dad in an army uniform. On the rear wall was a large mirror, the perfect backdrop to their neatly arranged full-service bar. Glass shelves were stocked with brand names like Johnnie Walker and Jack Daniel’s. There were multicolored glasses that suggested another era. Sitting on the bar itself was an oversized bottle of Canadian Club.
I went right for it. Hard liquor was a rare treat. I was usually stoned on cheap wine and malt liquor. I downed the whiskey in no time and headed for the crawl space. My small frame adjusted to the tight quarters. The booze flooded me with warmth. I had to rearrange some boxes to squeeze into the space. My brain was barely functioning. That was my aim. Quiet the confusion in my head. Descend into darkness. Numb out. Get through the night so the next day I could find something—beer, wine, or weed—to beat back the monotony of doing nothing and going nowhere.
As much as I appreciated the space Sam provided, survival meant going somewhere else. Since I was broke, the next step up from the crawl space was a rescue shelter. Over the vast landscape of urban and suburban Detroit, I lived in a dozen such places. Even there, I managed to mess things up. No one was willing to put up with my unruly behavior. Forced out of one shelter, I flopped to another.
My spirit had been drained dry by defeat. I hadn’t graduated from high school. My senior year had been an emotional, alcoholic fog. I’d gotten nowhere with the one talent I seemed to have: music. The only thing I excelled at was undercutting myself at every turn. My relationship with my parents was in ruins and my only friends were pretty much like me—outliers living on the edge. My social life consisted of nothing more than hanging out with winos and potheads. I couldn’t imagine having a girlfriend. I was in absolutely no condition to maintain a romantic relationship. I stole. I lied. I’d become a full-time conniver, sinking into a quicksand of self-loathing.
One morning in early spring, I woke up in a park with the hope of getting high. I went to see a guy I’ll call Fletch, a fellow addict I had met at a shelter who had managed to move back into his folks’ home. He was a friendly man, mentally challenged and hooked on crack. Our mission was to cop. To do so, he took the keys to his mother’s New Yorker. He knew a blood bank where our blood would yield enough cash to satisfy his dealer. We were joined in this effort by one of Fletch’s associates—another crackhead. As we drove through the city streets to the blood bank, I realized I had a problem. I had no driver’s license. I had lost it because of DWIs. In fact, I had no ID at all. That meant no giving blood. And no giving blood meant no dope.
“No worries,” said Fletch. “Stay in the car while we cop. We’ll get enough for you.”
He and his buddy entered the blood bank and sold their blood. I waited for them to return. Ten minutes. Thirty minutes. An hour. Clearly, they weren’t coming back. When I went to find them, I spotted a rear exit and understood what had happened. Rather than share the fruits of their labor, they’d run over to the crack man without me. In fact, Fletch was in such in a hurry, he had forgotten to take the car keys. So, in a state of righteous indignation, I got behind the wheel and peeled off.
I consoled myself by downing a bottle of Richards Wild Irish Rose, nicknamed “bum’s brew.” The wine lit me up. The day had turned gray; the sky was covered with low-hanging clouds heavy with moisture. When the rain came down, I opened the sunroof. The rain felt great. I felt great. I was speeding along the Lodge Freeway, leaving down-and-dirty Detroit and flying high to the evergreen bliss of Bloomfield Hills, the fancy burb where I’d try to buy more wine. But how could I do that? I was broke, but like most addicts I didn’t let that unfortunate fact bother me for long. All that mattered was the feeling of the rain hitting my face and the smooth ride of this plush New Yorker. I didn’t know what time it was. Didn’t know what day it was. Didn’t really care. Fueled by the bum’s brew, my brain was running a million miles a minute. I exited the freeway by making a couple of crazy turns. Before I knew it, I was slamming into a car and careening into a ditch. I was trapped inside a stolen car; being drunk didn’t help. The rain got heavier. My heart was hammering to the point of explosion. I closed my eyes, hoping it was all a dream. But the scream of sirens interfered with my fantasy. The woman driver in the other car was bruised but alive. I was hauled off to jail.
As I rode in the back of the cop car, the title of one samba-swaying Brazilian song, “A Day in the Life of a Fool,” hit home. Except that fool was too kind a word. Fuckup was more fitting. The drunken car wreck, the injured woman, this catastrophe—all of it pointed to the collapse of my character. Maybe it was strange to have a song pop up in my head during a disaster, but music had always been there as a far-off light in the fog. Now, though, the fog had only thickened.
The first twenty-three years of my life are the hardest to decipher because I was emotionally unconscious. To render my story effectively, I need to revisit the past. The crazy dysfunction of my early life has always troubled me. I find myself wanting to see through the misery and mystery of that dysfunction. I want to understand why and how it all happened. When I imagine the process of wading through those years, I see myself back at the keyboard, sitting for hours on end in search of the lost chord—or lost time.
I’ve gone from being a painfully shy kid bent on self-destruction to being someone who performs original songs in front of an arena overflowing with appreciative fans.
My story is a tale soaked in the blues.
My blues, like everyone’s blues, begin in the long ago and far away.
They connect to my mother’s blues, and her mother’s blues. Those connections are rhythmic. That rhythm is deep and historical, a rhythm without end.