I open the box brimming with old cassettes; most are clearly labeled with familiar half-legible scribbles, the style of which I chose when I was old enough to do so, in revolt to those who cracked my knuckles with a ruler if my cursive wasn’t up to snuff. Other tape shells remain blank, anonymous, suspect. Not having looked at them in a while, they seem curiously out of step with digital technology, yet their warm familiarity draws me in full tilt, as if through a time machine (music cue: ‘Set the Controls for The Heart of The Sun’ by Pink Floyd). There are volumes upon volumes of C60s and C90s, as if they were breeding while I wasn’t looking. My heart jumps at the possibility of unearthing, revisiting, editing, digitizing for posterity.
Coming across one marked In Heat, I pop open the case, slide the plastic cartridge into the player, power up and let it rip. At one point during the brash 1990’s, I halted my editing routine and rightly so; these were times of unabashed rawness in popular music, a period when Nirvana’s brutal assault elbowed Michael Jackson’s candy gloss from Billboard’s number one spot. As a result, the entire session reveals itself, replete with between-track banter, false starts, coughs, cackles and plenty of wrong notes. At times, they would prove to be the more treasured parts of the sessions than the songs themselves.
My ears delight at the buzz of the cable violating the guitar — sounds being born — then, the 007-inspired riff and finally, that voice, shrilling lyrics either written minutes before or during a hazy all-nighter, perhaps somewhere in between. The period we recorded this, somewhere in the mid-90’s, would be our most fertile as musical partners; where his phrasings and playful utilization of variant voices coupled with my riff affair and tonal tweakings took the music to another level. The groove is scintillating and our mostly unrehearsed harmonies on the chorus — ones we’ve spontaneously spit up many times before — leave me dumbstruck. It occurs to me that there’s so much life in these recordings. Turning up the volume, I am consumed with the breadth of our creative synthesis, swimming in the center of our music; anthems bred by the unique intersection of two incongruous personalities; smiling, laughing, reveling in the magic we’ve managed to spin for over 30 years. Then it hits me.
He’s dead, I remember. This is never going to happen again.
As if on cue, I awkwardly slam the stop button and experience a coldness surging through my torso, an emptiness racing toward my gut. I freeze. Then, I bawl. Again.
I recall my first impressions of meeting Kevin at age ten; how his cold gray uniform slacks bore real estate over his jutting belly, pant cuffs falling short of his shoes, his black knee-highs exposed — we coined these ‘floods’ — and a pale pink band ever abutting his hopelessly chapped upper lip. And as he quickly assumed the role of class clown not far into his fourth-grade stint, I found him at once goofy and courageous — the latter an attribute I envied — and we soon bonded over common musical ground, citing Kiss as the greatest musical discovery of our generation. We were true counterparts; his bulky to my bony, his extrovert to my introvert. As we waxed philosophical over greasy pizza and icy cola during many lunch breaks, he confided that he lived solely with his mother, making him the first kid I knew to be raised by a single parent. As our childhood haphazardly belched us into adolescence, he was also one of the first kids I knew that smoked cigarettes, and consumed alcohol and drugs. At age thirteen, I recall him befriending the neighborhood bullies on the steps of our town’s senior citizen’s center, looking for trouble. I steered clear of the illegalities for some time, but it didn’t take long for me to follow suit a few years later, and soon after I was buying my pot from him once he started dealing, a gutsy feat considering police headquarters were in spitting distance from his claustrophobic basement apartment.
After an initial grade school attempt at replicating Stevie Wonder’s ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life’ that sputtered to a halt, the aural fun officially commenced on a particularly cold, uneventful February night in 1984 while his mother was working the graveyard shift at a local diner. Armed with little else than a left-handed guitar (played backwards), loosely dispersed lyrics (written sloppily), a beat-up boom box (which ate tapes) and two receptive minds (rendering some bizarre arrangements), a musical entity coined Cold Cuts was born (most likely, an homage to the lunch meats we snacked on between takes). During many active years of making music, we churned out hundreds of recordings and held an uninhibited, spontaneous work ethic where all things were considered, restricting nothing. This meant we could exercise unreserved creative freedom, and we did. Many of his former enablers pontificate about Kevin’s painting talents and indeed, he was a gifted artist, but I can tell you with great certainty that it was Cold Cuts — an open source outlet informing all other branches of his artistic wizardry — that elicited in him the most bliss, fulfillment and gratification.
Conversely, and possibly by virtue of his candor, it would also prove to be the creative tendril that would dial up his most formidable insecurities, partly because of his raucous (read: clever) wordplay; the remainder, his paralyzing fear of failure. This brings to mind our second attempt at a live performance (the first and only complete gig was at his apartment under controlled circumstances in the midst of a drunken party). We were so confident — even cocksure — that we would dazzle our audience with our visionary art. We chose an outdoor venue and prepared, dressing in outlandish outfits that would make a costume designer blush, employing a toy rhythm machine to accompany us. As we made our grand entrance up the stairs of the Alpine Boat Basin picnic area overlooking an unflinching New York City, I immediately perceived the stunned faces of on-lookers, recoiling in disbelief as we brazenly soared into our opening rap, ‘Walking through the woods with a knife in my hand…’, strutting around like some third-rate white suburban hip-hop imposters. To make matters worse, our ‘drummer’ decided to abruptly stutter a tempo switch midpoint during our second song. We negotiated our way through a few minutes more and were graciously rewarded for our efforts by sheer silence. Stone-faced, we retreated, swiftly making our way back down the pavilion stairs. We didn’t mention a word of it for the remainder of the day. The following day, however, when the subject was broached, I told Kevin that I believed we were ahead of our time, that mistakes happen and it wasn’t a big deal. But Kevin was convinced of his failure and would never move past it to attain any resolution. In fact, during one of our final conversations, we reminisced about that day and I still sensed his uneasiness about it. From that point forward, Cold Cuts, by and large, became a secret society where only a few elite members would be enlisted to contribute.
But the recording dates were quite another story. I made plans to sleep at his place where the bulk of the early magic coalesced so that we could engage in marathon sessions, burning the midnight oil only to continue the process the following day. I can’t recall how many phone calls we shared in the early days (this is before even dual cassette players for duplication were commonplace), positioning the phone receiver to the speaker and rewinding certain parts repeatedly because we were laughing so loud we’d miss them. And as my father, who never understood our creative prowess from the onset, eavesdropped and deemed us ‘totally tasteless’, we delighted in subverting that label to motivate and amuse us throughout our tenure. Our exuberance rarely faded, even until recently; there was always an underlying cheer factor associated with our sessions, even when our relationship became strained, or when it was clear I was making music more with the substance du jour than Kevin, a hard truth to negotiate that became an increasingly grievous factor in later years.
Hence, it wasn’t all gumdrops and rainbows. Hardly. Particularly during the past decade, my friend had an uncharacteristic helplessness that resulted in repeated, more pronounced self-destructive acts. And I was front and center for it all, donning many hats — psychiatric unit transporter, blood mopper, holistic consultant, unqualified therapist. I suppose the politically correct thing to say is that I wouldn’t have changed a thing, but given the toll this took on us both, I wouldn’t have hesitated to alter certain aspects. Despite all the aforementioned, ours was an enduring friendship whose profundity survived career changes, failed relationships, family turmoil, multiple relocations and death of loved ones, weaving through our musical mojo, making us near complete.
And now it’s gone.
Luckily, Kevin did continue to practice his art — next to music, painting was his creative practice of choice — gifting himself with some reprieve from the demons that kept luring him back. Most likely, he tacked some time on his life by doing so. To coin a lyric of his — one in which he absurdly stretched and annunciated each vowel with a mock Jersey accent well past the brink of annoying, sending me reeling in hilarity — ‘I’m gonna sing a soooong… and I’m gonna make it gooood’. Indeed, he did.
The fact remains, however, that my friend is dead, and as a result, any future efforts to burn genius together has expired with him, and that just sucks, but as I edit our stockpile of recordings, his contagious energy lingers. In the coming days, months, possibly for the rest of my life, I know I will be informed by Kevin’s hefty contribution to my life; his tenacious loyalty (he typically championed my efforts, even outside the sphere of our own), passion for merry-making (if laughter translates to prosperity, I do believe I’m a wealthy man), boundless talents (‘doing’ Cold Cuts has unequivocally been one of the greatest joys of my life so far) and much more to be revealed. And yes, even through his self-annihilation, he gifted me with a more acute appreciation of life. Life, for the living, wishing he was.
Yet I ponder how to equate the sum of these truths; the untimely passing of my brother-in-arms, the dissolution of a creative partnership, unresolved friendship issues, music that will never be created, my own mortality.
And some questions that linger, if I may, comrade: what was the last thing you saw before you collapsed? Was it the rooftop-lined sky of our hometown — the soaring orange orb burning its dirty gray shade, its presence announcing a promising August 27, 2015, or the overly-luminous tiny lights that framed the waxy windows of the cell phone store below your apartment? Was it the mix of cement, water, aggregate and sand as your face plummeted to meet it, or a watercolor wash of earthen greens and browns that streaked our weekly hikes? Was it your mother’s prematurely aged face — the one you held in contempt for repeatedly abandoning you — or the fresh-faced young women who found themselves on the unfortunate end of that misdirected anger? Was it my Cheshire cat grin, cackling as you haphazardly dropped your pants in the middle of a vocal take while I brewed a sonic stew to compliment your croon — filling me with warmth and satisfaction, or the devilry on the faces of those who helped you speedball through your last year — filling you with warmth and satisfaction? Or was it the god you professed belief in, but cursed for how shitty your life turned out?
Ultimately, I reach no satisfying conclusion, or how to move forward; the only proposal I can piece together is to merely place one foot in front of the other, a canned and clichéd strategy that makes me ill, but it’s the best I can do.
Eventually, I return to the task of archiving our music, listening intently with new ears; ones that survive him, ones that have yet to know how to listen without welling up. Sifting through, I find some unmarked sessions; these prove to be the last recorded, just a few years back. Attentive and with new allure, I wonder if he’d have remembered. One particular recording, the final in the series, sounds exceptional, like Cuts of yore. It’s all there; the fuzzy riffs, instinctive harmonies, belly chortles, the immediacy of the process. And that voice, muttering some curious banter, ‘This is a happy song’, followed by an uncharacteristically dissonant vocal harmony with an eerie chorus: ‘I die, you die, they die, we die’. A premonition? Or merely an apathetically dribbled verbal conjugation, yet another cringe-worthy flashback of our shared Catholic classroom terror? On tape, laughter threads the track, possibly at the absurdity of coming full circle, but more likely at the uneasiness of its truth.
Next, silence, then ‘Let’s go get some ice cream’. I ponder all of this — the wordplay, the content, the timing, the lack of completion, the compare-and-contrast element of dairy treats and death — then I pause, chuckle, speculate, yet all I come up with is ‘I hope there’s ice cream where you are’.
If I’m correct, you’re probably using that line in a new song.