By way of Introduction

lindyI’m not at all sure what an “author’s bio” ought to say. The thing I’ve most wanted to do, all my life so far, is to write fiction: good yarns that are true to their characters. Yet all kinds of concerns — family, work, study, activism, distraction — have butted in front of that. I’m the husband of Lisa, dad of Eli and Francie, son of Jan and Morris and brother of Cristy, Jenny and Heather, the Program Director of the Henry George Institute and a member of the Belfast Area Friends Meeting… yet, dear as they are to me, those things aren’t pertinent here. A novel lives, if it does, in its own time and place; if it’s true, it’s true without reference to facts. My imaginary friends, Robin and Melinda, Sarah, Sean and Odis, are as real to me as they can possibly be. It’s been a treat to embezzle all the time I’ve spent with them.

kidzI’m an obsessive do-it-yourselfer. Surely I must have passed on to my (beautiful, awesome) kids the possibilities and pitfalls of approaching life in this way: I built my own house, did all the wiring and plumbing, making and correcting many mistakes; I created my own websites, hand-coding all their glitches and kludgy bits. I fantasized about the luxury of having the weight of a major house behind my literary efforts, but that’s vanishingly unlikely in this day & age, alas. However this project turns out, I can’t blame anybody else for botching it.

Today, Eli is going to college. We’ve lived here in Waldo County, Maine since he was two months old. Lisa’s parents, Carl and Jo, gave us a couple of acres to build on. Roots can take firm hold in this ground — yet part of me has never left New York City, where I lived for nine essential years. Yet and still, I grew up along the Sassafras River, and that really is the sublimest place on earth. Robin’s destiny will transplant him, as mine did, but Odis gets to stay. I envy that.

Then there’s Melinda. Quite a piece of work, she is! Fictional characters have to start somewhere. They can’t help resembling some person-in-the-real-world — but the imaginary-friend journey isn’t worth taking if the character doesn’t end up becoming Who She Is. One more thing about me, by way of introduction: all my life, I have fallen in love with musicians — even more than with the music itself. I am fascinated by the compulsion to make music, to express one’s deepest love and self through sound. I used to be (a small) part of the scene at the Village Gate, on Bleecker Street, before it closed. Now and again a musician would ask me what I played. “I don’t,” I’d reply, “but I listen.” Nobody ever suggested that wasn’t important.

Melinda’s Set List

Melinda’s set included some standards, some obscure picks and, on a good night, a few originals. She felt chosen by the songs she would sing. Most of them grabbed her during private expeditions into the far reaches of her friends’ record collections. If you’re interested in discovering some of her influences, here are a few things to check out on YouTube.

A Rainy Night in GeorgiaThe original by Brook Benton is the place to start. The record is over-orchestrated, but his voice plainly and surely captures the mood. Ray Charles sang the hell out of it, of course, and a performance by Aaron Neville, featuring Chris Botti, is well worth a listen. But if you really do feel like it’s raining all over the world, Shelby Lynne’s version will break your heart.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right — Who hasn’t performed this song? Bob Dylan himself has styled it in a variety of ways. Eric Clapton’s burning rendition of it at the Bob Dylan anniversary concert should not be missed. And there’s always Johnny Cash. I’m partial to the way Susan Tedeschi sings it, too — but you can’t go wrong. Melinda sang it with whimsy, taking a gentle jab at Dan Spitfire with a few self-composed lines.

Faust — Not a well-known song, but a great one: originally from the film Phantom of the Paradise. Sarah and Melinda heard it on the amazing live album, Tears of Steel and the Clowning Calaveras, by Jeannie Lewis — which is still available through her website ( On YouTube you can find Paul Williams, the composer, performing it.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress — Melinda also found this one through Jeannie Lewis — but her mom enjoyed the Glen Campbell version, and Linda Ronstadt sang it beautifully. Looking for more options, I found an achingly lovely version by the Norwegian singer Radka Toneff.

Harvest for the World — Cheeky to think one could improve on the Isley Brothers’s record, from the 1976 album of the same name. However, a band called The Christians did a very creditable version of it, which also has a cool video. You might also like the live performance by Incognito.

Letter Perfect — This is an Al Jarreau composition, and it leads off his 1976 live album Look to the Rainbow. I haven’t found any covers of it. Jarreau’s performance is infectious and utterly individual. Melinda needed all the privacy of Mark Ross’s back room to find a way to get it out of herself, and of all the songs she did that first year, this one took the greatest leap of faith.

Sweet Blindness — The Fifth Dimension made it famous — but this great song has been reimagined every which way. Livingston Taylor did a bizarre sort of Sesame Street version, and Liza Minelli interpretive-danced it on the Ed Sullivan show. But nothing tops the way the composer, the incomparable Laura Nyro, sang it (and here’s a live version, some years later). Melinda did it to joyously (or bravely, at least) open her show.

Winter, Time Waits for No One, Little T &A — Melinda’s three Rolling Stones songs, in reverse order: Little T &A was a banged-out goof; she’d only played it in public once. Time Waits for No One, with its iconic rising chorus, was a challenge Cliff Marron gave her to push her vocal range. But Winter was a sort of obsession. As far as she knew, it had been performed by no one but Mick Jagger. It seemed a crazy thing to try: to translate a fully orchestrated performance, with Mick Taylor’s lead guitar and Jagger’s inimitable vocals — yet it was what people remembered. People didn’t know it was a Stones song, or even what it was called, but they’d ask for “Wrap my coat around you.”

Opening Farewell — Melinda was right: this is not an easy song to sing. She dedicated it to Robin, but no way would she sing it in his presence: part to spare him the tears it would elicit, and part to avoid the risk of fucking it up in front of him. Alison Krauss made it sadder and less feisty, though her band, Union Station, offered great accompaniment. The composer’s original version is just as Melinda drunkenly described it. I don’t think anybody did it better than Bonnie Raitt.

The originals — Ah, well, here’s where the fiction loses verisimilitude, because I’m not a songwriter. I’ve only been able to hear snippets of the original songs Melinda was performing during her Georgetown summer. There weren’t many: performing her own compositions heightened the stagefright. By August, anyway, there were three that came out when the stars were lined up just so. One was dedicated to Margie Sue, her mom. Only one verse of it surfaced in the story: “She wore her teal track suit to the fall cotillion/Everybody said she looked like a million…” It was a country-rocker that got its share of laughs, I assure you.

The one she called “The Studious Girl” was a tribute to the way she’d lose herself at gigs by Dan Spitfire and the Noisome Joys. It was powered by her best impression of a Keith Richards-style riff. She summoned the nerve to play it that first evening things started to go right in Georgetown:

She’s a real quick study
the question was loaded
that quick
it was fully decoded
read her notes
in the dance floor dust
if you can find the key…

There was one more, a tender ballad whose chorus I was lucky enough to catch. I’d have given the fingers of my left hand to hear her sing this, on a summer evening on that riverfront deck:

I’ve never been a privilege
never been a gift
Your sweet praise
is more than I’m earning
There’s a call I’m returning
a lesson I’m learning
You give me everything
everything but the yearning

Odis and the Wiccomiss

My two-mile run route, back in the day, included Tockwogh Lane. That name didn’t mean much to me; it was an old Indian name for something-or-other. Very little, indeed, is known about the people who were referred to by that name. It is seen, pretty much exclusively in historical accounts, in the journal of Captain John Smith‘s explorations of the Northern Chesapeake in 1608. He met a small fleet of canoes at the mouth of the Sassafras River. The warriors escorted the Englishmen to their town, and welcomed them. Smith wrote, “Their men, women, and children with dances, songs, fruits, furs, and what they had, kindly welcomed us, spreading mats for us to sit on, stretching their best abilities to express their loves.”

bridgemarkerIt seemed clear to me that Odis would trace his heritage to those people — but, was that even possible? Subsequent to John Smith’s account, not a blessed word exists in writing about the people of Tockwogh. I put it that way, rather than “the Tockwogh people,” because in fact, Tockwogh was the name of a town, not of a tribe. After much searching, I found out that the tribe was actually named the Wiccomiss (it was also sometimes referred to as the Ozinie, but it seems that Ozinie was also the name of a town). These people lived in the infinitely hospitable region of the Central Eastern Shore from time immemorial. They were Algonquian in language, and were related to the Nanticoke people from a bit further south (about whom a bit more is known). The “wico” in Maryland’s Wicomico County comes from an Algonquian word that means home or hearth.

Knowledge of the Wiccomiss clings tenuously to the historical record in the form of two 1938 articles (first, second) by historian William B. Marye in the journal American Antiquity, called “The Wiccomiss Indians of Maryland.” They lived in the area between the Choptank and Sassafras rivers; they made long lodges of bark and navigated the river in dugout canoes. And they suffered the bad luck of occupying some prime real estate. The Susquehannock, their Iroquoian rivals to the North, were willing to buy peace with the English settlers through abetting the extermination of the Wiccomiss.

Thus it was that in 1642, Kent County, Maryland was founded — and that same year, following a single violent encounter, the colonial government’s campaign against the Wiccomiss was formally begun. Three decades later, any surviving Wiccomiss people were either dead, or assimilated into the Nanticoke tribe. There are reports of some Wiccomiss being sold into slavery in Barbados.

Odis’s identification of his Wiccomiss heritage was conjectural. His mother firmly believed herself to be a descendant of the people of Tockwogh, but her evidence for that was based on faith. If it was true, though, then he had the distinction of being the last survivor of the first Native American nation to be explicitly targeted for elimination by European settlers.

Indian bread really was a thing. It was a kind of fungal growth on tree roots, also termed “tuckahoe” (which may be connected with “tockwogh”). (There was also a tuckahoe plant, which was also edible and grew in the region.) Odis liked to fry indian bread with onions; he thought it was very nutritious. Sean thought it was disgusting.

The View from the Bridge House

"The building is highly decorative, with a bell-cast metal roof topped by a round finial, and a variety of ornamental details cast into its concrete walls. This building's unique design contributes significantly to the esthetic appeal of the Fredericktown-Georgetown crossing." — from a 1980 report by the Maryland Historical Trust
“The building is highly decorative, with a bell-cast metal roof topped by a round finial, and a variety of ornamental details cast into its concrete walls. This building’s unique design contributes significantly to the esthetic appeal of the Fredericktown-Georgetown crossing.” — from a 1980 report by the Maryland Historical Trust

Why is the bridge such a big deal, you might ask? It’s just an old drawbridge… not much happens there, does it? Well, I had to ask: how would we, from our cars — or from our boats, for that matter — have the faintest idea what happens there?

It struck me that there is something about the intersection of road and river that is venerably important. Not so very long ago, the means of getting across a river was a vital consideration. Judging from the architectural details of the old Sassafras bridge, such as the ornamental facade of the bridge house and the proud historical marker, these things were kind of a big deal, even as recently as 1913. That slow-flowing, long view of things was something that Sean shared with his buddy, Father Hunter, and both men recognized in young Robinson.

Lowering - Hill's strong hands operate the lowering controls of the two bridge sections. Large electric motors raise the bridge automatically but when the sections are lowered they must be guided into the lock position very carefully.
Lowering – Hill’s strong hands operate the lowering controls of the two bridge sections. Large electric motors raise the bridge automatically but when the sections are lowered they must be guided into the lock position very carefully.

Back in 1968 the Cecil Whig ran an illustrated profile of the Sassafras bridge tender. I’m indebted to a kind and helpful clerk at the Elkton Public Library for these images, which helped me to imagine Sean’s command post.

The tenders… are responsible for raising and lowering the two center sections for boat traffic. The passageway under the bridge fluctuates with the tides but is usually about five feet high. Cable-winding electric motors pull the sections up for passing boats but it is up to the operator to guide the two sections together during the lowering phase.

The Keeper - As a former aide to Governor Theodore McKeldin and an employee of the State Roads Commission, Mr. Hill claims to have traveled every road on the Eastern Shore. He knows most of the residents on both sides of the bridge and is on a first name basis with the fishermen and boaters who come to the Sassafras during the summer months.
The Keeper – As a former aide to Governor Theodore McKeldin and an employee of the State Roads Commission, Mr. Hill claims to have traveled every road on the Eastern Shore. He knows most of the residents on both sides of the bridge and is on a first name basis with the fishermen and boaters who come to the Sassafras during the summer months.

The tender interviewed for the article, D. Raymond Hill,

is a native Eastern Shoreman and founder of the Kennedyville Fire Company…. When Hill first started working on the bridge, there were quite a few sailboats passing through; now, he says, most of them have moved down river. Still, during a summer weekend, he stays quite busy. The highest number of boats to pass through in one day, he says, is 90.

The Sassafras bridge had a good run, to be sure. It was replaced in 1984 with a new bridge whose draw had only one leaf — possibly decreasing the skill required of the bridge’s tender. There is anecdotal evidence that the old bridge did sometimes shift in its bed. I grew up within sight of the bridge, and I never saw the state highway crew called in to get it closed — so I have to presume that the tenders possessed a skill-set that wasn’t widely understood!

Sarah Varley on Local History

In some ways it’s been the perfect job for me; in some ways it’s been a long, strange trip. I started out at the University of Delaware, and had a terrible time there, didn’t fit in at all, just couldn’t find my feet. So I ctowntransferred to bucolic Washington College in ole-timey Chestertown. It had a well-respected journalism program, from which I was graduated. Washington College journalism graduates tend to aim a bit higher than the Kent County News (despite the fact that it is the direct descendant of the Chestertown Spy, est. 1792). They wanted someone to write features on local history, and a friend of a friend put me in contact. I was their man! I’ve always been partial to pokin’ around in boxes of old papers, exploring attics, listening to stories, preferably on porches, in rocking chairs. Most days, I feel like I am somewhere between the ages of eighteen and eighty-five. It was a hobby that turned into a job. The readers seem to like it, and I really cannot complain.

bettertonWithout a doubt, though, it’s disorienting to be a liberal-minded lesbian and be paid to write about local history in Kent County, Maryland. I have to tell you, this is an old-south kind of place. Where shall I start? Both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass came from the Eastern Shore. The region they escaped from was well-established in the slave-breeding business, after the tobacco economy petered out. Even today, the races don’t mix that much. I’m fascinated by the little black sister-towns. Old-timers call them “settlements,” as if they’re somehow temporary, like black people haven’t graduated to the level of having “towns” of their own. They are pantries in which the local gentry store their yard boys and maids. Every little town in Kent County has one: Galena has Daves Hill; Millington has Golts; Rock Hall has Piney Neck and Worton has Butlertown, whose name is almost too on the nose.

kvilleThe only one that doesn’t, as far as I’ve been able, as a gay carpetbagger, to tell, is Kennedyville, a town in basically the geographic center of Kent County, and one that gives me the heebie-jeebies. People seem to live there — there are houses, and cars and things — but nothing ever seems to actually go on there. There’s a cute little general store with a front porch and old gas pumps, right in the middle of town, and I have yet to see anyone coming in or out of it. Outside of town there’s an imposing, white building, with columns, labeled “Red Smith” in big red letters; I’ve been told that it is a private social club. What sort of club? “You don’t want to know what goes on in there,” said one oldtimer in, of course, Kennedyville. Well, I sorta do, because what I imagine isn’t reassuring… is it the HQ of the KKK? The local chapter of the Dyke-Burning League? Or maybe they just bet on horse races. I dunno, but when I drive by the place, I obey the speed limit. But try not to look like I am, you know?

Saint Dennis Catholic church, Galena

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m afraid to be here or that I haven’t met bunches of great people in Chestertown and environs. Do I feel out of place? Of course; I’d feel out of place anywhere, I suppose, and that isn’t such a bad thing. I think of something Molly Bolt said in Rubyfruit Jungle, about how weird it feels to see that all those things being sold with sex aren’t being sold to her. I don’t mind — I can’t afford that stuff anyway. I’m still waiting to meet the Love of My Life, but I’ve got some good friends, a fascinating job and a great collection of house plants.

Local history is like looking at history through a high-powered microscope. It’s not that the big picture goes away — it’s that you see neighborhoods, and the people in them, bouncing around inside the big picture. It takes a certain amount of abstraction to accomplish that. It might even be true that a local historian shouldn’t even be from the place she’s studying. In my case it helps to hail from New Jersey, which I consider to be the most generically escapable place in the entire world, though your mileage may vary. I think I’m pretty good at getting people to spill the beans.


Robin and Melinda shared a fondness for antique shops, though maybe the moods that drew them there weren’t conducive to harmony. For Melinda a visit to a good antique shop often occasioned a fit of exquisite, all-consuming melancholy. Robin felt something similar, but his blues were soothed by an appreciation for the things themselves, particularly gadgets, tools and toys. He aspired, in some unimaginably distant retirement, to build a huge, minutely-detailed model train setup. Melinda was a bit more invested in the search; she was furniture-shopping for a mansion, despite the fact that she would rather imagine such a place than actually live in it.

As a Denison student, I directed Ray Bradbury's play "To the Chicago Abyss." We staged it at Granville's old opera house — which, alas, has since burned to the ground. Robbins had a stock of these old circus tickets in his shop, which I bought and used for the show.
As a Denison student, I directed Ray Bradbury’s play “To the Chicago Abyss.”  We staged it at Granville’s old opera house — which, alas, has since burned to the ground. Robbins had a stock of these old circus tickets in his shop, which I bought and used for the show.

The summer after my junior year in college, I had the best job ever. It wasn’t highly remunerative, but the best jobs never are. Once a week, I chauffeured my friend Robbins Hunter to a nice buffet supper, and then to the antiques auction in Delaware, Ohio. Mr. Hunter was in his seventies when I knew him, and he’d spent the better part of his life paying for the privilege he now enjoyed: being as gay as he damn well pleased. I couldn’t imagine his younger life, and, at 20, I had the good sense not to try. I had no desire to see him in any time but the present: a slow, wry dandy, with a ready sense of humor and a huge store of knowledge about Ohioan artifacts. I’d guess that he had three goals for these Friday-evening excursions. The least important of these was procuring inventory for his shop: box lots for which he would spend only the barest minimum. Next, he was seeking furniture for the 1830s room he was working on, a centerpiece of the Avery-Hunter house, which was astounding. It was a labyrinthine Greek-revival mansion, once a Denison University fraternity house, in those olden times when such places had grandeur. It had degrees of antique shops — the street-level main shop for foolish tourists, and a couple of by-invitation upstairs rooms. In the main house, well-buffered from the touristy outer wing, he had clocks, clocks, clocks: grandfathers, mantles, tables; they were everywhere, all ornate, grandiose, over-the-top; they all needed winding (now and then I’d catch glimpses of his methodical, meditative clock-winding rounds) and they all chimed. The striking of an hour was breathtaking, waves of soft-steel variations on a theme; it seemed orchestrated.

The Robbins Hunter Museum, today

Furnishing the 1830s room was big-game quarry. I was along the night he bagged an exquisite world globe of that period, three feet in diameter, mounted in its original gimbals. There was no way the globe would fit in my car, but no matter; he’d hire a van to fetch it the next day — which brings me to Robbins’s third reason for our outings: showing me off. Everyone at that weekly auction knew Robbins Hunter, had for years. He and his guest were immediately shown to the same front-row seats. I was genuinely and naïvely interested in everything I saw there; I was unmistakably his mentee. And I was young, Good Lord, and lithe — I did not see this at all — and he liked my long hair; he would often stroke it. Yes, I was arm candy.

It really doesn’t matter whether I consciously realized this. On some level I’m sure I did, but it didn’t make any difference at all. If Robbins Hunter was hiring me to be his cute young companion, I felt privileged. He knew I was straight; he’d met my girlfriend. But he asserted a level of familiarity, even intimacy, with me that allowed him to be quite himself, and I think he really, really enjoyed that.

School resumed: my senior year, with all manner of tasks and challenges. I wasn’t coping well (to make a long story short) with the impending reality of adulthood. I had found out that Robbins was sick, but I found a way to put off visiting him until I heard he was in the hospital and I had to go. He had tubes in him; it was some form of cancer and he was very weak. He was annoyed by his inability to receive me in his accustomed style, but he was glad to see me. He saw that I was absorbed in the effort of blaming myself for not visiting, and waved it off. He had some beefcake magazines at his bedside. We talked about this and that. Nobody was winding his clocks.

It seems obvious now that there are elements of Robbins Hunter in both Sean and Odis — or to say it less clumsily, that the experience of Robbins Hunter made me want to know and understand Sean and Odis — but I scarcely thought of Robbins at all when I was writing the story. James Baldwin — who always did his level best to tell the truth, though doing so is always complicated and never certain — wrote a lot about the treachery of memory. I was trying to remember what (if anything) I brought to give him at that hospital visit. Something he wanted: chocolate? Beefcake magazines? Could I have actually gone to a newsstand and purchased gay magazines to give Robbins in the hospital? I almost think I did do that, but I sure can’t be sure. If I were writing a story, it might make for a pretty good scene…

The River

A few readers felt that this descriptive introductory chapter distracted them from the story… so, with some regret, I took it out of the book. The Sassafras River is one of the main characters, though.

It’s not an ambitious river. Only some twenty-five miles long, navigable for three-quarters of that. It is well-accustomed to human use and meddling. There’s fishing throughout — still on an industrial scale near its Chesapeake mouth: stocks of rockfish, blue crabs, oysters and clams, waning in recent years, but still gainful. Upstream it rewards a patient line — unless it’s a bad year (there have been fish die-offs and weird algae blooms). There is a little city of marinas around and about the Georgetown drawbridge, and their effluvia lingers in the water, which in any case has always been slow and tended toward murkiness. A few miles downriver, the murkiness has a more wholesome character, good for swimming, luxuriantly warm in midsummer — if you don’t mind being able to see nothing, underwater, but a greenish-brown luminescence. Kids can bob into the mud for handfuls of clams. The shoreline smells like a soup of cool green living stuff, with light rancid notes where the tide has stranded things in the sun.

Truly, the soft, slow, gently wooded shoreline of the Sassafras River is the sublimest place on Earth.

Tidal flows erode the earth out from under trees, but the trees don’t seem to mind. The sandy ground under pines and swamp maples gets pulled away a toothbrush-stroke at a time. The trees confidently send out doughty horizontal roots. The maples’ trunks arch out proudly from those roots, angled over the river. Any good teenage climber can get a breathtaking view, up among the soft leaves, way out over the water.

sassafrasAway from the shoreline itself the banks are steep. They are covered in a thick coat of old leaves which, generation by generation, turn into the loose, loamy soil that the giant beeches love. Each tree is more astounding than the last. To secure their incredible bulk in such crumbly earth, they grow intricate, muscular, thousand-layered-fractal-networks of roots. You could spend an hour studying any one of them, clambering up and down the bank, occasionally losing your footing (the bank is nearly vertical in many places) and slipping down ten feet or more on the leaves.

When you lost your footing, chances are you barked a knuckle or two, a small bloody scratch that you barely notice — something like the way the beeches barely noticed the scratches people have pen-knifed into their trunks.

To win the top of the bank you often have to struggle through a tangle of stringy brambles. Up there, you find a tilled field, or a line of yards, a chain link fence edging some schoolyard or the junky back lot of some car shop — in other words, some place of no interest, except to offer a quicker route back to “civilization.” The steep banks and the quiet shoreline have the great good fortune of being useless — they are just for you.

There are a few signs. Age-old piles of oyster shells, lightly buried. There’s the occasional beer bottle, or bit of blue China-printed plate, little plastic tugboat hull, or long-rotted shell of a rowboat. Somebody, sometime, hauled a thick manila rope way, way up into a leaning oak, and made an indestructible rope swing. In a few hours the rope will graze the water at high tide — next year a bit lower — the mooring roots still thickening, holding on with great strength. Barring hundred-year storms, it won’t happen soon — but eventually, the roots will let go, like the Zen Master’s fingers on a bowstring.

Once the tide has gone out, the sandy shore itself becomes walkable. This is where it all comes together — where, watching deltas form, seeing the birth of oxbow lakes, engineering dams and pools, you can discover the bigness of the small and the smallness of the big. These bugs that skate on the water, heavy enough to dent the surface, but never falling in. And look! Even this three-inch sapling has had time to throw out its own horizontal roots, leaning out over a tiny model of the river.

Higher up, the beach is pebbly, with the odd sharp stick half-buried (bare feet soon become wary of these); down low, and in the shallow water, it’s oozy. The proper track is where your foot leaves a full, clear impression, showing each toe, not too deep, not schloopy. The tracks won’t be there tomorrow.

Wilmington Jazz

Well, OK, it’s not the subtlest of tributes: Clifford Brown hailed from Wilmington, Delaware, and marron is “brown” in Spanish — but I think it’s a coincidence that proud Wilmingtonian Cliff Marron would enjoy.

I was fortunate to have been introduced to jazz through Clifford Brown. Back when I was in high school, Columbia Records used to have a newsletter called “The Inner Sleeve.” One, in a Chicago album, ca. 1975, announced a new album offering the first and last recorded music of a well-respected trumpeter who died tragically young. I’d never heard of him, but the description of his music was so infectious that I went out and bought the record, and from that moment on, I was real gone.

brownieClifford Brown’s music was clean, clear and bright, without being the least bit superficial. Chicago’s jazz-rock had pointed me in that direction, but Brown obviously had way more to say than those guys. I knew nothing about jazz, but I could immediately relate to his solos: they had a narrative structure, a beginning, middle and end. They didn’t burn, the way Charlie Parker’s did, toward an unendurable perfect flash; nor did they wail all history’s ecstatic incantations like Coltrane; they shone. A Clifford Brown solo carried no weight of history; it was brilliantly sufficient, right there. It made you glad.

It would have been amazing to hear how Brown would have evolved into the post-bop freedom of the 1960s. He was killed in a car crash in 1956, at the age of 26, on the way to another gig. The night before, with a pickup band in a Philadelphia club, he made the recordings that were on that first record I bought. He died young, as did so many other musical legends, but unlike them, he wasn’t self-destructive. Along with Max Roach, Lou Donaldson and a few others, Clifford Brown eschewed “the life.” Sonny Rollins said of him, “Clifford was a profound influence on my personal life. He showed me that it was possible to live a good, clean life and still be a good jazz musician.”

Miles Davis was somewhat dismissive of Clifford Brown. Davis didn’t have Brown’s outrageous chops (who did?), and he implied that Brown was just a hard blower who lacked artistry. I’d call that harsh (as Miles certainly could be). Yet I’d have to admit that Davis — perhaps even as early as 1956 — was the greater artist. Bob Dylan also needed (for all his mysterious reasons) to push his songwriting harder than Carole King did hers. But I’m not ashamed to say I’m not always prepared to run the voodoo down. “Joy Spring” is really real, too.

alfdexI guess no one would be surprised to learn that the music of Cliff and Marissa had a real-life model: the wife & husband team of Alfie Moss and Dexter Koonce, to whom I spent many a happy evening listening, and dancing, in the early 1980s. I didn’t know them personally, so the fictional personalities of Marissa and Cliff were made up out of whole cloth — but I tried to describe their music as faithfully as I could to what I remember. (Not that there’s any empirical reliability to that: memory is a very tricky thing. I’ve found that the only sensible course in fiction is to give one’s imaginary friends their freedom; the traditional legal disclaimer then becomes true in a deeper sense: any resemblance really is coincidental.) I hope Alfie and Dexter will feel complimented, though; that was certainly my intention.

Youtube Confession

Hi, Rev

I can’t say I really like how fast the time goes by, but anyway, it does. I had to look back in my email to find that it’s been over a year since that nice message you sent me about my ACL appearance (which you saw something like three years after it happened — I know you’ve been busy). Austin City Limits was a nice thing for me. I was just big enough to get invited… doubt that’ll ever happen again, but they made me feel like I belonged there, and I was grateful for it.

You floated by in my stream of consciousness now because — well, who knows the deep reasons why, but for the moment, because you found my show on Youtube. In certain moods I, too, stay up at night and surf live music on Youtube. So I thought I’d offer you my confession (though I know you’re not officially Catholic) in the form of a few video clips. These are ones I keep coming back to. They tap into a certain kind of blues I feel now and again.

First there’s this. Do yourself a favor, old Robinson: find a quiet hour with some headphones on and watch this all the way through. Al Jarreau has earned one hundred percent of the delight that everyone in this amazing band feels about being part of this concert. Marcus Miller is such a sweetheart, the way he extols musical listening, which I’ve always loved more than anything else, but at which I’ve never been more than a neophyte:

You and I would have been better off if we’d just parted company when you dropped me off in New York City, all those years ago. But we hung on: I was lonely in New York, and you were lonely in Indiana, we traded our angst in the car for angst over long distance. I regret that a little. Emotional courage isn’t the commonest thing. I don’t have very many regrets. I think my biggest one is naming that album Lindy Mac. It was my stupid boneheaded fucktard idea! And I didn’t know what it would mean, I just really didn’t know what it would mean. But enough blubbering: I mean, the record had a top ten song on it. I’ve been lucky. I think I may possibly have sung like this, maybe, two or three times in my life. Had I done so more often, I could easily have ended up as she did:

You see, you go on, and you go on, and if people have heard you on the radio, why, they’re so glad to see you, you try to make something a little bit real out of the same old stuff, you can’t remember how you got here, and you can’t imagine what will come next. And this happens repeatedly: It’s not the easiest thing to keep together, but when poor little me is feeling world-weary, I tune in this guy, who went to more crossroads than he could possibly count. By this time, he had no requirement to be virtuosic, or hit the highest notes or not make false starts, not even to silently tell the audience to shut the fuck up, just now, I’m not done yet. And I love the way he drops it in Scofield’s lap, and Scofield is like, “Holy shit!” but handles it manfully:

That one almost always leads me to this one — the two are inevitably tied together in my queue. Here are two old friends who are so delighted to be on this stage together in the middle of who-knows-where, playing an old standard in a new way that brings out huge smiles from each. My foolish heart:

Here’s a singer in whose footsteps I’ve sort of followed, without managing to anywhere-near fill them. Not many people get to have it all, y’know, but I don’t begrudge Susan Tedeschi the all she seems to have gotten: she fell in love with one of the world’s best guitar players, had two kids and founded an eleven-piece band with him, and they won a grammy! I have to say, I like the way she fronts her big gang of well-armed music men like it’s no problem, like she knows which one she’s going home with, but can’t quite tell which one has the biggest crush on her:

I’ll end with this one. I love Van Morrison, that chubby leprechaun who simmers and bubbles with soul. I’ve never sung any of his songs, because, what is there to add, you know? I don’t think I feel that way about any other singer. Now, I don’t want you to think I think this is Van at his best. He’s gotten older, as you and I have, and he’s mellowed. (He’s been through so many styles & modes, but if you want to hear my favorite Van, look up Van Morrison Candy Dulfer Rockpalast to see a mother fucking band leader leading a mother fucking band — and note the special moment at 1:31:23.) But for now: I have a feeling that if you’re still a reverend, this song will make you cry like a little girl, just like it did me.

Still married… a kid in college… a grateful flock…? Looks like you got a little bit of it all, too. Enjoy it. There’s a world, y’know. There’s a ways to go.