“Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.”
– Job (5:7)
I had never killed or cannibalized a woman but I did fear that I might be turning into a serial killer.This was 1992, a few years after Ted Bundy met his maker courtesy of the state of Florida. A year earlier, Jeffrey Dahmer had been arrested after his bloody “boy buffet” terrorized Wisconsin.
Serial killers were weirdly trendy.
TV shows and non-fiction books analyzed, vilified and, arguably glorified, these people (invariably white men, incidentally). No one really goes “retro” on this ‘90s fad, but there was some kind of growing excitement about, or at least fascination with, these biologically (or was it demonically?! Yank! Yank! Yank!) mutated souls who wandered the land, strangling, fucking, roasting, and devouring as they had seen fit.
Some in the “punk rock” and underground scene were surely obsessed with these people.
Songs were written about serial killers. People visited, even owned paintings by, John Wayne Gacy and many a fanzine (to wit: ANSWER ME!) celebrated these sickos. Even the band I had formed/quit a year earlier (the aptly ’90s-named, Gloryhole…ROAR!) issued a 45 with cover art using a now-famous image of Ted Bundy laughingly washing dishes with some unsuspecting blonde-haired woman.
The Silence of the Lambs had been released the year earlier and people quoted that movie like it was Blazing Saddles:
“It puts the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again.”
“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”
And so forth.
So the American culture, from high, middle, to low, was seemingly obsessed with these maniacs. Watching these TV shows, the killers’ life stories kind of had the same arc, some of which I identified with.
Ostracized and awkward? Check.
Tortured animals as a youth? Negative, thank Christ.
Porn damaged? Check.
Lonely, brooding and poly-addicted substance abuser? Double Check!
So I was three out of four on the Gein-Gacy-Bundy Scale. Troubling. Was there a fricasseed street hooker in my future?
Yet if I was to harm anyone, I would simply continue in harming myself. Standing in my parents’ backyard, 20 years old, perpetually drunk on Budweiser, and staring up at the moon. I had failed at everything; or at least failed at what I imagined I should have “succeeded” at. Two brief blip-passes at going to community college—first to study visual art, and then some other subject that I’ve forgotten.
A fairly skilled figurative painter, three years earlier at age 17, I was accepted into the Ringling College of Art and Design down in Sarasota. I had “created” my own style that I called, almost precociously so, “Expansionism.” I’d draw a representational face or figure, and then unravel it into spools of lines and squares, a kind of latticework of the figure dissipating into the surrounding space. Lemme tell you, I was ready to rock the art world with this revelatory approach.
The only real obstacle that kept me from being the next Max Ernst or Francis Bacon was the Ringling College’s tuition fee. Unbeknownst to me, my art teacher, whose name actually escapes me (Mrs. Allen?) sent samples from my portfolio to the school and they gave me the green light.
I was fucking elated about this news. I requested the catalog and tuition info from the school. The price? $30,000 for two years. At the time, my dad drove a 1983 Chevy Cavalier. Our second car was a yellow, ’81 Ford station wagon that was the size of a squashed house. My dad and I both kind of chuckled when we saw how much it would cost for me to study art at the school.
“Well, maybe you can go to school here,” suggested my dad.
I tried to take the news in stride but it surely added to my stagger.
How many more times could I sit outside of the community college campus’s cafeteria, staring at my reflection in the window, weirdly mesmerized by my self-consciousness? I couldn’t go back there, physically or mentally.
I knew nothing about Sarasota, Florida. Other than it was located at the bottom of the state, hundreds of miles away from Jacksonville Beach. I just wanted to go somewhere. In hindsight, considering my overall headspace and maturity, it’s likely that I would have flunked out.
While I was 17 when I was accepted into the school, and of legal driving age, I wasn’t legally allowed to drive a motor vehicle due to being prescribed so much lithium that I was like Mr. Salty, and smoked pot like I was trying to fill the world with more smoke. So, it’s easy to think that I truly “wasn’t ready’ for college.
So where did that leave me? Playing in teenage bands, working in restaurants, brooding…staring holes into the universe.
Let me stress how emotionally derelict I was; demented really. From numb to sensitive.
Less than a year earlier I had successfully failed at my second suicide attempt, glugging back my entire prescription of lithium. For my efforts, I was given an emetic to drink at the ER, vomiting for what seemed like hours, which permanently damaged my esophagus, and then whisked downtown to a hospital psych ward in a weirdly slow-moving ambulance.
At one point during this ride, as I lay there staring up at the ceiling in the dark, the gurney kind of gently rocking back and forth, I had a brief flash that I had died, and this was a kind of hell, or at least mundane purgatory. I’d forever be riding in the back of this ambulance, never to pull up to any hospital, as the two EMT guys up front mumbled about something or other.
If you ever think you’re “nuts,” get checked into the mental ward of a “city hospital.” God’s grace might not hit you, but spontaneous sanity surely will.
Within the week, I stormed into my psychiatrist’s office, essentially “firing him” while informing him I would no longer be taking lithium, or any other medication.
As if in a movie: “You’ll regret this!” he said. He may or may not have been angrily shaking his fist for emphasis. Who knows?
So I was fully adrift, free to be miserable in my natural state.
I got a job at a newspaper and lasted four, probably three, days.
Hired on as an “inserter,” I did just that: nine-to-12-hour shifts, standing in one spot, cramming circulars and coupons into the local beaches paper, which hit the streets twice a week. I stood around a long, rectangular table with maybe a dozen inserters, the gargantuan printing press maybe 15 feet from us, mercilessly clacking away.
“Ka-choong! Ka-choong! Ka-choong!”
Many of my coworkers wore CD players with headphones, trying to tune out some of that constant, pummeling noise. As the newest employee, I was afraid to not be able to “hear” everything that I might need to hear.
“Hey Brown! Whatever you do, don’t stick your tongue into the printing press!”
That kind of thing.
I was in awe at how quickly these people could slide these glossy ads and fliers inside of these 30-pages of newsprint. Everyone had a jar of Sortwik at their station, that pink cream for this type of thing, keeping their fingertips weirdly friction-free, giving them some kind of magical power at grabbing, stuffing, and stacking papers.
We were paid piecemeal, something ridiculous like pennies per paper. Was this legal? I guess so. Was I terminally broke and willing to stand up for hours at a time on a Tuesday night, spilling landscaping ads everywhere, my face sweaty and covered with Sortwik and ink smears as the boss looked at me with barely-contained disgust?
I wasn’t working at a community paper part time — nights — because I loved myself too much.
A punk-rock friend, maybe six or seven years older than me, had landed a job at a vegetarian restaurant. He put it in a good word for me and they hired me as a dishwasher. They were only hiring nights but it was a fulltime job and it paid better than my scrambling and panicked with Sortwik on my fingers gig, chunking fliers into newspapers, cooled only by a monstrous shop fan, as Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” blasted on a perma-loop in my head.
I settled in pretty quickly to working at the vegetarian place. Located roughly four-miles from my parents’ house, I’d take the 3:30 p.m. bus to work. We lived a mile west of the bus stop. So I’d head east each day, walking for 20 minutes, which allowed me enough time to consider killing myself by chugging a hemlock smoothie, or go stick my head inside of the printing press of a local, still-unnamed newspaper.
I never minded the walk; other than panic attacks, it was the only cardio workout I was getting. The problem was my get-up: billowing “checks kitchen pants” with black-and-white vertical stripes and that shirt: an over-sized, light-purple shirt with a giant green snow pea printed on the front, emblazoned with the words “Heaven on Earth, A Café!”
Every night I’d wash dishes. The restaurant was almost unsettlingly slow. This was the early ’90s and, at least locally, a vegetarian restaurant was still somewhat an anomaly at the beaches.
The local grocery stores carried one kind of veggie burger in their frozen foods section, and tofu was still kind of tucked away in the most despairing corner of the produce section. We did boast a long-running health food store at the beaches, owned by two of the most unhealthy-looking people imaginable. A husband and wife team, both bespectacled and frail, they looked like their bones were melting in their body.
After my shift was over at around 11 p.m., the buses were already shut down for the night. So I’d either bum a ride from the restaurant manager, who sometimes inexplicably “goosed” and groped me with her free hand as she drove. insisting that I sire her child. Her French girlfriend who sat behind me in the back seat seemed less thrilled about all of this.
So I usually just walked home. It was one hour back to my parents house. Maybe 15 or 20 minutes away from home, I’d always buy the same thing from the same gas station: a 12-pack of Budweiser and a pack of Marlboro Lights. They’d both be consumed within the next two-to-three hours.
I’d take a shower, wash my work clothes, and eat some sad sandwich over the sink, preparing to get hammered drunk. This was my introduction to ritual.
My music taste was kind of in flux. I had moved away from the previous two-year’s “aggro” music, with bands like the Cows, Unsane, Lubricated Goat, and the Melvins that once fired me up now just making me sad.
My friends and I would drive down to Gainesville to see these types of bands, but most of those friends were suddenly in college or figuring out their own surprising adulthoods. I was too weak to conjure up that kind of chest-thumping listening energy. Plus, when you’re maybe one soapy night away from gargling drain cleaner in a dish pit, do you really want to come home and have a God Bullies album sating your brittle soul?
I was really more prone to listen to Traffic’s first two albums, or Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s At Sugar Hill.
So I’d sit at the edge of my bed wearing headphones, staring down into an emptying beer bottle and an ashtray filling with cigarette butts, blasting music. Many nights I’d go outside, turn off the back-porch light, and smoke half a joint. If I timed this incorrectly, and drank too much beer before I smoked, the regret would be immediate, suddenly nauseous, everything taking on a gray pallor, sad vomiting followed by bed spins, praying to God to knock me out.
Then I’d wake up the next day at around one, feeling like my head was submerged in roofing nails. I’d take a shower, get dressed, walk to the bus stop, work, and repeat this same ritual that next night.
In your face, art school.
Let me take a moment to assure you that my personal and romantic life was just as ammo’d as my “career.”
My former girlfriend had moved to Los Angeles. That didn’t stop me from drunkenly calling her apartment every night to “checkup” on her. As our “relationship” was completely dysfunctional, centered around drinking, screwing, arguing, and infidelity, denial must have buffered me from this whole experience. Nine times out of ten, her roommate would answer. Many times I’d just talk to her.
“What are you doing, Cheryl?” I’d slur.
“I’m waiting for my pizza to get here,” she’d snap at me, TV playing in the background. “She’s not here. She’s out.”
Cheryl never even offered to “tell her you called” but I’m a romantic, so I’d call back the next night. And the night after that.
I briefly orbited into a girl who seemed as sad as me. She was the proverbial “friend of a friend of a…” and while I wasn’t really attracted to her, she seemed to like me, so I guess that would have to do.
We’d kiss and she was all teeth. I’m sure that my breath was no prize winner: all metallic beer and cigarettes. I know that I held her hostage more than once with one of my soliloquies, sloshing around the beer in my hand, blabbing on about some bullshit like Henry Miller, or railing at the cooks at work and their disregard for the rules regarding burning the frying pans.
One night she came over late at night, with a weirdly seriously look on her face. Once in my room she pulled a bottle out of her purse, liquor-store-brand rum; a third of the way full. We drank some of the rum. There was a white, crystalized ring of sugar in the bottle that resembled a halo.
Suddenly we were starting to have sex. I was more surprised than aroused. Too drunk to get it up, I apologized repeatedly. Always a bridesmaid. We wound up watching an infomercial about a vacuum food-sealer in its entirety and once she sobered up hours later she left and never came back over.
So, in every capacity, I was “priced to move.”
I really don’t know “how” or “when” I discovered the music of Charles Mingus. I was familiar with jazz; at least familiar in the way of liking the few LPs I had of that kind of music. At that time in my life, I thought that “jazz” could only hit you on an intellectual level, standing next to the Hi-Fi while wearing a smoking jacket, Dunhill in one hand, highball in the other: “Hush now, everyone. I’m going to play some jazz.”
The first jazz album I ever bought was when I was 14. It was Sonny Simmons’s Manhattan Egos on the Arhoolie label. I still have this album. On some level I lucked out in buying that, as Simmons was really a kind of avant-garde horn player. Not long after, I eventually purchased a double-album Atlantic-era compilation of John Coltrane and two Ornette Coleman records. So that Sonny Simmons purchase was true providence.
If I had bought, say, George Benson’s Breezin’ or a Manhattan Transfer album, I wouldn’t be writing this. I might have found the then-fortitude to snort a line of barbwire, my obituary printed in the same newspaper I once stuffed, my face slathered in Sortwik war paint.
“Where God guides, God provides,” and the God of the Deranged and Purple-Shirted Dishwasher surely brought me to Mingus.
In the same strip mall that housed the vegetarian place there was a bakery, an Irish-y souvenir shop, and, briefly, a record store. The store sold CDs and tapes, no vinyl, but the place was 20 feet away from where I worked and I never needed a reason to blow what money I had.
The guy who ran the place was nice enough, in his late 40s with dark, sunken eyes and splotchy skin. He always seemed sad. You know, a “serious” music lover.
His selection pretty much sucked though. Due to limited shelf space, he carried all of the dreck of the day. The largest section of his store was jazz, New Age, “world music,” etc. all kind of jammed together.
So, say, if you were looking for a Dizzy Gillespie record you might come up short on “Salt Peanuts” but you could pick up the latest record by The Gyuto Monks or a dance-mix compilation featuring the sounds of sampled pygmies blended with dancehall reggae. Music that sounded like urbane porn soundtracks for people who denied that they watched pornography.
I’m pretty sure I bought Let My Children Hear Music solely on the basis of its cover. Featuring a small rainbow arcing over drum-like shapes set into a rusty-brown background, I thought the Mingus album looked vaguely “sophisticated,” the way that a jazz album should.
I was a bass player so I was already aware that Mingus played the bass. But that kind of kinship really meant nothing to me. Years earlier, I heard Primus for the first time, and Les Claypool’s slapping, sliding, and popping made me apoplectic; ditto Jaco Pastorius.
I just didn’t care about any of that. All of those flexing music “shredders.” Arm wrestling. And me, with the weak, damp fingers of a coward. So I really had no “tribal pride” when it came to what instrument I played.
I bought the CD and the shop owner rang me up, with his ever-present weak smile and his anguished, haunted eyes, as if to say, “Get out while you’re young.”
Let My Children Hear Music sucked. Gag a maggot. I mean, it was immensely bad. Big band arrangements and the spoken word mumble of “The Chill of Death” all left me cold.
Jazz, you had failed me.
But I wasn’t ready to give up on Mingus just yet.
During this time in my life I was a consummate subscriber of catalogs. This had started earlier, in my early teens, when I think I was just desperate to get any mail. Also, pre-internet, these catalogs were my lifeline and direct channel in acquiring shit that otherwise would’ve just been a kind of dicey possibility. So I’d send off for catalogs: publishing houses, catalogs of “how-to” manuals, record companies…naturally, I never “paid” for one of these catalogs.
Prestige Records boasted a free catalog that was the size of a small-town yellow pages. Some blues, mostly jazz; too much music, really. I flipped through the pages but it was an overwhelming selection of stuff. Some of these players I had heard of, some I had not. The cover photo for most of these records would feature two or three older jazz guys with satisfied looks on their faces, leaning on a piano, as if to say: “Man, you just missed a hot session. Do you have any heroin?”
I landed on “M” and then Mingus.
Randomly picking an LP to order, I picked the Mingus album Town Hall Concert since it had such an off-putting, textbook-like cover: a brown banner along with the top with name of the album and also the players. Murky black-and-white photo below.
In maybe a week or so I got the record in the mail.
After another day of scraping bok choy and seaweed out of pans, I went home with my beer and cigarettes. After I was half, “half in the bag,” I opened the record. Two songs on each side: side one – “So Long Eric”…side two – “Praying With Eric.”
Side one opened with a strong lead-in by Mingus, none of that atmospheric malarkey of Let My Children Hear Music. This was straight-up, strong bass pluck. Then the band bleating in, right out of the gate the timing is weird. 6/4? I dunno. Odd time. I’ve been playing music since I was essentially child and my understanding/dissecting of time signatures is embarrassingly bad.
“So Long Eric” surely didn’t disappoint in the jazz department. A 12-bar blues with long extended solos, the tempo and rhythm of the music would slag and buckle: drummer Dannie Richmond would play a straightforward beat and then, either goaded (or, more likely, commanded) by Mingus, he’d suddenly speed up or slow down the music; into weird “cut time” and then a crazed pounding on the ride symbol.
Jaki Byard seemed to jab chords and notes around the other players on the pinao, never really “accompanying” them but just jotting his presence between the cracks.
The frontline was Johnny Coles on trumpet, Clifford Jordan on tenor saxophone, and Eric Dolphy on alto sax, bass clarinet, and flute. Jordan soloed first, with little responses by Coles and Dolphy. Then a mini solo by Coles, followed by Mingus. Over the course of the tune’s 18 minutes, “So Long Eric” becomes this kind of barreling collection of solos but works out well considering how fierce the collected players were.
The reason I am really writing this is because of “Praying With Eric” – or really a fragment of that music. Taking up side two of the LP, this song is a standout performance, especially for Mingus and Dolphy. Mingus starts off the song with a spoken introduction, when he explains how Dolphy had told him about “something similar to the concentration camps in Germany now down South, where they separated the greens from the reds…and the only difference between the electric barbed wire is they don’t have gas chambers and hot stoves to cook us in yet. So I wrote a piece called, ‘Meditations,’ as to how to get some wire cutters before someone else gets some guns to us.”
The opening riff is haunting to the point of the disturbing, the band condensing the sound of a symphony with Dolphy blowing a soft flute line on top, Byard playing dissonant trills behind him, Coles and Jordan playing a motif that is in turns melodious and jagged, dropping in tritones into the mix. Then the band drops out, leaving Mingus, Byard, and Dolphy to play through a kind of emotional murk, somber to the point of a graveyard.
Mingus plays trills similar to what he would with Duke Ellington and Max Roach on the tune, “Fleurette Africaine (African Flower),” from their trio album Money Jungle that had been released the previous year. This passage, with its rolling between dark and lighter tones played by Dolphy on flute, he and Mingus joining in unison on flute and arco bass, only to step away from each other moments later, seems to parallel some of the work that Sun Ra was doing, and would continue to do, with his bassist Ronnie Boykins and gonzoid multi-instrumentalist Marshall Allen.
“Praying With Eric” is every facet of then-modern music collapsing on itself.
It would be years before I listened to the music of Charles Ives. Mingus was surely savvy to Ives phantasmagoric take, and arguably creation of, “Americana.” But even Ives wasn’t extreme as Mingus, the latter mashing up swing, Dixieland, bop, even twelve-tone music, into one entity; sentient, angry, pensive, and all else in between.
Then a sudden clash of notes by Byard who by now sounds fed up with the whole thing, and a crazed, stomping walk kicks in, Dolphy playing syrupy, dripping riffs on bass clarinet, which in turn shifts into a solo by Mingus, then another walk to an outro of the opening theme by the band and Dolphy soloing the core melody.
With two minutes to go, everything falls away, leaving once again only Byard, Dolphy, and Mingus. Mingus is bowing his bass, Dolphy has moved fully into the sound of bird calls (creatures he was known to “rehearse” with during his short life, allegedly inspired by composer Olivier Messiaen’s similar fascination with birdcalls), as Byard plays a kind of shifting, queasy melody underneath them.
And this is why I am writing all of this.
All of this: The end of the song, the fade away.
By now Mingus is weeping with the bass, bowing arco’d upper registers. Dolphy raises the pitch on his flute and softens his volume; at one point the pair are approximating what sounds like guitars feeding back.
But then in those last fading seconds, Mingus is bowing impossibly high up the fingerboard of his bass, moving beyond the security of notes, crossing this mesmerizing abyss and into microtones which flutter imperceptibly. Dolphy meets him there.
It can’t be more than 10 or 15 seconds of music, but when I first heard this ending I could feel as if someone had unplugged something inside of me, and added a new wire to my frazzled, fired circuitry. Sometimes the greatest emotions are the ones that surprise you, in a wholly unguarded moment, and you’re just too weak to fight anymore, especially your own ever-calibrating feelings.
That is what I felt. I felt hope.
It was like having amnesia, a sad forgetfulness that you had willingly installed, vanish and be replaced by hope. Twenty years old, drunk, working a miserable job, flicking cigarettes at the moon.
The end of “Praying With Eric” clipped the wire.
I would listen to the end of “Praying…” with Mingus and Dolphy having that sad, weeping really, conversation between bowed bass and flute, both played at impossibly high registers, beyond “inscrutable jazz music” and at the level of sound, and tears would begin to softly stream down the side of my face, rolling down my sideburns and into my pillow. I recognized myself.
I had only cried two or three times in the past years and one of those times was when I was released from that mental hospital the year earlier. So I was very protective, overly so, of what I cried about.
In some way, I was resisting waking up from a bad dream that I kept creating. But I didn’t know how to stop.
I had hypnotized myself with my own blend of venom: fear, anger, disappointment, awkwardness, inferiority, alcohol and drugs, lousy and toothy kisses from an equally confused mouth pressed to mine, bottlenecked into a clip of shitty jobs…some assembly required.
People would encourage me that I “was still young” but even then I knew they were full of shit. “Life is short,” is a half-assed encouragement that punctuates like a threat. Let me tell you, when you are detonating everything around you and live in a state of low-volume anxiety, waiting to roar out when you’re alone, life is fucking long and it is slow.
I don’t believe hell is somewhere “down there.” Hell is surely the mind; evil is an expression of that mind run amok. Human beings are the only creators of “evil” in this universe.
We are billions of potential hells waiting to explode into shrapnel.
On the other end of that is the possibility of joy, gratitude … love. The “Kingdom of Heaven within you…” all of that stuff that can sound so saccharine to the satisfied cynic but sounds pretty goddamned good to the hopeless and broken.
Mingus and Dolphy broke my heart that night and then helped me sweep it all together. In a matter of seconds. In hindsight, staggering, really.
Even writing this now, I would never want to go back to being “young.” Let alone, in that kind of cloistered and binary worldview. “This” is good; “that” is bad, like a baby rattling a toy.
Quite frankly, everything that I imagined about growing older – the positive and the negative – all came true. Even in my times of being a younger musician, I never wanted to “Live Fast, Die Young.” I had a hard enough time staggering forward through my youth, surrendering to nothing while leaving claw marks in the air. Foolish.
I wanted peace and joy. But, especially in my generation, everyone was inhaling so much snark and sarcasm that they were immune to even breathing in a better atmosphere.
Those 10-15 seconds at the end of that album are arguably my ultimate music experience. I was included in that soft conversation between Mingus and Dolphy. They weren’t talking at me — they were talking with me.
And believe me, at the age of 20, I was a captive audience and willing to be taken away.
Buckle up for the ride because sometimes the view gets better.
In October of 1992, maybe six months from my Mingus/Dolphy “Road to Damascus” conversion process, I was in Memphis. I was there to record with one of my musical heroes, Jeff Evans of the Gibson Brothers. I’d started haranguing him by phone and mail the previous year, when I was 19.
“You need me in the Gibson Brothers,” I drunkenly assured him.
Turns out the band had just broken up, but he was starting a new band. So there I was, recording with this band at Doug Easley’s studio, and sleeping on Jeff’s floor in his apartment off Linden in midtown Memphis. I was totally broke. I’d taken the 17-hour bus trip from Jacksonville to Memphis and what money I had was either slotted for my return ticket, beer or records.
A few blocks from Jeff’s place was a CJ’s, the local greasy diner franchise with locations around the city. I could eat hash browns for something like one or two dollars and they were open late.
One night I went there and was methodically eating my hash browns, working my way from the outer crisp crust to the soft center like I always did, when these two locals came in.
They were both wearing that kind of confused “post-grunge-Nirvana” get up; like acid-washed jeans with deliberate tears in them and Converse sneakers. I glanced over at them and the one wearing a goofy hat kind of looked over at me, smirking.
Staring straight at me, he then leaned over to loudly “whisper” to his friend.
“Get a load of Jeffrey Dahmer over there.”
–Daniel A. Brown